life

Fire and
Powder

Lauren Groff was commissioned to reimagine the story of Juliet, from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, in line with the theme of the 2020 Pirelli Calendar, Looking for Juliet.

Home life Fire and
Powder
Fire and
Powder

After the long silence, the geyser groaned and boiling water hissed thirty feet into the air. The wind carried steam toward people who darted away from it; and he appeared beside her, the boy she had noticed on the bus. His smooth face, delicate hands. She felt her whole body clench, and he looked at her and a shiver ran through him, but his mother was watching and he turned away.

Their fathers were diplomats of countries at odds; the meeting secret; Iceland neutral. The girl’s country was sunny all summer and dark all winter, and girls were raised to be loud and strong. The boy’s country was hot and serious; the only girls he knew were his sisters. The fathers would be meeting all day for a week, so for the families and minor diplomats the hotel arranged trips to the geyser, the waterfall, the house of a great writer.

At a lunch buffet, the boy ladled fish soup into his bowl. She held hers out, smiling. Like this, silently, it was decided.

The mothers, one icy, one covered, fell asleep on the ride back; the boy and girl slid by and crept to the back. She traced his long eyelashes with a fingertip. He kissed her hand, then her mouth.

Late, she received a text from him in the room she shared with her sister and borrowed a dress, then took the stairs to the lobby and caught a cab and came into the nightclub where the bouncer winked and let her in. She winced at the jagged red light and the thrumming music. She found the boy waiting for her in a corner.

They talked about everything, except for the hatred of their fathers. (Corrupt, hers said about his; Bloody fool, his spat about hers.) Shyly, he touched her hand. She laughed and pressed herself against him. They were bleary, sore, filled with joy, as they separated in the lobby at dawn.

He was too happy to sleep; he stood beneath her window and watched her silhouette as she undressed. When his phone pinged, he had two visions of her at once, the silhouette and the photo's tender flesh.

The talks had deteriorated; the fathers paced and roared. The boy and girl discovered one another in the grottoes of geothermal pools, the freezing water of the Atlantic, the hotel’s conference rooms, the gym’s showers.

But in the midst of such thrill, the sister snitched. The girl came into her room before dawn to find her father glowering in the chair. Little idiot, he said. The boy’s family is corrupt. Do you know how they treat women in that country? On and on.

Something hardened in the girl. I don’t care, she said, defiantly. We’re getting married.

The father laughed. You’re a child, he said. You can’t.

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When she proved adamant, he said, bewildered, Marriage is medieval. Marriage is the man owning the woman!

She laughed at her father until he saw his hypocrisy for himself, but it only made him more angry and he shouted for her mother to book a flight home that evening. He snatched the girl’s phone. She ran to the nightclub, and wept to the bouncer, who lent her his phone to call the boy.

They clung together in the back room. In the rush and fury, their plan congealed, a show of their seriousness; there wasn’t time to test it for holes. The bouncer sold them pills reluctantly, without asking for what end.

Alone in the afternoon, the girl lay in her bed, a note in hand, feeling sleep drag her down. But the mother and the sister stayed out too late gift-shopping, the fathers’ talks dragged on, and nobody came to the room by the planned time. A half-hour after the ambulance should have been called, the boy grew desperate. He put his shoulder to the door. He discovered the girl unresponsive, cold.

He called emergency services, then locked himself in the bathroom. Because the paramedics were working over the girl, nobody found the boy until far later.

In a few days the girl woke, the light too bright. They kept her drugged.

And when she begged her mother for the boy, the mother at last said, Darling. He’s dead.

The girl would have tried again, if the doors weren’t locked, the windows shatterproof.

Slowly, she returned to herself. She flew home, went to university, took over her mother’s makeup business, became rich. She lived with a blond man but didn’t marry him. They had children.

And in the slanted golden summers of the north—berries and dogs, boats and wine—she’d watch her children playing, and feel around inside of herself for happiness. But the small hot fire that had burnt at the center of her was dead. Between the world and herself, she understood at last, there would always float a darkness, the smoke of the dead flame.


By Lauren Groff

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