After the Coals
A six-point candelabra returns her to us. Chases away the gloom in our claustral home and delivers her to our bed. By turns we touch her arms, face, hair. The contours of her long, soft body communicate a message of enduring charity to our needy hands. Now altogether we’re tugging and mewling and writhing closer: Caleb has her by the hair, twining fistfuls in his greedy little boy clutches; Avery hangs from her neck like some arboreal critter; The three little ones, Magnus, Nina, and Millicent, romp in the diaphanous kingdom of her vast gown. I especially like to press my face to hers and allow her cascading red tresses to veil us from the others, a behind-the-waterfall privacy that prompts a keening thrill in my little girl guts. In this moment we are truly linked, for I see what she sees, and together we study the sash window overhead, where the muntin strips create a grid of small square panes, each bustling with the feet of strangers turning patterns in the street.
Then a loud banging, the ferrule on his walking cane rapping a summons at street level. Our ranks close around her like a tightening corset, but she’s too strong, and already she’s spraying her atomizer and gliding about our chthonic mew in a haze of perfume. She daubs her thin papery wrists with cotton and puts on kid gloves so that her hands resemble the heads of black swans. In an attitude of theatrical woe, Caleb, the eldest, blubbers in a false unconvincing way, his eyes nictating in an effort to conjure tears. Magnus has already started with the nervous clicking in his throat. To keep us from stumbling on our way to the loo, she lights the lantern that hangs from the low joisted ceiling and damasks it with a pink-and-yellow scarf. The radio jabbers a babel of frequencies before falling silent. With an artful bow she leans over the candelabra and puckers her painted mouth; her gentle blowing closes the six portals that afford us a preview of Orangia, the bright, fervid realm we are forever moving toward. For each flame that goes out, the little ones let loose a wet phlegmy sigh of disappointment. She stirs the bubbling pot one final time. And a last adjustment to her girdle, for another hungry mouth is already four months on its way. Then it’s ta-ta, au revoir, adios. The brisk report of her stilettos dies away as she climbs the concrete stairs to the world above. Then the double-thud of the door. The growly scrap of a man’s voice. Snick of the deadbolt.
Her departure acts as a physic on Magnus’ nervous system: it’s not long before he’s kicking off his bed sheets and racing to the chamber pot. There he lifts his nightie and squats, the glary whiteness of his legs, like two slender boles of birch wood, the only discernible part of his wretched, weeping aspect.
The thick scratchy bedding leaves us sweaty, tempest-tossed in a roasting ocean of snot, tears, and perspiration. O how their immutable habits of sleep vex me! Avery with her fitful revolutions: first supine on her back, then to her right flank with a huffy pout, next on her tummy, and finally to her left side where she dozes wetly just inches from my face. Caleb deathly still, but creepy in the way he sleeps: seated upright with his legs crossed, his carroty locks fanned out against the headboard. While he maintains the calm mien of the Buddhist, his eyelids are boisterous with eager dreams. Nina and Millicent are itinerants who by night explore the diverse landscape, the crags, dells, and frontiers of a four-poster heaped high with bedding. On all fours they worm doggo over slumbering forms and stop to peer into those baffling mirrors, the faces of their brothers and sisters. When they happen upon me – a heaving lump of suffering in the hellish hot centre of the bed – they gape into my open eyes and with great seriousness deliberate in the cryptophasia, that riddling back-and-forth unique to twins, over my degree of wakefulness. After an inconclusive spell they give a shrug and push off.
I’m forever telling the brood to keep an eye on their assigned panels. To count the shoes. Yellow flats, white sneakers, black pumps, Caleb itemizes with autistic devotion. Check out those gunboats, the others cry. I tell them to ignore Caleb and his fruitless methods, for it is the frequency – not the make-and-model of the shoes – that indicates how fast we ourselves are hurtling through the larger cosmos, and how soon we will get to where we are going. Caleb rolls his eyes and prays for open-toed sandals to correct the imbalance in his checklist, the jumble of odd notations – toppled eights, I Ching hexagrams, jagged levin-scribbles – he’s scratched into the granite wall next to our bed.
He makes these entries with his giant pen, the one spruced with exotic quills and given to him on his birthday. She won it at a carnival by shooting a gallery of paper clowns with a water pistol. His love for the pen is minor when compared to my love for the story, and the image it conjures of her sighting those targets, those merry-andrews orbital on turntables, with one eye shut, and wowing the carnival-goers with uncanny marksmanship. And maybe she saturated the operator, who was loath to reward a dame for her shooting prowess. Maybe she leapt into the booth to bloody his nose a shade redder than those of his clowns, and, to a smattering of applause, to a triumphant ding from the nearby high striker, maybe she took the pen from his flagging grip, a pen absurd in its dimensions and nearly three times the size of normal pens.
Buoyed by this memory, and with my feet leveraged against his chest, I try to prise the lock of Caleb’s hands, capture the carnival pen, and tally a small-yet-symbolic win. But his immense store of mongoloid strength bests my coup d’essai, my tigress-clawing. I’m left breathless and marooned on my back like a terrapin.
Times like these I fear the little ones are starting to turn. They have been seduced by Caleb’s tic-industry, his taproot of data that continues to bloom like an orchid toward the sun. They are bewitched by his campaign of subversion, a campaign that is tireless in its maneuverings to depose the very system I’ve spent years fine-tuning. So I warn them. I cite the lacunae of history, a thousand obscure rebellions stamped out by kings’ men, schismatics pressed in their beds and drained of their motive juices before taking to the streets. That, I tell them with my fist against their shared face, my flexed arm a viper-wrapped caduceus, That is what happens to little birds that try to fly too soon.
Constable Cobb crouches at the window and raps on the glass with a truncheon, his walrus twitching in a kindly way. He displays something in cupped hands, his lips flapping in mute explanation. Every. Bloody. Time. I unhasp the door and return to bed. Within moments he’s doffing his cap and hustling down the stairs two at a time, installing Uranus among the other planets already strung in their cheap dead orbit from the joisted ceiling. His hands are twin instruments of dexterous machinery – snipping line, hanging up a potato circumscribed with thin rings of paper. As he works, sweat beads in the furrowed flesh of his neck, and his long bad back twists in the taut material of an overcoat still dutifully buttoned.
Finished, he stoops over the water cask and brings the dipper to his mouth. As he slakes his thirst, I can hear the water slosh down his gullet. Purl in his belly. Then something underfoot catches his eye: he gapes at the floor for a longish spell. When he comes to, he wipes his mouth on his sleeve. Producing a rag from his pocket, he honks loudly, indulgently, and mucks out his ears with meticulous care. He gives the hankie a quick study before returning it to his overcoat. Grabbing the poker, he traces dreamily in the depleted coalscuttle. A hurdy-gurdy sounds overhead and lingers at the window in a bright tatter. Cobb pounds on the glass and threatens to vag him. The hurdy-gurdy withdraws with an amiable strum.
Cobb removes his hat and approaches the bed. Damp strands of flesh-colored hair are plastered across his balding pate. He raps on the top of his hat, shakes it over us, but nothing comes out. His snowy brows buckle in mock distress, and he peeks into the felt depths of his department-issued shako. The little ones gurgle, bubbles of excitement fomenting at their lips. He tries again. This time an antic windfall of candy – taffy lozenges, straws of licorice, and gumdrops like buttons – rains down on the bed. Cobb then returns to the orrery, untangles Earth from Orangia, ignores the cigar marks burned into both, doffs his cap, lopes up the stairs, and vanishes to resume his nightly beat.
While the brood divvies up the candy, I light a cigarette and place it on the ledge beneath the window. To alert Andy the Butcher. To let him know the coast is clear.
Today is Tuesday
They lurch in the stairway, where she tells him to shush. She bumps open the door and sees him off. Then they’re touching glasses by the window, panting in the dark, and staggering up the stairs, where she sees him off. Then they’re vanishing behind the divider. He relieves himself with a noisy plash. Then he’s off. She rummages through her coffee can, stands listening at the curtains drawn about our bed, and she’s off too.
She returns at a pre-dawn hour. When birds trill and scratch in foliage unseen. When unclassified wings rip through star-bolted vaults and scribble the moon with feats of menace. They tack in the stairway and she tells him to shush. She leads him by the claw to her narrow cot, where they fall with a whinge of springs. Rates are muttered and a deal is brokered with the stirring of pockets, the rustling of notes. Stockings are crumpled and tossed to the floor. Emancipated cough, the roupy outburst of Vic Butane. Today is Tuesday. His second skin jabbers with toxic effects when he peels it off and casts it across the flat with stunning precision. He’s jug-eared, lynx-eyed like a swindler. Some gruesome trauma pebbles one side of his face. His bobbing black hair resembles a pelt hacked from something dead and thrown across his flabby back. With utmost delicacy I roll onto my stomach and reach for the exterminator’s denims, which hang like a lank flag from Caleb’s prayerful face. When I get what I’m looking for, I restore the pockets with a frilly tangle of smalls belonging to the ladies of the flat.
Avery wakes with a start. Her antennae are up as she interprets the groping urgency that charges the place like a bad frequency. When she starts to cry out, I’m there to stanch her voice with both hands. To kick her maidenhead until her thrashing stills.
Leaving, Vic and his head get tangled up in Earth and its myriad moons. He swipes at them like they’re cobwebs, until they’re just scraps of cosmic pretension on unswept floors.
Artists come and go, noisy in the morning with their palettes and easels. The most frequent to drop in and visit is a bossy ogress named Bice. When her clogged feet stamp loud concussions to upset the glass in the cupboard, Caleb unsheathes the pen from his pant leg and updates his files, his tongue a convulsed nubbin in the corner of his mouth. Bice works topless, her massive paps astir as she barks orders and hurls paint at the canvas. Her callipygian lower half is wrapped in a hand-woven skirt of stiff muslin. Her beefy shoulders are scribbled with tattoos, dragons ranked in attitudes of sex and competition. Rendered fire spans her arms like torched sleeves of mail. The vagaries of her brush are foretold in the deck of cards she always carries with her. Now and then she’ll quit her brush and, pausing for a pregnant beat, turn another card with a slick fillip of the thumb. Then a loud curse. Or a muttered coo of bemusement, when her gimlet eyes scan the room like emerald runners sworn to some acid plot.
Bleat of horns from the radio, the steady trot of snare-and-cymbals. Modeling, she holds Nina and Millicent and wears a sheer peekaboo, her waist fitted with a rickety framework of hoops. Her head is swaddled in bandages paint-spattered and stagy, and a cigarette seeps from the clench of her mouth. N/M wear like expressions of bovine idiocy, their faces inscrutable, blank as milk laced with poison. Bice has painted black boxes where their heads should be.
During breaks she crouches and eats peanuts from a haversack. When she dehisces the shell with thumb-and-forefinger, a poof of smoke appears as though a small crypt were being unsealed. Consider me unimpressed when it comes to her painting: today I pose for the first and last time in a piece entitled Middle Inheritance, named before she’d even touched brush to canvas. She transforms me into something ugly and bloated, a gravid double standing under skies lurid with apocalypse – the ominous low of a sunrise mingled with thunderheads. Its head is festooned with a vegetative wreath, its navel swollen and bruised from the inside by some cussed upstart. As Bice applies the tempera of eggs and casein, lending the piece a dull finish, I tell her how the picture doesn’t resemble me in the least. She points to the cards arrayed on the floor in ranks of grim fortune, and emits a witchy laugh to reveal a mouth studded with omissions. She removes an egg from her bag and cracks it over my head.
Then she’s stamping across the flat to request some homeland chantey, to shout down the hurdy-gurdy in pidgin thick as porridge. With wig awry the motley wretch absconds by inchmeal, a clumsy escape hampered by the stilts he wears to boost his height, and thus conceal the dead giveaway of his abbreviated posture.
The long awful night descends on us like a lid. Stoppers us in our doom like we’re the agitated contents in a pressurized beaker. Our mean supper, a pellucid broth with no real nutrition, murmurs in the saucepan on the hob. A draft hums in the flue, animates the four-poster curtains, and sets the orrery into motion. Stray coals tumble to the fender. The offensive clicking in Magnus’ throat is rivaled only by the din in the walls, the suck-and-gurgle of cheap pipes. After the coals flicker out, after the place turns cold and our breath blooms and the little ones shake in discomfort, I must bite my hand to keep from smiling. With sadistic glee I postpone the execution of my chores – chores that give me sole authority over all stove matters – until the latest possible moment, when I myself can no longer withstand the chill that assails my bones.
I set forth from the bed, the first jaunt of this nearly expired day. Procuring an armful of stumps from the wood pile – a face-cord of eastern larch and a gift from Andy the Butcher – I stack the tinderbox with a cry of girly disdain, for my satin nightie – another gift from Andy – is striped with soot. Besotted! Ruined by my own laziness, for it’s been weeks since I last swept out the ash that surfeits the grate like black snow. I forego the usual jest of holding twigs to Caleb’s hair and light the fagot straightaway with a lucifer plucked from a matchbook that reads The Vendetta League, left behind by some late caller quick to rejoin the night. I toss the bundle into the firebox and within moments Orangia returns. Dancing. Wild.
Inspecting my nightie, I discover the stains can’t be rubbed out. So I remove it over my head and submit it to the fire, pleased to see that Andy’s olive branch burns as famously as the larch. With Orangia broadcasting warm gusts across the entire flat, I’m at ease in my newfound nakedness, and go about the rest of my chores with a languidness that leaves the brood miffed and howling with hunger.
But they must wait.
I pull back the divider, a funereal black scrim that hangs from a wall-to-wall clothesline, and enter her space. Next to the narrow cot is a fruit crate she’s rehabilitated into a kind of tottering nightstand. Not a stick of furniture in this place that wasn’t someone else’s trash, save the bed. The crate is cluttered with powders, unguents, cantharides, implements of her trade I set on the floor next to the coffee can that holds her wages. I drag the crate over to the cupboard, where I climb to retrieve the dishes from their steep roost. Then I pad over to the stove and fill each bowl with ladlefuls of hot stinking soup. The brood stirs and watches my every move with starved intensity.
But still. They must wait.
I grab a baguette from the larder and tear away six shares, one twice the size of the others. Crusty bark flakes to the floor, where a dark stain commemorates my arrival several winters past. Before I realize it I’m trying to rub out the evidence with my grubby heel. But with no luck of course. For the stain, like certain members of the brood, is difficult to eighty-six. I pile the tray with the bread and the stew and the ladle too, which functions as a group spoon for all of us to share. None of the usual squabbling over who gets it first, for I’ve devised an equitable pecking order, and any concern over first dibs is no concern at all. How I slave for you jackals, I think to myself, balancing the tray on one hip and lugging it toward the rabble. For they’re now slavering at the foot of the bed, scenting the air, and beseeching me with hungry pleas.
What delicious fun it is to make them wait!
And wait they must, because it’s not supper without the finishing touch. So I leave the steaming tray just feet from the bed, tantalizingly close but still out of the brood’s reach, and draw the four-poster drapes to conceal the location of my dark treasures. At the foot of the stairway I caper from one plank to the next – especially nimble in my altogether– when a telltale whinge ends my search. I fall to my knees and claw loose the floorboard with nails that are long and elegant and groomed to a razor’s-edge with this task in mind. Elbow-deep in loot, and presenting my scrawny moon to the impassive effects of the flat, I sift through foreign mints, alien tender, peep-show tokens. Half-hunters and meerschaum pipes. Pinkie rings set with arachnids primeval and paused in amber. Keys and pince-nez and rubbery nozzles like the tied ends of balloons. Letters both scribbled and typed, nervous and neat.
Where is it? With my flushed cheek pressed to the floor, I assemble all of my strength and reach for the far limits of my interred emporium. At last! I pass under the trembly lantern-light and return to the supper arrayed on its tray, where I hold the dropper over Magnus’ bowl until the tapered end gleams and lets loose one, two, three lethal beads.
A thousand apologies Magnus, my infirm little sprig of a brother: how could I forget that soupçon of strychnine you savor so expansively, your lips smacking their wet approval? How could I fail to include the crunchy seeds of the nux vomica that now stick in your teeth, your bad, bad teeth that are somehow canine with your prominent gum line, with you champing like a rustic in open-mouthed abandon?
Dear dumb Magnus, with your nervous tummy and around-the-clock bed head: it’s not your myriad ailments that condemn you; it’s your weak sulky face. It lends countenance to a lameness that haunts your voice, your carriage, your shy gaze that always strays from my own. For ten days I have dosed you with escalating amounts, and your doom has started to trickle from your mouth, nose, and arse. From the porches of your ears. Black steeds, hazed in steam and hooded like headsmen, amble in the streets. Do you not feel their approach in the brass of the bedpost?
Faraway, in some princedom-by-the-sea, a gold wind accelerates sorrow in the eyes of family and friends who are gathered around the pyre to say goodbye to a boy who was loved. A dirge is sung in his honor, and his mother must be held back in her grief, restrained from the fire. Your passing will warrant no such tribute.
Prepare yourself, brother. Range your memories along the mantle of your mind, the colors and shadows of your six years. Bid farewell to the sky you’ve never seen, the race of brothers you’ve never known. Say goodbye to your adulthood, with its wins and woes, for that is a land you will never visit. Behold your belled feet, telltales of your scaly, saurian affliction: no longer will they sing when you scamper from sickbed to shitter. For the day is well nigh when their merry song is snuffed out, when I unstrap those bells from your cold lifeless ankles and unload them for whatever sorry pittance they’re likely to bring.
Did you know they kept you in a sealed box for three months? Made of glass for viewing, the box had these ports with gloves attached, heavy-duty canvas gloves meant to handle radioactive materials. None of us were brave enough to put our hands inside, so none of us did. Not even once. Not even her.
The murky doorway is laced with red light. It stays closed as hours mature into days, and the term of her absence lengthens with the shadow on the wall, as Caleb’s dossier metastasizes into a vast mess of cacography. Chopines, buskins, sabatons: as the species of shoe vary, our rate of travel accelerates. Disquiets the hair.
Fearing we’ve left her behind, the little ones hug bolsters and cling to the craft of the bed. Slow down, they say. Let’s turn back.
So find the helm! Show me a wheel to take hold of and we’ll outrun our doom! Is it under the bed? Have you searched every drawer? What’s in your pockets?
Ah-hah! I cry with ferrety glee, throttling them in my mania with fists like automated pistons. Don’t you fools realize there is no wheel? That we’re rudderless? That our coordinates are set for a headlong drift into the leonine roar, the saw-toothed maw of oblivion!?
A Bugaboo and a Finch
Both haunt the stale climate of the flat. Fevers sweep the walls like occulting light thrown from a search tower. Spells afflict the intricacies of our home – bend furniture, dismantle light, amplify silence. While Constable Cobb searches the dens and arcades for the faster moiety of a two-man crew, the other cutpurse lies nearby, manacled to the cot. His one eye is purplish, badly swollen. Gelid sludge dribbles from his toothless mouth and trickles down his hidebound chest in three divergent rivulets. His eyeball wobbles an antic route inside its socket, and sweat rills from his brow as he fabricates a sorry alibi.
Taking us for some displaced organ of the legal machine, he explains with mounting intensity the unjust manner in which he was accused (different man, same map), the unjust manner in which he was pursued (see sodium lamp apogee-as-private residence defense), and the unjust manner in which he’s being detained (itchy wen, unreachable scalp).
During this breathless appeal he twists his body in a gruesome way and liberates a bird from pants made of newspapers. When back issues of The Written Moon fall away – like neon trash in a lunar gale – the bugaboo is left naked, his bony waist a trellis that supports a tangled bramble of ready fruit.
The Written Moon 1/13/13:
Interpreting the adumbral photos of some Gatling gun blitzkrieg, I must look away every few moments to minimize the severity of their import. The loggias of The Vendetta League – tiered like some elaborate scaffolding on a conifer-stippled hillside, deep in the gangster-ordered wilds of the city purlieus – are thronged with bodies supine, charred, ammo-pelted. Eldritch and incongruous, like a killer’s calling card, or portents burned by marauders into the hut floors of sacked villages: two swans, their attenuated white necks yoked as one, dangle from the topmost platform.
Scudding, dipping: in its confusion the finch alights on the antlers of the candelabra and catches fire. It immelmanns around the flat, sets the orrery ablaze, and becomes ensnared in the canopy over our bed. Its wings thrash in stroboscopic horror, a whirling that is out of sync with the din it creates – the chugging hiss of a stylus jouncing over a finished record.
Embowered in quilts and pillows due to chronic chills, Magnus exits barrens of hypnagogic freeze and sits upright for the first time in days. His quick breaths are like startled gasps of fright. When he sights the finch overhead – a shrill fireball born of the addled logic of nightmares – he lets loose with horripilative, throaty cries that achieve theremin heights in pitch. Then the ague-throes. Heavy shaking. Pinkish sputum furs his mouth. A sundering report from the organs lockered in his chest. Lights out little sprig. Quietus.
Old sack of spuds booms down the staircase with his hands tied behind his back. His parti-colored disguise is nowhere in sight. Spray of blood mars his apron, the lurid emissions of steers and their hacked thews. What other critters have bled under the breakneck labors of this short, squat butcher? Have obliged to tongue with fiendish relish a cleaver wet with kill? When he gives me a goatish wink, his grin fraught with frisks, the cutpurse laughs and bucks in delight and jabbers a gummy spree of effusive praise. Throbbed pikes of Orangia surround him like some chimerical stockade.
Holding the banister for support, Constable Cobb totters down the staircase in high dudgeon, his wide indignant eyes mantled by hoary brows. He drops a sack of spuds with a fusillade of rabbit punches to the back of the head, removes his overcoat and shirt and swipes at the flames with great arching haymakers. His effort works as a bellows, however, incensing the flames and expanding their domain twofold.
When Cobb spots Magnus – little brother all contorted now, his doggish mouth paused in a feral rictus – something inhuman sounds from the depths of him, and he swan dives onto the bed in a large demonstration of grief, his walrus a coarse, mourning-wet brush that annoys the skin, triggers the blood.
When the finch finally falls to the floor it booms sonically, like a microphone dropped onstage. Orangia is total.
So Here I Am,
consigned by some unseen referee to the shuttered custody of St. Anne’s. Eight months encumbered with a bastard’s bastard. Larded like a sow on the rank gruel doled out from Sister’s Lynn’s kettles. Desexed, shorn for bedbugs and dressed in some Frankenstein garment stitched from frayed remainders, the pillowslips and snot rags of abbesses. I am both icon and scourge in my keepers’ eyes, lewd fruit sprung from vines fat and veined. They hoard my many secretions in a small pyx and baste their prayerful faces with counterfeit pathos, the gleam-and-nacre of my maternal drippings. Squints pock the walls of the loo. In adjacent stalls they climb each other’s shoulders and study my bald mound, my thighs and belly ruffled with flab. They rue the prim lines of their own vestal aspects, lean, faith-stricken bodies that are like prisons for love deemed wicked, their seldom fulgurant eyes hatches of escape for fugitive urges.
I blame those squints for the sorry state of my feet, for last week the Mudholland twins and I – allied in the shared drudgery of our dishwashing serfdom – discovered a trove of elderberry wine in the scullery. After the steeple bells chimed nine notes, we stuffed our pallets with extra bedding and pussyfooted to the girls’ room. Entrusting our debauch to linoleum confidences, we held our tongues when the night lady asked for Annie Juan in an accent thick as porridge before snipping the lights. Then we guggled bottle after bottle with throaty relish. The wine’s treacly bite warmed our bellies and stained our teeth. Intoxication buzzed in my brain like a fly behind glass, impressed the gloom with slender red fibers. But this soon gave way to a breed of darkness so heavy, so utterly total, it embroidered my nightmares like black velvet lining a casket.
The sisters arrived. Pale and wigless and hideous with rage. They whisked me down spider-shadowed halls, past recessed scenes of stylites starved atop pillars. A broom closet materialized, on rollers and wheeled into view like scenery in a play. Inside, a wrought-iron stairwell corkscrewed into a narrow drop. We hazarded a descent made more harrowing by stone steps slick with ooze, and arrived in a small camarilla that swayed like the hold in a ship. An overhead bulb swung the place in quivery red light. Monoliths black as anthracite moaned with ancient grievances. The sisters lashed me to one of these boilers, and they all had a crack at me: my feet suffered the blunt agonies of the bastinadoes, while the rest of my body was humiliated by the administration of extreme unction.
When I came to I was already confined to this attic space. It’s situated under the dripping stone eaves of St. Anne’s, where gargoyles spout leagues of endless rain from mouths agape. Detention has been a true godsend, and has saved me from the nauseating procedures of the day: the brittle ceremonies of morning chapel, the shared baths in the jungled mists of the caldarium, the stale hagiography lessons, the carping pedagogy of the sisters like seals barking, the loathsome company of orphans, that sniveling group of wimps and whiners. I do miss visits from prospective parents, when I’d sashay around the parlor, exhibit my gut with birthaiding hands, and holler the fishmonger’s cry of twofer one.
Detention has also blessed me with a handsome view of the orphanage grounds, the surrounding woods threaded with bridle paths, knurled with subtle hills. And far beyond, hunched on the horizon: the knuckles of the city skyline, wriggled in the vapors of some loitering magic. I watch the endless replenishment of young girls who leave bundles to darken our doorway. I watch Bice and two assistants endure the marathon hike to the newly refurbished Vendetta League, grunting under the weight of a huge canvas defaced with an illogical mix of colors. Perhaps an upclose rendering of the butcher’s rags. I watch bright feathers – griffins, jays, liberated cagelings – tumble amid a puzzle of boughs, and perceive the brilliant art of his subterfuge. Ghost, dawdler, sack of spuds. I will carry him wherever sorrow leads me.
These days I’m round all around from my middle inheritance. And my feet, still sooty with bruising, continue to throb with each step, each double thud signaled from a pair of hale hearts. My meals arrive on a creaky dumbwaiter, incarnations of the same heavy starch. Show me a scale and I will break it.
Most evenings Sister Rose of Gnaw Bone climbs the gyring ascent to my tower confinement. Bed check. Menial chore for the meekest menial of the order. Even sisters know a softie. Bumbling, guarded gait, expects the sucker punch to come at any moment. Former life as a charwoman still dogs her. Can’t shake your shadow. Lay myself open and say, Clean this flue you owleyed wench. When her keys jingle music outside my door I know that Rubles, the orphanage feline, isn’t far behind. Hateful pissy-eyed grimalkin! She claws my arms when I try to lift her, my face when I spit in her eye.
Each night I imagine myself a wayfarer braving some midnight wood. The path is checkered with moonlight, alive and resonant with batsong. I’m getting closer, for a rambling estate smolders up ahead, just beyond that clump of pines. Flames like merrymakers dance in windows. But a sudden breeze disquiets my hair when a dark spectre overtakes me and vanishes into a screen of shrubbery with a reboant squeal. When I come to I’m feverish and streaming sweat and Rubles is curled on my chest, vibrating dreams. She’s the one jinks my passage and keeps me from sleep!
So I nest the aluminum bin with kindling and spark a lucifer plucked from a matchbook that reads The Portugal, left behind by some debt-hounded quarry eager to split town. I entice Rubles with a scrap of ham, tuck her in with a sepulchral boom of the dumbwaiter door. My hackles rise when I hear the lame approach of my kitten-smitten warden. So soon? I must bite my hand to keep from smiling. Jingle your keys, Sister Rose of Gnaw Bone: I pray your precious Rubles answers not, lest the flames fail to find her pretty fur and lick it clean!
But no music chimes outside my door. In its place, a light but persistent tapping. Seems I’ve been claimed by the one known by his terrible limp, for it is the ferrule on his walking cane that now raps on my iron door.
O momentous day! I too shall know The Vendetta League, its honeycomb of routes and neon-stormed chambers – The Meat Locker, Penalty Box, and Tarantula Pit – its panel of rubber-masked administrators – Bone Saw, Sidearm, Dr. Strobe … I too shall know, after the last coals of twilight have been stamped out by that half-faced bandit, the moon, its blonde face scotched with the ultimate disfigurement – the crooked mark of the Dagger … I too shall know, after a breakneck sally borne on steeds of the darkest ebon, past the inns and watch fires of unwitnessed narrows, past the shadow-puzzles and sylvan sleights and through the cold spicy reek of midnight gardens, where the night’s loamy quiet is seeded with gasps, lurking codes … I too shall know, for when I rally toward a clearing silver-ghosted with daybreak – driving my beast with one hand, securing my rufous wig with the other – and arrive in the lunacy of a rowdy and populous dawn, you’ll be there, waiting just beyond the blighted paling. Clasped in the feelers of some dark matter. Turning patterns in the grass. Leading me toward my debut with a sweetly urgent wave.
Brad Peters recently moved from Boston to Cincinnati to New Orleans, where he now makes his living as a field inspector for Jefferson Parish. He is currently working on his first novel.
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