By Yannick Murphy
Rings and necklaces are warm from my aunt’s skin when she pulls them up from under her covers and puts them in my hand. How can the body of this old woman still make things warm?
I look at the jewelry—faux pearls, gold birds with rhinestones for eyes and a Christmas tree with bulbs of colored glass.
“Where did you get these?” I ask.
“Places I have been to,” she says. “In Egypt I bought a box whose lid engravings told the story of the Nile.”
“Where is it now?” I ask. “Here,” she says, and she pats her blanket.
“In Amsterdam I bought delft clogs,” she says.
“And from India?” I say.
“From India,” she says, and then falls asleep.
Outside the clouds are not whole but look like they have been skywritten by planes that left puffs of letters that can no longer be read. My aunt’s breathing sounds like whistling. I pull back the blanket. In her sleep she holds onto chains made out of gold. By her feet are kid gloves whose cuffs are embroidered with climbing vines. By her arm there is a beaded purse and silver chopsticks. At her neck there are rings. Between her legs are brass candleholders and a doily and a small postal balance. At the end of the bed there is a tiger’s foot, a man’s shoe and the engraved box from Egypt.
“Aunt Germaine,” I say.
She wakes up and tells me lies better than your truths—cars filled with so many roses you could not see to drive; men so handsome mothers hid them from their own husbands, afraid of accusations of infidelity; boats so long they carried a fleet of taxis for passengers set on going forward and aft; sleepwalking maids who scaled ceilings at night and dusted in the daytime; women who lived on lawns and property because they could not get in the house.
“What about India?” I say.
“Oh, India,” she says, “cows that read people’s palms—predicted death and children. Foretold gains, stated losses lost, estimated the depth of a lover’s love, based fears on the leftward rightward way a middle finger slants. Sacred as all shit, those cows.”
We are somewhere in the nation’s capital. The street we are on has the name of a tree—Sycamore Terrace or Cedar Lane or Walnut Place. There is an island in the driveway covered with trees. My Aunt Germaine is dying. Maybe she could be buried in the driveway. I do not know what the names of those trees are. It would be so easy for the family to visit her. They could back out and turn around.
“Aunt Germaine,” I say, “what’s the name of this place?”
Aunt Germaine does not answer. Instead she takes her chopsticks and pinches at the dust in the light that comes into the room from everywhere, seizing the pieces that are smallest.
Yannick Murphy’s debut novel, The Sea of Trees, a New York Times notable book, and her most recently published novel, Here They Come (McSweeney’s hardcover, 2006; Grove will publish in paper next month), received rave reviews from AM Homes, Frank McCourt, Lily Tuck as well as publications like PW, People, and Vanity Fair. Her upcoming novel, based on the life of Mata Hari, is due out from Little, Brown in November, and has already sold in multiple countries, including to Richard Beswick in the UK. Yannick’s stories have recently been published in or are forthcoming from AGNI, Epoch and McSweeney’s, and the title story of her collection, “In A Bear’s Eye,” will be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories due out this Fall.