From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Nine Bodies of Water

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Alba sat, ticket in lap.

Everything was the same as before. The lottery reading was over; colors flickered on the television. A knobby blanket covered her legs. Shouts filtered in from the streets. Her son Simon was going to be dropped off any minute from daycare. And, in the bathroom, the tub was filling up in staccato spurts.

Fifty million dollars.

Alba spread her hands on the table to steady herself. Where the tenth finger used to be, a shiny pink knob went about its phantom business, nodding in invisible currents. She’d lost the finger in an accident at the steel plant. It was sliced right off, and she’d already punched three more sheets of metal before realizing it was gone. She looked down the conveyor belt. There it was, riding away on a plate of metal, rocking a little.

Her ancient coworker Inez, all eyes and knuckles, gave a triumphant cry and seized Alba’s bleeding hand. Que bendicion! Que bendicion! She yelled to the whole factory floor. What a blessing! What a blessing! She just kept yelling, saying other things Alba couldn’t hear. Her head was filling. She tried to bail it out like a little sinking boat. But blackness bloomed and she fell to the floor.

Fifty million dollars.

It felt unreal, like it had happened to someone else. Not Alba. Not Alba, who’d only found the courage to leave Miguel last month. Not Alba, who couldn’t prevent Simon from seeing the beatings, who could not protect him when he tried to intervene. Not Alba who spoke no English, who looked for food in the garbage bins behind the gas station, where she’d found a lottery ticket.

Fifty million dollars.

The factory denied her any recompense, citing a technicality she didn’t understand. Today she’d been at the counter of a shabby motel, the last of eleven shabby motels, trying to indicate that she needed a job. She made motions, a charade of dusting and vacuuming, but the manager pretended he didn’t understand her. Instead he turned to the fat secretary and said something that made her giggle. Alba began to plead in Spanish, but he just rolled his eyes. Alba leaned her forehead on the edge of the counter and started to cry. Suddenly furious, the manager yelled at her until she left. She left in a haze. She had no money. She had no family. She could not care for Simon. She was a horrible mother.

This was why she was running a bath.

Alba’s gaze moved to a children’s book lying open on the table. On the first page was a single nursery rhyme Simon was learning, and teaching her too:

A well, a pond, a river;

A stream, a sea, a fountain;

A bay, a lake, an ocean.

The words swam together in her eyes. She squeezed them shut and tried to get her breath. Rising, she lifted the blanket to shake it out.

Simple as that, time unhooked itself like a taut laundry line and snapped violently free.

9 : Aix-en-Provence, France

Sunlight poured through the doorway. A butterfly launched from among the lilac bushes; Alba watched it flap drunkenly out of sight. There was no wind today. The air was still as well water.

Simon was due from Paris within the hour. He was coming home to their country estate, maybe for a month, maybe longer. His wife had left him, and he couldn’t take care of himself anymore. “I can’t see anything beyond this,” he’d said on the phone, his voice dry of tears.

Alba walked the rim of her half-moon driveway, her gaze trawling the ground. There on the cement was a pale little slug. It glistened in the midday sun. She leaned in closer to discern the tiny antennae. The slug didn’t move, but sat still, in a solemn funereal manner.

Back inside the main library, sunlight soaked the woodwork. Alba felt drawn here. She sat at her desk, her four-fingered hand tracing the grain. Her last poem lay there, black ink on cream:

Hidden water,

far beneath sunlight

I came and sought her.

Ancient well,

how far below-under are

your waters fell?

Darkened depths

where nothing speaks

and everything sinks.

Alba heard gravel spraying outside. A car was pulling up fast. But she didn’t move.

8 : Bangor, Maine

It was probably Father Farley again. Resigned, Alba turned off the Home Shopping Network and heaved herself out of her armchair.

The living room of her mansion was stuffed with all kinds of things, every bauble money could buy. Crystal angels crowded each other along the shelves. Silken red ribbons hung above every doorway. Pictures of Simon were thick on every end table, so close together you couldn’t see his face. Dust gathered on the frames. Nothing was ever moved from its place.

Alba opened the front door and freezing air poured in. There stood Father Farley, hunching from the cold.

“Good afternoon Alba!” he said. “I was just in the neighborhood giving Communion and that reminded me to bring you some things.” He drew up a plastic bag, which made a jingling sound. “Hey, is Simon here?”

“No,” she said, not meeting his eye. “He’s out taking a walk by the pond.”

Father Farley let it pass. “Ah well!” He held up the bag again. “Leftovers from the ornament drive. I thought your tree wouldn’t mind a few more.” He nudged past her into the entry hall, and dumped the contents onto the table. There was an embroidered lobster, a ragged cloth star, and a big red velvet glove. Five fingers, she noted. One too many for me.

At that moment, there was a rapping noise from the other side of the house. She gave Father Farley a confused look, and then trundled through the house to the back door. A figure in brown stood hunched on the other side of the glass.

7 : Limpopo River, South Africa

Moliseng had arrived, offering hot coffee and a pastry.  Alba did not know how she contrived these things in the bush, but didn’t ask. Moliseng spoke only a little English. Their conversations were spare.

Alba stacked the pastry atop the coffee mug and carried them in her good hand. She was not hungry. Moliseng noticed, but remained silent. They set off from the door of the lodge. “Any word?”

“No, there is no word,” said Moliseng. It had been five days since Simon had disappeared from their manor in Johannesburg, after she had screamed at him about his involvement with the Army of God, a group of underground Zimbabwean nationalists. Through her connections with the police, Alba learned that he had traveled in secret to the Zimbabwean border, to take part in the protests.

Every day the news became more grim. Alba had only a radio in the bush lodge, and she sat by it every night, waiting for news. The BBC reported: nineteen killed. Thirty killed.

Alba and Moliseng reached the banks of the Limpopo River, a sluggish brew of silt and foam. It was their custom to take a walk here every morning. Alba felt she was merely reliving the same day over and over. They went, picking their paths, stepping around patches of pasty mud. Alba picked a few long-stemmed flowers, twisted them into a garland and set it on her head. It wouldn’t last the morning. She could feel the stems unraveling already.

Moliseng took a detour, down the riverbank to the water’s edge, and stood on a little clay outcropping. Alba watched from above as Moliseng bent towards the water and cupped her hand into the current. The water stilled upon the pale of her palm, and the silt was halted in its motion, confused, suddenly without direction.

6 : Palo Alto, California

Red Kool-Aid crystals swirled and settled to the bottom of the glass. Alba began stirring. Some water spilled on the granite counter, and she cursed herself, grabbing a washcloth to sop it up. Madison, her five-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, watched at her elbow.

As soon as Alba was done, Madison seized the glass with two hands and drank steadily, her sharp breaths like puffs of a little steam engine. The Kool-Aid went fast. She put the glass back on the counter and asked, “When is Simon coming home?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. Your brother was seeing some friends from high school last night and he probably just fell asleep at Aidan’s house and forgot to call us. I guess he just forgot.” Alba cut herself off. She was speaking more loudly than she meant to.

Madison was silent for awhile, as if considering. Then, “Does he know our phone number?”

“Yes, sweetie, of course he does,” said Alba, staring out the window. “It’s just carelessness on his part, is all. It’s not unusual for kids his age, and he hasn’t seen his high school friends in awhile. . . you remember Aidan, don’t you? Aidan who gave you that pretty dolly you don’t play with anymore?. . . and spring break is only a week long, so it’s understandable. . . he’s just missing for the moment.”

“Like your finger?” said Madison.

Alba looked to her daughter, startled, unsure whether to laugh or not. But Madison had already disappeared through the doorway, and came back with an offering. It was a favorite puzzle of hers, which her godmother had ordered from the Smithsonian catalogue: a thousand-piece portrait of butterflies from North America. Madison would coerce the family into putting it together, and then agonize over which butterfly she liked best. Last time, it had been the Ruddy Copper, Lycaena rubidus ferrisi, a species with a thick furry body, and wings of salmon-veined violet.

Madison dumped the pieces on the table and began breaking every clump apart. But Alba just stood in the same spot, staring out the window, which overlooked their artificial stream. Growing up, Simon had always been disappointed that it didn’t have any fish.

Madison held up one piece in triumph: all black, with two straight sides. “I found a corner!” she exclaimed, proud that she knew their importance. Alba forced a smile and took it.

5 : Positano, Italy

The pebble was greenish, and shot with quartz; Alba washed it in the tide to bring out the color. It matched her green python bikini.

Simon was away again. She hardly even bothered asking where he went anymore; he’d just disappear from their villa from time to time, and then come back days or weeks later. That’s the way young men in Italy are, she told herself. He’s probably sleeping with every other backpacker from here to Amalfi.

Alba dropped the green stone back into the water. Not pretty enough, she thought; then she regarded the stump of her pinkie. Not pretty enough. She turned back to her best friend Raquela, whose brown skin was baking in the sun. An Italian tabloid was tented over her face.

“Why can’t you entertain me?” Alba whined, batting at the tissue-thin paper.

“All depends,” said Raquela nonchalantly, reassembling the pages, “on whether you want to know who Prince Afonso is dating.”

“Let me guess. A supermodel,” said Alba, staring out to sea.

Raquela raised her eyebrows at her friend. “Hey, you are so mopey these days,” she said with sudden vehemence. “You are no fun to be around. What is your problem? You need a man or something?”

“Signora.”

A waiter had interrupted them. He looked nervous, standing in the sand in full black-tie. He bore two glasses of wine on a silver tray. Alba plucked one without meeting his eye, and turned back to the sea.

“Signora. . ? Come pagherete?”

The waiter was still standing there. She rounded on him with a look of incredulity. “How will I pay!? You put it on my tab,” she said pointedly. The young man, clearly not understanding, nodded anxiously and darted back towards the restaurant. She watched him go. She watched him go all the way back. She felt sick to her stomach.

A loud plunk! startled her. Something had fallen into her wine glass. It was a raindrop. She looked up to where the uppermost terraces met the sky; dark blue clouds were spreading like an ink stain. A storm? At this time of year?

Thunder cracked so deafeningly that the wine sloshed in her glass. One crimson drop escaped the rim and fell upwards, racing towards the sky.

4 : Cairo, Egypt

A tear dropped into Alba’s jasmine tea. She blinked rapidly, embarrassed, and kept pouring. For a moment she considered offering some to Ahmed. But, being a bodyguard, he refused all luxuries–or any attempts at connection–with a shake of the head. It made her feel foolish.

She lifted her tea and turned back to the window. A city of sand lay below her. Cairo was nearly ruled by terrorists now.  She knew she was a possible target, but she hated being guarded without a second’s pause. Her husband was away again, this time in Saudi Arabia, as part of the negotiation team to ask the sultan for aid. Leaving his wife and stepson alone in this giant white house. Her pink suit was stiff against her skin. It was tailored too tightly; the shoulders were too narrow; she couldn’t spread her arms.

Simon had been at boarding school in Dubai. His plane had landed safely, and his military escort was en route to the mansion. Seeing that black car in the driveway was all that mattered. The whole of her life was a tunnel, narrow, shrinking.

Alba tapped the teacup with her ghost finger. She focused nearer, on the island of green in the driveway, and the fountain at its center. A white marble nymph arced backwards, all round breasts and round belly, and her delicate O-shaped mouth burbled water towards the sky.

3 : San Francisco, California

Alba turned away from the floor-to-ceiling window, laughing. The afterimage of the tomato-red Golden Gate Bridge floated behind her eyelids. She was in a fantastic mood. Skipping over to the black marble table, she picked up a syringe, one of three laid out in a neat row, the last of the stash Simon had given her. And where’d he gone, then? That stupid son of hers, always silent, always wearing black. And simmering at her, always simmering, but never saying why. He could be such a pain in the ass.

Alba pushed him out of her mind. She settled into her black leather armchair, laid bare her forearm, and pushed the syringe’s contents right into her vein. Wonderful things began to happen in her body. She leaned back, toes to the ceiling. A glowing ball of warmth pulsed and unwrapped itself in her chest. . . she was pillowed on peach-colored clouds. . . everything felt fine.

The syringe dropped from her four limp fingers.

2 : Lochcarron, Scotland

Alba was startled by a loud clatter, metal on stone. Clutching her heart and breathing hard, she peered over the edge of the oak table. A goblet had fallen off and hit the flagstones. It rolled back and forth with a gritty sound.

She’d been sitting there for a long time, ever since Angus and Simon had left for a walk around the loch. It was so odd for Angus to propose such a thing, but she was hopeful. Maybe Angus was making an effort to be more kind? Maybe to make up for what happened last night? Simon, the sweet brave boy, had run right to his mother, and wrapped his little arms around her leg, as if his body could hold back Angus’s fists. But instead he just got in the way.

The electricity had been flickering on and off all week, so she carried a lamp wherever she went. It gave off a cold green light. She wandered into the front hall, staring at the tapestries, lantern in her good hand and wine in the other. She remembered meeting Angus at a fundraiser. He was a short, burly, handsome man with a red beard, and introduced himself as an investor. Now, three years later, where was the money? She had no idea. She only knew Angus was “taking care of it.” Then her friends had stopped calling. The phone was “broken,” the servants were “vacationing.” She wanted to believe him. These days she just wandered around the castle. She found dusty books and tried to read them. She drank wine.

Alba swung her hips drunkenly, side to side; which turned into a full-blown whirl, which turned into a silly kind of dance. The lantern and wine bottle swung with her. Where was Simon? Her bare foot tripped on the corner of a flagstone and she fell on her back, lantern and wine clattering away into the darkness. Where was Simon?

1 : Bali

Out of nowhere, Simon appeared at his mother’s side.  “Mama!” He was excited; he was holding a big tropical flower of egg-yolk yellow. He was saying more, chattering, but Alba didn’t hear him.

“Simon, please!” she yelled, rearing up. He fell away from the bed and stood off to the side, chastened, while Alba flapped the sheets. “I was resting. You wouldn’t like to be bothered when you’re resting, would you!?”

Simon shook his head, looking at the floor.

Alba fussed with her sheets. “I know you miss your friends,” she said loudly. “But now we’re here and you’re just going to have to deal with it. How could you be unhappy here?  Look what I’ve provided for you!” She punched the pillows into shape. She felt nauseated. This heat made her nauseated. She spoke under her breath. “Except the contractors can’t even build ceiling fans in this place. They always want more fucking money. Piles of nuts everywhere for their stupid gods. What kind of shithole is this.”

Simon said, very quietly, “You said we could go down to the beach today.”

“You’re right, I did. Okay, let’s go.” She’d go. No one could say she was a bad mother. She grabbed her straw hat with one hand and reached for a hold on Simon’s arm. He shrank away, trying to twist out of her grasp. She slapped him on the head.  He slumped a little.

Remorse burning in her throat, Alba walked her son down the front porch, and then let go. Simon ran down the last few yards, happy at the sight of the ocean. He splashed into the surf, gathering up handfuls of water and throwing them up like rice at a wedding.

Ashamed, Alba turned away from him. She couldn’t explain to him how fast they were losing money, or why. She had failed again. Even with fifty million dollars, a gift beyond her imagination. . . she had failed again. Her missing finger throbbed, as it always had before, when she felt she had no way out.

Alba heard a sound like a siren, sudden and high-pitched.  Looking around wildly, she saw it was Simon. He was screaming. He was crumbling into the water. At once she was there, with him, pulling him up. His lips were turning green.

“Simon!” she cried. “What is it!?” She followed his gaze to the water, where a monstrous outline was retreating beneath the waves. Ghostly contours, glowing threads. A jellyfish.

His body was convulsing in her arms. Alba squeezed him to her breast, as if to stop his shuddering by pure force, panicking, turning, screaming for help. She turned–sea, sky, beach, house, palm, sea, sky, beach. They were alone.

Turn. Angus swung open the heavy oak door, alone. Alba already knew what he would say. That Simon had “fallen.”

Turn. In a furry vision, Alba saw Simon swinging one leg–then the other–over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Turn. The nymph’s marble torso exploded in eye-searing violet. Burning shards shattered the windows of Simon’s car, now stopped and smoking in the driveway.

Turn. A pretty girl wandered down from the road, arms crossed–a backpacker, looking miserable. She came near enough to say, “Are you Simon’s mom?” Alba’s throat turned to concrete.

Turn. Aidan came to the door with swollen red eyes, babbling about “when I last saw him.” Drinking vodka alone by the stream.

Turn. Strange cargo surfaced in the Limpopo’s milky waters: lumps of rumpled, muddy poplin, floating in lazy circles, limbs spinning.

Turn. Sheriff Sutherland stood on the back doorstep and shook his head, saying gruffly, I don’t know what he was doing out there, but he just fell through the ice, Alba, and no one was around.

Turn. A blue-eyed plainclothes officer held out a photograph of a crumpled body at the bottom of a well, saying, “Madame, est-ce votre fils?” Simon’s dead eyes stared up at her.

Screaming, Alba hurled the blanket across her living room.  It knocked over the television, which fell to the floor in an explosion of sparks and glass. She seized the lottery ticket.  She fumbled for matches. She struck a match and held the ticket to the flame. The corner began to brown and curl.

10

Turn. Alba’s hand was slippery with blood. Her missing finger throbbed, a ghost; the other fingers hung limp with shock. The other workers had begun to notice; Alba was dimly aware of shouts in Spanish, and a great commotion that seemed to be moving away from her rather than towards her. She stood there, gazing at her hand, not really knowing what to do or having any particular place to go, when another hand seized hers.

It was Inez. She was a tiny bird, black kerchief tied on her head, back curved like a sickle. Her skinny arms shook as she waved Alba’s hand in the air. Ah Maria! What a blessing! What good fortune! Thanks be to God! She called in a thin throaty voice. Now this space is always unfilled! You always have a way out! She twisted to stare Alba straight in the eye. Your sin is despair.

And blackness bloomed.

Alba snatched the ticket away from the flame. There it lay, atop the table, rocking a little.

She sat back on her couch, eyes shut. Her own violent heartbeats filled her ears. She listened, floating behind her eyelids. The thudding began to subside. The roar of blood in her ears grew fainter.

When she opened her eyes again, many minutes had passed.

Evening had fallen. There were no shouts from outside, no traffic sounds from the street. Before her, the shattered television lay on its side. The blanket lay in a heap in the corner. The match was spent; the children’s book closed. There was no sound at all, save one: a burble of water.

Alba got up and went to the bathroom. The tub was almost full. She knelt on the linoleum, leaned over and turned off the faucet. As soon as the water stopped, she heard the front door swing open. Simon was home.

“Mamá! Mamá!” She heard his little thudding footsteps and suddenly he was there, tugging at her shirt. He smiled at her; a quiet, gentle child with eyes deep as lilies.

Alba smiled. She took him gently by the shoulders, and said, “I have something to tell you.”

Monica Byrne is a writer and playwright currently based in Durham, NC. She has a pilot’s license (from when she wanted to be an astronaut), a yoga teacher certificate (from when she realized she didn’t want to be an astronaut), and a very-marked-up-passport (from when she realized she was an artist). She is a graduate of Wellesley and MIT. At present, she’s working on a short story collection and two new plays, and will finish her first novel as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center this spring.