From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Soon:

The baby dreams furious dreams. She kicks like she’s running from something. Toward something.

#

Now:

She grows fast. In the span of a few weeks, Lily goes from a little girl with match cards on the floor to a beautiful young woman copying Whitman on the walls of her refrigerated room with a black marker, I swear I think there is nothing but immortality. She taps on the walls, more impatient every day, she writes her want on the door. Every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me.

#

Then:

A baby grew from the apple tree in the backyard last spring. Not quite a baby; a little shrunken fetus that was maybe only two or three months along. It had sort of a potato shape to it, but a potato with itty-bitty arms—more like fins—a head that bloomed away from the rest of the body, and little nubby legs. You see variations in growth if you spend as much time in the garden as I do—King Kong watermelons or blow horn cucumbers (I especially like the grapes that grow in between the vines, and get this curvy, pinched shape to them. Hips)—but I know it was a baby, and not some freak of nature because another one fell from the tree this summer. It was bigger, and more like a real baby. I made out fingers on her hands. It was a her. Easy to see. I made out her eyes. They’re not worm holes. A mouth, that opened and drew breath.

#

Now:

I only let her out for sun. Even then I make her wear a jacket. Someone will see; her color gets better every day, but it’s still a little green. She looks sick, but she’s not. She’s rounder, fuller all the time; at first she was sour, easy to spoil. Now she shades toward a beautiful red. Her hair drapes down over her eyes and the back of her head in just two or three green, velvety leafs, so I cut it short, Audrey Hepburn short, and it looks kind of nice. She looks like a James Jean painting. Sometimes I think I’m bat-shit, but she’s real. I see her. I hear her speak that poetry. I feel the velvet of her hair, the paper of her skin. Lily fell from the tree, an apple baby, and grew a girl.

After an hour or so, I coax her away from the tree—the tree is all she seems interested in (well, that and Whitman)—and back into my pantry. I got some hose from 5th Fifth Street Furniture and Appliances and I kind of made a box around the air conditioner in the dining room window to funnel the air in there. I’m not very handy outside of the garden, so I just used a lot of duck tape. Adam would have had some NASA-type thing whipped together in an afternoon. If I would have told him. I don’t know if I can tell anyone. How long can I keep her here? All she needs is water, some sun now and then. For some reason she keeps growing, even though she’s off the tree. She shivers an awful lot, so probably I’m overdoing the air, but I just worry about her going rotten. The apple fetus from last year sits in a jar on the top shelf in the pantry. So do a couple others from this year I think are kind of apple babies, but I’m not sure. They’re like little Miyazaki things, little homunculi that never took the shape she did.

Mold covers most of last year’s baby now. “Is she like your sister or something?” I say.

“This is me,” Lily says.

“Come again?”

“I did. All of these are me.”

“Make more sense.”

“‘I am vast. I contain multitudes.’”

“What are you? Lily? Are you a person?”

“What do you think?”

“Are you a fruit?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“How do you know—you speak English. You speak…”

“‘I guess the grass itself is a child//the produced babe of the vegetation.’”

“What’s with the poetry, Lily?”

“‘I sing in hymns/to enter the gates/of the Field/of holy apples,’” Lily says, and cups my face in her hands.

“Is that Whitman?”

Lily kisses me on the lips. Apple pucker.

“Kate,” she says, and I’m helpless.

#

The last lunch my brother and I had together:

“They’re talking about cutting back again,” I said. He always ate so slow. I talked, he ate. We met for lunch at the deli across the street from the library, at least when I worked enough hours to get a lunch. Adam worked for the city, collecting change from the parking meters downtown and maintaining the ramps. He had a lot of hours to fill.

“No more Fridays.”

“They talk about the same thing with the Street Department, but I don’t know.”

“They need streets more than books.”

“Wouldn’t know it from all the potholes.”

“They’ll probably let me go,” I said. “No, they’ll probably let Em go first. I’ve been there ten years, and plus, she has a record. Who knows. What do you think?”

“Maybe you should think about looking for a new job,” he said. “Something different, maybe pays a little more.”

“I like the library.”

“No one marries librarians, Sophie.”

“Well, you didn’t, so.”

“We’re going to do this again?”

“I’m not a librarian.”

“Exactly,” Adam said, and rattled the ice in his cup.

“I don’t know what I am.”

“You’re 35 thirty-five and unmarried and not a librarian who works part time in a library.”

“Jesus.”

“You asked.”

“No, I made a statement.”

“You need to do something,” he said. “Go back to school. Apply for some of those loans. Find a different job. Get out and meet people. You’re all cooped up in that house.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sure there’s plenty of guys out there for you.”

“Yeah.”

“Or you can come to church with us.”

I snorted. He started going again after Mom. I never asked him why. That was us; we talked about each other’s lives, I think better than some brothers and sisters, but not about the important things. The things that seemed important now. He never asked me why I never dated, and I never told him; I never asked why he went back to church, and he never told me. Why didn’t I?; I was afraid to ask. Why?

“Yeah.”

He burped. “Or get a hobby at least.”

“I have the garden.”

“Who you going to meet in a garden? The Great Pumpkin?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Whatever. Pick a more interactive hobby.”

“Like painting?”

He leaned back in his chair, a smirk on his face; Here we go again. “Why not?”

“What’s she up to now? Five? Six?”

“I think.”

“Remember when you were six? We taped firecrackers to your G.I. Joes because you were over Joes, you were into those robots or whatever. I still have the little heads.”

“You do?”

“I kept all that stuff.”

“You did?”

I shrugged. “You know, Joe heads would make more of a piece of art than what she does.”

“Don’t start.”

“Has Tanya ever actually finished a painting? Does some watercolor on the inside of a diaper box count?”

“She’s eccentric.”

“You don’t even know what that means.”

“You always have to be smarter than me.”

“I’m not smarter than you,” I said. “If I was smart, I could have gotten scholarships to pay for college.”

“You never applied for any.”

“Mom needed me. Dad died.”

“Twenty years ago.”

“You know how she was. She was a mess.”

“But now—you can go to college, Kate.”

“I can’t afford it anyway.”

“Get those loans like I told you. Or, you can get yourself a boyfriend. A couple boyfriends.”

I’m gay. “Yeah.”

“You going to spend the rest of your life in that house all by yourself? Don’t you—I mean, don’t you get lonely?”

“I’m fine.”

“Come to church with us this week,” he said. “Give it a shot. Meet some people.”

“Is that why people go?”

“Better than bars.”

“It’s not my scene.”

“Bars?”

“Either.”

“Why?”

“It’s just not. You got this, or you want me to—?”

“I’ll get it,” he said. “Whatever. Just an idea.”

I did go to church with him that weekend. The only time or need I have to do so is for when someone is taken from me; would going sooner have stopped that? Made me straight? Science can’t explain me, or solve cancer. How can God?

#

Now:

Lily identifies 1,000 different species of apple trees on Wikipedia. Lily makes lists of places she wants to go. Lily wants to go to Turkey most of all, and says that’s where she’ll finish. Lily learns Spanish and French in a couple of days. Le femme pomme. Lily knows the capitals of all fifty states and she wants desperately to leave the pantry, the yard, Carpenter; I tell her she can’t, she has to stay. She’ll go bad. The farther into summer we go, the more I need the air for the whole house, so I let her have it, but nothing more. She grows so fast. How long do I have. Her skin evens out to this flat red, freckled with orange all over her body. The firmest skin. How long will she keep. She stands at the window in the kitchen, looking out on the tree, the house just over the fence. I can’t stand it. I can’t help it.

“People wouldn’t understand,” I say. “I don’t understand. You’ve read all these books, Lily, you see that, don’t you? There’s never been anything like you before.”

“I have come before.”

“Last year you mean?”

“‘Ever the dim beginning/Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle/Ever the summit and the merge at last (to surely start again,)/Eidolons! Eidolons!’”

I shake my head in frustration. “Lily…”

“I need to go.”

“You can’t.”

“I have to,” she says.

“Why?”

“‘One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person/Yet utter the word Democratic/the word En Masse.’”

“Speak English!”

“‘The form complete is worthier far/the Female equally with the Male I sing.’”

“Why can’t you just make sense?”

“‘From science and the modern still impell’d/The old, old urge, eidolons.’”

“You’re making me crazy… I’m crazy.”

I pull out a chair from the kitchen table and sit down. The sun gleams off her skin. Perfection. She looks at me, and I know. She has to go soon. She doesn’t have much time.

#

He died the Tuesday the snow came late and wet with rain:

It just gushed snow that day. Last day of April. I don’t know what to make of it anymore. Winter lasts into spring. Spring gets squeezed out by the summer and the fall doesn’t know what to do. It was seventy degrees on Thanksgiving two years ago. My garden can’t take it. I hold off planting longer and longer to avoid the frost. Some of the trees, like the apple tree, never really get going. I have a pear tree that is good for only carpet-bombing the yard with mush. Usually Adam dug me out first. I got to where I never even thought about it, but this time the plow went by before he did, so I went back in the house and called his cell. I got his voice-mail like always and told him to get his ass over to the house and dig out my drive so I could hurry up and get to my job at the library stacking books. The books won’t stack themselves, I said. They tried once, in the reference section. There weren’t any survivors. After an hour, I couldn’t wait any longer and I sloshed my way downtown.

No one had gotten to their walks yet, but the plows had been going since late the night before, so I walked down the streets. I had them all to myself, the whole lost island city of beer signs circa 1976 and empty brick boxes of five and dimes, all the awnings like full diapers with loads of snow; just as I walked in to the library—Em sitting their at reception, looking cross-eyed, What the hell did you even bother for?—my cell buzzed and his picture came up on the phone. I answered sore. “I’m almost there, so.”

“He’s dead.” That’s what Tanya said. “I think he had a heart attack. Shoveling out the driveway. You should come.”

Then she hung up. I never liked Tanya.

#

I kiss Lily and bite her lip, breaking skin:

She bleeds juice down her chin. I lick it away, suck it from the breach in her lip, tongue the flense.

“Kate,” she says, like she’s been shot.

I’ve broken her. Christ, I’ve ruined her.

“You’ll go bad now,” I say.

#

It was no secret:

Tanya ran around with every man walking when she was first dating Adam, her exploits legendary in Carpenter lore; I followed her around one night with Jessie Davis—Jessie Davis!—in her mother’s egg-shell Pinto, all night like Tanya was a delivery girl and when she finally finished her rounds at our house on Powell, we pulled in behind her, like nothing was going on. I got out of the car, and hauled off and slapped her across her ugly face. Her retainer went flying out and Jessie crushed it under her shoe and I had fistfuls of the bitch’s hair when Adam pulled us apart out on the front lawn, curtains parted and doors half open at every house on the block. I have to be honest, I liked him a bit less after he married her. She’ll change, he said, but she never did. We maintained an annual argument about it, usually at Thanksgiving or Christmas, outside on the porch because after Dad came down with cancer, Mom didn’t allow smoking in the house. Finally, we stopped talking about it. We stopped talking all together. They were married and that was that.

Then Mom got sick, and he started coming around again, bringing some groceries sometimes toward the end of the month when it got lean, or to fix something that needed fixing.

He’s a good guy, Mom always said. Good as they get.

#

I come home from work and Lily is gone:

She left only Whitman to try and explain:

I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?

I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,

My words itch at your ears till you understand them.

I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat,

(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you,

Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)

I swear I will never again mention love or death inside a house,

And I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air.

I run out of the house. No sign of her in the yard, the garden. Where would she go? Where would she know to? The bus stop. I run down the block to Bolton. No one on the bench. She could have left hours ago. She could be anywhere.

I sit down on the bench. Where do I go? God, I’m so lonely. I’m so alone. My whole family. It’s so damn hot. I sweat through my clothes just sitting there. The bus comes by, the door swings open and he says: “You on or off?”

“Did you see a woman? Kind of reddish skin?”

“Yeah, she got on last time around.”

“Where did she go? Where was she going?”

“Downtown is all I know.”

None of the drivers at the depot remember her. All the riders ask me if I have a picture. Why don’t I have a picture, even for proof? I come up on this woman in a brown hooded sweatshirt sitting in the back of the depot.

“I’m sorry, I’m looking for my friend.”

“Kate,” she says.

“Lily?”

I sit down next to her. Her hands shake.

“I got scared.”

“It’s ok.”

“They all stare at me.”

“I told you. Honey, I told you.”

Tears roll down her cheeks, sour and warm, down her lips, red and full. “I’ve been wandering for so long… I’m so lost.”

“You’re here, you’re right here with me.”

“‘I see brains and lips closed/tympans and temples unstruck.’”

“Lily, I don’t understand.”

“‘Until that which comes has the quality to bring forth what lies/slumbering forever ready in all words.’”

I squeeze her hands in mine. “Come home with me.”

“Home…”

“I’ll never let you out of my sight again.”

#

Tanya comes over to the house (Tanya never comes over to the house):

She wants his things. His old toys and his clothes.

“Why?”

“Because I do. He’s my husband,” she says, standing on the porch, arms crossed and eyes down. I see she hasn’t missed any meals since he died. Jesus. “I want them.”

“No.”

“They don’t belong to you.”

“They sure as hell don’t belong to you.”

“He’s my husband,” she says, and there are tears, real tears in her eyes. Blood from a stone. What do you know.

“What you had when you were together is yours. He was my brother, and what we had as children is mine.”

“You’re so fucking selfish,” she says.

“I guess this is the part where you deal with it.”

“Your whole life, Kate.”

“That makes tons of sense, you standing on my porch asking for all I have left of my brother.”

“He said something about some G.I. Joes,” she says, opening the screen door. “Just give me those.”

“Go away, Tanya.” I pull the door back. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“What do you want the toys for?”

She grips the door handle again. “Just please.”

“Go home and paint something.”

She looks at me with such hurt, such anger, I swear that zilla-vein she has running across the top of her right boob throbs under whatever helpless bra she’s got on and I know; that’s what she wants them for. He told her, what I said at the diner. Tanya wants all the little bits of Joes for some art collage piece of shit she thinks she owes him.

“If you had wanted to do something for him, you would have kept your pants on,” I say, and the door pretty much comes off its hinges. She shoves past me inside.

“Get out of my house.”

“What are you going to do? You going to hit me, you fucking dyke? Yeah. You fucking lesbo, I know it—”

I slap her, and it’s not even a slap; it’s some chaotic mix of a slap, a punch and me clawing her face. I clench my fist in her hair and I pull. She screams and she falls down to the living room floor crying, moaning like some wounded animal and she doesn’t get to do this; she doesn’t get to be the one who hurts. Who mourns him. I grab her, try to pull her or shove her out of the house, but she digs her fingers in the carpet. God damned shag. She kicks me in the knee and I go down. She runs into the kitchen. No. Not in there.

I run in after her and she has a pot in her hand. I’m so angry; I’m so angry I could kill her.

“Leave me alone, Kate.”

“Get out. Get out, or I swear to God.”

“God forgives me,” she says, and she breaks down, balling in my kitchen. She collapses down to the floor.

“Get up.”

The pot clangs against the linoleum. “God forgives me… you can, too. Kate. You can forgive me, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m saved,” she says. “Adam and I both. Praise Jesus.”

“What?”

She rises up on her knees. “I was lost. I was. I was a coward and a sinner. I admit it, I’ll admit it to anyone, but I’ve heard the news of the Lord. God forgives me.”

“Ok, I forgive you,” I say. “Get out of my house.”

“Just let me have a few of them,” she says. “He was talking about them the night before. Kate, c’mon.”

“No.”

“Are they in his room?”

It happens so fast. She tries to run past me out of the kitchen. I grab hold of her hair and she whirls me around and the two of us go crashing through the pantry door.

The jars teeter on their shelves. Tanya shoves out from under me, and looks straight up into her empty eyes.

“What is that?”

Lily looks like some ancient thing, trapped in amber; her head sits in a jar on the bottom shelf, preserved in some gel I made from honey and sugar. Her eyes; her eyes didn’t keep. So much of her bottom lip dissolved, after—Tanya scrambles up to her feet, staggers toward the collection of the apple babies, of what remains of Lily. Her left hand, her apple heart. A jar of her flesh, preserved the same as the rest.

“I can explain.”

She sees all the Whitman on the wall. “What is this?”

“Not really.”

“Is it… what are they?”

“I couldn’t let her go.”

“Is that… is that a woman?”

“She’s not a woman,” I say. “She’s a myth.”

“You’re fucking Dahmer!” Tanya screams, and runs out of the pantry, out of the house and out of my life for good.

#

Lily touches her broken lip:

“Don’t stop,” she says.

“What?”

“Finish. The seeds. The seeds, too.”

“Lily?”

“I have to seed.”

“I’ll plant them in the garden,” I say. You’ll come back to me, next year. My annual lover; my living spring.

“No.” She touches my belly. “Not the garden.”

“Why?”

“So I will live in you.”

“I can’t… I can’t hurt you.”

“You hurt me every day.”

“Lily…”

“You took from the tree,” Lily says, bleeding. “I’m yours to know. Eat of me, and I shall be plenty.”

#

Later:

They cut Fridays. No weekends, either. To keep the doors open period, they decide to reduce the number of books in our inventory, and add more computers for people to use the internet. That’s what most people do at the library now; surf the net. And not new computers. Older ones, a decade or more, that the newspaper left behind when they moved their main office. They leave it to Em and I to decide which books to leave in and leave out. We vulgate the CPL, pruning one section at a time, going off the histories stamped in the front pages of the books. Anything less than five checkouts in the last five years goes. It’s a lot of books.

In the “S” section Em notices my belly. “You put on a little weight?”

“Maybe. Why?”

“I mean, it’s good for you.”

“You still want to go on Friday, right?”

“Yep,” she says, and smiles. “Which one you got there?”

Leaves of Grass.”

“Keeper?”

“Just barely,” I say, and turn the page. Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Darby Harn lives in Waterloo, Iowa. His first novel, The Book of Elizabeth, will be published this winter by Prime Books. His fiction appears in Storyglossia, Fantasy Magazine, Shimmer, Reflection’s Edge and elsewhere.