The black threads sewn into Cordelia’s cheeks remind Anais of the patchwork quilts the villagers make from tattered pants and old shirts. She does not tell Cordelia this, afraid of scaring away the only friend who visits her at the lighthouse that no longer lights. Cordelia is particular about these visits, only appearing when it rains, the wails of high winds attracting waves in the night that throw themselves over the jagged rocks to caress the sides of the lighthouse.
On these nights, Anais lights a fire while Cordelia takes her place atop a wooden stool in the center of the room. Each woman knows her role. Anais, the artist, with too little to say in the form of words, whose creased brown-skinned hands are forever scarred with streaks of black pencil lead. Cordelia, the subject, with sentences that carry the scent of their childhood—cigars and clementines—with each carefully chosen word.
Tonight, however, Cordelia is silent. Even her breaths die somewhere within her.
Anais focuses on Cordelia’s eyes to avoid asking about the threads. Her friend is always in a state of wonder, eyes flitting to the slightest movement. This is what Anais likes about Cordelia, that she can remain still, patient, allowing Anais time to witness the slight change that lies beneath the curvatures of Cordelia’s face. But the black threads draw Anais’ attention, how they stretch and loop, Cordelia’s tongue playing in their spaces. Anais counts the number of times Cordelia’s tongue avoids being caught between thread and skin. She reaches five before realizing Cordelia is speaking to her. When she reaches eight, she hears the words Cordelia is saying.
“My mother is cheating on me.”
“The water for her tea must burn the surface of my hand. Only then does my mother know it’s the right temperature.”
Cordelia covers her cheeks—her threads—with her hands and Anais sees the scars for the first time. Scars that she must have mistaken for veins all these years. Anais begins to draw faint lines on the white spaces surrounding Cordelia’s portrait.
“I show her these scars as proof.” Cordelia whispers to the particles of dust that play in her breath. “Carry the flashlight in my mouth so when she traces them, her nails painted with green ink, I can bite down without blood sprouting from my taste buds.”
“Why?” Anais needs the answer. Not to comfort her friend, but to capture the emotion twitching Cordelia’s eyes.
“Because I am suffering.” The threads go slack within the small punctured holes within Cordelia’s cheeks and she—smiles? “We both are,” Cordelia whispers.
Anais tries to remember the last time Cordelia smiled at her.
“I went to my mother’s room, tea in hand and flashlight in my mouth. I did my best to avoid the floorboards that creaked under my bare feet. To control the pitch of the click when turning the doorknob, the sigh it released once opened.”
Anais traces every line. Darker every time Cordelia bites her lip. Lighter every time her skin sinks within the bone pits that form her collarbone.
“And I found them on my mother’s bed reading a story that I once loved, so involved with each other that neither noticed when the teacup shattered on the floor. Or the flashlight slipped from my—”
Anais sketches the knotting of Cordelia’s lips while searching for the right word. A word, Anais imagines, struggling to scale Cordelia’s ribs.
“And her,” Cordelia chews on the word, “head resting on my mother’s lap asking What happens next?”
To understand Cordelia’s rage and Anais’ indifference is to understand the island they live on and the waves that overwhelm its beaches. For this is an island for the barren, whether they be male or female. On nights when the cicadas harmonize with crickets, children wash upon the island’s shores. The people descend, whispering a name as a promise to claim the child.
But not all of the children who wash upon the island’s shores are wanted. Those who are left unclaimed wander the beaches, calling names they have overheard or create in hopes that someone might respond. Some of the children eventually return to the water. Those who remain curl their bodies to mimic the shells of hermit crabs, their skin turning to salt, their bones to sand.
All except Anais.
Though she cannot see the waves that form below her lighthouse, she can hear them calling forth the day she washed ashore with Cordelia, a black thread binding their pointer fingers, turning them purple and cold. They stood together without names. A woman approached and pulled at their thread. She hugged Cordelia, but not Anais. Kissed Cordelia’s eyes and cheeks and whispered promises she withheld from Anais. She played with Cordelia’s hair, marveled at how it twisted around her fingers and flowed so easily. Anais’ curls rebelled in tightly wound tantrums.
The woman pleaded to the villagers for something, anything, to sever the thread. Anais remembers the tug and pull as the teeth of a strangers’ house keys gnawed and frayed the black string. How Cordelia’s piece swung in the air between them while she waved goodbye and Anais’ lay limp against her leg.
Anais thinks about her child-self, abandoned on the beach between the spiraled bodies of children in the sand. How a thought blossomed in her toes, its warmth crawling up her legs until her knees bent and she took two steps forward.
There must be more.
Her steps led her to darkened windows where she crouched beneath their sills, repeated the words the villagers taught the chosen children before a shoe struck Anais’ head or she was bathed in cold water.
She discovered treats tucked away in silver wrappers she mined from trash cans, learned how to side-step and observe all who would not have her. When Anais found the lighthouse, she convinced herself that this discarded structure would be her second friend, believing Cordelia would always be her first.
She traced the letters on the bronze plaque drilled into its side and, in doing so, gifted herself a name:
THE LIGHTHOUSE OF ANAIS ISLE
Anais can’t remember when she first started drawing. Perhaps when she was painting the lighthouse’s walls or within the margins of a stolen book. Cordelia, whose mother insisted she become a beautiful lady like the princesses kept in unreachable towers, was the first to see Anais’ drawings of dragons and dying kings. The first to sit for a portrait, to take the drawings outside the lighthouse, to utter the word “beautiful” in relation to Anais.
Now, in the lantern room, Anais gazes at the portraits she’s created. Of Cordelia, of the children on the beach, and of the villagers clinging to one another, their feet swallowed by the tide.
Within each portrait is a thread, weaving itself in the veins of the sand, the ocean, and the veins that swell beneath skin until their endings are left dangling, just out of Anais’ reach.
An apple core leaves a damp peck on Anais’ cheek before falling to the floor. A side-ways glance reveals Cordelia leaning against the railing of the staircase.
“Finally,” Cordelia sighs.
Anais kicks the core to Cordelia who balances her foot on its center with such care that, at any moment, she could balance on top of her discarded snack and roll anywhere she pleases. “I was talking,” she says.
“I know.” Anais swallows a smile.
“Anais,” Cordelia plucks the skin beneath her jaw, a habit she picked up from a stranger, “you can’t just leave.”
Anais wishes she could bottle the eyes of mothers as they gaze upon their children, the hands of their fathers when they reach to lift a child and place them on their shoulders. To contain the child’s chorus of again over and over again, again, aga—
Cordelia raises her hands, kisses the back of her palms. “Mother dyed her hair to be the same as mine.”
Anais searches the lantern for a sketch featuring the look that collapses Cordelia’s face, causing the threads to disappear through her teeth.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No.” The portrait is pinned behind a mother rubbing noses with her son. “But, your arms and legs turned your dresses into napkins. Your hair used to be filled with soft curls that flirted with the air until it took root in foreign places. Your voice no longer evokes innocence or causes adults to gather around you, complementing your cute giggles or sighing about how precious you are.”
“And whose fault—”
“It’s no one’s.” Anais shifts her drawings, tugging on their dangling threads so they circle one of the portraits of Cordelia as a child, smiling from a nest made of her mother’s bent legs. “It’s everyone’s.”
Cordelia moves through the silence that lingers between them. She takes Anais’ hands and allows Anais’ fingers to caress the black threads sewn within her cheeks. Anais plays them as, she imagines, harp strings are played. She wonders what kind of songs these threads would hum if they could.
“You never asked what happened.”
“You didn’t want me to.”
Cordelia’s laugh is quiet and contained in her throat. She releases Anais and goes to the glass windows surrounding the lantern. “I thought, if my cheeks were higher, my smile wider, if the wrinkles were gone then maybe, she would still want me.”
Anais walks behind Cordelia and embraces her. The closeness makes her palms sweat. Cordelia’s hair nips at her skin.
“I thought I could be what she needed.”
Anais doesn’t let her go.
“I thought I could become what she wanted.”
Below, the ocean flicks the tips of jagged rocks. The moon gazes at its reflection in the distance. The cicadas harmonize with crickets. The children arrived when the ships stopped. The ships stopped because the lighthouse lantern went dark. Now, with Cordelia in her arms, Anais notices how this darkness stretches over the beach with sand made of bone and salt waters made of skin. She mouths There must be more into Cordelia’s spine.
“I should leave.”
Anais nods and steps away, retreating to her portraits and dangling threads. “Take one before you go,” and she tries to provide a smile with the offer but, in the dark, Anais’ face feels like it’s shattering.
She’s thankful Cordelia never looks.
Cordelia turns to face Anais, the threads in her cheeks coiling in her small smile.
“Why are there no portraits of you?”
Anais considers the use of a self-portrait. To sketch her features on canvas, not for the villagers or Cordelia, but for herself. The villagers ask that Anais keep the portraits of their children so they may look upon them when their children collapse in a rage or becomes sick and no longer have the strength to leave their beds. However, if Anais were to add her face to her lantern of portraits, who would come to see her?
What would be her value?
“I should leave.” Cordelia repeats, her shoulder touching Anais’.
“I didn’t answer—”
“You didn’t have to.”
They stare in opposite directions, Cordelia towards the portraits and Anais out the glass windows witnessing the heads of children rise from the ocean’s surface.
“Here.” Cordelia pinches the threads in her cheeks until she is able to pull them from their holes. Two long strands curl in Anais’ palm.
Cordelia’s holes emit strained distant whistles every time she breathes.
She descends the spiral staircase, abandoning her unfinished portrait, browning apple core, and black threads. Anais clutches what remains of her friend, watches how Cordelia’s hair argues with the wind, how she walks in zig-zag patterns.
Anais thinks about Cordelia’s cheeks, her holes, the scars on the surface of her hands. About the thread that once hung between them and the threads she clutches. The glass pane groans upon opening and the portraits shiver, rise, and coil in the wind.
They flee from the darkened lantern, to the jagged rocks, to the ocean and beach. Slam into windows and cling to the faces of villagers, their corners leaving scars.
The portraits surround the woman soaking her toes at the edge of waves. She extends her arms to the incoming children, whistling lullabies through the holes in her cheeks.
Kiley Lee is a Pushcart nominated poet and artist, with work in multiple publications and exhibitions across the United States. She lives in the Appalachian foothills with her family and loves staring at the clouds. Find her on Twitter @KBogart10.
K.B. Carle lives and writes outside Philadelphia, constantly huddled next to her beloved space heater, surrounded by mechanical pencils and eraser shavings. She earned her MFA from Spalding University’s Low-Residency program in Kentucky and her stories have appeared in CHEAP POP, genre2, Jellyfish Review, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at http://kbcarle.com/ or on Twitter @kbcarle.