Read Last Summer at Mars Hill Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill (9 page)

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The main house of the neighboring estate stood upon a broad slope of lawn overlooking the woods. Massive oaks and sycamores studded the grounds, and formal gardens that had been more carefully tended by the mansion’s previous owner, a New York fashion designer recently dead. At the foot of the long drive a post bore the placard on which was writ in spidery silver letters
KINGDOM COME
.

In an upstairs room Lie Vagal perched upon a windowsill. He stared out at the same young moon that watched Haley and Linette as they made their way through the woods. Had Lie known where to look he might have seen them as well; but he was watching the kinkajou sleeping in his lap.

It had appeared at breakfast two days earlier. Lie sat with his grandmother on the south terrace, eating Froot Loops and reading the morning mail,
The Wall Street Journal,
and a quarterly royalty statement from BMI. His grandmother stared balefully into a bowl of bran flakes, as though discerning there unpleasant intimations of the future.

“Did you take your medicine, Gram?” asked Lie. A leaf fell from an overhanging branch into his coffee cup. He fished it out before Gram could see it as another dire portent.

“Did you take yours, Elijah?” snapped Gram. She finished the bran flakes and reached for her own coffee, black and laced with chicory. She was eighty-four years old and had outlived all of her other relatives and many of Lie’s friends. “I know you didn’t yesterday.”

Lie shrugged. Another leaf dropped to the table, followed by a hail of bark and twigs. He peered up into the greenery, then pointed.

“Look,” he said. “A squirrel or cat or something.”

His grandmother squinted, shaking her head peevishly “I can’t see a thing.”

The shaking branches parted to show something brown attached to a slender limb. Honey-colored, too big for a squirrel, it clung to a branch that dipped lower and lower, spattering them with more debris. Lie moved his coffee cup and had started to his feet when it fell, landing on top of the latest issue of
New Musical Express.

For a moment he thought the fall had killed it. It just lay there, legs and long tail curled as though it had been a doodlebug playing dead. Then slowly it opened its eyes, regarded him with a muzzy golden gaze, and yawned, unfurling a tongue so brightly pink it might have been lipsticked. Lie laughed.

“It fell asleep in the tree! It’s a—a what-you-call-it, a sloth.”

His grandmother shook her head, pushing her glasses onto her nose. “That’s not a sloth. They have grass growing on them.”

Lie stretched a finger and tentatively stroked its tail. The animal ignored him, closing its eyes once more and folding its paws upon its glossy breast. Around its neck someone had placed a collar, the sort of leather-and-rhinestone ornament old ladies deployed on poodles. Gingerly Lie turned it, until he found a small heart-shaped tab of metal.

KINKAJOU

My name is Valentine

764-0007

“Huh,” he said. “I’ll be damned. I bet it belongs to those girls next door.” Gram sniffed and collected the plates. Next to Lie’s coffee mug, the compartmented container holding a week’s worth of his medication was still full.

The animal did nothing but sleep and eat. Lie called a pet store in the City and learned that kinkajous ate insects and honey and bananas. He fed it Froot Loops, yogurt, and granola, a moth he caught one evening in the bedroom. Tonight it slept once more, and he stroked it, murmuring to himself. He still hadn’t called the number on the collar.

From here he could just make out the cottage, a white blur through dark leaves and tangled brush. It was his cottage, really; a long time ago the estate gardener had lived there. The fashion designer had been friends with the present tenant in the City long ago. For the last fourteen years the place had been leased to Aurora Dawn. When he’d learned that, Lie Vagal had given a short laugh, one that the realtor had mistaken for displeasure.

“We could evict her,” she’d said anxiously. “Really, she’s no trouble, just the town drunk, but once you’d taken possession—”

“I wouldn’t
dream
of it.” Lie laughed again, shaking his head but not explaining. “Imagine, having Aurora Dawn for a neighbor again…”

His accountant had suggested selling the cottage, it would be worth a small fortune now, or else turning it into a studio or guest house. But Lie knew that the truth was, his accountant didn’t want Lie to start hanging around with Aurora again. Trouble; all the survivors from those days were trouble.

That might have been why Lie didn’t call the number on the collar. He hadn’t seen Aurora in fifteen years, although he had often glimpsed the girls playing in the woods. More than once he’d started to go meet them, introduce himself, bring them back to the house. He was lonely here. The visitors who still showed up at Aurora’s door at four
A.M.
used to bang around Lie’s place in the City. But that was long ago, before what Lie thought of as The Crash and what
Rolling Stone
had termed “the long tragic slide into madness of the one-time
force majeur
of underground rock and roll.” And his agent and his lawyer wouldn’t think much of him luring children to his woodland lair.

He sighed. Sensing some shift in the summer air, his melancholy perhaps, the sleeping kinkajou sighed as well, and trembled where it lay curled between his thighs. Lie lifted his head to gaze out the open window.

Outside the night lay still and deep over woods and lawns and the little dreaming cottage. A Maxfield Parrish scene, stars spangled across an ultramarine sky, twinkling bit of moon, there at the edge of the grass a trio of cottontails feeding peacefully amidst the dandelions. He had first been drawn to the place because it looked like this, like one of the paintings he collected. “Kiddie stuff,” his agent sniffed; “fairy tale porn.” Parrish and Rackham and Nielsen and Clarke. Tenniel prints of Alice’s trial. The DuFevre painting of the Erl-King that had been the cover of Lie Vagal’s second, phenomenally successful album. For the first two weeks after moving he had done nothing but pace the labyrinthine hallways, planning where they all would hang, this picture by this window, that one near another. All day, all night he paced; and always alone.

Because he was afraid his agent or Gram or one of the doctors would find out the truth about Kingdom Come, the reason he had really bought the place. He had noticed it the first time the realtor had shown the house. She’d commented on the number of windows there were—

“South-facing, too, the place is a hundred years old but it really functions as passive solar with all these windows. That flagstone floor in the green room acts as a heat sink—”

She nattered on, but Lie said nothing. He couldn’t believe that she didn’t notice. No one did, not Gram or his agent or the small legion of people brought in from Stamford who cleaned the place before he moved in.

It was the windows, of course. They always came to the windows first.

The first time he’d seen them had been in Marrakech, nearly sixteen years ago. A window shaped like a downturned heart, looking out onto a sky so blue it seemed to drip; and outside, framed within the window’s heavy white curves, Lie saw the crouching figure of a young man, bent over some object that caught the sun and flared so that he’d had to look away. When he’d turned back the young man was staring up in amazement as reddish smoke like dust roiled from the shining object. As Lie watched the smoke began to take the shape of an immense man. At that point the joint he held burned Lie’s fingers and he shouted, as much from panic as pain. When he looked out again the figures were gone.

Since then he’d seen them many times. Different figures, but always familiar, always fleeting, and brightly colored as the tiny people inside a marzipan egg. Sinbad and the Roc; the little mermaid and her sisters; a brave little figure carrying a belt engraved with the words
SEVEN AT A BLOW
. The steadfast tin soldier and a Christmas tree soon gone to cinders; dogs with eyes as big as teacups, as big as soup plates, as big as millstones. On tour in Paris, London, Munich, L.A., they were always there, as likely (or unlikely) to appear in a hotel room overlooking a dingy alley as within the crystal mullions of some heiress’s bedroom. He had never questioned their presence, not after that first shout of surprise. They were the people,
his
people; the only ones he could trust in what was fast becoming a harsh and bewildering world.

It was just a few weeks after the first vision in Marrakech that he went to that fateful party; and a few months after that came the staggering success of
The Erl-King.
And then The Crash, and all the rest of it. He had a confused memory of those years. Even now, when he recalled that time it was as a movie with too much crosscutting and no dialogue. An endless series of women (and men) rolling from his bed; dark glimpses of himself in the studio cutting
Baba Yaga
and
The Singing Bone;
a few overlit sequences with surging crowds screaming soundlessly beneath a narrow stage. During those years his visions of the people changed. At first his psychiatrist was very interested in hearing about them. And so for a few months that was all he’d talk about, until he could see her growing impatient. That was the last time he brought them up to anyone.

But he wished he’d been able to talk to someone about them; about how different they were since The Crash. In the beginning he’d always noticed only how beautiful they were, how like his memories of all those stories from his childhood. The little mermaid gazing adoringly up at her prince; the two children in the cottage made of gingerbread and gumdrops; the girl in her glass coffin awakened by a kiss. It was only after The Crash that he remembered the
other
parts of the tales, the parts that in childhood had made it impossible for him to sleep some nights and which now, perversely, returned to haunt his dreams. The witch shrieking inside the stove as she was burned to death. The wicked queen forced to dance in the red-hot iron shoes until she died. The little mermaid’s prince turning from her to marry another, and the mermaid changed to sea foam as punishment for his indifference.

But since he’d been at Kingdom Come these unnerving glimpses of the people had diminished. They were still there, but all was as it had been at the very first, myriad lovely creatures flitting through the garden like moths at twilight. He thought that maybe it was going off his medication that did it; and so the full prescription bottles were hoarded in a box in his room, hidden from Gram’s eyes.

That was how he made sure the people remained at Kingdom Come. Just like in Marrakech: they were in the windows. Each one opened onto a different spectral scene, visual echoes of the fantastic paintings that graced the walls. The bathroom overlooked a twilit ballroom; the kitchen a black dwarf’s cave. The dining room’s high casements opened onto the Glass Hill. From a tiny window in the third-floor linen closet he could see a juniper tree, and once a flute of pale bone sent its eerie song pulsing through the library.

“You hear that, Gram?” he had gasped. But of course she heard nothing; she was practically deaf.

Lately it seemed that they came more easily, more often. He would feel an itching at the corner of his eyes, Tinkerbell’s pixie dust, the Sandman’s seed. Then he would turn, and the placid expanse of new-mown lawn would suddenly be transformed into gnarled spooky trees beneath a grinning moon, rabbits holding hands, the grass frosted with dew that held the impressions of many dancing feet. He knew there were others he didn’t see, wolves and witches and bones that danced. And the most terrible one of all—the Erl-King, the one he’d met at the party; the one who somehow had set all this in motion and then disappeared. It was Lie’s worst fear that someday he would come back.

Now suddenly the view in front of him changed. Lie started forward. The kinkajou slid from his lap like a bolt of silk to lie at his feet, still drowsing. From the trees waltzed a girl, pale in the misty light. She wore a skirt that fetched just above her bare feet, a white blouse that set off a tangle of long dark hair. Stepping onto the lawn she paused, turned back and called into the woods. He could hear her voice but not her words. A child’s voice, although the skirt billowed about long legs and he could see where her breasts swelled within the white blouse.

Ah,
he thought, and tried to name her. Jorinda, Gretel, Ashputtel?

But then someone else crashed through the brake of saplings. Another girl, taller and wearing jeans and a halter top, swatting at her bare arms. He could hear what
she
was saying; she was swearing loudly while the first girl tried to hush her. He laughed, nudged the kinkajou on the floor. When it didn’t respond he bent to pick it up and went downstairs.

“I don’t think anyone’s home,” Haley said. She stood a few feet from the haven of the birch grove, feeling very conspicuous surrounded by all this open lawn. She killed another mosquito and scratched her arm. “Maybe we should just call, or ask your mother. If she knows this guy.”

“She doesn’t like him,” Linette replied dreamily. A faint mist rose in little eddies about them. She lifted her skirts and did a pirouette, her bare feet leaving darker impressions on the gray lawn. “And it would be even cooler if no one was there, we could go in and find Valentine and look around. Like a haunted house.”

“Like breaking and entering,” Haley said darkly but she followed her friend tiptoeing up the slope. The dewy grass was cool, the air warm and smelling of something sweet, oranges or maybe some kind of incense wafting down from the immense stone mansion.

They walked up the lawn, Linette leading the way. Dew soaked the hem of her skirt and the cuffs of Haley’s jeans. At the top of the slope stood the great main house, a mock-Tudor fantasy of stone and stucco and oak beams. Waves of ivy and cream-colored roses spilled from the upper eaves; toppling ramparts of hollyhocks grew against the lower story. From here Haley could see only a single light downstairs, a dim green glow from behind curtains of ivy. Upstairs, diamond-paned windows had been pushed open, forcing the vegetation to give way and hang in limp streamers, some of them almost to the ground. The scent of turned earth mingled with that of smoke and oranges.

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Checked Out by Elaine Viets
The Sweetest Thing by Jill Shalvis
Beneath the Dover Sky by Murray Pura
Cover of Night by Linda Howard
Cameron's Control by Vanessa Fewings
The Demise by Ashley & JaQuavis
Flesh Failure by Sèphera Girón