Before his inheritance, Ryland lived in a city, in a warehouse by the water. Girls at parties talked about their astrological signs, drank gin and tonics, took him home at the end of the night to their studio apartments full of vintage furniture. Everything was curated, perfect. Nothing was actually wild, though everyone acted as if it were. Ryland built furniture and called it art, making sure it was only semi-functional. It wasn’t hard to leave this place.
He found himself on a small, dark spot at the base of Old Rag Mountain, six hours south. The inheritance of this land had been unlikely, and his decision not to sell it an impetuous bid at transformation. The house he’d built was one room, constructed of plywood and tin, with a small porch. His woodworking ability translated only marginally into this structure. Screens were staple gunned to the window frames. The rain made a racket on the tin, and he loved the sound. He walked the perimeter of the land; it belonged to him, and he savored each dark blue inch of it. The storms washed over almost every night, fierce but short-lived. That was normal for late summer, the local men told him.
Ryland made a habit of hanging out at the Co-Op with the men. He was twenty years younger, with an urban clip to his voice, and self-consciousness in how he wore his new, more casual clothes. But still, they began to tell him stories: which bridges were haunted, which field a dead girl had been found in, which omens to heed. Josie was one. She hadn’t been right for quite some time, they warned. There’d been something wrong with her brain as a teenage girl, a thing called encephalitis. They pronounced this diagnosis as if speaking a foreign language. Her brain had been engulfed in flame, and she almost died. Those had been miraculous and portentous months. Her recovery was slow and frightening, following misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis. She’d never been quite right since, her movements stiffer, her voice uncertain, something puzzled and off. Science couldn’t explain it, the men agreed, science merely offered feeble attempts at drawing meaning over the larger truth of mystery and randomness. She was possessed during those months, the men confided, their stories laced with superstition and defiance. If there’d been a demon, perhaps she’d beaten it, but those things leave their traces.
When Josie stopped to say hello to the men outside the Co-op, Ryland was there too, and she turned to him, knowing he was new. He helped her carry her things and lingered at the tailgate of her pick-up truck while the men looked at the sky for harbingers. She seemed relatively normal, beautiful certainly, with faint circles under her eyes, flushed cheeks and dark hair. He studied the slope of her forehead, every inch of her, and felt clutched in a spell of his own, a welcome sense of irrational feeling. Her boots and dress were a quaint, riveting combination. She pulled herself into the pick-up, slammed the door, and drove away, each detail of her fraught with what he wanted.
“What does she do?” he asked and the men gave unsatisfying answers. Stay away, they insisted, and Ryland knew he wouldn’t, imagined her flaming brain glowing out from behind her eyes. The men, though fearful of her, seemed protective too, only willing to give Ryland information in increments, and when he’d earned it.
“Who does she spend time with?” he asked and they fell silent. Ryland imagined some demon companion, a love leftover from when she was ill, and his competition.
“Want to go for a drive?” she asked the next time they saw each other at the Co-op and of course he did. She took him to a stone chimney in an empty field, the house burned away. This was her childhood home. He pictured her concentration centered on the birth of a spark. Or she might have flicked a match across some rough surface, the small fire erupting on the tip. Or she was the flame herself, her body a lantern pulled over it.
“Do you know that each time you access a memory, it becomes more inaccurate? I try to keep my life real by never considering it,” she said.
“That seems strange,” he said. But in the days that followed, he found himself turning from his memories with a sensation of protectiveness, hoping to leave them untouched, abandoned, accurate. What a struggle, that desire to understand pitted against the need to turn away.
“I’ve been better for a long time,” Josie said later, pulling plastic around his greenhouse, while he staple gunned it in place. “Hold it still,” she said. He followed her instructions. She knew about these sorts of things in a way that he didn’t. “I’m sure they’ve told you the stories.”
Later, he stood at the stove cooking while she sat cross-legged in a chair at the kitchen table. She drank whiskey while he made soup. “Stay,” he said.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, and he felt held to the floor, transfixed.
“What did you mean?” he asked, “Earlier…about being better? You were sick?”
He pretended not to know. He wanted to hear it from her. The men had gotten to him. He imagined a demon encased in her beautiful body, everything he saw in her merely a disguise, a deadly trick.
“Once the doctors tested me and I could only list a few words on a piece of paper in an entire minute. It took me forever to come up with four. They had so many theories. My brain was swollen, inflamed. I forgot how to read. I wasn’t myself. In some ways it was such a short period of time. After you get better, you forget.”
She’d been examined by professionals. It was medical. Possession had nothing to do with it. But her eyes seemed so smoldering, her shoulders twitched, her fingers trembled. There was no one like her and a part of him gripped tighter to his fascinated paranoia as a way to explain. She laughed like someone intoxicated, but maybe it was just commonplace drunkenness. She draped her hands around his neck and he wanted her hands anywhere at all. Her nearness created an anxiety he called other things. It was so dark outside. In the morning her eyes looked a shade different, outlined by bronze, like an animal.
“Are you wearing contacts?” he asked, but she wasn’t. When you don’t know someone yet, it’s so hard to figure anything out. It’s hard to figure out their eyes, when they’re being mean or just themselves. She said goodbye. Her truck wouldn’t start for three tries and then finally he heard the engine turn over. If a demon were dressed as a girl it might cause a truck’s circuitry to sizzle and die. Possession was a memory that adumbrated; possession was the knot itself, and not the way out. How he felt about her was intrigue and horror both. Josie was everywhere, everything entrapment, everything cruel. Often when he walked in the woods around his house he turned, suddenly sure she was behind him. The forest was empty.
Each day for weeks her eyes changed like that first night until they were practically supernatural, or he couldn’t remember how they’d been to begin with. Maybe that was getting to know someone, first the person is translucent and then they grow opaque. Her period was two days late, she said. He imagined their child born bursting with light. He imagined, finally, something truly transformative, and a nagging feeling that resembled love moved through him. The pregnancy test came back negative and she didn’t mention it again, not seeming disappointed or relieved and so his own disappointment and relief felt confused, unresolved. Each day grew cooler than the one before, thin, sepia-toned, and nearer to winter. The greenhouse was finished. They ate dinner together almost every night.
“Stay,” he said each time, a mantra of longing.
He dreamt that she hung animal hearts from the tree branches, caught foxes mid-stride with her hands, short circuited anything electrical, bubbled with a twisted soul that was not her own. In the mornings, after these dreams, he looked for evidence. He woke to try to catch her levitating, the blankets snarled around her legs, clutched in her pale fist. He waited and watched, but Josie slept soundly. She awoke as herself still. He grew insomniac, hearing the walls breathing, watching them move inward with their inhale, and out again. He knew she did all of this, somehow, as she slept beside him.
“I can’t quite pinpoint the source of myself anymore.” Josie said one late afternoon. Her nails were maroon and she smelled of lavender. She was at the greenhouse door while he picked greens, and she was pantomiming something in front of her heart. He thought again of their light-filled, never-conceived baby. She wasn’t blinking. He waited for her to, his own eyes growing dry. Paucity of eye-blinking, leaden arm movements, wrist twitches. Those were ways a demon might move. He was too afraid to ask her if she’d not fully returned from wherever she had fallen into herself all those years ago. Besides, she might not even know.
“There was a time when you could do that?” he asked. “Pinpoint the source of yourself?”
“I used to be able to in a way I can’t now,” she said.
“You mean before you were sick?” he asked. He wanted her to be clear. She never was.
“The first things to leave me when I was sick were the very things most people hold dearest. If I was patient, that was gone. If I was kind. Do you understand what I’m saying? Those things I thought were truest about me were the first to not be true. Why would that be any different now?”
“I understand,” he said. It was horrible, what she was saying.
“Do you?” she asked. He wondered what she’d studied in college, what she knew, what sorts of movies she enjoyed, if she believed in an all-consuming romance, what it had felt like awakening to her house in flames, groping toward a dark and burning door. Human bodies were as fragile as houses, and any recovery, no matter how complete, was only ever temporary.
“Which one is this?” he asked her, tugging at the ground, and roots ripped delicate as embroidery thread. He could never identify the plants. But she’d already left. He watched her shape move over the lawn, dark and convincing, her feet gliding like a skater, her pale ankles glowing in the dusk.
“I had seizures,” Josie said when he came inside. “It’s what the old men gossip about. Right? They used to happen everywhere. I was such a spectacle. Half the town believes in that demon shit. What other possible explanation could there’ve been? Even when I got better, it was so tempting to fuck with them. To twitch. To fall. To see them react. To let them believe it.”
“No one told me anything,” he said.
“Look, I can’t tell you for sure it wasn’t the devil. I wasn’t myself. I don’t remember any of it. But I can say I don’t believe in such things. You don’t, do you?”
“I don’t,” he said, watching her stillness.
“There are neurological explanations,” she said.
He sank down to the bed beside her, pulling her toward him, wanting to tend to all of it, neurological, demonic, both.
Still, Ryland found himself looking up a variety of obsessive things on the Internet at the library. He scrolled through local archives of murders, car accidents, drownings. He cross-referenced the stories the men at the Co-op had told him. He read accounts of demon possession from previous centuries. He read contemporary accounts, that many people believed to be possessed were later diagnosed with something psychological in origin, or schizophrenia, Tourettes. Sometimes, like Josie had said, it was neurological, and in very rare instances, in her instance, the body’s immune system actually attacked the brain.
“Tell me more about it,” he said the next night but she lapsed into silence. He reached for her hand but she didn’t extend hers back. She’d made them salads, overflowing in large bowls. They sat with bare feet and bare knees facing each other. Someday he might look back on this time and feel it had actually been very sweet.
“Have you made deals with the devil?” she asked. The cabin was lit with Christmas lights hung around the perimeter. Red dots of light speckled each surface
“Of course I didn’t make deals with the devil. I don’t think you were possessed, Josie. That’s not why I asked.”
“When I was a little girl I made deals with the devil all the time. The deals worked out, I mean they usually do. But you have to give something up of course.” She stopped talking. “Are you listening?” she asked.
“Yes.” Deals with the devil reminded him of being a teenager, the superstitious tics of trying to get what you longed for at that age, believing your wanting could be deep enough and strong enough to make it so.
At a party that weekend, people lingered over her attentively. Sometimes during the night he could tell she was performing. Other times, he looked at her and saw a glimmering, ferocious thing that was not pretend. He was distracted and envious of her many ways of being. She shivered and danced, she laughed. No matter what, people gathered. They wanted to be nice to her. It was a small town and everyone believed something special about her beautiful life. She’d scared them and then convinced them.
“I just don’t feel like myself sometimes, these last few months especially,” she told a rapt group. “My condition, it can come back, you can relapse. People whose brains swelled once have a 25% higher chance of it swelling again.” He pressed on his own cold skull. The last few months had been him, of course. Him making her feel this way. Unmoored, like he was. He didn’t know much about who she’d been before him. Didn’t they all hope that something more profound might be at stake in their lives? Every night might be remarkable, worth something.
“Your girl is talking about the devil,” Donnie said, leaning against the wall beside Ryland. “But if I were you I’d be looking out for more regular things, you know?”
“Looking out for you hanging around her, you mean?” Ryland said, bristling. Josie twirled through the party, her head tilted up in laughter, her dark dress swirling. Ryland felt the urge to fight Donnie, prove the present held a chance against the past. “Thanks for the advice.”
Donnie laughed, a dark, competitive sound lost inside the party noise.
“This land is big enough to build an actual house,” Josie said when they got back to his house late. “We could tear this down.”
“I know where you’re going with this,” Ryland said, though he didn’t really. Her fingers jumped and tapped on the wood on the wall. Her head bobbed right and left. She held her wrists up, the delicate skin and veins pointing out. “Look,” she said. “Look!” she yelled, and he jumped a little, startled by her insistence. But there was nothing to look at. He concentrated on the faint blue web at her pulse. “Loook,” she wailed, and he took her in his arms.
The next afternoon, Josie dug in the dirt of the dark yard with her bare knees and palms in the soil, her silent furtiveness both endearing and upsetting. She dug smallish holes and then moved on an inch or so to her left. She was looking for something she’d lost she explained, though how that lost thing might have buried itself in the yard was unclear. She came in the house empty handed except for a walnut she dropped on the counter. “I didn’t find it yet.” The Christmas lights flickered and for the dark second when they flickered off, her ribcage glowed red through her dress. Just a flashing red second of her and the lights stopped flickering, stayed lit.
“It’s three acres, Josie. You can’t dig up the whole thing.” He didn’t ask about the specificity of the treasure she sought, what exactly it was she hoped might be in this ground of his. Later Ryland found Josie in the yard kneeling beside the body of a dead fox. He was infuriated by the startled sadness that rose up when he looked down at the animal. It glowed too, its ribcage sizzling golden underneath its fur. He looked toward her, unnerved, expecting to see a layer of fur grown over skin.
“He was just in the yard,” Josie said. “I didn’t do anything. It wasn’t me.”
“Why would it be you?” he asked. She looked down at the animal and seemed to be deciding.
“I’ll bury it.” He felt the bones under the golden fur, and pushed the dirt on top. It took forever and then he walked into the forest, where the trees began and the yard ended, feeling the claustrophobia and vastness of his own body. He looked up into the branches for the hearts of the other foxes she’d surely caught and killed. It was so familiar from his dream. She’d hung beating hearts from the branches, strung up like prizes, vascular gems. The sun was setting, spilling orange in swaths. When he saw the first one he couldn’t believe he was right. Without thinking he pulled the purple organ from its noose, holding it in his hand. He dropped it into the leaves, turned, and fell to the ground himself. He couldn’t remember his other life, any woman from before, any city building or skyscraper, any highway made of cement. His hands were covered in the sticky purple of the heart, and he smeared his palms on the ground. He righted himself, walked to the next trees, pulling hearts from the branches. Some were wrapped in burlap, others in gauze, horrific ornaments, dangling at various angles and heights. Some he reached easily, others he had to leap upward to grasp. Others he climbed for. Each one he grasped in his hand and then discarded, moving deeper into the woods. He imagined he was walking toward some clear and terrible end point, a cliff-edge, or vast emptiness. Instead, eventually, he found himself back in his own yard, the little house he’d built glowing red and Josie’s dark shape inside the windows, undulating like there were many of her, all equally menacing, all equally overtaken.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I buried it,” he said. “I know you didn’t do anything.”
He washed his hands, wondering if she somehow turned into one of them, raced amongst them, became human again, ripped their hearts from their ribcages, all in preparation for his giant human heart, unsafely splashing inside his chest. How foolish to not know what she was after.
When the phone rang Ryland heard the muffled wail of Donnie’s girlfriend Lyndsey through the receiver. Josie took in whatever news this was with little reaction. She curled deeper into a chair she’d insisted on bringing over and wedging into the corner. She’d had it since 8th grade, and surely she’d fucked high school boyfriends in it. He allowed himself to picture her knees pressed to the yellow velour, her body leaning over one of them, Donnie, perhaps, who lurked and loitered around her.
“He’s dead?” The words didn’t go with her face. There was a splinter like the sky was fabric ripping and then lightning cracked. Ryland went to the porch and watched the storm as it hurtled toward them. It was coming from the west, which wasn’t good. He believed in these things now, the superstitions of this place, unfounded stories repeated, and believed. How could you not believe when you felt proof of the insatiable, inexplicable world electric in your own chest, when you loved a woman like her, someone as elemental as anything he could think of.
“It was Lyndsey,” Josie said from behind him on the porch, and he jumped.
“It’s Donnie. He got a DUI…he had an accident. The man is dead. Donnie is in jail.” Josie rested her head in the doorframe and looked out over the post-storm yard. He noticed a gold fox pin in her hair, buried in the twist of a braid. He didn’t bring up the storm since it was gone, or the fox since it was buried, or the fox hearts he’d pulled from the trees. They might’ve been hung there by hunters with a sick sense of humor or bored teenagers. But he slid the pin from her hair. She said nothing and glanced down briefly at it, the bronze against his skin.
Instead of other details of Donnie’s accident, Josie told him a story about a walk she took as a little girl. She described gates and stone walls, the riverbank like quicksand. The walk ended at a stone archway and beyond it a lake with glowing light that emanated from the water. “That’s the thing, I know it can’t be real. Or I’m remembering it wrong. But it was real.”
He wanted to believe her. He imagined her as a little girl soaking up that light, not knowing she might grow up to be a woman who’d misplace her own radiant center. He imagined the man who Donnie had crashed into. Donnie had been clean for months, supposedly, the green dye growing out of his hair, weight forming again around his face. Ryland remembered what Josie had said about accessed memories becoming more unreliable, realized what a grave gift it had been for her to tell him about this childhood walk. It was more unreal now. That river, that geology, that childhood confusion. He wanted to try to keep it for her.
In the morning Ryland saw lightning had hit a tree in the yard, leaving a dark mark. Josie’s mug was still sitting on the porch and when he picked it up he saw her fingerprints, but etched in black on the surface of the enamel. He scrubbed and scrubbed in the sink but they stayed. He leaned on the counter and stood very still. He could tear the cabin down and build a real house. They could live in it together. She’d drawn the storm to the yard, drawn the lightning to that tree. She’d caused that truck to swerve. She’d gathered the illumination of the lake water. She’d hung hearts from string, she’d surrounded him.
There was a funeral for the dead man, a local farmer named Albert. Everyone attended the funeral, but Ryland didn’t go, feeling somehow implicated, hypocritical, and like an outsider. It seemed as if Lyndsey and Ryland were the only two in town not at the funeral. He told himself that was why he stopped by her house with leftover firewood, a helpful gesture he’d never offered before. She was wearing the white shirt of her housekeeper’s uniform, and she smelled like something chemical, but sweet. She looked so clear and powerless to him. He wasn’t scared of her at all. He told her he’d unload the firewood by the back door, and she nodded. Surely her brain must be cool to the touch, calm, all science, and no miracle.
She sat on the back stairs as he worked. “The night Donnie crashed, he said he was going to see Josie. She was acting so weird at the party the other week, right? She and Donnie played pool really late. He seemed so different afterwards. But I don’t think they were having an affair. Do you think they were? I don’t know, he knew her when she was young, when she was sick. He always understood her.”
Ryland stopped throwing the firewood and wiped his hands on his pants. The demon might have used Josie’s lips to kiss Donnie and flavor his soul with some darkness, but an affair seemed too mundane. It would’ve been a relief to deal with a betrayal so commonplace.
“I thought he was sleepwalking. People do stuff like that in their sleep. There was that one guy who murdered his whole family. And he was asleep the whole time. Remember that story?” Lyndsey asked.
“He was wasted.” Ryland stood still in the bed of his truck and she sat still on the stairs. “Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re right,” she said and though he feared she was going to cry, she didn’t. She was so different from Josie. She was vulnerable and reasonable. She was a human woman like the kind he’d known in New York. She was vivid, with distinct lines and no shadow. The words she spoke had meaning and he understood them. How had he allowed himself to stray so far from what was real? The sky above them made him think of deserts, a strange sensation of contrast, of being wrong.
Lyndsey got up and tugged on her shirt, and he found himself wanting to unbutton it and see her skin, see whatever details of her kept secret by her clothes. It would be the most amazing relief, the simplicity of it. He could imagine what she’d look like naked, how she might feel. Her sadness was this melting thing that made her irresistible and he thought she might let him. He wondered, simultaneously, if Josie was sleeping with Donnie, and a wave of jealousy washed over him. Not about the sex exactly, but about the history, the intimacy, something impossible to compete with. Once she’d told him a sexual story about Donnie, as if Ryland shouldn’t care because it was all so long ago. Josie lived awhile in Chicago, but returned for unclear reasons. He knew so little about all of it; he was so unimportant, just a current detail floating on the surface above all these other, deeper and truer things.
Lyndsey got him a beer, handing it up to him where he stood in the bed of the truck. She started to stack the firewood along the porch. Ryland felt so sad for them all. Time suddenly seemed monstrously cavernous and finite.
“Come inside,” she said, but he didn’t at first. He said he should go. He felt the susceptible fatigue of his soul, the part of himself open to possession too. They sat on the floor inside, which was made of giant blue stone and uncomfortable. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed that before, or if he’d forgotten. There was so much to remember, and he wanted to pay attention.
“I’m thinking of volunteering,” he said. “I might build houses in Argentina or something.”
“So, moving away, you mean?”
“I think Josie isn’t well,” he said.
“I worry about her sometimes. But I know she’s fine. There’s no reason to think she’s relapsed. I think if she did, we would know. Part of it…I mean part of her recovery was the question of how much of herself would come back, whether she was at 80% or 95%.”
“What do you think?” he asked.
“As if any of us are always 100% some way.”
At some other time in his life, Ryland might’ve thought it easy to be 100% the way you were. He no longer did.
“I put this floor in,” she said, her bare feet on the uneven stone. “Maybe I can go to Argentina too.”
He pictured it, the two of them in some lush place together, having run off from this life. He wanted to know what she thought of him. If she imagined anything dirty, or insulting. It was hard to know if it was because of or in spite of the dark swirl of Josie inside him, that inescapable knot of her, that he leaned over and unbuttoned the first button of her shirt. He buried his head in her chest, kissed her collarbone. She dropped her hands into his hair, lifted his face up and her mouth fell hard towards his.
He’d always longed for the wilderness, all this emptiness crowded with forests, thunderstorms, the lonely foxes, their bloody hearts. He’d gotten his wish, in it now, lonely and feral. The space of had opened inside his chest. Winter was these washes of gray, gold and blue, like river stones. The mills had long been abandoned, many things had long been abandoned. Everywhere was a place to leave, or to seek out, to understand or reject. Josie was blessed and stricken both. It seemed useful really, to stand so close to death, to live that way, stripped down to who you really were in all its infinite changing.
When he returned in the morning he sat for a long time in the truck looking at the black mark of his house against the mountain. Josie didn’t ask him where he’d been but suggested walking toward the top of Old Rag. He didn’t see the harm in it, despite the sky gathering itself, the trees stirring themselves up in that telltale rustle. The path wove from his land toward the rocky peak of the mountain. He felt winded early on, anxious in a way that he couldn’t pinpoint or soothe. The bolts from far off grew closer.
“We should turn back,” he said.
“People hit by lightning are more likely to be hit by it again,” she said, unconcerned. “Isn’t that remarkable?” It was like her illness, her mind more likely to heat up again. It seemed it should be the opposite; a brush with the unlucky ought to protect you from further damage. Instead, the lightning bolt remembered you and returned for you. He shivered, but felt full of heat. He wished for the lightning, to be hit by it, to be the kind of person who lived constantly with the fear and knowledge he was more likely to be hit again.
laura schadler grew up in the mountains of Virginia. A recent MacDowell fellow, her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Denver Quarterly, and West Branch Wired among others. Her story collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Conner Short Fiction Award. She also blogs about pop culture, teaches yoga, and is at work on a novel about a cult.