Gregoria hid the pinecones she had gathered. She pushed them into the crawlspace beneath the stairs, then painted the steps above her hiding place with a thin layer of tar.
I know I’m giving myself away, she said, but this is the way it’s done.
Helen tested the tar. She fingered it. She brought it up to her mouth and moved her tongue toward the black circle of her fingertip.
That’s an Eastern impulse, said Gregoria. I won’t comment on it.
A rumbling from the second floor. A stony sound. The toppling of boulders. Hoot was on the move. Hoot was awake.
Gregoria massaged her jaw, she made it crack. Her body loosened, her joints spread, her bones got clear.
If this is how it is, she said. I won’t be afraid. Not of gathering, not of release. He is a natural boy. On the island, we expected an explosion—once a week. And when the water took its time, we showered in ash. Why should I be afraid? I love heat. I look forward to it.
* * *
Bill sat in front of the fireplace pretending to sew a button on a shirt. He held an empty needle up in the air like a conductor waiting for his nerve to arrive.
He began to speak, not to Gregoria and Helen, who were rolling a globe between them on the floor, but to some absent and accusing spirit.
I’ve been around. I’ve seen enough of the world to know that they aren’t walking by easy. They’re casing the house. Watching me. Looking. You could call it paranoia, but you’d be an idiot. A cornmeal-minded, feather-trading, aqua-boned idiot. You say trust, I say no way. I know where trust gets you: a permanent bed in a museum, one ill-fitting pair of shoes, and a sly introduction to the chair that will later become your best and only friend. I am the last of me. I will not let down my guard. Never! My memory is long. I remember what happened, and I don’t believe we’ve made progress.
The needle shot up. Teens, he said, most awful teens, half-formed agents of revolt. They haven’t chosen a side, they are infinitely swayable. I wish they’d chosen a different route. This is not the way I would have it, if I could have it my way.
He turned an ear to the fireplace, listened seriously to its crackling response. Yes, it is wrong. Certain things are, inarguably. This whole situation puts me in touch, though, with how one could—
He glanced over his shoulder at Gregoria and Helen. They had stopped rolling the globe. Gregoria felt her cheek as if testing its degree of spoil, and Helen counted the metal feathers round the clawed foot of her father’s chair.
Bill stuck the needle through the shirt he was not mending and drew it slowly out the other side. He crossed his legs. His shoe was untied and the ends of his shoelaces were covered in mud. Before he bent to tie his shoe, he pushed the needle through his pants and into his skin. Helen watched, and he watched her watch. With a finger, he warned her not to mention it.
Hurt rumbled overhead. Forgetting the needle, Bill stood up, and for a moment before the needle dropped, his pant leg hung high, pinned to his flesh, and it was possible to see that he’d taped a corkscrew to his ankle.
What is it that I want to ask? said Bill. I must be awake. I must have woken up. Helen?
* * *
Keep your eye on the middle bird, said Bill from his perch on the porch. He aimed his binoculars at a group of teens who were on their way to school.
Those two on the end are decoys, he said. They draw the eye away from the true threat: the teen between. See? His hood is up. We can’t see his face. We wonder what he’s got to hide.
Helen sat on New Machines. She daydreamed. She could not remember whether she’d read or dreamt about a tribe of Southern musicians who played a special instrument—wooden pipes slipped over each toe, hit with a mallet made of clay, to make a sound like: bwom, bwom, bwom. She slid off New Machines and drew the instrument attached to the foot and felt like laughing. Bwom, she wrote. Bwoooom.
The teens were gone. Bill jumped to his feet and rushed toward the empty road. He missed the last step and fell, landing hard, making no attempt to catch himself. Dirt clung to his lips. Helen, he said, where did they go? He was crying. Helen moved toward him cautiously, not intending to go all the way.
I lose, he said. Again.
He picked up a rock and like a child weakly threw it. Why, he said, moaning, why can’t I see them anymore?
* * *
Sometimes Helen dreamed that she was the victim. Cold and limp, she sat on a giant stone, trapped in the wad of her body. It was not possible to move. Though the chill wind blew, she could not find her muscle. She could not wrap herself up. There was no stiffness there.
The amphitheatre on the bluff and below the roiling sea, the steaming sea. The killer took the stage. In the shadow of the concrete hood, the killer had no face. The iron harp turned and turned. 1-9-8-6. 1-9-8-6.
Helen sat on stone. She dreamed the dream of the harp. In this dream, the year would turn. The number would tick up. 1-9-8-7—if she waited. The killer stepped off the stage and came toward her up the aisle. To clap, to clap, for the turning of the year. To find one muscle before the killer arrived. But Helen was a rag. She was the victim. She could not, for the life of her, stiffen.
* * *
Out in the yard at night. Inside the fence.
Gregoria? said Helen, and Gregoria jumped. A tumbleweed rolled out from beneath her skirt and bounced toward the gate like a spirited colt.
Helen, said her mother. Don’t be afraid of me.
They sat on the ground in the nighttime yard like two children plotting beneath the sheets.
I feel like I’ve hidden myself from you, Gregoria said. And that’s not right. Ask me anything. I’ll be soft for your spade.
Helen stared at the fence. Four little tumbleweeds pressed against it though there was no wind to hold them there.
Just ignore them, said Gregoria, taking Helen’s hand. Their father is inadequate. Tell me. How do you feel?
Tired, she said.
Oh, tender plum, that’s an awful feeling. You’re not tired. You’re young and healthy and strong. Put that feeling away. Cover it with dirt.
But I am.
You aren’t tired now, and you won’t get tired later.
Well, said Gregoria, losing the thread, There’s a way to get noticed. She pulled her dress off of her shoulders and rolled her neck around.
Oh? said Helen.
Wild, whispered Helen.
Find Mahm. Visit her in the green temple.
Gregoria was sweating. Her neck elongated and became hard, like a sock slowly entered by a foot.
Bill yelled from an upstairs window. This is insanity, said Bill. It’s midnight. She’s a child. You must be drunk. You’re a barnyard! So many animals live in you.