Emily always knew that her second cousin, Paul Williams, could die from Africa. Snakes susurrated along the rafters of his house. Malarial mosquitoes brandished dread proboscises; alligators opened their mechanical mouths. And—the prayer letters reminded them—disease was everywhere. In the Kuluva hospital, Paul’s father, David, plucked bullets from soldiers. He helped the lepers, who had fleshy paddles for hands. And then the Williams’ letters started describing AIDS—Africa’s newest epithet for death. There were pictures. The patients’ teeth glinted, whole and grinsome, but they weren’t smiling. It was just the way their skin had tightened on their skulls. In Emily’s family prayers, Be with DaveanPaulanEliza in Uganda always came after Be with grandma and GreatUncleFrank, the way the letter elimeno always came after k but before p in the alphabet. Emily knew that Paul was her adopted cousin and she also knew that she wasn’t supposed to call him adopted cousin Paul in her prayers or anywhere else. God and everyone else including Paul knew that Paul was adopted; it was rude to say it out loud.
Emily had noticed that Paul Williams never smiled in the prayer letter pictures. He squinted his eyes into the black yin of a yin-yang and shrugged under his dad’s hand. Emily would stare at those photos. She imagined the Uganda blue sky, all stretched out like the prayer book’s last now and forever, amen, and she wondered what sort of life Paul lived under it. Did Paul ever have a Christmas tree? Even if he did, Emily figured it was probably nothing more than a languished stick poked in the ground. She wondered if he had Velcro on his sneakers, if he’d read his way across the grand landscapes of The Lord of the Rings. Had he ever tested the shape of fuck, pushing it out on his tongue like hardened chewing gum? And did he know that Emily’s grandmother, his Great-Aunt Thelma, had cancer—that her skin was yellow and lacey-brittle?
The one thing she did know—as surely as she knew that Jesus loved her—was that Paul Williams could die any day. But before her grandma got sick, she didn’t actually know what that was like. To have the thought of death keeping time with hours—routine as orange juice for breakfast and reading before bed.
And before that same summer, Paul was only a Kodak frown, a name printed on mimeographed paper. Then—all of a sudden, when she was eleven years old—he crossed the huge and lonesome oceans. And he came to her.
Emily met Paul for the first time at a wedding—whose wedding, she didn’t really know; the bride was a grownup among other grownups, someone who once went to their church among all the other people who used to go to their church.
Emily and her parents walked into the church’s narthex. Her eyes were adjusting from the June sun to church-darkness; everything was a computer-screen ectoplasmic green. She didn’t immediately see DaveanPaulanEiza where they were waiting by the door.
“David!” Emily’s mother cried, and gave her cousin a hug. David’s cheeks were wan above his Abraham Lincoln beard. Eliza was pretty—copper-colored skin and hair.
“It’s so wonderful to see all of you—after so long!” Eliza said. Paul stood a little apart, shuffling through a pile of tracts—What Happens When We Die?—on the welcome table. His eyebrows marked his face like two black dashes on a clean page. His hair looked like it was cut with his brows as a level, black bangs going straight across his forehead. The grownups hugged and chattered. Paul and Emily stared at each other, not quite sure how to act in the presence of these excitable adults. Emily didn’t like Paul’s arch, sarcastic gaze. Eliza crouched down so that her face—full and blameless as a peony—was right in front of Emily’s.
“Hi, Emily!” she exclaimed. “You’ve gotten so big! And so pretty!”
“Hi, Eliza,” Emily said. And she and Paul stood there, silent and awkward as luggage, waiting for the grownups to take them away.
When it came to making Emily kooky with boredom, wedding receptions were maybe even worse than going clothes shopping at Strawbridge’s. Emily was an only child and for as long as she could remember, adult conversation had lapped over her ears in dull, slurping waves. Hours and hours of talk about the question of Russia, the new Reformed Episcopal bishop, the usefulness of one handful of nutritional yeast per day, the unrest in China. She’d learned to settle beneath it with the disinterest of an underwater creature, floating in her murky thoughts.
After the wedding, Paul and Emily sat together in the church’s basement gym. Flounces of crepe-paper flowers sagged from the walls. Paul was wearing black jeans and a white shirt; the collar made his neck break out in red itchy-looking swaths. The adults were busy with cake and sparkling cider. This left the two kids alone, sitting impolitely, elbows dimpling the plastic tablecloths. Paul etched fingernail divots in his Styrofoam cup; the squeak irked Emily. She looked at him and noticed how his lips were chapped, flaking off moth-wing skin tatters. His hair shagged down past his ears, iridescent as a crow. Emily remembered Great Uncle Frank, David’s father, saying once, “The adoption papers said that Paul’s father was an I-talian, but to look at the kid, it’s almost like he’s got a bit of Spanish in him. I wouldn’t be surprised if that man ran right back for the border after he went and did what he did to that poor girl.” Emily looked at Paul’s tawny skin: what secret was there, hidden in his pigments?
“Why are you staring at me?” Paul asked. She noticed that his accent was lilting, different—not quite a British accent, but not American, either.
“Because that noise you’re making with the cup is really annoying. I wish you would stop it.” Paul glowered at the cup and itched at his neck, raking up a briar of hives.
“I was just bored,” he said. “Sorry.” His sorry plunked heavy and flat, sarcastic. “I hate getting dressed up,” he added. Emily felt her stockings sloughing down; her barrettes, metallic and toothy, clamped against her scalp. She wished she was wearing cut-off jean shorts, wearing shoes that didn’t interrogate her toes.
“Yeah. Me too. Do you have to get dressed up like this there— back in Africa?”
“No. We never have to get dressed up at home.”
“Not even for church?” Emily asked. She was allowed to wear thrift-shop mélanges to school: polyester shirts and flamboyant sequined pants. But when her family went to church, she always got stuffed into eyelet or taffeta, her feet trapped in the patent leather jaws of Mary Janes.
“No. No way. We go to an African church, and it would be rude to get dressed up.”
“My parents say it’s rude not to get dressed up for church. They say it’s to show respect to God, but I think it’s really because of all the old people here.”
“Well, God in Kuluva doesn’t care what people wear to church,” Paul said, a smirk trembling around his mouth. “Maybe there’s more than one God. One there, and a different one here.”
“Don’t say that. There’s only one God. Your parents are missionaries—you should know that.”
Paul murmured, under his breath, “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”
“Oh! Do you like The Lord of the Rings?”
“Yeah. Of course—it’s awesome.” This was the first time she saw Paul lifting out of himself. Once his glowering brows cleared out room, his eyes weren’t actually black. They were brown and bright from the inside. Like sunlight shining through a jar of honey.
“So… who’s your favorite character?” Emily asked.
“Aragorn,” Paul said. “If I could be anyone, I’d be him. He keeps his thoughts to himself. No-one can tell him what to do—well, they can, but only if he respects their council. And he’s really brave, and he’s not fooled by appearances. Plus, he isn’t always nice. He doesn’t act polite just to make other people approve of him.” Emily realized that Paul was talking about Aragon but he was also describing himself—or at least, his grown-up self. Emily had thought a lot about her grownup self, too. That self was coiled inside her, already imprinted like a filmstrip, waiting to be run through light. Wherever she went, she carried its spectral form. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to be—in the sense that adults asked the question—but she did know that she wanted to be intense. Wind-swirled shrouds; defiant, obsidian eyes; a boot-clomping, warrioress gait.
“What about you? Who’s your favorite?” Paul asked.
“Eowyn. Definitely. Did you know that’s what my parents wanted to name me?”
“Why would I know that? I don’t really know you guys at all. I’ve been in Uganda my whole life, remember?”
“Uhm, yeah. I kinda knew that.”
Paul rolled his eyes and continued. “But too bad they didn’t name you that. It’s a pretty awesome name. Except if people called you Winnie, which would suck.” He laughed, and his eyes splashed briefly across Emily’s.
“I know,” Emily said. “And people would always ask, ‘Like Winnie the Pooh’? And kids would make fun of it a lot, and call me ‘Pooh-Pooh.’ Because they’re stupid jerks who never read anything that they don’t have to read for school.”
“Yeah. I mean, I have some friends in Kuluva. But they’re, like, a different kind of friend. They’re mostly boys who are from there. We just explore around and climb trees and go swimming. They wouldn’t know who Eowyn is, either.”
Emily didn’t say anything about the friends that she didn’t have, because her loneliness felt like a contagious grossness—ringworm, lice. Sometimes, to avoid going to the cafeteria for lunch, she’d volunteer to collect the science supplies at the end of class. Then she’d close herself into the storage closet and eat lunch among the microscopes and jars of leering, gape-mouthed fetal pigs.
“Do you want to explore around the church?” she asked. “It’s better than just sitting here.” Emily wasn’t certain she wanted to run around with Paul. But she knew that if she was at church and in one place for too long, the old folks would start circling with their doddering ministrations and gifts of sour pennies. Every Sunday at church, the psalms were wheezed in a geriatric warble. Every coffee hour found Emily telling the old folks, yet again, what grade she was in—when she wasn’t reminding them of her name.
Before Emily’s grandmother got sick, all those Nances and Ethels used to come over to make seasonal decorations for the sanctuary, their creaky scissors hee-hawing through cardboard. Emily’s grandmother had presided over these sessions—quelling the hiss of gossip, inquiring about thyroids—while Emily counted out doilies and listened to bovine sighs. Now Emily’s grandmother was vague and whispery from her last round of chemo; she hadn’t even seen Paul and his parents yet. But, upon Paul’s arrival at the wedding, her grandmother’s friends attacked him with linty caramels and wrapper-plastic melted mints. They rubbed his face between desiccated fingers like he was Superfresh produce that they had a coupon for.
“Yeah, sure,” Paul said. “It’s pretty boring just sitting here.”
Emily had spent plenty of church supper afternoons floating like a person with no name and no face—like the terrible, whooping wife of Mr. Rochester—through the decayed rooms of the church. She was lonely, pickling in the weird juices of her inner world. Ever since she was little, the lexicon of her games had been perplexing to other kids, as theirs was to her. She’d say, “Now you be Elrond and I’ll be Frodo”; the other kids would say, “Now you be Scoobie Doo and I’ll be Shaggy.” Other kids’ landscapes were flashing color-chunks and zigzagged pows; Emily’s was spindly towers, star-strung elven song.
Emily led Paul through the church’s upper corridors where plastic over windows heaved like lungs. At the end of the hall, they creaked their way into the eeriest room of all. This room used to be the church’s nursery. It was lined with plywood shelves stacked like bunk beds; each bunk bed cubby had metal creaking pull-down bars.
As Paul climbed onto one shelf and Emily climbed up next to him he said, “This is like the kind of place that Idi Amin would’ve kept prisoners.”
“Who’s Idi Amin?”
“He was in charge of Uganda, until—maybe—six years before we got there. He was evil, the worst kind of evil—like Sauron—or, I don’t know, worse. When we first went to Uganda, bones and skulls and stuff were still coming out of the ground. Every time someone tried to dig a cistern, they’d find bones—and—it could’ve even been that person’s wife, or their father. Everybody was related to someone Idi Amin killed.”
“That sounds really scary.”
“It was, sometimes. I remember when I was little, I thought those bones would come right out, like the Barrow-wights, and come after me. And people told these stories about him, that were really bad. Like, he chopped up his own wife. And he ate people—ate their brains.” Emily glanced at Paul, memorizing him in blips and snippets. He had a tiny brown mole on his earlobe and his front teeth splayed a little so that when he was thinking, the pink tip of his tongue peeked through the tiny crack. Emily thought about all those bodies in Uganda, crammed into the ground like food into a gluttonous mouth. But she stopped noticing her own body, the gathered lace of her dress clamping around her upper arms. For the first time in months, she was also not thinking about her grandmother—how her voice was quelled to a cicada’s rasp; how her arms were blotted with bruises from the chemo.
“My parents always shush people who talk about those stories in front of me,” Paul continued. “But the grownups tell their kids, and the kids are my friends, so they tell me anyway.” Emily thought of one of her grandmother’s sayings—Little pitchers have big ears. When she was younger, she’d always misheard it and imagined big elephant ears draping from the family photos.
Paul paused for a moment and Emily could see his thoughts condensing. “David and Eliza are good people, but sometimes they really get on my nerves. I mean, they’re the ones that dragged me all the way to Africa. So it’s kind of stupid that they’re worried about keeping me safe all the time.”
“Do you really call them David and Eliza?”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “Well, not to their faces, most of the time. But I should be allowed to.”
Emily had always known—in the same way she knew that her grandmother would make a coffee cake every Saturday morning—that Paul was adopted. There was a picture in the family photo album of Emily sitting propped up next to Paul on the couch. He was a little roly-poly looking thing in his big white diaper and Emily’s parents always said, “This is you, and your cousin Paul Williams, after David and Eliza adopted him.” Emily knew, from the kids at school, that a bastard is a child without a father, but she would never have called Paul that. Paul was an orphan—the word redolent with prophecies, with royalty fallen on hard times.
“Because I’m adopted. I’m sure you know that. It’s not like David and Eliza keep it a secret or anything. I’ve always known about it, for as long as I can remember. At least that’s one thing that David and Eliza didn’t try to protect me from.”
“Yeah. I know that. I’ve know about it, well… as long as I can remember. Ever since I’ve known you. But I haven’t ever really known you, not like I do now. Ever since I’ve known about you, I guess.”
“So, yeah. My mom was, like, really messed up.” Paul picked at the plywood above them and Eliza thought, worried, of the soft flesh under his fingernail.
“Did David and Eliza tell you very much about her? What was she—what was she like?” Emily knew that a woman could—could, but emphatically shouldn’t—have a baby without being married. When she turned ten, her mom sat her down with an illustrated book of bisected men and women, pointing at splotchy inside colors, at things that looked like tentacled aliens and snails coiled into shells. But Emily knew about more than bulby ovaries and squiggly, determined sperm. At school, she overheard the other girls’ surreptitious secrets, read notes over shoulders. She knew they’d clamped their lips to the lips of boys; she knew about tongues gliding out. There was more, too—nuzzled musclings and down-reachings, and even, once, He took out his thing and I was like, “Oh my God.”
Paul said, “I don’t know too much about my birth mother. I mean, I could if I wanted to. I could know everything that David and Eliza know, at least. I’m just not sure if I really want to. She was only sixteen when she had me. I don’t know anything about my father and I don’t think my mom and dad—David and Eliza—know that much, either. He was older than her. He split really quick. I’m not sure if he even knows about me.” She remembered what Great Uncle Frank said about Paul’s father being maybe-Spanish and she imagined a swarthy man leaping on an ocean liner as it pulled away from the dock. He was forced to flee back to his wealthy family in Spain—perhaps with a bounty on his head—for a crime he didn’t commit.
“What was her name?” Emily asked.
“Carolyn. Carolyn Costa.”
“Where was she from?”
“Well… my parents adopted me in Delaware, but I think she might’ve been from New York City. Which is pretty cool. I’d like to go to New York someday.”
“Do you want to find her? Like, when you’re older?” Emily thought of quests and of questing with Paul. She imagined jimmying open stolid filing cabinets; spilling age-spiced papers out of manila folders; hunching under desks, her knees rubbing against Paul’s.
“I’m not sure. It would be an awesome adventure. But, right now, I just feel like my mom is my mom and my dad is my dad. I kinda don’t want that to change. Also, I don’t really know how I feel about her.”
“Are you mad at her? For putting you up for adoption?”
“Sort of. A little. But mostly I’m just glad that she decided to keep me. You know?” Emily started to say, “But she didn’t keep you!” but then she remembered. She’d overheard the word in one of her parents’ political discussions, and looked up the definition: “1. Induced termination of pregnancy.” Later, Sam McQueen was circulating a picture of an aborted fetus around her classroom and telling kids that they were abortions. The picture reminded Emily of her finger-wiggly baby hamsters when they’d gottn all gnawed up and bloody.
“Yeah…” Emily said. She didn’t know if she could say “I’m glad she decided to keep you, too.” She felt that way but it seemed like a silly thing to say.
“So,” Paul said, his forehead accordioning with thought, “I guess you and I aren’t real cousins, huh?”
“Yeah. Not that we would be, even if you weren’t adopted. You know, we’re second cousins, because your dad’s my mom’s cousin. David’s my mom’s cousin.”
“Wow. It’s so weird that we’re not blood relatives,” Paul said. “It seems like we’re so much alike.”
Trying to slouch her speech like his, Emily said, “Yeah. I know what you mean. It’s like, I know I just met you not so long ago, and everything, but I just feel like we…”
“I know,” Paul said. And he raised his eyes, and Emily raised hers, and Paul’s eyes plunged on in—deep—like a sword piercing her very heart.
Emily didn’t know much about her grandmother’s childhood in The Brickyard. When Emily’s great-grandmother died, her grandma quit school. She scrubbed Great Uncle Frank’s ears in the sour water of backyard tubs, boiled cabbage in big vats to feed them all. Their father was working—and drinking—at the bar all the time. When Emily’s grandmother needed to pay for milk or ice, she’d filch pennies from the tip jar, dodging the meat-heavy swat of her father’s palms. Great Uncle Frank had gone on, after the War, to study at the University of Pennsylvania while Emily’s grandmother’s writing and “figuring” were spidery and tentative. All of Emily’s great aunts and uncles venerated Saint Thelma—she, bane of rats’ nests. She who blessed them with valiant hair combings. She who granted unto them scrapple every Saturday morning (and, yea, though it looked like gray carpeting, it was eternally soft and warm in the middle). She who opened the way unto them, out of The Brickyard and into tasseled mortarboards and doctor sons.
Even before Emily’s grandmother got sick, there was always a little sadness to her—sadness tucked into the crinkle of her smile, sadness rattling with shrimp shells at Great Uncle Frank’s New Year’s parties. It might have had something to do with Emily’s grandfather dying right after Emily was born. When the North Philadelphia steel mill he’d worked for all his life shut down—shutting his pension down with it—he died, literally, of a broken heart. Or maybe it had to do with Sarah, Emily’s in-heaven aunt, who died in infancy. There was only one photo of Sarah, its grainy black and white somehow dreamy—misted—like a vision seen in Galadriel’s pool. Whenever Emily asked her grandma about Sarah, her grandma said Curiosity killed the cat. That made Emily think of the cat she’d found, run over by a car. Flies jemmed its carcass, and its tail ticked up and down; her father had dropped a rock on its head, To put it out of its misery.
But sadness mostly showed itself as gentleness in Emily’s quiet grandmother—walking in the morning garden, plucking lilies of the valley from their v of leaves. Emily always loved climbing the steps to grandma’s third-floor apartment where shears chomped through fabric and the sewing machine tisk-tisked. It was a warm little nest, padded with fabric-scraps and half-done crossword puzzles. The dinner-simmer of her roasts steamed up winter windows, and she watched Wheel… of… Fortune! every night. In Emily’s part of the house, the floors were bare wood, toe-stinging in winter, and the furniture was stiff and Victorian. But her grandmother’s apartment was done in red wall-to-wall red carpeting, so thick Emily could dig her toes into it, imagining she was a happy Hobbit. Emily was allowed wear anything she wanted from her grandma’s jewelry box, that vault of Cleopatra. She spent hours trying on moonstone broaches, clip-on earrings that shone like yellow owl’s eyes. Instead of praying before dinner, her grandmother lead them in murmured singing—Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise Him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Emily never would have imagined, in those days, that cancer would wither her grandmother’s female parts. There was no way Emily could have foreseen its spread—dark vines entwining in her grandma’s stomach, her very bones. Sometimes, she thought that her grandma got sick because of something bad Emily had done—her blasphemy or curiosity. Once, in her room, she sang Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shiiiiiit… shiiiiit… shiiiiit in her head to the tune of the Doxology. She also—once, when no-one was at home—eased her parents’ Joy of Sex book off the shelf and stared at the spidery pen-and-ink pubes, the sinuous, perplexing arrangements of bodies.
But those were the dark, unspoken lumps inside Emily’s head. She wouldn’t even tell Paul about them, although—as the summer passed—their conversations started to create a small and separate world. It was the beneath-world of kids, a secret, under-briared burrow. They both claimed to be too old for Narnia, preferring Middle Earth, but Emily still appreciated the idea of the wardrobe door, of hiding away from the adults’ blundering world of mailing labels and nylons. When Emily talked to Paul, they drifted off to a somewhere else, where shadows sliced and seas roiled emerald and sweet. And she had a sense of deepening into herself, loosening from her bones, till there was only the incorporeal vapor of their words. Then, in a moment, Emily crested up, and realized—her knee was skinned; Paul’s long fingers were dandered with dark hair above the knuckles; there was another body, and here was her own.
All through that summer—when Great Uncle Frank and Emily’s parents and doctor David started discussing malignancies and treatments—Paul and Emily were excused, because little pitchers had big ears. She was glad, at least, to have Paul go with her. They ran wild in summer yards, under the violet August dusk. And they ventured farther out and father down, racing in the corner cul-de-sac, tearing through the neighborhood’s knit of rust and vine. They played languorous Monopoly games, on boards set up for days, till one of them turned silly—addled with boredom—and threw fake dollars around the room like a cartoon spendthrift. They talked their way through summer’s shifting lights. Emily learned that Paul had never kissed a girl; that he once got drunk on an African malt beer; that he’d once cut a small gash in his wrist because he was angry at Eliza. He showed her the scar, a thread of white on his dark wrist; like Mary, Emily treasured up all these things in her heart.
But when Emily and Paul were called back for dessert, Emily’s mom’s eyes were scratched red with tears. Emily’s big eyes took it all in. She saw how the chemo made her grandma resemble a skin-sack hairless cat. She knew that cancer’s termites teamed within that mild, grieved woman. And she was a little pitcher, coated—at her very bottom—with a sediment of dread.
Emily’s parents were taking her grandmother to an important doctor’s appointment; she knew that was why they sent her to the Art Museum with David, Eliza and Paul. But discussing art with Paul distracted Emily from the thought of her mom’s in-gathered mouth-corners, the difficulty her grandma had getting down the stairs. The Art Museum’s air conditioning numbed Emily’s July-prickled skin; the place’s beige silence was oddly comforting. Emily and Paul stood in front of Van Goughs and Picassos and she let her eyes slacken into the chunks of color, feeling pigments mingle with her molecules. Paul looked like he was trying to memorize each painting.
Every time they considered a new piece, Paul asked, “What makes this art? Is it art just because it’s in a museum?”
Emily answered with the quote that she’d read in the epigraph of My Name is Asher Lev: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
“Hmm,” Paul said. “That’s interesting,” and then he didn’t say anything more. Emily was proud that her quote stilled Paul’s questions for a few minutes as he worked it out like long division in his head. While David and Eliza were ahead of them in another gallery, Emily and Paul wandered down a hallway that looked like it might lead to a storage space or electrical closet. There was something exciting about the behind-ness and forgotten-ness of it; it reminded Emily of the Professor’s spare room—the one that opened onto Narnia. The hall ended with a row of rough-hewn planks, similar to a backyard fence. There was a large wormhole in the center of the structure, at an adult’s eye level. Out of the hole shined of beam of pure aquamarine, making Emily think of watery grottos, Caribbean pirate treasure.
“What do you think it is?” she asked Paul, looking up at the blue otherworldly light.
“There’s only one way to find out.” He bent down, lacing his fingers together into a sling for her foot.
“I don’t think you’re strong enough to hold me up.”
“Oh, please. I give boosts to my friends in Kuluva all the time, and some of them are fourteen and fifteen—and boys. There’s no way you could be heavier than they are. Unless you’re scared. Then we can just go find David and Eliza.”
“But what about the guards?” Emily asked in a whisper.
“That old heifer couldn’t huff and puff over here in enough time to catch us. She can’t even see us.”
“Fine. Give me a boost.” She placed her zebra-stripe Converse All-Star into the stirrup Paul made, and steadied herself with a hand on his shoulder. Then she wrapped her fingers around his collarbone, feeling her palm slide into the groove between shoulder and neck muscles. Behind the fence, there was a tiny room. On the ground, a projector pointed its snout toward a wall, filling the room with a submarine light. The picture it projected covered the whole wall, and seemed to be rendered in Technicolor like the movies Emily’s grandma used to love watching. She saw an expanse of sapphire sky, arched with a pastel-colored rainbow. A blue stream flowed crystalline through boulders that were dotted with little pillows of moss. Around the stream, clumps of white beach trees shone like moonbeams. But her heart felt swervey when she noticed that there was the naked lower half of a woman, facing up, on top of one of the rocks. Emily couldn’t see her head and torso, since her upper half was arching backwards over on the rock’s opposite side. Her legs were spread apart at an angle that was completely wrong, like a cracked wishbone, and blood smeared her upper thighs. The picture—Emily couldn’t think of it as a photo, and perhaps it wasn’t—was taken exactly at the level of her wrenched legs, with a clear view between them. Emily knew what she was seeing but she didn’t want to know. There was a ruff of hair edging crease after crease of pink flesh. Because of the way the woman’s legs were thrust apart, it was all stretched-out and gasping. That thing between her legs looked gutted and empty, dumb with death.
“Put me down,” Emily whispered to Paul.
“What did you see?” He asked.
“It’s… I don’t like it. I dunno. It’s not good.”
“Well, I want to see it then!”
“No—really, Paul. It’s so gross.” Thinking of him seeing between the woman’s legs made Emily feel exposed, as if her legs were shoved open there. But she also wanted Paul to know what she knew, wanted this dark to run electric between them. A static buzzed up where her own legs met.
“Listen,” Paul said. “Back home in Uganda I’ve seen pretty much every bad thing imaginable. Remember what I told you about the Numbazis?” A few days before, Paul had told Emily about his parents’ good friends, the Numbazis, a young couple from their church, who died of AIDS while living in the Williams’ home. As he was talking, Emily had thought of the sad, boney bird that flew into her house once, through the chimney, and couldn’t get out. Its little wind-up toy heart ticked and ticked until it just stopped.
“Emily, I’ve seen people die of the worst disease there is. They coughed up blood and had accidents all the time, right in my own family’s beds. I’m sure that whatever’s behind that fence is no big deal. Now lift me up. It’s only fair.”
“OK. You’re right.” The muscles in Emily’s arms quivered with his weight but she refused to show Paul—the tree-climber, the African river-swimmer—that she was a weakling. He looked for a moment and she felt the weight of him, the weight of his looking. She thought that maybe—in that improbable Uganda, which she’d come to think of as the landscape of intensity—Paul had actually seen the inside of a dead woman, just like this. She imagined him seeing it by the side of a dusty road—those gaped legs, that mute, oh-ing plea.
He muttered, “Let me down, please. I don’t like that at all.”
Later, in the car on the way home, Eliza said, brightly, “You two are unusually quiet. Cat got your tongues, chatter-bugs?’
Emily imagined two little pot-bellied pitchers, eyes the size of silver dollars, mouths sutured shut.
By the middle of August, the cancer had seeped its oil-slicks all through Emily’s grandma’s body. Her skin seemed to have lost interest in her frame, slackening away into the sheets. In the middle of the night, she called out for Bernard, Emily’s long-dead grandfather. The moans drifted down to where Emily slept, one floor below, and fell into her dreams like snow. Sometimes Emily’s grandma recognized Emily when Emily went upstairs to see her but other times she murmured strange names—Ethel, Dottie—names that reminded Emily of doilies, gingham. She knew some of the names and her mother explained some of the others—her grandmother’s long-gone aunts and mother, her one dead sister. Sometimes, Emily’s grandma called Emily Sarah, the name of the child who hadn’t lived. Emily felt these women, the press of all their deaths, when she sat in her grandmother’s bedroom and held her hand. They seemed to be everywhere. The wood grain in the floors etched their profiles and her grandmother’s flower-sprigged wallpaper was every dress they ever wore.
One afternoon, Emily’s father rushed into her room without knocking, and she knew something terrible was happening. The August air was fuggy as the inside of someone’s mouth, and she’d been lying on her bed all afternoon listening to a cassette of Paul Simon’s Graceland album: His path was marked/ By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere/ And he walked his days/ Under African skies. Emily had her eyes closed, imagining African skies swollen and diamonded with a dizzying intensity.
“Emily! Get your shoes on right now,” he said. “You’re going to your great uncle’s house.” His disorderly hair zinged out; he had been napping after working the night shift.
“There isn’t time for questions. We’ve got to move quickly. Let’s go!”
When she was in the car, thighs tingling hot against the plastic seat, Emily asked, “What’s going on?”
“Your grandmother has a high fever. We’ve called an ambulance, but we don’t know…” She could hear tears roughing her dad’s voice. He cleared his throat. “The hospital will be able to get her fever down. She’ll be OK.” The shunting rhythm of a prayer ran through Emily’s head—Please no, please no, please no. The prefabricated phrases—asking for God’s blessing or healing hand upon her grandma—were blocked from her brain, and even the three-beat of Please God no couldn’t keep time with her desperate heart. She thought, for a moment, of Jesus’ bright hem passing by her grandmother—causal, busy—sure, fine—and of her grandma reaching out to pinch it, snatching at a tiny stitch of health.
“How do you know that she’ll be OK?” Emily asked, slumping against the car door. She thought of how empty her grandmother’s apartment felt, even when she was there, in her hospital bed. Just that morning, while her grandma was sleeping, Emily had gone upstairs and sat in her recliner, watching galaxies of dust whirling in the sunlight. She’d thought, This is how it will be, the sparkling meteors of motes going squiggly through her tears. The silence felt like a plaster cast swathed around her head and she’d wished that Paul was coming over.
Emily’s dad reached over, put his hand on her shoulder. “I—I don’t know. I can’t say for sure. But, while we’re waiting, just try to have a nice time with Paul. She won’t—if she’s going to die, we’ll make sure you get to see her first.”
Uncle Frank had also gone to the hospital so Emily ate dinner—creamed corn and hot dogs—with Paul and David and Eliza.
David asked, “You don’t remember your grandfather—you know, your mom’s dad—do you?” When Emily told him no, he said, “I remember, on the day of my sixteenth birthday, he fixed me a liverwurst and rye sandwich, and told me ‘You’re a man now.’ Then he mixed me one of the driest martinis I’ve ever had. It was practically all gin with an olive plopped in. Gosh, I thought I was never going to gag that drink down. But then he fixed me another one, and another…” Paul and Emily looked at each other across the table, and Paul vaulted one silky eyebrow. She knew that meant What my dad’s not saying is that your grandfather got him drunk, and quick gladness hovered around her like summer mosquitoes.
After dinner, Paul and Emily went out to the yard and sat under the tree that they called the fairy tree. By fairy they didn’t mean some ephemeral Tinkerbelle, twittering with an inane ding-a-ling. They meant faerie—a world of spindly towers and creatures glittering dark. The fairy tree was ancient and decaying—warted and whiskered, a crone of a tree. Its hollows were like eye sockets of the bug-bored dead, gauzed with cobwebs. They sat there, silent under its stricken shadow, watching the August sky bruise with dusk, and it was only then that Emily started to cry.
“Do you think she’s going to die?” Paul asked. His bravado was gone and his almost-British accent had a gentle, lifting-up quality. It was his odd niceness that made her sob.
“Yes—I’m sure—I’m sure she will…” Paul was quiet for a moment; they sat close and Emily could feel his small heat. She cried so hard she couldn’t catch her breath and Paul pulled her head onto his shoulder, near his neck. She smelled the twinge of his sweat and could feel his pulse flickering against her ear. She knew the meaning of the quick, splitting flame running down from her abdomen to her legs. But it was different from what she’d overheard in school, those swapped instructions about where to grasp and how to lean in at the right angle. It was different from the way she used to smoosh her Barbie and Ken dolls together when she was younger and different from The Joy of Sex. It felt like a caught breath between them. Or it felt like falling backward into a river, its water filling the crevices, bearing her up. Emily had never been so fully fastened to her body and, at the same time, so fully swept from it.
“Emily. You’ll be OK…” Paul said, and she looked up at his long-lashed brown eyes. “Even if she dies, you’ll be OK. I’ve seen so many people dying—everything I’ve ever seen is people dying. For all I know, even my mom could be dead, or my real dad. Or both. But I’m OK—I’m here, and I’m OK. And you’ll be OK, too.”
Emily felt death roosting in the branches of the fairy tree above them. She thought of the tree’s mealy bark, its stilled sap, its riches mined by ants, plundered by rivulets of maggots. She thought of those tiny, munching mouths, and of her grandmother loosening from her body in a far-off hospital bed.
“Paul,” she said. “I just don’t know… I hate it. And I’m so confused.”
“I know, Emily. I’m here. You’re OK. Don’t be scared. We’ll just stay here together.”
Emily felt Paul’s hands around her face, staving off the tromping, orc-like onslaught of fear. His fingers brushed her cheeks; a furred static trailed behind. He chased down the tears and smudged each off her face with his thumb. His fingers felt white-hot and she wondered how his fingerprints weren’t branded into her skin. Emily leaned toward him, wishing that their bones would mesh together, till death, and after.
And that’s how they were sitting when David and Eliza called, “Paul! Emily! Where are you guys?”
Their voices spiked with sorrow. Their cries were flung like bat radar, out into the thickening dark.
Rachel Toliver is an MFA student in nonfiction at The Ohio State University.