Now Jenny is chanting, not out loud, chanting in her head, chanting for the last half hour.
Rain’s all right, rain’s all right.
She follows the road up into the cloud and within minutes the dash is muddy and her Dijon-yellow blouse has turned to glue. Beneath her the Beast hacks and coughs, protesting the incline, and she flexes her feet against the wheel-wells to keep blood in them. Outside, warm bubbles of air drift past like clear lenses, and within them she glimpses the hypnotic curvature of mountains far below, their waves of vegetation rising like steam. Rain’s all right. She is deep in the Blue Ridge now, at the edge of the dream she has had each night since accepting Penland’s invitation.
The first night it came, she lay in her old bed following six nervous hours spent packing, struggling to fall asleep, at last licking her fingers and sliding her pajama bottoms down in an effort to slow her mind. As always she dreamt of Jeremy, his delicate collarbones and bony hips, his long hair smelling of the Arboretum. In the dream they are together again, traveling side by side in the Beast; he has agreed to come with her to Penland, and when they arrive she chases him through the grass to the top of Resident’s Hill over the main studios, capturing him between her legs.
Then a rain begins to fall, and without warning the dirt under Jeremy’s back starts to soften and liquefy, sucking his pale shoulders down into the earth. He screams, but Jenny sets her knees squarely on his ribs and slaps his hands away until at last she kneels naked and alone on a bare shield of mud. She feels the rain move off then, and looking around, confronts the dripping underbelly of a gargantuan ship’s bow which has suddenly appeared, bloated and ancient, sheltering her from the heavy rains that blanket the School and the surrounding valley. She huddles there each night, staring out at the wet sheets, perched beneath the hull or pacing its soggy lengths, watching her bare skin turn slowly blue until morning.
The dream is confusing and she has not told anyone about it, but she has been surprised to detect in it the same unmistakable glow she finds only at her loom, after many hours of work. Since choosing to pursue art, the glow has been her dearest secret, her golden gauge of authenticity. She shared it one night with Jeremy, the night he’d told her how real she felt in his arms, and though it was difficult to explain he had understood it. That was the way it was: for Jeremy, her essential self was always on the table, out in the open. While she wove, deep in concentration, he would watch her, kiss her neck, asking, drawing her out, and the next day in their seminar he would meet her eyes, and she would know. As their relationship deepened she came to cradle this space of elevated focus and clarity, so much a part of him, to stand on it. And though others could not see as Jeremy could, she suspected it was the glow that drew them all to her, mystified her professors, set her apart. Even after Jeremy left the university, Jenny knew that somewhere he still kept it safe for her, the one other to have seen it.
Moving in she sensed that her new housemates were aware of her seriousness, her commitment. Though she was young, they saw how Jeremy had singled her out, and no one could deny how rapidly her art improved. G-Street co-op accepted most of the textile and design majors; she had met all of her friends there, other students who had also found something essential and could give love freely. They intimidated her at first, but anyone introduced by Jeremy soon found a place among the rest. Recalling her first moments in the house, mesmerized, watching Delilah sauté bare-chested, Jenny grips the steering wheel more tightly. Jeremy had entered the kitchen then, and after something passed between them all, she had followed him upstairs, unable to restrain a grin.
In many ways, she knew, it had been her first real home. After G-Street, re-entry into the lemon-Zest sterility of her parents’ atmosphere had rapidly transformed the Penland program into something like salvation. Her friends had all gone before she herself had finished school, pursuing graduate studies, internships in Korea, WWOOF farms in New Zealand or treks across Tasmania, while the rest of the co-opers moved to the city. And though they often called her to come visit, she would not answer, retreating into her sketchbook. After Davis it seemed the glow was all she had left—far better than a locked door when her mother persisted about rejoining tennis club, or when, as she sat lost in her sketches, her father still tapped for attention on her shoulder.
Ammie’s emails had warned that the town of Little Switzerland lay deep in a temperate rain forest. “Never stops the damned tourists, though,” she wrote. Anne-Marie and Joe Bringle were the elderly couple whose garden cottage she’d rented—with the help of her parents, as it was pricey—through Penland’s wealthy donor network. Though they had spoken briefly and lived thousands of miles apart, Jenny instantly recognized some of her own glow in their correspondence, and already felt safe confiding in Ammie as a sort of older family member.
Amm, she’d confessed in their only phone conversation, More than anything I feel like I need somewhere to be alone, you know, someplace special, away from Penland. The campus has so many residents and I just feel like I want to have a place, like, somewhere apart, where I can find what is truly, artistically essential to me.
Ammie had not responded immediately—recognizing, Jenny intuited, her own repressed artistic yearnings in Jenny’s confession. Before speaking, she cleared her throat.
Well, dear, I certainly hope you do that, and I suppose the bungalow sounds like just the place for that sort of thing. But won’t you get lonely? It’s nearly twenty miles to Penland from where we are, and the storms can be severe at our elevation. Joey and I won’t be there for quite a while, either, we’ll be with family, out in the Banks.
Jenny grinned into the phone, testing out a bit of Ammie’s twang.
Don’t you worry about me, honey; I’ll be just fine. I start my drive tomorrow, so I s’pose I’ll see you folks when you get back in early October.
A pothole rocks the Beast’s frame, and Jenny reawakens to her surroundings. The rain has picked up, and despite the Suburban’s girth she feels her wheels starting to skate and jerk on the black pools gathering all over the road. Easing off the gas, she reaches back for one of her own woven hand towels—a piece from her recent faunal collection, this one patterned with little bears—and rubs at the steam and grease on the windshield.
Rain’s all right.
Glancing down, she fumbles between her knees for the map, and tiny schools of light skitter away from the beam of her headlamp, swimming over the hard laminate. 226, 226a, Little Switzerland. She looks up, and her eyes fix on a cluster of thick dark shapes detaching from the hillside, tumbling down and spilling out onto the road.
She shrieks. The Durango hisses through an S curve, crunching against a tree on the far shoulder, one of its tires partway off the edge. Shaking, she reverses over the muddy grass, stomps the emergency brake and unbuckles, twisting to peer under the headrest.
Illuminated by the wet red hum of her brakes, the bunched figures shuffle off the road and down into the trees.
Five miles on she spots a waterlogged TURN HERE, JENNY! draped over an A Frame. Above it, knots of yellow ribbons dangle, alien and kelp-like, from a branch. Still shaking, she turns up this tiny road, following still more bright ribbons through hidden turns until they vanish before a wide, shallow pond of gravel and grass. She parks in the center of the pond, grabbing handfuls of towels to cover her neck and shoulders, cranks up the heater and fights to hold her body still. She closes her eyes. When she opens them her new house appears, low-eaved and saggy, ringed by churning trees. A drab screen door hangs slightly open. Hurrying inside, she stumbles down the hall to find the light switch, throws down her sleeping bag and shoulders the door to wedge it. She pees by headlamp and collapses on the floor, still shaking. As the dream closes around her, she clambers up onto Jeremy’s sinking body with frantic, practiced efficiency, slapping his hands away until she falls asleep.
She wakes early the next morning without internet or cell reception and leaves without changing clothes, shaking a little and pausing only to inspect the Durango’s passenger side. She stumbles up the hill on a little grassy road through dense fog, her laptop and purse stuffed in a backpack, pulling her jacket tight against the moisture seeping from the air. Soon the grass gives way to shiny asphalt, and the edges of Little Switzerland begin to appear in a crisscrossing web of tiny footpaths and railings painted all the same color, wandering between clusters of sharp-looking outbuildings.
She walks faster, seeing nobody. In time she reaches the town center and sits gingerly on a cast iron bench. When her feet grow cold she gets up and walks in the direction of the biggest building she can see and pulls ineffectually at its huge wooden door handle. By her knee, a slate plaque reads LITTLE SWITZERLAND, followed by three unintelligible paragraphs in French, and she continues onward past a general store, a rusted hutch of rental bicycles, a for-decoration park and a gas station with two rusty white pumps. Five minutes later she comes to the outskirts of the town and for a moment stands alone on the highway, listening to the driplets of water prickling the road around her. The fog has risen a few feet, and turning back to town she can just see the lowest parts of all the buildings, the colorful doors, first floor windows.
Through a gap in the buildings she spots what looks like a woman lugging boxes. Hitching up her backpack, Jenny hurries back down the highway, skidding to a stop beneath a squat, hill-like brown structure with a deep patio and rocking chairs. Pausing to catch her breath, she grips the railing, finding it spongy. Gathering herself, she bounds up the mossy steps, but in place of a door she finds only the same dirty siding that covers the rest of the structure. Something in the building’s air reminds her of food, an aftertaste of grease. She runs her fingers idly along the boards, pausing to pick at bits of dirt and grass in the cracks. The oily odor grows stronger as she moves along, and after several feet she reaches a clean crack, slips her hand inside and pulls, and the whole section of wall opens into a thick darkness like the inside of a rain barrel. She can hear music ahead, and though she is not tall she feels her hair graze the heavy lintel as she enters.
Inside, a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor slopes gently upward for a few yards to a second door. She moves toward it, marveling that the squat old frame could hide so much space. Under her feet, skinny plywood tongues lead inward, providing some grip for her wet boots. She grins, realizing for the first time that she has moved to a place with a real winter.
Reaching a far door, she enters a warm, windowless room filled with haphazard tables and a long bar. Four men sit hunched together in the corner. Two of them wear hats. At the bar, two more in nylon jackets return to their conversation, while an employee leans against a nearby glass cabinet, listening in. Somewhere, a pair of speakers plays something soft and acoustic. She approaches the bar and the two men turn.
Hey, sunshine, where’d you come from?
Jenny places a hand on a stool, swinging her bag off her shoulder.
No shit? Why the hell’d you come all the way out here?
Well, it’s all happening out here, haven’t you heard?
They chuckle, girths separating from the bar momentarily before settling back into place, booted feet kicking at the stools.
Actually I live here.
The bartender leans forward, one of his elbows slipping off the edge.
That so? Where at?
Right down the end of Laurel Lane, you know where it turns into Dubose?
All three men nod.
I’m in a little in-law, pretty much in the back yard of this big mansiony place. It’s pretty tucked away I guess, and it’s, you know, small and shabby, but hey, it’s home, right?
The bartender adjusts his apron.
Well, we’re happy to have you. When’d you get in?
Last night around one or two, during the storm. These mountains are really something, I mean I didn’t even know I was in them ‘til I’d gone maybe ten miles. Drove all the way from Kansas City yesterday, couldn’t believe I’d actually made it.
The bartender looks at her. You that big gray Dodge?
Yeah that’s my Beast. How’d you know?
Benny said he saw you last night. Benny, this your lady from last night? Says she got a Beast.
Without turning, a man at the table mutters Not his lady, and the others snicker.
One of the no-hats looks up, giving her a once-over.
So that was you, huh?
Yep, that was me.
Jenny turns, running a hand through her short blonde hair, accidentally dislodging a hair clip which falls clattering to the bar. She attempts to hide the mistake but the bartender and the two nylon jackets smirk. She shows them her bottom teeth.
Well you had a close call, then. We had a buddy go over that same spot. Broke his neck.
Oh man, it was just that rain, I’m not used to it being so heavy. That might have been the worst storm I’ve ever been in, I guess I came around that corner too fast.
You guys know what I mean? I mean, none of you ever crashed on these roads, you’re probably all pros, aren’t you?
All three grunt.
Yeah, tourists get in all sorts of fuckin’ accidents ‘round here.
Even though they drive so fuckin’ slow.
Across the room, Benny suppresses a snort to general laughter.
Well what I want to know, is why the hell ya’ll didn’t stop to see if she was alright.
From a swing-door emerges what appears to be the woman Jenny had seen from afar, enveloped by soft light from a storeroom. She is tall and skinny, in her late thirties with shoulder-length dark hair. She wears cheap bracelets and an apron over jeans. She crosses the room, flicks a patterned napkin at Benny, smacking him between his broad shoulders. Benny, not quite flinching, turns his palms toward the ceiling.
Aw look, J, she’s fine, look, just look. She’s fine.
Well you didn’t know that then, did you? Didn’t do a damned thing, though, that sounds about right. Probably there too, Coop, weren’t you. You too, Oliver. Of course you were, you dingbats. Ya’ll should’a stopped. Imagine movin’ somewhere this far away, almost dyin’ and nobody come to check up on you they see your car go off the road. Well. So glad you’re all right, sweetie.
The woman ducks around the bar, extending a wide hand.
Julie. I run this tub during the off-season. I’ll bet you’re at Penland.
Jenny shakes Julie’s hand, surprised to find that though the room is warm, Julie’s hand is cold.
All right. You been up there yet?
Nope, I start next week.
That is one pretty place. Used to do some art myself when I was a girl. Always thought I’d take one of their summer workshops, just to see if I’ve still got it. Can’t say I could handle the people though. Spend too much of my time with these lumps.
Jenny studies one of the men at the table across the room, one of the two hat-wearers.
Well they look like nice enough lumps to me. Does any of the Penland staff ever make it up here?
We get one or two each year, usually during the summer. They’re good folks, mostly. Your type, I think. So who do you know here in town?
She shakes her head.
Nobody? Don’t have family in the area? What, you just moved out here all alone? To work at Penland?
They look at her.
Well. You’re home now, sweetie. We are sure glad to have you. We’ll get you settled in no time. Your place on Laurel don’t leak I hope? We can help fix it if it does.
Jenny thinks of the rickety front door.
No, it seems fine. My landlords left me a dehumidifier.
Julie slides a huge Belgian-style beer glass across the counter. Good, ‘cause that’s a make-or-break around here. Plus, doors on that place’ve never been fixed.
Behind them, a chair scrapes.
So that’s your place now.
Jenny turns to see the hat-wearer, the man she had been studying, leaning against the bar on her other side. She had not seen him cross the room.
Hey there. Ken. Buy you that drink?
Julie whacks his knuckles with the back of her thick nails, making him jump.
Excuse moi, that drink is from me, Kenneth.
Ken leans back, grinning.
Jenny smiles back at him as he sets each of his thick elbows up on the bar. He is cute, if a little older, and quite big, with thick sideburns that grow into a coat, disappearing somewhere below his collar.
You guys always start this early?
Well, not too much else to do in the off-season—what was your name?
Oh, Jenny! Jenny.
Pleased to meet you, Jenny. Like I said, not too much else to do here ‘cept eat and drink, you know, pass the time ‘til the tourists get here.
He pushes his hat back to reveal his eyes, and in an instant Jenny can see that he really means a dark, musty place with cool water and thick carpet that smells of sex and bodies.
Julie abruptly sets a rack of heavy beer mugs under a stainless steel faucet.
O-kay, cool it. This here is an artist. Got plenty on her plate already, ain’t that so.
Jenny leans back, realizing that her own elbows have gone sore on the hard bar top.
Well, I will soon. So, what do you all do for work?
God knows what these damned hillbillies get up to! Holing up in here like they do! Lord help us, but they’re the only entertainment in town. That’s the thing up here, hon. You do what you can until summer, then you bleed the dang tourists dry, try to get through the rest of the year.
Ken slaps his hands on the bar, and Jenny jumps.
Yeah well, not like we’d want to be anywhere else.
Julie barks at him.
There you go again, thinking about yourself. See? Bunch of selfish bastards, think they’re all that. Never stop to think maybe they been here too long themselves, need to get out of this fuckin’ bar. Never stop and think maybe they just ain’t wanted any more!
She swishes the towel dramatically at Ken and he does his best to grab it. The rest of the men laugh. Julie wipes her own hands triumphantly and strides out from behind the bar to wrap a muscled arm around Ken’s neck.
You got a man like this back home, sweetie?
For the first time since June, Jenny feels real warmth and comfort swept over her. Looking Ken in the eyes, she lifts her double-pint, then sets it back down empty, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, a glow already warming her extremities. One of the no-hats wolf-whistles from across the room.
And though Julie lowers her face familiarly to nip at Ken’s ear, the big man’s eyes fix on Jenny’s, his mouth a little open. Julie has to squeeze his neck a few times before he reaches back to swat her away.
Well, don’t get any ideas just yet, sweetie, we just met you. Tell you what, why don’t you stop by this evening round ten? We all stay past closing on Fridays, and I promise by tomorrow morning you’ll be good as family.
Sounds good to me.
Unsure if she’s been invited to leave, Jenny shoulders her bag.
I should head, I still need to get settled with my stuff. Nice meeting you folks, I’ll see you all tonight.
Likewise sweetie. If you need anything just holler.
Their eyes follow her out the door and into the passageway. Outside, the fog has risen a few more feet, revealing the second stories she had passed earlier that morning. Three cars now fill the diagonals by the general store, and she stops to buy groceries and other essentials for the house, stuffing them into her backpack. She refills her water bottle in the bathroom, thanks the bearded man behind the counter and begins to walk. Soon her feet rediscover the wet grassy trail through the woods, where instead of buildings she finds only small paths leading upward to suggest habitation. The fog is still close under the trees, and as she makes her way back down the hill it curls over the trail like a garden lattice, forming a dome to walk through, silent except for her feet on the grass.
The trail narrows and she begins pushing dense greenery from her face. Tall ferns reach out to her, punctuated by fat spade-shaped leaves and thick fuzzy stalks like wrist bones. She grips them as she passes. After some minutes she pauses, leaning a hand against a tree. One beer or no, she’d drunk much too fast, on no food, and set too quick a pace for her first walk in weeks. Rotating slowly, she searches for her own panting in the half-rain, but there is only the papery sound of her jacket. The trail has vanished behind her. Ferns have taken its place.
Struggling to remain calm, she begins stepping on bushes, trampling the stalks and grasses until she has formed a small space of her own. Stumbling, she sits down and rests on her backpack, covering her eyes with her palm. Dizziness fills her. Sweeping a numb hand, she tears at the nearby grasses and begins twisting a little bracelet, a habit cultivated in childhood, practiced always in the dark, waiting for her parents after soccer practice or school. In her nausea, a memory finds her.
One summer evening before school began, three weekends after her parents had dropped her off, Jeremy had discovered her in just this pose, weaving a grass bracelet, sitting alone in the Arboretum under what was then her favorite tree. He’d strode out of the woods and sat beside her and told her without hesitation how much he wanted one. It was the only thing he’d worn the first time they were together. Afterward, lying atop her, he’d stroked its prickles in deafening lines down her back, echoing their path in unseen kisses. Sometimes, when he chose to sleep with her and not Delilah, she would slide from her bed and lean against the wall, watching him, feeling her home breathing beneath her, all of her friends together again in one place.
Unbidden, the dream washes over her, pounding feet in Jeremy’s wake, and as her legs twist around him she feels the rain begin in earnest on her back. Their unbalancing is sudden—they tip, and her fingers are plunged into the soft earth and sucked out, undulant grasses rolling their bodies over and over with terrifying speed for what seems hundreds of feet, until they settle together panting and bruised on a deep carpet of crushed growth.
But before she can rise, it is Jeremy’s body on hers that she feels, his form expanded a hundred times, huge and dry, Jeremy pressing down on her chest with the weight of a ship, filling her with a smell like wet loam—and as she feels herself beginning to sink into the mud she screeches, reaching desperately for his chest. But for a chest she finds only coarse fur; for his mouth, a slimy snout; and for her voice, only a low, wet rumble.