Four very thin trees stand above their own reflections and hesitate, as cold girls do. She thinks of rhymes for girls do. Whirls through. Pearls anew. Use it in a sonnet? Eddy’s mother lives by a lake. It is a grey and glassy evening. Supper had been all reminiscences, Eddy recalling slow white mists drifting over the schoolyard each day at five when the chemical plant incinerated its Styrofoam, or how he broke his collarbone and no one believed him for three days, his mother at the head of the table smiling and continuing with her fruit cup, his brother sitting opposite with his head down, a man tall and thin as a door, closed like a door. He ate as if expecting more. After supper she walks to the lake. No one swimming. The water clear and black and level.
What does your brother do? she asks Eddy on the way home, and Eddy says he has three paper routes. Paper routes, a grown man? Isn’t he twenty? Says he doesn’t need much to live on. And we both got something when the old man died. He lives on that? No, he bought a Bugatti. Shit, where’s he keep a Bugatti? Oh, he crashed it or lost it, I forget. So he stays with your mom? Trailer out back. Where I saw the chickens? Mom would rather he didn’t keep chickens. Did you all eat supper together all the time, growing up? Yes, he says. She likes the idea of her and Eddy learning a lot about each other’s childhoods. She starts to tell him about her mother’s voice crackling out from the intercom every night at six, the meal laid out on plates on the kitchen counter, each person shuffling off to their room to eat alone—he glances at her vaguely and speeds up to take the exit onto the highway. They are driving through early spring croplands. She stares out. The fields look shaved. We had chewing and long silences, he says, it’s not much better.
Any sentence. Even a single word. She needs to be writing, not writing anything special, just writing. A lead patio gleams in her mind from end to end. Thoughts skitter across it like dry leaves, disappear. Tick-tock smell of clock. She can’t sleep, she can’t swallow. She is not, as we say, herself. The crow watches from the yew tree. He knows she knows he knows. Off to your next rot pile, crow! she yells out the door. No death morsels here! No morsels of any kind in fact, with Eddy gone. When he asked her to house-sit, he’d given instructions about laying out toast on the back porch railing every evening. She feels a bit bad not doing it. The crow is regarding her tightly. Suddenly it drops backwards off its branch, turns one full somersault in the air, and strikes right side up on the next branch. She stares. The crow does it again. To a closer branch. She holds her breath. Crow does it a third time and lands on the porch, drilling her with a yellow eye. Dirty business, crows! cries the crow. A laugh breaks from her, which the crow immediately mimics, then they both stop, contemplating this new complex mood. A long moment passes. Two branches on the yew tree become gradually still. The crow hops a ways down the railing and back. Hops farther down the railing and back. Few more hops. She understands the crow wants them to go somewhere together. She steps out. Crow clatters off around the corner of the house.
The sunset is a redgold rumpus on the western sky, lit grandly from inside dark clouds. It had rained. The crow tosses itself from branch to branch, pole to pole, glistening on its pace, and she follows. They are soon far from where they began, streets unfamiliar to her, an older part of town, crossed by alleys where forms flit. There is the stillness after rain. Rank risings. Trees drip. Street lamps loom. Night takes on a polish, a pure power. She glances into windows as she goes, at the blaze of empty kitchens, a man reading, an old Christmas tree in a corner. It feels secret. The sky is clearing overhead. A cloud shaped like Iceland forms and stays mid-sky, glowing with some other colder whiteness as if it were winter and going to snow. She feels secret too, joined to all this, enough for the moment, tremendous.
Afterwards, talking of that night, she can’t remember how she found her way, with the darkness complete and the crow no longer visible in upper branches. There was a kind of buzzing at the back of things, she tells Eddy. How she found the woman, how she knew which alley to go down, how she lifted her and carried her out, she couldn’t say. Sometimes it happens with these older buildings that a balcony just collapses. In the ambulance she held the woman’s hand. Once, the woman opened her eyes and said, They’ll give me ginger ale? Yes, she answered. The woman closed her eyes. Opened them again. And ice cream? Yes, she said.
Eddy has a back porch too but he never sits out. Eddy is the guy you live with? No, just a friend, I worked for him a while, doing research, not anymore. Ah. I like him a lot, well, I like him sometimes, I don’t know, last week I met his brother. And? And I liked his brother too, I like them both, together, parts of them, you know? better than separately, too bad you can’t do that, stack up parts of people and make one good one, oh I don’t know, it’s nice to stay between them—there’s a slot for me, am I being weird? Probably. They are sitting on the balcony. It has been rebuilt. The day is large and sharp like edges of tin cans. It’s hot for May, like being at the beach, they lounge back in shady chairs. The woman’s name is Vern. Who’s Antonioni? Why do you ask? Eddy mentioned him. Vern doesn’t like Antonioni, or women in men’s movies generally, those caught blondes so bored and terrified, not sure if they’re coming or going. Soon she is telling Vern about resolving not to go over to Eddy’s place anymore unless invited and how she went anyway, the stupidity of this, the stupidity of extreme states of being female. Stupidity of tiptoeing around what you want. I don’t know what I want. I spill things, she says. Vern says, Want to go get tacos?
On the way to the taco place she calls Eddy, he likes tacos. They sit outside. Eddy this is Vern, Vern this is Eddy. How was your day, okay how was yours. The wind is running its fingers over the trees. Shivering, she watches them. She is curious how this will work, Vern and Eddy. Will he do his tough-guy act? Things tilt when two become three. Vern is opaque. Eddy tells them he found an arm bone, he was investigating a house, adult female. Where? Kitchen cupboard. How? What do you mean how? How did it look? Dry, old, polished. Maybe an archaeologist lived there, she says. Sharp laugh from Eddy. Yes, maybe so, he says in a funny tone. She wipes salsa from her chin. They talk of porches and tacos and then of writing because Vern is writing a book and Eddy asks if she told Vern about the sonnets, got some advice. What is he up to? Does he think he’s helping? No, I don’t show things to people, she says, people I don’t know. She blushes. Don’t know well. Vern gives her a clear look. Now there is no step she can take in any direction into the swamp of untruth that is her own thinking about her own writing. She weeps suddenly, stops suddenly, laughs. Sorry! I’m empty, I mean tired. Today. Inside her chest everything is ablaze.
Generally, at the pool, other worries fade, pool-worries rise. The lifeguards are judgmental. She feels their eyes sweep her back as she swims, thinking poor stroke or weak kick or no reach, who knows. She keeps neatly to her side of the lane, hoping they notice. What a contrast between herself and the swimmer next to her whose large arms smash the water and drag backwards. Arms and hands are idiosyncratic in swimming. Arms can scoop or scythe. A hand can cut the water as a blade or a paddle or a frying pan. Some strokes have a little curled wrist at the top, perhaps only on the left. Swimmers watch these things, one another’s quirks, all the surface action. They’re pretty bored most of the time. Underwater is a different world—old and slow, unstartled and unstartlable. All bodies are beautiful there. They balance like big blue toys. Outlined in silver bubbles. Ideal motion. Who is not made happier by this motion? Beside the lap pool is a family pool that has shallow water and steps leading to a water feature at one end. This is a sort of hot tub where underwater jets create a circling current. She wonders how strong the jets are, wonders what it feels like, never gets around to trying it out. Then one day glancing over she sees six or seven people caught in a moment of total water-feature radiance, looking as surprised as if they’d burst into flame. It is evening. Loose light falls from high windows. Their faces are open and strange, their bodies aligned head to toe. It is carrying them all round in a single stream—every so often gazing down at their own arms and legs as if to say, Look at us, look, we turned out perfect after all! This is Being with a capital B, she thinks. She stands quite a while, watching.
That evening she tries to recreate this for Vern, but it loses voltage in the telling. They end up talking of Eddy as usual. Then she walks home. Goes past her house. The sky is huge and raw. Streets are lit sideways by an unseen moon. Shouldn’t it change everything—to see Being with a capital B in the family pool—or teach something, stop pain, press through somewhere, not just click along the abacus of the day and slide off the end into a nice memory for herself or a bit of conversation in the car with Eddy? They talk best in the car, she and Eddy, why is that? No faces. What do you want from Eddy really? Vern had asked and she said, I want him to look me in the face and ask me something. Ask you what? Doesn’t matter. That could be disappointing, said Vern. My dad saw Houdini once—did I ever tell you this?—he said it was much like you’d expect, they tied him up this way and that way then before you knew it there were bolts dropping to the ground and locks flying off and the great Houdini emerged—he just came walking out three paces behind the sheriff—and it was nothing! anticlimax! Where was this? Manistique, Michigan, the county jail. Poor Houdini, she said. You should write a poor Houdini sonnet, said Vern. I hate it when people tell me what I should write, she says. I bet, says Vern. But still. Some months later she shows it to Vern, being rather pleased with the line “none of us knew how to wind a shroud,” and Vern says she likes it so she shows it to Eddy, who says he’ll have to read it again, which means, well, she doesn’t know what it means. She waits a week. She makes another copy and forgets it in his car in case he does want to read it again. Another week goes by, nothing. Finally she asks him. Had a chance to look at my sonnet? Well, he says. Well. The thing is, the swimming part, that part’s good, the rest is crap. Epiphanies! You want epiphanies? Five guys got beheaded downtown last night, don’t ask me why, they’re imitating ISIS now, who the fuck knows, their minds gone to some other country, they’re fifteen years old, no one’s been to school for years, dictators are everywhere, dictators are us and us grabbing everything, the grabbing is the whole story, everyone’s story, everyone who survives, all that bright-light-coming-down-and-all-God’s-creatures-are-one-stressed-and-unstressed-fancypants stuff of yours notwithstanding. Put your rubber mask on, girl, and slap down some real sound! Nobody’s dancing so far! And the thing is, you want to talk epiphanies, the things is, they called me too early, I get there and one of the dead guys isn’t dead yet—beheading’s not so simple, you don’t master the mechanics off a ten-minute video, you need a fucking scimitar and the arm strength of an Olympic boxer, you know what I’m saying? I’m saying the neck is a tough old tube of bone and gristle, I’m saying it was a long night.
While he talks, she looks out the window. The crow is on a branch of the yew tree, cocking its head sideways and holding something on one side of its beak as if to peer at it with the left eye. You didn’t used to let it get to you, she thinks, the dictators, the long nights, what happened? What happened to There is a task, I complete the task? She does not say these things. Eddy hands her the page. He turns away. Her head is full of blood and thundering. She goes out to the back porch. Since it is in her hand, she reads the sonnet to the crow. No direct response. The crow is teaching itself how to slice a forked twig from the yew tree into a two-pronged tool or a three-pronged tool for digging grubs out of a tree trunk. If I were you, she says, oh boy. What a life I’d have. The crow confers on her a sky-filled eye.
That summer the town is repairing sidewalks block by block. She happens to be at Eddy’s (he’s at work) on some pretext the afternoon the cement mixer arrives outside. Various cries of workmen, vehicles backing up and beeping, a steep silence of positioning, wheeze of gears, grinding and smashing sounds as the old concrete is rendered disposable and she lies on the floor with sofa cushions over her ears. Centuries pass. Noise stops so abruptly it’s like tumbling over an edge. She makes her way to the kitchen in a stupor of quiet. His cookbooks stand neatly on a shelf. Other books. She pulls down The New York Public Library Desk Reference of Ultimate Information and pages through outdated protocols, tables of measure, international road signs and distress signals. Slippery Road, a tilted car with skid marks inside a triangle. Attempting Take-Off, two broken corners facing each other hopelessly across an empty square, and so forth. Trucks start up outside, she hears them drive off. She hastens out. Beside the driveway is a fresh panel of cement, absolutely smooth and grey like a small ugly lake. She picks a stick out of the debris in the gutter. It is proud work making marks in this unusual substance. She is just finishing when Eddy’s car comes round the corner and turns in. He climbs out and heads for the back door, calling over his shoulder, You been in the house all day? Took your shoes off, I hope! A half-hour later, when the guy from 1-866-MRTR comes by to check the panel and smooth out infelicities with his spray gun and pocket trowel, she is already gone.
Around this time it seems to her Eddy got sadder. Whatever had shaken his veil, it stays shook. No more rants. He gradually vacates himself. When she starts sleeping with his brother, who is coming to town frequently nowadays—Eddy says probably to deal drugs but she reserves judgment on this—she doesn’t mention it to Eddy. Nor discuss Eddy with the brother. His name is James. She calls him James Taylor because his phone message is five seconds from “Up on the Roof.” I thought of using that once, she says. Then I didn’t.
How much younger is he? asks Vern. He won’t tell me, she answers. And I don’t want to know. She tells Vern the things he says—some of them thrilling (I have to see you again! after the first night), some hilarious (Great, no cellulite! when she walked to the bathroom naked)—so right away they form a corner to study him, she and Vern, two girls versus the enemy. Hard to dial that back, she knows, but she needs this friend, this Vern. With James Taylor she merely needs to keep things in motion. When she falters, he falters, and faltering is uglier for the older one. They have tender ways together, viewing the moon while holding hands, and awkward ways, sex, but best is just lying side by side all night, sleeping and waking, like fishes (he says) moved this way and that by the stream.
Calling Eddy while his brother is in the shower is strange and less exciting than she expects. Eddy had left messages. His sadness foams in her ear, she pats at it. Everyone is aware what is going on, of course they are. James Taylor comes out of the shower. He is extra tense. They had ordered Chinese. By accident it arrives with three fortune cookies. Is that unlucky? he says in an ashy voice. No no, she says, no no.
Eddy’s sadness has a hold on her, no question, but this other thing, the brother, his passion, is a scent coming over the ground. She is a hound, nose down, starving for it, trampling herbs and grasses all along the track. When he acts young and chaotic, she gets scared, her own reprimands sound to her like those of a faded aunt. They have fights on the phone that leave them gasping. Other times he quotes the Tao Te Ching at her. I am a patient person, he says, and she says, You are not! They brace and glare then dissolve laughing—this happens early on. Later there are hard rocks under the surface.
Later she fails him in serious ways, he makes clear. You’re good at being cold, he says. She has to allow this is true. You’re always thinking up phrases for some sonnet, aren’t you, you’re only half here. Also true. His voice is high and soft with suffering. To feel she has to have pity on him enrages her. She looks at this rage. It feels stony, she cannot move it. The higher and softer his voice, the more she wants to simply be gone from the room. Then comes the night he sees her track and swat a mosquito, initiating a Taoist crisis. His mouth twists aside like a smeared rose. She tries to recall his mouth when he was saying, I have to see you again. A small horror knob settles redly between them.
She doesn’t so much think about Eddy as have a constant Eddy-atmosphere in her mind. He’s jealous is why he’s calling all the time, says Vern. No, I don’t think so, she says, but there is a feeling deep down like a detonation. Then Eddy begins asking her friends to intercede. She’ll have no good of the guy! Her duplicity! he cries at Vern. Vern hangs up on him. The men are reliably startling, aren’t they? Vern says to her. She decides to end it with James Taylor, the absolutely delicate thing that it was now dust in her hands. This proves harder than she thought. She dreams of a sweat-soaked bird working its wings again and again against hot black night, wakes exhausted. They have several final conversations. Her room smells like adolescence. Sometimes he is calm and noble, giving her bits of Tao. Other times he slopes in her armchair sobbing. Apologizes for being boring, yells at her, sends wild small poems, sends seven-paragraph denunciations, back and forth it goes. She counts the paragraphs to tell Vern. Her wings hang down on either side. She finds a scrap of paper he put in her fridge, in the egg carton. It shows the international distress signal for Don’t Understand (two back-to-back capital Ls, like a pair of bookends). It is the one she’d scraped into fresh cement that day at Eddy’s—she can’t recall telling anyone about this but she must have. She doesn’t show the scrap of paper to Vern. She keeps it for years.
Winter. She gets new headache pills, little red ones, and tries to reconnect with her routine at the university before the research grant runs out. She borrows a lot of movies from the library and watches them with half attention. She goes to a day-long conference on the concept of “panic” and hears how the ancient Greeks dumped the whole hot mess into a god named Pan, saturator of noon and of the madness of space. Late that night she starts a movie without noticing what it is. Hot dry summer days wash over her eyes. The protagonist says almost nothing. Sicily has too much noon. Then it is New Year’s Eve and the scene is a New Year’s Eve dance. There is a furiously energetic dance band. But their sound has been turned off. The dancers drift around the ugly dancehall to a track of other (wrong) music laid on top, bumping into one another’s masks, covered in some shiny stuff like dust. A seated man looks up at the woman swirling past him and opens his mouth in a soundless bark. His eyes tear her open. He is powerless. She swirls on. How do they become people entrusted to one another, entrusted with one another, how does anybody? She can smell damp church basement, wool, sweat, Vol de Nuit, cigarette butts, the priest at the back of the room thinking of sin, his greasy winter cassock. Because I trust you, I press my body upon yours and we dance, buoyant and scarcely ourselves in clouds of whatever this is, this brightness of Aphrodite’s needle as it flashes in and out of living skulls. She deletes the last line. Precious. Who calls love “Aphrodite” nowadays? A sonnet needs the glance of a far eye and a close eye at the same time, but gods don’t work anymore. Just say confetti. The movie ends. She sits a long while. Turns it off. Closes her notebook. Outside a dog tries his voice against the dark, quits. She rises, stiff now, puts on boots and coat and goes out. Black dawn. A whitish gold light is just beginning. Frozen grass underfoot has the soft bristle of walking on a sandwich with lettuce.
Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.