by Emma Sloley
The front gate whines like a hurt fox. Someone is out there but it’s too late to hide now, whoever it is will have heard sounds from inside the house or seen my silhouette at the window. I steel myself, knowing whoever it is will be carrying the maimed, the abandoned, the lost souls. How did I get this reputation? The Florence Nightingale of broken animals. It’s not how I see myself, but never mind, it’s mine now. So they bring them, the injured or distressed wild creatures, they bring them around without thinking to call or text first. Hell is unannounced visitors as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t have it in me to turn away those innocents who never asked to be brought here.
This time it’s Ken—an affable, bearded young communist who lives in a teepee a few miles away—with a wounded crow. Ken has swaddled the crow expertly in a faded striped sheet and has it cradled to his chest like a baby. The bird’s liquid black eyes are trained on the middle-distance, and it looks so much like a man trying to remain stoic in some unpleasant situation, like the dentist’s chair, that I stifle a smile. It’s a bad idea to anthropomorphize the animals; it doesn’t help them or us.
“Hi, Heidi. Think he’s a young one. Fell out of the nest maybe.”
I nod and take possession of the crow. I can see one of its wings is broken. It won’t live.
I offer Ken coffee.
“No thanks, need to get back to the hotel.”
Ken works as a valet at one of the fancy hotels in town, the one with the hot pink walls and the pool lined with rows of sun loungers, filled during the season with beautiful tanned young men. It seems a funny job for a communist, although I suppose even Marxists need to live while they’re waiting to smash the capitalist state.
After he leaves I turn to the crow, hands on hips, and say, “What are we going to do with you?”
The bird shifts in its box but avoids my eye. Its beak is so glossy I am reflected in it, a blur with a swinging ponytail.
Why did I say I’d come? I know why. Because even for me, the echoing emptiness of the high desert can sometimes get a bit much. That’s why I drove twenty miles to attend this pool party in someone’s immaculate midcentury-modern home at the foot of the mountains. I squeeze myself into one of my old black dresses and apply lipstick, but still I feel gauche when I see all the other guests; the men in preppy shorts and expensive watches, the women in flowing patterned maxi-dresses that sweep up red dust from the terrace.
The friend who invited me introduces me to everyone as “Heidi, the animal whisperer.” I accept my role at this party is as the house novelty, the exotic recluse who lives on her own in the desert tending to doomed wild creatures. I don’t blame my friend: most of the guests are screenwriters, or at least connected to Hollywood in some way, and who could resist a narrative like that?
Ken is here too, for some reason. His lips linger a little too long on my cheek when he kisses me hello in front of some friend of his, and I stifle the urge to rub where his coarse whiskers made contact. All the men have beards now, there’s no use complaining. Ken asks after the crow and I shrug. What does he want: absolution? He knows as well as I do that some things can’t be saved. Later in the evening I’m leaning with my back arched against the granite kitchen counter, alternating lifting each foot out of the unfamiliar torture of high heels, when I overhear Ken say to his eager companion about me: “She was very beautiful in her day.”
They don’t think I hear and I don’t let on. But his throwaway remark shipwrecks the evening. On the way home, that in her day haunts me. Those three little words have always been used to put women in their rightful place: as the temporary custodians of beauty. There is only one season in which we are permitted to flourish, and people will line up to tell us when it’s over.
Also, I’m only forty-five! But his words feel prophetic. Like when you start walking down a steep slope and at a certain point your body insists on accelerating its downward trajectory so that by the time you’re halfway down you’re running, arms flailing, and you can’t imagine what will be left of your dignity by the time you get to the bottom.
It has been so long since I’ve been fucked. Not even a good fuck, but any at all. That’s why I keep the card that a silver fox called John slips into my hand as he is leaving the party. One of the deep pleasures of getting older is the abandonment of ambiguity. We both understand what’s going on, like spies exchanging coded messages during a war.
It would be easier to refuse. It would save us both a lot of trouble. But I say yes, I make the assignation, because I’m scared if I don’t no one will ever look at me that way again.
I haven’t been into town for a while, and as I drive anxiety swoops down from the mountaintop, a physical presence pressing on my sternum, stealing my breath. We meet at his house, which even from the outside has the neglected look of a vacation home. He has told me they only use it a couple of times a year. Do I imagine that he ushers me inside with a certain urgency? He closes the door behind me then wipes his hands down his pants like a schoolboy.
“Is it OK if we order in? I mean, it’s just that a lot of people know me in town.”
A bleakness descends, and I almost change my mind. But then he smiles, and his smile is as disarming as I remember, and he says, “I really didn’t think you’d come. I convinced myself.”
He looks at me so gratefully, and gratitude has always been my undoing. I smile back, take my jacket off and lay it on a chair.
He shows me around the house, and I can’t tell from his manner—kind of dismissive, jokey, like he’s rushing through the tour—whether he’s proud or ashamed of it. On the desk in the office there’s a framed photo of him with his wife and kids. The wife and children are abstracts. They are his problem, not mine. He is younger in the photo, clean-shaven, with magnificent hair and an unlined face. I have an urge to say: You were very beautiful back in your day. But why would I punish him like that with a line that doesn’t even belong to him? I worry I have become ungenerous.
He is a surprisingly good lover. He attends to my needs, and when it’s over he asks whether I am happy, as if he genuinely cares about the answer. I kiss him and that seems to reassure him. I don’t tell him that during orgasm I always feel like I am going to die. It has always been this way, but I’m not complaining. The French understand it, that in coming some of us leave the vale of the living for a moment. It is beautiful and terrifying, this emptiness.
By the time I get home the baby crow is dead. The sheet in which Ken brought it here is now its shroud, and I bury it out the back with the others.
Emma Sloley is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, Yemassee, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Structo, Travel + Leisure and New York magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, DISASTER’S CHILDREN, will be published by Little A books in Fall 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US, Mexico, and various airport lounges. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and www.emmasloley.com