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Then the Thunder Came
The weather was worse than usual. On her way to the corner market (bread, cheese, eggs, sugar, maybe a chance of meat if it wasn't too gray-not-pink) she found herself struggling through a blizzard. Land-of-fog words fluttered down around her in scraps and clumps, getting under her jacket, into her boots, the walking stick of little help as the flakes melted and froze in a slippery layer on the pavement. She spat, muttered a curse under her breath, and lunged left, under the overhang of the entrance to an apartment building.
She stayed there for a few minutes, until the worst of the wind died down. While she waited, impatiently tapping one-two-one-two-three on the cement, she stared at the speakerphone and the buttons and considered the fact that all the people she'd used to know in this building were dead. Or moved away, which was the same thing.
She averted her eyes, then, looking instead at the ground, the cracked cement and cigarette butts, and tried to read the torn words. She could make out a few inky marks before they dissolved into slush: “FREEDOM”, one read. “BLUE JEANS 50% off” read a particularly large flake. “AUTHENTIC GERMAN SAUSAGES”.
Gradually the scraps got smaller and there was an even sifting-down of individual letters and numbers. It would probably go on for many hours, so there was no point in waiting longer.
She came home with a carton of milk, fresh brown eggs from the shelf (well, relatively fresh, if one or two were rotten she’d manage) and the only bread she'd been able to find, a stale loaf of molasses-colored rye. Just like the one they'd used to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner when she was younger.
There were cockroaches in their own apartment. There had been, ever since they'd called a rat exterminator who had a side business as a cockroach exterminator.
Once in a while her husband waged a half-hearted war against the roaches, but in general they lived in an uneasy truce. The lower cabinets were given over entirely to a clan of the finger-thick beasts, but any that were spotted higher than the level of the sink were mercilessly slaughtered. It suited him and the cockroaches fine; the only danger was that it didn’t suit her at all, and the walls might come down during one of her screaming fits. Or that the sink might clog again and he'd have to venture down there, back creaking, and try to fix the plumbing amid a surging carpet of skittering, glossy black roaches. When that happened even he was prone to losing his temper and violating the treaty.
She came home and greeted him. Get up, you lazy bum, and put the kettle on, she roared. It's freezing outside and all my clothes are soaked and turn off that damned fool television it's giving me a headache.
Complacently, he put the kettle on as she banged around the kitchen, putting the bread in the bread box after shaking out a few stray roaches, kicking the fridge to get the light on. He left the television on, though, knowing that she would forget about it soon anyway. And his favorite game show was on. The taxi driver who asked trivia questions of his bemused clients, driving nowhere really.
Soon she was sitting at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with old magazines, dirty dishes, and stained water glasses with withered irises from their summer house. “House” being a general term for a wood shack standing in two acres of carefully managed weeds, with a few incidental fruit trees. Even after she'd sipped the scalding black tea, though, she didn't forget about it.
I told you we couldn't afford that damned fool television and a car. Look at this mess. Did you storm the white house so you could live in a trash heap.
She hacked off a slice of cheese from a nearby plate. Instead of eating it she tossed it to the gigantic tabby tomcat that lay sprawled on the armchair. The cat ignored the slice, which was swiftly carried off by a squadron of roaches.
We could sell the car, he suggested quietly, ignoring the last statement-question. The city has a tram for a reason. And the car's worth more. Pay off the hospital bill for last year's hip fracture.
She scoffed. It was unclear what would have happened next except that the computer – car, television, computer, and trash heap, the quartet of modern existence – rang. Not the phone. The computer, which meant Skype, which meant that it was the Son, calling from the land-of-fog.
Some days later they had guests over. The magazines were cleared from the table, the tomcat made to vacate the armchair, the cockroaches strictly confined to the lower cabinets for the evening. A bottle of alcohol was purchased, after much bartering, and a hefty piece of pink-not-gray meat obtained following a similar ritual. A second round of the neighbors yielded, in addition, a jar of red caviar to pay off the debt from an earlier loan of the sewing machine, and a couple of porcelain teacups, with only a few chips in them.
They rarely had guests, and the effort was refreshing, if frustrating. She complained that her hip ached as they made the final trip down the stairs, and lorded over him from the couch-bed as he prepared the bread and butter and caviar sandwiches, arranged the bottle and a couple of candles on the table, smothered the chopped steak in sour cream, onions, mushrooms before frying it, and smothered the salad in clumpy mayonnaise retrieved from the depths of their fridge.
Then the guests came, a pair about equal in age, holding a token bottle of alcohol and a honeycake smothered in sour cream. The one was in weighted, charcoal lines, big and burly with a voice to match, while his wife came barely to his shoulder and had fine, glistening silver hair. The guests and hosts were incidental to each other's lives, they had neighboring summer houses but lived on opposite ends of the city. The last time they'd met had been in the summer, when they got together to barbecue kebabs over a fire, and to play an out-of-tune guitar, and to drink from the same bottle of vodka whose neck the guest now gripped much tighter than was necessary.
Now, they stood at the doorstep, then gradually gravitated towards the table and drinks, the male Guest speaking much too loudly and laughing at nothing much, the other three retreating into painful silence before his slightly wild eyes. She found that she was glancing at it involuntarily. Following the chain clutched in the Guest's sweaty palm to where it ended, down by his knees. It was around the neck of a small beast, covered in thick, black curly hair resembling that of the Guest's. The creature could have been mistaken for a dog, but for the polished, pointy horns peeking out from the fur on its forehead, and the way tiny spouts of flame kept shooting out of its nostrils.
It noticed her looking at it and stuck out a crimson, forked tongue. To cover up her sudden discomfiture she grabbed the plate of caviar-butter sandwiches and passed it around.
When the Guest and his wife left, the two let down the appearance of restraint they'd maintained throughout the visit. Anyway it had been eroded thoroughly by the Guest, with his talk of… politics, and who knows what else, and the kind of idiocy that got us here in the first place, her husband finally declared, his voice ringing out in nostalgically familiar tones.
Well, you said you wanted to see him, you saw him, she lied. Of course it was she that had arranged the visit. Someone had to take the blame, though, and it wouldn't be her.
He grabbed their bottle of the table and drank straight from it, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
God, and that little pet of his, she mustered before sitting down and taking the other bottle, which the guests had left behind.
They were silent for a long time. Her thoughts wandered back and forth, settling down awkwardly in a foreboding of next summer. Since their summer houses were still neighboring. She found she didn't have the energy to shout at him to clear the dishes, and eventually asked instead, almost meekly, whether he thought they ought to, well, apologize or something, it wasn't as though they had many people left that they could invite over…
Apologize for what? Nothing happened. And it's not like he's going to apologize from bringing that here. Hell, half the college students probably own one themselves now. You've heard how it is.
He looked up at her, eyes bloodshot, then stumbled over to the kitchen sink to throw up, giving her a reason to get out of the chair and start shouting again. Before, having drunk too much herself, she tripped over a stool and it was as though she'd been shot in the hip and she lay there, whimpering in pain and rage, and then they had to go to the hospital again, taking a taxi (more money out of their famished wallet) since he'd never got his license and the trams didn't work this time of night, and her mind was empty as the driver cursed under his breath and the words were still coming down hard, harder than she'd thought possible, flapping desperately against the glass before vanishing behind them in the dark.
So when they moved they knew they were moving there to die. The Son had been all familial concern, facing assembling itself and then falling apart into beige and peach pixels in the jumping computer video. It didn't make her feel any better. Not now, when the winter was over and the last of the snow and words had turned to a mud slurry, when it seemed like everything might be all right after all because the lilac flowers were pushing up out of the earth. And the birch trees still smelled sweet as she doggedly trudged through the sleet to get to the market on the corner, for bread, cheese, eggs, sugar, maybe a chance of meat if it wasn't too gray-not-pink.
They decided to stay a while longer, and the Son faded back into the distant world of land-of-fog, calling only once or twice every month to talk about children, work, house repairs, and to pointedly not talk about having them move.
Then he started having bad dreams. She would wake up in the middle of the night, the cool spring breeze slipping in through their clothes- and junk-strewed balcony to freeze her sweat. He'd been sleeping on a cot on the other side of the room for fifteen years now, and it was from there, in the shadows, that his moans and cries came. Once he stood up, and she pressed back into the couch pillows, still half-asleep, filled with a blind animal panic as the shadows undulated. She gritted her teeth and fought with all her might to stay awake, but she was enveloped in vague memories of that place he refused to speak of.
A field of bare, frost-laden trees, and a line of scrawny people drawing buckets from a well of blood. One by one they lifted it to their lips and let it fall, back, to make a dull, viscous splashing noise as they made room for the next in line, crimson stains on their pale mouths, glassy eyes seeing nothing. Once they'd drunk they gathered around the other side of the well, and now their eyes glinted hard and bright as they watched the line move slowly forward. He was in line. She was on the other side of the well, and the taste of copper echoed through her mind. Realizing where she was she spat fiercely at the ground, sprinkled salt from her pocket around her and sat down in the circle. It was the best she could do, though even that couldn't suppress the shame and anger that swelled up in her once more.
When he came up to the well and the hard-eyed ones wheeled up the bucket of blood he keeled over suddenly, heavily, and fell headlong into the gaping well.
The next night it happened again, and she was swallowed by another one of his dreams, and they did not speak of it in the morning. She was tired, and so was he, and they stumbled through the day as they had stumbled through his dream, bleary and weak. The trees no longer smelled sweet. The next night, again, and it got worse when she saw a group of teenagers on the street on her way to the market, all holding chains, all holding on to their own black beasts with red tongues and laughing, and singing a land-of-fog song that pierced her ears and made her hip ache. That was when she stopped finding salt in her pocket.
Two weeks after the first dream they were on a plane to join the Son.
The Son’s house was spacious, with immaculate, marble-tiled floors, a smaller room for the smaller child, a bigger room for the bigger child who silently resented the old, gray intruders, the biggest room for the Son and the Daughter-in-Law, and a previously sterile guest room for him and her, with mint walls and white, white sheets on a bed that was a real bed and not a couch-bed and cot.
From that room she launched her campaign to become master of the house as she'd been master of their apartment, but the Daughter-in-Law was in her home territory and had the advantage. She tried to command the Son, at first, to make him fall into his habitual easy acquiescence. But the Son had other loyalties, and the Daughter-in-Law smoothly maneuvered the household in such a way that it passed by the guest room altogether, draping that wing of the house in silence for every interminable hour of every day.
She then attempted an attack on the kitchen, and was soon defeated by the identical stainless-steel bottles of spices that smelled unfamiliar and all wrong, the pristine frigidity of the pantry where there was always exactly enough food in plastic, crisp, and opaque packages, the fridge where everything was in identical, opaque Tupperware boxes. The syrniki she tried to make came out a goopy mess, since she'd had to replace the tvorog with some other white substance, the milk was thin and not creamy-yellow as she was used to, the flour was too evenly milled.
She'd had to endure that dinner, anyway, and what endurance that took. The Daughter-in-Law maintained her perfect, red-lipstick blonde-straightened-hair smiling mien, even as every other member – from herself to the youngest, transparent boy – went through the phases of joyful expectation, to the first disbelieving taste, to the cringing and gagging as spoonfuls of the slimy, undercooked mass slid down their throats. Or down the sink, into the food disposer. The Daughter-in-Law then complimented her cooking, using incomprehensible land-of-fog words, and asked her to please share the recipe.
That was when she surrendered.
And the nightmares hadn't stopped. The distance between her and him increased with every nocturnal struggle. They spent most of the day in the same room, yet with nothing to fight over, no friends within a thousand miles to invite to the house, shut out of the inner workings of the Son's perfect household, they could only gaze dumbly at the television through the day and go through it all again at night.
He gave in first, which was probably a blessing for her, since it meant the endless nightmares ended (at least until her mind started recreating them, as a special favor to her). When she chose his coffin it was the first time she ventured out into the land-of-fog, which turned out to be exactly as she'd pictured it. The streets, chrome and asphalt, swimming up towards her through banks of white clouds. The noises amplified, thudding like her heart as she whispered again, over and over again to herself, this is no summer, there is no summer here, no weather, and back home it's no home.
She chose the cheapest casket, though the Son tried to convince her otherwise when he found out. You know I have the money, he finally said, but if you want to prove how much you hated him go ahead. The first but not the last bitter words he'd utter to her, now that their roles had been reversed.
She couldn't explain that no, that wasn't what it was at all, that a plush and sleek black coffin with red velvet padding would be much too bourgeois not at all what he'd have wanted and anyway, it was just a funeral, there was no one – no one – no one left… to care… except her.
The Son's Older Son could not understand what was happening. He knew what a grandmother was supposed to be. She was supposed to be a little fat and sagging and slow, to smell of baking cookies and talk in old land-of-fog words that he'd have to look up on his computer. She was supposed to give him money on his birthdays, and make blunt and politically incorrect comments about his friends. She was supposed to have a sweet, raspy voice, a funny little squeaking laugh, and to greet him at the door when he came home from school.
But Grandmother was nothing like that. She was just sort of… there. He didn't understand the language that Father and Grandmother spoke between themselves, though they never spoke anymore anyways. And she didn't try learning land-of-fog. She didn't seem to try anything.
There was another reason for his resentment. Father's energy all seemed to be devoted to making her comfortable, now, despite Mother's attempts to redirect him. Father spent weekends in the bedroom, rearranging the pillows and bringing her hot black tea, then shouting at her for her ungratefulness, the noise pounding against Older Son's closed door.
Sometimes Older Son had to bring her the tea, with a slice of lemon in it, and endure her unblinking gray gaze. Sometimes, when he got too close as she trudged through the hallway, hunched over her walker, he'd stumble into her world. He didn't like that sensation at all and tried to avoid running into her. The first time it happened, the strength of the sensation made him stagger and fall against the wall. Through some miracle of mental force she had constructed an entire universe, and the world sprang up dizzyingly about him as he grew small and found himself tripping down a dirt road in a field full of swaying pink shoulder-high thistles, the sun beating down and the bees humming softly to themselves, a cow lowing somewhere nearby, the air hot and heavy in premonition of a thunderstorm.
He tore himself free and nearly ran to his and Mother's room, and sat down on the bed, and told her about it. Mother nodded slowly, her blue eyes as unreadable as the surface of a pond, as unreadable as always. He did not know what that meant. He regretted his moment of openness and made his eyes as unreadable as hers, or tried to anyway, though the shadow of pain remained imprinted on them.
A week later, when he returned from school, Mother greeted him at the door, instead of in the kitchen. She silently took him by the hand and led him into the backyard. She stopped, and he stopped, and he followed her gaze down the length of the house his parents had commissioned years before his birth, among the manicured trees that loomed like mammoths out of the fog rolling slowly by, and looked towards the end where the guest room curved around deep into the yard.
For a brief moment the fog was dispelled, and they were both standing in a field of pink thistles as a warm rain pelted down around them and lightning tore the gray clouds. Mother squeezed his hand and pulled him off the path, into the thistles, to allow a little girl with a long, dark braid, in a torn and muddied checkered dress and a bright red headscarf, to run by headlong.
The girl glanced up at him before vanishing around the bend in the dirt path. He saw that her face was clean, washed clean by the rain that streamed down their bodies, and her mouth was partly open in excitement and fear and the dream of innocence.
Then the thunder came. All at once they were standing on the brick walkway that encompassed their lawn, rain dripping down their soaked clothes. Mother said nothing, only shrugged. He still did not understand and said so. She looked at him and the blue eyes became translucent for a moment, allowing him to see through to the bottom. It was an open sweep of sand, rippled by the sea’s currents.
The fog rolled back in and he could see no more.