In her home there are no kinfolk, only unexpected visitors whom she always sees coming long before the usual portents, a certain species of moth splayed out in the wax of a candle, or the wax itself pointing a knobby finger towards the door. There are no kinfolk, which is to say everyone who stays with her quickly forgets that he was born in a place where women could pronounce his name, and leaves in the morning with her kitchen smells on his overcoat making him homesick on the train.
“Lila,” the regulars say, “if it wasn’t keeping me alive, your cider would kill me,” and they laugh and fill each others’ mugs and get back to talking in the foghorn voices of men with full mugs. On cold days she makes dumpling soup with a whole bird slowly falling away from its bones in the broth. “Lila,” the regulars say, leaning over their bowls, “if I ever saw you in church, I’d marry you.” She smiles and tells them fear of husbands is why she’s never been to church. Her accent makes the words rounder than they are. “Where on earth did you come from, Lila?” they ask, though the question has become rhetorical. The regulars call her Lila, but only strangers stay the night.
Sometimes they ask her opinion on things. “Lila,” Ed Greene slings his arm around her waist as she passes his chair, “Campbell here claims that one of his ewes is in my flock.” On the far end of the room, Campbell leans forward with both elbows on the table. “See, I didn’t notice she was a stranger,” Ed continues, “and she’s been feeding with the rest of my sheep for weeks. But suddenly it’s close to lambing, and Campbell wants her back. Now, that’s all well and good, she’s his animal and so is her baby, but what about all those weeks of feed?” Both neighbors are red-faced, and the other men lean back in their chairs to avoid the heat. But Lila’s voice has a way of settling over a conversation like snowfall, and there is laughter in it when she tells Ed to give the ewe back, but why not shear her first and keep the wool to knit himself bigger pockets. The estranged neighbors accept more cider with sheepish smiles, and soon everyone’s back to their bellowing.
Once the regulars are too loud to talk over, she gets their attention with absences. “Lila,” they call from the bottom of their mugs, “Lila?” and when she finally comes in from the back they are quiet enough to hear that it’s just about closing time, and there’s more where that came from tomorrow. Sometimes someone from out of town lingers behind with a question in his eyes, the sort of question he could only ask a woman with no kinfolk around, and she answers with a nod and leaves the mugs where they are until morning.
Most mornings, though, she stands alone in the garden with her tea, glancing over the plants, if there are plants, or, in the winter, just toeing the frozen loam and listening to the groan of cold trees. Often there’s a fog hovering and she’s cut off at the knees. Sipping fog too, especially on cold mornings, when the weather swirls up from between her cupped hands.
If she had noticed the funny way the leaves floated in her tea that morning she might have seen him coming, but as it was she took the whole thing in four hot gulps before going inside to start the soup, and so was surprised later that night when an unfamiliar man with long knotted hair ducked in through the door .
Ed Greene was deep into one or another of his pontifications about the state of things when the man walked in.
“Hello, Stranger,” Ed bellowed amiably, “Lila! It’s cold out there, get this man some cider.” The stranger thanked him, and chose a table near the back. He watched Lila disappear into the kitchen and then pulled off his overcoat and sat down, opening and closing his fingers near the candle.
“Cold out there, huh?” said Ed from across the room. The stranger agreed, too cold for this time of year. His words were round and drifted gently over the noise of the room. “Say, if you don’t mind me asking,” Ed called back to him, “where are you coming in from?” The stranger replied that he’d had some business in the city, and was on his way back home now. Sensing somehow that this was all the man cared to share, Ed nodded, “Well drink up, then. It sure is a cold one out there.” He turned back to commiserate with his neighbors, “and us with lambs on the way…”
Not being one for dramatics, Lila didn’t even drop a sugar cube from her tray when she handed the stranger his cider and he looked up at her and said, “Thank you, Lila.” Not a cup rattled on its saucer, though the sound of his voice hit her like a thaw and she felt herself falling away from her own bones at the sight of him. “Your hair is long,” she said.
“Can I stay tonight?” he asked. “No.” She said. “I don’t think so.” “Some soup, then?” “Well, sure. Of course, here.”
In a room like that there are plenty of ways to look busy. That night the regulars never once saw the bottom of their mugs, so omnipresent was Lila with the pitcher. No sooner was a soup bowl emptied, than it was washed and dry and stacked again on the shelf. Long a stranger to the broom, the floor behind the bar was twice swept, and then mopped, and wiped dry for good measure. “Lila,” the regulars laughed, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think the pope was coming.” She gave them a wan smile. Meanwhile the stranger slowly sipped his drink and made the salt and pepper shakers on his table switch places and then switch back, and then had each of them switch places with the candle, and then put all three back to where they started for a moment, before switching the salt and pepper again.
“Well fellas, that’s it for me,” Ed Greene finally said, leaving, for the first time in his life, a mug half-full on the table. “Lila, my dear, your cider will be the death of me.”
Soon the others too, found their way back into the sleeves of their coats, and paid and hunched their shoulders up against the wall of cold that met them at the door, until only the stranger was left sitting beside his empty bowl, performing the perpetual waltz of pepper and salt. It wasn’t until she had cleared and washed every last mug that Lila looked over at him again, from her place behind the bar.
“You can’t stay here, Doyle.” Her voice had the dangerous edge of a dull knife. “I brought you some flower seeds,” he said, “Rutland Beauty… they open in the mornings.” “Thank you.” She said dully, “you can leave them here at the bar with your bill.”
“Lila. I am not going to leave.” It was more of a confession than a threat, for he seemed, at that moment, caught somehow against his will in the candlelight, as if he’d melted onto the seat of his chair. “Just let me stay tonight, Lila. Just take me for the night.”
Her bedroom was full of left-behind items, the trinkets people carry with them on journeys and then forget when they put their clothes on in a hurry. Combs and foreign coins, no one ever comes back for such things.
“Why did you come?” she asked him, once she had named her price and he had paid— since what else could he do— and was still standing fully dressed and mortified in the doorway.
“Lila… how can you ask me that… Lila…” He seemed so like a newborn child then, so in need and unable to say what he needed, that she spoke to him like one, “How about a bath first?” she suggested, “And then maybe we can do something about that hair.” She drew the hot water, helped him out of his clothes, and pulled the curtain around him, and she had nearly left the room when he called out.
“Lila, why don’t you come in with me.”
The roundness of his syllables, the heavy snowfall of them, almost overcame her. She’d grown so used to hearing only accents that his voice, with its familiar shapes, seemed to issue from inside her own head. But she had long since ceased dreaming of her parents’ mouths, and climb into the bath with him she would not do.
“I’ll sit with you,” she said— a final sentence, unrelenting— and rolled up her pant legs, dipping one foot and the other into the water until they stopped tingling and she could perch on the edge of the porcelain. She sat there in silence beside the islands of his knees, looking down at him with all the concern of a water faucet.
And that was enough— her indifferent feet pointing towards him where he lay submerged and paralyzed, daring him to take what he’d paid for though it meant forsaking what he sought.
He left great lakes of bathwater behind him as he carried her to bed.
And of course it was a puppet theater, their limbs strung up to behave as humans might, but with a woodenness that would not dissemble. Every time he tried to break free from the mysterious strings that hung them there— to kiss her where there was a pulse, to hold her warm face with his warm fingers— she bound him back with new ropes, and when he freed himself again, she caught her hands deep in the web of his drenched hair until he was pinned to the pillow. Still, he tore himself away and begged her with desperate gestures to admit that they had known each other once. But already she was sailing away from him, wind behind her eyes, cheeks taut for departure. Whatever home had been here was no longer, and finally he fell to the pillow beside her, a pile of sticks, a tangle of ropes.
“I will come back tomorrow.” He said.
“Even if you came back every night,” she told him, “it would be like this. You could memorize the way my feet twitch in their sleep, Doyle, but you could never hear the music. There is that deafness between us, don’t you remember?”
She heard her own voice lose its balance and slip into a familiar tone, an argument she thought she’d forgotten. The way two bodies remember a pattern of caresses, the rote exchange. He heard it too, and as if this recognition might lead to something, he spoke eagerly,
“No one else knows me, Lila. Even when we were apart I could only see myself as I was when you were looking.”
“Then you were invisible,” she said, wooden, dull-edged, a doll script. “I am tired of lying still enough to show a reflection. They know my name here, that’s all. Travelers are the only lovers who leave a person intact.”
As if he’d come looking for a moral. As if she could draw the curtain on this. And yet, there she was making the bed, crisp hospital corners like no one had ever slept there.
“You won’t come with me, then?” “No.” There was a long pause. “Will you cut my hair?” he asked. “What for?”
“That’s what it takes, I think.”
So he sat cross-legged on the floor and she bound all his hair into a tight braid, and cut it off, and then he handed her his razor, and she shaved his head with an almost-tenderness until he was completely shorn.
“You can keep the braid,” he told her. “I won’t be back for it.”
And in the morning he left, legless through the garden, stirring the fog with his strides. She stood by the door watching him go, and then lingered in the garden for several minutes, gazing down at herself through the steam. Later that night Ed Greene asked what became of the stranger, “Did you give him the old heave-ho?” And she laughed like nothing, and filled his mug, and helped him into his coat.
In her home there is only this marionette behavior, this waving from the shore of every morning.