Sarcastic Talking Horse said: “What happened in there?”
“I remember lying on a black bed, in a vermilion room, staring up at the ceiling — a white ceiling, only it was shadowed, so that it really looked gray. Overcast gray. The way the sky looks on a 96 degrees Fahrenheit day, just before a storm, when the wind’s so fierce the clouds rush at you. They rush down at you from the sky, and they tear, and they show the black beneath them.”
“I remember a brass ceiling fan with dark wooden blades. It spun so fast that the blades looked like they were going backwards.”
“I do that sometimes,” said Sarcastic Talking Horse.
“I remember being so hot that I couldn’t even move — so hot that I had to squint, to keep the sweat from pouring into my eyes. And I remember scissors.”
“Fingernail scissors. They hung from the ceiling, by fine gray threads. They swayed in the wind from the fan. There were so many of them. Not millions, but surely thousands. I was supposed to count them. Each of them. Each of those thousands of swaying scissors.”
“Did you do it?” asked Sarcastic Talking Horse.
“Did you die?”
Mr. Pacifaker was a fairy. He told her so himself, early on in their acquaintance. Garnet Manon Volentine, then eight years old, was surprised. She’s assumed all fairies were tiny ladies just like Tinkerbell. Mr. Pacifaker was regular grown-up size, and he was a man, and an old man at that. But she had been raised to be polite to all adult creatures, so she didn’t question him. Eventually, she accepted his statement as truth. After all, he didn’t behave like regular adults.
Garnet Manon used to visit Mr. Pacifaker when her mother didn’t know. She would say she was walking down to the library, but instead she’d duck into Mr. Pacifaker’s scrubby yard, where he’d be half-in, half-out of his primer-gray 1952 Ford pickup, talking to his horse, a ribsy chestnut gelding without a name. Mr. Pacifaker’s horse was tethered to the fender, because Mr. Pacifaker didn’t have a fence. He never rode his horse. He never drove his truck.
Mr. Pacifaker seemed constantly poised to climb into the cab, constantly remembering something he’d left in his peeled-paint house that he needed to bring with him. Always teetering on the brink of departure, was Mr. Pacifaker. Always in-between. Garnet Manon would climb into the passenger side of the cab and talk to him there.
“I’m gonna leave you that house when I die,” he’d tell her. “The First Pissbyterian Church wants it, or the lot, rather, so they can expand their fellowship hall. They say my house is full of rats, and my yard is full of manure, and they’re right. I’m gonna leave you the rats and the manure, as well. I’m gonna leave you the horse and the truck and everything I got, Garnet Manon, because you’ve been so nice to this old fairy everybody else hates. But you got to promised me to stay away from them boys.”
“I do stay away from them boys.” She’s rather have said, Them boys stay away from me. Even at eight years, she knew the pain of exclusion. During “boys chase girls” at recess, she found herself running in circles and shouting, unnoticed, unchased, and alone.
“Good. Keep staying away. They’re trouble, that’s all, and I don’t want no trouble in my house, even if I’m too dead to know about it.”
Garnet Manon pictured boys running through Mr. Pacifaker’s house, breaking the windows and frightening the rats.
“I will,” she promised.
“What happened then?” said Sarcastic Talking Horse.
“Then,” she said, “the room went black, and cold, and totally silent. Except that I didn’t have eyes to see the blackness, or a body to feel the cold, or ears to hear the silence. I floated like a thought in the back of somebody’s mind, halfway between expression and oblivion. I knew that if the somebody forgot me, I’d be gone forever. But I was afraid that they’d speak me, because I didn’t know how I’d come out.
“Then there came a blinding light, like a bright headlight on a wet blacktop road, on a night when clouds smother the sky. It sped toward me fast than anything imaginable. I couldn’t move. I didn’t have time. It collided with me, and I came out the other side, with a scream that split me in two and fused me back together in a single heartbeat.
“When I opened my eyes, I was back in the vermilion room, on the black bed. The air was still hot, hotter than before, and the fan still spun it around the room.
“But each of the thousands of scissors had disappeared.”
Garnet Manon had a spiral-bound notebook that she kept between her mattress and her box-spring. She had a special pen that spun smoothly across the pages, leaving perfect black words behind it. She used this pen to fill this notebook with speculations about Mr. Pacifaker’s life, his house, and his horse.
Mr. Pacifaker had never invited her into his house, so there was nothing to contradict her fantasy. She imagined rooms larger than the house itself, paved in marble tiles of black and white and rose and green. She imagined a reflecting pool beneath a faceted crystal dome, the water shot full of prismatic sparks and darting silver serpents. She imagined arches and columns, spiral staircases, draperies of velvet and samite and silk. She imagined doors no higher than her waist that opened into broad and secret chambers. She imagined a half-moon balcony suspended over an abyss, where she would lean over the railing, picking pearls from a silver bowl, holding them between thumb and forefinger, dropping them into the abyss, listening, listening, yet never hearing them bounce and skitter against the bottom, because there was no bottom at all.
She imagined Mr. Pacifaker, the old fairy, as a mad builder, adding wings and chambers and secret passageways for her eventual delight. She imagined him storing his treasures there for her, arranging and draping and sequestering them in such a way that only she could find them.
And since, at that time, she devoured every fantasy novel she could lay her hands on, she imagined that Mr. Pacifaker’s horse could talk, and that it was, as all talking horses, invariably sarcastic. She imagined that it would be her companion, carrying her through the ballrooms and chambers, up and down the stairs; and that it would watch after her and protect her after Mr. Pacifaker had journeyed to fairy heaven.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. If horses were wishes, then Mr. Pacifaker was saving his for her.
He let his wish graze on the seared grass in his yard, let it display its ribs to the town so that nobody would envy it, want to steal it — as he let the paint peel and flake away from his house, as he left the porch sag, as he let the rats run and play.
At thirteen, Garnet Manon understood disguises. She knew that heroines arose from unlikely origins, were scorned by their peers, and driven to free and reveal their true natures. She knew that she, too, was disguised.
She’d figured out what kind of fairy Mr. Pacifaker really was, but she pretended that she hadn’t. She pretended that he really was the magic kind, and that he’d cast a disguising spell over her, to keep her safe from them boys. She pretended that the spell was benevolent, and would break as soon as the right boy came along. She pretended that Mr. Pacifaker would know the right boy when he saw him.
How else could she bear the acne that turned her face into a moonscape? How else could she stand her painful mouthful of braces? How else could she reconcile her name, Garnet Manon Volentine, a heroine’s name, with the reflection of herself in the mirror, and in the sneering, faked love-words them boys yelled out at her to make her slouch and cry?
“You stay away from them boys,” Mr. Pacifaker warned her. “Don’t you listen to their talk. They got one thing on their minds, and once they do it to you, they’ll drop you like a hot potato, and then where the hell will you be?”
Garnet Manon slouched down on the seat. Her knees pressed up against the dashboard. “Nobody wants to do it to me,” she muttered.
“Ha,” said Mr. Pacifaker. “That’s what you think.”
“Then I got up off the bed,” she said, “and I walked out of the room, and into the awful filthy falling-apart kitchen.”
“He never let me in there,” said Sarcastic Talking Horse, “so don’t blame me.”
“I wasn’t. Anyway, there was Mr. Pacifaker, just as alive as you please, sitting on the counter between two stacks of dirty dishes. He didn’t look any younger, but he seemed healthy, and kind of shiny. A pair of delicate iridescent wings grew from his back, and they fanned the air and made it cool and sweet.
” ‘Don’t gawk at me,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t look like this if you weren’t so goddamn literal-minded.’ ”
Garnet Manon dreamed of French Canadian waltzes spiraling her across a ballroom floor. She had only heard one in her life, when she was thirteen years old — a duet of hammer dulcimer and folk guitar performed at the county fair. She’d found it more opulent than all the arts and crafts in the exhibition hall. She’d packed it and taken it with her into adulthood, though she remembered it not as music but as movement — the movement of the guitarist’s hands as he picked and strummed, the movement of the dulcimer player’s wrists as she lightly, rapidly hammered the strings, the movement of her own body, constricted by adolescent shyness. The energy of the music was stored in her body, tensed for release, as though every muscle and tendon were a rubber band pulled to nearly the breaking point.
She imagined defloration as thousands of tiny scissors snipping through each rubber band, orgasm as the sharp snap, a volley of little stings that burned and throbbed against the skin. ‘Defloration’ was Mr. Pacifaker’s word, ‘orgasm’ belonged to Cosmopolitan.
Both gave her contradictory advice.
By the time she was eighteen, Garnet Manon had had it with Mr. Pacifaker’s warnings against them boys. She figured he might as well warn her against being trampled to death by a woolly mammoth. She no longer pretended that he was any other kind of fairy than what he was. She no longer believed in benevolent spells.
“Look at me,” she said, slouched in the cab of his pickup. “Just you look at me, and tell me what the hell kind of boy would want anything to do with me. I’m ugly, Mr. Pacifaker. I’m as ugly as your house and your yard and your horse put together.”
Mr. Pacifaker, leaning half-in, half-out of the cab, winced and shook his head. “You’re seeing all wrong, girl.”
“Ha!” she said angrily. “Me and all the rest of the world. Them boys laugh at me. They make fun of me. They say, ‘You’re so beautiful, Garnet Manon. I love you, Garnet Manon.’ They want me to believe it, so they can laugh at me even more. I’m a joke, Mr. Pacifaker, not an object of desire.”
“Didn’t I tell you to stay away from them boys?” Mr. Pacifaker shouted. “Didn’t I tell you they only wanted one thing? And here you ignore me completely and let them just deflower you like that.”
“Nobody’s deflowered me, Mr. Pacifaker!” Garnet Manon screamed. “Nobody wants to deflower me! Don’t you understand anything?”
“They done it to you,” Mr. Pacifaker muttered, shaking his head.
Garnet Manon shrieked in frustration and punched open the passenger door. “You know what, Mr. Pacifaker? I finally got you figured out. And you know what I conclude about you? I conclude that all your life, you’ve waited from them boys to come along, to talk sweet to you, to seduce you and deflower you. But you know what? They never have, and they never will. And that’s why you won’t leave me alone about it. If you can hope for me, you can hope for yourself, too. But the truth is, you and I are every bit as ugly as we look, and every bit as ridiculous, and every bit as lonely. The only difference between us, aside from gender, is that you’re going to die a virgin a lot sooner than I am, and that’s the damned truth.”
Mr. Pacifaker’s body seemed to sag and shrink. His face aged before her eyes, as his own eyes filled with tears. He breathed hard for a long moment, and then he said, “Garnet Manon, I don’t care if you seen it. It don’t care if you know it. But did you really have to say it?”
Garnet Manon never went to see him again. They never made up. And so, when Mr. Pacifaker died, Garnet Manon was surprised to find out that he’d left her the house, horse, and yard in his will, witnessed, signed, and legal.
His lawyer brought her the deed and the front door key. Representatives from the First Presbyterian Church came hot on the lawyer’s heels, offering a low sum they figured an eighteen-year-old would be dumb enough to take.
Garnet Manon said she’d think about it.
“You can’t live there,” her mother said. “That house is, by all accounts, full of filth and rats.”
“I don’t want to live there,” said Garnet Manon.
“Just think, if you sold it to the Presbyterians, you’d be able to go to college,” said her mother.
“I don’t want to go to college,” said Garnet Manon.
“Then what do you want?” her mother demanded.
“I want to apologize to Mr. Pacifaker.”
When the knacker came, inquiring after the horse, Garnet Manon slammed the door in his face, ran up to her room, and wept.
She walked down the Mr. Pacifaker’s house that evening. She pulled two leaves of hay from the bale in the back of the pickup, shook them out for the horse, and patted its ribs as it ate. She wondered if the horse missed its daily conversations with Mr. Pacifaker. She wondered how on earth it had outlived him. It had been an old horse ten years ago.
“Don’t worry,” she told it. “I won’t let the knacker have you.”
She fingered the key in her pocket, learned its peaks and depressions, wondered if it were a token of forgiveness, an indication that Mr. Pacifaker hadn’t had time to change his will, or simply a poke in the eye to the Presbyterians.
She thought of the spiral-bound notebook she’d filled as an adolescent, investing the house with all the beauties and grace she’d wished for herself, investing Mr. Pacifaker with a power he’d never had, investing the bitten, scrawny horse with nobility and wit.
If the inside of the house were really dreadful, she didn’t want to have to see it. She didn’t want to know the fullness of the squalor he’d lived in.
She’d named his tragedy once, and it had killed him. As good as killed him. Nothing was disguised. Everything was real. Them boys would never come.
“I’m going in,” she said to the horse. “If I fall through the floor, will you let somebody know?”
She fitted the key into the lock and turned it. She pushed against the door, lightly at first, then pressing her weight against it, until it screamed open and she staggered inside. She stumbled over a bundle of molding newspapers, and caught herself on an ancient television set, which groaned and collapsed. In the dim light filtered by grimy windows, she saw fat scurrying things on the floor, the coffee table, the exploded couch. Glowing white fungus crept up the stained wallpaper. The air was thick with dust and the smell of mildew.
“Oh, Mr. Pacifaker,” she said sorrowfully.
The bathroom, the kitchen, were just as bad. All around the house lay the debris of a man who cared only for the life in his head. Had them boys ever come to see him, he couldn’t possibly have let them in.
One room remained unexplored — the bedroom, it must be, just off the kitchen, behind a closed door.
She opened the door and found the beauty in the core of the house, in the core of Mr. Pacifaker, the soaring vermilion chamber disguised by the squalor that surrounded it.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry I killed you, Mr. Pacifaker.’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry you’re so goddamned egotistical.’ ‘But didn’t I break your heart and kill you?’ ‘No, I died of tetanus, just like it said in the paper.‘”
She sighed and leaned her head against Sarcastic Talking Horse’s neck.
“So I asked him about the room, and he told me to mind my own goddamned business, and I asked him about fairy heaven, and he said what did I care, I was never gonna get there. And I was about to walk out, and he told me to wait, and he chewed over his words, and then he said, ‘Garnet Manon, there’s bliss. There’s bliss you can’t even guess at. It’s something you give yourself, something you carry around with you, and nobody can take it away unless you let them. You let them boys deflower you. You let them take away your bliss. And that’s what I been warning you against all these years. And if you weren’t so goddamned literal-minded, you’d have figured that out years ago.’
“‘So what do I do now?’ I said.
“‘Take back your bliss,’ he said, ‘and keep it safe to your heart. You died in that room, Garnet Manon. You died, and you came back whole and free. Not many people get that chance. Don’t let it go to waste.’
“And then he went all cranky on me again, and said, “I’d advise you to sell the house to them Pissbyterians. Make ‘em give you twice what they offered this afternoon. Part out the truck. Then take that horse and go. This town had nothing for me, and it’s got nothing for you, either.’
“‘But your house! Your room!’
“He waved his hand and snorted. ‘I don’t need that no more, Garnet Manon. I got a better place now.‘”
“And then what?” asked Sarcastic Talking Horse, when she had been silent for nearly two minutes.
“And then he just disappeared.”
When she came out of the house again, it was dawn. The horse’s chestnut coat shone purple in the light. Its ribs seemed to have softened and melted beneath new flesh, sleek pelt.
It had also chewed through its tether, and walked gracefully to meet her.
“How lovely you are,” said Garnet Manon.
“What took you so long?” said Sarcastic Talking Horse.
Copyright © 1995 by Holly Wade Matter.