Myths of the Living
© 2016 by Joseph Kenyon
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Follow Joseph Kenyon on Facebook and Goodreads
Published in the United States of America
The Birth of Apollo
The first memory Emma recalled was the sound of the tires on the bridge over the old railroad right-of-way. Thumpety…thump…thump…thump-thump. The sound was the same entering or leaving Pierred’eau. ROSEmary ate a LAMB chop, her father would sing to the rhythm of the wheels. Sometimes it was Harriet and a hot dog. Once it was Darius and Kibbee, but her mother said it was pronounced KIB-ba, and since they were crossing Pierred’eau into Holloway, Emma remembered settling into the backseat with her own mind while her parents argued the point, before moving on to less-connected, more feral grievances.
But that was a long time ago.
The last time she thought of the sound on the bridge was the year before when Lars Archer wrote in the HP Gazette that the rhythm reminded him of a corpse bouncing around in an oversized casket. The line got a lot of play in Holloway, not only for its semi-literary quality, a rarity in the Gazette, but also for its subtle but snide commentary on the circumstances of the two interlocked villages. Holloway and Pierred’eau shared police, fire, and EMT services, in a state that didn’t allow for civic divorce, but the common ground ended there. Holloway was all artisanal and rooted wealth; it featured stone-bordered farmlands and woods with walking paths all surrounding a village filled with boutiques, art galleries, two performance theaters, and tasteful restaurants. Pierred’eau, on the other hand, featured decay and ruin. Those who didn’t want to be seen lived among those no one wanted to see: the criminals, the hooked, the runaways, the ones who fell or climbed through the cracks.
All these years later, Emma still felt that leaving Pierred’eau was like tunneling out of the underground into the light and open air. She didn’t know how she felt about going back, except that the phrase “going back” seemed such a strange way to think about a place only a mile from where she lived. But the gap between the two villages was so vast, the intercourse so rare, that the right-of-way might as well have been an ocean.
Her phone propped up inside one of the console cup holders buzzed, and Jeff’s number popped onto the screen.
“This is all your fault,” Emma said.
“I know it is. I just couldn’t think of anyone else. I mean, I realize since you opened the shop you haven’t, you know…”
“Midwifed. Delivered a baby. I’ll be fine.”
“You understand this isn’t an easy one.”
“I’ll be fine. How are things out on 36?”
“Carnage. I’ve never seen anything like it. The tanker didn’t just jackknife, it slid on its own oil spill and cars were stopped in the other lane for the construction. The truck swept down the road crushing and mangling two lanes full of traffic. Then, it caught fire. Every EMT and fireman in the county is here. That’s why, I want you to know—“
“I’m on my own. Got it.”
“Call though, Em, please, if things are too dicey. I’ll get someone to come over there.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and get back to what you were doing.”
“Promise you’ll call?”
Once Emma turned the car onto Island Avenue, she slowed, trying to pick out 247 among the uniform chaff of the neighborhood. This never was a picket-and-split-rail-fence sort of place, but the neat, well-tended yards she remembered as a kid had been swapped out for moss and weeds and tilted fence posts that sent what fencing remained weaving along the sidewalk, slopping onto the concrete here, the yard there. What she did recognize was the crown of the apple tree, its arthritic branches scratching at the gray October sky. There wasn’t a fork in that tree that she hadn’t sat in as a kid. Then her father, who was, at best, a recreational hunter, bagged the only deer he ever shot in his life and hung it from the tree for two days until he could get it butchered. Emma had looked out at the tree from various windows inside the house. The carcass was thin from the gutting, the head bent at a strange angle, the eyes open and staring into nothingness. Those eyes and the strange way the body would swing in a stiff breeze had stayed with her all these years. She was happy when the butchers came to take it away, but she never climbed that tree again. The outline of the deer in her mind became as much an impediment as the real carcass hanging from the branch.
The porch spanning the front of the house looked less worn then the rest of the place, but it was strewn with fast food containers and a couple of old tires. The picture window had been boarded up with two pieces of weathered plywood. Of all the entropic abuse the house had suffered, that covered window stung her the most. How many times after her mother left did she sit behind that window watching the shadow of her father pace the porch? How many times had she played the game of moving her body as close to his passing shadow without letting it touch any part of her? Without seeing her father or allowing herself to be seen?
She drove on. 504 rose up, an old colonial that would have been a stately house in a bygone era, but it had boarded windows and a porch painted over with graffiti. Cracked stone steps took her up to a partially open front door and into a grand foyer that was, to Emma’s surprise, free of litter and debris. But the cavernous room acted like an echo chamber for the screams raining down from the second floor, and Emma followed them up the curving staircase to the third room off the main hallway.
Farlene McKavery was in worse condition than the house. She was weathered and twentyish, frayed around every edge but trying to keep herself raveled with blue eye shadow and chipped black paint on tiny nails. She knelt on the floor, her knees pressed into a mattress dragged from the metal cot at the other side of the room. Her pale and freckled face was either screwed tight with pain or slack with exhaustion. When she wasn’t wailing, her voice dropped back to a moan that sounded like coffee being ground. Her belly flopped over the elastic of her sweat pants. Either she or someone else had cuffed her hefty arms to a dead steam-heat pipe that ran from the old iron radiator to the ceiling. When Emma saw the handcuffs, she retreated away from the door frame and dialed Jeff.
“Did you know Farlene is handcuffed to a pipe?”
“No, I didn’t.” A burst of background noise came through the phone. “I’ll work on getting someone out there.”
Emma ended the call, composed what she hoped would be a comforting expression on her face, took a breath, and entered the room. “Hello, Farlene. My name is Emma. Jeff Wesleyan sent me to help you. I’m going to start by examining you, and then we’ll go from there. Okay?”
Farlene McKavery replied with a moan that sounded like “Ill.. ee…tha” and mashed her cheek against the pipe.
Emma put on gloves and ran her hands over the curvature of Farlene’s stomach, pressing at different points, getting a feel for where the baby was positioned and the state of Farlene’s body. She moved her hand down to Farlene’s vagina to check the dilation. Not much, which didn’t square. Could there be a blockage? Anything was possible, but still dilation would be occurring. Emma kept up a soothing patter as she made another inspection, but clearly something was wrong that she couldn’t feel. What she needed was a clear view with Farlene up on the cot, but that was impossible as long as the handcuffs had her locked into position.
“I need to get these cuffs off you, Farlene. Where’s the key?”
“Don’t know,” Farlene McKavery whispered. A tear rolled down her cheek, and she let out another soft moan.
Emma patted her shoulder, then stood and made her way through the other rooms on the floor, knocking on, then opening, each door and flinching at who or what might be waiting inside. She found a slotted bar of metal discarded in the bathroom and back in Farlene’s room, Emma used it to pry off the topmost board covering the windows, letting in a bit of light through the broken glass. Despite the clouds, the temperature had risen into the low eighties, but right now warm, gray air felt preferable to the fetid smell inside the room. She started a systematic search through the few boxes, around the cot, under two or three ripped and dirty tee shirts and finally under the loose flooring itself. No key.
Farlene, who had been quieter since Emma had come into the room, let loose with a howl somewhere between a banshee cry and a primal scream, and when that ended, she began to bang her forehead on the pipe, shouting “Get out! Get out!” Emma shoved her left forearm between the pole and Farlene’s head, using her right arm to hold Farlene back. She talked in a slow, soothing voice, but Farlene kept pounding away, and after six blows, Emma had to remove her arm. Farlene grabbed the pipe with her manacled hands and yelled for Illythia. Finally, she stopped yelling and started bouncing with floor-splitting force on the thin mattress. Emma used the weight of her own body to ease Farlene’s fit, wrapping her arms around the girl’s linebacker shoulders, still talking. “Sh-sh-sh. Easy, there. We’re going to get you out. Hang in there.”
The bouncing ended with Farlene letting go, her cuffed hands going slack, and Emma falling to the floor on the other side of the pipe, her back against the wall, face full of sweat. After the outburst, Farlene returned to quiet moaning, and she brought her head down against the pipe to rest. Emma reached over and used her fingers to push a damp strand of stray hair behind the girl’s ear. A surge of anger and compassion filled her, both directed at this mule-like but loveable girl whose situation Emma felt with frightening clarity. Farlene McKavery’s eyes were open but turned far down inside herself, and unless Emma missed her guess, the girl was staring into singularly loveless waters. Emma moved her hand from the cowlick down to the girl’s cheek and brushed it with the back of her fingertips. It was a gesture she had never used on a patient when she had been a mid-wife. It was a gesture she rarely used on the lovers she had had. It was a gesture as mixed as her feelings, a soft touch with a half-closed fist. Farlene’s eyes remained open, but she put her lips to the back of Emma’s hand. She said “cool” in a soft voice, followed by “Illythia” and went quiet again.
The opening caused by removing the board brought a smothering heat through the window that turned the room to haze. Emma shook her head. The metal she used to pry off the board lay nearby, so she reached out with her foot and slid it closer. This was Pierred’eau after all. The house was empty except for a pregnant girl handcuffed to a pipe, a reminder that at any minute danger could come up the stairs. Farlene stirred, but her body didn’t begin to gather like it did before she screamed or launched into her fit. One by one, sounds dropped away. Emma fixed her eyes on the window but kept the girl in her peripheral vision. Maybe, if she saw the next fit coming, she could ease it without Farlene hurting herself or the baby.
Farlene faced the other way, looking over Emma’s shoulder toward the door. At the rustling sound, Emma turned her head as Farlene opened her eyes wide and called out, “Gabs! Oh, Gabs!” A short, man hesitated at the doorway before entering the room and standing in front of the cot, his hands sliding nervously over his down vest. He stared at Farlene with eyes shifting between love and fear.
“Who are you?” Emma said, keeping her hand on the metal piece but trying not to make the words sound like a challenge.
The man didn’t respond.
“Are you the father?”
“It doesn’t matter, but Farlene needs your help. Somewhere there is a key to these.” Emma lifted Farlene’s hands and turned them so the handcuffs were visible. “If we get the key, we can help her. Do you know where the key is?”
The man didn’t reply.
Emma stood up and took a step toward him. “Just help me get her out of here, will you?”
Gabs said nothing, but Farlene roared, and at the sound of it, Gabs fell down onto the cot, his hands gripping the bedframe. Emma went over to the girl and felt her stomach and dilation again: Much wider this time. She put her hand on Farlene’s head, ready to hold her skull if the girl started bouncing or banging her head against the pipe, but Farlene just kept calling for Illythia between a wrenching set of screams.
“Do you see?” Emma said to Gabs, pointing at the girl. “She’s going to die unless you help me. Please. Tell me who has the key or where it is.”
“Honey, no matter how much you ask, he ain’t talking and he ain’t moving.”
Emma looked toward the door where a tall woman with obsidian-colored skin filled the frame. Her waist bent forward slightly, and her eyes, behind thick glasses, had the cloudy look of age, but Emma could tell that once she had been lean and striking. The woman’s voice was gentle, and she never moved from the doorway, but the sight of her sent Emma’s emotions vacillating between relief and dread. Gabs, however, relaxed his grip on the bed, smiling and nodding at Farlene, who couldn’t see him with her eyes closed, her face swimming in pain. Still, Gabs kept nodding, accompanied by several chortles and hoots.
“Gabs can’t talk,” the woman said.
Farlene turned her head toward the newcomer’s voice, and her face relaxed through the pain. “Illythia!”
“Yes, child. Now, what’s all this nonsense?”
Farlene began to cry. Illythia came into the room and laid a long finger on the handcuffs. “Gabs,” she said, “run around to Bock Austin’s place and get his hacksaw. Be quick.”
Gabs got off the bed and shuffled out the door.
“How’s he going to ask for the saw if he doesn’t talk?” Emma said.
“When you barely recall the ways of a place,” Illythia said, “it’s better not to ask questions.”
The words sat oddly in Emma’s ears. She expected the comment to sting but instead, it settled onto the surface of her consciousness lightly, sadly, like a rose laid on a casket being lowered into the grave. She started to respond, but stopped, revising her words in her head so that they sounded inviting, not petulant. “Have we met before, Ms…”
“Jones. Illythia Jones.”
The woman turned away from Farlene and took in Emma. They stood a yard apart and a world away. The unnamed dread that Emma felt earlier grew stronger, overshadowing another unclear memory working its way forward from the back of Emma’s brain. The way Illythia watched her didn’t help. The woman’s serene face never changed, but Emma felt open and vulnerable, as if everything she thought could be read by the old woman. Illythia’s eyes narrowed and downshifted rapidly from collecting data to processing it to understanding.
“You have truly forgotten, haven’t you, child?”
Emma didn’t know what to say.
This was not a wail in the same register as before. Those wails had been agony and fear. This wail came as a warning cry, followed by another. A third wail got cut off by a gurgling in Farlene’s throat, and the two halves of her body began to move in different directions: the top wracked with a choking cough and the bottom bouncing. Emma started another exam, but she didn’t need to go any further than the soaked fabric of Farlene’s sweat pants. Still, she pressed on to check dilation.
“That child is on the move,” Illythia said.
Illythia began to sing in low tones and stroked Farlene’s hair. Emma managed to pull first one leg of the sweatpants then the other down over Farlene’s ham-like knees and off her legs completely. She reached for her bag to get a baby blanket, when she felt a soft cloth touch her shoulder. Illythia was holding out a rust-colored blanket with Egyptian designs running along the borders. Emma laid it on the mattress between Farlene’s knees as a cushion to receive the baby, using her hands to keep Farlene from bringing her knees together, but soon the contractions took care of that. The connecting chain of the handcuffs jangled against the metal as Farlene gripped the pipe with both her hands grunting and yelping while the baby came headfirst and face forward, the shoulders catching and releasing, and then the rest of his body slipping through. Illythia’s song changed as she gathered the baby into the blanket, carefully moving the bundle out of the way of the afterbirth while Emma handled the surgical scissors she took from her bag, cutting and tying the umbilical cord. She was about to suggest that Illythia hand the baby to Farlene, then remembered that Farlene couldn’t hold him. Even without the handcuffs, Farlene was in no condition. Now that the agony had passed, she lay on the floor, offering downy moans and cries to the thin mattress. They stayed within their roles—Illythia singing and swaying the baby, Emma cleaning the area as best she could, and Farlene collapsed—until shuffling came from the staircase, and Gabs reappeared with the hacksaw. Emma took it and began to saw. When the chain broke, Farlene rolled back against the radiator and covered her face in her hands, her moans turning to sighs, and finally to silent sleep. Illythia laid the baby beside his mother.
Emma put down the saw and crossed the room, thumbing her phone to life and tapping Jeff’s number. “Farlene had a boy, but she’s exhausted and probably dehydrated. Not to mention she was blocked for so long there may be damage. Both she and the baby need attention. Should I load her into my car and get her to a hospital? … You’re sure? Because quicker’s better…fine.”
Emma replaced the phone in her pocket and moved toward Farlene, but she thought better of disturbing the girl now that she and the baby were asleep on the mat. She turned her attention to her bag, getting it in order, aware that Illythia and Gabs remained unmoving in the still heat of the room; only she was in motion. The bag being packed, Emma started for the cot, stopped, thought better of sitting down, knowing that she would only bounce up again in a moment, so she rubbed the palm of one hand over the back of the other, looking out the window at the gauzy sky that made everything beyond the room appear to be erased.
“Before the birth,” Emma said, still facing the window, “It seemed like you had something to tell me. What was it?”
Emma heard the woman moving, and when she turned around Illythia had bent down and was reaching out to cradle the baby’s head with her palm. Earlier, Illythia had cut away the elastic cuff and the bottom portion of Farlene’s sweatpants to fashion a baby hat for the boy. Her hand lingered on the fabric covering the tiny skull and then it went to Farlene McKavery’s hair and smoothed it. “There’s no sense in all of us crowding around this mother and child,” she said, and with one more caress of the baby’s head, she straightened up. Gabs stepped aside to let Illythia exit the room, and Emma followed with mixed feelings of trepidation and annoyance. On the way out, she handed the metal to Gabs and told him if Farlene McKavery became distressed to go to the railing and bang on it.
Emma found Illythia standing at the bottom of the staircase, her hand settled on the end of the balustrade in the same way it had just cradled the newborn’s head. Emma went halfway down the steps and stopped.
“I want to know what you were going to tell me.”
“And why is that, child? You’ve forgotten everything, and maybe that’s a blessing, how it must be. There’s so much here to forget, to leave. Why should you want to go back?”
“It’s got nothing to do with forgetting and going back. You talk like you know me. I used to live her, but I don’t remember you.”
Illythia’s laugh was a low rumbling chuckle. “And now you want to be remembering?”
Emma came down the rest of the way until she was standing beside Illythia. The woman was a good head taller than Emma, and now that head was swiveling, taking in the foyer.
“You know, me and two other women, we keep this room clean. It ain’t nothing to look at anymore, like the rest of Pierred’eau, but we do it anyway. This house used to be owned by a grand old couple back in the day. They didn’t have kids, so they entertained everyone else’s. We used to come to parties here as girls, standing with our shoulders straight and trying not to look awkward around the boys dressed in their finest on the other side of the room. Lots of pretty white dresses and dark suits, streamers and cakes and music. That’s what should be remembered.”
“I don’t remember anything about that,” Emma said.
“You wouldn’t. Long before you were born. Your mama would remember, though. You remember your mama?”
“She left when I was eight.”
“You remember your Daddy?”
“Of course! He raised me after Mom left.”
“What do you remember about him after your mama left you?”
Emma described the game she played with his shadow as he paced the porch.
“Tell me about the meals she used to cook. And about the homework she helped you finish. How did she tend to an injury you done to yourself? Or the talks you had? Tell me about those things.”
Emma opened her mouth and closed it again. She cast about in her mind , remembering each of the things Illythia had asked about, but the person cooking, helping, tending, or talking was either Aunt Sal or Uncle Teddy, not her mother.
“Tell me child, when did your daddy die?”
“I…I don’t recall exactly. Sometime later. I remember living with my Aunt and Uncle when my cousin got married, and I was eleven then, so sometime in those three years. But I don’t remember anything about his funeral.”
“Do you remember anything about your daddy and that old apple tree in the backyard?”
“Sure. The deer.”
Emma recounted the story of the deer her father shot and hung from the apple tree, Illythia kept her eyes moving around the room, as if looking at the present but seeing the past. When Emma finished, the woman had her gaze fixed on a part of the wall that featured a gaping hole. “You remember all that about the buck, do you?”
“Yes. It’s one of those memories that just sticks in your head.”
Illythia shrugged. She let her gaze linger on the hole in the wall. “There are things we tell ourselves and there’s the truth, and sometimes one feels like the other. That’s not a put-down. Lots of people around here tell themselves things until those things become the truth. Sometimes it’s better to let the thing remembered be the truth. I’ve seen strong men break down like little babies when they found out what the truth really was.”
A Siren sounded in the distance, drawing closer. Emma looked up the steps and saw Gabs standing by the railing, looking back into the room like his eyes were stuck there. In one hand was the pipe suspended over the railing.
“You’re people are coming,” Ilythia said. “Best stop chatting and get Farlene ready.”
“I want to know the truth,” Emma said. “If you know something about me that I don’t remember right, I want to know it.
Illythia moved to the stairs and started up.
“Dammit, I want to know!” Emma said.
Illythia stopped on the third tread. She looked up at Gabs, still frozen in the heat.
“The shadow you played with weren’t your daddy’s,” Ilythia said, keeping her eyes on Gabs. “It was me and a couple others watching your place from the evening til the morning while we tried to locate your kin.”
“And why would you do that and not my father?”
“Cause your daddy loved your mama so much. Cause, he didn’t own a gun. Cause he never hunted a single day in his whole life.”
Onyx and Red
Gil Manthus, “the Patriarchal Stuffer,” as Simon used to call him, never permitted his droopy jowls to leave the premises of the Manthus Funeral Home. But here he was, sitting with his son Ben on Astrid’s couch to tell Astrid that Simon’s body was missing.
Astrid took a variety of shots that afternoon, but the photo she chose for the exhibit was the one she took while standing on the ottoman to get a downward angle. In the photo, Gil Manthus was looking off camera, stage left, as if he was above all this foolishness. Ben’s blended look of professional serenity and personal opportunism turned wary and exposed, the way an animal is spooked by a sudden noise.
Ben had a difficult time re-composing his expression. Old Man Manthus, on the other hand, looked at Astrid with narrowed eyes and tapped a heavily-lined forefinger on the arm of the couch to convey his disgust that Astrid and her camera had taken a tragic moment and turned it into something cheap.
“We understand what a shock this must be for you, Mrs. Kent,” Ben said as Astrid lowered the camera, jumped down and re-took her seat. “It’s surreal to us. In the eighty-two years the Manthus Funeral Home has been in existence, this has never happened before. And it won’t happen for long. Let me assure you, we’ll find your husband’s body. I promise.”
At that last phrase—“I promise”—the senior Manthus turned his head away again, and Astrid wondered if he were reconsidering his choice of sons to carry on the Manthus tradition. Or was he washing his hands of the entire generation: her queer reaction to stolen death and his son’s shallow promise? From the moment Gil Manthus came through the door, Astrid could feel his hostility. His body language railed at her for being married to a dead man who had the audacity to go missing. For forcing him to leave his three-story world of muted and sterile demise. For exposing his inept, lothario son to the world. For Astrid being an adult who had not given up childish things in the face of the gravest encounter of humanity. He brushed at the thighs of his trousers as if his fingers could brush away the whole affair. Then, he signaled with a slight movement of his head, and both men stood.
Astrid was standing, but with the camera dangling at her side she felt out of place, closed over and wide open at the same time. Ben’s voice and the word “missing” bounced around in her head, whisking her thoughts. The elder Manthus started for the door, but Ben held back, lingering in the yellowing, late-afternoon light, tracing the room around Astrid with his eyes, the casual turning of his head defining a tight ark that circled and ended on her. She saw herself in his eyes. Emotional. Vulnerable. Suddenly available. How many times had she seen in the eyes of Simon’s patients the powerful but rootless intimacy that people develop toward professionals in a crisis? The difference was that Simon remained professional. He never allowed them to think that he had more comfort to offer them. Ben’s expression had a different cast. He was writhing inside, embarrassed, aroused, frustrated, and hungry. He was toeing the depth of her vulnerability at that moment, reckoning. It made Astrid want to snap off another shot of Ben’s face and say out loud that she was going to call it “Vulture Pornography.” But the camera stayed at her side and the only words that came out of her mouth were an edgy, “Thank you for coming.”
Ben nodded and stood his ground.
“My condolences, Mrs. Kent,” Gil Manthus called from the doorway, and for a moment, Astrid thought he was apologizing for the behavior of his son. After all, lusting after a client could not be high in the Manthus code of conduct. Then she realized that Gil Manthus was speaking to Ben. The son turned away and followed the path of his father out the door.
Astrid went to the window and watched them leaving the brownstone. Two men walking, their shoulders moving loosely under their suit jackets like their arms were not really attached but held in place by good tailoring. Had she run after them and pulled the coats from their backs would their arms have fallen to the ground? Would they have danced around on the sidewalk in some haywire, mortician’s mortification as they tried to retrieve their arms with no means of picking them up? No. And even if they did, Gil Manthus’s ductile frown would have seen them through. Watching Manthus and Son from the window was when she decided to process the photograph of the pair on the couch in sepia.
No one came to tell Astrid about the fear.
Simon’s body had disappeared, but it had disappeared before—for months at a time when he was traveling with Doctors Without Borders. The idea that his body had really disappeared held only an abstract quality for her, something gossamer and misty that would clear of its own accord. But then the image of Simon, the familiar picture of him that she carried in her brain, began to slip away in the twenty-four hours after the visit by Manthus and Son. One minute, she could recall his face with perfect clarity. The next, it would play hide and seek, peering just over the horizon of her mind where she could sense his face but not fix a clear image. She spent the day ransacking the house, gathering all the pictures of Simon she could find and placing them in every obvious area. She pasted his office brochure above the washing machine, their wedding photo on the bookshelf above the bed, the one with Simon heaving an exaggerated sigh at Astrid wearing donkey’s ears on the refrigerator. Peter, their best friend, took that picture the day after they got engaged, the day he christened them “Sigh and Ass.”
During her mad hunt for pictures, she came upon the red and black onyx necklace that Simon had given her on their first anniversary. “A reminder,” he said, “that you look best when dressed in onyx and red.” As she lifted it from the drawer, a black onyx came loose from its setting, hit the floor and rolled under the bed. She scrabbled about, moving her hand in arcs across the dusty surface, and when she felt the jewel under her palm, she scooped it up and brought it out into the light. It lay black and wrapped in gray dust against her pale palm. Before Simon’s death, she would have felt horrid that the necklace broke. And now? It was just a paler shade of dust. Like the paper that floated down into the streets after the towers fell on 9-11. For days, people were finding ledger sheets, desk calendar pages, and handwritten notes that had escaped the crush of the building, things that were a top priority at 8:45 and a morbid triviality by 9:15.
She closed her fingers over the onyx and thought about where she left the tripod and the timer. Her mind roved the room to find the perfect spot to set up the shot, but nothing clicked. She couldn’t see it. She closed her eyes and she couldn’t see Simon’s face. She tried to conjure the image, to recall the wedding picture of them together in the frame just a foot away from her. She could just open her eyes, she told herself, but she stamped her foot in response. She wanted to do this herself, but no matter how hard she tried, his face wouldn’t be found. She opened her eyes and looked at the picture, at his face so close to hers, the great grin stretching her thin cheeks and his subdued smile like a small flower with long, long roots. Like onyx and red, they went together. They were together. The picture said so, and pictures always caught the truth. Pictures always tell the truth.
In twenty minutes she had the tripod set up in the bedroom doorway, the timer’s gears crunching away the seconds. Astrid stood beside the open bedroom window with a scarlet scarf around her head waiting for the particular tick that marked three seconds before the shutter snapped. When she heard it, she took a breath and tossed the onyx out into the empty space as the shutter snapped. The processed shot showed her shrouded head gazing at the onyx as it began its three story fall to earth.
She titled the picture: “Cutting Onyx From Red.”
Again two men occupied Astrid’s couch, but the comparison of FBI agents Dunn and Pumares to Manthus and Son ended there. Nothing was loose on either man. They wore their suits as an extension of themselves, like the mane of a horse. They were neither angry nor lusty. Pumares had peculiar yellow highlights in his light brown eyes and a mole on the side of his face that made him look exotic from one angle and terrifying from another. Dunn was as steady as a piano.
Both men stared down at the camera without any hint of surprise, wonder, or disdain, as Astrid dropped to the floor pushing the button. The angle struck her as strange, even as she felt her knees touch the hardwood and spread apart. The symbolism ran through her: Of looking up to these men. Of submitting before them. Of being brought to her knees. The whole room had a blowjob air. Before he told her the reason why they had come, Dunn said how much he admired Astrid’s work, the undaunted woman who went for shots where most men wouldn’t dare to go. He wished she worked for the Bureau, that they needed good, fearless photographers, although he understood that the artistry wasn’t the same. Still, maybe they would try to lure her away from freelancing and onto their staff when all this was over. But for now, they needed to hear her version of events between the time she arrived in Dover to claim Simon’s body and the time she learned Simon’s body was missing.
Astrid pulled herself off the floor, sat in the chair and began describing the room where she and Peter made the official identification and signed the forms verifying the remains were Simon’s. She stood beside Peter as Quando Talmone, who had been the body hauler for the Manthus funeral home, loaded the coffin into the hearse.
No, they didn’t follow the hearse back to New York. Peter tried to make a joke of it, saying he heard it was bad luck driving behind hearses carrying his best friend. Everything else she knew was hearsay: Ben Manthus explained that when Talmone pulled into the Funeral Home, Ben helped him unload the coffin. That’s when Ben noticed how light the box was. Talmone said, “Maybe this guy really is a saint,” and Ben snickered, but he didn’t open the coffin until the next morning. Talmone swore that he only stopped once on the trip up from Dover, at the Woodrow Wilson rest stop to get some coffee and use the bathroom.
“Isn’t this all in the original report?” Astrid asked.
Neither FBI man answered. Their faces didn’t look compassionate, but Astrid felt a wave of compassion fall around her. She reached for the camera again, but Dunn stopped her by leaning forward and swallowing the camera with his huge hand. He would like nothing more than to be the subject of her photographs, he told her, and again, at a later time, maybe that would be possible.
Now, however, they had to deal with the foot.
“What foot?” Astrid asked.
Dunn gave her the news in a flat, straightforward tone: Simon’s foot had been found buried in the Jefferson National Expansion Park, behind the Basilica of St. Louis. A groundskeeper dug it up when he saw the fresh dirt and became curious. The foot had been sawn off the leg about three inches above the ankle. DNA tests confirmed the foot belonged to the body of Simon Kent.
In the silence that followed, Astrid could only think how strange it was that people say darkness fills a room. They say, “It’s getting darker.” Astrid looked hard, but she couldn’t see the darkness filling up the room. What she saw was the light ebbing away, being drawn out of the world like a magician withdraws a cover to reveal the disappearance of the beautiful assistant.
She couldn’t hear Dunn’s questions, only her answers:
No, she had not received any strange phone calls.
Simon was Lutheran and he attended services occasionally; she did not. God was an unstated but semi-permanent guest in their lives.
The Alliance. The Black Flame. The Order of the Rose. No, she hadn’t heard of them.
By the time Dunn and Pumares left, all the light was gone.
She drove to a grocery store and bought bubble bath. When she returned home, she poured half the container into a steaming tubful of water and got in.
Encapsulated in the tiny bathroom, without Other People poking into her life, without the wall of the camera to distance herself from herself, Astrid let loose. First came the soft hiss-plunk of tears falling into the soapy water. But it wasn’t until she lifted her right foot out of the water and placed it on the side of the tub that the short gasps became sobs. What had happened? She had always been the fragmented one. She was the one broken into pieces. She was the random electron being attracted and repelled without visible predictability. But Simon, he was solid mass. Until now. When she finished crying, she let her head fall onto the back of the tub. The rest of her remained submerged in the icy water, but she was too exhausted to lift herself out.
Astrid stood in the red light of the dark room watching the film floating in its semiotic developing fluid. How does the old saying go? Nothing eases the pain of a death like a birth? The words on the image undulated under the moving fluid. Astrid tried to see them as a single image, a visual representation, not a coded one. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t memorized the words on the note, but to bring out the essence of the picture, to let it take on the best life it could, she had to avoid being caught up in the message. It was the only way she could bring herself to produce the final print using paper negative processing, giving the image of the words an ethereal look. The right touch.
Astrid took the print out into the light and laid it on her studio table. The photograph showed two notes laying side-by-side written in two different hands. On the left-hand side was Rogie’s smooth explanatory note. When the Guatemalan gang attacked the medico’s convoy, Rogie had been turning the page of a diary, so when he was thrown clear, the page he had in his hand tore away from the binding and flew out of the Jeep with him. He had no good explanation for why he stuffed the sheet in his breast pocket while he ran for his life into the jungle, but that’s what he did. It was only later that he remembered he had been reading Simon’s diary, and the crumpled, torn sheet contained a passage from Simon’s Suelo entry. He thought Astrid might want the scrap. In the last paragraph, Rogie said he was sorry, that he admired Simon, and if he could do anything for her, she only needed to call. He ended with his number, but Astrid had cut away that last paragraph before taking the photograph.
On the right, the note torn from Simon’s diary fought through the crinkles in the paper: The ángles they called us—angels and English—laughing at their own pun. These were the village’s best men fighting a disease, an enemy they couldn’t see and didn’t know. They had heard of us, they said. The word had come down from San Miguel. We were surprised, and they laughed. “Death does not recognize the boundaries of countries. Should hope be so different?
She had taped Rogie’s last paragraph to the window above the table, and she looked at it now as she typed out the label card for the photograph: “Blue Notes”—paper negative—Rogatien Dupuis, Simon Kent and Astrid Kent.
Dunn and Pumares returned -- Dunn more urgent, Pumares more terrifying -- but neither of them was ruffled. Astrid, on the other hand, felt off-balance and undressed since her camera had gone missing. Now she sat on the edge of her chair, her hand searching under the seat while feeling an invisible hand twisting her spine like a tourniquet lever, tightening every muscle in her torso. When Dunn began to speak, Astrid took refuge in the animation of his face, the pulsating motion of his cheeks, the Adam’s apple drumming out the rhythm of his voice. All those words coming at her. She could feel them pinging against her brain, as if her mind had pulled a corrugated, metal door over the inside of her forehead. Dunn’s words rattled against that door, but enough of the words got through to allow Astrid to understand the gist of the message: an arm in a field behind a church in Biloxi, a thigh in the woods behind a mosque in Ann Arbor, a knee joint in the corner of a historic church graveyard in Philadelphia. The head…
That was when the sound cut out on Dunn, when the picture of his moving face was replaced by the face of Peter. How she wished she had let him be here, to listen and absorb what Special Agent in Charge Albert Dunn was saying about Simon. Then she was looking at Simon’s face. Her entire visual range focused on that image in front of her. It was like a still from a movie that networks used to use for technical glitches when she was a girl. She saw Simon, unmoving but whole, like the Simon she knew, the Simon she married. She looked down at his hand and counted the five fingers before focusing on the one finger and the thick band of gold. She smiled and curled her own hand around that finger, trying to grip the ring, but the positioning was awkward. She turned the hand over to slip her fingers into its palm and that hand closed over hers, holding on tight the way Simon did when he sensed her need. She lifted the hand and smiled, bouncing it off her knee, looking again for the ring, finding it, but only then realizing the hand she held was not Simon’s. Astrid looked up. Dunn and Pumares appeared to be on the other side of a window slicked with rain that splashed onto her cheeks, and when she looked down at the hand again, she saw a drop fall onto the skin, just to the left of the gold band. Astrid loosened her grip, reluctantly, watching the hand slip away from hers before moving her own hands to her face and wiping her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
Dunn smiled. “No problem, ma’am. What I told you wasn’t easy to hear. But the good news is that we’ve recovered the body, and once we finish our investigation, we’ll release it to you. Just make the arrangements with the funeral home of your choice and call Pumares with the information. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Dunn rose to his feet and Pumares followed.
They walked to the door with Astrid trailing two paces behind. Pumares had the door open when Astrid asked, “Is he complete?”
“Ma’am?” Dunn said.
“My husband. Simon. Is the body fully recovered?”
Pumare’s face went dark to his temples.
“Almost,” Dunn said. “Nearly all.”
“What hasn’t been found?”
“The genitals, Ma’am.”
It took a beat for this to sink in. “Who did this?” she asked.
“We have a pretty good idea,” Dunn said. “We hope your husband’s body can tell us for sure. Regardless, everyone I spoke to during this investigation, especially the people in San Miguel and Suelo, said he was a great man. Several even called him a savior. I suspect, in their own twisted psyches, the perpetrators thought of him the same way.”
“What’re you reading?” Peter said, holding out a glass of champagne to Astrid.
She shook her head.
“No, you don’t want the champagne, or no, you don’t want to tell me?”
“I don’t want the champagne. I can’t.”
“A teetotaling Ass at her own opening? What’s that about?”
Instead of replying, Astrid held up a ragged piece of paper. “Rogie sent me two pieces of Simon’s diary. I only used one in the shot.”
“Read it to me.”
The villagers came like dragonflies, moving through the darkness in a swarm I hadn’t thought possible. And the sound. Like an endless rumble somewhere beneath the surface of the earth. All of them moving in one direction, toward us. No one knew what to do. In all the lands we’ve been to, all the people we’ve met, never have we felt that we were about to be run down by a herd of humanity. I looked at Ted, and he made an evil face, and I remember thinking “that isn’t enough; stop joking,” but I didn’t say anything. Then, all sound, all movement stopped. We were surrounded and the bodies blocked what weak natural light filtered into the little village. The only thing I could hear was the panting of a dog somewhere to the right of me, hidden by those bodies and the darkness.
Really, we were probably just tired and they were just curious to get a look at the doctors sent here to fight an epidemic that acted like a balloon filled with water. Press on one symptom, and another would bulge out. We were ready to set up camp, tired as we were from the drive, but the people insisted that we take one of the huts. “It means a great deal to us,” they said. “The family who lived there died.” How could we refuse that? These people, how alive they are, like they say soldiers are just after a battle. So, that is the story of our arrival in Suelo. Sorry, no pictures. It was just too dark.”
Astrid looked up. Peter had turned his face toward the door where the dusk was milling around outside. Soon, people, more strangers, would start queuing up there to see an Astrid Kent exhibition on opening night. Peter’s eyes moved around the room where the 63 photographs were arranged. The final nine occupied a long wall reaching back to the end of the gallery, but they only took up a third of that wall’s space. The rest of the long wall remained blank, except for a title card that read Silence. Peter stared straight down the barrel of that blankness.
“All of this because of a lucky break,” Astrid said. “Remember my first shot? The woman committing suicide by leaping off a ten story building? I just pointed my camera and started clicking madly away, and when I developed the film, there was her tumbling body between two rays of reflected light that looked like a long bungee cord bulging with her fall.”
“You called it ‘In The Arms of God,’” Peter said.
“I feel like that woman right now.”
“Falling or being caught?”
“Both.” She tugged at the sleeve of Peter’s tuxedo. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
She led him down that blank wall that ended in a heavy hanging drapery. She pushed it aside, and Peter followed her into the dark space. Astrid moved ahead, kicking a metal chair before finding the string to turn on the light. On the table was a blown-up collage containing pictures of Simon that Astrid had arranged in the shape of a body. In the groin area, Simon’s face was replaced by an ultrasound photograph of a fetus in the womb.
“Marty wanted me to hang this rather than do the silence bit,” Astrid said, still holding onto the string, “But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. To open up Simon and me like this to all the world. I’m not ready for that yet. Someday, maybe, but not now.”
Peter grunted a quick “uh-huh” before pointing to the ultrasound photo. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Astrid grinned at him and pulled on the string.
Joseph Kenyon has published numerous short stories and poems in literary magazines and anthologies over the past twenty years. At the same time, he has taught writing at community colleges in New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Currently, he is on the English faculty of the Community College of Philadelphia. His first novel, All The Living And The Dead will be published by Mill City Press in April, 2016.
Two short stories based in mythology that explore the intersections between the past and the present and between life and death. In “The Birth of Apollo,” Emma returns to her decrepit birthplace in order to help a woman in a difficult labor and is forced to encounter her own past and a long-buried secret. In “Onyx and Red” Astrid not only must deal with the death of her husband but also the disappearance of his body.