The fire starts on its own this time. After a spell of heavy rains, the wild blaze sprouts from the very earth. At first, they try to fight it, she and her sisters. All Hell has the idea to dig up all the ice they have in storage to build themselves a barricade. They manage to unearth a block the size of a small black bear, which, considering the scale of bear sizes, is not particularly large, but before the three sisters can carry it all the way up from the cellar, Catastrophe collapses, whimpering and moaning that she can’t breathe and naturally, Calamity follows suit. The twins crawl the rest of the way up then out the front door, All Hell lingering just long enough to cry out so long to ma and spit at the memory of their father. She wonders, briefly, if the new ice will be good this year.
Outside, neighbors gather to wring their hands and say there’s nothing to be done for an oil fire but to let it burn. The smoke is oceanic. Great waves swallow the sky, pulsing and spreading with a pronounced leisure, more self-assured than the flames. All Hell wonders if anyone else can see him, the dark jinn who rises over the golden flames, fists to the heavens and crying out—why did you summon me? She can feel the warmth of his hands through the fabric of her dress. She is mesmerized by the affair and stands, a fixed statue on the storefront. As true night comes, the townsfolk try to pull her away, offering drinks from cold and sweet to burning stiff and fixed plates from leftovers. Her sisters have to tell them to let her be, just let her mourn her own way in the face of this: the fire that began of its own accord.
She doesn’t know how long she’s been there and how she came to be on her knees when her red-eyed sisters beset her from both sides to say, “We need to get to Pastor Manley’s house. There’s someone wanting to speak to us on the telephone.”
Then, All Hell is there in a stifling warmth; strange hands are thrusting a black lacquered horn to her ear and from it a tinny, distant voice commands, “Stay where you are. Do not speak to anyone.” The faraway voice is laced with a crinkling white sound. She will learn by the time she has a telephone of her own that this is called static. But for now, All Hell imagines a man shouting through a bouquet of white paper carnations. “Do not sign anything,” he says, a very small man; perhaps, who is trapped in a box somewhere.
“Do you need help?” All Hell asks, wondering if her voice will get across to the little man at all, shaking like that.
“Don’t do anything until I am there,” he says. “I will be there by eleven on the hour.” With a tick tick, click, he is gone. So the sisters sit in a row on a perfect peach sofa in Pastor Manley’s sitting room, refusing everything but a clear view of the clock on the mantle, a beautiful clock, delicate and gold-wrought, its innermost workings exposed beneath a bell jar. The mouthpiece of the telephone is still off the hook, resting in All Hell’s lap with its brassy wire coiled like a tail. The golden hands of the beautiful golden clock are so very slow to move, the filigree plumes circling again, then, again, blink after blink, tick, tick, click—but the chime of the hour comes so suddenly. It is startlingly loud.
The sisters rise and bid their thanks to the hired girl who has either just arrived or has been standing watch over them all this time. She is not nearly as fetching as the Manley’s other negro, but this one’s plumpness, large and wet brown eyes, and unobtrusive silence do make her a sort of comforting presence. All Hell reaches out to stroke the hired girl’s hand gently as she passes. The hired girl smiles with closed lips.
“If you could please pass on our gratitude to the Pastor and Missus Manley for their very kind hospitality,” All Hell says, “But we best be going now. We’ve got to meet the man from the telephone, you see.” As the sisters file out of the parlor, Catastrophe, Calamity, and All Hell in order, the youngest glances over her shoulder at the black mouthpiece still resting gingerly on a tasseled cushion.
A cloud crosses the sun and an hour passes. High noon comes with the heavy-footed arrival of a man in a funereal suit. Upon him, the fine fabric looks like chains might on a bull. Beneath his dark hat, he is thrillingly, fantastically more handsome than his voice sounds on the telephone. His is an old-world masculinity, shameless and better suited to guzzling nectar from gleaming goblets and tearing into flesh still pink near the bone, snapping femurs and tibias to slurp at the marrow like—what, exactly—a conquistador. But instead of armament, the man carries only a cherry leather briefcase and reminds All Hell a bit of Pastor Manley in his youth. They have the same royal throat and lifted chin, so nobly jowled, a neat mustache, and such heavy-lidded eyes that resemble his puckered mouth, so that the whole of his face huffs and puffs his constant discontent.
The sisters sit on charred stone that used to be their hearth. When they rise to greet him, the man takes their seat instead, an open-kneed caesar in the ruins of the creamery.
“Warden,” announces the man, extending a still-gloved hand to All Hell first. The black leather is buttery warm to touch. Taking his hand, she bends herself into something that may be a curtsey as she tries to recall something, something about naming the beast. When he retracts his black hand, she is left with a stiff white card in her naked palm. Its gilt lettering reads Standard Oil Company, Nicholas R. Warden, Acquisitions.
“You’re magic,” All Hell says, bringing the card to her lips where his name spans the length of her smile. The paper smells like cigar smoke, cologne, and other very expensive things she can’t quite place in her mind. She wonders if the man will laugh like fox rain against glass. She has heard rich men laugh before.
“I was delayed. I tried to ring again, but the line was busy, and I confess that had me worried,” Warden says to them unblinking. “But let us speak of the fact that you are moneyed now. To an extent, you girls may not comprehend.” He explains, with such patience as if all three sisters are sitting on his knee, that the oil fire will earn them such a fortune, such a sum substantial enough to start their lives anew—in society. He hisses his s’s in a voice that is rather soft in spite of his size, and decidedly unmusical.
All Hell asks, “May we build our creamery again? Perhaps with new machines?”
“What of the things we buried beneath the ground?” chime her sisters.
“Yes,” says All Hell, “Did the rest of the ice survive?”
“There is nothing worth salvaging here,” Warden says of the ash and black sludge of the land around them. “Though I understand you’ve lost not just your livelihood, but your home,” he says, “There’s nothing to worry about now. The Company has agreed to provide lodgings for you until you’re back on your feet.” He pulls his cherry leather suitcase into his lap, its fine grain-work shot through with black veins that spread like vines on mansion walls. His darkly gloved fingers unfasten the brass clasps deftly, revealing a black mouth set with white paper tongues wet with indigo ink, and long teeth capped in ivory, silver, and gold.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Warden says, turning to All Hell and touching two fingers to the brim of his hat. She decides then that she doesn’t need to hear his laugh, not when his eyes are the color of rainclouds. When Warden plucks for her—barely pinching first the silver, then, ivory—at last, a gold-wrought pen, and presses it into All Hell’s hand, the precious metal is electrifying. She’s never before felt such a sensation crawl all over her skin. “Just sign here,” Warden says, in the midst of her gasp.
“The word came into our language twice,” Warden says of his name. “Warden and guardian, they are one and the same you see.” They are driving to the horizon, then, just beyond.
All Hell sits up as straight as she can in spite of the bumpy road and says, “I always thought Turner was a real good name for us on account of all the turning we do with our hands to make ice cream. And, you know, Mr. Warden, I’ve been reading about the newest hand-cranked machines. They say no one will use them old pot freezers no more. Can you imagine? With the new machines, you just turn a great big wheel, like a spindle. They look like spindles in all the illustrations, you know, just like the old spindles from fairy tales. I’d love to turn one of those, not no spindle, mind, but the new machines, that is.” All Hell smiles broadly, all in all, pleased that she has managed to come up with such an appropriate response.
They ride for hours, days, maybe even years in the silence that follows with All Hell’s shoulder almost touching his. Warden rests his eyes, hands folded over his chest while his black hat hangs on his knee. Her sisters have fallen asleep to the steady churn of the wheels. The air within the carriage is warm enough to curl up the tiny hairs that crown their foreheads.
All Hell stays awake to keep dreaming of her machines, her fairytale machines, how smoothly and easily they will turn, turned by her strong and steady turning hand. She is so overcome by her reverie that she exclaims, “We could make two flavors a day! Four if another strongly built individual was there to help me, Mr. Warden! Four, maybe even six flavors a day! Six! Can you imagine?”
Warden shifts his great weight and clears his throat. “What?” he says.
Her sisters stir, too. Before their eyes adjust, All Hell sweeps her pinky over a pale mussed streak in the velvet seat cushion where Warden’s thigh had been and feels a rending in her chest at how warm the fabric is still.
“Where are we headed?” ask her sisters.
“The Cloudland,” Warden says, “You won’t have heard of it, or seen anything like it, of course.”
All Hell believes him as she lifts the blush velvet curtain from the coach window to witness the hands of old gods claw their way through the earth. Thick and gnarled black fingers veined by Spanish moss steeple over a golden slip of winding road—leading them to a lavish wedding cake on a high hill. Its peaks loom stark white amid the blue-green smudges of distant mountains, a pale and perfect wonder defying the rough, unpredictable earth. Warden leans towards the glass himself, his face nearly very close to hers. The spice of his cologne stings her nose. She thinks she might sneeze, but All Hell wills herself to be as fixed as that ancient and massive structure ahead, emitting only a heavily strained squeal through grit teeth.
“You are excited,” Warden says with a pleased hum.
Her reply is lost to a second sneeze, one that escapes her outright with a spray of spittle across the coach window.
“Don’t it look like rain?” says Catastrophe.
“Bless you,” says Calamity giggling.
“Rain,” says All Hell, “Would’ve stopped the fire.” She wipes the glass with her sleeve and says, “I’ve only ever read of the Land of Clouds Heavenly Above, and I’ve most certainly never seen nothing like it with my own two eyes. And I am very, very much excited.” In her periphery, she can see Warden study her with the slightest cant of his head, then, nod his approval.
The Cloudland’s dazzling front is haloed in a rotunda with a stone fountain at the center; silent water spills over chiseled laurels, and an aggressive array of vehicles stand at attention, other immaculate black carriages, and even a horseless machine. The temple-front portico seems miles long, dotted with sun chairs. On a few of them, golden women in frilled and brightly colored swimming costumes sun themselves as if they were hired for decoration.
Warden strides across the courtyard as if expecting to be followed, letting himself into the great double front doors into a marble entryway bustling with servants uniformed in the hotel’s colors: forest green and the kind of gold you sing about, the gold of wheat, the gold paved streets, the gold of prosperity of a nation under God. The air is thick with brassy music and ghostly cigar smoke. Warden makes no explanation, no introduction, wading through the apparitions with a grim entitlement. No one stops for them; it’s only the sisters who are staring. In the conservatory, matrons sit in peacock wicker chairs, gowned in the same color of the sherry they nurse in crystal glasses with impossibly delicate stems. They scowl in the general direction of the smoking room with its double doors thrown open, where, beyond the threshold, the smoke is denser, blue, and wreathing — men in crisp suits just as nice as Warden’s pose there as if for a portrait.
They pass the dining room with a table made to seat hundreds, thousands, and what must surely constitute a throne at the head. Every seat but it is filled by the most beautiful and shining-faced people the sisters have ever seen, but the brightest creature is a finely-limbed girl in a beaded silver gown walking down the miles of polished mahogany in her Oriental silk heels, following a strip of stark white paint along the exact center of the table with a ropewalker’s precision. Mirror images of her pirouette for attention in the sheen of the wood, splintered by the chandelier light. The peacock feathers in the girl’s inky hair sway this way and that as she sings for the adoring crowd. A man who looks old enough to be her grandfather gulps his flute of champagne and lowers his head to the table as she passes, nipping the train of her skirt between his teeth, growling and shaking like some rabid dog. The servants in the shadows are watching her with unblinking wide smiles, positively unfettered by the polishing that will need doing all over again, later in the secret dead of night. Over the currently-slumbering grand fireplace along one wall, distress to the stone indicates a large portrait had once been hung there, now removed.
“That there on the table is the state line,” Warden says. All Hell nods, not quite understanding. Her sisters aren’t even listening, rubbing their longing bellies in slow circles. They have never smelled supper so good, but Warden keeps them moving, following a winding hall to an arched door, to a broad stone stair that servant children play on. Warden kicks away their tops and jacks as he leads them down into the darkness.
They soon emerge into a large gray-lit space smelling faintly of vinegar. It takes All Hell some time to recognize the enormous catacomb as a kitchen. The great cobbled underworld has been entirely modernized, with rows of industrial stoves, iceboxes, preparation tables, and ceiling and wall racks of culinary implements. The dusty wine casks that line its entryway are aged and fine, but not half so much as those in the cavernous cellar below them still.
How utterly foreign to walk into a place like this and help yourself, but that's exactly what Warden does, reaching into one of the cabinets and pulling out a jar of black olives as if he knew just where to find it. He, with his broad black back, leans against a butcher’s block, unscrews the jar and plucks a black bloom from the brine with his traveling gloves still on. All Hell can’t look away from the wet leather, the dark fruit slipping past his sullen lips. Isn’t there some sentiment of faery folk: eat of our fruits and be bound to us forever.
“I thought you might appreciate this more," says Warden, gnashing black flesh with his gleaming teeth. “Being of food service origin, I mean, to see the larger operations here. Less pageantry, none of that gaudy mess upstairs.” He pauses, then flicks his wrist with flourish. “Take whatever you want,” he says.
He is right. It is better down here with the cold stone walls. Away from the thick cigar smoke. Away from the kind of girl who lets a man take her skirt between his teeth. All Hell thinks of that silver-sequined girl parading atop the dining room table and pities her—and hates her—while her sisters converge at a corner to gorge on a half-cut leg of honeyed ham. They are lost to one of their silent conversations with full mouths. All Hell will have to watch them so they don’t eat themselves sick, but for now, it’s almost as if just her and Warden here, so she opens and closes every little door in silence until she finds exactly what she wants. There, in an icebox, is a perfect white cake fit for a wedding, decorated with pearls of icing. A cake like this belongs to some other girl. A girl who wears real pearls, whose sisters know that you can’t stuff your face with cured meat the way you do with berries, that meat sits so heavy inside you, all that salt curing your gut like meat, too. All Hell dips her finger into the white froth for a taste. The cream is light and heavenly sweet. Her stomach rumbles.
Warden is at her side holding out a knife, blade first. As she takes the metal in her palm, she feels it again, that inexplicable electricity, so much so that she wonders, she must wonder, if he shares her sudden mad visions of the epochs of beautiful women who had their white throats slit on smooth stone altars in catacombs such as this. The cake gives so easily beneath the blade that it is utterly unnecessary, the way Warden leans in, the black leather of his glove cradling All Hell’s hand that holds the knife, threading the tips of his fingers between her knuckles, his thumb pressing into the crook of hers. Her stomach rumbles louder. She thinks she might swoon. Is she swooning? Is this what swooning feels like?
She would, for certain swoon, were he to lift her hand flecked with cream and crumb to his mouth and steal two of her fingers between his lewd, crooked lips. Then, she would wonder—how is the inside of his mouth, the sleek intrusive muscle of his tongue so warm? The poor ghosts stirring in that underground air would wonder, too, if it is, indeed, very warm in the black dark of his mouth. The gloved hand that braces Warden on the countertop clenches, his lids droop, he sucks in his breath. There is a broken little sound that escapes him, for All Hell has taken his hand between her teeth.
“What the devil?” Warden asks.
“Yes,” All Hell cries, “it’s true, the devil brought me here!” The cake knife drops and sings a sharp vibrato against the countertop. The sound stretches into a fine silver needle, piercing into the deep dark of her ears. She must be swooning. This must be it. All Hell upturns one hand to her brow, as customary. Her sisters must have eaten too much ham already, for they are overcome by hiccups. Somewhere, there must be a spoonful of sugar for their fluttering tongues and quivering throats, but All Hell cannot tend to them now.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Warden,” All Hell says softly, taking his aggrieved hand in both of hers to wipe the spittle with her skirt, “But you have seen me for what I am, and my heart for what it is.”
There is nothing to be done for the imprint her crooked teeth have left in his black leather. She cannot meet his eyes after that, but all Warden does is laugh, a hand at his gut, a laugh so loud that All Hell can feel his greatness and generosity in her bones. So, All Hell joins him, even louder, her heart and belly so full. I do not hunger, says her laugh. I do not hunger with you.
“I will have food brought to your room from now on,” Warden says, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief from his pocket. “You will find that you won’t need to leave your quarters for a thing.” He pauses. “You will wait there until I conclude the business at hand and send for you,” Warden says.
“I’ll wait. I promise,” All Hell replies with her full heart.
She picks the cake knife back up again and balances, so carefully, a neatly cut slice of cake onto a bone china plate. Then, All Hell pushes the plate aside. She does not mean to eat the cake, only to leave a perfect white card for that other girl, that pitiable peacock princess All Hell hates so very much that the cake must belong to. The rest of the lace-trimmed cake is returned to the icebox, injured beyond repair. Later, a pretty maid with ringlets will have to present it before her mistress and oh how brows will furrow, and stained lips will quiver and a pained voice will say—but this was my cake.
Her stomach rumbles again, but All Hell grins.
“Have you lost your mind?” her sisters ask, “What a waste.”
The first time she and her sisters hear the guns, they bolt from their bed, calling to the high ceiling.
“Is it daddy?” says one.
“Is it the war?” says another.
All Hell doesn’t wait for answers to rip the curtains from the windows. She tears the fabric into strips with her teeth, sparing little thought for what nice dresses they could’ve made, and anyway, the bedsheets are even finer. She hangs the strips like plumage on her sisters’ outstretched arms, taking her share by her fists. When the second round of fire comes, they learn, faces pressed to the window, that it is only the culling of red-faced birds brought in from far away. Set loose into the acres and acres of land in which the hotel is nestled, somewhere deep in the heart of the forest, packs of spotted hounds descend upon the flock while brass-buttoned and black booted men applaud, their black guns slung over their shoulders, sipping sweet tea astride glossy horses grazing in the shade.
“The war is over,” All Hell whispers, “And daddy is dead.” Her breath fogs a sad little ghost against the glass.
Even if daddy or the war was to come back, there would be nothing for them to do here in this grand room but marvel. Though she, like her sisters, can hardly read, All Hell is the first to run her fingers along the leather notched spines of old books, thick with righteous prophecies of men with great big beards probably. She spins a globe with each country cut from precious stone, the oceans paved with lapis lazuli, held together by a gold spun cage, precise delineations that say you are—here, here. She can only imagine traipsing through terrains cut from ruby and jade, gowned in silk as elegant as the bedsheets. Would it look very out of place there, a dress patterned with climbing roses in such a land? Do roses even bloom in savage territories? She knows, vaguely, that the Orient is—here, far from—here. She has seen, once, a lantern made of blood-red paper. And what of the precious, red-faced birds? From where and how are they brought to this place? The sisters have never seen their red-faced like. What cold waters have they traversed? Perhaps with strings tied to their feet like balloons? Crammed into the dark belly of a ship, the poor things would surely die. Are they packaged so as eggs? When they hatch amidst stormy waters, do the sailors chirp as mothers do? Do they flap their burly arms and feed the blind and screeching babies from their rotting mouths and seasick stomachs? In this perpetual state of wonderment, the sense of time is the first thing to go. And it must go. Circadian rhythm is a base idea. Are there even such people who wake smelling still of yesterday’s sweat, dressing alongside the first rays of sunlight and joining a march of steel and productivity, hot coffee, and hearty lunches? Night, morning, the illusory nature of rest, these are only threads of madness, matters of concern no longer to the sisters, but perhaps to the likes of bird mothering sailors. Let them have their counted hours burnished with gas lamps igniting pale-dyed and unnatural witching-hour skies; the strange sounds of outskirt places, they bend time, which falls away into chasms of clenched teeth, cold sweat.
When the shock of sunlight is too much through the undressed tall windows, All Hell remembers the curtains she tore and the sisters bind their eyes. They sleep because it is a thing to do. It can be somewhat unpleasant, a pinched sensation between unseeing eyes and somewhere deep in the temples, as if the act of sleeping itself strains the inner workings of the head, in the way of deep thought and learning. It helps, sometimes, to tighten the bindings over their eyes. Then, there are whole days lost to darkness, and the sisters wake in the evening, just in time for supper. They drag out the meal for as long as they can, counting out all seven-seventeen-seventy snow peas and chewing each bite until everything tastes sweet somehow, even the single new potato, even the sprig of parsley and the sliver of salted game. The red-faced birds are delicious. Their plum-colored flesh is the color of lips.
Sometimes, her sisters untie their blinds and watch All Hell with slit eyes and hard-set mouths. “What are we waiting here for?” Calamity or Catastrophe will whisper. All Hell has to lift her head from the pillow to be able to tell. She has spread herself across the wide bed, as wide as the state. She thinks of the miles-long dining room table, and the awful beautiful girl dancing atop its striped top.
“For Mr. Warden, to finish his business, to send for us,” she says, working a whole bottle of hand cream into her skin. Where is that awful beautiful girl now? That awful beautiful girl, are her quarters as nice as theirs? Does she even have rooms of her own or is she still dancing there, up on a table like a dressed fowl?
She could stay here forever, scented with the perfumes of emperor kings. When the glass vial of hand cream is empty, All Hell opens the bedside drawers, again and again, to look for more. Embossed stationery, gold-tipped pens—one has bled dark ink that has stained the wood with a cameo of a young girl, how long has that been there like a symbol of mourning, no, a secret lover’s token?—an ivory comb, little felt boxes, perfumed soaps that glow like amber, a beautiful brass-framed clock missing its turnkey, she never tires of touching everything magnificent in the room—and everything is magnificent—from the fat-faced cherubs grinning from the walnut headboard, to the white porcelain of the toilet and its gilded scepter-like handle. She will never tire of hearing it flush, never. Such a great sound, like the rush of the ocean, she imagines.
Some days she and her sisters spend in the bath, unbraiding and braiding their wet hair until the pads of their fingers wrinkle like new birds. The size of the tub, too, is spectacular, as big as a rowboat, no, as big as the ark. Big enough for three women sitting in a row, if you can believe it. And how does it hold its weight and theirs—not to mention the endless waves of steaming water sloshing to the brim—all on little clawed feet dipped in gold, like a bloated white dove on twig legs. How do they fly on little more than hollow bones, fat, and feathers. What do you think it’s like, sister, to fly?
Exhausting, Calamity imagines.
“Exhausting,” Catastrophe confirms.
They have run out of green and gold embroidered towels when they hear the bell of their suite door ring. All Hell leaps from the water to get there first, her heart pounding far too much to pause for clothes, but it’s only a maid at the door. And not even the usual maid with her golden carriage of infinite comforts—more towels, more hand cream, more glowing soap, more everything. The maid at the door is empty-handed, bearing instead an uncanny resemblance to the hired girl from Pastor Manley’s house, so much so that All Hell presses a hand to the hollow of her throat, wishing she had put on some underwear; the hired girl from Pastor Manley’s house here, of all places, is simply too much to bear without underwear. Her sisters trail All Hell, just as nude. Poor Calamity. Poor Catastrophe. Poor sisters, so undressed.
“Miss, miss, miss,” the maid says, curtseying thrice for the sisters.
As the maid steps into a patch of sunlight, All Hell sees that the girl is too old and thin to be Pastor Manley’s, wrinkled like she, too, has been steeped too long in the bath.
“Miss, iss, miss, there’s a Mr. Warden for you downstairs, miss,” the maid says. “Says he’ll be waiting in the smoking room.”
“But what will I wear?” All Hell says, longing again for some knickers.
The maid eyes her up and down, utterly shameless, right down to the way she smiles real big. The whiteness and straightness of the maid’s teeth are obscene. “Miss, well miss, iss, miss, your gown looks just fine, it do, miss. I like them roses on you. They look real nice.”
All Hell fears she might cry at the insolence of this wretched old maid who teases her so, but when she clasps her hands over her stomach, she feels a silken bodice and stitches too delicate to be hers. All Hell looks down at her legs; they are swallowed by the soft billow of a skirt latticed with climbing roses. All Hell turns to her sisters, but they are gone. Asleep, maybe? Yes, asleep—so still and sound all along, their spindly white limbs as bare as the bed, blanketed under nothing more than yesterday’s towels.
“Miss, iss, miss, would you like me to do up your hair? My mama worked in a big house when we was growing up. She taught me how to do the missus’ hair.” The maid hooks her hand onto All Hell’s arm, guiding her to a gilded vanity.
The silvered glass of the vanity is larger than any All Hell has ever seen, framed by a wreath carved from black walnut that reminds her a little of mourning, but not enough to distract her from the way the mirror opens up the room into a whole other suite, like hers but not, and a whole other her with a maid to do her hair, to tease it higher and higher until the All Hell there is crowned with a magnificent golden pumpkin. The All Hell there is beautiful, beautiful enough to be May Queen. “You remind me so much of my own hired girl,” All Hell says to the reflection of the maid, flicking her wrist in a gesture that she thinks looks exactly right in the mirror.
The maid places her finishing touch, a greenish pearly comb tucked just so, like a stem. “Mind,” the maid says with a broad smile, “You are as fragile as you are beautiful.” But All Hell here is too moved to listen, by the vision of All Hell there donning sash and crown—and holding now a bouquet of what, what exactly—flowers the like of which All Hell here has never seen, for All Hell here, can only think of roses, red as paper lanterns, red as the masks of precious birds—and between All Hell here and All Hell there, she cannot give name to what might be roses—if roses can be red as clay.
Down thickly carpeted stairs, through marbled halls, she presses her fingertips against wood paneling and brass mirrors in passing—here, here—in the austere glass curvatures, her hand looms, bigger than her pumpkin head; she pricks her thumb on some evergreen indoor foliage. All Hell sucks on the wound as she enters the smoking room, savoring the salt of her blood.
The men and their cigars are gone, but their smoke still hangs in the air. Her arrival must be long-awaited; as soon as the door shuts behind her, Warden speaks his business as if it is nothing for her to be there a woman alone without her sisters, offering her neither seat nor drink, not asking after her person at all, not even a thought spared for the weather, which beyond this grand room promises cloudless blue skies.
There is only a single narrow window. Otherwise, the room is all woodwork, lead glass, and trophies. The black walnut mirror of her vanity would not look out of place here over the fireplace, but a painting hangs instead of the Appalachians, nearly black and white with just hints of forest green and gold, colored in the way that only winter can be. Everything else speaks of summers passed: shelves full of jars in which shining black beetles went to sweet sleep; the walls, too, are lined with such specimens framed beneath glass. They’d never felt anything quite like those silver needles before, not even the winged things in all their travels. Their hard hollowed bodies tick tick, click beneath the glass as if they long to reunite with the palm of a human hand, to rejoin their shining claws with the deft fingers of their unmaker; their longing fills the room as Warden speaks, growing louder and louder.
“Now, Miss Turner, we’ve done the drilling, and I’m afraid the prognosis isn’t what we, the Company, had hoped for. There’s no more oil in this land. Simply no more. It was just that small pocket that started the fire. We call this sort of thing a fluke fire in my business.”
The seat Warden occupies like a throne is splendid, brocade-wrapped and button-stitched with a winged back. It is as ethereal as the victrola that sits alongside it, a tinny record playing an artfully-scratched bolero. Though she cannot understand the words of that strange sweetheart song with all its tick tick, clicks, it pleads for All Hell to heed that she is not the first woman to grace this room. The others, their legacy is recorded in the finery: fingerprint smudged paintings, lipstick traces on crystalware, and broken strands of pearls. Their pearls are in the floorboards now, glass bright under their feet.
“The Company will still honor what we can of our contract and offer you fair pay for your land, as we are a business principled in the Christian way. Now, Miss Turner, we think it is a more than fair sum we are prepared to pay you. A generous sum, considering this is a charitable gesture of goodwill to three respectable ladies in need.”
Warden drinks un-aged rhum agricole when on his own; the small service with ice and mint to spare on the table between them is just for him. All Hell feels a warmth rising in her anyway and says, “No drink for me, thank you. I don’t touch the stuff. My sisters neither.”
All Hell perches on a stiffly clothed armchair, far, but not too far, and somewhat across from him, eyes downcast, as if she has forgotten or never known at all the taste of his black leather between her teeth, smoky and somewhat bitter with a sour musky tinge. Never mind he’s been drinking all morning; Warden looks to her as immovable as a mountain, possessing the sort of clarity and grace that can only be an aristocrat’s in spite of his savage mass. She adores the sight of him without a hat, as he had been nearly asleep in their carriage so long ago—surely not so very long ago—with such wondrous hair that trails him like smoke. But an even greater delight comes at the sight of his hands exposed to her completely, lily-white beneath the black leather after all, the hands of a choir boy, soft hands, pure hands made for prayer.
All Hell folds her own hands together now, imagining her own broad and rough things to be as lovely as his. With her eyes gently closed, she speaks softly. “Our daddy took to drink in a bad way, you see. The stuff made him mad as a negro. Mama called it his black rage. Real sorry, mister so-and-so, about my husband shooting up your dog and all. He was in one of them black rages, you see. See, daddy, he had all that sugar that was supposed to be for the ice cream, and with enough sugar, you can turn anything to shine. I don’t think daddy was a bad man. It was the shine. The black rage that made him raise hand to mama, to my sisters, and worse—worse—worse—”
When Warden interrupts her, she thinks he sounds as pained as she, and so, intimate—speaking soft, low, and no longer of business.
“You remind me so much,” he says, “Of my sister. She died when we were very young.” He leans back in his seat and closes his eyes, passing the pad of his thumb over each eyelid. She imagines kissing him there, and there, where gold coins would mark the passing of a king.
“Now, Miss Turner, you see, she was something special, like you. The family called her touched, and we meant that most tenderly. Touched by the Good Lord himself. You see, Miss Turner, you see. She was a pure soul. She was an angel, my Mary. She saw and did everything in her own special way, the world be damned. The world be damned, she had to have her way.” Toasting his glass to the sunlight, Warden swirls the pearly green rum against the lead crystal, casting the whole room with the shade of a lunar moth, Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Arthropoda, Class Insecta, Order Lepidoptera, Family Saturniidae, Genus Actias, Species Luna, the poor Actias Luna, shy and fearful enough to live its whole life in hiding.
“She would see things. Towards the end, it was the sky full of birds. Endless black flocks of them. They began to frighten her, poor Mary. I wish you could have seen the color of her eyes, Miss Turner, before the black of her pupil, took up so much of it. Your eyes, they are a little like hers, you see.” Warden smiles.
All Hell splays her hand over a rending in her chest.
“A long, long time ago now, my Mary insisted on making a time capsule.” Where we bury the things we love—his sister had whispered wetly up against his ear—and in ten years you dig it up so you can remember. You dig, not we. She had known, then. Do you forget things once they’re buried, she’d asked, keeping her voice level to hide her fear. He had hated the idea. Hated. Hated. But she had wanted to. She had started it and she—she had insisted. It was always like that: he could deny her nothing. It was for her that he had learned to say things like I’ll take care of—or had he said—take whatever you want, and hadn’t he said so, to her, in that cavernous kitchen—no, that was—here—here—
Warden doesn’t finish his story. He rises, and in two, staggered steps, he stands towering before her. The straight back of the chair she chose is unrelenting as All Hell shrinks in her seat. But Warden only kneels, bending his head to her.
And he does look so sad. Or is it chivalrous, bent to her so? She means to reach out and smooth his wisp of hair as a love-laced mother or a maiden ought, when Warden takes the hem of her gown by both hands and flings her skirt right over All Hell’s head. Her vision goes all white and shadow—and she is reminded of the first time she heard Warden’s tinny voice through the telephone—of that crinkling sort of whiteness. He had been so far away then. And now, here they were. There is indeed such magic in this time we live in for this to be so. This comforting thought and the thick drape of her skirt over her face, must numb her somewhat to the way Warden thrusts his fist between her knees and grabs her hard, right at her most hushed secret we must never speak of it woman’s part. He presses his thumb with such might, that surely the lips of her shush now sex would have parted, had it not been for the sturdy cotton of her undergarments. Warden holds his hand there, wrenched between her legs, rigid and unmoving. They sit like that in silence until all the summer drains from the room—until a new moon is followed by a new sun, it seems, but the clock on the mantle chimes only for lunch.
All Hell scoots her chair noisily back, then again, and once more until his thickly-veined hand can no longer hold grip from such a distance. She rises, righting her skirts, and takes leave without curtsey, waddling only a little from the soreness she bears.
Once a decade—probably more, who remembers—had passed, it was true that Warden had been glad to dig his sister’s little box up, under a special tree, their tree, the black hand tree, deep, deep in the sprawling woodland behind this very hotel. Her little ring had been in there, yes—the one he had put on her before he left for school—tied to a note for Brother love true. As a man, by then newlywed to his second wife, he had been shocked, unsettled even, at how tiny that little girl’s ring was, a trinket for a child that he could not rightly wear even on his smallest finger. He had never felt more, more—more—he had never felt more, more titanic.
He’d put the ring away somewhere, some place—
In the hotel safe? In his desk drawer with grandfather’s sacred gold seals? Or in the dresser amidst his cufflinks? It must be someplace. He had not disposed of it. Could never have. Through the half-open window, the scent of white waxy flowers ebb and sigh on the air.
At the front desk, All Hell rings the brass bell. It makes such noise that she is not entirely certain that the sound is a real thing, as real as the bluish wisp of the bolero still trailing her from the smoking room, so she rings and rings and rings the brass bell again, thrice in quick succession, and again until a green and gold uniformed boy appears, gently laying his white-gloved hand upon hers. And he does look ever so boyish in his plump and ruddy face with such round, startled, and startlingly blue eyes. His baby-fine hair all a golden crown atop his head reminds All Hell of her sisters sleeping upstairs, somewhere, here, in this distant place with her. So, she does not flinch from the boy’s sudden touch.
“Yes?” the boy asks.
All Hell takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“The girl who came to my room to do my hair, where is she now?”
The boy behind the desk cants his head.
“Bring her to me,” All Hell says, “I would like to take her with me.”
The boy behind the desk stares.
“How much?” All Hell says. “Just name your price. I am moneyed now, you see. My sisters, too. My sisters and I, we have come into what is called a considerable fortune, you see.”
The boy only continues to stare at her with his round blue eyes.
“How much for the girl?” All Hell asks again. When the boy still does not respond, All Hell tries to ring the bell some more, hoping a more intelligible creature would come of it, but the boy behind the desk slides the bell away from All Hell’s reach. After a pause, the boy takes the brass bell and tucks it out of sight altogether.
“I never!” All Hell says, slapping her palm against the wood top. “Could you at the very least stop that song?” she asks.
The boy stares. He reaches into his jacket’s inner pocket and holds out a neat white handkerchief. All Hell takes it, though she is unsure what for.
“I didn’t ask for this,” All Hell says, “I would like to ring the bell again.”
The boy shakes his head.
“Can’t you do anything about that song?” she asks.
At last, the boy says, “What song, miss?”
“The song from the smoking room!”
“Would you like some matches?” He gestures to a crystal bowl brimming with little green boxes, each one etched in gold with the hotel’s regalia.
“Do you hear nothing?” she shouts it. The boy stares.
He says, “They are free, miss. No charge to take one.”
All Hell spits on the desk and throws the boy’s handkerchief on top. She remains long enough to watch the boy use it to give the wood a shine.
“Sad!” she says, turning away. “Sad! Do you really not hear it?” But she can hardly blame the boy.
The small still part of her knows, she does, that the needle of the Victrola in the smoking room must have reached the record’s end, twitching helplessly by now with its tick, tick, click. She knows, she does, that everything here is laced with gold and the noise of life. And the smoky scrap of song stinging her eyes is no bolero, but some other specter song. All Hell feels for the spirit with her palms pressed firmly against the walls, each ripple in the heavily embossed paper marking an undulating note. She clings to this blindness as she walks, until she collides neatly with a girl whose face looks to be cast from the finest bone china—the sweep of her dark brow, the pinpoints of her beauty marks, and a little kiss of red for her lips painted by a loving, masterful hand with a sable brush and finer still pigments. While All Hell garbles reproaches and apologies, fumbling against the wall as she falters, the immaculate girl before her rights herself with a swift, sure step and the softest—oh—breathed through the darling little heart of her red, red lips.
“I do beg your pardon,” the songbird says with a smile that leaves sunspots in All Hell’s vision. She moves past All Hell, picking her song back up from right where she left it as she flits to a man in freshly pressed trousers carrying a cherry leather briefcase. When she reaches him, the songbird embraces the trunk of his arm as if she has no fear at all of what he could do to her with all the strength in the barrel of his massive body. The songbird walks a step or two behind him, the click-clack of her heels cheerily announcing her effort to keep up the mountainous man. Both of the girl’s blue silk shoes could fit into his broad black-gloved palm. All Hell knows him, too, by the dark hat he wears, but she does not know the name of the girl on his arm nor of the song she sings. She only wants to ask the girl, she only wants to ask for a name or two, that’s all, but as All Hell trails the pair to hotel’s main entrance, the man, the girl, the song, they do not think to look back at her.
The songbird smiles appreciatively at the horseless carriage of his choice, a lacquered burgundy pram. A boxy black-walled carriage is far too unbecoming of a creature as she. Everything about beauty like hers reads new and uncharted. What is the word? Exotic. Her beauty is so exotic, and there is so much to dwell on—from the beauty marks indicating the tenderest places to kiss such a darling face—here, here—to the way she needlessly dips her hands into her ribbon-trimmed pockets, as if she hasn’t quite broken free of some shy schoolgirl habit. Her summer dress is impeccable. The lace at her neck is plentiful, feathered down to girlish breasts, and beneath must be her minute ribcage guarding a rapid heart. Further down beneath her skirts, her legs are doubtlessly delicate as the stems of sherry glasses. A breeze ruffles some frilly part of her astray. When the songbird turns to right herself, here, here, her dark gloved keeper’s cloudy gaze goes sidelong, then dips to the silhouette of her thin skirts. She holds herself as if she knows he is watching, as if she understands that someone is always watching. Such girls understand intrinsically the way their lovely little bodies can make clean lines that draw the eye. Such girls. Such girls. Everything is song and dance.
All Hell recognizes the songbird then as the girl from atop the striped dining room table. No, not a girl. A woman. The songbird does not look nor sound like a mother to children, but she is. They flock to her now, a perfect boy and a matching girl who will grow to be as beautiful as her mother. They cling to their mama’s skirt, no longer beaded nor trained but just as perfect for taking between the teeth, leaving wet-ringed marks of claimants, of desperation better suited for dogs.
The hour is just before lunch and the children are restless. It is just the sort of feverish summer day when the windows are pivoted open to let in the scent of heat and the distant town, the easy sidewalk conversation drifting in from far away. And further away still, the pulse of lazy life beats like a roar; if you really listen, you can hear the rush and wail of fine vehicles on their way to the beach, the omnipresent song, fading in and out, of hokey pokey men. There will be wild nights for the young later, sugar and fat scented in the night, like a street fair strung with red paper lanterns seen through the tilted blur of sticky-sweetness while they all together now pretend to handle it well, just like the girls will pretend arousal when they find secret places with the boys, out behind the funhouse, or inside it, between the shadows and the silvered glass—they are transported to their parents’ bedroom back at this very fine hotel, weak-kneed at some bad older kitchen boy's beck, to a haystack proverbial, to a cellar tomb. The order of class life is infuriating in the face of such promises for later and the summer afternoon scent of rotting fruit and damp pavement seems to call to arms. In just a little while, after only a short ride for fresh air, the children will be able to flee for lunch on the terrace with iced creams in chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla to combat this heat, with their beloved mother whose every last minute they would mark and wring, mewling desperately, I don’t want this, I want that, more, no, more, no more.
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