Brian Ed waited outside the ration house. Merlijn took his time coming to the door, and opened it slowly. Brian Ed raised his hand and waved. Merlijn smiled an embarrassed smile and held up four fingers.
‘No rations until four o’clock, Brian Ed.’
‘Yes,’ said Brian Ed. He didn’t leave. ‘How are you today?’
‘Oh,’ said Merlijn, his hand on the doorknob. ‘I’m well, Brian Ed. Thank you for asking.’
They stood in silence. Brian Ed shrugged. All courtesies escaped him. His everyday pack squeezed his neck and tore at his shoulders. Inside were the children’s book, the old orange balloon – now deflated – that had once read Welcome Refugee!, and the four heavy stones he carried without knowing why, each the size of a baby’s head.
‘Well,’ said Merlijn, patting Brian Ed on the hand. ‘See you at four, then.’ Brian Ed thrust a long foot forward. ‘No,’ he said. ‘How is the weather? No snow will come? No avalanche time?’
Merlijn smiled. He stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him. ‘Brian Ed,’ he said, ‘are you hungry? Can I offer you a peach?’ He cupped his hand as if the peach were already there and held it up to Brian Ed’s mouth. ‘Summer is coming. Sun. The peaches are good. No avalanche. Let’s walk.’
He wasn’t hungry, but it was his own fault if Merlijn thought he was. He only ever came to Merlijn for his ration – of food, of clothing, of wood. Never had he come for company, not to Merlijn, not to anyone, not once since the poison curtain of war had dropped and travel home had become impossible. He’d never dreamed it would last three years. Three years was as long as some lives. He hadn’t prepared and he hadn’t adjusted. He hadn’t learned the words. Instead, he’d gone dull in the comfortable glow of the golden cone.
Brian Ed followed Merlijn up the hill to the orchard, where peaches and cherries and pears hung huge from their trees, pulsing and oozing like the separate chambers of one metastasising heart. This wild growth was one of the uglier effects of the war. Brian Ed could barely look at it.
When Merlijn picked a peach from the branch the sound – a deep suck and slip – turned Brian Ed’s stomach.
‘Here you go,’ said Merlijn. ‘Nobody’s gotten sick yet.’
Merlijn watched as Brian Ed took a bite. The flesh of the peach squirmed against his teeth as if it were a living thing and did not intend to go down easy. Merlijn wiped juice from the sides of Brian Ed’s mouth with the back of his hand. Brian Ed pulled a string of pulp from the back of his throat. It was as thick and solid as a rat’s tail.
‘Merlijn,’ said Brian Ed. ‘Merlijn.’ He dropped the peach and tried to speak with his eyes. When that failed, he said, ‘I’m not hungry. What do you like to do? What are your favourite things?’
Birds were nearby; their calls were sharp and elated. The two men looked around the orchard in surprise, but the sound seemed to have come from somewhere else.
‘Funny,’ said Merlijn, ‘I thought that flight was gone forever. But life finds a way, doesn’t it.’ He narrowed his eyes.
‘Brian Ed,’ he said, ‘Are you sure you’re getting enough to eat? How is the hut? Summer is coming, did you get your tar? Are you sleeping? You know that you have our sympathy, you can ask us for anything. What do you need? Tell me what it is. I’ll submit the request. I’ll write it down for you. What is it?’
Brian Ed skirted the edge of the golden cone, he tried not to slip down the fade, even though it was golden there and quiet and full of sense. His feet toed the edge of that shimmering inversion, whose tip was deep and nowhere visible, whose base was the circumference of his mind. He basked in the up-glow. It was even a little warm. I know, but stay, he told himself. Stay here. This is it. You are cut off. The end of the earth is the earth.
‘Merlijn,’ he said, ‘I am trying to ask you: what do you like to do? For fun?’ ‘Brian Ed!’ said Merlijn, his eyes suddenly awake. He slapped the trunk of a tree and six fleshy pears made dents in the earth where they fell. ‘You owl in the moss! We never thought you would. You’re really learning! Who’s teaching you?’
‘The book,’ said Brian Ed. ‘The book is teaching me.’ He was moved to embrace Merlijn. They held each other and swayed back and forth. The shape of Merlijn, the fat square of his body, his warmth, the slim cushion on his back. Brian Ed shivered. Life could be just the same again.
‘This is wonderful,’ said Merlijn, holding him close. ‘Which book?’
Brian Ed said nothing. He looked down at the sea that had grown a hundred hands and he watched the hundred hands slap at the new birds and suck them down to drown. He tried, but he could not hear them scream. He took off his pack and handed the children’s book to Merlijn.
‘The Witch and the Avalanche,’ said Merlijn. ‘I haven’t seen this in a long time. Where did you find it?’
Brian Ed tried to recall the word. Where. Where. Much of three years had been a searching crawl, he’d been low and found things there, some devastating, some useful. Had he found this word? Where had he been?
‘Where,’ said Merlijn sternly, ‘did you find this book?’ He pointed his finger and swung it around his head, drawing the limits of their world.
Brian Ed had found the book almost three years ago behind the blown-out kindergarten, back when he was still wiping himself with trash and sleeping behind the well full of dried cats. Before the town had given him the hut, before the welcome balloon had named him.
‘Where are the kids,’ said Brian Ed faintly. ‘There are the book, where are the kids.’
Merlijn hugged himself, then touched the top of his nose. He turned away as if to examine a secret wound. Quietly, he echoed, ‘Where are the kids.’
Where. Are. Where. Are. ‘No,’ said Brian Ed. He saw his company slipping away. He stretched like an athlete and shook free of his dullness. ‘No,’ he said triumphantly. ‘Where the kids were. Where they were. With books.’
‘Oh,’ Merlijn said, returning to the conversation dampened. ‘The kindergarten? I thought all of that went to the museum. But you got a piece of it. You got a little piece of it.’ He rubbed the sides of his face. ‘I guess that’s fine. You needed it. Everyone needs a few objects of his own.’
Merlijn ran his hand over the cover of the book. On it, a baby dangled from the highest branch of a tree. The baby hung there by the bonnet strings, above a town just destroyed by an avalanche. All was snow except for the pink baby in its tree, and the brown tip of the church steeple poking through, next to the very tip of the red hot staff of the witch that would soon melt her free. Merlijn’s face turned a colour that gave it texture and depth, dotted red, dotted white, dotted pink.
‘When I was young,’ said Merlijn, ‘my sympathies were with the witch. She was desperate. To a child, desperation is poignant. I didn’t know desperation then, not really. I thought I did. I knew I wanted things that I couldn’t get. But real desperation, the kind that sends you into the pit – I had no idea. I read this book to Ingrid. You won’t understand all of this, but I want to say it.’
Merlijn bent at the waist and choked. A string of drool dangled from his mouth. Brian Ed touched Merlijn’s back, he pushed his fingers in gently and felt the sweetness of the man’s give. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Merlijn. ‘This is why I’ve never been to the museum.’
‘Okay,’ said Brian Ed. ‘Okay, okay.’ The body, he understood. The fold. It was the horror of dangling safely above the disaster, the same that folded him.
‘I also, Merlijn, I also,’ said Brian Ed. He felt giddy with this sharing. It had been so long. ‘You too?’ said Merlijn, looking past Brian Ed. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘Anyone you once knew is good as dead.’
Brian Ed looked where Merlijn was looking, up the hillside at his hut that winked at them with its saggy eyes – they were sparkling. The thatched roof was bowed. The golden cone had opened there, in the borrowed hut, where it was most powerful. He couldn’t go back, not for a while, though the effort of conversation was becoming great.
‘What have you been doing up there all these years?’ asked Merlijn with a sudden coldness. ‘What did you get up to – up there – all alone in your hut? That’s a long time without anyone, without needing anyone. Did you have a friend? Any friend? A pet? What did you have? What did you do?’
Brian Ed nodded. Friend. He thought of himself with the stones, his hands on the stones, his cheek against them, his spine. Sometimes with all four on his chest so he could hardly breathe, or else arranging them so that they designated, by their close arrangement on the floor of the hut, a square of ground in which he could sit, a space he could digest. He put his pack on and felt the stones grind against the small of his back.
‘Eat with me,’ said Brian Ed. ‘At night.’
Merlijn smiled and shook his head. He started back toward the ration house, and Brian Ed followed. ‘Thank you, Brian Ed,’ he said. ‘I like that you’re reaching out. But I can’t tonight. There’s a wedding in the village. Tord and Aud, the hang-gliders. You don’t know them, do you? Of course you don’t. You will, though. Now you will.’
Brian Ed nodded and smiled. ‘Eat with me.’
Merlijn said nothing.
‘At night,’ he said again.
In the hut, it would be the same. He would feed himself barely enough and then lie on one of the six planks of his bed thinking colour and shape, sliding along the edge of the cone. Would he enter? Would he not? His days would go: Rise with sister. Leave bed. Follow her downstairs. The table is set. Red mat, blue bowl – or is it black? There is no one else. There never is. Beneath the table is the golden shape, the cone that opens the earth, and sister in it. She must be circled to be seen. She must be entered, the cone must – but stop! Just like that, Brian Ed would go backward through the day, and so on to the far side of night, with nothing gained, nothing learned. Nothing new.
‘No dinner,’ said Merlijn. He stood in front of the ration house door. ‘No. Dinner. Would you like your ration now?’
‘No,’ said Brian Ed. He would not leave.
Merlijn looked him up and down, as if he were seeing Brian Ed for the first time. The midday work horn sounded. Neither of them moved. The horn sounded again, and Merlijn sighed. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You’ll come to the wedding.’
Brian Ed shook his head. ‘Come. Come?’ He wasn’t sure.
‘Not as a guest,’ said Merlijn. ‘Not that way. There’s a tradition in this village, a fun one. If you live in the village but aren’t invited to a wedding, you are allowed to come after midnight, but only in disguise. It’s called playing ghost. That’s all you’ll have to do – find a costume. But then you can eat and drink and join in. Why not, Brian Ed? Why not?’
Merlijn vanished inside the ration house. Brian Ed waited, though he wasn’t sure for what. When Merlijn emerged from the dark doorway, he was holding a pair of pointed boots, a full-moon mask made of white feathers, and a woman’s cape.
‘These,’ said Merlijn. ‘You’ll wear these.’
He shoved the costume toward Brian Ed, who backed away. Merlijn held up ten fingers, then two. Ten, then two. ‘Midnight,’ he said. ‘Put these on and go to the wedding at midnight. For fun. Fun, Brian Ed. Remember fun?’
Merlijn was gritting his teeth. The cape fell out of his hands onto the ground, and he made no move to pick it up. Brian Ed bent down to get it and saw that Merlijn’s left shoe no longer had a sole. He wanted his hut, to go there, to get away. But the cone would be waiting for him there, too. He took the mask and slipped it over his head and the feathers stuck to his lips.
‘Just like that, you are the moon,’ said Merlijn. He rolled his neck around and shook his legs as if he’d just been released from a long confinement. ‘At midnight, go to the folk house.’
Brian Ed shook his head. ‘The folk house,’ he said. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Okay, let’s see,’ said Merlijn. ‘Near the memorial.’
‘Memorial,’ said Brian Ed.
‘For the dead.’
‘The memorial that disappeared.’
‘The four stones.’
‘Yes. Where they were. The four stones.’
‘Oh,’ said Brian Ed. ‘The four.’
‘Yes, there. The building next to the place where the four stones were. With the grass roof.’ Merlijn knelt and ripped some grass out and threw it on the roof of the ration house. ‘In the garden behind the folk house. Get it?’
Brian Ed nodded. ‘See you,’ he said.
‘But I won’t see you,’ said Merlijn. He winked, and his lashes kicked and kicked like spiders’ legs.
Brian Ed walked back toward the hut, costume in hand. He felt his pack lighten. There was nothing against his back. Once inside, he opened his pack right away. The stones were insubstantial in his hands, their good weight absent. They had died, or no – they had always been dead.
At midnight, Brian Ed, in pointed boots, full-moon mask and woman’s cape, approached the folk house. His face itched, but he would not scratch it, afraid to reveal himself. His long feet suffered in strange boots, and his woman’s cape slipped off his shoulder and dragged behind him like a train.
The wedding party was in full swing. Three large women stood on tree stumps and performed a traditional dance. A man with a limp moustache bit quickly and furtively into a large leg of meat. The garden was lit by four small fire pits, and the smoke moved straight up into the air in orderly, restrained columns. There were others in costume, fewer than ten, only one of them a woman. She wore a robe made of coarse tassels that rearranged themselves as she moved so that the shape of her body was obscured, and her mask was the face of a brown bear. A tiny cat moved through the party unnoticed, eating the food that fell.
Brian Ed moved into the crowd. He spotted Merlijn, who was drinking from a pink fluted glass and laughing and swinging his arms. Brian Ed waved, and Merlijn stared at him as if he were a stranger and went on laughing and swinging, then emptied his glass and moved deep into the crowd where Brian Ed could no longer see him.
There were no chairs at the party. Brian Ed went from table to table, blushing beneath his mask. Stay, he said to himself. This is it. This is what is.
The bear-faced woman floated by. As she passed, she whispered, ‘I know you. The refugee. But you aren’t that. You’re a tourist. And your trip won’t end.’
End. End? He watched the woman spin herself around. She reached up, pinched the air and drew it down, pinched the air and drew it down, until she was covered in night, and he no longer knew where she was.
He drifted along the outskirts of the party, listening to conversation, listening to words. Some he knew and some he didn’t, and there was pleasure in guessing. He felt buoyant without the stones. Young. He began to enjoy himself. He thought, I am free tonight. I am here, yet I am not here. A thought of his hut arrived, and it was, for the first time, a happy one. I will be there alone, but I will not be sick with myself. He grabbed a bun and bit into it. The cream burst into his mouth. His knees trembled.
A drunk man grabbed Brian Ed and drew him to his side. He was speaking to a group of six. None of them were in disguise. Brian Ed took them in. The town’s complexion was pale and even, the grey-blue eyes were all around.
‘As I was saying,’ said the man, ‘We have no idea what we’re up against. We let war sneak up on us like it was a man playing ghost at a wedding.’ He winked at Brian Ed. The six pale faces murmured their agreement. ‘Yes, oh yes, oh yes.’ ‘It snuck up. It did.’
‘And the reason we didn’t see it coming,’ he went on, ‘is very simple – we are simple. We thought that if we were hospitable enough, war would stay away. This is a place where people are treated very nicely. We are careful to treat everyone well, so war can never come. Not here! But we had it all wrong. And we preferred to think badly in that way because the truth is much more devastating. The truth is: Our hospitality is a trap. We’re as cruel as all the rest.’
He squeezed Brian Ed. ‘Do you get what I’m trying to say?’ he asked Brian Ed, blowing warm ripe air into the eyeholes of his mask. Brian Ed closed his eyes against the waving feathers. He shook his head no, though he was not sure what had been said.
‘No,’ said the man. ‘No, you don’t. Or perhaps you do. Someone get me another drink.’ He wiped his face on his wide yellowed collar. He stomped his foot on the ground and spooked the tiny cat, who ran in circles holding an olive in her mouth.
He waited with his hand outstretched until someone handed him a drink. He licked something green from the rim of the glass and took a sip.
‘What I’m saying,’ he said, pausing for effect, ‘is that we’ll soon discover what would be obvious to any thinking, feeling person: We are not nice! You aren’t good — none of you!’ His eyes popped and he leaned toward the six pale faces and the faces smiled politely and waited an appropriate length of time and then turned away like six planets spinning the way they must.
The drunk man slumped against Brian Ed, who held him and patted his back in a brotherly way. ‘It’s awful now,’ said the man. ‘Everything is awful.’
‘Oh, oh,’ said Brian Ed, ‘Okay, okay.’ And the man straightened up and peered into the mask and suddenly needed no support.
‘I see,’ said the man, ‘You finally came down from your hut.’
The party was changing. It got loose, it turned its face. More ghosts arrived in costume. Someone played a small drum and everyone looked up at the dark sky. ‘Oooh,’ they said. A shape floated down. It came beautiful and slow like a giant, rainbowed moth. It was Tord and Aud, the newly married, gliding to earth on their vast shared wing.
Brian Ed bowed his head. The feeling was gold and warm and familiar. It could not be shared with anyone at the party. The shape opened up beneath him, inviting him inside, and inside was the same, was sister, shimmering, the point somewhere further along. There had been a time before he’d left home to wander. He’d had a home of his own, and a sister in it, and she had said, Please. War is real. It’s really coming.
But how can it be? I don’t see it.
Don’t go, Brian Ed, not now. Not so far away. Not there.
I will go. Your fear is your fear. As for me, I’m going to have a little fun.
Then the ground went dark, and he missed it, the cone. To the hut, to the hut. He must get back, he must get inside. The cone would be there, waiting, its point ever deeper, invisible. But he would find it, and he would vanish within it. But then Merlijn approached. He was holding the hand of a young woman in green and his teeth were stained grey.
‘Merlijn,’ said Brian Ed, reaching for his face.
Merlijn frowned and dodged his hand and said, ‘Tsst, that’s not how it goes.’ Then he led the young woman away, though she kept spinning around on her toes to stare at Brian Ed.
‘Is it him?’ she said loudly. ‘Is it really?’
Two fiddlers began to play. The song surprised. It was atonal, it jerked alive and fainted away. As if on cue, the ghosts all gathered in the centre of the party, and Brian Ed tried to leave, he tried to sneak away, but was hemmed in by a fence of arms and herded toward the centre, too.
The ghosts stood close and their heavy costumes made it warmer than night. There was some purposeful shifting, and Brian Ed let himself be moved and moved until he was standing in the centre of the group with the bear-faced woman. Her expression was the bear’s expression. It was unreadable. She touched his feathered face.
The music stopped. The ghosts opened up and formed an aisle. Merlijn waited at the end, holding the little cat. The music began again and it was ponderous and heavy and dark. The bear-faced woman took his arm.
‘Now we march,’ she whispered. ‘Follow me, tourist.’
They moved together down the aisle. Brian Ed nodded to the masks as he passed. He welcomed the weight of the woman’s arm. He smiled beneath his feathers, undetected in his happiness. Merlijn was smiling, too, and stroking the little cat. Brian Ed pulled the woman closer to him as they reached the end of the aisle. It’s not so bad. It could be the same again. Life, the world, this trip.
‘Lovers,’ Merlijn said. ‘We are witness to your love. We love your love. Do you promise to tend it? Will you take care?’
Brian Ed leaned in. He tried to whisper to Merlijn, who would not come close.
‘Love,’ he said. ‘Love?’
‘Yes,’ hissed Merlijn. ‘Just say yes.’ Loudly, he said again, ‘Will you take care?’
‘Yes,’ said the bear-faced woman.
‘Yes,’ said Brian Ed. ‘Lovely,’ said Merlijn. ‘Whereas before you were like two strangers gulping from a cloudy mug, now you share one clean drinking glass. Ghosts, you are married. Ghosts, you are joined forever.’
The crowd cheered, and Brian Ed spun around. Married. Married? He turned the word over in his head. Married. Is it so easy? Is life? He stared at the bear who was his wife and felt the coarse tassels of her fur. She came closer.
‘That was fun, right?’ she whispered to him.
‘Fun, fun,’ he said. ‘Yes, it was fun.’
It is so easy, fun. Fun is easy. He was filled with a feeling he’d thought was long gone, and the feeling was serious. He twirled his wife around and grabbed her around the waist. She laughed high and happy. ‘I love,’ he said, ‘I love.’
But when he went to raise her mask, to reveal her face, to kiss the woman and not the bear, she screamed and slapped him hard and feathers floated from his face and his eyeholes rearranged. In the dark of his mask, he made a sound that disappeared.
‘Brian Ed,’ he heard Merlijn say. ‘Brian Ed, I’m sorry. That was just part of it. Part of playing ghost. There is always a fake marriage to shadow the real. Fake. Fake. Play. Not actual. Do you understand? Fake.’
Brian Ed adjusted his mask so that he could see. The other ghosts had removed their masks and their paleness overwhelmed. He looked at the ground. The little cat was choking. He walked toward it, meaning to help, but the crowd gasped and blocked him with their bodies.
‘No,’ they said, ‘Don’t let him get the cat! It’s the refugee! The refugee! He’s after the cat! Don’t let him near the cat! Don’t let him near the cat!’