So there was a girl. Young but not too young. A face as unformed as an egg, so that one could not tell if she would turn out to be fair or astonishingly ugly. She was to be sent to a city in another land by a mother and father in the midst of a divorce. The one thing they could agree upon was that the girl should not be exposed to the violence they meant to commit on their life. There was a quality in her that made it impossible to do the ravening that the end of love required.
‘She must be sent away,’ the father had said in civil but forbidding tones.
‘For her own good,’ the mother agreed. ‘My sister will have her.’
The girl stood between them, wordless and passive as a bolster, as it was arranged that she be sent to the city where her mother had spent her childhood, this girl who had lived on a remote coast of a remote land in a solitary yellow house listening to the chilly grey sea that rushed straight from the ice pole to pound on the shore beside her bedroom window.
Red-nosed and blue-lipped, bare-armed and bare-legged in a faded shift, she had played amongst rocks where crabs scuttled through pools of clouded sky, but on the day of the departure, she wore a navy blue dress and jacket lined with grey silk, dark stockings and patent leather shoes, all of which had been purchased from a catalogue. The heavy mass of silken hair had been wetted and bound tightly into two braids. She watched her white night shift being folded into a dark boxy suitcase, although the mother and aunt had agreed that once she arrived she would be provided with a wardrobe befitting her life in the city.
‘She can’t go with nothing,’ the mother murmured to herself as she closed the mouth of the case. There was little enough in it, yet how could she be blamed for the lack of clothes or beloved toys to pack, or much-read books? The girl could not be forced to accumulate such things.
The mother glanced at the girl with a pang of unease as she straightened, but reminded herself that the child’s destination was a very old and sophisticated city, and not some dangerous wilderness, so what need was there for anxiety? She wanted to cup the girl’s face and kiss the cheeks and eyelids tenderly, but only rested her hands lightly on her shoulders; felt the fragility of them; noted absently that her own fingers were stiff as dried twigs.
‘You will see,’ she said vaguely.
There was no need to invoke good behaviour, for the girl was calm and biddable and, remarkably, did not practise deceits. When a question was asked, she saw only that information was required. The consequences of her answer or the uses to which the information she gave might be put did not concern her. Being asked, she told. If she did not know, she said. This might have made her blunt and tactless, but she seldom spoke unless asked a direct question.
What would the girl’s aunt make of her? the mother wondered. Rather than leaving her plump sister embittered, the lack of a husband or children had softened the centre of her until she was sweet enough to ache your teeth. She had been full of delight at the thought of having a vessel into which she could pour the rich syrup of her emotions.
‘I shall adore her and she will be happy,’ she had written.
The mother frowned at the memory, for it seemed to her the girl was too deep and odd to be content with mere happiness. Once, seeing a storm brooding, she had gone seeking the girl, only to find her standing at the edgy rim of the sea, hands lifted to the bruised clouds like a child wishing to be taken up. What sort of child is it who wishes to embrace a storm? she had wondered in appalled awe. The girl’s lips had been drawn back from her teeth in a rictus that looked at first to be an expression of pain, but was only what laughter had made of her.
Even so, one could not say to one’s sister that the child had a capacity for rare and frightening joy, and so she had simply agreed that they were bound to get along. That, at least, might be true.
Stowing the case in the boot of her car, the mother thought how often over the years she had tried to convey her disappointment in the girl in letters to her sister, who had only congratulated her on her good fortune with an extravagant wistfulness that left no room for a confession of the fear that she had borne, not a flesh-and-blood child with fits of ill temper that must be humoured and fears that must be soothed, but a sort of angel. And not the soft fat promiscuous angels of Italian frescoes, but a wild untameable creature of dry feathers and blazing sunlight and high wailing winds.
Neither the mother nor the father thought of the girl with intimate possessiveness. It was not the man’s nature to wish to possess anything other than abstract ideas, for he was a doctor and medical researcher. And the woman found it impossible to love a child who required neither forgiveness nor tolerance. A mother needs needing, she told herself, to excuse the guilt that churned her belly from time to time.
The girl sat docilely in the car on the way to the airport, hands folded loosely in her lap. ‘Are you afraid?’ her mother asked after they had checked the bag and learned of the seat allocation.
‘No,’ the girl said simply.
The mother swallowed an aimless spurt of anger, knowing that for anyone else, being sent into the unknown would be reason enough for fear. Perhaps the girl had nothing with which to people her nightmares because she lacked imagination. The mother felt a shamed relief when the time came to say goodbye, yet at the same time it seemed to her there were words that should be said.
I should understand something, she thought urgently.
When the girl turned to pass through the door to international departures, the woman found herself remembering with sudden shocking clarity the lumpy slipperiness as the midwife pulled the child from her womb and swung it up onto her flaccid belly; the rank animal stench of the fluids that flowed out of her, and the purplish swollen look of skin smeared with white foam and strings of bloody slime; that black hair and the dark bottomless eyes that looked through her skin and into her soul.
The airport doors closed with a smooth hiss, severing them from one another. The woman stood for a time looking at the ambiguous smear of her face in the dull metal surface, feeling grief, longing, fear.
The girl spent much of the journey gazing out at the sky, surprised at how substantial the clouds appeared from above. For of course she had only ever seen their undersides, which must have been grazed to flatness by the mountains they passed over. When the sky darkened as the plane entered the long night, a steward asked if she wanted chicken or beef. She never ate meat but the travel agent hadn’t thought to ask when booking the ticket. It did not matter. She liked the way hunger gnawed at her belly from the inside with sharp little teeth.
When she slept, it was to dream an old dream of wandering in dark tunnels searching for something she could not name.
The girl’s aunt had been tremulous and moist with emotion before her niece came at last into the arrivals foyer, yet the first sight of the girl caused the older woman to draw a swift breath. A moment later she could not have explained her reaction; she had seen photographs so the child’s appearance was no surprise. In the taxicab she fussed and tutted over the late flight and told herself it was pity that had made her gasp, for the girl’s clothes were so severe they only accentuated the vagueness of her features.
The aunt’s apartment was large but managed to be cramped as well, being filled with fringed lamps, occasional tables, plump tasselled cushions, painted china ornaments, little enamel boxes, carved animals, winged armchairs, frilled curtains, and vases of stiff dried flowers. The floors were carpeted in dove grey but exotic rugs coloured henna red, turquoise and emerald were laid here and there atop it to form gorgeous pools of colour. The sound of movement was altogether smothered.
The girl slipped off her shoes and wiggled her toes, searching for the bones of the place under its fat pelt. She thought of the hard wooden floors of the house by the sea, which had been limed the icy hue of a winter sky. Noticing the pale slender feet, the aunt assumed she had removed her shoes out of consideration for the carpets.
She ushered the girl to a bedroom where rose-coloured lamps gave off tiny pools of blushing light. The walls were covered in a velveted indigo paper and the window and four-poster bed were draped in thick folds of violet lace surmounted by an overdress through which gold ribbon had been intricately threaded.
Having noted the lightness of the case, the aunt left the girl to unpack to avoid embarrassing them both by witnessing the paucity of her possessions. Her sister had clearly made a worse marriage than she had feared. She smiled in pity at the girl over a late supper laid out on gold-rimmed plates. There was a silver pot of hot chocolate, rich cream puffs, jam horns, sugary slices and little sandwiches. The girl ate one corner of a cucumber and lettuce sandwich, and when pressed to try a paste sandwich, explained politely that she did not eat meat.
‘But these are only fish,’ the aunt said, taking a bite from one of the sandwiches. She was discomfited to be so frankly watched, but the girl made no comment, other than to ask if she might go to bed soon. In a gush of guilty relief, her aunt promised a shopping expedition on the morrow.
In the bedroom, the girl removed her outer clothes and laid them aside. She was wide awake, for her body told her that it was early morning. Wanting to taste the air of the city, she struggled until she opened the window, which had been painted shut. Gazing through it, she stared at the city beyond, blanketed in shadows and pricked here and there by light. There was a breeze and she watched her hair float up in tendrils that seemed to quest as blindly and voraciously as the tentacles of a sea anemone. She thought of the icy wind that slipped up through the cracks in the bone-pale floorboards of her old bedroom, shuddering the window glass in the frame as it tried to get out again. Sometimes it was so strong that when you opened the drawers in the kitchen, the wind blew out into your face, so loud that people telephoning would ask who was screaming. If one looked through the windows at night, there were not the thousand and one lights visible from this lean window, but only darkness laid like a film over shadowy trees, and beyond them the lines of foam that trimmed the relentless waves. If she opened a window, the air would fly like a dervish into her room, smelling of icebergs and open grey seas.
There was nothing green or wet or wild in the air of this city. It was heavy with the odours of people and their machines. She imagined it as weary and sour as the breath of an old man who had lived too long. She thought that she would find it hard to breathe or move quickly in this dense air with so many people and their lives pressed up against her, but she was not afraid. If she felt anything, it was curiosity to see how she would manage it...