Authors: Elizabeth Hand
“Shit,” he said. He gritted his teeth. This was how it happened to Ariel. She gave in to despair, or dreams, or maybe she just pretended it would go away. She’d be lucky now to last out the summer. At the thought a new wave of grief washed over him, and he groaned.
“Oh, shit, shit, shit,” he whispered. With watering eyes he reached for the can full of primer on the sill. As he did so, he felt a faint prickling go through his fingers, a sensation of warmth that was almost painful. He swore under his breath and frowned. A tiny stab of fear lanced through him. Inexplicable and sudden pain, wasn’t that the first sign of some sort of degeneration? As his fingers tightened around the coffee can, he looked up. The breath froze in his throat and he cried aloud, snatching his hand back as though he’d been stung.
They were there. Dozens of Them, a horde of flickering golden spots so dense They obliterated the wall behind Them. Martin had seen Them before, but never so close, never so many. He gasped and staggered back, until he struck the edge of the easel and sent the canvas clattering to the floor. They took no notice, instead followed him like a swarm of silent hornets. And as though They were hornets, Martin shouted and turned to run.
Only he could not. He was blinded, his face seared by a terrible heat. They were everywhere, enveloping him in a shimmering cocoon of light and warmth, Their fierce radiance burning his flesh, his eyes, his throat, as though he breathed in liquid flame. He shrieked, batting at the air, and then babbling fell back against the wall. As They swarmed over him he felt Them, not as you feel the sun but as you feel a drug or love or anguish, filling him until he moaned and sank to the floor. He could feel his skin burning and erupting, his bones turning to ash inside him. His insides knotted, cramping until he thought he would faint. He doubled over, retching, but only a thin stream of spittle ran down his chin. An explosive burst of pain raced through him. He opened his mouth to scream, the sound so thin it might have been an insect whining. Then there was nothing but light, nothing but flame; and Martin’s body unmoving on the floor.
Moony waited until late afternoon, but Jason never came. Hours earlier, Moony had glanced out the window of her cottage and seen Gary Bonetti running up the hill to Martin’s house, followed minutes later by the panting figure of Mrs. Grose. Jason she didn’t see at all. He must have never left his cottage that morning, or else left and returned by the back door.
Something had happened to Martin. She knew that as soon as she saw Gary’s stricken face. Moony thought of calling Jason, but did not. She did nothing, only paced and stared out the window at Jason’s house, hoping vainly to see someone else enter or leave. No one did.
Ariel had been sleeping all day. Moony avoided even walking past her mother’s bedroom, lest her own terror wake her. She was afraid to leave the cottage, afraid to find out the truth. Cold dread stalked her all afternoon as she waited for something—an ambulance, a phone call,
—but nothing happened. Nobody called, nobody came. Although once, her nostrils filled with the acrid smell of cigarette smoke, and she felt Jason there. Not Jason himself, but an overwhelming sense of terror that she knew came from him, a fear so intense that she drew her breath in sharply, her hand shooting out to steady herself against the door. Then the smell of smoke was gone.
“Jason?” she whispered, but she knew he was no longer thinking of her. She stood with her hand pressed against the worn silvery frame of the screen door. She kept expecting Jason to appear, to explain things. But there was nothing. For the first time all summer, Jason seemed to have forgotten her. Everyone seemed to have forgotten her.
That had been hours ago. Now it was nearly sunset. Moony lay on her towel on the gravel beach, swiping at a mosquito and staring up at the cloudless sky, blue skimmed to silver as the sun melted away behind Mars Hill. What a crazy place this was. Someone gets sick, and instead of dialing 911 you send for an obese old fortuneteller. The thought made her stomach churn; because of course that’s what her mother had done. Put her faith in fairydust and crystals instead of physicians and chemo. Abruptly Moony sat up, hugging her knees.
“Damn,” she said miserably
She’d put off going home, half-hoping, half-dreading that someone would find her and tell her what the hell was going on. Now it was obvious that she’d have to find out for herself. She threw her towel into her bag, tugged on a hooded pullover and began to trudge back up the hill.
On the porches of the other cottages she could see people stirring. Whatever had happened, obviously none of
had heard yet. The new lesbian couple from Burlington sat facing each other in matching wicker armchairs, eyes closed and hands extended. A few houses on, Shasta Daisy sat on the stoop of her tiny Queen Anne Victorian, sipping a wine cooler, curled sheets of graph paper littering the table in front of her.
“Where’s your mom?” Shasta called.
Moony shrugged and wiped a line of sweat from her cheek. “Resting, I guess.”
“Come have a drink.” Shasta raised her bottle. “I’ll do your chart.”
Moony shook her head. “Later. I got to get dinner.”
“Don’t forget there’s a moon circle tonight,” said Shasta. “Nine thirty at the gazebo.”
“Right.” Moony nodded, smiling glumly as she passed. What a bunch of kooks. At least her mother would be sleeping and not wasting her time conjuring up someone’s aura between wine coolers.
But when she got home, no one was there. She called her mother’s name as the screen door banged shut behind her, waited for a reply but there was none. For an instant a terrifying surge raced through her: something else had happened, her mother lay dead in the bedroom…
But the bedroom was empty, as were the living room and bathroom and anyplace else where Ariel might have chosen to die. The heady scent of basil filled the cottage, with a fainter hint of marijuana. When Moony finally went into the kitchen, she found the sink full of sand and half-rinsed basil leaves. Propped up on the drainboard was a damp piece of paper towel with a message spelled out in runny magic marker.
Moony: Went to Chapel
Moon circle at 9:30
Love love love Mom
“Right,” Moony said, disgusted. She crumpled the note and threw it on the floor. “Way to go, Mom.”
Marijuana, moon circle, astrological charts. Fucking
Of a sudden she was filled with rage, at her mother and Jason and Martin and all the rest. Why weren’t there any
here? Or lawyers, or secretaries, or anyone with half a brain, enough at least to take some responsibility for the fact that there were sick people here, people who were
for Christ’s sake and what was anyone doing about it? What was
doing about it?
“I’ve had it,” she said aloud. “I have
it.” She spun around and headed for the front door, her long hair an angry black blur around her grim face. “Amanda Rheining, you are going to the hospital.
She strode down the hill, ignoring Shasta’s questioning cries. The gravel bit into her bare feet as she rounded the turn leading to the chapel. From here she could glimpse the back door of Jason and Martin’s cottage. As Moony hurried past a stand of birches, she glimpsed Diana standing by the door, one hand resting on its crooked wooden frame. She was gazing out at the Bay with a rapt expression that might have been joy or exhausted grief, her hair gilded with the dying light.
For a moment Moony stopped, biting her lip. Diana at least might understand. She could ask Diana to come and help her force Ariel to go to the hospital. It would be like the intervention they’d done with Diana’s ex-husband. But that would mean going to Martin’s cottage, and confronting whatever it was that waited inside. Besides, Moony knew that no one at Mars Hill would ever force Ariel to do something she didn’t want to do; even live. No. It was up to her to save her mother: herself, Maggie Rheining. Abruptly she turned away
Westering light fell through the leaves of the ancient oak that shadowed the weathered gray chapel. The lupines and tiger lilies had faded with the dying summer. Now violet plumes of liatris sprang up around the chapel door beside unruly masses of sweet-smelling phlox and glowing clouds of asters. Of course no one ever weeded or thinned out the garden. The flowers choked the path leading to the door, so that Moony had to beat away a net of bees and lacewings and pale pink moths like rose petals, all of them rising from the riot of blossoms and then falling in a softly moving skein about the girl’s shoulders as she walked. Moony cursed and slashed at the air, heedless of a luna moth’s drunken somersault above her head, the glimmering wave of fireflies that followed her through the twilight.
At the chapel doorway Moony stopped. Her heart was beating hard, and she spat and brushed a liatris frond from her mouth. From inside she could hear a low voice; her mother’s voice. She was reciting the verse that, over the years, had become a sort of blessing for her, a little mantra she chanted and whispered summer after summer, always in hopes of summoning Them—
“With this field-dew consecrate
Every fairy take his gait
And each several chamber bless,
through this palace, with sweet peace;
Ever shall in safety rest,
and the owner of it blest.”
At the sound, Moony felt her heart clench inside her. She moved until her face pressed against the ancient gray screen sagging within its doorframe. The screen smelled heavily of dust; she pinched her nose to keep from sneezing. She gazed through the fine moth-pocked web as though through a silken scrim or the Bay’s accustomed fog.
Her mother was inside. She stood before the wooden altar, pathetic with its faded burden of wilting flowers and empty bottles and Jason’s cigarette butts scattered across the floor. From the window facing the Bay, lilac-colored light flowed into the room, mingling with the shafts of dusty gold falling from the casements set high within the opposing wall. Where the light struck the floor a small bright pool had formed. Ariel was dancing slowly in and out of this, her thin arms raised, the long heavy sweep of her patchwork skirt sliding back and forth to reveal her slender legs and bare feet, shod with a velvety coat of dust. Moony could hear her reciting, Shakespeare’s fairies’ song again, and a line from Julian of Norwich that Diana had taught her:
All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
And suddenly the useless purity of Ariel’s belief overwhelmed Moony. A stoned forty-three-year-old woman with breast cancer and a few weeks left to live, dancing inside a ruined chapel and singing to herself. Tears filled Moony’s eyes, fell and left a dirty streak against the screen. She drew a deep breath, fighting the wave of grief and despair, and pushed against the screen to enter. When she raised her head again, Ariel had stopped.
At first Moony thought her mother had seen her. But no. Ariel was staring straight ahead at the altar, her head cocked to one side as though listening. So intent was she that Moony stiffened as well, inexplicably frightened. She glanced over her shoulder, but of course there was no one there. But it was too late to keep her heart from pounding. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and turned, stepping over the sill toward Ariel.
“Mom,” Moony called softly. “Mom, I’m—”
Moony froze. In the center of the chapel her mother stood, arms writhing as she held them above her head, long hair whipping across her face. She was on fire. Flickers of gold and crimson ran along her arms and chest, lapped at her throat and face and set runnels of light flaming across her clothes. Moony could hear her shrieking, could see her tearing at her breast as she tried to rip away the burning fabric. With a howl Moony stumbled across the room—not thinking, hardly even seeing her as she lunged to grab Ariel and pull her down.
But before she could reach Ariel she tripped, smashed onto the uneven floor. Groaning she rolled over and tried to get back up. An arm’s-length away, her mother flailed, her voice given over now to a high shrill keening, her flapping arms still raised above her head. And for the first time Moony realized that there was no real heat, no flames. No smoke filled the little room. The light that streamed through the picture window was clear and bright as dawn.
Her mother was not on fire. She was with Them.
They were everywhere, like bees swarming across a bank of flowers. Radiant beads of gold and argent covered Ariel until Moony no longer saw her mother, but only the blazing silhouette of a woman, a numinous figure that sent a prismatic aurora rippling across the ceiling. Moony fell back, horrified, awe-struck. The figure continued its bizarre dance, hands lifting and falling as though reaching for something that was being pulled just out of reach. She could hear her mother’s voice, muted now to a soft repetitive cry—
—and a very faint clear tone, like the sustained note of a glass harmonica.
“Jesus,” Moony whispered, then yelled,
But They didn’t stop; only moved faster and faster across Ariel’s body until her mother was nothing but a blur, a chrysalis encased in glittering pollen, a burning ghost. Moony’s breath scraped against her throat. Her hands clawed at her knees, the floor, her own breasts, as her mother kept on with that soft moaning and the sound of the Light Children filled the chapel the way wine fills a glass.
And then gradually it all began to subside. Gradually the glowing sheath fell from her mother, not fading so much as
, the way Moony had once read the entrance to a woman’s womb will thin as its burden wakes to be born. The chiming noise died away. There was only a faint high echo in Moony’s ears. Violet light spilled from the high windows, a darker if weaker wine. Ariel sprawled on the dusty floor, her arms curled up against her chest like the dried hollow limbs of an insect, scarab or patient mantis. Her mouth was slack, and the folds of tired skin around her eyes. She looked inutterably exhausted, but also somehow at peace. With a cold stab like a spike driven into her breast, Moony knew that this was how Ariel would look in death; knew that this was how she looked, now; knew that she was dead.