This is all for you, my love, says the man who is to be her husband. His broad arm is hot and heavy around her thin shoulders. All that is mine, I will share with you.
She looks at the house, the fields, the healthy strong slaves who wait patiently for their orders. She looks at the tall heavy shape of him, blotting out even the sun. Coquettishly she lowers her lashes and murmurs gratitude, and wonders how he cannot hear the blood-red tone of her voice: she has chewed the inside of her cheek raw, and runs her tongue across it as she speaks.
“What’s in this?” Tim asks. He sits back on his haunches and holds up his find: it’s a small jar of black stone, its designs faded and rubbed away from age and covered in a thin film of pale dust. He blows on the lid for a moment, wrinkling his nose at the kick up of dust, then rubs his thumb across the spiderscript design carved on the top. The jar has a simple metal lid sunk to settle partway into its round mouth, tarnished and faded from age. He slides his thumbnail under the edge of the lid and holds it there.
Dora doesn’t bother to look, using the back of her wrist in a futile attempt to brush the hair falling into her eyes. “If it was back there, probably not much,” she says. “Probably something I picked up somewhere. Just put it back.”
He looks at her. In the pale gray light from outside, she’s a solid familiar shape, dressed in an old tank top and tattered jeans. Most of her hair is secured back from her face with a bandanna. She’s going through the contents of the box in her lap – it’s been two months since they moved in together, and everything still isn’t unpacked. A dark curl of hair has fallen loose against her cheek. He looks at the jar in his hands again and gives it a brief shake. It makes no sound.
“Tim,” Dora says, and her voice is a little sharper now. “Are you helping me with unpacking or not?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. He puts the jar down, in the shadow of the cardboard packing box he’d found it in, and crawls on hands and knees over to her. He rests his chin on her shoulder and waits until the line of her back softens, and she leans back into him. It takes a bit of shuffling, but he manages to shift his weight to his knees, resting his hands on her sides. She smells like dust and soap, and he kisses under her ear, his nose in her hair, and grins when she sighs and turns to look at him.
“That’s not helping,” she says.
“It’s more fun,” he shoots back, and waggles his eyebrows in the most exaggerated gestures that he can manage. It wins him a laugh, and Dora twists to put her arms around his neck.
“More fun, huh?” she asks. The bandanna is slipping back on her hair, and more of it is slipping free to frame her face. Tim flexes his fingers against her sides and just grins as she pulls him down for a full kiss.
They don’t get much unpacking done for the rest of that day, but Tim’s satisfied with the results anyway.
The next time Tim sees the jar, it’s pushed to the far corner of Dora’s bedside table, behind even the chintzy lamp she bought for her side. There are fingerprints in the dust from handling, but it seems otherwise unhandled. He eyes it: he’s never seen it before, and he knew the inside of her old apartment decently well. It’s out of place with the bright plastic colors that Dora favors for decoration – something dingy and soft-edged amidst all the modern patterns.
Dora is like that: she’s the unstoppable force, always moving forward with her eyes fixed on some distant future goal. He’s known this since the first day they met: there are goals in Dora’s life, and she won’t die until she sees them fulfilled. It’s a tenacity he admires when it doesn’t exhaust him. Everything has to be new and exciting for her; she jokes, sometimes, that Tim is the only stability she needs to compensate for everything else. She goes through cycles where she does everything in excess, and then lazes about for an entire week. When she talks, it’s always about the future, never about the past. After five years, Tim has never met her parents, though she phones them on a weekly basis.
“There’s no point,” she says – or always some variation of the same speech – if he asks. “It’s over, it’s done. Who I am now isn’t the same person I was two minutes ago, let alone two years ago. If you want to know who I am, look at this exact moment.” Of the possessions she brought when they moved in together, nothing was older than a year, and there are no photos of her family. Even at gatherings with friends, while she tolerates having her photo taken with bored grace, she’s never interested in saving them, or looking them over again.
Tim sits on the bed and studies the jar again. It looks far too old to be something she would buy on her own, and he wonders: is this some last sentimental present from her parents? Grandparents? Some unknown relative who was her stable point before she met him? If he thinks back, he can vaguely remember seeing it sitting on a bookshelf in her old apartment, gathering the layer of dust that covers it now. Maybe there were secrets inside – if he opened it, perhaps he could reach inside and finally pull out some recorded history of Dora’s life before him, all the things she refuses to say–
No, he tells himself, don’t be stupid. It’s just a jar. She’ll throw it away before the week is out. He turns away from the table, and lets himself forget.
Then comes one night when he’s on the train home from work, half-brain dead from the monotony of day-long meetings, and an old woman in rags wanders into his car. She smells of mold and dust and the particular stink of an unwashed body, and Tim recoils at her approach before he can quite stop himself. She doesn’t seem to notice, with her head bowed low, but she shuffles straight for him, and he can hear her muttering under her breath – words in another language, but which sound like the Greek that Dora uses when she’s on the phone with her parents. He tries to move back, to give the old woman more room – but she follows, still muttering to herself. They are the only two people in the car at this point: two more stops, and Tim can get off.
His own silence stretches out awkwardly; he wonders if he could move to a different car at the next station. He shifts his weight closer to the door.
The old woman grabs his wrist. Her fingers are skinny and sharp, hooked into claws. The nails dig into Tim’s wrist. He yelps before he can stop himself and automatically tries to jerk his hand away, but the old woman’s grip is tenacious; she won’t let go. Her strength is surprising, given how fragile her dirty fingers look against his broad arm, but though he pulls with polite insistence, she won’t let go.
“Uh,” he says. “Lady, would you please–”
“Elpis,” the old woman says clearly, and her voice is suddenly years younger. She lifts her head at last. Her face is a fright of wrinkles and broken blood veins, as well as a dark brown birthmark that covers her entire right cheek, but her blue eyes are clear and bright and hard, and Tim finds he can’t look away. Though the top of the old woman’s head hardly reaches his shoulder, he feels dwarfed. “Elpis. Elpis. Elpis–”
“Look,” he says, trying to raise his voice. “Look, lady, I don’t know who that is, can you please just let go–”
“You know,” says the woman. “You know. Tell me. Where, you seen, you know–”
Tim leans back further, stretching back as far as his arm will allow. The woman continues to refuse to let go, and her eyes are burning now, intense and bright. “I don’t know,” he says. “Who the hell is this ‘Elpis,’ I don’t know anyone named that, so back the fuck off, I’m not in the mood for this–”
The woman tugs hard on his wrist, dragging Tim forward. He half-stumbles, and in that instant the woman’s other hand grabs his tie and yanks until he is forced to bend down, until his ear is by her thin spittle-flecked mouth. She whispers to him, again in the language that he half-recognizes, the Greek that his girlfriend uses on her parents when they fight, and Tim finds himself unable to move. Her lips brush his ear when she speaks, and her skin is like ice. The words sink into him and settle like lead in the pit of his belly. He knows the words, even if he doesn’t understand them. They leave something tight in the center of his chest.
He sees a beautiful world – green and gold under a sky blue as the old woman’s eyes, stretching out nearly to infinity: but there, at the very edges of his vision, there is a dark red-edged blight, like fire eating away at a photograph. He sees it growing by the second, destroying all that lies in its path. As it draws near, he sees that it is a horde of people, dressed in rags the color of soot and ash and smoldering coals. They trample past on bare, bloody feet and leave the world in ruins. He can hear their voices as they go by: they cry Elpis, Elpis, in tones of such longing that the breath catches in Tim’s throat. Nine-hundred and ninety-nine they number, but their thousandth did not follow in time, and so has been lost to them for so long, they hardly remember anything but the feeling of that loss.
Tim tries to breathe and only chokes. The enormity of their search presses down on his own shoulders like physical weight. When she lets go of him, both tie and wrist, and steps back, he stumbles again: this time backwards, until his shoulders hit the side of the train. They stare at each other wordlessly. Tim licks his lips, trying to work saliva back into a mouth gone dry as the desert.
“You remember,” the woman tells him. She points one finger at his heart and meets his eyes again. For a moment she looks younger – a girl rather than a woman, soft-skinned and round-faced with baby fat. Her hand was soft and fat-fingered now, flushed dark pink. “You seen, you remember.”
He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. Shadows moved across the girl’s face, trisecting it into patches.
“It’s been a long time,” she says, as the train comes to a stop. The doors behind her open, but no one walks in – Tim can see people, but none of them seem to notice their car. “We miss our sister.”
She steps backwards. The doors close. Tim finds himself alone.
He doesn’t tell Dora about it. That night, in the moments as she reaches up to turn off her lamp, the shadow of her arm falls across the tiny vase on bedside table. If she notices his odd behavior, it doesn’t show in her posture or her voice as she leans over to kiss him good-night.
Tim stares at the shape of it even in the dark.
His dreams are a confusing tangled nightmare-maze of colors and sights, and the taste of something burnt and sour in the back of his throat, tainting every breath. When he opens his mouth, his breath turns into a horde of dust-gray moths that beat his face with their paper wings before flying away. They gather together in a cloud that’s the shape of a woman. He knows that curve of hip and turn of leg very well, but when he runs to catch up, he only spits more moths, releasing more and more as he pants, until he’s drowning in a sea of powdery fluttering bodies.
Tim wakes up with a gasp and a start; his arm flails out and finds only empty space in the bed beside him. It takes him a moment to register that, as he rubs his face and tries to pull himself back to full awareness. The sheets beside him are still warm, and first he looks towards the bathroom, expecting to see light under the door. There is none.
He looks at Dora’s side of the bed. The jar is gone from her bedside table.
Dread curdles in his stomach abruptly; he’s out of bed and grabbing a housecoat before he’s quite aware of the movement. He yanks it on roughly, loosely belting it shut, and hurries from the bedroom. There is a light in the kitchen and he heads for that, running a quick hand through his hair.
“Man, Dora,” he says, as he walks into the kitchen; he’s proud of how even his voice is. “I just had the strangest dream–”
He stops. The old woman from the train is sitting at the kitchen table, across from Dora. In the bright light, she looks even stranger than before: simultaneously old and young, pink skin, gray skin, sunken cheeks and a double chin. She turns her head to stare at him unblinking; across from her, Dora does the same. He almost doesn’t recognize her: her expression is smooth and blank, and there’s little hint of even just recognition.
“Dora?” he says into the awkward silence. He feels young and exposed, like a child stumbling upon some clandestine meeting of his parents. “This, uh, a friend of yours?”
“Deceiver,” says the old woman. Her blue eyes are burning. “You seen, you knew, you say nothing. You lie.”
“I, what,” Tim says. His voice rises on the last syllable. “I never promised anything–”
“You seen,” the old woman says. Her voice is equally sharp, equally accusing. “I showed you! Yet you say nothing, you – you hide it, you keep secret, you lie! Elpis was lost, Elpis, our dear–”
Dora holds up a hand. The other is resting on the lid of the little jar from her bedside table. It looks different now: the dark stone is somehow brighter, and the faded designs are repainted in gold. He does not recognize the letters, but he knows the story they tell: of a land blighted by released evils, and of the one thing that never escaped its cage, of the lonely restlessness of both sides. He opens his mouth as Dora lowers her hand – the old woman is staring at the jar now, and her expression is hungry: he wonders which face in the ravening horde was hers. She’s leaning so far forward that her lips hover over Dora’s knuckles, like she intends to sink her face into the jar once it’s opened.
“Dora,” Tim whispers. “Baby, no. You can’t.”
“Oh, Tim,” Dora says. Her eyes are sad. “Oh, Tim.”
She opens the jar.
her hands are so very strange to her, not as she has always remembered them: they are slender and delicate and not right; she stops and raises them and wonders. These are not like the hands of the others. They are too clean, too white, they are not stained or hardened by hard work.
They treat her as a queen, these drab mud-men with their heavy coarse hands and broad thick shoulders. They have never seen her like before, and perhaps they never will again: something so lovely and full of grace that the gods themselves must have had a hand in her making. All-gifted, they call her, the well-endowed of gifts passed down from the heavens. She is lovely and clever, she walks like a dancer and sings like the birds, and dross turns to gold in her hands.
The husband they provide her is the best of them, but he is crude and harsh, all edges that rub her raw. She lies beneath him with her hair spread in a cloud around them. He slavers, he pants, and his hands are rough and they hurt her. She closes her eyes and pretends that she is not weeping.
He leaves her alone during the day, concerned with his own work – in the fields, and among other men; she drifts listlessly through the house that is theoretically hers, but feels more like a prison. She sings and no one is there to hear; she dances and there is no one there to see. She lonely with nothing but herself and her thoughts and a single present from the parents she cannot remember.
When she opens the pithos, it is out of boredom and loneliness both. She closes her eyes and she hears her husband yelling. His voice is coarse as the rest of him, but it’s drowned out by the shriek and roar of a thousand evils and ills. She can’t breathe through the miasma; the dampness on her face is blood as much as it is tears, and her lips sting with the taste of salt.
Only when it seems they have all passed, when there is a huge breath of silence and she can finally hear her own heart beating again, she returns the lid. and holds the pithos to her breast. Her husband is screaming – his rage is a coarse loud thing, but nowhere near as terribly as the violence of the previous storm. She waits limply, never saying a word as he strikes her once, and she falls. In her arms, the pithos is a leaden weight and she curls around it protectively, and waits for the blows to end.
And she thinks: hope alone has not fled on this day, and I will keep it until he is gone, so that there will be none for him.