She and Glen liked to lay in bed for hours listening to the sounds outside their window. Under attack, animals sound alike.
“What is it?” she would ask him. What she had meant was, what kind? What kind of thing was dying in the dusk when the packs of dogs were at their loudest, going after livestock or each other.
Dawn brought the beginning of machinery, farmers at work, their trucks moving, calls across fields, the clang of metal, the engines, gunshots ending what had fought the dogs and lived—it all seemed so close, a trick of flat land. Sound found them in bed and she woke early to watch Glen emerge from sleep in cringing recognitions; in morning mute-light, she watched his uncovered face.
Now, his picture in the newspaper. She sees his face and sees that there are words printed around his photograph telling her that he is dead and she sees another morning, long past, when she and Glen stayed in bed for many hours talking about pie. But—winter—and neither wanted to get out of bed. They looked at each other. They took turns saying, “Please go get the pie and bring it back to me.” They said, “You do it. I’ll keep the bed warm for you.” Glen held her head with his hands. She spoke softly and shifted to kiss the parts of him closest to her mouth. His shoulder, a collarbone. She kissed him under his chin and whined, “Glen? Pie!” His breath on her. Their room grew brighter and their fear of the surrounding woods dissolved in unveiling light. They both wanted pie and eventually would get it together or not go at all.
Margie sees this and sees the picture of Glen.
“Poor Glen,” says Margie’s husband seeing Margie see Glen.
Margie’s daughter, Maggie, is eating cereal. She stares straight ahead without blinking. She lifts the cereal spoon to her mouth and then releases it, letting it drop heavily to her bowl. She says, “Splash.”
“Your clothes!” says Maggie’s father. “If you get milk on your shirt it will dry up and smell like rot and you’ll smell like rot all day at school.”
Maggie’s eyes close over her bowl. Her mouth moves, making silent words.
“What are you doing?” Margie asks her daughter.
“Quiz questions,” says Maggie. “Quiz day.” She turns her head slowly and opens her eyes slowly until they are on Margie. “Twenty-one people drowned,” says Maggie.
“What?” says Margie.
“Suffocated in molasses,” says Maggie.
“What?” says Margie. She stands too quickly. Glen’s face, splayed across the folds of the morning paper, falls to the floor.
Maggie looks at her mother and says, “Did you know him?”
“Change your shirt,” she says to Maggie.
Glen lost weight. Margie watched him shrink, digging her hands first into the fat of his belly and later into the folds of skin that draped from his frame. His body bore long lanes of stretch marks and Margie would, with her fingers, connect the marks to make on him drawings of their imagined life.
“This is where we will live together,” she had said, tracing the shape of a house along his ribs with the tip of her nail. “Out in the woods and I will have fifty horses,” she said. She scratched him, making lines of grass around their house.
“Here,” he said, and handed her a pen.
On his skin, Margie drew a garden. She covered his back with tall weeds and trees and the careful outline of their home, which would have many windows. On the sills, she put his odd objects, his records, his little things made of glass.
“What are you drawing now?” His voice was low and muffled. He, facedown, speaking into his pillow.
“Your salt and pepper shakers. Can you feel that? That’s the pair that are fish, she said. Here is the little Dutch boy and girl.”
“Where are they going?” he said.
“Where should they go?”
She drew herself on a porch, brushing clean her riding boots. Lines of his skin raised where she drew, rashlike, red. They were together on his left shoulder blade, pulling up garlic bulbs. They were happy. She moved a fold of skin that hung below his waist and on one side drew a pinto mare and on the other side a black gelding. She needed more space. She turned him over and began again on the heavy, round sack of his stomach. He watched her.
“Draw our bed. No, bigger,” he said. “It has to be big.”
She drew a bed as wide as his chest and put them in it, asleep together.
“It needs more. Put more in the bed.” He gripped Margie’s shoulder. She drew more blankets. She entombed them. “Bring in our things,” he said. She drew books and magazines and their clothes. “Bring in everything we need,” he said. She drew his plates, his green glass, empty bottles at their baseboards. She drew bridles and saddles. On pillows, she drew the garlic from the garden.
“Open your eyes,” Margie says to Maggie who is asleep in the backseat of the car. “We’re here. Get out a pen. Ready?”
Maggie puts her forehead on the cold car window. Strands of hair stick with sweat across her face. She cannot seem to wake herself completely. Margie and Maggie watch parents usher kids up the steps of the elementary school.
“Do you see any friends?” asks Margie.
“Do you see any friends?” asks Maggie. Her eyes are red and her skin looks blotched and beaten. She looks around her, but seems to see nothing she recognizes.
Each day, Margie gives Maggie vocabulary words to memorize. Today’s word is tocsin. Maggie asks how the word is spelled and writes it carefully on her opened palm and gets out of the car. The word appears and then is shaken to a blur as Maggie waves goodbye from the curb.
Margie liked watching her husband clean their kitchen. He was hard and precise and efficient. Her husband. She admired him. He saw problems as nothing more than a series of simple tasks that could be completed in a logical manner. He had planned their wedding saying, “This is easy. Just avoid procrastination, adhere to a schedule, must have good phone skills.” He had managed her pregnancy in a similar way. When it was all over, Margie was wheeled by a nurse to a waiting room where her husband was reading a magazine. He rested his chin in his palm.
He said, “She’s named for you, it might help you to take more of an interest.”
In the beginning, Margie had a hard time understanding what he meant when he spoke until she realized that it was always just the most truth spoken in the simplest form. It was a relief to be free of subtext. She loved him, her husband. He never asked her to talk to him. She could come in from the barn at night and watch him make her dinner. He chopped vegetables into chunks of equal size and placed them in separate bowls. He washed the dishes and left Margie feeling like a light object.
He kept leftovers in sealed ceramic jars, each with a label written in his neat lettering. “These are real investments,” he’d told her once, tapping a jar’s lid with the tip of his fingernail. “It is just true that butter will absorb the scents of other things in the refrigerator.”
To walk directly at the horse is to scare it off far into the pasture. Margie advances in soft angles. She extends her arm to look as if it is coming out of her head. She is making her face look like a horse’s face. Fully offered outward, she makes limp her wrist, her hand curves down like a rounded nose. She is asking the horse to accept her. It had come from a shelter, its past all worn openly in the missing patches of hair ripped from any place its mouth can reach and its ears pinned and the milk-irised eyes.
The horse brings his nose to her hand and his ears move toward her, which means Margie can step closer and she does and she pinches his withers to simulate a horse mouth’s nip and scratch and now they have made sense of each other and can begin their work.
The phone in the barn rings. It can only be her husband.
“Can you come up to the house, please?” he says.
“I’m working,” she says quietly into the phone.
“Can you come up to the house, please?”
“What is it?” she says, but he has already hung up.
She sits on the cement steps in front of her house and kicks the mud off of her boots. She sees her husband through the kitchen window. He is preparing their dinner. Margie sees him lay a large piece of brown meat lovingly into liquid. Why does he insist she be here? Her hand is on the doorknob to her front door and she thinks, Glen. He knows more about Glen. She wants back in the barn.
She and Glen had bought the barn together, thinking they could turn it into their home. Glen tried to turn what had once been a tack room into their kitchen. He bought books about plumbing and brought them into their bed and read instructions aloud to her then fell asleep and never touched the books again. They filled their sink with the garden hose and drained it into a bucket. They peed in the yard. This was a summer. They weren’t worried. They had all this time.
She had come home late one night with only the desire to be back in their bed, made in the hayloft. She wanted to be with Glen, looking down on all the open space they were slowly filling.
She pushed apart their heavy barn doors and saw him. He was standing still, staring at her. There were no lights on, but the moon shone enough for her to see that he was naked. Glen’s skin looked white, too white, and his eyes flashed out flatly and it was as if the night could allow nothing to look alive. She knelt in front of him. He was waiting for her! She put a fold of his loose skin in her mouth and bit. She kissed across the creases on his stomach and up his hard sternum and stood to face him. She saw his eyes change. He was waking. He had not been waiting, but was sleepwalking. He made a sound. She heard him cry out.
“What are you doing?” he said, his voice husked. He struck at her arm. He pushed away her hands that were fluttering to soothe him, to touch his hair. He lost his balance and fell to the ground. He pulled one knee to his chest and kept the other leg out, perhaps so that he could kick her. “What are you doing to me?” is what he had said.
Margie’s husband does not look up, but says, “You’ll have to go pick up your daughter from school now.”
“Can’t you do it?” says Margie. Her husband is punching flour into dough. He shows her his hands. He gestures around at their empty house. She looks at her watch, confused.
“She took a nap at recess and some boys kicked her,” her husband says. “The nurse says nothing seems broken. She’ll bruise.”
Glen, Margie thinks. She sees the day’s newspaper folded on the counter. What about Glen? She wants someone to tell her gently. She wants her husband to hold her and speak of it in his own words. She cannot bear to hear of Glen’s death through the loudness of a stranger’s printed words. Margie leaves her house and walks back to the barn. She looks up to the hayloft. She brushes the horse. She turns and sees her husband is standing in between the barn doors. He looks at her and Margie realizes that he has just decided to leave her. She can see it written on every part of him. It is as if he has—just now—finished a very long book and is calmly placing it back on a shelf.
“Get out,” Margie says to him. This is hers, this barn. Hers and Glen’s. She can feel her whole body expanding, rising, with the desire to be left alone.
Her husband steps back and puts his hands on the two barn door handles. “Your daughter,” he says and pulls the handles together, eases the doors shut.
The barn was farther from town then they’d expected. On their drive they joked about what they would say if made to eulogize the other.
“I’m going to tell everyone about your fear of synchronized swimming,” Glen said.
“It’s really scary. It really scares me,” said Margie.
“I’m going to tell everyone how you brush your teeth like you are trying to kill your teeth.”
“I do not,” said Margie.
“It’s like you hate your teeth,” said Glen.
Margie turned away and laughed out her window. She could smell the sharp green of the woods. She wished she could jump from the car and run out to the trees. She would put her hands deeply into soil and swim through it like water, allowing the dirt to bury her body.
The barn had been listed as storage space. They stood in front of it. It was a battered wooden shell with two doors that pulled together, hands closing to prayer.
“We can build on to it,” Glen said. “And all this land. We can have some gardens.”
“Vegetables,” Margie said.
“Pumpkins or something.”
“I can just pick things from the garden and make our dinner.”
“I’ll build us a kitchen and a bathroom.”
“Do you know how to do that?”
“I’ll learn, too.”
She was wearing a thin dress and a warm breeze moved through her skirt, rippling it up around her knees. She looked at Glen.
“I can’t tell you how good this feels,” she said and pointed to her dress and then pointed to the sun. It had been an unusually long winter. She said, “I’m sad for you that you don’t know how good this feels.” She could see a tangible shift, as if something in his body had made itself smaller to include her, to take her in. “What?” she said.
“Nothing. You in a dress.”
She felt a tenderness for him that hurt her lungs and throat and made her cough a little with surprise and she thought, this is probably what people feel like when they are choking to death.
“I want to live with you,” she said.
“Here?” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “In this empty barn. In this skeleton of what will be our home.”
They began collecting. Glen brought her objects like lamps in the shape of fruit or women and said, “Do you know how much this is worth?” He brought records and chairs and dishes made of valuable plastics. He would sort for hours, saying that he was trying to find the right place for everything, but it seemed that he meant only to hold his belongings. To lift them up, aloft, and look, to turn them in his hands. She could see him from the hayloft as she assembled their bed. He brought up a deck with a different constellation of stars on each card. He looked at it for a long time, touching every picture before replacing the cards in their sleeve and setting the deck carefully on his bedside table.
When circling their home in morning inspections, Margie and Glen often found teeth and claw marks on wood. There were animals larger than dogs living in the woods and it seemed that something was always attacking something in the night. They heard this from their bed, waking.
Some mornings, with tasks in mind, Glen made coffee and disappeared into the tack room with wrenches and hammers. She would hear the sound of metal hitting metal and water squealing through resistant passageways. When the sounds ceased, she looked in on him and often found him sitting on the floor, staring at the broken sink or an empty space meant for something they didn’t own yet. Outside, she threw seeds at the ground and pulled at what she believed were weeds. She wanted to lose herself in the sensation of something being built. She felt she should learn to sew. She thought she should be able to fix something. She tried to make them a pillow to share, but it turned out ugly and too thin and they already had a lot of pillows.
One morning Glen opened the heavy wooden lid of one of his many record players and found a dead rat inside. He spent the rest of the day in bed.
“What is that?” he said to Margie when, later, she brought him his dinner.
“Soup,” she said. He looked into it as if down a deep well. He refused it.
“The rat?” he said.
“Our doors are open all day. Things are bound to get in.”
“You put it there,” he said.
“Glen, why would I do that?”
Margie reached for him, but the bed was now so full of his things that she had no way in.
“Look,” he said, then smoothed out a crumpled suit so that it lay flat like a body waiting. “Gabardine. First patented in 1888.”
“Do you want to take a bath with me?” she said, but he wouldn’t answer her. He closed his eyes. He folded his hands on his chest and was still.
They took their baths outdoors in a limestone water trough. Eventually their bathroom would be built and the trough could be used as it was intended, for the horses Margie would someday own. She circled ads for horses in the livestock section of the newspaper. Sometimes she and Glen would visit for sale horses and sometimes she would ride them. There was, of course, no place to keep horses yet, but there would be eventually, she was sure.
Margie filled the trough and got undressed. The water was warm, up from a rusted spigot. She wished Glen were with her. She didn’t know what was upsetting him. Glen felt things differently. The day they met they had waited together for a bus and he had looked at her and spoken to her with such intensity. He turned to her and said, Close your eyes. Margie hadn’t wanted to. She’d kept her eyes open and watched as he left the bus. He looked for her, and found her, again later, and then again. Glen said strange and terrifying sentences in his sleep. When awake, he squinted at her as if trying to see across a very far distance. Before him, she had thought skin to be the most significant boundary between two bodies, but she didn’t think that anymore.
Margie’s husband packs his bags at night. Margie watches her husband and follows him out their front door. The wheels of his suitcase make terrible sounds against their gravel drive. He throws the suitcase into the backseat of their car and turns to face her. He has something to say, he struggles, holds words in his mouth, objects pressing. She can see it. She waits. The waiting is wild upon her.
“Did you want to marry me?” asks her husband.
He becomes so soft, so hard to look at, when he says the last word. Me?
She did not expect him to give this opening, to extend his palm weakly, a wound for her to cover with her hand. He is so generous, her husband, made prostrate, so generous, allowing her to ask him not to leave. Me? Not a word, but a parting of the lips. And she knows how to go up with her hands and say, I’m so sorry. It isn’t that she doesn’t understand this. She does. Of course she does. She knows she should tell him about Glen. Say she is sad that he is dead. That she is having a bad day. She knows how to make her husband feel in a way that would benefit her. Me? A turning up of the eyes. But she loves him and wants to tell him the truth.
“I feel so much less when I am with you,” she says.
“What?” he says. Margie sees that he is angry, but she can’t change what she’s saying. She wants him to understand her.
“It’s hard to explain to you how little I think of you,” says Margie. “It is as if you aren’t a real person. It gives me such relief.”
“Cruel,” says Margie’s husband. He points at her. “Cruel,” he says.
“But that’s why I could marry you,” she says. “You made me feel like there were fewer things to lose.” And this is what had saved her. Can he understand that? But he is already in the car. She opens her mouth to speak, but her breath stays in her stomach. Wait, she manages to say. He has already turned the car on. He looks at her through the open window.
“I hear what you are saying,” he says.
“But you don’t know what I mean,” she says.
“I will find an apartment quickly.” When he says this, Margie knows that he has ended their conversation. He is making lists in his head, he is thinking in terms of efficiency. “I’ll need some time to find the right place, to enter into a contract with a landlord, to get the needed furniture, etcetera. Once that is completed, I’ll retrieve Maggie. I’m sure you’ll want that done as soon as possible so that you can continue feeling nothing.”
“No,” she says.
“It’s OK. I understand. I feel nothing, too. I used to feel a lot, but it has all been eroding slowly over the last twenty years. I didn’t even notice at the time. But now here we both are. Feeling nothing.”
“It’s not the same nothing,” she says, but too quietly, and he is rolling up the window and driving away. His car stops and brake lights cut into the otherwise complete darkness. Then the car continues forward, down the long driveway, away from her. She blinks many times, but even after the car is gone, the red eyes of the lights remain burned into the air in front of her.
She has always sensed a constant threat looming. For Margie, a day is spent trying to keep quiet her fearful mind. It is nice to lie on a floor and stretch her spine and breathe deeply. The asking and answering of simple questions can cause her great physical pain. So happy had she been to stay in the broken barn, hidden among Glen’s piles of things.
She bathed in the trough, hoping to hear the sound of Glen coming to her. She could see only pinpricks of stars above. It seemed as if she could also see two stars directly in front of her. They were alight and buzzing. She watched these twin bright dots. They seemed to be growing and she thought she heard grass moving, but told herself that she was wrong. She was always getting these things wrong. She was always sensing danger where it didn’t exist. She pushed her head under the water. She could hear nothing now but water bubbling around her slow exhalation. When she could stay under no longer, she rose and sat upright. She sat still, breathing and listening. She listened to the dripping of water moving from her face back into the trough until she understood she was hearing a second sound. A slower one. It was liquid hitting liquid, she was sure, but it came from the end of the trough. This was a sound not made by her. Again she saw the twin dots, but now she knew that they were not stars, but eyes, advancing. She heard Glen’s footsteps coming for her before she understood that she was screaming. He threw open the barn doors and a hallway of light extended out into the yard.
She saw its teeth first. One of the dog’s eyes was missing and it was the blood from the empty socket sliding into the trough water that had made the slow drip.
Glen said her name. She leapt from the tub and ran naked to him, but he would not embrace her. He was shaking. They looked out into the yard. The dog moved slowly toward them. It had been attacked, perhaps by several other animals. It came closer. Not one, but both eyes were missing. What had she seen floating to her in the tub? She thought she knew, but was wrong. Not stars, not eyes, but the glint of blood pooling in twin graves dug into what had been a face and was now a reminder of one.
“Oh, God,” cried Margie. “It’s dying. It’s dying.”
“I can’t,” Glen said softly. “I can’t do anything about it.”
“You have to,” said Margie. The dog slumped to the ground in front of them. It lay in the gravel, panting a bit. They could see that its stomach had been punctured and a section of its intestines pulled through—thick thread stuck in the eye of a needle.
“Please don’t make me do anything,” Glen said.
“You have to,” said Margie.
“I don’t want to do anything.”
“You are supposed to protect me,” said Margie.
“Do I have to do this alone?” he said.
What can be said? If there are two, then one doesn’t have to go alone. And here were two. Margie and Glen. And one asks the other for help.
Glen turned to her and said, “What should I do?”
“Pretend you are a man,” she said. “Do something a man would do.” She understood what she was breaking as she spoke, but she could only think of being, herself, spared. She could say the words to leave him alone with this dying thing in the front yard and he would, years later, leave her alone with his death on the front page. Glen looked at her for what felt like a long time.
“Go inside,” he said.
“Ok,” she said.
“Close your eyes.”
“I will,” she said. And she did. But she could still hear the sound of him breathe in as he lifted the dog off the ground and the sound of him putting it in the still full water trough and the sound of it thrash against Glen until it drowned.
Margie sits in Maggie’s room watching Maggie pretend to be asleep. The sun is rising and the room grows brighter. Soon Maggie will stop pretending to be asleep and Margie will have to think of words to say out loud. Maggie hasn’t been sleeping well. This was the explanation she had given when Margie had picked her up from the nurse’s office a week ago. It was the Boston Molasses Disaster keeping her awake. Maggie had read about it in history class and now she couldn’t close her eyes without feeling her mouth and nose fill up with sticky fluid. She had anxious dreams. I’m suffocating to death, she cried in the night. I’m suffocating. Margie and her husband had taken turns comforting Maggie, helping her return to sleep. This wore on Margie. She woke one night to see Maggie standing above her. Maggie had said, “I’m dying.” Margie thought that Maggie might still be asleep. Margie slapped her awake. Her husband reached for her arm, but Margie was already up and out of bed.
“You are weak, you are so weak,” she’d said, shaking Maggie.
Over and over, her husband had said. “That’s enough.”
The sun arrives in the window and Margie looks out to the edges of where their yard meets the woods and finds the place where, so many years ago, Glen had buried the dead dog. He hadn’t been able to look at her. Her cowardice. He left her. She should have known then that there was only ever safety in loneliness.
Margie turns to her daughter, this body sharing her name, and sees that Maggie is looking back at her, no longer pretending.
“Tell me what you know about the Boston Molasses Disaster,” says Margie.
“January 15th, 1919. Twenty-one people died.”
“Don’t give me facts. Talk to me about it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Speak,” Margie says.
“Please don’t make me.”
“You have to sleep. We have to do something.”
Maggie looked very small, lying still in her bed, looking at Margie. Neither spoke for a long time.
“There was an accident. People drowned in molasses.”
Maggie—her daughter, her little voice, it was sharp with the struggle of rising tears. Margie could hear it. She thought about the phone in the kitchen. Soon it would ring and on the line would be her husband, him clearing his throat, the sound of his voice, then the sounds of his car on the gravel drive, him knocking on the door, and he would take Maggie and then they’d both be gone and Margie would be here, alone, at last, at peace.
“That is scary,” says Margie.
“The dead people had molasses on them. So much that no one knew who they were. You didn’t tell me this could happen to people.”
“Oh,” says Maggie. “Anything else?”