Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.
I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.
Mirrors showed me that I was a girl with a white-blond pigtail hanging down over one shoulder; eyebrows and lashes the same color; still, near-black eyes; and one of those faces some people call “harsh” and others call “fine-boned.” It was not unusual for me to fix a scarf around my head and spend an afternoon pretending that I was a nun from another century; my forehead was high enough. And my complexion is unpredictable, goes from near bloodless to scalded and back again, all without my permission. There are still days when I can only work out whether or not I’m upset by looking at my face.
I did fine at school. I’m talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I’d turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. “Has someone been . . . helping you?” I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops. I’ll take the appraisal of my male peers over that any day. Four out of five of them either ignored me or were disgustingly kind, the way nice boys are to the plainest Jane they know. But that was only four out of five. Number five tended to lose his balance for some reason and follow me around making the most extraordinary pleas and offers. As if some kind of bug had gotten into him. Female classmates got “anonymous” notes that said things like: So—I fall for you. Probably because I can see and hear. I see you (those eyes, that smile) and when you laugh . . . yeah, I fall. I’m not normally this sincere, so you might not be able to guess who I am. But here’s a clue . . . I’m on the football team. If you feel like taking a chance, wear a blue ribbon in your hair tomorrow and I’ll walk you home.
The notes I received were more . . . tormented. More of the “You’ve got me going out of my mind” variety. Not that I lost any sleep over that stuff. How could I, when I had a little business going on the side? Boys paid me to write notes to other girls on their behalf. They trusted me. They had this notion that I knew what to say. I just wrote whatever I thought that particular girl wanted to hear and collected dollar bills on delivery. The notes my friends showed me were no work of mine, but I kept my business quiet, so it stands to reason that if anyone else had a similar business, they’d have been discreet about it too.
When my hair started to darken, I combed peroxide through it. As for character, mine developed without haste or fuss. I didn’t interfere—it was all there in the mirrors. Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something. Suppose your father’s a rat catcher. (Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you’re a case of spontaneous generation.) The interior of the house you grow up in is pale orange and rust brown; at dawn and sunset shadows move like hands behind the curtains—silhouettes of men with Brylcreemed waves in their hair gathered on the street corner to sing about their sweethearts in seven-part harmony, the streetcar whispering along its track, Mrs. Phillips next door beating blankets. Your father is an old-fashioned man; he kills rats the way his grandfather taught him. This means that there are little cages in the basement—usually a minimum of seven at any given time. Each cage contains a rat, lying down and making a sound somewhere between twittering and chattering: lak lak lak lak, krrrr krrrrr krrr. The basement smells of sweat; the rats are panicking, starving. They make those sounds and then you see holes in their paws and in their sides—there’s nothing else in that cage with them, and all your father does to them at first is give them water, so it stands to reason that it’s the rats making the holes, eating themselves. When your father’s about to go out on a job, he goes to the basement, selects a cage, and pulls its inhabitant’s eyes out. The rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim. Your father puts three or four cages in the trunk of his car and drives away. He comes back late in the evening, when the job’s done. I guess he makes a lot of money; he does business with factories and warehouses, they like him because he’s very conscientious about the cleanup afterward.
So that’s Papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned. He does the same to his lady friend, who lives with you, until he starts going for her face. She’ll put up with a lot, but not that. One day she leaves a note under your pillow. It says: Look, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I’d say you deserve better. Take care of yourself.
You don’t get too upset about her departure, but you do wonder who’s going to let you bum Lucky Strikes now. You’re all of fifteen and you’re a jumpy kid. You don’t return people’s smiles— it’s perfectly clear to you that people can smile and smile and still be villains. One of the first things you remember is resting your head against the sink—you were just washing your hair in it, and you had to take a break because when your hair’s wet it’s so heavy you can’t lift your head without your neck wobbling. So you’re resting, and that clean hand descends out of nowhere and holds you face-down in the water until you faint. You come around lying on the bathroom floor. There’s a burning feeling in your lungs that flares up higher the harder you cough, and the rat catcher’s long gone. He’s at work.
Where does character come into it? Just this: I’ve always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father— whichever option proved most practical. I wouldn’t kill for hatred’s sake; I’d only do it to solve a problem. And only after other solutions have failed. That kind of bottom line is either in your character or it isn’t, and like I said, it develops early. My reflection would give me a slow nod from time to time, but would never say what she was thinking. There was no need.
A couple of teachers asked me if I was applying to college, but I said: “Can’t afford it.” Actually, I was pretty sure that the rat catcher could, but I didn’t want to have that, or any, conversation with him. He hit me when one of his caged rats bit him. He hit me when I pronounced a word in a certain way that made him think I was acting stuck-up. (He told me that the difference between him and other people was that other people would only think about kicking me in the shins whenever I used a long word, but he went ahead and took action.) He’d hit me when I didn’t flinch at the raising of his arm, and he’d hit me when I cowered. He hit me when Charlie Vacic came over to respectfully ask if he could take me to prom. I seem to recall he began that particular beating in a roundabout way, by walking up to me with a casserole dish and dropping it on my foot. There was almost a slapstick element to it all. I got a sudden notion that if I laughed or asked “Are you through?” he’d back off. But I didn’t try to laugh, for fear of coming in too early, or too late.
There were times I thought the rat catcher was going to knock me out for sure. For instance, the morning he told me to run downstairs and blind a couple of rats real quick for him before I went to school. I said NO WAY and made inner preparations for stargazing. But he didn’t really do anything, just pointed at my clothes and said: “Rats paid for those,” then pointed at my shoes and said: “Rats paid for those,” and pointed at the food on the table and said: “Rats . . .”
He imitated them: “Krrrr. Lak lak lak lak.” And he laughed.
The unpredictability of his fist didn’t mean he was crazy. Far from it. Sometimes he got awfully drunk, but never to a point where he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He was trying to train me. To do what, I don’t know. I never found out, because I ran away almost as soon as I turned twenty. I wish I knew what took me so long. He didn’t even hit me that night. He just sat in his easy chair snoozing after dinner, like always. I watched him and I woke up, I kind of just woke up. He was sleeping so peacefully, with a half smile on his face. He didn’t know how rotten he was. He’ll never know, probably never even suspect it.
My feet walked me into my bedroom while I thought it over. Then I gave my mattress a good-bye kick. I didn’t pack much because I didn’t have much. There was only one really important thing in my bag: a flag that Charlie Vacic had wrapped around my shoulders once when we were watching the Fourth of July fireworks over at Herald Square. He said it was a loan, but he never asked for it back. Ever since he’d started at medical school people talked about him as if he’d died, but he was the same old Charlie—he wrote to me from upstate, and he mentioned the flag, and that night. I’d written back that I was still looking after the flag for him. It took up a bunch of room in my bag, but I couldn’t just leave it there with the rat catcher.
I did look for the key to the basement, but I couldn’t find it. Hard to say how much of a good turn it would’ve been to set those rats free after standing by while they’d starved, anyway.
Three times I opened and closed the front door, testing the depth of the rat catcher’s sleep, trying to make the softest click possible. The third time I heard him shift in the chair, and he mumbled something. The fourth time I opened the door I didn’t have the nerve to close it behind me, just ran. Two girls playing hopscotch outside Three Wishes Bakery saw me coming and hopped right out of the way. I ran six or seven blocks, the street one long dancing seam of brick and bicycle bells, hats and stockings, only stopping to turn corners when traffic lights wouldn’t let me pass. I ran so fast I don’t know how my pumps stayed on. A crosstown bus, then a subway ride to Port Authority. “Nervous” simply isn’t the word. I stayed standing on the bus ride, stuck close to the driver, looking behind us, looking ahead, my heart stirring this way and that like so much hot soup, my hands stuck deep in my pockets so my sleeves couldn’t be grabbed. I was ready for the rat catcher to appear. So ready. I knew what I’d do. If he tried to take me by the elbow, if he tried to turn me around, I’d come over all tough guy, slam my skull into his forehead. I stayed ready until I got to Port Authority, where the priority shifted to not getting trampled.
I really wasn’t expecting that kind of hullabaloo. If there’d been more time I’d just have stood stock-still with my eyes closed and my hands clapped over my ears, waiting for a chance to take a step toward the ticket counter without being pushed or yelled at. Folks were stampeding the last bus with everything they had—it was as if anyone unlucky enough to still be on the station platform turned into a pumpkin when the clock struck twelve. I tumbled into the bus with a particularly forceful gang of seven or so—a family, I think—tumbled off the bus again by way of getting caught up in the folds of some man’s greatcoat, and scuttled over to the ticket counter to try to find out just where this last bus was going. I saw the rat catcher in the ticket line, long and tall and adamant, four people away from the front, and I pulled my coat collar over my head. I saw the rat catcher get out of a cab and stride toward me, veins bulging out of his forehead, looking like he meant nothing but Business. I whirled around and saw the rat catcher again, pounding on the bus window, trying to find me among the passengers. Okay, so he wasn’t really there at all, but that was no reason to relax—it’d be just like him to turn up, really turn up, I mean, a moment or two after my guard came down. I saw him at least twenty times, coming at me from all angles, before I reached the counter. And when I finally did get there, the guy behind it told me it was closed for the night.
“When do you open up again?”
“Six in the morning.”
“But I’ve got to leave tonight.”
He was basically a jerk. “Jerk” isn’t a term I make free and easy use of. I don’t go around saying He/she/it is a jerk. But this guy was something special. There I was, looking right at him through the glass as I wept desperately, and there he was, petting his moustache as if it were a small and fractious creature. He sold me a ticket five minutes before the bus left, and he only did it because I slipped him an extra five dollars. I felt a bout of sarcasm coming on when he took the money, but made sure I had the ticket in my hand before I said: “My hero.” I was going to the last stop, on account of its being the farthest away—the ticket said the last stop was Flax Hill, and I’d never heard of it.
“Flax Hill? Whereabouts would you say that is?”
“New England,” my hero said. “You’re gonna miss that bus.” “Where in New England? I mean . . . what state? Vermont, or what?”
He studied me with narrowed eyes, selecting a nerve, the fat juicy nerve of mine he’d most like to get upon. “Or what,” he said.
He drew the blinds down over the counter window, and I ran. There were only two seats left on the bus—one beside an elderly man and one beside a colored woman who was sleeping with her head laid up against the window. The man smelled somewhat urinaceous, so I sat beside the woman, who opened her eyes, asked me if she should get up, nodded, and fell asleep again when I said no. She looked just about worn-out.
Across the aisle, a baby started screaming, and its mother bounced it up and down on her knees, trying to soothe it into good behavior. But the shrieking went on and on, primal, almost glad—this protest was righteous. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the baby was male or female; the only certainties were near baldness and incandescent rage. The kid didn’t like its blanket, or its rattle, or the lap it was sat on, or the world . . . the time had come to demand quality. This continued until the mother, who had been staring into space, suddenly came to and gave her child a particularly vicious look, along with a piece of information: “I don’t have a baby that acts this way.” The baby seemed taken aback, hiccupped a few times, and fell silent.
I held that talisman ticket of mine smooth between my hands right up until the bus pulled out of the station, even though deep down I knew there was no way the rat catcher could have figured out where I was. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that I’d leave the state. Maybe he wouldn’t look too hard. Maybe he’d just shrug and think, Well, that’s cut down the grocery bill. (Actually, I knew he would be murderously mad—I could almost hear him bellowing: “I’m a RAT CATCHER. No two-bit wretch runs out on me, even if she is my daughter!”) Don’t think of his face—Flax Hill, Flax Hill. With a name like that, it was probably the countryside I was going to. Moonlight, hay, cows chewing cud and exchanging slow, conversational moos. It was a scenario I felt doubtful about. But I was game. I had to be.
As pillows go, my bag served pretty well. I listened to the drumming of the bus wheels on the road, made a note that running away from home was as easy as pie once you’d made your mind up to it, and fell asleep with my limbs carefully arranged so as not to touch my neighbor’s.
It was snowing when I got off the bus at Flax Hill. Not quite regular snowfall, not exactly a blizzard. This is how it was: The snow came down heavily, settled for about a minute, then the wind moved it—more rolled it, really—onto another target. One minute you were covered in snow, then it sped off sideways, as if a brisk, invisible giant had taken pity and brushed you down. Next, just as you’d caught your breath, a boomerang effect made a snowman of you all over again. I could only see a few steps ahead of me, and about one step behind me. When a pair of headlights slid past my elbow, I got out of the road and began following the voices of two women huddled under a broken umbrella, mainly because I heard them mention their landlady. I had to find a landlady. Any landlady would do. I stuck close to the umbrella girls, even when the snow hid them from me for seconds at a time and I began to doubt that they were real, even when they took what they called “the shortcut” across abandoned railway tracks overgrown with grass and through a pitch-black tunnel—I retched and retched again at the smell of it. Dead things and rotten eggs. Insects dropped onto my shoulders, tentatively, as if wondering whether we’d met before. More than once I became certain we were being pursued by the very darkness itself. But if the umbrella girls could take it, so could I. A couple of times they stopped and called out: “Hey, is someone there?”
I hung back, kept my mouth shut, and thought: This landlady had better be great. Once we were out the other side of the tunnel, the umbrella girls giggled and accused each other of being nervous Nellies. Of course that got me thinking about times I’d been in the dark and felt that someone else was there but convinced myself that I was wrong. Probably nine times out of ten there really had been someone there.
When the umbrella girls finally went in at the door of a prim, skinny, redbrick building, I walked up and down in front of it for a few minutes after the door had closed, wondering what story to tell. But I didn’t know the landlady’s name and it was too cold to think. I knocked at the door and managed to walk in and ask for the lady of the house without shivering too much. She had steel gray hair, an elegant figure, and a “Honey, I’ve seen it all” expression that served as the basis for all her other expressions, from amusement to annoyance.
I said: “I heard you’re a landlady. Please don’t tell me I heard wrong,” and then I ran out of vocabulary. She sat me down on her own personal sofa, piled cushions onto me until only my head stuck out, and called for soup and blankets. Her name was Mrs. Lennox, and she was Flax Hill born and bred—“A Massachusetts classic, you know.” She told me she’d never lost a prospective tenant yet, and the girls who answered the cry for soup and blankets backed her up. “Doesn’t get under your feet, either,” one of them added. (That turned out to be correct. She wasn’t someone that you just saw around, you had to make appointments with her.) The girls hadn’t consulted one another, so there were four bowls of soup and seven blankets. I took that as a sign that I was welcome and said “Thank you” about fifty times in a row until someone laughingly pointed out that it was only soup.
Over the days that followed, I tried to identify the umbrella girls by the sounds of their voices, since it was all I had to go on. But fifteen women who live together get to talking alike. It could’ve been any two of them who’d led me in out of the snow.
As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner; I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before. My boarding house room was the cheapest around, and truly, I got what I paid for. A narrow bed, low beams I kept knocking my head against, and a view of a bus stop with a hangdog air (its sign was illegible). There was no chair to sit on, and no mirror in my room, so I made brief consultations with myself as I washed my face in the bathroom down the hall—“I heard she’s a gangster’s moll,” I whispered, repeating things I’d overheard while supposedly out of earshot. “Nah, she’s an actress studying her next part. Trust me, I’ve seen this before.” The woman in the mirror gave me a big wink, told me it’d blow over soon enough, and sent me to bed on my own.
I dreamt of rats. They spoke to me. They called me “cousin.” And I dreamt of being caught, dreamt of sedative smoke, tar, glue, and strange lights the size of the sun, switching from red to green so fast that I had no time to react. Then the rat catcher held me by the tail. He exhibited me at a conference and answered questions on my habits. He was awarded a medal, and I was very much against the whole thing, but I was dead. I’d wake up with both hands covering my nose, which twitched violently and felt like the coldest part of my body after such dreams. I tasted salt, and that was how I knew I’d been crying in my sleep. I think I missed home. A lot. It didn’t make any sense but I missed home a lot.
three things were unsatisfactory about me—the first, that I was from Manhattan.
(“What could a girl from there be looking for around here?”) The second problem was my name.
“Oh, sure. Very cute. And what’s your government name?” “I already told you: Boy. Boy Novak.”
“Wow . . .”
The third problem was that I hadn’t brought any skill with me. Flax Hill is a town of specialists, and if someone turns up in that kind of town with nothing but a willingness to get their hands dirty, that someone had better forget about being given a break. All anybody ever seemed to want to know about me at first was how come. How come I wasn’t good at anything? I went on a lot of double dates with a girl named Veronica Webster who lived on the floor below me. Like the other tenants, she carried her pawnshop tickets folded up inside an antique locket around her neck. Unlike the other tenants, she had a nice room with a fireplace, and she hosted hot chocolate parties, but you had to bring your own hot chocolate. Webster was seventy percent all right and thirty percent pain in the neck, one of those women who are corpselike until a man walks into the room, after which point they become irresistibly vivacious. She wore her hair like Mamie Eisenhower’s only with longer bangs, and she was out three nights a week, one of them with Ted Murray, her unofficial steady date. I kept feeling I should try to talk her out of her attachment to Ted. First of all he was a stingy tipper, just couldn’t seem to make himself round up to the nearest zero, and that filled me with foreboding. The other thing was that we all met at his place for predinner cocktails once and he had this garish oil portrait of Lincoln up on a wall—the product of one of those mail-order paint-by-number kits if I ever saw one. Something came over me as I stood there looking at that noble profile reproduced in puce. I don’t ever want to feel that way again. It’s Lincoln. You can’t do that to Lincoln.
Back at the boarding house I said to Webster: “So . . . how about that portrait of Lincoln in Ted’s parlor?”
She shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect. Anyway, I don’t know about you, but a man who admires Lincoln is my kind of man.”
I said darkly, “Ah, but does he . . . does he?” and left it at that. I wasn’t supposed to rock the boat. It was up to me to try to keep Ted’s friend entertained. The friend’s name was Arturo Whitman, and he and Ted were a team—Ted sold the jewelry that Arturo made. I could see how Arturo might not be the best salesman; he was big and shaggy and not a little gruff. More often than not he knocked both our wineglasses over on account of waving his hands about too much while talking about the parallels between Robespierre and McCarthy. He had tawny, heavy-lidded eyes, and he wasn’t very good at dancing, but I couldn’t help liking it when he held me in his arms. One evening when Ted and Webster were playing footsie and talking about Guatemala (Ted was describing parts of it he’d been to, and Webster chipped in with “Sounds divine!” and “I’m awfully jealous!” and “I’d sure like to see that for myself someday, Teddy . . .”), Arturo and I just sat there watching the rain wrap the window round and round in a trembling veil. I heard the raindrops say, “I have a daughter. She wears red amaryllis blooms in her hair”; then I realized it was Arturo talking.
I looked across the table. He smiled. Not at me, but at the window, as if he saw her there. “Last month it was forget-me-nots,” he said. “And before that, yellow everlastings.”
“I bet she’s pretty.” The safest remark I could think of.
“Her name’s Snow,” he said, as if that explained it all. He checked his watch. “Her grandma will have put her to bed about ten minutes ago.”
“It’s early. How old is she?”
He frowned. “She’ll be six tomorrow.”
“Ah. Is it all happening too fast?”
“No, it’s—fine. The birthday present she’s asked for is a tall order, though.”
“Lemme guess: a pony.”
“I almost wish it was. Two more guesses.”
“Uhm . . . an enchanted object. A lamp with a genie in it, something like that.”
“Not exactly,” he said, after wavering for a moment.
The next guess was inappropriate, I knew, but I was too curious not to give it a shot. “A mother.”
He stared. “You’re good.”
“It’s just . . . you said it was a tall order.”
He closed his mouth tight after saying that one word. I figured he only kept coming out on those dates of ours because Ted was blackmailing him—he always looked so relieved when it was time to go home. On the boarding house doorstep I halved a cigarette and lit Webster’s half, then mine, so we could have a quick couple of smokes before going in for the night. Arturo’s wife had died a week after giving birth to his daughter, Webster told me. Childbirth complications. He’d been a history professor at Boston University at the time. But he took Snow and went away, he still wouldn’t say where. Wherever it was, he’d learned to work metal there; when he came back two years later, he set up a workshop in his home.
“What was his wife’s name?”
“Julia, I think.”
“You’re not sure?”
“He doesn’t really talk about her.” “And have you met the kid?”
I’d reached the end of my cigarette half before she had, and Webster grinned as she blew smoke past my ear. “Who, Snow? Sure. She’s a doll.”
There was a misunderstanding between Arturo and me. An unspoken one, and how do you correct those? It happened at Ted’s place, when I was transfixed by that god-awful portrait. I stayed standing in front of it for longer than I actually looked at it. Time ticked by and I faced the portrait dead-on without seeing it at all. Had anyone asked me what it was that I could see, I wouldn’t have been able to tell them. It was almost as if I’d left the room. I say almost because I could still hear Ted trying his best to wet blanket Webster’s Halloween costume idea.
“This year—wait for it—this year I’m doing the telltale heart.” “And how do you propose to dress up as a heart?”
“Oh, I’ll just paint myself red all over and wear a red hat, silly. And I’ll tell tales.”
“That’s just plain cryptic. Anyhow, didn’t the telltale heart throb horrifically loudly?”
“Oh, that’s hardly difficult. I can throb horrifically loudly right now, if you like.”
“Be my guest.”
“Buh-boom,” Webster began, in a deep voice. “Buh-boom, buh boom.”
I was smiling. My eyes came back into focus and that was what I saw—a face I recognized, smiling. I’d been looking at myself in the picture frame the whole time. The smile turned wry, I scanned the room without turning around, and there was Arturo Whitman. The left side of him, to be precise. The rest of him was out of the picture, but there was a look of steady dislike in that left eye of his. He seemed to think he’d caught me practicing being fascinating.
He was pretty sarcastic with me after that, when before he’d been almost kind; he took to replying to any little observation I made with “Indeed,” and he got even worse a couple of dates later when I fell into a similar trance only to come to and discover that I’d apparently been contemplating my mysterious smile in the back of my dessert spoon.
Our misunderstanding worried me. I thought: I should talk to him. I should tell him it isn’t vanity. If it was vanity, I’d have been able to disguise it, all this insipid smirking at myself. Other women did it all the time; it was just that they didn’t get caught. No, the only behaviors we can’t control are those caused by nerves. I rehearsed an offhand explanation. It began with the words: “Hand me some nerve tonic, Whitman.” But I didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t vanity running the show. What I did know was that I wouldn’t be able to stand it if I tried to explain myself in good faith and his only answer was “Indeed.”
The other two date nights Webster and I spent with bachelors eligible enough to stop Ted from taking her for granted but not so eligible that he quit competing. As for me, I knew I was onto a good thing. I was guaranteed three moderately fancy dinners a week, including dessert, and I was mingling with the locals. The only cost was a little of my pride. I had one dress that was fit for a dinner date, a deep red shantung number the rat catcher’s girlfriend had outgrown. Each time I went to a restaurant, that dress came too. My dates cracked jokes about it, and I acknowledged the jibes with an affable but distant smile. Every other young person I met was an apprentice at this studio or that workshop. The potters scrubbed up pretty well but never managed to shed every last bit of clay; there’d always be just a little daub of it on their chins or wrists. My favorite potter, whose name I forget, said, “Awww, not again,” when I told him there was clay on his forehead. He said: “You know how possessive clay is.” His tone of voice made me wish I could agree with him. As far as he was concerned, he was talking about something as true as thunder, as true as his thumb. So clay leaves hickeys. Who knew . . .
I told Arturo Whitman about it, just to make conversation. He shrugged, and said: “You should go back to New York.”
In my head I counted slowly to five before answering. “Oh, I should, should I?”
“Yup.” He cracked his knuckles. Maybe he just felt a little stiff at that moment, but as a gesture made while telling someone to leave town, I didn’t like it.
“And just why is that?”
He finished his lunch and started on mine, methodically, without enthusiasm. He didn’t seem to approve of lamb chops and spinach. “You must’ve thought you’d get an easy ride around here. You must’ve thought you could show up and say ‘Hey, I’m from the big city’ and everyone would just roll over—”
“Would it kill you to get to the point?” I inquired.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll keep it simple. People make beautiful things here. We’re interested in the process, not the end product. Now, you—you don’t have what it takes to start that kind of process, let alone see it through. So. There’s nothing here for you.”
I looked him in the eye and said slowly: “Oh, isn’t there?” I wasn’t referring to anything in particular—all I was conscious of was the desire to give him a gigantic scare, right there in the diner, with the rest of the Sunday lunch crowd all around us, happy young families and grandpas carefully chewing the pasta in their minestrone as they listened to the baseball scores.
Arturo didn’t turn a hair. “What were you at home, a dressmaker’s model?”
“No,” I said, amazed that he could have got it so wrong. That “big city” stuff too. New York wasn’t a big city to me. It was no bigger than a Novak rat cage. The nearest of those blinded creatures always knew when I was nearby, and would turn their heads toward me if I made the slightest movement, just as if I’d called their names.
“Well, you could probably do that kind of work here. I know someone who—”
“I’ll find my own job. Thanks.”
That evening I told Webster she should find someone else for her double dates. It was just one of those things, I said.
I found it easy to disregard the suggestion that I didn’t belong in Flax Hill. The town woke something like a genetic memory in me . . . after a couple of weeks, the air tasted right. To be more specific, the air took on a strong flavor of palinka, that fiery liquor I used to sneak capfuls of whenever the rat catcher forgot to keep it under lock and key. But now, here, clear smoke rose from my soul every time I breathed in. A taste of the old country. Of course I knew better than to mention this to anybody.
Arturo was right about the way Flax Hill worked, though. I swept the floors of European-style ateliers and watched luxury made before my very eyes. Brocade gloves in quarter sizes for a perfect fit, peau de soie slippers with a platinum sheen, halllength tapestries woven from hand-dyed thread, wooden doorknobs shaped like miniature tigers midleap—the people of Flax Hill made all these things, packed them up in crates with no more emotion than if they were hen’s eggs, and sent them to department stores and private clients across the country. The town should really have been called Flax Hills, since it was huddled up between two of them, but maybe that was the locals’ way of instructing one of the hills to scram. The hills are ringed round with old, dark, thick-trunked trees. They’re so tall you feel a false stillness standing under them; when you look all the way up, you see the wind crashing through the topmost branches, but you hear all the commotion only distantly, if at all. I met men out among those trees. Bearded men who carried axes, and drove carthorses, occasionally stopping to deftly bind logs of wood more tightly together. The woodcutters didn’t seem surprised to see me. They’d just say hello and point, reminding me where north was so I wouldn’t lose my way. Light fell through the leaves, liquid in some places, sometimes stopping to hang in long necklaces—but only for a second or two, as if aware it wouldn’t get much admiration in Flax Hill.
There were houses along the road back into town. I hadn’t taken much notice of them when I was walking toward the trees, but the closer it got to nightfall, the more those houses stood out. They were mostly basic, hutlike structures, and the majority of them looked abandoned, but I saw stripy curtains here and there, or a basketball hoop fixed to an outer wall with a freshly chalked scoreboard beside it. One of the bigger houses had brambles growing up the front of it in snakelike vines. The smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies aside, it looked like a house you could start fanciful rumors about: “Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years . . .” and so on. The front door was open, and the porch light was on, and a little girl came around the side of the house, singing loudly. I couldn’t see her face properly—it was obscured by clouds of dark hair with big red flowers plaited into them—but she had a large cookie in each hand and more in the pockets of her dress, and I wanted to go in at the door behind her, sit down at the old piano I could see in the living room while she stood on tiptoes to retrieve the glass of milk set on top of it. Her voice sounded exactly the way I’d thought it would sound. For some reason that scared me, so I didn’t stop at the gate to greet her even though I heard her saying “Hi” in a startled way. I just said “Hi, Snow” as if we’d met before, when of course we hadn’t, and I kept going, kept my gaze fixed on the road ahead of me. “Scared” doesn’t even really describe it. I almost crossed myself. It felt like the evil eye had fallen upon us both.
Excerpted from Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Copyright © 2014 by Helen Oyeyemi.
First published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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