Noah has promised to help bury the Olcotts first thing in the morning. As he waits in the kitchen for Arthur, he watches Alice at the sink. She pours a brown paper bag of strawberries into a copper colander. One by one, she picks at the pyramid of strawberries—odd shaped, tumorous—prizing out the leafy tops with the point of a paring knife. She slices each berry down the middle and sets the halves to soak in a bowl of brandy. The empty bag lies tipped on its side, blotted with juice, full of sunlight.
Last night Mark brought the strawberries, along with the news about Ben and Claire Olcott. Their children, Jake and Julia, were spending the night with Mark’s family, and he’d dropped by the Olcotts’ to fetch Jake’s teddy bear. Ben’s note was taped to the front door. Mark found the bag of strawberries on the kitchen table and their bodies in the bedroom. Then he recruited a burial crew from what remained of the neighborhood.
Once Mark had left, Alice told Noah that they needed to talk, that she had something to tell him, something about Ben. She told him that she’d slept with Ben seven times, five in Ben’s bed and twice in their own. The affair, though she didn’t like to call it that, had begun with the troubles—after the refinery bombings and the first quarantines—and ended four months ago, in April. It hadn’t been love, she said; it was just for fun, a distraction. They hadn’t been lovers so much as playmates, and though they hadn’t played often, they had played, and now she wanted Noah to know.
The details poured out of her in a Pentecostal rush, and though he knew he ought to hate them—hate seemed in order—he couldn’t hate her or a rival so newly dead. Just the other day he’d seen Ben, red-faced, drenched in sweat, pushing a lawn mower across his front yard. Nobody mowed lawns anymore. The two struck him as such an
unlikely coupling. Ben was so small, so neat and contained, whereas Alice was drawn to a larger scale, big-boned and long-waisted, expansive. When he tried to imagine the two of them at play, he pictured a tiny Ben clambering over the landscape of Alice’s body, like Cary Grant scaling the face of Mount Rushmore.
“I love you,” Alice said, once she’d reached the end of her confession.
“I love you, Noah. I’ve always loved you. I always will love you.”
“I love you because you’re an honorable person,” she said. “You’re the most honorable person I’ve ever known.”
Just then he wanted to slap her—never before had he raised a hand to her—but she grasped his hand and held it to her cheek, and when she let go, he kept it there.
“Love is loaves and fishes,” she said.
“Love.” She took his face roughly in her hands. “This is important, Noah. Are you listening to me?”
“Love is not of this world. Love is not finite. Love is—” Her hands flew away, scooping the air. “Loaves and fishes. Do you understand me, Noah? Do you?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to say what’s in your heart. I want you to say that you forgive me.”
“Then I forgive you.”
“I want you to say what’s in your heart. I want you to really mean it.”
“But I do mean it,” he said. “Forgiveness is in my heart.”
He understood her need to unburden herself in these last days, to cast off the ballast of her sins, to travel light into the next stage; and she did appear visibly lightened, full of light, and drunk on love, love, love. Caught up in a fever of confession, she seemed hungry for more sins to share, and when she asked him if he had anything to tell her, anything to confess, all he could come up with was his fleeting urge to strike her, but the urge had passed. No, he had nothing to tell her, nothing to confess.
The knife clatters in the steel sink and Alice lets out a little cry. Turning, she offers her thumb to Noah, cupped in her other hand. Blood jiggles in the hollow of her palm. He swivels her back to the sink and tells her to stay put. In the bathroom medicine cabinet he finds a tin box of Band-Aids. The front of the box is crowded with cartoon characters, though they have no children and never will.
He returns to Alice at the sink. “Poor Tom Thumb.” He wraps a cartoon tiger around the meat of her thumb, like a bonnet around a doll’s bald head. “Poor Thomasina Thumbelina.”
“You do forgive me, don’t you, Noah?”
He holds onto her wrist; if he lets go she might float away.
“Oh, I hate Winnie the Pooh,” she says. “And I used to love those books so much, until Walt Disney got his hands on them.”
Though Arthur isn’t late, Noah has grown accustomed to his coming early, and he’s anxious to get the Olcotts in the ground before the day gets warmer. Ben and Claire are the fifth and sixth suicides on Moon Hill since April. The first had been the worst. On Good Friday, Doug McDonough blew the top of his head off with a shotgun in his two-car garage. Until he’d entered that garage, Noah hadn’t known that one man’s head could hold so much mess or that blood could smell. Even with the doors wide open, the odor had filled his nostrils, his lungs, and for days afterward he tasted it at the back of his throat. It had taken the better part of an afternoon to clean up the mess—bone, hair, flesh, brain matter, and blood blasted all over the garage—while Doug’s wife, Eleanor, stood outside, one hand in the pocket of her bathrobe, the other holding his dentures.
And so began this season of suicides, though thereafter the deaths became increasingly tidy, as if it had become a test of good citizenship. On the first day of May, Nancy Zarbock’s boy hanged himself from a basketball hoop, and then a week later her husband opened his veins over the drain of their bone-dry Jacuzzi. Eleanor McDonough asphyxiated herself in that freshly scoured garage during a late-night thunderstorm. For Ben and Claire it had been pills and Courvoisier. They were all good citizens, good neighbors.
There’s a knock at the kitchen door. Alice lets Arthur in and kisses him on the mouth. Stepping back into the open doorway, she sings “Happy Birthday to You,” while the old man stands by, blushing. He has a lopsided mop of white hair, and his eyebrows are feathery and wild.
“You need a haircut, buster,” Alice tells him.
Arthur points to the strawberries, piled in the bowl like bloody thumbs. “What are you making, dear?”
“Drunken strawberries. For your birthday party.”
“Drunken strawberries,” Arthur says. “I’ve eaten drunken peaches and drunken pears, but never drunken strawberries.”
“Well, then, you haven’t lived.”
“What are you doing for your birthday, Arthur?” Noah asks. “I mean, after—”
“Oh, this and that. I’m up to my ears in The Plowman’s Tale and The Second Merchant’s Tale and other pieces of Chaucerian apocrypha.”
“That’s one of the things I love about my husband,” Alice says. “He won’t even try to bluff. Last night I had to teach him what ‘terra incognita’ meant. The day before that it was ‘deciduous.’” She turns to Noah. “Apocrypha. Stories and such of doubtful authenticity. Like the lost books of the Bible or the Shroud of Turin or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.” She runs her fingers through Arthur’s hair and tells him, “Come back when you’re finished with Ben and Claire and I’ll give you a trim.”
Shovels at shoulder-arms, Noah and Arthur set off for the Olcotts’ in the company of Dido, Noah’s long-haired German shepherd. Down the steep driveway and across the road, two figures in beekeeping costumes—Christine and Ursula—struggle with a box of bees, while Lily, their six-year-old daughter, stands inside their porch, her palm pressed against the screen. Like most of the houses on Moon Hill, Christine and Ursula’s is low and boxy, designed to blend into the landscape. Noah and Alice live in a round-shouldered redbrick Colonial that Lily has christened “The House of the Third Little Pig.” It sits higher up on the hill than the other houses. An old whitewall tire hangs by a rope from the branch of an oak at the edge of the back yard, where the lawn drops away toward the forest.
Noah waves and Christine, the smaller of the two figures, waves back clumsily, like a spacewoman. He points to his wrist and then down the road. Ursula bows abruptly at the waist, her annoyance obvious even under her heavy hood.
Noah and Arthur wait for Mark and Ursula in the Olcotts’ back yard. Though they’ve been neighbors for almost seven years, they
hadn’t begun to know one another until April, after Doug McDonough killed himself. Arthur had been a professor—that much Noah knew—but of what he couldn’t say.
“Apocrypha,” Noah says. The word feels good in his mouth. “So that’s how you make a living? Teaching apocrypha?”
“No,” Arthur says. “I made my living, such as it was, teaching Chaucer. And Shakespeare, from time to time. The tragedies. The apocrypha is just something I like to look into and think about and write about. It’s my fetish. It’s what I was working on before they shut down the university. But no, mostly I taught the Canterbury Tales.”
Noah stoops to pick up a doll’s head off the grass. He tilts the head back and forth in his hand, watching its glass blue eyes with their thick lashes swing open and shut. He retrieves the doll’s body from where it lies sprawled in another corner of the yard. He plugs its neck into the socket at the bottom of its head and lays the doll down on the low roof of the playhouse.
Mark arrives, then Ursula. Unhooded, her hair is thick and wild and shot through with blacks and whites and grays. Her eyes flash no-nonsense above a green surgical mask.
“Tie up the dog,” she says.
“Why?” Noah says.
“Tie her up.”
Then he understands. He removes his belt, threads it through Dido’s collar, and loops the other end around the bottom of a bird-
feeder. “Stay,” he says, smoothing his fingers over the dog’s head.
They enter the house through a back door that opens into a mudroom and then into the sunny kitchen. A child’s drawing is fastened to the refrigerator door with magnets shaped like ladybugs, a Passion, Death, and Resurrection triptych in yellow, brown, and purple crayon, underneath which reads the printed caption:
Jesus dide on the cros
He was poot in a toom
He arows from the daed
We are not abel to do this
Mark leads them down the hall to the bedroom. There are no flies. Doug McDonough’s garage had been a blizzard of flies, but here there are none. The four of them huddle around the bed. Ben and Claire lie side by side on top of a calico comforter, like children pretending to sleep, playing dead. Claire wears her wedding dress, her fine features blurred behind a veil of white lace. Ben is dressed in a white linen suit with a crimson necktie. Both look smaller, diminished. The twelve-year-old Zarbock boy, dangling at the top of his driveway, looked bigger. An assortment of candles placed all around the room has guttered out, and the air smells stale and vaguely sulfurous, of burnt candles or decomposition.
“Losers,” Mark says. “What a couple of losers.”
“Enough of that,” Arthur says.
“Their kids are at my house,” Mark says. “Did I mention that? These losers left their kids at my house, with my kids.”
“The children are alive,” Arthur says. “Think of the Goebbels
children. Think of Jonestown, of Waco, of—”
“All right already,” Ursula says. “Let’s get them out of here before they start to stink.”
“They can lie there and rot for all I care,” Mark says. He doesn’t move. No one moves.
“Where’s the note?” Noah says. “You said they left a note.”
“I got rid of it,” Mark says.
“Got rid of it?”
“That won’t do,” Arthur says. “That won’t do at all.”
“Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to do,” Mark says.
“Why would you do that?” Noah says. “Why would you get rid of it?”
“Because I wouldn’t want their kids to read it. And you wouldn’t either.”
“What did it say?”
“You just don’t want to know.”
In Ben’s open eyes Noah reads the same expression he saw in the decapitated doll’s, something stunned and unsuspecting, the helpless stupidity of the inanimate. He looks around the room. Here is where Alice and Ben played. Here are the things Claire used to make herself pretty. Here is Ben’s exercise bicycle. And here are what used to be Ben and Claire. Once they were alive and now they are dead. It seems so simple that he wants to share this with the others—we are and then we aren’t—but he keeps it to himself.
They return to the backyard and the garden that skirts the edge of the forest. Just beyond the garden, a square patch of ground is marked with four wooden stakes. Varicolored scarves knotted at the tops of the stakes ruffle in the breeze.
“That was thoughtful of them,” Arthur says.
“If they were so thoughtful they’d have dug the hole,” Ursula says.
They agree that the couple will share a single grave. The soil is loamy and fibrous with lily of the valley. Noah’s shovel turns up stones and glass, bottle caps and bric-a-brac. The bite of his blade unearths a vein of broken crockery, shards of blue and white porcelain. When the hole is knee-deep and there is room for only one to work, they take turns. Noah works the first shift. His spade strikes rock after rock, sending shocks from his elbow to his shoulder. He tosses his shirt onto the grass. He enjoys unearthing bits of boulder deposited there in the course of one ice age or another. It feels as though he were chipping away at the world’s spine, that if he pries one more rock out of the ground the entire Eastern Seaboard might crumble and fall into the Atlantic.
While the others take their turns, Noah squats at the graveside, sifting through the soil, picking out the broken pieces of porcelain. A five-pointed star; the tiny silhouette of a dog or wolf; random numbers and letters running along a glazed curve, dark blue against a milkier blue. He kneads clods of dirt tangled with roots and shoots, and he likes the feel of dirt under his fingers. The appeal of touching the soil becomes clear to him, and he wishes he’d been a gardener, a gravedigger. He scoops up the porcelain, wraps it in his shirt, and sets the bundle on top of the playhouse alongside the doll.
Once they’ve dug deep enough to prevent animals from getting at their dead friends, they return to the bedroom and untuck the covers. They carry Claire out to the garden on the comforter, each grabbing a corner, and lower her into the earth. Then they haul Ben out on the remaining bed sheets. Noah steps into the hole and nudges Claire to the side to make room for Ben, snugly tucking in the two of them. He folds the loose ends of the comforter over their faces and pulls himself out of the hole.
“Perhaps we should say a few words?” Arthur says.
“What did you have in mind?” Ursula says from behind her mask. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death? Something along those lines? Go for it, Arthur.”
“Would you say some Chaucer?” Noah asks.
Arthur leans on the handle of his shovel. “Well, then, let’s begin at the beginning.” His eyes trained on some point over Noah’s left shoulder, he licks his lips and begins.
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour
The words sound beautiful and strange to Noah, familiar and un-familiar. One summer, he’d worked across the street from a bakery run by three Irish girls. He loved to hear them talk. When they’d talk about a delicious cake, they’d call it a “gorgeous” cake in their lovely lilting Irish voices, and Noah would go all weak inside. A gorgeous cake. Standing there in the gauzy August morning, listening to Arthur, he thinks of those girls, those gorgeous Irish girls, standing behind the counter in their white aprons.
“Well, isn’t that something?” Noah says. “And that’s Chaucer?”
“And when did he write that?”
“1387 or thereabouts, and already an old man by the standards of 1387.” Arthur’s hands shake. The bridge of his glasses is wrapped in Scotch tape. “They’re the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard. I built my whole adult life on those four lines. Everything—all of English
literature, my entire life as a man—springs from those four lines.”
“Say some more?”
And so, Arthur recites some more of the General Prologue, with Noah stopping him here and there to ask the meaning of this or that word—croppes, foweles, corages.
Noah picks up a fistful of dirt and sprinkles it over the swaddled bodies.
When they’ve finished shoveling the dirt on top of the Olcotts, Noah unties Dido. The dog crosses the lawn, circles the grave three times, and lies down on the freshly turned earth.
“I don’t want to go home,” Mark says. “How do I tell their kids? What do I say?”
“Let me,” Noah says. All their eyes are upon him. He retrieves the bundle of crockery from the playhouse roof. “I’ll take care of it.”
After lunch, Noah takes Julia and Jake Olcott, aged ten and five, for a walk through the woods and then down to the river.
“So,” Noah says, “are you two coming to our house tonight for Arthur’s birthday party?”
“Are my parents coming?” Julia asks.
“They can’t come, not tonight. But Henry and Maggie will be there, and baby Grace, and Lily.”
“Can we go on the swing?” Jake says.
“I don’t know about that,” Noah says. “We’ll see. Your mother doesn’t like the swing.”
“But you said she wasn’t coming,” Julia says.
“Can we drop stuff down the laundry shoot?” Jake says.
“Of course, you can drop stuff down the laundry shoot,” Noah says, “so long as you don’t drop yourselves down the laundry shoot.”
A flock of parakeets chatters in the treetops, blue and gaudy green. Jake halts, raises his forefinger like some Old Testament prophet, and solemnly pronounces, “Pirates.”
“You mean parrots, stupid,” Julia says, “not pirates.”
“Pirates and parrots sort of go together, don’t they?” Noah says. “Like peanut butter and jelly, or Jake and Julia.”
“And they’re not even parrots,” Julia says. “They’re parakeets.”
They pause before a patch of tiger lilies. Here in early August, the flowers have withered into brittle, brown pitchforks. Julia tugs a stalk from the ground and asks Noah, “Do you believe in God?”
“Of course I believe in God.”
“And the Bible? Do you believe in that, too?”
“You know about Noah’s ark?”
“Sure,” Noah says. “He was my great-great-great-great-grandfather.”
“No,” Jake says. “He was your great-great-great-great-great—”
“Stop it,” Julia says. She turns back to Noah. “You know how in the Bible it says that God told Noah to gather up the animals two by two, all the animals of the earth. In the Book of Genesis.”
“In Genesis, sure.”
“All the animals?”
“So, he couldn’t have taken every animal, could he?” she says.
“Not every animal. Just two of each. Two birds, two dogs, two—”
She rolls her eyes and groans. “You don’t understand. I mean, which birds? Which dogs? He couldn’t have taken two parakeets and two parrots. Or two German shepherds and two Chihuahuas. I mean, they couldn’t all fit, could they? No one could build an ark that big, not even in the Bible. So how did he choose?”
“I think the story’s about something bigger than the details,” Noah says. “The details don’t matter. Do you know what I mean?”
“Of course the details matter,” she says. “The details matter a whole lot if you’re a Chihuahua or a parakeet.”
“A parrotkeet could just fly over the water,” Jake says. He runs tight circles around them, his arms spread like wings.
“A parakeet, stupid,” Julia says. “And stop trying to look cute.”
Noah says, “What I mean is, the story’s really about how God loved the world too much to destroy all of it, right? I mean, the whole world didn’t end, did it? Not all of it. And that two-by-two business might just have been apocrypha.”
“A pocka what?” Jake says.
“He means the Book of Revelations,” Julia tells Jake. “The last book of the—”
“Look.” Jake points across the river to where the top of a stilled Ferris wheel peeks above the tree line. “I want to go there.”
“We can’t go there,” Noah says. “It’s on the other side of the river. And no one’s there anyway.”
They’ve already come too far, and crossing the river is out of the question and well beyond the boundaries of the quarantine.
“I used to have a parakeet,” Noah says. “His name was Mickey. I was four and Mickey was yellow and green and he used to hang upside down inside my parents’ highball glasses.”
“What are highball glasses?” Jake says.
“A highball is a drink, was a drink adults drink. Drank. I don’t know if they still drink highballs, but my parents and their friends used to drink them out of these long, tall glasses. Highball glasses.”
“But why are they called highballs?” Julia says.
“That’s a good question. I just don’t know. They called them ‘cocktails,’ too, and I don’t know why they call cocktails ‘cocktails’ either. Every evening at six o’clock, my mother would say, ‘Cocktail time! Cocktail time!’ and all the grown-ups would—”
“What about Mickey?” Jake says.
“See, that’s the thing,” Noah says. “One morning I came down to breakfast and Mickey wasn’t in his cage. So I asked my mother, ‘Where’s Mickey?’ and my mother said that Mickey had flown away to Florida. And when I grew up, I was talking to my mother about Mickey and his flying off to Florida and all, and my mother said, ‘No, stupid, Mickey didn’t fly away to Florida. Mickey—’”
“We went to Florida,” Jake says. “We went to Disney World. We lived in a hotel with a swimming pool and an ice machine.”
Along the opposite bank, a body bobs face-up in the water, caught in the mossy branches of a fallen tree. The body is dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, long yellow hair fanned out around a blackened face. Noah watches the hair move in the water and for a moment it feels as though the shore were rushing past the river.
“Look at the parakeets,” Noah says, pointing up into the trees. “Listen. I think they’re trying to tell us something.”
“Parakeets don’t talk,” Julia says. “Parrots talk, not parakeets.”
“These ones do.”
“What are they saying?” Jake whispers.
“Read their lips,” Noah says. “I think they’re telling us to go home.”
He leads them back toward the path through the woods.
“Your mother didn’t really call you ‘stupid,’ did she?” Julia says.
“No, I made that part up. See? You’re so smart, Jules, way too smart for me. My mother loved me. She would never call me ‘stupid.’ She was too nice to call anybody ‘stupid.’”
Julia casts her eyes back across the river. “Look,” she says.
“Don’t look,” Noah says.
“See?” Jake says, following his sister’s gaze. “See? There are peoples up there.”
The topmost carriage of the Ferris wheel rocks back and forth.
“No, sweetheart,” Noah says. “That’s just the wind. There’s nobody up there.”
They start back through the woods. “Did he come back?” Julia asks.
“Did who come back?”
“Mickey. Did Mickey fly back home from Florida?”
“I think Florida was just too much fun to fly all the way back to Long Island. Too much fun for a parakeet, anyway. My mom and dad went to Florida, too, and they never came back either.”
“Too much fun,” Jake says.
“That’s right, Jakey,” Noah says. “Too much fun.”
Though it’s his birthday, Arthur insists that Noah sit at the head of the dining room table. Alice sits at the other end. They’ve placed candles along the length of the table. Four months have passed since they lost electricity. They eat vegetables, and those afraid of ground water eat canned goods and preserves. Arthur has caught and cleaned and cooked a brook trout. Nancy Zarbock opens two bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1966. Ursula brings a pot of honey; Christine, a jar of thistles she’s ground with a mortar and pestle. The thistles, she says, are for Noah’s allergies. Mark’s wife, Connie, has fashioned party hats out of old newspapers. She sits between Mark and Joan, Arthur’s wife, nursing Grace, her youngest. The Olcotts have provided the strawberries. In the kitchen, the children play board games—Chutes and Ladders, Life, Sorry.
At her end of the table, Alice is incandescent, saucer-eyed in the candlelight. She wears a newspaper witch’s hat and flits from guest to guest, showering each with love and affection. Love. She is brimming over with it. On either side of her, Arthur and Ursula talk across the table about the Black Death and the Canterbury Tales, about exotic viruses, ancient and modern. Ursula taught molecular biology at the same university where Arthur taught Chaucer.
“The name, you know, is Greek,” Ursula says. “For black. For the blackening of the skin caused by—”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Arthur says.
“Now if you step back,” Ursula says, elbows on the table, “there’s something astonishing about the variola, something almost beautiful.”
“Beautiful as viruses go. Beautiful in its efficiency, its purity, its perfection.”
“Beautiful to a biologist. I mean, even a mushroom cloud can look beautiful. Depending on where you’re standing.”
“This is shoptalk, Arthur. I’m not suggesting—”
“A plague isn’t beautiful, Ursula, no matter where you’re standing. It just isn’t. And that’s that.”
Dessert is served.
“Drunken strawberries,” Joan says. Joan is Arthur’s wife, and she sits on his left. “Remember that Ingrid Bergman movie? The old guy’s dream. The coffin rocking and creaking like a cradle, the clock without hands?”
“Ingrid Bergman?” Arthur says. “You mean, Ingmar Bergman.”
“You know who I mean,” she says. “The clock has no hands.”
“The Seventh Seal,” Connie offers. The baby’s face turns away from her bruise-brown nipple. “You know: Death playing chess with Max Von What’s-his-name and all that.”
“No, no, no,” Arthur says. “Wild Strawberries.” His newspaper wizard’s cap is too small for his head, and the haircut Alice gave him makes him look simple, medieval. “Though I don’t remember what strawberries had to do with any of it, wild, drunken, or otherwise.”
“All’s I remember is the dream,” Joan says.
The wind huffs and puffs and bullies the house, whistling down the chimney, rattling the windowpanes.
Nancy says, “I was always turned on by the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.” She looks from face to face. “The twister, I mean.”
“I always loved to sneeze,” Connie says.
“Me, too,” Nancy says.
“And storms,” Connie continues. “Thunder and lightning always did it for me.”
From the kitchen comes Jake’s voice, singing thin and warbly, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Dido enters the dining room, her head held high, a leafy branch in her mouth. She ducks between Noah and Mark and tears at the branch under the table.
The conversation yields to nostalgia, but Ursula has no taste for it. “I’ll tell you what I’m nostalgic for,” she says. “I’m nostalgic for—”
“For the future,” Mark says. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Don’t,” Christine says.
“For my daughter’s future,” Ursula says.
“Cocktail time!” Jake calls out from the kitchen. “Cocktail time!” His sister shushes him.
Mark turns to Noah. “You didn’t tell them, did you?”
Noah shakes his head, then, leaning over Mark, lifts the baby off of Connie’s shoulder.
Mark stares at him across the table, until, at last, he says, “There was a note.”
“Straw-berries,” Alice sings out from the other end of the table “Who wants more drunken straw-berries?”
“I know there was a note,” Noah says. “You told me.”
“No, you don’t know. Only I know. It said—”
“Let’s not,” Christine murmurs. She’s peeling the label off a wine bottle.
“They wanted to be burned,” Mark says. “Ben and Claire. They wanted to be cremated. Doused with gasoline, out behind the garden. Like Hitler and Eva Braun outside the Führer-bunker. A pyre. Götterdämmerung. I couldn’t be a part of it, Noah. I just couldn’t.”
“Ben used a push mower,” Alice is telling Joan and Arthur. “Even before . . . well, you know.”
“I believe in the resurrection of the body and all that,” Mark says.
“All that jazz and razzmatazz,” Ursula says.
“And life everlasting,” Mark says.
Ursula makes the sign of the cross over her bowl of strawberries. “Forever and ever, amen.”
Nancy touches Noah’s sleeve. “I want to sleep with you tonight,” she says. “Can I sleep with you and Alice tonight? May I? I just want to sleep with you, is all, really sleep. Would that be too icky, too sixties? I just don’t want to be alone tonight.”
Alice comes around the table and takes hold of Nancy’s hands. “Of course you can sleep with us, Nancy.” Tigger is still wrapped around her left thumb. “Of course you can.”
“All that rot,” Mark says. “I believe in it, Noah. I really do.”
“We love you, Nancy,” Alice says. “We love you so, so much.”
Mark is crying now. He cups his jaw in his hand as if to hold his face together. Then Connie begins to cry. No one says anything, not even Alice. Noah holds the baby in the crook of his arm. Looking around the table at his neighbors in their party hats, he thinks of the Olcotts on top of their covers, in the ground, of little Ben in his ice cream suit, looking as though he were about to receive his first communion, and Noah feels a sudden tenderness for him, for all of them, for all these grown-up children playing at being adults.
“Buck up, Mark,” Noah says.
“I said, ‘Buck up.’”
“Isn’t that what people say?” Noah says. “‘Buck up, old sport, old scout. Buck up.’”
“Buck up,” Mark says. “Jesus Christ.” He’s laughing now. They’re all laughing, and Noah laughs, too.
Noah wakes in dark. At first, he doesn’t know where he is. The wind in the trees sounds like the tide. He might be four years old or forty. He remembers the doll on the roof of the playhouse, the body in the river. In his head he hears Arthur’s voice—the droghte of March hath perced to the roote—and imagines the lace of Claire’s veil infiltrated with lily of the valley. Alice and Nancy lie fast asleep. He gets out of bed and goes down the hall to the guest bedroom. Candles flicker on either bedside table. Julia Olcott is wrapped in a cocoon of sheets and blankets, while her brother lies uncovered beside her, curled as if around the bright blue egg of sleep itself. Noah straightens the covers and carries a candle down to the dining room.
He retrieves the fragments of porcelain he’d unearthed from the Olcotts’ garden, still wrapped in his old shirt, and sits at the head of the table. The white linen tablecloth stretches beyond the halo of candlelight like a rough map of the world, stained with dark continents of strawberry and brandy, terra incognita. He spreads the pieces out before him, shifting them around, matching piece to piece, until they become a blue and white plate. The bottom reads, “JULE AFTER 1972.” The plate shows a snow-covered landscape lit by stars. In the foreground is a sled, with two silhouetted figures, one running up ahead and the other running just behind. The sled is pulled by a column of nine dogs in the middle distance, linked to the sled by nine fine blue lines. Beyond them loom the mountains and a scatter of snowcapped buildings in the valley. At the top of the plate, a wide wedge of deeper blue is carved out of the mountains, punctured with a five-pointed star and a brief constellation of smaller stars. The back of the plate reads
“Jul i Grenland” in forest-green letters, and below that, “Christmas in Greenland.”
Dido scratches at the kitchen door and Noah lets her out. On the counter, next to the sink, lies the paper bag that contained the Olcotts’ strawberries. He remembers the wet red stains flashing bloody and bright in the morning light. Apocrypha. He speaks the word into the dark and follows Dido out into the backyard. The sky is moonless but threadbare, with light bleeding through from the other side. Dido trots to the lip of the lawn and sits at the edge of the little cliff that looks out upon the roofs of the abandoned houses, the woods, the river. Noah stands beside her. She raises her muzzle to the wind and, attentive, starts to howl. From across the river comes another howl, and behind it Noah hears a siren, joined by the manic ringing of church bells. A
bubble of brightness flickers and flares and tears away from the horizon, curdling across the landscape, bleaching the sky and the treetops.
The tire swing bobs and twirls in the wind. Noah grips the rope above the knot, pulls himself into the tire, and swings out over the leafy green edge of the world. Above the tree line, the Ferris wheel turns slowly, its spokes stamped sharp and black against the bright sky. Then the light leaves the sky and the bells and the siren are gone, along with the howling across the river, which Noah realizes was only Dido’s echo. Still, up he flies, up and up. The House of the Third Little Pig rises behind him, the children’s window a butter-yellow square cut out of the night. The bough creaks above him like a cradle.