Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com
Dad always said morning glory runs wild if you give an inch, so every evening, with the dishes soaking in the sink and the glassware drying on the counter, he'd send me out into the fading daylight to purge the fence of its tangles. Anarchy has no place in a decent garden, he'd say, and look up from his Oxford Shakespeare just long enough for me to know not to press the issue by telling him how beautiful the purple was each morning, around sunrise, when I stared out the kitchen window at the old mansion next door. He'd bend again over the page, and I'd dry my hands in time to the ticking of the clock on the wall, then hang the dishtowel over the faucet and go outside.
Our yard was small but every inch a garden. Weeding and watering my way around the glassy goldfish pond at the center, along the four pea gravel paths branching off like a compass, down the length of towering stockade fence, and against the waist-high chainlink bounding the other three sides, took me straight through to nightfall. Vines and stalks piled up in a pail I dragged behind, and I'd wonder to myself why the moon looked snipped from paper, why Dad always seemed to be reading the same scene, or why I could never see over that fence into the next yard. I asked once, when I was small, and he just shrugged and said it was a moot point, that no one lived there, that the old house had always been empty. I couldn't remember it otherwise, so I took him at his word. Every evening, I tore vines from the fence and stared up at the splintering eaves on the other side, thinking something so grand shouldn't be allowed to fall apart so utterly, and that I could probably break the attic window if I hit it with a rock. I still looked out from the kitchen each morning while the coffee percolated, but it was curiosity and nothing more. Until I heard her voice, hoarse and quiet, through the divot I left under the planks when I pulled up that big thistle choking out Dad's hostas, I don't think I ever thought seriously about what was over there.
Just like every other night, I left the pans in the sink and Dad at the kitchen table, reading. Don't forget to water the gardenias, he called as the door swung shut. The heat smelled of cypress and chestnut, and I started working. A train whistle broke the quiet and hung over the city like smoke. I think I went there once, to the train station, but I remember only vaguely, like maybe Dad just told me about it so many times that I'd built a memory around the story, or like the recollections were cut to fit and fixed into place like glass into a window. A full moon hung in the twilight, and though sweat soaked my shirt, the work was easy until I reached that thistle. Stubborn as it was, I had to pull with my whole weight, and if it weren't for the bird bath behind me, I would've tumbled backward when I finally wrenched it free. When I'd steadied myself, I held it up and stared at the delicate roots dangling from the crumbling ball of rusty clay, tracing with my eye their many paths, like an inversion of those tendrils racing up the fence in my absence and opening their bells to the morning. I stood there a long time, and just as it dawned on me that, with a strong enough magnifying glass, I might follow those little paths, branching out as branches came, forever and ever without reaching their end, I heard her voice from the other side.
I jumped. "What?" I blurted out, startled. She didn't answer, and I collected myself and glanced back toward the kitchen. Dad stood in the window, but with the overhead light on above the table, I knew all he'd see of the darkening yard were the shadows behind his own distorted reflection. He drew the half curtain across the pane, and I turned back to the voice. "What did you say?" I said, more calmly.
"You could say anything in the world," the voice sighed from the other side of the fence. "Anything at all, and that's what you go with?"
"Oh, sorry," I said. "Hello, I guess—"
"See, that's what I'm saying. Why did you ask what I said when we both know you heard me the first time?"
"Okay then—" The porchlight over the door suddenly illuminated a small circle of the yard behind me. "Who are you?"
She laughed. "Much better," she said. "That's a much better question."
She told me her name, and I told her mine. She asked how long I'd lived there, and I answered, but before I could ask the same of her, she said she had to go. I asked her to wait, but her footsteps had already dissolved into the harping of crickets and the dull thrum of the city.
Her voice stuck with me—the revelation of her existence more than the conversation itself—and I worked anxiously the following evening, waiting all the while for her to speak again. Summer lay heavy on my shoulders, and kneeling there in the grass, yanking up pigweed and morning glory from around the shed, I wondered if she'd always been listening, or if that was the first night she'd heard me in the garden. Hands in the mulch, I wondered if maybe I'd been too surprised by her voice. I'd never thought about that house as a home. I poured sweat into the earth, one ear pricked for the sound of her voice, and thought about it with a new mind. Did she live in that crumbling mansion? It must've been occupied at some point. Dad would shake his head, but its mildewed life would swallow up three or four of his at least, and I'd never considered what he meant when he said always. Three evenings in a row, I worked the garden and listened for footsteps and watched the dusty attic window darken in the failing daylight, trying to imagine the faces who might've peered out and what they would've planted in their yard. Three evenings in a row, I worked and listened and watched and thought until Dad rapped on the kitchen door, but she didn't come.
On the fourth evening, I hurried through my work. When I'd finished with the gardenias and the weeding, I crossed the garden and tossed a rock high over the fence. It landed with a thud on the other side, but nothing happened. I kicked the fence with my toe. Silence. A sparrow landed on the dormant chimney of my own house, and through the kitchen window Dad sat rigid at the table, studying the book before him. I watched him for a moment, then started walking. Dragging my fingers along the boards, I followed the fence around the side of the house and into the front yard. A few feet from the street, it made a right angle and ran down the block, along the drainage ditch separating the next yard from the pavement. I continued down the length of the ditch, but there was no gate and the fence was still too tall to climb, both of which I must've known, even if I'd never really noticed. The mansion towered over it all, a dark mass against the twilight, a shape giving no indication as to which of its crumbling facades opened to the world. The fence in front of the next house was painted white, but it was just as tall and joined seamlessly with the first. I walked past that house, too, then past the next house and the one after.
Searching in vain for a gate or missing plank, it occurred to me suddenly that I was no longer tracing several individual fences. A single fence ran the length of the block, changing shape and color before each house but never breaking. Instead of ending at the last house, it rounded the corner and continued on into the city. I leaned against the stop sign and stared for a long time down its lopsided path. The moon shone, round and white like a handless clock. The blinking lights of a plane passed between the stars, and I looked up. Gazing up at those blinking lights made me feel—as the planes and train whistles and out-of-state plates always had—like I was lying sleepless in the dark, curtains drawn back, watching the headlights of passing cars drift over the ceiling and vanish, and drift over the ceiling and vanish. I glanced back over my shoulder. The sound of my name reverberated over the neighborhood from the direction of my back porch, and I started jogging back down the block, wondering to myself, Who builds a fence like this?
The night after, I went to water the gardenias, and the hose knotted up in the gravel and cut out after the first jet struck the fence behind the white blooms. For some reason, instead of unkinking the line, I stood there for a long time, admiring how the droplets clustered around a center and spread, each further from its neighbor than the last, like the footprints of a thousand tiny children running from the same anxiety, faster and faster until they disappeared in the dry wood. Several minutes passed before a twig cracked on the other side and broke my reverie. I coughed and turned toward the house as the porchlight flicked on.
I dropped the hose and whirled back to the fence. "Hello? Are you—is that you?" I stammered.
"Depends on who you're looking for," she said.
"Right," I mumbled. "Right." I cleared my throat. "I just mean—where were you?"
I started to answer but stopped. Moonlight gleamed in the gardenia leaves, and I squinted into the crumbling clay of the old thistle hole. "Never mind," I said. "How are you?"
"Fine. How are you?"
"I'm good. Fine, I guess." I sighed and looked up at the sky, allowed my eyes to roam, tried to find the place where twilight ended and darkness began. "I didn't think you'd be back."
"So you're out here every night?" she asked.
"Well," I said, without looking down. "Most nights. Or pretty much every night, I guess."
"But you're not."
She was quiet, and I started counting stars. For a long while I counted, but time and again, I lost my place and had to start over. "Have you ever wondered who built this thing?" she said suddenly, after a long silence. I blinked and lost my place again. "I mean the way it just keeps going is so—so—strange."
"What?" I said, and returned my stare to the fence.
"Did you really not hear me?"
"No. It's just—"
"Never mind," she said. "It was just a question. Hypothetical. You don't have to answer." She paused. "Actually, I should get going anyway. I just wanted to say hello. To come out and look at the stars and say hi. Anyway," she sighed, "I'll see you."
I squinted at the droplets drying on the fence and waited for her to say tomorrow or next week or in the afterlife, but all I heard were footsteps on leaves. "Yes," I said, loudly. "I have." The footsteps stopped. "Wondered that, I mean. I have wondered who built this thing." I looked up at the flat, round moon, and something changed. The footsteps resumed, and I felt as though another consciousness, long asleep in an ill-maintained corner of my brain, had woken up and turned on the light. "Bye!" I called, but she was gone.
Three nights in a row, I left Dad in the kitchen and worked in silence. The frivolous chirping of birds; the sudden shudder of squirrels in the oak out front; the distant whistle, harsher than before, calling out over the sprawling city; but not a word from over the fence. On the fourth night, I rushed out the door before dinner had settled in my belly and set to work. Haphazard though it was, I finished the weeding and watering, the pruning and fertilizing, in barely half an hour. The sky was still purple when I set off down the block, dragging my fingertips lazily along the fence, tracing it through its transformations with no intention of stopping at the corner.
I kept walking. The fence closed off some yards and zigzagged around others such that they faced the street without obstruction. It ran behind some buildings and before others, over the overpasses and under the underpasses, turned corners and rounded bends. Around the peach and slate mansions with their gazebos and florida rooms, in front of the ramshackle gothic monstrosities whose tenants shared kitchens and paid rent in cash on screenless porches, past the bars and pawnbrokers, around the churches, the fence took myriad forms, buckled and splintering, elegant and freshly painted, mossy and brick, in countless colors and every conceivable state of disrepair. My feet squelched in sweaty shoes, and the concrete punished my heels. Night came hot, and I followed the fence through a city that felt suddenly honest, a strange city in which I'd never noticed the lie, a settlement in every sense of the word, a tired place of breezelessness and arrested motion. For miles, I traced the fence's jagged path but never found the end. I never even found a broken plank.
I got home around midnight. Dad was still at the table. Who the hell do you think you are, he said. I've told you a thousand times how dangerous it is out there, and just who the hell do you think you are? I stared at him. This city makes people crazy. People get hurt out there. They die, even. He didn't say another word, but he slammed his book shut so hard, the glassware on the counter sang and the windows still shook in their panes as he stormed from the kitchen. I went to bed fully dressed and lay atop the quilt, wondering, What purpose could this possibly serve?
She came the following night, and we talked about our favorite foods and favorite colors.
"Like the sun rising over the water," she said, "but the color of the water. Not the sun."
"The water," she said. "Have you ever seen the sun rise over the river?"
"Well," I said, "it's been a long time since I've been to the river."
"So you haven't?"
"My dad told me we used to go fishing there every weekend, but I don't remember the sunrise. He told me we used to take rowboats out, but I guess he's the one who would've done the rowing. I must've been pretty young."
I could hear a faint scratching, as if she were stripping bark from a twig. "So why don't you go back?" she asked, after a moment.
I stared at the fence and shrugged. I knew she couldn't see, but for some reason, that felt sufficient. The yard was quiet for a long time, and I was just about to ask what color were her eyes and had she ever found the end of the fence when she said she had to leave.
Two more nights went by, and I wondered, Are there other fences out there? Fences like this, I mean? She came on the third night, and we talked about sonnets and flowers and how many craters could we count on the full, shimmering moon overhead. She left just as I was about to ask if she ever wondered about the stars, if she ever thought their distant gravity might have some effect on how things happen down here, if maybe that was why it all felt the way it did. I stayed out for half an hour after her footsteps disappeared, thinking we were too petty for anything so grand as that. We just drift.
Almost a week passed, and in her absence, each day felt more and more like an echo of the day before. I washed the dishes and left the pans to soak and don't forget and pulled up morning glory by the faint moonlight, wondering about the people on the other side, wondering is there someone over there just like me, and is there someone over here just like her, and would I find her if I looked, and would it matter if I did, and Would I even know? If I found her, I mean? On the seventh day, just as I drew the latch across the shed door, I heard her voice by the fence, closer than before, lower to the ground as if she were kneeling at the hole left by the thistle's roots.
I left the door unlatched and ran to the fence. "I'm here, I'm here!"
"I can't stay," she said. "I only have a second."
"What? You—" By then, I was kneeling at the fence, too. "What do you mean you can't stay? Why not?"
"I just have to go. I have to be somewhere else later. Everything's fine."
"Oh," I said, in control of my voice again. "But couldn't you just stay a minute?"
"I can't," she replied.
"Come and meet me."
I froze. In my memory of that moment, the silence is thick: no bird or wind or shout from the stale, hot city. That was when it sank in. That I would never feel quite right. That places like this—cities like this one—never do. Like their agreement with the rest of the world is a matter of coincidence, like they spin on different axes and mark their days by a different astral geometry, like they form a separate reality that lines up with the rest of the world only briefly. Like we're suspended in that moment during which our car is traveling at precisely the same speed as the train on the tracks next to it, and we can look over and lock eyes with someone in the dining car window and pretend for a second like that train isn't going somewhere totally different, by a path to which we have no access. Down the line, the paths inevitably diverge, but I'd been listening to her voice for three weeks, and her words bore new weight, like maybe the alignment was shifting or the rules were different than I'd been told.
"Hello?" she said. "Are you there?"
I jumped. "Meet you?" I said, hoarsely, then coughed and cleared my throat. "What do you mean meet you?"
Stars dotted the black sky. The moon hung like a saucer, and crickets sawed away out in the neighborhood. The night betrayed nothing of time's passage, but I listened for her footsteps for what felt like ages.
Her voice startled me. I hadn't heard her approach. Maybe she'd been there all along, waiting for me, listening to me listen for her. "Time?"
"Time," she replied. "Follow me."
"Wait, you want me to—" Confusion scrambled my thoughts, and I tried to make sense of what she was saying, but she moved briskly down the fence, and I had no choice but to follow. "Wait," I said again, more calmly. "I'm coming. Wait."
I lengthened my stride and caught up to her footsteps. Swinging wicket-gates, rustling shrubs, and rattling chainlink stirred the quiet, and I followed the sounds to the corner.
"Where are we going?" I asked, but she didn't answer. Instead her pace just quickened. "What are we doing?" I asked, but still she didn't answer, and still I followed her into the night.
The fence ran along the sidewalk to my right; across the street, a long string of dark city-shapes unspooled at the shadow's edge. Each clap of her shoe against the pavement echoed out into the stale, smoky air, over the scattered streetlamps and the blackened glass of dark restaurants, between the rundown apartments and decrepit frame houses. Sometimes the sound vanished, and a panic filled the space between my ribs. Each moment of quiet, each second alone with my own breath and tempo, felt permanent, but the footsteps always reappeared ahead of me, on the other side of a shop or church. I chased them, but she always seemed to be pulling away. Before long, I was running as fast as I could, tearing past the rows of stoops and drug stores and liquor stores, sprinting and heaving breath from my lungs just to keep up.
We must've run for hours. Blood throbbed in my ears, and my legs ached. The sound of my feet melted into the sound of hers, and I had no idea where I was. Exhausted, I watched the dark facades across the street, the brownstones and empty lots, the bodyshops and razor wire, a post office and the tree-blotted starlessness of a small park. Without stopping, I reached out with my right arm and let my fingers skip along the fence—wood, then vinyl, then brick—until they found a stretch of smooth, whitewashed pine, one board flush against the next. It went on a long time, and I squinted into the dark. Staring at those interminable white boards and barreling forward, the panic surged up again, and I was suddenly certain beyond question I would never find her, that she was only a voice, a phantom, words and footsteps and nothing more. But her shoes scuffed rhythmically against the concrete, and I kept running and What if that were enough, I thought. What if that were enough?
I tried to focus on the footsteps. Sweat stung my eye, and I blinked it clear and looked at the tips of my fingers. They skimmed along, peeling free the flecks of paint, and only then did I notice the flecks were dark. A single line of black paint cut across the fence, and I traced it as I ran. It curved and swooped, then split in two. New lines mingled with those first two and formed shapes against the blank and peeling white: tail, haunches, paws, shoulders, and the great head of an enormous galloping lioness, jaws closed and gaze calm. I tore my eyes away and kept running. Staring ahead, into the distance again, I could just make out an intersection, a winking stoplight and a dark corner, at which the fence appeared to make a sharp right. Urged on by the hollow rhythm of her feet, I sprinted toward the corner, certain there would be more corners, more bridges and forks and curves and underpasses, but that sooner or later I would find an opening or a gate, a broken stretch of wall or a well-placed tree limb. I took a deep breath and braced myself for the sight of the fence, continuing on and on into the darkness, whispering to myself, she's real she's real she's real. I breathed again and held the air, rounded the corner, and stopped so suddenly, I almost toppled forward of my own momentum. There was no more fence. No gate to push or tree to climb or broken boards to squeeze between. The fence ended. Just like that. And there she stood, with moonlight in her eyes.
She reached for my shoulder. A gust of wind snatched the scarf from her neck and cast it down the block toward the painted lioness, but she let it go.
The moon shrank back to a sliver, and we slept in the park down the street, me on the grass, she in the crook of a mulberry tree. We rose before the sun, cut through weed-split alleys and gravel driveways to the river, and sat on a bench by the water until afternoon. She bought sandwiches, and we wandered while we ate. Darkness fell, and we returned to the park and slept were we had the previous night. The next night we did the same, and the night after. On the fifth night, she didn't come back, but I wasn't worried. I washed my face in a fountain near the park's entrance and studied the marble figure at the center: a young man drawing a sword amid the glitter of falling water. A breeze stirred the mulberry leaves, and I waited for sleep, staring up at the glowing half moon through gently waving boughs. A week went by, and the nights cooled. I washed my face and squinted at the marble man. Watching beads of water break on the smooth stone, I decided he was a boy, not a man; that he was sheathing his sword, not drawing it. She returned under a waxing gibbous with two ceramic mugs she'd found in an alley behind the train yard, and I told her about the boy.
Leaves covered the ground, and we scrounged bags of bread from dumpsters behind the grocery store, to eat in the park or on a bench by the river. At night I counted the stars overhead and the blades of grass under my fingers, trying to imagine the story Dad would've told after he noticed I was missing. I don't know who the hell he thinks he is, officer, but this city makes people crazy. I don't have to tell you. People get hurt out there. They die, even. He probably damned my insolence, worked at the kitchen floor with the toe of his shoe, and wondered where I'd gone astray. You can't beat yourself up, he probably told himself, one evening after another, crinkling the corner of the page and staring at the dim reflection in the window over the sink while the garden lost its shape on the other side. No, no, no, that boy was a leaver.
Train whistles cracked the cricket songs, planes sketched lines across the morning, and wind carried stories to our ears, rumors of children who sounded like us, stupid kids swallowed up by a torrid city. Every day we heard more; on street corners, in diners, at bus stops. They transformed slowly, collected embellishments, curled and blossomed, each more wild than the last; burning passions and the wrath of patriarchs, blood feuds and friars' cells, duels to the death, and the jaws of beasts. People think they understand abandon, even when they live neatly. They project their unspent recklessness onto others, and from the safety of the Kiwanis meeting or the pew in the last row of the sanctuary, they pass the stories on to neighbors and feel their hearts thump in the words. Our deaths are morals in their fables. And maybe it would've been easy to empty my eyes of tears, to break the fence down with a sledgehammer and walk through the debris into her yard, to fast in my bedroom in rebellion against her absence, to throw myself from the window when the longing became unbearable. All of that would've made sense to people, but sense is relative, and I befriended a voice on the other side of the fence in my backyard, and we took off three weeks later to live beyond the reach of their words. Even without our backs to bear the weight, they told whatever stories they needed to tell, and those stories reached our ears as we climbed embankments and hopped fences and threw rocks into the backs of barges on the river.
We still hear them all, but the people feel like characters, worn and familiar. She no longer pays them any mind, but I listen when I can, contemplate the new details and little turns of plot, try to imagine who needed the changes and why. I stare at the stars, sipping tea we make from herbs we scavenge, replaying in my mind the most fantastic stories. One life feels like a thousand, and the steam fills my nostrils, and I wonder if I might, on some warm evening, happen upon a real lioness or lose myself in heartbreak and drink poison from a vial. Anything is possible, and though I always find my way back to this park and this grass and this mulberry eventually, I never know where I'll end up once I start walking. Maybe we're still petty, drifting things, but what are they? Pruning forever in their ordered gardens; lighting their porches at the same time, night after night; thumbing at the same worn-out corners of the same worn-out pages while the dishes soak? She told me once, while we were sitting on a pier with our legs swinging out over the river, You could go home, you know. I just shrugged and squinted into the rising sun and told her things were better this way. For him and for me. I can be whatever he needs now, even while my own world feels wild again, tangled and sprawling and purple in the morning.
Possibility makes life feel this way—chaotic and myriad, like anything that can happen does happen, and will happen, and has already. So I gather up the stories like fallen petals and watch them glitter in my palms, store them in jars or between the pages of a book, even though I know in time their edges will wrinkle, their shine will fade. They'll dry and crumble into dust and collect in the empty space we left that night, accumulate and take our shapes and walk only those streets and alleys others imagine for us. When that happens, we'll still be climbing other people's fire escapes, seeking out fences and walking their length, swinging our legs from whatever pier we please, watching the sky burn and smolder, soothe and roil, shine and blacken. The sun, the moon, the stars: they'll rise and set and wax and wane and blink and vanish, and she'll still say from time to time, You could go home, you know. If you wanted to.
But she'll be wrong.