THE MUTABLE FIELDS: An Ensemble by Anne Brettell

In an old old house there is a new baby. It cries and shakes until it turns into a plum. When the parents find it in the morning, they sigh and give it a tickle. It remains silent, but they can tell it is amused. Very amused. The dog comes in and licks it. The baby might have laughed but the dog bites it first. After a few weeks, the plum begins to smell. Ants and Japanese beetles and plumeria have crept into the nursery. Infesting, they say. All of the adults in the household—including but not limited to: a butler, a mother, a cook, a canary, a grandmother, a married older brother, a father, a doorman, a gardener—carry what is left of the plum and most especially the pit outside and throw it in the lake. “Plums receive a special kind of magic on contact with freshwater algae,” they read in a thick biology textbook. And it is so.

The butler and the cook begin to build a small palace behind the barn, using pieces of dried bread and shoes the dog has chewed beyond walking. They carry out their building treasures at night while the mother and the married brother argue whether “Camembert” is a valid Scrabble play and end up settling on a half-point system. The canary feels that proper nouns are never valid, as a rule, and that the universe does not accept meaningless nomenclature, which is why the canary is relieved to remain nameless. The butler and the cook have not yet decided whether or not to name their palace, which they are imagining to be a paradise of secrets and a place for smells they usually have to rid themselves of in order to be paid. They like the crunch of the stale bread against their skin and the butler likes to imagine smelling places like Jordan and Sao Paulo in the ruined shoes. He knows the “family” travels widely but he isn’t sure which shoes they wear in which countries, so he has had to guess. He hopes the dark leather sandals with the subtle wedge heel have been to Santo Domingo but he has no way of knowing. He smells the coats, too, in order to find more clues.

The cook doesn’t waste time with other people’s adventures. She watches the lake for exactly 57 minutes every other day, just to make sure the plum isn’t forgotten. The palace grows bigger, but the lake only breaks with the occasional snake. She scrapes sludge from the sides of rocks and tests the pH. She tells the father and the nosy grandmother that it is a spice from the old country. They nod once and change the subject. She bakes the samples and boils them and freezes them. She would like them to glow (or grow)—either one, really. She goes to bed too late, trying to squint her eyes enough to magnify the samples, to change them. She sits slumped in bed, too tired to make love to the butler and it’s getting old anyhow. The gardener has already made her an offer that she considered for an entire hour before dismissing. The pH sticks have begun to clog the disposal. She dreams that the entire earth is covered with vines that tangle between her toes and she trips of course but for her tripping, the vines begin to flower, as if they were laughing.

In the mornings, she soft-boils eggs for the grandmother, who sucks the yolk out with her gums—teeth lying on a china saucer placed directly in front of her juice glass. The sucking sound reminds her to check the lake and also to wear old shoes. The grandmother tries to tell her things between ladylike sips of orange juice, but the cook isn’t listening. She tries to make a song out of the whistling sound coming from the grandmother’s mouth. The grandmother is trying to educate her on the need to eject the married older brother from the manor. “He has gotten too cozy,” she repeats. He glares at her as if this word upsets his cereal bowl. He makes sure to scrape his spoon along the sides of the bowl in order to show his complete indifference. His wife has not called in approximately 39 hours, but he isn’t worried. He makes sure to mention her name an appropriate number of times a day in conversation, just to make sure that no one believes him to be too lonely or too happy while she is in India. He is presumably learning Bengali in the small guestroom on the third floor but no one has heard him chanting lists of verbs for some time. The cook likes his breakfast habits, though, because he is easy and mostly mute, and she wishes more humans could operate in this manner.

Sometimes the rain makes the palace sag in places that are mostly bread and the butler surreptitiously tempts the dog with newer and newer shoes. The palace now smells like 43 separate countries, according to his calculations. The cook sighs and throws more bread into the lake. She ties some of the bread to the rocks and watches it turn green. Algae. She threads together a net the size of the kitchen counter and rows it out to the middle of the lake. She throws it there and anchors it with a dull knife. She spends the rest of the afternoon rowing in circles around the net, watching birds swoop down to peck small pieces on their way north. As she reaches the shore and steps from the boat, a breeze pulls juneberry blossoms into the water. As she reaches out to touch one, it happens. Her palm glows, faintly like a tiny strike of lightning has run along her right hand’s “line of fate.” She blinks and returns to the main house, leaving the old shoes in the bottom of the boat.

The mother is helplessly trying to tie the legs of a skinned calf together in the kitchen, peering into the oven and taking measurements with her hands. She crawls inside and picks out burnt pieces of food, throws them into the sink, and continues to size up the calf. She delicately handles the meat cleaver with her left hand, but she never raises it more than six inches from the counter. The cook places the cleaver in her hand and points to the head: “Useless,” she says. The mother hacks it off and then steps out for a cigarette.

The mother is standing still, trying to mask her heavy breathing with overlarge drags on the cigarette. She used to imagine she was in a magazine advertisement for {insert expensive name brand women’s cigarette here}, registering to vote or driving a convertible with a girlfriend or a Labrador or a box of expensive chocolates in the passenger’s seat. The smell on her fingers at least saves her from biting her nails. This, though, satisfies her sense of consistency and she stubs out the long filter with the thin high heel of her shoe. As she looks down, she notices specks of blood on the front of her skirt. She walks back into the house through the front door and decides not to change.

As she enters the foyer, however, the wallpaper isn’t the same as yesterday. Yesterday, it was sky blue with thin gold vines growing up toward the ceiling. They were so thin, you couldn’t see them in dim light. Today, it is a dark deep mauve with equally dark green leaves. The leaves float around in the purply surface, seemingly unattached to anything. The chandelier is, of course, gone and has been replaced with a gas lantern that has been made to look older than it really is. She calls out to be sure she hasn’t lost her way in the 124 seconds it took her to walk from the back door to the front.

A voice doesn’t answer, but a small whistling sound begins shortly after she half shouts, “Hello? Is today Tuesday? I might be mixed up.” The canary appears from under one of her dressiest hats, as if he has been trying it on. He gives her a look of disdain. “Well, where is everyone?” The canary picks up the hat in its tiny pink claws and laboriously flies up the stairs. The mother decides to follow, at a distance of three feet, just in case. The family is gathered in the powder room, which has also changed its shape.

The father and the gardener are questioning a well-dressed gentleman with slicked-back hair. Or possibly the hair was blown backwards from a long drive in a convertible. He looks utterly confused. The mother assumes he speaks Spanish or French because he looks like he could be the suave killer at a murder mystery dinner.

“Did you CliMb through the WIN-dow?,” the father asks, in an odd intonation.

“WHY aRe your SHOES wet?” asks the gardener, pointing at the floor.

The man looks down and shuffles his foot across the burgundy shag carpet. His black-socked toe protrudes from a hole in the shoe and looks like a beetle scuttling across the floor. They all go to the window to look for signs of a break-in. “Grandmother found him here,” the father whispers to the mother. “He hasn’t spoken and he won’t tell us where he’s going.” The mother thinks the man doesn’t really look as though he’s in a hurry to leave and decides not to reply. The man points to a row of trees next to the house, but he looks disappointed.

“You climbed a tree? To climb into the window?” the married older brother offers.

The cook arrives and walks right up to the well-dressed man, her nose inches from his right ear. She inhales a long while, a jar of pond sludge tucked under the crook of her arm.

She opens the jar and confirms the smell. He looks positively delighted to see the jar and puts his finger in the water. He offers it to each person in the room, in turn.

Anne Brettell is a mostly poet who lives, teaches, and mostly writes in Alabama. She is the current poetry editor of the Black Warrior Review and an MFA candidate.

“I would love to sneak into people’s houses in order to hang out in their attics. I think an attic is the best place to snoop and gather writerly material. Closets, too.”

Back to Issue 3: Things Unseen

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