"La Moretta" by Maggie Shipstead, recommended by Chang Rae Lee
Introduction by Chang-rae Lee
I enjoy reading all varieties of short fiction, but often my favorite stories are those that feel like micro-novels, for the deep reach and breadth of their perspective into the characters’ lives, as well as those that take chances with structure or voice and thus freshen the form. Maggie Shipstead’s “La Moretta” is one such story, plus, as the title suggests, it’s a dark tale, the sort which I think gives most people a special delight. I don’t know about you, but I like to squirm and wince as I read short fiction, feel the pinpoint compressions a writer effects as he or she traces a set of flawed and discomfited characters.
In this story, it’s a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in the Carpathian foothills in Romania, circa 1974, who are already going in very different directions. But this isn’t just some ‘closely observed’ presentation of a marriage scuttled before it’s even launched. Shipstead can and does aim higher, for she’s a hugely talented young writer — her debut novel Seating Arrangements is positively Updikeian in its arch, all-knowing vision and beautiful, effortless-seeming prose — and her gifts of empathic imagination are on full display here, offering us a crystalline x-ray into the lives of two people who may have never loved one another and are clearly headed for trouble.
What separates this tale is Shipstead’s use of an ‘interrogation’ as a framing structure for the narrative, which creates a suspenseful, ominous atmosphere that aligns perfectly with the creepy setting of the tale’s startling denouement. And the ‘interrogation’ itself isn’t played straight, either, further complicating our reading of the protagonist’s desire and complicity. “La Moretta” swoops and veers in all kinds of cool directions, unsettling us at every turn.
Author of On Such A Full Sea
When we came back, the people were gone.
Well, they were watching from the windows.
I could see their faces. And an old lady was praying in the road.
And then what happened?
I got out of the car.
I don’t remember.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Where’s the beginning?
Start with the dog.
The dog was a black and white thing, patchy and shaggy as though stitched together from pelts of smaller animals. Bill had been certain it was menacing them, stalking toward Lyla with its head down and its weird, pale eyes fixed on her, and when it came close, he jabbed with his boot and caught it on the haunch, sending it skittering sideways. Once out of range, it hesitated for a moment — tail tucked, milky gaze moving mutinously between Bill’s feet and the pavement — before it turned and trotted away across the square, disappearing down an alley.
“I hope that made you feel big,” said Lyla.
“I was protecting you,” Bill said. “He was getting ready to attack.”
“What a hero,” she said. “He was only looking for food. He came close because I held out my hand. And then you kicked him. You kicked a hungry dog.”
“A feral dog. He could have given you rabies.”
Lyla took a floppy Romanian cigarette from her purse and lit it, squinting. She had announced she would quit smoking after they got back, after she took her RN exam, and she seemed to be trying to cram a lifetime’s worth of cigarettes into these weeks of connubial bliss. “You’re the one who wanted an adventure,” she said.
Since the beginning of their honeymoon, whenever something went wrong she had been eager to remind him. Is this enough of an adventure for you? Aren’t adventures fun? But here they were, in Bucharest, sitting on the edge of a fountain and looking at an elegant, dormered building that could have been in Paris except for the soldiers standing guard in ill-fitting green uniforms. Even the flag flying from the mansard roof looked almost French, except for its yellow middle and its coat of arms with wheat and a red star and an oil drill. They would reach Paris eventually, near the end of the trip, but the thought of the time and travel separating them from the city of lights exhausted Bill. In the near distance, an enormous cement slab apartment block was going up, nursed by three wobbly cranes.
It was July 1974. They had graduated from Boston University, gotten married, and departed directly for Europe. For Christmas, Lyla’s parents had given them a thousand dollars to be spent on a honeymoon, sowing the seeds for months of argument. Bill wanted an adventure, but Lyla, who had already had too many adventures, wanted to relax. She wanted sun and wine. They should spend the whole time in Italy, she said.
“But where’s the thrill?” Bill had asked.
“We could take a side trip,” Lyla said, “and drive over the Alps into Switzerland. That’s exciting.”
“So you’ve already done it,” he accused her, and, reluctantly, she admitted she had. When she was sixteen, she and some friends had driven from Paris to Genoa and taken a ferry to Tangiers.
“Was Froggy there?” he demanded.
“Guillaume was the one with the car.”
Tell me about Guillaume.
He was some French kid. She gave it up to him.
You resented that he took her virginity.
I don’t think that’s so unreasonable.
You resented her for not being a virgin.
No. If I did, it was only a little.
There were others besides Guillaume.
Were you a virgin before Lyla?
If you already know the answers, then why all the questions?
If I already know the answers, then why lie?
Lyla’s father was an Army colonel, recently and bitterly retired, and she had grown up all over the world. Bill was from Worcester. He had been outside the country only twice: once as a teenager to visit his uncle in Toronto and once when he was seven, right after his father left, when his mother had taken him to Bermuda. Of Bermuda, he remembered cars on the wrong side of the road, pink buildings, and his mother losing her temper when he ordered shrimp cocktail and then refused to eat it.
As a compromise, Bill and Lyla spent the first week of their honeymoon in Venice, and then they had rented a car, a stubby white Simca, and driven into Yugoslavia, all the way down to Dubrovnik and back up to Sarajevo and over to Belgrade and into Romania. After Romania, they would carry on to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, skirt East Germany, pass through Munich to France and Switzerland, and fly home from Italy, their marriage tempered by almost two months of very thrifty travel. Driving in Europe made Bill nervous, but even though Lyla was always mentioning that she wouldn’t mind taking a turn, he insisted she be the passenger and enjoy the view. She rode curled into a ball, thin arms folded across her chest and bare feet on the dashboard, her toes leaving little smudges on the windshield and her dress falling back to expose a curve of haunch. From time to time he reached over and sent an investigative finger under the elastic of her underwear, seeking the familiar sticky mysteries, puzzling over his legal possession of them.
The week in Venice seemed to revive Lyla, making her cheerful at dinner and more playful in bed than since before their engagement. She had also admired Dubrovnik with its blue harbor and red-roofed Old Town, but Bill had not cared for the city. The blank stone faces of the medieval walls and the hulking forts with their suspicious-seeming slit windows gave him the creeps.
Why else didn’t you like Dubrovnik?
I didn’t like the food.
We had a fight.
Nothing. It was silly. I’d had too much to drink.
The truth has already been recorded.
All right, I was upset.
You hounded her. You wouldn’t let her sleep.
I guess that’s true.
How did she respond?
She said she was different now, that there was no point in bringing all that up. But eventually she told me everything. I think she wanted to — she didn’t seem too bothered. I already knew some of it, the stuff that wasn’t too seedy. But the rest was worse than I thought. Drugs and men, stupid risks. She had run wild. I wasn’t sure whether to believe her.
How did you respond?
I told her she didn’t seem fresh to me anymore. I told her she seemed used up.
She laughed. She said if she was used up it was because of me.
In the morning, we tried to be sweet with each other again.
East of Belgrade, the Simca’s ignition locked up, and the only solution was for a blacksmith to cut through the steering column with a hacksaw so Bill could hotwire the car every time he needed to start the engine. At the Romanian border, a long line of cars waiting behind them, a guard inspected their passports and then stood and watched, puzzled, fiddling with his rifle, while Bill smiled out the window and tried to look casual as he reached under the steering wheel and twisted two wires together to spark the starter. Lyla had taken a grim satisfaction from his sweaty anxiety.
Bill liked Bucharest less than Dubrovnik. He had been curious about the city since high school, when Nixon visited. On TV he’d seen rows of soldiers in white gloves, crowds lining a grand boulevard, a triumphal arch, Nixon standing in his limo and waving with both arms while Ceaușescu, weak-chinned and beaming, patted him on the back. But the people seemed dour and grudging. Few spoke English. He did not like the roving dogs, nor the food that was mostly ground beef and cabbage, nor the dark, fusty beer, nor the looks of the Stalinist apartments that were sprouting up everywhere. Density in general unnerved him, which was why he had spent only one semester in a dorm at BU before moving to a boarding house in Brookline, where he had met Lyla. She lived in the room directly above his and kept a nursing student’s odd hours, and he had gotten to know her first from the French jazz that seeped through his ceiling and her footsteps in the dark hours of the morning. She asked him up for coffee, a thick, Turkish variety, and he had become intoxicated by the story of her upbringing — the years in Berlin and Bangkok and Paris — and by the exotic trinkets that decorated her room and the rich bitterness of the coffee. He was not surprised at her interest, her first invitation — he was good looking, and girls had invited him for coffee before — but he was surprised when she asked him to stay and took him to bed. Something about him had seemed to disappoint the other girls, snuffing out their flirtatious lights and making them twitchy and distracted, but Lyla’s sharp attention never faltered. She pressed him for details about Worcester: the heavy snows, the thuggish Howard family that had shared a clapboard duplex with Bill and his mother, his brick high school, his failure to make the hockey team. She had a stern, dark, compact beauty that was undiminished by the old peacock-blue robe she favored when at home, the silk tattered under the arms to a loose mesh of threads. She smoked brown cigarettes with gold tips. She drank wine with lunch, but he never saw her drunk.
You fell in love with her.
I thought I did.
What do you mean?
It was all poses, and I fell in love with the poses.
She tricked you?
More like I caught her when she was in the middle of shedding a skin.
Let’s get back to the dog.
What about it?
What happened after you kicked it?
Lyla stood and walked quickly away, taking short, angry drags on her cigarette. Bill could see the soldiers watching her, studying the twitch of her ass under her paisley shirtdress. She was wearing red Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and the clipclop of the wooden heels startled some pigeons into flight. Bare toes in a foreign city seemed decadent to Bill, even dangerous, but she had brushed off his concern, remarking that his hiking boots must be sweltering. She disappeared down the alley where the dog had gone, and he went after her, ignoring the soldiers’ smirks. The alley was narrow and sooty and turned several corners before spitting him out onto the edge of a traffic roundabout. Lyla was standing nearby, watching the cars and buses.
“I don’t see him,” she said.
“Don’t worry about him,” Bill said. “Street dogs are wily. Anyway, there’s no shortage.” He pointed to a grass medallion at the center of the roundabout where one dog was humping another and a third lay sleeping on its side. He took Lyla’s hand. “Why do you love me?” he asked. It was a game they had.
“Because you’re kind to animals.” She fell silent, gazing through the traffic at the island of dogs. In his boots, his ankles prickled with heat. He squeezed her hand, prompting, and she said, “Why do you love me?”
“Because you are always alert to danger. Why do you love me?”
“Because you’re fearless. Why do you love me?”
She turned to face him. The end of the game was signaled by telling a truth. “Because you agree that we should leave here and go out into the country tomorrow,” she said.
They left in the morning, Bill driving and Lyla with the map open across her lap. There wasn’t much traffic, and they passed quickly out of the city and into a countryside of startling colors: electric green pastures, crimson poppies, yellow houses with blue roofs, rust-red lakes thatched with reflected reeds. By noon, they were in the Carpathian foothills, where fir trees and stands of birch edged the fields, and villages were smaller and farther apart. They stopped in one and found gas for the Simca and stuffed peppers for lunch, and then they drove on, up the steepening slopes, occasionally passing gray factories with sinister black smokestacks and spindly water towers, the land inside their barbed-wire boundaries littered with rubble and corrugated pipes.
In Venice, Lyla had bought two carnival masks, one for each of them. The masks were made of thin, flexible leather, smooth on the outside and rough against the face. Bill’s was white with a high forehead, two eyeholes, and a long, tapering beak, like that of a hornbill. It was called medico della peste, Lyla told him: the plague doctor. Lyla’s mask was a simple black oval with round eyes, a straight nose, and no mouth. Moretta, she said the shopkeeper had called it, meaning dark. It was a ladies’ mask, worn on convent visits. Bill’s mask had two green ribbons to tie around the back of the head, but Lyla’s had, on its underside, a black button. The button was held in the wearer’s teeth, necessitating silence.
The Simca passed through a short, unlit tunnel. Lyla crumpled the map against the windshield, turned around in her seat, and, after some rummaging, came up with the plague doctor mask. She tied the ribbons behind her head.
“What are you doing?”
She swung her long white beak toward him. “Don’t you like it?”
He looked at the familiar brown irises staring out of the two lifeless eyeholes. “It gives me the heebie jeebies,” he said.
“What will the Romanians make of it?” The leather snout turned her voice hollow. “Can you imagine some shepherd seeing us go whizzing by, a bird-monster riding shotgun?”
“You should take it off,” Bill said. “We don’t want to call attention to ourselves.”
“Are you afraid? Is it the communists or the vampires?”
“This is basically a police state,” he said, “even if Ceaușescu’s supposed to be friendly. We shouldn’t take unnecessary chances.”
“We’re not spies. They let us over the border even though we looked like Simca thieves. We’re not going to get hauled off to the gulag because I’m wearing a mask. Don’t be so timid.”
“I’m not timid.”
The mask blinked at him defiantly. Then she turned to look out the window and bumped her beak on the glass. Bill snorted. Her mouth, just visible under the mask’s bottom edge, turned up. He put one hand on her knee. “Why do you love me?” he asked.
“I love your devil-may-care attitude. Why do you love me?”
“I love you because you know how to blend in. Why do you love me?”
The beak swung around. The eyes blinked. “I love you because you’re nothing like my father.”
“And I love you because you’re going to take off that mask.”
“No,” she said.
She wouldn’t take it off?
I don’t know. I guess she wanted to push my buttons.
Listen, I already knew the marriage was a mistake.
When did you know?
Before we got married.
Lyla’s father, Colonel McHenry, had retired in a scandal around the time Lyla entered college and retreated to a house on an island in Maine that he bought cheap off his younger brother. Lyla’s mother spent the winter and most of the spring and fall in Florida, where her sisters lived. “Gordon thinks winterizing a house means buying mittens,” she told Bill. “He thinks a bath is sponging off once a week from a pot on the stove. He thinks fun is being blasted to bits by Nor’easters. He thinks companionship is rabbits.”
The rabbits lived in a row of hutches on the leeward side of the house and ate pellets and grasses and made more rabbits until the day came for each to have its neck snapped over a wooden dowel by the Colonel. Bill, on his first visit to the house, had mistaken the creatures for pets until the Colonel corrected him with stern impatience, saying, “I respect these animals, but I have no affection for them. They are a practical measure.”
That visit took place the summer after junior year. Bill had met Lyla’s mother once before, on a spring break trip to Florida, but never the Colonel. In Rockland, before they caught the car ferry, an old man ran a stop sign and hit the side of Bill’s already beat-up Ford, crumpling Lyla’s door so it would not open, and when they finally arrived at the house, she had to crawl over the shift and follow Bill out his side while the Colonel watched. With his beard and curly hair, the Colonel looked more like a lobsterman than an officer, but he had the upright posture and shrewd eyes of someone who considered himself an authority. He shook Bill’s hand without interest, barely looking at him, and Bill understood that already he had been found wanting.
Over cocktails and dinner on the ramshackle deck, the Colonel said little, and afterwards he stayed inside to listen to a discussion of the Watergate hearings on the radio while Bill and Lyla and Lyla’s mother went for a walk. For most of that first night, Bill lay awake, alone on a mattress in a loft over the kitchen, his fingers worrying one of the rabbit blankets that seemed to be everywhere, the leavings of the Colonel’s winter dinners, and thinking that the Colonel had no right to disapprove of him. After all, it was the Colonel who had allowed Lyla to acquire the pet monkey in Bangkok that would eventually bite her and give her a mysterious fever; the Colonel had looked the other way while she and her Paris friends debauched themselves; it was on the Colonel’s watch that Lyla had been defiled by Guillaume.
Lyla had been cagey about the reasons for her father’s early retirement, so Bill had gone to the library and scrolled through miles of microfilm. The Colonel was known to be fearless but also eccentric and unforgiving. In France, Korea, and Vietnam, he had earned a Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars and six Purple Hearts. He had installed a brothel on his base near Nha Trang, claiming he was curbing the spread of VD. He allowed his soldiers to give the black power fist instead of saluting. There were rumors he had personally executed a grunt for raping a young girl but the investigation went nowhere. Then, in a kamikaze act of defiance, he had gone on CBS and criticized an operation overseen by a superior officer in which the official body count of Viet Cong approached 2,000 but only 142 weapons had been captured. If not for his exceptional record, he would have been court martialed.
When the Colonel clanked a coffee pot onto the stove shortly after dawn, Bill awoke with a sense of having been wronged. “Good morning,” he said coldly, looking down at the top of the Colonel’s head.
“Morning,” the Colonel replied, not looking up. “How would you like a swim?”
The house was chilly, and Bill was warm under the fur blanket, but he said, “Sounds great.”
They walked down to the dock, bringing a thermos of coffee and two more rabbit blankets. A thick fog lay over the water, which looked black and oily and unfriendly. “We’ll swim to the buoy,” the Colonel said, stripping off his sweatshirt and walking out on the dock, throwing his arms forward and back to stretch his shoulders. The muscles on his back flattened and bunched.
“What buoy?” Bill called.
“Just keep up.”
The water was colder than Bill had anticipated, frigid enough to make his chest constrict, not so different from the pond water he had fallen into once when the ice broke during a hockey game. He swam a panicky crawl, trying to avoid putting his face in. The Colonel vanished into the mist, and when Bill paused to get his bearings, he discovered the dock, too, had disappeared. He listened for the Colonel’s splashes, but the fog and water played tricks. Following his best guess, he struck off again, trying not to think about the darkness under him, thinking instead about the Colonel.
You thought he’d set you up.
I thought he was making a point.
He baited you into humiliating yourself.
Some kind of macho thing like that.
When he next paused, Bill heard the Colonel calling, but he didn’t respond. He listened and then swam on until his legs became too cold to keep up a strong kick, and his feet started drifting downward, tugged toward the bottom. He cried out, but his voice was barely a croak. He tried again. “Colonel! Colonel McHenry!” No answer. Bill kept jerking his feet up, away from the darkness. He wondered how far he had swum, if he had managed to go past the buoy or if he was still stupidly close to the dock. He thought about the man the Colonel had executed and about the long winters alone on the island, all that time to brood, to weave new, tangled notions of justice. Perhaps the Colonel had brought him out here to fake an accident, to keep him from Lyla.
Then came the Colonel’s voice, and Bill answered, and the Colonel stroked out of the fog. “Keep your panties on,” he said. “You’re fine. Just float on your back.” He grabbed Bill under the armpits and began propelling them backwards. In a minute, a red buoy loomed out of the gray. “Let’s take a break,” the Colonel said, “Grab on.” Bill clutched at a steel cleat. His feet, drifting forward with the current, touched the cold, slimy chain that held the buoy to its cement anchor down below, and he recoiled, bumping his knee on a sharp metal edge. He wondered if he was bleeding, if there were sharks. The Colonel, holding onto a cleat of his own and studying him with dispassion, said, “Have you been watching the hearings?”
“I’ve b-been reading the n-newspaper,” Bill said, teeth chattering, incredulous that the Colonel wanted to talk politics, “Lyla and I read that stuff all year, t-together. It was one of our h-habits.”
“But you haven’t been watching on TV.”
“For God’s sake, why not? “
“We’ve been … b-busy.” Bill did not want to say the scandal terrified him: the naked pettiness, the accelerating doubts, the way the system seemed to be rocking on its foundation. He had been so pleased to vote for Nixon’s reelection — the first time he’d been old enough to vote for a president.
“That’s the one thing I wish I had up here: a TV. Just for now. I’d like to see their faces.” The Colonel leaned his head back, dipping his hair. Beads of saltwater crept through his beard. “It’s interesting,” he said to the fog, “how you can tell yourself all kinds of horseshit and believe it.”
“Denial,” Bill said, trying to be agreeable.
“Not that telling the truth is always an unmitigated good.”
“L-like when you went on the news.”
The Colonel regarded him without expression. “Lyla told you.”
“I looked it up.”
“Since you went to all that trouble, I’ll tell you I thought I was being courageous, but now I suspect I needed a means of escape.” He seemed to mull his own words over for a minute, then, perhaps distracted by the uneven whistling of Bill’s breath through his teeth, said, “You should have told me you weren’t a strong swimmer.”
“I can s-swim. This water is too cold.”
“The water’s over fifty. You should have half an hour no problem. It’s fear that’s getting you.” He dangled casually from the buoy as though enjoying a soak in a hot tub. “Lyla is very difficult,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
“She’s still a child.”
“I can’t stand to watch you shiver anymore. Roll over and I’ll drag you in.”
That was the day Butterfield told the Senate committee about the tape recorders. Bill, whose chill took hours to dissipate, was sitting under two rabbit blankets and drinking a cup of tea beside the radio when the fateful question was asked and answered. Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President? I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir. The Colonel had slammed a hand down on the kitchen table and roared with laughter. “He bugged himself! He’s cut off all retreat! He’s finished!”
That night Bill and Lyla played the game for the first time, although Bill didn’t mean it to be a game. They were walking along a rutted road with a flashlight while the Colonel stayed by the radio and Lyla’s mother carried the remains of their lobster dinner down to the shore for the tide to take.
“Why do you love me?” Bill asked.
“Because you’re such a good swimmer,” Lyla said. “Why do you love me?”
“I’m serious, too. Why do you love me?”
Bill took a deep breath and looked up at the stars. He had never seen such bright stars, sinking specks of light marking the depths overhead. “Because you make me feel like I’m part of a larger world,” he told her. “But, really, why do you love me?”
She laughed. “Because you don’t secretly tape our conversations. Why do you love me?”
“I already told you. Why won’t you be serious?”
“Tell me another reason.”
“I’m only playing. Just one more.”
“All right.” Bill thought for a minute. Then he said, “I love you because you are almost as useful as a dead rabbit.”
“And I love you because you ate lobster shit.”
“What lobster shit?”
“The green stuff.”
“You aren’t supposed to eat that?”
“Some people spread it on toast.”
“Now your dad thinks I’m an even bigger imbecile.”
“He probably thinks you just have a taste for it.”
“Did Guillaume swim to the buoy?”
“Guillaume never came here. Of course.” She was striding more quickly, and Bill hurried to keep up. “Once he and Dad raced up a volcano in Sardinia.”
“I’m not sure they ever told me.” The flashlight veered over the knotty trunks of windblown pines. “You know what I’ve always thought is weird about Nixon?”
“How happy he can look, even with that face. When people are applauding, he’s positively radiant. He’s a sunflower.”
He tugged on her hand to stop her and took the flashlight and turned it off. The sky became even deeper. “Lyla, why do you love me really?”
She was a patch of darkness, faintly contoured. “I love you because you make the world seem smaller,” she said.
That’s when you knew?
Well, that’s when we got engaged.
Lyla refused to take off the mask, and for two hours she and Bill did not speak. Bill gripped the wheel and concentrated on the road, trying to ignore the long-nosed white shape in the corner of his vision. By mid-afternoon the road had deteriorated, often shrinking to one narrow lane, and a half dozen times Bill came around a hairpin turn and was confronted by a rattletrap truck or startled carthorse and had to reverse back down the bend while the Romanian driver followed, gaping at Lyla. Potholes were a constant threat, and in places there was no pavement but only dusty, rocky gray clay. Rounding yet another corner, they saw a stone castle atop a jagged ridgeline, the sharp peaks of its red tile roof rising above the trees.
“I believe the Count is expecting us,” Lyla said.
Bill ignored her. Lyla reached up and untied the mask’s ribbon, and her face, freed from its pale shell, was stern and well-formed as always but also somehow novel, unexpected as a pearl exposed by a shucking knife. The sight of her was such a relief that optimism crept through him. “There’s my girl,” he said. She was beautiful, after all, and he had loved her. He did love her. Maybe he just had cold feet. There was no reason you couldn’t have cold feet even after marrying.
They had come to several junctions during the time when they weren’t speaking, and Lyla had said “Right” or “Left,” and he had followed without question. But now, as the castle disappeared behind them, Bill realized he had no idea where they were. The plan had been to drive through Brasov and then find a village in which to spend the night, but they had never come to Brasov, at least not as far as Bill knew. “So,” he said, reaching over to twine his fingers in her hair, “where are we?”
Lyla shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? You’re the one with the map.”
She shrugged again, pulling her head away from his touch. “I thought we would have an adventure.”
“Lyla, are you saying you got us lost on purpose? Tell me you’re not saying that.”
“It’s not such a big deal, Bill. We haven’t been swallowed by a black hole. We’re still on this earth. We’re not in a hurry. There are roads that will take us from here to anywhere. We’ll just find a village and spend the night, and then we’ll ask which way to Hungary, and then we’ll ask which way to Budapest, and so on.”
“What village? We haven’t seen one in an hour. We’re on the edge of a cliff.”
“We won’t be forever. Just keep driving.”
He stopped in the middle of the road.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not driving until you look at that map and figure out where we are.”
“We are precisely two miles from East Nowhere, Transylvania. Happy? Now drive!”
“Lyla, I am telling you to look at that map.”
Lyla stared at him. Without breaking eye contact, she balled up the map and opened her door.
“Don’t do it,” he warned. “I’m telling you right now, you’ll be sorry.” But she got out of the car, walked to the rocky edge of the road, looked down at the narrow river far below, and chucked the map out into space. “You irresponsible bitch!” he shouted, wrenching open his door. “You stupid little girl!” He rushed at her, crossing the road in a few long strides, and she tensed and twisted away, dropping to a crouch and shielding her face with her hands.
She was afraid of you.
Only in that moment. Not in general.
You accused her of being insensitive to danger, and yet she thought you might push her over the cliff.
She was just reacting on instinct.
You hated her.
No. I was angry with her. I wanted her to be safe. I wanted us to be safe.
We got back in the car.
As Lyla had predicted, the road soon became less precipitous, and within an hour they came to a village in a high valley. Bill, dismayed and relieved to see all the little peaked roofs, did not apologize, and Lyla said nothing. They drove slowly down a muddy lane lined with small houses, mostly wood or plastered brick, braking for the geese and children and dogs who wandered out to stare at them. They saw no evidence of an inn, and the people standing in doorways or driving sheep or shaggy water buffalo along the verge did not seem welcoming. The people looked so much like something out of the Brothers Grimm that Bill wanted to laugh: the men in belted tunics, the women in headscarves and dresses with aprons. Both sexes wore leather boots or else wooly wraps around their shins, tied in place with leather thongs. An old woman, all in black, peered out her front door and scowled. On the outskirts, past a wooden church with a steeple pointed like a witch’s hat, they came to a large house, separated from the road by a long dirt track and surrounded by fields. “Stop,” Lyla said. Clutching her phrase book, she got out of the car and went jogging up the track and disappeared over a rise. Bill waited. A hay wagon passed, so tall and piled so high that when it was gone, wisps of hay dangled from the branches of a tree that overhung the road. When Lyla returned, she was flushed.
“We’ll stay here,” she told him. “It looks like some big old house that’s been collectivized. I talked to the guy who seems to be in charge, and we figured out a price. It’s cheap.”
“Did you see the room?”
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Did they seem friendly?”
“The people in the house!”
“Well, they didn’t seem like murderers or vampires, and that’s good enough for me.”
Bill steered up the track. An old man in a sheepskin jacket and straw hat was waiting. Beckoning for them to follow in the car, he tramped ahead, around the house and down another track to a small outbuilding — a former barn, it looked like — with a crumbling tile roof and two sets of Dutch doors. They parked and got out, and the old man, muttering, opened one of the doors and ushered them in. A faint stable smell persisted, but the room was empty except for a lumpy mattress on the floor, a low table with an unlit lantern on it, and a tusked, grimacing boar’s head mounted on the opposite wall. Light came through the thick glass of a single high window, revealing a delicate tangle of cobwebs in the boar’s open mouth. Still muttering, the old man took a green bottle and a small loaf of bread from the wooly interior of his jacket and set them on the table with a little bow. Then, like some ludicrous bellhop, he took Bill and Lyla back outside and gestured across a hayfield at a distant outhouse.
When he was gone, they sat on the mattress and gazed up at the boar. Its eyes were tiny and scratched, and its bristly hair, full of dust, stood up at odd angles as though caught in a breeze. The skin on its furrowed snout had begun to peel away.
“What is the point of this room?” Bill said. “Why doesn’t someone live in here?”
“Maybe they died,” Lyla said. “Maybe it’s haunted. Maybe it’s a sex room.”
“I’m taking a walk,” Bill said.
Lyla shrugged. “So long.”
He set out across the hayfield. On its far side, men were mowing with scythes. They swung the curved blades into the tall grass, and fat green swathes toppled over. Women followed behind with rakes, spreading the hay out to dry in the sun. Bill and Lyla had passed hundreds of haystacks on the drive, cylindrical at the base and pointed at the top with a pole sticking out the apex, and Bill thought they looked like primitive huts, their doors always turned secretively to the horizon. He paused to watch, soothed by the swish of cutting and the hum of the evening insects. The man nearest to him was young, around his age. His baggy trousers and boots were the same as the others’, but instead of a tunic he wore a blue soccer jersey. Bill wondered if the man was married, and, as he wondered, the other noticed him and returned his stare. Bill didn’t know if he should wave or speak or walk away, but finally the young man frowned and upended his scythe. Pulling a stone from a water-filled holster at his waist, he shook the drops off and began striking the stone against the blade, clanking and scraping. Bill walked on, through more fields, until he came to a long, narrow pond, green with algae and stuck through with stumps. By then it was dusk, and before he made it back to the barn, the sky had bruised to purple-black. In the gloom, he hooked a foot in an animal’s unseen tunnel and fell to his knees, his hands stung by the prickly aftermath of the reaping.
Lyla had lit the lantern. She was sitting on the mattress with the green bottle. He sat down beside her and took a swig. It was a sweet, strong wine, almost like a cordial. “Did you think I was going to push you off that cliff today?”
“I think I did.”
He passed back the bottle. “I would never do that.”
“The perfect crime,” she said. “No witnesses. You could make up some story about me deciding to frolic on the edge of the road — everyone would believe you. Crazy Lyla makes her last bad decision.”
“Why do you love me?” he asked, knowing what the answer would be.
“I don’t think I do,” she said. “I wanted to. I thought a nice American boy would be good for me.” She took a drink. “Why do you love me?”
“I don’t. I did — at first — but I don’t anymore. I haven’t for a while.” As he walked, he had thought about that question, playing a solitaire version of their game, but he had not anticipated the relief that poured through him like an elixir. The unexpected truth came to him that everything would be all right. They had no children, no assets. They could simply part ways like duelers taking an infinite number of paces.
Just like that.
We agreed we would finish out the honeymoon, enjoy the time together, and then we’d go home and get divorced.
And neither of you was offended not to be loved.
I don’t think so. It made things so much easier.
You hated her.
You wished she didn’t exist.
I just had everything wrong.
What did you have wrong?
I was trying to catch up with her past, but I couldn’t even run in the right direction.
Then what happened?
You know what happened.
I went out to take a piss.
He went into the hayfield and the chilly, sweetsmelling air and stood and peed where he was. The stars, as on the night he proposed to Lyla in Maine, were shockingly numerous. The Milky Way cut through the sky at an angle, and he realized that he had always foolishly assumed he was traveling upright through space, as though the galaxy were a wheel and he the axis around which it revolved. But his body was not plumb to the universe; there was no up or down. He might be dangling head first over the sky or rocketing through it sideways — there was no difference. Shaking off the last drops, he felt full of the grandeur of the cosmos, and his penis, as though answering or mocking him, began to stiffen. Some similar spirit must have moved Lyla, because when he went back inside he found her lying naked in the lantern light, her face obscured by the somber black oval of the moretta. The plague doctor mask was beside her on the bed, its white nose curving up, and she picked it up and held it out to him.
Her eyes were steady as he tied on the mask. Looking at her face, he saw a concentric system of nested rings: the pale border of skin between the dark of her hair and the dark of the mask, then the black eyeholes encircling narrow rings of glossy white around narrower bands of brown around inky, expanding pupils. Her nipples, too, were circles within circles, and he wanted to bite them but his long white beak bumped her if he came too close. His eyeholes narrowed his field of vision, reducing her to an oblong picture, something seen through a periscope: the translucent, looming shape of his beak, her immobile, forbidding face, the enticing soft body. The leather caught his eyelashes, dragging on his lids when he blinked. His hands crept into the picture, squeezing her arms and pinching her nipples. If he hurt her, she didn’t let on. He thought about the button between her teeth and wondered if she would be able to hang onto it while she came. Perhaps she would bite it off. Her hand approached, caressed his crooked proboscis, and he was surprised not to feel her touch, as though his nerves might have spread through the leather like mold. Her pubic triangle of coarse black hair spoiled all the circles, but he wanted to look at it and pushed her legs apart, maneuvering his head between them like a camera. When his beak bumped against her, finding a vague cleft, some soft resistance, he realized again that he had been expecting to feel with it, even to smell with it. This charade of anonymity was what she had wanted, he decided, possibly from the moment she bought the masks, and only now that they had deconsecrated their relationship could he give her what she wanted. For once he was confident he was cutting a path untraveled by others.
She did not bite off the button, but her eyes rolled back, giving the moretta a blind, white stare. The plague doctor had slipped down, and Bill’s orgasm was half-suffocated in the snout, half-blinded by the displaced eyeholes, which revealed only her breasts, bordered in black. They lay on their backs under the musty blankets, already full of nostalgia for each other. “Why is it called the plague doctor?” Bill wondered, going a little cross-eyed as he looked at his beak.
“I asked the shopkeeper,” Lyla said, “and it’s something about what the doctors used to wear when they went around to see people with the plague. They’d stuff the nose with spices and dried fruit to purify the air. Of course they were just spreading the plague around. The guy tried to sell me the whole costume. There’s a top hat and a long cloak, and a heavy stick to fight off the infected when they mob you in the street. That’s what he called them: infetti.”
“Macabre,” she said sleepily, rolling onto her side and facing away from him.
Bill inhaled deeply, trying to conjure the scent of spices but smelling nothing at all, not even the hide. He untied the mask and set it carefully on the floor. On the opposite wall, the half-light flattered the boar’s peeling snout and cast a sheen on its dusty, rumpled bristles. Its tusks gleamed; its eyes caught the movements of the flame, creating the illusion that it too was a mask. Bill waited until Lyla’s breathing had settled and snuffed the lantern.
In the morning, they were sweet again. Lyla found the old man and got him to point her down the road in the general direction of Hungary, which turned out to be back the way they had come. Finally Bill felt the way he had hoped he would on his honeymoon, giddy and horny, racing toward a bright future as he accelerated down the road between the village houses, the Simca squeaking on its chassis as it popped over ruts and holes. But then a boy ran into the road, and Bill hit him. The boy rolled up the hood, striking the windshield hard enough to crack it. “Watch out!” Lyla screamed after Bill had already stopped and the boy had rolled back down the hood and fallen off its end.
He lay in the road on his side, his mouth working slowly, a rivulet of blood dribbling from his nose. He looked about ten. People began to creep out from their doors, tentatively, silently, like deer coming into a clearing, but then a woman in a kerchief burst wailing from a house and billowed across its garden, struggling with the gate latch before she freed herself and could run to fall on the boy, clutching him.
Lyla knelt beside her and tried to get her to release the child. “I’m a nurse,” she said. “You have to leave him be. You might hurt him. Don’t shake him. He might have a neck injury. Just leave him!”
The woman’s cries had broken the spell, and now other people gathered closely around, staring down at the boy, shouting and moaning, shaking their fists, menacing Bill, crowding close and buzzing their language into his face.
I’d rather not.
Lyla found her phrase book, and managed to get them to calm down. Eventually we figured out that the nearest ambulance was in the next village, twenty miles away. There was a doctor too. A man said he would go with me, to show the way. Lyla said she would stay and try to help the boy.
Twenty miles took an eternity. The roads were winding and poorly maintained; at one point the car was engulfed by a huge herd of sheep, all marked with slashes of red paint on their backs, and Bill had to sit and wait, inching forward, thinking about the suffering boy and fretting about Lyla, until an ambling shepherd in a nubbly gray fez came and cleared an alley through the wooly, bleating bodies with his crook, walking ahead of the Simca’s bumper like an escort at the head of a motorcade. The villager who had come along was silent. Except when he pointed the way, he kept his hands folded in his lap, the thick, scarred fingers interlaced. In the other village, they found the ambulance — they had to wake up the driver, who was drunk — and they fetched the doctor and started back.
We were gone for almost two hours.
And when you returned?
We came into the village, and the people were gone.
They were watching from the windows. An old lady was praying in the road.
And then what happened?
I got out of the car.
What did you see?
The boy was dead. He was still in the road, covered with a black cloth. The shape of his small body showed through the cloth but was indistinct, like something pulled from an imperfect mold. An old woman knelt beside him, all in black, clutching a rosary and talking to the sky. Bill looked for Lyla but did not see her; he thought she must be in one of the houses, helping to comfort the boy’s mother. The ambulance pulled up behind the Simca and stopped, and the doctor got out with his bag and, wiping his brow, went to the boy’s body. He lifted up the black cloth to look underneath and blew a breath out through his lips, making a put-put-put sound like a faulty engine.
There were faces in the windows of the houses. Bill wanted Lyla to run out from wherever she was so they could jump in the car and race away. He walked down the road looking for her, too nervous to call out, giving the doctor and the shrouded boy and the praying woman a wide berth. The praying woman’s eyes flicked down from the sky, passing over him. He turned, following her gaze, and there in the deep shade in a narrow space between two houses he could see something on the ground, some heap of something. He glanced around, aware of being watched, and then approached the opening, feeling as though he were being led into a trap or a prank. He stepped inside, the splintery wooden walls brushing his shoulders. The thing was on its stomach, facedown in clammy gray mud scored with cloven sheep tracks. He could see it was wearing Lyla’s clothes, but he thought it must be the dead boy, somehow moved or multiplied. The passage was too cramped for him to roll it all the way over, so he tugged at its shoulder, dimly absorbing the long hair matted with blood, pulling the face out of the mud. Lyla’s lips were bloody and torn; her front teeth were broken; her eyes were tiny slits in fat, purple pouches, bulging domes like the eyes of a chameleon. He released her, and she fell heavily into the mud. Dizzy, bumping against the walls, he fled back out into the air. Pale circles watched him from the windows of some houses. Other windows were blank with lace curtains. The woman in black was still praying.
The scene tilted on its axis. The houses and the faces and the stretch of rutted road and the newly mown fields humming with insects all swung up, away from Bill. The village was coming in line with the Milky Way, and the galaxy, spinning like a circular saw, would slice him in half. The ground fell out from under his feet. The day accelerated around him, the sun falling toward the horizon. He was somewhere infinitely spacious and still tight as a straightjacket. He drifted down into the darkening sky, pulling himself along the links of a cold and slimy chain, down to where the oysters grew.
And then what happened?
There’s nothing else.
I wasn’t there anymore. I was here.
You know better than I do.
I only know what you know.
Then that’s the end of it.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Where’s the beginning?
The shrimp cocktail.
The shrimp cocktail?
In Bermuda. With your mother.
That’s not the beginning.
Not the dog.
Who are you?
Here. Bite on this button.
About the Author
Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford. Seating Arrangements, her first novel, won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications including Tin House, VQR, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Short Stories. Her second novel, Astonish Me, comes out in April.
You can read her story, “Angel Lust,” here in Recommended Reading.
About the Guest Editor
Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century,” Lee is professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and a Shinhan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Yonsei University. His new novel, On Such a Full Sea, is available now.