Authors: Paul Monette
IRIS AMMONS WOKE
that morning groping at the air, a taste like a ball of blood in her mouth. She thought at first it must have been a dream. The cry that seemed to tear her openâhurtling through the dark like something lost in timeâhad strangled in her throat. She lay there bathed in sweat, her two fists raised and quivering with rage. She panted as she looked about the room.
But whatever it was she meant to curse had left her all alone. There wasn't the slightest echo now. No shadow broke the surface of the world. Here on the sudden edge of day things were the same as ever.
The icy-bright November sun came streaming in on the window seat. The antique chest, the wing chair, the lowboy stood their ground like a clan of elders. Across the room on a three-tiered shelf, not one of her Staffordshire figurines had lost its precarious balance. The water in her bedside glass was still as a mountain lake. Though only a moment before, some terrible fury had cracked her in two, it was not out here in the world at all. It was somewhere in her head.
She let the damp nightgown drop to the floor as she stood and went to the window. Through the half-closed door beyond the bed she could hear water running. Tim always hummed a certain song in the morning when he shaved. She listened closely, as if it might remind her who she was. The world came back in patches. Down in the kitchen the children bickered. In the yard below the dog raced around from bush to bush, pissing to leave a trail. If she had screamed, she thought, somebody would have run in and held her.
All it was was nerves.
She stared out onto the wooded hills where the leaves were all but gone. Toward the horizon, stone walls pocked with lichen stitched and crossed, pulling the upland fields like a rough-work quilt. The green was all bleached out. The birds had fled. The winter silence, brown and sere, had never had the power to make her shrink or chill her to the bone with premonitions. Iris made her place in things. Instinctively, when the days grew short she went with the drift, turning in like a bear curled under a stump.
Her solid saltbox house had rooted here two hundred years, the harvest all laid in before the first snow blew. The turning seasons only seemed to deepen her resolve. For ten years now she'd had no other conscious wish but to keep just what she had. This was all she ever wanted: a proper house in an unobstructed country shot with seasons. Grief and sorrow had somehow missed her. She had a natural camouflage.
“Did you ever think someone might see you?”
“What?” she said lazily, turning to watch him tie his tie.
“Out there,” said Tim with a nod toward the hills. “What if there's some guy watching? Perched in a tree or something.”
“Who?” she asked in a sudden pulse of fear.
She raked the landscape now with a cold-eyed look. Tim only meant to say the customary thingâhow clear she seemed, how radiant, revealed there naked in the morning light. He praised her most in courtly ways. For a moment she almost believed it would all go away if she just reached up and pulled the shade.
“It's something else,” she said quietly.
“Are you okay?”
“I love you, Tim.”
“You needn't sound so grave about it.”
He took her lightly in his arms and rocked her half in a circle. He let out a sound of pure delight, a laugh that fell off in a sigh of relief. He grazed his fingers down her back as if he had just discovered her.
Iris held him one last time. For all he knew her tenderness was certain as the sun. She gave no signânot the slightest quiver of desperation, or else he would have known. But over his shoulder she saw her eyes in the mirror, scared and lost and frantic.
, cried a voice inside her.
Tim squeezed her tight and let her go, then bounded away with an animal laugh, as if they'd just made love. “Come
,” he said impatiently.
He poised at the top of the stairs to beckon her. He grinned and tilted his head. She knew he could scarcely wait to get the day in motion. She gave him a breezy smile and nodded, taking care to let him see her happy. Her life with him was like a dream. Time didn't rush it at all.
“In a minute,” she said mildly, so as to leave him free to go.
He thundered down the stairs to greet his sons, who stopped their fight the moment he walked in. Right away they were three of a kind again. While Tim put on the coffee, Michael read him a stream of box scores. Gene, not to be outdone, produced from his book bag several pages thick with algebra. He prodded his father to double-check him.
Iris crept to the top of the stairs. A puzzled frown across her eyes, she heard the familiar three-way talk at a curious remove, like a scene played out on the radio. The pit of her stomach throbbed with panic; tears coursed down her cheeks. She stood there silent and let it passâwilled herself to be unmoved. This part of her life was over.
, she thought fiercely, prodding the three of them out. She was sure it would be a lot easier, once she was alone. She wanted them gone while she was still numb. What time was the children's car pool? How did Tim get to the train? She had lost these scraps and fragments so completelyâall since the night beforeâshe wasn't sure if she could even face the three of them. What if they guessed how blank she was? They might not go at all.
She hurried across the bedroom to the closet, slid the door back and flailed in the shadows, impatient for something to wear. The clothes were all so foreign, they might have belonged to another woman. None of this frightened Iris. Let the darkness have the detailsâlet it rob her blind. But not before she'd had a final moment with her family.
It seemed she wouldn't be coming back. Perhaps she was good as dead already. In a day or two, maybe, her husband and sons would be no more than pictures in a locket. But for now, nothing could blur the still point at her center. The madness could not reach so far, no matter if it laid to waste everything else she'd ever known.
She stood at the mirror, tying the cord on her wine-dark robe. She ran a quick brush through her hair, then squinted close to be sure the tears had stopped. She was forty-two in August, small and slight and blond, and had not had occasion to test her strength in years. She'd never once been in a fight. In fact, she went in for nothing physical but sex. As to what she would brave the elements with, she had only the most suburban skills. Could shop. Could drive a car one-handed. Errands were her specialty.
Though people called her beautifulâwould have said so even now, not five minutes after she woke up horror-struck and wrongedâwhat they meant to say was that she was happy. Joy had etched her features more than time, until today.
As she made her way down the kitchen stairs, she had already adjusted herself to there being no reprieve. She bore the nightmare secretly. She knew she was lucky to get so much as this uncertain moment. At least, she thought, there would be no deathbed gloom in the good-bye scene. Hers was the one brave front required.
“Mom,” said Gene, “will you feed Dexter? I don't have time.”
“How will I find him?”
“I locked him in the linen closet. I think he's getting a cold.”
“Okay,” said Iris dryly. “Feed one snake.” She gave him a look that clicked like a camera. She poured out coffee in a Minton cup that Tim had already creamed and sugared, as if this place were a diner. He winked at her over the paper.
“Mom, you owe me eight bucks,” said Michael coyly.
How would they ever turn out, she wondered. The four years yawning between themâGene ten and a half and Michael gone fifteenâseemed negligible to Iris. They were more like children now than they had been five years ago. Then they were positively sage.
“Money's not good for you, Michael,” she said. She leaned her arms on the steel edge of the sink, looking through a row of amber bottles on the sill to the phantom hills outside. How long ago, she tried to recall, was it summer among those ruined trees? Did the whole earth turn so imperceptibly, she hadn't even noticed? Was that why she'd been banished?
“I'll give it all to the poor, I promise,” Michael said. “Just so long as I get it.”
“What did you do,” Tim wanted to know, “that's worth that kind of money?”
“Who do you think rakes all the leaves?”
“Five bucks,” Tim said decidedly and flipped to another crisis in the news.
She couldn't keep it focused. The cup shook dumbly in her hand. She tried to steady her gaze on the lay of the land outside, but now the Connecticut hills themselves would not stand firm. There was suddenly superimposed across the landscape, like some vast hallucination, a rock-strewn coast in total darkness. At last she knew where she was: on a cliff, high up above the crashing waves. A raw surf threshed on the stark pine shore. Above her head the morning sky was dead like a dome of stone. All she had to do was jump.
“Honey, what is it?” Tim broke in, with a light and mocking laugh.
“What?” said Iris tautly.
“Something going on out there?”
She was leaning forward across the sink, on tiptoe as if she meant to pitch right through the window. She stood up straight. She turned around with a steely smile. “The dog,” she said ironically, casting about the zoo for some excuse. “He's cornered another rabbit.”
“The call of the wild,” piped up Gene quite matter-of-factly. He ate a spoonful of blackberry jam right out of the jar.
A curl of nausea played about her windpipe, so that she was forced to gulp in air and swallow hard. Her forehead beaded coldly. No one noticed. Mike stood tall at the cluttered table, having snatched up his mother's purse from wherever she'd dropped it the day before. She could hardly remember what it was as he handed it across to her. She fished around inside for her wallet, glad to be dealing in facts. She slid out two fives and slipped them to her son. They exchanged a brief conspiratorial glance. They nodded half an inch.
Michael called over his shoulder: “Hey, worm, you ready?”
“Don't pick on him, Mike.”
“It's okay, Dad,” retorted Gene, as he gathered up his books. “Mike's gonna end up selling pencils. I'm going to be a brain surgeon.”
Both now turned and ran. She raised a hand to stop them, but they burst through the back door into the yard before she had the chance. They capered away across the lawn, the dog leaping up to nip at their sleeves. They rounded the side of the house and out of sight. The last she heard, they seemed to holler the signals of some game she couldn't grasp.
She should have kissed them first, the moment she walked in.
“Didn't you think by now they'd be less noisy?” Tim asked wryly, lightly stroking the back of her arm as she gathered dirty dishes off the table.
She gave him a puzzled look he didn't seem to see. Of course he was only kidding. He'd rather go chase his kids around the yard, shouting at the top of his voice, than go to work. But she dared not negotiate the narrow path of irony, lest he see how little she retained of all of this. Didn't dare touch him back, for fear she would not be light enough.
“By the way,” he went on cheerfully, “it's about time they started turning on us, isn't it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You knowâking of the mountain. Knife the old man in the back. Climb into bed with their mama.”
“Oh, that,” she said wistfully, all at a loss.
For a second she almost caught a glimpse of who she used to be. This was the clue she'd been waiting for. Something to do with a roomful of books and people telling stories. The surface refused to clear. Though Tim seemed ready to defer to her, she couldn't imagine a thing she knew about teenage boys. The mind was a foreign tongue she couldn't speak at all. Some door was shut inside her.
“How old were
,” she asked tentatively, “when all of that began?”