Wish he’d hurry up,” says Cora.
“Hurry up and wait,” says Nick. He laughs, moves his foot so it’s touching mine again. No one can see, beneath the folds of my outspread skirt. I shift, it’s too warm in here, the smell of stale perfume makes me feel a little sick. I move my foot away.
We hear Serena coming, down the stairs, along the hall, the muffled tap of her cane on the rug, thud of the good foot. She hobbles through the doorway, glances at us, counting but not seeing. She nods, at Nick, but says nothing. She’s in one of her best dresses, sky-blue with embroidery in white along the edges of the veil: flowers and fretwork. Even at her age she still feels the urge to wreathe herself in flowers. No use for you, I think at her, my face unmoving, you can’t use them any more, you’re withered. They’re the genital organs of plants. I read that somewhere, once.
She makes her way to her chair and footstool, turns, lowers herself, lands ungracefully. She hoists her left foot onto the stool, fumbles in her sleeve pocket. I can hear the rustling, the click of her lighter, I smell the hot singe of the smoke, breathe it in.
“Late as usual,” she says. We don’t answer. There’s a clatter as she gropes on the lamp table, then a click, and the television set runs through its warm- up.
A male choir, with greenish-yellow skin, the colour needs adjusting, they’re singing “Come to the Church in the Wildwood.” Come, come, come,
come, sing the basses. Serena clicks the channel changer. Waves, coloured zigzags, a garble of sound: it’s the Montreal satellite station, being blocked. Then there’s a preacher, earnest, with shining dark eyes, leaning towards us across a desk. These days they look a lot like businessmen. Serena gives him a few seconds, then clicks onward.
Several blank channels, then the news. This is what she’s been looking for. She leans back, inhales deeply. I on the contrary lean forward, a child being allowed up late with the grown-ups. This is the one good thing about these evenings, the evenings of the Ceremony: I’m allowed to watch the news. It seems to be an unspoken rule in this household: we always get here on time, he’s always late, Serena always lets us watch the news.
Such as it is: who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none.
First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once.
Wooded hills, seen from above, the trees a sickly yellow. I wish she’d fix the colour. The Appalachian Highlands, says the voice-over, where the Angels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division, are smoking out a pocket of Baptist guerillas, with air support from the Twenty-first Battalion of the Angels of Light. We are shown two helicopters, black ones with silver wings painted on the sides. Below them, a clump of trees explodes.
Now a close shot of a prisoner, with a stubbled and dirty face, flanked by two Angels in their neat black uniforms. The prisoner accepts a cigarette from one of the Angels, puts it awkwardly to his lips with his bound hands. He gives a lopsided little grin. The announcer is saying something, but I don’t hear it: I look into this man’s eyes, trying to decide what he’s thinking. He knows the camera is on him: is the grin a show of defiance, or is it submission? Is he embarrassed, at having been caught?