Authors: Elizabeth Brundage
ALSO BY ELIZABETH BRUNDAGE
A Stranger Like You
Somebody Else’s Daughter
The Doctor’s Wife
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Brundage
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
All things cease to appear / Elizabeth Brundage. — First edition.
pages ; cm
eBook ISBN 9781101875605
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover illustration and design by Mario Hugo
for Joan and Dorothy
…she who burns with youth and knows no fixed lot, is bound In spells of law to one she loathes.
Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Beauty is finite; the sublime is infinite.
Beneath those stars is a universe of gliding monsters.
The Hale Farm
the Hale farm.
Here is the old milking barn, the dark opening that says,
This is the weathervane, the woodpile.
Here is the house, noisy with stories.
It is early. The hawk winds down through the open sky. A thin blue feather turns through the air. The air is cold, bright. The house is silent, the kitchen, the blue velvet couch, the small white teacup.
Always the farm sings for us, its lost families, its soldiers and wives. During the war, when they came with their bayonets, forcing their way in, their muddy boots on the stairs. Patriots. Gangsters. Husbands. Fathers. They slept in the cold beds. They raided the cellar for jars of canned peaches and sugar beets. They made great fires in the field, the flames twisting, snapping up to the heavens. Fires that laughed. Their warm faces glowing and their hands warm in their pockets. They roasted pig and pulled the sweet pink meat from the bone. After, they sucked the fat from their fingers, the taste familiar, strange.
Then there were others—there have been many—who have taken, who have stripped and pillaged. Even the copper pipes, the delft tiles. Whatever they could, they took. Leaving just the walls, the bare floors. The beating heart in the cellar.
We wait. We are patient. We wait for news. We wait to be told. The wind is trying to tell us. The trees shift. It is the end of something; we can sense it. Soon we will know.
February 23, 1979
it was snowing. Half past five in the afternoon. Almost dark. She had just laid out their plates when the dogs started barking.
Her husband set down his fork and knife, none too pleased to have his supper interrupted. What’s that now?
June Pratt pulled aside the curtain and saw their neighbor. He was standing there in the snow, holding the child, her feet bare, neither of them in coats. From the looks of it, the little girl was in her pajamas. It’s George Clare, she said.
What’s he selling?
I wonder. I don’t see a car. They must’ve come on foot.
Awful cold out. You better see what he wants.
She let them in with the cold. He stood before her, holding the child out like an offering.
It’s my wife. She’s—
Momma hurt, the child cried.
June didn’t have children of her own, but she had raised dogs her whole life and saw the same dark knowing in the child’s eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension.
You’d better call the police, she told her husband. Something’s happened to his wife.
Joe pulled off his napkin and went to the phone.
Let’s go find you some socks, she said, and took the child from her father and carried her down the hall to the bedroom where she set her on the bed. Earlier that afternoon, she had laid her freshly laundered socks over the radiator, and she took a pair now and pushed the warm wool over the child’s feet, thinking that if the child were hers she’d love her better.
They were the Clares. They had bought the Hale place that summer, and now winter had come and there were just the two houses on the road and she hadn’t seen them much. Sometimes in the morning she would. Either when he raced past in his little car to the college. Or when the wife took the child out of doors. Sometimes, at night, when June walked the dogs, you could see inside their house. She could see them having supper, the little girl between them at the table, the woman getting up and sitting down and getting up again.
With the snow, it took over a half-hour for the sheriff to arrive. June was vaguely aware, as women often are of men who desire them, that Travis Lawton, who had been her classmate in high school, found her attractive. That was of no consequence now, but you don’t easily forget the people you grew up with, and she made a point of listening carefully to him, and acknowledged his kindness to George, even though there was the possibility, in her own mind at least, that the bad thing that had happened to his wife might have been his own doing.
HE WAS THINKING
the terrible aristocracy that is in Nature.
Because there were things in this world you couldn’t control. And because even now he was thinking of her. Even now, with his wife lying dead in that house.
He could hear Joe Pratt on the phone.
George waited on the green couch, shaking a little. Their house smelled like dogs and he could hear them barking out back in their pens. He wondered how they could stand it. He stared at the wide boards, a funk of mildew coming up from the cellar. He could feel it in the back of his throat. He coughed.
They’re on their way, Pratt said from the kitchen.
Down the hall, June Pratt was talking to his daughter with the sweet tone people use on children and he was grateful for it, so much so that his eyes teared a little. She was known for taking in strays. He’d see her walking the road with the motley pack at her side, a middle-aged woman in a red kerchief, frowning at the ground.
After a while, he couldn’t say how long, a car pulled up.
Here they are now, Pratt said.
It was Travis Lawton who came in. George, he said, but didn’t shake his hand.
Chosen was a small town and they were acquaintances of a sort. He knew Lawton had gone to RPI and had come back out here to be sheriff, and it always struck George that for an educated man he was pretty shallow. But then George wasn’t the best judge of character and, as he was continually reminded by a coterie of concerned individuals, his opinion didn’t amount to much. George and his wife were newcomers. The locals took at least a hundred years to accept the fact that somebody else was living in a house that had, for generations, belonged to a single family whose sob stories were now part of the local mythology. He didn’t know these people and they certainly didn’t know him, but in those few minutes, as he stood there in the Pratts’ living room in his wrinkled khakis and crooked tie, with a distant, watery look in his eyes that could easily be construed as madness, all their suspicions were confirmed.
Let’s go take a look, Lawton said.
They left Franny with the Pratts and went up the road, him and Lawton and Lawton’s undersheriff, Wiley Burke. It was dark now. They walked with grave purpose, a brutal chill under their feet.
The house sat there grinning.
They stood a minute looking up at it and then went in through the screened porch, a clutter of snowshoes and tennis rackets and wayward leaves, to the kitchen door. He showed Lawton the broken glass. They climbed the stairs in their dirty boots. The door to their bedroom was shut; he couldn’t remember shutting it. He guessed that he had.
I can’t go in there, he told the sheriff.
All right. Lawton touched his shoulder in a fatherly way. You stay right here.
Lawton and his partner pushed through the door. Faintly, he heard sirens. Their shrill cries made him weak.
He waited in the hall, trying not to move. Then Lawton came out, bracing himself against the doorjamb. He looked at George warily. That your ax?
George nodded. From the barn.
In Lawton’s unmarked car they drove into town on dark, slippery roads, the chains on the tires grinding through the snow. He sat with his daughter behind the mesh divider. It was a satellite office across from the old railroad depot, set up in a building that might have once been a school. The walls were a soiled yellow, framed out in mahogany trim, and the old iron radiators hissed with heat. A woman from the department brought Franny over to the snack machine and gave her some quarters from a plastic bag and lifted her up to put them in the slot, then put her down again. Now watch, the woman said. She pulled the lever and a package of cookies tumbled out. Go ahead, those are for you.
Franny looked up at George for approval. It’s okay, honey. You can have the cookies.
The woman held open the plastic flap at the bottom of the machine. Go on and reach in there, it don’t bite. Franny reached into the darkness of the machine to retrieve the cookies and smiled, proud of herself.
Lawton crouched down in front of her. Here, let me help you, sweetheart. He took the package and opened it and handed it back to her, and they all watched her fish out a cookie and eat it. Lawton said, I bet those are good.
I bet you’re hungry, too.
She put another cookie in her mouth.
Did you get any breakfast this morning? I had a bowl of cornflakes. What’d you have?
Is that so?
What your momma have for breakfast, Franny?
She looked at Lawton with surprise. Momma sick.