Chosen as Best of Women Writers' Fiction-- Winter/Spring 2003

Justine Dymond, Fiction Editor

Summer 2000


There were only these cans left: black beans, kidney beans, string beans, pork and beans, tomatoes, pineapple, fruit cocktail, chicken noodle soup, chop suey.

There were only these paperbacks left: musty-thick novels, diet regimes, astrology books, her "trashy teen" stories that Mrs. Pinto called "hardly appropriate for a girl her age.

There were two candles.

There was cold water.

There was one box of matches.

There were five razors.

There was day and there was night.

In the beginning she reveled in the naughty meals of sugared cereals and ice cream. When the milk ran out, she poured orange juice and then ginger ale over the colorful squares and circles. When there was only water left, she ate the last box of cereal dry and watched cartoons and game shows and strange black and white movies until her eyes were hot and fatigued.

In the beginning she got up early and dressed for school, but her feet failed her at the last minute. From the living room window, she watched the yellow bus squeal to a stop at the end of the driveway, then-with a sharp spurt of air-drive away. The wheezing, rumbling school bus. Now the bus passed without even slowing down.

After the electricity had shut off--the phone had long before stopped working-- a rotten smell came out of the refrigerator: A package of cheese grew furry spots and the lettuce turned a dark green liquid.

At night, without the moon, the air was so black that she couldn't tell the difference between when her eyes were closed and when they were open. After so many nights of sleeping with the lights blazing she had trouble with this sudden darkness. Sounds were different in the dark. The rustling of her legs under the covers seemed to come from across the room. Her breathing was not hers, but came from a mouth near her ear.

The fire in the woodstove smudged the dark, deepening its blackness. But when she shut the door to the woodstove, the night around her slowly lightened, making unfamiliar shapes move and dance. When the moonlight stretched across the night, it was worse, because shadows and comers played tricks on her eyes. The shadows of tree branches swaying outside slid across the bedroom wall and grew around the room. She stayed awake listening to the creaks and groans of the old house, imagining all the beasts that her mother had kept away. When the morning light revealed the dull gray nothingness of comers, only then would she fall into an exhausted slumber, her eyelids heavy with fear. In late morning, the sunlight cut across her bed and she'd wake disoriented. Darkness had erased her, sunlight spit her out dizzy and blind.

After a few weeks the night did not bother her, as it once had. She welcomed the heavy closeness of dark after the day's hollowness. She lay wrapped in blankets near the woodstove. In the morning she woke to a cold floor. Her bones ached as though she had disintegrated and come together again in the night.

The cat stopped scratching at the window. The girl didn't understand why. There was still a half a bag of cat food left, and so she continued to call for the cat at night, anxious but also happy with the sound of her own voice, high and strained, against the cool blackness. She banged a fork on the storm door frame, as she had seen her mother do.

She waited up, a candle burning at the dining room table. Her face, thin and oval, the shadows drawn long under her nose and chin, stared back at her from the window. Still the cat stayed away.

The girl stayed. The girl grew excited with waiting. Waiting was a game, one she had played before when her mother went out at night She closed her eyes as long as she could, waiting for the moonlight to creep a little farther into the room. If she opened her eyes too soon, if she wasn't patient, the moonlight would never move, night would never end, and her mother's face would never appear above her bed in the morning.

She sat on the living room couch and waited for the next drop of water to bulge over the gutter's edge. Snow was melting fiercely under the sun. The tires of passing cars hissed along the slushy road. The roof creaked and strained under the shifting weight of thawing snow. The house still stored winter in its walls and floors. Under the floor was the cold black space of the cellar.

Every day but Sunday the postman's pale yellow station wagon stopped at the driveway, and she heard him climb the front steps to the mailbox. She remembered asking her mother once why the postman did not drive a square little white truck as he did in the books she read. Her mother's answer hadn't made sense to her. She remembered it having to do with being in the country and parting time, or a part of time? Time was millions of pebbles she slowly counted. She rested her head on her arm and looked out the window, hoping to see her mother's blue car turn the corner and nose up the driveway, belts whirring and engine sputtering. Minutes later, her stomach rumbled. The sun disappeared behind the house. Hunger made her sweat, though the cold of the house crept into her body. She restarted the fire with the day's mail and a romance novel, the lascivious cover of which she ripped off and kept before stuffing the pages of the book into the stove. She lit a candle and wandered the house, watching the corners of rooms flicker with shadows.

In her mother's bedroom, she fingered jars and bottles, perfumes and creams, lipsticks and eye shadow boxes. She remembered the swift dotting of beige liquid on the forehead, nose, cheeks, chin. The careful matting, a couple strokes across, down and sideways. The outlining of the eyes that made her mother's mouth stretch wide. It was funny what the mouth did while the make-up was painted, stroked, and powdered on. The girl waited for the new face, for a wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked woman, lips red as the blood that seeped from under the girl's skin when she pricked it with a thumbtack. The girl looked at her face in the mirror and saw a dirty brown face covered with blue and red lines, a lunatic clown. She threw the bottles and creams and powders at the mirror.

There was no trick to cutting. Just that she could feel seconds, milliseconds even, minutes, half minutes, quarter hours, half-hours, an hour, as they moved through her hands. The rough, scaly skin at her elbow split under the razor blade, and she could feel the air as it entered her body through the cut. It woke her and relaxed her. And in those few moments she forgot her mother, she forgot the cat, the memory of the cat's face plaintive at the window, her own disgusting reflection, she forgot her mother's room and the powder and liquid smeared all over the mirror, down the front of the dresser, matted in the rug.


One morning she woke and didn't feel that achiness, didn't feel the coldness of the floor. Outside the snow was nearly gone and light fell into the room soft and warm. Something arrived in the mail, an envelope addressed in a loopy script that was like her mother's handwriting. She dropped the rest of the mail--envelopes with clear plastic windows and circulars that made good kindling--and ripped open the envelope. A pink and purple card with silver glitter, a horse with wings rising over cushions of pastel clouds. Inside a five dollar bill, a printed Happy Birthday, Granddaughter, and then, handwritten, Love, Nana. No return address and the postmark was smeared. She knew Nana was far away but she forgot where.

She sat down on the kitchen floor and ripped the card into pieces. Then up she stood and ran through the hallway connecting the house to the barn, determined to break something. A row of empty canning jars sat on a shelf out of her reach. She dragged an old milk crate across the barn floor, climbed up on it, and knocked the jars into the air. They cracked into large jagged pieces on the floor.

A bicycle was propped in a corner and she went to it over the broken glass, oblivious to the shards that cut her ankles. She grabbed the bike by its seat and kicked at the spokes until they bent and popped out. The effort eventually tired her and she leaned on the bike, resting her chin on its seat. Above her, binoculars were hanging from a nail.

She could see the cows sweeping and flicking their tails. She could see blackbirds and swallows rising and dipping in the meadow next to the house. If she stood on the couch she could just see a window of the neighbor's house and fleeting movements behind the window. When it got too dark to see anything, she made pencil drawings on the blank pages torn from books. The books she shoved into the woodstove and watched disappear into orange flames.

She drew the neighbor's window and the family she imagined behind it, sitting and talking near the fireplace. There was a mother and a father, two children, a boy and a girl, close to her age, and a large golden retriever whose tail flopped and wagged in rhythm to the conversation. All this she imagined from the movements and shadows her binoculars saw. They talked about the big juicy cutlets they had eaten for dinner and about the chocolate pudding pie with huge dollops of whipped cream. The baseball game where the boy scored a home run. How big the moon is when it's full. Whether it's easier to catch lightning bugs or the small frogs by the swamp that sound like plucked rubber bands.

Drool ran down the girl's chin and dripped onto her drawing, softening the paper. In her mouth, the paper turned to pulp. It tasted like caramel.

She sat on the front steps, elbows on knees, and through the binoculars she watched cars pass. The cuts crisscrossed her knees now--keeping them bent caused a pleasurable tug on the raw, healing skin. By cutting, she was sketching night into her skin. The creeping pain sharpened her senses, wakened her from the haze she wandered in the rest of the day. The days mixed together, making one muddy color of memory.

She crawled through the rooms of the house, dug far into closets, pulled musty smelling clothes out of boxes. She lay herself across pumps and sandals and sneakers. Always groggy now, she often fell asleep for a few minutes or an hour, then woke in a dark closet, her heart beating ferociously before she remembered where she was.

While rummaging in the hall closet, she put her hand in a box of old papers and books. She felt a small square hard thing and pulled out a framed photograph of a young woman with short, wavy, brown hair. In the afternoon light, she could make out the neat, angular features of the face, the dark, shiny eyes. The face was familiar to her, but she couldn't think whose it was. She crawled out of the closet and then placed the photo on the dining room table. She opened the last can of beans and dipped stale crackers into it. She stared and stared at the photo.

There was only one can of tomatoes.

And cat food.

There were ten matches.

There were the globbed wax stumps of candles.

There were the binoculars.

There were three unbroken razors.

The blood appeared like stars, growing and spreading along the length of a cut. But she couldn't feel it and she watched the blood the way she watched birds in the field or the pages of books curl and burn in the stove. She did the cutting slowly and held her breath while she did it. Once she almost passed out because she forgot to breathe. As her lungs inflated again, she felt dizzy.

One warm day she wandered into the field behind the barn and lay in the tall grass watching the clouds shift above her. Through the binoculars she could see hawks circling high in the sky and she wondered if one might swoop down and carry her away. She lay very still, hoping a hawk would take her so she could feel the sensation of flying above everything, above her house, above the neighbor's house, above her hunger, above the nothingness of nights and days.

With the binoculars during the day she saw the colors and depth of things; at night the darkness took shape around those things. She saw the space above fields and mountains and the neighbor's house down the road. The air itself turned into a solid object, with an endless variety of shapes. The trees and bushes in the yard became flat, uninteresting, while around them something moved and rolled, gone by morning.

Now she carried handfuls of cat food in her pockets and sucked on the hard pellets until they turned to sand in her mouth. Two handfuls a day. She counted the pellets out on the kitchen counter. Ten, sometimes more, made a handful, and as they disappeared into her mouth she kept a mental count of how many were left in her pocket. She learned how to tease and cajole hunger, to make it wait, and to feel satisfied with meager amounts of food.

Still her hunger didn't always behave. It wanted to taste things. It tasted the pages of paperback books whose coarse, cheap paper grew soft in her mouth. It tasted dead and dried spiders she found between the window panes, the styrofoam pebbles that came out of the bean bag chair, bland but hard and pleasurable to chew. It tasted the grasses in the field and the soft petals of forsythia and daisies. She caught a grasshopper and bit down on its head, its legs tickling her lips. Ants had no flavor but moths and butterflies had a bitter gooeyness. Their wings she laid out carefully on a table next to the colorful book covers, collecting them for her mother. In a few days the wings dried into a brittle paper, then to dust at her touch.

Now she lay for hours on the floor, not bothering to slap away the flies that landed on her and crawled across the cuts. Flies buzzed around the bag of flour she had left open after trying to eat a handful of the white powder mixed in water. The grasses around the house reached as high as the first-floor windowsills. The growing leaves of a sycamore tree blocked her view of the neighbor's house. She had to crouch at the bottom of her driveway, almost in the ditch, to see a comer of a window. And then all she could see was the fluttering of shadow, not even shadow, the movement of movement, which only made her more and more impatient.

She crept down the road and this way could see another window of the neighbor's house. Sometimes there was a woman standing with her back to the window, moving her arms in a way that suggested she was chopping and mixing food. The woman never turned towards the window but the girl imagined her face to be like the one in the photograph she found, young and kind, smiling.

A loud honk! and she lowered the binoculars to see a car coming straight at her, swerving around her, and passing in a swirl of dust and exhaust.

At home there was cutting.

For hours, maybe days, she sat in a comer of the kitchen, making neat slices up and down her arms and legs. But hunger no longer behaved; it prowled, moved from her stomach into her head, overpowering the pain of her cuts.

Again she took the binoculars down to the road and crossed to the other side. She kept a careful watch on the neighbor's house until she got near the edge of the lawn, then she crawled across the grass to the base of the sycamore tree. Lying on her stomach, she looked through the window with her binoculars.

Brother and sister played quietly on the floor. Her hair was shiny, pulled back with a red bow. He was dressed in shorts and dress shirt and he smiled sweetly at his sister as they built a house from blocks of colored wood. On a table behind them were stacks of sandwiches and cakes and cookies, a large bowl of fruit, crackers, cheese, a roasted pig. A gently smiling man, their father, stood above the pig, sharpening his knife. The mother watched her children happily.

The girl felt dizzy and realized she wasn't breathing. She grew tired of holding the binoculars. She rested a moment, head down, heart beating in her throat.

Looking up, she saw the brother and sister standing over her, their cheeks rosy satin, their eyes dark with sympathy. The sister's dress puffed up like a popover as she crouched down to lift a bony arm from the grass, caresses like the cool petals of flowers against the cuts. The brother patted the girl's gnarled hair and picked up the binoculars, aiming them first up into the sycamore branches and then down the road. The sister used the apron of her dress to wipe saliva from the girl's chin. The boy asked, Would you like to play with us?

She tried to nod, she tried to say Yes!

The boy raised a finger to his lips. Ssssh! She's sleeping. Then he tiptoed away, still holding the binoculars. His sister watched him go, looked down at the arm she held, gave it a swift bite on the wrist, and ran after her brother, laughing.

The girl's eyes opened to see the sky where a hawk circled. The hawk could see everything from up there, the fields where grasshoppers jumped, the houses where people lived, all the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, the horizon, the spaces around everything.

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