Authors: Lauren Groff
And then, one day, Jude woke with the feeling that a bell jar had descended over him. He showered with a sense of unease, sat at the edge of the bed for a while. When his wife came in to tell him something, he watched in confusion at the way her mouth opened and closed fishily, without sound.
I think I've gone deaf, he said, and he didn't so much hear his words as feel them vibrating in the bones of his skull.
At the doctor's, he submitted to test after test, but nobody understood what had gone wrong in his brain or in his ears. They gave him a hearing aid that turned conversation into an underwater burble. Mostly, he kept it off.
At night, he'd come out into the dark kitchen, longing for curried chicken, raw onion, preserved peaches, tastes sharp and simple to remind himself that he was still there. He'd find his daughter at the kitchen island, her
lovely mean face lit up by her screen. She'd frown at him and turn the screen to show him what she'd discovered: cochlear implants, audiologic rehabilitation, miracles.
But there was nothing for him. He was condemned. He ate Thanksgiving dinner wanting to weep into his sweet potatoes. His family was gathered around him, his wife and daughter and their closest friends and their children, and he could see them laughing, but he couldn't hear the jokes. He longed for someone to look up, to see him at the end of the table, to reach out a hand and pat his. But they were too happy. They slotted full forks into their mouths and brought the tines out clean. They picked the flesh off the turkey, they scooped the pecans out of the pie.
After the dinner, his arms prickling with hot water from the dishes, they sat together watching football, and he lay back in his chair with his feet propped up, and all of the children fell asleep around him on the couch, and he alone sat in vigil over them, watching them sleep.
The day his daughter went to college in Boston, his wife went with her.
She mouthed very carefully to him, You'll be all right for four days? You can take care of yourself?
And he said, Yes, of course. I am an
, sweetheart, but the way she winced, he knew he'd said it too loudly. He loaded their bags into the car, and his daughter cried
in his arms, and he kissed her over and over on the crown of the head. His wife looked at him worriedly but kissed him also and climbed inside. And then, silently as everything, the car moved off.
The house felt immense around him. He sat in the study, which had been his childhood bedroom, and seemed to see the place as it had been, spare and filled with snakes, layered atop the house as it was, with its marble and bright walls and track lights above his head.
That night, he waited, his hearing aid turned up so loudly that it began to make sharp beeping sounds that hurt. He wanted the pain. He fell asleep watching a sitcom that, without sound, was just strange-looking people making huge expressions with their faces, and he woke up and it was only eight o'clock at night, and he felt as if he'd been alone forever.
He hadn't known he'd miss his wife's heavy body in the bed next to his, the sandwiches she made (too much mayonnaise, but he never told her so), the smell of her body wash in the humid bathroom in the morning.
On the second night, he sat in the black density of the veranda, looking at the lake that used to be a swamp. He wondered what had happened to the reptiles out there, where they had gone. Alone in the darkness, Jude wished he could hear the university in its nighttime boil around him, the students shouting drunkenly, the bass thrumming, the noise of football games out at the stadium that used to make Jude and his wife groan with irritation. But
he could have been anywhere, in the middle of hundreds of miles of wasteland, as quiet as the night was for him. Even the mosquitoes had somehow diminished. As a child, he would have been a single itchy blister by now.
Unable to sleep, Jude climbed to the roof to straighten the gutter that had crimped in the middle from a falling oak branch. He crept on his hands and knees across the asbestos shingles, still hot from the day, to fix the flashing on the chimney. From up there, the university coiled around him, and in the streetlights, a file of pledging sorority girls in tight, bright dresses and high heels slowly crawled up the hill like ants.
He came down reluctantly at dawn and took a can of tuna and a cold jug of water down to the lake's edge, where he turned over the aluminum johnboat his wife had bought for him a few years earlier, hoping he'd take up fishing.
Fishing? he'd said, I haven't fished since I was a boy. He thought of those childhood shad and gar and snook, how his father cooked them up with the lemons from the tree beside the back door and ate them without a word of praise. He must have made a face because his wife had recoiled.
I thought it'd be a hobby, she'd said. If you don't like it, find another hobby. Or
He'd thanked her but had never had the time to use either the rod or the boat. It sat there, its bright belly dulling under layers of pollen. Now was the time. He was
hungry for something indefinable, something he thought he'd left behind him so long ago. He thought he might find it in the lake, perhaps.
He pushed off and rowed out. There was no wind, and the sun was already searing. The water was hot and thick with algae. A heron stood one-legged among the cypress. Something big jumped and sent rings out toward the boat, rocking it slightly. Jude tried to get comfortable but was sweating, and now the mosquitoes smelled him and swarmed. The silence was eerie because he remembered the lake as a dense tapestry of sound, the click and whirr of the sandhill cranes, the cicadas, the owls, the mysterious subhuman cries too distant to identify. He had wanted to connect with something, something he had lost, but it wasn't here.
He gave up. But when he sat up to row himself back, both oars had slid loose from their locks and floated off. They lay ten feet away, caught in the duckweed.
The water thickly hid its danger, but he knew what was there. There were the alligators, their knobby eyes even now watching him. He'd seen one with his binoculars from the bedroom the other day that was at least fourteen feet long. He felt it somewhere nearby now. And though this was no longer prairie, there were still a few snakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, pygmies under the leaf rot at the edge of the lake. There was the water itself, superheated until it hosted flagellates that enter the nose and infect the brain, an infinity of the minuscule eating
away. There was the burning sun above and the mosquitoes feeding on his blood. There was the silence. He wouldn't swim in this terrifying mess. He stood, agitated, and felt the boat slide a few inches from under him, and he sat down hard, clinging to the gunwales. He was a hundred feet offshore on a breathless day. He would not be blown to shore. He would be stuck here forever; his wife would come home in two days to find his corpse floating in its johnboat. He drank some water to calm himself. When he decided to remember algorithms in his head, their savor had stolen away.
For now, there were silent birds and sun and mosquitoes; below, a world of slinking predators. In the delicate cup of the johnboat, he was alone. He closed his eyes and felt his heart beat in his ears.
He had never had the time to be seized by doubt. Now all he had was time. Hours dripped past. He sweated. He was ill. The sun only grew hotter, and there was no respite, no shade.
Jude drifted off to sleep, and when he woke, he knew that if he opened his eyes, he would see his father sitting in the bow, glowering. Terrible son, Jude was, to ruin what his father loved best. The ancient fear rose in him, and he swallowed it as well as he could with his dry throat. He would not open his eyes, he wouldn't give the old man the satisfaction.
Go away, he said. Leave me be. His voice inside his head was only a rumble.
His father waited, patient and silent, a dark dense mass at the end of the boat.
I'm not like you, Dad, Jude said later. I don't prefer snakes to people.
The sun pushed down; the smell on the air was his father's smell. Jude breathed from his mouth.
Even later, he said, You were a nasty, unhappy man. And I always hated you.
But this seemed harsh, and he said, I didn't completely mean that.
He thought of this lake. He thought of how his father would see Jude's life. Such a delicate ecosystem, so precisely calibrated, in the end destroyed by Jude's careful parceling of love, of land. Greed, the university's gobble. Those scaled creatures, killed. The awe in his father's voice that day they went out gathering moccasins; the bright, sharp love inside Jude, long ago, when he had loved numbers. Jude's promise was unfulfilled, the choices made not the passionate ones. Jude had been safe.
And still, here he was. Alone as his father was when he died in that tent. Isolated. Sunbattered. Old.
He thought in despair of diving into the perilous water, and how he probably deserved being bitten. But then the wind picked up and began pushing him back across the lake, toward his house. When he opened his eyes, his father wasn't with him, but the house loomed over the bow, ramshackle, too huge, a crazy person's place. He averted his eyes, unable to bear it now. The sun snuffed
itself out. Despite his pain, the skin on his legs and arms blistered with sunburn and great, itching mosquito welts, he later realized he must have fallen asleep because, when he opened his eyes again, the stars were out and the johnboat was nosing up against the shore.
He stood, his bones aching, and wobbled to the shore.
And now something white and large was rushing at him, and because he'd sat all day with his father's ghost, he understood this was a ghost, too, and looked up at it, calm and ready. The lights from the house shined at its back, and it had a golden glow around it. But the figure stopped just before him, and he saw, with a startle, that it was his wife, that the glow was her frizzy gray hair catching the light, and he knew then that she must have come back early, that she was reaching a hand out to him, putting her soft palm on his cheek, and she was saying something forever lost to him, but he knew by the way she was smiling that she was scolding him. He stepped closer to her and put his head in the crook of her neck and breathed his inadequacy out there, breathed in her love and the grease of her travels and knew he had been lucky, and that he had escaped the hungry dark once more.
The storm came and erased the quiet.
Well, the older sister thought, an island is never really quiet. Even without the storm, there were waves and wind and air conditioners and generators and animals moving out there in the dark.
What the storm had erased was the silence from the other cabin. For hours, there had been no laughing, no bottle caps falling, none of the bickering that the girls had grown used to over the past two days.
This was because there were no more adults. They'd been left alone on the island, the two little girls. Four and seven. Pretty little things, strangers called them. What dolls! Their faces were exactly like their mother's. Hoochies in waiting, their mother joked, but she watched them anxiously from the corner of her eye. She was a good mother.
The fluffy white dog had at least stopped his yowling. He had crept close to the girls' bed, but when they tried to stroke him, he snapped at their hands. The animal was
torn between his hatred of children and his hatred of the wild storm outside.
The big sister said, Once upon a time, there was aâ
âprincess, the little sister said.
Rabbit, the big sister said.
Rabbit princess, the little sister said.
Once upon a time, there was a tiny purple rabbit, the older sister said. A man saw her and scooped her up in his net. Her family tried to stop him, but they couldn't. The man went into the city and took the rabbit to a pet store and put her into a box in the window. All day long people stuck their hands in to touch the purple rabbit. Finally, a girl came in and bought the rabbit and took her home. It was better there, but the rabbit still missed her family. She grew and slept with the girl in her bed, but most days she stared out the window all sad. She began to forget that she was a rabbit. One day, the girl put a leash on the rabbit and they went out into the park. The rabbit looked up and saw another rabbit staring at her from the edge of the woods. They looked at each other long enough for her to remember that she was not a girl but a rabbit, and the other rabbit was her own sister. The girl was kind to her and gave her food, but the rabbit looked at her sister and she knew that this was her only chance. She slipped out of the collar and ran as fast as she could over the field, and she and her sister hopped into the forest. The rabbit
family was so happy to see her. They had a party, dancing and singing and eating cabbage and carrots. The end.
The little sister was asleep. The two fishing cabins rocked on their stilts, the dock ground against the shore, the wind spoke through the cracks in the window frames, the palms lashed, the waves shattered and roared. The older girl held her little sister.
All night, she and the island were awake, the island because it never slept, the girl because she knew that only her ferocious attention would keep them safe.
Before they were left alone in the fishing camp on the island in the middle of the ocean, there had been Smokey Joe and Melanie. They were strangers to the girls. He wore a red bandanna above his eyebrows. Her shirts couldn't hold in all her flesh.
The older girl knew that the two adults were nervous, because they didn't stop smoking and arguing in hushed voices while the girls watched
over and over. It was the only tape they'd brought. In the afternoon, Smokey Joe took the girls on a walk to the pond at the center of the island. It was a weird place. Beyond the sandy bay where the dock and the cabin were, the land grew rough with a kind of spongy stone and the trees seemed shrunken and bent by the wind.
Watch out, he told them. A Hollywood movie had been made here a long time ago and some monkeys had
escaped. You come close, they'll rip your hair out and steal your food from your bowl and throw poop at your head. He was joking, maybe. It was hard to tell.
They didn't see any monkeys, though they did see huge black palmetto bugs, a rat snake sunning itself on the sandy path, long-necked white birds that Smokey Joe called ibises.
In the cabin, Melanie gave them hamburger patties without ketchup or buns and told them not to touch the dog because he was a mean little sucker. The younger sister didn't listen, and suddenly her forearm was bleeding. Melanie shrugged and said, Told you. The older girl got one of their mother's maxi pads from her dopp kit and wrapped it, sticker side out, around her sister's arm.
Smokey Joe sat outside all afternoon under the purple tree with its nubby green banana fingers. He was listening to his CB radio. Then he stood up and shouted for Melanie. Melanie ran out, her breasts and belly moving in all kinds of directions under her shirt. The older sister heard Smokey Joe say, Safer to leave 'em.
Melanie poked her head into the cabin. She was pale under her orangey tan.
She said, Stay here. If someone shows up, don't you go with no man. Girls, listen to me. Stay here, be good. I'll send a lady to get you in a few hours.
The girls went outside and watched Smokey Joe and Melanie running down the dock. Melanie was screaming for the dog, but the dog stood still and didn't follow her.
And then Joe threw off the lines and Melanie jumped into the boat, almost missing it. One leg dangled in the water, then she lifted it over the side and they took off at full speed.
Before that, exactly one day before Smokey Joe and Melanie left the girls alone on the island, their mother had come to them in their own cabin, and she was dressed all fancy and smelled like a garden. Her boyfriend Ernesto and she were going out in Ernesto's boat, she said. We'll only be gone for an hour or two, honey bears. She pressed them close to her, her face made up with blue eyeshadow, her eyelashes so thick and long that it was a wonder she could see. She left red kisses on their cheeks.
But the hours clicked by and she didn't come back at all. When night fell, the girls had to sleep on the floor in Melanie and Smokey Joe's cabin, and Melanie and Smokey Joe whispered behind their bedroom door all night.
And, two days before that, their mother had come into the girls' room in Fort Lauderdale in the middle of the night and thrown a few of their things into a bag and said, We're going on a boat ride, pretties! Ernesto's going to make us rich, and she laughed. Their mother was so beautiful she just glinted off light. Before the sun was even up, they were on Ernesto's boat, going fast through the dark. And then they'd come to this little island, and the adults had talked all day and all night in the other cabin, and their mother had seemed wild on the inside, flushed on the outside.
And before Ernesto, many nights before him, their mother would come home very late, jangling. She usually made dinner for the girls, then left the older girl in charge of getting her sister's teeth brushed and reading her to sleep. The older girl never slept in her own bed, always just stayed beside her sister until their mother was home. Sometimes, when the mother came in, she would get the girls up in their nightgowns, the night still in the windows, and sprinklers spitting in the courtyard, and she'd smell of vodka and smoke and money, and would put music on too loud and they'd all dance. Their mother would smoke cigarettes and fry up eggs and pancakes that she'd top with strawberry ice cream. She'd talk about the other women she worked with: idiots, she called them. Skanks. She didn't trust other women. They were all backstabbing bitches who'd rob you sooner than help you. She liked men. Men were easy. You knew where you were with men. Women were too complicated. You always had to guess. You couldn't give them an inch or they'd ruin you, she said.
Before they came to Fort Lauderdale's blazing sun, they had been in Traverse City, where the older girl remembered only cherries and frozen fingers.
Before Traverse City, San Jose with its huge aloe plants and the laundromat below their apartment chugging all day.
Before San Jose, Brookline, where the little sister came to them in a tiny blanket of blue and pink stripes, a cocked hat.
Before Brookline, Phoenix, where they lived with a man who may have been the little sister's father.
Before Phoenix, she was too small to remember. Or maybe there was nothing.
The morning was painfully clear. Once, at Goodwill, the mother had found a glass that she rang with a fingernail, and the glass sang in a high and perfect voice. The sunlight was like that after the storm.
There was nobody to tell them not to, so they ate grape jelly with spoons for breakfast. They watched
on the VCR again.
The dog whimpered at the door. He had a little pad in the bathroom where he did his business. Melanie's so damn lazy, their mother had muttered when she first saw the pad. What a lazy bitch. But maybe, the older sister thought, the dog just needed a little air. She got up and put his pink leash on and let him out. The dog went down the steps so fast that he pulled the leash out of her hand. He looked back at the girl, and she could see the gears turning in his head, then he sped off into the woods. She called for him, but he wouldn't come.
She went inside and didn't tell her sister what had happened. It wasn't until dinnerâtuna fish and crackers and cheeseâthat the little sister looked around and said, Where's the dog?
The older sister shrugged and said, I think he ran off.
The little sister started crying, and both girls went outside with a bowl of water and a can of tuna and opened it and called and called for the dog. He trotted out of the forest. There were sticks in his fur and mud on his belly, but he looked happy. He wouldn't come near the girls, only growled until they went inside and then watched them through the screen door as he gulped down his food. The older sister lunged out the door and tried to grab his leash, but he was too fast and disappeared again.
The little girl stopped crying only when her sister brought out Melanie's cookies. Don't you touch my damn Oreos, she'd said to them, but she wasn't around to yell now. They ate them all.
Late at night, there was a terrible grinding sound, and the girls went outside with flashlights and looked at the air-conditioning unit and saw that a brown snake had fallen into it from the palm trees; with every turn of the blade, a millimeter more of the snake was being eaten by the fan. They watched the snake dissolve bit by bit until the skin fell all the way through and lay, empty of meat, on the ground.
The girls woke up sticky and hot. The air-conditioning had died sometime before dawn.
The older one thought the snake had gummed things
up, but nothing was workingâno lights, no water pump, no refrigeratorâand then she understood that it was the generator. She went out back and kicked it. She found a hole where the gas went in and looked inside with her flashlight.
We runned out of gas, she told her sister, who was sucking her fingers again, the way she had when she was a baby.
Fix it, the little sister said, I'm so hot. But they looked and looked, and there was no more fuel. When the older sister tried to flush the toilet, it wouldn't flush. When the cabin started to smell from the toilet and the dog's pad, they moved back to the other cabin, where their mother's stuff was still in the closets and on the dresser. They began going to the bathroom outside.
There was no food in their cabin, so they took everything they could find from Melanie and Smokey Joe's. Frozen peas, which they ate like popcorn, one Hungry-Man TV dinner, which they opened and left out for the dog. A block of cheese and yellow mustard. White bread, more cheese in a spray can, a can of beans. Bourbon and cigars that smelled like a spice drawer.
In the afternoon, they put on their mother's clothes, her makeup. They looked like tiny versions of her, both of them, though the little sister didn't need to go in the sun to be tanned.
The older sister read everything she could to her little sister. There was one fat book, yellow and swollen, on
Melanie's nightstand. It had a man on the cover with an axe over his shoulder but no shirt. She read the cereal box she dug out of the garbage. She read the old magazines on the coffee table.
The older girl understood that there was no more water only when they were thirsty and she tried to turn on the faucet. She ignored her thirst for a long time, until her throat felt stuffed with cotton and the little girl wouldn't stop complaining.
It was going to be dark in a half hour or so. The sun was burning at the edge of the ocean.
The older sister sighed. I think we have to walk to the pond, she said.
The little sister started to cry. But the monkeys, she said.
We'll make lots of noise. They won't bother us if we're together, the older sister said, and they walked very fast, hand in hand, to the pond, and it was twilight when they got back. The girls saw a white flash in the woods, and the little one was so frightened that she dropped her bucket and spilled half her water, and she ran all the way back to the cabin, slamming the door. The older sister cried with rage and carried the buckets back by herself. Out of meanness, she wouldn't let her little sister drink the water until she'd put it in a saucepan and set it over the charcoal grill to boil, which took a very, very long time, until the moon was fat and bright in the sky.
In the morning, the older girl took out her sister's braids and the little one's hair fluffed out into a beautiful dark cloud.
They took the only knife, a steak knife, and whittled points into the ends of sticks, and they went into the chilly shallow water to fish, because they'd have to find food soon. But the water was so nice and the fish were so little that they abandoned the spears and swam all morning.
They painted their fingernails with polish they found in Melanie's medicine cabinet. Then they painted their toenails, then tattoos of hearts on their biceps, which made their skin itch until they scratched the hearts off.
They found a candy bar in a nightstand, then a dirty magazine under Smokey Joe's bed. A woman was licking a pearl off another woman's pink private skin.