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The Other Penelope

August 9, 2010

New York Beach Ridge, 1895

Sometimes you can live so far away from the rest of civilization, out where neither the roads, trains, bicycle paths and airplanes reach: in a firewood house close to the shore; out where sea life can see you rise each day, where the notion of an enemy strikes an unfamiliar chord. Inside the flexible canvas of the dreaming brain, waking to the sound of sand particles sifting through the water, sometimes feeling that those particles belong in the air, or inside the lungs, Penelope kicked off the sheets as her eyes began computing  the streaming pixels of the world around her. In seconds her toes were dipped in the cool morning sands.

Then Olivia comes down wearing those white summer pants that cling to her hips and Penelope, as always, pretends she doesn’t see her because when she does Olivia wraps her slender arms around her waist and presses her lips on the back of her neck. As Penelope turned around she remembered this was the woman who brought her here.

The granules under her feet, the continuous sound of salt water breaking the shore, the breeze and the boats in the distance remained stable as long as she believed they existed.

Was there grandeur in breathing life into representations wondered Penelope.

For many years Olivia had been living alone on this secluded beach: a place where temperature was determined by emotional states. The sun rested on the east. Early one morning Penelope came from the west, perplexed by the beauty of this place. Olivia received her and gave her a unique gift. A whole beach just for the two of them.

In the beginning daily life felt like one long dream. Sleeping and waking, dreaming and talking were assumed, not experienced. When she felt the reminders of some other life, Penelope squinted her eyes and scrutinized them. They were enough to make her look, but never truly see through the seamless layers.

She watched Olivia sleep, her naked back exposed to the light bending through the cracks in the wood. One morning, Penelope found she was covered with too many blankets. She climbed out of bed and stepped onto the cold morning sands. Olivia was gone. When she reached the border of the beach, Penelope felt her body enter a short convulsive state. She didn’t belong here. Her body sensed this, but without Olivia the reason to continue dreaming ceased.

Left behind, the sun beckoned for her return, but it was the memory of Olivia’s scent on the pillows that drove her deeper into darkness. The sand turned into cement. The wide open acres by the water’s edge were now covered with concrete structures, withered flowers on a window display and ugly weeds making their way through the pavement.  The miles grew and the echo of crashing waves dwindled with the memories of the firewood house.

When Penelope couldn’t decode the pixels she realized she’d entered broken space.

Olivia, where you are?

At the end of a long intersection she found a shabby warehouse. She breathed deeply, but Olivia’s scent was untraceable. The key to the firewood house was dangling from a large weed near the entrance. She slipped it into her pocket and opened the door. The place was raw with the stench of decay. Cold and rotten. The walls were barely standing and floor resembled an unfinished puzzle. She stepped away from the holes with caution and followed the faint scent. Olivia was close, but the warehouse was large and the rooms seemed to shift with every movement.

Inside one of the rooms, she found a mounted cabinet along a wall. When she opened its doors, white china glimmered in the darkness. She heard a woman’s cry in another room. It ceased when the cabinet doors were closed. In a sudden panic, she ran down a long corridor and found another room with a ray of light coming from beneath the door. Upon entering, the dread scratching at her chest swelled into recognition.

The white summer pants were torn at the knees. Near the hips, more cuts and scrapes. Above the hips, fresh marks against the skin. Olivia’s eyes were closed. She brushed away the strawberry blond hair from Olivia’s face and became enthralled by an eerie silence.

Moments later Olivia opened her eyes and reached out to Penelope. Her hand wrapped around her neck and pulled her close, the pain in her chest alleviated. Penelope suppressed the urge to cry. As she helped her to her feet Olivia said, “I can’t feel my legs.”

Penelope tried to carry her back in the same direction, but the rooms in the warehouse had already moved. They traveled through several rooms before reaching one with light. Believing she’d found the exit Penelope hurried and opened the last door. In the doorway stood a bald man wearing a black lab coat. The shock sent Penelope stumbling backwards. She landed on her back and noticed Olivia was losing consciousness.

The man grabbed Penelope and began dragging her out of the room. She kicked hard and loosened his grip. But he was quick and planted both hands against her chest and shoved. As she squirmed, he lifted her arm and used a scalpel to cut the skin. Penelope placed her foot on the wall to propel herself forward. When she thought it was over, he pulled out the blade again and scooped out a mass of skin from her hand and ran away.

Olivia was still breathing. Penelope traveled through the city and made it back to the firewood house. Nightfall came as she tucked Olivia into bed, somehow fearful of sleep and dreams. The next morning, as she checked her wounds, the air apparently sweet, Penelope noticed the ocean was still. Olivia took her hand and held it tightly. The silence between lasted for hours until an unknown shadow came from nowhere and shrouded the sunlight. Olivia looked up at the shadow and gasped. When Penelope glanced at it she covered her mouth and swallowed her screams.

Another Penelope. Wearing a tattered dress and leather sandals. Her hair was wet with a peculiar jelly substance, the eyes like brown sugar. Her skin was translucent, almost blue. She stood, head tilted to one side, studying Penelope’s hand over Olivia’s thigh.

“Don’t take your eyes off her,” Penelope said. “Follow my lead.”

“Who is she?” whispered Olivia.

They moved like a  single unit from one side to the next, but the other Penelope moved like liquid. They was little chance of returning to the firewood house.

“Come home,” said the other Penelope. She held out her hand gently, at first, but then lunged at them. She caught Penelope by the hand where the skin was still missing and pulled her. The Penelopes fought, tugging back and forth, as Olivia watched in horror. They appeared to be melting into one another. Although her hips were bandaged, Olivia thrust her Penelope away from the intruder and severed the connection causing  the wound to open slightly. Penelope was pale and unable to speak. They moved backwards until the water was just under their knees. Until they waded into the darkest waters.

Upon feeling the moisture against her premature skin, the other Penelope became absorbed with the recollection of a violent birth and stopped pursuing them. The women drifted deeper until they looked like sailboats cast off in the horizon, whispering words of love to one another, until a current separated their intertwined hands and sent Olivia back to the east and Penelope to the west.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 4:47 pm

    I really enjoyed this, the ending twist is rather incredible. Your tone is maybe more soft and vague, like gauze, which works to seem dreamlike, almost like some of the subtler magical realists. I’m usually into a sense of immediacy and uncertainty in my own representation of dreams. One of the challenges I see with this story is in making the often weird and disconnected imagery of dreams real and effective as its own story, the way dreams often don’t make sense without all the little connective bits of memory and desire snaking through the images into our daily lives. As it stands I’m not quite sure why any of the events happen, which may be dreamlike, but does it make an effective narrative? Oddly, the strangest most dreamlike moment for me in your story was when the character wakes up under too many blankets… it’s always those small thwartednesses that get us.

    Thanks for sharing and I’ll try to put a sample from my novel up on my blog to share soon!

    • Wendy permalink*
      August 11, 2010 12:01 pm

      The challenge of this piece was taking the fragment of a remembered dream (you see a woman walk across the shore while another woman watches from a window) and sketching it out. Maybe you see these women speak to one another, but can’t hear what is being said. As the dreamer, you ask yourself, “What is my role?” You begin to see a story unravel so you pour fictitious properties into it. And sometimes the results become impressionistic scenes. I think you made a good point about not being sure why the events occur…I suppose after rereading it, I felt it was not so much a narrative with constructed parts, but a vignette moving through a specific moment in this place.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. August 14, 2010 11:22 am

    I really enjoyed this story. As usual your style of writing takes my breath away. It brings alive to me the fluidity of unfoldment to occurs in dreams. It isn’t really important what exactly happens but what is important is how it makes you feel. Perhaps it is also the “moral of the story of life” of life itself. Events in our lives fades away like dreams but what we felt remains as part of our unfolding self.


    • Wendy permalink*
      August 17, 2010 6:21 pm


      I think you’re absolutely right. Sometimes how a story makes you feel supersedes what actually happens. I think this is particularly true of any dream inspired piece. I’m so happy you enjoyed this. It means so much coming from you.

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