Taira Anderson

The They

He and she, they. Always vacationing in Java, always hung-over and long in bed—warm as boiled pudding—soft, melted into each other, nothing separated—zero space between they-atoms. Her hair fanned across pillow, canopy of mosquito net filtering hard tropical sun, white light pearling the skin—and each mouth deep enough to swallow the other—like entering the rainforest—like that, they—
Rode palomino horses side-by-side across beaches—he told her he wanted this permanent, he told her he would build her a palace. In drunken rush, they tittered and ran from the in-sweep of tide—sponged the sand with the pads of their feet and left empty glass bottles half-buried, wet rims and amber-green necks illuminated. He thought, funny, the look of man-made pocking something so earth-born—funny how easy it was to shove into the neatness of nature—
With the villa, designed so the breeze would eternally shuffle loose papers left on tables and desks of polished teakwood—would lift dust off spindle-thin bodies of Rama and Sita carved into the bedroom doors—swirl round the staircase which spiraled upward—nautilus. Designed so the light would never escape it, so it would be permanently captured—
Untouchable to Batara Kala, said the Javanese workmen, who spent hours bent backwards by the weight of pink marble tiles stacked against their chests. Who swore they had uncovered the carcass of a crocodile when uprooting shooting-star hoyas, white flag lilies, maidenhair ferns in preparation for the lay-down of plush sod. She didn’t wear a bra. She wore a sheer sundress and watched the workmen tame the feral greens. She emptied bottles of imported pinot grigio, peered close over their shoulders, insisted they sleep on-site in the unfinished daylight basement. She brought them coolers full of Bintang and drank with them in the afternoons. Until they fled and refused to return—spooked by a wandering spirit who walked through the basement, stepped over them, whose kain, they said, felt like a rasp of wind when it brushed their ankles, foreheads.
The villa with the pool in the backyard, wide waxen leaves of potted banana trees quivering and making perfect shade, creamy sandstone statues, meant for temples, guarding the front steps. They built it big so they could grow collections of Sukhothai paintings and antique globes—their continents misshapen, Ukiyo prints and blown glass bowls—gaping and empty—but then, growing in her steaming swelling belly: more.
She grew babies, two at once, and knew it wasn’t going to be easy, knew it wasn’t what they wanted. From their villa a view of tide-smoothed sand—water receding, softening the horizon.
They-family, and low tide—all sucked out to the junction of earth and sky. He adopts less expensive tastes, becomes a collector of wash-up—sea glass, driftwood, shell shards. His eyes, ever sand-bound, beach-comb.
Bursting, she bears twins with hair raven and skin too tanned, as though the sun had been inside her, caramelizing the fetuses. It was: Pretend it’s not not normal—for a while—pretend it’s what happens when babies are conceived in the tropics—the air carries particles of fires burned and flakes of tourists’ suntanned flesh loosened from backs, buttocks, breasts—breathe in enough and it changes genetics—alters outcomes. He and She attempt make-believe, the they as okay. While he sleeps, she stays up at night, guards the infants, fights off tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, saw-scaled vipers.
She brews a want to return to Australia without him. Drops hints, says, I preferred Java as an exotic escape, a holiday place. I preferred being able to take it or leave it. She says, I don’t like the unfamiliar dangers here, the diseases that sneak up, sneak into refined stomachs. She says, I don’t like the sting of arrak, the way it tastes like rising smoke, the way it dwells between your flaxen teeth, says, I miss the wine pressed in the Murray-Darling Basin, the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley, says, I miss the dry heat and the clean clunk of English words.
And they shift further—atoms, once a hot mush, cooling, shivering apart—but—
despite the stranger’s babies and his inability to hold them, feed them, he is un-budging. He believes they as must-be. He believes they as a combined mass, they as a fused being, they unable to unlearn the shadowing of each other’s flinches and snarls, flawless lip-syncing of each other’s arguments. He thinks: We know each other so well. He thinks: Hold onto it, hold onto this, hold on. Defines these thoughts as the panic known by a worker ant without his queen, the distress of a lightening bug whose lone flash goes unanswered.
In bed, the she pulls away from him. He drinks more arrak, slaps her face with his free hand, grabs her round the waist, pulls her lank body to him. The pretend cannot stick to them anymore, like candlefat slipping from wick of candle. Eroded from the inside out, he bites at them, all his little bitches, fathered by who knew. The maid lady moves to other rooms when their voices rise up and out of their unhinged jaws in howling pillars. The maid lady cleans the nursery after it has been emptied. After the she takes her babies from their napping hour, buckles them into car seats, gets the tires moving so fast they spin up a shroud of dirt. The maid lady leaves woven offerings on the doorstep, bright with the petals of bougainvillea. The maid lady lights incense, lays it atop the blooms, its weak smoke a string of hovering lace, which mingles with murmured prayers. The spirit here is not right, the maid lady tells him, the villa was built in a wrong place, and this poisons the blood.
Sweep up the ash, he says, sweep it up—sweep the ash before you go—before she comes home with the twins and the groceries—she hates to see the filth of ash—the presence of dusk—dust. Dust, I mean. Dust. And he takes the maid’s chin and pinches it and shakes her face, She hates it. She hates—the bitch hates it.
The maid has wetness, lustrous as spit, stuck in her black eyelashes when he moves into her scared, tight tremble, and her dress is already ripped so the rip expands and the maid lady is told not to come back, that she has lost her job and—
The she comes home with twins and groceries, fury only for the ash-dust on the floor—not for the smell of the maid’s brine and arrak. She puts her finger into the powdery gray pile—soft as rabbit’s fur, soft as they weren’t anymore—makes a spiral says, we are going away without you, to Australia, to Mum and Dad. This place is filth, is decay, is mange. This place is no place for my girls.
There they leave him, with the remnants of used-to-be life hung on every wall and circling in his skull. Brain-swirl, stomach-twist, eye-swell, bitter-mouth upend him, send him backwards, split him at the joints. Each body piece disconnected from the other. The thumb, pinky, forefinger, ring—departed from the hand. His deep, creased palm a dish of flesh floating near—but not connected to—the wrist. Knees and elbows only mark the places where bones used to meet—as though the distance between atoms—always vibrating apart—is wide enough to feel—
It aches. The ache folds him to the floor, suspends his appetite. He spends days in the place between wake and sleep, pressing his dry, sallow tongue to the ridge of his mouth, churning echoes of groan and bed-creak around in his ears. Ever thirsty, he begins drinking saltwater for the way it allows him the illusion of becoming seaworthy—part of the biggest bodies on the planet. He begins to pray for a great swallowing, to be taken whole again, to switch places with Jonah—minus the out-of-the-whale part. I’d want it to be a smaller whale, he thinks, Northern Minke, Pilot, Melon-headed—sleeping bag sized.
Before he locks up the bedroom from the outside, with chain and padlock, he peels the sheets from their mattress, makes a bulky fist of blankets, and carries it into the unfinished basement where the light somehow finds its way in through the fogged windows and sliding glass doors. But it is a light that is algid and muted.
Here, in the used-to-be, he watches: green and black mold grow, circle and ink-splotch, as it digests the ceiling of his bathroom, kitchen, as it blots out the backgrounds and foregrounds of photographs—wasp nest pouches mushroom, sack, and sag in the corners—termites carve holes through the staircase, the windows film over as though roughed by sea and sand. Without the maid’s broom, the dust coming from him is piling, and without the maid’s prayers, the spirit is gnawing at him—dark and old and mad about his holy-less-ness, his tromp.
There are times when, during the night, he sees the spirit’s gossamer and spit-foam body drifting through the basement like a spider’s web cut loose. Gauze of hair hanging down her back like netting, cotton kebaya alive with embroidered flowers. She holds a wide slatted basket atop her head, sometimes setting it down when she turns to him to tip her chin up, point a sharp finger—jutting out as ivory-spear.
This evening, the spirit moves differently; in a crystallized gesture of the wrists she cocks her hands back, arches her fingers, lets their curled shapes glide around her as though performing the dance of the Cendrawasih, then reassumes her posture, takes up her basket, and passes through the sliding glass doors. The breeze she wakes wafts through the spaces he’s grown between joints, and as she leaves he feels further wedged apart. Bone-chilled and fractured, he gets up from the floor to watch her go, sees the moon is near full. He remembers Batara Kala—how it used to be his house was ever lit—he opens the sliding glass door, follows her wavering smudge.
Outside is overgrown and rewilded; the pool has quick-turned to neon green juice, quivers with the prick of water-bug toes and the breeching backs of mosquito larvae. The sod is split by the rise of orchids and the return of white flag lilies. The trail leading to the beach is webbed with crisscrosses of shoulder-high grasses, low hanging broad leaves that poke and nip when they connect with his arms, his cheeks, as he walks and keeps close to her—
Onto the beach, over pale sand and smooth stones, seaweed clinging—snagged on his toes, strung from him. He trails her, in awe of her steady sail, her grace-in-death. She is beautiful, or rather, she adds beauty to that which surrounds her. She is residue of chalk-smear on blackboard, hinting at equations solved forever ago. She is fog dressing bare trees, making branches seem full and capable. Toward the river dashing down from the dark heap of mountains, toward the place where it meets the ocean and empties itself—two frothing mouths at it, and into each other.
The spirit collapses at the intersection, dissipates in the outpouring, and he, on hands and knees, crawls into it—her flicker of chaff—the lather of freshwater and saltwater broth up to his neck—collision.
A ballooning cloud of newborn crabs sweeps downstream, their speckled slew tornados around him, the tips of their legs needle—maybe mend the tears between it all, and there is, again, an all-at-once feeling.


Anderson_PhotoTaira Anderson lives in Seattle, Washington, where she is a fiction editor for Isthmus and volunteers with the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas and Hugo House. She is currently working on a collection of short stories inspired by the inescapability of American pop music.