Berniece in Three Acts

Act 1: Disappointment

She ruined his birthday cake. It burned in the oven while she sat out on the fire escape, smoking one cigarette after another, trembling because the Spring was cold and late that year in Chicago.  Berniece hadn’t felt the cold much, hadn’t gotten her sweater from the back of the chair in the bedroom, though her hand, arched over her knee, trembled so that long columns of ash would fall on her stocking feet and brake into flakes like dirty snowballs.

Luckily the fire alarm grabbed her from her revery before the whole place burned up. She didn’t like to think what Robert would have said if he came home to a crowd gathered outside the building and a firetruck parked on the street.  It took her hours to get the scorch marks off the front of the stove, vent the smoke out of the apartment, and tidy the kitchen back up. She called down to the baker and asked him to make a birthday cake, white with chocolate icing. When he asked her how embellished she wanted it, she got nervous and said she wanted it plain, just like a normal cake.

“You don’t want me to put ‘Happy Birthday, Tommy’ on it?”

“Tommy,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

A silence stretched thinly between them.  Over the phone she could hear the baker breathing and the sound of an oven door whining open and clattering closed. Finally he said, “How about candles? What’s that now, nine? Ten? You got those, Mrs. Allen?”

“I have those. Can you have it done by four o’clock?”

“Four o’clock?”

“I know it’s short notice…” Then she came clean all in a rush, and they were both surprised that she was crying as she said she ruined her son’s cake. It wasn’t something for a person to cry about. The baker said that.

“Don’t cry over a birthday cake, Mrs. Allen.” He said, “I’ll rearrange a couple of things and get your cake done by three. If you want to bring me down your own plate, I’ll put it on that before I put in the icing.”

She was laughing through her tears now. “Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll be down.”

It was too much to try to pull herself together. It was almost one and Tommy would be home just after three and Robert by six.  She threw on a long coat and shoved her feet into a pair of taupe kitten heels that she wore too often because they made her feel instantly pulled together. As her toes sank into the mouth of the shoes, she saw the ash stains being covered over, herself cheaply transformed into a normal wife and mother.

Lipstick. A scarf and – at the last minute – earrings. She rubbed lotion into her hands and found clean gloves.  Berniece didn’t give the apartment a last glance as she stepped out with her purse in one hand and the plate in a brown paper bag under the other arm.  She never glanced back when she left.

 


 

Act 2: The Visitation

It felt like a dream the moment she opened her eyes. She was standing in the hallway of an office building.  At one end of the hallway there were two windows, ganged together, with oak blinds pulled but tilted open. A fiery sunset with a round clementine sun was painted over the shadowy buildings. She was alone in the hallways except for a pair of wilted trees in pots that guarded the elevators.

It was an older building, completely foreign to her, though the type was ubiquitous. Oak trims and doors with textured glass in the top panel.  Plain block lettering in black on the glass. Later she would only recall one of the names.  Knee high columns of metal and faux wood with sand in the tops for putting out cigarettes. Miles of speckled taupe linoleum tile that made her kitten heels seem to disappear when she glanced at her feet.

How had she come to be here?

She crossed to the elevator and tapped the down button, but the light didn’t come on and there was no sound as she waited of a line igniting, the lift rising or dropping from other floors.  She tapped it three times more.

“You’re on the right floor.”

She turned to see a man silhouetted against an office doorway. He was tall and broad, made to look like a tank in his boxy suit.  A highlight along his face revealed blond whiskers and surprisingly small ears.

“No, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not sure how I got here.”

“I need to speak to you, Mrs. Allen.”

“How do you know-”

“We haven’t time for that now. Come into my office.”

He turned away and she followed him, despite herself, like a moth compelled by a porch light. Although she anticipated no ecstasy. In fact, she moment she passed over the threshold into his office, she wasn’t surprised to see the lighting change, the colors growing dimmer. Why was she not surprised?

It was like they both knew something, yet she’d forgotten.

“You’re missing,” he said without preamble. “And I need your help to find you.” Leaning against his desk with one ankle crossed over the other and his arms folded together at the waist, he was closed off except for his clear brown eyes, studying her intently.

She recognized him then.

“You’re that detective that Robert hired last year when Sheldon asked him to go into business with him and Robert was worried. You found all those lawsuits, the shell corporation. Robert was so pleased with your work.”

Suddenly she felt like a normal wife again, like when she put on red lipstick or washed the smoke off her hands. This was what wives did, making men who did business with their husbands feel valuable. Her mother had always been good at just that; she could make a dinner party far better than their small kitchen should have allowed. And she kept the wine flowing and later the cigars and brandy.  The men all insisted she stay when she demurred and insisted on leaving them to their own vices. Berniece’s family never had parties with wives – or it didn’t seem like that in her memories – only men, lining the tables, wearing fat ties, crimp marks in their hair where their hat brims had rested too many hours of the day, beating the streets to sell things to women who stood in doorways, trying to loosen their apron strings, glancing back over their shoulders now and again in to deep and shadowed front halls.

“We ain’t got money for nothing.”

Berniece could never make a dinner party come off.  Robert preferred to meet his colleagues at restaurants.  He said neutral territory was better. It was more modern. She was pretty sure it was on account of her peculiarities. That’s the word Robert liked to use, his eyes slipping away from her gaze, a kindness that smarted like a paper cut.

The man leaning on his desk shook his head.

“He said you drifted away like this all the time.”

“He said? Who said?”

Now she was back in the office with the detective.

“Oh,” she said.

The detective crossed toward her and beckoned her to take a seat.

“We need to talk about Friday.”

“Today is Friday.”

“No, ma’am. Today is Monday. And no one’s seen you for three days.”

She squinted into the colorless corners of his office.

“That can’t be true. I’m right here. I just left the apartment to go to the-” She broke off, glancing down at her hands. Only the purse, still clutched in her right glove.

“Oh, good. I must have dropped off the plate.”

“Yes, you did. The baker confirmed it. That was at a quarter passed one on Friday. Then someone remembered seeing you crossing through the park. The one near your apartment house.”

She remembered that as soon as he said it.

“Yes, that’s right. I went to the park. I cut across it diagonally so I could walk past the fountain. The old one, not the new one. I like the old one better.”

“Did you meet anyone there.”

“Of course not.”

She opened her purse to find her cigarettes, but her hand fished around only in emptiness, the glove whispering against the stained red satin lining.

“Oh, my. I must have been robbed.” She held the purse out to him.

“Anyone suspicious follow you?”

She stood, leaving the purse on the chair like a mouth hanging open, and she began to pace the floor.  “There was a man. We passed one another just as I stepped into the park. He glanced at me and he held my gaze for just a moment too long. You understand? It made me feel uncomfortable. Undressed. I walked a little faster then. And I wanted to look back to make sure he was still heading away.”

Berniece paused and looked into the detective’s eyes.

“But then I was scared that if I turned back, we’d make eye contact again and he’d be encouraged. So I cut through a little path that wends its way through boxwoods and hollies.”

“Did he follow you?”

She frowned. “I don’t remember.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin. He wore a grey suit, a little shiny at the elbows, like a man who’s down on his luck.  A square sort of face. Pale grey eyes or maybe that was just the light glinting off his spectacles. I’m not sure about that.”

“Did he smile? Did he seem friendly or threatening?”

She shivered, recalling. “He seemed hungry.”

He crossed to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He became her father then in a sense, with a troubled and kind expression, holding her before him to ask more questions.  Only when her father did it, she could smell his floral pomade, his cigars, and his aftershave, something like spices and woodsmoke. It had always been too much to take in, especially when meeting his eye was already so tumultuous.

The detective said, “This is important, Mrs. Allen. Did you see him again?”

She nodded, wanting to shrug his hands away. Instead she stepped back and he lifted his arms before his fingers would have slipped down over her breasts.  Taking up her purse and resuming her seat, she stared into the corners of the room again.

“I did see him again. But it wasn’t in the park. It was in a room. He was standing above me with a window at his back. And his shirt was stained then. And his hands, too.”

She frowned, her lips feeling a little thick as she spoke the words, “Blood, I think.” Funny that it didn’t frighten her in the least.

He drew a sharp breath.  “And do you know where this room was?”

“I didn’t recognize it. It was seedy. Old. Victorian. With faded wallpaper. Little flowers, all in blue.”

She laughed nervously then.  “I should be the detective.”

“Ma’am?”

“Outside the window over his shoulder there was a water tower in the distance. It said Trubin City. That’s about twenty minutes north of here.  A horrible little town. Robert and I got stuck there once, years ago, waiting for a mechanic to patch our tire.”

“I know of it.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing. There aren’t many Victorian houses in Trubin City. Mostly little places with pointed roofs like they were building back in the twenties. And newer ones, tiny brick boxes with flat roofs. And lots of long, low-slung cinder block shops with plate glass fronts. Dime stores with things that make everything seem just a little meaner. Like plastic flowers you put on graves.”

She dug around in her purse again, wanting to smoke and forgetting.

“I was going to study architecture. I used to want…”

Shrugging, she glanced at the detective.

He was thrusting his arms into his trench coat.

“There isn’t much time,” he said. “I’m off to Trubin City.”

She should have stood and followed him to the elevators. Instead she sat there and stared at the things on his desk. Bills and memoranda all with cluttered black ink that said nothing she recognized.  An ashtray overflowing and a coffee mug that probably hadn’t been washed since Eisenhower was president.  Behind her she heard the bell for the elevator and the whoosh of the doors opening.  Then it closed again and she could hear the motor as the car dropped away and away.

 


 

Act 3: Revelation

When she opened her eyes again, Berniece knew at once that it was not a dream. It felt nothing like it. There was nothing surreal about the hospital room: the muddy green blue paint on the bottom half of the walls, the crimped metal blinds at the square windows, the band around her wrist with words she understood plainly.

The detective was there, but this was not like before.

In noon sunlight as pale as a white onion, he sat in the visitor chair, his head slumped forward, his whispers shimmering like gold dust.  He started awake, rubbed his eyes, looked into her face as if he were meeting her eye for the first time.

“You’re awake,” he said. “I should call the nurse.”

“No, don’t,” she said.  She wanted to ask him if he remembered their last meeting. Instead she waited to hear what he had to say.

“How are you feeling?” A familiar question, she’d heard a lot in her life, always with a note of hesitation, the asker braced for disappointment.

“My throat is sore. And my stomach.”

“They had to pump it to get the pills out.”

She frowned. “I was sure I’d been stabbed.”

He leaned forward too quickly, his eyes narrowed, his chin pushing forward.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“There was so much blood. You remember.”

He frowned. “How much do you remember?”

“Just what I told you before.”

“Ma’am, we haven’t spoken before.”

It seemed pointless to argue. Even she had felt it was a dream, all the while.

“So he poisoned me?”

He leaned back and folded his hands on his lap carefully.

“The way he tells it, after you stabbed him, you took the pills yourself.”

“I stabbed him? But that’s nonsense.”

“He says you went berserk and stabbed him over and over with a steak knife that got brought up with the dinner tray. He’s got the wounds and we’ve got the knife. That much checks out.”

After a silence, he added, “He said you tapped him on the shoulder in the park, asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. To get out of the city. He said he thought you were some sort of crazy rich lady out looking for a lark.”

She thought about the loose springs in the sofa. “My husband wishes we were rich, but we’re always missing the boat.”

“He said you wound up in Trubin City at that bed and breakfast Friday night. You spent the next two days racking up a bill for wine and steaks.  You sent him out to buy liquor Saturday night before the store closed and the two of you spent most of the weekend in bed together.”

She brought her hands out from under the sheet, wanting to hold them together because she felt cold. Her nail polish was chipped and there were scratches on the backs of her hands.  Her wedding ring was still there, and the engagement ring with its little shaving of diamond.

“I don’t understand. I’m a mother. I’m not a monster.”

He leveled his eyes on her face and he didn’t seem to have anything to say just yet.

“I pass this man in the park and then I wake up here and you tell me I tried to kill him.”

“And then yourself.”

She felt the muscles around her mouth twist as she thought of protesting.  Then her features went flat again. It felt true, the things he was telling her, although she still couldn’t remember.  A cloud must have passed over the sun because the room grew darker.

“I don’t know what to say. I have to believe it’s true, although I can’t imagine why I’d do it. I never do anything to make a fuss. I never fight. I never kick or scream. I’m as meek as a mouse. I always try to be good. I never get things right. I never have.”

“Mrs. Allen?”

“The cake,” she said, scratching blood out of her cuticles with her thumb. “I wanted to make it myself.”

Then, thrusting her hands back under the sheets again, she asked, “Is it still Monday?”

“Tuesday.”

“That’s Tommy’s real birthday. But we always have birthdays on Saturdays. It’s so much easier, isn’t it?”

 

 

Little Blue Flower

I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel.  The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.

It began when he saved the life of a wizard.  Remarkable in and of itself.  As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same.  He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way.  It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish.  He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.

As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act.  His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before.  He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door.  She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean.  It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one.  Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time.  He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.

So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory.  He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless.  It would find its way into the waste basket.

At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick.  But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call.  It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.

The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?”  At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead.  His lips moved in a silent incantation.

“There,” he said aloud.

Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”

The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest.  “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”

When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo.  It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life.  When he and Diana were first falling in love.  He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy.  But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth.  He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?”  That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year.  His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.

Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.

“Happiest memory, you are gone.”

He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture.  But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.

“Damn.”

He tried it once more. Then again.

When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator.  Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment.  The cry of the seagulls.  The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards.  The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players.  Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.

He laughed at himself until his head hurt.

There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.

 


 

Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy.  Because.

Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something.  Now he couldn’t remember what it was.  He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.

“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”

And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall.  And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really.  He’d been irritated with her about it.  Thinking it was sentimental.  He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.

“Let me do this,” she said.

It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember.  It was something else.  Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man.  He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind.  Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it.  It was sharp, but vacant.  There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.

He began to wonder if he did have the super power.  Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana?  He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.

 


 

Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him.  It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most.  As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard.  And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty.  But if emptiness could itch.  Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.

He was stunned by the loss.

Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question.  How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?

Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?

 


 

He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left.  Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them.  Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already.  They had been talking for years.

If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it.  He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty.  It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers.  That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.

He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long.  Men have codes about things like this.  But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning.  Charlie frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.

He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

Charlie blinked.  “I’m glad I already called last call.”

“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”

Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”

“Tell me about it.  The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up.  The thing your granddad said.”

Charlie shook his head, “He just…”

“Yeah?”

Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar.  He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”

“Of course it is,” the man said.  His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”

“No,” Charlie said.  But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”

When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears.  The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light.  Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.

“What was that thing you said a minute ago?  The thing about the happy memory?”

“I don’t know.”

Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve.  “I think you’d better get out of here.”

But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.

“Night, Charlie.”

The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him.  He didn’t say good night.

 


 

After that the man was sure his power was real.  It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory.  It was undeniable.  When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box.   He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic.  He just knew it to be exhilarating.

 

 

 

The Second Escape

With slender fingers the fog first choked the trees before encircling the building.  It was the kind of grey morning that gave no hint at the movements of the sun, that suggested that time was suspended, shadows given pause and highlights wiped away like fingerprints. The fog was a mercy, Dr. Klinger had said the previous evening, eying satellite feeds with a fevered intensity.

Max could see only the tops of pines distantly from the window of his cell.  Below him, in the courtyard outside the back entrance to the compound, voices barked and metal cried as the persons from the lab hastily loaded equipment into vans that purred and fumed.  It was an impromptu moving day that had sent everyone left in Dr. Klinger’s small operation into twenty four hours of perpetual motion.  More than half of the original group had been mown down in the flight from the old campus.

“This time the watch worked,” the doctor said. “This time we didn’t put faith in AI only to discover how easily they could corrupt it.  This time we went back to the beginning. To all beginnings. We rely on human wisdom and loyalty.  The animal in us all can save us all.”

When Klinger started to rave, Max would go still, studying anything he could latch his gaze upon. He would take even breaths and remind himself that if he gored the doctor with his antlers, he would lose the only person in the group that had something like love for him. He had overheard the others speaking before their last flight from the hired guns of the corporation.  He knew that some of them wanted to either give him up or incinerate him themselves.  The idea was to hide all proof of the experiment.  He was a liability.

When he told Dr. Klinger this, he was given assurances.

“I know who you heard saying those things. I always knew they weren’t loyal, Max. And did any of them make it out alive?”

“So am I supposed to relax and believe that karma will take care of everything? If karma were handling this-”

“You can’t believe that a man of science is concerned with karma.”

“If karma were really handling this, I’d like to know what the fuck I ever did to deserve being mutilated? Turned into a freak?”

The doctor struck him then, a quick, catlike blow with the flat of his hand against Max’s cheek.  His eyes were bright with feeling.

“You are not a freak. You are an entire ecosystem. A miracle. The intelligent material of dozens of forms of life, each rewired to cooperate within your body, helping to circumnavigate all of the safeguards that evolution put into place to prevent science from stitching together new life. You are a marvel of biological engineering.”

Max had turned away. This was weeks ago and the first time he had ever felt the urge to kill.  It had never been in his disposition to respond to a blow with a blow. His instinct had always been flight.  It had made his father think of him as weak, peering at him with hazel eyes that were aloof with disgust. Or perhaps simply he was confused by Max.

The day that Klinger struck him, a different response emerged, like a chain buried in the mud that was suddenly pulled from both ends, so that it rose up with a metallic whine. That was when he knew that the doctor’s talk of an ecosystem was not limited to what he could see in himself when he looked in the mirror.  Something was rewriting itself in Max. He was still apt to take flight, but now equally inclined to draw blood.

The doctor had turned away then, knotting his fingers together, his shoulders curving inward toward his chest.  “Anyway, the betrayers weren’t taken down by accident. I scheduled the departures to make them most likely to be in the line of fire.  Karma is a blind justice that primitives believe in.  Any definitive retribution must be thoughtfully orchestrated.”

He turned back to Max then and he could not see the change in him. He must have still imagined him to be a man who cowered in the face of pain, because he placed a hand on his shoulder gently.

“I will always protect you, Max. You mean more to me than you will ever know.”

It was funny to think that this man was saying to him something that would inspire hope and peace were it to come from a parent or a lover.  Issuing from the lips of this man, with his ignored beard and exhausted squint, it felt like a life sentence.

They could not both live, Max thought. One of them had to die.

Klinger studied him closely then.

“If you ever ventured out into the world, they would likely see you as you see yourself. You might be taken into another lab, taken apart, and studied organism by organism. And they’d make sure every trace of you was gone. What muriatic acid couldn’t sluice away would be pulled out of servers on line and taken from yellowing old folders.”

Max didn’t want to listen to Klinger, but he found himself mesmerized.

“Or else they’d shoot you where you stood, aiming for the head. They might bury you and say prayers that you’d never rise again. You would become a legend, something hill folk pass down to keep their children from wandering into the forest.”

 


 

This time when they abandoned their compound, Max studied the order in which the teams climbed into the vans.  The hired guns were nowhere near them yet, according to the last communication with their watch, yet he wondered if Klinger were still hedging his bets, putting his weakest links in harm’s way in some bid to feel that blood was not quite on his own hands.

Max was put into a vehicle with Klinger and two women he knew as Natasha and Inez. He knew they were doctors, but they never wore name tags, and everyone at the institution called each other by their first names except for Klinger.  Natasha was tall with angular features and long, beautiful hands. Her gaze was always quick and inscrutable. Inez was short and compact, wore her hair in a braid that coiled like a snake at the back of her head.  She cracked her knuckles nervously whenever she listened to a briefing from Klinger, but sometimes Max thought she was looking at him with empathy when he happened upon her gaze.

The four of them were in back of the van, with another woman and a man in the front seats.  They didn’t use horns to signal and they didn’t use communication devises.  All phones had been turned off after the last contact with the watch, because once the lab was loaded and ready to go, the last thing to disconnect and load was the scrambling device they had used to prevent detection for the last two months.  If anyone so much as took a selfie, they might in some way open themselves up to another ambush.  The GPS systems in their vehicles had been ripped out and left at the site.

Their departure had been planned from the beginning. In the absence of any modern technology to assist them, they were getting out with old school methods.  Careworn paper travel atlases had been procured and – unless the roads had been changed significantly since the turn of the century – they would get them to their next temporary compound.  Their movements were synchronized with old fashioned timepieces.  A small alarm bleeped one Klinger’s wrist watch and like magic the van in front began to roll forward into the fog.

Deer Feet

It was hard for Max to walk at first.  He was sure his ankles would snap under his weight. But that bastard Dr. Klinger said he would be fine and needed to exercise.  The doctor would protest being called names.

“I saved your life, young man,” he might say. His woolly eyebrows would escape up under his bushy grey hair, that tangle that spilled forward each time he raked it back.

What would Max say in return?  He might say that his life wasn’t saved, that he could have lived perfectly well as an amputee. They could have outfitted him with those blades like the Olympian who smashed through his bathroom door and killed his wife.  He would rather have metal arcs spanning the distance between his knees and the ground.

“But you had to be shown. The board had to finally see my vision, that bunch of number-crunching neanderthals. The accident happening on your way from my lab was providential, as my grandmother used to say. It was serendipitous. You coming out unscathed except for the hamburger meat that was your old feet. Meanwhile the deer beaten to a pulp but those feet as perfect as they ever were.”

The doctor might put a hand to his chest piously. “If anything I should be thanked.”

Max had thought a lot about his trip to the doctor in the last three weeks.  His employer had sent him out to announce formally that they were cutting funding to the doctor’s program.  There had been too many liberalities taken with his study of interspecies genetic co-modification.  When the doctor sent them a white mouse with the red wings of a Cardinal at Christmas, the board was deeply disturbed, if briefly entertained, watching the creature fly up and down the length of the boardroom table, snatching up bits of cheese off the lunch platter while hovering inches above the surface.

“But what would the press say if they saw this…thing?” the CEO asked.

There was a brief conversation, voices rising in anger at times, before they all fell silent to hear the chair speak.

“It will have to be incinerated.”

So it was done.  For good measure, they collected everyone’s cell phones and scanned them to make sure no one had taken a video.  Each person in the room signed a nondisclosure again, although from the beginning of the project, they had already signed dozens of amended and updated versions of the same.

Somehow it fell to Max to break the news to the doctor.  It felt wrong from the beginning. He was the youngest member of the board and some would say his greatest qualification was being a blood relation to the CEO.  It was a fool’s errand, to say the least.

The doctor had wept when he received the news.  But then he had pulled himself together, offered Max a lunch, as the journey from the remote lab to the nearest town was some distance, and the long roads twisting and still etched with winter ice.  All he remembered about the drive back to town were high banks of white snow on either side.  Then the stag, standing there in the middle.  If he hadn’t felt so tired after lunch, if it hadn’t been so hard to keep his eyes open.  In the weeks he spent lying in bed, he had plenty of time to catalog his regrets.

He should have headed back before lunch, when he was still buzzing from the thermos of coffee that kept him company on the ride in.

He should have refused the task; his uncle would hardly fire him for it.

He should have stayed in college and finished his MBA instead of being seduced by an offer for an immediate and easy windfall.

He should have studied dance, as he wanted to when he was sixteen, instead of being shamed out of it by his father.

He should have died in that boating accident at five instead of his cousin Katie. It always came to this; it was an illogical regret.  He had had many joyful moments in life between that summer day when the water off the Cape turned maroon all around them and the morning he woke up to find he had hooves instead of feet.  All the same, he couldn’t escape the thought that this was a long overdue payment for a debt he owed the universe. Somehow he had cheated that day, getting to walk away unscathed.

On the fortieth day after the car accident, the doctor insisted he walk.  It was hard to do because the small area of his new feet allowed him little wiggle room for balance. He found he wanted to spill forward.

“Well, that’s enough for today,” Dr. Klinger said. “The tenons are still knitting and I’d hate to see you snap them in a fall. I could kill the pain with morphine for your sake, but seeing my handiwork undone would be most unpleasant.”

As Max began to fall asleep, the doctor stroked his brow fondly.

“You really are a miracle. You’re the most beautiful creature ever designed by man. You just don’t see it yet.”

“I’ll never be able to balance on these deer feet,” Max said drowsily. The physical therapy was exhausting. Or else they were feeding him something in his IV to lower the veil. His eyes fluttered closed and he forgot as soon as he saw it that one of the doctor’s assistants was wheeling in a cart on which were perched a strangely familiar set of antlers. Eight points. Then Max could not open his eyes any longer.

“I think I know how to solve the problem of balance,” he heard the doctor say.

Then a voice, “Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

It may have been his own.

Claudine

I cannot manage to sleep tonight.  Each time I begin to doze, I find my mind turning over the thing I heard last Sunday, when we had the new doctor to the house.  Obsessive thoughts are common when the year turns again to autumn.  The white witch of winter peers at us though the forest, promising mischief and isolation.  Last night I dreamed of bloody skulls and women hurling themselves into darkness.  I lay the blame wholly on the handsome young physician.

The doctor is a pleasant dinner companion, despite the rumors coming out of town about his coldness.  His manners are impeccable and he chooses his every word with care, which might be mistaken for a kind of stiffness, yet he has a gentle warmth that came through more and more as the evening unfolded.  He was fastidiously polite about the meal, although we had made nothing very special.  And he had many nice things to say about the house, though Agnes and I are the first to admit we’ve neglected it terribly these last years.

The most remarkable thing about his visit, though, would have to be the story he told.  It was about a woman he once met in a village in the south called Severance.  It took Agnes a while to understand him; she was sure he was saying St. Vance and there was entirely too much discussion about that.  By the time we all agreed it was an amusing mistake and that likely there was no saint by that name, the cocktails had lost their chill.  I think the doctor was shocked when I said the drinks were no longer laughing at us and we ought to toss them out and start anew.  After he left, Agnes said it made us look frivolous and I bit my tongue because there is nothing so tiresome and middle class as a rout when guests go home.

Before I get to the meat of the story, I had best say the doctor was very conscientious about his oaths as a physician.  He gave us a pretend name for the woman in the story, lest by some chance we should have ever heard of her.  He said we should call her Claudine Allard.  Agnes asked if we ought to construe that she was French and because it was not a bad question, I paused as I shook our new batch of drinks, as to hear the doctor’s reply.

“They were French enough,” he said.

That caused me to chuckle.  I could see it amused Agnes, as well, because her eyes flashed merrily as she accepted the fresh cocktail I held out to her.  She said, “My grandmother liked to say she was a Catholic and a Liberal, but first and foremost she was French.”

I took my place beside her on the sofa, keenly aware that our snug little den with the crackling fire was the perfect setting for ghoulish storytelling. There was a lively energy between the three of us and I felt happy we’d invited the young man.

“Please tell us your tale,” I said. “I promise Agnes and I will be good little children and not interrupt.”

“Speak for yourself,” Agnes said.

I wagged my finger at the doctor. “I should take that as a warning, young man. In twenty-seven years, I’ve never been able to stop her asking too many questions.”

“There are never too many questions,” she said.

The doctor settled back in his chair with a bit of color in his cheeks.  Perhaps our silliness was embarrassing to him, I thought briefly, but next he smiled and said, “I think Ms. Poe is delightful.  I myself have a love of curiosity.”

Wetting his throat with the cocktail, he unfolded his tale.

____________

“When I was through internship,” he began. “My father found me a job working in a surgery in this town I mentioned.  Severance.  It was a grim little place.  Never recovered from the picking over the carpetbaggers gave it.  Everywhere one looked, mills were grinding to a halt, cotton fields going to scrub.  My father had no notion the town was so poor.  A dear friend of his at university was their sole physician and he spoke of it with the love of a loyal native.  He wrote my father about the grand estates, the elegant manners of the meager old guard.  He never mentioned all the poor and dirty children, black and white, who were lucky to get a meal a day.”

“The doctor and I spent much of our time with the poor.  They were most of the population. I never complained to father. He’d have called me home to Boston immediately.  If I can say it without sounding a perfect horse’s ass, I had a poetic sense in the pink of my youth that I was doing the world a great service.”

He laughed at himself.

“In any event, perhaps I thought what I was seeing would teach me the true horrors of life and I’d return to New England, the prodigal son, to write a searing essay on the maladies of the South.  The nation would be called to action.  There would always be soup in the pot and cornbread in the oven when I was through.  At the very least, I thought I was helping in my way, day by day.”

He raked a hand through his curls.  I could tell by the gleam in Agnes’ eye she was quite smitten with him at that moment.  It was impossible not to be.  Nothing is so attractive in the young as a sense of righteousness. It can also make them ugly.  Still, I gave him an encouraging smile.

“Well, naivete may be the wart on noble intentions, but we ought not be judged by our warts alone.”

He smiled at me.

“From the first, I’d been hearing about this grand old place called Petit Lac.  It was different from the others, I came to find out, because the family had never gone broke in the civil war.  The same people – the Allard family – had owned it sense the land was little more than a swamp, they said, with Indian villages and the like. Although it was a mile away, on a clear day you could see its columns from the town.”

“Well, although one could see the poetry in the place from all that distance, I had little reason to ponder it much, what with trying to chase away fevers and patch up fingers busted on grist wheels.  Then one day my boss said he had a note from Petit Lac.  We were needed there immediately.  I still remember his wry tone as he pulled the note from his breast pocket and said, ‘It’s a royal summons, young man.  Take heed.'”

“When we got to the gates of the plantation, the sun was already smoldering low on the ridges.  There were three freedman on the bridge to the house, the soft earthen pass that allowed cars over the water.  They stopped us before we could cross.  I knew one of the men.  His name was Marshall.  I’d helped his daughter earlier in the year, when her leg was mangled in a harvester. We had to take it clean off, but she lived.  He glowed with sweat in the twilight, his smile the warmest thing I would see in the coming hours.  ‘Hello, doctor sir,” he said. ‘I hate to see you out here tonight.’

“I wasn’t sure of his meaning. His eyes dropped away from me, and he said, ‘We have to fix this here bridge, doctor sir. The culvert is cracked and we’re putting in a new one.  You’ll have to cross the lake on the little raft down below.’

“We parked my employer’s car on the road, took our leather cases and met the man who waited at the raft.  He was a quiet sort, his shape a tortured one, the spine quite twisted.  My mentor leaned in as we crossed, told me the name of the flu that had left the man in such a state.  His eyes in the dimming light were sad.  I remember how the crooked man looked against the orange twilight.  Despite his malady, he got us across swiftly.  The old physician seemed quite moody as we set off on foot again, so I  asked him questions about the history of the estate.

“He told me about a gory uprising between the Indians and the settlers as we walked.  They said a man came across the head of a native in the midst of the battle, so freshly cut from the neck that the eyes were still roving about with a glower of accusation.  Queerly enough, he laughed a little as he said, ‘The Indian head asked the man if he were the one who had cut him and by the time he composed himself enough to say he was not, the eyes had grown quite glassy.’

“When we got to the house, a dark woman in long, old-fashioned skirts led us down the gallery.  I was at last walking among those grand columns I had seen from town.  Even in the wan light, I could see what I had not guessed from afar.  The brick was in need of white wash and the floor boards were eaten here and there by vermin.

“We went through a set of glass doors opening onto a dark library.  Walnut shelves climbed fifteen feet into the air all around. There might have been tens of thousands of books.  They were so old, I knew at a glance the family must have bowed before devils to keep the collection safe during the war.  Unlike the other plantations I had visited in that year, this one owed none of its crumbling rot to the cruel hands of looters.

“The thing pulling this old place apart was simply neglect.  I knew that the moment I got a glimpse at the man laid on a bed at the center of the room.  The captain of this ship was all but dead.  The face above the brocade mantle was so creased and pale, I was sure I could glimpse each vein running beneath the skin, if only I had the light of day instead of dusk to aid me.”

At this point in his tale, I noticed Agnes shivering.  I stood and went to close the doors to the porch, but she stopped me.  “Oh, the goose bumps are lovely, Margaret.  Sit down and let him tell the tale.”

I may have rolled my eyes because she gave me that look, but I pretended not to notice and changed course only slightly, stoking the fire instead.  The young doctor glanced at us, his face as handsome in the rising light as the statues Greeks used to covet, but he carried on as though uninterrupted.

“When my mentor pulled away the old colonel’s covers, we could see all the more how wasted he was.  Our eyes met as they had before and if words could be printed on the cornea, ours would have born an identical print: cancer.  We ordered him tea and mixed a medicine to ease his suffering.  I allowed my eyes to roam the salon.  When I noticed the portrait over the hearth, I felt the breath leave my body.

“The woman in the painting was likely the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  Here I must confess that I had a brief love affair with art when I was younger still.  I connived to study painting and sculpture in Paris before I settled on a physician’s studies.  I was no stranger to the flattery a painter is capable of when he must pay his rent by the patron.  In this one, I recognized both the talents of a man who is well known to us all, but also I was convinced beyond a doubt of the honesty of the piece.  The woman in the painting, with her long honey hair and her dark, wretched eyes was not the compliment of a hungry artist.  Her beauty was her own possession.  I could sense the longing of the artist to portray it in every brush stroke.”

The young physician laughed at himself.  He said, “Well, I know I am sounding very dramatic.  But in the next moment, the woman herself appeared.  She stood in the doorway of the library, tall and proud, dressed in black as though she knew where the next days would land her: on the grim hillside plot where the rest of her clan was buried.

“She managed a little smile as she crossed to us.  She said to my mentor.  ‘How long does he have?’  I was shocked, I admit, by her blunt manner.  I glanced away, but I sensed she was watching me.

“‘My grandfather is in much pain,’ she said.  I cautioned a glance and met her eyes.  They were a lovely, pale brown when the light hit them.  The kind of brown that is almost green, like the rusty moss of the forest.

“The good old doctor administered his medicine and the patient lay still, though his pallor was a grey that would stay with him until the end.  The granddaughter left us for a bit.  I could not keep from peering at her painting.  When she returned a while later, she had troubling news.  ‘I’m afraid the bridge collapsed while the men were trying to secure the new culvert. Damned stupid of them not to quit when they’d lost the light. No one was hurt, thank heavens, but the raft was rather badly broken.  You’ll have to stay over the evening. We can get another one from up lake by morning.’

“There was nothing for it but to accept our fate.  Shortly after, we took dinner with her in a dining room far too large for three souls.  There were two hearths at either end, both of them roaring with good logs.  She sat at the head of the table in a familiar manner, as one who might have taken the liberty for a good while.  The food was rich and our wine glasses were kept quite full.  She told us amusing little stories, all the while fidgeting with her knife.  She laid it flat and spun it in circles on the mahogany top or else she held it straight up and down, the tip on her plate, turning it to see it glint in the fire light. I barely noticed her fascination with it at the time, but I recalled it later and have never forgotten it.

“There was something about her I found hard to fathom.  When we were in school and our masters talked about compassion, I knew only the meaning of the word.  Later I learned the feeling of it in all those sad little cottages of Severance.  I felt it most keenly one night when I held a dieing boy in one hand and the hand of his father in the other.  The father could not bare to touch the son just yet.  It is hard to describe how I felt about Claudine.  I did not know her, which might account for my lack of compassion, but still there was something about her that made sense of my coldness.  She was beautiful but ugly.

“Later the doctor and I were led to a set of guest rooms at the top of the old house.  Everywhere I looked, I could see the portraits and the traces of the men and women who called this place their home and who were now amongst the dead.  The damask on the walls was split open, fine gowns clinging to bones.  Up there the air itself smelled of rot.

“Though it was hard to feel at home there, I staved off my morbid fancies and managed a sort of half sleep.  Not long after I dozed away, I woke with a sense that someone was in the room with me.  I must have cried out in alarm, because her voice came to me, cold and clear.  ‘It is only I,  physician,’ she said. ‘Claudine.’

“‘Is something wrong with your grandfather?’ I asked into the shadows.

“‘Only himself,’ she said oddly.  Her voice was so miserable, I felt a shiver despite the warmth of the room.  Then she told me everything in an instant, unasked, as though the wave of her sad life had at last found a shore to break against.”

He blushed then, our young doctor, and Agnes and I exchanged a glance.  He continued, “I had never heard of the kind of things she told me.  Perhaps in the darkness, I was merely a priest and she at a kind of confession.  Her mother left Petit Lac when she was young.  She was an adventurer.  She wrote stories for magazines about travels all over the globe.  Her choices scandalized her family and the old colonel was known to tell his closest friends his daughter was dead.  But when the woman did in fact pass away – and left behind Claudine – he took his granddaughter in with the diligent haste of a fine old saint.

“Yet when his granddaughter became a young woman, when she flowered, as was his word for it – or the French word perhaps – something changed about the old man.  His gaze was different.  She said his eyes had a heat she could feel on her skin.  He brought her jewels from the vaults under the house.  He ordered gowns for her that caused the servants to look away when she wore them. He told her she was beautiful so often, she learned to hate her own reflection.

“I was horrified by how quickly I figured her meaning.  I thought about asking her to stop telling me.  At last she said into the darkness, ‘One night, I knew there was nothing left but to surrender. And so it has been these last years.'”

Agnes rose suddenly, setting aside her empty glass.  “I need to stand.  Please, continue.”

His eyes were now older than the rest of his pleasant face.  He hesitated and only when we prompted him did he carry on.

“She stopped after she told me the worst of it.  I didn’t know what to say and so we were silent for a while in that dark room.  Only a bit of moonlight, coming over her shoulder, told me that she sat near the window.  Finally, I said, ‘That’s monstrous,’ or something of the kind.

“She said, ‘He’s dead now.’

“I knew she spoke the truth.  Another silence stretched between us and at last, knowing nothing else to say, I murmured, ‘I’m sorry.’

“She heaved a sigh then, and I’m almost sure, but not absolutely convinced, she said, ‘Thank you.’  Then she stood and opened the window. I was still sitting up in the bed.  The chilly night breeze chased off the musty odor quickly.  For a moment I thought she only meant to air the room, but she stood there so long, I began to wonder if she had more to say. Then she did something quite astonishing.  The last thing she ever did.  She lifted a foot and stepped up into the window sill.  Without glancing back at me, she hurled herself out into the night without a cry.  I realized later she must have been praying before she jumped.

“I rose despite the futility of any action.  When I glanced down, she was twisted and bloodied on the stones below.  I told myself I would carry her secret, but yet I wondered if they would think I had pushed her.  Then another thought came to me and hastily, still shaken, I managed to dress myself and find my way to the bottom of the stairs.  Despite the gloom, I found the colonel’s library, lit one of the lamps on the desk, and carried it to his sick bed.”

He paused.  Agnes and I were silly with curiosity.  I cannot imagine two teenagers at the cinema any more foolish.  I sat forward.

“Yes?”

The doctor stood and braced himself on the hearth.  I could see he was trembling.  The mood of the room had changed. Hang the crackle of our little fire.  His face, as ashen as gravestone, chased away every thought of cheer.

“Before she came to my room to tell me of their wretched arrangement,” he said. “She had cut away his face, ear to ear, hair to chin, leaving only the skull to stare up to the ceiling.  I have turned myself inside and out trying to understand why.”

The physician is a gifted story teller, but despite her silly questions, my Agnes is the real scholar of the heart.  Without a pause, she answered the riddle, “So she’d never again see his face in the beyond.”

The doctor looked amazed and I must say he gave my Agnes a quite kindly hug when he went away that night.  As we drifted to sleep later, her voice cut our dark room.

“I wish I’d asked him if they ever found the face.”

My Agnes.  Her questions.