I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Early light seeped through the green plastic bags taped over the window, and made the room feel like the bottom of a swamp. Algae bled into the walls, spread over her mattress, oozed into her pores until she was green all the way through. Lying in muck, silverfish swam over her and an alligator crept past. Light intensified behind the plastic as if God were on the other side. She knew from books that children sometimes found passageways to kingdoms in the backs of wardrobes or by rubbing lucky coins. Maybe a boy wearing kneesocks and thick glasses would step through the plastic, blinking in confusion, because the moment before he’d been on the beach examining a piece of blue glass.
In horror movies, the portals that led to hell had gatekeepers, huge three-headed dogs, or blind men with tiny snakes living inside the sockets of their eyes. And if you went down into hell to retrieve somebody you’d better bring an ivory cross or a lock of baby’s hair, because the devil tricked people, turned them into other things like bats or lawn chairs.
This room was smaller than the last one, her mattress a twin, and there was just a broken-down director’s chair in one corner and a stack of newspapers in the other. She couldn’t read where they were from, but by the layout, length, and spacing of the tiny letters on the edges, she figured they were in English. This comforted her, as she was afraid he’d taken her all the way to Mexico, through Latin America, where she heard men roamed in packs like stray dogs and killed tourists for their Visa cards and traveler’s checks. Towns back in the rain forest of Costa Rica, where whorehouses had cement gates and barbed wire. If you ended up there, Robin had told them at camp, you’d never escape.
Oh-u. Oh-u. A bird called in a voice resonant with worry. Oh-u. Oh-u. But she couldn’t answer through the gag, just thought of the bird’s purple feathers, its pale peach beak and pink tongue, how all day it ate iridescent blue beetles and licked water off white flower petals. When he came in to feed her, pea soup right out of a red and white Campbell’s can, he wouldn’t make eye contact, and since she’d tried to escape he hadn’t even touched her. It was a silent fight like her parents used to have. For days her mother wouldn’t get dressed and rushed around in her nightgown acting crazy and officious. Her father sat on the edges of the furniture as if he were a houseguest. But now the man wanted to make up. All night the TV crackled and whispered like a campfire as he sat at the kitchen table writing, cutting letters out of magazines with scissors and pasting them to a blank page. Maybe the letter was to his mother or to an old girlfriend or some company whose product pissed him off; maybe he was working on a project, or filling out a work application. Or maybe he got an idea for a kid’s book about a lonely troll that kidnapped a little girl right out of her subdivision. But she knew from the frenetic pace of his work, from the long meditative pauses where he went inside himself, that it was an important letter, that he was careful with the details. His scribbling went on for hours, cutting and pasting. He never looked at her once and for a moment she wondered if he’d forgotten all about her.
The gecko came up from where it lived between the wall and her mattress and stood frozen, lashing its tongue in the air. Its beaded head scooped the quilted material for centipedes and red ants. The movement of her eyelashes frightened the shy thing and it dived back over the mattress’s edge. If Sandy sat very still in a forest filled with every kind of wild flower, chipmunks and squirrels would come up to take nuts from her fingers and lay their tiny warm heads against her thigh. She heard the turtle plodding along in the underbrush, eating soft leaves and meaty mushroom caps, the baby bear with a velvet bow tie listening patiently while the caterpillar, in his top hat, gave a speech in the style of Abraham Lincoln, talking mostly about Divine Providence but sometimes about Divine Intervention.
Sun baked the house. Like bread in the oven, she felt her mushy insides changing into a substance both dry and white. She was thirsty for water, for grape juice, for Sprite with crushed ice in super-sized wax cups, for a cold piece of watermelon, for a teacup full of homemade lemonade. But she’d settle for a kiss with the damp mattress, a lick of her salty shoulder. And there was water and lots of it somewhere behind the plastic, a green lime quarry, or a man-made lake, maybe even an ocean. She heard the wet slap against sand and rocks and mud, and she pushed her tongue against the black electrical tape and for an instant hallucinated sucking on an ice cube, sitting in a baby pool, drinking from a cold can of Coke.
It was cute how her brother, when he was little, leaned against her legs, how he’d go around to the neighbor’s front lawns eating the stale bread thrown out for the birds. Sometimes he’d take off all his clothes and run naked around the house. He was a preoccupied little kid. Once she asked what he was thinking and he said, “The big bang theory,” and threw himself onto the couch. Another time he found a baby rabbit in the garage and squeezed its stomach so hard blood gushed out of its nose. He’d caught a catfish in the graveyard pond. Its skin was like black rubber and he’d pulled its whiskers off on the asphalt driveway, cut its heart out with an old hunting knife. The heart looked like a piece of wet gravel and her brother skewered it on the tip of the blade and carried it into the house.
She’d watched from behind the peonies, deciding to punish him, to take his little red race car and hide it under the mulberry bush. Winter rains turned to hard ice and encased the tiny automobile; snow covered it like white frosting on a Danish. She stared at the dream car swerving left, the expression of the Italian driver confident and intense. Oh-u? Oh-u? Oh-u? The bird had attracted others and they were having a meeting, deciding how best to get her out. The blue jays, who thought of themselves more like marines than civil servants, wanted to bust the window, lead her out through the shards of splintered glass. The egret, a coy international spy, wanted to infiltrate the house solo, pin the man to his chair with its long lancelike beak, while all the other birds flew down the hall, pecked through the plywood door, and set the girl free. A flock of seagulls wanted to tear the man’s eyes out, then send the water rats in to finish him off. There were other proposals, the robin’s call for peaceful negotiations, the owl’s for covert night maneuvers, the starlings started cracking jokes in the back. Sandy listened until everyone started to talk at once, and the black crow said that there wasn’t much time left and shook lemons from the tree to get everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand. But what was time to her? A jewel beetle made its way across the ceiling like a floating emerald. The faucet pondered a melody of drips. The shy gecko stalked a fringy centipede. He was time, time was his heartbeat, time was his breath.
“Fourscore and seven years ago,” the caterpillar began, “all beings were dedicated to the universal notion that every animal is created equal. We were highly resolved in those days to the proposition that the dead did not die in vain, but for the greater good of these woods. That was when,” the caterpillar swayed his body to the right with whiplike rhetorical force, “this place was divine.”
“It still is,” said the bear, who had an optimistic disposition and didn’t like anyone running down his home. He yawned, slumped against the tree stump. His bow tie was crooked, his hair matted with leaf bits and broken twigs, and he looked as if he were recovering from another drunken night.
“Don’t interrupt,” the caterpillar said, trying to look as large and dignified as possible. He gave a speech every day, but could tell that this was going to be a particularly good one. “It is for us, the animated, to be devoted to the work which they who fought on this hallowed ground here have so honorably advanced. For instance, we had in those days a family of fairies who could make a delicious casserole, using nothing but butternuts and tree bark.”
“I’m glad they’re gone,” said the bear, yawning more dramatically, hoping the caterpillar would get the message. All the other animals had already gotten bored and wandered off; only the bear was polite enough to listen. He had a bad reputation, as a rogue and a dandy, but his manners were exquisite. “That fairy, the one who made rose petal slippers, she was a horrible gossip.”
“Shut up!” shouted the caterpillar. “You’re making me forget what I’m saying.” He glanced down at his crib notes, etched onto an acorn beside him. “Whenever, if ever, we admit we are created by the four winds, our souls shall not perish from this earth.”
“Amen,” said the bear. “Is that it?”
“Yes,” said the caterpillar stiffly. “I got all fouled up because of your constant interjections.”
“It was a nice speech,” the bear said, “but I’m too tired to hear you practice it again.”
“Well I just might, and it’ll be all your fault!” the caterpillar screamed. He was already mad at the bear for drinking the last bottle of champagne. “It’s because of you that we need to raise money.”
“We could sell lemonade,” said the bear hopefully, “or paint some rocks? We could make seashell necklaces or weave pot holders, sell driftwood or the tail feathers birds drop onto the ground. I’ll collect aluminum cans—they’re all over the place—or I could give kindergarten students rides on my back. We could pick blackberries and sell them at a stand on the highway! I’ll make floral arrangements out of foxglove and milkweed. I bet they’d bring a pretty penny. I think I’m old enough now to baby-sit, to feed children Rice Krispies squares out of Tupperware containers and referee while the little boys wrestle. I’d be good to the little girls too, read them stories about unicorns and princes, about trolls with bad teeth and white hair … The troll comes in,” the bear said in his most evocative storyteller voice, “and sits on the edge of the bed. He holds a coffee cup filled with warm water to her parched lips. He’s whistling a tune and smiling, calling her his little darling, his baby girl. But the girl watches the zipper of his khaki pants. Inside his pants is a monster; the little girls in kindergarten told her that. Inside little boys’ pants was a monster like a worm.”
The air was a thick-petaled flower swarming with baby lizards crawling everywhere over the idiot grass: skinks and whiptails, chameleons twilling their minuscule dew flaps, hatching even now from a clutch of eggs. Just an inch long, they hunted insects, butterfly larvae and worms, baby crickets and katydids. They sounded like a trillion synchronized, reverberating rubber bands, but wetter and more mysterious. The troll spit a glob of marbled mucus into the weeds. The lumpy spit slid down a blade of fool’s wheat. Dung beetles and mayflies hatched from tiny gummy eggs, caterpillars spun branches together to make gray mummies, and moths, convinced the porch light was the moon, beat themselves to death against the bulb. She couldn’t think of what she was thinking; every few seconds she lost her way, her thoughts going on without her, being revealed behind a closed door, like when she waited outside her parents’ bedroom while they whispered inside. It made her feel like she was already back with the earth. Earwigs crawled over her arms, gnats chewed her ankles, horseflies bit her neck. She was no different than this aluminum lawn chair, the frame tilting to a dangerous degree, no different than the deformed oranges, than the nightshade gone to seed by the side of the house.
The troll put his pen down and got up, walked over, and pulled the afghan up to her shoulders, covering up her chest. He wheezed. “Smoking,” he said, rubbing his fat tongue over his rotten teeth. He moved one citronella candle, smelling of lemon and a needle’s prick, closer to her feet, carried the second back to his table and set it down, careful not to spill wax on his work. In the flame she saw auras of tiny handwriting on onionskin paper. The letters were square and uniform. They looked more like a pattern than characters in the alphabet, and there was a picture of Michael Jackson torn out of a magazine and framed with carefully drawn roses and thunderbolts, a blurry newspaper oval of the president with 666 written on his forehead and one of the Virgin Mary surrounded by swastikas. At the top of the page he was working on was a Polaroid of her. He must have taken it while she was sleeping. Underneath, he’d written, GIRL.
The troll was anxious. He used a toothpick to weed out corn kernels from his teeth, smoked cigarettes one off the end of the other, and reeked of fearful sweat like garbage trucks in summer, like bad Chinese food and smelly feet. He drove leaning forward, headlights off, trying to navigate like a moth by moonlight. The passage was tight, branches flicked against both sides of the van, and the mud road made oozy sounds. The party, Sandy decided, was for the turtle because she was 76. She wore false eyelashes made of spiders’ legs and a wreath of violets around her head, and the caterpillar, who was so much younger and always looking for bits of wisdom to improve his rhetoric, asked what she’d learned in life so far.
“Not to eat bad grass,” the turtle said.
They were sitting around the tree stump, drinking flat beer out of Styrofoam cups, and the bear, who’d found the precious liquid scattered among pieces of charred wood, seemed already a little drunk.
“Here, here,” he lifted his cup, “I’ll sing you a song … It was sad. It was sad. It was sad when the Titanic went down. Men and women lost their lives, even little babies died. It was sad when the Titanic went down.”
“Why are you always so gloomy?” asked the caterpillar. “This is a birthday party, not a funeral.”
The turtle looked depressed. Her husband had died not long ago and the funeral had been a fiasco. “Cheer up,” the bear said. “Today you’re 67.”
“76,” the caterpillar corrected him, “and remember what Lincoln said, ‘If this is coffee, I’ll have tea, if this is tea, I’ll have coffee.’”
The bear and the turtle looked at him blankly. “Could you explicate?” the bear asked.
“Oh, you know Abe,” the caterpillar said. “He was a nice man, though not always coherent.”
But there was nothing to be done; the turtle was depressed, the big barroom bags under her eyes sagged, and she got teary. “Looks like rain,” she said, glancing up at the sky.
“Yes,” the caterpillar nodded, “everyone make sure to stay away from the swing set because it attracts lightning. If you touch a door handle and it’s hot, never go into the hall; and if someone catches on fire, wrap them up quickly in a blanket. Don’t go in the water if you hear thunder and try not to be at the top of any trees. Put out all campfires with water and don’t throw your cigars into dry grass. Always watch out for stranger danger and be careful if you’ve had a big meal and feel light-headed and your blood turns into heavy cream. Don’t take any pills the troll gives you.”
The ones she’d taken earlier made it impossible to keep awake. Water moved against the shore in its white noise way and she heard a buzzing sound that at first she took for a fly inside the van, then a giant dragonfly hovering outside the passenger window, and then a speed-boat towing water-skiers. The back door swung open and bright light shone in her eyes. She felt her pupils quickly retract and she turned her head.
“You’ll like her,” the troll said. “She lies still.” Water licked the wooden poles of the dock, where blue crabs fed on algae and barnacles, and nobody said anything. They like me, she thought, because I lie still.
And a new voice said, “That’s Sandy Patrick.”
“Down here nobody will know the difference,” the troll said.
“What, are you crazy?” the man asked. “She’s on the news once a week.”
“You didn’t take the other one either,” the troll said bitterly.
“She was too old and he don’t like them to have tattoos,” the man said. And then the light was gone. The hue under her eyelids changed from orange to wavering black. She was four and had wet her bed again. They like me because I lie still. If the bed gets wet, throw the sheets on the floor, throw the afghan; then it will dry but the whole place will smell of urine. The man who owns this mattress puts water onto the bed. And it’s horrible to sit all night in a wet diaper, but if you wet your underwear just try to go before bed. They like me, Sandy thought, because I lie still.
“Bad luck,” the man said. He and the troll had walked around to the front of the van. “Call us if you got something we should know about.”
The troll got in and slammed the door, turned on the engine, glanced at her in the rearview window.
“Never put your finger in an electrical socket,” the caterpillar continued, “and look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t swim on a full stomach because you might get a cramp and watch out for swaying weeds at the bottom of the lake, because sometimes tendrils catch your feet and pull you down. Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom and don’t eat moldy bread. Never play with matches, hold sparklers at arm’s length and scissor blades together and pointing down, and never run at the pool. Don’t eat things you find in the medicine chest—it’s not food, it’s scientific—and always, always wear your seat belt.”
“Home again, home again,”the troll shouted with glee, “jiggidy-jiggidy-jiggidy-gee.”
Darcey Steinke’s first novel, Up Through the Water, was a New York Times Notable book of 1989, her second novel, Suicide Blonde, has been translated into seven languages. She is the editor, along with Rick Moody, of Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. Jesus Saves is due out from Grove/Atlantic this fall.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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