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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill (8 page)

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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Moony nodded, yawning. “Sure.” As he walked away, Jason looked back and saw her stretched out upon the gravel beach, arms outspread as she stared up at the three-quarter moon riding close to the edge of Mars Hill.

“So what’s going on?” he asked his father when they reached the cottage. Martin stood at the dining room table, his back to Jason. He picked up a small stack of envelopes and tapped them against the table, then turned to his son.

“I’m going back,” he said. “Home. I got a letter from Brandon today,”—Brandon was his agent—“there’s going to be a show at the Frick Gallery, and a symposium. They want me to speak.”

Jason stared at him, uncomprehending. His long pale hair fell into his face, and he pushed it impatiently from his eyes. “But—you can’t,” he said at last. “You’ll die. You can’t leave here. That’s what Adele said. You’ll die.”

Martin remained silent, before replacing the envelopes and shaking his head. “We don’t know that. Even before, we—I—didn’t know that. Nobody knows that, ever.”

Jason stared at him in disbelief. His face grew flushed as he said, “But you can’t! You’re sick—shit, Dad, look at John, you can’t just—”

His father pursed his lips, tugged at his ponytail. “No, Jason, I
.” Suddenly he looked surprised, a little sheepish even, and said more softly. “I mean, I
There’s too much for me to give up, Jason. Maybe it sounds stupid, but I think it’s important that I go back. Not right away. I think I’ll stay on for a few weeks, maybe until the end of October. You know, see autumn in New England and all. But after that—well, there’s work for me to do at home, and—”

Jason’s voice cracked as he shook his head furiously. “Dad. No. You’ll—you’ll die.”

Martin shrugged. “I might. I mean, I guess I will, sometime. But—well, everybody dies.” His mouth twisted into a smile as he stared at the floor. “Except Mrs. Grose.”

Jason continued to shake his head. “But—you
Them—They came, They must’ve done

Martin looked up, his eyes feverishly bright. “They did. That’s why I’m leaving. Look, Jason, I can’t explain, all right? But what if you had to stay here, instead of going on to Bowdoin? What if Moony left, and everyone else—would you stay at Mars Hill?

Jason was silent. Finally, “I think you should stay,” he said, a little desperately. “Otherwise whatever They did was wasted.”

Martin shook his head. His hand closed around a tube of viridian on the table and he raised it, held it in front of him like a weapon. His eyes glittered as he said, “Oh, no, Jason. Not wasted. Nothing is wasted, not ever.” And tilting his head he smiled, held out his arm until his son came to him and Martin embraced him, held him there until Jason’s sobs quieted, and the moon began to slide behind Mars Hill.

Jason drove Moony to the airport on Friday. Most of his things already had been shipped from San Francisco to Bowdoin College, but Moony had to return to Kamensic Village and the Loomises, to gather her clothes and books for school and make all the awkward explanations and arrangements on her own. Friends and relations in New York had been told that Ariel was undergoing some kind of experimental therapy, an excuse they bought as easily as they’d bought most of Ariel’s other strange ideas. Now Moony didn’t want to talk to anyone else on the phone. She didn’t want to talk to anyone at all, except for Jason.

“It’s kind of on the way to Brunswick,” he explained when Diana protested his driving Moony. “Besides, Diana, if you took her she’d end up crying the whole way. This way I can keep her intact at least until the airport.”

Diana gave in, finally. No one suggested that Ariel drive.

“Look down when the plane flies over Mars Hill,” Ariel said, hugging her daughter by the car. “We’ll be looking for you.”

Moony nodded, her mouth tight, and kissed her mother. “You be okay,” she whispered, the words lost in Ariel’s tangled hair.

“I’ll be okay,” Ariel said, smiling.

Behind them Jason and Martin embraced. “If you’re still here I’ll be up Columbus Weekend,” said Jason. “Maybe sooner if I run out of money.”

Martin shook his head. “If you run out of money you better go see your mother.”

It was only twenty minutes to the airport. “Don’t wait,” Moony said to Jason, as the same woman who had taken her ticket loaded her bags onto the little Beechcraft. “I mean it. If you do I’ll cry and I’ll kill you.”

Jason nodded. “Righto. We don’t want any bad publicity.
‘Noted Queer Activist’s Son Slain by Girlfriend at Local Airport. Wind Shear Is Blamed.’”

Moony hugged him, drew away to study his face. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

He shook his head. “Tonight. When you get home. So I’ll know you got in safely. ’Cause it’s dangerous out there.” He made an awful face, then leaned over to kiss her. “Ciao, Moony.”

“Ciao, Jason.”

She could feel him watching her as she clambered into the little plane, but she didn’t look back. Instead she smiled tentatively at the few other passengers—a businessman with a tie loose around his neck, two middleaged women with L.L. Bean shopping bags—and settled into a seat by the window.

During takeoff she leaned over to see if she could spot Jason. For an instant she had a flash of his car, like a crimson leaf blowing south through the darkening green of pines and maples. Then it was gone.

Trailers of mist whipped across the little window. Moony shivered, drew her sweatshirt tight around her chest. She felt that beneath her everything she had ever known was shrinking, disappearing, swallowed by golden light; but somehow it was okay. As the Beechcraft banked over Penobscot Bay she pressed her face close against the glass, waiting for the gap in the clouds that would give her a last glimpse of the gray and white cottages tumbling down Mars Hill, the wind-riven pier where her mother and Martin and all the rest stood staring up into the early autumn sky, tiny as fairy people in a child’s book. For an instant it seemed that something hung over them, a golden cloud like a September haze. But then the blinding sun made her glance away. When she looked down again the golden haze was gone. But the others were still there, waving and calling out soundlessly until the plane finally turned south and bore her away, away from summer and its silent visitors—her mother’s cancer, Martin’s virus, the Light Children and Their hoard of stolen sufferings—away, away, away from them all, and back to the welcoming world.

From the start I had a somewhat uncanny feeling about this story, just as I did with “The Have-Nots;” though it took much longer to write. Mars Hill was inspired by an actual spiritualist community a few miles up the road from where I live in Maine. I often drove by it but never went in for a psychic reading until well after the story appeared. The place was pretty much as I had imagined it to be, though there were no golden phantoms around the day I visited.

People I loved had died of breast cancer and AIDS, and that was the impetus for the story, along with a strange song by Fred Frith called “The Welcome” (which was “Mars Hill’s” original title). When I wrote this, it was pure wish fulfillment; protease inhibitors had not been recognized as the crucial treatment they’ve become for AIDS and breast cancer had yet to make an appearance on the front page of the
New York Times Magazine.
This story is about the cure we all pray for. And it’s about hope, which is what keeps us going when there is no cure in sight. But mostly it’s about keeping on, whether or not we want to, in a world where hope sometimes seems like another diminishing natural resource.

The Erl-King

missing for two days now. Haley feared it was dead, killed by one of the neighborhood dogs or by a fox or wildcat in the woods. Linette was certain it was alive; she even knew where it was.

“Kingdom Come,” she announced, pointing a long lazy hand in the direction of the neighboring estate. She dropped her hand and sipped at a mug of tepid tea, twisting so she wouldn’t spill it as she rocked back and forth. It was Linette’s turn to lie in the hammock. She did so with feckless grace, legs tangled in her long peasant skirt, dark hair spilled across the faded canvas. She had more practice at it than Haley, this being Linette’s house and Linette’s overgrown yard bordering the woods of spindly young pines and birches that separated them from Kingdom Come. Haley frowned, leaned against the oak tree, and pushed her friend desultorily with one foot.

“Then why doesn’t your mother call them or something?” Haley loved the kinkajou and justifiably feared the worst. With her friend exotic pets came and went, just as did odd visitors to the tumbledown cottage where Linette lived with her mother, Aurora. Most of the animals were presents from Linette’s father, an elderly Broadway producer whose successes paid for the rented cottage and Linette’s occasional artistic endeavors (flute lessons, sitar lessons, an incomplete course in airbrushing) as well as the bottles of Tanqueray that lined Aurora’s bedroom. And, of course, the animals. An iguana whose skin peeled like mildewed wallpaper, finally lost (and never found) in the drafty dark basement where the girls held annual Hallowe’en séances. An intimidatingly large Moluccan cockatoo that escaped into the trees, terrorizing Kingdom Come’s previous owner and his garden-party guests by shrieking at them in Gaelic from the wisteria. Finches and fire weavers small enough to hold in your fist. A quartet of tiny goats, Haley’s favorites until the kinkajou.

The cockatoo started to smell worse and worse, until one day it flopped to the bottom of its wrought-iron cage and died. The finches escaped when Linette left the door to their bamboo cage open. The goats ran off into the woods surrounding Lake Muscanth. They were rumored to be living there still. But this summer Haley had come over every day to make certain the kinkajou had enough to eat, that Linette’s cats weren’t terrorizing it; that Aurora didn’t try to feed it crème de menthe as she had the capuchin monkey that had fleetingly resided in her room.

“I don’t know,” Linette said. She shut her eyes, balancing her mug on her stomach. A drop of tea spilled onto her cotton blouse, another faint petal among faded ink stains and the ghostly impression of eyes left by an abortive attempt at batik. “I think Mom knows the guy who lives there now, she doesn’t like him or something. I’ll ask my father next time.”

Haley prodded the hammock with the toe of her sneaker. “It’s almost my turn. Then we should go over there. It’ll die if it gets cold at night.”

Linette smiled without opening her eyes. “Nah. It’s still summer,” she said, and yawned.

Haley frowned. She moved her back up and down against the bole of the oak tree, scratching where a scab had formed after their outing to Mandrake Island to look for the goats. It was early August, nearing the end of their last summer before starting high school, the time Aurora had named “the summer before the dark.”

“My poor little girls,” Aurora had mourned a few months earlier. It had been only June then, the days still cool enough that the City’s wealthy fled each weekend to Kamensic Village to hide among the woods and wetlands in their Victorian follies. Aurora was perched with Haley and Linette on an ivied slope above the road, watching the southbound Sunday exodus of limousines and Porsches and Mercedes. “Soon you’ll be gone.”

“Jeez, Mom,” laughed Linette. A plume of ivy tethered her long hair back from her face. Aurora reached to tug it with one unsteady hand. The other clasped a plastic cup full of gin. “No one’s going anywhere, I’m going to Fox Lane,”—that was the public high school—“you heard what Dad said. Right, Haley?”

Haley had nodded and stroked the kinkajou sleeping in her lap. It never did anything but sleep, or open its golden eyes to half-wakefulness oh, so briefly before finding another lap or cushion to curl into. It reminded her of Linette in that, her friend’s heavy lazy eyes always ready to shut, her legs quick to curl around pillows or hammock cushions or Haley’s own battle-scarred knees. “Right,” said Haley, and she had cupped her palm around the soft warm globe of the kinkajou’s head.

Now the hammock creaked noisily as Linette turned onto her stomach, dropping her mug into the long grass. Haley started, looked down to see her hands hollowed as though holding something. If the kinkajou died she’d never speak to Linette again. Her heart beat faster at the thought.

“I think we should go over. If you think it’s there.
—” Haley grabbed the ropes restraining the hammock, yanked them back and forth so that Linette shrieked, her hair caught between hempen braids—“it’s—

They snuck out that night. The sky had turned pale green, the same shade as the crystal globe wherein three ivory-bellied frogs floated, atop a crippled table. To keep the table from falling Haley had propped a broom handle beneath it for a fourth leg—although she hated the frogs, bloated things with prescient yellow eyes. Some nights when she slept over they broke her sleep with their song, high-pitched trilling that disturbed neither Linette snoring in the other bed nor Aurora drinking broodingly in her tiny shed-roofed wing of the cottage. It was uncanny, almost frightening sometimes, how nothing ever disturbed them: not dying pets nor utilities cut off for lack of payment nor unexpected visits from Aurora’s small circle of friends, People from the Factory Days she called them. Rejuvenated junkies or pop stars with new careers, or wasted beauties like Aurora Dawn herself. All of them seemingly forever banned from the real world, the adult world Haley’s parents and family inhabited, magically free as Linette herself was to sample odd-tasting liqueurs and curious religious notions and lost arts in their dank corners of the City or the shelter of some wealthier friend’s up-county retreat. Sleepy-eyed from dope or taut from amphetamines, they lay around the cottage with Haley and Linette, offering sips of their drinks, advice about popular musicians and contraceptives. Their hair was streaked with gray now, or dyed garish mauve or blue or green. They wore high leather boots and clothes inlaid with feathers or mirrors, and had names that sounded like the names of expensive perfumes: Liatris, Coppelia, Electric Velvet. Sometimes Haley felt that she had wandered into a fairy tale, or a movie.
Beauty and the Beast
perhaps, or
The Dark Crystal.
Of course it would be one of Linette’s favorites; Linette had more imagination and sensitivity than Haley. The kind of movie Haley would choose to wander into would have fast cars and gunshots in the distance, not aging refugees from another decade passed out next to the fireplace. She thought of that now, passing the globe of frogs. They went from the eerie interior dusk of the cottage into the strangely aqueous air outside. Despite the warmth of the late summer evening Haley shivered as she gazed back at the cottage. The tiny bungalow might have stood there unchanged for five hundred years, for a thousand. No warm yellow light spilled from the windows as it did at her own house. There was no smell of dinner cooking, no television chattering. Aurora seldom cooked, Linette never. There was no TV. Only the frogs hovering in their silver world, and the faintest cusp of a new moon like a leaf cast upon the surface of the sky.

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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