M. Rickert (the M. is for Mary) has been a frequent contributor to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for the past few years, including five stories alone in 2003. “Bread and Bombs,” a reaction to the events of September 11th, was selected for both Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and The Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant. Hartwell and Cramer also picked Rickert’s Christmas story, “Peace on Suburbia,” for Year’s Best Fantasy 4.
Rickert is perhaps best known for her richly imagined and often disturbing series of Greek myth retellings. These include “Leda” (F&SF, August 2002), “The Machine” (F&SF, January 2003), and “The Chambered Fruit” (F&SF, August 2003). But her stories range from science fiction to fantasy to horror and magic realism. No matter what the subject, her fiction is characterized by a precise and careful use of language, attention to all the nuances of human emotion and experience, and a sometimes unexpected sense of humor and the absurd. Her interview with Charles Coleman Finlay for Ideomancer is her first interview ever.
Charles Coleman Finlay: So many new writers have websites, blogs, and other ways of promoting their personalities and work, yet there is almost nothing available about you besides your writing. Does the M. stand for Mysterious?
M. Rickert: This question made me laugh. I’m really not a mysterious person at all. Actually, I’m sort of an intimate person. It’s hard for me to relate to people in a broad or commercial manner. When I finish a book I really like, one of the first things I do is go online for the author’s interviews, anything that can help teach me about why that book worked. But I don’t have a published book and this is my first interview so there really hasn’t been any reason for me to have a web site. My stories are not factual but the factual existence is not the only one and they are, really, a truer record of my soul than a photograph or a journal could ever be.
CCF: But why do you use M? (Asks the man with three names.)
MR: I decided to use the M. instead of Mary because an author’s name is usually printed rather prominently near the title of the work. Of course, this is a good thing but I was writing a lot of stories at the time in a man’s voice and felt that my name would break the fiction. I know some readers know that I’m a Mary but I like to think of the new reader, a young person reading one of my stories and believing it’s true. I always like that feeling when I experience it as a reader. Even though, intellectually, I know better and I’m sure that young reader does too, I think it’s a wonderful way to experience a story.
CCF: I’m struck by the variety of voices and narrative techniques used in your stories. If fiction is a truer record of your soul than photographs or journals, could you talk about how that relates to your writing process?
MR: I’m not even completely happy with the word soul for describing what I’m talking about. (Though I understand it’s the word I chose.) My writing process involves getting a feeling for a story. For me this is very physical. I’ll get itchy hands, or a tightness around my heart, sometimes I’ll feel like I have to sing. I don’t ever have the whole story worked out in my head. When I was working with myths I had a sort of template for the narrative arc of the story but I didn’t know the voices until I started writing them. I did set a structure for myself beyond the structure inherent in three of the myth stories. I wanted one to be written with a sort of intellectual style, the other with a sort of humor and heart, and the third to be a fairly unrelenting horror story, without the gruesome. After those stories I notice that I often set parameters like that for myself when approaching a story. About halfway through the writing, I usually grab a sheet of paper and write the ending. Until I fill in that gap between beginning and ending it’s fun and scary and exciting to see how I get there.
Everything about my writing life changed for the better since I developed patience. I never rush a story out of the house or onto the page. If I get to the point in a story where everything is real quiet, I have learned that it might mean I need to set it down until I can hear what needs to happen next, or it might mean that it’s time for an actual quiet scene on the page. I write in the morning. Longhand. Staring at a wall. Drinking pots of decaf green tea. Sometimes I light a candle.
There’s a phone in the room I write in (which is the bedroom) but the ringer is turned off. The ringer is turned off on the phone downstairs as well. Also, every single person in my life is supportive of my writing.
CCF: So are you at the beginning of your writing career, with no idea where it’s going, or do see the end well enough now to be filling in the gap between beginning and ending?
MR: I think the end of my writing career will arrive with my death.
Although I’ve only been getting published fairly recently, all those years when I was, to borrow a term from, I believe, Ted Solotaroff, “writing in the cold” are also part of my writing career.
There are a lot of distractions from the actual work. Some of the most seductive of these come dressed up as some aspect of the writing life.
I’ve decided not to spend my creative energy on plotting a career. I don’t really understand that stuff anyways. Currently, I’m at the tidying up stage of a novel I’ve been working on. I have about four short stories started, and I’m in the final draft of another one. I don’t, generally, have so many short stories going at once but I needed a short story in my novel and it took several attempts for me to find the right one. I actually forgot I even had those other story beginnings until a couple of weeks ago. Sort of like finding the hidden chocolate!
I have another story which I think is finished but I’m letting it sit for a bit, to be sure. Sometimes I write poetry.
CCF: Do you have any new stories coming out soon we can look for?
MR: I have two stories coming out in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I don’t know when, exactly. One is a three-threaded story, two main characters who tell stories and the story between them, called “Cold Fires.” The other story is quite a bit darker. It’s called “A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way.” I also have a horror story, “Art is Not a Violent Subject” being published in the new Ratbastard chapbook, Rabid Transit 3.
CCF: So. What’s for lunch today?
MR: I had yoghurt with blueberries.
CCF: Mmm, blueberries. Is it fresh blueberry season already? Thank you so much for your answers to these questions, Mary. I feel very honoured to be the first person to interview you. Good luck with your writing.
MR: Charlie, Thank you. This has actually been interesting. Good luck to you, as well. Oh, and sorry, the blueberries were frozen.
The Girl Who Ate Butterflies
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1999
reprinted in Ideomancer, May 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2000
Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2001
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2002
Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2003
Bread and Bombs
Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best SF 9, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Vol. 17, edited by Datlow and Link & Grant
The Super Hero Saves the World
Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003
The Chambered Fruit
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2003
Peace on Suburbia
Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 4, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
Ontario Review, Fall/Winter 2003
reprinted in Ideomancer, April 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2004
More Beautiful than You
Ideomancer, June 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
Art is Not a Violent Subject
Rabid Transit 3, forthcoming
I don’t even fucking usually read the paper but I’m home for Thanksgiving and it’s the same old shit, my mom and the aunts getting wasted in the kitchen, nobody paying no attention to the turkey. The stuffing sits in the box on the counter, next to the cans of cranberries. They’re cackling away in there like they do every year and every year it’s mostly the same except Uncle Freddie ain’t here ’cause he died last Spring of a busted vein in his brain and my cousin Eddie ain’t here and nobody knows where he is, but my aunt says she ain’t worried. I wonder if he’s dead. Could I of done more to keep him off the streets? Maybe I should of told him, yeah, this is one fucked up family, and the turkey is always dry and shit but it’s your family and that means something. But I never did try to say nothing like that. Who knows? Maybe he ain’t dead or living under some city bridge. Maybe he’s sitting down right now, turning on the tube, watching the game in a house that smells good like Thanksgiving should and maybe he’s even happy. But I doubt it. He’s probably in some crack house somewhere and don’t even know what day it is.
I’m just sitting there listening to my mom and the aunts while the light gets dark and I think how it’s good to be home for Thanksgiving. Fucked up as it is. So I get to start looking through the Fullbrook paper, reading the articles like how the Maynards cows got loose and how Cindy Falloway got a blue ribbon in spelling. I guess she’s in fourth grade and it’s hard to believe that Becky Falloway who got knocked up senior year and was the best piece of ass at Fullbrook High is now the mother of a champion speller. I look at the kid’s picture and she is grinning a big, stupid ten-year-old grin and it’s way too early to tell if she’ll be anything like her mother, but thinking like that starts to feel kind of twisted so I turn the page and that’s when I see Ronnie Webster’s name and it takes me a few seconds before I realize it’s his fucking obituary. Ronnie Webster is dead. I don’t go in and open the cans of cranberries or turn on the light or any of the shit I traditionally do to get my mom and the aunts moving, a tradition Ronnie Webster had something to do with starting, actually. I just sit there and it gets darker and darker. The turkey is going to be drier than usual this year but I don’t give a fuck.
So this weird thing happens in Omaha. I’m in the second round going at this Tae Kwon Do teacher from Michigan and all a sudden I have a minute, while this guy is getting his head pressed into the rope, to sort of scan the crowd, you know, take a breath, and it’s like I’m hallucinating or something because all a sudden there’s Ronnie Webster’s face and I swear this is freakin’ weird but I swear he’s sitting there in the stands and then he sees me looking and waves. I have to get my concentration back so I pound this guy until he signals submission, and I raise my hands clenched over my head ’cause it’s a victory. When I try to see Ronnie I can’t find him nowhere in the crowd. Course, ’cause he’s fucking dead.
He was ugly. Take out the Fullbrook High Yearbook, class of ’82 and see for yourself. That’s me on the same page. I’m about two-fifty there. Not so many high schoolers go my size. But the difference ain’t just the weight. I’ve met some bad ass skinny dudes but not Ronnie Webster.
There he is. Bet you thought I was just being mean. But I can tell you agree. You want not to agree. But you see what I mean. Fish eyes. Crooked nose. It was straight before it got broke. I’ll take the blame for that even if it ain’t only me. And those teeth. Actually we improved them. Five got knocked out and replaced. That’s how come they look pretty good in the picture. What you can’t see is the way he used to dress. Weird. I mean it’s like he just tried to make himself ugly. His parents were loaded. They lived in one of those houses on Fox Ridge. He could of dressed any way he wanted. He was their only kid. Somebody said he was adopted but I don’t know nothing about that and I don’t give a shit. I saw his parents that time I followed him home and they just looked like regular parents. He was a freak. We beat him up and put him in the hospital. This was a long time ago and we didn’t kill him. So why the fuck is he haunting me now?
Raine says I think too much. She says thinking is over rated. “What did thinking ever do for anyone?” she says. “You just sit there and stare into space and nothing happens. That’s what I liked about you. I thought you was an action man.” She pulls off her little white underpants and throws them at my face. “Ronnie Webster,” she snickers as I unzip my pants, “is long gone. Forget about him.”
But what Raine don’t know is everything. It’s not just a little detail, it’s the whole bang. She’s moaning and I’m grunting and if she was the thinking kind at all she’d be thinking it was only us; the ultimate fighter and his girl. She don’t know.
Ronnie Webster is watching us. He’s sitting in the corner in the rocking chair, and he’s grinning. Like I don’t know how he looked by the time he died but here he looks like he did in high school, like a girl, except he’s got his dick in his hands. I look at it and then I look at him and he just grins. White teeth. Pink cheeks. “Oh Action,” Raine says. I close my eyes. When I open them he’s gone.
We got him on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. I guess you could say we was in a bad mood. Not Ronnie. But me and the guys. None of us wanting to go home or be anywhere. We used to say we fuckin’ hated school but when it was closed we just stood around different street corners and smoked. We didn’t talk about it but we all fuckin’ hated being home even worse.
So it’s Wednesday night and we’re hanging out by Myer’s Grocery store, the dark side of the building. It’s the night before Thanksgiving so it’s been kind of busy for a while. A new Price Chopper just opened up on Highway 10 and we don’t know it, but it’s the last Thanksgiving for Myer’s Store. It ain’t that late but the street is pretty quiet. I don’t remember what we’re talking about. Then along comes Ronnie Webster in those weird red sneakers and those straight leg jeans and this hat, this flat pancake hat with the little tip of material at the top and he’s whistling and one of us, and I can never remember if it was me or who, but somebody goes, “Get him.” We pulled him in and wailed on him. He made these little whimpering sounds. Then he got quiet and all you could hear was fist and flesh. Breathing. And all a sudden, without any signal or word, we stopped. Ran in different directions. Left him there like roadkill.
You didn’t think this story would be pretty, did you?
It happens again in Cleveland. During the first round when I am actually restraining myself from completely smashing this stupid kid into pieces because you gotta give the crowd at least a little show. I am putting on a sparring act and he’s doing all his Ninja Turtles moves on me and I’m thinking how pitiful it is because I know, and the crowd knows, and he seems to be the only one who don’t know, he’s doing his last good breathing for the next few days. I look into the crowd for just a minute like, ’cause I’m sort of bored, and there’s Ronnie Webster selling hot dogs for Christ sake, and I guess he sees me ’cause he waves and then the kid lands a sidekick to my face that’s got the whole crowd roaring and I’m busy for a while. This lasts maybe forty seconds. But when I look up again to raise my arms in victory, the whole crowd chanting, “Action, Action” (they call me Action) I can’t see him nowhere. Maybe he’s ashamed. Who would of guessed it? Ronnie Webster. A hot dog vendor ghost.
He was the artist type in high school, getting poems in the school paper and shit. I never read none of them so I can’t say much about that but during the time when I was following him I watched him paint once. It was after school. Chorus was singing some Jesus joy song about Christmas and the janitors was down in their office in the basement getting stoned. Mrs. Smythe was in her room correcting papers and Mr. Lyman was sort of wandering around the way he did. I didn’t know it then but after we graduated Mrs. Lyman hung herself with the afghan she’d been basically knitting and ripping apart for the past ten years. It turns out she was a real nut case all along and Mr. Lyman stayed at school sometimes ’cause he didn’t wanna go home. Which is funny in a way ’cause that’s not so different from me and my friends that he was always busting on. It was getting close to Christmas vacation, you know the chorus singing “Joy, joy, joy” and those construction paper snowflakes and candy canes and all that shit and Ronnie Webster all alone in the art room. I’m just standing in the hall. He’s gotta know I’m there. I ain’t hiding or nothing.
I have to squint at first ’cause the art room’s got all these big windows and because of the snow it’s all this bright white. Ronnie’s got on these queer knee high boots with fuckin’ fringe on them and these striped pants and this fem yellow sweater. Then he stops whistling and he starts waving his arms over the canvas and it changes into a slash of red, black, purple. He’s gotta know I’m watching, and then, all a sudden, he stops and I think, ok, it’s gonna happen now. I can hear my own breathing and the fuckin’ Christmas carols. And I ain’t thinking nothing except ok, it’s gonna happen. He just stands there, hanging his head like he’s praying or something and then, real careful, he puts down his paintbrush and pulls the sweater off. He’s got on just a wife beater but he ain’t got no muscle, his shape is the shape of bones. For the first time I see all the bruises we give him and where it’s not bruised he is white as soap. He just stands there. Then he looks up, right at me with those eyes laced with lashes like a girl. But I don’t say nothing. We just look at each other. Then I hear Mr. Lyman coming down the hall and I leave.
When we left him like that, a heap of flesh and blood, we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Not that I was worried about him. All I thought about was how I just screwed up my whole life.
Thanksgiving day is my mom and the aunts sitting around the kitchen table getting drunk on Budweiser and forgetting to do anything with the turkey once it’s in the oven. Me and my cousins and my uncle watch the games and eat crackers and salami and crack open a few beers but I don’t let the little kids drink and they start whining and I holler at them to go outside and act like normal kids. My little cousin Eddie tells me to Fuck off and I just ignore him ’cause I fucked up so bad already. I just stare at the TV set but I ain’t watching it and after awhile nobody bothers me. I guess you can tell I’m in a mood or something and I am ’cause I’m just expecting any minute the cops to come knocking on the door. But it just keeps getting later and later and finally it starts getting dark and I go around turning on the lights. When I turn the big light on in the kitchen my mom and the aunts look up at me all a sudden all quiet and I say, “Shouldn’t you be mashing potatoes or something?” When I walk away I hear them laughing but the chairs scrape back and my mom starts swearing at the turkey.
Then the phone rings and it’s B.T. and he tells me Ronnie Webster is at Fullbrook Hospital and he won’t tell no one who got him ’cause he wants to take care of it himself. So we have a good laugh over that. “What’s he gonna do, write mean poems about us?”
The turkey’s dry like it’s always dry. The mash potatoes and gravy is lumpy. The only thing really good is the cranberries ’cause you can’t mess them up right out of the can. My mom and aunts all have pink faces and when I look at them I think how they really are sort of pretty. Even my mom. The TV is on ’cause my uncle Frankie and his son, Eddie, are football freaks and they holler from the other room where they are eating and there’s little kids running all over the place and I gotta tell you, for like one minute, two even, I just sit there grinning. And I ain’t even stoned.
In Tulsa I see Ronnie sitting next to Raine. This is before the fight. The crowd is screaming. “Action! Action! Action!” I’m waving my arms in my pre-victory stance and there’s Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine. I give a sort of salute wave and they both wave back. Ronnie, just raising his hand, and Raine, jumping up and down like a fuckin’ cheerleader. I am so distracted by the thought of Ronnie Webster sitting next to Raine and what he might say to her that I fuckin’ almost lose the fight.
Afterwards I ask Raine about him. “He was sitting right next to you,” I say. “A skinny guy.”
“I didn’t notice him,” she says, addressing my wounds. “Jesus, you let that guy tear you up.”
“He don’t tear me up,” I say, “he’s just some kid I use to know from high school.”
“I don’t mean stupid Ronnie Webster,” she says. “I mean the guy you was fighting.”
When he comes back to school he is ugly in a different way. His face is just a fuckin’ wound. He got stitches hanging all over the place. He got stitches in his mouth for Christ’s sake. But he acts like the same. Walking down the hall in those red shoes. Suddenly he’s like the most popular kid in school. But he’s not into it, you can just see he’s still ol’ Ronnie Webster and as far as he’s concerned nothing’s changed. Then he sees me. He looks right at me, and it’s the weirdest thing, he’s gotta know. But he just looks at me like I don’t matter one way or the other and he just keeps walking. That’s the first time I really think about what I did. Jesus, I nearly killed that kid. All a sudden I realize people are watching. When I look at them, they turn away.
That’s when I start following him. I follow him to all his classes so I’m late or I skip mine. I don’t give a shit about school. I follow him home to that big house with all those windows on Fox Ridge. I keep a good distance but he’s gotta know. The way you know when you’re being watched. You can just feel it in your skin, even if they turn away when you look at them. It’s like how I can feel him now, watching me.
Back then it’s like I’m the ghost following Ronnie. I watch him in the john. I watch him paint. I watch him shovel his driveway on Saturday morning. I watch him and his parents leave for church on Sunday. Finally the day before Christmas vacation, we’re in the cafeteria. He sits slurping his food for Christ’s sake and reading some book about leaves and grass. People say things to him and he smiles or laughs even though with his mouth open you can see the stitches hanging there. I don’t even know I’m gonna do this. I go sit across from him. You can just feel the whole cafeteria go silent. Like everybody’s watching now. Ronnie puts down his book and looks at me. I can feel my muscles tighten. I can feel the muscles in the room tighten. But Ronnie just looks at me.
“I’m one of them,” I say, soft like, so only he can hear.
“I know,” he says.
We sit there like that for a few seconds. Then he just picks up his book and keeps slurping and reading and after a while I get up and walk away.
I ain’t scared, if that’s what you’re thinking. When he’s in the stands waving at me while I turn some guy’s face into blue ribbon chili, or when he’s in the room, watching me and Raine and she says, “It don’t matter honey, it happens to everyone. Did I tell you I’m going to be busy for the next few weeks?” and he just sits there, laughing, or even when it’s just me alone with him, I ain’t scared. Even as a ghost Ronnie Webster is mostly just annoying. Like right now. He’s standing in the mirror and he’s fucking laughing. I know why, ok? I mean my face is right there to prove it. I’m a ugly fuck. Ok? You satisfied, you fucking ghost? “I’m a ugly fuck! I’m a ugly fuck!”
I don’t even realize I’m shouting until the downstairs neighbor starts pounding on the ceiling. “Shut the fuck up, you ugly fuck,” he screams.
“Fuck you!” I holler.
“Fuck you, you fucker!”
He pounds on the ceiling again and I stamp on the floor. He turns his music up. Loud. Fucking Aerosmith. And I sit down on the edge of the bed.
Fuck, I feel like shit. Ronnie comes and sits beside me. Right on the bed. I say, “Fuck, Ronnie? What the fuck you want?”
He turns and looks at me and fuck, how could I be wrong about this for so long? I look at him and he looks at me, and then, like we are fucking twilight zone people, we both open our mouths but I’m the only one who actually talks.
I say, “Beautiful.”
And then, just like that, he’s gone and I’m fucking sitting there on the edge of my bed. Alone.
——— I ———
Her mother carved angels in the backyard. The largest was six feet tall and had the face of her mother’s first lover, killed in a car accident when they were still in their teens. It took eighteen months to sway the purple and blue webbed stone into wings and skin, to release the wisp of feathers from the metallic clasp. She carved through the seasons, the easy spring, the heat of summer. In autumn she moved closer to the garage and plugged in the space heater, and in winter she wiped the white ash, that was what she called it, from his broad shoulders and unformed brow and in fingerless gloves carved him with a heat that flushed her cheeks and brightened her eyes.
The smallest angel was no larger than Lantanna’s pinky and it was for the memory of an aborted fetus. Lantanna had heard the woman whisper her request through the closed door on a dark and moonless night. “I know I made the right decision,” she said, “but still, I feel empty. I want something to mark the absence. A little angel for the one I sent past. Can you carve it a girl? Can you make her face at peace?” Lantanna stood shivering in the kitchen doorway, unnoticed by her mother who listened with a passive expression to the stranger behind the door. “And one last thing?” whispered the voice. “As you carve will you say a prayer, or whatever, for me. Though I’m sure I made the right choice.”
Lantanna turned and walked back to bed. She shivered into her blankets and wrapped them around herself, tight as a cocoon, and fell asleep again without her mother even noticing she had awakened. In her home, as in her life, Lantanna, like a shadow was rarely noticed.
She was the sort of girl who did not know she was pretty. A pale face with the lightest scattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Pale blue eyes the color of dreams. Hair the color of corn.
She wore summer dresses of the nineteen-forties (regardless of the season) thirty years after that time, but unmended and clean as if they had never been worn before. She also wore a slip, which was also not the fashion. The dresses were airy as wings, so thin that the slip straps with paper clip-looking adjusters could be seen through them, as well as the flower at her chest, a squashed tiny pink or white or yellow rose. In the winter she wore little sweaters, the kind with three-quarter length sleeves and pearl buttons, while the other students at Oakdale High were ripping their jeans and rubbing their new sneakers in dirt. She was pretty but not fashionably so. Hardly anyone noticed. Really, only one.
Quetzl lived in Oakdale in the summer with his father who worked in the city and provided little supervision or restraint. A rare, dark-skinned creature in the town of apple-white, he spent the summers playing his guitar and smoking pot. He watched Lantanna from a distance, first as something vaguely noticed, a blur of color in a vision of black and white, then, with more focus, as she took her daily stroll early each morning past his house, always and mysteriously (in that age when most moved in packs) alone. “She’s a space cadet,” his friend Emma told him once when she saw him watching Lantanna. But he watched with growing fascination because in the dull, same-paced world of Oakdale, Lantanna was different, and because he was different too, he recognized her as one of his kind.
The day it began Lantanna went to her mother with blood-stained panties. Her mother looked up from the dusty chiseling to say, “This is the blood of a broken heart all women suffer. It is inevitable. Wounds must bleed.” Then, when Lantanna began to cry, scolded, “You should be happy. This is good. You will have a long, pain-filled life.”
She showed Lantanna the box of tampons and demonstrated how to use them, watching as she did, tapping her fingers to get back to her work. Lantanna inserted the thin white cardboard-sheathed cotton with a stab of discomfort and in a tremulous voice asked if she was still a virgin. Yes, yes, her mother nodded. “Though it doesn’t matter. Time is relative. After all,” she said, “you already have the wound.”
Following her mother’s instructions, Lantanna washed the blood from her fingers and panties with cold water and yellow soap. By the time she left for her morning walk, her mother was back in the yard absorbed with angel and stone. Lantanna walked past in silence, absorbed in her own study of astral realities. What, she wondered, made true angel wings? Were they gossamer and thinner than glass like butterflies’ wings, or were they heavy with flesh and feathers, coursed with veins and blood?
She did not notice Quetzl following her. And he, so absorbed in the swing of her pale pink dress, the arch of her long legs to the drop of short white slip, did not realize Emma followed him, her eyes glinting with fire.
When Lantanna got to the meadow she walked into the tall grass and lay down. Quetzl stopped at the edge of the meadow and lay down too. At some distance, Emma stood in the shadow of trees that bordered the meadow.
Lantanna lay still. Her arms raised. Her hands like little white stars fallen into the grass. He could only see moments of her face. A small butterfly flitted in the bush nearby, but she did not turn her head or move, only lay there as still and disinterested as a flower. More butterflies flitted nearby. A small orange one lit on her wrist. A tiny blue hovered at her lips but he blinked and in that moment it was gone. Passion rose in him like Jesus’ winged heart in the picture over his grandmother’s bed.
From her distance it is as if Emma is suddenly sainted, a person who sees spirits and changes in the soul. Seeing nothing that can be described like this, she knows Quetzl has fallen in love with Lantanna. She feels a particular response in her own chest. An explosion of desire, the way flame swells to explode.
Lantanna, in the meadow, knows nothing of those who watch. Lying in the grass, her white arms extended like stems her hands flower, her little mouth open with one small lilac bloom on her tongue, parched to swallow, dry in the hot sun, her heart beats like the quick wings of the sleepy orange that flits about her and finally lights on her wrist. A small blue hovers at her lips, darts in and out, in a maddening tease before it rests on the lilac bloom. Quickly, she closes her mouth, tastes the fluttering wings. She chews and hears the vaguest crunch of its small body and, treasuring its quick flavor minced with the lilac, swallows. Sighing, she lets her tired arms fall. Eyes closed, she feels the hot sun, the vague itch of meadow grass, hears the insect hum. But the pulse of her heart is the loudest and most vibrant sensation, as if it is filled with all the butterflies she’s swallowed since she was a little girl. Wings beating in a blood cocoon. Bursting to be free.
When Lantanna rises from the meadow grass and turns to walk home, Quetzl follows. But Emma does not follow them. She waits until they are out of sight and then walks to the meadow, which is bright at the edge of summer with wild flowers and butterflies, alive with an energy she can describe with only one metaphor. Emmma stands at the edge of the meadow, at just about the spot, she estimates, Quetzl lay in. Where the grass looks flattened she bends to touch it, as if it is a holy space, as if by placing her palm where he lay she can touch him. She closes her eyes. Yes, she thinks, she can feel his heat. Then, she lies there too, turns her head to see his vision through the grass, the spear of blades at crosshatch, the flitting of colors, wings and petals. Here, she knows, he lay and watched Lantanna. Lantanna! Emma rises quickly when she realizes she has been laying in the meadow just like that space cadet. She forgives Quetzl for this. He is bewitched, it is obvious. Everyone knows Lantanna comes from a family of witches.
Emma comes from a family of fire fighters. Her father was a volunteer fireman for the Oakdale Fire Department before he mysteriously disappeared on his way to work two years ago. Almost exactly two years ago, Emma thinks. She remembers the hot tears, the new pain in her mother’s eyes. She remembers the first realization of the woman’s disappearance that same morning. She wished, for a long time after, that she had paid her more attention. She remembers a vague slash of red lips, dark hair, heavy perfume in church. But she cannot remember more than this. At this point, she can barely remember him.
Emma reaches in her pocket. She pulls out the lighter. She flicks the top with her thumb, expertly. Emma has a secret. She is the girl who loves fire. She used to start fires to make her father come. No matter what time of day or night, how impossible it was for him to be home for supper, how terribly too tired he was for her or her mother, if there was a fire, he was there. Vibrant. Heroic. She used to watch in awe this strange aspect of him, the strength of his stance, the sternness of his face, his power. Now Emma reaches down. With a quick movement she brushes the flame across the grass in front of her. It sizzles, small as a stitch, but she watches it grow in the tangle of grass. She runs quickly to the edge of woods as the smoke and flame rise behind her, like phantom snakes and devils’ tongues.
She runs to the trees at the edge of the meadow and climbs one. The bark scratches her fingers and she tears a pant leg in her rush. But she barely notices such minor pain. Though it has been two years since he left them, it is at moments like these that she feels closest to her father. There is the same rush of excitement, the same heat of anticipation that used to bring him. Now she can relish the feeling. It is almost like having him back again. The meadow burns. A late afternoon breeze pushes it farther. Emma feels the sting of smoke in her eyes. Strains to hear the sound of sirens. Emma climbs higher. She can see the dirt street, the distant houses. Fire snakes through the grass below. Her eyes sting. Her throat tightens. Even the tree is hot. She feels the pores of her skin open and tears weep out. Her hands tighten to hold the limb, her fingers strain like bird claws, the bones pressed against the skin. Smoke fills her lungs with pain. The flames reach for her. She screams. She feels she screams but she hears no sound other than fire.
Suddenly. He is there, in his suspenders and baggy yellow fire pants. He stands at the edge of the limb. Graceful as a star balanced on its point. He is saying her name over and over again. Emma, Emma, Emma. He extends one hand to her; with the other, he parts the sky. She can see just past him a blue and gentle day at the edge of summer. Emma, Emma, he says, Come. She stands. She stretches her hand to touch his. The limb creaks. Come, he says. He parts the smoke and flame with one hand. Reaches for her with the other. She strains to touch him. She hears a sound like a branch breaking and suddenly she is falling. Falling. On fire. Where? In the blur of heat and pain she forms this final thought. Where? Where are you now?
——— II ———
It is a long winter. It snows every day and the air is brittle. When the sun shines, it sharpens the points of ice that hang from the eaves like daggered teeth.
Lantanna’s mother carves a graveyard angel for the girl who died in the fire. She thinks Emma and Lantanna were friends because of the way Lantanna cried and cried. She wept for days and nights. She would eat nothing but tears.
Lantanna’s mother tried to comfort her. “You have to stop crying. You have to make the decision. Death is inevitable,” she said, “joy is not. You have to choose.”
Of course there had been other winters. Long months when the meadow was frozen and the butterflies gone. Lantanna suffered through those other winters but only by counting the full moons until summer. Now, she cannot count, for she does not know when the meadow will be alive again.
Quetzl sends her letters. Many, many letters. He writes of beauty, desire, and loss. He wrote, “The lesson of the fire is that we must accept we all burn. I burn for you. I go to sleep with the memory of your eyes. Do they remember me?”
Only vaguely. She had been surprised when, on that last summer day, he had come up from somewhere behind her on the path and introduced himself. He had begun speaking strangely almost immediately. He told her he had been watching her. Then he said he would make her a light lunch of butterfly pasta.
But of course, it wasn’t butterflies at all, only bow-shaped pasta sprinkled with parmesan and melted butter, and she did not even taste it, because the fire engines screamed past and she looked down the road in the direction they traveled and saw that the sky was a bright orange of fluttering blues and wings and she knew that the meadow was on fire. Of course they wouldn’t let her near it. She heard them talking about a body, whom she later learned was the girl, Emma. Whenever Lantanna tried to picture Emma, even after she saw her face in the newspaper, she could only hold the image for a fleeting moment. It was true, she was haunted. But not by the death of Emma.
At night she dreamt the fluttering of wings brushed her cheeks and teased her lips.
And it was strange, in the way that strange things happen, that just when she was at her worst, suffering the despair of what was lost from her life forever (some things should be certain, an appetite fed, for instance) that, though she had not answered a single letter, Quetzl came to her, knocking at the door in the midst of another winter storm. He found her wan and pale, shivering in her too thin dress. She invited him in and brought him to warm by the fire but he could see that she was suffering, and of course his love sank to the depths of her despair, and he felt it within him, in the place where Emma died, a greater widening of the emptiness. He implored her to eat and removed from his knapsack a bruised peach, a flattened sandwich, a brown spotted banana, but she wanted none of it. In desperation he moved her closer to the flame where he discovered he could see, not just through the thin fabric of her pale yellow dress to the wisp of shape beneath, but through her skin to the blue course of veins and delicate bones.
He found Lantanna’s mother in the garage, huddled near the space heater, carving an angel who looked vaguely familiar. He watched for a long time her intense carving, before he approached, saying, “You give more attention to this statue than you do your own daughter.” At which she did not pause but continued to carve, the scrape of metal against stone shrill to his ears. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you.”
“Well? What kind of mother are you? Can’t you see what’s happening?” At this the woman laughed. “I see what’s happening,” she said. “You’re happening. And if she can survive you, perhaps she’ll live.”
“Survive me? I love her.”
“You destroy her.”
“I save her,” he said, and then turned on his heels, muttering, “Standing here talking to a crazy old witch,” he walked out of the garage into the storm.
That night he returned with a car and took Lantanna and a suitcase he directed her to pack and drove through the white snow sifting the sky, soft as petals. “Where are we going?” she asked, suddenly aware that she was confused.
She slept. When she woke, it was light. He offered her a hamburger and this she refused but she ate some of the lettuce and the tomato so he was pleased. The stars were white-bright, intense. She slept. When she woke again a hot sun followed them. Her cheeks were wet, and she sniffed at her own scent, salty, musty. He drove with a grim resolve, stopping to piss, to kiss her mouth that she was embarrassed tasted of her own bad breath. “Mexico?” she said and he shrugged his shoulders and nodded as if, yes, it was strange, but somehow inevitable. “Why, we’re driving into summer,” she said. At night they slept in rest stops where she washed her armpits, and feet, and crotch, and wet a comb through her hair, and still she felt wild somehow and could not wash or neaten the feeling away. She’d squint into the dimpled mysterious rest stop mirrors and try to see the change reflected there, the strange strength that grew inside her, and she looked at his face and came to believe she saw it in his profile too. Wild. Free.
When they got to the border there was a wait of traffic and it was the first time she entered another country and she did not know it would be so much like an amusement park. Tijuana was strange, bright with color and cheap, but he kept driving past chain link fences with holes cut out of them that marked the border, past cardboard-and-tire shacks with the blue light of a TV inside, past the fish stands, and women with babies begging. He stopped only to look at the map and she began to think that this was not love, not love at all, but some sort of obsession and then he said, “We’re here. I think.” But it was dark and so they slept until morning showed them the edge of the jungle and they followed the strange trail she could not object to because it was inevitable until at last they stood at the top of the hill and he waved his hand across the expanse of valley below. “Here,” he said, “I give you this.” She had to squint and not really look at all before she saw that the spotted trees quivered with red and black wings, thousands and thousands, so what could she do but walk into them? They lit on her, in her hair, on her hands. They fluttered against her skin. “Monarchs,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “For you.”
“Monarchs,” she said again.
“Because you love them.”
Monarchs flitted against her skin and hair. Each touch reminded her of the loss.
“Now you see how I love you,” he said. “I left home. I stole the car. I did everything for you. Because I know you miss the butterflies. I would do anything for you. I would die for you.”
“But” She could not continue. She saw the bright light in his eyes and could not cast it out with the venomous truth. He saw the tears in her eyes and mistook them for joy. He broke the distance between them and kissed her with the passion of a thousand wings, of an exile, of an appetite starved.
She returned the kiss with her own pain. Poisonous. All these butterflies, she thought, and not one of them edible. His tongue fluttered in her mouth. She had to concentrate not to bite down. He pressed against her. His hot hands on her thighs, her panties stretched tight as his fingers wiggled inside, eager, one tip, wet, there. She groaned. His other hand pushed the panties down. Yes, why not? she thought. Anything, anything to stop the sound of wings.
“Oh, Lantanna,” he said. “I will love you forever.”
But this she could not believe. Even as she lay on the jungle ground, monarchs fluttering against her skin and brushing her hands, even as she arched to meet the stab of pleasure, even later in the car where it happened again, and at the rest stops, beneath the desert stars, even as he risked arrest to drive her home because she missed her mother, even though she knew he meant to, she also knew he could not love her forever, for he did not love her now, not really. Not knowing her secret, not understanding her appetite, how could she believe he loved her at all?
——— III ———
When they returned to Oakdale, Quetzl was arrested. They talked of arresting Lantanna but Quetzl said she did not know he’d stolen the car. Lantanna did not want to go to prison so she did not argue for truth.
Winter melted. Queetzl wrote to Lantanna every day. Every day she read his mysterious, passionate letters and wept.
Finally, she took the bus and hitchhiked to the county jail.
“How did you get here?”
“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”
“I don’t want you hitchhiking, it’s dangerous.”
“Anyway,” she said to change the subject.
“No. Not anyway. I’ll end this visit,” he said, “if you don’t promise. Promise me you will not hitchhike again.”
“You’re not understanding.”
“What am I not understanding? I love you. I want you safe.”
“No,” Lantanna said. “That’s not what I mean. What you don’t understand is I won’t promise you anything. I am not the one. You need me. Let’s just be clear about this. You need me. And I don’t need you. So don’t make threats that hurt only yourself.”
Quetzl waved for the guard.
Yes. I need you. Beautiful, beautiful girl. I love you. I need you for your beauty. Your love of beauty. Come visit. Tell me you love me. I live to hear you say it. I would do anything for you. I would die for you. But I don’t want you to die for me. I just want you to be safe. Come back to me. I love you. I love you. I love you. Say it.
The second visit.
“How did you get here?”
“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”
“I just want you to be safe.”
“How can you love me,” she says, “if you don’t believe I want the same thing for myself?”
“Lantanna, I love you. Tell me what you want. Tell me what will make you love me.”
“Well,” she says, “that’s a start. Finally, you ask. There are things about me. Things you do not even guess. I have many secrets and there is one that really matters. I’ve never shared it with anyone. I’ve never known anyone who would understand.”
“Yes. Me. I love you. You can tell me anything.”
“This I have to show you.”
“Then show me.”
“I can’t show you here.”
“Will you wait for me?”
“How can I answer? How can I know?”
Several nights later she is awakened. “Quetzl?”
“I escaped,” he says. “But they’ll find me. They’ll come here. We have to go.”
“What?” she says. “Is this your gift to me? I don’t want to go to prison for helping you to escape.”
“No, no. Didn’t I tell you?” He sits beside her on the bed. He grabs her arm and she feels the pulse and weight of his passion. “You never wrote, you only visited twice, and when you came we fought. I have this all planned. You tell them I kidnapped you. If we’re caught you tell them that. See, I have this rope. Let me tie you up.”
“You must think I am really stupid.”
“Lantanna,” he begs. “Trust me. All I’ve ever done is love you. I escaped so you could show me your secret.”
“It’s not here,” Lantanna says. “It’s not in this room.” She sees that he is sweating. She sees fear in his eyes.
It isn’t that she really believes he loves her but because she hopes he does, that she agrees. He ties her wrists to the bedposts. She watches his profile as he does. So serious in his work he does not seem to notice her. With the final knot he kisses her. “I won’t do this, if you don’t want me to,” he says as he lifts her thin nightgown.
When he kisses her, she kisses back. It is wonderful, she thinks, to only lie there. He is hungry. It has been a long time and she knows about appetites. He is touching her everywhere. As if his hands had wings. She closes her eyes and tries to feel only these feelings and forget, for a while, the longing, the empty hunger, her own appetite.
Afterward, he takes the silver scissors shaped like a bird from her dresser and saws through the rope. It dangles on the posts and the loops bracelet her wrists. When they stand up together there is a wet spot exposed on the bed. “That’s good,” he says, “it looks like I raped you.”
It is getting light. They sneak down the stairs together as if Lanatanna lived in a house with the sort of parent who would interfere.
She takes him down the path, past his father’s house, past the burnt trees of last summer’s fire, to the meadow, which is stubby as a bad haircut but sprite with flowers.
“I didn’t know it would grow back so quickly,” he says.
She lies down. She ignores him. He finds this moving, that she has let him in so close now that he can see what she is alone. She picks a bud and puts it in her mouth. He is fascinated. This small gesture he had not seen before. She raises her arms, the knotted rope bracelets her wrists, her hands are like little white stars fallen into the meadow grass. The early morning strengthens with heat. He is restless. But she is still and he has learned patience from her stillness.
Finally, a very small yellow butterfly begins to flit about. It lands on the rope.
He thinks, This beautiful girl.
It flits around her lips.
It lands on the bud in her mouth.
She snaps her mouth shut. Chews. Swallows. She looks at him.
He looks at her.
She covers her face with her hands, like a child, as if by not seeing him she disappears. When she removes them, he is still watching her. She cannot bear what she sees. She closes her eyes.
“Go away,” she says.
“I can help you.”
“No. Go away.”
“But I love you,” he says.
She looks at him.
“Really,” he says.
“And this?” she gestures toward her mouth.
“I’ll help you,” he says. “I’ll stick by you while you work it out.”
“This is not a problem,” she says. “This is my appetite.”
He bends to kiss her, but just above her mouth, hesitates.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “they don’t fly back out.”
She closes her eyes. For a long time the only sound is the scrying of bugs. Then she hears the sound of his feet like a scythe, cutting through the meadow grass.
Now, everything is different. She does what she has never done before. She picks another bud. Places it in her mouth. Today she will eat until she has enough. A small blue flits about. She waits. Waits. Waits. It lands on her tongue. Wings fluttering. She bites. In the distance, she hears sirens. Chews. Yes, everything is different now. Swallows. It even tastes different. It tastes better.
A family of breasts. Bras on chair backs, towel rods, floor. Defeated. Lace. Flowers. Cotton. Snaps and straps. A history of fingers doing and undoing. Pale, slender and sure fingers. Bored fingers. Fumbling, thick and hot fingers. Long fingers. Faintly scented of Old Spice fingers. Fingers slick with the oily scent of released peepers that chirp in the pond at the foot of the driveway those dark nights of early spring, car windows rolled down slightly to relieve the steam. Yawning Sunday morning in with stretch of limbs and breasts, a house of daughters. All of them wild and uncertain as black butterflies.
He sits at the kitchen table and drinks coffee flavored with chicory. Who can sleep in a house of girls? Their dreams find him in bed or couch, recliner. Wherever his head rests in sleep, the dreams find him, with their scent of orchids, crushed in back seats of leather coat dates, breath of cinnamon and cigarettes and Schnapp’s. He rubs his temple. Well, this is what his own mother foretold when he brought home Elspeth in her lace and painted boots, feather earrings and wild hair a flame of red that lit her face. “She’s a witch,” his mother said. “Only trouble will come of her.”
He married her beneath a full moon in a garden planted with Night Blooming Jasmine and chocolate mint, so sweet he was dizzy throughout the ceremony and can only remember parts of it; the scent, the weight of moon, the honey he licked from her fingertips, the sound of laughter, the blink of fireflies, the yellow in her eyes.
Seven daughters and his mother was right. He had everything to lose and the losing had already begun.
Soon the kitchen will be full of them. Their hair a tangle of curls and smoke, barefoot with pink painted toenails, or in white socks scrunched around ankles, in cotton pants and skinny strapped T shirts, in pale yellow robe, in shorts, long shirts, long legs, long arms, yawning and stretching, fighting over coffee mugs, laughing wildly at whispered words, kissing him on cheek, chin, or forehead, rubbing his hair with a quick swipe of hand, leaning into him with many shapes of breasts. Their night scent. “You should get some sleep,” they’ll say with milk breath, peach breath, dark and hot breath. “You look wiped out.”
He tries to sleep in the crook of his hand. The chicory cools in the mug. And he does sleep. For a few minutes. His daughters’ dreams, used and discarded, find him. The pull of zipper. The scent of leather. Heat. Wet. He wakes with a start. Through the kitchen window he sees the dreams float over the quiet yard of pecking robins, shoots of daffodils, tulip stems unflowered. He picks up his mug. Turns.
Elspeth. The flame of her hair, gone. She stares at him with yellow eyes. He walks past her to dump the coffee down the drain, brushing her shoulder when he does. She smells like old wood, the autumn forest behind the house. But this is spring! The coffee leaves a brown circle on the porcelain. He turns to fill his mug with fresh. She moves to the stove. Lifts the teakettle to check its weight for water. Sets it on the burner. Turns the switch to high. Opens the cupboard for a jar of tea, dried from garden herbs. She looks at jars of cat’s claw, dandelion, rosehips, burdock root, chamomile, peppermint. She stares and stares until the teakettle whistles. She takes it off the burner. Reaches up. Opens another cupboard. Takes out a bottle of red wine.
“What are you doing?” he says.
She finds the corkscrew shaped like a man with a tremendous and strange cock. She pierces the cork. Screws it. Ha!
“You shouldn’t,” he says.
She brushes past him to reach for a wineglass.
She smells of dirt and sun, heat of a large animal. She pours red wine. The kitchen smells of chicory, the sweet wine, and her. He will go mad. He will go crazy holding all of it in. Soon the girls will wake and fill the kitchen with their young breasts and sleeping voices and laughter and he is drowning, a dry drowning, unexpected so far from water.
“You are still having their dreams,” she says. It is not a question. She gulps the wine, staring at him.
He sits at the kitchen table again. Defeated. “I can’t stop them.”
The ceiling creaks with the weight of footsteps. A door opens and shuts. They are waking up. They will fill the kitchen with their own brand of innocence, the scent of exploration on fingertips and skin, so soft, bra straps and T shirts always seem to be sliding off.
“You wouldn’t believe the things they’re dreaming,” he says.
She grunts. Takes another gulp. “You’ve got that wrong.”
The ceiling creaks and pounds. Those little feet sound like sons up there! Doors open and close. A radio is turned on.
He covers his face with his hands and sobs.
She sets the glass on the counter and walks over to him. He wraps his arm around her hips, buries his face into the smoked fish scent of her. Reaches up.”They’re coming,” she says.
He parts her robe and reaches to touch the breast with blue lines webbing to aureole. His hand moves across to the flattened space, the bone they left her with, the smooth planed skin as if she is both, girl and woman.
Footsteps pound down the stairs. She steps back. Shuts her robe.
They are everywhere. The kitchen fills with them. Wisps of discarded dreams cling to them like smoke. They do not notice the wineglass or the way their parents look at them, as if they are ghosts they’ve learned to live with. They make toast. Leave crumbs on the counter. Put feet up on chairs. Insult each other.
Then, for a moment, as if the whole family is enchanted, the kitchen quiets. There is only the sound of juice glass set on table, clank of butter knife. A sigh. They stare out the window at the spring grass, thatched with unblossomed flowers, and try to remember the dreams, the perfect dreams they had.