Kiley Molina's house sits in the woods, and her dragon is like a second house that moves among the trees. It's hard to say what it looks like, this dragon. Lion, serpent, crocodile, bat? A dragon is never one thing.
I can't divulge much more about Kiley Molina. Strictly speaking, she's a painter. Also, she is beautiful. Briefly, we were lovers. In my mind, we fell in love. I met her at the opening of her most recent gallery exhibition—met her and wanted her. This had a lot to do with her work, which, like Kiley and her dragon, wasn't forthcoming. The paintings drew me. I'd describe them as gestural, abstract expressionism, large-scale, layered, hectic, dynamic. They're curiously named. A swath of triangles, like an arrowed tail in motion, in shades of blue against a yellow nightmare: Still Life. Egglike ovals unraveling, disgorging: Immunity. Names like disguises; at least so I gathered. Kiley Molina doesn't encourage questions about her work—or herself, for that matter. Neither do I, in case you're wondering.
If Kiley hadn't been familiar with my paintings, if she hadn't experienced my work's prevarications, if my reputation as a recluse hadn't preceded me—if, in short, she hadn't known me as her kind—I never would have learned of her dragon, for I never would have found myself in her house in the woods, where the sun sets in the trees like a yawning mouth of fire and the night falls, soft, deep, nestling, like peace under a fluffed wing.
"What is that?" I asked my first evening there, standing at an inky window, my startled reflection plain. The sound of wind and roar, pant and prowl curled around the house. Moonlight caught a ripple of color, the iridescence of enormous scales.
"You hear her, too," Kiley said, surprised.
"Her." Kiley's reflection joined mine, but her smile was distant; her expression, closed. "I'm reluctant to say."
"She isn't bad."
Then I was reluctant to say more, too, and afraid to pose questions, not because of what was out there, but because of what was inside: our togetherness, as tenuous as it was desirable. I wasn't about to risk it, not even to find out more about a fabulous marvel.
My reticence seemed to please her. I got the impression I'd passed a test.
Armored people who engage in an affair do so cautiously. There are rules. I could lick the scar on the small of her back but couldn't ask how she'd gotten it. I could explore her in her bed but couldn't ask to sleep there with her. I could tell she wept after she came but couldn't ask why.
Away from her, I wasn't restrained. I needed to know more and am embarrassed to confess I researched her furtively, like a teenager poring over every article about her favorite celebrity. I discovered few facts but came across plenty of gossip—unkind conjecture, characterizing Kiley as an embodiment of excess, an artist who drinks too much, eats too little, hates the world, hates herself. "A wraith of sadness." "A fury of need." "Just look at her work. It's all there." She's awful, her admirers seemed to agree on so many sites. Awful, awful.
Well, they are full of awe, I thought.
Strange how a fan's adoration can dwell so snugly by hate. The wisp of a boundary is jealousy, I guess. Kiley's talent aggravates people. She cuts a hot swath wherever she goes, and her brilliance invites enmity, as does her unwillingness to engage. The public doesn't merely want her creations. It craves her, a measure of meat. I've also felt the knife. I'm not as famous as Kiley, but my work's out there. That's earned me some incisive attention.
I once believed my vulnerability married me to Kiley. I wish it had.
Nobody else knows about her dragon. That's a secret, one Kiley and I share. There's intimacy in that. I cling to it.
Kiley was sorry to break up with me. She cried. I cried, too. I wanted to refuse, argue, beg. I didn't. I left. Now that I'm alone and miserable, I think about how and why she pushed me away. Maybe I shouldn't have loved her so unguardedly. She might have decided I was too much like her legions of admirers: an imminent threat.
Or maybe our breakup had nothing to do with me. Kiley could have simply been missing something, missing some things, grieving, and hanging on to what's left.
I wanted to add to what she could hold as certain. I wanted to give her myself. At least I think I did. I question my intentions now, wonder about the purity of my motives. What is love, after all, but a hunger? A swallowing thing.
Four Women Named Hope
I. Sister Hope
After Hope's Charlie died, Megan and I talked to her about moving back to Morton, and since she had Kimmy, still in diapers, and Riley, not in preschool yet, plus no job, no help, she did.
Megan was happy. The oldest of us three sisters, she'd always had a soft spot for Hope. Plenty of room, she told our little sister, and you can have the entire upstairs to yourself.
We didn't expect her to come back looking so changed, looking, I kid you not, so much like Charlie. Not just because of his favorite flannel, though there was that—the red plaid, which Hope arrived wearing like a coat over her sweatshirt—but his baseball cap, too. And she'd cut off her hair, those beautiful curls, Megan wailed over the phone the minute Hope and the girls left for McDonald's.
Our sister wasn't letting Charlie go. It was like she hadn't buried him but rather swallowed him whole.
II. Hope, My Love
We lived on Baffin Island—a bitter place to live but getting milder, which was a bad thing. In the past, a red swath painted across the snow would have made me sad. Poor seal, I'd sigh to Hope. Now the smear of blood sparked relief, proof the polar bear hadn't disappeared along with the frost that once circled our mountain.
Oh, this land. It used to be ice. Now turquoise meltwater shone where white previously stood. Sunlight colored Hope's cheeks a hectic hue. These days, hunting took more hours, setting traps required a wider traversal. On Sunday, Hope had gone alone and returned without an animal to skin. Here, she'd said, tossing a green shoot, roots and all, onto the table.
What's that supposed to be? I'd asked, setting down the mixing bowl.
Something that doesn't belong.
Tonight, spooned in the not-quite-dark, Hope and I planned. She wanted to move south, away from the sea-ice edge.
The Inuit don't leave, I said. Grief gripped my throat, made my words come out broken.
Bear, seal, walrus... Hope sighed. I hardly see them. Let's get out. Before they're gone.
I didn't answer. Hard for me to imagine living elsewhere, though I supposed, with the earth melting under our feet, I already was.
III. Hope, Our Daughter
After the war, instead of going back to school, Hope came home.
A sociology degree is pointless, she said. So's college. It's very quaint. Earnest and embarrassing. Well, I just got all the education I need, and let me tell you, the functions of human society don't warrant study. Give me a dog any day.
IV. My Friend Hope
She was there, in Pahoa, Hawaii, and Hope saw the eruption, lived through it, called it a slow-burning end.
I never believed in God until then, Hope admitted, but lava has a way of making you believe. What's so strange is how leisurely it destroyed. I mean, I knew the house was a goner, but I had plenty of time to clear it out and not just of kids. I rescued everything—furniture, toys, knickknacks, appliances. Hell, before we got out of there, I made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we took our lunch outside, watched as the lava bubbled toward the mailbox, black and thick, like brownie batter, except for where the boil burned red.
Those black-hooded reds... Hope shivered. I'm telling you, my friend, they scared me. They were like God's eyes.
is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her short stories have appeared in many journals and been selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, Best Microfiction 2020, and Best Microfiction 2021. She teaches English at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York. Learn more at her website (linked) or find her on Twitter @melostrom