The Wife of Michael Cleary

The day before the party, Valerie asked her boyfriend Andrew to buy her a book.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. It was Andrew who volunteered to get Valerie a book, and in the end he bought her two.

“I know tomorrow’s going to be hard for you,” he said. “Is there anything I can get for you? Just a little thing to pep you up a bit?”

That’s how he remembered that moment, his phone cradled against his shoulder as he pulled out of the Stop-N-Shop parking lot (he’d forgotten mustard and paper plates, both of which he was supposed to bring to the party). But what he actually said was: please let me get you something that will make you feel better.

Valerie, though she didn’t seem like it at times, was a sensible girl, sensible enough to know that nothing Andrew bought her would make her feel better. Andrew knew this, and asked anyway.

“Just please come,” she said. Her voice trilled weakly as she stopped. Andrew could tell from her tone that she was eaten up with fear that for some reason—a flash flood or a mudslide, or a more mundane car accident—he wouldn’t come to the party. Her voice contained a profusion of disasters.

“Val, come on.” He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone while driving, and as a cop car lazed past him he stuffed the phone into his crotch. He shouldn’t have called her Val—he only called her that when he was mad at her, which wasn’t often, and he wasn’t mad at her now. He was mad at himself. Not for the mustard and the plates, that would come later. He was a bit stupefied by his uselessness; he always thought of himself as a resourceful, bootstraps type, thought that he could fix what needed fixing like it was an economics problem set, but he couldn’t help Valerie and that frosted him.

“Please, Valerie,” he said when the cop car was safely out of sight. “It would make me feel better, anyway. How about a book?” Andrew was always buying Valerie books, after a lucky guess led to him to a volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a six-month anniversary gift. Valerie’s euphoric reaction led to more books for more occasions: The Works of Edmund Spenser for Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s Tour Through Parts of Wales for her birthday. Andrew had a vision in his mind of a wedding present, something extravagant and rare. The collected writings of somebody or other. Gilt pages, an embossed title page with gold lettering. He would have to do a little more research. Of course, he couldn’t tell Valerie this, especially now. Any talk of the future made her fold up into a sharply creased little packet, unopenable even to the most skillful fingers.

He could almost hear her biting her lip through the phone. That was her nervous habit, one of many. Andrew sometimes marveled that she hadn’t chewed right through it, that he couldn’t see her bottom teeth when she closed her mouth.

“A book would be nice,” she said finally.

“I’ll bring you two,” Andrew declared, feeling manful and tough for a moment. “I can stop at that used bookshop you like, the one that Mandy’s cousin owns?”

Valerie sighed. She was also sensible enough to know that there was no point in arguing with Andrew, or at least that was why Andrew thought she was sighing. “All right,” she said. “Just—make sure you’re here. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

The next morning, Andrew set out for Valerie’s house in Masonville with a little package of books next to him on the front seat. The mustard and the plates, which he had remembered as soon as he pulled into his driveway and had returned to Stop-N-Shop to buy, sat on the floor in the back. The morning had begun with a spiritless, clammy spring rain, but by the time Andrew turned south onto Route 63 the sun had burned away the early murk and the blacktop gleamed, slick as sealskin.

Andrew’s parents lived in Ashford, about forty-five minutes from Valerie’s house; he was home on Easter break, technically, though no one in his family celebrated Easter. He and Valerie hadn’t met—and he had never given Masonville much thought—until they both went to college in Rochester and he saw her the winter of freshman year, the first day of second semester. They were in the basement of the cafeteria, which had been a bar before the school half-heartedly turned it into a coffee shop. Andrew never went down there, if he could help it—the place still smelled like stale beer when the air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was too dingy a room for studying. His engineering textbooks could be dreary enough as it was. But Valerie liked it. She told him that it was empty and quiet, quieter than the library on most days, and she liked to pretend that she was hidden away inside the bowels of an ancient monastery where no one could find her. Andrew would discover that Valerie liked the idea of entombment, but not until much later.

It was her fingers that had pulled him in—not literally, although he probably wouldn’t have resisted if they had. He couldn’t remember why he had gone to the coffee shop that day—caffeine to get him through the afternoon? Some kind of premonition?—but nevertheless he was there, with a chewy bagel pocked with burn marks and a café au lait. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see her face or her yellow-white hair (though he would, eventually, when he craned his head around to get a better look at her, like a schoolboy who had just realized he could be interested in the alien creature girl); he could only see two delicate arms in a pale pink sweater, and two long hands, hairless, with arched fingers that bent gracefully at the knuckle and delicate, square nails. They moved elegantly, quickly, folding and unfolding like crane legs over the keys of her laptop. He had never been so taken in by someone’s fingers. He thought about how it would feel to put his mouth on them, and then he was mortified at himself, though not enough not to ask her name and sit down with her. It was his only moment of competence with the opposite sex, ever, and Valerie wasn’t any better; she was his first girlfriend, and he was her first too.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. He had never quite become used to her delicacy, her smallness, could never quite shake the instinct to protect her, whether or not she wanted it—or needed it. The first time they had sex, following some poorly proportioned vodka cranberries about a month after the day in the coffee shop, he was afraid he would crush her; she finally had to wrap her slender fingers around his wrists and pull him down on top of her, crimson with impatience.

*     *     *

There wasn’t much to the village of Masonville: two parallel roads, a school, a motorcycle shop, a dry goods store run by a family of Mennonites, and no less than four pizza parlors. Valerie’s family lived on the village’s only dead-end street, three doors down from an abandoned paper mill that sagged under the snow and the wind in winter, and wilted under the brutal sun in summer. The village had recently torn up the railroad that used to connect the paper mill with the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The railroad ties stood stacked across the street from Valerie’s house in a perfect cube, like an ancient monument whose sacred purposes were guessed at but not known. A fairy mound. A phrase Andrew had learned from Valerie, from some book of mythical places she had, or perhaps it was a calendar, one of the page-a-day ones with Celtic knots and foggy seascapes, she had hundreds of those. She was forever teaching him things; though she would never say it, Andrew knew that she resented, on some level, his ironclad belief that the world was fundamentally understandable through physics and mathematics, that little messes could be put right and lumpy edges smoothed out. The only time Valerie had been even slightly interested in Andrew’s work was during his class on Boundary Value Problems. She saw rough and wild borderlands, fens and swamps and things. Boundaries of a more romantic sort. Andrew didn’t have the heart to explain differential equations and Dirichlet’s principle to her.

Andrew parked his car along the road; most of the other guests had already arrived. The party was conveniently timed to celebrate a lot of things at once: Easter, Valerie’s impending college graduation, her father’s 60th birthday, Mother’s Day. It didn’t make any sense, Valerie’s mother said, to have a separate party for each of them, it was so hard to get the cousins to come up from Utica in the first place and as long as they were here you might as well do it all at once. Mrs. Garret met Andrew when he reached the mailbox and said these things to him while she took his plastic bag; someone was already asking after the mustard, as if they couldn’t just wait a damn minute, the food wasn’t even ready yet, she said.

“But thank you for this, dear.” She unscrewed the top of the mustard and took the seal off with her teeth.

Whenever he looked at Mrs. Garret, Andrew couldn’t help but think of nutmeg. There was no reason for it, really, but nevertheless. Her dark brown hair curled in a bob near her chin, her skin tanned to leather, a khaki skirt tightly belted a bit too short. She was round in a pleasant way, with full calves and a nice rack and a tiny waist, almost the opposite of Valerie, who was thin and boyish to the extreme, neutered almost. Valerie wasn’t like either of her parents. Her father was bulbous and pink with popped blood vessels; tufts of brownish hair stuck out over his ears like an ostrich. He worked as a construction consultant, ripping the asbestos out of people’s houses, and he was as broad and boxy as his wife was round and sultry. Valerie had two older brothers too, both of them beefy and calloused like their father, with buzz cuts to boot. The older one, Mike, was in the army, flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. The younger one, Matt—though Andrew had trouble telling them apart sometimes, because of the buzz cuts—worked for his father, fighting the asbestos. Andrew often thanked his stars that he wasn’t a philosophy major or something equally pathetic—the Garret men respected engineering.

Valerie was the imp of the family, the changeling. That was another word Andrew had learned from her—before Valerie, he had never stopped to think about whether or not trolls would steal your baby if it wasn’t baptized, or whether a small, sickly child in an otherwise healthy family could be of fairy stock. She told him stories when they lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of the heat, of people who were so convinced their child was a fairy hundreds of years old, sent to do them mischief, that they would hang the wretch over the fire or leave him out on piles of manure in the winter. It drew out their magic, or at least that was the theory.

“They believed sometimes that the child was just a piece of wood, ‘a fetch’ they called it, that had been enchanted,” Valerie said. She ran her fingers up and down Andrew’s stomach, which he suddenly wished was more defined. “The spell upon the wood caused the child to appear to sicken and die, so the family would never guess that their real child was taken. They would assume it died under their care, and then bury it. When it was buried, it would turn back into wood. There were no bones.”

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

Valerie sighed, her usual sigh when Andrew completely missed the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand this time; he willfully misunderstood. It was too gloomy, thinking about those poor superstitious people, wearing clothes made of burlap, always covered in dirt from picking rutabagas or whatever peasants did in the old days, roasting their babies alive on spits. Coming up with excuses as to why their children starved to death when there wasn’t enough to eat. That’s what most of those stories were, anyway, just a way to explain the hideousness of human suffering.

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

“There was comfort in it,” Valerie said after a moment.

“In what?”

“In magic.” She shifted her weight so that she no longer touched Andrew’s sticky side, and stared up at the ceiling. “What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child. If your child was dying, or you were dying, wouldn’t you rather think it was because of the fairies?”

*     *     *

She was wearing blue. It was her color; it suited her, though her eyes were green. There was something about that blue, robin’s egg and sky and forget-me-not, and her yellow-white hair. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it had something to do with the color wheel, Andrew was never good with that stuff. Every time he saw her wearing that blue, he imagined she was a provincial milkmaid, gathering flowers on a French hill. Untainted.

“It’s not a good time to tell them.” Her face was flushed pink and sweat had formed on her upper lip. She actually wrung her hands, like a nurse in a World War II movie at the bedside of her wounded soldier-fiancé. “There’s already been a fire on the grill, and the Utica cousins are fighting. Everyone’s angry.”

Andrew had been afraid of this, that she would back out. “You’ve got to tell them, hon.”

“I could let the doctor call and tell them. Right now he hasn’t because of confidentiality laws.”

“Would you want to hear news like that from someone else?”

She bit her lip. His insides shook to see her like that, so afraid. He didn’t want to feel like he was yelling at her. “No, of course not,” she said. “It’s just—complicated.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go inside and you can open your presents.” He held out his bundle, wrapped in brown paper and twine. He had chosen this combination himself in the bookstore, hoping it looked earthy or woodsy or something like that. Intriguing, at any rate. He knew she would be less excited if he gave them to her in a gift bag.

They took an obligatory walk around the house to the backyard, to greet everyone and be seen before they ducked inside. Mr. Garret waved them over to the grill with a burly hand. Though his wife was by far the better cook of the two, he always insisted that she put him in charge of the grill, lest his man-pride be dented; the burgers and hot dogs, and the occasional Italian sausages were usually blackened on the edges and undercooked in the middle.

“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Mr. Garret said, taking Andrew’s hand and crushing it. He paused to yell at one of the littler Utica cousins, who was chasing around his brother with the seed spreader. “Your mother’s family,” he said to Valerie. “I don’t know why we even invite them.” She smiled tremulously at him and he melted, wrapping his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. Andrew knew that feeling; when Valerie gave him that little smile, he felt like sap was running down his front, warm and gummy. Though he supposed her father felt something different.

“My little queen bean,” he said. “You’re not going to leave your old man alone with them, right? You’re always going to be here with me?”

The breath hitched in the back of Andrew’s throat.

What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said in a small voice. “I’ll always be here.”

Andrew would like to say he wrapped his arm around her, comforted her somehow, took her hand at least, but he didn’t. He stood rooted in place, gawky and arms akimbo (another one of Valerie’s favorite words). She shivered and looked down.

“You’re going to have to fight me for her,” Mr. Garret said, waving the grill tongs at Andrew like a sword.

“The sausages are burning, Mr. Garret,” Andrew said finally. To Valerie he said: “We should probably go inside.”

These weren’t connected thoughts, but they worked well enough as an excuse. Mr. Garret turned to focus on putting out the fire, and Valerie and Andrew slipped away. As they turned back towards the house, Andrew glanced at the road over his shoulder. The stack of railroad ties stood solid and black in the distance, a portent of grave happenings, a somber warning.

Andrew wished that they were telling Valerie’s parents that she was pregnant. How much gentler that would be, for them. She would graduate college in time, with a degree, he could put off grad school for a few years and get a job to support them. A good job, engineers earn good salaries. It would be hard but it would be bearable. He would take the brunt of it, from the Buzz Cut Brothers. You knocked her up? they would say. You knocked up our baby sister? Knocked up, as if he had punched her around. As if he would ever be violent with her.

It was a wild daydream, of course, a fantasy that would make most twenty-one-year-olds shrivel up with dread. What Valerie was actually telling her parents had nothing to do with Andrew. She had to tell them that she was sick, which they knew, or at least they knew part of it. She had had pneumonia in March, right around spring break, so bad she had wound up in the hospital. Andrew had stayed in Rochester for break, bringing her things to read, amusing her, sneaking in some chocolate. He hadn’t had any plans, anyway—he couldn’t afford to go anywhere worth going. And it wasn’t so bad—pneumonia was unfortunate, but at least the doctors had caught it early. Caught it, like the infection was a hog running rampant, scaring the chickens and knocking over fences that someone needed to jump on and tie. A wild thing that could be controlled. But at least they could treat it, and Valerie could come home after her lungs were clear. She hadn’t even missed class, which would have bothered her.

This was as much as her family knew, that she had been in the hospital for a little and then gotten better. What they didn’t know was that she had continued going back for tests. The doctors were concerned. That was the word they used, concerned. The nurses took a liking to Valerie when she was in the hospital, it was hard not to, she was so otherworldly, such a sprite. They liked to whisper about her in the hallway, when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. So sad, the rest of her life, they said. She’ll never be able to have kids. Life expectancy of fifty years, if that. Such a shame. This was only after they finally diagnosed her, of course—at first they thought it was lung cancer, and that was terrifying enough. Valerie couldn’t sleep; she spent nights in Andrew’s room, lying stiff as a starched sheet in his arms, her green eyes wide and wet.

Cystic fibrosis had come out of left field, or at least it had for Andrew. He thought that was something that only babies got. Valerie was in her twenties. She had hosts of other health problems to worry about in the near future, possible disorders which she could start exhibiting signs of now, but she should have been past CF. That was all Andrew could think about the first few days after she told him. He couldn’t have been much help, he realized later; he was too befuddled, in too much shock. He still was now, in a way. She continued going in for tests and treatment, without telling her parents. When the bill came for the services, Valerie told them that it was follow-up for her pneumonia, and the insurance company paid for most of it anyway. She assured her parents that she was better, and they had no reason not to believe her. For the first few weeks when she kept the news from everyone, even Andrew, and he hadn’t expected a thing.

The doctor sat her down at the beginning of April and told her that her siblings should be tested, because they were at risk too. Even if they hadn’t exhibited signs yet, they could have CF, lurking somewhere like an eyeless monster, ready to strike. Ready to sting. Especially, the doctor said, your brother in the armed forces. He was the most at risk, because there was nowhere to get CF treatment in the Afghan mountains.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said, as they sat across from one another in the hospital cafeteria. The more time Valerie spent in the hospital, whether for tests or consultations or anything, the more Andrew ate. He had a piece of lasagna, two breadsticks, a bowl of scalloped potatoes, green beans and corn, and a brownie on the tray in front of him. Valerie had only tea.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“You might live long enough for them to find some cure.” Andrew didn’t know who would find it—he assumed there were scientists, somewhere, working on it, fiddling with pipettes full of liquid, or growing yeast in petri dishes, or doing whatever pharmaceutical researchers did. He knew his answer didn’t touch what was so upsetting Valerie, and he didn’t know how to get there.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Valerie rubbed the outside of her teacup, massaging the hot porcelain like she was trying to break it apart in her hands. Crack it open and read the omens written there. It was as good a way as any, Andrew thought, to work through this problem. It was better than anything he had suggested. Maybe there was comfort in it.

*     *     *

The Garrets’ living room was the ugliest room Andrew had ever seen, worse than some of the apartments he had lived in during college. He had a hard time believing that Valerie’s saucy mama would let a room in her house remain decorated in such a way, but in the almost four years he had known Valerie, barely anything about the room had changed. The same faded lace curtains hung in front of the windows, the same garish pink floral couches stood in front of the outdated TV, the same mottled brown carpet, not shag but something close, displayed dubious stains from bygone years underneath his feet. Someone had arranged a collection of ceramic figurines on a shelf above the TV—Andrew remembered Valerie once saying that they belonged to her grandmother—but they were too tacky to be worth much. Andrew always felt sticky when he left the room, like there had been tape on his skin that left a residue behind after it was removed.

Valerie sat down on one of the detestable sofas and Andrew set the bundle of books in her hands. She breathed in and out, as if steeling herself for something sad, something trying. The first book she opened was The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers. That was a stretch on Andrew’s part; he had held it in his hands for close to fifteen minutes before finally deciding to buy it. What had sold him on it was the dark violet ribbon slid in between the book’s creased pages, to mark the reader’s place. That was something Valerie would appreciate. It looked old and ethereal, a little enigmatic, just like her. Of course now he felt like an idiot, sitting next to her in the cramped living room as the smell of the grill wafted in from the backyard. The lace drapes, the barbecue, the ugly brown carpet—these were concrete things, real things, parts of her life that were tangible, or at least more tangible than a book about plants. He couldn’t imagine what her parents would think, when they stared down at this ridiculous collection of drawings, lovingly but somewhat uselessly captioned in calligraphy. Agapanthus africanus, the Lily of the Nile. La Ville de Bruxelles, a necessity for any rosarium.

“Open the next one,” he said, a little breathlessly. Was he sweating? How stupid it all was. It wasn’t like the next book was going to be any better. He had tried to get closer to what he knew Valerie liked with the second one—a book of Norwegian folktales in a new translation. She was the one who had taught him that there were different kinds of fairy tales. He had assumed there was one version of a story that had existed forever, and that everyone more or less knew it if they watched the Disney movie. But apparently there were lots of different kinds of stories—the original source material, which in most cases had been lost, and then the accounts by Europeans going out into the hinterland and “discovering” the stories, which Europeans seemed to think they did a lot. And then a lot of the tales were adjusted for children, and given morals, and most of the gore was taken out—the ogre mothers-in-law, the rampant cannibalism. Then there were knock-offs and rewrites and retellings, and the movies, which was where Andrew came upon them first.

“Didn’t anyone read to you when you were little?” Valerie had asked, her green eyes wide with what could have been pity. Of course someone had read to Andrew. His parents were great believers in the Power of Education. But he remembered the Berenstein Bears and Clifford, none of the grisly stories of boys being roasted and eaten and girls dancing to death that Valerie treasured so much. He thought of his mother, overworked and always dieting, sitting down on his bed with her bathrobe plastered to her and her make-up removed so her eyes puffed up like bread dough, reading to him from the Brothers Grimm. It wouldn’t have happened. He liked Thomas the Train books, and Sesame Street. No one had ever told him about changelings, until Valerie.

“They’re beautiful, Andrew, both of them,” she said. He had never felt more helpless.

She held on to the flower book; the book of fairy tales ended up on the floor. Andrew knew it made sense, somehow; he had been wrong earlier, flowers were real things, they could be planted in the earth, and afterward you could see the remains of the dirt on the creases of your palms. She ran her fingers along the corners of the book, her long, lovely sylph’s fingers—sylph, yet another one of Valerie’s words—and pressed down on the cover so hard the tips of her fingers turned white. Andrew was seized with the urge—seized, like his walls were overrun by a foreign desire, invaded—to take her hands and kiss them, to crush the palms to his lips and run the fingers in and out of his mouth.

A distraction, merely. There wasn’t anything substantive he could do anymore, besides make her forget sometimes. That’s what the books had been too, a diversion, like magazines at the dentist’s office to take your mind off the wait. Taking your mind off. He imagined drilling into her head, cutting off the top of her cranium and lifting the pulsing pink mass underneath it out. In a way, they were also a bribe. Giving a dog a treat when it fetches a stick.

“I’m glad you like them,” he said finally.

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“You know,” she said quietly, “it wasn’t just the simple people, the medieval cowherds and ignorant swains who believed the fairy stories. As late as the nineteenth century, there were incidents. An Irishman killed his wife because he thought she was a changeling. In front of witnesses. He didn’t even go to jail.”

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“Come on, Val, you know that’s not—”

“There was a children’s rhyme about it.” Valerie hugged The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers against her chest. “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” A hysterical, shrieking laugh bubbled up from her throat and burst into the room. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound vanished into the air as soon as it was emitted—and yet it hung there, tangled in the drapes and soaking into the ratty carpet, bouncing off the figurines. It was a big, ugly blister of sound. To Andrew, that horrible, horrible screech was now indelibly lodged into his gut, and would be forever.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” Mr. Garret stood in the doorway. Behind him, Mrs. Garret held a tray of hotdog buns.

“Valerie?” said Mrs. Garret.

Andrew thought about taking her hand then, but he didn’t want to feel how badly she was trembling. He sat apart from her, his hands on his lap, while she, the fairy child, shrank before his eyes, shrank and shrank until she would leave no bones to bury.

C. Moran HeadshotCaitlin Keefe Moran has written for The Iowa ReviewPost Road, Pleiades, and The Toast. She graduated from Boston College and now lives in New York City.