Eliza pulled up to the curb outside the brick house on that cold street, the street that had not seemed warm to her once since they moved in together that November. Shaking her head and curling a lip, she tightened her coat and plunged into the wind. Following the crumbling outer moldings up to the bowed chimney, her head drifted to one side as she walked up the driveway where the earth leaned heavily against the retaining wall. Its stone masonry bent toward her and the torn-up concrete of the drive. Though the dry drafts of oil heat from the underground belly of the house fought the cold in fitful gasps, a chill settled tenaciously into the old place like a skeleton at the bottom of a lake.
Inside, Eliza peeked around corners, listening quietly, opening all the closed doors where the shiver of rooms with leaky windows rushed to meet her before she could close them and sigh into the enfolding warmth of the hallway. She was alone that day, the house empty of Richard. Softly sliding in stocking feet on the nearly empty wood floor of the living room, she talked to herself, not from solitude or distraction, but more an incantation, the words of a song her mother sang to her as a child. As she mouthed the words, the felt-covered hammers of her mother’s piano rose and fell inside her with reverberations of giddy tremolos and sobbing bass notes. Underneath, a burning smell and the overdue clamping pop of the toaster.
The nearly hundred-year-old house, once an orphanage, answered her incantation with reassurance that came from inside the walls, a sound Richard could not hear. The voices of the house washed through her, leaving no physical boundary between them and her own self. And with no skin or bone or air around her, all was vibration. In this state, she felt less alone. But just as the house began to breathe into her, the door unlatched and the cold of the outside rushed against her shoulder. Richard, with his arms full of groceries, stomped into the kitchen, snow sliding off his dark coat.
“Christ, it's cold out there. Can you help with this stuff?” The banging of heavy bags hitting the counter echoed throughout.
Eliza stood still, absorbing the leftover silence, her head turned toward his words.
“Eliza,” he spoke from inside the refrigerator door. She could tell because of the strain from crouching and the muffled emptiness of it, the coolness of it.
“Yes?” she broke away and walked slowly into the kitchen.
“Where did you put the rosemary?” he looked up from the glow of the refrigerator door. “It’s not in the drawer. I thought you bought it yesterday.”
“I did. It’s here.” Motioning toward the basket of fruit, she reached in under a bag of dried figs, pushing aside a couple of red grapefruit.
“Why’d ya put it in there?” His eyes focused on her with a coiled rage that had nothing to do with rosemary.
Suddenly light, her arms seemed unattached to her body.
“How am I supposed to find stuff when you put it wherever you feel like it?” His eyes fixed on hers and even after she looked over toward the door, she felt the heat of them. “I only have a couple of hours to finish this dish for the Bane wedding.”
She didn’t have an answer.
“Well, are you gonna help me?”
Wordless, she left the room to stand just outside the door that opened into the dining room. First there was the soft suctioning closure of the fridge and then a loud stumbling clamor of what must have been the footstool, always in the way no matter where she put it. And so she crossed her hands over her waist, and she stood frozen staring at a tall vase in the center of the dining room table which she had cleared earlier that day of all other debris. Then came the banging of cupboard doors and low growls that made her straighten the flowers in the vase with her one hand. She brushed the wrinkles from the muted green linen tablecloth. What was that stain from? She couldn’t remember. She covered it with the vase.
Turning toward the kitchen, then toward the front door, Eliza’s eyes hardened in her head. She lifted her hand up to smooth them out but froze again at the sound of Richard’s voice still coming from the kitchen.
“How can we talk when you just walk away?”
“I’m right here.”
“We can’t even have a real conversation!”
Quiet. Then more clamoring.
Eliza looked down at her fisted hand, still gripping the little bag of rosemary. She followed it back into the kitchen where Richard stood over the cutting board on the counter, wide-bladed knife in hand, systematically chopping parsley into fine, bright green sand. His hand moved skillfully in and out of the way of the blade, thumb bent and the raised tendons of his hand casting shadows that made the spaces between each of them seem like the gaps between old mountains. She admired those hands, their certainty and hardness, the way they held so much even when they were empty. Sometimes their contours were the cradling ripples of river valleys, other times they were snakes gliding impossibly fast on high ridges.
She handed him the bag of herbs, not knowing what else to do, stretching her hand across the space. His lips pursed and his head swiveled in an audible breath, chin lifting toward the counter. Dropping the plastic bag of tiny purple flowers there without looking at him, she turned and walked back out of the room and out the front door, without her coat, and down the front steps. Though the top one was too high and dangerously different from the others, she was so used to that her feet measured the distance on their own now without a thought and made no false step. She nearly floated down the cracked driveway and along the frosted street where evening darkness already crept up the hill. Then something popped and imploded in her chest, and would have made a sound if her own body were not so cold, if what rose in her were weeping. But instead all that came to her—all that resonated in her throat—was a few little gasps before a yawn.
When Eliza reached the end of the street, shivering uncontrollably, she turned her head faintly in both directions, along toward the elementary school where the buses all huddled together for the night, and down the other side toward the bed and breakfast with its ornate trimmings and circular drive watched over by two stone lions. Looking down at her feet, she noticed that they had acquired boots at some point in the last ten minutes, though she didn’t remember putting them on. She watched them turn all the way around on the glittering street and go back. Where else would they go? She sighed, though her chest barely moved.
As she walked, Eliza listened to the drumming of her boots on the pavement and to the neighbor’s cooing chickens settling into their coop nests and to the traffic that sped up and slowed down and stopped and started again, and she imagined too the voice of the moon drifting down to her, that nearly invisible ivory sling that hung over the house like a fishhook. She could tell that if the fishhook were turned just a few degrees clockwise that it would be a smile or maybe the crescent-shaped almond cookie that Richard made for her on her birthday which she loved.
Finally she opened the door again to see him sitting at the dining room table. His eyes were distanced, softened—just a very small change but one she recognized. She looked back at him, an animal stare that was honest and wary and willful and he met her stare as though through the bars of their respective cages until he said a quiet sorry. That’s when she smiled softly and nodded and went back into the living room where the wind puffed fitfully against the windows. Soon, also the soft creak of the table and sliding of the chair, and the next creak of the table, and another sliding of the chair, and then his footsteps, and the resuming of the chopping on the wooden board, and an exhale which slipped out of her chest like a thief over a fence.
The next day he was cheerful again.
“Taste this, baby,” Richard stood over the stove, a pot of red bubbling liquid burping under his hands, one with a wooden spoon reaching toward her lips, the other ushering beneath. Eliza smiled at the expectancy in his eyes, which watched her lips as they enclosed the spoon and the warm marinara sauce.
“More garlic, you think?”
“No, there’s enough.”
He nodded slightly, eyebrows pulling together. “This is for tonight, for us.” She smiled.
“Nope. Got it all covered.”
Richard kissed her, and with a gentle finger, dabbed red sauce from the corner of her mouth, tasting it with reverence, then kissing her again, tasting with equal reverence. They stood looking around each other’s faces for a long moment until Richard placed his forehead against hers. Then, only warm breath and the buzz of the refrigerator before he was called again to some pressing kitchen task. Eliza leaned back against the counter as they parted, not wanting to leave yet, though the kitchen felt small with both of them in it and there was always the possibility of an angry collision. She remembered her father, his back to her as she approached him in the tiny kitchen of black and white tile and yellowing lace curtains in the window where her mother once piled dishes on the wooden rack.
“Give me some space!” Her father’s sharpness cut her severely. She was already so jumpy. And then came the hollowness—Eliza could feel it still there in her gut—that emerged with the sudden emptiness of the kitchen her father soon avoided and the hush of the house where music no longer played. In the darkness, she saw his long body sunken lengthwise into the couch as she tried to quietly climb the stairs, each penny-loafered foot choosing its position, her small hand on the roundness of the wooden banister.
Eliza’s chest pulled inward around the memory. Suddenly it was as if the kitchen walls warped with the heat of the stove, sagging, and the ceiling drooping. She walked out the kitchen door to stand under the old tree that now had no leaves but whose feet disappeared under the ground. She imagined her own feet held that way, how heavy she would be, and how sturdy. She touched the body of the oak, running her fingers into its grooves, leaning her head against it. In the steadiness of the tree, there was a dropping inward, like some precarious thing stacked high inside her falling to the ground.
Behind her closed eyes appeared the dark back of her bent grandmother sobbing over her mother’s newly filled grave and the huge stone she hid behind without breathing as she watched her. And she became her own thirteen-year-old body, which could feel so easily through herself and clothing and air and stone into other people, and which could somehow disappear into the open air of the graveyard along with the sound of weeping. And if it settled into the trees or the earth or the clouds that day, she didn’t know, but now the ripple of it sped through her and landed in her throat, where it pressed hard until her hand clasped around it.
Richard escaped out of the kitchen with the familiar creak and slam and the shattering fall of plaster from above the door frame. Jolting through her body, the vibration loosened her from the ground. She turned to watch him walking to the car, and thought to call out to him, but did not. And she knew then that something inside her which must at one time have been an instrument of wanting lay smashed, its strings slack and heavy, because as she breathed deeply against the old oak she felt the useless pieces of it clanging around in her chest.
After one long morning of shopping for Richard’s odds and ends to complete the catering job (he was off doing other last minute preparations), Eliza opened the front door to see a baby grand piano dominating the better part of the living room. Her breath rose up but no words came out. She simply walked over to the huge instrument and picked up the envelope that sat atop the keyboard cover. Opened, it revealed jittery cursive.
This cumbersome, beautiful and painfully sentimental piano is yours finally, my sweet granddaughter. As you know, they are moving me to smaller quarters and I cannot take it with me. So it is yours to do with what you like. I have dreamed for many years of you playing it as you had begun to learn when you were a girl. I spoke to Richard on the phone the other day, and he said it was alright to have the movers bring it on immediately. I hope it won’t be in the way, and that you’ll enjoy it. Also, I’ve sent along some of the rolls from the corner bakery that you always loved as a child. Perhaps they will remind you of this place of the past. Do visit soon, child, if you can stand a moment at the old folks’ home! I always love your presence.
Eliza’s mouth fell open as she looked up. Running her finger across the sleek black surface, still silky after all these years in her grandmother’s house, her hand rested on one wooden shoulder as she lowered herself onto the bench. Sitting there at the baby grand and staring across its wideness, Eliza rested her fingers soundlessly on its keys and watched the sunlight dance on the surface of the hood which, opened on a slant, reflected the sun from the living room window with such intense brightness that she couldn’t look at it directly. She closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the sun, the piano waiting for her to play.
But she didn’t play.
Instead she listened, hearing the music, knowing it so well, tasting it deliciously all over her body. And her heart swelled for a few bars and contracted again with the next. The draft from the chimney flue breathed lightly on her extended hands. The house began its indiscernibly soulful whispering and she stopped to listen, her spine cold and straight. And it was as though her eyes deepened in their sockets, veiled and turned around to face the other way. Images of Richard putting a vinyl record on an old turntable he’d bought at an outdoor flea market, the crackling intrusion of Brahms, Copeland, Rachmaninoff, images of this same piano which long ago stood on an oriental rug in her grandmother’s house amid the smell of cedar and dust.
Suddenly some tiny black thing fell from the ceiling and dropped with a gentle tickle onto the back of her hand. Instinctively, she flung it away with a gasp, recoiling from the little creature that now scurried toward the fireplace on eight needle legs. Squinting, she watched for the course of its escape. At once commanding all her attention, the disappearing spider and the long, nearly invisible strand hanging by her face, brought her back to her body, the fireplace and the dim naked bulbs of the ceiling fixture above her head. Reaching out again, she took the thread between her fingers and pulled. It floated down, slack and feathery. A familiar sensation drew her into herself again down this long wispy line.
She saw her mother pull a gray hair from her head, holding it out like a foreign entity and letting it find its way to the floor, smiling with half her mouth at Eliza, who picked up the silvery strand, wound it around a pudgy index finger and watched while her mother went back to grooming her hair in the hallway mirror, patting it closer to her head and studying the tight curls that drew themselves along the edge of her face. In the moonlight outside, Eliza’s father stood, slightly hunched in the open doorway, smoking and looking out into the street. Lights from passing cars appeared on the wall of their tiny living room, passed across its length, and disappeared out the far window. As cold from the open door poured in, the end of her compressed finger began to hurt. Her father turned to look at her, eyebrows low over his pale eyes, and she felt a familiar tingling on the back of her neck.
Unwinding the hair, Eliza let it fall on the woven rug and ran past him, her own shadow disappearing into his. Darting into the living room, she scurried to the small space between the wall and the upright piano, big enough for her eight-year-old body to sit, knees up to her chest, arms folded between them. The night before she had nestled there, the vibrating panels of the piano melting her shoulder, the thud and clack of the pedals as her mother pressed and released them. Her mother, looking at her with lifted eyebrows, pulled her sleepy body firmly out of the spot for the third time that week.
That night she waited until the door finally latched to let her eyes fall closed, and she imagined the sense of the humming piano. But soon there was just the stiff wall of the living room against her back, the emptiness of the room. Her shoulders dropped a little and the sudden quietness sent a kind of elated pleasure through her. Finally, no one to watch over her! The line of her mouth gently lengthened and turned up at the corners, and she crawled out of her favorite spot to sit, knees folded beneath her in the middle of the floor. She swayed there for a few moments in delight, rolled over and made faces at the hanging crystal light fixture that her father always cursed because of the way it would frantically swing when he pulled the little chain to turn it on or off. All of the little glass pieces would tinkle and blink, and he would grab them to try to quiet them down. Eliza giggled and then frowned, thinking of it.
Bouncing up, she shuffled carefully onto the wooden stool in front of the grumbly old upright, the kind of stool that you can screw up to the height you need. Assessing the approximate distance, she gave the circular seat three turns and then slid between, resting both hands on the keys, yellow on the outside ends, whiter near the dark graying ones. She rested them gently, as she’d seen her mother do during moments of studying the music, eyes squinting, mouth pursed, until her hands animated again, and the keys would rise and fall with them in a kind of dance.
Staring at her own hands, little Eliza could feel the whole piano swell and sink with the bending notes as she struck the keys, tentatively at first, listening after one short phrase for some hidden answer. But when none arrived, she tapped out another short progression of notes and soon lost herself in atonal banging. Staring at her moving fingers, her eyes blurred and closed entirely, and she listened as each of her small finger tips searched and landed with blind magic. She felt the pulsing click-clack of the pedals through the floorboards, and she felt her mother’s voice in her own throat and the popping sounds her father made as he smoked his pipe and crinkled newspaper in the sinking armchair by the window.
Shivering now in the stillness, Eliza had begun to slump ever so slightly over the sleeping beast when the front door slid open and Richard, scarved and hatted and mittened, stared across the room at her, his mouth slowly opening into a grin.
“Ah ha! It has arrived! What a colossus! I didn’t tell you, sweet thing, so it would be a surprise. Are you excited? Let’s hear!” He busied himself with the removal of his layers.
“It’s beautiful. I love this piano.” Tears glassed Eliza’s eyes as she looked down at her hands, which hadn’t moved on the keys. “I have no idea what we are going to do with it, though. It takes up the entire room.”
“Well, aren’t you going to play it? This is a great chance for you to play again. I want to hear you!” He looked at her with such sweetness that she smiled and could have cried, almost.
“We could sell it, Richard. It’s probably still worth something, and we could really use the money.”
“You know I’m right.”
“I’m surprised, baby. I thought you’d go nuts over this thing.”
“Can we not talk about it right now?” Eliza got up and escaped to the kitchen, away from the looming monster that had moved itself into her favorite room of the house.
That night Eliza curled like the gently spiraling folds of a nautilus next to Richard in their bed on the second floor. It was warm there under the heavy blankets, though the slow dripping of rainwater drummed in the gutters outside. Richard’s body breathed thickly next to her, radiating warmth. As he slept, she very softly laid one hand on his naked back just between the shoulder blades where the large muscles came together at a valley along his spine. He shuddered. She drew her hand back. He turned over toward her sleepily, taking over the bed. Watching his closed eyes, she again wished she could touch him without him knowing, or, if he did know, that it would not cause a stir.
“You can’t sleep?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Come here.” He pulled her to him with one enveloping arm, and turning her back against his body, she was cradled there, soothed in slow sighs as his breath deepened.
“I want to play the piano,” she whispered. “I wish I could.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“So why were you talking to me?”
“Maybe I’m talking to me.”
“I wish I knew what the hell you mean sometimes, baby.”
Then there was just the rain in the gutters and one shuffle of the blankets and the creaking of the old house as it held them there, so tentatively, in the cold, in the winter. Downstairs, she could feel the piano sleeping like a snoring dinosaur.
Just as she began to fall into the dreamy state of strange images and unclaimed thoughts, Eliza became her 11-year-old self again walking in the rain, walking to settle herself back in her bones. She felt her body pulled down the steeply inclining street with cracked sidewalks back in Pittsburgh, jumping over the uneven upturned concrete in her penny loafers. There, the sun lay low in the sky above the looming hill where one white, leafless tree stood between their lawn and the jagged sidewalk, its branches pulled outward seemingly by static electricity. Eliza remembered once liking the way it threw itself out in every direction like a star, unimpeded. Even its roots did not heed the human construction of pavement. The slow pressure of those expanding, invisible limbs had deepened and lengthened the cracks over time, so that rainy rivers with a sound like tinkling glass dribbled between Eliza’s feet as she walked that evening, thinking with folded brow how things can grow inside a person too, imperceptibly, quiet in their determination.
The rivers began to wash away the soil as well, so that the tree, like an unkempt and peeping intruder, began to lean toward the house, and her father talked about cutting it down. Her mother didn’t say anything but only looked out at the old tree through the window where one shutter, a crescent moon cut out, slammed hard against the house. Her shoulders raised and dropped, and her eyes widened and narrowed and then fell on little Eliza with the smile she often used to wipe unpleasantness away. Eliza smiled back, but not as wide.
Folded next to Richard’s sleeping body in their bed on the second floor of their house, just between the world of dreams and the world of waking, Eliza listened. And her hand, which had curled up tight on the sheets just next to her face, relaxed as the familiar sounds of the oil heater and the refrigerator and the wind that rattled the flue faded in her ears, leaving only the tingling silence beneath. In that quietness, the glimmer of the sunlight bled through the spaces of her grandmother’s fingers. Her soft hand swished beside the dark suit on the walk through the grass and the gray stones. And she could feel how her arm lengthened to reach out toward it, and what it was to let her own hand fall slack in its holding.
Eliza woke to sharp banging just above her head. Blinking into focus, her eyes stared out at the bony limbs of a large tree branch scraping agonizingly against the window pane. In a second, Richard was up and wearing pants, running down the stairs in reverberating counterpoint to the steady rain that fell hard on the roof. Eliza sat up and looked out at the branch caught between the phone lines and the house. It moved wildly as the wind blew against them both.
“Get me the ladder!” Richard, out in the rain, looked up at the waiting disaster. “Eliza, I need your help! Come here!”
“Where’s the ladder? In the shed?” She pulled her arms through the sleeves of her wool coat as she ran out into the rainy darkness, though one arm caught, and so she was drenched before she could get it on.
Richard cleared away the few remaining logs from the other tree that stood too close to the house, never taking his eyes off the branch above him. Eliza ran for the shed, her boots unlaced. With both hands, she threw up the latch and searched breathlessly for the ladder, shining metallic and heavy in a barely moonlit corner. She grabbed both its aluminum sides and nearly fell over backwards. The top hit the low rafters of the shed and halted there. Going around to the other side, she pulled on its legs and it fell to the ground. Outside she heard the sound of shattering glass and then wood splitting, scraping, a heavy thud.
“Oh shit!” Richard’s pounding feet splashed through the mud as he ran toward the shed. “It broke the window. Come on. Hurry. Forget the ladder. Jesus, girl, can you help me?”
Her eyes fixed on his silhouette there in the blurry moonlight. A horrible buzzing in her belly began to fill her like a cloud of locusts, so she couldn’t see in the dark shed anymore, and she bent over, one hand on the floating place beneath her ribs. When he disappeared again she heard the rain, amplified and deafening on the metal roof. In a moment, the sound let up a bit and the space left from it carried her back to herself. She stood and ran inside the house after him where they both pounded up the slippery stairs.
On their bed, glistening shards of glass glowed in the yellow light of the street lamp outside the window. Its bright eye blinked as the supple tree which had shed its branch swayed back and forth in front of it. Everything was drenched. Eliza, out of breath, heart pounding, stood frozen once more at the sight of their sodden and oddly twinkling room as Richard flew past her to the window. Rain poured in through the open drapes onto their bed.
“Come on! I can’t do this myself!”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
“Go get something to patch this. Oh, I don’t know. Just push the bed away from the wall. I’ll do it.”
He shook his head and sputtered and growled as he ran once more down the stairs. Eliza pushed the bed, on squeaking wheels, away from the wall, then grabbed towels from the bathroom which she used to cover everything that had gotten wet. The roof itself seemed to threaten collapse, the plaster walls to dissolve completely. Her dripping hair chilled her neck until her back began to shiver uncontrollably.
A wooden board under one arm, a hammer in the other hand, Richard reappeared and stopped momentarily to watch her as she began to undress, a word forming on his lips and then dropping away.
“What?” Her eyes burned out at him.
“What are you doing?” At the window, he set the board on the ledge and a nail at the upper corner. Eliza threw her soggy nightgown on the floor.
“I’m freezing, Richard!”
He began to hammer. “O.K. Fine.”
“No! It’s not fine,” Her voice cracked above the banging and rattling of the plaster wall and the spray of dust that thrummed on the floor each time he hit the nail. “And it’s not my fault, so stop yelling at me!”
He stopped banging on the board, which had already quieted the room somewhat and now held back the rain, and so he turned to see her, and she felt him seeing her as she stood naked, shivering, her eyes like shattered glass.
Her lip began to tremble, as though her whole body did not tremble already, and she sighed hard in low bursts. Dropping the hammer on the bed, Richard came over to enfold her in his coat. Her body drooped as he held her up, gently rocking her side to side, and she knew he thought of something painful because his body hardened against hers, and the sound that emanated from him seemed to pull back and invert and fall to the floor. At this, her body turned liquid. Old sorrow, like a warm vapor, moved slightly beyond her chest where she could feel him again. It was then that the stoniness she had imagined in him seemed to melt too, leaving only the soft sweetness of his own grief–or was it hers? It spread inside her like honey. Somehow knowing this, he pressed his cheek against hers and freed the breath that had hung heavy in his chest.
As the storm died down, they left their flooded bedroom and curled up together downstairs. Richard built a cozy fire. Since the piano took up most of the living room, they used it to create an enclosure, draping blankets that hung to the floor where they huddled beneath the baby grand on a sofa cushion they brought from the den. Warm and tired, Eliza watched the flames reach up and release into smoke and form again and reach and release again. She told Richard about the time her mother set the kitchen on fire the year before she died.
“She always had that broken toaster going in the evening while she was playing the piano, but it never turned off on its own and she would always get so wrapped up in what she was playing that she would forget about it.” She smiled and watched the flames under the stone hearth, feeling Richard’s eyes on her and feeling his hand steadily, gently, push the last damp tendril away from her face.
“What did your dad do?”
“You know. He yelled and huffed around, just like you.” She looked at him, half a smile on her lips. His eyes closed a bit.
“You never talk to him anymore, do you?”
“I never really did. I remember how silent the house was after she was gone, like it was me and him and the silence. The silence instead of her. Maybe that’s how I still feel her. I listen to the silence.”
Richard reached toward her face again to wipe away a streak of mud stuck to her cheek, his palm lingering against her skin. “Did you get the fire out?”
“It wasn’t much of a fire really. Mostly just a lot of smoke. My dad unplugged the toaster and ran it under the sink. We didn’t use it again. That’s when my Nanna started bringing over the rolls from the bakery.”
“Those are amazing rolls.”
They fell asleep intertwined beneath the belly of the beautiful piano with only the sound of leftover wind and the crackle of cinders to lull them.
The next morning, Richard clanged and shuffled around in the kitchen. Eliza, staring at a gray hair in the mirror, brushed her teeth upstairs. It was easy to hear him in the kitchen, so he talked to her as though she was right next to him. Looking in the mirror as he yelled up, she listened to the small spaces between his words, to the distance between her and him that the words had to carry.
“I still need two more eggs for this dressing. Oh shit. Baby? Baby, will you go over and borrow a couple from the Fergusons? I don’t have time to go to the store. Just take ’em out of the coop. I’ll tell him later. He won’t mind.”
Eliza spat out the toothpaste and then made her way down to the kitchen.
“You want me to take eggs out of their chicken coop? What if there aren’t any eggs?”
“Well, there might be. They always look for them in the evening. Just go and check, will ya?”
She shrugged and pulled on her warm coat, meandering out the kitchen door and across the backyard to the Ferguson’s coop at the opposite end of their property. Banged together roughly and made of old boards salvaged from something torn apart, the coop was a bit of an eyesore, and Richard liked to complain about it even though Eliza knew he secretly loved that there were chickens next door, on their block, squawking and pecking around in their little fenced-in chicken area. She liked them, though she’d never seen them up close.
She approached the chicken yard where one of the chickens was already squawking madly, running in little circles. Opening the gate, her boots padded softly, pushing ground corn into the muddy earth.
“Hey, little one,” she whispered to the bird as she crouched a respectful distance from her, the poor girl, those red feathers fluttering wildly on the top of her head, and her petticoat of fluff riding up and down as she ran. “What’s wrong, Sweety?”
This seemed strange behavior even for a chicken, and she could see a couple of tail feathers were bent and hung limply behind her. Pushing open the door of the coop, left ajar, Eliza looked in at the source of distress. There were eggs, but they’d been plundered, broken shells in a pile on the straw. Peering further, she saw the other chicken, unmoving in the dark corner, feathers strewn around her.
Warmth spread through Eliza’s chest, a pressure in her throat. The bird, its eye closed, its wings unnaturally splayed, feet stiff, looked like a prisoner there in that house of rotting wood and wire, a prisoner whose cell was struck by natural disaster and who could not escape in time. Tentatively, she laid a hand, which had been warming in her pocket, softly on the bird’s back, running her fingers along its soft feathers. It was still a little warm. Maybe it died sometime early in the morning.
But why didn’t the animal—a fox maybe—why didn’t it eat her? Eliza looked out the open coop door at the other, still disoriented chicken, not knowing if it was her own presence which had thrown the little thing back into distress. She looked at the dead bird and then again at the live one, trying to decide which to attend to first. She touched the dead bird’s torn plumage with one more lingering caress, her fingers slowly curling back into themselves. Closing the door, she again crouched before the chicken whose screaming must have been heard all over the neighborhood. Why didn’t she hear it earlier? Maybe she did, but was distracted with other things and hadn’t given it a thought. Did the bird’s screaming scare away the animal?
Then she felt herself reach out and grab the bird, holding it shrieking and wriggling against her coat until sobs like dry little retching gusts of air burst uncontrollably from deep in her chest. She stood there for what seemed like a long time, staring at the torn-up earth and tightly clutching the traumatized creature, which screamed now and then into the gray morning air.
“What are you doing over there?” Richard appeared at the kitchen entrance, spoon in hand, socked feet exposed. “I just needed a couple eggs!”
It took Eliza time to raise her voice to span the length of their two yards, to lift above the shrieking bird and to be steady and calm.
“One of the chickens is dead, and the other one is very upset.”
“Yes, Richard, don’t you hear her crying?”
“I guess I didn’t know the difference.”
“A fox. I don’t know.”
“Hmm…Well, poor things. They’re sitting ducks in that damn coop. Not built right.” He shook his head and lit a cigarette, which he held outside the door to let the smoke drift away. “Come inside, baby. There’s nothing we can do for them now. I’ll help Ferguson with them when he gets home tonight.”
“But shouldn’t we take the dead one out of here?” Eliza still clutched the chicken which had fallen quiet in her arms.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll do it. You come inside.”
“But what about the dressing?”
“I still have a little time, I think.”
She waited there for him, feeling the warmth of the fluffy bird against her, both of them holding to each other and that spot of earth where her boots must have sunk deep into the mud. Richard marched across the yard in heavy boots, tilted his head just a bit to the right as he opened the gate and walked past her into the coop. In a moment, he carried out the dead chicken in gloved hands and without a word, trudged back across the yard.
“Where are you going with her?”
“Gonna put it in the freezer till I know what Ferguson wants to do with it. Today’s supposed to warm up but if we preserve it, it’ll still make a good soup.”
Eliza looked down at the bundle of feathers in her arms, mild fluttering waves passing over it. Now it had begun to squirm again, and so she set it back down on the earth where it began to peck and wander. She slowly moved herself away from it and back to the house, suddenly sobbing again in the loud wind, despite some deep cold tingling that also rose into her chest, quieting her just as quickly as the tears had come.
Silly woman. Just a chicken.
Above her, one shutter, loosened in last night’s storm, banged hard and drew her eyes up to the house. It seemed to bend down toward her, or maybe, in the last few hours, had simply settled deeper into the earth.
Eliza sat on the piano bench, listening to the house, which seemed more tender and sad now that the wind and the rain and the tree had done their worst to its already unsteady structure. And she could hear a sort of fearful whispering in her belly where those invisible insects which so often tortured her flew about as though her belly were their home and not hers. And there was another whispering too that sounded like the song her mother sang to her many nights when she finally made it to bed, a song about a sea captain and a mermaid. She wondered suddenly if her mother had made it up. She’d never heard it anywhere else. She missed her mother. She missed her so much.
Her throat closed painfully around the jagged thought, and she swallowed to displace it, but it stuck. And the piano keys began to blur in her sight, and the back of her head seemed to open, and some part of her seemed to eject. Richard came to sit by her on the bench, emerging at last from his final clean-up from the great catering push. Feeling his body close to her, she rested her head on his shoulder, her hand still holding softly around her throat.
“You okay, baby?”
“I guess.” She sat in silence with him, just feeling the warmth of his hand on her knee until she was calm again. Soon she looked over at him, his rumpled hair, the smell of rosemary and olive oil about him. And, with quiet attention, he turned and kissed her gently smiling mouth. They dreamed into each other this way until she could feel herself again. Then, with his arms around her, he lifted her onto his lap where she faced him, legs and arms encircling, her skirt loose and high around her thighs. They made love there on the hard piano bench, her hands finally pressing onto the keys in discordant tones of abandon. From her lips the most exquisite sound emerged that rose up through the whole house, and he sighed with relishing pleasure to hear such a tender and ecstatic cry.
When they became still again, sitting entwined on the bench, he pressed his ear up against the middle of her chest, and his breath grew soundless. Even the house had calmed its constant quiet chatter.
“Your heart sounds like liquid or air. It’s strange to really hear it, how it sounds different than you always assume it sounds.”
“What is it saying?”
Looking up at her with transparent eyes that searched back and forth, he seemed to decipher her. “It says you have needed more from me than I have known how to give.”
“I’m scared all the time, Richard,” she whispered, leaning pursed lips against his forehead.
“I don’t want you to be scared, but I think I know what you mean.”
They stayed like that for a long time in the quietly murmuring house, and she felt how its walls held her safe and captive, peaceful and frozen, and how its hollowness had located and amplified some deep echo within her. And as she ran her fingers through her lover’s hair, she decided she would play the piano.
Eliza turned, still sitting on Richard’s lap, and played the simple song her mother first taught her when she was only eight. It came as easily as it had the year she stopped playing, the year her mother died. She felt her mother’s softness next to her on the bench, her slender fingers pointing to one key, then the next, how she smelled of orange marmalade, and how sweet her voice sounded so close in her ear, the same sound as tea being poured into a china cup. And as Eliza collapsed after just a few bars, leaning over the keys, Richard laid his large hands over hers, and their fingers interlaced and drew inward until she was held entirely by him. It was then that the throbbing in her throat which had formed and reached up now released into the air in weeping that found its way from deep in her belly. Richard took both her hands and crossed them in front of her, holding her tightly until the last tear fell onto the ivory keys like rain trickling into the cracks.