Read Last Summer at Mars Hill Online
Authors: Elizabeth Hand
,” Ariel said, a little crossly. “I’m just, mmm, disappointed. That she got so upset.”
Martin’s other eyebrow arched. “
? As in, ‘Moony, darling, I have breast cancer (which I have kept a secret from you for seven months) and I am very
that you are not self-actualized enough to deal with this without falling to pieces’?”
“She didn’t fall to pieces.” Ariel’s crossness went over the line into full-blown annoyance. She frowned and jabbed a spoon into her tea. “I
she’d fall to pieces, she’s always so—” She waved the hand holding the spoon, sending green droplets raining onto Martin’s knee. “—so
“I guess. Self-assured and smug, you know? Why is it teenagers are always so fucking smug?”
“Because they share a great secret,” Martin said mildly, and took another bite of sprouts.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“Their parents are all assholes.”
Ariel snorted with laughter, leaned forward to get her teacup out of the danger zone and onto the table. “Oh, Martin,” she said. Suddenly her eyes were filled with tears. “Damn it all to
Martin put his bowl on the table and stepped over to take her in his arms. He didn’t say anything, and for a moment Ariel flashed back to the previous spring, the same tableau only in reverse, with her holding Martin while he sobbed uncontrollably in the kitchen of his San Francisco townhouse. It was two days after John’s funeral, and she was on her way to the airport. She knew then about the breast cancer but she hadn’t told Martin yet; didn’t want to dim any of the dark luster of his grief.
Now it was her grief, but in a strange way she knew it was his, too. There was this awful thing that they held in common, a great unbroken chain of grief that wound from one coast to the other. She hadn’t wanted to share it with Moony, hadn’t wanted her to feel its weight and breadth. But it was too late, now. Moony knew and besides, what did it matter? She was dying, Martin was dying and there wasn’t a fucking thing anyone could do about it.
“Hey,” he said at last. His hand stroked her mass of dark hair, got itself tangled near her shoulder, snagging one of the long silver-and-quartz-crystal earrings she had put on that morning, for luck. “Ouch.”
Ariel snorted again, laughing in spite of, or maybe because of, it all. Martin extricated his hand, held up two fingers with a long curling strand of hair caught between them: a question mark, a wise serpent waiting to strike. She had seen him after the cremation take the lock of John’s hair that he had saved and hold it so, until suddenly it burst into flames, and then watched as the fizz of ash flared out in a dark penumbra around Martin’s fingers. No such thing happened now, no Faery Pagan pyrotechnics. She wasn’t dead yet, there was no sharp cold wind of grief to fan Martin’s peculiar gift. He let the twirl of hair fall away and looked at her and said, “You know, I talked to Adele.”
Adele was Mrs. Grose, she of the pug dog and suspiciously advanced years. Ariel retrieved her cup and her equanimity, sipping at the nettle tea as Martin went on, “She said she thought we had a good chance. You especially. She said for you it might happen. They might come.” He finished and leaned back in his chair, spearing the last forkful of sprouts.
Ariel said, “Oh, yes?” Hardly daring to think of it; no don’t think of it at all.
Martin shrugged, twisted to look over his shoulder at the endless sweep of Penobscot Bay. His eyes were bright, so bright she wondered if he were fighting tears or perhaps something else, something only Martin would allow himself to feel here and now. Joy, perhaps. Hope.
“Maybe,” he said. At his words her heart beat a little faster in her breast, buried beneath the mass that was doing its best to crowd it-out. “That’s all. Maybe. It might. Happen.”
And his hand snaked across the table to hers and held it, clutched it like it was a link in that chain that ran between them, until her fingers went cold and numb.
On Wednesday evenings the people at Mars Hill gave readings for the public. Tarot, palms, auras, dreams—five dollars a pop, nothing guaranteed. The chapel was cleaned, the altar swept of offerings and covered with a frayed red and-white checked table cloth from Diana’s kitchen and a few candles in empty Chianti bottles.
“It’s not very atmospheric,” Gary Bonetti said, as someone always did. Mrs. Grose nodded from her bench and fiddled with her rosary beads.
“Au contraire,” protested Martin. “It’s
atmospheric, if you’re in the mood for spaghetti carbonara at Luigi’s.”
“May I recommend the primavera?” said Jason. In honor of the occasion he had put on white duck pants and white shirt and red bow tie. He waved at Moony, who stood at the door taking five dollar bills from nervous, giggly tourists and the more solemn-faced locals, who made this pilgrimage every summer. Some regulars came week after week, year after year. Sad Brenda, hoping for the Tarot card that would bring news from her drowned child. Mr. Spruce, a ruddy-faced lobsterman who always tipped Mrs. Grose ten dollars. The Hamptonites Jason had dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Pissant, who were anxious about their auras. Tonight the lobsterman was there, with an ancient woman who could only be his mother, and the Pissants, and two teenage couples, long blonde hair and sunburned, reeking of marijuana and summer money.
The teenagers went to Martin, lured perhaps by his tie-dyed caftan, neatly pressed and swirling down to his Birkenstock-clad feet.
“Boat trash,” hissed Jason, arching a nearly invisible white-blond eyebrow as they passed. “I saw them in Camden, getting off a yacht the size of the fire station. God, they make me sick.”
Moony tightened her smile. Catch
admitting to envy of people like that. She swiveled on her chair, looking outside to see if there were any newcomers making their way to the chapel through the cool summer night. “I think this is gonna be it,” she said. She glanced wistfully at the few crumpled bills nesting in an old oatmeal tin. “Maybe we should, like, advertise or something. It’s been so slow this summer.”
Jason only grunted, adjusting his bow tie and glaring at the rich kids, now deep in conference with his father. The Pissants had fallen to Diana, who with her chignon of blonde hair and gold-buttoned little black dress could have been one of their neighbors. That left the lobsterman and his aged mother.
They stood in the middle of the big room, looking not exactly uneasy or lost, but as though they were waiting for someone to usher them to their proper seats. And as though she read their minds (but wasn’t that her job?), Mrs. Grose swept up suddenly from her corner of the chapel, a warm South Wind composed of yards of very old rayon fabric, Jean Naté After-Bath, and arms large and round and powdered as wheaten loaves.
,” she cried, extravagantly trilling her
and opening those arms like a stage gypsy. “You have come—”
“Why, yes,” the lobsterman answered, embarrassed but also grateful. “I, uh—I brought my mother, Mrs. Grose. She says she remembers you.”
“I do,” said Mrs. Spruce. Moony twisted to watch, curious. She had always wondered about Mrs. Grose. She claimed to be a true clairvoyant. She
predicted things—nothing very useful, though. What the weather would be like the weekend of Moony’s Junior Prom (rainy), but not whether she would be asked to go, or by whom. The day Jason would receive a letter from Harvard (Tuesday, the fifth of April), but not whether he’d be accepted there (he was not). It aggravated Moony like so much at Mars Hill. What was the use of being a psychic if you could never come up with anything really useful?
But then there was the story about Harry Houdini. Mrs. Grose loved to tell it, how when she was still living in Chicago this short guy came one day and she gave him a message from his mother and he tried to make her out to be a fraud. It was a stupid story, except for one thing. If it really had happened, it would make Mrs. Grose about ninety or a hundred years old. And she didn’t look a day over sixty.
Now Mrs. Grose was cooing over a woman who really
look to be about ninety. Mrs. Spruce peered up at her through rheumy eyes, shaking her head and saying in a whispery voice, “I can’t believe it’s you. I was just a girl, but you don’t look any different at all…”
“Oh, flattery, flattery!” Mrs. Grose laughed and rubbed her nose with a Kleenex. “What can we tell you tonight, Mrs. Spruce?”
Moony turned away. It was too weird. She watched Martin entertaining the four golden children, then felt Jason coming up behind her: the way some people claim they can tell a cat is in the room, by some subtle disturbance of air and dust. A cat is there. Jason is there.
going to Harvard. I can’t
it,” he said, mere disgust curdled into utter loathing. “And that one, the blond on the end—”
“They’re all blond, Jason,” said Moony. “
“I am an
,” Jason said with dignity. “Check him out, the Nazi Youth with the Pearl Jam T-shirt. He’s a legacy, absolutely. SAT scores of 1060, tops. I
.” He closed his eyes and wiggled his fingers and made a
noise, beckoning spirits to come closer. Moony laughed and covered her mouth. From where he sat Martin raised an eyebrow, requesting silence. Moony and Jason turned and walked outside.
“How old do you think she is?” Moony asked, after they had gone a safe distance from the chapel.
“Adele?” Jason frowned into the twilit distance, thinking of the murky shores and shoals of old age. “Jeez, I dunno. Sixty? Fifty?”
Moony shook her head. “She’s got to be older than that. I mean, that story about Houdini, you know?”
“Huh! Houdini. The closest she ever got to Houdini is seeing some Siegfried and Roy show out in Las Vegas.”
“I don’t think she’s ever left here. At least not since I can remember.”
Jason nodded absently, then squatted in the untidy drive, squinting as he stared out into the darkness occluding the Bay. Fireflies formed mobile constellations within the birch trees. As a kid he had always loved fireflies, until he had seen Them. Now he thought of the Light Children as a sort of evolutionary step, somewhere between lightning bugs and angels.
Though you hardly
Them at night,
Now why is that?
He rocked back on his heels, looking like some slender pale gargoyle toppled from a modernist cathedral, the cuffs of his white oxford-cloth shirt rolled up to show large bony wrists and surprisingly strong square hands, his bow tie unraveled and hanging rakishly around his neck. Of a sudden he recalled being in this same spot two years ago, grinding out a cigarette as Martin and John approached. The smoke bothered John, sent him into paroxysms of coughing so prolonged and intense that more than once they had set Jason’s heart pounding, certain that This Was It, John was going to die right here, right now, and it would be all Jason’s fault for smoking. Only of course it didn’t happen that way.
“The longest death since Little Nell’s,” John used to say, laughing hoarsely. That was when he could still laugh, still talk. At the end it had been others softly talking, Martin and Jason and their friends gathered around John’s bed at home, taking turns, spelling each other. After a while Jason couldn’t stand to be with them. It was too much like John was already dead. The body in the bed so wasted, bones cleaving to skin so thin and mottled it was like damp newsprint.
By the end, Jason refused to accompany Martin to the therapist they were supposed to see. He refused to go with him to the meetings where men and women talked about dying, about watching loved ones go so horribly slowly. Jason just couldn’t take it. Grief he had always thought of as an emotion, a mood, something that possessed you but that you eventually escaped. Now he knew it was different. Grief was a country, a place you entered hesitantly, or were thrown into without warning. But once you were there, amidst the roiling formless blackness and stench of despair, you could not leave. Even if you wanted to: you could only walk and walk and walk, traveling on through the black reaches with the sound of screaming in your ears, and hope that someday you might glimpse far off another country, another place where you might someday rest.
Jason had followed John a long ways into that black land. And now his own father would be going there. Maybe not for good, not yet, but Jason knew. An HIV-positive diagnosis might mean that Death was a long ways off; but Jason knew his father had already started walking.
“…you think they don’t leave?”
Jason started. “Huh?” He looked up into Moony’s wide gray eyes. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Why do you think they don’t leave? Mrs. Grose and Gary. You know, the ones who stay here all year.” Moony’s voice was exasperated. He wondered how many times she’d asked him the same thing.
“I dunno. I mean, they
to leave sometimes. How do they get groceries and stuff?” He sighed and scrambled to his feet. “There’s only two of them, maybe they pay someone to bring stuff in. I know Gary goes to the Beach Store sometimes. It’s not like they’re under house arrest. Why?”
Moony shrugged. In the twilight she looked spooky, more like a witch than her mother or Diana or any of those other wannabes. Long dark hair and those enormous pale gray eyes, face like the face of the cat who’d been turned into a woman in a fairy tale his father had read him once. Jason grinned, thinking of Moony jumping on a mouse. No way. But hey, even if she did, it would take more than
to turn him off.
“You thinking of staying here?” he asked slyly. He slipped an arm around her shoulders. “’Cause, like, I could keep you company or something. I hear Maine gets cold in the winter.”
“No.” Moony shrugged off his arm and started walking toward the water: no longer exasperated, more like she was distracted. “My mother is.”
He followed her until she stopped at the edge of a gravel beach. The evening sky was clear. On the opposite shore, a few lights glimmered in Dark Harbor, reflections of the first stars overhead. From somewhere up along the coast, Bayside or Nagaseek or one of the other summer colonies, the sounds of laughter and skirling music echoed very faintly over the water, like a song heard on some distant station very late at night. But it wasn’t late, not yet even nine o’clock. In summers past, that had been early for Moony and Jason, who would often stay up with the adults talking and poring over cards and runes until the night grew cold and spent.