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Innocence, Briefly

Story by Jenny Arnold (Read author interview) September 15, 2008

Art by Robinson Accola

At the pound, Faith and Jessup wander among the metal cages. While Faith coos at scrawny kittens and shaggy lapdogs, Jessup barks at labs and pants at retrievers. Their mother follows carefully behind, clutching her silk collar closed with one hand and patting at her children’s heads with the other. She stops before a cage that is shared by two snarling infants. “Are those things children?” she gasps.

The pierced volunteer tries to steer them to a squirming mound of spaniel puppies. “You don’t want those two,” she says. “The woman who brought them in, she says they killed their parents on the night they were born.”

At home, Faith and Jessup search for appropriately evil names. “Azrael!” Faith yells.

“And Sariel!” This from Jessup.

Their mother cannot fathom how she has agreed to this. “Oh mother,” the children say. “It’s just a story!” They giggle as the twins hiss and scuffle, rolling and climbing over each other to catch a spider in the corner. Faith and Jessup collect them and hold one squirming child each in their scrawny arms. “Good girls,” they say, scratching the babies behind the ears.

Most nights, Faith and Jessup share the same dream. Tonight, everyone is falling. Men tumble off of rooftops and out of windows; women from verandas and bell towers. In the parks, children fall off of benches and seesaws and cry over ragged knees and torn elbows. Even the squirrels, flying from tree to tree, misjudge the distances and careen to the ground. The strangest things fall from the sky: a teapot, an Alvin and the Chipmunks LP (the Christmas album), a set of dentures. Faith and Jessup find themselves walking a power line like a tightrope, and panic claws at their bowels. They wake to the nuzzling of the twins. Sariel has worked her way under Jessup’s pajama top and is curled in the small of his back; Azrael squirms at the nape of Faith’s neck. Both lick the fever sweat from the frightened children, their tongues like sandpaper.

In school, Faith and Jessup learn of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron. They clasp hands across the aisle in shared excitement. “Just wait for show and tell!” they think. On the way home, they cut through yards and wade through flower beds. Faith trips on a concrete toad and skins her knee. “You’d better put a band-aid on that before the twins catch a whiff,” Jessup says.

Tonight they will be prepared. After their mother tucks them in, they wriggle out of the bedsheets and pack dream suitcases. In Jessup’s goes a pair of high tops, a water pistol, copies of Catwings and My Father’s Dragon. In Faith’s: a bag of gumballs (minus the yellow ones), a purple tutu, a pack of cinnamon flavored dental floss, a roll of scotch tape. When they are finished they each paw through the other’s case, making a mental list of the contents. Then they zip the bags and put them under the bunk beds, next to the pillowed blankets that hum with the twins’ wet snores.

“Goodnight, Faith,” Jessup says. “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Faith pulls the covers up to her chin. “If they do, hit ’em with a shoe,” she says.

“If that doesn’t work, hit ’em with a Shop-ex clerk.”

Both children close their eyes and go through their own versions of counting sheep. For Faith: One red gumball, one blue, one green. Two red gumballs, two blue, two green. And for Jessup: One winged cat, one dragon, one fine-toothed comb.

In this dream, Faith and Jessup are called on as namers. They wear special sashes and brightly colored hats. To warm up, they begin with rubber baby dolls — Mimsy and Agnes and Dot. Sometimes they get the names wrong, and legs or arms or the little blinking eyelids fall off of the lifeless bodies. Jessup uses the tape, and Faith chews gumballs one after the other, sticking limbs back on with her sugary adhesive. The gathering crowd grows increasingly impatient with their mistakes. Jessup laces up his sneakers and prepares to run.

In the morning when they unpack, there is a new picture book in Jessup’s suitcase. There are no words, but the illustrations tell this story:

The twins, with their sheeny black hair and skin like loose-leaf paper (rustly and white, haphazardly lined with blue veins), pull themselves out of their bassinets by their gums and fingernails. They worm themselves down the hall on jelly limbs, heads lolling, spittle in bubbles and stripes running from their lips. They mew and gasp like infants, and then with that baby fat pressed firmly over nose and mouth, the twins take from their glowing parents that which they’d already given freely. By the time their auntie finds them they are fat and wild, gumming rats and cockroaches and the fermenting kitchen trash. They alternate nights where one sister swaddles the other and lulls her to sleep with the moist and gurgly song of infancy and then spends the night keeping vigil, wiping sweat from her brow and spittle from her chin until the morning sun breaks over the window sill.

“It’s just a story,” Jessup says, “just a story.”

In the bathtub, Faith picks at the scab on her knee. Outside the twins paw and whine at the base of the door. Faith imagines them under the water, bubbles escaping from their tiny noses. In the bedroom, Jessup thinks of the twins in a sack, tied at the top with cinnamon dental floss. There are still two days until show and tell. “Plenty of time,” Jessup thinks.

Faith climbs from the tub and wraps herself in terrycloth. Through the condensation on the mirror she looks distorted, bloated and pale. She wipes at the glass and nods. “Plenty of time,” she calls.

About the Author

Jenny Arnold’s stories have appeared in Versal, Sheepshead Review, and Bound Off, among others. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she works in a bookstore.

About the Artist

Robinson Accola creates artwork for SmokeLong Quarterly as needed.

This story appeared in Issue Twenty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Twenty-Two

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