Liana Scalettar’s fiction and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Arts & Letters, Drunken Boat, GutCult, LIT, Nidus, Sentence, and Washington Square. She is a past recipient of the Amanda Davis scholarship given by the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference.

Her story “Flowereaters” appeared in Issue 12.

Journal for the Academic Study of Magic

posted Feb 12, 2008

Driving home to Lumberville, seeing the low gold sheets of sun on the fields and hay rolls, Portia whistled the Schubert Ave Maria. Sky and road came at her in a rolling way, yarn off a skein, grosgrain off a roll when she was a girl and went to Woolworth’s with her mother. Stay, Portia said to herself. Stay here. There were openings in her mind now, and gaps for which she could not account. Her colleagues said she drank too much wine and too much bourbon, but she did not know if they were right. This filamented silver thing, the brain—

Alongside her now and swallowing pink light, the river lay swollen and gravid. Its top fish gathered near the banks in the dusk water. Its bottom fish, pulsing like cold hearts, hung suspended near the floor.

The house had been Portia’s grandfather’s. It sat at the top of a little rise of ground. It was all local stone, low, the long ash shutters painted persimmon red. Portia loved it as she always had, in the way one loves one’s breath or body, without thought. Now that Brian was there she loved it a bit more because she could explain it to him. “That burner doesn’t connect to the pilot light,” she could say. “Here is where my mother put peach cobblers to cool.” He would nod each time; each time he would gaze with her at the place she pointed to. Sometimes he would run the flats of his hands along the outsides of her arms meanwhile. He’d spent the first week there tuning a few old guitars. Now he was on to an upright piano, which seemed to require a lot of attention. “She’s thirsty,” he’d say, setting a glass of water on the instrument’s top. Brian studied composition; he was composing the piece that would serve as his dissertation. He was forty, but he looked much younger, in large part thanks to his ash blond gray hair stuck up in coils. An electric current seemed lodged there, lifting the curls up.

“I know how much you love me,” Portia said to him sometimes. He tickled her back distractedly.

She turned the car onto the trampled patch of grass that served as driveway. Blue bands of light hung now and the handful of gold-copper sun was almost gone. Soon the porch lamps would come on in Lumberville, in Lambertville and in New Hope, in all the old stone towns. As if responding to a silent cue, all the people would pause for a moment and, seeing their own reflections broken in the windows, would reach for the switches.

“Hey,” Brian called through the screen door, from where he sat, in the kitchen. She went to him.

“I bought an old journal,” she said, dropping her key ring onto the scarred oak table. “Journal for the Academic Study of Magic.” That was the book’s name—volume one, number one, published at Nottinghamshire in 1980.

“Not so old,” Brian said, taking her hands under his as he studied the cover. He liked to see what he had done to her—last night he had tied her wrists with rope—and so he pushed the sleeves of her dress back above her wrists. “Leave those,” Portia said. The marks made mottled bracelets. In my grandfather’s house, Portia thought.

Brian said, “you liked it enough last night.” But she had gone to light the citronella candles that, sitting in unglazed ceramic holders, lined the room’s sills. When all the wicks had taken, she lifted an apron from an iron hook and tied it around her waist. She began chopping a lot of shallots, leaning towards the knife as her mother had taught her.

“What are we having?” Brian said.

Portia spoke without turning her head. “This is the sauce soubise,” she said; and he said, “have I had that one?” She made different old sauces for him: a Diane, with green grapes, a Madeira, a bechamel.

“Not this one,” she said. “Yet.”

When they ate, later, the book still lay on the table where Portia had placed it. Candlelight illumined the volume in a fluid jagged pattern. Like a mouth, Portia thought, watching the shadow teeth and the light teeth eat into the binding. The red cover that had at the shop struck her as mineral now seemed muted. The book was no longer talking. She did not know why she had picked it up.

“You gotta get more shelves,” Brian said. He ate a curled piece of trout from his knife. She winced; for her this meant making a sour lined face. She did not eat from her knife.

Watching her fingers heavy with their malachite and onyx and green garnet rings, watching her heavy hair come too close to the mingled oil and vinegar and wine and cream on her plate, Brian said: “I finished something today. The hard thing.” He watched her face then, looking for a reaction, but he saw no changes. She poured herself more wine. She turned an ear towards the door, listening (as she still always listened) for Liliane Pratt’s cool mezzo to call out for her boys to come in and eat. The Pratts’ house was not the Pratts’ house any longer. But Portia still listened. “Robby,” Liliane would call, “Robby Matthew Matthew.” The boys would come up from the road or the river in a welter of limbs; they were suntanned and ineffably present, all summer. Their pale green eyes reflected pieces of clouds.

Brian pushed back his chair. He began to clear the table, although Portia hadn’t finished eating. She stopped listening for Liliane when she heard the plates clink against the sink’s scratched porcelain.

Making a great effort—there was a gray slice floating in place of Brian’s body, in place of Brian’s words—and the wine sloshing in her stomach, Portia said, “You’ve worked well today?” His back was to her. He filled the sink with lavender-scented dish soap; he tore at the steel wool they parceled out in bits for environmental reasons; he scrubbed plates and knives and boards and pans in hot water, loudly. Portia waited. Then she got sick of waiting and decided the effort was over, and began to study the contents of the book.

The front matter, as Portia liked to call it, advertised Wiccan stores in London and Leeds, and purveyors of mail-order pentacles and dried sage blossom. There was no masthead—she checked assiduously.

She had read most of an article discussing the proper observance of Beltane, the pagan new year, when Brian came up behind her.

“Any good?’ He asked. His hands pressed into her shoulders, too hard.

“I am learning about their celebration of the new year,” she said primly. “One must sweep away all negativity with a broom made of blossoming branches.”

“Sweet,” Brian said. She tried to shrug his hands from her but didn’t succeed. He moved a thumb along her jawline.

“Jenny will be here tomorrow,” she said, hunching down and leaving his hands empty. Jenny was Portia’s thirty-year-old daughter. She worked as a mime and actor for a physical theater company without a fixed home. Portia, sixty, taught Hindi and Gujarati at Princeton. To Portia’s quizzical looks and half-swallowed queries, Jenny flushed darkly and said “look at Miuccia Prada.” Portia would then retreat, stumbling and laughing too loudly in her confusion. She did not know who Miuccia Prada was. She did not know what Jenny was talking about. But she continued to look at her daughter's scrawny wrists and ankles, at a thinness she could not bear to ascribe to want of money for food, and she, Portia, would feel fragile and viscous, like a tenured amniotic sac. Sometimes, in a near-whisper, she would say “it’s good to hear your voice” to Jenny’s silent straight back. They had played duets on wooden recorders together, Portia on an alto recorder and Jenny on a soprano—there had been medieval rounds and simple fugues. Thinking of them now, Portia stood and faced Brian. His facial features had resumed their clear outlines, the horizontal line of the mouth, the slicing jaw.

“I would like you to try to get along,” she said. “I would like you to refrain from—from snarling.” Brian and Jenny’s first meeting, in front of Nassau Hall the prior March, had not been a success. Jenny, greasy haired and rank, had proven unable to say hello. Elegant and Olympian, schooling Jenny as he schooled his blobby undergraduates, Brian said, “Tired, Darling? But we don’t bite do we?” Portia, who had engineered the encounter, watched papers falling from her arms. Brian bent easily and picked them up, balanced them on top of what remained in Portia’s control, half-bowed with a courtier’s waving flourish of his free hand, and left, nodding curtly to mother and daughter.

Brian now lifted the right side of his mouth into a weak curve.

“Gotcha, Darling,” he said. “I’m to sing for my supper, am I?” He drummed his fingers on the chair’s back in a military marching rhythm.

“Yes,” Portia said. “Yes.”

He approached her again and pulled her towards him and waltzed her into the living room which, gathering light and dark from the kitchen’s flames and shadows, struck both of them as melting and gorgeous. That was the sort of thing about which they agreed.

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That night, Portia woke up to find a puddle of moon on her face. Brian was asleep on his back, fists like a child’s curled at the sides of his head. The ictus of his breathing punctuated the room’s silence and she loved him then, after some time of not; she became inflated like a fleshy balloon with love of him, and she thought how like Jenny he was; she thought, he is like my son. Then she thought of him after dinner, washing and withdrawn, and she thought, he is like my father.

Brian, dreaming, held in his arms a gossamer bird-fish. He ran with it and released it and the animal lofted up into the air. And then saffron-red dunes surrounded hot blue water. And then stone lions sank in green water, and more bird-fishes floated and flew and dove, and reeds clicked their green-brown selves together.

“I love you,” Portia said, touching the temple closest to her. Then she lifted the old cotton quilt off her body and put her feet gently on the bare floor. More moon pooled there. She stepped through it and to the window, and pushed aside the lace curtain. She saw the sugar maple turned into a silver column, its every leaf distinct and shining. Because she knew by now the rhythms of her sleeping and waking, and because she wanted badly to read more of the book, she went downstairs. On her way, she rubbed the top of the newel post for good luck, as she had done since she was a girl. In my grandfather’s house, she thought.

Portia’s ex-husband, Jenny’s father Bart, had been, in bed, meek to the point of self-effacement. Jenny, Portia thought, should by rights never have been conceived. That she had was proof of the girl’s vitality – Jenny laughed loudly even as a baby, she ate strawberries and custard with pleasure, she ran – how she ran around, bare-legged in printed dresses, after fireflies, after monarchs, after praying mantises that, grass-green, eluded her.

Portia did not know what had gone wrong.

She passed through the living room and into the kitchen. The pots and pans hung from hooks stuck into a cork panel; the mason jar holding stalks of bee balm and yarrow sat next to the sink. Everything was in order; still and silvered or, where not silvered, gray with night and with the approaching dawn. In the river, schools of fish swayed a little with the slow roll of the water. There would be cloudy gelatin masses of frogs’ eggs in September, and boys poking at them with sticks; in May, there had been cattails split and showing milky seeds.

Portia sat at the table. The journal was a plain paperbound book. She could not have been impelled to buy it by anything other than one of her normal book-buying impulses, of which there continued to be a great many. At her wrists, the bruises had faded a little, and turned sick-yellow and thready at their edges.

“Beltane’s annunciation of spring is associated with calving season,” she read. “and with the first quickenings of sap in the English climate. John Hustings’ working group at Sussex has found incunabula treating the proper manner of burning what is old and to be discarded.”

She read the rest of the article slowly, stopping often to consider a word she thought she knew. The moon had descended more by the time she finished: and the sky become taken with waiting. Barefoot, in her white nightgown embroidered with ribbons, Portia resembled her mother and her grandmother and Liliane Pratt, when she had still come to Bucks County, and Eleanor Pratt, and Amelia Pratt and them all. Portia’s ankles, round and stalwart, and once Pennsylvania Dutch, resembled theirs, and so did the rectilinear sheet of her pewter hair. She knew and she did not know, and, knowing and fleeing this vast oceanic self made of all the other women, she poured herself a finger of scotch from the hidden bottle, which she stored in the broiler pan.

When the book began to speak again, it was four in the morning. Spells it was saying, and joining what has been sundered it said, and for helping those whose hearts have been turned away turn back. Portia decided to put a spell on her daughter. A little good spell. She improvised—the journal was too serious to contain actual recipes—by taking a stalk of yarrow and placing it in the sink and setting a match to its tip. She watched the flame move up the stalk and then eat the biscuit blooms. She allowed herself to sway a little in a manner she considered somewhat witchy, but which might equally well have been drunken. A few minutes later, running her hand over Brian’s tapering back, she murmured something to him about it, and he turned and clasped her entirely in his arms.

“I love you,” she whispered for the second time that night, and he kissed her hair above the ear and said, “Go to sleep now. Try to sleep.” He himself slept hard. When he dreamt of water, he worked well the next day, and when not, not, and so he practiced lucid dreaming. He tried to dream of water. The practice helped. He’d been working steadily for weeks. He practiced loving Portia as well, because he thought he ought to. In fact, he liked her and liked the age difference, and liked the oddity of their being together, and should have left it at that. He held her lightly against him. She lay awake. In the sink downstairs, the yarrow lay charred into cinder.

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“Do you think I drink too much?” Portia asked Brian. It was the next morning. He lay on a rusted chair, precarious on the maple’s thrusted-up roots, seeing gold-green-blue, smelling sun on stone, sun on grass, sun on his own skin. He had woken up first, and walked down the River Road to where Suzette Bury sold cakes from her porch. “Frenchy Suzette,” the antique shop’s owner called her. She came from Martinique, and in summer she wore crisp lace dresses all day, as she had always done growing up; she wore fancy white slippers for everything, even going up the road. Brian bought a cherry slump and a plum cake, saying “company.” Suzette gave him rhubarb jam to try. Walking back to the house, Brian caught a new bar from the air and he hummed it as he went. Doing good is good on the work, he thought. He’d found Portia swaddled in a Hudson’s Bay blanket. She lay in the hammock, which her weight took down almost to ground, trying hard not to move or (it seemed) breathe. Brian put the cakes and jam inside, and unfolded a lounge chair. He went close to her.

“Do you?” Portia said. Brian hummed instead of answering. The river, when he saw it sometimes, got into him like a song. Gold song, green song, blue song, he sang, naming little variations. Delaware Valley slump song, plum song. He named and sang and, singing, didn’t hear her. Portia sat up and pressed her palms hard into her cheeks. Desiccated, the word she wanted, came to her.

“I’m a shriveled stick,” she said into the limpid-sounding air.

“Oh Honey,” Brian sang. “You’re the plum of Lumberville, its cherry tart, its quince soufflé.” He stopped when he realized how much he liked his voice.

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Jenny arrived early and accompanied. She appeared at the house’s side like an emaciated thrift-shop prophetess, with her hair spilling over her shoulders. Two men in their thirties and a seventeen-year-old girl flanked her.

“We meet again,” Brian said, He was crouched down now, weeding around tiger lilies and hollyhocks, sweat stains spreading through his shirt. Portia tried but failed to unwrap herself and to extricate herself from the hammock. She tried again, using one hand to uncurl and move the other. She stood and straightened her skirt, hoping she was not grass-stained or overly creased. The striped woolen blanket, two sides draping down, lay bereft as a split cocoon or egg. It wanted her back. Portia touched, for strength and luck, each of the gems in each of her ten rings. She took a step towards her daughter, feeling bark and root press, like reminders of a forgotten place, into the arch of her bare foot.

Garish in crimson silks, kohl teardrops dotted above and below each eye, Jenny did not move forward. She looked at the soil and leaves Brian had pulled. She rocked back on her heels. Brian hoped she would not cry or begin to suck on her little finger, as he had once seen her do.

“Circus?” he said. Jenny began to blush. The blood rose quickly and bright. The men met Brian’s gaze and stared, shy wild things in torn shirts and sandals. The girl picked a strip of dead skin from her lip; she picked steadily at hangnails. She looked dartingly around, as if to let someone see her own eyes might kill her. In her mass of gauzy skirts and her curly-toed slippers, she resembled a younger Jenny and (though Portia would have denied it flatly) a younger and less-published Portia.

“Hey, I’m Jake,” said one of the men, lanky with a flopping cap of black hair, and a smile that stunned everyone else into more silence. The other man, evidently Jenny’s companion, was freckled and impassive; he gave no signs of wanting to speak.

“Welcome,” Brian said, standing and shaking hands with everyone but the girl.

“And again, Welcome,” said Portia. She had successfully navigated more roots and inclines and arrived without incident. To her surprise, Jenny hugged her warmly and kissed her strongly on both cheeks.

“Hi, Mom,” Jenny said. Portia blinked insanely to staunch the tears. Jenny took a big breath like a girl preparing to blow out the candles on a birthday cake.

“Mom,” Jenny said, turning slightly so that the freckled man was more visible to Portia, “this is Zachary.”

“Zach is fine.” The man held out a broad pawlike hand backed by a tuft of red hair. Portia ignored this gesture and kissed him twice as Jenny had kissed her. Zach did not kiss Portia, but his eyes and then his whole face softened. He gathered himself up, as if he would say something else, but then he waited, restrained by Portia did not know what—only that it came from her or lived in her, that it was related to the blanket-egg, to her actions the night before and the night before that.

“Hello,” Portia said. She could not account for the way she was smiling—too openly, she imagined.

“May I offer anyone a drink?” Brian asked, trying with his tone to include the still nameless girl.

“Water,” Jake and Zach said at once. Jenny asked for coffee, and Talia, the girl, watching the sky as if for augury, said, “I would like some sparkling water please. If you have any.” Then the four guests dropped down onto the grass in graceful shapes.

Portia again felt the back of her skirt for creases, and Brian fingered the wet parts of his shirt. They went into the kitchen, where Portia showed Brian the burned flower carcass (“Oh Sweetheart,” he said), and came out again with thick colored glasses, with sugar cookies, with Portia’s homemade cherry brandy. (Brian, seeing her take the bottle from its back shelf, shook his head and whistled. “Before lunch?” he said.)

“We asked for water and coffee,” Jenny said. She’d placed her shoes side by side, facing the way she had come, and was now barefoot like her mother. Portia, who had begun to explain to Jake and the girl that rosewater and lemon peel were her secret ingredients—“they are so sweet and so sour,” she said – stopped speaking and covered her mouth with a tremulous hand.

“I got it,” Brian said. He touched Portia’s head as he passed her; she had joined everyone on the ground, where she tried not to slouch forwards or roll back. But she could not be easy as her daughters’ friends were; she felt some essence leaving her, flowing away from her, because of Jenny’s presence. Unlike the actors, Portia was not self-contained.

Jenny said, “We’re here to rehearse.” Portia stretched her face into the smiling mask she donned before a full lecture hall. “That’s wonderful,” she said.

“We hope we won’t bother you,” Jake said. He’d taken a length of string from his pocket and was weaving it into a Jacob’s ladder, which he quickly undid. “Jen told us about the house and everything. She told us about the river. It was very kind of you to offer to have all of us.”

Portia made what she hoped were ductile acquiescent noises.

“What it is,” Jake continued, “is this idea we have, we borrowed, from a Polish theater company. Where we live and work together sort of like a medieval troupe, a troupe that is also our living community. Theater and life morph into each other.”

“Morph?” Portia said, smoothing her skirt at her knees.

“They blend,” said Jake. He made an effort to look into her eyes. Portia realized that he believed in what he was saying.

“How wonderful,” she said again.

Talia, still perfectly upright in her spine, said, “we do hope we won’t be any trouble.” She’d moved from playing with her fingers to playing with the grass, which she pulled up in handfuls.

“Not the grass,” Portia said. “Not the poor old grass.” Talia stopped. Jenny and Zach looked at each other; Portia was not meant to see what went between them. To Brian, returning with a cup of coffee and a pitcher of water, everything was as it had been. He knelt and set the tray down. He handed around drinks. He began to hum, then stopped.

“Poor old mug,” Portia said. Jenny’s cup was one she herself had made, pressing coils of clay on top of one another and glazing the whole a fierce topaz, painting on robins’ eggs. Jenny held the cup in both hands, a traveler warming herself after a long trip. She drank. After she had lowered the cup, Jake and Talia and Zach drank. They were paying homage, Portia thought. They acknowledged her scrap-thin girl as a leader. The solace, when it came, of knowing that she was not the only person whom Jenny scared, was not of the poultice kind. It was the other, harder, altogether like the river’s oldest smoothest rocks.

“It’s June twenty-first,” Talia said then as if she had only realized. “It’s midsummer.”

Jake smiled his devastating smile. “True,” he said. “We’ll have to celebrate.” From where they’d begun to coo in low voices—Portia averted her eyes studiously—Zach and Jenny, he in a languid drawl and she in a cracking flutter, said, together, “We have to work.”

“Work,” Jake echoed, standing and stretching largely, blocking the sun.

“Work,” said Talia. Later, telling Brian that she came from Haifa, telling him that she had no father any more, she would be animated. Now she was automated: she might have had a key in her back that, when turned sufficiently, set her to moving and speaking and worrying things. Portia pitied her, while wondering where everyone would sleep. Brian scrabbled in the loose dirt around the rose bushes.

In the Pratts’ old house, Marc Isaacs said to Lisette Isaacs, “The daughter’s here.” And Lisette, placidly pregnant and gnawing on licorice stick, said, “no kidding.” They had introduced themselves to Portia on first arriving late in May; they had been put off by her wine-stained front and abstracted air; they had not tried again.

Down the hill, the river moved in lazy green increments; the stones of the houses swallowed heat and held it; the air hung white-goldly. It was near noon.

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“Of course they can’t stay.” Brian was lying in the claw-footed bath tub, stroking his chest. The emergency drain gurgled, sucking water down.

Portia fanned herself with pages of the dissertation whose writer she was advising that summer. She’d made four pillows into a fluffy throne against the headboard. She looked at where Brian’s voice had come from, but the bathroom door was mostly closed. She couldn’t see anything.

Jenny and her guests were now – Portia regularly went to the window to watch – putting up a gala-sized orange and white striped tent, without sides. Whether they intended to sleep under it, she could not say. Jake and Zach pushed poles into the ground. Jenny stood with her hands on her skinny hips, appraising. Talia watched the sky and sometimes said something to Jake, who laughed.

“What?” Portia said. Katrina Shah wrote about Jain ideas of figuration and abstraction. She wrote poorly but with zeal. “Imagine I do not exist,” Portia wrote in a page margin. “Imagine a reader, unknown, entering a great library like that at Alexandria and happening upon your book.”

Brian pushed at the bath water with the lower part of his palm; he wished he had someone to splash. Portia would do. “Wanna come in here?” He said.

Portia stood in the doorway. His body’s outline wavered underwater and she pulled pins from her hair. She pulled her dress over her head. Settled in the bath, after having displaced a lot of water onto the floor, she said, “Did you say they couldn’t stay?”

“I did,” Brian said. His undone work took the image of the sinking stone lion he’d dreamt – he saw his symphony concrete, extruded, and drowned. “They can’t stay.”

“Why?” she asked. She tried to move away from him, but found nowhere to go.

“Because, Darling,” he said, holding her around the waist and so trapping her. “They haven’t asked. And neither have they been invited.”

“Like you,” Portia said. He splashed her in the face then, raucously, instead of slapping her. Portia splashed back. His ligamented hair lay flat and curled against his scalp, and she was less scared of him then. She put her face down and her eyes up and shimmied a little, against him.

“It’s different when you’re in love with someone,” she said.

Brian thought, She is a girl and that is part of her charm. That is part of her charm. He moved a bony knee between her fat legs, nudging them apart. She lay on him, long gray hair plastered to her or floating in separate strands on the water’s surface, nipples flat and distortedly huge. Brian lifted himself into her, momentarily submerging his face meanwhile, and she thought, “I’m magic,” feeling herself open out and around.

“They can’t stay,” Brian said into her ear. But later, when they were lying on top of the summer quilt, when he saw pear-shaped tears slide in a monstrous steady way over Portia’s cheeks, he said, “They can stay. I’ll go back to town. It’s my work.” The more he tried to love her and could not, the crueler he became. This idea was too simple for Brian to grasp.

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On the lawn, the tent stood ready. Talia admired its symmetry; she walked all around it, admiring and murmuring, though she had seen it hundreds of times. Jake caught up with her, gave her the string he’d played with. She admired it before secreting it into a hidden pocket inside her blouse. Jenny, who had gone to the hammock and folded up the blanket, now planted herself in the middle the demarcated space. “Ready?” she said. The others nodded, and the next round of work began. They had hauled crates and crates—everything they would or might need—up the driveway.

They worked together, hanging strings of mylar stars, bronze and silver and gold, from the cross beams that supported the tent’s top. So now the tent had star-roots dangling. They twined garlands of crepe-paper poppies around the four poles and between the poles, making a set of rustling chains. They sawed and hammered planks into a hexagonal platform, hollow in its middle, which they placed on the grass.

And they worked separately. Talia soaked strips of newspaper in watery gray paste and, beginning each with a crumpled spherical core, made a swan and cygnets from the papier mâché. She made a second swan. She set the family to dry far from the tent and everyone’s feet. Jenny painted on butcher paper, in thick delicious strokes, parades of sea horses and gryphons and aphids and phosphor-tailed translucently winged moths, and through a complicated series of knots, she hung the creatures amidst the strands of stars. Jake left them and returned from the river with smooth oval stones; he walked down the road until he found the stand of pines they’d driven past, and he brought back enough armfuls of pine needles to make a great nest, outside the tent, and in it he placed the river stones, as the eggs of a vanished bird. And Zach, working with a delicate brush that did not look as if it would be his, painted, onto the tips of the grass leading from the house to the tent, a blue and white and silver path, the pattern made of interlocking cubes and cylinders.

Night came in small pieces, slowly, on that longest day. A smoke-pink haze stretched over the river, beginning around five; the pink-blue sky coruscated with held sun before turning bright cobalt and then darkening.

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“Jenny,” Portia called from the kitchen door, well into the evening. And it was Liliane Pratt’s voice she heard in place of her own. “Jenny, Zach.” She trailed off. She could not remember the other names. Behind her, Brian stopped uncorking bottles and lifting the almond- and hazel-sauced chicken from the roasting pan. “Talia, Sweetheart,” he said, “Jake.” He had realized, between blanching the almonds and grating orange peel, that they could not go on. That he could not. Consequently, affection and respect for Portia rose in his blood in a vibrant series of bubbles, fizzy and deep at once. He almost laughed out of his new knowledge. He refrained.

“Jenny,” Portia called again, meaning all of them. Meaning my heart, my own. The troupe bounded in, laughing and teasing each other, and the room filled with them. Jenny’s skirts hung wrongly and her makeup had faded but she shone from inside, Portia saw. She shone all over. They washed, fighting each other for space and water and soap, like puppies feeding. All except Talia, who hung back.

“Can we help?” Zach asked. He noticed the waiting decorous table, and spoke to Portia directly now. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We become involved. We forget about time.”

“Not at all,” said Portia. Brian kissed the top of her head as he went by with platters; he kissed her again as he went back to the counter for wine and water; and it was as if they lived there, fully, and as if Jenny—wet-faced, radiant and talking—lived there too. They sat around the table that had been Portia’s grandfather’s. They filled their plates and glasses, and ”Happy midsummer and welcome, welcome,” Brian said, and they ate.

After dinner, the troupe excused itself and vanished. Portia and Brian cleared the table until, drawn by the sound of a chiming bell, they stepped outside and followed the painted path to the tent.

The place, with its thickets of stars and animals and shapes, with its glimmering uncertain light, with its poppy chains, was self-contained and replete. To enter was to step into someone’s soul and mind. (Jenny: our soul and mind. Zach: yours.) To stay was to be beguiled by more and more; a leonine mask staring from a streamered yardstick, a V of origami cranes near the ceiling, sequin and coin belts, meant for women’s hips, but turned into burlesque trapezes. Enchanted, Portia squeezed Brian’s hand as she hadn’t done since the beginning of their seeing each other. He first turned against, and then let himself relax into the place—washes of color assailing and then pleasing his mind’s eye. He looked for a chair and finding none, sat on the ground, pulling her into his lap easily and nuzzzling her neck with dry lips.

“Can we see?” Marc Isaacs stood between two lopsided star wires. Lisette’s dark eyes, soft and cherishing, appeared over his shoulder. They had watched the tent’s progress until, flooded by not-knowing and by wanting, they had, hand in hand, walked over. “Is it a play?” Lisette asked.

Brian shrugged and patted the ground beside him, and so Marc and Lisette felt themselves invited in. They sat down. Marc stroked Lisette’s hard nut belly.

“When are you due?” Brian asked, but Lisette hummed and pretended not to have heard.

With unpainted faces, the troupe walked in, all dressed in loose white clothing. They each carried a small brass bowl. Standing in a row, they inclined their faces over the bowls, and blew, and pigmented rice powder flew out and coated their skin. (No one but Jake knew that this trick came from the Shanghai opera.) Now Jake was umber and Zach was okra green and Talia was old rose and Jenny, mint-cream.

“Which is your daughter?” Marc whispered to Portia.

“You know she’s the tall one,” Lisette murmured to her husband. “Which is your daughter’s boyfriend?” She asked. How they wanted, Portia thought. How they wanted to know, how they cared, how every moment, mint-girl, okra boy, candent particle of air, water globule, mattered. She did not know how to be that way. And envy made her appear aloof.

Now the men were tumbling and juggling. Now, suspended from one rickety trapeze, Zach was lowering himself, hands first, to the floor, where he walked on his hands, ran on his hands, and seemed through it all to be giggling. Talia, having acquired stilts, loomed over and began a complicated pantomime with Jake, in which she demanded that he look her in the face and he, having no stilts, looked at her knees.

Marc and Lisette laughed loudly.

Portia, wanting badly to care as they cared, determined to weave around her daughter’s scrawny body a great strong net of care – to have Jenny criss-crossed all over by her, Portia’s, most constant and fertile care – laughed too. She threw back her head a little wildly and laughed.

In the hexagon’s middle, Jenny was dancing. She scattered imaginary grain into an imaginary field, pivoting around one foot. She gathered grapes from a high vine and dropped them into an invisible basket balanced on her hip. She danced with candles, with a tambourine, with a veil. Jenny, who had worked and worked on her solo, wanted to see if her mother was watching her. She was dancing for her, the first time ever; she knew and she knew her mother knew too. After her next box-step, Jenny looked at Portia.

The older woman had laughed too long at the pantomime. She had not known how to stop. She missed the dance, missed everything but her daughter’s eyes fiercely on her when it was over. Jenny’s eyes were flat and round as the two lumps of coal Portia used to find in her Christmas stocking years when she had been bad, seemingly every year. Portia blew Jenny a long rapid string of kisses but Jenny, craning her head forward into the slightest possible bow, was gone. She did not return for the rest of the performance, though her body did; her body was a pro. Later, holding onto its shaking mass, Zach would try to soothe Jenny with these words. “A pro,” he’d say. “A pro.” Jenny could not be comforted. She wailed into the summer-sweet night grass. She shook all over, stiffened, was still. “She can’t see,” Jenny said finally into Zach’s shoulder. It was late, and the maple behind the house was again leafed in moonlight.

They would be gone—the tent folded up and tied, Jenny immured, Jenny in walls after her brief bright show—by the time Portia woke up the next day. Where the tent poles had left open places in the ground, Portia worked with a spade. She filled in the holes with silt she dug up from the riverbank, from a place she had not been since she was small.