Sylvia Bell put on a double layer of makeup, first the flour, then the sparkles. For her lips, she chose mercury orange with a lick of something sure to tingle. She was ready. Thursday was market day in the village, and the makeup was for Charlie Moon, who ran the butcher shop on Elegant Row and Fifth. The dog, Cammy, was already snug in his basket. He didn’t always go to market, established in the bike basket like a furry pot roast, but that was his selection today and he played it. He had woken up strong, and just as he was the day before, when every day Sylvia Bell woke up different.
Sylvia and Cammy lived in a four-story rent-house fed by channel winds and sun signals, with room for everything and a few things left over. The house had no rats since next-door Suzy came over with her brood to patrol. Suzy reported to no one, and even Cammy had learned not to track her if the job was to be done with no time wasted on skirmishes. At first, Suzy delivered the still-warm rats to Sylvia, right by the side of her bed, but an arrangement was made whereby Suzy received praise for depositing the rats—with the minimum of bloody holes and neatly cracked spines—under the porch instead. When they were stiff, Cammy came in the dead of night to bury them, each in its own hole, in that part of the yard called the rough. There were other creatures best left unmentioned, out of range of rent-house owner or animal brigade. It was easy enough to leave by turning an old-fashioned key.
Charlie was 50 and lived over the shop, still dealing meats: birds and mammals and ossuarial basics. On this, the bishop’s feast day, he was
selecting cuts for the cleric. It was also his birthday, and he had cut himself a rich and fatless loin. It was already dressed in paper and string with the extra packet of sides and offal for his own dog and a mess of unmentionables for Suzy, who was pregnant again by one of the barn cats.
Charlie saw his friends in the distance, rolling over the pound stones. But as they neared the shop, both he and the cleric stared out the window in shock. A boy on a bike with his sister on the handlebars circled and winged, wobbled and swung into the bike of Sylvia Bell, with Cammy out of his basket skittering up the street on three and not four legs. Sylvia was on the bottom of the heap under the bicycles and in a snake sandwich with the sister, squashed under the weight of the brother. This was all followed by silence and a spinning back wheel.
Charlie shut his eyes tight, but his hands were busy sweating, fingers rolling and unrolling under and over the thumb as he watched the last wing of the warped wheel and heard the cry of the boy as his knee, hip, or ankle came to life with a crack.
Before long, the street was filled with helpers and gawkers, kids whose dreams would tie and untie the before and after with detail sharp on cuts and breaks, skins, holes, and tears. Every face was white. What to do?
By then, the butcher had laid a sheet from his mother’s married bed on the street of pound stones. First, they hoisted the broken bike, freed from the boy’s now-limp legs. Someone shook the bike and rolled it to the front window of the butcher shop. It bobbled from side to side. Next, the sister, silently weeping, was loosened and eased out. The boy was up and cracking his knuckles. When offered a seat on the sheet, he refused, turning his back to the scene. There was his bike, wrecked, spokes sprung and wheels mangled. It was the big girl who’d done it with her ass the size of a watermelon. He looked full of despair, and only thirteen-and-a-half. The sister had split off, seating herself on a corner of the ironed sheet with her eyes on the large, painted girl, whose makeup was intact, each layer air-dried.
The medic car arrived, too late to recover with precision the onset of what would be called incident 450A-99, a two-wheel collision of unknown cause at Elegant and Fifth, 0800 hours.
The medic alerted the bystanders, including the butcher and cleric, still waiting for the bishop’s meat, to stand clear, and even when they had done so, repeated clearer still, to stand back. It felt like wartime, and sure enough, the sun slithered behind a cloud. On his haunches and with his pad open to a fresh page, the medic stretched an ungloved hand to open the eyelid of the one still unconscious. Behind Miss Bell’s eyelid was a rolled-up eyeball, a sign with innumerable causes, but a sign to be respected. He let the eyelid drop and opened the other. “Miss?” he said, but the eyelid opened onto the same vacant scene. This was a magnificent girl, as rounded as a peach and biking in her high-heeled shoes. The medic arranged her black polka-dotted dress so that her thighs, encased in silk stockings, were veiled from sight, including his.
She would be hoisted upon a folding gurney and loaded into the back of the medical truck. Someone had made that decision because a second truck arrived and two assistants, men no bigger than the cleric and half the size of the butcher, eased their fingers under the heavier bits of the recumbent girl. Their fingers and the meaty part of their hands went where she was padded and powdered and girdled. The sweat gathered on their faces and under their armpits before they’d even lifted a foot-pound. But up she went, feathery hair and waving skirt, up and into the dark hole of the truck, the sister climbing up behind while her brother whistled and called to no avail.
No one consulted the butcher, or thought to consult him, but Cammy on three legs lolloped up the sidewalk to drop on the butcher’s shoe.
“What’s that?” the cleric asked.
“Cammy,” said the butcher, finding his voice at last.
When Sylvia Bell awoke, she was in no room she recognized and she barely knew the hand she raised with its paper bracelet. The other hand, normally a match, was twice its size under a mound of white bandage. It was fisted, and did that mean the beautiful fingers were clipped at the root? No. The tapered worms were still alive, although folded firm in place. Something else was wrong in that heavy bundle Sylvia was hardly able to lift. She ran a mental tracer along the outline of her form from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head and laterally along the left and right arms. Many hurts and fiery spots. Places that should have been stiff were soft, those that should have been inert were firing, smooth, folded, limp, or frozen.
What was the date, the town, her name, and date of birth? This is what someone was asking, standing close to the bed.
“Why do you want to know?” she answered, hearing her mother’s voice coming from her mouth’s warm flesh and echoing in her skull. She listened as if to a fine music, such a novelty it was.
The woman in white repeated her questions, and by their speed and banal order, Sylvia knew she didn’t care about the answers. I will contain what I know, she thought, within this box where I heard my mother’s voice as if in a bony, high-arched choir. To the questions tongued out once more she shook her head with a new-born firmness of resolve.
In the box, wound in a pool of wetted string, were the sacs that held her story, as her mother had used a string of beads tied to itself to tattle to God. The loose end with the heavy T was the start from which you traveled up the end and around the ring. Sylvia Bell, unlike Helen Marie Bell, hadn’t converted as a lump of baby meat into one of His possessions. She’d been watered and rubbed with ashes and had sniffed the perfumes and healing powders; she’d eaten the coin of wheat Sunday after Sunday with nothing to show for it but growth. Helen Marie kissed her and whispered to her and bobbed her up and down. Sylvia saw the light of festive candles reflected in her eyes, and the year for her was but a round of meetings in the town’s largest establishment, a rock built of rock with colored rocks, where the specially chosen housemen wore black dresses with flower-colored aprons and stiff hats. These dates were spent reciting answers to questions of a peculiar sameness, not unlike the sequence Sylvia was hearing right now.
Inside the box was just this limp string, knotted with seeds and pills; bugles, berries, beans, and semiprecious gems; grains, shells, and raisins that were the stations of her life—if life were just this string and not the mass and depth and spread of the sky-bound stars.
Last but one on the string was herself, sitting so pretty one day, a fiery afternoon, in a café a bike ride away from the rent-house, drinking orangeade and eating peanuts. She was arrayed in a lovely dress of pink, black, blue, green, skillfully arranged in a pattern of flower and bird, so that no one color could blaspheme on its enemy. Her hair, waist-length and thick as fur, was rolled into a firm ball and anchored with pins. On her feet, solid and white, were red high heels with ankle straps. Sylvia had sat at this café once or twice before as a full-grown girl, but never so acutely attired, with a smile on her face the twin of one she’d seen in the cinema. Cammy played his part by sitting quietly by the shoes.
Before too long, in pairs and singles, men—single, married, smart and dumb, employed and retired—paraded by the café to catch a glimpse of what had arrived that day to answer their baffled prayers.
Looks were exchanged and tests made. Before long, the solidest man in town was lifting his hat and pointing with a ruddy finger to the extra chair, a flimsy thing, but it was Sunday and a special case could be made for come what may. In her eyes was this specimen case, Charles Michael Moon, a meaty marvel, and in fact in the business of meat. Sylvia Bell swelled in her clothes, and a girlish smile replaced the twin from the cinema. Charles was just a person, after all. Part of him was his trade, part his age, part his raising by a maiden aunt, part the role nature had given him to fulfill. It was not that night, but soon after, that Sylvia saw that nature had given her, in this respect, no role at all. This was why she had to learn the special smile from the cinema.
All that evening, and the ones that followed, when Charlie Moon came for Sylvia in his truck, the couple (for they were soon that to each other and everyone else) said the words that came almost naturally; a greeting, a recollection, one or two words from the treasury of love that seemed new but familiar—like flowers by the side of the road. Then goodbye with promises for the next and the next after that. Charlie wanted marriage, but not before his aged aunt had passed from this earth. Sylvia was soon acquainted with the aunt, and the two women made angel faces at each other.
Life was like that: containment without issue. Each new person and event, even an accident, would clear a spot for someone as comely and pliant as Sylvia, then close itself over that spot, and return to its former business with a minimum loss of time.
Nature had no role for Sylvia Bell, but a place was always found for her, even in a life as simple as Cammy the dog’s. Only in the rent-house was Sylvia an organism with its own destiny, or at least room for one, even if nature hadn’t ordained anything special.
The rent-house was bought with the nest egg left to her by Sylvia’s darling father, Leo Alphonse Bell. He was a healing man who’d mastered the art of land and sea plants, of tapping and rubbing the skin, of cleaning and wrapping wounds, of hot and cold submersions. The sick from near and far came to receive his firm touch, his analysis, his quiet commands. Weaving all the while in Sylvia’s father was, however, the serpent of his own fouling. And Sylvia was to know him only for 10 years before the serpent consumed his life. Helen Marie wouldn’t touch a penny of what was left exclusively for her daughter. The mother and daughter took in laundry and sewing, and made a peerless yarn from the wool of their flock that Leo had specially bred from many gift lambs, black, white, and banded.
With the nest egg that cracked opened on her 21st birthday, Sylvia bought the four-story house. Why she needed so much room, her mother couldn’t discover by questions, or by trundling up and down the ancient, sloping staircase to see what had become of floors three and four, after the bedroom had been fitted out, and a sewing room, the kitchen, and front room. Three and four looked forever forlorn and unnecessary to Widow Bell because their aim and design weren’t easy for a practical eye to discern. Cammy was not allowed the run of three and four, although Suzy was often seen issuing from a closet. The butcher asked and wanted to see, but he was put off by the promise of a fine dinner and a radio program, for Sylvia had the only radio in town. The broadcast issued from across the channel, and the signal was clear only at night, when the fishing boats and ferries were moored.
So she lay on her hospital bed with a clubbed hand, snips and slivers, bruises the color of truffles, and the makeup finally starting to run until there was no color at all on her parched lips. The nurses were all nuns with winged hats. To them, the solid, saturnine female (for she spoke no
unnecessary word and wore her face clouded with preoccupation) was too old to be unmarried, and not one of them either. So they treated her like a pagan, with their lips tight together and their hands, unless working, inside their sleeves, as if belonging only to themselves. When asked a question, they put a finger to their lips, electing a vow of silence that was only optional in their order. The doctor, a modern physician with a bagful of precision tools, regarded Sylvia as a problem to solve. If she had a tongue in her head, she was keeping it there.
Charlie Moon, still shocked by the sight of the street scene, knew what he had to do. After locking Cammy into the butcher house and giving his aunt the sign he’d seen other senior men give their elderly females—and, of course, the aunt recognized it on sight—he rode his bike with the meat locker to the clinic and gave the nun-nurses the fact they were looking for, relaxing them so much that their speech ran from their lips and was wasted on each other.
Charlie Moon, for this is how he felt—stripped of excess, of contingencies—stepped into the ward with the single active case there in a corner. “Hey ho,” the nuns could hear him say.
Sylvia closed her eyes, as if she knew what was coming and not just who.
That night her father came to her as if in a dream to hand her a set of keys. What did they open? While the nun-nurses were unwrapping the clubbed hand—and rough they were!—Sylvia reviewed the doors one by one in her birth house and the rent-house, but no door received her father’s keys: some were too large, others too small, their heads knocking against the inside of the locks in such a way that Sylvia’s closed eyes fringed with tears. She lay these mental keys aside in that mental loft where all the valuable but useless things were laid. Then—the nun having finished—she turned on her side.
“I waited too long,” she said.
When Charlie returned with his dead mother’s wedding band, thin as a string, Sylvia showed him the face with no makeup, like a page swept clear of all content, but did he, a butcher, have eyes to see?
He fastened the ring to a strip on her rewrapped clubbed hand, where it could be made to dangle and dance like an earring, to raise a smile on that white oval, a blank.
And it did. The third smile and the most natural of all. The butcher knew exactly how late it was and—if not for the work of the accident—it would be later still. He took his darling’s hand, the bracelet hand, in his butcher hands and tried to gather from this strangest of meetings, a truth about his fiancée. He was using that word, but she was less his than before this turn in their affairs. How could he be sensing something he didn’t already know? What would come to him if he went on sensing?
Sylvia was watching the clock as its long hand scraped the low six and strained upward to the seven. How and when had life—just the simplest living—become such a plague? And of a kind to make the screaming pain of the broken hand (for that’s what it was, and she knew where the crack was) a relief for the way it concentrated the senses on something personal.
Charlie Moon sensed this ordeal without even having to see her gaze locked onto the clock’s face. It was as if the room’s temperature had dropped 10 degrees. What to do? And was doing a mercy or an aggravation? Should he untie his mother’s sad ring, so thin and weak that squinting at it hurt the eyes? How had his mother, now just an ancient memory, been made to accept an offer that came with such a string?
The sensing was by now so troublous for Charlie that he began scoping the length and breadth of the sick ward and empty beds for something rewarding: a well-worked knob of wood, a window lock, a cabinet with life in its face and not just a window onto the tools and cloths of sickness. His eyes circled, they lifted and fell and swept the ceiling and floor until they came to rest on the fiancée’s face, an oval of worth even without its coat of lively colors. It had a make and model, and in it, the butcher could see traces of the mother’s healthy roundness, but it was fashioned on some new principle not to be found in what he knew or remembered of the Bells.
Once the clock finger had passed the eight and was well on to the nine, Sylvia Bell had bottomed out of this deepest well. What had she brought back with her? She had something locked in her mind’s hand, but felt the strain in the room caused by the butcher’s research with its tide of anxiety and release.
She rotated her aching head (a scrape on the skin and slight concussion) so that her gaze met his, with things never seen before fresh on his face, making him look like two in one, without hope of resolution. She held up the balled fist for him to untie the ring, and he did. She lifted the bracelet hand and extended the fingers for him to slip the band on the third finger.
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