Fiction from 2024 Fiction Contest judge Sarah Bernstein: Vanishing Point

Photo: cover art of Room 35.3 Duality

Looking for inspiration before submitting to our 2024 Fiction Contest? Check out this fiction piece by our judge Sarah Bernstein, “Vanishing Point,” from Room 35.3 Duality.

———

 

Over coffee, she observes the way the October light idles on the kitchen table. As the bare, black branches of the elm just outside tick against the windowpane to her left, she presses the back of her hand to her cheek and looks onto the street, to the café on the corner, just now beginning to bustle. A man sits at a sidewalk table in his shirtsleeves, reading the newspaper in a polished wooden holder. It is her day off.

The man in the flat above hers had spent much of the night in the tub again. As she lay in bed, knees drawn up, she listened to the deep rocking sounds of the bathwater, occasionally punctuated by little plashes. She took slow belly-breaths, having read somewhere that it is supposed to be soothing, and tried to imagine how he looked in the bath, whether the tub was like her own chipped white one; whether he kept the lights on or off. Perhaps he was reading. She wondered why he stayed there so long. He plays piano in the mornings, maybe he was writing music; there was, after all, a certain rushing rhythm to the water. He might have been trying to fix the notes. She has never seen him; or, rather, they have never seen one another, but all the same, she likes to listen to his bathtub sounds as she falls asleep. She thinks he wouldn’t mind. His mailbox says M. Beuve-Mery.

She decides that, today, she will take the fast train to the coast. She dresses, spends some time in front of the mirror arranging and rearranging. She switches off the lights, checks the stove, looks in the breadbox. From the doorway, she turns and regards the flat, still in the dim half-light of midmorning. The refrigerator hums.

She chooses a seat in a car near the tail, empty apart from a silver-haired woman in a black bowler hat with a dog. It sits in the woman’s lap and looks at her. She tries to remember the name of the breed. It has wiry fur and looks hard done by. That’s the problem with dogs, she thinks. Sad eyes.

As they pass through tunnel and under bridge, the window gives dislocated glimpses of the passing landscape: concrete, bramble, a late-summer wildflower, a silver Citroën. Her image reflects, dark and still, in the tempered glass.

The town is quiet but for the slow tinkling of the merry-go-round by the station, a tune she can’t quite place. On the main street, she walks by tourist stores, still selling goggles and colourful floatation devices. She passes cafés, liveried waiters languidly serving the lunchtime crowd. Here and there on the boardwalk, people sit on white benches, but the beach is empty. The sea salt air smells vaguely of rust remover or something else. Far off, on the promontory, buildings with terra cotta roofs huddle under the low sky. Her heels sink into the sand, darkened by the damp, as she walks toward the shore. Behind her, palms rustle in a mild breeze; ahead, the water, calm and summer-blue. A low ceiling of clouds presses down on everything. The vanishing point is not so far away, she thinks. Farther away, close to the softly lapping waterline, something glints. Approaching, she sees a small pile of scales, round, an inch in diameter, a sort of silvery blue. She looks back at the boardwalk. Two white-haired men eat ice cream on one of the benches and talk animatedly. She bends down to touch the scales. They feel cool and soft in her hand. She tucks her dark hair behind her ears and reaches into her bag for her cigarette tin, emptying cigarettes into the sand. She carefully collects the scales and places each inside. A fine mist starts to fall and clings to her skin. She straightens and follows the track her shoes have beaten into the sand.

Clouds gather and darken outside the train window. In the reflection, she notices that the mist has curled loose strands of her hair.

———

Home again, the sound of passing cars on the street below and the busy noises from the café on the corner rise to the window. Her flat is as she left it. She switches on the light, the radio, pours a glass of wine. She sits on the couch and examines the cigarette tin. The metal feels cold, and her thumb leaves a condensation mark when she lifts it. The weather forecast comes on the radio, but she can’t quite hear; they may be forecasting sun.

She tucks the cigarette tin in her sweater drawer and brings the radio into bed with her. She falls asleep quickly and dreams of the sound of ice in the trees, the slow, hollow thock of wooden wind chimes.

The sun is out the following morning. She rises to dress for work. While suspended between sleep and waking, she had at least fixed on a pair of shoes—the ones with a low heel, the sensible pair. She stops in front of her dresser. The sweater drawer has been pulled open—someone has been in her room, has rifled through her things, could perhaps, at this very moment, be watching her. She should call for help, cry out—

As her eyes adjust to the changing light, she blinks, twice, and sees that, no; the drawer has been pushed, not pulled, open. The scales have spilled out onto the floor, have multiplied, are lying across the carpet in glinting piles. She empties the wicker hamper by the door and fills it, handful upon handful. The scales are soft and feel like leaves, laden with dew, though, in fact, they exude little moisture. She can’t resist plunging both hands into the hamper to feel their coolness against her skin. She places the lid on the hamper and swiftly leaves the house, taking the tin with her.

At the café, she cleans the espresso machine and prepares some toast and pear jam for herself before opening. The day is windless. Her first customers are the same as always, one tartine with milk; the other, just orange juice and un p’tit café. She calls each “Monsieur,” and they don’t call her anything. While she makes the coffee, she thinks of the scales, smiles to herself. The machine makes a sibilant sound, like wind pulling over sere hornbeam leaves in the park. She serves one of the men, who nods without looking over his newspaper. Headlines in a large, hysterical font say something about the impact of the riots in Algiers. In the kitchen, the cook turns on the radio to announce his arrival.

She stands behind the bar, wipes her palms on her black apron, feeling in its pocket the tin’s outline, cold against her palm. There is sunshine on the pavement outside, people following their shadows. Cars roll past on the cobbled streets, women walk by in long dresses and sunglasses. The day presses on.

The lunch crowd dwindles to three tourist girls drinking Pilsner and smoking Luckies at the sidewalk table. They are varying degrees of blonde and they squint into the westering sun. They look away from her as they give their orders, glancing a little to the left, as if they are straining to remember something, the rhythm of a many-syllabled word or the name of the city they have just come from. She might have engaged them once, but the city has made her quiet.

They leave a nice tip. This is how she knows they are travelling.

She clears the tables for dinner. The night waitresses nod at her while chewing gum and changing into high heels. She tucks her apron behind the bar, and says goodbye to the cook who is standing just outside the back door, smoking. He makes a sound like a laugh or a wheezy inhalation: “Hrm.”

She likes the sounds from the neighbouring cafés as she walks home at night. The wind has picked up, but it is still warm and the sky clear. She remembers the mist on the coast, all rocky headland and clear water.

She drapes her jacket over the side of the couch and pours a glass of water in the dark. She hears M. Beuve-Mery fussing with pots upstairs, and the hiss of what might be water dripping onto the hot stovetop. Perhaps he is eating pasta tonight. The window of her small sitting room faces onto the courtyard, and if she leaves it open, she can usually smell her neighbour’s dinner, or at least his onions and garlic. She drags the laundry hamper into the room, opens the window, turns on the lamp. She empties the hamper and sits on the floor. The scales look steely-blue in the orange glare of the lamp. She rises and leaves the room. Next door, Mme. Cypres warbles along to Fréhel on the radio, “Si tu n’étais pas là.” The wallpaper is a faded yellow and catches light reflected off the scales. The curtain ripples almost imperceptibly in the breeze.

She returns within a few moments toting the softly chattering radio and a dented Famous Dane’s butter cookie tin. She sits beside the window and begins to sew the scales together. The needle passes easily through each one and they pull together snugly. In and out, in and out. The weather comes on the radio: sun tomorrow. The linden trees rustle in the courtyard. She finishes before the eleven o’clock news is chimed in.

She hears M. Beuve-Mery drawing his bath upstairs. She drags the sewn-together scales behind her into the bedroom and lies back on her bed. She struggles out of her tights, hangnails pulling on the silk, and slips her legs inside the garment she has fashioned. It fits snugly at her waist, curves, glistening, over her hips, and tapers at her feet. At the tips of her toes, the garment flares out. She watches the ceiling and listens to the rush and the plash of the music man in his bath. She realizes that she has not eaten much today, but does not feel hungry. M. Beuve-Mery begins to hum a tune she can’t quite place. It reminds her of a scent or taste she can’t articulate. Her reflection is dim in the mirror above her dresser. It needs re-silvering, she thinks. She begins to twitch her tail restlessly, wanting for someone to hear her. She begins to whistle the tune back to M. Beuve-Mery, louder and louder until she can’t hear the bath sounds. The courtyard lamp blinks on, and her bedroom is flushed with its phosphorescent light.

Though she can’t see them, linden leaves flash their white bellies in the breeze, the breeze that smells of something like hot sand, like the rising smell of pavement cooling in a downpour after a hot day, like something evaporating.

———

Sun again, sun through the trees, dappling her pillow, the coverlet, turned down, revealing a white sheet and nothing else, except perhaps the smallest hint of damp. The tail hangs over the back of her dresser chair. On the floor, her silk stockings from Brussels bead with moisture in the humid room, dark footprints in the carpet lead to the hall. A crisp, north wind sweeps through the room, touching everything. A scent, familiar, but that can’t quite be placed, hangs in the air.

———

 

Submit to our 2024 Fiction Contest by March 31st for a chance at $1000 and possible publication in Room!

Sarah Bernstein is a Canadian writer who was born in Montreal and currently lives in Scotland. She has published three books, including a collection of prose poems titled Now Comes the Lightning (2015) and two novels, The Coming Bad Days (2021) and Study for Obedience (2023). She won the 2023 Giller Prize for Study for Obedience, which has been praised for its dark humour, sharp prose style, thoughtful exploration of power and prejudice, and innovative storytelling practices. Study for Obedience was also shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

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