Claire has been dreaming of crows. Shiny black rumbles in the back of her brain. Dark feathers twitching against her skull. They’ve been keening every night outside her bedroom window, the same rhythmic caw again and again, and she’s beginning to think she almost understands it, their guttural, back-of-the-mouth language. Sometimes she rolls it in her own mouth just to have a say in the matter—quietly, into her pillow, so she doesn’t wake the baby. The words feel foreign and sticky. Caw. Like toffee on her tongue. She wants to suck on the sounds, hard enough to hurt them.
Dark, winging thoughts. Not the thoughts of a mother, she thinks, then unthinks it.
Meanwhile, the baby is speaking French again. This is the third time in a month. When it first happened, Claire thought it was a fluke—a funny story, one to share with her husband over dinner. “À demain,” the baby kept calling from her crib. “À demain, à demain,” pointing her chubby fingers toward the window. Claire remembered the phrase from eighth-grade Intro to French: à demain, see you tomorrow. But in the mouth of her one-year-old, it sounded so close to animal, animal that Claire thought the baby was just pointing at the crows. They had already begun to cluster in the neighborhood, though spring was still raw then, had scarcely cracked the ice.
At dinner all her husband said was, “Now you’re putting words in her mouth too?”
The baby loved the crows. Back then, even Claire could muster up an appreciation: if nothing else, they carried with them an eerie beauty. On the power lines, they settled and grew still, folded their wings, spaced themselves evenly in rows like bright black pearls. Claire would hold the baby and they would press their hands together against the window glass, point and echo each other’s words. Crow, animal, yes, fly away, yes. Their fingerprints left gauzy patterns, pointillist blurs that reminded Claire of the paintings she had made once, before her studio became a nursery. She was often tempted to leave them there, these ghost-hands marking the glass like small, breathy spirits pressing in from the outside. But her husband polished them away, and after a while the crows migrated from the power lines to the roof, where their talons scuttle and tap invisibly: dashes and dots, a code she can’t interpret.
The town has sent notices. We are aware of the issue; the crows are attracted to vermin; this street has not adhered to county waste-management protocols; are you sure you haven’t brought this on yourself?
Claire is not sure. Most things feel like she has brought them on herself without knowing exactly how. The emptiness in her bed. The craggy scar on her stomach. The baby chips a tooth (a stumble, a chair leg) and she feels the neighbors side-eyeing her at the swing set, looking for bruises, thinking: What kind of a mother. The baby’s head is scabby with cradle cap, molting dandruff that glows in her dark brown fuzz, and every person Claire meets knows just what she’s doing wrong—the nannies at library circle, the grocery bagger, even the crusty grandmother with dementia at the park—all of them full of wisdom and correction. Use this oil, leave it alone, comb it out, rub it in, give it time, don’t wait, time is of the essence. She remembers strangers’ hands reaching out to touch her round belly: the sudden claim the world had to her body, a body that had become alien to her.
Even the French—this is another fluency she lacks, which embarrasses her, since she was an artist (perhaps, in her finest moments, an intellectual) before she was a mother. Her husband, a professor of ancient Greek, has no such lack. He can translate six languages and has published in all of them. In the hospital he spent most of Claire’s labor exchanging French jokes—which went literally over Claire’s head—with the obstetrician, who was from Marseilles; if he wanted to, he could speak French to the baby at will, without hesitation, and with a perfect accent. He may very well have done so in those dark, lost hours before Claire woke from the anesthesia.
Perhaps this is why she finds a secret comfort in this: the baby refuses to speak French to her father, to anyone else. Only to Claire.
The second time it happened was a week ago. The baby was in her high chair eating grapes, whole, chokeable grapes Clare hadn’t cut in half because already she could see a certain worn path within the landscape of this new life—always cutting things in half—and it was becoming clear to her that what was at stake was only partially her sanity. It was also about her child becoming a child of the world, a world where any number of dangers lurked around sudden corners (the wall socket’s black eye, the hungry mouths of staircases, plastic bags, bottles, boredom, the sudden corners themselves), and how would her daughter survive if she didn’t end it somewhere? Didn’t stop this trickling down of danger, hidden deaths even in this, a mere grape? Plus her husband had just left her. Plus all the knives were dirty, and who knew if she could wash another knife without cutting something?
So: whole grapes.
It was a fragile morning, spring having recently split Ohio’s gray to a tender yellow-green. Sun coming through the window made slippery patterns of light on the kitchen table; the breast milk in the baby’s cup would look the same if Claire reached out and spilled it. That’s what she was thinking about, light that seemed milky and cruel, when she heard the sound. Guttural, a foreign threat. Like a marble skittering, or a crow. Claire felt something soar into her throat as she looked up (the baby’s dark eyes bugging, the clenched fear of her tiny lips), and she was moving before she told herself to move, she was pounding on the baby’s back, trying to lift her, all of this without thinking. But the straps were fastened and the buckles were complicated, so Claire lifted the whole thing into her arms instead—the wooden high chair, the baby strapped, the milk flying—and she shook everything upside down until something flew out of the baby’s mouth.
Claire expected a grape. It was not a grape. What flew out was a sound: “Je suis désolé, maman. Je suis désolé.” Claire didn’t know the words—she would look them up later—but there was a shape to the sound that was like a shadow, both there and not there, an outlined absence she could recognize.
The baby was crying desperately. Claire put the chair down and unbuckled her, lifted her close. She felt a splintering love. Or maybe, even more deliciously, its aftermath: she felt something coming back together. “It’s okay.” She said it out loud to the baby, and also to herself. She said it so many times, it lost its meaning. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” The baby’s breathing slowed, but her wrists stayed clamped around Claire’s neck, fingertips cool as pearls. Out the window, Claire could see crows sweeping purple shadows across the yard. Her arm muscles began to shake, a gorgeous ache coming gradually into color as she looked down at the high chair. Antique, a gift from her mother-in-law. Solid wood. Impossible that she had just lifted it, yet alone turned it upside down. Impossible that the baby was fine, was in fact laughing now, tickling Claire’s neck as if it had all been a game. And yet this was true: she had known exactly what to do, an instinct let loose from inside the cage of her body. She felt the door still swinging.
Little fingers pecking at her skin. Sweet pink voice still babbling: “Désolé, désolé, désolé.”
So Claire is watching for it when it happens for the third time. Almost eager for it, though she dreads it too, an inner jumble that reminds her of the art studio where she met her husband. Back then, she was a tense and wary painter, and she remembers the dark satisfaction of the moment her brush would inevitably slide beyond the borders of the image in her head. A mistake, yes: she understands there is something wrong with a baby who speaks French in Ohio. But also the cool rush of relief. Finally, she could stop anticipating her own failure. Finally, the shapes of her shortcomings would be known.
It happens in the backyard. The baby is playing in the sandbox, poking black feathers into little hills. Claire is walking the perimeter of the house with the exterminator, who is explaining that little can be done. “The thing about crows,” he says, nodding at the roof, “is that they’re social creatures. Same as people, really. Once you get a group of them together, they’re like a family. Hard to disperse.”
The exterminator has sinewy brown arms and green eyes that glow in the heat. It’s springtime, but the thermometer says ninety, promises higher, and it’s been nine days since Claire has spoken to anyone besides the baby. The sun is stretching its golden legs deep into the afternoon. Her mouth feels dry with words, though that may just be last night’s whiskey.
“Not all families are hard to disperse,” she says.
She watches his eyes skitter down her long brown ponytail, her breasts, her pink blouse. Silk. Unbreathable. Much too hot for this weather. The air is throbbing with the distant calls of crows.
Claire is waiting for him to ask the question she needs to hear out loud: Where’s your husband? To which she could acknowledge, finally, to someone other than the uncomprehending baby: On sabbatical in the Berkshires, fucking Gladys, who teaches romance languages and has tremendous, perky, unsuckled breasts. She wants him to ask. She wants to shock someone.
But the exterminator only looks away. “True,” he says, clearing his throat. “In any case, this isn’t like getting rid of an anthill. We don’t have any chemical remedies. Nothing, really, beyond the traditional. Which means your main options involve fear.”
“Fear?” This approach sounds so simple to Claire, so breezy, and at the same time, comically impossible. “You mean scarecrows?”
“Sure, or even just movement. Garden pinwheels on the roof. Strings of fishing line. Any movement will do. You’ve got to make sure they don’t want to return.”
“I suppose that’s always the best way.” A crow peeks down at them from the roof with one shiny, unblinking eye. “Passive aggression.”
“Exactly. They’re animals. But they’re smart animals.”
“Animals.” She stares at the crow, who stares back, a challenge. À demain, bitch.
“Noise can work,” says the exterminator. “If you’re desperate. I’ve heard you can record the crows’ distress calls. Play the tape on a loop, full volume, to keep them away. But that fix might be worse than the problem.”
“Phantom crows,” she says.
He laughs. She doesn’t. She’s lingering on the possibility of harnessing distress. Packing it into a cassette, an object no larger than her hand, and making it useful.
“Will a gun work?” she says.
“Like a shotgun?” He laughs again. “You live in town.”
“Well. The neighbors got a gun.”
This is mostly true. The gun is Claire’s, a snub-nosed Ruger she bought last week after a dream about intruders. But the question stands: she’s not clear how effective it would be.
The exterminator looks at her for a long time. His green eyes are a forest. The fairy-tale kind, full of haunting things and plunder. Then he looks at the baby, who waves at him with a gritty hand. “A gun is probably not the best plan,” he says slowly. “See, you can’t just scatter them. They’ll find their way back. They always find their way back to each other.”
Claire’s throat grows tight with something that wants out. She feels tears brimming and he looks quickly away. The exterminator is polite like that—thoughtful, considerate. He would be a generous lover. When he crouches down next to the baby, who babbles nonsensically at him, he’s smiling again. “She’s sweet, huh?”
“She likes you. She only throws sand at people she likes.”
“I get that a lot.” He holds out a hand. The baby touches his finger with her own—two tips connecting, God and Adam—and continues to babble. “I have no idea what she’s saying.”
“Same,” says Claire. “It’s all French to me.”
“You mean Greek.”
The exterminator rises. His body unfolds to a length that twangs deep in her stomach. She can practically feel it in her palms, the heat of his back, his spine stacked against her fists like knobby puzzle pieces—the logic of bones, of their bodies, each chiseled part clicking into place. “Like that Frenchman on the news,” he says. “You hear about that? Guy wakes up with amnesia in New Orleans and it turns out he’s some French tourist with head trauma. And now he can’t speak French anymore, only English. And the thing is, he didn’t even speak English before.”
Had she read this in the paper? It sounds vaguely familiar but only in the way a dream is vaguely familiar. All the separate parts recognizable, but not the story they add up to. “That’s incredible,” she says.
“Right? Total blank. Can you imagine?”
“I can,” she says, and it’s true: as he turns to leave, she can feel an old panic reaching across time. The inscrutable, silent canvas in front of her, white as hospital sheets. Brush in her hand and the edgeless possibility of any mark to be made. She presses her palm to the exterminator’s shoulder and feels him freeze, feels it all funnel down to a single red point. “Can you?” she says, and together they look down at the baby, who throws her hands high into the air.
“Oui, allons-y!” she shouts, scattering sand at their feet. “Oui, allons-y!”
Claire met her husband at Kansas State, where her father was an adjunct in agricultural sciences and her future husband a professor in the Atelier program. The Atelier was a graduate seminar, a multidisciplinary course deconstructing Greek myths through collaborative art. But somehow, on the strength or misreading of one of her paintings, she had been accepted into it—she, a full-ride undergraduate (need-based, not merit), a painting major who still lived at home and worked nights at the saltine factory where her older brother worked days. Her future husband was a classics PhD candidate with round tortoiseshell glasses and the sort of carefully arranged messiness—sandy scruff and tousle, ageless tweed pilfered from another time period—that she knew by then only money could buy.
His glasses were fake. She could tell from across the studio on the first day of class, as he lectured on and on about the differences between Homer’s Helen, Virgil’s Helen, Ovid’s Helen. “The lie of Helen,” he said, waving his pencil with abandon, “is that there was ever one Helen of Troy. There are innumerable Helens, unresolvable Helens—the whore, the faithful. The traitor, the loyalist. The feminist, the pawn. The object, who was stolen. The subject, who wanted it. And this, of course, is the gift of Helen to the artist: the ability to make her yours.” With every turn of his head she watched his glasses, the way the light was never distorted, the edge of his face never broken into separate planes: fake glass. She was sure of it. For reasons she couldn’t articulate, the glasses infuriated her, rumbled up in her stomach the fact of her scholarship, the vague haze of her post-graduation plans, the imposter feeling she had every time she showed up for his class. The glasses made her think of the smell of crackers and their neat, unbroken, parallel lines when they came down the plane of the belt, a queasy feeling, though she interpreted the lurch as mere desire. He was exceptionally attractive. And she was exceptionally tired, as a college senior, of living at home.
So when he approached her after class one day, all the other paint-flecked artists and tortoiseshell translators filing out of the studio, she was hungry for it: a word, a criticism, anything. Even from him. Especially from him. She had always been an A-minus student, eager to please, effortful and not quite magnificent, but full of the sort of floral promise that made her feel constantly on the verge of being recognized. A budding talent, her teachers had said over the years. A developing eye, a late bloomer, tremendous potential. She’d been a full-ride kid at boarding school too, and after graduation, when she moved back home for college—the only girl in her class to do so—that feeling hadn’t gone away, the sense that everyone was off to their real lives while she remained, eternally, on the cusp of hers. So yes, she was hungry. She wanted her work to be seen through his empty glasses, witnessed with unmitigated clarity. She wanted him to say out loud what was in front of him so she might finally know it herself.
But all he said was, “You’re overthinking it.”
Claire continued to dig into her palette with the knife, blending, blending, until the ocean blues tamped down to a steely gray. He was standing so close behind her. She could smell his aftershave, a crisp, wooden smell like cedar, and the human tang of his breath that was not entirely unappealing. “Overthinking what?”
“The whole scene. Helen, the ramparts. Your Trojan horse is a horse, for God’s sake. Remember, the goal of translation, both linguistic and visual, is to get past the literal to the sense of a text. Which is to say: your issue here is rationality. Too much head, not enough pulse.”
She turned around and held the wet palette knife between them. It was perilously close to the soft brown weft of his tweed jacket, as overt a defense as she could muster with years of midwestern passive-aggression behind her. What she wanted to say was that his words meant nothing to her and she suspected they meant just as little to him. Instead, she said, “You haven’t even asked me what it’s about.”
“What is it about?”
“Imposters. Fakes.” She watched his eyes as she said it, but they didn’t blink. “The sack of Troy isn’t really about Helen. It’s about deception. Troy falls because a fraud gets through the gates, a horse that is not really a horse. That’s the artistic problem I’m exploring. How do you represent something that everyone knows is a misrepresentation from the start?”
He was starting to smile. His eyes, which were a blackened toffee gold, a burnt palette she couldn’t break down into its components, glinted with a joke she didn’t understand, and she felt the rumble in her stomach again, but clearer this time: anger.
“Don’t laugh at me,” she said, and the thrust of her voice surprised her.
“I’m not laughing,” he said, laughing. “I’m just…pleased. You’re starting to think like a translator.”
“But I’m not a translator. I’m one of the artists.”
“We’re all translators. Translating is just moving things from A to B. You’re still at point A, which is literal. You’re paralyzed by the first image of Helen that comes to your mind because it comes to everyone’s mind. That’s why your painting looks like every other painting we’ve discussed, even before you’ve finished Helen. You aren’t considering B.”
Claire turned to her canvas. A gray swirl of smoke, the burning city, the muscular bulk of a wooden horse. In the middle a white space yawned, vaguely sketched, an emptiness she was saving for some iteration of Helen’s body. She hated to admit it, but it did, in fact, already look familiar, even with nothing there.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s B?”
He took her hand gently and guided the palette knife toward the canvas, pointing. “We already know this story,” he said. “The Trojan horse arrives at the gates. A war gambit, a con job we misread as goodwill. The Greeks are the imposters. We invite them inside and Troy falls. Right?”
“But that’s the misreading. The real fraudulence belongs to Helen. This woman no one has been able to read consistently, that no poet can pin down, this beautiful mystery.”
Claire could feel his breath on her neck. Hot ghost on glass, fogging the edges of her attention. She was still technically a virgin, and she had never studied a man’s hand so closely in the light: the golden landscape of the skin that covered hers, the fine hairs that quivered like filaments as he scraped her palette knife gently, then not so gently, against the canvas. The friction of metal against gesso jazzed up her spine, and a burning building disappeared beneath a smear of gray. She didn’t stop him. She wasn’t sure why.
“In Stesichorus,” he said, still pressing the knife in her hand to the painting, “Helen never went to Troy at all. The gods split her in half and made two Helens, one real and one an eidolon. A phantom. It was the phantom who went to Troy with Paris, the ghost they all burned for. The Helen we think we know, the Helen that has obsessed us for millennia, was never even real. The real Helen was in Egypt the whole time, at home with her husband.”
“Who cares? No one writes that story. And it’s not the point. The point is, as you said, fraudulence. Because Helen of Troy is an empty space, a floating signifier, she can be whatever we want to make her. She can be, for instance, a ghost.” He flipped the palette knife over and slid the caked gray paint through the white space of Helen’s absent body. “But she might also be a lover, a conspirator.” He took Claire’s empty hand and pressed it hard against the wet canvas until their prints slid together through the horizon; near and far began to blur, the world shallowing to a flat plane. “And she might also be dangerous. As creative as she is destructive.” He wrapped their fingers together around the hilt of the knife. The gray layer of paint between their hands slipped and warmed. “The imposter was always Helen,” he said, and he pressed the knife into the canvas and pulled down—they pulled together—until a long slash exposed the pale wooden frame beneath. “This is why we love her and hate her, why we can never resolve her. Because there is no her underneath it all.”
The room was silent, but Claire could still hear, in its aftermath, the sound of splitting fabric. The laceration gaped like a wound. Later that night, alone in the vague dark of her childhood bedroom, these were the things she thought of as her hands crept down and the memory spiraled to a hot white point, focused and sharp.
The next day Claire’s other professor—the one who was actually an artist—was waiting in front of her split canvas, rapt. Brilliant, he said. Visionary. Had she considered next steps, an MFA, perhaps an installation? Across the room, the man who would someday be her husband was watching through his distortionless glasses, silent. When she slept with him a week later, she pretended to know exactly what she was doing, though they both knew the truth.
Ten years later, it’s the eidolon that Claire remembers as she watches the exterminator drive away in his white van. The way a body can seem substantial one moment, incorporeal the next. How swiftly and efficiently she could make a ghost of the green-eyed man: the warm heft of his back a clear promise beneath her palm, a solidness there for the taking, and just as suddenly—vanished. Excuse me, ma’am, but I think you might have the wrong idea. Even adultery a language she can’t speak.
It takes some digging, but she finds the Frenchman in an old newspaper from last week. A fortunate consequence of neglecting the recycling: here he is, the man she is looking for, waiting in a dusty corner of the garage. The Frenchman’s photograph is made of many tiny gray dots that come together to form a wry, clever face. A familiar face, the face of her husband from long ago, back when he was wry and clever instead of gone. When she touches his mouth, the dots smear against her fingers and blend. When she pulls her hand away, tiny parts of his face stay stuck to her skin. Smudged, the resemblance is even more striking.
Pascal Duval, says the newspaper. Concussion, amnesia, linguistic dissociation due to damage in the frontal lobe. Transferred to University Hospital in Houston, where a doctor specializing in speech and language disorders has been quoted: “Imagine waking up into a life that isn’t yours, a fluency to which you have no claim. He is recovering well, given the traumatic circumstances.”
This is when the crows start to crash into the windows.
At first, just one thump. Claire hears it from the garage and finds herself running, heart hammering, thump resonating—a thump the same tenor as a baby’s head against furniture. But no, here is the baby, stacking blocks and knocking them over again and again, and it takes Claire some time before she sees the body of the crow lying just outside the sliding glass door.
She unlatches it and kneels on the patio. The crow is still twitching, neck wrenched to a startling angle, bluish-black wings heaving. The beak, which is dark but unpolished, a less expensive glisten than the feathers, is long and slightly pointed, and Claire can see a tiny black tongue inside. She feels a strange urge to pull on it. To plumb it with her fingers, follow its path deeper, yank open the glossy throat and discover what callousness resides at the root, what ugly, thunderous heart has been forming the noise that follows her each night to sleep. (She could just as easily slice open from the stomach, she knows. The way her father used to do with Kansas pheasants in the garage before handing her the pretty tail feathers. The way the doctors must have done to her while she was fast asleep. She imagines the drag of the scalpel through flesh, remembers the sound of the palette knife splitting canvas and how as a child she used the pheasant feathers as paintbrushes, all of this coming without any sort of connected logic, like a string of babble from the baby.) But the neighbors might be watching. So she presses her hands against the wings, a gentle touch, one that would appear, from a distance, to be motherly. She waits until the crow’s breath slows to match her own breath, the way she waits sometimes for the baby to fall asleep in her arms even though all the books say not to.
She sits there until she is sure. She sits and thinks of the baby stacking blocks behind the glass, an endless piling up just to knock them down and start again. She thinks of Pascal Duval, a face of dots coming together in patterns, and the miniscule gray layer of him that exists between the crow and her fingertips. She thinks, as she stands and looks at the baby through the glass, of her husband. Of floating signifiers. Of nine days. Of the exterminator’s iridescent green eyes: Any movement will do.
Without thinking—instinctively, like any bird drawn to its own reflection—she begins to pack for Houston.
The town of Troy, Ohio, was a joke at first. Something they laughed about during those perfect, glittery years of early marriage—first the elopement from Kansas to Boston, and then the beautiful city unfolding like a fairy tale, its golden dome, its silver buildings and boats made of swans. His postdoc at Harvard. Her first show in Cambridge and that rave review in the Globe, the eager call from a South End gallery. Perhaps, in her previous life, she would have noticed them sooner, all the dark doubts winging at the edges. How the reviewer, her husband’s Harvard colleague, had flirted with her shamelessly at a department mixer; how the gallery owner, an old family friend of her husband’s father, asked to speak with him first. The way their lovely Back Bay apartment, penthouse loft his trust fund could afford, always made her feel like a very important guest. But for a while, all she could see was the golden skyline, the future that rolled before them like one long, open horizon.
New York next, they agreed. In New York, there was Columbia, SoHo, a city they would plunder together, two stars rising in tandem. And after he got tenure, perhaps some time abroad in London, Paris, Vienna.
“Of course, there’s always Ohio,” he would joke. A colleague had sent him a posting: tenure-track Greek at a women’s college in Dayton, with affordable housing in nearby Troy. He dismissed it immediately (the real job offers would come, of course, from the research institutions) but laughed about it with her in bed. “You have to admit, there’s a certain romance. Troy, the place we began. Troy, the place we could end, looking down at the ramparts of academia. The charred remains of the dreams of better scholars.”
“Stop it. You sound like an asshole.”
“And you?” He kissed her neck.
“Painting all day in the Midwest. The lush, fertile, verdant Midwest. Helen all night, burning.”
“You mean Northeast. Isn’t Ohio Northeast?”
“Unequivocally Midwest.” His mouth, going southbound, sounded sure of everything. She smiled into the dark, found his hands beneath the sheets.
It was only when the job offers didn’t pour in, when the trust fund proved shallower than expected, when the bills began piling up in slippery stacks, that Troy became something other than a joke. A pit stop, he said now. A chance for him to finish his book, to publish and make his name, remap his scholarly path.
“And me?” she asked.
“And you? Think of it like one long artist’s colony. A house amid nature. Woods and birds, peace and quiet—people kill for that. And what a place to raise a family. Don’t you think?”
“Don’t I think what?”
“About family.” His eyes flicked just past her shoulder, and she understood in that moment that he was afraid. That perhaps the skyline was big enough for only one of them.
Of course, the college in Dayton loved her husband. A big tweed fish in a tiny pond. And he loved them back for what they offered—time to write, adoration, tenure. The art market of Ohio was precisely what she expected it to be, which is to say: by the time her husband suggested her studio might also become a nursery, she didn’t argue, because what was the point.
They bought a lawn mower. A sectional. A multiyear insurance plan as square and safe as Kansas. In the mirror, her pregnant body Picassoed to pieces, rounding here, darkening there, until she couldn’t recognize the whole. Until her husband refused to touch her with anything but exquisite, art-object delicacy; refused to slap her, even when she asked.
(“Honestly, Claire,” he’d say, more surprised than repelled. But still. “You need to start thinking like a mother.”)
What he’d never explained—and she told him this one morning in Troy, staring out the kitchen window—is who the eidolon thought she was. Did she know she was a ghost? Or did she think she was real?
“You’re being dramatic again,” he said.
Perhaps she was. But it seemed a fine moment for drama, her belly a globe by then, a world that shuddered with invisible will, limbs pressing upward in grotesque peaks. At any moment she could be earthquaked right open. He sighed and wrapped his arms around her stomach, and they looked out together at the blank green lawn. “The point is not how she felt,” he said, “but how youfeel about her.Romance or tragedy—it’s your story to shape, Claire. That’s the beauty of translation. Bend it this way and it’s a love story. Bend it that way, the whole city burns.”
Southbound. In her lap, a map to Houston and a hospital room number (1001, a leering palindrome, eye-like), which a cheerful receptionist gave her over the phone. Oh, Pascal! Such a charmer. Don’t tell him I said it, but we’re all a bit in love. Behind Claire, the baby jabbers long soliloquies from her car seat. On either side of the road stretches an indecipherable horizon. Here it is scribbly with overpasses. Here it is dog-eared with cornstalks. The cornstalks bend down and become cotton; the cotton darkens to a field pocked with buzzards. How much time has passed, how many miles? The only certainty is the freeway, cracked gray spine holding the country together.
Sometimes, in the rearview mirror, a feathery fleck of calligraphed black—but gone before she can catch it in focus.
They stop occasionally to stretch and nurse. The baby seems to like road trips. She waves from the backseat and shouts, “Bonjour, maman!” at random intervals. She points out the window and yells, “Avion! Dans le ciel, avion!” Claire lets her eyes float upward to the vast, empty blue and finds it: a ropy, smoky slash from an airplane so small, she can’t even see the thing itself, only the ghost of its passing.
“Ghost,” Claire says out loud.
“Fantôme,” says the baby.
“Phantom,” says Claire.
“Eidolon,” says the baby.
She feels the memory unclasp. “That’s Greek,” she says, eyeing the baby in the rearview. “What are you saying? Did your father tell you to say that?” But the baby just smiles, reaching toward the window for the plane, her sticky hands splayed wide as stars.
(In the gauzy dark of a years-from-now bedroom, when Claire tells her daughter the story of Pascal Duval, this will be the vision that cleaves to it: the baby’s hands, so far away from that distant silver body. Her unapologetic, open-fisted way of wanting. It’s a small moment in a long journey, certainly less dramatic than the broken glass that happens later, the yard full of dead crows, the thrust of the man who will cry her name over and over as if in pain, all these shatterings still to come. And yet the bit of grit this story will someday pearl itself around will be those tiny hands, straining to hold the pretty smoke that is nothing more than aftermath. The proof of an invisible presence sliding its shell across the sky.)
When the car breaks down, they’re on the outskirts of Texarkana. First a guttural moan from deep beneath the hood, and then a slow roll, a stop. The engine death-rattles steam into the air, which is black and soulless with rural midnight. And lonely. The highway she’s stalled on is sparsely traveled, and Claire knows the smart thing now would be to stay in the car, wait for morning, a country traveler, a police cruiser, help. Never leave the vehicle: that’s the rule. Of course she knows that. Certainly the smart thing is not to walk along the side of the road, baby sleeping against her shoulder, toward the glints in the distance that look like farmhouse lights but turn out, once she gets closer, to be nothing but streetlamps. The smart thing is not to stand there, weighing the options on the shoulder of the highway, until headlights bloom behind her—headlights that could be anyone, with any kind of intention. Headlights that ogle, lustrous, seize her body with glare and press its outline against the dark sky, headlights that wake the baby. The smart thing, of course, is not to wave them down.
And yet—who is this woman stepping into the road? Claire watches her walk toward the light. Hopes she might know what the hell she’s doing.
It turns out the headlights belong to a trucker—an old man, stern and gray and headed for San Antonio, who leans out of his cab with a leering smile. “Houston?” he repeats, hawking the word like tobacco. “Right far ’way this time of night. And you all alone out here. Where’s your husband?”
There on the shoulder of the road, the image of Gladys hovers like a country ghost. Her long, thin hands. Her skin like cream in tea, and her husband’s apology-that-was-not-an-apology, standing in the door before the screen slapped him away: I just need to see where this goes, Claire.
“We’re meeting my husband in Houston,” Claire says. “He’s in the hospital. Doesn’t speak the language.”
“A foreigner, huh?”
The trucker has a walleye that unnerves her in the moonlight. It makes her feel hazy, as if she’s standing just off-center from herself. “He’s . . . from Paris. That’s where we met.”
“Oh, Toto. I don’t think we’re in Paris anymore.” The trucker chuckles, or maybe coughs, an imprecise sound crackling with phlegm.Then he opens the door and holds out a hand. The baby squeezes Claire’s blouse into fists of curdled silk. “Fais de beaux rêves,” she whispers.
As the trucker drives the last stretch to Houston, the baby murmurs French lullabies in her sleep, and Claire’s dreams plunge her home. Her house is empty. Her husband returns. He walks from room to room, taking note of the abandoned mess—scattered blocks, tipsy towers of food-scabbed dishes, dust thick in the crotch of every chair. He is apoplectic. Where has his family gone? He raises his hands to his face, which is made of burlap. He tries to speak, but the shiny black thread on his lips holds tight, his mouth a gash stitched up to silence. And so when the caw of a ringing telephone spirals through the air, loops its music through the long wire hitching the house to faraway Arkansas—or is it Texas by now?—he tries to answer but can’t. His hands are made of hay, his throat is filled with sawdust. Pick up, she tries to tell him. Hello? Are you there? His back is to her and she can’t see his face, just the scarecrow slump of his body on the pole, and when he finally turns around, his face is not his face, his face is Pascal Duval’s, and she wakes. The sun on the horizon is a single bloodshot eye. “Houston,” says the trucker, and the baby wails, hungry for milk.
Claire has been to Texas only once before, to stay with a boarding school friend as her mother was dying. The girl, Evie, had asked her to visit during spring break of their senior year. By then, Claire barely knew Evie. They’d been close as first-formers but had drifted so far apart that Claire couldn’t fathom why, of all their Briarfield dormmates, she was the one Evie called from Texas. But how could she say no?
And so she’d used her last airline credit to fly to a Houston hospital and watch Evie watch her mother die. That must be the reason, Claire figures, that this Houston hospital—which is not the same but feels the same—incites such a strong sense of déjà vu. Perhaps all Houston hospitals use the same interior decorators, she thinks. Or the same generic cleansers: that disinfectant pucker, a smell like turpentine, and beneath it, the tang of bodies unbecoming themselves. Doctors and nurses stare as she walks down the white halls, baby on her hip. As if they know—how do they know?—that she is an imposter. And this, too, reminds her of spring break with Evie, a trip she realized almost immediately was a mistake. Evie’s mother slept the entire week. Evie perched at the end of her hospital bed, braiding and unbraiding her own long hair, and Claire felt hopelessly out of place, never knowing what to say or where to look—anywhere but the newborn baldness of the mother’s head. She mostly said nothing. On the last day, when the complications worsened, Claire took a taxi alone to the airport. “I’m so glad you were here,” Evie told her in the hall, but her gaze went right through Claire, arms folded in a stance that made clear a hug was unwelcome. Claire didn’t attempt one. She said goodbye and flew back to Briarfield and regretted that not-hug the whole way home.
Claire hasn’t thought of Evie in years. And what comes back now is less the specific memory of Evie than what Claire felt like in that hospital room, somehow both invisible and conspicuously fraudulent. Like the exterminator flinching away from her hand—how he looked at her then, a wary squint, as if he could no longer see her clearly. Like the doctors who gawk at the baby in her arms, then shift their eyes through her when she catches them staring. Even the trucker, when he left Claire at the sliding glass doors, seemed suspicious of her capabilities. “You sure you don’t need help?” he asked, and it was a point of pride to say no, a choice she refuses to regret now, though the halls are endless and the baby’s weight (when did she become this strange, heavy person?) makes Claire’s biceps tremble. She thinks of the high chair’s heft in her kitchen, the muscular shake of putting it down and holding the baby and watching the crows dive toward their shadows on the grass. A natural instinct, she thought then. Something primitive guiding them to their own dark outlines, a shape that must have looked, from up above, like another self.
(Push, Claire. Sudden memory of a knife in her back, a knife pushing straight into her spine from the inside. Pain so articulate it felt poetic. Back labor, said the maternity doctor. The baby’s head is pressing on your spinal column. As she descends and turns, it will resolve itself. But what if resolution meant Claire were split in half by the end? Already, she could feel the separation, one part of her in the grunting world of beasts, the other ghosting airily beside the bed. Her husband’s hands pressed hard against her face, her salt-raw cheeks. Push, Claire. As if by sheer force he could hold her together.)
Claire blinks the thought away and steps onto an elevator. Her sleeplessness throbs, memories jangling incoherently. The walls inside the elevator are silver and sterile, and when the doors slide shut, she feels an odd comfort: everything contained. There is a teenage girl beside her, the type of girl so plain and familiar, she looks like déjà vu too. Auburn hair, as long as Claire’s but untied and wild, frizzing broadly in the Texas heat, and irises the color of mud. (Raw umber: the name of the color coming to Claire’s mind unbidden, the image of a rolled-up tube of acrylic.) The girl looks exhausted. She stares at the baby with red-rimmed eyes.
“What floor?” she asks Claire.
Claire isn’t sure. “The speech clinic?” she guesses.
The girl pushes 10 without comment. As the numbers tick upward, she watches the baby snuggled against Claire’s chest with a strange look on her face. Desire or revulsion. A naked, intimate look. The girl doesn’t necessarily look like Evie. But she reminds Claire of Evie. Something about the eyes, that horror-struck hunger—how Evie looked when she looked at her bald mother, sleeping. Claire feels the elevator lurch, a sudden tippiness, as if time has unhitched itself from the world and is sliding them together along a rope much too thin for the weight it carries. The girl seems about to cry. She stares at the baby nestled sweet and tight against Claire’s chest, and Claire feels the urge to reach out, to comfort her. To mother. She reaches.
“What the fuck?” the girl yells, jumping away from Claire’s hand. “What are you doing?”
Claire winces back. “I’m just—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“What are you, a fucking pedophile?” The girl moves farther away from her, eyes skittish. She no longer resembles Evie, a girl (this forgotten part suddenly returns) who was twice put on probation at Briarfield for dishonesty. “Stay the fuck away from me,” not-Evie hisses, pressed hard against the silver wall, and the baby leans closer to Claire’s ear.
“Arrêtes,”she whispers. “Laisses-la tomber.”
It’s only once the girl leaves the elevator that Claire looks down and realizes her breast is exposed. It’s just hanging there, outside the border of her shirt: naked, foreign, a bald white globe with its blood-dark pole, her pink blouse still unbuttoned from the baby’s nursing session in the restroom. Claire remembers the redhead’s flinching disgust. Imagines how she must have appeared to the girl, all these seams of her body coming undone without her noticing. And yet the feeling that floods her as the elevator continues its rise is not the shame she expects—the humiliation of exposure, the sense that even this, a basic shirt, is too much for her to hold together. Instead, she feels oddly elated. She can sense something about to slip, but it’s less herself and more like a costume falling off, a sticky pink husk sloughing at last. She feels a dark laugh rumbling deep in her belly, the kind of laugh the baby has sometimes. Nonsensical delight at the same thing happening over and over—a peekaboo game, a hiccup—a thing that gets funnier each time it returns until the baby is helpless with joy, with wet-eyed, gut-splitting caws of laughter at the same thing happening again, again.
Room 1001 is empty when she arrives. There is only a single bed, slightly rumpled, pale green covers thrown hastily over the pillow. Beside it, on the bedside table, a half glass of water, a pair of glasses, and a paperback book, spine unbroken: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Is she disappointed? She has to admit, if she had her choice, it would be Baudelaire, Rimbaud, at minimum a novel—though who is she to fault Pascal for seeking self-improvement?)
Claire sits on the blanket and runs her fingers lightly over the wrinkles on the pillow. She touches the dent where his head would be. The baby crawls to the end of the bed and pokes at a machine whose buttons make satisfying beeps. She squeals with delight and messes with mechanical programming that is probably important, that Claire should probably protect and doesn’t.
They wait there, together on the bed, for a long time. No one comes.
The glasses on the bedside table are tortoiseshell. They remind Claire of her husband’s, but square instead of round. After they were married, Claire discovered his glasses were real. The prescription was so weak that he barely needed one, though of course the years worsened his eyes until he did. By the time he left her, eleven days ago now, he always wore them, the glass thicker, the distortion noticeable from any distance. The thought of her husband having sex with Gladys in glasses that he needs makes her feel inexplicably tender. She picks up Pascal’s frames and puts them on, and the room goes impressionist—fuzzy slurs when she turns her head, the edges of objects feathering. Even the baby, laughing at the end of the bed, looks bizarre through Pascal’s eyes, her pupils bulbous and dark, the scaly cradle cap magnified to the point of monstrosity. Claire takes off the glasses so quickly it dizzies her. She closes her eyes, feels the center of her body return. And when she opens them again, Pascal Duval is standing in the doorway.
He is tall and thin. Features as sharp as something whittled. Glossy black hair combed stiff with gel. He is carrying a newspaper in one hand, a manila file folder in the other, and he watches as she scrambles to get up from the bed, his expression so mild—curious, half-smiling—that she can’t help but feel he’s been expecting her. That she is somehow late to a meeting of her own design.
“Bonjour, Pascal,” she says, and the baby looks up, startled by her French.
“Bonjour,” says Pascal. His accent is decidedly American. He stands there in the doorway and stares at Claire for a long, held-breath moment. “And you are?” His English, too, sounds American. Something seems off about this, the same way something seems off about the dark suit he’s wearing, and Claire doesn’t know what to say. The plan in her head always ended at this moment, which was simply the moment of finding him and opening her mouth and hearing what came out. Being surprised by it, even. The way Pascal must feel all the time, listening to the wrong language emerge from his lips; the way the baby must feel, even if the baby never seems bothered by it.
How did it happen? she might ask him. What is wrong with you?
Or perhaps: What is wrong with the baby?
What is wrong with me?
But to ask these questions seems suddenly impossible. Even to answer his—And you are?—feels impossible. Maybe dangerous. The edges of Claire’s vision are flickering with dark, sleepless spots. Impressionist again, even without the glasses, and pulsing to the rhythm of her heartbeat. The way the man is staring at her quickens the flicker, and she suddenly recognizes, with a lurch in her stomach, how little the curve of his mouth looks like the newspaper photo, no longer that wry, clever specificity. More generically threatening. The baby raises her arms, reaching urgently for Claire. She curls up tight when lifted and stares at the man with skeptical eyes.
“You’re not Pascal,” says Claire.
“No,” says the man. “I’m not.”
“Do you know Pascal?”
The man laughs. “Do any of us really know Pascal?” Then he stops laughing, so abruptly that Claire knows it was never really laughter. “Tell me who you are,” he says finally. “And what you are doing here.” He stares at her down his aquiline nose, and she has that déjà vu feeling again—the sense she’s been here before, that this man has followed her from somewhere else. But the feeling is gone before she can bring it into focus.
“My name is . . . Helen,” Claire says. “I’m his wife.” The words startle her, arriving without thought or warning, as if steering themselves. She thinks of her husband in the doorframe: I just need to see where this goes. “Please. Can you tell me where he is?”
But the man only blinks. “Pascal’s wife?”
“He may not have mentioned me. Because of, you know. The amnesia.”
“Right,” he says slowly. “Right. And this is . . . ?” He gestures to the baby.
“My daughter. And Pascal’s, of course.”
The baby starts to cry. She lays her head against Claire’s neck and whispers, “J’ai fini, maman. Je suis fini.”
“Shh,” says Claire, rubbing the baby’s back. “It’s okay. We are almost done. We are almost there.”
“Nous y sommes,”says the baby, weeping.
“You’ll notice the resemblance, of course,” says Claire.
The man doesn’t reply. He just starts walking slowly toward her. Something about his face is changing, little by little—the eye sockets darkening, the angles sharpening. Beneath his jacket, a brief flash of silver at the waistband, and she thinks of the snub-nosed Ruger in her bedside table, thousands of miles away. But of course that would be crazy. For him to have a gun.
“Perhaps we should sit down,” the man says, and inside his mouth, his tongue looks black. Though of course that’s crazy too—a shadow. A trick of the eye.
“They say babies look more like the father when they’re born,” says Claire. “An evolutionary trait, so the male knows not to leave. Not to abandon their offspring. Have you heard that?” She knows she is babbling. But she’s pressed against the bed, caged by machines on both sides, nowhere left to go. Besides, she can’t seem to still her mind on the dark outline it keeps circling, the shadowy reason all of this feels like a memory. The black spots in her periphery are pulsing harder, taking shape: a flock of black spots, a fleet. “The apple and the tree,” she says. “That’s the phrase.”
“I need you to calm down.”
“Le pomme de arbor. That’s how they say it in French.”
“We could sit right here. I could hold the baby for you, and we could talk, nice and calm.”
“Please,” she says, and only when her voice meets her ears does she realize she’s crying. “Just tell me where he is.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Oh.” She squeezes the baby tighter, but she’s already squeezing the baby tighter, and the baby begins to yell. “Okay. Okay.”
“Helen,” says the man. “Give me the baby.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
And then it’s not okay. Then the man is reaching for her arms, yelling for security. The feathers pushing out of his cheeks are glossy and sharp and growing longer by the second, and his eyes are all pupil, hair fluttering now with a hidden wind. He’s trying to tell her something, she knows this, he’s saying it over and over. But all she understands are the hands on her arms, hands on the baby, and the fury is a primal roar inside her, a roar without language—flash of fur, a savage yowl. Their jostling knocks the bedside table, and the water glass shards itself to pieces on the floor. Its fangs gnash open a memory: “I am doing this for your own safety,” the man is telling her. “I am doing this for the safety of the baby.” But with her arms pinned down, her body pressed hard against the bed, the safety hurts—and that dark outline looms, the thing she won’t let her mind land on, that she can forestall as long as she holds her breath—
And then she’s running. Aimless down the long hallways, a maze of fluorescent hospital corridors, baby tight in her arms, skin to skin. She doesn’t look back but knows they’re still there, the hands reaching for her, waiting to seize. She remembers just how it felt when they closed in on her: safe and then not, gentle and then not, until she could hold her breath no longer, until the darkness swooped, the sweet and silent release.
“The apple doesn’t fall far,” her husband said, looking down at the blankets in his arms. “She looks just like you, Claire. She’s beautiful. She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Claire was still rising up from the anesthesia. Her body was a cloud, blood a numb fog without borders. She hovered somewhere between the hospital mattress and the stiff white sheets. Later she would feel that same bone-deep knife stabbing her shoulder over and over, and the nurses would tell her this was merely the referred pain of gas, which they had pumped into her body during the c-section. It would astound her that trapped air could feel so much like dying. But right now, in the quiet enclosure of their private room, she felt nothing. She looked at the baby her husband was holding, and it looked like all babies, anonymous and pink. Impossible to know if it had come from inside her or if it was just any old baby, picked up from the nursery as he walked by.
This was the part where she was supposed to feel love. She knew that. She was supposed to hold the baby like the books said, skin to skin right after labor, and everything would click into place, that primitive connection. But what she felt was terrifyingly unintelligible. It was the feeling of reading and reading and suddenly realizing her eyes were just skimming over the words. It was the feeling of an empty canvas that everyone called hers when she knew the truth.
She said, “That’s what you used to call me.” Her words were hoarse, the first words she had spoken from this cloudy new body. Her previous words had been to ask the doctors for more time to push. Please, she had said as the beeping machines drowned out her words. Please, stop, I can do this by myself. But they had said no, and then they’d strapped her down, and then they’d put her under.
Her husband looked at Claire, lying in the bed, as if he were only now realizing she was there. “What did you say?”
“You used to say that to me.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Helen. The most beautiful girl in the world. You used to call me that.”
“Well, you still are. There are two of you now.”
Claire closed her eyes and waited for the things she knew were coming. Mythic, magical things, all the things she had read about. The golden milk that would snake invisibly into her breasts. The tingling that would come back to her toes and sparkle slowly upward, like a million invisible fingers fluttering beneath her skin. The love that would gather a little bit at a time in her brain, at first just a collection of dissociated impressions—the scent of the baby’s scalp, the iron-tight grip of her tiny hand—and then a sudden wholeness that would flood her with understanding. A mother tongue, they called it. Didn’t they? Not something learned, not something she might be missing. It was inside her already, this love. Innate, pulsing firmly in the places she couldn’t yet feel but would. For all she knew, it might be pressing itself right now against all her numb walls, running down her corridors and tunnels, the tangled networks of her body, thumping against each locked door, finding its own impossible way out.
“And what happened next?” the little girl will say. “Did we get away?” Though of course she already knows. She will tilt her dark, tousled head on the pillow, curl her feet into eager parentheses and grab them with her hands, rocking back and forth. This is a bedtime story she loves. Romantic epic of birds and mystery, of secret corridors and flight, and the Crow Man with his wide wings—her favorite part—chasing them breathlessly down the halls. She knows the ending, but happy endings never fail to please, even when you know they’re coming.
Claire will turn out the lamp and tuck up the covers. She will touch her daughter’s hair, her chipped pink smile, and continue to find stray pieces of her phantom husband, the husband who will return and leave and return and leave for years to come, never able to decide A or B. Here, though, are his eyes: a burnt brown, shrewd and skeptical, and darker with every passing year. Here are his hands, delicate, golden in the night-light’s cast, reaching for her. Here is his faith in the power of a story told with conviction.
“Of course we got away,” Claire will tell her, smoothing her hair, her princess nightgown of palaces and horses. “I saved you, all by myself. Don’t you remember?”
“But tell me. Tell the Crow Man part again.”
“The Crow Man wanted to take you. He reached out with his shiny black wings. He opened his dark, dark mouth. And we ran and we ran, down every long hallway. I said to you, should we go this way? Should we go that way? Will we ever make it out? And you said, Oui, maman! Oui!”
“We!” The girl will laugh. “Tell me!”
“And we gathered speed. We were airplanes stuck inside, we were birds in a cage, we were ready for takeoff—”
“Tell me! Tell me who we were!”
“We were smoke, so fast they couldn’t see us. We were superheroes, so fast they couldn’t catch us. And we flew around and around those hallways, faster and faster—”
“Yes!” the girl will cry. “We! We!”
“Until we turned the corner and there they were, the doors to the outside, to the sky—and then finally—”
“Lift-off!” The girl will leap on the bed. She will come back down and wrap herself close, believing it will always be this way, that it has always been this way. “We, we, we!”
“That’s right, my love. You and me. All the way home.”
What really happens is they end up in a bar on Underwood Street, ten blocks from the hospital. Claire has lost the dark-suited man somewhere around a corner. She’s lost her purse too, a realization that fills her with electric dread, her body a bright charge waiting to trip. The bartender takes one look and hands her a glass of water.
“Whiskey too,” she says.
He glances at the baby. “Really?”
“Any kind. Straight.”
A man sitting at the end of the bar, a thick-muscled trucker type with a wild mane of chestnut hair, looks up from his beer and stares. Then looks away, flushing, when Claire stares back.
The baby seems unfazed.
She sits on a pleather-covered stool, baby on her lap. The bartender brings the whiskey. Claire waits for the sound of a door opening, for someone to come in after her, but no one does. A wall-mounted television behind the bar scrolls local news; the world, impossibly, is continuing as normal. On the screen, a plain woman with dyed-red hair and flat cheekbones is talking cheerfully about a voter registration controversy. A two-alarm fire on Lincoln Street. A fungus in the lake water that continues to cause concern. Even on low volume, the news anchor’s voice is garishly chirpy, but her eyes are as flat and empty as her face. She reminds Claire of the girl on the elevator, the girl who reminded her of Evie, all these girls pearled together into one long string of reminding, reminding.
The men at the bar aren’t looking at the news anchor. No one else is paying attention when Pascal’s face suddenly appears on the screen. It’s the newspaper photo again. From this distance, his face is a smooth, flat gray, though Claire knows if she moved closer to the screen, it would dissolve into dots again, into pixels of dots. She asks the bartender to turn up the volume. By the time she can hear better, the photo on the screen is not Pascal anymore. It’s a detective behind a microphone: pointy nose, chiseled features, glossy black hair Claire remembers for its texture as it brushed against her cheek by the hospital bed. Same manila folder in his hands; same crisp dark suit and Ruger at his waist. The Houston police, the anchor’s voice explains brightly, are looking for Pascal Duval, who is not Pascal Duval but an American felon wanted for conspiracy and murder. His attempt at a new life—this amnesia business, this fictional blank slate—was nothing more than an old-fashioned scam. He is sought for questioning after leaving the hospital on foot last night, just as his story began to fall apart. He has not been seen since.
Channel Seven News will not be releasing his real name, as investigations are pending.
The words wash through Claire, and she knows she should understand more of them. But her ears catch only the shapes of the sounds, not the meaning. She waits for the flat-eyed news anchor to go on. To describe, with a condemning look into the camera, an unstable woman also wanted for questioning. A dangerous woman, a woman with a baby, a flight risk, a risk to others. A person of interest.
But the anchor’s flat eyes look right through her, and her face is nothing but pixels dissolving into a smile that could be anyone’s smile, and why don’t we head over to weather with Gary—Hello, Gary!—and suddenly the story is finished.
(No, the story can’t be finished, the little girl will pout. Please tell me more.)
The weatherman explains that a storm may be coming but also may not be coming.
(Tell me who we were.)
The lake fungus will continue to be a point of concern, related to runoff from the rains. Either that or pesticides; have we brought this on ourselves? The waters will continue to be tested.
(Tell me who you are, said the crow. And what you are doing here.)
As if it were ever so simple.
And yet what is translation without the attempt? Bend it this way, it’s a tragedy. Bend it that way, it’s a love story. So here it is, my love: the story of who I am. I’ll put it down in a language you believe, I’ll tell you the story as long as it takes, I’ll tell it again and again, I’ll tell it until you sleep.
Imagine, once upon a time, a woman. On a stool in a bar in Texas, holding her baby close. Imagine the ache: her biceps and back, the breasts heavy and hard with milk, the two-days-damp bra and the rancid blouse, feral and pink. The greasy forehead, greasy hair. The itch of unbrushed teeth. Imagine how it feels to be inside that body. To have no car, no answers, no way to move forward, no easy road back, just the cash in her pocket—not enough—and the exhaustion of mapping a safe route home.
Dark, winging thoughts. Headed darker, and nothing to stop them.
Until the baby looks up. She sees the panic on the woman’s face. She reaches out her splayed, sticky fingers, presses her hands against the woman’s closed eyes, her oily cheeks. “Mama,” she says. “My mama.” Imagine the chubby arms outstretched, wrapping tight around her mother’s neck like the rope they’ve always been, a rope any mother would choose—the woman realizes this suddenly, with a certainty that stills her—again and again.
What would you have her do?
Perhaps she walks to the pay phone in the back of the bar. She lets the baby press the buttons (the simple joy of those beeps!) and holds her breath (a small hope, but at least in this moment there is still hope). She listens to the thump of the ringing line, a heartbeat looping its steady rhythm through hundreds of miles of wires across America, miles and miles to a ringing phone in an empty house. House of doors locked tight as mouths. House of crows on the roof and crows on the lawn. House of shiny windows the crows won’t stop flinging themselves into all summer until somehow, finally, one day for no reason, they will.
The pulse of the line cuts to silence.
“Hello?” says a voice. “Is someone there?”
And maybe for a moment I’ll let you believe what the woman in the bar wants to believe: that her husband has returned. That he is holding one end of that phone cord and waiting for her, a phantom on the other side of the country, to come home.
“Are you there?”
Maybe I won’t tell you this: that when the line cuts out, it’s not a man picking up but the phone company ending the call. That the hoarse, smoky voice she hears in the receiver is just her own voice, exhausted and unfamiliar, echoing. Are you there? Are you there? Maybe I’ll let you listen for it with her, the happy ending I know you want, the kind of happy ending she’s waiting for too—the answer to her own question, the sound of the words flying out of her mouth, their bright and shocking arrival.
Certainly, it’s not this kind of happy ending:
She walks home. Slowly, along the shoulder of the Texas highway, the baby on her hip and the sky a flat ocean blue. The pavement ripples with waves of watercolor heat, and she steps over roadkill that looks strangely foreign—armadillos, she thinks, but flattened to gray leather husks. They remind her of suitcases emptied of their belongings. Which doesn’t sound beautiful. But it strikes her as beautiful, as something she could paint with a cool-toned palette once she gets back to Troy.
When the first man stops, or at least the first to accept her conditions—only while the baby is sleeping, and only as far as Texarkana—it’s the chestnut-haired trucker from the bar. He drives an unmarked silver rig that could be filled with anything. His face is pink and bucktoothed, eyes evasive in a way that suggests a lifetime of loneliness. But he is kind. He offers her water, fashions a makeshift car seat out of blankets with the ease of someone who should have been a father, although he says no when she asks about family. He might be lying. She can’t decide if the lie would make him more or less attractive. When she holds him close, finally—in the grass of an empty lot in Texarkana, skyline smoldering with dusk and the baby asleep behind the windshield’s glare—she is not thinking of her husband. She is not thinking of Pascal and whatever road he’s on, somewhere out there on the borderless horizon. She is not thinking of the husk of her car on a nearby highway, of the calls she will make, the auto shop, the repairs and reparations, the missing purse mailed by some sidewalk Samaritan, the blank canvases stacked in a quiet, empty nursery in Troy. She is thinking, as he brings his body inside hers, of how two states can exist in a single city. She can feel the serrated edges of the thing always at her back, that dark, winging doubt, coming to rest inside her stomach and curling inward, a shape as round and smooth as her love for the baby, every part of her gathering tight around the exact contours of this comforting certainty: She is doing what she needs to do for both of them to survive. She is doing what mothers do.