“My brother is dying,” my mother tells me over the phone, her voice spilling down the line, a thin stream of water over the lip of a dam. My mother says the word dying like it’s a question. As if we have some input in the matter. I’ve been expecting this news for some time and yet still, I feel a click inside my head, the pinioning tooth of a clock gear grinding down into sudden, absolute stillness. My hand goes up to my forehead where the bone is surprisingly intact. Curved, warm, hard. It comes to me that silence is just a figment, a metaphor. What sounds like a barren expanse, if you listen harder, is actually a tidepool glinting with shape and movement. Like the man in the sound-proofed room who hears the storm of his breath, the wonder of his own heartbeat.
My classes are canceled today due to the weather: the biggest nor’easter ever to hit the island. Out over the harbor, the sky is purpling. Breakers jut up in mountain ranges. All morning Ralph and I have been duct taping windows, filling bathtubs with water, riffling through drawers and cabinets for candles, matches, batteries for the flashlight. As we move the outdoor furniture into the garage a clean-smelling wind surges up the coast piling wet twigs and leaves in the wrinkles of the lawn. The barometric pressure is falling quickly, sparking through my fingertips and settling into an ember in the deeps of my chest.
“I know you wanted to see him before they let him go. They’ll untie him soon.” She has prepared me for this eventuality ever since the acute lymphoblastic leukemia stole into his bone marrow like some mustachioed, black-hatted villain, holding chromosomes hostage, leaching Uncle Morris’s body of its heft and mass. His bones have become hollow and light as a bird’s. For the last six months, it has been necessary to anchor him to his favorite leather recliner lest he bobble along the ceiling, float out of the window, and shrink to the head of a pin up in the sky like a balloon escaping a child’s grasp.
I think about what I need to pack: toothbrush, change of clothes. If there is gas in the car. My need for Uncle Morris to hang on until I have the chance to say goodbye presses down on my lungs with clumsy, elephantine force. My mental checklist whorls out of focus.
“Maybe you shouldn’t come,” my mother says. “This storm is all over the news.”
“It won’t hit for another few hours.” This is a lie, and as I say this, absurd drops of rain, nickle-sized, quarter-sized, pelt the kitchen window. First, the harbor and abandoned lighthouse are swept behind the oncoming gunmetal sheet. Then I can no longer see the shore. Seconds later, the yard is gone. “It’s a straight shot down. If I leave right this minute, I’ll be fine.” I will not be fine. I may never be fine. But these are the things we say. I’m surprised she can even hear me over the sound of hail punching the shingles with tiny petulant fists.
“Well, at least take Ralph with you.”
“Uh-huh.” I glance at our front door, its quaint glass porthole barricaded by a strip of cardboard, and look away. This is another lie. Ralph left fifteen minutes ago. I’m not sure where he went or when he’ll be back. Shasta, the dog, who hasn’t left my feet since the thunder started, blinks up at me, judging.
I leave a note by the Mr. Coffee, where I know Ralph will look, and as I wheel my suitcase out into the rain, Shasta scooting after me, I’ve already forgotten what I’ve written. It doesn’t matter.
As soon as I open the door, Shasta leaps into the shelter of the car, a doggy comet of rain-matted fur. I set the GPS for what I hope is an as yet unflooded route to the highway, and in a lively if ineffectual swiping of windshield blades, we’re on our way.
The road before me is a narrow isthmus between the marsh on my left where the hawks’ nests have been blown to bits and the sea to my right. It constricts like a vein as the waves rush up and up onto the land. Buffeted back and forth by a sickly green wind, the car hydroglides through a bloated puddle, more like a river now. Broken tree limbs lay scattered in the road, glistening wetly. Up ahead, the red and white lights of a police cruiser blink like a beacon beside a downed power line. The snapped black cable jerks and swings, alive. Drenched and bedraggled, plastic cinched over his cap serving no purpose whatsoever against the geyser flooding down his neck, an officer flags me down and barks orders for me to get off the road and take shelter. I nod my head and continue on my way.
When I get to the highway, the hurricane’s fury stops neat as a period at the end of a sentence and I realize I must be driving through the eye. Haggard trees all bow in the same direction and the weeds in the median have been steamrolled. I keep going, heading south and west, the land rising up in blue, rocky precipices on either side. The rain begins again, suddenly, as though a switch has been flipped, then tapers off to a drizzle. I cross bridges and pass a city or two. My car shushes through a long tunnel. Uncle Morris lives in a valley below a mountain and before I can wonder exactly what it is I think I’m doing here, I arrive.
Apparently, I’m the last one. Because of all the cars, I wind up parking a block down the street—still no message from Ralph—and knock, hospital-room quiet, on the door. Expecting me, it is my mother who answers.
“Where’s Ralph?” she says, hugging me.
“The new Melville wing flooded. The librarians formed a sandbag brigade.” This could very well be true. I imagine my husband wading knee-deep through icy, debris-filled water, dragging a canoe behind him stacked high with teetering rare first editions, the white biceps of an academic bunching beneath his flannel shirt.
My mother nods. “Your Uncle Morris is napping so you can’t see him just yet.” Her voice is a pinned butterfly, whisper soft.
I’m standing in a light-soaked vestibule. Through an oculus overhead, I glimpse a handful of cotton ball clouds tossed to the edges of the sky and a glitter of sun. I find it funny—not funny haha, but funny incongruous—that here, it is a perfect fall day while at this very moment, my house could be drifting out to sea, perhaps falling off the edge of the world. I imagine my students in the Music Department huddled together in their dorm rooms, blowing up empty chip bags and lashing together rafts of beer cans, preparing to ride out the storm equipped with their bongs and smart phones. Through a partially closed door to my right, I can just make out the back of Uncle Morris’s head. His hair swims away from his scalp as though he is suspended in an invisible aquarium filled with water. Levitating a few centimeters over the chair, he wobbles almost imperceptibly in the changing streams of air from the vents. The satin ribbons binding his wrists and ankles are scarlet against his pale, waxy skin.
I ask my mother if there is anything I can do to help. She says no. There is nothing for me to do but sit and wait with all of the others who are sitting and waiting. We are in the sitting room at the back of the house where southern-facing floor to ceiling windows overlook a wild, neglected vegetable garden, a pond with a splinter of dock, and a small mountain fringed by spires of pine and fat conical firs. Beneath the mirror-calm pond lies the ruins of a stone quarry, filled in and deserted before the neighborhood was built. The railroad that carried the expensive, polished slabs of granite north still runs alongside Main Street of the town situated in a cleft on top of the mountain. I let Shasta outside and, nose-to-ground, he explores the contained wilderness, laps up murky pond water, then chases something beetle-sized and shiny flying in lazy loops over the tall brown grass.
My cousin Lucy, Uncle Morris’s daughter, is only a year older than me. She sits in the window seat variously crying and answering her ever-ringing phone, sometimes doing both at once. She has five children and always smells like fresh mountain rain. The two older ones, I’m told, are downstairs in the basement rec room playing ping pong. The twins are with their dad, running an errand orchestrated as an escape, and the freckled, redheaded youngest sits at Lucy’s feet coloring in a book with crayons.
I pay my respects to Lucy who hugs me distractedly and thanks me (for what, I don’t know) and then I return to my seat. My fingers itch for my phone, but I don’t take it out of my pocket. Everyone is very dressed up for this. I realize I’m wearing sweatpants and I don’t think I showered today.
One eyebrow raised, I look to my mother for reassurance, who is standing guard in the kitchen, a fretful sentinel over all of the food that is not being eaten. There are mixed bean salads and fruit pies and cold cuts. She keeps asking if anyone is hungry. She gives me a small, sad smile. Since I have been sitting here, she has taken the food out of the refrigerator and put it away again three times. Each time, she is meticulous about saving and reusing the lids and the slivers of tinfoil and wads of gummy plastic wrap.
A 1930s era mahogany spinnet Uncle Morris and I used to play duets on is still there in the corner, the wings of a book of sheet music splayed open on the upper panel. The fallboard is pulled down over the keys like a closed mouth. Uncle Morris was my first music teacher. I sit down on the bench, my back bowed against the cool, smooth wood of the instrument, an auxiliary spine propping me up. My fingers, desperate for an occupation, brush the bird’s eye grain, as though picking out notes. In my mind, I hear them, their distinctive timbre that reminds me of the earnest soprano of my elementary school choir director with her wiry gray bun, red lipsticked mouth, and knee-high stockings bunched around her ankles.
Aunt Aurelia is in the kitchen readying the ingredients for a smoothie—all Uncle Morris can tolerate now. She calls out to Lucy, still on the phone, for wormwood and feverfew. Lucy doesn’t hear her, and I offer to get it from the garden.
Aunt Aurelia notices that I’m here. She hugs me and thanks me.
“Where’s Ralph?” she asks.
“He won a trip to Iceland,” I say. “Library membership at his branch is up by thirty percent.” I’m almost certain Iceland’s the warm, green one and Greenland’s the one buried under an iridescent crust of glacier.
“Good for him,” Aunt Aurelia says, absently, and I go out to the garden to fulfill my mission. The flying thing Shasta was chasing is now sitting astride his back and riding him like a horse. A mischievous garden fairy, it raises one bark-clad arm and salutes me. I shoo it away and rummage through the picketed enclosure for the white lace flowers and the fringed stalks that look like weeds.
When I return with the herbs, Bob and the twin boys, brandishing foam swords that glow and make a noise like clashing steel when struck, are back from the dollar store. They are dueling. I can’t tell them apart and so I always say both of their names together whenever I see them: August-George, George-August. The boys bolt into Uncle Morris’s study and use his body as an orbiting fortress. They are fighting over who gets to be Good and who gets to be Evil.
“I pronounce you Evil.” Uncle Morris points to one of the George-Augusts. The twin’s face squinches into a devilish smile.
“OK, but then I get to kill you,” August-George says.
Aunt Aurelia carries in a thermos with a straw poking out and the boys are sent down to the basement to play, herded out by their father, one hand perched on each boy’s shoulder. Like worn felt, the inaudible voices of Aunt Aurelia and Uncle Morris unfold in supple creases from behind the closed door.
Shadows stretch timidly across the white carpet. It’s dinnertime. Once more, my mother takes the food out of the refrigerator. She asks if anyone is hungry. This time we all make ourselves a plate and nibble reluctantly around the serrated edges of bow tie pasta and cucumber salad. We talk in whispers. We don’t laugh, even if something is funny. We don’t taste the food even though my mother is an excellent cook and this concoction, whatever it is, under different circumstances, must be delicious.
I go outside to sneak Shasta some people food but he’s nowhere to be found: licking gray foam off the pebbled shore; lolling in the square of sun on the flagstones; hunting field mice behind the garden shed. I scan the hinterlands of the yard and spot him. A dog-shaped bundle crests a green hillock and slides down toward the dense tree line. He is being carried into the forest on his back, paws waggling in the air, on the shoulders of a tribe of fairies. His feet have been tied up together in a bouquet with honeysuckle vines. When they see me coming, the fairies groan tinily up at me for interrupting their sport. Shasta barks.
“Come on,” I say. “Time to go inside.”
In a shimmy of fur, Shasta shakes off his fetters, scattering the fairies. As they flitter up into the leaves and dissolve into the long grass, Shasta looks after them, longingly.
“Stop messing around,” I say, feeding him a still-warm roll from my pocket, and go in, Shasta close on my heels. I wonder at what point games become dangerous, and why we still want to play them.
While I am washing dishes, my cousin Lucy pulls me aside. She slips a sheet of paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook into my damp palm as if it’s a secret.
“Where’s Ralph?” she asks me.
“He’s having his appendix removed,” I say.
“That’s too bad.” Then, “Shouldn’t you be with him?”
“He didn’t want me to see him that way.”
“Oh.” Lucy nods her head gravely as I read a grocery list of exotic ingredients to procure: toadstools, crab shells, a lock of doll’s hair. I’m meant to chant cryptic verse, trace sigils in the air, naked under the moonlight. It is one of her charms. They don’t work.
“You should do it tonight,” she says, glancing tenderly at her football team’s worth of burping, farting children heaped together on the couch with no regard for the laws of physics, as if to say this could all be mine. “It’s a full moon.”
When Aunt Aurelia comes out of the study, she whispers something to my mother, who in turn whispers to me. A solemn game of telephone.
“You can see Uncle Morris now, if you want,” my mother says, relieving me of the dishtowel and a heavy, dripping skillet.
In I go. The shade is drawn and this bothers me. A suggestion of sunset fumes outside but can’t get it in. My heart scrabbles like something cornered. I am suddenly thirsty and crave a glass of water. The hangnail on my left big toe throbs. I have an unshakeable suspicion I may be dying, too. What do you say to a dying man? It seems unfair to expect Uncle Morris to carry the conversation with all he has going on. I have so many questions. “What should I do with my life?” pops into my head.
I settle on a scintillating, “How are you?” and follow up with the zinger, “You look good.”
Smiling down at me benevolently, he tamps his hair but it wriggles out of his combing fingers. Point of fact: he looks terrible. He’s lost a manatee-sized amount of weight and his polyester tracksuit billows around him. By contrast, his eyes have distended. They are luminous. They strain through me, past me, toward an object I can’t see.
“Thank you,” he says. “You, too.” The Rogers and Hammerstein sonic baritone that once reverberated throughout the house has been compressed into the space of a breath inside of this one room. He doesn’t ask me where Ralph is. This small favor, at least, makes some of the pent up breath sigh out of me. After all, this is still just my Uncle Morris and me. Talking.
“I’ve read over a hundred books in the last two months,” he says, proudly. “I finished my rock opera inspired by The Boss.”
“That’s good,” I say. I put my hand on his. The shock of his cold skin makes my ulnar artery twitch. “I’d love to hear it.”
“I had Aurelia make a copy for you. The priest keeps dropping by, but he hasn’t been able to convince me of anything. Yet.” Uncle Morris grins as though he’s won a game of chess against Death. “Pretty soon, I’ll know more than he does.”
I can’t help it. I’m hugging him and telling him I love him. Against my arms, the architecture of his frame feels insubstantial, like a paper kite. I worry I’ll crumple him if I press too hard.
Uncle Morris saves me. “Remember those old nonsense rhymes?”
“Yes,” I say. The Edward Lear songs. I learned how to read notes from them, my short stubby fingers following Uncle Morris’s graceful, muscular ones on the musical quest of Duck and Kangaroo, The Jumblies, Quangle Wangle, over the ivory hills and valleys of the keyboard.
Uncle Morris laughs at the memory and something of the old music hoots out of him. “Why don’t you sing one for me now?” He squeezes me hard, then swish, releases me, unfurling his arms, braced for flight.
I look over at Lucy and Aunt Aurelia for permission. They have been anxiously shadowing the door. Lucy shrugs.
My guitar is in the trunk of my car. She is a classic Taylor acoustic and her name is Daisy. Made out of silky red-orange cedar, she feels like a part of me when I am holding her, a piece of home that I carry around with me. When I get back, Uncle Morris’s eyes are closed.
I strum lightly at first, then louder. “The owl and the pussycat went to sea / In a beautiful pea green boat,” I sing. My guitar is a better instrument than my voice and so I punctuate each verse with diatonic chord progressions spiraling up to an intricate bridge that I pluck out swiftly with my fingers. The melody is warm and living, and I hope that wherever Uncle Morris is travelling, he can fold this up in his suitcase. He is snoring. One of his ribbons has come undone. The others are loose. During the song, he has risen up, almost to the ceiling. I stop playing and reach down to retie them, but Lucy is already there doing it and so I take Daisy and back quietly out of the room. I sense that what I was meant to do here has now been done, though I’m unsure what it is, and I’m left feeling raw, split open from the effort. In the morning, I will go home, but for now, my mother, whose eyes are pink and resolute, hands me a stack of pillows and blankets and sends me to bed. Uncle Morris and Aunt Aurelia’s house isn’t large, but somehow there’s plenty of room for all of us.
Hours later, I still can’t sleep. The basement, where I’ve volunteered to spend the night, is ridiculously Jungian and an intoxicating wet earth smell I’ve never noticed before rises up through the concrete floor making my nose itch. I don’t know why it should be so, but the presence or absence of light affects the acoustics in a room. In the darkness, sound is channeled, amplified: I can hear the booming thrum of the pilot light; the water heater clicking on, then off; and somewhere upstairs, a grandfather clock knelling the Westminster Chimes. There is a soft, steady shuffling of air I think is my Uncle’s breathing. If it weren’t for the warm lump of Shasta sprawled on top of my feet, I would feel like one more tiny fluctuation in a wave of particles.
I text Ralph, the globe of light around my phone diluting the darkness.
Pulsating ellipses at the bottom of the screen tell me he’s replying.
Yep. Lost some shingles on the roof and old cherry tree went down, but house OK. No power yet. The letters are flat and uncommunicative compared to the smoky rumbling of the live version. Ralph has a poet’s voice. He always keeps a paperback book in his back pocket and sometimes he reads to me out loud from it, stringing the words together like notes in a composition.
Why aren’t u here? I ask.
Your letter told me not to come: Ride house to OZ.
I don’t care. U come anyway. Uncle Morris is dying.
Also I should mention the minor detail of the category 4 hurricane going on outside.
Didn’t stop me. I type this last as though my fingers can pass right through the cold glass and touch his skin.
The ellipses bubble, stop for a second, then boil.
We’re not happy.
Flense, I type quickly, phoning the governor for a stay of execution. No last minute pardon comes through, no sign he’s even read my missive.
Flense. A word from Moby Dick. When Ralph read it out loud, I made him say it over and over again. The way the point of his tongue split the soft ‘f’ and settled into the groove of the ‘l’ was erotic. “Flense, flense, flense,” he repeated, his endearingly crooked teeth brushing his bottom lip with each pronunciation. As Ralph let Moby Dick flutter onto the floor and slowly undid the buttons of my shirt, the word intoned in my ear between kisses laid bare a deeper, secret skin.
I stuff my phone underneath the couch cushion and shut my eyes. What I see dancing across the underside of my eyelids is the pee stick with its pink flatline followed by a chorus line of the years of negative tests before that one.
“We can try again,” I said to Ralph after the doctor called to inform us the IVF hadn’t worked. It was supposed to work. I was counting on it to work. We were lying on a blanket underneath the cherry tree, an open bottle of cabernet propped up between us. I could have a glass of wine now, though I didn’t much feel like it. Across the harbor, as the clouds over Connecticut faded from pink to purple, I rubbed Ralph’s back. What I wanted was for him to rub mine and tell me everything was going to be OK, tell me we would try for as long as it took, even if it took a lifetime. The leaves of the cherry tree were red, the first color of the season, and sifted down around us. Ralph laughed when one of them fell in my hair. He said it looked like a feather for an Indian princess. I disentangled the leaf and crumbled it in my hand. His levity in this particular moment was unwelcome.
“One more try,” I said, examining the brittle, red corpse in my palm. “Please,” knowing already that one more would never be enough, even if it meant losing Ralph. Until that moment, I had never imagined that I would want anything more than I wanted him. I could see him testing out this new information in his mind, a look of what?—confusion? apprehension?—knitting his brow, clouding his eyes like silt in a clear stream.
“This is brutal,” he said, turning away. “Don’t you think?”
He put his head in his hands and breathed in deeply the clear fall air. “I can’t take another round of this.” After a minute, he went inside.
I didn’t immediately follow him. Instead, I stayed and watched the sky over the harbor turn to stone, crickets keening in the grass all around me.
The house is dark. While everyone sleeps, I slip quietly out the back door. Above me, the moon is a lush, open mouth. There is a second, abstract moon painted on the water. I imagine she is singing up there to keep from feeling alone, but her voice is too far away for me to hear. Down at the shore, I pull Lucy’s charm out of my pocket and tear it into thin curls of paper that I toss onto the waves. Slowly, they ride the wind out to the middle where they form a circle, a necklace for the moon.
I wade into the water and when I am knee-deep, I see a black flick of fins, a tail maybe. When I am chest-deep, a powerful, slippery arm cradles me and pulls me down under the pond: a mermaid. Her eyes are ancient and wise. The shape formed by her angular shoulders and diaphanous caudal fin is trilateral, predatory. Silver dollar shells twinkle in the braids of her wild, black hair. Below us, glowing through the darkness, I see lights. A mercity. She takes me down until we are gliding in between stone towers, under carved archways, and even though we aren’t speaking, I understand she is giving me a choice. I can come to live in the mercity, but if I do there is no going back again. The lights are beautiful and happy. The most beautiful, happy lights I’ve ever seen. With a deep, aching sadness that drags at me like an anchor, I let go of her hand and swim toward the surface. She doesn’t follow. Before I reach air, something taut and slimy grabs my ankles and wrenches me under. Below me, a roiling field of seaweed claws at my feet and climbs up my legs, constricting. It wants to bury me down in the bottomless quiet. I yank my feet away and paddle toward shore, dragging myself, exhausted, onto the beach, where I fall asleep.
In the morning, I find a wicker basket on a shelf in Aunt Aurelia’s basement. The garden is in shambles, tended all summer by deer and rabbits who’ve left nothing behind but weeds and tomatoes. Lolling from wooden stakes, they are golden, vermillion, and pale green: as big as small pumpkins. As I harvest the abandoned tomatoes, the fabric of my skirt is velveteen and familiar against my knees. A small yellow butterfly, one of the last of the season, lands on the slender handle of the basket. An instant later, a cool breeze prickles on the back of my neck and carries the butterfly away.
“Here you are,” Ralph says, from behind me, like he’s been searching for me everywhere.
I stand and ripe tomatoes tumble from my lap with fleshy thuds, roll every which way down the embankment. Next spring, new tomato plants will sprout from unlikely recesses of my Aunt’s lawn.
“Yes, I’ve been right here all along,” I say, prepared to be unforgiving, yet turning to him all the same.
“Come away with me, my love,” he says. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Ralph is unshaven. There are twigs stuck in his hair. He smells unfamiliar: sweet, like lavender and burning leaves. I have heard stories of fairies who glamour themselves into the ones we love, promise us everything. The unfortunates who follow them are never seen or heard from again.
I take his hand—soft, spongy, warm, like tree bark on a summer afternoon—and we walk together down to the rowboat at the end of the dock. Ralph unties the moorings while I kick away the cobwebs. Small creatures scuttle into the hidden corners of the boat. Ralph rows; I steer. Our destination is the forest on the other side of the pond. What we will do when we get there, I’m not yet sure, but somehow we both know that we have to go.
There is a photograph tucked in my pocket: the picture the doctor gave us of our embryo. Arm in arm, we huddled over it, rapt: the delicate cluster of spheres shimmering with magic and promise. The miracle our bodies made, Ralph and me, is still there, I know, somewhere below the pond, in the city of light.
Emily Amodeo’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Pavan, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at St. Peter’s University, and holds an MFA from The New School and an MA from the University of North Texas, where she was a Teaching Fellow and recipient of the Jim Lee Award in fiction. Emily lives on Long Island and is currently at work on a novel.