It is February 22, 2004.
Dawn comes over the hills and wakes Aunt Fiona. She makes herself coffee. She moves around the house, adjusting this, adjusting that. When it’s time for Ellen to wake up, she goes into Ellen’s room and gently shakes Ellen’s shoulder.
Ellen is dead.
The light that comes into the room is muted. It passes through an open window and Venetian blinds. The blinds are grey. They clack gently in the breeze. Ellen’s body is covered in scratches and scrapes. She seems to have bled to death in her bed, soaking the sheets in her blood. There is no sign of struggle. Her dreaming face shows a distant unease.
“Huh,” says Aunt Fiona. “There’s a thing.”
She looks Ellen over. She sighs. Then she goes into the other room. She sits. She sips at her coffee. Finally, she finishes her coffee and looks uneasily down at the grounds.
“She’s always such trouble,” Fiona sighs.
Then she gets up, and goes into the other room, and calls Leila. They talk for a few minutes, pleasantries and such. Then, somewhat awkwardly, Aunt Fiona broaches the subject.
“Ellen’s dead, dear,” Fiona says.
There’s a silence on the other end of the line.
“I was wondering . . .” Fiona’s foot curls uncomfortably in her slipper. “I was wondering, dear, if you could come out here and help me sort through her things.”
“. . . dead?” Leila’s voice is faint. “Seriously?”
“I’m afraid so,” Fiona says. “I should be calling the police directly.”
“You haven’t . . . Fiona? What happened? Are you all right?”
Fiona makes a sad face at the phone. “Well, it’s a disruption,” she says. “But I’ll get by.”
A count of three passes. “What happened?”
“Death’s natural, dear,” Fiona says.
Leila doesn’t have the money for immediate plane tickets. Her airline offers discounts for family emergencies, but the number for that office has been disconnected. On her third call to the company headquarters, a helpful operator digs up the correct number. She calls it, and reaches the office’s voicemail system. Voicemail is full. She cannot leave a message.
Eight days later, she arrives at Aunt Fiona’s door.
“Can I see her?” Leila asks.
“Dead and buried,” Fiona says. “Dead and buried.”
“She has so many things,” Fiona says. She’s using a helpless voice. “Books, pictures, clothing, and tapes. I don’t know what to make of it all.”
Leila hesitates. It’s indecision. She doesn’t understand Aunt Fiona’s behavior. Everyone grieves differently, she concludes. Then she hugs her aunt.
“We’ll get through this,” Leila says.
That afternoon, Leila finds the refrigerator almost empty. Even the Brita water tank is dry. The shelves are similarly barren. There’s no toilet paper in the holder, just a barren metal roll. Aunt Fiona has been using Kleenex.
“Do you need me to go shopping?” Leila asks. She sounds tired.
“Would you?” Aunt Fiona asks. “It’s hard for me to get out, you know. Ellen had been taking care of it but . . . not so much, not lately.”
So Leila goes out into Lompoc.
The sky is beautiful. Its colors are pink and blue. The streets are asphalt’s faded black. But people’s eyes are strange as they look at her.
Everything in the grocery store is marked down.
When she comes back home, she thinks, I don’t hear any dogs. You’d think there’d be more barking.
“What happened to her?” she says, as she unpacks day-old bread, wilted lettuce, and milk a bit closer to its deadline than she’d like.
Fiona wrinkles her nose. “I think,” she says, “that God thought it was her time to die.”
“She . . . just passed away?”
“In her sleep, dear,” Fiona says.
Leila sorts. She packs. She helps around the house. Fiona keeps things very clean and very neat, but she doesn’t like to leave the property, so Leila does most of the shopping.
The second night, she has a dream.
She is on a hill, looking up at a cross. Something is nailed to that cross. There’s a crown of thorns on its head. Its body is covered in welts and bruises. Blood leaks slowly from a wound in its side.
“Do you know how you have failed me, Leila?” it asks.
Her vision is blurry and indistinct. She cannot tell whether she looks upon a human or a god. But there is a deep, rich power to its voice. It fills her. It transcends her. So she asks, “Jesus?”
“Do you know,” the voice asks her again, “how you have failed me, Leila?”
Her throat is tight. She is deeply aware of her inadequacy; that she is nothing, and has always been nothing, before such judgments as the Lord’s. Yet she cannot find an answer to give. She can find no sin that stands above any other in all the ranks of mortal sins. In Calvary, before that nameless presence, she is silent.
“I loved her,” she says, to Aunt Fiona, over breakfast.
“Did you?” Aunt Fiona butters an English muffin. She takes one half to Leila on a plate. She keeps the other for herself.
“She was beautiful,” Leila says. “Even with everything. Even despite everything. I was glad when she finally decided to . . . move out here, and stay with you for a while. I thought she might find some peace.”
“What is,” Fiona says, “is.”
Leila is silent for a long time. I shouldn’t speak, she tells herself. But she does.
“Don’t you care about her? Didn’t you care about her?”
Fiona stands. She goes to the sink. She looks away.
“Blood is blood,” Fiona says. “Of course I cared. But she wasn’t a very good person, was she?”
“How can you say tha—”
“You’ve seen how people look at us,” Fiona says. “You’ve seen. How they look at you on the street. How they look at the house. That’s not because of you, dear. That’s not because of me. That’s because of her. I’ve been living in this town for thirty-two years, and I can’t walk down the street past my neighbors any more. Because she was a freak. She was a nice person. She wanted to be good. She didn’t want to be what she was. And I gave her charity. But if she were good, wouldn’t she be alive? Wouldn’t God have wanted her to stay?”
“Fiona,” Leila says.
“It’s best to just . . . be glad it’s over,” Fiona says. “It’s sad. Of course it’s sad. But it’s sad because people are just too sentimental. I keep crying over her, but I don’t want to. I’m glad that she’s gone.”
That night, Leila dreams, and her dreams are full of Calvary.
“This is Golgotha,” she says. “The Place of the Skull.”
She picks a skull up from the ground. She can see its history. Every layer of bone and every crusting of sediment tells her its story. This was the skull of a monster. His family had cut the tendons of his arms and legs and left him there for the birds and beasts to devour, more than seventy years before the death of Christ. His death, though slow and full of fear, was not so arduous as the cross.
“There are dozens,” she says. The ground is littered with the skulls of the dead. She drops the one she holds.
Her attention is commanded by the thing upon the cross.
“Do you know how you have failed me, Leila?” it asks.
She shakes her head, mutely.
There’s a harsh and biting disappointment in the air. She trembles before its radiance and falls back, casting her hand before her eyes.
“Lord!” she says, helplessly. The word is torn from her throat.
“Not much fresh food,” she tells the clerk, later that day, at the grocery store.
He gives her a nervous smile. “We’re having trouble getting rid of the back stock,” he says.
“It’s the dead,” he says. “So many dead. It’s good for the town but bad for the economy.”
She stares at him blankly. Then he looks down and blushes. “You knew one of them,” he says, “didn’t you?”
Leila nods, curtly.
“My Mom,” he says. “She wasn’t good enough either.”
“Oh,” she says, faintly.
“It’s too bad,” he admits.
Her dreams that night are troubled, but empty of the voice of God. She wakes with a bitter taste in her mouth and a strange feeling of abandonment. She showers. She goes into the kitchen. She slowly comes to the awareness that she cannot hear Aunt Fiona anywhere in the house.
It does not surprise her to find Aunt Fiona dead.
The policeman who comes to the house is brisk and businesslike. He gives his name as Officer Connor. He examines the body in a cursory fashion. Then he turns to Leila.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” he asks.
“. . . yes,” she says.
“Bereavement is hard, ma’am. If you need to talk to someone, we have a counselor on staff—”
She shakes her head. “I haven’t . . . she hasn’t . . . she wasn’t much of a person,” Leila says. “Not since I’ve been here.”
“I understand, ma’am,” he says.
He looks her over. Then he says, “You’re in from out of town, aren’t you, ma’am?”
“They say around here that Lompoc’s a test for the soul,” he says. “It’s easy to slip, here. It’s easy to fall into sin.”
“Doesn’t that happen everywhere?”
The policeman makes a face. “You’d think so,” he says. “Cities of vice and sin, all of them. But . . . it’s strange. I’ve been to Reno. I’ve been to Los Angeles. And, just for balance, I’ve been to little places in Vermont where Ol’ Scratch has never had much sway. And I’ve never seen . . .”
He gestures, vaguely.
“It doesn’t seem to get to them, quite so much, out there in the world. I’ve never seen a real sinner, there. Just sad people with sad stories and sick people with sick stories and a bunch of animals who don’t know any better.”
“What’s the difference?” she says.
“There are some people in Lompoc,” he says. “Like your Aunt. You look at them and you just know. They’ve gone too far into the darkness. They’ve lost the grace of God. He’s there for you, you know. He’s always calling, guiding, trying to keep people from the darkness. But people . . . just keep wandering into sin. I’d like to kill them all, but . . . that’s the way of sin, too, you know. So I just try to do my job and treat ’em the same as everybody else. I guess I figure that if they’re going to Hell, it’s all right to give ’em a little sympathy here on Earth.”
“Oh,” she says. Her voice is hollow.
“You sure you’re all right, ma’am?”
“Have you ever been afraid,” she says, “that you might be one of them? That you might have sinned like that?”
“All the time, ma’am,” he says. “All the time.”
Men come and take the body away. She’s alone in the house, surrounded by Fiona’s things and Fiona’s scent and the few paltry boxes she has left of Ellen. After a few hours, she starts doing laundry. Then, between loads, she finds herself screaming, pushing over furniture, and throwing papers around in a fury. She finds herself falling, beating on the floor with her fists, her knuckles bloody, and then she is asleep.
The air at Golgotha is rich with the stench of death and rotting meat.
“Do you know,” says the voice, “how you have failed me, Leila?”
“There are so many ways,” she says. “I can’t find words for them all.”
Her ears ring with the sounds of the dripping of its blood.
“Do you know,” it asks her, soft and deadly, “how you have failed me?”
The washing machine buzzes, loudly. It wakes her. She opens her eyes. In the first moment of bleary vision, she sees something, small and hairy and horrid, skittering away.
There are scratches on her arms and legs.
Leila thinks, dizzily, It was hungry.
She goes to the beach. She sits on the sand. She looks at the sign, which warns her of an undertow. She listens to the sea.
“It’s strange,” Leila says. “I never saw how horrid and inhuman and cruel it looked, in the dream.”
She stands up. There’s a curious indifference to her, like a puppet on strings.
“It shouldn’t matter,” she says. “It shouldn’t matter how it judges me.”
She looks down at her hands.
“But I’ve failed it,” she says. And she walks into the sea.
Contemners impose judgment to divide their prey from the pack.
It is March 17, 2004. Leila’s lungs are full of water.
There’s a crashing and a roaring and a tumult. There’s blue and violet and rose, and she finds herself rising, dredged to a rock by a mer-nymph in long and unconcealing silks.
“It’s not Jesus,” says the oceanid. Her voice is matter-of-fact and routine, as if Leila is the eighth person she’s had to explain this to this month.
“I know,” Leila says.
The oceanid blinks. “Oh. That’s good, then.”
“It’s something horrible,” Leila says. “But I can feel its judgment in me. I’m not even human any more.”
The oceanid shrugs. “It’s okay to dive back in,” she says. “Most people do. But I’ll only fish you out the once.”
In the distance, water pounds against the shore.