By Lee Upton
Featured Art: Autumn (L’Automne) by Arthur B. Carles
The wife isn’t supposed to know, but Lucy knew. She knew about her husband and her best friend, Maria. Had known for nearly two years. And now Maria’s brother—a stranger—was coming to visit. Did he know about Maria and Owen? Did he think he was visiting to reveal the affair, to confess on Maria’s behalf? Lucy hoped not. She would resent that.
Lucy got the news from Owen before he left for work. He turned at the front door and told her—as if he almost forgot something so important. He didn’t want to be late, and so there wasn’t time to talk. She followed him outside.
“He’s coming? When?”
Owen looked innocent and blank-faced, freshly shaved and showered, and nevertheless a little sleepy.
“I’m not sure of the time,” he said, standing next to the car and jiggling his legs. “He just said dinner.”
“So he invited himself over.”
The crease in Owen’s forehead deepened. He looked fully awake now. “Practically. I suppose so.”
“I guess he really must be Maria’s brother. That’s what she would have done. I’m assuming then we’re okay until at least five.”
Maria’s family had transported her to a hospital in Austin—in one last burst of hope that amounted, Lucy imagined, to horror for Maria. Independent-minded Maria. Maria had been worse about taking care of herself than Lucy was— wearing that light salt-and-pepper coat through the worst weather, never but- toning up the collar, skipping meals. Stubborn Maria with her slouchy way of walking. And with that brave thatch of black hair. Maria’s hostility to greed and injustice were right on the surface, ready to spark at any moment—listening to her talk politics was such an experience. She could be indignant, so committed to justice that she pounded the table. Maria chose to avoid marriage or having a child. She was free. The freest person Lucy knew.
When Maria’s brother arrived he thrust his hand out to Lucy with a self- consciousness that was like his sister’s. He had his sister’s eyes: alert, assessing, expectant. The room was turning around and Lucy had to steady herself against the arm of a chair.
While Owen and Maria’s brother talked in the living room Lucy went to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle of wine. The bottle was cool in her hand. She allowed the sensation of coolness to quiet her mind. There it was: the strongest sense of having experienced this moment before, exactly this moment.
She took a good swallow of wine. May all non-drinkers writhe in hell, she told herself. I don’t drink enough. I really ought to drink more often.
There’s a lot you should do more often: Maria’s likely answer.
The men in the living room were still talking quietly when she re-entered. They hadn’t wanted her to be with them. Something about the way they wouldn’t look at her told her so.
Okay. Lucy returned to the kitchen. What had happened outside the kitchen window, in that meadow that was dark now? Lucy let herself imagine a young person coming to the meadow, like in that James Joyce story, except it wouldn’t be a boy but a woman, someone full of longing, a woman standing there to watch the lights of the house every night, a woman who came for years until she became the place, unaware that she was dead, unfeeling toward her own death. Unsympathetic to her own death.
Or another possibility: a man and a woman killed the man’s wife and buried her in the meadow. Something out of a murder mystery. It was not easy, killing the wife—a bloody, running-through-the-house murder, and it struck the husband, the woman he loved, and even the wife in her terror, as being like a children’s game. A wild children’s game. Except with so much blood.
Or something else happened: a fire that couldn’t be stopped. Or someone was visited by God and the whole meadow lit up with the visitation. Lucy knew what Maria would say: “It’s just an empty field—it’s overrun with dead weeds. Don’t get all mystical on me.”
After dinner Owen was telling a story about one of their neighbors, a city councilman notorious for letting developers have their way. There was to be a hearing. Owen lamented the poor planning that went on as farmland was bought up in the county. He said they couldn’t be sure what would happen behind their house. They didn’t own the meadow.
No matter how she tried Lucy couldn’t quite get a feel for Maria’s brother. He was stand-offish, tight-lipped. His appearance—that was deceiving. He looked so much like a male version of his sister it was unnerving. Except with Maria there would be laughter, teasing, easy conversation. Maria, for instance, would be making fun of the ruffled blouse Lucy was wearing.
Owen pushed his chair back as if everyone should be finished eating when he was.
Maria’s brother pushed back his chair too and asked, “Could we—what do you think?—would it be all right if we went out for a walk?”
“It’s dark,” Owen said.
“Will you be warm enough?” Lucy asked. “Owen has some extra coats.”
Maria’s brother would be more relaxed after the walk, she thought. He’ll talk more about Maria then.
“I’ll be fine.”
There was a clenched sensation in the air as if a snowstorm was headed their way. Lucy felt as if she were breaking through a very fine, chilled honeycomb. The grass was sharpened from frost. She could hardly make out the skeletal outlines of birches. The sound of water came from east of the meadow.
They made their way along the meadow’s periphery. Bundled up, booted, Lucy forged ahead. She swung her flashlight. Neither Owen nor Maria’s brother had wanted a flashlight.
Within minutes the men’s voices were growing quieter. Why weren’t they keeping up with her?
When she turned and swung her flashlight in an arc she couldn’t see either of the men. She called out Owen’s name and swung her light again.
The men must have taken another path. She turned around and headed back toward the house. In spring the magnolia tree on the lawn would be bursting with thick creamy cups of froth. Among the branches, and flashing as the wind stirred the darkness against the kitchen window’s light, were the small prisms Lucy strung last year. Light from the window caught at the magnolia in swirling splashes—as if the November branches were strung with wind-rippled water.
She was nearing the driveway when she saw a figure on the edge of the lawn. She held her breath—it was her friend. Maria was looking toward the kitchen window. Yet it couldn’t be Maria, Maria who looked starkly beautiful with light from the window illuminating her face. It couldn’t ever again be Maria. What Lucy saw must be a shadow, branches moving.
The men were crossing the lawn. Owen called out, “Let’s go in. I could use another drink. How about it?”
“Sorry we lost you back there,” Maria’s brother said to Lucy. “I don’t know— I was thinking about Maria, how she loved you two. I just lost it. We had to stop. And then we lost sight of you, and then I don’t know where we ended up.”
They were almost at the door when Lucy turned and saw she hadn’t been entirely wrong. Someone was there. A boy. A little boy. By the magnolia. His face looked strange, twisted. She hurried to him. He didn’t run from her. “Are you lost?” she asked. He nodded. “Come with me. No one will hurt you. ”
She recognized him. She’d seen him in his yard several houses down the road. Seen him when she drove by. She questioned the boy. He didn’t know his phone number. She told her husband, “You’ll need to go to his house. Let them know where he is.”
Maria’s brother left with Owen. Meanwhile, Lucy heated hot chocolate. The boy sat in the kitchen while she worked. He kept his head down. He couldn’t be more than nine years old. She let herself imagine he was her child, that she was making hot chocolate for him, that it was just the two of them always in the house.
“Did anyone hurt you?” she said.
“I got mad,” he answered. He drank the hot chocolate. There was still some pie from dinner. He ate everything she put on the plate in front of him.
The boy’s parents didn’t come inside the house. Instead, they stayed in their car and waited for the boy to come to them. When the boy ran outside he didn’t look back at Lucy, watching from the window.
Owen said the parents weren’t friendly, never thanked him or Maria’s brother. About the little boy he said, “He’ll keep coming back if you feed him.”
“He’s not a stray dog.”
Maria’s brother was swaying from side to side. He wanted to leave. That was obvious. “I miss your sister so much,” Lucy said. She couldn’t help herself now.
“I can tell.”
“Don’t go yet,” she said. “I loved Maria. No matter what. Stay, all right?”
The foyer filled with the air of hurried emergency. Maria’s brother had his coat on and was looking for a glove he had dropped.
Owen opened the door, and with a draft of air—the wind picked up—Maria’s brother was gone.
“She was more like a daughter to us than any kind of threat,” Owen said later that night. He was standing in their bedroom, near the full-length mirror, when he confessed. “Didn’t you think so? You probably could have guessed four years ago. You could have figured it out.”
“Is it my responsibility to know who’s lying to me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you telling me this? You don’t think I knew?” But she hadn’t known as much as she thought she knew. Four years. Not two years. Surprise surprise. It must have been so hard for Maria.
She imagined throwing her whole weight at her husband and watching him topple backward against the mirror. She was crying by then, ready to howl. Maria—it was like losing an arm, like losing the skin off her face. What did she care about what Maria and Owen did? Everything had been better when Maria was alive.
The next morning Lucy sat up from the sewing room couch where she had been sleeping. She went into the kitchen. When she looked out the window she saw that the meadow had shrunken overnight, the soil hardened and gouged looking.
Owen was there, in the meadow. Lucy dressed hurriedly to confront him. It was time to tell him. There was no reason to stay with him anymore now that Maria was gone. She felt the cold inside the collar of her shirt. On the horizon a rolling mist was cut through by pale morning sunlight.
Flakes of snow swirled in the air. The first snow of the season was always like that, so pure. So fine, almost invisible.
She turned around. Looking toward the kitchen window . . . How much that window left out when anyone stood on the opposite side. From the meadow it looked like a child’s miniature. Irresistible to a child.
When she turned back she saw the boy. Head bent, he was walking toward her across the open ground. He wasn’t wearing a coat. She ran to him and asked, “Are you hungry? You didn’t run away again, did you?” He shook his head. She asked again, “Are you hungry?”
When he nodded she led him toward the house. The boy clutched her hand. They were alike, she thought, she and the boy. “I hope you’re hungry,” she said. When Owen came inside the house he said, “See. I told you you’d never get rid of him. You keep feeding him and you’ll never get rid of him.”
She looked up at her husband, unblinking, for what did it matter now, and asked, “Is that how it’s done?”
Lee Upton’s most recent books are Visitations: Stories and Bottle the Bottles the Bottles: Poems.
Originally published in Issue 19.