Because the streetlights outside of town are few and far between it's ideal for
watching stars, which is what I do out here. But the dark also means that
there are roadkills. The sharp bend comes as a surprise to most drivers
and perhaps that is why so many animals get hit. Mostly it's raccoons, skunks
and squirrels, but once I found the hoof of a deer, then another hoof,
a bit of antler. It was as if each were a hint of some large puzzle.
I notice them more because my house is an old Quonset hut that juts into the road.
The walls of my house are tin, rusted through and through, and lean
against each other. The floor is layers and layers of linoleum, stacked
one upon the other. It has no electricity and the water comes from an
artesian well behind the house. I never understood why either the house
or the well had been built there, so far from anything. I live here, keeping food
in an icebox, filling my oil lamps, reading and living as though I was not
here, not now.
One evening I found the body of a jackrabbit and, almost directly above it,
the crushed remains of a large black and yellow land tortoise.
I hauled them away and forgot about them until the next morning,
when I looked out to see a rich stain in the road outside my house.
The stain was blackish red, a layer of fur and dried blood two feet wide
and one and a half feet long, with a faint three-foot comet tailing it.
The tip of the comet pointed at my house like a rusty shadow, its red
the exact shade of my walls. It had rained that night and my house
was bleeding red, a cut reopened, washed clean.
It rained the next night as well but the stain was still there, so I took out
a bucket, some powder soap, a gold steel brush, and started scrubbing.
Every so often, cars came and I had to stand up, wave, then move to the side.
I was sure I was going to get hit, no one slows on these backroads.
The cars came in threes and fours, one tailing the other, swerving in unison.
Then there would be a lull, broken by another flurry of cars. At dusk my
neighbor came out, a man in his late fifties.
We were not neighbors by choice. Never once in these two years had he spoken
to me even though our houses are the only two for miles around.
When I first moved here, I would say hello, audibly. He, in turn, would give me
a straight-lipped nod, no smile at all, never breaking his stride. At such moments,
I could feel myself failing, turning clear.
Every other morning I would hear his truck and wake to see him drive off and
return with his groceries. Unlike my shack, his house was a sturdy slate-coloured
construction built on the downslope of a hill, porch barely visible from the road.
He would park by the side of the road and walk down the long driveway,
balancing even four or five bags. He would lift them effortlessly, push open
the door with his foot, and ease in without even putting them down.
He left both his car and house unlocked. Outside the door were two bowls
that he kept filled with water and food. I never saw anything other than
raccoons washing and feeding there.
He was always quite neat and well dressed on these excursions, never without
tie or jacket. He ate by a single light in his living room, the dim wavering flame
casting a halo against the curtains. After dinner, he would come out to smoke.
He would come all the way out to the road and sit on a stump by the mailbox.
When the wind blew, it blew his smoke into my house and I could smell the
sweet brown odour as I fell asleep.
Now that I was cleaning the road between us, he came up with a questioning look.
'You, what are you doing there?' he asked.
When I told him what had happened he crouched down by me.
He raised his eyebrows, amused.
'A tortoise and a hare?'
'I could tell you a story,' he said, 'about those two.' I shook out more powder
and started the whole spot foaming blue.
'What kind of story?'
'Wait,' he said, 'let me get my stool. I hate squatting.'
He returned with something that looked like a cane with a bicycle seat on top of it.
'Where'd you get that?' I asked.
'Wales.' He straddled it, lit a cigar, and watched me scrub.
'What kind of story?' I said finally.
He took out a piece of paper and an inkpen.
On the paper he drew two dots.
One dot, he labeled A. Another, he labeled B. He drew a line connecting A to B.
Then he drew a rabbit crossing this line, as seen from above.
He drew very well, in one swift line. On the back of the rabbit, he drew the outline
of a tortoise. He placed the paper next to me, got back on his chair, cleared his throat
and began slowly, wearing each word down until it lay at the back of his mouth,
clear and heavy.
'Late one morning a tortoise and a young hare both lay in the sun examining a white
chalk line that disappeared into the woods. Then, much to the surprise of the hare,
the tortoise proposed that they race.'
'"It's not fair," said the hare.
'"I'll tie my back legs together with a thong of cattails and hobble along."
'"But what if they fall off?"
'"Do you have a better idea?"
'"What if I break your legs?"'
And as he said this, my neighbor leaned over and touched the small of my back
with his toe. Startled, I turned to face him. 'What'd you do that for?'
'I was counting your vertebrae.'
'No particular reason.' He leaned down to examine the stain.
'What you need to do now is wash it down with a bucket of water. To see if it's really gone.'
I took the bucket and went into my house to get a cup of water as well.
He called out to me: 'Can you get me a cup of water too? I've been thinking of
a long cold glass of water. The water's stopped running in my house this afternoon.
I think they're doing some work on the line.'
He drank half of it, spattered the rest of it on the road and cleared his throat.
'Good as ever, he said.'
'How did you know I had a well?'
'I saw them digging it,' he said, and then began folding up his chair, 'I was there at the beginning.'
'And is that the end?'
'No. But you were cringing.'
'All right,' he said, and shook out his chair again.
'"What's a little pain?" said the tortoise to the hare. "In return for a soul?"
'"Soul?" asked the hare, intrigued. "What's that?"
'"It endures when all else is gone."
'The hare closed his eyes. "What is it like?"
'"The memory of a long cold drink in a fever."
'"It'll heal?" asked the hare, stretching out his long legs.
'"Are you sure?"
'So the tortoise, opening his beak, snapped both the hare's legs right above the heel.
The hare began scratching and clawing the ground, twisting to and fro,
eyes rolling, shrieking. Hares sound like pigs, did you know that?
The tortoise waited until the hare was still. He then placed his foot on the hare's ears,
planted another foot on its face, and lurched forward to balance himself on top
of the hare's ribs and hindquarters--'
'No more. Stop.'
'All right then,' he said.
'Where'd you hear this story?'
'What was she like?'
'Religious,' he said then took the paper and folded it in half.
Aligning the two dots, he made a sharp crease.
He then pushed the tip of the pen through the two dots.
'So what do you think the tortoise saw?'
'When he stood on top of the hare?'
'Well, it was dark, wasn't it?'
'Yes. But he saw something. What did he see?'
'I don't know.'
He looked at me a bit longer and then folded the chair back into a cane.
I tilted the bucket and let it wash away all the foam. The stain itself was gone.
There was only the outline. He stepped into it then turned to me,
waiting for me to speak. He held out his free hand.
'I'm Julie,' I said finally, 'or Julia, it doesn't matter.'
He placed the sheet of paper up to his face like a mask.
All I could see was the two dark points of his pupils, perfectly aligned.
He did not blink.
'My name is Andrew,' he said, the paper shaking slightly in front of his face.
When he pulled away the paper, his eyes were half-closed, his face upturned.
His eyelids shivered as if caught in a private ray of sun and he had a smile
that was pure, devoid of any malice, serene.
'I can feel,' he said, opening his eyes, 'that we have an understanding.
Come over for lunch. Tomorrow? Twelve?' He then lifted my elbow
and wrist, pulled off my glove and began folding and stretching my palm.
'It's very funny,' he said.
'What's so funny?'
'This,' he said, and pulled out his pen and drew a deep blue line across my palm.
'I'll tell you tomorrow,' he said. 'Remind me to tell you. It's very important.'
I wondered what he could have seen. Since I have rapid exfoliation of the hands,
I have no fingerprints and only the vaguest outlines on my palm.
Each winter, the shiny skin splits vertically, bleeds, and a mess of tiny bubbles
forms beneath the skin. These blisters look like eggs beneath the skin so I take
a needle and prick them, tear them open. If I don't stop, my hands become so thick
and sore I can't close them. But right now, the new skin is staying on and my hands
are clear, soft, blank. Your future--I could hear him saying--is clean.
I couldn't sleep that night until I saw the beginning of the dawn.
When I woke up later, I was panicked by the glare of the sun.
It was only a little after twelve but his truck was gone.
Then, at five in the evening, his truck pulled into his driveway
and he walked into his house. Suddenly all the lights in his house came on,
and the candles in the far corners of the room were lit, one by one.
He was expecting me. I washed and combed my hair back, put on lipstick,
and put on my dress. During the shower, the blue had bled away from my hand.
I could barely see it.
His door was ajar.
'It's open,' he said, 'come in.'
Each room was brightly lit and although the house was almost bare, it felt as though it
could be even emptier. It was clean and ordinary with pale yellow walls.
The furniture was simple, teak. There was no clutter on the walls, no photos or books.
He offered me a glass of gin and I shook my head. It was hard getting used to all this
artificial brightness, everywhere.
'Why did you come then?' he asked finally, his voice strained.
'You asked me to. For lunch. And--'
'You must be mistaken,' he said, 'it's dark outside.'
I saw on the far table, a sheet of paper, folded, pierced. Almost sure that it was the same,
I walked over. Putting it to my face as he had, I smiled, hoping he would back down.
But the holes did not align with my eyes and I felt as though the light had been shut off.
'Don't you remember?' I asked, showing him my hand. 'You said we would be friends.'
'No,' he said, 'I never said that.'
But before I could get up, he put his hand on my wrist, very gently.
He held it for a moment as if to check my pulse.
'Your hand and my hand aren't very hot but the contact of the two are very hot, do you feel it?'
It was true. The contact was unusually hot. I was being burned.
'What do you make of it?' he asked, placing his thumb on my palm,
stretching the palm flat, cutting into the palm with his thumbnail,
'it's so hot. Do you have a fever?'
'You watch me every day--I see you. Haven't you anything better to do?'
'I'm a research assistant at the observatory.'
'You only go three days out of the week. That's not even a part-time job.
You watch me through those binoculars of yours.'
'I don't. And I work from home.'
'Then you're a whore.'
He was gripping both my wrists, pushing them together against my cheeks,
pushing me against the table. With his free hand, he held me by the small
of my back, stroking it gently as if I were a cat.
'You've got to clean it all up.'
'Clean what up?'
'You know what I mean.'
'Do you mean that spot outside?'
'Yes, what else would I be talking about?'
'Let go,' I said. He now had his finger between my legs.
He slid it up and down, scratching my tailbone with his nails, digging in.
'Ruby, are you clean?'
I don't know why I didn't knee him. You'd think I would have learned by now.
But I don't think. I shut down instead. It's as though I wind down, curl up.
I work the observatory because I like the dark. I feel comfortable driving
my car into these dark fields and watching all night, watching the only light
for miles and miles around. It's tiring and cold as well but I can't imagine
wanting to do anything else. Some nights are so black you can't see your own two fingers.
As you sit, this sort of darkness becomes thick, tangible, lovely. Even after dousing
the small light in my car, it takes a long time for my eyes to adjust, to see darkness as it is.
And then, in this darkness, your own voice becomes large and menacing.
And so I put it out as well.
He slapped me hard on the bottom then gripped the back of my legs.
I shook my head.
'You're Ruby, I say so.'
'No,' I said finally, 'I'm clean. I took a shower before I came here.'
He let go. 'So you are,' he said then fell back on his couch, shaking his head, laughing.
I had to step over his legs to get to the door and because he was smiling
I was sure he was going to grab at me. Instead, he swiftly drew his legs together
and my leg was trapped. When I tried to pull it away, he clamped tighter, laughing harder.
As soon as my face crumpled up, his legs sprung open and I was free again.
But the door was locked. I turned the knob both ways. It wouldn't give.
I tried twisting the two-fold latch. It wouldn't give.
'Please?' he repeated. 'Come here, girl. Come back here. I'm just a little lonely.
All this night air makes a man strange. It makes you strange as well. You need me, don't you?'
He sat down again. 'I'm sorry I laughed. I wasn't making fun of you.
Actually, I'm attracted to you. You know that don't you? You've always known that, haven't you?
Show me those breasts. When you were scrubbing I saw them.
I was watching you scrubbing all day.'
He stopped, then started again, picking up a hand mirror he had placed on the table.
He began touching his face, his lips, fogging the mirror with his breath.
He was watching me through the mirror, walking backwards.
'Look at yourself,' he said, coming towards me. I hit the pane of the door with my fist, hard.
The pane cracked.
He moved quickly--I felt his hands on mine, guiding the fingers,
opening the snare in a series of deft moves. His hands were huge, warm and dry.
'Here,' he said as he pushed the door open, 'Go. Run.'
As soon as I reached my house, I locked my door. My latch was a rusty little lever,
the sort you see on bathroom doors, and I had never thought to change it.
Even with the wire secured, I was sure he would break through or come in my window.
I could hear him walking across the road. He didn't knock on the door.
Instead, he gently began tapping the walls, tapping, tapping as he went.
I shut the curtains. I could hear him all around, the tin echoing like rain.
And then I heard a digging sound. What was he doing? After a few minutes,
he stopped and leaned against the door. I could see his eye and mouth through the crack.
'Can I have a cup of water?'
'A cup of cold water, a cup of cold water. A cup of cold water for a fevered soul.'
'Go away, I said.'
'Do you want me to?'
I was silent. Then I heard him walk back to his house, trying to whistle,
coming up with nothing more than dry breath.
I wish I could say that it ended here, that I never saw him again.
But there was no end to this. It was only an excuse. The next night, standing in my shower,
I saw him. He was standing in the middle of the road, looking at the ground, smoking.
I could smell the brown sweet odor stronger than ever. I felt crazy, ill with helplessness,
water running through my cracks, splitting me apart, giving birth to a wet, white creature
dividing into yet unformed limbs. I couldn't go on like this, sitting in the dark, scraping
at myself, night after night. It was better to do the worst possible thing. Pinned beneath him,
I would writhe like an insect, cutting angels in the sheets, high, faint noises that stretched
across the walls. Hung from the beams, I would be suspended above him, a clear thread
of spittle falling from my mouth, spiraling as he turned me round and round. If he pressed
down hard enough I would turn into a layer of chalk, a white dust that rubbed its way into
the woods. I would follow him into these woods. And in the dark, I would leave my body
behind. I would leave my body there--a caul, covered in his cloudy, alcoholic brine, crumbling
like a soft rancid cheese. I would change it for something clear and new.
I dried myself and put on a pair of stockings and a field jacket. It was almost dark.
I walked across the street and felt my body cooling in the night air. I knocked.
When he opened the door I tried to kiss him and he jerked backwards.
'What's the matter with you now?'
'Nothing, I said. I'm thirsty.'
He looked at me for a moment then held my jaw. I wasn't drunk.
'Go home. You're too young to drink.'
'I'm not too young to fuck.'
He looked at me again, his face collapsing, then swung open his door so
hard it banged against the wall. His mouth was set into that same stiff line.
'Don't you run away now.'
I walked through him and sat down.
He brought me a blanket and tried to start up a fire in his small fireplace.
The fire gave off no heat. I took off my stockings.
Staring at me, he took off his coat, his socks.
'Unbutton my pants, will you?'
'No. You do it.'
He then disappeared into his bedroom, and came out with a woman's bathrobe.
He had heated it. He held the robe up for me, clumsy, silent, as I put it on, then tied the belt.
'What's wrong with you?' he said, touching my neck, pulling back my hair. 'Why? Tell me.'
He held my jaw again. 'You wouldn't be here if nothing was wrong.'
'Nothing's the matter.'
'Shhh,' I said, pushed him down and bit his mouth. His head hit the brick
but he did not complain. He pretended to be weaker than me and though I pushed him
down again and again, the rest of the night was more muted, more filled with crevices
and ambiguity, his large dry fingers pushing into every turn of my body: my ears, my nostrils,
every hole I had. It felt as though his fingers were cotton swabs, cleaning out any thoughts
that lay rotting in my body. At one point he lifted me up in the air on his knees as if I were a child.
I was hovering over him, arms outstretched like a plane, our fingers interlaced as
I veered north then south then east.
'Can you carry me?' I asked.
'You're too heavy,' he said, but then he rode me on his back from the kitchen to the bed.
'Get off now.'
'Then I'm going to fall.'
'Yes, really. You're not as light as all that. You should be carrying me. I'm dying.'
So I tried. I tottered around and then we fell.
I stayed at his house for five days, never getting dressed, eating whatever he made
for me, wearing his clothes. He would pack and I would follow him from room
to room, even opening the bathroom door to watch. I couldn't stand to be out of sight
of him. He was there as long as I saw him. Every day, he would take more furniture
away in his truck. We slept on a fold-out sofa with a heap of knitted blankets.
I remember the smell of chocolate and coffee, and, one time, a loaf of cardamon bread
with curls of white butter. When I told him I liked apple juice, he went out and bought
a gallon of freshly pressed juice. I drank it all. He told me he used to cook once, long ago,
in the time of Ruby, whose real name, he told me, was Gloria.
And once, we cooked shrimp, another time, it was chicken in a paper bag, a brick placed over it.
She had taught him this, all this, but it didn't matter who she was, how we overlapped.
The present was enough. It didn't have to make sense. I ate and slept as though I hadn't
known either for days. In the evenings, I would sit by a mirror and he would take pencil,
powder, lipstick and draw in my face, pin up my hair in a twist. And then I started bleeding.
The sheets were soaked in a deep blackish red. There was blood on the toilet and in the bathtub,
on the carpet, in the kitchen. He didn't seem to care and we continued sleeping on the stained sheets.
'You're lovely,' he said, turning me over and over, wrapping me in the sheets until I was imprisoned.
'It's getting colder now,' he said. 'Aren't you cold? I'm always freezing.'
The fact that it was cold outside only made it better. The ever-increasing emptiness of the house
did not bother me. Emptied, it was like a palace.
Then, after we put the sofa on his truck, he asked me to go home. He said he would come back
later that night to my house. He drove back that evening and the next. We slept late both days
and woke in an endless haze of greenish grey light.
And then, one morning, he left while I was asleep. It must have been very early.
I found a piece of paper clipped to my curtain.
It was the same scrap of paper that he had given me on the first day we had met.
He had kept it somewhere. But it was different now. He had drawn two dotted lines on either side of the crease.
Fold, it said in a dark blue slant. I made one crease and then another, each a wing.
The turtle was swallowed up in the folds and the feet and the ears of the hare came together,
forming a moth or, alternately, the simplest airplane. I held the moth up to the light, folding it,
unfolding it, then let it go. It swerved, hitting me as moths do, showing me how he would return.
I folded up his blankets and waited. He was not the sort of person who left things behind.
When it became too dark to see, I went outside to his chair and waited, blind, straining
for the sound of one car, the eyes of his headlights. When morning came, I got into bed again,
began listening to the water echoing through the septic tank, water rushing beneath a distant sun.
I closed my eyes remembering what the sun looked like from underwater.
Then I took the paper out of the trashbin, and put it in the sink.
The letters blurred, the water smoked violet, bright blue, turquoise, clear.
It was what we had promised, earlier, and we had shook hands on it with our bodies
not once but many times over. I looked at the bruises on the back of my legs, on my arms.
They would not last. My hand was opening and closing, grasping at the cold water, the coldness
of the water. Even this would not last. But here and at this very minute, everything is still with me.
I can see his thumb stretching my palm, gauging the pulse, drawing the line,
telling me that if I ever doubted, here was proof.