Fiction · 06/11/2014

The Twenty-Third of June

I.

Two nights pass, and on the third day, beyond the smudged train window, we wake to green hills and the sun moving high. A baby cries. Children run in the aisle. The conductor roams the car, humming, making small jokes. He takes off his hat and holds the back of his hand to his forehead. I fall asleep on your shoulder.

“Look,” you say, gently waking me. I open my eyes: there ahead — a beach — waves rolling in. “We’re here.”

The train slows as it approaches the station, and in the cool and the dark of the tunnel, I become afraid. Inside the station, the newspaper stand is shuttered, the café closed. Who makes decisions here? It’s high season, the middle of the day.

Outside, we find the boardwalk, where everyone seems to be dressed as if from the 1940s. A woman passes. The wind lifts the sides of her hat. She smiles at us, pulling the hat down over one eye. A man leans against the corner of a hotel in the shade, fanning himself with a newspaper, watching the woman with the hat. His linen shirt is sweat stained.

“I’m thirsty,” I say.

We go into a hotel lobby where the wooden walls seem almost black after all the sunshine. There are decorative ferns in golden pots, their delicate tendrils reaching through the air.

“Follow me,” says a hostess, looking over her shoulder, lifting the menus like a tour guide. When she smiles, I notice a space between her front teeth. She takes us back out to the boardwalk and puts us at a table with a view of the ocean, with an umbrella for shade. A small band is playing, a woman singing. Everyone must hear the same song in the distance, above the water, at the edge of the sea: I’ve found you, I’ve found you. Around us, the smell of damp boards, of salt air.

In the evening, before we stroll back down the boardwalk the way we came, we stand at the end of a pier, watch light touch water. You say: “This is where I want to be,” and take my hands in yours.

This world has its tempo: the hush of the wave, the rhythm of your heart, the sound of your breath. I close my eyes and listen: Waves, heart, breath. Waves, heart, breath.

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II.

Instead, I take the subway to meet you and we stay up all night in a crowded café, sitting in a corner alone, touching hands across the table as I have seen couples do in the city. When I lean back to laugh at something you say, the lights from passing cars come in through the window to race across our table, illuminating the props: a white napkin, a glass left by a former occupant (a woman alone, mouthing the words to the song on the jukebox: I’ve found you) with lipstick still on the rim.

On our arrival, you’ll have put this glass aside, a gesture that makes it easy for us to fit ourselves together, with comfort, so that you may take my hands in yours. We won’t notice the waitress, who comes over with her pad tapping a pencil, hip struck to one side, thinking: Lovers, the worst. She goes away shaking her head, shrugs to the hostess, who is bored by the lateness of the night, who has already told herself all the stories of the patrons, and whose face is prettily framed by the dark green plastic fern that sits on the counter behind her. When the busboy comes by, she points to our table with two fingers. “The glass,” she says to him. “Didn’t you notice it?”

For a moment he stares at her. The fronded stem, the two-fingered point. It’s a message.

The busboy didn’t like the woman who sat at the table before we did, and he made a point of avoiding her. He could tell the woman had been crying, and that made him nervous. She drank coffee and rolled sugar packets between her fingers until the thin paper broke.

He picks up the woman’s glass with a napkin. His mother used to tell stories: Emotions can pollute objects. You can catch sorrow from another person just like you catch a cold. He apologizes for the glass, wiping away a little hill of sugar on the edge of the table.

The hostess leans on one elbow, watching him. She wonders what he does when he leaves the restaurant.

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III.

Somewhere, there is a house with a view of a hill. The sky is visible from every window, and until you take me one day, I have never seen it. It’s just after we’re married — I’m almost certain we’re married — and you lead me there with a blindfold across my eyes, saying: “Careful, it gets steep here,” as we step through the tall ferns that grow at the edge of the stream. Generally I do not like surprises and you know this, but with you everything changes. With you, and I don’t know how you do this, but the days are longer. There is more time.

“You must tell me where we are going,” I say.

“Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

How strange is it to take off a blindfold and find that someone has given you a house. I don’t quite know what to do. I am worried that I don’t like the house, but I do like it. The house is perfect. Still, somehow I am disappointed. There will be a consequence. There is an action I haven’t been able to take. “I must be able to make my own decisions!” I want to yell. Instead, we dance together on the porch. You hum the song from the beach: I’ve found you, I’ve found you.

“This is where I want to be,” I sing back.

I remember the night I told you I’d never had a home — not a real one. There were rooms in the house I grew up in that were almost safe, but there were so many places that were not — rooms that I could not count on staying in for long, rooms that I was often ordered out of, and instead of leaving the house all together, I found myself moving farther into myself, making rooms of my own, retreating into my stories, getting lost in invention.

I realize that this is why you gave me a house, and sometimes at night I slip out of bed and walk through the house in the dark, touching the walls and the windows, making sure it’s all still there, that I haven’t invented it.

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IV.

The busboy and the hostess. Now there’s a story. He couldn’t stop thinking about how she’d pointed with two fingers instead of one. After work, he stopped into one of those stores that boasts of selling everything for one dollar and bought a plastic fern for two dollars and twenty-seven cents. At home, he set the fern in different places, trying to find the right spot, and finally settled on leaving it on the floor next to his futon. His room, like all rooms in the city, was never completely dark at night, and before he drifted off to sleep, he looked at the plastic edges of the plant and thought of the hostess, who had a gap between her front teeth and dressed all in black for work. He imagined her dancing and laughing. He could see her drawing with silver ink on black walls. The plastic fern wasn’t cut properly. Some of the edges were translucent and uneven. Maybe he would ask the hostess where she went at night.

In the morning, he ate his cereal and stared at the fern. A fern is a vascular plant, he remembered, with stems and leaves. His mother once told him that on June twenty-third, he should go into the woods to look for a flowering fern. If he found one, he would be able to travel invisibly through time and space, finding love and riches wherever he went.

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V.

After we move into the house, we find things that belonged to its former owner, a woman who, coincidentally (though we will never know it), is the same woman from the café — the one who left her lipstick stain on the glass and broke the sugar packets. In the attic, we find a box full of letters that belonged to her. The letters begin: This is where I wanted to be — . In the same box, there are dried ferns pressed beneath wax paper, a lock of hair in a clear plastic bag. We make up stories about the woman who owned these things. When the sun is going down, and trees cast long shadows over the hills, you turn to me and say: “Tell me something about the woman,” and I pick up where I last left off.

“The lock of hair surely belongs to a child,” I say, so I tell you about the child, and the way his mother worried over him too much as he grew, and she was superstitious and told him folktales. Instead of taking him to the doctor when he became ill, she gave him charms and said prayers.

“But he didn’t die,” you say. “That lock of hair — “

“Oh no. It’s simply from a first haircut.”

One day, an official looking letter from a government office turns up in the post addressed to the woman who left her things in the attic. Of course we know her name, and because we’re naturally curious people and have no way of finding her, we tear the seal and read the letter greedily in front of the fire.

This is how the letter begins: I’m sorry to inform you — , and I turn my face away from the piece of paper with its tragedy and thin blue border running around and around like poisoned blood.

You notice that I have gotten up to stand at the window. “What is it?” you ask.

“She is alone somewhere.”

“Maybe she’s with the child — the one with the black hair.”

“Yes,” I answer, but I know it can’t be true.

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VI.

That same night, the woman who lived in our house, who drank from the lipsticked glass on our table, rides a train to the seaside. It’s the same train that we took. She can remember what it was like the first time she rode the train. The conductor was much younger then, but he was the same conductor all right. He looked at her shyly, from beneath the shining visor of his cap. He didn’t joke or hum. He was young and fresh and it was his first job. He knew a girl in the city who wore black dresses and wasn’t afraid to go dancing with him, but he didn’t know ladies — not the sort the woman had been anyway.

She wants to see the ocean — not because she thinks she will actually find the man there, but because she will find a piece of him, and of herself as well. She can sense things, and she senses this is true: a memory is like flora pressed beneath wax paper — it still exists, but it is altered and fragile. In the city, she sat in the café they liked, gazing into the night, looking at the shapes that passed on the sidewalk.

The man she knew stood on the end of the pier too and said to her: This is where I want to be, and took her hands and led her to the house through the woods with a white blindfold covering her eyes, only she stumbled because unlike you, that man did not say: “Careful, it gets steep here,” when they reached the slip of a stream and the tall ferns. He was looking at a hawk flying through the sky, and finally, so transfixed, he untied the blindfold so that they might watch it together. They followed the hawk’s route with her pointed finger.

When the hawk settled on a branch near the house, she said: “Who do you suppose lives there?”

He smiled and took her around the waist. “You and I live there.”

She ran to the house and flung open the wooden door. She did not pause and consider what it meant to be given a house. She was younger than I was when I was given the same house. Maybe it seemed natural to accept such a gift without questioning it. And after all, it was a long time ago now, and things were different between women and men.

They were happy in the house. They went into clearings and picked the field flowers, just as we do, and brought them inside where the light came in differently with each season, changing the color of the rooms between morning and night. She started a garden, and he built the shed where we keep our bicycles. But one day, the woman awoke alone. She walked through the house and out into the yard. She called his name in the fields and wood, and telephoned police and neighbors.

“No,” she said to those who asked. “Nothing unusual occurred, there was nothing to indicate — “, and then she fell silent, confused.

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VII.

The night the man left, he woke suddenly to the stillness of small hours, from a dream of death — of all the sunlight leaving the world, of a train pulling into a dark shed, so cool and unfamiliar — and when he woke, he looked at the ceiling, where the shadows of tree limbs played, and he thought of the hawk on that first day: its stiff-winded flight through the air. He rose, walked out into the night, knee-deep in the swaying ferns, looking for something, and never returned. Now, years later, she is still looking for him.

Only you and I have the sad news of his death.

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VIII.

That night, our lights stay on longer than usual, and when the neighbors pass, they hope that all is as it should be, that there is no need for alarm. This is because they like us, because they are very old, and remember the woman and the night the man left, and how the lights stayed on long into the nights that followed (Once, we had our neighbors over. It was a hot afternoon and we sat in folding chairs on the lawn, drinking lemonade. They commented on my garden, and though they mentioned the previous couple, their faces said they’d rather not be asked).

That night, I will dream a dream of trains, and of the sound of waves. I will dream that I am the woman searching for something lost. I will dream the man’s dream, and walk into the night alone, guided by the moon. The earth is cool under my feet. It is summer. I can smell the light from the sun that has left the trees. I am knee-deep in the swaying ferns. They are so tall I only have to bend a little to reach them with my fingertips, and then I let my legs fold under me, and I lie down in the ferns. I close my eyes and listen to the ferns, try to understand their secret whispers. When I open my eyes again, the ferns begin to blossom, their fragile white petals bright against the night sky.

I reach for a flower, but then I remember your words: It gets steep here, and know that if I choose to travel through time, invisible and alone, dancing late into the night —

Well, I would only want to come back.

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IX.

The woman searching for a shadow disembarks, and soon she has found the boardwalk again. She remembers the way she used to dress. Gloves and hats, and that the wind from the sea blew her hat so that she was afraid she’d lose it, and she had to pull it down a bit and look up at people as if she were apologizing. Isn’t this where she first saw him? She stops by the hotel, puts her hand out to steady herself. Yes, this is the spot. He was merely a man leaning against the corner of a hotel in the shade, fanning himself with a newspaper. When she passed, he looked her up and down and whistled. “Are you thirsty?” he asked, and even though she knew she shouldn’t, she went over to him. His linen shirt was sweat stained. One stops for a sailor, she told herself. At the end of a war, one lets a sailor buy a drink if he wants.

They went into the shade of a hotel lobby, where the ferns’ tendrils climbed the walls and wed with the densely flowered wallpaper, and they found a hostess talking to a busboy.

“The glass,” said the hostess, pointing to a table with two fingers. She turned to the man and the woman. “This way,” she said, lifting the menus high, and the woman watched the man watch the hostess, thinking that girls walk differently by the sea. Later, in a room that faced the ocean, the woman practiced rolling her hips like the hostess did, walking back and forth in front of the man as he lay in bed smoking, and when he took her about the waist and pulled her down on the bed with him, the world found its own tempo: waves, heart, breath. Waves, heart, breath.

Surely it was the summer everyone was listening to that song — how did it go? Standing on the boardwalk, the woman begins to hum. She closes her eyes and breathes in the sea air. It was the same old song they played everywhere, then: in the distance, above the water, at the edge of the sea: I’ve found you, I’ve found you.

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Beth Hahn earned an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She attended The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and her short stories have appeared in The Hawai’i Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Emrys Journal. A novel, The Singing Bone, is represented by Jessica Papin of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. You can find Beth online at beth-hahn.com.