A noise wakes Keesey early in the morning. All night, she has dreamed of a lizard with a strangely prehensile tail. It sits in green shadows on a stone and, at odd intervals, lashes its tail much like a cat. This is her dream, nothing more. When she rolls over and opens her eyes, Keesey sees dried mud on her mattress and on the underside of her sheets. She groans and squeezes her eye shut. The fingers of her left hand tingle sharply as blood flows back into that arm, and her neck is stiff.
When she opens her eyes for the second time, the old man stands silhouetted in her doorway. He holds a cup of tea in each hand; Keesey knows from experience that both cups are for him. He scrutinizes the room and the rumpled mess of the mattress on the floor.
“You,” he croaks, “the way in.”
“What?” Keesey frowns, thinking, “Old man. Stupid old man. He watches too many movies and thinks he has to have riddles. Why can’t he just tell me what’s going on?”
The old man looks a little ashamed. “Name. You name,” he tries. Keesey looks at him. Abruptly, he sets one of the cups on the floor, sloshing tea over the sides. He backs into the kitchen, picks up its only chair, and sets it in the hall, facing into Keesey’s room. He bends over and reclaims his second cup of tea.
“You’re right,” the old man thinks into Keesey’s mind. She sits up, pulling blankets with her and puts her back to the wall, wary. The old man raises a cup in what might be a gesture of apology. “But do you think about what your name sounds like?”
“No,” she thinks, “it’s just my name. Questions you already know the answer to are just as bad as riddles.”
The old man squints at her. “Key. Your name sounds like ‘key’ ...Means something.” His face is paling. He drains one of the cups of tea.
“Or maybe it means nothing. Nothing at all.” Keesey shifts in the bed and notices she is sitting in some warm, wet spot. “God,” she says out loud and jerks the blankets with her as she moves over. A spot of dark blood joins the other stains on her mattress. “The crow man must have been hurt,” she thinks with horror, but the blood is wet and dark and fresh. In that moment, she realizes it is hers. “Oh,” she thinks, “it’s my first... my first...”
If possible, the old man grows more pale.
* * *
It is late afternoon on a Tuesday when Lyndsay would be at work if she hadn’t caught the thing that everybody was catching at the office. She stands by her best window, watching traffic, with one hand holding blankets around her and the other pressing a cup of tea to her chest, where it slowly cools. She thinks, “Sometimes, this is worth all of it – the ridiculous office job, the rent, the bills, the crazy people on the bus, the homeless gang kids after dark – just to see the sunset sky above glass and brick buildings. Or the way light pools on the horizon. Or the edge of the rain drawing closer.”
Then, standing has worn her out, so she curls up again on the couch with her tea held now in both hands. Her mind wanders until it settles on the memory of her second date with Jimmy. It had been over a month since the first date, and she had given up and let him go. When she recognized his number on the mobile’s display, she reflexively put her finger in the soil of her prayer plant and found it dry. She was polite but distant, she recalls, and he was apologetic and also distant. They had agreed to meet at a coffee shop convenient to her office. She had no idea why he wanted to see her and imagined he needed something from her to do with his research. “A player,” she had said but smiles now because she misjudged him then.
Even as she pushed open the door to the coffee shop, which was empty save for Jimmy and the wilted-looking barista because the day was hot and the building older than air conditioning, her heart beat faster at the lean shape of him. He stood up quickly and clasped both of her hands together. He smiled and said her name with such warmth that everything she had let go came flooding back.
That coffee turned to dinner, then back to coffee again, at her place, and then to the couch and a c.d. of quiet bluegrass music. Jimmy had long, academic fingers but square, strong palms and a spare, narrow chest. His stomach and legs were trim like an athlete’s, from riding a bike, she had supposed. She idly wished that she worked out more as he lowered himself on top of her. They had laughed when his hair fell in her face – later, also, when hers fell in his – then he kissed her on the nose and released both hooks from both eyes on her bra strap. She gasped and arced against him with such force when his fingers found her nipple that he sat them both up and held her head to his chest under his chin as he stroked and kneaded her breasts. Her breath came shorter and shorter until she stretched upwards just enough to kiss him.
Sometime later, he broke away from her and smoothed her hair back behind her ears. “Is this okay?” he had asked.
“Yeah,” she said with a short laugh, “it’s just been awhile.”
“That’s crazy,” Jimmy had said and brought his hand out, so he could unbutton her shirt. “You’re really beautiful.” Even with clogged sinuses and a throat that feels like broken glass, Lyndsay can call up the pleasure of that exchange. She remembers how the light from the street lamp outside glinted on her naked breasts, which her mother referred to as ‘the twins’ whenever she felt Lyndsay was wearing something inappropriate. Being topless with Jimmy still clothed had filled her with a kind of confidence and recklessness that allowed her to lead him into the bedroom. A few feet from the bed, he stopped short and pulled her to him from behind, her back to his chest. His hand slid without resistance inside her work trousers, and she felt his penis, pressed urgently against her bottom, swell and pulse.
* * *
Acanthus leaves make long shadows on a hardwood floor. Some of these shadows move though the leaves that are their source do not. Some of these shadows stretch to an old woman sitting in a chintz-covered chair, which is the only piece of furniture in the room save for the acanthus, who does not know that dark things ride her and feed on her grief.
The old woman shifts in her chair and mutters wordlessly. She is thinking, “After his bath, he stood in bare feet. His toenails are overgrown because he cannot stoop so well to cut them and will not stoop to have me do it. His legs are pale and mostly hairless now, but he keeps them well covered in his dressing gown, which is belted at his waist. The dressing gown flatters his figure that has gone a little soft; standing there, you would not know he is an old man. His chest cuts a sharp line, and his arms seem strong. His face is deeply lined, and his eyes appear dark in this light. In the sun, you would see that his eyes are grey and merciless. He has been in a war, and his rent and bloody companions closed that door to his soul. The lines in his face, though, are from laughter. His ears are now too large for his face. They have hair growing from them that he does not care to remove. His face, however, is always clean-shaven, even if a beard might have softened his terrible eyes. He has grey hair, of course.
I have deliberately waited until now to tell you about his hands. This is because they are my favourite part, that, and his back, but it is much like his chest, so it is not necessary to describe his back alone. His hands are large. I used to say they were the size of the dinner china. My fingers are long and straight, but his thumbs are quite wide at the top. They are the shape of the hammerhead shark we saw on holiday to the coast, although perhaps not so strange as that. He has wide thick knuckles that the other bones of his fingers have grown crabbed and crooked around. When he was not so old, he would span my whole waist with his hands or press my entire head to his chest with one...”
And then the old woman is lost in her sense of him. She closes her eyes, and he is standing in the empty room just as she built him. If he is cold in his dressing gown, he does not show it. He stares at her, and she imagines he means that she must let him go.
“I will not,” she says to the shadows. “I will not let you go. I will bend all my thoughts to you until you are returned to me.” She sees then his chest rise as though a breath has been taken. With increasing delight, she follows the play of light across the silk of his dressing gown. It snakes across his bicep and then runs like water down his chest and stomach. It curls for a moment at his fine, square hip, then leaps to a bronze lock of a wooden trunk that she did not build, yet it is in the room at the foot of her dead husband.