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Fiction

Lily Red

One day Lily decided to be someone else. Someone with a past. It was an affliction of hers, wanting this. The desire was seldom triggered by any actual incident or complaint but seemed instead to be related to the act or prospect of lateral movement. She felt it every time a train passed. She would have traded places instantly with any person on any train. She felt it often in the car. She drove onto the freeway that ran between her job and her house, and she thought about driving right past her exit and stopping in some small town wherever she happened to run out of gas, and the next thing she knew, that was exactly what she had done.

Except that she was stopped by the police instead. She was well beyond the city; she had been through several cities, and the sky had darkened. The landscape flattened and she fell into a drowsy rhythm in which she and the car were both passengers in a small, impellent world defined by her headlights. It was something of a shock to have to stop. She sat in her car while the police light rotated behind her, and at regular intervals she watched her hands turn red on the steering wheel. She had never been stopped by the police before. In the rearview mirror she could see the policeman talking to his radio. His door was slightly open; the light was on inside his car. He got out and came to talk to her. She turned her motor off. “Lady,” he said, and she wondered if policemen on television always called women lady because that was what real policemen did, or if he had learned this watching television just as she had. “Lady, you were flying. I clocked you at eighty.”

Eighty. Lily couldn’t help but be slightly impressed. She had been twenty-five miles per hour over the limit without even realizing she was speeding. It suggested she could handle even faster speeds. “Eighty,” she said contritely. “You know what I think I should do? I think I’ve been driving too long, and I think I should just find a place to stay tonight. I think that would be best. I mean, eighty. That’s too fast. Don’t you think?”

“I really do.” The policeman removed a pen from the pocket inside his jacket.

“I won’t do it again,” Lily told him. “Please don’t give me a ticket.”

“I could spare you the ticket,” the policeman said, “and I could read in the paper tomorrow that you smashed yourself into a retaining wall not fifteen miles from here. I don’t think I could live with myself. Give me your license. Just take it out of the wallet, please. Mattie Drake runs a little bed-and-breakfast place in Two Trees. You want the next exit and bear left. First right, first right again. Street dead-ends in Mattie’s driveway. There’s a sign on the lawn: MATTIE’S. Should be all lit up this time of night. It’s a nice place and doesn’t cost too much in the off season.” He handed Lily back her license and the ticket for her to sign. He took his copy. “Get a good night’s sleep,” he said, and in the silence she heard his boots scattering gravel from the shoulder of the road as he walked away.

She crumpled the ticket into the glove compartment and waited for him to leave. He shut off the rotating light, turned on the headlights, and outwaited her. He followed all the way to the next exit. So Lily had to take it.

She parked her car on the edge of Mattie’s lawn. Moths circled the lights on the sign and on the porch. A large white owl slid through the dusky air, transformed by the lights beneath it into something angelic. A cricket landed on the sleeve of her linen suit. The sprinklers went on suddenly; the watery hiss erased the hum of insects, but the pathway to the door remained dry. Lily stood on the lighted porch and rang the bell.

The woman who answered wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt. She had the angular hips of an older woman, but her hair showed very little gray, just a small patch right at the forehead. “Come in, darling,” she said. There was a faint southern softness in her voice. “You look tired. Do you want a room? Have you come to see the caves? I’m Mattie.”

“Yes, of course,” Lily told her. “I need a room. I met some people who were here last year. You really have to see these caves, they told me.”

“I’ll have Katherine pack you a lunch if you like,” Mattie offered. “It’s beautiful hiking weather. You won’t get nearly so hot as in the summer. You can go tomorrow.”

Lily borrowed the phone in the living room to call David. It sat on a small table between a glass ball with a single red rosebud frozen inside and a picture of the Virgin praying. The Virgin wore a blue mantilla and appeared to be suspended in a cloudless sky. The phone had a dial, which Lily spun. She was so used to the tune their number made on the touch phone at work that she missed hearing it. She listened to the answering machine, heard her voice, which sounded nothing like her voice, suggesting that she leave a message. “I’m in Two Trees at Mattie’s bed-and-breakfast,” she said. “I had this sudden impulse to see the caves. I may stay a couple of days. Will you call Harriet and tell her I won’t be in tomorrow? It’s real slow. There won’t be a problem.” She would have told David she missed him, but she ran out of time. She would have only said it out of politeness anyway. They had been married nine years. She would miss him later. She would begin to miss him when she began to miss herself. He might be missing her, too, just about then. It would be nice if all these things happened at the same time.

She took the key from Mattie, went upstairs, used the bathroom at the end of the hall, used someone else’s toothbrush, rinsing it out repeatedly afterward, unlocked her door, removed all her clothes, and cried until she fell asleep.

In the morning Lily lay in bed and watched the sun stretch over the quilt and onto the skin of her arms and her hands. She looked around the room. The bed was narrow and had a headpiece made of iron. A pattern of small pink flowers papered the walls. On the bookcase next to the bed a china lady held a china umbrella with one hand and extended the other, palm up, to see if the rain had stopped. There were books. Beauty’s Secret, one of them said on the spine. Lily opened it, but it turned out to be about horses.

A full-length mirror hung on the back of the bedroom door. Lily didn’t notice until the sunlight touched its surface, doubling in brightness. She rose and stood in front of it, backlit by the sunny window, frontlit by the mirror so that she could hardly see. She leaned in closer. Last night’s crying had left her eyes red and the lids swollen. She looked at herself for a long time, squinting and changing the angle. Who was she? There was absolutely no way to tell.

The smell of coffee came up the stairs and through the shut door. Lily found her clothes on the desk chair where she had left them. She put them on: stockings, a fuchsia blouse, an eggshell business suit, heels. She used the bathroom, someone else’s hairbrush as well as someone else’s toothbrush, and came downstairs.

“You can’t go hiking dressed like that,” Mattie told her, and of course Lily couldn’t. “You have nothing else? What size shoe do you wear? A six and a half? Six? Tiny little thing, aren’t you? Katherine might have something that will do.” She raised her voice. “Katherine? Katherine!”

Katherine came through the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, drying her hands on a dish towel. She was somewhat younger than Mattie though older than Lily, middle forties, perhaps, and heavier, a dark-skinned woman with straight black hair. On request she produced jeans for Lily, a sleeveless T-shirt, a red sweatshirt, gray socks, and sneakers. Everything was too big for Lily. Everything was wearable.

Mattie took her through the screen door and out the back porch after breakfast. Beyond the edge of Mattie’s sprinklers, the lawn stopped abruptly at a hill of sand and manzanita. Mattie had stowed a lunch and a canteen in a yellow day pack. She began to help Lily into it. “You go up,” Mattie said. “All the way up. And then down. You can see the trail from the other side of the fence. Watch for rattlers. You hiked much?” Lily was having trouble slipping her left arm under the second strap. It caught at the elbow, her arm pinned behind her. Mattie eased the pack off and began again.

“Oh, yes,” Lily assured her. “I’ve hiked a lot.” Mattie looked unconvinced. “I’m a rock climber,” said Lily. “That’s the kind of hiking I’m used to. Crampons and ropes and mallets. I don’t usually wear them on my back. I wear them on my belt. I take groups out. Librarians and schoolteachers and beauticians. You know.”

“Well, there’s just a trail here,” said Mattie doubtfully. “I don’t suppose you can get into trouble as long as you stay on the trail. Your shoes don’t really fit well. I’m afraid you’ll blister.”

“I once spent three days alone in the woods without food or shelter and it snowed. I was getting a merit badge.” The day pack was finally in place. “Thank you,” Lily said.

“Wait here. I’m going to get some moleskin for your feet. And I’m going to send Jep along with you. Jep has a lot of common sense. And Jep knows the way. You’ll be glad of the company,” Mattie told her. She disappeared back into the house.

“It was in Borneo,” Lily said softly, so that Mattie wouldn’t hear. “You want to talk about blisters. You try walking in the snows of Borneo.”

Jep turned out to be a young collie. One ear flopped over in proper collie fashion. One pointed up like a shepherd’s. “I’ve heard some nice things about you,” Lily told him. He followed Lily out to the gate and then took the lead, his tail and hindquarters moving from side to side with every step. He set an easy pace. The trail was unambiguous. The weather was cool when they started. In an hour or so, Lily removed her sweatshirt and Jep’s tongue drooped from his mouth. Everyone felt good.

The sun was not yet overhead when Lily stopped for lunch. “Eleven twenty-two,” she told Jep. “Judging solely by the sun.” Katherine had packed apple juice and cold chicken and an orange with a seam cut into the peel and a chocolate Hostess cupcake with a cream center for dessert. Lily had not seen a cupcake like that since she had stopped taking a lunch to school. She sat with her back against a rock overhang and shared it with Jep, giving him none of the cream filling. There was a red place on her left heel, and she covered it with moleskin. Jep lay on his side. Lily felt drowsy. “You want to rest awhile?” she asked Jep. “I don’t really care if we make the caves, and you’ve seen them before. I could give a damn about the caves, if you want to know the truth.” She yawned. Somewhere to her left a small animal scuttled in the brush. Jep hardly lifted his head. Lily made a pillow out of Katherine’s red sweatshirt and went to sleep, leaning against the overhang.

When she woke, the sun was behind her. Jep was on his feet, looking at something above her head. His tail wagged slowly and he whined once. On the ground, stretching over him and extending several more feet, lay the shadow of a man, elongated legs, one arm up as though he were waving. When Lily moved away from the overhang and turned to look, he was gone.

It unsettled her. She supposed that a seasoned hiker would have known better than to sleep on the trail. She turned to go back to Mattie’s and had only walked a short way, less than a city block, when she saw something she had missed coming from the other direction. A woman was painted onto the flat face of a rock, which jutted up beside the trail. The perspective was somewhat flattened, and the image had been simplified, which made it extraordinarily compelling somehow. Especially for a painting on a rock. When had Lily ever seen anything painted on a rock other than KELLY LOVES ERIC or ANGELA PUTS OUT? The woman’s long black hair fell straight down both sides of her face. Her dark eyes were half closed; her skin was brown. She was looking down at her hands, which she held cupped together, and she was dressed all in red. Wherever the surface of the rock was the roughest, the paint had cracked, and one whole sleeve had flaked off entirely. Lily leaned down to touch the missing arm. There was a silence as if the birds and the snakes and the insects had all suddenly run out of breath. Lily straightened and the ordinary noises began again. She followed Jep back down the trail.

“I didn’t get to the caves,” she admitted to Mattie. “I’ll go again tomorrow. But I did see something intriguing: the painting. The woman painted on the rock. I’m used to graffiti, but not this kind. Who painted her?”

“I don’t know,” said Mattie. “She’s been here longer than I have. We get a lot of farm labor through, seasonal labor, you know. I always thought she looked Mexican. And you see paintings like that a lot in Mexico. Rock Madonnas. I read somewhere that the artists usually use their own mother’s faces for inspiration. The writer said you see these paintings by the roadside all the time and that those cultures in which men idolize their mothers are the most sexist cultures in the world. Interesting article. She’s faded a lot over the years.”

“You don’t often see a Madonna dressed in red,” Lily said.

“No, you don’t,” Mattie agreed. “Blue usually, isn’t it?” She helped Lily out of the pack. “Did you get blisters?” she asked. “I worried about you.”

“No,” said Lily, although the spot on her heel had never stopped bothering her. “I was fine.”

“You know who might be able to tell you about the painting? Allison Beale. Runs the county library but lives here in Two Trees. She’s been here forever. You could run over tonight and ask her if you like. I’ll give you the address. She likes company.”

So Lily got back in her car with Allison Beale’s address in her pocket and a map to Allison’s house. She was supposed to go there first and then pick up some dinner at a little restaurant called the Italian Kitchen, but she turned left instead of right and then left again to a bar she’d noticed on her way into Two Trees, with a neon martini glass tipping in the window. The only other customer, a man, stood with his back to her, studying the jukebox selections but choosing nothing. Lily sat at the counter and ordered a margarita. It came without salt and the ice floated inside it uncrushed. “You’re the lady staying with Mattie,” the bartender informed her. “My name is Egan. Been to the caves?”

“Lily,” Lily said. “I don’t like caves. I can get lost in the supermarket. Wander for days without a sweater in the frozen foods. I’m afraid to think what would happen to me in a cave.”

“These caves aren’t deep,” the bartender said, wiping the counter in front of her with the side of his hand. “Be a shame to come all the way to Two Trees and not even see the caves.”

“Take a native guide,” the other man suggested. He had come up behind her while she ordered.

She slid around on the bar stool.

“Henry,” he told her. He wore a long black braid and a turquoise necklace. The last time Lily had seen him he had been dressed as a policeman. She’d had no sense of his hair being long like this.

“You’re an Indian,” Lily said.

“Can’t put anything past you.” He sat down on the stool next to hers. Lily guessed he was somewhere in his thirties, just about her own age. “Take off your wedding ring and I’ll buy you a drink.”

She slid the ring off her finger. Her hands were cold and it didn’t even catch at the knuckle. She laid it on the napkin. “It’s off,” she said. “But that’s all I’m taking off. I hope we understand each other.”

The bartender brought her a second margarita. “The first one was on the house,” he said. “Because you’re a guest in Two Trees. The second one is on Henry. We’ll worry about the third when you get to it.”

Lily got to it about an hour later. She could easily have done without it. She was already quite drunk. She and Henry and the bartender were still the only people in the bar.

“It just intrigued me, you know?” she said. The bartender stood draped across the counter next to her. Henry leaned on one elbow. Lily could hear that she was slurring her words. She tried to sharpen them. “It seemed old. I thought it intrigued me enough to go talk to the librarian about it, but I was wrong about that.” She laughed and started on her third drink. “It should be restored,” she added. “Like the Sistine Chapel.”

“I can tell you something about it,” the bartender said. “I can’t swear any of it’s true, but I know what people say. It’s a picture of a miracle.” He glanced at Henry. “Happened more than a hundred years ago. It was painted by a man, a local man, I don’t think anyone remembers who. And this woman appeared to him one day, by the rock. She held out her hands, cupped, just the way he drew them, like she was offering him something, but her hands were empty. And then she disappeared again.”

“Well?” said Lily.

“Well, what?” Henry answered her. She turned back to him. Henry was drinking something clear from a shot glass. Egan kept it filled; Henry never asked him, but emptied the glass several times without appearing to be affected. Lily wondered if it might even be water.

“What was the miracle? What happened?”

There was a pause. Henry looked down into his drink. Egan finally spoke. “Nothing happened that I know of.” He looked at Henry. Henry shrugged. “The miracle was that she appeared. The miracle was that he turned out to be the kind of person something like this happened to.”

Lily shook her head in dissatisfaction.

“It’s kind of a miracle the painting has lasted so long, don’t you think?” Egan suggested. “Out there in the wind and the sand for all those years?”

Lily shook her head again.

“You are a hard woman,” Henry told her. He leaned closer. “And a beautiful one.”

It made Lily laugh at him for being so unoriginal. “Right.” She stirred her drink with her finger. “How do Indians feel about their mothers?”

“I loved mine. Is that the right answer?”

“I’ll tell you what I’ve always heard about Indians.” Lily put her elbows on the counter between them, her chin in her hands.

“I bet I know this.” Henry’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I bet I know exactly what you’ve always heard.”

“I’ve heard that sexual technique is passed on from father to son.” Lily took a drink. “And you know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a lot of mistakes must be perpetuated this way. A culture that passed on sexual technique from mother to son would impress me.”

“So there’s a middleman,” said Henry. “Give it a chance. It still could work.” The phone rang at the end of the bar. Egan went to answer it. Henry leaned forward, staring at her intently. “You have incredible eyes,” he said, and she looked away from him immediately. “I can’t decide what color they are.”

Lily laughed again, this time at herself. She didn’t want to respond to such a transparent approach, but she couldn’t help it. The laugh had a hysterical edge. She got to her feet. “Take off your pants and I’ll buy you a drink,” she said and enjoyed the startled look on Henry’s face. She held on to the counter, brushing against him by accident on her way to the back of the bar.

“End of the counter and left,” the bartender told her, hanging up the phone. She gripped each stool and spun it as she went by, hand over hand, for as long as they lasted. She made it the last few steps to the bathroom on her own. The door was marked with the silhouette of a figure wearing a skirt. Lily fell through it and into the stall. On one side of her Brian is a fox was scratched into the wall. On the other were the words Chastity chews. A picture accompanied the text, another picture of a woman, presumably chewing chastity. She had many arms like Kali and a great many teeth. A balloon rose from her mouth. Hi, she said simply.

Lily spent some time at the mirror, fixing her hair. She blew a breath into her hand and tried to smell it, but all she could smell was the lavatory soap. She supposed this was good. “I’m going home,” she announced, back in the bar. “I’ve enjoyed myself.”

She felt around in her purse for her keys. Henry held them up and rang them together. “I can’t let you drive home. You hardly made it to the bathroom.”

“I can’t let you take me. I don’t know you well enough.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest that. Looks like you have to walk.”

Lily reached for the keys and Henry closed his fist about them. “It’s only about six blocks,” he said.

“It’s dark. I could be assaulted.”

“Not in Two Trees.”

“Anywhere. Are you kidding?” Lily smiled at him. “Give me the keys. I already have a blister.”

“I could give you the keys and you could hit a tree not two blocks from here. I don’t think I could live with myself. Egan will back me up on this.” Henry gestured with his closed fist toward the bartender.

“Damn straight,” said Egan. “There’s no way you’re driving home. You’ll be fine walking. And, anyway, Jep’s come for you.” Lily could see a vague doggy shape through the screen door out of the bar.

“Hello, Jep,” Lily said. The figure through the screen wagged from side to side. “All right.” Lily turned back to the men at the bar. “All right,” she conceded. “I’m walking. The men in this town are pitiless, but the dogs are fine. You’ve got to love the dogs.”

She swung the screen door open. Jep backed out of the way. “Tomorrow,” Egan called out behind her, “you go see those caves.”

Jep walked beside her on the curbside, between her and the street. Most of the houses were closed and dark. In the front of one a woman sat on a porch swing, holding a baby and humming to it. Some heartbreak song. By the time Lily reached Mattie’s she felt sober again.

Mattie was sitting in the living room. “Egan called,” she said. “I made you some tea. I know it’s not what you think you want, but it has some herbs in it, very effective against hangover. You won’t be sorry you drank it. It’s a long hike to the caves. You want to be rested.”

Lily sat on the couch beside her. “Thank you. You’re being very good to me, Mattie. I don’t deserve it. I’ve been behaving very badly.”

“Maybe it’s just my turn to be good,” said Mattie. “Maybe you just finished your turn. Did you ever get any dinner?”

“I think I may have had some pretzels.” Lily looked across the room to the phone, wondering if she were going to call David. She looked at the picture of the Madonna. It was not a very interesting one. Too sweet. Too much sweetness. “I should call my husband,” she told Mattie and didn’t move.

“Would you like me to leave you alone?”

“No,” said Lily. “It wouldn’t be that sort of call. David and I, we don’t have personal conversations.” She realized suddenly that she had left her wedding ring back at the bar on the cocktail napkin beside her empty glass.

“Is the marriage a happy one?” Mattie asked. “Forgive me if I’m prying. It’s just—well, here you are.”

“I don’t know,” said Lily.

Mattie put her arm around Lily and Lily leaned against her. “Loving is a lot harder for some people than for others,” she said. “And being loved can be hardest of all. Not for you, though. Not for a loving woman like you.”

Lily sat up and reached for her tea. It smelled of chamomile. “Mattie,” she said. She didn’t know how to explain. Lily felt that she often appeared to be a better person than she was. It was another affliction. In many ways Mattie’s analysis was true. Lily knew that her family and friends wondered how she lived with such a cold, methodical man. But there was another truth, too. Often, Lily set up little tests for David, tests of his sensitivity, tests of his commitment. She was always pleased when he failed them, because it proved the problems between them were still his fault. Not a loving thing to do. “Don’t make me out to be some saint,” she said.

She slept very deeply that night, dreaming on alcohol and tea, and woke up late in the morning. It was almost ten before she and Jep hit the trail. She watched for the painting on her way up this time, stopping to eat an identical lunch in a spot where she could look at it. Jep sat beside her, panting. They passed the rock overhang where she had eaten lunch the day before, finished the climb uphill, and started down. The drop-off was sharp; the terrain was dusty and uninviting, and Lily, who was tired of walking uphill, found it even harder to descend. When the trail stopped at a small hollow in the side of a rock, she decided she would rest and then go back. Everyone else might be excessively concerned that she see the caves, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She dropped the day pack on the ground and sat beside it. Jep raised his collie ear and wagged his tail. Turning, Lily was not at all surprised to see Henry coming down the hill, his hair loose and hanging to his shoulders.

“So,” he said. “You found the caves without me.”

“You’re kidding.” Lily stood up. “This little scrape in the rock? This can’t be the famous Two Trees caves. I won’t believe it. Tell me there are real caves just around the next bend.”

“You need something more?” Henry asked. “This isn’t enough? You are a hard woman.”

“Oh, come on.” Lily flicked her hair out of her eyes. “Are you telling me people come from all over to see this?”

“It’s not the caves.” Henry was staring at her. She felt her face reddening. “It’s what happens in the caves.” He moved closer to her. “It’s what happens when a beautiful woman comes to the caves.” Lily let herself look right at his eyes. Inside his pupils, a tiny Lily looked back out.

“Stay away from me,” said Lily. Was she the kind of woman who would allow a strange man in a strange place to kiss her? Apparently so. Apparently she was the kind of woman who said no to nothing now. She reached out to Henry; she put one hand on the sleeve of his shirt, one hand on his neck, moved the first hand to his back. “I gave you my car and my wedding ring,” she told him. “What do you want now? What will satisfy you?” She kissed him first. They dropped to their knees on the hard floor of the cave. He kissed her back.

“We could go somewhere more comfortable,” said Lily. “No,” said Henry. “It has to be here.”

They removed their clothes and spread them about as padding. The shadow of the rock lengthened over them. Jep whined once or twice and then went to sleep at a safe distance. Lily couldn’t relax. She let Henry work at it. She touched his face and kissed his hand. “Your father did a nice job,” she told him, moving as close to his side as she could, holding herself against him. “You do that wonderfully.” Henry’s arm lay underneath her back. He lifted her with it, turning her so that she was on top of him, facing down. He took hold of her hair and pulled her face to his own, put his mouth on her mouth. Then he let her go, staring at her, holding the bits of hair about her face in his hands. “You are so beautiful,” he said, and something broke inside her.

“Am I?” She was frightened because she suddenly needed to believe him, needed to believe that he might love her, whoever she was.

“Incredibly beautiful.”

“Am I?” Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, she told him silently, too afraid to talk and almost crying. Don’t make me want it if it’s not there. Please. Be careful what you say.

“Incredibly beautiful.” He began to move again inside her. “So beautiful.” He watched her face. “So beautiful.” He touched her breasts and then his eyes closed and his mouth rounded. She thought he might fly apart, his body shook so, and she held him together with her hands, kissed him until he stopped, and then kissed him again.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Henry said.

It hurt Lily immediately, like a slap. So now she was the sort of woman men said this to. Well, she had no right to expect anything different from a man she didn’t even know. She could have said it to him first if she’d thought of it. That would have been the smart thing to do. Nothing would have been stupider than needing him. What had she been thinking of? “But you will if you have to,” she finished. “Right? Don’t worry. I’m not making anything of this. I know what this is.” She sat up and reached for Katherine’s sweatshirt. She was cold and afraid to move closer to Henry. She was cold and she didn’t want to be naked anymore.

“You sound angry,” Henry said. “It’s not that I couldn’t love you. It’s not that I don’t already love you. Men always disappoint women. I’m not sure we can escape it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lily told him sharply. She put her head into the red tent of the sweatshirt and pulled it through. “I should have gotten your sexual history first,” she added. “I haven’t done this since the rules changed.”

“I haven’t been with a woman in ten years,” Henry said. Lily looked at his face in surprise.

“Before that it was five years,” he said. “And before that three, but that was two at once. That was the sixties. Before that it was fifteen years. And twenty before that. And two. And two. And before that almost a hundred.”

Lily stood up, pulling on Katherine’s jeans. “I should have gotten your psychiatric history first,” she said. The faster she tried to dress, the more difficulties she had. She couldn’t find one of Katherine’s socks. She was too angry and frightened to look among Henry’s clothes. She put on Katherine’s shoes without it. “Come on, Jep,” she said.

“It can’t mean anything,” Henry told her.

“It didn’t. Forget it.” Lily left without the day pack. She hurried up the trail. Jep followed somewhat reluctantly. They made the crest of the hill; Lily looked behind her often to see if Henry was following. He wasn’t. She went past the painting without stopping. Jep preceded her through the gate into Mattie’s backyard.

Mattie and Katherine were waiting in the house. Katherine put her arms around her. “You went to the caves,” Katherine said. “Didn’t you? I can tell.”

“Of course she did,” said Mattie. She stroked Lily’s hair. “Of course she did.”

Lily stood stiffly inside Katherine’s arms. “What the hell is going on?” she asked. She pushed away and looked at the two women. “You sent me up there, didn’t you? You did! You and Egan and probably Allison Beale, too. Go to the caves, go to the caves. That’s all I’ve heard since I got here. You dress me like some virginal sacrifice, fatten me up with Hostess cupcakes, and send me to him. But why?”

“It’s a miracle,” said Mattie. “You were chosen. Can’t you feel it?”

“I let some man pick me up in a bar. He turns out to be a nut.” Lily’s voice rose higher. “Where’s the miracle?”

“You slept with Henry,” said Mattie. “Henry chose you. That’s the miracle.”

Lily ran up the stairs. She stripped Katherine’s clothes off and put her own on. Mattie came and stood in the doorway. Lily walked around her and out of the room.

“Listen to me, Lily,” Mattie said. “You don’t understand. He gave you as much as he can give anyone. That’s why in the painting the woman’s hands are empty. But that’s his trap. His curse. Not yours. When you see that, you’ll forgive him. Katherine and Allison and I all forgave him. I know you will too, a loving woman like you.” Mattie reached out, grabbing Lily’s sleeve. “Stay here with us. You can’t go back to your old life. You won’t be able to. You’ve been chosen.”

“Look,” said Lily. She took a deep breath and wiped at her eyes with her hands. “I wasn’t chosen. Quite the opposite. I was picked up and discarded. By a man in his thirties and not the same man you slept with. Maybe you slept with a god. You go ahead and tell yourself that. What difference does it make? You were still picked up and discarded.” She shook loose of Mattie and edged down the stairs. She expected to be stopped, but she wasn’t. At the front door, she turned. Mattie stood on the landing behind her. Mattie held out her hands. Lily shook her head. “I think you’re pretty pathetic, if you want to know the truth. I’m not going to tell myself a lot of lies or listen to yours. I know who I am. I’m going. I won’t be back. Don’t expect me.”

Her car waited at the front of the house, just where she had parked it the first night. She ran from the porch. The keys were inside. Left and left again, past the bar where the martini glass tipped darkly in the window, and onto the freeway. Lily accelerated way past eighty and no one stopped her. The foothills sped by and became cities. When she felt that she was far enough away to be safe from small-town Madonnas and immortals who were cursed to endure centuries of casual sex with as many loving women as possible—which was damn few, in fact, if you believed the numbers they gave you—she slowed down. She arrived home in the early evening. As she was walking in the door, she noticed she was wearing her wedding ring.

David was sitting on the couch reading a book. “Here I am, David,” Lily said. “I’m here. I got a speeding ticket. I never looked to see how much it was for. I lost my ring playing poker, but I mortgaged the house and won it back. I lost a lot more, though. I lost my head. I’m halfhearted now. In fact, I’m not at all the woman I was. I’ve got to be honest with you.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” said David. He went back to his book.

© 1988 Karen Joy Fowler.
First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of six novels and three short story collections. Her first novel, Sarah Canary, won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian; her third, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner; and The Jane Austen Book Club was a New York Times bestseller. She has two Nebulas for short fiction, one being for the title story in the collection, What I Didn’t See. Another story, “The Pelican Bar,” recently won the Shirley Jackson and the World Fantasy Award. Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, came out from Putnam in May of 2013, and won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was also short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. She lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband.