Featured Prose | October 06, 2017
2015 Editors’ Prize Finalist in Fiction, Maison Des Oiseaux by Cynthia Robinson
Cynthia Robinson’s 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize finalist fiction “Maison des Oiseaux” appeared in Volume 39, Number 1. In this emotionally honest story, husband and wife, Peter and Della, are on holiday in Morocco when they meet a carefree Belgian girl who may be in danger of being trafficked. Peter’s attraction to her and Della’s anger and grief over the disappearance of their own daughter further fracture their already unstable marriage. Ultimately, will this trip be the healing journey it was intended to be?
Maison des Oiseaux
By Cynthia Robinson
She should hear the girl’s breathing, shouldn’t she? Surely she’d have heard if the girl had left. Or if someone had taken her. Like those men from the boat.
Heart thudding, Della sat up jerkily.
The girl was there, of course, on a cot beside the bed. A Belgian cosmetology student, pretty, but twenty pounds overweight by Della’s standards.
There would be another room tomorrow, the night manager had assured them as he lugged their suitcases up the narrow, tiled stairs. But for tonight, or what was left of it, he regretted énormément that it would have to be the cot.
Not that Della begrudged the girl shelter, or protection. But she and Peter had work to do.
Traveling would forge bonds anew, the marriage counselor had said. The timing was perfect: the university where Peter taught was on winter break, and January was a dead month in the real-estate business. Morocco was an excellent choice; neither Della nor Peter had been there—new experiences, together.
The counselor had given them an assignment: they should have sex.
So Della had brought things. After several sessions of surreptitious Cosmo reading in 7-Eleven checkout lines (at Whole Foods, a client might see her), she’d settled on some classics: black lace panties and matching push-up bra. Cosmo said you couldn’t go wrong with black, and Della had figured expensive would be better than cheap. A brand called La Perla; the combo had set her back $300.
New perfume, also a classic—ambergris base with notes of vanilla. And, so she could face it all, some new antidepressants: Asendin with an Abilify chaser.
The perfume was still in its box, the bra and panties in layers of tissue paper: the first night was officially a bust. No leisurely exploratory walk (the ferry was two hours late leaving Málaga and lost another ninety minutes along the way). No intimate dinner on the patio (the restaurant closed at ten). They hadn’t even seen the patio because the lights were already out, everyone asleep, even the night manager. And they hadn’t arrived alone.
It had never occurred to Della to plan sex. Theirs had always just happened. And it had been good. Hadn’t it? Okay, there’d been a few years of hardly ever, when Muriel was small. She’d been a high-maintenance baby and then a curious toddler brimming over with questions, trenchantly resistant to sleep, even when she was so tired she could barely keep her head up.
But things had gotten back to normal once Muriel had started school. Even keel, fine (even keel was fine, of course it was). And they’d stayed that way.
Until one year, two months and four days ago, when Muriel, during the first semester of her freshman year of college, had gone missing. At the self-same school where Peter taught in the department of coastal preservation. In the same mid-sized mid-coast town where Della sold upmarket homes, where she’d lived all her life. Where things like that didn’t happen.
Della had gotten the call in the kitchen, clicking out of a deal she’d been closing on her work line (fabulous property, lake-front with private dock, every other real-estate agent in town was about to hate her). She’d sunk into a chair at the old Mission-style table, certain the detective (“Pat,” but she’d been just “the detective” then) must have dialed the wrong number.
For the first six months, as the manic shots of adrenaline ebbed, the rushes of horror and hope leaving behind a daily grind of bleak, disconsolate confusion, each had been too shell-shocked to seek the other’s body for anything more than a shoulder to lean on, a hand to clasp.
But by spring, Peter had begun to reach for her again.
And Della had begun to drink, hard. More and more at dinner, and then more afterward, so she could stomach doing something that now made her wonder, every second she felt Peter inside her, whether someone had forced her daughter’s legs apart and held a hand over her mouth to stifle her screams.
Or maybe was still doing so. Though it was unlikely, the detectives had told her, and the missing-daughter community on the Internet (which was a lot bigger than you might think) agreed. But of course there were the outlier cases of girls held captive in sheds and basements or derelict houses for years or even decades. If she drank enough she could shut out the images of lovely Muriel—the best of Della’s genes, mixed with the best of Peter’s—in a shed, and if she drank a little more, Muriel’s shed wouldn’t visit her dreams.
But the drinking affected the quality of the sex—how could it not?—and eventually the sex had stopped altogether.
Peter swore he hadn’t “sought relief” elsewhere. The counselor had asked; Della had never dared to. But he’d also said, again at the counselor’s prompting, “I need to live again, Dell.” Hunched on the counselor’s beige suede couch, elbows on his knees, he’d looked up at her pleadingly. “She’d want us to. You know she would.”
Like Muriel was some sort of martyr or family saint, blessing her parents from a choice cloud on a piece of prime, blue-sky real estate. Like she hadn’t loved to draw and run and eat caramel-covered popcorn, like she hadn’t wanted to be a veterinarian. Della sat on her hands then—“cold in here”—so she wouldn’t clench her fists. So the counselor wouldn’t ask her again about anger.
Peter had found the hotel. They’d considered a city—Marrakech, maybe, with its thick web of ancient, twining streets, nightly snake-charmer fair, and five-star hotels at attractive, off-season prices. But, at the counselor’s suggestion, they’d decided on seclusion. And something related to Peter’s work, in order to remove, or at least camouflage, some of the trip’s make-it-or-break-it freight.
Maison des Oiseaux. The hotel’s website offered wide-angle shots of verdant grounds with glimpses of turquoise water beyond. During the day Peter would gather data for his latest project—threatened food supplies of endangered species of waterfowl—in the adjacent wildlife preserve (hence the hotel’s name). Della could read or attend yoga classes She’d never done yoga before; why now? But the counselor had said to give it a try, so she’d bought yoga pants. Or take walks along the shore of the lagoon or into the tiny, picturesque town. At night there would be dinner (the restaurant had a Michelin star) and wine, a moderate amount (the therapist’s meaningful look), after which they would have no option but each other.
That had been the plan.
Della glanced down at the cot. The girl’s chest rose and fell gently, her sleep deep, peaceful. Which was astonishing, considering what had almost happened to her.
On the ferry, from their booth, Peter had pointed her out. Seated at the bar, smoking, the pale skin of her bare arms incandescent in the harsh light. A dark-haired young man perched on the stool next to hers. He was handsome in a sharp-faced way Della had always considered unwholesome and wore leather loafers with white athletic socks.
Della assented with a nod.
A second man joined the couple. Five-o’clock shadow, rumpled suit, no tie. He seemed to know the man in the white athletic socks.
After some minutes a third man appeared: round, dumpy—the word “grandfatherly” flitted across Della’s mind. He wore polyester slacks and a pink cardigan. He stood close, closing a half-circle around the girl.
“She’s in trouble.” Since Muriel, Peter saw girls in trouble everywhere.
On the afternoon the detective called, Peter had had his phone off. Lecture and lab, then office hours; he liked to be “present in the present.” For his students, it was why they all adored him. And how could he have known? Now he overcompensated, Della thought. But she’d learned not to speak her thoughts.
She swallowed the final mouthful of her lukewarm Chablis. “He’s probably her boyfriend. Maybe they’re with some relatives or something.”
“No, something’s up.” Peter rose, picking up their two glasses. His plaid flannel shirt, perennially untucked, flapped open over his white T-shirt. “I’m going for a refill.”
Edging his way toward the bar, he carved out a spot next to the man in the pink cardigan. The bartender was slow, overworked. Della watched her husband study the bar menu, pretending not to eavesdrop, maybe preparing to make an ass of himself.
He returned with their glasses. “I think she’s Belgian.” Peter’s French was decent, much more so than hers. “The guy next to her is definitely Moroccan, and probably the one in the suit, but the other one has some kind of Slavic accent. Or maybe Albanian.” As Peter slid back into the booth the boat dipped, and beer and wine sloshed from the too-full glasses.
At that moment the girl slid from her stool and walked in the direction of the restroom, jeans tight around generous hips that curved out from a small waist, reminding Della of bodices and corsets, the lush shapes preferred by earlier ages. Muriel had had a runner’s legs, slim and endless, hips narrow but feminine. A body made for jeans. Not like this girl’s.
“I’ll get something to clean this up.” Peter sidled up to the bar again and took a long time about pulling napkins out of the dispenser nearest the men, then returned to the booth. “The one with the white socks just asked the fat guy who’s taking ‘la russe’ to Oujda.”
“Didn’t you say she was Belgian?”
“La russe, Dell. It’s what human traffickers call young European women, whether they’re Russian or not. I saw it on CNN.” Peter pulled his smartphone from his pocket. “Oujda. They were talking about it on the news.” He pointed to a dot on a map of North Africa. “It’s the border town between Morocco and Algeria. Total dump—no one goes there to do anything good.”
Okay, maybe this was for real.
When she came out of the restroom, Peter stepped into the girl’s path, his back to the men. He spoke urgently, sleepy eyes opened wide, gesturing in tight circles. The tense set of his shoulders took Della back to the intensity of those sleepless first days, when every second counted. When she’d truly believed that if she and Peter could just push and worry and canvass hard enough, just pin one more Xeroxed picture of Muriel’s beautiful smile beneath one more set of windshield wipers, law enforcement might bring their daughter back.
The girl was still, listening, her own eyes wide. Seconds later she and Peter were outside on the deck, hunched together at the rail. Peter waved through the porthole for Della to join them, to bring their stuff.
The girl’s name was Joseline. She had a heart-shaped face with high, rounded cheekbones, wide-set blue eyes, and a full, sweet mouth. Peter introduced Della: “Ma femme.”
Della held her hand out. The girl’s was disconcertingly soft.
When the ship docked, Joseline walked below decks between Peter and Della, worried about her things, which were in the men’s car. Peter told her to leave it; whatever was in her bag was worth a lot less than her life.
The men’s car cut them off at the exit from the ferry. There were shouts, in French—“Sale pute,” Della had caught that one. Motors gunning and more yelling, some of it Peter’s. Della wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have seen a firearm. Finally a door opened, and a small backpack was flung to the ground as the battered coupe sped away.
The men had taken the girl’s money and phone, her passport. Peter drove their rented Peugeot across the vast, potholed parking lot until he located the gendarmerie at the end of a row of ragged customs offices, but it was closed because of the late hour.
Tomorrow they could call consulates, the police. Parents.
For tonight, Peter had announced, Joseline would stay with them.
Della lay tense, fighting off ugly images of what would likely be happening to the girl if Peter hadn’t stepped in. With Muriel, she never let her thoughts go further than the shed door, but tonight she had to try harder than usual. If her suitcase zipper wouldn’t make so much noise, she’d open it and take a bottle of vodka—she’d brought two—into the bathroom. She felt as though she might never sleep again.
She awoke alone. Pale yellow slices of morning slanted through the shutters and across the rumpled bedclothes at the foot of the cot. Peter’s binocular and camera cases were gone. The girl’s tiny, why-even-bother backpack leaned into the corner beside the closet.
There was no television, possibly at Peter’s request. Peter had sold both their sets on Craigslist. He still watched the news, but he did it on his computer, at the office.
Muriel had been on the news for weeks. Even now, a year and a half later, she was included in the round-up of missing girls that haunted the screen of the local newscast once a month.
Della had supplied photographs of her daughter to the detective (by then well on her way to “Pat”), and okayed her sharing them with the media (best way to get the story out, the Chief of Police had said, lovely young girl, picture’s worth a thousand words), but she was always surprised when a new one showed up; she could never remember which ones she’d given them.
Even after the furor died down—and this was why Peter had finally pulled the plug on their televisions—the news continued to be dangerous. It could bring images of more lost girls or, worse, talky interviews, families reunited with daughters who’d been held prisoner for the mathematical majority of their lifetimes, in a few cases only a mile or two from home. Some were even forced to bear their captors’ children.
Watching, Della would find herself wondering about the practicalities—toilets and showers, cooking and washing up, dentists and eyeglasses. Vaccinations, Santa Claus. Scrutinizing the families’ hollowed-out faces, she listened to questions designed to elicit just enough salacious information to keep viewers like herself hanging on every word and yet afford the girl and her family some tiny shred of privacy. She’d write down their answers on notepads bearing the logo of her realty agency, and then parse each phrase as though it might contain some vital clue about Muriel that everyone had missed. Once or twice, after too many refills of her vodka glass, Della had the thought that Muriel might be better off dead. She would never forgive herself for thinking that.
Della looked toward her suitcase on the luggage stand. She’d resisted morning drinking, a sort of final taboo. Then she’d tried it, and mornings suddenly became manageable—her sales even picked up. She was, she discovered, actually quite high-functioning; she just hadn’t been drinking enough. She wouldn’t touch the vodka while Peter was around, but for now it was the only way she was going to force herself out of bed.
There was no minibar, no ice. The vodka was hot in her throat, fiery-sweet. She took her glass to the window and opened the shutters. Watery sunlight, thin clouds hazing over pale blue sky. Nice piece of property: expansive lawn, plentiful shrubbery, artfully but not obtrusively maintained. And trees—cypress, acacia, orange, lemon—positioned in stands and groves that looked natural but definitely weren’t, leaf-buds ready to burst in January. The air smelled salty, like the sea. The lagoon, Della thought. She could hear a fountain murmuring.
Breakfast, a sign in the beautifully tiled lobby announced in French, was served in the back garden. Following a flagstone path through lush grass, absurdly incongruous in Morocco, she heard the fountain again, its babble energetic now. As she headed toward a table beneath an arbor festooned with grape leaves, a plump, smiling woman Della recognized from the web page appeared at her side, a heavy-looking pot of coffee in one hand, a steaming pitcher of milk in the other.
“Bonjour, madame. I have reserved a place for you, over there, avec votre fille.” The woman motioned discreetly with her chin. “With your daughter.”
Della turned in the direction of the nod.
“She’s not—” Della began, but the woman had returned to her task, refilling coffee cups at a table shared by two German couples.
“Good morning!” The girl hit the last syllable hard, greeting Della in English pronounced like French.
“You’re . . . feeling alright? You slept okay?” How did you make conversation with someone who’d come within a nanosecond of being sexually trafficked?
“Oh, yes,” the girl answered. “I was very tired after so much excitement!” No trace of tears or fright in her clear blue eyes.
Della stopped herself from frowning. Perhaps Joseline was putting on a polite front.
The waitress was back, pouring coffee, then milk.
Joseline raised a hand. “C’est bon.” Her wrist was plump and firm, marbled on the underside by the faint blue traces of veins. “Merci bien.” She smiled her thanks to the waitress, revealing small, ivory-colored teeth with tiny spaces between them, like those of an antique doll. Behind them, a tongue-stud winked. Through the arbor, the sun lit up a head of thick, healthy hair, strawberry blonde at the top, near the crown. The rest was a delicate, washed-out pink—a cosmetology school project, maybe?—which was strangely becoming. Della had a random thought of strawberry frappé. Not a dessert she’d ever sought out, but she could see the appeal.
Abuzz with the vodka, Della took a sip of the excellent coffee, which jolted her sense of purpose. “I can go with you to the police if you like, after breakfast. We shouldn’t wait too long.”
Joseline shrugged. “They are already gone far, so what would it do?”
“Well,” Della took a bite of croissant, talked around it. “They could find them and lock them up, for starters. They tried to kidnap you. They were going to sell you.”
“Very terrible.” Joseline waved her hands as though to ward off evil. “But I do not even know Ahmad’s last name.”
“The one I am with.”
“The man you were with? At the bar?”
“I am sorry, my English is very bad.” Joseline accepted the correction like a student caught in a silly error. “The one I was with.”
“He wasn’t your boyfriend?”
“No, no, not like that. I met him at a club, perhaps . . .” Joseline tapped her very pink lips with a finger as she thought. “Thursday?”
Della set her cup onto its saucer with a clatter. “You came on a trip with a guy you met in a club three days ago?”
“He was very nice.” Joseline had begun to eat, delicately, without hurry. She paused, finished chewing, dabbed her mouth with a napkin. The pink was natural. “I thought it could be fun, you know? Morocco? He was paying everything.” She shrugged again, as though her choice were a self-evident one. Her white fingers, with their rounded, gleaming, nails, hovered above the basket, hesitating between a miniature croissant and tiny pains au chocolat. “Anyway, it’s not so nice to speak of him. Tell me, how is your life? Where you live? Your . . . um . . . job?”
And Della found herself telling.
“Ah, yes, you are selling houses! South Carolina, it must be so nice!” Maybe Belgians didn’t like to speak of serious matters over breakfast?
“Brussels is boring.” Joseline sighed. “And so cold, with too much of rain. It is nice here—so warm. And I adore to watch the fountain. The birds, the flamants . . . how do you say in English? So beautiful, the colors.”
Della turned in the direction of the girl’s gaze, toward a point behind her.
Had the fountain been burbling on the lawn of a client, she would’ve insisted on its immediate removal. Water bubbled obscenely from the red mouth of a frog, trickling down into tackily ornate basins of graduated sizes. At the base, six life-sized ceramic flamingos drank and preened in garish shades of salmon and fuchsia. The sort of yard ornament found near trailer parks, like in her mother’s old neighborhood, also her own. Never in Hampton Park, where the college professors lived. Where Della now lived too.
“It’s very nice, no? They are so funny.” Joseline laughed, treating Della to a glimmer of tongue-stud as she prepared to light a cigarette. Sun pooled over the firm white skin, the abundant cleavage, revealed by the scooped neck of her T-shirt.
Della thought of vanilla ice cream, mounds of it. Too much of it. . She kept her own weight under control, with running and weight training and eating the right things (she’d had to learn what they were—deep-frying ran in her DNA). She’d never thought of plump as pleasing before. But some people might. Some men might. “You’ll want to call home, I imagine. And the consulate. They’ll have a phone you can use at the desk. I’ll tell them to charge it to our room.”
“Oh, thank you! You are so nice.” Joseline offered the pack of cigarettes, as though in recompense for the gesture. Della took one. She’d started smoking, for the first time, at forty-seven. Pat, the detective, smoked, and it had seemed like it might help somehow. Peter had made her quit last year, but they were on vacation. You could do anything you liked on vacation.
The beaming waitress brought an ashtray.
After the second cigarette, Della stood. She needed to move. The girl, who’d lit up yet another cigarette and beckoned to the waitress for more coffee, clearly felt no such imperative. Or maybe (Duh twice, as Muriel used to say) she was waiting for Della to leave, so she could have some privacy to make her calls. “OMFG Mom I just did the stupidest thing ever!!!!! #I’m-so–lucky-not-to-be-dead LOLZ. . . .”, or however you said that in French.
“I’m going to walk into town,” Della announced. “Be back in a couple of hours.”
On her way out, she stopped by the room. The maid hadn’t started yet. One more belt of vodka, carpe diem.
Her head still light from the nicotine, Della followed the winding gravel drive from the hotel down to the main road, where a sign pointed 220 kilometers east toward the city of Tangiers and the ferry terminal, 2.5 to the little town, Sidi Bou Selhem, with its restaurants and the taxi stand Della had glimpsed the previous night.
The road ran between two bodies of water, the lagoon on one side, the sea on the other, light bouncing off the wavelets on either side of Della’s feet, making the water seem to dance.
“Bright” and “sea”: the two Celtic words that formed her daughter’s name. She’d haunted baby-name websites for weeks, wanting the choice to be perfect. And it was.
Strange to feel her body in motion again, after a day and a half of idle sitting. A body she no longer bothered to care for, though she did use it, to run. Before, she’d run with her daughter.
The preliminary consensus: Muriel had disappeared while on an early morning run, on a path that rounded the lake and threaded through the woods near campus. Della ran that path obsessively now, all weather, all seasons, sometimes twice a day. She’d lost two dress sizes; her arms and legs shrank to twigs, all excess melted from hips, thighs, breasts. There were lots of places someone might hide along the path—she’d found several missed by Pat, the incompetent detective. Maybe one day the man would be waiting. Depending on the day, Della fantasized about killing the fucking bastard or about asking him to kill her, too.
The road wound past a campground, right on the beach. Ragged tents and droopy clotheslines flapped in the breeze between quaint, rounded campers. Scruffy, long-haired children threw a ball, shouting in a language Della didn’t recognize, maybe Dutch.
The village was tiny, dusty, with low, whitewashed buildings lining the main street. Della passed a bank, a post office. Men smoked and drank tea outside a café, playing something that looked like checkers. Across an inlet in the lagoon, a white domed building stood atop a rocky promontory. A hand-painted sign in French and Arabic directed visitors toward a shrine.
On a side street, an outdoor market sold vegetables, spices, clothing, cookware. Women in brightly colored headscarves conversed in quiet, pleasant voices. What would it be like to live in this town, a place from which her daughter couldn’t be absent because she’d never been here?
The thin clouds had burned off, leaving the houses the purest blue (trim around windows and doors), the brightest white (stucco walls and roofs). Della could sell houses here, buy the little white-and-blue bungalows and flip them. Have a TV show. How did you say “flip” in Arabic? The walk was making her giddy. Was that what she’d come here to do, forget her daughter?
The day after Peter had gone back to work—he couldn’t miss any more classes—bumbling Pat had come to see Della at home. They’d found Muriel’s driver’s license in an empty house, for sale, on the edge of town, a piece of wooded property. Along with some clothes, things Della thought of as “hippie style.” There were beer cans, cigarette and joint butts. No signs of struggle, no blood. And no breaking and entering: someone—Pat studied her ragged nails, she bit them—had figured out how to work the Realtor’s lockbox.
But hadn’t Muriel disappeared while running? Della stood, began to shout. Were all detectives fucking idiots, or just Pat? Hands in her pockets, eyes on her big, ugly shoes, Pat had waited for Della to finish. Then came the explanation, in her careful, plodding voice.
The thing was, Muriel’s roommate hadn’t seen her leave, had just assumed that was where she was because she always got up early and ran. And she hadn’t actually seen her come home the night before. Her running shoes were gone, but the girls on the hall loaned each other stuff all the time. When shown the clothes—a cotton paisley smock, a fringy scarf and a little change purse on a string, wine-colored Indian silk with sewn-on mirrors—the roommate had said they were Muriel’s. Then she’d named a few kids Muriel might have been partying with.
Della had objected. Muriel didn’t dress like that; she wore the kind of clothes that in Della’s day had been called “preppy.” Docksiders, moccasins. Khakis or nice jeans. Polo shirts, A-line skirts. Minimal makeup. Muriel was a runner, a jock, if a beautiful one. She dressed like Della.
Della kept the clothes in a box in her closet. Wondering at first how Muriel had managed to train for cross-country with the A-team while also, apparently, “partying her butt off” (the roommate’s choice of terminology). Then, after a few months, she’d stopped wondering. Heavy-running days, hard-drinking nights: it was perfectly possible, and hydrating helped.
Pat had stopped by again, later that week, to let them know—she prided herself on “transparency”—that the police had started batting around the “tiny possibility that she’d just gone.” Mulling over the new evidence in his thoughtful, maddeningly methodical way, over a dinner only he had eaten (Della had lost her appetite by then, so she’d just drunk), Peter had nodded slowly. “It’s something we have to consider, Dell.” That was the night she’d hit him.
But she was hungry now. Della stopped at a roadside stand and ordered a mint tea and something called a brique, the only thing on the menu she could pronounce—a sort of popover made of flaky, buttery pastry, filled with meat and spices. She sat on the sea wall, ate and drank, watched the bright, dancing sea. Did not think about jumping in, never coming out. Maybe traveling was giving her some pathetic sort of optimism (the counselor would be pleased). Or maybe it was the carbs; the tea was so sweet it made her teeth hurt. Whichever, she’d take it.
Della jumped down from the wall and walked back to the side-street market, where she’d seen a young woman selling jewelry beneath a makeshift tent. She bought earrings, tiny hands of Fatima. To ward off the evil eye, the woman told her in broken English.
On the way back up the hill, she passed a taxi stand. Men leaned against their cars, waiting for fares, smoking. One of the drivers looked like the man from the boat, the grandfatherly one—he even wore a pink sweater. But of course that was impossible. The man was smiling, telling an anecdote to his colleagues; he had a brown tooth.
At the hotel there was no sign of the girl, her things no longer in the room. Maybe the consulate already had her sorted? If so, thank god for small favors.
Della placed the earrings carefully into her suitcase. Not the kind of jewelry preppy Muriel would have chosen, but they’d please the girl who’d carried the mirror-embroidered Indian purse. Della tried to love her, too.
Wherever it had come from, the high was gone. One more half-glass of vodka, and she could check out until Peter came back.
When she awoke, the sun was low. She showered and washed her hair and wore the new lingerie under a black sundress. Everything was loose on her now.
She took a book out to the garden, where she found Peter, head inclined toward Joseline. They were perched beside the fountain. Joseline was smoking, her other hand dabbling in the water. Peter, always the teacher, was touching a flamingo’s wing, explaining something to the girl.
Della’s chest ached.
“This place is a flamingo Mecca!” Peter’s expansive smile encompassed both his wife and the girl. “Got some terrific shots today—a nest way up on a peak, two of them together, a pair, with their necks in a heart, just like a postcard!”
“Comme ça?” Joseline made a heart shape with her hands.
“Précisément.” Peter, happy.
“Pierre speaks very nice French!” Joseline informed Della.
Annoyance crept up the back of Della’s neck. She knew without asking that Joseline hadn’t called the consulate, or the police. Or her parents. The thought surprised her with its bite.
“We saw an entire mating dance—even the males.” Peter was flapping his hands about, festive, silly. “Synchronized, like a chorus line in pink tutus.”
“Ah, je veux tellement les voir!” Joseline turned to Della, eyes bright, translating unnecessarily: “I wish so much to see them!”
“I can take us all up there tomorrow,” Peter said. He stood, stretching. “Hey, we’ve got a bottle of St. Emilion. Why don’t we drink it on our balcony and then walk into town for dinner?”
Della clutched her book, fingernails digging into the soft binding. “What about the restaurant here? It’s supposed to be excellent.”
“The real stuff’s in town, Dell. This one’s for tourists.” Peter ran a hand through his hair. It occurred to Della that she should have reminded him to get a haircut before they left. “Dans une demi-heure, Joseline? I need to take a shower.”
Della followed Peter into the bathroom. “Have you spoken to her about how she plans on getting home?”
“Those bastards are long gone.” Peter’s answer floated from the shower on billows of steam. “The important thing is she’s not with them. She’s had a rough time. Let her enjoy herself for a while. We can drop her at the consulate in Tangiers when we go back.”
Della stared into the fogged mirror. Frowning, she ran her fingers through her hair. The dry, brittle ends grazed her shoulders. “You mean, have her around the whole time?”
“She’s delightful, don’t you think?” Peter stepped out of the shower, toweling energetically, hair sticking out at shaggy, pointed angles. “Not like it’ll break the bank—Morocco’s dirt cheap.”
“What’s she going to do here?”
“Same as us—have fun, relax!” Peter dropped his towel onto the floor. Della left it there; she’d stopped picking up towels a long time ago. The fleeting verbena of his deodorant—an almost forgotten smell, suddenly close again. Della knew it as well as that of her own skin.
“Peter, she’s careless, and lazy, and . . . stupid.” Della felt her hands clench into fists. “She left home with a backpack the size of a purse!”
“She just did a stupid thing. As kids do. It’s good we were around.”
Della bit the inside of her lip. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth. Everyone was worthwhile and interesting, no one had any flaws. What she’d loved about him, once.
While Peter dressed in the bedroom, Della stayed in front of the mirror, breathing steam. After hearing several times in grad school (Women’s Studies. She’d never finished because she met Peter) that she looked like Sissy Spacek, she’d capitalized on the resemblance: her look, her signature, for decades. Following Sissy successfully into middle age, Della had enjoyed admitting to pushing fifty because no one believed her. Sissy’s gamine charm had helped her sell houses. Now there were exhausted little pouches under her eyes that even the fogged mirror couldn’t hide. She looked emaciated, unwell, the dress dwarfing her spare frame. She’d let herself go, daring Peter to comment. Which he hadn’t.
When Joseline knocked, Peter had the wine out, some pistachios and sunflower seeds in little bowls he’d found somewhere. Joseline was still in jeans. The same ones? Della couldn’t tell. A tight black sweater sparkled with tiny sequins; the neckline plunged. She’d put on makeup, something that shimmered across her cheeks in the early evening light. Peter told her she looked lovely. Which she did, in a way absolutely unlike anything Della had ever considered lovely before. An indolent way. That was it, the word she’d been searching for all day. Indolent.
There was no wine-opener, not enough glasses. Della went downstairs. It took the pleasant woman from the morning’s coffee service a while to open the deserted bar, a while longer to find the opener.
When Della returned, the room was thick with the smell of hashish. Peter was seated on the desk chair, a towel around his shoulders. Joseline stood behind him, scissors in hand. At her feet, feathers of bark-colored hair.
“He is very cool now,” Joseline pronounced. “Do you not find?” She removed the towel from Peter’s shoulders and brushed the remaining flecks of hair from his neck with a professional flourish. She turned to Della. “Would you like also?”
Della fingered the dry ends of her hair. “No, no thanks.”
Peter smiled his stoned smile. Della had completely forgotten that one.
He’d let Muriel and her friends smoke pot once, at a slumber party, while Della was at a Realtors’ convention in Atlanta. And they’d had boys over, and a bonfire in the back yard. There were beer bottles in the recycling. After that, Della had stopped going to conventions.
Eyes half closed, her husband held out what was left of the joint, “Joseline bought some killer stuff on the boat.”
A setting sun followed them down the hill into town, past wooden boats rocking gently on the lagoon, a group of fully dressed women in head scarves holding nets, wading into the glittering waves in search of fish. A young boy sold dusty cans of Coke beneath a homemade umbrella. Clusters of sleepy goats dotted craggy rock faces.
“Beautiful!” Peter raised his hands toward the sky, tie-dyed stripes of purple, orange, pink, and yellow, bleeding together at the edges. “Beautiful fucking sunset!”
Joseline smiled a high smile of her own. “So pretty!”
“That’s the saint’s shrine.” Peter pointed across the inlet. “The guy who drove the boat this morning prays there. Some medieval mystic, supposed to cure mental illness.” Peter cocked his head at Della. She pretended not to have seen. “Huge pilgrimage thing in the summer. Sufis, with lots of Saudi money.”
“Maybe they do the dancing!” Joseline began to twirl, slowly at first, then speeding up and careening from one side of the vacant, uneven road to the other, her silhouette marked by the black sweater, sequins winking. “Comme les derviches! Regarde, je suis une derviche!” Peter began to dance too, following Joseline in a meandering zigzag. They tried to get Della to join.
At the restaurant, Della headed immediately for the restroom. Menopause had shrunk her bladder. When she rejoined Peter and Joseline, the owner was at the table, taking their order. Della saw surprise in his eyes. He’d made Peter and the girl out to be a couple and was now having to recalibrate. Their daughter, perhaps?
Joseline tried out a few words in Arabic that made the man laugh—Peter looked impressed—and the man left, returning with a couple of contraband bottles of rosé, from Corfu, surprisingly good. Darkness fell while they drank the wine and ate roasted fish with lemon and tahini sauce, and tomatoes so juicy they needed nothing but salt.
And pommes-frites, which Joseline dipped in mayonnaise. “The Belgian way.” She licked her fingers and smiled, showing the doll teeth. “Now we need only the moules. It is ‘mussels’ in English, yes? You must come to Brussels and we will have mussels! Tiens, c’est marrant!” She giggled. “We will have moules-frites, with many beers. And tomorrow we will go to see les flamants amoureux. The flamingos . . . how do you say?”
“In love,” Peter supplied.
Della swallowed a large slug of wine and let her glass thud back onto the table. “What does your mother think you’re doing right now?” The words came out with a hard, aggressive edge she hadn’t intended; or maybe she had.
Peter looked mildly offended, but the girl was unfazed. She licked more mayonnaise, slowly. “My parents have moved to Brésil, more than seven years ago. They live near the jungle, with some other people, growing goats and plantains. They have no telephone. They are . . . baba cool . . .how do you say, Pierre?”
“Old hippies!” Peter grinned. “That’s awesome.”
“I was little girl in a commune. It is the same in English, no? We lived on a big farm outside Liège. Dirty little children running all over, we were des petits sauvages. It was lot of fun. On était des communistes!” Joseline giggled again.
Della emptied her glass in a gulp. Was no one going to take this seriously?
Peter was accepting a cigarette from Joseline’s pack—now he smoked?—leaning forward so she could light it for him. “We’ll go out and see the flamingos tomorrow at sunset. Best time.”
Peter said they could take the car out the day after, hit the market at Ksar el-Kebir, visit an old pirate ship, then maybe the Caves of Hercules, hollowed out by centuries of quarrying for millstones into grottoes that got used by discreet sex hustlers. He actually said “discreet.”
“The prostitutes of the pirates!” Joseline shouted, with a loud laugh. “Les putes des pirates—c’était un bordel!” The restaurant owner glanced over, amused. Joseline turned to Della. “Bordel is the house of the whores.”
“Whorehouse,” Peter corrected. His hair was neatened now, shorter around his ears. Joseline had done something to the bangs so they ruffled up in studiedly messy spikes. He looked like a boy. He smiled a smile Della didn’t recognize—his American tourist smile, maybe.
He was definitely living.
At the door to her room, Joseline gave them both a hug. “Such a bad thing, now so nice!”
Della left the new bra and panties on, mostly because she was too tired to take them off. When she climbed into bed, Peter’s head was buried in a goose-down pillow and he was snoring. No loss.
Della awoke to the smell of misty drizzle through the closed shutters. Dim light filtered in. It was early. Peter slept the sleep of the recently drunk. He’d never been able to hold his liquor.
She dressed hurriedly—hooded sweatshirt, a windbreaker. Hiking boots, thick socks. No vodka yet, she needed her head about her.
Rehearsing phrases in French, she dug in her pockets, then Peter’s, for bills and change, raided the leather pouch where he stuffed miscellaneous currency from his research trips. She folded a hefty handful into a wad.
The door to the girl’s room was unlocked. She’d slept in her clothes, and the black sweater was now tufted with lint. Della gathered garments from the floor, the chair, shoving them into the backpack. Keeping out a blue wool scarf—the girl shouldn’t be cold, no one should—and a heavy denim jacket. She stuffed the money into pockets.
The confused voice, the heavy accent, “Dellah?” The pink hair was tousled, the blue eyes sleepy, uncomprehending. The girl’s skin had the translucence of fine porcelain despite the rough night and the smudged makeup—the unearned privilege of the young.
“You need to go.” Della held out the jacket.
Muriel would never have dyed her hair pink or become a hairdresser. Whatever she’d done in the empty house, whoever she’d done it with, Muriel would never pick up a guy in a club and go off with him two days later. Muriel had deserved her life, all of it.
“But I don’t understand.”
Della held the girl’s eyes with her own. “I think you do.”
Joseline looked away first. She was silent for a moment, fingers plucking at the bedcovers. Then she accepted the jacket, bulky with the bills and change. She began wrestling her arms into the sleeves, rocking back and forth a little with the effort. Della held out the scarf.
While Joseline made a mess out of tying her shoelaces, Della hissed at her to hurry, then hustled her through the darkened lobby. Outside, the fountain was silent. The flamingos stood guard, their garish colors muted under the flat gray sky.
Fingers digging into the girl’s arm, Della started toward town. Joseline had to run to keep up, short little hopping steps. She tripped occasionally, probably hung over. She could join the club. “I wanted just to see the beautiful birds”—the words pushed out in accelerated breaths, through a tangle of unbrushed hair—“up on the mountain, in their ’abitat . . .”
“Then you can figure out another way to do that.” In Tangiers, one could change money, go to the consulate. Get another passport, book a flight. There would be signs, helpful officials.
They skirted the shore of the lagoon. The boats were empty now, protected in their inlet of still, slate-colored water. The goats huddled together, surprised by the cold.
At the taxi stand, a lone driver leaned against a dusty red Renault, smoking. He wore a pink cardigan. Couldn’t possibly be the same man; the girl gave no sign of recognition. Maybe there were lots of pink cardigans in Morocco. Della thrust Joseline forward. “À Tangiers. Combien?”
Joseline hunched, bulky and soft, next to the small, wiry man. She could take him, easy, Della told herself. The man smiled at Della. “Vous avez une très belle fille.”
“Ce n’est pas . . .” Della began, then abandoned the effort. What did it matter? She pointed instead at Joseline’s pockets. “Argent.” Joseline followed Della’s gesture with her round, white fingers, touching the bulges carefully. The bills crackled.
Della looked the man in the face—one eye was cloudy, one tooth brown—and pronounced the word firmly: “Vite.”
“Yes.” He bowed slightly and turned to open the trunk for Joseline’s pack. “With great speed. Of course, madame.”
Della hurried away, forced herself not to turn around until she’d left the fish restaurant behind. When she did, the taxi stand was deserted.
She stopped along the beach, climbed atop a rock. Gulped salty air, hands shaking. The closet had been open when she came out of the shower, she’d tell Peter, the door to their room ajar, he should’ve thought to lock it. All her cash gone, and a cheap necklace, her pearl earrings. She made a mental note to toss those two items into the trash, along with the black lace panties—the last thing she needed, or wanted, was sex. She’d tell him to check his pockets.
You didn’t lose your daughter and then get to have a brand new life, just that easy. Be a tour guide and a hero, a soft-porn sugar-daddy to some girl, while your wife looked on through a blear of misery. Peter needed to feel loss, not run from it. Live with it. Let it make itself at home. Get to know its hopelessness, its bottomless emptiness. Its ugly black wrecking ball, swinging from a rusty chain of if-only’s. Crashing through atria and ventricles, laying waste to chambers you hadn’t even known your heart possessed. Once, and then again, and again. Until it finished him, the way it had her.
Cynthia Robinson’s short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Arkansas Review, Devils Lake (winner of the 2016 Driftless Prize in Fiction), Epoch, Bayou, the Louisville Review, the Missouri Review, and others. A novel, BIRDS OF WONDER, is forthcoming from Standing Stone Books in February of 2018, and another is in progress. Born in Tennessee, Cynthia is a medievalist who teaches at Cornell University, where she holds the Mary Donlon Alger Chair of Medieval and Islamic Art. She lives in Ithaca, New York with two rescued rabbits.
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“Bewilderness” by Karen Tucker
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