Mare could tell Janny had already fallen asleep, but she read on anyway. She liked the sound her voice made in her daughter's room. It didn't sound like this during the day, at work, or in other rooms in the house. Here it half whispered, half hummed words, tonight the words of Shakespeare. And these words had a consequence. They made Janny sleep. Mare would look up from the page now and then to see her daughter's lids drowse themselves shut above the sheet, slick like fish skin spread over the knife. The same face asleep night after night lying in a pool of bed light.
The air that came in through the open window stuck like hot breath on the back of Mare's neck, but the stirring of the wind was too reassuring to shut out. The ceiling fan beat it about the room in wide spreading circles, picking up dolls' lace, spinning the old mobile. Janny had long grown out of her crib and it had been taken away a year ago. But the mobile still hung where the cradle used to be.
Mare read on through the next act. She knew each line almost by heart, though this was one of the few times she had read Shakespeare to Janny. Normally she read from a large squat book of the Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats. Janny seemed to like them, though she was too young to comprehend what each one said. She'd lie there half dreaming, it seemed, her face unmoving but her mind racing off. Mare could tell by the way her eyelashes trembled, and the way the eyes, before they were closed, flitted side to side between the lids.
"She'll grow up to be quite a looker," Paul had chortled across the dinner table earlier that evening. He had taken them to Sparrow's out by the lake, waltzed them into the spacious fire-lit dining room, even pulled out Janny's chair for her. When he had seated himself he leaned over and chucked Janny under the chin, Mare thought a little too hard. "She'll grow up to be a real good looker alright." But he didn't then say, "Like her mother." Paul didn't look Mare in the eyes until after the wine was served.
Janny rolled onto her shoulder. She was dead asleep and the movement was heavy, slow. Mare decided to continue anyway. She wanted to stay in Janny's room until she was worn out, spent for the night. Then, when it was all over, she would drift off to her own empty room, to her own empty bed, to that silent madness that was always waiting for her in some kind of dream.
Moments later Mare was aware she had stopped reading and was staring distractedly at her little daughter curled up under the tented single sheet. The breeze from the fan blew Janny's hair across her cheek. Mare felt the book give as it slid from her lap to the floor. She quickly swiped it up, shifting in her chair. How quickly her mind was wandering off. Perhaps she was more tired than she thought.
The wine at dinner had been strong and sweet, with only a hint of gold color. It looked like they were drinking goblets of thick dew. Janny sat watching them drink. Paul, though smiling, seemed ruffled.
"Why haven't you called me?" He finally said huskily, sifting wine through his teeth. He crooked his mouth toward the tablecloth then looked up at her, dead on. Mare glanced over at her daughter, hoping he would get the hint. He didn't.
"Paul, this really isn't the time to talk about this." Mare thrust her fork through a piece of lamb. "It's really nice of you to take us out to dinner. Janny and I haven't been out to dinner in a while, have we, Janny?"
"No." The golden head shook. She looked at Mare and then at Paul. There her gaze stopped.
"Where do you go at night, Mr. Paul?" Janny asked suddenly. Mare looked at her, stunned. She very rarely spoke to Paul.
Paul jerked in his chair. "Well, Janny, I go home at night, just like you and your Mom."
"Where is your home?"
Paul didn't know whether to laugh at Janny's serious tone or to watch what he said next, very carefully.
"I live in town. In a great big apartment building." He stretched "great big" so that it sounded like he was describing a giant hot air balloon, or some monstrous ship in a children's book.
Janny looked at her Mom. Mare could tell she was thinking, hard. "No, I don't think so, Mr. Paul," she finally said. Mare and Mr. Paul had been politely waiting for her to speak, she seemed so intent. Now Paul coughed, turned red from a bit of food jarred in his throat. His large hand lurched for the glass of wine.
"What, Janny? You don't think so what?" He looked irritated. He scratched his ear, viciously.
"I don't think you live in a great big aparkmend building. I saw you on a boat before, a small, old boat. And you were on the water." She said this without moving her eyes off Paul, as if she were looking for something on his face. Paul's face was dumbfounded. His mouth had fallen limp. The waiter came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, sir. But may I prepare the table for your desert?" Paul nodded stiffly and placed his hands on the soiled tablecloth as if to ground himself. With a silent tug the waiter swept the cloth out from under him.
"I do not understand, Janny. I do live in an apartment downtown. Ten seventeen Lakeside Drive. That is where my house is, now . . ." he turned to Mare, one hand upturned, "Do you know what she's talking about Mare?"
Mare almost had to pretend a cough, a hard giggle had forced itself up her throat. She cleared it, erasing any trace of a smile, and said, "It must have been in one of her dreams." The desert arrived and they went back to eating.
How many nights had Mare sat here, in her child's room, gazing upon these same eyes, nose, lips, this same rise and fall of the narrow tube of chest. It had been what, five years? Five years almost to the day when she arrived home from the hospital, Theresa and Lindsay there for the afternoon, until she got settled, and then just two or three hours during the following afternoons, until Mare started not needing them, started ignoring them and forgetting to answer when they asked Whether she needed anything? Was there anything they could do? They were friends from the office, but as more and more days passed after the birth they started to seem nothing like her kind, another species, two female representatives of a planet she no longer lived on. She kindly told them she would do fine on her own.
One November day, when Janny was three years old, Mare met Paul. She had taken Janny to the theater and while waiting in line for the restroom noticed a man in a suit making a fool of himself outside the Men's door. He obviously had to go very badly because he was hopping up an down on both feet and every ten hops or so bending over, his hands on his knees. Mare watched him, trying not to make him turn around. Janny laughed outloud. He turned around.
Paul was handsome. A broad face with muscular features, hazel-brown eyes, a shadow of a beard. He had looked at the two of them suspiciously (it was this suspiciousness in him that had intrigued Mare at first-who did he think they were, anyway?) and then darted through the door after a finely coifed man had stepped out, oblivious to Paul's panic. Paul never made a fool of himself again.
He tried to kiss her once, but she had only to turn her head away and he never tried again. The only thing Mare let Paul do was take her and Janny out to dinner, and sometimes to the theater. They had gone to a Shakespeare festival in the park, with a blanket and a picnic basket and a bottle of wine. The play was A Midsummer Night's Dream and Paul had fallen asleep, his head tucked into his elbow and one hand flattened between his knees like a boy. For an instant, Mare had felt tempted to play with his hair, to twine it between her fingers and then smooth it back again across his skull. Instead she cupped Janny into her lap and turned back to the stage.
Since then Mare and Paul treated each other like sister and brother. Mare could not understand why he still took them to dinner, and always to one of the best restaurants in the city. Perhaps, once upon a time, he had had a sister.
Janny was dreaming. Her china forehead quivered, her eyebrows and eyelashes surviving tiny earthquakes, trembling then stopping, one after the other. This was a big one, Mare thought, closing the book but dog-earing the page. She leaned forward onto her thighs, breathing slowly so as not to shatter the air about their heads. Inhaling. Exhaling. Trying not to blink. Trying not to miss anything.
First, Janny's head lifted, just inches off the pillow. Then her shoulder rolled and her hand came down on the mattress, slowly pushing the rest of her body up to sit. Her neck swung a little, swiveling like a baby. Her hair dipped into her eyes so Mare couldn't tell if they were open. When her head came back, the neck giving way, Mare saw the lids raise and the round, dark globes beam forth, the pupils swollen deep.
Mare leaned back into her chair. Her daughter was about to move. On an impulse she pushed the chair back a few steps and then sat again, out of breath from trying to hold breath in, not wanting her daughter to wake, the spell broken. She sat as still as she could and watched as Janny picked her knees up and mechanically swung her legs over the side of the bed. Bracing the edge of the mattress with both small hands, Janny pulled herself onto her feet.
She teetered there in the blue night light, the hot breath from the window lifting her skirt above her knees and then dropping it again about her ankles. Her blond hair flowed between her little crooked shoulders, somehow smooth and light though she rarely let Mare brush it out. She stood almost on the balls of her cotton-white feet, and looked like she was about to lift off out of her lacy blue room with its night light like a moon and its sad, beautiful mobile, and the calm beat of the fan up above, its giant moth wings flapping through the hours. She put one foot ahead of the other, paused, and with quick, short steps, walked out into the hall.
Mare followed. From experience, she knew to keep at least five steps behind. Janny moved quickly, though, so she had to keep up. Not a single floorboard squeaked, nor did the ceramics pieces on the hall bookcase wobble or tip. They were both so good, so good at disturbing nothing.
Janny halted at the top of the stairs, her body steadying itself. This is where Mare would stand back. The tiniest rustle could snap her daughter awake and send her tumbling down the shaft of hard wood and thinning antique carpet. She always trembled a little here, waiting for her daughter to descend.
But Janny went down smoothly, with a regal calm about her head and shoulders. When she reached the bottom and turned into the front sitting room, Mare started to make her way down the stairs.
At dinner Paul had asked, "So, what is it that Janny dreams about? Does she tell you all of her dreams?"
Mare didn't reply at first. She felt uncomfortable referring to Janny in the third person. But she could tell Paul was low tonight. He'd had another long hard day alone, an heir's son. Mare could often sense his isolation, even in the middle of one of his bubbly diatribes about art or music or business or the theater. These he would gush upon them over the dinner table every now and then. He could last for minutes and Janny and Mare would just sit and listen. When he finished he usually turned toward the window (he always got them a table by the window) with a look of relief on his face, a shy, cocked grin on his lips.
Mare said, "Ever since her father moved out, Janny has shown signs of a, I guess, intense dream life. I watch while she is falling asleep and I can tell, there is so much that goes on inside."
Paul glanced at Janny, who was dragging her fork across her plate, carving canyons. "Does she tell you about them?"
"Hmm, yes. But not everything. I suppose a lot of it gets lost by the time she wakes up and its morning." Mare sipped her wine. She sat for a moment looking in at the liquid rim. "I watch her for hours sometimes."
Paul didn't speak. Janny took the knife and carved the other way.
"I watch her sleepwalk."
"Yes, every other night or so, when I'm reading to her, she falls asleep right away. And then, seconds later, she gets up and walks out of the room. I follow her." Paul was looking at Janny with newborn fascination. All of a sudden, he was in awe of her.
"Sometimes she'll talk and I'll know where she is in her sleep," Mare said warmly, looking long at Janny so she would know she was not shut out from their conversation. She regretted doing this to her. But tonight something was opening up, urging her to go on, reveal more. Perhaps it was the way Janny was handling it like an adult, her chin poised above her plate, eyes slanted down over the patterns she made, listening, Mare could tell, with silent approval. Or perhaps it was the way what she said made Paul's eyes turn dark with excitement as if he'd just walked into a cave of jewels.
"What kinds of things does she say?" He leaned forward, his face aglow in the candlelight. The flame wrinkled in the air between them.
And just then the coin flipped, the door closed. She had gone too far, told too much. How could she answer his question without divulging secrets only she and Janny shared? She glanced at her daughter and could read on the crinkled brow that she was to go no further. She lifted her hand to her shoulder and flicked her hair back so it plummeted into the depths behind her, heavy. Laughing, she raised her wine glass and said, "Sorry to disappoint you, Paul. But really I was just playing with you. Janny has been known to sleepwalk once or twice, but she rarely ever says a word. And, if she does, I can't understand at all what she is saying."
She watched as his cheek went slightly pink. He shook his head and then, thankfully, smiled bashfully. "I did think it was a little odd, sleepwalking every other night, seeing me in boats on the lake. Christ, Mare, I've never been on a boat in my life. Scared to death of the water." They all opened their mouths and smiled at one another. Janny giggled. The check came on a silver platter and Paul reached for his wallet.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mare turned toward the sitting room but then stopped. Janny was facing her, though fifteen or more feet away, before the old fireplace, which was gated up for the summer. She was looking down on to the low glass coffee table, where she had been drawing that day with Mare's special pens and a thick pad of watercolor paper. She appeared to be surveying her work from where she stood, as if to maturely step back and assess their compositions. When she was satisfied, she turned around, her back now to her mother, and, lifting her arm above her head, reached her left hand to the edge of the mantle and began to trace the ledge with her fingertips.
Mare stepped into the room and moved to where the piano bench jutted out. She quickly sat herself on it.
The sounds of the crickets came pulsing through the screen door. Mare had left the porch doors open hoping to catch the few strands of cool morning air, which would not come for hours but when it did would welcomely stir some new breezes into the house. The night was stifling, the wind growing dull. Mare felt her sweat drip down her hip. She wondered, should she close the doors, settle for the monotonous tone of air conditioning? No, the sounds were too reassuring, the charcoal-gray night like warm fur pressed up against the screen.
Janny had stopped when she reached the far end of the mantle. Her hand was looking for something. She was standing on the very tops of her toes, her fingers ducking in between each picture frame as if into alleyways, groping for the way out. When her hand finally did emerge and fell to her side it looked empty. It swung there slightly in a fold of her nightgown.
While Paul was paying, Mare had reached a hand out to Janny under the table. Her daughter had taken and squeezed it. Without looking at each other, Mare knew she had been forgiven. Before returning her hand to her lap she raised it to her daughter's head, tucking a loose strand behind her ear. When she looked back at Paul he was smiling at her and blushing again. Except this time the warm color lit up his entire face, lifted the forehead in a hopeful kind of way. His eyes shone golden brown, and his mouth sparkled. Mare wanted to kiss it.
"You two are the most beautiful mother and daughter in this whole wide world," Paul was saying, a little drunkenly but with uninterrupted sincerity. Mare smiled back and found her cheeks growing warm for the first time in years. I almost told him, she thought, leaning in on her palms, taking Paul's eyes into her own. I almost told him everything.
Janny was at the screen door, about to press it open. Mare stood up from the piano bench but waited to take a step until Janny had slipped outside, the door humming shut. Then she followed. She could see Janny descending the porch stairs which led to a narrow side yard. Mare followed. Janny turned right at the bottom of the stairs, taking the spongy strip of grass until it spilled into a wide slanted lawn that dipped off at the edge into a row of hedges and a couplet of bent trees. When Mare reached the lawn Janny was already at the other end, standing still against the black fence of bush and trunks. Jonathan had left them this lawn, these trees, this house. He hadn't wanted them.
The grass was warm and wet. Mare removed her slippers and slid her bare toes through its hairiness. The light from Janny's room three stories up cast the green blue, the hedges gray. The night was like stepping into an ocean.
A few steps back from where her daughter stood Mare stopped. She could hear Janny talking. She listened.
"There is a lake in this forest. We will come to it soon." Though a girl of five years, Janny always sounded clearer in her sleep, her sentences sharp and concise. Mare did not say a word.
"We are almost there. At the lake," her daughter continued. "The trees are close but they won't hurt us. They will lead us there. Lead us to the lake."
In this dark the yard seemed enormous, it felt like it belonged on the back of a mansion, with sprawling gardens and miles upon miles of walking paths. The night was making things grander by curtaining them. Even the flowers (the few they had in a thin bed under the porch) looked as if they had grown shadowy companions after sundown. The summer cosmos had formed an entire army at the foot of the porch. Mare could sense it gathering, preparing to march. Faintly, there came a throb of perfume. The honeysuckles were opening. Mare closed her eyes.
Jonathan had left them a wonderful world, a world just for the two of them. She was standing at the center of it, suspended there in lush fields and green wood. There were beds of flowers for miles behind, and ahead, sleeping deep in the forest, was a lake, a still lake, soft as dew.
She had been left a new world to find love in.
There was the boat. There was love.
When Mare opened her eyes Janny had turned around. She stood facing her in her pillowy nightgown, her long hair lost behind. Crickets croaked but the wind fell silent, all night sounds dying out.
Something dropped from Janny's left hand. Something heavy. It caught the light high up and pinned it there in the grass at their feet. Janny had stopped talking. She was awake, Mare could tell. As she always could, when it was over. How many nights had she stood like this, with this same small face, these same small limbs standing taught for one final moment before they crumbled back to sleep? How many nights had it been? This wet grass, these two pairs of bare feet, and this gold ring, nestled here, between them.
Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | May 2000 | Volume 5