Roland said there was a story like this in Gilead:
“There was a woman, very fair—”
“Just got to get that in the first sentence, don’t they?” Susannah said. “Guess the world hasn’t moved on that much.”
“I cry your pardon,” Roland said. “That’s how I learned it, but it may in truth have been different once: the oldest stories often change their coats as they go along.” He frowned, the sparrow-track creases near his mouth deepening. “I had a nurse who told it otherwise. If it's more pleasing to you, I can say it her way instead.”
Eddie had been keeping his hands busy trying to master Roland’s bullet trick, but the shell kept falling between his fingers. It hadn’t gotten him in an ill-temper, though, because it had been making Jake giggle a little, surreptitiously, behind his hand, and Eddie was in favor of anything that knocked the shadows out of the kid’s eyes.
“Hell,” he said, “tell a whole cloakroom’s worth of it. I’m not going to get any sleep tonight until I get this fucking thing down pat anyhow.”
“Then you’ll be awake some time,” Roland said, with an amusement so dry it was almost dusty. “It took me four years to get it right.”
“Four years is about how long it’s taking to tell this,” Jake said, grinning. He lobbed a pebble into the twilit distance to see if Oy would fetch it, but Oy only looked at him with those jack o’lantern eyes, perplexed by this foreign custom.
“There was a woman,” Susannah said, “her looks of no concern to us.” She rubbed her arms—deltoids first and then biceps and finally her wrists and hands, working the stiffness out of them. The calluses had almost worn off her palms from having to be first pushed and then carried in her old chair over all that broken ground, but she was coming back to herself now, God or Gan or both bless the light, zippy Topeka chair. “A woman who came upon something like that in the road, I’m guessing.”
“Because Roland’s world is short on people, laughs, and Coca Cola,” Eddie said, “but it’s got more roadblocks than a dog has fleas.”
What was in their road this time was an oil painting twenty feet wide by—Susannah had Detta’s grasp of trigonometry to thank for this—about sixteen feet tall.
Roland said, “There was a woman who had a wall in her home painted to look like a city. When she looked closely—and she spent many hours looking closely—she could even see the eyelets in the clasps of the purses carried by its citizens, could even see the freckles on a boy and the ribbon in a girl’s hair. She fell into the study of it. And, as such things often do, her study turned into her occupation turned into her obsession. Not that that is something I would understand,” he said with a smile so beautiful in its ruefulness that all three of his companions separately felt that they should memorize it. Eddie even quickly traced the shape of it in the dirt as he had once traced the shape of Jake’s key.
“Sure,” Susannah said. “None of us would know one single thing about that.”
“The lady in question began to spend the whole of her day in front of that wall. She would take her tea with it. She played the harpsichord for the people inside and when she closed her eyes, she heard their applause. And of course they were always pleased by her, as our fantasies tend to find us pleasing.”
“Oh, always,” Eddie said. “I used to please mine a couple times a day.”
“This will go a little faster if I am allowed to tell it.”
Eddie held up his hands. “No more introductions from the peanut gallery, Scout’s honor.”
He put his arm around Susannah’s shoulders and rubbed his thumb in little circles against the highest, tightest muscles there. Susannah leaned into that half-hug; put her hand over and stroked his knee. Sometimes when Roland chided him, she could feel a kind of tension coming off Eddie that reminded her almost of the smell of scorched rubber on pavement, like something in him had had to brake quickly. But he seemed unruffled tonight, with one arm around her and his free hand down by that little sketch of Roland’s smile, still toying with the bullet. That was good.
In truth, Roland did not mind the time spent in the telling—after giving them the story of Susan, he’d have been something worse than a hypocrite if he had—but wanted the silence only so he could sink a little into one of his safest memories, a cake-and-milk memory that seemed to come with the brush of a starched apron against his cheek. He had not been young for very long, but he had been young when he had first heard this tale.
“And of course they were pleased by her,” he said again. “And of course it made her want to please them even more, so though they did not ask her—having no tongues, even ones made of paint—she began to try to give them gifts. She hired artisans to paint half the city’s sky with the blue and black of nighttime and fill it with stars, so they would know the pleasures of darkness and of time. She cut up her own dresses into tiny swatches and laid them over the women like they were her own little cloth dolls, frippery to be affixed with paste instead of pins. They rewarded her for it and soon she could smell the bread baking in their ovens. She could hear the rain falling in its soft showers against their roofs.
“But by then everyone said she had gone mad, which of course she had, and it was decided that she should be separated from her painting or that, if it be ka and there be a sledgehammer handy and the wall supporting naught, it should be destroyed altogether. What was done in the end was to take her out of the room with the lure that she would be able to go to the market and buy delicacies for them, sweetmeats and brandy, and while she was away, her family had it all whitewashed over. When she came back again, her grief was very great; she broke her fingernails off in the bricks and bloodied her forehead against it.
“And it was the blood that did it, for it added that red to all the white. Added crimson, kennit. All at once she could see through the new paint as though it were gauze, and there was a man, one whom she had long admired, handsome—and now, Susannah, it matters at last that she too was considered very fair, that they might be said to make a picture together—and young. He had been under the nighttime part of the painting but now he stood before her, halfway between the two skies, with his hand held out to her.
“‘Come in,’ he said, ‘for there is no pain, for your wounds will close, for your family will be lost, for the water will be sweet, for there will be many pleasures. And you will play the harpsichord for us as in the days before, and wear your old dresses, for they are here, and eat the food you have brought for us and drink the wine. And we will be yours and you will be ours.’ The lady took his hand, which was a painted hand, and stepped into the wall, which did not shimmer like water but rather swallowed her like a mouth. And ever after there was her face, her jaw distended, scratched into the whitewash just above the splotch of blood that would not fade. For she found that she had been imagining them. They were very still and unblinking, and they stank of the whitewash, and they could not speak or sing, and the ones she had given the dresses to could not move for being weighed down with velvet. And so one should be careful of dreams, and paintings, and men, and love.”
“Gilead really did a number on its kiddies, didn’t it?” Susannah said.
“I don’t know,” Jake said. He was realistic about nightmares—if he tried to close his eyes right then, he’d fall toward dreams of that painting as surely as he’d fall asleep at all—but he didn’t think it was any worse than an average episode of The Twilight Zone or Thriller. “Fairy tales are always sort of fucked-up like that, especially the old ones. The little mermaid walking on knives, the one with the stepmother who feeds the little boy to his father.”
“I think we watched some different Disneys, kid,” Eddie said, but just to whistle in the dark a little: he remembered Cinderella’s sisters lopping off their heels and toes. “Roland, aside from giving us the heebie-jeebies about getting eaten by the giant painting we all have to sleep in front of, did that story have a point?”
“That we should be cautious.”
“Right,” Susannah said dryly. “Because we were all looking to rush up and make friends with it.”
“Ends,” Oy agreed, looking at it mistrustfully.
“I know this is a Hail Mary kind of a long shot,” Eddie said, “but Roland, buddy, did you ever think we could maybe just this one time go around it?”
“If we were meant to go around it, it wouldn’t be there in the first place.”
“Ka,” Jake said.
“Well, don’t go blaming either one of us when some painted man comes out to say howdy,” Susannah said, “because I’m with Eddie. I’ve been to enough galleries and museums for one New York lifetime and I can tell you, you’d never get a penny for that. What you got here is some street painter who’s gone and thrown his canvas up and blocked your path just so you’ll take a look-see at it, never mind where you were going or what you were on your way to do. Never mind anything about you. Somebody’s made something and so you got to look at it. And pay for it.”
“We’ll pay for this, I’m certain,” Roland said.
Jake thought it looked like something his father would have bought, if, that was, it had come with a hefty price tag, expensive enough that he didn’t have to think about whether or not it was good because it had already been decided for him. By which he meant: it looked shitty.
Eddie had suspected it the evening before, but morning confirmed it:
“No shadow,” he said.
Roland nodded, unsurprised. “I’d wondered about that.”
“Well, wonder no more.”
“It’s not just that,” Susannah said. She turned her back to it and then gestured them all over to her and held up her knife: let the sun wink off the blade of it, all that perfect clear steel mirroring back nothing but blue sky and her own tired face. “No reflection.”
Jake said, “It’s a vampire,” and he didn’t sound entirely like he was joking. (“Pyre,” Oy said mournfully, staying some sensible three feet behind them.)
“If we can’t go around it,” Eddie said, “and since you’re not a changing-your-mind kind of person, Roland, I’m guessing we still can’t, and probably couldn’t even if it did suck up all our blood like Count Chocula and make us part of its balanced breakfast—how are we supposed to go through it, exactly?”
Susannah raised her gun and Roland approved of how she did it—not questioningly, not tentatively, but the way a schoolchild would raise her hand. A possible answer.
“I would think it's worth trying,” he said.
Eddie bent down a little and brushed his lips against her temple. “Careful.”
“What I have to be careful about is deciding which part of it is ugly enough to be most in need of a bullet.” She said it lightly, but she did feel a little sweat kick into the palm of her hand, a kind of nervousness she hadn’t had in a long while. She considered the painting.
Like the one in Roland’s story, it was a cityscape, but one with no people, only needle-pointed skyscrapers all painted the iridescent colors of houseflies. In between the buildings, coaches crawled--and crawled seemed to be the real word for it, their wooden wheels just floppy ovals, like they were too lazy to stand up straight. The horses pulling them were all globs of thick white paint. It would have only been inept—something they could have looked on affectionately, if a little queasily, like a kid’s too-busy finger-painting stuck up on the fridge—if it hadn’t been for the sky, which was so beautifully done it suggested the ugliness of the rest of it was deliberate. It was almost hard to tell where the sky of the painting stopped and the real sky began. Susannah got dizzy looking at it. A single blackbird with red-tipped wings was in the middle right and she could see the perfect gloss of its feathers and gleam of the white early morning sunshine on its beak.
She steadied herself, took aim at one of the blobby and somehow mushroom-like horses, and fired.
She didn’t know what she had expected, but whatever she had expected didn’t happen. No hole blown in the canvas, no bullet flattened against it, no ricochet, no painted horse dropping hooves-up dead.
“Where’d it go?” Jake said. He glanced at Roland for permission and then circled around, briefly, to the other side of the painting. “It’s not over here, either.”
“Jake, don't dally there, for your father’s sake.”
Eddie squatted down and looked at the road in front of them, as if they might have missed it somehow.
But Susannah was the only one of them holding the gun. She figured Roland might have gotten it at once if he’d been the one to fire, but at least she had noticed it eventually: a bullet was light, but a gunslinger’s hands knew her weapon more intimately than she knew her own palmprint or, hell, her own pussy. And the weight of it had not changed.
She checked the cylinder to be sure. “It fired, but it didn’t fire. I’m still fully loaded.”
“That saves on ammunition, at least,” Roland said. “Well-spotted, Susannah.”
They all checked it that way—by slingshot and tossed pebble and even (only Roland dared to go close enough for this) by spit. Nothing touched it, nothing even left them to reach it; or, more accurately, it did and then it didn’t.
It was well past noon and none of them had eaten, and none of them were hungry—people could, Roland reflected, sometimes fill their bellies better on mystery than on meat—when Eddie said, “To hell with it, then,” and took his knife back out. He had thrown it at the painting over an hour ago and lowered his hand with his fingers still poised relaxed and easy around the handle, but Roland knew better than to think he intended to try it again. He saw what Eddie meant to do and took him by the shoulder.
“I don’t want you so close as that. I’ll try it.”
“Sorry. This is one time you’ve been outdrawn. I mean, I’d let you, I’m scared shitless of that thing, but of the two of us, I’m the one with fingers to spare if it decides to bite. Suze already took the chance of shooting it, it’s my turn now.”
Susannah took his free hand and kissed the inside of his wrist, whispered, “Careful,” against it, as he’d done with her, knowing he’d feel the word even if he couldn’t hear it.
He smiled at her, his face feeling just cool enough to let him know he’d gone that clammy, fish-belly kind of colorless he hated; he’d felt it on him for so many years, the tight-fitting mask of heroin and sometimes even of Henry, a paradoxically heavy feeling of weakness. Mid-World had given him a tan and some strength, a wife and some friends, but scratch his surface and sometimes he still found shakiness and didn’t know what to do with it. Susannah, who sometimes still felt a seam in her mind that was more scab than scar, would have understood him; Roland, who sometimes still looked at them all like a man would look at a handful of gold dust he was terrified of letting slip through his fingers, would even, in his awkward way, have tried to console him. But they all would have agreed that the only thing to do was what he was going to do anyway. Get in close and cut the sucker.
He moved in. There was bringing a knife to a gunfight, he thought, and then there was whatever the hell this was. Bringing a knife to some fucked-up portrait of Cthulu’s hometown.
He’d intended to stand as far away from it as he could, slash at it with the very tip of the blade, his arm extended out—he was already closer than Roland had been when he’d spat at it—but the nearer he came, the more reasonable it seemed to go nearer still. In for a penny.
Only Roland’s voice, like a whip-crack, stopped him from going right up to it just to prove he would: “That’s far enough, Eddie. Far enough by far.”
Eddie halted. Nodded. He lifted up his hand—
“What is he doing?” Susannah said. “Eddie, cut it and get back over here, you’re shaving years off all our lives.”
“He’s swaying,” Jake said, his skin prickling the way it sometimes did when he was dimly aware of the danger they were in, like it was trying to run if he wouldn’t run himself. “Eddie?”
“You got your good thing,” Eddie said dreamily. “In heaven.”
That made both Roland and Susannah move towards him at once—Roland throwing an arm back across Jake’s chest to keep him well back—but before they could reach him, Eddie cut a smooth line across the back of his left wrist and pressed it tight against the canvas. It rippled. Rippled hungrily, as if the surface were roiling from thousands of tongues reaching out for a taste of Eddie’s blood. And Eddie reached for it, too, as though it were his one true love. The paint shaped itself into a hand—no, Jake thought, a claw—and closed around Eddie’s fingers—
And then Susannah grabbed him by the shirttail and Roland knocked him to the ground.
Eddie had gone to a midnight showing once, in the days when a pot-haze and a good drunk were enough for him to think he was well and truly fucked-up, and it had been a trip: some dude with electroshock hair caring for a baby that looked like a scalded cow fetus, like something that should have been soaked in brine. It cried incessantly. Eddie understood why the sound and the look of the baby seemed to go into the man’s head like a nail—one hundred percent down with that—but all the same, he’d pitied the poor thing, though he hadn’t said so to any of his friends. And he hadn’t said that what haunted him wasn’t the baby but the song.
In heaven, everything is fine… you got your good thing, and I got mine.
That was what he heard coming from the painting and, well, it wasn’t any stranger than ZZ Top and “Velcro Fly.”
“Except I didn’t really hear it,” he said. “I almost heard it. I heard—a blank. I heard canvas. And then I heard my head ringing like a bell.”
“I’d rather by far you took a knock to the head than what might have happened otherwise,” Roland said, though he hadn’t let go of Eddie’s jaw and was still moving his fingers lightly through his hair to assess the damage underneath. Blows to the head were sometimes unexpected trouble. He disliked injuries he couldn’t judge the extent of. At last, as satisfied as he was likely to find himself, he turned Eddie more fully over to Susannah, who was less inclined to cluck over him and more, she said, to throttle him again herself, because “so much for careful, Eddie.”
“What do you mean?” Jake said. “About hearing canvas?”
It wasn’t just Eddie’s head that was sore: it was his whole left side, which felt like the road had turned it into hamburger. He peeled his shirt up and grimaced at the blood.
“It was like a movie screen waiting for a projection. I guess I played it one hell of a weird movie, except—it was more like one of those ink-blot things.”
“Rorschach tests,” Susannah said, with a small wrinkle of her nose. “I sat through those before. Odetta did, anyhow, right after—” She touched the scar beneath her hair, knowing they would decipher it out. They were all experts in each other, like the intimacy of ka-tet had become their native tongue. “All those butterflies split down the middle. I knew the answer in my head, but I knew the one they wanted, too, and I wasn’t fool enough to say the truth, that they kept showing me mirrors and broken plates. That what you saw, Eddie? What you heard?”
Eddie was frowning so hard Jake kept expecting to see the corners of his mouth somehow drop down off his face, like a cartoon Cheshire cat. “I don’t know. But—and none of you are going to like this—I think I have to do it again.”
“Then you have taken a bad blow to the head,” Roland said. “I was wrong to have us tarry here, and it almost cost you your life. Perhaps it isn’t ka.” But he sounded unconvinced even to his own ears.
“If it’s ka,” Jake said, “can we go around it?”
Roland shrugged. “Maybe yes and maybe no. We might go around and be pulled back, or go around and die, or go around and live but live badly and without something essential, something we do not know we need. But if it is not meant for us, then we err there, too.”
“I want to believe in anything that’ll put this in the dust behind us,” Susannah said, “but I can’t get an ounce of relief out of you saying it, and I know what that means. We all do.”
Eddie had let his shirt drop back down again and was rubbing fixedly at his head, just below the bloodied spot, the hair still disarrayed from Roland’s scrutiny. “It was just as close as I could come. To understanding what it was saying—drawing—fuck.” He took his hand down: he’d gotten blood underneath his nails. The height of Mid-World fashion. The more aware he was of the blood on him, the harder it was to keep himself from walking back to the painting. Maybe it had made him fall harder than he would have done otherwise—made the ground bite him—made him a smeary, raw-rubbed delicacy, the scent of him alone enough to keep it awake and hungry. In heaven everything is fine.
“I have to.” He gestured back towards the poisonous cityscape.
“Not alone,” Roland said calmly.
Susannah nodded, already patting herself down in the quick, thorough self-inspection they’d all mastered: bullets, water, food, knife. Blanket-roll affixed to the back of her chair. “You and me, Eddie. We skipped the honeymoon, and it’s no Niagara Falls, but maybe it’ll be something we can laugh about later.”
“Ate her,” Oy said.
“Jake, hush him up out of this ominous streak of his.”
And despite herself, that made her laugh. “Never mind. Might be he’s onto something.”
“I need to go,” Eddie said. Susannah thought at first that she didn’t like the look in his eyes, but then she realized it wasn’t the look that was wrong but the eyes themselves: all that clear, bright hazel had turned a muddy, muddled brown, with the green and gold almost swirled in instead of threaded. Like poorly-mixed paint. “Roland, Suze. I have to. Look.” He held up his cut wrist and the drops of blood on his skin shook and then rolled towards his fingertips. Towards the painting. “If I don’t, it’ll tear me apart.”
“Then we go.”
“We all go,” Roland said. “Jake, I would ask you to stay, but I wouldn’t leave you here alone, and I’d rather we didn’t all part. It must be Eddie alone or all of us, and—”
“Then it’s Eddie alone,” Eddie said.
“—and none of us would be content with the first,” Roland finished. “Besides, you’re shaking. And not well. I haven’t seen you like this since the beach.”
Eddie wanted to say that he didn’t want to get them all killed—in heaven, everything is fine—but he lost the battle to stop himself from walking towards the painting. Blood came off him in a mist like some preceding retinue. All around him: a red veil. Crimson, kennit. Come in, for there is no pain, for your wounds will close, for your family will be lost, for the water will be sweet, for there will be many pleasures. Come in, because you were his accident and her only choice, but here you got your good thing, Eddie of New York. You got your good thing and I got mine. In heaven, everything is fine.
It wasn’t a blank canvas. It wasn’t even a blank canvas disguised as a painted canvas. It was a hole disguised as a blank disguised as a picture.
They had seen this before, and not long ago.
He yelled it to Jake because Jake seemed the only one who might listen.
“Get them back, kid, don’t follow, it’s a fucking thinny—” A thinny, and still he was walking into its arms, into its many extended hands, its kisses, as if it were his one true love.
Bird and bear and hare and fish, the thinny whispered.
Then the last drop of blood lifted off his skin and there was nothing left for it to take but Eddie himself.
Bird and bear and hare and fish.
“I’ll be the hare,” Eddie said. His jaw felt numb, almost sticky, like it was hard to open his mouth. “I’ll be the hare, and Suze, you can be the bear—it’s only fair, the poet said, since you killed the motherfucker, good old Shardik. Hazel and Shardik. And Jake, you’re the bird, which makes long, tall, and ugly the fish. And Oy—and Oy the and. That’s us.” He finally got his eyes open, his eyelashes seemingly as thick as paintbrush bristles, matted with clumps of color, though when he got his hand up to feel them—what felt like a year later—they were normal.
Well, he wasn’t dead. And he wasn’t nowhere. But that felt like all he knew.
No: he knew that they weren’t with him. Jake had stopped them, then.
“Smart kid,” he said, hoping Jake could hear him somehow. “Good kid. Solid improvisation, I’m guessing.” He tipped two fingers in a salute and then, for good measure, tapped his breastbone. It all still felt like he was moving underwater. “Thankee-sai. Now where the fuck have I gotten myself?”
It wasn’t exactly the inside of the painting, at least not as far as he could tell, and thank God for that, because Eddie was prepared to put up with a lot, but mutant horses were a bridge too far. It wasn’t Lud, wasn’t Oz, wasn’t Topeka, wasn’t New York, wasn’t Blaine’s Barony Cabin. It wasn’t—so far as he could tell from what he’d heard—Gilead or Mejis or the Mohaine Desert. It was all damp stones and long grass. Cattails. No birdsong. He was sitting on a low rock wall.
The grass, though: it was iridescent. Not Roland and Jake’s purple grass, though, not by a long shot. This was metallic—green and purple and black all at once, like peacock feathers or an oil-slick or the shiny back of some insect. The color of the buildings in the cityscape. If a blade of grass could be a universe, a field could be a city. Maybe he’d come upon the Lilliputians. Maybe it was all just camouflage, as if, in its primitive but shrewd way, the thinny had imagined them to be more interested in a city. Three native New Yorkers and a Gilead boy, what else would they prefer?
“I’d say the safest thing for me to do is to stay in one spot, but I don’t think I can do much else, so it doesn’t really matter. Making a virtue out of necessity, that’s what the man said.”
He felt complacent despite everything, like he had a secret he was keeping from this shithole of a world.
No. Come a little closer, for your father’s sake.
Not the hare but his hair. Roland’s fingers in his hair, parting it to look at where he’d hit his head.
He had a concussion. There was no breeze to move the grass or twitch the cattails, no drip of water down the rocks, the whole world idle, and he was slowing down, slowing from the outside-in, sluggish—and he wasn’t naïve. It would kill him eventually. Worse, it would turn him into the same lifeless stillness, weigh him down with velvet and whitewash, like the figures in Roland’s story. But he was slowing the slowness. He still had his breath, still had his speech, still had his heartbeat. Because at the center of him, the part it would reach last—how many licks would it take to get to the center of the Tootsie pop?—something was happening, something was jiving, and in a way this staid little pissant landscape of a world wasn’t used to.
Good thing he’d never learned the right way to take a tackle.
“Bird and bear and hare and fish,” Eddie said again. “Give my love her fondest wish. Which, no offense, had really better be getting me the fuck out of here.”
His lips were starting to go just a little numb.
The painting—the thinny—was in repose, a cat licking its claws after having dined on a mouse. Roland had lived a long life—sometimes he felt older than the world itself, though he knew that for the worst kind of self-effacing vanity, something Cort would have beaten out of him if he’d ever seen so much of a glint of it in his eyes—but he hadn’t seen anything as obscene as the thinny closing around Eddie like a child’s fist closing around a sweet. He kept Susannah and Jake well-back from it, though that was growing harder with each passing minute.
“If it would be sure you would bring him back, I would say aye—” So close to his story of Susan, he almost flinched to hear Mejis in his voice after all those years. “I would say yes. But it might be that it would only take you, and not even to join him. This is like no thinny I’ve seen, not even like any I’ve heard rumor of. It has a kind of cunning to it.”
“It could go on to fry us some eggs and butter our bread and tuck us into bed at night after it’s done licking its chops and I still wouldn’t have any kind of use for it. If I could shoot it again, I would, and as I can, I might.”
“You’ve seen it won’t be harmed that way.”
“As the bullet would come back, it wouldn’t be a waste.”
“To fire unnecessarily is always a waste. Susannah—don’t forget the face of your father. And don’t,” he said, for, as much as it broke with the teachings of his boyhood, this seemed more crucial, “forget Eddie’s face, or his words. ‘Don’t follow.’ It’s not time yet to disregard him.”
“It’s always time only when you say, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry I stopped you,” Jake said suddenly, wretchedly: his face had gone a kind of ghostly white.
It was true that Susannah hadn’t known what to do with him, the boy flung so abruptly in her path, that she had stopped—and she was sure Roland had too—not because she couldn’t have overpowered Jake but because that kind of power wasn’t in how they loved him. She might have knocked him aside to keep him out of the way of a rattlesnake—to keep him out of the way of the thinny, as he had done with her—but not to override him, not to overrule him. It would have broken their ka-tet.
Susannah—well, Odetta, really—had had a friend once, a bright-eyed girl from one of the families with whom the Holmeses had cultivated a kind of fierce, mannered intimacy, another daughter of the New York branch of the Talented Tenth. Pauline. Pauline had a light-skinned cousin who, just after college, had started passing as white. The family had severed connections with him so as to avoid acknowledging, even amongst themselves, that he had severed the connection first, that he had, as though it meant nothing, put himself in a place where he could never stand too long near his own parents and sisters and uncles and cousins, could never laugh with them or, heaven forbid, eat with them without exciting some spark of suspicion, some question. Pauline had told Odetta all this—they were fifteen then, and understood hypocrisy and self-protection as well as girls that age are asked to—and then said, furiously, “There should be a special word for it.”
Odetta had thought she had meant for passing and hadn’t brought it up, not wanting to hurt Pauline worse; Susannah, with the unkindness of hindsight, sometimes thought Odetta wasn’t the brightest person she had ever met or even the brightest person she had ever been.
Because what Pauline had meant was that there should have been a special word for what happened when a connection was severed so totally and so ruthlessly that the only way to stanch the bleeding was to pretend that you had made the cut yourself.
It was what would have happened if she had pushed Jake away; it was what would happen if they abandoned Eddie. It was worse to think of even than Eddie dying. Death seemed more recoverable than betrayal.
So she packed away, just for that minute, her worry over Eddie, and hugged Jake. “No, honey. You did what he asked, and that was the right thing. We can’t throw him a line if we’re down there too.”
“You say true, Susannah,” Roland said softly. “Do you know I think so?”
“I know.” She looked at him over Jake’s head, not hard but not easy, either. All that anger had to come out somewhere, and Roland could take it—though it ached inside her like a bruise that he would refuse to dole his out to her. “But we’d all better start thinking less about this and more about what’s to be done, and you don’t need to tell me I say true about that.”
“No,” he agreed. He stepped as close to the thinny as he dared: close enough to hear its everlasting whine and keen, still there after all beneath its temporary contentment. “Here with me now, if you would, the both of you.”
“You think he’s in there?” Jake said, inching forward at first and then forcing himself to walk in its direction almost ordinarily, as though he were on some sunny sidewalk. “In the painting, I mean? That we’ll see him?”
“Like a Highlights Hidden Picture,” Susannah said.
Jake started. “I know those!” He laughed and then covered his mouth, ashamed of himself for finding anything funny, though neither Roland nor Susannah seemed to mind it—Roland had loved Cuthbert too well to consider laughter ever out-of-place and Susannah already felt a kind of champagne-high giddiness herself. “I just remembered that your father was a dentist. I always read them in the dentist’s office.”
“Not always that kind of dentist, sugar,” Susannah said, a little absently, “but I know what you mean. Little things to keep the kids occupied, keep their minds off what’s in the other room.” She put a hand to her forehead like she was trying to block a glare, but then she lowered it a little, then turned it to one side of her face and then the other, framing her cheekbones. Boxing out her peripheral vision just a little seemed to trick her mind to let go of her eyes, the way Roland’s bullet did when it ran like water over his fingers.
Jake had his own strategy. He rocked back a little on his heels and squinted at the picture. Black hair and jeans and a white shirt, the white turned buff with road-dust, that was what he was looking for.
Roland only looked.
But it was Susannah who said, after almost ten minutes of silent, concerted looking: “That’s him there. Down at the bottom. Sunk him all the way down there where you thought we wouldn’t spy him, didn’t you, motherfuck?” She traced the shape of Eddie in the air—her man looked like nothing more than three stacked bars of color just above the tacky gilt of the frame, but she was sure of him, and she saw at once that Roland and Jake were sure of him too. She wanted to trace the shape of Eddie, to call him out with her touch, and it took all the steel in her to stay her hand.
“So what do we do?” Jake said, though he worried it was a dumb question, or—maybe worse—an unnecessary one. He felt like if he took his eyes off the bit of the painting that was Eddie, Eddie would somehow drown inside of it.
“I have something I would try,” Roland said. He went down on his haunches and the balls of his feet, the pose of a man going briefly down to the dirt to kindle a fire. It was a memory he wanted to recall even to his muscles—a stiff-jointed pain he wanted to reawaken in himself, since he had grown too old to stay comfortable like that for long. When the heat flared in his knees, he kept himself steady, letting it wash over him. The ache, like the ache of fever, like the beach, like the door, like when I opened the door—let him remember all that, too—let him still be accustomed to hearing me inside his head—
He spoke softly. “Eddie? Hear me well, if you can. There is no wall on any level of the Tower made so well as to keep out khef. You and Jake found each other before you ever met, so find me now. Find us. Tell us what you can, give us what you can, as you love us.”
As you love us.
As you love us.
As you love us.
Eddie had leaned hard into the concussion, into the little mantras it was giving him, the circling thoughts that went around too rapidly to be caught and stilled so easily by this slow, slow world: in heaven everything is fine bird and bear and hare and fish you got your good thing and I got mine as you love us as you love us I cry your pardon for your father’s sake, for your father’s sake, FOR YOUR FATHER’S SAKE AS YOU LOVE US.
That was how he got aware of it, an intrusion that felt almost like a prod from some rock under his blanket-roll. It awoke thought, awoke memory of an early night when Roland had, with an almost shy conspicuousness, left Eddie and Susannah at their campsite while he went to find the nearest stream. They had made love in the shadow of an enormous tree, moss tickling his legs, her hands running down from his shoulders to his hips to her own thighs as she rode him. Though she had already taken his name, that had felt like their true wedding night. And there had been some gnarled root poking into his back all the while, an insistent throb that had somehow intensified his sense of occasion rather than dulled it. Had made it feel real.
This, too, recalled reality. Recalled love.
Still and slow, Eddie thought—the thought itself coming sluggishly, as if to think something new, he needed to trawl the depths of himself and drag it up from the muck inch by inch. Painting. Not a painting but a door to a painting. But my head. He fumbled then, and the words seemed to slip away. He felt, with agonizing slowness, the passing of breath across his lips, the feeling of it in and out of his chest. Still alive. Still—flesh and blood. Not long, though. My head—slows down the slowing. But I need. Something.
He blinked—it felt like it took whole minutes—and when his eyes were open again, Roland was there.
“I know time,” Roland said, more conversationally than Eddie had ever heard him say anything before. “How little it passes when you need it most to go, how much it escapes when you most need it to stay. You seem to not need staying, Eddie, so let me give you time that passes. The struggle of things.”
He held up one of the most water-logged shells and presto-chango, it danced a smooth can-can over his fingers.
“Four years of time in that one little thing,” Roland said. “Nothing speeds time on like learning, especially when it comes with so much frustration. Cuss your fingers and the bullet. Curse me and the whole line of my fathers going back to Arthur Eld. But it gives you time, Eddie, as much as it takes it. It makes time move.”
He broke Eddie’s gun with his hands on Eddie’s, guiding him through the steps patiently, until Eddie found one of his own bullets between his fingers.
Why couldn’t I use yours?
“Because I’m not here. Shadows and shades might still do you some good, but not so much as this.”
Company, Eddie suggested.
Roland seemed to hesitate and almost flickered—as though his stillness alone had threatened to trap him—but then he solidified again, squatted down in front of where Eddie was sitting. “I will stay, an’ you practice.”
You sound like Shakespeare, Eddie thought fuzzily, trying to make his fingers work. The bullet rose over the hump of his first finger and then seemed to stall. He forced himself to go on.
“Tell me about him,” Roland said. “Whatever you can think of.”
Susannah was glad of Roland’s trance—after returning to it to instruct Eddie to go back to trying to learn the bullet trick, he had come back to her and Jake just long enough to say he would share khef with Eddie as long as he could, unless they broke him from it—but she felt the lack of him and was sure Jake did, too. Roland was a place to put her faith as much as he was a place to put her anger. She felt she could have navigated her way out of anything by the light of him, his constancy as true as Old Star’s or Old Mother’s. Truer, maybe, in this world of shifting compass points.
Well, Detta would be ashamed of her ass, running the risk of crying over the loss of any white man, that one in particular. Susannah drew on that.
“Dropping like flies, aren’t we?” she said to Jake, trying to make herself smile. “You and I gonna see it to a close, though.”
Jake nodded firmly. “It must want something, right? I mean, if it were only a thinny, like any thinny, why would it look like this? Why be right in our road? Maybe it was always there, but—do you think it was?”
“No. I feel it like you feel it, like it came looking for us somehow. Roland said it had cunning, remember, figured it shrewder than any he’d seen or heard of. Maybe it is a step up from the Venus fly trap of the rest of them.” She wheeled herself closer but still stayed behind Roland’s back, where the shadow of fresh sweat was darkening his shirt. She didn’t know how long even he could stay down in that crouch, but she didn’t want to push him too far. She would call him out of it if she had to, if it seemed like he was wobbling, starting to fall too close.
She stayed behind him not to hide, though, or—God forbid—to use him as some paltry kind of wall, but because something about that squat of his was recalling something to her.
“What am I thinking, Jake?” she said softly.
Jake had his eyes half-closed and was back on his heels again, like he was still trying to find Eddie. His face screwed up. “I can’t.”
“Don’t worry yourself over it. And for sure don’t crack your head from the inside-out trying to get into mine. We’ll hit it.”
“If we do it sloppy, it takes even more time than if we do it slow. And that’s no tortoise and the hare bullshit, either, take it from a lady who’s been through her share of recoveries and hospital beds and physical therapy stretches until my muscles felt like worn out rubber bands looking to snap. Step by step and push by push. That’s the only way.”
“Roland’s knees hurt.” It didn’t look like what Jake had meant to say, but he didn’t back down from it, just spoke in a taffy-chewing kind of way, like he had to unstick each sentence from the roof of his mouth. “You looking at him—him looking at the painting—looking at Eddie—”
Painting. They’d jumped back and forth across that line so many times now she had lost track, but it had been a painting and then a blank canvas in disguise and then a thinny in disguise and now here was Eddie telling Roland it was a painting after all, or near enough, that it was all those things, layered and lacquered on top of each other like, well, layers of paint. The way the wall-painting in Roland’s story had ended up blood on top of whitewash on top of color on top of brick. And there was a hole bored down in that story like a nail had been driven through it, that lady of madness and good looks crucified on that single missing detail: who, Susannah was almost tempted to poke Roland awake and ask, had painted the fucking thing in the first place? How did a lady end up with a haunted mural, a thinny of a mural, some living thing, without paying for it? And who collected when she did?
Somebody’s made something and so you got to look at it. And pay for it.
“A street painter,” Susannah said, feeling a kind of savage rightness in her throat. “That’s what he looks like, one of them sitting on the little wrap-around fencing against the trees, or perched on the curb, wares all around him. Only one painting, this time.” Odetta had bought a good piece that way once, and even Detta had, though she’d had nowhere to hang it. But it was like she’d said: no one would have bought this one. But the artist wanted them to see it anyhow.
Wanted them to buy it anyhow, or else it wouldn’t have gone up on such proud display.
“It’s for us. Somehow it’s for us. It got our attention and then it sucked him in and it got more, but that’s not enough for it, it’s not enough or it would spit him back. Why here, unless it’s for us? Why pretend like this, unless it’s for us?”
“It wants a sale,” Jake said. “Or it wants to see what we’ll offer. But I don’t even know what we could.”
Susannah addressed the painting, so loudly that even Roland seemed to reel just a little—backwards, thankfully. “You know we’d barter for him and you know we’d give about anything. But how you plan to haggle like this? Not haggling means you ought to have a price tag fixed on you somewhere, unless you’re a gift.” That felt almost right, but a gift wouldn’t have bitten them so hard, wouldn’t have stolen Eddie, like it wanted to ransom him back by their appreciation.
“Appreciation,” Jake said, picking the word up from her head like a pebble off the beach. He’d bitten through his lower lip but was only vaguely aware of the copper taste of blood flooding his mouth. Remembering his world was easy—he and Susannah and Eddie swapped memories of New York and hot dogs and baseball and cars, cars especially after some of their long days of so few miles—but remembering his life wasn’t. It always felt like touching on some wound almost hot with infection, like he had left his childhood there untreated for so long that it had festered. He didn’t want to dwell on his parents; didn’t want to imagine the timeline on which they would panic, miss him, and eventually forget him.
But he found with some relief that he only needed to think of Piper, and thinking of Piper was something he could do with comparative ease and even a baffled kind of fondness.
It was Ms. Avery he was remembering, she who had overflowed with praise for his Understanding of Truth.
“Art belongs to him who loves it most,” he said.
Susannah looked at him, startled by that and not by him grifting thoughts from her, which was, after all, old hat for them all at that point. “What, Jake?”
“My English teacher. It was about—some poem.”
He had a good voice for reciting and fell into it without trying:
“O western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!”
It had been slightly popular, as much as anything not pre-approved ever was at Piper, because of the slight suggestiveness of it, the barest little remnant of scandal that in the hushed confines of the schoolroom still had a fresh Eden-apple-like taste even to boys and girls who heard things more risqué and profane on every TV show and street-corner.
“I remember that,” Susannah said. “But I was older than you when they let me learn it. That little bitsy bit of sex wasn’t supposed to be something we knew a thing about, not back then.”
“The world has moved on,” Jake said, with unconscious solemnity. “But you remember who wrote it? You remember nobody did? Well, somebody, but—”
“Good old Anonymous.”
“And so somebody raised his hand—my dad knew his dad, he’s an intellectual property lawyer with the Network—and asked who it belonged to, how it got in the book if there was nobody to ask for permission, and Ms. Avery talked a little about public domain because the damn thing was older than dirt anyhow, but then she said—”
“That art belongs to him who loves it most.” She looked at the gilt frame, at the hugeness of it all, and for the first time, she saw not showiness but desperation. It was hard to love. Maybe it even knew that, but it could only work with what it had, with the world that she could almost-but-not-quite see in her mind’s eye through Roland and Eddie himself, that world of broken-glass grass and oil-paint stillness, some world that had slowed down enough to become a still life rather than just life. It had put lipstick on its aspirations. And here it was, and this was—maybe—what it wanted.
“I don’t think I can love it, though,” Jake said. His voice sounded very small. “It scares me, but it’s not even that. It makes my skin crawl. I’m sorry.”
Susannah shook her head. “I know this kind of work, Jake, so don’t fret yourself.” Cutting out paper silhouettes of Washington and Jefferson for history projects, coming across a gorgeous illustrated picture-book of “The Tar-Baby,” trying to square how she felt about Hattie McDaniel getting that little gold trophy with how she felt when the tomato-soup-colored sky at the beginning of Gone With the Wind talked wistfully about proud cavaliers and gallantry’s last bow. Even when she’d been Jake’s age, she’d been asked to love things that scared her and made her skin crawl. And she’d mostly even managed it.
The painting—looked at flatly, without the depth of the mouth that had taken in Eddie, without the whispers of the thinny’s excitement—it was easier to bear and easier to love than much of that.
The work that went into you, big as you are. No wonder you ran out of patience as you got down closer to the ground, when you had to work with something other than that pretty sky, had to lump up that grass into a city. Beautiful sky, beautiful bird, so real it could fly right out and land on my finger. So what’s it matter that the horses look a little sloppy? Could I draw a horse? It’s got the feel of a city, even if it’s not one I’d ever want to visit, it’s got those crowded buildings, that smell, almost, of metal and glass and piss on the sidewalks. That could be New York, in another where-and-when. On some other level of the Tower. Oh, you make me homesick, picture.
That my love were in my arms and I in my bed again. You remind me of things I love, of hotel rooms with cheap art on the walls, of cities with gum blackened on the streets, of how Eddie talks about his neighborhood, of the Drawers, of the places Detta went on her lonesome, of the places Odetta went to with her friends and her courage. You ain’t so bad. You’re like a love letter from who I used to be.
Hard not to love a love letter.
“That’s right,” she said. There was a waxiness to it now, like it was a candle falling down around itself. “You soften up for me like that, you go on and melt for me, yes, let’s love each other. Let’s be easy on each other. You’re mine and I love you.”
She wanted to tell Jake to stand back of her, but she couldn’t risk breaking away from that love-lock, as fierce as what she’d had with the demon in the circle of stones—fiercer, even, but warmer—so she had to trust him to know. She came as close as she dared and then came closer still.
“All that silver in you, that green, that little bit of purple, little bit of gold, like you’re a rainbow caught in a puddle.” She reached forward and, not slowly but deliberately, put her hand through the new stickiness of the painting, of the thinny. It felt like it was scalding her all the way down the length of her arm, but when she moved her fingers, she felt them move. And she stayed in her chair, her other hand locked hard around the arm of it. “I don’t know where I’d put you but I love you. I’d buy you if I had a house, hell, I’d buy a house for you. Where’s my Eddie? I know you know, so let’s help each other out, let’s love each other. You’re mine. I can—I can do what I want with what’s mine, can’t I?” That felt more tenuous, but then she thought of all those books she’d stamped EX LIBRIS ODETTA HOLMES on once upon a time, and the ones she’d dog-eared and scribbled in the margins of, and her confidence grew. “Just need to snip this little bit out of you. He’s something new anyhow, like a footnote. I’m restoring you, that’s what I’m doing.”
And suddenly she felt him. She knew the shape of his hands even without seeing them.
“There you go,” she said, as placidly as she could. “You know he came in so late he’s just a little old blot on you. Let me cut him free. Tug him on out.”
She shouldn’t have been able to—even with Jake behind her all at once, gripping the push handles of her wheelchair and holding her steady—she thought the physics of it seemed wrong, her being able to pull him up that way—but it worked all the same, though it took all she had, all the muscles in that one burning, raw-feeling arm and then, as she grunted and stretched forward—Jake holding her by the shoulders then, too—all the muscles of the other, all the muscles in her whole damn body. And it was like it was somehow decided it would let go, because then she flew back with Eddie against her, a tug-of-war rope ceded so quickly she tumbled back on herself and just missed running over Jake’s foot.
There was a bullet between her hand and Eddie’s and then he dropped it and spun around and took her in his arms, lifted her up and kissed her.
Then Jake and Roland were with them, too, both of them shaking just a little but steady all the same, all four of them about as steady as Susannah could want or wish for until Eddie said not to rain on the party but he still had one aching asshole of a concussion and had to sit down before he passed out.
Susannah’s arms were unmarked, but they felt like twin toothaches for the whole rest of the day and sometimes the skin on them would jump like it was trying to get back to the painting. Roland gave her two aspirin and, with Eddie stretched out on the ground and Jake getting water, rubbed her from shoulder to wrist and back again on first her right arm and then her left. She offered to do the same with his legs—“Sore as they got to be with the time you spent down on the balls of your feet”—but he demurred. Too soon after his story of Susan for him to think he deserved any kind of comfort, maybe. She hated to think of him being that foolish, but it wouldn’t have surprised her any. They would need to coax him out of that, however long it took.
But that was later. That was after the lady.
Eddie had just laid down when the painting rippled from top to bottom and side to side. Roland and Susannah both thought of the wrinkles getting shaken from a tablecloth, Jake of the skin being pulled off milk boiled for cocoa, Eddie—getting only a cockeyed view of it from the ground—of somebody bumping a projector screen. It was Roland who saw her silhouette growing larger and clearer as everything else in the painting seemed to shrink and blur, and it was he—trained so well in courtesy—who went to take her hand. He midwifed her into the world more easily than he had Susannah had Eddie, for in the end, the lady stepped out to meet him, and he only handed her down, as if taking her from a carriage.
She was beautiful—statuesque height, some little bit darker than Susannah, long braids styled with golden combs—and her dress was old, dusty velvet, heavily-brocaded. She was weeping, and she kept touching beneath her eyes as if amazed at her own tears. At the flow of them.
“It is real,” she said. “After all this time, it’s real, it’s moving, I’m moving.”
Jake said, “You’re the lady from the story.”
Roland had known her already, as any of his companions would have known a little girl in a red cloak and hood. He bowed to her. “My lady.”
“I was in the wall,” the lady said, not taking them in, not taking any of them in. Then she saw Susannah, and she sank down to her knees for her. “You are the gunslinger whose voice I heard. You set me free, unfixed me. After so long. You reminded the world of life.” She pressed her face against Susannah’s knee. “Give me your blessing, lady, before I go.”
“Before you go?” Susannah said, still stunned by all of it, her body a flood of competing chemicals—stale terror, relief over Eddie’s restoration, wonderment at this woman, confusion, a kind of embarrassment at such adoration.
“I will die now, I think,” the woman said. “This body is a disused house. I can feel it straining at being asked to work for me, to breathe, to beat my heart in my chest. I am not afraid, sai. To move on is still to move and all I want is to move, to move forever, to dance in the clearing at the end of the path, if you give me your blessing.”
“There are other worlds than these,” Roland said.
“You say true,” the lady said, without even turning to him. “Will you favor me, gunslinger? Is it too much to ask?”
“No,” Susannah said. The woman’s tears were hot against her pant-legs. She touched her forehead and felt the slight sheen of oil there, the life of her and her warm skin; touched the woman’s temples and eyelids and shoulders. She did not know what to do to bless her but love her, more easily and more truly by far than she had loved the painting. “Go in peace, lady, feel the wind on your face. Break twigs and bend grasses. Feel the world spin as it moves on.”
The woman rose and, hesitating, then leaned in and kissed Susannah’s cheek. She walked steadily away from them, though she was still within their sight when her legs began to shake. And still within Roland and Susannah’s sight when at last she fell.
Susannah imagined the dandelions of Roland’s world carrying their fluff and seeds across her body.
“Will we go and bury her?” Eddie said quietly.
Susannah shook her head so hard she almost felt a sting of whiplash in her neck. “Don’t put her in the ground. Don’t—don’t box her in, not again.”
Eddie took her hand and kissed it. “She was beautiful,” he said, almost fiercely. “Roland, I’m glad you said it. In the story.”
“I am too, I think,” Susannah said, and she felt a hot sting in her eyes and, thinking of the woman, let them fall freely. She traced their movement down her face. She had never been asked to love such a woman in any picture-book, and as she had watched the lady walk away, she had felt almost prepared to give the whole of her heart to her. To a story Odetta Holmes had never been told about a princess she had never known.
They stayed in their camp-site another day, until Eddie and Susannah both felt well enough to travel. Their road stayed clear.
The incident of the painting gnawed at Roland, who could not determine the ka of it.
“Color me surprised you even think it matters,” Eddie said as they broke camp the next morning. His face was a little paler than usual and he still hadn’t quite gotten all the dried blood from his hair, but he moved with ease, if unusual carefulness. “I thought you didn’t even know how to ask questions that started with ‘why.’”
“I’m not fundamentally uncurious,” Roland said, though he hated the note in his voice that seemed almost querulous, and he supposed he would have said, at some other time, that fundamentally uncurious was exactly what he was. But it was the randomness that jarred him. If they were toyed with, that he could understand. If they were harmed. If they were blessed. But their delay had been so slight, and their injuries and blessings felt likewise.
Eddie nodded once Roland had said some of this. “Stuck waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“As you say.”
“Maybe it wasn’t our ka,” Susannah said. “Maybe it was hers. That we were there to set her free, to break her out of being stuck in that slow hell for so long. ‘Idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’”
“Not just hers,” Jake said. He had been very quiet since the thinny had closed, but now, more than any of them, he looked not just rested but restored, as though he’d had not sleep but revelation. “Its, too. The thinny wanted to be closed. It came here for that. It was so old—maybe it didn’t remember kindness, it wasn’t nice, but maybe—it started to want something. Even if it was just to stop.”
“There isn’t supposed to be a way to do it,” Roland said. “I suppose I told you that before. They only get bigger with time, never smaller, and they never heal. Until this one. A strange beast in all respects, and not one I think I’d be pleased to encounter again. But I think you’re right, you and Susannah both. All things serve the Beam and the Tower, us especially. We were for them, not they for us.”
In his own ponderous way—he, he thought, with a certain dry humor, might have lived quite well in the slow world of the painting under other circumstances—Roland turned that idea over and over again as they resumed their quest. That something could be so old it would at last change its nature. That it would choose whatever clearing awaited for it. That the world would move on to healing, at least for once, instead of to loss. As if things might grow better—might change—might be rescued from themselves. And come to rest, whether that rest was the lady’s dance in some other world or simply peace.
Give us what you can, as you love us.
If you give me your blessing.
Let me give you time that passes.
I thought you didn’t even know how.
Is it too much to ask?
It all seemed almost to nag at him, a jostle as persistent and yet as strangely welcome as the jog of the Horn of Eld against his thigh.