The House on the Hill in the Country
The relation of landlord and tenant is not an ideal one, but any relations in a social order will endure if there is infused into them some of that spirit of human sympathy which qualifies life for immortality.
–George William Russell
THEY had concluded they wanted to move to the country.
They were a young couple and had been living in the city for so long the conclusion risked not coming at all.
They’d met at a bar near an art gallery after an opening three years prior, when they’d still entertained aspirations of becoming artists themselves. Their devotion grew. Their careers went nowhere.
Lately, they’d been unemployed for five and a half months.
The museum where she’d copyedited wall text had closed the same week that the television program for which he’d been nursing a four-year scenic’s assistantship ceased production.
At the end of some Thursday, she’d been told she should plan to work remotely from home. Two weeks after, she’d been laid off.
He’d been assured, as soon as filming resumed, he could expect a call. But by then his phone had been on Do Not Disturb for three months.
Few continued to anticipate expectations. Most agreed: times were tough.
The couple’s circumstances were not unique, nor were they particularly dire. They downloaded the Department of Labor mobile app and claimed weekly benefits. They remained afloat. Their hearts fluttered. They no longer liked to go outside without each other.
They agreed: it was a matter of time.
When they were very honest, they confessed they no longer liked to go outside in the city no matter what.
AFTER two months of imitating YouTube yoga vlogger flows, reading Bleak House aloud, and failing to make headway on the stoneware collection they’d resolved to throw with the pottery wheel he’d purchased after college, she broke down and ordered an emotional support animal.
The puppy arrived via Sprinter van, retrofitted with a generator and grid of kennels, shivering in Xanax-induced dismay. They brought it into the apartment, where it proceeded to evacuate fourteen hours’ worth of waste.
This was an animal that required going outside.
It had never been a large apartment, but they’d never spent so much time in it. The city demanded a vibrant public. Yet amenities for that kept disappearing. Replaced by plywood facades. Cops cracking down on joggers in the park.
Not to mention they’d already had a cat, who took an immediate disliking to the canine. With all their hot blood on top of one another, and without an idea of when restrictions might lift, it seemed only reasonable to covet more space.
They were gloomy, anxious. Their elected officials did not seem concerned as to whether they died or lived, which was more relevant than usual, because people in the city were, in fact, dying at alarming rates.
Perhaps it was out of respect for misfortune. They were hesitant to fantasize. They never said, ―We should just leave.
By degrees, they let it slip.
If they quit the municipality he could build a homemade kiln, she hinted. She could finally, he noted, spread out and weave to no limit. They wouldn’t have to wait in snaking sidewalk lines to buy twenty-five-pound bags of rice. Shielding their faces. They could plant a modest garden, go on hikes, rake leaves, shovel mud.
Neither had experience living rurally. No more than they’d learned to navigate conditions of civic strife.
They opened windows, blew funnels of smoke at the screens. The air appeared to sink. Sounds of sirens and flash bangs. Helicopters whipping mini doppler effects against the jet stream.
―What do you want to do, they said.
The puppy turned in figure eights. It slept most of the day. When its paws touched dark asphalt, it balked. Muscles spasmed with panic, unable to offer much in the way of emotional aid.
How long could they keep their afloatness from going broke? And what exactly were they hoping to tolerate?
SHE tapped his forearm. Her phone displayed quilting patterns.
A laugh fractured. He shook his head, trying to clear thoughts of derision and acquiesce. It was bad where they were. He challenged her to find someplace more promising, affordable, with a better air quality index.
He claimed to not care what happened. He claimed to be of the mindset that things would return to some concurrence.
Time mattered. He took it as a provocation. She took it as fate.
She filtered through Facebook, craigslist, real estate websites, and texted him links from across the apartment.
He rejected things. Too small to be worth it, too much work or too ugly or he’d search the addresses and point out proximities to questionable powerplants, waste water facilities, too nearby of neighbors, because he didn’t want to leave the cold comforts of the metropolis just to be pushed up against some hacking homebody who wanted nothing more than to knock on their door for a cup of gluten-free baking ingredients every other afternoon.
She wasn’t discouraged. She sent him a listing for a cabin upstate, on thirty acres, at seventy-five percent the cost of their present rent.
He muttered something about baseboard heat. He walked the length of the apartment, pretended to look out a window. She and the puppy followed the trails his fingers smudged along the glass.
―Okay, he said. ―When can we see it?
She called the next morning.
―Hi, she said in a loud, genial way.
She nodded and attempted to get in half-phrases over the hum at the other end of the line. When she hung up her mouth tightened. The cabin had been spoken for by another young couple.
―Jesus, he said. ―How long had it been vacant?
―The post was from yesterday. I’ll keep looking.
His throat issued an arguably involuntary noise.
She dipped to her knees and hobbled over to where he sat, back rigid, buttocks clinging to the edge of the mattress pushed into the corner of the room. They no longer changed outfits or worried about bathing, sleep, or scheduled meals.
A burning smell emanated. Fast, short blasts erupting, then echoed reports between them and the building across the intersection.
―As my solemn vow, she folded her hands, ―I will find us the perfect pastoral sanctuary. We’ll leave this place. Forever, should we decide to. We’re a family. We’ll protect each other. What have we got to lose?
The puppy quivered under the sheets. The cat curled on paint flakes. The young couple agreed: they embraced.
THE next place she found was in a bucolic valley town of an abutting state.
They scrolled through the photos. The house appeared to sit on the bump of a much larger hill overlooking plain fields, unfurnished and made mostly of wood.
―Isn’t it a little…
He trailed off.
―They took them this way because they know what a deal they’ve got. They’re downplaying the place.
―Okay, he said. ―Make the call, quick, before we lose it.
But there was no phone number listed. Her first email was short. A simple query for more pictures, and when they could come up for a viewing.
Six hours later, without a response, she wrote again:
My name is Anna and my partner Andrew and I are very interested in the house. Andrew is a ceramicist and I’m a copy editor and we’re looking to permanently relocate to the area from the city. We’ve been looking for a manageable, private home where we can get settled into a slower pace of life. I feel like we’d be an ideal fit. We’re a very quiet, low-maintenance couple. Please do let me know if you’re interested. The house is quite beautiful. All the best…
He read over her shoulder as she typed the message. Between house and is quite he added , from what we can tell, and pressed the send button before she could alter anything else.
Half an hour later, they received a reply:
Greetings Anna. Thank you for your interest. The house is lovely, though spare, and the setting is pristine. We’ve had a flurry of responses for this new posting, many of them from the city. For now we’re gathering and sorting inquiries. Feel free to add anything about you and Andrew, and we can also try to field key questions at this early stage. Warm regards. –Zeke
―What more could he want you to add?
―I don’t know, she said. ―I don’t want to seem too eager. Let’s try and sleep on it, and I can email him back in the morning.
But neither could rest. He kept getting up to reexamine the listing. It hadn’t been up two hours when she’d replied to it.
The photos were taken from confusing angles. The light accentuated dust. It didn’t account for a road or address.
She sifted through Google Street Views of the town, zooming in when she thought she spied a corresponding structure, zooming out again and again.
SHE was dissatisfied with her response:
Thanks so much for the quick reply, Zeke! I wish there was something exciting I could tell you about Andrew and myself that would distinguish us! Perhaps we could schedule a time to speak on the phone. We’re looking for a minimum year lease. When are you hoping to rent the house?
Six minutes later, she sent an addendum:
we really really love the house and would love to come up to see it as soon as possible. It really is exactly what we’ve been looking for. Apologies for all the emails!
And when the next afternoon, her inbox bore nothing new, she sent:
Hi Zeke, just following up. We’re very eager to set a time to look at the house. Would it be possible to see it this weekend or early next week? We have a few questions about the property and would love to speak with you over the phone or even Facetime/zoom if that’s your preference. We are quiet, crafty people without many possessions looking for an affordable spot in a more rural area as we plan to spend the next year preparing Andrew’s sculptures for his first solo exhibition. As I mentioned, Andrew is a ceramicist and I’m an editor, as well as a weaver/tapestry maker/amateur seamstress. Andrew worked for a TV show the past 5 years, but recently decided to pursue art full-time. I also do freelance work for a number of art institutions. We’d be prepared to provide the usual first, last, and security. We have excellent credit and references. If you’re looking for responsible, respectful, low-maintenance tenants to care for the house, feel free to call or text me at…
Fifteen minutes later, her phone started to vibrate.
HE watched her face react to the imperious buzz from the phone’s other end.
He imagined the voice as rasping and dim, dropping R’s and drawing Ah’s long as it bounced through the hills, pinging off towers between the states.
Outside, in the city, men wore masks and dug a hole across the intersection. A truck tried to circumvent them and lost a wheel in the process.
―Thank you so much, she said and put her phone atop the dozing cat.
Its skin constricted and fur stood on end, then slackened.
She raised her eyebrows.
―Zeke said we can come the day after tomorrow. He says they’ve got to fix up the place. Apparently the previous tenants were a real class act.
She did air quotes with her fingers.
―And they’re not in a rush to fill it. But honestly I think we’re the perfect fit. I’m glad I emailed so much. I think that you worked in TV did it. He kept asking about the show.
―What’d you say?
―Just whatever it seemed like he wanted to hear. He kept alluding to that actor. I said you two were old pals.
―I barely know any of them.
―I don’t think it matters. We just needed something to stand out.
―Did he have anything to say about my fake exhibition?
―Not really. I don’t know if he knows about art. He seems obsessed with celebrity. I’m sorry for lying by the way, I just wanted to cast every line that we could. I think it paid off.
―Zeke, he said.
He nuzzled his face in the puppy’s neck. He was not looking forward to walking it. He still hadn’t got down the rhythm of putting on the mandated protective equipment.
―And he’s okay with pets?
―Damn, she hesitated. ―I completely forgot to ask.
THEY debated what to do next.
She figured they could get away with showing up. How better to win over a wary heart than by confronting it with puppy eyes. Downy white fur. That sweet, earthy smell it effused.
He thought it might be worth getting a sense of where the landlord stood on the issue before driving three hours only to be disappointed by some allergy or prejudice or histrionic provision.
―But it looks like the property’s part of a farm. What kind of farmer harbors aversion to sweet little mutts?
―I don’t know, he said. ―Maybe the kind who posts purposefully bad photos to downplay the quality of the house they’re trying to rent? Or maybe not. Would it really hurt to call him?
As it turned out, Zeke must have been a fanatic. He droned over the line, and she nodded and gave a thumbs up, the initial root syllables of response words escaping her throat in fits.
When she hung up, she stayed beaming. After phone calls she always experienced the paranoia that the line remained connected, and through a kind of bewitchment she could be seen. That any joking or disparaging thing she might say, think, or wince at would yet be sucked through the earpiece and into the consciousness of whomever had been at its receiving end.
―Well, Zeke loves dogs.
―I could’ve guessed, he said.
―He used to have Scottish terriers, but they died. He got kind of off on a tangent.
―That’s great. But it didn’t seem like you managed to bring up the cat…
―No reason to bombard the man with questions. If he’s cool with a pup, I can’t imagine any brooding objections to a sleepy old kitty.
He tried to imagine Zeke brooding. He couldn’t picture him.
―One weird thing, though. He mentioned the flurry of responses he’s gotten. That’s the second time he phrased it like that. But this time it felt like a threat. Like before he was saying they weren’t in a rush to choose a tenant. And in his email he said at this early stage. But then just now he mentioned the flurry of responses. Almost like he was trying to tell us not to bother, or like we shouldn’t put all our eggs in his basket. But then he said he was really looking forward to meeting us and the pup, so I don’t know what to think.
―That is weird, he said.
―Yeah, but get this. He said he has an old high-fire kiln in his basement. I didn’t even touch on ceramics. He just said it like an aside, so clearly he remembers us among everyone else. I still feel good. Zeke’s just odd.
He didn’t require additional assurance to agree with that. But he felt placated. He trusted her judgment.
They made love that night, and the following morning, and late in the afternoon, as light crawled behind buildings and split, throwing triangles across the intersection in the hot, hissing city, again.
THE puppy panted in the car’s passenger seat. Windows cracked to exchange humidities. He opened a GPS mobile app.
―Wait, he said. ―So is he meeting us at the address of the house, or are we meeting him at his address first?
She looked up, hands in tote bag, sifting through granola bars and protective equipment.
―Uh, I’m not sure. I think he lives somewhere else. On the property. He said to meet at the white house with the red door and we could walk over to the house on the hill with him.
―So we’ll be sharing an address with Zeke?
―I don’t know, she said. ―I don’t fully know what we’re doing. I’m just excited we came to this conclusion. I’m excited we’re acting intentionally to improve our conditions.
―I guess I’m confused.
―I know, I know, just hold on, I want to make sure we have everything.
While he drove they listened to a podcast. Two men discussed why feminism was inherently racist over sound bites of airs horns and artillery fire. The puppy slept in a footwell.
―Did you remember your mask?
―Yeah, he said.
―Zeke just emailed to say we need to wear masks and gloves, and if we have glasses that would also be great, but he’s less concerned about glasses than the other things.
―Did you bring gloves?
―Yeah, she said. ―I keep checking to see if I forgot them, but they haven’t gone anywhere.
A digital sign on the highway warned that vehicles with out-of-state plates could be pulled over for random evaluation.
―Why does he want us to wear glasses? I haven’t heard anything about glasses during any of this.
―I don’t know. He knows we’re coming from the city. He’s probably just being cautious.
―That’s fine, he said. ―I just don’t get why. Like I’m not mad. Only curious if there might be new info we missed.
Every ten or so miles, another digital sign about being pulled over appeared.
STAY HOME, others said.
There were a lot of cars, though, and they hadn’t noticed police lights or sirens. As far as they could see down the highway, the road was even.
THEY took the exit the app indicated and made their way to a narrow road surrounded by tall, dense trees and without a center line.
―Look, she exclaimed.
She held the puppy and rolled down the window so it could stick out its face.
―We’re still twenty minutes away.
―I’m excited, she laughed.
The GPS coiled out sparse instructions. They kept looking for roads, then nearly missing the turns, braking at the top of steep gradients. Signage faded, worn by time. Posts bent. Some were missing, and he had to judge, compare with the two-inch LED map, and make his best estimate.
As they cruised over slopes, dodging semi-trailer trucks, which emerged at the crux of hairpin curves, and obtuse-angled switchbacks, internet and cell service dropped out and in. Rays of sun trickled through the verdure overheard.
Some distance off the road, a farm stand caught her eye.
―Hearpy’s Farm, she said, pronouncing the first word like harpy. ―I wonder if that’s the same Hearpy as my boss, I mean my ex-boss’s family. I’ve never seen the name anywhere else. Plus I’m pretty sure he grew up around here.
―Good portent, he said.
They came to a dirt road. It appeared to lead to their destination, and, according to the app, culminate in a dead end. They dipped at an abrupt ridge, then climbed again.
He could already imagine the number this habitual trip would do on his brakes. He’d have to learn how and when to shift into the lower gears of the automatic’s transmission.
She saw the look on his face and hoped he’d keep his mind open. She had a really good feeling. The puppy licked, alternating between window glass and her chin.
He wondered if he’d have to install chains on his tires come winter.
The road widened. Trees cleared above, and the incline subsided a bit. Rock walls trailed the lush grassy shoulder. Old barns and colonial houses arose every few hundred yards. But for the most part it was open country, undeveloped and untainted. They were kicking up dust. They breathed deep, took in the idyllic bouquet of backwoods.
―There it is.
She pointed, and the white house with the red door materialized through an amber sparkle of pollen and monarch butterflies. The swarm overtook the windshield for a perfect instant.
―Migration season, she said.
THEY parked in front of a rust-colored shed at what seemed like the edge of the property. Avertissement!, a sign affixed to its door announced in bold letters.
―Wow, she said. ―Seems like they’re French speakers.
―What does it mean?
―Like, warning, or caution, but, you know, there’s no perfect translation between any languages.
He looked at his phone. It showed one modicum of a bar for making calls. He pulled the parking brake and cut the engine.
She and the puppy got out of the car. Immediately the creature was transformed. Usually too timid to leave her side more than a few feet at a time, it bolted, tail lashing ferocious, across the dirt road into a vast meadow and lifted its leg.
Then it squatted with glee. In lieu of a plastic bag, she had to resort to one of the gloves. She turned it inside out and, coming up short in her cursory search for somewhere to deposit it, slipped the makeshift latex waste vessel under the passenger seat.
She hadn’t even had time to secure the puppy’s leash. When she caught up to it, it was investigating a smoldering stump in the weeds.
The smell was hypnotic. Sour and peppery and alluring as it was nauseous. Nothing around suggested disturbance. She wondered how or why it alone might have burned.
He was messing with something in her tote bag. Arrayed in mask, baseball hat, sunglasses, and gloves. She realized she wasn’t wearing any of the agreed-upon accoutrements.
She and the puppy trotted back to the car. He had her phone out and was attempting to make a call.
―No service, he said.
She tightened the leash’s tether, about to check the phone herself, he was famously incompetent with tech, when the Avertissement! sign began to rattle, and the shed door opened.
THEY assumed the woman, who’d introduced herself as Eunice, was Zeke’s wife. But Eunice hadn’t, they later agreed, going over the day’s events, ever actually elucidated the nature of her relationship to the landlord.
She remembered apologizing for being caught off guard, for prioritizing the puppy, for being irresponsible and disrespectful of the prearranged etiquette.
He thought she’d overdone it. Eunice, for one, wasn’t wearing a mask, gloves, or glasses. Plus she’d barely left the area surrounding their vehicle.
No damage could possibly have been done in those few moments. And so prosaic a faux pas could not possibly have accounted for their failing to procure a lease on the house on the hill in the country.
But they would speculate for weeks. This had been her sole opportunity for a first impression. She beat herself up with convictions and critiques.
He had been friendly. He’d waved, and at the last moment refrained from the impulse to stick out his hand.
―How are you, he yelled, overcompensating for the sake of the mask.
―Zeke’s occupied at the moment, Eunice said. ―He’ll meet with you after you look at the house. Go on up. As you can see, there’s a driveway you’d use if you happened to live in the place, but don’t worry about that. Just take the path, then turn around the way. Most people prefer the back entrance.
―Thanks, they said.
―Take as long as you need. Don’t rush looking around. Get a feel for things. That house has energy. Try to imagine if you could really stand to live…
Eunice trailed off. She looked behind her, into the dim opacity of the shed, then closed the door with both hands.
―There, the woman uttered.
THE back door was locked. He put his face to the sidelight. Particles drifted through the air inside.
They walked to the front, where the weatherstripping had peeled away and furled in the dry, warm breeze. The door was spartan, definitely antiquated, and it gave with some shouldering.
Tears started in her eyes the moment she entered.
Her father had been an architect.
She ran a hand down the heavy wood frame. Dragged the toe of her sandal along worn yet sturdy floorboards.
―This is where I want to be, she sniffed.
He was surprised by the visceral aspect of his own reaction. The house loomed with essentiality.
Soon her tears luminesced through a broad grin. She’d been right in her hypothesis. The photos from the listing didn’t just minimize the house’s aura, they debased it.
The main room was economical, though not an inch could be described as cramped. Instead, it was designed with exacting efficiency. An acute sense of flow and volition. It gave the impression of having been arranged by ordainment, not unlike the effect of a well-executed public park, or feng shui.
Large windows broke up the duskiness of the wood. A provident ledging extended from the sills, drawing across, uninterrupted, the perimeter of the room, but for the cast iron wood stove, which burgeoned from the center wall of the far end, hemmed in by conservative safeguards made of stone, which they assumed were indigenous to the property.
A butcher block divided the space. Fixed against a stylish, though not aggressively state-of-the-art, oven and gas range. On first glance, they didn’t even notice the refrigerator. Thus rounding out the room’s empyrean sensation.
The rest of the house proved equally ideal. It was no bigger than they would ever have use for, nor too small as to feel they couldn’t get away from one another.
There was a washing machine in a mudroom with a clothesline running the length of it. And another, accessible just out the window, from which he could see a lean-to stocked with treated, pre-split firewood.
A sizeable bedroom surveyed the rolling landscape, left behind by glacial melting, the pounding of mammoths.
Built-in shelves graced the hallway’s width, as well as the closets and pantry.
Finally, up a slender ladder, they could access a spacious and light-flooded loft.
They lay on the wood breathing. At the foot of the steps, the puppy gazed up longingly.
He broke their rapt silence.
―We can’t let this place go.
―I know, she gasped. ―I feel it.
―We have to be confident. Assertive. We have to say, we want to rent your house, this is where we want to live, what can we do to sign an agreement today, no hesitation.
HIS hands sweated in the gloves. It was early afternoon, and the sky was bare luster, no clouds.
He took the puppy by its leash and exited through the front of the house, careful to wrap the weatherstripping around the doorknob so it wouldn’t peel further off.
―Are you ready?
―Hold on a second.
She went back inside. He heard her fumble with something. An unfamiliar sound emanated. A low guttural groan. It took him a moment to realize it came from the puppy. Then it burst in frantic yaps, snarling and forlorn, building to the full, bold barks of a much matured dog.
In the four months since she’d ordered it, he couldn’t recall the puppy ever out-and-out barking. Any errant, instinctual yelp had always been effortlessly subdued.
But outside the house on the hill in the country, the puppy conducted itself with beast-like passion. Tugging and squirming and hollering. Its acrid tones ricocheted through the atmosphere.
In the constant reminiscences that followed, attempting to comprehend why they hadn’t been granted their rightful claim as tenants, they agreed: nothing had ever caused the puppy to behave or make another fuss as it had in that moment on that day.
Because it persisted for less than a minute. Until she scrambled to his and the animal’s side.
―What was all that?
She was shaking.
―I don’t know, he said. ―What were you doing?
―I just wanted to give the basement a peek. Did you see that floor hatch?
―Sure, he shrugged. ―Anything interesting?
―Not really. It was unfinished. More like a crawl space. I couldn’t see much, and I didn’t want to drop down. It’s a good amount of space though. We could store boxes or luggage or whatever there.
―When we move in, he said.
―When we move in.
She hugged him and the puppy, who’d returned to its coy, aloof temperment upon the click of the latch in the doorframe.
EUNICE was still by the shed when they came down the hill. They waved, and she squinted, raising a hand over her brow to block the sun. She adjusted the Avertissement! sign and stepped back, crouching to get a better look.
―Hi, they said.
―I’ll go get Zeke, Eunice answered. ―What did you all think?
―Well, we want to rent your house, he said.
―So sure already?
―We are, she said.
―What can we do to make a commitment today?
―Take a seat by the garden. We’ve got it all set up nice, and Zeke’ll be with you to go over brass tacks in a jiffy. Our hot water went out, and he just can’t seem to make sense of it.
―Andrew’s hopeless with mechanics, she teased.
He brought a glove to his mask to make sure it was fitted correctly. Eunice remained stooped. She put her hands on her knees, then reached one out to the puppy. It examined the digits, kept its distance, and snorted. Then backed off, twisting itself in the leash.
―Sorry, she said. ―He’s still pretty shy with people. But he’s great with other animals. We’ve only had him a few months. He came from a farm. I think he can sense this is where he wants to be.
―He’s not the only one, Eunice smiled and pushed herself to her feet. ―You make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you anything?
―Oh no, we’re fine, he said.
―What about Fido? He want some water? What’s his name by the way?
―Houdini, she said.
―Be careful. You might end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
―I’d be more concerned if he showed any interest in being more than five feet away from me.
―You never know, Eunice said. ―A place like this can cause all kinds of excitement. I’d hate for him to get lost, or, Hades forbid, there’ve been known to be predators that come down from the mountains.
―We’ll make sure to keep him on a tight lead.
―I’m sure you would. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll get Zeke.
LATER, the young couple went over the garden in detail. Perhaps they thought it held a clue in its arrangement. One that could explain why they weren’t bestowed the privilege of basking in its splendor ever again.
A small wrought iron table with a frayed lace runner was prepared on the patio, with two matching chairs near it, on the side of the white house with the red door. On the table rested a pitcher of water. And two more chairs, different ones, were positioned about eight feet from the other end of the table, and spread far apart.
The garden looked scorched. Flowers and weeds overgrown and dried up. A deer fence surrounded it with minor failings and mendings and bends in the mesh.
Farther along the hill, where, if not for trees and shadow, they’d be able to make out the little house for rent, another fence, this one staunchly secured with long barb razor wire curling at its top, framed what appeared to be five wooden boxes. There, another sign announced, Ne Pas Toucher!
Every other direction revealed georgic scenery. Immaculate vistas of golden hay bales and rich, healthy fields of green.
They brought the chairs on their side of the table a little closer to each other and tied the puppy’s leash to one of the legs.
She stood admiring the view, imagining it when fall hit. Foliage glowing in ombre shades. She tried to tighten a glove, pulling at the wrist, but it broke, and she was riffling through her tote bag for an extra when she detected faint movement in the meadow across the street.
―Oh my god, she said. ―Are those goats on our property?
―They’d better be, a voice said.
They turned to see a middle-aged-looking man wearing a shimmering headlamp. He brandished a stack of four glasses and was smoking a hand-rolled cheroot. He coughed twice through the haze.
―Rather, they’d better be on my property.
He placed the glasses on the table and slid two in their direction. An ejection between a hack and a giggle issued from the space made by the cigar and his otherwise unmasked, clenched teeth.
Eunice stepped out the red door, hands on her hips.
―Sorry for the wait, the man said. ―But I think I’ve got everything up to speed. The most important lines are prepared for rehearsal at least. I mean, the water lines… Are repaired… For the… Housing… The housing retreat.
The young couple nodded.
The man said, ―I’m Zeke.
HE asked if they needed anything. They shook their heads. Zeke insisted they all drink some water.
They agreed: it was time to do whatever was asked of them.
The man sniffed the pitcher. He ran the inside of a wrist across his forehead and scowled at the woman in the doorway.
―Eunice, Zeke called. ―How long’s this water been sitting?
―Just since they pulled in.
―It’s gone bad.
Zeke rubbed the bridge of his nose. He apologized.
―I’m sorry, I’ll get you fresh water. It won’t be a minute.
The light from the headlamp caught him in the eye as Zeke swung around and back toward the main house.
He winced and looked at her. She was half-sitting, half-out-of-the-chair by his side, struggling to fit a new glove over the ripped one and her palm, which was slick with perspiration.
―Eunice, Zeke said. ―Come down and tell ’em about the accommodations.
―Why don’t you tell them, she grunted.
―’Cause I’m getting the fresh water drink.
He marched past her. The woman hesitated. Then she moved through a dramatic curtsy and waltzed down the slate pathway from the front steps to the table on the patio, where the puppy panted compulsively, its tongue hanging to the ground.
―So, Eunice said.
―Your home is beautiful, she answered. ―What year was it built?
―I’m not entirely the best one to ask, the woman looked over her shoulder. ―But a long time back. Zeke was born here. His parents were from the city, like you two.
―They were political folks. Maybe too political for urban life. They came up here to start some kind of colony. Primarily theater-related, but they filmed movies as well. They never really took to agricultural culture. For a long time they leased out the land, and then Zeke sold some of it since it’s been in his name. Mostly we prefer to keep it as is.
She looked over her shoulder.
―We’re thrilled at the prospect of moving here, he said. ―I’ve got a checkbook in the trunk of my car. We’d be more than happy to leave a deposit. Or even go over the asking price, if that would make any difference.
―To me, Eunice said, pretending to act surprised.
―Or Zeke, he said. ―Whatever you guys would want.
―We get quite a bit of snow, the woman said.
―And the goats are all yours, she asked.
―Goats, Eunice repeated. ―Everything else. Zeke’s very lucky. And we’ve been lucky enough to have such… Tasteful tenants. But we only cover the first four snowplows of every season. The rest you’d have to pay for yourselves.
―That makes sense, he said.
―There he is.
Eunice shot up the path and switched off Zeke’s headlamp. They carried the pitcher together, as if it were a great onus, and Eunice whispered in Zeke’s ear the way back to the table.
―So you all like the place?
Zeke chewed the cheroot. It had gone out.
―It’s beyond like, she said. ―I don’t know how to explain the emotional reflex it set off in me.
―You’re not the only ones, Eunice said.
―Well, he said. ―In the immediate future, we’d like to be.
―Did I happen to mention the flurry of responses we’ve gotten, Zeke said.
―You have, she said. ―And I know you’re still in the early stage of finding a renter, but…
―Early, Eunice interrupted.
―Suppose, Zeke said, brushing a knotted hand against the woman’s cheek. ―Sometimes these things require rigorous pre-production. We like the idea of doing more cleaning, getting a sense of the scope of our prospects. And yet, other times…
Zeke poured water in their glasses. They had to stand to get to the table, and they were careful to keep their distance. Zeke poured water in Eunice’s glass and his own. He inhaled thoughtfully before raising it to his lips.
―So you came all the way from the city just to see our humble plot?
―Why don’t you tell us a little about yourselves while we’ve got you here then.
―Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, she began. ―Things are pretty uneasy in the city.
―To be certain, Zeke said. ―Eunice, did you ask if Houdini wants water? I feel like a sadist quenching my thirst in front of the pup.
―I asked, Eunice said.
―Did she ask?
―Uh, I mean, we got kind of off track.
―I’ll go grab a bowl.
―Wait, Eunice said. ―Let me do it.
―No, no. Just be a minute.
He charged to the red door before anyone could stop him.
She had to sneeze, but she was afraid of what would happen. She tried to swallow. That, however, only made it worse, and she collapsed with her mask on the inside of her elbow.
Her shame was startling. He sensed it.
―We’re artists, he said. ―Anna is an incredible sewer and designer and tapestry maker, as well as a professional editor. I studied ceramics. And I won’t pull any punches, we were both laid off right at the beginning of when things got tense. That said, we were well taken care of when we did work, and we have considerable savings and good credit and we’ve collected a fair amount from unemployment. We’re totally solvent. The rent on the listing is, like, half what we’re used to paying.
―How exactly do you make money now, Eunice said.
―Andrew has a solo show coming up this time next year, she chimed in, recovering. ―He’s being self-effacing, but it could be big. I mean, it will. He got represented by a major gallery, and his sculptures are seriously inspired.
―Zeke told you we’ve got a working kiln in the basement?
―I mean, he laughed. ―You guys ran an artists’ colony, right? You know how it is. This stuff is P.O.D. Paid on delivery. In the meantime, I’d be happy to show you a bank statement.
―That’s not what that means, Eunice said.
―What, he asked.
―And am I to understand…
Zeke had reappeared. He searched for her eyes. They exchanged notions of stress.
―That you, Andrew, have been working in television?
―It’s true, he said. ―But it’s not really where my heart…
―Can you tell me a little more about that? I’ve always been highly intrigued by the performing aspect of the arts.
―Oh, it’s not glamorous. I mostly deal with sets and props rentals, keeping odds and ends in order. It’s not like I’m responsible for doing makeup over anyone’s scars or getting behind-the-scenes gossip or anything lurid.
―I’ll bet you have some juicy stories.
He looked at her. She raised her eyebrows.
―Maybe, he said. ―But there’ll be plenty of time to tell tales around the fire pit, right?
He smiled. He’d just noticed the pit by the untended garden, and was proud of his ability to evade Zeke’s prying, and without giving away the stark pointlessness that had been his job, his art career, his self in the city.
―What we really want, she said. ―Is to leave some of that old life behind us. The grind was great, but we aspire to something more sustainable. More space. Fresh air. I was hoping to get into small-scale herb and vegetable farming.
―Hey, the land is ripe. We certainly haven’t exhausted the soil. Some of our tenants from time to time get into it. Deep down in the dirty. But I’ve always been more focused on aesthetics. I was disappointed when the studio didn’t take off. We had quite a guild at one time. Almost got a grant that would’ve provided funds for intensive workshops, biannual runs, reviews, victims from all over the world. Stoical writers, long-suffering actors, real professional types. But stuff kept getting in the way. And now we’re old guards ourselves. Isn’t that right?
Eunice stared into the distance.
―Well, if you’re interested in aesthetics, I don’t think you could’ve picked a better place if you tried, she said.
―We didn’t pick it, Zeke said. ―My parents did.
―Eunice told us. They were into politics?
―The show must go on, Eunice sang.
―If you’re not happy with the arrangements they provided, you’re welcome to leave any time.
Eunice spat on the patio. At once, it began to evaporate. The puppy, water bowl emptied, made a move to lap at it.
―Your home is beautiful, she said. ―What year was it built?
―Honestly, who cares, Zeke said.
They let that sink in.
―You wouldn’t happen to know, she paused. ―I saw a sign for Hearpy’s Farm on our way in. My old boss, from the museum, where I worked before all this…
She put her hands up, as though a gesture could give their lives context.
―His name is Hearpy. I think his family is from around here, but farther east. Do you think there’s a connection?
―Is your old boss a fascist, Eunice asked.
―No, she said.
―Then it’s probably not the same.
Zeke relit his cigar.
―She’s just mad because the gal’s dad called us hippies thirty years ago. But Jude Hearpy’s as sweet as they come.
―Their family hunted witches, Eunice said.
―That’s right, Zeke laughed through a plume of smoke.
The young couple were smokers. They felt pangs in its presence.
―Four hundred years ago. I think they knew Increase Mather. The Hearpy family was renowned as vicious cult murderers. They came to our end of the state because they were afraid, after the madness abated, that they’d be accused of undue cruelty and strung up to the stakes themselves. They cleared this land, and they founded the farm, and I don’t think they bothered anyone since. Except for they did call some of our old friends queers. It’s interesting to hear you pronounce their name the same way. Perchance there is a connection. Wouldn’t that be great?
The water in the pitcher was gone. The puppy scraped its teeth against the leg of the chair. Sunlight rippled, and the masks felt like they were dissolving, still hooked to the young couple’s faces.
―I’d be happy to leave his name and number as a reference, she said.
―Zeke, Eunice said.
The woman pulled at her ear. Zeke frowned.
―I just think this place would be perfect for us, he said. ―I’m maybe a little selfishly interested in the kiln. And I’m not sure of your parents’ political affiliations, but I’d be remiss not to mention that Anna was on the bargaining committee to unionize the museum she worked at. They had ninety-five members before stuff got bad.
―That’s something to be proud, Zeke started.
―They were anarchists, Eunice broke him off mid-speech.
―Well, that’s not far from the kind of ideals we adhere to.
―I was wondering about your bumper stickers, Eunice sneered. ―Pretty commendable. We wouldn’t find any Christrian right ones underneath, were we to peel them off?
―If you did, he said. ―You wouldn’t be the only ones nonplussed.
―You wouldn’t be the only ones, either.
Zeke rubbed the bridge of his nose. He removed a handkerchief from his pants pocket, blew into it, and wiped his mouth.
―I’ll get you all some popsicles.
―Oh no, that’s okay, we’re fine, they replied.
―You look like you need popsicles. They’re gluten-free.
Zeke’s chair capsized.
When he had disappeared into the main house, the woman righted his seat and leaned toward the young couple.
―I wish I could hold your hands right now, Eunice said. ―I want you to know, you’re both very sweet, and if you don’t get the lease, please don’t think it has anything to do with who you are. You’re virtually paragons. Don’t doubt that for an instant.
Zeke returned with two popsicles, unwrapped and beginning to melt.
He was grateful to be wearing gloves, but he didn’t know what to do with his mask. She dropped hers off one ear and delicately suckled. He didn’t like sweets. He wasn’t sure if he could afford to resist.
―We don’t trust anyone, Eunice said.
―She means politically, Zeke said.
―We like the doctor. His voice is Jewish, but his face isn’t.
They busied themselves with their frozen treats.
―This nation has just gotten so impossible to participate in. The people are disgusting, but I have a feeling people are disgusting no matter where you visit. Have you heard, for example, what kinds of things they eat in the Orient?
She stared at her popsicle. He was stunned, but he felt they were getting closer. Eunice was opening up. He almost nodded.
―Don’t say that, Zeke said.
―I know you know what they eat.
Eunice spat again.
―Anyway, Zeke sighed. ―We only cover the first four snowplows of every season. The rest you’ll have to pay for yourselves.
―That should be fine, she said.
―They would pay, Eunice hissed.
―You know how to work a wood stove?
―Constantly, he said.
―Other’n that, things are pretty straightforward. We’ll share a few cords with you, but you’ll owe us. The well is on your electric bill, but we typically end up covering thirty-three percent of those costs, so that’ll be removed from your rent statement quarterly. The washing machine can be removed. We didn’t install it, it belonged to a former… Lodger. But we don’t really approve. We’re environmentalists. We handwash everything. We recommend you do too. And don’t go anywhere near the apiary, of course. We put up the electric razor wire fence after bears got into it. Plus we’ve got to be careful of the wax and honey stockpiled in the shed. You’ve seen the signs, I presume.
―You speak French, she proclaimed.
―No, Eunice said. ―Our daughter got us those. She’s been stuck in Marseilles through this whole ordeal, if you can believe it.
―Do you have any other children?
Eunice and Zeke examined each other.
―We’re environmentalists too, she said.
―Thank you, Zeke answered. ―So you can leave us your references, and we’ll let you know when we make a decision.
―Well, okay, that’s great, um, but…
She looked at him.
―We were really hoping to put something firm down today, he said.
―You wouldn’t be the first to tell us that.
―Have many others made the trip to see the place?
―Many, Eunice said.
―But I thought, he started.
―We’re truly eager to live here, she said.
―Then distinguish yourselves, Zeke seethed, his face folding into a theretofore irreconcilable glower. ―Give me reason. Demonstrate your worth. Why you? You two. Why here? Why this? Why now?
―We’re ready to put our entire souls into the house, she said. ―I’ve been operating under a feeling of fate, from the moment I came upon the listing. And everything you’ve shared with us today has only heightened that. The history of this place, its whole vibe. It’s so in line with our values and goals. It’s undeniable. Kismet. And all your ways of doing things, we’ll defer to and uphold as if they were our own. I think I speak for both of us when I say we’ll make them our own.
She turned to him. He was nodding, spellbound.
―We’re more than happy to help you around your property, she continued. ―With repairs, the garden, whatever. We’ve got nothing but time, and we’re committed to reshaping our lives. I’m asking you to trust us. With so much uncertainty in the world right now, we need something to count on. Something to dedicate ourselves to. We’re receptive to change, malleable, quick on the uptake. We relish a good challenge, and we’re not flakes. Even if we are a bit green. Our word means something. Any contract we enter into, we do so with sincerest devotion.
Zeke tilted his head in Eunice’s direction.
―So young, the woman preened. ―You haven’t begun to know the meaning of your entire souls.
―We’re ready to try, she said.
―The world is always uncertain, Eunice answered.
From deep below, a swell of warmth and rhythm. The pounding of mammoths, she thought.
―Sounds to me like the makings of a hit, Zeke snickered.
Wind washed through the idylls.
―I guess the only question I haven’t asked, he said. ―So it’s great you’re cool with Houdini, but I was wondering, what if, down the line, we might also want to bring a cat…
―I mean, like, because I’ve had a cat, but lately, like right now I mean, I’ve been sharing it with a friend. But I, I mean, if we were to happen to get the chance to rent the house from you, if I wanted to also bring along the cat to…
Zeke shook his head. The cheroot fell to the patio, and he put his face in his hands, the backs of which seemed to have grown remarkably, suddenly hairy.
―We cannot, Zeke suspired through stiff fingers. ―Unfortunately. Abide any cat ownership on the premises.
―No cats, Eunice triumphed.
―Oh, that’s okay.
Something rolled in his gut. He wanted to leave this place.
―Like I said, I share it. It’s not exclusively ours. It’s not, like. It’s not even with us right now.
―We’ve had terrible trouble with cats, Eunice said.
―I’m so sorry to hear that.
―Did you know they can contract and spread the virus?
―It’s really no big deal.
―And the smell, Eunice gagged.
―I’m sorry, Zeke muttered. ―We really can’t abide cats.
―Please, please. No need to apologize.
She turned to him, looking for help. But he was at sea. The cat was his friend. He would mourn it forever when they moved to the country.
―We really love the house, she said.
―Well if that poses no problems, terrific, Zeke bounced back. ―I’ll get you a pad and paper and you can write down your references and social security numbers and we’ll check out your credit scores and everything that can be managed will be managed straight away.
The man tarried in the main house a while, but they were tired of talking. They were tired of watching Eunice stare off absentmindedly spitting. She was imagining the material for the curtains she’d cut.
―My dad was an architect, she said when Zeke returned.
―Terrific, Zeke said. ―You all really are tempting folks. It’s been such a pleasure to meet you.
―He built the house we lived in, in the city, but it’s gone now.
―My friends and I built that house on the hill more than thirty years ago. In the seventies. When the guild was at its peak. Things were different. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know what was going on with the world. We sourced the wood. We worked together. We had a lot of fun building that house.
―What happened to your father’s, Eunice said.
Zeke turned to the couple.
―I’m sorry. The lady lacks boundaries, but I’ll let you in on a secret. That butcher block came from the city. We pulled it off a corner in the restaurant district. Yeah, things were different in the seventies. Not like now. You could get away with anything. When did times get so tough?
―Speaking of time, he said, toiling to work the pen through the limitations of his gloves. ―Do you have an estimate for when you’ll make a decision regarding tenants?
Zeke took the paper and studied the reference with the name of the television program next to it.
―Wow. So this gal knows a bunch of celebrities and hotshots, huh? Production manager for film and television. I’ll bet she’s on personal terms with the likes of James Franco.
―I mean… No more than the rest of us?
―Wow, Zeke said.
―Tonight, Eunice said.
She barely heard herself ask the question. Goat dreams dancing behind her eyes.
―Tonight, Eunice repeated. ―That’s when we’ll have our decision made by.
HIS hands shook on the wheel. The puppy snored. It contemplated chickadees and meadow romps. She texted her references, making sure they expected a call from the landlord.
―Oh my god, she said.
―James Hearpy says someone already called.
―The call lasted less than five minutes. Says he spoke to a nice-sounding woman and gave us a glowing review.
She did air quotes again.
He turned on the radio, then turned it down so it was almost silent. Just a hum to match the road sounds. His hand went to his face. His mask was off, but it still itched. He didn’t think he’d ever worn one for such a continuous stretch.
―It seems really good, she said. ―They’re calling people immediately.
―I’m nervous, he said.
―So am I. Do you still like the house? Do you still want to live there? They were eccentric, but ultimately I think they were sweet. I think we could get used to them. And with everything going on, I really don’t think they’d bother us.
―I love the house. I’m just sad about the cat.
―The cat is an issue, but I’m glad you handled it the way you did. I don’t think they suspected anything. And anyway, we can always bring her in in secret.
―We’ll have to, he said.
―It’s not like they’d ever know. And if they did find out, it’d be months down the line. What are they going to do then, kick us out? We’ll have some stupid altercation, and it’ll be over. Don’t worry. We’ll find a way.
―I’m not going to leave her behind. What could they possibly have against cats?
―Who knows. They probably had a bad experience a long time ago and aren’t willing to take another chance. Maybe a cat really stunk up the place. But I don’t think they got as fixated as you’re fearing. They’re calling our references. If they really believed the cat was a dealbreaker, would they go through the trouble?
She had a point, and he always trusted her.
―I think this is the beginning of a very exciting time for us. It’s natural to be anxious. But we’re taking a huge step. We’ve been stagnating. Now is our chance to prosper.
His phone vibrated.
―Can you read that, he asked.
She couldn’t remember his password. She didn’t want him to think she didn’t care about him. She just didn’t care about passwords. She tried a handful, too embarrassed to ask, then got locked out for five minutes.
―I couldn’t remember your password, she said.
When she got it open, she laughed. She held up the screen so he could see the length of the text.
―I guess Zeke really does think he can get something out of you. According to your ex-boss, he monologued for fifteen minutes. Even invited her up to visit. He suggested she bring the cast and crew.
―Jesus, he said. ―You see what I meant about the gluten-free neighbor stuff, though? I just hope that popsicle didn’t have corn syrup in it. I’m allergic to corn syrup.
But he was laughing too. For what felt like the first time in months, his lungs expanded, and he took a deep, satisfying, cathartic breath.
Then flared his nostrils.
―Wait, what smells like shit?
AS they were approaching the apartment, Zeke called to ask if she could text screenshots of their credit scores. The man was having trouble with the internet.
He pulled over, she cracked the door, flung the waste glove to the curb, and they navigated to their banks’ mobile apps.
That was around five.
When nine p.m. rolled around and they hadn’t heard anything, she called back.
This time the woman answered. Eunice said Zeke was busy showing the house to another prospective tenant.
―Did he say anything about our credit information?
Eunice said she wasn’t sure, but she’d let him know they’d checked in.
An hour later, Eunice called to let them know she was so sorry, it had been the most difficult decision they’d ever had to make about the house on the hill, the young couple really was the most exemplary of possible occupants, but they’d decided to give dibs to the first person who’d contacted them about renting it.
She alluded to the fact that he was a single man, and, as expected, he was ready to sign on at once, so he had.
Eunice wanted her to know they were so sorry.
That’s when she’d started to cry. He’d watched her face through the call. He’d known it was hopeless from the quality of her second response word:
THEIR initial reaction was: what could you do?
The single man had beaten them to the punch, and had been rewarded deservedly. She hadn’t responded until the post had been up for close to two hours. They’d been eating lunch or something. She’d been away from the computer.
She blamed herself.
He blamed the cat.
He was certain its acknowledgment had been their undoing. What kind of people took such a stance, though? People who lived on farms, even if they weren’t fond of them, must concede to a feline utility in hunting pests, not to mention general camaraderie. Goats stink up places far worse than cats. They hadn’t banned goats from their property.
Nonetheless, it didn’t take long to change their tune. Something had been fishy from the start. Remember, the landlord kept dropping hints like they shouldn’t get too excited. In fact, hadn’t Zeke implied as much the last time they’d talked before making the trip? Almost like he’d been trying to tell them not to bother.
But he’d liked them, they thought. How long Zeke had monopolized his former boss’s time suggested earnest investment on his part. Some promise of constancy. Or at least a nod toward their rapport.
They’d brought so much to the table. They’d performed about as faultlessly as anyone could given the circumstances. They’d even preserved their protective equipment when it was clear Eunice and Zeke weren’t attached to the protocol.
Besides, what kind of an excuse was it that the first person who reached out about a rental listing got the prize? Since when was that how these things worked? Not then or two hundred years earlier. Nor anything else, for that matter. One chose the preferred, ideal tenant, and that’s who signed the lease.
So they must not have been as good a fit as the single man Eunice had cited, difficult as that was to believe.
UNLESS, and this was where their speculations really took off, it wasn’t an issue of an even playing field, or even a playing field, in the sense of fair competition, at all.
He pointed out that she’d only ever communicated with Zeke right up to the moment they’d pulled in front of the shed off the dirt road across the street from the meadow. From then forward, it had been clear, despite Zeke’s role as property owner, Eunice was the de facto director of the affair.
She couldn’t deny it. The bait and switch was near imperceptible, but the experience had been unnerving.
―Zeke didn’t even call us back, he said. ―After all that. She did.
And remember the way Eunice had interrupted everything and said for them not to take it personally? The way he saw it, she’d already determined they weren’t getting the house long before they’d arrived. She’d probably promised it to someone else in a backroom deal. Perhaps to a relative Zeke was less than fond of. Or maybe they’d posted it on Facebook and their kid in France had sent it to her friend, and before Zeke could intervene, Eunice had consented, and the whole thing had been set in stone, even if Zeke resented the decision being made without him. Even if he’d tried to repudiate it.
―Then again, he said. ―Why would Zeke have allowed us to travel all that way if we didn’t have a fair shot? He had to have known from your interactions we’d want the house.
―Now that you mention it, she said. ―Eunice sounded pretty drained on the phone. I got the sense there’d been a disagreement. You know the way an argument hangs over you after it’s over? My guess is Zeke did want us, but she didn’t. For whatever reason. It was her final word.
They entertained states of denial. They went back and forth about appealing to Zeke directly.
They slept on it.
In the clarity of morning, however, they gave up. They didn’t think Eunice would’ve called unless she’d been deadset against renting to them. She’d dug their graves before they could raise a hand in protest. Before they could even defend their claim.
Because the house had been theirs, rightfully. The young couple agreed: there was no way the single man could’ve made a more model denizen.
They imagined what kind of a man he could be. Probably Zeke and Eunice’s daughter was an international banker. This guy worked in finance, and would spend the whole winter alone, too lazy to chop wood, instead resorting to the electric burners, and racking up enormous bills to stay warm.
They mocked him. He spoke only in dividends. He’d have no use for the kiln. He’d never stay up late swapping stories or running old lines with Zeke. He’d be shifty, awkward, sullen.
They despised him. It had been them. They were not the ones to blame. They privately questioned this.
Then resigned to ceaseless doubt and agitation. She said she’d find the perfect place. From the window, he watched the men dismantling buildings. The city glowed green in their hate.
WOULD he have been happy to know he was vindicated? Because he’d been right. The cat had proved their true bane.
Indeed, Eunice had harbored reluctance about renting to a couple. That the girl’s father seemed dead was a plus. But they both seemed well-loved. They’d have friends up to visit. Loose ends. Presences. Fuss.
Yet for all her misgivings, she very likely could have been convinced, and caved to Zeke’s will, he was so animated at the prospect of having established screen actors involved in the campaign, and who could blame him, he had passion, and a long time had passed since he’d gotten to act on it. She empathized, and she loved him, she really did.
Had it not been for the reference to the cat, categorically, she would have been persuaded. It was his family’s farm, after all, and his good fortune to share with her as he pleased, nuptial agreements having still served significantly more patriarchal ends when she’d deigned to tie the noose.
She scowled at her platitude.
Yes, all the earthly possessions and habituations she’d ever know may legally be his. But was it not also her stomach?
She could not abide cat. Dog, fine. She’d deal. But she would not stoop to feline flesh. Not after all the sinuous ribs she’d picked her teeth with through the ages. Their fetid fecal hoarding habits. Exclusionary diets of diseased vermin. The breeding grounds that were their mouths, claws, limbs, and innards. The way they draggled their corruptive sacs, relentless.
She was well past retiree-aged, not that she’d ever worked. Still, she’d been firm: she was retired from cat.
This had been their agreement since the turn of the century. He was welcome to argue his case, but you don’t throw out hard rules for a chance to chain Saint Elmo’s belt around James Franco’s waist.
Some things take priority. They were environmentalists. So were the young couple, presumably. They’d have to understand. Waste not, want not. Any animals of prospective occupants would inevitably end up theirs. And how many dogs and cats was one meant to take in every season?
Eunice had had her fair share of pets, and she was sick of it. There was enough to keep track of without having to foster compassion for indolence. The goats made milk. Ensuring their lives was plenty responsibility.
The single man had arrived thirty minutes after the young couple had departed. He came with no baggage, no friends, no critters, no family. He even said he was thinking of getting rid of his phone. In his car’s passenger seat, a typewriter sat perched.
He was a writer, he’d said. Probably as full of it as those artist kids. Who could admonish him? Who wouldn’t have lied for a chance to live in their house on the hill in the country?
She hadn’t felt great about misrepresenting the situation, but unless her inner-polygraph had failed her after so many years, the young couple had set the precedent.
And sure, they’d been disappointed, but disappointment was temporary. If only she could tell them he’d saved both their lives with that offhanded comment.
The cat. She cackled. She had no one to tell.
She looked out the window. It would be winter in a matter of weeks. She wondered where they’d ended up. To be certain, the young couple must have found someplace to suffer hell’s furies by now.
And now supper was cold. And Zeke still out with his company. Devil knew what he had them performing, but she’d be undamned if she was going to eat soup cold. She’d earned better. Through the height of Zeke’s freewheeling bohemianism, when she’d had to appease the old rogue’s every whim and simultaneously field the undying threats of the superstitious fascist down the road. Hardly a week going by without some fulmination against their conduct, the empty blackmailing menace about siccing the Feds on them. His kids vandalizing their property, ransacking the shed, kicking over beehives, scrawling mock curses in their very goats’ blood on their own front door until she worked up the pluck and painted it that hideous red.
Such lifetimes of maintenance. And withal, they’d lost everything. And who’d been the one expected to keep it together? Who’d been the one with the plans? To dig deeper. Think broader. Go underground.
She’d been the one to put her foot down when it came to cats, and she’d be scorched by holy water if she were going to dine desolate that night, forsaken by way of her infernal design and innovation, of supporting her man, of sacrificing for… What? Or ever again.
Eunice put on her boots. Her feet had swollen from the change in weather, and she had to sit on the ground. She didn’t relish getting older. It was not a good challenge. She couldn’t even say how old she was. She’d stopped counting after everyone from the guild who hadn’t already dropped dead got paranoid about cops and left.
It was dark. The only light beyond the main house flickered upslope. Smoke writhing in the chimney. Faint cracks of pressurized wood came into earshot as she made her ascent.
Weatherstripping coiled at her feet like a perverse serpent. She opened the door with the weight of her body, backfirst. She hadn’t been in the house on the hill in some months. She didn’t like to interrupt, but she’d been waiting for over an hour and a half and had reheated the soup once more than she could dismiss.
The typewriter still settled on the butcher block, collecting cobwebs. A piece of paper was loaded, but no text appeared on it. She suspected he hadn’t had a chance to begin.
Zeke moved fast these days, now well into his second century. When she’d met him he was all about having fun. He’d blathered on about the antics of theater. About going back to the city and taking Broadway by storm.
He seemed to have accepted that fun couldn’t last.
Eunice inspected the fire. She turned the embers so they wouldn’t extinguish themselves while she was subterranean. Then she pulled the floor hatch and dropped down to the crawl space.
On her knees, she jostled the flashlight from her apron and switched it on. She shone it about, searching for the scuttle. They’d gotten sloppy. She pushed the remains of canine vertebrae away with her wrist, padding about. From the time they’d put her blueprints to work, she’d had trouble locating the furtive passageway. Another testament to her skills of secretion.
At last her hand clenched cold metal. She twisted the frame until it released. Air escaped, and the soft thrum of piano trickled through.
She’d hoped Zeke would be already scaling his way out the other side. She spat loathsome obscenities under her breath, engulfed by ire eras in the festering, of how selfish he was, forgetting supper, carrying on like their whole existence were some million-act comedy, and not a tragedy of indefatigable errors. It would feel good to disturb his joie de vivre. Libérant.
She snorted at the word. As though it had wriggled pathetically begging for mercy from her womb to her rectum, regurgitating amid ghastly consciousness.
Eunice descended the ladder. Her boots struck stale earth. She was impressed with how solidly he’d managed to maintain it. She wondered how much help he’d gotten installing the ultramodern stainless steel beams she regarded along the shaft.
The piano grew louder then. A ragtimey, dissonant, minor progression.
―I hate you, a voice screamed.
―Now now, Zeke cooed.
―I’m going to kill you!
Unclear if the wail’s source belonged to man or woman. In either case, its vocal chords shredded to their limits. Zeke giggled. She’d come at the right time. At worst, the players would appreciate it.
―From the top, Zeke sang.
Chains rattled and clanged. The shaft was fragrant. Eunice must have been more or less beneath her reconstituted fox soup. Reflective strip lights threaded through the steel supports and dimly illumined the corridor. Skeletons, mold, putrescence. But she was almost at the scaffold, and she could feel the mortals’ warmth.
When she entered stage left, no one knew. The theater opened up with arched ceilings to reveal the rotten, split ends of roots. Worms and maggots impelled their segments through it and fell to the stony packed dirt, by bodies, which synchronously imprecated Zeke, spoke their lines with verve, and entered rhapsodic fits of weeping and hysterical laughter.
The kiln emanated heat from behind the piano. Its rusty tin smokeshaft depositing soot out the stump aboveground. She searched for the single man. The writer, supposedly. But they all looked the same. Mud and feces. Gaunt hipbones. Sunken cheeks.
It was a matter of time. And for a long time, everything and everyone had, to her, looked the same.
Zeke played the piano. The prisoners howled.
―Better, better. Almost there, sopranos. Altos, that’s your cue, come in… Now!
He signaled to something, then shivered as it endeavored to trill.
―Ezekial, she uttered.
He stopped playing.
―What, he said, glaring at the keys.
―Supper’s been ready two hours. You’ve gone long. It’s time to break.
Zeke stood up directly. He didn’t try to object.
―That’s all for today, folks. Take five. I’ll see you in the morning. We’ve got a hit on our hands, I’ve got to believe it. And you…
He pointed over his shoulder, still squinting into the original, genuine elephantine ivories.
―Mr. Fishkind. I want to applaud you on your hard work. We’re getting there. It’ll be a tough winter, but we’ll make you a John Proctor yet.
With great effort, Zeke rose from the piano bench and limped over to Eunice.
―And you, he said. ―Thanks for supper. But don’t think I’ve forgotten for a minute. You owe me an Abigail Williams.
She put a hand on his arm, and he escorted her through the shaft, backlit by the glimmer of the incandescent kiln.
―Rent’s due, Eunice said.
OH, for all that, and many interludes later, she couldn’t reach a conclusion. She still searched for an answer.
She wrested him for assessments, impressions, theoretical loops. Was it her sneeze? Or when she’d appeared unmasked, falsely innocent? The broken glove? What could the woman have meant by virtually paragons? Her fingers gnarled in perpetual air quotes.
She blamed who she was. Who he was. She couldn’t bear to look at the puppy, it burdened her soul. She blamed anything to which she could train her waning editorial probes.
He lambasted her, silently. And himself, too, for holding on to such frivolity. Because not a night passed when, noting the delicate susurrus of dislodged litter crumbs, as he fitfully tossed into nightmare-racked slumber, he stupidly, cannily, and rightly blamed the cat.
Even after she’d found them a quaint colonial cottage, higher along on a taller hill in a more rugged tract of the very same valley as Zeke, Eunice, and their infamous, ever-growing cast. They were plagued.