A Contract with Wild Things—Claire Schultz

It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees. Although it was hard to see her, a girl sat by its feet. She was eight, maybe ten, maybe twelve in the right lighting, her elbows muddy and feet bare. She curled herself against the base of the satyr, right in the groove of its pedestal where the stone rippled with an old injury long since scarred over.

She didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much left to do. She’d done it all by this point, many times over. She’d read every book in the library, before the library had given itself back to the garden too. She’d watched every movie in the collection until she’d worn out the discs, and the power had long since gone, anyway. There used to be people to talk to down the road, but no one lived in the stretch of big glass mansions anymore, and they’d built them so far out of town for a reason. She did leave, sometimes. She walked down the long cracked asphalt driveway and kept walking until she hit something she’d never seen before, but she always found herself back at what remained of the house she’d been born in.

It was that hour just before dark that was worse than the dark itself, when the shadows of things stretched their long fingers at you and twisted around your ankles and turned the familiar wrong. At least the dark was decisive. In this half-light, the garden existed in duplicate. There was the trellis as she knew it in the daylight, there it was twisted into something bent, just slightly. The pool off the terrace was too deep and too long and too still and too round and something hollow swam in it where the last rays of sunlight hit the surface. The roses looked sepia and the lilacs dark blue, and everything was there—it was all there—but it was bad, it was off, it was wrong.

It wasn’t a nice garden, even in the daytime. The sunlight hardened its hardest edges; it was a trees and thorns garden, the wildness pruned out of it until the wildness fought back. The hedges were stern and straight, and the flower patches walled by brambly roses. It was a garden built by a man who wanted to tell people he had a garden, not to have a garden. It was as sensible and welcoming as everything else in the house, which was about as sensible and welcoming as a taxidermied stag (of which, of course, the house had several).

And in that horrible, unwelcoming garden at that horrible, unwelcoming hour, a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a stone satyr.

Ivy wouldn’t see the man, but she would see the yellow-grey outline in the grass the next morning where his shape had worn it bare. She had never seen her father weak before, and that wouldn’t start now.

She wouldn’t see the way he stretched his arm towards the statue’s outstretched foot, wouldn’t see the way he clawed at its base, but she would find the five long gouges in the marble. 

It was that hour just before dark and a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a statue, and he lay crouched at the foot of a statue, and he stood face to face with the statue, and he was nowhere to be found. In that indeterminate hour before dark, he was all of those things, and he was none. The garden was many things at once, and so was he, and in the version of it all where he could hear the statue and the statue could hear him in return, something spoke, and something listened.

Ivy saw none of this because she was in her father’s study, a place she was explicitly not allowed to be. During working hours on the days he hadn’t taken one of his flashy silver cars to the office, her father set up residence there, bolting the door tightly shut behind him. The door fit perfectly flush with the floor and the frame, not so much as a crack for light beneath it, and it had no keyhole for her to peep through. If she sat just outside it with her back to the wood, she could hear the echo of pacing inside, the occasional clatter of a keyboard, and a low murmur that sounded like her father’s voice, but she could never make out the words. The study was up three stories, at the end of a long hallway as sensible and welcoming as the garden, and she could just nearly see inside its window if she climbed the magnolia tree out back. It wasn’t a very good view or a very good climb, and if she stepped just wrong the branch would give beneath her, and she’d end up in a heap of bruised petals and bruised shins. If she angled it just right, though, and didn’t step just wrong, and her father hadn’t shut his blinds, she could see the glow of light against red walls, a row of bookshelves, and the silhouette of a man pacing, pacing, pacing.

And, because there was no keyhole, the door stayed unlocked when he was gone. Ivy didn’t think she was supposed to know this: she knew that she wasn’t supposed to be wandering the house unattended, that closed doors meant forbidden, and that she wasn’t supposed to go into her father’s study. But it was so very easy to slip away during her parents’ big fancy dinner parties, when the cold of their marbled foyer turned hot with so many wealthy, well-dressed people and their overlarge glasses of dark red wine. She wasn’t very big, and she couldn’t very well talk about international shipping or how the potential collapse of the stock market would tank the global economy or what that one anchor on the news was wearing last night, how dare she. At most, her parents paraded her around awhile to show off how cute and polite and look, how clever, she was before turning back to the houseguests in their sheath dresses and sensible hosiery. 

No one would notice then if she, say, grabbed a fistful of cocktail shrimp and ran up the back staircase and down that long, unfriendly hallway. Even all the way up here, she could hear the echoes of the party downstairs: nattering conversation, a man’s booming laugh. The door to her father’s study was heavy and displeased with being opened, but after Ivy shoved her whole shoulder against it, it gave in without much fight. She tumbled in, cocktail shrimp still in hand, and landed on a threadbare oriental rug. The door swung shut behind her immediately, and then it was just her alone in her father’s study: small, wood-paneled, a wall of bookshelves, a desk taller than she was strewn with crumpled papers, thick drapes around the narrow window.

She did this whenever her parents hosted one of their corporate dinner parties, and they hosted their corporate dinner parties several times a month. She’d started it a year ago, when she first really realized that there was an entire room in her home that she had never seen inside of. She’d known her father had a study, of course; she’d seen him go up the stairs and down the hallway and disappear, but she hadn’t thought to question it. She’d been young then; she hadn’t realized that the somewhere he went was somewhere she could go too, but somewhere she had never been, and somewhere, when she asked, she was told she couldn’t go. 

She knew the dip of the floor beneath her by now, knew where she fit perfectly against the grooves of her father’s desk, knew that if she looked between the gaps in the shelves just so she could see into the party downstairs. Ivy didn’t know what her father did for a living, but she knew it involved a lot of old books and expensive ties. He used fancy pens, too, and covered the pages on his desk in a furious purple ink that she couldn’t read. They’d tried to teach her cursive in school, but she’d never been any good at it. She’d never been able to make out the titles of the books on his shelves, either. There were the encyclopedias and the dictionaries and the tidy row of popular crime novels, but there were also other, older books, cloth- and leather-bound and oddly-sized. It wasn’t that they were unusually small, exactly, or that they were unusually big, they were just the wrong size. They didn’t fit on the shelf somehow, even though they fit on the shelf just fine. It was all a little crooked, even though it was all neatly aligned. She was sure they had titles on their spines, but Ivy had never been able to read them. When she tried, they cracked and swam like the words on his desk, a cursive angry at her inability to read it.

She popped a shrimp in her mouth, throwing the tail into the bin beside her father’s desk, and traced a finger across the ink. It was tacky to the touch, like it was recent and barely set, but her finger came away dry. Not so much as a smudge. 

This was a game she liked to play: how far could she get before they noticed; how deep could she go beneath her father’s skin until she found something more than fancy suits and fancy wines. It was here, she knew that. No one cared about nothing, she knew that. The walls and floor of the study pulsed, the heartbeat of the house thick and steady in her ears. She couldn’t know it, but it matched her father’s heartbeat: strong, unchanging, mechanical. And then it spluttered and it hiccupped. Ivy jumped, dropping the last of cocktail shrimp on the desk, and she knew they would stain the wood and papers with a wet thud. 

Below it, a curl of purple bled out beneath its tail. The strange angry cursive distorted into a watery scar; her father’s spidery handwriting washing away. It was a disproportionate response for such a small spot of moisture, as if the ink in the paper had collectively decided to up and run. It was clearly angry at the violation—how could someone so small and so careless do something so small and so careless? This was a room of precision. Every line on those pages, as inscrutable as they’d been, was specific, built on the last and the first, tangled in a carefully-constructed chain. 

Ivy could not read what the papers said because the papers were written in a language everyone except the earth and her father had forgotten. If she could, she would have seen that they were contracts like the ones he talked about in offices and at dinner parties. A negotiation: one thing in exchange for another, we agree to these terms, this is a fair exchange of goods, we will uphold this agreement 

If Ivy could have read the papers, which she couldn’t because she didn’t speak the language of trees and wild things, she would have seen that this contract was a simple one written by a cunning businessman. He would get the better end of the deal, and he’d trick the poor sucker on the other end into thinking he’d walked away with the lottery.

She would have seen that this one she’d ruined was the last in a long series, the most carefully structured of the bunch. It was a dazzling feat of magic and manipulation; it was the result of a man years practiced in the craft. A man who had learned to speak the ancient earth fluently, but in the way of a learned speaker, not a native, with a careful control of its grammar and fluctuations, but no understanding of its soft edges, its metaphors. Her father did not speak the poetry of it, only the business. It was a little like using French to write an airport thriller: technically correct, but a waste.

Ivy knew none of this, because she spoke none of this, and she didn’t even know that she didn’t. She only knew that she’d broken something irreparable because the stone foundation of the house she’d been born in told her so.

Outside the window, where she couldn’t see even if she’d looked, her father lay crumpled beneath the foot of a stone satyr.

She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until she saw it in hindsight. Her father was more unpleasant than usual the next morning, not so much as a good morning when they crossed paths in the kitchen. He didn’t admonish her for her stack of toaster waffles, higher than her head. Her mother was nowhere, but her mother was never anywhere. She was a peripheral sort of mother, the kind who appeared in the evenings in glamorous earrings and thick lipstick before vanishing again for days at a time. Ivy would see in her in the empty wine glasses leaving rings on the side tables, or a ghost of perfume wafting up the stairs, but her mother, her flesh-and-blood-and-solid-bone mother, had left a long time ago, and then it was just Ivy in that house with the cold of her father.

In the way he had wanted to be someone who said he had a garden, not someone who had a garden, her father had always been someone who wanted to say he had a child, not someone who had a child. She was most useful to him as a pretty little doll at those dinner parties, where his coworkers could coo over her curls and pinch her cheeks and say she was so sweet, so well-spoken, so charming. They would then, realizing that he was human too after all, make the deals he’d brought them there to make. When she’d gotten old enough and tall enough to see their shark-toothed smiles, she’d started to understand what he’d been doing, and she was almost willing to play along.

After that evening in the study, when she’d felt her father’s heartbeat stop (and, later, start again a half-measure out of time), she thought she saw him staring at her curiously, or maybe it was hungrily. Maybe, for a moment, she thought, he’d finally seen her as something alive. Sometimes, when she was sure he didn’t know she was looking, she’d catch him smiling at her from down the long hallway, a whisper of something alive in his eyes. Proud, even. 

And then he’d come into full focus and it would be gone again.

She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her slip of a satin dress mother didn’t reappear at the next dinner party, or the next, and the house began to smell of floor wax and linen instead of the floral spice of her perfume. She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her doctor told her that she had stopped growing, that she should have been an inch taller than she was this time last year, and her father’s hair streaked silver while her cheeks stayed baby-soft. It frightened her, and it thrilled her. Because the stunting of it snuck up on them in retrospect, they’d bought her party trick shelf life a little extra time. Ivy had always hated those cold, boring, dizzying dinner parties, but she found some kind of pleasure in the golden glow of it. She was a trophy like the taxidermied stags frozen forever at their moment of murder, empty mouths open, glass eyes wide. 

Contract: fulfilled.

The next time she snuck away into her father’s study, the heartbeat in the walls was still. The desk was bare. The bookshelves were emptied out; even the atlases and crime novels were gone. She could hear his laugh grating through the walls, but she found nothing of him in this little dark room. There were old pages in the bin beneath his desk; the purple ink had faded to something almost green, and the paper had gone a horrible slimy pinkish-yellow. She had the feeling that she could read it now if she tried hard enough, but she didn’t want to. Looking at those pages made her sick. Something corrosive writhed beneath her skin. It was the first time she’d felt it, but it was familiar, and she instinctively knew it wouldn’t be her last. The pages smelled of flesh and burning and of her mother’s perfume, and Ivy left them there to rot.

When she saw it again months later, the doorframe just as tall and her footsteps just as light, the ruined contract would still be in the bin exactly as rotted as it had been that last time, no more and no less.

They said she’d maybe just hit puberty and stopped growing early, but she knew she hadn’t. Although she knew very little of what it meant to grow up, Ivy knew it was supposed to feel like something. Her clothes were supposed to fit differently, her body was supposed to tell her it was time. The idea that one day she might see herself in the heavy mirror above the bathroom sink and be someone else entirely terrified her in the abstract, but it never happened. She became a well-worn photograph, not a living thing, and, she would come to realize, she could get tired of familiarity. She lost hours studying her face for signs of change: new freckles in the summer, an outbreak of acne, any sort of lines and marks of a life lived. Anything.

But there was nothing. There would always be nothing. The doctors didn’t know what to say, because this was not supposed to happen, and nothing in their training had prepared them for a girl who had a full set of adult teeth ready and waiting to push out the rest of the younger set, but never did. She stopped going to the doctor.

Her father’s smiles from the edges of hallways turned into the wrong kind of warmth: the steely, burning kind. Jealous conflagration, not the warm embers of a hearth. 

(It wasn’t just that she had broken his contract, it was that she’d taken it for herself. An accidental addendum reshaping a clause in the moment of trade, confusing the business of it. She’d rewritten the legalese instead of rendering it all null and void. It had gone incontrovertibly wrong. They couldn’t try again.)

Her father pulled her out of school once it was clear that she wasn’t growing in time with her classmates. Without the shadow of her mother to tell someone to homeschool her, he just left Ivy to wander on her own. He stopped trotting her out at parties; he stopped leveraging her accomplishments for business connections. Why try to raise a child who’d already grown up as much as she ever would?

Time hardly passed for her, because she had an infinite stretch of it. They figured it out eventually, but her father wouldn’t put it in so many words. He barely spoke to her at all anymore. It could have been every third Tuesday or every third year when he did, and it was usually just to tell her to remember to brush her hair, or didn’t she know not to eat ice cream for breakfast.

He grew very old and she grew very old and she stayed very young. The smaller he became, the whiter his hair turned, the lower his shoulders hunched and the skin beneath his jaw hung loose, the less he seemed to hate her. 

“Ivy, my girl,” he’d say. “Where’s your mother?”

“Ivy, my love,” he’d say. “How was school today?”

In moments of clarity, which became rarer every day or week or month or year, he’d apologize. The best years were sometime halfway between the start and the end, when he was just soft enough to speak to her but clear enough to still make sense. I didn’t mean to do this to you, he’d say. I didn’t want this to happen. Or I should have known better. What he didn’t say, but what Ivy heard in his rattling breaths, was that he hadn’t meant for this to happen to her. Maybe he regretted finding what he’d been looking for entirely. Maybe he just regretted that she had gotten it instead of him. If she was feeling especially forgiving, she liked to think that he was sad she’d never have graduations, a wedding, children, a corner office in his metal-and-glass skyscraper downtown. If she wasn’t, she thought he would have rather outlived her. He was ashamed that she’d seen him become weak and fragile, because he wasn’t made to age and decay. He was a man who had hedged in nature until it stood straight and cold; he’d pruned away the wildness until the wildness fought back.

He never told her what, exactly, he’d done that day, and she stopped going back to his study where the papers made her nauseous and weak. There was the unspoken agreement that he was, in fact, an excellent businessman and experienced in the sorts of contracts she’d broken. It had been a perfectly sensible bargain, trading off his wife, bit by bit, so that they had this house, the beautiful cars that sat untouched in the garage, the fancy dinner parties and the expensive ties and the peripheral slip of a mother who had eventually been swallowed up on the edges. He’d asked for one thing too many, and his goodwill had worn thin enough that all it took to break it was a curious careless child and a cocktail shrimp. The unwilded wildness his stone satyr guarded had been pruned to the wick and couldn’t go any further before it snapped back.

She, of course, outlived him. She would outlive everything now except, perhaps, the wildness that had made her. He wasn’t a young man when he died, but his life felt very small to her. He had been a very small man all along; she knew that now. Even a man as grandstanding and wealthy and well-dressed as he had been was nothing against the great impossible swell of nature. He’d wasted his life thinking he had contracted it and conned it into submission. (Of course, he’d gotten it backwards.) 

She wanted to bury him at the foot of the satyr or toss the splintering cocoon that had been her father into his horrible swimming pool, now thick with algae. The lawyers put him in the family plot across town. Her mother should have been there alongside him, but they had all long since forgotten her. They weren’t sure she was dead because they weren’t sure she’d ever existed.

Ivy stayed in the house.

She left, but she came back, and every time it was older and smaller than before, and every time she was exactly the same. It would eventually blow off in the wind, and she would still be here.

It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees.

Ivy sat at its feet. 

There was nowhere else to go.

Claire Schultz holds a BA in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Chicago and an MPhil Education (Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature) from the University of Cambridge. Her fiction has been published in Crow & Cross Keys, Press Pause PressElectric Spec and Pigeon Review, among others. You can find her at clairerschultz.com, or making a fool of herself on Twitter @anotherclaire.

photo by K. Mitch Hodge (via unsplash)