No one would have disputed it was a terrible thing. It was a terrible thing. A thing that had happened, that frequently happened to very many people they had individually known and some whom they had known together. Everyone had a story about it. Their voices were hushed. It was not in dispute. There was nothing to dispute. Everyone had something to say.
The same day it happened, they began to update each other. “She’s resting comfortably,” one of them said to the other. Some of them would not comment. “I heard she took some soup,” some of them said to others of them who, leaving the tight group and traveling across the building, went on to say it to yet others who nodded, tight lipped. Someone had seen an omen. On their drive in to work, someone had seen three crows by the side of the road. Another one had had an uneasy feeling for weeks. Mr. Haslip had nothing to say about any of it, but he was a confirmed bachelor. Mr. Haslip had round eyes, hard as cherries. Many of the women walked around all day touching each other. One would touch another on the small of the back. One would touch another on the hip. The light was very strange. They agreed.
The women there did not sleep easily. At night they turned in their beds and wound themselves into their sheets. Their cheeks were flushed; they breathed heavily. In the cold mornings, everything had receded. Their sheets were cold and stiff as if the heat had gone out in the house overnight. It had already been an unusually cold winter. The women found they were very hungry. They told each other in the lunch room how hungry they were, but they could not bring themselves to eat, no single one of them, and they began to grow pale and taut like candles. Some of the women had husbands and some had lovers. Some of the women’s lovers began to hate them, just a little bit. They wanted to hurt them, just a little bit, and that was okay with the women who felt they had fallen somehow out of the order of their lives. This was already the third day. She was still not back to work. “Are you all right?,” the women asked each other. One woman took another woman’s hands and pressed them to her cheeks. She moved her head all around with the woman’s hands on her cheeks, the pad of one thumb on her lower lip, the tips of the middle fingers grazed by her eyelashes. There was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. Someone sent an update: she had taken a turn for the worse.
She was on the mend. She was out of the woods. Mr. Haslip was even more an enigma. He strode down the halls with his hands in his pockets. He stroked his long brown hair like a pet. The women could not help but be a little disappointed. Soon, it would be business as usual. Soon, it would be right as rain. Spring was coming, though the freeze had not broken. Some of the women had dreams in which they all lived together in an ice palace. The beds were made of ice, the chairs and cushions. For food they ate ice cakes and ice apples, ice gravies poured over cuts of ice meat. They looked in ice mirrors. They fixed the ends of their hair with ice combs.
A long time earlier, the company had been young and they had been young. They had not known each other. A terrible thing had happened to some of their mothers, but no one said anything. Somehow their fathers left the house every day and came home every night. Their mothers draped over the rooms like pin-ticking; they steamed as if they had been left to dry hung over the radiator. This was the way things were. Would no one go back? They did not yet know what their bodies were like. Their bodies took them from place to place. Some of them had bad relatives, bad neighbors, bad friends. One of them was punched on the chin and bit the tip of his tongue clean off. Another put his hand up a girl’s shirt and rolled her nipple back and forth between his fingers. Someone stroked himself into strange places. He did not fit. He was very excited. Someone’s mouth filled with blood. In their dreams they traded bodies with each other. Everything was very rough and nothing quite fit. They heard themselves saying terrible things. They did not even know they knew those words. Their mothers floated up at the top of the room with their feet dangling down. Their fathers jumped and jumped but could not reach them. In the library, at the ends of the long cool rows, were certain books on the subject, but, though they had read them all, no one could remember what was said. Would no one go back?
The women walk around all day touching each other. The small of the back, the hip, the top of the thigh. It makes all the men angry and productivity goes down. The building has received a new coat of paint. It is a very nice place to work, plenty of natural light. The women put their fingers inside each other’s mouths. In the lunch room, Mr. Haslip is eating a cream-cheese sandwich. Where his teeth come together, there is a record of it. There is nothing to be ashamed of anymore. No one would dispute, it was a terrible thing. Mr. Haslip’s hair has grown very long. Why has no one noticed this? It lies across his chest like a quick animal. It is longer than that and it lies across his thighs. The woman have all grown very tall and distant. They wear gold about their heads as if they were trees with golden leaves. It is hard to see Mr. Haslip’s body amid all that hair, but there it is. Mr. Haslip has a beautiful body. It is very threatening. In the lunch room, the women all stand in a line. They really do dislike each other. There is nothing the women dislike more than each other. This is why they are able to be so patient. Mr. Haslip rears up. He is under tremendous mental strain, but he will not tire easily. He is in the prime of his life. It is on everyone’s mind, but they have all stopped talking about it. “Oh!,” say the women, “Oh, oh, no.” They do not mean it. The ones who have lovers wear bruises around their necks like necklaces of plums. The ones who have husbands are also in fruit. This has nothing to do with anyone’s anything. If they think a story has to be unbiased, they are wrong.
Finally, she comes back to work. It has been a long time since anyone said her name out loud. When she hears her name out loud she feels like a child again. It is not that she is better, but she is here. She will not go away. Mr. Haslip says she has done a dumb thing, but it is not her fault. Mr. Haslip has grown enormous and cannot be contained. The women find him very fine, indeed, very sweet. She is confused; she does not recognize anything. At home, her husband is waiting with a bowl of soup for her to eat, but she does not want it. She does not want anything. The light is very strange. Around her head are these golden leaves. Overall, productivity has suffered. The women do not say anything now. It is as if they have donated their mouths to a charity. It is as if they are all making one very high noise, so high that no one can hear it. Someone has punched someone else in the mouth. It is broken. It cannot be fixed. Something is bubbling over. It makes a terrible smell. Someone clean it up. Someone clean up this mess, right now.