War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.

Another Bagful Of Goodies (3 Sentence Stories)

 

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“It’s time you learned how to swim better,” Tommy’s father said, tossing Tommy into the water. “Motivation is key.” He upended the bucket of chum into the fin-crazed sea.

He promised to cook something she loved for supper. She ate it happily, with good wine to wash it down and candlelight to set the mood. Later she brought the scraps outside to give to her beloved dog, Max, but he was nowhere to be found.

The tree’s branches scraped against the bedroom window, waking up Lisa. Groggy with sleep, she walked over and closed the blinds. The scraping became faster.

Ashley’s sexy barmaid costume was a hit at the Halloween party. “Can I have a drink?” everyone asked her. Happy to be so popular, she laughed…until she saw their long fangs.

“This punch is a little bitter,” Julie said to Maggie, the host of the New Year’s Eve party.
“Bitter drink for a bitter year,” Maggie said, looking sidelong at Julie’s husband. “Next year will be much better,” she concluded as Julie choked and fell to the floor.

“I did my book report on a very old book,” Katie said as she stood in front of her 5th grade class. “It is called the Necronomicon.” Her eyes glazed over as she spoke and opened the book, showing its secrets to her classmates.

The barrel had been buried for nearly two hundred years when the archaeologists unearthed it in the outskirts of a Caribbean pirate town. There were carvings of crosses all over the barrel’s wooden flanks. They buried it again, unopened, when they heard something moaning inside.

The hitchhiker waved from the side of the dark highway, her wide grin flashing in Jerry’s headlights. He slowed down, momentarily, then smashed the gas pedal to the floor. Shadow and light rotated in her empty eye sockets as the car screeched by.

“It is a really good makeover,” Zoe remarked. “Beth looks better than she did during the Homecoming Dance.”
“I pride myself on my work,” the mortician said.

“All whom are baptized today shall fear pain no more!” the priest announced as he walked upon the sea. He looked gray and bloated, his arms hanging laxly at his sides and his head lolling with a vacant face. Something undulated in the water beneath him, restlessly awaiting his flock.

The pilots saw the beacon through the storm and redirected the plane toward the light. They thought the turbulence came from the winds, but it didn’t. When the plane crashed no bodies were found onboard.

The medical students all gathered around the cadaver. The professor held up his scalpel and said, “We need a fresh start today, so do I have any volunteers?” Ellen stepped forward, and screamed as they held her down beneath his blade.

Cedric the Magician knew it would be his final show, so he wanted to make it memorable. Everyone cheered when he sawed his assistant in half. No one cheered when he pulled the box apart.

Her red hoodie concealed her face as she walked along Woodland Drive in the dark. The hairy man snuck up and grabbed her by the wrist, spinning her around and unbuckling his belt with his free hand. Afterward she continued on to her grandmother’s, wiping blood off of her smile with her sleeve.

Aello’s sister always said she had terrible tastes when it came to men. But when Aello saw Patrick walking down the road, she knew he was different. Spreading her wings, and her talons, she swooped down upon him and carried him away.

The necromancer sat in the graveyard all night, scowling at a black book in his lap. “I did everything the spell required,” he growled, “but nothing has risen!” Suddenly he saw the sun rise above the tree line, and he leapt for joy, exclaiming, “I am the master of Life and Death!”

Lady Chastain had lost all patience with suitors that evening and came to sit in her parlour, next to the cage where her parakeet perched. A man stepped forward from near the fireplace, a knife gleaming in his hand. When they found her body the next morning, all the parakeet said, over and over again, was, “A twist of the knife for a twist of the tongue.”

Diogenes drank all night and woke up the next day on the steps of the Parthenon. The Athenian priests threatened to beat him if he did not sleep elsewhere. “Hypnos, upon Pan’s counsel, bid me sleep here,” the philosopher said, “and so who are you to question such gods?”

Hole-Heartedly

Hole Heartedly

There was a hole in Jenny’s kitchen. It was not a normal hole— not a hole corroded from water damage or dry-rot or punctured by Jenny accidentally dropping a heavy pot on the floor while trying to rearrange the kitchen because she was so sick of how her apartment looked.
No, it was a perfectly round hole, smoothly circumscribed and excised as if by a god’s compass. It was the size of a single person, and that person was Jenny herself.
What was in the hole was not normal, either. You could not see the layers of linoleum, wood, concrete, and steel beams stratifying the perfectly smooth circumference of the hole, nor the kitchen of Miss Abbergast, the crazy cat lady, down in the apartment below Jenny’s. The hole was simply black; plunging, impenetrable black. No light or gradation of shadow shown in its depths whatsoever. It was a smooth well of black ink. It allowed no light and gave no light. If Jenny dropped something down the hole it would not return, nor would it make a sound. There seemed to be no bottom within the realm of the hole.
But there were voices coming from the hole. Whispers, groans, moans, wails, hateful laughter, screams, shouts. They but rarely remained quiet for long. When these voices did stop, the singular and friendly voice of a man would speak to Jenny.
“Jenny, it would be so nice if you could stick your head down here so we could have a look at you. We just want to say Hello.”
When Jenny said nothing, and backed away out of the kitchen, there would be a silence from the hole for a moment, and then the cacophony of overlapping voices would return, loud and urgent and incomprehensible. At such times as these, Jenny would turn her television on and sit and watch Wheel Of Fortune on mute. It was like the noises from the kitchen were coming from the game show’s audience. She was not of a settled mind as to why she did this. It was like embracing the hole and disavowing it at the same time.
Jenny told no one about the hole. She was glad she had no regular visitors. She was also glad her mother was confined to the nursing home where she could not visit her daughter anymore. That old hatchet would have blamed the hole on the fact that Jenny never married. In particular, she would have blamed it on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Her mother blamed a lot of things on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Jenny’s middling job as a secretary was because she had not married into the Witzman family trust. Her father’s early death was because he was stressed from fear that Jenny was a closeted lesbian in denial of her own natural inclinations. Her mother’s failing health also stemmed from Jenny’s relationship status, as did the Yankees not winning the Super Bowl. When Jenny pointed out to her mother that the Yankees were a baseball team that could never play in the football championship, her mother blamed her single status for that as well.
“No grandchildren to keep our name going,” the old matriarch would say on the phone. “No grandchildren to keep your father going. I’ll be passing soon, too, and then my poor baby will be all alone.”
“I’m fine, momma,” Jenny would say. “I am happy alone. I really am.”
“You should have married that nice boy, Arty. He would have been good to you. He would have made you happy.”
“He would have been good for you, momma. He would have made you and dad happy.”
“But now who are you going to marry? Nobody! Maybe you should have been a lesbian. You would have found someone then and been married. It’s legal now.”
“Mom, I’m fine being alone…”
“And you could have been artificially inseminated. That’s legal now, too! You could have chosen any father for the baby you wanted. Tom Selleck! Your son could have looked like Tom Selleck!”

Sometimes things came out of the hole. They walked on two legs, mostly, but sometimes they crawled on their hands, too, if they had hands. Jenny could not see their faces. Male or female, their heads were blank and bald. They tried to speak, but their mouths were muffled. They stared blindly at Jenny from the kitchen. Mute and blind and deaf. Eventually they would crawl back into the hole— not unlike rats into tunnels— and speak from there. Of course, they would all drown each other out until their voices died away and that one singular voice spoke up again.
“We really would like to meet you, Jenny. We could be such wonderful friends.”

Jenny had friends, despite what her mother believed. They were work-friends, of course, but friends just the same. They would invite her to parties, or ask her to go out with them to bars after long shifts at the Firm. Jenny declined everytime, but it was nice to be invited. That they thought of her at all sufficed for her.
When not working, Jenny spent much of her time watching true-crime television programs and being grateful she had not entered into an abusive relationship, or had been murdered for an insurance policy. Life was simpler on this side of the television screen, and it made her grateful for the simple life she had. Things always became complicated when there was more than one person mixed into Jenny’s daily routine, like a whole handful of extra cogs in a clock that did not need them. That was one of the many reasons why she stayed away from her mother. That old woman had no life of her own, and so she sought to control Jenny’s life. Even when her mother had her own life— before the nursing home— she had sought to control Jenny’s life.

Jenny lived in New York, but she did not feel like a New Yorker. Walking the streets was like navigating an alien landscape with hostilities lurking under every passing face. She had been born in New York— in a taxi, no less, while her father cussed the afternoon traffic— and yet she felt like an illegal immigrant trying daily to trick the “true” New Yorkers into believing her faulty facade. She feared that, sooner or later, they would deport her. Her paranoid mind paraded delusions constantly. A bus full of witch-burners. A flash mob at the park ready to crucify her to a tree. The other New Yorkers—the true New Yorkers— would all turn as one and scowl at her, then grab her roughly, telling her she did not belong here, and then take her to the outer city limits and heave her into the Atlantic with a face-breaking splash into that cold, briny water.
That was why Jenny stayed home in her small apartment when she was not stuck behind her secretarial desk. Her apartment was a refuge from the alienation of her birthplace. Her mother knew how Jenny felt, how Jenny had always felt, and had scolded her for it her entire life.
“You are a New Yorker, Jen, and you need to start acting like one. This meek and mild nonsense has got to stop. The city would eat you up if not for me protecting you.”
“I’m fine, mom,” she said. “I’m okay with being alone.”
“It’s not healthy, Jen,” her mother said, disapprovingly. “It’s not natural. You need someone to protect you when I am gone.”
“I’m okay with being alone.”
The faceless figures nodded in the kitchen.

Jenny had done what she could to reinforce her apartment with her own identity. As a result, it was quite bare and plain. The truth was that Jenny did not know what she wanted. She had vague inclinations, like bran cereal and the urge to watch gameshows with the sound off and the subtitles on, but she did not know what she wanted in life. Her mother had crowded Jenny’s head with many expectations and admonishments that the old matriarch deemed crucial to a happy life. Since moving out on her own, Jenny had followed a scorched earth policy to those mobs of nagging expectations. Yet, in the burnt-out void of her mother’s demands Jenny found herself standing amid nothingness with little conception of which direction to go, or, indeed, which direction lay where.
Jenny was forty-three years old and she did not know what she wanted in life.
She did know what she did not want in life. She did not want to listen to her mother. She did not want to go out in the city after dark. She did not want to talk to people outside of work. She did not want to open the blinds of her apartment windows and look out upon the cityscape, whether it be day or night, dark or light. She kept them shut, and thus kept the alien sprawl of the city out of her wary head.
Jenny feared the silent, sullen-eyed skyscrapers as much as the people milling around them. Those glass-and-steel monoliths loomed over her like overbearing parental figures, silently mouthing criticisms and demands while she tried to live her life the quiet way that suited her sensitive nature. The giant buildings told her that she had become pudgy, that men were disgusted by the way her belly bulged over the buckle of her belt. They said she should stop eating pepperoni pizza and cherry cordial ice cream because it pitted her face with acne. They warned her that she was getting older and uglier, that one day she would wake to find herself in dread of her future and in regret of her past, having squandered her life by living like a solitary nun.
She wished she could shout the skyscrapers down, topple them with a word, create an expanse of silent land echoing all around her, the rubble swept away in the outward sweep of the pronunciation, only herself remaining where once an overwhelming multitude of busily bustling mobs and machines battled daily for meager inches of breathing space. Sometimes she wished she could shout herself away, too.
And through all of this the hole waited. It babbled and it waited.

Then one day Jenny saw an advertisement while reading some online articles on her computer at the Firm. It was an ad for a matchmaking site called “Reel Love”. The site’s logo had a fishing pole with a heart-shaped hook on the end of its line. It boasted of having united over “One Million People In Matrimonial Bliss”.
It was Jenny’s lunch break. She was eating leftover spaghetti that she had brought from home. The spaghetti sauce was cold and wet and salty on her lips. For some reason— she did not know why— the combination of licking the cold spaghetti sauce and seeing the “Reel Love” logo made her eyes start to water. She dabbed at her cheeks with her paper napkin and then, on impulse, clicked on the advertisement.
She gasped. This was a company computer. Now she feared that the ad might have been a viral portal and she felt a heart-quickening terror at having infected the entire network. The whole business communications array would shut down and her boss would be furious. They would trace it back to her computer. She feared she might even be terminated.
Within a moment, however, she was brought to the main “Reel Love” website. It was a free dating site, evidently. She did a quick Google search for its ratings and reviews, all of which seemed to regard it as an authentic website. Out of curiosity, she perused some of the profiles and blushed to think of all of the men on the site that she found herself wanting to know more about.
Telling herself that it was all for fun, she hastily filled out a profile for herself and used her old employee ID photo in the Human Resources file as her one and only photo. She was skinnier then, nearly eight years ago, and her hair was not so faded or thinned as it was now. Her glasses in the photo were a bit thicker, though, and her brown hair was shortly cropped, unlike her drab, poorly straightened longer hair she had nowadays. Still, she justified the innocent subterfuge with the excuse that she had no other photos and, telling herself that she was making the profile only as a novelty and not with any serious interest or intent in dating.
Her profile completed, Jenny logged off and finished her bowl of spaghetti before she had to get back to work.

Later that day, when Jenny was ready to turn her computer off, she received an email notification. Going to her inbox she found a message from Reel Love stating that someone had commented on her profile. Jenny dithered for a beat, not knowing whether she wanted to ignore the message and forget about her profile or to open her profile to read the comment. Curiosity prevailed briefly and she started to log into the “Reel Love” website. But then she stopped. She feared what she might find. What if someone had written something mean-spirited and captious. She could barely handle criticism from her mother anymore; criticism from a stranger seemed worse.
Another email alert popped up in her inbox. Her curiosity won out, at length, and she finished logging in. The two comments were from the same person. With great expectations she read them, her heart in her throat..
“Go kill yourself, Velma!”
The secondary comment was from the same anonymous person.
“Seriously, Scooby Doo’s not the only dog in your show!”
Crying now, Jenny logged off and turned off her computer. She went home.

Riding the bus while crying was embarrassing, so Jenny pressed her face against the bus window and pretended to watch the streets and people pass by. It was midwinter and the days were short, shortened further by the tall skyscrapers that huddled together to block out the setting sun. The busy streets were already swimming in gray shadows, threatening to darken to night just as Jenny stepped off the bus and entered her apartment building.

When Jenny arrived at her apartment, she immediately went to the kitchen and began washing dishes in the sink. Jenny enjoyed washing dishes by hand. She never owned a dishwashing machine and she never would. It wasn’t that she enjoyed playing in the hot water— though she did— nor the simple reassurance that she would have clean dishes available when she needed them. No, instead it was the gratification of personal liberty and personal responsibility. It was a ritual of independence and self-reliance and an exercise in self-motivation and maturity. It was much the same as what a bachelor might feel as he was washing a beloved car just before a night spent cruising town on a Friday night. It reinforced ownership and strengthened the idea that these were her dishes, her apartment, her life. She belonged to herself, for better or for worse. No one had a say in how or when she washed her dishes. Her mother was not there, like some nagging supervisor, to shovel her bank-load of two cents down her daughter’s throat.
Jenny also liked playing in the hot water, and the simple joy of submerging a dirty plate, scrubbing it, and then lifting it from the water, squeaky clean. If only the city itself could be so easily, magically cleaned— cleaned of all the people who ignored her like some trash caught in a sewer grate.

After washing the dishes, Jenny ate a peanut butter sandwich for supper and watched tv on mute. As she sat on the couch— listening to the voices in the hole—she heard a chime. It startled her and she glanced around, confused. Her eyes alighted on her cell phone. She picked it up and glanced at the screen. She had an email from Reel Love. She pushed the icon, but then set the phone down. She did not think she could handle another hateful message from another stranger.
Jenny continued to eat her peanut butter sandwich. She continued to watch tv on mute. She continued to listen to the voices coming from the hole in the kitchen. Occasionally she glanced down at the phone, fighting against her own curiosity.
Curiosity eventually won and she picked up the phone. Opening the email, she saw that she had a “Catch” and, so, logged onto her Reel Love profile. She did not open the message, though. She was still fearful that it would be another mean text. Instead, she set the phone aside and went to the bathroom to take a shower. She took a long hot shower, letting her pudgy body pinken in the steaming water.
When she came back into the living room, she watched the evening news. Figures were getting out of the hole in the kitchen. They stood around, arms hanging laxly at their sides while they leaned forward, as if ready to fall. The faceless people stared at her while she watched depressing reports about the world. The volume was turned off and the subtitles were on. The apartment was completely silent except for the softened noises of the sleepless city beyond the blinds and drapes. Eventually, Jenny picked up her phone and checked her online profile.
The “Catch” was a man under the username of “Ken-Do Attitude”. He had sent Jenny a message.
“Hi! I just wanted to say Hi!”
The redundant message did not seem to be sarcastic. When Jenny checked on “Ken-Do Attitude’s” profile she found him to be an average sort of guy whose only flaw was a fondness for not smiling in his pictures and having a combover that drew more attention to itself than it would have had the man simply let the bald pate show through.
Still, there was a familiar sentiment in Ken-Do Attitude’s eyes that made Jenny want to respond to him. She typed something simple and unadorned.
“Hi! It was nice of you to say Hi!”
A prompt message returned to her.
“Thank you!”
“You’re welcome!” Jenny typed, not really knowing why he was thanking her.
“My name’s Kenny,” came his next message. “You seem nice. I like that you like game shows. I like Jeopardy, even if Trebek is a little bit haughty.”
“You’re right!” Jenny responded. “He is a little bit haughty.”
“My favorite show is The Price Is Right,” Kenny said. “When I get the chance to watch it.”
“I like it too!” Jenny responded, not really sure why she was using an exclamation point to punctuate every sentence. “I don’t get to watch it often either. I’m always working when its on.”
The faceless figures watched Jenny from the kitchen threshold, staring blindly as she texted on her phone. They stood and stared for a long time. Then, with what appeared to be reluctant resignation, they loped back to the hole and crawled back in.

Through their online conversations Jenny and Kenny learned basic things about each other. Kenny was a computer programmer and networker for a local company. He said he worked twelve hour days, on again and off again every three days with a fourth day being allotted for an eight hour shift to even out the forty hour workweek. His schedule was a mess, typically, and he did not have a lot of free time to pursue social activities. Nor did he have the “knack” of social interaction. This confession only reinforced Jenny’s fondness toward the idea that Kenny was her soulmate since she, too, failed at being adequately sociable. She told him, often, that she felt like a hermit crab looking for love, and he, being a like-minded introvert, shared the sentiment and assured her that he was willing to come out of his shell if she were willing to come out of hers.
So, before either one knew what their fingertips had done, they had agreed on a time and place for their first date.

The day of their date Jenny gussied herself up like never before. She put on her best white blouse and did up her hair with a brush and a red bow. She even was so cavalier as to wear a red skirt, albeit with black stockings to warm her against the Winter winds. Looking at herself in the mirror, she knew she would not have been most men’s first choice— she looked like Minnie Mouse on second glance—but she liked to think she was Kenny’s first choice, and that sufficed enough for her modest confidence.
Meanwhile the faceless figures in the kitchen languished by the hole as Jenny left her apartment, turning the lights off as she went.
They were to meet at a casual restaurant a few blocks from Jenny’s apartment. As she rode the bus her mother called.
“Mom, I’m going on a date!” Jenny blurted into the phone.
Strangely, there was a long silence on the other end, and Jenny thought, perhaps, that her mother had accidentally “butt-dialed” her. But then she remembered that this was her mother and she never did anything accidentally. After a moment, her mother spoke. Her tone was as stiff and blunt as a burnt baguette.
“What kind of man is he?” she asked.
“A nice guy,” Jenny said. “He works a lot of odd hours, but he’s nice. I mean, I haven’t actually met him yet. We’ve talked online, but he seems nice.”
“You haven’t met him yet?” her mother said, incredulous. “Jen, of all the nonsense you’ve ever done! Met him online? Ridiculous! He could be a serial killer and you wouldn’t know!”
“He is not a serial killer, mom,” she said. “He’s a computer programmer.”
“Computer programmer?” Her mother sighed raggedly. “I suppose I should be relieved he is employed at all. But did you know that Arty Witzman has become a doctor? A surgeon no less…”
“A computer programmer is a very important job, too,” Jenny said.
“Not like a surgeon,” her mother grumbled. “What’s his name? I bet I know his family.”
“Kenny,” Jenny said, glancing around self-consciously at the other passengers on the bus. She felt like they were watching her; judging her. “Kenny Mahoney.”
“A Mahoney? There’s no good that comes from a last name like that. Just imagine what the children will be called in school! Mahoney bologna. He was probably called that in school, which is why he never became a doctor.”
“Mom, you can’t judge people on their last names…”
“Yes, you can, too! It tells you what kind of family they come from. Whether they are respectable or not. In New York you know everything you need to know about a person by their last name. And Mahoney is not a good name. Not like Witzman…”
“Bye, mom,” she said, and then turned off her phone.

Jenny stepped off the bus and walked down the street toward the restaurant. The evening pedestrian traffic was thick. Normally Jenny would have shunned the streets at this time, staying at home and watching tv and listening to the hole in her kitchen. There were innumerable people walking with and against her, but she felt she could cope with the crowded sidewalk because she was going to meet who would, in her mind, be her soulmate. In fact, this hopeful thought made her feel a little less alienated from the city tonight. She felt like she finally belonged here, or at least would belong here once she and Kenny bonded together like all of those other couples that Jenny watched and envied on the street everyday. Together they would be stronger. Together they would be happier. Life would have greater meaning. Every day would be like the Yankees winning the World Series, except without the cheering and the clapping because ruckus like that upset Jenny’s nerves.
There were several people crowding the restaurant’s entrance. For a restaurant operating under the pretense of being casual, it sure appeared to be the “must-be” place. She wondered if they would need a reservation to get in. So many people were crammed together at the door that she thought it must be a fire hazard.
Overwhelmed by the crowd, Jenny lingered away from it. She did not want to try to infiltrate that shoulder-to-shoulder mob. It would have been worse than riding the subway train at rush hour. And she hated the subway, whether at rush hour or not.
“Jenny! Jenny, over here!”
It was Kenny. He was deep in the crowd, near to the doors and waving his hands frantically above the other prospective patrons’ heads. Jenny peered at him, and peered through the crowd around him, wondering how she was going to get to him.
“They’ll let you through,” he said, his optimism not quite believable. “Don’t worry. C’mon in.”
Against her better judgment, Jenny waded into the crowd. She got quite a few glares and grumbles as she bumped into people and slid between them and tripped over their feet. Eventually she arrived next to Kenny. She tried to return his smile, but found herself annoyed and frustrated and quite captious.
“You should have chosen a different restaurant,” she said.
Kenny’s smile faltered, like a captain feeling coral on the underside of his ship as soon as he spots land on the horizon. He looked embarrassed and penitent, but instead of softening Jenny’s attitude, his hara-kiri smile only exacerbated her irritation.
“You’re right,” he said, nodding like a berated schoolboy. “Normally when I eat here it is 4 in the morning. It’s easier to get a table then.”
“It’s not 4 in the morning now, is it?”
“No,” he said.
“Most sensible people are in bed by then, anyway,” she continued.
“You’re right,” he said.
The wind was cold this evening, even with the people barricading the two of them from all sides, and that bitter wind seemed to invade Jenny’s lungs and heart and make her bitter and cold also. She suddenly wondered if the hole in her apartment was cold or warm or felt like nothing at all.
“You really should plan ahead for these things,” Jenny said. “You’re a grown man, after all.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling nervously. “You’re right.”
They waited in silence for a couple of minutes. While they waited, Jenny reflected on her behavior and wondered why she was so waspish. Kenny looked like a beaten dog. As she stole glances at him she realized that she should apologize. Yet some hard stone in the back of her throat refused to budge on the subject. The harder she tried to dislodge it to let an apology through, the deeper and sharper and more embedded it became.
And then Kenny— like a hopeful jester walking the steps up to the gallows— tried to tell a joke.
“Hey, want to hear something funny?” His hopeful grin was beyond naive. “What did the taxi driver say when the knight got into his cab with his jousting stick?”
Jenny did not say anything. She was not certain she wanted to hear the punch line.
“‘I’m afraid there is going to be an additional sir charge.’”
Jenny did not laugh. Her face became taut and she turned away, crossing her arms and tightening them around the pillar of irritability she had become.
“I hope we go in soon,” she said stiffly. “I will get a cold if I stay out here much longer.”
Kenny opened his mouth to say something— again with hopeful naivete somewhat brightening on his face— but then his face fell into an expression of glum impotence. Another minute passed in silence. The minutes seemed to last forever right now.
At length, Jenny and Kenny entered the restaurant and, after a few more minutes of waiting, they were taken to a small table in the corner. A waiter brought them menus, and took their drink orders, then left them to their frigid silence. The window beside them offered a view of the brick wall belonging to the building next-door, as well as the dumpsters. It was not exactly romantic, which irritated Jenny even more. With no good view, she could only look at Kenny, or else at the crowded restaurant and all of its livelier patrons— laughing, smiling, chatting in ways that Jenny did not know how to even parody. When she looked at Kenny she found herself analyzing all of his flaws, her mother’s voice categorizing and elaborating on them indulgently.
Kenny was pudgy the way Jenny was pudgy. He was not unhealthy, and certainly not fat, but he had relaxed too much into his sedentary job, slouching in front of his computer. Jenny could tell. Like herself, Kenny had forward-neck syndrome, his neck angled against itself at the nape and the shoulders instead of rolling smoothly up to the base of the skull. Looking at him, she knew the most exercise he had daily was equivalent to her own: stepping up and down from a bus and walking a block to get a coffee and a doughnut at a café.
Yet, Jenny was irritated by his pudginess. In her mind he would have looked quite fetching had he lost a couple dozen pounds. That there was potential made her all the more captious. It was like the healthier, handsomer Kenny was a bully mocking Kenny behind his back, and he did not have the strength of spine to confront him.
Finally, she spoke.
“You should exercise more,” she said. “It’s not good for you to be overweight.”
Kenny smiled sheepishly. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to go to one of those Cross-Fit gyms. I just feel so exhausted whenever I get off my twelve-hour shifts.”
“But all you do is sit in a chair,” she said, more outraged than she meant to sound.
“You’re right,” he said, blushing.
“Well, then you can go to the gym before going to work, and then rest while you are sitting in your chair at work. I bet you have restless leg syndrome, don’t you?”
“I do,” he said, cringing at the onslaught. “Sometimes.”
“Going to the gym would get rid of that problem. You should start tomorrow.”
“You’re right.”
Jenny assumed Kenny had restless leg syndrome because she suffered from it constantly at work also. She had tried to join a gym and make a habit of exercising before work, but never really took the first step. She knew, even now, that she was admonishing herself through Kenny, and yet she could not stop.
Kenny glanced around for the waiter, and adjusted his glasses.
“And you should change your glasses,” she said. “They don’t really match your face.”
“You’re right,” he said, deflating in his chair.
“And sit up straight.”
He straightened his back and pressed his chest out, though the look on his face seemed less determined than his tucked-in gut. He looked like might pop his gut.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she said. “You’ll give yourself an aneurysm.”
Kenny tried to laugh it off, but his laughter fell dead from his mouth. “You should have been a drill sergeant. You could make a supersoldier out of anybody.”
Instead of laughing, Jenny scowled. She knew it was a joke— moreover, she knew there was truth in it— but she could not smile at it. So, she scowled. She wondered if she was looking more and more like her mother right now. If she had caught sight of herself in a mirror she probably would have ran off screaming to the nearest skyscraper and thrown herself off. Her eye glanced at the window, but instead of seeing her own reflection she saw faceless figures strangling each other in the side-alley. They seemed to get no satisfaction from the throat-crushing skirmish.
The waiter arrived and took their orders. When he left, Kenny tried to talk to Jenny more. He spoke of his family in New Jersey, his upbringing, his job.
“Eventually I hope to move to first shift,” he was saying. “Maybe live less like a vampire and more like a normal human being.”
“You should get a new job,” Jenny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“My boss said I’m making good progress,” Kenny said, his tone more hopeful than boastful. “He said he wants me to be in charge of my own code team when we get the next contract. I’ll be the primary coder.”
“But do you get a raise for it?” Jenny countered.
“Well, no, but it would go toward my favorability with the higher-ups. And would look good on my resume…”
“So do it and then get another job,” she said. “A better job. Right now you’re basically a computer physician. You should be a computer surgeon.”
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” he started to say. Her glare made him stare down at the table. “You’re right,” he said. “I should be a computer…um… surgeon.”
Time passed. The other diners came and went, all of them much happier than Jenny felt. She was becoming impatient. She was hungry and still cold and, above all, she was irritated with her soulmate for not being more perfect. The faceless figures stared through the window in anticipation, no longer strangling one another.
“What is taking them so long?” she complained. “We’ve been here for almost an hour.”
“There are a lot of people…” Kenny said, but then shriveled under Jenny’s withering look.
“Thank you, Mr. Obvious, but that doesn’t excuse bad service. Next time you should to take me to a better restaurant. Maybe some place less ‘casual’. It will cost more, but there will be less people and better service.”
The waiter eventually returned and apologized, saying that their order had been misplaced among what was an avalanche of orders from the other patrons. Apologizing several times, he took their orders again, and promised the meals would be free of charge. Kenny was delighted, but Jenny was furious.
“If we had come earlier we wouldn’t have been forgotten,” she said.
“We’re getting our food free, though,” Kenny said sheepishly. “I mean, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“We should have went somewhere else,” she said, her eyes daggers that stabbed every person in the room with merciless deftness. “And you’re just relieved that you don’t have to pay for me.”
“That’s not true,” Kenny said. “I like you, Jenny. I…well, I would take you to Hawaii for a pork roast if you wanted me to. I’d do anything for you.”
“I don’t like pork,” she said, dismissively. “And Hawaii’s too hot.”
The waiter brought them their food within quarter of an hour, with a healthy heaping of sides and apologies and well-wishes. As they started to eat, Jenny resumed criticizing Kenny.
“You shouldn’t eat mozzarella,” she told him. “It’s bad for you. It will give you a heart attack. My father died of a heart-attack.”
Kenny paused, the mozzarella stick suspended in front of his shocked face, poised between his pointer finger and his thumb. Some of the Italian sauce dripped onto his white shirt, red and promising a stain.
“And now you’ve gone and dirtied your nice shirt,” Jenny complained. “You really should be more careful when you’re eating. You’ll ruin everything you touch if you don’t follow etiquette and pay attention to what you are doing.”
The faceless figures in the side-alley nodded furiously in agreement.
“I was paying attention,” he said, sadly. “You just distracted me…”
“That’s no excuse to be a slob about your food,” Jenny said, horrified by her own words and yet unable to stop herself. “You’ll never correct your own bad behavior if you don’t own up to it. You have to acknowledge a problem before you can solve that problem.”
“You’re right, but…”
“And you seem very reluctant to find fault in yourself. That’s a bad sign. Maybe that’s why you’re in your forties and still trying to go on dates instead of being married with kids.”
“You’re right,” he said, devastated. “You’re right, Jenny. I hate being alone, if you must know the truth. I work so much and then I come home to sleep or watch tv. Sometimes I go out, to places like this, by myself, to convince myself that I’m ‘happy’. But I’m not.”
“You need to get over it,” she said. “Be a man. Grow up. Life sucks, but you’re your own problem. Deal with it.”
The remainder of the date was spent in silence. Kenny did not eat any of his food. When the waiter asked if anything was wrong, Kenny only said that he did not have much of an appetite today. Jenny did not eat much, either. She felt too angry to eat— too angry at Kenny and at herself and at New York and all of its happily bustling, chatty people— and so she just sat and fumed, a migraine coming on in earnest due to her anger and her hunger.
“Are you finished eating?” she said.
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her.
“Then it’s time to go.”
Stepping outside, they slipped through the crowd still waiting for their chance to dine. They walked down the cold, loud, scintillating street.
“You’re not walking me home,” she said. “So don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then I guess I’ll say ‘Good night’ now. Good night.”
“Just like that?” Jenny snapped. “That’s a bad way to end our date.”
“Well…” said Kenny, slowly and flabbergasted. “Do want a want hug or handshake or…?”
“No kissing,” she said quickly. “But you can hug me, if you want.”
“Okay,” said Kenny. He stepped forward, with a self-consciously awkward smile, and gave Jenny a brotherly hug.
“You do need to go to the gym,” she said as she released him. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, sighing like a tire on a nail.
Jenny and Kenny went their separate ways. He walked with a glum shuffle toward the subway terminal. She walked with a determined stride toward the bus stop.
It was only when she had halted at the bus stop that her mother stepped out of her— so to speak— letting Jenny see things clearly again and gain perspective on her own behavior that evening. Cringing at the painful reflections, she wondered why? Why was she so critical? Why did she badger and brutalize him so much? She was embarrassed. She was ashamed. Tears came to her eyes and she wished she had never gone on a date with Kenny. At least then they would still be on good terms with one another, and he would not think of her as a judgmental nag. Were there enough apologies in the world to tend to the wounds given to him?
Nearby, the faceless figures slouched despondently, as if ready to collapse in a pile on the street.
Acting on impulse, Jenny took out her phone and called Kenny. Miraculously, he answered.
“Hey,” he said, sounding like he was dying.
“Kenny, I want to apologize,” she said. “I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.”
“No problem,” he said, his tone lightening.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted. “I was a real…a real bitch today and I want to tell you I am sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, feeling her temper rise. “I normally don’t act like that. I am normally a quiet, kind person. Not bitchy. But you messed up and it irritated me to have to wait out in the cold around a bunch of strangers. And then they forgot our food, which is why you should have never brought me there. I mean, what were you thinking bringing me to that restaurant?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dropping like an anchor into the deck of a boat.
“No, you’re not supposed to apologize,” she said. “I called you to apologize. Though you do owe me an apology for messing up our first date.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, you can’t just apologize for it and act like it never happened. I mean, it was our first date, and it’s been ruined, and all because you didn’t have the foresight to plan on the restaurant being busy in the evening. That should have been obvious to you. You know everyone eats out and drinks in the evening.”
“You’re right,” Kenny said.
There was a long, silent pause from Jenny’s end.
“Um,” said Kenny, “Jenny, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “I am waiting for something.”
“Waiting for..?”
“Waiting for you to accept my apology,” she said, irritated.
“Oh! Right! Apology accepted,” he said.
“And I accept your apology,” Jenny returned. “Just be more thoughtful in the future.”
“The future?” he said, the wariness in his voice as obvious as if he was being trained for a new job involving New York sewers and alligators.
“Our next date,” she said. “Be more thoughtful about it next time. Think it through.”
“I…well…see…um…”
“What?” she asked, sharp as a filet knife in the ribs.
“My job is just so…untimely,” he said. “I don’t know when I will get my next evening off.”
“You said you worked four days a week,” she said.
“Yes, but one of our programmers quit so I might not be free for a while. Overtime work. You know?”
“Then we can text each other,” Jenny said. “Until your next day off.”
There was a long, silent pause on Kenny’s end now. “Right,” he said. “Sure.”

***

It had been two weeks since Jenny and Kenny went on their first, and only, date. Jenny had been texting Kenny, but he was not texting back except infrequently, and even then tersely. When Jenny logged onto Reel Love she found that his profile’s status remained as “Floating” whereas Jenny had already changed hers to “Hooked”. When she asked him why he had not changed it yet, he told her he just forgot. At least he had not changed his status to “Bobbing”, which was more or less an admission of getting “Nibbles” from other girls online.
Meanwhile, the faceless figures gibbered in the kitchen, staring after Jenny while hunched over in stances expressing uncertainty and anxiety and duress.

As time passed, Jenny became more and more determined to find Kenny and talk to him in person. Lately he was becoming so reticent in his texts that she could hardly expect more than a few words in his replies. So, feeling both peeved and anxious, Jenny wrapped herself in a long coat and headed to the restaurant where they had went on their one and only date. It was had been three weeks to the exact hour since that date and, she reasoned, that Kenny should be there since, according to her reasoning, he was not an especially creative guy when it came to dating.
The restaurant entrance was crowded. The patrons pooled out into the street in a chatty rabble. Jenny could not see Kenny among them. Yet, she had her suspicions. She walked down the alley beside the restaurant and looked in through the windows. Her heart and face both fell when she saw Kenny sitting at the table with a girl very much like herself— only cheery and blonde and glowing with joy. Kenny looked like a different person as well: he was not so hangdog and gloomy as he was on his date with Jenny. He smiled, quite a lot, and when he smiled he became very handsome. There was a good rapport between Kenny and his mysterious friend, which only stung more sharply in Jenny’s heart. This dinner date seemed to be everything hers had not been.
Turning away from the window, Jenny left the alley and walked back to her apartment. She did not feel like taking the bus. Feelings of alienation and loneliness overwhelmed her. Again came the irrational desire to scream the buildings down to rubble and blow everyone around her away. At least if there were no people around she would not be so starkly reminded of how alone she really was.
Except for the faceless figures— they followed her closely, like a marching parade without music or merriment or smiles or sounds.

***

As Jenny entered her apartment her phone rang. Thinking it might be Kenny, she hurriedly struggled to take it out of her purse. She was in such a rush that she did not look to see who the caller was, and instead answered immediately.
“Hello?!” she said.
“Jen, you haven’t called me today,” her mother said.
“Oh,” said Jenny, dejected. “Sorry, mom. I’ve been…busy.”
“You are never too busy for the woman who brought you into this world, Jen. That is quite disgraceful, you know. What would your father say?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for a lecture. I just saw Kenny with another woman.”
Her mother did not miss a beat, but was at the ready like a gunslinger at high noon with a pistol aimed at the heart. “I tried to warn you about men with the last name of Mahoney. You cannot trust them. No good comes from that name. Now Arty Witzman would have never treated you like that. If you had just let him take you on a date you would have seen…”
The phone fell from Jenny’s ear, regaling the floor with all that could have been while Jenny walked into the kitchen.
“I don’t like my life,” Jenny said, staring down at the hole. Several of the faceless figures were crouched around it, and looked up at her expectantly. “I hate my life. I hate being me.”
The faceless figures nodded with unnatural rapidity and speed. Then they each, in turn, climbed into the hole. A voice called from the hole.
“Come home, child,” it said, “and be at peace.”
The hole was quiet now. It was dark and devoid of longing and of hopes and fears and expectations. It asked nothing, but gave everything; everything Jenny thought she desired. Solitude, peace, silence, nothingness. She slipped off her shoes and socks; she shrugged off her long coat and blouse; she let slip her skirt and pantyhose and undergarments. Then, after a long moment of standing bare in the stark fluorescence of her kitchen, she took a couple of steps and dropped into the hole, plunging soundlessly out of sight.
Voices rose from the hole afresh: laughing and shrieking and crying and shouting in unrest. And a moment later they hushed. The hole was gone, as if it had never been there.

***

Kenny returned home to his small apartment. It was nice to see his sister again and to take her out for dinner, especially since she was now eating for two. Knowing that he would soon be an uncle also made him feel happy.
As he took off his shoes, the thought of the coming workweek hit him hard with the dread of all of its grinding overtime and computer-code isolation. He tried to remain positive, but it was difficult, especially after his disastrous date with Jenny, which continued to haunt him weeks later with its humiliations and disappointments. He vowed to learn from it, however, and tried to remind himself that it had been his first date in years and that he would do much better with the next girl that responded to him on Reel Love.
Suddenly optimistic, Kenny checked his phone to see if he had gotten any “Nibbles” today.
“None,” he said, sighing.
He set his phone aside and stretched, feeling his gut swell around his belt buckle. He did need to lose weight. Suddenly all of the happiness he felt for his sister disappeared, leaving him feeling deflated and insignificant. He went into the living room and sat down on his love seat. What an ironic name for his couch, he thought: love seat.
To distract himself from his cynicism, he turned on the tv and played a videogame. It was an action-adventure game with a bikini-clad warrior woman fighting demons and other hellspawn. It embarrassed him to admit it, but if he went into a game store his eye would inevitably drift toward games like this one, featuring a female protagonist endowed with special powers and a special figure. That said, he knew that if he ever won a woman’s heart he would never need to play such games again. What would be the point? He would feel fulfilled. Complete. Whole.
Kenny played the game for an hour or so until it was almost time to go to work. He checked his phone once more and found no new messages. Standing up, he felt like he had been dissected by aliens, piecemeal, and they had chucked him into their waste disposal and jettisoned it into space. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a tv dinner from the freezer, putting it in his lunchbox alongside a thermos of coffee and a plastic-wrapped doughnut. He was about to close the lunchbox when he stopped, took the doughnut out and put in a bag of baby carrots. He almost closed the lunchbox again, but hesitated, throwing the doughnut in for good measure.
“I’m going to be there for sixteen hours,” he told himself. “Better bring all of the food I can.”
Turning off all of the lights in his apartment, Kenny went to the door. Hesitating, he looked back, surveying his apartment and its glum silence and brooding shadows and meaningless emptiness. Defeated by this perpetual bachelor’s lifestyle, he stepped out and locked the door behind him, then went to start another long, code-crunching, screen-staring workday.
And in the living room, next to the playstation and between the tv and the love seat, a perfectly round hole opened. Echoing from its black depths were voices that laughed and cried and screamed and moaned, and they waited patiently for Kenny to return from work so they might welcome him home.

Chilled To The Bone

The frigid wind wound through the eaves of the old townhouse, humming abreast of the French windows and quivering the finely shaven slivers and powder scattered about the porch where Arnold sat, notching another flute with a cold knife and a colder eye. The wind helped him tune it with each nick of the knife, breathing into the flute steadily so his old ears could hear the note changes accomplished by a millimeter adjustment, his knotty fingers pressing and lifting from the holes intermittently. Leaves trembled in the yard, beneath the old oak tree, and the homemade windchimes that adorned his lawn rattled like bones. It was near suppertime, and the sun was setting over the gable roofs of his neighbors’ houses. In Summertime the sidewalks were always busy with people walking dogs and joggers running in twos and threes. Now, with Autumn rusting and disrobing the world, nothing walked the sidewalks except the tumbling leaves.
And the livid figure of Mrs. Harper.
“Arnold,” she called from the landing of his steps. “Do you have a moment?”
Arnold did not look up from his flute, his old face etched with concentration and age. He knew what Mrs. Harper looked like, and did not need a reminder. He had seen her enough times in the town hall meetings, scowling at everyone while decreeing herself the eminent member of the Leewood Historical Society. And he did not say anything in reply, for he knew she would take it upon herself to speak to him regardless of whether he had a moment or not.
Naturally, Mrs. Harper walked up his steps without his invitation, her clogs clopping hard upon the wood. She wore a black bonnet over her silvery-blonde hair, and a black coat that hung down to her knees. Beneath it her white dress clung snugly to her skeletal frame. She was in her late fifties, but her makeup and her designer purse belonged to a socialite of a younger age. She had been a rich man’s trophy wife once upon a time; now she was a rich man’s widow.
“Arnold,” she said in the same condescending tone with which she spoke to everyone, “you cannot have those windchimes on your lawn. They have not been approved by the Historical Society.”
Arnold said nothing. He continued scraping away at the flute; listening to the winds through the narrow instrument.
Mrs. Harper pursed her red lips in vexation.
“Do not ignore me, Arnold,” she said. “We will be pressing for fines if you do not have the windchimes removed by the weekend. Do you understand? The garish things cannot be allowed to stay!”
The only sound from Arnold was a snort, and the scrape-scrape-scrape of knife against flute.
Mrs. Harper crossed her arms, shifting her hips to one side. Often this had an effect on people around town. It was the same as seeing a tiger crouching, ready to pounce. But it had no effect on Arnold.
“We have already been very generous,” she said. “We could have started the fines last week, but some of us chose instead to give you one more warning because we like to be perceived as fair about these sort of things.”
“Fair, huh?” he said, his voice as rough as a blade on bone. “And was it fair when you all killed her?”
Mrs. Harper sighed with impatience. “We did not kill your wife, Arnold.”
“The chill got in her bones,” he said. “And once it got in, it never left. It will never leave.”
“That has nothing to do with us…”
“You would not let us put in a new heating system last year,” Arnold said. “She died of the cold.”
Mrs. Harper appeared unmoved. “We all have the same heating system, Arnold,” she said. “None of us have passed away from the cold. Anne was simply sick.”
“And the cold made her sicker,” Arnold said, still not looking up from his flute and his knife. “She died because you are all too mulish to let anyone live the way they want. You’re all arrogant and self-righteous.”
More slivers of flute fell as the knife quickened along the sleek white instrument. The knife’s blade looked like black glass. Mrs. Harper eyed it distastefully.
“If you didn’t like it, Arnold, you could have simply packed up and moved away.”
Arnold did not have to look up to know that a disdainful scowl creased her face— the same knowing scowl that she wore as her customary attire for town hall meetings.
“And how could we do that when no one was willing to buy this house?” he said. “We didn’t have the money to move if we couldn’t sell the house. We were both retired. We were both living on a fixed income. And no one wanted our house because people like you wouldn’t let them have any control over it.”
“It is a historical residence,” she said simply. “You knew the complications when you bought it.”
The wind hummed against the house, piping in the flute; scattering dead leaves. Mrs. Harper shivered and hugged herself. Arnold breathed in deeply, and exhaled, as if matching the wind’s restlessness.
“Who can really know the complications that come in life?” he said; more to himself than to the unfeeling woman in front of him. “When we bought it, Anne was young and healthy. But as she got older, the cold got in everywhere. This old house…you didn’t even let us weatherize it. And the chill snaked in from wherever it could. And all because you are all too…” He took another deep breath and exhaled. The wind teased some notes from the flute, as if taunting someone. “Well, there is no mercy in this small town. No one cares about anything but power over their neighbor. People like you think that if you can control someone’s house it means you have the world by the ass. But you don’t know anything about power. You may be cold-hearted, but my heart’s grown colder over the last year. Colder than any of you might want to know…”
Mrs. Harper shook her head impatiently. “Just remove the windchimes, Arnold. If you don’t, we will fine you. And none of us want that unpleasantness.”
“The windchimes stay,” Arnold said. “She always liked to have some, but you high and mighty fools never let her have any. Now she can listen to all the music she wants.”
Mrs. Harper clopped forward angrily. “Then you better make sure you have enough to cover the fines,” she said. “Because we’ll be fining you every day for the rest of your life!”
He finally looked up from the flute. He did not see her, and yet saw her well enough as he remembered her through all of the town hall meetings. His hands continued scraping away at the flute with the knife.
“I am willing to pay any price,” he said. “Any price it takes.”
Mrs. Harper staggered back, nearly falling down the steps. “What did you do to your eyes?” she asked in horror.
Arnold listened to the winds, and the flute, and scraped another sliver from the flute. White dust fluttered from the knife’s edge, like snow. “Any price it takes,” he said. “The windchimes stay.”
His frostbitten eyes looked down again at the flute and the knife, seeing neither. Mrs. Harper left the porch, feeling stricken. Clopping unsteadily along the walkway, she paused to look at the rattling windchimes. They were strangely proportioned things, and rattled with strange music. Some were small as fingers, whereas others were long as a woman’s arms and legs. They were lacquered dark brown, yet there was something wrong about their texture and shape. They did not seem to be made of wood, and the ends of many of them were knotted with joints. They reminded her of something, but she could not think of what.
Halloween decorations, she suddenly realized.
The shock was too much. She hurried away from Arnold’s house and went down the street. She could hear the piping notes of a flute faraway. The music followed her home, and no matter how many layers of clothing she wore she could not warm herself against the chill of the rising winds.

Ghillie Dhu

GHILLIE DHU

It was the first of Spring when lonely little Juliette began writing letters to herself and placing them under mossy rocks and in the rotten crowns of dead tree trunks and in the intermingling branches of the forest bordering her family’s farm. These letters were often simple of nature and pretty of hand. They said things like “Have a splendid day,” or “May the sun shine be bright in your heart, and the shade be cool on your head,” which was a popular saying in the village. She would even write, most indulgently, “Rainbows above and flowers below, grow nothing but love in all that you sow.” These messages this fair-haired girl wrote in whatever little spare time was afforded to her between chores, for the girl desperately longed for a playmate of her own.
And then, on the morning of March 32nd, while going to fetch these letters she wrote to herself (just after milking the cows and just before feeding the chickens), Juliette found that someone had taken her letters she had written and had replaced them with letters in a strange, scratchy hand. She was shocked, and delightedly so, but also confused, for in each answer there was but just one little riddle that, once woven together, meant so much more:
“Where the birch trees seem to lurch
and the owls pause in poise to perch,
come find me beneath the old oak tree,
for there you will see what games may be.”
Juliette knew of this old oak tree among the birches. It was but a five minute walk from where she presently stood. She started toward the spot at once, but then hesitated, thinking of all of the dreary chores she had left to do before breakfast and how angry her parents would be if she skirted them. Nonetheless, the desire for a playmate won out in her hopping heart and so she walked deeper into the forest, seeking the old oak tree among the white-skinned birches.
When she arrived at the oak tree she saw a little boy of her own size and age, but strange of feature. He had light green skin, like the leaves of saplings, and green hair with tendrils growing around his temples, gemmed with berries only birds may eat. A thin layer of pollen coated his hair and shoulders like dandruff. He wore leaves and moss around his waist. As she came closer she found that he smelled of a forest after a generous rainfall.
“Hello,” she said. She sneezed, then laughed. “My name is Juliette.” She did a little curtsy, lifting the frills of her dress. “What’s your name?”
The boy smiled, showing teeth bucked like a rabbit’s, and bowed.
“One name is as any name the same,
but Ghillie Dhu is the name I presently claim.”
“Ghillie Dhu?” Juliette said. “I like that name. May I call you Ghill?”
“My filly may what a silly sally do
for it is as lovely to say Ghill as Ghillie Dhu.”
Juliette thought on this for a moment, then smiled as it dawned on her that he had given her permission to call him what she wanted. He was all rhyme and mirth, she thought happily.
“I am nine years old. How old are you?”
Ghillie Dhu’s tawny fawn ears twitched, as if in amusement to hear such childish questions.
“As old as the forest and as constant as the hills,
young as Sunday’s rest and as wandering as the rills.”
“You look like you’re nine, too,” Juliette said, helpfully. “Do you like to play games?”
The young boy dressed in moss and leaves and poison berries smiled.
“Oh yes, I must confess
that I like best the games that test.”
Juliette’s rounded brow creased innocently and she put her fists on her hips, squinting one eye in confusion. “What kind of games do you like?”
“Like a squirrel whirling in a world of leaves
I play my games, whether it pleases or it grieves.”
Juliette did not want to understand the particulars of the statement, only that Ghillie Dhu wanted to play games, which was a sufficient enough reason to be overjoyed.
“Oh, I always wanted someone to play with!” she cried in glee. “All I have on the farm are cows and chickens and they are no fun at all!”
“Then a game we will play,” Ghillie Dhu said, “unto the darkening of the day,
come what may, whether you will or will it not to stay.”
He held up a letter in a hand mottled like a fawn’s hide. The letter looked just like the ones in Juliette’s hands.
“What’s that?” Juliette asked.
“The game at hand,” he said, “in my hand,
but yours at your command.”
“What’s a letter got to do with any game?”
Ghillie Dhu grinned, pointed at his own temple— wreathed in poison berries—and then in some wayward direction.
“As a church sermoned by a roguish unseelie elf, I’ve done gone and lost me’self.”
“Lost yourself? How can you lose yourself?”
The boy in moss and leaves and poisoned berries shook his head, scattering pollen in a gentle shower.
“That is neither here nor there, land nor sea nor air.”
“Fine,” Juliette huffed, becoming impatient. “What am I supposed to do with the letter, then?”
“If ye’ will be my friend tonight, then take this letter and set me right.”
He held the letter out to Juliette and she took it without hesitation. She was about to open it when the forest boy quickly snatched it away.
“Nay, bonnie lass, ye shall never read
this important letter of mine to mine, ye heed?”
Juliette frowned, flabbergasted, but, wanting so desperately to play this mysterious game, nodded after a moment of consideration. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t read it.” She took it carefully as he held it out to her this time.
The little forest boy grinned again, the rabbit whiskers on his cheeks fanning out. He nodded, shaking pollen everywhere in a cloud that made Juliette sneeze again.
“Gladdened to my heart, I am, that ye are game
for the game of all games, known by the Huntigowk name.”
The word struck Juliette as strange and unfamiliar, and ultimately as gibberish. But since she thought most old children’s games had gibberish names, it seemed a very appropriate name. Furthermore, she liked it, even if she didn’t know how to play or what the rules were. She asked about these, and Ghillie Dhu answered.
“Of rules, there be many, and yet none be at all,
as to how ye play, may well ask why hatchlings must fall.”
“That’s rather vague,” Juliette said. Yet, she just shrugged and was happy to have a game to play, and a playmate to play it with.
“Now ye must go to where the waters willn’t flow
and there ye will find me, whom ye yet know and don’t know.”
This said, a sudden breeze snaked its way through the trees and, upon touching the little boy, dissolved him to nothing more than leaves and moss and berries and pollen, all settled onto the forest floor as if they always had been thereon strewn.
“Where the waters won’t flow?” Juliette pondered aloud, then sneezed. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “But it isn’t Winter now. None of the creeks are frozen! Even the ponds move because of the wind.”
She looked down at the moss and its thick mane. A frog crawled across it, dark green and large. In its mouth was a mouse, still struggling while half-swallowed. With one final jerk of its head, the frog engulfed the mouse and sat contented.
“The bog!” Juliet exclaimed with sudden revelation. “That’s what he meant!”
The bog was a few miles away, yet Juliette walked the trek quickly, without a single thought of her farm or family falling behind her and the playful clutter of the forest. She had a playmate now, and a game, and she was devoted to these two things singlemindedly. She did not stop to ask the weeping washerwoman why she cried at the waterfall. Nor did she dare walk near that strange horse with its goggling eyes and wet mane. Nor did she aid the man of bones in finding his sharp teeth. She cared for little else except the game. She did not even care that it was nearly lunchtime when she finally arrived at the bog and saw her playmate knee-deep in the peat. Nor did she care that behind him arched a perfectly rounded hill that stretched from one side of the bog to the other, partially submerged in the peat and duckweed and lilypads like the corpulent belly of some dead bog giant.
The little boy in the bog said, “Who goes there with so little care?”
“You know me,” she said, smiling. “I am your Juliette.”
“What a dare for someone so fair to travel so far!
Or is it a snare that puts ye where ye are?”
“I saw no snared rabbits,” she said, blinking away her perplexity. “I have a letter for you.”
She walked to the edge of the peat, grabbed hold of a leaning elm with one hand, and outstretched the other to pass the letter to the boy in the bog. He took it and she pulled herself back upright again, and just in the nick of time, too, for the elm was upended from the fickle soil from which it grew and fell over into the bog with a sigh. She dropped the letters he had given her earlier and they, too, fell into the bog. The bog swallowed all.
“Oh fiddlesticks!” she said, and instantly slapped her hand to her moue of a mouth, lest her mother and father suddenly appear and flog her good for swearing.
“Those letters are of no material matter,” said the boy, watching the other letters sink,
“for the message of concern is in this, the latter.”
The boy in the bog unfolded and read the letter, nodded (dislodging a snail from his ear), then quickly folded the letter again.
Meanwhile Juliette looked at Ghillie Dhu for the first time with eyes unclouded by excitement or exhaustion. She saw that he was different. He was shorter and squatter, and fatter, too, like a frog, and bowlegged. His eyes bulged from their sockets as if engorged with putrid water, and he was darker of hair and of skin than he was near the oak tree. Much of his wet, slimy skin was now patched in morassy vegetation. He looked as young, but as he grinned his opossum teeth at her there ran wrinkles in his dark, moss-mottled skin. Around him was wrapped a clingy wet robe of lichen and toadstools. Snails and earthworms writhed in his hair. His tongue, so very long and pink, dangled from his impishly round face with its toady jowls. When he spoke his voice was guttural and resonant.
“Me dear sprightly elf, ” he said, “I must have plumb forgotten me self
for I was going by some other name on some other shelf.”
The little girl wiped her muddy hands on her frock and frills. “And what name would that be?”
“If it pleases, while in this swampy muck,
I shall be that age-old adage, Puck.”
“Puck?” Juliette said, trying not to stare at him. “As you say, Puck. I have two names, too. Juliet Fooley. What is next in our game?”
Puck Ghillie Dhu hobbled forward through the peat and handed the letter to Juliette Fooley. The bog did not slosh or ripple as his rotund body waded through it, but remained solidly flat and undisturbed beneath its heavy decay.
He handed the letter over to her and she took it, trying not to gag on his rotten stench.
“Go ye’ to where the crowned rivals joust
in the courtyard where they are out to oust.”
Juliette pondered this oblique riddle, then gasped when Puck abruptly sunk beneath the peat, the vegetation spreading thin across the bog as if he never was.
“Courtyard and crowns?” Juliette said, confused. “Am I to seek Arthur and his knights of Camelot, or some fairy knights in the company of Queen Mab?”
As if in answer to Juliette’s question there rose from amidst that thick layer of decaying vegetation a small skull, peeking through as if in a game of hide and go seek. In its hollow eye sockets there squirmed nightcrawlers entangled violently with one another. The fawn did not mind, for its days of minding were far behind it.
“The glade!” Juliette cried, as if struck with a giddy spell. “Where the bucks fight!”
Away she hurried at once, for the deer glade was very far and she had to make haste if she was to pass the bog and arrive there before suppertime. Unlike lunch and breakfast, Juliette did not forget supper, for she was sorely famished by now, as her stomach was eager to remind her. Yet, she told herself she need not worry about supper, for it would be always waiting for her, warm and welcoming upon the fireplace when she should return. And as for chores, well, it would do no harm to neglect the farm one day in a year. Her parents might flog her, but she thought it would be punishment received with little regret, especially after this delightful escapade.
Juliette sang to herself as she went. She felt like singing, for she was happy and because it distracted her from the hunger in her belly.
“A turn of the stick, a burn of the wick,
a spurn of the prick, and learn to be strict.”
She slowed her hasty pace and ceased her singing. A new scene opened within the woods. She saw a beautiful maiden whose lily-white arms cradled a rusted suit of armor. Within the armor a shriveled man lay, blind with love. In a field of flowers they sat, and the maiden sang to the armor, much more than to the man, and the man lay in both ecstacy and agony that he should be built of mortal stuff. Behind them there was heaped a flower-tangled pile of ancient armor leaning against one another, some bodied with bones and some with dust; all long since rusted.
Further along, where the forest motes danced in the beams of light, Juliet heard flutes piping and bells ringing and felt the sting of acorns thrown from above. Her eyes skittered from bole to bower to bough, spotting only flickers of diaphanous wings in infrequent sunlight.
“Nary a fairy was ever merry,” Juliette recited, then continued on.
The sun was nearer to the horizon as the trees parted to reveal the hoof-stomped glade. The wind breathed harder and colder, teasing her with its dreadful promises. Shadows stretched long and deepened while mists rose from their cold mouths. Dappled grass glistened as if gilded, then cooled dark in the gloaming’s gloom.
Like sheep the mists herded themselves around her, expecting feed. She kept to her heading and came to the clearing. Once there, in the glade, she saw her friend, Puck Ghillie Dhu. She called out to him and he turned, raking the overhanging branches with his antlers.
“Ye address me as a familiar while masked as a stranger,” he said,
“Present yourself, heart to hart, lest you seek danger.”
“I am ever your Juliette,” Juliette said, still somewhat winded from the long hike and the deep hunger. “I am playing a game with you, Puck Ghillie Dhu, and have brought this letter as you told me to.”
The boy walked toward her on hoofed legs like a deer’s, nor was he truly a boy now. Nearing her, his shadow showed how much he had grown since last they met, for it unfurled itself over her from his new height like a banner upon a turret. He was barrel-chested and had forearms as thick as a goat’s thigh. She handed him the letter and waited as he read it. She looked at him, and admired him, even if he scared her a little now with his size and his features.
Sharp antlers jutted out of his head, felted at the base and with sandy brown bone branching outward and upward. Big honey-locust thorns were tangled in his hair. He smelled heavily of animal sweat and dung and musk and wore about his waist a kilt of prickly weeds and nettles and barbs. On his fingertips were hawkish talons, crimson-stained, and his tail was that of a polecat, and his dark brown skin was ruffled and scarred with many fights. A curly tuft of hair dangled from his chin, nettles and catkins tangled in the tresses. Her eyes watered as she stood near him; her eyelids stung and swelled. Still, she had a playmate to play a game with, and that was all that mattered to her as the sun slunk away beneath the Western side of the forest. Now the sky was bleeding like a cut hide hung up next to a fireplace to dry. The red liquids ran fast, then blackened.
“I had forgotten me name,” he said, “and me birth claim,
but with this little dame I will make full on the promise of the game.”
He smiled, and his teeth were those of a wildcat’s.
“I don’t know if I can play much longer,” Juliette said, her stomach rumbling. “I am hungry.”
The boy—that was not a boy—just smiled. Juliette grew uneasy. His eyes were eyes as black as a stag’s, and as impassive.
“Can we finish playing tomorrow?”
“But ye have come nearly to the end,” he said,
“and never need worry beyond tomorrow’s bend.”
“Really?”
“As I am known as Pan, and Puck and Ghillie Dhu,
know ye now that I speak to ye true.”
He returned the letter to Juliette and Juliette stared down at it. There was a little cut on her hand now, made by one of his talons, dripping droplets as red as the sunset. He spoke with a voice hoarse and thick, not at all mellifluous as it was when she first met him.
“Where the earth yawns satisfied in its appetite
the womb welcomes all to sleep through endless night.”
Pan stretched down on all fours, then, and went galloping away, twisting upon himself and tearing himself apart unto a multitude of animals that fled and paid chase to one another, this way and that.
Juliette watched the animals disappear into the woods. She then rubbed her aching belly and found it hard to concentrate, or to even remember what the riddle was. Her eyes stung, her nose was red with sneezing, and she was sore all over; especially her feet. She had walked so long, today.
Just when she was about to turn back and head home— hungry and frustrated with herself— she saw something. It was a snake slithering along the glade. A young rabbit was in its mouth. The snake carried its prey toward a small cairn Juliette had not noticed before. It slid on its belly with all of the patience that a certain meal provided, then slunk beneath the stacked rock edifice.
“The cave,” Juliette said quietly.
It was that time that good children should be in bed and that bad children could be misled. Juliette started to feel drowsy. The fatigue of the day, and the hunger, and the game all settled upon her like many heavy quilts weighing her down and begging her to sleep. Yet, she pushed on, spurred by the excitement of the game and its nearing end. She told herself she could sleep afterward, perhaps even lingering in bed tomorrow morning and neglecting her chores again. After all, she had neglected her chores today and the world did not fall to ruin. What did it matter that the chickens were not fed or the cows went unmilked? She pressed on, deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the cave.
A terrible wind came from the East that was not a wind. Juliette heard it before she felt it, and so felt it in her heart and blood before she could feel it on her skin. It was a choral moan of lost souls. Icemelt quivered in her heart and flowed through her veins. She knew the sound of the Sluagh, for she had heard it the night her grandfather died. Her mother and father had fought it from taking her grandfather’s soul the only way they knew how: by closing the windows and doors to their home while the elderly man died in his bed. The Sluagh was a terrible thing to hear, and even worse to behold. As it slithered through the air, seeking Juliette in her quest for her newfound friend, she saw its multitude of spirits all openmouthed with moaning and pain. So many faces in a breeze— like a murder of crows tumbling over each other in a violent eddy. It encircled her for a whirl, as if in anticipation, and then, seeking dead or dying prey elsewhere, left her to her game.
The cave yawned wide before her, blacker than night above. He saw her long before she saw him. He was staring at her as she walked toward him, his hairy back to her and his neck twisted around backwards, like an owl’s. His yellow-lobed eyes burned wildly in the twilit darkness of the forest. The look on his face made her stop walking, halting her like a rabbit halts before the fox. She could not move, save for her eyes which darted up and down him like squirrels up and down a tree . An ursine mane of fur ran from his head to his tail. He was grinning, and the wolfish fangs gleamed between the retracting gums. The pelts and hides hanging around him stank, and many of them were hairless and pink and wet with scarlet. They had human faces that moaned wide and silently.
“I…I have a letter for you,” Juliette said.
He looked stretched, like a shadow at dusk, gangly and lithe, elm-limbed from joint to joint, and his gaunt stomach was riddled with trenches of ribs. Withered to waste by Winter he was, and yet he had a fierce power as he stood outside the cave, welcoming her within that darkened womb of the earth. He seemed to fill up the cave, its inner darkness, and then the outer darkness of the darkening sky.
With a clawed paw he took the letter from Juliette, glanced down at it as if he knew what it said before looking at it, and then returned it to Juliette. The cave seemed to expand and contract behind him, and Juliette quavered.
“What now?” she asked. “Is the game finished?”
His voice was a low growl, like a beast wanting blood.
“Down has come the life-giving sun,” he said,
“as the shadows darken and bleed and run
here to there, from horizon to horizon,
and so, yes, our little game is done.”
“It’s over?” Juliette said, surprised. “Who won?”
The beastly man stretched taller, looming high— as high as the night beyond the cave.
Juliette gasped. “So…you won?” she whispered, barely above her breath.
He grinned down at Juliette, showing his wolfish fangs and his burning eyes. He said nothing.
“Ghillie Dhu,” Juliette mumbled.
He said nothing, but loomed larger.
“Ghillie Dhu?” she asked, pleaded.
He said nothing, but loomed larger still.
“Ghill? Puck?”
He said nothing, but loomed larger and branched out all around her.
“Pan? Please.”
“Oh my dear foolish little one,” said the cave, “with each of those names I am done,
for now I am but Far Darrig, which all good children shun.”
“Far Darrig,” Juliette said. The name was familiar, though she could not remember from where or what. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve heard your name before. From a nursery rhyme, I think.”
He only grinned more widely, and loomed more largely.
“How did it go?” she asked aloud. She then remembered:
“‘Hey bonnie girl, which way is home?
(Red Man wants to skip along too)
Hey bonnie girl, why do you roam?
(Red Man wants to shadow you)
My bonnie girl, you know better
than to let the Red Man get his cape wetter
by dipping it in the ink of you,
so beware of Far Darrig and his letter.”
Far Darrig, she thought.
The Red Man.
Juliette turned and fled. He did not chase her. He did not have to. He was all around her. He was the forest and the earth and the cave and the swamp. He was the eyes in the darkness that watched her run, and the creatures that scattered before her. She was in his slowly yawning jaws all along. She was lost in the woods, and the woods was his gullet.
Clouds had stolen over the starry sky casually, like a hunter sure of his quarry, and now Juliette could not tell which way she had come. In the last wink of moonlight, she opened the letter and read what it said.
“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”
She collapsed on the ground, weeping.
His voice spoke all around her, in the rustle of leaves and the howl of wolves, and every other sound that haunts the wilderness.
“By the game ye have willingly bet
I shall have ye, my Juliette.”
“I want to go home,” she whimpered.
“Had you stayed you would not have strayed,” he said. “The unbridled wild is no place for a child.”
“Please let me go!” she moaned. “My parents will be worried.”
“Nay, vanish such thoughts from your foolish head
for even now a changeling sleeps in your bed.”
Juliette pulled at her hair desperately, weeping. “My parents will know the difference!”
“A difference, indeed, and one most welcome too,
for the changeling is a good child, unlike you.”
“I am not bad,” she said, trembling among the dead leaves. “I just wanted to play today! I wanted to play with a friend! I wanted to have fun in the woods, away from the village and the farm and everyone telling me what to do!”
“In the woods there is much fun to be had,
but by whom is the question, little girl gone bad.”
Far Darrig opened his mouth wide all around her. It was as a cave fanged with trees and tongued with a bog and as black and bottomless as the night sky. Juliette ran again, but it did no good. Wherever she ran, she ran toward the giant mouth. It was as inescapable as the wide, woeful wilderness and its ancient shadows were always eager for feast and for fun.
***
Juliette awoke in the woods. She sat up, shivering, and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around she saw through the trees that it was yet morning. The morning mists were a herd of sheep rummaging across the forest floor. Juliette stood up and saw that she was still dressed in her night gown. She must have went sleepwalking, she told herself, as she was apt to do from time to time.
“All a nightmare?” she said to herself.
The tittering of a bird unnerved her and so she quickly stood and returned to the path leading toward home…
…toward home and its endless chores and boredom and her desperate need for a playmate.
As she turned, however, her eyes alighted on a little figure in a red coat and cap hobbling away into the far-flung mists. It turned and watched her, waiting with a sharp grin on its wizened boy’s face. He gestured for her to follow.
She did not.

Shirikodama (Or The Finer Points of Politics)

 

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(Dedicated, sincerely, to the turtle-man himself, Mitch McConnell.)

It was in the midst of Japan’s Edo period that the musician Mochimitsu traveled to the Shiga Highlands, looking to hone his skills as a flutist while also seeking patronage generous enough to sustain him for a time. Mochimitsu was a young man then, and had not grown to be the legendary artist that later years would prove him to be. But he was hale and hearty and he stopped by a small village on Lake Onuma to seek rest and food. Onuma Lake was a beautiful expanse of water. The village beside it was a modest huddle of mud huts with straw thatch roofs, and its people were fishing families known to be industrious and peaceful. They had not much to offer for Mochimitsu’s songs except fish and rice, which he gladly received with gratitude. At night he played his songs for them beneath the stars, and the piping of his hichiriki— or double reed flute— pleased all ears, echoing from the birch trees and maples to the slumbering summit of Oshima Komaga-take.
Fortune was not well, however, in the Shiga Highlands. Heavy rains soon fell, preventing Mochimitsu from continuing his journey. He stayed with a different fishing family each night, their generosity granting him a good meal and a corner in their dry huts. Soon, however, the heavy rains rioted upon the land. Ponds and lakes brimmed and spilled. Lake Onuma flooded terribly with excess and a strange, bubbling madness. The village priestess claimed it was the work of demons that lived on the islands in the center of Lake Onuma. The floodwaters rose up around the village, melting the mud walls and washing away the straw roofs. The villagers swam to their boats, or clung to makeshift rafts that they assembled in the panicked hours as the waters destroyed their homes. Some villagers did not survive. Many among the elderly perished, their bodies floating on the Lake’s distending surface. Mochimitsu was fortunate. When the waters rushed in among the huts, he had been out of the hut, relieving himself. Realizing the danger, he secured a boat of his very own right before the frenzied heft of the floodwaters rolled against village, smashing the remaining huts and killing many. Mochimitsu floated on the boat for hours that night, looking for survivors as an unnatural mist rose around the lake. It was so thick that a perpetual twilight subsumed the Shiga Highlands.
Mochimitsu sought land, but found none forthcoming. He had no skills as a boatman. He was confused by the fetid mist, and lost his heading as he paddled with his bare hands. Circles upon circles he scrawled upon the forgetful waters, chasing his own waves. As a consequence, he saved no one. When he finally found land, he frantically paddled toward it. Yet, he found himself tricked. It was not the mainland, but instead a series of islands in the middle of Lake Onuma. There were figures upon those islands, and so he drifted toward them.
The priestess had been correct. Demons had conjured the rains and bid the lake to swell. They were nasty turtle men— known as Kappas—and they hungered for the souls of humans. Mochimitsu saw their silhouettes in the mist from afar. They gurgled and giggled with gluttonous delight, dragging the bodies of men, women, and children onto their islands and feasting upon their shirikodamas; the fabled life energy in a human’s anus. They ate of them with their long tongues, the terrible sight nauseating Mochimitsu as he watched the turtle-men feed on filth and shame and death. They had no morals. They were vicious, heartless creatures that relished in their corruption.
Seeing their atrocities, Mochimitsu gave an involuntary gasp of terror. He clamped his hands to his mouth, but it was too late. The Kappas turned their attention to him, all as one, abandoning the drowned, bloated corpses of their previous victims to seek fresher spoils. They dove into the water and swam faster beneath the burden of their foul shells than Mochimitsu ever could hope to swim in his naked skin. Helpless in his boat, Mochimitsu took up his reed flute one last time, puckered his lips upon it and began to play what he assumed would be his final song. He played with the full strength of his lungs and his heart, harnessing a melody that would have made tengu weep. It was to be his magnum opus; his perfect cherry blossom blooming in the ears of gods and demons alike.
The Kappas halted as they heard his song, floating around the boat with their beak-faced heads half-submerged while their red eyes watched him through the mist. Their green, pointy ears perked up, calmly swaying with the notes of his song. Mochimitsu did not look at them. He closed his eyes against the black hairs around the concave tonsure of their skulls; their long, unspooling tongues with their barbed tips. Mochimitsu played for what must have been an hour, his thoughts focused in the pure, radiant form of his song. It kept the depraved demons at bay. They could not move, mesmerized by his skill. The rains stopped falling altogether. The waves unwound and the sun burned the remaining mist away. Still, the Kappas remained transfixed, listening to Mochimitsu’s prowess.
At length, a boat of fisherman came by. They approached surreptitiously, armed with long-handled spears. They were hungry for vengeance, seeking the creatures that had defiled and destroyed their loved ones. While Mochimitsu kept the Kappas enthralled, the fishermen impaled the misbegotten demons through their skulls, spilling the waters they kept in their heads. They then chopped them up and fetched their violated dead from the accursed islands. Mochimitsu was hailed as a hero that day. Henceforth, his legend grew as he ventured from village to village. He now found employment by ensorcelling the loathsome turtle-men so that warriors might more easily dispatch them. He gained a good reputation and saved many lives.

Many years later Mochimitsu became the flutist at the Emperor’s palace. He did well in court, as both a musician and as a man of integrity, and was deft at not only the flute, but at imperial politics as well. The Emperor respected Mochimitsu’s opinion, for he was often wise in his thoughts, but also slow to reveal them, whereas others were overeager to spread their hasty opinions. Many nobles resented Mochimitsu, for he was a lowborn flutist, whereas they were born of esteemed blood. They plotted against him. They often attempted to pit him against the Emperor with rumors and gossip. They planted poisonous seeds all around him.
But it was to no avail.
One day a nobleman asked Mochimitsu how he came to be so skilled at handling petty nobles. How, the nobleman asked, could he survive when so many sought to undermine him for the sake of endearing themselves to the Emperor? Mochimitsu held his flute in one hand, contemplating his flute, and this question, for a long time. The flute was both straight and narrow. His answer to the question, thus, needed to be both straight and narrow to be true.
“I have spent many years besting such creatures with my own song,” the old man said. “I know how to handle such creatures. I know how to defend myself against turtle-men who spend all of their time with their tongues up other people’s asses.”

The Layover

The only sounds were those of the piano, kneading the silence of the lounge gently like a sleepy cat ready to lay down on its pillow. Her fingers were unnaturally long and thin as they scuttled across the piano keys like deep sea crabs across the white sands on the ocean floor. Watching them move disturbed Ben, and yet he was mesmerized. He slouched on his bar stool, nursing a ceramic cup of saki while listening to the overly tall, middle-aged pianist ply her talents in a room so empty it was not only sad, but sleepy and in need of bed. It could have been the saki— hot, strong, overpowering—or it could have been the insomnia, or even the loneliness at long last taking its toll, but as he spent more time watching her abnormal fingers the more he wondered what they would have felt like scuttling across his arms and chest. She was not too many years older than himself.
Behind Ben, the bartender polished a beer glass. He was a silent man in a white collared shirt and a black vest. He was backlit by the bar’s cool blue lights— all of Hong Kong was lit in cool blue lights at this late hour. Shelves of booze lined the mirrored wall, the glass gleaming darkly like the skyscraper glass beyond this hotel’s windows. Ben saw his reflection in the mirrors as he turned toward the bartender. His eyes were rimmed blackly as if the four hour flight and the incessant itinerary of cities had suckerpunched him good, left and right.
And yet he was not knocked out for the count. He wished he had been. The incessant travel wore on him, fraying his senses while simultaneously denying him the relaxation and rest necessary to recuperate. He felt like a fish being taken out from one expensive aquarium sprawl and dumped in another, each one empty of water while he floundered and slowly died, breathless.
But at least the music was good. The pianist’s songs were beautiful arrangements of notes and silence, like stars punctuating the outer gulfs and their empty spaces. He had never been a student of music, or any other art, but he knew that space was needful for pretty forms to be realized.
“She’s really good,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender grunted, and then continued cleaning glasses. His face was marked with Chinese symbols that Ben did not understand. Tattoos, maybe. They extended down his neck as well and covered his hands and fingers.
The pianist wore a teal dress with a plunging slit down her back. Her sharp spine was knotched like knuckles through her pale skin, and her shoulderblades were sharp as they flexed and moved with the movement of her arms as she played. Her black hair was short to the nape— a common cut for women of a certain age—and her bangs were long to one side. Ben saw her face in profile, her eyes large, round, as if always agog, and her slight overbite always leaving her mouth open beneath the rounded nub of her nose; her lips full and puckered, yet a little flat against her face— too flat to be sensuous. She did not sing as she played, but Ben thought her someone who spoke through their nose and breathed through their gawping mouth. She looked at him, occasionally, with a glancing sidelong roll of her eyes, and he saw that she had a gap between her front teeth, though her teeth were otherwise straight and white. Her bare shoulders were so bony that he wondered if she had any flesh between skin and bones at all. Her eyelids bulged around her large eyes, as if desperate to keep the latter from slipping out of her eye sockets. She was emaciated, it seemed, but her fingers had great vigor and discipline.
Ben was the only visitor in the lounge. It was 3 AM on a Wednesday morning in a hotel in Hong Kong. Hong Kong never slept— it was true—but even its most money-mad twenty-somethings had better things to do on a worknight than visit an obscure lounge in a hotel booked at the last minute due to a layover. They had parties to go to, probably, and strip clubs. Ben stayed up because of stress. His prime was nearly behind him, taunting him like an athlete from a rival sports team. In the sleepy gloom of the lounge he could have passed for a twenty-something, but in the wide-awake world of daylight and deadlines his near-forty years betrayed itself with crow’s feet and the sneaky stray gray hair here and there. His body, too, had started its slump. Where he was once taut and strong there came an idle laxity to his muscles and their responsiveness. He was not overweight, but he could see the nascent depreciation in value already in his aging body.
“Another saki, please,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender took Ben’s ceramic cup and poured from an oddly shaped, obsidian-black glass bottle. There was a microwave in the corner of the bar. The bartender opened it and put the cup in, heating the saki for about two minutes. The hum of the microwave did not intrude overmuch on the pianist’s song, no more than the distant hum of Hong Kong beyond the windows. When the bartender gave Ben his saki, Ben gave him, in turn, a five dollar bill. The bartender grunted. Ben had no other form of currency, but the bartender did not refuse it.
“To lives lost, and lives worth losing,” Ben said. He tried to drink to his own toast, but the saki burned his tongue and he spit it back into the cup. He blew on the cup for a while, hoping his tongue would stop stinging soon. He hated burning his tongue. Food was one of the few pleasures in his life, now, and a burnt tongue ruined it.
But at least it meant he felt something.
“My wife…” he began to say, then corrected himself with a shake of the head. “My exwife, I mean—she hated saki. But I like it. It warms you up.”
The bartender said nothing in reply, his tattooed face sealed in the impassive expression of the Buddha. Ben turned his attention back to the pianist.
The piano was large, black and polished, its sheen a kaleidoscopic refraction of Hong Kong’s lights as they bombarded the gloom through the windows. The pianist did not have a glass for collecting tips, as he had often seen in other lounges around the world. Instead, she had a hefty wooden Buddha statue in whose lap was a porcelain bowl. The mouth of the bowl was sadly empty. Seeing this, Ben stood up and took out a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. Walking over to her, and feeling very self-conscious as he did so, he laid the bill in the bowl. He felt embarrassed and somehow wrong when she suddenly looked up at him, stopping dead in the middle of her song. He felt as if he had been caught taking from the bowl rather than giving to it. Her expression was of wary confusion. He stared at the gap between her teeth, somewhat transfixed. Suddenly shaking his head, he hurried back to the bar, feeling as if he had broken some unspoken taboo. She started playing once again, more slowly than before, the notes accenting the slow, ponderous spaces between the melody—as if the song itself was dying in her.
Maybe it was the currency. In some parts of the world Ben had found that they preferred dollars to their own currency. Other parts resented the sudden appearance of American bills. It represented for them an imperial presence, or an arrogance, or simply a tackiness which did not reconcile well with their sense of propriety.
This was a relatively cheap hotel, however, with cheap booze and cheap thrills just down its streets. Ben worried that he had unwittingly insinuated something more nefarious than a simple tip to show some appreciation to a musician. Maybe he had ignorantly committed a faux pas. He had committed plenty of them in the past as he gallivanted around the world, soliciting supply and service arrangements between companies. It was ironic that his job entailed creating connections between people, because he often felt as if he had no connections of his own. He often said of himself that he had been dubbed “Has-Ben” by his friends, but he had no friends and the only person who called him that sardonic moniker was himself.
Sitting at the bar again, he turned away from the piano and stared at himself in the mirror. When the music stopped, he did not glance back at her, but he did see her leave the lounge, her tall, lithe figure floating by like a ghost in his periphery.
“Another saki, please,” he told the bartender. The bartender obliged, and received another five dollar bill for his trouble. The strangely tattooed man did not baulk at the American tender, hastily putting it in his pocket as if it might be snatched away at any moment.
The lights of Hong Kong flared blue and otherworldly in the mirrored wall. They looked like swamp gases floating about the lounge, or orbs of blue flames upon hovering braziers. When Ben looked back at them directly, however, he saw only the neon lights through the large windowpanes—nothing so intense as he had wrongly seen in the reflections of the room. He shook his head.
“Saki and insomnia do not mix well,” he said.
He looked at his watch, and despaired at the hour. Suddenly a figure loomed behind the bar. The bartender nodded to the new arrival and then promptly left the lounge. Ben could feel the person intently staring at him. He glanced up, as surreptitiously as possible, and was surprised to see the pianist looming from behind the counter. She was taller than he had previously thought. She pushed his twenty-dollar bill forward on the counter.
“I cannot be bought,” she said.
Ben was taken aback. “I only liked your songs,” he said, feeling a heat beneath his collar that did not originate in saki. “I wasn’t wanting…um…other services…”
She was not glaring at him—she was too goggled-eyed to glare— but her tone was not friendly.
“I play for myself. Not for you.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching for the bill. Her long fingers snatched his wrist as his hand took the bill. Her hands were even more elongated and slender than he had realized. They were cold, too, as if the bones were icicles beneath the skin.
“I play because I need to play,” she said, keeping eye contact as her grip tightened. “I play to distract from other needs. Not for any man.”
“I understand,” Ben said, as evenly as he could. He was embarrassed and wanted to leave. But she would not release his hand.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “No man does.”
“Well,” he said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She did not relinquish her grip, nor even relax it.
“How did you come to be at this hotel?” she said.
Ben frowned, thinking. He had been so tired when he had left the airport. The layover had upset him for some reason. He had encountered many layovers through the last few years, but this one exacted a terrible toll. He resented it. He bemoaned it. It grieved him, though he did not know why. Moreover, it exhausted him. He had no time to book a hotel in the area in advance. He remembered riding a taxi until he saw this hotel. When he saw it he told the driver to drop him off. The taxi driver had given Ben an odd look, but then accepted the money and left Ben at the curb in front of the hotel. Ben could not remember checking in, nor the clerk or even what the hotel looked like from the outside. He had been so exhausted that he simply wandered up, with his hotel key in his pocket, and came into this lounge, buying a drink and feeling sorry for himself. And then he heard the pianist’s song and decided to sit a while and listen to her play.
“I heard your song,” he said, confused. “I wanted to give you something for your song.” “I own this hotel,” she said. “I do not need anyone’s money for my songs. My songs are my own.”
Her eyes were bottomless blackness, no light reflecting in them whatsoever. Ben’s alarm increased as he tried to force his most casual, friendly smile. This was an impossible feat for him since he had not had the practice of smiling in years now. He felt like a trespasser, or a thief. He felt as if he had stolen something very precious, but he did not know what it was or how he had done so.
“Do you…do you ever sing when you play?” he asked her.
She did not say anything for a long time, but her expression was meaningful and intense. “Only for last rites,” she said.
Her expression did not betray anything of humor. It was not a joke, then. Her unblinking stare made him nervous, and so his eyes drifted down her face and her long neck, to the flat expanse of her chest. She had a shallow chest, with the slightest suggestion of cleavage. He looked at her throat, and did not see a pronounced Adam’s Apple. For a moment he feared that she was like one of those lady-boys in Taiwan that tried to hit on him in the bar. But her hips were wide in her teal dress, and her throat was slender and smooth. She was a woman, so far as he could tell, though her curves had been starved shallow by what must have been a ruthlessly ascetic diet. Her bones were too slender and narrow to be a man’s.
When Ben’s gaze returned to her eyes he felt even more embarrassed. He had not meant to stare at her chest while she was staring at him. He had not had much interaction with women for a long time; not since his divorce four years ago. And, much like the day of the divorce, he wanted nothing more right now than to hop a plane to some other place in the world.
“I…uh…should be going to my room,” he said. “I need some sleep.”
The pianist said nothing. Her gaze did not falter, nor her grip. She leaned over the bar, and was so tall that it did not seem that that bar impeded her proximity at all. She was within an inch of his face.
“Sleep well,” she said. “Do not let the spirits bother you.” She tightened her grip one final time before releasing him. “And do not bother the spirits.”
She returned to her piano, then, and began playing once again. Ben did not stay to listen. Her songs sounded somewhat uninviting now; unwelcoming, as if their slow cadences creeped along his back like spiders hostile to his presence.
The bartender returned to the bar. He had prayer beads encircling the collar of his shirt— large wooden balls that clashed with his more modern attire. Ben glanced at them as he left, and noticed the bartender’s tattoos faded from his skin. Where they faded, red hair grew thick and fiery.
Before Ben left the lounge he thought he saw, in his periphery, several people sitting in booths and at the tables in the lounge. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw an empty room as before. Yet, the chill of their collective gazes lingered on him as he went to his room.

Ben fished in his pocket for his room key. He was surprised to find an old rusty key with Chinese markings along its oxidized metal. Attached to its loop was a paper slip with Roman numbers on it. It told him that his room was on the eighth floor, room 806. He walked up through the hotel, using the stairs in the hope that the physical exhaustion would help cure him of his insomnia. Coming to the eighth floor, he was winded and dizzy. He felt almost delirious. The air was cool and clammy throughout the building. He wondered, briefly, how expensive it was to keep such an old hotel so cool in the Summertime. These old Asian hotels were difficult to renovate affordably.
The eighth floor halls were quiet and still; dim as some half-remembered dream. The doors kept their secrets, but occasionally Ben could not shake the feeling that people were watching him as he passed by. His breath bloomed visibly in front of his face and drifted behind him, like a trail of hookah smoke. Even the distant sounds of Hong Kong were here muted. It was a cold, deaf world, like a graveyard, and yet it was peaceful in a way that Ben appreciated after years of being crammed on airplanes with bellicose passengers, neurotic hypochondriacs, and bawling babies. Part of him wanted to lay down to sleep and never get up again.
Arriving at his room, Ben unlocked his door and entered the chilly room. Most hotels that he stayed in were of the same general style—the American economy style. This hotel was similar in some ways, but different in others. The floor was carpeted in neutral colors and the walls were white. His room was furbished as conveniently as most others. There was a bed, a bathroom, and a run of drawers atop which sat a television. Ben rarely watched television. Having disconnected from it had helped him disconnect from any other thoughts that were painful or discomfiting. Thoughts about his exwife. Thoughts about his widowed father and dead mother. Thoughts about his estranged sister. Thoughts about humanity and normality and life. He lived his work now, spending nearly as much time in the sky as on the ground. Airplanes and skyscrapers made him feel as though he was free from the lows of his life— not living high and happy, but floating above involvement with anyone or anything. He had heard that when skydiving there was a moment when a person hit terminal velocity that he felt as if he was flying rather than falling. Perhaps Ben was falling so fast that he thought he was floating above the messy fray of existence. Perhaps he was a nocturnal phantom existing in parallel to the daylight world of other human beings. Whatever other part of himself that grounded him in the waking world had been taken in the settlement by his exwife. He was glad to let her have it. He would have been glad to let her have everything, including his life.

Ben brushed his teeth, stripped down to his boxers, and prepared for bed. The bed was twin sized modest with a maroon comforter decked with white lotus blossoms. Above the headboard a framed scroll of Buddha stood, his hand in the Mudra position and a mandorla circumscribing his figure.
Ben laid in bed for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for sleep to take him. Beyond the windows of his hotel room, Hong Kong jittered and glittered on like a swarm of fireflies and moths burning bright on a bug-zapper. He looked at its glow like an astronaut on the moon staring at the distant earth. It was bright and beautiful, but distant and unattainable. There was a peace in that hopeless doom of separation, too, much as there was a peace in a coffin when its buried, oblivious to all of the world’s endless ills six feet up.
The lights from Hong Kong spilled over Ben like a phantasmal waterfall. It reminded him of a dream he once had; a dream of a waterfall near a shrine in a bamboo thicket. It had been a peaceful dream, when he had it, but he woke from it in a clammy sweat, afraid. He had not been afraid of the dream, however. He had been afraid of the life he had woken to.
There was a jangling at the door, then the scrape and click of a key in the lock. The door opened and a tall, thin figure stood in the doorway, her silhouette stretched thin in the hall light.
“You do not belong here” she said, leaning under the doorframe as she stepped inside. She was taller and thinner than before; stretched inhumanly.
Ben sat up in bed, watching her willowy figure as she approached him. “If you do not want me here, I will leave.”
“You do not understand,” she said, closing the door behind her. “There has been a mistake.” The room plunged into deep shadow and soft neon lights. Her figure was embossed by the duality. The teal dress was now too big for her slender waist, swaying laxly, and too short to cover anything below her mid-thighs. She loomed over him like a thinned shadow, her eyes blacker than shadow. “You should not be here, and yet you are.” Her face was blue in the Hong Kong lights. Her eyes were without whites, reflecting nothing. “You are living,” she said, “and this is not a place for you. It is a place for the dead.”
Ben’s voice was even; his tone unshaken. “Sometimes I feel like I am dead.”
“That is not the same,” she said. She paused a moment, though, watching him silently as if in thought. At length, she spoke. Her voice was a whisper, yet it silenced all other sounds in Hong Kong with its command. “Are you not afraid? How far gone are you?”
Ben leaned back against the headboard, sighing.
“The first night of my divorce I was in disbelief. I told myself it wasn’t happening. But it happened, and still it seemed unreal. I never went through any stages of anger or grief. I just felt numb, like my brain had shut off all of its emotions. I tried listening to a few Phil Collins songs, just to see if they resonated at all. But I never felt them. I was indifferent to my own heartbreak. Part of me must have…died so completely that I didn’t have the capacity to mourn anything. It was a clean, painless excision. Like a perfect surgery that removed my soul, and I felt…not exactly contented, but empty.” Ben took a deep breath and exhaled, his breath a tumbling mist in the chilly air. “And then four years passed, and now I am here.”
“But you cannot stay here,” she said. “It is sacrilegious.”
“I can pay,” he said.
“You cannot bribe us here,” she said.
“I meant that I can make an offering,” he clarified.
She folded her long, thin arms across her shallow chest. “Our guests pay in spirit tokens, sutras, and beads,” she said. “Money means nothing to us. Only things of real worth. So…what do you have to offer, Ben, that could be of use to us?”
“What do I have to offer?” he said. This was a question Ben had not confronted since his wife left him for another man. “What do I have to offer?”
The truth was that he was not even sure what he had to offer— to himself or anyone else. He had detached himself from life. He had detached himself from family and friends and everything and everyone that had imbued him with the gravity of meaning. He performed his job in rote fashion, traveling here and there not because of duty or loyalty to the company, but because he had nothing else to do except what other people gave him to do. He had no personal motivations; no goals; no drives. He had emptied himself as a vessel and set it out to sea, letting waves take him wherever was their whimsy.
Ben’s head rolled to the side, his eyes gazing out the window at the busy, demanding world of mankind. It all seemed a futile hustle and bustle among which his absence would mean nothing.
“I have nothing to offer you,” he said. “Nothing to offer anyone. Except everything. My life. My existence. My body. My space. I have no reservations. You can have it all. I feel nothing for my life.”
“You feel nothing?” she said, sniffing irritably. “Then you are a fool. Life is a thing of desires. You are living, so there must be something that you desire.”
“I want to stay here,” he said. “I want to stay among this silence. I want to hear you play the piano every night. I want to live here for the rest of my life, and beyond.”
“Is that all?” she asked, reaching for him. Her fingers were longer than before, and slender as tree branches. A soft light flared in her eyes, like candles lighting in the corners of a shrine in the deep, dark bosom of a bamboo forest. As her long fingers slowly extended toward his chest, the soft candlelight glow expanded, filling up her overlarge eyes with a twinned moon luminosity. Her skin was so pale that it was like moonlight touching a waterfall.
“And I want to be touched by your fingers again,” he said.
Her fingers halted, quivering. They withdrew. “In time, perhaps.”
She stood there a while, looming over him. Neither said anything. Neither moved. They existed in a consummate silence that Ben found to be reassuring. And yet, only yesterday, he thought nothing would be reassuring on this fateful day.
“It is our anniversary,” he said suddenly, quietly. “The anniversary of my marriage to my exwife. She is with her new husband right now. Back in New York. I wonder if she thinks about me at all.” He shook his head and forced a smile; it was no more convincing than any of the other smiles he had feigned since the divorce. “How did you come to own this place?”
The pianist sat down on his bed, beside him. Even when sitting she loomed over him, tall and otherworldly. She slouched forward, the grooves of her arched spine sharply etched in the blue light from the city. She looked like some beautiful gargoyle perching atop a church pediment, peering sadly.
“I had sought the Buddha’s peace,” she said. “But I had not done so through piety and discipline. I did not care for Enlightenment, only abatement, and found it in an opium cloud. Everyday day I sought opium for my suffering. I could have been a musician, long ago, but I found less comfort in the piano than I did in a hookah. I had indulged overmuch and drifted beyond the mortal realm. Now I serve the dead here. It is my atonement. My penitence.”
Ben glanced around the room, and then at the pianist. “It is not so bad here,” he said, “is it?”
“No,” she said. “Death has been very generous to me. Perhaps even charitable.”
“It is a very nice place,” he said.
“With nice people,” she said. She turned and looked at him, meaningfully. “We treat our guests very well here.”.
“As we should,” Ben said.
They both nodded in understanding. She stood, then, and went to the door. She opened it and ducked under the doorframe, stepping out into the hallway. She looked at him one more time and closed the door behind her. Her footfalls receded down the hallway, like music in Ben’s ears. He fell asleep shortly afterward, and slept like the dead.

***

Days still pass in the hotel, but the hotel is endless. It is like no time passes at all. The bartender still serves saki to the visitors that stay at the hotel, and the pianist still plays gentle, calming songs for her guests. There is a new bellhop at the hotel. He is affable and industrious, carrying the bags of the guests without complaint or grunt or groan. And no matter how disturbing the guests might be, he never gasps in horror or refuses to serve them.
Every night, after his duties are completed, he retires to the lounge to listen to the pianist play her gently trickling notes along the keys. Then, when the hotel retires to bed, he and she go walking along bamboo paths near an old shrine that has somehow still managed to exist, tucked away between the skyscrapers and the milling streets full of people too hurried to see the ghosts of yesteryears taking their time and enjoying life slowly, happily, as only the dead can.