The magus moved into my building the weekend I drove to the Outer Banks. She came from Florida after a violent hurricane, during which one of her neighbors drowned. I had the impression she was now involved in social work, restoring people to a stable life, but since she never left her apartment, I wasn’t sure what she did. Music therapy, I thought at first, because of the organ — perhaps via Skype, though I never saw a computer. Every few weeks, always late in the evening, a long-haired man in paint-spattered coveralls came by with packages — what I later found to be boxes of groceries, fresh notebooks, and cartons of herbal cigarettes. When she arrived I had lived in the building for only six months.
When I moved in, my neighbor across the hall began needling me. His name was Groden. He taped open letters to the building’s glass double doors the first day I was there, and continued on a weekly basis for some time. He wrote in response to: my noisy movers; the boxes stacked beside the common recycling bins; the two-hour-long housewarming party a month later; my habit of slamming the door when I went for a jog in the early morning. When his rat-dog shit on the stoop, I nearly called animal control. Instead, I put the dog under my arm, returned to the second floor, and knocked — staccato as the dog’s heart. He opened the door immediately and berated me for making a racket.
It didn’t change anything: he continued to let the dog out the fire escape to perform the necessary. Sahithiya, another of my upstairs neighbors, told me that writing open letters was his hobby. He had written a few noise complaints about her and her partner, but Sahithiya was constantly out of town and her partner worked four twelves per week as an obstetrician, devoting the remaining days to sleep and practicing the piccolo. Groden complained that he could hear her practicing through the floor. They were too busy to respond, and when I moved in he transferred his attention to me.
He had the soul of a child, mildly annoying at most, and the weekend away washed him from my mind. The cottage I rented was a drive down the beach from anything. It was boxy and small, sided with duck-egg brown slats and walled inside with plaster. I rose early Saturday morning and spent a half hour on the patio, staring over white dunes into the sea, slouching in the only chair: wicker, painted white, topped with a faded blue cushion. I reread an old issue of Systematic Entomology over coffee and poached eggs, rye toast, and grits. Looking over the Atlantic with a bowl of grits put a warm new face on the world: quiet, gray-orange, and capped with a sky as cool and rich as water. The sea sounds hushed me, and I spent the day doing nothing, punctuated by climbing dunes and listening to the waves break.
Sunday began the same — breakfast on the patio, an article (Klingner, et al. “The role of moisture in the nest thermoregulation of social wasps”), and for music, a recording of the ensemble that Sahithiya’s partner was in. I drowsed through a few pages of a novel on the hammock, then ate lunch in town. Afterward, I walked along the shore until I grew tired, and turned around. The sand squeaked under my steps, tilling up half-moon chunks.
I don’t know how I missed the corpse the first time. An Alsatian dog lay half submerged in murky green-brown surf, the slow push-pull of short waves rocking it on the pivot of its shoulder, the way one gently wakes a sleeper. Sarsaparilla, my childhood dog, had been part Alsatian: this dog had her snout, her smart ears. I walked to the body in a spiral, almost passed it, and squatted at the waterline a meter away. I was careful not to touch the water. No tracks but mine; the body had washed in. Maybe it fell off a yacht unattended during some party, or drowned further up the beach.
I did not immediately record any of the following observations, and when I returned later in the afternoon, the body was gone. I can’t back up this account whatsoever — neither what I saw on the beach nor what I saw in the magus’s apartment later on. This isn’t scientific. I wish it were.
I heard a vibration, rhythmic and distant, off-tempo with the waves, from within the dog, as if it were purring. But it was limp and gray-gummed. As the next wave rolled the body, its jaw slackened by a few centimeters, and the sound grew louder. A bald-faced hornet crawled from the corner of its mouth. I moved closer in a half crawl to confirm it. Certainly. The thrumming was the sound of wings. I had heard it before, coming from inside a wall filled by a nest. I knew wasps made nests in skulls sometimes, but only once they had been picked clean, and never near the sea. The dog could not have been dead more than a few hours, and it had drowned. I put Sassy out of my mind — she had died of old age, if not actually happy then resolute about her pleasures. Nothing like this. I found a slim branch, then carefully depressed the lower jaw. I saw a whorl of dry paper, the ingress of the nest at the back of the dog’s throat.
The bald-faced hornet’s head is white in front, like a mask, marked with black. The one I saw hadn’t noticed me yet, but if I continued exploring, it would sting me. I shifted the branch to get a better look at the nest. The fur on the Alsatian’s muzzle was wet but the paper appeared bone dry. The hornet crawling along the ridge of the eye took flight.
I backed away slowly, then walked to my cottage. After a few minutes, I tossed the branch into the water. I washed my hands when I got back, drank a cup of coffee, and ventured out again, but the body was gone. The ocean’s rhythmic susurrus emphasized my loss.
Sunday evening I returned to my apartment somber. I closed the outer doors of the building’s glass vestibule gently, to avoid the anvil crash the metal stile made against the doorjamb. Groden had taped a new letter to the wall over the building’s keypad, so the bottom of the page obscured the numbers. I no longer paid him much attention, but the word M A R I J U A N A occupied an entire line by itself, so I read the letter. The new tenant had let her movers smoke in the hallway, he wrote. “Which was illegal, Which was a harbinger of bad manners and drug dealing, Which was a poor example for neighborhood children,” et cetera. He used the word “tokes” more than once and he signed it with his full name, which I don’t remember. His surname suited him. The normalcy in his shrillness lifted my spirits. I decided to bring the new tenant a welcome gift.
She had written her name on her mailbox label in small capitals, using a fine-nibbed pen and maroon ink. The lines were light and thin, but strong. The Rs and Ns in Ranninger rose to a uniform height above the rest. I wrote a few introductory lines on a quarter page of thick, faded pistachio-colored stationery. I signed it with my apartment number, folded it in half, and poked it through the mail-slot. Two mornings later, she replied: Why didn’t I stop by some evening to chat? She wrote with an immaculate hand, undiluted Palmer Method.
One of the trials of adulthood is knowing what to give for a housewarming. Wine is forward, fruit suspended in jello ridiculous, and coffee is cumbersome to carry upstairs. I don’t know what’s customary. I baked a dozen oatmeal-lingonberry muffins, drizzled their crowns with honey, and bought an orchid, to be safe.
When she opened the door, I saw over her head that she had laid cushions in a circle around a low, dark coffee table, that she had no couch, and by the window a circus calliope stood in a kiddy pool filled with water. The pipes of the calliope cast a jagged shadow over the cushions, reminding me of a subterranean skyline. An atmosphere of comfort and secrecy filled the room; neither the pool nor the organ seemed out of place. Her apartment was dim, lit yellow from the floor by three squat lamps. Her hair was fog gray, and dense. It made a nimbus of tense helices around her head except for a lock pinned over her ear by a silver barrette in the shape of a honeybee. She smiled the way my grandfather had smiled in his last weeks. The fatigue of chronic pain. I realized that my orchid had no place in her apartment: its petals were purple, and all her cushions scarlet. I held it out to her anyhow. She shook my hand, and palmed the pot with the other. Her fingers were as long as mine, though she was perhaps the height of my nine year old nephew. I put the muffins on the coffee table at her suggestion.
“Would you mind getting the other side?” she said, pointing to a washing line beside the baseboard. Together we hung it on three anchors she had already driven into the plaster. She hung masks on the line: a taxidermy leopard (she told me it had been used many years before in a masquerade), a bear carved from light wood, a child’s elephant mask of pressed aluminum, painted with rosy cheeks, a papier-mâché tortoise. A box of other masks lay on the floor. She told me I could look through them, if I were curious, so I arranged them on the floor beneath the line. A rubber fly’s face, which she told me was a movie prop, a falcon with paper feathers, a mole made of dark wood, a porpoise sewn from white leather. I laughed at the porpoise, and told her it too seemed to be laughing. Recalling that mask now, the small even stitches along its beak, the round eye-holes set too high and too far back for a human face, I find it macabre and disquieting, but in that moment the porpoise’s yellow-white glow in the floor lamps solidified the innate weirdness of the still pool under the calliope, not to mention the calliope itself, combined with her lack of furniture. The hue of the leather in that light reminded me of moviestar skin, of camaraderie, of school friends who make good on their potential and invite you to the party. She smiled — again tired, almost drugged, the expression of a person visited in the hospital.
At her suggestion, I sat cross-legged on the scarlet cushions with my back to the door, across from the calliope, on which the teapot stood, steaming. The view outside the window wasn’t much: the building next door, its bricks obscured by ivy. My first weekend in the building I had borrowed an extension ladder from Gustavo, an artist living in one of the roof-access studios down the street, to identify a nest in the ivy outside a window on this floor. The previous occupant of her apartment was in the Navy, unless I misremembered. Sahithiya had told me about them in passing. They built submersibles, or perhaps prototype sea-drones, some gadget with a robotic exoskeleton intended to retrieve objects from deep water.
“Does it play?” I said.
She pressed a few keys of the calliope in answer. They clicked as they went down, but the pipes produced no music. For the best, I thought. Groden would have an aneurysm.
The tea tasted of orange peel and cardamom. Through the whole apartment, the scent of cinnamon and sandalwood oil. I began to feel drowsy, so I asked her about the wooden slats she had stacked under the coffee table.
“I make woodblock prints when I can’t sleep,” she said. “Look through them, if you want to.”
The first dozen depicted the sea, a series of waves so similar, block to block, they could be animated frames. They were well drawn, and I said so.
“I miss it,” she said. “It pains me to live so far from the ocean.”
I was going to say that Durham was only a few hours from the beach, but my attention was diverted by a series of gallon glass jars that lined the wall to my right. She had filled them with marbles. She saw me looking and motioned me over to them. I crouched — they were glass eyes, a variety of diameters, and color-coded black to green to violet. I couldn’t see the connection between these odd things, but I felt instinctively that she would tolerate nothing extraneous in her apartment. I recognized the scientific obsession in her accumulation of stuff.
She sat on a double cushion with her legs folded, straight-backed, with her hands resting on her knees. I got the impression that she was used to looking down at people — I had to remind myself that she was no taller than a child. She held herself as if she had been living there for decades instead of a week, like an experienced chemist in a new lab dealing with familiar equipment. I began to feel that she was larger than me, thin and old but unbreakable. She inhabited space like a gas.
The final forty woodblocks had one subject, repeated in variation: people in repose, either sleeping or drowned. She had drawn them floating, washed ashore, tangled in hammocks and sails, mouths open or half-open, hair floating like kelp on a pillow or spread over the sand. One block that I thought particularly well drawn was a little boy wearing a rucksack over his raincoat, crawling out of a circular hole in the sea. She drew the pit like an open well.
I told her about the drowned Alsatian and the wasps. She chewed a hangnail for a moment, lit a cigarette, then told me a story.
She was sixteen, Cyrus was fifteen. The Monday after her family moved into the cottage they’d rented for the summer, he started painting the house next door. As soon as it was light enough to work, he set his ladder against the house and laid strokes of light green over white until lunchtime. It was a much larger house than the cottage. At lunch, he turned the radio on. In the afternoon he took off his shirt and spread sunscreen over his arms, shoulders, neck, shoulder blades, lower back, legs. He missed the center of his back, so the next day it was sunburned in the shape of a diamond. She lay a towel on the deck of the cottage and stretched out to paint her nails aquamarine. She imagined her fingernails were beads of aloe, pictured how she’d cool his fevered skin like the incoming tide quenching the sand. He sang to himself as he worked. She didn’t recognize the tune — it wasn’t on the radio — but by the end of the first day she caught herself humming variations.
“I still remember it,” she said. I asked her what tune it was, and she whistled it while I poured myself another cup of tea. I didn’t recognize it either. It sounded like a folk song, but it had an odd, faltering cadence, almost a dirge, plodding like a shanty heard from underwater. She stared down the procession of masks on her wall as if considering the possible endings to her story, then continued.
They swam together for the first time a week before her family left, on his day off. And again — morning and evening — every day of that week. The night before she left, she sneaked out to meet him on the beach an hour before dawn. They shared a cigarette before leaving their bathing-suits folded in the dune grass and tripped into the waves. After a while they floated in silence, feet toward land, their index fingers intertwined, watching the sun rise upside down.
She pretended to be floating in body-warm Ptolemaic ether, sliding between the skins of celestial spheres. Her ears dipped, filled with water, and she released his fingers to sink a few centimeters. She heard a slow, rhythmic vibration. Probably a dredge, far away. It matched the beat of Cyrus’s song. She wondered if he had written the tune, and pulled herself upright to ask him.
But Cyrus was no longer beside her. She called for him, at first quietly and then with panic. She burned her eyes underwater, but it wasn’t light enough yet, and the water was too murky to see if he had dived. As she tread water, a wasp landed on her finger. She dunked her hand, but it stung her anyway. As she swam back to shore, the thrumming sound grew louder. She realized it must be her pulse. Later that morning, the sheriff told her they found Cyrus’s body on the sandbar.
While she told me this, all of it too personal for a new acquaintance, I considered my presence to be part of a natural progression: we moved from confidence to confidence without a snag. Her cigarette’s smoke smelled sweet, reminiscent of marijuana, though when I asked her she said it was scullcap. I folded myself into her immediate intimacy, assuming a sleeper’s spooning posture on the cushions, as if we had a long history of friendship. She told the story well: I mourned for Cyrus, and for her as a young woman. I couldn’t mourn for her as she was at present: she sat with her hands folded and her eyes solidly on mine, the concentration lines around her eyes and mouth marking long hours of study and fortitude. She had led life by its nose.
We dined together twice, spaced over three weeks and always in her apartment, before I noticed that some of the masks were gone. By this time, my apartment had taken on the homely, slovenly sprawl of clothes, monographs, and mostly empty specimen jars that any space will accrue if I remain long enough. Hers, though, she kept exactly as I had seen it the first day, in a style that reminded me of a safe-house mixed with a research laboratory.
“Get sick of the tortoise?” I said, after sitting in my accustomed spot across from the calliope. The water in its holding pool had grown somewhat cloudy. I couldn’t guess yet what it was for. By some trick of the afternoon light, there was no reflection of the calliope legs in the water.
“It had other places to be,” she said.
“Off racing people.”
She laughed as if we were both in the know. When she wasn’t laughing her face was more placid than anyone’s I had met, but her disposition wasn’t bleak. She laughed occasionally, though I couldn’t predict when. I found a book about swarms of locusts, swallows, and barracuda on the kitchen counter that began a long conversation about the community of insects: what familial bonds existed between members of a collective, how did instinct prompt allegiance, insect immigration. She talked about Linnaeus as if he were an alchemist, or a hobbyist terraformer who had grown a world in a bell-jar. She sat on floor cushions with a sergeant’s posture, as if they were high-backed dining chairs.
Groden heard me leave her apartment, which meant he was listening out. When I got downstairs he was fiddling with his keys, pretending he’d just arrived home, though I knew this was bullshit since the door to the vestibule clatters every time it closes, and I had heard nothing. He pantomimed shock to see me. I gave him a little wave and tried to unlock my door before he started a conversation, but I was too slow.
“That new tenet is running a cathouse up there,” he said.
“Not everybody lives to fulfill your fantasies,” I said. “Nice to see you, as always.” I started to open the door, intending to escape, but he was suddenly at my elbow, emitting smells of hair and used pajamas.
“I’ve seen men leaving her place every night for two weeks.”
I stayed in the hallway, closed my door. “I’ll let her know you’re stalking her, and if she wants to press charges I’ll gladly tell the police all about you.”
“And that circus organ,” he said. He spoke to me in the tone of a bailiff reading a rap sheet. “I thought you were a vagabond, coming home at all hours drunk, but she’s worse, that new one above me. They moved a circus organ into her living room with a crane. She’s a maniac.” He never shouted; instead, he sounded quietly aggrieved. His voice had one tone and four monologues, like a child’s toy. And it was not as if he had lived here for decades and watched the neighborhood degrade: he moved in a year before I had. According to Sahithiya, he started complaining about the clanging pipes in the heating system before his sofa made it up the stairs.
I didn’t ask the ways in which Ranninger was a maniac. In place of elaboration, he settled his head into his shoulders with a roosting gesture while I imagined him shifting his claws in his plaid slippers. What sort of material was his neck made of? Something elastic.
“I’ll tell the police about all those letters you post,” I said. “You can’t keep bothering people.”
“She let them smoke marijuana, her movers, let them sit on the stairs and smoke marijuana all afternoon. Normal people talk to each other when they’re on a break, but not these movers she got. They sat on the stairs in raincoats and smoked marijuana, which is a crime, and the building smelled of it for days after. But the police never come, even when you call them. And they threaten you; they talk about emergencies. What if I had an emergency. What if they had dropped that circus organ on me. It’s a hazard; even now it could fall through the floor. I heard water up there; maybe the floor will rot. But when I call they do nothing.”
“We have quiet hours,” he said. His tiny dog peered at me from its perch, corked in his armpit. “And she plays and plays, all through the night on that circus organ. She plays through posted quiet hours.”
“I haven’t heard anything,” I said. “See a doctor about your delusions. Go to an Assholes Anonymous meeting. Go see a movie.”
“Always the same song,” he said as I shut the door on him. As soon as I heard him shuffle away I started to feel badly about how I’d treated him. He really should see a doctor. Dementia would explain most of his behavior.
A few weeks later, I found a card in my letterbox inviting me to dinner again.
When I arrived, Sahithiya was just leaving. I walked up from the landing and saw her in the doorway. She kissed Ranninger’s cheek and laughed. I passed her in the hallway and was going to suggest that the three of us have tea some afternoon, when I realized there were tears in her eyes. After dinner, I told Ranninger about Groden, but she shrugged him off.
She wanted to show me some new books. She’d even bought a small bookshelf to keep them in. She pulled the books one by one from a ripped, brown-paper-wrapped parcel and told me to arrange them on the shelves. A brittle copy of Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques was the prize of the lot — I flipped through it carefully. Between a few of the leaves there were pages of onionskin covered by the tight, sharp script of a language I didn’t recognize. In the margins of a section marked “La Guêpe,” somebody had fancifully sketched the cross section of a bald-faced hornet’s nest that descended into spiral compartments like a whelk egg case. On a lower shelf I saw a thin volume bound in yellowing white leather, which reminded me of the porpoise. Thinking it was a part of the group, I picked it up.
I suppose I should call the thin volume a grimoire, considering what came later. The script in Souvenirs Entomologiques didn’t match her handwriting, but this did. Every page in the first half was filled with the odd script, and in the bottom margin she had written a few bars of handwritten music. The latter half of the book was filled with equations. Sheets of onionskin covered in symbols and diagrams were pressed between a dozen pages. On two long sheets taped together, she had drawn a series of sketches of the hornet’s nest with spiral growths. Below the mouth of the egg case section she had drawn a tiny person. If that was supposed to indicate scale, the nest she had in mind was a few hundred meters long. It looked like a canal system in which each egg case segment was a lock. Beside the hive canals she had drawn a few sleeping children — from life, it seemed. They had the quality of specimen sketches. Their features were extensively labeled, but the legend was in the same script.
“It’s a study of kinship in experience,” she said. “In changing states, in the body’s allegiance, the coexistence of opposites. It exhausts me to explain. Read about it, if you care to. I described the whole process.”
In graduate school I’d had professors like her: geniuses who were explorers first and mapmakers rarely, who were surprised by others’ confusion. Her apartment had an aura of pre-scientific mystery that excited me. I wanted to be a part of it, but she was already drifting back to her work, whatever that was.
Dinner was clearly over.
For a moment, I was jealous of Sahithiya, who had clearly built a grand-daughterly rapport with her. Ranninger and I made plans for the following week, though our conversation seemed flat and perfunctory. I felt that I’d done something wrong — perhaps by looking at the grimoire — but as I left she handed me a monograph that she’d ordered for me, and told me she was looking forward to our next meal. I remembered only later how tired she looked.
The next week I was called out to identify an odd hive in the crepe myrtles across the street from the Rescue Mission. The administrator was worried about the kids at the Mission getting stung. They sent me a photo. The hive was a flaking tube of paper pulp a meter long, thirty centimeters wide, dotted with fungal protuberances, and split down the center like a molted snakeskin. Seeing it in person made my skin crawl. It was empty. I don’t mean just that the wasps were absent: there was no comb, no structure inside. Dark sap pooled in the center.
I searched for signs of whatever had been inside. Certainly not wasps: it looked like one large creature had used it, and bent branches climbing down. I bagged the husk (I couldn’t call it a hive) and put it in my trunk. After telling the administrator to call me if he saw anything, I walked back to my car. I was thinking about taking samples of the sap and paper, then freezing everything else when I saw a small boy with a heavy rucksack run out of the gate, into the trees. He was wearing Ranninger’s tortoise mask.
What could I say to the administrator that wouldn’t sound insane? I drove to my lab and processed the husk. The most likely scenario was that Ranninger or her coverall-wearing delivery man had donated whatever masks she no longer wanted to the Mission. I thought: that child was small enough to fit inside the husk. Then realized I had forgotten my dinner appointment. I arrived half an hour late, panting from running up the stairs, holding a bottle of elderflower liquor that I stole from a colleague’s desk.
She didn’t respond to my knock. I pressed my ear to the door, and heard a short cry, and a slosh. I jiggled the door-handle — it was unlocked.
I found her lying half in the kiddie pool, as if she had been playing the calliope but slipped down. The water sloshed onto the floor in beads, sitting on the wood like mercury, neither sinking in nor evaporating. At a run, I set the wine on the floor, and it rolled away. Her nail-beds were pale, her fingers long and thin over the lip of the plastic pool. Her head was bowed; I couldn’t see her face, only her hair uncharacteristically disarrayed, coils extended, spread down into the water. Impossible, the water was already still. She had just fallen, but in that light the surface was a mirror, barely rippling with her breath. Thank god she was still breathing. She wore a soaked through terrycloth bathrobe, once white but now stained tea-brown by the murky water. A bloom of orange algae grew on the surface. I would have said it was pond water, but it didn’t smell except faintly, of salt.
I pulled her out, listened for her breathing. She pushed herself onto one elbow, coughed into her hand.
“I thought I could get a bit of work done while I waited,” she said. “You really should knock.”
“I’m calling the hospital,” I said. I was still breathing hard.
“Certainly not,” she said. “I’ll go change. Let’s have a bowl of soup.”
“It’s up to you,” I said. What if she had drowned? I had dismissed the kiddie pool as an eccentricity, not out of line with the rest of her bizarre decor, but hadn’t thought it could be dangerous. “I mean, it’s up to you. You could have drowned — ”
“Certainly not,” she said again. She went into the bedroom and returned wearing pressed charcoal-gray trousers, a long tunic, and gold-trimmed slippers. As my pulse returned to normal, I thought about Groden wearing slippers, versus Ranninger in them. It was the difference between a dressed up carrion bird and a court magician.
One of her eyes was glass. I hadn’t realized before. The setting sun hit her face at a peculiar angle, and shone through the green glass. Why hadn’t I noticed?
I tried again. “Sahithiya’s partner is a doctor. She could at least take a look.”
“I doubt I’m pregnant,” she said.
How could I have missed her glass eye? Had she been missing an eye before?
Dinner was uneventful. A few more of the masks were missing from the line: the falcon with paper feathers, the porpoise, the elephant mask of pressed aluminum. There were a few more now: an emerald green mantis head, a fruit-bat with light fur that moved when the oscillating fan swiveled toward it. They were well-made. I wondered if she created them.
The last time I saw her, it was two in the morning, and I had come home drunk. I made it through the vestibule without incident — no fresh treats from Groden or his dog. The steel doors to the vestibule made more noise than usual. I turned around and shushed them before making a three point journey up the stairs. My deadbolt was problematic, but I had a flash of insight some minutes later: the trick is, do not use the mailbox key. I tripped on the lintel and took a rest in my open doorway for a few minutes.
As I sat with my back propped against the doorjamb, I thought about Ranninger. I had begun referring to her in my journal as “the magus,” initially as a joke because of the grimoire. She reminded me of Maria Prophetissa or John Dee. As my head drooped I thought that all knowledge is the same to the uninitiated, and wished I had a pen to write that gem down.
Somebody was walking down the stairs with a heavy tread. Their steps made an odd cadence on the thin carpet, as if they were also drunk, or dancing. The whole building was silent except for the hum of air conditioning. The person walked past my door. I didn’t get a good look, only a few seconds as they passed.
They were long-legged and thin, barefoot, wearing only a formerly white bathrobe that looked as if it had been dipped in swamp-water. They looked down at me and I saw a violet flash of glass from beneath a leopard mask. As they passed, their hair fanned behind as a swimmer’s will, a mess of curling filaments underwater. A cloud of wasps clung to the strands, and when they were dislodged by movement flew back to the neck, to crawl upward again, to the opening in the base of the leopard’s skull. The thrum of wings almost covered the heavy footfalls.
After the leopard passed I slumped into the hall and closed one eye, to get a better look. The man who met the them at the stairwell was beautiful, long haired and bright, and as he put one bare arm around the leopard’s shoulder, made eye contact with me. I barely recognized him without his coveralls. He was younger than I thought. He gestured to me, go upstairs, and they descended. I heard the vestibule doors slam.
Then I heard someone beating at a door and wailing. Groden was shrieking up there. I scrambled up, using the doorjamb as a handhold, but my head spun.
He was screaming, “Shut up, shut up that circus organ.”
I made it to the third floor with a hand-over-hand grip on the railing. When he saw me, his voice fell again. “She won’t let me sleep. Always this circus organ. And these creatures.” His irises were bordered by jaundiced whites, and his hair stood up on one side.
“I can’t hear anything,” I said. I hadn’t pitied him before, but his eyes were puffy, his lips twitching.
Clearly he was having a psychological break. “Why don’t we go back downstairs?”
He snarled and kicked at the door with surprising strength. I hadn’t thought he was capable of anything like that. The door cracked and at the second kick burst open. I lurched toward him as best I could — he was dangerous now — and caught his arm as he went through the door. We both fell and as I rolled over him to get a better grip I saw the magus.
She sat hunched over the calliope, the coils of her hair sticking to her bare back. Her torso was elongated and bent. The calliope shuddered as her long fingers struck the keyboard but all I heard was the rapid clack-clacking of keys, rising and falling. The room was unbearably hot — steam rose out of the calliope pipes in short, whispering puffs. Long scrolls of dry paper extruded from the water inch by inch with every moment she played on. Thick callouses had formed in the paper, thick enough to hold a person laid lengthwise. Three such callouses, one as tall as me and two infant length. A gallon jar stood at the head of each.
All I could hear were the keys, Groden’s snuffling under me, and the hacking breaths she took. Long, wet breaths. Nothing of music. I was struck with a dread that she would see my face, or, worse, that I would see hers. The bundle by the opposite wall, where I had sat, began to tremble.
I got Groden downstairs and back into his apartment. It was almost as sparse as Ranninger’s, but he at least had a kitchen table. He was bewildered, sapped of his earlier violence. The tiny dog yipped at me from underneath the bed. As I sat Groden in the kitchen he kept asking me, “But don’t you hear it? Why can’t you hear it?” He spent the night in a hotel, and in a week his apartment was vacant.
After that night the magus stopped answering my notes. After a month of silence, I knocked on her door uninvited, but after the fifth knock I realized that I was acting like Groden and went downstairs disheartened. For a year I watched the obituaries and the news for drownings. There were plenty: the hallway was heavily traveled after midnight. After three years someone new took the apartment upstairs and the masked visitors stopped. Eventually I moved as well, to live closer to the water.