KING OF JOY
HALF-NAKED GIRLS are popping champagne corks into the trees, screaming hot breath into the night air, and running back and forth in circles. The one with blond hair approaches a tree with a torch and a little fire. Unblinking, she sets the leaves on the low branch ablaze, feeling the heat against her calm face. Everything is foggy and black except for the burning tree and the girls dancing in the shaking light of the falling young cedar. Corvus lights a cigarette from inside. The phone rings and trembles on an oak table in the middle of the large room, an old library on the third floor of the house, as Corvus looks out the window, watching the other girls. She blows smoke arms crossed into the glass and feels worn and half-hearted, like complete shit, she thinks. I feel like absolute shit. Tim is the only one who ever calls this line, she thinks. Corvus answers, Hey. She gives the impression she’s been through this routine before although she’s new here.
Tim says, I need you downstairs in about five minutes, okay.
She says, Why do I know your carpet.
The carpet in here, the library. I know this carpet from somewhere.
Tim says, I should have fucking never brought you here.
What, she says.
The carpet is everywhere in the house right.
Corvus nods but doesn’t say anything. She takes another drag with no face.
Tim asks, Have you ever seen the movie The Shining. The carpet under your feet and everywhere in the house, is exactly like the carpet in The Shining. I’m a little obsessed, he says. I think you will soon find out that I like to live in my own little world.
THE PAY PHONE in the middle of the tall grass is ringing, causing all the girls to turn their heads in unison to look and stare for a moment before going back to the bliss of screaming and dancing. Little life, how did you be so lucky, some of the girls are singing. Little life, how did you be so glad. The fire is so large, Corvus can hear the burning tree from inside the closed window, the smoke blooming thick black. Some of the girls kissing and touching each other, tiny faces inside tiny hands inside beautiful hair, and Corvus has her head pressed against the glass as though there is nothing left in the world to do. A part of her really wants oblivion, she thinks. Corvus breathes in too much smoke from her cigarette, and her eyes water unnervingly.
Corvus keeps the phone to her ear and watches the reflection of the empty library behind her, a pale spinning ceiling fan and rows and rows of hardcover books, before she draws focus again to the movements outside. Another tree catches fire with embers being carried away by the wind. Some of the girls are in the grass, the most befallen earth, shy and almost smiling until they laugh something away, still deeply kissing each other and rolling around.
The blond girl runs over to answer the pay phone, her bare feet trampling the tall yellow grass as she makes her way though, and she knows exactly where to look towards the house, finds the window as she picks up the phone, and smiles when she makes eye contact with Corvus. Even from this distance, Corvus feels a small chill of shock when they suddenly make eyes, and the blond is smiling with the torch still burning in her other hand.
She answers, Hello, this is Amber.
Corvus says, Hey.
What are you doing.
Corvus says, Accumulating doom. What are you doing.
You should come down here and have some fun.
Corvus asks, Why is there a pay phone out in the middle of nowhere.
Tim likes the phone here. This isn’t the middle of nowhere, don’t say that. Amber says, I don’t know, I think it’s fun.
The burning tree finally falls down and vibrates the earth but Amber doesn’t look away from Corvus. Amber keeps her hand stiff on the phone and waves the torch in a dead way. She says, Please come down here.
Corvus says, The burning tree fell down. Why did you start that fire.
Amber drops the torch from her hand and it stays dimly lit and slowly burning on the spare gravel around the payphone. As though meditative, the girl never breaks her stare, secretly digging her toes into the little rocks and pebbles, unthrown by the cold. Although she couldn’t quite see, Corvus could feel Amber’s face change from one thing to another. It starts to rain then pour. Freezing tiny droplets fill the giant window.
She says, Corvus. Please, come down here.
THERE ARE SCRATCHING noises outside the door, with the light vibrating underneath. Corvus washes her face with her hands, and smiles for a breath before opening the door only slightly ajar. For a moment, she doesn’t see anything, only the same narrow hallway and eerie carpet. There are paintings of the same landscape repeated along the entire length of the wall, what looks to be simply waves and rocks and a girl standing out at the edge of a cliff. The only sound is the drone coming from outside, and muffled screaming, disembodied happy girls. For a second Corvus almost forgets she isn’t alone here.
Then she sees from down at the end of the hallway, heading south for the stairs, a pack of brown pit bulls treading in rhythm, each lively and muscular. One immediately senses Corvus, and runs back down, jumping in the air to her open door. It slams mindlessly against the hinges, crashing into her right side. Corvus leans down, using the door like a shield, looking as though like she was almost about to smile again, like things were going to get better if only she didn’t blink or look away or appear like she didn’t believe in the things that were happening. She spends a few minutes convincing herself that her hand is not broken, shaking her hand as though wet.
Corvus opens the door right when the dog charges again. This time the animal stays, doesn’t pounce, and looks up at Corvus, who’s bleeding from her hand. Whatever movement she makes she makes without breathing. The dog has lipstick prints all over his face, all different shades and colors, panting in place with his entire muscle of a body. She holds her hand out. The dog comes over and licks the cut on Corvus’ hand, whimpering as she comes down to him low to the ground as natural as gravity. Corvus says, Good boy. Good boy. I love you already.
She walks downstairs.
HER EYES GROW accustomed in the dark and she can see figures emerging in the room. The dog is no longer panting by her side and has trampled off somewhere, Corvus can hear him faintly banging against cupboards and yelping. The pitbull is a little space she owns in the dark, a small truth she uses to calm down, something to isolate and follow in her mind. Listening to the sound of a door opening with no door to be seen, and with no light emitting, she almost wants to say something. Instead of struggling to see, Corvus clenches her fists, bites her lips, and waits for what’s next, breathing so slowly she feels a slight euphoria. Nothing suddenly changes for a few minutes, no movements, the large dark ahead remains, every fiber of sound seems imagined while she inhabits herself still in place. Corvus crouches to the floor, consciously cracking her knees. She says, I can’t remember the last time I was this scared.
Lights slowly go on in the basement, as though coming alive, a flickering dim then suddenly bright room. She forgets how to talk to people and what to say all of a sudden. Her eyes see everything. All the girls from outside dancing around the burning trees are lined up touching hip to hip only a few feet away from her. Corvus could see empty porn sets being lit up behind them, almost every one filled with clouds of balloons or stale rose petals. Everything clean and soft and motionless. Tim comes walking in through double doors with a camera and tripod in hand shaking the floorboards and says, It’s time to clock in.
Amber steps out from the row, the first of any of them to smile, and says, Don’t be scared. She takes a long time to walk over to Corvus and pets her hand, held inside her own. Her aureoles are small and tan like the rest of her body, her pulse is the softest warmest ticking. With Amber still there caressing her hand, Corvus hasn’t seen Amber blink once since they first made eye contact, before she suddenly winks.
They lean into each other’s ears and whisper things back and forth.
Tim sets up his camera, lighting a cigarette as he aligns the viewfinder with the floating balloons. Some of the girls wave at him but he stares straight ahead to the backdrops, blowing on his cigarette, watching it burn.
After a moment, Corvus nods and steps forward, no face on her face. She takes off her shirt and starts to lightly stretch, her shoulder blades rotating like a dancer warming up and under her breath she says, I fear there is no such thing as being naked.
AFTER TWO DAYS, Corvus begins to find her rhythm, her forearms and abdomen get stronger by the scene, and by day’s end she can hardly describe the way she feels. It is quite possible that she feels nothing. Already, Corvus keeps to herself, nodding and smiling to everyone but never asking any questions back or saying more than she needs to. Wandering the hallways, always to a balcony, she says, I don’t mind being alone here. She wears a black mask, once a hot prop, everywhere around the large wooden house in the woods. She learns from Amber that there is more than one wind that blows here, that there are four winds. Corvus leans against the glass doors and watches the forest as though something is about to arrive.
There is a stale taste in her mouth, and she licks the inside of her teeth sitting on the cold floor of the marble balcony, secretly empowering herself by being alone, enjoying the little quiet. Corvus still gets dressed in the morning although she realizes there is no need to. In her flannel, she is the one quiet girl in the chatter, and Tim uses her in every scene. Amber says, Lights, camera, and throws something like a firecracker on the bed that explodes into bright stupid confetti. Corvus at first says nothing, losing feeling in parts of her legs, grabbing ahold of the headboard. She uses every single breath in her lungs for timing, not making a noise, and for a moment she thinks, hiding safely inside her head, that some things are easy.
Corvus imagines another her walking into the room being shocked and sad and taking everything in one detail at a time, already slowly adapting to raw circumstances as she stands there a witness, as though her organs moved and vibrated inside her when she could feel herself being destroyed, ready for the thought of even more life. The basement stays lit and bright for hours.
Tim provokes her to say something.
Corvus tucks her head back and, from inside her hair, stares into the eye of the camera and says nothing. The lens zoom and expand. Her face returns no rise. The bed shakes the mattress and the box spring as one.
Tim almost reddens to act before Amber touches his arm and says, Stop.
She whispers, Leave her alone.
Amber fires another confetti kaboom above the room and says, Look, I have goosebumps, holding her arm to Tim’s face and Tim smells her arm. Corvus starts quietly moaning so only she hears. The scene ends with every single floating piece of confetti stuck motionless to the ground, altogether too numerous to count.
Corvus comes back later, in the hot stuffy evening, to walk over them barefoot, all the smooth plastic strips, when she tosses and turns and cannot sleep for the life of her, and she resolves to wander the hallways, turn off and on lights. She discovers the breeze on the floor in the basement to be the coldest air in the entire house, in the dark in the woods. Corvus says, Four winds, falling asleep there, flat on her back, briefly imagining that if she could, she would sleep in pitch dark for hours and hours in a warm or cool deep crevice and want nothing. Almost forever.
Excerpt from a forthcoming novel King of Joy by Richard Chiem, author of You Private Person.