Stone and String
She didn’t levitate or lift our car off the ground, but in the end I wouldn’t have been surprised. Leah had not been religious, and while she wasn’t above reading Daisetz Suzuki, Freud, or Jung, she wore her spirituality like a scarf; it was the first thing you took off at home or on a warm day, and you never made a fuss about it. On most cold days, she didn’t wear one at all. Yet two months after the fire she said, “I need something more. I need some fortification,” and together we walked the short distance to downtown and into a store that sold trinkets, bad art, earrings, handmade hats and candles, and gemstones.
In those first eight weeks after our house had burned to the ground, Leah had changed her appearance. Colors had vanished and given way to black and drab green. She shopped almost exclusively at Army surplus stores. What those didn’t carry, she got from badly designed internet sites. Make-up she didn’t own anymore, with the exception of eyeliner. Her hair she always carried in a bun, and she’d taken to wearing baseball caps and miner hats. No logos or print, always black.
Leah asked the salesperson to open the glass case with the gemstones, and after a very short time in which she moved her hands over the stones as though they might burn her fingers, she chose a pink-and-green one. It was a bead, really, a ball the size of a cherry, with a hole through the middle. Leah also bought a leather string and intended to wear the stone on it.
“Will you need a clasp?” the woman asked. I’m not sure why, but I had the distinct feeling that she was uncomfortable with Leah’s presence. Her voice was hushed the way people talk when somebody nearby has fallen asleep and they don’t want to wake them. It seemed silly to think such a thing, and yet, when Leah answered, “No, I’ll just tie it into a knot,” the woman lowered her gaze. She made sure she didn’t touch my wife’s hand when she received the bills and also avoided any touch on returning the change. It wasn’t a hygiene thing, the way I had seen grocery store clerks and gas station attendants avoid hands they feared were full of germs; Leah was exceedingly well-groomed, despite her army fatigues, and the people around us looked well-fed and healthy. The store sold nothing anybody needed.
“The stone facilitates compassion and nurturing,” the saleswoman muttered. She only ever looked at me, as though I were buying from her. “A unakite is ideal for activating the Heart and Third Eye Chakras.”
Leah nodded. “It’s the right one, then.” She seemed not to notice the woman’s fluttering eyelids and the faltering voice. Five minutes after we had left the store, I myself had forgotten the clerk’s strange behavior. Since we were already downtown, we had cappuccinos in a newly opened coffee shop and bought some new mugs as well. Down the street, we purchased some art supplies for Leah, and I chose a new travel bag next door. I’d be going to Florida to attend a conference the following month and didn’t own a suitcase anymore. The bag was red and small; my whole life fit into it.
After dinner, I cleaned off the table and washed the dishes in the sink. Our insurance had provided us with a one-bedroom apartment in a historic neighborhood that had once been notorious for drugs and prostitution. Gentrification had not driven out those professions entirely, but you could now spot Volvos and Benzes in the narrow streets. People called the neighborhood cute and picturesque, but Leah and I had learned to hate the dirty streets and the old houses that seemed to have been built for people the size of small children.
Just when I had dried my hands and picked up a stack of letters that had been lying unopened on the table, Leah walked into the kitchen. “Look at this,” she said, her voice loud and barely controlled.
“What? What is it?” I had just torn open a letter promising legal help in suing the power company whose negligence was said to have caused the fire that had destroyed our house.
“Look at this,” she said again. She raised her left hand; between thumb and middle finger she was hold the pink-and-green unakite. In her right, between thumb and pointer, was the leather string. As though threading a needle, she proceeded to push the string into the stone hole. Its end appeared on the other side, and Leah now pulled it until the stone hung exactly in the middle of the string.
“And?” My voice might have betrayed some annoyance. In those days, every small shift in my wife’s mood and demeanor pushed me to my limits. We balanced each other, caught each other, but that constant work of making our life possible had deeply exhausted and unsettled us.
“Just wait and watch,” Leah hissed.
I didn’t dare speak and trained my eyes on the stone, not knowing what to expect. I didn’t have to wait long, though. Within twenty seconds the stone fell to the ground and rolled under the kitchen table.
“How did you do that?” I was interested now. “Magic trick? What did I miss?”
“Shut up,” she said. “You do it.”
I retrieved the stone from under the table and took the string from her hand. We were the same height, 5’11,’’ a fact I had always cherished. No bending down or reaching up to kiss the person you loved.
I threaded the string through the stone and held it in my hand. Leah took a step back to give me some space. The stone hung between us, nothing happened. Not after a minute, not after five.
After ten minutes, she took the string from my fingers, and without changing a thing, held it out in front of her. After ten seconds it dropped.
We repeated this a dozen times that evening. I thought I’d lose my mind. I thought she was playing tricks, but when it dawned on me that she wasn’t, I grew even more furious. How could that be? How could a string release a pendant without being cut or otherwise damaged? We tried other objects — the lid of a tin can I punched a hole through with a screwdriver, a keyring, a pair of scissors. I held them first, and then Leah would take them from me after two minutes. Not a thing happened. But as soon as we tried the stone again, it plunged to the floor. I’m not sure what scared us so much that first night — the ridiculous possibility that Leah had powers that couldn’t be explained, or the even more ridiculous thought that the stone could be influenced by certain energies to open and close at will. It was midnight by the time we had calmed down enough to think about going to sleep, but after switching off the lights and watching the bushes in front of our bedroom window reach this way and that and rub their knuckles against the flimsy glass, I got up again and turned on the kitchen light. It barely reached the bedroom, but I wouldn’t have to close my eyes in complete darkness. Only then was I able to fall asleep. Nightmares woke me three times, followed by Leah’s hand in my hair or on my shoulder, reassuring me that she and I were still there.
For a full day, we didn’t talk about the necklace, nor did Leah try to thread the string through the stone again. We ignored what had happened the night before, waiting for a signal that would let us know that the world was working once again according to the laws we’d learned about over the course of over thirty years. We waited for the real world to assert itself and welcome us back into its fold. Maybe we could even have forgotten about the unakite, but after arriving home at twilight and reaching for the light switch just inside the front door, Leah gasped audibly. The light came on and I could see her stricken face. In one hand she was still holding a shopping bag, the other was clasped over her mouth.
“What?” I walked quickly past her expecting a water leak, a broken window, ants crawling over the kitchen sink, as they so often did during Northern California winters. But nothing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and yet Leah’s eyes were wide-open and scared. “What is it?”
“I didn’t touch the switch.”
I am ashamed of my reaction. I should have shown compassion. Ignorance and a stupid grin might have been acceptable, but instead I turned angry. “Get real,” I said. Whatever anxiety and fear I had felt the night before, led me to dismiss Leah’s words. “It’s nothing. Give me the bag, I’ll unpack it.” Ever since the fire I craved normalcy, the kind you could build on, something to cloak and shelter you. Breakfast and dinner, work and trips to the grocery store — I needed all the regulated acts of life to feel that life was indeed continuing.
Instead of handing me the bag, Leah dropped it. With disappointment flattening her voice, she said, “Switch it off and stand guard. Make sure I’m not touching the switch.”
“Stop that. It’s nothing.”
Sighing loudly I did as she had told me. First I locked the front door, as though that could save us from whatever afflicted Leah, then I flicked the switch. It was past five o’clock, and only a faint, rose-and-silver colored light still hung above the roofs of houses and illuminated the living room. I could barely see my wife.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to reach for the switch now.”
She did not touch my hand, which I held cupped over the switch. She didn’t even come close, I swear. I swear she didn’t play tricks. But I could barely contain my anger now. “The light is on. Great,” I hissed. “Can we have dinner now?”
Chopping meat and vegetables, handling pans that friends had bestowed on us, finally calmed me down again. Leah sat at the table, leafing through a magazine that had come in the mail. I watched her perfect posture, her delicate neck, the severity of her features, and I slowly came back to myself. She’d never been one to demand apologies, and so I simply said, “It works on the other switches as well?”
She looked up from pictures of Bonaire, an article on diving and adventure and island life. “No,” she said.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
Again I dedicated myself to frying and stirring. In those days, we often joked that everything I cooked turned out to be a stir-fry, but the task of preparing carefully planned meals appeared insurmountable; Leah hadn’t touched a pan in weeks, and more often than not, we just walked to a restaurant downtown.
At last, I heaped food from the pan onto two plates — also gifts from friends — and opened a bottle of wine. I poured two tumblers full, and we clinked glasses while making sure to look each other in the eye, a small ritual of ours.
“It’s just the one, as far as I can tell.”
“You tried the others?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“Where is the necklace?”
She put a hand into a large pocket on her drab-green pants and pulled out stone and string.
“Do it,” I told her. And she complied. No more than ten seconds passed before the stone fell onto the table and rolled toward my tumbler.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I tried to think of ways to explain everything. I tried to build a system around what Leah had experienced. “Maybe we should see a doctor?” I asked.
“You think I need antibiotics?”
That night we didn’t switch off the lights at all. We stared at the dirty walls of our small apartment, drank another bottle of wine, and were finally too exhausted to keep our eyes open.
Still, people are resilient — how we hated that word in those days. Every slogan the city put out was laced with ‘resilience.’ Every organization, every employer, every ad invoked ‘resilience,’ as though the word alone could make people forget what they had lost in the fires. Leah and I had escaped with two small duffels, two or three changes of clothes, and a laptop. Even while jumping into the car to leave our neighborhood, we never, not for a moment, believed there would be nothing left to return to.
Yet we managed. And now that Leah had discovered that she disrupted laws we had thought of as eternal, she slowly overcame her fear and fright and started to experiment. She didn’t tell me about her attempts at moving objects at first, but when a small figurine of Fernando Pessoa — a gift by a friend who had recently returned from Lisbon and wanted to add some cheer to our small, grim apartment — refused to be touched by her fingers, moving across the table before falling over the edge and onto the floor, she showed me this new ability with a mix of disbelief and pride.
This occurred maybe five days after the incident with the light switch. We hadn’t talked much about that night, both needing time to digest what couldn’t be explained, and as after a bad or opulent meal that gives you heartburn and nightmares, we slowly recovered. We still had jobs. I visited clients and sat through meetings with volunteers and trainees, I wasn’t home for much of the day. Leah checked into the office only sporadically, though, and instead of working in coffee shops, as had been her custom, she worked from home most days, working on websites for artists, dentists, and waste management companies. Her work, she sometimes complained, left her lightheaded, or better, heavy-headed, as though the world only existed when she was looking at a screen. It took wine, a bottle or two after dinner, to make her feel as though she had a body as well.
That night, I looked at Pessoa’s bust moving across the coffee table, away from her slowly advancing hand, and, swallowing my exasperation, said, “There’s more, right?”
In the hour that followed we went from room to room, and she showed me what she had discovered. She couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, because it fogged over every time she approached it. She’d gotten out of the shower — a shower that sprayed more water across the room than onto the body below — and tried to wipe off what she had thought of as steam, but to no avail. Frustrated, she had walked out to return half an hour later. From across the room, the mirror had looked to be clear — she could see the medicine cabinet above the toilet reflected in the spotty glass. Yet as soon as she came to within a foot of the mirror, it barred her from looking at herself. “And the water,” Leah said. “Please try it.”
“You want me to taste the water?”
“No, silly. I’ll leave the room, and you run the water.”
I did as I was told. I watched the water gurgle into the drain, and nothing happened. “What am I looking for?” I shouted. The mirror had cleared in the meantime. The skin under my eyes was of a dark blue, almost brown. My skin was sallow.
“It’s draining, right?” Leah shouted back.
As soon as she opened the door and stepped onto the small rug in front of the sink, the water would no longer drain, slowly filling the basin. I stared at it in disbelief, couldn’t bring myself to touch the faucet. When the water threatened to spill onto the floor, Leah pushed me aside and turned the water off, then left the room. In a manner of seconds, the water had drained from the sink.
We owned very little furniture. A sofa, a coffee table, two chairs. A kitchen table and two more chairs. A mattress. Who knows what Leah would have discovered had we been so lucky to have rented a bigger apartment or, better still, a house?
The light in her closet burnt out as soon as she pulled the string. The placemat wouldn’t lie flat on the dining table in front of her, one corner or another lifting slightly. The pepper shaker would not dispense any pepper in her hands. Only cold water would come from the kitchen faucet.
But Leah had saved her best for last. “I can touch them in the store, no problem. I can carry them into the car — nothing happens. But look!” By that time the world in which we existed felt no longer benign. The past hour had slowly dismantled what had once been predictable and secure. There was no denying the obvious anymore. I was looking at each new miracle Leah produced with a sense of dread. If these things were possible, what else was happening in this world which I had appeared to navigate with ease and some success?
“What?” I asked and peered into the bag she had put onto the kitchen counter. “The oranges?” I laughed hoarsely. “What is wrong with them?”
“Just take one and put it on the counter?”
Again I did as I was told. But after the first — I don’t know what came over me — I lined up the other ones on the counter as well. There were eight oranges. I stepped back and stared at my handiwork. I shook my head at the absurdity. Why anyone should look at oranges with such foreboding was, even now, beyond me. I laughed again. “What now, Leah? What now?”
“Just watch.” She left my side and walked up to the counter, taking a spot to the right of the line of oranges. Then, slowly and deliberately, she touched the first with her fingertips.
“What was that?” I asked. “What did you do?”
“Come closer. Watch carefully.” She reached out and touched the next orange. Within a fraction of a second, the fruit was a small puddle of greenish goo. One after one, Leah reduced each and every orange to a foul-looking puddle. “That’s what I do. That’s what I can do. So far.”
“I don’t want you to do that. Stop doing it. Please, please stop.” I sank onto a chair and buried my head in my hands. My world, too, had turned into a green puddle. I wanted my old life back. I wanted objects to mean one thing only, to behave in only one way. I wanted to know what would happen in response to my actions. “Let’s see a doctor. A specialist. Or a psychiatrist. Just someone. We need help. Please let’s see a doctor tomorrow.”
That night, we drank until past midnight, then drove the thirty miles to Bodega Head and stood in the icy breeze coming off the ocean. Nothing mysterious had happened inside the car, no lights had burned out or turned on miraculously. Huddling together, draped in our oversize coats and wearing warm hats, we stood on the cliffs until we couldn’t feel our faces anymore. Then we retrieved a bottle of Hennessy someone had given us for Christmas and revived our bodies. In the dark, the engine running but with lights switched off, we fumbled our way through layers of clothing to our bodies. Leah climbed on top of me, her nails scratching my neck and face. She pulled my hair so violently, moved with such force and bit every piece of skin her teeth could find, that I thought I must be bleeding. This is me, her body seemed to be saying, I’m still here, I’m real, and I will make you believe I’m real. I will dig myself into you and won’t ever let you forget.
I don’t know how we made it home in one piece. It was reckless to drive after drinking wine and brandy. I have no recollection of the road or if we saw any other cars, but in the morning, the car stood unblemished where I had parked it, keys still in the ignition. The small Pessoa statue was on the coffee table. Leah had wiped off the eight puddles of goo the night before.
She must have been with me inside the car on the way home from Bodega Head. I have no recollection of her in the passenger seat; we can’t have talked much. We were too frightened, too exhausted to speak, and I was trying my best not to wrap the car around a tree or telephone pole. But when I think of those forty minutes on the road, my headlights cutting the way out of darkness, I can’t feel Leah. This doesn’t make sense, yet when I woke in the morning, her side of the bed was empty, she sheets cool. Her coat was gone, her boots, her hat. Nothing she’d worn the night before I could locate in the apartment.
The police have started their investigation, and they have said I will be cleared. The marks on my face and neck and arms are consistent with my story, and there is no motive for any wrongdoing. Why would I have pushed Leah over the edge of the cliff and let her fall to her death? I loved my wife. I had no reason to kill her. That’s what my lawyer says, “You had no reason to harm your wife.”
In quiet moments, I wonder what the clogged faucet and the wilted fruit add up to. How can I make sense of powers that don’t seem to have a clear application and are entirely random?
I can’t remember her sitting next to me in the car, but she didn’t die that night at Bodega Head, of that I am certain. When dusk renders the apartment a bluish gray, I see Leah standing on the cliff and watching my car disappear ahead of her. Later, she walks toward the small coastal town, flags down a late-night traveler and heads south toward San Francisco. She doesn’t stop in the city, but heads further away, as far away from me and the fires as she can. She doesn’t need somebody weaker than herself, she doesn’t need this husband who doubts what he sees and who shrinks from candlelight, barbecues, and the smell of wood burning in the fireplaces down the street. Leah is on her own. She has accepted that the world can turn on a dime and change its face and its meaning withing seconds. She is no longer afraid.