On Tarking Ridge

The shadows creep deeply along the ruts in the road and swallow the trees up whole as night falls. We stand beside my car, Harry and me, shivering, wishing it was really spring.

My mom says the mountains are hazing; that’s what she calls it when the buds on the trees make the forest on the ridge look purple.   When the magnolia in the neighbor’s yard started to bloom last weekend, Dad said the world really had gone to shit.  There would be a late frost and kill everything.

“Everything’s upside down these days,” he said. He hunched over his computer, tuning the rest of us out.  His style.

Maybe tonight it will frost. It’s cold enough or feels like it anyway.

Harry says, “You sure this is the place?”

He’s trembling and I put an arm around him. “This is where I saw him last time.”

We just have to wait.

Harry is patient and kind.  He would follow a friend anywhere rather than let them go in alone. Luckily this doesn’t seem too dangerous. I’d never want to see Harry hurt.  We’ve been friends since grade school. He helped me skip school when I had my first period so no one would see the blood on my jeans.  My mom and dad were out of town on business and I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the secretaries in the principal’s office. They’re all terrible. Harry never said anything about it afterward to me or anyone else.  He is good like no one I know.

The wind picks up on the mountainside, rustling the leaves on the ground, bringing a whiff of warm earth and new life.  There are soft disruptions in the shadows, nothing too loud, just squirrels scrambling around.  A few cries from birds. My mom would probably know their names.

“That’s a tufted titmouse,” she might say. “You can tell by the liquid notes.”

She was a nerd before it was cool, she likes to say. I always pretend it’s a good joke because I feel sorry for her. Humor is not her strength.

Then on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the indigo twilight, I see the stag man as clearly as I did the last time. Tonight I’m not high, though; I made sure we’re clean and sober.  My mouth goes dry, but I give Harry’s arm a squeeze. I want him to look but not to say anything.  His hair brushes my cheek as he tilts his head to study the ridge. I feel him stiffen against me.

So I am not crazy.

The stag man isn’t tall, but his antlers make him seem like a beautiful dancer out of a strange ballet. His legs taper down to a pair of hooves.  It makes him stand unnaturally, his butt stuck out a little more than normal, his shoulders thrown back, too.  It really is kind of like a dancer or this kid in school who everyone was calling gay a year before he came out. Danny. He always walked like that. It made some of the other guys look when they caught him out of the corner of their eye, then scowl and turn away, like they were tricked into it.  I know I saw that happen at least three times and it made me laugh every time.

But this isn’t Danny and I’m not laughing.

“I can’t believe it,” Harry whispers.

“Are you scared?”

“No. I don’t think so. Are you?”

“No.”

I’m not scared. I wasn’t scared the first time, either. He doesn’t seem threatening. He just looks sad, his head turning now and again to study the woods.  Now his head tilts toward us and while I’m not scared, I still find my stomach turning to jelly under his gaze.

The stag man turns his whole body toward us now, his hooves scratching the moist spring earth, one of them rasping along a vein of stone so we can hear the sound of it. Now his face is in shadow, his antlers and his lean, square shoulders trimmed in dim silver light.  If he approaches us, he will remain faceless until he is right on top of us, but out cheeks and brows, our noses and chins will carry those dim silver highlights. He’ll read us and see inside us maybe a little, the way no one else in ours lives ever can. I don’t know why I think this. I’m just tired of trying to make myself clear to older people who always turn my words and my thoughts upside down.

It doesn’t make any sense that I think he’ll understand, but it makes no sense that he even exists either. Harry and I link hands like we always have when we’re about to be swallowed up by mystery. With his nails biting into my palm, our breath curls up around our faces, and we wait without breathing as the stag man closes the distance.

 

 

Heart

Leona Standish died the other day from complications during heart surgery.  They cut her open and scrambled around in there for hours, but finally the doctors threw up their bloody gloved hands and agreed on the problem.  The devil had no heart.  They sewed her back up nicely, every stitch just so, but with all illusions shattered, she flat-lined and was no more.

It was someone from the hospital that called up to the house to tell her fifth husband, Michael Pink, about the unexpected death.  When he got off the phone, he poured himself some Scotch – the really good stuff that someone had to go to the cellar to grab – and dropped the phonograph needle on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’.  He played it dozens of times, until he fell asleep around sunset and dreamed for hours about another life in Berlin.

____________

When the person from the hospital rang off from calling Michael Pink, they ran their finger along a document, picked up the phone again and punched in a long distance call to America.  On the third ring, a throaty female voice answered impatiently, “I told you yesterday to take me off your list.”

A few minutes later, the misunderstanding was cleared up.  Before ringing off, the caller from the hospital could not resist adding, “I’m sorry to bring you the bad news, Ms. Mitchell.  I know it may not be the right time, but I wanted to say what a huge fan I am of your work.  You were amazing in ‘Last Tango’. I watched it every week and was positively devastated when it was cancelled.”

There was a pause.  Then Cassandra Mitchell said, “Well, I’ll be in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in a couple of months.  Keep your eye out for it.”

She hung up and rolled over in her bed.  Her ceiling was covered in satin and dimpled with hundreds of tiny satin buttons.  She stared at it for a while, licking her teeth and remembering.  If they’d asked her before peeling back Leona’s chest bones, she could have saved them all a lot of trouble.  She knew the devil didn’t have a heart.

They were girls when they met, two proud little things seated side by side in acting class because their maiden names were the same.  They started calling themselves the Reed Sisters.  Their classmates had other names for them, none of them very nice.   They stuck to themselves, casting cool glances in their wake.

In their senior year, Cassandra was given a mentor who looked her up and down and said, “If I can teach you nothing else, young woman, I hope it’s how to make people love you.  That’s how you build a career.”

Cassandra tucked a cattish smile into her collar and said, “I don’t need love. An actress is obliged to truth only.”

The mentor cackled. “There’s nothing as graceless as a snob, Cassandra. Never mistake poise for frigidity.  At present, the only thing you could act with any honesty is the part of an icicle.”

Over the year, through magic only old souls can manage, the mentor chipped away at Cassandra and remade her.  She still carried herself princess straight because a dancer never forgets, but she stopped sticking her nose in the air and learned to curtsy even when she was the butt of the joke. In the end she had to admit what she was told the first day was true; it mattered to be loved and that had nothing to do with the part.  It was about keeping an affair with the public.  They’d been coming back for more than thirty years.

Poor Leona never learned the lesson. Her mentor left the academy at the end of the year, stooped and greyed and quite convinced he had nothing more to offer.  By graduation day, Leona and Cassandra were no longer the Reed Sisters.  They kept a polite, often useful sort of friendship over the years, but there were no warm, honest hours of the heart between them.  Now Cassandra knew why.

____________

Leona Standish was lying under a light in a grim cement cellar in London a few days later.  A young man with a fastidious bow tie under his white coat was troweling a peach complexion over her grey flesh, when he noticed a pulsing knob on her left ankle.  The tool clattered on the tiles as Lenny Boswell leaped back with a startled cry.

Her face remained quite calm, the eyes glued shut under a fringe of mink lashes.  Everyone said she opened them in the surgery and never closed them again.  He crept to her feet and leaned close, placing a latex-sheathed finger on the knob.  There was definitely a pulse there.

“Oh great,” he said aloud.

This would complicate everything.  He’d already told everyone he knew he’d been assigned Ms. Standish’s eternal facial.  All the old queens at the corner watering hole were livid with jealousy.  They wanted to know everything.  He’d been sworn to send a Snapchat of her boob job to his best friend, which he’d already obligingly done a half hour ago.  Now this pulse.  Protocol meant he’d have to call upstairs and begin a whole investigation.  By the time all that subsided, his holiday would have begun and someone else would finish the project.  Probably Smith, that conceded old cow, and one would never hear the end of his bragging.

Drawing his lips into a thin, homely line, he picked up a scalpel and cut open the foot with one clean slice.  Though he’d been drummed out of medical school, it had nothing to do with any shyness about gore.  In truth, one of his teachers had written that young Boswell seemed to enjoy cutting the skin too much, but then erased the entry with a curious sense that there would be hellish consequences.

When the flesh opened, his eyes boggled at sight of what lay beneath.  It was a heart, smallish for a grown woman, but bright and colorful as if carved directly from a living child’s back.  And despite the reports of her death and despite the fact her blood had been replaced with embalming fluid, it was pumping quite lustily.

“Oh no you don’t,” Boswell said.  He leaned in and cut it right out of her foot.  It was a stubborn heart, the arteries quite lashed to the ankle bones, but he switched blades twice and white knuckled through until it was free.  The thing rested in his hand and would not stop beating.

He rolled his eyes.  “You old bitch,” he said.  “Nice try but I think the story is still mine.”

He took it into the break room and dropped it into his sandwich box.  Then he returned to the dead woman, sewed her foot closed with the care of a high street tailor and troweled that lovely peach complexion heavily over the seam.  It was still seeping a bit, which made it hard to skiff, but he shrugged finally and decided he’d finish her off with stockings.

“Bet you never thought you’d go into the ground in nude hose, did you?” he said cheekily to her.  But then even Boswell, who his closest friends called a bitch, felt a little guilty.  Say what one would about Leona Standish, she had always showed up looking divine.  It would be wrong to put her in nude stockings.

“Never fear,” he said. “I’ll make it right, love.”

____________

That evening he and his closet friends sat down at the table in his flat and they leaned over the sandwich box and marveled that the heart was still beating.

“So it was in her foot the whole time,” one of them said.  He was a sentimentalist and was having trouble not crying.  He was also on his third gin martini.  “Poor old thing.”

“We should eat it,” Boswell said.

The others leaned away in revulsion, but before the night was through, he convinced them it was the only way.  They decided to do it raw and let it slide down their throats like oysters.  Luckily Boswell had a nice bottle of champagne.  Anything else would have been too shabby a send off for such a legend.