A Backwards Look
The waitress brought their coffee in cups as big as soup bowls and Ophelia kissed the ceramic lip, the black milk. Her mouth left no trace of breath. Johnny watched her reach into her coat and pull out bottles of spices—cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves—and sprinkle tiny pinches into her coffee as carefully as an alchemist. "Do you bring cinnamon with you everywhere?" Johnny asked. Ophelia laughed. She drank her coffee.
Johnny hadn't believed her when she said her name was Ophelia. ("Why?" she'd said. "Is your name Hamlet?" and he had answered no, my name is Johnny, although he was certain it was not Johnny, it been something else quite recently.) He could not remember where he met her, or how. Had he met her only a few hours ago, or had he known her forever, the dark anti-matter of them caressing one another's absence in the place before they were born? Johnny wasn't sure. She had black hair and a sad smile. She looked like someone Johnny ought to have met before, although he didn't know why, or who.
A woman in a white apron brought them cherries, glossy like eggs, nestled in a big blue bowl, although neither of them had ordered fruit. Ophelia cried out in delight. "I love cherries," she said happily. "We used to eat them in the garden. We saved the stems to braid into crowns for our heads."
Johnny nodded. He swallowed a cherry pit. Johnny wanted to grow into a tree for Ophelia to chop down. He would be the sweetest grain in the wood of her wall; his branches would feed her fireplace.
"We leave in the morning," Ophelia said, her voice echoing over the coffee cup she held to her mouth.
"Yes," said Johnny.
Johnny didn't know much about Ophelia. He knew she liked to laugh at her own jokes, and sometimes his. He knew she could drive a minivan in four inch heels. She had a tattoo of three white owls at the nape of her neck. "Why?" he asked, and she answered, "I had a love affair with a tattoo artist and with an ornithologist at the same time. Things became complicated." Johnny nodded, knowing she had made the story up. Ophelia spoke with a tilted Antrim accent and her breath on Johnny's neck was cool and unscented as a small wind. A certain expression on her face made her look like a curio cabinet full of secrets. The first time they met (at a drinks reception? A college party? A funeral?) she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his jaw bone. "We leave in the morning," she had said. He could have been in a tuxedo or a swimming suit, at the beach or the office. He might have been dancing, or he might not; there could have been fireworks. Later that night he had found a note in Ophelia's jacket pocket. It said, I'm sorry.
Johnny's education was a concern of Ophelia's. She taught him useful facts; "Did you know," she said, "that magpies can recognise their own reflection? That unborn babies grow outwards from their centres like candy floss? That you can die from too much nutmeg? I almost did once," she said, and she sounded wistful.
Ophelia had terrible nightmares every night. She screamed and screamed, and tears rolled from her closed eyes. The first night, Johnny shook her awake, then crept to the bedside chair. Gently, he asked what she had dreamed. Ophelia paused for a moment. She chewed a cherry stem. "When we were little," she said, "we had a lot of goldfish. You could get them at the pet shop for a few quid, and the bowls lasted forever. It was my job to pick names. We always got them in pairs: Beauty and the Beast. Snow White and Rose Red. Hansel and Gretel. They always died. Together, never alone. They died very neatly. I think my brother was involved." Ophelia smiled.
Johnny nodded. The quiet tendons in his ankles tensed, as though begging him to run.
"When the goldfish died we flushed them down the toilet. Burial at sea."
"We did that too," Johnny said.
Ophelia glanced out the window, drumming her fingers on her bare thigh in a jaunty rhythm. "They are down in the sewers together," she said, "hundreds and thousands of goldfish all in pairs, I think they must be angry, I think they must be. So they come to me in dreams. Their bones glow in the dark. When the world ends it will be nothing but me and the goldfish marching two by two." She turned to Johnny, smiled. "Come back to bed, lover," she said.
They started in Fair Head, or Carrickarede, or Dunseverick, though Johnny had never been outside of Belfast in his life. Rain glinted down the road like dust motes. Johnny drove; Ophelia lay stretched out in the back, singing to herself. At the Giant's Causeway, that breadcrumb trail, she sat up and leaned her chin on Johnny's shoulder. "You be Christopher," she said. "I'll be Columbus."
Johnny saw the bright artery of the country sliced open, and knew that this had happened before.
In Portrush they ate salty chips from twists of newspaper on a bench with cracked blue paint, on which someone had carved, a little empty. Ophelia smoothed her greasy newspaper over her knees and examined it. "A treasure map," she said, delighted; and it was.
"What do we do, Captain?" Johnny asked.
Ophelia folded the treasure map neatly. "We follow."
Once Johnny had a sister. He remembered her stealing his shirts when they were little, his CDs when they were older, and he remembered fighting, their voices raised to the attic, in their parents' empty bedroom one night, although he couldn't remember why. She was younger by three minutes. He could not remember her name.
"Are you ready, Christopher?" Ophelia asked.
"Yes, Columbus," said Johnny.
When they were six, Johnny's sister pushed him off the playground swing. He didn't fall far, but he hit his jaw against a tree stump, knocked one of his back teeth so hard that it ached for days. His sister cried. His parents refused to take him to the dentist. Johnny lived on ice for a week, spent his pocket money on Calippos and Twisters. The tooth always hurt worst in the middle of the night. In the middle of the night, his sister would creep into his room, her hands closed tight around fistfuls of black cloves. She settled over him, her legs on either side of his hips, and fed him the cloves one by one. "Bite," she whispered. The dry buds tasted hot and bitter and they numbed his tongue and his aching tooth. Every night his sister slipped from Johnny's bedroom before their parents could wake. Each morning Johnny woke with spices on his mouth.
They circled the tip of Antrim in Ophelia's battered minivan and curved back to the east coast, and flew Irish flags out the car windows at the border. Travelling with Ophelia meant never having to stop for petrol. In Dundalk the two of them lay on the car roof with a sleeping bag and a bottle of vodka. "I've seen these stars before," Ophelia said. "Once. The night of my brother's funeral."
"What happened to your brother?" Johnny asked.
"He killed himself."
Johnny felt the car shift and shudder under him, and the cool wind shrank back from him like an anemone. "I'm sorry," he said, although he wasn't.
"Suicides are the nuts and bolts of my family. The meat and bread."
"My sister died when I was fifteen," Johnny said.
"She killed herself. She walked in front of a car with a note in her pocket."
Ophelia pressed her hand into his, and moved her mouth close to his ear so that all he heard was breathing. She was warm and weighted and smelled of vodka, sleep, coffee, cloves. Her breath rattled dustily in her throat.
When he was twelve years old, Violet lived in Johnny's bedroom. Violet was ghost-pale and could hide in the smallest places. Her skin was soft, sleep-scented. Moths landed on her wrists like falcons. She kissed dust from Johnny's shoes with a small red tongue. In the middle of the night Violet blew out from underneath the closet door and slid into bed with Johnny. Her touch breathed up and down his height and width, the length and breadth of him, his square metres. Violet was very fragile: Johnny had to be careful. A sneeze would scatter her. Violet was king of her own peculiar kingdom. She and Johnny looked into one another like mirrors. "I made you up," Johnny whispered, but he could never be sure which one of them was speaking. The fact that he loved her was irrelevant, overlookable. Violet kissed all of Johnny's wounds, whispered dustily in his ear while she soothed the red slap on his face, licked blood from the scratches on his back. She gave Johnny sweets wrapped in spiderwebs, and they were dusty and good. She pressed her silty mouth to Johnny's mouth. Her tongue tasted like spun sugar.
And one summer, when he was thirteen, Johnny broke his leg in two places. He had fought with his twin, shrieking across an unmade bed, and so he spent all summer alone in his room, reading or drawing or stretched out flat on his floor, listening to the trees by his window creak and rustle. His leg itched like the chicken pox but didn't hurt much. Pain would have given him something to do.
A bird came to nest in one of the trees outside his window, and Johnny watched it through plastic binoculars: it was sugar-white, with enormous mahogany eyes and a hooked beak, and it looked soft as snow. Johnny saved up bread crusts to scatter on the window sash. The bird hopped closer. "I do not eat white bread," the bird said haughtily, "but I appreciate the thought."
After that the bird came every night to keep Johnny company. She told stories about how the world changed when everyone was asleep. Her name was Rue, although it hadn't always been her name, and she had not always been a bird. Rue's golden eyes displayed Johnny's reflection, and in the reflection Johnny's skin had turned blue, his mouth white. Rue spent every night at his window. At the end of summer Johnny was more owl than boy: his wingless shoulder blades surprised him, an inelegant lack. His cast came off the day before school started. That night Johnny wrung Rue's snowy neck. He buried her body in the garden. At the school gates the next morning his sister slipped up to him, quiet and unrepentant. They studied one another. She nodded; and he nodded. They walked towards the school side by side, swooping into the world, fierce as birds of prey.
Johnny knew he'd had a sister, once upon a time. He had proof. He still had the scars on his wrists where they cut her out.
They drove slowly, painstakingly, each roundabout mile a landscape to be memorised. At the cliff fort in Dunany, Ophelia told Johnny about Áine, the fairy queen, who could turn sane men mad, and draw wild dogs down under the sea, to guard her court over the ocean. In Navan, Johnny watched Ophelia shimmy out of her underwear in the back of the minivan, and he stopped the car beside a field of hay, and bit the inside of her legs until he built her another heartbeat.
They drove down the N1 to Dublin. After the cavern of the East Link Toll Bridge Johnny and Ophelia abandoned their car and walked into the city, hand in hand, following the newspaper articles spread out over their map of lost treasure, left turn, right turn, fifty paces, left turn. Their shadows fell through Dublin like pallbearers. "Not far now," Ophelia said, and her voice cracked.
They stopped at the Spire on O'Connell Street, the monument standing straight as a pendulum with no seconds to announce. Shovels lay neatly across the frosted glass at its base. Johnny and Ophelia picked them up. Glanced at one another. Began to dig.
And they dug and dug. Dirt clung to Ophelia's hair, changing its colour. She had grown pale. The tattoos on her neck burned like brands. Their hole grew deep, deep, deeper. The sky ticked and tocked and drifted lower and lower, menacing, an infinite division sign. Their shovels hit something hard, and Ophelia whispered finally, and when they levered it from the ground Johnny saw it was a long black coffin. The lid was covered with a fine layer of dust. Absently, Ophelia licked it from her fingers.
Johnny lifted the lid.
The dust that had settled on the velvet lining smelled of spices and vodka, sweat, shampoo, perfume, sleep and waking. Ophelia laughed. Her tongue was delicate and red. "I'm starving," she said, "I'm so hungry." She scooped out handfuls of dust, clove-scented, ash-scented, and licked it from her hands. "Aren't you hungry, Violet?" she asked.
"My name isn't Violet," Johnny said. "Violet was my sister."
Ophelia sucked dust from her bottom lip, ladled dust from the coffin in her cupped hands. She ate and ate.
"Violet was my sister," Johnny said, as Ophelia devoured his sister from the buried black coffin.
Johnny's sister Violet died when he was fifteen. There was a church service, a removal, a reception. There were bunches of white flowers to throw in the ground. Johnny's mother was pale and serene; his father refused to go to the funeral, smashed a plate over the fireplace and cried into his fists, but Johnny was obedient and neat, and he sat quietly in his best suit. Mourners came and went. All of it seemed incidental as elevator music.
The night his sister died, Johnny turned to the birds in the trees outside his window, saw their wings on fire, their golden eyes. He turned to the forest and his spine curved up with the waning moon and he flew for meat and he tasted blood. The sky parted to swallow him. It soothed the shape of the slap on his face.
"Johnny," his mother said. Her voice sounded far-off and peaceful, and her eyes were red. "Johnny, there's something we have to tell you."
Air waited to envelop him. He waited to lift his wings into its touch.
"There's been a car accident," his mother said.
A bird swooped over the road.
"Who?" Johnny said. "Who? Who?" although he didn't need to ask.
Becca De La Rosa lives in Ireland, where she is studying Classical Greek at university. Her work has previously appeared in Fantasy Magazine, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Behind the Wainscot, and Jabberwocky 4, among other places. You can read more of her stories online at www.beccadelarosa.com.