ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011
The garden was a mercy, the jacaranda a firmament, birds in its branches like acolytes, mosses like Turkish rugs. Up on the trestle, bromeliads sprang from the cracks of old railway ties. Parakeets founded a colony, so did tortoises.
Mr. Hill understood the garden as a schema of heaven and earth. His pockets were full of origin stories jotted on seed packets; his bookshelf wheezed beneath the weight of a hundred books of myths. The ancients were often in Mr. Hill’s thoughts as he hybridized and raked. The ancients were people who knew their luck, like fish in a cool deep pond. They would have descried a deity in the evergreen; measured beauty by the hummingbird, abjectness by the vole; and derived a theory of reincarnation from the example of daffodils. This much and more, Mr. Hill knew about the ancient mind.
It was Nola who had hatched the garden from a snail acre. To Nola, the garden was an emanation: her most constant self. The cherry tree, out-clouding the clouds, and the forsythia, out-swarming, pertained to her like books to their author. She’d imagined them years before seeing them, when a girl in the slag counties, but then she’d called them by the readier names of “beauty” and “gold leaf.” Now gold leaf was forsythia, and cherries were beautiful; yet their harmonies were the same harmonies she had willed to exist long ago.
At night, when the cereus was bold as lights, the garden looked foreign as Spain. Mr. Hill and Jack Lolly drank No. 5 beer and tried to outrage each other. Mr. Hill exaggerated his tramp-eccentricities. Jack Lolly broadened his humor, his vowels, and his anti-intellectual streak. To everyone else, Jack Lolly crowed that he was on intimate terms with the garden, but to Hill and Nola, he acted the surly democrat throwing stones at the duchy walls. He counted the garden as the least ordinary place he had ever been. He exalted it; then he suspected its very exaltedness.
Nola’s daughter Sylvia was the only person on whom the garden didn’t impinge. To Sylvia, the garden was unremarkable as skin. Twelve years old and indifferent to everything outside her head, she imagined the flowers were tapestries on the walls of a medieval tower. Each deadheaded rose was a beheaded Mary Queen of Scots. She stamped on snails for the spectacle, then returned to her hideaway.
. . .
When Nola was a child, she stole Annunciations from the digest magazines. The valley of her birth was backwoods, deforested by industry. Debt and the black lung prospered there; in the plant kingdom, sow’s ear did well.
Her father mined; her mother blued shirts. Her mother staved off soot. Soot stuck to frosty windowpanes and to steamy lids of pots; it silted in winter boots left out and in breastpockets; yet of smog, slag, and soot, soot was the least. Smog was like cataracts. Slag and demise were oncoming, regardless of elbow grease.
As a people, the valley’s inhabitants were heel-dug fatalists. Their grandparents had built the town after arduous wandering: built it, having seen a panoply of places less promising. “The world’s an ordeal. That’s that,” said the miners, thus patching up arguments. Their ministers, too, preached suffering as salvation’s hypotenuse: “Heaven is wondrous restitution for choke damp and potted meat.”
Nola’s sisters—indoctrinated—scoured, boiled, and beat. They got hangnails from the bluing stuff, corns on their sweaty feet. “The afterlife is a mineral soak,” they murmured like prince-dreaming. Only Nola perceived the countermand in Annunciation paintings.
In every painting, a messenger swooped and a lady yielded as between them a commandment coursed, now bracing, now buckling. The lady raised her hand like a pledge. The messenger’s arm was outstretched. Yet their purposes, not their fingers, met: his to reveal, and hers to consent.
To Nola, the paintings were grounds for hope. She should expect a messenger. He might be coming even now, navigating by zodiac, veering left at the Poconos, switching back at Ashby’s Gap, his mission to find and ferry her to a country not on the map: the lady’s country, a pearly place where housepainters used cadmiums and citizens strolled unencumbered by dread, like Olympians.
All her thoughts turned toward that country, which she called the painted world. At school she hid the digest pages in her silent-reading book, so instead of reading she internalized color harmony. On washdays she habitually lay low, out of earshot of her mother’s threats. Her hideout was a rotting shed. She sat on the remains of its floor and, poring over paintings, awaited the messenger. Her overnight kit was within arm’s reach; her shoes were tightly laced. When the messenger swooped, she would know him at once by his high hairline and gestural grace. Until then, she sustained herself with plans and forefancies. Her mother scolding her, “Shirker! Well, see how you like dirty sheets,” her sisters emptying dustpans on her pillowcase: these were but interim.
Where she was going, lavender was kissing cousin to black. Black to white was startlement; green, even green in eyes of cats, derived recently from plants. The lady’s rooms were proportional; the lady herself was swannish. Out her window, the sky, the color of reefs, was set with hummingbirds.
One washday an O’Meara child surprised Nola in the shed. The O’Mearas had more children than shoes, so this child was barefoot. She also was grass-stained and skinny as frogs’ legs. Her hair was lichenous. She stood unobserved in the shed’s doorway, camouflaged against rotting wood, and clearly saw the paintings and Nola communing with them.
“That’s our lady,” she said.
Nola jumped as if red-handed. She frenziedly scooped up the paintings. “Go away!” she tried ordering the littler girl. “Private property!” Colored ink dusted both her cheeks and made her look fiery.
The O’Meara unwrapped a lollipop. “Are you a Catholic?”
Nola backed deeper into the shed. “I’ll count to three,” she said.
“She’s got no sin, that’s how come she’s better’n everyone else. It’s pineapple, want a lick? Everyone else is sinners. I sinned twice today. I didn’t eat my breakfast and I called Suellen a word. The devil’s in me”—she lowered her voice—“but the devil knew he’d lose the arm he touched our lady with.”
“She’s not your lady.” The lady had graces the like of which no O’Meara had seen.
“My dad says you Sleets starch your private parts,” said the child off-handedly. “She IS TOO our lady, her picture’s in church.”
“Show me,” Nola said.
The church’s lady buckled. Like commotion, her arms flew out; but her brow was clear, and her head’s angle expressed obedience. Opposite her, the messenger crouched, a telegram on his lips. “You must undertake a journey,” Nola imagined he said.
She sat on the floor at the painting’s feet. “Better kneel,” said the supervising priest, whose dream was to be the father-confessor of a female saint. He thought Nola was a candidate, based on her rapt attitude; and kneeling beside her, he allowed himself the pleasure of a homily. “Be chaste,” he whispered. “Virtuous. Magnanimous and meek. Our lady will be your helmswoman. Pray for her guidance.” He passed her a holy postcard: a lady looked green in it.
“Father what does the messenger say to her?”
“Saints above, do you really not know? But I thought . . . that is, I selfishly hoped . . . again, the sin of pride . . . but you must be twelve if you’re a day! Are you truly not catechized?”
He didn’t know the message. She saw through him like cellophane. She folded his postcard in an accordion and handed it back to him. “No thanks father.” That green lady was none of her business.
. . .
From inattentive in school, she became truant. The lady was always alone, not buffeted by O’Mearas or brought low by word problems. Nola, hooky, was also alone, awaiting the messenger; but her solitude was arrowlike where the lady’s was peaceable. Each bus downshifting on the valley approach could be his vehicle; each barking dog, his herald; each breeze, his tailwind. She expected him within the hour and wore out her watch winding it, yet at every o’clock she had to delay her departure estimate. The buses offloaded mere salesmen, lumpen and jangling. She sat on her hands and soothed herself naming things she would someday see: robins’ eggs, jonquils, swirled marbles, kumquats, cinnamon.
Once, she spotted a salesman with long limbs and quick movements, and although his hairline was but moderate, she risked addressing him. “I’ve got my toothbrush.” He searched her face: for a lady-resemblance, she thought; so she drew from her pocket a painting in place of a passport. “Ah but for total-mouth hygiene, you must have a tongue scraper,” he said and gracefully laid open his tongue-scraper sample case.
Tenterhook days became tenterhook months as still the messenger didn’t show. She outgrew the socks in her overnight kit. The band aids lost their stick. Her former classmates and even her sisters now laid claim to destinies, poaching on her territory, subdividing her prior claim. Not all boys were headed down the mine, nor all girls to shopkeeping: the brainiest boy had a scholarship to study in Charlottesville, and Rose Murphy had a ticket to Spain by way of Morocco.
“Lucky Rose,” Nola’s sisters said.
“Out of the blue.”
“A rich aunt.”
“She deserves it, she isn’t the least puffed up.”
“Unlike someone else we know.”
To Nola, Rose’s Spain ticket was like found-out adultery. She, not Rose, had dispossessed herself of Fenimore Cooper and algebra, of sisterly love and maternal goodwill, of boyfriends and peppermints; she, not Rose, had met every bus and wrestled impatience; yet Rose was the emigrant.
Was she actually on the messenger’s list? For the first time she asked herself. In the paintings he looked infallible, which left her with two trains of thought: either he was infallible, and his nonappearance intentional, or he had missed the turnoff. Three years had passed since she stole the paintings from the digest magazines. Her overnight kit was fit for a kid. She was a tall fifteen.
. . .
The stars were a matter of faith as far as she traveled, and the smog even smothered the moon. Nevertheless, she didn’t get lost, for the valleys were all duplicates: if not a mine, then a factory; if not a Lions, an Elks; unfailingly a barbershop; and always a school by a church.
In the hills, she met sworn enemies of wagework and niceties. Their tarp settlements did away with lawns, bedsteads, and kitchenettes. Men and women alike, they threw elbows to school her in self-reliance:
“Gotta uncog yourself, gotta step outta line.”
“Those valleys are bad business.”
“Preachers and saps, there’s only two kinds.”
“Plus barons of industry.”
“We’ve roved and we’ve roamed, and up here’s the best.”
She said, “If you’ve roved and you’ve roamed, then you must know the way to the painted world,” but the vagrants denied it. They reminisced about Canada and the Panamanian isthmus. Russia, too, was very far: perhaps it was Russia she meant?
But Russia was the last place she’d look, being gray and desolate, traversed by wolves and snow-adapted cats and ungulates. In her daydreams, snow was a magic trick, falling from stage boxes. Daylight and darkness were evenly split. Plants were of the tenderest.
When she finished, they said, “There’s no place like that. We’ve roamed, and we’ve roved, and we know.”
. . .
She returned home like a daughter disgraced and drifted around the house. Commercial travelers bussed in and out without her examining them. The view from the front door told only of toil and confinement: the valley, hemmed in by mountains, was its own horizon; the men in the streets were boiled-down, blotchy, with bones badly set. She wandered into her parents’ room, which smelled of camphor rub, then into a closet of workaday clothes and out through her sisters’ thin bunks. She best liked the kitchen, for its blunt shade accorded with her dejection, as if she had fallen down a well and given up trying to swim. Ostensibly washing the coffee cups, she swirled her fingers in them. The laundry on the line was not more volitionless.
Her sisters, seeing her jilted, stopped putting ash in her bed; but her mother’s idea of hygiene encompassed gainfulness. “Idleness is a breeding ground. Unemployment is next door to sloth!”
“No Sleet’s ever been a freeloader,” her father appended.
They found her a job in O’Massies’ store, selling fabrics and hemming tape, every fabric durable and fit for a winding sheet. The customers, too, were like gray worsted. Stinting on notions and trims, they always checked the bargain bin and reused their dress patterns. Dully she cut their yardages, as they warned, “Don’t you short me an inch!” “No, ma’am,” she said, unincitable, being already extinguished.
“That Sleet girl’s a zero,” was the consensus.
“Ruined in body and mind.”
“He should be horsewhipped, whoever he was.”
“Did you notice she hardly blinks?”
“No one cuts straighter yardages, though. Exact to a tenth of an inch!”
“I’d rather she blinked and cut crooked.”
“Unnerving, is what she is.”
Within a week, she was reassigned to the candy counter, a hinterland of dust preserved in sticky residue, gumdrops softened by summer heat, chocolate animals. Buried at the rear of the shop, the counter was calm and dark, like the kitchen, a fit setting for disconsolateness. Kids came in a pack at three o’clock and ransacked the cracker jack, but mostly she was left alone to weigh her diminished hopes. Dreary, she sorted jelly beans. She rotated the lozenge stock.
. . .
Bruno wasn’t the messenger. He was a motormouth. His legs, like canvas saddlebags, bestrode the counterstool. His clanking satchel established him as a heavy traveler. As for his chin, it petered out. Too, his forehead was broad and low; yet withal his dream seemed similar to hers, although silver, not rainbow.
He stood to inherit a gas station, but the will was tied up in probate. For months, while the lawyers adjudicated, he slept in the body shop, took charity from barmen, opened lines of store credit. “My pennilessness is temporary,” he pledged to who-would-listen. “Magnates are mad for petroleum. I’ll sell the station to the maddest of them.”
He used his tab at O’Massies’ to buy toffees and polishing cloths. The clerk at the cleansers counter joshed, “How many spoons have you got?” and soon regretted her forwardness, for Bruno had bagpipe lungs. “Not spoons merely, but doorknobs! Hairpins, lugnuts, tongs! On you alone I count eight things in need of polishing . . .”
Nola offered no such opening. The redundancy of his purchases harmonized with her thought pattern, and she scooped his toffees reflexively, until the day the toffemaker retooled its packaging.
“I won’t buy red,” said Bruno then.
The toffee wrappers had been silver foil; now they were red cellophane. He pushed them away like expired milk.
She said, “But the toffee’s the same. They only changed the packaging.”
“Toffee’s not my thing.”
“But you always buy toffee!” she protested.
“Right. For the packaging.” Unlatching a shiny card case, he displayed squares of silver leaf; on second look, they were toffee wrappers, buffed with cream polish. “Tastewise I’m a taffy man, but the taffy wrappers are pink. In an earlier time I would have been a master silversmith. Paul Revere would have envied my art! France and Russia would have warred over me.
“But here I am with a gas station, and flatware’s platinum. Leadville’s one big cattle ranch. Currency’s fiat.
“Yet,” he continued, as if consoling her, “you must not mourn on my behalf; for though I was born in the wrong century, still I am confident. Somewhere, a silver city exists. Of course it is not on the maps. But wherever it is, there value’s assessed according to shininess.”
Silver was closer than candy corn to color’s radiance. She cupped a square of the false silver leaf and found it cold, yet of implied heat: color irreducible, not color abolished.
She said, “You’re the person most like me.”
He said, “You’re a metallurgist?”
In the evenings when O’Massies’ was shut, they walked and kept company. Bruno manned a metal detector, wagging its sense organ, calling to Nola the names of baubles as he discovered them. “Tuning fork! Watch chain! Money clip!” She barely attended him.
“Padlock! No key. Zipper! Key! ” His satchel rattled increasingly.
Once, in the semi-obscurity, she confided to him, “I was born in the wrong place, and you in the wrong century.”
“Bobby pin!” he drowned her out. “Sorry, did you say something?”
She said, “Bobby pins have silver in them?”
He said, “Melt and see.”
At last his uncle’s will cleared probate. Magnates bore out his boast, and with cash in his pocket, he set off alone to do some reconnaissance. “See if I don’t buy the best smithy in all of the silver city!”
In his absence, she updated her overnight kit and dyed blue her least gray dress. She laid the Annunciations between strata of undershirts, save one that she tucked in her breastpocket for swift reference. Her sisters observed these preparations without anxiety, knowing she wasn’t running away but rather marrying Bruno.
Then Bruno returned, victorious. “I found our silver house.”
. . .
They left the valley on the long-distance bus. It was washday at the Sleet house. Nola’s sisters beat dust off mattresses. Her mother, arms in bluing stuff, said, “Guard against slovenliness.” Out the bus window, the valley was little more than a smudge: smokebelch, slag, and silver birch gray in all but name.
Frontwards she keened toward the silver city as portal to happiness. The bus passed sad-sack settlements as if bound for Topeka, but sooner or later the goats would change into antelope, the corn fields into olive groves; and the border would approach.
First the crop changed from corn to cabbages; the farms got ramshackler. O’Mearas by any other name lounged in their defunct cars, their houses open where the weather passed through, their children roughhousing. With new benignity, Nola pitied them: she had pity to spare today. For a last afternoon she had to withstand mange and tarpaper. A trash fire, ghosted in the bus window, was somewhat beautiful. The bus’s other passengers toted casseroles and rakes; they got on and off in ignorance of the bus’s terminus. She felt wise, observing them, like an entomologist.
“Psst,” said Bruno. “Let’s switch seats.”
He had unscrewed the ashtray from his armrest and wanted to unscrew hers. “I’ll melt them down for their components.”
She smiled at his habitualness. “You’ll never need alloys again.”
He pried her ashtray regardless. Still, he was the person most like her in all her experience. In fellowship, she said, “Just think! No more gasoline. Tonight you’ll sleep under silver sheets, tomorrow you’ll make candlesticks.” Out the window, the cabbages looked silver-tipped: her ebullience built.
“The gas business wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I think this ashtray’s manganese.”
The silverish tint of the cabbages was a red herring. Instead of crossing the border, the bus crossed railroad tracks. To soothe herself, she took the painting out of her breastpocket: through the lady’s window, the sky was a color seen by magi during the instant of death. The people in the painting, strolling two by two, looked up at songbirds whose melodies emboldened them to be good. Out the bus window was the kind of landscape that made O’Mearas, simply, bold; but O’Mearas too might be gravely good if they lived somewhere colorful. Herself, she was already gentler, being en route to such.
The bus bumped onto a levee road: lowlands to every side, no city on the horizon yet; clotheslines, bungalows. Peeling signs advertised motor oil, smelt, and Ovaltine. A man in a mechanic’s suit reclined on a bus stop bench. “Hey, Jack,” said the bus driver, drawing level with him.
“Here’s where we get off,” Bruno said.
She felt like an early reptile whose siblings have turned into birds. Where wings should have sprouted, her forelegs still made sucking sounds in the mud. The driver and the man called Jack helped Bruno unload the trunks; the trunks, landing on the embankment, stirred a cloud of dust. “Ma’am, can I carry your overnight kit?” asked Jack, approaching her seat. The painting still lay face-up on her lap, and he paused to consider it. “Now those are some aristocrats,” he said as she gathered herself.
. . .
Bruno behaved like Balboa achieving the Pacific.
“Like Utah before the Mormons! Like Rome before Romulus!” But the house was half tin, half tarpaper. There was moss in the murphy bed.
“Like Kiev before Kyi, Schek, and Khoryv! Like Thebes before Cadmus!”
The yard was also derelict. Snails had claimed the undersides of a flotsam of engine parts, strewn, as if from an epic car crash, to all coordinates. A sole evergreen appeared to survive by sheer force of ancientness, but otherwise trees were mere scaffolding for bindweed and beard lichen.
Nola heard disjointedly, “Zacatecas. Coeur d’Alene.” Leaden, irreal, she followed Bruno as he bounded over transmissions, skirted a rusty filling pump, hove close to a train trestle, and halted at last, exuberant, beside a storm cellar. “The vein’s as broad as the Amazon,” Bruno trumpeted, even as Jack shined a light down the hatch, revealing nonperishables. “Why else would a gas station cost so much? I saw through it instantly. No time-scarred silver city for us! We’ll found our own colony.”
From the cellar, his voice rose up to them: “The silver city genuflects to its Ben-Gurion!”
Nola set down her overnight kit with its freight of eagerness. A train blew by, not ten yards off, and as it passed she deafly beheld, through a veil of crabgrass and carburetors, the contours of dreariness.
“Is there silver here?” she queried Jack.
Jack shrugged. “Snail trails,” he said.
She looked at the ground: snail mucus, both petrified and fresh, gleamed like a trace element on every square inch.
She turned toward the house, Jack following her. The door came away from its hinge. The wallpaper looked animal, furred. Underfoot, the linoleum squished. Jack, in a bid for normality, ran the kitchen tap, but it coughed up a spider sac.
“How far’s the border?” she asked.
“Ten miles to the county line. They vote libertarian.”
“No silver yet, but give me a week!” crowed Bruno, entering. “We’ll silverplate our toothbrushes, we’ll silverplate everything! Of course,” he slid in, banter-quick, “until I strike the vein, you’ll need to float us pumping gas. Jack here will be your right hand.”
. . .
The evergreen let its low branches down like oars to an inland sea. The hour was glaucous: in the murphy bed, Bruno yet dreamed of candlesticks; but Nola climbed the evergreen as though it were ship’s rigging. Thus the early seafarers got vantage on their distress, and like them Nola hoped for a bird, a harbor, a tailwind.
But below her lay the actual world, gray and forthcoming: each visible thing was exactly, no more than, the thing it appeared to be.
She buried her kit with the Annunciations in it at the base of the evergreen. Jack came across her kneeling there, a blue stroke against so much gray. Thus far, he admired the way she’d withstood her husband’s foolishness, but he expressed what seemed more appropriate: “My wife will admire that dress.” “Oh,” said Nola, looking down at her lap to see which dress he meant, “Tell your wife she may have it.”
. . .
Jack—Proudhonist, hip-pocket Veblen—aspired to self-abnegation. As a young man, he’d turned down a sinecure in the county government. Apprenticing to a mechanic, he’d slept in the auto shop, a roof and meals the only wages he allowed himself. In all the world then, he was lord of no more than a bedroll and coveralls. Books he got from the bookmobile, which soon, thanks to his requests, had Jena-worthy depth in utopians.
Yet Jack had married a pretty woman. Annemarie Lolly was no peacock, but her eyebrows tilted pleasantly. Her regular nose and quite long neck were her two true prettinesses. For her sake he bought property. For her, he sat the civil service test.
No one cast Annemarie up to him, but he cast her up to himself. He should have married an ugly woman at no risk to his principles. He never should have bought furniture as long as some men slept on sidewalks. Interrogating himself, seeking weaknesses, he found a toxic bloom of faults: pride in his daughters’ features, a taste for fine-gauge socks. He even caught himself coveting a suite of fine bindings.
For years, so it was: desk job, compromise, quarrel of heart and conscience. The breaking point came when his daughters made a diorama of ancient Egypt. They used cornmeal for the desert, denim strips for the Nile. For the pyramids they dipped sugarcubes in yellow poster paint. “Egypt was the cradle of civilization,” they wrote on the shoebox top, then scooted off to brush their teeth. “Dad, you’re our nightwatchman. Don’t let the tomb raiders in.” The diorama was golden in the sphere of the table lamp. Jack unwound in a rocking chair, sipping No. 5 beer, trying to find his footing in an appraisal of Fourier. But though he’d waited months for the bookmobile to get this very book, he couldn’t attend to it. The Egyptian scene drew his gaze and thoughts like a larger imperative. His daughters’ teacher had sold his girls the old cant about history: civilizational progress, means eclipsed by ends, genius, war as a platitude, and the greatness of kings. The diorama that took an evening to make would take a lifetime to unbuild, and he, who’d surrendered to pillow shams, was the teacher’s accomplice.
The next day, he quit his office job. He resurrected his mechanic’s suit. “Because of a diorama?” Annemarie protested.
He said, “You don’t deserve a hypocrite.”
He chopped down a dead tree to get the feel of his hands. An axe was a worthy tool, simpler than a stapler, less obsolescent than a dictaphone. The wood chipped almost merrily and smelled like smoke signals.
As if he really had signalled, along came a squat character, combing the road for bits and bobs like tracking a lost hiker. The fellow’s chin quit out the gate; his brow was truncated. The satchel over his shoulder clanked.
“Looking for something?” Jack chatted him up, leaning on his axe handle.
“Oh, roofing tacks, rings, the usual. But, now you mention it, do you know a good hand with a gas station? I’ll be needing someone.”
. . .
Nola and Jack were gangbusters as a business team. Jack sat down in passenger seats and made his case for land reform. Nola pumped like paramedicine; she set a record for gallons-per-hour. Her dress, once as blue as Papeete, was soon enough colorless. Strings for cuffs and a fringeing hem, it flapped around her waist, for she was as lean as an inclined plane, though more narrowly purposed. Truckers made a myth of her: sentimentalists, they were stockholders in adversity, collectors of disappointment. “Bet she loved a pump jockey and feels responsible for his death. Bet there’s a deathbed promise at the root of it.” In vain, Jack urged them to put aside such schlock and take Nola as a role model. “She’s a laborer, not a Gish sister. Work is her nobility, and the bosses will keep bossing you until you realize it.”
This new Nola Sleet, whom Jack came to know, having buried the painted world, was a woman whose one intention was to endure reality. She pumped nonstop, not to set records, but to become mechanical. Her diet was unvarying, her conversation next to nil.
To Jack, she seemed without vicissitudes: a Nike in scrap metal. He, who had collaborated, prized her unflinchingness. She was his levee against backsliding, his example for Annemarie: “If Nola can live in that shambles, you can manage without fish forks.”
As for Bruno, he hardly impinged on them. He spent every day down the mine. “I smelled silver today,” he said every night, meeting Nola and Jack closing up.
“Silver sure smells like gasoline,” Jack said scornfully. “Well, I’d better get home to Annemarie. Nola, get off your feet. Bruno, don’t melt anything.”
Bruno melted the serving spoons to make buckles for his mining boots. The smell outstunk a refinery, but Nola slept a laborer’s sleep. Metaldust settled like whiskers on all the surfaces. Bruno melted the rain gutters. Nola dreamed, if moles do.
. . .
Sylvia arrived like hope’s vapor trail. By then, her parents were so estranged, she seemed hardly of their doing. Bruno made her a scrap tiara; Nola strapped her, papoose; but otherwise no one restricted her, missed her, or put her to use.
Too, she was careless of their inner lives, accepting their guardianship, but no more remarking their characters than clocks or the alphabet. House and mine were old theorems to her: she had other fish. The earth was hers to its far end, and she its protagonist.
She practiced doublejointedness, turned snails into slugs, or lay, wishing on dandelions, until her legs became pincushions. Her days were successions of incident, discovery, and triumph. She hopped a boxcar and rode twenty miles, then walked back along the tracks, drinking from backyard water hoses and acquiring followings of cats. Or she held her breath to the fainting brink—her sights on the Guinness Book—then brought herself back to consciousness with a suck on a pixie stick. As long as she showed up at home every night, her parents never questioned her. Nola laid a hand on her cheek and said, “’Night, Sylvia.” Bruno, setting up his chemistry set, quizzed her on metallurgy.
She didn’t care one iota-jot about any kid on two legs. The Lolly girls, the Schwartzes and Poons, pissed the days away doll-dressing. They deserved to be plastic and horsehair themselves, the way they repeated adults, making their dolls eat the gristle, spanking and grounding them. She cartwheeled past their congresses. Twenty-six full rotations was her utmost accomplishment.
From the bookmobile she got biographies of iconoclasts. Joan of Arc was the first in her hands, being foremost on the children’s shelf, the picture of Joan opposite the title page as rubbed as a rabbit’s foot; but chance was a lot like kismet. After Joan, it was Mary Queen of Scots, Pocahontas, Amelia Earhart. Always, one person was foregrounded. Jack had hoped to move Sylvia toward altruism via books; instead, thanks to biographies, she became more byronic.
Joan hadn’t told her parents goodbye; to Sylvia, this made sense, for Nola and Bruno were mere walk-ons in her biography. If she left home tomorrow, her story would forget them.
. . .
“Sylvia!” sang the Lolly girls, crossing a slippery field. Sick of Jack’s paeans to Nola, bitter at loss of status, they took their rage out on Sylvia, who barely registered it. “Sylvia, how’s the queen of the Scots? We really need your advice. Can you suggest a biography where the dad’s a lunatic?”
Coming up empty in the storm cellar, Bruno reset his sights. “Have I told you about Potosí?” was his new rallying cry. “Every man there has a pure silver watch. There’s real silver cutlery. The miners breakfast on Argentine beef. They retire in luxury, but that hardly matters because even the poor live like pashas in Potosí.” He was like a jammed radio. They tuned out his frequency.
He no longer melted after hours, but sorted his metals by type. Tin, aluminum, stainless, lead: he picked through for sellable bits. Like the old days, he went on collecting trips through yards and outbuildings. His satchel filled up with rebar. He hoarded doorknobs in a bucket.
When the kitchen resembled a salvage heap, he got a booth at the flea market. His inventory was preponderantly rebar and sprung gaskets. The merchants at adjacent booths grumbled about lowered standards. “He’ll give my products an alum tang,” a honey farmer said. “He’ll demagnetize my cuckoo clocks,” a watchmaker objected. But Bruno stood on a box and hawked: “Precious MET-tal, precious met-TAL, give in to your immortal urge!”
By the sixth Saturday, he’d sold a scant half-kilo, and the other merchants organized to demand his eviction. “Let your wives glitter! Let your daughters gleam!” he barked defiantly, but no one objected because everyone knew it was his last outing. “Metal! It’s good for the joints,” the honey farmer even pitched in.
Finally, at closing time, a consolidator intervened. While Bruno discoursed on resonance, he calculated a fair price for the lot, then offered one-third of it.
. . .
Nola saw immediately that Bruno was gone off. Gone were his mining appurtenances and smelting apparatus. His satchel was off its usual hook, his shirts weren’t in the closet. She extricated a pair of his socks from the sheets at the foot of the bed: sweat-caked, they dangled stiffly, like a couple of shed snakeskins.
The house held the dark, so in dimness she changed her nightshirt for coveralls, sidled by Sylvia’s hallway bed, filled the teakettle. The flame from the range reindicated Bruno’s decampment: no more heat treatment manual or metallascope. Flecks of metal and toenail clippings still lodged between floorboards, but otherwise Bruno was history, an edict overturned.
Wrenching open the door, she stepped into the day. The sun was into its arc, but the moon hung around like a grace period. Her shadow as she crossed to the pump was indeterminate.
He’d stuck a note to the gauge face. “Gone to Potosí,” it read.
. . .
When Jack arrived to open shop, he gathered something was wrong. Nola lolled by the filling pump, some glitch in her mechanics. A snail had made it as far north as her breast, apparently unnoticed, and two unswatted cabbage moths dozed on the crown of her head. For a moment he thought she’d fainted. Then, “Bruno’s gone,” she said.
He should have huzzahed, but her smile misgave him: it wasn’t longsuffering. Her hooded eyes and recumbence were likewise disquieting. “Bruno or no Bruno, we’ve got to pump,” he feigned singlemindedness.
Disengaging the snail, she drew herself up and shook out her drooping limbs. The moths tried to free their feet from her hair, further entangling them. She said, “For all this is the ugliest place, it calls to mind what’s beautiful.”
She was a Roman, a Berliner, at the dawn of a peace. One went to bed a fatalist and arose with agency restored, free to wander the changed landscape, half recognizing scenes, at last even risking the memory of honey or rose gardens.
A hummingbird skidded over the trestle and hovered askance of her, its green body like a chrysoprase, its wings a darkling whir. As if sensing a calamity, Jack downplayed the bird’s appearance: “They come around this time every year. You’re too busy to notice.” But the hummingbird, insistent, regarded her like a crocus. Its eye was the eye of a search party. Intent coursed to her from it. Then at last the bird swooped, and its wind in her ear sounded a commandment.
She said, “Take the day off, Jack.”
“Nola,” he urged, “you’re overwrought. Your routine will steady you.”
“Poor Jack,” she said, “I hate failing you. But today my pardon came through.”
By telephone she called off the gas, stopped the coolant delivery, and promised a car-parts bonanza to a hauling company. She had to make a “Closed” sign: it was the first time she’d needed one. “CLOSED,” she wrote in block letters, then in fine print: “permanently.”
“‘Until further notice,’ is what she means,” Jack assured their clientele. He stationed himself on the levee road to quell anxieties. “She’s had a shock, is the long of it. Bruno was like part of herself.”
. . .
Toward evening, she exhumed the overnight kit. Feeder roots from the evergreen tree had squeezed and misshapen it. The latch was corroded, the fabric was breached, the lady was moldering, and an orange scrap of the messenger’s cloak brought to mind wall lichen. Yet the kit remained a euphoriant, with here and there, unmarred pigment. Blood deployed to her fingernails, sound and heat to her eardrums and cheeks.
Out of fifty, one painting was untampered with. She propped it against a great root. It was, of all her Annunciations, the most rudimentary: green blob representing the natural world, chair shaped like crockery. What drew the eye most was the messenger’s arm, enormous compared to his thigh; the arm’s terminus was a forked gesture like a dowsing rod.
She did not mistake the imperative embodied in this gesture. To look where the messenger pointed would be to risk rebelief. On the verge of looking or not looking, teetered two Nola Sleets: this Nola, of the ex-service station, until lately impassive; and another, exponent of a potent daydream, last seen up an evergreen. Each Nola mapped the other one, like a color separation plate.
They looked, concomitantly.
Where the messenger pointed, there was no lapis dome, Kashmir, or Xanadu: just the crude sky of the hack painter, and a snail passing through.
Snails, like scrap, were chock-a-block on the gas station property. But—matte as acorns, fond of undersides, posing no tetanus risk—they went less noticed. Only Sylvia acknowledged them, shelling them for kicks. Nola was always too preoccupied with the sheer act of endurance.
The snail in question entered the painting from the top right of the frame. It then proceeded downward and left, toward the messenger.
The messenger gestured emphatically, as if at a meteor, but the snail had paltry velocity and was terrestrial. The only thing meteoric about it was its silvery mucus trail, which streaked across the painting’s sky like a meteor tail.
“Oh,” gasped Nola as she registered the snail’s significance.
. . .
The next day, she hatched the garden.
She took the snails to the unincorporated area and set them down facing south. “Tell Bruno I sent you,” she instructed them, nudging the slowpokiest. “Tell him not to bother with Potosí, buy a snail farm instead.”
There was more silver in one snail trail than in all of Bruno’s scrapheap. While he fussed over a dental filling, bike spoke, or castanet, snails—under his very nose—had been weaving the silver city. Once, she’d thrown in her lot with his, gambling that their dreams were akin; now she knew that shortsightedness was their trait in common.
He should have found, in snail trails, all the sparkle he craved. She should have founded, with the land that she had and her capacity for work, an outpost of the painted world.
. . .
Mr. Hill answered her want ad in person, wending his way from the south. He arrived when Nola had just finished weeding and dredging the drainage ditch. In his bag he had plants with their roots in damp towels, a nest of fertile finch eggs, and years’ worth of notes for a manuscript about the ancient mind. His English had some rust in it after years of globetrotting, but it oiled rapidly.
Hill came to gardens the long way around, by metamorphosis and myth. Daphne into a laurel tree; Narcissus, self-regarding: plants were never simply plants, but documents of the world’s invention. He was six when his uncle gave him his first book of myths; thereafter, he was an Argonaut. At eighteen he struck off for the Golden Horn, jangling his elementary Greek: teleos, homo, hyacinth, anemone, dianthus. Unfit for a cabin boy, he got work on a touring bus, passing out water in paper cups and tending the travel sick. But on getting to the Acropolis, he found mopeds and housing blocks: a people complacent about electricity as if awe had never been. He skipped town for remoter parts, islands and uplands. The remoter people retained much more of the invention of humanness. Like plants, they had woody interiors, relied on sun and rain, and knew things they could not express. In the Cyclades he collected herbs as well as field notes on atavism. There, in earnest, he began the book that then took him around the world: from the Cyclades to the subcontinent, across Australasia to the Pantanal. He earned his keep as a plant hunter.
He came to Nola’s to write his book. The notes filled thirty composition books. “Ma’am,” he said, “I’ll be your yard man,” in exchange for the midday hours to type. He pitched his tent where the gas pump had been. Nola gave him Bruno’s shaving cup. She said, “If you came from South America, perhaps you met my ex-husband.” He had not, but only yesterday he had passed through a field of snails.
. . .
The garden grew like Kalihi crossed with Kyoto. Aspidistra to zenia, there soon was a show of hands. Silver-fringed ferns, lantana, beardtongue, catalpa, gum: the flora defied continents, re-pangaeaing.
To Hill, it was like a scale model of the creation: the world before it got interpreted by men in the agora. Each evening he strolled its periphery, then its diagonals, his progress recalling monks whose tours through salve gardens imitated God in his roof garden. Often, Nola turned out of some lane and matched her steps to his, she too taking in the creation, but whereas he was scholarly-omniscient, she was of the garden.
She told him about the slag valley, the lady, and the messenger. She was frank about how she’d effaced herself when she’d seen no harmony between what she imagined with her mind’s eye and what her retina photoreceived.
“The garden’s her bid for that harmony,” Hill scrawled in his notebook. “She’s like a proxy ancient. The ancients, being close to the precipice too, knew existence was rare luck. They acknowledged their own sentience by acknowledging the sentiences of birds and rocks. In clay they always witnessed their own origins.”
. . .
At night the porch was at the confluence of lavender and mint. The hoo hoo of the hoopoe, the insects on night shift, the long whistle of the nine o’clock train a mile off and approaching: sounds as well as colored lights enfolded and embanked them. Nola served apple cake; Jack passed No. 5 beers; they all took turns playing dominoes. The men were the chief talkers, baiting and coalescing: both advocates of engagement, yet one an activist, one an academic.
“Beauty never built bone mass in a hungry kid. Beauty’s the realm of the privileged. Hill, you’ve sided with them.”
“Meat and milk, milk and meat! Jack, you’re as materialist as Rocke-feller.”
“If food and medicine are materialist, then you bet I’m John D. himself!”
“The world’s more than a food delivery system.”
“Tell that at the soup kitchen.”
Only Sylvia ate the apple cake as if it was flavorless. “They’re going to murder Edith Clavell,” she reported from deep in a book. Gas pump or bougainvillaea, grackles or cormorants, Sylvia was unimpacted. She plowed through stacks of biographies, running with heroines.
. . .
Although Sylvia had no tolerance for the garden generally, she loved climbing the evergreen. Ancient, immense, and shadowy, it rebuked pastel showmanship. It didn’t traffic in confetti or nightbloom voguishly. Yet its stillness disguised a sap uproar, as she knew from close listening.
She kept her overnight kit in a hollow knot, twenty-five feet up the trunk. The kit dated back to her first flush of reading biographies, when she was eight, five years ago. It contained the usual supplies for running away—soap sheets, packets of nuts—plus her three most treasured biographies and a Guinness Book. The day she finally held her breath for longer than five minutes, she would retrieve the kit, steal Nola’s workboots, and ride the train to where it went.
Meanwhile, plateaued at 4:56, she rebuffed Hill’s efforts to draw her out, dodged Nola’s attempts to pressgang her into the weeding brigade, and flatly told the Lolly girls, “You won’t get biographied.” She cut school as if there was no such thing, staying stupid about decimals. Yet she knew tons about geometry, because of backflipping.
Her hideout was a crooked branch midway up the evergreen. Up there, she chomped apples, then threw the cores down, aiming to snap tulip stems. She breathlessly read new biographies—would Lady Jane Grey live? —and more calmly stroked the paper stock of familiar favorites.
Once an hour, she pinched her nostrils closed. Gravity depressed her cheeks. At four minutes, her heart beat up her ribs. Craters pocked her vision. Then her head began toppling . . . She breathed: 4:56.
Down below, Mr. Hill donned beekeeping gear. Nola beheaded a trumpetvine, its flowers penitent. A low flock of warblers veered around the evergreen, continuing south toward the Lollys’ house, where the girls would be namecalling. The flyway extended all the way to South America, the continent at least rumored to house Sylvia’s second absent parent.
Among the three biographies in Sylvia’s overnight kit was the children’s book about Joan of Arc, the first biography she’d read, that had become a talisman. For it, she’d committed library theft. She had read it two hundred times. The frontispiece, already half-obliterated when she came by it, was now twice as ghosted.
Impetus was the topic of the frontispiece. Joan, a bulky peasant girl, was accosted by Saint Michael. This hard-faced angel delivered to her a wild commission. The broom fell out of Joan’s left hand as she reacted in startlement, but an instant later her right fist struck her breast, as she consented.
Reclining within the crook of her branch, Sylvia propped the book on her knees. She laid one finger to Joan’s startled cheek in unconscious ritual. Then turning the page to the author’s note, Sylvia shut her eyes. The message she had learned so well unfolded inwardly:
“Dear reader,” said the author’s note, “If you’re anything like I was at your age, you often see what others don’t. Perhaps you see archipelagoes in cloud formations, or notice silver where grownups see snails. Joan was no different. She saw what was most wonderful to a girl of her epoch.
“In the future, you too may have to face, although in updated terms, the bishop’s disbelieving query, ‘What shape did this angel assume?’ Your angel may be symphonic, feminist, acrobatic, but I hope you will take confidence from Joan’s unwaveringness. You’ve seen what you’ve seen, and no matter what, you should act in accordance with it.”
Jennifer Kelly-DeWitt’s stories have been published in Cerise Press and The Del Sol Review. She teaches English to immigrant and refugee students at a public high school in Oakland, California.