by Joe Ducato
She adored the dance…especially when Aunt Dee and Uncle Beans turned it into a chase. Jilly just couldn’t get enough of that “Jilly-Stew 2-Step”. Sometimes they chased her through every room, even the closets. Just the fact that adults had named a dance after you—that was gold right there—but being able to brighten their day, that was something else. That was better than gold. Even on that day they found cousin Will dead—even on that day she delivered the smiles. The magic of an 8-year old. That’s what made her sleep so sound. Trips to Dreamland are nearly perfect anyway when the undented armor of youth is no match for monsters and bad things, when we’re as strong as we are pure and the world is just a clumsy old ox. We all know it. Even on the first day at school, it was all tolerable because family and the 2-step awaited. Balance is always easier the closer we are to the ground.
Every night before bed, Jilly got a full glass of water—fuel to get her to Dream Land, and it worked every time. Jilly had everything she needed. She wasn’t even sad about not having a father.
“You don’t miss what you never had,” she’d over-heard Aunt Dee say once. It must have been true if Aunt Dee said it. In truth, Jilly didn’t understand much of what adults said. It was stuff of “other worlds,” the worlds of scowls and seriousness. Jilly didn’t even mind living in that tiny apartment at The Liberty Gardens with its free-roam roaches and all. She knew of other kids in her class whose families lived in big ranch houses with green lawns and dogs that didn’t listen. That was ok for them, but they didn’t have what she had at the “The Gardens”. To Jilly, the close walls felt like hot soup sometimes. She felt truly lucky. Everything she loved, loved her back—even the 3 dolls, the ones the old Russian woman had given her that day she’d come to visit. Parable dolls, she’d told everyone—the lion, the wolf and the sheep. Jilly kept them all on the shelf over her bed.
“These are from the old country,” Jilly remembered the old Russian woman saying that day. The old woman had only visited once. Aunt Dee said she’d gone back to the old country to die. Jilly was glad she’d come that one time. Jilly loved the parable dolls, especially the lion because he was so strong and noble and a protector. Maybe that’s why it hurt Jilly so much when God let the voice come. She couldn’t figure out what she could have done wrong.
The first time the voice came Jilly had been playing the role of a fairy queen in a dream when, all of a sudden, she found herself wide-eyed and awake in a dark bedroom, staring at the number 2 on the bed-stand clock. She felt very out of sorts. It had never been dark before in her room when sleep had ended. Jilly tried to force her eyes closed but she couldn’t. She prayed to be allowed back on the dream train. That’s when she heard the angry voice. Torrents of rage coming from somewhere, an endless snake of hate. Jilly put her hands together and prayed and prayed until finally her prayers were answered and she was taken away. The next morning she hoped that it had all been a dream and that the train would never leave her in that dark place again.
“No angry voice, real or unreal, should ever come to anyone,” Jilly thought. She also wondered why the lion, the strongest and noblest of the parable dolls, had not jumped from the shelf to protect her.
“If the lion won’t protect a child,” she thought, “He is no friend to the gentle like the old Russian woman had said.” The old Russian woman had said the sheep could always count on the lion to bring justice to the wolf.
“No wonder she went back to the old country to die,” Jilly thought, “Her parables are wrong.”
The next night Jilly’s prayers went unanswered. She awoke again when it was still dark. The voice was in her room again and the lion was doing nothing. Jilly tried hard to understand the words that made up the snake, but she couldn’t. It was pure anger without shape. It stirred something inside her though, something that once slept but now slept no more. Behind the drone of rage, Jilly could hear snoring in the other room. That made her laugh. Her mother always brought home snorers. Jilly told herself that patience is what she needed to find out what was going on. Patience, that thing she’d been told that she didn’t have enough of. She waited for the voice to leave but it wouldn’t. Jilly discovered she had no patience for patience. She climbed down from the bed and tried to figure out where the voice came from. She concluded it was in the walls with the ants and the centipedes. She stepped a certain way and the voice grew louder – a step in another way, it was fainter. The voice was living in her closet.
“I wonder if it has legs and can run out,” she thought then laughed into her hand, “Foolish thought!” Jilly glided across the hardwood floor and placed her hand on one of the closet’s sliding doors. Slowly she pushed the door aside, then dropped to her knees and crawled inside. She moved on her hands and knees cautiously, scraping the bottoms of her dresses and coats. She fought back the urge to believe all life on Earth had ended. In the darkest of dark, she found the back wall of the closet and discovered a wooden panel there that also slid. She hated the lion more with each breath she took. She was on her own. She vowed never to believe in anyone or anything again. She moved the wooden panel then placed her hand into the open space. She discovered a pipe and then another one right next to it. One pipe was hot and one was cold. Jilly leaned in and placed her ear on the cold one. That was where the voice lived. It lived in the pipe. It felt like the time she’d placed the sea shell on her ear and found the ocean living inside, except this time the ocean was a monster.
Jilly quickly backed out of the closet, then stood up and brushed the dust from her pajamas. She tip-toed to the window, and raised the pane letting in cool night air. Tomorrow she would throw the parable dolls away. Coy dogs barked far away in the hills. The moon was high, soothing the beasts and comforting the oceans. The world outside her closet seemed gentle. Jilly quietly crawled back into bed and left the black world for the place where good fairies made their homes in tulips.
In the morning she told her mother about the voice. Her mother listened like she always did then went with Jilly to the bedroom. Jilly showed her mother where she thought the voice came from.
“Those are only water pipes sweetie. That is where the water comes from for our baths. We can wash that voice down the drain!”
This gave Jilly the worst feeling yet, the feeling of not being believed. It made her sore in her soul where she’d never felt sore before. Jilly followed her mother back to the kitchen. The current Snore King was sitting on his throne reading a newspaper. Jilly wished it were a rainy day and that The Snore King was in his Kingdom far away. She wished her mother believed in monsters but felt like that would be like wishing the moon dripped cotton candy.
“We can’t wish our lives away,” she’d heard Aunt Dee say once about men who belonged to a club called Dead Beats.
After school, on her way back to The Gardens, Jilly stopped in front of the other apartment house to see if her friends, Karen and Janice, were around. Sometimes Karen and Janice waited for Jilly at the playground shared by the twin apartments but today they were nowhere to be found. Jilly went to the playground by herself and sat quietly on her favorite swing, the one that fit her perfect. Even when a few rain drops began to fall, she stayed there and then when the cloud left for good and sunlight came, she began to swing, slowly at first then stronger until she reached great heights. The Liberty looked odd from way up there. At her highest, Jilly could see all the basketballs on the roof. She snapped little pictures of what she glimpsed through the windows of the complexes. One was a round, pale woman in a holey robe standing at an ironing board. Another was a shirtless, hairless-headed man at a sink shaving. He made rat faces. Jilly snapped pictures of lives long enough to paint but too short to love. She could smell their lives too. She’d never told anyone about that for fear they would send her somewhere to teach the crazy out of her. She could smell the ground when the swing got low and when it got high again, she could smell cigar smoke trapped in old curtains. She’d never tell anyone about her smells – never, ever.
That night in her room she stood on her bed and took the lion from the shelf. She shook the doll, scowled at it, then let it drop to the bed. She shook her finger at it, then picked up the doll and put it back between the sheep and the wolf. She thought about making friends with the wolf but remembered what the old Russian woman had said. The sheep was a reliable friend but could not defeat the wolf. Only the lion could bring justice to the wolf. At the side of her bed Jilly ran in place for 10 straight minutes, trying to exhaust herself into an unbroken dream train ride. Then she crawled under the covers and closed her eyes. The next thing she knew, her eyes were open and, the room was black and she was looking at the number 3 on the clock. She listened for the voice. No sounds anywhere—no snoring, no rain on the window, no coy dogs in the hills or bull frogs croaking—just quiet. She lay still admiring the quiet of the world when suddenly it came like a crash: the angry voice. Jilly yanked the pillow over her head. The rage snake in the closet coiled, feeding off the damaged soul it possessed. Anger felt like rain to Jilly, the drenching rain that soaks through everything. Jilly thought she could hear the words “Never!” and “Why?” and once she heard, “Believe You Me!” Then she heard a mighty blow, a crash maybe; a something; a bang, a break, a boom. She didn’t know, but following that, there was nothing—quiet, God-thanking quiet. Her chest heaved.
“Surely someone must have heard that,” she thought, “Surely someone will come and sit with me and say things will be alright. Maybe the old Russian woman will come back from the dead and shake justice from the lion.”
She wanted to call out, but for reasons she didn’t know, she didn’t. She couldn’t call for her mother. In the other room, the Snore King was really striking up the band. There was nothing for little girls to doubt anymore. Little ones are alone in the world and “no doubt” beats “I wonder” every day. There is peace in “no doubt.” The only way out, Jilly knew, was to disappear. She threw the sheets over her head, closed her eyes and summoned up the magic carpet that came and swept her away.
When she opened her eyes again, the room was full of sunlight. Jilly looked up and saw that the wolf had tilted on the shelf, drunk on its own greatness. She stood and righted the doll. She ran her fingers over the wolf’s cold, marble eyes. The unwritten laws of nature are cruel and comforting at the same time. Jilly knew the wolf well now.
After school, at the playground, Karen and Jilly hid inside the big, plastic castle. Jilly told Karen about the angry voice. Karen understood. Karen had understanding eyes.
“That angry voice can’t come in here,” Karen whispered, “We’re safe here.”
Afterwards, the girls left the castle and parted ways, Karen walking towards the Brick Yard and Jilly to the Liberty Gardens. She noticed that the Snore King’s car was out front early. Jilly wondered if the Snore King was smuggling in the angry voice in that coffee mug he loved to carry.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Jilly thought, ‘A voice is just air. It doesn’t need a place to hide.’ She looked over to the other apartments. Such a lonely-looking place. She watched a crow perched high on the Liberty’s flag pole.
That night Jilly got ready for bed. She fumbled nervously at the mirror, running the brush through her hair. She hated the voice. She hated the voice in ways she never knew she could hate. When Jilly had hated before, it felt different. This time, hate made her bones feel hollow like the chocolate bunnies Aunt Dee brought at Easter. She didn’t feel sorry for the voice. No way. Sometimes she felt sorry for her mother when her mother lost her temper. She knew her mother didn’t mean to. This hate was like a knife that cuts from the inside out. Jilly wished the old Russian hadn’t gone back to the old country to die. She wished the old Russian lady had told her more about the parable dolls, that she wouldn’t have had to run her fingers over the wolf’s cold eyes.
Jilly went into the living room. She found her mothing staring at the TV and the Snore King horizontal and corpse-like on the couch. On her way back to the bedroom, Jilly peeked into her mother’s room, the unenterable sanctuary.
Everything inside there was neat, formal and adult-looking. Maybe the voice was afraid to go there. Before she got under the covers, Jilly knelt by the side of her bed and recited her prayers. She said the prayer for the lost souls just like she’d been taught. She forced herself to pray for the lost soul in her closet. She plucked the sheep from the self and brought him under the covers with her, then closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the room was dark and the number 12 showed. The train had stopped right out of the station. Even though it was quiet, Jilly’s heart raced. Coy dogs were in the hills she knew. Coy dogs live for midnight. Jilly put her head back and let the sides of the pillow cover her ears. She made-up a song about good dogs and bad dogs and then, suddenly, just like the night before, the calm was sliced open by the voice, whose rage now was unchained. It was red hot and violent, spewing out shouts and yells that curdled her blood. It would surely lay claim to the gentle.
Jilly leaped out of the bed leaving the sheep. She ran to the closet and dropped to her knees. Then, suddenly there was a loud clap like a tree had snapped and then silence—complete reverberating silence. It had all happened so fast. Jilly’s chest heaved and her heart beat wild. She waited for the next shoe to drop, for the silence to break again, but the rippling lake of calm was soon glass and darkness slowly became a long, black coat.
She crawled into the closet, crawled beneath all the coats and dresses and put her ear on the pipe. Muffled snores from the other room sounded like far away shells hitting the Earth. Fifteen minutes passed and the black, coat hugged her being. Jilly could feel sleep taking her. She backed out of the closet, crossed the hardwood and crawled back into bed. She held the sheep as tight as she could. Above, the lion whispered some words Jilly would never, ever forget. She vowed never to tell a soul what the lion had said even after she becomes an old woman without patience and unable to get up off a chair. Jilly drifted away knowing there had never been anything to fear.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the number 5. The room was partially lit. The world felt different, cradled somehow in the arms of God. Jilly slowly got out of bed and stood by the window. She watched the light come to the world, a dark shadow turn into a castle, a cardinal dropping worms into a waiting beak. Jilly wanted so much for Aunt Dee and Uncle Beans to come and chase her.
She went to the kitchen. The Snore King was at the table with his newspaper and her mother stood before an open door, letting cool air into the small kitchen. Jilly could smell lots of people’s lives outside. She stood behind her mother and peeked onto the sidewalk. Flashing lights were everywhere and people gathered in bunches. Far off sirens grew louder. She saw 2 policemen standing near a woman with a stroller. Far away, somewhere in the hills, church bells rang.
Joe Ducato has previously published short-stories in North Dakota Review, Portland Review, and Potpourri and most recently in Lost Lake Folk Opera and Floyd County Moonshine.
Stieglitz, Alfred. (1931). From My Window at the Shelton, North. [Gelatin silver print] New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.