Sat 1 Aug 2015
by E. Catherine Tobler
In those moments before, in the dark of the woods, we were near perfect likenesses of each other: faces round and curious, not having lost the plumpness of youth; eyes brightened by the possibility that lay at the end of our journey; coats buttoned up proper and bags carrying all we thought we needed still neatly zippered closed.
One might look at we four and say sisters, but we were not. Beneath our exteriors, we were as different as sun and moon, as Earth and Mars. Each might hang in the same sky, but one burned with its own light while the other could only reflect what was thrown its direction; one exploded with water and life while the other hung as a dry husk, millennia dead.
Moon was what my mother called me, bundling me like a crescent within her arms as she rocked me to sleep on the back porch night after night. Her weathered hands smoothed over my cheeks as she told me there was no man in the moon, but a girl, round and plump, gleaming pale as moonlight itself. Moon was what I was, then—in those moments before.
I didn’t possess my own light, but readily reflected and studied that of others.
The woods were not lovely, though I would grant them both dark and deep as we wound our way closer to Philadelphia to see Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. It was the best of all possible worlds: Halloween had come and gone, but the weekend stretched ahead and with it, a chunk of treasured, unsupervised adventuring.
My sister Audrey, seventeen, slim, and perfect, had kicked us out of the faded tomato-red Rambler still on the Jersey side of the river. She was supposed to take us straight to the circus, but left us before we’d even hit the old rail bridge. It wasn’t right, but after seeing the empty look in her eyes, none of us said a word. We slid out and she was gone almost before the door latched shut. We would end up like the boy in the box, Norma whispered, but Trudy slapped her arm and for a long while we stood in silence, daylight running out around us.
Two nights ago Audrey and I sat at the very intersection we shuffled out of now; the Rambler rumbled as it always had and Audrey stared down the road, like she could see all manner of things I couldn’t. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse, held one unlit between her lips, and just stared. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy. The cigarette had bobbed, drawing a long shadow over her chin, her neck. In the half light of the streetlight, she was just shadows. She never did light that cigarette.
Four shadows stretched across the road now as we nodded at each other, resolved, and left the pavement for the woods trailing along the Delaware River. Five miles to the bridge? More? I didn’t know, had never been there on foot before, and wasn’t sure why Audrey had been.
The Delaware River growled a distant rumble to our left. The day was not yet over, but sunlight struggled to reach the ground here, leaving the mulch in dappled in vague shadows. I placed my foot in every slight mark Rum left ahead of me, as she followed Trudy. I glanced over my shoulder to make certain of Norma. She was still there, though lagging behind, the tall grass plucking at the frilled hem of her skirt.
“They are not putting a dog in space.”
Norma, who tended to cringe every time she heard a male voice, cringed now, even though there were no boys or men close. Her head came up sharply at Rum’s words. Her eyes were as dark as the woods, but I could see the confusion in them. I looked forward again, to the set of Rum’s slight shoulders, to the bounce of Trudy’s copper pompadour turned umber in the forest gloom.
“Lu, you tell her—dogs don’t go in space. People don’t go in space, tell her.”
I kept pace with Rum and Trudy, but also held my silence for a minute. The Russians had a bomb stored up for every man, woman, and child in America. Why wouldn’t they shoot a dog into space for kicks?
“They’re doing no such thing,” Rum said again around the gob of chewing gum in her mouth. “No one would put a dog in outer space, for crying out loud. What good’s a dog gonna be up there? Not like they can do experiments—”
“You aren’t listening to me, Rum. They can be experiments,” Trudy said. Her own gum sounded like a sharp gunshot as she chewed the air out of a bubble. “They’re going to see what happens to the dog, right? Next step, probably people. In space.” She lifted her hands into the gloomy air and wriggled her fingers, the silent explosion of a billion rockets. While provoking the others seemed like a thing that gave Trudy glee, there was more to it than that. I had seen the way she blushed when Norma looked at her. It was the same way Audrey blushed when Joel looked her way.
“God wouldn’t like a dog in space,” Norma muttered as she came up alongside me, like there was comfort in being closer. She jabbed her hands into her coat pockets like they were faces and she was punching them in. “If dogs were meant to go to space, they would already be there. God put them on the ground for a reason. Just like we’re on the ground. A reason.”
Rum’s shoulders bowed a little. Then, she turned around and walked backwards, eyes on me all the while like I was the only known spot on a map. Her face was round and trusting, a cherub, dark hair hanging in glossy ringlets against her cheeks. “Lu, you tell me, they wouldn’t put a dog in space…would they?”
Rum was a year younger than us, thirteen. She claimed she was a runaway from the Amish in Lancaster and while we weren’t sure how possible it was—we had never seen any black Amish—we couldn’t disprove it, and Norma had tried three times. I alone knew her name wasn’t Rum—it was Hannah Fisher, a thing she’d sworn me to silence about.
Rum didn’t have family anywhere local, that was for sure. She had lived at the children’s home with the nuns for a good bit now, but the world remained exceedingly strange for her; everything was horribly possible all at once because she didn’t know any better. Maybe shooting dogs into space was a thing.
I was the one she asked; even above the sisters at the school, she trusted my word, even though I was a writer, and skilled at making things up. Especially stories where people, dogs, and insects went into space on ships named Presley and Haley, and loved it there.
“They’re Russians, Rum,” I said. “No telling what they’d do.” I pictured my sister sitting with her unlit cigarette, remembered the flutter of her pulse in her throat as she sat and stared into the night. Joel wasn’t supposed to…
Rum’s gaze swung back to Trudy. Waiting. Trudy nodded and stopped walking, to shift her pack into her hands where she could unzip it. Inside were crammed magazines, their paper and ink scent sharply filling the evening air. We each stopped in our tracks to wonder at what was in there. I felt some things would be certain: magazine covers of Elvis, newspaper clippings about Paul Anka, her transistor radio that she likely smuggled out.
“Sunday morning, going to shoot her straight into the stars,” Trudy said. “See here.” She might have been a librarian with the ease her fingers found across the magazine spines and edges, to pluck a rumpled newspaper free. Mars Bars wrappers crinkled in its wake.
Rum’s hand shot out to take the newspaper. Such things were still small miracles to her, she who claimed to have run away from her folks because she refused to be married. I supposed if people could catapult a dog into space, other people could try to marry off their child of a daughter. Amish were much like Russians in my head; as alien as the creatures I spent hours writing about.
The story about the dog was made suddenly worse with the unfurling of the newspaper. The dog had a name, an image, a set of bright eyes that one could get lost in. I refused to look overly long at the grainy image, but Rum couldn’t look away.
“Laika,” Rum read. “She was a stray!” Her eyes shot up to Trudy who only nodded again, justifiably smug now that she had produced newsprint evidence. Rum scoured the article, assuring us she would read only the germane bits, which seemed to be every word on the page. They were launching the dog into space on Sunday, to study the effects of space on a living creature.
Rum’s shoulders sank and she started to walk, eyes still riveted to the paper. I elbowed Trudy as she zipped her bag shut, but it was Norma’s voice that filled the long silence with reprimands as Rum walked away.
“Just a stray—still a creature of God, like Rum if you think about it long enough. Runaway, stray, not much different. What do they think’s going to happen to it? The dog, not Rum.”
“Nobody knows,” Trudy said, and they both fell back into step behind Rum. “That’s the point.”
I followed, but slower, because my mind was coming up with all sorts of things that could happen to that poor dog. Asphyxiation. Alien abduction. Rocket could fall into the moon or back into the ocean, gravity depending. Rocket could fall apart before it even left the launch pad and what of the dog then? Mostly, I wondered if we Americans would try to shoot the rocket down, thinking it was a bomb, thinking that we were going to blow them up before they could blow us up.
We walked in silence until Norma started singing “Sandman.”
“Bum, bum, bum…”
One by one, we chimed in. It was a song we practiced for no good reason—”because we could” didn’t seem to please our parents enough. They found us silly as we tried to harmonize the way the Chordettes did, but mostly we didn’t care. Singing to the mythical Sandman brought its own rewards, even if the lyrics were ridiculous. Trudy refused to sing beyond providing the “yeees?” when the Sandman finally appeared; said it was degrading to dream only of a man, which made Rum kick it up even higher.
“And lots of wavy hair like Lib-er-ace!” Rum fairly hollered as we walked ever toward the still-distant bridge in the growing dark.
The dog came out of nowhere. It was like the darkness peeled a part of itself away and lunged for Rum. Later, Trudy would say the dog didn’t want her singing, either, but mostly I think it was on account of her being loud and small, seemingly easy prey, but for we who closed in (after a good stretch of mindless shrieking, make no mistake).
Rum was on the ground before I knew what had happened, Trudy and Norma leaping back, stumbling into trees and each other. I stopped altogether, staring at the twist of dark forms in the growing dark of the woods. I couldn’t tell Rum from the animal at first, didn’t even know it was a dog until I swung my bag and caught it in the nose. It reeled back with a whine and I grabbed Rum by the arm, pulling her out of biting distance.
She was so still and quiet, especially in the wake of Trudy and Norma screaming at the dog. They chased it into the trees and I hauled Rum into my lap, trying to ignore the way my thighs shook, the way my hands were covered in blood from where Rum had been bitten.
Rum was not given to prayer, despite being roped into a covenant school, nor was I. Oh, we all went to church every Sunday, and sat proper and listened to words that were supposed to encourage thought and reflection, but mostly we wanted to be tromping through the woods, setting up forts, brushing out each other’s hair, making firm denials that any of us were growing up ever. We were not curving in new places, we were not asking our mothers to buy us bras or feminine hygiene products and the world was a still one long, continual summer afternoon where anything but these strange things was possible.
“Get your coat off,” I said and my voice was strangely thick, like I had been crying and yelling and I wouldn’t admit to either.
I helped peel Rum’s coat off to see the blood well up from her forearm. “Jesus Christ,” I bit out.
The screams in the woods grew more distant, the crash of undergrowth and fallen branches and who knew what else. I reached for my bag, the zipper hard to work with bloodied fingers, but eventually got it open. I grabbed the first thing I came to, rolled knee socks, white, splattered with purple polka dots. They were my favorite, a birthday gift from Audrey. I unbundled them and tied each one tight around Rum’s arm, paying no mind to the way she hollered.
“We are going back,” I said, and made to move away, to get her coat and my bag and Rum caught me before I could do anything.
“We are not.”
I could picture a hundred things going wrong with Rum’s arm. It could get infected. It could bleed itself dry and wither right off at her elbow and when it dropped off, the dog that bit her would be there to pick it up in its awful maw and carry it away for dinner, for a toy, for a trophy.
“Makes no sense going back,” Rum said, “just like it makes no sense to shoot a dog into the moon. Into space. Wherever she’s going.” Her voice dropped low and her fingers uncurled from my arm. “We’re not going back. Wrap my nightgown around my arm. Put my coat back on. They don’t need to know. I need to go.”
They would know, I thought, but I opened Rum’s bag, found her nightgown (butter yellow with a tiny pink ribbon rose at the neckline), and wrapped it around my socks which already bound her arm. We stuffed her into her coat with grunts and groans and by the time Trudy and Norma came back, breathless and sweaty, we had washed ourselves clean with the water from Rum’s canteen.
“Don’t know where it went,” Norma said. She bent over, hands on knees as she tried to breathe.
“Away is good enough,” Trudy said. She glanced at the sky, then back down to Rum. She laughed. “Maybe Laika’s spirit crawled into that dog, came to tell you she wants to go, huh?”
“Spirits don’t work that way—dogs don’t even have souls. Spirits certainly don’t crawl, what do they tell you in that church of yours,” Norma began, but Rum cut her off with a “bum, bum, bum, Mr. Sandman!”
Norma threw her hands up and stalked into the woods, back on the path we’d been keeping to as if there had never been a dog, a chase. Trudy hefted her own pack and gave me a wide smile before following her. I gave the still-singing Rum a hand up from the ground and we followed.
“German shepherd?” Norma asked once the singing had settled down, and the dark rose more firmly above us. We would have to stop soon. “Bloodhound? It was big. Smelled bad. Like it had been out here a long time. Saint Bernard?”
I hadn’t noticed any smell, but I hoped the dog hadn’t been sick. It was too easy to picture Rum getting sick, turning green or purple or some other hideous color as her body began to rot. Maybe she would turn into a dog and then there’d be no hiding it.
Behind us, I heard a sound like a dog walking through leaves. Crunch, crunch, pause, crunch, snuffle. I looked back, but it was too dark to see anything. I rooted in my bag until I came up with my flashlight, then shone it on the path behind us.
“What’s there?” Rum asked.
I had turned to walk backwards, still shining my light behind us. “Nothing,” I said, just as my light skimmed past a pair of eyes that lit up like small, exploding suns.
This only set the dog off, digging paws into the earth to charge us. God, it was huge. I wanted to brain it with my flashlight, but kept hold of it against all instincts shrieking otherwise. The light bounced through the trees as I ran; falling stars, ricocheting headlights, the sunlight in a wavering mirror.
“Into the trees!” I screamed. “Into the trees!”
The trees weren’t made for climbing, but we did our best with what we’d been given. The bark bit into my hands and knees, and by the time I’d gone as high as I could go, I’d wedged the flashlight in my shirt, in the slim strap of my bra where it crossed between my breasts. First thing it had been good for.
I pulled the light out and aimed it to the ground, searching for the beast. It was there, making circles around the trees. It was huge, didn’t look like a proper dog at all. Drool gleamed down its jaw, ceaseless as it stalked us. It didn’t bark, only cast its gaze upward, watching. Waiting.
I shone the light into the other trees, looking for the girls. I found them one by one, clinging as I did to a branch that seemed only just wide enough to not break right off. Rum’s eyes were wide with terror, Norma’s too, but Trudy, she was laughing as she wrapped herself more tightly around the tree.
“Now there’s a dog that needs to be in space,” she said.
- Gently Down the Stream
It was probably a Saint Bernard, but hard to say.
Come morning—a Saturday that was trying to rain, when we should have been in our own homes, having syrupy pancakes—Rum and I were still in the tree tops, the dog sleeping beneath us. It was possibly white at one time, but had been so long in the woods, it was now the color of the woods themselves, blotchy brown and gold and black. It had no collar, so no tag.
Rum was in the tree closest to me and she was the color of old, dried mud. She was shaking as she tried to hold on to the tree and maybe this wasn’t going to end well, but surely it had to end soon. I looked for Trudy and Norma, but saw no sign of them. Had they already climbed down? I looked back at the dog. Had it eaten them? A thing like that, you’d think we might hear it.
“Rum, we need to climb down,” I said.
“There’s a… There’s a dog down there, Lu.” She yawned and I could see how paper-dry her lips were.
“There is not a dog down there,” I said. I adjusted my bag, checked the flashlight in my bra, and began to climb down the tree. “There is a fairy trapped in the body of a dog—a fairy who doesn’t know any better than to plow into four girls who’re walking to the city to see the circus. What does she know about anything in that body?” I paused on the next too-thin branch, listening to it crackle. Rum hadn’t moved. “Let’s find out, Rum. Come on, climb down with me. Bet you can’t beat me.”
That was enough to get her moving. I exhaled and said nothing more as we moved down from the trees. No branches broke; I found if I moved fast enough, they just didn’t have time. When my feet touched the ground, the dog lifted its massive head to look at me, but didn’t move. Its eyes were chocolate brown, curious but not hostile like last night.
I moved toward Rum’s tree, to clasp her by a foot and help her down to the ground. Like my mother would have, I pressed a hand to her head, thinking I would be assaulted with a veritable book of information about what ailed her. No such book came, but I was certain she felt warmer than she should have, especially with the misting rain.
“Here.” I uncapped my canteen and handed it to her. She drank like she’d never had a sip of anything in her life. I wanted to unwrap her arm and take a look at it, but also didn’t, because that meant admitting we had a problem bigger than a dog possessed by a fairy.
“S’fairy?” she asked, wiping her hand over her mouth.
I nodded and looked at the dog. “Only explanation.” Of course there were a hundred others, though the dog didn’t look sick. I crouched down to study it and its ears perked forward, tail worming through the damp leaves. “Maybe she’s forgotten how to talk—given that drooling mouth, you can’t actually blame her…”
There was an empty wrapper near one paw and the dog’s tongue lolled out, to curl around a tattered chunk of Mars Bar. Leaves came with it, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, swallowing everything in one gulp. The tail scrabbled in the leaves again, happy, eager, dog-like. I couldn’t quite convince myself it was a dog, all things considered.
Rum had crouched down beside me and tipped forward to her knees, to bend almost entirely to the ground as she studied the dog.
“Laika?” she whispered.
The dog’s entire body wriggled, but it made no move toward Rum. This was not Laika; it bore no resemblance to the dog in the paper. As Norma said, souls didn’t work that way and Laika was in Russia, getting ready to head to the stars. Whatever this was, it wasn’t that. This close, the dog did smell weird; syrup, shave cream, and chocolate.
Rum whispered, “Free, free, a trip to Mars, for nine-hundred empty jars. Burma-Shave,” and reached a trembling hand out.
“Rum, I don’t think you should—”
The dog’s tongue spooled out again, this time around Rum’s hand in a slobbery lick. Every part of me was poised to jump at her and haul her back, but the tongue withdrew without taking her hand off. The dog leaned forward and Rum scratched it between its eyes.
I stepped backward, into Trudy and Norma who had returned. Their arms were full of sticks and rocks, and I helped them clear a space to make a small fire. Norma ringed the rocks, I tented the sticks, and Trudy pulled a magazine and a lighter from her bag. She tore pages from the back of the magazine, carefully along the spine edge. Only the advertisements, though even this left the first couple of pages loose. She tucked them carefully away before setting fire to the pages balled under the sticks.
Norma offered up a bag of marshmallows. This kind of thing was tradition; when our parents let us go on a weekend, we were on our own for all things. While we had pocket money for food and circus admissions, we had packed a good many things we weren’t normally allowed to eat. Root beer and melted marshmallows for breakfast, for example. Trudy passed out bottles of Hires, but not even that was enough to get Rum to join us.
“Dog didn’t do anything when we climbed down,” Trudy said as she leaned a bottle of Hires against the log for Rum if she wanted. She then skewered a marshmallow on the end of a stick and held it into the flames. “Gave him a Mars Bar though, just in case.”
“Dogs shouldn’t eat candy,” Norma said.
“Well, he did eat it.” I glanced away from Rum and the dog, back to Norma with her strict set of rules and Trudy with her distinct lack of them. In the humid morning, Norma’s curls had turned into a brown cotton ball while Trudy’s pompadour curved almost flat against her skull.
“Found a cardboard box out there,” Norma said. “Flat, wet.”
No one said anything to that, but we were all thinking the same thing. That poor little dead boy the police had found, that no one stepped up to claim. Wrapped in a plaid blanket and just left there. Left in a box. Dead, dead, dead. I burned my tongue with my marshmallow and took a long swallow of root beer.
“How far are we?”
The question came from Rum. She pulled herself up from the leaves and came to sit by my side. The dog padded along side her, flanking me. It looked at our staked marshmallows and then back to Rum.
Trudy palmed her hair out of her eyes. “Not too far, few more miles up the river to the bridge—”
“The rail bridge?” Norma asked. “We can’t cross there—that’s for trains.”
“Might as well cross there—no sense in walking five more miles.” Trudy twirled her marshmallow in the flames until it was a dripping black mess, then brought it to her mouth.
Norma hunched her shoulders in her coat and let her marshmallow catch fire; it dripped into the sticks, long strands of white instantly blackened.
“And what about this stupid dog?” Rum tried her best to sound angry about it, but somehow didn’t. She also didn’t sound scared. I think I would have been scared, having no good idea about the dog or the wound it had inflicted.
“It doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave.” Trudy lobbed a stone toward the dog’s paws; it landed short and the dog didn’t even spook.
Even as we smothered the fire and packed our bags, the dog stayed with us, and once back on the trail, it lopped slightly ahead, as if leading the way. I tried not to think too hard on that, worried about Rum. She didn’t look any worse, and was walking as normal as anyone, but I couldn’t forget the blood on her arm last night or the muddy color to her cheeks this morning.
“Well, did he put his arm around you?”
Ahead of me and Rum, Trudy and Norma walked with shoulders nearly together, but at this question, Norma took a step away.
“He did not,” Norma said. “Once you let a boy put his arm around you, he knows exactly how far he may go. He wanted to, but…no. He did not.”
Trudy pressed. “Did you want him to?”
Trudy was forever wanting to know about boys, about dancing and holding hands and arms scooped around shoulders. She dreamed of kissing, no matter that everyone told her if she turned her gorgeous fall of copper curls into a pompadour, she would never be kissed by a boy ever. She didn’t seem too upset, only wanted to know about kissing. The news that Norma had been within touching distance of a boy who wanted to put his arm around her was special indeed. I hadn’t been kissed. Trudy hadn’t been kissed. Rum said she never wanted a thing to do with boys, which led Trudy to believe she had been kissed and often. That our rule-following Catholic Norma had been so close to a boy was revolutionary.
Norma didn’t answer Trudy and Trudy laughed. Laughed so loud she startled birds from the wet trees. Norma shoved her and walked a little faster down the trail, arms clasped around herself.
“That wasn’t very nice, Tru,” I murmured, but Trudy only laughed more.
“No, it wasn’t,” she agreed.
“Bum, bum, bum,” Rum sang, but no one joined in just then.
We walked in silence and eventually Rum’s hand slipped into mine. She was tiring and cold from the rain that never quite fell. The sky was a sheet of gray beyond the trees that were half-empty of leaves. It seemed we should have been to the bridge hours ago, the woods stretching out impossibly far. I questioned how far we had actually gone and glanced back only to see endless woods on that side of us too. The birds had gone strangely quiet and so had the river, as if we were farther from it and the bridge than we ever had been. Where had Audrey left us? A shiver slid down my spine and when the dog barked, I nearly jumped out of my skin. My hand tightened around Rum’s.
Above us, high above the canopy of trees, a dark shadow circled. This had caught the dog’s attention, setting him to barking and capering further down the sodden trail. I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or annoyance, but he didn’t stop barking as he tore off the path and into the trees. I stopped walking and Rum, still clinging to my hand (or did I cling to her?), stopped too. We looked up and watched this strange shape trace paths in the sky.
It was too big to be a bird—unless it was a vulture, but even at that, I had never seen vultures here and it was bigger beyond that. But it moved like a bird, wings dipping down to propel itself higher against the gray sky.
“What is that, Lu?” Rum whispered. “Another fairy?”
I squeezed her hand and started walking again. “Absolutely. You saw how the dog reacted.” I looked ahead for the dog, but saw no sign of him. Still, I heard him barking. “Clearly they’re related, maybe she’s come to pull the fairy out and put things proper.” Maybe she could look at your arm, I wanted to add, but didn’t, because again, that meant allowing we had problems and there were no problems here, nope.
Proving me right about our utter lack of problems was the revelation of the river and the shadow of the looming rail bridge ahead. I felt more than a little relieved at the sight of both; even Norma and Trudy looked comforted by the bridge’s old, black bulk.
Beyond the tangle of half-bare trees and gray-sticked shrubs that clung to the riverbank, the bridge stood stark against the gloomy sky, latticed iron bracing the longer girders. It looked drawn onto the sky with watercolors that were beginning to run to the color of rust, of time. The iron was supported by columns reaching into the water where they were encased in old stones; even from this distance, I could see they were colored with moss, lined with grit where the water had constantly licked past. Down the bridge’s center, the railroad tracks which would guide us to the Philadelphia side.
“There’s something…” Trudy bravely picked her way closer to the river. She lost her footing part way through, and grabbed a low tree branch to keep herself up right and out of the cold mud. “People? There are people down there. Wait.”
We didn’t exactly wait. We came to Trudy’s side, stepping through leaves and mud to look ahead at what she had found. Trudy shushed us, but we had already fallen silent.
Down the riverbank, where the stones and pylon anchored the bridge into the ground, there huddled a group of people. At first glance, they looked like an extension of the wood’s underbrush, half-dressed in leaves and half-bare to the uncaring sky. But as my eyes grew accustomed to their shapes, individuals made themselves known. A twig was an arm; a trunk was a torso. I counted a dozen different forms, or maybe there were fewer; it remained strangely hard to tell, but the important thing remained true: they were gathered around another form that floated in the river.
It was too big. Big and small in the same instant, deflated and drained of everything. A discarded Halloween costume, I thought, that’s all it was, but none of us could resist in getting a closer look, not even Norma who proved true to her Catholic roots when it came to her fascination with the dead and all that accompanied them. Eyes on a plate, thorns around a disembodied heart, carry on.
I was certain it hadn’t ever been human, but the way it spread in the water, it recalled a thing that had been human and no longer was. Its fingers were too long, trailing out nearly like tentacles, some curled around the dried weeds of the riverbank. If it ever wore clothes, they were long gone; the body pooled pale and utterly flat on the river’s surface. It shouldn’t have been flat; it should have bloated up, with water, with disease, with something, but it was like a sheet of plastic that a person could peel off and shake dry.
The worst thing was the face. Being that flat, you think of nothing like a face, until you start to look at it the way maybe Picasso would, with disgorged eyes and malformed mouths. It still had its teeth in its mouth (mouths, oh god there was more than one), but these were also somehow flat, screams pressed into a book for safe-keeping. The memory of a nose, colorless eyes. Male or female, I couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter; whatever shape might have given it form was just gone. Deflated.
Among the mourners that ringed the body sat the dog that had accompanied us. He tipped his head back, howled, and then bolted out of the water, scattering mud and water up the bank.
Rum swayed and I wrapped an arm around her to keep her upright. Norma clutched Trudy’s sleeve, and we all four hovered there, not daring to breathe or do anything that might bring that dog back to us. We didn’t want them to see us, no matter the cold water that seeped its way into my loafers, creeping ever up my socks.
They lifted the body from the water and it came up like plastic wrap from the molded gelatin salads our gran liked to bring over. The body made a sucking sound and resisted, like it didn’t want to peel away. Suction from the edges—where it clung most desperately to the water—made ripples course through the skin, if it was skin. These ripples smoothed out the more the people pulled, the body going so thin I could see the water through it. Norma’s shoulders pulled tight, inching toward her ears until I thought she might swallow herself.
At this single word from a man in the group, the others let the body go. It slipped back to the river with a sigh. Norma nearly deflated, too; the breath she let go sounded like a sob. She buckled to her knees and we all reached for her.
“She shouldn’t have gotten up,” Norma sobbed. Blindly, she clutched at us, tears streaming down her red cheeks as she kneeled in the cold river mud. “She s-shouldn’t have… She should have stayed d-down, let it hap— happen and pass the w-way the r-river…”
We all knew—people talked, but not us. We never questioned, never wondered aloud, it was a known fact. It wasn’t our place, but it could be. Norma was like any of us, raised in a household with siblings, with a mother, with a father. There were rules; every person had their place and lines were not to be crossed. Dogs didn’t go into space—women didn’t overstep their boundaries. The hard part was knowing where those lines were; understanding the boundary of water and earth was easy, other things less so when they changed at a man’s whim.
I wanted to touch Norma’s shoulder, to let her know it was all right, that though her mother had been torn and flattened by her husband’s hands, it didn’t have to be that way. But touching Norma was crossing the boundary erected around her by father, by brothers.
The shadow in the sky returned, but this time skimmed low to the water. It was a bird, I saw, but also a woman, and I felt something inside me stir at the sight of her. She flew across the river, filling her mouth with water until at last she alone could scoop the body from its wet mooring. The body came away effortlessly, cradled in the water of the bird’s mouth as she lifted into the sky. She dipped under the shadow of the bridge, then up and up into the clouded sky with a hundred smaller birds in her wake. It was then the clouds broke, rain streaming coldly down.
The figures left the river and we withdrew, too, to the meager shelter of a thin tree where we settled Norma and let her cry herself empty. We wiped her knees clean of mud and pressed a root beer into her hands and without a word resumed our walk to the bridge. The circus wasn’t far now.
The dog waited for us at the mouth of the bridge, paws wet and muddy. He shook himself once, then vanished into the bridge, as if trusting us to follow. Maybe it was a fairy trapped inside, I thought, because what else could explain such a strange creature? Maybe, maybe, maybe it was Laika after all, eager to see what the circus had to offer before she took to the stars.
“What’s today?” Rum asked as we set foot on the railroad ties where the rain beaded.
“Saturday,” Trudy said. She rummaged through her bag to pull out her radio. “Saturday and the whole of a circus before us.”
Saturday, and Laika goes tomorrow. Tomorrow.
“I hope they have c-cotton candy.” This from Norma, Norma who had never voiced a hope before, only the cold facts she’d been raised with.
She had never tasted cotton candy, I was certain, and made equally certain to be sure that if she wanted, Norma could eat her weight in spun sugar before we left the circus grounds.
The bridge was old, built so long before any of us had been born it seemed to me a relic that should have been at the bottom of a sea somewhere, gathering moss and turning into a coral reef. It was sturdy as anything, but that didn’t keep the wood from creaking under our feet as we made our way through. Latticed iron arced above us and provided just enough of a roof to make the Everly Brothers that crackled from Trudy’s radio echo all around us.
Trudy sang along, following behind the dog, who followed Norma and Rum. I brought up the rear, suddenly hating “Wake Up Little Susie,” because it made me think of Audrey waking up in a place she shouldn’t be waking up, of her dark profile in the Rambler and the way she never lit that cigarette. Joel wasn’t supposed to…he was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.
Joel had been a part of our lives as long as I could remember, a grade or two ahead. He lived five minutes away from our house if you took the back way to get there, over fences and across lawns to bypass the dead ends and cul-du-sacs. Audrey took the back way a lot, sneaking out after we had been tucked in, swearing me to secrecy. I followed her twice. The first time, she’d met him in the park and spent an hour making out with him under a tree. The second time, they had taken off in the Ford Fairlane his father had bought him, sleek and black like oil running down the road. The car came back with windows fogged.
Sometimes we liked him, sometimes we didn’t; he was popular, got good grades, pleased his parents at every turn, and had a headful of golden hair like any Greek god might. What wasn’t to like, Audrey often asked. Usually, I couldn’t be fussed to remember when we were supposed to like him and when we were supposed to hate him, but I was sure I wouldn’t ever forget the first time he made Audrey cry, or the way she eventually stopped crying and just held that cigarette between her lips. Waiting for something that never came.
It was a regular part of life, waiting for things. Waiting for school to start, waiting for school to stop, waiting for the new Elvis song, waiting for the weekend and the cocktail parties our parents would often take us to, waiting for breasts to come in like they were something on order from the department store, waiting for cheekbones to pop out, or blood to flow so that we might actually Become Women, or…
He was supposed to be there, supposed to take me, Lucy.
We all knew what it could mean, if you waited for a thing and it didn’t show up. School always came, whether you were ready or not, but blood wasn’t quite so constant. We had been told what it could mean, if the blood didn’t come.
“…when they say ooo la la…”
Either thing held its own amount of terror, bleeding or not. Audrey held my hand the first time, told me how things were supposed to go. I thought of her profile in the Rambler and wished I had held her hand, because I was beginning to think a thing I didn’t want to think at all. The nights she snuck out to be with Joel, the nights she didn’t come home till early in the mornings. I couldn’t remember when they started going steady, Joel had just always been there. Until he wasn’t.
“Maybe they were circus people,” Rum said from the head of the line when that awful song finally finished. The dog barked as if it agreed with her. “Was just like a piece of wet paper, wasn’t it? Didn’t fall apart though. Maybe plastic.”
Plastic, that body in the water. I swallowed hard, thinking about bodies and blood and the way that body hadn’t seemed to have a drop left inside it.
“Maybe,” Trudy said. “Here.”
She had turned around, to walk backwards while she extended a pack of cigarettes toward Rum and Norma. Norma’s first inclination was to shake her off—the pack moved toward Rum, who took one, and then Norma, to everyone’s surprise, reached for one, too. Trudy’s mouth quirked up in a grin and she tossed one back to me. I caught it before it could hit the narrow shoulder we walked on.
We had to stop to light them and the dog walked in impatient circles around us as we did. The tobacco was dry and it crackled under the sudden warmth of the lighter flame. Norma took a hard pull on hers and doubled over coughing. Trudy slapped her on the back and then we were off again. I didn’t actually smoke my cigarette; the smoke made my nose wrinkle. Rum lipped the end of hers like it might bite her, and spit out tobacco flakes, while Trudy attempted to show Norma exactly how to smoke without choking. Mostly, it seemed an excuse to get close to Norma and watch her mouth around the cigarette butt.
Eventually, I flicked mine through the bridge lattice and into the river below. It vanished into the water without a sound.
“Does that happen, to bodies? Often?” Rum asked. She picked tobacco from her tongue and made a face that set Trudy to laughing.
“Wasn’t natural, what happened to that body,” Norma said and Rum’s eyes flicked to me, silently questioning.
I nodded in agreement, though maybe it was just a kind of nature we didn’t yet know. Who’s to say? Much like the Russians, there was plenty about nature we didn’t know.
Coming out of the bridge on the other side, the Pennsylvania side, it seemed like everything should have been different, but it wasn’t much. Another tangle of woods, though this time we moved away from the river and train tracks, setting up camp a short way in so that we could have lunch. There was bread and Kraft Singles and a fire set up to combine into toasted, melted perfection.
The problem with walking so long in the woods was having to eventually pee in the woods. Being that we were all girls, it wasn’t so strange to wander off a ways, so as camp was set up, I wandered. Our canine companion had also wandered off and so did Rum. I watched her vanish safely behind a bush, then turned to find my own.
My own was already occupied, by a tall, hairy man.
But for the filthy hair, he seemed naked, naked and peeing in a bush, and I opened my mouth to say something stupid like “excuse me,” but nothing came out, nothing at all. Despite that, he heard me, maybe my feet in the leaves or the way I sucked in a breath and made to choke like I was still holding a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder—his eyes were brown and kind and startled—and his cheeks flooded with color and before either of us could say a word, he was just gone. He ran and I let him go, standing there, still needing to pee very much.
I managed, shaking all the while. The idea that he would come back, jump on me, and drag me into the bushes was foremost in my mind. I held a roll of paper in one hand and my flashlight in the other, dragged warm out of my bra where my heart still pounded like it was going to war. I would brain him. I would take him down before he could take me. Why was a man peeing in these woods, for the love of—
I couldn’t say how long I had been gone, but they were hollering for me. When I got back to camp, Rum poured water over my hands so I could wash, and I sat near the fire to rub them dry. Trudy offered me a cheese sandwich, but hesitated before actually giving it to me.
“Look like you saw a ghost,” she said and I shook my head, but knew I had to tell them.
The dog padded up to Rum’s side as I told them about the man peeing in the woods. From that moment on, some of the joy went out of the lunch, because we were all on our guard, watching the trees around us. Was he alone? Was he hunting with friends? Were they out roaming the woods looking for girls to abduct? The dog, seeming to pick up on our moods, whined and paced a circle around us and the fire.
“Probably shouldn’t stay here too long,” Norma said. She shoved the rest of her sandwich indelicately into her mouth, chewing more than she comfortably could. Although I wanted to laugh, I didn’t, because her point was sound. Much like the dog in the woods the day before, we had no idea what or who else was out here.
As we packed camp to go, our mood stayed low, quiet. Our eyes were never off the woods for long, and I felt suddenly foolish for taking part in this journey. I wondered if this was what growing up meant. Never knowing what was around the next corner but fearing it would be something I’d be incapable of dealing with or explaining to anyone other than my closest friends. No one would believe that body, or that man, or even this dog who still padded alongside us as we packed, smothered the fire, and left.
Worry ensured that we made good time through these woods; soon enough, the dirt paths turned to paved roads and signs of civilization began to assure us that we were getting closer to our destination. When at last we could see the city rising against the gray sky in the distance, I think we all blew out a breath of relief.
“It’s like that on all the outer planets of the system,” I said as we walked, our steps still quicker than normal and still that stupid dog at Rum’s side like it was trying to apologize for nearly taking her arm off. She looked better, but not so much better that I had stopped worrying.
“Not so many people, right,” I continued, “so when you turn a corner and find another person, there’s that moment of shock, that instant when you don’t recognize them as a person at all but something hostile in your space, something that means to stop you from where you were actually going. Doesn’t matter that they might be just as shocked to see you—they probably are, might welcome a hello or a drink after the places they’ve been, but mostly, it’s that heart-hammering fear that they’re going to turn on you, or come back after they’ve run away, and do you some harm.”
Everyone stayed quiet as I told the story—maybe it calmed them as much as it did me. Not the content of the story itself, just the sound of a voice that has something to share and knows where it’s going. Fiction was like that. Point A always led to point B. Real life wasn’t so much like that.
“Jupiter’s the best,” I said, “because it’s the biggest and because of the clouds. Picture all that low-hanging fog, no other soul in sight for months. You’d just be a speck up there, like a grain of sugar tossed into coffee. So tiny. If you didn’t melt, you’d surely be all squashed and rounded on the edges, rolling through fog, all alone till— Hello, what’s this, another person? Edges all rounded off just like yours, but still strange because you’d weigh twice as much up there, maybe more. You both probably look like squash in the end and it’s not like you’d be able to run, weighing that much, so maybe you’d roll away in your surprise, and then— Well, Red Spot, right?” I smiled now, carried away with the idea. “Probably a hole, straight to the middle of the world—”
“And what’s inside?” Rum asked.
“Oh, more clouds. Always clouds.”
“Like cotton candy,” she said. “Falling forever.”
Neighborhoods made themselves known as we walked; clusters of houses and stone tenements that rose along the paved streets. Rain glossed the streets and made everything look like one long piece of licorice, stretched beyond all its means. The deeper into this neighborhood we wandered, the first thing that hit us was the smell—it was popped corn and burnt sugar, roasted nuts and rain-wet animals.
But among the cars that lined the road through these gloomful tenements where only the occasional light glowed from a window, sat a car I knew, a car we all knew, the faded tomato-red Rambler, and though we walked past, my eyes fixed firmly to it. It was empty, windows rolled shut against the rain, but there was Audrey’s discarded cigarette on the dashboard, and the dent in the driver’s side door where I opened the door into a tree the first time Audrey let me drive, and the rounded corner of the small green sticker we’d never been able to get off the windshield glass.
In the building behind the Rambler, a small light burned in one window, but the door was shut and it was no place I knew. A sign beside the doorbell directed people to the back entrance.
The other girls didn’t pause—I don’t think they looked at the car, because they were so intent on following their noses to the tents and booths that sprawled through a space that had once been an empty field. It was muddy now, meager grass stomped into the mud that had come with the rains. Undaunted, countless people frolicked within the temporary fence that ringed it all. The entrance gate was staffed by two figures, each so extraordinary they drove Audrey from my mind.
The first was a woman who towered as tall as the entry gate itself. She was the largest person I had ever seen, and felt as though she possessed her own gravity; we were drawn in by her, to her massive figure which was given shape by a corset of burnished copper. Black layered skirts and a blouse frothed from either end and did little to disguise the ribbons of indigo ink that marked the giantess’s skin. She plucked money from those who entered and the dollars seemed small in her hands, hands that could have easily gathered all four of us into one palm.
The creature by her side was something I had no words for. It was one being, two bodies that merged into one at the waist. They wore dark trousers to make this clear—there was but one set of legs—one torso clad in red, the other in white. Wings flared up behind both bodies, the straight fall of ginger-red hair interrupted by braids of black ribbons throughout. I could not say until I passed them by whether the wings they wore were real or part of their costuming, but after obtaining tickets, and stepping through the entry gate, the warmth of those feathers brushed my cheek, and I knew. If ever I lived on Jupiter, I would remember that brief touch.
Inside the circus grounds, we all started to change. Looking back, I suppose it wasn’t a thing that happened gradually; it was swift. Probably we had started to change the minute Audrey kicked us out of the Rambler and made us walk, but only inside the circus did it become more evident.
Trudy seemed to glow and Norma stood straighter than she ever had before, like her shoulders were no longer bowed by some awful weight. Rum kept her hand in mine at first, but I could tell she was more confident too, her nose working overtime to take in everything she had never smelled before. She was also due a good gorging on cotton candy, I thought, but the more she ate through the day, she changed all over again.
With everything she consumed—pickles, cotton candy, and bag after bag of popcorn—Rum seemed to get a little slower, a little more muddy around the edges. She tugged her hand out of mine to better hold her cup of soda, but I could see the way her fingers crumpled the paper cup, like she still couldn’t quite get a grip on it.
When Norma and Trudy stepped up to the Ferris wheel to ride, Rum shook her head, said she couldn’t do it. I stayed with her on a bench, watching the other girls wheel up into the cloudy sky.
“Let me see your arm,” I said, even though the words stuck in my throat like dry toast.
Rum refused and when I reached for her, curling a hand into her coat sleeve, she flinched, then flung her soda at me. The top popped off and I was doused in dark, sweet, cola. I’m not sure who was more surprised, Rum or me, but Rum bolted from the bench without her bag, fleeing into the circus with a cry.
She vanished into the crowds, probably expert at doing so given she’d run away from so much in her life. Didn’t have to be Amish she had run from, but the girl knew how to cover ground. Lest I lose them too, I waited for Trudy and Norma to come down and told them Rum had gone. Showed them her abandoned bag as if that was proof, when her just being gone was proof enough.
We each had watches, so made sure they were synchronized before parting ways. We could cover more ground this way and meet back up at the Ferris wheel when the hour struck. If we hadn’t found Rum by then, we could do it again, and again. The circus wasn’t without its limits, I told myself as I stalked through the muddy grounds. Of course, she might leave those limits, might wander deeper into Philadelphia, a city I knew as little about as I did the Amish. She might get hit by a bus. She might encounter that stupid dog again.
That stupid dog. I stopped in my tracks when I realized I had lost track of the dog. Had it come into the circus with us? I kept an eye out as I wandered, loitering by the steak on a stake booth for a long while, thinking the dog might try to get some meat. But there was no sign of it, and my hour to search was growing thin. I walked a slow circle around the outer layer of tents, the Ferris wheel in sight all the while, but there was no dog and no Rum.
I turned back to the Ferris wheel as rain began to fall more earnestly. I wished I’d brought an umbrella—of all the things to forget—and was wondering if they had any for sale as I stepped into the shelter of a tent. The tent smelled like damp straw and wet dog and I turned, thinking to find that Saint Bernard, but it was the hairy man who’d been peeing in the bushes. He was dressed this time, in jeans a shirt that was somehow too well-pressed, and walking toward me. My mouth gaped open and I made to move, but felt frozen.
“Don’t run,” he said. “Please don’t run.”
Once, I would have run. Now, I started telling myself a story in my head, because one didn’t just encounter the same hairy man twice, not without him following or stalking or—
“You bit Rum,” I said.
At that, he stopped walking. His face seemed a mixture of dismay and guilt and he scrubbed a hairy hand across his mouth, as if he could wipe the expression away. He was still the color of the woods, browns and golds, and his eyes—They were the eyes of that dog, chocolate and desperate to explain. I clutched Rum’s bag a little closer.
“Didn’t mean to,” he said and glanced at the crowds which passed us by. He took a step closer to me then, so close I could smell his wet…fur? Hair? He smelled like he’d been rolling in the woods. “Sometimes…I get so hungry, and Thurmond was dead and I was carrying all that grief, and there were animals—girls in the woods, and I just…” He covered his mouth again, eyes closing. I didn’t know if he was going to cry or be sick. “I’m sorry about the bush. Couldn’t keep my form anymore, needed to breathe, needed to p— But where is she? Is she getting sick? I need to help her.”
I didn’t know if I was going to cry or be sick, either. I just stared at him, trying to understand anything that was happening.
- Night Like a River
I launched into him and he let me pummel him. I hit him as hard as I could, confusion over everything pouring through my balled fists. Rum’s sickness and Audrey being close for no reason that could be good, and this man who thought he was a dog, and Norma’s parents and Trudy’s longing for her. Everything came out and by the time I finished, I was sobbing, inconsolable as he pulled me into the empty tent and had me sit on top of a bale of straw. He shushed me and tried to wrap an arm around me before he thought better of it and simply patted my hands, never quite letting them go. The touch was both alien and comforting. He was so warm and the rain had chilled me.
“Take me to Rum. I need to see her.”
My head came up and I stared at him. I was still shaking, like my body didn’t know what to do with itself in the wake of the anger.
“Take me to—”
“You’re telling me that you’re a dog?” I spat the question at him. I threw his hands off of me, no matter their warmth and slid to the edge of the bale. I wanted to walk away, but there was no way my legs were carrying me. “How crazy do you think I have to be to believ—”
“Stalked you in the woods,” he said. “Rum was the smallest, even with that coat on. I wanted to tell you—when you found me in the bushes, but…” Color flooded his cheeks, no doubt hot. “Well. I couldn’t. I figured that here, here I could get here what she needed.”
“And what does she need? Other than a proper doctor to tend her—”
“Proper doctor won’t be any help.” He stood from the bale and a shudder ran through him, shaking every bit of hair that sprouted from his skin. “I don’t mean her harm. Any more harm. Blast it.”
He walked away from me, pacing in slow circles. He kept trying to convince me, but he didn’t have to. If he was that dog—and why couldn’t he be that dog? It explained a lot of things—then it made sense, him knowing what needed doing for Rum. And I was being an idiot to delay things, because she wasn’t well.
“I don’t know where she is,” I finally said when he paused in his pleading. He stared at me like I was the crazy one now. “She ran off when I asked to look at her arm—her arm which you bit and made her bleed and who does that, dog or not?” I came off the bale now, striding toward him. “How dare you stalk us in the woods?”
His chin came up and he bristled. I’ve seen cats get fluffy but never dogs. Dog-people. His lip curled, to reveal his teeth, but he didn’t move. Only nodded at me.
“It was a thing that happened,” I said eventually. “Can’t change that. Can only change where we go from here. Is Rum…” Oh, my writer’s mind was running now. “Is she going to change into a dog? Like you? Is her arm going to wither up and fall off? We need to find her, whatever you think is going to happen—and how to you mean to help her? You have medicine? A way to keep her from changing?”
To keep her from growing up. To keep all of us from growing up and being Audrey sitting in that dark car, the cigarette dangling from her lips. He was supposed to be there… Joel hadn’t been there for Audrey, but this guy was here and he was stepping up. Doing what needed doing, even if I didn’t know what it was. I looked at my watch.
“I’m late for rendezvous,” I said. “At the Ferris wheel. We split up to look for Rum.” My eyes narrowed and I lifted Rum’s bag toward the man who claimed he was a dog. He didn’t question me, only bent his head and took a long smell of it. His eyes never left mine; it felt like a challenge—prove it, I will so prove it.
With Rum’s scent in his nose, he grabbed my arm and launched us back into the circus.
The circus felt twice as big as it should have been, containing three times as many people as it did when we arrived. But me and the…dog?…cut a path through the crowds like they weren’t quite there. I noticed we had support from up above too; there were two forms flying above us, one smaller than the other, both black against the darkening sky. How hard could it be to find a sick little girl, I wondered. But then Rum was experienced at both running and hiding and I felt like my heart would break if we never found her again.
She would be missed at the children’s home—she probably already had been missed, not getting permission to run away for a weekend ever, and that idea was like a knife in my gut. I clung to the dog-man’s hand, terrified we wouldn’t find her, but outside a tent that claimed to contain the country’s only living mermaid, he stopped and took a deep breath.
I didn’t have to breathe to know Rum was here. The small body that vanished into the tent was familiar by sight alone; the scrap of butter-yellow nightgown that peeked from the cuff of her coat was like a signal flare. I tugged the dog-man after me, after Rum.
She was so intent on her destination, she didn’t hear us. We followed her into the tent, past the fabric wall that divided it into two spaces. Within the second space was a gloomy tank of water, illuminated by a bed of strange stones in its bottom. Rum reached for the water tank like she didn’t know what it was, and maybe she didn’t. Her hand trembled as she pressed it to the glass.
A face swam out of the gloomy water, vicious and astounding in the same instant. If it was a mermaid, I couldn’t say; it was a woman, though, of flesh and scale and flowing green hair. Her webbed and clawed hand reached for Rum’s, pressing against the other side of the glass. They looked like strange reflections of each other, Rum growing wavery like she was also underwater. Her knees buckled and the dog-man released my hand to catch her before she could hit the ground.
He carried Rum to the circus train, where it gleamed under the rain on the tracks that ran behind the field. He kicked the door to the caboose open and through the unexpected scents of oranges and yeast, I followed him, watching as he lay Rum on a padded bench. The space seemed like storage and a kitchen both, full of cupboards that bulged with strange things. I thought I saw a jar full of fractured rainbows and another packed with tiny, tiny red-brown hearts, and a thousand-thousand jars besides, but mostly my focus was on Rum and the way her breath rattled in her mouth.
“Have to get Beth,” he whispered to me. “Stay here.”
There wasn’t anywhere else I would have gone. I sat beside Rum and took up her hand in mine. She was clammy and hot, and I pulled her coat off so I could unwrap the damp nightgown around her arm. I expected it to be soaked with blood, but it was mostly sweat I found. The bite on her arm hadn’t healed though; it was raw and red and angry as anything. It hadn’t started to sprout hair or anything. I threaded my fingers through hers and bowed my head. I didn’t pray, only hoped for the dog-man to get back here.
When he returned, he had a woman with him. She was an instant part of this place, and it was as if the place knew her, breathed easier with her inside of it. I could not explain the sigh of breath I heard, only knew it did not come from any of we four.
Beth kneeled beside the bench and reached for Rum. My hand came up to block hers and she looked at me curiously as our fingers brushed. Her eyes held something I couldn’t understand, but her expression relaxed and she nodded a little.
“Just want to hold her hand,” Beth said and drew her fingers back from mine.
I drew back, too, watching her take up Rum’s hand. Here, she shook her head.
“Not her time,” she murmured. She withdrew and turned to rummage through her cupboards. “Probably going to be changed, but… Here, take this.”
Beth pushed a jar into my hands. It was filled with a coiled braid of hair, black as the stormy night that descended above us. Beth told me to wrap Rum’s arm in the braid, but sliding it out of the jar was unlike anything I’ve done before. It was alive, slimy under my touch, pliant like my fingers pressed into a fish belly and not a length of dry hair. I retched while touching it, the scent of death and dirt beginning to fill the caboose.
The dog-man caught the jar before it could fall to the floor. My hands were filled with the strange braid and I found myself biting my bottom lip, struggling to wrap the thing around Rum’s injured arm.
“And this. Pour it over.”
Before I had even finished, Beth was giving me another jar, forcing me to wrangle the braid into some kind of order—was it my imagination or did it struggle as I tried to fold it around Rum’s arm? I grit my teeth together, tucked the end of the braid into itself so it would stay, and took the second jar.
It was marked “angel tears,” but it seemed more like sewer water. It was cloudy gray and filled with bits of eggshell, branches, seeds. I uncapped it and the smell of honey poured out. There should have been a wetness when I poured; the liquid should have run straight through the braid, but instead it clouded up like fog, streaming light so bright I had to look away. Beth hooked a finger into the lip of the jar and reclaimed it before I could empty it.
“And this, Dean.”
The third jar was offered to the dog-man. He looked at it with revulsion, but uncapped it and drank the gray liquid down. It wasn’t liquid against his mouth, either; as I watched, it turned to ash, threatening to choke him. Dean retched, bowing his head close to Rum’s hand. The thick paste that poured out of him smothered the bright cloud, sank into the braid, and bound the entire thing to Rum like a cast.
“Now, we wait.”
Joel wasn’t supposed to…
He was supposed to be there.
Supposed to take me, Lucy.
My limit on waiting ended. I couldn’t, Audrey pressed against my heart like it might explode. I ran from the caboose, the back steps slick with rain. I slid down them more than walking, pushing past Trudy and Norma who were running toward the caboose (and did their lips look swollen from kissing and kissing and kissing or was it a trick of the stringed lights that had flickered on all over the circus?), and running toward the entrance gate. There were as many people as ever, but they parted like water for me and it was only when I’d hit the paved street again that I realized Dean-as-dog was with me.
He didn’t stop me, so I didn’t care that he came. I ran until it felt like my lungs would burst, until I reached that street where Audrey’s Rambler sat. I feared that it both would and wouldn’t be there. If it was gone, she was done doing the thing she had wanted to do with Joel…if it was there and she wasn’t yet done…
But it was there and she was hunched over the steering wheel, sobbing the way I had sobbed inside the empty tent with Dean. I pulled the door open, not caring that I startled her, and reached for her. She slumped into my arms and clung to me the way I never thought she would, and there was blood—so much blood. Her pants were dark, but stained darker down her thighs.
At the sight of all that blood, I froze and for a long while, time seemed to spool without end. We would forever hang between all that had come before and all that should have followed behind. If I couldn’t move, we were stuck. But the sun and the moon were never still; they were often eclipsed, but always emerged from those shadows. And how big those shadows! Surely this one was not so terrible.
But it was Audrey. It was my sister. It was a shadow that had weight and pressed me down until all I could feel was the warm shaking of her against me, until all I could see was the blood soaking her pants. Blood that should not be. This was illegal, we had been told time and again. This was why you didn’t let boys touch you. This was why there were no kisses or dancing unsupervised. This was why you dressed like a proper girl, so that boys weren’t tempted. This is why you didn’t get into a car with a boy. Every single lecture was hollow in this moment. When Audrey looked up at me, her face creased in pain, I knew nothing was so simple as we had been told.
Big and small in the same moment, deflated, drained of everything.
“Lu, I c-can’t. J-Joel isn’t…”
“He isn’t here,” I whispered, “but I am.”
I pulled her from the car as gently as I could. Audrey had a coat draped over the backseat and I stuffed her into it. I belted it closed and kept her in my shaking arms as we shuffled up the street.
The circus wasn’t far, but it felt like forever. I didn’t know if Beth could help Audrey the way she had helped Rum, but knew I had to try. Dean, even as a dog, didn’t argue with me as we headed back that way. He loped ahead of us at the entry gate and the giantess and angels let us pass inside like they knew us. Audrey was cold and shaking by the time we reached the caboose and she grabbed my arms, shaking her head.
I guided Audrey up the caboose steps and into the warm strangeness of that room where Beth bundled her up, said it wasn’t her time, either, but that she had nothing more to give me but marmalade. And when Beth pressed that cool jar into my hands, radiating a strange orange light, I just stared. Beth walked away and closed the door behind her and I looked at Trudy and Norma and sleeping Rum, and had no clue what to do.
It was like this in stories, I told myself. A person is given a thing and just doesn’t know what to do with it. They either took the thing firm in hand and did what felt right, or they denied it. But what felt right? How did a person ever know?
I turned from my sister and friends and started rooting around in cupboards and drawers. I needed spoons, but failing that, anything to scoop, and in the end there were no spoons, only rainbows that flopped over when we held them and long sticks of spicy cinnamon that we all shied from. In the end, I poured a handful of the orange marmalade into my palm and no matter how strange it seemed, fed it to my sister. She swallowed it down with a grimace and I turned to Rum and did the same. I filled Trudy’s palm and Norma’s palm and then my own again and like we were drinking shots of booze at a party we had snuck into, we downed the marmalade.
With my eyes closed, it didn’t taste like oranges. It tasted like grit, like a far-away red planet that I would never quite walk on, but would still know my way around. It tasted like Jupiter and a moon that vomited water into space, of clouds and the memory of Audrey holding my hand; like the first time I dived into a pool and got water up my nose, and Audrey hauling me out. These strange things calmed me, told me that one way or another, everything and everyone was going to end up where it needed to be.
“Tastes like beer,” Norma murmured and I cracked an eye open to look at her, wondering exactly how she knew what beer tasted like.
“Tastes like Norma,” Trudy said and got Norma’s elbow in her ribs for the effort.
There came a sound then, a low groan that was almost a growl, and I thought Dean had come back, but this sound emanated from Rum, who had started to twist and turn on the bench, as if caught in some terrible nightmare. We three reached for her and in my panic, the marmalade jar fell to the floor, shattering. Glass and sweet oranges made our footing slippery as we sought to anchor Rum; the harder she bucked, the more we slipped.
“She’s g-going.” Rum sputtered the words and I didn’t know what she meant, not until her hand closed into my sleeve and she pulled me down. “She’s g-going to d-die.”
Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, my heart beat.
“L-Laika,” Rum whispered. Her eyes rolled back into her head—I could see only the whites of them as she struggled to form more words. Spittle flowed from her mouth, as if she were sick or possessed or both. “Going now. Rockets. F-fire. Clouds of fire. There she…there she…g-goes.” Rum’s body arched up, as if an unseen hand had grabbed her by the waist. We clung to her so that she would not be taken, lost, but when at last she screamed and reached for something we could not see, we fell back and could only watch.
The Rum we knew fell away, but it wasn’t the way I always pictured it being in story books. She didn’t shimmer beautifully from one being into another, but rather one was ripped away to replace what she had been. Even the cast that Beth had applied to her arm broke off and tumbled away. The girl who loved running and found amazement in the things we found common was gone. In a splatter of blood and skin, she was gone, swallowed up by the creature that clawed its way out of her—looking not so fierce when all was said and done, for it resembled nothing so much as a tiny poodle, confused as how it had come to be inside a caboose that smelled like spilled orange marmalade and blood.
No one said anything. We all sat there, looking at each other but mostly looking at Rum who wasn’t Rum, but a dog the way Dean could also be a dog. And then, an eruption of conversation, me trying to tell them how he’d bit her, them angry because I hadn’t told them, and how did a person turn into a dog anyhow, and how could she have known Laika was going up right then and well, Trudy managed to reason as the argument lulled, Russia was in a different time zone and maybe it was already Sunday there, and Norma screamed that it didn’t matter, dogs didn’t go into space and girls did not turn into dogs and when they finished, Norma was crying in Trudy’s arms, Trudy’s eyes locked to me.
“Tell us a story, Lu,” she whispered.
As if a story could banish what we’d seen.
Rum pressed herself down into the bench and licked the marmalade from my hand . I exhaled a low breath and reached for Audrey with my other hand. “Things never go the way stories say,” I whispered, “but I’ll tell you a story.”
- In a Barrel at Sea
The story I told Trudy and Norma was a story about four girls (sometimes five), who weren’t girls at all. The whole night through, they hovered between Here and There, the caboose seeming removed from both life and death, suspended the way orange peel was in marmalade. Because of that, inside the caboose things weren’t entirely real. Things could be said there that couldn’t be said anywhere else.
Had someone turned into a dog? That was okay, because bodies did strange things we couldn’t always explain. Messy things, things that made us want to vomit. Had a girl kissed another girl? It was okay too, because kissing happened. Love happened. Had someone (Audrey, Audrey, Audrey, said my heart) been a mother for a brief month before she realized she couldn’t do it on her own? That was okay, too. There was strength in saying you couldn’t do a thing.
No one ever had to know how strong you actually were—if they did, they would surely be scared. Inside the walls, you could be as strong as you were and no one would flinch because they’d be too busy exploring their own strength, their own light. Those girls could go into the deepest woods—see there how the wall of the caboose shimmered to show an expanse of trees?—and they’d never be lost because they didn’t need flashlights or breadcrumbs, they trusted their own two feet and hands and their hearts, no matter how clumsy each was.
They could go to Jupiter and never be lost, because Jupiter, just like Earth, was round, and no matter how far you walked across mountains and over rivers (What kind of rivers on Jupiter? they want to know. All the rivers: methane, lemonade, and one of your heart’s true blood) you were just walking in a big circle and eventually, you’d come back around to where you started. You might not know the place, but there would be something: a scent in the air, the way the leaves rippled in the sun, the way the water soaked through the toe of your shoe. You would know something. Just circles, after all.
Here, in these four walls packed with a thousand-thousand jars, they could float. A hand could rest in a hand, sure that this connection would remain even when those hands came apart. A mouth could taste another mouth and wonder at the perfection of it. A little girl could go from dog to girl and back again and again, and know that everyone would be waiting each time she came back. How did a person walk with four legs? It was twice as easy and you could cover twice as much ground, but you’d probably be twice as tired when you at last came to rest.
And the sometimes fifth girl who was also my sister wanted to know: But what happens when—
Questions were for outside. Inside was for being and floating. See that river and the way it breaks through the mountain? Those four girls who were not girls drank all night. Hydrogen, oxygen, electromagnetic waves. Was that thunder? No. No.
- Funnel Cloud
Rum was sitting outside the caboose come morning, poking a small fire with a stick. She wore her yellow nightgown, being that her clothes had been lost to last night’s transformations. The rain had stopped, but the clouds were low and thick. Still, the circus played on. There were shrieks of joy or fright—as it should be, it was hard to tell them apart. Trudy and Norma were out there somewhere, while Audrey slept on. And Rum didn’t look tired or sick. Her arm was unwrapped and looked healed, which I could not explain and did not try.
“It tasted like home, Lu,” Rum said before I could even ask her. She withdrew her stick from the fire, got a marshmallow, and stuck the sweet back into the low flames. “It tasted like figuring out where I was supposed to be.”
I still had the taste of marmalade against my tongue; still not the tang of orange, but the taste of a dry and distant world. Like figuring out where I was supposed to be. That’s what it was.
When the marshmallow was perfect, Rum gave me the stick. She put another together for herself and then said, “I felt Laika go or maybe I didn’t, but there was something. The press of all that gravity in that small space. They just shot her up and…” Rum’s eyes rolled to the cloudy sky. “She’s up there, either dead or alive and we’re…alive and I think I’m home and I’m staying, Lu. I’m staying here. Dean says I can. Please say I can.”
It mattered to her, that I tell her she could, but she already knew. She had granted herself the power last night, maybe even before that—the first time she had run away, from whatever she was running from. She was ready to stop.
“You can stay,” I said, and her shoulders eased under the weight she thought she still carried.
“Probably just saying that because…I mean…what does a person do with a girl who’s also a dog? Do you think that means Norma doesn’t believe in me anymore?” She grinned and jabbed her marshmallow into the flames. “Dean doesn’t even know, says he’s still trying to figure things out, but then I suppose we all are? How’s Audrey? How’s your sister?”
She never asked what happened and I never said and even when Audrey joined us at the fire, dressed in clean clothes she said were from Beth, she never told us where she had been. My brain filled in all the details just like Rum’s had for Laika: a small space with too much gravity.
Trudy and Norma came back to us with Dean in tow. Rum loaded each up with marshmallows, but Norma kept to her cotton candy, pulling tufts from the yellow, blue, and pink beehives she carried like a bouquet. Her eyes rested briefly on Rum, then flicked away and while I hoped Rum hadn’t seen, the brief downturn of her mouth said she had.
“Suppose you’re going to want a ride home,” Audrey said to me as she tossed her marshmallow stick into the fire.
I looked at the faces around the fire: Rum and Trudy and Norma, and though this was only Sunday, they were not the faces that had looked back at me on Friday. These were not the girls who would rather climb into the back of the Rambler and ride home safely. I thought of the body spread in the water, of the strange birds above us, the dog in the dark. Did Trudy and Norma know that Rum was staying? That she had found her home?
I reached for Audrey’s hand. “Not due ’till dinner,” I said. “We’ll be late, but we can get there, unless you want company.”
Audrey’s fingers closed warm around mine and I felt the way she was shaking. Way down inside where no one would ever know. “I think I can get there,” she said, soft as the clouds of cotton candy Norma inhaled.
Before, I wouldn’t have cared, my sister leaving us to head off on her own, but when she did now, it was a strange thing. Was it strange for the moon to always rise opposite the sun, to skirt through its shadow and then away again? It was only natural, what the sky did day in and out.
Leaving Rum was something entirely different. It was us leaving her in this strange place with its giants and dwarfs and dog-men and angels. I didn’t want to go, not until she held my hands and told me that sometimes, you just have to launch yourself into space. Sometimes you come back down and sometimes you don’t, and either is okay. Gravity was a thing, sometimes with us and sometimes not and fighting it was stupid, and it was that thought I held to as we left the circus and Rum and Dean and Beth and were swallowed up once more by the Philadelphia streets.
It was a quiet journey with quiet company. Outside the circus, Norma drew back into herself and Trudy kept her distance, too, and we crossed all the things we had already crossed: the woods, the bridge and its river now empty of its dead body, and the woods once more, and then slowly to home. Norma and Trudy split in different directions, Norma with Trudy’s transistor radio in hand, Trudy’s pompadour bouncing into the dusk as if untouched by all gravity.
And me, coming home to our white house that stood so tall and seemed so alien in the darkening night, I found Joel and Audrey on the porch and slowed my steps so as not to interrupt, but it was Audrey who drew her hands from Joel’s clumsy grasp and shook her head, interrupting whatever apologies he had been making.
I was walking up the drive as he was walking down and he blanched to see me. I offered him a smile that was just too cocky and angry, the memory of bleeding Audrey in my arms far too fresh. He should have been there, but should haves didn’t do anyone a lick of good.
“Sometimes you just have to launch yourself into space, Joel.”
I brushed past him, stepping into the house where my parents were hollering because I was late and what, had I run away with the circus? Been eaten by a wolf? Audrey needed to explain why she came home without me and surely only a wolf would have complicated the simple journey to the circus.
But that wasn’t the story I was interested in hearing. The story I found myself gravitating toward as I joined the shouted conversation and assured them I wasn’t, in fact, Little Lucy Hood, was a story that involved a girl who traveled to Mars and Jupiter and beyond without ever leaving Earth. The story of a girl who learned how to shine without anyone ever looking at her, shining simply because she did what she loved. She turned ordinary things into extraordinary things, and sent ships named Viking and Pioneer plunging into the solar system.
This girl studied the mountains of Mars and deconstructed the clouds of Jupiter, and fell in love with a tiny, tiny rock that she called Hannah Fisher and no one ever knew why and that was all right, because she knew. Sometimes gravity was with us and sometimes it wasn’t, but either way—I had to launch myself into space.
Copyright 2015 E. Catherine Tobler
E. Catherine Tobler has never been lost in strange woods, because she learned how to navigate via the sun and stars while in Girl Scouts. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. You can find her online at www.ecatherine.com and @ecthetwit.