E Catherine Tobler
She began with the hands.
Julie pulled the smooth wood through the blue clay, and remembered the uncertain whisper of Isaac’s fingertips against her bare wrist the first time he had touched her.
He asked for directions to Yankee Boy Basin; he wanted to paint the wild horses and birds. Julie envisioned him taking brush and paint-wet fingers to the animals, decorating them with fingerprints and brushstrokes.
Now, in Julie’s studio, his disembodied hands took shape in blue clay. Five months after he’d asked for directions, Isaac Denisov had proclaimed his love for her and had vanished into thin air.
The mountains rose in a jagged blue line across the afternoon sky, clouds tumbling like blown feathers. The columbine touched Julie’s cheek and Isaac’s lips followed. He whispered. Said he wanted to paint her among the flowers and the hovering bees. Isaac drew his paintbrush down her arm and, as if carrying part of her to his canvas, began.
Julie closed her eyes while he worked, turning her face from the canvas, toward the sun. Bees brushed her forehead. She felt pollen-scattered and soon couldn’t tell the bees from the kiss of Isaac’s brush.
“I love you, Julie.”
She sat up. Flower petals scattered down her blouse. She was alone in the field. The canvas stood in shadow as the mountains swallowed the last sliver of sun. Julie took Isaac’s brush, the heat from his own fingers still embedded in the wood.
Her image decorated the canvas, petals stuck in paint: columbine petals as eyes, wild grass as lips, smudged dirt as neck.
“Was he a dream?”
She asked the question aloud to lend credence to it. She dismissed it right away, for she possessed things that told her Isaac was real. There were his paintings; his tangerines in the chipped green bowl; his dirty laundry. The laundry made a liar of Julie, for when she looked in the hamper, there were no clothes but her own. The mustard tie Isaac had worn on that very first day was gone.
“He will always take his ties,” her mother said on that day long ago, when they’d come home to find her father gone. He’d left most everything in his wake, but his ties were gone. Foolish scraps of fabric, likened to a noose, but he would not leave them behind.
Julie added another lump of clay to her worktable, molding it into the width of Isaac’s arm. With firm thumb strokes, she connected the arm to the hand, phantom touches sliding down her own arm, remembered pressure and heat from Isaac’s arm as they had danced in the barn, on the rotting floor.
Hay spiraled down and music kicked up, bodies moving in tandem to the beat. Julie grasped Isaac’s arm for support. A second later he let her go and the room spun, alcohol-reddened faces stretching further out of focus.
Isaac caught her and the room stopped its tilting motions. In Isaac’s arms, everything returned to focus and she picked up the rhythm of the music. She felt neither graceful nor coordinated, but it didn’t matter. Isaac smiled down at her and that smile was the center of the universe even as the barn floor crumbled under their feet.
Four fingers, one thumb, an arm. The blue appendage lay on Julie’s table. She expected a one-armed blue man to enter and demand it back, for it didn’t belong to Isaac.
The wrist was wrong. It was too thick. Isaac was small-boned. And these clay fingers, they were wrong too. His fingers were long, not thick. Green-bean fingers her mother would have called them.
She discarded the clay. She packed the hand and arm back into the bag until it was just part of a larger blue lump. Julie twisted the plastic and closed the box.
A slab of dark mahogany lay across two saw-horses. Drezler was going to throw it away but Julie saw potential in the wood, even though one side was scarred from its long-time use as a table. She spent the morning smoothing the scars out, gently returning its normal appearance. She removed the lacquer and sanded it smooth.
Then, she began with the hands.
Ribbons of wood tickled Julie’s bare toes. She smoothed the arm into the shoulder and rounded it into the neck. Before she’d realized it, she had carved the brown hair that curled against Isaac’s neck. Delicate curls that smelled like shampoo.
The edge of the gouge peeled another layer of wood away and revealed the line of Isaac’s jaw. Julie’s fingers traced the wood, a sliver of mahogany embedding itself in her index finger. Blood pooled against the wood, a bright stain against the fresh cut. She wiped it away and sucked her finger.
“Julie, oh Julie, what have you done?”
Metise smoothed her hand over Isaac’s fingers. Julie looked down the length of Isaac’s body, his hips covered by a swath of green fabric.
“If he was all in my head,” she said, kicking wood curls up from the floor, “he’s coming back out.”
In the shower of wood, Metise sneezed and rubbed her nose. “Julie, you really should talk to someone about th—”
“It’s just wood,” Julie said, but after Metise left and after the candles were lit, it didn’t look like just wood. It looked like Isaac might peel himself away from the remaining block and stand. She wondered if he might turn a pirouette like he’d done that day in the field, a drunken ballerina trying to entertain a crowd of one.
In the flicker of the light, the fingers seemed to move. Julie sat across the room, transfixed by the motion. She was unaware when she closed her eyes to it.
Isaac Denisov stood in the corner like a school boy in mid-punishment. Julie couldn’t bear to look at the unfinished face. Nor could she bear to finish it herself. Touching the wood was like touching flesh. She could feel the warmth and the give, and shivers traced their way through her when the pinky finger curled around her own.
Hallucination, that was all. Working too many hours. The excuse she applied didn’t really matter. Julie abandoned the wood and draped a tarp over it to remove it from her sight.
On Christmas Eve, a blizzard knocked the power out county wide. Julie bore the horror of touching the wood then, taking her saw to it. She cut through the wood, ignoring the way it seemed to ripple like flesh, screaming as she fed it into the wood burning stove. Julie kissed the hand of Isaac Denisov before tossing it into the flames.
The wood popped and exploded under the heat. Fingers and splinters flew from the stove, showering Julie with their heat. What did I love, she wondered as the sparks burned out on the wood floor. The embers faded from orange to black, resembling nothing that Isaac had been or perhaps everything.
“You can’t make a man do what you want,” Metise said over lunch, “so you certainly can’t expect to simply make one from scratch.” Laughter, like a half-familiar memory.
Julie watched her friend, detached from the entire scene. She felt as though she were sitting in a theatre, watching a play on stage. A comedy of manners, they might call it, though they would be wrong. There was nothing funny in Metise’s laughter, nor did she have the manners a wild pig possessed.
Julie had made the mistake of trying to explain the wood sculpture and what had become of it. You remember that cold night, she began; the one that dumped twenty-five inches on us and took the power down. Feeding Isaac to the flames delighted Metise who giggled and clapped like a schoolgirl given a new pair of loafers, complete with shiny pennies.
Something new to dissect. It was a good enough birthday present for her, Julie decided. Metise was happy all afternoon, and informed Julie that it had been a year, and really, she should move along. Certainly Isaac had, if he’d ever been real to begin with.
And why, Metise wondered, didn’t Julie haul herself down to the community college and sign up for the art class that was included in the spring schedule?
Julie found herself standing in front of a black message board later that afternoon, white letters slapped together in disarray.
spRING CLassES beGIN oN monDAY—doN’T miss tHE bOAT!
Congratulating herself for not missing the boat, Julie took a seat in the back of the class. Rain turned the window beside her into a kaleidoscope. The cars outside looked like fragmented pin balls. At the front of the room, the teacher unpacked his supplies.
If Isaac were here, Julie would find herself thinking throughout the first month of class, he would take the daisies from the teacher’s vase and crush their dark centers. He would smear them into brown clouds above the daisy-petal rain. But Isaac wasn’t here.
Julie picked up her charcoal pencil and looked beyond the page in her sketchbook, to the model who sat amid daisies and columbines. Her hair was a bundle of sausage curls pinned beneath a wide brimmed hat. A few curls had been allowed to trickle over the lace shoulders of her dress.
Julie placed pencil to page and began with the hands.
It rained in the night and before Julie could pull the cotton blanket over herself, she felt Isaac do it for her. His hand brushed over her hip and sent a flurry of heat through her body. Julie found him beside her, a familiar-smelling shadow in the dark. Rum and something darker.
“You came back.” Her voice was thick with sleep, but Isaac seemed to understand her. He murmured “yes” and nuzzled her neck, blowing warm breath against her skin. Julie burrowed into his embrace.
She slept in those arms and in those hands and dreamed that it was all a dream. But the squeal of the alarm was silenced under Isaac’s fingers and her morning coffee was likewise brought by them as well. She drank from her favorite mug, the one with the dancing reindeer, and let caffeine and warmth seep into her as Isaac showered.
Beyond the trickle of water, Julie heard him humming and she smiled. She reached for the remote and clicked the television on. Isaac liked Meet the Press and she’d grown to tolerate it. While the moderator droned on, Julie took the book from Isaac’s nightstand and flipped to where he’d left off the night before.
The blue satin ribbon marked a page which showed an image of a phoenix, rising from the dark ash of its death. Julie snapped the book shut and dropped it onto Isaac’s pillow. She disliked mythology.
“Still up for the basin?”
Isaac rubbed a towel through his wet hair. Julie rather thought he looked like a porcupine this morning, all round with sharp quills that needed smoothing. Outside, the rain had stopped but clouds filled the sky and more rain looked certain.
“It’ll be wet,” she said.
“Never bothered you before.”
And it didn’t bother her this time. Julie crouched and looked at the droplets of water that had come to rest on the petals of a brown-eyed Susan.
“Do you think her name was really Susan?” she asked as they walked along, gravel crunching under their shoes. Two sets of footsteps, one long, one shorter.
“Or that she had brown eyes.” Isaac smiled and Julie, caught in the sparkle of his own brown eyes, couldn’t help but smile, too.
“What are you?” she asked, aware that the moment wasn’t perfect, that something was wrong. Isaac had been gone, hadn’t he? She tried to remember, but couldn’t.
A wet flower brushed Julie’s cheek. Isaac held a columbine in his hand and he still smiled. “Does it matter?”
“Metise thinks I created you.” Julie squeezed Isaac’s hand and lifted it, perplexed at the pattern that ran up his arm. He looked rather like wood and was that a splinter in her finger?
“And then destroyed with equal determination.” Isaac tucked the columbine behind Julie’s ear and kissed her nose. “I’ve got to go, my darling, but I’ll see you again. I promise.”
And with that, Isaac Denisov once again vanished before Julie Gaskin’s eyes.
Julie cleaned out the wood burning stove and found three of Isaac’s fingers. They hadn’t burned when she’d fed the carving to the fire on Christmas Eve.
She tied up the sooty mess and felt better about the situation, but in art class, she found herself drawing Isaac’s hands rather than the bowl of fruit the teacher had offered them. She stared at the familiar curl of fingers and the teacher praised her for the detail. As he walked away, Julie picked up her Pink Pearl and erased the hand, swearing that the paper squirmed under her touch to elude the eraser.
Metise was waiting for her at Café Bloom. Julie did not share the story of the fingers in the stove, but when the columbine fell from Julie’s planner and Metise picked it up, the questions began.
“Again?” Metise asked. “Julie, I thought we had this settled.”
At home, Julie retreated to her bedroom. There was no sign of Isaac anywhere, but might he be lurking where she could not see him? Julie opened her dresser drawers and pulled the clothing out. He was here somewhere, hiding like a cancer. She could cut him out, but he would just come back. Did she want that? No. She wanted some measure of sanity, some shred of confidence that wasn’t based on a man’s love for her.
The whispered name had no reply.
Julie pushed her feet into her boots and laced them tightly. The snow was coming down hard outside. Christmas in one day, she thought. Green and red lights. Julie grasped the bag near her feet and her keys a second later.
The roads weren’t slick. They were packed with snow, tire tracks beginning to blur as more snow came down. Her Jeep handled the roads just fine; it always had and no one ever worried about her when she drove. Even into the blue-white whirl of winter, they trusted her.
The Jeep tracked north over ground that most people avoided. If the park rangers had any common sense, they would have closed the road, but locals were supposed to be smarter, weren’t they? Julie flicked her headlights to high and pressed the gas. The tires grabbed the ground and propelled the Jeep forward.
Yankee Boy Basin lay beneath the snow, still and frozen. The mountains rose like a rim of white teeth, jagged and sparkling under the moonlight that had begun to sneak through the clouds. As Julie took her bag and set foot on the ground, the snow began to thin.
She didn’t need to see the columbines to know they were there. Julie stopped and set her bag down. She unzipped her coat and took it off, smiling at Isaac who sat on a boulder before a canvas.
Under Isaac’s mahogany-dark smile, the snow melted, turning to rivers. The ground rolled from white to brown as Julie sat down and Isaac swept his blue-clay hands over her arm.
“Never late,” he said. “I’ve always been here, always will be.”
Bees hovered in the air around them, carrying pollen from one flower to another. They brushed Julie’s cheeks and she laughed. Flutterbys burst into being as she did. Their orange and apple slice wings whirled through the air, like a handful of thrown leaves.
“What are you?”
Isaac turned his eyes toward her and smiled a smile Julie had always loved, one that flowed like water into every crack she possessed.
“Everything you made me.”
Julie lay on her side, stretching amid the green needles of grass as Isaac worked. She withdrew the bag of fingers from her pocket and handed them to him. “You may need these.”
Isaac took them and popped each one into his mouth, chewing until they were gone. Julie caught his hand in her own and kissed his fingers. “Can I stay?”
Isaac pressed the paintbrush into Julie’s hand and she stroked it against the canvas, erasing the storm above. A columbine touched Julie’s cheek and Isaac’s lips followed.
E. Catherine Tobler
is a Sturgeon Award finalist, the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine
, and her debut novel arrives this summer. Among others, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld
, and Sci Fiction