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Illustration by Maya Chessman

Illustration by Maya Chessman

“No bears,” said Vera, the realtor, who lived next door in a blue colonial. “Bobcats, however . . . ” She crossed the kitchen to the Dutch door and unlatched it. She pointed to a low branch in the grove. “One left a carcass hanging there.” Ann imagined something like a draped towel. Vera glanced at her watch and muttered, “Dinnertime.”

Ann and Elgar signed the lease.

The rest needed little exaggeration: the property had a massive stone that George Washington once gave spirited orations from; clusters of money were said to be buried in the backwoods. Black walnut trees stretched needle-thin like Giacometti sculptures, and the rent was even cheaper than the Bed-Stuy warehouse from Ann’s college years, where she’d shared a bed with a ceramicist beneath the building’s central heater. When they couldn’t sleep, the ceramicist would try retelling the Iliad from memory while Ann covered her head with a Tempur-Pedic pillow. Ann hadn’t yet met her husband, but Elgar had been hooked on opiates then, in a peeling duplex with musty mattresses barricading the windows. Now he was a land surveyor with a patient heart.

They moved into the cottage the following week. Their excitement was a stingray, sailing across the base of unknown, ink-dark waters. Ann was unpacking winter clothes when Vera ambled through the grove to invite them over for dinner.

“Now,” Vera added, as if suddenly remembering she had left the kettle on, and Elgar put down a box of hangers. In the moonlight, the black walnuts seemed to sway sentiently, like elephant trunks.

Vera served them rotisserie chicken and asparagus, and herself many glasses of wine. Sunflower shells slipped from her lips and into a Café Bustelo can as she told them about the game warden next door who took care of legions of swans. Apparently they were a lucrative trade now.

“Hotels want swans, restaurants want swans . . . ” She paused to spit out a shell. “Corporate offices want swans for their courtyards . . . ”

Elgar leaned back in his chair and told a story about how he had discovered the violence of swans. He was a child then; earlier in the day he had witnessed his mother covering up her bruised eyes, and everything he thought he knew about the inner lives of those he loved became clouded by a strange uncertainty. Later that day, the swans at the park had come at him with certain, sharp bills when he tried to pet them.

“Swans can be very willful and athletic,” Vera explained. “When it’s time to bring them back inside, their necks lash around like snakes ready to strike.” Vera went on to talk about a young woman who used to live with the game warden. Her job was to bake biscuits that contained sedatives for the swans. She had lived in the in-law suite until one winter when she was trampled by horses.

After dinner, Elgar and Ann laughed their way back across the grove. Things were still sturdy and blissful between them. Without curtains, all Ann could see through the windows was the flat night.

Ann was an appraisal assistant for a private-estate liquidator. When she and Elgar first met, their friends had laughed at the totality of their match—how together they could assess the true value of any house and its contents, a prospect that she always found bleak and not at all romantic.

Perhaps it came from her own self-consciousness, or how an undergraduate degree in history led to what she considered to be a fixation on surfaces. What had started as a summer job pricing Staffordshire lamps and Regency-era tables for an auction house gave rise to a sticky eye for all jewelry and signed lithographs, imagining what they would look like in her own home.

She had never placed bids on any of the auctions (it was against the rules) until a shipment from the estate of a former Cambridge psychoanalyst arrived at her office. Included was a pair of Italian alabaster Swiss-cheese bookends. Two marbly quarters of a cheese wheel, complete with a wax rind and miniature alabaster mice that peeked out from the holes. Ann wanted the bookends the way she wanted a cave, something impossible and completely unrelated to her life, and so she went home and set up an account under Elgar’s name and made an opening bid of thirty dollars.

Next, she bid on a brass beetle with hinged wings to ash cigarettes onto, even though she didn’t smoke. Then a bread knife that looked like a baguette. She bid on objects that looked like other objects, and wondered what pleasure the analyst must have found in them. If they had belonged to anyone else—another collector, a designer, pop musician, or policeman—she would have thought nothing of them, or found them garish and chintzy, but something about their being selected by an individual whose job was to deeply observe the human mind made her trust that she needed them.

Ann didn’t win any of the lots, but when she went into the office the next day, she pocketed a Limoges box that was made to look like a strawberry (it was so small, and no one had picked it up after the auction), which put her in a probationary period with the agency. It was a minor, embarrassing event that she’d kept even from Elgar and disguised with a seemingly sudden desire to take up freelance bookkeeping, a pursuit that Elgar encouraged and supported.

Ann thought that the psychoanalyst must have known something about how one cannot look away from something in disguise, or the thing beneath a thing, or the mystery of two worlds colliding into one. Or perhaps these objects were never his to begin with, and he had instead lived in an ordinary, unadorned one-bedroom apartment with a fireplace and a cat. She erased the whole experience from her mind.

Yet something about this fixation held on. One of the first things Ann did after they moved into the cottage was to drive around the long, winding roads to see the large, dilapidated mansions and guess at their contents. Some of the houses were so big that they resembled glaciers more than homes. One appeared to be four stories and was the shade of a looming sandstone cliff, with a mossy green roof. Similarity to nature gave the houses a menacing cruelty: they pretended to be homes but could never be entered. In the end, Ann thought apocalyptically, the mountains would tumble over and bury us beneath them like ants.

Ann found the story behind the bed. Elgar was measuring a property in the country, and it was her first time alone in the cottage. The story was written on the first page of an otherwise empty notebook. The notebook was sky blue; she’d found it while sweeping dust and hair that had been carried into crevices by tides of moving air.

“The woman has an unseemly scar down her neck. When she laughs, it sounds like a car wreck, which is what I imagine late at night—running my car over her, blood seeping through her ratted, red hair,” it read. The narrator looked upon the body in relief.

Ann crouched beside the bed, rereading with hot eyes.

Ann also had a scar down her neck, long red hair, and a loud laugh. She scanned the scene for some small difference, something that might indicate it was not what she thought it was. She examined the handwriting as if it might be someone else’s besides her husband’s. The thought of another woman’s having left the notebook there briefly gave her some strange relief. Or perhaps Elgar had found it on one of his jobs and brought it home to show her, to have a laugh? The passage was neatly written, as if crafted thoughtfully and with finality.

But Ann was typically called “Ann” by her husband, or “Annnnn” if she was in a distant room. Elgar had never referred to her, as far as she knew, as “the woman.” In their ten years of marriage, Ann only remembered him describing her scar as “beautiful” and her laugh as “irresistible,” and whenever she’d step out of the shower and let her long hair fall, he would refer to it positively, even if with as vague a descriptor as “nice.”

Ann replaced the notebook where she had found it, kind of fallen between his side of the bed and the wall, where the outlet and some internet cables disappeared farther down into the molding. She shook the dustpan over the narrow space, coating everything again with lint. She backed out of the room like a rewound tape but lost herself along the way. By the time she reached the doorway, she had plunged into a machinelike panic. No matter how hard she tried to breathe—inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six, as she had learned to do from one of her mindfulness videos—her heart rose in her throat like the sudden rush of boiling milk.

Later, while turning over the sentences in her mind, Ann would take offense at their commonness. Anyone, a man at the grocery store, or a girl in a passing car, could glimpse her red hair, or hear her shattering laugh through the rolled-down window, and think it ugly. If the story had detailed the way she procrastinated paying her parking tickets, or the way she hummed when pleased, then she could perhaps discern a trace of intimacy in its authorship. Specificity is known by specific people, while universals are known by the universe, Ann had always thought.

Ann didn’t answer Elgar’s calls when they came. In the afternoon, she took to the forested trail in the backyard with hedge clippers and cut away the reaching vines and thorned branches. She obsessed over clearing and editing the forest path, but she only found herself surrounded at all sides—by rivers and old footbridges, meadows and conifers. A patch of yarrow grew at the edge of the field, a squirrel chattered, a robin preened its wing, and Ann sat on a bench beside a trailhead where she could see a neighboring estate through the trees.

Where the canopy thinned, out past the property line, was an empty garden with geometric red dahlias, and a long glass house. To its side was a lake filled with swans. They coasted, like sailboats, and a man swam alongside them. He was like an eel, all skin, and when he pulled himself out of the water Ann felt a light turn on.

It was “pure fiction,” Elgar said, setting his coffee cup down. They splintered off into a brief argument in the kitchen—Ann didn’t believe that there could exist a shadow unattached to an object. What inspired the story, if not some true version, however fleeting, of those very thoughts? He apologized, embarrassed, and said he didn’t know what else to say. It was a story.

But why her exact description? Ann pleaded, shaking over the sink.

“It was just a story,” Elgar insisted. “Not even a story. A thought. A fictional thought. Not reality.” Since when did he start writing? Ann thought. And wasn’t it reality that didn’t make sense, and fiction, uniquely, the place where sense could be made?

After that, the sky-blue notebook disappeared. Perhaps Elgar had brought it with him to work, or destroyed it, or taken extra steps to hide it, but when Ann asked where it was, he said he couldn’t recall. Perhaps he had forgotten about it entirely since their argument, though Ann thought it unlikely. She considered how Elgar, since she had known him, strived for honesty and integrity, but picturing him running her over—kindly and patiently—fissured everything she knew into sharp, weaponlike pieces.

Ann began crafting horrific versions of events as they happened in real time. When she cut carrots for soup and Elgar came up behind her to kiss her neck, she imagined him imagining a fictional character sneaking up behind her with a hatchet. When the two of them drove to the theater, she imagined him imagining the two of them landing in a ditch. When Elgar told a joke, Ann kept her laugh low, and when she spoke, she spoke softly. When Elgar said, “I love you,” she asked, “Really?,” which was something she had never done. Nothing between them had ever truly been wrong, even when Ann’s mother died from tracheal cancer and Elgar’s conspiratorial brother held them at gunpoint.

The notion of Ann’s likeness being run over by a car became a disease that caught her in a wave of bright light. It stalked and brittled the silences around her thoughts, robbed her rest and replaced it with a resentment that ran so clear that it could have been mistaken for water. Its grip even frightened Ann into considering some kind of forgiveness or reprieve. But forgiveness and reprieve were the last things she desired. Ann wanted knowledge, specifically about whether other stories existed, or what else might be going on inside Elgar’s head.

Vera was out on her porch with a pitcher of lemon water and a honeydew melon that she had cut with a long thin knife. When Ann checked the mailbox, Vera called her over, and they sat on the porch watching the black walnut trees. Ann wanted to ask Vera what she would do if she had glimpsed a secret act of hatred by her dearest friend, but she kept quiet instead, sipping her drink.

We all have dark ideas, Ann imagined Vera replying. What is more untruthful: A thing written down, or a sustained deception of the heart? Writing could be a kind of exorcism. Ann remembered Elgar once telling her that one cannot help if a bird flies over one’s head, but one can prevent it from building a nest there. Ann could no longer tell if a dark written thought was a bird passing overhead or a built nest. She tried to ram her brain against the question, but it was no use.

She thanked Vera for the water and wandered back to the house in a blank state. That night, she felt animals press at the other side of the windowpanes. Teams of creatures and carcasses and horrible music.

Elgar went to work. Ann left her phone at home and went to the woods, shaping and hacking any excess so that the paths widened. She made her way to the bench from which she could see the lake of swans. She stood still behind a tree, observing their slender white bodies move over the water. Their eyes were sharp and dark, as if they wore sunglasses.

She had been watching them for so long she forgot she was leering at someone’s backyard. Smooth stones with names like truth, loyalty, and respect that once outlined the paths of her decisions were now covered in thick mental tar. Perhaps a week ago Ann would have walked on, but today she stepped across the property line. It could be admissible as a mistake, she thought in a low tremolo, despite there being a wiry gate with a sign that said private property, and a clear divide between wild woods and tended grounds.

A plan formed in her mind as she crept closer to the glass house and the smooth-moving swans. If she was able to so simply cross over into the game warden’s property, perhaps she could cross over into Elgar’s hidden desires too. She could search through his phone while he was in the shower, look through his Notes app. No, Elgar always brought his phone with him, she recalled. Ann wanted to know the deepest recesses of him. She wanted to open his head and scrape his brain with a fork.

Fuming thoughts fueled her across the stranger’s yard, toward the tall red dahlias. Their petals pointed neatly like spears, and together they looked like marionettes. Ann paused and listened for the sounds closest to her, and then those farthest. A tittering bird nearby, and an occasional rustle of movement against water in the distance. Ann was fully in the open now, steadily traversing the moss, seemingly unseen. She reached the door of the glass house.

Now her life was pulsing. Through the glass was a kitchen. Its walls were bright red, and at its center was a butcher block with containers arranged in stacks. They held thick, coinlike biscuits.

Ann remembered Vera’s story about the former assistant who had been crushed by horses, and wondered whether the biscuits contained something that might knock Elgar out. She was overcome with a resolute desire to open the back door and steal one. The nearest sound was the blood pumping around her brain, and the farthest was the creaking of the hinges of the door before her.

All boundaries were cut. One unlikely action can be the result of a hidden well of unkempt thoughts. The house smelled of cinnamon and peat. Ann opened a container and filled her hands. She would bring a biscuit home and serve it to Elgar on a plate and wait for him to fall asleep, so that she could unlock his phone and unearth his hidden hate for her. Yet the thought that brought the most dread was that there would be nothing of the sort, only generous accounts.

The game warden appeared in the yard. He was lean like an army sergeant as he strode toward the lake. He paused at the edge. Ann couldn’t tell where his eyes were, and for a moment she was certain that he was staring directly at her, until he undressed completely and took gradual steps into the water.

An unbearable wash of abstract thoughts seized her behind her eyes and below her waist when she saw him disappear below the surface and emerge floating on his back. The swans initially dispersed but were now circling him like the beads of a necklace. Had he seen her? She imagined him entering the red kitchen dripping. She imagined him pushing her onto the butcher block and climbing over her. Suddenly all her rage and distrust toward Elgar were redirected through the game warden and into herself. But this was just a thought. A thought was not reality.

Through the glass, she watched the game warden pull himself out of the water and wrap a blue towel around his waist. Ann remained still, mimicking the furniture, though her eyes shook like dice. The swans followed him across the yard as he approached the house. Should she run to the door? Would Elgar have to bail her out of jail? Or maybe she could spring into the hallway behind her, where there were a staircase and a dining room with a table and chairs painted light orange. She could neither hide nor move; the best thing to do would be to lie flat against the floor, but it was too late even for that. For a moment, the game warden was close enough to the glass that Ann could make out a tattoo on his shoulder. He walked past the kitchen window and along the side of the house.

The sound of shoes rubbing against a welcome mat came from another part of the house. Ann’s hands spasmed and gripped the biscuits to dust. A swan peered at her from the water. For a moment, the display of her own heart felt like a piercing kind of grace.

The game warden closed the front door and put into motion a percussive score of pockets emptying, closet doors opening and closing, and footsteps starting their way somewhere. Ann’s low horror at herself became a high horror toward the immediate moment, which then lifted for a short window, letting her jump into action, anchorless. She assessed the kitchen around her. There—a large cedar door. It opened easily. Inside was the suggestion of a pantry. Ann entered. She curled herself down and silently broke into a trembling fit.

The pantry was long enough for her to lie down lengthwise, but Ann crouched by the hinges of the door, balancing on the balls of her feet. Her ears strained past her heartbeat until she found a sound to decipher. The game warden must have been in a distant room—all she could discern were nominal creaks and fluctuating baseboards. Everything took on an amplified life in the dark. A dripping faucet, when focused on, began to resemble a woman in high heels walking down a hallway far away.

She remembered her therapist’s advice to touch three things to calm down, so she touched the cold stone floor, her hair, and her lips. She would stay until the game warden went to sleep, and then leave as quickly as she had entered. Elgar was probably heading back now, Ann thought to herself, patting down her pockets in search of her phone, which she then remembered she’d left at home. Panic came on like rain. She wondered about the odds of being discovered by the game warden and thrown into the lake for the swans to conceal.

She raised herself slowly to the doorknob, attempting to quietly maneuver herself upward, when a thud and shatter sounded to her side.

“No,” she whispered.

Every part of her winced, then ironed out quietly. She expected a rush of footsteps into the kitchen at any moment. Off-balance, she tried to place her weight back onto the balls of her feet.

She planted her hand down onto the ground to steady herself, but was met with a cornering, sharp pain. Feeling one hand with the other, she extracted a chunk of what felt like glass or porcelain from her palm, and smaller pieces from her wrist. Her hand was covered in whatever the object had contained, though she couldn’t tell whether the wetness was from some kind of syrup, preserves, or her own blood. She raised her hand shakily to her nose in an attempt to smell it, but it was as if her senses had been shut off.

Imagination, Ann came to realize, was difficult to control when laced not just with darkness but also pain; in an attempt to quell it, she held her hand to her mouth and sucked. Her skin tasted sour, like brine, and warm, perhaps like blood, which didn’t ease her mind at all. Should she open the door? She no longer feared being caught. After all, she wasn’t a threatening home invader; she simply needed help. Yes! she thought excitedly . . . she could leave the pantry and, if caught, pretend she had just entered the kitchen—she could tell the game warden that she had seen his property from the forest and didn’t know whether she could make it back to her house in time and was merely looking for a sink to wash the wound . . .

For the first time in what felt like weeks, Ann’s insides matched her environment. It was not only Elgar; the world, too, was imperceptible, completely impenetrable, and difficult to trust. The slosh of her mental activity rose and became the pantry around her. It was true: the doors of hell were locked from the inside. Her muscles relaxed. She leaned slack against the door and closed her eyes.

In the distance, she heard footsteps again, a rustle, and then the closing of the front door. Ann was finally free, and she didn’t bring herself to move.

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April 2024

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