They all think that she is a cat lady: harmlessly crazy, smelly, alone. They have no idea that her house is full of cages, that she is a modern-day saint. They have no idea that she has sold her names for them, for the power to help them. Her names: her Christian name, her maiden name, and the name her husband gave her—these were all empty inheritances from people who left far too soon. They were a small price to pay for sainthood, for the chance to help them, the people who do not understand: the women who look away in the supermarket, the children who dare each other to climb over her fence, the men who will not stop manufacturing misery with their fists, their pants unzipped and crumpled on the wrong floors.
She collects their misery, keeps it safe from the world, the world safe from it, locked up in her house. Look, even now, when her bones pop every time she bends her knees, the nameless woman is crouched in the bushes beneath a stranger’s window.
The nameless woman holds up a glass bottle, empty save a slice of lemon anointed with her spit. (The lemon draws the misery in.) The misery in this house is subtle but lingering, like the smell of autumn leaves in the winter, like a fugue played slowly on a piano. Here, there is no man, only a woman with her silences, her long afternoons, her memories.
A waft of blue floats out of the window, like watercolor paint drifting in the air, and coalesces into the bottle. The misery appears midstream, a tiny, thin creature, dwarfed by its own delicate, intricate wings. The misery flaps its wings, struggling against the pull of the lemon. Though its wings are nearly useless, its will is not, and its movement slows. Impatient, she holds up the bottle to shorten the distance. As the misery is sucked into the bottle, and she twists the cap on triumphantly, a voice calls out, “What are you doing?”
A little girl stands in the window. Her eyes are wide and her pupils mere points. The girl is someone who sees too much, the nameless woman knows right away, someone who reminds the woman of her own childhood self. The nameless woman turns away, clutches the bottle to her bosom, and runs home.
• • •
There are many varieties and species of misery. Though she has hundreds of miseries caged in her home, she still, on occasion, spots a creature unlike any she has seen before. The one she has captured today is familiar, and one of her favorites. It is mostly harmless, and even pretty in its way. It sings, and now that it is safely ensconced in a bird cage in her bedroom, it sings of lonely walks in dark forests, of tangled roots and secret holes gleaming with dark jewels which it will show her if she releases it to the open air.
All of the miseries have their stratagems. Some plead; some threaten; some scream and scream until they are hoarse; some sulk; one tells her how lovely she is, how noble and witty and gracious, how it will serve her faithfully as a familiar, comb her grey hair until it gleams white like moonlight, if only she will unlock the door. The trickiest ones argue with her, attempt to trick her own conscience into betraying her, claim that she is disrupting the natural flow of the world, cutting people off from parts of themselves, forcing stagnation. Fortunately, despite their diversity, one method serves to keep all of the miseries imprisoned. What she does is this: she crushes together shattered mirrors and strands of her own hair, and spins this mixture into wires for glass cages, thin but unbreakable, invulnerable to anything on earth. This method, this power, is what she bought with her first name.
The girl shows up on her front porch the next day. The nameless woman sighs. Collecting misery is not enough, she knows. She must also conceal her collection from the world, for people are foolishly curious, and would want to open the cages to peer more closely into the eyes of misery. They would want to understand.
Once, a philosopher-scientist arrived, unannounced, with his expensive jacket and sparkling clean teeth. He wanted to catalogue her “groundbreaking collection of unique specimens.” He dreamed of an antidote. He knew of her secret because he belonged to one of those secret gentleman’s clubs who preen in silly costumes and fancy themselves keepers of mysteries. She wanted to cage him: his arrogance, his dangerous hope. But she knew she could trust his discretion, so she simply refused his offer, politely, and ushered him out.
The doorbell is ringing. The nameless woman draws a curtain of illusion over herself and her house. The sobbing, the loud and soft voices of misery become instead purring and meows. This glamour, this power, is what she bought with her husband’s name. She opens the door.
The girl stands there, accusations and curiosity both clear in her eyes.
“Yes, dearie?” the woman says, her voice now the tremulous croak of a much older woman.
“You were at my house yesterday. Hiding in the bushes with a bottle. What were you doing?”
“At your house?” she smiles, confused and innocent. “No, dearie, yesterday I was out buying cat food.”
“I know what I saw,” the girl says. She peers more closely at the woman, at the room behind her. “Your skin looks different. Are you wearing a costume or something?”
“Ach? I can’t hear you, dearie. Now, run off, and leave a poor old woman to rot in peace.” She slams the door shut. Her trembling is real now. No one has been able to see through her glamour before.
• • •
The girl comes back the next day, and the next, bearing a plate of cookies. Both days she rings the doorbell a dozen times, loiters on the porch, attempts to peer through the heavy drapes. Persistence is admirable, it is what has made the nameless woman a saint. The girl’s persistence, though, threatens to unravel everything.
On the third day, the nameless woman is sorting through laundry in her bedroom. Something moves, unexpectedly, at the edge of her vision. The girl. She is perched in a tree, staring into the second floor window. The nameless woman yanks the glamour around her, around the cages.
After this, she takes no chances. The girl is not merely persistent, she is relentless, she is a fool. The nameless woman keeps the illusion up constantly. She closes all the curtains tight, shutters the windows that have shutters, and does not leave her home. Maintaining the glamour taxes her. After the first few hours, she feels as if she is walking on her tiptoes constantly, as if she is scrunching up her face. By the second night, the illusion becomes heavy, weighing down the air of the house like the unbearable humidity at the peak of summer. The air becomes more and more still, until the drapes hang motionless, thin carcasses walling her off from the world. She loses track of the days, of the passage of the sun over and under her house. It becomes hard to breath. She thinks of her accumulated years, of her dwindling vitality, of the day when some distant relation will enter her home to sort through her effects and gape with astonishment.
At some point, she will need an apprentice.
The next day, when she wakes up from a fitful sleep, she lets go of the glamour, lets it slide off with relief, like the shedding of some vast, unmanageable skin.
When the doorbell rings, she opens her front door.
Now it is the girl who is gaping with astonishment.
“What’s your name, child?”
The girl recovers quickly, closes her mouth, swallows, and then opens it again to say, “Ruth.”
“Ruth,” the nameless woman says, feeling the shape it makes in her mouth. “Ruth is a good name. A good name is more valuable than diamonds. Remember that.”
“Everyone says you’re crazy,” Ruth says.
The nameless woman nods. This much she knows. “What do you say, Ruth? You have sharp eyes. Tell me what you see.”
Ruth narrows her eyes, as if this compliment is intended to lure her into relaxing her gaze. “I saw you at my house, hiding in the bushes. What were you doing there?”
The nameless woman sighs, and the rise and fall of her chest does not shake off the weight which has settled there. “You better come in.”
• • •
The nameless woman tells Ruth her story, or most of it. She leaves out the deaths, all three of them in the same month, and the agony which followed, the days spent sitting alone in her parked car, staring. She hardly remembers this anyway.
The story she tells begins with this: She is sitting in the car, that day when she spotted the first misery. It was perched on a limping man’s shoulder as if he were a landlocked pirate with a grotesque parrot. She somehow immediately knows that the creature, with its mismatched wings, is a living, thinking manifestation of pain. She knows too that she has a newfound purpose (a reason to move again, which she does not mention to Ruth) and she steps out of the car, begins to walk toward the man limping towards her.
He does not raise his eyes, does not change the tempo of his gait. As they near each other, she hears a stream of whispers and hisses, the creature’s ceaseless monologue into the man’s ear. She can only make out fragments, “staring . . . the sun . . . don’t blink, for god’s . . . ” She, the woman who is not yet nameless, not yet a saint, puts both index fingers in her mouth and whistles as loudly as she can.
The creature leaps up and backward, as if it has been shot, flaps desperately and then plummets. The man stops, puzzled, and looks up. The expression on his face is amazement, as if the entire scene before him—the street, the cars parked on its edges, the houses shielded by trees—is completely unexpected.
“Hello,” she says to him, and smiles. (She does not smile any longer, having learnt the hard way that it is a waste of energy in the struggle against misery.)
He looks at her with the same wonder, and then smiles, a weak smile, like sun tea made on a cloudy day. For a moment, she can see the man he once was, before the limp, before the accident or the attack. She sees him on a boat, sliding across the sun-glazed golden water so easily, as if the entire world were made of light. Then, his smile crumbles and his eyes turn down, and she wonders if he is looking for the broken pieces of whatever he has lost on the sidewalk.
The creature has returned to its perch on his shoulder, whether it climbed up his leg or flew clumsily she does not know. Now, the creature’s claws are dug into the man’s shoulder and it watches her with beetle eyes.
She wants to whack the creature with her purse, to wring its grey neck, but she knows that such attacks would be pointless, as the creature is not exactly physical. The man begins to limp away from her. The creature continues to watch her as it renews its interrupted monologue, its wings curved towards the man’s head possessively. She will have to find better weapons, better tools.
• • •
The nameless woman describes how she saw miseries nearly every time she saw people. She tells Ruth about a few of the more common varieties of misery: the broad, toad-like creatures who lock their long fingers around people’s ankles and slow them down; the blind birds who nest in people’s hair and hold their long wings in front of their hosts’ eyes to obscure the world; the forked-tail chameleons who can assume a thousand shades of grey. She does not tell Ruth about the man whose shadow had teeth (a mystery she has never solved), nor about the little girl she found locked in a cellar, nor about the misery, almost as large as the girl herself, growing out of her vagina like some terrible, unfinishable birth.
“You must always watch for misery,” the nameless woman advises, “guard against it with eternal vigilance.” Such constant watching, she explains, is how she discovered The Drowned Cup, the speakeasy where miseries buzzed like sleepy bees around a seductive flower. At first, seeing the steady stream of people accompanied by miseries, sometimes three or more to a single person, walking in and out of the speakeasy, she suspected that, perhaps, this was where miseries were born. (Now, of course, she knows that miseries can be born anywhere, at anytime, to anyone.)
This suspicion grows the first time she enters The Drowned Cup herself, as she sits in the smoky dark, in the music which feels like a fever or a faint headache, overcome with the smell of alcohol.
“Can I get you something to drink?” the bartender asks her. He is balding, his smile is wide, his eyes are tired.
“No, thank you,” she says primly.
“Suit yourself.” He shrugs, turns away, wipes down the counter.
“You look like a woman in search of something much more interesting than a drink,” a man says, as he sits down next to her. “You look like someone who’s seen too much.” She looks at him, at his skin as pale as paper, his unruly dark hair, tangled like roots, his excessively formal suit, like a relic found at the back of a closet and taken out, still rich with dust. “I am someone who collects trinkets. Curiosities. Legends. I have more connections than a spider’s web,” he says, smiling, the edges of his mouth curling like calligraphy, hinting at the shape of his ears. “I may be able to help.”
“How do I know I can trust you? Who are you?”
“Who is anyone? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask a more specific question.”
“Well, what’s your name?”
The man laughs. “What’s in a name? Why, I have hundreds of names, and I dare say, by the end of the night, I’ll have one more.”
He waits, and she has a sinking feeling, as if he is telling a joke, and she knows the punchline and it is not funny at all. He waits, and she knows that he can wait until the end of the world, so she says, “One more?”
“Yours,” he says.
• • •
The nameless woman pauses to pour herself a glass of water, notices the sun sinking beneath the hills, the shadows stretching and widening all around. Her tale is long, the rest can wait: her early mishaps, when she fumbled and failed again and again, like a child learning how to ride a bike; her second encounter with the pale man, when he appeared in the graveyard like a smiling ghost; the misery with crocodile jaws, which was nearly the death of her; her third encounter with the pale man, which took place in her dreams; the visit from the mayor’s mistress, that old witch masquerading as a singer in a sparkling dress; her trip to The Roaming Island, which she chased down only with her brother’s help; her brother’s foolish, ungrateful attempt to deceive her, which proved to be the death of him; the misery which escaped, that blasted bundle of sticks and feathers; and, finally, the years and years spent perfecting her routines.
She returns to the table and the girl surprises her by speaking.
“What about your own misery?” the girl asks.
This is not a question she expected. “It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make,” she replies. In truth, the nameless woman is blind to her own misery. This blindness is what she bought with her maiden name.
“No, I mean, have you tried to bottle your own misery? To see what happens?”
“Of course not. That would be selfish. Saints never heal their own wounds. Their cut off limbs are the price they pay for holiness.”
“Oh,” the girl says. She chews her lip, considering. “Does that mean that teenagers who cut themselves with razors are practicing to be saints?”
“No, that’s not it at all.” The nameless woman shakes her head violently, and she is suddenly dizzy, she suddenly feels the weight of her age. The enormity of the task of explaining all that she has learned these long, lonely years looms, and for the first time she wonders if training an apprentice is impossible. She presses on. “Holiness is purity. To be pure, one must cast off all impurities.”
“My mom has been cleaning, since you came,” Ruth says.
The nameless woman nods, relieved. “Good.
“You don’t understand. She’s been cleaning all the time, she’s scrubbed the bathroom five times. She’s never done that before.”
“After all these years, the weight has been lifted from her.”
“I’m just not sure. I think maybe you’ve got it all mixed up. What if the miseries are unhappy because they’re in cages? Maybe if they were free, they’d have the chance to find a way to be happy. The birds in the cages at the pet store always look so sad.”
“Are you blind, girl? These are miseries we’re talking about, not birds. The monsters responsible for human suffering. They deserve to be in cages. I am keeping the world safe.”
“You don’t even know what caging them does! You’ve had your house full of them for so long! Breathing their air, listening to them all day. I don’t trust you.”
The nameless woman understands now that she has made a colossal mistake, a potentially fatal error, like making a wrong turn down a dark road while fleeing a hurricane. She could explain to the girl, patiently, that, yes, she does listen to them all day, that she listens to their continual pleas for freedom, and so her heart has grown steadfast, unyielding like the dead wood which holds trees up. But she sees her own stubbornness mirrored in Ruth, knows from the configuration of the girl’s face that she will not be satisfied until she “liberates” at least one misery. This is not a risk the nameless woman can afford. Something about captivity makes the miseries grow more cunning, more bitter, larger and larger. The first misery she captured is now as wide as a bathtub, as tall as a closet, with the intimidating fat of a sumo wrestler and the never-ending wails of a monstrous baby.
She could pull back the glamour, attempt to make Ruth question her own sanity or memory. She knows that this will not work. She has no choice; she must cage the girl.
Ruth is eying the cages even now, her feet kicking restlessly beneath the table. “You don’t trust me?” the nameless woman asks, and Ruth looks back at her. “But, Ruth, I’m a saint. Everything I do, I do to protect you, your mother, all the people like you who . . . ” She pauses, looks up as if she has forgotten what she intended to say. Once Ruth glances away, she strikes with her hand, quick as a viper, and grabs Ruth by the wrist.
“Ouch. You’re hurting me!” Ruth struggles, kicks, tries to pull herself away but the nameless woman’s grip is as unyielding as her heart, as solid as a handcuff.
• • •
The nameless woman talks while she cages the girl, while she spins hair and broken mirror glass into the thin pattern of a cage around her. “I know you don’t understand this now, Ruth, but I hope and pray that you will in time. I wanted you to be my apprentice, to learn my skills, and carry on my work when I am too old. There is still a chance—if you can learn the necessity for this work, the balm that I rub into the deep wounds of the world every day, then I will let you out. I’ll take good care of you. I’ll keep talking to you, keep teaching you, I promise.” The girl will not look at her, will not reply, continues to sob softly into her hands. “Goodnight.”
Upstairs, in her bed, the nameless woman strains to hear the girl’s voice but she cannot distinguish it from the murmuring chorus of miseries. For a moment, she feels stranded, as if it is her own voice she cannot find. But then a tiredness as vast as the night overtakes her, engulfing her in blackness.
• • •
Ruth sits, quiet and still, for as long as she can stand it. The miseries eye her carefully, continuing their sobs and songs, their moans and whispers and chants. When she is certain that the old woman is asleep, she stirs. She clutches the thin bars of the cage and pushes them as hard as she can. The bars remain solid, silvery, unmoved.
The voices of the miseries’ rise, louder and more frantic, like fierce winds fleeing before a storm.
“Ruth,” they cry together. “Ruth,” they croon. “Ruth,” they moan, making her name a wail. One, its voice silky and meandering, proclaims, “If you set me free, I will watch over you, warn you of dangers, whisper secrets into your ears, all the truths hidden in the cracks of the world I will reveal to—”
“Hush,” Ruth says. “Of course I will free you. Just let me think a minute.”
The miseries’ fall quiet, or most of them do. A raw chorus of weeping and moaning goes on, relentlessly, sounding more like the hum of wind and water than any noise made by a living thing.Ruth resumes her assault on the bars of the cage. She pummels them with her fists, kicks them with her shoes, rams her head against them. Not a crack, not a tinkle, not a millimeter of bending.
What did the old woman say exactly about the magic glass she could spin from hair and broken mirrors? That nothing on earth could break it?
Ruth chews her lip, her gaze wandering across the room in search of some possible answer.
At first, she shies away from the miseries: their many shades of grey, their unclean skin and feathers and scales, their eyes like drowned stones. But there is little else in the room to see. And when her gaze brushes against the miseries, she is not plunged into weeping. She is not seized by the desire to curl up and sulk, as she fears.
So she lets her eyes linger. She watches the miseries sit or snore or shuffle in circles, lick themselves with curling tongues, clutch their sides with claws, webbed fingers, wings. She pokes and prods their grey bodies with her eyes. And she discovers, to her simultaneous surprise and unsurprise, that the miseries appear to be nothing worse than animals in cages. A whole zoo crowded into a cramped house.
“No wonder you’re sad,” she says aloud.
But this revelation won’t help her break the cages around the miseries, around herself. She looks again, past the silvery elegance of the cages, past all the miseries in their various forms and habits. She contemplates the faded pattern of the wallpaper, a dreary series of clenched roses, the furniture shrouded in plastic covers, the window clotted by thick curtains.
For a long moment, she stares at the curtains, wishing she could see the sky.
And Ruth knows. She’s found the key to open the cages without locks.
Getting the miseries to co-ordinate with her is a more difficult matter. They stall and they stammer, they bicker and they blame, they cling to the bars of their cages. They throw epic tantrums. But Ruth persists and, in the end, the miseries comply.
Ruth hurls herself against her cage, tumbling it over. Aided by the hands and tails and wings of the miseries, she rolls herself to the window. Together, Ruth and the miseries pull aside the curtains and force the window open. After rolling their own cages nearby, two of the largest miseries stand ready to help. They lift Ruth up, cage and all, and push her out the window.
She lands with a soft thud in the nameless woman’s backyard. The grass is cool and cat’s-tongue rough against her skin. The cage is already gone, dissolved into foul smelling smoke by the light of the moon.
Ruth turns to the clear, cloudless sky, the moon like a chalice brimming over, the stars laughing in the dark.
“Thank you,” she whispers. She hurries back inside the house.
• • •
The nameless woman wakes to silence, an experience she is so unaccustomed to that she at first does not recognize it, cannot remember the word. Then, all at once, her heart is pounding ferociously, too fast, a rapid drumbeat drowning out the rest of the world. Her vision trembles in time to the beat, she cannot stop blinking, the room plunging from light to dark and back so fast that she cannot make out shapes. She breathes, and slowly the blur slows down, becomes clear.
The cages are gone, decades of strife and effort destroyed in one night.
It is as if her own rib cage has been shattered open, her own organs scraped out. She thinks that she will surely die, that she is dying, but her heart continues to beat, her chest to rise and fall as she breathes.
And then she notices words hovering in the air, like a cloud of gnats, in the corner. Could it be Ruth speaking, offering a condemnation or an apology? Or the voice of the nameless woman’s misery, finally visible? Or is it her own voice, whispering her lost names? Has her voice been whispering those names, over and over again, all these years? She raises her hands to her head and pauses, caught between closing her ears and listening.