Against the Stone and Clouds
Against the Stone and Clouds
By Hilary Hargis
© 2019 by the author
A coat does only so much good, Annie thought, when you leave it in your room.
She leaned against the broad white column, watching the stream of students revolve through the library’s glass doors. They were grouped in pairs and trios, gabbing about Venetian art and dinner and how may chapters were due for tomorrow. Annie watched them with a pang of envy--for the warmth of their coats, for the frivolity of their chatter--but she forced herself to shift her gaze. She was learning not to look too long. With eyes fixed on the tiled floor, she braced herself to circle into the winter afternoon.
The call came from behind her and she turned, scanning the lingering crowd. She caught glimpse of a wide smile in the café line. Gavin was waving her over with his exhibition program. “Stay for coffee?”
She knew Gavin, or at least knew of him. It hadn’t taken her long to pick him out as a fellow foreigner on campus, in the uncanny way that Americans have of finding each other abroad. Annie lifted her program in return and crossed the airy atrium. Coffee was something she understood.
Gavin shifted slightly to make room for her in the queue. “It’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it? That the painting had been in Special Collections all along?” He was at the front of the line now, dropping change into a pocket and stepping back with his fragrant brew.
Annie moved up to the register and placed her order with the auburn-haired student behind the bar. With a burst of steam, the barista pushed Annie’s cup across the counter. Annie blinked as she reached out for the mug in the barista’s hand; she blinked and recoiled.
She’s fine now, Annie chided herself. Whatever happened to her hand, it was ages ago. Her eyes flicked up to the barista’s calm face for reassurance. She doesn’t feel it anymore. Annie put on a smile and gripped her cup to her chest.
Behind her, Gavin was settling in at a small, round table. She collapsed into the firm chair opposite. Taking in the building’s clean stone and clear glass, Annie grasped for something ordinary to say. “Are you studying the exhibition for your course?” she asked.
“No, my Earth Science projects are pretty cut and dry,” Gavin said above his mug. “I came because I’ve always been interested in how artists portray their surroundings. The way Canaletto paints Venice, you can almost hear it, smell it--feel the heat on your shoulders.”
Annie blew across the top of her cup. “Art picks us up in one spot and puts us down in another,” she agreed. “I’m interested too, but in Geography they make you write papers about it. The place in art, the artist in place, and all that.” She smoothed her short ponytail, sighing. “I’ll have to come back; I’d meant to take notes.”
Gavin’s gaze fell on the chair behind her back, gleaming white where his own was draped with a bag and coat. “I’ve hardly seen you without a notebook,” he said.
It was a question, Annie sensed. She pictured her canvas satchel where she’d left it beside her coat. The bag was like an extension of her, and she realized she looked as empty-handed as she felt.
"I ran here,” Annie said. This was all the explanation she intended to give, but catching a glimpse of her sneakers and leggings, she saw that she’d only stated the obvious. “I mean, I hadn’t planned to run here. I thought I would have time to go back to my room and grab a few things. You know, a pen. A coat.”
Gavin laughed. “I can’t say I’ve ever run too far by mistake. Though I suppose if I were to forget to stop running anywhere, it would be here. It’s not like home where you’d eventually run into a cornfield. Here the roads keep twisting, and then when you’re out of twists, you follow the beach.”
The coastline of the North Sea was something wholly other in Annie’s experience. She smiled and stirred her coffee, as if the small waves in her cup could conjure up the Sea’s thundering surf. Running there absorbed her completely. The clouded sky, the steep embankment, and the restless water fused into an intricate monochrome, submerging her in a palette of subtleties. She had forgotten to stop running there, it was true--but that had been another day, when the gray had felt soft and not bleak.
“Where you there today?” Gavin interrupted her thoughts, but seemed to intuit their direction.
“No,” Annie answered, refocusing. “Not today, although I do run there frequently.” She paused. Class and art and running were all benign topics, as she had hoped, but how long did she think she could keep up a routine conversation? She had been clinging to shreds of normalcy, yet she felt her pretense growing thin. “This afternoon I went down to the River Don. Do you know the Brig’o’Balgownie?”
“Of course. It would be a crying shame not to, seeing as we don’t have any medieval bridges on our home turf.”
Annie felt the same way. Since the moment she arrived, she had been soaking up every cobble, hill, and spire, grooming herself as a devoted student of the land. She had never kidded herself that she would belong to this place, but she had expected that someday she would understand it--that Scotland would open up its secrets to her, showing her its hand. Today her efforts had reaped their reward, and she was sickened at her own naiveté. She had not thought that her recompense would be unkind.
Gavin slid his hand across the table. He brushed aside the pieces of the coffee stirrer she had been snapping inattentively. “You were saying, the bridge?”
“The bridge.” She took a breath and picked up one of the jagged wooden shards. “I usually follow the edge of Seaton Park on my way there, and a bit of the way down, there’s this stone house where I stop and stretch out.”
“A stone house? That narrows it down.”
Annie couldn’t suppress a smile. There was a reason Aberdeen was called the Granite City, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of architectural stone. “This house has a blue door and an iron gate curved like a half moon.” Gavin waved her on in pretension, and she continued. “I’ve seen the family that lives there. A couple--the husband must work offshore, and the wife stays at the house with their little boy. I’ve noticed them as I pass by, getting out of the car with groceries, or playing ball in the yard. I nod at the mother as I run by, and she nods back, but today when she saw me, she came straight down to the gate.”
“Was she angry?” Gavin’s brow furrowed. “Maybe she doesn’t like you loitering when you stretch.”
“I don’t think that’s it. She has always been agreeable enough, but today she seemed tense and almost afraid. The way she threw the door open, marching down the walk with her face stern and set. Like there was something she had to do.” Annie chewed a thumbnail, then spoke slowly. “She leaned over the gate and touched my eyes.”
Gavin put his mug down hard. “That’s outrageous.” He paused, gathering steam. “Who does that? Going up to strangers and touching their eyes? I swear--people have such weird fetishes. Did she say anything while she was at it?”
“I didn’t give her the chance. I just took off. I ran away, ran hard, like if I kept moving, this would just be my usual run to the river. But where she’d put her fingers on my eyes, it burned. I don’t know how. I just know that the heat of her hands was overwhelming.” For an instant she felt her feet pounding the cobbles, the wind ripping her lungs, the throb inside her temples. “It finally faded away as I came back up King Street.”
A silence lengthened. The bottom had fallen out of Gavin’s indignation, and he seemed to be searching for a reply. Finally, his features gathered in concern. “If it hurt, let me see,” he said, leaning across the table and taking her chin in his hand.
His gaze was focused and intent as he scanned her face. Annie, subjected to scrutiny, tried to look away, but acquiesced to the rectangular glasses and sandy hair that commanded her field of view. She was struck by the aroma of coffee, but also of something else. Orange peels, she realized.
“Your eyes look red in the corners.” He leaned back, and the cloud of citrus dissolved. “Cry for me.”
“Like, cry you a river?” Annie was suddenly aware of students at nearby tables. “I’d rather skip the song and dance.”
“No, no. I mean, your tear ducts look irritated. Make a tear come out of your eye.”
“I don’t think I can cry on command. Can you?”
“Of course not. I spend a lot of time with rocks, which does nothing for my emotional agility.” He sighed. “How is your vision, at least? When the pain went away, did everything look the same?”
“When I’m just looking around, there’s no difference.” She swirled the dregs at the bottom of her cup, delaying before she continued. “It’s when my eyes are closed that everything looks different.”
Gavin tilted his head. “Like when you shut your eyes after looking at something bright, and then you see it all in reverse. The darks and lights have switched places. ”
“Yes, kind of like that, except--” Annie’s words caught in her throat, yet it was too much to leave unsaid. She placed her empty mug down on the table. “Except it’s all the people that turn dark, and the only spots that turn bright are their scars.”
His cup hovered, tilted in midair, but Gavin’s mind had abandoned his coffee. He traced the tall atrium with his eyes, following the lines of its rippling loops. A wobble of his mug recalled his attention, and he spoke with deliberation.
“We all want to distract other people from our wounds. We want them to look at anything else, anything at all, but not the things that beat us and break us. We simply redirect. A classic Wizard of Oz maneuver,” he laughed dryly, “denying any movement behind the curtain. In the dark, though, it’s like we are all behind the curtain, and we all appear as we really are.”
Annie sat, absorbing his reply. The generosity of his words was not lost on her. Somewhere at the top of the atrium, he had found a way to take her audacious claim and bestow it with depth and poetry. She felt moved and even grateful, but this was not a poetic moment.
She let her eyelids flutter to a close. In front of her, Gavin’s figure faded to a shadowy silhouette. A patchwork of marks began to glow across his darkened form. There were cuts and scrapes of every variety--a litany of childhood hurts, the material record of growing up in a bruising world.
“How did you get that wide scrape across your spine?”
Her eyes were open now, flung wide with the surprise of hearing her own voice. Gavin, whose thoughts had been soaring moments ago, seemed suddenly tethered to his chair. He collected himself quickly.
“Um, it was my older sister. She liked to hold me by the wrists and twirl me around, which I generally quite enjoyed. There just wasn’t a lot of room for twirling on the upstairs landing.”
Annie nodded. The boundary between diversion and harm was often so slim, especially when siblings were involved. She studied him across the table, inspecting his skin. “It’s incredible that the cut along your neck has healed so well.”
“Yes, here.” Boldly, she leaned forward and pushed aside the neckline of his shirt. She drew her finger from behind his trapezius, through the small dent in the middle of his collarbone, and along the clavicle on the other side. “I’m amazed you can’t see a mark at all, with a wound that long and deep.” She stretched his collar open with both hands to get a better view. There, with her fingers splayed across his throat, she felt it before she saw it--the muscles of his neck swiftly stiffening, his chest and shoulders becoming rigid and taut.
Annie let go of his shirt and fell back against her chair. She’d been going on about how wonderfully Gavin had healed, but he was tensing with every word. What was causing him such physical distress? It was almost like he was curling up into a ball, a ball of self-protection. She steadied her hands on the table, fighting realization: her fingers had felt his fear. If the skin on his neck looked untouched, it was with good reason. The worst thing that had happened to him was being flung into a banister. He had never sustained an injury of the magnitude she had seen. Not yet.
“I’m so sorry,” Annie stuttered. “I didn’t mean--”
“You didn’t mean what?” Gavin’s chair tumbled back as he stood and threw on his coat. “You didn’t mean to say I should watch my neck?”
Annie jumped up, stung by his anger and accusation. Gavin swung on his backpack and turned to face her. They stood eye to eye, and he softened.
“Look, Annie--” He found nothing else to say. As the moment slowed, he reached out and placed his thumb on her chin. The gesture was small, but Annie understood that she’d mistaken his anger. It wasn’t doubt or outrage that had driven him from the table; it was the foreboding engulfing him like a flame. He dropped his hand and strode wordlessly across the atrium.
Alone at the empty table, Annie started to cry. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, hot and searing. She cried for his sudden absence, for all the hurts he’d endured, for the pain lying in wait. She cried out of her own bewilderment and betrayal, the shock of being set adrift. As if by some dark art, she had been picked up on Don Street and put down in a place beyond recognition. There were no coordinates for where she now found herself. She cried for a globe turned inside out.
Gavin reached the glass wall of the atrium, and Annie watched as he pushed his way into the revolving door. Partway through, between the library and the falling daylight, Gavin looked over his shoulder and met Annie’s gaze. His face flooded with alarm and his feet stilled. Relentless, the sweeping arm of the door slapped him where he stood. He pressed against it for an instant, willing it to change direction, but the door carried him along and dropped him into the cold afternoon. Gavin hugged his coat about him and paced away, any hesitation dispelled in the damp air.
He turned out of sight, and Annie’s eyes lingered on the stone walk behind him. She examined one paving stone and then another. In her reluctance to turn away, she came to see that she was listening. Would there be a screech of tires, a blare of sirens? A clamor on the walk as witnesses rushed to help? She knew everything, yet nothing. If this was not the day, it would come tomorrow, next week, in five or thirty years. His life was now in the twilight.
And what of her own? She drew her eyes back over the paving stones, back to the door and to the glass façade. Shifting her focus to the glass, she saw herself reflected against the stone and clouds--slight, wiry and lean, dressed in leggings and a pullover, short hair pulled back, and cheeks burned black with scalding tears. Annie held her breath, on the cusp of knowing.
Breathing out, she closed her eyes.