If Jane were a character in a fairy tale, she would be the wolf who eats the grandmother and wears her clothes; she would be the stepmother who told Cinderella to sleep in ashes, or the stepmother who offered Snow White a poisoned apple. Jane understands why the witch in the story of Rapunzel built a tower without a staircase; she understands why Jack traded the family cow for a handful of beans.
Each week in Jane’s grief group the counselor, Linda, who wears long skirts and bracelets that jingle, gives a writing prompt and the class of grievers sits in a circle, in folding chairs, in the basement of a three-story brick building that was once a school. Jane hears a water cooler bubbling and the sound of someone’s high heels clicking down a hallway; through a low window she catches sight of a squirrel flicking its tail in the branches of an aspen tree. In a month, her husband, Max, will have been dead for a year.
Grief group meets on Fridays at 6 PM and sometimes grievers bring food: granola, anemic pastries, a bag of potato chips that fell out of the lobby’s vending machine. Jane prefers to drink tea without sugar from a Styrofoam cup that she hopes will ruin the earth. Last week, Linda asked each mourner to tell the story of their life as a fairy tale and Jane felt herself standing in a dense forest at the edge of a clearing; she saw the floor of her bedroom open to reveal a hidden kingdom where she would dance all night and ruin her shoes. Each time she looked up from the page she saw her fellow grievers: the pretty housewife whose baby stopped breathing one summer night when the moon was nearly full; the teenage girl whose brother was carried away by a rip tide during a family holiday in Florida; the young husband — who always arrived in a business suit and a red tie — whose wife had died slowly of breast cancer — but who was first blinded by some especially dreadful form of chemotherapy, so she spent her last year on earth relearning the dark rooms of their house with a cane; the middle aged woman whose son disappeared into the woods behind her cabin, dressed for hunting, and killed himself instead of a deer: the one who told the group that she had a reoccurring dream in which her son became a ten-point buck, running beside a white river.
The week before, Linda asked the group to remember their family vacations and Jane had drawn a picture of the van Max rented for a month when Sam was ten, with its table that folded into a bed, and its back doors which opened to reveal a miniature kitchen with a two-burner stove. She remembered how their sleeping bags tucked away inside the bench seats, how an awning opened to create a porch, and how the three of them spent half a summer driving to national parks and beaches, one day stopping at an aquarium where a huge room of jellyfish parachuted through a vast blue. Jane had loved everything about this trip which was sudden and unplanned; she liked the feeling of being unmoored, liked watching Sam and Max building fires together at night, their shadows growing large. One day, in the surf, Sam found one sand dollar after another, dipping his hand into the sea and coming up with living coins; on one beach, where they camped with their van door opened wide, great wads of seaweed and sticks washed ashore in the night, each as big as a human body. It was on this trip that Max had taught Sam to play guitar while Jane sat with a sketch book on a beach where pelicans gathered.
Two weeks before, Linda asked each of them to observe their lives from different perspectives and Jane had tried to imagine what Sam’s dog, Paper, saw when he watched her legs move through the silent ruins of her life. Paper had seen her lie on the couch for a week with a washcloth affixed to her forehead; he had watched her throw fat garbage bags full of Max’s clothing from a second story window. Paper had watched her vomit in the middle of the night and endure a perimenopausal menstrual period that lasted for weeks, rivers of blood rushing down her legs when she stepped out of the shower. Jane watched herself from the perspective of Sam’s fish, who observed her through glass, and bubbles, and water; the fish saw her wear her ugliest flannel nightgown and refuse to brush her teeth; he saw her open the door on winter mornings to a neighbor who was angry that Jane had not moved Max’s old station wagon for the snowplows. Each time Jane opened the front door that January she saw snow blowing over the lawn and gathering in the trees. Jane watched herself from the branches of a Hemlock in the park, eating her tuna sandwich among crows. After this assignment, the woman with the dead baby read aloud a paragraph in which she saw herself from the perspective of the other young mothers in her neighborhood, who were frightened that death lurked in her skirts or in her abandoned perambulator. Then, the group began to talk about all the places from which they were now excluded.
“All the dinner parties in my neighborhood are for people with ordinary lives,” said the man with the dead wife.
Then, the woman with the dead son said she had started grocery shopping in another town because she could not stand the way old friends avoided her or, worse, came close and asked prying questions; the woman with the dead baby said she was excluded from baby showers and birthday parties; the teenager whose brother was carried away by a rip tide said she now hated all her vapid high school friends who only wanted to talk about acne, and rock bands, and whether or not some guy in their class liked them.
The first week Jane had gone to grief group there was a fire alarm in the old school and all the grievers wandered into the abandoned school yard together. Jane felt the presence of the vanished elementary school students who must have once lined up and loitered there, rehearsing their exit from an unseen inferno. She thought there should be rehearsals for all of life’s tragedies, some way to practice getting bad news, which was like standing in the yard while a fire entered all the rooms of your life. Jane huddled among the other grievers, shivering beneath a crabapple tree, near the abandoned swing set, which was outlined in a thin layer of ice, while Linda called the fire department. One of the reasons Jane had chosen this grief group was because she liked its location; she liked the empty school rooms where the blackboards were like starless skies, and the desks contained books full of outdated facts; she liked the ghostly chalk and the hush of erasers, and the way unsharpened pencils wrote nothing; she liked the polished floors and the wall of sinks in the bathroom, small and white; she liked the clocks that had stopped, their hands pointing to some hour in the past. The old elementary school smelled like the school Jane had attended long ago in North Carolina, in a stone building from the 1920s, with big windows overlooking a marshy field. This old school was slow and quiet and cold; it knew nothing of the future. While they waited in the gathering dusk the woman whose son had committed suicide offered a cigarette to the teenager whose brother drowned and they inhaled together, their breath like fog, while the businessman with the dead wife peered into the glow of his phone, and the housewife with the dead baby pressed her mittened hands against her face.
One week in grief group the housewife with the dead baby had suffered a sudden nosebleed, and the businessman whose wife had died of cancer ran to the bathroom and returned with a huge bundle of tissues and showed her how to hold her head back so the bleeding would stop. Jane watched as the housewife’s blood stained the notebook where she had been writing, and her pen rolled away; she found she could not make herself useful; she could only watch, the way she had watched Max die in a windowless hospital, sitting beside him with her hands folded, while his heart stopped.
One week Linda had asked all the grievers to write about the tribes to which they belonged and Jane had written that she belonged to the tribe of people who had lost their identity. Jane belonged to the same tribe as the sufferers of fugue states: Agatha Christie who walked out of her own life, abandoning her coat and car, and was discovered weeks later at a resort, having taken the name of her husband’s new lover; Jane was like the school teacher, Hannah Upp, who forgot the details of her own life, and ran away to New York, where she was found floating in the Hudson River; she was like the journalist named Jodie, who forgot that she was a reporter, living for years under the name Jane Dee, in Alaska, where she married a fisherman and became the mother of twins. Jane said her tribe was the tribe of unknown artists, the tribe of ex-housewives, the tribe of people who have lost their tribe. Jane said her tribe ate standing up, and could not sleep, and did not ever feel at home.
Jane has not made friends in grief group though there are twenty-minute bathroom and snack breaks in the middle of their sessions when many of the other grievers stand together, beside the water cooler, or in the hallway, near the bathrooms, confiding in one another with hushed voices. During these breaks, Jane prefers to walk around the school itself; she likes to wander through the ghostly cafeteria, where there must have once been sugar cookies, and milk, and vats of rubbery spaghetti noodles, lunch ladies in hair nets, a din of voices. She has climbed the staircase to a dusty history classroom where the walls are covered in maps of places Jane has never visited, places where Max was often sent on business trips: India where he shook hands with monkeys, London where he watched a Midsummer Night’s Dream in an outdoor replica of The Globe while airplanes flew overhead and a light rain began to fall, Australia where one of his colleagues taught him how to feed their pet kangaroo. Jane examines the charts of early man, fashioning tools from silver and bronze; she finds posters of cave paintings: bison running across some vanished tundra, human hands traced, one above another, a mammoth with splendid tusks. Jane had been a good student; she had liked the smell of a new textbook and enjoyed every subject except math; she had enjoyed sharpening her pencil over a tin bucket and writing her test answers neatly, in cursive.
On this evening, Linda tells the mourners to write the story of their lives in reverse and Jane writes her way backwards, past the death certificates and last supper; she walks back through all twenty-five years of her marriage: the six years on top of a mountain in West Virginia where she and Max and Sam lived in a cabin with a view of the Blue Ridge mountains and sometimes a thick fog drifted through their windows, the forest around them submerged, and sometimes bears lumbered out of caves and rolled around in their meadow; she walked past Sam, in a winter cap and scarf, dragging a sled up the driveway, past the copperhead snake which slithered out of the lupine one April day to bite Paper on the leg, and the campfire that got loose, leaping over its circle of stones, embers becoming golden stalks that flared up and multiplied, nearly devouring their front door before the fire department arrived. Jane walked back to Baltimore, where they lived in a row house, and she had quit teaching art to spend her days with Sam. She saw Sam’s first pet, a hamster, running and running on his wheel to nowhere, and she saw the park where she sat among the other housewives on benches while their children climbed, and wrestled, and dug in sandboxes. She saw the old movie theater at the end of the street where she and Max sometimes went on dates, sitting together in the flickering light with bags of popcorn, their fingers slick with butter, and she saw Sam shrinking until he cried in a crib, punching the air with his tiny fists; she walked back until her belly was swollen, then less swollen, and it was September, and there were ladybugs in the window, and she told Max that she felt dizzy and she thought she might be pregnant, and he had taken her to brunch at a restaurant that served strawberry crepes. She walked back through the sleepless days of his first business venture, creating software for teachers, all the way back to the years when they taught at a prep school together: Jane in a classroom full of easels and clay, and Max chairing an English department full of men in tweed jackets who recited Shakespearean sonnets; she returned to the faculty room where they sat among their friends, grading papers, and catching head colds, then further back to the honeymoon years when they lived on the tip of Cape Cod, where Jane had won a painting fellowship, and spent her days in a studio where she was working on a series of paintings in which it was always night, and Max had his first job at a tiny high school full of the children of Portuguese fishermen. Jane peered in through the window of the first cottage they shared together, with its futon on the floor, and remembered how they practiced wearing their wedding rings the week before they were married, by a sheriff, with only two witnesses, then further back to college in Amherst, where two friends were nervous about a first date and had brought them along to an Italian restaurant, and Jane spilled wine on Max’s jacket, and Max assured her he hated that jacket, and they realized they had an architecture class in common, one in which the professor often dimmed the room to show slides and they both fell asleep. Jane liked walking backwards, her body growing younger, then smaller. She returned to her childhood island and slept across the room from her sister, and she heard the nails of her childhood dog clicking up the stairs. At breakfast her father was dressed in his best business suit, on his way to argue a case in the district court, and her mother was burning bacon on the stove. Jane returned to her first bedroom where her mother had hung up a mobile full of brightly colored dinosaurs and she watched them march back past the ice age, rotating like the earth on its axis. She grew smaller until she swam in the lagoon behind her parents’ cottage, which emptied into the sea, which was also her mother’s womb.
Walking home alone, in the icy dark, Jane stopped at a bookstore with a children’s section, full of the books she had once read aloud to Sam: Good Night Moon and Where the Wild Things Are and she sat on an oversized pillow with a stack of slender volumes, her coat bundled beside her, turning the pages of childhood, and she knew she wanted to start over, to press her head against some adult’s chest while bedrooms became forests, and cows jumped over the moon. Jane had no interest in the future where everything grew brittle and dim; she wanted to go back to the beginning, where the story was vast and deep. Then, the store manager, a man a face like a shark, began turning out the lights, and Jane stood up, and apologized, put the books away, and let her coat hang open when she walked outside, the cold sharp.