Short Fiction

Excerpt from Art on Fire, by Hilary Sloin, Available from Bywater Books

Isabella wore a swimsuit under her clothes. It was her latest innovation, to emphasize her shrinking form, the slow dissipation being the result of a diet Vivian had insisted upon after Isabella gained 26 pounds in the mental hospital. She sat in the living room now, on the day after Evelyn Horowitz’s death, awaiting the arrival of her long-disappeared sister. She tried to think of her grandmother, to feel anything at all about poor, dead Evelyn. But ever since she’d received word of her sister’s imminent return, she’d been distracted.

“I know,” she said, surprised when the words escaped the barrier of her lips, “I’ll make a cup of tea.” A cup of tea, thought Isabella, was a good, slimming thing, with the added benefit of calming her nerves or at least helping her appear to be someone who possessed calm nerves. She walked into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove. Ceremoniously, she removed the flat red box of teabags from the cabinet, pulled one out by its string, and placed it in a mug. Each movement she performed self-consciously, as though her sister was already home. Watching.

In the hospital, with no vodka to slow down her thinking, Isabella had learned to soothe herself by enumerating metaphors: the crack of ice cubes under heat (mania) versus the slow bleeding of brown tea into hot water (depression). The patter of boiling water on the pillow of tea (mania) versus the immeasurable slowness of heat (depression). Less coherent analogies followed: the hyper-productive, prodigious fertility of tropical fauna versus the cold, still bottom of the sea. Cities were mania; farmlands, depression. Paris was mania; New Hampshire, depression. The jungle, mania; the tight claustrophobic woods of New England, depression. Cars, food, music. All of it could be mania, all of it depression. Occasionally, one could be trapped inside both moods at the same time. This was the worst of all feelings. A fast slowing down. A slow speeding up. A car accident in slow motion; a coma full of busy, sexy adventure dreams while people stood over you, talking, weeping, holding flowers, invading your pleasure.

She was, she decided, looking forward to seeing her sister. She’d never really disliked Francesca. It was more of an overcrowding problem: There were only two bedrooms, after all, and they were a physically substantial family—every one of them but Vivian clearing five-seven, sporting broad shoulders and wide hips. In fact, Isabella thought, she was glad to have a sister. Someone with whom she imagined playing charades and eating pizza, running about the neighborhood in the wee hours and setting the dogs on edge. Though she wished Francesca had grown up as expected, into a simple, ugly girl with scant personality, employed by a factory or a bar, flipping burgers or pumping gas, and living in New Hampshire in a trailer. Perhaps coming home to visit occasionally, very occasionally, accompanied by a mangy mutt whose presence drove Vivian so crazy, she couldn’t wait for Francesca to leave.


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