The woman in the desert is not a woman at all, but an English song. The quiet hum of a married girl, but her distant gaze is bound to the Sea, like fantasy. She’s younger than the vanishing horses along the vacation shore, she’s younger than the eggs on her plate, she’s bitter and pensive and her perfume is stronger than her pressing concerns, presently.
She left the desert for the church, her honeymoon vacancy being duly fulfilled by her sister and some Mediterranean hors d’oeuvre.
* * *
Faye pushes into the dining hall, where all the tall shuttered doors and windows are swinging ajar, and asks the first nurse a question about dinner. “It’s nearly half past nine, dear! Dinner’s already done with,” she’s told, and feeling childish and old altogether, she billows past the silent hallways to the kitchen, upset and listless.
It’s unwary stomps and clattering laughter that interlopes upon her meditation, and she realises it’s already been an hour, she’s been sitting by herself fiddling with paltry teacups. A single voice, a cheerful woman, thunders towards the kitchen door and not knowing how to present herself, Faye jumps to her feet and steals away, behind the pantry door.
What was that? They’re most definitely going to find you out, and then you won’t be allowed to posit sanctimony anymore.
Not a minute passes, and another voice trails after the first.
A man, this time.
Her dramatic remission is for naught, however, since she seemingly spins above his radius of cognition. Before contact, he too has disappeared into the mystic stairways of the grand Tower House. The sound of fizzling champagne flutes and dry, discernable laughter trails and dissipates along his untraceable path, and the sudden quiet after is too disconcerting.
Teeth clenched, Faye steps out. She regards her proximity, a glance entirely arid and full of curious distaste.
Out in the hallway, she stares at the foot of the worn wooden climb, the scent of burnt corn and whisky causing her lips to straighten in rigid dissent.
There’s going to be no champagne here, of course not.
* * *
The retreat houses both visitors and volunteers, with separate (but adequate) accommodation. While volunteers like Faye usually go in custodial dorms, she affords herself a passing luxury and opts to pay for a suite, instead. A suite without shuttered windows, the one with shimmering opal curtains.
Soon after arrival, three days ago, Faye decided she wouldn’t suffix the details of her living arrangements to sparse retellings of her missionary story.
Such trivial details barely warrant retelling, anyway.
Omission alone would anguish the likes of most of Church Hill’s occupants, but she isn’t made of bourgeois maize and maternity. She’s exactly what they need—a volunteer with a firm heart. The heart of a lion, or a horse.
A show-horse, she muses.
* * *
Dawn stumbles into Church Hill, the blank expanse currently festering on cheap and glittery momentum. A fair is lined up for the very next day—a transparent stab of adrenalin to sway community favour to ‘appropriately pleased’, even if just for a fleeting moment.
Faye hasn’t noticed anything but the horses, yet.
There they go, plundering equi paying patronage at my window. Their thick manes—like aged oak—staring hellos, but for all I’ve ever discovered, their sentience is as thin as marriage papers, or the secret of romance. Don’t stick your head in, fellas, I may just grab on and never let go.
She doesn’t open her eyes till the breeze touches at the scoping arches of her heels. It stills in sweeps, and reaffirms—she’s not cloistered in the city anymore. There’s torn moss in this air, fallible wisps of crop and rain. A polite but persistent knock informs her that she’s needed in the mess.
Roughly three hours later, whilst mechanically placing leaflets along the nave, a precipitous disturbance catches Faye’s attention. It’s a brief murmur, swift to rise and immediately flutter into nothing. At the far end, two shapeless shadows have slipped harmonically onto the high porch, an area typically restricted during non-service days.
She saunters towards them, revelling intimately at the possibility of disturbance.
Before she turns the aisle, the sight beyond the open door startles her, and again, she finds herself clinging to consecrated constructs. This time, a magnificently tall pillar bearing the entire southwest expanse of the assembly. Confident that she’s concealed, Faye chances a look.
Both sets of eyes are drawn into a stern urgency, facing none but one another. The woman, blonde waterfall tumbling nearly off the marbled ledge, is entirely rapt. The man, dark ravine of hair tied into a mousy knot, has his hands wrapped around her neck. Both are draped in the massive shade of the structure behind them, and have little concern for the dissolving scenery.
Faye is caught, her flighty blouse melded into the frozen stone.
They’re both speaking.
The man shirks the woman’s obvious apology, instead fastening his grip and clouding the fall in her neck with further reproach. She appears helpless, and her lips curl, foretelling a certain crimson scream. But nothing of the sort happens, and a moment later, he abandons her completely and turns away, gazing agreeably at the sterile landscape further down.
The woman returns to her rustic prince, and kisses him on the cheek, twice, and they embrace.
How can you let him spin you around like that?
Faye marches straight ahead, remembering her place and certain position, gathering nonchalance with every step.
What sort of love?
A nasty pugilist, and his dolt. I can’t believe it.
Ten minutes later, she finishes placing the remaining pamphlets, and leaves the stifling indoors.
* * *
She remains wordless when he comes and claims the seat beside her, at dinner.
At first she isn’t definite. The knot has been untied; that dark hair has been swept sideways in multifarious curls and waves across his forehead. He notices her staring, and smiles at her briefly. She’s taken aback by the fair skin, and that smile.
They never have proper teeth. I guess I’m allowed one oversight.
Immediately, his woman settles on the adjoining seat, beaming.
Southern Belle, and taken asunder by lack of volition. Sad. Should I speak to her, when he storms away?
But Faye never gets the chance; the woman departs the dining hall much earlier than expected. The man stands to leave, too, but halts when Faye suddenly speaks.
“You two arrived yesterday?” she chimes pleasantly.
“Why yes. Did you receive us? I’m sorry I —”
“Oh, no, I’m just a volunteer. I think I heard you go up the stairs after.”
His cheeks turn into picturesque blossoms, and his jaw goes firm.
He’s nervous about the bourbon. She almost grins.
“I’m not going to say anything, if that’s your worry,” she immediately adds.
His veritable relief radiates palpable warmth, but Faye dismisses such naiveté as small-town ignorance. As he pulls back his chair and sits down, she further admonishes him, wordlessly.
“My wife loves the damn circus so much, it’d be horrible if we had to leave with just a few hours to go.”
Faye leans forward, and the top button of her blouse falls open, revealing more than she had most certainly hoped for. She chooses not to change a thing about it, merely brushing an irreverent strand behind her ear.
“How long have you two been together? She’s so radiant, that wife of yours.”
“It’s been two years. Two years last week, actually.”
She shifts, uncomfortably, but his flippant gaze remains unfazed. She mutters superficially about acreage and horseshit for several minutes before finally rising to retire.
“It was lovely meeting you, Miss…”
“Just call me Faye,” she responds, brushing her dress clean of the daily wile—an accessory of the past.
* * *
The next morning, she doesn’t think twice when the horses snort her into consciousness. She simply takes the quarter plate of biscuits on her nightstand and shatters it on the wooden floor—a single impetuous gesture. Crawling across the carpet, she sits at the foot of her bed, ruminating at the floating tents and flags in the distance.
Within minutes, she starts across the farmland, past the stable and post-house. She interacts with no passers-by, or any of the other volunteers—young and blithe conservatives with their tired lives ahead of them. She’s more concerned with reflection, delayed and protracted across days and weeks and hills.
There’s nothing to gain from heedless attraction, Faye.
She blames her anxiety on hunger and after a few hours by herself, returns to a tenuous oasis—the Tower House. Running parallel fingertips along the familiar wooden panelling feels adulterous, but she can’t ascertain why. She arrives at the kitchen, but is barely relieved.
“Hi there,” the woman announces, and Faye decides she’s been cornered.
They exchange saccharine pleasantries; the woman offers Faye soup and crackers.
“My husband mentioned you, from yesterday.”
“He did?” Faye chuckles, displaced.
“Of course! He was floored by how much you knew about Church Hill. We have a farm down, too, nothing this fancy of course…”
“My parents were married here, a long time ago. Tradition, you know how it is,” Faye explains, brimming and disintegrating with every languorous phrase.
“How lovely,” the woman, Georgia, repeats. “How lovely to have met you here. Are you married?”
Faye stares at her plate for an uncomfortable span of time before nodding, and Georgia smiles, positively renewed at the news.
“I met Ray at Church Hill, seven years ago. The boy I was with was terrible news, and poor baby knew nothing better than to beat him senseless. We weren’t allowed in for five years, and I’ve missed it so,” the woman continues.
Faye feels suddenly unsure of too much, and excuses herself. The hallway feels alien, and her steps are fervent, hopeless fatigue infecting every limb.
She stands by the plaintive phone in the second lobby for a long while, before choosing not to call her ex-fiancé to tell him she forgives him.
* * *
Her mother calls before the fair; Ricky has gone to City Hall the very day, but he doesn’t want the ring back. Faye is grateful, but doesn’t reveal she lost the ring the day Ricky ended things.
“The parents have known each other for years, apparently.”
“I know, Mum.”
“Luanne asked us to R.S.V.P., but I told her we’d be out of town.”
“Thank you, Mum.”
“No need, sweetheart. Are you doing okay?”
Faye drops to a whisper, suddenly. “I’m worried I’m not getting any better, and I can’t forgive myself.”
“Faye, I told you not to go there. Should I come get you? First thing tomorrow.”
“No, no, Mum. If you do that—everyone will be convinced of what they’d only guessed, till now. ‘Second-fiddle Faye’. And I can’t deal with that.”
“Oh, come now. Why even care?”
“Because I wasn’t convinced, until now.”
* * *
The fair, she realises, is an elaborate optimistic subterfuge, and has been duping the locals for decades. No alcohol is served; the carousel creaks despairingly (but not for the lack of explosive pomp) and unsupervised children run rampant in concentric circles around Faye—the tempestuous centre of the rollicking façade.
It isn’t long before she finds the couple, arms entwined, waiting for plastic funnel cake.
“Oh, Faye! How do you like the fair?”
Faye glances around, for emphasis, and nods her head. I can’t understand it.
Looking at them together, petite Georgia and immovable Ray, she couldn’t have told.
“Can I ask you for something?” she asks, hopeful.
A few minutes after, Faye clambers into a chipped mechanical teacup and upon swing, twists the top off. Bright lights flash about her, and the city steeps in her lap for an unexpected reunion. She takes a sip, keeping no intention of returning his flask.
In the rumbling crowd, the Southern Belle places a cupped palm on Ray’s cheek, and kisses him.