1. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.
Listen, because I’m only going to do this once. You’ll have to get there by way of London. Take the overnight train from Waverly. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.
When you arrive at Kings Cross, go down into the Underground. Get on the Northern line. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.
The Northern line stops at Angel, at London Bridge, at Elephant and Castle, Tooting Broadway. The last marked station is Morden: stay in your seat. Other passengers will remain with you in the car. Speak to no one.
These are some of the unlisted stations you will pass: Howling Green. Duke’s Pit. Sparrowkill. Stay in your seat. Don’t fall asleep.
If you look around the car, you may notice that the other passengers have started to glow. The bulbs on the car dim as the passengers give off more and more light. If you look down you may find that you yourself are casting light into the dark car.
The final stop is Bonehouse.
2. June in Edinburgh in June.
June stole 7 pounds from Rooms Two and Three. That would be trainfare, with some left over for a birthday present for Lily. Room Three was American again, and Americans never knew how much currency they had in the first place. They left pound coins lying upon the dresser. It made her fingers itchy.
She ticked off the morning jobs on her right hand. The wash-room at the end of the hall was clean. Beds were made up, and all the ashtrays were cleared out. Rooms One through Four were done, and Room Five at the top of the house was honeymooners from Dallas. They hadn’t been at breakfast for three days, living on love, she supposed. Why travel from Dallas to Edinburgh merely to have sex? She imagined a great host of Texans, rising on white wings and fanning out across the Atlantic, buoyed up by love. Falling into bed at journey’s end, exhausted by such travel. Nonsense.
She emptied the wastebasket in Room Three, and went thumping down the stairs with the cleaning box in one hand, and the room keys swinging in the other. “Here, ma,” she said, handing the keys and the box over to Lily.
“Right,” Lily said sourly. “Finished up, have you?” Her face was flushed, and her black hair snaked down the back of her neck. Walter was in the kitchen, his elbows plunged into soapy water, singing along with Radio Three as he worked, an opera program.
“Where are you off to?” Lily said, raising her voice. June ducked past her.
“Dunno exactly,” she said. “I’ll be back in time for tea tomorrow. Goodbye, Walter!” she shouted. “Bake Lily a lovely cake.”
3. Arrows of Beauty.
June went to St. Andrews. She thought it would be pleasant to spend a day by the sea. The train was full and she sat next to a fat, freckled woman eating sandwiches, one after the other. June watched her mouth open and close, measuring out the swish and click of the train on the tracks like a metronome.
When the sandwiches were gone, the woman took out a hardcover book. There was a man and a woman on the cover, embracing, his face turned into her shoulder, her hair falling across her face. As if they were ashamed to be caught like this, half-naked before the eyes of strangers. Lily liked that sort of book. The name of the author was Rose Read.
It sounded like a conjuring name, an ingredient in a love spell, a made-up, let’s pretend name. Leaning over the woman’s speckled-egg arm, June looked at the photo on the back. Mile-long curlicued eyelashes, and a plump, secretive smile. Probably the author’s real name was Agnes Frumple; probably those eyelashes weren’t real, either. The woman saw June staring. “It’s called Arrows of Beauty. Quite good,” she said. “All about Helen of Troy, and it’s very well researched.”
“Really,” June said. She spent the next half an hour looking across the aisle, out of the opposite window. There were several Americans on the train, dressed in tourist plaids, their voices flat and bright and bored. June wondered if her honeymooners would come to this someday, traveling not out of love but boredom, shifting restlessly in their narrow seats. Are we there yet? Where are we?
Shortly before the train pulled into Leuchars station, the woman fell asleep. Arrows of Beauty dropped from her slack fingers, and slid down the incline of her lap. June caught it before it hit the floor. She got onto the station platform, the book tucked under her arm.
4. Fine Scents.
The wind tipped and rattled at the tin sides of the St. Andrews bus. It whipped at June’s hair, until she scraped the loose tendrils back to her scalp with a barrette. The golf course came into view, the clipped lawns like squares of green velvet. Behind the golf course was the North Sea, and somewhere over the sea, June supposed, was Norway or Finland. She’d never even been to England. It might be nice to travel: she pictured her mother waving goodbye with a white handkerchief, so long, kid! Just like her father, you know. Goodbye, good riddance.
St. Andrews was three streets wide, marching down to the curved mouth of the harbor. A sea wall ran along the cliffs at the edge of the town, from the broken-backed cathedral to a castle, hollowed out like an old tooth, and green in the middle. Castle and cathedral leaned towards each other, pinching the sea between them. June got off the bus on Market Street.
She bought a box of Black Magic chocolates in the Woolworth’s and then went down an alley cobbled with old stones from the cathedral, worn down to glassy smoothness. Iron railings ran along storefronts, the rails snapped off near the base, and she remembered a school chaperone saying it had been done for the war effort. Taken to be made into cannons and shrapnel and belt buckles, just as the town had harvested stone from the cathedral. Ancient history, scrapped and put to economical uses.
An old-fashioned sign swinging above an open shop door caught her eye. It read “Fine Scents. I.M. Kew, Prop.” Through the window she could see a man behind the counter, smiling anxiously at a well-dressed woman. She was saying something to him that June couldn’t make out, but it was her velvety-rough voice that pulled June into the store.
“. . . don’t know if the rest of the aunties can keep her off him. It’s her hobby, you know, pulling wings off flies. You know how fond of him Minnie and I are, but Di and Prune are absolutely no help, she’ll do the poor boy just like his mother . . .”
The marvelous voice trailed off, and the woman lifted a stopper out of a bottle. “Really, darling, I don’t like it. Sweet and wet as two virgins kissing. It’s not up to your usual standards.”
The man shrugged, still smiling. His fingers drummed on the counter. “I thought you might like a change, is all,” he said. “So my Rose-By-Any-Other-Name, I’ll make you up a standard batch. May I help you, dearie?”
“I was just looking,” June said.
“We don’t have anything here for your sort,” he said, not unkindly. “All custom scents, see.”
“Oh.” She looked at the woman, who was examining her makeup, her long smudgy eyelashes, in a compact. Rhinestones on the compact lid spelled out RR, and June remembered where she had seen the woman’s face. “Excuse me, but don’t you write books?”
The compact snapped shut in the white hand. A wing of yellow, helmeted hair swung forward as the woman turned to June. “Yes,” she said, pink pointed tongue slipping between the small teeth. “Are you the sort that buys my books?”
No, June thought. I’m the sort that steals them. She delved into her sack. “This is for my mother,” she said. “Would you sign it for her?”
“How lovely,” Rose Read said. She signed the book with a fountain pen proffered by the man behind the counter, in a child’s careful looped cursive. “There. Have you got a lover, my dear?”
“That’s none of your business,” June said, grabbing the book back.
“Is it my business, Mr. Kew?” Rose Read said to the shopkeeper. He snickered. She had said his name the way two spies meeting at a party might use made-up names.
“She doesn’t have a lover,” he said. “I’d smell him on her if she did.”
June took a step back, then another, hesitating. The man and woman stared at her blandly. She found the store and the pair of them unnerving. She wanted to flee the store, to get away from them. She wanted to take something from them, to steal something. At that moment, a large family, noisy, redheaded, mother and father, how extravagant! June thought, poured into the shop. They pressed up to the counter, shaking a battered copy of Fodors at Mr. Kew, all speaking at once. June pocketed the unwanted perfume and quickly left the store.
5. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.
It is late morning when you arrive at Bonehouse, but the sky is dark. As you walk, you must push aside the air, like heavy cloth. Your foot stumbles on the mute ground.
You are in a flat place where the sky presses down, and the buildings creep close along the streets, and all the doors stand open. Grass grows on the roofs of the houses; the roofs are packed sod, and the grass raises up tall like hair on a scalp. Follow the others. They are dead and know the way better than you. Speak to no one.
At last you will arrive at a door in an alley, with a dog asleep on the threshold. He has many heads and each head has many teeth, and his teeth are sharp and eager as knives.
6. What was in the bottle.
June sat happy and quiet in the grassy bowl of the castle. Students in their red gowns and tourists in various plaids clambered over the worn and tumbled steps that went over the drawbridge between the squat towers. Outside the castle wall, there were more steps winding down to the rocky beach. She could hear people complaining loudly as they came back up, the wind pushing them backwards. Inside the wall the air was still, the sky arched like a glass lid, shot through with light.
Ravens sleek and round as kettles patrolled the grass. They lifted in lazy circles when the tourists came too close, settling down near June, hissing and croaking. She took the perfume out of her knapsack and turned it in her hands. The bottle was tall and slim and plainly made. The stopper was carved out of a rosy stone and where it plunged into the mouth of the decanter the glass was faceted like the rhinestones on Rose Read’s compact. June took out the stopper.
She touched it to her wrist, then held her wrist up to her nose and sniffed. It smelled sweet and greeny-ripe as an apple. It made her head spin. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again there was someone watching her.
Up in the tilted crown of the lefthand tower, Mr. Kew, Prop. was looking straight down at her. He smiled and winked one eye shut. He cocked his index finger, sighted, and squeezed his fist closed. Pow, he said silently, pulling his lips tight in exaggeration around the word. Then he turned to make his way down the stairs.
June jumped up. If she went out over the drawbridge they would meet at the foot of the stairs. She grabbed up her pack and went in the opposite direction. She stopped at the wall and looked over. A cement bulwark, about five feet below, girdled up the cliffs that the castle sat on; she tossed the pack over and followed it, heels first, holding hard to the crumbling wall.
7. She hears a story about birds.
Down on June’s right was the beach, invisible past the curve of the castle’s bulk, cliffs and marshy land to her left. Waves slapped against the concrete barriers below her. She sat on the ledge, wondering how long she would have to wait before climbing back up to the castle or down to the beach. The wind cut straight through her jersey.
She turned her head, and saw there was a man standing next to her. Her heart slammed into her chest before she saw that it was a boy her own age, seventeen or eighteen, with a white face and blue eyes. His eyebrows met, knitted together above the bridge of his nose.
“Before you climbed down,” he said, “did you happen to notice if there were a lot of birds up there?”
“You mean girls?” June said, sneering at him. His eyes were very blue.
“No, birds. You know, with wings.” He flapped his arms.
“Ravens,” June said. “And maybe some smaller ones, like sparrows.”
He sat down beside her, folding his arms around his knees. “Damn,” he said. “I thought maybe if I waited for a while, they might get bored and leave. They have a very short attention span.”
“You’re hiding from birds?”
“I have a phobia,” he said, and turned bright red. “Like claustrophobia, you know.”
“That’s unfortunate,” June said. “I mean, birds are everywhere.”
“It’s not all birds,” he said. “Or it’s not all the time. Sometimes they bother me, sometimes they don’t. They look at me funny.”
“I’m afraid of mice,” June said. “Once when I was little I put my foot into a shoe and there was a dead mouse inside. I still shake out my shoes before I put them on.”
“When I was five, my mother was killed by a flock of peacocks.” he said, as if it had happened to someone else’s mother, and he had read about it in a newspaper.
“What?” June said.
He sounded embarrassed. “Okay. Um, my mother took me to see the castle at Inverness. She said that my father was a king who lived in a castle. She was always making stories up like that. I don’t remember the castle very well, but afterwards we went for a walk in the garden. There was a flock of peacocks and they were stalking us. They were so big — they seemed really big — as big as I was. My mother stuck me in a cherry tree and told me to yell for help as loudly as I could.”
He took a deep breath. “The tailfeathers sounded like silk dresses brushing against the ground. I remember that. They sounded like women in long silk dresses. I didn’t make a sound. If I made a sound, they might notice me. They crowded my mother up against the curb of a stone fountain, and she was pushing at them with her hands, shooing them, and then she just fell backwards. The fountain only had two inches of water in it. I heard her head crack against the bottom when she fell. It knocked her unconscious and she drowned before anyone came.”
His face was serious and beseeching. She could see the small flutter of pulse against the white flesh — thin as paper — of his jaw.
“That’s horrible,” June said. “Who took care of you?”
“My mother and father weren’t married,” he said. “He already had a wife. My mother didn’t have any family, so my father gave me to his sisters. Aunt Minnie, Aunt Prune, Aunt Di, and Aunt Rose.”
“My father emigrated to Australia when I was two,” June said. “I don’t remember him much. My mother remarried about a year ago.”
“I’ve never seen my father,” the boy said. “Aunt Rose says it would be too dangerous. His wife, Vera, hates me even though she’s never seen me, because I’m her husband’s bastard. She’s a little insane.”
“What’s your name?”
“Humphrey Bogart Stoneking,” he said. “My mother was a big fan. What’s your name?”
“June,” said June.
They were silent for a moment. June rubbed her hands together for comfort. “Are you cold?” asked Humphrey. She nodded and he moved closer and put his arm around her.
“You smell nice,” he said after a moment. He sniffed thoughtfully. “Familiar, sort of.”
“Yeah?” She turned her head and their mouths bumped together, soft and cold.
8. Rose Read on young lovers.
It’s all the fault of that damned perfume, and that mooning, meddling, milky-faced perfumer. He could have had it back and no harm done, if he didn’t love mischief more than his mother. So it might have been my idea — it might have been an accident. Or maybe it was Fate. If I’m still around, so is that tired old hag. Do you think that I have the time to see to every love affair in the world personally?
Those hesitating kisses, the tender fumbles and stumbles and awkward meetings of body parts give me indigestion. Heartburn. Give me two knowledgeable parties who know what is up and what fits where; give me Helen of Troy, fornicating her way across the ancient world, Achilles and Patroclos amusing themselves in a sweaty tent.
A swan, a bull, a shower of gold, something new, something old, something borrowed, something blue. He seduced Sarah Stoneking in an empty movie house, stepped right off of the screen during the matinee and lisped “Shweetheart” at her. She fell into the old goat’s arms. I know, I was there.
9. In which a discovery is made.
The sky stayed clear and pale all night long. When they were cold again, they wrapped themselves in Humphrey’s coat, and leaned back against the wall. June took out the box of chocolates and ate them as Humphrey explored her pack. He pulled out the perfume. “Where’d you get this?”
“I nicked it from a perfume shop off Market Street.”
“I should have known.” He pulled out the book. “Aunt Rose,” he said.
“She’s your aunt?” June said. “I guess I should give it to you to give back.”
He shook his head. “If she didn’t mean for you to have it, you wouldn’t even have thought of taking it. Might as well keep it now. She probably set this whole thing up.”
“How?” June said. “Is she psychic or something?”
“This must be how they’re planning to stop me,” Humphrey said. “They think if I have a girlfriend, I’ll give up on the flying lessons, take up fucking as a new hobby.”
“Right.” June said, affronted. “It was nice to meet you too. I don’t usually go around doing this.”
“Wait,” he said, catching at her pack as she stood up. “I didn’t mean it that way. You’re right. This is a complete coincidence. And I didn’t think that you did.”
He smiled up at her. June sat back down, mollified, stretching her legs out in front of her. “Why are you taking flying lessons?”
“I’ve been saving up for it,” he said. “I went to see a psychologist about a year ago, and he suggested that flying lessons might make me less afraid of birds. Besides, I’ve always wanted to. I used to dream about it. The aunts say it’s a bad idea, but they’re just superstitious. I have my first lesson tomorrow. Today, actually.”
“I think flying would be wonderful,” June said. She was shivering. It was because she was cold. It wasn’t because she was cold. She slipped her hands up inside his shirt. “But I know something just as nice.”
“What?” he said. So she showed him. His mouth was so sweet.
10. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.
As the others step over the dog he doesn’t wake. If you step over him, he will smell live flesh and he will tear you to pieces.
Take this perfume with you and when you come to Bonehouse, dab it behind your ears, at your wrists and elbows, at the back of your knees. Stroke it into the vee of your sex, as you would for a lover. The scent is heavy and rich, like the first cold handful of dirt tossed into the dug grave. It will trick the dog’s nose.
Inside the door, there is no light but the foxfire glow of your own body. The dead flicker like candles around you. They are burning their memories for warmth. They may brush up against you, drawn to what is stronger and hotter and brighter in you. Don’t speak to them.
There are no walls, no roof above you except darkness. There are no doors, only the luminous windows that the dead have become. Unravel the left arm of his sweater and let it fall to the ground.
11. In the All-Night Bakery at dawn.
June and Humphrey went around the corner of the bulwark, down over an outcropping of rocks, slick with gray light, down to the beach. A seagull, perched like a lantern upon the castle wall, watched them go.
They walked down Market Street, the heavy, wet air clinging like ghosts to their hair and skin. The sound of their feet, hollow and sharp, rang like bells on the cobblestones. They came to the All-Night Bakery and June could hear someone singing inside.
Behind the counter there were long rows of white ovens and cooling racks, as tall as June. A woman stood with her strong back to them, sliding trays stacked with half-moon loaves into an oven, like a mother tucking her children into warm sheets.
She was singing to herself, low and deep, and as June watched and listened, the fat loaves, the ovens, the woman and her lullaby threw out light, warmth. The ovens, the loaves, the woman grew brighter and larger and crowded the bakery and June’s senses so that she began to doubt there was room for herself, for the houses and street, the dawn outside to exist. The woman shut the oven door, and June was afraid that presently she would turn around and show June her face, flickering pale and enormous as the moon.
She stumbled back outside. Humphrey followed her, his pockets stuffed with doughnuts and meat pies.
“My Aunt Di,” he said. He handed June a pastry. “Some nights I work here with her.”
He went with her to the station, and wrapped up two greasy bacon pies and gave them to her. She wrote her address and telephone on a corner of the napkin, and then reached into her pocket. She took out the crumpled banknotes, the small, heavy coins. “Here,” she said. “For your flying lesson.”
She dumped them into his cupped hands, and then before she could decide if the blush on his face was one of pleasure or embarrassment, the train was coming into the station. She got on and didn’t look back.
She slept on the train and dreamed about birds.
Home again, and Lily and Walter were finishing the breakfast cleanup. June handed the book and the perfume to her mother. “Happy birthday, Lily.”
“Where were you last night?” Lily said. She held the perfume bottle between her thumb and middle finger as if it were a dead rat.
“With a friend,” June said vaguely, and pretended not to see Lily’s frown. She went up the stairs to the top of the house, to her room in the attic. The honeymooners’ door was shut, but she could hear them as she went past in the hall. It sounded just like pigeons, soft little noises and gasps. She slammed her door shut and went straight to sleep. What did she dream about? More birds? When she woke up, she couldn’t remember, but her hands hurt as if she had been holding on to something.
When she came down again — hands and face washed, hair combed back neat — the cake that Walter had made, square and plain, with a dozen pink candles spelling out Lily’s name, was on the table. Lily was looking at it as if it might explode. June said, “How do you like the perfume?”
“I don’t,” Lily said. She clattered the knives and forks down. “It smells cheap and too sweet. Not subtle at all.”
Walter came up behind Lily and squeezed her around the middle. She pushed at him, but not hard. “I quite liked it,” he said. “Your mother’s been sitting with her feet up in the parlor all day, reading the rubbishy romance you got her. Very subtle, that.”
“Rubbish is right,” Lily said. She blew out the candles with one efficient breath, a tiny smile on her face.
12. The occupant in room five.
Two days later the honeymooners left. When June went into the room, she could smell sex, reeky and insistent. She flung open the windows and stripped the ravaged bed, but the smell lingered in the walls and in the carpet.
In the afternoon, a woman dressed in expensive dark clothing came looking for a room. “It would be for some time,” the woman said. She spoke very carefully, as if she was used to being misunderstood. June, sitting in the parlor, idly leafing through sex advice columns in American magazines left behind by the honeymooners, looked up for a second. She thought the woman in black had an antique look about her, precise and hard, like a face on a cameo.
“We do have a room,” said Lily. “But I don’t know that you’ll want it. We try to be nice here, but you look like you might be accustomed to better.”
The woman sighed. “I am getting a divorce from my husband,” she said. “He has been unfaithful. I don’t want him to find me, so I will stay here where he would not think to look. You were recommended to me.”
“Really?” said Lily, looking pleased. “By who?”
But the woman couldn’t remember. She signed her name, Mrs. Vera Ambrosia, in a thick slant of ink, and produced 40 pounds, and another 40 pounds as a deposit. When June showed her up to Room Five, her nostrils flared, but she said nothing. She had with her one small suitcase, and a covered box. Out of the box she took a birdcage on a collapsible stand. There was nothing in the birdcage but dust.
When June left, she was standing at the window looking out. She was smiling at something.
13. A game of golf.
June tried not to think about Humphrey. It was a silly name anyway. She went out with her friends and she never mentioned his name. They would have laughed at his name. It was probably made up.
She thought of describing how his eyebrows met, in a straight bar across his face. She decided that it should repulse her. It did. And he was a liar too. Not even a good liar.
All the same, she rented old movies, Key Largo and Casablanca, and watched them with Walter and Lily. And sometimes she wondered if he had been telling the truth. Her period came and so she didn’t have to worry about that; she worried anyway, and she began to notice the way that birds watched from telephone lines as she walked past them. She counted them, trying to remember how they added up for joy, how for sorrow.
She asked Walter who said, “Sweetheart, for you they mean joy. You’re a good girl and you deserve to be happy.” He was touching up the red trim around the front door. June sat hunched on the step beside him, swirling the paint around in the canister.
“Didn’t my mother deserve to be happy?” she said sharply.
“Well, she’s got me, hasn’t she?” Walter said, his eyebrows shooting up. He pretended to be wounded. “Oh, I see. Sweetheart, you’ve got to be patient. Plenty of time to fall in love when you’re a bit older.”
“She was my age when she had me!” June said. “And where were you then? And where is he now?” She got up awkwardly and ran inside, past a pair of startled guests, past Lily who stood in the narrow hall and watched her pass, no expression at all on her mother’s face.
That night June had a dream. She stood in her nightgown, an old one that had belonged to her mother, her bare feet resting on cold silky grass. The wind went through the holes in the flannel, curled around her body and fluttered the hem of the nightgown. She tasted salt in her mouth, and saw the white moth-eaten glow of the waves below her, stitching water to the shore. The moon was sharp and thin as if someone had eaten the juicy bit and left the rind.
“Fore!” someone called. She realized she was standing barefoot and nearly naked on the St. Andrews golf course. “Why hello, little thief,” someone said.
June pinched herself, and it hurt just a little, and she didn’t wake up. Rose Read still stood in front of her, dressed all in white: white cashmere sweater; white wool trousers; spotless white leather shoes and gloves. “You look positively frostbitten, darling child,” Rose Read said.
She leaned towards June and pressed her soft, warm mouth against June’s mouth. June opened her mouth to protest, and Rose Read breathed down her throat. It was delicious, like drinking fire. She felt Rose Read’s kiss rushing out towards her ten fingers, her icy feet, pooling somewhere down below her stomach. She felt like a June-shaped bowl brimming over with warmth and radiance.
Rose Read removed her mouth. “There,” she said.
“I want to kiss her too,” said a querulous voice. “It’s my turn, Rosy.”
There were two other women standing on the green. The one who had spoken was tall and gaunt and brittle as sticks, her dark, staring eyes fixing June like two straight pins.
“June, you remember Di, don’t you, Humphrey’s other aunt?” Rose said.
“She was different,” June said, remembering the giantess in the bakery, whose voice had reflected off the walls like light.
“Want a kiss,” Humphrey’s aunt Di said again.
“Don’t mind her,” Rose Read said. “It’s that time of the month. Humphrey’s minding the bakery: it helps her to be outside. Let her kiss your cheek, she won’t hurt you.”
June closed her eyes, lightly brushed her cheek against the old woman’s lips. It was like being kissed by a faint and hungry ghost. Humphrey’s aunt stepped back sighing.
“That’s a good girl,” Rose said. “And this is another aunt, Minnie. Minnie Mousy. You don’t have to kiss her, she’s not much for the things of the flesh, is Mousy Minnie.”
“Hello, June,” the woman said, inclining her head. She looked like the headmistress of June’s comprehensive — so old that Lily had once been her student — who had called June into her office two years ago, when June’s O-level results had come back.
It’s a pity, the headmistress had said, because you seem to have a brain in your head. But if you are determined to make yourself into nothing at all, then I can’t stop you. Your mother was the same sort, smart enough but willful — oh yes, I remember her quite well. It was a pity. It’s always a pity.
“I’m dreaming,” June said.
“It would be a mistake to believe that,” said Rose Read. “An utter failure of the imagination. In any case, while you’re here, you might as well solve a little argument for us. As you can see, here are two golf balls sitting nice and pretty on the green at your feet. And here is the third” — she pointed at the cup — “only we can’t agree which of us it was that put it there.”
The moon went behind a wisp of cloud, but the two golf balls still shone like two white stones. Light spilled out of the cup and beaded on the short blades of grayish grass. “How do I know whose ball that is?” June said. “I didn’t see anything, I wasn’t here until now — I mean — ”
Rose Read cut her off. “It doesn’t really matter whose ball it is, little thief, just whose ball you say it is.”
“But I don’t know!” June protested.
“You people are always so greedy,” Rose Read said. “Very well: say it belongs to Minnie, she can pull a few strings, get you into the university of your choice; Di, well, you saw how much she likes you. Tell me what you want, June.”
June took a deep breath. Suddenly she was afraid that she would wake up before she had a chance to answer. “I want Humphrey,” she said.
“My game, ladies,” Rose Read said, and the moon came out again.
June woke up. The moon was bright and small in the dormer window above her, and she could hear the pigeons’ feet chiming against the leaded glass.
14. The view from the window.
Before Humphrey came to see June, the woman in Room Five had paid for her third week in advance, and June found the perfume she had given her mother in the rubbish bin. She took it up to her room, put a dab on her wrist.
He was sitting on the front steps when she swept the dust out of the door. “I lost your address,” he said.
“Oh?” she said coolly, folding her arms the way Lily did.
“I did,” he said. “But I found it again yesterday.”
His eyebrows didn’t repulse her as much as she had hoped they would. His sweater was blue like his eyes. “You’re lying,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I didn’t come to see you because I thought maybe Aunt Rose tricked you into liking me. I thought maybe you wouldn’t like me anymore. Do you?”
She looked at him. “Maybe,” she said. “How was your flying lesson?”
“I’ve been up in the plane twice. It’s a Piper Cub, just one engine and you can feel the whole sky rushing around you when you’re up there. The last time we went up, Tiny — he’s the instructor — let me take the controls. It was like nothing I’ve ever done before — that is,” he said warily, “it was quite nice. You look lovely, June. Have you missed me too?”
“I suppose,” she said.
“Aunt Di gave me the night off. Will you come for a walk with me?” he said.
They went for a walk. They went to the movies. He bought her popcorn. They came home again when the sky above the streetlights was plush and yellow as the fur of a tiger. “Would you like to come in?” she asked him.
“Yes, please.” But they didn’t go inside yet. They stood on the steps, smiling at each other. June heard a sound, a fluttering and cooing. She looked up and saw a flock of pigeons, crowding on the window ledge two stories above them. Two hands, white and pressed flat with the weight of many rings, lay nestled like doves among the pigeons. Humphrey cried out, crouching and raising his own hands to cover his head.
June pulled him into the cover of the door. She fumbled the key into the lock, and they stumbled inside. “It was just the woman in Room Five,” she said. “She’s a little strange about birds. She puts crumbs on the sill for them. She says they’re her babies.” She rubbed Humphrey’s back. The sweater felt good beneath her hands, furry and warm like a live animal.
“I’m okay now,” he said. “I think the lessons are helping.” He laughed, shuddering in a great breath. “I think you’re helping.”
They kissed and then she took him up the stairs to her room. As they passed the door of Room Five, they could hear the woman crooning and the pigeons answering back.
15. Rose Read on motherhood.
I never had a mother. I remember being born, the salt of that old god’s dying upon my lips, the water bearing me up as I took my first steps. Minnie never had a mother either. Lacking example, we did the best we could with Humphrey. I like to think he grew up a credit to us both.
Prune runs Bonne Hause half the year, and we used to send Humphrey to her in the autumn. It wasn’t the best place for a lively boy. He tried to be good, but he always ended up shattering the nerves of Prune’s wispy convalescents, driving her alcoholics back to the drink, stealing the sweets her spa patients hoard. Raising the dead, in fact, and driving poor, anemic Prune into pale hysterics.
Di’s never had much use for men, but she’s fond of him in her own way.
We read to him a lot. Di’s bakery came out of his favorite book, the one he read to pieces when he was little. All about the boy in the night kitchen, and the airplane . . . it was to be expected that he’d want to learn to fly. They always do. We moved around to keep him safe and far away from Vera, but you can’t keep him away from the sky. If he comes to a bad end, then we kept his feet safely planted on the ground as long as we could.
We tried to teach him to take precautions. Minnie knitted him a beautiful blue sweater and he needn’t be afraid of birds nor goddesses while he keeps that on. We did the best we could.
16. The Skater.
In the morning, it was raining. Humphrey helped June with her chores. Lily said nothing when she met him, only nodded and gave him a mop.
Walter said, “So you’re the boy she’s been pining after,” and laughed when June made a face. They tidied the first four rooms on the second floor, and when June came out of the washroom with the wastebasket, she saw Humphrey standing in front of Room Five, his hand on the doorknob. Watery light from the window at the end of the hall fell sharply on his neck, his head bent towards the door.
“Stop,” June hissed. He turned to her, his face white and strained. “She doesn’t like us to come into her room, she does everything herself.”
“I thought I could hear someone in there,” Humphrey said. “They were saying something.”
June shook her head violently. “She’s gone. She goes to Charlotte Square every day, and sits and feeds the pigeons.”
“But it’s raining,” Humphrey said.
She grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s go somewhere.”
They went to the National Gallery on the Royal Mile. Inside everything was red and gold and marble, kings and queens on the walls frowning down from ornate frames at Humphrey and June, like people peering through windows. Their varied expressions were so lively, so ferocious and joyful and serene by turn, that June felt all the more wet and bedraggled. She felt like a thief sneaking into an abandoned house, only to discover the owners at home, awake, drinking and talking and dancing and laughing.
Humphrey tugged at her hand. They sat down on a bench in front of Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddiston Loch. “This is my favorite painting,” he said.
June looked at the Reverend Walker, all in black like a crow, floating above the gray ice, his cheeks rosy with the cold. “I know why you like it,” she said. “He looks like he’s flying.”
“He looks like he’s happy,” Humphrey said. “Do you remember your father?”
“No,” June said. “I suppose when I look in the mirror. I never knew him. But my mother says — how about you?”
Humphrey said, “I used to make up stories about him. Because of my name — I thought he was American, maybe even a gangster. I used to pretend that he was part of the Mafia, like Capone. Aunt Minnie says I’m not too far off.”
“I know,” June said. “Let’s pick out fathers here. Can I have the Reverend Robert Walker? He looks like Walter. Who do you want?”
They walked through the gallery, June making suggestions, Humphrey vetoing prospective parents. “Definitely not. I do not want Sir Walter Scott,” he said as June paused in front of a portrait. “An aunt who writes historical romances is enough. Besides, we look nothing alike.”
June peered into the next room. “Well,” she said. “You’ll have to go without, then. All this gallery is old gloomy stuff. There’s not one decent dad in the lot of them.”
She turned around. Humphrey stood in front of an enormous painting of a woman and a swan. The swan arched, his wings spread over the supine woman, as large as the boy who stood in front of him.
“Oh,” she said tentatively. “Do birds bother you in paintings too?”
He said “No,” his eyes still fixed on the painting. “It’s all rubbish, anyway. Let’s go.”
17. Bonne Hause.
The summer wore on and the nights were longer and darker. Humphrey came on the train from Leuchars every weekend, and at the beginning of August, they climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat for a picnic supper. Edinburgh was crouched far below them, heaped up like a giant’s bones, the green cloak of grass his bed, the castle his crown.
Ravens stalked the hill, pecking at the grass, but Humphrey ignored them. “Next weekend Tiny says I can make my solo flight,” he said. “If the weather’s good.”
“I wish I could see you,” June said. “but Lily will kill me if I’m not here to help. Things get loopy right before the Festival.” Already, the bed and breakfast was full. Lily had even put a couple from Strasbourg into June’s attic room. June was sleeping on a cot in the kitchen.
“S’all right,” Humphrey said. “I’d probably be even more nervous with you there. I’ll come on the eight o’clock train and meet you in Waverly Station. We’ll celebrate. Go out and see something.”
June nodded and shivered, leaning against him. He said, “Are you cold? Take my sweater. I’ve got something else for you, too.” He pulled a flat oblong package from his pack and gave it to her along with the sweater.
“It’s a book,” June said. “Is it something by your aunt?” She tore off the paper, the wind snatching it from her hands. It was a children’s book, with a picture on the cover of a man with flaming hair, a golden sun behind him. “D’Aulaire’s Greek Mythology?”
He didn’t look at her. “Read it and tell me what you think.”
June flipped through it. “Well, at least it’s got pictures,” she said. It was getting too dark to look at the book properly. The city, the path leading back down the hill, were purpley-dark; the hill they sat on seemed to be about to float away on a black sea. The ravens were moveable blots of inky stain, and the wind lifted and beat with murmurous breath at blades of grass and pinion feathers. She pulled the blue sweater tight around her shoulders.
“What will we do at the end of the summer?” Humphrey asked. He picked up one of her hands, and looked into it, as if he might see the future in the cup of her palm. “Normally I go to Aunt Prune’s for a few weeks. She runs a clinic outside of London called Bonne Hause. For alcoholics and depressed rich people. I help the groundskeepers.”
“Oh,” June said.
“I don’t want to go,” Humphrey said. “That’s the thing. I want to be with you, maybe go to Greece. My father lives there, sometimes. I want to see him, just once I’d like to see him. Would you go with me?”
“Is that why you gave me this?” she said, frowning and holding up the book of mythology. “It’s not exactly a guide book.”
“More like family history,” he said. The ravens muttered and cackled. “Have you ever dreamed you could fly, I mean with wings?” “I’ve never even been in a plane,” June said.
He told her something wonderful.
18. Why I write.
You may very well ask what the goddess of love is doing in St. Andrews, writing trashy romances. Adapting. Some of us have managed better than others, of course. Prune with her clinic and her patented Pomegranate Weight Loss System, good for the health and the spirits. Di has her bakery. Minnie is more or less a recluse — she makes up crossword puzzles and designs knitting patterns, and feuds with prominent Classics scholars via the mail. No one has seen Paul in ages. He can’t stand modern music, he says. He’s living somewhere in Kensington with a nice deaf man.
Zeus and that malevolent birdbrained bitch are still married, can you believe it? As if the world would stop spinning if she admitted that the whole thing was a mistake. It infuriates her to see anyone else having fun, especially her husband. We’ve never gotten on well — she fights with everyone sooner or later, which is why most of us are exiled to this corner of the world. I miss the sun, but never the company.
19. An unkindness of ravens.
June waited at Waverly Station for three and a half hours. The Fringe was in full swing, and performers in beads and feather masks dashed past her, chasing a windblown kite shaped like a wing. They smelled of dust and sweat and beer. They looked at her oddly, she thought, as they ran by. The kite blew towards her again, low on the ground, and she stuck out her foot. The kite lifted over her in a sudden gust of wind.
She rested her head in her hands. Someone nearby laughed, insinuating and hoarse, and she looked up to see one of the kite-chasers standing next to her. He was winding string in his hand, bringing the kite down. Bright eyes gleamed at her like jet buttons, above a yellow papier-mache beak. “What’s the matter, little thief?” the peacock said. “Lose something?”
Another man, in crow-black, sat down on the bench beside her. He said nothing, and his pupils were not round, but elongated and flat like those of an owl. June jumped up and ran. She dodged raucous strangers with glittering eyes, whose clothing had the feel of soft spiky down, whose feet were scaly and knobbed and struck sparks from the pavement. They put out arms to stop her, and their arms were wings, their fingers feathers. She swung wildly at them and ran on. On Queen Street, she lost them in a crowd, but she kept on running anyway.
Lily was sitting in the parlor when she got home. “Humphrey’s Aunt Rose called,” she said without preamble. “There’s been an accident.”
“What?” June said. Her chest heaved up and down. She thought she felt the tickle of feathers in her lungs. She thought she might throw up.
“His plane crashed. A flock of birds flew into the propeller. He died almost instantly.”
“He’s not dead,” June said.
Lily didn’t say anything. Her arms were folded against her body as if she were afraid they might extend, unwanted, towards her daughter. “He was a nice boy,” she said finally.
“I need to go up to my room,” June said. Of course he wasn’t dead: she’d read the book. He’d explained the whole thing to her. When you’re immortal, you don’t die. Half-immortal, she corrected herself. So maybe half-dead, she could live with that.
Lily said, “The woman in Room Five left this afternoon. I haven’t cleaned it yet, but I thought we might move the guests in your room. I’ll help you.”
“No!” June said. “I’ll do it.” She hesitated. “Thanks, Lily.”
“I’ll make up a pot of tea, then,” Lily said, and went into the kitchen. June took the ring of keys from the wall and went up to her room. She took the blue sweater out of the cupboard and put it on. She picked up the bottle of perfume, and then she paused. She bent and thumbed open the suitcase of the Strasbourg honeymooners, reaching down through the folded clothes until her hand closed around a wad of notes. She took them all without counting.
The last two things she took were the two books: D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths and Arrows of Beauty.
She went out of her room without locking it, down the stairs to Room Five. The light didn’t come on when she lowered the switch and things brushed against her, soft and damp. She ran to the drapes and flung them back.
The window swung open and suddenly the room was full of whiteness. At first, blinking hard, she thought that it was snowing inside. Then she saw that the snowflakes were goosedown. Both pillows had been torn open and the duvet was rent down the middle. Feathers dusted the floor, sliding across June’s palm and her cheek. She choked on a feather, spat it out.
As she moved across the room, the feathers clung to her. She felt them attaching themselves to her back, growing into two great wings. “Stop it!” she cried.
She opened the D’Aulaire, flipping past Hera’s mad, triumphant face, to a picture of rosy-cheeked Venus. She pulled the stopper from the perfume bottle and tipped it over on the drawing. She poured out half the bottle on the book and behind her someone sneezed. She turned around.
It was Humphrey’s aunt, Rose Read. She looked almost dowdy — travel-stained and worn, as if she had come a long way. She didn’t look anything like the woman in the picture book. June said, “Where is he?”
Aunt Rose shrugged, brushing feathers off her wrinkled coat. “He’s gone to see his Aunt Prune, I suppose.”
“I want to go to him,” June said. “I know that’s possible.”
“I suppose you had Classics at your comprehensive,” said Aunt Rose, and sneezed delicately, like a cat. “Really, these feathers — ”
“I want you to send me to him.”
“If I sent you there,” Rose said, “you might not come back. Or he might not want to come back. It isn’t my specialty either. If you’re so clever, you’ve figured that out, too.”
“I know you’ve sent people there before, so stop playing games with me!” June said.
“Your mother could tell you what to do when a lover leaves,” Rose Read said in a voice like cream. “So why are you asking my advice?”
“She didn’t go after him!” June shouted. “She had to stay here and look after me, didn’t she?”
Rose Read drew herself up very tall, smoothing her hands down her sides. She looked almost pleased. “Very well,” she said. “Fortunately Hell is a much cheaper trip, much nearer to hand than Australia. Are you ready? Good. So listen, because I’m only going to tell you this once.”
20. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.
“If you don’t let the sweater fall from your hands, if you follow the sleeve until it is only yarn, it will lead you to him. He won’t be as you remember him, he’s been eating his memories to keep warm. He is not asleep, but if you kiss him he’ll wake up. Just like the fairy tales. His lips will be cold at first.
“Say to him, Follow me, and unravel the right arm of the sweater. It will take you to a better place, little thief. If you do it right and don’t look back, then you can steal him out of the Bonehouse.”
June stared instead at the birdcage, gilt and forlorn upon its single hinged leg. Down was caught like smoke in a sieve in the grill of the cage. “What now?” she said. “Do you disappear in a puff of smoke, or wave a wand? Can I just leave?”
“Not through the door,” Rose said. “It’s time you had your flying lessons.” She stepped upon the windowsill, crouching in her coat like a great black wing beneath the weight of the moon. She held out her hand to June. “Come on. Are you afraid?”
June took her hand. “I won’t be afraid,” she said. She climbed up on the sill beside Rose, and pointed her shoes toward the moon, away from the scratch of quills against the walls and ceiling. She didn’t look back, but stepped off the edge of the known world.