Fiction • Kristen Gleason
“Watch your shoes, Mr. P,” she said. “I’m dropping bombs. Kiki is upstairs. Is she asleep? Could be, it’s been quiet all morning. It’s been quiet all week. The accident affected her! She’s a real girl, it turns out. In some ways. Or at least she’s had a shock.”
Mr. Pop pressed his chin to his chest then thrust it up into the air, which was a movement he had learned meant yes.
Miss Lister shook her head. “You’ll always be a stranger to me, Mr. P. You’ll always confound me. Still, I sure am glad you’re here. Will it bother you to work with Kiki in the kitchen today? I’m shaving roots in Mother’s study. Got to get them free, got to have the TV to do it.”
He shook his head no. High above, a metallic hiccup interrupted the whir and the whip. Miss Lister joined him on the porch. Together they looked up at the sky. A helicopter swayed and lurched on its way to the mountain. The architectural column that hung from its undercarriage wagged from side to side. Like a finger the column said: No, no, no.
He thought he could see, in the helicopter’s cabin, some pale creature at the controls. Oh, he thought. Oh! And though his knees were shaking, he found himself reaching up, reaching out—what was this? He was calling that paleness in.
The propellers stopped, the helicopter dropped straight down. Miss Lister tossed her roots. “Hey,” she screamed. “Hey!” She ran toward the falling machine, her legs impeded by the vicious flapping of her long skirt and her heavy workwoman’s shoes. Mr. Pop, his fingers fluttering over his throat, steeled himself for what was coming. But when the helicopter achieved its maximum nearness to the ground, he saw quite clearly who the pilot was—a heavily helmeted man, waving, cheerfully, hello. And then, as if the sudden drop had been nothing but a demonstration of the pilot’s skill, the propellers sprang to life and whirled around again, at once invisible in their speed. The helicopter, its column tamed and hanging straight, went on its way up the mountainside.
Mr. Pop stepped off the porch and stared at his feet. He stood delirious before the landscape that he’d come to know so well. He saw the ice growing up from the dirt, the browning of the grass. The ascendance of the callous season.
Miss Lister came back toward the house, kicking her skirt out in front of her. The smooth edge of her eye was raw and red. “What kind of work is tree replacement?” she said. “I hate that work. I don’t see how it’s possible, and you can bet nobody’ll ever explain it to me—not that I’d want to know! Trees replaced are not trees. Columns are columns no matter what. Have you been up there, Mr. P?”
“Yes,” he said, avoiding her big honest eye. “I saw nothing living.”
“So the forest is going temple,” said Miss Lister, gathering her roots close. “It’s what the people want! And what do you or I know about that?” She squeezed his shoulder with her powerful hand. “Now, Kiki’s got to get up. She can’t coast along on her shock forever. A horse is a horse. We are all vulnerable to injury. Better she learn that lesson than go around thinking we are all so solid. I’ll rustle her up.”
Mr. Pop went inside and stood in the entryway, but Kiki did not come down. Downstairs he was the only one. Father, were he around—well, such a man would not stay hidden for long.
In the quiet of waiting, Mr. Pop performed a calisthenic routine he had learned in the army decades ago. Faster and faster, he performed the familiar movements in order, his body readily complying, until a swift bend forward caused his head to swell with blood and a rush of cloudy drool to slip unbidden from his mouth to the floor.
He stood, chastened, on the spot of drool. He could leave if he wanted to. Father was not around. But here came Kiki, down the stairs. She was in the middle of pulling on her bloating sleeves—he had never, in their year together, seen her free of those glossy lengths. Her bare arms were massive. At intervals they seemed to be bound tightly by strings that vanished into her flesh, so fiercely was her skin trying to rein things in. He tried to look away.
She had not brought her books down from her room. Her hair had not been brushed, not for days.
“Pop,” she said, “Pop Man. I’m not up to it today.”
“Study time,” he said. “If not the books, then the flashcards.”
She frowned. “Maybe you’re used to not getting what you want, but I’m a little girl. I don’t have to suffer in silence. I don’t feel good.”
“Not so little,” he said. “Grown up.”
“Yes little,” she said. “Father says I am.” She yawned and stretched, and a few inches of her pure white stomach showed above the elastic of her pants. Across the pure white was a line of red.
“Father says study,” said Mr. Pop. “Father says time to start again. He says no interruption necessary.”
“Father knows I’m upset,” she said. “He says I should take it easy. Last night he came in very late and sat on the bed and said that Lump loves me, Lump is the greatest horse, Lump wasn’t trying to kill herself. Lump is not like a mother. What happened was she got too excited that I was finally riding her and sometimes we like something so much that we can’t stand it so we throw it away. I’m not mad at Lump, I just feel funny about her, that’s what I told Father. I just feel a little bit funny about her right now.”
She seemed to be asking a question that Mr. Pop did not want to answer. His eyes filled with tears.
“I just wanted to make her jump. I thought she’d like it if she gave it a try.”
“I know.” He turned away to hide his crying.
“Should I go get the flashcards?” she asked, suddenly compliant.
“Lump was great,” said Mr. Pop, discreetly wiping at his eyes. “Lump was great. A great horse.”
Kiki turned on one socked foot. “Back in a minute,” she said, and thumped up the stairs.
“Hello Lump,” he said, leaning over the fence. He stood on the bottom rung, felt it hard through his worn out boots. “Woo-woo,” he said, “woo-woo.” He held out an empty hand.
Lump. Elegant Lump. Colorful Lump. She raised her head from eating and stared at Mr. Pop. When she looked at him, every inch of her body—hazel and toffee and auburn and rust and white—quivered with desire.
“I know,” he said to her. “But I can’t. It is nothing. There is nothing.” She turned and offered him her profile. Her one black eye blinked once. The air between them was charged. He beckoned to her. “Lump,” he said, nearly out of breath, “Lump, here I am, and it was me, once. I was the apple. I was the apple.”
She raised one hoof and was about to set it down at a friendly angle when Father threw open the stable doors and emerged holding a saddle under one arm and the not-small Kiki under the other. The saddle was broken, its horn was split. Kiki, slung about by Father, drooped lifeless as sea grass, uprooted and beached, over his massive arm.
“Yes!” screamed Father, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” He tossed the saddle over the fence and looked as if he would do the same to Kiki, but she wrapped her arms, slick and black in bloating sleeves, around his waist.
“Wait,” she said, “I want to do it myself. Like a grown up.” He put her down, and she hoisted herself up and rolled over the top of the fence with some difficulty, teetering there, her soft stomach folding over the wood.
“Good thing you’re early, Pop Man,” yelled Father across the paddock. “You’re about to witness a rite of passage. Lump’s getting mounted today!”
But something was wrong. Father’s mood was extra-undignified, his comportment frenetic. He ran back and forth along the fence, on his tiptoes, his arms flapping behind him like a king crane wild and swollen with grief, but he was smiling. His teeth were bared.
“What about the lesson?” said Mr. Pop, waving his best pouch of pens.
“The lesson can wait!” said Father. With beastly ease, he vaulted over the white fence and ran toward Kiki, who was standing in the center of the paddock, holding the broken horn of the saddle.
Lump was turning nervously against the fence, as far from the three of them as she could get. Mr. Pop got down from the fence. He turned his back on the scene. Her name tumbled around inside his heart. Lump. Lump. Lump. She thrust up through the top of his skull. He dug through his hair and felt, with his empty hand, the contour of her body softly outlined in his bone. Lump. Lump. Lump. I was the apple. It was me, once.
He refused to look. There was activity, increasing, in the paddock. Sounds of struggle and speed. “Go,” screamed Father. “Kick, kick, kick. Grab her mane! Grab her mane!”
Thud went the hooves of Lump. Her sounds were uneven, she stopped and she started. She pulled up short. Mr. Pop felt her fear and her confusion. He tried to swallow it up.
Kiki whimpered. “I can’t,” she said to Father. “Lump won’t jump. She hates me. Lump hates me.”
“Dig in,” said Father. “Be hard with her. Be hard.”
A column traveled overhead. Mr. Pop watched it go. He heard nothing but the anxious thud of Lump’s hooves.
The helicopter moved across the valley. It traveled up the mountainside to where the pale pig slept in her pen of rebar and string. There she slept in the shadow of the great jointed tube that was swallowing and swallowing the waterfall. The tube would never get full, delivering, over and over, the waterfall back to itself, and neither would the pale pig, who held in the bowl of her eye all the fruit that had ever been and all the fruit that would ever be. Her favorite were the infant fruits, those little buds that had hardly burst—they would never have the chance to spoil. These she held in the center of her eye. These she summoned with her killer gravity. She was hungry for what was still suckling at the teat of the tree, and she had many friends who would oblige her, who would ravage their private orchards just to earn her favor. And though he’d known that there was nothing he could offer her, he had not been able to resist. He had carried himself up the mountainside like a package full of treats, to be refused. Through the columns, he had shuffled, like the dog of his people, and he had witnessed there, in that unnatural temple, in that deceptively simple pen, the awful truth of her appetite.
Yes, his situation had been made quite clear, but he had come back down the mountainside still terrorized by hope.
The helicopter disappeared over the mountain. Mr. Pop became aware of a silence at his back. There was no activity. No sound at all.
Mr. Pop knew he would have to see. Still he waited.
Then Father came up behind him, breathing heavily. He was wet. That he was wet and stank of tar—Mr. Pop wished to wait.
“Pop Man,” said Father. “You need to take Kiki inside. She’s torn up.”
Mr. Pop allowed himself to be taken by the arm and turned by Father. Kiki lay filthy and blank on her back halfway under the fence. “I can’t make it,” she whispered. “I’m too big.”
“Here we go,” said Father, pulling her the rest of the way. He picked her up and set her on her feet. Her legs collapsed beneath her.
“Lump can’t,” she sobbed. “Lump can’t stand. I can’t stand either.”
Lump must have jumped, she must have tried. She had cleared the paddock fence but landed wrong. She lay on her side, and the broken saddle had slipped down around her stomach and wedged up hard against her hind legs. Mr. Pop walked toward her.
“Pop Man,” said Father. A queasy little laugh. “Don’t look. It’ll stick with you.”
Lump’s front leg was rearranged. Like a stair, it broke and rose and broke and rose, as if someone had slid a wide-toothed saw back and forth across her bone. She stared at him with her one black eye. A fly landed there, and she did not blink it away. It skated around on the black and shimmering surface of her agony. “Lump,” he said. “Lump.”
Father shuffled up. His wetness and his tar. “The worst,” he said. “Isn’t it? My luck is the worst.”
“You’ll shoot her?” asked Mr. Pop, turning to go.
“Yep,” said Father. “Yep, yep, yep. What else would I do?”
Mr. Pop left Father and Lump and took Kiki by the sleeve. He pulled her toward the red house. “Pop Man,” she said, crying, “Guess what? Lump never liked you. She told me so. She told me just the sight of you makes her want to kill herself.”
But now it was too late, for here was Kiki with the stack of cards. She hopped, like a much smaller child, down the stairs.
“I couldn’t find them at first, but then I did. They were hidden under the new kittens,” she said. “So they’re wet.”
The cards were wrinkled and pink with birth-blood. “There are new kittens?” asked Mr. Pop.
“Yeah, the rest disappeared. Father says they got eaten out in nature cause they had no brains. These new ones are better. They can hold their tongues inside their mouths so they don’t look so stupid all the time.”
Mr. Pop clenched his pouch of pens. “Miss Lister wants us in the kitchen today.”
“No study, no problem,” said Kiki. “I don’t like it in there anyway. It smells.”
He shivered with something like feeling for Kiki. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It must still be very hard for you.”
Kiki laughed. “Oh, I don’t care about that, I just like to look out the kitchen window better.”
At the low round table, they went through the cards onto which Mr. Pop, before he’d known what he was up against, had neatly inked a carefully selected set of words and their translations: balloon, castle, flying, mystery, swim. But Kiki had not responded. She had never practiced. She could not remember a single verb. She’d got ahold of some nouns, but she could not pronounce them correctly.
“Who cares,” she said. “This is stupid. Anyone I could talk to is dead anyway.” She lowered her eyes. “Except for you, Pop Man,” she said. “I do like you. Do you like me?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Pop, staring out the window at the empty paddock. “I like you, Kiki. Would you prefer dictation?”
“Not really!” she exclaimed.
Then Kiki jumped right out of her chair. She pulled her large shirt up and flapped it around excitedly, showing her pure white stomach, its line of red. Three mice had appeared on the kitchen floor. Mr. Pop could not believe his eyes. As if in a nightmare, the mice performed slow, painful backflips across the tile. They achieved, in their backwards folding, inconceivable angles. Their bodies bent in half. It was possible to hear, with each new movement, the cracking of tiny mouse bones, their high, thin voices all asqueal. This was not play. They were breaking their own backs.
“Miss Lister,” called Mr. Pop. “Come quickly!”
“She can’t come,” said Kiki, her eyes wide and fixed on the mice. “Her TV show’s on.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, stepping side to side. “Something must be done.”
Kiki flipped her tangled mass of hair. She got down off the chair and crossed her bloating sleeves. “You’re afraid,” she said.
He stared at her. He tried to find his sympathy. She was a child, after all. She had lost so much. “I am,” he said. “These mice are sick. They’re in pain but they go on flipping.”
“Well, I’ll tell you all about that, Pop Man. Father says I don’t have to worry about something so small.”
“But that’s precisely—”
“We put out the pot of poison but the poison was too weak. Now they do those flips. They’re only half dead.”
“Miss Lister!” he screamed, his head aflame.
“We tried to kill them,” said Kiki. “But we ran out of poison. And we weren’t going to make a special trip to the village for more. They’re just dumb mice. They’re small.”
She bent over the mice, who were deep in their contortions. “Some people keep them as pets,” she said. She reached for the largest one and picked it up by the tail. It shrieked and squirmed. “See?” she asked. “Easy.”
Mr. Pop watched the mouse turning and twisting, dangling from her fingers.
“What was your wife’s name again?” asked Kiki, poking the mouse, making it swing.
He breathed deeply. “Varvara,” he said.
“What was she like?”
The letters she did not read. The daybook she did not open. The hearth she tended for him long after she was stiff. The vests she oiled. Her cracked spectacles. Her ripped pillow. Her steady, always modest, appetite.
“She was kind,” said Mr. Pop. “Very kind. And merciful. She was—”
“Varvara,” said Kiki, moving the mouse in slow circles. “I’m going to name it Varvara.”
The mouse folded in half. It climbed its own tail and bit into the spot where her sleeve ended and her flesh was released to billow and blimp. Kiki screamed and threw the mouse into the kitchen sink. Suddenly agile, the mouse streaked across the kitchen and up the side of her body and down her sleeve to the spot of her fresh wound. It bit her again.
She ran out of the kitchen. “Father,” she screamed. “Father!”
Mr. Pop went to the window. He propped himself up on the kitchen sink. The wind twisted through the paddock, stirring the dirt. He saw Kiki run through the browning fields. She was headed toward the mountain.
Miss Lister appeared in the doorway. She held a bowl of shining, clean-shaven roots.
“What is it?” she asked. “My show is on.”
“The mice,” he said. “They should be killed.”
“Oh that,” said Miss Lister. “It’s not our house, Mr. P. We just work here. Not our action to take. There are all kinds, Mr. P. All kinds.”
The view was closing itself down. He thought of his long walk home along the dry riverbed, which was all that was coming for him.
“Go on home, Mr. P,” said Miss Lister. “Take some time for yourself. You really aren’t needed here. I can’t see why he ever asked you to come. It’ll make no difference what you do—she is not her mother’s daughter. No, I’m never sure what he’s thinking, or if he ever is—thinking. Most of the time I don’t even know where he is. I just go on. Now you go on too.”
Then the wind picked up and the stable doors flew open. Something was moving around inside. He leaned forward over the sink. It was Lump. She staggered out of the stable, her broken leg dragging in the dirt. She could lift it only so high. Like a stair, it broke and rose, broke and rose. Her lips stayed high over her teeth and her tongue hung down small and dry.
“Lump was not shot?” he asked.
Miss Lister set her bowl on the kitchen table. She came to the sink and took his hand and stroked it with a feather from her pocket. “No,” she said. “I thought he’d told you. Kiki was allowed to keep the horse.”
“Not shot,” he said. “Alive.”
“I admit it’s strange. It’s not nice. Life can go so rotten. But at least she can still walk, after a fashion.”
Lump was hungry. She crept toward the hay. Once near, she collapsed heavily onto her side and nibbled at the bale and chewed the hay and chewed her tongue along with it, her small dry tongue that was covered in dirt, and she closed her one black eye.
“Better she had never been born,” said Miss Lister. “That’s probably what you’re thinking.”
“No,” said Mr. Pop. “No.” Her name tumbled around inside his heart: Lump. “I would never take back her birth.”
High up on the mountaintop—a numinous foam. A white wave was forming. It gathered and grew. Like a cloud, it heaped, then curled, folding forward. Down it came, spreading itself over the treetops. Mr. Pop saw the pale pig riding, riding, riding. Her pen would be empty now. Her temple, abandoned. The great jointed tube would go on swallowing and swallowing the waterfall, taking everything for itself. There would be nothing living there.
He had tried to refuse hope, but it had pursued him, it had followed him all the way here, to the dry valley, to the big red house, where neither he nor hope belonged—and now it could not be denied that she was coming. Riding high the devouring wave, with her small black eyes trained on him, the pale pig hungered. He wondered, then, his hands fluttering over his throat, if perhaps the situation had been—adapted.
One was always saying goodbye. See you later. Down the hatch. “Yes,” said Mr. Pop, removing his shirt, “one is always saying goodbye. To some one or some thing. There comes a time for everyone”—he seized Miss Lister’s hand—“And then—there comes another. Yes, Miss Lister, even I was eaten once!”
Kristen Gleason’s fiction and poetry have appeared in FENCE, Fairy Tale Review, and Prairie Schooner.
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