Chapter no 9

North American Lake Monsters

The water makes her nightgown diaphanous, like the ghost of something, and she is naked underneath. Her breasts are full, her nipples large and pale, and her soft stomach, where he once loved to rest his head as he ran his hand through the soft tangle of hair between her legs, is stretched with the marks of age. He sits on the lid of the toilet, feeling a removed horror as his cock stirs beneath his robe. Her eyes are flat and shiny as dimes and she doesn’t blink as the water splashes over her face. Wispy clouds of blood drift through the water, obscuring his view of her. An empty prescription bottle lies beside the tub, a few bright pills scattered like candy on the floor. He was not meant to see this, and he feels a minor spasm of guilt, as though he has caught her at something shameful and private. This woman with whom he had once shared all the shabby secrets of his life. The slice in her forearm is an open curtain, blood flowing out in billowing dark banners. “You’re going to be okay, Katie,” he says. He has not called her Katie

in ten years. He makes no move to save her.

Sean shifted his legs out of bed and pressed his bare feet onto the hardwood floor; it was cold, and his nerves jumped. A spike of life. A sign of movement in the blood. He sat there for a moment, his eyes closed, and concentrated on that. He slid his feet into his slippers and willed himself into a standing position.

He walked naked across the bedroom and fetched his robe from the closet. He threw it around himself and tied it closed. He walked by the vanity, with its alchemies of perfumes and eyeshadows, ignoring the mirror, and left the bedroom. Down the hallway, past the closed bathroom door with light still bleeding from underneath, descending the stairs to the sunlit order of his home.

He was alert to each contraction of muscle, to each creak of bone and ligament. To the pressure of the floor against the soles of his feet, to the slide of the bannister’s polished wood against the soft white flesh of his hand.

His mind skated across the frozen surface of each moment. He pushed it along, he pushed it along.

They’d been married twenty-one years, and Katie had tried to kill herself four times in that span. Three times in the last year and a half. Last night, she’d finally gotten it right.

The night had started out wonderfully. They dressed up, went out for dinner, had fun for the first time in recent memory. He bought her flowers, and they walked downtown after dinner and admired the lights and the easy flow of life. He took her to a chocolate shop. Her face was radiant, and a picture of her that final night was locked into his memory: the silver in her hair shining in the reflected light of an overhead lamp, her cheeks rounded into a smile, the soft weight of life turning her body beautiful and inviting, like a blanket, or a hearth. She looked like the girl she used to be. He’d started to believe that with patience and fortitude they could keep at bay the despair that had been seeping into her from some unknown, subterranean hell, flowing around the barricades of antidepressants and anxiety pills, filling her brain with cold water.

When they got home they opened up another bottle and took it to the bedroom. And somehow, they started talking about Heather, who had gone away to college and had recently informed them that she did not want to come home for spring break. It wasn’t that she wanted to go anywhere special; she wanted to stay at the dorm, which would be nearly emptied of people, and read, or work, or fuck her new boyfriend if she had one, or

whatever it was college girls wanted to do when they didn’t want to come home to their parents.

It worked away at Kate like a worm, burrowing tunnels in her gut. She viewed Sean’s acceptance of Heather’s decision as callous indifference. When the subject came up again that night, he knew the mood was destroyed.

He resented her for it. For spoiling, once again and with what seemed a frivolous cause, the peace and happiness he was trying so hard to give her. If only she would take it. If only she would believe in it. Like she used to do, before her brain turned against her, and against them all.

They drank the bottle even as the despair settled over her. They ended the night sitting on the edge of the bed, she wearing her sexy nightgown, her breasts mostly exposed and moon-pale in the light, weeping soundlessly, a little furrow between her eyebrows but otherwise without affect, and the light sheen of tears which flowed and flowed, as though a foundation had cracked; and he in the red robe she’d bought him for Christmas, his arm around her, trying once again to reason her away from a precipice which reason did not know.

Eventually he lay back and put his arm over his eyes, frustrated and angry. And then he fell asleep.

He awoke sometime later to the sound of splashing water. It should have been too small a sound to reach him, but it did anyway, worming its way into the black and pulling him to the surface. When he discovered that he was alone in the bedroom, and sensed the deepness of the hour, he walked to the bathroom, where the noise came from, without urgency and with a full knowledge of what he would find.

She spasmed every few seconds, as though something in the body, separate from the mind, fought against this.

He sat down on the toilet, watching her. Later he would examine this moment and try to gauge what he had been feeling. It would seem important to take some measure of himself, to find out what kind of man he really was.

He would come to the conclusion that he’d felt tired. It was as though his blood had turned to lead. He knew the procedure he was meant to follow here; he’d done it before. Already his muscles tightened to abide by the routine, signals blew across his nerves like a brushfire: rush to the tub,

waste a crucial moment in simple denial brushing the hair from her face and cradling her head in his warm hands. Hook his arms underneath her body and lift her heavily from the water. Carry her, streaming blood and water, to the bed. Call 911. Wait. Wait. Wait. Ride with her, and sit unmoving in the waiting room as they pump her stomach and fill her with a stranger’s blood. Answer questions. Does she take drugs. Do you. Were you fighting. Sir, a social worker will be by to talk to you. Sir, you have to fill out these forms. Sir, your wife is broken, and you are, too.

And then wait some more as she convalesces in the psych ward. Visit her, try not to cry in front of her as you see her haunting that corridor with the rest of the damned, dwelling like a fading thought in her assigned room.

Bring this pale thing home. This husk, this hollowed vessel. Nurse her to a false health. Listen to her apologize, and accept her apologies. Profess your reinvigorated love. Fuck her with the urgency of pity and mortality and fear, which you both have come to know and to rely on the way you once relied on love and physical desire.

If they could save her.

And if, having saved her, they decided to let her come home at all.

She will never be happy.

The thought came to him with the force of a revelation. It was as though God spoke a judgment, and he recognized its truth as though it had been with them all along, the buzzard companion of their late marriage. Some people, he thought, are just incapable of happiness. Maybe it was because of some ancient trauma, or maybe it was just a bad equation in the brain. Kate’s reasons were mysterious to him, a fact which appalled him after so many years of intimacy. If he pulled her from the water now, he would just be welcoming her back to hell.

With a flutter of some obscure emotion—some solution of terror and relief—he closed the door on her. He went back to bed and, after a few sleeping pills of his own, fell into a black sleep. He dreamed of silence.

In the kitchen, light streamed in through the bay window. It was a big kitchen, with a stand-alone chopping table, wide crumb-flecked counters, ranks of silver knives agleam in the morning sun. Dirty dishes were stacked in the sink and on the counter beside it. The trash hadn’t been taken out on

time, and its odor was a dull oppression. The kitchen had once been the pride of their home. It seemed to have decayed without his noticing.

A small breakfast nook accommodated a kitchen table in a narrow passage joining the kitchen to the dining room. It still bore the scars and markings of the younger Heather’s attentions: divots in the wood where she once tested the effectiveness of a butter knife, a spray of red paint left there during one of her innumerable art projects, and the word “kichen” gouged into the side of the table with a ballpoint pen, years ago, when she thought everything should carry its name. It had become an inadvertent shrine to her childhood, and, since she’d left, Kate had shifted their morning coffee to the larger and less welcoming dining room table in the adjoining room. The little breakfast nook had been surrendered to the natural entropy of a household, becoming little more than a receptacle for car keys and unopened mail.

Sean filled the French press with coffee grounds and put the water on to boil.

For a few crucial minutes he had nothing to do, and a ferocious panic began to chew at the border of his thoughts. He felt a weight descending from the floor above him. An unseen face. He thought for a moment that he could hear her footsteps. He thought for a moment that nothing had changed.

He was looking through the bay window to the garden out front, which had ceded vital ground to weeds and ivy. Across the street he watched his neighbor’s grandkids tear around the corner of their house like crazed orangutans: ill-built yet strangely graceful, spurred by an unknowable animal purpose. It was Saturday; though winter still lingered at night, spring was warming the daylight hours.

Apparently it was a beautiful day.

The kettle began to hiss, and he returned to his rote tasks. Pour the water into the press. Stir the contents. Fit the lid into place and wait for the contents to steep. He fetched a single mug from the cabinet and waited at the counter.

He heard something move behind him, the soft pad of a foot on the linoleum, the staccato tap of dripping water. He turned and saw his wife standing at the kitchen’s threshold, the nightgown still soaked through and clinging intimately to her body, streams of water running from the gown

and from her hair, which hung in a thick black sheet, and pooling brightly around her.

A sound escaped him, a syllable shot like a hard pellet, high-pitched and meaningless. His body jerked as though yanked by some invisible cord and the coffee mug launched from his hand and shattered on the floor between them. Kate sat down in the nook; the first time she’d sat there in almost a year. She did not look at him, or react to the smashed mug. Water pit-patted from her hair and her clothes, onto the table. “Where’s mine?” she said.

“Kate? What?”

“Where’s my coffee? I want coffee. I’m cold. You forgot mine.”

He worked his jaw, trying to coax some sound. Finally he said, “All right.” His voice was weak and undirected. “All right,” he said again. He opened the cabinet and fetched two mugs.

She’d had a bad dream. It was the only thing that made sense. She was cold and wet and something in her brain tried to arrange it into a logical shape. She remembered seeing Sean’s face through a veil of water. Watching it recede from her. She felt a buckle of nausea at the memory. She took a drink from the coffee and felt the heat course through her body. It only made her feel worse.

She rubbed her hands at her temples.

“Why am I all wet?” she said. “I don’t feel right. Something’s wrong with me. Something’s really wrong.”

Sean guided her upstairs. She reacted to his gentle guidance, but did not seem to be acting under any will of her own; except when he tried to steer her into the bathroom. She resisted then, turning to stone in the hallway. “No,” she said. Her eyes were hard and bright with fear. She turned her head away from the door. He took her wrist to pull her, but she resisted. His fingers inadvertently slid over the incision there, and he jerked his hand away.

“Honey. We need to fix you up.” “No.”

He relented, taking her to the bedroom instead, where he removed her wet nightgown. It struck him that he had not seen her like this, standing naked in the plain light of day, for a long time. They had been married for over twenty years, and they’d lost interest in each other’s bodies long ago. When she was naked in front of him now he barely noticed. Her body was part of the furniture of their marriage, utilized but ignored, with occasional benign observations from them both about its declining condition.

In a sudden resurgence of his feelings of the previous night, he became achingly aware of her physicality. She was so pale: the marble white of statues, or of sunbleached bones. Her flesh hung loosely on her body, the extra weight suddenly obvious, as though she had no muscle tone remaining at all. Her breasts, her stomach, her unshaven hair: the human frailty of her, the beauty of a lived-in body, which he knew was reflected in his own body, called up a surge of tenderness and sympathy.

“Let’s put some clothes on,” he said, turning away from her.

He helped her step into her underwear, found a bra and hooked her into it. He found some comfortable, loose-fitting clothes for her, things he knew she liked to wear when she had nowhere special to go. It was not until he was fitting her old college reunion T-shirt over her head that he allowed himself to look at her wrist for the first time, and the sight of it made him step back and clasp a hand over his mouth.

Her left arm bore a long incision from wrist to elbow. The flesh puckered like lips, and as she bent her arm into the shirt he was afforded a glimpse at the awful depth of the wound. It was easily deep enough to affect its purpose, and as bloodless as the belly of a gutted fish.

“Katie,” he said, and brought her wrist to his lips. “What’s happening to you?” He pressed his fingers to her cheek; they were cool, and limp. “Are you okay?” It was the stupidest question of his life. But he didn’t know what else to ask. “Katie?”

She turned her face to him, and after a few moments he could see her eyes begin to focus on him, as though she had to travel a terrible span to find him there. “I don’t know,” she said. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Do you want to lie down?” “I guess.”

He eased her toward her side of the bed, which was smooth and untroubled: she had slept underwater last night; not here. He laid her there

like folded laundry.

He sat beside her as she drifted off. Her eyes remained open, but she seemed gone; she seemed truly dead. Maybe, this time, she was.

Does she remember? he thought. Does she remember that I left her? He stretched himself out beside her and ran his hand through her hair, repetitively, a kind of prayer.

Oh my God, he thought, what have I done? What is happening to me?

Eventually she wanted to go outside. Not at first, because she was scared, and the world did not make any sense to her. The air tasted strange on her tongue, and her body felt heavy and foreign—she felt very much like a thought wrapped in meat. She spent a few days drifting through the house in a lethargic haze, trying to shed the feeling of unease which she had woken with the morning after her bath, and which had stayed rooted in her throat and in her gut the whole time since. Sean came and went to work. He was solicitous and kind; he was always extra attentive after she tried to kill herself, though; and although she welcomed the attention, she had learned to distrust it. She knew it would fade, once the nearness of death receded.

She watched the world through the window. It was like a moving picture in a frame; the details did not change, but the wind blew through the grass and the trees and the neighbors came and went in their cars, giving the scene the illusion of reality. Once, in the late afternoon before Sean came home, she was seen. The older man who lived across the street, whose cat she fed when he went out of town and who was a friend to them both, caught sight of her as he stepped out of his car and waved. She only stared back. After a moment, the man turned from her and disappeared into his own house.

The outside world was a dream of another place. She found herself wondering if she would fit better there.

On the evening of the third day, while they were sitting at dinner— something wretched and cooling that Sean had picked up on his way home

—she told him.

“I want to go outside.”

Sean kept eating as though he didn’t hear her.

This was not new. He’d been behaving with an almost manic enthusiasm around her, as though he could convince her that their lives were unskewed and smooth through sheer force of will. But he would not look at her face; when he looked at her at all, he would focus on her cheek, or her shoulder, or her hairline. He would almost look at her. But not quite.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he said at last. He ate ferociously, forking more into his mouth before he was finished with the last bite.

“Why not?”

He paused, his eyes lifting briefly to the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. “You still don’t seem . . . I don’t know. Yourself.”

“And what would that be like?” She had not touched her food, except to prod it the way a child pokes a stick at roadkill. It cooled on the plate in front of her, congealing cheese and oils. It made her sick.

His mood swung abruptly into something more withdrawn and depressed; she could watch his face and see it happen. This made her feel better. This was more like the man she had known for the past several years of their marriage.

“Am I a prisoner here?”

He finally looked at her, shocked and hurt. “What? How could you even say that?”

She said nothing. She just held his gaze.

He looked terrified. “I’m just worried about you, babe. You don’t— you’re not—”

“You mean this?” She raised her left arm and slipped her finger into the open wound. It was as clean and bloodless as rubber.

Sean lowered his face. “Don’t do that.”

“If you’re really worried about me, why don’t you take me to the hospital? Why didn’t you call an ambulance? I’ve been sleeping so much the past few days. But you just go on to work like everything’s fine.”

“Everything is fine.” “I don’t think so.”

He was looking out the window now. The sun was going down and the light was thick and golden. Their garden was flowering, and a light dusting of pollen coated the left side of their car in the driveway. Sean’s eyes were unblinking and reflective as water. He stared at it all. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he said.

Silence filled the space between them as they each sat still in their own thoughts. The refrigerator hummed to life. Katie finally pushed herself away from the table and headed toward the door, scooping up the car keys on her way.

“I’m going out,” she said.

“Where?” His voice was thick with resignation.

“Maybe to the store. Maybe nowhere. I’ll be back soon.” He moved to stand. “I’ll come with.”

“No thanks,” she said, and he slumped back into his chair.

Once, she would have felt guilty for that. She would have chastised herself for failing to take into account his wishes or his fears, for failing to protect his fragile ego. He was a delicate man, though he did not know it, and she had long considered it part of her obligation to the marriage to accommodate that frailty of spirit.

But she felt a separation from that now. And from him, too, though she remembered loving him once. If anything inspired guilt, it was that she could not seem to find that love anymore. He was a good man, and deserved to be loved. She wondered if the ghost of a feeling could substitute for the feeling itself.

But worse than all of that was the separation she felt from herself. She’d felt like a passenger in her own body the last three days, the pilot of some arcane machine. She watched from a remove as the flesh of her hand tightened around the doorknob and rotated it clockwise, setting into motion the mechanical process which would free the door from its jamb and allow it to swing open, freeing her avenue of escape. The flesh was a mechanism, too, a contracting of muscle and ligament, an exertion of pull.

There’s nothing wrong with you, he’d said. She opened the door.

The light was like ground glass in her eyes. It was the most astonishing pain she had ever experienced. She screamed, dropped to the floor, and curled into herself. Very distantly she heard something heavy fall over, followed by crashing footsteps which thrummed the floor beneath her head, and then the door slammed shut. Her husband’s hands fell on her and she twisted away from them. The light was a paste on her eyes; she couldn’t seem to claw it off of them. It bled into her skull and filled it like a poisonous radiation. She lurched to her feet, shouldering Sean aside, and

ran away from the door and into the living room, where she tripped over the carpet and landed hard on her side. Her husband’s hysterical voice followed her, a blast of panic. She pushed her body forward with her feet, wedged her face into the space beneath the couch, the cool darkness there, and tried to claw away the astounding misery of the light.

That night she would not come to bed. They’d been sleeping beside each other since the suicide, though he was careful to keep space between them, and had taken to wearing pajamas to bed. She slept fitfully at night, seeming to rest better in the daylight, and this troubled his own sleep, too. She would be as still as stone and then struggle elaborately with the sheets for a few moments before settling into stillness again, like a drowning woman. He turned his head toward the wall when this happened. And then he would remember that he’d turned away from her that night, too. And he would stay awake into the small hours, feeling her struggle, knowing that he’d missed his chance to help her.

The incident at the door had galvanized him, though. Her pain was terrifying in its intensity, and it was his fault. He would not let his guilt or his shame prevent him from doing whatever was necessary to keep her safe and comfortable from now on. Love still lived in him, like some hibernating serpent, and it stirred now. It tasted the air with its tongue.

It took her some time to calm down. He fixed her a martini and brought it to her, watched her sip it disinterestedly as she sat on the couch and stared at the floor, her voice breaking every once in a while in small hiccups of distress. Long nail marks scored her skin; her right eye seemed jostled in its orbit, angled fractionally lower than the other. He had drawn the curtains and pulled the blinds, though by now the sun had sunk and the world outside was blue and cool. He turned off all but a few lights in the house, filling it with shadows. Whether it was this, or the vodka, or something else that did it, she finally settled into a fraught silence.

He eased himself onto the couch beside her, and he took her chin in his fingers and turned her face toward him. An echo of his thought from the night of the suicide passed through his mind: She will never get better.

He felt his throat constrict, and heat gathered in his eyes. “Katie?” He put his hand on her knee. “Talk to me, babe.”

She was motionless. He didn’t even know if she could hear him. “Are you all right? Are you in any pain?”

After a long moment, she said, “It was in my head.” “What was?”

“The light. I couldn’t get it out.”

He nodded, trying to figure out what this meant. “Well. It’s dark now.” “Thank you,” she said.

This small gratitude caused an absurd swelling in his heart, and he cupped her cheek in his hand. “Oh baby,” he said. “I was so scared. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what to do for you.”

She put her own hand over his, and pressed her cheek into his palm. Her eyes remained unfocused though, one askew, almost as if this was a learned reaction. A muscle memory. Nothing more.

“I don’t understand anything anymore,” she said. “Everything is strange.”

“I know.”

She seemed to consider something for a moment. “I should go somewhere else,” she said.

“No,” Sean said. A violence moved inside him, the idea of her leaving calling forth an animal fury, aimless and electric. “No, Katie. You don’t understand. They’ll take you away from me. If I take you somewhere, if I take you to see someone, they will not let you come back. You just stay here. You’re safe here. We’ll keep things dark, like you like it. We’ll do whatever it takes. Okay?”

She looked at him. The lamplight from the other room reflected from her irises, giving them a creamy whiteness that looked warm and soft, incongruous in her torn face, like saucers of milk left out after the end of the world. “Why?”

The question shamed him. “Because I love you, Katie. Jesus Christ.

You’re my wife. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said, and like pressing her cheek into his hand, this response seemed an automatic action. A programmed response. He ignored this, though, and chose to accept what she said as truth—perhaps because this was the first time she’d said it to him since the suicide, when her body had stopped behaving in the way it was meant to and conformed to a new logic, a biology he did not recognize and could not understand and

which made a mystery of her again. It had been so long since she’d been a mystery to him. He knew every detail of her life, every dull complaint and every stillborn dream, and she knew his; but now he knew nothing. Every nerve ending in his body was turned in her direction, like flowers bending to the sun.

Or perhaps he only accepted it because the light was soft, and it exalted


His free hand found her breast. She did not react in any way. He

squeezed it gently in his hand, his thumb rolling over her nipple, still soft under her shirt. She allowed all of this, but her face was empty. He pulled away from her. “Let’s go upstairs,” he said.

He rose and, taking her hand, moved to help her to her feet. She resisted.

“Katie, come on. Let’s go to bed.” “I don’t want to.”

“But don’t you . . .” He took her hand and pressed it against his cock, stiff in his pants. “Can you feel that? Can you feel what you do to me?”

“I don’t want to go upstairs. The light will come in in the morning. I want to sleep in the cellar.”

He released her hand, and it dropped to her side. He thought for a minute. The cellar was used for storage, and was in a chaotic state. But there was room for a mattress down there, and tomorrow he could move things around, make some arrangements, and make it livable. It did not occur to him to argue with her. This was part of the mystery, and it excited him. He was like a high school boy with a mad new crush, prepared to go to any length.

“Okay,” he said. “Give me a few minutes. I’ll make it nice for you.” He left her sitting in the dark, his heart pounding, red and strong.

He fucked her with the ardor one brings to a new lover, sliding into the surprising coolness of her, tangling his fingers into her hair and biting her neck, her chin, her ears. He wanted to devour her, to breathe her like an atmosphere. He hadn’t been so hard in years; his body moved like a piston, and he felt he could go on for hours. He slid his arms beneath her and held her shoulders from behind as he powered into her, the mattress silent

beneath them, the darkness of the cellar as gentle and welcoming as a mother’s heart. At first she wrapped her legs around his back, put her arms over his shoulders, but by the time he finished she had abandoned the pretense and simply lay still beneath him, one eye focused on the underbeams of the ceiling, one eye peering into the black.

Afterwards he lay beside her, staring up at the underside of his house. The cellar was cold and stank of mildew. The piled clutter of a long and settled life loomed around them in mounted stacks, tall black shadows which gazed down upon them like some alien congress. The mattress beneath them came from their own bed; he’d resolved to sleep down here with her, if this was where she wanted to be. Three candles were gathered in a little group by their heads, not because he thought it would be romantic—though he felt that it was—but because he had no idea where the outlets were down here to set up a lamp, and he didn’t want to risk upsetting her by turning on the bare bulb in the ceiling. The candlelight didn’t seem to bother her at all, though; maybe it was just the sun.

He turned his head on the pillow to look at her, and ran his hand along the length of her body. It was cool to the touch, cool inside and out.

“This other light doesn’t bother you, does it, babe?”

She turned her head too, slowly, and looked at him. Her wounds cast garish shadows across her face in the candlelight. “Hmm?”

“The light?”

“. . . Oh, I know you,” she said, something like relief in her voice. “You’re the man who left me in the water.”

Something cold flowed through his body. “What?”

She settled back against the mattress, closing her eyes and pulling the sheet up to her chin. She seemed very content. “I couldn’t remember you for a minute, but then I did.”

“Do you remember that night?” “What night?”

“. . . You said I’m the man who left you in the water.”

“I looked up and I saw you. I was scared of something. I thought you were going to help, but then you went away. What was I scared of? Do you know?”

He shook his head, but her eyes were closed and she couldn’t see him. “No,” he said at last.

“I wish I could remember.”

She climbed off the mattress, leaving the man to sleep. He snored loudly, and this made her think of machines again. His was a clumsy one, loud and rattling, and its inefficiency irritated her. It was corpulent and heavy, uncared for, and breaking down. She decided at that moment that she would not let it touch her again.

She slipped her nightgown on over her head and walked upstairs. Cautiously, she opened the door at the top and peered into the ground floor of the house. It was welcomingly dark. Crossing the living room floor and parting the curtains, she saw that night had fallen.

Within moments she was outside, walking briskly along the sidewalk, crackling with an energy she hadn’t felt in as long as she could remember. The houses on either side of the street were high-shouldered monsters, their windows as black and silent as the sky above her. The yawn of space opened just beneath the surface of her thoughts with a gorgeous silence. She wanted to sink into it, but she couldn’t figure out how. Each darkened building held the promise of tombs, and she had to remind herself that she could not go inside them because people lived there, those churning, squirting biologies, and that the quietude she sought would be found somewhere else.

She remembered a place she could go, though. She quickened her pace, her nightgown—the one she had worn that night, when the man had left her in the water, now clean and white—almost ephemeral in the chilly air and trailing behind her like a ghostly film. The narrow suburban road crested a hill a few hundred feet ahead, and beyond it breached a low dome of light. The city, burning light against the darkness.

Something lay on the sidewalk in front of her, and she slowed as she approached. It was a robin, its middle torn open, its guts eaten away. A curtain of ants flowed inside it and led away from it in a meandering trail into the grass. She picked it up and cradled it close to her face. The ants seethed, spreading through its feathers, over her hand, down her arm. She ignored them.

The bird’s eyes were glassy and black, like tiny onyx stones. Its beak was open, and in it she could see the soft red muscle of its tongue. Something moved and glistened in the back of its throat.

She continued on, holding the robin at her side. She didn’t feel the ants crawling up her arm, onto her neck, into her hair. The bird was a miracle of beauty.

The suburbs stopped at the highway, like an island against the sea. She turned east, the city lights brighter now at her right, and continued walking. The sidewalk roughened as she continued along, broken in places, seasoned with stones and broken glass. She was oblivious to it all. Traffic was light but not incidental, and the rush of cars blowing by lifted her hair and flattened the nightgown against her body. Someone leaned on the horn as he drove past, whooping through an open window.

The clamor of the highway, the stink of oil and gasoline, the buffeting rush of traffic, all served to deepen her sense of displacement. The world was a bewildering, foreign place, the light a low-grade burn and a stain on the air, the rushing cars on the highway a row of gnashing teeth.

But ahead, finally, opening in long, silent acres to her left, was the cemetery.

It was gated and locked, but finding a tree to get over the wall was no difficulty. She scraped her skin on the bark and then on the stone, and she tore her nightgown, but that was of no consequence. She tumbled gracelessly to the ground, like a dropped sack, and felt a sharp snap in her right ankle. When she tried to walk, the ankle rolled beneath her and she fell.

Meat, getting in the way.

Disgusted by this, she used the wall to pull herself to a standing position. She found that if she let the foot just roll to the side and walked on the ankle itself, she could make a clumsy progress.

Clouds obscured the sky, and the cemetery stretched over a rolling landscape, bristling with headstones and plaques, monuments and crypts, like a scattering of teeth. It was old; many generations were buried here. The sound of the highway, muffled by the wall, faded entirely from her awareness. She stood amidst the graves and let their silence fill her.

The flutter of unease that she’d felt since waking after the suicide abated. The sense of disconnection was gone. Her heart was a still lake.

Nothing in her moved. She wanted to cry from relief.

Still holding the dead robin in her hand, she lurched more deeply into the cemetery.

She found a hollow between the stones, a trough between the stilled waves of earth, where no burial was marked. She eased herself to the ground and curled up in the grass. The clouds were heavy and thick, the air was cold. She closed her eyes and felt the cooling of her brain.

Sounds rose from the earth. New sounds: cobwebs of exhalations, pauses of the heart, the monastic work of the worms translating flesh to soil, the slow crawl of rock. There was another kind of industry, somewhere beneath her. Another kind of machine.

It was new knowledge, and she felt the root of a purpose. She set the robin aside and tore grass away, dug her nails into the dark soil, pushed through. She scooped aside handfuls of dirt. At some point in her labors she became aware of something awaiting her beneath the earth. Moving silences, the cloudy breaths of the moon, magnificent shapes unrecognizable to her novice intelligence, like strange old galleons of the sea.

And then, something awful. A rough bark, a perverse intrusion into this quiet celebration, a rape of the silence.

Her husband’s voice.

She was alone again, and she felt his rough hands upon her.

It had been nothing more than instinct which guided him to her, finally. He panicked when he awoke to her missing, careened through the house, shouted like a fool in his front yard until lights began to pop on in the neighbors’ houses. Afraid that they would offer to help, or call the police for him, he got into the car and started driving. He criss-crossed the neighborhood to no avail, until finally it occurred to him that she might go to the cemetery. That she might, in some fit of delirium, decide that she belonged there.

The thought tore at him. The guilt over leaving her to die in the bathtub threatened to crack his ribs. It was too big to contain.

He scaled the cemetery wall and called until he found her, a small white form in a sea of graves and dark grass, huddled and scared, clawing

desperately in the dirt. Her ankle was broken and hung at a sickening angle. He pulled her up by her shoulders and wrapped his arms around her,

hugged her tightly against him.

“Oh Katie, oh baby,” he said. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve got you. You scared me so bad. You’re going to be okay.”

An ant emerged from her hairline and idled on her forehead. Another crawled out of her nose. He brushed them furiously away.

She returned to the cellar. He spent a few days getting it into some kind of order, moving precarious stacks into smaller and sturdier piles, and giving her some room to move around in. While she slept in the daytime he brought down the television set and its stand, a lamp, and a small box where he kept the books she had once liked to read. He left the mattress on the floor but changed the sheets regularly. When he was not at work he spent all his time down there with her, though he had taken to sleeping upstairs so that he could lock her in when she was most likely to try to wander.

“I can’t risk you getting lost again,” he told her. “It would kill me.” Then he closed the door and turned the lock. She heard his steps tread the floor above her.

She had taken the dead robin and nailed it to one of the support beams beside the mattress. It was the only beautiful thing in the room, and it calmed her to look at it.

Her foot was more trouble than it was worth so she wrenched it off and tossed it into the corner.

“That was Heather,” Sean said, closing the cellar door and tromping down the stairs. He sat beside her on the mattress and put his arm around her shoulders. She did not lean into him the way she used to do, so he gave her a little pull until it seemed like she was.

When he’d noticed her missing foot the other night he’d quietly gone back upstairs and dry heaved over the sink. Then he came back down, searched until he located it in a corner, and took it outside to bury it. The crucified bird had not bothered him initially, but over the days it had gathered company: two mice, three cockroaches, a wasp, some moths. Their

dry little bodies were arrayed like art. She had even pulled the bones from one of the mice, fixing them with wood glue onto the post in some arcane hieroglyph.

He was frightened by its alienness. He was frightened because it meant something to her and it was indecipherable to him.

She was watching something on TV with the sound off: men in suits talking to each other across a table. They seemed very earnest.

“She wants to come home for the weekend,” he said. “I said it would be okay.”

She pulled her gaze from the screen and looked at him. The light from the television made small blue squares in her eyes, which had begun to film over in a creamy haze. It was getting hard to tell that one eye was askew, which made him feel better when he talked to her. “Heather,” she said. “I like Heather.”

He put his fingers in her hair, hooked a dark lock behind her ear. “Of course you do, baby. You remember her, don’t you.”

She stared for a moment, then her brow furrowed. “She used to live here.”

“That’s right. She went to college, and she lives there now. She’s our daughter. We love her.”

“I forgot.”

“And you love me, too.” “Okay.”

She looked back at the television. One of the men was standing now, and laughing so hard his face was red. His mouth was wide open. He was going to swallow the world.

“Can you say it?” “Say what?”

“That you love me. Can you say that to me? Please?” “I love you.”

“Oh baby,” he said, and leaned his head against hers, his arm still around her. “Thank you. Thank you. I love you too.”

They sat there and watched the silent images. His mind crept ahead to Heather’s visit. He wondered what the hell he was going to tell her. She was going to have a hard time with this.

What is the story of our marriage?

He went back to that night again and again. He remembered standing over her, watching her body struggle against the pull of a death she had called upon herself. It is the nature of the body to want to live, and once her mind had shut down her muscles spasmed in the water, splashing blood onto the floor as it fought to save itself.

But her mind, apparently, had not completely shut down after all. She remembered him standing over her. She looked up as the water lapped over her face and saw him staring down at her. She saw him turn and close the door.

What did she see behind his face? Did she believe it was impassive? Did she believe it was unmoved by love? How could he explain that he had done it because he could not bear to watch her suffer anymore?

On the rare occasions that he remembered the other thoughts—the weariness, the dread of the medical routine, and especially the flaring anger he’d felt earlier that same night, when the depression took her and he knew he’d have to steer her through it yet again—he buried them.

That is not the story of our marriage, he thought. The story is that I love her, and that’s what guided my actions. As it always has.

He was losing her, though. The change which kindled his interest also pulled her farther and farther away, and he feared that his love for her, and hers for him, would not be enough to tether her to this world.

So he called Heather and told her to come home for spring break. Not for the whole week; he knew that she was an adult now, she had friends, that was fine. But she had family obligations, and her mother was lonely for her, and she should come home for at least the weekend.

Is she sick? Heather asked. No. She just misses her girl.

Dad, you told me it was okay if I stayed here spring break. You told me you would talk to Mom about it.

I did talk, Heather. She won. Come on home, just for the weekend.


Heather agreed, finally. Her reluctance was palpable, but she would come.

That was step one.

Step two would be coaxing Katie out of the cellar for her arrival. He’d thought that being locked down there at night, and whenever he was out, would have made coming upstairs something to look forward to. He’d been wrong; she showed no signs of wanting to leave the cellar at all, possibly ever again. She had regressed even further, not getting up to walk at all since losing her foot, and forsaking clothing altogether; she crawled palely naked across the floor when she wanted to move anywhere—a want which rarely troubled her mind anymore. She allowed him to wash her when he approached her with soap and warm water, but only because she was passive in this as she had become in all things.

Unless he wanted to touch her with another purpose.

Then she would turn on him with an anger that terrified him. Her eyes were pale as moon rocks. Her breath was cold. And when she turned on him with that fury, he would imagine her breathing that chill into his lungs, stuffing it down into his heart. It terrified him. He would not approach her for sex anymore, though the rejection hurt him more than he would have dreamed.

He decided to woo her. He searched the roads at night, crawling along in his car at under twenty miles an hour, looking for roadkill. The first time he found some, a gut-crushed possum, he brought the carcass into the house and dropped it onto the floor in front of the cellar door, hoping the smell would lure her out. It did not; but he did not sulk, nor did he deprive her of her gift. He opened the door and rolled the animal wreckage down the stairs.

On the night he told her about Heather, he was propelled by romantic impulse to greater heights. He poisoned the cat that lived across the street, the one she loved and watched over when its owner left town, and brought it to her on a pillow; he’d curled it into a semblance of sleep, and laid it at the foot of her mattress. She fixed her flat, pale eyes on it, not acknowledging his presence at all. Slowly she scooped it into her arms, and she held it close to her body. Satisfied, he sat beside her on the bed. He smiled as she got to work.

The floor was packed dirt. It seemed as hard as concrete, but ultimately it was just earth. It could be opened. She bent herself to this task. She found a

corner behind some boxes of old china, where her work would not be obvious to the man when he came down to visit, and picked at the ground with a garden spade. It took a long time, but finally she began to make serious progress, upturning the packed ground until she got to the dark soil beneath it, bringing pale earthworms and slick, black insects to their first, shocked exposure to the upside world. When she got deep enough she abandoned the small spade and used her hands. Her fingernails snapped off like little plastic tabs, and she examined her fingers with a mild curiosity.

Staring at the ruined flesh reminded her of how the man’s face would sometimes leak fluid when he came down here, and of his occasional wet cough.

It was all so disgusting.

She took one of the cat’s bones from its place on the wall and snapped it in half. The end was sharp and she scraped the flesh from her fingers until hard bone gleamed. Then she went to work again, and was pleased with the difference.

“Hey, Dad.” Heather stood in the doorway, her overnight bag slung over her shoulder. Considering how little she wanted to be here, Sean thought she was doing a good job of putting up a positive front.

“Hey, kiddo.” He looked over her shoulder and saw that she had parked directly behind his car again, like she always used to do, and like he had asked her not to do a million times. He actually felt a happy nostalgia at the sight of it. He kissed her cheek and took the bag from her shoulder. “Come on in.”

She followed him in, rubbing her arms and shuddering. “Jeez, Dad, crank up the AC why don’t you.”

“Heh, sorry. Your mother likes it cold.” “Mom? Since when?”

“Since recently I guess. Listen, why don’t you go on up to your room and get changed or whatever. I’ll get dinner started.”

“Sentimental as always, Dad. I’ve been in the car all day, and I really need a shower. Just call me when you’re ready.” She brushed past him on her way to the stairs.

“Hey,” he said.

She stopped.

He held an arm out. “I’m sorry. Come here.”

She did, and he folded his arm around her, drawing her close. He kissed her forehead. “It means a lot that you came.”

“I know.”

“I’m serious. It matters. Thank you.”

“Okay. You’re welcome.” She returned his hug, and he soaked it in. “So where is she?”

“Downstairs. She’ll be up.”

She pulled back. “In the cellar? Okay, weird.” “She’ll be up. Go on now. Get yourself ready.”

She shook her head with the muted exasperation of a child long-accustomed to her parents’ eccentricities, and mounted the stairs. Sean turned his attention to the kitchen. He’d made some pot roast in the Crock-Pot, and he tilted the lid to give it a look. The warm, heavy smell of it washed over his face, and he took it into his lungs with gratitude. He hadn’t prepared anything real to eat in a month, it seemed, living instead off of frozen pizzas and TV dinners. The thought of real food made him lightheaded.

He walked over to the basement door and slid open the lock. He paused briefly, resting his head against the doorjamb. He breathed deeply. Then he cracked it open and poked his head in. A thick, loamy odor rode over him on cool air. There was no light downstairs at all.

“Katie?” Silence.

“Katie, Heather’s here. You remember, we talked about Heather.”

His voice did not seem to carry at all on the heavy air. It was like speaking into a cloth.

“She’s our daughter.” His voice grew small. “You love her, remember?”

He thought he heard something shift down there, a sliding of something. Good, he thought. She remembers.

Heather came downstairs a little later. He waited for her, ladling the pot roast into two bowls. The little breakfast nook was set up for them both. Seeing her, he was struck, as he was so often, by how much like a younger version of Katie she looked. The same roundness in her face, the same way

she tended to angle her shoulders when she stood still, even the same bob to her hair. It was as though a young Katie had slipped sideways through a hole in the world and come here to see him again, to see what kind of man he had become. What manner of man she had married.

He lowered his eyes.

I’m a good man, he thought. “Dad?”

He looked up, blinking his eyes rapidly. “Hey you.”

“Why isn’t there a mattress on your bed? And why is there a sleeping bag on the floor?”

He shook his head. “What were you doing in our bedroom?” “The door was wide open. It’s kind of hard to miss.”

He wasn’t expecting this. “It’s . . . I’ve been sleeping on the floor.”

She just stared at him. He could see the pain in her face, the old familiar fear. “What’s been going on here, Dad? What’s she done this time?”

“She uh . . . she’s not doing very well, Heather.”

He watched tears gather in her eyelids. Then her face darkened and she rubbed them roughly away. “You told me she was fine,” she said quietly.

“I didn’t want to upset you. I wanted you to come home.”

“You didn’t want to upset me?” Her voice rose into a shout. Her hand clenched at her side, and he watched her wrestle down the anger. It took her a minute.

“I’m sorry, Heather.”

She shook her head. She wouldn’t look at him. “Whatever. Did she try to kill herself again? She’s not even here at all, is she. Is she in the psych ward?”

“No, she’s here. And yes, she did.”

She turned her back to him and walked into the living room, where she dropped onto the couch and slouched back, her arms crossed over her chest like a child. Sean followed her, pried loose one of her hands and held onto it as he sat beside her.

“She needs us, kiddo.”

“I would never have come back!” she said, her rage cresting like a sun. “God damn it!”

“Hey! Now listen to me. She needs us.”

“She needs to be committed!”

“Stop it. Stop that. I know this is hard.”

“Oh do you?” She glared at him, her face red. He had never seen her like this; anger made her face into something ugly and unrecognizable. “How do you know, Dad? When did you ever have to deal with it? It was always me! I was the one at home with her. I was the one who had to call the hospital that one time I found her in her own blood and then call you so you could come! I was the one who—” She gave in then, abruptly and catastrophically, like a battlement falling; sobs broke up whatever else she was going to say. She pulled in a shuddering breath and said, “I can’t believe you tricked me!”

Every night!” Sean hissed, his own large hands wrapped into fists, cudgels on his lap. He saw them there and caught himself. He felt something slide down over his mind. The emotions pulled away, the guilt and the horror and the shame, until he was only looking at someone having a fit. People, it seemed, were always having some kind of breakdown or another. Somebody had to keep it together. Somebody always had to keep it together.

“It was not just you. Every night I came home to it. Will she be okay tonight? Will she be normal? Or will she talk about walking in front of a bus? Will she be crying because of something I said, or she thinks I said, last fucking week? Every night. Do you think it all just went away when you went to sleep? Come out of your narcissistic little bubble and realize that the world is bigger than you.”

She looked at him, shocked and hurt. Her lower lip was trembling, and the tears came back in force.

“But I always stood by her side. Always.” He took her lightly by the arm and stood with her. “Your mother needs us. And we’re going to go see her. Right now.”

He led her toward the basement door.

What is the story of our family?

He led her down the stairs, into the cool, earthy musk of the basement, the smell of upturned soil a dank bloom in the air. His grip on her arm was firm as he descended one step ahead of her. The light from the kitchen

behind them was an ax blade in the darkness, cutting a narrow wedge. It illuminated the corner of the mattress, powdered with a layer of dirt. Beside it, the bottom two feet of the support beam she had nailed the bird to; something new was screwed into place there, but he could intuit from the glistening mass only gristle and hair, a sheet of dried blood beneath it.

“What’s going on here? Oh my God, Dad, what’s going on?” “Your mom’s in trouble. She needs us.”

Heather made a noise and he clamped down harder on her arm. “Katie?” he said. “Heather’s here.” His voice did not carry, the words

dropping like stones at his feet.

Our family has weathered great upheaval. Our family is bound together by love.

They heard something shift, in the darkness beyond the reach of the light.


“Katie? Where are you, honey?” “Dad, what happened to her?”

“Just tell me where you are, sweetheart. We’ll come to you.”

They reached the bottom of the steps, and as he moved out of the path of the kitchen light it shone more fully on the thing fixed to the post: a gory mass of scrambled flesh, a ragged web of graying black hair. Something moved in the shadows beyond it, small and hunched and pale, its back buckling with each grunted effort, like something caught in the act of love.

Our family will not abandon itself.

Heather stepped backward; her heel caught on the lowest step and she fell onto the stairs.

Sean approached his wife. She labored weakly in the bottom of a small declivity, grave-shaped, worm-spangled, her dull white bones poking through the parchment skin of her back, her spine bending as she burrowed into the earth. Her denuded skull still bore the tatters of its face, like the flag of a ruined army.

“Daddy, come on.” Sean turned to see his daughter crawling up the stairs. She reached the top and crawled through the doorway, pulling her legs in after her. In the light, he could see the tears on her face, the twist of anguish. “Daddy, please. Come on. Come on.”

Sean put his hand on Katie’s back. “Don’t you remember me? I’m your husband. Don’t you remember?”

She continued to work, slowly, her arms like shovels powered by a fading battery.

He lifted her from her place in the earth, dirt sifting from her body like a snowfall, and clutched her tightly to his chest. He rested his head against the blood-greased curve of her skull, cradled her forehead in his hand. “Stay with me.”

Heather, one more time, from somewhere above him: “Daddy, oh no, please come up. Please.”

“Get down here,” Sean said. “Goddamn you, get down here.”

The door shut, cutting off the wedge of light. He held his wife in his arms, rocking her back and forth, cooing into the ear that still remained.

He pulled her away, but she barely knew it. Everything was quiet now. Silence blew from the hole she had dug like smoke. She could feel what lay just beyond. The new countryside. The unspeaking multitude. Steeples and arches of bone; temples of silence. She felt the great shapes that moved there, majestic and unfurled, utterly silent, utterly dark.

He held her, breathing air onto the last cinder in her skull.

Her fingers scraped at empty air, the remains of her body engaged in this one final enterprise, working with a machine’s unguided industry, divorced at last from its practical function. Working only because that was its purpose; its rote, inelegant chore.

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