Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3
The Archivist's Daughter
Jenny Hanning was born in Maine and now lives in Austin, Texas. Her stories have appeared in Fugue, Descant, Juked and others.
The owl is a death bird. She told them this, because an owl, yellow moon-eyed and sinister, sat at the peak of the little shed on the edge of their front lawn.
The porch light scattered a glassy circle onto the frost-killed grass around the stairs. Its reach was weak, leaving everything else hesitantly illuminated by starry light and the distant curl of moon. Through the darkness the front door glowed like treasure in the dim guts of a cave. Grace idled on the quiet street, squinting out into the layered night, watching the yard for a dog.
A dog in mourning, its emotions high, could blow the whole show. It didn’t look good when the dog was snappish or went into a fit of barking. It was hard to spin—animals and their perceptions and all.
The shadows around the house were blunt and still, without suggestion of anything living behind them. Grace pulled to the side of the road, easing the car under a row of white pines, their long needles hissing across the roof. She cracked the door and waited, thinking the dog might explode up from hiding, but there was only the metallic ping and rattle of the engine winding down, and the interior of the car was freezing. In the air around her, Grace’s breath hung like a fading ghost.
Grace bent low, stooping to cross under the pine branches and into the little yard. The frozen blades of grass gave under her like eggshells, a tiny resistance and delicate buckling with each step. Sap popped in the trees, and somewhere expanding ice groaned, but the night underneath was quiet, hushed with frost and cold. A sound—desolate as a rock tossed down an empty well—echoed though Grace’s chest. Her heart stumbled against her ribs, her skin tried to shuck from her bones, and her frightened chuff burst from her lungs as a thousand tiny ice-blooms. The sound repeated—an owl—hoo. It was perched just above her, head backward, ossuary eyes watching the house.
No, this wasn’t a bad thing. Atmosphere. She watched the owl’s head circle until its face, lit by eyes glowing and unblinking, turned down at her. She stared back—blue to yellow—until her heart’s clumsy rhythm smoothed.
A heart was at the center of this. She said to them, A heart. A bright heart. She passed her hand through the flame of a squat white candle. Bright heart. Outside this home is a death bird, an owl with blood tipped wings. I can help you. I can help him.
Grace’s was a strange expertise. She rarely did house calls. With an over the phone consultation she could always thump a hand on her desk, claiming a psychic fit, buying time to browse her notes, but at a house call the clients were watching everything, and all of it had to be perfect.
Grace was not the daughter of snake-oil dealers, hucksters, ex-cons, or modern gypsies. Her mother was a content housewife. Her father, not some sort of flim-flam man, but an archivist, who passed from his blood into Grace’s a true love of humming lights, microfiche, and echoing man-made caverns. Grace passed the years of her childhood sitting under card tables in backrooms of public offices and library sub-basements inhaling the miasma of history, sorting crumbling paper from one box to another while her father carefully catalogued documents in his ledger. In the windowless tomb of public records an adult Grace spun knobs, flipped pages of books turned half to dust, and ran a scavenger’s needy hands over photographs families had long forgotten. In the grayed, unnatural light she cultivated the appropriate paleness. She looked the part of a woman in league with spirits.
Grace volunteered at the county hospital three times a week. It was her job to run samples from the triage nurse in the emergency room to the lab, and the results back again. Up and down the dim green corridors she listened to nurses whispering behind cupped hands, radiologists gossiping as they fed change into the coffee machine, doctors muttering to themselves in doorways. She walked past with purpose, steps even, pace brisk, but was always listening.
Grace carried cigarettes, though she did not smoke. She used them in trade for the casual acceptance of the hard-eyed nurses assigned to the third shift. She stood with them at daybreak, taking shallow breaths as they smoked their shift’s-end cigarettes in the hospital’s concrete foyer. A crooked no-smoking sign hung by a single screw; the nurses stubbed out their butts on its gloss surface. They sucked deeply, tired-eyed and hunch-shouldered, blowing gauzy smoke rings with great skill, bitching competitively about their shifts.
Behind the black walnut trees, the rising sun tossed lean shadows over the parking lot and glazed everything candy-pink. Deceptive and glittering, the new morning promised warmth, but outside it was colder than a witch’s tit.
Sometimes the nurses continued, gravel whispers and grinding laughter, until the sun was full up and the police officers rolled their squad cars to the door to unload their collection of night chilled vagrants. Then, new daylight soft on their faces, the nurses would remember they had a place to be besides the foyer, a life beyond work, and grudgingly realize they’d lost an hour of potential sleep to storytelling.
The Clap. Cancerous growths. A dead grandmother sitting on a fortune. Hush hush suicides. Teenage girls with hotdogs stuck up their vaginas. A boy with a roll of quarters up his ass. A heartthrob policeman who’d accidentally hung himself while masturbating. Nothing that decency allowed to be repeated, but that had to be told again and again for the dirty thrill of it.
Grace kept her back to the icy draft slinking under the foyer’s double doors. She stood quiet and shivering. The nurses—always chatty— were strangely still, looking out onto the parking lot with slitted eyes, as if impatiently waiting for someone to arrive.
"Kid," one said nodding deeply, tucking her head against her chest. "Lost a little boy today."
The others echoed her motion—chin to chest, eyes down—not looking at one another.
The smoke curled around their faces and they squinted against it.
The youngest of the nurses sighed, "I hate it when it’s a kid." She curled her hands, then let them unreel so they hung loose on her thighs. "I hate it when it’s a kid."
An older nurse laughed, a harsh sound, "Who doesn’t, right?"
Grace slapped a cigarette from the pack she carried, slipped it between two fingers of the young nurse’s limp hand. She knew better than to ask any questions. It was best to just let them go. Grace rubbed her thumb over her bottom lip, tasting the residue of tobacco, waiting.
"Goddamn." The oldest of the nurses took a heavy drag. She held her breath until her eyes watered. "Eight year old kid. His heart, I guess."
Grace crossed her arms over her chest; the cold was in her bones. Children were rough to work, the parents angrier than widows and widowers, and wanting more than the spook enthusiasts who would take just about anything, but the payout off a kid was double, triple, quadruple—off the scale—and left Grace satisfied like nothing else did.
Widows and widowers, they only wanted a session or two. They needed to hear that their husband or wife, loved or hated, made it to one place or another. Sometimes Grace could pull them back with a visitation from one-legged Uncle Clement, or long gone Grandmother Harp killed in the fire of ‘53, but they were a temporary clientele.
The supernatural enthusiast would come back endlessly, but they capped at fifty dollars each time, and they were too eager to believe. Grace could flub years, or cross maternal and paternal bloodlines, and they still gasped and clapped. They came to her in place of going to the movie theater. If she charged much more than the cost of tickets and popcorn, they would catch a film at the Cinema Two instead, and be equally entertained.
But kids—kids could be milked for years. Their ghosts stayed in touch, calling out from the abyss until a new baby came along, or a divorce scattered what remained of the family. When such sad, cored out families separated, drifting in the wind like dandelion seeds, Grace felt as if it were her breath that moved them.
One of the older nurses, pacing as she smoked, moved too close to the sensor, and the foyer’s double-doors popped open with a slap of cold air. "That’s what it’s like." She pointed at the open doors with her cigarette. "Boom." She crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture of finality, "Your baby’s dead."
"Did they have anymore?"
"No," the young nurse shook her head, "not with a sick one." A seed of moisture broke from the rim of her eye and slid down, tinted dark with eyeliner and mascara.
"Who would? A kid like that like takes everything."
"Some people get a diagnosis and rush right into bed for a spare."
"The mother," the young nurse paused, thumbed at her eye, "might be my age."
"It’s a kick in the belly."
A police cruiser pulled up then, and the doors opened again, another rush of cold.
"Go home and hug your babies," the young nurse said, then stepped out into the stretching light, jacket pulled tight around her. The other nurses followed, but Grace stayed, waiting for the officers to unload whoever, her mind circling.
Tuesdays, in the evening, Grace volunteered at the Senior Center handing out lemon crème cookies and stirring instant coffee, hours spent in the sweet decay of baby powder, rotting teeth, and mothball polyester. She walked the room greeting the ladies, complimenting their pantsuits, alert to gossip of value. If they had nothing of use to her Grace pulled up a folding chair beside the card table and listened to the men.
The old—the elderly—that gathered at the Senior Center were unable to close buttons in a row, too arthritic to turn a door knob; but they remembered with perfect clarity of detail the names of children who lost hands in the blanket factory’s great weaving machine, who had polio, who fathered the town bastards, forbidden loves, unrequited loves, and the suspicious deaths of husbands who fell down cellar stairs while a fat-lipped, black-eyed wife was outside hanging laundry on the line.
An old man, with hair like cobwebs scraped over his boiled scalp, lowered himself down into a chair beside Grace. Her stomach hitched as his bones wheezed with the effort of changing position, but she smiled at him, offering the cookies she was arranging on a plastic tray. He cleared his throat, wiped at the corners of his mouth with a thumb, then studied the bubbled nail, purple with a pocket of blood. Grace noticed a dribbled crust of egg yolk on his sweater. She spread the cookies in a fan.
"It used to be," the old man said, "that they took people that weren’t right?—and they fixed ‘em so they couldn’t make more like themselves."
"Fixed?" Grace was used to such conversations. She took another row of cookies from the package. "How’d they do that? Fix them?"
"Sterilized ‘em." He gave Grace a weighing look. "Up in the county they had a place. People that weren’t right—retardation," he spoke the word slowly, "you’d say."
Grace nodded. She knew the place. A sheep farm—now a history museum, she’d been there many times on day trips with her father, and later on her own, tracking secret children, shameful cousins, and malformed aunts— where the state, for decades, gathered its incompetents. The insane, and the poor, orphans, all the town oddballs rounded up, or handed over, dumped at the gates and interred. Grace had seen the pictures in state records. Her father had a sepia print of the inmates on the wall behind his desk. They stood in somber rows holding freshly sheered sheep tipped up on their rumps. Girls with clever faces and sad eyes, their cloud white hair tied up under triangles of cloths; and on the other side of the photo, boys in overalls, with serious mouths; and bracketing the entire group, men identified as doctors wearing snappy hats and polished shoes.
"Jesus Christ, Dad, measure me by me, okay?" A heavy book lay in front of Grace open to a picture of Rasputin, who watched her steadily with his hypnotist eyes. Grace turned the book back toward her father. She pushed it with both hands so it slid across the desk and bumped his chest.
In the catacombs of county records, she had come across the unexpected, the death certificate for a woman who appeared to be her aunt, her mother’s sister, who had fallen through weak ice and drowned. Grace had never heard of her. She had believed her mother to be an only child. Her mother had never said a thing. As Grace searched through records, thinking this can’t be—I’d know—We’d be different—she found a birth certificate, an obituary, and newspaper articles with photos of her mother, young and haunted. Grace felt her hands shaking with pure rage. She looked down and saw all her exposed skin raised with gooseflesh. Cold flooded her like a sudden wave lapping over her head, then was replaced by heat.
Grace thought of her mother, who made muffins and listened to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who told Grace not to chew her nails, who dusted on Sundays, who had watched someone die. Her mother had been touched by something extraordinary and was still so ordinary. She hadn’t even tried to share it—what she had seen—and beyond deceived, Grace felt supremely cheated.
Grace imagined herself skating across the silver surface of a pond. The sun’s glare off the ice, jays calling the pines, her blades whispering as they cut wider and wider loops, her mother and father on the shore tightening their laces. She imagined herself in the water, dragged down by her skates, lungs filling, before she understood the ice had given way. She felt the breath forced from her body as the cold filled her. Grace spoke to her first ghost.
She went to the kitchen to find her mother.
"Cruel," her father whispered, "dishonest." He sat Grace down in his office, across the desk from him, and began to lecture her on humankind’s legacy of failure. A room away her mother wept, bowed over the kitchen table with her hands knotted at the back of her head.
"Grace, who are you?" Her father asked. He laid his hands palm flat on the desk, his anger crumbling to defeat. "Who?"
"That isn’t me," Grace argued, the tears gathering at the edges of her eyes. She couldn’t stand the disappointment in his voice. "Forget it. I didn’t do anything."
"You’re off the mark, Gracie," he said to her. "You took advantage. You think we can just forget about this? Well, you’re off the mark. We’re everything we’ve done." He lifted his arm out from his body and pointed to the history books lining the walls, the photos, the world. "We always will be."
The old man touched Grace’s knee, walking two fingers across it like a spider. "Those parents. That father. A man—he has an obligation to his family." The old man shook his head. "He falls in love with some sick girl. You know her?"
"No." Grace said.
"She’s a Joseph. Her brother’s the one died during football practice. He collapsed on the field, and her father—that’s Simon Joseph, who ran the furnace place?—he wasn’t fifty years old when he went. Joseph blood is some bad blood, but this Ransom boy marries her anyway and goes and has a child. What did he think, I’m asking?"
"It’s a tragedy," Grace said.
The old man sighed. "You know the Russian Empire? You know Rasputin?" He stopped, clearing his throat again, and Grace found herself looking directly into his raw eyes, and had to turn away. "Bad blood is what happened to them too. The Tsar of Russia married a English girl—hemophiliacs—all of them—it’s the bloodline. All her brothers, her uncles, they stub a toe and die some kind of horrible death—all full of blood like a tick." He lifted one hand and balled it in a fist. "I’ll ask you—Is that how a man protects his family?—By poisoning the well?"
Huddled against the chain-link fence, at the far corner of the playground a memorial bloomed from the frozen field. Frost burned flowers were woven through the wire diamonds of the fence, heads hanging bent on collapsed stems, their petals darkly curled and wet looking like the shavings of skin dangling from a scrape. Below them on the ground were the normal things, the kind of objects Grace found at every designated site of mourning—white teddy bears holding plush hearts, stubby candles in paper cups, cards held down with polished rocks. Grace found these things at the base of telephone poles, on the sooty remains of burned-out homes, floating in irrigation ditches, littering empty stretches of highway, taped to the columns of bridges; but intermixed with the sorrowful kitsch were clues—always—suggestions of who the person lost had been.
Some child left behind a crayon picture of a yellow dog and stick person. The dog filled two thirds of the paper, red tongue touching the orange arms of the sun. At the bottom an adult hand carefully penciled what was clearly dictated to them: Michael and Roxanne his very good cool dog. There were bags of Skittles. Small bags stuffed through the links in the fence, suspended, and a large bag draped over the back of a stuffed puppy, pinning it down. A torn wrapper, bright red, turned lazy somersaults across the worn grass. Grace bent down, taking a small fire truck in her hand. It was metal, heavy and cold.
"Please," the mother took Grace by the hands. She wrapped Grace’s fingers in her own pressing their palms together. "Please tell us that you’ll come again. Please tell us that. Please. You’ve—."
The father came forward, pulling the mother back by her shoulders. He turned her against his chest in a rough gesture of comfort. He put his lips to the part of her hair. He whispered something and her back straightened. She put her hands to his chest and pushed away, turning back to Grace. "Please," she said again. "Please?"
The dog came forward out of the darkness of another room.
"Roxanne," Grace said.
The dog raised its head, but refused Grace’s out-stretched hand, walking straight to the mother, where it lay its blonde head against her thigh, and together they began to keen.
Grace could feel the weight of the envelope, solid in the pocket of her jacket. The night air washed over her, lit with flickering bits of snow, and above, the stars glowed bright, blushing pink.
The owl was gone from its perch, but when Grace reached her car, she found what had to be its leavings. A tiny knot of organs lay glistening on the hood, still churning in an ether of steam.