Only You Will Find Me
by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When he set out for the bamboo grove the following Saturday afternoon, the weather was less inviting, not as windy but a good deal colder, with a bleak sky and a feeling of imminent rain, maybe even sleet or snow. Today the bamboo seemed openly hostile to exploration, its shade, in the absence of sunlight, already edging toward dark.
He looked around for Elspeth, but she appeared to have forgotten about their meeting, which disappointed but didn’t surprise him. He walked around the border of the grove, peering at different points into the closely ranked culms, looking for some well-beaten path that might lend credence to her story of a house hidden inside this dungeon of giant grass, eventually stopping at the foot of a massive tulip poplar tree on the back side where the woods began, much taller than the bamboo, its bare branches hooked into the lowering sky.
He was adjusting to the unnatural quiet of this place when something made him turn and look behind him. Far back in the bamboo, he saw Elspeth Waldron dressed in the same clothes as the week before. She was both embracing and leaning against a thick culm as if she were too weak to stand up, her eyes closed, her white, sunken cheek resting against the immaculate green surface.
He resisted his first impulse to call out and merely stared, distressed by the sight of her unguarded exhaustion. She seemed even thinner and more anemic than she had the week before, sick-looking, really, and it occurred to him for the first time that she might be homeless. He felt a spasm of self-disgust as he realized that the idea excited him.
Then she opened her eyes and, picking her way through the bamboo, approached him with her gliding, long-legged gait as if nothing had happened. He waved and smiled; she did neither, just stood, as seemed to be her habit, well away from him, her arms hanging listlessly at her sides, and stared at him.
She rarely blinked, he noted, greatly augmenting the intensity of her large brown eyes. There was a quality about her he’d never encountered before: an almost spiritual disregard for the comforts and vanities of the flesh. She seemed completely indifferent to her own body.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Alan,” she said, in the same droning voice as before.
He was shocked, not just that she remembered his name, but at how much pleasure it gave him to hear her speak it. “I’m glad you came, Elspeth,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I said you’d see me again if you wanted to.”
“I did want to,” he said, both exhilarated and confused by the suddenness of his feelings. “Very much.” He took a step toward her, then stopped, feeling, in spite of the wonderful things she was saying, that the strangely apathetic tonelessness of her voice, as if, he thought, she were autistic and incapable of expressing her emotions emotionally, remained, for the moment at least, a defensive barrier to intimacy. She might not want to be touched, or at least not touched too soon and, by him, perhaps not at all. He decided to keep a respectful distance until she signaled otherwise.
“I couldn’t stay away,” he said, trying to rein in his growing excitement. “How did you know how I felt, Elspeth? I hardly knew myself.”
“We’re both lonely. That’s why we can talk to each other. No one else but you could have found me.”
“I’m glad I found you. It’s been so long since... But listen, are you all right?” he asked, now feeling that he had the right to be concerned about her. “You seem... unwell.”
“How about hungry?”
She shook her head. “Not anything. Just here.”
“Well, aren’t you cold? You look under-dressed.”
“These are my clothes,” she said, without a trace of irony.
“All of them?” he asked, smiling.
“We’ll have to see what we can do about that.”
“Don’t. Don’t think about anything else but being here with me.”
“All right, I won’t. I promise. But are you sure about this, Elspeth? I’m much older than you are.”
“I want you, Alan,” she said, in the same tone of voice as if she’d said, ‘Pass the salt.’ “Only you. But it would be wrong not to warn you: my parents won’t approve.”
“Well, if I were your father, I might feel the same way. An older man interested in his daughter... it’s only natural that your parents would have qualms.”
“There’s nothing natural about my family,” she said. “They want me here with them, taking care of them, forever. You’ll be seen as a threat. We’ll have to be careful.”
“Yes. All right.”
“It’s time to show you where I live.”
She turned and headed into the bamboo. Too curious to back down but wrestling nearly as much with doubts as with desire for this strange girl and the whole business of a house, he followed. There were places where the culms were all healthy and growing so closely together that even someone as thin as she was couldn’t proceed, and other areas where enough of the stalks had died back to allow passage, and by a circuitous path, full of backtracking and detours, they slowly found their way into the heart of the grove. The light was as dim as dusk here, though it was only four-thirty.
It was a day of surprises: there really was a house, hidden in the approximate center of the grove: a two-story, red brick, fifties-style suburban house with a big bay window, a chimney and a carport, under which a long, low, apparently ancient Chrysler rusted under many layers of dirt and mold, as if it hadn’t been driven in years.
But any pretense to the ordinary ended when he saw how hemmed in and besieged by the bamboo the house was. The culms, some of them six inches in diameter, grew right up to the walls on all sides, towering menacingly over the roof and making what had been the yard as dark as the deepest wood. The roof was mossy and mildewed, the sagging gutters full of dry bamboo leaves and little branches.
The house seemed to him as moribund and neglected as a forgotten prisoner left to rot in the uttermost cell of a dungeon. It gave him an eerie feeling, looking at it, as if there were something fundamentally wrong about the mere existence of this house and, by extension, everyone in it. Elspeth had stopped and crouched low when the house came into view, motioning for him to do the same.
“My father is shut up in his room until late at night,” she said in a low voice. “And my mother is probably sleeping on the couch in the den. My brother hardly ever leaves his room. If we’re quiet, no one will hear us. We’ll go straight upstairs to my room.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” he asked. “I mean, isn’t bringing me into your home sort of, well, brazen?”
“In my room, we can be alone together,” she said, almost in a whisper, her big, starved eyes staring deeply into his. “You want that, don’t you?”
“More than anything. But I have a house, too, not far from here. We could go there, and your parents wouldn’t have to know.”
“Nobody ever knocks on anyone else’s door,” she said. “We live like strangers under the same roof.”
He couldn’t fail to notice how, once again, she seemed to ignore or discard anything he said that she couldn’t use, as if certain verbal cues activated a response but others didn’t.
“All right, Elspeth,” he said, “if you’re sure.”
“It’s my sanctuary. I want to share it with you.”
They approached the house from what had been the back yard, squeezing between massive culms that had colonized every square foot of ground between the property line and the screened-in porch. The screens were torn and hanging loosely in places; in others, they were nearly opaque from the mildew flourishing in the permanent shade. She opened the screen door quietly and held it open for him, then eased it closed.
On a small outdoor table between two rotting wicker chairs, there was a dusty martini pitcher and two dirty glasses. She opened the sliding glass door, and they entered the house. It was very dark and appallingly dusty and cluttered, as if no one had cleaned it for months, if not years and, as he’d expected, given the lack of sunlight, the still, rather chilly air was heavily laden with that most hopeless of old-house smells: mold. He could almost see the spores floating in the air, feel them settling on his skin, entering his lungs.
The silence was deathly: not even a clock ticked, and no air flowed through the central heating vents. In the corner of the room languished the desiccated remains of a still-decorated Christmas tree, left over from God knew what Yuletide season.
Elspeth held out her hand as if inviting him to take it but, instead, motioned for him to follow her through the living room to a stairway leading to the upper floor, where they tiptoed down a gray-carpeted hallway to the room at the end. Taking a key from her pocket, she unlocked the door and stood aside for him to enter, then closed and locked the door behind them.
She didn’t switch on the light, and what little of the fading daylight managed to filter through the grimy sash window was insufficient for more than a cursory inventory of the room’s contents. There was a double bed, a dresser, a small desk with a chair, a great pile of dimly perceived bags and boxes spilling out from the closet, and some posters on the wall.
The only one he could see clearly enough to identify was closest to the window: a creased, black-and-white poster of the Beatles, dressed in their narrow-lapeled suits, hands resting on one another’s shoulders in joyful camaraderie, their mass-produced signatures, complete with a different ingratiating sentiment, inscribed over each smiling member of the Fab Four.
As his eyes adjusted to the near-darkness, Alan realized what he was seeing: an exquisitely detailed re-creation — as if it had been mounted by a museum of American culture — of a teenaged girl’s bedroom, circa 1965. But of course this wasn’t a museum; it was Elspeth’s “sanctuary,” and he was her guest.
“Very cosy,” he said, nodding as he looked around the small, crowded space. “I like it.” There was a definite chill in the unpleasantly musty air.
She put a finger to her lips to signal quiet, then stepped to the middle of the floor, and facing him with the same probing, serious expression, began to undress. His mouth was dry as he watched her methodically stripping herself naked in the expiring light, revealing a small-breasted, sun-starved, pitifully thin if well-formed body, with bony hips, concave belly and an all-too-prominent ribcage.
He knew that he should be undressing, too, but he didn’t dare move, afraid of breaking whatever spell was being cast in this dim room of a house he hadn’t believed in, inhabited by three other people as yet unseen and certainly unheard.
She closed her eyes and held out her long, bony arms. He quickly stripped off his coat, flannel shirt and long-sleeved undershirt. Now shivering in the cold, he stepped forward and enclosed her icy body in a tight embrace.
“I’m yours, Alan,” she whispered, her chilly lips moving against his ear. “There never has been, never will be, anyone else.”
“Dearest.” He was enraptured, not only by how quickly her body warmed against his and, in spite of the robotic absence of emotion in her voice, how ardently she clutched at him, but by the dream-like speed at which all this was happening.
That part of himself that always watched the rest of him doing and saying things but never took part, knew full well that everything that had happened today, since the moment Elspeth said, “I’ve been waiting for you, Alan,” was wrong, mad, hopeless. Had this stranger, whom he’d just called “dearest,” really told him that she was a virgin? Yes, said the Watcher inside, looking on in dismay, she had. Shouldn’t it give him pause, at the very least, that a fifty-one year-old, unhappily divorced man was well on his way to deflowering a probably autistic virgin that he’d spoken to exactly twice, in her own bedroom in a house in which both parents and a brother were present?
But they were on her bed now and, never in his life, certainly not with Sarah, had he felt himself so wholly, desperately drawn into the depths of intimacy. Nothing would ever move him more, he knew, than her complete surrender, and nothing ever again would taste as sweet as her kisses.
Since the moment she had spoken to him in the grove, he’d lost his bearings and neither knew nor cared what time it was when they finally lay quietly together; a musty blanket and their tightly locked bodies were their only protection against the cold.
And then, suddenly, it was over. “You have to leave now, Alan,” she said. “I have... duties.”
“I know. I’ve been putting it off. Do you have a flashlight?”
“No. I’ll have to lead you out of the grove. But you must come back to me very soon. Say you will.”
“I will. Do you think I could stay away? But why risk getting caught, darling? Why not come live with me? You’re a grown woman. It’s past time for you to leave home. Your family will accept it, once they know they can’t do anything about it. I can’t keep sneaking in here; you know we’ll get caught, eventually. But can you imagine how happy we’d be, together in our own house?”
She covered her face with her hands. “I can’t. It’s too much to take in. You don’t know my family. The hold they have over me.”
“Their hold over you is only as strong as you allow it to be.”
“I do love them, Alan. Please understand that. But they’re folding in on themselves, dying a little more every day, and they want to take me into the grave with them. I’d almost lost hope for a life of my own... until I saw you.”
“Pack a bag right now, Elspeth, and come with me. Please. This isn’t a healthy place, for you or anybody. But once you get away from here and back into the light, you’ll start to bloom again. I’m sure of it.”
“It isn’t as simple as just packing a bag.”
She gently disengaged herself from his arms, got up and began to dress, and so did he. In a few moments they were tiptoeing downstairs and, as they were crossing the living room toward the sliding glass doors, he flinched at the sound of glass breaking. It came from the downstairs den, followed by an older woman’s booming, deep-chested curse.
It was very cold outside, and the darkness in the grove was all but complete. He anticipated a stumbling, painful slog, but she clearly knew the best ways in and out of the grove and, taking his hand, she led him back to Dunworthy Road in a very few minutes.
He pulled her close to him and kissed her.
“I have to go,” she said. “They’re expecting dinner soon. I leave it on the stove. We haven’t eaten together in years.”
“Look, darling,” he said, pointing up the dark, forested hill. “That way lies freedom and a new life for both of us. And here,” he said, pointing over her shoulder at the massive black wall of the grove, “is your prison. Come live with me, Elspeth. I need you.”
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said unhesitatingly, holding her closer. “I love you.”
“Then I’ll find a way to be with you. But come back soon, Alan. Don’t let them keep me here.”
“Tomorrow,” he said. “But earlier in the day, all right?”
“Just come to me.” She turned and strode quickly into the culms.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene