Guest judge Karen Russell awarded "Case Studies in Ascension" first prize in the 2012 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.
The anthropologist uses the knocker first—two widely spaced raps—then the doorbell, though only once. Through the warped glass windows I see him step back on the porch and fold one hand over the other. I expected him to be covered in dirt. Dressed in deerskin. Khaki.
But no. When I swing the door open, I confirm he's wearing black and white: suit jacket, tailored pants, no tie. He has a strong Roman nose and a thin upper lip that looks like an erased mistake against the fullness of the lower one. The only thing that is exactly as I imagined is his hair, the color of a Connecticut October, trailing down his neck and curling around his ears. And so much of it. I welcome him to the house by thrusting my arm into the foyer and jerking my head in the same direction.
"Hajimemashite," he says, removing his shoes before coming inside, "Nolan desu. Douzo yoroshiku." His bright hair falls over his face as he bows at the waist. I nudge the door closed and walk toward the kitchen.
He stands alone for a moment, then bounds forward to catch up with me. I feel his hand on my shoulder, and my bare toes curl against the hardwood.
"Wait—matte kudasai," he says. "Do you speak English?"
"Is that a serious question?"
He opens and closes his mouth, forming words and abandoning them. He notices me staring, and I turn away.
"You left your shoes outside," I mutter. "If they stay on the porch they'll grow mold."
"I'm sorry, I thought—" He looks stricken as he turns for the door.
"Don't," I say. "Really. Please just sit. I'll be back in a second. Water's on the boil, should be ready in a bit."
Outside on the porch, I crouch to examine his shoes. It doesn't look like he drove; little shards of gravel are stuck in the treads, probably from the trek down our winding quarter-mile driveway. I give the shoes a good shake before bringing them into the foyer.
When I return Obaa-san is already in the kitchen, sitting in her usual chair at the head of the table, folded over. She has managed to pin her long, white hair herself. I can tell by the worry lines shading the anthropologist's brow that he did not make his introductions to Obaa-san in her native Japanese. This was a mistake.
I spoon loose sencha into the teapot and carry it to the table over a porcelain dish to catch the spills. The anthropologist has placed a black notebook before him, resting a hand on its soft cover. A pen with a scratched-off state university logo on its side lies capped nearby. I reach around him to set his teacup, expecting him to move out of my way, and my arm brushes against the collar of his shirt.
The room is quiet as I sit down. Our table feels smaller with three people around it—we haven't had company since we lost my parents to ascension eight years ago.
The anthropologist clears his throat, but I know how conversations with Obaa-san go: we must wait for her to speak. Since her eighty-third birthday last summer she's been sickly, narcoleptic. Without the energy or the will to keep her feet on the ground, she’s been ascending at a rapid pace. I glance up in every room I enter, expecting to find her with her back flat to the ceiling. I keep the windows shut, though she complains of stale air.
"Mister anthropologist," Obaa-san says.
"Nolan. Please." He clears his throat once more, then leads with what seem to be prepared remarks. "I want to thank you again for inviting me into your home. I promise I won't be invasive—no, quite the opposite: I'll be a shadow. A fly. You'll hardly notice me. If I could now go over the terms, so we're clear—”
She holds up a hand. Under the table she grips the bottom of her seat, afraid she'll lift off and embarrass herself. "I know," she says. "Three weeks." We watch her move her lips as she grasps at what she wants to say. "For now, your home is our home. Learn what you can and leave."
He nods. "I understand. Yes. I do have some preliminary questions—"
But she is already creaking to her feet. "Whatever you need you will have to coax from my granddaughter."
I feel my mouth twist in displeasure and hide it with a sip of tea. The water is too hot and sears my tongue. Obaa-san turns to look at me. "Now I would like to sleep," she says.
I swallow, setting down my cup to help her up the stairs, but the anthropologist intervenes.
"Wait," he says. His hand is on my shoulder again. "I don’t think you've told me your name."
I look down. Focus on my feet. "No."
He waits for me to speak.
When I don't, he lets me go.
My mother met my father in an airplane flying over the Sea of Japan. She was, despite Obaa-san's strident objections, a stewardess at the time—just nineteen, my age, as pale and insubstantial as a sheet of paper. Her black hair was set in pins, coiling around and around itself atop her head. Was it bravery to defy her own mother and land a career that forced her to face our family affliction, or was it rebellion? Maybe just foolishness.
My father was a curator whose work took him all over the world, and my mother was instantly smitten. They married in Okinawa and then settled at the estate where we now live, an inheritance from his parents.
Obaa-san came to Ridgefield on a twenty-two-hour flight from Hayama, her seatbelt cinched so tight it left a mottled purple sash around her waist for days after. She'd intended to visit for only a few weeks; but, unable to endure the return trip, she stayed.
She admits that the moment she first saw my father—in his bespoke suit, dipping respectfully at the waist—she felt the air whoosh out of her. Even Obaa-san couldn't have guessed how fast he'd leave us. A man of such iron resolve. Love is a tricky thing, dangerous, she often says, in the way it fools us into thinking we've found something safe, something substantial and immovable to which to tether ourselves—in the way it pulls even our beloved off their feet.
By the time I was born, my father had taken to wearing shoes weighted with metal. He'd leave the house for weeks on business, and my mother—despondent and lonely—would float from room to room, barely remembering to duck her head under the doorframes. Obaa-san was appalled. Control yourself, she warned. But my mother could not.
They ascended within weeks of one another. My father, having forgotten himself, stepped outside barefoot to retrieve the newspaper—a momentary mistake, and his last—and after he went, my mother had to follow.
Obaa-san, twenty-six years a widow, says the way to live out your days on earth, touching ground, is to live them for yourself. She sounds so sure.
Our home is a heritage colonial on eight acres of forest and grass gone to seed in the shadow of two bulging hills. It has a wraparound porch, a tire swing, an old barn bleached rubbed-eye-red from the sun, a frog pond choked with slime. The black shutters are pocked with moss, and every season it seems like more and more shingles are missing from the roof—or such was the case when we still went outside.
No one comes here anymore. My father was well known in the county, but the nature of his death made him infamous. The neighbors, few and far between, are scared.
On the first morning of his stay, I watch the anthropologist from the hallway as he fills a ceramic cup with water from the kitchen tap.
"That is for hot drinks," I say. "The glasses are in the cupboard above the utensil drawer."
He ducks his head, ashamed of such a minor offense, then empties the cup with haste and places it delicately on the counter by the dishwasher. I make a dismissive noise in the back of my throat, which I regret immediately afterward, knowing it is undeserved.
Around midday, he requests a formal tour of the house. "There's just so much here," he says, standing in the foyer and gesturing to the walls with his notebook, while I arrange and rearrange the three pairs of shoes by the door for something to do.
I trail after him through the rooms, speaking when he turns and appeals to me. Here, the kitchen, which he has already seen; here, a bathroom, with a small patch of bald concrete by the sink, where I once pried loose a stone, thinking it looked so much like a jewel; here, the study, with its antique desk and shelves of books—a pool table, too, for my father, though its green felt has long since been buried in a thick layer of dust.
"Since what?" he wants to know, a cube of faded blue chalk resting in his palm.
"I don't know. Since—" I point toward the ceiling and shrug. He waits for me to say more, but again I disappoint him.
He studies the titles on the shelves, and I linger at the entry, watching him. He moves to a set of closed double doors, tracing the filigree of their brass handles.
"And in here?"
"Oh—no." I start forward. "No, that's just—"
Before I can reach him, he takes hold of both handles and pushes through. A ribbon of cold air accosts me and then dissipates in the warmth of the study.
"Jesus," he says. "Jesus. What is this, a ballroom?" His voice echoes in the high-ceilinged space, and when he laughs, his breath comes out in cirrus-like puffs.
"Living room," I say curtly. "We don't use it anymore."
Neither Obaa-san nor I have been in here since my mother ascended. The air is damp—the big bay window through which my mother made her escape was never shut again. The white sheets that hang over the fireplace mantle, the rosewood armchairs, the fainting couch, the baby grand piano—they are all weathered and reek of earth and rot. Even the lacquered floor feels swollen against my wavering feet.
A few beads of cut crystal are scattered across the center of the room, beneath the behemoth chandelier. My eyes float up to its underbelly and trace what I believe to be the thread of a cobweb, twisting through the chains. Yet then I squint and realize it is a hair—long, straight, black.
My mother would teach me bits of Japanese, whatever she managed to remember, whenever the memory struck. Her head was so full of my father—her love, her grief—she had room for little else. The day she ascended she listened to me introduce myself over and over again at the breakfast table—Hello, my name is Miu and Nice to meet you; good-bye.
I later found her on the ceiling of the living room, twenty feet in the air, her dark hair swimming around her inconsolable face. There was rain, but even so, my mother asked if I wouldn't open the window, let the house breathe.
I didn't know how to say no—not to her. I turned to look for Obaa-san, but my mother stopped me.
A final lesson today, she said. Onegaishimasu: please.
Late in the afternoon, I gaze out the window and find the anthropologist up in the squat maple tree by the frog pond. Beyond him, the abandoned garden is a fright—even the weeds have browned and curled into themselves.
I step into my father's metal shoes and move tentatively into the cold and unfamiliar wind.
"There you are," he says above me. The branches shake as he shifts position. "Might I ask you something?"
It takes a full minute for me to understand that the hand he's extending is the question. I hesitate, looking back to the safety of the house.
"I can't," I say.
He tells me he will protect me.
I close my eyes and say yes.
In amongst the leaves the tree creaks, but the wind does not blow through. The anthropologist is sitting on a thick bough tucked into the bend of the trunk, and he holds me until I settle beside him.
"Well?" he asks.
"It's . . . all right," I say, though it is not at all how I expected it to be—it is lovely.
He smiles, and I look away. "So," he says, "ascension—a unique situation. To some people—"
"People," I say with disdain, folding a brittle leaf over itself until it breaks, "often talk of things they don't know about." A gust buffets the tree beneath us, and I dig my nails into the bark. "Why would anyone care about us, anyway?"
An old woman at the end of her life and a hermit girl. Her loneliness and mine, dissected in a case study, collecting dust on some shelf in a university library. I haven't decided how I feel about his proposal. As it is we can leave this world without any evidence that we were ever here at all.
He looks down. I watch the pale shadows on his face evaporate in the late sun, and I wonder how much of the world he has seen. How he can understand so little when he has had so many years to learn, years when I've remained here with my grandmother in this overgrown place, anchored by a weightless family inheritance.
Without a word I kick off my father's shoes and slide from the branch. My bare toes scrabble at bark—and then at open air—before sinking into the wet and decomposing earth.
"Oh fuck. Are you OK?"
The anthropologist makes his distressed way down, and I smile up at him—mud in my hair, leaves up my skirt, the farthest from the stratosphere I've ever been.
I wipe the porcelain clean of dust and draw a bath in my mother's tub. I run the water too hot, and when I pull the plug I'm red-skinned. I look at my reflection in the mirror, over-scrubbed and thoroughly cooked, and spy a little black bump in the valley between my neck and collarbone: a tick.
The anthropologist brings the tweezers, the rubbing alcohol, the roll of Scotch tape. "Hold still," he tells me, and he grips my shoulder tight. I flinch when the sharp end pierces my skin, but he pries the thing off without halting his progression.
"Thanks," I whisper.
"My fault, really," he says. "Any more?"
"I don’t know." The words flutter above us.
Tentatively, he parts and re-parts my wet hair, the tips of his fingers sweeping delicately across my scalp.
"This?" he says, stopping at a spot behind my right ear.
"Just a freckle."
"You're sure." His breath on the back of my neck.
"Yes," I say. Or try. My voice is airless, my lungs pressed upon.
I turn and catch his lower lip. For minutes we stand like this—his hands hovering above my still hips—then I wiggle my toes, and he fills my mouth with his tongue. He lifts me to the countertop, and I feel something in me rising. With his hands clamped around my thighs, boring into my skin, I let it rise right out of me.
I never knew my grandfather, but Obaa-san says he died unremarkably. Heart problems. To date, he is the only member of our family to have been buried. My mother didn't understand how Obaa-san could continue to see each day to its end without him, saying she herself would rather go mad with grief than dull with forgetfulness. To which Obaa-san replied, Ishiko, you, too, have a weak heart.
When the anthropologist finds me in the morning, I am out by the frog pond in my old pea coat, tying rocks under the arches of my feet. The hem of my nightgown flaps behind me in the merciless wind.
"Miu," he says—his cheeks are strafed red—"Miu!"
At dawn I woke with my nose a few inches from the ceiling, while he slept on beneath me. I took deep, even breaths, thinking of what he'd asked me in the night: Are you afraid?
A gale whips the hair from his face, and I see that he's wild-eyed. "Your grandmother," he says, "she . . ." The skin under my coat dimples to gooseflesh.
I stumble on the stones, and he gathers me in his arms and rushes back into the house and up the stairs, slamming his back against Obaa-san's heavy bedroom door, which gives under his weight.
The canopy bed is empty, its valances blown taught and twitching.
"I heard a crash," he says, breathless.
The big sixteen-pane window is swinging violently on its hinge, smashing against the wall, echoes of glass breaking over and over again. I shuck the rocks from my feet and hurry toward the window, bracing myself against the sill. High above the house, a dark figure drifting, getting smaller.
The anthropologist grips my wrist, and I realize I have lifted my knee onto the sill. The wind draws around me, embracing me, coaxing me after my grandmother. I glance back to the anthropologist and see him poised at the ledge. I wonder if he is ready to follow.
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