Fawn was less quiet, now. But only because she had to be. She had to make known somehow her strandedness. She could not cross the parking lot. There were reasons for this. But Fawn didn’t understand them. Fawn was made up of a longing she could not name, for a place she could no longer conceive. She knew only that she was ensnared here.
The motel Fawn couldn’t leave was two stories tall and clad in vinyl siding that was cadet blue. It wrapped in an L shape around the lot where Fawn’s mom and dad had parked a long, long time ago. The neon out front proclaimed in a flickering white-then-blue stammer that the motel was called the Blue Gables. They were gone. Her mom and dad. Had been for more time now than she could say. Out behind the motel, shielded from the road, was a small swimming pool, shaped like a kidney and blue as window cleaner. Fawn didn’t go near the pool, wouldn’t go near the pool.
Fawn did not know much. But she did know the pool was a Bad Place, a shimmering basin of her unease, a cruel sun-lashed lagoon.
The effort it cost Fawn to make herself known was exhausting to her. It demanded all her focus and depleted her badly. Things would go sparkly around the edges of her vision and she’d have to rest. Besides. It was only the one maid Natalia who ever took notice. Guests at the Blue Gables never detected any vestige of Fawn’s presence – they were too in-between, too consumed by homes left behind or obligations ahead. Fawn stood watch over what they took to be their seclusion, bearing witness to their most secret activities, their rutting and tears. The rest of the staff at the Blue Gables was too stricken by chatter – on phones, out of radios, inside their own heads. Mostly, Fawn believed, people were too intent on being the hero of the story, and as a consequence, other intersecting stories got crowded out, shouted down.
Natalia was the only person to frequent the Blue Gables who was suitably inward and attuned to recognize it when Fawn summoned the will to slide a key card off the nightstand, watching it drop softly on the worn carpet, or to riffle the shower curtain, or jostle the squat wicker wastebasket. The vocabulary Fawn had to communicate with Natalia was vexingly small. And the messages she sought to send were indistinct, veiled, like trying to pass coded notes in a language sloppily translated. Fawn sometimes tried to trace out letters in the dust of the windowsill or the fog of the bathroom mirror where Natalia bent and scrubbed, but Fawn’s fingers exerted no pressure, had no point of contact. She could carefully trace the block-lettered message “I AM HERE” in the dust, but her powdery, insubstantial fingers produced no trail; they could not breach the skin of dust, could not cut through the rind of steam.
Fawn kept trying, though. Because she sensed that she and Natalia shared the kindred-ness of the bashful, that wordless ability to seek out the reassuring eyes of those similarly afflicted by crowds and uproar. It is the unnoticed who notice each other, who counsel each other to persevere with a nod and no more, citizens who exercise their right to assemble in solitude.
All Fawn knew of Natalia was that she spoke little, had eyes always trained far away, on the horizon, and came from one of the countries in the skinny part of a map of the Americas – Guatemala, maybe, or Panama. One of those, anyway. Fawn retained a shard of awareness from her time before that geography had not been her thing, that maps failed under her gaze to coalesce into anything sensible.
Fawn could no longer even remember, really, the house she belonged in. She could picture her father, a little. A mustache. Short-sleeved dress shirt – sometimes mint green, sometimes russet. And she could see fully her mother’s kind, wet eyes. Eyes the aqueous color of young jonquil stems. She could see also a nimbus of honeyed hair that framed a face she could no longer conjure clearly.
Fawn had been groping along through every part of the Blue Gables for as far back as her awareness stretched. She didn’t know how long it had been. Could not know, maybe. But the things in the vending machines were all different, now. Gone were the tubes of Lifesavers and sleeves of Chuckles, replaced by oblong boxes of something called Nerds and bags called Skittles that looked like M&Ms but weren’t. Over time, the bulbs in all the light fixtures got replaced by luminous coiled things that looked like whitely lustrous grubs.
She was tethered to the Blue Gables, like a goat to a stake. She could roam as far as the edge of the grass-tufted lot to the west, its corners filled with drifts of flattened cigarette filters and mashed bottle caps; the tree line to the south, fat cones like grenades opening in a ragged stripe under Ponderosa pines; and the scarred back fence of the oil-change place to the east, the bottom of several wood slats kicked out; and buckling and patched parking lot out front to the north. Whenever she attempted to wander farther than any one of these frontiers, she came dismantled somewhat and translucent-er.
One day, after Fawn had tried in vain to knock over a stack of hand towels on Natalia’s cleaning cart, she felt a jolt like a tongue on a battery. Natalia had been changing the sheets on the bowed bed in Room 116. She straightened from tucking a fitted corner. She smoothed front of her teal poly smock.
“I feel you,” said Natalia, simply. “I know you are here. I think, also, I know who you are.”
Fawn was beside herself. To have remained unseen for so long was maddening, like a ragged snag of cuticle flesh that would not tear loose. But now. To be heeded. In what she felt certain was a kindly manner. This felt bounteous and giddy-making. Fawn swatted at the hand towels, attempting a reply. Nothing.
“I visited Madame Vadoma. She does readings near my home.”
Fawn saw a flash of a battered-looking bungalow with a giant neon eye and the word ‘TAROT’ in flickering red letters. She could see Natalia seated across from a wrinkled woman with stiff pile of steel wool hair and pale gray eyes like a wolf. The cloth laid over the table between them depicted constellations. Fawn could see the scene between Natalia and Madame Vadoma unfold before her like a movie.
“She is real,” Madame said. “She is there.”
Natalia seemed relieved to learn that madness had not overtaken her.
Madame gripped both of Natalia’s coarsened hands. Madame winced in concentration.
“She died in water. She was not yet a woman.”
Natalia’s eyelashes glistened.
“She is imprisoned. Is in need of help. Your help.”
A tear escaped and made its way down Natalia’s face.
Fawn was back suddenly in the room now, facing Natalia, whose hands were clasped before her. Natalia bowed slightly, in a formal way, and extended her hand toward the door leading out of the room.
“Please,” she said. “This way.”
Fawn felt apprehensive. She believed Natalia to be good and kind, but knew somehow that she was being guided to the pool. She hated the pool. It was the only place in all of Blue Gables that she feared.
Natalia exited the room. She turned and beckoned to Fawn from the concrete landing. After a moment, Fawn wafted after her.
They descended the stairs. Fawn was feeling jagged. She did not wish to approach the pool. But she knew somehow she must. Fawn had been once to see a rodeo. She recalled now the eye-rolling terror in the face of a calf as a cowboy on horseback thundered after it and trussed up in the divoted dirt of the arena. Fawn now felt as she’d imagined that calf had – pretzel-ed and strangling. She drew lungless gulps of air, air she no longer needed.
Natalia led the way down the dewy cool of the breezeway that connected the parking lot out front to the pool in back. Natalia walked at a somber and measured pace, as Madame had cautioned her to – “You must not startle the dead girl,” she had said.
Natalia looked almost stately in her smock as she mounted the low steps up to the pool. The latch clanged faintly as she opened the chain link gate. To Fawn the latch sounded like a guillotine.
“Come,” said Natalia. “In here.” She gave a stately little bow, presenting Fawn to the pool.
Fawn felt disparate and spattered, unmoored and twitchy. The pool was Bad Place Number One. She couldn’t say why, exactly, but she knew at the root of herself that the pool was to be forever avoided. But Natalia was so patient and placid, her eyes black and shining like coffee.
Fawn hated the pool, but found herself trusting in Natalia. So she rippled up the steps and inside the fence. This, now, was nearer to the pool than she could remember being. Since… since it had become for her the Bad Place.
Natalia, sensing somehow that Fawn was beside her on the concrete deck that skirted the pool, swung closed the gate with a quiet kang noise. Natalia sat at the edge of one of the sagging deck chair and slipped off her crepe-soled nursey-looking shoes and rolled her socks down over her feet. With some ceremony, she pulled her smock off over her head, standing now in a sleeveless undershirt. She folded the smock with care and laid it over the arm of the deck chair. She sat with a hand on each knee.
Without her smock, she seemed no longer to be Natalia, of the Blue Gables. She became Natalia, human – she was just a person, now, perched at the edge of the a sun-bleached deck chair, a person alert to the possibility of helping. A breeze riffled the surface of the pool.
“Ready?” Natalia asked the air.
Fawn did not feel ready. Not in the least.
Natalia rose from her seat, and padded across the deck on bare feet. She held the chromed handrail and strode with an even grace down the three nubbled white steps into the shallow end of the pool. She turned and extended her hands to Fawn, whom she could not see. The water pulled at her thin pants, a stripe of darkness wicking up her legs.
“Come,” said Natalia, her hands welcoming, palms up, coaxing. “You have nothing to fear.”
Fawn could nearly believe, as she hovered next to Bad Place Number One, under the soothing spell of Natalia’s cool, quiet voice, that she did have nothing to fear, that the gnawing frazzle at the center of her was a lie.
“Come,” said Natalia again. Matter-of-fact. “Your name. Was Fawn.”
Fawn entered the pool. The water did not touch her, for there was nothing of her to touch. Fawn felt a panicked spike of distress run up through her. She saw flashes of herself. Her former self. Her fleshly self. Thrashing in the water. This water. Then a big inrush of water into her windpipe. The witch hazel-y taste of chlorine. The divestment of tears from her eyes, invisible, subsumed by the water. This water.
Then. Blackness. And floating a few feet above her body. Her dad in a rumpled taupe shirt, bent over her. Her honey-haired mom, dropping to her knees, wailing.
As Fawn strode without striding deeper into the water, she could feel herself – whatever self of her there was – begin to dissipate.
Natalia thought for a moment, in the late afternoon angle of the light, that she spied something like iridescence dancing languidly upon the water – like motor oil in a rain puddle, but lighter and lovelier.
It was pleasant enough, thought Fawn: this dissolving. As the water claimed her once more, Fawn was unafraid. And she was free.