Authors: Elizabeth Hand
Nine thirty came, long after Helen usually met Leo in the cafeteria. He waited, drinking an entire pot of coffee before he gave up and wandered downstairs, piqued that she hadn’t shown up for breakfast.
In the same narrow hallway behind the Malaysian artifacts he discovered her, crouched over a pair of tapered wooden crates. For a long moment he watched her, and almost turned back without saying anything. Her hair was dirty, twisted into a sloppy bun, and the hunch of her shoulders hinted at exhaustion. But before he could leave, she turned to face him, clutching the boxes to her chest.
“Rough night?” croaked Leo. A scarf tied around her neck didn’t hide the bruises there. Her mouth was swollen, her eyes soft and shadowed with sleeplessness. He knew she must see people, men, boyfriends. But she had never mentioned anyone, never spoke of weekend trips or vacations. Suddenly he felt betrayed, and spun away to leave.
“Leo,” murmured Helen, absently stroking the crate. “I can’t talk right now. I got in so late. I’m kind of busy.”
“I guess so.” He laughed uncertainly, but stopped before turning the corner to see her pry open the lid of the box, head bent so that he could not tell what it was she found inside.
A week passed. Leo refused to call her. He timed his forays to the cafeteria to avoid meeting her there. He left work late so he wouldn’t see her in the elevator. Every day he expected to see her at his desk, find a telephone message scrawled on his memo pad. But she never appeared.
Another week went by. Leo ran into the curator for Indo-Asian Studies by the elevator.
“Have you seen Helen this week?” she asked, and Leo actually blushed at mention of her name.
“No,” he mumbled. “Not for a while, really.”
“Guess she’s sick.” The curator shrugged and stepped onto the elevator. Leo rode all the way down to the basement and roamed the corridors for an hour, dropping by the Anthropology office. No Helen, no messages from her at the desk.
He wandered back down the hall, pausing in the corridor where he had last seen her. A row of boxes had collapsed and he kicked at the cartons, idly knelt and read the names on the packing crates as if they held a clue to Helen’s sudden change. Labels in Sanskrit, Vietnamese, Chinese, English, crumbling beside baggage labels and exotic postage stamps and scrawled descriptions of contents.
, he read. Beneath was scribbled
. He squatted on the floor, staring at the bank of crates, then half-heartedly started to read each label. Maybe she’d find him there. Perhaps she’d been sick, had a doctor’s appointment. She might be late again.
A long box rattled when he shifted it.
, read the label, and he peeked inside to find an ornate sword. A heavier box bore the legend
SANGHYANG: SPIRIT PUPPET
. And another that seemed to be empty, embellished with a flowing script:
, and the clumsy translation
PRINCE OF FLOWERS
He slammed the last box against the wall and heard the dull creak of splintering wood. She would not be in today. She hadn’t been in for two weeks.
That night he called her.
Helen’s voice; at least a man hadn’t answered.
“Helen. How you doing? It’s Leo.”
“Leo.” She coughed and he heard someone in the background. “It’s you.”
“Right,” he said dryly, then waited for an apology, her embarrassed laugh, another cough that would be followed by an invented catalogue of hayfever, colds, flu. But she said nothing. He listened carefully and realized it wasn’t a voice he had heard in the background but a constant stir of sound, like a fan, or running water. “Helen? You okay?”
A long pause. “Sure. Sure I’m okay.” Her voice faded and he heard a high, piping note.
“You got a bird, Helen?”
He shifted the phone to his other ear, shoving it closer to his head so he could hear better. “A bird. There’s this funny voice, it sounds like you got a bird or something.”
“No,” replied Helen slowly. “I don’t have a bird. There’s nothing wrong with my phone.” He could hear her moving around her apartment, the background noises rising and falling but never silent. “Leo, I can’t talk now. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Tomorrow?” he exploded. “I haven’t seen you in two weeks!”
She coughed and said, “Well, I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye.”
He started to argue, but the phone was already dead.
She didn’t come in the next day. At three o’clock he went to the Anthropology Department and asked the secretary if Helen had been in that morning.
“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “And they’ve got her down as AWOL. She hasn’t been in all week.” She hesitated before whispering. “Leo, she hasn’t looked very good lately. You think maybe…” Her voice died and she shrugged, “Who knows,” and turned to answer the phone.
He left work early, walking his bicycle up the garage ramp and wheeling it to the right, toward Helen’s neighborhood. He was fuming, but a sliver of fear had worked its way through his anger. He had almost gone to her supervisor; almost phoned Helen first. Instead, he pedaled quickly down Pennsylvania Avenue, skirting the first lanes of rush hour traffic. Union Station loomed a few blocks ahead. He recalled an article in yesterday’s
: vandals had destroyed the rose garden in front of the station. He detoured through the bus lane that circled the building and skimmed around the desecrated garden, shaking his head and staring back in dismay All the roses: gone.
Someone had lopped each bloom from its stem. In spots the cobblestones were littered with mounds of blossoms, brown with decay. Here and there dead flowers still dangled from hacked stems. Swearing in disgust Leo made a final loop, nearly skidding into a bus as he looked back at the plundered garden. Then he headed toward Helen’s apartment building a few blocks north.
Her windows were dark. Even from the street the curtains looked filthy, as though dirt and exhaust had matted them to the glass. Leo stood on the curb and stared at the blank eyes of each apartment window gaping in the stark concrete façade.
Who would want to live here? he thought, ashamed. He should have come sooner. Shame froze into apprehension and the faintest icy sheath of fear. Hurriedly he locked his bike to a parking meter and approached her window, standing on tiptoe to peer inside. Nothing. The discolored curtains hid the rooms from him like clouds of ivory smoke. He tapped once, tentatively; then, emboldened by silence, rapped for several minutes, squinting to see any movement inside.
Still nothing. Leo swore out loud and slung his hands into his pockets, wondering lamely what to do. Call the police? Next of kin? He winced at the thought: as if she couldn’t do that herself. Helen had always made it clear that she enjoyed being on her own. But the broken glass beneath his sneakers, windblown newspapers tugging at the bottom steps; the whole unkempt neighborhood denied that. Why here? he thought angrily; and then he was taking the steps two at a time, kicking bottles and burger wrappers out of his path.
He waited by the door for five minutes before a teenage boy ran out. Leo barely caught the door before it slammed behind him. Inside, a fluorescent light hung askew from the ceiling, buzzing like a wasp. Helen’s was the first door to the right. Circulars from convenience stores drifted on the floor, and on the far wall was a bank of mailboxes. One was ajar, stuffed with unclaimed bills and magazines. More envelopes piled on the steps. Each bore Helen’s name.
His knocking went unanswered; but he thought he heard someone moving inside.
“Helen,” he called softly. “It’s Leo. You okay?”
He knocked harder, called her name, finally pounded with both fists. Still nothing. He should leave; he should call the police. Better still, forget ever coming here. But he was here, now; the police would question him no matter what; the curator for Indo-Asian Studies would look at him askance. Leo bit his lip and tested the doorknob. Locked; but the wood gave way slightly as he leaned against it. He rattled the knob and braced himself to kick the door in.
He didn’t have to. In his hand the knob twisted and the door swung inward, so abruptly that he fell inside. The door banged shut behind him. He glanced across the room, looking for her; but all he saw was gray light, the gauzy shadows cast by gritty curtains. Then he breathed in, gagging, and pulled his sleeve to his mouth until he gasped through the cotton. He backed toward the door, slipping on something dank, like piles of wet clothing. He glanced at his feet and grunted in disgust.
Roses. They were everywhere: heaps of rotting flowers, broken branches, leaves stripped from bushes, an entire small ficus tree tossed into the corner. He forgot Helen, turned to grab the doorknob and tripped on an uprooted azalea. He fell, clawing at the wall to balance himself. His palms splayed against the plaster and slid as though the surface was still wet. Then, staring upward he saw that it
wet. Water streamed from the ceiling, flowing down the wall to soak his shirt cuffs. Leo moaned. His knees buckled as he sank, arms flailing, into the mass of decaying blossoms. Their stench suffocated him; his eyes watered as he retched and tried to stagger back to his feet.
Then he heard something, like a bell, or a telephone; then another faint sound, like an animal scratching overhead. Carefully he twisted to stare upward, trying not to betray himself by moving too fast. Something skittered across the ceiling, and Leo’s stomach turned dizzily. What could be up there? A second blur dashed to join the first; golden eyes stared down at him, unblinking.
Geckos, he thought frantically. She had pet geckos. She
pet geckos. Jesus.
She couldn’t be here. It was too hot, the stench horrible: putrid water, decaying plants, water everywhere. His trousers were soaked from where he had fallen, his knees ached from kneeling in a trough of water pooling against the wall. The floor had warped and more flowers protruded from cracks between the linoleum, brown fronds of iris and rotting honeysuckle. From another room trickled the sound of water dripping steadily, as though a tap was running.
He had to get out. He’d leave the door open—police, a landlord. Someone would call for help. But he couldn’t reach the door. He couldn’t stand. His feet skated across the slick tiles as his hands tore uselessly through wads of petals. It grew darker. Golden bands rippled across the floor as sunlight filtered through the gray curtains. Leo dragged himself through rotting leaves, his clothes sopping, tugging aside mats of greenery and broken branches. His leg ached where he’d fallen on it and his hands stung, pricked by unseen thorns.
Something brushed against his fingers and he forced himself to look down, shuddering. A shattered nautilus left a thin red line across his hand, the sharp fragments gilded by the dying light. As he looked around he noticed other things, myriad small objects caught in the morass of rotting flowers like a nightmarish ebb tide on the linoleum floor. Agates and feathered masks; bird of paradise plumes encrusted with mud; cracked skulls and bones and cloth of gold. He recognized the carved puppet Helen had been playing with that afternoon in the Indonesian corridor, its headdress glittering in the twilight. About its neck was strung a plait of flowers, amber and cerulean blossoms glowing like phosphorescence among the ruins.
Through the room echoed a dull clang. Leo jerked to his knees, relieved. Surely someone had knocked? But the sound came from somewhere behind him, and was echoed in another harsher, note. As this second bell died he heard the geckos’ feet pattering as they fled across the ceiling. A louder note rang out, the windowpanes vibrating to the sound as though wind-battered. In the corner the leaves of the ficus turned as if to welcome rain, and the rosebushes stirred.
Leo heard something else, then: a small sound like a cat stretching to wakefulness. Now both of his legs ached, and he had to pull himself forward on his hands and elbows, striving to reach the front door. The clanging grew louder, more resonant. A higher tone echoed it monotonously, like the echo of rain in a well. Leo glanced over his shoulder to the empty doorway that led to the kitchen, the dark mouth of the hallway to Helen’s bedroom. Something moved there.
At his elbow moved something else and he struck at it feebly, knocking the puppet across the floor. Uncomprehending, he stared after it, then cowered as he watched the ceiling, wondering if one of the geckos had crept down beside him.
There was no gecko. When Leo glanced back at the puppet it was moving across the floor toward him, pulling itself forward on its long slender arms.
The gongs thundered now. A shape humped across the room, something large enough to blot out the empty doorway behind it. Before he was blinded by petals, Leo saw that it was a shrunken figure, a woman whose elongated arms clutched broken branches to propel herself, legs dragging uselessly through the tangled leaves. About her swayed a host of brilliant figures no bigger than dolls. They had roped her neck and hands with wreaths of flowers and scattered blossoms onto the floor about them. Like a flock of chattering butterflies they surged toward him, tiny hands outstretched, their long, tongues unfurling like crimson pistils, and the gongs rang like golden bells as they gathered about him to feed.
This was my first published story, bought by Tappan King for
magazine in 1987; it appeared early in 1988. In a phone conversation, Tappan said that I would be a good writer for the 90s, because my work had “heart and also sharp little teeth.”
At the time I was living in Washington, D.C., and working at the Smithsonian Institution. The demonic puppet of the title was something I bought on my lunch hour one afternoon, walking from the Mall to a dim little shop called The Artifactory. I fell in love with the puppet and paid fifty dollars for it, a huge chunk of my meager paycheck; but when I brought it back to my cubicle at the National Air and Space Museum I announced that it would bring me luck. It did: shortly thereafter I wrote the story, and even though it took a year or so, I finally sold it.