Cleaning House

Yeah, I’m sorry about what happened. You hear that, Maris? I’m sorry.

You know, “I’m sorry” can mean a lot of things. It can mean repentance, or commiseration, a request to repeat something, or just an agreement that things suck. I heard the last one enough times at Granny’s funeral. Though, of course some people just said it like you say “trick or treat,” like it’s part of this ritual and there’s no meaning behind it.

I never really knew Granny, not like you did. Well, she was Alice to you, of course. Or Allie or Al or whatever. She once asked me to call her Al. That was after she’d informed me she was going to call me Eddie. I was like, “No, I’m Lottie,” but I was ten or something and didn’t know Paul Simon from a hole in the wall.

Granny was weird. I guess I don’t have to tell you that, but I’ve gotten the distinct impression that your definition of weird is in another universe than mine. I knew she’d gone weird after Grampa died back in the eighties and she took their retirement savings and migrated to Florida. Before that, to hear my mom and everyone else talk, she was June Cleaver. But afterward she was showing up to holiday dinners with tattoos and piercings, boyfriends and girlfriends. She even brought a very docile afghan hound one time and introduced it as her spirit animal. I’m sure you remember Queen Mab. I thought she was really pretty, but Mom said not to pet her.

Yes, I have concluded that you had a lot to do with her 180. You were basically Granny’s–Alice’s–manic-pixie-dream…something. Which I guess means you’re sort of responsible for the storm-chasing incident that put a chunk of siding through her chest. I never saw it, but my mom used the phrase, “pinned to a wall like a bug in a display case,” and that’s all I needed to be scarred for life.

I’m not blaming you, though. I mean, if she hadn’t met you, she probably would have dried up in the Florida sun and died at seventy-five, but as it is I was trying to figure out what she did to live to a hundred and three.

Man, it was weird going through her house. I volunteered to do it–nobody else in the family wanted to go near the place, but they gave me that list of heirlooms and antiques to find. It was like a treasure hunt, only I wasn’t so interested in finding the family fast-cash as I was in trying to figure out this lady my mom had always tried to keep me away from.

Granny had books on practical special effects, nineteenth-century etiquette, the war on Christmas, the secret alien agenda hidden in the Norse Sagas. She was all over the place–there was even a book of inspirational Nascar stories. And the dinosaur erotica. I don’t know where she got that, but I’m sending sidelong glances in your direction.

Again, not exactly stuff you don’t know. It’s just that everything I found only added more blanks to be filled in. And then there was you.

When you showed up at the door, I thought you were the landlord. I was all ready to tell you I was working as fast as I could and we’d pay for the murals to be painted over–by the way, I never told you I found your signature on the ocean floor one and I thought you did really good work–but then I realized landlords usually don’t come over at three in the afternoon with a bottle of wine. I didn’t know what to say when you asked where Al was. But I suppose all my cardboard boxes tipped you off. I liked the way you asked if she’d “gone downstream,” as though it were just a little thing, to die, just a continuation of something larger. And the way you didn’t say you were sorry. Saying you’re sorry when someone dies means it’s not your wound. But you just put down the wine bottle and put your arms around me like it was our wound, like we both had missing flesh where Al used to be.

And we did. I hadn’t cried at the funeral. The funeral was trick-or-treating. Nobody in Illinois knew Al. They treated her like those nasty little candies in the black and orange wrappers. You don’t even trade those. But for me she was a Reese’s to a kid with a peanut allergy. And to you she was clearly the whole plastic jack-o-lantern.

I don’t know if it was something about you or just the effect of sharing a cry with a stranger, but it felt immediately like there was this bond between us. Though your suggestion that we drink to her memory couldn’t have hurt, either. I don’t doubt your claim about where that wine came from, because it was smoooth. Or maybe you brought brandy? I don’t remember. Not that I remember a whole lot after the second glass, besides asking you if you were a man or a woman. I would never straight-up ask somebody that sober.

But your answer was great. Something about asking what breed of dog this cat was. You said you weren’t purebred or a mutt, you were a tabby. I suppose you’ve had to answer that question a lot. Even so, sometimes I wish I was a tabby. Also, you said something about having lost too many people over the years. Like, you had no family left. I think I said something about how Granny must have felt that way when everyone decided they didn’t like her anymore.

At any rate, we talked about life, the universe, and everything like we were the oldest of pals. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember it was just what I needed and totally amazing and when I woke up with my face on the table at one in the afternoon, I felt like I was the one who’d taken the piece of siding, right through my head. But it was worth it, Maris. Definitely worth it.

I don’t know if I thanked you for helping me with Granny Al’s stuff, though I probably expressed my undying gratitude at least once during our evening bacchanals. Probably around the time I told you I wanted to have your babies. I distinctly remember saying, “Tabby or no, I’m kicking science in the balls until it lets this happen!” Then you picked up that boxing nun thing and screamed, “For science!” and threw it at the Einstein bobble head.

Yeah, that was probably the best week of my life. Also the weirdest. And on the off-chance that I missed it while I was helping you dispose of Al’s wet bar, I’d just like to say thank you. For making the job of sorting through my grandma’s possessions go faster, certainly, but for more than that. Because whatever magic you wove over that widowed housewife, you wove it over me, too. And you opened my eyes to parts of existence I never suspected, though they seem to be slipping downstream fast.

That last night, when you took me to your house for dinner–well, I went in with one view of the world and came out with another. You poured me a cup of tea and started talking about mythology and creatures like yourself. At that point, of course, I still thought you were full of it.

The tea was really good, and this is coming from someone who usually hates tea, but it just gave me this feeling like everything was great. I was sure it had to be illegal, or at least it would be once the government found out about it. Still, as we were sitting there having our high tea, I felt like something was, I don’t know, lurking. Like when you’re home alone at night and you realize how much darkness is outside, and you close all the curtains to keep it out.

Well, maybe that’s just me. I’d say that I’ve said too much, but we passed that point long ago. Like, if there’s a guardrail that represents the border of intimacy, we sent a truck through that sucker. And if that didn’t happen the first night we spent in Granny’s house, it certainly went over the cliff when you proved to me that you weren’t human.

Now, I’m not just talking about when you recounted your “previous lives” and showed me the artifacts you’d saved from each one. Or the fact that your house was a shoreline cave with several rooms that were underwater. I mean, that was pretty cool, but let’s be honest, Maris–I’m talking about the biology lesson.

I know you’ve been familiar with more than one…species of people, I guess, for a long time, but I was pretty shocked when you showed me what the rest of your body looked like. Tabby cat, indeed!

After that, I was ready to look at anything and just shrug. Anything, that is, except the nets in your little tide pool garden.

I don’t know why I stuck my hand in one, but dang–that “something lurking” business I’d had an inkling of before was nothing compared to this. It was like those windows I tried to cover had exploded and the darkness came crashing in and burrowed under my skin like so many tropical parasites. I could hear you laughing, but let me assure you it was not funny. At all.

Obviously I had never touched a soul before, and this was not the way to start. Everything these strangers in the net had ever thought or done, everything they’d rolled up into a little ball in their heart or whatever, just slammed into me like an Intimacy Express truck.

Of course, I was the one who was sticking my hands where they weren’t supposed to be. Only after this lovely experience did you tell me about drowned souls in the water table and how they dissolve in the sea. Yeah, could have used a warning. I’m imagining a big sticker from the surgeon general.

But by that time I was so freaked out, I didn’t even ask you why you were collecting souls in a net (mistake number one). All I wanted was to go back to Al’s house and crawl into my sleeping bag in the middle of a cardboard box fort and stay there until morning.

But when I got to my box fort, I couldn’t sleep. It was like the souls were anti-theft dye packets and they stained me all over. These jumbled memories buzzed in my skin like that time I washed my hands with paint thinner. (Wait, I think that might have been one of the memories. When did I wash my hands with paint thinner?)

It was easily the worst night of my life. There were some shell-shocked veterans in there, lots of murder victims, and at least one person who’d come out the other side of the Holocaust. It was like someone had taken history class and the evening news, put them in a juicer, and waterboarded me with it. I’ll grant there were some good memories there too, but man, it was like trying to hear one person giggling while ten others are screaming. I just kept thinking, why, why would you be collecting this? I also thought I might be going insane. I’m pretty sure we drank absinthe at some point during the week, and that stuff’s supposed to melt your brain.

But when it was light enough that I could come out of my cardboard cave, there was one thing I did know: whatever this was, I had to make it stop. Not letting these souls dissolve in the sea would be absolutely psychopathic cruelty. If there was one thing I had to do before I left Florida, it was to cut them free. Not only for their sakes, but for your sake, because I loved you and could not stand the thought of your being responsible for this. If I could release you from that guilt, then I would. You must understand, Maris, that I only had your interests in mind when I did it. How could I–or probably anybody–meet you, know you as I did, and not love you, not want only good for you?

So, I went to see you again. I’m sure I looked like a wreck. Your concern when you saw me only strengthened my resolve to do whatever I could, to do anything for you. I’m sure you’ve inspired this kind of devotion in plenty of others during the many lifetimes you told me about. But, no one else’s devotion led them to the same place mine did.

You asked me how I was doing after all that had happened the night before (which was hardly anything, really–the things that “happened to me” were just things I’d suddenly remembered that had happened to other people). I think my answer was just a string of cuss words. Then I asked if you could maybe make me some more of that tea we’d had the day before, the one that gave me such a feeling of wellbeing. You agreed that sounded like a good idea, and disappeared into the cave. That’s when I did it.

As soon as you were out of sight, the moment you’d gone around the corner and into the darkness to get the tea, I pulled out the knife I’d taken from Al’s kitchen. And then I went to the little pool and put my hands out to touch the scariest, most horrible thing I’d ever encountered. But I did it. I touched that net of souls again for you — only for love of you.

It was pretty much the same as before. The way being stabbed in the face is pretty much the same as having your leg cut off. A distinct experience, but with an overarching unpleasantness that blots out any differences while it’s happening.

It was difficult to focus on what I was doing after this onslaught, but I managed to cut the net free. And then the second, and the third.

By the time you returned to the mouth of the cave, I think I was lying on the ground. This had been worse than the night before, because I’d touched more souls. So many lives shaped by suffering flooded my nerves, so many images spilled across my mind. There was, again, some small joy in the tangled mess of experiences, but maybe those who drown do so as the capstone to a life more characterized by pain than those who die in other ways.

I know I already said it, but I’m sorry. I regret cutting the net and letting all the souls go. I didn’t know. How could I have known? You hadn’t told me. Maybe you should have, but then again you didn’t know what I was going to do. I like to think you would have told me, eventually.

I don’t know how long it took you to figure you what had happened, because I was really out of it, having flashbacks or whatever you call it when they’re not your own memories. But yeah, when I was finally myself again, inside the cave where you’d dragged me onto that weird French fainting couch–when I saw your face, I knew something was wrong.

You weren’t looking at me. I saw you standing there, with your hands together and your shoulders hunched. Now, that was totally out of line with your nature as I’d come to understand it, but the look on your face was the clincher. For a second I thought you were someone else.

I’m glad you didn’t leave me in the dark and brood about it like some people would. No, you are a paragon of direct and to the point. Just turned around, saw I was awake, and said, “The souls were in the tea.”

Now, that was not at all what I expected you to say. Maybe ask me if I was going to be okay or something, though I’m sure you’re familiar with what touching souls does to people and you knew I wasn’t in any danger. But it did take me a moment to figure out what you meant. Sometimes my wheels turn slowly.

I wanted to ask you how you strained out all the pain and terror, but thought better of it when I realized that not only had you been staying alive by drinking soul tea, but I had just dumped out your supply.

If it had been me, I would have thrown a fit. But I suppose you learn a certain amount of acceptance and zen-like chill when you live for that long. I remembered then what you’d told me the day we met, about having watched so many loved ones slip away, downstream.

Then it felt like I’d always known, like I just hadn’t paid attention. But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. You said that it took a long time to gather enough souls to make the tea–before that, I guess I just thought I’d basically ruined everything in your fridge but that you could go out to the store and replace it. But then you explained about how the souls coming down the river were getting more rare and I realized I hadn’t just left your fridge open and unplugged overnight, I’d done this to the store of food in your zombie apocalypse bunker. The supermarket was picked over, and foraging wasn’t going to turn up much.

It was sweet of you to try and console me that I hadn’t done anything more than speed up the inevitable a few years, that you would’ve run low eventually. But killing anyone is just speeding up the inevitable, so really there’s not much comfort in that. And then there was the little matter of the souls.

Part of me still wants to believe that what you did to them was worse than what I did to you, that being some other class of creature, you couldn’t possibly understand human souls. But the part of me that wants to see you blameless, in the best light possible, believes you.

Because you said that they dissolved either way, only when you made the tea you saved out the happy parts of their memories. I suspect I’m always going to be of two minds about it, but I also think I’m probably going to think twice before so much as touching another body of water.

Then again, I wonder what sort of pain you’ve endured. You can’t always have been the person I met in Al’s house that summer. How many broken hearts, how many lonely hours of grief did you go through before you developed that strange ability to love someone like you loved my grandmother, knowing for certain that you would lose her?

I think I got a glimpse of how you felt, then. I mean, you know I love you, and I knew I was going to lose you. And I think that was the first time I ever really understood how love can be worth the pain. Maybe that means I led a shallow life before I met you, or maybe just a charmed one, devoid of loss.

Since I couldn’t get a straight answer out of you about how long you had (though I did like your “well, I’ve never died before” line of reasoning) I asked if I could help you. If I could get some more souls for you or something. But no, you were all calm and poised when it came to your own demise. It kind of weirded me out and opened up this gulf, like you had all this unobtainable secret wisdom, and I didn’t. But then you smiled, and it was like a bridge. A bridge made out of pearly white…never mind. You seemed near and familiar again. The person I knew.

I felt a little hurt when you told me to go on and finish with Al’s stuff. I wanted to stay if you didn’t have much time left. But then, when you agreed to come with me in the U-Haul back up to Illinois, I felt kind of bad, like I was wasting your limited days. Maybe you needed to be near the sea. I wondered what I’d do if you keeled over in the truck. Take you to a hospital? Watch you dissolve into sea foam and have to pay for ruining the upholstery? Bury your body in the woods like a serial killer?

But I figured I’d deal with that when it happened. Love is worth more than car upholstery, after all.

I thought I’d be all mopey as we cleared the house out, but you made me forget–mostly–what was going to happen. And, I loved the way you sold the landlord on the murals adding to the house’s value.

Looking back, I think knowing the time was limited added something to our little road trip. Not that I would kill you for the sake of emotional intensity if I had it all to do over again, but you know what I mean. I never got the sense that you blamed me for it. You just kind of took it in stride, like, hey, that’s life–or rather, that’s death.

I did love the relatives’ reactions to you, though — like they were confused because they liked you, but they didn’t want to (though of course they liked the family heirloom fast-cash). I swear, you have some kind of magical effect on people. Maybe you get it from the tea, I don’t know. Or maybe from the sea.

Of course, they’re all inextricably linked, now aren’t they? Souls go into the sea or whatever. The world just gets weirder and weirder the longer you look at it. And you’ve had quite the long view.

I could tell, though, that your view was starting to fade when we were driving back to Florida in my car. Something in your eyes, I guess. I thought about getting a motel room because Al’s house was no longer available, and I didn’t want to invite myself into your cave to watch you die. It just…seemed rude.

So, I was glad when you invited me. I tried not to show my relief, but you probably saw it anyway. It’s difficult, you know, to spend time with someone who’s dying. I’m sure you know better how to deal with it, be all suave or whatever. Play it down, and make the other person feel comfortable. You’d make a great hospice nurse. I know this, and I’ve never seen you with a dying person. It’s enough to know how you treat a person who’s having premature grief.

It really helped when you talked about the souls as echoes and how a person could hold onto the echo of someone else. I don’t know how you came to know so much about this stuff, maybe it’s just a perk to being one of your kind. I mean, humans know a lot about calories and sugars. It only makes sense that a people who get their sustenance from…echoes or whatever, would know a thing or two about those.

For a while, our conversation made me forget what we were sitting there waiting for. Your ancient bourbon didn’t hurt, either. I think you may have suspected my motives when I asked you about the actual process of making the tea, but honestly, at that point I was only asking out of curiosity and the knowledge, once I remembered our circumstances, that this was going to be something of a lost art after you were gone.

But, as you explained the process, the thought finally did occur to me. I tried, again, to hide what I was thinking. I listened carefully and stowed the information away for later. But, it wasn’t that long. Sitting around the fire you built, burning some of the things you were never going to need again, I knew it was happening. I don’t know how I knew, but that sort of thing was just what I had come to expect when I was around you.

I wanted to take you in my arms like someone in a movie, but that felt silly all of a sudden, too self-conscious. So I just put my hand over yours. I could see the firelight reflected in your eyes, but as I looked, another light was extinguished.

That was when I took you in my arms. Not for dramatic effect so much as to keep you from falling into the fire. For a long time, I just sat there and held you like some weirdo version of the Pieta. Then my leg fell asleep, and the fire was dying down, so I figured the moment was probably over.

I put some more of your broken furniture on the fire, though the part of your cave that was under the water would just have to content itself with natural decay to clean it. I never did find out what was down there, but a crappy flashlight I found among your earthly possessions seemed to indicate a foosball table and a refrigerator, though what use the latter could possibly be under water must remain yet another mystery of the universe.

When I had stoked the fire up again and collected your tea-making supplies, I got to work. I didn’t know what would happen since you hadn’t drowned, but I figured you were a creature of the sea, so your echo probably belonged in the water. I took you out to the tide pool and laid your body in the brackish water. Then I found the remains of the nets and dragged them through the water to see if I could catch anything.

The feeling came again, like when I’d first encountered the nets. Like someone was there–it was almost as though you had come back to life, and for a moment I stared at your eyes, expecting them to look at me. Then I realized what it must be, and I dragged the nets around the tide pool until something, some change in the feeling of a presence, told me that I’d caught it.

After that I stumbled through the procedure you’d described to me, boiling the inhabited water, adding the powders and straining it through the cloths. I don’t know if I did it right. When I was done, I poured it into one of your teacups, but I didn’t drink it. I just stared at it as it cooled.

I guess I’d been kind of in shock or something up until that point. But then my head began to clear and I bawled like a two-year-old in the supermarket whose mom said to put the Reese’s back. When I’d finished my tantrum of grief, I looked again at the teacup, but drinking it suddenly seemed obscene. So I picked up one of the wine bottles we’d gone through, washed it out and poured the tea in there.

And that’s where it is still. Sealed away on a shelf in my house in Illinois. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it there. I don’t know if I’ll ever drink it. Maybe I’ll pour it in the sea. Or in a river that leads to the sea. That’s where it all leads, after all. Even if you pour the water into the mid-continent dirt, the groundwater washes into lakes, streams, rain…sooner or later, it all goes downstream.