Fiction - Hyssop and Hermetics, The Absinthe Literary Review

Faux Snow Rabbit and Black Mountain Orphan
a short story by Cheryl Klein

When I was sixteen, I wanted a child. If I had come from a big country family, maybe I could have gotten pregnant. But I lived in a glittering fairy town with blankets of frozen ground separating old stone mansions, and very little separating gossiping mouths from the ears that cozied up to them. So I married a widower with a five-year-old daughter. His wife had died of natural, if rare, causes, so there was nothing messy like divorce or shameful like suicide to cloud our instant nuclear family. We were all innocent as snow.  

I don’t know when my obsession with blamelessness began. Some incident in my own childhood maybe? I do recall being on the verge of a stint in the corner for running my tricycle into the garage door, leaving a big black tire-kiss on the white paint. My mother was fretting and ranting when my father got home and said, Ssh, Lora, it’s not Zephany’s fault. Have you been outside today? The driveway’s frozen over with black ice. My mother leaned down and cupped my chin in her hand. Her fingers were soft, but her nails were hard, and clicked against each other. That was the first I’d heard of black ice, and I asked my father to explain it to me. I loved the idea of it—this invisible thing, this thin, cold ghost that had exonerated me. My mother’s eyes pooled and she apologized. I was warm with power. I saw just what a cherubic face and an overalled body and a sheet of black ice could do.

But I’m wary of causality. The temperature could have dropped between the time I thudded into the garage door and the time my father got home. And who decided tire smudges on garage doors were such an offense anyhow? What of that person? I’m not about to ascribe the ticks and spirals that take up my inner space to some single incident. The chicken and egg and all—maybe something inside of me awoke, was provoked that day. Which is not to say that I absolve my parents either. Just that it’s complicated.

I liked Bucharest James for what he wasn’t, which was very teenage girl of me. Bucharest James wasn’t 16, clad in Ivy League sportswear, reddened from winter athletics, planning to be a lawyer. He was no James Dean either—he was plenty rich, but also thirty, of mysterious Eastern European origins that lingered in the wrong half of his name, pale as milk with curly black hair, already an importer of chocolate. He had sad black eyes. I thought only people in books had black eyes—I seemed to read about them plenty, but I’d never seen a pair in person. My life was of the movies. Big budget dramas and scrubbed-clean romantic comedies. A series of crisp, shiny shots: my mother’s red nails, cashmere mittens thrown on white snow, my own blonde hair that soaked up sunlight whatever the weather. So when a pair of real black eyes came into my life—pupils indistinguishable from irises—I knew I was looking deep into a different kind of life. At each seat surrounding each round table at our wedding, a dark chocolate heart announced Zephany & Bucharest. Names carved in a tree, sans the vandalism.

Sasha Wynne James, his daughter, had her father’s eyes, sans the sadness. She was a flower girl at our wedding. White skin, white tulle dress, little black bun. From the top she looked like a white daisy with a dark center. Her mother had died when she was just over a year old of a fast-acting brain disease. As sad as the story was, I was thankful that I had very little wicked stepmother baggage to take on. I walked into marriage and motherhood innocent. And Sasha Wynne loved me, with the fervor only a five-year-old can muster. She dedicated crayon drawings to me, let me hold her favorite doll, and built snowcastles that she barricaded with her toy trucks: We all live here and no bad guys can get in ‘cause of the trucks and when it melts we’re gonna make it into snow cones. Which we did. We poured cherry syrup on the snow and grinned bloody grins at each other.

Maybe you’re thinking, What of her other life? This is why young marriages fail—too much seclusion. And it’s true, I didn’t have much to say to the Key Clubbers and Future Whatevers of America at my high school—no more than I had to say to the stoners or the art kids exhaling angst like clouds of frosty breath. But I had my interests—I kept riding that bike, and won a few races—and I had one friend who stayed on as other things fell away.

Viv Montenegro was, at sixteen, a straight-A student and the first girl at our school to wear the baggy skater clothes that would be all over the place a few years later. She argued, a lot, with a lot of people, her big ears turning red from the challenge. She had lawyer-like qualities—she usually won the arguments, and by the time you reached the end, humbled, you believed justice had been served. But in the end she became a biological researcher and a passionate lesbian. Perhaps I shouldn’t say she became a lesbian, especially since much of her research was devoted to finding the so-called gay gene. We’re close, she’d say. Did you know more gay people are left-handed? That’s somewhat anecdotal, of course, but it’s something, I know it.

There was something a bit self loathing about this mission of hers, though I didn’t think much about it at the time. It was Viv’s science thing, Viv’s lesbian thing, Viv’s weakness for tall women with pasts they needed to be rescued from. I majored in history with an emphasis on medieval Europe—teen brides do go to college, contrary to popular belief. I loved opening books and immersing myself in faraway beheadings, absurd wars, then—even more—closing the musty covers and going out for vanilla ice cream with Bucharest and Sasha Wynne.

The only piece of history Viv cared about was the Holocaust. Her family had fled Spain after the civil war there, and run in the wrong direction to Germany, where they changed their name to Schwartzberg (meaning the same thing, a black mountain) before being largely exterminated. She was so never-again, so there’s-a-Nazi-behind-that-tree that one started to wonder if the deniers weren’t onto something.

I don’t mean that, of course. Just that any story can be made to sound crazy.

Bucharest loved his girls. That’s what he said on wind-etched nights in the river rock house, circa 1802, that we were renovating together. He also said, Can you believe anything is so old? We peeled away layers of seventies wallpaper and lumpy paint to find the dark wood beneath. He talked a lot about authenticity. Our home would be restored to turn-of-that-other-century glory.

I love my girls, he said, and looked at us with the same look. I think that was my first unease, his black eyes granting us the same kindness. Sasha Wynne was ten, I was twenty-one. She’d grown unbelievably tall, towering like a winter tree above her elfin friends. It was clear she was going to be gorgeous, growing breasts but not pimples, black hair always in a careless braid that distinguished her from her gelled-and-jeweled peers. The combination bred a certain fearlessness. There would be no awkward age for her, no reason to doubt she should do the things her wild only-child heart proposed.

We did not spoil her. Bucharest encouraged me to discipline her when appropriate, despite our closeness in age and distance in relation. I, in turn, was careful only to send her to her room—no TV, no Internet, no CD player—when she really deserved it. Really acted out, as they say. I built my case in my head, exhibit by exhibit: a purloined bracelet discovered broken on her dresser, beads scattered defiantly; a ticket stub for an R-rated movie; three loose boards yawning away from the back fence, the one we’d put up to shut out the thick black woods beyond. Bucharest never questioned my claims, and Sasha Wynne rarely denied them. She would let out a brief, animal growl when we announced her punishments, though she never directly accused us of being unfair, then stomp up the dark stairwell to her room. Each step boomed—her feet were big, and the house, though large, was made for small people from another time.

Except for when she got in trouble, Sasha Wynne was perfect. She got good grades—it was geographic, we joked, if not genetic. She had close, pleasant friends. There always seemed to be a gaggle of shorter, adoring children around her, six or seven at a time, all mildly goofy in her wake. She was interested in boys but not too interested. She read for pleasure. She grew into lipstick—always a bright, 1950s red in an expensive brand, her only makeup—without growing to hate her parents. She was neither sullen nor particularly prone to talking back. She simply broke rules, over and over and over, shattered them like a mirror.

I probably would have chalked it all up to healthy teenage rebellion—see, even now I rationalize, pass the blame—if it had not caused Bucharest such anguish. He mimicked her growls, but his were deeper, and scary. I will lose her to the world, he said with fatherly hyperbole. She does things she is specifically forbidden to do, he said, as if trying to understand how such a contradiction were possible. At first I played psychoanalyst. I dug my fingernails into his past: what was he so afraid of?

But one night as we drank black coffee in the parlor—yes, this was the sort of house that had a parlor; we lived that sort of life—a crash from upstairs shook the walls. It was a thud, followed by a soprano crunch. Our carefully replaced cups rippled nervously, and we ran upstairs. There was Sasha Wynne, our bear cub girl, cordless phone clutched in her hand, black boots planted in shards of the antique, silver-framed mirror Bucharest had given me for Christmas. She apologized, the sort of apology whose subtext is Bummer. What’s for dinner? The antenna had caught, jarred it out of place, but, see, she was talking to this particularly bashful boy, she’d been really engrossed. She threw around vocabulary this way. Her emotions demanded only the best descriptive. Bucharest revoked phone privileges until she could learn to be more careful with other people’s things. I knelt among the shards, big and small, all reflecting the white of the ceiling.

I handled them carefully. They twinkled in defiance of their broken state. I thought of snowflakes surrounding a frozen pond, but when I picked up the biggest piece—the size of my hand—it sliced my palm. I gasped at how easily my skin had succumbed. How eagerly the red teardrop debuted.

When I looked up, Bucharest was already kneeling over me, his sturdy body shelling my own bleeding one. He, too, looked shattered. That was your mirror, he said, your present. My role was so clear. He took my hand and sucked the blood. Sucked something right out of me. I would be pure, I knew then. My veins would not run with the same animal fluids that Sasha Wynne’s did. I would win a different sad look from Bucharest, along with a certain relief. I would be his girl; if not a force of salvation, then at least not one of destruction. I’ll keep this piece, I told him, running my fingers across its cool surface.

Viv found herself a woman named Woodi, who used to be Woody from Philly, who ran certain errands for certain people, till he decided he wanted to be a filly. The story, as she told it, came out more sheepish than campy, despite its potential to be a very bad comedic movie. If only this were all part of the witness protection program, Viv and I lamented.

Woodi was six feet tall, fond of black eyeliner and black suits that could not be bought on a researcher’s salary. Her performance as female was sincere but not terribly convincing. She was a good storyteller, and her homemade biscotti were quite convincing. She would work her way into upstate society one baked good at a time—that seemed to be the plan. She brought dishes on ornate trays, Viv brought the wine I did not drink. I never went to their house, a cottage-y place near the college. To do so would be to fully enter their world; better that they just be an episode in mine.

I pored over Woodi the way I would over a history book, pulled in by a morbid curiosity whose wings I was always clipping. One day I finally managed candor: Why did you want to become a woman?

Because men do all the bad things.

Viv shifted in her velvet parlor chair. She was small and buoyant in the wake of Woodi’s half-sarcasm, half-gloom. Woodi was a smoldering cigarette imprinted with lipstick; Viv was a tongue licking lips. I could tell: This was and wasn’t the right answer, as far as Viv was concerned. She demanded some always-felt-like-a-girl, some trapped-in-a-man’s-body. But yes, there was something in men that made them do the things they did. Viv believed in genes.

I awoke one night in February to a small glimmering. It’s strange to wake to something so nameless; awakening itself is strange because you are thrust immediately into the aftermath and left to grope for the cause.

The room was quiet. There wasn’t even a hall light—trips to the bathroom were black, breath-held journeys at our house. The ancient tree outside our window let in a dappling of full moon, light peeking through fingers. Bucharest lay on his stomach, his breathing thick, conspiratorial with the pillow. Then I saw it: a small shift in the emphases of the room, like a camera discovering a gun. The remainder of the mirror, a crescent-shaped slice, was snagging on the moonlight.

I put my feet on the carpet and delighted at their silence. I faced the dresser, which put the windows and the woods at my back. I studied my own reflection first, true to human nature, and warmed at my relative pale. My hair was honey, my eyes green and up to something, straying to the world over my right shoulder.

There was movement in the landscape in the mirror. Not just aimless leaf movement, but purposeful people movement. As my eyes adjusted, I saw it unfold, a silent, backward movie.

Two figures: one large and curved, one smaller and slump-shouldered, though now those shy shoulders were pressing up against the other figure. They could have been fairies doing their toadstool dance at the edge of the woods, but they were Sasha Wynne and her bashful boy, painting the canvas of snowed lawn with twisted angels.

I didn’t turn around. I crawled back in bed, put my fingers on Bucharest’s warm, hairy chest and waited for him to open his eyes.

Bucharest was not about to listen to his daughter shrug and pledge allegiance to condoms, to if-it-feels-good-do-it. He railed against her, against her boy, against sex itself. It was all very old world. He spoke in dark abstractions, fire and brimstone and STDs, never mind precautions, it was all just dirty.

I didn’t think about projections he might be making. I was, in my way, pragmatic. I’d gotten my child and kept my world, after all, so I wasn’t about to wring my hands over how to quell Sasha Wynne’s edge-of-the-woods adventures, nor Bucharest’s tirades. What could I do, how could I be the opposite of dirty?

I began dressing in white—not on purpose, or at least not at first. But at the mall, in catalogs, it was feathery white sweaters that caught my eye, faux snow rabbit coats (I would not have blood on my shoulders), pearls, sweat socks, gloves of the variety employed by picky rich ladies inspecting the work of maids.

I stopped having sex with Bucharest. Things had slowed anyhow, tapered off as my hips had widened and my first crow’s feet winked at the edges of my eyes. Now, I assumed, Bucharest had an unpleasant association with sex. He seemed relieved. I pigtailed my hair and fastened it with white pompom bands, wore white cotton pajamas that gaped in a few suggestive places but ultimately made me look like a kid in her dad’s clothes. I struck a fetal pose, offered him the finality of my spine. See, he said, as if to himself. You’re beautiful, Zeph. Just like this. He wrapped his arms around me, the miracle of chastity. To men, I suppose, it is a miracle.

And I awoke, again, to the strange, quietly anarchic world of night. This time it was no glimmer. It was Bucharest, hot against me, then inside of me. He seemed to be one big torso. His movements were practiced. He knew how to do his thing without the messiness of his partner’s consciousness. But I was ushered into the game. I stayed quiet and still in my pajamas.

There were other things, far more mundane. The power failure that stopped my alarm clock and kept me in bed. The package that did not arrive. The snow that barricaded the doorway. Things I should have done, I suddenly couldn’t do. Even my fantasies became dreams of not: Bucharest in love with the not-dark of my hair, the not-gone of evenings, the not-burnt of the dinners, the not-nag of my voice, the—sometimes—not talking at all. Peace in silence. A life in negative, I the white-fired flip of Sasha Wynne in her fleshiness, her earthiness.

Ours was not the sort of house one burst into—no sitcom house. But one particular discovery required Viv to burst, Woodi in tow. The dark wood door yelped at the sudden movement. Since her skater teen years, she’d taken to wearing tailored suits, hair slicked into a tiny pigtail, a determined professional. But today her hair was wild, so Einstein-y I thought maybe she’d discovered something, which, in fact she had.

Her cheeks were pink. Zephany. My name a flush of labials. I just got a letter from my cousin Konstanz in Germany. She was replying to the letter I sent her when I was trying to track down my grandmother’s old journals.

I couldn’t help but marvel at Viv’s ability to narrate under pressure. She provided all five w’s, even a little back story in case I’d forgotten, which I hadn’t. The much ballyhooed journal was the next best thing to DNA, a little science for her butchered family tree.

Konstanz had the journals all right, two full ones and one half full. A lot of it was what you might imagine—real Anne Frank sort of stuff. But— She paused and took a quick survey of the parlor. Red velvet couch, white walls, oil-painted pines contained in neat frames. Woodi had made herself comfortable on the couch, and was inspecting a shaggy fingernail. It was hard to tell where her worry was directed, but her dark eyebrows pulled together in Frida sobriety.

She asked me this: “Did you ever wonder how our grandmother got out when the rest of her family died?” Zephany, she slept with a Nazi. It’s right there, it’s written. Which means our grandfather, whom she met just after she left the camps, might not be our grandfather.

The weight of it seemed right in our old house, as if the structure had been longing for some dark secret, our own recent neuroses just warm-up.

Viv seemed bent on underscoring, giving voice. I might be half Nazi. She looked at her thin wrists, trying to summon answers from her own blood: Black Mountain victim or Final Solution bastard.

I stammered. I looked at Woodi with her long, fluid body. Nazi isn’t a race, I said feebly.

I want a DNA test, Viv said.

That Christmas, Woodi gave Viv a ring, a big hurts-your-eyes diamond, white to the infinite power. Don’t you love the word DeBeers? Just say it, it’s really beautiful, Viv said. She wasn’t a diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend kind of girl, but here she was. I tried to imagine telling my mother I would be attending a lesbian wedding. I wanted to know how Woodi afforded it. I didn’t know what she did, just that she went into the city a lot, and unexpectedly. I’m not going to ask, Viv said. Not this time. I’m just going to appreciate this nice thing. Her face as hard as the jewel on her finger.

I found the note. No magazine fragments spelling out what happened, just dull Times New Roman, 12 point, on coulda-bought-it-anywhere white paper. They—he? she?—wanted a sum that was an unfathomable cost for anything except the return of your child; for that it seemed almost insultingly low. Or maybe it was the dollar sign itself that was insulting. A part of me was pleased that they, he, she had used proper grammar.

I found the note on the kitchen table when I returned from what I thought was a puritanically early run; four a.m. was a guilty hour, six a bit obvious, five was just right. You have to get up pretty early in the morning and all that. Someone had.

It didn’t take long for my eyes to hit it. Our house was always clean, the surfaces of our furniture giving away nothing. The paper warped slightly beneath my sweaty fingers. When I saw this, I dropped the letter to the table. I began obsessing over the thought of my fingerprints. I had performed a perfectly innocent act, but already guilt and innocence had signed a strange agreement in my head. I was guilty of being innocent; I would up my guilt quota to secure my innocence.

And with this I slipped my hands into a pair of black knit gloves, inserted a fresh white sheet from the bottom of the ream in the printer, and copied in Times New Roman, 12 point. Still gloved, I placed the new note on the kitchen table, and slipped the old one into the shredder Bucharest used for business documents he didn’t trust to the recycling bin. I watched as the note, with its cold, simple demand, rippled into the grinding teeth, turning to snow on the other side.

Or: Woodi ran it all by me, early morning rationalizations over steaming decaf. Bucharest wouldn’t miss a few hundred thousand, Sasha Wynne could use a healthy sense of fear knocked into her, the tangle of trees behind the house begged to hide someone, something.

Woodi had learned something about me in her year of brooding at Viv’s side: that I would do this for nothing, or for nothing tangible. She had read my unique brand of loathing, knew that for all my ski resort ways, I could understand old world vengeance, blood on hands and lack thereof.

The laced fruit was my idea. She had to be kept quiet. Silence was everything.

Or: I knew nothing, but I saw it from the window. No giddy night-angels now, just a slumped body leaving parallel snake-prints in the snow as she was pulled toward the woods that had called her for so long.

I saw it and was accordingly shocked, had dialed a nine and a one before I contemplated what a longer delay might accomplish. I would have more days as Bucharest’s one salvation.

Or: It happened just like that, but in a dream.

Or: Bucharest made a phone call. Did you think he was innocent in all this? He likes his girls to be girls and his. Sasha Wynne was rapidly heading toward neither, needed a healthy sense of fear knocked into her. And I am complicit because I am a woman, because I agreed to the game, to compete in the first place.

Or: My hands, my black gloves, my woods, Sasha Wynne’s red lips and red neck face down.

Or: My hands shaking in front of me, my innocence genuine and suddenly irrelevant.

The snow is gray and slushy this morning. Tire tracks veer off the thin road leading to our house like branches from a growing tree. This winter has brought a stunned and particular sort of cold, as if we are all moving about beneath the surface of a slowly freezing pond. This is the year that two hikers and their dog will be found dead in the woods a few miles away, curled like triplet apostrophes in a too-thin tent. I hope they took her somewhere warm, Bucharest will say.

I will not tell you the chronology of this. I will not let you in on the intent of my artful future tense. What, and let you off the hook? Oh, she was bitter but learned her lesson or oh, she was bad to the core.

Whenever someone disliked dies, people say Our bad thoughts didn’t kill him. Her. It’s true, bad thoughts don’t kill. Actuality does exist. But we live in a tale too, one of immeasurable weight that gets told and retold, and sometimes the teller gets crushed by that weight.

I don’t quite pass for stable these days, but the town doesn’t expect much of me. Circumstance is enough. In my unofficial mourning, I’ve taken to wearing gray: dove and charcoal and pewter. It’s a J. Crew kind of town anyway.

This is not my side of the story. This is an interrogation of sides. Sometimes I stay awake all night telling myself stories. Bucharest installed a hall light, and now our bedroom is a bouquet of shadows.


© 2003 Cheryl Klein

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