Fiction

Terrarium

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 FICTION









Terrarium  

by Susan Neville  




It was always daytime when she saw him, but there was never light, and there were never other
people. He came to her room, and the

room was dark with drawn drapes, and after he left, it
smelled of sex.


    

He said this thing would never hurt a soul. He would never tell a single human being.
She would never tell a single human being. It was a completely enclosed system. If anyone
saw him enter her room, even once, they would deny everything and end it. She loved him,
and she knew it had to be that way for now. He was married. He had children. He was a
responsible man.


    

He left dried semen peeling from her skin, flaking off like sunburn, or was it in fact
her skin that was peeling off in layers, leaving her unprotected. Or paint from the walls,
which were shrinking to fit her. She was convinced the room was shrinking to fit her.


    

Pretend with me. His sack crawled like the skin of a squid. It was always moving, no
matter what his face was doing. She couldn’t begin to imagine being him, that particular kind
of bondage. He had beautiful eyes and dark hair with flecks of silver. There was the same
silver honeycombed in the window glass.


    

Her room was in a converted factory where once men had manufactured parts for
cars. There was still a red Stutz in a room by a former loading dock that was now a
restaurant. There was no door wide enough to drive it through. It had been put together in
that room as a novelty, like a ship inside a bottle, and it had remained there.


    

All her clothes were drenched with the smell of him. Nothing would wash it out. Not

a thing in the world would wash it out. It was a musty smell, like decaying leaves. If only she
were sure he loved her. If only she were sure he wouldn’t leave her here alone.
Outside the window there were people walking through the sunlight and the dust.
How did they get outside? The room was shrinking to fit her. It was a completely enclosed
system. When he left the room, she felt the oxygen and moisture seep out around the
windows. It drew the walls and ceiling toward her. It was a completely enclosed system. She
couldn’t breathe. She loved him. She was madly in love with him. Pretend with me, he said.




Outside, there was a city filled with limestone monuments and statues. It was a city like a
giant cake, all elegiac, funereal, a place made of stone the color of sugar.


    

She opened the drapes. A bus went by, with its deep blue windows.


    

A glass bank tower, glazed with reflected sunset, orange as a popsicle, shone on his
face. An airplane drew its slow descending line near the horizon. Do you see it? he asked.
Yes, she said, I see it. You don’t need another thing, he said, and she said, No, not another
thing. She touched the silver watch on his arm, the warm skin, the dark curling hair, the
places where his blood pressed against his skin.


    

There was a sheen to the monuments, all glassy polished stone, and when she moved
her head just right, the light snapped like rows and rows of flashing cameras, aimed straight
for her heart.


    

Talk to me, she said. Straight ahead of her, there was a row of silos. The sunset faded
and the silos towered in the blue-white light.


    

There, he said, and he took her to the base of them. It made her dizzy. She put her
hand on the concrete, and it was cool, as though the silos had spent the entire day in

refrigeration. A breeze caught a pile of grain dust and it whirled around her face like fog.


    

The silos were connected to a flour mill. There were trucks lined up outside the silos
and the mill. Pass the Bread was written on the side of some of them. Eat Cake
was written on some others. She didn’t see a single human being, just these trucks and silos
and the mill. It was a daylight factory, like the one she lived in, and she could hear the
pounding of machines through the long windows, but no sign of people, like one of those
neutron bombs had hit, those bombs that burn the flesh and leave the cathedrals.


    

You know, she said, I read in the paper that viruses replicate by building tiny
machines. I swear it’s true. They punch a hexagonal hole into a molecule and build
something like a nut-and-bolt assembly to turn the DNA into the cell. I read it.


    

She looked at him. This universe has to be so much stranger, she said, than we can
imagine it.


    

I mean think of it, she said. Little microscopic things inside your cells building
simple machines. A few thousand years from now they’ll have strip malls and gas stations and
ten-cents-off sales, all underneath the skin.


    

She’d been waiting since she saw him last to tell him this. Otherwise, what was it for?
Every bit of information seemed strange and miraculous to her but didn’t reach its full
potential to amaze her, didn’t seem strange enough, or, rather, mysterious or perhaps even real
enough, until she passed it on to him and she knew he took it in. This was how she knew she
loved him. She was absolutely blind and dumb when he wasn’t there to hear her speak.


    

And maybe we’re the viruses inside something else inside something else inside

something else, like Russian nesting dolls, and God walks around with us inside and doesn’t
notice.


    

Rather than the other way around, he said, and he unbuttoned her blouse to the
breastbone and ran a finger down a blue vein to her left nipple. She watched the nipple rise,
felt the ping of blood in the tip. It’s like they think, she said, these microscopic things, they
think. Not thought, he said, but will. The universe runs on sex and will, he said. One
feeds the other. I’m older than you. You’ll live to see that this is true.


    

They walked through a laboratory filled with glass tubes and faded formica tables.
There were different colored liquids in the tubes, and the tables were covered with white dust.
Beyond the lab, the box of an elevator without a door, these belts and weights that you could
see.


    

She was afraid of closed-in places and heights, and she leaned into the warmth of his
body. It was strange being out in the daylight with him. He seemed more vague to her, like
something bleached by the sun. She wondered if she looked the same to him. She felt like
one of those couples you’d see in beat-up cars, his hand jammed inside her blouse or
underneath the waistband of her jeans, and the look on her face too old, a kind of mask, both
hard and scared because she could not concentrate or focus on a single thing outside of him.


    

He said he had worked at this mill one summer when he was a boy. You’re still a boy,
she said. No I’m not, he said, I’m not a boy.


    

One of his jobs was to walk on the crust that hardened on the grain and spoiled the
suction when it was time to drain the silos. He broke the crust, with a rope around his waist,
and then grabbed on to the ladder as the grain began to flow and threatened to pull him
under. Grain is tricky, he said, both liquid and solid. Tons of red wheat could stand solid as
a mountain and then give way and flow in waves.


    

In five seconds, he said, you can drown in it. Be so far under that twenty men
couldn’t pull you out.


    

She remembers walking in the woods one spring, kicking aside old leaves and looking
for crocuses and the red spindly starts of peonies. She had reached down and picked up some
rotting leaves, she had crushed the webbing and run her fingers along the spine. She was
eighteen and all of the sudden that day the ground had started to feel like a thin crust on top
of endless water. Like the ground was fragile, like it would give way at any step and she’d just
fall and fall and fall and never stop falling.


    

Once that occurred to her the feeling had never entirely gone away. She’d just gotten
used to it, like learning to walk on a ship. She had sea legs. Once in a while the boat would
pitch her forward and she could feel herself starting to drown. She thought she understood

what it would be like to drown in the silo. She wanted him forever always. Whatever it is that
wants to pitch her forward was always out there, around the edge of her vision, circling.


    

Hold me, she said, and she leaned into him, his breathing in her ear. Just the thought
of being up that high terrified her. Whenever she was up that high she was absolutely certain
she would jump. Do you love me? she asked him. He would never say the words, and she
knew it was a dangerous thing to ask him, but she asked it anyway. Do you love me? She led
his hand up underneath her skirt. Do you love me? Am I important to you? Will you live in
a house with me, and read our children stories, and go to church all dressed in a suit and tie
on Easter? Could we build a family like a boat for the times when the ground turns to water?
Could you do that with me as you could never do it with her?


    

She was too young for his wife to matter to her, but his children were all too real. She
was waiting for them to grow up and then he would be with her all the time, and they would
eat in restaurants, holding hands.


    

He waited a beat or two too long before he answered her. I love you, he said then, but
it was wooden, the way he said it. She changed the subject, asked him if he was afraid
someone he knew might see them. He told her the mill was, like every place, so automated it
was almost empty. Just a man or woman here or there to tend to emergencies and start up the
machines. You could go in the largest mill or power plant, he said, and see room after room
of abandoned desks. And anyway, though they knew him here, it was a different life. It
couldn’t touch his present one.


    

Completely self-contained, she said, and she tried to laugh.

    

There was motion everywhere she looked, but he was right, no human beings. There
were buckets that rose up and down on belts, and man-lifts only one foot wide. You could
jump on one, he said, and rise up ten floors like you’d ingested yeast. She tried to put her
arm around his waist but felt him move away. When the lift went by from the bottom floor,
he stepped onto a step about a foot wide, and he rose into the air. Now she’d done it. She
would never again as long as she knew him mention the word love. He rose clear to the top
of the building. She could see the bottom of his heels six floors above her.


    

He was nothing more to the person who made that lift than one of the buckets of
grain, a container of pulsing blood. Why should he be any more than that to her. She could
turn and leave this building but instead she called to him. Don’t leave me here, she said.
Please please come back down to me. She waited for him to return, like the receipt in a

pneumatic tube.


    

When he came back down, she tried to laugh again, and still it didn’t work. She was
feverish, she was dizzy, not the least bit well. You scared the hell out of me, she said to him.
No matter what you say, you know you’re such a goddamn boy.


    

There were beams in the floor of the mill like a log cabin, bags of barley flour
everywhere, soot on the wall from a fire, ink stains on the floor. She followed him then past
metal pipes, past giant bags of flour, past boxes marked swine starter and niacin,
past gray flour dust and a curving wall that echoed the curve of the railroad track outside of
it.


    

Once he’d brought her silver metal balls you were supposed to roll around the palm
of your hand. He’d put them deep inside of her, there were bells inside those balls, and he’d
taken his hand and made her come and listened to the muffled sound of the bells. She
remembered it now because every inch of the floor was covered with grain that rolled like ball
bearings underneath her feet.


    

She slid several times on the grain and dodged pipes and the lifts that continued
circling up and down on thick strong belts.


    

Finally they walked into a large, window-lined room. The room was filled with
enormous golden oak boxes, like armoires, arranged in two straight lines and suspended from
the ceiling and up from the floor on black rubber stems.


    

Look, he said, and she did.


    

She thought something was wrong with her eyes because every one of those
wardrobes was shimmying, twisting around on the rubber stems with a motion like belly
dancers. These are the sifters, he said, they separate the wheat and chaff. They shook and
shook and a part of the concrete block wall and all the paned windows shook.


    

Inside the wardrobes the grain fell through metal nets with a thread count as dense
and fine as percale sheets. The bran swirled like sparks when he opened the machine and
pointed a penlight.


    

The dark shaking windows, the whole room vibrating. She could feel the power in the
engines all the way through her body.


    

No one else was in there with them. He put his hand on a wooden sifter and held out
his other hand to her, and she took it. Why couldn’t she stay mad at him? Jesus, she said, oh
dear Jesus God, please talk to me. She could already feel the vibrations in the soles of her
feet, the shaking windows, through his hand, through his body, to her hand like an electric
current. He leaned into the vibrations and pulled her to him, and she lifted her skirt and
moved up close to him and pressed her clit against his thigh. She looked over his shoulder,
out through the window, to the city. The lights were coming on like the flecks of bran. The
wheat, the chaff, the constant sifting and falling, the rising sparks. Underneath the sparks
there was all that rolling darkness. The wind through the windows, her skirt, his voice, the
wind. His hands, the wind, his voice, the grain from a hundred farms. What was he saying?
There’s nothing else outside of this, he was whispering, not one single thing outside of this.





©1998
Susan Neville
and Nerve.com