Elizabeth Gumport: Emma Bovary’s Home for Lost Girls
(from Issue Two)
IN THE BEGINNING, the girls say, there was only one house, and they all lived there together. At night, Emma brought them hot cocoa and slipped peppermints under their pillows. They grew beets in the garden, and used the heart-shaped leaves in salads. They boiled the roots and dipped the red circles in butter. On long, rainy afternoons—all the afternoons were rainy, and most of them were long—the girls would pickle the beets, dropping them in glass jars full of vinegar.
More and more girls arrived, and they built more houses, bigger gardens, whole cities. In these gardens, they planted beets, but also flowers. They liked the blossoms so much that they each named themselves after one: Violet, Jasmine, Rose. By the time I arrived, all the names had been used, so there were dozens of Petunias, thickets of Daisies whispering in doorways. One of them looked at me and said Lily.
It’s easy to identify the new girls, because they smell of ink and sometimes mildew. You would, too, if you had spent your whole life pressed between pages. Eventually, the smell wears off—the rain, which never stops, washes it from their skin—and you can’t tell them apart anymore. Sometimes, if it’s warm and only misting, my friend Daffodil and I row down the river and braid each other’s hair and tell each other the things we learned in our lives: The shorter the grain of the rice, she remembers, the starchier it is. When cutting maki, be sure to keep the tip of the knife moist, or the pieces will stick together.
What I miss, I tell her, is okra. Fried okra. We can get most things here—persimmons, asparagus, anise-flavored lozenges—but not okra. When it gets dark, we row back to the shore and eat dinner in a café. There are many cafés here; we are never without a meringue. We usually eat alone, Daffodil and I. The other girls don’t like us, we don’t think, but we’re not sure why.
The new arrivals speak differently, too. When they get here, the only words they know are the ones they spoke in life. They repeat them over and over, so it’s hard not to think they’re crazy. It’s worst for the girls who had bit parts, who got killed off quickly to move the plot along. They only have one or two sentences; their whole lives were 20 words long. On our way to dinner, we sometimes pass them standing at the foot of the bridge, babbling amongst themselves as the sky turns violet and then gray. One night, the rain is heavy and several of them cluster underneath the streetlights.
“Poor darlings!—to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o’ such misery as yours!” one says.
An older woman in a white dress stares out at the water and mutters, “Take the pencil and write under my name, ‘I forgive her!’”
I look at Daffodil, but she doesn’t react. I’ve read more than she has—the stories I could tell you about these girls! But it’s polite here to feign forgetfulness; nobody likes knowing you’ve seen her at her darkest moment. Sometimes I think it should be otherwise, that now is the time to speak, but not everyone agrees. We pass the bridge and leave the women whispering in our wake. They’ll stay there, bathed in the water and the glow of the lamps, until one of the teachers comes and guides them to a home.
When I first came, Emma was my teacher. In a little room, high above the city, we drank hot water with lemon and she spoke with me until I could speak myself. Now, the girls say, Emma doesn’t teach anymore. She locks herself in her room and cries, that’s the rumor, but nobody knows for sure. It takes very little to start a rumor here, and, one rumor goes, that is why Emma is so upset. There’s nothing for us to do. She built a city and we came and now we drift around like lily pads. We move, but we’re always rooted in place.
This insinuation is the talk of the cafés, and most girls are defensive. Daffodil and I nibble our meringues quietly and eavesdrop.
“In my life,” a girl in a sunbonnet is saying, “I shot deer and washed clothes with lye and I was never loved. If I want to eat macaroons here”—she is eating a macaroon—“I will. I will eat macaroons until I die,” repeating a popular joke. Her friends laugh and drink tea and eat pearl-shaped mints.
At another café, on another day, a blonde girl pets her poodle and announces, “All I know how to do is play the piano, and I intend to keep playing the piano.” The other girls nod in agreement.
Through the window of the café, we can see more girls on the street, walking their dogs and pausing to chat under awnings. Sometimes one approaches the window and stares straight at us. She is examining her reflection, and she doesn’t see us at all. This, we realize, is the clammy underside of liberation: Once you’re free, you’re free to do nothing.
Around the same time we hear stories about Emma, another rumor begins to circulate: Someone has seen a man here. People seem to see a lot of things here, and so the story is told and told again until it snuffs itself out.
I don’t mean to complain like this. It’s not all bad; for a lot of girls, death is better than anything they ever dreamed of in life. If we can get a group together, we go on expeditions to the lake or to pick grapes in the empty vineyards. My favorite place, though, is the seashore. It looks like something someone dreamed, then abandoned on waking up. The boardwalk looks like the moon, dry and white, and the water itself is as dark as the night sky.
A few stores are set back from the water, but they’re always closed. Faded, wide-brimmed hats and parasols languish in the dusty displays, useless in this sunless city, and, when we peer through the wooden shutters of the restaurants, we see that the tables are set. The knives and spoons look impatient, waiting for someone to come marry them off, but nobody ever does. Carnations wilt in glass vases. At the shore, only one place is open for business, the stand that sells rock candy. We buy the long, crystal sticks and lick them as we walk by the water. Sometimes, if the rain is light, we can see the sun bloom pale pink as it sets.
Under the deep, darkening sky, we stick our toes in the water and Pansy tells us about the ocean (she was married to an ichthyologist). In the smallest level, closest to the surface, you find seaweed and sharks and all living things. Next comes the mesopelagic stratum, the twilight zone, where day never breaks and photosynthesis stops. Deeper and deeper she goes, until she reaches the hadopelagic zone, the water in the deep crevices of the ocean floor. But there’s life down there in Hades, she tells us, since the water is warmed by heat from the earth’s core. There’s something everywhere, she says, even in those dark places at the bottom of the world; everything finds its place. Sure, we answer, finishing our candy and tossing our sticks into the ocean, and prepare for the trip home.
The man has been seen again. In cafés, under the tinkle of teaspoons, whispers are exchanged. Nobody knows who saw him first, or where he was seen, and what he looks like is a matter of much debate.
“He is old and uses a cane,” I hear a girl say one evening, walking three fingers across the tablecloth in demonstration.
“No,” says an older woman with a heavy southern accent and a cross around her neck. “He’s young. He is a young, young man.”
“He is neither,” another girl says, “he is a man in midlife. He has a harelip and speaks with a lisp.”
“You’ve heard him speak?” the first girl snaps. They begin to chatter like birds, then demand more tea.
Afterward, I walk home near the river. A few shadows are gathered near the bridge, grumbling furiously.
“You know you told me something I’ve never forgotten and that again and again has made me think of you since,” one woman says, looking directly over my shoulder.
I turn around, and of course I see only the dark river, the water moving slow and thick away from me. Where I come from, there was a river, too, but it was narrow and bright and filled with frogs. In the summer, a boy—I think it was my brother—taught me how to skip stones. Sassafras grew all around the water and we chewed on the twigs, which tasted spicy like ginger ale. Later in life, I met another river, one that ran through an old colonial city, as dark as the sooty bricks. Standing on its banks, I could hear the wide, cold chimes of the church bells on Sunday. I was proposed to on the banks of that river, I think, but then the current picked up speed and my life ran away from me.
In the morning, on my way to the café, I see that the women are gone. Gone to the homes and schools, I mean. I’ve heard stories about a girl named Daisy who disappeared and never returned, but that was before my time. Since I have been here, nobody has ever left.
After lunch, Daffodil and I walk to the pet store to play with the animals. The shopkeeper lets me cradle a chinchilla—the latest fad—and feed it a single golden raisin. Daffodil is dandling a lop-eared rabbit in her lap when we both see him, a man in black, crossing the street toward the park. She thrusts the rabbit into the shopkeeper’s arms and we chase after him, the dark man, but by the time we get to the avenue, he is gone. We walk through the park, whistling for him as if he were a dog, but see only real dogs, poodles attached to braided leather leashes. We search for him in a grove of apricot trees, but cannot find him. A low, sharp wind comes, rattling the glossy buds of the beeches, and we leave the park just as the downpour begins.
For a few weeks, we hear no new reports. In the cafés, girls talk about ferrets—chinchillas are already passé—and the new fashion in umbrellas. But then, all of a sudden, he is everywhere: striding down the streets, followed by giggling hordes, and eating in the cafés. He can cover a meringue with the palm of his hand, and many girls are in love.
At night, we hear, he holds secret meetings. Only a select few are invited, Pansy tells us over tea one day, and we decide we must go see him.
We follow him from the park to a small stone house that we have never seen before. He enters, and we wait. Slowly, girls begin to arrive. The sky goes gray, and the light from the lamps and the windows of the house glow in the fog. We creep closer to the window and look inside. The man is sitting in a plush chair, reading from a small black book, and the girls are gathered around him in a circle. They scoot near him, trying to get close, as if he will warm them like a fire. We press our ears to the glass and listen: He reads a few lines, ones he says he wrote a long time ago, about a pale, black-haired girl, and asks his audience if they have seen her. The girls shake their heads, and he dismisses them. They leave, and he looks around the room once before extinguishing the light. When he passes us on the street, smelling of smoke and fennel, he doesn’t seem to see us; he is staring straight ahead, looking at someone who isn’t there. We trail him for a few blocks, then a pigeon swoops in front of us, and in that moment of distraction, he gets away.
We have to admit we’re pleased. Good, we think. Suffer. A part of us feels sorry for him, but we can’t help him. He had the last word—and the first word, and every word in between—and that’s that, and eventually he seems to realize this and disappears back to wherever he came from. The cafés begin to twitter with new stories, and more girls continue to arrive. As for Emma, some stories have it that she’s gone, too—we have disappointed her too many times—and in others she’s still here, hard at work, tending her beets and living alone. We are living, some insist, exactly as she wants us to: We have clean water, hot coffee, and nothing to distract us.
But Daffodil and I can’t help wondering where the man has gone, and who that black-haired girl was. So we gather menus from the cafés and go down to the river and there, in the margins of the menus, we write the story of this man. He loved this girl and made mistakes, as lovers do. In some accounts, he is a wealthy man, a vendor of fine furs; in others, he is a doctor, an attendant to bodies. But in every version of the story, he lives in a grand house with vaulted ceilings. As we write, our minds rise and expand as high and wide as these arches, as we make our new home in a new world.
Elizabeth Gumport is a senior editor at n+1, and she received her MFA from Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in n+1, the New York Observer, the New York Review of Books, Triple Canopy, and Bookslut, among others.