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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

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BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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Everything was as it had been, roses, cloth, paper, tomatoes; excepting only his father’s offering, and Ariel’s. Hesitantly he reached to touch the book Martin had left, then recoiled.

The cover of the book had been damaged. When he leaned over to stare at it more closely, he saw that myriad tiny holes had been burned in the paper, in what at first seemed to be a random pattern. But when he picked it up—gingerly, as though it might yet release an electrical jolt or some other hidden energy—he saw that the tiny perforations formed an image, blurred but unmistakable. The shadow of a hand, four fingers splayed across the cover as though gripping it.

Jason went cold. He couldn’t have explained how, but he knew that it was a likeness of his father’s hand that he saw there, eerie and chilling as those monstrous shadows left by victims of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With a frightened gasp he tossed the book back onto the altar. For a moment he stood beside the wooden table, half-poised to flee; but finally reached over and tentatively pushed aside his roses to fully reveal the camisole.

It was just like the book. Thousands of tiny burn-holes made a ruined lace of the pastel silk, most of them clustered around one side of the bodice. He picked it up, catching a faint fragrance, lavender and marijuana, and held it out by its pink satin straps. He raised it, turning toward the light streaming through the chapel’s picture window, and saw that the pinholes formed a pattern, elegant as the tracery of veins and capillaries on a leaf. A shadowy bull’s-eye—breast, aureole, nipple drawn on the silken cloth.

With a small cry Jason dropped the camisole. Without looking back he ran from the chapel. Such was his hurry that he forgot his pen and notebook and the half-written letter to Moony piled carefully on the dusty floor. And so he did not see the shining constellation that momentarily appeared above the pages, a curious cloud that hovered there like a child’s dream of weather before flowering into a golden rain.

Moony sat hunched on the front stoop, waiting for her mother to leave. Ariel had been in her room for almost half an hour, her luncheon date with Diana and Mrs. Grose notwithstanding. When finally she emerged, Moony could hear the soft uneven tread of her flip-flops, padding from bedroom to bedroom to kitchen. There was the sigh of the refrigerator opening and closing, the muted pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle, the long grateful gurgle of wine being poured into a glass. Then Ariel herself in the doorway behind her. Without looking Moony could tell that she’d put on The Skirt. She could smell it, the musty scents of patchouli and cannabis resin and the honeysuckle smell of the expensive detergent Ariel used to wash it by hand, as though it were some precious winding sheet.

“I’m going to Adele’s for lunch.”

Moony nodded silently.

“I’ll be back in a few hours.”

More silence.

“You know where to find me if anyone comes by.” Ariel nudged her daughter gently with her toe. “Okay?”

Moony sighed. “Yeah, okay.”

She watched her mother walk out the door, sun bouncing off her hair in glossy waves. When Ariel was out of sight she hurried down the hall.

In her mother’s room, piles of clothes and papers covered the worn Double Wedding Ring quilt, as though tossed helter-skelter from her bureau.

“Jeez, what a mess,” said Moony. She slowly crossed to the bed. It was covered with scarves and tangled skeins of pantyhose; drifts of old catering receipts, bills, canceled checks. A few paperbacks with yellowed pages that had been summer reading in years past. A back issue of
Gourmet
magazine and the
Maine Progressive.
A Broadway ticket stub from
Prelude to a Kiss.
Grimacing, Moony prodded the edge of last year’s calendar from the Beach Store & Pizza to Go.

What had her mother been looking for?

Then, as if by magic, Moony saw it. Its marbled cover suddenly glimpsed beneath a dusty strata of tarot cards and Advil coupons, like some rare bit of fossil, lemur vertebrae or primate jaw hidden within papery shale. She drew it out carefully, tilting it so the light slid across the title.

MARS HILL: ITS HISTORY AND LORE

BY

ABIGAIL MERITHEW COX

A LOVER OF ITS MYSTERIES

With careful fingers Moony rifled the pages. Dried rose petals fell out, releasing the sad smell of summers past, and then a longer plume of liatris dropped to the floor, fresh enough to have left a faint purplish stain upon the page. Moony drew the book up curiously, marking the page where the liatris had fallen, and read,

Perhaps strangest of all the Mysteries of our Colony at Mars Hill is the presence of those Enchanted Visitors who make their appearance now and then, to the eternal Delight of those of us fortunate enough to receive the benison of their presence. I say Delight, though many of us who have conjured with them say that the Experience resembles Rapture more than mere Delight, and even that Surpassing Ecstasy of which the Ancients wrote and which is at the heart of all our Mysteries; though we are not alone in enjoying the favor of our Visitors. It is said by my Aunt, Sister Rosemary Merithew, that the Pasamaquoddie Indians who lived here long before the civilizing influence of the White Man, also entertained these Ethereal Creatures, which are in appearance like to those fairy lights called Foxfire or Will o’ the Wisp, and which may indeed be the inspiration for such spectral rumors. The Pasamaquoddie named them Akiniki, which in their language means The Greeters; and this I think is a most appropriate title for our Joyous Guests, who bring only Good News from the Other Side, and who feast upon our mortality as a man sups upon rare meats…

Moony stared at the page in horror and disgust.
Feasting
upon mortality? She recalled her mother and Jason talking about the things they called the Light Children, Jason’s disappointment that They had never appeared to Moony. As though there was something wrong with her, as though she wasn’t worthy of seeing Them. But she had never felt that way. She had always suspected that Jason and her mother and the rest were mistaken about the Light Children. When she was younger, she had even accused her mother of lying about seeing Them. But the other people at Mars Hill spoke of Them, and Jason, at least, would never lie to Moony. So she had decided there must be something slightly delusional about the whole thing. Like a mass hypnosis, or maybe some kind of mass drug flashback, which seemed more likely considering the histories of some of her mother’s friends.

Still, that left Mrs. Grose, who never even took an aspirin. Who, as far as Moony knew, had never been sick in her life, and who certainly seemed immune to most of the commonplace ailments of what must be, despite appearances, an advanced age. Mrs. Grose claimed to speak with the Light Children, to have a sort of understanding of Them that Ariel and the others lacked. And Moony had always held Mrs. Grose in awe. Maybe because her own grandparents were all dead, maybe just because of that story about Houdini—it was too fucking weird, no one could have made it up.

And so maybe no one had made up the Light Children, either. Moony tapped the book’s cover, frowning. Why couldn’t she see Them? Was it because she didn’t believe? The thought annoyed her. As though she were a kid who’d found out about Santa Claus, and was being punished for learning the truth. She stared at the book’s cover, the gold lettering flecked with dust, the peppering of black and green where salt air and mildew had eaten away at the cloth. The edge of one page crumbled as she opened it once more.

Many of my brothers and sisters can attest to the virtues of Our Visitors, particularly Their care for the dying and afflicted…

“Fucking
bullshit
,” yelled Moony. She threw the book across the room, hard, so that it slammed into the wall beside her mother’s bureau. With a soft crack the spine broke. She watched stonily as yellow pages and dried blossoms fluttered from between the split covers, a soft explosion of antique dreams. She left the room without picking up the mess, the door slamming shut behind her.

“I was consumptive,” Mrs. Grose was saying, nodding as she looked in turn from Ariel to Diana to the pug sprawled panting on the worn chintz sofa beside them. “Tuberculosis, you know. Coming here saved me.”

“You mean like, taking the waters?” asked Ariel. She shook back her hair and took another sip of her gin-and-tonic. “Like they used to do at Saratoga Springs and places like that?”

“Not like that
at all
,” replied Mrs. Grose firmly. She raised one white eyebrow and frowned. “I mean, Mars Hill saved me.”

Saved you for what?
thought Ariel, choking back another mouthful of gin. She shuddered. She knew she shouldn’t drink, these days she could feel it seeping into her, like that horrible barium they injected into you to do tests. But she couldn’t stop. And what was the point, anyway?

“But you think it might help her, if she stayed here?” Diana broke in, oblivious of Mrs. Grose’s imperious gaze. “And Martin, do you think it could help him, too?”


I
don’t think
anything
,” said Mrs. Grose, and she reached over to envelope the wheezing pug with one large fat white hand. “It is absolutely not up to me at all. I am simply
telling
you the
facts
.”

“Of course,” Ariel said, but she could tell from Diana’s expression that her words had come out slurred. “Of
course
,” she repeated with dignity, sitting up and smoothing the folds of her patchwork skirt.

“As long as you understand,” Mrs. Grose said in a gentler tone. “We are guests here, and guests do not ask favors of their hosts.”

The other two women nodded. Ariel carefully put her glass on the coffee table and stood, wiping her sweating hands on her skirt. “I better go now,” she said. Her head pounded and she felt nauseated, for all that she’d barely nibbled at the ham sandwiches and macaroni salad Mrs. Grose had set out for lunch. “Home. I think I’d better go home.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Diana. She stood and cast a quick look at their hostess. “I wanted to borrow that book…”

Mrs. Grose saw them to the door, holding open the screen and swatting threateningly at mosquitoes as they walked outside. “Remember what I told you,” she called as they started down the narrow road, Diana with one arm around Ariel’s shoulder. “Meditation and nettle tea. And patience.”

“Patience,” Ariel murmured; but nobody heard.

The weeks passed. The weather was unusually clear and warm, Mars Hill bereft of the cloak of mist and fog that usually covered it in August. Martin Dionysos took the
Wendameen
out nearly every afternoon, savoring the time alone, the hours spent fighting wind and waves—antagonists he felt he could win against.

“It’s the most perfect summer we’ve ever had,” Gary Bonetti said often to his friend.
Too
often, Martin thought bitterly. Recently, Martin was having what Jason called Millennial Thoughts, seeing ominous portents in everything from the tarot cards he dealt out to stricken tourists on Wednesday nights to the pattern of kelp and maidenhair left on the gravel beach after one of the summer’s few storms. He had taken to avoiding Ariel, a move that filled him with self-loathing, for all that he told himself that he still needed time to grieve for John before giving himself over to another death. But it wasn’t that, of course. Or at least it wasn’t
only
that. It was fear,
The
Fear. It was listening to his own heart pounding as he lay alone in bed at night, counting the beats, wondering at what point it all began to break down, at what point It would come to take him.

So he kept to himself. He begged off going on the colony’s weekly outing to the little Mexican restaurant up the road. He even stopped attending the weekly readings in the chapel. Instead, he spent his evenings alone, writing to friends back in the Bay Area. After drinking coffee with Jason every morning he’d turn away.

“I’m going to work now,” he’d announce, and Jason would nod and leave to find Moony, grateful, his father thought, for the opportunity to escape.

Millennial Thoughts.

Martin Dionysos had given over a corner of his cottage’s living room to a studio. There was a tiny drafting table, his portable computer, an easel, stacks of books; the week’s forwarded offerings of
Out!
and
The Advocate
and
Q
and
The Bay Weekly,
and, heaped on an ancient stained Windsor chair, the usual pungent mess of oils and herbal decoctions that he used in his work. Golden morning light streamed through the wide mullioned windows, smelling of salt and the diesel fumes from Diana’s ancient Volvo. On the easel a large unprimed canvas rested, somewhat unevenly due to the cant of a floor slanted enough that you could drop a marble in the kitchen and watch it roll slowly but inexorably to settle in the left-hand corner of the living room. Gary Bonetti claimed that it wasn’t that all of the cottages on Mars Hill were built by incompetent architects. It was the magnetic pull of the ocean just meters away; it was the imperious reins of the East, of the Moon, of the magic charters of the Otherworld, that made it impossible to find any two corners that were plumb. Martin and the others laughed at Gary’s pronouncement, but John had believed it.

John. Martin sighed, stirred desultorily at a coffee can filled with linseed oil and turpentine, then rested the can on the windowsill. For a long time he had been so caught up with the sad and harrowing and noble and disgusting details of John’s dying that he had been able to forestall thinking about his own diagnosis. He had been grateful, in an awful way, that there had been something so horrible, so unavoidably and demandingly
real,
to keep him from succumbing to his own despair.

But all that was gone now. John was gone. Before John’s death, Martin had always had a sort of unspoken, formless belief in an afterlife. The long shadow cast by a 1950s Catholic boyhood, he guessed. But when John died, that small hidden solace had died, too. There was nothing there. No vision of a beloved waiting for him on the other side. Not even a body moldering within a polished mahogany casket. Only ashes, ashes; and his own death waiting like a small patient vicious animal in the shadows.

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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