by Nicole Lungerhausen
I like to swim. They let me swim every day here.
Shia and I swim together. I say, Go swim, Shia, and he stands at the edge of the swimming pool looking back at me. Once sure I am right behind him, he taps his paws one two three and jumps in.
I take off my uniform to swim. I like the feel of the hot, dry sun on my breasts, on my back, on the bridge of my nose. I like how the rays filter through the backyard palm trees, making spiky shadows on my stomach and thighs. But the sun is at its highest in the sky and the concrete burns my feet. I throw my clothes into the shade and run to the pool one two three and dive in.
Like a hot knife through cold butter, Charles says. He watches me from the shade. One hand shades his eyes. With the other he drinks from a tall glass and crunches on the ice cubes.
Butter is expensive. Many things are now: food, gas, water, sugar, eggs. Charles says I was expensive, and that’s saying something because they are very rich. My mother made me a cake for my fifteenth birthday. She had to use powdered eggs and fake sugar because we did not have money for the real kind. It tasted bad but I ate it anyway, fast and looking down at my plate so I would not have to see my mother watching me, her eyes drooping down at the corners and her mouth small and tight. They looked the same on the day she watched my father sign the paperwork that put me into service.
These are the kind of things I think about when I swim. When I tell Charles and Kate the things I think they often say, Are you sure you’re okay? You’re too pretty to think things like that. Here, swallow this and go lie down. It’ll make you feel better soon. And when I wake up sometimes the thing I was thinking before is not in my mind anymore.
Today I swim extra laps while Shia paddles to keep up with me, grunting and snorting through his long black nose. I stop to rub his nose with my fingers, on the spot where it looks like he dipped his nose in flour. We are both strong swimmers. Let’s race, Shia, I say and he barks and paddles faster. It is a good day. It is my last day.
When I leave this desert house, the first thing I am going to do is buy a map. I will open it up and find the biggest ocean. I will use my fingers like they taught us in neighborhood school to measure how many miles it is from here to there. Then I will get into the new red car that Charles and Kate are giving me and I will drive straight there. No stops, no bathroom breaks, as my father used to joke. Shia will sit in the passenger seat and we will drive with all the windows rolled down until we can smell the sea.
When I told Kate and Charles this a few days ago, they laughed. Then Kate said are you sure you’re ready for that? And Charles hugged me to the tight part of his pants and said we should go lie down for a while.
I am grateful they are so good. Not everyone is. I have served in many houses, so I should know. A few times before the house I am in now, a man locked me in the basement and did not feed me. He would turn on the overhead light, tip toe down the stairs, and lie down with me. Please, I am so hungry, I would say afterwards and hold out my dirty hands. I’m sorry, there isn’t any food in the house, he would say. Then he would go up the stairs and it would be dark again. Later, I would smell things cooking. Gamey, brown meat. Something with chocolate.
But Charles and Kate are good. When I first came to the desert house, they said I should call them by their first names. Kate smiled at me and took me by the hand to the bedroom. I think we’re the same size, she said. We could be sisters. She pulled out clothes from what I thought was a room but was a closet and put them in my arms. Fancy jeans with a bleach stain. A soft pink t-shirt with a hole in the armpit. You can wear them when your work is done, she said.
I have worn my uniform for so long, it did not feel right to put on regular clothes. I said thank you and hung them up in my closet. Sometimes I take the clothes out and stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom and imagine what they would look like on me. Then I hear my mother scolding me for taking hand me downs, and I shove them to the back of the closet again and get on with my work.
Charles looked me up and down and said I was worth every penny. That first night, we did not lie down together. He taught me how to play sixes and sevens. I did not tell him I already knew how to play because I could see that teaching me would make him happy. In service, I have learned it is good to make sure those you serve stay happy.
My father taught me to play in our house with the white fence and blue shutters at the end of the cul-de-sac. The street name is a red flower that folds in on itself many times like an intestine. I do not remember the name of it anymore. Sometimes when I play sixes and sevens with Charles, I can feel the name forming at the back of my throat. But then I get a bad roll of the dice and Charles says too bad, so sad and the name dissolves like a tiny candy on my tongue.
I finish my laps and float on my back. Shia swims around me, his mouth open and water dripping from his blue-black gums. The sun is high and bright. I breathe fast and can hear my heart in my head. I move my arms and legs back and forth, inch by inch to see how slow I have to go to keep from sinking. A shadow on my face. Charles stands at the edge of the pool. His lips move but there is no sound. I do not have to hear to know what he is saying though. Time to get to work.
I pull myself up from the pool onto the concrete. Shia follows me over to the patio chair. He barks and shakes his black and white body, water from the short hairs on his back flying to the ground. No, Shia, I say and point my finger downward. Sit. He sits. I have taught Shia to sit, speak, heel, and roll over. I towel Shia down. I say, You are a good boy, Shia. Yes, yes you are. So good. He licks my face.
I shake my head back and forth and run my fingers through my hair. I brush the water from my arms and legs and watch it splatter to the ground. I know why Shia does it. It feels good to shake my body in the sun and make something happen.
I put on my uniform and go inside. First I clean. I dust the shelves that are full of books. I recognize the letters but many of words in these books I do not understand. I vacuum the cushions on the low white couch in the living room and chase any lizards I find back outside. I sweep, wash, and polish the grey green stone on the floor, careful to get every speck of sand. I use the squeegee to clean the large, tall picture window that looks out onto the pool. With a special cloth, I wipe the frames of the paintings that are everywhere in the low desert house. My favorite is a woman with big eyelashes and a triangle nose and large nostrils. Kate says it was made by a very famous artist. That’s Cubist, she says. You have good taste.
She and Charles are artists and I help with their art. I am their muse, they say. The first time they showed me a picture that had me in it, I said, that is not me, that woman. And it was not just because I looked strange and pale, my hair matted and covering one side of my face like I had something to be ashamed of. It was because I thought of myself as the girl who clung to an unfamiliar hand as I was led away from the blue-shuttered house at the end of the cul-de-sac.
When I am done with dusting the paintings, it is time for Kate’s tea.
I had never seen a tree on fire before, Kate says. She sips the green tea. We sit on the low white couch, her feet in my lap. Shia lies on the floor and his head rests on his paws. His eyebrows bounce back and forth between our faces as we talk.
What did you do? I say.
She pokes my stomach with her big toe. I did what any artist would, silly. I got my camera and took pictures until the flames died down.
I would have put the fire out, I say. Shia sighs and rolls over onto his side.
But we were in the desert. Not too far from here, actually. And there was no water nearby. What would you have done then?
I think a moment. Sand. Sand puts out fires. I read that someplace.
Kate sets her feet back on the ground. That’s smart. She hands me her cup. I need more tea, she says. When I am done pouring, she gets up. She taps her fingers on the cup and walks to the picture window. The sun sets behind the patio wall, its late-day colors – orange, red, pink – reflected in the pool.
Kate says, Come here. I want to show you something. I go to the window. She puts her arm around me and points to some fireflies by the patio shade. Isn’t that a wonder? she says. She puts her head next to mine. They dance like drunken stars. What would happen if you swallowed those fireflies, do you think? Could you see them blinking when you opened up your mouth? She looks at me. Would you like to find out?
Something in her voice makes my body go cold. No, I would not like that, I say.
Her arm tightens around my shoulders. What about Shia? Should we try that on him? At the sound of his name, Shia twitches his ears and thumps his tail.
My throat has a lump in it. No, I do not think Shia would like that either.
After a while Kate squeezes my shoulders and says, I can’t believe it’s your last day. Are you ready? There are no more colors in the pool and the patio is dark.
Yes, I say. I am ready.
Charles sits slumped in a patio chair. His ankles are crossed and right foot jangles up and down, up and down. When he sees me, he smiles. Hey beautiful, all set for your close up?
Kate says, Where’s the med kit? Charles points to the deep end of the pool. He hands her the special camera, the one to we usually use when working under water.
I take off my uniform. My bra. I step out of my underwear and fold everything into neat squares. I put the bundle on the patio table. I do not like it when my clothes get wet. When we do this work things tend to get messy. I walk to the deep end of the pool. Shia follows, his paws clicking on the concrete, tick, tick, tick. No Shia, I say. Go lie down. He ducks his head but stays still. Shia, be a good boy. Go lie down. I point to the patio chair. Now. He obeys.
I jump into the pool feet first. Kate uses the ladder to get in, the camera round her neck. A snorkel kit is on her head and the hard blue plastic sticks out from her head like a broken arrow. She swims over to me. I float on my back but it does not feel as good as during the day time. The night wind makes my top half prickly and my bottom half is cold and heavy in the water.
Kate slips the mask over her eyes and puts the snorkel in her mouth. She turns on the camera and gives me a thumbs up. I let my arms and legs fold in until I’m sinking. When my feet hit the bottom, I open up my mouth and let the water fill my nose. I find it is not as difficult as it used to be.
These are the kinds of things I think whenever I drown. I think of times before service, before my value was measured and used to offset a mountain of debt credits. A car trip someplace where the mountains have bright white tops. My father lifts his hands from the wheel. My mother laughs and punches him in the arm. A shiny red tricycle that I pedal around and around in our cul-de-sac, happy in how fast I can make myself go. The taste of salt water on my tongue and sand in my swimsuit making me squirm. My mother hands me something sweet, fizzy, and a little metallic to drink. She smiles when I smile.
I never tell Kate and Charles these things. I tuck them like a secret at the back of my throat. I couldn’t tell them anyway; my throat is too full of water. This time, just before the darkness takes me, I hear the sound of a dog howling, high and wild.
When I wake up it is early morning. I stretch my arms. I take a pair of jeans and a flowery blouse Kate gave me out of my closet. I put them on and lay my uniform on my bed. It is no longer the last day. My family’s debt is paid. Today I can leave.
When I walk out to the living room, I say, Shia, come. He does not come. I go through the house, calling his name. My voice bounces off the bookcases. The paintings in the hall. The clean, straight surfaces of the kitchen.
It is when I come back to the living room that I see him out by the pool. Under a patio chair, lying on his side and ignoring me. This makes me angry and I open the door to the patio and call to him again in a loud voice. He does not move. It is odd that he does not move. Bad dog, I say and my feet slap against the concrete. A hot breeze off the desert ruffles his black fur. I kneel down to touch him. He is cold. His tongue hangs out the side of his mouth.
Oh no, I say. I say this many times until Kate and Charles come running outside. They shake their heads. Must’ve gotten bitten by a snake, Charles says. He looks at Kate. She didn’t bring him back inside last night, he says. She forgot.
I look from one to the other. That is not possible, I say. We were in the pool last night. You had the camera. I drowned and the darkness took me. I would – I could not have been awake. Shia is a good boy. It is not possible. I start to cry.
Kate takes my hands in hers and says in a soft voice. You’re making up stories again. This is what happened, you weren’t feeling well after tea, I told you to bring Shia in for the night, and then go to bed early.
Charles says, Sweetie we know you love Shia and wouldn’t hurt him on purpose. But the fact is he’s dead and you’re responsible.
Dogs aren’t cheap and I’m afraid the debt will be very large. Kate hugs me. You wouldn’t want to leave without paying it, would you?
They look to the side of my face as they say these things. I think of the man in the house I served in before. I rise to my feet. My face feels hot. No, it is you who are making things up. My debt is paid. I am leaving today. You gave me a new red car and I am leaving today. I am going to see the ocean.
Kate looks at Charles and gets to her feet. He walks into the house, fast, looking back at us. I don’t know why you’re saying these things. Haven’t we been kind to you? And now you can’t be bothered to take care of your responsibility? I don’t like to say it but if you leave now, there will be serious trouble for you. For you and your family.
Charles returns. He hands something to Kate. You know this, she says. We don’t want to but if we have to get the Authority involved, we will. So you’ll stay for just a little while longer, yes. Until it’s paid. And then you’ll get to see the ocean.
You are not good, I say. You are bad. You are worse than the man who lied about having no food. I want what you promised. You are bad. You are bad, I keep saying, my voice getting higher and higher, until they pinch my nose and tilt my head back and tell me to swallow the pill.
Charles lifts me over his shoulders and carries me to my bedroom. He lays me down. I roll away from him, on my side. My uniform is where I left it. He sits on the bed for a long time, then pats me on the shoulder one two three times and leaves. I spit the pill into my hand, a sticky smear of white in my palm.
After awhile, I put on my uniform and go out to the living room. Charles and Kate sit on the couch, her feet in his lap.
I want to be responsible and do what is right, I say. First, I will make breakfast. Then I will bury Shia.
It is surprising how easy it is to hide the bitterness of the pill. I put a little bit in everything – the eggs, the coffee, the spices for the potatoes – and no one says it tastes bad. After breakfast, Kate and Charles say they feel tired, and I say, you should lie down for a while.
Now, it is quiet. I wrap Shia in a sheet. He is heavy and stiff in my arms and hard to carry. I am not surprised to find there is no red car waiting for me in the driveway. I lay his body in the back seat of Kate’s car.
As I drive away from the desert house, I look in the rear view mirror. Trails of black smoke puff and ooze from the living room windows. It will not be too long before the fire from the low white couch spreads to the tall bookshelves full of important books to the walls lined with paintings to Kate and Charles’ room. A lot of sand will be needed to put out that fire.
Much later I roll down the car window and rest my arm on the door. A map sits on the passenger seat, open and making loud flaps and cracks in the breeze. When I’m floating on my back in the ocean I wonder how far I will need to stretch my limbs to keep from sinking.
Nicole Lungerhausen holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She lives in San Francisco, where she works as a freelance grant writer for non-profit organizations. “Tree on Fire” is her first published story.
Lovely story, so sad.
Thanks, Susan! I’m glad the story left an impression on you.
Beautiful Nicole. Wonderful juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. Bravo.
This is wonderful. I love the imagery of the house and the life the couple lead, clean, crisp and bright, contrasted with the underlying darkness involved in their relationship with the protagonist. Simply beautiful.
Really textured story, beautiful imagery. It has a melancholy and maudlin tone to it, but I can’t help to relate to the burden of debt, loss, and the finding of one’s limits.
Such a poignant story. “It is surprising how easy it is to hide the bitterness of the pill.” This struck me as the true moral of the story. We are programmed to receive so much bitterness in life that sometimes we hardly notice it. Kate and Charles don’t notice it because they are the epitome of bitterness and empty promises. I’m looking forward to more stories from you, Nicole. Thank you for inspiring me!
Provocative, mysterious, and very well written.
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