Ignis Fatuus

By Eliani Torres

In this way, she was much like his ex-wife.

Catherine moved through the room seemingly without purpose—lighting sleepy eyes on a cobweb braced along the doorframe, recalling an errand or a half-read magazine article as her fingers skimmed across his bare shoulders and neck—until she reached the other side of the bedroom. She drew a shell necklace from a pocket of her jumper and coiled it into the open jewelry case.

Jane, his first wife, also had a way of looking distracted, of appearing unfocused and inattentive, but like Catherine, she had always known what she wanted.

Laurence watched his wife, who yawned loudly, her mouth opening wide (as if to roar at him, as if to devour him). She scratched at her collarbone, where twin mosquito bites burned on her skin. Then she was in bed, sliding open a zipper, slipping her jumper off her shoulders and down, over her hips and along her legs, rolling it into a ball with her feet so that it formed a lump beneath the covers.

"Are you almost finished?"

He pressed the cuff of the last sleeve, smoothing down one corner while the other side curled onto the prow of the steam iron, and a mother-of-pearl button winked at him, reflecting the light that shone from the wall panels. After a final pass, he maneuvered his shirt onto a wooden hanger, hooked the garment onto the closet's doorknob, and clicked off the iron. He collapsed his antique ironing board, wincing at the squeal of metal, a shriek that satisfied him deeply. "Almost," he said.

Catherine closed her eyes and stretched, throwing her head back and crossing her wrists high above her head. She reminded him again of a barely tamed feline, a leashed snow tiger, the old breeds of grimalkin. "If you call me Cat again, you will be sorry," she had said a few weeks after they were married—lightly, not even looking at him, but waving to friends across the bar. And because he knew her, but mostly because he had known another woman like her, he heeded the warning.

Laurence carried the iron and the flattened board into the machinery closet and put them away. He clicked off the lamp in the living room, and the shining band that ran along the wall panels flared brightly before fading to a faint blue emanation, night.

"Did you check the locks?"

He turned the dead bolts on all the doors and window casements.

"The heat's down?"

He set the thermostat to sleep. Laurence never answered these queries. After all, she could hear him turning the locks, crossing the floorboards, pausing at the thermostat, and shuffling back to her. Catherine had heard the snick of the switches, too, but still she called out, "And the lights?"

After that she could make love to him, her expression telling him that he'd forgotten something, that something was yet out of place.

Even this lank welcome he found arousing, the distance that remained in the clefts and spaces between their skins, however tenderly he kissed her, however brutally he loved her. Catherine had been baking that evening, and he smelled apples and cinnamon behind her ears and in her hair, across her powdered neck and stubbled axillae, between her breasts. Her fingers kneaded his scalp, pulled at his hair.

She sucked in her breath so quickly that it whistled in her throat. She lifted her head, pointing her mouth toward Laurence's. Tasting peppermint, he closed his eyes.

She's here. She's right here. He held a shoulder blade in his hand, pressing her to him, and they were close. He thought he'd found her, grabbed the tag end of a retreating line, the wisp of some crewelwork, an edge of her, and he wouldn't drop it now.

She can see me. Can't she see me? His wife's green eyes caught low light from the dimmed overlamp, and they glowed. She laughed aloud, she teased out the moment, rocking her abdomen, and now, still laughing, she shook her head on the pillow. Her coarse hair flicked at his face.

Then she told him what to do to her, how quickly, how much; crudely she strung anatomy and obscenity, directing him so forcefully that even as she bucked and flexed, he wilted.

He had tugged at her, followed a thread, and pulled it, but here was a nest of raveled line, and he'd pulled at that, only to see that he was caught and she was free.

Her teeth were chattering. Laurence eased away from her, turned his body, and Catherine curled close behind him, until she was molded across his back like a tortoise shell. He could feel her limbs working back there, dipping and stiffening. Now she fell still, and soon she slept.

He found his wife again, in a dream this time, only she stepped into Jane—as though Cat and Jane were flesh and shadow, stuck on at the heels with stitching or soap, following each other, leaping across the room at one another and meeting again and parting, facing one another in a mirror, holding hands, pressing lips, hips, foreheads.

Heat flashed through his body, pushed into his groin. He tried to take his wife, any wife, but though the women overlapped and interweaved, he staggered into chill gaps and gelid interstices, which he never anticipated, but which always, always trapped him. He drew the cold eidolon to his breast and sank with it to the bed, where he woke with her clutched before him. He covered her soft body like a wing case; she wore him like a hide. He breathed through Catherine's wiry black hair, which smelled a little of flour, but mostly of herself. She moaned in his arms, dreaming still, but he would not seek her there again.


It took a particular sort of man or woman to strike out, to leave home and civilization, to cross the distances and the empty spaces and be a pioneer. Jane had had that quality. Laurence could tell right off. When she'd met him, all he could see in her eyes was the stars. He knew he had to bring her back, and keep her. He wanted to see himself in those black eyes.

Laurence promised her the sweep of the compass, speed and stillness and clarity, out there in the night. At last he hinted that he might even include her in his work, and Jane married him before the year was out.

"I wonder how far they are now," she'd said on their first anniversary. She had touched the petals of her flowers, dropped the bouquet at the side of her plate. The red roses drooped on the linen tablecloth.

"I can't say," he replied; a sweet frisson lit within him as her whole body sagged and disappointment ran across her face, followed by suspicion.

"They're alive, and they're freed—and I know they're far from here." She had emphasized odd words, stopping to breathe between phrases. She looked at him beseechingly.

The Vanguard had traveled beyond the limits of communication, but Laurence's team still attempted contact each day at noon. The others, those who'd left in the last twenty-five years, were still in range, if they'd survived.

"This is the New World, remember? New York, New England, Nova Scotia, New Spain?" He could not help laughing; her desperation embarrassed him.

"Goddamn it, New World, Old World—it's all full and tired and used up. Can't you tell me where they are? What they've seen?"

The saltcellar trembled in his hand; he gripped it tightly. He wanted to break glass. "You know I can't."

"You have to give me something, Larry. Logs? Photorecordings? That will be us someday." She pointed upward. Then, in the hush, she lowered her arm.

"You'd turn your back on your home? Leave family?"

"You are my family now, and we can do it—we can just go. Anywhere." Her eyes were sparkling, black and deep.

"All right. The South American expedition landed—I can't say where—and they lost half their complement. Every woman miscarried en route." The crew was starving, but he didn't tell her that. "Happy?"

"Jesus. Oh, god." Jane looked at her hands. She touched her wedding band. "Jesus," she whispered.

"I need you to be patient. We can conceive this year, we can take a strong, healthy child with us. In five years—"

"Five years? Five years, and then we leave?" Jane had drifted from him, though she sat still, breathing shallowly, her eyes darksome and wet. The yellow lamps made her look young. They lit her hair like a nimbus.

He knew what tumbled in her mind. Five years—an instant, an eternity. Her face had flushed; she drank more wine. "Five years is just—" She shook her head.

"Five years is just five years." But he knew that five years wouldn't do it either, that their families would grasp and threaten and cajole once the grandchildren came. Jane's parents would do anything to keep the babies Earth-bound. He counted on it. She'd accept the blue above them, mother his children, and return to dust at the end of a long life.


Noon came and went. The Vanguard had gone silent years ago. As the afternoon passed, various expeditions checked in, among them anonymous groups who'd left the planet surreptitiously. The wanderers wanted to hear about election returns, celebrity scandals, even the droning sublunary shoptalk from Base Operations Nuevo Mundo.

At two, Professor Howard alerted Laurence: "Got another no-name crew. They speak English. You want them?"

Laurence settled at a workstation, crowned his head with a microphone setup. "Anonymous crew? Are we in contact?"

A woman's voice said, "We hear you."

"Jane? Is that you? Are you there?"

The connection was silent.

"Jane?" Laurence was lunging at the controls, making notations, recording the exchange. It's her. It's her. It's her.

"Base Nuevo Mundo, we will not identify ourselves." The voice softened. "But . . . we have no Jane aboard."

Laurence's head began to throb; pain surged in his ears.

"Good luck, Professor," the woman said.

Laurence shut his eyes. "Thank you. Good luck to you."

"We'll keep it steady. Crew out." The voice cut off with a scratch of static.

At six o'clock, Laurence fielded another anonymous call. After conferring with an intern, Laurence told the crewman on the line that the Mets had won the series. He heard the whooping of the men and, he imagined, their wives. Jane was not with them.

When he got home from work, Catherine met him in the kitchen, dancing to her favorite Olden Western disk. She fed him coconut soup and apple pie, twirling around him like a ballerina. The marabou of her dress shivered white upon her skin.

His headache faded. "My love," he said to her. "My sweet."

"Yes," she said. "I am."


This woman, Catherine, he'd found in an archaeology store, running her hands over the fossil display. He thought her a salesgirl, with her smart hair and bright lips. But no, she was a supplier, she told him.

"Going out to dig again next week. A claim out in Las Vegas."

"The old city?"

"No, a condemned mine, northern part of the territory." She winked at him. "Sorry I can't be more specific." For a moment she looked as though she were leaving—she fished through her purse, was turning away—then she said, "Want to come along?"

The woman was mocking him, he was sure. Or he thought he was sure. She smiled at him, looked down his body.

"Oh, no. I have work." He shifted weight to his other foot.

Her green eyes blinked slowly. "And what's that?"

"Base Operations, Nuevo Mundo monitoring study." He cleared his throat. Now would come the wonder, the questions, the mistrust.

"You keep track of those nut jobs?" She looked slightly bored, and he warmed to her.

"It's important for someone to monitor the pioneers. We need to—to know what's out there."

"Maybe you do," the woman said. "Everything I need"—she tapped a limestone impression of a dogtag—"is right here, in the dirt."

Laurence took three weeks' vacation.

He crossed the desert with Catherine, carried her haversack, drove her sand automobile. While she clawed at the ground, he watched her. While she dug the mine walls, he told her about his youth. At night they shared a tent, and she said she was tired of talking. Their conversations always led back to his life, his work, his ambitions—so he hadn't learned much about her. They made love without speaking. Laurence thought he nearly found her those first nights, but he knew it would be patient work. He would have to dig.


Between bites of apple pie, Catherine told him about her newest rival. No longer a fossil and potsherd hawker, Catherine had worked for a series of import companies in the last few years, separating cheapjack from genuine artifacts and what she lovingly called "old junk."

"So Yolanda says the timepiece is a fake, and that I have no business—"

"Was it a fake?" Laurence asked her.

"Not at all. Believe me, I know the real thing when I—"

"Two more no-namers at the station today."

"—when I've got it in my hands. . . . Oh, were the ships lost?" She snickered.

"No. Lonely, I think."

"I tell you, I would never even have left the old country back in the fifteenth century. Give me aqueducts and Turkish baths any day over log cabins and—what was it?—pemmican."

"There's such a thing as wanderlust."

Catherine leaned into him. "Laurence, anyone who leaves Earth is running away. Don't romance it, for Christ's sake." She kissed him. "Oh! I forgot our drinks."

He refused the wine. "You like to be comfortable."

"I don't turn my back on the work of millennia. On cities beneath cities, beneath civilizations." She pointed at the ground. "Earth is who we are. You can never stop digging. You can never get to the bottom."

"I knew someone—" Tendrils of the whirling galaxy, the sickening relentless motion, nauseated him.

Her voice got louder. "You can't leave lamps and streets and plumbing, for god's sake, like it never meant anything to begin with. I'm sorry—what did you say?"

"Oh. I said someone I knew dreamed of the frontier. Always reached for it—for beyond, you know. Like she was never really here."

"Ah. Well, she was fooling herself that there's anything out there. No gods, no kings, no men." Her virid eyes insisted on gravity, held him. "It's a cold nothing."

Laurence wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His head felt clear, nearly buoyant. "I know."

"Did she get lost?"

"I think so."

"Well, now she knows."

"I suppose."

His wife, Catherine, stood five-nine, with wild black springy hair, with wide lips and a threat in her smile, with swarthy arms and legs and deep hooded eyes. Right there. In reach. He seized her wrist and danced her through the house as the music played. She spun around him, his flame, his feast, and the fringe of her feathered dress slipped through his fingers.


Eliani Torres photo

Eliani Torres lives in southern Vermont, where she works as a freelance copy editor. She studied writing at Bennington and Marlboro Colleges and is a graduate of Clarion West (2003). "Who Put the Bomp?" a collaboration with Nick Mamatas, was published in 2006. "Ignis Fatuus" is her solo fiction debut.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow