Iseult (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm (Skrifa)


The woman Iseult took to worrying her old fingers by tracing the bones, up to her swollen and knotted joints, over, to the bottom of the alabaster nail, and back again. She would repeat this operation for each hand, stretching her fingers and baring her palm, as though she were about to put on her black evening gloves.

Her fingers felt too thin and her joints too round, and she worked as though she might be able to smooth away their faults in the working, as though perhaps her careful attention would serve to shape her fingers into the form she wanted.

She would most frequently attend to this habit when sitting with her legs crossed, propping the inside of her wrist against her knee; if she had brought a book and some tea with her, they would have to wait until she had finished.

Iseult did not ever seem nervous. Even when wringing her hands, she was quick and methodical at her pointless task and would never let her tea get too cold. No one asked her about her habit, simply because she was so careful – they assumed she had a conscious purpose. Perhaps, they thought, it was for plumpness to return to those delicate hands – or she was trying to smooth away her faults of character.

In my youth,” she told her psychiatrist, “I was suddenly frightened of subway trains.” She worked on her hands as she spoke, when he had told her to, “just talk. About whatever you want. We’ll get to the analysis later.”

She made it perfectly clear to her psychiatrist that, before her fear, her life had not been a vapid idyll: Iseult was by practice not entirely satisfied, even when she had an answer. She had studied stupidity and ignorance with a careful eye, until concluding, to her amusement and with a feeling of hopelessness, that to be a fool was a necessary condition for intelligence. Those who are intelligent escape being stupid only to find that they are mired in conformity, everyday life, and even that is not the end: after breaking through this crust of the mundane (a form of bland stupidity), they will have found their way to madness (the refuge of the idiot).

The day she broke through, she had been almost twenty-two, and the rain on the pavement was making Paris smell as though it were a moor scattered with boulders like the bones of the earth risen from their graves, mouldy with lichen and patches of moss, rather than garbage and sweat and crêpe vendors. She had worn a pair of flat shoes.

I had been walking all day without having to pat dry my shoes,” she said. “This was delightful to me.”

Iseult found pleasure in events and objects when they worked out elegantly, if there were no loose ends to tie, if they were compact and useful. Simplicity was not enough. Her shoes pleased her because they kept her feet just off the ground, just high enough so that her feet would not be wet. Her umbrella pleased her because it formed a tight circle of dryness around her, and could eventually be folded and stored. She tried to explain this to her psychiatrist, but could not.

The rain was respectful of me,” she said, instead.

So what happened to upset you?” he asked. “To upset you so much?”

On the sidewalk next to the courtyard of Notre Dame des Champs, there is a grate, where the rain cannot gather or run towards the street, but falls into the darkness, dropping softly onto a place known only to God and the techniciens du Métro, large enough for a person to stand in the centre and at an arm’s length from solid ground. Iseult had crossed it and grates like it often enough as a girl, without being disturbed. She’d found it pleasantly thrilling, when young.

Only,” said Iseult, “after stepping on the grate, the ground did not seem solid again – to me.”

She carried on past the grate to the corner of Rue Stanislas, where she turned into the street and walked under the dripping trees hanging over the iron churchyard fence. They were bright, shocking green, for they loved the spring warmth and the rain. Nobody had bothered to cut them back and so their branches reached down to Iseult and brushed the crown of her umbrella, but despite their loving touch, Iseult was immune to comfort.

Every step she took seemed to rest lightly on a thin shell of concrete and earth, while under her feet there was a delicate honeycomb of black tunnels where the stale air howled and the lights buzzed sickly in the dark, where tubes of hot metal raced from one end of the city to the other, or perhaps around and around in circles, carrying their stiff passengers, all the same, lined up in seats or standing next to poles, staring out of windows or reading newspapers.

But they were alive,” she said. “I realized, half-way down the street, that they were alive, these empty-eyed mannequins.”

She saw in her mind’s eye not a real subway train with bright lights and noisy chatter, but rows of identical bodies standing the gloom, facing the front, silent and still but for the swaying of the cars to the curves of the track, dressed in dark suits of green and blue like the colours of the deep ocean, their gazes yellow headlamps that shone straight in front of them.

I could not keep walking,” she said. “I had to hold tightly to the fence and lower my head.”

After a moment, she took a breath and continued her walk, but away from her lunch appointment with her mother’s cousin on Rue Vavin. Instead she bent her steps towards Rue de Rennes, to cafés her cousin would never enter.

She had to walk carefully; if she stepped too lightly she might slip on the wet pavement, but if she stepped too hard, the ground would crumble; she would fall in front of a train, arms thrown up above her head, legs sprawled beneath her, unable to stop all of those headlamps from running her down. Her red umbrella would spin forlornly on the street where she dropped it until it was crushed by cars. Her red shoes would be smeared with grime, forever lost to the world of light.

Her psychiatrist wanted to know where she found herself, how she had coped.

In a café, on Rue de Rennes itself, not a side street. It was large and expensive,” she told him. “Because my cousin was very snobby, she could not stand places like that. She chose small cafés, exclusive to people who know where to get something wonderful for not much money. I only needed a place to go and to be alone, close to where I was. I needed to take the weight from my trembling feet.”

Did that help?”

The building looked so heavy, like it would crash through the earth at any second, because the earth seemed so weak and so hollow. I got a table outside, at the edge of the awning so I could be close to the rain.”

She’d lit a cigarette immediately, before she’d even taken off her gloves.

I knew, everyone sort of knew, that they were awful for you,” she said. “Americans are so funny; they think we’re stupid about that sort of thing. They think that it’s a question of saving you from yourself, because if you smoke you must not know the facts. How to explain it? – I’m not used to needing to explain, and every time I try I find myself at a loss – Tobacco is a pleasure of the old world, where things are delicate and dangerous. It’s very difficult to make things of beauty, especially societies, without giving them a little blood, a little – travail. Without being wilfully stupid.”

Why do you say that?”

Intensity, uniqueness, you can’t get it by saying you have it, by declaring that everyone has it. You have to pay for it.”

She’d ordered an espresso and then, when the waiter was not ten steps away from the table, had called him back to change her order to a machiatto, because without a few spoons of milk foam her fluttering stomach would not have been able to hold dark coffee without pain. When it came, it was larger than she expected, and there was no ring of coffee on the saucer. The sugar cubes were wrapped in plain white butcher’s paper, one next to the other. There was a square of dark chocolate in gold foil, on top of her napkin, next to a silver spoon. These careful details made her feel a bit better.

She sat with her coffee, swinging her foot so that the back of her left shoe flapped against her heel, stirring until it was cold with the spoon, which was soothingly heavy, until the ash on the end of her cigarette became so long that it fell noiselessly to the ground.

I knew I was ridiculous,” she said. “I looked around and said to myself, ‘All these people, none of them as crazy as me,’ but I was comfortable with that. They were worrying about their children, the weight of their shopping bags and getting their shopping ruined in the wet, a thief snatching their bags from under the table, their bank account, the rain, their failure to be special, even though –” she laughed. “You know, we are French, we are all convinced we could not have done it any better, but there’s always this nagging thought, ‘Oh, when I was young I signed up for the Sorbonne, I was convinced I could do it, and then I had to drop out in the second year because I thought it was too hard, what happened to me? Did I get stupider? No, of course not, university does not make you stupid, perhaps I became lazy.’

Of course in France there is not this idea that children are infinite fonts of potential – we have stupid children, in France – if you were not going to make it somewhere, you would be told. The conversation would go something like this: ‘Papa, I want to go to the Sorbonne.’ ‘Chouchou, you will have a horrible time there. Consider applying to a place where you will be happy.’ Of course my own Papa was more direct about it; he said, ‘Izzy, you will be a woman, and always outclassed.’

I said to him, ‘Papa, Simone de Beauvoir went to the Sorbonne,’ and he said, ‘You are not Simone de Beauvoir.’ ”

And did you attend the Sorbonne?” asked her psychiatrist.

I did, and was very successful there. But he was right – I was not Simone de Beauvoir.”

When she had finally sipped her stone-cold coffee, she was surprised at its temperature and apologetically ordered another. The waiter, who was having a pleasant day, told her there would be no charge for the replacement. Even this did not ease her mind.

All these people – I imagined that the truly stupid ones did not know that they would never be anything extraordinary, and so might be able to return to the ground above – but the simply ordinary ones, even people who had been brilliantly educated but who would end up doing nothing more than their jobs, perhaps reading an intelligent novel now and again, kind people, unpleasant people – these would be the people swallowed up by the earth to become breathing statues in the trains. They were not individually stupid; they were only surrounded by this aura of stupidity that they created with the help of the naturally foolish, so perhaps some of them would be smart enough to be conscious of this… transmogriphie?”

Transmogrification? Transformation?”

Transformation. And that is the worst thought. That some of them might know when they were being consumed – the entrances to Métro stations are so like mouths gaping, have you noticed?”

She told her psychiatrist that perhaps she would have been fine in the end if the woman in the wig had not wandered her way into the café. To Iseult, who did not know the nature of her fear, the woman in the wig seemed to add weight simply because Iseult was already so precariously balanced, so tightly sprung, that anything out of the ordinary would be distressing rather than amusing. Perhaps, she told him, her fear would have not taken root in her so deeply, and she would have remembered it fondly as a quirk of the weather or the phases of the moon.

She was the most vibrant thing in the city, this woman,” she said. “She was wearing a wig as you might see on stage, silvery blonde, all piled up on her head, with bright red and blue silk roses, each the size of a child’s palm, lined with glitter. Her dress had them, too. It was blue and white gingham. She had on red, glittering shoes. As first I thought she was an actress, from a pantomime or something of that sort, escaping the Green Room in a fit of pique. But she did not speak French, only English; the poor waiter was having a hard time understanding her, and she seemed to think that if she spoke more loudly it would make it easier for him. She seemed to think that he was stupid for not understanding her. She had an enormous valise that she put right in the way, so that the waiter had to step over it to put down her coffee. It was decorated with red and blue stars cut from fabric, studded with sequins. When finally the waiter moved her luggage out of the way, she raised her voice to him, and said, ‘Don’t you dare touch my things!’ And she was black, which spoke to either her courage or her recklessness for making such a scene… of course, now it would be different… She was magnificent.”

Did you speak to her?”

Heavens, no! I shrank back into my chair. I was embarrassed for her, for her rawness. You could see her insecurity, pride … her unhinged mind in her clothes and speech and movement. She had a photograph in a wooden frame that she took from her valise, no glass to protect it, and she began to cry over it, to wail and sob, and she kissed it many times. I finally presumed she was in Paris for a funeral.

She left the café before I did. I wanted to stay until she was gone. I felt deeply for her but I wanted to reclaim my table as my own… she – she made the café hers, just by being in it. Every observer became a part of her business, because she was so impossible to ignore. Everyone’s thoughts and problems were brushed aside, just because she was there. I stayed – I did not want her to think I was leaving because of her.”

Her second coffee had also turned cold, but once the woman had gone, Iseult drank it all the same, smoking another cigarette and watching the sun fall. It seemed to hover at the horizon and then suddenly lose its grip and plummet behind the edge of the earth. Aware that it would be dangerous for her to return home long after sunset, she left money on the table, and as she was reaching for her scarf, caught a glance of her own red shoes glowing in the deep rays of the sunset.

I ripped them from my feet,” she said. “I threw them away from me, vehemently, under the table, and they tumbled into a mud puddle, at the place where the sloping pavement owned by the café met the city’s pavement. They were ruined. I left my umbrella leaning on my chair, but the edge of the chair was slippery and so it fell into the puddle with my shoes. I walked home barefoot in the rain.”

Why was that?”

I was not quite over my fear of trains.”

Not quite? How long did it take you to walk home?”

Hours and hours. When I got home to my apartment I phoned my Papa and told him I was mugged for my things, but that I threw my money at the thief and ran away so that he did not get my pocketbook. Papa telephoned the police. They never found my shoes or my umbrella; I suppose someone must have taken them or thrown them away.”

What happened with your cousin? Did she make you feel guilty for not meeting with her?”

Oh don’t worry, that’s not important to the story.”


“–she was cross with me at first but she happened to spot a friend on her way home from the café to complain to, and so was thankfully not angry with me when I phoned her. I did not tell her I had been robbed; it felt like a bad lie, and my Papa was not the sort to tell anyone such things. He would have said, ‘If Izzy wished it, I would repeat what she tells me.’ I know I haven’t spoken of him until now.”

You can if you like. I would eventually like to ask about him, but this is our first session; you should talk about whatever you want.”

I’m realizing your first impression of him is not the best. It is only that – the prevailing misogynistic views of the time were an excuse for him, to be overprotective of us. My Papa was a good man; he loved my Mama and me very dearly.”

I understand.” Her psychiatrist paused. “So, for a while you were fine? Until you came to New York.”


How long ago was that?”

Nearly thirty years.”

Your English is excellent.”

Thank you – I still make a few mistakes.”

I haven’t heard any,” said the psychiatrist. He smiled at her, professionally. “So then,” he said, looking down at his notes. “Yes. So you didn’t experience lasting trauma that you knew of, at that point?”

No, not at all. After a few days I was able to take the train easily, but I never enjoyed it much, so I got plenty of exercise.” The corner of her mouth turned up.

So why do you think it has come back, so late?”

You would think, wouldn’t you, that it would appear the instant I came to New York. All these subways everywhere. Nobody driving, everyone taking the subways.”

Something like that. That would be what I would expect, if it were a typical presentation of a phobia.”

It built up so slowly, I really didn’t notice for oh, many years,” she said. “And then I was on my way to Columbia University, to speak to one of their graduate students about a piece of his I wanted to publish, far uptown, and on the train was a homeless man talking loudly and waving a bundle of sparkling flowers. He was young, with an interesting face, with eyes that simply looked right into you. He could have been the next messiah, for all I knew. This must have been in the eighties sometime, in November, perhaps 1985 or 1986. He kept trying to get a group of young, sharp-looking businessmen to buy a flower. They looked like a pack of weasels, quick-moving and impeccably groomed, and they politely ignored him, but they were uncomfortable with him and annoyed; it was obvious. I watched them and I could not pick a side, in my head, in their conflict. I became uneasy and I had to get off.”

Hmm. Was it the train giving you anxiety, or the people?”

I –” she paused, to think. “I think it was the train. But now that I tell you, it does sound like the people, doesn’t it?”

It does. But we’ll figure it out for certain in later sessions, I think. Sorry, you said you were a…?”

Here, I work with a New York publisher.”

You must get tired of people in your personal life giving you manuscripts.”

Especially because I only rarely work with novels. Mostly it’s literary non-fiction, as I started in the business with an academic journal… we published odd little pieces no one else would take. Ones which did not quite fit into anything, sometimes pieces that would not really qualify as academic. It’s still running, in Paris… I run the company there and am employed here. Often the work runs together – the journal is now officially published by my employer.”

She paused. Looked at him. He said, “Oh, I’m not bored at all. Firstly, it’s my job not to be bored, and secondly, I don’t often have to force myself to be interested.”

She smiled at him. Said, “What a lovely talent to have.”

I just seem to get interesting patients. Sometimes the working of the mind is so intricate… but when I was a medical student, I saw a lot of the same problems between patients. It seems like the brain is likely to go wrong in much the same way with everyone, but these days I see a lot of different ways in which those, I guess you could call them glitches, play out.”

Even madness can be mundane.”

There are standard ways in which people go mad, if their madness is a result of their neurological makeup. Of course the details are different… I tend to see the cases, and I suspect you are one, in which people are neurologically normal but tie themselves in such knots their brains can’t quite cope anymore. A psychologically-based, eventually psychiatrically-relevant problem.”

Aren’t you revealing your hand too early?”

I don’t think so. I don’t like to trick patients… some people do; they think it’s for the good of the patient. Honestly, I can’t see keeping anything from a patient unless they’re so delusional they can’t function. You seem to be having trouble, but on the whole, you’ve got things working fine, yes?”

She smiled at him, and leaned forward on her seat, pressing her palms into her knees. “And how do I know this isn’t a trick?”

He laughed. “So this event, the weasels on the subway, that was the catalyst? Did it come back all at once?”

I suppose not. I slid back into my fear, but it was so gradual… I am usually practical, so I didn’t think to see a doctor, only to remain capable. As you’ve said. But only ‘mostly alright’ does not work for me.” She looked at the carpet, uncertainly. “It really has gone on too long.”

The psychiatrist stood. “Anything that makes you unhappy like this has gone on too long no matter how long it has gone on… Would you like some tea?”

Yes, please.”

He made the tea himself, rather than ringing his secretary for it. “I don’t serve coffee. I want to relax patients, I suppose is why. Tea seems more comforting.”

The drink of dependence, something that earns trust, rather than being independent and adult and a little more dangerous, like coffee.”

I suppose that’s all true – I don’t think of myself as manipulative in that way, as I’ve said, but it seems true.” He handed her a cup.

She said, “I could not take the train. And then I could not be in tall buildings, because I thought they might be sucked down into the ground like sinking ships. The ground is so thin, like an eggshell, over the tunnels.”

And this is where you are at the moment.”

Yes. I manage to walk on the streets, but I have maps at home that show the infrastructure underground. They are for architects, contractors, that sort of person. I paid a lot of money for them. I tend to avoid places where the subway lines cross, if I can.”

I think,” said her psychiatrist, “that you should start by taking a trip out of the city.”

Immediately as he suggested it she said, “Where should I go?” but he waved her question away.

Go somewhere you haven’t been before,” was all he said. And when she pressed him, “Maybe you could visit a friend? Right now I’m concerned that you take it easy, be out of New York, as it exacerbates your anxiety, and frankly, I get the impression you work long hours. You need a break. Then we can continue. I think I have an idea of how to help you, but I also think you need some peace, for a couple of days.”

You don’t think I need hospitalization?”

We don’t put people in the hospital unless they’re a danger to others or to themselves. If you become a danger to yourself, I will advise it, but listen, hospitals are designed to help you, and I think what will help you is taking a brief holiday.”

Should we set up a session for when I come back?”

If you want to continue working with me. It’s entirely up to you.”

She took her psychiatrist’s advice. On the bus to Poughquag, she counted white cars, daydreamed of having a greyhound that she would walk in Central Park and a rooftop apartment so she could keep him, was disturbed by an English translation of The Red Shoes, felt carsick, and ate some carottes râpées, which helped to settle her stomach even though she’d used plenty of vinegar. The book of poetry that she’d been meaning to read for weeks was left untouched, and so when she checked her belongings right before she got off the bus, to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind, it stared at her accusingly from between a bottle of water and a half-empty packet of tissues.

Oh, whore,” she said. In French, and under her breath, so no one would hear. There were only a sweet young couple and a teenager with headphones left on the bus, and they were towards the front. She could have said it any way she liked, and it wouldn’t have been heard. She was gripped by the thought that if she’d yelled “Putain!” at the top of her lungs, they might have heard, but then she wouldn’t be Iseult anymore. Iseult was brought up not to yell. She would be someone else, and her body would be different, and she might be younger, or male. So she didn’t, even though it would have made her feel better.

She called a taxi on her sweet little company-owned mobile phone. As it dialled, she rummaged in her purse for her cigarette case. It began to rain.

Hello? Hello?” murmured the phone.

She pressed it up against her ear, and ordered a taxi with a cigarette in her fingers and with a lighter palmed in her right hand, ducking under the awning of the bus station. Iseult had stopped carrying umbrellas many years ago. She waited for her taxi as the rain dotted the ground. The air smelt of grass and of oil, washed out of the cracks in the asphalt of the road to form an iridescent slick, which would disappear within a few minutes down the storm drains.

A man kept going in and out of the bus station. He went inside and came out again at least five times before Iseult finished smoking her first cigarette. He looked agitated and had a heavy-looking sports bag with a thin and straining strap that he kept hoisting up above his right shoulder. On what seemed to Iseult to be the hundredth trip it ripped, and a few things fell out and scattered over the threshold of the door. He put his hand over the rip but made no motion to pick up his things. Iseult stubbed out her cigarette and started towards him, intending to help him, but before she got close enough to make eye contact, he glanced at his watch and ran into the station for the last time.

A few receipts, an old cinema stub, and a brochure of New York attractions were strewn across the threshold, next to a plastic bottle cap and something shaped like a travel-sized shampoo, wrapped in foil so it would not spill. Her taxi was late and so she leafed through the brochure. Not only was it of the type she could get at any subway station and popular tourist attraction, but it was two years old and completely useless: even without the coupons, restaurants in New York changed so often that any listing older than two weeks was unreliable.

There was also a keychain with a worn rubber dog at the end. Wanting to be tidy and finished with the brochure, Iseult picked everything up and took it to the trash bin, putting the sad little Scottie on the windowsill, unable to throw away someone else’s keepsake. She hesitated, and then picked up the keychain, turning it around in her fingers. Her cab pulled up and, as she would have to go back inside to throw the little dog away, she put it in her bag.

What she saw of Poughquag was mostly trees. Occasionally a dog barked, or a car revved its engine somewhere beyond view.

There was David’s old yellow convertible, parked outside. There were no lights on inside the house. Still, it was the middle of the day. She paid for her cab. David’s driveway needed re-paving. The cab left. She rang the doorbell. It sounded strained and discordant. There was no movement inside.

She called, “David!”

Nothing. She thought of running after her cab, maybe visiting an art gallery in a nearby town. She had a list of them in her pocketbook. She had never run after a cab in her life. The yellow car had a rusted belly, decay scalloping its edges, creeping into its corners. Her cab had long gone. She would never catch it if she ran. There were weeds brushing her ankles, through the cracks in the concrete. There were ant nests in the flowerbeds. She could call the taxi company again. The lace curtains behind the dirty glass panes of the door were staining at the edges. The welcome mat was covered in black mould.

She backed away from the door. She had her phone; she could call her psychiatrist, tell him she was going back to New York straight away, that his idea had been horrible, that she needed to be working.

A few paces away, and she loosened her grip on her bag. She slung it over her elbow and set off around the edge of the house. She did not call out again. There was no one home.

Across the front yard, she streaked her shoes with dirt. In the back garden, she gathered dandelion and grass seeds on her clothes. In the close space between the fence and the side of the house, she ticked her blouse with splinters and mussed her pixie cut on the branches of the more exuberant bushes. The property surrounding the house smelled wild and sweet, like Clematis flowers. She faced the front door again. She tried the doorknob. She tried a hairpin. The door opened.

David was the man who had met her at the airport when she first arrived in New York. He had been her first American friend, quite literally her first American anything.

He was a big blond boy,” she’d told her psychiatrist. “Exactly what silly people expect of Americans. He was even wearing cowboy boots. He could speak a little French, which is why he was the one to meet me.”

Is that why you want to visit him for this holiday? You had a thing for him?”

She’d smiled vaguely. “A thing? No, not that. I was very independent in my early thirties; I didn’t develop any thing for anyone. He stood out because he was the first. My first American friend. When you do anything for the first time, you remember it. When you have sex for the first time, it stands out, even if it’s nothing very special otherwise, no?”

He doesn’t sound as if he’s bland or ordinary.”

I have had some very strange and extraordinary friends. And David, well… I’ve told you, David was almost an archetype. The blond cowboy?”

So you want to visit him because he acclimatized you to America? By being something you expected?”

You remind me why I hired you. You’re good at guessing.”

Her psychiatrist had laughed at that, and said, “That’s my job, Isolde.”

She smiled a crooked smile at him, re-attaching a clip in her brilliant white hair.

Have you not kept in touch with him?”

No, he was drafted in Vietnam, soon after we first met, and after that it was only Christmas cards. Those eventually stopped, of course.”

She’d called his agent, who said that as far as she knew he was still living at the address in Poughquag, because that’s where the royalty cheques were mailed. And here they were, in a pile of mail that slid out over the doorstep, spilling over Iseult’s shoes, envelopes and cards biting her ankles, looseleaf fliers making her skin itch. She stepped over all of it.

The house smelled dark. The carpet had been grey, or blue, but was now patchy and brown in places. There was a muddy, full ashtray on a table in front of the doily-draped recliner. There was oxidized change in a cut crystal bowl next to the door, and a navy blue, wood-handled umbrella, steel tips rusted. The keys to the car lay beside the bowl. There were water-damaged photographs in frames, of a family. Their faces were faded, unidentifiable. The television was set in a wood cabinet, which had a yellowed and curling doily on top, and sitting on that, a rusted antenna. There was a coat hanging on the coat rack. Brown water streaked the wallpaper. She took the keychain out of her bag, kneading it between her fingers.

Iseult’s footsteps sounded to her like water dropping on concrete. The linoleum in the kitchen was warped so badly that the floor looked like waves in deep ocean before a storm. A full cereal bowl and a box of ten-year-old cereal sat on the counter, and Iseult could not step any closer. She was afraid of what was in the bowl, what she might see if she opened the refrigerator, what lay dead in the cabinets. She was afraid that the kitchen floor would not be solid, that she would step into it and be pulled under, into the dark water, by a grasping current. The small kitchen window was plastered with bright green leaves, so that the light from it was stained with chlorophyll. The kitchen, thought Iseult, was being swallowed up by the yard outside. Something scuttled under the sink. A shiny roach contemplated her, antennae gesturing, looking for all the world like living cellophane or a roach from a joke shop, made of rubber. She left the kitchen.

The door to the bedroom was open. The bed closest to the window, ratcheted up on its white metal frame, was disturbed. The small wooden bed closest to Iseult was neatly made. An IV stand stood forlornly in the corner. She did not walk into the bedroom. There were sirens outside. She stood in the hallway, as though she did not want to be seen standing in the doorway by the ghosts in the room. She looked at the mussed bedclothes, at the back yard through the bedroom window. She gripped the keychain tightly, at the bottom of her throat, with both hands.

The policeman who now stood next to Iseult said, “This place is distressing, isn’t it?”

She turned her face to him, and nodded. He gestured towards the front door. On her way out, Iseult dropped the keychain of the Scottie onto the hall table, putting it with its own kind, abandoning it like a sad memory.

Outside, there was David, in a wheelchair. He threw out his hands at her.

How could you do such a thing? How could you go poking around in someone’s old life like that? Who do you think you are? Were you trying to steal money? I hope you’re satisfied. There can’t be twenty dollars lying around in there. Twenty dollars! A neighbour saw you poking around, you know. She called the police for me when you went into my backyard. I haven’t opened that door in so many years, how come you think you have a right to? What did you find? Was it curiosity? I’m not going to press charges, because, I mean, look at you, it was obviously just being curious, you’ve gotten your clothes all filthy and they look pretty expensive. What in the hell were you going to steal? You’re an old woman!”

You’re an old man, David,” she said. His hair was almost gone. His knees had finally given out on him, she supposed because of the stress he’d put on them during his military career.

He turned to the policemen. “I think I know this woman. It’s fine.” They hesitated. “Really, it’s fine. I can call a cab to pick me up.”

How do I know you?” he said.

David, I am, I am so sorry, I don’t even know what happened.”

My wife died,” he said. “I found her when I came home from work. The nurse had left for the day. Of cancer.”

He was wearing red slippers. His thick fingers had shrunk. He was disturbed, a wild deserter, no longer the demon Legion, no longer many.

I left,” he said. “After they took the body, I just walked out. I couldn’t be there, but I couldn’t get rid of anything.”

I live with my son,” he said. “He doesn’t know. About the house.”

My name is Iseult,” she said. “You were one of my writers.” She wanted to be home, walking along the river with her long dead friend Anne, poking gentle fun at her long dead Papa so that he huffed and puffed and smiled at her, shopping with her sister’s granddaughter for fruit, kissing her brown-haired first kiss, fitting into a crowd like a puzzle piece or a mote of dust, being buoyed by things she knew.

Isolde,” said David. “How the hell have you been, friend?”


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