by Lane Waldman
Drowsy, drowsy as I was
The sleep upon me fell.
The queen of fairies she was there
And took me to herself.
But tonight it is good Halloween
The fairy court will ride.
And if you would your true love win
At Miles Cross you must bide.
—Tam Lin, traditional
Call it a love story, then. But a slippery one. Time moves differently there. Start here: you have never seen him before but you recognize him immediately.
The garden is made of ice, as gardens are. She was looking for the attic, but she must have made a wrong turn somewhere. The sun is setting. Peach-colored light sparkles through the trees; translucent rosebushes drip onto the path.
Her feet are bare and she walks through icy puddles, but she’s not really walking, just sliding her feet back and forth in place. She draws a green towel around her shoulders for warmth and reaches out to touch one of the roses. They aren’t ice; they’re gold. Everything is gold, even the sky, which is silver.
What is this place? She’s standing on a flat gold circle that reflects her legs as dark smears. There’s no one here but her and the cats. They hum fragments of a haunting melody that sounds like the first few bars of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
He comes through a doorway that was always there and scoops up a fluffy white Persian just before its claws make contact with the side of a sofa. He must be the keeper of the cats. When she looks at the floor, she sees that only one of his legs is reflected. The other is represented by a giant fork. That explains why he moves by hopping.
Excuse me, she says. He looks up at her, startled. Their eyes meet. She’s never seen him before, but she likes the way his hair falls over his forehead. I would have expected more mushrooms, she says, and when he laughs at her cleverness she likes the astonished shape of his smile, the way his eyes crinkle. She’s about to ask him something but just then all the cats start buzzing and
You put your feet on the wood floor and squint disapprovingly at the sun. Rub your eyes as you stumble into the bathroom. The details already dissolving.
I’m floating high above a wide, featureless plain of burnt orange. I think it might be fire. The wind billows my skirt out around my legs. I stare down at the fabric. Green patchwork squares with sheep on them. The sheep graze peacefully.
A bird floats beside me. I hear the whining of its motors as it hovers. As I turn my head I see it’s actually a rubber duck—soft, bright-yellow plastic, red grinning mouth, painted black ovals for eyes. I don’t like the way it looks at me.
I can see them far below me. Him and me. The tops of our heads. One with light brown hair, short, one with dark brown hair, long, pulled back in a ponytail. We’re having tea in the middle of the desert, on a table with a checkered top. Our plates are giant checkers, mine red, his black. There are sandwiches on the plates, cut into triangles. I can tell from here that the sandwiches are tuna. We lean closer together and our foreheads
His skin touches my skin and I feel heat radiating between us. It’s like we’re stuck together, like our brains are black holes sucking each other in—no, not black. Red, maybe. Or gold. Autumn leaf colors. Something warm. I feel the strands of his hair pressed between my skin and his, oddly thick and brittle, like spaghetti.
He’s whispering to me but the words flow out of my head as soon as I hear them. All I catch is that it’s very important not to eat the sandwiches. I pick up my teacup and see that it’s a giant pretzel. We each take hold of one thick, salt-crusted loop and pull, and suddenly I understand
She’s standing on a mountaintop, wind whirling scraps of leaves around her, looking down into a valley. She’s vaguely aware that the duck—no, it’s a raven—is still hovering in the sky above her left shoulder. The land lies in folds of purple and green, like a quilt, with stitches holding them together.
Down below her a procession of riders on horseback is threading its way through the valley. Jewels glint in their hair. The horses’ hooves sound like typewriter keys. Hounds are baying, but they’re very far away; no need to worry about that yet.
She’s on a man-made balcony, bare wooden planks, a floor cut into the mountain, a railing all around her so she doesn’t fall. She leaps, rather, gracefully into the air, like a ballerina, or a diver. She floats down as softly as a dandelion seed, but she can’t quite touch the ground. She points her toes, but her feet still don’t reach. It makes it difficult to get anywhere. She bobs and drifts away.
You’ve had that one before. Or something like it. You don’t know why it unnerves you so much. If you ate the sandwiches you would have to stay forever, isn’t that…?
It’s a gray, drizzly evening when she sees him again. He’s standing on a street corner, begging for coins. A musician. But instead of an instrument he has a steel box with a crank on the side. It’s called a hurdle girdle. She walks straight by him, because she’s in a hurry (she has important envelopes to deliver) but then she stops and turns back.
She recognizes him; she’s sure of it. It’s only his face that’s different. His eyes are dark brown. His nose is straighter, larger, his hair blowing in gold wisps over his forehead. Candy wrappers fly by, flapping their wings. She drops a coin into the cup by his feet. It’s not really a cup; it’s an ear. A ceramic ear, pink-glazed, oversized, rooted deep in the earth.
She bends politely to look into the box and turns the crank. A green velvet cape falls over her shoulders. Inside she sees black and white photos. A camel. A rose. A woman’s face, heavily lipsticked, frowning at her. Her mouth is a shiny black line like a leech, and she wears a black top hat. She’s a woman of great power and not to be trifled with; she sets everything on fire by clicking her fingernails together
Something about a camel? Something important. I’m late for work. I try to put on my clothes, but my closet is full of things I didn’t buy, a leopard print bikini, a poncho with neon green fringe. I try to put on my clothes, but my hands move so slowly that I can’t seem to I try to put on my
You know it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just that it feels so real. A place where all the rules are different, a place you aren’t equipped to understand. A thousand years could pass in one night under the hill. How do you get there from here?
Time moves differently there. He told her so. Start here: he’s the one. She knows it by the pink flush on the backs of her hands. He’s a waiter at the restaurant, dressed in a crisp white uniform with gold buttons. The décor is elegant, the floor black and white tile. He leans against the wall to take the weight off his bad leg. It was broken once, he said.
She gets up out of her booth and tries to go to him, to speak to him, but another waiter’s standing in the way. He’s gray-eyed and pale, bored-looking, and he won’t stop talking. He’s her eleventh grade history teacher. That explains it. She tries to push past Mr. Donaldson but he won’t budge. Finally she crawls between his legs.
Then she’s sitting in a booth with the other waiter, her waiter, who has his leg propped up and is rubbing it. Vines are twining around his knee, the thorns digging into his skin. But he’s happy to see her. Write this down, he says, and he hands her a piece of onion skin with an address written on it in free verse. His handwriting is neat, spidery cursive. She chews it up and swallows it down with a gulp of wine.
I’m in an airplane, flying over the jungle, only there isn’t actually an airplane. A black standard poodle is the pilot. I stumble through the aisles and bump hard against someone’s chest. I clutch handfuls of red and orange plaid shirt. I’m sorry, I say, and look up, and that’s when I realize it’s him again. His face breaks into a joyful smile as he realizes it, too. We thought we were out of time.
We kiss. For the first time? It’s oddly soft and mushy, like pieces of him might come off in my mouth, but I don’t the plane is going down, down onto the spiked railings below and crows fly up in a cloud and I’m
I wake up screaming with bats flying out of my mouth. One of them is stuck in my throat, and I can’t swallow it or spit it out. I try to stick a fork down my throat to pry it loose but I accidentally break off one of my teeth instead. It lies in my palm, cracked and bloody. The rest of my teeth are loose, too, and I have to pull them out one by one. I pick one up and uncap it. It’s lipstick. Dark red, almost black. I smear it on my mouth.
You start a journal to keep track of them. A lot gets lost in translation. You do research online, check out books from the library. The meaning of fish, or nakedness, or water. The symbolism never seems to line up right. You think you understand it better than they do.
You always wake up so tired these days.
He sits down at the table across from her. A bowl of cherries is between them. Flies keep landing on the cherries. Has she been here before? His face is thinner than it should be. His hair is thinning. Tufts of it fall onto the tablecloth, like clumps of dust, like mice. Some of the mice crawl away very slowly, dragging injured legs.
Look at me, he says. It’s very important. It’s all right, she reassures him; she already knows not to eat the cherries. He tries to say something else but it all fuzzes out into static; she knows there are words but she can’t pay attention to them.
A horn sounds and he starts and turns, wide-eyed. No one told her this was a forest. The full moon is above them, impossibly large and yellowed. Red poker chips carpet the ground. A white deer with gold horns is running. Hoof beats. A woman whose black hair flaps as she rides. There aren’t any other horses so she tries to follow on foot but she trips over
Sometimes she sees through his eyes. His leg hurts, so he has to use a kitchen chair as a cane. It clunks heavily against the ground. The line runs halfway around the block, and he can see the back of her head partly hidden by the gray sweatshirt of the man behind her, her dark ponytail hanging down, a hint of green shirt collar. Far in the distance the marquee says, Never But Also. It wavers in the heat.
Finally he catches up to her. He’s sweating. She turns, folding a playbill in her hands. He tries to tell her where he is. They’re running out of time. Her face is greasy and puzzled. It’s raining grease and little morsels of fried chicken and she
You stare at the sunlit ceiling. He told you something. You know this. But all you remember is the number 18. Or was
it—? If only you could make sense of it while you’re there. Control it somehow. People do manage it sometimes. Just say, theoretically, that it mattered to someone who wasn’t you.
What is this place? The air is full of soap bubbles, thick-skinned and resilient. I should try. It always slips my mind. I hold my breath and push my way inside a bubble and there he is, sitting on a porch swing with gold gargoyles on the arms. I reach out to touch his shoulder but when he turns to me he has no mouth. His eyes are missing. His hands are trees.
I’m in a room made of glass and a hurricane is coming. I look around for something to use as a weapon. Iron. He told me she doesn’t like iron, or was it rutabagas? The door is green, but I can’t get out that way. There are three tigers in the room, crawling around the ceiling and shedding fur everywhere.
I keep watching the door. I’m waiting for someone. There are black-slatted blinds on all the windows, and I run around pulling them down because that will protect me. I lift a strawberry from the countertop and put it into my mouth but before I can bite down it shatters into a million pieces and someone is on the other side of the door calling to me but I can’t hear it over the roar of the wind. Water slams against the glass and the noise
Your sheets are soaked in sweat. You don’t remember but you think something bad almost happened. You need to do more research. You wish you could bring it with you. They can’t, for example, cross running water; you could use that. If you spill sugar they have to count the grains. You probably have more time to plan than he does.
Just say, theoretically. How would it even work? Assuming it were possible. Would he be here in the apartment when you got back? No, not likely. Maybe he’s in a hospital somewhere, hooked up to machines. Maybe you’d pass each other on the street one day and both have to stop and say, I’m sorry, you just seem so familiar. Maybe you’d never speak of it. Maybe it would be a secret between you all your life together.
Tonight will be different. She watches him dance, twirling across the ballroom floor on puppet strings, his arms hanging limply, held up by the elbows. The floor is made of grass, but the grass looks just like marble. Crickets chirp in the cracks between the tiles. A woman in a long black dress is spinning with him is spinning him has put her hands on his face and pulls him down to kiss her. Ink trickles down his face.
She knows she can’t let anyone see her, so she hides behind the elephant that’s waiting to take her to school, and she didn’t even study for the midterm. How could she forget to study? She’s always so but didn’t she graduate already? She’s almost sure. Forty percent. She almost wonders if she’s somewhere she’s not supposed to be.
She knows without having to be told that there’s no sun here. The sun is gone. A bear ate it. She likes bears. They’re so warm. There’s one on her back right now.
I find him again soon after, or maybe it isn’t soon. He’s one of the crowd watching the bicycle show. The bicycles cavort while the audience claps politely. His head pokes up above a woman’s gray fedora.
I hurry to his side, my socks making a pleasant gurgling noise against the carpet, and take his hand. It’s warm, familiar, a connection humming between the two of us. I smile and look up at him and when did he get so tall? He’s almost comically tall, stretched out too thin. He wears a long gray overcoat. His face is different, as usual, eyes too wide-set, too small, gray instead of brown. He’s almost ugly. He blinks down at me. I’m sorry, he says, do I know you?
Something is missing behind his eyes. It isn’t him; it’s just a decoy. His other arm rests on the shoulder of the woman with the fedora. She has a foxy face, long teeth. She keeps her eyes focused on the dancing goats, grinning with amusement. The feather in her hat bobs in the wind. I reach up to his face and try to fix it. If I could just push the eyes closer together, make the nose sharper. His flesh morphs easily, rubbery and fluid, but I can’t get it right. Where is he really? He could be anywhere. He could be in the grass under my
He can hear her footsteps somewhere near him, but he can’t move. Someone has tried to cut out his heart. A little door of skin stands open in his chest and gold light comes from inside it. He’s lying on concrete, bleeding. He knows he’s bleeding but he can’t feel it. Music is playing somewhere above him. A waltz. She won’t come, will she. He would have liked to tell her
She sees him right away, but the train station is so large and the crowd so dense. Red balloons bob against the rafters. She has to get to him. She takes a running jump and slams into the wall that was always there. It’s covered with blobs of gray stucco.
She needs to get through the wall somehow. She pushes against it with her palms but nothing happens. She steps back and pretends it’s not a wall. This time when she leans into it, it dissolves around her and she falls through. He’s kneeling there in front of her. A black snake is wrapped around his neck as a scarf. She says, very purposefully, I love you.
A wind blows and dust obscures her vision and she’s all out of bus tokens, but maybe they’ll accept this toad? It’s always been very reliable. She takes a step up into the no. This isn’t. Something gold. She has to get
Restaurant. White tile. Rabbits. Wait, but isn’t? Been here before. Something is hanging from the ceiling, wrapped up in leather like a bat’s wings. It blinks at her in Morse code.
The attic. Only a candle to light my way. The warmth of my hand shielding it. Flickering walls. The floor won’t stay still. He could be under my. I have to be careful not to cast any shadows because the shadows are really. Something is curled up in a dusty corner with coils of wire wrapped around it. Or maybe they’re vines. It rocks back and forth. Dark is spreading up the ceiling over my head. I turn around and
Desert. His nails dig into my palm. He tries to get up but his leg is caught in a giant mousetrap, his eyes are squeezed shut. His free hand makes five parallel tracks in the sand. I try to kiss him but my mouth won’t open; it’s full of glue. Why did I eat glue? Mistake. The desert is on fire. Fire is marching up my feet, my calves. It marches to a drumbeat that was always there. The sky is filling up with smoke and the fire blooms all over me, hotter than anything I could possibly imagine and my skin is charring and peeling off in sheets of blackened paper with writing all over them, the ends of my hair spurt fountains of ash and I open my hand. I open it. Mistake. He slips free. He tries to grab for me but his fingers melt in the heat and drip onto the ground in a puddle of gold. His eyes lock with mine and his mouth forms a word I can’t hear and then I’m alone with my hands full of eggshells.
She finds him standing by the blue SUV under the willow tree. He’s crying. He’s much shorter now. His skin is coming off in patches. Underneath is something black and slick and shiny. She peels the skin off his cheek and puts it in her mouth. It crackles and dissolves. I’m sorry, he says, trying to straighten the line of his mouth, I can’t
It’s all right, she says and puts her arms around him, rests her head on his chest, feels the watch parts beating inside, click, clock, cluck
This time you’ll remember. You’ll remind yourself before you close your eyes. You’ll repeat it fifty times if you have to. This time you’ll get it right. You don’t know why you keep
I’m lying in bed. Waves are rolling around me, rocking the boat. It’s cold. I feel a hand clasping mine, fingers intertwining, but no one is there. I can’t see him but it doesn’t bother
Where did all this water come from? I wonder if I will drown but I don’t
Salt water fills my mouth like blood and I wake up gasping. I wake up. I wake up.
You’ll remember this much later, as you squeeze lemon-scented soap onto a dishrag in your apartment that smells like things frying. You’ll sink your hands into the water and suddenly feel too hot, go to pry open the window and stare down into the alley where a plastic bag blows fitfully. He said: I need you to save me.
“Tam Lin” (© Lane Waldman) was published in Issue 8 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.