Excerpt from Elizabeth Chandler’s “Evergreen”
It may be morning. It’s always dark except for a few hours of blurred gray in the day’s middle when the shapes of stunted trees emerge from the blackness. A forest of needles, stubbed and tipped with snow. She has enough gas. Cans of beans, corn, tomatoes. Grains. There are no insects to eat it. No mice. Boiling water for tea while her children loll under blankets across the floor, playing with dolls, even the boy. The blanket’s a blob that bobs with heads as she lies on her back under the downy warmth thick with her scent and the scent of the children. They take turns suckling. The girl wrapping arms around her mother’s ribs while she feeds with closed eyes. The boy waiting his turn at the bed’s foot, his mouth to an airhole that he fashioned for himself by bunching the duvet and fitting his mouth to the blanket tunnel, sucking in the room’s cold air. They are safe, for now, with her, and she’s becoming sick of it, this protection, but holds enough hope for them that she’ll stay, longer, two months more, until the snow melts and the food is gone and she’ll dress them in the clothes she brought ten years ago with the backpacks she picked up at Marshall’s, and they’ll walk through the rivers of slush to the coast where boats might be.
At the table, she drinks her tea and watches the candlelight on the tea’s dark surface. She thinks of lakes. She thinks of the opacity necessary to throw a reflection, the culture she misses, the stories she refuses her children, the break in their culture, the past that she withholds, the sheen of Mark’s eyes. According to systems of government that require everyone to put in hours and time, to respect clocks and cover private parts, to refrain from rape and murder, to read, to learn the stories of how we live and how we have lived, Mark is not functional.
She sips her tea. Snuffs the candle with her fingers and a different light falls. The windows white.
A head emerges from the blanket. White hair, white face, red mouth. Blue eyes. Holes of blue. The mouth opens up the girl’s head when she smiles at her mother and stands, the blanket around her shoulders as a cloak. Walking, dragging this train, her brother still inside, caught on an edge.
He says, “Shelley.”
“The light is here.”
She braces, leans forward, dragging her brother behind her. He says, “Giddyup!”
“Giddy what?” she says jumping in place then lunging. Her brother standing as she topples forward and they both tumble, roll. Waddle in a pod of blanket to the window where they stand staring.
From the table, with her tea: “What do you see that you like?”
Shelley says, “That one.”
Estelle says, “Which?”
“That’s my tree,” Greg says, not fighting. Just working something out.
Estelle stops listening, drinks, and they whisper at the window, dividing the trees they will own when, one day, they go outside, and they stay there for an hour until it’s completely black.
Estelle realizes she’s been asleep. Opening her eyes to darkness. A dip in the darkness is the square of window. The glass thick. A lighter shade of black with their two heads still there, foreheads against it. She walks with her hand on the table’s edge. The table drops away and she extends her hand into the space in front. Her foot touches blanket. Their breathing. She thinks they have fallen asleep standing up. They haven’t.
From under the blanket, her children announce they are hungry.
The good ones don’t always survive. In a park, a crowd enjoys the weather. On benches, with dogs. A man lopsided, his eyes eggs under the hat’s brim made gray by cradling the perfect curve, a tunnel for his face. Creatures in caves lose their eyes eventually but night hunters see with orbs, luminous like suns, and this is what Estelle’s husband had, the irises green in yellow-white circles under the hat’s funnel. He played it up, those aspects of himself that frightened others. Enjoyed speaking an articulate sentence when a nearby family, discussing him, assumed his only conversations were with the unseen. Not reactions to whispered comments of children, wondering if that man had feet. Hooves? That was the father’s joke. More like springs. His limp a sway, drop and lift, that looked more like dance than impediment. “If I were the devil, I wouldn’t make myself so obvious,” Mark said, straightening and walking without a limp toward the father, only threatening because what he’d seemed was not what he was, and he was moving closer, not close, but closer, a few feet, before lifting his hat so the father could see his eyes, which, Estelle imagines, her husband widened for effect. A murderous owl. “But that doesn’t make sense, because if I’m not obvious, that would be the so-called usual way to be the devil, so I should be obvious, in order not to be obvious. If we assume that he’d never be obvious, then he must be, so he can be dismissed and no longer obvious. Until this is obvious…do you think it’s obvious?” He stood, his hand to the dirty hat’s brim, but the father said nothing except, “All right, man.” The father holding what ground he thought he had, on the bench, his arms not around his children, but around himself, his posture a cold child’s, his voice managing so perfectly the lilt of locker room cool that he gained confidence, released his ribs, and bent down to a diaper bag where he thrust his hands, his eyes on the night hunter face of this man who must be crazy in the worst way, delusional but articulate, and he asked his children, would they like some ice cream? The reply was not yes, the children staring at the man who stared at them until he pulled down his hat. Resumed his slouch and continued his limping act around the square.
When he was her boyfriend, he came home from his other job and ate take-out sushi at the marble counter with the clean expanse of his apartment unfurled behind him like a cape. The mist stopped two stories below and the city outside the window was shortened, the dirty tops of buildings spiked through an unsteady blanket. Air turned white by cold. Water suspended. He ate the sushi with his fingers and talked about how he used what he had to have more. He said, Tell me about the lab. She ate her cooked food barbarically with a fork, slopping sauce. When she wiped it, some sauce remained in the marble’s veins. She said she didn’t mind some bacteria living inside her, or anyone, and what she had wasn’t her body, just time. He wanted to know what she needed time to do. To grow my hair. That’s productive. It happens. What else? She said, To learn more about the ways you evade me by being subtle. I never lie. Lying isn’t the only way to deceive. Do you want some salmon? She said, Is it possible to live without following directions? It’s delicious. I’m not afraid of you. He said, If you eat the food you have to stay. That means I’ll be in this apartment forever. I ordered take-out. I paid, she said, satisfied that what she said was true.
The children are playing with mirrors again. The tiles of backed glass they play with, lifted from the grid in the bathroom vanity, the edges rough, not sharp. The corners pointy. Chatting, the children crawl. Arrange mirrors at angles and string blocks of sight around corners. Send their images behind the stove where they lean a column of mirrors, each holding a face wavering from the stove’s dry heat. At the table with tea where she is drawing, she imagines the organelle in her cells that make the bonds that can be broken later for energy, a circle inside it. Its own DNA, its own blueprint, living inside of her, needing her, the environment of her. Drawing on white waxy backs of labels peeled from cans. This light is too short to scold them now, a public that will be over soon, her children obsessed with seeing themselves in far places. Reaching carefully behind the stove. Drawing, she suggests—use tongs—and the idea is accepted. The honor fought over. Greg goes first and Shelley uses his preoccupation to collect the mirrors for a new set-up. Something better. She is in the thick of it when he reappears with tongs, drops them. A fight. Not now, Estelle says, drawing bacteria. Bacilli dividing, connected end to end, in pairs. A body grows, the membrane cleaves, and the duplicate steps out, away. Almost away. Attached by the feet, the two heads facing out. Or there is no head, no feet. There is no point of orientation. Movement requires a burst forward. Then a halt, spin. Sensing a target through water like a smell. A chemical. Move toward a chemical. Or move where the concentration of the chemical is the strongest. Follow a gradient. A bleed of color to where the hue is deep. Movement stops. To be a rod without a head. Inside her. Living. Shitting inside her and the shit is corrosive, fucking with the tubes that she needs to keep things separate. In and out. Not too much inside the bags of water that are her cells. Not too much out. Keep everything in proportion. Share, she tells her children who are already sharing, who have solved the problems of the communal project by working separately. Each with some mirrors. The boy with more. But each with mirrors. That’s sharing. The boy is staring at his face, moving his chin up, touching a freckle on his neck. The girl is lying on her back with the mirror above her, mouthing words into the face that she thinks is hers, but is backwards. She can’t see her own unless she uses two.
As the light bleeds out, grows thicker, a mucous rather than a veil, they all grow irritable. Shelley begins to wipe the mirror, over and over. Greg tells her the mirror isn’t dirty. The light is just going.
Shelley mocks, “Will it ever come back?”
“Tomorrow,” Greg says, serious. “It’ll be stronger.”
“Then it’ll be out all the time and the water will relax into liquid.”
“Warm on our heads.”
Greg, not worried, just looking for ritual, asks his mother: “The light will come back?”
“Cut the crap,” Estelle says, her head on the table. “I’m sorry I ever read to you at all.”
“I want the wind to dry my tears,” Shelly says, standing. Squinting. Watching herself cry in the mirror she holds.
Greg is laughing and Estelle is laughing.
“It’s not funny,” Shelly says, but she’s also laughing. Greg shoves a corner of the blanket in her face and she turns her head away.
“No,” she says, laughing.
He holds her shoulder, but she’s stronger than him. “No,” she says, turning away easily. She is laughing and crying. She runs to the window and jumps, too excited. “I want the wind to dry my tears.”
The boy, sprawled where his sister left him is laughing on the dirty floor. Shivering and laughing. His exposed skin tightened to a quilt of bumps with all the hair standing up.
“No one is going to have any wind dry any tears,” Estelle stays, standing, coughing. She holds her hand over her eyes and listens to the children talk about nothing. When she removes her hand, the windows are still gray squares but the room is dark. Filled with darkness as though darkness is a thing, an ink, as though this is the deepest part, the end of the gradient. Something tracking toward them.
They eat their soup and she lights a candle. When they’re done they retreat to bed, her breast. They suck her dry and curl against her skinny body and she tells them a story about light and dark. The ones in the dark just outside the light. The man with bulging eyes. The park. The bodies that live inside our bodies. Some that can live without sun. Without oxygen. That can live in sulfuric acid. That, given enough time, will reproduce and change into larger things that don’t need sun or water. Complex in a world where the paint and background is different than ours. Where they don’t have eyes.
In a lab for a while. A place where most things were white, including the ceiling’s pipes. No windows. The clunk of the tube station. The black pods with samples of urine or blood or stool sucked through pipes from other floors in the hospital and dumped into the receiving bin. An autopsy. No need for slides when the thing you get came from someone dead. Fungus in blood is beautiful but means the person who gives you this to look at will be dead soon. Probably. Facing a rack of slides in a disposable coat, squirting crystal violet, iodine, alcohol, safranin. Wait between each squirt. The dyes in bottles that could hold ketchup in a diner. The evening shift. Daylight is leaving, washing up. Evening, but this place is always light. The boss, Dave. Once he was interested in his brain, now an insecure intellect using mushrooms only for recreation. The tube station clunking, clunking. Almost full, and the empty tubes are falling on the floor. Red freezer bags with samples to be sorted. The slides go in the dryer, not too long, but how long? She gets different answers. She thinks about her husband, if she needs to do this. A break from him. Sputum. The man who scraped his cheek cells and made a microscope is different than these people, who follow directions, who took a path for money. She takes home some money. Not much. A tech. Catches a bus to part of town where buses are rarely caught. She walks. She’s home, showers. He’s still working. Where are you if you buy in so hard to the scales of reinforcement that this is all you’re consumed by? Not that this is how she’d define his problem, if he has a problem. He doesn’t. It’s her problem with the evil in him that she sometimes finds attractive.
In the park. A crowd. There were no souls that she could feel. Only people inside their coats. The man with the slanted limp on the other side of Fifth. Estelle was sitting. She thought he looked hungry because his gaze was direct. He didn’t talk to himself. His hat was off. He crossed the street. One man and a crowd in the park. Even at this early stage there was the division. Two entities, even though one of these entities, the crowd, was bound by nothing except in opposition to him. When he started to run at them, the edge of the crowd moved and it could have been different, not as coordinated, if these first animals weren’t so young, nimble, unencumbered by children or large jackets. Some teenagers, boys too skinny to fight. Girls, also skinny, skinny attracting skinny, bones to bones, no fat, no sex, just deprivation flirting on some grass, standing, not sitting, and already skittish when the dirty man’s limp fell from his walk and he ran at them with his head thrust forward, hands at his sides, leading with his large eyes and his mouth opening and closing as if cycling air through hidden gills behind his ears—and the teenagers ran. Some screaming. Twenty feet beyond them, an athletic mother swiped a baby from a blanket and ran, leaving the blanket behind. Second guessing, she stopped, turned, then screamed some more while the teenagers moved past her like a stream around a rock. The angry man still running, but the limp was apparently real, somewhat, because he wasn’t fast, just steady. He wasn’t faster than the old woman with the walker who, amazingly, leaned her torso on the cross bar and began to run, rolling past the fat man who had to jostle side to side to move. Estelle remained in her seat. She didn’t intuit a response. She doesn’t know why. Later, she took it as a fault, a lack of will to live. Now she takes it as a reaction, the animal she is. Freeze, blend. Then run in jags. The group won’t help you. The group that ran from him. That could trample him if it just turned around. It did turn around. Part of it. One of the skinny teenagers, a girl. She turned with a stick. She waved it. Stood and waved it. She appeared unhappy minutes ago. With the stick, she’s ecstatic. She didn’t run at him, just stood, the stick held in front of her like a phallus. The crazy man continued his emphatic trajectory, his arms at his sides, his head stuck out. She stepped out of his way, he ran past, and, awkwardly, she paddled him with the stick from behind. He didn’t stop running, and the crowd sprawled in a backwards wake, driven to the street where cars honked. The man at the edge of the park’s grass, done. The small gray shape of him deflated as he turned and began to limp across the empty grass. The girl with the stick, alone in the park, watching him. Then she also turned, ran. Estelle still sitting on the bench. He didn’t see her and he was still walking when the men who ran from him earlier attacked him from behind. Pushed him down and held him. Didn’t thank him for the show he put on. The experience they’d all remember. Someone, many someones, had called the police. The right thing to do. This park should be safer, Estelle thought as she walked over. Not to help. She wanted to see if it was worth it. Doing it, and dealing with it now. Her calm was convincing and the men fell away while she apologized. Bore their disdain that turned to care for her. My brother is crazy, but not dangerous, she told them. He thinks this park belongs to him. He thinks he’s cleaning up. He’s never hurt a fly. He’s vegetarian. She apologized, apologized, and gave a fake number while the men competed for her. She could hear the police, but it was the wrong time of day for speed on streets. It was taking some time. She told the men she didn’t have much time, then made them stay away from her by saying that she needed them. Explain for me, she told them as she led the crazy man to safety. Close to her, he didn’t smell. The two of them, but only he was smiling. Her hand around his elbow, she expected another hand at her back. A ghost of arrest, almost felt the more it didn’t happen. Past the police who were walking toward the men in the center of the park. Past the crowd that was driven from the grass and heckled her as she moved through them while the police walked in the opposite direction. So uncoordinated and normal. Yelling, some sympathy. The shock of now. The tracks of movement toward a point identified as important. A chance, not probable. They slid away. Left this sin behind. Gone, how? A taxi. Changing clothes in his apartment, no sex. They went out to dinner at a place that he suggested. His face a hard set for eyes, his sweater expensive. He paid, talked about his hobbies, how easily people moved. He said he may have gotten carried away and she saw that he loved her already. A love different than the love she was capable of. A type of attachment, less passionate, indelibly loyal. This was how she met her husband.
Read the rest of “Evergreen” in apt‘s fifth print annual.
Elizabeth Chandler has an MFA from UC Irvine and has stories published or forthcoming in Bodega, The Kenyon Review, and The Orange Coast Review. She has also just finished a novel about urban diamond mines that’s loosely based on the dry diggings in Kimberly.