Claudia Modjeski stood before a full-length mirror in the bedroom she'd inherited from her mother, pointing the gun in her right hand a Colt .44 Single Action Army with a nickel finish and a walnut grip at her reflected image. The mirror showed nothing above Claudia's shoulders, because the designation 'full-length' turned out to be as arbitrary as 'one-size.' It may have fit plenty, but it didn't fit her. The .44 was a collector's gun, a cowboy's gun purchased at a weapons show she'd attended with Hazel Hunnicutt last Christmas, without bothering to explain to Hazel (or to herself) why she thought she needed it.
She sat down heavily on the end of her mother's bed. Ludie Modjeski's bed, in Ludie's room. The gun rested in Claudia's slack hand. She had put it away the night before because eliminating the specificity that was Claudia meant erasing all that remained of her mother in this world, what was ambered in Claudia's memory: Christmas, for instance, and the hard candies Ludie used to make each year. There were peppermint ribbons, pink with white stripes. There were spearmint trees and horehound drops covered with sugar crystals. The recipes, the choreography of her mother's steps across the kitchen, an infinity of moments remembered only by her daughter, those too would die.
But tonight she would put the gun back in its case because of the headless cowboy she'd seen in the mirror. Her pajama bottoms had come from the estate of an old man; the top snap had broken, so they were being held closed with a safety pin. The cuffs fell a good two inches above her shins, and when she sat down the washed-thin flannel rode up so vigorously, her revealed legs looked as shocked and naked as refugees from a flash flood. In place of a pajama top, she wore a blue chenille sweater so large that had it been unraveled, there would have been enough yarn to fashion into a yurt. Claudia had looked in her mirror and heard Ludie say, a high, hidden laugh in her voice, Poor old thing, and wasn't it the truth, which didn't make living any easier.
The Colt had no safety mechanism, other than the traditional way it was loaded: a bullet in the first chamber, second chamber empty, four more bullets. Always five, never six. She put the gun away, listened to the radiators throughout the house click and sigh and generally give up their heat with reluctance. But give up they did, and so did Claudia, at least for one more night, this December 15.
Rebekah Shook lay uneasy in the house of her father, Vernon, in an old part of town, the place farmers moved after the banks had foreclosed and the factories were still hiring. She slept like a foreign traveler in a room too small for the giants of her past: the songs, the language, the native dress. Awake, she rarely understood where she was or what she was doing or if she passed for normal, and in dreams she traversed a featureless, pastel landscape that undulated beneath her feet. She looked for her mother, Ruth, who (like Ludie) was dead and gone and could not be conjured; she searched for her family, the triangle of herself and her parents. There were tones that never rang clear, distant lights that were never fully lit and never entirely extinguished. She remembered she had taken a lover, but had not seen him in twenty-eight...no, thirty-one days. Thirty-one days was either no time at all or quite long indeed, and to try to determine which she woke herself up and began counting, then drifted off again and lost her place. Once she had been thought dear, a treasure, the little red-haired Holiness girl whose laughter sparkled like light on a lake; now she stood outside the gates of her father's Prophecy, asleep inside his house. Her hair tumbled across her pillow and over the edge of the bed: a flame.
Only Hazel Hunnicutt slept soundly, cats claiming space all around her. The proprietor of Hazel Hunnicutt's Used World Emporium the station at the end of the line for objects that sometimes appeared tricked into visiting there often dreamed of the stars, although she never counted them. Her nighttime ephemera included Mercury in retrograde; Saturn in the trine position (a fork in the hand of an old man whose dinner is, in the end, all of us); the Lion, the Virgin, the Scorpion; and figures of the cardinal, the banal, the venal. Hazel was the oldest of the three women by twenty years; she was their patron, and the pause in their conversation. Only she still had a mother (although Hazel would have argued it is mothers who have us); only she could predict the coming weather, having noticed the spill of a white afghan in booth #43 and the billowing of a man's white shirt as he stepped from the front of her store into the heat of the back. White white white. The color of purity and wedding gowns and rooms in the underworld where girls will not eat, but also just whiteness for its own sake. If Hazel were awake she would argue for logic's razor and say that the absence of color is what it is, or what it isn't. But she slept. Her hand twitched slightly, a gesture that would raise the instruments in an orchestra, and her cat Mao could not help but leap at the hand, but he did not bite.
In the Used World Emporium itself, nothing lived, nothing moved, but the air was thick with expectancy nonetheless. It was a cavernous space, filled with the castoffs of countless lives, as much a grave in its way as any ruin. The black eyes of the rocking horses glittered like the eyes of a carp; the ivory keys of an old piano were once the tusks of an African elephant. The racks of period clothing hung motionless, wineskins to be filled with a new vintage. The bottles, the bellows, the genuine horse-drawn sleigh now bedecked with bells and garlands: these were not stories. They were not ideas. They were just objects, consistent so far from moment to moment, waiting for daybreak like everything else.
It was mid-December in Jonah, Indiana, a place where Fate can be decided by the weather, and a storm was gathering overhead.
Copyright © 2007 by Haven Kimmel