We’ve got a treat today for fans of dark, personal fantasy in the form of a reprint of M. Rickert’s story “Journey Into The Kingdom” from Holiday, her most recent collection of stories. Enjoy!
THE FIRST PAINTING WAS of an egg, the pale ovoid produced with faint strokes of pink, blue, and violet to create the illusion of white. After that there were two apples, a pear, an avocado, and finally, an empty plate on a white tablecloth before a window covered with gauzy curtains, a single fly nestled in a fold at the top right corner. The series was titled “Journey into the Kingdom.”
On a small table beneath the avocado there was a black binder, an unevenly cut rectangle of white paper with the words “Artist’s Statement” in neat, square, hand-written letters taped to the front. Balancing the porcelain cup and saucer with one hand, Alex picked up the binder and took it with him to a small table against the wall toward the back of the coffee shop, where he opened it, thinking it might be interesting to read something besides the newspaper for once, though he almost abandoned the idea when he saw that the page before him was handwritten in the same neat letters as on the cover. But the title intrigued him.
AN IMITATION LIFE
THOUGH I ALWAYS enjoyed my crayons and watercolors, I was not a particularly artistic child. I produced the usual assortment of stick figures and houses with dripping yellow suns. I was an avid collector of seashells and sea glass and much preferred to be outdoors, throwing stones at seagulls (please, no haranguing from animal rights activists, I have long since outgrown this) or playing with my imaginary friends to sitting quietly in the salt rooms of the keeper’s house, making pictures at the big wooden kitchen table while my mother, in her black dress, kneaded bread and sang the old French songs between her duties as lighthouse keeper, watcher over the waves, beacon for the lost, governess of the dead.
The first ghost to come to my mother was my own father who had set out the day previous in the small boat heading to the mainland for supplies such as string and rice, and also bags of soil, which, in years past, we emptied into crevices between the rocks and planted with seeds, a makeshift garden and a “brave attempt,” as my father called it, referring to the barren stone we lived on.
We did not expect him for several days so my mother was surprised when he returned in a storm, dripping wet icicles from his mustache and behaving strangely, repeating over and over again, “It is lost, my dear Maggie, the garden is at the bottom of the sea.”
My mother fixed him hot tea but he refused it, she begged him to take off the wet clothes and retire with her, to their feather bed piled with quilts, but he said, “Tend the light, don’t waste your time with me.” So my mother, a worried expression on her face, left our little keeper’s house and walked against the gale to the lighthouse, not realizing that she left me with a ghost, melting before the fire into a great puddle, which was all that was left of him upon her return. She searched frantically while I kept pointing at the puddle and insisting it was he. Eventually she tied on her cape and went out into the storm, calling his name. I thought that, surely, I would become orphaned that night.
But my mother lived, though she took to her bed and left me to tend the lamp and receive the news of the discovery of my father’s wrecked boat, found on the rocky shoals, still clutching in his frozen hand a bag of soil, which was given to me, and which I brought to my mother though she would not take the offering.
For one so young, my chores were immense. I tended the lamp, and kept our own hearth fire going too. I made broth and tea for my mother, which she only gradually took, and I planted that small bag of soil by the door to our little house, savoring the rich scent, wondering if those who lived with it all the time appreciated its perfume or not.
I did not really expect anything to grow, though I hoped that the seagulls might drop some seeds or the ocean deposit some small thing. I was surprised when, only weeks later, I discovered the tiniest shoots of green, which I told my mother about. She was not impressed. By that point, she would spend part of the day sitting up in bed, mending my father’s socks and moaning, “Agatha, whatever are we going to do?” I did not wish to worry her, so I told her lies about women from the mainland coming to help, men taking turns with the light. “But they are so quiet. I never hear anyone.”
“No one wants to disturb you,” I said. “They whisper and walk on tiptoe.”
It was only when I opened the keeper’s door so many uncounted weeks later, and saw, spread before me, embedded throughout the rock (even in crevices where I had planted no soil) tiny pink, purple, and white flowers, their stems shuddering in the salty wind, that I insisted my mother get out of bed.
She was resistant at first. But I begged and cajoled, promised her it would be worth her effort. “The fairies have planted flowers for us,” I said, this being the only explanation or description I could think of for the infinitesimal blossoms everywhere.
Reluctantly, she followed me through the small living room and kitchen, observing that, “the ladies have done a fairly good job of keeping the place neat.” She hesitated before the open door. The bright sun and salty scent of the sea, as well as the loud sound of waves washing all around us, seemed to astound her, but then she squinted, glanced at me, and stepped through the door to observe the miracle of the fairies’ flowers.
Never had the rock seen such color, never had it known such bloom! My mother walked out, barefoot, and said, “Forget-me-nots, these are forget-me-nots. But where ?”
I told her that I didn’t understand it myself, how I had planted the small bag of soil found clutched in my father’s hand but had not really expected it to come to much, and certainly not to all of this, waving my arm over the expanse, the flowers having grown in soilless crevices and cracks, covering our entire little island of stone.
My mother turned to me and said, “These are not from the fairies, they are from him.” Then she started crying, a reaction I had not expected and tried to talk her out of, but she said, “No, Agatha, leave me alone.”
She stood out there for quite a while, weeping as she walked amongst the flowers. Later, after she came inside and said, “Where are all the helpers today?” I shrugged and avoided more questions by going outside myself, where I discovered scarlet spots amongst the bloom. My mother had been bedridden for so long, her feet had gone soft again. For days she left tiny teardrop shapes of blood in her step, which I surreptitiously wiped up, not wanting to draw any attention to the fact, for fear it would dismay her. She picked several of the forget-me-not blossoms and pressed them between the heavy pages of her book of myths and folklore. Not long after that, a terrible storm blew in, rocking our little house, challenging our resolve, and taking with it all the flowers. Once again our rock was barren. I worried what effect this would have on my mother but she merely sighed, shrugged, and said, “They were beautiful, weren’t they, Agatha?”
So passed my childhood: a great deal of solitude, the occasional life-threatening adventure, the drudgery of work, and all around me the great wide sea with its myriad secrets and reasons, the lost we saved, those we didn’t. And the ghosts, brought to us by my father, though we never understood clearly his purpose, as they only stood before the fire, dripping and melting like something made of wax, bemoaning what was lost (a fine boat, a lady love, a dream of the sea, a pocketful of jewels, a wife and children, a carving on bone, a song, its lyrics forgotten). We tried to provide what comfort we could, listening, nodding, there was little else we could do, they refused tea or blankets, they seemed only to want to stand by the fire, mourning their death, as my father stood sentry beside them, melting into salty puddles that we mopped up with clean rags, wrung out into the ocean, saying what we fashioned as prayer, or reciting lines of Irish poetry.
Though I know now that this is not a usual childhood, it was usual for me, and it did not veer from this course until my mother’s hair had gone quite gray and I was a young woman, when my father brought us a different sort of ghost entirely, a handsome young man, his eyes the same blue-green as summer. His hair was of indeterminate color, wet curls that hung to his shoulders. Dressed simply, like any dead sailor, he carried about him an air of being educated more by art than by water, a suspicion soon confirmed for me when he refused an offering of tea by saying, “No, I will not, cannot drink your liquid offered without first asking for a kiss, ah a kiss is all the liquid I desire, come succor me with your lips.”
Naturally, I blushed and, just as naturally, when my mother went to check on the lamp, and my father had melted into a mustached puddle, I kissed him. Though I should have been warned by the icy chill, as certainly I should have been warned by the fact of my own father, a mere puddle at the hearth, it was my first kiss and it did not feel deadly to me at all, not dangerous, not spectral, most certainly not spectral, though I did experience a certain pleasant floating sensation in its wake.
My mother was surprised, upon her return, to find the lad still standing, as vigorous as any living man, beside my father’s puddle. We were both surprised that he remained throughout the night, regaling us with stories of the wild sea populated by whales, mermaids, and sharks; mesmerizing us with descriptions of the “bottom of the world” as he called it, embedded with strange purple rocks, pink shells spewing pearls, and the seaweed tendrils of sea witches’ hair. We were both surprised that, when the black of night turned to the gray hue of morning, he bowed to each of us (turned fully toward me, so that I could receive his wink), promised he would return, and then left, walking out the door like any regular fellow. So convincing was he that my mother and I opened the door to see where he had gone, scanning the rock and the inky sea before we accepted that, as odd as it seemed, as vigorous his demeanor, he was a ghost most certainly.
“Or something of that nature,” said my mother. “Strange that he didn’t melt like the others.” She squinted at me and I turned away from her before she could see my blush. “We shouldn’t have let him keep us up all night,” she said. “We aren’t dead. We need our sleep.”
Sleep? Sleep? I could not sleep, feeling as I did his cool lips on mine, the power of his kiss, as though he breathed out of me some dark aspect that had weighed inside me. I told my mother that she could sleep. I would take care of everything. She protested, but using the past as reassurance (she had long since discovered that I had run the place while she convalesced after my father’s death), finally agreed.
I was happy to have her tucked safely in bed. I was happy to know that her curious eyes were closed. I did all the tasks necessary to keep the place in good order. Not even then, in all my girlish giddiness, did I forget the lamp. I am embarrassed to admit, however, it was well past four o’clock before I remembered my father’s puddle, which by that time had been much dissipated. I wiped up the small amount of water and wrung him out over the sea, saying only as prayer, “Father, forgive me. Oh, bring him back to me.” (Meaning, alas for me, a foolish girl, the boy who kissed me and not my own dear father.)
And that night, he did come back, knocking on the door like any living man, carrying in his wet hands a bouquet of pink coral which he presented to me, and a small white stone, shaped like a star, which he gave to my mother.
“Is there no one else with you?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, there is not,” he said.
My mother began to busy herself in the kitchen, leaving the two of us alone. I could hear her in there, moving things about, opening cupboards, sweeping the already swept floor. It was my own carelessness that had caused my father’s absence, I was sure of that; had I sponged him up sooner, had I prayed for him more sincerely, and not just for the satisfaction of my own desire, he would be here this night. I felt terrible about this, but then I looked into his eyes, those beautiful sea-colored eyes, and I could not help it, my body thrilled at his look. Is this love? I thought. Will he kiss me twice? When it seemed as if, without even wasting time with words, he was about to do so, leaning toward me with parted lips from which exhaled the scent of salt water, my mother stepped into the room, clearing her throat, holding the broom before her, as if thinking she might use it as a weapon.
“We don’t really know anything about you,” she said.
TO BEGIN WITH, my name is Ezekiel. My mother was fond of saints and the Bible and such. She died shortly after giving birth to me, her first and only child. I was raised by my father, on the island of Murano. Perhaps you have heard of it? Murano glass? We are famous for it throughout the world. My father, himself, was a talented glassmaker. Anything imagined, he could shape into glass. Glass birds, tiny glass bees, glass seashells, even glass tears (an art he perfected while I was an infant), and what my father knew, he taught to me.
Naturally, I eventually surpassed him in skill. Forgive me, but there is no humble way to say it. At any rate, my father had taught me and encouraged my talent all my life. I did not see when his enthusiasm began to sour. I was excited and pleased at what I could produce. I thought he would feel the same for me as I had felt for him, when, as a child, I sat on the footstool in his studio and applauded each glass wing, each hard teardrop.
Alas, it was not to be. My father grew jealous of me. My own father! At night he snuck into our studio and broke my birds, my little glass cakes. In the morning he pretended dismay and instructed me further on keeping air bubbles out of my work. He did not guess that I knew the dismal truth.
I determined to leave him, to sail away to some other place to make my home. My father begged me to stay, “Whatever will you do? How will you make your way in this world?”
I told him my true intention, not being clever enough to lie. “This is not the only place in the world with fire and sand,” I said. “I intend to make glass.”
He promised me it would be a death sentence. At the time I took this to be only his confused, fatherly concern. I did not perceive it as a threat.
It is true that the secret to glassmaking was meant to remain on Murano. It is true that the entire populace believed this trade, and only this trade, kept them fed and clothed. Finally, it is true that they passed the law (many years before my father confronted me with it) that anyone who dared attempt to take the secret of glassmaking off the island would suffer the penalty of death. All of this is true.
But what’s also true is that I was a prisoner in my own home, tortured by my own father, who pretended to be a humble, kind glassmaker, but who, night after night, broke my creations and then, each morning, denied my accusations, his sweet old face mustached and whiskered, all the expression of dismay and sorrow.
This is madness, I reasoned. How else could I survive? One of us had to leave or die. I chose the gentler course.
We had, in our possession, only a small boat, used for trips that never veered far from shore. Gathering mussels, visiting neighbors, occasionally my father liked to sit in it and smoke a pipe while watching the sun set. He’d light a lantern and come home, smelling of the sea, boil us a pot of soup, a melancholic, completely innocent air about him, only later to sneak about his breaking work.
This small boat is what I took for my voyage across the sea. I also took some fishing supplies, a rope, dried cod he’d stored for winter, a blanket, and several jugs of red wine, given to us by the baker, whose daughter, I do believe, fancied me. For you, who have lived so long on this anchored rock, my folly must be apparent. Was it folly? It was. But what else was I to do? Day after day make my perfect art only to have my father, night after night, destroy it? He would destroy me!
I left in the dark, when the ocean is like ink and the sky is black glass with thousands of air bubbles. Air bubbles, indeed. I breathed my freedom in the salty sea air. I chose stars to follow. Foolishly, I had no clear sense of my passage and had only planned my escape.
Of course, knowing what I do now about the ocean, it is a wonder I survived the first night, much less seven. It was on the eighth morning that I saw the distant sail, and, hopelessly drunk and sunburned, as well as lost, began the desperate task of rowing toward it, another folly as I’m sure you’d agree, understanding how distant the horizon is. Luckily for me, or so I thought, the ship headed in my direction and after a few more days it was close enough that I began to believe in my life again.
Alas, this ship was owned by a rich friend of my father’s, a woman who had commissioned him to create a glass castle with a glass garden and glass fountain, tiny glass swans, a glass king and queen, a baby glass princess, and glass trees with golden glass apples, all for the amusement of her granddaughter (who, it must be said, had fingers like sausages and broke half of the figurines before her next birthday). This silly woman was only too happy to let my father use her ship, she was only too pleased to pay the ship’s crew, all with the air of helping my father, when, in truth, it simply amused her to be involved in such drama. She said she did it for Murano, but in truth, she did it for the story.
It wasn’t until I had been rescued, and hoisted on board, that my father revealed himself to me. He spread his arms wide, all great show for the crew, hugged me and even wept, but convincing as was his act, I knew he intended to destroy me.
These are terrible choices no son should have to make, but that night, as my father slept and the ship rocked its weary way back to Murano where I would likely be hung or possibly sentenced to live with my own enemy, my father, I slit the old man’s throat. Though he opened his eyes, I do not believe he saw me, but was already entering the distant kingdom.
You ladies look quite aghast. I cannot blame you. Perhaps I should have chosen my own death instead, but I was a young man, and I wanted to live. Even after everything I had gone through, I wanted life.
Alas, it was not to be. I knew there would be trouble and accusation if my father were found with his throat slit, but none at all if he just disappeared in the night, as so often happens on large ships. Many a traveler has simply fallen overboard, never to be heard from again, and my father had already displayed a lack of seafaring savvy to rival my own.
I wrapped him up in the now-bloody blanket but although he was a small man, the effect was still that of a body, so I realized I would have to bend and fold him into a rucksack. You wince, but do not worry, he was certainly dead by this time.
I will not bore you with the details of my passage, hiding and sneaking with my dismal load. Suffice it to say that it took a while for me to at last be standing shipside, and I thought then that all danger had passed.
Remember, I was already quite weakened by my days adrift, and the matter of taking care of this business with my father had only fatigued me further. Certain that I was finally at the end of my task, I grew careless. He was much heavier than he had ever appeared to be. It took all my strength to hoist the rucksack, and (to get the sad, pitiable truth over with as quickly as possible) when I heaved that rucksack, the cord became entangled on my wrist, and yes, dear ladies, I went over with it, to the bottom of the world. There I remained until your own dear father, your husband, found me and brought me to this place, where, for the first time in my life, I feel safe, and, though I am dead, blessed.
LATER, AFTER my mother had tended the lamp while Ezekiel and I shared the kisses that left me breathless, she asked him to leave, saying that I needed my sleep. I protested, of course, but she insisted. I walked my ghost to the door, just as I think any girl would do in a similar situation, and there, for the first time, he kissed me in full view of my mother, not so passionate as those kisses that had preceded it, but effective nonetheless.
But after he was gone, even as I still blushed, my mother spoke in a grim voice, “Don’t encourage him, Agatha.”
“Why?” I asked, my body trembling with the impact of his affection and my mother’s scorn, as though the two emotions met in me and quaked there. “What don’t you like about him?”
“He’s dead,” she said, “there’s that for a start.”
“What about Daddy? He’s dead too, and you’ve been loving him all this time.”
My mother shook her head. “Agatha, it isn’t the same thing. Think about what this boy told you tonight. He murdered his own father.”
“I can’t believe you’d use that against him. You heard what he said. He was just defending himself.”
“But Agatha, it isn’t what’s said that is always the most telling. Don’t you know that? Have I really raised you to be so gullible?”
“I am not gullible. I’m in love.”
“I forbid it.”
Certainly no three words, spoken by a parent, can do more to solidify love than these. It was no use arguing. What would be the point? She, this woman who had loved no one but a puddle for so long, could never understand what was going through my heart. Without more argument, I went to bed, though I slept fitfully, feeling torn from my life in every way, while my mother stayed up reading, I later surmised, from her book of myths. In the morning I found her sitting at the kitchen table, the great volume before her. She looked up at me with dark circled eyes, then, without salutation, began reading, her voice, ominous.
“There are many kinds of ghosts. There are the ghosts that move things, slam doors and drawers, throw silverware about the house. There are the ghosts (usually of small children) that play in dark corners with spools of thread and frighten family pets. There are the weeping and wailing ghosts. There are the ghosts who know that they are dead, and those who do not. There are tree ghosts, those who spend their afterlife in a particular tree (a clue for such a resident might be bite marks on fallen fruit). There are ghosts trapped forever at the hour of their death (I saw one like this once, in an old movie theater bathroom, hanging from the ceiling). There are melting ghosts (we know about these, don’t we?), usually victims of drowning. And there are breath-stealing ghosts. These, sometimes mistaken for the grosser vampire, sustain a sort of half-life by stealing breath from the living. They can be any age, but are usually teenagers and young adults, often at that selfish stage when they died. These ghosts greedily go about sucking the breath out of the living. This can be done by swallowing the lingered breath from unwashed cups, or, most effectively of all, through a kiss. Though these ghosts can often be quite seductively charming, they are some of the most dangerous. Each life has only a certain amount of breath within it and these ghosts are said to steal an infinite amount with each swallow. The effect is such that the ghost, while it never lives again, begins to do a fairly good imitation of life, while its victims (those whose breath it steals) edge ever closer to their own death.”
My mother looked up at me triumphantly and I stormed out of the house, only to be confronted with the sea all around me, as desolate as my heart.
That night, when he came, knocking on the door, she did not answer it and forbade me to do so.
“It doesn’t matter,” I taunted, “he’s a ghost. He doesn’t need doors.”
“No, you’re wrong,” she said, “he’s taken so much of your breath that he’s not entirely spectral. He can’t move through walls any longer. He needs you, but he doesn’t care about you at all, don’t you get that, Agatha?”
“Agatha? Are you home? Agatha? Why don’t you come? Agatha?”
I couldn’t bear it. I began to weep.
“I know this is hard,” my mother said, “but it must be done. Listen, his voice is already growing faint. We just have to get through this night.”
“What about the lamp?” I said.
But she knew what I meant. Her expression betrayed her. “Don’t you need to check on the lamp?”
“Agatha? Have I done something wrong?”
My mother stared at the door, and then turned to me, the dark circles under her eyes giving her the look of a beaten woman. “The lamp is fine.”
I spun on my heels and went into my small room, slammed the door behind me. My mother, a smart woman, was not used to thinking like a warden. She had forgotten about my window. By the time I hoisted myself down from it, Ezekiel was standing on the rocky shore, surveying the dark ocean before him. He had already lost some of his life-like luster, particularly below his knees where I could almost see through him. “Ezekiel,” I said. He turned and I gasped at the change in his visage, the cavernous look of his eyes, the skeletal stretch at his jaw. Seeing my shocked expression, he nodded and spread his arms open, as if to say, yes, this is what has become of me. I ran into those open arms and embraced him, though he creaked like something made of old wood. He bent down, pressing his cold lips against mine until they were no longer cold but burning like a fire.
We spent that night together and I did not mind the shattering wind with its salt bite on my skin, and I did not care when the lamp went out and the sea roiled beneath a black sky, and I did not worry about the dead weeping on the rocky shore, or the lightness I felt as though I were floating beside my lover, and when morning came, revealing the dead all around us, I followed him into the water, I followed him to the bottom of the sea, where he turned to me and said, “What have you done? Are you stupid? Don’t you realize? You’re no good to me dead!”
So, sadly, like many a daughter, I learned that my mother had been right after all, and when I returned to her, dripping with saltwater and seaweed, tiny fish corpses dropping from my hair, she embraced me. Seeing my state, weeping, she kissed me on the lips, our mouths open. I drank from her, sweet breath, until I was filled and she collapsed to the floor, my mother in her black dress, like a crushed funeral flower.
I had no time for mourning. The lamp had been out for hours. Ships had crashed and men had died. Outside the sun sparkled on the sea. People would be coming soon to find out what had happened.
I took our small boat and rowed away from there. Many hours later, I docked in a seaside town and hitchhiked to another, until eventually I was as far from my home as I could be and still be near my ocean.
I had a difficult time of it for a while. People are generally suspicious of someone with no past and little future. I lived on the street and had to beg for jobs cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors, only through time and reputation working up to my current situation, finally getting my own little apartment, small and dark, so different from when I was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter and the ocean was my yard.
One day, after having passed it for months without a thought, I went into the art supply store, and bought a canvas, paint, and two paintbrushes. I paid for it with my tip money, counting it out for the clerk whose expression suggested I was placing turds in her palm instead of pennies. I went home and hammered a nail into the wall, hung the canvas on it, and began to paint. Like many a creative person I seem to have found some solace for the unfortunate happenings of my young life (and death) in art.
I live simply and virginally, never taking breath through a kiss. This is the vow I made, and I have kept it. Yes, some days I am weakened, and tempted to restore my vigor with such an easy solution, but instead I hold the empty cups to my face, I breathe in, I breathe everything, the breath of old men, breath of young, sweet breath, sour breath, breath of lipstick, breath of smoke. It is not, really, a way to live, but this is not, really, a life.
FOR SEVERAL SECONDS after Alex finished reading the remarkable account, his gaze remained transfixed on the page. Finally, he looked up, blinked in the dim coffee shop light, and closed the black binder.
Several baristas stood behind the counter busily jostling around each other with porcelain cups, teapots, bags of beans. One of them, a short girl with red and green hair that spiked around her like some otherworld halo, stood by the sink, stacking dirty plates and cups. When she saw him watching, she smiled. It wasn’t a true smile, not that it was mocking, but rather, the girl with the Christmas hair smiled like someone who had either forgotten happiness entirely, or never known it at all. In response, Alex nodded at her, and to his surprise, she came over, carrying a dirty rag and a spray bottle.
“Did you read all of it?” she said as she squirted the table beside him and began to wipe it with the dingy towel.
Alex winced at the unpleasant odor of the cleaning fluid, nodded, and then, seeing that the girl wasn’t really paying any attention, said, “Yes.” He glanced at the wall where the paintings were hung.
“So what’d you think?”
The girl stood there, grinning that sad grin, right next to him now with her noxious bottle and dirty rag, one hip jutted out in a way he found oddly sexual. He opened his mouth to speak, gestured toward the paintings, and then at the book before him. “I, I have to meet her,” he said, tapping the book, “this is remarkable.”
“But what do you think about the paintings?”
Once more he glanced at the wall where they hung. He shook his head, “No,” he said, “it’s this,” tapping the book again.
She smiled, a true smile, cocked her head, and put out her hand, “Agatha,” she said.
Alex felt like his head was spinning. He shook the girl’s hand. It was unexpectedly tiny, like that of a child’s, and he gripped it too tightly at first. Glancing at the counter, she pulled out a chair and sat down in front of him.
“I can only talk for a little while. Marnie is the manager today and she’s on the rag or something all the time, but she’s downstairs right now, checking in an order.”
“You,” he brushed the binder with the tip of his fingers, as if caressing something holy, “you wrote this?”
She nodded, bowed her head slightly, shrugged, and suddenly earnest, leaned across the table, elbowing his empty cup as she did. “Nobody bothers to read it. I’ve seen a few people pick it up but you’re the first one to read the whole thing.”
Alex leaned back, frowning.
She rolled her eyes, which, he noticed, were a lovely shade of lavender, lined darkly in black.
“See, I was trying to do something different. This is the whole point,” she jabbed at the book, and he felt immediately protective of it, “I was trying to put a story in a place where people don’t usually expect one. Don’t you think we’ve gotten awful complacent in our society about story? Like it all the time has to go a certain way and even be only in certain places. That’s what this is all about. The paintings are a foil. But you get that, don’t you? Do you know,” she leaned so close to him, he could smell her breath, which he thought was strangely sweet, “someone actually offered to buy the fly painting?” Her mouth dropped open, she shook her head and rolled those lovely lavender eyes. “I mean, what the fuck? Doesn’t he know it sucks?”
Alex wasn’t sure what to do. She seemed to be leaning near to his cup. Leaning over it, Alex realized. He opened his mouth, not having any idea what to say.
Just then another barista, the one who wore scarves all the time and had an imperious air about her, as though she didn’t really belong there but was doing research or something, walked past. Agatha glanced at her. “I gotta go.” She stood up. “You finished with this?” she asked, touching his cup.
Though he hadn’t yet had his free refill, Alex nodded.
“It was nice talking to you,” she said. “Just goes to show, doesn’t it?”
Alex had no idea what she was talking about. He nodded halfheartedly, hoping comprehension would follow, but when it didn’t, he raised his eyebrows at her instead.
She laughed. “I mean you don’t look anything like the kind of person who would understand my stuff.”
“Well, you don’t look much like Agatha,” he said.
“But I am Agatha,” she murmured as she turned away from him, picking up an empty cup and saucer from a nearby table.
Alex watched her walk to the tiny sink at the end of the counter. She set the cups and saucers down. She rinsed the saucers and placed them in the gray bucket they used for carrying dirty dishes to the back. She reached for a cup, and then looked at him.
He quickly looked down at the black binder, picked it up, pushed his chair in, and headed toward the front of the shop. He stopped to look at the paintings. They were fine, boring, but fine little paintings that had no connection to what he’d read. He didn’t linger over them for long. He was almost to the door when she was beside him, saying, “I’ll take that.” He couldn’t even fake innocence. He shrugged and handed her the binder.
“I’m flattered, really,” she said. But she didn’t try to continue the conversation. She set the book down on the table beneath the painting of the avocado. He watched her pick up an empty cup and bring it toward her face, breathing in the lingered breath that remained. She looked up suddenly, caught him watching, frowned, and turned away.
Alex understood. She wasn’t what he’d been expecting either. But when love arrives it doesn’t always appear as expected. He couldn’t just ignore it. He couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. He walked out of the coffee shop into the afternoon sunshine.
Of course, there were problems, her not being alive for one. But Alex was not a man of prejudice.
He was patient besides. He stood in the art supply store for hours, pretending particular interest in the anatomical hinged figurines of sexless men and women in the front window, before she walked past, her hair glowing like a forest fire.
“Agatha,” he called.
She turned, frowned, and continued walking. He had to take little running steps to catch up. “Hi,” he said. He saw that she was biting her lower lip. “You just getting off work?”
She stopped walking right in front of the bank, which was closed by then, and squinted up at him.
“Alex,” he said. “I was talking to you today at the coffee shop.”
“I know who you are.”
Her tone was angry. He couldn’t understand it. Had he insulted her somehow?
“I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I remember you.”
He nodded. This was harder than he had expected.
“What do you want?” she said.
Her tone was really downright hostile. He shrugged. “I just thought we could, you know, talk.”
She shook her head. “Listen, I’m happy that you liked my story.”
“I did,” he said, nodding, “it was great.”
“But what would we talk about? You and me?”
Alex shifted beneath her lavender gaze. He licked his lips. She wasn’t even looking at him, but glancing around him and across the street. “I don’t care if it does mean I’ll die sooner,” he said. “I want to give you a kiss.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“Is something wrong?”
She turned and ran. She wore one red sneaker and one green. They matched her hair.
As Alex walked back to his car, parked in front of the coffee shop, he tried to talk himself into not feeling so bad about the way things went. He hadn’t always been like this. He used to be able to talk to people. Even women. Okay, he had never been suave, he knew that, but he’d been a regular guy. Certainly no one had ever run away from him before. But after Tessie died, people changed. Of course, this made sense, initially. He was in mourning, even if he didn’t cry (something the doctor told him not to worry about because one day, probably when he least expected it, the tears would fall). He was obviously in pain. People were very nice. They talked to him in hushed tones. Touched him, gently. Even men tapped him with their fingertips. All this gentle touching had been augmented by vigorous hugs. People either touched him as if he would break, or hugged him as if he had already broken and only the vigor of the embrace kept him intact.
For the longest time there had been all this activity around him. People called, sent chatty e-mails, even handwritten letters, cards with flowers on them and prayers. People brought over casseroles, and bread, Jell-O with fruit in it. (Nobody brought chocolate chip cookies, which he might have actually eaten.)
To Alex’s surprise, once Tessie had died, it felt as though a great weight had been lifted from him, but instead of appreciating the feeling, the freedom of being lightened of the burden of his wife’s dying body, he felt in danger of floating away or disappearing. Could it be possible, he wondered, that Tessie’s body, even when she was mostly bones and barely breath, was all that kept him real? Was it possible that he would have to live like this, held to life by some strange force but never a part of it again?
These questions led Alex to the brief period where he’d experimented with becoming a Hare Krishna, shaved his head, dressed in orange robes, and took up dancing in the park. Alex wasn’t sure but he thought that was when people started treating him as if he were strange, and even after he grew his hair out and started wearing regular clothes again, people continued to treat him strangely.
And, Alex had to admit, as he inserted his key into the lock of his car, he’d forgotten how to behave. How to be normal, he guessed.
You just don’t go read something somebody wrote and decide you love her, he scolded himself as he eased into traffic. You don’t just go falling in love with breath-stealing ghosts. People don’t do that.
Alex did not go to the coffee shop the next day, or the day after that, but it was the only coffee shop in town, and had the best coffee in the state. They roasted the beans right there. Freshness like that can’t be faked.
It was awkward for him to see her behind the counter, over by the dirty cups, of course. But when she looked up at him, he attempted a kind smile, then looked away.
He wasn’t there to bother her. He ordered French Roast in a cup to go, even though he hated to drink out of paper, paid for it, dropped the change into the tip jar, and left without any further interaction with her.
He walked to the park, where he sat on a bench and watched a woman with two small boys feed white bread to the ducks. This was illegal because the ducks would eat all the bread offered to them, they had no sense of appetite, or being full, and they would eat until their stomachs exploded. Or something like that. Alex couldn’t exactly remember. He was pretty sure it killed them. But Alex couldn’t decide what to do. Should he go tell that lady and those two little boys that they were killing the ducks? How would that make them feel, especially as they were now triumphantly shaking out the empty bag, the ducks crowded around them, one of the boys squealing with delight? Maybe he should just tell her, quietly. But she looked so happy. Maybe she’d been having a hard time of it. He saw those mothers on Oprah, saying what a hard job it was, and maybe she’d had that kind of morning, even screaming at the kids, and then she got this idea, to take them to the park and feed the ducks and now she felt good about what she’d done and maybe she was thinking that she wasn’t such a bad mom after all, and if Alex told her she was killing the ducks, would it stop the ducks from dying or just stop her from feeling happiness? Alex sighed. He couldn’t decide what to do. The ducks were happy, the lady was happy, and one of the boys was happy. The other one looked sort of terrified. She picked him up and they walked away together, she, carrying the boy who waved the empty bag like a balloon, the other one skipping after them, a few ducks hobbling behind.
For three days Alex ordered his coffee to go and drank it in the park. On the fourth day, Agatha wasn’t anywhere that he could see and he surmised that it was her day off so he sat at his favorite table in the back. But on the fifth day, even though he didn’t see her again, and it made sense that she’d have two days off in a row, he ordered his coffee to go and took it to the park. He’d grown to like sitting on the bench watching strolling park visitors, the running children, the dangerously fat ducks.
He had no idea she would be there and he felt himself blush when he saw her coming down the path that passed right in front of him. He stared deeply into his cup and fought the compulsion to run. He couldn’t help it, though. Just as the toes of her red and green sneakers came into view he looked up. I’m not going to hurt you, he thought, and then, he smiled, that false smile he’d been practicing on her and, incredibly, she smiled back! Also, falsely, he assumed, but he couldn’t blame her for that.
She looked down the path and he followed her gaze, seeing that, though the path around the duck pond was lined with benches every fifty feet or so, all of them were taken. She sighed. “Mind if I sit here?”
He scooted over and she sat down, slowly. He glanced at her profile. She looked worn out, he decided. Her lavender eye flickered toward him, and he looked into his cup again. It made sense that she would be tired, he thought, if she’d been off work for two days, she’d also been going that long without stealing breath from cups. “Want some?” he said, offering his.
She looked startled, pleased, and then, falsely unconcerned. She peered over the edge of his cup, shrugged, and said, “Okay, yeah, sure.”
He handed it to her and politely watched the ducks so she could have some semblance of privacy with it. After a while she said thanks and handed it back to him. He nodded and stole a look at her profile again. It pleased him that her color already looked better. His breath had done that!
“Sorry about the other day,” she said, “I was just. ”
They waited together but she didn’t finish the sentence.
“It’s okay,” he said, “I know I’m weird.”
“No, you’re, well—” she smiled, glanced at him, shrugged. “It isn’t that. I like weird people. I’m weird. But, I mean, I’m not dead, okay? You kind of freaked me out with that.”
He nodded. “Would you like to go out with me sometime?” Inwardly, he groaned. He couldn’t believe he just said that.
He nodded. Stop nodding, he told himself. Stop acting like a bobblehead.
“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”
So he told her. How he’d been coming to the park lately, watching people overfeed the ducks, wondering if he should tell them what they were doing but they all looked so happy doing it, and the ducks looked happy too, and he wasn’t sure anyway, what if he was wrong, what if he told everyone to stop feeding bread to the ducks and it turned out it did them no harm and how would he know? Would they explode like balloons, or would it be more like how it had been when his wife died, a slow painful death, eating her away inside, and how he used to come here, when he was a monk, well, not really a monk, he’d never gotten ordained or anything, but he’d been trying the idea on for a while and how he used to sing and spin in circles and how it felt a lot like what he’d remembered of happiness but he could never be sure because a remembered emotion is like a remembered taste, it’s never really there. And then, one day, a real monk came and watched him spinning in circles and singing nonsense, and he just stood and watched Alex, which made him self-conscious because he didn’t really know what he was doing, and the monk started laughing, which made Alex stop and the monk said, “Why’d you stop?” And Alex said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And the monk nodded, as if this was a very wise thing to say and this, just this monk with his round bald head and wire-rimmed spectacles, in his simple orange robe (not at all like the orange-dyed sheet Alex was wearing) nodding when Alex said, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” made Alex cry and he and the monk sat down under that tree, and the monk (whose name was Ron) told him about Kali, the goddess who is both womb and grave. Alex felt like it was the first thing anyone had said to him that made sense since Tessie died and after that he stopped coming to the park, until just recently, and let his hair grow out again and stopped wearing his robe. Before she’d died, he’d been one of the lucky ones, or so he’d thought, because he made a small fortune in a dot com, and actually got out of it before it all went belly up while so many people he knew lost everything but then Tessie came home from her doctor’s appointment, not pregnant, but with cancer, and he realized he wasn’t lucky at all. They met in high school and were together until she died, at home, practically blind by that time and she made him promise he wouldn’t just give up on life. So he began living this sort of half-life, but he wasn’t unhappy or depressed, he didn’t want her to think that, he just wasn’t sure. “I sort of lost confidence in life,” he said. “It’s like I don’t believe in it anymore. Not like suicide, but I mean, like the whole thing, all of it isn’t real somehow. Sometimes I feel like it’s all a dream, or a long nightmare that I can never wake up from. It’s made me odd, I guess.”
She bit her lower lip, glanced longingly at his cup.
“Here,” Alex said, “I’m done anyway.”
She took it and lifted it toward her face, breathing in, he was sure of it, and only after she was finished, drinking the coffee. They sat like that in silence for a while and then they just started talking about everything, just as Alex had hoped they would. She told him how she had grown up living near the ocean, and her father had died young, and then her mother had too, and she had a boyfriend, her first love, who broke her heart, but the story she wrote was just a story, a story about her life, her dream life, the way she felt inside, like he did, as though somehow life was a dream. Even though everyone thought she was a painter (because he was the only one who read it, he was the only one who got it), she was a writer, not a painter, and stories seemed more real to her than life. At a certain point he offered to take the empty cup and throw it in the trash but she said she liked to peel off the wax, and then began doing so. Alex politely ignored the divergent ways she found to continue drinking his breath. He didn’t want to embarrass her.
They finally stood up and stretched, walked through the park together and grew quiet, with the awkwardness of new friends. “You want a ride?” he said, pointing at his car.
She declined, which was a disappointment to Alex but he determined not to let it ruin his good mood. He was willing to leave it at that, to accept what had happened between them that afternoon as a moment of grace to be treasured and expect nothing more from it, when she said, “What are you doing next Tuesday?” They made a date, well, not a date, Alex reminded himself, an arrangement, to meet the following Tuesday in the park, which they did, and there followed many wonderful Tuesdays. They did not kiss. They were friends. Of course Alex still loved her. He loved her more. But he didn’t bother her with all that and it was in the spirit of friendship that he suggested (after weeks of Tuesdays in the park) that the following Tuesday she come for dinner, “nothing fancy,” he promised when he saw the slight hesitation on her face.
But when she said yes, he couldn’t help it; he started making big plans for the night.
Naturally, things were awkward when she arrived. He offered to take her sweater, a lumpy looking thing in wild shades of orange, lime green, and purple. He should have just let her throw it across the couch, that would have been the casual non-datelike thing to do, but she handed it to him and then, wiping her hand through her hair, which, by candlelight looked like bloody grass, cased his place with those lavender eyes, deeply shadowed as though she hadn’t slept for weeks.
He could see she was freaked out by the candles. He hadn’t gone crazy or anything. They were just a couple of small candles, not even purchased from the store in the mall, but bought at the grocery store, unscented. “I like candles,” he said, sounding defensive even to his own ears.
She smirked, as if she didn’t believe him, and then spun away on the toes of her red sneaker and her green one, and plopped down on the couch. She looked absolutely exhausted. This was not a complete surprise to Alex. It had been a part of his plan, actually, but he felt bad for her just the same.
He kept dinner simple, lasagna, a green salad, chocolate cake for dessert. They didn’t eat in the dining room. That would have been too formal. Instead they ate in the living room, she sitting on the couch, and he on the floor, their plates on the coffee table, watching a DVD of I Love Lucy episodes, a mutual like they had discovered. (Though her description of watching I Love Lucy reruns as a child did not gel with his picture of her in the crooked keeper’s house, offering tea to melting ghosts, he didn’t linger over the inconsistency.) Alex offered her plenty to drink but he wouldn’t let her come into the kitchen, or get anywhere near his cup. He felt bad about this, horrible, in fact, but he tried to stay focused on the bigger picture.
After picking at her cake for a while, Agatha set the plate down, leaned back into the gray throw pillows, and closed her eyes.
Alex watched her. He didn’t think about anything, he just watched her. Then he got up very quietly so as not to disturb her and went into the kitchen where he, carefully, quietly opened the drawer in which he had stored the supplies. Coming up from behind, eyeing her red and green hair, he moved quickly. She turned toward him, cursing loudly, her eyes wide and frightened, as he pressed her head to her knees, pulled her arms behind her back (to the accompaniment of a sickening crack, and her scream) pressed the wrists together and wrapped them with the rope. She struggled in spite of her weakened state, her legs flailing, kicking the coffee table. The plate with the chocolate cake flew off it and landed on the beige rug and her screams escalated into a horrible noise, unlike anything Alex had ever heard before. Luckily, Alex was prepared with the duct tape, which he slapped across her mouth. By that time he was rather exhausted himself. But she stood up and began to run, awkwardly, across the room. It broke his heart to see her this way. He grabbed her from behind. She kicked and squirmed but she was quite a small person and it was easy for him to get her legs tied.
“Is that too tight?” he asked.
She looked at him with wide eyes. As if he were the ghost.
“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”
She shook her head. Tried to speak, but only produced muffled sounds.
“I can take that off,” he said, pointing at the duct tape. “But you have to promise me you won’t scream. If you scream, I’ll just put it on, and I won’t take it off again. Though, you should know, ever since Tessie died I have these vivid dreams and nightmares, and I wake up screaming a lot. None of my neighbors has ever done anything about it. Nobody’s called the police to report it, and nobody has even asked me if there’s a problem. That’s how it is amongst the living. Okay?”
He picked at the edge of the tape with his fingertips and when he got a good hold of it, he pulled fast. It made a loud ripping sound. She grunted and gasped, tears falling down her cheeks as she licked her lips.
“I’m really sorry about this,” Alex said. “I just couldn’t think of another way.”
She began to curse, a string of expletives quickly swallowed by her weeping, until finally she managed to ask, “Alex, what are you doing?”
He sighed. “I know it’s true, okay? I see the way you are, how tired you get and I know why. I know that you’re a breath-stealer. I want you to understand that I know that about you, and I love you and you don’t have to keep pretending with me, okay?”
She looked around the room, as if trying to find something to focus on. “Listen, Alex,” she said, “Listen to me. I get tired all the time ’cause I’m sick. I didn’t want to tell you, after what you told me about your wife. I thought it would be too upsetting for you. That’s it. That’s why I get tired all the time.”
“No,” he said, softly, “you’re a ghost.”
“I am not dead,” she said, shaking her head so hard that her tears splashed his face. “I am not dead,” she said over and over again, louder and louder until Alex felt forced to tape her mouth shut once more.
“I know you’re afraid. Love can be frightening. Do you think I’m not scared? Of course I’m scared. Look what happened with Tessie. I know you’re scared too. You’re worried I’ll turn out to be like Ezekiel, but I’m not like him, okay? I’m not going to hurt you. And I even finally figured out that you’re scared ’cause of what happened with your mom. Of course you are. But you have to understand. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Maybe we’ll have one night together or only one hour, or a minute. I don’t know. I have good genes though. My parents, both of them, are still alive, okay? Even my grandmother only died a few years ago. There’s a good chance I have a lot, and I mean a lot, of breath in me. But if I don’t, don’t you see, I’d rather spend a short time with you, than no time at all?”
He couldn’t bear it, he couldn’t bear the way she looked at him as if he were a monster when he carried her to the couch. “Are you cold?”
She just stared at him.
“Do you want to watch more I Love Lucy? Or a movie?”
She wouldn’t respond. She could be so stubborn.
He decided on Annie Hall. “Do you like Woody Allen?” She just stared at him, her eyes filled with accusation. “It’s a love story,” he said, turning away from her to insert the DVD. He turned it on for her, then placed the remote control in her lap, which he realized was a stupid thing to do, since her hands were still tied behind her back, and he was fairly certain that, had her mouth not been taped shut, she’d be giving him that slack-jawed look of hers. She wasn’t making any of this very easy. He picked the dish up off the floor, and the silverware, bringing them into the kitchen, where he washed them and the pots and pans, put aluminum foil on the leftover lasagna and put it into the refrigerator. After he finished sweeping the floor, he sat and watched the movie with her. He forgot about the sad ending. He always thought of it as a romantic comedy, never remembering the sad end. He turned off the TV and said, “I think it’s late enough now. I think we’ll be all right.” She looked at him quizzically.
First Alex went out to his car and popped the trunk, then he went back inside where he found poor Agatha squirming across the floor. Trying to escape, apparently. He walked past her, got the throw blanket from the couch and laid it on the floor beside her, rolled her into it even as she squirmed and bucked. “Agatha, just try to relax,” he said, but she didn’t. Stubborn, stubborn, she could be so stubborn.
He threw her over his shoulder. He was not accustomed to carrying much weight and immediately felt the stress, all the way down his back to his knees. He shut the apartment door behind him and didn’t worry about locking it. He lived in a safe neighborhood.
When they got to the car, he put her into the trunk, only then taking the blanket away from her beautiful face. “Don’t worry, it won’t be long,” he said as he closed the hood.
He looked through his CDs, trying to choose something she would like, just in case the sound carried into the trunk, but he couldn’t figure out what would be appropriate so he finally decided just to drive in silence.
It took about twenty minutes to get to the beach; it was late, and there was little traffic. Still, the ride gave him an opportunity to reflect on what he was doing. By the time he pulled up next to the pier, he had reassured himself that it was the right thing to do, even though it looked like the wrong thing.
He’d made a good choice, deciding on this place. He and Tessie used to park here, and he was amazed that it had apparently remained undiscovered by others seeking dark escape.
When he got out of the car he took a deep breath of the salt air and stood, for a moment, staring at the black waves, listening to their crash and murmur. Then he went around to the back and opened up the trunk.
He looked over his shoulder, just to be sure. If someone were to discover him like this, his actions would be misinterpreted. The coast was clear, however. He wanted to carry Agatha in his arms, like a bride. Every time he had pictured it, he had seen it that way, but she was struggling again so he had to throw her over his shoulder where she continued to struggle. Well, she was stubborn, but he was too, that was part of the beauty of it, really. But it made it difficult to walk, and it was windier on the pier, also wet. All in all it was a precarious, unpleasant journey to the end.
He had prepared a little speech but she struggled against him so hard, like a hooked fish, that all he could manage to say was, “I love you,” barely focusing on the wild expression in her face, the wild eyes, before he threw her in and she sank, and then bobbed up like a cork, only her head above the black waves, those eyes of hers, locked on his, and they remained that way, as he turned away from the edge of the pier and walked down the long plank, feeling lighter, but not in a good way. He felt those eyes, watching him, in the car as he flipped restlessly from station to station, those eyes, watching him, when he returned home, and saw the clutter of their night together, the burned-down candles, the covers to the I Love Lucy and Annie Hall DVDs on the floor, her crazy sweater on the dining room table, those eyes, watching him, and suddenly Alex was cold, so cold his teeth were chattering and he was shivering but sweating besides. The black water rolled over those eyes and closed them and he ran to the bathroom and only just made it in time, throwing up everything he’d eaten, collapsing to the floor, weeping, What have I done? What was I thinking?
He would have stayed there like that, he determined, until they came for him and carted him away, but after a while he became aware of the foul taste in his mouth. He stood up, rinsed it out, brushed his teeth and tongue, changed out of his clothes, and went to bed, where, after a good deal more crying, and trying to figure out exactly what had happened to his mind, he was amazed to find himself falling into a deep darkness like the water, from which, he expected, he would never rise.
But then he was lying there, with his eyes closed, somewhere between sleep and waking, and he realized he’d been like this for some time. Though he was fairly certain he had fallen asleep, something had woken him. In this half state, he’d been listening to the sound he finally recognized as dripping water. He hated it when he didn’t turn the faucet tight. He tried to ignore it, but the dripping persisted. So confused was he that he even thought he felt a splash on his hand and another on his forehead. He opened one eye, then the other.
She stood there, dripping wet, her hair plastered darkly around her face, her eyes smudged black. “I found a sharp rock at the bottom of the world,” she said and she raised her arms. He thought she was going to strike him, but instead she showed him the cut rope dangling there.
He nodded. He could not speak.
She cocked her head, smiled, and said, “Okay, you were right. You were right about everything. Got any room in there?”
He nodded. She peeled off the wet T-shirt and let it drop to the floor, revealing her small breasts white as the moon, unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, wiggling seductively out of the tight wet fabric, taking her panties off at the same time. He saw when she lifted her feet that the rope was no longer around them and she was already transparent below the knees. When she pulled back the covers he smelled the odd odor of saltwater and mud, as if she were both fresh and loamy. He scooted over, but only far enough that when she eased in beside him, he could hold her, wrap her wet cold skin in his arms, knowing that he was offering her everything, everything he had to give, and that she had come to take it.
“You took a big risk back there,” she said.
She pressed her lips against his and he felt himself growing lighter, as if all his life he’d been weighed down by this extra breath, and her lips were cold but they grew warmer and warmer and the heat between them created a steam until she burned him and still, they kissed, all the while Alex thinking, I love you, I love you, I love you, until, finally, he could think it no more, his head was as light as his body, lying beside her, hot flesh to hot flesh, the cinder of his mind could no longer make sense of it, and he hoped, as he fell into a black place like no other he’d ever been in before, that this was really happening, that she was really here, and the suffering he’d felt for so long was finally over.
“Journey Into The Kingdom” Copyright © M. Rickert 2010