Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge

Oisín Curran

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Derek White
from Marsupial

Leni Zumas
Leopard Arms

Leopard Arms
Leni Zumas

A new family is taking the place of the woman who choked on a peanut. They arrive in a dented sedan. Their belongings are few. No lamps or saucepans, two chairs only, clothes in plastic bags. It’s drizzling, so they hurry.

The little girl says, Who’s that? and points up at me.

Nobody, says the no-haired mother.

Step lively, morsel! adds the rope-haired father.

 

My name is not a word; it’s a smell. Call me the tang between smoke and scraped bark. Some years ago I fell to Brooklyn, was born as ornament on a block of cheap flats. The man who cut me was jolly and slapdash. His chisel was dull. He made my mouth open as if to growl, snout broad, eyes lashless. I wish I were more frightening. My shoulders, for one, are tiny—they barely protrude from the battlement—and my lips could as easily be laughing as scowling. I look as if I’d been carved with blunt scissors, by an only slightly talented child.

The word you know me by is from gargouille, the French for throat. A throat can sing a tune, swallow milk, be sliced wide open. Down throats go slender needles aimed at human hearts.

 

The family ensconced: parents pouring drinks, girl pacing along each new wall to listen.

A large red charabanc chugs past, its upper-deck riders ponchoed against the rain.

And here on our right, trumpets the guide, we have the apartment where Mel Villiers wrote Still Life with Gaping Wound. He waves his microphone at the stack of micro-lofts (formerly a public library) across the street. In the very same building, he continues, is where Polychrest recorded the eight-track demos of Mumcunt.

A gust of oohs from the deck.

When’re we gonna see where Squinch Babbington’s girlfriend overdosed? shouts a passenger. That was in the brochure.

Next block, says the guide.

If Mrs. Megrim had been on her lookout when the bus came by, those tourists would have gotten an earful. Quit nosing, you nostrils! Why don’t you go look at something actually interesting? Megrim’s husband is long dead, her children far flung. She sits on a plastic lawn chair outside the mouth of the building, condemning all who pass.

But today the only person who noticed the bus was the watcher, a young woman on the top floor who stays behind planked-over windows and touches the world through binoculars.

 

I watch, too: the light dies. Dark water falls. The drinkers and dancers swim out. O kiss me please, o throw me over. Hot rooms stink, are entered and fled. With each small hour the frenzy hardens: which of these fuckers can I bring back to bed? Then the night unclenches. Birds’ wings begin to itch, stumblers-home pull keys from pants, and the old—already restless—wait on mentholatumed pillows until an acceptable hour to open their eyes. The sun staggers forth. There is only so much it can do, since along these narrow streets the buildings loom and tilt, keeping sidewalks in constant shade.

The edifice I grow from, five storeys of blond stone, is called Leopard Arms. Its dwellers believe I am here to spout rain and to guard them. They’re unaware I would make a fine witness for criminal trials. A gargoyle’s ears collect sounds from impossible distances, and we don’t need eyes to see. A mere adornment, a forgettable decoration, I know everything they do. But they don’t do much. They are, in fact, a disappointing lot. I’ve heard tell of unpleasant posts—the church whose cleric drives tent-pegs into the necks of prairie dogs, or the planetarium whose female staff drink one another’s menstrual yield—so I suppose I ought to be grateful; but Leopard Arms is not the most electrifying assignment in Brooklyn. Many of its residents rarely leave the premises. The ones who do don’t get far; they return an hour later, bag of provisions on arm, looking exhausted. A few have jobs, but are on the brink of losing them. Because gossip and songs have made the neighborhood popular, it costs far more than its moldy ceilings, anemic trees, and high rates of asthma deserve. I don’t know how these people keep coughing up the rent.

 

We have thrown water from the flat roofs of Egypt, where sacred vessels were rinsed of blood. We have roared as marble lions on the war temples of Greece. From English ramparts we have seen necks swing at the gallows, shoulders run red under the lash. In Paris, a million postcards perch us cutely on Notre Dame. In Freiburg, one of our number defecates upon the cornice of the Munster, his crude pose revenge by a fifteenth-century mason upon the nobleman who refused to pay him.

There is a belief, passed down the centuries, that gargoyles ward off evil. Our monstrous faces must surely be enough to panic the toughest phantom. Churches and ministers, cathedrals, the odd vicarage—we’re presumed to defend them from the noxious oils massing round their spires, the midnights waiting to pry with yellow claws their stained vents of glass.

But I am here to tell you: we do not protect.

Our job is not that at all.

 

You can tell somebody died in here, observes the mother, because it has that shiver feeling.

The father says, Be grateful. It knocked a shit ton off the rent.

People are squeamish, says the mother.

Could we not afford it if she didn’t die? asks the daughter.

Jesus, morsel, it’s not as if we killed her. The father circles the small rugless room, massaging his bony forearms. This goddamn skin-jacket, I want it off! Why can’t I be made of water?

Because you crimed in your last life, says the mother.

Next life we’ll be water? asks the daughter.

If you keep on being good. The mother pushes her glass at the girl. Refill my snowbroth, please?

 

The shame collector lives with his cat, Sophie, who happily does not need to be walked. He has stopped going outside altogether. Food comes on bicycles, and toilet paper is mailed from a recycling company. I twist the dial on his radio: explosion here, pile of dead there. The collector, pinning a hemorrhoid to a sheet of foam-core, listens for a few seconds, then reaches to turn it off.

 

Into her beloved’s room, across the narrow courtyard, the watcher can look with no other hindrance than curtains so flimsy it does not matter whether he draws them. Through her binoculars she sees him wipe his eye, examine the speck, cough.

Look up, she thinks. Look up.

If she had a cat, she would stoop to stroke it. If she had a cat, it would not be a cat but a shark.

The watcher’s flat has three windows, two of them boarded. The one in the bathroom is too high and small to nail anything across. She once taped a sheet of construction paper over it, but moisture from her baths made the tape curl off the wall.

A shark, she knows, is not practical as a pet.

 

Tourists shield upcast eyes from the new-millennium sun, through split fingers see us crouched and leering on parapets, and think: Such quaint remnants! We remain, to them, from darker, stupider days. It does not occur to these squinters that no days were ever darker than theirs. One glance at a gargoyle and they think Medieval superstition how charming but fail to heed the omens of now: a moron grinning into a microphone, ten-year-old soldiers lined up to march, flags cracking in the desert wind.

In America I have learned the meaning of head in the sand.

 

Under the watcher’s binocular gaze, the beloved and his sidekick recline with beers.

How’s your new script going? inquires the sidekick.

Crazy.

Yeah?

As in, crazy-awesome!

What’s the plot?

It’s a porno about Helen Keller.

Huh. Sounds . . .

Awesome?

Is Helen Keller an actual character, or is it more like role-play?

The beloved puffs a palm-kiss at the sidekick. More shall be revealed!

 

I have not yet heard the young one’s name spoken. She is referred to simply as morsel. She is the only child in the building. Her stockings are red with white rabbits stitched at the knee. I’m sorry, she says daily, for talking too loud when her parents’ heads are killing them. When their heads are not killing them, they debate philosophy—of a sort. Theirs is a rather personal metaphysics. They talk of people who have wronged them, fortunes that have skipped them, the various piques and umbrages scattered in their wake. It seems the world has not dealt them a fair hand.

The father reasons, Assholes are not suddenly—or actually ever—going to vanish from the earth. So the best defense is Hypnos.

Don’t forget Morpheus, says the mother.

 

Since the walls at Leopard Arms are as thick as thick fingernails, shame breeds like a grateful spore.

The collector worries that his snoring will keep the watcher awake. He moved his bed to the far wall, but the room is so narrow not much can be done to impede the travel of his slurpings and honkings and cuh-cuh-cuchhh-ings into the adjoining flat. If he sees the watcher in the lobby or hall, he swivels right round. The only mammal who is ever going to sleep next to him, he figures, is Sophie.

Mrs. Megrim, meanwhile, wonders if the flautist hears her crying after short, unsatisfying phone calls with her children. Or if her heavy tread bothers the phantom-faced boy below. Oh, but let him be bothered, she always reminds herself. Let him.

The watcher listens to the morsel’s parents intercoursing nightly between eleven-fifteen and eleven-thirty, directly under her bed. (The floors are holey.) When softly the tiny sighs begin, the watcher readies herself: face down, toes braced, hips arched, fingers slitted. Sighlets give way to whimpers, a moan or two, then many moans, accelerating. In due course the father joins in with his staccato whinnies. The watcher herself makes no sound.

 

The tellies switch on by themselves to the news channels. How the fuck, says everybody. The news reveals only a fraction, but that’s more than my humans want to hear. Limbs torched, bullets bouncing. Stop looking at that, orders the mother of the morsel, whose eyes are huge at women sobbing round a coffin.

They have no idea I encourage their midnights, rather than frighten them away.

For that, you see, is the gargoyle’s way with worry.

We invite.

 

I am rained on, wind-whipped, scorched. The stone they cut me from was not of high quality, and down the years I have greened and softened. At the academy they drilled us in the history of weather, since we were to live in it. I learned that the ancient Greeks believed truffles were made by thunder: during a storm, the noise would invert itself and sink—newly solid—into fungal soil. The ancient Romans reported that blood and milk poured from the sky, as did iron. And wool. And flesh. Then, of course, cyclones: a notorious peril to seafarers. The nautical remedy was to splash vinegar on the ship before the cyclone’s arrival. (Was this effective? The logbooks are unclear.)

My favorite weather is cloud; it reminds me of home. When vapors from the sewage plant waft south to flour the skies, I am, in my way, smiling.

 

If that child bangs on the wall one more time while my stories are on, I will contact the law.

Oh really? says the mother. And which law would that be?

Mrs. Megrim looks the mother up and down, her mouth a venom bloom. She says, You’re so thin it’s like a concentration camp happened.

Thank you!

Not a compliment, says Mrs. Megrim.

Actually, says the mother.

 

The father stops to examine a typed notice affixed to the front door. He is a slow reader. Huh, he says finally, shouldering his sack of bottles.

The new referendum requires all persons over the age of thirty-five to evacuate the neighborhood on or before March 15. Furthermore, per an auxiliary proviso, all persons between eighteen and thirty-five must report to the post office and receive an Appearance Assessment. If deemed inferior for any reason (understyled, overweight, etc.) the person must leave the zip code within sixty days.

Safe for now, says the father, although in a few years we’ll be—

Fucked, nods the mother.

The daughter asks, But what if you don’t pass the Assessment?

Are you kidding? Look at us.

The morsel looks.

The mother says, We’re hot, okay?

 

The only people in the building over thirty-five are Mrs. Megrim and the flautist, who says cheerily, At least they gave us plenty of time to pack!

The referendum can screw, says Mrs. Megrim.

She’s been at Leopard Arms since her husband was alive. Together they saw a lot of life pass through these doors. They played rummy here. They bemoaned their children’s unwise choices here. They walked across the light-strung bridge after suppers in Manhattan, glad to return to the quiet of here.

I budge not, she declares.

The flautist whispers, They’ll come for you eventually.

 

The watcher’s beloved is one of the ones who never go outside. He does his work at home where the sun can’t get him. His face is the coldest white, much like those of eighteenth-century women who ate arsenic wafers to bleach their skin. (The arsenic killed the hemoglobin in their blood, and the women grew pale as spiders living on the floor of the sea.)

The beloved reaches the world through his machine. Upon his ashen cheeks, at all hours, jumps blue breath from the screen. He sends reports, receives instructions, unbuckles his belt and digs one hand down to pump while the bodies topple from position to position.

 

When this latest war started, the academy upped the number of trainees it sent to America. We are sorely needed in the land of the green mermaid. Other places, people are forced to reckon with their midnights because they’re standing right in front of them, often holding a rifle. Not so in a country where you can choose, instead of rifles, to think about wrinkle-fighting injections or celebrity custody combat.

During a previous war, slightly to the east of this one, I was fresh-eared at the academy. I couldn’t wait to be a dragon on a pagoda, watching gunfire like a cricket match. But my instructor assigned me to the United States.

Shouldn’t I go to where the wounded are? I protested.

If you want the blossom to grow, said my instructor, it won’t do much good to water the petals. The roots of this suffering are in America. To help the people who are being bombed, you have to go to the nightmare’s source.

 

To his foam display board the collector nails a skinny white leg flecked with golden, girlish hairs.

 

There are three types of Antarctic penguin, says the morsel.

Is that right, says the father.

King, macaroni, and jackass.

They taught you the word jackass at school?

No, I read it just myself. The king penguin is the size of a goose.

Have you ever seen a goose? demands the father. Shit, the fact is, we’ve never taken you to the zoo. Wife! he hollers at the kitchen.

The macaroni is smaller, continues the morsel, with a white throat.

What about the jackass?

They make a noise like a donkey. And have tiny flippers.

We need to figure out where the zoo is!

The mother stands in the doorway, biting the lip of her glass. But did you see about that kid who got mauled by the Siberian tiger last month? Through the bars, she adds. I think he might’ve died of his injuries.

The biggest midnight sniffing for the mother is fearwhich, of course, is every human’s midnight, but for her it assumes an age-old guise: fear of the morsel coming to harm because she, the mother, did not take good enough care of her. Tuberculosis, speeding truck, Siberian tiger: so much could happen.

The father is scared of doing nothing they’ll remember him for. Not a single footprintfilm, book, record, madcap stuntto prove he was here.

Significant fears to face, I would say; but these two do a bang-up job of not. Their evasion strategy is deftly honed. They sleep half the day, snarled up in each other’s arms; the other half they drink snowbroth. Eating is not high on the priority list. Their daughter, in fact, seems to be the only cook in the house. What sauce you want on your eggs, Dad? Hot or plum?

They are practically impervious!

Well, it’s my job to thwart their blitheness. To keep drawing the midnights up from the caves, no matter how slippery these two might be.

I’m not sure what my obligation is to the young one. At what age should a person start being visited by eye-opening discomfort? Our instructors didn’t teach us a great deal about children. I think I will leave her alone for now. She already has her parents to cope with, after all.

 

The watcher and her beloved happen to cross the lobby at the same moment.

She emits a gurgling scream.

He says uneasily, Whut up?

Oh!

Huh?

Hi, she corrects herself.

He nods and hurries out the door. She stands still for several minutes, listening to his voice—three dazzling syllables—play back, play back.

 

As the sun drops behind the scaffolds of a half-built high-rise, the mother returns from a rare day out. Mrs. Megrim, sitting guard, sees her spit gum onto the sidewalk.

Pick it up! she yells.

The mother walks faster.

Megrim stands with difficulty and arranges her bulk against the door, blocking entry.

Are you kidding? says the mother, adjusting her sunglasses.

I kid not.

Look, I need to get upstairs. I’ve had this tampon in since 7 a.m.

Pick it up off the ground! says Megrim.

It’s not on the ground, it’s in my cunny, growing lethal bacteria.

You want somebody to slip on that? Pick it up, dirty!

I had two job interviews today. Move out of my effing way.

Not until you fetch your effing garbage and stop expecting the world to be cleaned for you.

Not strong enough to shove her aside, the mother stomps back to retrieve the wad.

 

The shame collector’s grandmother has taken to ringing several times a day. When he answers, she does nothing except breathe and fidget; then, before hanging up, she whispers: Poop.

He imagines her in the assisted-living facility, next to a jar of plastic flowers, fretting fruit-bar wrappers in her speckled hands. So he picks up every time, even though the sight of the Florida area code sends a blade into his lung.

How you doing, Nanna? he murmurs, pinning to his board a lame joke he told at the Halloween party.

 

The flautist departs well before the deadline. A great excuse to travel, she remarks to Mrs. Megrim. I’m going on a singles cruise!

Decent, nods Megrim. But you’re still a weakling.

 

A shark would not be practical, knows the watcher. The tank alone would take up the whole flat, even if she could find someone willing to install it.

He stirs milk on a low flame. According to her logbook, he likes milk to be hot and weather to be cold. He likes cereal to have marshmallows and women to be drunk. Ten-thirty is his preferred hour to rise.

Look up, she whispers. Look up.

Look up because here I am.

There is a lot about the beloved that the watcher can’t know. Such as that he spikes that milk with mock absinthe. Such as that he doesn’t even own a mattress, and sleeps on a sleeping bag full of twigs and dirt. This girl is really getting the short end of it—in love with deadly marine beasts and writers of smut! I ache to expose him. But that would be solving her pain for her. We are not trained to give them shortcuts.

Agape at his screen, he squeals into the phone: Smoke these subject headings, chap! Kaela gets laid by her horses. Jalisa sucks off her cows. It’s more or less poetry! Average moms open their legs for you.

You don’t have a junk-mail filter? demands his sidekick.

I don’t want one, because this poetry’s going straight into Helen Keller.

 

Sunlight enters the body through the eyes, so the residents of Leopard Arms, dark-glassèd whenever they step out, do not get enough vitamin D. Even the morsel is forced to wear red plastic contraptions that make her look like a miniature-golf docent.

A lack of D causes rickets in the young, osteomalacia in the older. Is the morsel walking knock-kneed? When she came home from school yesterday, I noticed a hint of a limp. Could her bones be turning to jam?

At the academy, where we train before manifesting as architecture, they are very firm on one point: Do not sympathize. You will think these humans are hapless, indeed pathetic. Do not give in! They must tackle some truths. Confront a few facts. If you let them lead lives of carefree denial, of callous fun-seeking, the race will self-destruct even sooner than it’s scheduled to.

Although, chuckled one of my instructors, scratching the horn that left his right eye in shadow, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, now would it?

We baby gargoyles tucked behind our desks giggled too, but nervously. The job seemed massive—beyond our gift.

 

The girl taps on 5-C, palms flat on the sticky door to keep from falling. She is wearing her new skates, smuggled out of the lost-and-found by a teacher who took pity.

The collector answers, holding a box of adhesive strips worn across the bridge of the nose to reduce snoring. They have just come in the post and he wants to practice before night. Yes?

Will you please come watch me skate because I’m not allowed to alone?

Wull . . .

Because I could get hit by a car or abducted or also killed.

Can’t you ask your mom?

She’s still asleep.

What about

He is too.

The collector looks at his watch, raises an eyebrow. Sophie throbs at his ankles.

So can you?

Wull . . . He is nauseous at the prospect of showing his face in public.

Please? Her rabbity knees are twitching.

He sighs. No, I can’t.

The morsel nods.

I’m sorry, I just

That’s okay, she says.

 

At dawn on March 15, the old emerge from their homes. Some are whisked into the cars of impatient relatives; others lurch by themselves into taxis. Once the sun is quivering above, the rest of the banished start making their way. They pile crates and boxes, picture-frames and cacti, into borrowed vans. They push laden shopping carts toward the bridge. They glance wistfully at the new coffeeshop/handmade jeans boutique/gym but cry, Fuck this neighborhood anyway. Asthma’s not on my Christmas list!

Mrs. Megrim watches the exodus from behind her curtains, shaking her unusually large head.

 

The morsel has been hurting at the back of her mouth.

You probably just drank something too hot, says the mother.

I was scalded?

Yes you were. Get a piece of ice.

The almonds of her throat are aflame. If anyone were to look, they’d see a raw red swelling. Nobody looks.

 

A Complete Guide to Hazardous Marine Life contains a photograph of the shark she pines for: not a big shark, only a few feet, but fierce and beautiful. Brave. She has peered into its tiny eye a thousand times, even pressed her binoculars up to the page, trying to see to its heart. A shark would defend the watcher from the loneliness I have called upon her. Loneliness, according to our instructors, is among the worst of midnights. It is not a flashy problem like crack, nor easily sympathized for, like cancer. Instead it works slowly up your spine, taking sips of the fluid.

 

The tour guide exclaims, As you may have guessed from the cute foot traffic, this area has finally been cleared of erstwhilers. Local representatives have been trying to pass an age-and-beauty law for several years and were at last triumphant, making the neighborhood the most enviable address in the entire—

Too bad you cannot live here, observes a tourist.

Excuse me?

Well, you are no spring turkey.

The guide’s eyelids flutter, but he contains himself. Now then, if you will crane your necks to the left . . .

 

On the third day of tonsillitis, the morsel requests a visit to the doctor and is told, Do you think insurance suddenly fell from the ceiling?

Pocketing house key and pink wallet, she strides off toward the high street. Returns with a lemon, a radish, and a thick yogurt made in Iceland. She squats over a patch of dirt from which climbs a spindly tree, digging until she finds her quarry.

I’m sorry, she whispers, and chops off the earthworm’s head with her key.

Please do not eat that.

If only I had a voice she could hear!

Where is Megrim? Watching her stories, of course. Dammit, Mrs., you are needed.

The tonsil-poultice, pestled in a plastic cup from a hamburger restaurant, is one part radish, two parts worm, and three parts polar curd. Delicious, she whispers staunchly. The parents, heads on fire in the next room, can’t hear.

 

The watcher scratches on the wall above her bed, in black pen: Love is when a thin flame flies under your skin.

Two floors below, across the courtyard, the beloved halts in mid-pump. He is wincing, not in carnal pleasure but in ordinary pain.

Fuck my back kills!

One can only hope that the twines and tissues of his lumbar are disintegrating, thanks to insufficient vitamin D, a little more each day.

 

I learned a new thing at recess, croaks the morsel. Want to see?

Stupid with snowbroth, they nod.

She laces her fingers and clamps her fists together. Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and unload clips into the people.

Ha! says the mother.

Do it again, says the father.

In America I have learned the meaning of last straw.

Do not try to save them, warned the instructors. One may only teach lessons—never rescue.

But I’ve been in this country long enough to know that you can do anything if you just try hard enough and don’t ask the government for enfeebling handouts.

I hereby climb out from under the wet blankets of the British Empire, and pledge: I will rescue.

Not yet sure exactly how.

 

Oh-em-gee, chap, were you aware that Pete’s mom is ready for hardcore action after some beers? Or that crazy farm women are screwing in the barn? A lot goes on in agricultural settings.

Helen Keller didn’t live on a farm, did she?

Sure she did, says the beloved. A farm of the mind.

 

Nanna, says the collector, did you know that my transformation into a shut-in reeking of cat pee is almost complete?

Breathing.

I haven’t left the apartment in a month, he says.

Rustling.

Literally, he adds.

Poop, she says.

 

Across the water from their horned wisdom, I am betraying my instructors. Merely to entertain the idea of rescue is in flagrant defiance of the gargoyle’s mission. We are to nudge humans out of their nests, not weave new ones for them.

I can’t think of a way to reach her. Not directly. I must act by proxy, entrust the salvage to a go-between.

 

Hoarse and feverish, the morsel decides to keep herself home from school. The sight of her alarms the parents when they rise at noon.

What the eff? says the mother. It’s not the weekend! And what’s that smell?

I can’t talk, writes the morsel on a take-out menu, so I am making some cookies.

Right ho, says the bewildered father.

 

My powers are limited, but they are powers.

A grain, a grain, a grain.

(I haven’t concentrated this hard since my leaving exams at the academy.)

From these grains, be gone all sweetness!

(My stone eyes ache.)

From this cupful, leach all music, expunge all hue, until the cup is sand.

 

Charity’s legs are spread on the ranch! shrieks the beloved, hunched pantless at his screen.

The watcher can see he is excited, and wishes she knew what his words were; she imagines them as little flowers of anguish. If I had a shark, I could ride it across the yard and through his window and then—

Oh dear girl, you couldn’t.

A knock. Soft, insistent. The beloved debates whether to answer, then—because he’s bored—steps into his corduroys. The watcher loses sight of him when he moves for the door.

What are you selling these for?

Only five mere dollars, she whispers.

No, I mean, what organization?

The morsel shrugs.

I’m not paying if I don’t know. You could be raising funds for the U.S. Army.

It’s for my dad and my mom, squeaks the morsel.

They’re making you hawk baked goods for personal gain?

They’re not making me. I thought of it just myself. They need some money.

But you can’t—I mean, that’s just not done.

I’m doing it, the morsel points out.

 

Would you like to buy some delicious cookies?

She dangles the ziplock with its freight of charred lumps.

What flavor?

Oatmeal, the morsel whispers. Just five dollars only. You can try one for free.

The collector munches contemplatively. This is far from delicious, he says.

The morsel blinks.

In fact it tastes like crap.

He bends to feed the other half to Sophie.

The morsel stares at her thumb.

Did you follow the recipe? he asks, nearly kindly.

She nods.

I suspect that sugar is an ingredient you overlooked.

No, I’m pretty sure.

I advise you to whip up a new batch before you go on peddling your wares.

The morsel blinks faster.

 

Here it is. The moment. Please let it succeed, my stratagem, my dicey ploy! I don’t pray, because who to? but I concentrate my very hardest.

The old woman reaches into the ziplock, brings a black chunk to her mouth. What will she say?

This is nastiness. I wouldn’t pay a dime, much less five dollars.

I’m sorry, mouths the morsel.

Never apologize, says Megrim briskly. Just make more.

I don’t have more ingredients.

Megrim crunches her mouth into an almost-smile. Well guess who does?

I am embarrassed to feel so wildly relieved. It hardly befits a creature of my station. But her swollen little almonds—and the steeple—and the bloody broth—it simply would not answer.

 

Mrs. Megrim hands the morsel a wedge of butter wrapped in paper towel. Grease away!

The assiduous child sets to her pans while Megrim beats the dough. The heating oven (seldom cleaned) fills the kitchen with ghosts of ancient suppers, pork loin and bread pudding and broiled cod and plum pie.

They sent a needle down his throat, explains Megrim, to find out what ailed his ticker. But while they were doing it, he died. Right on the goddamn table. The needle must’ve hit something else.

That’s so bad, says the morsel.

Yeah, it was. It was the worst thing of all.

I wish that didn’t happen.

Well, thank you, says Megrim.

 

Mature ladies showing nasty tricks, mutters the beloved.

 

Mrs. Megrim has donned her best dress, a blue silk her husband gave her. Too big for it now, she has slashed vents in the back and sides, through which surge rolls of petticoat’d flesh. In the bathroom mirror she dabs on lipstick. The morsel admires its color, the lit-up brown of raisins. She asks can she have some too and is told to dream on.

My nephew is a doctor in the Bronx, states Megrim, and we’re paying him a visit. He’ll tell us whether those tonsils need to come out. Here, put on your rag.

My pretty coat, corrects the morsel.

I’m sorry, but that hardly adds up to a coat. Wrap this around your neck.

What is it?

My people call it a scarf, says Megrim.

Do you think my mom is beautiful?

Well, ha, well, I—just look at you! Could a child so handsome have come from a non-beautiful mother?

What is your favorite place on Earth you’ve been to in real life?

The Bering Strait. On my honeymoon.

What was your favorite thing to make your kids for dinner?

Hot dogs. They had low standards.

And what is the leopard’s name?

Henh?

Our leopard.

You mean that fellow above the door?

Yeah him.

My name is

Search me.

But my name is

Doesn’t have one, concludes the girl.

Are we done with this interrogation or what?

The morsel hesitates. The question she wants most to ask is not polite. But her worry that Mrs. Megrim is going to leave—a new black dot on her heart—eclipses all else.

Aren’t you scared, she blurts, of getting arrested for being not young and then have to move away?

Megrim cackles. No, hon, they won’t catch me. I know the tunnels.

I can smuggle food into a tunnel, says the morsel.

That’d be decent.

I’ll bring you eggs! And also sandwiches!

Quit shouting, or a rawhead will come for you in the night.

What does one look like?

So hideous, says Megrim, it can’t be described.

 

The crone may know the tunnels, but I know what the Evacuation Enforcement Inspectors look like. And upon them I shall invite amnesia, whenever they approach.

 

The bus is passing once again. I have the spiel, of course, by heart. But today the tour guide strays from his script—he points the microphone at me.

Me?

Has it dawned on them, perchance? Am I about to receive, for the first time, some credit for my work on humans’ behalves? I don’t need applause (we were trained to expect none) but I wouldn’t kick a bit of acknowledgment out of bed. The watcher, for instance, could have thanked me for whisking her out of Leopard Arms and thereby away from the most futile infatuation on record. All it took was a gentle prodding of the Enforcement Inspectors. She had never gone to the post office for her Appearance Assessment, and when they knocked on her door, they found that all was not garden-fresh in Denmark. The girl’s skin puts one in mind of stucco, and her hair hasn’t felt a grooming product since before the war.

While she waited for the moving van, clutching her stuffed great white, she might have raised her eyes and smiled. She did not.

The shame collector’s gratitude did not exactly runneth over, either, despite the lengths I went for him. I got word of the animal clinic, did I not, in one of my brothers’ buildings, wherein works a lovely deaf veterinarian? And I tempted the feline ague upon Sophie, did I not? And the collector now has an ice-cream date for next weekend. But there has been no appreciative wink for me, only his jaw at his knees.

In that urine-colored building, announces the guide, is where Brosef Killick wrote the screenplay for Mount Saint Helen, which has recently been wowing special-interest audiences across the country. According to my sources, he still lives here, though one might reasonably ask: why not relocate to Tinseltown, Brosef?

You mean he’s in there right now? coo the passengers.

Quite possibly so.

Fuckin ’ell! An evident fan stands up and waves frantically. Hey, Killy! Down ’ere! Show us some dingle!

Please take your seat, says the guide.

The voice, whose lost aitches spark in me a blurred nostalgia for home, gets worse. Look out yer window, you tosser!

A window opens and Mrs. Megrim’s enormous head pokes forth. Shut that pie-hole!

You shut it, granny.

She withdraws, only to return with a rose-lidded bowl. I’ll show you shut it! she screams, hurling the bowl. She’s brawny for a woman of her years: the pottery soars all the way to the bus (narrowly missing the Killick enthusiast) and shatters on the linoleum deck. A little beach of sugar unfurls at their feet.

Nice throw, says the morsel. Elbows propped on the sill, she leans her head against the formidable bicep. Her cheeks are cherrier, thanks to the protein and vegetables she has been ingesting regularly at Megrim’s kitchen table.

The tour guide gawks up, shocked to see such an over-age human loose in the neighborhood. Jesus, he murmurs, I thought they got rid of them all.