"Shhhhh," Canoe says, as if someone has spoken. But no one has said a word. We simply stand at the bottom of Louise Cooper's staircase like bridesmaids waiting to catch the bouquet, but we are not bridesmaids. We are women near the end of our lives. We look up at nothing: the hallway, the bedroom doors.
Still, His voice is everywhere. Which room? Which direction? Canoe climbs. We follow. At the top of the stairs, we pause, waiting. Nothing. No sound at all but something just below the surface quiet. What? Something so familiar: a woman weeping? Our Louise? We walk down the hallway, pushing at doors -- there are so many empty bedrooms. This one simply light from the now-blue sky shining through its open windows onto the poplin spread, pulled taut, pillows fluffed as if Louise is expecting guests; the next one, the same. We move quickly. We hurry. We push on doors, we open closets.
We do not find her until the maid's room. She sits on a narrow cot among little artifacts -- a wire-cage mannequin, a yellow-painted dresser, a children's mirror. On the floor there is no rug. If we were barefoot we would be splintered, but we are not. We are shoed and zipped, buttoned and covered; this we notice because Louise is not. She is without a stitch of clothing, entirely nude.
She covers herself when we burst in, drawing her legs up and arms around to cinch them. She is a ball of flesh, Louise Cooper, leaking from the eyes. She does not need to ask to know our mission; she points, weakly, in the direction of a narrow staircase -- the back way. Esther takes the lead and we hurry, pell-mell, reckless. We sense there is little time and so we tumble down the stairs, our flats nicking the soft wood, our hands slapping cold walls. Released near the back door into the open -- the sudden fresh air, the sudden light -- we run. We tear. We might spread our arms. Fly.
We head out so fast our flats flapped off some way back, seven pair abandoned like fourteen blackbirds in a jagged line, our soft soles hopscotching gravel, rock, then the grassy stubble in the field behind the Coopers', Esther ripping the just-red stalks from their roots, Barbara and Mimi holding hands, running, Viv and Judy behind, Canoe in the lead. We must find Him, we know. We must intervene. We do not want Him wrapped around a telephone pole. We do not want that blood on our hands. We must save Him, mustn't we? We must save Him, quick.
But first, no. First, we must save ourselves.
Copyright © 2004 by Kate Walbert
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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