Kirie Pedersen's story "Caryatid," in New Plains Review

CARYATID

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By Kirie C. Pedersen

Goddess guide and protect me. That is what Diana prayed, in her own manner of prayer. “Diana doesn’t believe,” Roan accused her at the campus dining hall. That was before Roan moved out of their dorm room to live off-campus with Jack. Before each meal, in that most public of places, Roan insisted they hold hands, close their eyes and pray. Out loud. If Diana, always ravenous, started to eat, Roan seized her hand across the table. If Diana ignored her or pulled away, Roan prayed anyway.

Witnessing, Roan called it.

Diana believed in privacy, that was all. In the dense Olympic forests or on the black basalt of the Dabob cliffs, the cliffs of her childhood and now, too, her young adulthood, she murmured to the eagles, the great blue heron, the brown warbler, and to the pinnipeds just off shore. To the fir and hemlock and cedar with their clusters of bushtits, golden and ruby crowned kinglets, creepers, and nuthatches.

“That’s false witness,” Roan said. “Nature isn’t God.”

Yet when forced to select roommates from the crowd of teenaged strangers, Roan insisted Diana room with her. The four brick towers of the new dorms clustered around an inner courtyard. For meals, they trekked half a mile to a dining hall on main campus, and then back along the same narrow path. Just before the wooded hill in which the new dorms nestled, a tunnel passed beneath the road that led to the art department on main campus. One evening as Diana walked back from dinner alone, dense in her thoughts, she passed into the tunnel and became aware of someone standing at the far end. Her belly went cold.

Quien es?” As always when she walked alone, on campus or in the forests, she thought in Spanish, her refuge from the suffocating barrage of words in classes, in the dorms. She was fairly sure that when she died, her final thoughts would be in Spanish.

And there, squat and solid and beautiful in an oversized flannel shirt, in the almost-dark tunnel with its acrid dripping, thick algae crusting the bricks, was Roan. Someone Diana had barely noticed in the early rush of dorm get-togethers and upper campus treks to meals.

“Room with me,” Roan said. Her arms hung heavily at her sides, and her plaid shirt and loose corduroy jeans, men’s clothing, seemed to shield her from the autumn coolness. The waning light reflected on her glasses, and Diana could not see her eyes.

Without thinking, Diana shrugged and then agreed. Why not? She had to room with someone.

On her own for the first time in her life, each day seemed more beautiful than the last. On her final day at home, she watched the migratory loons, grebes and mergansers in the middle of the bay, and there, closer to shore, the harbor seals, the Phoca vitulina, pups riding on mothers’ backs until the mothers rolled them off. The perfect stillness of the salt water, dusk light glimmering on the fall leaves, and then the succulent emerald of salal and vaccinium ovatum. The fragrance of salt.

That was spectacular. That was holy.

As she wandered in the forest that final day at home, the trail took a downward turn, and Diana balanced precariously, then tumbled. As her father taught her, she relaxed into the fall.

“That’s what we learned in boot camp,” he always said, and then her mother scolded him.

“Daddy, she’s just a child.” Diana liked earning his approval though, dreaming up feats of bravery to draw his always-waning attention. She landed with arms and legs flung out onto the moss, then lifted herself and for a moment stood still, as if testing the solidity of the ground. On the cliffs below, the rocks were sheared by movement along the plates millions of years ago. The drop from cliff to shoreline was no more than fifteen or twenty feet, and sometimes she left the trail here to pick her way down the dark basalt, her feet gripped into crevices. Then she would sit on a dark boulder until the salty water reached her feet.

That day, though, she hoped to follow the trail to its end. In the forest, she never feared the dark. She often hiked by moonlight, trekking across the Olympics, letting her feet sense the path. She was about to turn back when something caught the edge of her vision: a brown shape on a lower abutment of the hackly cliff.

She grasped a slender madrona and leaned as far as she could without falling. Lying on the cobbles at the water’s edge was a young deer, spots already fading. Perhaps it was driven from the cliff by hunters shooting illegally or by the dogs that ran in packs at night. In their frenzy to escape, deer would leap straight into space to die, quickly or slowly, as the tide moved in.

Its ears flicked forward, and then back. Diana pulled herself back from the cliff’s edge, and this time grasped the branch of a cedar. She stepped into space, and for a moment hung in mid-air. She shifted her weight into the cliff and let the branch fly back upwards. She descended carefully, her hands against the basalt until she stood squarely on the beach six feet from the deer.

She crouched on one knee. “How did you fall?” she asked in a low voice. Its golden-brown body was smooth and flawless. Perhaps it was in shock. She stood and moved a step closer. “You can’t just wait for the tide.” When she was just a foot away, it leapt to its feet and onto an almost invisible trail. The stones were dark with its shape, with just a slight spotting of red.

With eight children at home, born almost every year with breaks only for miscarriages, Diana’s parents took turns in night school, one community college class at a time. Someday, if all went well, they would become teachers. If Diana, their eldest, wanted to attend college, she would have to figure it out on her own. Fill out and sign the forms. Baby-sit. Waitress. Wash the private parts of dying elders in a retirement home. But even working since she was fifteen and a half, she’d saved only enough for the first quarter’s tuition.

The new dorms she’d managed to get into at the last moment clung to the edge of a hillside. When they dropped her the muddy parking lot, Diana’s parents didn’t get out of their battered black and red Volkswagen bus. Holding her satchel of books in one hand, her backpack of clothes in the other, she looked at the dorm towers. They seemed like stacked boxes, raw brick not yet seasoned by weather. Mattresses were stacked, encased in plastic, beside a dry fountain.

Roommates were supposed to be assigned, but many parents had taken one look and driven off again, offspring safely in tow. Growing up in a home where she never had space of her own except in the forests, Diana hoped to remain alone. She unpacked four pots of moss she dug from the forest floor early that morning and placed them on the desk, and then sat on the floor in the dark, savoring her arrival.

When the suicides started, not that far into the quarter, nobody was supposed to know, but of course word traveled quickly. They jumped, Roan said. It was hard to figure out how anyone could die jumping from a fourth floor balcony. Diana didn’t have time to think much about it because she desperately needed a job. She applied to serve breakfast at the food service, and soon was rising at four to stand behind a heated cart offering up bacon and pancakes and hot cereal to her classmates. She asked around, and soon, on Fridays and Saturdays, she was baby-sitting for three of her professors. The professors and their wives always invited her for dinner first, everyone sitting around the table, candles lit, books lining the walls.

The pale cement and brown-red brick of the dormitories glowed in the autumn sunsets. On the fourth floor of the tower catching the day’s last light, a tall young man stood alone in the uncarpeted hallway. He tapped at a door on the far end of the hall. When he heard no sound from inside, he pushed at the door, and then he ducked inside.

Michael’s first impression was that the room was so fucking tidy. Immaculate. Almost sterile. In the window, she’d hung a ceramic mobile composed of three circles of graduated size, each suspended by string from a piece of bleached driftwood. The small student desk was covered with small boxes lined with some kind of dirt and moss. Above the desk, the bulletin board held photographs of animals: a cat, a fawn, and a white bearded goat. Beside the desk was a bookcase made of boards and bricks. The top shelf held texts for botany, chemistry, ornithology, and biology, while the middle poetry, plays, philosophy, and ancient literature. The bottom held Spanish texts: grammars, novels, and philosophy, held erect by a broken clay Buddha head. He leaned down and picked it up, tossing it from one hand to the other, and the green paint flecked off in his hands.

The mattress was placed on the floor, covered with a bright green quilt and stacked with mustard-colored cushions. A low table held a work schedule from the food service, another from the college print shop, and a hand-written budget with items ranging from cups of tea to rent. At the head of the bed was a cheap Modigliani print tacked directly into the wall.

“Are you taking photographs in case we get lost?” she had asked that first day when Michael shot images of each new student. “In case we disappear and nobody can find us?” And then she ducked her head and vanished into the dorm.

It was his roommate, Adam, who dared him. They should select three of the new girls. See if they could make them commit suicide. Whoever seemed most fragile or vulnerable or innocent.

Late that night, someone tapped at the door. Diana still had trouble figuring out the system in the dorms. There was supposed to be some kind of security, but as with everything else, it didn’t seem to work. At home, isolated in the forest, they’d never even locked the doors.

“Who is it?”

“Jack.”

Diana sucked in her breath. She had not seen Jack since breaking up with him the first week they arrived. She wanted to concentrate on school, she said. And work. But then, when he and Roan paired up, she was devastated. Maybe she was just homesick for her family, for the forest and the beach and what she knew, or maybe just overwhelmed by school and then work, but she couldn’t stop crying. Or wanting to die, that thought arriving unbidden with every in-breath and exhalation. In the tiny cluster of dorms, and even on main campus, Jack and Roan were always visible, huddled together, a community of two.

“The door’s not locked,” Diana said.

“You need to lock it,” Jack said. He paced around the room as if to examine the space Roan inhabited, then vacated, as if to cast judgment on Diana’s failure even at this, the keeping of a friend. His shirt was dirty, one elbow torn out, and his fly was caught on his shirt. His hair was dirty too. She started to say something about his shirt, but then caught herself.          She gestured towards the single chair by her desk.

“Have a seat,” she said. Instead, Jack slid onto the low table by the bed, knocking her budgets and books to the floor.

“How are you?” He spoke in a mock-crooning manner, as if swallowing his own words. His glance skidded across her. If he cared how she was, why hadn’t he come to see her before now?

“I’m just fine,” she said. “Looking for more work.”

He turned quickly, half-sliding off the table. “Let’s cut the shit,” he said. “I’m here for a reason.”

Diana’s stomach clenched. So he was in one of those moods. She had heard him turn that icy voice on friends, and then, at the end, to her. He picked up the broken Buddha head she used to prop her books and tossed it from one hand to the other. It had been his first gift to her.

“Roan and I are engaged.” Diana nodded as if she already knew, had always expected this. He paused as though it was now Diana’s turn to say something, but she continued to nod, a mirror of the head passing from one palm to the other, a nodding fool. “Roan lets me be who I am.” Jack went on and on, and she wanted to tell him to cut the shit, but instead she stopped listening. He could talk for hours like this, never looking at the person he was talking to. At her.

“So what are you studying?” she finally asked. As if he was just any student she was meeting on campus.

“I dropped out.” Jack set the Buddha head back onto the shelf. “I’m going into the ministry.”

“What?” Jack had never expressed the slightest interest in what he deemed conventional religion. “Where?” She was the mistress of monosyllables.

“I’m going to work in the ghetto,” he said. The ghetto. Where was that coming from? The word, in his mouth, seemed false. “So my dad cut me off, but Roan’s willing to work to put me through.”

“You’re having an actual wedding?”

“We believe in ceremony.”

Diana gestured to her tiny room, the Buddha head and the mosses. “I believe in ceremony,” she said.

Jack raised his hand as if he wanted to punch her. “To you, people are objects. You collect experiences like some people collect postage stamps.”

“Jesus, dude.”

The door opened, and there was Michael, that photographer guy who recently helped Diana carry a box of books to her room and then stayed for a cup of tea. Diana had found herself telling him she was raised, isolated, on the commune, and how devastated she was when her boyfriend slept with her roommate. Michael had listened, nodding. He was shy, she thought.

Now he strode into her room as though he owned it. Jack held out his hand and Michael stood for a moment, allowing Jack’s arm to hang in the air. Then he reached out and tapped Jack’s palm. Jack settled back onto Diana’s bedside table.

“Can I use your phone?” Michael asked. “Mine’s dead.” Without waiting for her reply, he snatched her phone from the desk and stepped into the tiny bathroom that opened off the entry.

“And that is?” Jack asked.

“My friend,” Diana said. And maybe he was. Although she wished both of them would leave.

And they did, Jack shortly after Michael, who emerged from the bathroom, dropped her phone back onto her desk, and hurried out. Diana lit a candle and switched off the light. Jack was right. She wasn’t normal. She was happy to be free from the weight of someone else’s moods and needs. With Jack, she had wanted to make love slowly, whatever it took with someone her own age, far from the groping fingers of her father’s drunken friends. And he had started out that way, touching her gently, but then she became frightened, frozen, and he became angry.

And then, Roan. Roan didn’t see him as an object, a postage stamp. Roan was willing to commit her life to him, to work to put him through.

Michael had left her a drawing. It was a nude, hands clasped to belly. Diana didn’t like it, but it was kind of a gift, she supposed, and for a while she left it sitting there.

She was taking Spanish 311, Entomology, Ancient Literature, and Field Botany. She was already thinking about majoring in forensic entomology, although she also liked botany and of course, always, Spanish. In one of her classes, they watched a documentary on migrants, and when the instructor asked for volunteers to tutor at the migrant center, she raised her hand. So now she was tutoring Graciela, a long ride in a college van every Tuesday night. And the food service and the print shop and three babysitting gigs for professors. The guy at the print shop, Bill, asked if she was interested in art modeling. Over at the art department. Roan did that and said it was easy money.

Just sit or stand or lie there, or whatever, she said. Boring.

Diana couldn’t imagine being naked in front of strangers, but it was already time to pay next quarter’s tuition and housing, and the cost even for used books had knocked her out. She worked at least five hours every day, more on weekends, and she studied eight or ten hours or more, sometimes all night. Her eyes felt as if they were falling out of her head, but she couldn’t afford glasses. She was exhausted all the time. And she hadn’t even had a chance to ride her bike, alone, into the mountains.

Yet every morning when she woke on her narrow mattress, she was smiling. She loved college. I’m in my prime, she told herself. My real life is starting. She wanted to read every book for every class. She wanted to learn all the plants and birds and insects and everything else the sea and forest and, really, the whole wide world had on offer.

 “How’s the work-study going?” Michael asked. He seemed to be waiting on the stairs, even to know she was one of the rare students who used them, but Diana shrugged off her uneasiness. She was wearing a skirt, unusual for her, and she felt awkward. She had been up since dawn, first to serve breakfast, and then to log in five hours at the printery. Then class.

“I need to earn more money,” she said. “I can’t even afford textbooks.”

“Buy used.”

“You think I don’t?”

“How’s the print shop?”

“It’s okay. Easier than I thought it would be.” Michael had told her when the position opened, and for some reason she’d thought the work would be more art-related. She jiggled her fingers in the air. “It’s just machines that line up pages and these monster staplers.”

“Most jobs sound better than they are.”

“That’s what Jack said.”

“He’s a slick-looking dude.” She had no desire to discuss Jack with Michael or with anyone, and she didn’t want to be around Michael, really, but here she’d let him follow her up to her room.

“Did you like the drawing I left?”

Diana didn’t want to say she’d thrown it away, that it gave her the creeps. “What does it mean?”

“It reminds me of you.”

“That’s a compliment?”

“She doesn’t want anyone to touch her. She takes long walks alone. Other women would be frightened.”

“Tell me about your classes,” Diana said. Get them talking about themselves, her mother had always said, and Diana wanted to deflect Michael’s demand for the center of energy. “Mine are hard.” Spanish in particular was hard. She hadn’t studied Spanish since ninth grade, but she learned best by pushing herself, the same leap Graciela had to make. If she had her way, Spanish would be the only language she would speak. Suenos were dreams. Sonador a dreamer. The dreaming ones.

Michael was talking. He never knew his father, he said, was brought up by his mother in a black neighborhood. The ghetto. That word, again. He wanted to work in the arts. Or politics. As he spoke, his face contorted. He never stopped moving, his hands plucking at his face or hair. His lips were thick, and sometimes they seemed ugly, even repulsive, and for moments, they seemed sensual.

“What does it take to get into politics?” Michael’s words had finally run down, and he sat there grimacing. Although Michael wasn’t volunteering at the migrant center, he started in about farmworkers.

“You fat cats sit around,” he said.

“I’m not a fat cat,” Diana said.

“You’re white,” Michael said.

“So are you.”

“I grew up in the ghetto.”

“I grew up in squalor,” Diana said. “My parents are dirt poor. They’ll be thrilled to stop being laborers and teach school. If they ever make it.”

“But happy,” Michael said. “I’ll bet you were happy.”

Jack and Michael both seemed so nice when she met them, and then as soon as she allowed them into her life, they became angry, as though she embodied everything wrong in the world, everything that held them back. Or was it just sex, and that she didn’t want to be with them?

 “I read my bank statement yesterday,” Diana said. “I won’t make it through the month.” She looked down at her cuticles, torn and edged with blood. “I’m tired.”          

The next morning as she waited for a bus back from main campus, a man pulled over and offered her a ride. When she refused, he became mean, as if he was going to force her into his car. “No thanks, no thanks,” she said, politeness her default.

“Get in,” he said, menacing now. Diana ducked into a bookstore. Then she froze. Jack and Roan were at the check-out. Their bodies arched as they faced each other in the midst of some intense conversation. Roan’s glasses sat lopsided on her nose, and her hair was ragged, uncombed. Diana ducked back onto the street and walked back to the dorms. She was fine. This was what she had wanted: to be alone, a community of one. Yet something felt injured, and the feeling would not go away.

She called her mother to ask for a small loan to tide her over. “If you can,” she said. She had never asked her parents for money.

“We put ourselves through,” her mother said. “You can do the same.”

Without knocking, Michael walked into her room. “I don’t want to like you,” he said, and then walked back out. A few moments later, he returned. “I want to fuck you,” he said. He knocked the boxes of moss to the floor.        

The next day at the print shop, she told Bill she needed more hours. “I thought I’d make more here,” she said. “I can’t even make tuition for next quarter.” She told him she could baby-sit. “I’m working for three professors if you need references.”

“I told you I have something better,” Bill said. “A buddy and I have a photography gig.”

“I don’t know anything about photography.”

“As a model.”

“I don’t have any experience.” Though Diana thought again of Roan, how easy she said it was.

“We don’t want phony,” Bill said. “We want real.” He mentioned an amount that was more than she’d ever earned in her life, for any kind of work. Bill ran his hand through his hair. “How’s Saturday at ten? I’ll pick you up.”

“Oh, I can walk,” she said. The art department was just off the walking path between main campus and her dorm.

“I’ll give you a ride.” He smiled.

At ten on Saturday morning, Diana waited in the muddy parking lot behind the dorms. At ten-fifteen, she was about to return to her room when a battered green Chrysler pulled up beside her. A man leaned his head out the window. “Bill couldn’t make it today. He’s real sorry. Hope that’s okay.” The man did not look like an artist. He had short dark hair, like someone in the military. The car seemed weird too, though she couldn’t quite say why. Then she thought about how nice Bill was, and how she didn’t want to let him down. Or seem stupid to just turn around, turn her back on the money, like some scared little girl.

The man leaned over and shoved open the passenger door. Inside the car, Diana felt very small. The man talked on and on, almost as if she wasn’t there. The business. Being an artist. One of these days he and Bill would make it big, get out of the eight to five shithole. Soon they would meet Bill, or would Bill be there? She realized he hadn’t said. The man wore tight jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, and on his forearm was a tattoo, a coiled cougar, like those she used to see, dead, in the back of pick-up trucks when she was growing up.

When the man turned left toward the town instead of right toward the art building, Diana said nothing. It was as if she’d forgotten how to speak. It seemed they drove a long way, turning and then turning again in the town Diana had not yet explored, and Diana quickly lost track of where she was.

Finally the car entered what seemed a rough part of town, broken-down cars and trucks on the street, and plastic children’s toys in the yards, the houses with faded and peeling paint. The man slid the car into a space in front of a small house almost directly beneath the expressway. Traffic roared overhead. The dog chained to a small plywood structure lifted its head as the car pulled in, and then thumped it back onto the ground and closed its eyes.

Part of what the man had talked about so ceaselessly during the drive was his wife and kids, and Diana had convinced herself she was safe, but as he opened the front door to the house, he said “The wife and kids are visiting Grandma.” The living room was empty except for a sofa, a camera on a tripod, and a television with the sound turned off. “Cup of coffee before we get going?” She nodded. Yes. Coffee. So innocent. Nobody intending to hurt her would offer coffee.

He gestured toward a small kitchen, and Diana sat at a small plastic table. He poured a cup of coffee for her and popped open a beer for himself. “Would you like to see some of our work?” It took a moment for Diana to register what he meant, and then, again, she nodded. He pulled out a photo album with a plastic cover, the kind anyone might have, but when Diana opened it, the pages were empty. “Damn,” he said. “I forgot I sent everything to my mom. Well, here’s the kind of stuff I want to do.” He opened a glossy hardbound book filled with images of beautiful young women, girls really, lying in grass and under trees.

She needed to tell him she wanted to leave. This was all a misunderstanding, a mistake. He wasn’t an artist, and she wasn’t a model. But she had forgotten how to form words.

The man stood. “Let’s cut the shit,” he said. “You can get ready here, or would you feel more comfortable in there?”

Comfortable? She looked at the doorway of the room where he had pointed. Yes. She would go in there. It was a small bedroom, like a child’s room, only there was no evidence of children. She closed the door behind her and then she sat on the bare mattress for what seemed a long time. The only window was small, high on the wall above the bed, the sill and frame coated with thick slimy dust.

“What’s keeping you?” he said at last, and then he opened the door.

Diana was still trembling. It was as if her hands and body belonged to someone else. She sat beside the small window of her dormitory room.

Make it real, baby. That was the way he had talked, and still, she never spoke, just counted the flashes of his camera. You’re beautiful. Make it real.

When he dropped her off in the parking lot, he was still talking. He took one final shot, he said, a single tear running down her face. And then he reached into his pocket and threw some money at her, a few crumpled bills.

That was what she was worth.

How could she still be alive? Maybe she was actually dead. She moved to her mattress on the floor, leaned back, and then hit her head against the wall. She was alive, then. If her body didn’t hurt so damn much, maybe she could think.

She became aware of someone behind her.

“Did you know I paid you a little visit last night?” Michael spoke as though continuing a conversation started some time before. When Diana didn’t respond, he spoke more loudly. “Did you hear what I said? I came and paid you a little visit.” Diana stared toward the window, though she could see nothing. Michael’s voice, like that of the stranger, went on and on but she heard only sounds. Finally she heard herself speak, but in such a quiet voice Michael had to lean over to hear her.

“I was raped,” Diana said. She was touched by evil, and the evil must be shining on her face for Michael, for everyone to see.

He smiled. He did not reach out to touch or comfort her. “Everyone gets raped.”

“This isn’t a metaphor,” Diana said.

But Michael was not to be stopped. Still without looking at her, he spoke as if reciting poetry. Some get raped over and over, he told her. Some women are just losers, and they clamber to their feet only to be raped again.

From the new distance she felt between herself and all living things, distance from the world itself, Diana watched him. Dimensions shifted. Altered. Now Michael formed the shadow around the edges of the photograph. “I knew a girl raped by her uncle,” he said. “She killed herself.” Michael said she was Candy, Lolita. That she wanted to be hurt. That she, Diana, was now evil, and from this day on, everyone would despise her.

Everything in the room, its dimensions, shifted again, and Michael seemed far away. She herself was minute, the size of a tendril of moss on a forest trail.

“You need to leave,” she said. And then, for the first time, she locked her door.

That night, sounding drunk, Michael returned. When he tried the door and found it locked, he began to pound. “This is no way to run a whorehouse,” he shouted. “You fucked someone. Now you might as well fuck me.” She wondered what the other students thought, if someone would emerge from a room to stop him. But after all, in the dorms, shouting and weeping and the sounds of breaking glass were not that unusual. Just another Saturday night.

It was as if she carried weights: weights on her arms, her legs, her skull, her chest. It was hard to keep walking and talking, to go to classes, to baby-sit small children. She felt soul-scraped and foul. She wrote her composition for Spanish, seven pages. She pressed and labeled spores of the mosses, lichens and liverworts she was studying in lab. She studied for exams. She sat through class, listening as each student presented a project, but everyone seemed to be playing a game. Everything people did or said around her, in class or in the crowded dining hall, seemed inane, pointless, and inexplicable. She desperately wanted to talk with someone, but there was no one to talk to. There was a mist between her and other people. Suffocating now in the tiny room, she rode her blue bicycle to the top of the hill where the college was perched, and then streaked straight down.

An ecstasy ride, she used to call it.

At the bindery, she saw Bill but managed to avoid him through morning. Then, when no one was around, he approached her work station. “How did it go?” he said. He leaned closer and spoke straight into her hair. “I hear you have beautiful breasts,” he said. Diana felt as though insects were crawling across her skull, and a quick sharp pain in her belly. She began to sweat from her lips and forehead, and her head felt heavy. She picked up her backpack and ran out the door.

The following morning, she was serving breakfasts when it happened again. There was the usual rush, the line of early morning eaters. She glanced out at her fellow students and again the insects crawled across her scalp, with one quick sharp pain in her belly. She ran back into the kitchen, clutched the wall, and fell. A workman there to repair the stoves, his hands steady, helped her into the office. Her legs were shaking too much to walk. Other students looked at her as if embarrassed for her.

She wanted to be held by her mother. She felt like a small helpless child, her voice high and trembling.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll go to my room.”

Diana lay on the narrow mattress. Then she heard a huge roar outside, and she went to the window. A dump truck poured great mounds of topsoil into a break in the pavement. Perhaps someone would plant a tree there, or a shrub, or wildflowers.

She wanted to dig her hands into that earth and crouch huddled at the bottom.

Diana felt she’d half-died, but only just half; she remained alive. A man could not understand what it was like unless he’d been raped himself, to be entered like that and pounded and bruised so deeply inside your body. The physical pain was deeper than previous injuries, a broken wrist or pneumonia or migraine. She now lived in two worlds, real and unreal, dream and reality. The forest, where she grew up, was called unreal. “You must get out into the world,” her high school teachers had told her when they urged her to apply for college. But the forest, the shore was more real because she could eat food she collected herself, sleep when it was dark and wake at dawn. The books she’d read so eagerly for classes now meant something different. What did Novalis say? When we dream that we dream we are beginning to wake up. She dreamed she dreamed the rape, but it happened. And here she was, still serving ninety four breakfasts every morning and reading about Juan Manso or the Hombre Ideal in Spanish, buying a pen or writing a paper. Eating in the food service. It was a shock, how the body kept going. Already the bruised tissue was beginning to heal; the scratches disappeared. The tears had dried immediately, but tears were immortal anyway; the earth, Mann said, was made of tears.

And how would her spirit heal? What would this do to her life? She knew she was still in shock; blanked-out, mostly. Greened-out, for as she drifted back to consciousness she watched lichens and mosses on the periphery of her vision. She felt like a shriveled shrunken person. Her father always said she was foolish. She had been foolish to take the job. See what a fool I am Dad.

She died, but she was still alive, and that was what she wanted to say: I am still alive.

If she could conceive of a different world, then that world existed, if only in her mind. She felt as if she was just walking along one day, and then she changed to dust. Or liquid. Her legs had melted, her arms had melted, her face had melted. A young girl was walking along in her life one day, and she melted.

She packed a few things into her backpack, jumped onto her bicycle, and headed off campus and along a rural country road. She found a trail that led deep into the woods, and followed it. Then she gathered stones to form a circle, tinder and broken logs to build a fire, and she cooked a potato in the coals. She ate with her fingers, savoring the steaming heat. In the forest, she heard a shrill howl. A bobcat maybe. Sweat poured down her face, but she had no fear. For the first time in a week, she felt safe.

When she awoke before dawn, the coals were still warm. The rising sun lit the edges of the trees. As if enlivened by first light, the bushtits, kinglets, creepers, and nuthatches darted from branch to branch, each in its own way yet protected by the flock from predators. It was spring, and she would finish her classes, and soon enough, the quarter would end.

In June, Diana returned to her parents’ house and resumed her high school jobs, her role in the family. When Michael called to say he wanted to talk, she didn’t much care. “I need to make amends,” he said.

“Amends,” she said, as if tasting the word.

“Not for you,” he said. “For myself.” He told her about the pact. He and Adam were bored, he said, and they picked out three girls in the incoming class they believed to be most vulnerable. And pretty, he added, as if that might console or comfort her.

“You thought I was vulnerable?” Diana sipped at her tea. Her plans and her life stretched out before her. Even though work with the old people was hard, devastating sometimes, and the drunks at the cafe be crude and abusive, she was glad to wake up each day. “Who were the others?” When he named them, Diana laughed. “We three are the strongest,” she said. What she wouldn’t say was that he wasn’t worth that much to her, that she refused to allow him or anyone to force her from life. That she remained alive for lichen like a cameo, a minute imprint hidden within softness. For rain that seemed to fall from a single edge just beyond sight. For the green tinge on one side of a madrona, struck golden as the sun set behind the hill.

To live on. That was it. Not something, Diana saw, that he could understand. Nor was it her job to fix or forgive, him or anyone. Roan and Jack seemed equally small, just as she herself had seemed small when she wanted to die. The rapist still seemed huge and terrifying, but still, she now felt a looseness, as if she had jumped out from a ditch and was stumbling along. Camus said you needed great falls to learn what you didn’t want. That horror she’d never wanted for herself or anyone else, but still, she was alive for her own form of rapture.

In botany, she’d learned that a biome or natural community completed steps and changes, ending in its climax. This was called a sere. Her own sere had been her childhood in the forest, where, for a brief moment, she prospered. But seedlings cannot grow in immense shade, and so the lofty trees died, and the delicate balance changed. But never did it begin again from scratch, for the dying trees fed the soil. New life grew on the leaf mold of the old. The common definition of sere was dried up, withered. These, she saw now, were simultaneous definitions, the climax of a forest life, and the kind of death from which new life begins.

END

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