I received my B.A. from the University of Iowa, where I worked on my honors thesis with Pulitzer Prize winning author James Alan McPherson. I went on to get my MFA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University, where I studied with Pulitzer Prize finalists Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon.
I spent a year in Nepal on a Fulbright grant working with the Nepali Deaf community, trekking through the Himalayas, and working on a collection of short stories.
My work has been published in Gargoyle, The Bellingham Review, Fugue, Washington Square Review, Timber, Copper Nickel, Kaleidoscope, Juked, JMWW, Poets & Writers and others.
I live in Portland, Oregon, with my wife, baby son, and two cats.
I have three novels available for representation: Penumbra, Catacomb, and The Silver Thread.
You can contact me at franzknupfer[at]hotmail.com.
I was childhood friends with a pop star.
Before she became the pop star Penumbra, Allie dreamed of writing songs about apocalyptic medieval artists and the poet William Blake. Before he became Allie’s guitarist and confidante, Jonah was a childhood friend who dreamed of winning her love. Five years after the tragedies that drove them apart make them inseparable again, Jonah must help Allie deal with a porn star doppelganger, overbearing record executives, and her self-destructive personality.
Can Jonah finally win her heart and help her record the album she always dreamed of making, or will Allie succumb to the crushing weight of her superstar persona?
Penumbra is a literary novel of 95,000 words with mainstream appeal.
This is what I remembered when she called me: Allie wearing nothing but a warty troll mask and tennis shoes. She was sixteen years old and ran with her arms out like she was on a tightrope. My breath fogged up in my mask as I ran behind her, trying to keep up. At the time, I was seventeen, virginal, in love with her. Her brother Andrew had put us up to this, one of his usual Halloween dares before he died. We’d been playing quarters with cheap tequila. I thought of her wearing the mask because I didn’t want to think about how beautiful she really was.
“Jonah?” she asked. “Is that you?” Her voice was urgent on the phone.
“It’s me,” I said, trying to cover my surprise. We hadn’t talked in five years.
Back when I knew Allie, she wasn’t Penumbra yet. As a sophomore in high school, she was the lead singer of a girl band called High Priestess. Her dream was to make a concept album about William Blake, but her songs had been hijacked by controlling producers, Swedish hit-makers, computerized algorithms.
“I know I’ve been bad. Will you forgive me?” she asked.
“Forgive you for what?” I was in my roommate’s walk-in closet, my bedroom for the moment, guitar in my arms, phone cradled against my ear. Rob’s Remington was going off in the living room.
“What’s that sound?” she asked, forgetting (conveniently) that we were talking about forgiveness.
“That’s my roommate’s Remington,” I said.
“He collects typewriters,” I added.
“Okay.” There was the roar of an engine on her end, the sound of a bus or perhaps a getaway car. I tried to picture what she looked like at that moment, if she was as beautiful as the cover she’d had on Rolling Stone the year before.
“Forgive you for what?” I was still pressing my fingers against the neck of the guitar, shaping an E-minor chord.
“For everything. There’s nothing like Arkansas to make you penitent.”
“Arkansas?” I wanted to bang the wall and tell Rob to shut up with the typing, except it was his apartment. He was the one with the trust fund.
“I’m in Little Rock. Memphis tomorrow. Think I should go to Graceland?”
“You’re on tour?”
“My dad’s having surgery, so I’m coming home Wednesday. Are you around?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You’re still mad at me,” she said.
“It’s not that,” I said. “I’m not home anymore. Haven’t been for a while.”
“But my mom said—”
“Your mom isn’t a reliable source of information. I just got back from India. Crashing in Williamsburg at the moment.”
“You stalker, you,” she said.
“Yeah, sure. Me and everyone else, right?” Back home, I had a poster of Allie in a gray organza dress, her hands clasped in mocking prayer, her fingers a pale, interwoven constellation. I’d had it pinned up in the hallway of my apartment in college, partly for kitsch purposes, partly as a conversation piece. I’d been childhood friends with a superstar.
“You are still mad at me, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not mad, no.” The right word was disappointed, but I didn’t say that. It was bad enough that she’d cratered our friendship. She’d also sold her talent to the highest bidder.
Suddenly she sounded hesitant and unsure. “Never mind. I’m sorry I called.”
“How about coffee when I get home?”
“Of course. I’d love to see you.”
“Well,” she said dryly. “Keep your pants on.”
The Remington was shitting a hailstorm of bullets in the other room.
“So when will you—”
“I’m being followed,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get back.”
“Followed? What do you mean, followed?” All I could think of was Twitter.
“I’ll call you,” she said. And that was it. Click. End of conversation.
I went out into Rob’s living museum. There was the Hammonia, a metal box that looked more like a paper cutter than a typewriter. Built in Hamburg, 1884. There was the Chicago, built in 1889, and the National, made in Philadelphia. Machines with souls, Rob called them. The typewriters took up nearly every available surface in the room and were polished to a velvety sheen. With the metal radiator in the corner, the piles of manuscripts, and the lumpy couch, an antique in itself, the living room looked like a stenographer’s office in a novel by Henry James, trashed after a drunken weekend with Henry Miller.
“It was that girl I told you about,” I said.
“Penumbra?” Rob asked, not looking up from the typewriter. He had a scruffy beard, black denim pants and a stocking cap. His gray t-shirt had been silk-screened with a fully erect middle finger.
“She has a real name,” I said.
He sprawled across the couch, bemused. “You’re still in love with her and all that. You’ve got this sister complex thing.”
“Except she’s not my sister, and I’m not in love with her,” I said. “Not anymore.” I felt the same way about her as I did about Andrew and my dad. It was as if she’d departed, too.
“Want a glass?” he asked, pointing at an open bottle of pinot noir.
“Not really. Think I’ll go for a walk.”
He nodded sadly. Wine was his way of showing sympathy, and he wanted me to pour my guts out about Allie again, how she and her older brother Andrew had been my best friends. Andrew had died just before Allie moved to New York. The details were all the more sordid because Allie had made it big.
She was Penumbra now, and every other night there was a fuzzy picture of her in the tabloids, usually passed out under a table or smacking paparazzi with a Hermes bag. In the magazines, she favored organza and wool crepe and dresses that made her look as if she’d stepped out of a period piece on the Renaissance. She was never in a bikini or on a beach.
The last time I saw her was a few weeks after Andrew’s funeral. She had her guitar, a messenger bag, a credit card she’d stolen from her mother. She was seventeen and we’d just graduated from high school—me on time and her a year early. Before he died, we were talking about starting a band. I was obsessed with Radiohead, Brazilian guitar music, stripped down electronica. That’s what I wanted our music to sound like, with her voice strobing over it, a sad lunar angel singing of heartbreak. We even came up with a name for us: Fuzz.
As I pressed her against the wall by the ticket counter at the station, my face in her hair, I asked if she blamed me for what had happened to Andrew. She shook her head, too choked up to say anything, but I didn’t believe her. She was mummified in scarves and a stretched fisherman knit sweater. In New York she was staying with the friend of a friend, a girl she’d never met before. I tried to convince her not to go. There was a chord progression playing in my head, something in B-minor. I didn’t have words so I wanted to sing the melody to her, except I couldn’t sing.
She squeezed her eyes shut, as if this suggestion were so exhausting she couldn’t even respond.
“Keep writing songs,” I said. It was a stupid thing to say. She was going to New York to be a musician. “Call me when you get there,” I said. “Let me know you’re safe.”
“All right,” she said, but within a week of leaving, her phone number had been disconnected.
She never did call, until today.
A few weeks later, we arranged to meet at a coffee shop not far from where I lived. I arrived early and checked myself in the bathroom’s hazy, graffitied mirror. I was presentable at best—dark hair, stubble, skin still bronzed from India. My mother, grandmothers, and aunts all went on about how handsome I was—great news, except I’d never heard it from anyone else. They seemed to be reciprocating for some other quality I lacked—a father, perhaps? Was there a secret auntie rule that said fatherless sons must be praised for their noble looks? But of course they missed him, too.
I found an empty table near the back. Strange music throbbed from the speakers. There was someone on guitar, someone else on static. They held hands with a singing girl, in free fall before pulling the cords on their parachutes. The barista twisted knobs on the espresso machine, DJ Latte at work. All around me, friends I hadn’t made yet peered at laptops and got to know their sandwiches.
I ordered a coffee and checked the newspaper. The headlines blurred as I read them. There’d been an earthquake in China, thousands dead, cities of rubble.
I’d reached the obits by the time she showed up. That was Allie, always late enough to make everyone angry. A gust of wind followed her in, along with a large black man in a gray overcoat. She wore jeans and a black hooded shirt with a guitar embroidered on it, its edges frayed to gossamer. Her long blonde hair was tied in a loose ponytail, her eyes covered with aviator glasses. She was disguised as herself, as Allie. Appearing normal was its own disguise.
She twisted her way between the tables, dancing through a tangled mess of power strips and extension cords, touching the backs of chairs as if she knew them. How many times had we met in coffee shops at home when cappuccino and cookies were the only drugs a kid could get? How many times had we pooled our change with Andrew and sprawled on the striped couches with back issues of Rolling Stone?
If only she was still wearing her troll mask.
I stood and put my arms around her. Her limbs were small and birdlike beneath her shirt. She struggled away, as if I were holding her captive in my tentacles.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I was being followed.” Her voice was bright and nervous, as if she’d drunk too much coffee.
“By that guy?” The man in the gray overcoat watched us from a nearby table.
“That’s my bodyguard.”
“So who’s following you?”
“There’s always someone,” she said, her eyes flickering away.
There was an awkward silence as I appraised her, trying to figure out if she was still my old friend Allie or if she was someone else now. In the afternoon light, her face was painted in soft chiaroscuro. She was very fair-skinned and blonde, her eyes large and perfectly spaced. Her face had that hazy perfection of the moon as seen through clouds, bright and perfectly symmetrical. I had the feeling, as I always had, that if I looked at her through a telescope or magnifying glass she’d appear no closer to me.
“Can I get you something? I’ll get your favorite.” The air thickened, smelled like coffee burning. Her brother was with us even now, and I wondered if she felt it, too.
“What’s my favorite?” she asked, teasing me with a smile. She tilted her head back slightly, looking up at the high, exposed rafters.
She was pleased with our banter, as if we’d slipped back into our younger selves. “Today my favorite’s whatever you get me. No raisins. I’ll send you back if there’s raisins.”
I ordered two lattes and a cookie while Allie stared blankly at her phone. Her long hair was gathered in her hood, slightly disheveled, a nest of spun gold. Out on the sidewalk, two men peered through the door into the coffee shop, looking for someone.
“Hope you still like monster cookies,” I said when I returned. She did. Her eyes were like the bright blue sky of Ladakh in the mountains of northern India.
“Do you hate me?” she asked.
“No, but I don’t understand why you never called,” I said. “I mean, I thought we were close.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You know how I am, kind of antisocial and bad with friends and staying in touch.” This was true. She’d cut off ties with Jenny, Sabrina and all her other friends, too.
“I’m over it now,” I said. “I mean, there were a few years when it really bothered me but I moved on. You’re famous now. Why would you care about your loser friends in Iowa, right?”
“You are still mad,” she said. “I’m sorry. I wish I could explain everything but that would take forever.”
“And why did you call me now? Why after five years?”
“Well, I went home to see my dad,” she said. “He just had triple bypass surgery.”
“Is he okay?” I asked, trying to appear sympathetic.
“Oh, he’s fine. Zombies never die, not unless you have special weapons,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Anyway, those last few years in Iowa were so bad that I just wanted to forget everything when I left, even the good things.”
I hoped I’d been one of the good things.
“So do you think I’m a sellout?” she asked. She was watching me closely, the way she always had, as if she found my words not just interesting but absolutely essential.
“Not exactly, no,” I lied. I’d expected something different from the three albums she’d made as Penumbra, something more along the lines of Love in the Time of Bosch, the four-song EP she’d made with High Priestess when she was in high school. The EP had been inspired by the music of the twelfth century saint Hildegard von Bingen and it was so eerie that Andrew and I had listened to it endlessly. It was heavy on reverb and had samples of Gregorian chants and spooky sounds ripped from a CD called Haunted Houses for Kids.
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” she said bitterly.
That’s when I realized that like me, she felt the shadow. It was Andrew, but it was something else, too. “Oh, god,” she said, putting her hands over her face. “I’m glad this tour is over. It was awful.”
I searched my mind for a fragment of obscure code, something that might reconnect us and comfort her. I took the damp napkin from under my coffee and wrote Penumbra backwards.
“Arbmunep,” I said, showing her the napkin. “Sounds like an Egyptian goddess, doesn’t it?”
At first, she was confused. I had the same delicious feeling as when we were kids and I convinced her that trolls lived in her basement. She managed a smile. “Ah, Hanoj.” She wore what I recognized as her brave look: a deep sigh, her eyelids fluttering. For a moment, the memories sweeping through me passed through her, too, as if a spool of film were threaded between us.
There was another awkward silence.
“You still play guitar?” she asked.
“Sure.” I’d added a few sitar scales and some alternate tunings, but it was still the same music I’d always played. “Didn’t play much in India, though.”
“Wasn’t going to India Andrew’s idea?”
“No, actually, it wasn’t.” Her suggestion annoyed me. He’d always claimed the good ideas. “You remember the encyclopedia game?”
“Sure.” She circled her finger in the air. “You make up something and pretend it’s real. That’s why he’s gone.”
“The encyclopedia game?”
“Because he lost touch with reality. I don’t think he ever planned to go anywhere, except to find those, you know—”
“Unnamable Ones,” I finished, shuddering as I said it.
“Let’s not talk about him.” She closed her eyes as if a migraine were coming on. According to her Rolling Stone profile, she still suffered from regular headaches.
“All right.” I didn’t want to talk about him, either. “Anyway, back to the encyclopedia game. One time my finger landed on Ganesha, the elephant god. After that, I wanted to go to India. I never told you guys because I figured you’d think it was stupid.”
“I wouldn’t have said that,” she said, recoiling. “So how was it?”
“Changed my life.” I’d been just another backpacker living on twenty dollars a day, visiting the waterfalls and temples, trying my hand at meditation and sitar. I’d spent a month teaching English to Tibetan monks in McLeod Ganj and I’d learned to swear in a passable Delhi accent. During the spring and fall, I trekked through the Himalaya—the Everest region, the Annapurnas, Ladakh, Sikkim. But I didn’t want to tell her about that. Instead, I made my confession. “I spent three weeks in a cave.”
I’d been back stateside for three months and I hadn’t told anyone else about the cave, even my mother, but I wanted to tell Allie. It wasn’t only the shadow between us but the one inside us that we shared, and the cave was part of that.
“A cave?” She laughed incredulously. “Doing what?”
“It’s not as strange as you might think. There’s a tradition among holy men to meditate in caves. Not that I’m a holy man or anything.”
“You were meditating?” She stifled a laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I guess I’m not surprised. You always had that side to you.” She leaned back in her chair.
“Deep,” she said, giving me a flirtatious look. “Mysterious.” She stirred her latte and stuck her tongue in the cup, like a cat drinking from a saucer. “Tell me about your cave, you crazy boy.”
I told her I’d gone to Leh, the capitol of Ladakh, to see the high mountains at the only time of year when the passes weren’t closed by snow. The bus ride from Manali took two days and went over three passes, the highest above seventeen thousand feet. We stopped at a tented camp on the second day of the ride. Over a lunch of chow mein and tea, I talked to an older German man who’d meditated in a cave where a Buddhist saint once lived. A few days later, I took him to dinner at a place in Leh that served momos and fry bread. He sketched a map and described a monastery where I could find a monk who spoke a little English. This monastery was in a village a day’s hike away from the cave.
I planned to try the cave for a day or two, but I ended up staying three weeks. It gave me an exalted feeling, being in that landscape. I meditated in the mornings and in the afternoons I went for long walks and bathed in a glacier-fed stream wreathed by willows. For dinner, I made lentils and rice on a camp stove and had the whole world to myself.
“So why’d you go?” Allie’s eyes were wide now.
I shrugged, though I knew exactly why I’d gone. “I was tired of being scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“Nothing.” I let her confusion linger for a moment before clarifying. “By that, I mean nothingness.” In the evenings, I was a corpse in my sleeping bag. The air was cold outside the tiny core of heat I’d created for myself. Ladakh was a parched landscape of crumbling rock, so barren it obliterated the imagination. “I realized everything wasn’t as important as I thought it was.” She probably thought I sounded like Andrew, except I’d gone to a cave instead of drinking cough syrup, like he had.
She sipped her latte and stared out the window. “It’s good to hear that,” she said. “That everything’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I feel like if I could just exfoliate and scrub really deep down, I’d find a new, shiny person underneath.”
“What’s down there isn’t shiny,” I said. “I wish it was.”
“Don’t say that,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Not now.”
“I’ve just been a little wobbly lately,” she said. “Nothing’s quite right.”
“Maybe you’re working yourself too hard,” I said, crumpling the napkin.
She looked out the window again, suddenly distant. I broke off a piece of cookie. It was a boring bite, no monster left. “I’m so busy these days. Ten hour days, twelve hour days. I don’t even know who I am anymore and I don’t even sleep. I lie in bed and worry, pretty much.”
“You did that before.”
“This is like, squared. This is insomnia extreme. I can’t flip the switch off, my mind’s just racing. What does it matter, really? I’ve been wondering that a lot lately.”
“I’ve been wondering that, too, except all I do is sleep. Still recovering from India, I guess.”
She gave me an appreciative look. “I hope we can be friends again,” she said.
“Of course,” I said, trying to sound as if I believed her. “Everyone wants to be your friend, right?”
“Not really. It’s hard for me to open up with what happened to Andrew and all. Everything I say, it gets around.”
“I feel the same way sometimes. There’s a wall there, a barrier.”
“That’s what I mean. You’re the same. You were like that even before what happened to Andrew, what happened to me—”
“Because of my dad. All the psychology books talk about it. Intimacy issues, trust issues. When you lose someone that young—”
“Right, and that stuff keeps coming up. I used to think there could be resolution. My therapist talks about closure and all that, but it haunts you, that’s part of the package. I’m sure I would’ve been a different person otherwise. I wouldn’t have been Penumbra.” Her phone rang. She checked the caller but didn’t answer. “God, I wasn’t planning on talking like this. Do I look like I’m going to pieces?”
“You look fine to me.”
She smiled, glanced at Marcus. He tapped his wrist, indicating the time. “I’ve got to go.”
“What would he do if I put my hands around your neck and pretended to strangle you?” It was the squid in me, hoping for another chance at a squeeze. She giggled as I put my arms around her. Now her hair had the woodsy smell of coffee beans. I wanted to bite the delicate stalk of her neck, hauling her off like a kitten.
“I’ll call you, okay?” she said, her voice hesitant.
“Sure.” I forced a smile. “Let’s stay in better touch this time.” I tried to sound casual, as if I didn’t care much either way.
She put on her sunglasses and ducked her head down. It was a tabloid pose, an attempt at being anonymous. She pirouetted between the tables and a hipster looked up, trying to place her, then returned to his sandwich.
There was a strange golden light coming from above when I went outside, but it was only those few reddish minutes at dusk turning me liquid and washing me away. All the brownstones were saturated with memory and longing, though I didn’t remember them. I was a sickly Proust trying to recall details from my past. It was happy hour, and I considered checking in on Ryan, who worked at a bar down the street, but I wanted to be alone.
When Allie asked if she was a sellout, I’d wanted to reply with another question: “What about Dahlia?” The floor at Dahlia was sticky with beer and the urinal was a long trough like a bathtub. In the afternoons, there were sad clusters of old-timers playing darts. At night, there were indie bands from all over. High Priestess had played a show there, an afternoon alcohol-free event that pitted bands from Central High against ones from East. They’d finished second to the Flesh Nuggets.
As a senior in high school, I’d written a preview for High Priestess’ show in the paper:
“Looking for a place to worship? Try Dahlia’s this Sunday afternoon, when High Priestess play at Battle of the High School Bands. When asked how they became the best band at Central, Allison Hayes, lead singer and guitarist, said, ‘We sacrifice humans and drink their blood.’ ‘We play until our fingers bleed,’ added drummer Jenny Patrick, who lay sprawled on the lumpy couch in the Hayes’ family basement, where they often practice. Hayes and Patrick are two parts of this talented trio, the third being keyboardist Sabrina Schumacher. It’s hard to miss them as they drift through the halls of Central, looking like high priestesses in their white gowns. Hayes was suspended for a day in October for wearing a veil to school and refusing to take it off. ‘I’m making a statement about what it means to be a High Priestess,’ Hayes said. ‘It’s not about how I look, it’s about totally erasing the self for the music…’” And so on. Terrible stuff.
When she was a girl, Allie had drawn elfin women with Celtic crowns, their faces plain and unbroken as snowfields, their hair made of intricately woven vines, their bodies shrouded in translucent white gowns. She’d told me stories of Beltain rituals she’d read about in books of witches and paganism. Hadn’t Andrew yelled “orgies!” and thrown up his hands, making us laugh? That memory made me sad now. As I walked home, Allie whispered in my ears, her tone mocking and seductive. It wasn’t Love in the Time of Bosch stuck on repeat in my head, but “Death Wish,” a song from her newest album. It was one of the better tracks on Nearly Lost, filled with echoing pianos and a downtempo beat.
You’ve got a death wish, just feeling kind of blue.
You’ve got a death wish, be careful what you do…
I went to one of her shows a few years back, at a convention center, and sat in the nosebleed seats, just to see what it was like. I was at the show with Sabrina, Allie’s old band mate, the only friend from my teenage years that I stayed in touch with in college. We even had a little thing for a while.
I tried to call Allie before the show, but she had so many handlers it was impossible to reach her. She was in a different realm now, one where people like me weren’t admitted.
The show was crazy. I’d never been around so much bubbling young estrogen in my life. It made me dizzy, all those teens with their high-pitched laughter and giddy voices, texting and taking pictures of each other, caroming through the crowd and chewing bubble gum, some wearing the skankiest little shorts I’d ever seen on fourteen-year olds, some wearing black and hot pink and shades of purple, some with bracelets that glowed in the dark. The place smelled of cheap perfume and ovulation. A crowd of girls glanced at me and giggled, but I ignored them.
Sabrina laughed at them and the teens furiously examined their phones. “Those teenyboppers totally want to rape you,” she said. She wore an earth-toned skirt, a blue conductor’s cap and a tank top silk-screened with a smoking gun. There was a tattoo of a goddess wrapped in vines on her bare shoulder. Once she’d dyed her hair strawberry red but in college it was its natural color, a faded auburn like fallen autumn leaves.
“Me?” I scoffed.
“Don’t play that humble bullshit. You know you’ve got that tall, dark thing going.”
“You look pretty nice yourself.”
(Our thing started that night. It didn’t last long—none of my relationships did.)
When the lights went down, a hush filled the convention center while cell phones and bracelets lit the dark. Then sparks exploded from the stage in time with the heavy backbeat of “Power Trippin’.” Penumbra strutted out with a leash in her hand. A muscular black man dressed as a robot was on the other end of the leash. He rubbed against her as the stage erupted in light. Six couples dressed as robots began to rub against each other, the men lifting their partners in the air, the women rocking their heads back and forth, the men squatting down as the women pranced away. Most of the men were black, the women white, the backing band white except for the black bassist, and the crowd was a mass of seething white girls pressed against the metal banister by the stage like the crest of a giant wave thrashing against a cliff. Penumbra marched up the runway wearing silver fishnets with a black organza gown.
“You think you’re power trippin,’ but you better think—again!” The dancers shook their heads in unison. “You think you’re really sweet, but you’re livin’ in sin…” The women rocked their hips slowly and steadily. “You think you’re playin’ the field, but guess where I been? Hangin’ out in your apartment with your best friend!” The men moved to new partners as the audience pressed forward with dry-humping jubilation.
The grand finale of the show was the multiplatinum hit from Penumbra’s first album, “Want Me.”
You don’t even like me but you want me...
I don’t even like you but I want you…
It had been one of the year’s pop anthems for teen girls, frat boy keggers and gay clubs. Down in the sea of girls on the floor below us, a contingent of gay men wearing button-up vests and derbies wriggled their hips while waving invisible lassos in the air.
The song captured something of how we felt about others and ourselves. Thousands of girls sang along. My eyes were flayed, my ears blown open as if I were strapped to the fuselage of a jumbo jet. Penumbra toyed with us as if we were pinned between her legs. She could’ve led an army of teens in battle against their controlling parents, deceitful boyfriends and annoying teachers, against roaming charges, embarrassing periods and baby fat, all in the name of the darkness and misery that creeps into people’s heads when the mall and the radio and TV aren’t enough. So why wasn’t she leading that army according to her ideals? Why had one of her songs become the theme music for feminine body spray?
I would’ve preferred if she’d gone on the coffee shop circuit and sung songs about fairy tales, a wispy fairy tale herself. But how do you tell a twenty-two year old girl worth eight figures that being a starving artist is better? It was her job. Meanwhile, I lived in a closet and many of my old college friends were in grad school or living in their parents’ basements, trying to weather the recession.
I didn’t expect her to call again, but she did, just a few days after we met for coffee. “Guess who’s the stalker now?” she joked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “You?”
“Nope,” she said. “Still you.”
“You being followed?”
“Always,” she said. “I hired a detective to keep an eye on her.”
“Who’s following you?” I asked. For some reason, I’d assumed her stalker was a sad-faced man with sweaty hands. Not me, though.
“Penumbra mostly,” she said.
I was quiet. Even Rob’s Remington was silent.
“You know, the other one.”
“Oh, yeah, her,” I said.
“You know her, don’t you?” she asked, her voice mischievous.
“I know of her.”
“Mm-hmm,” she said. “I see.”
I didn’t like her insinuation, so I was quiet again. The other Penumbra was in the porn business. For fifteen minutes on occasional lonely nights, I watched clips of her on my laptop. It was like squeezing blackheads or having a case of traveler’s diarrhea—something I’d rather not share with others.
“You want to get a drink? I’m at The Golden Buddha.”
“Sure.” The bar sounded vaguely familiar; it was one of those nightspots where everyone goes but nobody gets in. She named a Tribeca address and told me to meet her in an hour. I showered and brushed Rob’s wine off my teeth, trying to make myself presentable. I went through my limited clothing options, which hung above me while I slept. T-shirt or button down, jeans or slacks? I was terribly insignificant, but insignificance had its own allure. I could be James Dean coolly running my personality off a cliff. “Reality check, Jonah,” I told my reflection. “Remember the cave.” Saying that made me feel better. I dressed as nicely as I could, which wasn’t saying much: best jeans I had, Pendleton wool button-up, Italian shoes my mom gave me for my birthday. I should’ve moved to Portland, not New York.
“Where are you going?” Rob asked. His Remington was shooting blanks tonight.
“Out for a bit.” There was an awkward silence while he waited for an invitation.
“I’m in the middle of a story, anyway,” he said finally. “I’d better stay focused.” He’d opened a second bottle of wine and poured himself a glass, trying to hide his disappointment.
I took the subway to Canal Street and walked the rest of the way. A line of people snaked along a velvet rope, all of them better dressed than me. The bouncer looked like a sumo wrestler in a fat suit. His head was shaved, his Confucian beard strung up in knots. I called Allie to let her know I’d arrived. A few minutes later, Marcus came to the door and the bouncer gave me a curt nod. I tried to pretend I did this kind of thing every day, though I’d never been inside a bar with a velvet rope before. The very idea of a velvet rope annoyed me. Why wait outside for drinks?
I was sufficiently awed when I entered the space. In the center of the room, there was a gold Buddha on a backlit fountain, his fingers reaching down in the “Touching the Earth” pose. Veins of water ran through the glass beneath my feet, snaking up the walls and cycling back into miniature waterfalls. A young man playing a harmonium sang with a hypnotic voice, his eyes hooded above a bearded face.
Marcus waved me over and parted a curtain. Behind the curtain was a booth where Allie sat with a tall, gauntly handsome man on a leather couch. She looked at me with unfocused eyes, her hands curled into loose fists. “Jonah! You’re here!” She struggled to sit upright. She wore a black strapless dress cut above the knee, which she smoothed like a skittish pet.
“Have a seat,” the man said. He was vigilant, full of coiled energy. I had the feeling I was supposed to kneel down and call them King and Queen, which annoyed me immensely. When I shook his hand, I tried to match his chummy death grip. “Name’s John Wylde,” he said. He turned to Allie. “He’s not a journalist, is he?”
“Oh, no, he’s a writer.” Allie’s lovely smile said she wasn’t to be trusted, but I already knew that. At least she hadn’t called me a musician.
“He’ll write awful things about us, then,” Wylde said.
“He’ll write wonderful things about us. Won’t you, Jonah?”
“No,” I said. “I won’t write anything at all.”
“Allison says you live in Williamsburg.”
“In a closet,” Allie said, flinging her arms up and laughing.
“It’s not even a nice closet.” I tried to sound nonchalant even though I felt like an ugly troll.
“Drinks are on us,” Wylde said, because I’d punched my ticket to poverty. The menu was mostly infusions; it was possible to get drunk here and still get your vitamins. A few were made with tea from Assam or Darjeeling, and I remembered visiting those places as if I’d been happy then. I had to remind myself that I’d been a little confused and out of place, just as I was now. Someday, when I remembered having drinks in a golden temple with Penumbra and Wylde, I might see myself with the false glow of nostalgia, as if I’d had it made.
“That story in the newspaper,” Wylde said. “It wasn’t true. They never are.”
“That doesn’t concern me,” I said, trying to figure out which story he meant. There were rumors he’d nearly beaten a paparazzi to death with a golf club.
“It’s a vast media conspiracy,” Wylde said, watching me closely.
“Could be,” I said, not wanting to commit one way or another.
“I don’t like childhood friends,” he said. “They always show up when you least expect.”
“She was the one that called,” I said.
Allie whispered in his ear and his eyes had a faraway look, like he was trying to catch the scores on a distant TV.
“You never know,” he said as he activated his phone and made a call. “Bring the car around.” He hung up. “I wish I could stay, but I have another engagement.” He shook my hand. “Enjoy your evening. You have met Marcus, haven’t you?”
Marcus parted the curtain and lifted a finger in acknowledgement.
“What was all that about?” I asked after Wylde had left.
“He owns my label. Very hands on, isn’t he?” She gave me an enigmatic smile. “He wanted to meet you.”
“Me?” I pointed at myself in amazement.
“I told him about you.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Just that you’re one of those writer-types and that you used to be my number one fan. He’s not really into writers, plus I’m in his high-risk group or something.”
“You didn’t tell him about Fuzz and all that, did you?”
“Hell, no. If he knew you played music, your drink would be—” She put a finger across her neck. “Rigged.”
“Rigged?” I laughed. “You rig elections, not drinks.”
“Same thing,” she said. “Anyway, it’s kind of sweet. He’s like the dad I never had.”
“And you like that?”
“I hate it. Someone has to hold my hand every time I cross the fucking street.”
“That’s rough. I don’t envy you.”
She laughed. “Sure you do. You live in a closet in Williamsburg.”
We sat in silence, listening as the fakir on stage moaned secrets in our ears. The longing in his voice reminded me not just of his existence but the briefness of my own. Allie suggested shots of espresso liquor and ordered two, along with a plate of curried prawns. “It wakes you up and gets you drunk at the same time,” she informed me, as if sharing an inside secret about getting by in the city.
I squeezed into the seat beside her and she gave me a dazed smile. The curtains were parted just enough to see the bar. “What do you think of that guy’s hair?” I asked, nodding towards an older man.
“It’s awful. I’m surprised they let him in. He’s wearing a Brioni, though.”
“You know that stuff?” I brushed up against her arm, happy to be with her.
“What’s the point of a comb-over? It never works.”
“You think it’s possible that in the future, we won’t have hair anymore?” I asked. “That maybe in a thousand years, we’ll have evolved to the point where we’re hairless?”
“There won’t be anyone left in a thousand years.”
Our food and drinks arrived and I speared a prawn with a toothpick. I hadn’t eaten this well since arriving in the city.
“You really think so?” I asked.
“There may be a few mutants trying to survive, but I don’t think so.”
“Will there still be trees?”
“I hope so.”
“When I think we’ll all be gone because we fucked up the planet, it makes me feel better if I imagine the world covered in trees again. Eventually, there’d be as many trees as there were a thousand years ago. What do you think?”
Allie sighed and put her head against my shoulder. “I’ve been so tired lately. All I ever do is work. What do you think I was doing with Wylde? Working! Where do you think he went? To work!”
“You think talking to me is work?”
“I did three interviews today. They all asked the same questions.”
“They asked if people will go bald in a thousand years?”
“What did you tell them?” I asked, enjoying our little game.
“That there will be no more people in a thousand years. That none of this will matter or ever did matter. Plus my favorite food is lasagna.”
“You used to like hot dogs, right? You heated them in the microwave and covered them with sliced pickles and ketchup.”
She elbowed me. “When I was ten. Are you going to write about what a loser I used to be?”
“I’ll write only good things, like you said.”
“It’s the bad things that sell records, so the good things are really the bad things, or maybe it’s the other way around.”
She excused herself and went to the bathroom. I speared the last of the prawns as a girl in a flapper’s dress made of feathers danced around The Buddha.
When Allie returned, she looked freshened up, though it was after midnight. Suddenly I was tired. I was sick of being in a closet. It had taken just a few minutes with Wylde to see how his world worked and where I belonged in it.
A waiter came with two more shots of espresso liquor. Apparently survival in the city depended not on shots but salvos.
“Drink with me,” Allie said.
“You’re here. You have your own closet now.”
We tipped back our glasses. “I might as well enjoy it. I won’t be here long.”
“Why?” She slammed down her glass with an enthusiasm reserved for the drunk and highly caffeinated.
I thought of Rob’s airless closet, which smelled like old takeout no matter how much I cleaned. “It’s not working out.”
Her smile disappeared. “You can’t leave.”
“You just can’t.”
“Whatever.” I didn’t feel like arguing.
Soon she got cross-eyed drunk, though I tried to cut her off. She reminisced about TV shows we’d watched as kids. We’d stayed up late, watching the scrambled channels, trying to pick out a breast or butt from the disorienting bars. “Slushees,” she shouted happily. “Would you stay if we start a slushee bar?” I grinned through the haze of liquor, thinking back to those TV shows I’d hated. As I watched the past through dark, scrambled bands, I remembered Andrew’s domineering side, Allie’s mood swings. Allie talked of our teen years as if they were the only sweetness she’d ever known. “Losers! We were such big losers.”
“I got you started on guitar.”
“Yeah, right, you knew like five chords back then.”
“I tried to sing with you.”
“You sounded like a horse’s ass, but you were so sincere.” She closed her eyes, crooning the word. When she shifted on the couch, I noticed her underwear was a lacy black thing. A few minutes later, she curled on her throne and fell asleep. I gave her a gentle nudge but she was out, so I finished my drink and then hers. This is how you get mono, a college roommate had told me once. At parties, I’d continued to take my chances and downed half-finished drinks, not wanting them to go to waste.
“I think Allie’s done for the night,” I said to Marcus.
He looked at her without surprise. “Why don’t you sit with her a bit, have some coffee?”
“She do this often?”
“That’s not for me to say.”
Instead of ordering coffee, I got a double of thirty-year scotch and more prawns. It was going on her expense account anyway. Allie’s knees were drawn to her chest and she looked as if she were enjoying a peaceful prenatal sleep. In the video for “Death Wish,” she’d twisted herself into a ball, wearing just underwear and a tank top as she screamed about the darkness of young love.
At closing time, Marcus came in and woke Allie. We helped her outside while she murmured in our ears, her voice full of sweet insinuation. Even half-asleep she wanted attention and admiration. Perhaps even in deep sleep she remained aware of the adoring eyes around her, clustered like patterns in a honeycomb.
A Towncar waited by the curb. Allie went into the backseat while Marcus sat in front with the driver. I was left to wait for the train to Williamsburg. Later, Allie told me she’d slept better than she had in months. It was because of me, she said, as if I should be flattered that I wasn’t just her friend but her sedative.
After the quake, Catacomb disappeared. Can she find him?
Layla Mendelson won’t give up, even when she should. She’s survived endless recessions, her mother’s death and an earthquake that leveled Portland, Oregon. Now she’s determined to find Catacomb, an anonymous musician that’s made the only album she’s ever given a perfect ten on her wildly successful website layla.com. In her search, she must confront a shadowy “art” collective, discover the mystery of a powder that offers visions of god, and enlist the help of her friends Flora and Nunez to unravel the story of a musician that’s become a fugitive.
Catacomb is a literary thriller of 99,000 words.
When Layla arrives at the warehouse, it’s 12:15 AM, time for her appointment with the management of Anonima. The warehouse is a three-story brick building, its windows blacked out. There aren’t many brick buildings left in Portland, not since the quake, but this one’s a survivor. A flatbed truck lies on its side in the cargo bay, its grille a broken tooth. It’s an artifact from before the quake, something the earth didn’t swallow up.
You’re a brave girl, Layla.
That's what she tells herself, anyway. Her dad always told her she was brave when she was younger. Back then, she liked climbing trees, buildings, rooftops. It wasn’t just for the view. Up there, no one could tell her what to do. She could swallow up sun and sky and feel, for a few brief moments, that she understood everything.
Her hands are trembling as she locks her Fuji bike to a broken streetlight. She rubs them together, trying to warm them. Her long, dark hair is tied in a French braid and she’s wearing a gray dress, dark leggings and a white scarf. The outfit is subdued and stylish, the kind of ensemble that gives her the swag she needs to conduct her interviews, but she feels out of place here, surrounded by empty lots and the ruins of warehouses. She should’ve worn jeans and a hoodie instead.
The door’s unlocked, just like the management said it would be. She enters a cavernous space filled with the steady hum of fans and a chorus of printing presses and the deep bass note of a generator beneath her feet. The concrete floor is deeply cracked like paper that’s been crumpled and smoothed over. High above her, steel trusses, gaunt as a ship’s ribs, hold up the fissured ceiling. These trusses saved the warehouse from collapse eighteen months ago, though the building still looks like it could collapse at any moment.
There’s a solitary figure smoking on a catwalk. He’s wearing a hoodie, jeans, a stocking cap—the uniform she should be wearing now. She gives him a tentative wave but he doesn’t wave back.
Maybe it’s Catacomb. Just the possibility makes her anxious.
She’s seen his silhouette in many strangers lately, men sitting alone in coffee shops or bars or waiting at bus stops. With nothing more than a laptop, synth, guitar, and drum machine, he made an album that holds a gun to her heart. Rift is the only album Layla’s ever given a perfect ten on her website. His voice is so reverb heavy and pitch bent that he sounds dreamy and lovelorn. The beats are manacles crashing on stone. Listening to his private torment is like being in a church after a bombing, the dust rising from the shattered walls, the stained glass still intact, the stars whirling in the sky while everyone else is dead.
He’s on most lists for the best album of 2024 but no one knows who he is. The album opens with “Rift,” a mournful anthem to the quake that devastated the Pacific Northwest eighteen months ago. Rift is mostly about the disaster but there are also references to ananda, to rain and clouds and Portland streets, to past mistakes so severe he can never undo them. Though he’s anonymous, it’s common knowledge that he’s somewhere in Portland, making his music in a basement or sewer or the rotted hollow of a tree.
He might even be a member of Anonima, which is why Layla has agreed to visit a dilapidated warehouse late at night and alone, as the management instructed her to do.
She’s about to call out to the man on the catwalk but he’s already gone. All that’s left is a contrail of cigarette smoke. She wanders through the maze of printing presses, most sleeping for the night. They look like medieval torture devices, their cogs blackened to the sheen of seasoned cast iron. They’re designed to interrogate trees, to turn their silence into words.
One press churns out materials on synthesizing A-class drugs like ananda while a second binds a zine drawn by a navel-gazing cartoonist. A third makes flyers like the airborne leaflets bombers dropped in WWII. The headline KILL THE PRESIDENT leaves her queasy. She doesn’t want anyone killing the president. He’s a kindly man, loves his wife and kids, has a beagle. So what if he’s a puppet, if they all are? He signs off on the pipelines and the drones and the carbon sequester programs because he has no choice. Puppet masters move his hands from above.
The flyers and pamphlets have the same logo as the record sleeve for Rift: an AC inside in a black cog. The letters stand for Anonima Collective, though it took Layla weeks to unravel this clue and then find the collective’s contact information. The email response to her initial inquiry was terse but polite. The management hadn’t specifically mentioned her interview request, but he (or possibly she) had offered to talk with Layla and show her around the warehouse. The main issue was the timing—the appointment would have to be after midnight.
She agreed because it was her only lead on Catacomb.
There’s a hallway at the back of the room with a rusted metal sign that reads Management. An arrow points in the only direction she can go. She passes a darkroom, its door open, its interior bathed in red light. Dripping prints hang from a line. They’re headshots of women, all staring at her. The sound of the press behind her huffing kill the president recedes like a train speeding away.
These rooms must’ve been offices once, filled with mid-level managers overseeing shipping and receiving, but now they’re filled with silk-screen equipment and 3D printers. Black hoodies and printed plastic guns hang on the walls. Over time, their muzzles melt, but the bullets they shoot are real.
Layla could still turn around, go home. She doesn’t like the inherent violence of the machines, the guns hanging on the walls, the hoodies stacked in boxes, everything black and somber. Black is the color of mourning, of death, of oil. She tells her readers this in the fashion section of her website. She tells her followers to wear oranges! Greens! Powder blues! And brighten your day! Optimism leads to clicks (she’s up to half a million per week) along with enough advertising revenue to pay salaries to herself and Nunez, her only employee.
Layla takes a deep breath, trying to steady herself. She’s promised her followers that she’ll find Catacomb. Her trolls will cackle gleefully if she gives up. You’re a brave girl, Layla, she tells herself again. She’s survived the quake, endless recessions, her mother’s death, her father’s sadness.
The management’s office is at the end of the hall. A man looks up, waves her in. He’s sitting at a battered desk, reading a pamphlet about pipe bombs. A plastic gun lies on a stack of papers beside him. His receding hairline is shaved to stubble and he has a wooly beard and glasses with thick plastic frames. He’s potbellied and muscular, his tattooed arms straining against a black t-shirt. He’s the kind of menacingly large human she prefers to avoid.
The chair squeaks under his weight. It’s an old barber chair that swivels around, its base a block of cast iron. He has a bulldog face, his jowls heavy, his eyes deep set. He either boxes or drinks too much, possibly both.
“You must be the management,” she says, forcing a smile.
He gives her a curt nod and checks his watch, as if she’s late.
“I really appreciate this,” Layla says. She’s being too hesitant, nothing like herself. It’s because of the gun. It’s because she doesn’t normally do late-night interviews in the back room of a warehouse with menacingly large humans.
“Appreciate what?” He examines her as if he plans to add her to his bug collection, pinning her down with his other butterflies.
“That you’ve taken time out of your busy schedule for me.” She’s trying to be polite, to project warmth and confidence.
“Well, you insisted.” He doesn’t sound happy with her perseverance. When he stands, it sounds like rats are squealing in the chair’s cast iron prison, pulped in its rusted clockwork. He waves her toward a door at the back of the office and then flips a light switch, revealing a staircase leading down.
Layla wraps her hand around the mace in her messenger bag. It’s small and futile, nothing like a gun. “Where are you going?” she asks, careful to use the word you, not we.
“Downstairs,” he says. “It’s time for your appointment.” He looks irritated now.
Her heart sounds like the distant ratcheting of gears in the warehouse, its staccato rhythm keeping time with kill the president.
“Take managed risks,” her father told her once, when she was four years old. He wasn’t good with risks so she had to be that person for him. “Sail across the turbulent sea and do battle with pirates, serpents, monsters of the deep.”
At that time, he was already a failed writer, though she didn’t know it yet. He didn’t, either. He’d never published The Sigil and he refused to share his novel with her.
But this isn’t a managed risk—it’s just foolish. “I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s been a long night.”
She turns around but there’s someone blocking the doorway. It’s the guy she saw before on the catwalk. He has sharp cheekbones and the look of a man that’s utterly lost. He drops his cigarette, grinding it underfoot.
“Don’t worry,” the management says. “We’ll be quick.”
The man behind Layla nudges her toward the staircase. There are runner lights along the stairs and a dense network of pipes overhead and the sound of two objects smacking each other, perhaps a pyramid of glasses falling and breaking. Voices overlap and fade away but maybe it’s only the groaning of pipes and generators. The hum fills her body and makes her nauseous because it reminds her of the quake, the trembling delicate at first, like many little feet running by, growing louder and louder until—
June 6, 2022. Layla was sitting on the built-in seat in the bay window when it happened. It was her favorite place in the house, with three west-facing panels where the sun sometimes graced her for an hour in the afternoons. She was sketching a dress she hoped to make even though she couldn’t sew yet. Flora had promised to teach her how. Maybe then Layla would be able to weave a real life for herself, one with a steady paycheck and a fulfilling relationship and kids somewhere down the road, perhaps when she turned ninety.
She was twenty-five then, a recent grad from a liberal arts college in the Midwest, where she’d gotten a degree in Creative Nonfiction and Performance Arts. Was her degree twice as useless for being doubled or just zero times two and therefore still zero?
She hadn’t started layla.com yet but she’d always wanted to be a writer for Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. She wrote occasional restaurant and music reviews for the Portland Mercury and for a friend’s blog, and paid her bills by working two part-time jobs, one bussing tables at a high-end restaurant, the other as a barista in a coffee shop. She spent her tips on drinking money, live shows, a few tattoos. She had an owl reading a book on one shoulder and an M. C. Escher spiral on her forearm. A message on her hip, wrapped in baroque thorns, reminded her to love herself.
“Love yourself,” she’d tell the mirror, looking deep into her mirrored eyes, but the words usually made her feel worse. There was something missing inside her, and it wasn’t just because her mother was gone. She did a good job hiding this deficiency from others by appearing clever and fun and kind and thoughtful.
Little feet were running by.
The house was an old farmhouse built in the early 1900’s and it was just a few blocks from Hawthorne Boulevard, where she often had coffee at Powell’s and went to movies at the Bagdad Theater. Her roommate Lydia had graduated from the same college and they shared similar ideals, interests and passions. Layla was interested in leftist politics and when she moved in, she’d been excited to build a chicken coop and yes, she wanted to learn more about permaculture from Henry and sewing from Flora and yes, she wanted to learn an instrument and start a band and loved to cook and yes, she was thrilled to join a creative household that was community-minded.
Even now it pains her to think of her roommate Henry. He was sweet and dedicated, the kind of boy she would’ve liked if she’d fully believed in her power to attract nice boys. Maybe, given enough time, they would’ve gotten together, though hindsight tends to fabricate happy endings.
Little feet ran by as if children were dancing. In the basement of her aunt’s house, Layla had often woken up early to the sound of her cousins racing back and forth above her like stampeding horses. It amazed her how a little creature weighing fifty pounds with tiny pink starfish for hands could shake an entire house.
The scuffed floors of the farmhouse were made of sturdy oak but when her roommates walked between the bathroom and kitchen, the house vibrated slightly, as if a truck was passing. When the washing machine was unbalanced, the house rocked with it, swaying its hips.
The living room had old pocket doors that no longer worked and a chandelier with flickering lights they never used and built-in glass fronted bookshelves with books and Henry’s small collection of scotch and bourbon. There were seven bottles in all, five nearly empty. He left a little at the bottom of each bottle so the collection would look bigger.
The little feet went away.
The bay windows offered a view of wisteria and Salmon Street and in the distance the forested west hills. The windowpane began to rattle, maybe from the wind. The wisteria trembled slightly, the little feet coming closer.
And then Layla was on the floor, curled into a ball as the house began to shake and groan and the windows shattered and car alarms went off outside. The floor splintered beneath her and books dropped from the shelves and when she tried to stand she fell down again. She half-crawled, half-swayed to a corner piled with cushions where she sometimes smoked a hookah of mint-flavored tobacco with her roommates.
The chandelier swayed and fell, shattering into pieces. The ceiling broke open, raining down plaster and dust. A crack made its way up the wall and widened. She wrapped herself in pillows and imagined her father holding her close. Urine trickled down her leg.
An armchair tipped over. Glasses shattered in the kitchen and branches clawed the roof. There was the knotted static of larger branches breaking off and slamming the house. The shaking, already unbearable, grew worse. The earth itself was roaring, splitting open. She didn’t know if she was shouting or whispering or even talking at all but she wished her prayers were more organized because they were just words of desperation that made no sense. Why hadn’t she taken the time to believe in god or some other benevolent force that could help her?
The little feet were on the roof, growing bigger, stomping now, turning to hoof beats to jackhammers to tanks and planes. And then the house itself was untethered, like a boat in a storm breaking free of its moorings. The house slid toward the street, separated from its foundation. There was the hideous scraping of wood on stone as the floor split open. Pipes hissed and burst. The smell of earth and rotten eggs filled the air and then she knew she was dead and buried, that the house must’ve collapsed on her.
The quake lasted three minutes but many lifetimes passed as the world split open. She always thought her life would be more vivid as it flashed by but she was too terrified to remember any of it, to give it color and significance. She opened her eyes and realized she hadn’t died. Somehow the house was still standing and she was mostly unhurt other than a cut on her forehead. She must’ve hit her head against the floor.
In the foyer, the wooden staircase with its regal bannister had separated from the wall and collapsed, so she couldn’t reach her bedroom. A pile of shoes lay in a jumbled mess by the door but none of them were hers. The front door was jammed so she cleared the glass from a broken window and climbed out onto the porch.
She wandered along the fissured street in mismatched flats, both for her left foot, one belonging to Flora. A house across the street had collapsed while its neighbor was untouched. Branches littered the road and a tree had fallen on top of a station wagon. A young woman was slumped forward in the driver’s seat, trapped beneath the weight of the tree.
All Layla remembered of first aid was to take a pulse and call 911. There was something about fifteen and two but the numbers were as distant as her father’s sigils. She took the woman’s hand, putting her fingers around her wrist. The woman’s hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore jeans and a cute orange blouse. The hand was warm but Layla couldn’t find a pulse and her phone was out of service.
And then the first aftershock hit and Layla was on the ground again as branches shattered around her. She curled up a ball and wrapped her arms around her head. When it was over, Layla began to cry, her cheek pressed against the damp asphalt. She’d seen pulped squirrels and road kill possum and her elderly cat had died in her arms while purring but she’d never seen a dead person before, not even her mother, because she’d never wanted to see her mother as anything other than living.
She forced herself to look into the dead woman’s eyes, to acknowledge her in some deeper way. It felt foolish but also necessary to apologize and then take the woman’s hand and kiss it. Once again Layla wished she had a more formal prayer, but her mind went blank. Only men could say the Kaddish, and technically she wasn’t Jewish—her dad was, and he’d never been religious. She set the woman’s fingers gently on the steering wheel.
In that moment, Layla began to see herself as a character in a book she might write, a fictional heroine that would survive this disaster. It was better to be this character because she could suspend her disbelief in herself and trust this heroine instead. This character told her she needed to take the girl’s groceries because Layla would be hungry soon, and not just snacking-on-crackers hungry, if she didn’t find food.
There was a baby carrier in the backseat along with a little pink hat and an inflatable book about ducks for the bathtub. She hoped the baby was safe somewhere, with her father or grandmother or the driver’s best friend, though perhaps they were all wandering around in two left shoes, wondering where this girl was, hoping she was okay when Layla was the only one with the horrible news that she was dead.
She activated her phone. Still no service. The battery power was at 30%. Why hadn’t she charged it the night before? She turned it off.
She gathered the groceries in the baby carrier, feeling a twinge of guilt as she did. There were avocados, organic chips, a brand of salsa she liked, and organic baby food in little glass jars, guaranteed to be additive and sugar free. Later, wrapped in a wool blanket and shivering in what remained of Henry’s room, she was amazed by how delicious the carrot and sweet potato puree was, like the filling for a pie. She tried not to think of the dead woman and her motherless baby, though soon she’d have nightmares about them. In these dreams, Layla was the baby and the dead woman behind the wheel was her mom, and she’d wake up with a start, her face covered in tears.
For now, she had to compartmentalize. She couldn’t help the dead woman or her baby or even her roommates, and she wasn’t even fully sure she was capable of helping herself.
She walked quickly back to base. It was no longer her home, no longer a place she loved but just another hollowed-out body she couldn’t mourn yet. The house no longer smelled of gas and rotten eggs. The line had probably broken further down the street.
The toilet was gone, not just broken but swallowed into the earth, so she peed by a fallen plum tree in the back yard. Next door, a massive monkey-puzzle tree lay across the neighbor’s house.
Hopefully her roommates would come home soon. She couldn’t let herself consider the possibility that something might’ve happened to them. If Henry came home first, Layla would throw herself into his arms and admit her feelings for him. The earthquake had already reminded her that she needed to be more honest with others and herself.
Her roommates didn’t come home that night.
All things are in her web.
When I was young, I loved reading fantasy and science fiction. As I grew older, I became a more "literary" reader, but I still have a soft spot for a well-written, character-driven novel that incorporates elements of these genres. So I decided to explore writing a "literary fantasy" inspired by my Fulbright year in Nepal. The Silver Thread incorporates many elements of eastern philosophy, Buddhism and animism, as well as the concept of beyul. In Tibetan Buddhism, a beyul is a sacred hidden valley blessed by the great Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. In The Silver Thread, the hidden valleys nestled in the mountains have been blessed by the Spider, the goddess of all creation. While eight-armed (or legged) gods and goddesses aren't common in the west, they grace the temples of India and Nepal.
The Silver Thread uses universal myths and archetypes to reverse the story of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha: what if true enlightenment lies in finding a family, not renouncing one?
Adan is a monk who has taken the thread. Linnea is a widow without children. Though they loved each other once, they no longer have a path back to each other. He has his vows and she risks being burned to death if she pursues a second life.
When an orphan boy appears on Adan’s roof, Adan and Linnea must work together as a family to take care of the child even as he claims to be a bad luck spirit with illness, ghosts and a catastrophic fire following in his wake. Despite these obstacles, Adan discovers spiritual awakening by giving up his vows and loving the wife and child he always wanted but never had.
The Silver Thread is a literary fantasy of 90,000 words. It is the first book in a trilogy.
One night when Adan was meditating in the shining land beyond the pass, those high hidden valleys around Mount Pemo, the wind called his name. He was sitting cross-legged on a rock near the cave where his teacher slept, looking down at the icy lake in the valley below.
Come home, the wind said.
He hadn’t been home in twenty years.
The wind rustled the lake so that fireflies appeared to dance across its surface. He hadn’t seen fireflies since leaving Jova.
In Jova, it would soon be time for the festival of lights, when the children sent their prayers out to sea. There’d be new wine and suckling pigs roasted over fires. Before the festival began, the people of Jova would fast and then eat a thin, cleansing broth flavored with herbs that fringed the shore. The soup tasted of land and sea, of summer and winter, and brought the seasons and the elements together.
Come home, the wind said.
He and Prem had climbed many icy spires and swum to the bottom of freezing lakes and slept in caves and rotted tree stumps, looking for passages into the great beyond. Adan had gone to the valley of tears and the crater in the sky and the vale of endless lakes and to hidden valleys that existed in the place beyond names.
The wind was speaking in his father’s voice.
Adan touched the silver thread around his neck. It was all that remained of his father’s talismans. At the end of another life, his father had given him a robe of fine wool, a pair of leather boots, and holy relics that had belonged to their ancestors.
A charm made of driftwood to protect him from drowning.
An amulet of wolf bone filled with Samja the wolf king’s blessings.
A piece of quartz to focus the light inside him.
Over the years, the wood had been lost in a river, the bone in a forest, the quartz in a cave. The robe became tattered and threadbare, the boots cracked and filled with holes, and the thread around his neck turned black as soot.
His father had walked with Adan to Jova’s northern gate. Adan was seventeen, the same age Arion had been when he’d first journeyed to the grotto on his own.
“I’ll walk you past the fields,” Arion said.
They walked past fields and orchards until the road climbed up into hills of thick pine.
“Just a little further,” Arion said.
They continued until dusk, mostly in silence, and Adan worried his father might get lost walking home in the dark.
“A little further,” Arion said, and now his voice was small and uncertain.
The charms in Adan’s satchel were heavy as boulders and the robe was a mantle he hadn’t earned. He felt like a little boy in his cumbersome new shoes, traipsing into the northern wilds to be eaten by a monster.
When it was too dark to go further, they rested in a cradle of roots near a stream. “When you come back, we’ll have many stories to share,” Arion said. “After you’ve gone to the land beyond the waterfall and perhaps even the southern crown and—” Arion stopped, as if he couldn’t imagine his son going any further.
“I’ve taken the thread,” Adan said. By this he meant to say he wasn’t coming back.
“But not the vows,” Arion said. “I’ll always have a fire waiting for you.”
This is the beginning, Adan reminded himself, the beginning without end. That was what Prem always said. His teacher had a long white beard and a balding crown with white hair streaming down his neck. He was always laughing and calling Adan a fool.
Adan had no mother or father, no brothers or sisters, because he’d taken not only the thread but also the vows. In a monastery north of Annata, his hair had been shorn and he’d forsaken his family and everything he loved, including himself, so he could pursue the web’s deepest secrets.
He had no past or future, no home or hearth, no hopes or—
When he woke in the mornings, he sometimes felt as if he’d left his body behind and turned into wind. Yet his body was brittle and wind burnt, more gravel than rock, as if he’d been broken down and scattered across the high lakes. His feet were scarred, his toes numbed by frostbite, his fingernails cracked and dirty. To a wanderer passing by, he might’ve appeared as old as Prem, and as wise—or as lost.
He walked quickly along the rocky path that rose above the valley. The sun met him as he climbed. Avalanches roared down the slopes, echoing against the mountains. He was flowing with the current as Prem had always told him to do, and the voice that called him grew stronger as his own resolve grew stronger. He wondered if Prem was awake yet, and if he should tell him what he’d decided, but instead he kept walking.
He walked all day without stopping, descending from one valley to another, and then climbing from one pass to another, and when he was cold, he chanted the prayer of inner fire and thought of his father’s hearth. His hands were wrapped in cloth and his breath turned to ragged gasps when he rose to the high places where the air turned to poison. When the sky turned gray again and the peaks to the south were rosy with sunrise, he was too exhausted to walk further and he slept in the roots of a large mossy cedar by a stream.
He woke to fingers rustling in his hair, as if spiders were crawling over him. He sat up quickly, twisting around. A girl crouched naked in the grass, watching him with devious eyes, her hair tangled as if she, too, had just woken up. Her face was washed out in the deepening twilight, just a stone decorated with eyes and hair.
He thought he spoke her name aloud, but perhaps he didn’t.
“Linnea.” The simple act of saying her name was something he’d renounced long ago. Forbidden words led to forbidden thoughts. Forbidden thoughts led to forbidden actions.
But he was tired and disoriented from sleeping all day in the roots of a tree. He averted his eyes from her shapely form, her slender hips and girlish breasts. She smiled without showing her teeth, as shy as Linnea had been at fifteen. The hair at his temples was turning gray while she’d remained young.
When she stepped out of the high grass, he saw her feet. If he hadn’t been a wandering monk, he might’ve been more distracted by her body, but he looked steadfastly down, softly intoning the words to quiet his desire.
Her feet were on backwards.
That was when he knew her lips were stitched shut and her eyes were hollow. He stood up, steadying himself against the tree. “Go way, anmi,” he said, but the anmi stole the words from him.
She stumbled forward.
If he lay beside her, he might lose many years in her close-lipped smile. To lay with an anmi was to lose the words, to lose all thoughts made of words. In the winter, the anmi wrapped their lovers in snow and wept when they died.
She lurched forward again. This time she fell, hitting her face against a root. Her head made a hollow sound, like an empty bucket. She curled in the grass and cried soundlessly, trembling like leaves.
Another man, not knowing she was anmi, might’ve sat beside her and tasted her tears and then her mouth.
Anmi tears had no salt.
Another man might’ve wondered why her lips both welcomed and refused him, but it was only because she couldn’t open up to anyone, even herself.
Adan backed slowly away. By the time he reached the path, she was gone. Perhaps she was never there. All that night he walked, and when he came to a fallen bridge, the anmi was waiting for him, her hands clutching at his robe. If only he paid the toll, then she’d float him across on a leaf. But when he rubbed his eyes, there was only a broken railing tied with tattered strips of cloth. To cross the river, he stepped on the dark places, because the stones, unlike the water, didn’t reflect moonlight. With each step he was sure he’d fall down into the center of the earth.
Many spirits walked with him on his journey, though perhaps they were only different parts of himself. Maybe the anmi, too, was just the remnant of his past desire, though she’d seemed so real. She smelled like a rotting flower, vegetal and sickly sweet. Her face was flushed and red, as if she’d been running, and she looked vigorous and healthy.
He passed through the hidden valleys and the known ones, and he climbed through passes along the diamond crown, and then he reached the trader’s route along the Serpent’s Tongue.
An old merchant sat on the rotten stump of a tree, rocking back and forth. He had two pinched holes for a nose and withered flesh around his eyes. He held a sack open with hands that had been gnawed to stumps.
“Look it,” he said. “Look it all that gold.” The sack was dark and smelled of river rock. His laugh was a sad, hollow sound, like a hand knocking against a dead tree.
Adan blessed him and went on his way.
There were shepherds’ huts in the valleys but no towns. These huts were empty until the end of summer, when shepherds brought their herds to the high meadows. Late that evening, there was a light in the trees and the sound of laughter. The smell of wood smoke and roasted boar filled the air. When he reached the Inn of Lost Souls, there were couples dancing inside and the wooden sign above the door made an eerie rattling sound.
It had been years since he’d last passed this inn and it seemed as if the same men and women were dancing there, as young as they’d been when he first came to this valley long ago. He’d never learned why the inn was so busy in this high, lonesome valley where there were no settlements. He didn’t stop even though he was hungry and in need of rest.
The next morning, he went through the tip of the Serpent’s Tongue. The path followed a deep gorge between mossy boulders and cascades and still green pools and under a waterfall throbbing with snowmelt. He crossed streams on fallen logs and sometimes needed to wade or swim to cross. The air was thick with the smell of pine and the querulous cries of birds Adan hadn’t heard since he was young. The wind was muffled in the pines and now it was the river that called his name. At dusk, he saw fireflies.
As the air grew heavier, so did his stones. As forests gave way to fields, and the wilderness to tilled spaces, he was filled with melancholy. He’d been gone too long and perhaps his father had already gone to the other side.
He passed through Jova’s northern gate and into a bustling market where women sold flowers and other offerings for the festival of lights. He didn’t recognize anyone and those who passed touched their foreheads and walked quickly away.
In his reveries, he’d forgotten the stench of the city, of night soil and fried onions and stewed goat. There was the clamor of hooves and the bellowing of merchants selling cloth and the bright ring of hammer sparking anvil. Vines spilled from rooftops gardens and children ran underfoot, calling him names and laughing at him.
He sat down on the steps that led to the sea and washed his face. He’d given up the trappings of this world and yet he wished he could return to his father wearing a fine robe and new leather boots, his talismans still around his neck, looking as noble as the path he’d chosen.
He reached a place where barbers worked under the shade of a giant broadleaf tree.
“I’m going to see my father,” Adan asked them. “Will you cut my hair?”
A barber named his price but Adan had nothing to offer except his blessings.
“What’s your blessing worth?” the barber asked. Dark wings of hair fluttered to the ground.
“A haircut, I hope,” Adan answered, managing a laugh.
“The Spider’s blessing is a curse,” the barber said, and the others agreed. They refused to cut his hair or lend him clippers.
“Blessings be with you all the same,” Adan said wearily. He’d renounced the trappings of this world and the world had renounced him, too.
Soon he was lost in the maze of lanes near his father’s house. Jova had grown while he was away and it was no longer a village but a city. He passed a stall selling keys but no locks and another selling locks but no keys. A woman sat near a caved-in wall, offering lumpy, greenish candles she made herself. The butter for sale was yellowish and runny and flies clustered on bony cuts of meat. The butchers crouched in the shade, their hands bloody.
Adan was lightheaded and hungry. He’d eaten nothing but a handful of berries in the morning, when he was still in the cool, silent pines. He sat in a stairwell and wiped the sweat from his face, but soon he was shooed away. He quenched his thirst with well water and a woman yelled at him. Prem had warned him about this once. “When you are found, you are truly lost,” his teacher had said. And so he truly was.
Then Adan recognized a weathered sign with a carving of an uprooted flower. An old herbalist had lived here once. This lane, too, was familiar, and so was this passageway, which led to a courtyard with a ruined shrine. The roofs around the courtyard had caved in and birds flew through the open windows.
He wanted to lie down and sleep until he was a child again and then wake up with Linnea singing in a window above him. Once, her family filled all four houses around this courtyard. During festivals, Adan and Linnea had chased each other around the tables, knocking their heads against the bottom of chairs, building tunnels beneath their parents’ legs.
Now her family was gone. Perhaps they’d moved to a house on the hill to be closer to Linnea. His melancholy deepened. He stepped over gutters heaped with night soil and rotten vegetables. Pigs were tethered to doorways and chickens pecked his feet. A child in a ripped smock peed in the gutter and looked at Adan curiously, as if he remembered him from another life.
His father’s house was no longer familiar to him. Its shutters were closed against the heat. The stones around the door were loose and the window boxes were full of weeds. Children jumped into a pile of straw by the house. A young woman sat on a stool chewing a blade of grass, watching them. When he approached, she gathered the children in her arms.
“We got nothing here,” she said.
“I’m only going to my father’s house,” he said.
“Who’s your father?” she asked.
“Arion. I’ve been gone a long time.”
“Stay way then,” she said, touching her forehead. “I don’t know any such man.”
“Is he simpo?” one of the children asked.
“Don’t say it, don’t say it!” said another, jumping in the straw and ducking his head.
“Go way now,” she said.
He put his shoulder against the door of his father’s house and pushed.
“Don’t go in there,” she said, raising her voice.
“Leave me alone or I’ll put a spider in your mouth,” Adan said. As soon as he said it, he was filled with regret for threatening her with a curse. What if his father was gone and this wasn’t his house anymore?
Inside, the goats fed on moldy fodder. He made his way up stairs to the room where he’d spent his childhood. Light shone through the slats in the shutters and his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark.
“You bloodsuckers.” An old man writhed under a heap of blankets. “I’m not dead yet.”
Adan knelt at the old man’s side. “Blessings be on you,” he said. The light surged up in him and he put his arms around his father.
Arion put his hand on Adan’s cheek, his eyes widening. “Is it really you?”
“Yes,” Adan said. “It’s really me.” The words confused him. Who was this me he’d renounced so long ago?
Arion sighed deeply. “I’m ready then. I’ve followed the thread as best as I could.” He began to sing the chant for the dying, his voice unsteady.
“It’s really me,” Adan said. “I’ve come to you on this side.”
“Take me to your web, oh, take me to your web—” his father sang.
Adan went to the window and opened the shutters. In the lane below, the children shrieked and ran away.
“It’s really you?” Arion beckoned with trembling hands. His mouth opened and closed silently and then he rubbed his eyes.
“I’ve returned from the north,” Adan said.
“I thought you were a spirit come to take me,” Arion said.
“We’re all spirits going in and out of the web.”
“I’ve seen them all except you,” Arion said. “That’s how I knew you were still alive. I saw Kiran and your mother and even your sister, but no matter how much I called your name, I never saw you.”
“I heard you calling,” Adan said. “That’s why I came.”
“Oh, blessed be the Spider,” Arion said. “Her web is truly everywhere. You’ve made a dying man very happy.”
As he held his father, Adan was the wind and the light, and the river flowing through the mountains, and—
He was filled with grief and confusion and regret.
There was the scrape of the door being pushed open and then heavy footsteps came up the stairs. A wide-shouldered man appeared with the young woman Adan had seen before.
Adan stood and held his walking stick before him.
“See, Radi, he’s simpo,” the woman said.
“He’s my son, you bloodsuckers,” Arion replied. “You’ll never take our house.”
“He said he’d put a spider in my mouth,” the woman said.
“Don’t threaten us, sorcerer,” Radi said.
“Then leave in peace.” Adan visualized thorns growing around him and then recited the Spider’s prayer softly in the old language.
The woman stepped back, tugging at her husband’s arm.
“You’ll burn for this,” Radi said, his voice low. “Don’t fear him, Loka. I’ll hush him if he says a curse.”
“Then I’ll come back from the other side and eat your lungs,” Arion said. “You’ll turn to mamo and your children will spit on you.”
The man turned pale and rushed downstairs after his wife.
Arion lay back down, breathing hard. “Oh, Spider, forgive me,” he said. “I never meant to curse anyone, even them.”
“You only meant to scare them,” Adan said.
Arion groaned again. “They’ll never take my house, not with you here.” He took Adan’s hand and squeezed it. “My son,” he said, his laughter hoarse. “Oh, my son. I knew you’d come, even if it was just to take me to the other side.”
Ten days later, his father showed the signs. His breathing slowed and the rattle seized his throat. His eyes were scoured clean and his lips turned blue. Adan lit candles and sang the chant for the dying. His father stared up at him, his eyes newborn. Adan felt as if he were diving toward a light shining at the bottom of a clear, cold lake. His father met him in that place and remained there even after he stopped breathing. The place he’d gone to wasn’t so much further than Prem’s cave.
That night, Adan sat beside Arion’s body and kept the fire burning. He lit incense and rang bells so his father’s spirit would rejoice instead of being afraid. The next morning, the gravedigger came with his cart and Adan walked with him to the graveyard and buried his father.
After his father’s death, Adan often felt as if he were floating, as if he’d died, too, and when he walked through the markets, he saw the light in everyone around him. His own eyes shone with a fierce brightness as he muttered benedictions and stared at his feet, trying not to stumble on cobbles that remained strangely real.
His neighbors hated and feared him, but he didn’t understand why. When he smiled at children, their mothers gave him the evil eye. Sometimes grown men spat on him or women emptied their night soil on him as he was passing. He was careful to avoid the reckoners that patrolled the streets and his walks never took him near the temple on the hill or even up the steps to the quarters where landowners and merchants lived.
Why was he so reviled? Was it because he was alone and wore a hermit’s robe? Was it the light in his eyes or the thread around his neck? Did they truly think he was a simpo, a lost monk that wandered the other side, handing out curses instead of blessings to the living?
Sometimes his walks took him past the Broken Mast. He wondered which window belonged to Linnea and if she’d taken up the widow’s trade like the others.
“She’s living in the widow’s lane now,” his father had said, but he wouldn’t tell Adan why. Instead, he wanted to know if Adan had gone to the great monasteries nestled in the northern spires, if he’d received the Spider’s sting, if he’d overcome sadness in the valley of tears. He fell asleep to Adan’s stories, then woke with a start and asked Adan to feed the goats.
“You must give Linnea my blessings when I’m gone,” Arion said. “Tell her I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“She’ll know the answer to that. Tell her I’ll always be with her, just as I’ll always be with you.”
And yet as Adan looked up at the candlelit windows of the Broken Mast, wondering if she had customers, he was too afraid to fulfill his father’s dying wish. Finally, he went inside and asked about her at the bar.
“That one doesn’t take customers,” the innkeeper said.
“I have a message for her.”
“Then you’ll find her room at the end of the hall. The staircase is around the side. Tell her the rent’s due.”
“Yes, I’ll do that,” he said, but when he stepped outside, he didn’t go upstairs. Instead he floated slowly home. All around him, the streets were festive as families prepared for the festival of lights and candles were lit in doorways and windows. On his street, only his house was dark and had no candles, while Radi’s house shone with firelight and laughing children. He wondered if Prem still kept his hermitage in the same mountain cave or if he’d moved to another, more distant valley. In a short period of time Adan had lost two fathers, though he’d spent many years trying to convince himself that he had none, no father or mother, no brothers or sisters, no wife or children.
On the night before the children put their boats in the water, he went to see Linnea. He was ready, just as he’d been ready with his father, to go to the shining peak in his mind, that place where he could observe his feelings without giving into them. He knocked on her door, hoping she wouldn’t answer. If he’d loved her once, those feelings had been replaced by a greater love for the Spider and the web she wove. As she opened the door, he reminded himself that every moment was the beginning, that there was no future or past.
“I’ve been expecting you,” she said. She’d filled out, matured, deepened. Her face was thinner, her arms thicker, her eyes creased with a fine network of lines, but she was still lovely. Her voice was the same as it had always been, melodic and soft.
“Really?” he said. “How did you know I was here?”
“Widows have their ways,” she answered. “Arion was like a father to me. I’m sorry for your loss. I should say our loss, since I grieve him, too.”
The words that came to him didn’t make sense. They weren’t feelings a man should have so soon after his father’s death. They were too inconsequential, too scattered. He was filled with hollow laughter.
“How long has it been since you ate?” she asked.
“This morning,” he said.
“You’re starving.” He was surprised at the anger in her voice. “You haven’t taken care of yourself.”
She offered him a seat, then busied herself making dandelion tea and nettle soup.
“The Spider has taken care of me,” he said. He noticed the room had a crooked aspect, as if it were sinking into the floor beneath it. The window looked over the sloped roofs below and onto the harbor, where the sun was setting into the bay.
“Can you feel the ground beneath your feet?” she asked.
He shook his head. “It was never there.”
“Until you fall,” she said, too gently to be a rebuke. “You need marrow soup and rakhu wine. How’s your digestion?”
“You sound like my father,” he said. His chest tingled when he took the first bite of nettle soup. It was just as he remembered it, the nettles deep green, the noodles firm.
“I should. He was my teacher for many years.”
“He taught you?” His father hadn’t mentioned this.
“Secretly, of course.” She knelt before her shelves. “Rub this on your feet and forehead every morning and night until your feet touch the ground again.” She handed him a jar of yellow balm.
His laugh was a startled bark. She shook her head gently, as if to reprimand him. “This you’ll remember,” she said, offering him a jar of twisted brown roots. The roots smelled peppery and bitter and he nodded at her, trying not to smile. A strange warmth filled him.
“But I’m not sick,” he said.
“Adan, you’re a skeleton. Your eyes have the light in them. You’re turning gray.”
“I’ve chosen the light over myself,” he said.
“You’re not meant to see the light until you die.”
“Then I’m already dead.”
“Stop speaking in riddles.” She held a finger to her lips, shushing him before he could speak again. “I’m sure you had many adventures in the mountains and saw many things I’d never dream of, but it hurts me to see you like this. Take this medicine.”
“I’ll take this medicine so you feel better,” he said, smiling at her.
She laughed and shook her head slowly. She, too, was a hidden valley, full of secret feelings. Their silence turned awkward as Adan thought of questions to ask her and then decided against asking them. In his solitude, he’d sometimes talked to a creature that was almost her, a girl of fifteen who woke him with a soft brush of golden light in the mornings.
He looked into her eyes as if he might find her childhood self there and she returned his gaze evenly. If he looked until he found the clouds in her, he might begin to understand what it meant that his father was dead. If he looked deeper still, he might be able to reflect on all he’d given up and lost, and then it wouldn’t take long for him to forget what he’d learned during twenty years of solitude.
“My father said he’ll always be with you and that you have his blessings even now. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry, though I’m not sure why.”
“Yes,” Linnea said with a little smile. “That’s just like him. There’s no reason for him to be sorry. He’s the one that saved me.”
“How strange things turned out after all this time,” Adan said.
“Is it so strange to see me?”
“Oh, no,” he said, even as he floated away and watched them speaking from above. “I’m glad you’re well.”
“Am I?” Linnea asked, gesturing at the room around her.
“You’ve hardly aged,” he said. “You’re glowing with health.”
“Well, I have nothing to tend but myself,” she said with a sigh.
“How did you come to be here?” he asked.
“My story isn’t so different from other widows, except in how it ends. For that I have your father to thank.”
“Yes,” he mumbled. Prem would’ve laughed at his sorrow and then told him to dive into the lake until he was so cold he was warm again.
“You aren’t well,” she said, putting her hand against his forehead to check his temperature. “Go home and sleep. We’ll meet again when you’re better.”
“Yes,” he said, struggling to his feet. He went to the door and waited. He wanted to feel her touch again, to put his head on her shoulder, perhaps even to rest on her pallet while she sang to him.
“You forgot your medicine,” she said, her hand brushing against his.
“Yes.” He nodded quickly. “Thank you for the soup. It was delicious.”
“Will you promise to take your medicine and visit me again?”
“Yes, yes, I will,” he said, looking away.
After he left the Broken Mast, the joy he’d felt in her presence gave way to a dull ache in his chest and arms that felt arthritic, as if after all these years she’d reached down into his marrow and rooted there. The streets were full of minstrels singing for coins. Children tested their little boats, clapping when they stayed afloat. Wreathes of flowers hung from doors and windows and women rang the temple bells and blessed each other.
At home, Adan barred the door behind him and went to the rooftop garden. His father had carefully tended the garden when he was younger but now the pots were full of weeds and withered plants. The stars above him were dim and had none of the clarity they’d had in the shining land beyond the pass. As he covered his feet with balm, he had the strange feeling his hands belonged to Linnea and that she was applying the medicine for him.
That was when he knew he’d stay in his father’s house instead of returning to the mountains. Its altar was humble, its walls crumbling, its garden in ruins. It was a fitting place for a man who’d taken the thread and given up the trappings of this world. He was staying not just for his father and his ancestors but for Linnea, too, and for her friendship.