With Signs Following
The doctor has a soft and distant quality about him, an easy slowness that Raya notes with disgust. She wants to slap him so bad she can feel her arm muscles twitch.
“The only thing we know right now is what I told you on the phone,” he says. “When the police found your father, he was carrying that neighbor kid off down the road. Claimed he was saving him from a fire.” The doctor glances up. “But there wasn’t no fire anywhere.”
Sweat pools in the cups of Raya’s bra. She crosses her legs. Uncrosses them.
“Your father said he saw palm trees on fire and thought everybody’s house was going to burn down.”
The doctor stands and his belly stretches the buttons on his blue shirt. He flips his file closed. It is a slim folder emblazoned with the words Weston State Mental Institution. Raya didn’t even know they called them mental institutions anymore, it sounds so old fashioned. Seems like they would have come up with some slick euphemism by now; Happy Hollow Retreat or Bright Days Recovery Center.
She leans forward and the cracked vinyl of the chair sticks to the backs of her thighs. “Look, Doctor, I—”
“Paul,” he interrupts. “Please, call me Paul.”
Doctor Paul has been trying to bond with her since she arrived. He told her he’d moved to Charleston only recently and came from the same tiny town she grew up in. The town where her father has been living alone.
“Okay, I tried to arrive during visiting hours, but see, I don’t live here.” Raya can hear a note of panicked pleading leaping up in her voice. “I drove from Chicago today. Twelve hours.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s not really a matter of visiting hours. Feisal is still not adjusted. But you’re kin so you’ll be the first to see him.”
Doctor Paul’s accent sounds like a mouthful of mashed potatoes. Raya runs her tongue along her teeth and pushes back an urge to ask him if his treatment came from the sixteenth century, to ask him if he thinks he could get away with this shit if he were practicing anywhere other than West Virginia.
“Your father is asleep, Ms. Sofer,” Doctor Paul says. “He’s sleeping peacefully for the first time since he got here.”
Raya lets out a long sigh.
“I’ve been trying to fill in some family medical history here. Do you have much contact with his family in…” Doctor Paul squints at the page. “His family in Iraq.”
Eye-rack he says.
“Eh-rock,” Raya corrects.
Doctor Paul frowns.
“Eh-rock,” she repeats, “like a rock, like you’re throwing a rock.”
He scrunches his nose. “Well, do you? Do you talk to them?”
“No,” she says, “I don’t speak Arabic. Or Hebrew.”
Doctor Paul blinks and cocks his head to one side.
“I know his mother died in 1990. Cancer,” Raya says.
He nods and scribbles into the file.
“So what time are visiting hours tomorrow?” Raya stands, her eyes level with Doctor Paul’s.
He glances up from his papers. “We’ve decided that at this point we shouldn’t let him have visitors at all. We really don’t have a complete diagnosis yet and we’re still working on a treatment plan.”
Raya presses her nails into the palms of her hands. “Look, I don’t know how many days I can take off work, I—”
“It’s important that he not get overstimulated,” Doctor Paul says in a tone reserved for children who are never told no.
The two-hour drive from Charleston to Raya’s childhood home blends into a purring stream of classic rock and warm night wind. She rolls cigarettes on her thigh with one hand, half tobacco, half mullein leaf, a half-assed effort to quit. The sun sinks behind the mountain range just as she turns off the interstate but the heat remains nestled in crevices where her skin touches skin. On the home road, hidden in the holler outside of town, she strips off her t-shirt and throws it in the backseat. Twelve hours of Midwest corn-fed truck drivers and scrawny evil-eyed shirtless homeboys set an itch deep in her, a thirst to shuck off the August heat with that one motion.
Her cell phone beeps and lights up on the seat beside her and her girlfriend’s name blinks across the screen. Raya silences it. Janey is so sweet, but no good in times of stress. She grows frantic when she can’t help, can’t do something. She comes every week to Raya’s woodworking studio carrying loaves of fresh bread with love notes baked inside them; she enjoys her job at the university library and arrives home fulfilled by the little moments of simple human joy she’s witnessed on the city bus. But even with the phone silenced, Raya can already feel Janey’s panicky concern draping itself over everything, itchy as a wool blanket.
As the road curves into Saw Mill Holler the homes grow scarce. Up at the end there is only the Tuscarora horse farm and Feisal’s house. Last time they talked, Raya’s father told her that one of the Layner boys had married the youngest Estep girl and moved out to Tuscarora. As she passes the white stone pillars of their front gate, Raya slows her car. It was the younger Layner brother, Billy, who had handcuffed Feisal and brought him up to Weston. It must have been his son that Feisal was trying to save.
As she rounds the last curve of the gravel lane, Raya’s headlights illuminate Feisal’s wooden house, standing tall, not singed by flames as she almost hoped it might be. Feisal built the house in 1981 with little experience and loads of hope. A fresh, American, green-card hope. He built it as a gift for Raya’s mother, Julie, his Peace Corps bride who plucked him out of his small Jewish enclave in Iraq and brought him back to her tiny West Virginia town. Julie had reclined on a lawn chair and watched the construction, her pregnant belly rising like bread dough. But she was quick to point out that the house felt as awkward as Feisal’s English. The whole structure leaned to the left and the low ceilings trapped her. She paced the rooms, an ever-present whisper of restlessness, until just after Raya’s tenth birthday when she fled.
Raya steps out of the car, kicks off her shoes and digs her toes into the cool dirt. Across the hazy field men’s voices peak and lull. She feels an urge to walk over to Tuscarora right now and demand that Billy Layner explain his side of the story. She can’t picture Feisal approaching their house and running off with their child. The Feisal she knows keeps to himself, makes his living repairing rare books for wealthy customers in far-off cities, and spends his days creating giant abstract paintings.
From the roof of the house darts a leather-winged bat. Raya jiggles the front door, trying to remember under which windowsill Feisal keeps his spare key. But the handle turns easily and the door swings in.
Raya’s breath catches. She takes one step forward and listens hard. “Hello?”
The house smells of her father: sandalwood, yeast, and turpentine. She flips on the lights and slips out the back door. The garden teems with weeds, thistle and johnsongrass. A riot of overripe vegetables. It seems strange to her that the garden could grow wild in two days. But perhaps two days isn’t the whole story. Who knows how long Feisal wandered before Billy found him in the road. Raya hasn’t seen him in nearly a year. She talked to him three weeks back but then only momentarily—a synopsis of her upcoming woodworking exhibit and rote questions about his paintings. He said he’d quit painting, been meditating more. He said the sun danced hot-white across the green ridges every evening, he told her she should come see it.
Raya moves quickly through the garden, gathering a giant zucchini and half-rotted cucumber. The quiet of the woods is too big for her. Every crack of a twig jerks her head up. From around the corner of the house she hears the out-of-tune notes of her mother’s piano, but when she pauses and concentrates they disappear.
Something scurries past her foot and then a crash and crunch of branches sounds out from amongst the trees. She lurches upright and runs for the safety of the yellow kitchen as the sound comes again, the crush of feet on dry leaves.
She rushes inside, banging the screen door behind her and gripping her vegetables too tight. The tiny golden globes of cherry tomatoes split their skins and spill sticky seeds into her palm. Through the mesh of the screen, she scans the tree line. Black bears still live around here and panthers are spotted occasionally but what she fears are humans.
She turns off the kitchen lights and watches for shadows in the yard as her mind ticks off worries like passing mile markers . . . her set of sleigh beds and tall-back chairs that are not quite finished as part of her first gallery exhibit due to open in only seven days, her shifts at the hardware store not covered, and her cat Oscar sick with some respiratory infection.
When the phone rings, she jumps and stumbles to pick it up.
“Raya, you didn’t answer your cell phone all day.” Her mother’s voice fogs out, thick and sweet as perfume. “I called and called your phone, sweetie. Why didn’t you pick up?”
The doctors found Julie’s number written beside Raya’s on the emergency contact list in Feisal’s wallet. They’d called her first. Feisal started speaking to Julie again about a year ago. She’d called him after she went on some spirit journey and realized she had old wounds to heal.
“I don’t like to talk on the phone while I’m driving.” Raya twists the cord around her arm, wishing she’d thought to unplug Feisal’s phone when she arrived.
“Well, I don’t mean to bother you, I just wanted to see how you’re holdin’ up . . .”
Julie is engaged to a young artist and lives with him in Mexico City. Six months back she convinced Feisal to give her Raya’s number. Raya wants to ignore her but every time Julie’s number scrolls across her screen her heart hiccups and she picks it up and listens to the twang of her mother’s voice, the soft dropped g. No matter how many times she’s run away, Julie has never lost the language of her mountains, the accent that, despite growing up there, Raya has never truly had. As a child Raya unconsciously forged a linguistic stream straight between Feisal’s heavy accent and her mother’s dialect and she came out with an even-toned speech, one that makes people from home think she comes from elsewhere and people from elsewhere not know where she comes from.
“I just think Feisal is under a lot of stress,” Julie goes on. “Roberto says he can’t believe he didn’t go crazy sooner. Seven years the Americans have been bombin’ his homeland, destroyin’ his mother earth, his Babylonia! I just think he is psychically so connected to that place. You know, back in the fifties, his family refused to leave that land even when every other Jew they knew fled to Israel.”
Julie shows off her newfound anti-Americanism every chance she gets, flashing it like a fat diamond ring.
“I’ll call you if the doctors tell me something,” Raya says and then she unplugs the phone and sets it up on the bookshelf. She needs to call Janey. She forgot to give her the number to Feisal’s landline, forgot to mention she would have no cell phone reception out there. Janey wanted to come with her. They were supposed to go to West Virginia together that fall anyhow. She would be the first partner Raya would ever introduce to her father.
Feisal is too shy, maybe still too confused by Raya’s desires, to ask much about Janey. But Julie thinks it is totally hip that Raya is dating a woman. She babbles about Janey every time Raya lets her stay on the phone for more than five minutes. So you really like this girl, huh? I’d love to come see you two sometime. Do you think if we come visit that you could find a gallery space for Roberto?
From the trunk of the car, Raya fetches a six-pack she picked up somewhere in Indiana. The beer is warm but full of yeasty promises of mind-numbness. She rolls another cigarette and sits on the stoop, close enough to run inside at the first strange sound.
Crickets echo in and out with the deep gong of a bullfrog. Raya drinks the beer too fast and her brain jumps between self-aggrandizing daydreams of her gallery opening and a guilt ridden re-play of her last conversation with Feisal. He didn’t sound crazy then, did he? But she was in line at Whole Foods, waiting for a phone call from Janey about dinner plans. She’d rushed to end the conversation.
Headlights bounce across the high pasture and Raya can’t tell if it makes her feel more or less afraid knowing that someone is living in the old Estep place. It’s the only house close enough to hear her if she screams. A motor revs and dies, then throttles up again. When the truck reaches the barbed wire fence it roars around the other way.
Raya went out with Billy’s older brother, John, for a few weeks the summer he came home from Parris Island. She’d just graduated from high school and was waitressing at the Riverside Café, stashing her tips in the toe of an old cowboy boot and saving up for her new life in New York City. John was four years older than her; he’d joined the Marines and gone off to South Carolina. Though he came back with a dishonorable discharge, he was still Raya’s closest link to the outside world. Rumors flew all around about why he’d been kicked out. People claimed everything from selling crack to nearly killing his bunkmate. But the nights when they drove around in John’s Chevelle, he told her he’d quit ‘cause it was dumb as hell. Bunch of bootlicking motherfuckers.
Raya had been quitting everything herself. That summer she lived so far in the future she barely noticed the present at all. John had a car and a stash of good weed. He was older, had seen one ocean and was headed toward the other. He said he’d just come home for the summer, to save up a little money, and then he was going to California; said he wanted to take Raya with him. But she was quitting John too, even while she was there, in the back of that car with him.
When the beers are all empty Raya sets them in the cardboard holder and wobbles upstairs. With one hand flat against the wall, she heads instinctively to her childhood bedroom before remembering that there isn’t any space for her there. She flicks on the lamp and colors flash up: yellows, rubies and oranges. Feisal’s old paintings spill over Raya’s geography competition awards and musty stuffed animals. Scattered brushes cover the floor. Only in the very corners of the room—the single dried rose hanging from the window frame and the cowboy boots under cobwebs in the closet—does she hear her own voice; all the rest of it is Feisal’s.
After her mother left them, Feisal transformed the solarium he meticulously planned and built for her into a studio for himself. The secret room awed and frightened Raya. She remembers empty days. Days when Feisal pulled curtains around the glass and disappeared inside, the only sounds the slap of paint on canvas and the sonorous rhythm of the Kabbalistic chants spinning round and round on the turntable. She left plates of food outside the door but he never ate. Later, she snuck in to see the paintings, huge eight-foot canvases of unintelligible shadow figures, leaps of purple and drips of red. She preferred visiting her grandfather’s shop, full of sawdust and sunlight, curls of oak bark and simple pieces that fit together to make useful things.
The kitchen lamp reflects off the hood of Raya’s car and seeing it, she is seized momentarily with a desire to drive back into town, to sit at the bar and hear about someone else’s problems, or at least just pick up another six pack.
She slumps down onto the kitchen floor instead. A cloud of insects swarms around the paper lampshade on the wall above her. She stares at the patterns of powdery moths, swooping in and out, circling around, but drawn always back in until the heat singes them and they drift to the floor beside her. She wonders what attracts them; the heat she supposes, but there has to be something more. She knows they don’t really have minds but she wants there to be some reason. She wants a doctor to point to a diagram of her father’s brain and say right here, this part is broken, but we can fix it and you can go back home.
When Raya was little she thought the good people stayed and the bad people left—just like that—nothing in between. She and Feisal had a nice house and her world of small-town school and wild-mountain backyard felt perfect. Her mother left all this behind and so she was crazy. Better to have her craziness far away where it couldn’t infect their life.
But sometime around 7th grade, her finger found the map anyways. She traced the path of the New River in her Social Studies book, followed it north to places she’d never heard of. In a magazine, she found a glossy photo of a city street; mountains rose up in the background, higher and grander than the Appalachians, and on the sidewalk two girls huddled under a red umbrella. When Raya looked at those girls she saw that she followed the same road every day, the same slumping gray trailers out the bus window, one of the same four meals for dinner every night of the week. The more she studied that photo the more she realized that even with all his abstractness Feisal always painted the same landscape.
She left as soon as she turned eighteen and moved to New York to apprentice with Lutz Ehrlichmann, whose fauteuils, rockers and fiddleback chairs sold for over fifteen thousand dollars apiece. Her own mother’s father had built furniture in his spare time, simple, rudimentary chairs. But he died when Raya was eight and it was from Ehrlichmann that she had learned to quarter the maple and split out the heart. When she knew she had learned all she could from him, she had moved to Chicago to work for the sleigh bed maker, Sandy Grothman, who kept her own timber lot in southern Wisconsin, stands of oak, maple and ash that she felled in the fall when the sap was down. Raya had been so busy all that time. Weeks had passed when she never spoke to Feisal, until the guilt pressed deep and she’d called to pet him like a dog she’d left too long alone in her apartment.
At sunrise, Raya wakes, sprawled on the kitchen floor, a halo of dead moths all around her. She wants to call the hospital immediately but stops herself, hoping Feisal is still resting. She stumbles to the futon and covers her face with a pillow. Outside, the wind moves through the trees, loud as a waterfall, and with it comes the high pitch of children’s voices from over at the Estep farm.
Raya dozes and wakes in a sweaty panic. The clock above the stove is stopped at five fifteen and her cell phone battery is dead. Time feels slippery here, frightening, as if somehow days or weeks could have passed without her knowing.
She cradles the rotary phone against her cheek and dials the hospital. The receptionist mumbles and goes for the doctor.
“Good-morning Ms. Sofer,” Paul sings into the phone.
“How’s my father?”
A silence spills out, two beats too long. “We’re trying some new medications.”
“I thought you said he was stable.”
“When you left last night your father was asleep, but it seems like he’s still suffering hallucinations. This morning he said the drapes in his room were on fire.”
“Have you done a brain scan?”
“We’ve got him on Thorazine, Abilify and Clozaril.” Doctor Paul chants the names as if they are a magic charm.
“I can be up there by ten,” Raya says.
“No, no, I’m afraid we still can’t allow visitors. We have a few more tests to run.”
There is something wildly off about Doctor Paul’s tone, as if he were comforting a mother whose child was having a difficult time adjusting to summer camp.
“You can’t just lock him away from me,” Raya shouts.
“Ms. Sofer,” Doctor Paul enunciates slowly. “Your father was committed here as
a patient in our facility and we’re doing everything possible to help him. Right now a part of his treatment is stabilization and adjustment which means no contact with visitors.”
Raya’s hand sweats as she grips the phone. “Well, what in the hell is wrong with him? Can you at least tell me that?”
Doctor Paul acts as if she hasn’t even raised her voice at all. Raya feels her arm muscles twitch. She would at least like to have her rage acknowledged.
“We are trying to figure that out,” Doctor Paul says calmly. “It’s a process of elimination. A stroke seems likely, although physically he appears perfectly fine. Schizoaffective Disorder is another possibility.”
After breakfast, Raya gathers a bouquet of daylilies from the side of Feisal’s house, stuffs them into a Mason jar and heads across the field towards Tuscarora. As she crests the hill the blue haze of Laurel Mountain rises before her and below it, the old Estep house, a three-story plantation style home with a wraparound porch and orange daylilies growing all across the yard. Raya squeezes her Mason jar tighter. Stupid, she thinks, I might as well be bringing them a handful of dandelions.
“Hello?” she calls out as she climbs over the cattle gate and thumps down into the yard.
Out of the shadows of the front porch a tall man ambles, hitching his pants up on his thin hips as he lopes down the steps. John.
He squints at her. “Hey, Raya.”
She freezes, halfway across the yard, shocked that he even recognizes her. She’s been gone from West Virginia so long and looks so different now with her tattooed arms and short-cropped hair.
“Your daddy doing better?” John asks, stepping closer to her, the smell of sweat rising off his bare chest.
Raya hears the mocking edge of his voice and her whole body tenses. She doesn’t guess anyone around here ever really trusted her father to begin with, but now with the war in Iraq she can only imagine that they’ve turned colder. A few years ago some old classmate sent Raya a “keep them in your prayers” email with a list of the Render men and women serving over there. It seems to her that John’s brother, Billy Layner, was wounded and got some medal for his time.
“Mm-hmm,” she mumbles, holding her awkward bouquet.
The screen door squeaks open and a tiny blonde woman steps onto the porch, arms tight around a child.
“He got our whole church all excited with his apocalyptic visions.” John smiles. “Attendance has been up ten percent.”
“God said fire next time.” The woman pitches her voice loud.
John rolls his eyes. “I’m just glad Billy found him. He had Nathan clear down by the old school bus stop.”
The woman rocks the child whose head dangles at a painful angle. When Raya looks closer she sees that he is not a baby but a full-grown boy whose body is small, bird-boned and stiff.
Raya glances at John. “I thought it was Billy’s son that—”
“No, Nathan’s my son.” He points to the porch, his muscled arm gleaming smooth and brown under the noon sun. “We’re just staying out here with Billy and Theresa for a little while.”
Raya nods and holds out her Mason jar. “Well, I’m sorry,” she says, the words curdling on her tongue.
“No, no, Nathan’s fine.” John takes the jar from her and sets it in the grass beside his feet. “I just hope your daddy’s okay.”
Back at Feisal’s house Raya cannot stop hearing the teasing twang of John’s concerned voice. She paces, knowing she needs to call and get her shifts covered at the store, needs to talk to the gallery too, but she panics every time she looks at the phone.
She fills a bucket with sudsy water instead and finds a mop behind the front door. As she cleans the stones of the kitchen floor she remembers the day she ran home from the school bus to find Feisal’s footprints tracking out the door. She’d followed them through the soft spring mud until they disappeared among the dead leaves. She called to him as she wandered the back acre where piles of stones and rusted metal marked the site of the house her grandfather grew up in.
Three days later, Feisal came home, pants torn and his beard wet with mud. Silently, he wiped his thumbs across Raya’s cheeks, smearing her tears, then bringing his fingers to his lips to taste the salt.
The afternoon grows hot but Raya keeps cleaning, pushing on into the living room, as if by sweating and aching her way through Feisal’s house now she can somehow make up for her absence there over the past twelve years.
Under a bookshelf she finds a single photograph. Her mother, sunburned and abundantly pregnant, glancing away, past the photographer, and Feisal, smiling huge and staring straight ahead. Behind them rises the skeletal frame of the house and her mother’s voice: I know I said I wanted to get married and have a family, but I didn’t mean like this. I’m bored, Feisal, bored and tired. And we ain’t even got a good view, all I see is trees.
Raya got her looks from Julie. Blonde curls and pink skin, all her mother except for Feisal’s chocolate eyes. After her mother left, whenever Raya and Feisal went to the grocery store, post office, or laundromat, strangers had stared at the little blonde girl beside the brown, accented man and turned to study the missing child posters. “He’s my father,” Raya had screamed at the gap-toothed clerks and fidgety attendants. When her mother left, Raya’s loyalty sharpened. She focused her love like sunlight through a magnifying glass, scorching, searing at Feisal.
Feisal did not teach her Hebrew or Arabic. He did not teach her a d’var Torah or the prayers of the siddur. It seemed to Raya that he would have had more to say if she spoke his native tongue. In his midnight phone calls to Iraq his words flowed out undammed. Once, she had asked him why they didn’t go there. He laughed, said Iraq is not a place to go back to. He said their people had been trying to get away since the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century. Only his family was stubborn enough, stupid enough, to refuse.
In the night Raya wakes breathless and dizzy, counting the hours it would take her to drive back home. She has not been able to find a calendar or a functioning clock anywhere in her father’s house and she panics now, feeling the speed of the passing days. She lays awake and watches the moonlight shift over the achingly familiar walls, those boards she stared at daily for so many years, the knot in the wood there that always looked like a horse’s face and the dark stain of linseed oil that never washed away.
At dawn she calls the hospital but the conversation goes the same as every other day. The scans and tests show nothing; Doctor Paul says Feisal appears perfectly healthy, except that he insists that the world around him is in flames and everyone is in imminent danger of death by fire.
On the third day Raya goes into town for groceries, clock batteries and a calendar. Render looks smaller than she remembered, if that is even possible. She drives her Honda down Front Street and over the bridge, letting her eyes rest on the buildings. The streets are nearly empty and the whole town looks like a time capsule, or a set maybe, the backdrop for the Raya Sofer documentary: the train trestle where she went fishing every day after school with Blake Cole whose mama took smoke breaks outside the Riverside Café and snuck the kids slices of Wonder Bread that they used for bait, the abandoned slaughterhouse where Raya broke her arm trying to show off for Theresa Estep, and the corner of Snake Run and Polk Road where she knocked out a tooth and her mother carried her in her arms to the hospital, the molar safe inside a carton of milk to keep the roots alive.
In the grocery, she pushes her buggy slowly down the aisles, placing food in the basket and then taking it back out. She’ll be there for one more day? Two more days? Or maybe she should just drive back up to Charleston now and insist that the doctor tell her something concrete.
The grocery clerk, a teenage girl with a smooth and stupefied face, stares openly at Raya’s tattooed arms and the twelve pack of beer she sets on the counter.
“You having a party?” she asks.
Raya looks down at her cart: AA batteries, box of Pop-Tarts, an endangered species wall calendar, and frozen pepperoni pizza. “Yeah,” she says, “something like that.”
On the fourth morning she calls her gallery, her heart up high in her chest and the residual taste of anger from her latest conversation with the doctor still sticking to her throat.
“Hello, this is The Loon.”
“Oh, hi, I’m Raya Sofer, I have a…um, my opening is this Friday.”
“Yes,” the receptionist says.
“Well, I…I have a family emergency and I’m out of town right now, I’m worried that I won’t be back in time to bring the pieces over myself. I was wondering—”
“Delivery is strictly the artist’s responsibility. We need the framed pieces here by no later than Thursday at 5 p.m.”
“It’s furniture,” Raya says. “Beds and chairs.”
“Oh.” The receptionist inhales. “They’ll need to be delivered. Thursday, 5 p.m.”
Raya hangs up and tries to distract herself. She dusts bookshelves and windowpanes but a burnt odor still hangs throughout the house, yellow bands of sun spewing through the prism above the sink, and a gold-orange leaf sitting, out of season, on the kitchen table. Raya cleans these signs away just as she once threw out the silver bangles and dusty lipstick tubes found in hidden corners years after her mother’s departure.
The garden, it seems, grows more and more out of control every hour, vegetables seemingly ripening and rotting by the minute. Raya packs up a box of the firmest tomatoes and cucumbers, the least spongy squash, and carries them across the field.
Grasshoppers click and whir around her bare legs and ahead of her in the high yellow grass something white catches in the sun. Trash, Raya thinks, why do people find it so easy to just throw their trash? But it is a Bible. A white leather Bible resting on a dry tree stump.
Her stomach lurches. She stumbles and sets her box down clumsily. Feisal wandered these fields, no doubt about it. She lays her hand on the book and feels the cover warmed by the sun, the edges of the pages soft and damp. Stamped inside the front flap is, not a note in her father’s hand, but the words His Beautiful Blood Holiness Church With Signs Following. Raya flips rapidly, not sure what she is searching for, underlined passages perhaps, or a bookmark. But the pages are clean and so she returns to the red stamp and runs the words over her tongue, savoring the alliteration, and the hope that hangs in that last phrase.
Closer to the house she can make out two figures, a man and a woman, on the porch. The man rises, shirtless, and Raya squints to see if it is his face or back that is turned to her. She has no free hands to wave and the man disappears inside.
“Hi,” she calls as she climbs the gate, her box perched precariously on a fence post. In the middle of the yard she sees the Mason jar bouquet she gave them, sitting right there where John left it, the flowers melted into a limp brown mess.
“Our garden is out of control,” Raya explains, peering up into the shaded porch at the little blonde woman. “No way I can eat all these on my own. I thought you all could use some?”
The woman nods and walks to the edge of the steps. Her arms look empty and too thin without the child. Raya sets the box on the ground and retrieves the Bible from amongst the zucchinis.
“I found this out in the field,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was yours or—”
The woman snatches the book from her. “It’s John’s,” she says, hugging it close to her chest. “He’s our preacher, you know.”
“Oh.” Raya nods.
The woman smiles big. “You should come, we’ve got a service tonight. It’s just down the road.” She gestures out across the pasture towards town.
“Umm,” Raya says, turning away. “I don’t think I can come tonight…” She pauses and turns back to the woman. “Did my father go to your church?”
“Sometimes,” she says, cocking her head.
Raya looks away. She tries to picture her father, doing what? Shaking tambourines? Singing hymns? It seems that even with his accent and dark skin he somehow managed to fit in better there in her hometown than she ever did.
“He told you about the fire?” Raya looks back toward the woman.
“No more water,” she whispers, “it’ll be fire next time.”
Raya steps closer. “Did he say that? My father?”
“Nathan’s asleep, I gotta go check on him,” the woman says as she disappears inside with a slap of the screen door.
On the sixth day, when Raya calls Janey, she knows Janey will want answers, timelines and schedules. The phone line crackles as if to remind her of the distance between them.
“Your dad’s doing better?” Janey says.
“I don’t know. The doctor’s got him all drugged up so at least he sleeps, I guess.” Raya laughs a short bark of a laugh.
“Oh, Raya, I’m sorry, I wish I could help more.”
Her voice whines, a demand not an offer. Raya wants to scream You cannot make this into one of your moments of true human connection. I am not the Puerto Rican infant you watched that thug rock to sleep on the bus.
“I’m so sorry,” Janey keeps on, “but you’ve been saying you want to feel closer to your dad. Maybe it’s really just a blessing in disguise.”
When Janey gets all syrupy sweet Raya pretends that she does not hear her. Instead she listens to the background noise, the beep, beep, burp of a car alarm. Janey could be at the intersection of 18th and Loomis. Raya pictures the taqueria there on the corner, the florist across the street.
“You’re gonna be here for your opening tomorrow right?” The ends of Janey’s sentences get lost inside the static.
“Hey, yeah, listen, I need you to do me a favor.” Raya rolls a cigarette on her thigh, all tobacco this time. She’s given up on giving up cigarettes. “The pieces have to delivered to the gallery, I tried to talk to the receptionist about it but—”
“I’ll do it,” Janey says, but behind her confidence Raya senses a trembling and already she can see her red oak bed tipped on its side, the bone-fine arch of the front post cracked and splintering.
In the morning, Raya is curled on the futon, dozing, when the phone rings. Doctor Paul says come. He says he still has not accurately diagnosed Feisal but the hallucinations seem to be gone. He’s no longer combative and no longer seems to see fire. Raya grabs her clothes and the photograph of her young parents and carries them out to the car.
In his starched white bed, Feisal lays still, staring at his hands that hang like marionettes, limp at the ends of his arm strings. From the doorway Raya watches as he glances up and stares straight through her.
She moves closer, her mouth curling in an attempted smile.
“Where have you been?” Feisal asks, not accusing but pondering.
Raya’s stomach leaps and she stops, pressing her fingers to the bridge of her nose and squeezing her eyes shut to stop the tears.
“They wouldn’t let me come see you. I tried, but they wouldn’t let me, so I went to the house.” She gathers his left hand into her own.
He hushes her and brings his finger to his lips, smiling. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “The fire is necessary, cleansing.” He gestures to the blank walls.
He’s always been crazy. Raya’s mother’s voice swarms up between them. Not like crazy, crazy, not bad crazy, don’t get me wrong. The swish of her skirt and bloom of perfume. You know how many religions honor those who see visions?
“The new growth will come back twice as lush.” Feisal smiles. “You’ll see.”
Raya grips the tethering weight of his hand and squeezes his fingers to feel the familiar calluses.
Behind her, footsteps echo on the tile floor and a nurse enters. Pink scrubs, high ponytail and curled bangs.
“How’s it going, Mr. Sofer?” she says. “You’ve got a visitor today!”
She pulls three pill bottles out of her pockets. Raya steps aside.
“These might make him a little sleepy.”
Raya steps farther back as the nurse counts out a handful.
“Spoonful of sugar,” she chirps and Feisal opens his baby-bird mouth. She drops them in and hands him a paper cup. “Ship shape!”
Raya looks away. The hallway beckons. You’ve been saying you want to feel closer to your dad.
The nurse snakes her stethoscope from around her neck and slides the smooth end under Feisal’s gown. Feisal smiles at her, the same smile he displayed for Raya. His eyes flutter closed and the nurse bends over his chest, counting heartbeats. Raya leaves before the tableau can be broken.
She walks fast down the hallway, past dormant machines and carts of empty meal trays. In the waiting room she breaks into a run and pushes out through the glass double doors, the blast of heat sending tears to her eyes.
The parking lot pulses and Raya freezes. In the trees cicadas scream. And then, there, at the end of the lot: her car.
She slides the gear shifter into Drive. Spoonful of sugar. Ship shape. The road pulls her forward past warehouses, soot-stained buildings and glistening train tracks. Her mother once taught her to lay pennies on the track and wait for the freights to smooth them flat and then Feisal had collected her oblong coppers in a jar he kept in his studio. Look at all that luck!
At the stoplight Raya presses on the brake and hunches forward as if she cannot see. To the right is Highway 64 West. To the left the road loops back through Charleston and into the mountains beyond. The light turns from yellow to red and Raya closes her eyes. She pictures the window of The Loon gallery and inside, her sleigh beds arranged in a semi-circle, curved cherry backboards arched effortlessly, frames resting on claw foot legs hewn down to impossibly thin grace.
She opens her eyes and flicks the blinker, gunning the little Honda’s motor too hard. She pushes it up to ninety. Around the city the highway twists and switchbacks into itself. Raya rolls the windows down and the air flips her backpack open and sends the photograph of her family flying to the floorboard. The gas gauge light blinks on. She does not slow down. Before her the road cuts deep through the mountains and inside her chest beats her mother’s racing, inconstant heart.