Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Ballad of Maude Clare: Part One


MAUDE CLARE BEGAN to dream of the dark man with the rabbit's head after her parents died and she left the rainy splendor of Seattle for the cricket-droning summer of Evening, Virginia.
    She woke the next morning in a shabby room cluttered with boxes. She would never again see the apartment where she'd spent sixteen years of her life...never again smell her mom's coffee on Sundays, watch the slant of sunlight across her pink room, hear her dad whistling as he made dinner.
     Grief splintered in her throat like a piece of glass and she swallowed bitterness as if it were blood. She thought of her mom and dad and hoped they hadn't become spirits wandering the highway that had monstrously killed them.
     As she curled around her pillow, her Aunt Olivia walked in and snapped up the blinds. Sunlight burst through the indoor porch converted into an extra bedroom. Her aunt, looking angelic in her white shirt and jeans, turned. "Up, my girl. It's a beautiful day, just for you."
    "I don't want to."
    Her aunt settled on the end of the bed. "Maudie....I hurt too.  Please, just get up."
    Maude swallowed the splinter of sorrow and uncurled in the sunlight. "Okay."

Her Aunt Olivia made a living as a magazine writer and existed in an office cluttered with books and bizarre objects obtained during her travels. Because it was summer and there was no school, Maude didn't know what to do with herself to keep from sinking into the numbness that held her like an insect in amber. Evening was a small town with a main street of tiny shops and not much else.
     Her aunt bought her a bicycle, a Schwinn. She set it in front of the house, and said, Use this.
     One rainy afternoon, as Maude was biking past a rusting Chevy, a rabbit, black as a hole in the world, shot past her, and she sped after it.
     It led her to a field behind a cemetery that looked as if it were an ancient forest of tilted stones and fossilized angels. A weird, lavender glow caressed dandelions and blades of grass and an elaborate dollhouse of black metal set in the field's middle.
     She set her bike down and walked toward the dollhouse, amazed by its thorny intricacy.
     When she stepped on something and felt it shatter beneath her sneaker, she halted. She crouched down, pushed away the grass, picked up a broken frame containing the photograph of a teenage girl in a ballet costume. The broken glass fell as she turned the picture over, found words scrawled on the back. She spoke them quietly, "'She danced and she danced without care, spoke his name as he came from the air, in the shape of an ink-black hare, the prince called Azrael Umare.'"
     A wind rattled the leaves. The air hummed like electrical wires before a storm. She looked up at the dollhouse of ornamental metal and found that it had an occupant -- a child's toy, a rabbit of black velvet with red stitching and button eyes.
    A chill crawled through her as the rabbit seemed to flicker like an old-fashioned film.  She blinked--
     -- and scrabbled back with a hoarse cry.
     A shadow shaped like a boy was crouched in front of the dollhouse, and she could make out the silhouette of its ruffled, old-fashioned clothes. She smelled mold, clover...

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