“You had the dream again,” Luke said.
Artie nodded, inspecting her bowl of cereal. She felt cold inside, all the way through, and did not want to eat. She sipped coffee instead, feeling the heat travel all the way from her lips to her stomach and then begin to spread outwards. Soon, perhaps, the warmth would work its way out to her hands, to the tips of her fingers. She held her mug firmly with both hands, cradling heat between her palms. “How did you know?” she said.
“I woke up when you sat up in bed. Then you went into the bathroom and stayed there a long time. I tried to stay awake for you, but I fell asleep again.”
She looked at him and gave him a smile that, though small, had gratitude in it. She had thought briefly of awakening him when she came back to bed, imagining him stirring and putting his arm around her so that she could rest her head in the warm, soft-skinned hollow between his shoulder and his collarbone. In the end, she left him to his sleep and returned to bed in silence, sliding softly between the sheets, legs trembling. She lay there on her side a good part of the night, curled tightly as a nautilus, listening to her husband breathe. His nearness made her feel safe, as did her own familiar silence.
Now, sitting beside her at breakfast, Luke put his hand on her shoulder, rounding his palm over the joint in a slow circle, then stroking his hand down her arm.
She glanced out the window at the back yard; it was bathed in a cold, muted, early-morning luster that reminded her of moonlight. Her half-Greek mother had named her Artemis, after the goddess of the moon, of wild animals, and of the hunt. Artie detested hunting, and never let anyone call her Artemis.
The maple had already lost most of its leaves. It was only October, but winter seemed to be planning an early entrance. Artie suspected it was going to be one of those seasons that made her wish she and Luke lived somewhere other than Chicago. California, perhaps—the northern part, a place of hills and valleys and vineyards.
“Do you ever think of moving?” she asked. “Someplace warm?” He paused in the act of stirring milk into his coffee and looked at her, arching his eyebrows. “At this time of year?” he replied. “Always.”
She touched her fingertips to the back of his hand and pictured the two of them walking in limpid sunlight through an orderly, undulating field, inhaling the scent of warm and ripening grapes, moving slowly between knotted, ancient, crucified vines,
This time, the dream had come before dawn, causing her to come out of sleep gasping and sit up in bed and blink into the darkness, her heart beating like that of a small, frightened animal. Thinking about it now, she could still feel the pain of her bound wrists and ankles, the suffocating rag stuffed in her mouth, the darkness that had simultaneously terrified and embraced her as she lay in the storeroom in her mother’s basement, her tears wetting the cool concrete of the floor.
It wasn’t that she had forgotten what had happened and could only recall it when asleep. The things she saw in her dreams were things she knew, but almost never thought about when awake. Instead— especially when she was at work—she shoved the whole mess away, to the side and underneath. She had been doing this for many years. It took a great deal of energy: at times, all the strength she had. It was exhausting, but it was what kept her from crumbling. If she ever let up, she knew, she would begin to cry and never stop, and her tears would burn like acid, like slaps to the face, and pieces of her would fall away, slowly at first, then faster, until there was nothing left. She knew this not through any process of reasoning, but by instinct as sure as her next breath.
The task of keeping herself in one piece was growing more difficult all the time. She knew she should work on surrendering her fortifications, her battlements of the heart, but considering the possibility was like looking at an unmapped landscape, like the unexplored parts of the earth that old-world cartographers had drawn as a wilderness, rumored to be populated by dragons.
She could almost hear those dragons scrabbling at her door, snorting smoke in their eagerness, exhaling acrid crematory breath.
Artie was director of the Wee Tots Playschool in Evanston. She liked to spend a good part of the day walking around the school, slipping quietly into classrooms, observing for a while, then moving on. Outside, she supervised the children as they scrambled over the jungle gym and used the swings to soar, nearly weightless, toward the sky. Always, she was near, restless and protective.
During one of the “outside times” that day Artie spotted Marta, a square-bodied, blunt-featured four-year-old with lank blond hair that did as it pleased—as did, for the most part, Marta herself. She had come to the school six weeks before, at the beginning of the school year; from the start, Artie had felt drawn to the child’s good-humored candor and independence.
Artie watched a teacher address Marta, evidently laying down the law about something. In mid-lecture Marta spun suddenly away, intent, as usual, on charting her own course. Her windbreaker, which she wore unzipped in spite of the crispness of the day, flapped behind her like a pink flag.
Marta waved to Artie, who waved back. The little girl raced over to Artie, looked up at her, and said, in clear, ringing tones, “I need to go inside and urinate.”
Artie looked down into Maria’s open, uptilted face, then bent toward her, smiling, as she always seemed to do around this child. “Most kids just say they have to go potty,” she said.
Marta burst into an exuberant laugh and threw her arms around Artie. Then, instantly, the child was off, whirling toward the school, solid as a bullet. Artie watched her until she disappeared through the door.
Artie was preoccupied and thoughtful as she and Luke sat quietly together after dinner.
Luke was a sculptor; he worked in clay. With his hands he made people, animals, inanimate objects. Sometimes he sculpted things that only he could see, free-flowing, often fanciful pieces unlike any other clay work Artie had seen. Even his representational work was not always all that representational. At first glance a piece might not seem to look like its subject, but if you looked at it for a moment longer, you could see that, somehow, it was like it. Artie thought it was a matter of essence.
That essence was always present in his work, even in his first sculpture of Artie, a somewhat minimalist bust he had made soon after they were married. With a few simple gestures in clay, Luke had gone beneath the surface and captured her with a depth and understanding that still surprised her. She kept the piece in her office, so she could watch over herself.
Luke taught at the School of the Art Institute, and he began to tell Artie about the morning’s advanced sculpture class, gesturing illustratively from his position on the sofa. One of the students in the class, rather than working on the human figure she was supposed to be making, had instead fashioned a pair of delicate, ornate, pointed clay ears, then affixed her creations to her own ears and danced around the classroom, humming the main theme from Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.”
They both laughed over Luke’s story, a little too hard and a little too long, then trailed off into silence. Artie, who was sitting in an overstuffed chair a few feet from the sofa, took the afghan that always lay across the back of the chair and wrapped it around herself. Her eyes were on the fringe of the afghan, but she could feel Luke looking at her, steady and focused. “Why don’t you come over here?” he said.
Artie rose, bringing the afghan with her, and sat beside him. He put his arm around her, drawing her gently in. She spread the afghan over their laps and rested her head against his chest. All at once she felt very tired.
Luke was resting his feet, which were crossed at the ankles, on the top of the coffee table. He was wearing an old pair of socks, and Artie could see his big toes through the thinning fabric. She thought, suddenly, of something she and Luke had done many times during their courtship and early marriage: they had rubbed each other’s feet. They had done a good, thorough job of it, too, warming lotion in the palms of their hands, then massaging the ankle, the heel, the arch, the ball of the foot, each toe, neglecting nothing. One foot at a time. Luke taught her how to do it, and she eventually became as skilled as he. She remembered how his foot rubs made her feel—the relaxation, the warming, the sense of being cared for that flowed from his sculptor’s touch. At the time, she knew she made him feel the same way, and loved the gift of it. Why had they stopped?
They stayed that way for a while, Luke stroking her hair, Artie finally relaxing against him. She told him about her therapy session of that afternoon, only a few things, scattered details. She wanted to tell him more, but there was a high wall there, with wilderness on the other side. She had never told Luke about the wilderness or the dragons or the wall. He seemed to know, though, that she told him as much as she was able, and he let her set the pace—just as, in bed, he let her know his desire, but, finally, let her come to him.
As they sat together, he said little, continuing to stroke her hair. When she stopped talking, he took her hand and kissed her fingers. There were tiny remnants of clay under his fingernails. Regardless of how he scrubbed, he carried these traces of his work with him wherever he went, like the sign of some old-world artisan’s guild. She had always felt drawn to this sign, these traces of clay on his hands; she felt, somehow, that it was part of her love for him.
At about 8:00 they both went upstairs, Luke to his studio, Artie to her study to take care of some Wee Tots paperwork. As she sat at her desk brooding over a pile of documentation, her therapy session of a few hours before kept intruding on her, replaying itself in her mind.
She could never remember when the strangeness had started. Perhaps it had been there from the beginning, getting worse and worse as time passed. She supposed she would never be sure. All she knew was the shouting in the house that went back as far as she could remember, and the long silences, and how the shouting and silences had both grown more and more frequent until there was nothing else in her parents’ house. And then the violence: her mother hitting her father, throwing things at him. Once, Artie remembered, her mother slashed her father with a long, sharp knife, the same one she used to chop vegetables.
Soon afterward—after her father drove himself to the hospital and returned with a neat row of railroad-track stitches in his arm—he left. Artie came home from first grade one day to find him gone. Her mother, red-faced and trembling, told her that her father had left them, abandoned them. Artie was quiet, not fully understanding what her mother meant, but as bedtime approached and there was no one there to read to her and tuck her in—these had always been her father’s duties—she began to realize he was not coming back. At the dawning of that knowledge she began to cry, and her mother slapped her.
Where her mother’s rage, her volatility, her craziness came from was another thing Artie would never know, but she did know that when her mother slapped her on the night of her father’s leaving, it was a changing of the guard. From that time onward, the violence that had been focused on Artie’s father was visited on his daughter.
Artie was punished for crying, for making noise, for untidiness; for forgetting things, for remembering things; for running in the house, for moving too slowly; for eating too much, for not eating enough. At first, the punishment consisted of slaps like the one on that first night, just a hard blow or two across the face. As time went on, though, the slap or two increased to half a dozen, then to so many they numbed Artie’s face; often, there was blood from her mouth or her nose. Then her mother took to twisting her arms behind her back—straining the shoulder joints almost to separation—then to knocking her down. More than once, she dragged her daughter through the house by the hair.
When Artie was eight, the times of imprisonment began, when her mother would haul her down to the basement storeroom and lock her in as the climax of a punishment session. As Artie grew older, her mother, afraid she might find a way to escape the storeroom, took to binding her hands and feet with clothesline before putting her in there; for good measure, she stuffed rags in Artie’s mouth. Artie might lie on the concrete floor, bound and helpless, for hours; a couple of times her mother left her there an entire day. Even as she was being punished for wetting herself, all Artie could feel was gratitude that her mother had come back for her, that she had not left her child to die in the storeroom, alone.
Luke, working in his studio, sneezed, and the sound brought Artie back to herself. She sat back in her chair for a moment, making an effort to breathe deeply; even after all these years, those memories still brought a chill dew to the palms of her hands. Then she got up, went downstairs to the sideboard in the dining room, and opened the bottom drawer. She felt around under the table linens until she found a photograph and drew it out.
Her parents wore clothes appropriate to the 1930’s in the photograph, which had been taken shortly before their wedding. Her mother was small and snub-nosed, hair fashionably bobbed; her father was slight, clean-featured, diffident-looking. They both shaded their eyes from the sun as they smiled for the camera. Artie had few photographs of her parents, and she thought this one was the best. It was the only one she had framed.
She fingered the smooth pewter surrounding the photograph as she looked at her parents’ faces, trying to see the people they would become, but the picture showed only two young people, goodlooking, happy, in love. Love was something Artie had puzzled over all her life. She had loved her father, who abandoned her; she had loved her mother, who tortured her. Artie was conscious of the faint clink of Luke’s sculpting tools upstairs, the subtle noises of the house. She and Luke loved each other, and she knew that was real, but whether she could trust it was another question. The furnace clicked on, sending warm breath upward through the ducts in the floor.
Her hands clenched around the picture frame. She could feel words piling up in her throat, wilderness words so corrosive they must never be said. She stood for a couple of minutes, waiting for her pulse to slow, the blood-roar in her ears to die down. When she loosened her grip, she saw that she had left thumbprints on the glass; the loops and whorls were clearly visible, like an illustration of the science of fingerprinting. She polished the glass with a linen napkin before replacing the photograph, underneath and far back.
The following morning was a busy one at the playschool, and Artie didn’t see the morning paper until mid-afternoon. On the front page of the Trib was a story about a seven-year-old girl from St. Charles, in the hilly country west of Chicago; the girl’s body had been found floating in the Fox River shortly after dawn. She was naked, and her body showed signs of sexual violence. There also were rope burns on her wrists and ankles, and a residue of duct tape across her mouth. The discovery had prompted a manhunt involving nearly every police department in the Chicago area.
Artie took a deep breath, let it out slowly, set the paper aside, and swivelled her chair around so she could look out the window facing the playground. It was a little after 3:00, and parents were picking up their children. She knew all the Wee Tots kids were accounted for. The little girl who had been found floating in the river was not one of those under Artie’s care. Still, she sat at the window and watched. After a while she put on her coat and went outside.
A few children, Marta among them, were still there, playing while they waited for their rides. A station wagon pulled up and a woman Artie recognized as Malta’s mother got out. Mrs. Keller had the same squarish features as her daughter, the same fine hair that would not be tamed. She didn’t approach the children immediately; instead, she stood beside her car and watched them play.
Artie went over to her. They exchanged greetings, then turned and watched the children.
A minute or so passed. “Malta’s a delightful child,” Artie said.
Mrs. Keller smiled appreciatively. “Thanks,” she replied. “She’s a lot of fun.” Artie looked at her.
Just then Marta glanced their way, said something to her playmates, and ran to the car. She hugged her mother and looked up at Artie. “Were you and my mother talking?” she asked.
“Yes, we were.”
“It was good stuff, Mar,” Mrs. Keller said. “We think you’re fun.”
Marta looked from her mother to Artie. Then she grinned and dived into the front seat of the car. Artie could hear her giggling.
“I think that’s my cue,” Mrs. Keller said. “Good to see you.” Artie watched her climb into the car, start the engine, and drive away. Then she went back inside the building to pick up her briefcase and purse. She encountered no one; the children were gone and, evidently, she was the last staff member to leave. On the steps she stood, hesitating, then turned toward the playground.
The hammock-like swings were child-height, not convenient for adults, but she sat down in one. She set her belongings on the ground beside her and took hold of the chains. They felt cold through her knit gloves. She gave a gentle push against the ground with her feet, feeling the old accustomed swing. She pushed again, thinking of how the children swung, sometimes going so high they were nearly perpendicular to the earth, looking as if they were about to reach escape velocity and fly, laughing, into the sky and outward into space. Marta was one of those who liked to fly as high as she possibly could, so high that it sometimes made Artie nervous to watch her. Marta, whose mother thought she was fun.
Artie felt an abrupt longing, a reaching, something raw and sharp and surprising. She gave another push against the ground, then another, stronger one, and kept it up until she was really swinging. This was something she had not done in so long it was almost as if she had never done it, but some part of her remembered how. She felt an inward fizz of exhilaration, so much so she nearly laughed aloud, so much so it took her a while to realize she was also frightened; suddenly, the wall was there, and if she swung much higher she might fly over it. She crossed her ankles and tucked her legs under the seat of the swing to keep her feet from grazing the ground and sat still, gripping the chains hard, until the swing came to a stop. She sat there for a little while, feeling her pulse gradually slow to normal. Then she stood, using the chains to pull herself upward, gathered her things, and went home.
Artie and Luke had invited their friends, Eleanor and Raymond, to Sunday dinner. Neither Artie nor Luke felt close to Raymond—he struck them as overbearing and full of himself—but Artie and Eleanor, who had roomed together in college, wanted to keep their friendship going. Therefore, several times a year the two couples gathered for what Eleanor referred to as “one of our little gettogethers.”
Artie decided to make pork roast, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy, coleslaw, corn pudding, and, for dessert, apple cake: a harvest feast, all made from scratch. She was a good cook, and loved to feed people; she always made too much food, being determined that no one would ever leave her table hungry. Her mother, too, had been a fine cook. Artie remembered sitting at the dining table as a very small child, her mother passing steaming platters while her father complimented the food. These were some of her best memories of life with her parents.
Artie stood at the kitchen sink early Sunday afternoon, beginning her dinner preparations, and looked through the window into the back yard, where Luke labored over the grass and the garden. How, she wondered, had their roles become so stereotyped, with him outside, her in the kitchen? It seemed so unenlightened. She had long known, though, that she preferred the stove to the rake.
The leaves Luke had raked together stood in the middle of the yard in a shifting heap of gold and red and russet, the ones on top blowing away in the light breeze and drifting down over the garden again. She reached for an apple, started to peel it, and thought of what it would be like to jump into that pile of leaves. She could almost smell the dry, earthy scent of the liberated leaves mingling with the fresh sweetness of apple. Her knife traced the curving fruit as the peel spiraled, unbroken, from her hands.
After dinner Eleanor followed Artie into the kitchen. Artie turned on the hot water and squirted detergent into the sink. The men came into the room and offered to help clean up, but Eleanor shooed them away and shut the kitchen door. Before Artie could protest, her friend turned to her and said in a low, earnest voice, “Artie, I really need to talk.”
Artie looked at her, surprised. “Okay. What about?”
“It’s Raymond,” Eleanor said in a low, tense voice. She sighed. “I don’t think we’re going to make it.”
“Elly, what are you talking about?” Artie blinked. “We just had dinner together.” The dinner had gone well, too. Artie had sensed tension between Eleanor and Raymond, but no overt arguing had surfaced, and the evening had progressed pleasantly enough.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” Eleanor reached past Artie, turned off the water, then laid a hand on her friend’s arm. Artie looked down and saw soap suds clinging to the back of Eleanor’s hand, like sea foam. “I wanted you to know so you wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Surprised by what? What’s going on?”
Eleanor looked at Artie, then looked down at her hands. Slowly, she wiped away the sea foam. “Well, a few weeks ago,” she said, “I found out Raymond was having an affair.”
“Oh, my God,” Artie said. “Oh, Elly.”
By Eleanor’s account, there had been no dramatic scene between her and Raymond, only a slow accretion of clues in a mystery that she had finally, unwillingly, solved. The subsequent confrontation with her husband had been strangely restrained, bloodless, with no shouting, not at all the way Eleanor had always thought such things happened, although she had cried for a long time.
“Is it a serious relationship?” Artie asked.
“You mean, is he going to divorce me and marry her? No. At least, that’s what he says. He’s quit seeing her.” Eleanor sighed. “See, it happened before, too, a couple of years ago. With somebody else. I suspected something at the time, but I was never sure. When we were talking about this, I thought I might as well confront him about that, too, and he admitted it.” She paused. “He says he knows he’s been wrong, and still loves me and wants to stay married.”
“Well, that’s good news, at least,” Artie said. She looked at Eleanor. “Isn’t it?”
Eleanor shrugged. “I don’t know. I just—right now I don’t feel like I’m ever going to get over this. I’m not feeling much for him at this point, either, except anger; there’s plenty of that. And I don’t feel like I can ever trust him again.”
Artie carefully put the gravy boat, which she had been holding all this time, on the counter. What kind of world was she living in? Old, seemingly solid marriages suddenly in mortal danger, little dead girls found floating in rivers. “I don’t blame you,” she told her friend. “Are you going to leave him?”
Eleanor sighed, fiddling with the hem of a dish towel. “I don’t know. Probably.”
“Have you tried counseling?”
“”Can This Marriage Be Saved,” huh?” Eleanor laughed, a short, high-pitched sound. “I already talked to him about that, and he won’t go. You know how he is; he doesn’t even believe in therapy, except for cra2y people—no offense, Artie—and he’s not crazy. He’s just made a couple of mistakes, that’s all. That’s what he thinks. Besides, does it really work? Therapy?”
“Yes, it does. It can.” Artie fell silent, looking at Eleanor. She felt as if she should offer better advice, something perceptive and compassionate and wise, but all she could think of was, “I think you should at least try it. Work on things together. Maybe . . .”
The two women stood there by the sink, breathing soap-scented steam, looking at each other. Eleanor’s face held an expression Artie had never seen there before; she looked tired, but it was more than that. She looked cornered, frightened, lost.
“Oh, Elly,” Artie said. She stepped toward her friend, embraced her. “I’m sorry.”
Eleanor’s eyes abruptly filled with tears. “I know,” she said. “Thank you.”
Eleanor and Raymond left a few minutes after the women emerged from the kitchen. After they were gone, Artie went back into the kitchen, and Luke followed her. Artie was quiet. Her thoughts were glued to her conversation with Eleanor, and she couldn’t seem to get them unstuck. Luke wondered aloud why unwashed dishes were still lying all over the countertops, and Artie told him what Eleanor had told her. Luke held her for a while, saying nothing. Then they cleaned up the kitchen together, thoughtfully scrubbing at the remnants of food.
When the kitchen work was over they went to the living room to read, as they often did. Sometimes they would sit together past midnight, turning pages in the quiet and occasionally reading passages aloud to each other. This time was different, though; while Luke was soon involved in his book, Artie simply sat with hers open on her lap, thinking of Eleanor and Raymond. She had known them for so long, so many years, and had come to assume they would be together forever, as she assumed she and Luke would be. She thought of Elly as she had looked in the kitchen, her expression like that of a child just beginning to realize she has lost her way.
Artie shut her eyes against the sight, and suddenly her thoughts were with the little dead girl. The bluish, rope-patterned grooves on ankles and wrists—she could almost see them, and the swollen flesh bulging around them. She could almost feel the smothering gag, and the hot, prickling pain of the binding, and the cold, dead numbness when the pain faded, and the animal-like, hopeless fear, and the cool concrete under her face and the despairing bound helplessness and the betrayal of love and the futility of trust.
With one abrupt motion, Artie stood. Luke looked up at her. “Honey?” he said.
Her heart was thudding, and she could feel the beginnings of tears behind her eyes. She was almost surprised that she could move, that there was nothing binding her. She looked at Luke, wanting to tell him how sad she was, how sad and how scared. She wanted to tell him things for which she had no words, and things for which she did. All of it was right there, waiting to be said, but she didn’t know what might happen if she spoke. So she turned and went up the stairs to the bedroom, walking slowly at first, then faster, and then her book fell to the floor and then she was running.
She sat on the edge of their bed, holding herself motionless by force of will. She breathed deeply, concentrating on unclenching her shoulders and fists; still her heart beat as if she were being pursued. Moonlight filtered through the blinds and fell across the bedspread in evenly-spaced, bright bars. After a little while Luke came into the room.
He handed her a glass of wine. She sipped, just the tiniest rich red taste, and set the glass on the bedside table. Then she sat, looking down at her stockinged feet.
He stood looking at her for a while. She heard him take a preparatory breath, as if getting ready to speak; then he let it out again, wordlessly. After a few seconds more he sank to the floor between her feet and sat with his ankles crossed, his back resting against the side of the bed. He took her right foot into his lap, pulled off her sock, and began to massage her foot.
He did it as he had done it long before, starting at the ankle, then moving to the heel, holding her heel in the palm of his hand. She remembered this so well. She knew exactly what his hands would do. She knew that he would progress to the arch, then to the ball of the foot, then, finally, to the toes, patiently releasing the tension in each one, individually: then, the other foot, the process repeated. She knew just how it would feel.
At first she held herself rigidly upright, but after a while her posture softened; her muscles relaxed, and her head drooped forward slightly. She closed her eyes. Again she saw Eleanor wearing the expression she had worn in the kitchen; again she thought of the little dead girl. This time Artie did not push the thoughts away. She felt a swell of grief and fear. Then a sudden, brief picture of Marta on the playground, swinging up toward the sky, borne on her own laughter, flashed through her mind and was gone. Tears came to her eyes and gathered at the base of her eyelashes and then slowly began to make their way down her face. They felt cool and soothing, like well water. She looked down at Luke, sitting at her feet; he shimmered, as if seen through a prism. For what seemed a long time she hardly breathed, feeling only the cool tears and the touch of his hands like a benediction. Slowly, slowly, she lay back on the bed and knew she would be delivered.