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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

"Logic Game," by Doug Dorst (January 20, 2000)
"Lydia and her husband, Oscar, are giving a dinner party. They have invited eight of their oldest and best friends. The guests must be seated at the dinner table according to the following rules...."

"Girl and Marble Boy," by Edith Pearlman (December 29, 1999)
"Nina Logan stood facing the masterpiece. Its nakedness had unnerved the Lauras. Its beauty had been lost on the twins. Its politics had left the potheads cold. Its pose had sent her mother off on a mysterious errand."

"Dreams of the Old Green Man," by Poe Ballantine (November 17, 1999)
"Death wore plaid green knickers and a large silver pocket-watch that made a sound like a lumberjack cutting down a tree. I knew if he kissed me I would die."

"Be Here Now," by Lisa Zeidner (October 20, 1999)
"Everyone knows that misery is messy. But happiness, Alice thought, is messy too. Dense, busy. Weed-studded."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

April 20, 2000

Lyris, by Tom Drury

It was after midnight. How had it gotten so late? She must have slept. Car lights moved toward them in lonely pairs on a narrow road between ditches. Lyris had no idea where they were or where they were going. Follard was telling her about an old friend who had driven so drunk sometimes that she would see two pairs of headlights for every car; all she could do was steer between them. "Lucky to be alive," he said. Follard had seen too many people ruined by liquor. Lyris admitted she had tried the spiked chocolate. The headlights did not look double to her, but they vibrated.

Follard took her to see a big grain operation out in the country. Boxcars were lined up on the rail siding, and Lyris thought of her stepfather Charles's talks about grain making its way to the river. Charles seemed to want to know more about agriculture than he did -- as if it were his duty, being from farm country. Follard circled the towering silos, his tires throwing gravel, until Lyris grew dizzy and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she saw an old watchman crossing the parking lot with a baseball bat over his shoulder.

"Here comes somebody," she said.

"I see him."

Lyris waved at the man slowly, as if her hand were under water.

The watchman returned the wave of the girl in the car as if conceding the harmlessness of her adventure. He returned to the office, where he leaned the bat in a corner next to the refrigerator, from which he took a quart of beer. He uncapped it and drank. One of the cats has walked on his game of solitaire and mixed up the cards; there would be no getting it back.

"That's just great," he said to a cat gnawing its toes on an old leather chair. "Is that right?" he said. "Then who was it?"

The old man squared up the cards and shuffled. His son was a bartender who every once in a while would drop by the elevator on his way home from work. Once he had brought two dancers to see the elevator, and the old man had run corn into the pit from overhead for their amusement. The women were amazed by the force of it and by the tumbling nails that were mixed with the corn because it was salvage grain. Sixteen-penny, the old man had estimated. So polite they were, like college students. They called him sir and said that earlier in the night his son had ejected from the bar a man who was as big as Sinbad the Sailor.

The watchman dealt and played a new hand. Then he walked through the feed room, where the big potbellied grinder was shaking corn kernels to dust. White powder caked the grinder, drifted from the rafters. The watchman crossed the alleyway to a metal shed. Inside was a mound of salt pellets many times taller than himself. He sighed and began shoveling pellets into a large paper sack with a hand scoop. When the sack was two-thirds full he lifted it onto a portable scale, read the gauge, and added pellets until the pointer floated at sixty pounds. Then he tied the sack closed with string and carried it to another part of the storeroom.

There would be no end to the work. He felt that he could shovel and weigh and tie for the rest of his years, not so many now, and the mountain of salt would not get one pellet smaller. Strange, how it took so much to make so little.

"Sinbad the Sailor," he said.

Follard drove carelessly, turning every so often, with no apparent route in mind. Eventually they arrived at a little bridge on a twisting gravel road. They stepped from the car and stood with their hands in their coat pockets. Lyris recognized neither the road nor the iron frame of the bridge. The river moved along, tight whirlpools forming on its surface. The moon shone above the lacing of cottonwood branches.

"Is it true you burned your parents' house?" The question was too loud.

"Who, me?"

"That's what my father said." She called Charles her father, although he was not, because it made things simpler.

Follard looked out over the river. "The court ruled it was an accident. People forget the evidence. They brought in a fire marshal who testified that a kerosene heater might go off that way if it was not maintained. And believe me when I say ours was not maintained."

"Did they die? Your parents, I mean."

"No. She shot him, but he lived. I can tell you this much: if you want to see a miserable backbiting spectacle, try bringing two fire marshals into court with differing opinions."

"Who shot who?"

Follard gripped the iron bars of the bridge and rocked back as if trying to pull them down.

"My mother. Shot my father. The fire was just a coincidence. I jumped out of the house when I heard the shooting, and there was no fire at that point. Or if there was, it hadn't come up to the second floor. I'm not saying I didn't smell smoke. But I knew that whatever was going on in the house was something to get away from. The county attorney couldn't accept that no one would get jail time out of such a mess. They acquitted my mother on self-defense. They acquitted me because their theory of arson required me to be in two places at once. My father had been shot and burned, so I guess the judge figured probation and a restraining order were enough for him."

Lyris began climbing the ironwork of the bridge. "Where are they now?"

"My mom moved to Michigan, and my old man ended up in New Mexico. For a while he wrote letters saying I should come out there because of the sky or something. Then he stopped writing. I was supposed to live with my aunt and uncle, but they were decent enough to set me up in my own place."

A metal plate about two feet wide ran along the top of the bridge. Lyris lay down on it on her back, feeling the round caps of the bolts through her clothes. To her left and nine feet down was the road; to her right and twenty feet down was the river.

"You can't go by what people say," said Follard. "They always believe the worst thing."

He climbed halfway up the bridge and rested his arms near the crown of Lyris's head. She could not see him but could hear his voice close to her ears. He spoke softly. "Be careful Baby Mahoney doesn't reach up and take you by the leg."

"I don't know who that is. I've only lived here since summer."

"I can fill you in," said Follard. "Twenty years ago, on this very night -- that's how you tell it -- a baby named Mahoney fell into the river. The parents got careless and lost their baby."

Lyris turned over and cupped her face in her hands. "You lie."

"Well, yeah, I lie. 'Cause it's only a story."

"I don't like it."

"Just listen. The baby swam or floated for miles and crawled out of the river into the woods. There might have been an animal that helped him. I don't tell it as well as some do. But he grew up in the wild and never learned anything about human beings. To him our ways are a mystery."

Lyris heard her own voice as if it were coming from across the road or up in a tree. "So why would he grab my leg?"

"He's older now," said Follard. "Remember, this was twenty years ago. But he always comes back to the bridge. He lurks around, with feelings he doesn't understand."

"I have to get home."

"Well, I would take you, but the car's out of gas. Or it's thrown a rod, or the key's in the trunk, or there is no car. This is another story that I'm telling now, and this one is true. He wanted to take her home but could not, and therefore, with nothing better to do... You see where I'm going."

Lyris pushed up onto her knees. She swayed, a little drunk, a little afraid, a little mad. "You can't make me stay."

He kept his arms folded on the bridge. He didn't seem concerned or angry. Moonlight reflected in his eyes. "Look around. You don't even know where you are. If you had a map, it would not help you. You have no point of reference."

She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer. Follard descended too, but on the inside of the bridge. They eyed each other through a lattice of iron bars.

"Be careful," he said.

Follard's fingers came through the bridge and caught her wrist. His purpose was uncertain, since the spaces were too small for him to pull her through. His fingernails pressed into her skin, but his eyes stayed tranquil. He slid his free hand through the next higher space and transferred her wrist to it. He repeated the maneuver; she saw her hand rising, as if it were no part of her. Evidently he hoped to pull her up and over the top of the bridge. She bit his knuckles, and he called her a crude name. She jumped from the bridge, pushing back, raising her arms, hitting the water with a glassy crash. The depth of the river was unknown to her, and drifting down, she did not touch the bed. What a world it was underwater, ringed by cold and darkness. When she broke to the surface, treading water, Follard was coming down the ditch from the bridge. The current carried her, and she angled to the bank on the side away from him. Follard lifted fence wire and bent under it. Lyris pulled herself from the water, using the branches of a fallen tree.

"Come back, Lyris," he said. "If you'd just hold still, I would take you home."

The air glowed with moonlight. It shone on the blue sleeves of his coat and on the river between them. He did not enter the water -- maybe he was afraid -- but turned and hurried back up to the bridge. She climbed the steep and muddy bank. The thin dead branches of the tree scratched her face. Follard crossed the bridge. In a moment he would be on her side of the river.

Lyris ran -- away from the road, parallel to the water. Follard called after her. He said he meant no harm, she would get lost, don't make him chase her. When she could not hear him any longer, she rested under a tree where its trunk fanned into roots. She untied the laces of her shoes, removed them, and peeled off her socks. Her hands were shaking. She wrapped her bare feet in the lining of her coat, kneading toes and soles. Leaves rustled; the moon laid silver stripes on the ground. An owl glided down a corridor of trees, pulled up short, and settled on a branch. On and on the river ran. Lyris told herself not to be afraid. A mile of walking in any direction would bring her to a road. Charles had explained the grid. The river would bring her to a road. The river might be the longest way, but she would not move in a circle. Anyone lost must not move in circles. She left the wet socks beside the tree. Shivering, she put on her shoes, her coat. She rested her back against the tree before going on.

Soon the owl overtook her, flying low beneath the branches with one of her socks snagged in its talons. The owl's body hung like a weight from the yoke of its wings.

Lyris came to a wooden cabin on a rise above the river. There were matches in a Band-Aid tin above the fireplace, and kindling in a crate. She built a fire and sat before it. A plaque had been set into the fieldstones: THIS HOUSE IS FOR THE COMMON USE OF THE HUNTERS AND HIKERS OF THESE WOODS. LEAVE IT AS YOU WOULD FIND IT. IN MEMORY OF SPRAGUE HEILEMAN B. I877 D. I949 BY SON MELVIN AND DAUGHTER JANICE. She laid more wood on the fire and got up. In a chest of drawers she found coveralls and wool socks to wear. On a table she found a box of crackers. The coveralls bunched around her wrists and ankles. The table had been vandalized. People had carved their names into the planks.

He may find me, she thought. She took a metal shovel from the fireplace and put it near her feet under the table.

When someone did come, it was not Follard but Leo, a fox hunter. Lyris didn't know him. He walked in and closed the door and rested a gun against the wall near the fireplace. He rearranged the burning wood with his boot and stood rubbing his hands. "Hello," he said. "The key bird is out tonight."

Lyris did not understand. "I'm lost," she said. "I'm trying to get home."

The man came over to the table. "What's your name?"

"Lyris Darling."

He ran his hand over his mouth. "One of that bunch," he said softly.

"What is the key bird?"

"That's a joke," he said. "It says -- its call would be -- 'Key, key, key-riste it's cold.' You see? The way you'd say 'Christ, it's cold' if your teeth were chattering."

"Oh, very good."

"And chattering they are."

"I fell in the river, but I don't even know what one."

"The North Pin," said the man. "Some call it Sprague's Creek."

"Didn't seem like a creek to me."

"Well, no, it wouldn't, in it. It's misleading. What happened?"

"I was on the bridge," she said. "And this guy held my wrist and he wouldn't take me home. He was pulling on me."

"Who?"

"Follard. I don't know his first name."

"The arsonist?"

"He claims not."

"I would not put great stock in what he claims."

"It was stupid to let him drive me."

"Yes, I think it was." The man took out a wooden game call and blew into it. "What's that sound like to you?"

"I don't know," said Lyris.

"It's supposed to sound like a dying rabbit."

"I've never heard a rabbit die, so I wouldn't know what it sounds like."

"Me either."

"Do you have a car?"

"We have cars and trucks," said the man. "We have a dog that knows the fox dens, and when the foxes come out, we put the big lights on them. Or we would if they did come out. The one nest we found tonight has been empty for days. I guess that's why they call them Sly Reynard."

Lyris and the hunter shoveled ashes onto the fire and moved off together through the woods. He said he knew the way. They hiked through an overgrown cemetery with small black stones and under a tree house for deer hunters. Then they were out in the open, beneath the stars, on a lane of short dry grass. The coveralls were warm and dry. The hunter told her his theory of foxhunting and how it differed from what they were doing. He said that crossfire was a legitimate safety issue but one that could be worked out. Perhaps the men could be staggered in such a way that they would not hit each other, or they could call out their positions. Granted, the fox would hear the voices, but by that time it would be on the run anyhow. In a way, the issue of one hunter shooting another was a moot point, because they were using number-two shot, which did not travel more than sixty yards.

As he spoke, a fox slipped from the trees and stood for a moment with one paw raised before trotting away along the lane, nose down, tail high. There wasn't much to it. The fox jumped onto a stone wall, walked on it for a short distance, then dropped off into a field. Lost in his calculations, the hunter did not see the fox, and Lyris couldn't say a word. Everything the hunter had told her so far had led her to suspect that the fox was an entirely hypothetical creature, the behavior of which men could guess about while achieving their true goal of wandering around the woods carrying equipment. To have actually seen a fox altered her point of view in a way that left her too preoccupied to speak or react. She kept moving forward, wet clothes rolled under her arm, and then the fox was gone among the cornstalks and Leo was saying how in some areas foxes are hunted with airplanes, although he was not sure how that worked.

Soon Lyris and Leo saw lights angling through the trees. The rest of the men -- Kevin, Vincent, and old Bob -- met them at a bend in the grassy lane. The hunting dog was white with brown legs and sidled against Lyris.

"She's the first thing that dog found all night," said old Bob.

"We should try something different," said Leo.

"No," said Vincent. "Did you get the sandwiches?"

"No."

"Well, Jesus Christ."

"I found this young woman. That kid Follard pushed her in the river."

"I'd just as soon smack him as look at him," said Vincent.

Leo drove Lyris home, talking about a Las Vegas trip, how upset he'd been in the desert. She said goodnight in the driveway. Inside, Charles slept at the kitchen table, his head on his arms.

"I'm home," she said. "I'm home."

He sat up and looked around. "What time is it?"

"Three o'clock."

"Is Micah back from school?"

"It's the middle of the night."

He got up and took a clouded glass from the drainboard. Moths circled the ceiling light. Standing before the refrigerator, he poured water from a pitcher. "Well, where's Micah?"

"Upstairs?"

Charles drank half the water and then stared into the glass.

He nodded. "Micah's at my mother's house. And your mother, we know where your mother is."

"We went driving after the game."

"I'm sitting here by the phone."

"I'm sorry."

"Where all'd you drive -- St. Louis?"

"I should have called."

"Did we not have a good day? Was there something lacking in the day itself?"

"No," she said. She drew her hands into the sleeves of the coveralls. "It was a good day."

"I know how you feel," said Charles. "Or if I don't, I wonder how you feel. To be dropped into this house, not against your will exactly, but as the last possible place -- I see that, I'm not blind to it. Your long-lost mother -- I wonder what you make of her. And I'm far from perfect. Far from it. Perfect to me is a word with no meaning. I'm just another man in a van. So it must be tempting for you to say, 'Oh hell, what's the use, if this is the place where I've been left.'"

She did not know what to say. He was right in some ways. And she saw the darkness under his eyes. Had he been in a fight?

"But then I think -- because, you see, I've given it some thought -- how different is your experience from anyone's? On the surface, yeah, it is different. We don't know what you've been any more than we know what you will be. But I'm not sure it's so different underneath. 'Cause it's all by accident. It's all 'This happens, that happens, and here we are.' I'll be honest with you, even the things I do sometimes don't make sense to me. And the best we can make of it is to remember each other and for God's sake get on the telephone when we're going to be late."

It was not the content of his remarks, which she did not precisely understand, but the length of them that moved her. He had never said so many words to her at once. She skirted the table and fell into his arms. "She didn't want me," she said. "My own mother -- she may not want me still."

"That isn't true, Lyris," said Charles. "You can't go thinking that way. It was not that she didn't want you but that she didn't know you."

He stood rubbing her back in the manner of someone trying to set a flywheel right. If he noticed that she was wearing clothes different from the ones she had left in, he chose not to mention it.


Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Tom Drury's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and the Mississippi Review. He is the author of
The End of Vandalism and The Black Brook. "Lyris" is an excerpt from his new novel, Hunts in Dreams, to be published next month.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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