Behind The Moon
She knew it was a globe, like the Earth. She knew that it orbited the Earth, and she knew that it didn’t rotate on its axis, that it always presented the same face to the planet below. But she always wondered what was on the other side, whether it was the same as what she could see.
He knocked, gently but firmly, not tentatively. And she called, “Come,” as if he was a servant. And he was, in a way, a servant. At least he was in her service, or he had been. Now it was time for reckoning.
When he came inside, he filled the room. He was not a big man, particularly, but it was not a large room, this kitchen, something that had been added onto the house as an afterthought. She wondered if it was right to receive him there. It seemed proper, though, and that mattered more than anything else. She wanted so to be proper.
She looked at him with a steady eye. He was dirty, dusty, and he reeked of the road. Horse sweat and stale body odor seemed to waft off of him. His face was marked with a week’s growth of whiskers, and when he removed his hat, a gesture as automatic as blinking, his hair was matted where the covering had flattened it, had made a red crease across the dirt-smears on his forehead. His clothes were rough, dirty, stained. His shirt was gray with grime, and there was no collar or cravat. His boots were stirrup-scarred, but he’d removed his spurs. There was that, at least. A large knife hung from his belt, but under his frockcoat, she knew there was more.
“You’re later than your wire said. I expected you at noon.”
He shrugged. “It’s never easy to tell,” he said. “Horse pulled a bad leg. Had to get another. That took time.”
She felt herself draw up. Imperious. She felt an eyebrow arch. “Am I to pay for that?” She hated herself for acting that way. It wasn’t what she intended.
“No’mum.” He shook his head. “My cost.”
“I kept supper,” she said. “It’s still hot.” He didn’t move, but his eyes scanned the stovetop. “There’s pie,” she added. “If you like lemon pie.”
“I like pie. No need, though.”
For a moment, they stood like columns facing each other across the opening of a bank or a museum, marble and cold, but dirty, somehow. Unwashed. In the lamplight, his eyes seemed almost black. She remembered them as hazel, with a cast in the left one, a small yellow mark that was hard to look away from. It wasn’t visible in the lamp’s low glow. To break the moment, she moved to the window and looked out. Moonlight washed everything white. “So, it’s done.”
She could only see his shadow, cast by lamplight against the wall, but she saw him nod. He shifted his weight, but he seemed easy on his feet, heavy boots or no. Lithe. The word came to her mind out of nowhere. He was lithe. Like a cat. Deceptively strong. Alarmingly, she felt a tingling in her abdomen, along the insides of her limbs. It disconcerted her, caused her to shake her head as if to clear it. “Did he suffer?” she asked, forcing her voice steady. He opened his mouth to answer, but she didn’t allow it. “I wanted him to suffer. Did he suffer?”
“Not much,” he said. “You didn’t say that before.”
She stepped toward him. “I should have thought it would be obvious.” He didn’t back away from her, didn’t flinch. “He didn’t suffer.”
“One shot,” he said. “He was coming from church.”
“Funeral. He was coming from a funeral,” he said. “Alone. Saw the chance and took it. It was clean.”
“But he didn’t suffer?”
He shook his head.
“And you’re sure of it.”
“I cut his throat,” he said. “To be sure.”
“So he didn’t know I sent you?”
“He didn’t know a thing.”
“But you’re sure? You’re sure it was he.”
He reached into his weskit’s pocket and pulled out a small, gold medallion. She knew it. It anchored his watch chain. “Could have brought you his head,” he said, a corner of his mouth almost turning up, but not quite. “Figured not.”
She abruptly went to a large ceramic jar on a polished shelf, near the china cabinet, removed the lid and took out a leather pouch. It was hefty. She gave it to him. He weighed it in his hand, then dropped it to his side. “Do you want to count it?” He shook his head, and for the first time, dropped his eyes, unable to meet her stare. “Go wash,” she said. The discomfiting sensation returned for a second or two, so she added, “You’ll sleep in the barn, tonight. Wash. Then come back. I’ll set the table.” He turned and left without a word.
When he was gone, she put out the plates, her mother’s, brought over the ocean from England, the silver, also her mother’s, but she didn’t know where it came from. She filled a stoneware mug with spring water, then ladeled out the potatoes, the peas, and then pulled the chicken from the warming bin and put it in the center of the table. Then she went to the mirror and studied her face. She was pretty, she thought. Well-formed, she knew. Still young. Still . . . her thoughts were chased away by a pang of modesty. She knew what lay behind the image, and she wondered what difference that made.
She stepped out onto the porch, and out into the dooryard, where she looked up, past the treetops, to the moon. If anything, it seemed brighter than before. It was so clean, so pure. But she wondered about the other side, about what was behind the moon.
She remembered when she was a girl, long before they came out here, when she came upon a apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. The fruit was too high for her to reach, but a few had fallen into the grass. One seemed so red, so shiny and inviting as it lay there in the green blades, that it seemed to beckon to her. Her mouth watered for a taste of it, for the crisp sweet juice that would spring forth when she bit into it. She reached across the fence between the path and the grass beneath the tree and plucked it up, and she remembered how firm and solid it felt beneath her fingertips. But when she brought it up to her face, about to bite into it, she glimpsed the other side. It was cratered with rot. Tiny black insects swarmed out of the withered skin and dark brown creases ran through the gaping side where some bird or animal had ravaged it. A string of sticky goo ran down her fingers, tainted the perfect peel of the good side. The smell of it struck her nostrils, and she felt her throat close in the horror of what she held, what she was about to bite into. She flung it away, ran home and plunged her hands and face into the hot, sudsy laundry water on the porch, trying to scour the vision of that monstrosity from her mind.
Now, she looked again at the moon and wondered about what was behind its perfect, silver side, if it, on the other side, was pocked and mortified, teeming with vermin and reeking with death and mortification. And, as she turned away and returned to the kitchen.
He returned to the door in only a few more minutes, knocking obeying her command to enter. He had washed, put on a clean shirt and red cravat with a blue pin. His hands were red from scrubbing and his hair was slicked back, still glistening from a hurried rinse. He hadn’t shaved, but much of the dust was gone from his coat and trousers, and he no longer smelled of the road.
She gestured and he sat, and she took the chair opposite. He tucked his napkin in the V of his weskit and ate quietly and without talking, without looking at her or, really, at anything. She thought she heard him humming low as he chewed, but she couldn’t tell for sure. She didn’t eat. He didn’t seem to notice.
“You know why I wanted it done,” she said at last. It wasn’t a question. He looked at her, and this time, with the angle of the lamp hitting him just so, she saw the yellow cast. But he only shrugged. “He ruined me,” she continued. “He courted me, wooed me, married me.” He took another piece of chicken and gnawed at it quietly, politely, his eyes still on her, but without expression. “And he shamed me,” she said. Unable to bear it, she stood. “I had to do it.” She turned her back to him. “I had to have you do it.”
“It’s done,” he said. “That’s all there is to say.”
“He left me.” She heard her voice rising, her face flushing, but she couldn’t stop herself. “He was no good. Everyone knew it. Everyone.” She looked around the room, as if anticipating objection. “I am ruined. I cannot abide being the object of pity.” She caught herself in the mirror, was gratified momentarily to see that her feelings didn’t show.
He continued to eat, wiping his fingers on the napkin, the corners of his mouth, sipping the water. He looked at her flatly, without commitment. Then, finally, crossing his fork and knife over the empty plate, removing his napkin, he said, “He left you all this.”
She spun on him, suddenly furious, but he didn’t move. “You have land. Money.”
“You cannot understand,” she said, catching herself and making herself be calm. “He ruined me. I can never—” She stopped. “He wanted another life,” she said after a beat. “He left me money. But what he took from me . . .” She went to the window and looked out at the moonlight.
For a moment neither of them spoke. She could hear him breathing, could hear her own heart returning to a normal pulse. “You don’t understand,” she said softly. “You can’t.” Abruptly, she went to the sideboard and cut a piece of pie. She put it on a plate, then took a clean napkin and covered it. “Take this to the barn to eat.” She thrust it out toward him. “I don’t want to see you anymore. I don’t want you here in the morning.”
He folded his napkin and placed it next to his plate, then stood, and accepted the proffered plate. She met his eyes, but now, they were again in shadow. “Nothing’s changed,” he said. He held her eyes for another moment, then turned to go. “Thank you for the supper. I’ll be gone before moonset.”
She watched him go out, the door shut, and felt silence descend on the room like so many motes recovering from a momentary disturbance. She went again to the mirror and looked once more at herself. “Nothing’s changed,” she said. And she collapsed onto the floor and wept.
In China, the September moon
is a chrysanthemum in a woman’s hair.
It is the same pink as her arousal
blush when her kimono opens
to a man’s gasp.
Outside, people celebrate
the Happiness Festival. Chrysanthemums
are boiled to make a sweet drink,
petals are used in thick snakemeat soup
to make it smell better. Inside,
there is a different festival
of happy love-making:
the moon reaches her fullness.
The Moon Bar is a fairly seedy establishment, with a reputation that keeps most respectable clients away. It squats on a less than salubrious street in a bad part of town, its paint fading and its windows grimy.
The neighbourhood wasn’t always so bad, as evidenced by the stately gothic architecture of the building situated one street over. Glance up from the alleyway that runs behind the bar, and you’ll see a fat little gargoyle perched on a ledge, looking down at you. Its grotesque features are twisted in a snarl, or maybe a grimace of distaste at the various colours of human interaction that pass beneath its gaze. For it has quite the view of all the goings-on that take place behind The Moon.
One of the bartenders goes to the alleyway to smoke during his rare breaks. He is dressed in tight jeans and a mesh shirt with cut-away sleeves, and shivers in the chill night air, as he lights his cigarette. He puts up with the cold for the brief moments of peace the alley provides, away from the noise and chaos inside. The clothes are very far from what he would choose to wear himself, but management thinks the female punters spend more when there’s eye candy to ogle at the bar. The bartender can’t afford to lose his job, so he wears what he’s told to wear, plays up to the attention he gets, and looks forward to the end of his shift.
The back door of the bar bursts open and a man and woman stumble out, clutching each other and staggering slightly at the sudden change in temperature. They press up against the wall of the alley, oblivious to their surroundings as they kiss passionately. The woman runs her fingers through the man’s hair and then trails them down his back, her long nails digging through his shirt. He cups her breast in one hand, while the other reaches up beneath her skirt and between her legs. She gasps in pleasure, her dress riding upwards as she writhes in answer to his actions. Eventually, they come up for air, laughing breathlessly, their eyes sparkling. The woman grabs the man’s hand and drags him down the alley away from the bar, her gait a practised totter in six inch stilettoes.
A man loiters near the end of the alley, his body language a picture of studied nonchalance. He wears a thigh length leather jacket, open down the front, with deep pockets, which are currently concealing his hands. He tosses long, unkempt hair out of his eyes, glancing in both directions as if waiting for someone. Before long, another figure saunters down the alley towards him, dressed in dark clothing, his shoulders hunched and his head down. The two men do not speak. The newcomer reaches into his coat and the flash of money can be seen as he extends a hand. The other man retrieves a small white packet from one of his pockets and they make a surreptitious exchange. The customer then beats a hasty retreat, his footsteps eager as he makes away with his purchase.
The night air is split by an angry shout, and two men come barrelling out of the back door to the bar, light and violence spilling out into the alley with them. They tumble to the ground, locked in combat, rolling in the detritus scattered around them. One quickly gains the upper hand, pinning his opponent and landing several vicious punches. The losing combatant struggles vainly to protect himself from the blows, sounds of impact and groans of pain drifting upwards. Once assured of his victory, the other man spits in the face of his opponent and gets to his feet, indulging in a swift kick to the ribs before heading back inside. His victim curls into a ball around his injuries, gathering the strength to slink away into the darkness.
A homeless man rootles in the dumpsters that line the alley, looking for food or items that might be of use to him. What he finds is the body of a young woman, killed and discarded some time during the night. Startled and horrified, the man stumbles backwards, then shuffles quickly away. Later, the alley swarms with activity. Men in uniform scour every inch, photographing anything that might offer a clue. Vehicles with flashing lights block both ends of the alley, the area around the dumpster itself cordoned off by striped tape. Two detectives stand close together, talking in low and serious tones, while the medical examiner makes an initial assessment of the body. Bystanders and reporters crane for a better view, pushing against the police barriers. The bar is closed.
What does the little gargoyle think of all this? Nobody will ever know, for he is only stone, and cannot offer judgement on what passes beneath his impassive gaze.