Fiction / Jessica Alexander
:: The First Act ::
The dramatic thrust had all but been enacted. It lacked only a third or second act.
The Countess had come and promised to come back. Laura sat, listlessly embroidering in a nook by the window. It was so many years ago, Laura told herself, and it never was a love affair. It lacked even a second act. She suspected the Countess was a liar. She suspected the Countess was dead or dying somewhere. It felt unfinished. If there’d been even a second act, she’d know what to call it. So, one morning, when the girl floated along the walled gardens, Laura stood and gasped. There was a moat and a drawbridge and a stone fountain. They’d sat by the fountain in the first act. Her knitting needles clattered to the ground. A ghost! she thought. The Countess has come back!
The girl, for her part, stopped amidst the fragrant lilacs. Her shoulders clutched as if she had been struck. There was the slab of stone where she sat so many years ago, but she could not remember what for or why she had returned there. She did not love it, and the mute and stupid stone, it did not love her either. Still the fountain softly gurgled. The water was the kind of blue that makes you think of dreaming. I have been here before, she was thinking. It makes you want to give your mind away. To trade it in for something sweeter, something kinder. Somewhere a bird chirped, and she almost loved it, almost thought that’s what love is: how the air held her to itself. She stood very still beside the fountain. The sound was clear. The light was clean. The sun dipped behind some clouds. She stood there. A terrible trick! She looked over the edge of her strange body as if it were a precipice, and longed to fling herself forever over it. It was a terrible trick to be held here. She did not want it.
That’s how Laura found her, so still beside the stone, like she might fling herself into the moat. “Wait—” Laura said, but on seeing the girl’s face, she sprang back. Was this the Countess? She looked different. Maybe younger. The Countess did not seem to know her.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked.
The girl said she did not know.
“Come closer,” Laura said. Though she knew it was a horrible trick to coax a dead girl into her solitude, she wanted to. She wanted this girl for her companion. But ghosts, she thought, are such fatalists. They do not like tricks, and yet—
Had Laura said that aloud? Like an indignant cat, the girl gathered herself. It isn’t true, she thought. I haven’t any preferences.
Laura, of course, conceded. How could she know a thing about this strange being? So, she told herself, and yet she was certain it was an argument they’d long been having. The grass, the branches, the fountain. Let me invent this. She’d make her remember. Yes, it is all a trick but it will get inside you, she was thinking. I will put it all inside you again. Is it horrible for me to curate a memory—to call it loving—and like a balm or a berry I’ll press it through your rough lips. Because, admit it, you’ve been starved, are starving. The sky! Just look at it. How every day the air feels like a day you’ve lived already. And what are you then? Just something briefly holding it, forcing it all to go on existing. How utterly unrealistic it is to want any of this, and yet—
“I want to show you something,” Laura said.
How could anyone be like this, the girl was marveling. Was mad, so mad, so venomous. Her hard eyes, her contempt, her impassive mouth. I’m nothing like her! I’m nothing. How can anyone know enough to say so much? Say, I am like this? Confess. How can anyone say: I am like this. This happened. Then this. Now I am like this. It’s remarkable, really, she was thinking, what some could say! They sit. They sigh. They say, Look at the sky. And you look at the sky. They force your eyes. Your mind. They get inside you. They say, I want an apple. And so you want an apple too. You want some solid thing inside you, an idea. It is not enough to touch the tree, the grass, where you sit and laugh. You must carry it all away with you if you want to be somebody too. Someone must make you want something—they will put an image in your head and it cannot hold or console you. And if they are someone like this woman, Laura, you are waiting. You are holding your breath. And you are wondering: what will she make me want next? It’s like trading yourself in for a story, and so, you’ll never be sure whether the story was any sweeter or kinder than you were. Meanwhile, the sky is on the brink of meaning something. It’s all too horrific. A horrible trick! You want a foggy city. You want somehow to be smothered in fog or a fond memory of something long ago. A city. Call it Venice. No, not Venice. Maybe Bath. Call it Bath.
The girl remembered a village: the buildings were grand and broken. Somewhere someone else was waiting for her, and she was trying to get back to her. Did she ever get back there? She didn’t think so. That’s how all the stories go, isn’t it? And the girl was wondering, who put that story inside of her, and did she want it there? How, now, she wondered, would she ever rid herself of it, this terrible bereavement? Was it even hers?
Meanwhile, time was passing.
I will invent you, Laura was thinking. I have felt this way, Laura was thinking. I have felt this way. Before you came, I felt this way. Like the clouds felt heavy and they pressed something out of me. Like I might drown in sky. Like all day I sigh. Like I can’t tell if the air in my chest is too much or if I cannot get enough.
And then, the girl told herself: I won’t be sad because you say so. I won’t be so suggestible.
Somewhere on a tree limb a bird chirped. “Do you like the sound of that? I like the sound of birds in the morning. I like the morning. We have such wonderful birds here. I like the light. I like the way it creeps in slowly, glowing. I want to show you something,” Laura said.
How does one come to know this about themselves? How does one come to know they like the sound of birds? To have a thing to show someone? To say: look? And then you turn your eyes just like they want you to. Why? Because you are a fool.
“What’s wrong,” Laura was asking her.
It had never occurred to the girl to say any of these things. And what happened when one said it, when Laura said “what nice birds” was that she wanted the earth to swallow the birds. To swallow her. Why should she want this, she wondered. Because this girl made her want and she wanted wrong! When Laura said she loved this time of day, the singing birds, the sky, which was almost purple, she wanted to impale herself on a tree limb or a fence—she wanted to never leave it, to curl up and die inside a sweetness she would never learn to trust. The girl felt nervous. Tell yourself a story. Look, the sky you loved has changed already. Tell it. Tell it quick. Before it all changes again. But when she watched herself talk, when she tried to bring herself into being, she seemed to push herself further and further away from what she’d aimed at, some vital glowing thing, something else. What was it? Why was this woman holding her hand and leading her on and on through the tall grass, toward the house. She ought to be leaving now.
For Laura’s part, she found the girl very odd. She was nothing like the Countess. She knew nothing. So, Laura had to tell the story all over again, to start from the beginning. Still she liked her. How strange and pretty she was with such wilderness in her wild hair and her face all bronze from standing in the sun. Her voice was rough and pleasing. So stern and sad and serious. It was a joy to stand in the grass and look at her. She thought she was a ghost. “Are you a ghost?” she said.
The girl said she did not know.
“You remind me of someone,” Laura was telling her. “There is a woman who visited so many years ago. You remind me of her. You look identical. Only you are so different. So wild and shy. I have the woman’s portrait inside. Would you like to see it?”
“Yes,” the girl said. But she did not believe it. Not really. Not yet. It was a trick. The way the sun felt. The way this woman wanted—what? To make her want. To make her say it. “Yes, I want to see it.”
It is a trick, Laura was thinking, and you are a fatalist. How could she possibly know this, she wondered. Because all the stories have been told. She wanted to tell her this, they’re all tricks, you know, and yet—
She did not know how to make the argument. It was selfish. She wanted a companion. She liked this girl who spooked so easy like a bird. Like an injured bird, she thought, I will care for her.
Then, suddenly, the girl remembered something: the fragrant lilacs that bloomed two weeks each spring, the walled kitchen gardens, the shrubberies, the parkland, the poplars and the pear trees.
She shut her eyes and braced herself for a hard slap.
Because this world, she thought, who wants it?
Everyone. Whatever it is. Everyone wants this so bad they’d claw their own heads off to keep themselves from wanting it.
Would you like to see it?
A portrait of yourself. Come. I want to give you this. An experience. To carve a shape in your mind the size of myself, and if there is such a thing as betrayal, I will betray you, because you are not me. But come out of the sun. I want to show you something.
The girl held herself at the edge of the fountain. She did not know what else to do. Hadn’t this already happened? Why am I here again? She was wondering. Have I left something undone?
From the writer
:: Account ::
I kept having this dream about a woman I knew.
Let’s call her Carol. The last time I saw her was in high school, which was, to be honest, a very long time ago. The dream is set in a wrecked city that’s full of red light and fog. And I’m looking for her. I ask a bartender, “Where’s Carol?” He points across a smoky room at someone, and there is nothing familiar about her. Still, the bartender is not wrong, that’s Carol, and I’m willing to accept it, though, admittedly, I’m disappointed. Like all the urgency just swirled down the drain of this dream. I don’t know Carol anymore.
I haven’t seen her since high school, and in my waking life I have no desire to speak with her. And so, this longing, like many, totally baffles me. I can’t help that. At night I’m wandering through the ruins of my memory, wanting badly to tell Carol something.
A bar in winter was the last place I actually saw Carol. She sat on a stool and I sat on a stool across the room. And she looked at me with this very stylized hatred. It was high school. We were too young to be there. She didn’t want to say hello. It was clear. It was no big deal, or was she joking? Her sense of humor was wonderful and brutal. So, I thought about saying hi to Carol, but then she’d left, and that was the last time I saw her. It wasn’t a big deal, in part, because it took a decade to decide that was the last time. And the discovery, by then, felt like stumbling into my present, holding a relic, like a VHS, which is obviously just so useless now. Still, I dream about it. What could I possibly have to tell Carol?
When you’re young it’s like that. You have this rich inner life, and maybe a friend equally invested in performing it. Two years pass, and, maybe, you imagine all that has nothing to do with the people you’re becoming. I liked Carol. In high school, I liked the Brontës, too, and all through college I’d look back on that fact and feel baffled by it. I loved Charlotte Brontë in particular. I loved especially Villette, which tells of Lucy Snow, who, after an unspecified family disaster, leaves England for the fictional French-speaking city of Villette, where she teaches at a girl’s school. And so, in the novel there is a world which reflects the severe financial, social, and professional limitations imposed on single women living in the Victorian era, and then this wild excessive counterpart and counter-temporality to that world, where Lucy Snow has this supersensual inner life, rich with desires whose objects all dissolve inside these very elaborate metaphors. And it’s odd because narrative usually needs such erotic props. A home, in the Victorian novel, is usually one such vessel. And Lucy Snowe hasn’t got one. She says, “To be homesick, one must have a home, which I have not.” It wasn’t, to me, a simple disavowal but a testament to the illegibility of her loss and her longing evinced by the false authority of definition. I mean, she’s wrong, right? One must possess a home to long for it? But she’s excluded and homesick for another world. And so this narrative sleight of hand, this self-defense, which disavows emotion by negating its objects, seems also to expand the horizon of her longing. So, there’s never an object, and yet the novel is so erotically charged! I know people disagree. I’ve read essays about it. There is an object, they say—its name is Paul. Well, I, for one, could never state with clarity what in this world exactly Lucy wanted—and still the novel erupted, at every turn, with rabid and wounded wanting.
And so, I was thinking about spectral desire, and I wanted to write a novel, a speculative, parodic, and gothic melodrama. Of course, there’d need to be a ghost, and the ghost is really discursive, preoccupied with negating the world and her desire for it, which is to say, she’s really angry. And I wanted it to end when a woman seduces the ghost back to living or at least she attempts to do so for what can only be very selfish reasons and I’m almost finished and this is how my melodrama ends.
Jessica Alexander’s story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.