Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
—William Blake, from “Proverbs of Hell”
She’s washing the dishes after a simple breakfast of fried eggs and tomatoes, looking out the window towards the river winding low and shaded beneath the willow trees, when she sees a man coming up the road from the south. He’s dressed nicely, gray suit and waistcoat, well fitted; his shirt looks new, with one of those low Mandarin collars that take a pin instead of a tie. No hat, and his dark, longish hair blows across his eyes like a veil. She thinks to herself that there’s rain coming, with that kind of wind. His face is thin and pale, with high spots of red at the edges of sharp cheekbones. Fever, it must be—this new kind, the one that has the whole world panicking like the Devil’s come through on his own white horse. She dries her hands on a dishtowel printed with blue pansies and steps onto the porch to wait.
From the porch, she can see all the graves lined up neatly, row after row of them, between the gravel drive and the ancient red oak about twenty yards north of the house. A damn lot of graves. The sight gives her some satisfaction, sometimes. Not always. Sometimes it just makes her sad. She’s marked each grave with a flat river-stone, about the size of her palm, on which she’s carefully etched the year and a set of initials. There are more complete records on the yellowing pages of a journal that she keeps locked in her desk.
If she still had her case, she’d have had time to smoke a cigarette in the slow, windy minutes it takes him to crunch across the gravel. He stops just before mounting the porch steps, and tucks a blowing bit of hair behind his ear with the deferential air that usually accompanies the doffing of a hat. He doesn’t spare a glance for the graves behind him; she wonders if he knows they’re there.
“Well,” she says, when it becomes clear he’s waiting for her to speak. “You’ve got the fever, clear enough. It’s what brings most of them these days.”
“Do you have a name?”
He’s looking up at her, squinting against the sun, baring his teeth a little. His gums are red. “Daniel Cole, ma’am. You can call me Dan.”
She laces her fingers together at the small of her back, just over her kidneys. She forgets how tired she is, sometimes, until one of them comes up the road and reminds her. The shovel leans against the north side of the porch, the splintered wooden handle swelling with the tense humidity.
“Come on inside, Dan,” she says. “I’ll get us something to drink.”
While the tea is brewing by the stove, he steps through the low doorway into her parlor. She watches his eyes rove unconscientiously over her things: the furniture with its worn, pistachio-colored upholstery, its wooden arms stroked to honey smoothness; the dusty lamps on the end-tables; the collection of ceramic animals in blue and red and gaudy, flaking gold; the group of photographs in tarnished silver frames. He pauses at one of the latter, tapping the top of the frame with his index finger. “Is this you and your sister, ma’am?”
She doesn’t have to look to know which picture he means. Two girls, plump and dark-haired, sitting on a sofa that isn’t much different from the one in her parlor. A big space between the two of them, big enough for a third person to settle in, if their faces had looked more inviting. The taller of the girls holds an enormously fluffy calico in her lap.
“Yes,” she says, sharply enough that he takes his hand away.
“I’ll bet there’s a story there.”
The wind throws the branches of an aspen against the south window, and she turns back to the stove to pour their tea.
“Do you have family, Dan?” she asks.
He pauses with the teacup resting against his lower lip. The saucer balances somewhat precariously on his knee; a bulge of yellowish glue near its center shows that it’s been dropped at least once before. His other hand rubs the arm of his chair. “Not anymore,” he says. “Not that would come to me when I’m dying.”
“Or bury you after.”
She says it matter-of-factly. There’s a smell on him she recognizes, under the sour sweat and damp: the brittle ghost of quick-lime.
“No, ma’am.” He lowers the teacup, and his voice seems to follow it. “I figure that’s why I’m here.”
“We can talk about something else, if you like.”
“That’s appreciated.” The teacup finds the saucer. He looks again around the shabby parlor, his eyes not quite settling on her.
There isn’t much to look at, she knows. The furniture, the ceramics, the photographs. The window facing the aspen, and the mountains far to the south, an undulating line of rock and evergreen turned blue with distance. The doorway in the east wall leads into the kitchen, and a closed door opposite goes down a step into the rest of the house. The walls creak and rattle with the wind. The place has its own smell, she’s sure, but she’s been here so long that she’s gotten used to it. It seems to bother him, though. His breathing comes quick and shallow.
“You alone here?”
“I have some chickens out back,” she says. “A few tomato plants too. They seem to appreciate me talking to ‘em. More than any other company I’ve had.” It’s a joke as weak as her tea.
He smiles, lips closed. “God, would I love a tomato.”
“Well, none are ripe just now,” she says. It might even be true. “I had the last for breakfast.”
When the tea is finished, she sets both cups on the end table. The saucers leave thick tracks in the dust. She leans forward in her chair, elbows on her knees and hands clasped between them. Maybe he knows what she’s going to ask, because he still won’t meet her eyes, and the red in his cheeks is getting thicker, almost like something smudged on with fingertips.
“I hear the fever’s everywhere in the prisons now.”
“It is,” he says. “And most of the charities, too. Hospitals and orphanages. I can’t tell you which it started in.”
“How do you feel?”
She does her best to make her voice soft; it comes out frayed, like her upholstery. It’s the best she can do. Maybe she ought to be kind, but as always, her throat closes on a thick globus of revulsion.
“Better now that I’m here. It’s a long road . . . ” He raises his head, looks at her with wet gray eyes. “Can I ask what happened to your sister?”
No, she wants to say. “Why?” she says.
“She was a nice-looking girl.” He corrects himself. “Kind, I mean. Looks like she has gentle hands.” He points to the photograph with a jerk of his chin. “The cat she’s holding was a stray, wasn’t it? I know the look.”
“I’m sure,” she says. She holds that wet, gray gaze like something cold and rotten. “Well, that’s what happened to her, anyway. She took in a stray.”
He stands now, smoothing his trouser legs, and takes a slow turn around the room. She notes idly that his right hand keeps finding and toying with something in the pocket of his trousers. He glances through the door into the kitchen, where the rose-colored canister of tea still sits on the counter and her breakfast dishes lean precariously against the tin walls of the sink. He wanders around the north wall and tries the door to the bedrooms with his fingertips. The latch catches with a small, hollow sound.
“Where do they usually die?” he asks her.
“Where they want,” she says. “But there’s a back room there. The window looks out on the mountains.”
He nods, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue. “That will do.”
“This stray my sister brought in,” she says, “was a man by the name of Simon. Big and blond, from somewhere far down the river, and beautiful as the moon. He broke her neck one night because he heard she was seen with another boy.”
“Is he out there?” Daniel points towards the wall behind her, towards the graves.
“No. I killed him far away from this place.”
She closes her eyes and it’s like she’s back there again, like the she never left. “I had him meet me in those woods. Down by the river, right by the place they said my sister was seen with her other boy.” Closing her eyes, she’s there by the dark water and the smell of wet limestone. Anger tightens her throat like a noose. “He came down, eager as a dog for a bone, and before he could get a good look at me, I hit him hard with a rock. Pushed him over the little cliff into the water.”
She shakes her head. “I jumped in after,” she says. “I pinned his chest with my knees, hands around his neck, and I held him under until my fingernails were blue from the cold.”
She opens her eyes. He’s standing by the window, the aspen leaves throwing rapid layers of shadow over his face. He smiles a little when he sees her looking. “ ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ ” he says. “That’s from the Bible. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember that. You’ve got precedent.”
“No,” she says. She sits back in her chair, slings one leg heavily over the other. The chair-legs creak against the floor, and the sound travels up her spine, a dull shock. “No, you left out a part. ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay—saith the Lord.’ ”
“Well. Like I said, I don’t remember much.” He makes a gesture like he’s brushing away a fly. His hand shakes a little. “So do you believe that? About the Lord?”
“No,” she says. “But I do believe it’s too much for people, too fucking much, deciding we’ve got righteousness figured out for ourselves. And once you start making choices like that, you don’t get to stop.”
“Too much for most people, maybe. Not for people like us.”
“People like me, you mean.”
She could swear she can actually feel his eyes moving over her, from the gray in her hair to the dust on her shoes, slick as oil and sour as vinegar.
“Sure,” he says. “Maybe I do.”
She takes the teapot into the kitchen and rinses it under the lukewarm faucet. Brown flakes of tealeaf stick to the porcelain and she flicks them away with a fingernail. She can see through the door to the porch that the shadows are getting long, the top branches of the red oak stretching out for the gravel road, swallowing the eastern rows of graves. She dries her hands on the blue pansy towel, steps back into the parlor and asks if he has any cigarettes.
He rummages in his trouser pockets and pulls a crumpled box out of the left. She takes a book of matches from a drawer in the table with the photographs, lights both their cigarettes after a few dry scrapes.
“So you know about me now,” she says. He makes no move to sit down, and she doesn’t either. “What about you?”
“Don’t bullshit me. You know what I’m asking.”
He lets the smoke run out of his nostrils, staring down at the cigarette in his fingertips. “There were two girls.”
“Yes ma’am.” Guessing, perhaps, that she’ll hear sarcasm in that, he dips his head apologetically. “It’s like you said, you don’t get to stop. The first one was an accident. I was drunk. A friend of mine won some cash on a bet, and we celebrated with a couple bottles of whiskey. I remember going to the girl’s house after, going up to her room, but I don’t remember the rest of what happened. Honest to God.”
She doesn’t dignify that with a response.
“I got out of there quick,” he says. “She hadn’t told anyone about me—that there was a thing between us, I mean—so no one guessed it was me who did it.” He taps ash onto the windowsill. “And after that . . . well, it felt good, you know?”
She curses under her breath.
“But you do know,” he says. “You know how good it feels.”
“If it felt good, I wouldn’t be doing it here.”
He shakes his head. “I know you think this is a punishment,” he says. The tip of his cigarette shapes a circle in front of the window, encompassing the aspen and the mountains, the storm clouds, the reflection of her parlor in the dusty glass. His tongue darts across his lips again, licking some pink into the dry gray, and she wonders if it’s fear or just the sickness burning him up from the inside. “I’m not philosophical. I don’t think punishment has anything to do with it. It’s just the roles we’re meant to play.”
Her grip on her cigarette slips. She catches it awkwardly with her thumb, pinning it against her palm. She almost asks what he means by that, what difference he sees between punishment and simple fate. She isn’t sure, exactly, that she believes in either.
What she does believe in, though, is consequences.
“What about your second girl?”
If he’s surprised by the change in subject, he doesn’t show it. “Not much to tell,” he says with a shrug. “It turned out that she hadn’t kept as quiet about me, so it was off to the penitentiary. And now here I am. Justice served.”
She fishes the cigarette out of its clumsy position, but pauses before raising it to her lips. “Here you are,” she repeats flatly. “Because it felt good. Some fucking reason.”
He shrugs. “And you’re going do what you’re going to do,” he replies, “because you don’t get to stop.”
The wind has picked up now, shaking the aspen like a kitten in a tiger’s mouth, flinging dust and stray branches hard against the sides of the house. There’s a howling on it, like something riding in on great black wings.
“Are you going to make it hurt?” he asks.
She considers, shifting her weight against the doorframe. The hem of her skirt catches on a protruding nail. “Did the fever hurt?”
“Yes,” he says. “I begged the guards for water, towards the end. One of them spat on me.”
“Well.” She frees her skirt with a shrug. “I promise not to spit on you. There’s that.”
“Your cigarette’s done.”
She raises her eyes to the black column of ash. “So it is.”
“Do you want another?”
She shakes her head. He takes a last drag on his and snuffs it out against the windowsill.
She leads him into the back room. There’s a bed along one wall, covered with a green and yellow quilt. He shrugs off his coat and drapes it over the pillow. He starts unhooking his paisley silk suspenders, but she shakes her head; it makes it easier, after, if there’s something she can get a grip on. She notices a few brownish spots along the front of his shirt, like drops of blood long soaked into the fabric.
He glances at the window, at the mountains illuminated by the setting sun. She nods at him, and he kneels down on the floor.
She opens the drawer of her desk and takes out the gun.
“What were their names, your girls?”
He shakes his head. A stray lock of hair sticks to his damp forehead. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters.”
He doesn’t respond to that.
A moment later, she pulls the trigger. Turns the chamber, fires again. He falls forward silently. The only sound is the wind rattling the pane of the window.
The shoveling is heavy work. She forgets, sometimes, how tired she is, but the work reminds her. She finishes the grave just before it starts to rain.
In his trouser pocket, she finds two round little photographs, like slides of bone, each about three inches in diameter. The first shows a smiling girl in black linen, her lips painted dark and glossy: Molly Newman, June 19–. The other girl’s face is heavy and solemn: Theda Kosofsky, November of the same year.
She considers tossing them after him into the grave, then thinks better of it and tucks them into her own pocket. There’s room, still, on her shelves. She gets the last of the earth shoveled in, and then the icy drops begin pattering on her bare arms.
When the rain stops, she will go down to the river and find a smooth, flat stone for the marker.
In the back room, she takes the yellow journal out of her desk. She drapes his coat over her shoulders and looks out the window toward the south. There’s a shape on the road, as there always is afterward: it might be Daniel Cole, blood matting his hair. But the truth is that the rain is falling too hard and fast for her to tell. On the desk in front of her, the journal falls open to an empty page. And she rolls her aching shoulders.
The number of blank pages never seems to decrease, she’s realized, although she fills line after line with names. Through the wall at her back, the graves march neat and steady towards the horizon. In the kitchen, her breakfast dishes still wait in the sink. And although the shape on the road has vanished into the rain and distance, now, she doesn’t move from her chair by the window. She sits in the back room for a long time, listening for a change in the wind.