Music is a mystery, the way it speaks without words, telling you what your heart thinks. This was how Jessie felt, and it was why she loved her Thursday piano lessons. When her lesson fell on Thanksgiving Day, she begged to be allowed to keep it, and Mrs. Womack said she might just as well give Jessie a lesson, nobody had invited her to Thanksgiving dinner. Jessie caught the look on her mother’s face when Mrs. Womack said this, but her mother said nothing about it so she didn’t either. Most lesson days she walked to Mrs. Womack’s house directly from school, making the trip shorter than if she left from home, but as there was no school on this day, she set out from home at four, promising to be back by six for the family feast.
Water asserted itself everywhere in eastern North Carolina. Rivers reached out toward the Atlantic Ocean like fingers from a palm. Creeks inscribed the countryside with their scrawled signatures. The sky had been scrubbed clean of clouds and was a light white that would deepen to gray as the day carried on. Jessie passed a farm where guinea hens bobbed for ticks; as she walked along a shining, tuneful creek, an egret flew by like a lone, outrider angel.
As she cut through fields and marshes, Jessie tried to think about time. She had been thinking about time for a while now, and it still puzzled her. There—where did that moment, that had just been, go? It must be somewhere. In the past, yes, she knew that, but where was the past?
The past, she thought next, was where history was. And she could understand that. If history wasn’t in the past, it would keep getting in the way. We’d be constantly bumping into dead kings and fighting wars that had been won or lost long ago. No, history was not the problem; the problem was the past that just now made room for the present. That past didn’t seem historical, but maybe it was. Did that mean her earlier selves were historical?
Jessie was wearing blue jeans, a green cotton sweater from GapKids, sneakers that had reflectors on the backs, and a backpack. She had her hair in a ponytail. She had trouble imagining that she had ever been an infant, although she could remember, even if her brother and sister didn’t believe her, being pushed in a stroller, a hood blocking the sun from her eyes. Now 10, she was in the sixth grade and read Harry Potter books and had long thoughts. Certainly, she had her girlish side: she worried about her freckles, which her father called flowers (nose posies, he called them), and had a crush on the class clown, Bobby Davis (but would rather die than have him find out). Still, what she thought about most these days was time. What did it mean when people said time passed?
It was a big question, and she asked it seriously. It was all well and good to talk about clocks and watches, but that wasn’t time. Time was what the clocks and watches counted. A tempo told you how fast to play something in a certain period of time, but it wasn’t the time itself, either. She guessed she could agree that time passed (and that it passed excruciatingly slowly during Geography), but what was it, and where did it go?
She had asked her father, and he had said, “You shouldn’t be worrying about time, Pumpkin. Go outside and play.”
She had asked her mother, and her mother had laughed and said, “Time! It’s what you’ll never have this much of again, Parsnip.” (Her parents were doing the p’s these days. They could stay on one letter for a whole month, with the exception of x, but they got around that by allowing ex. When they finished the alphabet, they started over. Why they did this was lost “in the mists of time,” by which they meant Jessie’s childhood.) “Go upstairs and read!”
Her parents were always busy, but who else could she ask?
She had asked her father again, and her father had said, “It’s relative, Pipsqueak.” Which left her even more puzzled.
She turned a corner just after the pine woods and there was Mrs. Womack’s house. Brick walls and hosta plants. She had to pull the recalcitrant plate-glass storm door toward herself to get at the front door. She held her music book in her left hand while she knocked with her right.
“Good afternoon, Jessie,” Mrs. Womack said, letting her into the front room, which was also the music room. The upright piano stood against the facing wall with, she knew, stacks of sheet music stored in the bench in front of it. Mrs. Womack left the front door open.
Jessie headed straight for the piano. She dug into her backpack and retrieved the music book that had the Czerny exercise on which she was working.
“Let’s play some holiday music,” Mrs. Womack said.
This was highly irregular. Jessie nodded, slowly.
Mrs. Womack was sipping from a glass, but she didn’t offer Jessie anything to drink, though Jessie was thirsty after her long walk.
Mrs. Womack shoved Jessie’s music book aside and settled herself at the piano, urging Jessie to sit beside her on the bench, and began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the Doxology hymn, which at least seemed like holiday music the way Mrs. Womack played, missing notes and letting others land wherever they wanted. “Sing along with me,” she directed, and Jessie joined in the singing. Soon both of them were singing and laughing—laughing because their voices would fly out of unison, or Mrs. Womack would insert an extended trill on the keyboard, or two pages of music would stick together and they would have to backtrack. Although Jessie was having fun, she wished they would turn to her lesson. She had practiced really hard.
Mrs. Womack pounded away at the upright. She occasionally stood up, still playing, making Jessie stand up and open the bench and pull out more sheet music. Her teacher’s voice climbed over the music, even with her foot heavy on the pedal. “Call me Edith,” Mrs. Womack said.
Jessie did not know what to make of this. It had never occurred to her that Mrs. Womack might have a first name, and besides, she was supposed to call adults Mister or Miss or Mrs. The veterinarian, a young woman, was a Ms. In fact, only now did Jessie stop to think that Mrs. Womack must have a husband. Yet she had never seen him.
“I usually go to the buffet at the Hurricane Hotel,” Mrs. Womack said. “Of course, when Arlo was alive, he carved the turkey. He liked dark meat.”
She was a widow, then. “I bet you miss him,” Jessie said.
“You miss anything you get used to, I guess.”
There was a mean note in the way Mrs. Womack said that, but no sooner had she said it than her voice changed back again. “Now, you have a seat in this chair.”
Edith took her by the hand and led her to a ladder-back chair with a needlepoint cushion on the seat. “I’m going to treat you to a real concert, just like the ones in Raleigh and Charlotte.” Mrs. Womack’s hand felt cool and bony, the skin loose like a too-large glove.
Jessie took her seat, folding her hands in her lap. The chair, like the piano and bench, like all the furniture in the small, crowded room, glowed with the dark light of mahogany. African violets bloomed in blue-and-white bowls on two matching stands. On the walls were photographs of Mrs. Womack as a young child, a girl, a young woman. In the last of these, she posed draped over the hood of a convertible, wearing white slacks and an off-the-shoulder blouse with embroidery along the neckline. Jessie had never had time to look at the pictures before, or had not thought it would be polite, but now she had nothing else to do. This was the oddest piano lesson she had ever had. Mrs. Womack poured herself some more of the stuff she was having but still didn’t offer Jessie anything to drink, not even water. Of course, she never had, but usually Mrs. Womack didn’t drink anything either, and Jessie thought she should have realized that the walk today had been longer than usual.
Jessie understood that Mrs. Womack was drinking some kind of alcohol. Her parents drank it when they had guests. Jessie could smell the stuff in Mrs. Womack’s glass even from where she sat. It was a sharp smell, not awful but not enjoyable, either. A little like insecticide, she thought.
“This is Monsieur Chopin,” Mrs. Womack said, standing up to make her announcement, then sitting down again. Trying to, anyway. She missed the bench and came down hard on her butt, hitting the floor. Jessie waited politely until Mrs. Womack was successfully seated on the bench. “Somebody moved the bench,” Mrs. Womack said then, turning around to squint at her. Jessie opened her mouth to deny it, but before she could get out a word, Mrs. Womack said, again, “Monsieur Chopin.”
Jessie listened carefully. Music always took her far away. When she listened to music, she did not worry about time.
But what time was it getting to be?
Jessie had asked her parents for a wristwatch for Christmas—she wanted one with a black cord strap and a dainty gold face, the kind her big sister wore, the kind the ninth-grade girls wore—but right now she was still watchless. She was nonetheless sure it was about time for her to leave. The view through the storm door had taken on a darker coloration without being dark yet. The woods across the street had begun to look sort of sinister, as if they were a conspiracy, as if they knew things that kids should never know. She shivered, and then hoped someone was not walking over her grave.
Jessie squirmed in her seat, but she stayed where she was. The rudest thing anyone could do was leave before a performance was over.
Mrs. Womack was wearing a red dress and lipstick, and while she moved her hands over the keyboard Jessie tried to guess how old she was. Mrs. Womack had a turkey neck and wattles. When she played, she leaned over close to the music, even with her glasses on, her head pushed over the keyboard as if she were sticking her neck out and expected Jessie to lop it off, wattles and all. Maybe some of the missed notes could be attributed to nearsightedness, but Jessie doubted that all of them could. And the glasses tended to slip down her nose, which meant she had to either take a hand off the keys to push them back or hold her stuck-out head so high she was looking only through the bottom half of her glasses.
Nevertheless, the Chopin piece was pretty, and as soon as it was over Jessie started to rise from her chair, but Mrs. Womack said, “Stay,” as if Jessie were a dog. Jessie did as she was told. Mrs. Womack refilled her glass from a bottle on the floor beside the piano. Maybe, Jessie thought, they would now turn to her lesson, and her parents would understand if she chose to stay late to go over the Czerny, but instead Mrs. Womack said she would next play a sonata by Scarlatti. This intrigued Jessie, because she had already studied a Scarlatti sonata, and sure enough, it was the same one. She had to admit it sounded better when Mrs. Womack played it, even with the missing notes and the wrong notes and the patchy phrasing, but she thought Mrs. Womack should lay off the pedal. With so much sustain, the notes blurred.
When Mrs. Womack poured herself another drink, she asked Jessie if she would like a Coca-Cola.
“Oh yes, please,” Jessie said. “I’m fairly parched,” she added, remembering her mother had said that once at Jacquelyn’s house. She guzzled her Coke and got the hiccups, which she tried to hide from Mrs. Womack. “Thank you,” she said, handing her the empty glass and stifling a hiccup. “I have to—”
She was going to say “go now,” but Mrs. Womack suddenly asked her if she knew Jasper Dunlap. Jessie knew a Mr. Dunlap and thought that must be who Mrs. Womack meant. “You must not’ve been in his house, though,” Mrs. Womack said, “because if you had been, you’d know about the mule.”
“Mule?” Jessie asked, wondering what a mule could have to do with her piano lesson.
“Jasper invited me to his place for a drink. ‘A drink?’ I said. ‘I am not a tippler.’ So the man thought, to the extent that he is able to think, which, my dear, is not much at all, and said, ‘You come over and I’ll make you a cup of tea and I’ll pour myself a Jim Beam and branch water.’ Tea was not what was on his mind, I assure you, but when I got there, he left the room to make tea. So I’m sitting there, looking around, and suddenly I see there’s a mule on the wall. I don’t mean a picture. I mean a dead mule. His head, anyway. His head is mounted on the wall just like a deer head. You expect a deer, or maybe a fish, but you don’t expect a mule, at least I didn’t, so when he came back, I asked him why he has a mule head on his wall. ‘That’s Buddy,’ he says, ‘my best friend. Sweetest mule I ever knew. I still talk to him sometimes, and he hardly ever talks back.’”
Mrs. Womack burst out laughing, and Jessie was glad that Mrs. Womack was in such good spirits. She herself thought it would probably be boring to be so old. “That’s men for you,” Mrs. Womack said. “He’s a kidder, that one.”
“Edith.” Mrs. Womack’s whole face seemed all at once to sag, her eyebrows over her eyelids, her eyelids over her eyes, her mouth over her chin. “My name is Edith. I want to be called Edith. I’m still Edith, no matter how old I get.”
“Edith, I have to go—”
“There’s a bathroom upstairs, dear. Take a right at the top.”
Jessie blushed. “I have to go home,” she said.
Edith crossed her arms and started to say something, and then she put a hand on Jessie’s right shoulder and pushed her back into the chair. “You just got here,” Mrs. Womack said. “We still have to look at your lesson.”
Well, yes, if she was going to get her lesson now, she’d stay for that. But before she got her book open to the Czerny, Mrs. Womack said, her voice dropping so low it seemed to Jessie like a growl, “You’re young, Jessie. You don’t have any idea what’s coming next.”
She was hoping that her lesson would come next, but it seemed there was no telling today what Mrs. Womack was going to do or say.
“I imagine you still believe in fairy tales,” Mrs. Womack said.
“I do not—” Jessie began, indignant. She had not believed in fairy tales since she was six!
“Oh, but you do. You think you’ll play the piano, marry Prince Charming, have children, live in a fine house. But what about fate? What about accident? Some things are out of our control.”
Jessie stared at her, wondering if Mrs. Womack had an evil twin and this was it. The Mrs. Womack she was used to was not so loquacious, even if Jessie’s mother had said that Mrs. Womack had “a sharp tongue.” Mrs. Womack’s glasses had square black frames. The gray curls that fringed Mrs. Womack’s forehead made Jessie think of steel wool. She had high shoulders so that she looked as if she were hunching over even when she wasn’t.
“I’m telling you something most important now,” Mrs. Womack said. “You won’t always have your mother and father to look after you. Take it from me. I used to have a mother and a father. Maybe they weren’t the nicest people in the world. Maybe my father got a little too friendly with me, and maybe my mother was a dried-up sour stinking thing that had stewed in her own juices too long, and maybe I married the first man I could find to get away from them, but they were still my parents. And what happened to them is that they got sick and died. They left me on my own with that stupid Arlo.”
Mrs. Womack began to cry. Jessie had never seen an old person cry before. “I had to make my own way in this rotten world. I knew how to play the piano from churchgoing days, and I studied to get better. Practice, Jessie, practice! You will have to be able to make a living. You can’t count on men, and your parents are going to get old like me. They’ll get sick and then where will you be! There is just no safety in this bad, bad world. Here—” Edith stood up and tugged fiercely at the zipper in the back of her dress. This made the cloth pull tight across the front of the dress. What was she doing? Her chin seemed to be holding up the dress. “This is the future and every girl should be prepared for it.” Jessie was having trouble following her, because Mrs. Womack sounded as if she were wearing false teeth, or had a mouth full of pebbles.
Mrs. Womack looked almost like a monkey as she reached for the zipper with arms long and grasping. Jessie was afraid Mrs. Womack would lose her balance, twisted like that, and fall again, but she didn’t. She brought her arms back around to the front, and the dress slid slightly down, showing the wobbly flesh of her upper arms and moles on her upper chest. The red dress stopped falling when it reached her thickened waist.
Jessie wanted to spring out of her chair and leave, but she couldn’t move; she felt as if she couldn’t even breathe. It was as if she were stuck to the chair with Krazy Glue.
Edith undid a hook at her front and a bra came off, a bra with prosthetic cups. She laid the bra on the bench.
She was still in her shoes with their squared heels, her half dress, and her hose. Jessie caught herself gaping and shut her mouth. She had seen her mother get dressed for gala evenings but her mother did not look the way Mrs. Womack did. Her mother’s chest was not crisscrossed with stark, savage lines, like somebody had carved a map into it. She had never seen anything like this in her life. Had somebody beaten Mrs. Womack to within an inch of her life? Who would do that to an old lady?
Edith’s chest was not only flat and scarred, it was dented, like a fender. Like two fenders.
“Look at me,” Edith said, weeping. “Do you think I’ll find another man when I look like this? I am going to die alone.”
“Did you get run over by a car?” Jessie whispered.
Edith laughed. “That’s good, run over! Ha, ha!” Then she began to weep some more. She refilled her glass.
Jessie slipped off the chair and backed away from her a little. She shrugged into her backpack.
“You get back here, you little weasel,” Edith said. “You can’t escape this. Your mother can’t escape this.”
“She can! She will!” Jessie yelled. Then Jessie said something she had never said before to anybody. She took a deep breath before she let it out. “You go to hell.”
“Your mother probably still believes in fairy tales. You think I can’t know what your mother believes, but that’s what being old means. It means knowing what your mother believes. What she thinks she knows. And your mother doesn’t know what’s coming. If it’s not this, it’ll be something like this. So what’s his name?”
Edith pulled the dress back up over her chest, but she left the bra on the piano bench.
“Who?” Jessie backed away some more, toward the door. She reached behind her back, trying to find the latch.
Jessie was not going to say a word about Bobby to Mrs. Womack. Mrs. Womack had called her a weasel!
“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Womack said. “There will be a number of Prince Charmings. And every one of them will turn out to be exactly like Jasper Dunlap. He fell all over himself trying to run away when he saw me naked. Ran out of his own house! A dead mule head on his wall and he was shocked by this.”
Run away, Jessie heard, and her hand found the latch on the door behind her and she turned and fled.
Out the door and straight into the pine woods.
It was almost dark. She had run so far into the woods that she couldn’t tell where she was. This was not the way she had come. She discovered that her ponytail had come loose and that the scrunchie was in her hand. She put the scrunchie in her back pocket. She had left her music book at Mrs. Womack’s house. She would never go back there. She would go to—go to—go to prison before she went back there! Her parents would understand. They would find her another piano teacher. She would tell them everything, except, perhaps, that she had told Mrs. Womack to go to hell.
Tears filled her eyes, then deluged her face. She tried to suck up the snot in her nose, but it ran down her throat and tasted icky. At least she wasn’t hiccuping anymore. Mrs. Womack must have scared the hiccups out of her. She blew her nose on her sweater.
When she tried to wipe the tears away, blood came off on her hand. She had scratched her face on the thin bare branches of prickly bushes.
Where was she? The street could not be too far away, she thought. But she heard no street sounds.
A last scantling of light blew itself out.
Jessie walked as long as she could, thinking she would come to the end of the woods, but the end always seemed farther off, as if it were moving away from her, which was something that would only happen in a Harry Potter book, not in North Carolina. Nor did she remember how she had come to where she was.
At last she sat down on a fallen log to catch her breath, letting her backpack fall beside her, and if she had thought it was dark before, it was darker now. Jessie sat on the log until her breathing became calm and her heart stopped hurling itself against her rib cage. She knew she had to stop thinking about how scared she was. With her hands she felt the moss on the log. When she got up again, she bumped into the cobwebs that covered the bushes. She palpated the rough, scaly bark of the pines. She imagined what the moss, the cobwebs, and the pines looked like in daytime, and they became less fearsome.
Not thinking about how scared she was, she would think about time instead. She would think about how all that had happened today was now in the past. There could never be another day exactly like this one. At least she didn’t think so. She could remember it, if she wanted to, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Yet if she chose to forget, that would not mean the day hadn’t happened. Time was not just about remembering, then.
She thought she heard an owl cry. The night was growing cold, and she tried to curl into herself, like a dog or a cat, thinking she felt a little less cold that way, but it was a hard position to hold. She made several attempts to lie on the ground, but each time she fell to thinking about bats, and worms, and mice, and opossums. About spiders and toads, toads and spiders. They just seemed to walk right into her brain, the whole horrible menagerie of them. So she’d end up climbing back onto the log. If she shuffled her feet the leaves on the forest floor crackled like a fire. Up until now, she had thought autumn leaves were beautiful, but in the dark she realized that they were dead, and she felt like she was walking on their dead bodies, which, she thought, she was. She needed to pee, because of the Coke, but was afraid to pee in the dark. Oh, why hadn’t she used the bathroom at Mrs. Womack’s? She held it in as long as she could and then let it dribble down her legs onto her socks and shoes.
Then she thought: My goodness, suppose there was a bear in these pine woods? A bear was the worst thing she could think of—until she thought she saw a man. She made herself as still as possible. It seemed to her that she saw a shadow move. The shadow came closer and closer and she used every ounce of her strength to sit still and do nothing at all, to be as unremarkable as any seedling or stone. She willed herself to be undergrowth, and lo and behold, the shadow that might have been a man turned out to be a tall tree. A tall tree walking! she thought, shaking with laughter that she had to keep inside.
The night was cold. She was cold. The log was damp with dew. She thought she probably had goose bumps all over her body. She was hungry. She envisioned her brother and sister eating cranberry sauce and turkey stuffing and pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes and her mouth watered. Her nose was running again, and she smelled of pee.
A moon rolled into place overhead and now she could see better. She looked up through the treetops to the cryptic sky. From an invisible pocket, an invisible magician pulled clouds like long, thin scarves and strung them across the moon. The moon, which ought to have made the dark more tolerable, made the woods even more frightening. She could run from a bear. She could even run from a man. But how could she run from shadows without running into other shadows? A gust of wind rushed at her and hit her in the face, hard as a slap, and tears came to her eyes. She directed her thoughts back to the problem of time.
If you couldn’t find time in the past, even though it was there, it must be that as time passed it changed into something else. It became—it became—she was so excited to have figured this out—it became—something else, something that—looked different. She thought of the leaves, crunchy as corn flakes, beneath her feet. Of the scented carpet of pine needles. Of the trees left bereft. She thought of Mrs. Womack’s beaten chest. She thought of her former selves and how in their place was a 10-year-old who played the piano. But next year she would be 11, and the girl she was now would be as gone as if she were dead. That’s what time turned into, wasn’t it? Into death! She stood up.
She wanted to tell someone. But there was no one to tell.
Everyone must already know this.
Mrs. Womack knows it. That was what Mrs. Womack had been trying to say.
Was Mrs. Womack right, that her mother and father really did not know what time meant? If that were so, she must be gentle with them and not break the news to them too abruptly. But no, on second thought, she was sure she had it right the first time: everybody else already knew this. It was why they didn’t want to answer her question.
Jessie now had the strangest sensation. She felt as if she were growing taller and taller, like Alice in Wonderland, but there was no roof in the way and the top of her head bumped against the moon. She knew she was not asleep, and she was not daydreaming either. She was having a dream while wide awake. It was quite a fascinating dream. With her head in the clouds, she could see the planets and stars, all of them like living creatures of various fantastic colors, like fish in the deep blue sea. The sky was an effusion, flowing gracefully around her and away, streaming into outer space. Comets raced through space like horses with manes. Her mind, too, was one of the live creatures, a brilliant, almost unbearable concentration of white light brighter than the moon. There was music in her mind, a music she had never before heard. Below her, far below, on the planet Earth, the treetops swayed in the wind, as if rocking themselves to sleep.
From so high up, she didn’t notice the smaller light down on Earth, a little to the left, until she saw it move. Darker, yellower, exceedingly small, it was moving through the woods. It looked like a firefly, or Tinkerbell.
Another light, then another. Then there were many, flashlights and lanterns moving among the trees. She heard her father and mother calling her name.
“Perquisite,” her father would call her tomorrow, because they had plenty of p words to go. “Pickle,” or “Peony,” her mother would call her tomorrow, or possibly “Plum-fiddle.” “Papagena,” her big brother, older by five years, would say, and she would know what it meant, because they were a musical family and her mother, father, brother, and sister loved The Magic Flute as much as she did. “Pepper pot,” her big sister would say. She appreciated the affection behind all the nicknames, but “Jessie!” was what they were shouting now, and that was what she liked to be called best. Her father crashed into the clearing and seized her and held her tight. “Jessie,” he said again, hugging her so close to him she could barely breathe. “Thank God.”
Jessie felt the crush of him, his arms around her like a reprieve.
“Jessie,” her mother said, coming up behind her with a warm blanket and wrapping her in it as if it were a cape or cloak.
The flashlights that had been blinding her were switched off or pointed to the ground. Now, by the light of lanterns, Jessie could see the faces of her family and neighbors, some of them wearing badges that showed they worked for the County Volunteer Rescue Squad. Tomorrow Jessie would learn that when she failed to come home on time, her mother had called Mrs. Womack and gotten no answer. Her family had piled into the car and driven there, and the storm door had let them peer into the front room and see Mrs. Womack asleep on the couch. “We had to shake the old lady awake. She was passed out,” her brother said. They called the rescue squad and started searching the woods. When her mother asked Jessie what happened, Jessie said, “I tried to take a shortcut and got lost, that’s all.”
“Well, you are not going back there,” her parents said. “We’ll find you another piano teacher.”
“Was the turkey good?” Jessie asked. “Is there any pie left for me?”
“Oh, honey,” her mother said. “Of course we wouldn’t have Thanksgiving without you. We’re going to have it tomorrow.”
Out of the woods, a handful of stars were still visible in the moonstruck sky.
Her mother was kissing the top of her head again and again, dozens of kisses. Looking up, with the blanket still draped around her, Jessie said, as tentatively as possible, just to find out what her mother knew or did not know, “Mom, I know what time is. It’s another word for death. It means that everything is dying.”
Her mother pulled her closer, looked into her face, and squeezed her tight. Jessie could smell the gardenia smell of her mother’s hair and the almond smell of her hand lotion and the Ivory soap smell of her neck. Her mother still clung to her. After a moment, she said into Jessie’s ear, so low that no one else could hear, “No.” And again, “No! You are my beautiful, living daughter. The force of the whole creation is in you, alive and strong and—alive, my darling.”
Jessie knew they were talking about two different things, but she closed her eyes and let herself be carried to the car.