Authors: Kathryn Davis
Also by Kathryn Davis
The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf
The Walking Tour
The Thin Place
Copyright © 2013 by Kathryn Davis
This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, Amazon.com, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Print ISBN 978-1-55597-653-8
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2013
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013936988
Cover design: Anne Davis and Sarah Purdy
Cover art: Bo Bartlett,
, 1998. Oil on linen. 80 x 100 inches.
Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.
For Anne Davis, Peggy Reavey & Rosemary Sedgwick
(my first generation of girls)
T WAS A SUBURBAN STREET, ONE BLOCK LONG, THE houses made of brick and built to last like the third little pig’s. Sycamore trees had been planted at regular intervals along the curb and the curbs themselves sparkled; I think the concrete was mixed with mica in it. I think when it was new the street couldn’t help but draw attention to itself, inviting envy.
Miss Vicks lived at the lower end of the street, in number 49. Most of the other houses had families living in them but she was by herself, a woman of about fifty, slim and still attractive, with a red short-haired dachshund. By the time she moved in, the sycamore trees had grown so large they had enormous holes cut through their crowns to make room for all the wires.
She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound. Every day she and the dachshund went for three walks, the first early in the morning, the second in the late afternoon, and the third after dinner, when the blue-green lights of the scows, those slow-moving heralds of melancholy, would begin to appear in the night sky. The little dog would sniff around the feet of the sycamores and as it did she would stand there paralyzed as all the Miss Vickses that had ever been layered themselves inside her, one atop the other and increasingly small, forming a great laminate like tree rings around heartwood.
Bedtime, the end of summer. The street was filled with children, many of them the same children she’d soon be welcoming into her classroom. School was about to start. “Heads up!” the boys yelled when a car appeared, interrupting their play; the girls sat making deals on the porch stoops, cigar boxes of trading cards and stickers in their laps. Meanwhile the darkness welled up so gradually the only way anyone could tell night had fallen was the fireflies, prickling like light on water. The parents were inside, keeping an eye on the children but also drinking highballs. Fireflies like falling stars, the tree trunks narrow as the girls’ waists.
Occasionally something different happened. One girl pasted a diadem of gold star stickers to her forehead and wandered from her stoop to get closer to where one of the boys stood bending slightly forward, his hands on his knees, nervously waiting for another boy to hit the ball. This waiting boy was Eddie, who lived at the opposite end of the street from Miss Vicks, in number 24; the girl was Mary, who lived in the house attached to hers. Sometimes Miss Vicks could hear Mary practicing the piano through the living room wall—“Für Elise” with the same mistake in the same spot, over and over. A fingering problem, simple enough to fix if only the parents would give the girl some lessons.
Headlights appeared; the boys scattered. Mary remained standing at the curb in her plaid shorts and white T-shirt, balanced like a stork on one leg. The car was expensive and silver-gray and driven by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul. Miss Vicks didn’t recognize him right away because like every one else she was blinded by the headlights. The headlights turned the lenses of her and Mary’s spectacles to blazing disks of hammered gold so neither one of them could see the street, the trees, the houses—anything at all, really—and the next minute the car was gone. It was only after the taillights had disappeared around the corner that Miss Vicks realized she had recognized the license plate: 1511MV, a prime, followed by her initials.
Early in their romance the sorcerer told her he took this for a sign. Miss Vicks was not a superstitious person but like most people she was susceptible to flattery. She and her dog had been walking through the ruined gardens of the Woodard Estate when the sorcerer suddenly appeared on the path in front of them, a tall figure in a finely tailored suit, his shadow cast behind him, his face gold like melted sun. It was as if he’d been expecting her; when he circled her wrist with his fingers to draw her close to ask her name, she felt the life inside her leap up from everywhere, shocking, like a hatch of mayflies. He said he’d been hunting but she didn’t see a gun anywhere. “The animal kingdom,” he said, disparagingly, giving her little dog a nudge with the toe of his pointed shoe. He was a Woodard—it made sense that he would be there even after the place had fallen into desuetude.
Now her dog was raising his hackles. Miss Vicks could feel him tugging on the leash, bravely holding the soft red flags of his ears aloft and out to either side like banderillas.
“Has anyone seen Eddie?” Mary asked.
“He disappeared,” Roy Duffy told her, but he was joking.
Everyone knew how Eddie was—here one minute, gone the next. He was a small, jumpy boy; he moved so fast it was as if he got where he was headed before anyone ever noticed he’d left where he started out. Besides, they were all disappearing into their houses—it was only the beginning. The game was over; the next day school started. When the crest of one wave of light met the trough of another the result was blackness.
Tonight, as every night, from inside number 24 came the sound of Eddie’s parents playing canasta. “I’ll meld
” said his mother, raucous with the joy of competition. The two of them were sitting on either side of the card table they set up in the living room each night after dinner, but you couldn’t see them, only hear their voices, the front bow window filled with a lush ivy plant in an Italian cachepot.
Miss Vicks watched Mary start down the street.
“Goodnight, Miss Vicks,” Mary said.
“See you tomorrow, Mary,” she replied.
In the brick houses the clocks kept ticking away the time, chipping off pieces of it, some big ones piling thick and heavy under the brass weights of the grandfather clock in Eddie’s parents’ hallway, others so small and fast even the round watchful eyes of the cat clock in Mary’s parents’ kitchen couldn’t track their flight. The crickets were rubbing their hind legs together, unrolling that endless band of sound that when combined with the sound of the sycamore trees tossing their heads in the heat-thickened breeze could cause even a girl as unsentimental as Mary to feel like she’d just left something behind on the porch stoop she couldn’t bear to live without.
Miss Vicks waited on the grass verge in front of number 24 for her dog to complete his business. He always deposited it in the same place between the curb and the sidewalk; she would scoop it into a bag and then it would get carried into the heavens by a scow. The street was empty, the materialization of the silver-gray car having driven everyone inside.
Thinking of the sorcerer, Miss Vicks became aroused. He had his way of doing things. When he drove he liked to rest his one hand lightly on the wheel and leave the other free to stroke her between the legs. His fingernails were perfect ovals like flower petals, and he had eyes so black and so deep-set sometimes she thought they weren’t eyes but holes. Even when they seemed to be looking at the road she knew what he was seeing was himself.
He’d been with a woman he left to be with her, and another woman before that, and before that many other women—Miss Vicks had heard the stories. Once she saw him escorting a blonde woman into a restaurant, his hand at the small of the woman’s back, and to her shame she realized her jealousy was nothing compared with her vicarious sense of excitement at the thought of his touch. He wasn’t promiscuous though, or so he claimed the one time she confronted him. He was just having difficulty finding the right woman.
“I’m not like you,” he’d told her, as if that were justification enough. They were lying on her bed with all the lights on, the way he liked it, and he was slipping one hand under her expensive Italian camisole while guiding her lips to meet his with the other. Of course she knew he was right, though probably not the way he meant it. The sorcerer could make things appear or he could make them vanish; he could make them turn into other things or he could make them vibrate at unprecedented frequencies, the explanation for his great success in bed. It was only
though. When the sorcerer looked at the street he saw it crawling with souls like the earth with worms. It was no secret that even the lowliest of the unruly, uncontainable beings living there could partake of love’s mystery, and his envious rage knew no bounds.
The dachshund had finished and was kicking up grass blades with his hind legs. From far to the west came a rumble of thunder; Miss Vicks grew aware of the changing temperature of the air. In this latitude summer storms moved in quickly and did a lot of damage before moving away. “Come on,” she said to the dog, who seemed frozen in place, staring at nothing. Dark spots appeared on the sidewalk, a few at first and then more and more. She yanked the leash. Face it, she told herself. The man is a beast. You’d be better off without him. She could hear windows closing, the sound of Mr. O’Toole yelling instructions at Mrs. O’Toole. The back door—something about the back door swinging in the wind.
On the sidewalk outside number 37 (another prime) came the first flash of lightning, just a flash like a huge light had been turned on; for a moment it was as if it was possible to see everything in the world. Then there was another flash, this one displayed like an X-ray image of the central nervous system above the even-numbered houses on the other side of the street. Everyone knew the family inside number 37 were robots. Mr. XA, Mrs. XA, Cindy XA, Carol XA—when you saw them outside the house they looked like people. Carol had been in Miss Vicks’s class the previous year and she had been an excellent if uninspired student; Cindy would be in her class starting tomorrow. The question of how to teach—or even whether to teach—a robot came up from time to time among the teachers. No one had a good answer.
By the time Miss Vicks got to number 49 the storm was making it almost impossible to find her front door. Often it happened that the world’s water got sucked aloft and came down all at once as rain. She swept her little dog into her arms and felt her way onto the porch. They were both completely drenched, the dog’s red coat so wet it looked black. For a while they sat there in the glider, surrounded by thundering curtains of rainwater. 1511MV—what kind of a license plate was that? One plus five plus one plus one equaled eight, a number signifying the World, the very essence of the sorcerer’s domain. If you knocked eight on its side it became the symbol of infinity.
As she sat there on the porch she tried getting a sense of what was going on in number 47, the house attached to hers where Mary lived. If she had ever had a daughter the girl would have been like Mary—they even looked a little bit alike, both being bird-boned and pale, and parting their limp mouse-brown hair girlishly down the middle. Miss Vicks’s part was always ruler-straight, though, whereas Mary’s jogged to the left at the back of her head, suggesting a lack of interest in things she couldn’t see. Her teeth were too big for her mouth, too, making her appear more vulnerable than she really was.
Usually in the summer with the windows open Miss Vicks had no trouble eavesdropping on Mary’s family, but now the rain was drowning out everything except itself. Could that have been the piano? Her ears often played tricks on her, making voices come from things that couldn’t speak, especially machines that had a rhythmic movement like the washer. She’d been feeling uneasy ever since she heard Mary ask where Eddie was and Roy Duffy say he disappeared. Even after the rain had stopped pouring from the sky and dripping from the trees and streaming from the gutter spout—even after the street was restored to silence, the only thing she could hear besides the porch glider squeaking on its rusting joints and the yip her dachshund let out when she made a move to get up was a loud whispering coming from Mary’s parents’ living room, a sound that always suggested urgency to her and made her feel powerless and left out, cast back into the condition of childhood in a world where the adults were too busy to notice whatever those things were that were tunneling under the streets and slipping from their holes at night to dart under porches and along the telephone wires. Then the bells would start to peal, a stroke for each soul. She gave up and went inside and went to bed.
It was only when everyone on the street was asleep that the robots came flying out of number 37. There were four of them, two the size and shape of needles and two like coins, their exterior surface burnished to such a high state of reflective brilliance that all a human being had to do was look at one of them for a split second to be forever blinded. The robots waited to come out until after the humans were asleep. They’d learned to care about us because they found us touchingly helpless, due in large part to the fact that we could die. Unlike toasters or vacuum cleaners, though, the robots were endowed with minds. In this way they were distant relatives of Body-without-Soul, but the enmity between the sorcerer and the robots ran deep.
IN THE MORNING MISS VICKS HANDED OUT SHEETS OF colored construction paper. The students were to fold the paper in half and in half again and then in half again, the idea being that after unfolding the paper they would end up with eight boxes, in each of which they were to work a problem in long division. Mary filled her boxes with drawings of Eddie, some of them not so bad; arithmetic bored her and besides, it was her plan to be an artist of some kind when she grew up. A feeling attached to the act of being given instructions involving paper and folding it, a feeling of intense apprehension verging on almost insane excitement.
From time to time Mary looked to her left to where her model usually sat. His seat was empty, his yellow pencil lying in the groove at the top of the desk, covered with tooth marks. Eddie chewed on the pencil when he was nervous; he was a high-strung boy, sensitive and easily unhinged. One day last summer Mary had lost control of her bicycle in front of the Darlings’ house. She had fallen off and skinned her knee and Eddie stood for a long time staring at the place on the sidewalk where he could see her blood. “I shouldn’t have let it happen,” he said, even though he’d been at the dentist having a cavity filled at the time.
They were too young, really, to understand the implications, but their bond was of the kind Miss Vicks still hoped for, exquisite and therefore unbreakable, according to the rules governing chemical bonds, in this universe at least.