Authors: Kathryn Davis
Do you want to talk about dimmer switches or do you want to hear what happened? Janice asked.
For the centaurs it wasn’t like being inside a dining room. For them it was like being in an open place without anything in it where the sky was thin and transparent like a colored mist with blue and green and yellow stripes you could see the moon and stars through. Then the sky was gone and they could see all the way to the beginning of time and the end of time. These are the same thing, as everyone knows who came into this universe via a wormhole.
In the Rain of Beads girls got taken away. Blue Boy and Pinkie were gone forever—or if not forever it might as well have been. That was years and years ago, Janice said, adopting a matronly tone.
This time nothing was taken away. This time something was added.
The girls were all fine.
It was a fine evening and they were exercising their legs in the space that had opened for them between the beginning and end of time. To their families it looked like they were sitting at the dinner table, using their forks to twirl spaghetti or chase a meatball around and around the plate. What a wonderful thing it is to have a daughter, the fathers were thinking; the mothers were amazed but critical. The white girl could never keep herself clean, the roan had to watch her weight. The king’s granddaughter’s teeth needed straightening. The albino girl was allergic to everything. This was only true at the dinner table—otherwise they were without flaw. The plain they raced across extended uphill to a walled city with a tower and downhill to the seashore, where each summer for a month or so their families rented cottages with a view of the water.
You never know what you’re going to find in a rental cottage, Janice said. Once she found a rosary sewed to the bottom of her mattress. Once she found a miniature golf pencil, a pair of stained underpants, and a piece of paper with “clams” written on it in her bureau drawer. Once someone used a
condensed book about a girl named Stephanie who was the same age as her brother and who died of leukemia to prop open the bathroom window. Last summer there was a conch shell on the kitchen counter with its animal still inside, the exact size and weight of a human thumb.
The man in number 37 wrote a book about shells, someone said.
He was famous, said the curly-haired girl. He won some prizes and then he moved away.
No one ever thinks their stay anywhere is going to be cut short, Janice replied, and everyone knew she was thinking about her brother.
Shadows moved around all over the plain but if you tried to see what was casting them there was nothing there. The four horsewomen cast no shadows—they never do. This is how they differ from the four horsemen. They cast no shadow, they leave no hoof prints. The evil they bring is harder to pin down, often seeming more good than evil. One of them loves to fatten you up with butter and cream so you’ll turn out fatter than she is. Flattery is involved. Filth weighs down the crimson drugget, the blind slats—no one gets things cleaner! No one is more beautiful either—if only you weren’t depressed. The pale one is the best nurse ever. You’d better not get better or she won’t have anything to do.
They can show up anytime, Janice said, in any group. The only way to stop them is if the horse parts get the strangles. Like a lighthouse she rotated her head in one smooth mechanical operation, the beam of her gaze landing on each of us in turn. Then to everyone’s amazement she reached into her pocketbook and came up with a pack of cigarettes, took one out, lit it, and began to smoke.
What about the sorcerer? someone asked.
What about him? Janice sounded irritable. She blew smoke rings and consulted her wristwatch, busy giving the impression of being a busy person—a busy
—with things to do, places to go, a whole life to live that had nothing to do with any of us.
Once those four get loose even a sorcerer can’t do a thing to change the course of events. Like the woman in number 50 who jumped in front of a train last Easter—everyone knew the story. She had been a young mother of two; her husband worked in the city and she stayed home with the children. All the parents agreed she was a devoted mother and an excellent homemaker. Their house was the last one on the street and it had a large side yard that she kept neat as a pin. Not long after the family moved into the neighborhood the husband planted a tree in the middle of the yard and staked it with wires. No one was to blame—these things happen, like the cocker spaniel in number 21 who ran out in front of the bread truck or the man in number 30 who woke up one day and couldn’t move his legs. Like all the kids absent at school—more every day. If the little boy had told his mother when he cut his stomach on the wire maybe things would have gone differently. But he kept it a secret. And then he got lockjaw and died.
No he didn’t, someone said.
I heard she was fooling around with the man in number 52, said someone else.
Fooling around, said a little sister, and all the little sisters began to giggle.
If you’re so smart why don’t you tell the story? Janice asked. She ground out the cigarette under the heel of her loafer. It was starting to get dark; it got dark earlier and earlier with the approach of the holidays. As if to reinforce this fact the street lamp came on at the exact moment that a white car with a salmon-pink roof pulled up alongside the curb. I’ve got to go now, Janice said, reaching into her pocketbook for a tube of lipstick. The boyfriend kept the engine idling while he rolled down the window—the light from the street lamp reflected off his eyeglasses and made him look like a lemur. He was wearing the kind of hat worn by a father or a gangster in the old movies. A lemur in a hat—that’s what he was.
Hey! the boyfriend yelled. I haven’t got all day!
Janice applied her lipstick and blotted her lips on a hanky. Two-tone, she said, pointing at the car, the idea being that two-tone was about as good as it got. Then she climbed into the car without so much as a single backward glance even though everyone knew she was never coming back. It didn’t matter that the boyfriend was funny-looking. The important thing was to have a boyfriend. Once you had a boyfriend you were safe—you’d passed the test. Until then everyone was still too young to know for sure.
That was why she told us to look up, someone said. It was a test. It wasn’t like there was anything special up there.
could do it, said someone, tilting her neck by way of demonstration. The night was full of the usual things—a silver moon, some winking stars, a blue-lit scow, the mica-flecked wings of the raptors.
Did you see who couldn’t? asked someone else.
I didn’t have to see to know, someone said, and it was like everyone knew who she was talking about.
Once you’re married you’re safe, said someone else. When you’re married that means you’re really a girl.
I’m never getting married, said the curly-haired girl.
Everyone except her got up and started back home for dinner.
The curly-haired girl stayed on the bench and looked out into the dark seething ocean of park just beyond the sweet yellow tidepool of the street lamp.
All at once she was granted a vision. She saw three things. She saw a lightning bug she wanted to catch but didn’t. She saw a flame-colored bird with two sets of wings flying straight up into the air. The higher it flew the more hungry she was for love. She wished for a baseball bat to knock the bird out of the sky; she wished for a baseball cap embroidered with a boy’s name in gold. Third, she saw something far away on the other side of the park. The harder she tried to see what it was, the faster she began to move. She could hear the sound of her hooves on turf, moving fast, at a canter.
ISS VICKS HAD BEEN HEADED IN THE SAME direction for a long time now, following the wall. The wall was about as tall as she was, making it hard for her to see what was on the other side. Every now and then, though, she’d get enough of a glimpse to know that the other side consisted of the same rolling landscape marked at intervals with the same barbed gray-green shrubs she was forced to avoid on her own side of the wall, calling the whole point of the wall into question. The shrubs were century plants—she’d done a unit on them around the time Mary and Eddie had been in her classroom. A century plant stayed alive as long as it took to produce one six-foot-long flower stalk and then it died. A kindred spirit, Marjorie thought.
She was no longer young but something about the situation made her feel even older than she was. That much she knew, that and the fact that she wasn’t far from a large body of water, the sky a shade of blue-violet more usually thought of as coming from a dactilo port, with handfuls of things falling loose beneath it that turned out to be seagulls. Every now and then she was able to catch sight of a tall structure that seemed like it might be the old water tower she used to walk past on her way to and from school; it was too far away to tell, and the base of the structure was hidden under the horizon.
She had discovered the wall only a day or so ago. It was made of stone that had been stuccoed over and white washed, and in some places there was a dusty-looking vine growing up it that had cracked the surface, leaving crumbled stucco at its base. The ground was dry and hard-packed and the color of mustard—it was hard to imagine anything thriving under those conditions.
There was something she was supposed to be doing, only she couldn’t remember what. She could remember the names of all the students she’d ever taught and she could remember the way her classroom smelled—that was about it. Even in spring with the windows open her classroom smelled like varnish and sour milk. Someone had always thrown up somewhere and then the smell mixed with the smell of the janitor’s mop. They were children and they couldn’t help it. They couldn’t help growing up and becoming adults either.
But this was her
after all. This was the life of Marjorie Vicks, also known as Miss Vicks to the numberless students she had taught, Vicks, M. to the robots, Vicky Dear to the sorcerer. It was her story and she had many ways to tell it, and woe to anyone who tried to say otherwise.
Nor did it make her feel any better to know that everyone was supposed to be doing something—once you reached a certain age that was the way a life was meant to be lived. People who weren’t doing anything were sick or insane or babies, though nowadays even the babies had projects. School was out for the summer, so that couldn’t be it. But she hadn’t been a teacher for years. There had been a retirement party, balloons, presents. It seemed like for some time now she could barely recall what happened from minute to minute, while the distant past was as clear as the Alpine scene in the snow globe that had been a retirement present from one of her students, which as far as she knew was exactly where she’d last seen it, on her coffee table, gathering dust. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you left home and it was like the song the girls had been singing right before she rode off on the photographer’s horse. The name of the musical the song came from was escaping her—the whole world vanished and everything that had ever been yours vanished with it. Your little dog! But there had been a good reason to leave the dog behind. “And this is what happened,” the song said, “the strange thing that happened, to two weary hunters that lost their way.”
Not long after she left the street and crossed the vacant lot it had begun raining, lightly at first, a drop here, a drop there, and then heavily, like there wasn’t any more air, only rain. The horse moved at a steady pace, the great bellows of its rib cage expanding and contracting between her legs, a feeling she used to love when she was young. The neighborhood changed, rows of houses giving way to shops and the shops to large flat windowless buildings. Gradually the traffic thinned out; the road she was riding on turned to dirt and became narrow, hemmed in on either side by the shapes of tall waving plants. Every now and then there would be a cottage, a mailbox, the glowing eyes of an animal. Marjorie was getting drenched, her suit ruined, and the road was becoming the color of oxblood; her horse was having trouble keeping his footing.
Which way were they headed? She had left in a hurry, without the proper maps. All at once the road took a sharp dip and disappeared under a wide plane of cloudy water. The only way to the other side was by ferryboat, but the ferryman hollered across the water to her that it was a car ferry and she was on a horse.
“I can get off,” she hollered back, dismounting.
There was no shelter on her side of the water. On the other side, overhung by a very large shade tree with something white like a banner or a bed sheet hanging from the lowest bough, there was an open shed in which the ferryman stood, perfectly dry, as he proceeded to set a large engine in motion. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. The ferry was like a barge hooked to an underwater cable that drew it back and forth; it, too, seemed to move at a snail’s pace, though it probably took no more than five minutes to cross to Marjorie’s side of the river.
No one ever melted from standing in the rain, she reminded herself as she climbed aboard the ferry’s unstable deck. She could lift her face to the sky and let the rain wash it the way she used to when she was a girl. Children weren’t afraid of rain; they enjoyed getting wet. People didn’t always know what they were doing, that much was clear—most people would have known better than to ride away from home on a horse. When Marjorie turned to look back the way she’d come she could see the horse standing on the riverbank, bending his neck to graze, his hide rippling in an involuntary fluid motion like incoming tide. He’s better off without me, she thought, and it made her happy to see how delicately his lips moved across the grass.
Once the ferry arrived on the other side she realized that the thing hanging from the tree was an advertisement for a hotel that offered “nightly surprises.”
“I don’t suppose they’re referring to mints on the pillow,” Marjorie reflected aloud.
“If they are, I wouldn’t eat them,” replied the ferryman, taking her hand to help her from the boat and pointing her way to the road, which recommenced at some distance behind the shed and could be reached by means of a narrow gravel path that disappeared into a thick clump of bushes.
Marjorie set off with a renewed sense of purpose. Almost immediately the road bent sharply left to follow the same body of water she had just crossed. The distance from shore to shore widened and long narrow islands appeared, shade trees heavy with dark green leaves growing along their banks, black-and-white spotted cows grazing beneath them. On one of the trees she saw another advertisement for the hotel, this one promising “special services.” At some point the rain had stopped and a small blurry sun came out, tangled in clouds. A bell began tolling and sections of sky were drifting over the water, making it blue.
It seemed like the road might go on this way forever, following the course of the river—and then all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, it came to an abrupt halt at a high, stuccoed wall. Marjorie looked back and thought she could see the ferry slowly making its way across. Maybe it wasn’t the ferry; maybe it was one of those islands and it wasn’t moving. She didn’t think she was that far from where she’d been when she got off the horse, even though she also felt as if she’d been walking for years. One thing was clear, if she didn’t want to go back the way she she’d come she had to leave the road and turn right to follow the wall. The minute she did so the weather changed, taking her completely by surprise. It was exactly like what happened when you opened the oven door to check on whatever was baking inside and a blast of hot air hit you in the face.
Time was either not passing at all or it was passing in one huge lump like a lifetime. The wall showed no sign of coming to an end. Eventually Marjorie got close enough to see that the tower was much bigger than the water tower back home and that it had a flag flying above it. In this latitude everything was lit differently; even when night started to fall everything remained brighter, the sky doing its best to absorb the various colors from the landscape in order to turn itself black.
The flag signified a town, she thought, probably Little Alton. The word on Little Alton was conflicting. Don’t stop there if you can help it. Little Alton’s bells were famous. If you stopped in Little Alton you could live forever but then you would also have to stay there forever. Little Alton was beautiful beyond compare. It was heaven on earth; the caravans had been there for such a long time their wheels had sunk into the dirt. They were strung with fairy lights and there were marble plaques planted in their dooryards engraved with the inhabitants’ surnames, one of which was bound to be your own.
After a while Marjorie got so close to the tower that she could see that the flag flying above it was red with a gold hand, meaning her assumption that this was Little Alton was correct. The gold hand’s fingers were outspread, which meant that the hotel had a vacancy. If she quickened her pace she could make it there before it got any darker.
For some time now she’d been hearing a sound that seemed to be coming from the other side of the wall, a soft padding sound like the paws of a large animal loping across the hard pack. When she stopped, the sound stopped, suggesting that maybe what she was hearing was an echo. The sound was amiable, its absence menacing. A moist wind picked up and she could hear seagulls, the tolling of the bell she’d heard earlier, louder now, like it was inside her ears. It rang four times, though the hour seemed much later. Possibly the number signified something other than time.
She passed a burning haystack on the left, a group of schoolgirls in blue uniforms.
“What happens if you touch it?” one of them was saying.
“You didn’t, did you? Did you?”
They gathered to examine the girl’s palm.
“See,” said another girl. “The part that looks like a burn. That’s how you can tell if it was alive or not.”
“I don’t know. It was very cold.”
“Like freezer burn?”
“I said I don’t know.”
The wall continued straight ahead, separating Marjorie from the tower. The girls must have come through some kind of opening, a gate or a door. She was so tired she could barely stay upright. Even so she kept walking. There was no way through the wall, of that she felt positive, just as she knew Little Alton was right there on the opposite side, producing the noise and smells of human interaction, doors opening and closing, wheels moving, motor exhaust, garbage, a hotel. She hadn’t seen a scow for a long time, and she wondered whether that meant they didn’t come this far north.
A throbbing pain had started up in her left side and she couldn’t catch her breath—she had to lie down before she fell. Another large haystack, this one not aflame, seemed to have been erected in her path and she didn’t have the energy to walk around it. Instead she slid to the ground and came to rest with her back against the wall. Until she’d arrived here she’d thought she’d been headed north but now she thought she must be facing west, the shrub-strewn landscape unrolling to bunch at the horizon in a line of small irregularly shaped hills capped with tall thin trees, and behind them a spectacular sunset.
She put her cheek to the wall; it felt cool. From the other side came the sound of panting, a rattling chain. Even if she held her breath the sound didn’t go away. She made a pillow of her jacket and lay down. The breathing on the other side of the wall grew more regular, eventually turning to gentle snoring, with little growls and yips every now and then. Sometimes it moaned exactly like a man.
“It’s all right,” Marjorie said. “Shhh.”
Often when you thought back you found yourself in an actual moment like it was a place. The rain was falling, long strings of it breaking loose and hitting the classroom windows. The day was dark, the sky lowering—she’d had to put on the ceiling lights the moment she got to school. Mary was sitting at her desk at the front of the room, taking a test. She was answering questions about the names of Christopher Columbus’s ships. Cutouts of orange and yellow and red leaves were taped to the windowpanes; Eddie was copying off Mary’s paper. His desk was next to hers and even though he did this often Miss Vicks never moved him to another seat. He didn’t need Mary’s help, she knew that. He only wanted to share her brain.
He had been a nice-looking boy with delicate fingers like a concert pianist’s, except it was Mary who was the pianist, albeit a bad one. Eddie had started life uncoordinated and jumpy and then to everyone’s amazement he turned out to be an athlete. There had been an accident—she strove to remember. Every night all summer long the boys played baseball in the street. From time to time a car would appear. Not so many cars back then, but even so everyone had to be careful.
With her back against the wall, Miss Vicks drew her knees to her chest and tucked her hands under her armpits.
“You can go home now, Edward,” she said.