On high water mornings, Korawik rented a chockablock room on the coast of Laundry Lake. She bussed there overnight, arriving just as dawn revealed the brisk and sloppy waves. She gulped a gas mask of coffee and chomped a bun, strolling the water’s edge until a large wave knocked her over. Underwater and pummeled by waves, she reflected on Laundry Lake’s regenerative effects.
Koura had been sick for a while, but now she was getting better. She’d confused herself with a dog. She’d done things that a dog alone would do. She’d poured cold water over both legs of her pants. She’d painted both sides of her face. She’d beaten her forehead against the manor floor, over and over again, trying to get her own way. She’d done evil deeds and enjoyed them, relishing dirty delights in her secret heart.
She’d had an affair with an older man, Peter Keaton, a carefree playboy blessed with many things. He’d been blessed with a thin strip of beard on his throat, and another one over his lip. He’d been blessed with a good deal of flesh on his back and front. He’d been blessed with numerous dogs, whole herds that roamed the lands he’d inherited, vast acres surrounding a manor. He was landed gentry. People paid Peter to shed his blessings their way, onto sore-covered pets, deaf muttering grannies, aged and broken tools—all manner of crap that sustained their meager lives. Peter murmured some words and made a few confident gestures, rattling dice, or strangling pups with taped-up electrical cords. People paid him cash for this; they added to his already sizable fortune. His great wealth went to his head; his head swelled grotesquely with money. He had more than would fit in his pockets, or that he could know what to do with. He had money to burn. From time to time he withdrew a small sack of coins and heated them up in his potbelly stove. He ordered Koura to strip and lie very still, then covered her chest and stomach and forearms and thighs with hot coins that left little red welts. Koura didn’t believe in Peter’s blessings, but craved them for herself; she dragged herself before him to beg for brilliant, dramatic blessings with which she could burn the small of her neck—blessings to cure her common colds, and restore the flow of blood to her overtaxed throat.
Koura’s friends implored her to run away; time and again they implored her. They emphasized her positive characteristics. Koura had minuscule muscles but she was attractive. Her closest parts were the hottest, but a careful glance revealed that her more distant bits were not too bad. On her head she wore masses of delicate hair, more hair than she knew what to do with, a tremendously bothersome bunch of shaggy black stuff that, whatever she did, escaped her best efforts and spilled curled tendrils across her nape and temples. She had a brown face—but for how long, she no longer knew. Her nose, slightly pinched at its second top step, finished off in a soft, wet tip. She kept it closed, denying each sneeze. She held in her snot. She thought snot dumb, a stupid substance. She breathed instead through her mouth: a single hole that led through to her lungs was enough for Koura. As for her lungs, they were covered by flesh, less so in the back than in the front. Her two breasts were well thought out; her hips and thighs, also admirable, were likewise well done, demanding immediate attention.
But Peter Keaton showed more love to his dogs than he did to Koura. He showed them more affection. He showed affection to Koura only rarely, on spare weekday nights. On all other nights of the week he kept her locked outside his manor, making her sleep in a box. He threw his abundant body on top of her body, making her kneel, then forcing her to eat plates of dirty meat with filthy fried eggs and a tall glass of milk. He told her with dirty words to watch her figure. He told her to wash her clothes, and that she was dirty.
Koura, like many others, turned a blind eye to Peter’s perversions. His smooth hair and ancient face never failed to knee her, or turn her purple. She longed to press up against him from behind, urging to be laced with murmuring thrusts. Koura’s friends implored her to leave him, to chase after boys and not fucked-up men. But Peter’s perversions caused Koura to love him more than ever. She told herself that Peter, like her, felt a real love, a love so true it demanded a perverse expression. He, too, desperately craved something new, a break with the past to distinguish the old from the new. To achieve that break, to begin that new life, he needed to make an extremely complex gesture, a perverse maneuver.
Koura escaped the waves and climbed inside a vacant bedbox. Dozens of people arrived at Laundry Lake daily, dragging sacks of worn-out clothes, napping inside the bedboxes while they soaked them. Koura didn’t have any need of a nap. She’d bitten up all of her bun, and drunk all of her coffee. She didn’t have any laundry. When she washed her denim pants, which fit so smoothly her lovely body, the pants lost something of their smoothness, their manifold pleats, frills, and appendages suffering creases that she couldn’t iron out. Lint entangled itself in the embroidery so thickly that she couldn’t brush it away. So even though the pants had been out of style since last autumn, and though she wore them on every occasion, Koura was loath to clean them.
Bored, she inched the door closed with her knuckles. Eager for something to do, she took out her stone. It was just a little thing, the size of a pebble. It was warm to her touch and fit snugly inside her ear, where it whispered nice things. It was ever so clever a pebble, possessed of polite things to say. Whenever Koura wanted it to, it hid. No one else need ever see it, or know that she had it. It couldn’t be seen by prying, inquisitive eyes.
One evening Peter took Koura to the Smithsonian Museum, on something that was somewhat like a date. He whispered in Koura’s ear that he had something special to show her, a complex treat that he couldn’t articulate. In the Smithsonian’s classical wing he forced her to look at the naked Greek statues, giggling as he pushed her hesitant hand to each priapus. He pried her eyes open; he pulled her eyeballs down when she rolled them back. He insisted that she call him by his perverse pet name. He made her recite all the various names that she knew for the masculine member. He rubbed her hand on the statue’s and urged her to break it off, to hide the lump of stone inside her pocket. He’d tipped the guard to look away, and to turn off the cameras. Koura nearly fainted. She’d never been so embarrassed. People excused such behavior in the rich; they said, “Their money has gone to their head.” But Koura was poor. She could offer no excuse. She knew what her friends would mutter behind her back; she’d heard them mutter. They wouldn’t spare her.
She struggled free. She ran off to another museum wing. The Smithsonian was big; it had room for a great many things. She mingled with the other kids who lived there, masses of indistinguishable, underage Goths who slept in stoves and stank of mirrors. They’d arrived fleeing distant homes destroyed by thunder. The Goths, all orphans, crawled under the café tables, living off pilfered mochas and half-eaten buns. Koura taught them how to read and take care of their clothes; she reheated the food that they scavenged. The Goths in turn showed Koura little affection, too busy banding together to save the earth. Each night, mummies freely roamed the museum, moaning eldritch curses through wispy white muslin. The Goths jogged the halls in random circuits, distracting the mummies from finding the doors that led to the outside world. At dawn, when the sunlight repetrified the mummies, the Goths dragged their frozen forms throughout the museum, hanging their laundry wherever.
Koura settled in but never smiled. She’d known for a while that she belonged in a museum. Despising her own cutesy heart, she allowed the Goths to rearrange her, too, switching her amongst the dioramas. Most of the time she woke up in the café, but some days she had to spend hidden beneath the floorboards, or under the shelter of an umbrella. She prayed that she wasn’t a burden. She could put on a show, prove a warning, unlucky in love. Most of the time, there was almost no blood in her throat.
One morning she awakened in an unfamiliar wing. No visitors came there any longer, neither Goths nor mummies, nor amusingly dirty children, nor women in support groups with their hands held, nor broken-down men with their canes. No one answered Koura’s hello, which disappeared into the dusty folds of the drapes. The wing held a single exhibit: a tight glass case containing a small stone, slender and dark, shadowy basalt or obsidian.
The sight of the alien rock cheered Koura up. When she pressed her ear to the glass she could hear it humming. In a witty accent it answered the questions she asked it, inquiries about men and time and nature. Nature is big; it has room for a great many things—absurd things like snot, and sane plants that grow in the dirt, like apples and coffee. It has coins and good places to put them: under hesitant, heavy tongues, or hidden among the bleached bones of a stranded whale. It has failing dunes and waves, and fruit picked last week and now rotting in its basket. Nature’s parks, cheap and crimson, provide a needed shelter, protection from late summer rains. It’s time’s prisoner. It can’t get around time, an unnamed broken-down town where everything waits. As for men, they’re time’s citizens, too, present in somebody’s life. They hang out in the parks on moonlit nights, hovering around a brazier, calling out names through the trees. Though most men remain far away, a woman can grow close to some; she can creep through foliage near enough to spy the baby faces, the deep-set eyes, the blood-freezing grins.
While the little rock whispered, something invisible climbed inside the slit left in Koura’s soul. Squeezing the stone in her fist, Koura returned to the edge of the Keaton Estate, to the edge of the woods that bordered Laundry Lake. She lay half-on, half-off the box’s bed, as though it were hers, as though she could own its stained pillows and loose metal bars. Half of her was late for an appointment; half of her had nowhere else to go. She could make either half disappear whenever she wanted.
Laundry Lake’s waves came and went. Koura bade her tiny rock hide. With a hint, she slipped it inside. Even though she knew her rock’s story was only a fiction, she let her eyes roll back, red and amazed, revealing the things that she wanted. She wanted a brisk and total transformation. She wanted less flesh, and a drier nose. She wanted to chop off her wavy black masses, her dozens of hair-like tendrils. She wanted to make a new home in her body, and dress it in new pairs of pants. She wanted to smear herself under the waves, for the lake to press its bottom against her lips and hold her under.
High, Koura rolled either on or off the bed.