Words and photo by A. A. Reinecke
It might be put: Aster Daugherty was in a perpetual process of losing and regaining her religion but, as people tend to frame with their own set of glasses, to make darker a thing, to make more brown and more tortoise a thing because they can’t stand the white, virgin honesty of it, she was seen in shades. The Church thought her confused, Nepperan Road found her precocious, and the inhabitants of the brick houses in the far reaches decided her a fluidity of mind not suited to secular boundary.
Aster was thinking, as she lay on her bed, that she wouldn’t have half the recreation in her life if He hadn’t been allowed to step over the ropes into her consciousness, and that it was Aunt Ada to thank for it; Aunt Ada who’d poured that shell of water over her in the Stop and Shop bathroom.
The door was pushed open. It was a white door with a square and a cathedral window shape cut into the wood. It was her brother. He wore an olive colored pullover sweater and gray eyes. “’Lo, Aster,” he said.
Cedar remained in the doorframe. He was looking up at the ceiling, remembering there was no roof beam in the room.
“You want something?”
Cedar closed the door and sat so the arch of his spine cut the square into two rectangle slivers, one on each side of his chest. “Will you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“About the row.”
Aster took a bit of her coverlet between her fingers and rubbed. It smelled still of the eggnog Cedar had brought her in a glass milk bottle and spilled, two years before.
“I want to hear about it. You were having one and I heard you. I was lying in my bed,” he moved his back a little, “With my hands crossed over my chest like a body, still like, and trying not and get up for water, but I heard. The floor boards are like paper.”
“That wasn’t a row. A row’s the thing we did at Bridport.” Her brow was calm as she lay there, and her limbs warm under the blankets. “A thing in a boat.”
“A fight, Aster. You know I mean a fight.”
“It was the normal fight.” Aster pulled off the coverlet and stepped into a pair of suede house slippers. “With all the usual dullness. Dad staring at the ceiling and taking breaths when his voice got loud, Mom asking why we didn’t all just sit down a minute and think—”
Cedar stood. “I can get your wrapper.”
“The dullness,” she said, “was an expanse of gray. Like carbon monoxide—you know what that is? Like that and the table abandoned, the potato skins like seals on the plates and that stupid song—”
“You want the gray or the pink?”
Cedar handed the robe. It was a robe and not a wrapper, but she liked to call it a wrapper because she heard it in a movie onetime. “I know what monoxide is. A killing thing. A vice. There’re lots of those. Vices. Tea and coffee, and cigarettes,” he paused, then started again and in recitation, “Tea and coffee are not good for growing boys . . . smoking is bad for the wind.”
“This from that book again?” said Aster.
“Fine. That manual. Whatever. Why’d you be sourcing your thoughts on that manual?”
“It tells how to make fire,” he said, quietly.
“Tear out the fire part, then. The rest’s wrong. Smoking’s bad for the lungs, not the air. Turns them black.” Aster went to her desk, and took out an arrowhead from the pullout drawer. “Like this. Black. Inside your chest.”
Cedar took it and shined it on his pullover hem. “Let’s go down and eat.”
They went out through the white, cathedral window cut door. On the second floor landing, Cedar pressed the arrowhead into Aster’s palm. “It was about Him, again,” he said. “The fight, it was about God, wasn’t it, Aster, wasn’t it—”
Aster put the bit of black glass in a pocket of her wrapper. It dropped the length of the pocket, a long, seashell colored pocket, and fit at the seam. She thought it looked like physical sin, its blackness against the white pink. She made her mind up to throw it in the fireplace after dinner.
“Aster?” a voice was saying, “Cedar? That you two on the stair? You need and set out the glasses, Cedar. The square glasses—the bourbon ones.”
Cedar stepped out from the stair. His pullover looked darker in the black of six o’clock, because it was winter outside and dark and because the kitchen light was half broken, milky. “I know. I’ll set ‘em.”
Mrs. Daugherty sat at the kitchen table skinning a tray of potatoes. Dinner was ready, was British dumplings and chicken, but she was to make another batch to bring to her brother’s. There were two things to define her: that her hands were the color of russet insides, as though sometime in all the hours of cutting and peeling they’d absorbed the hue, and that she swallowed things with her eyes.
She did it then; swallowed the taupe of Aster’s house slippers and the brown band of Cedar’s birthday watch and the line of the pink wrapper, straight and thin and shell colored, and the tuck where sin sat in the pocket.
“Please get them—the bourbon glasses,” she said.
Cedar went to the glass cabinet and when he bent to get them on the bottom shelf, the round of his back looked like a piece of Ireland. “Two?” he said, “Two or four?”
“One. Whod’you think’s drinking with him?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s right you don’t. No one.”
Everyone made their way, about their own manner, to the table. Cedar came with the one square glass at his chest and the bourbon bottle nestled at his right shoulder. He was barefoot and in pajama pants and when he walked his feet made sounds of discord with the floor.
Mrs. Daugherty pulled her chair out as though putting a baby to sleep, and setting down the dumplings and the chicken and sitting still as though it were her office only to set forth the meal but not to touch it; she looked at her family gathering around the light blue, almost white colored room like someone who’d set forth the image and was waiting to have it develop.
Aster sat and helped herself to British dumplings with rapture.
Mr. Daugherty sat and poured himself a bourbon and thought Aster’s rapture something left over from a Depression she’d never lived through. He drank some of his bourbon and was glad by the rapture. It seemed a sign at reincarnation and he was glad by her unknowing participation in another order through it; for her cession as something besides an instrument of His way.
“Will we say Grace?” said Aster, potato dumpling thick on her tongue.
“That question every night,” said Daugherty to his bourbon, “and every night the same answer. Do you not find a dullness in it, Flower? The ever ‘Grace?’ and the ever negative?”
Aster took another dumpling. It made a sound like dropped palm of snow.
“You live recitation. I forgot.” Daugherty had a swizzle stick and was pushing it around the glass a little, though it was bourbon straight and not mixed with anything but ice. “A hundred Our Father’s over your cousin’s broken arm yesterday, a hundred Our Father’s and not any attempt at a triangle bandage or some salve or anything useful, anything to fruition—”
“Let’s not start,” said Mrs. Daugherty. She said it with a stillness spread like a sling across her jaw, and with a haziness in her eyes like an underdeveloped photograph, the image of the potato dumplings and the white blue room warped and unsatisfactory by her own hand. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“I’ll talk about something else,” said Daugherty. “I’ll talk some sense into her. You know how you do it? By talking Him out of her.”
Cedar sighed a sigh that was like the rustle of tissue paper. “Can’t we yell about something else?”
“What do you propose?” said Aster. She was grinning.
“Paintings. The evening paper. I don’t know. The way you don’t like dad’s strokes or his use of greens. Something he can take without looking like that—looking at the ceiling and thinking leather over.”
“I’m not thinking leather over anything,” he said.
“Well that’s the living truth.” Aster pushed at her dumplings.
“What’s that?” he said.
“I said we’ll let it alone.”
Mr. Daugherty had finished his glass and was shaking the ice cubes in it like stones. “I heard you the first time. Now what? Now you’re pushing your food around your plate because what? You can’t eat without recitation. Because something’s not Bread till you name it Bread?”
“I said we’ll let it alone.”
“What we’ll let alone is this Living Truth.”
Daugherty returned his eyes to the ceiling. They were gray and dull that minute, like washers. He breathed largely.
Cedar knew that since his father had quit seeking answer in the Word, he sought in a code of his own. He knew when ceiling failed him he’d turn to leather belt and to the places where Cedar’s bones protruded. He knew it by the soreness in his back; by the little place in his spine brown with bruise, dark and like soil underneath the pullover.
He said only, “You pass the dumplings?”
Daugherty passed them, breathing largely as he did it, though more shallowly when he returned his eyes to the ceiling, as though he were trying only to scoop a layer of paint of the ceiling, the very white ceiling, instead of to remove the drywall or the roof beams, as his breaths had tried before to do.
Cedar helped himself to two dumplings. “For Him being a nonentity you sure talk about him a lot. Like He’s someone down the street—in one of them brick houses down Nepperan.”
“That’s cuz He is an entity.” Aster leaned on her elbows as she spoke as though to make a cross, a bending one, with the line of her collarbone and shoulder blades. “That’s cuz He made you—made us. All of us in a day and hung Heaven on a coat peg the same hour.”
“He’s the Ressurection and the Life and you can see it plain in the windows. The blues and grays speak it, the poem he’s made of us, the pastoral of greens and whites, too.”
“He,” said Daugherty, mad, “is not life.”
“The time I brought him Cedar said it himself. ‘Never something before beautiful in glass.’ And that’s why. That’s why the blues and the grays and the windows like cut glass bowls pasted to the white gray of the sky—because He’s the Life. The Church beautiful in window because it’s that way in purpose. He made it that way.”
With the side of his hand Daugherty pushed the dumplings from his plate into the serving bowl, like he were casting two fish back into His water. He went to the washroom and returned with a razor.
His wife recognized the dullness in his eyes. “Don’t be stupid. Sit and we’ll talk like Cedar said about your pastorals. About anything you like.”
But he was distant; removed from the white blue image she’d made of the table and of her dark haired family and of the potato dumplings, simple and serene. He was untouchable, his face a mask. She thought he resembled her brother that time in the psychiatric ward, those three weeks he looked at the coat folded over in her lap and looked in at her eyes but didn’t speak. “He’s not life. I’ll tell you all what life is. This.” He took the razor blade and stuck it in at a thin angle at his wrist. “This is life. Blood. Flesh. Blood and flesh and not any God or any Bread. Blood.”
His skin began to bleed. A piece was taken up on the razor, translucent like an onion peel. “This is life. Not Him in a brick house on Nepperan and not Him in Heaven or and not Him anywhere else. This is life—blood. Blood and blood alone.” Daugherty went to sit on the couch. He sat without pressing his back to the cushions. “He’s nothing,” he said. He sat a minute like a patient and let his hand rest on the band of his pajama pants so the fabric would soak the blood.
Aster sat beside him. She didn’t talk but only looked at the torn flesh. She re-tied her wrapper at her waist. When she spoke she spoke slowly and as if to a child. “He is. He is the Life. The Life and the Resurrection.”
“There’s no Resurrection. I told you,” said Daugherty. “When you’re young you get amoxicillin pink and then you get it in pills when you get old. You get old and older and you turn wood eventually, in death. There is no Resurrection or Redemption—none of it.”
“He’s made it. He’s made everyone a thread to be tied together in His image.” This she said with her hand in the long, shell colored pocket, at the obsidian sin. “That’s what life is, gathering threads for His image.”
Daugherty heaved. “Threads—you’re right about threads. A hundred threads, people reducing themselves to thread for Him—to nothing. To thread just to tie themselves to the Church, to the House of Nothing. And for what?” He looked at the razor beside him on the couch. It was an old, brown floral print couch. The razor was wet with blood.
“That’s what this world is, Flower. A sewing kit. A mess of people reducing themselves and trying to tie themselves to one big knot of nothing. A rotten mess of a sewing kit, with needles sticking out. A sewing kit calling itself His World and waiting in quiet to entangle.”
After he said this he ran the tap into the basin. He held his hand submerged there like something he was trying to drown until the water turned pink.
* * *
In Aster’s room Cedar sat again against the door. Aster lied under her rose patterned coverlet. It was green and thin and had been bought before she was born, for the extension of himself her father had intended to buy a little schooner with a red sail for, when they went to Rockaway, and to teach about cigarettes and about vices. Her Aunt Ada had sewn the flowers onto it, telling Daugherty what he’d got in place of his extension was not a curse but one of His works, and had tried to make it such in little silk spots of mauve and pink and white.
“Will you tell me about it?” said Cedar.
“You were there. You were right there in the water.”
“I don’t mean the row. I mean about Him.”
“What about it?” she said.
“About religion, Aster.” Then, after a minute, “Is it hard?”
“Sure it’s hard. What’s easy?”
Aster lay on her back and thought how she didn’t know how to mold Cedar to anything and that she still had the obsidian piece in the long, sea shell colored wrapper pocket, the sin she couldn’t bring herself to cast into the hearth after the row. “Will you go downstairs a minute, Cedar?” she said.
“For what?” he said.
“Letter on the counter—kitchen table. Letter from the therapist, postage paid with an Elvis Presley stamp. Like to read it before Dad.”
Cedar went out through the white cathedral cut door. He heard the RCA playing and saw the image of the white blue room as he walked down the stairs, and met the form of his father, in his pajama pants and no shirt, lying on the common room floor, staring at the ceiling.