The dead man was a nail-biter, tucked up in the back seat with old theater magazines and a water-stained Baedeker of Malta, his free hand still nearly white-knuckled around the haft of his oar. All the way from the North Shore, he had complained about her music until Delia popped the tape with a sigh and a protesting click of plastic and stopped the radio on the same alternative station she had spent her first few years out of college waking up to, and they passed the last few miles on I-95 peaceably enough on the White Stripes and the Black Keys and the Decemberists, David Byrne chiming in with cities of dreams and highways of fire as she took the exit for Memorial Boulevard. Mid-morning sun put a duckweed gloss on the Crown Vic’s hood, the same chipped post-police paint job that always looked as wet as if she had been driving through rain. New-bricked, glassed-up, the downtown skyline still deepened around them like a well-known hand, as familiar to fall back into as beds she had not slept in since her hair was long enough to braid. In the rear view mirror, the dead man blinked at a passing mall and said with the distant, pointed persistence she had been trying to tune out with both sides of Brass Monkey and the first track of Soldiers Three, “Would you mind reminding me how much longer this is going to take?”
He must have had a faun’s face once, long before he died, when that cross-cut mouth could still smile without turning in on itself, before he hid those wide-set eyes behind glasses so heavy passing views of sky and saltgrass and green-darkening trees flowed off them like the bend of a windshield, and his cheekbones tightened like kite-struts under the skin. She had taken him for a retired athlete at first, a distance runner or a high jumper, some other lanky discipline, but not unless he had lost all his grace—the hands he never seemed to know what to do with, the angular carelessness with which he had let the door bang shut behind them, and even in his own front hall he had hunched into a clay-blue turtleneck and a duller windbreaker as if mid-May in the estuaries of Essex County were the gutter-end of a moorland November. His voice was at once waspish and distracted, curiously top-storeyed; she was no closer to pinning down his accent than the first time she had wondered what it was. The name he had shaken hands over was Evelyn Burney, but Delia knew better than to believe either phone books or introductions. She had been calling herself Ari since she was fourteen. She said now, “We’ll be there in five minutes, give or take another of these lights,” and heard the dead man’s silence as soundly as a snort.
“And we’re going where?”
South Water Street onto Point Street, the red light at the overpass was taking its time; Delia said nothing, staring at her hands beyond the cuffs of her father’s old corduroy jacket, with its thready buttons and leather-patched elbows like the teacher neither of them had been—small and solid, scratched all over with the marks of sedge and sharp pebbles and human fingernails. She came up to Evelyn’s chin, when he remembered not to slouch. Just the once, she had felt the thinness under his lingering-winter clothes, and still wished she could take it back. At least she had stopped recognizing the song on the radio.
“Home,” she said simply, knowing it was no such thing.
“Oh, God, I hope not,” the dead man sighed, and opened another magazine.
• • • •
He had not been hard to find; at the time it had not surprised her. A printout with some notes scribbled over the phone had been all the directions she needed, following the signs from Ipswich until the roads wound into sea-lavender brushes and billows of salt hay, inlets glinting like sky-bright needles among the lowland green and beyond Plum Island, the Atlantic at her right hand, forever rolling home. Nothing for miles but cordgrass and curlews and the pale shells of cloud reflecting in the channels like sails, but no one else would have been living in this peeling, periwinkle-boarded stilt-walk of a house with oil-blue mussels clustered on the pilings and low tide already idling around the rust-sponged cement blocks—inside, Delia was half expecting the cabin of a China clipper or a beachcomber’s drift-line hoard, ship’s brasses and netted floats, tarry rope-ends and trade-wind charts, the smell of water everywhere and the windows screwed tight as museum crates with a long century’s newspapers to keep out the draft. Mostly she saw bookshelves, a writing desk, a paler armchair where a dark-blue towel was drying, the sun collecting warmly on hardwood and clean cream walls. A stack of string-tied shoeboxes on the floor was spilling old photographs and undeveloped film, but the next corner over held a tall jade plant, monkey-puzzling in a brass pot. Evelyn looked the odd man out in his own rooms, an uneasy guest hesitating on the couch with a tumbler of half-melted ice rolled slowly back and forth between his palms; he glanced up through his wide-angle lenses, and down at his drink again, and said very little whether she talked or not.
Even his agreement was ambiguous: an unreadable “Oh,” and then abruptly, in the same skimmed-off edge of a voice, “Yes. Yes, of course. Wait here,” and then nothing, head still bent away from her, one long-knuckled hand rubbing automatically at the knee of his trousers where condensation had dripped off his glass, bright as a wet cobweb. His hair was dulse-brown in the afternoon, disarrayed. He would have a trick of raking his fingers back through it, she thought, or he had all but fallen out of bed to meet his visitor, absentmindedly touching his glasses into place with a wariness so well-worn, it could serve as well as indifference; his first look through the storm door had given back only her face in pixelated miniature, the last imprints in a corpse’s camera-obscura eye. Handwaved into the kitchen, she had glimpsed a bed through the receding frame of doorways, book-tumbled, the windowshades snapped too far up against the flooding sun and a clothes pile all the same commonplace browns and blues taking up most of the cereal-colored coverlet, but otherwise kept as neatly, surprisingly, as even the sink where Delia dried the salt off her hands, its only signs of recent use a china plate and a bright-cut butter knife, slightly tarnish-spotted, glittering with water in the dish drain. She could not figure out what he had been eating: the refrigerator was stocked with bottles, the one she jack-knifed the cap off as thickly brown-glassed as a patent medicine and labeled in an inky, spidery smear. It tasted of pears, an unexpected orchard tang. Still seated, Evelyn tilted his glass so that the remains of ice in it made a faint, sliding clink and something that was neither a sea breeze nor second thoughts went over the nape of her neck with a shiver, as if a stranger had passed her trailing a shadow she knew. He rose without looking at her and walked from the room, as straight as a sleepwalker, and Delia hunkered down to study his books.
He was gone for long enough that she began to wonder if he had simply ducked out of the house to avoid her, gone birding in the marshes or taken the rowboat tied up off the steps with a coil of toothpaste-colored rope—its own paint splitting along the strakes, a dull plimsoll red—and pushed off into the sound. He came back still carrying the tumbler in one hand, creek-rinsed by the flecks of silt clinging inside, a bundle of cable-knit wool in the crook of his arm. His feet were bare and white as flounders, sharply boned under their dark speckling of sand. Catching his gaze again, Delia thought there might have been something like humor among the tight angles of his face, as private as the rest of him and as quickly put away. She was still holding 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, the empty bottle of perry set down on the floorboards where it had no chance of touching the books; she made herself slide the old hardcover in its dust-and-Scotch-taped jacket conscientiously back beside Harrison’s Prolegomena, another university discard tagged with Dewey-white ink on its spine. Evelyn was unwrapping his parcel on the desk’s polished thrift-store top, an old sweater with both elbows out and one shoulder raveling purplish-black, like fading ink. She did not trust herself to say anything that was not too eager, too close to anger he did not deserve. Behind his glasses, the man she had driven from Baltimore and Boston to see was expressionless again, personable as a catalogue. “You wanted to see this,” he said unnecessarily, and held out the oar.
It was not much to look at: short and splintery, of some tight-grained, graying wood, and glittering in patches where the varnish was beginning to peel. The faintest red traces still ringed the shaft, lobster pots or Cycladic ochre. Evelyn held it awkwardly, as if he were unused even to the idea of handling it, but Delia did not miss the slight, protective crook of his fingers as she lifted it from him; it weighed as lightly in her hand as a branch of driftwood, as cool against her skin as the salt-cracked shingles of his house.
“It’s not really, of course, the oar that Odysseus took inland to make his peace with Poseidon, although a Byzantine commentator by the doubtful name of Aelius Retiarius certainly seems to have thought so.” She had not expected a lecture on provenance: He must have been talking to fill the time until she handed the thing back to him, all without taking his eyes from the dike-flat panorama beyond the window or sounding any more engaged. The foreignness in his voice kept slipping, now that she could hear more than half a dozen words together, southern California to London council housing to something less automatically Anglophone; she found herself thinking of the Mediterranean, although he might only have put the Greek islands into her head. “It was, he maintained, gear of that very same ship in which the hero made landfall at the black headwaters of Acheron, past the groves of Persephone and the gates of the Sun; it had cut through Ocean’s stream and the waters of death. The gods swear by the Styx; it is their binding. Odysseus needed to hold the sea-god to his promise, a better end than storm or shipwreck or monsters: such a gentle death from the sea. What more appropriate seal than the seaman’s essential symbol, Styx-steeped? Not that the original scholia are so theoretical about it.”
The edge of her thumbnail just fitted into a small dent in the blade, an old gouge sea-worn back to smoothness, like a long-healed scar. Without looking up, Delia said, “And you believe any of this?”
“Of course not. The man also glossed πολύτλας as an epithet of Charon,” and she heard it again, a clip of the never-setting Empire that had never existed beyond wireless broadcasts and the sound stages of Gainsborough and Hollywood. “Retiarius claimed to have seen the oar at the nekromanteion of Poseidon at Tainaron, but he would have found that rather difficult by the tenth century, not to mention the oar as we know it wasn’t even catalogued by the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Venice until 1643. A clerk with the minimally more plausible name of Anzolo da Canal wrote that it was a family heirloom of the Venier, handed down from Roman days, and cited Retiarius. He didn’t credit it with its present powers; that was a Florentine magician named Dionigi Berdini, writing a half-century earlier of an object he’d never seen. Most likely it’s a case of two or three traditions conflated with at least one forgery at worst, armchair antiquarianism and wishful thinking at best. But the legend stuck.” He sounded as if he were scoring a point off the conversation, so dryly underplaying: “They do that.”
“And if I ask how it got from a museum in Venice into your hands?”
“It was entrusted to me.”
He started to say something else, and stopped. Afterward, she thought it was the stillness of his look—dark-eyed, magnified—that warned her more than his earlier evasions; his hands at his sides made a flat-fingered, aversive gesture, pushing the question away. She did not step backward in a stranger’s house, his most precious possession tire-iron-clutched in both hands; Evelyn did not reach to snatch it from her, so that the two of them swung through his quiet, sun-papered rooms like brawlers at some bridge in a folksong. His hands closed on themselves, empty; the expression on his face was so blank she would have taken it for acceptance if she had not been watching him all day. As gently as her dry mouth would let her, Delia said, “I told you I was going to need it. I was sent to you for it. I spoke with Petrakis, last week in Kensington. Aronowicz on Salem Street gave me your name. She said you understood the arrangement.”
“I’m not a safe-deposit box.”
She could not tell if he was trying to joke. The silence had filled back in around them, drifting in through the warmth-opened windows with the smell of returning tide. If he had more than half a foot on her, she knew the stubborn breadth of her shoulders and her weight carried low, a heavy-breasted anchor if she needed to be; she would not move first.
“We’ve both made promises.” She could not comfortably call him Mr. Burney, or reassure him he was not a safe-deposit box without the break of laughter in her throat giving way: trying to keep the drama down. The old wood left its scent on her hands as she shifted and resettled them, not the salt-bleached sea-weathering she had imagined, but something smokier, damper, as if he had been keeping it under the thatch of a cottage in the days of whitewash and peat fires. “I don’t make many promises, Evelyn,” even if it was not the right name; she might never know what that was. “They’re too easy to break. This is me keeping one,” and if she should not have used his own language against him, it was no more than the truth. “This is my binding.”
Anything but the anger or tricks or flight she had braced herself against, she watched his face open into something disbelieving, half-impressed, more like long-exploding exasperation than mortal threat. “Binding,” she heard him echo, and there was the rest of his voice, before she could say anything else, a sudden tight-wired tenor boom: “Damn you, give me that back—”
He was faster than she had thought, not flailing at all. Her weight thrown backward, she nearly fell against the window, a white-painted straight-edge of molding not inches from her shoulder; she clipped a bookcase instead and hissed out loud with the pain, twisting to get her body between the oar and Evelyn’s graceless hands, diving for their prize as if he fought dirty every day. Any slower, he might have grasped wood; quicker, she could have given him her sleeve or an elbow in the ribs; their hands closed and she knew with absolute stupid certainty that the man she touched was not alive, not for a long time now, and afraid of her, as he should have been.
• • • •
The last, feverish summer before she left the no-man’s-land of her mother’s house for Berkeley and all the degrees that she never would use, a codemaker from Brixton sat every night at the end of Delia’s bed and said nothing as streetlight and the setting moon made silver coins of his glasses, cloud-wrack of his schoolboy-fair hair. Sometimes he had a manila folder in his hands, a coat folded over his lap; he was dappled with his death-marks like a breaking wave, the night raid and the incendiaries that had left as little of the cheap-curtained, top-floor room on Camberwell as of its lodger, a Christmas gift from the Luftwaffe whose engine-drone she could hear on the nights she slept under his gaze, the flames in white-lit billows like an old newsreel, and she woke alone, in a sweat as cold as burning, clawing the bedclothes off like ashes and bricks. Some nights he seemed able to see her, turning from the window with a sweet, conspiratorial smile. Some nights he only stared ahead of him with a hopeless, set-mouthed apprehensiveness, and she wondered if he was hearing the bangs and whistles far overhead of falling bombs, the glare and jerry-rigged bedsits of the shelter he should have been in the night he died. He made no sense in a house built half a century before Moby-Dick, its high ceilings cracking in the wind off Narragansett Bay; he should have been haunting Baker Street or the Victoria line, not Delia’s faux-Tiffany lamp or the stuffed-animal leopard she still squeezed for comfort in her sleep, despite patchy fur and the stiff, matte-black spots where she had nearly lost it to a newly tarred road in 1985. Once, near dawn, in a light as sticky and exhausted as the codeine and coffee that had done nothing to keep his dead man’s dreams out of her head, he tried to touch her: worried, gallant. Her left hand ached like chain-link in winter for days. She would have found a vengeful spirit easier.
She was stuck with him, while downstairs her mother railed at the telephone as if it were God’s ear and her father came and went with no more to add than a pause of footsteps on the landing and the glass-jangling slam of doors. When she poured a double line of salt against her doorway, he was already on its other side; when she left bowls of water on her windowsill, his face wavered in them like a forlorn moon. The blue of his eyes between serge and columbine, off-cast with pewter behind the glint of his wire-rims, the fine lines compressed around his mouth like stage makeup of the old bones he might have made—she could pinpoint the night she realized nothing about him was strange to her anymore and it was worse than knowing the taste of her own burnt teeth. His death was older than the home fronts her grandparents had fought on. Shucked of his cardigan vest and the neat touch of grease in his hair, he could have passed for any one of her mother’s second-year students, jockeying with mezzotints and monotypes for studio space on Union Street. She watched him wipe his glasses clean with a smudgy, instructional handkerchief, turn over sheets of handwritten paper as if he were still at a desk somewhere, working out plaintexts and keys; at his quietest, the small, sticking wrongness of a chipped incisor or a sore throat, the dust-scratch across the eye that dragged a blink into a match-white blinding flare. Go away, she had whispered until it became meaningless, more noise in a house full of words that did nothing. The only rattled tables and flying plates at the south end of Ann Street belonged to the living.
And late in heat-lightning August, when the haze over the interstate burned like a refinery with taillights and sodium reflections and the window fan sounded too much like a bomber’s whine and roar, Delia lay on sweat-crumpled sheets and tried to close out everything but Robbie O’Connell and the Clancy Brothers—five-string banjo and Bobby’s voice soft as a letter frayed with folding, Paddy’s harmonica like a soldier’s wistful whistling in the dark—when she realized the codemaker was listening. A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have, yet death will be but a pause . . . She had not thought it was one of the nights he could see her, stretched flat and restless in a pair of worn plaid boyshorts and the knots of her unbraided hair, but the moon-blanks of his glasses tipped and slid suddenly as he took them off with sharper movements than she had ever seen him make, and when she rolled over to turn off the Walkman and stare frankly back at him, she would have sworn she saw something like a blush fading among his silver nitrate shadows before he looked away. Her noonday demon after dark, whom nothing of this Earth had ever drawn out enough to make him leave it. He was fiddling with his glasses, turning them over with foxfire-splashed fingers as if he were still alive and nerving himself up to ask a girl to the cinema or a man out for a drink. Yours and yours and yours . . . It was easy, after all, as easy as anything that hurt. This time when she reached out in the half-light, he was the one who flinched.
She held on, though his sleeve felt like the rough coat of February, the scarring cold of the empty flesh beneath, and her breath jerked and hiccupped as if there were live wires in the stone-sharp turn of his wrists; though the night-sketched clutter around them was beginning to warp and flare like will-o’-the-wisps or melting film, until the codemaker’s hand tightened around hers like frostbite and white phosphorus and still she held on. Down the turn of the stairs, someone was whispering so fiercely, it hurt more to hear than a shout, but she could not tell if it was her mother on long-distance or her father leaving for the dozenth time or the rescue workers who had pulled out of the snow-hissing rubble nothing a poem-code could have put back together, cardboard earth burying little more than a name. The air she gasped for was hot as her dreams, choking with coal gas and plaster and the lime-kiln acridity of blasted brick; he frightened her and he hurt to be near and she gave him all the songs she could remember that might lead him back from the loose ends of the twentieth century to the Blitz that was over before her mother was born, from his death down into the dark.
She would never recall them all afterward, any more than the dead who might have sung them when they were new: white cliffs and little city flowers, wry-faced soldiers and their Windmill girls, the ghosts of tube posters blowing round deserted stations, bright gray snapshots of his shadow on a splinter-swept street. Nothing she could make as real as saccharine-stiff tea gone cold as the dawn-fogged windows with an all-nighter indecipherable, but she dredged mock-reveille from mornings in her grandmother’s kitchen and music hall from footnotes in her father’s fake books, an old iron plate, an old iron grate your mother used to fry on as the sky turned milky as old glass, and imagined that she could tell which helped, which hindered, which made no difference at all. Over and over again, like a signal-lantern lifted into the blackness that lay out before them like fast, deep water or night on a broad road, until the words were a foreign language and her voice ground down to the cinders of a chanteuse’s sensuous smoke, my Lili of the lamplight, my own Lili Marlene. She did not know if there was anyone waiting for him, by its light or elsewhere. She could feel neither of their fingers anymore. His glasses, cat-eyed, shining like a wound, were the last thing she saw before one of them disappeared.
She woke past noon in the sweat-warm weight of summer, filling the room like an overdrawn bath; she had dreamed of the pale gills of wrists and the wet-edged angle of a razor, drying in a curl of crimson like a question mark. Her palm came away shining when she wiped her face, peeled the seaweedy, split-ended snarl of her hair from around her throat. In the aimless, flooding light, it looked no different than before a dead man had gripped it, except for the bone-bruise beat of her heart to her fingertips, her muscles aching as if she had thrown herself all night against some unyielding wall. There was the chimney-stack, its cooler bricks painted with sixth-grade robins and sea-green leaves, Delia’s unwieldy signature in acrylic blue where the carpet missed the floorboards by an inch. There was A High Wind in Jamaica where she had left it halfway through Chapter Three, the deck of the Clorinda bookmarked with the nine of spades. No broken spills of plaster, no scattered code-cards. She could not look at calendar, mirror, or closet and see where he had gone. And she knew, nearly better than anything in seventeen years of her life, better than the dry nausea in her mouth or the shrapnel scars of history in her thoughts, there would be ghosts with her always—the boy from Miyakojima, still clutching his torn net with mulberry leaves in his tsunami-black hair, the rag-shod girl who had died at Riga with a pistol in her hand—the ones she could see already and the ones that had yet to find her, drawn wakerife from wherever the codemaker had strayed or stayed—the painter with her laudanum cough and a room on Malaya Bronnaya, the Boston bootlegger with the flick-knife lift of his brows—and the one that would never leave her, no matter what she said or sang, any more than she could walk away from her shadow.
She signed her student housing papers right-handed, the dead burning in her bones like time.
• • • •
She would not lie to either of them and say that she did not remember what she had done to the ghost that called itself Evelyn Burney, not when he had drawn her blood in his panic and she had left worse marks on him. In ninth grade, lunch-break reading under the blocky shadows of Brutalist concrete and the pecking commentary of the latest inescapable boy in baseball caps and sweatshirts who called her a dyke and a Satanist and asked her in stage whispers to show them how she got herself off—come on, you’ve got to be so good at it by now, a guy’s dick just fucking vanishes when he looks at you—she had breathed in the cold, dry-edged air of the last week before Thanksgiving and dropped Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, stood up and windmilled the kid so hard in the face he went over sideways with a surprised snort of blood from the nose she thought she must have broken, before he coughed and spat and she realized it was only his bitten tongue. More than the way her fingers had twinged stiffly until Christmas, the guidance counselor’s questions or her parents’ chilly back-and-forthing of blame, she remembered how she had felt, seeing that holly-bright spatter among the chewing-gum smears at her feet: not shame, or satisfaction, or even the draining aftercold of adrenaline as she retrieved her books and the boy shouted thick-tongued threats he never would carry out, but the simple recognition of damage: her hands, another’s hurt. With her boots in salt-welling mud and tall grasses rattling like scabbards about her waist, she had watched Evelyn with the sunset flare behind him shaking with rage and fright and felt the same distant sense of restraint slip from her, as she imagined most people spoke of losing their tempers; he was a dead man afraid of the dead, his oar gone clattering across the floor when they grappled and fell against bookshelves and old plaster that crunched under her weight like a mask’s papier-mâché, color film in graphite-black canisters rolling underneath the desk, and Delia could not remember the last time anyone had run from her. She could not catch him in the salt marsh he knew better than any afterlife, all the long years or centuries hiding out from whatever he should have gone on to. His face was a knot of shadows, the red-sailed sky in his glasses like blood. For just a moment, she wondered if he knew what she meant to do; she saw his mouth moving, but she did not think it was prayer.
In the spring of the year, she sang him this ay night, until she could feel the way down rising to meet her, the dark river that was a white road opening step by step beneath their feet, as it lay underneath every sea and stone, the journey no one could avoid taking and few ever retrace. Candle-glim and gorse-thorn, she made herself look at him when he folded to his knees in the burnt-gold-rippling tide and the first hesitations of silver began to streak the air; by Brig o’ Dread, the air was full of half-seen foxfire in the twilight and he would have given her his fingernails if that would have sent off whatever lovers or creditors he recognized in those desolate lanterns, but they were no longer coming to her voice, only his, bargaining, begging, his hands driven through his hair like rosaries, Kirke’s shades come up for their honey and their barley and their blood. She could not see him, the next time she looked through the dimming reeds. And Christ receive thy soul.
It took her until full dark to come back inside, searching from his house to her car on its thin boardwalk of sand just in case he had run somewhere as mundane as inland. She saw a heron’s long-winged flap on the horizon, the half-moon floating in the sound like an oyster shell; the tide was high and turning nearly at his threshold, asking no more leave to come in. Evelyn was curled in the slate-colored armchair, his glasses off and dangling from his cattail-torn fingers, too drained even to hide. He looked as though he had fallen in the marshes, more than once; struggled to his feet and plunged on through whip-wire cordgrass and brackish mud with all of Hell’s flame and Purgatory fire behind him, running him to the only safe ground he knew. The oar was clasped to his chest like a childhood toy, the green-shaded lamp among the desk’s bric-a-brac of pens and papers a third-degree glare from the way his fingers folded over his eyes. As quietly as she tried to ease the storm door shut, at its small metallic slam he started nearly out of his chair with a jumbled suddenness that would have been silent comedy if Delia had not seen his face, as shapeless and sticky with tears as a small child’s, as indecently transparent as all the dead. Even then, he showed nothing of a ghost’s vagueness, the silvery marks of dying about their persons or their clothes that sometimes remembered what the long-lost flesh pretended it could forget. He looked maybe thirty-five, maybe forty-five, undignified and alive and unhappy. When she pulled the straight-backed chair over from the desk, so that he would not have to stare any more vulnerably upward, he blinked with damp-stuck lashes and tried to fumble his glasses into place; his hands were shaking badly and he lowered them again, resting the mud-streaked lenses on his knee as if he were sitting for a portrait. She did not think he would want to remember either of them like this.
Because she did not know what more harm she could do him, she said curiously, “You don’t really need those, do you?”
“A lot you know about what I need.” His voice was colorless again, distantly drypoint, as if she had never heard him crying out. In the slant light, she could see blood as well as mud in his stiff-spiked hair—he was spattered with it, chin to brow as if it had been flung in his face, and Delia could not tell if it was his own, or if not, if she really wanted to know where it had come from. Closed, his long-lidded eyes gave him a meditative look, except for the tears. “You came here knowing what you wanted so well . . .”
“This isn’t about what I wanted.” She had not called the dead out of season to have this argument over with him again; she could feel it starting anyway, coming around on the guitar. The old unceasing anger was there without her even needing to feel for it, her own easy descent, waiting underneath everything she did not say. “I said that at the start: I wouldn’t have come here if it was just me and unfinished business. It’s what someone I—someone who matters very much to me needs,” and Evelyn gave a wet, hopeless sound that might have been laughter, hung up on clogged sinuses and irony. One arm still hung around her chair-back, Delia was fishing a wad of Kleenex out of her pocket—crumpled but clean, padding out her jacket like the clementines she carried everywhere in winter or her rattling tins of ginger-flavored mints—before she realized how ordinary the gesture felt, and stopped.
He took the tissues from her anyway, without giving away an inch of his guard-dog’s grip on the oar, and blew his nose so noisily and thoroughly that she wondered if he was putting it on, reassuring himself of all the quirks and faults and frailties of this body that was no such thing, even while his shadow lay soft and clean across the silt-tracked floor. There were ribbons of eelgrass snapped around his still-bare ankles, trailing wetly from his soaked cuffs; she had seen the splashes and trampled sedge when he ran. His footprints had led her back in, pitch-dark, through his door.
More gently this time, gesturing at the oar and not at the glasses he was fitting, painstakingly and clumsily, one-handed, back onto his face: “Are you bound to it?”
Evelyn stared at her with a handful of damp Kleenex and his glasses hooked over one ear, a bruise darkening on his cheekbone she had not seen before. “Oh, yes,” he said, wonderingly. “I can’t let it go. It . . .” His voice was very small, childlike as the back of one wrist rubbed against his mouth now that he had his lenses on straight, his shields and blinders back up. “It makes things safe for me.”
Delia nodded, slowly. What she had wanted was not to ask this question, to know its answer before she did: “And if I take the oar?”
What there was of his smile was pure mockery, twisting as a taste of brine. “I’ll go where you go.”
His eyes were as dark as the door of the Earth, for once holding hers as steadily as she studied him: not the first person she had ever hurt so precisely, but perhaps the first she had ever stayed around to acknowledge afterward. Neither of them had collected the books knocked from their careful stacks, the magazines sliding in a fan of matinée faces under the jade plant’s kicked-over earth. Belatedly, she thought of cracking ice cubes out of a tray and offering them for his bloodied face, but she was not sure that she could leave him, or that she had the right not to. Either way, it was too late for pretending. She had made her choice the minute she opened her mouth, standing at the edge of a tidal creek with a dead man’s house behind her; all she could do was be honest with it.
Evelyn was blowing his nose one last time, fussily as an actor and his shoulders still drawn with real pain; she thought nonsensically of the feel of his hair under her hand, how fine it had looked, windblown, and knew she could not move to touch him, then or ever. “All right,” Delia said, and again, as if she were the one with her head bowed, “all right.” The last moment she could turn away, run as fast and as far as a ghost out of the world; she swung her leg over the chair, tightened her hands among coins and Kleenex in her pockets, and felt no comfort in them, no talismans. Evelyn watched her unsmiling, waiting. “We’re going to Providence.”
• • • •
“Hounds of Love” was playing on WBRU as Delia pulled into the driveway where she had once backed into a washing machine—the Futureheads with their half-yodeled vocals and bouncy guitars, not Kate Bush and the invocation of M.R. James, but the engine still died on I’ve always been a coward and she could not tell whether the non-look Evelyn gave her as he stretched his legs like anyone corporeal enough for a slight cramp was a deadpan or only his usual guarded disinterest, which might have been terror all along. All night, he had huddled in his armchair as if within a charmed circle while Delia paced and turned pages in her croupier’s slope of light, swallowing the tiredness she could not afford to yield to like a Charon’s coin of blood; he offered his bed with such fine-tipped courtesy that she slept on the couch, shrugged under her jacket and Evelyn’s old unraveling sweater with its smell of doused fires, and woke in the heron-colored dawn to find him watching her, wondering what he had not done while she dreamed of steam condensing down the sides of a claw-footed tub and the archaeologist who appeared sometimes around the setting of Orion, her breast stitched across with the trackmarks of bullets, one hand still clenched on some blunt and broken nub of stone Delia could never quite see. There were ghosts drawn to her that kept their distance, shy as cats, prowling until they trusted her: some never had. Evelyn on the far side of the driveway, holding the oar like an umbrella with his Baedeker under his arm, was looking up at their destination as skeptically as though he had heard his cue. Delicately, so that she could not miss the quotation marks around the word, he said, “Have we come home?”
The last time she had stood on the narrow strip of asphalt between the four-bay house on Ann Street and the newer, taller Victorian with its curlicued eaves, the driveway had lumped underfoot with old frost heaves and frecklings of tarpaper like leaf-mold, shed from the gambrel roof with every storm or strong wind; the house itself had faded from the sunflower yellow of her childhood to tiger-stripes of sallow parchment, as dull as the tooth-colored trim. A tangle of wires that looked more than anything like an eviscerated birdcage coiled rustily behind a wood-sided station wagon, a child’s incongruous red plastic sled leaned up between the recycling bins. She had slipped the lock on the basement door and come out with a slow cold knotted in her back that took days to fade. Sometime in the years since then, someone who was not her father had resealed the driveway, reshingled the roof, and painted the quarter-sawn clapboards fresh dove-gray and the trim white as frosting, though the windows looked the same century-flawed glass within their neat slats of shutters. She had pressed her fingers against those cold lights in winter, imagining she could feel time seeping as slowly under her touch as melting ice.
“As much as we’re going to.” She knew she sounded distracted, rounding the house with Evelyn a few reluctant steps behind. The only things crunching under her boots were green and white tree-blossom, small flowers and twigs from blustery New England. “My mother had the place on the market even before the divorce went through. It’s old enough, she could have gotten it registered as a historic house or something, but I don’t think anyone really cared by then. It was cheap-ass student digs for a while, then the new owner flipped it; I didn’t really keep track. I don’t know who lives in either unit now . . .” Down the concrete steps to the basement, the door presented a similarly neatened face, but she recognized its hardware, the little give in the latch when she pulled on it, feeling the bolt in the frame. The knob was verdigris-rimmed under her hand, old brass under tree-ring layers of paint. In genuine surprise, she said, “They never changed this lock.”
“Breaking and entering.” Evelyn sniffed slightly, pushing up his glasses; he sounded unconvincingly disapproving, a parody of the strait-laced traveling companion. Still shaky and silent as he locked up his own house in the bright, head-bending sun, he had tried to clean himself up at the rest stop in Westwood, emerging from the men’s room with his hair wet-flattened and his cheekbones flushed from scouring with paper towels, hands tight in the pockets of his windbreaker as he walked past Delia to the car. At least he had put on shoes before leaving, black sneakers pulled on over socks he found while Delia tried not to hover around the front door and the boat bumped at the bottom of the steps, its sides reflecting little wind-frisked lines of sun. He was easiest when she thought of him as a character, long-sufferingly familiar enough to snipe at—suit yourself, you cut-rate Charon—walk through walls if you want to, but I need doors! She could not afford it; not even if he were alive.
“It’s worked for me so far,” she said mildly, and showed him the door swinging open, the darkness and the laundry-scented dust beyond.
—hiding in the dark, hiding in the street—
In the moments it took her vision to fade in from tree-blocked noon to cobweb-soaked panes and the light switch on the far side of the basement, she was already tallying the changes: two new models of washer-dryer, the filing cabinets gone, some dry-stalked, seed-nodding plant split up through a missing square in the cement like a vase of Japanese lanterns, a pair of sawhorses and cans of stain and varnish where her father had once polished his ’65 Yamaha while she watched from the basement stairs, drinking cranberry juice from a jam-jar glass. Something that looked a great deal like a giant plush chameleon, squashed with rolls of toilet paper into the topmost shelf over the sink. A laundry hamper the solid blue of Play-Doh, half full of clothes someone had evidently removed from the dryer to make room for their own wash. She did not know if she was hoping it had been moved, thrown out, lost to gentrification; she stepped around a sun-warped white table and chairs, flyspecked lawn furniture no one in her family had ever owned, and felt her pulse jerk in her throat so quickly she could not tell if it was relief or something less painful. Wedged against the cinderblocks behind the boiler, its greenish upholstery even more of a mildew nest than the last time she had tried not to breathe near it, after all these years was still the couch she had slept afternoons on, tucked her feet into the cushions for reading, watched television at an angle with her head resting on a padded arm, even tried once to make out with a girl from Federal Hill, both of them so twitchy at every creak and shift of house-beams that might have been Delia’s mother coming home that they fled eventually to Hope Street and held hands under the table, drinking too much coffee, like rebels in the French New Wave.
Clearly and curiously, from the farther end of the couch, her sister said, “Dee?”
She heard Evelyn’s tight intake of breath behind her; she did not have time for his surprise or his pretense, as if a dead man could be startled into needing air. She knew what he was seeing, pulling itself upright on the damp-spotted cushions with an adolescent’s mixture of impulsive grace and awkward growing bones: herself at nearly fourteen, a doppelgänger more than half a lifetime gone and fading like a Polaroid. She had never worn those heavy-pocketed cargo pants, that T-shirt with its cracking red-and-white silkscreen beware of god; even in her thrash years, never styled her hair so shock-black, stripped of any brass or blue highlight and jagged out like an angry marker scrawl. Evelyn had never seen them standing together, would not know that Delia had always been the taller by an intermittent inch, not once the thinner of the two. He would not need a yearbook to turn from one to the other and recognize the same backswept brows, the same dark, freckled skin with its grain of acne or faint scars, a softer curve of Delia’s mouth in the face of the girl gazing back at them from under the water pipes.
From elbow to heel of her small, hard-callused hands, her wrists were raked with silver like the back-shine of a mirror, corpse-candles ribboning her bloodless flesh.
—and of what was following me.
Delia let out her breath, as consciously as she had taken one that tasted of salt breeze and warming sun, green things pushing up and rotting and swayed by the tide. Her voice only stuck a little. She had been less frightened then. “Hey, Ari.”
“You’re starting to look like Mom. That’s fucked up.” The ghost of Aurelia Tabor rested her arm across one knee, slit wrist dangling carelessly open. It had taken Delia years to get used to her conversation, the familiar voice winding up through the nights when Delia could not sleep: not only that she spoke, but that she remembered. She tilted her chin like a command, too cool to look curious. “Who’s the tourist?”
“His name’s Evelyn.” Saying the words, even meaning them, they felt absurdly naïve. “He’s here to help.”
She knew Ari’s face would harden at that: a mistrustful teenager, nearly twenty years dead and still cynical. “Oh, really? Is that why he looks so fucking scared?”
“You would, too, if you were standing in this basement.”
“Like you would know.”
Stupid, if she had expected her sister’s contempt not to focus her way; it was there in her voice, immediate and vicious. “You ran from here. You ran from me,” and Delia had known ghosts that fought her with everything from paralyzing despair to collapsing ceilings, but never another that got so instantly and hotly beneath her skin, scratching off scars from the inside. Nothing she could do right, nothing she could help. No one she could ever make herself over into without that crack running through her, that broken place ghosts could whisper through, or just guilt. Even braced for it, she felt it swamp her like a foundering wave, drowning by exhaustion; she made herself not cringe, not look away, grinding out, “Jesus, Ari, you have no idea—”
From behind her shoulder, Evelyn laughed once, sharp as piano wire.
“Two of you. Oh, God help me. I should have known.”
He sounded almost merry, his unplaceable accent coming and going between the words. When Delia risked a glance away from her sister, he was smiling without any humor at all, wave-worn oar and travel guide in his hands like a saint of sea voyages—not exactly the world’s greatest reality check, but she had known him for a day and a half, not since before she could read, and the house that had once been hers scared him only as much as everything else. Silent as if they had shocked her, Ari’s ghost was staring at both of them, fingers tracing her cut-frilled wrist as if reading herself comfort in Braille, younger than Delia had ever thought she looked when it was the two of them against Nathan Bishop and the world.
“I’m here now, all right?” she said with a gentleness she did not feel, toward either of them at that moment, or herself. “I made a promise. I don’t intend to break it. That’s what I’m doing here. I think you have to trust me if this is going to work.”
Not quite under his breath, Evelyn muttered, “I don’t think so,” and she did not waste time on hushing him. Ari, digging nails into her own skin now as if she could stick the long-severed flesh back together, twist and seal herself like clay or just tear the mistake out, was barely audible even so.
“It hurts, Dee. It really fucking hurts.”
She could feel those angular shoulders within the circle of her arms, if her sister’s ghost would let herself be held; it would hurt like iron in a fairy tale and Delia would bear it, but it would change nothing. She said instead, with very little hope that she sounded less weary than she felt, “Come on over, boatman,” and when she saw how suddenly still Evelyn went, not quite refusing, “You’ll be all right if you stick close to me.”
“I very much doubt that.” But he was already crossing to meet her, laying the Baedeker down on the CD-stacked hutch of a pinewood desk she had never written at; already holding out the oar as if he trusted her with it, and she took it from him as if she felt the same.
• • • •
In dream after dream, Delia had sent her sister on with her blood, with her shadow, with her singing, with her life, with beckoning ghosts of grandparents or best-loved musicians, with nothing more than a kiss that burned like dry ice. In none of them had she imagined a dead man for an audience, the oar with its entangling skeins of past. Out of Evelyn’s hands, it still felt as plain as it looked—a museum piece no one should take to sea, no warmer or colder than her sweating hands or the basement’s musty air—but the longer she held the dune-gray wood, the more images she felt come absently to mind, blooming around her thoughts like dreams on the edge of sleep: pomegranate groves, white manes tossing, dark water bubbling around pale rocks, a field of poppies bending so slowly under the wind, she could have believed them underwater, crepe-red petals all turning to show their seed-centers like a heart parting under a knife. Ghosts hummed and flickered where she could not see them, static on a channel she could not tune. Just once, she looked across at Evelyn, eyes closed, hugging himself with his arms as if he were the one around whom the air had sunk to breath-stealing abyssal cold, and he was a boy with straight-winged brows and a sweet broad mouth, bleeding around the edges like lens flare. Her sister wavered like a photograph under a tap, never drained to silver and never swirled away. She stopped singing when she realized it was dark beyond the basement windows: She could not tell if it meant night. No one had come down to retrieve their laundry or investigate the noise. At one point she had thought to wonder if they were even still in a basement anymore, but she did not think it mattered; they were all still there, all three of them: Even magic had not worked.
She left the oar on the desk while she stretched, both hands in the aching small of her back. There was a curdled smell in her nostrils, like rotting windfalls or a surfeit of May blossom; she kept feeling she should see something on fire, but there was only Ari slumped over her arm of the couch like a shipwreck survivor clinging to her last spar, her face hidden in mold-whitened twill and the dead light of her arms. Evelyn had sagged down against the wall, all lanky angles when he folded up: head fallen back, mouth open, like an exhausted runner. Down among the dead, the wide-eyed and the legless . . . Delia shook the song out of her head: Ari had never been alive to hear it. Her voice was sandy with strain. “Evelyn. Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why you think I know.” She could not tell if he was stonewalling her or merely as near the end of his rope as he looked; nothing in the toneless voice told her. “You asked for it. I gave it to you. There’s an end to our agreement.”
“It kept your ghosts off. Does it only work for you?”
“I wish it did.” Now he looked at her, not straight on; not smiling. The bruises on his face were greening slightly, healing faster than the scratches on her hands. “You can give it back to me now.”
A slow beat that was not surprise went through her, soundless as space. Her sister’s shoulders lifted and dropped very slightly, without raising her head. Delia whispered, “You godforsaken coward.”
His mouth cracked a little; none of them had the strength to shout. “Whatever you think of me, don’t imagine it can hurt more than anything else you’ve done. If I’m a cut-rate Charon, you’re not much of an Orpheus. What do you even want from her? From this place? I know what you want from me, that’s been plain enough, but I don’t think you’ve a very clear idea of the rest. Leave her alone, for God’s pity, let her go. Let me go,” and she could hear the next sentence as coolly as a nightmare, the voice of her anger that sounded like spiteful Ari, despising her for even having thought to try, Go back to your dead who want you. Rustling around her like a wind of broken leaves, half-remembered deaths banging against her moth-light, all but the one she wanted. Interrupting it, she heard her own voice slapping back from the glare-lit cement as flatly as a blow: too harsh for her scoured throat and she had stopped noticing.
“Go, then—I really don’t care anymore. You wanted to come along on this road trip, I didn’t stop you, but you are not helping and you are not going to make me lie to her, do you understand?” As if Ari were the child between them, their sotto voce and her silence the fiction that if nobody yelled, nothing they said could wake her; she knew those nights, years of them, and still her voice scratched on, cutting at Evelyn with everything she had known not to say: as if there were only one way to speak in this house and everything she had ever said in it wrong. “Go back north, if you don’t want to be here. Go back to your marshes. Watch the sun come up. Do whatever dead hermits do, read your classics and pretend you never died. At least you can.”
Very tightly, the dead man said, “You know it doesn’t work that way.”
“How does it work, then? How does it actually work? You walk out that door and go to hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry enough to stop you? Save you?”
“Jesus God!” His voice snapped upward so breathlessly, it would have been laughter if she had not seen his face. One hand made a helpless, half-finished gesture; abandoned it like words. “Save me? Is that what you think you can do? What are you playing at? Queen of the ghosts—Hekate watching the ways, Earth-shaking all-important Ari Tabor—”
Both of them stopped, as suddenly as if the air had been pulled from the room: Delia gathering one last breath like a mouthful of salts, Evelyn’s face as white and stiff as bone. Ari was staring at her, fingers curled into rotting fabric like a cat crouching to spring, so deeply driven that the soft gray threads were starting to fray. Her eyes were so wide, she looked like a child at a magic show, and Delia could already see them narrowed with condescension, the magician’s hands caught mid-pass, the mirrors picked out from the smoke. Two steps behind her, the oar lay on the desk’s old unfinished surface—dust-filmed, scarred with ballpoint doodles and cigarette burns—within easy reach of a dart and grab, and if it could have split her down to Hades in that instant, nameless, voiceless, memoryless as every shade, she would have seized it without a second thought. It had no virtue over the living. She had failed to be dead for twenty years.
“Oh, Dee.” Her sister’s voice was so soft, she thought for a moment some other ghost must have slid up through the crack of her wish, coiling around her in the night to comfort them both. “You never did leave, did you?”
She had been crying the last time she left Providence, staring out the train window through a hot, splintery blur that made even the sea, running alongside the tracks in its course of pebble-dash beaches and bridges, loom like a reproach: as vast as death and even less known to her. Ari only ten years her junior then, her phantom’s t-shirt that must have gone to Goodwill long ago looking newer than Delia’s much-washed, mail-ordered Black Dice, whispered in a voice like acetylene, It’s like the song, Dee. You don’t know what it’s like. You never know what it’s like, the refrain of their last living year together. Then her face had crumpled and her arms caught Delia like freezing water around the waist and Delia had had to push her away before she screamed, brought down the Brown students whose green-dank marijuana smells, seeping down through the floorboards, had told her they were home. I will come back, Ari, I swear to God—I swear to you, I will come back.
You’re always coming back.
She did not think she was crying; she heard the rusty sound of her voice as if it belonged to someone else, who had more reason and occasion to speak.
“Probably not.” She could say it if she did not look directly at Ari, but focusing on her sister’s hands meant seeing the death in them, so that Delia’s fingers went unthinkingly to scars she had never worn, the clean lines of her own wrists, pink-grazed only where Evelyn had fought her. He was the shadow in her peripheral vision, climbing to his feet with one hand on the wall for support; better not to see him, either. Her mouth hitched a half-smile, folding over itself like paper. She was not sure who she was apologizing to. “I really goddamn tried.”
Something moved in front of her and she closed her eyes at last, knowing it would be Evelyn and for once she could not reproach him. It seemed to take much longer to open them, to understand in pieces that she was smelling patchouli and cloves instead of salt meadow and books; that Evelyn had never worn a hand-strung necklace with a knot of white-ringed glass at its center, black-pupiled blue as a Phoenician eye; that he had never been an inch shorter than Delia, so that she saw the amulet tremble in the hollow of his throat with his heartbeat, as if warning her off. She had wondered, in those first raw months of autumn, if Ari had been trying to keep off something she had seen in dreams or reflections—the hovering shadow of pennies on her eyes, the tugging attention of the dead who swarmed in at the least chink of notice. Maybe she had only liked the look of it, like the ankh she had dug blackwork into her shoulder the summer before they started eighth grade; Delia would not push her sleeve back to see if it was still there, though she could have done it just by putting up her hand. The air between them was close as cast iron, cooling like blood in an empty room.
Not easily and not diffidently, because she would never have the chance again, Delia said, “You ran from me first.”
Ari’s shoulder lifted in her old, slight shrug: an adolescent’s indifference to interpretation.
“It wasn’t you I was running from.”
When she picked up the oar this time, she could feel the world spring into edges around her, as sharply incised as black-figure pottery. Fractures, fissures, the stitches that could be picked open, the wounds that would not close: noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis. Ari stood where Delia had left her, enigmatic as a figure in a frieze, while Evelyn watched from the couch-back, at a sideways lean to avoid the water pipes, arms folded and nothing on his face she could read. Chain-smoking over a windowbox of geraniums like somebody’s grandmother, more trouble to find than the dead man she had given directions to—a neighborhood full of apartment blocks overlooking Italian restaurants, their smoky-red bricks older than at least one war—Aronowicz had only been truthful with her, not even oracle-slant. He’s odd about it, but he understands the arrangement. Without malice, her dry husky voice excluding neither of them, That’s the best you can say of most of us in this line . . . The smell of wet smoke was coastal, shifting about Delia’s face as if a wind were changing, night-fires smoldering on a sea-wrack shore. She had had her fingers in death’s door since she was fourteen.
She drew breath, held it until the tide-roar in her ears was louder than the sound of footsteps, trudging sand to stone to soil that had never felt a keel. The other thing had been harder to say.
“Go on, Aurelia Margrete Tabor. Go if you’re going. Go gently.”
She handed the oar to her sister and watched the world go out.
• • • •
“Delia,” the dead man said for the third or fourth time. He still sounded suspicious.
In the late breeze off the water, his hair ruffled back like a soft wing over his forehead, and Delia knew the wild thing’s look he would once have had, gazing out across the darkening sea. Much to her surprise, he had taken the passenger seat without asking, dragged the shoulder belt under one arm and settled himself against the door while Peter Bellamy sang them down Route 138 and the toll roads of Conanicut by way of Kipling’s India; he drummed impatient fingers on the dashboard and flicked among pages as though irritated by some passage that had escaped him, but he said nothing about her music, even “Gentlemen-Rankers” or “Follow Me ’Ome,” until Delia was idling on Webster Street, trying to find somewhere among students and tourists to stash the car, and she remembered O leave the dead be’ind us, for they cannot come away just as Evelyn snapped the Baedeker’s Roman-red covers shut. An’ you must pack your ’aversack, for we won’t come back no more . . . He was out of the car almost before she had finished parking, a stiff, heron-stalking stride with the wind billowing his jacket; the mansion-museums of Newport’s Gilded Age stood like sundials along the shore, Louis Treize terraces and slate-tiled widow’s walks repeating later than you think, and she let Evelyn lead her among them without so much as a Eurydike-look backward. Halfway down the Forty Steps, he retreated abruptly when he saw a couple backed against the stonework, hands in each other’s hair; after that he followed Delia until she settled them both above the broken granite of the breakwater, cliff-shadow at their backs, the water under its antique patina of sunlight curling all shades from glass-gray to the acid blue of copper salts. The sea seemed to calm him, or at least he had left the Baedeker on the front seat. He was still crying a little, reflexively; he made room for her on the wall, wiped at his eyes as if they annoyed him, and would not take any more Kleenex from her.
“Delia and Aurelia. People do that if you’re twins. Our mother was supposed to have picked one, our father the other, I don’t know which. We were Ari and Dee as soon as we figured it out. Mostly. She was Ari. I was still Delia, sometimes. Until I wasn’t.”
“And no one noticed?”
“Everyone noticed. We weren’t that kind of twin. I was the one forgetting to return obscure folk records to the Athenaeum and frying calamari over a Bunsen burner for extra credit in Bio. She cut her hair with a straight razor and dyed it black the night she heard Kurt Cobain had died.” She would have expected the words to be easier, now, but not when she had never said them aloud; she had to take the same deep, diver’s cold-plunging breath before she could say, “Not six months later, she used the same blade to open her wrists. I don’t think it meant anything. It was just the sharpest knife she owned,” and then out again afterward, quickly, as if Ari’s ghost were still at her shoulder, ready to correct her. The next wave was coming in to the seawall, fretting a lace-edge against the slabs, black-tilted under a bronze rust of weed. Because it had never been the most important distinction between them, invisible anyway to the boys who jeered, the girls who turned ostentatiously away: “I was the one with girlfriends.”
The surf below their feet was white as holystone, flowering out of deep glass on the rocks. Evelyn said nothing, hunched forward with his hands clasped between his knees, so that Delia looked for the oar resting across them before she remembered: the last thought before sleep come back the next morning, more distant than the night’s dreams. She could not tell if he was listening; if it hurt more or less to tell him these things, if she owed them to him, why her voice was not breaking, unless it had long ago. “I don’t know why the couch,” she added, as the wave drew back. “The last piece of the house left over, I guess. I found her in the bathtub,” as scarlet as a special effect, streaking the white enamel and spattered on the tiles as if Ari had tried to grip the tub’s sides with unstrung fingers, the razor lost or relinquished for use of the next suicide. “I didn’t want to shower in that fucking room for months. I kept thinking I’d see her in the steam, one of those wandering, white-eyed ghosts that condense and draw useless, mirror-written messages on the walls with wet fingers even when the water isn’t on . . .” She could smile a little, thinking of the fair-haired codemaker and Ari the next morning, looking up from her ghost’s mercurial hands with a sudden, starving hope in her face, more terrible than any way Delia had dreamed her; it was easy, with her mouth already wried with salt. “It wasn’t like that at all.”
Evelyn’s voice was its thinnest and most remote, a seabird’s far cry. “And you couldn’t send her on.”
Delia said shortly, “No.”
He had kept so carefully away from her since the marshes, she almost shook free and elbowed him across the jaw before she realized the sudden hard grip on her forearm was meant for comfort. His death jangled through her, a choking blank terror as shapeless as whatever scars it had left on him: She clawed in it for a moment, a blood-black thunder drowning the warm twilight, the mortared stones and the waves’ gray noise against them, the pressure of a curved thumb and fingers, not living and not immaterial, the first time he had touched her of his own will. He was holding on to her, not taking his eyes off the endless origami folding of the tides. She covered his hand with her own and was terrified, and pressed back once, tightly, hard as a heartbeat, before she let him go.
With equal care, she said, “Elpenor?”
It was not an uncomplicated snort of laughter, but she heard it nonetheless; his mouth turned a corner so slight, she could not be sure whether it was amusement or just another self-regarding wince. “No. Oh, no. I should . . . I should have been so famous. I held on to the side of the boat until it went down, in the dark waters; I held on to the water and then I held on to the dark. My name was heavier than I was. It dragged me down. I let it go.”
Now he looked actively wry. “Not if I can help it.”
He made a vague, harassed motion with his hands; it could have explained anything from a taste for durian candy to a morning-after tattoo. “I poled a boat on the Thames for a while. I liked it.” Too late to change the subject, she wondered if he was about to ask her the same—suddenly hoping that he could not hear, running through her head as for years, and Delia she’s in the graveyard, trying her best to get up—but he was staring down at the water again, like a litter of mussel shells, strings of foam dusk-shadowed to the bloom on a beach plum. His voice was low enough for a mumble, his accent crystal-crisp. “She’ll have better charge of it than ever I did.”
Back on the dry ground of Ochre Court, she had left the Crown Vic beside a candy-red Honda with Salve Regina stickers and a decal for Miskatonic University, walked after Evelyn with the murmur of the seaside dead growing in her ears like the rush and drawl of ocean: the drowned fisherman tangled in his lines, copper-slick kelp splayed from his mouth like a scream; the hotelier’s daughter whose crinolines had billowed around her like a jellyfish’s bell as she sank. The casualties of ’38 in their storm-surge rags, smashed like piers and street signs. The archaeologist loitering on the waking edge of the world with the memory of her latest find, as if when she finally showed it to Delia, the sands she had died among might cover her over at last. After all the ghosts and all the years, she had still imagined something might be different with Ari, but she had left nothing behind, not even Odysseus’ oar, and Evelyn had still been there to watch as Delia staggered up the weather-cracked steps into a bright-branched afternoon she thought had been over hours ago. Stick close to me, she had said incautiously; and now he sat beside her like the hanged man of a sailor’s pack, swinging forever between the world and its waters, the boatman with no crossing. Her with too many, all the rivers and roads the dead could be lost on, the living learn to chart. The house on Ann Street was empty. The door had not closed.
When she looked over at Evelyn in the last gold-leaf light, he was watching the small sickle-wings of terns against the eastern sky, his face oddly tranquil: absorbed in something beside himself. He looked tired and disheveled, still dirty-faced around the edges; she almost reached to spike fingers through her own hair before she remembered it would be fruitless, with the wind picking up for night. As sharply as a physical pain, she wanted a hot shower, water pounding her skin until it ached, a bed to fall into until the sun was well into afternoon again and she could roll over and watch the light moving lazily on walls she could rest within, as unhaunted as she could make herself. She thought of bookshelves, saltgrass, a boat the color of an old lobster buoy.
She said quietly to Evelyn, “Do you want to go home?”
She saw his glasses glint before he answered, settling like running lights at sea; he might have been laughing softly, light-voiced, or only breathing the strong salt air in deep. “I’m not sure that I know where that is right now.”
Without grief or surprise, Delia said, “Me neither.”
The wind was in her hair like a hand, the tousling caress of trade and loss and fortune; she raised her face to it, looking for nothing especially, and saw the first star over the sea.
Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!
Spread the word!Tweet