On those golden afternoons, when the leaves on the trees dripped with warmth and the sky was clear enough to see the mountains in the distance, I would grab grandma’s rifle and sit in the grainy, depressed sofa on the veranda, wait for the neighborhood children to saunter by, and pretend to shoot them to death.
Grandma didn’t load her guns. I wasn’t sure if she actually had any bullets because if she did she would have killed Nora long before she died herself. I liked Nora because she made Grandma mad. Grandma said that Nora was the devil incarnate, come to punish her for her sins in a past life. Whenever she said that, I would ask Grandma what she did in her past life, but Grandma would ignore me and go somewhere in the house to clean her dentures.
On the weekends, Nora came out and sat with me, because all the kids stayed in on weekends, and I would be bored because there would be no one to shoot. We sat together and she told me the story of how she met her husband, and about all of the adventures he was having in the war. I liked those days, because I had never seen a war, and I thought it would be really fun to be in one. Nora didn’t like that I liked the war. She would tell me that war is bad and I would laugh and pretend to shoot her, and then she would slap me, and we would sit in silence until she broke into tears and went inside.
Nora came to Grandma’s house against every bit of resistance the old hag could conjure. She was my cousin, but old, and she came when her mama – my auntie – beat her when she fell in love with an army man and left her husband. Grandma found her sleeping on the couch one morning covered in sticky red marks and nearly shot her head off, except the rifle wasn’t loaded. She didn’t speak a word to Nora from that moment all the way to the moment she fell out of her high chair at dinner when I was nine and the sky was still and clear and perfect for a day on the veranda. From then on, it was just me and Nora and the rats that kept us company on those chilly nights.
Nora and I lived alone in Grandma’s house. It was nasty and the dust ate at everything that was good and pure, and neither of us had the basic instinct to sweep the place. When clouds covered the sky with a blanket of night, I stayed indoors and listened to Nora play the piano. She only played two songs. One of them was called “that fucking song”, and she would always mess it up. I liked that one, because it sounded like two fancy men in a fancy house, eating salad with a fork and accidentally stabbing their hands until eventually they both give up and Nora stomped upstairs to take a nap. The other one was slow and somber, and it filled the house with rain. Whenever Nora played this song, I would sit in the dining room and put my head down on the table and close my eyes. The chattering of the rats in the walls would stop for a second, and we would listen together, the rats and I, to Nora’s music.
On Fridays, Nora would bring home canned beans from the market. Beans were her favorite food, and so we would sit together and watch the stars and eat beans and talk about the war. It was colder there, she said. It chilled you to the core not just because of the wind, but also because of the death that hung over the battlefield at night, when it was silent and you felt alone no matter who was beside you. Her husband, James, wasn’t liking it very much, she said. She got letters from him, love letters, and every time she heard the rustling at the door she would cry because it meant that he was still alive.
I didn’t like James. He was taller than I was, and older too, which wasn’t fair. Nora met James when she was marrying another man, who was twenty years older than her and a fair bit richer too. James was at the wedding as a nobody, but Nora saw him and she remembered him, and later on she told him that she loved him, and then she left her husband and they got married, and then he went to the war, and then Nora came to Grandma’s. I memorized the whole story because it was short and she told it so often.
James sounded boring.
I told Nora I thought James sounded boring one time, and she said that he was, but that was part of what she loved about him. That he was nice and normal and plain, and so unlike people like auntie, or Grandma, or me. I laughed and continued to shoot the kids. Like that, she said. It didn’t matter to me, though. I was here and James was not, and so James was not a part of our universe. It was just Nora, and me, and Grandma’s house, and the children who passed us on those golden afternoons.
A month after I turned twelve, Nora told me that she was leaving to go to the war. That was a problem because I loved Nora. Nora was leaving because James missed her and he invited her to come live with him for a while, and she had agreed, but that would mean that I had to find another home. That was a problem too, because I didn’t have another home.
“Go live with your parents.”
Nora left the house and I waved, and I didn’t tell her I loved her, and I didn’t tell her that I had nowhere to go. I didn’t tell her anything. I watched her walk away, down the familiar dirt path, and disappear around the corner.
On those golden afternoons without Nora, I thought about suffocating myself. I perched on the railing of the veranda and held Grandma’s rifle with my right hand, balancing myself with my left, and waited for the kids to pass by. The kids were all coming home from school, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups of three, and always too loud. I would aim the rifle at them when I saw them, but I didn’t shoot because I was lonely and I kept thinking about Nora in the war. Sometimes, they would walk by in pairs, and when I saw that I did not aim my gun at all. There was something very delicate about the kids who walked in pairs, because they often did not talk, or if they did they spoke in whispers. I tried to listen to what they had to say that was so precious, but it just made me sad when the wind cloaked their words, and so I would go back inside to look for a place to hold my breath until my body begged me to live.
I bought canned beans and dry noodles from the market on weekends, using money that Grandma stored under her pillow. She was a paranoid woman, and did not like to keep her money in the bank, which was good because I had no intention to work, and neither did Nora. I took the money and I went and I bought enough canned beans and dry noodles for the whole week, and I would drink water from the tap and ignore the letters that came in the mail that told me I had to pay.
Nora promised she would write me letters, but I knew that she wouldn’t because Nora didn’t love me. She kept me at arm’s length even when we lived in the same room. So that was why, when I was touching myself one afternoon, I was startled to hear a rustle at the door followed by a curt knock. I pulled up my pants and looked across the living room to see what the commotion was, only to find an envelope half-sticking out from under the door and bent awkwardly across the bushy welcome mat. I waddled over and picked up the letter with my clean hand, and I saw that it was from Nora and it was addressed to me.
It smelled disappointingly like paper.
I ripped open this letter and I saw Nora’s writing, scratched out with tiny ink. It was loopy and clean, and long, too. I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to know about James and I didn’t want to know about the war, and I didn’t want to know how happy she was without me. I took it and I went upstairs to the study where I abandoned the letter in the piano bench.
The piano was dark wood and covered in dust, and Nora’s fingerprints on the keys were weeks old. Even so, I could hear her slow song as if she were playing it before my eyes.
Dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…
I closed my eyes and listened for something like that now, something trapped in the chamber, some trace of love that did not belong to me.
I let my finger fall on the calloused ivory key. The sound was full and concussive and rang out through the house with an entitlement that offended my ears. There was a chattering in the walls as rats scrambled away from the source of the noise. I noticed how deflated the instrument was when the notes did not keep each other company.
Nora didn’t touch the piano when Grandma was alive but she would always gaze longingly at it over her books from across the study. She was out of school – she didn’t go much in the first place – but she tried to read books like the kind that educated people read. I didn’t go to school either, but that was because I didn’t care about being educated or reading books. Grandma said it was a waste of time, and all the kids would regret it, so I should stay home and wait until I’m old enough to work for Mr. Hunter, who runs the newspaper and sometimes disappears into Grandma’s room.
The first night without Grandma, Nora sat down at the piano and played that fucking song for eight hours. She walked out of the study with raw fingertips in the morning and fell asleep on the couch. When she woke up, we picked up Grandma and we carried her into the woods behind the house, and we left her in a small clearing where we thought God might be able to see her better and take her to heaven. After that, we went back to the house and didn’t speak about it again. We sat on the veranda and we laughed and laughed, and when it started to rain, we went inside and Nora played her slow song, and that was the first time the walls went silent.
I thought of all this as I listened to the note fade away. I thought about Nora, who was somewhere, and who left me alone with the ghost of her melodies. I felt myself get angry and slapped the keys. The notes bashed their heads against each other and disgraced the room with their incompatibility. I slapped the keys again, harder. Then again. Blast after blast, shot after shot, flew out and killed whatever echoes of Nora’s song lingered in the study. I slammed the piano cover shut and stomped out of the room, down the stairs, to the kitchen. I took a can of beans out of the cabinet and I threw it at the door. It made a thunk and dribbled across the floor before settling back at my feet. I stepped over it, grabbed the rifle by the couch, and walked outside to sit on the veranda.
It was late in the afternoon now, and the sun was dripping off of the leaves the way it always does just before everything goes dark. I stared down the dirt path leading to the road, which was overgrown with bushes and vines, and listened to the familiar voices of children screeching delightfully nearby. The air smelled just as fresh as the day before, and the day before that, and before that too. The sky was clear, and the mountains in the distance stood like barricades between this world and the next.
I didn’t sit down. I didn’t move. I dropped the gun to the ground and fell to my knees, and I rolled over onto my chest, and I sobbed.
Three more letters came from Nora before the first snowfall. I didn’t read any of them, but I left them in the piano bench and didn’t rip them up.
It was too cold to sit outside now, without a jacket at least, and so I watched the kids through the window instead. I couldn’t eat beans anymore because the taste of them was starting to make my mouth ache, and I couldn’t use the water anymore because it stopped coming to our house. In the middle of the night I crept through the bushes to the neighbor’s hose to fill a bucket with water, and I lugged it back to Grandma’s house, which was starting to smell like pee. I bought apples from the market on weekends – all the bad ones that nobody wanted at the end of the fall. I thought about Nora a lot, and I imagined the fun she was having in the war, and I got jealous of James, and I felt myself start to cry, and I would stop thinking about Nora.
Nora joked that Grandma’s house was like a large prison cell. Grandma was the guard and we were the prisoners who couldn’t leave.
“Why would you want to leave?”
Grandma used to say it as if there was something wrong with us, taking offense at the notion that anyone would refuse her hospitality. I didn’t argue, because I had never known another home, but Nora would frequently step outside and walk around the neighborhood. Whenever she did this, Grandma would mutter to me for hours about how Nora was the devil, and how if I ever tried to do what Nora did she would beat me with the iron rod on top of the fireplace.
But now Grandma was gone and Nora was gone and there was no one keeping me from running away.
I had a vision, as I stared out the window one day, of my last snowfall. Instead of stars, the snow was shaped like angels, and it landed in front of me and formed a giant pair of wings on the veranda. I lay down in the wings and they began to lift me up into the sky, so high that I could see the whole town and touch the peaks of the mountains. But they didn’t stop there, and I flew up and up until I could see the entire world beneath me, and then so high that I could cover it with one finger, and then there was nothing at all and I was in heaven. The wings dropped me off in the dark and I crawled around, blind and dumb and on all fours. My legs were stubby, my hands were sharp, and a little piece of flesh was sticking out behind me. I tried to scream, but my voice came out in screeches, and I couldn’t move without bumping into something hard on all sides.
Then, there was a shuffle. Something scraped across the ground. And out of nowhere, I heard a song start to play.
Dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…
It was slow and somber, and when I heard it, I knew where I was.
Grandma’s walls were never the most spacious.
I stopped screaming, and I felt the rhythm of her sorrow, and all of a sudden I understood why the rats would stop to listen to Nora’s music. It was the same longing that I had, that same mix of ecstasy and profound aloneness that made shooting children so funny. That same mandate to live that colored the empty barrel of an unloaded gun.
And once I realized that, everything turned the same shade of sadness.
On those golden afternoons when the snow melted and there was pink again, I sat on the veranda alone and let the wind touch my skeleton. I listened to the kids walking by and I imagined I was one of them, and I had somewhere to go. I thought about what I would say to Nora when she came back from the war. How was the war, maybe. Or how come you’re back. Or maybe something so that she wouldn’t talk about James.
I didn’t know if Nora was coming back, and if she did she would probably live with James and I wouldn’t see her anymore. Or maybe James would come and live in Grandma’s house. He would clean the house or burn it down and he would live in Nora’s room and soon enough he would make me leave because he didn’t want to share her with me.
I didn’t have much to eat anymore. Grandma’s money was running low so I started buying cheaper things like oats and cornmeal. I felt dizzy and some days I couldn’t make myself get up in the morning. Other days, I found myself staying up all night and sleeping when the sun came up. I felt more like a pet than a person.
The Spring evenings were better than the Autumn evenings because the breeze tickled and made you laugh even when there was nothing funny. I hadn’t laughed since Nora left, but I couldn’t help it when little tendrils of breath brushed past my chin and left kisses across my neck. The couch was getting really saggy now, and when I sat down in it I could feel my entire body sinking under my sack of skin and bones. The rifle lay across my lap, and I ran my hand across it, feeling the familiar oily cracks and crevices. I still hadn’t found the bullets, which was probably for the better because I would have shot myself. I imagined my body lying on the porch, and how Nora and James would find me and bring me to the woods and dump me in the clearing. I wondered if Nora would play her sad song for me when they got back.
On my half-birthday, I went into the backyard to find out if God was real. I walked out the front door, down the steps of the porch, and crossed behind the house to the patch of forest that Nora and I left Grandma in. The yard was overgrown and thorns pricked at my ankles as I waded into the brush that lined the edge of the thicket. The foreignness of organic matter made my skin itch.
I drifted in a daze until the air chilled. Finally, I came to the spot where I last saw Grandma three years ago. The light oozed off of the trees and dripped onto the yellowing grass, leaving it stained with sun. There were wet leaves of all colors scattered in piles across the dirt, and clumps of soil where the squirrels buried their acorns in the fall. And leaning against the trunk of an old Oak on the far side of the clearing was a browning bag of bones.
It looked like a potato sack that had been ripped open and dunked in tar. Some pieces of the body were missing, probably dragged off by animals or lost in the rain. Other pieces were cracked and broken and ground up, fading cleanly into the ground.
What was left of me took a seat next to what was left of my Grandma. I picked some dirt up from off the ground and sprinkled it on her body. I took some dirt from her body and sprinkled it on myself. I stared into the distance and stopped believing in God.
One afternoon that summer, I opened the door and found Nora sleeping on the couch on the veranda.
She had a pink mark over her eye, and she was wearing a thin shirt and shredded pants. Her hair fell in stitches across her face, and her nails were long and caked with dirt. She shivered lightly as she slept, her brows furrowed, her fingers knit tightly together. She was thinner, and her nose was redder, and her lips had lost their sucrosity. She curled up and made herself small and insignificant.
She was alone.
I went inside and grabbed my rifle.
When I came back to the porch, I looked at Nora and I realized that I no longer loved her. I couldn’t see this woman playing the piano or eating beans, writing letters or telling stories about her husband. I could only see her lie there, silently, as she wasted away.
I raised the gun to her face.
The rifle slipped out of my hand and crashed to the ground. Nora didn’t wake up. I sat down next to her, on the edge of the couch, and watched the children walking by. I didn’t shoot them anymore. Death is only funny until it’s sitting beside you, and we were all sitting beside each other on this particular golden afternoon.
I raised my eyes to the road and stared at the mountains.
Somewhere in the house, a rat perked its ears for the sound of a song.