torstai 15. joulukuuta 2011

On the importance of playing solitaire

"What's that?"
He flinches. The little girl must think he's ancient; he agrees.
"It's a deck of cards."
Where the hell is her mother? Father?
"What's it for?"
"I play Solitaire with it. It's a game you play by yourself."
"Can you teach me? I'm Lisa."
"I'm Paul. So, Solitaire. There are seven important rules."

Rule number one: Things belong in their rightful places.

Paul had always had a certain affection for the house that, some rumoured, even topped the adoration he felt for his wife. Kate had been a wonderful mother to their Nova and Vida, so her death left them all in devastation which seemed to trickle from the ground and bind them in tar. Life at the house and its property became candlewax: lively and loose one moment, stiff and motionless the next. Paul retreated to his work and became enclosed in a microuniverse of his own that he filled with ink, exlibres and strongly odoured leather, and sealed it with a thick layer of dust and a note on the door which read "Do not disturb". During this time he failed to notice the silence that descended over his daughters, not so much for their father but for the effect they had on each other. Vida, determined to never become reckless like Nova, and Nova, never wanting to be proper like Vida, thought they would never again be sisters like they used to. Vida took to reading and long walks and Nova spent her days brushing her long dark hair and rekindling her love for tea parties with her dolls. They measured the walls of these boxes of theirs and stayed in them, not expecting anything to pull them out. Not until Stevie arrived.

Stevie came in one day and, with the voice of a rockstar, asked if he could be the gamekeeper. "We haven't got any game", Paul told him, but Stevie promised to stay anyway. "Just in case any game turns up." The night he moved into the little shed at the edge of the forest, Nova and Vida joined hands for the first time in seven months and spied on him through the window. Stevie must have noticed, because Nova knocked down a bucket, but he let nothing show. The girls retired back to their boxes until one day Stevie opened the door and asked them in for tea, and from that moment they became free-floating particles.

"Red, black, red black. From one to thirteen."
"Very good, Lisa."
"Can I take this card?"
"This one, underneath the ten?"
"No. That's rule number two."

Rule number two: Once the cards are dealt, you can't change them.

"Life is a mysterious thing", Stevie told the girls. "You can't know what it looks like but you can see it leave." Nova gasped when she saw the frog but Vida leaned in closer, not wanting to miss a moment. Stevie was right: she could see life leaving the little creature and she knew Nova could too. Then Stevie showed them what a heart looks like. "It's so small", Nova whispered and her sister wondered how something so small could be fatal if it stopped working. Stevie, sensing he was walking on ground the girls had left untouched for too long a time, sat them down on the floor. He told them that death doesn't matter nearly as much as life and that his theory on life was that it's a combination working on emergent properties, but one that can be taken apart by removing any of the components. "We in this world die to give room to more life. That's how we work as a species – in order to survive, old needs to go out and new needs to come in." This satisfied the girls well enough that they could hide whatever questions they had remaining. Occasionally they would glance up at the window of Paul's study, hoping to see his walls falling, but they remained strong as ever.

But Paul's box upstairs wasn't as impermeable as the girls thought. He often watched through the window the constant traffic between the house and the shed, and wondered which weighed more: that his girls were happy and enjoying each other's company, or that he thought Stevie a tad bit suspicious. His gaze became a burden weighing on the shed and the atmosphere around the house became heavy and hostile. It was for this reason, although it was unlikely that the three could define the cause, that Stevie, Vida and Nova started taking walks into the forest.

"Help me, Paul. Where does the game go now?"
"I think... it goes nowhere."
"Oh no!"
"That's Solitaire for you. Sometimes this happens."

Rule number three: Sometimes the game gets stuck.

A note was slipped into the study from underneath the door. Paul saw it appear and went to pick it up.


He knew they were still there; he could almost hear them holding their breath.
"We have names, you know."
"Vida, what's going on?"
There was a scream and four fists started htting the door.
"If you were here then maybe you'd know!"
He tried reaching for the lock but the door stayed shut, no matter how hard he tried to make himself open it. Had it been Nova who had spoken after all? She had never been so brave before. Paul could hear them outside; running; crying for Stevie. He didn't want to look. Stevie would take them to the forest and they would wipe tears from their white cheeks and everything would be all right again.

What did they see in that forest? Paul tried to understand why two nine-year-old girls would feel fascination towards venturing among dead trees with a grown man. Phantoms began taking over his mind like bees swarming over each other in an attempt to be seen. Suddenly the scent of leather turned into that of ammonia and his throat became raspy with dust. He grabbed his chest and coughed and thought he was suffocating. Slowly he made his way to the door and crawled out into the hallway. He lay there until he heard their muffled voices return. The girls were laughing at something he said - who was he to make little girls laugh?
"To your room. Now."
The girls thought about disobeying but there was something in their father's eyes they had never seen that they never wanted to get acquainted with. Stevie stood still, with a look of honest confusion shining all over his face that made Paul sick to the stomach.
"If I was any less of a gentleman, I would make sure you leave here with your face smashed in."
"I'm not sure I follow." Paul was convinced that Stevie kept an overly innocent tone on purpose.
"What'd you want with those girls? They've lost a mother, you know."
"And a father, it seems."
Paul didn't make Stevie leave. After making the man's nose turn purple he was so enraged that he could do nothing but turn around and walk back upstairs.

After that day Paul wasn't even sure if the girls spent the nights in their own room.

"Can we continue now?"
"Yeah, we can."
"Very smart of you, Lisa."
"What if I want to continue?"
"You can't."

Rule number four: You only have fifty-two cards in a deck.

Anger stayed in the house for weeks without any signs of calming. Paul was angry at Stevie for Nova and Vida and Nova and Vida were angry at Paul for Stevie. Stevie, however, didn't seem to be angry at anyone. He was perfectly content in his position as a gamekeeper on the property with no game. Had there been pheasants or rabbits, Nova and Vida realised one day, Stevie would have had no time for them and they would never have learned so much about death. Stevie took them to the forest and explained what components the trees were missing that made them turn gray and gloomy. "What about people?" Vida asked. She was in her element among the meticulous analyses and theories. Stevie shrugged and stroked the bark of a tree. "It's the same, I guess." Nova couldn't tolerate Stevie's ignorant attitude towards human life and she almost stayed quiet, but the three of them had become so skilled at recognising when a thought was occurring that they wouldn't let her swallow the words. "Don't you care for your own life at all?" Vida gasped at the question that she had helped surface, but Stevie smiled: "All of us are here on overtime."

Paul decided one day that reconciliation was the watchword. He changed his shirt and shaved the stubble that had gradually crept on his chin. The girls were in their room, Vida reading on her bed and Nova drawing something.
"Father", Nova said. Paul knew that she spoke on mutual agreement.
"Not Dad anymore, is it?"
"What do you want?" Vida looked up from her book for the first time.
"I wanted to say I was sorry. I shouldn't have yelled, I shouldn't have stayed in, I shouldn't have--"
"He's in the shed", Vida said and lowered her gaze once more. Paul tried turning for Nova but she too was colouring her drawing again.
"All right", he agreed, "I'll come back then, yeah?"
"If you want."

The door opened a little too fast for it to seem like Stevie was surprised, and he didn't bother acting it either. He invited Paul in and offered him a cup of tea. His nose didn't look bad at all. Paul hated admitting that he might have made the man even more attractive, if that was possible. He explained that he had acted out of line in losing his temper, to which Stevie responded that the mind can be deceptive. Paul felt as though he had ended up in a play where everyone knew their lines but him. They spoke this and that of things that didn't matter until he decided it was time to go back to the girls. They had gone to sleep. He had tried, but as Paul closed the door, he had a feeling that they had only been beating around the bush.

"Why can't I always win if I play by myself?"
"Sometimes you have to lose."

Rule number five: Sometimes the game wins you.

He had tried. Paul lulled himself into this thought to make himself stop lurking out the windows every time he heard the door close. So when, on a perfectly ordinary Saturday morning in late November, the girls and Stevie left for the forest, Paul didn't even look up from his books.

"It's breathing", Vida whispered and looked behind; the house could no longer be seen. Maybe the forest was coming alive after all. "Girls, look at this", Stevie said and knelt in the rotten leaves. At first Nova and Vida couldn't see anything, but little by little he dug out a dragonfly. "Is it about to go?" Nova asked and tried to have a closer look. The dragonfly was enclosed in Stevie's hands and he brought it closer to the girls, who no longer had an interest for the living creatures; instead, they were always anxious that they would miss that crucial moment when death finally happened. They stared at the creature until their eyes started watering, and yet they refused to blink. When the wings finally stopped flapping, there was a moment of catharsis. Nova sighed and Vida felt speechless from the sheer beauty of the occurrence. "It's gone", Stevie said and knelt back down in an attempt to lay the critter down on its deathbed.
"Yes?" His voice was soft with respect.
"Did it hurt very much when Dad hit you on the nose?"
"Not very much."
A well-timed swing was all it took. Nova and Vida watched as life left their closest friend; convinced themselves that it had been the same for Mum. Back at the house they told their father that Stevie had wanted to stay behind a little longer.

"Couldn't we just put this card under here?"
"What would be the point then?"
"I don't know... That I win?"
"Even if you want to win, rule six applies."
"What's that?"

Rule number six: The rules don't change.

"Daddy!" Kisses on cheek; sit down; have coffee. It was only on Nova's twentieth birthday that Paul realised something had changed in eleven years. Had it been sudden, he couldn't say. Of course everyone had read the news about the gamekeeper with the voice of a rockstar. A single blow to the head had finished him. Why had he thought of Stevie now? At the time he had been called in to identify the body, because Stevie's parents were too sickly to travel. At the morgue he had been overcome with fear that when the covers were removed, it would not be Stevie at all, but Kate or Nova or Vida; so when the body had been exactly who it should have been, Paul had cried.

Paul couldn't pinpoint the source of the idea, but he knew from the moment it took him over that it was right. He had so feared for Nova and Vida that the thought had never occurred to him. Everything started making sense: why they had started calling him Dad again; why they could talk about Kate; why the bond that had been there before suddenly resurfaced tighter than ever. Paul watched his daughters floating around the garden in their summer frocks, sending and receiving smiles from each direction. They were the image of beauty and poise, except that once Paul blinked, all he could see was evil.

The evil never left his daughters despite attempts to undo it. When Nova was found shot in her childhood home and Vida drowned in the river with stones in her pockets, everyone assumed that they had ended themselves. Paul knew what everyone else suspected: evil can't be left uninterfered.

"What's seven?"
"Rule number seven?"

Rule number seven: Once you make a move, there's no going back.

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