Read an Excerpt
An Ill Wind (Simone)
Their father left in a gust of wind. That was when Julia learned that things can change, very suddenly, and for the worse. That day the wind blew the lids off garbage cans and lashed the windows with tree branches. It was the wind that brought Lisa's cold, an ill wind that blew evil spores into her sinuses. I knew I could not cure all that the wind would do, but I could at least unstop my little niece's nose. I brewed a tea of sage and chamomile and sat at the kitchen table and watched her drink it down.
It was a Sunday in April, the first warm cusp of spring. Julia was seven, Lisa five. Of the two, Julia was the milder in temperament. At seven, she already suspected that our lives are not ours to govern. Her child's ear was still keen enough to hear the rustle of Fate's body slithering through time, and the sound distracted her, giving her eyes their dreamy blear, and her small mouth its ruefulness. I tried to teach my nieces what I knew about the world, that time is porous and fate indifferent, and that we may know the future as we know the past. But Lisa was a willful child who never wanted to hear that her destiny had already been written. And Julia was cursed with a tendency to see both sides of every question, so that while she believed me, she also believed that I was wrong.
I baby-sat for them that Sunday while their mother went out shopping. My sister Carolina was thirty-five by then, but age can only instruct a willing pupil. She was still as foolish as a girl, and as prone to fads and lavish disappointments.Her obsession then was the MG Midget she'd bought for cheap from a Lithuanian mechanic, and she insisted on driving it to the market, despite the fierce wind. As I set Lisa's cup down on the table, it held a ripply picture of Carolina being swept from one side of the road to the other, like a spider under a broom.
Water reflects much more than light if you know how to read it, but it takes a clear eye and a patient soul to make sense of what you see. I have the patience, and my eyesight is better than most. At sixty I can still thread a needle or find a button on a parquet floor, and when I look into a vessel of water, I can sometimes see the future or the past, or even things in the present that are far away. But this second vision, this window into time, has grown cataracted with memory. Sometimes I can't tell what I remember and what I've dreamed, what I've foretold and what I've only feared. When I look back at that augurying cup of tea, I can't remember if I understood what the picture of the wind was telling me. I only know that the steam from that cup fogged my spectacles and I had to untuck a corner of my blouse to wipe the lenses clear.
The girls were restless and edgy from the wind. They were bored with their toys and dolls, and as I sat trying to coax Lisa into drinking her healing tea, they kicked each other under the table and thought I didn't notice.
"I have a surprise for you," I cajoled, hoping they could be distracted. "Picture books."
I was still a librarian then and I liked to bring my nieces books from the discard shelves. Carolina never approved of my selections, but that was because I refused to pander. That day I brought them a book on Renoir and one on Caravaggio, an illustrated home-plumbing book, and a medical treatise on rashes with seventy-five full-color photographs of hives, blisters, whelks, and shingles. I had no use for storybooks, with their mincing illustrations of insipid infants and simpering beasts. Such sugarcoating only teaches children to look at the surface of things. I wanted my nieces to discover the story on the lips of Caravaggio's insolent saints, the message written on the thighs of Renoir's blowsy nudes. The serpent Fate slithers between the lines, and if you want to find her, you must visit where she lives.
Julia could have found her if she wanted to. She was the kind of child who would stare at objects until they blurred into a corona of light and then turned crisp again. It was hard for her to decide which vision was the truer one. When she looked at the photographs of raging urticaria and furfuraceous rashes, she teetered between repulsion and captivation. The pimples and rashes were disgusting, but she found that if she watched the inflamed pustules long enough, they became an auburn landscape of snowcapped mountains. It was only Lisa who was certain what she was seeing. "Ew, gross!" she squealed as she looked over Julia's shoulder. "I bet you could die from that."
By afternoon Lisa had turned feverish and I sent Julia outside to play in the wind. I sat at Lisa's bedside and watched Julia through the window. The wind felt to her like a cold muscle, pressing against her, blowing her hair in front of her face. It made her want to dance and do funny walks. She stood straight up with her arms spread out like wings. She waltzed along the sidewalk the way her daddy had taught her, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The wind blew behind her, propelling her along, whipping her skirt between her legs. She thought it was friendly then. But when she tried to run against it, it blew her back and tipped over the mug of hot chocolate she had been allowed to bring outside, her favorite mug, with a picture of a bumblebee on it.
She saw then what kind of wind it was, a cruel wind, a careless wind, like certain neighborhood girls who played too rough and broke her toys without even noticing. The wind seized trees by the neck and shook them, knocked potted plants off windowsills. Nothing would stay still. A tricycle sailed down someone's driveway and capsized at the curb. She watched the big front wheel turn slowly in the street and felt sorry for the tricycle, sorry for the trees, sorry for the shattered mug and the cocoa seeping over the concrete. At last she sunk down on her own front steps and huddled against the darting, flickering air, seeing how the wind could turn you against yourself.
I was about to go outside and fetch her in when I saw her father walking down the street, his hands in his pockets, his black hair blown straight up. He smiled at her, a guilty, bashful smile, and she stood up, her heart full of pleasure. The two of them were like two versions of the same letter, capital and lowercase. They didn't look alike, but they meant the same thing.
"Your hair's standing on end," Julia told him.
"Is it?" He smoothed it with one hand. "Something must have scared me."
She waited for him to tell her whata monster maybe, or a robber. He liked to tell her stories about the exotic characters lurking inside the green-and-white dapboard houses of working-class Watertown, the adventures he had when he was walking home. But now he just leaned down and tousled her hair as if she were someone else's daughter.
"Your mama home yet?" he asked. When she shook her head, he went inside, leaving Julia standing in the wind.
Late that night she woke up, afraid of the wind's yammering. The house cracks wailed and skirled. There was a rushing noise as if a great dam had broken and a clanging as some metal thing blew down the sidewalk. She lay still, listening, trying to tell apart the noises. Something slogged against the back door, jarring the windowpane. She held her breath and pressed herself flat against the sheets, trying to be invisible. Knock. Knock. Knock. Whatever it was, it wanted in.
At last Julia leaped out of bed and climbed the stairs to her parents' bedroom. "There's someone trying to get in," she whispered.
Julia's father opened his eyes and put his fingers to his lips. The pounding continued, slow, then fast, then slow again.
"Let's go see who it is," he said quietly and got up, pulling on the bathrobe that was slung over the doorknob. Julia crept behind him, tailing him as he padded down the stairs and through the dim, chilly atmosphere of the house to the back door. He listened for a moment and then pushed his daughter back with one hand. With the other, he quietly undid the bolt and jerked open the door.
When he saw what was out there, he laughed, the chuckle of a man who was used to being fooled. His boots were tied together at the laces and strung by a hook on the back-porch roof. It was they who'd been trying to get in, his brown leather work boots, kicking at the back door in the wind. Julia's father lifted them from the hook and tossed them over his shoulder.
"Christ, it's really blowing out here, isn't it, Princess?" he said and walked down the back steps to the anemic lawn. Julia followed him, the grass cold on her bare feet, and stood beside him with the wind stinging her eyes. "Chilly?" her father asked, and he put his arm around her shoulders. With his arm strapping her close to his body she didn't mind the wind, and she watched the flailing trees with sleepy fascination.
"Look," her father said. "The Farringtons' sheets have blown off the line."
A pair of sheets, yellow and printed with daisies, wafted across their neighbors' yard like ghosts. They lurched and twisted and got snarled in the bushes, but one pillowcase inflated like a balloon and was borne over the fence.
"Good-bye!" sang Julia's father. "It's off to travel the wide world. Imaginethat tattered old pillowcase is going to fly all over Boston and out to the sea."
He lifted his daughter into his arms and carried her back up the stairs.
"It's a good thing I held you tight out there," he said as she lay under her blankets. "Because otherwise you could have blown away. You might've flown away with the pillowcase, up over all the trees and houses with your nightgown full of wind like a sail. You could've gotten tangled up in telephone wires and had to stay up there till the morning. We'd have had to call the fire department to get you down."
He grinned at Julia and she shut her eyes, nearly dreaming.
"Maybe you'd just have kept going, blowing and blowing out to the harbor. You'd look down and see the boats and the big green waves underneath you. And the people in the boats would think you were a bird, a white seagull. You'd just be flying all night long, far, far from home with nothing above you but the big black sky and the little yellow moon and nothing below you but the cold green sea and no one for company except the pillowcase that came sailing with you. And when you got sleepy you'd rest your head on the pillowcase because it would be full of air like a balloon and you'd lie there on your bed of clouds and spin around in the blustery wind ..."
While Julia was dreaming of flying and Lisa lay sniffling and Carolina dreamed of wearing a lace dress with green buttons, Bill Harris put on his boots and went out the front door. Julia never knew if he was already packed before she came fearfully upstairs, or if her fear of intruders put him in mind of certain real dangers and gave him the idea of leaving. Maybe it was the flying pillowcase that made him think of it. The next morning Carolina told her that the wind had blown him away, and for a long time that was what she believed.