5:4: “Nine Lives”, by Becca de la Rosa

5:4: “Nine Lives”, by Becca de la Rosa

The last time I met Lenore she was all blue. There were oceans everywhere over her, even where there shouldn’t be oceans, and her fingers were fingers of sea, long and blue. Lenore’s smile was like a summer sky that had grown teeth. Lenore had continents, but they were shrinking.

We met on the last train from the city. We were late. That’s how it always used to be with me and Lenore, the empty train and the black line of tracks, but I hadn’t seen her since the last time, when we had the argument that rattled the whole train line like a teacup in a saucer. “Jamie?” Lenore said. She sounded startled. “What are you doing here?”

I stretched out in my seat, very casually, so she wouldn’t know I had been riding trains up and down in the dark to see her like this. Casually, I said, “This is public transport, Lenore,” but it didn’t sound as clever as I thought it might.

She left her seat to sit beside me. Her long black jacket smelled of seaweed and rain. There was blue even in the parting of her hair, an ocean no one had discovered or named, probably all ice. There was so much I wanted. I wanted to know whether her skin had grown hard as an eggshell or cold and dry as snakeskin. I wanted to know if she was still blue and green all over. But it would have been rude to ask, so I smiled my friendliest smile and waited for her to speak.

When we first met Lenore looked nothing like this. She had skin-colored skin, lip-colored lips, and brown hair in two braids. Back then I was the stranger one. I wore leather gloves in summer and wrapped my head up in red bandanas and wool hats. Anyone would know just by looking at me that I had something to hide. We met on an empty train, and when a man threw himself down on the tracks to die and everything ground to a halt, Lenore and I sat side by side to make up eulogies. The train slept for hours between stations. Ambulance sirens howled in through the windows, and outside was a girl, screaming help him. “Is this how you would want to end your life?” Lenore asked. “It wouldn’t matter much to me,” I said carelessly, “I have nine of them.” Lenore was supposed to be impressed. She just looked disappointed.

Now, there like a rain cloud, like an atlas of all the places I’d never been, she settled back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not sorry,” she said.

“Me neither.”

“I meant it, Jamie.”

“So did I,” I said, but wasn’t really sure.

When she sat this close I could see the land of Europe on her cheeks and mouth. When she blinked I saw Finland. Europe didn’t know it, but the Mediterranean Sea was creeping up her shoulders, hungry for a second Flood. Europe ought to be warned. I just didn’t think I was the man for the job.

“Anyway. How are you?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said.

I should have said that when my mother died for the last time I made a house underneath a train seat where it was warm and dry. All day long I counted shoes, coming and going. At night the train and I slept together in the station. My house grew around me like a seashell. I decorated it with shiny silver gum wrappers and made a bed of daily newspapers, and I never had to pay for a ticket. I should have said, I am not well, but I take care of myself.

After the first time I saw her we met again and again on the last train out of the city. Lenore always wore black wool dresses and heavy black shoes. “Remember when you said you had nine lives?” she asked, the second time we met. “Why did you say that?” I shrugged and looked out the window. The wind ribboning in through the open window had grown teeth and nails. “Because I was thinking about it,” she said. “And what does it even mean to have nine lives? Does it mean that you’re reborn nine times, in the same life, or does it mean you get to be someone else? Or that you get nine times to die and come back to life?” She leaned in towards me and I could smell wet wool and flowery shampoo. “And when you die,” she said, “nine times, are there nine ghosts of you all over the place, waiting for the last part of you to die? So if you have nine lives, does it mean that every time you are getting a little bit smaller? Is it a little bit more like death every time?” she asked. I said, “I don’t know.”

But the third time we met she put her hand on my shoulder, and I took off my leather gloves to show her my fingers. She examined them carefully. “How strange,” she said, sounding doubtful. I shook my hair out of the bandana so that it rattled around my shoulders. Lenore pulled one strand tight. “What does it mean?” she asked. I could have answered that, too, but I didn’t.

After I had known Lenore for a few weeks the Baltic Sea grew between her nose and her left eye. It looked like a small blue teardrop. Lenore seemed sadder than usual. When I leaned in close to her face, I saw that the teardrop was ringed with little green dots and labelled neatly, THE BALTIC SEA. I touched it, but it felt like skin. “What—” I began. Lenore pushed my hand away. “It’s a tattoo,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, Jamie, but it’s a tattoo.” I asked her if it had hurt. “Not any more than I thought it would,” she said.

The world grew over Lenore’s skin. The North Sea came next, and Europe down her face and neck. Russia marched slowly across her right breast and arm, meeting the side of the United States on her shoulder blade. Africa and Australia on her legs. South America on the back of her left thigh. Antarctica came last. She showed me when it was finished, kicking off her shoes to rest her feet in my lap, still red from the needle, but white as if she’d walked in flour. “What next?” I asked. She said ocean.

The last time I saw Lenore we sat together without talking for a long time. I asked her how she was doing. “Fine,” she said, like an echo. I thought maybe she was drowning. “How is your husband?” I asked, very politely.

“He’s doing well,” she said. “Is your mother better?”

“She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Lenore whispered.

These platitudes were code. I thought they might be code for I have ridden the train up and down like you have, or maybe just I missed you. Lenore folded her hands very neatly and I tried not to stare at their color, the Atlantic and Pacific of them tangled up like tide.

Lenore had a husband. She told me about him after I had known her for a while. She said he had hand-shaped hands and hair-shaped hair, and what he lacked in imagination he made up for in loyalty. I thought I could be loyal, but I didn’t say anything. Lenore said her husband worked in an office with his name in brass plate over the door. He had a big black dog named Siobhan, and made omelettes with portobello mushrooms on Sunday mornings, and once, when he was drunk, he broke her arm. “Let me see,” I had said when I heard that. Lenore had smiled, as if she felt sorry for me, and said, “You can’t see it, Jamie. It’s not broken anymore,” but of course I’d understood that, I just wanted to make sure she was better.

Lenore is older than I am but not old. I am not young. She is not old enough to be my mother, and I’m not young enough to be her son. Her history is longer, but I have a history too. This is it. A long time ago my great-grandfather married a cat named Mahogany. She was a very fine cat, and our family has her eyes and her solitary nature. My great-grandfather met Mahogany in a lending library: she was curled up asleep on a copy of The Tempest, which he wanted to read. He asked her to move, very politely. As a rule our family is very polite. Mahogany opened one eye, looked unimpressed, and slashed him across the face. In all the daguerreotypes of him my great-grandfather has that scar, like a neat seam over his cheek and under his eye. It is really very dashing. That was how they met; and my great-grandfather and Mahogany were married in Sicily, and he wore his army uniform with all its decorations, and she wore her own black fur. My great-grandparents were very happy together. They had seven children. All of their children were violins as well as boys and girls. When Mahogany died, my great-grandfather died three days later, of a broken heart.

“What are you going to do with your nine lives?” Lenore asked me once. I said, quite grandly, “Everything.” This is not true. It doesn’t work that way. Having nine lives doesn’t mean having all the best days of your life, but more of them. It means too much time alone with your thoughts. It means getting tired of the things you love much more quickly. To be honest, I am not glad my great-grandfather married a cat.

Once I asked Lenore if she was a ghost. Lenore raised her eyebrows at me. Her eyebrows were two black islands, floating up there in the Arctic Ocean. “Jamie—” she began. I said, “I’ve never seen you outside of a train. I’ve never seen you in the daytime. The first time we met, someone died. You could be a ghost. It’s perfectly possible.” Lenore opened her mouth, and from the look on her face I thought she was going to say something like you have to be kidding me or are you drunk? but she only took off one of my gloves. Her fingers slid through mine, blue as air. “Oh, Jamie,” she said. That was all she said.

Tree branches scraped up against the train window. I wondered if she ever did that to her husband, if she ever took off his glove or his tie while she said his name that way, and I hoped she did. He should be happy. He should know what he had when he had it. I wondered if blue ocean and land covered up the bruises his hands left on her. Her husband had his name in a big brass plate but I bet he wouldn’t make a home for her on a train, with newspaper for bedding and curtains of old umbrellas and a decorative glass sculpture made from empty vodka bottles. I thought that maybe Lenore should have someone who would do those things for her. I never once asked her to leave her husband, or to run away with me, never once. That was why we argued. Because I didn’t ask.

I saw her one time before we argued, and she was drunk. She had a bottle of cheap brown rum with pirates on the label. I said, “What the hell, Lenore?”

Lenore shook her head, smiling her blue smile. “My name is not Lenore,” she said, very gravely, “no. That’s not my name. My name is everything, but you can call me Jamie if you like.”

“What happened to you?” I asked. As the train chased along the tracks, the rum in her bottle splashed out over her hands, and she set it between her knees to hold tight. She had blood or dirt trapped underneath her fingernails. If there were bruises on her skin, I couldn’t see them.

“Nothing, nothing happened,” she snapped. “I’m just tired. God,” she said, almost in a whimper. “I’m so tired.” She dropped her head on my arm. The Pacific Ocean had swollen, reached over her shoulder, nibbled a little bit of Russia away. I was suddenly afraid. I was afraid of being with her when oceans ate the world, when the land we sat on went under without putting up a fight. “I’m sorry,” Lenore said, over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m so embarrassed.” It was all right, I told her.

Our whole family hates water. It’s what comes of being part cat and part soldier. My mother died twice in a lake, the same lake; some people might say this was silly of her, but I say it was destiny. If you happen to be afraid of water there is not much you can do about it. I collected newspapers left on trains, looking for news of flooding, and carried a raincoat in my bag, and two red umbrellas. I had that argument with Lenore. It was not much of a battle plan, but it was the best I had.

The last time I saw her Lenore opened the window to let night in. Both of us were very considerate. We sat close, but not close enough to touch. We talked about work and holidays and how long winter was stretching on this year. Before my stop, before I could get up, Lenore stuck her hand in my hand. “Wait,” she said, “Jamie, wait. Don’t go just yet.”

I didn’t go. She rested her head on my shoulder. Even her ears were blue, inside and out, little whirlpools. I would have to walk home now in the wind.

“I could learn to play the violin,” Lenore said.

I said, “I wouldn’t know what to do with you.”

That wasn’t what I meant. It was the water. I wouldn’t know what to do when it swallowed her whole. I wondered if Lenore’s body might be a prophecy waiting to come true, the whole world drowned. I wondered if even she knew what she was drowning in.

“Listen,” I said.

I carefully pushed her head away from my shoulder. I flexed my fingers, untied the bandana from around my head. My hair is hard as wire and my fingers are thin and very straight. I stretched my hair across my mouth, curled tight in my fist. I drew one finger across one strand of hair. The sound was high and sweet.

When my mother died for the last time we all played together. That is another thing my great-grandmother passed down to us: big families with a tendency to leave home early and never come back. My brothers and sisters and I played for a long time in the hospital room where my mother died. I remembered her saying, I’m so tired. My brothers and sisters left. I didn’t ask where they went. They didn’t ask me where I was going. I know they are still alive somewhere, at least. That’s one of the good things about having nine lives.

The notes buzzed around my mouth like honeybees, echoing down my throat, and the vibrations made me dizzy but the song was very beautiful. I thought it might be a song about levees, or maybe just about drowning. Lenore dropped her head in my lap. I could feel her crying. On the back of her neck, Greenland sank like Atlantis.

Becca De La Rosa has had fiction published in Strange Horizons and LCRW, among other places. She is currently studying English at an art college in Ireland.

I had the idea for this story while waiting for the train in winter. It combines a few of my favourite obsessions: secret identities, failed relationships, tattoos, safe places, and trains.

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