The king is dying and she should be there with him, attending to him somehow, or comforting the queen, who wouldn’t accept her comfort anyway, but, still. She should be at their sides instead of here in these woods looking for the old Hag. Or, not the Hag specifically, who was chased off the cliffs and fell to her death, or so it’s assumed, since nothing but her rain-soaked robes were found at the bottom of the chasm.
Not the Hag, then, but the Hag’s cottage.
Though let’s be honest. The old Hag’s cottage, after having lived there for sixteen years, is more to her than just the old Hag’s cottage.
She should be with the king, she knows. Weakened and wasting away. Going mad with pain, surrounded by strangers, apothecaries, clerics, magicians, and whatever other assortment of miracle workers sent for by the queen. But she also knows, or feels, or believes she feels, that if she can just find that cottage again, then everything else in her life will be set back to rights.
That she could have spent sixteen formative years of her life living in that cottage, living in these woods, and yet be unable to find it, even after almost a year of sneaking out of the castle to go in search of it, drives her to distraction.
Still, here she is, lost in the Darkening Woods yet again.
For a long time, she tried to get the animals of the Darkening Woods to tell her something about the Hag or the about the Hag’s cottage, but they’d stopped speaking to her. Not just that, but the birds and rabbits and turtles and deer had stopped gathering at her feet, as well. Had stopped bringing her baskets full of flowers or apples, had stopped draping bedsheets over her sleeping form in the middle of the night, had begun to act like birds and rabbits and turtles and deer normally act—frightened, in other words, and distrustful, blank-eyed and without intelligence or voice—which had depressed her, made her feel she had somehow offended or betrayed them, or that they had simply abandoned her, until she realized that the talking animals must have been nothing more than a side-affect of the potion that the Hag had used to drug her and, towards the end, wipe clean her memory.
Which, coming to this realization upset her even more, made her wonder what other memories of those years with the Hag and the cottage had been nothing more than a side-affect of the potions the Hag fed her hidden inside apples and cakes and gingerbreads. It made her wonder if there had been a cottage at all.
Maybe if she sings, she thinks. She lets out a few, croaky, warbly notes. Birds and squirrels overhead scatter and fly away.
She was supposed to be happy, saved from the wicked clutches of the old Hag who had abducted her only weeks after she’d been born. Happy to learn that she was a princess, not a peasant girl living in isolation in the Darkening Woods. Happy to learn the true origin of her birthmark, be reunited with family and friends and the six spirit sisters, who were supposed to watch over and protect her, though she’s become good at slipping out from their watchful eye. And she was happy, at first. The old Hag had become overbearing lately, and unreasonable. When she was a little girl, she and the old Hag had gone deep into the Darkening Woods to pick flowers and mushrooms, to converse with the woodland creatures, to bathe in the cool waters at the base of Forever Falls. But towards the end, she’d become paranoid, asking her where she was going, bolting the doors and windows, sprinkling protective powders around the cottage. Although, in the end, it seemed less like paranoia, with all the palace guards and the six spirit sisters with their powerful spells.
Anyway, she had been happy at first. But then, after a month, after two, the castle began to feel cold and big. Her father, the king, was nice enough, but seemed distracted by kingly affairs, and now, being sick and at death’s door, the sight of him confused her. She should be sad at his imminent death, being her father and the king, but all she can muster for him is pity and an urge to avoid looking at him. It shames her to admit, but when she is at the king’s side and is being watched—she is always being watched—and she feels the weight of expectations pressing down on her, she will think of the old Hag, will bring to mind the image of her falling from the cliffs, and that’s how she will summon tears for the king.
She sighs, or maybe it’s a sob. It’s no use. She is lost, hopelessly so, has been walking in circles for an hour now. She hikes up her dress and sits on the forest floor and waits. She waits for the old Hag’s cottage to magically appear before her, or for the old Hag herself to step mysteriously out of the darkness of the Darkening Woods, or for the king to die. She waits for something to happen to her, for anything to happen at all.
The way it started, well, the way it started was with Ricky, who up and lost his teeth. It was kind of a shock to us when it happened. We were sitting in Kevin’s living room playing Mario-Kart on the Wii when Ricky coughed and then coughed again and then couldn’t stop coughing for a full minute straight, and then, when he was done, he’d coughed every one of his teeth into the palm of his hand.
At first we gave him shit for playing a stupid fucking prank on us and what did he think, that we were still in high school, and then we gave him shit because, well, he looked goddamn funny with all those teeth in his hand and none of them in his mouth, and then he went blubbering home, leaving the teeth in an untidy pile on the carpet, which, at first, no one wanted to touch, not to throw away, because they’d been in Ricky’s mouth, but then, after twenty minutes or so, Joe picked them up and then tried standing them up on the coffee table like he was stacking playing cards into a house.
But that was Joe and Joe was always pulling that weird kind of shit.
And then we got tired of the Wii and so we drove around town busting mailboxes because why the hell not and then we egged Ricky’s apartment, because, again, why the hell not, that toothless fuck, and then we thought we’d spotted this hot chick walking down Palace Lane but when we pulled up to her and rolled down the window she turned out to be old as shit, so we yelled some shit at her and threw the egg carton out the window at her because we’d already run out of eggs, and then we found some old fuck crashed out on the sidewalk and we kicked the shit out of his face and we were going to set his shit on fire—cause it was our civic duty, mind you, to keep the streets clean for the kids and little old ladies and shit—but someone came up on us and started hollering, and so we had to chase his ass for a while, and then we got back to the old fuck but he was gone, so we drove off and crashed out at Kevin’s house and then a couple of hours later woke up—hungover as shit and maybe still a little drunk—to Kevin, screaming his fucking head off on account of how he’d woken up to take a piss and then caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror and saw there how all the hair on his head had fallen clean out and all the hair on his fucking back and shoulders had grown up like some kind of goddamn crab grass.
And sure we felt bad for him but we were a little drunk still, too, and the look of him was funny as shit, and then we saw more hair start sprouting out of the lower part of his back and maybe that creeped us out a little, because seeing that shit happen is weird, and so we grabbed him and pinned him down and shaved the shit out of him, except for Joe of course who fucking pranced around and giggled like a fucking little girl until we were done, when he started scooping up all that hair off the floor and tried piecing it back onto Kevin’s fucking head.
Which was weird, I’ll grant you, but funny, too.
And then we went back to sleep—all except Kevin who maybe got knocked on the head a couple of times while we shaved him, and so had been asleep, more or less, already—and that’s when shit really went downhill, first with Brandon, who nearly choked on his own fucking tongue as it swelled up inside his own fucking mouth, and then Geoff, whose whole fucking body seized up like a plank and who might’ve in fact died—we weren’t sure—and then Mickey who couldn’t see a damn thing out of his damn eyes, and then Joe, even Joe, laughing his ass off at every new development, Joe sat there on the couch giggling like a fool while he watched his fingernails start to grow and grow and grow, and the skin on his hands become dried and wrinkled, and as we watched—those of us left to watch any goddamn thing—he became an old and frail thing right before our eyes, and he was giggling, still, couldn’t shut his fucking mouth, but his voice had changed, had become an old man’s rasp, and the shape of him had twisted into an old man’s shape, and then he keeled over, dead, too, maybe, I don’t know because I didn’t stick around to find out because then I ran, I ran like holy fuck, and I haven’t stopped running since, and whoever or whatever that was, it will have to do better to catch my fat ass.
It was supposed to be a metaphor. We are our own unmakers. The agents of our own unraveling, except maybe not that since an unraveling would have implied knots, or scarves, or something like that. But not just about an unmaking, because under all of that also about how we are piecing ourselves back together. And deeper still, even deeper under all of that, a nod to self discovery through self dismantling.
He’d done it before, in other words.
He wasn’t a complete idiot.
He’d done it plenty of times before.
Not a piano, okay, so not a piano. But a microwave oven, and one time a pocket watch. Shit. A pocket watch was way more complicated than a piano.
And it seemed easy enough, the taking it apart part. That was the trick. If it was easy to take apart, if it didn’t take too much to suss out how to dismantle a thing, then he was ninety-nine percent sure he could put it back together. It was a process of reversal. (Another piece of the metaphor, you could say.)
What he liked most were the shocked looks—he couldn’t see them but he could feel them exchanged behind his back—the soft moans, the gasps, and the anger. People wouldn’t admit it afterwards, but there were always tinges of anger. The blustery kind of man anger, and the steely, quiet kind of woman anger—low-boiling and hot. He would unpiece a thing down to its tiniest pieces and then he would start his talk.
We are the ones standing in our own goddamn way.
We are but simple machines.
We are the root of our own problems, the weed growing in our gardens.
He would talk his talk and he would fuss with the pieces he’d just unpieced, and he would fuss a little more and stumble in his talk and he would fuss a little more. It was an act, of course, the fussing with, the stumbling in. He was like a magician, redirecting, sleight-of-handing. He kept little bits of metal in his pocket—washers and screws and random looking ingots—that he knew didn’t match anything and he would make these the focus. Focus all their attentions on these random bits of metal while he pieced back together the microwave oven, the pocket watch, the antique Underwood, pieced back together whole and like new and, with the Underwood, whose ‘7’ didn’t work, better than, all right under their noses.
And perfectly timed.
Always perfectly timed to dovetail with: We need to take apart in order to put back together.
Then the surprise, then the laughter, and then the applause.
But not a piano, okay, so not a piano, but what, then?
He couldn’t put the piano back together and, what, all that other stuff, all the other shit he said time after time, all of that didn’t mean a damn thing all of a sudden, his words, his ideas, and these fucking bastards with their crudites and their flutes of sparkling wine, these fuckwits didn’t see the importance of what he was talking about, didn’t see that there were true things happening in front of their goddamn eyes, couldn’t, couldn’t see that in front of their very eyes a wise man was offering truths, age-old but forgotten truths, could only see that the piano was still in pieces, could only grab him by his shirt-collar, could only spit in his face while they yelled at him about the piano that had been someone’s grandmother’s piano, the only relic saved from the aftermath of Kristallnacht, and didn’t they realize that this was entirely the goddamn point, that our things have come to own us and not the other way around, that we do not own the things we own but that these things are the owners of us? The owners of us? Ownerus? Had become our onerous?
Then it started to rain.
And that should have been the end of the story. I mean, it’s an iconic image, right? Arms raised high in celebration for coming to certain terms with life, overcoming certain obstacles, reaching revelatory conclusions about yourself and your way forward, an understanding that now everything has changed, and then, mid-raise, mid-celebration, a sharp and clean and cleansing rain falls?
It’s a classic, as far as story-enders go.
Way more classic, say, than the extemporaneous and unexpected speech before a large crowd of skeptic peers who, by the end of said speech, are converted by the protagonist’s sound and witty and revelatory words, not to mention by her gumption and courage displayed in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
And don’t get me started on the sudden realization that the ‘friend’ who’s been by your side this whole time also turns out to be the person—boy or girl—who loves you for the person you are and not the person you are trying to become in order to be loved and who you realize, almost a beat too late, you also love, though you have been, until this final moment, blind to the breadth and power of this love.
That one, that one’s a classic, sure, but do any of us ever believe that shit?
Too many times, she had been burned way too many times to fall for that one again.
And she wasn’t much of a public speaker, trust me, she’d tried a couple of times but to no good effect. And the version where the mentor stands up at the end to offer a stirring account of the protagonist in order to offer a deeper understanding of this oft-misunderstood outcast? Don’t hold your breath waiting for that one that happen, either. She can tell you that and you can put that in your hat or take it to the bank or whatever you want to do with it.
The thing was, it had started to rain and she hadn’t even been expecting it, hadn’t even primed herself for this to be the end of her story. But now that the end of her story was here—and she didn’t want to sound ungrateful, mind you—she felt a little underwhelmed by it all. Not by the moment itself, of course. I mean. Then it started to rain. It’s a classic. She might have slightly preferred, They kissed, and then it started to rain, over, She raised her arms high into the air, and then it started to rain. But still. Beggars and choosers and whatnot.
But. What had happened, really? She’d left her lame and somewhat dumb boyfriend, kind of. He still had all her things in his apartment. Their apartment. Jesus. She’d have to find a new apartment and then go back and get her stuff from the old apartment and that didn’t sit well. She’d quit her stifling, dead-end job, but not with any dramatic flair and now that she thought of it, she wondered if she could get that job back because now she needed to find an apartment, too, and rent was not cheap. Not to mention, when you looked real close at these ideas she had of her creative self that she felt strongly enough to leave her job over, they weren’t very clearly outlined.
It all seemed, if you took stock of the situation, just so unsatisfying.
Not that it was her job to decide when her story ended, not that she was the one in charge of that sort of thing. Just that, well, she had expected more. Out of the end of her story, or maybe out of the story itself.
She shrugged, or she didn’t really shrug, because that might have broken this final image of her standing, arms raised to the falling rain, so: mentally. She mentally shrugged. And then she waited. She waited for everything to end.
Here is how it works: her brother brings them in. She pretends, at first, that she doesn’t see them, that she doesn’t see anything.
She has always had that look, far away and distant and from another time. When they first started this, they paled up her skin, thinking that more ghostly would be more convincing, but, after a few dry runs, they decided that that pale was too pale, and it made the marks suspicious.
The ones who don’t believe her, who think she is a scam, but a fun and entertaining one and why not pay the five dollars?, believe that she traffics in generalities, banal statements of fame and fortune or tragedy and pain that could apply, really, to just about anyone. Or they believe that she is at the head of an entire network of scam artists, which includes that chatty woman selling beads and knick-knacks down the road, and the bodega guy who sells roasted corn, the bartender in the only bar in this six block stretch, and the kid selling Coca-Cola and ice cream bars out of a white plastic cooler, that they are all working for her, feeding her information, passing along secret signals about what couple is ripe for the picking, where they are from, who they long to hear from again, what they long for her to tell them. Some of them think that she tells them only what she thinks they want to hear, stories of success or fame or happiness or fulfillment, while others think that it’s her brother who is the scam artist and that she is simply one of his pawns, that he’s pulling all the strings and making all the predictions and suckering all the tourists.
Here is how it works: her brother brings them inside. Even before any of them—the marks, her brother—step inside, she begins to write, and she writes and she writes, and when she’s done, she steps back and waits for them to ask her what it all means. She doesn’t know what it all means, but she reads it to them anyway, everything she has written. She doesn’t know where it comes from or what it all means or whether it is true or a lie, whether it makes sense to them or not, and she doesn’t care.
All that she cares about is that she will write and write, until there is nothing left, and then she will read what she has written, and that no matter what she cannot stop.
Frank, His Bride
She had invited him to her place in Bushwick. He thought it was going to be just him. She invited him to see a new project she was working on. She was an artist. He was in love with her, had been for ages. We might as well get that out there right now. But there was a crowd of people in her tiny apartment and pouring out into her tiny backyard and he wasn’t tiny at all.
Some of them were people he knew but a lot of them weren’t. He had always been self-conscious around the people he didn’t know. The scars on his face and his arms, not to mention on his chest and back and legs, too, but nobody saw those. Still, considering what they could see. Well. He wasn’t blind. He had two eyes. Two different but very good eyes. He knew what he looked like. Discolored and mismatched.
He hadn’t spent all those years hidden from civilization for the fun of it.
Walking around the city or riding the subway, it was easy for people to overlook him, or look right through him without ever seeing him. But here, in such a small space? At a party? Well. You didn’t expect to find the homeless masturbating guy from the R train to show up at your friend’s apartment in Bushwick, was the thing, and when he did, you tended to notice.
Not that Frank was the homeless masturbating guy from the R train, but you get the point.
Sometimes, when he stepped into a scene like this his overwhelming urge was to point at someone obviously beautiful and yell, Hey, who invited the monster.
So far, he’d been able to tamp that impulse down.
It was a waiting game at these sorts of things. People who didn’t know him or had maybe only seen him in the neighborhood were horrified—who wouldn’t be?—and they tried to catch each others’ eyes and sooner or later they caught the eyes of someone who knew—or thought they knew—and slowly the story was passed around. Disfiguring disease. Rare form of elephantiasis. Or, whatever.
The looks of horror would melt first into shame and then pity and then brighten into a crisp kind of pride. They were enlightened and hadn’t judged and had seen right away that there must have been more to him. Why else would he have been here? And by then his situation, the sheer grotesquery of him, had become their badge, their triumph.
His only consolation was that it was all a lie.
The disease they thought he had. A lie.
He didn’t have any disease, except maybe the disease of life.
Or, rather, of dead flesh reanimated—on a cold and rainy night by a sudden flash of lightning—into some grotesque, misunderstood facsimile of life.
He stood in line for the keg. People in front of him, sensing his presence, shuffled out of the way, and then a beer was in his hand. He nodded, grunted. He was doing his best not to let on—to himself, anyway—just how disappointed he was that there were so many people here.
New art. My house. Nobody else will get it but u.
That was the text she’d sent him.
Nobody else but u.
Those were the words that made a thrill pass through his otherwise thrill-proof flesh.
He wanted to leave. He couldn’t leave now, though. Leaving usually caused as much a scene as arriving did, and he didn’t want all the whispering and gossip about what the hell had happened to his face, why his arms didn’t look like they matched, why the pieces of him all looked so, well, pieced together—he didn’t want any of that to take away from her thing, whatever that thing was.
Something about a bride, he overheard from two women standing to his left.
His heart sank. He’d be damned if he came out all this way, suffered through the stares and the whispers, all for this to turn out to be some strange, elaborate, artistic engagement party.
You don’t think? the other woman asked, then raised her hand, pointed to her ring finger.
No way, the first woman said. She caught Geoff—and here she made the international sign for fucking—that whore, Rachelle. Then she nodded across the yard where stood, presumably, the whore in question.
Anyway, she continued. Not her style.
She shrugged. All I know is she bought, like, ten gallons of squid ink.
He moved away, tired of the conversation, of all the conversations.
The Bride. Squid ink. Who knew. He was happy enough knowing Geoff had screwed up and this wasn’t an engagement thing.
Frank finished his beer.
He looked around. He waited for it all to start. And then there was a bang, and then there was a scream, and then he turned, and there was she.
Even as he sat there looking at her, her arms thrown herky-jerky over her head, her legs up so high her dress slipped down her thighs, even sitting there admiring her, he knew he should have taken a picture of her, of that moment.
Then someone else showed up and she stood up and hugs were passed around and the moment was over and for the rest of the afternoon he hardly saw her.
The next day they drove down to San Antonio. She wanted to see the Alamo. He’d tried to tell her it was a joke, that there was nothing there to see, he tried to prepare her for the disappointment, but she didn’t care. She wanted to see the Alamo and then walk along the River Walk and eat over-priced, underseasoned food. Drink drinks that were too sweet. Watch the families walking along the river pushing their strollers, wrangling their kids.
After the Alamo, she bought him a tank-top. It was light blue. On the front, above a faint, light-pink image of Texas and some palm trees and the Texas flag, written in rainbow graffiti was, Texas Native, and then, in script underneath all of that, If you ain’t one, you be wishin’ you was. She made him wear it over his regular shirt for the rest of the day and at first he was self-conscious about it and then later, much later, he saw himself in the mirror and was surprised it was there, surprised that he had forgotten all about it.
Then they walked around the River Walk and he bought her some cheesecake. Later, he bought her a margarita.
The whole day, though, he kept thinking back to that moment. He kept thinking back to how he wished he’d taken that picture before everything went wrong.
It had been a perfect moment. Or even if the moment hadn’t been perfect itself, it would have looked like a perfect moment, and those, even those are hard to come by. But now it was too late and everything was going to go wrong and he would have missed it, his opportunity to document a rightness in it all.
He looked at her sitting across from him drinking her margarita. Nothing about that looked right. Her straw, even her straw, the way it was pinched between her lips, the way she didn’t use her hands to hold it or the glass, how her hands were held somewhere under the table, in her lap or at her side, just hanging at her side. That looked awful, just awful.
He felt the urge to stand up. To stand up and walk around to her side of the table and put her hands in place, reposition her hands, place them on the table at least, but best to have one holding the glass, the other holding the straw, held four, maybe five inches from her face, her lips pouting as if she was about to take a sip or had just taken a sip. He wanted to set her right, put her back into some kind of right, good position, just to see it, another perfect moment, even though he didn’t have his camera, even though it wouldn’t matter, even though he would he would do all that work only to lose it in a second.
All the time, I would see her, like, every day, this woman, dressed all in black or sometimes, like, a gray, a dark gray. The trail—the hike and bike—ran right past my house and every morning, there she’d be. Walking. I don’t know what she was doing there. I mean, I don’t know why she was living in our little suburb. She wasn’t the only one, of course. They’d opened up a whole goddamn mosque a year before, and a couple of new Indian food places. Not that she was Indian. I know that she wasn’t Indian. You don’t have to tell me she wasn’t Indian. I don’t know what she was but I know she wasn’t any kind of Indian lady. Those ladies don’t cover up so much, even if sometimes they should cover up more of themselves than they do.
Anyway, so I’d see her all the time, and I’d think to myself, as any normal god-fearing, respectable kind of guy would, I wonder what she’s hiding under there. That’s what everybody thinks. Don’t tell me it’s not. And I’ve got a pretty wife, much like you’d expect, and I look at her when I get home and I see her in her pretty little dresses or sometimes her curvy little jeans, and I think, that’s fine, that’s good. I know what I’ve got is a good thing. But then I think, sometimes I think, I wonder what she’s hiding under there—not my wife but the other lady—and then I think, What would Jennie look like under one of those. What would I do if I came home and found Jennie under one of those things. Or if all the time except for bedtime that’s all I could see her in. I’d tell, of course I’d tell her to take it off. I mean, what the hell is she trying to pull with that shit, but also I’d wonder about her, think about her in that get up. I’d want to know, What she’s hiding under there. I’d want to know that even though I already know that. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Because, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Not. Well, maybe it’s not the point of that big black cloak that lady wears or the mask, or, whatever, not a mask, I don’t know. What is it? A veil, I guess. I mean, that’s probably not the point of that kind of get up, but I could see my wife, like, if she didn’t think I was noticing her as much, enough, I can see her doing something like that. Maybe in the opposite direction, with some frilly little thing at night, or with something to do with her hair, making her hair purple (it happened). The point I’m making, what I’m trying to say is, I can see how this kind of thing might work. Not the purple hair, maybe. I mean. I noticed it but wasn’t happy about it. It didn’t make me wonder, What’s she hiding under there, in other words. It made me wonder other things, but not that. Anyway, we can all see how this could work, this thing, is the point I’m trying to make.
You feel sometimes like people don’t notice you, don’t see you, or they see you and think they know all there is to know about you, and that’s just the same as not seeing you at all, but then showing more of you doesn’t ever seem to work, and so what are you left? I mean. I’m just trying to get you to see it the same way I’m seeing it.
In any case, I didn’t know where you were supposed to buy this sort of stuff, the full-body wrap stuff, so I kind of put some shit together. A costume store, some drapes, some heavy black drapes. My wife’s eyeliner. It wasn’t hard. I mean. It was hard to make it look right, look even close to right, but it wasn’t hard to do. Doing it was pretty easy. Then I took a picture—one of the old cameras because of the timer and because I didn’t want Jennie to find it by accident on my phone or the digital camera. To be honest, I took a few pictures. And then I took all that shit off and threw the drapes away. I spent a hundred dollars on them and then just fucking threw them away. But now I have this. I have this thing now, and why shouldn’t I. Why shouldn’t I be able to look at this thing and wonder, What’s under all of that.