In the woods I saw box turtles mating, and I got down on my hands and knees to watch. The female had brown, mournful, thick-lidded eyes, a hooked beak like a bird, and a delicate, curving mouth. She stretched her wrinkled neck away from the male. I felt sorry for her.
At the age of ten and without a father, I didn’t know much about men. My knowledge of sex was formed considerably by mythology, which I learned from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. In those stories sex was a powerful, transformative force. Zeus, the main god at Mount Olympus, became a swan to seduce Leda, an eagle to abduct Aegina. He was a serpent with Demeter and a bull with Europa. He became a satyr to take Antiope, surprising her while she slept, and he turned Io, the little virgin, into a white cow.
I felt a deep reverence for all things sexual. Sex was elemental, like the weather. It was unpredictable but inevitable, frightening but necessary. And it was all around me. Our house in southern Maryland sat on the edge of a wildflower meadow, beyond which dirt-bike trails wound through the woods, and paths led into the clotted wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay. Every time I stepped outside, my senses burned. Wasps were locked in rigid poses of copulation. Electric-blue dragonflies skimmed the surface of the water stacked two, three, sometimes four high in orgiastic lovemaking. Flocks of blackbirds blotted out the sun. The wetlands smelled of warm pollen and decaying leaves. The Chesapeake was silver, and the sky at sunset yellow and rose. At night I dreamt of trees with mouths, of deer in my bed.
At bedtime my mother leaned over my bed singing, “If I had a hammer, / I’d hammer in the morning, / I’d hammer in the evening, / All over this land!” Her skin was pale and luminous. She wore big, round glasses that magnified her eyes and the small, fragile wrinkles underneath them. This was 1984, when feathered hair and perms were fashionable, but she grew her hair past her waist and wore it in two wispy braids, the way she had in the sixties when she was young.
It was one of life’s terrible injustices that she didn’t have a husband; she wanted one badly. Men fell in love with her now and then, but they never stayed. She was lonely and spent long hours doing mysterious things, like practicing yoga and pinning moths to particleboard, after my older sister, Cassandra, and I had gone to bed. I knew there was a man out there who could banish her loneliness forever. She had a soul mate. Everyone did. It just came down to finding him. My sister and I had always considered ourselves stakeholders in our mother’s love life. Before I fell asleep, I’d spin out a story in my mind like the ones I’d seen on TV. I’d imagine her dancing before a fireplace with the handsome Remington Steele or the rich father from Silver Spoons. I’d listen for their declarations of love.
The woods near our house were green and gold. Vines hung so thick Cassandra and I could wrap our hands around them and swing. We played house down there in the summer. Underneath the holly tree was our bedroom. Our living room was a small clearing enclosed by sassafras trees, whose root-beer-flavored twigs we gnawed on for refreshment. One vine was suspended between two trees, and Cassandra sat in it and pushed herself with her toe.
Later we piled fallen leaves into a huge nest and sat languidly in the middle, pretending we were prisoners of the Bird Prince, who flew back occasionally to feed us and make love to us. Cassandra lay back and let her knees open like butterfly wings. She was twelve.
“The prince is supposed to marry the Owl Queen,” I cried, “but it’s us he loves!”
In all the stories we knew, women were either being seduced or avoiding being seduced. Women didn’t do any seducing themselves, unless enchantments kept the right men from loving them, in which case they could overcome the spells using their beauty and innocence.
Cassandra said, “The Owl Queen has him under a spell. It’s up to us to break it.”
“But how do we break it?”
In reply Cassandra began to sing a song from the radio: “How can you just leave me standing, / alone in a world that’s so cold? / Maybe I’m just too demanding. / Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.” Cassandra’s skin seemed to radiate heat. The light coming through the trees was caramel. And there he was: the Bird Prince! I saw him alight on a branch overhead. Oh, he was handsome!
At a slumber party at Nellie Liddy’s house when I was eleven, Mrs. Liddy got tipsy and gathered us girls around her on her queen-size waterbed to give advice.
“There’s only one thing men want,” she said, “and it’s pretty easy to give it to them if you can swallow your pride a little. Does anyone know what it is? . . . No one? Listen up, then, girls. What men want is for you to worship their dicks.”
I listened, fascinated. The word dick sounded like a tiny hammer banging away on something. This was new territory for me. Two realities — the child’s world and the adult’s — were sliding into place alongside each other like ships. They looked alike, but they were different in every sense. If I chose, I could leap from one to the next.
“I mean they literally want you to get on your knees and bow to it,” Mrs. Liddy said. She knelt on the bed, raised her arms above her head, and lowered her large breasts onto the velveteen coverlet. “I worship you!” she said.
Later that night we did the Mensa quiz in the back of Playboy. The last problem asked us to unscramble a word. One by one the other girls figured it out. “I can almost see it,” I said. But the truth was the letters floated in shifting patterns before my eyes. I saw all sorts of short words — line, lies, lion — but I couldn’t see the one big word. “You can do it, honey,” Mrs. Liddy said. When the time was up, they pointed it out to me, and the letters settled into place. Loveliness. It had eluded me.
On Halloween I trick-or-treated with Nellie Liddy. The night was windy and moonless. I shivered, and Nellie said that meant I was walking over someone’s grave.
“There are graves under your road?” I said.
“No, wait,” she said. “It means someone’s walking over your grave.”
“But I’m alive,” I said.
“Well, where your grave is going to be.”
In a white nightgown and ballet slippers, I was dressed as Persephone, the reluctant queen of the underworld. Her defining characteristics were youth, beauty, and gaiety. These were what compelled Hades to sweep her away to the underworld for half the year, leaving her mother to weep and turn the world to winter — exactly what my mother would do, I knew, if I ever left her. I also wore a gold mask on which I’d glued festoons of fake violets. And in case there was any question about my identity, I carried a pomegranate, the fruit whose seeds had sealed poor Persephone’s doom.
“Are you a fairy?” kind women asked from their doorways as they dropped candy into my bag.
“No,” I said, holding up my pomegranate. But they’d never seen one and thought it was some kind of apple.
I was in love with Cyrus Smith. I fell for him at the age of twelve as he crawled through the window with three other neighborhood boys, intent on crashing a slumber party I was attending. He wasn’t handsome. Stringy black hair overwhelmed his forehead, his skin was sickly pale, and he had dark circles under his eyes, as if they were permanently bruised. But I was moved by his delicate shoulder blades, which I could see through his T-shirt. They looked like small wing stumps. Cyrus and the other boys stayed for an hour, but I never spoke to him.
After that, I spent a lot of time imagining wild circumstances that might bring us together: Cy and I would be lost in a blizzard, and we would have to hug to keep warm. Cy’s parents’ car would break down at the end of my driveway, and he and his family would have to stay overnight with us. Cy and I would witness a crime late at night on a dark street, and, to fool the criminals into thinking we hadn’t seen, we’d pretend to be teenagers making out against a wall.
I knew that only fictional devices like blizzards and criminals would make him touch me. I lacked whatever quality he was looking for in a girl, but Nellie Liddy seemed to have it. I made a study of all that she had that I didn’t: sixteen Cabbage Patch Kids, a pool, an audition for a TV talent show, a father.
I suspected, though, that these things did not account for Cy’s interest. It was something more intrinsic to who she was, something that made her lovable and me not.
Mother’s loneliness was palpable. She exuded it the way other women exuded the scent of perfume. When I imagined her through strangers’ eyes, I was embarrassed. Her breath, her posture, the blink of her eyelashes: all were feeble signs of longing.
Then she met Stephen. He had a big chest, and his laughter filled the house. He often came over for dinner and stayed long after Cassandra and I went to bed. I was fascinated by everything about him. The sinews of his arms were exceptional. The pattern of stubble on his chin was like a secret code.
Later my feelings changed. My mother was too desperately in love. “Doesn’t she look happy?” Cassandra said, but her happiness seemed like a story we were both telling. Maybe all happiness was a story, I thought, but I had a feeling that this one would end abruptly if we let our guard down. Whenever Stephen came over, I escaped outside, running down the icy boardwalk through the wetlands. The winter sun was white and weak. The dry stalks of cattails whipped me. Logs reared out of muddy hollows like Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades.
When Stephen left, I wasn’t surprised. I was almost looking forward to it. But my mother and Cassandra were inconsolable, and that winter seemed to last forever.
In the spring Mother fell in love with a man named Carl, whom she’d met on a blind date. He was ill at ease around Cassandra and me, but he tried to hide it. They went out on Friday nights, leaving us to put ourselves to bed. It was the year of Chernobyl and the Challenger shuttle disaster, and these frightening events crowded into my consciousness whenever the lights were off. Nuclear war was a real threat. Qaddafi and Reagan were both terrible names in our house. The Soviet Union was an evil empire. Gandhi was dead. Luke Skywalker had never really existed. AIDS could kill you from the inside out. I dreamt that I was climbing stairs wearing roller skates, slipping and scrambling, but I never made it to the top.
In seventh grade Cyrus Smith and I were both chosen for all-county chorus. I wasn’t a great singer, but I was well-behaved, which meant a lot to Miss Malloy, our mammoth music teacher.
Being in all-county chorus meant practicing on Saturdays in Annapolis, which meant carpooling with Cy. On the way home one Saturday night we lounged in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We didn’t talk. We just looked out at the early-winter dark and the red and green lights of gas stations and mini-marts. The windows reflected our faces back to us. When cars passed by on the road, their headlights illuminated Cy’s face, and I was aware of where his hands rested on the maroon upholstery. I calculated how far I would have to reach to touch his hand.
Later at school he told Jennifer Hunt that I followed him around “like a little puppy.”
“That’s exactly how he said it,” Jennifer told me. “ ‘Like a little puppy.’ ”
“I wasn’t following him,” I said. “We were carpooling. His mother was driving.”
“I’m just telling you what he told me.”
That night I cried after dinner and wouldn’t tell Cassandra or my mother what it was about. I felt like Io, stuck in the body of a white cow. Inside me was something beautiful, but who would ever see it?
Carl left my mother, and she started seeing a man named Lawrence, who turned out to be married. After that, she needed a change, she said. She decided to cut her hair. Cassandra and I cried when we saw the two braids lying coiled in a box, like dead snakes. With short hair our mother’s face looked impossibly thin, her skin ghostly. She seemed to be disappearing. I thought she must need a man’s touch in order to exist. His hands on her back would make her ribs real. Her hips would be conjured into being by the palms that touched them.
Cassandra got a boyfriend named Jones. He was sunburned and had pink pimples on his jaw where he shaved. He was rough with his friends, but with Cassandra he became helpless and tender.
One night I watched while they kissed in a parking lot. His hand disappeared down the back of Cassandra’s shorts, and he hung his head over her shoulder like a baby. His friends told dirty jokes and snorted with laughter.
“This boy asks a girl to dance. Halfway through she feels his huge woody pressing against her, so she agrees to go out to his car. Once they’re out there, he pulls a broom handle out of his pants, and she says, ‘What’s that?’ And he says, ‘Decoy!’ ”
Cassandra reared her head back and laughed, which made her look like something only half human.
In my room that night I sat cross-legged on the bed, looking at a picture of Cyrus Smith. It had been taken the night of our seventh-grade choral recital. In the picture I was playing piano. Cy and some other kids were gathered around the piano singing, “That’s What Friends Are For.”
I held the picture up to my face. Cy’s mouth was a round O, and the darkest place in the photo was inside it. His face was in shadows, but his neck was illuminated, gold. I touched his face with my thumb, caressed it. Then I snatched my hand away in surprise. Something had happened to my thumb! It was a thumb like my mother’s, the thumb of a woman, with a woman’s pale half-moon at the bottom, a woman’s crescent moon on top. My thumb had been transformed simply by touching Cy’s picture.
When Cassandra came to bed, I pretended to be asleep. She leaned over and smoothed my hair. She smelled like growing things. She smelled like the wetlands. I clutched my secret thumb under the covers.
In bed that night Poseidon rose in a great swell of oily water and found the wet, blossoming legs of a nameless water nymph leaning against a river birch. His fingers wandered there, and the nymph clasped her breasts in disbelief.
Cassandra was in love with Jones, she said. After school they were always together — having lots of sex, I imagined. I understood sexual desire, but I had some misconceptions about the act itself. I thought the man and woman remained still and the penis alone moved, vibrating energetically like a jackhammer until it exploded into orgasm. I thought with mixed feelings about Cassandra experiencing this powerful hammering.
That summer I wandered the trails and the boardwalk, hoping to run into Cyrus, although I knew he wouldn’t be there. I saw box turtles, painted turtles, snakes, frogs, muskrats, otters, deer. When they saw me, they stopped and stared. I tried to communicate with them using only my mind: I won’t hurt you. I love you. I’m lonely.
Cassandra seemed far away, as if she existed half in another world. When she wasn’t with Jones, she was consumed with trivialities: getting stains out of shirts or separating barrettes and bobby pins into distinct piles on her nightstand. I longed for her. Without her I felt uneasy. Rather than growing up, we were growing smaller, my sister and I. We were floating specks hurtling away from each other in a vast universe.
I played spin the bottle for the first time at a party in eighth grade. The kisses were chaste and timid. These could tide me over, but I needed more to survive. At Homecoming I asked Cyrus Smith to dance and waited in fear and anticipation to feel his woody pressing against me. I had no idea what it would feel like. Instead he breathed on my hair, the song ended, and he disappeared.
For Halloween that year I dressed in a corset and petticoat made of gold lace and orange tulle. I stuffed delicate, crinkly tissue paper in the bust to make breasts. I drew black lines under my eyes with eyeliner and wore bright lipstick.
Nellie Liddy and I walked up and down the geometric streets of her neighborhood. The cold air wrapped itself around my arms and legs. Weeds on the side of the road tickled my ankles. The trees cast shadows into the street. Ghosts and witches darted around corners in the moonlight.
We ran into Cyrus and a boy named Jake. They were dressed as dead soldiers with smears of blood on their cheeks and army fatigues rolled up at the cuffs so that their skinny wrists stuck out. We stood facing them on the street. I had a premonition of bodies leaning toward a fire.
“How did you do?” Cyrus asked, eyeing our half-full pillowcases. Their own pillowcases were bulky with candy. We went to Cyrus’s backyard to examine our loot. At a picnic table we laid out our treats in bright rows and ate chocolate until we were sated. Cyrus caught me looking at him.
“Want to see something?” he said.
He led us into the dark woods behind his house. The trees made a shushing noise, and the branches seemed to lengthen. Goose bumps broke out on my arms and legs. Behind us I could still see the picnic table in the yard, back in the world of summer. We were going into the world of winter. Like Persephone, we had eaten the sweets of the underworld, and now we would stay here forever.
Cyrus stopped in front of a pile of leaves and brushed them aside with the toe of his boot. The leaves scurried off like tiny origami animals, revealing stiff fur. Then a grimace. Lips pulled back from teeth. And flies. Cyrus stood back and shined his flashlight reverently on the dead animal.
“My dog,” he said.
His sadness was palpable. I felt overwhelmed with pity.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“He was old,” Cyrus said.
“I don’t want to look at it anymore,” Nellie said.
“We don’t have to,” Cyrus said.
We went inside his house. His parents weren’t home, but I was bombarded by the smells of his family: the food they ate, the skin they sloughed off, the gases of their bodies. There was the faint smell of tacos in the air. In the corner of the kitchen was his dog’s bowl, still half full of water. In the living room Cy turned on the stereo, and we listened to the Cure. Robert Smith groaned with the pains of love.
Nellie and Jake sat on the floor in front of the TV to play Super Mario Brothers. Cyrus stayed by me on the couch.
“So, what are you anyway?” he asked. We both looked at my bare ankles under the orange tulle. I was embarrassed by the mosquito bites, which were crusted over from scratching.
“A fairy,” I said.
“Like, any particular fairy?”
“I guess just a general fairy.”
“General Fairy, sir!” he said, saluting. “I’m a soldier. Get it?”
Earlier in the night I had dabbed jasmine perfume behind my ears, and now the smell of it became stronger, as if the room were full of jasmine. Cyrus’s shoulder was near mine. In the game on the TV a mustachioed man was hurrying to rescue a princess. His small legs scissored. Cyrus’s hand was resting on the cushion of the couch, inches from my leg.
“I have a pet snake,” I said. “He lives by the stream, but he totally knows us and sheds his skin in the same place every year, and we have them mounted on a board under glass.”
“That’s cool,” Cyrus said.
“His name is Gentle,” I said.
He moved his hand so it was actually touching my leg — but nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t meant to do it.
“Did you know that Halley’s comet only comes every seventy-six years?” I asked.
“I know,” he said.
“We can watch it when it comes,” I said.
He gave me a puzzled look. There was hair above his lip, so fine and soft-looking it reminded me of a blind and velvety vole. There was a constellation of pimples on one cheek and something white between two of his teeth. His pupils were large and black. He licked his lips and breathed through his mouth.
When I’d imagined kissing Cyrus, I’d felt sweet triumph. In reality there was no room for emotion, because I was brimming with sensations: A wet mouth, slippery and alive. The smell of jasmine and of tacos. In my peripheral vision, bright pixelations and computerized music. Cyrus’s hand on my waist. His hand on my ribs. His thumb sliding into the space between my ribs. Nellie’s voice from the living-room floor warning Jake as he played the game, “Don’t eat those whatever you do!” Somewhere in a dark castle Princess Toadstool was waiting in vain for Mario to rescue her. I had stopped breathing long ago. Cy’s hipbones were sharp. His sadness made him passionate. He began to rub against me. I saw Mrs. Liddy bowing on the waterbed: I worship you! I thought of my secret thumb. Where was it? Where were my hands? A small bird wanted to hatch from between my ribs. It threw itself against them again and again.
Cyrus’s thumb touched the side of my breast. The air around me seemed to shimmer. For a moment I couldn’t see a thing. When my sight returned, I was floating away from him. Up, up I went. My body stayed below on the couch, but another part of me was rising toward the ceiling like a helium balloon. It was a shock to me but also a relief. Unafraid, I drifted toward the door and out into the night. What a blessing to breathe the night air! The cold was refreshing. I sailed languidly above the deserted streets below. The parked cars and lawns were orderly. I saw cats on rooftops. I saw dogs asleep in driveways. I flew out of the neighborhood. At some point I understood I was going home.
I passed the woods, where green pawpaws hung off branches. There were black raspberries by the tobacco fields. Touch-me-not seedpods were springing open. The Chesapeake was a shining snake. Through the walls of my house I saw my mother bent over the kitchen table. Her neck was thin and lovely. I saw Cassandra in her bedroom, seated on the edge of her bed. She wore a white nightgown, and through it I saw her body, vivid and thriving. Some force inside her thrashed with life, like the turtles mating in the woods. I saw that her little chores and busyness were attempts to impose order on all that reckless blooming.
Not me, though. I wasn’t like her. I had stood on the edge of the chasm and, instead of starting my descent, chosen to stay a while longer in the world of enchantment.
After that night, Cyrus got a girlfriend who was not me and kissed her violently and often in the hallway by the lockers. He never told his friends that he had kissed me, or that I had fainted when it happened. In fact, he looked frightened whenever he saw me. I could understand why. First his dog dies, and then a girl leaves her body on his couch while she floats away.
I should also say that, although I’d told Cyrus we could watch Halley’s comet, it had come already, the previous winter. My mother and Cassandra and I had huddled outside at dawn, waiting for its appearance. They held their breath and let it out in a long sigh at the sight of the bright blur, but all I could think was that I might never see the comet again. Cassandra probably wouldn’t either. Our mother surely wouldn’t. Certain things were disappearing with enormous speed, and we were among them.