Whimper County, Wisconsin, Date Unknown
Gracely stumbled off the train and onto a rickety platform. The low clouds above her had the shape and color of oyster gills. The station was surrounded by a vast prairie of eight-foot high grassland. To Gracely, it felt like standing at the bottom of a shallow cave.
The train’s arrival had silenced the songbirds, but did nothing to hush the cicada thrum, nor did it discourage the smoky-winged dragonflies that darted past her face. Tangles of big bluestem grew through gaps between the platform’s boards, and a row of soot-blackened foundation stones was the only remnant of a station house that had burned down long ago.
A gray-haired woman looked down from the passenger car’s doorway. Her glasses had one cracked lens, and a chorus of muffled weeping haunted the dark space behind her.
Gracely had never been so thirsty in her life.
“My bags?” she asked. “My things?”
“You’ll be glad not to have them.”
Far down the track, the conductor hurled curses at a ruptured condenser.
Gracely swatted an insect on the back of her neck.
“South of here,” said the grey-haired woman. “You will find a deer path. It is the only route out of this clearing. It will lead you to a blossomy meadow intersected by a stream. You must not drink from this stream, no matter how tempted you become.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Follow the stream to town. When you arrive, entrust yourself into the care of the first man you meet. He will give you instructions.”
“You must follow his instructions no matter what. You must not question what he tells you.”
Gracely’s dress was heavy with sweat.
The woman had barnacle-like growths on her neck and arms. She held a wooden truncheon branded with a symbol Gracely didn’t recognize.
Pistons hissed. Metal scraped against metal. The conductor’s curses grew louder, and the weeping in the passenger car intensified.
The woman removed her glasses.
“What is it?” asked Gracely.
The woman closed her eyes and took a breath. She replaced her glasses.
“You must not drink from the stream because it is infested with parasites that hook to the throat, burrow into the bloodstream, and finally take root in the brain. Weeks later, when their eggs hatch, a chemical is released that causes hallucinations. Victims believe that their skin and clothing have caught fire. They cannot be convinced otherwise. They return to the stream where they were originally infected. Seeking relief from imagined flames, they dive beneath the water’s surface and drown. Millions of larvae then exit their bodies, beginning the cycle of infestation once more.”
Gracely legs gave out; she fell into a squatting position and remained there, looking up at the woman on the train.“That’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
“No it isn’t,” said the woman. She removed her glasses again. “The world wasn’t always like this. I’m sorry.”
The train’s heavy door slammed shut.
Midway between Gracely and the horizon, a pair of crows engaged in a noisy argument.
Straining against the door’s iron hinges, the woman forced a two-inch wide opening. “You must learn what it means to be loved!”
The door again crashed shut. In a sudden storm of screeching gears and violent bursts of steam, the train lurched down the tracks.
Gracely’s hand drifted upwards. She waved goodbye.
Just as the prairie swallowed the caboose, its backmost door burst open and the woman bounded against the rear platform’s railing. A curtain of blood fell across her face. “I think we’re becoming what we are supposed to be!” she screamed.
Seconds later, the train was gone for good.
Gracely had never been so thirsty in her life. Her extremities tingled, and light sparkled in her peripheral vision. She had seen a similar effect around the playing card-sized portraits of saints that her aunts had used as bookmarks in their Bibles. If this path led to water, she doubted her ability to resist a drink. She’d never had much strength of will.
Once, when she was only seven years old, she was collecting eggs just after dawn when she found her father sleeping in the chicken coop. His lips were crusted white, and he shivered as if he had passed out in the middle of a blizzard and not at the end of the warmest June anyone could remember living through. When she helped him to his feet, he rested an unsteady hand on the top of her head and warned her not to follow the new path that cut through the woodlot, and to avoid what was at the end of that path, no matter what.
That very night, she crept out her window naked, paused at the rain barrel to ladle water over her head, and made for the path. The way was overgrown with thistles and thorns. At the end of the path, she tripped into a tight cloister of chokecherry shrubs. Overcome with sudden hunger, she gorged on sticky sweetness until she became sick right on the spot, expelling a voluminous mass of a thick, tar-like substance onto the roots of the bush. For several days after, she felt like there was a half-lit coal smoldering in her belly.
The trail she followed from the train platform never took her past a parasite-infested stream, but after several hours of hiking, she emerged onto the border of a neglected cemetery at the outskirts of her destination, a place she’d been told was Stebbinsville, Wisconsin.
She crossed the cemetery, where half the headstones had been swallowed by crabgrass and dirt. She waded through a patch of stinging nettles and stepped onto a boardwalk. The air smelled like fresh water, and she heard waves crashing against a shore, but she believed these were hallucinations produced by her intolerable thirst.
The town consisted of steep-roofed, two-story clapboard buildings that hugged a deeply rutted logging road. Businesses occupied the first floors. A barber shop. A tavern. A textile shop with fishing nets hanging in the window. A small hotel. All closed. The second floors were abandoned apartments.
She saw no sign of the inhabitants of that place.
She sat on a bench made from a weather-damaged board nailed to two stumps of unequal height. She extracted her foot from her mule-leather boot and reached inside to retrieve a small brass key wrapped in a page torn from a hand-drawn children’s book. She replaced the boot, stood, and turned to the building directly behind her. She approached its door, twisted the key in its lock, climbed a staircase, and entered the apartment.
She could think of nothing but her thirst. In the kitchen, the basin contained only dead spiders and dust. She searched cabinets, shelves, and drawers in every room but found only chalky jars, bundles of candles bound by rough twine, stacks of battered tin plates, chipped earthenware cups, and an oil lamp in a tarnished brass holder. Defeated, she wandered into a sitting room, stripped off her dress, collapsed into a sturdy wicker chair, and stared at the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out the back of the building.
Gracely had never seen so much glass in one place. Her view, warped by an uneven surface of trapped air bubbles, included a tangle of untidy alleys. There were squat buildings constructed from salvaged railroad ties and the rough planks of bone-white pine. A sailmaker’s loft. A smokehouse. A small church with a lightning-struck steeple.
Farther out, toward the horizon, she saw a body of water so immense that until this point her mind had registered it as empty piece of sky.
She approached the window and flattened her palm against the glass. White capped breakers assaulted the boulders that edged the shore. Black-winged terns dove into the shallows, hunting crayfish and freshwater shrimp. To quench her thirst she needed to leave, to make her way to the shore, scramble across the rocks, and lower her mouth to the churning waves.
For the entirety of her life, Gracely suffered from an anxiety rooted in the belief that she was not a real person, but instead a character in a made-up story. That she lived not in real places, but instead settings in a book, and that all of the people she’d ever met were only imaginary scraps of an idea. She did not know when or why she had developed this belief, but as she pushed her body closer to the glass, as the view was fogged by her breath, she was sure that this true. When she closed her eyes, she could feel the movement of the author’s pen.
The doorknob rattled. Outside the apartment, a man coughed.
Gracely fetched her dress and pulled it over her head. Hurrying to the door, she paused in front of a tarnished mirror and checked her demeanor. Pleased, but not manic. Eager, but not excited. Mild, but not bland. This was the expression that she had painstakingly fabricated for her introduction to Commander Wayne Stebbins, founder of this town. And her husband.
Two years earlier, she had been married to him by means of men’s signatures on a whiskey-stained contract delivered by oxcart to the mud-splattered homestead where she had spent her girlhood. In the years that had passed since the marriage, Gracely had been frequently reminded of Commander Stebbins’ reputation. His family oversaw half of the Nebraska territory, including the dirt field where Gracely had lived with her father and three widowed aunts. Where her mother had died. But it was as a soldier that her husband had made his name. During the War of the Rebellion, he had single-handedly constructed a bridge that crossed a set of dangerous rapids separating one portion of a battlefield from another, making possible one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. He had swum across a great bay during a terrible midnight storm, climbed on board an enemy ship, and strangled his enemies in their sleep. She had not met him, but expected the appearance of a warrior.
However, when she opened the door, she discovered a shivering, frail figure wrapped in a hooded brown robe. He staggered and gagged. He leaned against the door frame, then he crumbled into her arms.
He weighed as much as a sack of dry leaves. Gracely carried him into the parlor where the dark woodwork was engraved with nautical scenes edged with years of dust. Bookcases sagged with clothbound volumes, their pages bloated with mold. An ink-stained roll top desk was covered by hand drawn maps and architectural sketches. A small table with an oil lamp rested on a circle of tawny lace. In the corner was an invalid’s chair with a high back and small tin wheels.
Gracely arranged Commander Stebbins on the horsehair sofa. He pulled his robes around himself with a decayed hand and released a tubercular wheeze. Gracely tilted her ear to the dark opening of his hood; she heard the chattering of teeth, the muffled sound of weeping voices, the roar of distant waves.
Now that she was close, she saw the robes were made of tightly woven junegrass, each hair-like blade less than three inches long.
She looked down on him once again. She had expected at the end of this journey to become a part of something: a household, a community, a living world. Instead, she now realized she had become a part of nothing. Instead of a life, or something like a life, she had been handed this.
Gracely consulted the mirror once again and adjusted her demeanor. Concerned, not unnerved. Somber, not doleful. Vexed, not hysterical: a wife.
She pushed the invalid’s chair’s near the sofa. She sat down in it. She intended to conduct a vigil at her husband’s side, but she fell asleep the very instant she touched the seat.
She dreamed that she was wandering her family’s property, searching for a stream or well from which she could drink. During her search, she stumbled upon a pregnant sow rooting for acorns and grubs. The mud of the field where she stood was crunchy with flecks of ice. Suddenly, as she bent towards the sow, she saw the pack of wolves. Calmly, Gracely lifted the pig. It weighed almost nothing. She felt the babies thrashing in its womb. She shifted it to one shoulder and thrust her arm down her own throat and into her body. Her fingers found something cold and hard, and she pulled with all her might and extracted a bone. After a moment’s consideration, she threw the bone to the approaching wolves. It took a wide, graceful arc through the air and landed in a set of gleaming jaws, where it snapped like a twig in a fire.
She pulled another bone from herself. It was glistening and clean. She tossed it to the wolves and reached inside herself once more. As she continued to pull and toss, it seemed as if her body contained an infinite number of bones. But she knew that this could not be true. She would soon reach and find nothing left to grasp. When that moment came, Gracely knew that she would sacrifice the pig and its young to save herself.
She woke at dusk. She checked her husband for signs of life. He trembled at her touch; he coiled more tightly around himself and sputtered indecipherable phrases.
Guiltily, she returned the chair to its original location.
Gracely’s three aunts had done their best to prepare her for the ascension to her new station as the wife of a gentleman. They had strictly overseen her hygiene and dress. Each morning, they fed her apples preserved in vinegar, which they claimed would help maintain her figure and eliminate unwelcome sexual appetites. They provided musical instruction as much they could, possessing only one tattered hymn book among them, tortured her with lessons in corset lacing. Lacking an actual corset, they had woven a busk from cowhide and reinforced its shapes with thin strips of wood. They taught her how to weep in silence.
The apartment quickly grew dark. Gracely retrieved the oil lamp from its table and when she returned, Commander Stebbins was standing shakily on his feet, still hidden beneath his robes. His arm was outstretched, and he held a thin piece of tinder in his withered hand.
“You’re recovering,” she said. “I’m pleased.”
The tinder in his hand ignited; a gem-like flame burned at its tip. Her husband gestured for her to step forward. He held the burning tinder to her nose. This, she thought, is what woman on the train meant when she told Gracely to obey the first man she encountered in town.
She tilted her face over the match’s flame, extinguished it with a breath, and inhaled. The smoke burned her throat and increased her thirst by a hundred degrees.
“I think we’re becoming what we’re supposed to be,” she said.
Commander Stebbins dropped the smoldering match to the floor and collapsed into her arms for the second time.
She guided him into the wheelchair. She pushed him a few feet one way, then a few feet the other. She tried lifting him back onto the couch, but his trembling body felt brittle and fragile at her touch, so she left him where he was.
Feeling useless, she explored the apartment, searching for something to aid in his convalescence.
There were two bedrooms. One contained only a bassinet covered in cobwebs. The other was fully furnished but was overwarm and smelled like a freshly dead deer.
In the kitchen, what she had at first believed to be a pantry door opened onto a long hallway whose length defied sense. Along the hallway were innumerable doors, all closed, though light seeped through the gaps in some of their frames. Along the ceiling was a row of skylights. Despite the arrival of night, each skylight was a patch of intense illumination, as if the air just above was aflame.
At the hallway’s end, Gracely found a half-open door identical to the one through which she had passed. She entered into a perfect facsimile of the rooms she had just left. The same sitting room, parlor, and bedrooms, and the same windows looking out at the same desolate alleys. The same tracks in the carpet. The same crumpled page from a hand-drawn children’s book on the narrow drop-leaf table near the front door.
Commander Stebbins shivered on the same horsehair sofa.
Gracely’s thirst was urgent; her tongue was swollen, and her ears itched. The oil lamp in her hand blinked in unison with the oil lamp on a small table in the parlor’s corner.
She hovered in front of the opening of Commander Stebbin’s hood, checking for breath. She was relieved when she felt none. She slipped her hand inside the hood. She continued probing that dark space of the hood in search of cheeks or a jaw or skin, but when her arm was deep, to the elbow, her fingers grazed cool water.
She brought her fingers to her lips. Vinegar. Apples. Chokecherries. Bone meal.
Gracely’s thirst coiled around her neck. Her bones were burning coals. Commander Stebbins suddenly rallied to life to flail and flap his arms, but his feeble resistance was easily overcome. Gracely dove head first into the hood.
When she was half-way inside, her legs kicking in the air behind her, her face splashed against the pool. She dunked her head beneath the surface, opened her mouth wide, and drank.
Then, Gracely sat across from the sofa on the floor, her back against the wall, hugging her knees. Her hair dripped black water over the carpet. Commander Stebbins was curled up, his legs pulled against his chest, and his hood thrown back. A prominent nose hung over a lipless mouth with blue-black gums. His teeth were like brush bristles. The skin around his eyes was torn, as if the sockets had been roughly drilled into his face. His head was naked, the head of a stillborn chick.
Later, Gracely walked down the long, strangely lit hall and returned to the rooms from which she’d originally come; her soft, careful steps, her stiff back, her steady grin and most of all her wide, expectant eyes were those of a bride in her procession.
She locked the door behind her. She wrapped the key in a page torn from a hand-drawn children’s book, folded it tight, and dropped it into a drawer.
She resumed her station at the window, standing with her arms crossed, watching black waves crashing against the rocky shore.