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Skin and Stone

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They honeymooned in Greece because it could not be France.  To Robert France would never again be anything but fear and chilly mud: Florence would not take him through even its greenest and most peaceful countryside for all the Parisian book-stalls in the world.

“I d-don’t want to keep you from places,” Robert said.

“Please, you’d hardly be the only Englishman now or ever to break out into hives at the thought of everyone around you speaking French.”

He smiled his crooked smile.  “You’re too generous with my nightmares.”

“Robert, I am still afraid of lions.  Still afraid of lions when the only ones I’ve ever seen were inside my head—when they were a nightmare to cover up a nightmare.”  She took his hand up from where it rested on the blanket and laced her fingers through his.  “Besides, Greece is nobody’s compromise, not really.  I’ve always longed to see the insides of several Greek hotel rooms while we ignore the Parthenon.”

“Shall I call you Aphrodite while we’re there?”

“I never really wanted to be any of them, any of the goddesses.  They all had such runs of bad luck.  I’ll tell you what, though—I used to daydream sometimes about being Apollo.”  She raised one hand up to the sky, moving it as if she could brush away the glare.  The scratchy wool picnic blanket was swelteringly hot beneath her shoulders, but she was still not inclined to stand.  “Pulling the sun across the sky.”

Robert chuckled.  “Get to it, then.  Save my eyes.”

Greece in midsummer was for Florence a paradise of white stone, cool ocean, and hot blue sky.  They ate dolmades, the grape leaves slippery with olive oil, the filling cold and savory.  They stayed in remote villages and in frugal little inns with cracked ceilings and water-stains, stretching out each pound as far as it would go.  The start of term wouldn’t be for another three weeks and although neither of them said it, Florence knew they both felt an ache in their bones, almost a chill, at the thought of returning.

They wouldn’t be living in the school now, of course.  Married men could keep their own houses—headmaster’s writ.  (“How kind of him,” Florence said dryly.  “You know even if they couldn’t he’d permit it all the same, just to not have me hanging about.  I’m the only revenant that man’s worried about.”)  It wouldn’t be the same as that terrible stretch of days.  They would learn, as he would have said, to live generously around the nightmares.

“I could find another school,” Robert said one day.  He offered things to her so courteously now that she was sometimes hard-pressed to remember how rude they had been to each other when they’d first met.  Too much had happened since then.  He broke off a little bit of bread and swabbed it in oil.  “We wouldn’t have to go back.  Not for more than half a term, anyway.”

Florence shook her head.  “It’s a dismal place, but you made it less so.  And it used to be my home.”

“And now you’re a spiritualist.  Bringing dead things back to life.”

“Only dead memories.”  She caressed his hand, rubbing the pad of her finger against his wedding ring.  “I’d like to make some new ones.  With you.”

“You know the way to a man’s heart.”  He closed his hand around hers.  “Then we should start thinking about what we want to remember from this place, before we’re gone from it.”

Florence had been drinking ouzo, which the waiters pressed on them at every restaurant—part of their general plan to steer their bland English visitors to the bits of Greek cuisine they would throw the least fits about.  Its licorice-sweetness in her mouth and cold fire in her belly gave her a kind of borrowed courage.

“There’s a ruin a few miles from here.”  She looked at the nest made by their hands.  You could shelter something fragile in the soft steadiness of their shared grip, she thought, a bird’s egg or a precious jewel.  Together they could be trusted not to break things.  She smiled, aware that her mouth trembled a little as she continued.  “Supposed to be haunted.”

Robert raised his eyebrows.  “And that’s your idea of a memory to take home?”

“I’m going to have to climb back on the horse sooner or later,” Florence said.  “I can’t go the rest of my life doing nothing but writing.”

She’d have a house to keep, she thought he might say, but he didn’t; he only patted his mouth with his napkin and nodded.  She could not grow used to him, to the way he accepted her strangeness as a match for his own.  They had argued about ghosts and God and manners, yes, but not her trousers or her ambitions or even her cervical cap.  She loved him in a way that went beyond her heart all the way to her backbone, to the support of her in her entirety, but she wasn’t yet accustomed to him.  From the way he looked at her sometimes, he too was still surprised by her.  In bed in the mornings, with the white sunlight warming their bodies, he always ran his hand down her back—squinted at the smearily printed English newspapers they bought and left streaks of ink on her skin.  Little tattoos, Florence thought of them, these little marks of mutual possession, like bruises or the wedding rings themselves.

“Now what are you thinking about?” Robert asked, his mouth curving upwards.

“You,” Florence said honestly.

It put a trace of pink in his face.  “Never mind me.”

“On our honeymoon, Robert?  I should think that would be very rude.”

“And now you’re teasing me.”  He put his foot against hers under the table.  She could feel the firm leather of his shoe against her thinner one.  “You’re a wicked woman, Florence.”

“I would hope so.  I’ve been told it often enough.”

“What’s the place?” Robert said.  “Why's it supposed to be haunted?”

“They’re catacombs.”

“Two answers in one,” he said dryly.

“Among everything else, they’re by all accounts stunning, just too far from any real city to get travelers in.  Like the ones at Milos, but smaller.”

“Like Milos.  So they’re Christian.”

“I suppose so.  Is that a relief to you?”

“Somewhat, yes.”  He shrugged.  “I can’t hear half the hymns anymore, of course, but I still like the places they get sung in.  And consecrated ground—that was something to hope for, back in the trenches.”  He took the last of her ouzo.  “And now I’ve embarrassed you.  The war’s a trump card every time.  I should be careful of that.”

“I don’t want you to be careful with me at all,” Florence said.  “And God knows I don’t want to start being careful with you, not at this point.  It would be like going backwards.”

“There’s my girl.”

“Yes, irreligious and rude.”

“And with secrets she’s not yet divulged,” Robert said lightly.  “Your catacombs, Florence.  Tell me about them.”

She shook off all the temptations of his gaze.  If he hadn’t gone for the last of her damn drink, she at least could have cooled herself down again.  There was no use wanting him this badly when it would be hours before they’d be sure of a quiet room again.

“Right.  They’re carved into volcanic rock.  No beauty to them, really, just grandeur, that something so old still stands when human hands have made it.  And that it’s so empty, used only for the dead.  It’s a lonely place.”

“I should think.”

She looked at the lowering twilight, a shelf of lavender light upon the blue.  “I suppose its ghosts must be lonely as well.”

“If they exist at all.”

“If they exist at all,” she agreed.  “I’m not going to rush all innocent and wide-eyed into every charlatan’s arms now, don’t worry.  Knowing there’s medicine in the world doesn’t mean I’d believe in any tonic sold from the back of a truck.  But if this is a lie, it’s at least one that sprung up on its own.  No one is making any money off it, preying on people’s grief.  It may be wrong, but it’s not unconscionable.”

“I suppose they’ll use that in their promotions from now on, Greece will, if we tell their heads of state about it.  Come to Greece, birthplace of democracy, Florence Cathcart says it’s ‘not unconscionable.’”

“Oh, shut up.”  She kicked gently at his foot.  “And it’s Florence Mallory now anyway, isn’t it?  Except on the spines of the books.”

He nodded.  “Can’t quite get used to that.  You’ll always be Florence Cathcart to me.  That’s the name you autographed for me, after all.”

Florence groaned.  “Please don’t remind me of that.”  But she was a little pleased by his matter-of-fact declaration—as if to him she would always be herself, even if they lay back-to-belly in the dark, even if wedding announcements and invitations blurred them into one.  Mr. and Mrs. Robert Mallory.  Strange not to mind that—or, more honestly, not mind it much—but still like him holding back from it a bit.

They persuaded a local grocer to loan them his car for the afternoon, hammering out a deal for it in their painfully bad Greek until the man took pity on him and, of all things, finished hashing it out with Robert in Classical Latin.  Florence had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing at the grimace on Robert’s face as he fumbled his way through something he associated with particularly distasteful schoolrooms.  But it got them finally on their way, thank God.

The catacombs were, as Florence had said, close, though unfortunately some distance from the road.  She decided not to ask Robert if his leg would bear the walk—he would only say that it would, in any case.  They set out.  The ground at least was dry and mostly smooth.  He wasn’t having a hard time of it, she concluded, and thought how good it would be when they’d had years together to learn each other’s limits, how thankful they would both be to be able to better protect each other.

They stopped at the entrance to the catacombs.

“They’re like caves, aren’t they?” Robert said.  His voice echoed around inside those walls and came back to them, obedient as a dog.

“They’re not all built into the existing rock.  I believe parts of them are supposed to be free-standing, it’s just so hard to see—damn it all, we should have waited until tomorrow morning.”

“Ah, but ghosts are best at twilight.”

She huffed.  “You’re an incurable romantic, Robert.”

“I’m only a man who doesn’t want to get up early to look at tombs.  I’m sensible that way.  Come on, Florence, there’s light enough yet.  Besides, we’ve got the torch, God knows I spent enough time finding the right bloody Latin for it.”

True enough.  With the torch beam wobbling ahead of them, they entered the catacombs.

It had the hush of all long-abandoned places—that total absence of human sound that made one so exquisitely aware of how much in the universe had nothing to do with humanity at all.  Florence listened and heard the faint wing flutters of beetles, the drip of water, the stirring of dust, the heavy and patient audible weight of rock settling against rock.  Perhaps all such places were haunted, she thought, by the ghosts the mind projected into them.  People preferred even terror to awe, really: they would rather make up comprehensible monsters than feel the sublime for what it was.

But no—or it was not only that—she was not ever, it seemed, to be wholly wrong or right.  For all the scope of this place, they were still inside it themselves, after all.  Lives and deaths both could be led in the shadows of these tombs, mighty as they were.  People got by, in the end.  She thought of poor Tom, nearly always alone, for years and years—people survived on such dry crusts and in such infinitesimal cracks.

“What do you think?” Robert said.

Florence listened to the life and death around her, the history and the present.  “I have no idea.”

“Here, you’re shaking.”  He took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders, wrapping his arm around her.  “We don’t have to stay, you know.”

“You don’t mind it,” she said curiously, turning her head against him.  “You don’t feel anything strange.”

“Not the way you seem to.  Respect, yes.  It’s as grand as you said.  But—it reminds me of the deepest and safest parts of the trenches.”

“The consecrated ground.”

He squeezed her shoulders.  “More or less.  Anyway, we’ve each only seen our own ghosts.  Maybe they can’t stand on their own.  Not even here.”

“But I would like to see one,” Florence said, surprised by the slight throb in her voice, the fervency.  So she had a preference after all—she would have to watch that, in the days to come, would have to be careful not to let herself be fooled.  But for now she was with Robert in the earliest days of their life together and she wanted all she wanted.  She said into the silence, “Please show yourself to us if you’re there.”

Drip, flutter.  Nothing.

Then a snatch of melody, high-pitched and wavering.  Pipe-music, Florence thought dizzily, or something from a flute.

“Do you hear that?” she whispered.

Robert jerked his head up in a mute yes.

“I think it’s an invitation,” Florence said.

“Well, you would,” Robert said, but he inched forward with her, each step bringing them closer to whatever invisible player kept them company.

When the ghost came, it was a quiet, pale little creature, just as solid to her as Tom had been.  A young girl, perhaps fifteen, with dark pinned-up curls.

“Are you buried here?” Florence said.

The girl shook her head.  “Do I look like I’m buried here?”  She spoke perfect English, not even slightly accented by Greek—something made the connection for them, something bridged the gap.  She would have to write about that for The Interpretation of Ghosts.  “Do I look like I’m in a toga?”

She was wearing an ordinary skirt and a blouse with slightly yellowed sleeves.

“She has you there,” Robert murmured.  So he saw her too.  He raised his voice.  “Why are you here, then?”

“Why are you?”

We’re looking for ghosts, Florence almost answered, but it seemed somehow rude, as it would have been rude to mention Robert’s leg to him when he knew it better than she did.  The girl knew she’d died—there was no point rubbing it in.  “We’re on our honeymoon.”

“That’s nice,” the girl said.  “No one ever comes here anymore.  And the others—they’re so old they’re just music now.  They echo and echo but there’s no one.”  Her mouth twisted.  “I wish I’d had a honeymoon.”

“I’m sure you would have,” Florence said.  “You’re very pretty.”

“I didn’t even die here.  I died at home.  But I used to play here sometimes—I don’t know why this is where I am.  I’m not here always, it’s so lonely it hurts.  But I could feel you.  Where are you from?”

“England,” Robert said.

“Is it as cold and rainy there as people say?”

Robert smiled.  “Sometimes rather worse, at least in my part of it.  In autumn it seems as though the fog never lifts.”

“I like the fog,” the girl said.  “When it’s really thickly foggy it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not.  It seems like everyone’s the same.”

There was something about the sharp-faced irritability of her, the streak of sullenness and wistfulness, the confusion and loneliness, the slight warming-up at their kindness—she reminded Florence very much of herself.  “What’s your name?”

“Kallia.”

“Kallia, do you want to visit us in England sometime?  Can you do that?”

Kallia studied her and then said, “I know what you are.  You’re a witch.”

“She’s no such thing,” Robert said firmly.  “Florence is an investigator into spiritualism and associated matters.”

“And a bit of a medium of late,” Florence said, “which sits a little uneasily beside the things I’ve always known about myself.  But I’ve been told mediums have spirit guides—people who are with them sometimes, who burn brightly enough that they can light pathways.  People like you.”  She impulsively plucked a button off Robert’s jacket where it was still on her shoulders.  She pitched it forward until it rolled at—and through—Kallia’s feet.  “Maybe that will help you find us someday, if you want to.”

Kallia didn’t answer, but when she vanished, the button vanished with her.

“A spirit guide,” Robert said, raising his eyebrows.

“You have your students, I’ll have mine.”  The hush of the catacombs felt different around her now: concluded, somehow.  And she had stopped shaking it.

She had found ghosts again—and, she supposed, a piece of her childhood once again, one way or another—and all had been well.  If she had done all that, she could return to England, to the house that she would begin to teach herself to think of as a school, to the newer house that she would begin to allow herself to think of as a home.  She might even learn to sew and put a new button on the jacket.

“Kiss me, Robert,” she said.

He did, his hand warm against her chin.  “I love you.”  He said it often.

She was beginning to say it often as well.  A freezing-out of sentiment had not stopped her heart from breaking—she wouldn’t have such a flimsy protection compromise her with him, make her appear to care for him any less than she did.  She had spent so much time with the dead and would make her career out of spending still more—but this, this was life, this desire and loyalty in the semi-dark, the two of them sore-bodied and finally unafraid.