4.02 / February 2009

From a Carriage Barn, Everything

Julia walked toward the carriage barn along the path through the long field. She loved its steep roof, its windows rippled with age, the hollow thump of the floorboards beneath her feet. Roger said the gorillas had returned. They’d been gone for over a year and she missed them. She was certain her brother was lying. I swear, he said. He held out his hands to show that he wasn’t crossing his fingers. Her grandfather’s grandfather moved here during the dark years. The family had lived ever since in the stone building overlooking the pond. They ate dinner on the porch, watched the waterfowl gather in the rushes, and listened to the peeper frogs at dusk.

Roger was three years older, but Julia could read better. He could skip stones, eat a whole pie, and pop “wheelies” on his bike, but books didn’t interest him. Books are for fairies, he said. At night, from her bedroom window, she’d seen fairies, their fulsome bodies flittering through the trees. During the day, Julia and Roger had run of the property, all the way to the stone walls, the large gates, and the road that swooped up past the barn and outbuildings. All of it was theirs, all of it empty. Their parents disappeared into the workroom early in the day and only reappeared for supper. At night, Julia was often called to read from one of the books in the library. She thought her voice inadequate. Occasionally, another family would visit, sometimes staying several months, but mostly Julia, with her small voice, felt alone.
Her favorite carriage barn window was around back under a tangle of willow branches. She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered through leaded glass. It took a few moments for her pupils to adjust, but it soon became apparent Roger was not, surprisingly, lying. At first the gorillas seemed like shades in the dark room, but soon enough, she could see them huddled around the sink. Water tricked into the basin. There were four or five adults and seven children. Julia tapped on the glass and waved. One of the adults came to the window and reached out a long leathery finger. It was the oldest female, Naomi. Julia pressed her forehead against the glass. Naomi, Julia whispered, I thought I’d never see you again. Naomi pursed her lips, nodded her head up and down.

The adults were talking in the atrium at the other end of the house. When Julia’s mother started playing the piano, Julia led her two friends out into the fields. The fireflies were thick as smoke. Julia knew that if their parents looked, they’d spot the girls dashing through the long grass. Their nightclothes billowed behind them and the fireflies twisted in the fabric. The girls became bouncing balls of lightning. Julia brought her guests to the carriage house, but the gorillas appeared to be gone. She was sullen as they returned, kicking at stones, knocking flowers from their stalks. They walked past the atrium and almost didn’t see the great apes peeking in the window. Julia pointed. Oh! she said, there you are! The gorillas turned to look at the girls for a moment, and then refocused their attention on the piano music, which rolled out of the open windows and into the night.

Take a left at the window with butterfly ripples. Go straight to the back wall. At the hutch in the corner with a broken lock, open the second drawer. Behind the drawer is another drawer. Inside is a box with an old crooked key. Take the key to the harness room. Spiders claim the old harnesses as homes; webs sway in the candlelight. A lock-box waits behind a map of the old country. The box is Julia’s, always. The babies, Bolton and Stowe, cling to Naomi’s arms and back, watching with their fat watery eyes. Julia shows them shiny things: a ring, a coin, a statue of a man holding a ball, a watch and bob, a belt buckle, a lock of hair in a silver locket. She doesn’t show them the pictures of an old couple or the booklet called Passport or the black journal that ties in the front. Those she saves to study alone, by candlelight. Sometimes Julia believes she actually lives in the carriage barn. The big stone house, the old porch, the pond, her family—all an intricate dream.

Delmore chased Roger home. He beat his chest in front of the aviary. His bellow echoed around the house. Julia was in the library. What did you do? she asked. Nothing, Roger said. The house smelled musty. Her parents were working. Julia set down her Jane Austen. It was drizzling. The air was cool and she was running. Dragonflies flew beside her, an escort. She was out of breath when she arrived. Near the back of the building, Roger had tried to start a fire. Delmore stood over the smoking remains. He’d stomped the flames, burned his palms and soles. Naomi comforted him, held his fingers, rubbed his head while he whined and moaned. I’m sorry, Julia said. Neither gorilla looked her way. Why did you do that? she asked Roger later when they were sitting by the big stonewall eating scones with cream. Go read a book, Roger said.

At the darkest hour, Julia went to the barn. The air smelled of cut onion-grass. The hem of her nightdress was soaked with dew. A light came from the doorway. She saw it from a hundred yards away. Closer, she shaded her eyes. Thousands of silent fireflies whirled inside the barn. The adult gorillas had unmade their nests, swept away remnants of their residence. The floor squeaked beneath Julia’s feet. The others turned, pointed and chattered. The insects poured through the gorilla’s door. Delmore bellowed from the other side. He was barely visible. Awash in light, only his eyes, those stern dark circles, remained. Naomi stepped toward him. Her black coat glimmered. She nodded her massive head. She held Julia’s treasure. Are you taking it? Julia said. Naomi cocked her head, sat back on her haunches. Is it because of Roger? Julia said. Naomi blew air through her lips. What about me? Naomi stood; Bolton and Stowe charged through the door, followed by all the rest. Naomi curled her fingers toward Julia, waved her arm toward the door. The fireflies careened through the opening, as if sucked into the spaces beyond. The carriage barn dimmed. Naomi stopped at the entrance, turned her head. She beckoned again and then disappeared. Julia, afraid, followed. Although fireflies clung to her nightshirt and glowed like stars, it seemed as though her radiance came from inside, perhaps near her heart, where it was warm.

4.02 / February 2009