The Porch Before a Slow Sunset
Celine is napping so James spends the afternoon working on illustrations for the third Anastasia book. He balances the sketchbook on the flat armrest of the porch chair. All the chairs in the chalet have heart-shaped holes carved in the backs. How easy it is to carve out a heart, James thinks.
After having met all the penguins in the North Pole in the second book and explored the crocodile rivers of the Amazon in the first, he has decided Anastasia is going to Paris. She would climb the Eiffel Tower. He would have to find a book in town to get the structure right. The Internet barely breathes in this mountain chalet.
Celine's great-aunt had offered them the use of her place in the Swiss Alps after she heard about what happened. "A place to rest and recover," Celine's great-aunt called it, making it sound like an assignment.
So they filled a suitcase of clothes, grabbing everything warm and fuzz-like, rain boots and snow boots, and left New York on a plane. It turns out the Alps are not as cold in October as they thought. The grass is still green. The sunsets are slow and gold-tinted. On the front porch, James can see the line of light descend from mountain to valley.
A door upstairs opens or closes, he can't be sure. Celine is up. He listens to the stairs creak and the heavy shuffling of her slippers. She steps onto the porch. Her hair makes a fan over her forehead as she runs her hands through and drops into the other heart-carved chair.
"How did you sleep?" he asks.
"I don't know. What time is it?"
"A little after seven."
"I didn't mean to sleep so long. Do you want some tea?" Celine says.
"No thanks. All we have in the house is caffeinated tea. You know I won't be able to sleep if I drink it now."
"We'll get some chamomile tomorrow at the store."
"It's Sunday tomorrow. Stores are closed."
"How do people live here?"
"It's okay. I had time to work on the next Anastasia book. She's going to Paris next."
Celine drops her face in her hands. "I wish you wouldn't."
James sighs, "I don't understand."
The Garden in Rain
Celine is working on the garden while James cooks brussels sprouts with garlic. Almost two weeks they have been here, and from the first day, the garden was hers. "I'm going to plant tulips," she had said, rummaging through the basement for gardening tools. The leather gloves were so caked in dirt they were hard as stone and had to be soaked in lukewarm water for days.
Today the rain has been steady. Usually it doesn't last long and the gray would move on to let blue in. But after hours of waiting for a break in the clouds, Celine decides to go into the garden anyway, wearing James' rain jacket and a baseball cap to keep the water off her face.
James think the brussels sprouts could use a kick. Did they bring pepper flakes with them? He goes upstairs to search through their luggage. Two weeks later and half their clothes are still in suitcases. They only use their belongings based on instances of necessity.
Under Celine's knotted socks, he finds a backpack, one he has never seen her use. It is pink and faded, like a relic from middle school. Zipped open: a flashlight, pair of knotted socks, underwear, one pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a short-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, bug spray, a box of matches, batteries, a pocket knife, a small shovel, rain jacket, gloves, sanitary napkins, water bottle, snack bars and a coil of rope.
He lays out the objects on the bed in a row and tries to understand. He picks up the flashlight. It's an emergency pack. For one. She's going to leave me.
In the garden, Celine makes another hole for the next tulip bulb. The rain has made the end of her sleeves and pants heavy and sinking. She can barely hear the thrust of the trowel because wet hair covers her ears. That muffling of the world and the rain pouring over her hands gives her the sensation of drinking water. She has forgotten how kneeling in dirt can make her feel alive. Just like digging a grave. Little graves.
In the kitchen, the brussels sprouts and garlic burn to black.
The Balcony Doors Are Open
The layers of wool blankets that Celine needs to feel comfortable at night are an oven to James. So they compromise: three blankets and the balcony doors cracked open. The moon adds lighted lines to the wooden floor.
James is awake, one leg hanging off the bed to catch the cold air. Wrapped under wool, Celine sleeps like she is climbing the stairs, one leg extended, the other bent high near her chest.
Where is she going? James wonders.
He has had a light case of insomnia for years, used to happen once every few months, now more frequently. They used to joke that he takes insomnia recreationally, as often as she smokes. When he watched her sleep on those recreational nights, he used to think of her body as a hologram, as if she were projected from somewhere higher, somewhere better than this world.
Now she is something solid and impenetrable. Standard concrete from this world. Celine who wiped ice cream from his mouth with her fingers on their first date, laughing awkwardly, afraid to look at him after the familiar gesture, and how he felt all made of strings when he first kissed her under the yellow restaurant awning, where they had thin sizzling slices of Korean barbecue and how both her hair and his fingers smelled like sweet smoke. Celine who was soft and full of soft sounds underneath him the first time they had sex. A careful unwrapping. Celine who threw a glass once, her skin hot with rage, when they argued about politics after too much whiskey.
Celine who was glass when she sobbed into his chest at the news of her mother's death and she whispered to him that she hadn't spoken to her mother for ten years, not since she walked out on Celine and her father for a perfume salesman, leaving her father little more than a gray nodding head propped up by a checkered cardigan and blue armchair.
James searches under the blankets for her elbow and shakes it. "Celine?"
She turns on her back, pokes her face out from wool and blinks. "What? What is it?"
"I need to ask you something," he says.
"And you had to wake me up for it?" The blankets flip open. She's angry.
"Why do you have that backpack?"
"That pink backpack with the black straps. I found it in your luggage."
"You opened it?"
"I was looking for the red pepper flakes. Sorry," James says. Then feeling more justified, "What is it for?"
She gets out of bed and carves a crescent in the room's darkness, back and forth, half circling around James. He can't tell if she's arranging her anger into cutting sentences or dulling her edges before speaking.
When she climbs back into bed, James is surprised to find her voice to be small and full of sand.
"I guess I thought I should be ready," she says.
"Haven't you felt like...?" she starts then stops. The words rearrange in her throat. "Since we lost Anastasia, I don't know. I feel like anything could happen. Things I've never heard of. Things I can't imagine."
"We had three days. We were lucky to meet her," he says.
"Lucky?" She twists the corner of a blanket and keeps twisting.
"I didn't mean lucky."
"I want to be prepared. In case something happens. Again."
"Where did you get the stuff?"
"Most of it from back home. It started with a flashlight. The shovel I found here, part of avalanche gear. Skiers and climbers have them."
"For an earthquake, for getting buried in snow. You're going to shovel your way out of the skylight?"
"I want to make sure I'll survive."
"And what about me?"
She untwists the corner of the blanket and lets it drop back on her legs. "You keep writing those books. How do you know what she would have looked like?"
James gets out of bed and walks over to the balcony. The half-moon is enough to make the snow caps a muted white from the night mountains across.
"It's cold," Celine says.
He presses the balcony doors closed and pushes down the latch.
The Leaves on the Footpath Behind the House
She had stopped smoking for the baby. James hadn't been able to convince her to quit before the pregnancy. "As long as you still have your insomnia," she used to tease him.
Now she smokes every day, usually after lunch. From the living room window, James watches her walk down to the footpath behind the house that connects to other houses a little further up the mountain. This time of year, most of the chalets are empty, too cold for hiking and not enough snow for skiing.
Framed by the yellow-headed oak trees on each side of the path, with her neon orange puff jacket, Celine looks like an accidental splash of city in the country. He sees her drop the lighter and rummage through the leaves blanketing the path. After she finds it, the cigarette is lit quickly, expertly, and she starts pacing. Her pacing is steady and rhythmic, only interrupted by the occasional puff of cigarette.
Toward the end of the path before it joins a paved road, she drops out of sight from his view in the living room, cut off by the window's edge. A few seconds later, she returns to resume the up and down, away and back. He is afraid that one of these days she will keep walking and leave behind an empty landscape in the window frame.
James is about to take their empty mugs from the coffee table to the kitchen when he sees a man walk down the path. The man is wearing a newsboy cap and his steps seem cautious with age. He stops and speaks to Celine. James can only see Celine's back. He can't tell if she is smiling or afraid. A few minutes later, the man waves goodbye and leaves up the hill where he came from.
"Who was that?" James says, when Celine comes back into the house.
"You know that neighbor my great-aunt told us about? The one who helps her with the house sometimes when she's away."
"The physics professor?"
"Retired. His name is Franz. He came by to say hello. I thought we could have him over for dinner tomorrow night."
"Sure, that would be nice. It would be nice to talk about something... like physics."
Celine doesn't hear him and is already halfway up the stairs. "I'm going to take a nap."
Later, when James is sweeping the yard, he finds the footpath covered in a fine powder of yellow leaves. As if a dozen people has been walking there, back and forth, hurrying through, instead of one smoking a cigarette.
Closing the Windows in the Living Room
"It's cold," says Celine. "I think it's going to start snowing."
James closes the west-facing windows that he has opened earlier to watch the sunset. He prefers to see the reds and gold-reds uninterrupted by glass smudges.
"When is Franz getting here?" he asks.
"I'll decanter the wine then."
"No, I'll do that. Could you light the fireplace?"
Franz is on time. The church bells from the valley have just started ringing when there is the knock. He looks younger than James expected, his face tanned and energetic, though his back is curved and shoulders bent. He asks for an aperitif instead of wine. Celine finds a bottle of Campari in the liquor cabinet.
"Perfect," Franz says, leaning back into the sofa.
Franz speaks with a slight British accent and stops in the middle of sentences to find better suited vocabulary. He tells them about his years teaching in Munich and how he had always wanted to retire in this part of Switzerland.
"How are you enjoying your retirement?" James says.
"Immensely. I retired approximately five years ago, and I would find it difficult to go back to work life. Although I have been working on my book."
Celine says, "James has ambitions to write books too."
"So you're a writer?" Franz says.
"No, not really. I enjoy illustrating more. I work for a graphic design firm, and it has been awhile since I've done my own art. It's, I don't know, calming. What's your book about?"
"Time travel. From a physicist's perspective of course."
Celine leans forward. "I always thought it was science fiction."
"Not fiction, just theoretical and certainly possible."
"Tell me," she says. "How do you travel through time? A rocket in space?"
Franz clears his throat, picks up his glass and motions at James for a refill.
"Perhaps travel is not the right word. I say it because that is how most people understand it. But I am not interested in traveling through time exactly. What is the real benefit of going into the past or some unknown time in the future? I have no idea if the future will be better or worse for me, and the past, well the past is done. You know that poem by the American writer? The debt is paid; the verdict is said."
It rings familiar to James but it is Celine who says, "Emerson."
"Yes, Emerson. Fine man. How do I put this in simple terms?" continues Franz. "What I want to do is slow down time. Here, on earth. Not in space, not searching for wormholes or that kind of nonsense. We have already proven that time can be dilated by accelerating particles. My theories go beyond velocity. I believe that by manipulating the velocity and the gravitational potential of the particle, we can slow down the passage of time, and in turn the ageing of our own particles."
"You're after immortality," James says.
"No, just a little more time than everyone else has."
"Is it really possible?" Celine says, her eyes unclouded, wide.
"I believe so. I have been working on the equations for ten years now."
"What made you start then?" James says.
"My wife died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," says Celine.
"Not at all. It made me want to live. Longer than I should."
The Bedroom Etched in Shadows
The moon is nearly full and has left shadows around the room's furniture. The large dresser casts a dark pool in the corner, the chair makes rigid lines, and the window railing presses bars into the floor.
"Interesting guy," says James.
"Yeah. My great-aunt does have a way of attracting them. And he finished that whole bottle of Campari."
"What did you think of his theories?"
"He's a philosopher as much as a physicist. Knows his poetry too. I liked listening to him. He has one of those slow heavy voices from old radio programs."
"But what if it were possible like he says? Would you use it?"
"They're just theories, James." Celine turns over to face the nightstand.
James lays still and continues the conversation in his head. If he had a machine, or a room somewhere that could slow down time, he would have taken Anastasia there. Three days could have become three years. He imagines a white room, bright and clinical, full of her toys, a crib in the corner. Would it be harder to let her go if he had known her better? Once he catalogued three years of cries and smiles and finger clasps, how could he possibly choose a day to stop? They would have to agree together, how long to keep her there. Maybe they would fight about it. Maybe they would talk about it dispassionately, waiting for the other person to complete their reasoning, sitting across from each other in that clinical room.
They had fought about his trip up to Boston the weekend the baby was born. It was his mother's seventieth birthday and most of the family would be there, including his uncle Ralph who lived in Argentina. Celine wanted to stay home, watch movies and do her pre-natal yoga. She wanted James to stay with her. "It's her seventieth! The baby won't be due for another three weeks," he had said and went, by himself.
Now he can barely remember anything from his mother's birthday, who was there or what kind of food there was—only the phone call that pushed him into his car, paralyzed and frantic, not daring to turn on the radio in case he couldn't hear his phone. The world was a stark nothing. Except for roads, lampposts, red lights, green lights across the five hours it took him to drive to the hospital. By the time he got there, Celine was already sitting in a white plastic chair in her white hospital gown next to the plastic case that held Anastasia, and he had missed three of the sixty-eight hours allotted to her life.
Celine never said it, but after the sixty-eight hours when they could still hold her in their arms (once outside in the hospital garden when the doctors allowed it), he knew that she blamed him. Even when they cried together at home, she didn't cry into his chest like when her mother died. She held her face in her hands and only let him put his arms around her shoulders.
He reaches over to her shoulder. "What would you do if what Franz said was possible?"
"I'm tired," she shakes his hand off.
"Are you punishing me for something? I'm scared you're like your mother."
She half rises, looks at him. He suddenly feels as if she is walking through his head, that she sees the time-slowing room, going through it, picking up the toys imagined for Anastasia, finding them absurd and fraudulent. If she is made of concrete, he is cellophane.
"Say something," he pleads.
She disappears back into the blankets. "You didn't know my mother. You weren't there."
James goes over to the balcony to close the curtains. He never knew it until they came here, but there is such a thing as too much moonlight.
The Bathroom with the Claw-Footed Bathtub
Lying in the empty bathtub, James is working on a sketch of Anastasia snapping a picture at the Louvre. She has wild, curly hair, nothing like Celine's straight brown and his almost-black waves. The wind in Paris picks up strands that his pencil curls and curls.
He drops his pen on the bathroom tiles and has to crawl out of the bathtub to find it. The claw-footed bathtub is probably his favorite piece of furniture in the house. Its lion feet have thick smooth claws that dig into the floor. Celine finds it creepy and outdated.
He finds his pen behind one of the bathtub feet by the wall, in the grout between two tiles. He remembers the tiled floor of the hospital, how flat and white and shiny it was, and all the passing feet and shadows that un-whitened the tiles as he stared down, waiting for the doctors to come over with news, explanations, some kind of logic about Anastasia. The words that came didn't sound anything like logic, more like a Mary Poppins song or tongue twisters that children screamed in the playground. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Every time the doctors said it, he had images of dinosaurs in his head.
There is a knock.
Celine cracks open the door. "I'm going to make breakfast. Want any?"
"Thanks. I already ate."
"You shouldn't lie in the tub like that with your back."
He climbs out and starts closing the sketchbook.
"No, don't," she says. "I want to see."
He watches her slowly flip through the sketches. When he was drawing on the porch in the morning, the pages had looked soft and slightly yellowed in the timid light. Now, under the bathroom glare, they are harsh white, dark lines roughly pressed into paper. He feels ashamed.
She closes the sketchbook and gives it back to him. "Your drawings are lovely. But they make me so sad."
From the Round Window in the Attic
The attic's ceilings slope low and James can only find one small square of the floor where he can stand up straight. In the rest of the room he feels as old as Franz.
He is up here because Celine was. In the hallway, he asked her what was there as she folded up the attic stairs. She said just some old books and ski gear. Nothing special. It has been four days since he stopped drawing Anastasia, but before he could tell her, she was already hurrying down to the garden to add shredded pine bark to the soil.
She was right. Just a few dusty boxes of books on Alpine flora and precariously piled sports equipment. Only when he knocks over one of the skis does he notice the bulky bags with splashes of dirt. Inside there are tents poles and other camping equipment.
She took something for her backpack. He tries to guess what is missing, but wouldn't know what to look for. The last time he checked the bag, she had added a box of Band-Aids that used to be in the bathroom cabinet, wool gloves and a pack of cigarettes.
The attic only has one window and it faces the back of the house. The small circular frame could use a coat of wood polish and the glass is grayed over. It starts to snow. Some flakes stick to the dirty glass and melt promptly. He feels like he is watching snow the way he used to as a kid in Boston, leaning against the living room window while his parents clanged and chopped dinner in the kitchen.
A streak of neon orange jars him from the whitening window. It's Celine's jacket and she is walking up the footpath. He wipes the window with his sleeve. He can just make out the faded pink bag against the back of her orange jacket. She disappears further up the path and the window returns to white.
In the Garden of Snow
James has made a patch of brown grass in the snow from his pacing. Willing his feet to step back and forth on this three-foot bit of garden is all he could manage to do in the hours past.
She left him, as he thought she would. Maybe he should call her father. Her friends. Or the police. He realizes he has no idea where she is planning on going, only the objects that are in her backpack. What can any of these things tell him?
He doesn't notice when the snow stops falling, that the tracks his boots leave don't refill with white. He doesn't see the sun descend. He doesn't notice the gold-reds staining snow and sky. He only realizes with a start that it has become darker. When he looks up, the moon is already out and there is no sun to contradict it.
He asks himself if he deserves it. He asks himself how he will live his life now. What do you call this time after sunset? What's the word?
Celine would know. She always had the better vocabulary though he has heard so little of it recently.
Dusk. It's dusk.
He tries to think of how Celine would say dusk, how the word would sound leaving her mouth, how her lips would open and close within a second, enough to release. He can't remember.
There is a crunching sound behind him. It takes him a moment to connect the sound to the image of snow under boots. Except his boots are standing still. He turns around. Celine is walking across the garden.
"What are you doing?" she says.
"I thought you had gone."
"I did." She pulls on the strap of her backpack. "I thought I'd get tea. Before the stores closed."
He sees through the lie like cellophane. Staring at her orange neon jacket on two pin legs, he thinks of how many cigarettes she must have smoked walking onto the road, of snow and salt dusting the ankles of her pants, filling the gaps of her rubber soles, and how she must have ached but grown determined as the road descended into the valley, and at the train station at the center of town, how she must have paced back and forth just as she did in the garden until snow gave way to dead grass. He sees that she must have stopped pacing at some point, out of exhaustion, out of pointlessness, out of hope, and went inside a grocery store—maybe to buy a box of tea as proof that she always intended to come back.
"If I had been there," says James. A line of moonlight has descended, and everything seems brighter, for a moment, before the clouds swallow it. "I should have been there."
"I know. I needed you the first time the doctor told me. You made me hear it again."
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
She takes a step back, as if about to turn to the road.
"Wait," James says. "I think I'm going to draw something else for a while. Flowers from the Alps or something. Found a book in the attic."
"Flowers are good," she says slowly. There is a bend in her eyes that looks like a question or explanation taking form, about to spill. Instead she takes his arm with her wool gloved hand. "Come on, it's cold out here. Let's go inside."
"Hey, what do you call this time of day?"
"Dusk. You knew that."
He smiles. In her other hand, there is a second backpack: brown canvas with buckles, the tag still dangling from it.
"Is that for me?" he says.
"Got you a flashlight too. But it'll hold whatever you want. Whatever you need to live."
Title image "Glazed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.