by Kristen Iskandrian
The last time the Rationalists came for dinner, everything in the house was sweating. The windows had swelled shut and the fans were broken, and they were startled and upset to find me, skirt up, in front of the open refrigerator. I ahemmed, and although miffed, they took a seat in the living room with the olives.
The kitchen was a precious mess. I wiped the counters down with potholders and dabbed a little seltzer behind each ear. I straightened my apron and ran sticky fingers through my hair, which was floured. In the glass of the fine china cabinet I looked for a tell-tale sign—trepidation, maybe, or a corrective calm. I saw nothing but myself, hazy, and the stove clock numbers, crisp and backward. I was, as usual, to have no forecast.
The Rationalists had brought receipts, wine made from grapes they’d picked themselves—“a stunning vintage,” they scowled, “the best, inarguably”—and pillows from their own bed. I hoped it would not come to an all-night affair, but I plucked the pillows from them excitedly, made them into an inviting pile. They were just soft so as not to be hard, and they smelled like fresh tears. Meanwhile, everything was beginning to absorb its own moisture; the olives were desiccated, our mouths dry and too salty to bend. “One moment,” the Rationalists said, and left, single-file. They came back with batteries and fans, new fans with no dust on their blades whose wind was strong enough to move the chimes outside in the airless air. Inside, though, all was still; the purr settled over the room and made it comfortable, if a bit terrifying, and the Rationalists had meanwhile fixed, grudgingly, my broken fans and carried them upstairs to the attic.
I brought out the soup, steaming and roiling in a copper tureen, and set it on the table. Three days it had taken to make, hundreds of dollars in saffron. At four that morning, as I was trimming parsnip turrets for garnish, I remembered that it was summertime, and the smell of the soup made me wretched. (The turrets were—bless my heart!—supposed to be mini-Bastilles; I had learned the hard way that my beloved callers were Francophiles.) I held the ladle to my bare leg for eight seconds as punishment. I marched out into the vegetable garden and screamed my favorite verse. The Rationalists, I fretted, never forget what goes with what. They are so skilled at knowing what goes with what that there is never any what left, in case anyone else wants to try. I calmed down. So I had to serve hot soup in the summertime, and so there would be glowering. So.
“Do you recall,” they sniffed, catching by its wing a fly that was buzzing over the table, “the October when you ate nothing but peaches for a week and weighed 40 kilos?” The Rationalists scraped the pat of butter from my plate and dropped the fly into it. The napkin on my lap suddenly seemed no bigger than a postage stamp.
Everyone was having fun. The lamb was, the Rationalists said, neither exquisite nor tender, which I took to mean very good. They inspected the cruets for smudges of oil and found only two. I gave up my elbow room and ate, not unhappily, on my lap. I told them about everyone’s health, everyone’s children, my recent going away and returning, notable accolades from friends and the boss. I told them that the best things in life are free. They blinked and nodded, impatient. Over chocolate soufflés, they cleared their throats. “The problem,” they said, “is not that you cannot set a good table or tie a good slipknot. The problem is that first, you do not. The countless opportunities for instruction have made this house unbearable.”
“Was there a time,” I wondered aloud, “of no instruction?”
The Rationalists sat back and looked almost thoughtful. “No,” they concluded.
“But in the beginning—”
“In the beginning were tins of tea and shortbread, impossible to mess up.”
The worst of it is that they had ceased asking why. And the worst of it is that I had ceased feeling devastated. Instead, I hummed something merry as I dunked the Limoges in soapy water. In the curved faucet I could see the Rationalists looking at me sharply, their faces convexed and ready. They dried deftly, furiously, and put each thing away without a sound. My humming—sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse—filled the kitchen. When we were finished, and everything was in a high state of polish, I brought them their pillows and asked where they would like to sleep. “In there,” they said, pointing toward the sewing room connected to my room by a narrow, crooked doorway.
“It will be a bit of a squeeze,” I said.
They consulted. “Not when everything is removed from the floor. Besides which, it’s better than that front room, with the sun streaming in every which way. You ought to make yourself some curtains. Muslin curtains.”
I gave them some blankets from my own bed and bid them good night. I wondered if I would awake to new curtains, spun in the night like Rumplestiltskin’s gold.
I couldn’t sleep with my Rationalists so near. They had tacked a sheet to the doorway, thin enough that I could make out their orderly shapes, hear them zut alors-ing over the accommodations. It was a moonlit night. I knew that they had placed my yards and scraps of fabric—I was working with felt and corduroy in those days—in neat piles, my patterns and scissors, responsibly, on the low table. I knew that soon they would be dreaming of solutions, dreaming stenographically, no talking dogs or vanishing houses or giddy transgressions. I thought about their dreams until I went very still, but still I could not sleep. I got up and stood in front of the sheet, listening. There was no sound from within but the tiny tick of a gilded pocket watch.
I don’t know how long exactly I stood there, but it was for many ticks. I did not want to do anything to distract myself. When the Rationalists were close by, I found I lost my taste for distraction altogether. I did not want to sit down, for example, with my needle or my watercolors; I did not want a drink of water. Nothing, I felt standing there, could be known or created. I wanted the Rationalists to wake up and talk to me; I missed their company. I missed them every moment they were gone or asleep, and every moment they were with me, I was a balloon of cringe and dread. Or I was immunized by the treasured songs from my childhood playing again and again, round and round on my plastic record player with the red switch and blue needle. What is that for a visit? From underneath my bed, very quietly, I pulled out the box. I took it to the front room, where the Rationalists refused to sleep because of the sun streaming in every which way. Nothing could be known or created, but something, perhaps, could be remembered.
The moon streamed in every which way, making everything silver. Gingerly, I opened the lid. The box looked special because of the silver, but it was just a box, worn and ordinary. It seemed less full than it was the last time I opened it, which felt like years ago, but was probably more like weeks or days. Time between visits from the Rationalists was on one hand an ebbing, uncalendrical, and on the other hand, a carefully worked out theorem, a fever of exactitude, a blindness, a mote, a lame dog, a rusting, a flock, a plague of nouns. Taped to the inside of the lid was a checklist of contents, written in tiny handwriting I’d never used before or since, and peeling around the edges. After 12, it was difficult to read the list—the ink was smudged until, written in a different color, 187: A Choked And Bewildered But Not Altogether Unhappy. Of course, that square was unchecked. I sifted through the items, marveled at each one’s shape and size and temperature—the cork, for example, was heavier than one might imagine, and cold, whereas the chalk was warm like the hood of a car. The thing that tied all of the other things together was not on the list, but nor was it, I felt certain, missing. This was a matter of demarcation and ownership, of the left hand knowing what the right was doing, but if I woke up the Rationalists now, I reasoned, they would never tell me.
Unsurprisingly, the Rationalists woke me at half past five. I had no recollection of sleep, of putting away.
“Tsk, we’ve not much time,” they said, standing over my bed. “And there’s still the garden. Sacre bleue.” They held gardening gloves worriedly.
Even in my groggy state, I had to agree. The weeds had become too much for me to handle. I got up and stretched despite the obvious need for hurry. I did this on occasion, tried the Rationalists’ patience, because sometimes it elicited a kind of lovers’ exasperation, one sigh away from rue and one syllable away from tenderness. There was only ever time enough for a single ritual of devotion.
“Oh! Isn’t that just like you to dilly-dally, when there’s so much to do.”
I said to myself, on my way to the sink, a shiny coin in the gutter is worth more than a shiny coin at the bank.
We weeded. The Rationalists said I’d be lucky to get any tomatoes at all, that crabgrass should be addressed immediately or it would choke everything. I told them it didn’t bother me too much.
“It wouldn’t. Why should it, after all, when you have us?” Into the cracked dirt went the trowel, and after that, no one said anything.
It was hot when we quit, and I felt the ache of the day to come. In the kitchen, I laid out croissants.
“They are dry and a bit misshapen,” I said.
The Rationalists said nothing.
“I think the yeast had turned, possibly.”
The Rationalists reached for the butter and jam without comment, without looking at one another or at me.
“You shouldn’t use the same knife for both of those.” It was all coming to a close, I knew, and the stove clock knew, and the cabinet knew, and reflected me knowing, and the whole house tried to muster its grace on my behalf.
The Rationalists finished chewing and touched the small of my back, which had already begun to go soft with waiting. They collected their pillows and left me the receipts and corks and a bouquet from my own garden, done up in pretty paper. They left me one look, barely fit for description, its wither a slight relief.