by David Ryan
Some of the boxes aren’t hers. It’s some mix-up with the movers. But it’s unclear how they couldn’t be. Could she simply have forgotten the things inside them? She’s begun seeing her life as a story lately—one from which she has stepped back as certain narrative threads, once her own, wind their way along without her. It’s a certain age she’s experiencing. The story of her life, its narrator drifting, as if away from her. These boxes, I mean, some of them. This one with the dolls. She’s never seen these dolls. There must be a perfectly good explanation. It’s not that she can’t recall. No. It can’t be that.
She’s standing in the house they’ll call home soon enough. Standing in this living room, in what will become their living room. Or will it be the parlor? Philip needs a couple of more days in the city, just to close up the office, before he can come out. He’ll telecommute from here. So it’s just her tonight, tomorrow. They haven’t moved anywhere in three decades; they’d grown so used to the city. But now that the kids have moved out—
These boxes. She’ll need to go through them—separate the stranger’s things from hers and Phil’s, Tom and Anna’s old things she chose to hold onto. She’ll need to call the moving company.
And then she hears it. A sound like a long sigh. But coming from somewhere beyond her. And then it drifts off and is gone.
Philip would want to help explain this recent forgetfulness of hers, this little madman of uncertainty—dizzying her. It’s just the stress of the new move. It’s overwhelmed her normal faculties. It could be this. It would be, should be. But still, the hand guiding this story of her life seems lately drawn rudderless by no higher power, a broken sail flapping in the wind: nature snapped under the burden of the high and low pressures. The bluster blowing through a window in her chest. She’s begun to keep daily lists. As if to baffle the wind. A notebook, with orders of priority. Her day divided into three columns: MUST | SHOULD | COULD.
Remember. To do.
It’s an old house, built in 1805. The town, a fishing village with a former mill, founded a century before the house. The mill has been converted into an art center where she’ll take classes in pottery and the figure, copying. A change of life.
The sound again. Like a moan. She glances at the wall and it stops.
She takes the box cutter and pulls its blade along the taped seam of another one on the floor. She sets the box cutter down on the floor and pulls the flap of the box open. Another little head with fine, natural blond hair. The third moving box with a doll in it. With these things of someone else’s that never belonged to her.
But the moving company had done two jobs yesterday. The driver mentioned as much. She cuts open another box and recognizes the beige enamel paint of her sewing machine, an old Singer. Only then does she feel this mild dread of anticipation leave her body, a flash of heat, chilling. So many of these boxes are strange to her and it is too much like her life. The kids gone now, this rather huge change in hers and Phil’s life together, and the new place … It all has seemed to metabolize into a kind of weightless terror, if she settles on it for too long. What if none of these boxes are hers and she’s so desperate to exist that she’s pretending some are? Do you see how it is?
She cuts open a larger box: it’s full of familiar Christmas ornaments wrapped in crepe. The last Christmas with the kids rises up from the smell of memory, of cinnamon memory and orange peel memory, beeswax candlelight memory, the cool astringent of the Baltic fir memory, the texture of the red felt and gold stitching of the winter scene in her hand—little reindeer in gold, frolicking around the base.
Tom and Anna, now, they’ve gone off: Skidmore, Barnard. It’s gotten harder to get ahold of them. They let their phones answer. She sometimes takes pleasure in just hearing the recorded voices say, I’ll get back to you when I can. Just hearing their voices. Recalling them. She worries she’ll forget their voices.
Get back to you when I can. The moan—it is a moan—returns like some ancient flute blowing through a window in her chest. But blowing from elsewhere, somewhere outside of her. Perhaps an animal is trapped in the cellar? She passes through the kitchen, an empty space, but for the stove, and a coffeemaker, some ground coffee, a microwave she’d unboxed. Her husband’s enameled tin cup, recovered from one of the boxes, too—majolica patterning around the lip of deer leaping over hedges. She’s following the memory of the moan now into the kitchen. But no, maybe it’s in the cellar, maybe it’s a raccoon or possum or feral cat, crouched in a corner, hidden behind the hot water tank. She opens the cellar door and steps down, but the sound fades with each step and then it is gone, lost in the dark chill of the earthen floor, the cemented cracks in the building stone gathered a couple of hundred years ago. The hot water tank clicks and hums, the little blue jet of the pilot light bursting. Lining one wall, some old winemaking supplies, oak barrels and carboys and glass valves the prior tenants left behind. A child’s bicycle with the queen’s face among the playing cards pegged in the spokes of its back tire. A baby crib wrapped in a garbage bag. But the moan is gone.
A headlight from the street outside scores the living room wall through the window and passes. Another window clicks and then clicks again from the branch of a tree. The wind, picking up. The afternoon is gone. A dozen birds on the power line outside the window are cutouts of black paper. Her phone is on the floor by the boxes. She checks—nothing from the kids, though she’d called them both and left messages: please call when you can. More than she’d care to admit she’s come up with reasons for why she needs to hear from them. But if she were telling the truth she would admit reasons they could not possibly understand. Reasons too expansive to explain, veiled, sealed off behind the wall of age between them. Maternal love, especially incomprehensible just now. Distasteful. How could they understand when they’re trying to shed her?
And later, she’s lying on the mattress the movers had brought upstairs, lying on a thin blanket, the only one she could find in the boxes. She sets her phone on the floor, by the bed. Leaves it on, glowing. Her last thought before sleep is, again: how would they know?
The morning sun is so strong and familiar on her face that it takes a moment to recall that she’s woken in a new room. The recognition falls and washes into unfamiliarity: the small jolt of panic as the increasingly familiar disorientation rises in its place.
Downstairs, she runs the tap for a time, then makes coffee. She unpacks several more boxes, their contents caverns and rises of memory, little pasts and not-pasts, lapses punctuating the unfamiliarity with the room here. She pulls tape away from another left unlabeled. Inside a bunch of books, self-help? Whose? She pushes the box away. Beneath this one’s top flaps, crumpled newsprint. She digs and her fingers plunge into a slippery mound of curly brown hair. It takes a moment to realize it’s a wig, someone’s wig. Certainly not hers. Her fingers reach in and graze through it, the hair, its curls comb slick through her fingers, the nylon scalp and cloth webbing holding the plugs of hair. The hair, natural hair, real hair. The box smells faintly of perfume, her mother’s Chanel. Yes, Chanel, she recognizes this. She lifts the wig, turns it inside out, then back. The webbing is stiff, it’s lost its suppleness. She closes the flaps and pushes this off to the side. She tears the tape away from the top seam of another box. Books. They’re hers. From college lit classes, a portable Shakespeare with notes in her handwriting, all abstractions now, in the margin.
Another box. A collection of Polaroids in an umber Kraft envelope. The first she sees: a photograph of a red velvet cake with Home Sweet Home. She closes the box. This she knows, remembers. She wants to seal it shut with something other than tape. She wants to seal it shut with life, with her body. She wants to take them back into her. She’d created children, created their very substance.
The moan. It’s here again. Had it been here and she hadn’t noticed? Is it coming from her? She feels it, maybe she’s imagining it, as if it’s in her right eye, as if coming from behind it. She moans at the moan and soon her moan has cancelled it out, stilled it. And then it’s gone.
Afternoon, she’s forgotten to eat all morning. She pulls on an old wool sweater from a box (hers? vaguely yes; no—certainly yes). Town is a brisk walk through pre-war Tudors and Greek Revivals, early winter stripped maples and oaks that march along and then fade silently into shop fronts and quiet crosswalks—and she arrives at the Sycamore, a diner she and Philip visited when they were here last, when they’d closed on the house.
It’s quaint inside, as she recalled it—converted the way these caboose diners are in upscale towns. Where there’s comfort food and then something that shatters the illusion of a place out of time: a duck confit with sweet potato gratin, or a creme fraiche in place of whipped cream. Pies look as if made in a New York patisserie. She has a chicken cutlet and potato salad with tarragon. She’ll come again with Philip as soon as he gets in. In her composition book she’s written today’s three columns of MUST | SHOULD | COULD on a new page. She turns back in the notebook to earlier MUSTS, SHOULDs, and COULDS, and what is remarkable to her is how banal the entries must have seemed when she put them in over the months and years, and how meaningful they now feel. For instance, this page where she’d musted calling about a painter for the little room in the city townhouse, over two years ago now. To paint the kids’ bedroom, which they’d long outgrown. She had scratched the entry out. She recalls they’d decided it could wait, but now she remembers something deeper—that it must not wait, but that it should and could somehow simultaneously. So many pages are undated and now the entries feel lost. But she can see now just from circumstances the rough dates even so. Could: ‘red velvet.’ Here, at the top of the page she writes a date, somewhat randomly, a ballpark, about two years ago. Just for posterity, the memory of red velvet cake, a huge soul hundreds of miles away displayed on a glass shelf. Another page: a high school graduation, (Philip’s suit from cleaners GRADUATION), was it Tom’s or Anna’s graduation? There’s no indication on the page, just a wash of ink blotted out by spilled coffee. She writes May 30, then the year of a year ago, and over the stain she writes Anna’s Graduation. Why Anna? Perhaps it’s her memory quietly nudging the truth onto the page. Or: Tom called recently, perhaps that’s just it. Anna’s absence is more felt? She’s heard about a bakery in town. She flips forward to today’s three columns and writes in the MUST column, find bakery, red velvet. Then she writes Champagne. This new place, a new life. She adds to COULD column: long bath. And she writes today’s date, as if years from now she will find this notebook, packed away in a drawer, having filled every page with these entries, and she will turn to “bath,” and recall the bath she will have tonight and the glasses of champagne she will have tonight, and somehow in her memory then, years from now—even now, she’s at once having had the bath and not yet having had the bath. She’s soaking in time with either possibility, she’s both places at once, or three places in time, really. The small eye of madness. Stop it. She takes a bite of the potato salad with tarragon and the diner, the moment, returns all around a warm flush over her and her appetite opens in her chest, and she eats the rest of it, and then she eats the rest of her chicken. Outside the window it has begun to snow a little, and then more snow, snow dolloping the air, blurring the view of the street.
The two waitresses. They’re with the short order cook, leaning over something, back beyond the counter, deep into the side of the caboose, beneath the winter coats hanging on the coat rail. And then she hears it. It’s not the radiant heating. Most of the tables are full, and now people are watching the waitresses and the cook. You got a mouse over there, Jenny? someone says.
Shhhh, the waitress who must be Jenny says. She’s young, looks about the age of Anna, doesn’t she?
The moan beneath the coat rack is louder now. She moans quietly along with the sound over by the wall.
She underlines red velvet in the MUST column. She looks up and sees the people in the booth next to her, watching her.
Snowflakes fall, clumsily parachuting to the thick white earth, daubing her face, and the tingle against her skin makes her feel very young again. There’s a church, a quaint chapel, down the street, the red doors in the snow, people outside congregating, passing inside. She steps down the sidewalk carefully, the quaint shop windows lit up and warming, little false-gas lamps outside flickering like eyes or souls.
The group of children is reaching down, eating the snow, as if eating their shrieks and laughter like cut stairs of cake. The snow is pink in spots, dotted with blood, yellow elsewhere. As she passes two birds fly by her head so quickly, so close, just a foot or two from her head, tangled in some kind of battle or mating ritual, a little meteor at any moment threatening to break apart. And she shrieks, quietly, but one of the children looks up, his little mouth swollen and red. They can’t be older than five or six—she’d have been thirty? her early thirties, when Tom and Anna were around their age. But they were different. Here: these children’s cruel little faces. Why? Why think this? They’re children. All from the same hatchet-faced family. The pink and yellow: only just a pair of gloves lying there.
They were birds, she says. Her warm breath clouding, she has spoken into the cold. A tiny hat, like that of a doll, with a little snatch of something else on it, frozen in packed snow, perhaps a flag. The children watch her pass with wide, ruddy faces and small eyes, then return to themselves.
You’re cold, a boy says to the girl beside him.
No, I’m not, the girl says. She bends over, gathers up snow in her arms and tosses it in the air like a baby doll. As she tries to catch it, the powder explodes into white nothing.
I am too, another boy says.
Just a few feet from the children, she stops, and they turn, regard her as if she’s said something. As if in some language they don’t understand.
Well, I’m not, the girl says again to the boy.
A gray station wagon slushes past and the taller streetlamps all flick on at once. And somehow she’s already half a block away looking back. The children are leaning over, again. Their hands dipping down. Lifting the snow to their wet red mouths. The church at the bottom of the hill must be Episcopalian, or perhaps Unitarian, considering the town. A crowd outside, gathered like impressionist smudges, coats and hats and faces, smeared dots of black and brown and red and white. She descends the hill, stepping carefully, as if much older than she is, down the slope, snowy and slick. Something rushes by with a gust, bats against her leg and passes. A ball of newspaper, a circular, a bag of fast food trash, was it? It startles her for just a moment. But then the screen of her phone lights up and vibrates, a little red number down by the green icon. It’s Philip, he’s texted looking more like 8 tonight, rather than 7.
Okay! she types: can we talk?
A moment later the phone vibrates.
Is anything wrong?
Oh, no, he says—They’re going to have a little reception here for me, that’s all.
Save some room—I’ve got something planned. But it’s a surprise, so you didn’t hear.
And he laughs, and she remembers: their comfort together, like a tug of a joke that isn’t funny so much as comforting. The way people who have loved each other for a long time just laugh as an expression of some mutual instinct.
How about the boxes? he says.
You’d texted about the boxes?
Oh, I had? and she regrets saying this, because now she remembers texting him about the boxes. There’s the smallest silence between them, the pause just long enough for recognition of something unsaid, and then she speaks:
Right, I still have to call the movers. I’m worried they’ve sent our things, some, to someone else’s house.
Do you want me to call?
No, it’s fine. It’s on my list. We have someone’s collection of creepy dolls in the parlor, the living room.
They look expensive. They’re awful. I’ll call the movers this afternoon.
And she thinks must. Have you heard at all from Anna or Tom? Should.
Anything from them? A text, an email, a call? Could. I wish they understood how easy it is to use the phone. To just check in.
Well, they have a lot in their lives right now.
Below the parishioners are entering the church. She hasn’t been religious since she was a child in church where her mother had forced her to be. These tall red church doors are open and the warm caramel light inside spills from the opening like a brandy.
Do you want me to call them?
No, it’s fine. I’m lonely here. We’ll have a celebration.
Yes, I’ll get in as soon as I can.
I love you, she says.
She pushes the disconnect button. Love you. When had he started to leave out the I? She hated the lost I in his love you. It mattered, didn’t it? It has been so long. She’s standing in the red doorway. The doors swing slowly closed behind her. The singing has just finished in this church and a gowned man rises deep in the front and begins to speak. His small voice booms and echoes. He’s dressed like an angel forced to earth by the gravity of his heavy finery. The words are meaningless but the light is so warm. The room’s arches climb and hover over his voice. Must Should Could. Unpack the boxes. A gowned child appears nearer to her here at the back of the hall. He’s holding a small box. The box is white and blue, with crimson detail limned in gold leaf. Now the organ plays, and the child begins the procession, stepping a little too briskly forward with the box. He is walking away from her, up to the priest. He kneels, the box outstretched. The music from the organ stops and the room is silent.
And then she hears it. The wall, off to the far right, moaning. The priest and the parishioners hear it too, and she recalls that she is not alone. Everyone looks at the wall. The moan appears to be there.
And a sound rises from her throat. She hears herself moaning, trying to emulate the sound at the other side of church. The moan in her throat covers the other moan, and a moment later envelops it. The priest and the congregation are still looking at the wall.
She turns and pushes the tall doors open to the blanketing snow, and steps out, her breath billowing from her mouth, as if she’d been carrying it and now it was fleeing with her. Above, cutting through the milk sky, a faint gray howl of a jetliner is passing high above. Just the sound. It’s getting dark so early.
A dog park, the snowy path, a footbridge running over a circular walk with a statue, a fountain. The statue of a woman and a little child. The child’s mouth open, perhaps singing, thoughtless, wordless, and in stone. The path lined with sycamores and maples, winter-stripped foliage, the graphic black lines of the branches, thatches of black lines hashed against a flat white page of snow. Dogs jump and scramble, chase each other, their owners bundled in expensive bright colors, muted earth colors, tweeds. A Grandma Moses tableau. A dog barks and the trees thicken. The dimensional world returns.
And with it, the moan. Distanced, over by the dogs, no, beyond them. Stop, she says. Stop it. The dogs in the park halt. Their ears prick. They back away, cower. Now their owners gather. All regard the moan. A dog barks, then another, and another.
She moans again, and again. She finds the pitch of the other moan over there, the timbre. Instead of blotting out the sound, now the sound enters her. Even after she stops moaning along, she can feel it inside her, as if purring, opening up something forbidden. A young woman turns and looks.
She’ll go home, she’ll write into the MUST SHOULD COULD columns of her to-do book. This must help. She walks, her pace brisk and careful in the snow. The cold in her fingers has teeth. Her coat pulls open in the wind and her skirt draws between her legs as if a little body were curled there. Snow, blanketing the black world. Her boy Tom has not called back. She’d left a message, yes. Is it really so hard? I’m your mother. Anna, where is she right now? The trees etch and bend the air. She’s forgotten the way home.
This uncertainty, like an animal darting toward her. It bounces and rolls, cantering and skipping along. Her heart is pounding in her head. It reaches her, this fear, hisses, bounds into the blown dent of her skirt, then slips beneath and darts away. And then she recognizes again the way home. It’s fine. We’re fine.
But it hasn’t scuttled off. Not for long, not for good. It’s only gone to fetch others. All the fears and uncertainties. Less than a block from the new house she hears the moaning, and she moans along to silence them. Stop. Stop it. And soon it’s worked: they’ve entered her body, all kinds of moans, silenced now in the external world. They’ve taken new lodging inside her. A new life. She can hear them, at the farthest reach back of the tip of her tongue.
Speechless, she walks and walks until the new house surprises her. There it is. She steps up the front stairs onto the little porch. It’s all so pretty and quaint. She opens the front door. Inside, the boxes divided on the floor. And she hears them, still, just behind her teeth.
David Ryan is the author of Animals in Motion: Stories and Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano: Bookmarked. Recent fiction of his has appeared in Conjunctions Online and The Bellevue Literary Review. There’s more about him at www.davidwryan.com.