In the Valley
Vox ipsa et frigida lingua,
"Ah! miseram Eurydicen," anima fugiente, vocabat;
"Eurydicen," toto referabant flumine ripae.
E'en then his trembling tongue invok'd his bride;
With his last voice, "Eurydice," he cried,
"Eurydice," the rocks and river banks replied.
It was half-past midnight and the radio was out. Fee leaned forward, but kept her eyes on the road. It was flat, featureless and indistinguishable from the cold desert on either side. She was sure it would be easy to get lost out here in this nowhere and bones place. Fee turned the seek knob back and forth, restless as a rosary bead between her fingertips.
Up ahead there was a faint, electric glow and radio settled softly on a rasp-voiced woman. "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey," she moaned, as one with a heart unspeakably broken.
It was a motel, sprawling and ugly and ill-kept. The V was lit up and the NCY. Fee hoped that that was intentional. The woman on the radio sang, "the other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms…" as Fee turned into the gravel parking lot.
There was a rusting white van and an ancient Beretta in the parking lot. Lean, curious figures shifted on the concrete walkway. The manager's office was lit up yellow and shadowed shapes moved inside.
"I think we're here, baby," Fee said, staring into the rearview mirror.
"When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken. So I hung my head and cried."
When Fee was sixteen years old, she almost tried out for the swim team. She had her forty dollars and her physical. She had a black cap for her hair and small goggles that fit into the hollows of her eyes.
She could hold her breath underwater for a very long time and she was fast. Much faster than the other kids at the public pool, who Fee used to race in a quiet, unofficial way. She would match their strides and then leave them in her frothing wake, but she was far too shy to exchange more than one or two mumbled words with them.
Fee stood in the locker room, feet bare on damp floors, and she hesitated. She was wearing her bathing suit underneath her clothes; she could feel it like a slick, secondary skin deep beneath her worn sweater and childish jean skirt. It had made her feel strong, like a secret identity, all the long bus ride there. But it was failing her now, itching her flat chest and bunching between her legs embarrassingly. Around her, girls chattered and flittered, bright flashes of color and pale flesh. Warm, chlorine-smelling steam rose off of them and went to Fee's head.
One, yellow-haired and yellow-eyed, said, "What's wrong with your arm?" as Fee shrugged out of her sweater. Four other girls turned to look and Fee stared down at her own arm in an accusatory sort of way, as though it had betrayed her. "Is it some kind of birthmark or something?" The yellow-eyed girl was not mean or teasing. Fee looked at her understanding eyes and she could not speak.
It was burns on her arms, long and flat and maybe an inch and a half wide each. Some were old, some were new. They extended from the curve of her shoulder to the corner where her elbow began.
Fee pulled her sweater back on, even tugged the sleeves down over her hands. Like Clark Kent putting his glasses back on. When she got home, her mother made her tea and they sat together drinking it at the kitchen table. "I didn't make the team," Fee said, "I wasn't fast enough."
"He's not in there," said the first woman, lounging underneath the sparse yellow light on the cement sidewalk in front of the manager's office. Two bodies moved indistinctly behind her and she was smoking Camel Lights and Fee could smell it. Her mother used to smoke the same, back before she quit.
"The manager?" Fee asked.
The smoking woman grinned. "Yeah." She stepped into the full light and she was older, much older than Fee would have guessed. She was wearing cracked blue heels and black tights. She had on a short green dress that didn't match. Her roots were showing.
"Can you tell me where he is?" Fee asked.
"I could do that," the woman said, still smiling.
"Oh, stop fucking with her," objected one of the others. This one was all in shadows, but Fee thought she could smell her perfume even through the smoke. It smelled like watery jasmine, silky and pretty but foreign.
"Can't you see she's sad?" the jasmine woman continued.
"Sad," echoed the third woman. She was crouched at the edge of the stone overhang, investigating the water and the stones and the garbage collected underneath. Her skirt was too short and it gapped open obscenely, but she did not seem to care. She was very young, fifteen or less.
"People dont come here happy. Not 'here' here, at least. There's more to here than this."
Fee found that she could not look at this girl directly, it made her feel nervous, itchy.
"I'm…I'm just looking for a room," she said, instead addressing herself to the laughing one.
"Sure you are," the woman said. She stepped forward and the red end of her cigarette glowed like night eyes. "But tell me, baby: what's in your trunk?"
Joshua majored in Classics and he used to tell her stories all the time. They would lay in Fee's bed with her flowered sheets and she would rest her head on his chest and when he spoke, the vibrations that his words made were transmitted through his skin and through hers and down, down, down into her bones.
He would stroke her arms, trace and tap her pink scars like they were piano keys.
"Did I ever tell you about Orpheus?" he asked her once.
"He fell off a ladder," Fee said, taking the proffered cigarette from the laughing woman. She lit it with one of the matches from the book she kept in her coat pocket. She'd picked it up at on her first official date with Joshua. There were four matches left; three now.
"There was a broken bulb in one of the light fixtures at his parents' house. They have these high ceilings." Fee hadn't had a cigarette in more than two years. Smoke filled her lungs up, heavy but not unwelcome.
"I found him and it hadn't been long. His nose was bleeding and it was still wet. It was only just minutes. Maybe only one."
The laughing woman looked at her, still laughing in her eyes. Fee's cigarette burned low.
"The window, the window," prompted the little girl, crouching on the ground.
Fee nodded. When she spoke, it was hesitant. Stuttered and muttered like she was a girl again herself. "You know how when…when people aren't around and it's like they don't exist…or…it's like they exist, but they exist only as you imagine them. Like you…draw them from your head into the breathing world. I went in that room and his skin was so warm and no one knew and it was like he wasn't even dead." It was as if suddenly the world had spilt somehow and it was just her, just Fee, who had to decide how it was to go.
"K-I-S-S-I-N-G," the crouched girl sang, not looking at Fee.
"Very fine, but not very special. Love's not so rare," said the jasmine woman. Fee squinted and thought for a moment that she could see something like pale eyes, mostly eclipsed by the dark.
"What about need?" Fee asked, staring at the place where she thought those eyes might be.
"It's going to cost you," the jasmine woman warned.
Fee shrugged her shoulders and flicked her cigarette onto the cold cement. Her pockets were nearly empty anyway.
"I don't understand," Fee said, balancing the point of her chin on the little notch where his ribcage ended. "How did he know where to go?"
"He was…he was privileged by the gods," Joshua laughed. "I don't know. Shit like that happens in myths all the time. The ground opens up or the sky falls. You know, magic stuff."
Fee pressed her nose into the flat plane of his chest until darkness filled up her eyes. "Seems pretty convenient to me," she said, muffled.
"Well, I suppose it makes sense. I mean, if you're looking for death, you can usually find it pretty quick."
Fee lit one of her three precious matches. If she had a microscope, a dusting of black powder, maybe she could have seen Joshua's fingerprints which no doubt remained on the cardboard panel. She touched the match to its fellows, still stuck fast in the paper. And she imagined herself coated in a thin layer, a black veneer of coal dust. She imagined all the fingers, all the hands, white and whorled and resting on her skin like pale tattoos.
She tossed the flaming matchbook down at the women's feet. It hissed and spit angrily. It seemed to burn for a very long time.
There was a long teal countertop, speckled with bright mineral flakes. There was a desk behind the counter and a small pink hump indicating the presence of another body. Fee reached out and tapped the little silver bell next to the ancient push-button cash register.
It was a girl, even younger than the one outside. She was eleven or twelve and she had dark hair in wispy, uneven braids. They crazed across her skull as though they‘d been done by someone with no understanding of either hair or basic aesthetics. Her face was dirty, her shirt had a strawberry on it and it said "Berry Sweet."
"What?" she said, not sounding surprised or curious at all. Her arms had dark, circular bruises around her biceps. As though someone had gotten very angry and just reached out and grabbed….
"I need a room," Fee told her. She rolled her blue eyes.
"We're never full up." She gestured towards a small jumble of plastic on the desk in front of her. They were all old-fashioned metal keys, but instead of the leather and gilt room number tags, someone had attached a series of white plastic ones, like on luggage. Each one was labeled in a child's huge, uncertain hand.
"Does it matter which one?" Fee asked, leaning over the counter and hesitating. The girl snorted and bent back down, fully occupied with something underneath the desk. Fee picked a tag at random. Fourteen, it said. The key was very cold against her skin.
"He got me these for my birthday," the girl said, leading Fee down the pebbled concrete walkway. The skates looked pretty ordinary to Fee, certainly not worth all the girl's fuss. They weren't even rollerblades. They had four orange wheels and yellow laces with white plastic chickens on the ends. The girl was a little unsteady and she weaved imprecisely in front of Fee. The women outside the manager's office passed a cigarette between them and watched the both of them with the same fond, passionless stare.
"I'd be better if it wasn't for all this stupid gravel," the girl informed her in a strident tone, as though Fee had questioned her skill. "Do you know how to skate?" All of the girl's sentences were delivered in such a violent, precise fashion; it was like coming under a machine gun blast.
"No," said Fee, "I never learned." Her mother hadn't seen the purpose and it was too much like dancing either way.
"I'm teaching myself, so it's harder," she said. Fee nodded at this undeniable truth.
As they passed by one room, the thick green curtain flickered from the inside and Fee saw something pale and staring. She might have stopped and investigated further, but just then a particularly large pebble caught the edge of the little girl's right wheel and sent her reeling, awkwardly clumping into Fee.
Fee reached out automatically and steadied her with both hands. She could feel the girl shaking, but her little face was dark with frustration. "Fucking gravel," she spat. Fee righted her silently and took up the child's small, wavering hand in her own.
"Why did you come here?" the girl asked, figure-eighting her legs in and out. Fee had nothing to say to this and soon they had arrived at room fourteen, which was just like all the other rooms. The gilt was peeling off the door and the numbers underneath were rusting dark brown.
Fee opened the door and the little girl spun about clumsily until she was facing Fee and the empty room behind her. In the flickering light above the door, she looked familiar, as though Fee had seen her face somewhere before. Possibly with "Have you seen this child?" written underneath it.
"What's your name?" Fee asked her.
"Snow White," the girl answered, as though she had been waiting for the question.
Fee quirked an eyebrow at her. "Really?"
The girl only smiled before pushing herself off from the wall. She wobbled slightly, but quickly got her footing and began to glide with a weaving, jerking kind of ease. Fee watched her for a long time, chasing through the circles of dull yellow light and through the darkness in between.
"So because Orpheus can play a lyre—"
"He can play the lyre really, really well."
"Because Orpheus can play a lyre really, really well he gets to have his wife back? And the rest of us are just shit out of luck, I suppose?" Fee always put her bras on over her head like a tiny, awkward vest. Joshua would watch and laugh and tell her she was the worst at being a girl. "I poke myself in the eye with mascara, too," Fee told him, laying her face close to his cheeks, fluttering her eyelashes until they prickled at his skin.
"But he didn't get his wife back," Joshua pointed out. Fee waved this away with one hand, making a clicking noise with her tongue. "It's not really how talented he was. It was his love and his sorrow that moved the gods. Orpheus just…said it better."
"Well, then, why don't the gods let everybody have the same chance?"
Joshua smiled at her. His hair was half-crushed, half-spiked from prolonged association with a pillow. "Maybe they do."
Fee wasn't sure if it was morning. She had slept, but the quality of light coming in the window was more or less unchanged. There were no clocks in the room and the TV didn't work. There was a King James Bible in the bedside drawer, but she didn't bother to pick it up. She had it read it before. Many times.
She was standing in front of the cloudy mirror, washing her face, when she realized she couldn't feel her pulse anymore. She pressed two fingers painfully to her neck and remembered turning Joshua over, the slack feel of his throat, the absence.
"Why did you come here?" asked the little girl from Fee's bed. Today her hair was clipped awkwardly in two barrettes and she was wearing a green shirt with April from the Ninja Turtles on it. Fee hadn't heard her come in.
"Get your skates off my bed," Fee ordered. "They're dirty."
"So's the bed." The girl rolled her skates absentmindedly over the dimpled coverlet. "Do you know what people do here?" She did not give Fee time to answer.
"Sex," she said, with all the lascivious drama of a daytime soap opera.
Fee pushed her rollerskated feet off the edge of the bed and sat down beside her, staring at her own bare legs and unpainted toenails.
"Did your mom do that?" the girl asked, reaching out to touch the pink scars, revealed by Fee's tank top. Fee flinched from her touch. Long sleeves in the summertime and twitching when someone brushed her in the elevator, even after all these years, even after Joshua who said her couldn't even imagine he without her marks.
"Yeah," Fee said.
"Wow, you must have been a really bad kid." The girl sounded eager and fascinated. She looked up at Fee expectantly. Her small face, red smears on the corners of her mouth like she'd just eaten a popsicle, created in Fee the kind of uncomplicated terror that occurs rarely outside of childhood. Fear without logic or knowledge to temper it. It would be bad to tell, it would be the worst to tell.
"Don't come in here again," Fee whispered. She laid back on the bed, pulled the papery motel sheet up around her shoulders, around her old wounds.
"But it's not really a love story," Joshua said, scrambling eggs. "It's about sacrifice. We want Orpheus to succeed, but it's hard not wonder if he really deserves to succeed." Green peppers fell lightly from his fingers. They were Fee's favorite. "He didn't lose anything or give anything up." She liked that he always remembered to put them in for her. She liked that he thought of her without thinking at all, that his fingers knew all her wants and little happinesses and performed them effortlessly for her.
"We don't like it when people are just handed things. We like a little suffering and strife in our stories."
It was some kind of storm. Fee could hear it falling down on the roof of the motel. She wondered if the laughing women were out of the downpour. She imagined them soaking wet, cigarettes improbably glowing. But maybe the water could just turn to steam against their skin, maybe it would all evaporate away.
Fee didn't hear the door open or close and she didn't see the girl. She just felt her hand, cold and small, on her bare shoulder. "I don't like the storms," the girl said, as Fee rolled over. Fee closed her eyes tight and counted to fifteen. When she opened her eyes, the girl was still there, wearing a man's T-shirt two sizes too big and carrying a doll so old the face had rubbed off. Fee lifted up the cheap, stiff motel blankets and felt the cold of the room settle on her skin, raising stubborn gooseflesh as slowly the girl climbed in beside her.
For a few minutes, they lay very still with their backs to one another. Fee listened and listened but could not pick out the sound of the little girl's breathing. "Why did your mom put those marks on your arm?" the girl asked finally, almost hesitantly, as if remembering the abrupt way Fee had reacted before. Fee took a long breath. She could feel the burning push of it deep down in her lungs. The surest way of being disappointed was to expect something for nothing. Fee's mother had said that. She knew about some things.
"She said I had…bad things. Sins. Inside of me," Fee told her, her lips pressed close against the scratchy pillow. "We had a fireplace and we had these pokers." Afterwards, her mother would take her into the bathroom and set her on the toilet and look at her, eyes so full of love and sadness. "You know that I have to, don't you, baby girl?" she would say, dabbing Neosporin on her arm so, so delicately. Fee would rather have gotten hit, gotten burned, until there was no part of her left unmarked than watch her mother weep and apply bandages and wipe away the tears that landed on Fee's skin with one trembling finger.
Fee turned over with rustling difficulty. The girl's back was a small white curl in front of her. "Why do you call yourself Snow White?" Fee asked her.
"Because sometimes I get to wake up," the little girl told her and she didn't sound very much like a little girl at all. "Why do you call yourself Fee?"
Fee shrugged into the sheets. "Everyone thought it was short for Fiona anyway. Even Joshua. She said she gave me that name to remind me." The girl turned over until she was facing her, small face half-buried in a green pillowcase.
"Fear-of-God," the girl whispered, her mouth shaping the words with a strange sort of reverence. Like a prayer.
"I had other things to remind me," Fee said.
"I miss my mom." The girl buried her face in the stiff pillow. When she looked up, she was crying. Her face was still dirty. The tears made dark streaks and black puddles on her skin. "Why did you come here?" the girl asked her, one more time.
"Because I couldn't…be anywhere that he's not. I won't get better, I won't forget him. I won't survive. I'm either going to bring him back or go with him, but…I can't go back alone."
The girl searched her face. "Nobody ever comes here for me," she said.
Fee reached out slowly with one arm, touched a hand to the girl's angular shoulder. She realized belatedly that the child was not even a little bit wet. "Sometimes, when I was upset, my mother and I used to pray." The girl was not cold now, and she gave off a sweaty, radiant heat as she struggled closer to Fee. She smelled like dirt and leaves; she smelled like she'd been lying unregarded on some forest floor.
"Did it help?" she asked.
Fee nodded. "Sometimes."
She thought about her mother's fierce, sleepy face and the wild halo of her hair. "Put your problems in God's hands, baby girl. He can carry so much more than you can." She used to press Fee's hands between her own, warm and safe and close.
"I don't remember what my mother looked like." The girl screwed up her face, her eyes got vague. She turned them on Fee, suddenly lamplit, animated. "Maybe she looked like you?"
"Maybe," Fee said, as gently as she was able. The girl moved closer to her at awkward angles, all elbows, all knees.
"I don't know how to pray. You'll have to show me."
Fee smiled at the girl; she grinned uncertainly in return. "Give me your hands," she said.
"Orpheus was a cheat." Fee cut the brown toast into little triangles and with the pointed end, marshaled the eggs around the edge of the plate. "He wanted something for nothing. That's not faith, that's entitlement."
Joshua looked sidelong at her. "Faith?" he asked. He wore the same expression he'd had when he discovered her massive, old-fashioned bible, feathered with note-markers. A picture tucked in the front cover. Her mother on the day Fee was born. A print of poor quality that reduced her mother to a graceful dark line and her own infant self to a white blur.
Fee smiled, hesitant. "There's…there's a thing that my mother used to say. She used to say that faith is what you have left when you don't have anything else. She said it was the engine that drives all things."
"I didn't think you gave a lot of consideration to things your mother said." When Joshua sounded that way, when his voice got that bitter bite, Fee always had the wild urge to spring to her mother's defense. She wasn't wrong about everything. And there was something in that woman, kneeling on the bathroom tiles and weeping over her scarred little girl, that seemed to demand protection. And at the same time, she could not say that Joshua was wrong when he told her, "That woman doesn't deserve anything of yours."
"I can't really help it," she said finally. "Can I?"
The girl was gone when Fee woke up and there was sunlight creeping in through the cracks in the heavy curtains. The drawer on the bedside table was open and the King James Bible was too. There was a note, in narrow, precise handwriting that was totally unlike the scrawl on the key tags. "Cleaned your trunk," it said, "and left something for you in the backseat."
There were two dark smears, like tiny wheel tracks, in the carpet by the door. Fee stood up and opened the curtains. The sun hurt her eyes.
"I've always loved you and made you happy, and nothing else could in between." The woman on the radio had a voice like gravel suspended in honey. Fee turned the radio up as loud as she could. There was something rustling in the backseat.
She put the key in the ignition and reached up, turning the rearview mirror until it reflected only her own mouth. She smiled at herself. The gas pedal felt good underneath her insistent foot and ahead of her, the road vanished into the flat, peerless blue of the sky. It was all up from here.
–Nicole Taylor (from Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture)