Martha is part of the kitchen. Her limbs are like the legs of the table, the line of the cabinets; her mouth is like a toaster. Words pop out, the same ones every day, about food and bills, homework and time. "Don't forget to eat your breakfast," she tells her son, who smiles through her before charging off to school. He has his own worries, her too-strong boy, and she doesn't blame him for his blindness. Sometimes she can't see herself, either.
"I paid the water bill with the phone money"--this to Jonathan, as she passes him a mug of coffee. He gives her an absent pat on the shoulder with a hand so rough that the skin catches on her red sweater. Once Jonathan hit her father because he needed her so much, broke every rule to be with her. That was a long time ago.
As the screen door snaps shut behind him, Martha turns to the dishes, plates stained with butter and crumbs, silverware that's not silver at all, the metal scratched. From the light at the window, she stares at her face in the heart of a spoon, sees her mother staring back, upside down, before it drops with a splash into the soapy water. Behind her, the wall clock ticks busily.
The flour breathes in a bag sized like a boy that sighs when she opens it, and eight cups fall neatly in a white plastic bowl. Clark used to watch her bake, standing beside her, his head barely clearing the countertop, his chin resting on the formica. She'd always gather up a pinch of flour and blow it at him, saying, "Make a wish." He always broke the rule and told her what he'd asked for; that's why he still isn't like everyone else. "No secrets," he'd say stubbornly. "Don't like 'em."
She's rolling the dough, a pile of apples cut and peeled in a bowl beside her, when the screen door opens. "The cows sick of you already?" She knows it's not Jonathan, who won't be back for hours.
Lex has skin like flour, pale and powdery. "Morning, Martha." It's been a few weeks since he called her Mrs. Kent.
"Have a seat, Lex."
"Thanks." He moves like flour, too, shifting through air like he's part of it. "I took your advice about the doctor."
She pours him coffee black as earth, the way he likes it, with one shake of cinnamon.
"We're going out Saturday night," he says from the table.
"I told you she liked you." She pours herself a cup, using the mug he gave her, a thin china one painted with a Rossetti model.
"She's not my usual type. Harder to read."
The rolling pin slides over the dough. "Just be yourself."
"And scare her away? One wrong move, and I'm front-page news. Again." He has an awkward smile, one that trips over his face. It might hurt him, with the scar bisecting his top lip.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she says, lining the pie plate. "Look how much Clark likes you."
"Clark likes everyone."
"I like you, Lex, and I'm a lot more choosy." She's a mother, old enough to be his, so it's safe to say that.
"You should tell my father." He's watching her in that still way when she glances over her shoulder. "I brought you something. For giving me the dating advice."
"You didn't have to do that." Once upon a time, she didn't speak in cliches, back in university when men hit her father for love. A few presses with a fork, and the pie goes into the oven.
Lex reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a rectangle of tissue paper tied with a blue silk ribbon, then goes to her.
Gifts on the Kent farm are practical, the result of hours pouring over the Sears catalogue, weighing options and expense. Her red sweater, the one Jonathan wears on his hand, was a birthday gift, warm because they had to keep the heat turned low, and like all redheads, she's thin-skinned. That's why Martha can feel him, inches away, warm as the oven. "You don't have to give me things."
"Take it," he says, and offers it to her.
There's a name printed in gold on the ribbon. Italian, and unreadable. The paper unfolds in a soft rustle, like clothes removed, to reveal a piece of colored glass edged in silver. A chain hangs from it, and she holds it to the sun. In a green forest, a deer--no, a stag, with horns--is leaping toward the top, pursued by a pack of dogs that runs up from the bottom. A stream flows underneath, and a woman stands in it, naked. She has red hair. "It's beautiful."
"Do you know the story? Acteon and Diana?"
She shakes her head.
"Acteon was a hunter who came across Diana bathing in a stream. He wasn't expecting to find her naked in the water, and spent too long staring. As punishment, she turned him into a stag. Not so bad, except that his dogs ripped him apart."
"That's a pretty heavy price for a mistake."
"That's the problem with mistakes: someone always wants a pound of flesh."
"Don't give it to them." Sometimes a light from the loft wakes her; Clark goes there when he can't sleep, and she says the same thing to him before kissing him goodnight. Lex could be her son, only he's not. When she climbs the stepladder to fix the stained glass at the window over the sink, he passes her the hammer and the nail, then puts a warm hand on her hip.
"Your family would eat me alive if I let you fall."
She smiles, thinking he can't see, then catches her reflection. So does he, pale as a ghost beside her, smelling of cinnamon. "You'll be late for work," she says very quickly when his hand moves, and he steps back.
"Thanks for the coffee." He disappears through the door, fast as Clark.
The pie burns while she takes a bath. After that, although he never
comes back, the smell of blackened flour always reminds Martha of Lex.
Years later, when Clark's the one who helps people unable to sleep and Lex is the one who gives them nightmares, a hungry reporter from a Gotham paper comes to interview Martha. The farm is long gone, the land polluted by a stream filled with chemicals from the LexCorp plant, and something is wrong with her eyes.
"If you could say one thing to him, what would it be?" He's a pale blur in the armchair.
It's like he has given her a hammer, but she thinks awhile before answering. "Lex saw things that other people didn't. He made some mistakes, but if I had a pound of flesh to give him, I would." The words sound awkward out loud, tripping over her lips, and she says nothing else.
Martha doesn't know if Lex reads the interview, but when the cancer starts to eat past his hand and he disappears from public view, she's allowed into the sanitarium. He's still pale as flour lying on the bed, and so thin that bones show under his skin. His scar seems more pronounced, very red, and the room smells like a cemetery.
"Morning, Martha," he says, like they're in her old kitchen.
She sits beside him and takes his good hand. "Lex." He's too weak to say more, so she talks about little things as he watches her, very still.
Soon a nurse comes in, starched and efficient. "I'm afraid you'll have to go. It's time for Mr. Luthor's bath."
"I'll help him," Martha says.
The nurse stares like she's said something obscene. "Really, I don't think--"
"Go," Lex tells her. "If you want to keep your job."
She hesitates, then walks off, her rubber soles clapping against the tiles. It's a disapproving sound.
The bathroom is off the back of the room, shining white, and the water
is pale blue against the gleaming tub. Lex has so little skin left, stretched
taut and nearly transparent. He sinks to the bottom like a spoon, and Martha
cradles his head as she cleans him.
Lex's funeral is epic, crowded with people who hate him. There are no tears, just an open casket where Lex lies, still forever and all bone. Martha pulls from her coat a rectangular piece of stained glass wrapped in yellowing tissue paper, which she slips inside his jacket.
Then she kisses him goodnight.
Acteon. (c) Thamiris, December 2002