Lally was determined to sunbathe despite the surrounding commotion as the arborists crisscrossed the backyard, dragging limbs from the newly trimmed trees toward the snorting, crunching machine in the center.
“Ruder!” she called. “How much longer?”
He shrugged. “Not much, I guess. She’s doing a fantastic job.”
“The chipper,” he said, pointing at the machine. “She’s amazing – she’s handled everything they’ve thrown at her – or, rather, fed into her. A magnificent thing.”
She laughed. “A smelly, noisy engine with a couple of blades and a hopper. Ruder, only you could fall in love with a wood chipper. Hey, see if you can get them to finish up a little faster – I’d like some peace and quiet out here while there’s still some weekend left.” She settled back into the Adirondack chair, a sloe gin fizz resting on its flat arm next to hers, and closed her eyes.
Her dismissive tone stung him. “I’m not in love with the wood chipper,” he protested. But she ignored him, as she always did.
He approached the crew leader. “She’s sweet, Juan,” he shouted over the sounds of destruction. “Tell me about her.”
“She is a beauty, isn’t she, Mr. Ruder? This is a BestArbor wood chipper, Kali model. Chips logs and brush up to eight inches. She’s got a 185-pound, 1220 rpm flywheel, hydraulic feed . . . She’s all the chipper any man could ever need.”
“I can see that. She’s strong, indomitable, elegant . . . yet terrifying.”
“You’re telling me. She once mulched my cell phone, but it could have been a lot worse. Don’t worry, I’m like a safety fanatic – my crew hasn’t had an accident since I can’t even remember. Anyway, we’ll be done here in a few minutes. I can see your missus’s had enough of us.”
“No rush. Really. It’s me she’s had enough of.”
After a beat, Juan laughed. “Damn, you kill me, Mr. Ruder. Got a question for you, though. I really hate to ask, but –”
“What is it?” Kali fell silent as the last piece of brush cleared her blades.
Juan rested his arm on Kali’s gracefully curved discharge chute. “See, her next job happens to be on Deveron Drive, a couple streets north of here. So it’s either I pull her all the way back to my shop in Brentwood or I leave her here with you overnight. I’d drop her off at Deveron, but they’re having a party this evening. And for some reason she wasn’t invited.”
“She’s welcome to spend the night here.”
“Sure the missus won’t mind?”
“I’ll deal with that.”
He might have admitted he was becoming a bit obsessed if she hadn’t been so hostile, so sarcastic. While Kali stood solitary, proud, and stately in his twilit backyard, he did a little internet research on this species of machine about which he knew so little. There, on eBay, Amazon, and a thousand yard and garden equipment rental websites, he found on offer a wide array of wood chippers, but none so well-designed as Kali. Most of the others were drably utilitarian-looking, but something about her suggested an ancient aquatic creature – a plesiosaur, or the Loch Ness monster; a mutable, fluid thing. Drawn again from his computer chair, he stood and gazed out the study window at his impressive guest as fireflies danced and the night came to envelop her.
His reverie was interrupted by his wife’s grating voice, talking into her cell phone to one of her many unidentified friends as she popped her head into the study. “What’s Ruder doing? Would you believe looking at chipper porn? Yeah, really!”
“Oh, Christ, Lally,” he interrupted. “Would you quit –“
But she’d already turned away to regale her friend with further tales of his supposed eccentricities, and he raged inwardly. For years he’d been nothing but a paycheck and a punching bag, verbal and otherwise, to her. More and more lately he felt the time had come to unwind the deal. She’d bust his balls in court, but the lawyers would do the talking and eventually it would be over. He allowed himself a fantasy of returning home each evening to sweet silence.
He was mentally rehearsing the divorce announcement when she crept up behind, put her arms around him, and began tracing his ribs with her fake nails. This was how Lally indicated sexual interest, no matter how many times he’d tried to get her to find a less obnoxious signal. Tonight it felt like the strangulation of a dream.
“Ruder? It’s time. Nooky time.” Every word came enveloped in a cloud of sloe gin, and her dead weight around his middle put him off balance.
“I’m pretty tired, Lal. I don’t think –“
“Oh, come on. It’s been months –“
“Not months. Just six weeks.”
Like that, she snapped out of lust and into loathing. “Just six weeks? So you’re counting now? I guess sex really is that low a priority for you. Well, you always did have the libido of a Lutheran church lady.”
He felt himself flush, his muscles tightening as though for a brawl. Then again, a brawl seemed to be on her agenda tonight. Like most nights. “You really know how to turn me on,” he sneered. You’re so sexy when you treat me like shit.“
“You’re not even human.” Her eyes, bloodshot, leaky and half shut with booze, stared venomously at him, and she took a step back, bumping into an armchair.
“How much have you had to drink?”
She stormed out of the study without a further word.
Kali, whose image – one of whose many images – is the goddess of violent destruction, is worshipped as the Great Mother. She kills the old, the dark and dysfunctional, in order to bring forth the new. He understood why ArborBest had named their top-of-the-line chipper after Kali; she was a perfect symbol of the goddess’s complementary powers. But motherliness? That was hard to recognize in a machine that could reduce a tree to mulch in mere minutes. Then again, if Lally had a child, it would be able to relate to that kind of mother. Thank the goddess that was one mistake they’d never made.
He needed to leave the house to put some distance between them and to calm himself. In the backyard, as he paced in the fresh, cool air, Kali’s painted surfaces gleamed under the moonlight. The house was dark; maybe Lally had gone to bed, or maybe she’d run out of gin and gone to get a fresh supply. He only hoped Lally had had enough of him for one night; his nerves were shot after their last, or what he prayed might be their last, argument. So rattled was he, in fact, that as he leaned against Kali, resting his forehead and palms against her feed wheel housing, he could swear he felt her vibrate and, although her work had stopped hours ago, she was still warm. He found himself bowing to her, wishing he could understand her in all her aspects, and then, feeling simultaneously exhilarated and embarrassed, glad for the cover of darkness, he returned to the house.
Passing through the living room on his way to the study, he saw, through the front window, that their car was still parked at the curb. At least Lally had had sense enough not to try to drive in her condition. But the house was too quiet: Lally would normally have at least a TV on, if not also the stereo system; she could never tolerate an absence of stimulation. He wondered if she’d passed out or fallen. Though the prospect of once again finding her out cold on the master bathroom floor, having vomited all over herself, disgusted him, he felt he ought to make sure she was safe.
The master bedroom door was locked, so he was unable to check on her. Well, if that was how she wanted it, so be it. He took the stairs two at a time up to the study, thinking to make sure his laptop was charging before turning in for the night in the second bedroom.
When he flipped the light switch, his heart sank and his breath wouldn’t come. Papers he’d brought home from the office lay scattered over the floor, some in shreds, others stained purple and red. Books had been pulled off the shelves, their pages ripped up, their spines stomped flat. A framed photograph that had hung on the wall was now unrecognizable behind a spider web of cracks. His laptop’s screen was solid blue, with a sickening pattern of dots in place of the familiar icons and file names, and the red-washed keyboard was sticky with what smelled like sloe gin.
He could not immediately think what to do. As he stood staring at the ruin of his work, her vicious, triumphal laughter rang out behind him. He spun around to see her raising a steak knife from the kitchen set over her head. She was wearing her wedding gown and veil, and, still laughing, she began to attack the dress’s lace trim.
“Lally! Stop! That’s a Vera Wang, you can probably get four or five thousand for it on eBay! Stop!”
She paused, giving him a look that told him, unmistakably, that he’d said the wrong thing. And that she had the appropriate punishment in mind. She raised the knife again.
This time he didn’t need to think. In an instant he pushed past her and began scrambling down the stairs, through the living room, out the door and into the back yard, hiding behind Kali as his wife emerged from the house in pursuit.
Try reasoning with her, an inner voice suggested. Though bitter experience and his terrified heart told him logic had no chance of taking the edge off this moment, he called out to her. “Lally, hey. Hey, take it easy, honey. Hey, slow down and talk to me.” But she only circled around Kali, sobbing through her curses, while he tried to stay a few steps ahead of her.
The dew made it hard to keep his footing on the grass; he slipped and slipped again, and now she was only a pace or two behind him. He felt a searing pain in his left hand, which he’d extended to stabilize himself in their crazy dance, as her laughter rang to the treetops. He drew his wounded hand close and felt his own warm blood trickling along his forearm. Fuck this shit, seriously. I am so through with her. But now all was quiet; where was she? Is she really trying to kill me? “Lally, just stop this. Drop the fucking knife. Right now. Where are y—”
His hellish bride tackled him, landing him prone on the lawn. He struggled out of her grasp, only to smash his head on Kali’s control panel. As the blood from this second wound fell into his eyes, blinding him, the great machine roared into life. Reflexively he yelled a caution. “Be careful, Lally!” But he knew she couldn’t hear over the noise of the engine.
All at once he was transported to another place, a refuge. Somehow there, from outside his body, he saw himself stepping away from Kali and noticed his wife’s roar of rage as she pounded on Kali, running like a fool round the hungry goddess while her ivory silk sleeves and train caught the moonlight, caught a breeze. Caught the hydraulic feed.
Lally’s long shriek propelled him back to the control panel. Uselessly, blindly, he pressed and pushed and pulled every button as Kali indifferently chipped his wife, propelling Lally’s bloody remains out her discharge chute and over the lawn.
At last Kali returned to stillness, and he fell prostrate before her.
“Sir? Can you hear me?”
Somewhere nearby, other huge engines – fire trucks – idled. Radios spat static intermittently. Paramedics attended to him as he regained consciousness. “Sir?” one of them asked. “Do you know where you are? Can you tell us what happened here? Can you get up off your knees for me, sir?”
“Kali Ma,” he whispered.
“Tell me your name, sir.”
“Om Kali Ma.”
“How do you spell that, sir? Hey, we have a possible concussion here. We’re going to need to get him to General. Your name, again, sir?”
“Om Kali Ma.”