Nicole Anderson Ellis earned her MFA in Creative Writing at VCU, where she now teaches. Her nonfiction has earned Virginia Press Association’s awards in Environmental Journalism, Investigative Journalism, and Science/Health Writing; and the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip E. Reed Award. Nicole lives in the forest outside RVA.
Nicole Anderson Ellis
Mary closed the door on the rental car, took one step, and threw up.
“Jesus Christ,” the husband muttered, plenty loud for her to hear. She stoop-walked forward, turning her back to the side mirror, stepping on the mud of her own sick, and puked again.
“Seriously,” said the wife. “You can’t say that when we get there. Like, at all.”
“We aren’t there yet, Sarah. We might never get there.”
Mary took a breath, but got exhaust fumes. She gagged, hands on her knees, and shuffled in the dust. Heat rolled down off the steep slope, pooling in the ditch beside the road. Queen Anne’s lace bounced. The Spanish sun boiled water out of Mary’s skin and a bead rolled down her hairline. She tried another breath. Spat. Straightened. She breathed again, squinting up into the olive trees. Her tongue smacked, sour in her mouth. She turned and gazed past the car, over the valley. The groves dotted every hill to the horizon.
“You better now?” The passenger door stood open. The wife leaned out and her hair hung almost to the dry ground.
Mary nodded. “Do you have any water?”
“Uh…I think Max finished it. But we’re super close now.”
Mary slid into the backseat where the air was cool and dim, like water. Max looked up at her, then back to his game. Her eyes fell to the screen, where digital dragons raced through the trees. The motion made the base of her throat spasm. She looked away; straight ahead. A loop of the wife’s pale hair clung to the metal on the head rest. Mary inhaled. Exhaled. The car jerked forward onto the lane.
“Uh, excuse me Sarah, but we’re not supposed to say Jesus,” said the husband.
Mary kept her eyes straight as the car accelerated into a curve.
When they finally stopped and got out, the first thing Mary saw was the sharp turquoise pool. Then the house. Solid. White with caged windows. The tiled roof like tilled red soil. Behind the house rose the slope with its olive rows, and the mountain behind it all.
There were four couples. One child.
“Mary’s our au-pair,” said Sarah.
“Uh, Nanny,” Chris corrected.
Nobody was over thirty. Nobody wore shoes. Everyone held a drink. Only Cooper’s was Coke.
“It’s after noon in Charlotte,” Amy said. She and Cooper were their hosts. He offered Mary a beer.
Sarah said, “She doesn’t need anything.”
Mary said, “May I have some water, please?”
The house was old. “Older than America,” Cooper said.
Chris said, “But they still can’t pave a fucking drive.”
“Chris,” said Sarah.
“Dude,” said Dan.
“It’s okay,” said Dan’s wife, Michele.
Mary carried her suitcase up the dark stairs to the room Amy had assigned; pitch black until Mary found the flat switch and saw three single beds. She put her bag on one, and stood in front of the window. The shutters opened in. The sun got trapped in the tunnel through the foot and a half of wall. Mary had to bend over to look uphill. Shadows moved among the olives. She heard bells.
The grownups sat in a semi-circle of daybeds and wicker in bougainvillea shade. Curtains of decorative netting swelled.
“Mosquito netting makes everywhere feel tropical,” said Clair.
“I’ve always wanted to hang it over our bed,” said Sarah.
“Fairfax never feels tropical,” Chris said.
Mary and Max were the only ones in the sun. The only ones in swimsuits. Max said he didn’t want to race. He didn’t want to do handstands or dive for coins. He wanted to play Marco Polo. So Mary’s voice echoed over the terracotta patio and the hills all around.
They headed to town for dinner at 8.
“That’s early for Spain,” Michele said.
“It’s 3 in the morning in Virginia,” said Chris.
Max begged to go, and Sarah said maybe, but Chris said, “That’s why we got the Nanny.” So Max and Mary brushed their teeth while the grownups got ready. The two of them were in bed, the shutters hiding that it was still light, before the driveway gate even closed. Max cried a bit. Mary joined him, quietly, in the dark.
Mary woke up to the sounds of shouting. Splashing. Metallica on the front terrace, many stone walls away. Dogs barked on some hill.
Max woke Mary the second time by calling for his mom. It was full black in their room, but bright in the kitchen. The oven clock said 10 am. They ate outside. Max wanted to swim, but Mary worried it would be too loud. She went up to their room to grab his game, but it wasn’t charged. She found a checker board, and tried to teach him at a table by the pool. Then she heard it again; the bells. She followed him to the fence.
“Goats,” Max said. “Goats.”
They flowed down out of the grove, their hooves raising dirt like smoke. “Like a cloud,” Mary said. Their musky chaos poured through the straight rows. Powdered earth dulled their hides and horns and teats and bells. A waterfall of bells. Mary looked uphill, expecting a man with a stick and a dog. Maybe just a boy. Someone. Then the last was past them. Dust settled on the leaves. On their lips. Facing off toward where they’d gone, Max softly echoed, “Goats.”
Everyone was up by two. They drank coffee on the veranda.
“Those figs are almost ripe,” said Amy. “We should pick them.”
“They look like testicles,” said Scott.
“Like black testicles,” said Clair.
“Please,” said Michele.
Scott might’ve broken his toe in the pool the night before.
“It’s not broken,” said Cooper.
“It fucking hurts, man.”
“Please,” said Dan. “Guys. Please.”
“It hurts,” said Scott.
They grilled out by the pool, everyone ravenous and grumpy by five. The daylight confused them. So bright. So late. Max and Mary were included at the long table on the terrace. Swallows swooped over the water, tapping ripples with their wings. The mountain ridge glowed behind.
They talked about St. Martens and Wolftrap and high school.
Clair leaned across the table. “Sarah says you study Spanish.”
“Music,” Mary said.
“No shit,” said Scott.
“Scott, please,” said Dan.
“What do you play?” asked Clair.
“Oh. You should’ve brought one,” said Clair.
“The airline lost it,” Mary said.
“And you’re not coming to Cordoba?” asked Clair. “It’s the festival of guitar.”
“I was supposed to,” said Mary.
“There was a misunderstanding,” Sarah said.
It was nearly dark when the bells came. They all crossed to the gate to watch the goats climb. “They go up at night,” Mary whispered to Max. “To feed. When it’s cool.”
Thursday was the show. Everyone rose late and moved quickly.
Mary and Max watched from the terrace shade. The city was two hours away. The concert started at ten pm, but they were going early to shop. Maybe see the Mezquito.
“It used to be a mosque,” Michele said. “But it’s a cathedral now.”
“No swimming,” Sarah told Mary, last minute. “It’s too dangerous, if something goes wrong.” She kissed Max and held him tight, then called back Chris to do the same.
With the cars idling in the lane, Cooper relocked the gate, and long after Mary and Max couldn’t see them anymore, they watched the banner of their dust moving away, above the trees.
They were left with silence. He played Dragon Wood. She half-napped in the shade until his battery died. She plugged him in, and they explored the great room, with its dark beams and shutters so tightly crafted it felt like a basement, even midday. She explained the rules of pool, but Max couldn’t reach high enough really, so they rolled balls at each others’ pockets, which even in the empty house seemed too loud. They played checkers under the vines. The netting drooped. Heat made waves off the terrace tiles. They planned to reheat chicken, but the microwave didn’t work. Mary noticed the oven clock. Power out. Max said they should open every shutter, and light flooded the house, and Mary felt cheerful and naughty; like Maria only in dusty Alps.
“Let’s take a hike,” she said.
The keys lived in the box under the stairway and she let him try each one until the padlock on the main gate pulled loose. They took the trail the goats took, though three rows up Max declared it plenty far. The olive trees were ancient, their trunks split, their bases fattening across the ground, the bark dripped and hollowed, like melted wax.
“Fairy houses,” smiled Mary. “That’s what these trees want.”
They sat criss-cross applesauce on the pale stony soil and at first they worked together, but when they’d used up the twigs within reach, Max broke a branch off the trunk.
“You’ll anger the fairies,” Mary said. So she stood and walked around, gathered sticks and ropey grass from along the lane. Pebbles. “For stepping stones,” she told him. And acorn caps for cups and bowls. Fennel blossoms for bedding. Max covered the feet of one tree with doorways and pathways, and on the next they built a pavilion, for dances, weaving dry grass into a canopy they balanced on half-buried sticks.
“They’ll come from across the valley,” Mary promised. “From all of Spain, and they’ll feast and dance all night.”
“What will they eat?”
Mary spread her arms and Max whispered, “Oh. Olives.” His face and clothes were blanched with dust.
Shadows separated the hills. The mountains leaned, rose gold against the sky. Cool air poured into the valley. They walked along the lane to the spring, where Mary held empty water bottles under the cold and eager flow. Max wanted to carry moss back for the fairies.
“It’s getting late,” Mary said.
The house loomed, dark-windowed and silent; the gate chain felt unnaturally loud as she locked them in. Mary left Max to watch bats swoop over the water. She found candles on the high mantle, but no matches anywhere, so she filled a salad bowl with food and carried it out, where the light wouldn’t end.
“Our own feast,” she said. They ate bread and cold chicken and cheese and cookies. Then it was night.
“Shall we sleep outside,” she asked?
They brought blankets out, and dragged the daybed mattress under the stars. The Milky Way bridged from horizon to horizon.
“Like it’s a city,” Mary said. “And we’re floating above it, staring down.”
The sun awakened them, but only once it had cleared the ridgeline. They’d slept in their clothes, and awoke itchy and already hot. They ate bananas and bread with butter and jam.
“We should swim,” Max said.
“We’re filthy,” said Mary.
“We could wash in the spring,” Max said.
They wore their swimsuits and flip flops and took turns squatting in the frigid pool, but Mary was sweating again before they even made it back.
No breeze came. No grown-ups came. No power. Mary checked for messages, but her screen was permanently black.
“The goats never passed,” Max said.
“Not yet,” said Mary.
No dogs barked.
“Can’t we swim,” Max asked.
“They’ll be home any minute.”
She found a book of fairy tales in Spanish and translated one of them, but it turned out twisted and dark. They picked figs, which smelled sweet, but felt dry and dull on their tongues.
“Do you think the fairies came?” Max asked.
He didn’t ask to go see. No dogs barked. The sun stalled over the hills. The air felt like breath. They ate outside, not sure what to call that meal.
“Sleep out again?” she asked.
He said no.
They went in while there was still light. She locked the front door. The side door. They brushed their teeth, spitting into the dry sink. She locked their bedroom door. He said nothing. They lay on sheets. She sweat. She wondered if she should have locked the gates over the doors. She heard Max moving a long time.
Mary awoke in the dark. She heard nothing. No bells. No dogs. No drunken splashing. No footsteps. She stared into the black, imagining forms.
There were no parents in the morning. No power. Only dry cereal and thinly sliced ham. Max didn’t want to play checkers. When it got hot she said they could swim, but he only shrugged. A moment later he said, “Okay.” Their suits lay, still damp on a lounge chair, and they changed outside, only turning their backs. They walked down the steps in the shallow end, and floated.
“Don’t burn,” she said.
Afterwards they lay, wet and hot in the shade.
Long before dark she asked, “What room shall we claim tonight?”
He looked at the house. “My parents’ room.”
They walked to the spring and back, without talking. She kept her gaze on the mountain, listening hard for goat bells in the grove. She locked the gate. She locked the metal gates over every door.
“When they get home,” she said, “They’ll bang.”
Max found matches in a drawer in the kitchen. They took them upstairs, with all the candles and the food. Mary drew the longest knife from the butcher block. “For the cheese,” she said. They carried one tray each.
“We should close the shutters,” Max said. They went room by room, together. Max carried the candle. It cast shadows under his eyes and chin. Mary slid bolt after bolt, and the house filled with black.
They locked the bedroom door. They sat on the floor with the trays between them. Neither ate.
“We should have brought the checkers,” Mary said.
They climbed on the bed. It was hot. They pulled up the covers and Max pressed his spine to her side.
“What if we open these windows” Mary said.
Max didn’t answer.
“They have the bars on them,” she said, but didn’t move. After a minute she blew out the candle. The only sound was Max’s breath. Mary strained to hear past it, through the wood and walls.
“Do you think there are stars tonight?” Max asked.
“Of course,” she said.
Her muscles were stiff, waiting. Her mouth tasted of metal. She strained for sounds beyond the locked door.
Morning didn’t come.
“Is it day?” Max asked. Mary jerked at the voice. The sound of his weeping made her move to the edge of the mattress, lower her toes into darkness, to the cold marble floor. She moved blindly toward the wall. The room filled with the squeal of hinges and painful light. They squeezed themselves, side-by-side, onto the window’s wide sill and gazed into the silence.
“We can go somewhere today,” Mary told him. “We can walk to a house on the road.”
Max moved his finger tips to the bars.
“They will help us,” Mary said. They will tell us, she thought. Whatever’s happened. They will tell us if it was on the road. Or at the festival. Or something else. Something…wider.
Max’s head moved beside her. Maybe a nod. But he said, “Not today.” And then, quietly, “Not yet. Please.”