Storm rolling in slow... I wrote under the magnolia all day, drinking chocolate tea. Pages below....
"He came behind her, put his hands gently on her shoulders the way her father had so many years ago. An electric place on her neck tingled as she touched the cross. He guided her hand as she opened her palm against the smooth, cool wood.
“Where did it come from?”
“A church. An ancient church. I had quite a time getting it.” He stepped gracefully between her
and the cross, smiling privately. “There’s something different about you, Mary, isn’t there?
She moved closer and he grabbed her hips, pulling her to him. “You’ve always been able to make the world around you tick just as you wanted, haven’t you? Your own private little windup toy.”
She only smiled.
“Don’t be coy. We’re the same, you and I. I can smell it on you. The other side- I’ve been smelling it on you all night.” He pulled her towards the bare center of the room, and placed his hand at the small of her back. “Dance with me,” he whispered. And now there was music, trickling up from the downstairs. His beloved Clara. She always knew.
“You’re a traveler. You don’t know how I’ve waited for this, Mary.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you-”
Studying her face, he fell silent as they moved quietly around the room. She felt for a moment that she’d said the wrong thing; felt him begin to draw back in his mind. The song came to an end and he bowed to her.
“You’re not what I expected at all,” she said, circling him, smiling. “I won’t tell you what I was expecting. You’re not it, though.” He stood there drinking the look of her, letting her draw round him like smoke, and she stroked his cheek. “You said earlier that I looked as though I wanted to be kissed? I didn’t know it then, but now I do. I want you to kiss me, Oliver.” His hand drifted to her face as she pressed back to the cool wall. She sucked the edge of his hand, looking at him. “Oliver Roamery,” she said.
A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth and her spine fluttered, answering his pull on her. His hand filled her mouth further; the other rose to her throat, squeezing it. He kissed her roughly, the peppery smell of his beard sharp in her nose as his tongue came over hers, searching, and she kissed him back as though she could flood him, overcome the cities of his mind, bring him to his knees. Desire welled through her, floating up veins and the doorways in her bones, floating her away. Blackness lapped at the edges of her mind as he pressed. She was passing out.
He lifted his hand. She slid away like a startled fish. “I can’t- I said I wouldn’t, I said things would be different here-”
“Mary,” he said, urgently, but she skidded out onto the porch.
The moon was a lush wedge hanging low in the sky, and the trees within the walls rustled together darkly, thicker than the night. She was sitting hunched in one of his wicker chairs, clenching her hands on her knees. The legs were knotted together, her soap-white face was staring up at the wedge of moon. “God I’m sorry. When I was with Jo earlier, I forgot everything, everything I said to myself I’d be.” She curled down over knees. “Am I making sense? I’m not making any sense.”
He sat beside her lightly, crossing his legs away from her as her pale hair fell on either side of her neck, revealing the top of her spine, which looked vulnerable, girlish, in the silver light.
“Jo has a way,” Roamery said. Clouds in his voice. “It is rare for a woman to be free.”
“I want to be free,” she said, numbly, still hiding her face. “My husband loves me. He needs me. He needs me like air.” She looked at him wildly. “Do you understand? It’s a crime to treat him the way I do. He’s never been anything but good to me.”
“Does he love you, Mary? If he really loved you- for exactly what you are- then you would be free. Don’t you see it? You’d be perfectly free, perfectly understood, to do just as you needed.” He sighed and looked at the moon, tapping his knee soundlessly. “You would be like the sun and moon, free to go far from one another, yet perfectly confident your paths would each forever circle the other.”
“You’re lonely, Oliver.”
“I’m free.” He looked at her. “If I had children- I would want them to know how to be free.”
Music trickled to them again, more faintly this time. “Clara’s songs,” he said. “She knows I like to listen to them, too.” He looked up at the porch’s ceiling, painted the traditional watery blue, to prevent the uninvited dead from crossing inside. “Sometimes I imagine it’s the way she talks to me. How she tells me things. She doesn’t like to say much, not with words.”
“I saw the painting of her. It’s wonderfully done.”
“I’ll give it to you.”
“I want you to have it. It would make me happy to know it was in your house, close to you.”
“I want to give you something, then.”
“Maybe you’ll come sit for me sometime.”
“Oh, now and then,” he said, sending a stab through her.
I do, too, she wanted to say. The night was thinning, wearing through. Where does the light come from, before the sun returns, she wanted to say- but what she said was, “I have a daughter. Clara’s age. She’s a wild animal.” She moved her hand limply, and she stared at it, thinking it looked like the blowing wing of a bird she’d seen crushed in the road. Strange thought, like a piece of falling paper; thoughts, and the source-less light before the dawn; where does it all come from, she wanted to say, to ask him.
“She hates me, you know. I can feel it all the time, like she’s just seething up at me. And I want to be a good woman. I really do. For her, as much as for him. I can’t stand it, the way she looks at me. She knows everything. Before I even knew it, she knew. That I’d be unfaithful…”
“Why not simply be a woman instead? Let it move in you. You stifle yourself, hold yourself apart from what you really want. That’s no way to live your life, no example to set for a young girl.”
“A young animal,” Mary corrected him. “She’s already that way. Being what she is. She’s strong, intuitive… I’ve never been like that.” She sat back. “I like rules. I don’t want to break them. But I do. I’m just blowing in the wind, all the time.”
“You want something to stop you, tell you what to do.” His hand drew an arc through the air to her nose. She smiled at him ruefully- realized he was holding something golden in front of her. Her watch, swinging by its clasp from his other hand. “How’d you do that?”
He gave it back to her and she fastened it blindly, smiling at him.
“Magic,” he said. “Rules are like magic. Neither is real. Or are they?” Now it was her locket he had in his hand.
She touched her naked throat. And that locket had a tricky clasp; she’d always had to fumble with it, but he’d whispered it away with an unfelt touch. She prickled all over, invaded, aroused.
“Next you’ll have my panties,” she said. “Magic man.”
“Is that all it takes? Could have saved myself some time.”
She wiped her face. “I guess. Rules...”
“Rules, yes. Perhaps they’re why you’ve found me. The reasons why you’re with me now, here in the dead of night, instead of with him. Your life is formless without your work, Mary. Without a lover who knows how to define you. Why do you think he took those things away from you? He’s jealous he can’t be more for you. He’s not enough.”
The lemon moon slid lower, dropping into the liquid trees and houses beyond the wall...
La! So pleased. Trying to cover more of the senses on the page. Picture's by the brilliant Joel Peter Witkin; thanks to the wonderful photographer Mariah Channing, my lovely studio mate at Redux, for telling me about him!
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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