by Ashley Mayne
Every time she rode the train from the city that winter, she saw the house in Scarsdale. Colonial white, a peaked roof. A backyard choked with trees. One in a row of similar houses, though less immaculate.
A black cellophane bag twisted on a branch. On windy days she’d see it inflate like a torn black lung, sunlight punching through it.
They were together in the house once. His paintings everywhere. Displayed and stored, leaned against walls. There was a portrait of his wife standing in front of a garden shed in calico. A face of sharpened innocence.
Another woman’s icebox. Another woman’s couch. An eiderdown like a cold snowdrift. A cat purring on the sill. The lace band of her underwear scratched her thigh.
It rained that time. Rain fell in the orange rinds in the ashtray, and in the champagne flutes they’d left on the porch, one half-full and the other empty, each with its own hollow chime.
That airless gasp. The pained sheen of his eye. A shudder in her brain, a hard, dark star.
He told her she’d made him feral. A crow out of a cage. Dear God.
When a stranger on the train spilled into a diabetic swoon, everyone tried to give him candy. He’d slumped in his seat across the aisle from her. She moved next to him and grabbed for his hand.
Pray, someone said.
The look the man gave her as he came out of it: something she’d never seen. Not even in her lover’s eyes, in the house. He would carry the sun in his mouth for her if she asked him. If she stayed by him through this.
Her roommate over drinks: How well do you know him really? The artist?
She said: Where do you think he was when I was a child?
A painting of the Williamsburg Bridge, not the girders but the spaces between, embryonic shapes of light. The sugary orange from his fingertips burns her mouth. In the skeleton trees behind the house, she sees him tall as her father.
One of her earrings went missing that time. She worried about it later, riding back on the train. Thought of his teeth against her ear, the click of gold on bone. Had it fallen in the eiderdown? She knows he’s capable of having stolen it.
Or maybe it dropped in the backyard. In the deepest leaves, in the black earth no one sees. Gold glistening like the seed of next year’s sun.
They’d put out the cat in the rain that day so it wouldn’t stare at them, laughing at themselves. The cat stalked off across the backyard to shelter in the garden shed. She saw it for a moment from the window, over the arm of the couch, before he pulled down the neck of her blouse.
It turned back once, betrayed, mewed from the far side of the yard. It had a child’s voice.
Your mother calls you from Astoria and says: I was like this when I was waiting to have you. She says a lot of things. Nettles for iron. Blue for luck. Breathing exercises.
You look up nettles in a field manual. You tell her you’ll go cut some by the well in the woods behind your house. But really you want a cigarette.
You bought the house at auction for a prayer. Another woman, a girl, lived in the house before you did. You worked for a non-profit in the city, fighting the good fight. But now you need someplace no one can find you.
The postmistress in town likes to tell you about this girl. Long hair, sang like an angel in choir. The usual. Until she thinks she knows you, and it gets weird. A sad, lost girl with secrets. In trouble is what she says. Not crazy or knocked up.
She looks at you and waits to see what you’ll do. You stand there without speaking, holding your junk mail, grocery store coupons, keys, and thinking: It’s the country, maybe you really should have a gun.
Then the postmistress tells you the girl was alone for a long time, in the house that’s now yours. Where was her mother, anyway? Where were her kinfolk? For months, this woman tells you: She didn’t attend church, didn’t post any letters. No one suspected anything. It would have been rude to try the lock.
You think of the pale spot left by a rug at the foot of your bed, the place where the girl once said her prayers. Of the tap that leaks and probably always has. Of the dust on the baseboards, the cigarettes in your desk, the water stains making wolf tracks on the ceiling around that one light fixture. You wonder if the girl ever felt safe here.
The postmistress wants you to say something. So you say, When did you know she’d vanished?
She tells you a bird flew against one of the windows. Broke a pane. Ladies from church finally came by with lamb casserole and noticed how the air exhaling from the house was cold.
The house went up for auction. She had no family, bless her heart. Oh, honey. Would you like to sit down and rest your legs?
It’s a sad story. What did you expect? You imagine it: The house, the well, the dripping faucet. Darkness moving on the face of things.
The postmistress rings you up for stamps and packing tape.
Somewhere you heard Charles Darwin saw the word mother on a Scrabble board and said: There’s no such word. And you like sad stories, or at least you did. Before you left the city, a man went off the Brooklyn Bridge. He removed his shoes like he was getting into bed and left the sky and the air, escaped into the water. Disappeared the way men do. Left his shoes waiting like hopeful little dogs for him to come back up.
You really should call your mother.
You can see the well in the woods from the window of the old house, breathing damp air. The cell signal is always bad. Afternoon. You stand in the middle of your bed and stretch to hold the phone toward the ceiling. Her voice, so far, so small, sounds like the wind around your ears when you were a kid floating in her sight on Lake Winnipesaukee. Those floats they used to have when you were young, lungs on children’s arms, what were they called? Water wings? Something made for flight, for jumping the blue. Something an angel would have.
You pace in the house tonight and the baby kicks you. A foot against your hand under the skin. This presence, you and not you.
It’s only now you wonder what disappearing will be like. The way a girl can vanish. The way an animal’s breath fades slowly from a window. The way God doesn’t exist, all over everything.
When you were small you cried in your mother’s arms and she was the invisible world. Summer in the eighties. A Volvo 240 wagon, packed to the tops of its windows: fishing poles, sunscreen, jigsaw puzzles, Call Of The Wild. Ribs of the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson. Your family’s annual summer flight from the city. That cabin on the lake.
A meteor, a mockingbird. A yarn god’s eye hanging in a tree. She was God with a birthmark on her breast, and you cried in her arms, sunlight. The dust of your lashes left a mark on God’s blue dress. The white, ghost strike of a bird’s wings on glass.
Lake Winnipesaukee. Your mother held your head above the water. When you swam in her, she breathed for you.
The damn bathtub. Still that wire of rust locked in the porcelain. Baking soda isn’t going to cut it. In the leaves by the well there’s a lost shoe.
You’ll have to throw out the cigarettes in the morning. In the woods, where no one will find them. Not even you.
You hear that car accident song in June, before you know. The refrain: Take me. You think it’s a love song. He thinks it’s about death.
White Wolf Tequila and an old Nikon. His head flung back against the night sky. Take me.
All summer a forest unspools in film ribbons from his eyes and mouth. You touch him, and his body shakes. You hold onto him ‘till you can see his dreams upside down on the dark grass, and you take in these images, all of them. Too many frames. Too fast to see.
Your body fills with old light and you hold him. You never imagined you could hold so much.
Wait, you say. Take me, too.
You know what your arms have been for all your life.
He leans down in September, jaw scraping the corner of your forehead. His body now a delicate, hard machine taking him somewhere else.
So you spool the ribbon back, play it again. Backward, forward, half speed, fast. You live in black and white now, the way an animal does. But there’s nothing in these frames you haven’t seen. Maybe that flicker right there. A ghost on the lens. His gorgeous eyes. The shadows of cars sliding upside down across the ceiling of a room where a man smokes in bed. Now a collared dog, tied up. Now a hypodermic needle. Now the rafters of a crawlspace. Now a child’s birthday party. A boy running his hand down the neck of a grey guitar.
Did he see time when his eye was on you?
Or have you been an old fear all summer, something wild in the house? What was he saying yes to, the times he told you yes? When he shook against your body and the two of you lived in colors, wanting the speed no one survives. When you became another kind of dying.
The summer’s over. October comes. You hear that song in your head on the back of a motorcycle, take me, and your arms around somebody’s waist say yes to death. Death doesn’t love you back now, though it will someday.
Grace presses in. You’ve never fallen faster. The engine is a wolf shaking. The trees on this country road flicker until they blur together, form a white tunnel of light, and you hold on, all your life. Hair slices behind, wind cuts across your throat between the helmet’s chinstrap and the broken leather collar of your jacket.
Just your arms holding time.
Ashley Mayne’s work has appeared in Fence, Post Road, Juked, Peripheries, Blight Podcast, Metambesen, and elsewhere. She is one of the founders of Crystal Radio and edits fiction at Fence.