All things cease to appe.., p.1
All Things Cease to Appear, p.1Elizabeth Brundage
ALSO BY ELIZABETH BRUNDAGE
A Stranger Like You
Somebody Else’s Daughter
The Doctor’s Wife
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Brundage
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
All things cease to appear / Elizabeth Brundage. — First edition.
pages ; cm
ISBN 978-1-101-87559-9 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-101-87560-5 (eBook)
eBook ISBN 9781101875605
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover illustration and design by Mario Hugo
Also by Elizabeth Brundage
The Hale Farm
February 23, 1979
Chosen, New York, 1978
Someday You’ll Be Sorry
All Things Cease to Appear
The Secret Language of Women
Landscape with Farmhouse
The Reality of the Unseen
The Mysteries of Nature
A Struggle for Existence
Things Heard and Seen
Oh, Come Let Us Adore Him
A Scholarly Temperament
The Free Wind
The Shadow of Death
About the Author
Reading Group Guide
for Joan and Dorothy
…she who burns with youth and knows no fixed lot, is bound In spells of law to one she loathes.
—WILLIAM BLAKE, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Beauty is finite; the sublime is infinite.
Beneath those stars is a universe of gliding monsters.
The Hale Farm
THIS IS the Hale farm.
Here is the old milking barn, the dark opening that says, Find me.
This is the weathervane, the woodpile.
Here is the house, noisy with stories.
It is early. The hawk winds down through the open sky. A thin blue feather turns through the air. The air is cold, bright. The house is silent, the kitchen, the blue velvet couch, the small white teacup.
Always the farm sings for us, its lost families, its soldiers and wives. During the war, when they came with their bayonets, forcing their way in, their muddy boots on the stairs. Patriots. Gangsters. Husbands. Fathers. They slept in the cold beds. They raided the cellar for jars of canned peaches and sugar beets. They made great fires in the field, the flames twisting, snapping up to the heavens. Fires that laughed. Their warm faces glowing and their hands warm in their pockets. They roasted pig and pulled the sweet pink meat from the bone. After, they sucked the fat from their fingers, the taste familiar, strange.
Then there were others—there have been many—who have taken, who have stripped and pillaged. Even the copper pipes, the delft tiles. Whatever they could, they took. Leaving just the walls, the bare floors. The beating heart in the cellar.
We wait. We are patient. We wait for news. We wait to be told. The wind is trying to tell us. The trees shift. It is the end of something; we can sense it. Soon we will know.
February 23, 1979
AGAIN, it was snowing. Half past five in the afternoon. Almost dark. She had just laid out their plates when the dogs started barking.
Her husband set down his fork and knife, none too pleased to have his supper interrupted. What’s that now?
June Pratt pulled aside the curtain and saw their neighbor. He was standing there in the snow, holding the child, her feet bare, neither of them in coats. From the looks of it, the little girl was in her pajamas. It’s George Clare, she said.
What’s he selling?
I wonder. I don’t see a car. They must’ve come on foot.
Awful cold out. You better see what he wants.
She let them in with the cold. He stood before her, holding the child out like an offering.
It’s my wife. She’s—
Momma hurt, the child cried.
June didn’t have children of her own, but she had raised dogs her whole life and saw the same dark knowing in the child’s eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension.
You’d better call the police, she told her husband. Something’s happened to his wife.
Joe pulled off his napkin and went to the phone.
Let’s go find you some socks, she said, and took the child from her father and carried her down the hall to the bedroom where she set her on the bed. Earlier that afternoon, she had laid her freshly laundered socks over the radiator, and she took a pair now and pushed the warm wool over the child’s feet, thinking that if the child were hers she’d love her better.
They were the Clares. They had bought the Hale place that summer, and now winter had come and there were just the two houses on the road and she hadn’t seen them much. Sometimes in the morning she would. Either when he raced past in his little car to the college. Or when the wife took the child out of doors. Sometimes, at night, when June walked the dogs, you could see inside their house. She could see them having supper, the little girl between them at the table, the woman getting up and sitting down and getting up again.
With the snow, it took over a half-hour for the sheriff to arrive. June was vaguely aware, as women often are of men who desire them, that Travis Lawton, who had been her classmate in high school, found her attractive. That was of no consequence now, but you don’t easily forget the people you grew up with, and she made a point of listening carefully to him, and acknowledged his kindness to George, even though there was the possibility, in her own mind at least, that the bad thing that had happened to his wife might have been his own doing.
HE WAS THINKING of Emerson, the terrible aristocracy that is in Nature. Because there were things in this world you couldn’t control. And because even now he was thinking of her. Even now, with his wife lying dead in that house.
He could hear Joe Pratt on the phone.
George waited on the green couch, shaking a little. Their house smelled like dogs and he could hear them barking out back in their pens. He wondered how they could stand it. He stared at the wide boards, a funk of mildew coming up from the cellar. He could feel it in the back of his throat. He coughed.
They’re on their way, Pratt said from the kitchen.
After a while, he couldn’t say how long, a car pulled up.
Here they are now, Pratt said.
It was Travis Lawton who came in. George, he said, but didn’t shake his hand.
Chosen was a small town and they were acquaintances of a sort. He knew Lawton had gone to RPI and had come back out here to be sheriff, and it always struck George that for an educated man he was pretty shallow. But then George wasn’t the best judge of character and, as he was continually reminded by a coterie of concerned individuals, his opinion didn’t amount to much. George and his wife were newcomers. The locals took at least a hundred years to accept the fact that somebody else was living in a house that had, for generations, belonged to a single family whose sob stories were now part of the local mythology. He didn’t know these people and they certainly didn’t know him, but in those few minutes, as he stood there in the Pratts’ living room in his wrinkled khakis and crooked tie, with a distant, watery look in his eyes that could easily be construed as madness, all their suspicions were confirmed.
Let’s go take a look, Lawton said.
They left Franny with the Pratts and went up the road, him and Lawton and Lawton’s undersheriff, Wiley Burke. It was dark now. They walked with grave purpose, a brutal chill under their feet.
The house sat there grinning.
They stood a minute looking up at it and then went in through the screened porch, a clutter of snowshoes and tennis rackets and wayward leaves, to the kitchen door. He showed Lawton the broken glass. They climbed the stairs in their dirty boots. The door to their bedroom was shut; he couldn’t remember shutting it. He guessed that he had.
I can’t go in there, he told the sheriff.
All right. Lawton touched his shoulder in a fatherly way. You stay right here.
Lawton and his partner pushed through the door. Faintly, he heard sirens. Their shrill cries made him weak.
He waited in the hall, trying not to move. Then Lawton came out, bracing himself against the doorjamb. He looked at George warily. That your ax?
George nodded. From the barn.
In Lawton’s unmarked car they drove into town on dark, slippery roads, the chains on the tires grinding through the snow. He sat with his daughter behind the mesh divider. It was a satellite office across from the old railroad depot, set up in a building that might have once been a school. The walls were a soiled yellow, framed out in mahogany trim, and the old iron radiators hissed with heat. A woman from the department brought Franny over to the snack machine and gave her some quarters from a plastic bag and lifted her up to put them in the slot, then put her down again. Now watch, the woman said. She pulled the lever and a package of cookies tumbled out. Go ahead, those are for you.
Franny looked up at George for approval. It’s okay, honey. You can have the cookies.
The woman held open the plastic flap at the bottom of the machine. Go on and reach in there, it don’t bite. Franny reached into the darkness of the machine to retrieve the cookies and smiled, proud of herself.
Lawton crouched down in front of her. Here, let me help you, sweetheart. He took the package and opened it and handed it back to her, and they all watched her fish out a cookie and eat it. Lawton said, I bet those are good.
I bet you’re hungry, too.
She put another cookie in her mouth.
Did you get any breakfast this morning? I had a bowl of cornflakes. What’d you have?
Is that so?
What your momma have for breakfast, Franny?
She looked at Lawton with surprise. Momma sick.
What’s wrong with your momma?
It’s hard when your momma’s sick, isn’t it?
She turned the cellophane package over, and a dusting of brown crumbs spilled out through her fingers.
Did anybody come to the house today?
Franny ignored him and crinkled the wrapper, occupied by the sound it made between her fingers.
Franny? The sheriff is talking to you.
She looked up at George.
Did Cole come?
Lawton said, Cole Hale?
He sits for us sometimes, George said.
Was it Cole? Are you sure?
Franny’s lower lip began to tremble and tears ran down her cheeks.
She just told you it was, George said. He picked her up, annoyed, and held her tightly. I think that’s enough questions for now.
Do you want to try this again, Franny? The woman held up the bag of quarters.
Franny blinked her wet eyes and wriggled out of his arms. I want to do it.
We’ll be fine. I’ve got a whole lot of change here. And we’ve got a TV in there.
They let him call his parents. He used a pay phone in the hall and called collect. His mother made him repeat the news. He stood there under the green lights with the words marching out.
They’re driving up, he told Lawton.
All right. We can go in here.
Lawton ushered him into a small room with tall black windows; he could see his reflection in the glass and noted his hunched posture, his wrinkled clothes. The room smelled of dirt and cigarettes and something else, maybe misery.
Take a seat, George, I’ll be right back.
He sat down at the table. With the door shut he felt cut off from everything, waiting there with his own reflection. He could hear the train clattering through town, slow and loud. He looked at the clock; it was just after seven.
The door opened, and Lawton backed into the room with two cups of coffee, a file pinched under his arm. Thought you could use some of this. He set the coffee down and tossed out some sugar packets. You take milk?
George shook his head. This is fine. Thanks.
The sheriff sat down, opened the file and took a sip of the hot coffee, holding the rim of the cup carefully between his fingers. He pulled a pair of bifocals out of his shirt pocket and wiped the lenses with a napkin, then held them up to the light and wiped them again and slipped them on. I want you to know how sorry I am about Catherine.
George only nodded.
The phone rang, and Lawton took the call and made some notes on his pad. George put his mind to just sitting there in the chair, resting one hand over the other in his lap. In a vague sort of reverie he thought of Rembrandt. Again, he looked at his reflection in the window and decided that, for someone in his situation, he didn’t look too bad. He pushed the hair off his forehead and sat back in the chair and glanced around the small room. The walls were gray, the color of gruel. At one time he had prided himself on his instinct for color. One summer, back in college, he’d interned at the Clark with Walt Jennings, a color specialist. He’d rented a house on the Knolls and had fallen in love with a girl who lived in the old Victorian across the street, although they’d never once spoken. All that summer she was reading Ulysses, and he remembered now how she’d come out on her terrace in her bikini and lie on the chaise. She’d read for five minutes, then lay the fat book on her stomach and lift her face to the sun.
Lawton hung up. We don’t get many robberies out there. Usually just bored teenagers looking for booze. You have any enemies, George?
None that I know of.
What about your wife?
No. Everyone loved my wife.
He thought of the girl, her sad, dark eyes. I don’t know anyone who would do this.
Lawton looked at him but said nothing, and a long minute passed.
I need to go soon. Franny needs her supper.
George picked up the paper cup and could feel the heat in his fingers. The coffee was bitter and still hot enough to burn his tongue. Lawton took out a pack of Chesterfields. You want one of these?
So did I. He lit a cigarette with a brass lighter, dragged on it deeply and blew out the smoke. You still over at the college?
What time you get home this afternoon?
Around five, a few minutes before.
Lawton made another note. So you pull up to your house, and then what?
George described how he’d parked in the garage and gone into the house. I knew something was wrong when I saw the glass. Then I went upstairs and found her. She was—he coughed. Just lying there in her nightgown. With that—he stopped. He couldn’t say it.
Lawton dropped the cigarette in his coffee cup and tossed it into the wastebasket. Let’s go back a minute. Walk me through the kitchen to the stairs—did you notice anything? Anything unusual?
Her pocketbook was sort of dumped out, her wallet. I don’t know what was in it. There were coins everywhere. They might’ve gotten some of it.
How much cash would she keep in her wallet?
It’s hard to say. Grocery money, not much more.
Not enough, likely. That’s what my wife tells me. But you know how women are. They never know what they have. He gazed at George over his bifocals.
Like I said, it was probably just grocery money.
All right. Then what?
I went upstairs. It was cold. There was a window open.
Did you shut it?
No. No, I didn’t want to—
Touch anything? The sheriff looked at him.
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