THE WIELANDS (Excerpt)
If anything still startles Clara, it is that she can still be startled. That after everything that has happened, she retains the capacity for fear.
Take, for example, the trees. The woods behind the house are dense, and the maple branches arc high, crossing each other in an intricate plaid. Next autumn, the trees will lift and vibrate with color, concertos of yellow and orange and green-peaked maroon, but this time of year they are stationary stripes. Dead silent. She has memorized these mute unchanging forms, spent hours studying their lines. She knows the way they split the sky in rings and crosses. Black in the winter cloud.
But then, just when she is habituated to the slender comfort of these trees, a dot of red will soar into the grid. A cardinal, a robin, some brilliant bird. Or maybe a spot her mind made up. A gash in the sky, through which the horror pours.
That’s all it takes, a single scratch, and her heart jumps, her breath quickens. She sees anew how her sight is a trap, a spiderweb snared with honey, how her illusions are only out to snag poor living things, these birds with their hearts beating hopefully beneath their feathers, these fragile beasts. She is stunned by the cruelty of trees. By their willingness to let the robin land, and rest his wings, all the while exposing him to the hunter’s waiting gaze. Red against black.
She finds herself trembling. Backing towards the house, turning and running. Her vision shifts, from this brown-beamed place to that other house, the old house, white clapboards peeling at the edges and the windows lit wide. Then back to the brown house. It’s like a glitch in an old video, where you tried to record something over a previous unwanted story and it didn’t take.
She collapses against the side of the house, digging her fingers into the stone foundation. Already annoyed with herself for giving in so easily, for being afraid. Why does she startle at such a small event? Shouldn’t she be callused now?
The bird is still there when she looks back.
He would do better to stay in motion.
The gardens of the house bloom explosively in the summer. Tulips like fireworks, roses like pillows. Petals scatter the ground after a high wind. The wind presses them over the gravel walkway and into the tall grass, where the petals rest on the points of green blades. Knives held to their throats.
These days of blooming are still some months off. It is February, and the ground has packed a different kind of ruthlessness. Brown matted soil, brown nuggets of old goose shit, brown cracking twigs. Usually there should be snow, whole scarves of it wrapped around the telephone poles and sleeving the porch banisters in white. Growing up only a few hours north, Clara remembers playing in the yard as a child and sinking up to her chin in soft ice. But this year what little snow they have had has already melted, with no promise of more. Everything is brown.
The other women in the house are quiet. It is a place designed for rest. They are six in all, each wealthy or connected to wealth, because the rent here is exorbitant, considering all you get is a small bedroom, three meals a day, and a place on the chore chart. The sparseness is essential: the women here do not want to admit they have problems, do not want to admit that if left alone to their own devices, they would chew pills like breath mints or drink beer for breakfast or have sex with five of their daughter’s middle-school teachers. They call this place a retreat, as if they are all writers or artists, which they all are, though none of them very good.
There is no internet, no cell service. They can write and send letters. Sometimes a car will pull up outside. A visitor from some not-so-distant place: Augusta, Portland, Hanover. Clara always starts at the sound of gravel turning beneath tires, but she never rises to see who has arrived. There is no reason for her to run to the window as a few of the others do, to mash her face against the glass until she can see the driveway. Her flesh has learned that no one is coming.
She didn’t expect his letter. When it arrived, she thought the girl who brought it had misread the address. Who would write to her? But there it was, the dark loops of his handwriting. Sentiment tucked into the curls of the g, the t’s flick. She read and re-read that short note, trying to deduce what had driven him to write now, after all this time. Remembering the last time she had seen him, and the cloying scent of lilies and rain and preserving chemicals. Water running down a cold stone face, the reverend’s monotone. Funeral black. The earth turned up, quaked, revealed.
It’s a mistake to see him. She knows that. She has pulled the thinnest membrane across herself, wrapped herself in its transparent stretch. Seeing him again will tear it down the middle, and all that liquid will come pouring out again, and then how will she get it back again?
But love is puncture. Love is loss.
She could not say no.
In the days after everything transpired, the doctors ran her through a battery of tests. Probed her with questions and unpronounceable scans. Even now, at her check-ups, the shrinks still press at her reaches, searching for repression. What day is it, what year, who’s the president?
She wishes she didn’t remember. She wishes her mind were carved away, lobotomized to silk; she wishes that whole terrible time could be excised from her, lifted out of her like a tumorous organ.
No, take the good parts, too—take the laughter, the banter, the nights she looked around at her makeshift family and brimmed with happiness. Those parts needle her still.
She has never had even one merciful moment of blankness. The past is inoperable. It has spread to every part of her, and now it is holding her in its grasp.
She knows when he arrives, not because anyone tells her the visitor is for her, but because she senses him. Her shoulders lift and separate, her posture changes, her chin tilts up. She nearly trips on her way to the door, because her legs have decided to walk differently than they normally do. They decide to walk how they used to.
Out the window, she sees the plaited branches, the soft grey sky. She wants to take comfort in the familiar image, but—that is her curse. She will never again take comfort in her vision.
Someone else has let him in. He’s standing in the foyer, boots dripping onto the mat. He has a shiny green rain jacket on, one she’s never seen before, and he has cut his hair. She begins to shake.
“Clara,” he says. “There you are.”