:: Article

Rosie

By Jacqueline Feldman.

Rosie was pretty. As I had been at that age, ten years previously. I don’t think I’ll surprise you by telling you she was petite, slight and even scrawny—scrawny as the chickens we set free to scamper, killed, and, with difficulty, ate. The muscle was like frozen earth.

Rosie pretended to enjoy eating those chickens and dislike killing them, which was the opposite of how the rest of us felt. You may wonder if she wasn’t getting it from somebody that she didn’t crave the release of the slaughter. I can’t say, intimacy having been one of the subjects not up for adjudication by the community. The ingredients of this release, on which I will linger for a moment, were, first, the labor of applying pressure to the neck—selecting a place where the feathers were thin, almost silky—and, last, the point of no return, the moment when, in the frenzy, over cheers and other sounds of exultation, it became clear that the chicken, while not dead, lacked the capacity to make either an escape or a full return to living as it had before. One of the pleasures of our communal life was that of learning lessons together, and together we learned, in this way, that death is gradual. Blood everywhere, and Rosie, quivering, inside.

 

I had lived the longest at the village house and could remember the time of arriving at consensus in our opposition to individualism of any kind. Favoritism was out. Babying, out. We didn’t ask about each other’s pasts. But there were, somehow, things we all knew about Rosie. Rosie, Rosette, she had been a bright student and taken the ensuing compliments as if they referred in fact to wisdom. She’d done her studies in the city. Rose had then arrived among us as a guest, with a project of her own, and after gradually abandoning it referred to herself as having underwent a radicalization. We had not asked that of her. Still, when a change came over her we were the ones around to see it happen. She chose us for an audience.

Her step was loud on the threshold and, sending flying a patter of snowmelt, she found a place for her coat. This propensity toward pitching in was, we came to realize, characteristic. Striking was her lack of guile. We found it limited the freedom of each of us in our reactions to her. It was her pretension to grasp as if brandishing at us what were plainly lures, her big ideas. To her all things seemed promisingly solid. This although we plied her with tools she might have used in the service of her own liberation.

 

When the anthropologist came there was snow on the ground. I stayed back. The others left to pick him up asking, pro forma, if I was sure.

I knew what there was to see. Years in I knew every turn of the road to the station. Left and through the village, around the roundabout and over the fields, a right and, in town, another right. At the place where trains were stabled.

I was making an onion soup when they all got in. You know onion soup—it smells wonderful, and all the more so when you’re coming in out of the cold. And the gesture was more generosity on my part, because a lot of us had been wondering what to do with the sacks of onions that we had, and some of us didn’t like to be the ones to stink up our fingers.

But I am not a zoo animal. I was not a zoo animal, nor was I an evangelist. I had put in the work to build a life worth living for its own sake as few do. I feel no need to explain myself, and then I felt no need to explain myself—a need that I very frankly despise when I see it in others; it’s so base, like going to the bathroom. And about people of whom I have no need, of whose projects I have no need, I have a hard time seeing what need, what genuine need, they or their projects could have of me, of me in particular.

The anthropologist had a way of staring back at you. An open-faced man, he turned out to be on the young side. Wanting to know everything, he had prepared us with questions, and for days we had been marveling at them. He really did seem to care about process. He hoped to understand how we kept ourselves fed, for example. How the systems of the kitchen garden and that of evacuating trash were managed. He also hoped, a hope that left us reeling in bafflement, to learn how each of us had arrived at a decision to stay in the house, and how long we all planned to make our lives there. To learn if we had any idea what it would take for us to leave. We were there for the reason of preventing the building of the repository, but I don’t think the possibility of success in this had occurred to us. It hadn’t occurred to outsiders, certainly. Tragedy has since drummed up a certain interest.

What he said over soup and as if I was supposed to care was that he planned to focus his interviews on the question of domestic labor, out of a strong commitment to principles of feminism.

 

We saw them together—the community saw them. You understand we had built lives on the principle nothing should be hidden. Observing the two from a window, I, who had lived here long enough to remember Rosie was an outsider, was attuned to the care the anthropologist took with her. This status of Rosie’s came to mind as, for example, the anthropologist helped her to her feet. They had been sitting on stumps that were low and awkward. The sunset was, as it can be, beautiful, an absolution for the day. But every time to such displays of gallantry our Rose reacted with ingenuousness, with her originality.

“Will you let me do something?” he asked, and wouldn’t say what. “Close your eyes,” he repeated.

Rosie, protesting, obeyed. Up in the cache for grain we heard her tinkling laughter when his wish turned out to be to drape his coat around her.

 

It was, that winter, damp as well as cold. I was engaged passively in a project of preserving the coriander that had grown, and I feared for the seeds, which hung to dry in their seedheads, attached to the stalks. These plants, or partial plants, made a pretty picture where they hung on a lintel of the shed. The stalks, trussed up, poked jauntily at the ceiling as below them ran a perfect row of seedheads, which I had wrapped in brown paper.

I feared they would be slow in drying. I feared dryness would never reach them. I spent many minutes of that winter in transit between the village house and the small shed in which this project of mine was elapsing. It wasn’t far, but there was, each time, the procedure, obligatory after traipsing over the snow, of stripping off not only wet boots but also socks and pants and, at last, replacing all of this with woolen stockings I habitually left to dangle by the light switch.

So to leave the shed was not simple, and I was, in a word, present when Rose and anthropologist met, believing themselves unseen, just at its window. They did this repeatedly. I confess I was curious if the anthropologist would give Rosie any indication of when he planned to leave. He didn’t. Nor did she, in my observation, ask. That might have been her first mistake.

Her second would have been to say things like this: “It wasn’t until I got here that I realized I wanted kids. Because nobody else does, and when you realize you’re the only one, you have to do something about it.”

What did she hope to gain? That was what left me guessing. I could see the anthropologist found the brittleness of Rosie’s tone at such moments appealing. But I recognized it as sentiment rather than principle. I recognized it having heard Rosie voice the worries she claimed about changes in the bodies of the animals that were anticipated with the arrival of waste packages.

“Is this desire of yours widely known?” The light was low, the snow brighter than the sky. I had taken a seat on a table of the fragrant shed, and I felt through my stockings that it was covered in grit.

“You’re the first to know,” Rosie said.

A smile was evident in the inflections of the anthropologist. “Do you feel it affects your role in the group?”

“You think people can tell?” She was really afraid; I could hear that, and I brought a hand to my mouth.

He, I believe anxious not to have meddled with the data he was collecting, leapt to reassure.

And so on. One day I made a false move and sent one of the coriander relics to fall, skittering, on the floor. It was quick to shed bits of itself, brown crumbs.

 

We put in a lot of labor to insulate the dormitory. The winters were cooling down even as the summers were warming up; such is the peculiarity of climate change in this peculiar place. Mornings, a starburst of frost would have formed on each window. That we liked to see. I did.

We had several bales of conventional insulation, one of us having salvaged them from a worksite in town. We had, when that ran out, straw. This technology, which we were not above using, has served to keep cows warm since time began.

A picture of the attention paid to personal safety: we had heaters, and ran a cord to them from the kitchen. They could, despite a frustrating unreliability, get very hot. No smoking was allowed in the dormitory.

Similarly, in the kitchen, a tin by the woodstove was reserved for the disposal of ashes, cinders, and blackened matter. This is to give a subsidiary picture of the care we took of each other. It was a tin in the shape of a watering can, too small to work as one. On the side winding flowers had been stenciled.

 

She was the one to change more than he was, and that too I found suspicious. She no longer ate the garlic that we cured. Astonishingly picky, she was, still more irregularly, nice about this pickiness, a niceness that the anthropologist regarded as a charm of hers, or seemed to. He had a digital recorder on him at all times. Rose and he were overheard saying things to one another freely.

“What I still don’t understand in all of this is if the goal here is equality or redistribution.”

“Reparations, you mean?”

“If you like.”

“So chronically we have a big block in what concerns everything to do with the past,” said Rosie. “It can get sentimental very quickly.”

“But I’m talking about what you’re doing now! Doing! Now!”

“Oh my god, stop it! You mean like taking out the ashes?”

“For example.”

“That’s a rare example though, most of us have independent projects.”

“And are most of you men or are most of you women?”

 

A mating call, maybe, but then hindsight is twenty-twenty. What has been observed of love is that it recoils with respect to the community. A community with love is a community with a community within it, a community within the community and a community necessarily parasite as those within don’t offer around that which they have distinctively. What has been begrudged of love is that the selection it makes is anything but transparent, let alone egalitarian. What has been held against love is that it creates an incentive to consumption. It may also consume. It can create an obstacle to communication in addition to creating, of course, confusion. It is ungovernable as well as a time suck. That was what we knew of love, and I don’t know why nobody identified it in our Rosie, but as a result it did not happen that catastrophe was averted.

 

I was alone in the kitchen having taken advantage of a quiet night and set two cakes to bake. They gave off a smell that was spicy and full. Rosie showed up having put on makeup; I wasn’t used to seeing her in that, and the black had smudged with a surprising symmetry to either side of her eyes. She had wrapped herself in a blanket. She wore it with authority, flicking it up as she sat to catch the fabric nimbly. As I have said she was slim, and it was the care she took in sitting rather than the blossoming of her stomach that made her condition evident.

She said I baked well, and before answering that I let a moment pass as I studied her face. It was resolute, and as I looked longer she cracked a smile that was almost private. She said she’d love to try some. “In the morning. Gerard,” she added, “will appreciate it, too.”

That was his name. I let her know Gerard could have some if he asked for it, just as she was asking for it. We did not award to guests a special status separating them out from the collective.

Rose thanked me, and everything went out of her.

I fumbled with my mug of tea, asking what she needed.

“There’s nothing I need,” she said.

“Darling,” I wanted to say.

“I didn’t come here because I needed something from here,” she said.

“Everyone needs something from here,” I said, and, for the first time, found myself wanting to revise. “Everyone needs something” tout court might have been more accurate, though that in a flash seemed hard to be sure of.

“Everyone needs something from everywhere,” she said, impatient, and I suspected that the song and dance about the cakes had been mere flattery. But I did find them, the next morning, with pieces missing.

I asked if all this was about the need or about me, and she took a deep breath before saying, “Need.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “Is there also something you need to tell me?”

She gave a look of startling hatred and asked a significant favor. The tool we knew me rarely to loan out was a kind of vise, good for splitting open obstinancies like the pods of coriander that had become, in the wet air, resistant, though that wasn’t the purpose for which it had been manufactured. A long and heavy hook, the aperture oddly delicate.

As a rule we did not inquire into one another’s plans for sabotage. They could be laid by small teams in relative secrecy, secrecy that was understood as a contributing factor to success. What I understood from the exchange was that in the morning Rosie and the anthropologist were going to do something really crazy, that Gerard had as they say in his profession gone native. You understand that that was the last time I saw her. They also took one of the cars.

 

I had lived here ten years and would stay another ten and ten after that, what could it matter, as meanwhile in the nearby valley men were taking measurements. In the house the fire did not come and it did not come. News reached us via regional and national papers of a fireball that had claimed the lives of some ten passengers on a train derailed as well as killing a couple—of people, though this was not specified—traveling by car. In the house we knew like backs of hands that Rosie and the anthropologist Gerard having left us were gone. Journalists surmised of the derailment that it was a hijacking. On the line a piece of metal was reported to have dangled. I knew what it was I wouldn’t get back, and by now the seeds of coriander are rattling in their pods. The journalists said, without speculating further, that something must have gone wrong. A thaw was coming as, in the great capital, a bill was passing. Blueprints were, in the headquarters of a corporation, sketched. Plans laid rapidly were thrown down here and there. The processes engendering waste were, basic to our knowledge of them, unceasing. Sheds containing the waste in a measure intended as temporary strained and leaked. We knew they did. We knew as others denied that the waste seeped into water tables in a migration to be sped, when it came down our way, by the seismic activity for which this area is famous. For something so deadly, so annihilating, it was persistent, even lively, and it left in its wake changes, the mutations. Thus began the flow of the contaminant, of all that we stood guard against.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacqueline Feldman
, a writer and journalist, lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Triple Canopy, The White Review, and other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 4th, 2020.