Linthicum Orphanage, burning to the ground.
In the Director's office, flames climb the window curtains and gorge themselves on Larissa's collection of exotic masks. Dr. Larissa Type, riveted to her leather chair, notebook clasped to her chest, looks up through gathering smoke at Eufemia. Eufemia, revolving & in-volving––resolving––& she finally understands: the girl never needed to read her notebook. She knew every word. & now it's her turn, Type's turn, to die. She could get out.
If she wanted to.
"Who are you?" she asks the girl.
Eufemia says nothing. But she reaches across the desk, her left arm snaking out like an adder-accordion to open a cavity in Larissa's chest. She plucks away the heart, holds it to the firelight, watches the blood ooze & collect, then roll off the organ like uncut rubies. She looks into Type's eyes, knowingly––with perhaps infinite intimate knowledge, & replaces the heart as flames tongue the hand-mirror, licking it to liquid smithereens. She strides through the smoke towards the window, seeming to disappear into the night, leaving Linthicum behind forever.
All the marbles in her pocket.
Moments before the conflagration washes her bones as-a-whistle clean, Larissa reopens her notebook to the first page.
In exchange for eating carnage to garnish these days dulled of colors, an excess slippage oozes to the paper... But, shh, they have their own writings, the children, from 3 to 5. They sprawl like seals in the Green Room, bathing amongst the pillowry, steeped in pools of shade collecting between shine. & they paint. Paint dreams as they dream them. I must be quiet, & that means I tell with sticky notes my story––as they tell their stories, canvasses dripping & draping over faces. Another corpse...
Please, for the sake of this performance, I shall remain nameless––I am reprimanded to the marrow by guilt. But of course, you'll know that already (as you always have, Eufemia).
Can I ever see it again, just once, once at least, before it happened?
Linthicum Orphanage, that morning: morning light & mourning doves.
Larissa lifts the curtain. From the same window that will frame Eufemia's exit, she watches Chang––the orphan Eufemia will lead to his fate in the Blue-Bathroom––emerge from the grass & glance over his shoulder, then dart towards the vacant lot. He will stray no further, Larissa assures herself. She lifts her chin.
She ambles back to her desk & fishflops into her revolving leather chair. She is long in limb, prim, & past-her-prime, with eyes flanked by crowsfeet behind horn-rimmed panes; little pocketwatch earrings sag at her earlobes through a drape of silver hair. 20 years back, when that hair shone fool's-golden, she was renowned as a psychoanalyst; her work on deviant children filled the great psychoanalytic journals; American Imago, Fort Da, & so on.
But now she oversees Linthicum. She hasn't published an article in years, though she still observes, still writes down her observations. A new leatherbound journal stretches its empty albatross wings across her desk.
Larissa fiddles with her pen for a time, unscrewing the cap, sucking on the nib, screwing the cap back on, twirling, biting... she presses it into the spine & slides open a desk drawer, producing a prescription bottle.
She hesitates. The label washes in & out of focus. A clock on the wall punctuates her delay. Heaving an inevitable sigh, she palms a pair of capsules to her mouth, her molars crushing their red exoskeletons to release a spurt of tingling viscera. This will be my breakthrough.
She picks up her pen, sets nib to page...
She fancies herself the waves, & doodles a dartfrog, blue-black. She's a ringing in the inner ear—
The telephone rings; first of three calls that day.
Ella Rocca's moonsome face, cut archly by her eyebrows, flickers in silent close-up across the small square screen. The frame crops her below nostril-flare, above botox-brow, & something unsettles in her eyes. Even as they bore seductively through the camera lens & into the second floor bunkroom of Linthicum Orphanage, where Chang gathers up her gaze, feet twitch-dangling from his high bunk. This close, her eyes make him restless, seeming to betray, as if by accident, some long-submerged desperation—a clash against the fraudulence of make-up, lash-plastic, eyebrows painstakingly pruned. She disgusts Chang, who peels his pupils from hers, sliding from the bunk to switch her off.
Only his reflection remains, swimming languid in the shiny gray screen: a child with a mask where his face should be.
Restless, Chang paces around the room, nerves convulsing, stomach lurching. The other children swallow spoonfuls of glorified porridge at breakfast in the rectory, or play in the yard, down beneath the yewtrees, their shrill excitement swelling up at intervals to prick through birdseyes in the wall's wood-grain. Chang despises his loneliness, despises the other orphans, despises Linthicum, despises its increasingly neurotic director...despises above all his parents, who are dead parents. Meanwhile he passes from the bunkroom, padding barefoot down the hallway, down the stairs, past the kitchen, past the rectory, & out through Linthicum's double oak doors. He skirts around the front of the great stone building to avoid the other children, ducking beneath french windows, crushing the flowers in their beds. At the side of the building, near the old greenhouses, he vaults the chainlink fence & drops into an empty lot on the other side, making quick for the concealment of tall dry grass & rusting appliances. For a while, he rummages around, tossing away lengths of PVC & snatches of metal. Half-submerged in the soil, an isosceles of glass winks darkly at him. He digs it out to look, again, at his reflection––to see if it has changed, perhaps––only to slit open his palm, & then shatter the spattered shard against a washing machine in disgust. He can feel a pair of eyes at his back, but no-one is there.
That he can see.
In the director's office, the telephone shudders in it's cradle, wailing out as if for milk; the last of today's three calls. Larissa's pen skitters with sickening rapidity across page after page, streaking & smearing the empty white wings. She blots out the albatross. Her digits burst with fat bloodblisters; deep in the 2-way mirror, Eufemia, mink of skin, drapes long & naked over the chair, unblinking, still & white as a plaster cast of herself.
The telephone, still wailing, wails, finally cracking Type's trance in-2. Her chair falls out from under her as she dives for the telephone, fumbling the receiver.
"What, what is it, what?"
"This is Daum..."
"This had better be important. You've interrupted my work. Again."
"Trust me, you'll want know about this. We've got another problem––big fucking problem."
"What happened this time? Eufemia is right here..." Dr. Type glances to the mirror. But Eufemia's chair stands empty.
"I think you'd better see this for yourself."
"Where are you?"
"I'm on the third-floor telephone. I just found Gigney in the Blue-Bathroom. She's gone...she's gone bonkers." The last word crackles the phone-haze with a grotesque comedy. Daum's voice wavers, uncertain. "She's off her head. She's gone bonkers...bonkers...You'd better get over here."
"What were you doing in there? That's my private bathroom."
"Just get over here. Please. This is serious....seriously bonkers"
"Ok, I'm coming, I'm coming. Calm down."
"Hurry! This could mean the end of the orphanage."
Larissa's heart plummets, like an elevator down its shaft. Damnit I need more time just a little more time I'm on the brink of my diagnosis...but where's Eufemia? She hangs up with a jangling crash almost snatching the journal from the desk but thinking better of it & stumbling hurriedly from her office, snapping the door behind her but forgetting to lock it. On her way to the Blue-Bathroom, she checks to make certain the library door is secure. I can't lose her now not now I'm so close... She sprints to the end of the hall, skirt swirling out around her stockinged legs, heels gouging jagged lines in the hardwood floor. Family portraits, frozen in their frames, simmer down at her fleet form, as if disappointed. The door of the Blue-Bathroom hangs open slightly. She hears sobs pumping out heavy from within.
Larissa's impression on the other side: a line from her journal leaps into real meaning: out of his wits, fingernailed to ribbons of magnetic tape.
*drip* Limbs chunked-out & all askew, Chang pools *drip* prone on the bluetiled-floor. A bloodsnake slither-dribbles crimson from his mask's frown-hole, *drip* scales of flesh lodged under his fingernails. His blood limns the walls *drip*, the floors *drip*, the stalls *drip*, & oozes in spirals down every drain. Gigney stands *drip* erect over the body; she looks to have rolled in it, smeared red *drip* from head to heels, the sags of her bell-body drenched & *drip* dripping in triplets. Daum perches on the edge of the sink, three-times reflected in its mirrors, *drip* caught fast in blue&red triptych, a purple secret. Her eyes *drip* glaze slightly; a vein twitches her brow. *drip*
"I found my husband!" *drip*
"I found my husband!" Gigney echoes proudly, "look!"
She stoops over Chang & removes his mask. Chang's new face scowls out, to Gigney, the face of her long lost or long imagined husband. But to Larissa: her own face, smoothed of its crowfeet, leering at her from twenty years ago. Daum plasters a hand across her eyes. She can't look.
Gigney tenderly replaces the mask. "There he is? Isn't he handsome?"
"Yes," says Larissa dazedly. She can't tear her mind from the journal. I wrote this? She wrote this. She wrote what she saw in Eufemia's body, in her eyes unblinking. Or was it something she saw reflected there, in the depths of her own subconscious? Her diagnosis bleeds out on the floor, mingling with Chang. How can you separate blood from blood?
"Okay. Okay. Here's what we're going to do. We can't lose the orphanage. We have to clean this mess up––"
"But what the fuck happened?" interrupts Daum.
"I found my husband," shrieks Gigney, "didn't you hear? don't you remember?
"Jesus Christ. This has something to do with that Eufemia, I just know it," continues Daum, mold-green in the face. She leans out over the sink.
"Impossible," says Dr. Type, regaining her calm. "She's been locked in the library for hours. The blood is still running, still wet..."
"It had to be Eufemia. There's something unnatural about her," says Daum, steadying herself.
"& look at his nails," says Type. "It almost looks like he did it to himself." She can't stop thinking about what she wrote in the journal, about her own face beneath Chang's mask. I did it to myself...
"But why?" says Daum.
"He's so handsome," coos Gigney, "even after all these long years. Just like I remember it."
"Who knows," says Type, ignoring her.
"Wasn't exactly the happiest kid. No thanks to you...no thanks to us," says Daum, wracked & doubling over the sink with another wave of sick.
"It doesn't matter," says Type. "All that matters now" (& she wants to believe this more than anything, she really does) "is keeping the orphanage open. We can't help anyone if people find out about this."
"Well, what do you propose we do then?" asks Daum. "You're the director."
"Like I said, we've got to clean this mess up, & fast."
"What about Gigney?" says Daum, "She's gone bonk–"
"Bonkers, yes. Obviously. We'll have to keep her here, somehow, & calm her down. I've got some Thorazine in the office."
"Someone needs to check on Eufemia, too," says Daum. "She's got to be contained. I know you don't believe it, but she's behind this I fucking swear." She slides from the sink. "I can do it."
"Don't swear," chides Gigney, singsong, "when my husband is present. He'll smack you."
"No," says Type. "Leave Eufemia to me. I need someone here with her wits about her."
"My husband will sort her out," exclaims Gigney. "He sorts people out everyday, down at the office."
"Shut up," says Daum. "How are we going to clean this mess? It's so much blood..."
"You––& Gigney, if you can get her to help, in her state––will have to wash it all down the drains, & make it spotless. We're the only ones who can know about this. The children mustn't find out. I'll get some Thorazine & clean clothes for Gigney. Don't let her leave this room. Turn on all the showers." & Dr. Type, turning, sharp on her heels, exits through the door.
2, 3 hours perhaps before the orphanage and its residents are a heap of ashes, Nurse Daum, Linthicum's last claim to sanity, punches her timecard & phones for a taxi from the kitchen. She hangs up, sucks in a deep breath. Can't go home right now. I want to be able to sleep. I need some booze. She gropes a set of keys from her purse & drops them with a tinny splash. The bits of serrated metal splay out on their ring like the brass afterfeathers of some mechanical bird, fallen from its nest, on the tiles, to die. A chill trickles down the length of her spine. Beautiful.
Daum shudders the image away & retrieves her keys, flicks off the lights. Locking up the kitchen, she navigates abstractedly along the hallway, clutching the last pieces of Chang, wrapped up in a blackplastic bag. The Blue&Red Bathroom is Blue again, mostly. The purple secret is still secret. She exits through the thick double doors. As soon as she's outside, a wave of nausea churns her bowels & the blood funnels out of her head, like blood down a drain. She leans up against the stucco wall to steady herself, feeling the acid rise & flicker at the back of her throat. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe. You're not going to vomit. You never vomit. No-one has ever had to hold your hair back—there's no-one to hold your hair back... breathe. You, at least, are Not Insane.
Not yet, at least.
The night air pours cool & clean & familiar into her lungs, & the wall leans back against her. Then she stumbles to the empty lot & deposits Chang amongst the rusted appliances where the vultures will find him, later-or-sooner.
& like that, Daum feels herself again, more or less. She walks down the drive to wait at the gate for her taxi to arrive, looks up to a half-moon extruding from the night like a fetus' bald scalp. She listens to the crickets scraping rustily.
All very familiar.
The wind lifts, slamming a door shut & rustling around in the empty lot. A bristle of the nape-hairs. A voluptuous prickling. But Daum refuses to turn around. There's nothing that strange going on. Anyway, Eufemia is locked up. She tries to forget how Eufemia escaped from the broom closet earlier that day. She probably had nothing to do with it anyway. She's just a child. A 17 year old girl-child. Hardly capable of—those nape-hairs must be on Viagra. Finally she turns, slowly, casually, just to make certain. A dark & slender figure slips from the tall glow of Dr. Types office-window. Always at her window. Always looking down. That woman...
But the taxi pulls up opposite Linthicum & Daum strides gratefully across the street to meet it.
Eufemia's curious way of sitting: her legs crossed left-over-right, with her left arm draped over the dominant leg & her right under-tucked, fingers curling up from between her legs, as if disembodied.
Larissa watches her in the library through the two-way mirror in her office. Her journal lies open on the desk, recently shifted to face the mirror. Her pen perches poised over the page. A drop of ink slides from the nib. Eufemia seems to stare back at her, almost posing. Larissa begins to write, write freely, write fluidly. The words pour from her mind as though Eufemia had prised open some mental floodgate:
...Look here. Such freedom of movement, like a birdless feather, cannot be understood, so I bore a hole into my spine; to explore within is to mix with circumspectra. The children brush, blush with feminine tendencies. Your memory, which buries it, would seem a meadow space before the snap of a doorlatch & before the pompeiic ping of dandruff in your china bowl. I think to interject a line or two into this white space—my subject, really—is to think therapeutic but maybe in flames also. Is Eufemia my patient, or am I?
Eufemia shifts slightly.
...Please, it is deadliness to continue... to see her in my mind's eye before I disrobed her secrets, & the other children of their deafness. Enough of her troubles were self-imposed––almost perfectly, like a robin's eggshell; on plumbings, Eufemia in her chambers would clang & bang, moaning the while. Know, it wasn't from this side of the mirror that she granted herself access to—& grew into—such pain. Not, at least, by learning from my tutelage, my own immaculate performance of femininity...
Eufemia rises from her chair & walks toward the mirror.
...Eufemia expanding, all neon & revolving, a deadly pervasiveness leaking & melding, shrieking & laughing. & the whole time, between grotesque exhibits, a carousel of formaldehyde scribblings that to came her as if in boxes emptied of their cigars for herb space, paper space. What does it mean? It all ended, as all such circumstances do, in a begging for mercy; me from her, she with lashings in the Blue-Bathroom (east wing), sending ruby flecks to speck the underwater walls, floors, ceilings...
Dr. Types' eyelid twitches.
...a child's response to her talents: out of his wits, fingernailed to ribbons of magnetic tape.
There was something...something I needed to...I could swear...but I won't, I won't swear but my husband is missing, still missing. Nurse Daum. She told me that my husband was gone, gone missing. That was it. My husband was...I must find him!
I need to sort this out. Now, what was he doing when I saw him last?
I remember. I remember he was eating my semolina at the table––not in this drawer––He was ladling great spoonfuls into his mouth & grinning & nodding appreciatively, saying mmm & swallowing so that his adam's apple turned a flip––not in this closet either––my husband always loved semolina. How he loved semolina. I would make it every night. Everynight I would make him his semolina––but where could he be hiding?––Monday semolina & Tuesday, semolina, & semolina everynight, I could swear, but I won't. But he never got tired of it. I used to make little changes to the recipe. I'd tweak something here, add something there. & my husband, god bless him––I bet he's here, under the pillows––always liked it, always ate it, his adam's apple turning a flip. He always loved my semolina––these stairs! I'll have to pause for a moment on the landing––whenever he'd get home from work, I'd know to put the water on right away & set the egg-timer. How many minutes was that? How many little tickmarks with the white space all around? & the little red triangle that seemed to be between your legs––these railings need a good cleaning––then it would be tick-tick-tick-ticking away, faster & faster while my husband (what was his name?) took off his coat tick-tick-tick & got a beer from the fridge tick-tick & he would sit at the table & tell me about his day at the office tick & I would nod & say how lovely it must be to work in the office so important & then my husband would stand & come over to me & run his hands across my shoulders & unbutton my blouse & the timer would scream & scream, screaming until I switched it off. What a bloodcurdling scream; what a horrid horrid noise––ah, the Blue-Bathroom––but he wouldn't be in there, my husb–
& she, Miss Gigney, gapes at the floor & the walls & the stalls & the sinks & the chandelier. Because the Blue-Bathroom is a red & Blue-Bathroom now. Blue with red veils & splashes & raindrops & stipple, red, radiating out from a spot not quite the center.
"My husband!" screeches Gigney.
My husband! I've found him at last!
& she runs to him, slipping & sliding like a child after rain.
Hours earlier. Larissa scoops the receiver to her ear, clenching it with her shoulder & rotating slowly in her chair to face the window; the first of three calls.
"Yes?" she answers.
"It's happening again, Dr Type."
"What is? Be specific. Don't waste my time." She twists the chord between her fingers.
"Exactly what we were afraid of."
Dr. Type lashes at the air with a heel-sharpened toe. "Tell me you aren't serious. I don't need this today."
"I'm sorry, Doctor, I know after the last incident you told us to retrain her & bring her to you whenever she has an episode..."
"We did restrain her—or at least, we tried but she sort of...slipped away."
"Are you telling me she slipped away from a straight-jacket?"
"No, she slipped out of the broom closet. While the closet was locked."
"Did she encounter any other children?"
"I don't think so, but I'm not certain...we found her in the opposite wing."
"After how long?"
"It took us a solid hour, probably. I'd have phoned you earlier but—"
Dr. Type hurls her pen across the room. "Why didn't you simply come to my office?"
"I...thought it was best to find her first, before disturbing you. You're always so busy."
"When he died, Dr. Linthicum entrusted his orphanage to me. I'm the director now, & these children—you—you're all living under my aegis within these walls, my oversight."
"I'm really very sorry, Dr. Type; it won't happen again, but I think you should know: she—I mean Eufemia—"
"When this happens again (as I'm certain that it will), you'll come directly to me, & you'll bring Eufemia with you; you'll drag her by that pretty raven hair if you have to. But you will not attempt to handle her yourself. Only I am qualified to handle her. Only I know the proper procedures & techniques. No one else need know about these episodes, let alone witness them."
"Of course, Dr. Type, but Eufemia—"
"A uniquely gifted girl, & uniquely troubled. She's the sort of case that every psychoanalyst dreams of. That skull is an obstinate walnut, that psyche a codex. I need only find the cypher, & apply pressure at the proper angle. I'm an inch from formulating my diagnosis. But there's something missing, poised stoically beneath my nose, just out of sight."
"Dr. Type, I know it's not my place, but Eufemia is 17, by far the eldest child, & she's dangerous. She has this influence. She really shouldn't be here. I don't know how she wasn't flagged."
"Don't trouble your little brain," the Doctor mutters.
"Excuse me, Doctor?"
"Just get off the phone. Get back to work—I'm sure you have something you should be doing. Eufemia is my responsibility."
Nurse Daum hangs up on her end, latching the receiver into its wallcradle. Fuck, she mutters to herself. She'll fucking fire me, I know it. No one interferes with Eufemia, they said. Second week on the job & about to be sacked because some psychotic teenage girl needs some old-fashioned beltbuckle discipline...how, how could she have escaped that closet, the pixie bitch... She goes to the sink & wrinkles her peregrine nose at the slimed-over pagoda of dinner-dishes. Gigney couldn't cook a proper semolina if you stood over her with a bludgeon; she wouldn't even remember you were there. Not even these filthy rat children can stomach it. She struggles into a pair of redrubber gloves & turns on the faucet.
The telephone warbles out a horrid tremolo, twotone; the second of three calls.
Daum slaps the water off, pulling away the righthand glove with her teeth, & snatches up the receiver. "Linthicum Orphanage. Nurse Daum speaking. How may I assist—"
"It's me again"
"What now...Dr. Type?"
"I was just thinking. Why don't you gather Eufemia's things from the bunkroom & move her into the Library adjacent my office."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"You'll probably have to shift some furniture around to squeeze her in. I need to keep a closer eye on her, you understand."
"Yes, Dr. Type. I'll organize that as soon as I help Miss Gigney clear up the remaining dishes. Frankly, I think the children are finished with her semolina."
"Now, Nurse Daum."
Larissa racks the receiver. "Her last task at Linthicum, I daresay..." she murmurs in a wavering husk. She glances at the window & remembers Chang. "He'd never run off," she says to some phantom self, "& he's of no importance as it is; the diagnosis—Eufemia—that's all that matters now. Just as well my incompetent staff haven't noticed his absence yet." She retrieves her pen.
She fancies herself the waves, & doodles a dartfrog, blue-black. She's a ringing in the inner ear—as she sleeps, a poem pitched too high. It began, at the outset, with a bent for mischief. She'd stage some jazzing, here & there, which brought her to my attention—though not to the prozac-prosaic happiness she envied in her peers; no substitute, during childhood especially, for a murder of ravens...
& again, the telephone rattles its long porcelain tibia.
"Dr. Type? More unfortunate news."
"Yes. Chang's gone missing, I suppose. You'll look for him after you've moved Eufemia."
& fuck you, too. Nurse Daum replaces the receiver with a heavy clang & makes her way through the kitchen, peaking into the rectory adjacent, where a pair long tables run parallel, spread with scuffmarks & globs of dried porridge.
"Yes, Loretta dear?" replies the elderly bell of a woman, bulging from faded floralprint, her head & shoulders drenched in putrid white rings.
"I've been given a job by the Doctor, so you'll have to finish cleaning this mess by yourself," says Daum.
"Oh, that's no problem at all, Loretta."
Daum's face pinches into a grimace. "Also, would you mind searching around for Chang when you're done? I'll come help you as soon as I finish with this other thing."
"Chang. The oriental boy with the ridiculous mask."
"Why, yes, of course, of course. I'll look for him. He wasn't at dinner, you know. I haven't seen that little yellow sourpuss since breakfast."
Daum's face contorts even further. "Jesus. I know. You told me that no more than five minutes ago."
"No need to take the Lord's name in vain, Loretta. I'm sure he's just hiding away somewhere. He does that sometimes. You know one day I found him up in the glass cabinet. Near scared me half to death."
Imbecile. "That's fine, Miss Gigney. Now I need to go."
"Maybe I can call my husband up at work & he can come by to help us look."
"You're not married, Miss Gigney, & frankly, I doubt very much that you've ever have been."
"What a silly thing to say, Loretta. My husband is terribly important. That's why he's never home."
"Yes, yes. Terribly important. Just don't forget to look for Chang as soon as you finish up here."
"I won't, Loretta dear. My memory is sharp as a tack."
"Please don't call me that, & don't call your husband. I'll be back in a little while."
"Of course Lor... dear.
Nurse Daum whisks from the doorway, leaving Miss Gigney alone. Alone with the crusted dishes on the crusted tables. Gigney stands there, wobbling a little, her eyes glazing half over. If only Clayton were here. Yes, he would know what to do. He could put everything in order. He's just so terribly important up there in his high office building... up there. Wait no. No. He works underground. Or maybe... I bet he's on his way to pick me up. Where are you Clinton? Gosh. Where...
She shakes her head & the oily ringlets whipsting her face, stirring her from the tangled daydream. Drifting hazily along a table, she stacks up a handful of dishes & passes into the kitchen, where the sink is already brimming with dishes, sloshing with gray water. The faucet drip drip drips & Gigney lapses into the comfortable regularity of the sound, seeming to probe into her brain & keep her thoughts in the right boxes. I was supposed to do something. Loretta... no. Someone told me to... it was... yes it was Clarence. He asked me to look for the little yellow boy. My Clarence. My perfect spouse.
On the day she found him, Chang wore no mask. Another scavenger in the blue-fingered dawn, he was rummaging for scraps amongst the ravens & the vultures, taking goatnimble steps along the ridge of a landfill deep-nestled in the factory district––when a black-satin BMW glid by, low-rumbling & long. The auto rolled to the end of the empty street, slowed, slowed & then reversed, pulling in gracefully parallel the fenceline, fifty yards away & across from Chang. Window-tint slid down inside the cardoor, & a woman with glasses & silvered hair leaned out, an offering outstretched at the digit-end of her limb.
The woman was Dr. Larissa Type. On her way to Linthicum, she'd happened to glance out the window, catching in her sight this sallow & emaciated only-gull of a child flitting between heaps of gaudy fester. She reeled in her window & held out a half-eaten bagel she'd bought for her breakfast that morning, all lathered with cream-cheese & dusted with salt-garlic. The boy looked at the bagel for a long time.
He looked at her for a long time as vultures wheeled & the ravens, puff-ruffled with their ravenous sense of entitlement, began to babble & click, taking fearless black flutterhops towards the bagel-woman. She withdrew it slightly & slightly, Chang advanced. Then he moved through the ravens. Moved with an uncanny agility, scudding ferine through the garbage & snatching in the space of a blink the bagel from the woman's fingertips.
& she clutched suddenly at air, a smear of cream-cheese slicing across her index. Retreating a few feet away, the boy held fast on the bagel, not eating it. He looked at Larissa & she looked at him, seeing for the first time the crusted cicatrix branching out over his skull like a starfish––where his face should have been but wasn't.
& he knew how she'd seen this, his facelessness, & he waited for her to recoil & drive away, but she remained, motionless, expressionless, then nodded him an encouragement; maybe she was like the ravens. He took a bite & another & another.
Larissa watched the muscles of his jaw, half-exposed to the dawn-blue air, working mechanically to piecemeal the bagel. "Hello," she said, "I'm Larissa. & What is your name?" Her voice toned lowly & slowly, her miniature pocketwatch earrings quivering in their dangle as she spoke, & hinting gold.
He did not answer. But he did not run or back away. The ravens began to clamber over the car, their eyes flashing, their beaks snapping, a rumbled crooning rising through their gizzards.
"All in time, all in due time," continued Larissa, "In any case, I can help you. I run a sanctuary, you see, a place where you won't have to scavenge for your food, where you'll eat three square meals a day." He shrugged.
"It's a place where I can help you."
She spoke to him (or seemed to) as if he were a normal homeless boy, as if he were not disfigured, as if his face were not mere slits for eyes & nostrils & a mouth opening in one amorphous scab, like a rind of barnacles. She seemed like the ravens.
Several hours later, after a luxurious ride in the front-seat of Dr. Type's BMW, Chang sat in her office, well-fed & revolving in leather as she plucked a Chinese opera-mask from her wall-hung collection. It shone glossy & colorful (white&green) in the light glazing through the window; the mouth-hole warped in a mournful glower. She fitted it over his face & turned a hand-mirror on him.
"This will help you," she said, "I promise." & he felt free yet somehow trapped under the porcelain, clasped outside himself within the mirror's bright ring.
Before Dr. Type converted Linthicum to an orphanage for the purposes of her research, (nobody seemed to know for certain how she had acquired the property in the first place) it was a sort of mansion-in-miniature, too small to be luxuriant, to large to be a home. It passed father-to-son in a dash of industrial baronets, flush with oil-money––sudden money––& determined to illustrate their old-world allegiance. This they attempted by furnishing their house on the cheap with Victorian odds-&-ends, & commissioning from some uninspired amateur painter a series of family portraits to legitimize the third-floor corridor.
Now the portraits––poorly rendered in linseed, & separated by gaps where the line was once broken in a time of dire finances, & the family blacksheep sold to pay off encroaching debts––leer glazedly through their affluent fat-rolls at Chang. But they seem to avert their eyes, in deference or in fear, away from Eufemia. At the end of the corridor, just beyond the flat, disappointed grimace of Archie Linthicum (the original patriarch), she stops.
A door, peeling off it's own surf-blue paint to reveal the mahogany underneath, leads to the Blue-Bathroom. Inside a plastic triangle nailed to the wood: a stick figure with a dress ending at its knees.
"In here," says Eufemia, & anticipating his question: "Don't worry, no-one ever uses this bathroom. Except the director, sometimes. But she's in her office." She pushes through the door. Chang follows.
Miss Gigney hobbles hunchbacked, all but lucid, through Linthicum. She pokes about in the storage closets, sleeping chambers, & common areas, her eyes agape, ropes of froth raveling from the corners of her mouth. Nothing in the Green Room—except dusk-light, slanting through the French windows into oblong lakes across the carpet. The Grey Room: also empty.
Steering dazedly the second-floor corridor of the East Wing, Gigney rounds a corner & nearly crushes with her fleshy bulk a pair of children huddled over a game of jacks.
"Children, children! I need your help. The little yellow boy has gone missing," she bellows, jacks crunching into the tiles beneath her swollen feet. She blocks their escape.
"Who? You mean Chang? the freak?" chimes one.
"I hate him anyway. I hope he's never found," adds the other.
"He's so creepy & nasty. I hate him, too," says the first, not wanting to be outdone in his hatred.
"Oh, everyone hates him. He never plays with us. & I wouldn't let him even if he asked," says the second, jeering.
"I heard that someone sliced his face off before they found him," says the first, hauntedly.
"Can you imagine that. Ugh!" squeals the second.
"I've never trusted orientals—shifty types—but Nurse Daum needs me to find... Nurse Daum... but have you seen him?" says Gigney.
"Last I saw, he was in the bunkroom, an inch away from the TV. He never watches what we want to watch."
"Guess what: I've seen him watch the TV when it's off."
"I've seen him stare into one of the mirrors in the bathroom for ages."
"He's obsessed with shiny things, I'm telling you."
They follow at Gigney's heels down the corridor in the direction of the bunkroom.
"I'll bet he's still in there, Miss Gigney. He almost never leaves."
She opens the door & clops into the bunkroom as the children wait in the doorway. The room yawns darkly, only a few splines of light bleeding in under the window drapes & painting dustmotes with egg-yolk. Gigney fumbles around for the switch. In a buzzing progression, the phosphorescents fling by rows their sterile lambency over the bunks & blankets & pillows to reveal Chang & the flash of his new silver god.
He sits on his haunches in the middle of the floor, his left arm outstretched, fingers resting along the edge of a dodecahedral glass plate, keeping it balanced horizontal. A drop of blood oozes from his palm onto the mirror. He polishes it clean with his thumb, turning slowly, offended perhaps by the harsh light. A bored recognition flickers over his face before the mirror steals his attention away again.
"Chang," cries Miss Gigney, "there you are. & to think, Nurse Daum was out of her mind with worry. She'll be relieved when I tell her––what's that, dearie? Wherever did you get it?
"Found it," says Chang.
"Stole it, more like." Though from where I can't fathom. I've never seen that mirror before. Maybe it belongs to Doctor Type? She does have rooms in the orphanage, after all, but I've never seen them from the inside.
Chang offers no response.
How could that jap brat have broken in? "...well, you stay right here, young man. I've got to go find... tell her...I need to... the director will hear about this! Come, children!"
She bustles the other children from the room & fastens the door on her way out, leaving Chang in the slaughtered shadows with his mirror. He waits for their footsteps to recede down the hallway, then stands & drags the heavy reflector along the floorboards, scraping away a layer of fine dust & footprints. He leans it against his bunk & crouches down, allowing his eyes some time to readjust. He checks over his shoulder, instinctively. No one there, of course. Maybe this time. She said this would help me... Would she lie?
He faces the mirror, taking short sawdust-breaths, his heart squirming, & reaches around to the back of his head to unlace the white ribbons that holds his mask in place...
Daum leaps into the taxi, almost, but she maintains her dignity. The driver pushes out a slow plume of cigarette smoke with his tongue, eying her in the rearview.
"Where to, lady?"
"Portwood Bar, out on Favreau. I need a drink..."
"Listen, I'm one of those pensive taxi passengers & you're one of those silent taxi drivers, alright?"
"Rough day. Understood."
The taxi noses forward, heading for the factory district. Smokestacks loom past the windows & Daum closes her eyes. Should have chosen a different bar, imbecile.
"Almost there, lady."
They pull alongside the neon & cinderblock façade of Portwood Bar. Not a classy place. But there's people. There's booze. As she pays the fare, Daum catches a whiff of the driver's smoke & her heart leaps up against her ribcage.
"Thanks, Lady. Have a nice night, hear?"
The taxi rumbles yellow into the black & Daum makes for the entrance. Inside, the bar is noisy, familiar, safe. She deposits herself on a stool & orders the stiffest drink she can think of, guzzles it, & orders another round. A man sits down beside her. A succession of men sit down beside her. She lets them order her drink-after-drink. One man offers her a cigarette. She takes it & guzzles that too. She swoons comfortably, in a near-stupor. Maybe s'time to go home 'n' I'll be able t'sleep now, God knows. She slurs for the bartender to call her a taxi. She asks the man beside her for the rest of his pack. Begrudgingly, but still hopeful, he relinquishes the smokes. She blows him off, & asks the bartender for a light. He slides a matchbook at her. A little matchbook, leaf-green with white phosphorous skulls rattling inside. She holds it in her hand, sliding her thumb in spirals on the cheap-sleek plastic surface. Then she plops it in her pocket & makes for the door.
Outside, it hits her; hits her right in the belly & she knows. She knows just exactly what to do. What must be done. So when the taxi pulls up an another asshole taxi driver leers out from his window & asks her where to she says,
"To Linthicum Orphanage."
"What would you want to go there for," asks the driver, as she sloops into the back & closes the door with a decisive catch & thud.
But Daum doesn't answer. She knows she needs a plan, so she hatches one straightaway, & cracks out the yoke––the meat. Here's what I'll do. I mustn't go all boozy & lose myself the second I go through those doors. I must head right up to the Library & beat the crazy out of Eufemia's head––before she goes & slaughters everyone in the whole goddamn place. Yes. She needs her a beating. Beat it out of her, the succubus...She's got everyone & their mother in her pocket, like little marbles, like bulges in her pocket that's what they are. The director may not see it, distracted as she is; Gigney doesn't see it, that's for damn sure. But all the little children run in circles round her, when she wants them to––when she isn't alone by the fence & whirling the leaves up around her like a dust-devil of parched corpses, laughing & laughing. I've seen it. Out in the courtyard, underneath the yewtree. She takes up a child in her arms, & caught in her pupil, they shrink to the size of a marble––the size of her pupil. & then she tucks it in her pocket to join the other marbles in that hot cavern. But she doesn't get to me. No, no. No, no, no. I'm too smart to fall for her tricks. Not like everyone else around here. I won't be made a stone to roll around. I won't be a little glass planet in the sweat of her palm, before she tosses me to make room for an opal. Gonna beat them out of her. & when I do, she's gonna lose all her marbles. They'll skitter under the cabinets & fall through the floorboards, making their way to the basement. And she'll cry.
"Lady, y'okay? You yammerin' to yourself. What's all this about marbles, anyhow?"
"Whassit matter t'you?" she interrogates. Asshole.
"Just wonderin' if maybe you wouldn't rather go to a hospital, is all I'm wonderin'"
"I've got a really important task ahead of me. You don't even know."
"I would if y'told me..."
"If you muuust know, I'm about t'go exorcise a bitch."
"Lady, the demons be out in force these days. But they're demons in the mind. Demons of the two-minded. I think you need shock therapy. Just sayin,' is all I'm sayin.'"
"You are an asshole. I was right! The moment I saw you pull up & roll down, I knew for certain you were 'n asshole"
"You gotta be, Lady, these days. You gotta be an asshole just to survive."
You know, for 'n asshole, you're pretty smart. We might just be birds of a feather, you & me."
"Since I'll be needin' your fare, let's just pretend we are at that."
"You know what? I'm 'n asshole too. You're right. Gotta be these days.
& at that moment, they pulled up to Linthicum Orphanage. Daum tosses a wad of bills at the driver & jams a cigarette in her mouth.
"Get those marbles back, eh?" he says.
Chang unlaces the mask, letting the ribbons fall white around the stem of his neck, moving his trembling hands around to cup the front of the mask. He breathes heavily. The dodecahedron bores a promise into him from its dim depths, the promise of a faithful reproduction. He screws his eyelids tight. Slowly, tremblingly, Chang draws the face from himself, opens his eyes.
& hovering over his dead-ringer in the room of the mirror: a girl––almost the girl in the room of the room hovering over his own shoulder. For a long moment Chang stares at her, this older girl of blue-greenish aura-tint, of lithe length & delicate lines––this wireframe of animal-magnets melting into a paperskin-mache. She looks like Ella Rocca, but hides nothing. Or seems not to. Deep in the mirror, her gaze seems to wriggle under the starfish-tissue & pass through his facelessness, remaining steadfastly intact (as always), & floundering in the silvered coypond.
"Mirror mirrored on the wall," she chants, "ooze the rarest feature from the sprawl."
He blinks at her, turns from the mirror to face her wispy, almost unreflected form.
"Eufemia?"––she has never spoken to him before. He has only seen her from the corners of his eyes, drifting alone amongst yewleaves in the courtyard. He has wanted her in a way he is too young to understand. But the mask has kept him at bay.
"You are mistaken; I'm not Eufemia at all, though that is what the Doctor labeled me." Her voice washes over him in waves, huskily. "In a way, I am thankful. It is a pretty name, no?"
Her brow darkens in lines. "Pretty & convenient. But not me."
"So who are you, then?" he asks.
"No-one...yet." She has the voice of a mature woman, or an ageless woman maybe; a voice not belonging to the insubstantial 17-year-old body––it seems instead to belong to a dream.
He turns back to the mirror, gaze roving habitually over the barren field of his skull. Its crannies glisten with an intricate delta of tears. He tries to avert his head & hide his facelessness from Eufemia, but the mirror grants her unfettered access to his embarrassment.
"Quite the intaglio," she murmurs, appreciatively perhaps.
"I thought maybe––I thought she was like the ravens," he stammers, but the mask she gave only keeps me in."
"She's more like a vulture, I'm afraid. Circling & circling in tighter & tighter circles as you crawl through the desert. She circles until you dry up & sucks the brain through your eyeless sockets."
"How do you know?"
"I know everyone in this place. Better than they know themselves. I know everyone... everyone, that is, beside myself. That's what I'm trying to figure out: me. But I can only see one side at a time. So who, who is this "Eufemia?" Everyone I write is so obsessed with her. Their eyes roll like marbles in my pouch... but I need more marbles."
Chang's mask lies almost forgotten on the floor. Eufemia points to it.
"I can help you," she says.
"You're not the first to say so."
"I know. But I can help you find your face...if you help me find my marbles."
But Chang has found his face. & Chang wants to help her.
"How," he asks?
"I need to get out of Linthicum. The shrink tries to tell me who I am...but her eyes are too white & too heavy; she misses the mark. So I need I need more eyes––more marbles. There are not enough in Linthicum to fill my pouch."
"I don't have any marbles. I know a couple of boys who..."
"Don't worry about the marbles. You'll help me find them after you have a new face."
"How can you give me a face?"
"Follow me. There's a mirror, a very special mirror hanging on the wall in the Blue-Bathroom, that shows you whatever you want, whenever you want it. Come, I'll show you." She swivels, sways to the door.
Chang cannot bear to question her. So he follows, pulled by her promise.
They flow through a body of no-one, moving unheard, unwatched through the narrow corridors. Chang's ears prick at none of the habitual noises of Linthicum, none of the shrill squalling of voices raised in anger or delight, no commands barked out by Nurse Daum or Miss Hall, the night-shift lady, no patter of secondhand sneakers drumming up & down the stair, not even the scritch of Dr. Type's pen... Silence utterly––except for Eufemia's rhythmic footsteps leading him softly through the apparently empty building.
Nurse Daum slams the taxi door & jogs up to Linthicum's entrance, takes the stairs two at a time.
Keys at the ready, she jabs at the lock, missing a couple times in her drunken pitch & yaw. Headlong through the door & across the lobby tiles as the door swings shut she staggers, & the door shuts, shutting her in perfect dark. A hot cavern. She locks the door behind her. No escape for Eufemia this time. She strikes a match & a draft snatches up the flame. She lights another match & brings it to the cigarette dangling on her lips. A mad red beacon flickers to life, lighting her face, the slow shuddering bubble of its light just enough to find her way up the stairs. She tries to be quiet, but her heavy feet prove less reliable than she is accustomed to, & her steps sound like drums. Or so they seem to Daum.
Reaching the third floor, she follows the mad light down the corridor. But the smolder shares the darkness with a shaft from under & around the director's office door. Dropping ash on the carpet, Daum leans up against the door, peaks through the knobhole...but there's nothing to see in the keyway-frame; except a bucketful of soft light spurting across the wooden wall & the edge of Type's desk. Daum exchanges eye for ear. Nothing but scritching & scratching & paper-scraping. And then a low moan. & a sigh. A shadow lunges on the wall. Daum recoils.
What the fuck is going on in there? She leans in to listen again. How the hell am I gonna beat the marbles out of Eufemia if Type is right next door? But in her drunken mind, the wisdom of this thought leaves no imbrication, as if there were little wires, alive-wires attached to her arms & legs that tweaked & tugged & sparked, twitching her toward the library door. She twists the cold knob in her grip & leans in. Even her cigarette fails in the blackness, burning down to scorch her lips before sputtering, winking out. Daum flicks on a lamp, throwing a muted bulb-beam at the mirror on the wall. Daum lurches among the shelves. No one here. Where is Eufemia? She's gotta be in the director's office. What am I gonna do now? I've gotta stop all this. Nothing for it. Nothing for it. This place is doomed anyway. I've gotta burn it to its foundations. The director's gone too. Gone bonkers. Everyone in this place goes bonkers eventually, Eufemia taking their marbles away.
She fires up another match & holds it to the nearest bookcase. Soon there's a nice little blaze. I better get down to the first floor & fast if I wanna get out of here. She bolts from the room and thunders down the stairs.
Chang's impression on the other side: like swimming into an undersea grotto; scaled with turquoise & blue-lacquered tiles, the floor & walls of the Blue-Bathroom glow dimly under a chandelier hung from the blue ceiling. The stalls are painted blue. Over the sinks, set in a concave niche, three mirrors reflect the room, their perspectives intersecting where Eufemia stands, a seastallion in blue triptych lit beneath the chandelier. She revolves, gazing lovingly, perplexedly at her own reflected form, as light-fragments scattering from the crystal reel off her.
"It's the mirror on the left, she drones abstractedly, "you have to find a place to stand where you can only see yourself in that mirror."
Chang wanders about the room, checking his position in the mirrors.
"I read your backflash," says Eufemia.
"I saw your memory. The one with the vultures. That's the key. That's how I get out of Linthicum. Vultures; how simple."
"You can see my memories?"
"I inherit them."
"How can you inherit a memory?"
"I write it, then read it over again. Sometimes I make a little change."
"I...I don't know what you mean."
"Look at me a moment. I need your marbles. There. Perfect. Goodbye, Chang; I'm so sorry. But you'll forgive me. I know you will."
A hurricane of spasms twitches across his face.
Pockets & eye-sockets bulging with naked marbles, Eufemia shimmies from the window down a drainpipe in shroud of smoke & drops, bare feet thudding lightly on the sloped glass frame of the old greenhouse. She slides into the flowerbeds & makes for the empty lot. Behind her, the Orphanage burns. No-one emerges from the double oak doors. In the morning, the vultures will turn a great wheel over the foundations, descending to fight the firemen for scraps.
Chang, wrapped up in a blackplasic bag, waits for Eufemia on the other side of the chainlink fence. She leaves him there. He has a face now, he has more faces then he could ever want, and she has his marbles––the must lustrous, the most sick; desperate eyes, so bright in their desperation. The rest are cloudy.
But Dr. Larissa Type, the director, she has her diagnosis. She'll never publish again, of course, but Euphemia knows the real pleasure comes in self-discovery. Her journal, ashes by now, contains that pleasure.
& Gigney has her husband, too. She'll never remember why she shouldn't have wanted him back.
Daum has her revenge.
A satisfactory outcome, on the whole: how lovely, how tied-up.
Somewhere a gramophone comes on and scratches off a tune, a slantwise duet between an accordion and a woman bringing herself, slowly, to orgasm. Have you heard the one? It goes like this:
ohh ohh oooooooohhhyes
Anyway, it's not a classic.
On the far side of the vacant lot, a little creek runs through, gurgling to the music. Eufemia folds a paper boat and sets it downstream. She hops in and rides all the way to the sewage treatment plant (not so far from the very spot where Chang met his fateful bagel), and dives into the erotic scum.
William Repass is a recent graduate from Hendrix College, He's been published in A-Minor
Magazine, Counterexample Poetics, Otoliths, Marco Polo Art Magazine, the Southern Literary Festival Anthology, and Aonian.