The vultures drifted in a clockwise circle overhead. High, high up, near the clouds, another bird rode in from the right.
Janet was sitting on the lip of a clearing, chilled to the bone. Her thoughts were taking a long time to clear. Her thoughts were as thick as the mist had been, the night before, when she drove faster than she could see on the way to her stepfather’s house, and hit something.
There’d been fog puddling in the dark, and a moment, a thrilling moment, when the car dipped into the unexpected nest of fog, falling into the smoky whiteness of it, and then that thrup of contact and she hit the brakes, trying to do it slowly enough so she wouldn’t skid.
She’d gotten out of the car and started walking back slowly, her hands swimming out in the black and white of the fog, trying to find him (she assumed it was a man).
The moon slit through the mist just long enough for her to see a shoe in the road, and then it all shut tight again.
She paused and then decided to go back to the car. Maybe she could turn it around and shine some light on the road. She had turned it off automatically when she stopped.
She made a false step in the darkness, maybe even two steps, and stumbled off the road and couldn’t stumble back. It was insane; how hard could it be to turn around and undo a thing as simple as a step? She veered to left and right, forward and backward, her outstretched hands encountering trees, her stumbling feet twisting on rocks and rotted branches and unforgiving holes.
Till, abruptly, she stopped, thinking it was suicide to continue this way, blindly. That was what her stepfather, Artie, had always told her—people die because they get lost because they can’t wait, because they’re dumb. He had said this complacently, blinking his slow bovine blink, beer in hand.
He had been left with Janet just eleven months after marrying her mother. A surprise to the two of them, that. Janet had barely adjusted to the latest change in her life—to the hairy, thick, solid presence of a stepfather—when he was all she had. And he hadn’t been overjoyed, either. She had a clear mental snapshot in her head: A day or two after her mother’s burial. Twilight. He sat on the sofa, hunched forward, his hands clasped. He’d just come back from a long walk—he always lunged down roads with his head down, walking too fast, his eyes on his feet. Even sitting down, he breathed heavily.
She rolled the image of him away. She carefully placed the heel of her right foot to the toe of her left foot. Her arms airplaned out, and she carefully proceeded until she realized that going straight, if it was in the wrong direction, was just as dumb as Artie had described.
She bent down, deciding to feel her way this time. Maybe if she swept her hands on the ground she could feel the road again.
After a while, she stopped. She would have to wait. Artie always complained that no one could wait. She felt for a tree, and cleared the brush and leaf litter around it, and sat with her back against the trunk. In no time at all she was asleep, and then it was light and she woke up and everywhere she looked there were trees. No sight or sound of cars, no human noise—just birds and the faint rustle of small things on leaves.
She took what looked like a deer path—faint and winding through the undergrowth. She trudged on and saw an opening through the crowns of the trees and hurried forward. A small declivity; a pond. She sat down and tried to think of a plan, but she had none. This was not the situation for plans.
It was on this thought that she saw the slow progression of the vultures—now seven of them, five clockwise and two counter—and it occurred to her that they were casually following some creature who was wounded or dying.
Could it be the man she’d hit the night before, crawling on a parallel course to her own?
It must be. She was convinced of it. All she had to do was follow around the edge of the pond, through the trees, and catch up with the birds. She sprang up, restored to a purpose, and made her way along the side of the water.
When she reached the other side she found a path and down it she could see the wheel of birds disappearing over the trees. She moved along, never seeming to catch up and surprised by this: If she were truly following the wounded, crawling man, surely she would be faster?
The little path became wider and less cluttered and she began to believe that she was getting away from the worst of the woods. Soon there would be a road, and cars, and houses.
It was a little disappointing to find just one house—a cottage, or most realistically, a hut—at the end of the path. Other trails radiated from it. She knocked on the door and a thick, ugly man opened it, smelling of leather and sweat and said, “No visitors today!” and shut the door.
This made her furious. “ A man’s been hurt!” she cried and beat the door again.
“Who is it then,” the man asked through the door. “How badly hurt?”
“Open the door.”
“If I open it, you’ll come in. I don’t want you in.”
This was insulting. “I promise I won’t come in then,” she said finally.
The door was half-opened, and the man’s ugly face peered at her with disappointment. “Oh all right then. You can come in.”
He had a pile of bones in the corner: chicken bones or rabbit bones, she thought. Some had gristle or sinews drying on them like leather straps.
He followed her eyes. “I make bone soup in the winter, when I’m snowed in deep. No one delivers this far in the woods.” He laughed, pleased with himself. “So where’s this man who’s hurt?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I hit something on the road last night—it was so dark I couldn’t see, but I found his shoe before I got lost—“
“His shoe?” He wiggled his feet self-consciously.
And indeed his shoes didn’t match; one was quite old and gray and the other was polished and new.
“I find things,” he said. “Go on.”
“I spent the night in the woods and in the morning I saw vultures wheeling around and I thought they were following the man I hit, so I followed them and they led me here.”
He frowned. “I didn’t see them.”
She was silent. “How do I get back?’ she asked finally.
“I know how I would do it,” he said thoughtfully. “But how would you do it? I take that trail there,” he said, crossing in front of her to open the door, “and go out that path there, see, until you cross another path and go to the right to the pile of rocks and over a hill to a burnt-out stump and then shout your name—I always do—and start running.” He nodded, satisfied with the directions.
She felt blank-faced and he saw it, and began laying out a map in small bones. At the end, she saw that all the bones were all connected, for he picked up one and they all came together, and he stacked them and then shook them out, and they fell very neatly into place. “You see?” he said. “Now be gone before I change my mind.” His face became ferocious and his breath began to foul the room.
She grabbed the stack of bones, holding her own breath, and ran outside as the ugly man slammed the door behind her.
She stopped at the center of all the trails.
She could take the trail she thought he meant, or she could ignore his advice and choose to go her own way—for, really, why would she trust him? That was another thing Artie had said, that the problem with modern life was that they’d lost all cunning, all of it.
By then, when Artie had dropped that remark like a tip to an outstretched hand, it was a house of loud breathing—his entrances and exits punctuated by door slams, and in between the sound of his breath. She could stand at the front door when she came in, listening, and know which room he was in.
“That’s getting creepy,” he said finally. “Do you know you go around all tippy-toe and eavesdrop on nothing? Little spider,” he said hesitantly, trying to be affectionate. “Little spider.” He waited for her to say something, then gave up and turned on the TV.
When she got old enough to date, he scowled at her and said, “If they touch you, tell me. If you touch them, I don’t wanna know.” He nodded, his usual way of ending the conversation.
Once, they had danced. It was a father-daughter dance given by the church he’d felt she should belong to. She was mystified by it—why would they have a dance for fathers and daughters?
But he was determined to show her real dances, and she went along with it—why not—only to discover his secret. He had a soul.
When the first slow dance came on the stereo, he tilted his head to her, grabbed her hand, and led her onto the living room floor. She was slight but tall and her chin fit his shoulder as he guided her into place. His hand rested in the small of her back, an odd and pleasing sensation. That hand had the ability to direct her so that she believed she had a natural instinct. She didn’t trip or step on toes and each successful step made her relax even more. They did a faster dance, and he did a two-step that raced across the water, then a waltz, a lindy, a two-step again. That hand on her back glowed through her dress; she could predict his every move by the pressure of those fingertips and by the skin of her own back, which became increasingly tactile and responsive.
She could feel her back sweat—though she didn’t know whether it was her sweat or his.
That night she fell in love.
She decided to take the path the ugly man had indicated but as she went along she began to wonder if she had allowed herself to be fooled. Her steps slowed.
She got to the first branch of the road, squatted down, and threw the bones, which jittered and then fell in the same pattern she’d seen in the hut. They were white and off-white and she bent lower to look at them.
She touched them with the tip of her finger and then laid her finger on the ground beside them.
They were finger bones. Very clearly finger bones. The strips of sinew on some of them, she suddenly realized, were skin.
She sat back in alarm, unsure of her own thoughts. Artie would say she was fooling herself, letting her imagination do things. He had no patience for imagination.
She would leave the bones behind, she thought; she was reluctant to touch them. Whose fingers were these? Why had the ugly man allowed her to escape, if they were fingers? She closed her eyes, rubbing them with her own fingers. She was lost. The bones showed some kind of direction and for all she knew it could be the right direction. If she got nowhere, she would have to rely on the bones. Reluctantly, she gathered them up and put them in her pocket, chose a trail, and began again.
When she got to high school, Artie started to date again. Maybe he’d always been dating, sneaking out after she’d gone to sleep. But finally he began to bring them home to meet her.
She smiled cheerfully. Artie was a homely man; she was sure they wouldn’t stay. He became beautiful when he danced, but he didn’t dance with them right away.
Janet dressed young when they came over, modest, high-buttoned shirts, her hair brushed and parted, flat shoes. She was eager to set and clear the table, called the women “ma’am,” smiled cheerfully and often, and left discreetly after dinner was done.
The living room had two doorways and Artie always sat facing the doorway to the stairs; his date always sat facing the doorway into the dining room. Janet would give them a half-hour, and then she would strip down to her nude-colored underwear, go to the doorway he couldn’t see, and say, “I think I’ll go up to bed, Daddy. Will you come kiss me goodnight?” She always caught the eye of the woman, who usually stared at her for a moment then looked away. Only one had exclaimed, “Do you always walk round like that?” but Janet had ducked before Artie had turned, and she’d told him later she was in a slip.
She did what she could to keep him alone until she was old enough to claim him.
Occasionally—not too often—she asked for dancing lessons, and her heart would beat in a way it did no other time, and she’d fight to catch her breath as he placed his hand on her back, spun her with his hand on her hip, clutched her fingers in his quick fist, adjusted her position with knowing little taps, dizzying her even further.
The boys she tried to dance with were stiff and awkward and embarrassed. She hissed at them.
It was growing dark and she was afraid she would spend another night leaning against a tree when the path crossed another and there were two signs pointing in opposite directions. One said Old Mine Road; the other said Office. She looked up and there were no birds, but if the injured man had gotten this far she was sure he’d head for the office, so she took that road.
Within minutes she came up to a large building, windows all lit up, and people clearly visible inside. There were levels with patios and balustrades, on which people walked and talked and pointed out the scenery She knocked at the front door and when no one responded, opened it and walked in.
The room was cavernous and well-lit, and everyone was beautifully dressed, which made Janet feel even dirtier than she was. She saw a middle-aged woman look in her direction, so she went over and asked if there was a phone. The woman turned away.
Janet asked another and another, but no one replied or even looked at her directly. She hurried through the halls, her heart racing, but no one acknowledged her. She went through anterooms and sitting rooms and up and down stairs, but not once did anyone speak to her or turn towards her. When she put out her hand to touch someone, they ducked accurately. She began to grab them, and she could tell that they felt it, because they grimaced. She pushed one or two, setting them off balance, and then she pinched them or pulled their hair or took the glasses out of their hands, incensed at their behavior.
“Why are you doing this?” she yelled into one woman’s ear, even causing a curl near her neck to move., but they all refused to hear her as well.
She raced around, picking up glasses and vases and plates and cutlery, hurling them at windows, thrilling to the sounds they made. She wished she could shatter their hearts instead. She raced faster and faster, down hallways and in and out of rooms. Even when she passed mirrors she saw that their eyes were not sneaking a glance at her; even in mirrors they refused to see her.
It was dark when she reached the outside and stood, glaring back at the house. She saw them rubbing their arms as the air rushed in through the shattered windows. Not one of them looked her way.
She stumbled off on the path away from the house; the night was moon-lit, the great white luminous face in the sky looking away from her as well, but against its brilliance she saw the birds circling, their slow hypnotic wheel the only message she had.
On her graduation day, Artie told Janet that he was going to be married. She was welcome to stay at home, he told her, very welcome. But things had changed.
His intended stood off to the side, discreetly giving them privacy, and Janet watched her as Artie spoke. Janet had her face under control. She didn’t know who she hated more between the two of them. But hate wasn’t the issue; betrayal was. He hadn’t waited for her. She smiled at both of them and said she had been thinking of going to California, anyway. She left before the wedding, claiming she had a job. For years after that she called dutifully on the right occasions, and sent cards, and bided her time. And then, finally, her stepmother died, and she was free to come home.
She finally saw that the trees were thinning out. It was the road! She hugged herself and did a little dance in celebration. All she had to do was find the car—or even wait for a car to come—and she could put this horrible experience behind her.
If she’d hit a man, let him be where he fell, finally. She had followed him for two days out of kindness—or guilt, it didn’t matter which. It seemed intentional on his part that he hadn’t stopped, hadn’t had the decency to wait to be found. She could have been home long ago if he had.
There it was again, that radiant moon now low in the sky, resting on the treetops and about to slide into the road itself. She walked towards the moon, exceptionally haunted and beautiful as it created a scene in black and white like artwork on the road, shadows where birds slid their way through the etched stacked lines of trees.
The road rose and fell gently ahead of her, so that even in the brilliance of the light she could see only a stretch, and then a farther stretch. She saw the first vulture land at the top of the rise and then another, and then they all arranged themselves in two rows facing away from her.
They hopped, one on the left, one on the right, then the one behind it on the left, and so on, so there was a constant rippling movement. The birds were intent on something, and she felt an urgent need to catch up to them before they reached it.
The first pair of birds had made it to the crest of the rise, and their hops were making them disappear from the feet up as they began to descend the other side.
Janet broke into a run. As she reached the top she could see a man’s shape in the road, in the pocket of the rise, his face hidden from her as the birds surrounded him, head and foot and either side. She could see the wrinkles on their naked heads, and the way they were considering the man in the road intently.
She reached him and sank to her knees. The birds hopped up to her elbow companionably. One bent down to grab hold of the buttons on the man’s jacket, pulling with open-eyed determination.
She threw out her arm to swat at the bird, and it lifted up a little and then rested nearby again, slowly beginning its hop toward the figure on the ground.
Two birds simultaneously bent down, spread their wings a little, and opened their beaks.
She reached into her pocket and brought out the string of bones and whirled them overhead and down the road. The action made them shuffle in dismay, then the bones began to arrange themselves in the road, and the movement drew the birds away. They hopped down the road, their eyes keen for the bones, which hopped as well, farther and farther away.
The jacket was familiar; the back of the head was familiar; the man was familiar even in the dark, even after twenty years. She turned him gently over and said, “Artie,” and watched his eyes flicker open and then close.
His face was lined, his hair was white, the jacket looked too big for him; he had lost size. But in the moonlight he was also glorious.
She took his hand, brown and mottled and warm. She felt young again; she kissed the palm, at which his eyes half-opened to see her, staring vaguely.
She pulled his hands forward to get him to sit up, then put those hands around her neck, hoisting him to his feet. He leaned heavily against her and she staggered backwards, then got her balance. His head lolled on her shoulder, his hands hung down loosely; she bore his weight on her chest.
Carefully, she took his left hand and intertwined it with her right hand, pulling it up to her lips. She kissed his hand and then licked his wrist. She tasted dirt, mostly.
His hands more than anything were beloved; she had missed them, the feel of their weight on her waist, on her shoulders. Her heart pounded with anticipation, she felt a sweet, sweet warmth flood through her and she lifted his arm up and over her shoulder. She did the same with his other arm, so that his hands hung down to her shoulder blades, touching them as she moved.
Because she did move. She began to walk backward, intent on going somewhere, anywhere, now that she had him. This clumsy maneuvering reminded her of the first lessons he had given her, how awkward she had been. She was even more awkward now, and he began to slip from her as she moved backwards; his legs simply didn’t function.
She wrapped her arms under his armpits and dragged him a few yards. To have him this close, to touch his skin; these things were magnificent.
The moon was slipping down behind the road but as it did so it loomed at her so brilliantly she could see the valleys and shadows on its face and it seemed benevolent. It wanted to stay and light her way. She followed it, keeping his weight shifting, jerking along slowly, his hand tapping her back as if setting a rhythm. She slipped her hand through his other hand, their fingers interlaced. She could feel the delicate bones beneath the skin of his fingers.
She didn’t blame him for marrying, for she had the purity of purpose to wait, and right now, as she guided him down the road into the brilliance of the moon, on her way to find the car so she could take him home, wash his face, lie him down in bed and then, magnificent, crawl in next to him, at last able to place all of her skin next to all of his skin—the white white white of the moon solicited from her a purity of resolution and a peace at what she had, finally, gained.
Along into the moonlight she moved, gently leading him, her hands warming him as she adjusted and guided him, the soft rustle of the branches sounding to her ears like the murmurs of guests, far off and lightly laughing, as the band struck up its first sounds.