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Here is the continuation of Museum of the Innocents. Miss Part One? Click the link just above to begin at the beginning. Thank you for coming by.
All material from Museum of the Innocents is copyright 2009-2016 © Douglas Clegg. Used here with permission, all rights reserved. You do not have permission to post this or any other fiction presented at DouglasClegg.com on any other website or use it in any way, shape or form without permission from Douglas Clegg (DClegg@DouglasClegg.com)
Ten Years Before
A Jewel Thief in Paris, Winter 1857
Sophie Gabriac was seven years old when her Aunt Leonie drew her aside on a chilly afternoon as a light snow descended over the city of Paris.
This was at her great-uncle’s house along the Faubourg St-Germaine with its enormous windows showcasing the elegant garden and grand boulevard beyond.
Her mother often sent her to stay with her aunt on the long winter days after her sister Violette was born.
The baby’s birth had been traumatic – Sophie remembered it only as blood and knives and the kitchen table, where her mother screamed and the midwife scrubbed and washed and sour-faced physicians came and went. Afterward her mother was sick for nearly a month and the baby needed quiet. Sophie’s father – no help at all – was off in China with another war. Two doctors visited, a nurse was hired – and slept in a small bed near the baby’s crib – and then the cook employed a noisy girl to run errands and help with the meals. Sophie felt as if she were forgotten in all of it.
“I don’t want to go to Aunt Leonie’s,” Sophie whined when her mother tugged the bonnet over her tangle of hair, drawing the ribbon together. “Can’t I stay with you? I can help. I’ll brush your hair. I’ll keep the kitchen girl out of your way.”
“We need our rest – and we have all the help in the world, little rabbit,” her mother said. “You’ll be bored here. All I intend to do is take my medicine and sleep. And the baby – well, she’ll cry all day and night. You’ll hate both of us soon enough.”
“But I don’t want to go.”
“Cherie, you must. You will remind your aunt that you’re a Gabriac, and everything in that house belongs to us, as well,” her mother told her, kissing her gently, the sweaty warmth of fever in her touch. “Leonie’s fond of forgetting that fact. Imagine, someday, when your father comes home, that house will be ours. Yours. Yours and mine and our little Violette’s.”
Aunt Leonie, at forty, was all sharp edges, from face to foot. She had a shiny little falcon’s beak of a nose and small, wide-set gray eyes, one of which always seemed slightly at odds with the other.
Still, the impression that her features were off-kilter all but vanished by the time she emerged from her private apartment with its mirrors and hairdressers.
Dressed and powdered, face glistening with moonstone dust, cheeks lightly smudged with a faint halo of pink, colorful ribbons festooned at her wrist and hair – dyed red from henna – sparkling rings slipped around her long thorny fingers, diamond-crowned black choker clasped at her throat, Aunt Leonie transformed into an absolute portrait of Parisian high culture.
“We’ll have tea and a nice long chat, shall we?” Leonie said as she ushered Sophie into the parlor.
Her aunt wore an indigo gown mottled with red and gold patterns, a white silk sash wrapped tight at her waist.
Sophie reached out to touch Aunt Leonie’s puffed sleeves, warm and soft. She inhaled a wildflower essence that put her in mind of her grandmother’s endless twilight suppers at long tables overlooking terraced summer gardens.
“I’ve found something that I believe belongs to you.”
Aunt Leonie drew a small tortoiseshell comb from her scalp, letting the soft, wavy strands fall down the back of her neck.
“Is it yours?” her aunt asked.
Without hesitation, Sophie cried out as if it were Christmas morning. “I thought I lost it. Thank you, Aunt Leonie, thank you.”
“It means so much to you.”
“It was a gift – from Papa – from Italy – when I was five.” Then she whispered, “He bought it in a shop that sells only beautiful things.”
Leonie offered a curious smile as Sophie took the comb and drew it through her hair, nestling it against her scalp.
“So lovely,” her aunt said. “Your hair – it’s like spun gold.”
They sat across from each other on twin high-backed chairs at the olive-wood table inlaid with ivory and jade.
Silver dishes and small trays were set across the table, each filled with a variety of confections: sugar almond, gently-rounded chocolate, colorful marzipan, candied fruit, tiny finger pastry and fresh raspberries. A cat-shaped pitcher of frothy cream sat beside the small ceramic dog filled with sugar, both guarding an elephantine teapot that dwarfed everything around it.
The steaming tea, the buttery tang that burst from flaked pastries, the trace of smoke from the fireplace grate, the lingering spice incense from candles along the windowsill and even the imagined freshness of snow outside, all mingled and created an overpowering memory of this day for Sophie that would never leave her.
She marveled at how her aunt poured tea – the turn of her wrist, the delicate way she held the little pitcher, grasping the saucer, balancing it all – as she spoke of carriage rides they’d take to shops and theaters before winter grew severe.
“There’s a matter we need to discuss.” Aunt Leonie passed her the first cup. “It’s been on my mind for days.”
Sophie warmed her hands against the delicate porcelain cup, all the while stealing glances at the variety of temptations laid out before her.
“You know, my dear, I suspect there may be two Sophies sitting across from me.” Her aunt wagged her finger as if scolding a naughty kitten.
Sophie brought the cup to her lips, inhaling a scent of murky tea, imagining earthy chestnut and wild orchid swirled into a mist of cinnamon cream.
“There’s this Sophie – the one I see before me – a nice little child,” her aunt said. “She knows her manners, yes?”
Sophie, barely listening, leaned over the table to pick out a perfect marzipan peach.
“And then there’s the Sophie who lurks beneath,” her aunt said. “A secretive little creature.”
Sophie felt a sudden prickling along her arms. She looked up, feeling as if her aunt had just pinched her – invisibly – from across the table.
“The secret Sophie doesn’t say what she really means.” Aunt Leonie said. “There’s something cold as a frozen river about her, don’t you agree? She doesn’t show her feelings the way other young ladies do. I see that other Sophie, within you. You may be able to hide her from your mother, but there she is – yes, I see her – behind those eyes.”
Sophie, her hand trembling slightly, glanced down at the cup and saucer in her fingers.
Still as stone, Sophie thought.
Her aunt reached across the table, steadying her hand. “Here, let’s set the cup down, shall we? There’s something I want you to see.”
Aunt Leonie’s hand went deep into the folds of her dress.
Her aunt often brought little trinkets from hidden pockets, but this time she drew out a long strand of pearls.
“Isn’t this beautiful? See the slight rose-tint of each pearl? How it catches the light?”
Sophie stared at the necklace, which twisted and turned and made a slight rattling sound. She felt a thudding panic in her chest.
Still as a statue, still as stone. It was a game she played with her friends.
Sophie slowly raised her chin and gazed at her aunt with what she hoped was a look of absolute innocence.
“You recognize this, yes? I see it in those eyes of yours, even if others don’t. I know who you are, my secret Sophie. You stole this from my dressing table.”
Still as stone.
“It was in the little Boulle box – the one with the brass cartouche on its lid. I opened it and let you touch these pearls before I put them on. Nearly two years ago. You watched me dress that night.
“I was going out with your uncle to a wonderful party – it was March, I believe. Still brisk outside. You asked if you could touch these pearls. I let you. You were so innocent, or so I thought. How was I to know you were – even then – planning your crime?”
Aunt Leonie turned slightly in her chair and called out for the servant named Laurent, who stood just on the other side of the door.
Laurent stepped into the room, a small wooden box in his hands, which Sophie recognized. A memory came to her: a rabbit caught in a trap out among the yellow and violet haze of gardens.
Laurent passed the box to his mistress, but not before he cast a judging glance at Sophie.
If she hadn’t been so shocked by this entire display, Sophie would have felt her heart break, for she had developed a liking for Laurent, who was handsome and pretty and played games with her during the boring afternoons.
Aunt Leonie thanked the servant, who turned to leave when his mistress grabbed his hand.
“No, stay,” she said. “I want you to witness this.”
Traitor, Sophie thought as she watched the servant.
“Even this has a lovely story. Did I ever tell it? This box was a gift from a king to your great-grandmother and has been with us ever since. Ebon and ivory, with little amethyst flames at its edge. And look –how lovely it is inside. Red silk, and see the little bronze tassel at the clasp? Such craftsmanship! What artists create such luxury these days – and in such a small package? This is a work of love, this box.”
Sophie felt her mouth go dry. She stared at the box as her aunt set it down, open and empty, on the table.
Sophie’s left heel itched – her shoe felt tight – she used the toe of her right shoe to scratch it. Her left shoe slipped down, so that the heel swung back, barely touching the floor.
Her scalp began to itch. She wanted to scratch it, but wouldn’t move.
Still as a statue, she thought.
The itchiness migrated from her scalp to the back of her neck. She was certain that if she scratched – if she really let loose with this overwhelming urge – that it would somehow be an admission of guilt.
When it’s over, she thought. When Aunt Leonie sends me out of the room. When she stomps off in fury.
I’ll scratch then.
Aunt Leonie made a noise at the back of her throat, nearly a cat’s purr.
“I was shocked to see the necklace gone, of course. How you found the key to this box – that’s still a mystery, isn’t it? Perhaps it had fallen from one of my pockets, or I’d simply mislaid it. But little rats find all kinds of tidbits when they’re sniffing around. You’re very much like your mother, aren’t you?”
The servant crossed his arms over his chest and made a slight grunting noise.
Sophie closed her eyes, wishing they’d all disappear. The itchy feeling had spread to her face. Yet she would not move her hands, nor touch her own skin for fear that this would erupt into a fire of furious scratching.
Her aunt wouldn’t stop talking. And the more she went on, the more Sophie felt the burning itch spread across her skin.
“Like a darling little rat, you must have been, as you searched for this.”
When Sophie opened her eyes again, Aunt Leonie grinned.
“I wouldn’t have thought about the pearls for – oh, another year or two, perhaps. I rarely wear this, except for special occasions. Adèle found this necklace, among your things, upstairs – the night your sister was born. You had left it behind. Hidden. I couldn’t believe it at first. A thief? Not the little girl whom I’d held since her birth! Why I had been with your mother that night – I stayed up until dawn to see your first breath! I lay beside your mother in that wide bed and gripped her hand in mine as you came into this world. Not that little baby, not my precious niece, Marie-Sophie. Why, I was ready to thrash Adèle in defense of you. But there, in my dressing room, I found a small comb. It was near this box, as if the criminal had lingered too long in contemplation of her crime.”
Sophie reached up and pulled the comb from her scalp, feeling the pinch of it as it wrenched free of her tangling hair.
She threw it to the rug as if it were poison.
“It’s not mine,” Sophie muttered.
She held her breath and wished all of it would sweep away with the snow – the table, the silver trays, the confections, the tea, the high-backed chairs – and especially her aunt.
“It’s too late for such denials,” Aunt Leonie’s voice dropped low, nearly a growl. “This is not a toy, Sophie. It’s a rare expensive piece, passed down in our family. If only you’d been patient. You see, I considered leaving it to you when you were older. I doubt that will happen, after this. Why should I give a thief –”
Sophie covered her ears, but kept hearing her aunt’s voice as she spoke of robbers, sin, crime and prisons. The need to scratch grew worse. Her whole body felt as if it were covered in fleas all tunneling just beneath her skin.
Her aunt poured out more tea for the two of them.
Aunt Leonie passed Sophie a cup.
Sophie was not sure why her aunt had grown quiet.
Leonie clicked the spoon against the cup’s edge as she stirred.
“If you confess to this crime, I won’t punish you,” Leonie said. “But if you don’t, you’ll sleep in the cellar with the rest of the rats. Do you understand? Don’t give me that empty look. Do you understand?”
Her aunt leaned across the table and slapped the teacup from Sophie’s hand. It smashed against the table’s edge, falling to the floor in a spray of fragments.
Sophie stared down at her feet.
She looked up at her aunt.
“Yes, I took it,” Sophie whispered.
In a mere second, the itchy feeling subsided. The temperature in the room seemed to plummet as soon as she spoke.
“Ah, the secret Sophie reveals herself,” Aunt Leonie said, her eyes narrowing. “I knew I’d find you there.”
Glancing over to the servant, she said, “Laurent, you’ve heard this confession?”
After her aunt dismissed the servant, she leaned back, her long fingers stroking the carved scrollwork at the arm of her chair.
Sophie held her breath to the count of twenty, expecting a chasm to open up beneath her. She heard crackling in the fireplace and stared at the flames as they sparked and leapt along the grate.
What would it be like to burn up? Ash and smoke up the chimney, out into the air, up to the clouds?
“This is your mother’s influence.” Aunt Leonie’s voice transformed into a vicious snarl. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You haven’t been raised a Gabriac at all.”
Sophie didn’t dare move, though she had an urge to run out of the room.
Aunt Leonie went silent for what seemed several minutes.
Sophie stared at the teapot and silver trays. She imagined that she heard a rapid, distant thudding sound as if someone in heavy boots were tromping through the snow. It was her blood, she realized – her heartbeat – making that sound.
She worried that she might die suddenly.
An eternity passed until Leonie rose up and walked slowly to Sophie’s side of the table.
Her aunt drew a chair close, sitting right beside her.
Sophie wouldn’t look at her. She felt a terrible pain in her stomach.
“You can be arrested for such thievery – yes, even you,” Leonie whispered, her face so close she might have kissed Sophie’s cheek. “I heard of a little boy imprisoned – for years – just for stealing a silver spoon. Can you imagine? This necklace is worth much more than a spoon, believe me. Thievery doesn’t suit you. Some girls get away with such things, but not girls like the two of us.”
Aunt Leonie combed her fingers through Sophie’s hair, drawing it to the side of her face.
“You’re not a beauty. In fact, you’re rather plain. You may have your mother’s character, but you have your father’s looks.”
Her aunt’s breath smelled as sweet and bitter as the amarelle cherry.
“Oh your hair is lovely, and no one ever faulted a girl for being sloe-eyed. I have no doubt you’ll grow into that nose. Plain girls make excellent wives and mothers when they grow up, so I don’t want you crying over this.”
Leonie’s voice became a tickle of venom crawling just inside her ear.
“Beauties—like your mother—can often break rules and people forgive them. But ladies like us, my dear, must be better than that. I will forgive this crime for now. But if you do such a thing again, I’ll break that frozen river inside you, Sophie. The secret Sophie – this one who steals, who lies – must die, do you understand? Yes? You must kill her, and at the moment of her death you will – truly – be a Gabriac. Do you promise to kill her? Do you promise?”
The Prisoner of Pearls
That night, in the wide feather bed on the third floor of her aunt’s home, Sophie wept so much that she made a promise to the mirror’s reflection that no one would ever make her shed tears again as long as she lived – at least not on the outside. Not where the tears showed.
Before dawn, Sophie stole the pearl necklace again.
This time, she was careful. She didn’t drop any evidence behind, nor did she forget to lock the box or return the key to where it belonged.
She went home to her mother and the baby after breakfast and refused to spend time alone with her aunt or visit the house on the Faubourg St-Germaine again.
Sophie began to distrust any claim to authority after this.
She was a thief, after all. A criminal. She began to feel the rebellion of her inner self as something good – something to be nurtured and coddled.
It wasn’t just Aunt Leonie, but others, as well.
Her mother ignored her most days, or else seemed casually unkind and careless. Her uncle never noticed her other than to chastise her, and her great-uncle was just this ancient creature wrapped in shawls and blankets, wheeled out on state occasions when suddenly the relatives all called themselves Madame le Comtesse this and Duc du that. Her grandmother was kind now and then, but her visits were rare.
Her father was a memory, as far as she was concerned. Her tutors seemed corrupt.
When she went to confession, she was certain the priest was drunk. She often made up elaborate sins to test him. She made up a story about her aunt attending a Black Mass in a fashionable residence along the Champs-Élysées, and still the priest didn’t seem to care.
She craved some kind of religion and so she made up her own. She imagined that she possessed wondrous mystical powers with the help of Aunt Leonie’s necklace, which had become a pagan idol to her. It had, after all, been the first thing she’d ever stolen, and the wickedness of that crime added to its power.
Sophie played a game – shared with her little sister – where she could see the future in the iridescent pearls, their rose-pink hearts glowing when held up to candlelight.
Her sister – Violette– was not quite four when they first played together with the pearls.
Viola, as Sophie called her, had eyes like perfect chocolates. “You’re my little doll,” Sophie told her. “Made for amber ribbons and silver spoons. We found you in an old shop of beautiful, broken things. Even though you were cracked along the back of the scalp, we took you to a dollmaker who repaired you. No one would know you were anything less than perfect because all that fuzzy hair on your head was glued on to cover where the seam would show in back. A magician breathed life into you, mingled with custard and honey, and when your eyes opened for the first time, I loved you like I had never loved any doll ever before.”
Viola, too young to argue, accepted her origins from her wise sister. When she saw dolls – in shops or along the shelves in the nursery – she looked at them with the same wonder that others might look at their distant relatives, to see a resemblance, to catch a glimpse of a shared bloodline.
Sophie spun elaborate tales of their future lives, discovered from long hours staring into the hearts of the pearls. Countries where dolls gave birth to human children, and where thieves were treated like princes; where prisons existed to punish people who were cruel to children, and that only Sophie herself could decide whether to execute such parents or to let them languish in a windowless tower.
In this future, she saw the life ahead of her: the wealth, the elegant parties, the palaces, the suitors, the lovers and best of all, the dances. Aunt Leonie met with ruin, shunned by all the fashionable hostesses until she ended up a drab wandering, half out of her mind, along those shady avenues where ladies never go.
Her mother and father met with a peculiar fate when – together for a single night between wars – they were both bitten by a mad dog, and became wolves themselves from the bite. In later years, Sophie would hear them howling out along the woods.
“What about me?” Viola asked when she was four and a half. “What happens to me?”
“Let me see here,” Sophie whispered, passing the necklace in front of the candle’s flame. “The pearls will tell all.”
Sophie told her: a dashing stranger in a mask named Sir Ranulf the Bold would carry Viola off on a charger and take her to his castle in Bavaria. Sir Ranulf had an enormous doll collection, and Viola would reign over her kind in a country where to have been born a doll was to be nobility.
By the time Viola was five – and called Viola by everyone – she was so familiar with this vision from the pearls that she would often see handsome strangers in the street and ask Sophie if she thought one of them might be Sir Ranulf the Bold.
“But is it wise for a doll to marry such a man?” Sophie cautioned her. “Men who marry dolls often abandon them later. He might leave you for another doll with a greater dowry. No, you’ll have to find a little tin soldier or even a nutcracker to marry – or a marionette. Now that would be a husband under your control – and it would be suitable. Marrying any other kind of man can only lead a doll to sorrow.”
Sophie began writing constantly and made the visions into little playlets, as well, and performed them to herself in her bedroom mirror, doing all the parts, with Viola as her adoring audience. Later, her little sister joined in. Viola was not a good reader – she was slow at lessons – so Sophie would read out her lines and make her sister commit them to memory. They performed the plays in front of the mirror, imagining a stage and proscenium like the one at the Opera, and bouquets thrown from the crowds.
This fantasy world became a refuge on their loneliest days.
Sophie was fairly sure it was all make-believe but by then she had taught her sister the technique for pearl divination and it was too late to end it.
“A Slavic princess once owned these pearls. She rode as a warrior into battle againt the Turk,” Sophie told Viola. “She sacrificed many of her enemies to these pearls so if you pray to them, you’ll see the future. But even better, the pearls are tools of witchcraft, too. The Slavic princess delved in Black Magic and – when she died…”
Sophie let her voice drop to a deep whisper as if she were about to reveal a terrifying secret.
“It was by her own hand, as she tightened the pearls about her throat, taking the last of her breath – until her soul went into the necklace itself.”
“No,’ Viola gasped. “Not her soul.” Even dolls – according to the mythology they’d created – had eternal souls.
“Yes. Her most sacred immortal soul. Imprisoned forever in the pearls. Not living, not dead. Waiting to be released.”
“How can we help her?”
“True love,” Sophie said. “Only true love will set her free.”
On special occasions – or in moments of crisis – Sophie would curl the string of pearls around her wrist and lie down on the bed beside her sister.
They’d call up storms to sink ships, imagine their future husbands and children, go on forest adventures and travel to savage lands, or even go so far as to lay a curse on someone who had given them a harsh word or glance.
“We are witches,” Sophie told her sister. “Beautiful witches. With great power, brought us by the pearls.”
“Witches,” Viola repeated, staring into the candlelight.
Sometimes, they’d ask the pearls to send their father home.
One night, Viola crawled into Sophie’s bed while a thunderstorm raged outside.
“Don’t be afraid,” Sophie whispered to her sister.
“I saw ghosts outside,” Viola whispered.
“Ghosts of who?”
“People from the portraits.”
“The ones in the hall?”
“All those old relatives? Great-grandmother too?”
“It’s just your mind making it up,” Sophie said.
“No, it’s real. They’re whispering,” Viola said, a worried tone in her voice. “I think they know things about us. They don’t like witches – and they hate dolls who pretend to be girls. And they know about the necklace.”
“Even if they did, who could they tell?” Sophie kissed the top of her sister’s scalp. “They’re just a bunch of gossips, those portraits. No one would ever believe a word they said.”
“They don’t want us here,” Viola said, ignoring her sister’s words. “They want us to leave.”
And in fact, within a few years, they did leave.
Sophie hadn’t seen her father in more than two and a half years by the time she was fourteen, when her mother told her they were going to join him in Mexico.
The Magnificent Gift of Helene Eugenie Gabriac
Arriving after a difficult journey to Mexico City, the Gabriacs took up residence in a palatial house on the Calle de San Francisco with a view of the cathedral directly across.
This was in 1864.
“It’s bigger than that drafty house on St. Germaine,” Madame Gabriac said as she passed her hat to the smallest of the five servants her husband had hired.
“Girls, this is Leticia. She worked for the Jubinals,” Madame Gabriac announced after the servant took her half-coat. “They had no complaints whatsoever. And they’re a family of complainers.”
“I still miss them,” Leticia said. “Particularly Jean-Baptiste. He was a devil. I had to chase him around and around the gardens to get him to take his bath – even at his age!”
Leticia was small and plain, young but without a youthful look. Her only distinguishing feature was an odd little headdress: her hair was hidden with an ordinary black cloth, wound around her scalp, framing her face, ending in a twist at her shoulder. Madame Gabriac, who had a penchant for nicknames for servants, immediately began calling her “our little nun,” and Leticia seemed to enjoy the phrase.
The girls met the other servants, briefly, including the young French cook – a slender, tall girl with dark hair, green eyes and a pretty face who looked just a few years older than Sophie herself.
Madame Gabriac pointed out the baggage in the lower hallway, snapping her fingers to the porters from the street. Two other servants were given instructions about where to unpack, and what should be done next.
“And let’s have an early supper,” she told the cook.
Furnishings from various Gabriac houses had arrived some days earlier.
“Your father made all the arrangements,” Madame Gabriac told her daughters. “Isn’t it magnificent, this house?”
“It’s like Aunt Leonie’s,” Viola said.
“Exactly like it,” Sophie said without enthusiasm. “And like our grandmother’s. It’s like all homes – except ours.”
“Oh, Marie-Sophie, don’t be ridiculous,” Madame Gabriac said. “Do you honestly miss that tiny place?”
“It wasn’t tiny. And it was ours.”
“This is ours, too, cherie. And so much more magnificent, don’t you think? So many rooms I’ll have a headache sorting them out.”
Sophie scanned the long hallway. “It’s too big.”
“Within a few weeks, it may seem small to you. “
“Can I see my bedroom?” Viola asked, tugging at her mother’s sleeve.
“Of course. If you can find it,” her mother said. “And when you do, I think we could all use a good lie-down before supper. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Viola raced down the hall and began poking her head into one open doorway after another, shouting, “Not here!” and “This isn’t it!” and occasionally, “You should see what’s in here! There’s a harp, and books!”
After a minute or more of this running around, she stepped out into the corridor and leaned against a doorframe. “I can’t find my room.”
“Upstairs!” Madame Gabriac shouted. “And be mindful of the steps, Viola!”
Sophie stood just outside the main parlor. “It’s so dead here.”
“It’s like a ghost of other peoples’ houses. It’s not real at all.”
“Nonsense,” her mother said. “What kind of talk is this? Real? Ghosts? Oh, you’re exhausted from the trip. Of course, we all are.”
“I’m not tired. I don’t like it here. It’s haunted.”
“This is some crazy idea from all those romances you’ve been reading, isn’t it? We should throw those out.”
“Not my books,” Sophie whispered.
“That sort of reading is bad for a girl your age. I knew they’d fill your head with rot. All you did the whole voyage over, read, read, read. What a bore you were.”
“It made the time pass.”
“Yes, and now your head is filled with these strange ideas. But just open your eyes, cherie.”
Sophie followed her mother into the wide parlor. The room was white, like all the rooms in the house, and filled with familiar wall sconces, as well as a delicately-molded figurine of a nymph holding a lamp. Her grandmother’s rose-colored curtains rustled in the breeze from the open window, antique silks were draped across chairs, little silver creatures gleamed along the windowsill.
In a far corner, an enormous tapestry lay rolled up. Sophie knew it, for she’d seen it at her grandmother’s country estate. She and one of her cousins had pulled it across a wide room. Sophie remembered its fanciful scene: odd long-beaked birds with enormous wingspan, chevaliers wearing plumed hats, headdress-laden damsels riding the backs of deer with antlers as thick as forests, and little moth-holes at the corners of the cloth from having hung in her grandmother’s house and her great-grandmother’s and great-great-grandmother’s in centuries previous.
“It’s as if they were getting rid of all their old junk,” Sophie said.
Her mother let out a strange little mouse-squeak.
“Look!” Madame Gabriac cried out, nearly running over toward the doors on the far side of the parlor. “How did he get this? Why, he’d have to fight his sister tooth and nail. Incredible! I can’t believe Helene sent this – for us, Sophie, for us! This is the most magnificent gift of all!”
Sophie glanced around the room.
“Armand Riolet,” her mother whispered as if it were the secret name of God.
“Only the greatest sculptor of all time. Why, most of his work sits in the great palaces of the world. Look – just look how beautiful she is. She wasn’t yet twenty when she posed for it.”
The Bronze Girl
The sculpture depicted a young woman, nearly naked, riding upon great bronze wings, beneath which there was, perhaps, the form of an angel, though the figure seemed to melt into the statue’s marble base.
“It’s Marie-Sophie Eugenie Gabriac herself – your namesake,” her mother said. “Done just before her marriage. You even resemble your great-grandmother. See?”
Her mother threw herself down on her knees before the statue, as if worshipping some heathen goddess.
Sophie felt the jostling sensation of waking from a dream, as if the real world and the dream world combined for the barest moment.
Sophie had seen her great-grandmother in portraits that hung at her grandmother’s estate. In those paintings, her great-grandmother had been older, more regal in bearing, touched by life and childbirth and burdened by travel and war and love and loss.
But this incarnation of Marie-Sophie Eugenie, Duchess, daughter of an Austrian Prince and a French duchess, was untouched, unspoiled.
There was something in the bronze’s face that confused Sophie – the sculptor had captured an expression that she’d never seen. It wasn’t just the slight smile, the curve of lip, the way the eyes seemed come to life if Sophie stared too long at them.
It was something captured – frozen – right then.
Right at that moment of her great-grandmother’s life.
It was almost as if the figure would spring to life in a moment.
Sophie felt as if the girl in the sculpture knew a secret that Sophie herself didn’t know.
A strange, jarring feeling overcame Sophie as she stood several feet from the statue.
It was as if – with a brief tremble – she had just stepped out of her body and looked back at it.
The bronze figure resembled her in several ways. It wasn’t just the general figure but in nearly every detail, Sophie could see herself in the sculpture of her great-grandmother. She could predict that in a few years, she would look more like this figure than she would her own mother. It was almost as if it were a mirror reflection of fate.
The proportion of limbs, the curve at the shoulders, the slightly long neck, the nose that she hated so much, the sad eyes, the jawline that had never seemed feminine enough.
The breasts, exposed, tilting upward, nearly the same small size as her own, those breasts that had only begun showing themselves under her clothes, here they were, jutting out for all to see.
Sophie noticed a strange ripple, indentations and small round orbs raised in a tattoo curving along the bronze nipples.
Sophie recognized the pearl necklace – the one she’d kept, stolen from her aunt.
Aunt Leonie had told her that it belonged to her great-grandmother.
(“A young lady must wed with an eye toward increasing a family’s position,” Aunt Leonie once told her. “Think of your great-grandmother. She came from royalty and wealth, but married a Gabriac – which saved her – and many in her family – from the guillotine. And secured an even greater fortune for future generations. She did this for us. For me, for you and Viola, as well.”)
The necklace – sculpted more than a hundred years before – along the shoulders and breasts of her great-grandmother.
“I don’t remember ever seeing this,” Sophie said, almost afraid to break the momentary silence.
Her mother did not once look away from the statue as she told the story of how she came to discover the Riolet itself.
The Dragon’s Egg
“Your grandmother – Helene – she’s so greedy with her treasures. She’s like a gnome from those fairy tales you’ve been reading to your sister. It surprises me, these gifts, these wonderful things, this beautiful bronze sent from heaven. Your grandmother must truly miss her son to give us all of this.
“Oh, Helene – in that big hat of hers, the ridiculous one, the one that makes her look as if she’s a relic from a hundred years ago – she keeps her precious gems and rings and bracelets all locked away in underground tunnels, one supposes. She must hide the painting that is of great value, while lesser ones line her hallway. She must put out the cheap ceramics for her family rather than the expensive plates that were a gift from Napoleon himself.
“She’s the dragon who hides the virgin in its cave.
“She has hundreds of such treasures, all stolen of course, all taken from revolutions and wars and everything her family has done for centuries – probably all the way back to the half-eaten fruit of the tree from Eden.”
Madame Gabriac took a deep breath.
“But of all of her treasures. This one. This, the greatest of them.”
Sophie recognized the look on her mother’s face. It was as if her mother gazed upon Jesus Himself. Not as the barefoot Franciscans might imagine him, but as a mitred Archbishop at Easter in lavish costume, arms raised up to the golden god adorned in purple robes, regaled as the King of Heaven or the Prince of Glory.
“You remember the house? The one in the country? The one by the cliffs, above the village, looking down, the terraced gardens?”
“The thousand and one rooms.”
“Did we ever count them all?”
“We tried,” Madame Gabriac said, glancing over at her daughter, smiling. “We reached forty-six and became exhausted.”
She returned her attentions to her other daughter, the bronze one. “Imagine. She was there, among them.”
Her mother transported Sophie back to Helene’s estate – the rolling hills, the gardens of muted, weeping color, the giant urns across wide terraces, the mirrored halls, the ballroom with its ceiling mural of oval-faced women in wigs and feathers parading in circus tent gowns – the room after room after room after room of the house.
Sophie wasn’t sure if she recalled the house precisely, or if this was a reconstructed chimera of all the houses she had known that bore the name Gabriac.
“When I was pregnant, with you,” her mother began. “But I didn’t know it. It was fall. October, I believe. Your father was in Italy then. I went to stay with Helene and Gerard. Leonie and Maurice, as well, were there. Leonie never trusted me with her mother. She was afraid, of course. Helene loved me almost as if I were her daughter. I was the first to have children.
“I heard of this bronze, in passing. A brief mistake on Leonie’s part. The Riolet was mentioned by accident, although now that it is here – she is here with us – I know that there’s no accident in life. Every moment, every word, every deed, slowly travels from a distant horizon to crash against the shore. And so it was, when I was there. I was so young – oh my lord, I was in my late teens.”
“I was born when you were nearly twenty-five,” Sophie said.
“Oh, of course,” her mother said. “It was Daniel, not you. It must have been. There was all the trouble in Paris – a sea of soldiers poured in, dogs running in the streets – and so many of our friends had already gone to the coast, imagining the worst. But there I was, young and married and living with your father’s family. Leonie had already declared war against me. And the baby, too.”
Sophie felt that little twinge inside, whenever her brother was mentioned.
“It had to be summer. The garden was in bloom, all nightmarish with enormous blossoms and dragonflies and bees and those awful Austrian cousins.”
“Well, once I overheard a conversation. It was Leonie – whose voice is always so loud – when she whispers in a crowded room in France, they hear her in Shanghai. She mentioned the bronze. She mentioned Riolet. And her mother – Helene – slapped her, I think, for speaking of it. Smacked her right across the mouth. Imagine. A grown woman.
“But it showed me how important – how valuable – this bronze must be. And a Riolet, after all. I was no fool.
“I had to discover this secret – once I’d heard, no, it was more a whiff, a whisper, a tickling feather at my ear and nose and lips. Riolet. Armand Riolet. Of course, in my studies, I’d heard of Riolet. I knew his history, all ladies my age had heard of him. He was a romantic, there was a famous portrait of him by Moularde – a scandal, really – the artist depicted as young Samson, half-naked, a sword and shield covering his bolder regions, dark wild hair at his shoulders, piercing eyes. His legendary liaisons, the intrigue with Marie-Antoinette herself, the published diaries of his insane mistress – most of which had been burned – but your grandmother had a copy of it at her house. Oh, and the art that he created, his part in the revolution. So much more.
“I discovered – simply by listening to servants – that your grandmother went to view this hidden work of art every Sunday. I bribed the housekeeper – remember Louise? The one you children called Lulu? Those wide saucer eyes? Lips all brittle like oyster shells? The old souse. Anyone could buy her loyalty with a bottle of modest vintage and a Florentine fan.
“Every Sunday, Helene went to gaze upon this Riolet. Others attended Mass. But your grandmother claimed her gout kept her from going. But it wasn’t gout at all.
“This was her religion. The Riolet.
“I feigned illness one Sunday, and remained behind. My room was far away from the main house and looked out over the sea. Helene would never think that I would follow her, I was certain.
“I was careful not to be seen as I stalked your grandmother down the byzantine routes of that house, up and down stairs, in and out of chambers. I worried that I’d be lost without leaving bread crumbs in my wake or tying thread between doorways.
“But finally, she came to the room, one I had never before seen, down an alleyway of a corridor, narrow, low-ceilinged, with a jumbling of old and useless things strewn about it as if it were used by lesser servants.
“She unlocked it and went in. She left the door cracked, very slightly.
“I tiptoed to it, as best I could, for your brother – rest his soul – had begun kicking within me, causing little jolts that made me catch my breath. He was a strong little baby, which is why we named him Hercule, after all.”
“Daniel,” Sophie interrupted, jarred from her mother’s tale by this discrepancy.
“Of course, yes, Daniel. But I called him Hercule. It was only on the gravestone, when we buried him, after his christening, that Daniel became his name. But, regardless, cherie, there I was, at the door, a kicking baby inside me.”
Sophie silently marveled at her mother’s composure in this mention of her dead brother. Aunt Leonie had spread a story that her mother suffered from hysteria for years, requiring constant treatments and taking of the waters after Daniel’s death. (“Only when you were born,” Leonie told her, “did she begin to recover.”)
Her mother raised a hand, pantomiming. “I leaned against the doorframe, and pressed my eye against the crack. Oh, but she was returning to the door! She would see me!
“I panicked. I covered my mouth to keep from letting out a cry. I stepped back, expecting the worst.
“I held my breath.
“But she had simply returned to the door to shut it. And lock it. Never suspecting that I was just on the other side.
“I crouched down, spying through the keyhole.
“She approached a tall black lacquer cabinet.
“It was the kind with little secret catches and drawers and hidden cabinets within. Something a magician might use.
“She opened the cabinet, moved her hands along its lining, and suddenly, doors within it popped open, and there she was.”
Her mother took a long breath.
“Later, I tried to forget what I’d seen. But I couldn’t. It was an itch I couldn’t scratch. It was a taste of something sweet and savory that I had to have again. She haunted my dreams. I managed to get your grandmother to speak of her. And Helene told the entire history to me, of how the statue had once been stolen, then returned, then her husband’s brother had taken it, but your grandmother had managed to get it again after he died.
“Still, Helene wouldn’t admit that it was in the house at all. She told me it was kept in a vault. A vault! As if the Bank of Paris held it, or a castle in the Loire.”
Her mother spoke of the long summer, the pain of the pregnancy as little Hercule grew, and doctors who came and went.
But she could never forget the room, or the cabinet.
“The key to that room was hidden somewhere. I had to find it. Oh, I had already been searching, believe me. I was supposed to stay in bed the whole time – the doctors warned me, but I couldn’t resist looking. I found keys to every single room except for the one room in that house from which I was barred.
I was a starving cat, sniffing out a mouse in the walls, I tell you.
“So, another Sunday approached.
Again, I bribed Lulu – whose thirst for good wine was insatiable. She was my feeble Scheherezade, feeding me tidbits of your grandmother’s routine. She told me that Helene rose early to get the keys to the room.
‘I’ve never seen her when she got them, I just know she has them, so I know she rises before the rest of us. On Sunday. Most Sundays.’ Lulu said, already half-drunk as we spoke. Before dawn, she said. When it’s not light, even. When even the rooster sleeps.
I couldn’t sleep all of Saturday night. Nervous and twitchy, I paced the floor of my room, nearly rubbing out the pattern of the beautiful rug that lay across it. At four, I went to sit near your grandmother’s room.
She opened the door not twenty minutes later. Ghost-like in her nightgown and cap, she held a little candle in her hand. For a moment, I thought she sensed me there. I held my breath. I willed myself to become as dark as the hall itself.
I followed her down the stair, through corridors, past the rooms and the kitchen, and out the back steps.
Outside, a halo of light pressed through the dark gloom, as if the sun were just over the rise.
“Your grandmother didn’t see me as I followed her out of the house. She went to the garden, along the narrow path of flagstones, through the sprays of iris and lilac bushes, to that little pond full of gold and black fish.
“She knelt there, on the slate just above the water’s surface. She spread the rushes and reeds apart. I wasn’t sure what she might be up to, but then she rolled back her sleeve, reaching into the scum.
“In a moment, she retrieved a a small, dripping safe – rusted and filthy.
“Once she’d set it on the ground – and it was not a light box, believe me, but you know Helene, for an old bird, she still had her strength.
By now, the light had come up, casting a purple haze.
This seemed to hasten your grandmother’s movements.
“She drew herself up, and there, not three feet from the pond, by the walkway where the lavender grew, she lifted one of the white stones. You remember? You called them serpent eggs?”
(“Dragon eggs,” Sophie interrupted.)
“That’s right – but of course! Dragon eggs. All smooth and white, big as a fat man’s fist.
“But there was one dragon’s egg that was different from the others. A little blue-green vein bled down the center, and it made the stone look like a large eye. It was only later – in the heat of the afternoon – that I found it, this stone, and what lay beneath it.
“The key to the safe.
“That morning, before even the kitchen boy was up, I watched as your grandmother unlocked the safe, and withdrew the other two keys.
“The one to the room, and the one to the cabinet – which was small and silver. Isn’t that madness? What an unexpected fox your grandmother was! To hide these keys in a pond. Why, her greedy little mind must have suspected that everyone was after the Riolet. And perhaps, they were.
The following Sunday, a well-placed bribe to Lulu helped me yet again.
“Her price had gone up to two bottles of the finest wine and nearly a week’s wages – to keep her silence and watch for your grandmother’s carriage, for everyone had gone to the village in the late afternoon, while I feigned illness and exhaustion.
“I paid Lulu’s fee gladly, of course. I would have given my firstborn to enter that room.
“I went to retrieve these keys.
“I had to see the figure of Marie-Sophie Eugenie. I had to.
“My heart beat rapidly as if I’d swallowed a live hummingbird and it thrummed its wings against my ribs. I unlocked the door of the chamber,” her mother said, her voice rising. “And then the cabinet. I had to hunt within that puzzle of a cabinet – turn little knobs and feel beneath drawers, but I knew she was there.
“It was as if she were breathing. Waiting for me to find her.
“I finally touched the edge of a velvety trench along the cabinet wall. Yes, I knew. This was it. I felt along its soft edge. Applying slight pressure there, suddenly, miraculously, I heard a little noise, as if a trap had sprung…”
Madame Gabriac gasped as if she were now discovering the statue again. She moved her hands through the air, a magician conjuring.
“And then, her. Her.”
“I stayed there an hour. I put the keys back where they belonged. Your grandmother was none the wiser. Or so I thought.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Her face…” Sophie said.
“Oh yes. She was in love, Sophie. It’s there in her face. See how Riolet captured it! Why, it rivals all the treasures of the Louvre, doesn’t it? He was a magnificent artist.”
Then, taking a heaving breath, her mother whispered, “It’s worth more than we might imagine.”
“I don’t know why,” Sophie said. “I’ve seen bronzes like it before.”
“There are none like it,” Madame Gabriac said in a hushed tone, as if Sophie had cried out some blasphemy. “None. It is unrivaled.”
Her mother reached out to touch the figure’s hands. “Even the fingernails. Look. The half-moon at the base of the nail. There is one flaw – see, under the chin? But even this flaw makes it perfect.”
Her mother was lost, Sophie felt, no longer in the room. No longer with her.
“It is the only remaining sculpture of the royal family done by Riolet. The rest were destroyed during the bloody revolution. Armand Riolet was murdered – by his mistress – soon after he completed this. She was jealous of this statue! It’s his final work. His masterwork, some have said.”
As if Sophie didn’t even exist, her mother whispered, “Is it really here? Or is it a dream?”
Madame Gabriac’s grazed her fingers along the statue’s face.
“I knew we’d have it someday,” she said, speaking slowly, almost in a trance. “I knew it. How your father wrestled this from Leonie and his uncles, I can only imagine. Perhaps your grandmother told no one. Your father’s cousins would kill for it.”
Then, pressing her hands to her face, Madame Gabriac began weeping as she nearly collapsed to the floor in front of the figure.
Sophie crouched next to her. “Mama? Are you all right?”
“I was so afraid, cherie. The whole journey here.”
“I know,” Sophie said, kneeling down.
“My whole life. I was told. I was told I would be nothing. That my father – that he was nothing but a shopkeeper. But we were never poor. I had the best education, Sophie. Better than Leonie ever had. My mother – rest her soul – never saw how well I married. But she taught me. And I was smarter than other girls I knew. And I dreamed, Sophie. We must dream, always. On the rooftop, where I kept my doves, I’d release them in the air and they’d fly over Paris and I’d dream that I was with them, that I was not always going to live above a shop, that I would be in those mansions, among those people who came into the shop, those people who had everything. Everything.
“I saw your father in his uniform.” Madame Gabriac brightened as she spoke. “He was handsome. I dreamed he would give me – and my future children – he would give us this life. I knew. But now, do you see? Look what we have. Look what your father has done for us. If your aunt could see this, she would be the one with tears on her face.”
“Yes.” Sophie kissed her mother on the forehead. “She’d want to strangle her own mother.”
Madame Gabriac smiled. “Oh, that’s true, cherie. Leonie would rather set herself on fire than lose this.”
“Grandmama must love us very much.”
“Oh yes, yes,” her mother whispered. “She’s chosen us. Us over them. That’s what all this means. We are chosen.”
“Of course we are,” Sophie said, embracing her mother.
“Leonie can’t stand that I’m a Gabriac. It kills her. But she’s lost. She’s lost. And this is the sign. This beautiful statue.”
“Don’t think about Aunt Leonie,” Sophie said, feeling a terrible heaviness in her chest. “She’s a world away from us.”
After several minutes, Sophie helped her mother to her feet.
“We’ll show them,” her mother said. “When this business is through. We’ll return to Paris. We’ll buy a palace – a greater house than any Gabriac has ever had. You’ll see, Sophie. This will be a small part of our lives. This will be a moment out of a thousand brilliant, victorious moments. This is only the beginning. Oh cherie, it will be wonderful, I promise. I promise.”
“I know, Mama,” Sophie whispered.
The Ruby Feathers of Enchanted Birds
When the period for naps was over, Leticia called the girls down, and then had to run back upstairs with Viola to rouse Sophie. The servant stood by the bed as Sophie struggled out from under a deep dream.
Sophie looked up at Leticia, unsure of who she was, where she was, why she was no longer in Paris, shopping along the St. Honore with her father and mother as she had been in the dream.
“Your mother,” the servant said. “She called supper.”
The reality around her returned. The bedroom, the new home, the hour or so of sleep, and Leticia herself.
Sophie went to wash her face in the porcelain bowl at the dressing table. Viola began asking Leticia all kinds of questions, prompting Sophie to warn her sister to mind her manners.
“It’s all right,” Leticia said in near-perfect French. “No one ever asks me about myself. Not in the other houses where I’ve worked. All they cared about was where their things were, who would help them, why they didn’t have what they wanted at the precise moment that they thought of it.”
Leticia, as it turned out, was a little chatterbox, though she rarely would ever speak in front of Madame Gabriac. But with the girls, she spoke freely and constantly.
She began telling her entire life, which took the girls from washing up to dressing for supper, to walking down the long hallway upstairs, through the alcove, down the curved staircase to the next floor, and out onto the terrace where their mother thrummed the table with her fingers and wouldn’t look at them for ten minutes because they were so late.
Leticia was from Spain, but spoke several languages because the variations of Latin interested her, and – so she reported – had spent her entire childhood in a convent in Andalusia. “Strict nuns. They’d beat you and starve you. But I was a fast learner. A star pupil. Sister Inez Aloysia took me under her wing. I slept in her room, away from the other girls. I had special privileges, partly because of my uncle.”
Leticia’s uncle was a priest; her two maiden aunts were contemplative nuns of some obscure order in the Pyrenees; her own parents, however, hated all churches.
“Both my father and mother died when I was young, although I’m not sure how they died. My uncle insisted that I never speak of them – and he provided for my education, so I did as I was told. Sister Inez Aloysia – who prayed seven hours a day – told me they went right to Hell, but if I prayed in the dark with her – in our little bed – they might be forgiven for their sins. I’d lay down next to her and we’d both clasp hands and I could hear her prayers whispered at my left ear for so long that I began to hear them in my dreams.”
Once Leticia had finished school, failing in various attempts to take the sacred vows, it was arranged that she should marry a young monk who had to leave his order. Not long after, her husband died from a persistent, wracking cough.
“He didn’t die exactly from the cough,” she admitted, without being asked to do so. “And perhaps he isn’t dead. One day, I just no longer heard the cough. When I looked around, he wasn’t there. I haven’t seen him since. Perhaps if I hear his cough, I’ll know he’s alive and things will be better between us.”
(“I don’t think she believes people die at all,” Sophie whispered to Viola as they went down the stairs, while Leticia chattered as she walked ahead of them.
“Maybe they don’t,” Viola said. “Maybe they just stop coughing.”)
By the time the terrace was in view, out past the wide room that seemed barren and purposeless, through the beveled glass doors, between the great clay pots filled with tropical plants and small citrus bushes, Leticia had reached the part of her life where she arrived in Mexico City with letters of reference and went to work almost immediately as a governess at first, and then a housekeeper . “The Moreaus, the Jubinals, even the Arouets – right behind us – but she’s a terrible woman, capable of all sorts of wickedness.”
On the terrace, the girls took their seats opposite their mother.
It was still light out. The sky looked as if it might rain, but Leticia told them it was too far away. “We’d smell it first. When you smell the rain, you know it’s on its way. You can set your clock by it in summer.”
“I thought it would be boiling hot here,” Sophie said.
“Oh, no,” Leticia laughed. “It’s always perfect in the city.”
A commotion began in the alley beyond the back gate where two workmen argued over some onerous task.
The cook – Camille – brought a large bowl of cassoulet out to the table, with great chunks of bread set out on the side plates.
Gold bands ran around the rim of each bowl, and the plates themselves were brightly painted dainty birds with curved beaks along their silver edges.
“My grandmother used to make this during the long winters at our farmhouse,” Camille said in her whispery little voice as she poured sauce across Viola’s plate. “On frozen nights when the wind howled, she told us it was storm wolves racing through the clouds.”
“Were there really wolves?” Viola asked.
“Terrible storm wolves, of course, but they stayed in the sky. Still, they frightened all the ducks.”
“You had ducks?” Viola asked.
“Oh yes,” Camille said as she ladled out copious amounts of sauce and stew and long slender white asparagus across Sophie’s plate. “And geese and chickens and pigs. All quite friendly – but noisy! The geese, in particular, liked to sing hymns – and you know that wolves hate hymns as much as they hate aubergine and mushroom soup.”
Sophie looked up at the cook, who smiled at her. Camille’s dark hair sprayed in slender strands out from the sides of her little white cap.
Sophie could not help but smile back.
“You have your father’s eyes, you know that?” Camille said, feather-soft, as she hovered nearby, looking back at Sophie.
Sophie thought Camille was a wonderful cook, but when she mentioned this to her mother – after the plates were cleared – all she got in reply was, “The stew was dry, I thought. And too much salt.”
Later, Viola discovered the sealed letter.
She came running up to Sophie, out of breath.
“It was at a writing desk,” Viola said, passing her the letter. “Under the inkwell. In the little room by the library.”
Sophie glanced at it before taking it to their mother. “From father.”
Madame Gabriac turned the letter over. “Viola, run and get my glasses. In the drawing room, on the table.”
“He left us a note. At least,” Sophie said.
Their mother walked ahead of them, tugging apart the wide doors to the library.
“Girls, this way.” Madame Gabriac glanced back to her daughters, who peered through the doorway.
“Our own library,” Sophie whispered.
“Just like Aunt Leonie’s,” Viola said.
“Bigger than hers. But not so many books.”
Tall dark bookcases obscured the walls of the long room. Various chairs and benches were set around long and short tables, all of them with rather plain lamps set beside curious little figurines at each table’s center.
Viola clutched Sophie’s hand as they followed their mother over to the round table near a tall arched window that looked out over the terrace.
Sophie stood at the window while her mother turned up various lamps.
Leticia sat below at the terrace table with another servant, both of them having coffee. As Leticia spoke, her hands moved rapidly as if they might fly away.
“I like Leticia,” Sophie said. “Her French is good.”
“And Camille,” Viola said.
“Yes, Camille, too.”
A man and a woman walked through the alley between houses.
Somewhere, dogs were barking – perhaps a street or two over.
Across the way, in the gardens of the house directly behind theirs, a woman fed small green and red parrots from her hand. She stood within a white birdcage that was as tall as a door and wide enough for three people to enter.
“Who lives behind us?” Sophie asked. “Is it the Arouets?”
“How would I know? Come – sit,” Madame Gabriac said.
Sophie wandered over to the table, and pulled out one of the chairs next to her sister. A small figurine of St. Michel standing atop a dragon-winged devil stood beside the lamp.
“The people in back, they’ve got birds,” she told Viola. “Parrots – but not ordinary ones. They’re made of sparkling jewels.”
“Mostly jade and rubies,” Sophie said.
“There’s no such thing.”
“You might think that, but I saw them.”
“They must be enchanted,” Viola said, with some certainty.
“Yes, by a bad witch – a hag of the worst sort. Not like us. I’ve seen her. She keeps the jade birds trapped within a cage as big as Notre Dame itself. Their feathers, of course, are magic. They grant wishes.”
“How many wishes?”
“Oh Sophie, really, stop filling her head with nonsense,” Madame Gabriac said as she slipped her glasses on. “She’s going to believe the world is like that. Viola, there are no magic birds.”
Sophie eyed her mother while she spoke just under her breath. “One wish for each feather.”
“I’d have to pluck them all off,” Viola said. “So I could have a thousand wishes.”
“But what about the poor birds? And even worse – for every wish you get, one gets taken away from someone else.”
“That’s not fair.”
“When has a witch’s curse ever been fair?”
Viola thought a moment. “Then my first wish would be…no one would ever lose their wishes. And my second would be that the birds grow two feathers for every single one I take.”
Madame Gabriac lit a cigarette and rested it on the edge of a large crystal ashtray shaped like a swan.
She used a pair of scissors to slice the wax seal and open the letter.
“Look,” Madame Gabriac said. “Two pages. He must have taken a good ten minutes.”
Viola whispered, “Papa.”
Their mother began to read the letter aloud.
“Dearest Gabrielle and my beloved angels Sophie and Violette,
Do you like our little palace? I hope it pleases you, but I invite you to change it as you desire. You will note that my mother sent us some special gifts, and these no doubt will make you as happy as they do me.
“You will find that the servants are a decent lot. The laundress comes twice a week. Be kind to the man who brings the jugs of water – and have the cook feed him if he arrives early enough.
“You will love our cook – Camille is a good country girl, and she has already tried to make me fat, so be careful! You will not easily resist her dishes.”
Madame Gabriac read slowly, as if she were picking out words and phrases that carried a particular significance, with possible hidden meanings.
“She makes delicious sauces that you will never forget. Her Magret de Canard Poêlé and her simple pot-au-feu are among my favorites. She is just recently married, so be kind to her. Her husband is a young soldier, and she misses him and her parents, as well.
“I hope you will welcome her as part of the family and treat her accordingly. In my too-short days in the city, she reminded me of our home country and its cuisine.”
Madame Gabriac peered over the letter at her daughters.
“Well, apparently the help made quite an impression. One wonders why no mention of our little nun, Leticia. I find her particularly good at her job.”
She picked up the second page of the letter and continued reading.
“There’s an excellent seamstress three doors down, and the markets are a few minutes by foot. Carriages will be at your disposal.
“You must begin your Spanish lessons, of course, right away. We must create harmony in our new city.”
Their mother made a little noise at the back of her throat. She took off her glasses, and put the letter down.
“And so on and so forth.”
“But what else does he say?” Sophie asked.
“He says he’s sending some old friend of his to visit. A gentleman from Grenoble, a man named Renzo. What a ridiculous name that is,” Madame Gabriac said.
“Is that all?” Viola asked. “Nothing about my birthday?”
“He says he’ll visit soon,” her mother said.
“When is ‘soon’?”
Sophie drew her sister close, wrapping her arm over her shoulders, brushing her hair back with her hand. “I’m sure he’ll come for Christmas.”
“My birthday’s next month,” Viola said. “Maybe then? Maybe he’ll get me a jade and ruby bird?”
Madame Gabriac reached for the ashtray and dragged it to the edge of the table.
She opened the slender tin box beside it and drew out a match and another cigarette. After lighting the cigarette, she slipped it between her lips.
Madame Gabriac set the burning match to the letter.
She held the two pages of the letter as they caught fire. When the cinders began floating upward, she dropped the blackening paper into the wide ashtray.
“Are you mad?” Sophie reached for the letter before it all burned up. “What are you doing?”
Her mother swatted her hand away. “You’ll burn yourself.”
“But you’re destroying…” Sophie said, but couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud: him.
She watched the last of the letter blacken and smolder and turn to ash.
“It’s only paper,” Madame Gabriac said. “He’ll write other letters to us. You can save those in all your little books, if you like.”
The next morning, Sophie’s mother let the cook go.
By evening, Madame Gabriac hired a local woman who was in her forties.
“She’s come highly recommended. She speaks French, at least to the extent a cook needs to. We can teach her a few French dishes. If your father ever visits, he may come to appreciate her canard as much as he did Camille’s.”
The new cook was named Griselda Riachuela, and she had a wild bird’s nest of hair upon her scalp and a spindly figure beneath it. Sophie thought she looked like some witch’s broom turned upside down. No cook’s cap would fit that bramble of hair.
“I am watching you,” Griselda said when she met Sophie that night, just before supper.
Sophie guided Viola by the hand through the little maze of hanging pots and low tables. It was their first visit to the kitchen. In this steamy underworld, hellfire belched from the wide oven and a motley assortment of pots rumbled in diabolical boil on the stove.
The scent of lamb, onion and chili filled the air.
“Get away from that,” Griselda barked, pointing a wooden spoon toward Viola who peered down into a wide mixing bowl on a low stool. “If you fall in, I’ll bake you in the oven and we’ll eat you for pudding tonight.”
Sophie tried out a few words in Spanish with the cook, but the woman glowered at her. Griselda’s eyes were dark little almonds, one of them slightly turned as if it were about to run off. “Like Aunt Leonie’s,” Sophie whispered.
“I know what you’re up to,” the cook said.
“I know girls like you.” Griselda turned back to the stove. She seemed to have grown several arms, all moving furiously: stirring pots, grabbing dried herbs off the table, whipping eggs into a creamy froth, chopping onions with a knife big enough to cut a man in two.
She turned about one last time. “I’ve seen you before. Little spoiled potatoes with too many eyes and sprouts, all of you. Now, get out of my kitchen.”
As they went back up the stairs, Viola said, “She’s not nice like Camille.”
“Of course not,” Sophie said. “Griselda’s an ogress with six arms.”
“And she eats children.”
“But she had better watch out for the jade parrots,” Sophie added. “They’ll make nests in her thorny hair and peck out her eyes.”
On their seventh night in the house, the Gabriac sisters met a man who was introduced as their “guardian angel.”
The Gentleman from Grenoble
“Viola– what are you doing?” Madame Gabriac said.
Viola – who had circled behind the man – peered over at her mother. “Looking for his wings.”
“I’ve made them invisible for the time being,” the man said.
The man was late. He apologized at the door downstairs first to one servant, then another. He begged forgiveness when Leticia brought him upstairs, and then mentioned how sorry he was yet again, this time to Madame Gabriac, when they went into the drawing room.
The man’s head held a fringe of reddish hair, and the enormous bald spot beyond this shone in the bright lamplight. A red moustache perched on his upper lip; a sparse beard came to a sharp point just beneath his chin. He was nattily dressed in cream-colored waistcoat and suit, an ivory-tipped cane in his hand.
“He’s not really an angel,” Sophie said as she pulled Viola back around toward the settee in the anteroom. She whispered, “Unless angels look like goats these days.”
“Monsieur Lorencez is an important man,” their mother said. “He doesn’t have time to waste.”
“Oh, but time is wonderful to waste,” the man said, winking at Sophie. “And please call me Renzo.”
Renzo sat in a chair across from the two girls. He reached over and took Sophie’s hand, offered reluctantly.
His hands were warm and strangely moist. He placed one under her palm, one over, as if he wanted to smother her fingers. She drew her hand away as quickly as she could.
“I know your father very well. He misses you both.”
Madame Gabriac clutched a thin brown cigarette between her fingers as she went to stand by the window, which was opened just a crack.
“I still don’t see why we need someone guarding us,” Sophie said.
Sophie glanced at the Renzo’s hands. His knuckles whitened as he clutched the cane.
“Well, there are certain dangers here. In the city,” Renzo said.
“We’ll stay in the house. Day and night if we have to,” Sophie said.
“Oh, that would be a pity. You girls need sunshine and friends and trips to shops, don’t you? Yes, of course. Still, there are things one must not do. Not in the city. Not while you’re here.”
“Like what?” Viola asked.
Renzo drew his fingers along his beard.
Sophie reached over, squeezing Viola’s hand. She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “Old goat.”
“Viola.” Madame Gabriac snapped her fingers. “Sophie.”
Renzo’s lecture began. Crime, care, caution, courtesy, curfew, chaperones, coaches, carriages, cathedrals, convents, catamites, commotions, confession – Renzo nattered away.
Sophie and Viola traded sly glances through the tepid hour.
“Sounds dreadful,” Sophie said when he seemed to have finished.
“Crime’s nearly commonplace in those neighborhoods you love best in Paris, isn’t it? Yet you always felt safe there. This city is no different.”
“He’s going to start up again,” Sophie whispered as quietly as she could into Viola’s ear.
And he did.
Another hour of warning and weather reports and where-to-go passed, the godlessness of the Liberals, the rightness of the Empire, during which Madame Gabriac smoked several cigarettes, finally sitting down in the enormous chair beneath the painting of the house in Grasse with its thousand purple and yellow wildflowers.
Their mother rose once to go to the doorway to call Leticia to bring up coffee.
The tray with the cups arrived. Leticia seemed frightened by Renzo’s devilish visage.
Renzo drank three cups of over-sugared coffee in quick succession. He spattered drips and drops around his shirt and waistcoat and the rug, for he couldn’t keep his arms from moving as he spoke.
He lit up a cigar and breathed ash into every phrase as he began chatting with their mother about the various clubs and soirees of the city – places with names like The Byzantine and The Scheherazade and something about special evenings at the Iturbide. “Society is very much the same here as in Paris, only it’s quieter, perhaps – and more secretive.”
Viola began coughing from all the smoke.
The room needed airing out.
Leticia flung open doors on either side of the drawing room, all the sashes were pulled back, the windows pushed as wide as they would go. Leticia returned with several wide peacock fans, passing two to the girls and one to Renzo, keeping one for herself.
They fanned the air.
Madame Gabriac put out her cigarette.
Renzo’s droning voice cut through the haze.
Viola’s cough subsided.
“Good,” he said, when his speech was done. “It’s a beautiful city in most respects. I understand you’ve already begun studying the language.”
“Leticia’s teaching us. And Griselda, but…” Viola said, and then spoke a sentence in Spanish, in which she said, “She’s a mean old witch and I think she’s put a spell on my mother.”
Renzo raised an eyebrow, and half his mouth smiled while the other half remained still.
(“These girls,” Madame Gabriac said, with a polite harshness.)
“Very poetic, Viola,” he said, after a moment or two. “You and Sophie must speak the language when you’re out in the shops and market. These are our people. Enjoy yourselves. And let’s not let your mother down.”
He turned in his chair, tilting his head back slightly toward Madame Gabriac. “It’s no doubt difficult without a man in the house.”
“You can only imagine,” Madame Gabriac said.
“Monsieur Renzo,” Viola said, an utter seriousness in her tone.
“Yes?” he said, turning back toward her.
“May we see your wings now?”
On her way to bed that night, Sophie passed by shadows in the hallway.
She heard a man’s voice – barely more than a whisper.
Then, her mother’s voice. Soft, low.
Sophie listened, but couldn’t make out the conversation.
Her mother’s voice grew louder. “Sophie? What are you doing? You should be in bed.”
Sophie looked from her mother’s face, half in shadow, to the man who stood there, his cane leaning against the doorway to her mother’s bedroom. His shirt was not completely buttoned.
“Go to bed. Right now,” Madame Gabriac said.
When Sophie turned away, she heard Renzo say to her mother, “It’s her age, that’s all. She’s nearly a woman. Don’t be cross with her.”
Sophie went to her room and locked the door. Her heart was beating fast. She felt as if she could barely breathe and that she might faint dead away at any moment.
She dropped onto her bed and lay there until the feeling of panic subsided. Her face felt flushed with heat.
She reached into the recesses of the mattress and found the necklace, raising it up, pressing it against her heart to slow it down, imagining the prisoner of the pearls, her scimitar, her vengeance.
The Book Who Reads Itself
From those first weeks in the city, Sophie buried herself in popular romances with titles like The Raftsman’s Daughter, Last Days of Tul, The Romance of the Mummy – and her favorite of all of them, Mademoiselle de Maupin.
Sophie slept with these books by her pillow, imagining their adventures and intrigues. The novels helped her get through the long days.
Whenever she held the pearls against a candle’s glow, Sophie imagined that her future involved daring and scandal and swordfights.
Three years passed slowly, with news of battles and French families coming and going. Despite her morning classes at the Academy, Sophie began to feel more isolated as time went on and as the government around them slowly crumbled. Still, the ordinariness of the days didn’t change much – the servants kept the girls in high spirits, and there were visitors to the house, dinner parties that Sophie and Viola spied upon, and once, even, their father visited, though it was brief, and neither Sophie nor Viola could remember exactly when they’d last seen him a year or so later.
Renzo visited frequently, bringing chocolates and Turkish coffee and unusual spices he’d bought on his travels. He often arrived just before bedtime, returning with their mother and other friends that Sophie never met, coming back from an evening at Le Byz, as they called it, or a special concert at the Scheherazade or dinner with minor dignitaries at the palace itself. Once, Renzo – stinking drunk – tucked Viola in and tried to do the same for Sophie, who ordered him out of her room.
The servants had become playmates, with Leticia enjoying games in the courtyard and on the terrace, while Diego –one of the aguadores, bringing jugs of water twice a week – would take time out for hide and seek; the livery servant liked card games, and Olivia, the French seamstress – who arrived once every two weeks with a gown for their mother – brought gossip and news from the world of fashionable women, where everything interesting and scandalous seemed to happen.
And then, there was the cook.
Griselda, despite her ogress ways, had begun teaching the girls how to make chicken mole, and to keep from crying over chopped onions (“Do not let on that you intend to murder the little demons, but quickly drown them in cool bone broth, yes, skins and all, and then, you chop them quickly and throw them into the pan until their flesh sizzles and curls! It may seem heartless, but the element of surprise is important,”) how to stuff the chilis (“with caution for their tender feelings and modesty,”) and where to find the good masa for tamales (“out in the Indian markets, where no Criollo dares go, where all the old women glare at you and mutter spells and incantations if you don’t show them respect,”) and how to haggle over the price of fruit and who not to buy from at all, and where to find the perfect plums in the city. She began to talk openly about her limp (“my father threw me down the stairs when I was fifteen and of course I deserved it because my father was never wrong – and, according to him, I was never right,”), her hair (“My grandmother was a thorn tree and my great-uncle was a cactus – I inherited their hair, but my sister Celia got their faces, and that’s why no man will come near her,”) and why her eye wandered (“I once saw a truly handsome boy, a matador named Rubio, when I was nineteen, from the corner of my eye – and that eye has been trying to find him ever since,”) and all about her son Paolito.
“He’s off with the army but I expect him home any day now. He promised to come back and buy me a little house just outside the city, with a blue cage full of lovebirds hanging in the courtyard, surrounded by bright red dahlias. Aren’t dahlias the most perfect flower? My abuelita told me that they’re the sharp little blossoms of a broken heart.”
Sophie had begun loving Griselda, though the cook was still harsh with glance and her knife-edged tongue at times, yet every now and then, these glimmers of kindness showed through. Griselda taught Viola the legends of her home village – the stories of the gods, of the saints, of the sleeping maiden, of the buried cities, and more. The cook also taught them songs to sing while cooking (“These are spells, these tunes. It’s all witchcraft, of course,” Griselda said, “I am from a long line of spice witches.”) The two sisters particularly loved the recipe for the hottest of chilis mingled with “chocolate as sweet and sticky as sin itself,” speckled with sifted cinnamon and poured into a bowl of steamed milk to be sipped on rainy evenings when the gardens flooded and they sat in the warm kitchen listening to stories of Griselda’s childhood below the snowy peak of Popocatapetal, “Up where people grow young instead of old, and where you can see the little fish that swim in the lake of the clouds.”
Rumors of the slaughter of prisoners and distant massacres reached Sophie each week through the gossip of servants.
The fighting was elsewhere, and within the gates of the city, only the presence of soldiers along the Paseo suggested wartime. But now and then, as the tide shifted from the Europeans to the Mexicans themselves, something happened within a few streets of the Gabriac home.
“It was terrible!” Leticia cried out as she hurried the girls down into the gardens for an afternoon of Spanish lessons. “Nothing but thugs, of course, but such a horror story! I really shouldn’t tell you, Sophie, it will singe your eyelashes to hear it.”
The son of a French officer was attacked just four streets away, stabbed and left for dead. No one had yet been arrested for this crime. No European walked the boulevards alone without a sense of fear – and most of the high-ranking officers’ families left the city by the time Sophie turned seventeen in the fall of 1866.
“It’s unsafe for us here,” Sophie told her mother one evening in late December.
Madame Gabriac stood in front of her dressing mirror, corset cinching her waist, pushing her breasts up, while the bloom of crinolette caged the lower half of her body where she wore long silk undergarments thin as the wings of a butterfly.
“Run and get our little nun, cherie,” her mother said. “I need to hurry.”
“I’m worried, mama.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, Marie-Sophie,” Madame Gabriac said, glancing at her from the tall mirror. “Believe me, Juarez himself doesn’t want anything bad to happen to us. Now, here, help me.”
Madame Gabriac swept her hair up from the nape of her neck and held it.
Sophie stepped around her mother’s back and grasped sheaves of her thick hair, curving it upward, pinning it back.
“Now the curls.”
“Your hair’s like starch,” Sophie said as she brushed up several strands and pulled at the stiff hair. “Why do you do it?”
“To look beautiful, of course.”
“Not your hair. I mean why do you go out with those awful people?”
“Don’t be so provincial. They’re not awful at all. And it’s the opera. It’s just the opera.”
“But they hate us,” Sophie said.
“You mean politics? One’s in, one’s out. A game among men, Sophie,” Madame Gabriac said. “Women don’t need to play it.”
Her mother looked at her reflection. She reached up and fiddled with the tiny curls by her forehead. “What do you think – ribbons? Or comb?”
“Comb,” Sophie said.
“Yes, a hint of drama – that beautiful comb, the one your father sent last Christmas. Where is our little nun? Go get her, would you?”
Sophie ran into the hall and called out for the servant. She hurried along to her mother’s room to fetch the silver comb with a half-dozen pearls at its crown and two sapphires at either end.
Her mother grabbed the comb from her daughter’s fingers the second she returned with it. She positioned it at a low angle at the back of her scalp.
“Perfect,” she whispered to her reflection. “How do I look?”
Sophie cocked her head to the side as she checked each detail of her mother’s hair and face.
“Like an Empress. In her underwear.”
“Leticia! Leticia! Hurry!” Her mother shouted toward the open door.
“I’m coming, Senora!” the servant called from down the hall.
Madame Gabriac turned and grasped Sophie’s hands, squeezing them lightly. “Don’t look so glum. Cherie, we have people watching out for us.”
“Like our guardian angel?”
“You hate him so much as that?”
“Yes,” Sophie said. “But hate is too kind a word for it.”
Her mother pursed her lips. Her eyes seemed steely. She let go of Sophie’s hands. “You’re now a woman if you can speak to me this way.”
Then her mother looked to the open doorway and shouted for the servant.
Leticia came rushing in with a wide, blue damask dress draped over her arms, the little café au lait silk crepe hat in one hand, and a folded fan in the other.
In her lips, Leticia held a half-dozen little pearl-tipped pins, through which she managed to murmur apologies, blaming the seamstress, blaming the traffic in the street.
She drew the pins out, pushing them into the tiny velvet cushion at the dressing table.
“The hat, I think,” Leticia said, holding it up.
Madame Gabriac preferred the comb to the hat, and a little silver-threaded snood that was barely noticeable when drawn over of her thick hair, most of which wouldn’t stay in place whether pinned into curls or not.
Sophie and Leticia worked like bees to get the dress around the crinolette and make it hang so that no wires showed. Sophie drew down the pagoda sleeves for the full effect.
“There,” Sophie said, passing her mother the fan. “A work of art.”
“We’ll go to the Plaza de Toros, soon,” Madame Gabriac said as she opened the rose-colored fan, tigers and egrets painted on its gold border. She checked the mirror one last time. “Wouldn’t you like that? The toreros are all young and handsome. Renzo knows everyone there. Perhaps we can meet Ramon de Garza – the new star of the arena. We’ll have a special day, Sophie. You, me and Viola.”
Her mother went out nearly every night, and spoke more Spanish than French, even at home, even to Sophie and little Viola, as if France itself were fading in her blood.
Viola, who was getting better at Spanish than Sophie, pushed open her older sister’s bedroom door one night.
In her hand, a slim little volume, tattered, its leather cover nearly flaking off.
“It’s called El Palacio de Memoria,” Viola said.
“The Palace of Memory,” Sophie leaned her head against her little sister’s as they curled up on the bed. “What a strange name for a book.”
“It’s wonderful,” Viola said. “I read it slowly at first. But then a second time.”
“Is this your third time?” Sophie said, her fingers lazily delving into her sisters beautiful hair, stroking it lightly. Viola smelled like violets and lavender from her bath.
“It might be my fourth,” Viola said.
Viola began reading, first in Spanish, then in French, and then in Spanish again.
“This book,” she began reading, “is a book who reads itself…”
“Are you sure that’s ‘who’ – not ‘that’?” Sophie pointed to one of the words.
Viola nodded, pushing her sister’s finger away. “…A book who reads itself so that you don’t have to struggle or strain. It speaks. It was given its voice by the man who gained mysterious power to bring words to life simply by learning the seven secrets within this tale, all of which you, too, may learn if you read it. This is a true story, of course, but none of it has ever happened.”
“Is it from the library?” Sophie reached over and turned the cover slightly. The title was embossed in faded silver on the green leather cover. There was a drawing of an elephant on the first page.
“Leticia gave it to me. She told me it was her favorite. She found it in the Jubinal’s library, and they told her to keep it. That’s what she said.”
“She probably stole it,” Sophie said.
“She said my Spanish was good enough to start reading it.” Viola whispered as if it were a secret, “I even dream in Spanish now.”
“Read me some more,” Sophie said.
And so, Viola began, and they read by wavering lamplight into the night about the two brothers named Octavio and Aureliano de la Paz who grew up in a village called Arroyo Perdido, where no one knew or cared to know their neighbors, and from which their father had ventured out two years earlier into the jungles of Rio Sombre.
Within several pages, the brothers met the daughter of the thief who stole the golden breaths of emperors and queens and transformed them into braying donkeys and yowling cats.
This girl was none other than Mentira Verdades who sought a cure for her terrible, gem-producing cough, and could not completely tell the truth, but neither were her lies wholly false.
Late that night, leaving Viola in her bed with her arms around the little book, Sophie went downstairs to the library, thinking she would find another book to read and then fall asleep on the lounge that had been set just beneath the window.
When she opened the doors, she saw that there was a single lamp on at the very end of the long room. Someone sat at a table, but because of a haze of dark and her own sleeplessness, she wasn’t sure who it was until she heard his voice.
“Sophie,” Renzo called out, as she stood just inside the door. He turned the lamp up slightly so she could see him better and beckoned her with his hand.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of Museum of the Innocents, and I’ll post when I know how and when this book will be published.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
All right, this one is a bit different from much of what I’ve written. And I’m preceding it with a very long introduction; feel free to skip this part of the note and scroll down to just start reading, if you prefer.
Museum of the Innocents is a dark story within what I call perceptive fantasy – that is, the characters perceive a world where things may or may not happen in a supernatural way, and it may be a question as to what is fabled and what is real.
It’s also a love story and a story of the conflicts within families, the living mythologies of people, and all set against the backdrop of Paris and Mexico City in a particularly interesting crossroads of time and place.
Originally, this was published under the title “The Innocents at the Museum of Antiquities” – as a much shorter piece, a novella. I never felt it was “there,” after it was first published as a brief serial over three editions of Cemetery Dance magazine some years ago. And I wanted to change it and get to know these people and this world more and expand it into a richer more powerful tale.
I still like the title, The Innocents at the Museum of Antiquities, but a friend (novelist M.J. Rose, after reading an early draft some years back) suggested a variation on the current title – Museum of the Innocents – and this is, perhaps, a more palatable title that also raises a solid question and suggests an idea.
My other title for this is Museo, which is of course the Spanish word for Museum but also has more of an emphasis on the root of the word – “Muse” – although the English “Museum,” conjures both the muse and the final syllables of “mausoleum,” which I also find appropriate in this case.
This novel is relatively long – I’m presenting about a third of it here at close to 50,000 words – and there’s another 40,000 done that I’ll hold back, and beyond that I have roughly a quarter of the novel to finish.
Much of what you’ll read here was written during the years 2010-2014. The glacial pace is explained, perhaps, by upheavals in various parts of my family (although not my immediate family — my husband and I) and also just the time I took pulling back from publishing after my books Isis and Neverland came out from Perseus’s Vanguard Press imprint. I needed a long sabbatical from business, frankly, and entered a creative but fairly private time in life.
I consider this my “time in the woods,” although I lived at the beach and only more recently at the edge of some woods. But everyone needs “time in the woods” now and then.
I’m glad I took that time, although it was weird to not have new novels coming out for the first time since 1989. And I’m glad I was able to get my backlist of 35+ books up in ebook over the past six years, too, while I wrote and worked on several novels and novellas in private, away from the need to show them (yet.) But soon. Soon.
Museum of the Innocents is a dark historical with an edge of fantasy to it.
I hope you enjoy the rather lengthy partial of it I’m putting on display here. Thank you for reading.
All material from Museum of the Innocents is copyright 2009-2016 © Douglas Clegg. Used here with permission, all rights reserved. You do not have permission to post this or any other fiction presented at DouglasClegg.com on any other website or use it in any way, shape or form without permission from Douglas Clegg (DClegg@DouglasClegg.com)
by Douglas Clegg
“ ‘To find the Palace of Memory,’ the floating elephant said, “you must first cross through the dangerous forest of those spiders who disguise themselves as ordinary people – people you may know, people you may trust. They spin webs of the silken long-ago, not as it was, but as islands of dreams and rivers of wishes and great seas filled entirely with monstrous might-have-beens and the bitter and salty never-will-be.’
‘You’ve been to this forest?’ Aureliano asked, looking up at the enormous creature hovering just a few feet above the ground.
‘Yes,’ the elephant said. ‘And I am still there. What you see of me – an elephant – is not who I am. It is what I’ve become. Who I am is still caught there, in that forest. I am a man, a prince, naturally, but when the first sticky threads touched my face, I dreamed. And now, I’ve become imprisoned by my own dream.’
‘You dreamed of becoming an elephant?’ Octavio said.
‘I dreamed of power and majesty,’ the elephant said. ‘I dreamed of greatness and a thick hide so I would not be hurt by love or my enemies. I wished to be above all others, to look down upon the world of men and even tower over the great emperors.
‘And now, you see, I’m a floating elephant. And what was me –a poor prince – is still asleep, dreaming of this soaring greatness, wrapped in a cocoon of elegant silk within a dark, damp forest prison, waiting to become a meal for spiders.’”
– from the book El Palacio de Memoria, or The Palace of Memory , published in 1827.
“We keep dangerous ones in the tower – away from the others.” The nun spoke in low, soothing tones as she escorted the old doctor down the cramped aisles of a long, cheerless dormitory. Her summer-white habit surrounded a pleasant face slightly marred by small, ferret eyes and a faint scar along her upper lip that Dr. Chavarria guessed was a remnant from some childhood punishment.
“The things I could tell you,” she said. “No one outside these walls would believe people like this exist. Where I come from, these people would have been shot.”
She launched into brief tales of murderers and sodomites and the ones who went mad and barked like dogs or the ruined girl who wailed through the night, and the wealthy patrons “like you, doctor,” who were such help. Such, such help, she added again, all of this under her breath as other nuns passed by.
“But these soldiers, some not even sixteen, look, they seem old, all of them.” She led him through the maze of beds, mentioning any scandal she could dredge in a matter of seconds. Walking just ahead, she glanced back, as if afraid he might not be able to keep up.
A memory shot within the old doctor of his mentor taking him down another such dreaded hallway when he was barely older than these wounded boys. His mentor whispered, “Remember joy, even in the shadow of death.”
From the open windows, spaced several feet apart, jagged sunlight cut through the corridor’s haze.
He paused in the light, taking a few deep breaths.
Birds warbled among the branches of the untended orchard, just outside the open window.
The doctor had become familiar with the smell of such a ward, yet he had never gotten used to it.
It was the terrible perfume of dying.
He passed curtained silhouettes of boys and men spread across shrouded cots, surrounded by white-robed women. Threadbare cloth hangings created walls between the wounded soldiers.
“Doctor,” the nun whispered, raising her hand toward a bed set apart from all the others.
Dr. Chavarria followed her to a patient who lay behind a gauzy curtain, under a narrow window.
Behind the hanging sheet, a gray figure breathed with wheezing effort.
Dr. Chavarria drew the curtain and its veil aside. He let it fall back in place after glimpsing the patient. He glanced at the sister who raised her eyebrow as if asking a question. He shook his head.
At the corridor’s end, the nun held the door open for him.
Diffuse light spilled into the gloom.
She guided him outside along a breezeway older than the convent hospital. She mentioned various expensive repairs, unfortunate nighttime surprises from patients, the strange behavior of a nun who “might end up in the tower someday,” and thieves who absconded with the statue of San Lazaro himself – “not six nights ago,” – from out among the graves.
They walked within a shaded colonnade of Moorish arches. Red trumpet flower vines tangled down cracked columns where sunlight interrupted shadow.
Looking across the lawn, past a cemetery gate, the doctor noticed a funeral cart drawn by two horses. Several people stood at an open grave shaded by a wide jacaranda tree.
Beyond it all, a long wall set the boundary between the convent and the rest of the world.
Just above the wall, the rooftop of a mansion glinted in the afternoon light.
“There it is,” he gasped, astonished that it was so clearly visible from the convent itself.
The nun shaded her eyes as she scanned the cemetery.
“The museum,” she said, without warmth. “They should burn it.”
She remained curiously silent on the subject of this house. He wondered if she were frightened, even now, with what she’d heard of the recent terrible events.
He tried not to remember the inside of the mansion, the stairs, the gates, the rooms and galleries that led, inevitably, to the one room he could not wipe from his memory.
The nun led him further along, toward the gated doorway.
Within the asylum tower, insulated by heavy stone, the temperature cooled. The air smelled of vinegar, lime and sage. The lamps along the wall cast a wavering of light and shadow across the faces of two small nuns as they went cell to cell, checking locks.
Passing the rooms, Dr. Chavarria peered through the hand-sized squares of unlatched window set into each door.
“Poor wretch,” his guide whispered at his ear. “Her children drowned. In their bath. Imagine. But look at her. She does the same thing, every day. Again and again.”
Through this small window, a woman in a grimy shift stood at a table near her bed, pouring out the last of a pitcher of water into her hand.
She turned to look at him. Her face seemed empty of feature, hidden by long, straggly hair.
In another room, a man huddled in a corner, groaning. His legs, shackled. He held his hand, palm out, toward the door.
“You’d never know, would you?” the nun said. “Look at him. Son of an Austrian Duke. I shouldn’t tell this, but you’re a doctor, you’ll understand. He fell in love with his horse. Imagine such a thing. He killed another man who took it out for a ride. That’s what I was told. If he’d been poor, he’d have been hanged, but money keeps him here. His family – they’re richer than most kings. He’ll never leave. They say his mother had a disease when he was born, and it cursed him.”
Taking a tentative first step on the winding stair, the nun turned toward the doctor. “I’m afraid it’s a climb.”
At a stairwell window, halfway up, the view of the grounds below showed two lines of nuns in perfect formation – a flock of white geese – heading toward the chapel.
Dr. Chavarria could just make out coaches and trams in the distant thoroughfares. A gray wash of rain cut a mottled path through the mountains beyond the city.
The nun waited a few steps above.
Reaching the top floor, the doctor stopped to catch his breath. His guide hurried to unlock one of the doors along the wall.
A sour-faced woman dressed in black sat in a chair near the second door. She turned pages of a small prayer book while rubbing rosary beads between her fingers. On her shoulder perched a green-winged parrot sporting two long blue tail feathers. As its mistress whispered her rosary, the bird repeated it, nearly word-for-word.
The nun lightly touched the doctor’s elbow, and the doctor turned. “She was born in this tower to a murderess. Lived her whole life here. The bird’s been with her nearly as long. Always, she says her prayers and the parrot squawks them back at her like an echo. She believes this bird is her soul.”
The parrot prayed ever-louder.
“Here we are.” The nun drew open the fourth door along the wall. “Be careful, doctor. These people are broken, all of them. But even broken, I see him.”
“Who do you see?”
She whispered, as if it were the gravest of secrets, “The Devil.”
The doctor peered into the room.
Above the narrow bed, a small window with a criss-cross of bars.
The patient stood at the window, back toward him.
On the table by the window, a little book lay upside down with its pages open against the table top as if the patient had just stopped reading a moment before the door had been unlocked.
Dr. Chavarria crossed the threshold.
Instinctively, he put his hand to his chest, against cloth, near his heart, pressing down lightly as if to soothe his fear.
Something caught his eye: a moth crawled along a crack in the wall, just above the bed.
It looked as if someone – this patient, perhaps – had found the crack when it was just a tiny slit, and worried it with fingers until it spread and widened and became nearly a crevice.
A memory, washed up: the quivering, untorn chrysalis in his warm, young hand, raised into sunlight.
Dr. Chavarria’s mouth went dry. He felt every year of his long life tugging at the back of his neck and shoulders, a pressing weight against his spine, a soreness along his knees.
The door shut behind him. He heard the key turn in the lock.
Was this a mistake? He wondered. Was this the edge of the world itself – this room, the locked door, the crevice in the wall, the overturned book on the table?
He thought of the card game and the boy in the white suit from just a few days before, that Saturday, a beautiful afternoon, a card game.
And, of course, he could not forget the murders.
That Saturday in July 1867
Baltazar Mosquera, nearly eighteen, stole one of his father’s pistols, rode to Mexico City and sold his horse. He tried to sell the gold watch, as well, but found he could not part with it.
Early on that summer evening in 1867, not long after the execution of the Emperor Maximilian and before a triumphant Benito Juárez would return in a black coach down the boulevards of the capital, Baltazar kept a discreet distance as he followed the American.
The American sat down with three other old men at the lower edge of the Zócalo at a table by the fountain, overshadowed by trees.
They played cards. The white-bearded one made some joke while his companions laughed. Occasionally one of them called out to the girl who carried pitchers among the tables.
Baltazar pressed through the swelling crowd, purpose driving him forward. He felt as if he’d never known sleep or hunger.
As if someone held a gun to the back of his head.
He knew only why he had been created: for this day, this one day.
City dwellers emerged along the Plaza in the shadowed hour, bees scattering from the hive with the last of the sun: soldiers, couples, young families, children running ahead of their abuelas, old men at the tables, rough boys in red shirts hawking broadsides, women draped in mantillas at the cathedral’s enormous doorway, rumbles and shouts from the market stalls, equestrians in the Paseo, short women leaning against mule carts heavy with bright-hued fruits and flowers, duennas guarding veiled girls, the distant brass commotion of a band playing near the palace, cafes and cantinas overflowing with raucous arrivals, flights of chattering birds, boys kicking a leather ball – the vigorous life of twilight.
Baltazar took the footpath between stone-edged gardens, brushing past soldiers, and found an empty bench not far from the old men’s table.
The scent of frying meat drifted on a cool breeze from the food stalls at La Merced, making his mouth water.
He wiped sweat from the back of his neck.
Baltazar looked up through the leafy overhang of ash trees, the sun far to the west.
A want like no other overcame him, threatening to take his breath away, obliterating the soreness at his shoulders that ran along his forearms and wrists.
Drawing the brim of his hat down, Baltazar listened to the nearby conversation.
Old Men Sing Songs of Youth
“No, over there. The bench.” The American glanced at the others at the table. “See him? Near the fountain.”
“There must be thirty people over there.”
“This side of it. Look. The bench. He’s eight feet away, if that. Just there. But don’t look. Not yet. All right. Now. Look.”
All at once, three of the men glanced over at the boy on the bench, and then away again.
Hector Diaz squinted, cigar in mouth. “All I see is a skinny vaquero in a dirty white suit. Want me to shoot him?”
“I wish someone would.”
Eduardo Rosas stopped humming and twisted his head around to get a better look, resting one arm over the back of his chair. “Maybe you owe him money.”
“Looks harmless,” Dr. Chavarria said without looking up from his cards.
“He’s a gun about to go off,” the American said in such an intense way that they all looked over again at the boy. “I knew I should’ve listened to Molina.”
“Why not talk a little louder so the filthy vaquero can hear every word?” Hector said.
“I thought I lost him,” the American said. “Then, when I went to meet Colonel Molina, this kid shows up waving a pocket watch around – looking for buyers. It’s gold. There’s a family crest on the back. I asked him where he got it. White Suit over there flew into a rage. Took off like a shot.”
The American paused, sipping from his cup. “I offered that little thief a good price, too.”
He turned to Eduardo. “What’s that annoying tune? The one you keep humming? Every time we play cards, you go into it.”
Eduardo frowned. “Who knows what it’s called. I heard it when I was a boy. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. My wife would know the name, but she’s not talking to me these days.”
“Watch out, that song’s contagious,” Hector said. “He hums it when we meet at the café – over there – for morning coffee. He hummed it when we practiced law. He hummed it the night he married – during Mass –- and when his first child was born and at his wife’s funeral. It was a distraction then. I barely notice it anymore, it’s in my head so much.”
“Well, stop it.”
“It’s the hum of life, I think.” Hector patted Eduardo on the shoulder. “Hum, Eduardo, hum proudly.”
Hector leaned toward the American and Dr. Chavarria, elbow precariously close to the American’s drink, one move, one shift, and the cup would rattle off the table. “When he stops humming, watch: the entire world will unravel. The sky, the sun, the trees, the cathedral, and even our flesh, it’ll all break apart.”
“Old men sing songs of youth,” the old doctor said, quoting from an obscure poem that he himself had once written.
A sparrow of a girl flitted among them taking up the empty pitcher while setting down another. She grasped two brown bottles in one hand as she leaned over the table.
“What’s the game, viejos?” She set her tray down, wiping a spill with a damp cloth.
“La Viuda,” Dr. Chavarria said as he paid her.
“Lose at cards, win at love,” she said, squeezing his shoulder lightly.
“Maya!” Soldiers called out from several tables away, waving money in the air. “Maya!”
“Drunks,” the girl muttered as she swept her hair back, glaring at the young men. “Maya, Maya, all day long.”
She raised her tray and darted between tables, gathering up empty cups and pitchers, ignoring the young men who kept crying out, “Maya!”
“She hates being called that,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Almost as much as I hate being called San Francisco,” the American said.
“Should we call you ‘Maya’?” Eduardo said. “San Francisco – it’s you. It’s a wonderful name. A Spanish name.”
“A sainted name,” Hector said. “Besides, your real name’s impossible to say without laughing.”
Dr. Chavarria made a noise in the back of his throat. “That boy just looked over again. You should go talk to him.”
“We should invite him over for a drink, San Francisco.” Eduardo finished shuffling the deck and dealt a new game. “Then, you can tell him off without having to grow a set of balls.”
The American frowned as he peered down at his hand. “I met with Colonel Molina for supper at four – at La Sirena. The rain had just started. The boy thought he was invisible – standing right across the street, under an awning, pouring rain all around. Molina recognized him. He’s General Mosquera’s son.”
“Mosquera the Scourge?” Hector Diaz made a slight clucking noise. “Why would a rich hacendado’s son need to sell a watch?”
“He’s on the run. Molina told me not to get involved – he’s getting word out to the father. The boy’s hunting Gabriac’s daughters.”
“Hunting?” Dr. Chavarria asked.
“Gabriac?” Eduardo Rosas looked at the boy. “Wasn’t their mother…”
“Yes. The unfortunate comtesse.” The American lowered his voice. “She leapt from Chapultepec last week. It’s been kept quiet. She had friends in high places.”
“Too high, from the sound of it,” Hector said.
“You’d think a woman like that would land on her feet – like a cat.” Eduardo Rosas shook his head.
The others looked over at him.
“You knew her?” the American said.
“I knew of her. Didn’t everyone?” Eduardo said. “None of you ever get out at night?”
“Not these days.” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Gabriac’s woman was hard to miss,” Eduardo said. “I saw her – from a distance – several times. Always on the arm of one officer or another. At the the opera, mostly.”
“Beer must be cheap at operas these days,” Hector said.
“You know my niece – she’s drags me out. And what do I have to do these long evenings? Can’t spend every damn night whining about little aches and pains like you.” Eduardo said, and then his mood darkened. “I’m sorry to hear such a beautiful woman jumped off a rooftop.”
“Jumped – or was pushed,” the American said. “That boy’s too interested in her. White Suit claims he saw me once or twice with Madame Gabriac. Well, of course I’d run into her – you know how small these diplomatic circles are. Her home – just down the street from mine. I probably spoke three words to her. But there’s more.”
Dropping his voice to a whisper, the American said, “Someone’s out to kill Gabriac’s daughters. Perhaps this boy. Molina told me they’re keeping them in the San Lázaro district – for protection.”
“It may be the best place,” Hector said. “Who in his right mind would look there – for anyone?”
“The only good way to visit San Lázaro is in a casket – if you’re lucky.” Eduardo Rosas lit up a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “Nothing out that way but whores, nuns and stray dogs. And you’d have a hard time telling one from the other.”
“Those girls – they must be in the convent.”
“No, it’s some old museum,” the American said.
The men played, and the game was lost and won. Eduardo collected his winnings, jingling the coins in his hand.
“You’ve won too much, Eduardo,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Never too much.”
Eduardo shuffled the deck and began humming again.
A ball bounced off a table nearby. A little boy came running up to retrieve it just as it rolled toward the American.
The American picked up the ball. The boy held his hands out to catch it.
“Here! Throw it here, viejo!” two other boys called out. They were slightly older and taller and ran between tables to catch up to the first. “Don’t give it to Attilio!”
“Please,” Attilio said.
The American tossed him the leather ball.
The older boys chased after Attilio, who ran between tables clutching the ball as if it meant everything.
“Remember being them?” Eduardo said. “Little dust storms racing through the center of town, knocking over chairs, upsetting old ladies, sending pigeons into a frenzy.”
“The freedom of being young,” Dr. Chavarria said. “The imagination. That’s not just a ball, it’s a golden sphere that gives boys the ability to fly.”
“Ever the mad poet,” Hector said.
“For all we know, those boys are going to beat the little one up to get the ball back,” the American said.
“Always doom with you,” the old doctor said.
“San Francisco’s right,” Hector said. “Look – Attilio’s about to get clobbered.”
“I can’t look,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“No, he’s fine,” Hector reported. “He threw the ball in the fountain. The heroic and clever Attilio took off like a shot.”
Eduardo Rosas dealt and hummed. The men looked at their hands. The American groaned when he saw his cards.
“It’s Blanco’s Museum of Antiquities.” Dr. Chavarria said, as if he’d just woken from a sound sleep.
The others looked at him.
“The what?” the American asked.
(“Our bearded friend lives in two worlds these days,” Hector said, in a confidential tone. “The one here, at the table, and the fantastical one in his head. They rarely match up.”)
“It’s where they’re keeping the girls,” the doctor said. “The Gabriacs.”
“That’s it,” the American slapped the table, nearly upsetting his drink. “A museum in San Lazaro.”
“It sounds like one of your stories,” Eduardo said. “Why have I never heard of this place before? I thought I knew every inch of the city.”
“It’s been shut for years.”
“Strange to keep them at a museum,” the American said.
“It makes some sense. Locked gates. Bars on the windows. It would be hard to get out of it. Hard to get into it, too.”
“What the hell kind of museum’s out that way?”
“A strange one,” the doctor said. “The man who built it died – horribly – and quite a singular death.”
“Wait,” Hector said. “You mean to tell us that there’s a morbid medical tale you haven’t yet mentioned – in all the years we’ve known each other?”
Dr. Chavarria took a sip of water. His eyes became clouded. The little vein at his forehead twitched.
“I’ve kept many secrets. And this is the one tale of my life I have never before told,” Dr. Chavarria said, looking down at his hands. “It drove me to a dark madness. And to scribbling poetry, as well.”
“I own two volumes of your work,” the American said. “And that little novel.”
“I’ve never been a reader, but my boy loved that book of yours,” Hector said.
The doctor smiled. “Thank you. Those writings were an escape for me. This is the one incident that made me question everything about my life and what good any of it was – including medicine.”
“But you went back to it.”
“Of course. Writing didn’t pay bills well enough, nor did my dabblings in more spiritual matters. I spent too many days in bed for hours at a time, staring at the walls, unable to sleep, unable to eat.
“It all began during my wild days. I was in my twenties when I first heard of the museum – and the rare condition of its owner. I had not yet found my way as a doctor – I hadn’t grown up, even at that age.”
“I didn’t grow up until I turned sixty,” Eduardo said.
“Not even then,” Hector added, slapping him on the shoulder.
The doctor smiled, remembering. “I was still cloistered at university – a very hedonistic place. You remember, I’m sure. Student days. We haven’t yet decided the course of our lives yet. You can’t have that pressure of study – at that age – and not let off steam. But then one afternoon, a professor – a mentor of mine, more than a father – had been notified of a peculiar case at a house beyond the edge of the city. This case fit my interests – venoms, poisons, and their various uses as cures.”
“All those glass cases in your study – tarantulas and butterflies,” the American said.
“Are there poisonous butterflies?” Hector asked.
“What is poison to one man may be cure for another, as you’ll understand when I tell you about this museum.” Dr. Chavarria glanced around the table. “It was so long ago, but still very clear in my head. My mentor told me what to expect. A woman’s husband had fallen ill. She would not let him leave his home, in this case, a museum. The ailment was caused by an insect bite. The case intrigued me, also, because of the museum itself. But, as I said, this case in particular nearly destroyed me.”
As the doctor spoke, he almost forgot the young stranger nearby, nor did he notice how the boy in the white suit leaned forward, sliding to the end of the bench, closer to the table.
The Singular Death of Alfonso Blanco
“His name was Alfonso Blanco,” Dr. Chavarria said. “He was rich, once, and went to excess creating the museum. An impressive – and disturbing – place.”
“Hard to describe it.” Dr. Chavarria set his cup down and glanced at his companions. “I suppose it was overwhelming. Nearly every room packed. Statues, paintings, relics. Elaborate fountains in the courtyard. He had an eye for unusual beauty – from his collections to his wife.”
The old doctor rubbed the bridge of his nose, just beneath his spectacles. “I was surprised he had such a young bride. Barely more than a girl.”
“You steal a wife out from under her husband?” Hector said.
“If you’d seen her, you’d have been tempted,” Dr. Chavarria said. “It was forty-two years ago. But I remember her face as if I saw it just this morning.”
“She must have been something special,” Eduardo said. “I barely remember the woman I saw two weeks ago.”
“That’s ‘cause she doesn’t exist,” Hector said.
“Morella Blanco was a rustic angel,” Dr. Chavarria said, ignoring the chatter. “A frightened little mouse, too, in some ways. She was superstitious. She believed demons had come to her home. When I first met her, the museum itself terrified her. She felt uneasy about living near the cemetery, too. Doctors, in particular, meant instant death in the village where she’d been born. But after what happened to her husband…Well, no one would be the same.”
“The poison you mentioned? Or some disease?” Eduardo Rosas asked.
“I’d guess rabies – or the clap,” Hector said. “Given the neighborhood.”
“A sting,” the doctor said. “Several stings, actually.”
“Nothing so ordinary. He had the misfortune of encountering some rare insects in what might be called a position of love. Now, these aren’t the kind of bugs you’d ever run into – unless you traveled deep underground. They arrived hidden in a delivery of artifacts.”
“I hate bugs more than anything,” Eduardo said.
“Alfonso was ignorant of the little stowaways,” Dr. Chavarria said. “Indians called the insect cihauteotl— ‘lady of darkness’ I believe is the translation. An apt name. They stung him right in that one place on the body that no man alive wants to feel pain.”
“Good lord,” the American said, reverting to English as he let out a curse. “While he made love to his wife?”
The doctor curled three fingers into claws.
“A three-pronged stinger pierces the skin, tearing away from its body, quivering as the venom releases. Right into that most tender part of flesh,” Dr. Chavarria said. “His wife thought the noises he made were all part of the act of love itself. It was only afterward – when his screams began — that she knew to send for a doctor.”
“Horrible,” Hector said.
“Oh, it was grisly,” Dr. Chavarria shook his head, his eyes widening. “Fascinating, too, for a young student of medicine. The venom of this small insect – the damage it might do to a man. His body twisted and curled in bone-breaking contortions and seizures. The skin of his face became like the thinnest paper. His jaw locked and then, later, dislocated entirely. Bones break, muscles wither – and it doesn’t stop there.”
“My god,” Hector muttered, under his breath.
“This particular toxin, you see, begins to digest organs, liquefying them – eventually. The man suffering feels every torment the human body can endure,” Dr. Chavarria said. “The mind goes mad but returns to sanity, knowing the worst is yet to come. Blanco couldn’t cry out in pain but you could see it in his eyes. He began to resemble some grotesque sculpture in his own museum.”
Eduardo Rosas covered his face with his hands. “I need to get good and drunk tonight to blot this out.”
“I may join you,” Hector said.
“You can imagine how much care must be taken with someone in that condition,” the doctor said. “No matter how much I pleaded with his wife, she refused to allow anyone to take him away. I spent many afternoons doing my best to ease the worst of it for the poor man.”
“You could’ve put him out of his misery,” Hector said.
“Perhaps. At the time, I hoped he’d recover. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. But finally the morning came when the venom finished its horrible work. His throat closed up entirely, a membrane grew like a fleshy vine within it. And in the last moments…I dread saying it. You will have nightmares from it.”
“Yes, stop now,” Hector said. “I feel as if my own throat is closing, imagining it.”
“Oh go on, it’s unfair to keep us in suspense,” the American said.
The doctor leaned forward.
“The outer flesh hardens like stone. You’ve heard of the effects of cholera? Well, my friends, this is a thousand times worse.”
The American leaned back in his chair and lit up a cigarette. Beside him, Hector shook his head, muttering an obscenity. Eduardo Rosas gave a low whistle through the gap in his teeth.
“These bugs – they didn’t sting the wife?” the American asked.
The doctor shrugged. “They did. But some people are naturally immune. In one of those presumably rare coincidences – of which I saw many in my career – these insects were from the depths of ancient cenotes within the jungle, close to where Morella had been raised and where her own ancestors may have named them. The venom – in certain doses – can even be used as medicine to heal wounds. Mixed into a cream, rubbed on the skin, the same medicine may help scars and lesions fade and vanish, if it’s tolerated. Why, it’s still being studied by world-famous chemists, even as I tell you this. Yet, injected, in the dose of several insects, it becomes a slow terrible death. Why does a bee sting kill one man and cure another? But thank God the venom had no effect on her. He needed her during those three long years.”
“Three years! My god!” Hector cried out. “I thought you meant days – or weeks.”
“If it were me, I’d want a bullet in the head,” Eduardo Rosas said.
“It took its toll on his wife,” Dr. Chavarria said. “She began drinking, daily, before his death. I tried to get her out into sunlight, out among people, but she might as well have been buried alive. Within that house – that museum – she changed. She became a different person. We – she – she had an effect on me.”
The men at the table were silent for the longest minute.
“I traveled to that district a few more times after his funeral,” Dr. Chavarria said. “I’d see her at the front window – just standing there. She refused to see anyone. I didn’t hear about the museum again until – well, until today. It’s strange, though, about the dreams.”
“Dreams?” Eduardo asked.
“I don’t have them often. When I’m anxious or troubled,” the old doctor said. “In the dreams, I’m wandering through that mansion – statue to statue, room to room.”
“Bad dreams,” Hector said.
“Not so bad.”
With the tragic tale finished, Eduardo Rosas had enough of the game and bid farewell to his friends.
“I never know whether your stories are entirely true,” Eduardo said to the doctor. “But that one, it was too much. I couldn’t have been a doctor, no, not with the sorts of things you’d have to see.”
As he walked off, they heard the last of his hum blend in with the shouts of boys by the fountain.
Hector got up, pushed his chair in, and bowed as he often did when leaving friends. The story of Alfonso Blanco, he told them, brought on an intense headache.
“You must join me later, Rafael,” Hector said, calling the doctor by his first name. “I’m meeting my sons – and their wives – at The Byzantine. You don’t need these memories mudding up your brain.”
“You know me and late nights,” Dr. Chavarria said, waving him on. “I go to sleep when the sun shuts her eyes. Until the next game? May we both beat Eduardo.”
“I see you’ve found an effective method for ending a card game.” The American patted the doctor on the shoulder. “Good thing, too. I was losing.”
The boy in the white linen suit came forward and drew out a chair.
The Mosquera Boy
“May I?” The Mosquera boy sat down before either man could object.
His face was brushed copper from the sun; his suit, ragged and threadbare at the edges, smudged with sweat and dust.
The American nearly growled, but Dr. Chavarria held out his hand as he introduced himself.
“I feel as if you’ve been a guest here already.”
“Baltazar Mosquera,” the boy said, a slight nod to the American.
Baltazar shook the doctor’s hand. The doctor held on a moment too long, turning his grip slightly, a look of concern on his face.
The boy quickly tugged his hand loose, and sat back in the chair.
“You certainly took your time,” the American said. “As if you haven’t been spying on me all day.”
“Here,” the doctor said, pouring water into a cup. “You look like you could use this – or something stronger.”
The boy shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Drink.” Dr. Chavarria pressed the cup into the boy’s hand.
When Baltazar finished the first cup, he poured another, all the while watching two soldiers pass near the table.
The American crossed his arms over his chest as he squinted at the boy. “What do you want, Mosquera?”
Baltazar wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. He looked down at the cup.
“I told you when we first met today,” the boy said after a few seconds.
“The Gabriacs are gone.”
“Eight days ago, they were in a house.” Baltazar pointed toward the south. “Three blocks from here. Their home. This morning, it was swarming with soldiers.”
“A lot can happen in a week.”
Baltazar offered a harsh look. “You’ve heard about the Bédards? Gunned down. In cold blood.”
The American glanced over at Dr. Chavarria: caution, old friend.
“A terrible act of brutality,” the doctor said. “Unforgivable.”
“Three women. Six children. French.”
“What’s all that got to do with you?” the American asked.
The boy’s face went deep red, a snarl formed at his lip.
“San Francisco,” Dr. Chavarria said, glancing between the boy and his old friend. He put his hand on the American’s shoulder, and leaned close to his ear, whispering, “Remember your heart. You’re no longer twenty.”
“That was out near Querétaro, wasn’t it?” the American said, ignoring the doctor’s advice.
“So?” Baltazar said.
“Good God, boy, it’s nowhere near us. You go that far out, you run into all kinds of riff-raff – even on a good day.”
Baltazar hunched forward, his attention on the old doctor.
“I want to know about this museum. And the woman – Morella Blanco.”
“You little spy,” the American muttered. “I knew you were eavesdropping. Get a good earful?”
The old doctor reached across the table, placing his hand over the back of the boy’s, and then withdrew it.
“I understand these girls are important to you,” Dr. Chavarria said. “Would you mind telling me why?”
“It’s private,” the boy said.
“We are done here,” the American said. “Listen, hot-head. Go home. Leave the Gabriacs alone.”
Baltazar looked from one man to the other, settling on the doctor. “I’m sorry for my temper. It’s a fever in me, ever since…”
The boy cast a brief glance at the American. “Since I heard the news about Madame Gabriac.”
“You’re not getting anything more from us.”
Baltazar reached across the table to clasp the doctor’s hand. “Every hour – every minute – vital.”
After the doctor gave him directions—despite protests from the American—Baltazar Mosquera left the table and crossed the street.
“Everything about that boy is a lie,” the American said.
Dr. Chavarria’s took off his spectacles and set them on the table.
“You may have just signed the death sentence for those girls,” the American muttered.
“You’re worked up. Take care of yourself, San Francisco. Your blood pressure, your heart – stay calm. Forget the boy. Even though he’s all up in arms, he seems honorable enough.”
“There’s no honor these days – not among those kind of people.”
“The rich. The powerful.”
“You’re rich,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Ha. I’m a beggar compared to his family. They’re bad, those Mosqueras. And that boy has a cruel streak.”
“He seems like any boy I’ve ever known,” the doctor said. “Probably like you at that age. The flame of desire burning him up.”
Dr. Chavarria looked over his shoulder for a last glimpse of the boy just as he disappeared among the market stalls.
“That Mosquera boy’s in love.”
“He’s a rattlesnake,” the American said. “I didn’t believe a word he said.”
“One thing I’ve learned in life. Only one true thing. And that is, we become who we are because of those we love. It reinvents us. And he’s become something other than General Mosquera’s son,” Dr. Chavarria said. ““I believe him. It was in his grip – a living, breathing intensity.”
“Even boys in love have been known to murder – with intensity,” the American said.
Baltazar jostled among the crush of people. Soldiers on horseback cut a wide swath through the market crowd.
He kept his head down, hat pulled low, as he stood in line for the tram. A quarter of an hour later beneath a dimming sky, he boarded one of the horse cars.
It was a green, second-class tram, old and rickety, with loose benches that rocked each time the wheels hit bumps in the road. The driver was a sharp-eyed scalawag who packed in as many fares as he could – to the point that even the horses groaned with their first pull across the uneven track.
Baltazar glanced around. A jumble of old and young, mothers with children, laborers, sat knee-to-knee upon two long benches.
He felt for the pistol in his jacket’s inner pocket, then further down into the lining, for the thick money clip.
He drew a gold watch from the fob pocket of his trousers.
Baltazar opened the case.
A small dried petal lay crushed against the watch-face.
Shutting his eyes, he remembered the ride to his father’s house.
The Dream-Memory of Baltazar Mosquera
Because his memory of the previous week’s journey became a dream, the colors grew bright and every detail magnified.
What was clay red became rich blood red, what was blue became sparkling lapis, and what was merely white became a blinding, searing whiteness as only lightning could produce.
The people in his dream were clothed in shimmering coronas of light, angelic beings. His horse – an ordinary one, brown, not particularly fast, nor easy to guide – seemed to have sprouted wings as it flew across the land.
Baltazar avoided the main highways. He fed and watered his horse at small villages. He slept along a dry riverbed beneath a narrow bridge.
On the second day, he reached the beginning of Mosquera land.
As the shadows grew long, he passed the first stables and called out to vaqueros by name as they rode in from the fields.
On a brown hillside, the giant white cross came into view, near his grandfather’s grave. On he went, passing acres of blue maguey that grew heavy and tall. A blur of granaries and barns swept past, followed by a broad yellow emptiness leading out to distant pastures.
A blur of movement to the left became the men working the fields, a handful of them sitting along the front stoop of the store; rising up beyond this, the homes of vaqueros and others who managed the farm.
At the arched garita, the big guard called Arabio waved his rifle and called out, “Baltys! Baltazito!” from his perch along the high gate wall.
Baltazar dismounted and opened the gate, walking his horse to the other side.
Arabio shouted about his grandmother’s health, the good crop and how he was missed and how was the city and his studies and what about the Liberales and the heroes. “And the bandits!” he said. “Dangerous times, Baltazito, you shouldn’t be riding alone, not with all the kidnappings! There were six thugs, and only me and Ramon on watch, but we shot two of ‘em dead. I got one in the ass, too, and I could hear him howling in pain while the pack of ‘em scattered! You wouldn’t believe it. But I’m glad to see you! Your ‘lita will be so happy she’ll cry! Next time you ride out, I’ll go with you. You never know what can happen out there.”
The guard shot his rifle three times into the air. “Baltazito’s home!”
The sound frightened the horse. Baltazar had to calm the animal and adjust his blanket and saddle before mounting again.
As Baltazar approached the high walls surrounding the great house, the road rose up between two placid lakes filled with swans.
The sky seemed a wide vault of darkening blue above the distant towers.
Baltazar trotted his horse along a sandy path by formal gardens. Leaving his horse at the livery, Baltazar took the shaded passage between servant quarters.
Reaching sunlight again, he saw cousins and aunts among sunken gardens where colorful birds chirped in hanging cages.
His grandmother in graying grandeur sat at a square tea table fanning herself beneath the silvery dusk of a thick-trunked olive tree. Her nurse scolded young cousins that raced and leapt through the gardens, chasing butterflies and hummingbirds.
Baltazar walked the broad arcade with its twenty columns, passing fountains and empty carriages; heard the hum of bees from hives; dogs ran up to leap and play; one of the old cooks nodded slightly as he plucked chickens that, even dead, did not lie still.
Baltazar approached the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe within a scalloped alcove. He washed his hands and face at the small fountain beside her. The water renewed him.
He whispered a prayer.
Pushing the heavy wooden doors wide, Baltazar walked across the red-tiled floor of the inner courtyard, wide and full of flowers and mournful trees, overshadowed by the house’s upper terraces.
Baltazar took a deep breath.
His father stepped out to the terrace, looking down. He still wore his uniform and looked as if he’d been about to leave on official business.
In Baltazar’s memory, the doors boomed like cannon-fire as they slammed shut behind him.
And that’s when he saw it.
Set out in the courtyard, beneath the terrace.
At first, he didn’t know what it was, for it stood in half-shadow, a glint of sunlight along its edge.
He recognized its face, and it made him catch his breath.
Of course, because this was a dream, it seemed a radiant figure.
And in the dream, this creature spoke.
The Jaguar Who Lost His Way
Baltazar opened his eyes, shaken abruptly back to the city.
The tram hit several rocks along the track. The wheels lurched, the bench jostled. The horses announced their displeasure with snorts and whinnies. The driver cursed.
The pocket watch was still in Baltazar’s hand.
The dried flower petal had fallen to his knee. He lifted it delicately – as he would the quivering wing of a moth – and set it back in the case.
He closed the case and slipped the watch in its pocket.
A woman said, “You were sleeping.”
The tram was nearly empty – only this woman on the bench a few feet from him. Short iron curls framed a face rough and mottled as a desert pear.
She clutched a wide basket, covered with red cloth.
“A restless dream, from the sound of it.”
Baltazar checked his pockets: pistol, money.
He looked out the windows. They had already gone beyond the city gate. Few people were out, and the streetlamps hadn’t yet been lit. A lower suburb, not so beautiful as the city that he knew – the evidence of neglect in the crumbling of adobe, half-finished construction, in the overgrowth and tangle of untended gardens.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“What’s your stop?”
“You haven’t missed it,” she said. “You look hungry.”
She reached into the basket and brought out folded tortillas. “I made them for my boy but I think he can spare one or two.”
Baltazar hesitated taking them, but the woman slid down the bench, angling her knees toward him. She leaned forward, stretching her arm as far as she could.
“It would make me happy,” she said. “I always make extra.”
He took the two tortillas. They felt warm.
“Thank you, Senora.”
She introduced herself. “Senora Canas.”
“Antonio. Antonio de la Paz.” Baltazar said. “Senora Canas, any son would be lucky to have a mother like you.”
“Thank you. Luis Enrique – he’s a soldier,” she said as she watched him eat. “I’m bringing him a good home-cooked meal. Tamales, roast chicken, a few treats. A little beer. Not too much.”
A minute or so passed in silence as he finished the tortillas.
“If you’re still hungry…” She lifted the red cloth and looked down into the basket.
Baltazar raised his hand, slightly. “Thank you, senora, but I’d feel terrible for Luis Enrique if I stole his entire meal.”
“He wouldn’t mind. But the army – it isn’t good, what they feed him. He’s gotten so skinny.”
Baltazar looked at his hands. Thin criss-cross scars showed at his wrist. He drew his sleeve down to cover them.
“I only see him once a week. Usually Fridays,” the woman said. “He stays with his regiment. I sleep at my cousin’s when I come up. I’ll make him a little something tomorrow morning before I leave, too. Those officers, they have those boys running around all over.”
After another few seconds, she said, “It’s exciting, isn’t it? We have our city again. Our boys are home. Did you fight, Antonio?”
Baltazar leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“I wanted to. My father wouldn’t let me. Both my older brothers went.”
“Well, you’re young. I don’t blame your father. Two sons is enough, I think.”
After a minute, she said, “I wonder if my Luis Enrique knows your brothers.”
“Probably not. They’re out in the countryside.”
“Maybe they fought together. What are their names?”
Baltazar looked at the woman, and then out the window.
“Octavio and Aureliano.”
He opened his mouth to say more, but then stopped.
“Octavio and Aureliano.” She said the names as if conjuring some deep memory.
Senora Canas put one hand to her chin and tilted her head back, looking up.
A moment later, she broke into a light laugh. Her eyes came alive, and she raised her hand, her finger in the air as an idea formed in her mind. “I know where I’ve heard those names.”
Baltazar took a deep breath.
She clapped her hands trying to remember. “What is it? I know it. There was a story – a book. I used to read it to my girls. What was it called?”
Baltazar did not look at her face, but down at the basket with the red cloth. “The Palace of Memory.”
“Your brothers were named for the boys in it? Octavio and Aureliano?”
“Yes. They were.”
“It’s all coming back now. My girls loved that book. I read it to them every night before they went to bed – when they were nine and eleven. There was the thief’s daughter who coughed up sapphires. She could never tell the truth, entirely, but her lies were never false.”
“That was Mentira.” Baltazar nodded. “She rode on the back of the sweet-breathed jaguar who could never find his way home.”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “And then there was that elephant – remember? – it floated in the air like a balloon, and those awful spiders! Oh, I remember the look on my girls’ faces when I read aloud to them. I must have read it to them a thousand times. What wonderful names for your brothers. Octavio. Aureliano.” She spoke the names as if they were delicious to hold in her mouth.
“My father felt they should have memorable names.”
“Well, I’ll ask my boy about them. He may be good friends with your brothers for all we know. Wouldn’t that make it a small world? Octavio and Aureliano.”
“De la Paz,” he said.
Baltazar sensed that she smiled at him once or twice more, as if a question had begun forming in her mind that she could not quite bring herself to ask.
Minutes later, the tram slowed several blocks from Baltazar’s destination. When it stopped, two men got on, both in uniform.
Baltazar avoided looking at them.
His back ached and the pain along his shoulders returned as he stood up.
“Tell Luis Enrique thank you – on my behalf – for sacrificing some of his dinner,” he said. “I feel I owe him.”
Senora Canas laughed and waved to him. She had already begun introducing herself to the new passengers. Her son’s name – Luis Enrique – floated in the air.
Baltazar stepped off the tram and walked the lower streets to reach the Calle de San Lázaro.
Just behind the high-walled cemetery of the Convent of San Lazaro, the museum took up the space of three houses. Its façade of pink and white marble faintly gleamed in the swiftly dying light.
Convent bells sounded the hour.
A faded brass plate, set into the wall to the left of its highest step, marked the house.
With a bit of squinting and imagination, Baltazar could make out the name “Blanco.”
Baltazar glanced past the elaborate gates with their system of heavy locks to the arched windows above, which were shuttered behind a filigree of wrought-iron.
He looked up and down the street but saw no one. The street lamps were lit. Somewhere, beyond the rooftops, the moon rose but only a slight haze from it touched down in this street.
He began to work on the locks at the gate, but soon discovered that he would not be able to break them all.
Baltazar grasped one of the curling, iron bars, formed in the shapes of astrological symbols, and began climbing up the tall gate, across the waves of Aquarius and the tail of Capricorn, using the curves and angles of the design for his footing.
The Old Doctor in Bed
Across the city, to the south, Dr. Chavarria – who went to bed with the sun – awoke within an hour of closing his eyes.
A gentle breeze whispered through the window that opened onto the garden.
Sitting up, he drew out his pipe, lighting it.
Inhaling the smoke, he conjured Morella Blanco from the dungeon of memory.
She stood at the front window of the museum house, nearly hidden by heavy curtains, the dark veil of widowhood across her face, staring out onto the street as if waiting for an uninvited guest, unaware that a young doctor stood below, just outside the gate, gazing up at her.
The smoke dissipated as Dr. Chavarria stared out the window by his bed.
He thought of the Mosquera boy from the afternoon.
The cuts on the boy’s wrists.
He went to get his diaries, not the ones of recent vintage in fine leather volumes that he’d filled with ink scratches of the daily routines since he ended his medical career – the appointments, the morning’s rituals, the afternoon card games and snippets of half-remembered jokes, recording the books he’d read with brief quips about them, the pertinent or remarkable news of the day, the recounting of lonely hours, the odd run-in, the strange weather, the moment of seeing beauty.
By candlelight, he went in search of the older diaries, the ones buried beneath heaps of the past, kept in a room in his home.
With some annoyance, he navigated a slim path through piles of books and papers.
The room was filled with glass cases and bell jars spotted with pinioned butterflies and shiny beetles and the carefully arranged skeletons of snakes and bats. There was one round table at the center, covered with microscopes and beakers, evoking alchemists and apothecaries, and all those inky scratches on long gray butcher sheets of the minutiae of bug and lizard, the research he’d brought home from his studies, a lifelong quest for cures and miracles.
Beneath the table, unattached pine drawers overflowed with papers, bound, tied up – some that he’d written, and some of it of a medical or scientific nature.
The diary that he hunted existed on scraps of paper, unsent letters, poetry that could not be published, and –in particular – his many scribblings about the museum itself.
He’d bound these pages and notes by hand into a kind of book, sewn with a needle and thread, a pin-sized nail driven through at the edge to help hold them, and then a quick brush of paste at the spine to secure it. He had – when young, in the worst of his mad poet period – taken it to a bindery and stood by as a vellum casing was made for it, strap sewn, glued again, binding the pages in an amateurish but permanent way.
This particular diary, the one marked “1825-1826,” had a black cloth wrapped around it in a knot. The cloth was made from silk lace, and had shredded with time and whatever unseen parasites might eat away at such things.
As he sat there, opening the pages of the diary from his 27th year – at a time of night when he should have been snoring so loud that the neighbors might complain of earthquakes – Dr. Chavarria wondered if perhaps he did the wrong thing in sending the boy out to that museum to find Gabriac’s daughters.
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Now on to Chapters 4 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
The acreage was a bit nicer than afterbirth. I took long walks alone along woodland pathways while Chetty went off on his boat. I bicycled to the village and spent afternoons at the library or in a café. Now and then we’d drive to an estate auction so he could buy some painting for twenty grand, taking my breath away with his ability to put it all on a credit card without a second blink.
Their housekeeper – with that perfect New England name of Hester – looked to be about seventy but seemed much younger in terms of her bright eyes and quick jaw. She had known “John Robert,” as she called him, since he’d been eight years old. She’d worked for his parents in those days. The way she described it, it was as if she’d been an indentured servant to Chetty her entire adult life.
“But now, I run this place,” she told me. “I say ‘jump’, and John Robert says ‘how high?’ But that ex-wife of his, I don’t like her one bit, I’ll tell you and anybody who asks. Cold as an eel – but that’s an insult to eels.”
Chetty often made Hester a ham, cheese and butter sandwich with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup – her favored lunch — as if he were the servant. I rarely saw her do much cleaning up. She always hovered, eager to join conversations and elbow the ex, too.
“Hester’s family at this point,” he told me when she’d stepped out of the kitchen. “You know I hate all my relatives. She’s my one good memory from childhood. I cling to her, maybe too much.” An after-thought: “But she’s got a prickly side, too. My ex believes Hester’s a poisoner. And she just might be on to something.”
They invited six or seven friends over every other evening for dinner, and their cook – an overly-muscled young man whose gravy tended to clump – stayed late cleaning up after I went back to my little place.
At dinner, Chetty and his ex sat at opposite ends of the table from each other. He always made sure I was seated to his right so he could turn to me when the table talk bored him. Their friends were mostly financial experts or trust fund middle-agers who favored subjects like the tyranny of taxation and the latest divorces and foreclosures among the absurdly rich or else which Ivy League school someone-or-other had attended and how it had doomed them or improved their sorry lot, but Chetty and I carried on conversations half the night about music and the old days and whatever-happened-to. We could talk for four hours straight about the beautiful gloom of Beethoven, dissect the over-rated Mahler and the under-appreciated genius of the obscure professor – Mansfield the Magnificent, we’d dubbed him — who first took a shine to our tribe in college.
Chetwin would bring up that awful literature class the Conservatory foisted on us, which we’d nicknamed “The Girl Dies At the End” because it included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller and others. He’d remember jokes he hadn’t told since the age of 20; and the winter trip to Vassar to visit an Interloper we’d both been smitten with; the road trip to Florida that ended on some mountain highway in Appalachia when the car Spiro borrowed died.
I had the strange feeling in these conversations that Chetty was trying to lead me to some specific memory, some subject he wanted to talk about but never could quite broach. I tried to draw it out of him. He’d get evasive, and glance over at the ex and her friends around the table and ignore me for a bit.
He never brought it up, whatever it was. We’d find ourselves alone – suddenly – the dinner party over, just the two of us gabbing on about our interests, old movies, books we’d read, whether or not there was life on Mars. Nothing serious, but I always had the feeling that he wanted to talk about some subject that bothered him.
“Is something up?” I asked one night.
“You know me so well,” he said, suddenly looking like a schoolboy who’d just been found out. “I got that feeling again. When we were young. How I miss it.”
“Ever wish you could go back and fix things?”
I shrugged. “Like what?”
“Like what we did that we didn’t even know we were doing? Like remembering people we shouldn’t have ignored back then?”
But that was as far as the conversation ventured toward whatever he held back.
I was surprised by how much I loved my old friend despite his little casual cruelties and snobberies, and how good it felt to be there, doing essentially nothing at all — and for so long.
I felt like a mascot or pet – an idler who might be valued for entertainment only, a paid companion but without the pay. Being good-natured in that environment was easy. I never felt cross when a four-course meal appeared like clockwork every evening, when outside my door there lay a swimming pool to dive into, a sailboat to launch, thousands of books to read and movies to watch, a dozen nature trails, an available car – always gassed up – and a bicycle or two to choose from.
I struck up a conversation with a woman who worked in a coffee shop in the village, we had a brief fling, didn’t go anywhere, ended within a week, never even brought her out to the house, forgot her name within a week. Chetty wanted the juicy details, but I held back mostly because there was nothing memorable about it. Now and then, during that summer, I’d take the train to Manhattan, wander museums, have lunch at Grand Central, meet a colleague for drinks and then manage to get back up for the nightly dinner ritual at Chetty’s.
I hadn’t had such a real summer since the Conservatory days. It was the freedom of being young when someone else paid the bills and just told you: “be young.” I hadn’t even had much of that in my college years, because I’d always had to work to pay what my scholarship didn’t cover.
At the Chetwins’ place, I felt rich, young, wonderful.
I grew lazy. I began to feel like Chetty’s twin and had a moment or two when I genuinely believed this life was the one I’d been meant for.
His ex-wife gave us our space; she never bothered us; never seemed to feel left out. She would leave the table but make sure the wine or gin continued to flow. She’d turn on firefly lights in the Japanese garden so we could sit out on the deck overlooking the koi pond and chatter away until nearly dawn.
I liked Chetwin’s ex very much, perhaps because she barely spoke to me; but not in any rude way. Friendly but distant, she kept to the background of things when home with Chetty. She was one of those women with whom you feel immediately familiar, but for no outward reason you can think of.
She seemed ethereal and plucky – like the harp she played. Whenever I saw her, half her pale face seemed hidden behind a shiny waterfall of long red hair, as if she were self-conscious of a scar. She seemed a spirit of the air sometimes – doing her morning exercises just seconds before sunrise, which I spied those few times I was just getting to bed when the first light rose up. She was soft and moved like a dancer. She projected a kind of lightness of being.
I watched her from varying distances on the hot afternoons. She practiced yoga on warm paving stones that rose up above the trickling pond. She swam a hundred laps every day in the long stretch of pool. She had friends over for tennis.
While reading my way through Chetty’s extensive library of pulp novels, I found a comfortable distraction in the sound of balls hitting the clay court and occasional grunts and groans from the players.
I often heard his ex playing harp in the little studio they’d built out among the weeping willows and purple butterfly bushes. She was magical with the instrument – soaring, despondent, gorgeous, somber, robust — all of it within her fingers. Her music actually drew tears out of me as I sat alone on the bench by the cottage, listening, remembering being young and loving music as she, apparently, loved music. It gave me a twinge of regret when I heard the beauty of her art; I missed the cello, I missed the days with my friends when we’d get together, all our instruments in hand, playing this absolute piece of heaven.
When the ex wasn’t away in rehearsal, she brought black tea and a small pitcher of milk in the mornings to the bench by my cottage door, along with fresh warm muffins dotted with currants and spread with raspberry jam, all wrapped up in colorful kitchen linens to keep the tray and its basket warm. She never once knocked on my door or used her morning gift as an opportunity for a private chat. She’d drop off the tray and I’d nearly be to the door to thank her. She’d flit off, and there I’d be, with my little breakfast right before me, the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine in the air. She’d leave unobtrusive but informative notes written within “Thinking of You” cards under the tea cup, like “John’s sleeping in, pool 87 degrees, no storms,” or “See you at 6, out all day, John wants to kayak,” or “Gone to Waverly, back late, use Volvo if want, keys on kitchen table, lunch in fridge.”
In essence, she seemed perfect as exes went.
I told Chetwin one afternoon while we lay out on the dock, tanning.
“Oh yeah, perfect, sure,” he said. “For somebody, just not me. And her nose.”
“Now I know why she’d divorce you.”
He laughed. “Oh, I don’t mind her nose. But she does. I’ve told her to get it fixed if it bothers her so much. It’s easy enough to do.”
“I hadn’t even noticed.”
“It’s only slightly broken. A little bump. I mean, nobody else even sees it. She can’t stand it. She had some kind of fall — a long time ago — and her nose is the one thing that never got fixed. It’s her only physical flaw, actually. But she sees it as the Continental Divide.”
I tried to imagine her nose, and wondered if that was why she’d allow her hair to fall across half her face whenever I was within a few feet of her. Even at the dinner table, her hair hung like a curtain between us.
“But I love her, broken nose and all,” he said. “And she loves me, but just not in the way you want to be loved. I guess this is a problem of music history more than anything. Harpists don’t play well with others. They work best as soloists. Not like violinists – we’re made for orgies.”
I didn’t completely understand why they’d divorced at all given their camaraderie, but Chetwin soon let me in on that one when I woke up in the middle of a rare cool July night – the digital clock by the bed read 2:15 — to find Chetty with his mouth over my prick.
I don’t need to mention the thousand and one things going through my head at that moment, or how I pulled away and he sank down to the floor and then switched on the bedside lamp and lit up a cigarette and got up to go sit in the wicker chair – wearing his aquamarine swim trunks and a blue Polo shirt — near the window and spoke in low tones about how happy he was that I’d come up, and he hoped this wouldn’t interrupt anything for my stay.
Interrupt? — I thought – the hell!
But backing up: at the Conservatory, we’d all slept with each other, at least any of us with that perfect combination of low self-esteem and enormous id coupled with egos over-bloated as if they’d been dredged from the Ganges, waterlogged and deadened and waiting for a new incarnation.
That’s where we were in our school years, studying for careers that might never happen, playing music, learning about the varieties of drugs then available, talking sex, whispering sex, getting so drunk that once I woke up with my trousers pulled down and a naked girl – some Outsider — I couldn’t remember her name and barely saw her face — slept beside me and Chetwin – yes, John Chetwin from a fine, upstanding, olde Newe Englande family that founded the entertainment empire, descended from a long line of swindlers arrived on the Mayflower — smoking a cigarette by the tiny dorm window — fondling himself as he watched us in post-coital, boozy exhaustion. His ancient Polaroid camera swung from his bare shoulders. I said something to the effect that he better not have been taking pictures of me or the girl. He said something suitably uncomfortable, and later showed me dirty pictures of one of our professors and the same girl I’d bedded.
“She’s a fucking succubus,” he said. “You’ve got to watch out for those types.”
When I was twenty, it didn’t shock or bother me that Chetty would be watching us go at it. It made me feel I was part of this intense, artistic group. We were sexual, a lot of us, and we got drunk like a tribe and once in a blue moon dropped acid like a tribe — and we were this gang of musical geniuses (we thought) — all of us, and even Alexa once gave me a hand job in the J.C. Penney’s parking lot when Don Giovanni came on the local classical station, back when we knew we didn’t much like each other.
So this new moment of sexual molestation was preceded by other ones trailing behind in our youth. I wasn’t hurt by it, nor did I mind as much as I should’ve, but the shock of it was enough – and the basic bad manners of a host surprising me like that – well, it hurt my feelings a bit.
“Look, there’s a misunderstanding here,” I said, as politely as I could be given the circumstance.
“You sound like a twat. ‘A misunderstanding?’” he grinned. “Which part did you not understand?”
“I’m not gay.”
“Of course you’re not,” he said. “If you were, I’d have had you in broad daylight, down by the boathouse yesterday.” A brief draw of smoke into his mouth and then out through his nostrils. “When I could practically see your religion through your trunks.”
Then, as if it surprised him, “Oh shit. You don’t mind, do you?”
I stared at him. As if I’d caught him cutting his toenails or picking his nose – a mildly embarrassing moment. “So you’re gay and Max Porter was – and Figaro?”
“Not Figaro. He might have been asexual I guess,” Chetwin said with a bit of a grunt for emphasis. “And I’m not genuinely gay – not like gay people are. I’m attracted to people. To beauty.”
I let his self-deception hang in the smoky air between us. I wondered if the muscular young cook could get away with lumpy gravy because of other talents.
“I just wanted to relive a bit of college. I miss those days,” he said. “Don’t you? Just the word ‘tribe’ turns me on.”
Yes, the tribe again. Always with the tribe. We had bonded and bared our youthy souls to one another, took humiliation and gave back fondness.
It was unbreakable, that chain.
After a few more words about the old days and the Conservatory, he went back to the main house.
From the safe distance of my front window, I watched the red dot of his next cigarette; he must have been sitting on one of the many front porch chairs. Thinking; smoking; wondering.
I got up and locked the door to the cottage.
In the morning, I almost thought it was a dream.
When I opened the cottage door, I found no tea tray, no muffin basket, no note from the ex.
That afternoon, Chetwin invited me out on his sailboat – a massive craft.
“I don’t love sailing alone,” he said, but I made my excuses, and he accepted them all with a slight reference to “last night’s little gaffe,” and made me feel slightly guilty for not getting over myself.
I took off — in the rental car I’d picked up the fifth week of my visit — to Essex, a town not far away. I wanted to browse some stores and consider my exit strategy now that I’d discovered Chetwin’s true motives for having me up.
On the way back, owing to a misinterpretation of a One Way sign, my rental car bumped into a Mercedes. I honestly wasn’t sure if I were at fault at all. An underweight matron — far too advanced in years for the girlish headband she wore — leapt out from the sleek black car. She began screaming at me as if I’d murdered her first-born while her schnauzer yowled and barked from the passenger seat. I spent the afternoon talking with a world-weary cop, avoiding my accuser, calling the rental company and my insurer. It all got straightened out. But her screams of my incompetence and criminal negligence echoed in my head as I sat down in a local bar for a grilled cheese sandwich and a beer.
Noticing that it was nearly six – and Chetwin’s cook had dinner waiting promptly at 6:15 every single night — I called up the house.
No one answered. I texted Chetwin, then his wife. After twenty minutes or so, she texted back,
Something happened. Terrible.
I sent this:
And got no reply.
This is where I’ll stop with The Marriage of Figaro for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far. It’s a strange story that builds to a very dark moment indeed. I’ll post news here and in my newsletter when I know the publication date.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of another book-in-progress up on the blog, too. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
Now on to Chapters 2 & 3 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
Despite anything we did – humiliations, stupidities, unrequited foolishness, insult and injury unaware – the tribe was the tribe.
In college – at the Conservatory – we knew we’d all become famous and make our marks in the world of music. We glued together with whim, affinity and those coincidental meetings that bond you when you’re young and credulous.
A self-styled fraternity of eccentric and sublime, some rich, some poor, all with tribal drums beating in our hearts.
There were eight of us in the tribe – Chetwin, me, Max, Diane, Figaro, Felice (or Fleas, the preferred nickname), Spiro and then Alexa.
We lived for us and us alone. We loved us, which is such a strange thing to say, but it was true.
My memory of those days became less about others and completely about the tribal We. There were others, of course. We called them by a variety of names: Invisibles, Interlopers, Satellites, Intruders. If any of them made it into our photographs, it was because they’d managed to infiltrate our ranks, briefly. Sometimes, Chetty snipped them off the photos later, the way one might cut out a divorced spouse or someone who steps into the background while you snap a picture of your family on vacation. You want to remove that outsider and only see those you want to see.
Chetwin, our unofficial photographer, never without a Nikon or Leica or Polaroid or whatever Kodak Instasomething he had in his hand at the time. Snap-snap-snap, there we were: several photo albums worth of our tribal craziness. These snapshots built a visual history for us, solidifying a sense of our group.
Figaro didn’t like getting his picture taken.
He didn’t want people to remember him. He seemed to always be vanishing, even when he was around – like that birthmark on his face – since birth, one assumed. The mark faded by the time he was twenty-one. We couldn’t figure out how it disappeared, but one day someone – maybe one of the nameless Outsiders or Interlopers – commented on it. They were always commenting on us, these spectators and observers of the tribe.
“You’re disappearing day by day,” she said to him, while we were all drinking around the little round table in Chetwin’s room.
(Yes, Interlopers were allowed in the inner sanctum now and then, if they’d slept with one of us – but not for long. Or, if we thought we could learn something from them, we’d bring them in for some inside scoop, but those instances were “rare and useless as a third tit,” in Chetwin’s words.)
All our stories of Figaro were the same: he was a bit of a freak.
Funny and bright and odd in the ways that we considered charming. He composed music and he wrote about us. He documented our joys and sorrows and recorded dreams when we remembered them.
He scratched these memoirs in diaries. Little red and blue notebooks, some black, some fake leather, some tawny brown spiral pads, nameless, bought at all-night drug stores.
Chetty called Figaro our recording secretary, The Keeper of Tribal History.
“One day, when we’re famous and too old to fuck,” Chetwin remarked, “He’ll publish them. They’ll be bestsellers. We’ll augment our fame with the in memoria of what we did in school. We’ll be reviled by puritans and beloved of libertines.”
I saw one of these notebooks in those olden days. I snatched it from Figaro, his guard down. He whined so much, I gave it back, but not until after I’d flipped through it.
He’d written the entire thing in a code of musical notation, nearly indecipherable except, perhaps, by the Tribe itself.
This, his written language — these notes, these chords, these arrangements of our history. What we did, what we dreamed, where we went, with whom we slept.
Figaro didn’t sleep with anyone in the tribe – at least, as far as I knew. He went outside of our circle. He had a penchant for Interlopers from the university exchange who tried to nudge or elbow their ways in through drink, drug or sheet.
Yes, we had groupies. We were kind of a legend at the Conservatory. Known at the other schools for our performances, our compositions, our magic with music. Our closeness made satellite tribes spread jealous rumors about orgies and excessive drug use and cultish goings-ons.
Our parties were legendary – dusk to dawn affairs, with angels and demons and every creature in between.
We were artists, after all.
By the ages of twenty-one we were the stars of our own movie, our own soap opera — our own opera, even — with our fiddles and pianos and cellos and bassoons and piccolos and theories about art and life and the death of music and how we would revolutionize it. We despised the voice students, looked down on the music education scholars and those brief transfer students from the local colleges who invaded our rehearsal rooms and lecture halls winter term.
We spoke in grand terms; we didn’t waste time with the minutiae of news or politics or crap art.
We felt successful without having actually done anything. In our classes, we were told we were the best and the brightest. Our mentor-professors praised us to the skies. One such mentor wept when we gathered to give a performance of an original work. He begged us to never lose our vision. Local papers wrote up our concerts and recitals. We were the soloists. We were the winners of regional competitions. We were the elite.
The Conservatory was our crucible – this place was world-renowned at the time and had produced great and near-great and those-never-heard-of-again. The auditions to get in were brutal – talent and magic were all that mattered. And we had it, the eight of us.
We were on fire.
It was incredibly exciting and debilitating, all at once.
Figaro didn’t live at the center of the tribe, but in its periphery. Still, he was part of us, he existed in the essential we.
Tall and lanky, Figaro had the body of a toned greyhound — this, I saw in the showers. His muscled sinews surprised and shamed me. The rest of us had no genuine athleticism.
His nose, a steep cliff thrust out over a flat line of lip. Black eyes. Uneven teeth – which, according to Chetwin — meant his family had no money. This mattered only to Chetwin, who took to moneyed people like anyone else might take to coffee or chocolates.
Figaro’s hair, in his late teens and early twenties, defined our sense of Figarosity. We all had good hair then, but Figaro had a rain forest canopy of locks. Thick and black was this Amazonian jungle, copious and undisciplined, obscuring sixty percent of his face. He seemed in perpetual hiding from the world behind it.
He was handsome in a hidden way, a shaded grotto – a secret beauty, that’s what Chetwin called him — ironically — when we were twenty, and then not so ironically later.
A secret beauty.
And of all the tribe, Figaro was the person we knew least – at least on the inside. We guessed things about him from clues in his face, his expression, the slump of his shoulders.
And his music! Theory and practice and soul! That kid was so into music that he was music. He excelled at composition, counterpoint and harmony in ways I never understood. He didn’t just play Berlioz and Copland and Stravinsky – he possessed them. He angered his teachers; he argued with conductors; he once took a trumpet from some poor guy and flung it across the orchestra hall. He had days of madness, said things that made no sense to any of us, all-nighters with coffee and cigarettes and a piano. I once found him asleep in the catacombs of practice rooms, his body curled around his violin as if it were his lover. Always rehearsing, always banging it out on whatever instrument he chose to pick up; or scribbling in his composition books, arranging music, events, life. He could murder a violin – anything, classical, rock, jazz. We all thought that given his intensity and weirdness he’d go on to be one of the great violinists – or else end up in the subway, playing for nickels.
Either extreme, he’d fit right in.
He also had a bent towards petty crime, and by that I mean: he stole your secrets and hoarded them.
Those tribal councils took place in the days when we all thought we’d have big careers as artist-musicians.
I dropped the cello by twenty-nine to become a sound engineer-for-hire on audiophile recordings and made a decent living at this. My cello lay in its case in the back of a variety of closets, depending on how often I moved apartments.
Diane ended up in the music department of a major online booksellers’ and was its vice president by the age of thirty-two. Fleas became a Junior High teacher right after the Conservatory. Chetwin worked for the Devil – as he called his father, who ran an entertainment empire – but also had gallery shows for his photographs of rich people doing trivial things in expensive places. (That was actually the name of the show that took London by storm: “Rich People Doing Trivial Things in Expensive Places.”) Spiro and Alexa became famous in ways that none of us imagined possible for two people who could clear a room with their non-entities. They wrote and sang hit songs and practically lived on television– you probably remember them; if not, all the better for you.
None of us quite knew where Figaro landed – so to speak – in the sweepstakes of success or failure. He stayed away from us after graduation. Sometimes, in the subway, I expected to hear him playing Sibelius or Stravinsky – or even Turkey in the Straw.
His college roommate Max Porter became a piano salesman – and killed himself.
That was the third occasion to which we flocked as a tribe, after a couple of half-sad little reunions in which most of us began to acknowledge that music was no longer our primary language.
We gathered around at Max’s sister’s place in Greenwich Village for a “friends only” memorial meet-and-greet – and an informal post-mortem.
We reminisced about our recently washed-away youths when we were all stupid and bright-eyed and believed in what came next. Max rarely came up in that first hour of his own funeral party. To speak of him too much was to kill him all over again.
Spiro and Alexa showed up–a pair of genderless twins with geometro haircuts and a drizzly way of speaking, like half-wits or tabloid celebrities. They no longer looked real. Their faces, smooth and shiny as bone china. They made sure to show up for any and all reunions since they’d hit it big.
Alexa gave a bravura performance by opening up her phone every few minutes and turning to us to say, “Excuse me, just a second, it’s Sony,” or “Oh god, it’s that awful woman from Disney.”
Chetwin — who referred to them as “the Royal ‘It’ — clutched a little silver camera and took pictures of pouty Alexa, Max’s sister with her tray of sandwiches and the various Interlopers from the past. He snapped photos of everyone there, sometimes in secret and sometimes as a formal proposal.
“For my rogue’s gallery,” he said to me. “You don’t mind, I assume.”
“Snap-snap,” Spiro said. “There he goes.”
“Chetty and his camera,” Alexa said, as if she were witty.
Fleas – spindly and overdressed — stood nearest the door as if she’d planned a quick exit. She still had that luxuriantly scrunchy hair, combed back by her toothpick fingers.
“She’s twitchy,” Chetwin whispered to me. “I’m guessing an amphetamine drip.”
Within twenty minutes I wanted to leave, but felt the weight of Max’s life, stones on my chest. Imagined him in his final river, face down. I puzzled out his likeness within his sister’s face. I saw his ears, nose and chin in some distant cousin who hovered near the sour cream and onion dip.
I remembered Max at twenty-one – rounded and perpetually grinning, that flop of thick genius hair always hanging down to cover one of his eyes, nearly buzzed in back at his neck, the way he kind of bounced on his heels when he walked.
This retrieved the memory of a particular night. He made us all feel ennobled and perfect as he hammered out a composition on the piano in a gray practice room, hair flying, chin jutting, fingers stretched to the limit as he reached for remarkable chords.
It was a kind of grand mad waltz mingled with experimental rhythms. The music had been dedicated to the tribe. It was about us and where we would go and how we would become.
Figaro had hated it; they’d argued all night, at the bar, at the bistro, back in our rooms, to the point that Max grabbed some original composition of Figaro’s and proceeded to lampoon it while we all sat around, drunk, wondering if this would send Figaro off the deep end.
Instead, Figaro laughed, agreed with Max, called himself a “poor excuse for a musician.”
Now, poor Max, dead. Figaro was nowhere to be found.
Diane swept in late, whispering to a scruffy teacup-sized Maltese, its fluffy white head just poking up from a wide-mouthed purse. Diane had gotten chubby, but the upside — according to Chetwin, who leaned into me to whisper– the girth gave her “massive Gibraltars,” and “she’s still got eat-me eyes — agree or no?”
A few minutes later — again leaning so close I could smell his disruptive nature – Chetty whispered, “What if I fucked Max’s sister, later? On that crappy green sofa. She’s not half-bad. Knobby knees and all. It would be almost like fucking Max.”
He noticed my expression. “You look like a hypertensive virgin.”
“You’re being inappropriate,” I whispered.
“Of course I am,” he whispered back.
I scanned the room, face to face. Everyone crammed in, strangers, Interlopers, Outsiders — and us.
I suspect someone else heard Chetty’s caustic whispers, because the room went silent for a brief flickered second.
We watched Max’s sister as she served little tuna and American Cheese sandwiches on the kind of bread that crunched when you bit down. She skimped on the mayo but made up for it with liquor in tall frosty glasses.
She apologized for the lack of chairs, and finally – after midnight when we’d all gotten shit-faced on cheap vodka – John Chetwin said, loud and clear, “I think Max made the leap because of the prophecy.”
Chetwin hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years since I’d last seen him. Snotty and endearing as ever. My mother met him once when we were in school; called him arrogant but had nearly fallen in love with him. He inspired that sort of thing – women hating him and loving him, men wanting to have what he had and never be more than a whisper away from him.
It was hard work hating Chetty for very long. Handsome, rich, magnetic and unfiltered buys you a lot of friends. I had instant empathy with him when we met freshman year, even while he dismantled my ego and the way I spoke (“Midwestern twang by way of North Carolina,” he told me, too accurately).
Some people just have it – a charm that bridges even the worst insult.
He liked taking pictures, money, and himself – as he had ever been, so he continued.
When asked – during a murmuring moment – Chetwin elaborated on Max’s demise among our tribal circle. All any of the rest of us knew was that it involved a river.
Max had jumped off a one-lane bridge in Port Van Eyck in upstate. He’d been driving the piano truck from his shop. The truck was empty. A foggy night. He just stopped midway on the bridge and jumped, Chetwin informed us.
“Bit of a double tragedy. The truck — parked on the one-lane bridge. A motorcycle smashed into it.”
A dead silence overcame the room. Chetwin took a sip of his drink. Everyone watched him.
“The motorcyclist was a college boy,” he said, as if this detail might fascinate us. “Driving too fast in the fog. He didn’t die. Just nearly lost an arm and got scraped up. A junior at Bard. A film studies major.”
While I wanted to ask what ‘nearly lost an arm,’ meant, the topic of film studies interrupted Spiro and Alexa’s silence.
“Remember film class?” Spiro asked.
“God, I hated it,” Diane said. “All the electives sucked.”
“And poor Mansfield,” Fleas said. “I mean, later.”
“Oh, god,” Diane whispered, nodding, closing her eyes for a second. “I forgot all about that.”
“But wasn’t Mansfield brilliant?” Spiro ignored Diane. “Watching The Go-Between four times. Julie Christie.”
“Alan Bates,” Alexa said.
“Julie Christie,” Spiro said, softly.
“Cries and Whispers,” Alexa said. “Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
“The Damned,” Spiro said with a child-like adoration. “Charlotte Rampling.”
“Charlotte Rampling.” Alexa nodded, as if recalling a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The two of them noticed the glares around the room. Alexa leaned her head against Spiro’s shoulder, closing her eyes, shutting us all out.
“People never change,” Diane whispered, so quietly I barely heard her.
But Spiro and Alexa’s brief conversation dredged up an old and arbitrary memory for me: sitting in film class junior year. We had to take a certain number of classes outside the Conservatory’s usual music theory and practice. Watching movies in an auditorium was an easy A, and sometimes I managed a nap during a particularly long Norwegian or German film.
My recall was crystal clear; I felt transported. Some brief fling of a girl sat beside me. We held hands like kids while a film flickered by.
In front of us, the back of Max’s head, all clean-cut and perfect. He turned around once during the movie and looked at us. Combed his magnificent flop of genius hair away from his forehead.
“If this movie goes any slower,” he said. “It’ll run backwards.”
The girl laughed – rather sweetly – but I remember her hand dropping out of mine at that moment. I felt Max had jinxed us in some way. I remember quite sharply wishing him dead at that moment, back at the age of 20 or 21, back when a word like “death” didn’t mean the same thing it would when Max was truly dead.
Beyond us, the dusty light from the projector, the sense of a dozen students seated not far from us, the luminous screen at the front of the auditorium.
On screen, a beautiful young French actress in close up, then a distance shot, a rustic cottage behind her at the edge of the woods, a reedy pond.
She carries a little empty bird cage in her hand.
Its door, open.
Is she weeping, or are those merely droplets of rain? The top branches of trees wave slowly with an approaching summer storm. Rain disturbs the pond’s surface. Her reflection in the water shimmers and blurs. A small dead bird floats among the reeds, its wings spread wide. The actress glances up. A strapping young actor rides a horse in a distant field. Thunder breaks; her eyes widen; music crescendos.
Professor Mansfield shouted above the film score, how its composer used the story’s subtext, directly opposed to what the character was doing on-screen.
“The unwritten truth in the music!” Mansfield crowed over the swelling soundtrack. “She’s at war with her own heart! What’s she thinking about? Him? The bird? What does it tell us? Clues! Look for clues in the music itself!”
The hardness of the auditorium seats. The loss of my girl’s warm hand. My anger. Max looking at the two of us, somehow making me feel as if I didn’t count.
It was a strange remembrance that made me feel ugly and worthless in light of Max’s death.
A slight chill came over me as I broke the surface — back to the present, to the little apartment, the tribal gathering within the more anonymous crowd of Max’s friends.
I realized I had never really liked Max all that much. He had been dismissive of me, my music and cello. He’d once accused me of being a fake.
And it made me feel awful that such memories bubbled up in his sister’s crowded living room.
Chetwin – who paused to eat a half-sandwich and refill his glass — resumed the tale of Max’s last hour or so, finishing up with the details he knew: Max, despair, bridge, the jump, the finding of the body, the college boy at the hospital, and the note.
“Everything about this is a mystery,” Chetwin said. “Every detail, important.”
Max’s suicide note definitely existed, Chetty told his audience. But no one knew what it said except his sister – and she hadn’t mentioned it.
At least not when she’d been sober.
Max’s sister slipped away to the micro-kitchen to get another tray of sandwiches. We all noticed she wobbled a little, wearing that overly-smiled face of the properly-liquored. We hoped she’d open up about the note.
“What did you mean – a prophecy?” I asked Chetwin.
Diane, leaned forward, dog under arm. “You mean, someone predicted he’d kill himself?”
“Think about it,” Chetwin said. He turned to me. “You know.”
“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t.
“Max was chronically depressed in school,” Alexa said.
“We were all chronically depressed,” Fleas said. Her voice seemed husky and mature and not the little soprano squeak of the early Fleas. She shot a glance at Alexa. “You were practically the Hunger Artist.”
“He was in love with someone,” Max’s sister said, returning with her arms laden with a sandwich-heavy tray — and another large bottle. “That’s what his note said. He wrote it on the back of a fortune cookie slip. There was an unopened box of Pork Lo Mein next to where he’d left his shoes. The bits of fortune cookie were there, too. He hadn’t eaten it. And the pen that he wrote the note with. It was from a bank.”
Pausing, she then added, “The note was tucked into his loafers.”
“That girl has a mind for useless details,” Chetwin – to the left of me – whispered to no one in particular as we again descended on the tiny sandwiches. “And why did Max take off those shoes? And why loafers? One wonders.”
“Stop it,” someone said.
The sister continued. “He was in love and he said it didn’t matter. He’d never be happy and it left him empty and who needed it? That’s what he wrote.” She didn’t seem quite so drunk at that moment.
“All of that?” Diane whispered, her breath full of booze, hand at my shoulder. “On the back of a little slip of paper from a stale cookie?”
“Makes you wonder what the actual fortune said,” Chetty whispered. “Must’ve been epic.”
“Nobody eats fortunes cookies, do they?” Spiro said, pouring drinks for himself and his conjoined wife. “I always throw them away. I feel as if they’re made of the dust of old bones or something.”
“And take-out on the night he jumps? Now, that sounds fishy,” Chetwin said, a little too loud.
It hit me just then how horrible we all were; and yet I still loved my old friends, bitter and jaded and deeply unfulfilled.
After a suitable moment of silence – when I realized that the sister and her pals had overheard the latest round of insensitive tribal comments and stared at all of us as if we were the unsolvable negative equation of Max’s short life, I said, “Poor Max. I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was in love. I guess I hadn’t kept up enough.”
“Or at all,” Diane whispered, mostly to her Maltese.
“But that’s not really why he did it,” Chetwin said.
The entire room – us and them — looked at him. A hum of disapproval arose against Chetwin, and by extension, all of the tribe.
“He was fulfilling that prophecy,” Chetty said.
“Again with the prophecy,” Spiro said, groaning.
Max Porter’s sister squinted at John Chetwin and muttered something under her breath.
Chetwin looked around at each of us – the tribal we. None of us moved. I imagined we all felt embarrassed, responsible for anything uttered by any one of our group.
“Suicide, birth, murder, an accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement,” Chetwin said, and then finished off the last of a bottle that had lingered near his hand. “It begins the whole prophecy. None of you remember?”
“I remember,” Spiro said. “But not quite like that.”
“How do you remember it going?”
“Figaro read it to us. It was in one of his Little Books of Everything We Ever Did. I thought there was ‘success’ somewhere in there, too.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said.
“Figaro said this?” Diane asked.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Not Figaro,” Fleas said. “It was a Satellite.”
“Oh, right,” Alexa nodded. “We pissed someone off. They blew up. God, who was it? Figaro kept reminding us about it. It bothered him. Sometimes it’s good to forget that stuff.”
“It was a girl,” Spiro said. “That one with the tattoo on her thigh. But I don’t remember her saying it. Just Figaro repeating it.”
“You actually know someone named Figaro?” some shadow among the gathering asked.
“It was a nickname,” Diane said.
“Yeah, like Fleas,” Fleas said, with a certain sour quality to her voice.
“I wonder what he’s been up to,” Spiro said.
“Busking the subway, probably.”
“Somewhere in Maine,” Chetwin said.
“Figaro made that prophecy?” Diane asked. “About us?”
“Not Figaro,” Chetty said. “One of the Interlopers. Spiro’s right – it was a girl.” He glanced over at me as if expecting me to jump in.
“You guys had a lot of girls,” Diane said. “I couldn’t keep track.”
“I could never tell them apart,” Alexa said. “There was this type all of you were into. And they worshipped you guys.”
We’d gotten too loud. Max Porter’s sister shifted uncomfortably, scowled a bit, complained of a migraine. We decided – almost to a person – to thank her, wish her well, leave her to her friends and Max’s untribal group who circled like protecting angels. We offered one last hug and then scrambled into the street, down to a late-night café on the corner of Perry and Holmes.
There – under the soft green lanterns of a summer evening – we exchanged remembrances of things past related to Max and Figaro and the season of our corruptive innocence.
We wagged our jaws into the deep hours. The café shut down, but allowed us to remain at the tables outside.
Exhausting the mundane topics of where we’d been and what we’d done, we returned to the solemnity of Max and the strange prediction.
First, some of us argued with Chetwin that he made it up; he swore it happened and couldn’t believe none of us remembered it.
“But you were all probably drunk,” he said. “Something happened – not sure what set it off — and then someone said it and all of us laughed at it, and I wouldn’t have even remembered it except that Max fulfilled one bit of it.”
“It was this girl,” Spiro insisted. “I just can’t remember anything about her. She was some pretty, misguided thing. Had a tattoo, right here.” He stood, pointing to the outside of his leg. “It was yin-yang looking. You only saw it if she was naked. And I think we all saw her naked.”
“You have a great memory for the dozens of girls you bedded,” Alexa said.
“Most of them are blurs,” he chuckled. “But I never forget a tattoo.”
No one seemed to remember the name of this mythical tattooed Interloper with her bizarre prediction of our futures.
“Someone must’ve really pissed her off,” Fleas said.
“We pissed a lot of Interlopers off, I suspect,” I added.
We dissected the infamous prophecy, after asking Chetty to repeat it a few times.
As I looked around the table, the others repeated each word silently, trying to understand it.
Spiro and Alexa identified with the “love” part of the prophecy, which made all of us exchange glances. Fleas and I identified with the “failure” part, at least in terms of playing music.
“But we’re still involved with music,” she said. “So maybe that doesn’t count.”
No one had yet given birth. We wondered if any of us might be murdered someday. This was qualified with: “If we believe in this stuff, of course.”
“Well, Max fits the suicide bill,” Alexa said. “I mean, unless he was murdered.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said. “Don’t forget the fortune cookie.”
“If we believe the fortune cookie theory,” Diane said, meaning to be funny.
“Revenge and atonement. Sounds Old Testament,” Fleas said. “Who really gets revenge? Who really atones? Nobody. Life is this endless cycle of wash, rinse, drain and repeat. And then you drop dead.”
“You’re a murky little creature,” Chetty said.
“Maybe there’s a reason for revenge. And maybe Max atoned,” Alexa said.
“You atone because of sin,” Chetwin said. “Did we sin? Did any of us really sin – I mean in the grand scheme of sin where people murder and steal and – I don’t know – do terrible things. I mean, there’s Hitler sin and murder sin. There’s even beat-your-wife sin. Were we terrible? Somehow I doubt it.”
“We fucked around a lot,” Fleas said.
“If sex is a sin,” Chetwin said. “Send me to Hell right this instant.”
“You were a beast,” Diane said, and she might’ve meant any of us.
“Maybe we did something awful back then and didn’t know it,” I said.
“I don’t think I developed a conscience til I was 25,” Chetwin said.
“If ever,” Fleas laughed.
“We’re just obsessing over this stupid prophecy,” Spiro said. “Revenge? Atonement? Murder? Who says that kind of thing?”
“Someone who meant it, I guess,” Diane said.
“We stepped on a lot of toes when we were young,” Spiro said.
“Doesn’t everybody?” Chetwin said. “Young people do shit all the time. Drugs, sex, drunkenness, dumbassedness – practically degree requirements. It’s all about me-me-me. You get a pass at that age.”
“Maybe for minor things,” Fleas said.
“Exactly,” Chetwin nodded. “And anything awful we did was minor league. We weren’t bullies. Forgot to call an Outsider for a second date. Lied to someone to get out of running into them. Sucked up to a despised professor to get a good grade. Slept with somebody to get back at somebody else. Ran a little wild. Told our parents what they wanted to hear. Never told them what we were really up to. That kind of stuff. Did we deserve a curse? No more than anyone else in college did – or does.”
“You make us sound like sociopaths,” I said. “We didn’t do all that.”
Chetty raised his cup of coffee as if in a silent toast.
“Makes you wonder how we found time to actually rehearse,” Diane said.
“Max didn’t deserve to die.” When Alexa said this, a hush fell over the rest of us. “He didn’t. He was always nice to me.”
After a momentary silence, idle chatter picked up again. We’d moved on from the prophecy and back to happier memories. Chetty took pictures, his flash blinding us. Fleas talked about the kids she taught and of some trip her students took to Thailand to build a school for the poor. Spiro and Alexa held court about Hollywood, Paris, the West End and some charity concert in Italy. We all played up to them a bit, hoping for crumbs of jobs. Diane with her snoring Maltese leaned back in her chair, more interested in another cup of decaf than the conversation.
As the cicada chatter continued, I remembered something about the curse.
I recalled the essence of some fabled beauty of an Interloper – not her face, but her sooty eyes and her cigarette smoke and May wine perfume and how we’d all been fighting – this must have been junior year.
We’d gotten disruptive at a party honoring us. The Interloper hurled those words, a grenade, in our midst.
In memory, I mashed it all up with memories of the dozen or more Satellites we’d all known, so I couldn’t quite put a face to the voice, but I heard the words.
Not one of you is special, the Interloper said. Garbled in my memory, those words – suicide, birth, murder, accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement – as if she were an escapee from the garden of Furies, damning us with an overly-dramatic set of possibilities.
I looked across the table to Chetty. He glanced back, sensing the shift in my demeanor.
I felt he could read my mind at that moment. I remembered precisely our intense closeness, all of us, practically inside each other’s heads at the Conservatory. And in that moment, I remembered Chetty sitting beside me, laughing, as that Interloper spewed her prophecy across our group.
Who was the unhappy messenger? I couldn’t quite remember the voice, let alone the face of this dreaded Cassandra.
Eight words for eight members of the tribe.
I ended up spending the night with Diane. She lived a winding drunken walk from the café. We did more sleeping than anything else, after a half hour of fumbling in the dark with each other’s bits and pieces. When the slap of morning met my forehead, I glanced over at her. She talks to her Maltese, what the fuck are you doing with your life?
We’d slept together at the Conservatory. The tribe had been incestuous. Sex and friendship got confused and convoluted in the undertow of being young.
In the kiosk bathroom of Diane’s place, I checked my phone.
A text had come in from Chetwin.
“At the ‘Royal It’ place,” he wrote. “Palatial. Their own private swimming pool. An elevator for their Mercedes. It’s all shiny. I want to fuck both Alexa and Spiro to see if fame works like an STD.”
He told me to meet him at the cafe again for coffee at noon.
Chetwin looked fully recovered from the previous evening. He wore a freshly-starched white shirt, rolled-up cuffs, and lean khakis with flip-flops on his feet, a thick silver bracelet around his wrist. A gift, he told me, from his ex. I didn’t know he’d ever been married; I wanted to pry but he wanted to keep going on about Max.
“The real reason Max killed himself,” John Chetwin told me as he fingered the rim of his cup. “He was in love with Figaro. His sister doesn’t know this fact.”
The impact of what he said was immeasurable to me. Figaro, Max Porter, love, suicide.
I didn’t want to think it, but I imagined Max and Figaro at the age of 20, spooning in white briefs in the dormitory’s procrustean bed. Genius hair met rain forest jungle hair as they lay entwined. I had no memory to match this – I created it from whole cloth.
“But his sister said…”
“Didn’t say. Implied.”
“I’m pretty sure she said it was a woman.”
“That’s not really what happened,” Chetwin said. “There was a woman – but not in a romantic way. We’ve spoken about it – she and I. Which is why I know all these details of Max’s last leap. But she’s not the one Max was in love with. She was a friend. A buddy. It was Figaro. Unrequited. And that’s why he did it.”
He gave me an odd look, a narrowing but sharp gaze as if he were examining my face for something it lacked.
“Just a friend.” Chetty quickly added, “But not his lover or anything. Max was into men only.”
“Suicide for love. At the age of thirty-four. For Figaro.”
“Yeah, I know. If anyone was least-likely to inspire homoerotic lust, it would be Figaro. Still, he had that secret beauty – under all the hair. And the phallic nose. I guess Max found him irresistible. But musicians, what can you do?”
We both chuckled. Having abandoned our dreams of being musicians, we’d learned to dismiss them as if they were children who knew nothing of the real world. This spared us feelings of failure.
“Max in love,” I said. “Figaro. All these years. How didn’t we see any of it?”
“Did we even understand love in college?” he said. “I mean, we thought we did. But we were idiots about that kind of stuff. I regret half of what I did.”
“We were in love with the Muse.”
“Oh yeah, the Muse.” He wiped his face as if trying to erase a memory.
He nodded, a weak smile as he looked down in his cup. “Bad coffee.” Then, “Ah, poor Max.”
Nearly a minute went by before he spoke again.
“Only mystery is why jump?” he asked. “I’d do pills. Something to knock you out. Then something else to stop the heart right after. ‘He died in his sleep,’ the papers will say. Doesn’t everybody want to die while sleeping? Not this drowning bullshit.”
I felt a sudden weight on my chest. I imagined Max floating in water, as if I could see his face from beneath. A memory came with this: swimming in college, diving under water, looking up, seeing a naked girl above me.
After the Conservatory, naked girls never swam above me again.
“You didn’t like Max,” he said, suddenly, intuitively.
I shrugged. “We never really hit it off.”
“You weren’t alone. The girls liked him, but I’m not even sure Figaro cared much for him. But we liked his talent and he was our little messenger of the gods. He’d do anything Figaro asked of him. But he was annoying. Still, he should’ve had a big career. And he didn’t.”
“He probably should’ve been famous.”
“In Port Van Eyck he was. I read the obit online. He was beloved, apparently, in that corner of dank infestation known as the upper Hudson Valley.”
“You’re the same snob you were at twenty.”
“Moreso,” Chetty agreed. Then he invited me to his home in Connecticut, a large acreage “shaped like afterbirth,” on a wide river.
He described his boredom with life, how his ex-wife – a savage harpist – still occupied space there, “though she’s not around much. Always on tour. Always recording. You know the drill. It’s why we divorced at all. Well that, and lack of children, I guess.” They had been married four years and divorced for two. They’d wed quietly, and he’d never mentioned it at previous tribal gatherings because (he said) “it wasn’t that kind of marriage.”
His family hated her. “Hate, like people hate terrorists. They just think she’s awful. But she’s not. They’re monstrous people, my family. Our home is a bubble of safety for the two of us.”
“Why not just stay married?”
“That’s what I said,” he chuckled. “She’s not built that way, she told me. If it’s over, it’s over. We were always just friends, I suppose. Still are. And she’s hardly around. Maybe for dinners, sometimes. But you’d like her, anyway. She’s your type.”
“But not yours.”
“She was, once. But I’m not hers. Oh, I chased her mercilessly,” he said, losing his smile. “I’m not proud of it. But I was a hunter. She was a gazelle – with sharp horns. I pretty much spent a year or more just convincing her to go out on a date. It was humiliating.”
The more he mentioned his ex, the sadder he seemed.
The house, he said, was big enough for at least three exes.
He extolled the pleasures of the guest cottage. “A modest caretaker’s place. You expect to see seven little dwarfs running around. Sparrows and chipmunks all skittering beneath the windows – that kind of thing. Come up in June. Hell, you don’t even have to see me more than once a week if you want. The guest place looks gargantuan next to Max’s sister’s little mousetrap. I’d love to spend more time with you. Summers get boring for me. All those Connecticut rich people and their Country Day School brats.”
“The idea of taking a summer off would be nice.”
“You’re a freelancer. You can do it.”
“Unless someone calls and then I run to the studio.”
“You’ll have no expenses. I’m rich.”
“Not as rich as the Royal It. But we’re good. We have a maid named Hester and a cook named Terry. When we throw parties, we even have a butler named Mortie. Plus a local girl who hangs the wash so it always smells like a summer garden full of…well, all those little fucked-up flowers you see in summer gardens.”
Between leases, I decided to stay with John Chetwin and his somewhat-absent ex-wife at the idyllic cottage he’d described.
I arrived in June.
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In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
Now for another short novel I’m working on. I think I posted enough of Mr. Darkness until the book’s ready to go, so for now there’s this strange tale of a group of young musical prodigies and the terrible events that surround them.
As you can see from the cover to the left, this is called The Marriage of Figaro, clearly one of the strangest titles for a strange little novel. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll post a few chapters every few days, and I hope you enjoy them and will come back for more.
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
“If you’re going to murder someone,” Ned Donnelly said, “it should look precisely – in every detail – like bad luck. Something that could happen to anybody. You listening?”
I nodded, putting my drink down.
“And you’re not planning a murder yourself?” he asked.
Ned’s eyes were small and pinched until he put on a pair of thick-framed glasses, and then they were surprisingly bright and large. You could trust him because he told you the worst of himself upfront. Other than liquor and dreamless sleep, he loved three things: women “with a little experience under their belts but before the world has its way with them,” classical music, and the subject of murder.
We’d first met at one of Chetty’s gatherings at the country house. Ned, in semi-retirement, taught criminal justice classes at a night school. That particular evening, he sat across from me at one of the endless summer suppers, wedged between a socialite named Bunny and the famously defrocked priest from Ridgefield.
After the table cleared, Ned remained behind, chumming up to Chetty and me because he wanted to hear about our music. His elbows dug into the tablecloth, bottomless glass of Chateau Neuf du Pape in fist. We chattered into the amethyst hours of Mozart and Mahler and misspent youth, our muses and lack thereof, with only an occasional nod to the tribe itself.
Years passed. I ran into Ned again, at this bar, not too long after. I bumped into him twice at concerts in Manhattan, and then, after I’d moved for the fourth time, we began corresponding about concerts and recordings, and of course, Chetwin and the others and everything that had gone wrong.
I always knew where to find Ned no matter the time of year and if I felt the need on one of my business trips, as I did this particularly chilly night, I’d brave the ice and snow and drive to Connecticut. He’d become a seasonal fixture in the raftered bar of Le Bistro Trois Freres, a little dungeon of a place along a lost stretch of wooded road between Greenwich and not-Greenwich.
“Someone smart can basically finesse murder,” He said, two martinis ahead of me.
“By finesse, you mean…”
“To make it look natural. Keep those arrows from pointing at you, anyway. Nobody does that overnight. I worked a case where the killer planned his crime beginning when he was ten years old. Didn’t carry it out until he was close to forty. Imagine that. The waiting must’ve been excruciating. The people he’d plotted against were in their late seventies and eighties by the time he got around to it. If he’d waited a few more years, they might’ve all been dead anyway. His victims didn’t even know their connection to each other. But once upon a time they’d all lived in a specific county. And our killer had lived there, too, as a child. And even though we knew he’d done it, we had no evidence – not DNA, not a witness, nothing — to tie him in. He had alibis each time. Plus he was what we used to call upstanding. Respected. Community work, all that, happy wife and four cute kids, and none of them had a clue. To them, he was the good man.”
Ned put his chin in his hand and shook his head slightly.
“But we knew this guy did it. We could place him as a boy in each of his victim’s homes during a devastating year of his life. His mother had died in a terrible way and his father, unskilled and backward in some way, went house-to-house looking for work. And these particular people had said something to the boy’s father that must’ve burned in his memory. Must’ve just hit the nerve that changed the course of his life. I spent years on that one.”
“You ever catch him?”
“Not me. Another guy. Not long ago.”
“The longer you wait for revenge, the sloppier you get.” He sat up, losing the slouch. “It can be a slow burn of years. There may be some way to work out the problems, the possible ways this thing can go. So one day, long time after we closed the file on this, it happened. Got himself a promotion at work, big salary. A move to a better neighborhood. He and the wife threw out a bunch of old stuff from the attic and basement – broken furnitures, appliances, lampshades. And one of the neighbors — a real piece of work — goes through the trash hoping to find something to resell but instead discovers a water-stained shoe box packed with little three-by-five cards.”
Ned grinned as if I’d just located the shoebox myself.
“Maiden names, married names, addresses, specific details, a couple of faded photos, a timetable. Brief notes of schedules, habits. I’m still jealous of the guy who nailed it. Wish I’d figured all this out early.”
“Why’d he keep evidence all that time?”
Ned shrugged. “Blind spot. Part of the whole thing he wants to forget. So, he does forget. We’re more than a decade past the murders. He got his relief. His targets are dead. This guy doesn’t see himself as a murderer. He didn’t do it for money or out of anger. It was justice to him. He sees himself as a secret righter of wrongs and he knows nobody figured it out enough to charge him with anything. You know how you keep stuff in your house for years and you don’t even realize you have it or what it means anymore? That shoebox was probably just crammed up in some cupboard or attic, mixed in with old bills and tax crap. You keep a diary and then stop one day. You forget you ever kept it until you run across it years later and think what an idiot you were to ever keep a diary. And – in your case — you find those notes, you got your guy.”
Then, a second later, he added, “But you’re probably wrong. Mostly what looks like an accident is an accident. If the means of death’s nearly impossible for another person to have engineered, you go with reality. Life murders more often than other people do.”
A jukebox in the corner, silent, suddenly came to life, a pop tune of the moment.
“Now, who the hell put that crap on?” he said too loud. “Let’s get a table, far away from this awful racket.”
Settling into a corner of the dining room, we ordered dinner.
Ned switched topics. Had I been to the winter concert series in New Haven? How often did I get to Carnegie Hall? Or the Met? What was it like, my life these days?
To appease him, I drew from a shortlist of music-world anecdotes: ribald tales of the various musicians I’d worked with, and the now-famous soprano (a former classmate) who used studio tricks to cover a voice ruined by cigarettes and late nights, and what a genius a certain violinist was although he remained an awful human being in every other way.
The gossip of my sphere, basically.
Ned asked about my old friends, Spiro and Alexa of course (because everyone asked about them) and then he wanted to know more about Figaro and we talked about John Chetwin, too, and the conservatory days, back in the olden times of twenty years earlier, when — I told Ned — we believed we were all prodigies and dreamed of becoming celebrated musicians while still in our late teens and early twenties with a little experience under our belts but before the world had its way with us — before Death entered the snapshot.
Dinner arrived. Ned ate, noisily, as if French Onion soup and steak frites were the last meal he’d ever have in his life.
“And this whole tribal business,” he said. “I never understood that. I’d think you’d all have been too competitive. Maybe even at each others’ throats.”
“How’d you decide who was in and who was out?”
“We’d been hand-picked by Mansfield.”
“Ordained,” he nodded. “What was he like?”
“Impulsive. All over the place. He laid out all the rules and then told us to break them. To explore our creativity. Find our source. Discover what we believed. That kind of thing,” I said. “He encouraged all the liaisons. The wildness. I honestly believe he idolized us. He said we were the best and brightest and we’d set the world on fire.”
“And you believed him?” Before I could answer, he added, “At twenty, who doesn’t want to believe that.”
Ned asked more; I told less.
And then, before we parted that night, he asked me again what he’d asked each time I’d sought him out that winter:
“So, who’s this murderer?”
“At this point, I think it’s what you said. It’s life. There’s no way one person could’ve done it. And so perfectly.”
“Sounds about right,” he concluded, as we shook hands. “Your reaction’s natural. The injustice of loss. You want to blame someone, but usually it’s just the way things go.”
I called a cab for him, and – mostly sober – I braved dark roads back up the coast.
On the night’s long drive, the scalpel of memory cut to the bone of my twentieth year:
My father in his pin-striped suit of disapproval.
“You need something more stable than this…this dream,” my father said. “Look who you surround yourself with. They’re not your friends. Think of what could’ve happened. Think of how this could’ve turned out. I mean, as horrible as it is, think how much worse it might’ve been.”
He told me if I didn’t straighten up, I’d be at a regular old college in no time, studying something serious like economics — or else lucky to get a job at a gas station. “Your mother should never have bought you that cello in the first place. There’s more to life than music.”
But music was my life in those days. All of our lives. It was who we were. It was our communal heartbeat.
We were the tribe.
Now, on to Chapters 2 & 3
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of The Marriage of Figaro, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
Note: If you’re reading this for the first time, you’ll want to start with Chapter 1.
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
We moved in an instant.
We were suddenly living inside a movie about a cool, crazy, sick father and his two remarkable children starting over again but this time with room service and maid service. The Hotel Family, The Fenwick Kids, Room Service for Three – such were the titles Leo and I gave our little mind movies about the stay in the hotel.
The Fenwick, family-owned and operated, existed on a side street off a more-traveled avenue in a whole other side of town from our old place. Among its neighboring buildings, what wasn’t being dismantled was in the process of falling apart.
The end of our first week there, Howard told us about his Fenwick connection:
“I was putting myself through grad school. I worked really early in the morning, then classes in mid-afternoon. Your mother worked as a waitress in the lounge here. This was one of those busy streets with cafes and bars that made you feel as if you were on cloud nine. It was an innocent time, I guess. The Fenwick was the ‘it’ place for poor students like me. You came here for a party or late dinner and some music. You could dance right between the tables and spend less – with twice the fun — than at one of the big joints a few blocks over. This hotel had quartets and combos and lounge singers and a pretty good Polish cook who made pierogi and lamb shanks like nobody’s business.”
“But what was it like?” I asked.
“Just told you.”
“I mean when you met Melanie.”
“Well, I did what you do. I looked at her. She looked back. Good thing. And I knew. Right then I knew.”
“That was it. Done deal. I knew with that girl if I didn’t do something right then I would never live with myself. Somebody else would get her. She’d move on. I’d lose out. I went up to her, leaned in and…well, I kissed her before she could change her mind.”
“Just like that?” I asked. “A kiss does it?”
“Of course. It’s a promise tied up in a smooch. She wanted to be kissed. And I wanted to be the one to kiss her. When you’re older and meet the right one, you don’t waste time. You know it and if the other one knows it, you just jump. You don’t get a second chance.”
I thought for a minute about their arguments, stormy words, the way Melanie kept him at arm’s length, and even the last kiss I ever saw between them, when my mother pushed him away.
I asked about it.
He said, “You don’t solve all your problems when you fall in love. You just know that if you don’t have that person in your arms then life’s going to mean nothing to you and you will never have a minute’s peace until you’re with that person again.
“So I kiss her. She kisses me. We go dancing that night. I’d already become part of her and she’d already become part of me. And no matter what happened between us, it’s like love was a little fire we held in our hands – together – and it was more important than either one of us alone. It was something we both protected despite every problem we had or anything life could throw at us. So long as we had each other.”
His face clouded over.
“And then Leo showed up,” I said hoping to brighten the mood.
He managed a smile. “Sure. When we least expected him. We called him the Surprise Baby.”
“And then me.”
He gave me a funny look. “Of course.”
“When I was born all the lights went out on the train.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Your old man’s had enough memory lane for one day.”
I covered him with blankets and turned down the lights.
Leo said, “Let’s see if Sam’s here yet.”
We spent days that turned into weeks running around — exploring the Fenwick, getting to know the day clerk whose name no one could pronounce, the college hippie night clerk named Sam, the maid from Astoria called Leda, the maid from Bayonne named Michiko, avoiding the surly manager, stealing extra soaps from the cleaning cart — while Howard slept through half the day and the entire night. Leo told him he should see a doctor, but Howard said it was just recovery, it was grief, depression — it wasn’t even real illness.
“All in my head,” he said. “I’ll get over it. It’s what you do.”
He ordered us out, into daylight, to the library, to movies, gave us some cash, assigned books to read, things to pick up at bodegas and drugstores and diners.
We were now autodidacts, he said, and our own best teachers.
This wasn’t entirely true.
But we were sure that Howard would get better and life would return to normal and we’d end up at another apartment and be back in school in some upcoming September, no worse for the time away.
One bright, ignorant day, it ended.
Movies always end, even the hopeful ones.
I should’ve noticed the cracks earlier. They were in the hotel bathroom, over where the shower stall began, these small spider-vein cracks.
The eviction notice showed up one morning — placed beneath the door — a folded piece of paper with an end-date for our stay.
It included an apologetic note from the manager:
Howard – sorry to do this. I feel terrible about it and my dad would kill me if he knew. I know your family’s been through a lot. I’ll give you an extra week on the house and even call around to see what I can do, if you want. A convention’s coming through on the first. Need you out by then.
With best wishes and again very very sorry,
I don’t know what surprised Leo and me more: that some group of businessmen would even want to hold a convention at the rundown Fenwick or that our father hadn’t paid the hotel bill in nearly a month. We’d been ordering room service twice a day and putting it on our account.
“I’ll pay, I’ll pay, don’t worry, sweet pea, this’ll all smooth over,” Howard reassured me when he saw how upset I’d become. “Mike’s a pussycat. I mean, he practically has whiskers and a tail. Don’t you worry.”
The manager –son of the hotel’s owner — remembered our mother in the olden days when he’d been a teenager and had a soft spot for her, which is why he was being so nice even when throwing us out. That’s what our father told us.
“Everyone loved your mother,” Howard said.
“But you loved her the most.”
“More than loved her,” he said. “I didn’t know where she began and I ended.”
“What’s that mean?”
He couldn’t explain. Then, he mentioned that word, “symbiogenesis,” and how two become one and how it can reverse, and how sometimes you go back to the muck.
Symbiogenesis. I repeated the word in my mind over and over again. My mind’s voice said it back to me perfectly even if I stumbled over the word when I opened my mouth. It seemed like an incantation, some kind of summoning. It reminded me of the princess who made a bargain with an enchanted frog that lived in a well.
I wondered if — many years later, after the princess died — did the prince go back to being a frog, return to the muck and dark below?
Symbiogenesis. When two become one. Amor Vincit Omnia means Love is shit.
I thought about all this when Howard told Leo to fetch our mother’s ashes. We’d kept them in the closet among the luggage and winter coats.
“Mom-in-a-Box,” Leo whispered.
Howard called us over to the window that opened over the alley far below.
Leo and I stood by as Howard lifted the jewelry box lid.
“Time for goodbye,” he said as he dumped our mother’s ashes out the window.
“Wait,” I gasped, reaching for the drifting specks of my mother. They fell through my fingers, dispersing like morning mist.
I imagined Melanie evaporating as she turned to me and said the word, katzenjammers.
Howard touched the edge of my face, wiping a tear to the side.
“Don’t cry, sweet pea. She already left the station a long time ago. This was just what the salesmen of the dead give you afterward. As if Melanie could ever live in a box.”
Howard turned the jewelry box around so I could peer inside. “See? She’s not there. She was never there.”
Within the box, a light frosting of gray dust remained. It reminded me of the ashtray my mother kept on the coffee table.
I thought of the fire of love my parents held, cupped in their hands.
She’d become nothing but soot.
After Howard fell asleep, Leo pulled me into the narrow bathroom. We’d begun having regular private meetings to discuss the state of our situation so that Howard wouldn’t hear us.
Leo sat on the edge of the tub and I, cross-legged on the closed toilet seat.
“I don’t think Howard wants to get better,” he said.
“And one more thing,” Leo said at the end of our meeting. “I saw Mrs. Castle in the lobby yesterday.”
He nodded. “We went to get pizza. When Howard took a nap.”
In my mind, I traveled through the lobby again from the day before, the wide round table, the check-in counter, the big palm trees in enormous pots, the newspaper stacks, the vases of dried flowers on pedestals, the day clerk.
“I didn’t see anybody except Mr. Unpronounceable.”
“Leelah didn’t want to be seen,” he said. “She was in one of the big chairs by the staircase. She put her hand up to her face — like this. She thought I wouldn’t recognize her.”
“You could’ve told me.”
“I guess I wanted to be wrong. That it was somebody who looked like her.” He paused for a second. “But it was her.”
I brightened. “Maybe she’ll help us.”
“No. She won’t,” he said. “She’s bad luck.”
Later, I stumbled over our suitcases in the closet and reached into my winter coat pocket for the cigarettes and book of matches that my mother left behind.
I dug down deep for my mother’s ring.
I went out to the alley where Melanie existed in some ashy way. It was one of those humid summer days when everything smelled like trash day. I lit up a cigarette and watched it burn for a moment before slipping it between my lips.
I coughed through a smoke in her honor. It didn’t surprise me that cigarettes tasted so sickening.
I slipped her wedding ring on my thumb. I leaned against the wall at the side of the Fenwick Arms. I thought about my parents dancing inside, laughing, having a smoke and a martini, falling in love, their dreams of future children and what life would give them and how it all went to dust.
I imagined our parents’ first kiss.
One of the workmen from a nearby construction crossed the alley. He was muscular and sweaty with an overall rough look to his features that made me think he’d bite your head off if you looked at him cross-eyed. I wondered what would happen if he kissed me with those surly lips.
When he noticed the cigarette hanging out my mouth, he said, “Kid, you old enough for that?”
“I’m nearly thirty,” I said, conjuring my mother. “But people always think I’m much younger.”
Leelah Castle came by our room a few days after skulking around. By then, even Howard had noticed her — from his favorite perch by the lobby’s front window — as she walked up and down the street deciding whether or not to take the steps up to the Fenwick’s entrance again.
I answered the door. I wasn’t sure if I should let her in. Howard came to the doorway to talk with her. He looked almost like his old self for a minute. He pushed his hair – uncut for months – to the side.
I went to find his comb.
When I returned with it, Howard told us to go out to the movies. Leelah handed me thirty bucks, which made me feel rich.
“I’ll take care of your dad,” she said. “Have a nice day out. Get something to eat. A little sunshine maybe.”
It was cloudy, so sunshine was off the menu.
Leo and I went first for tuna salad sandwiches and shared a chocolate malted at a rundown diner a few blocks over.
My brother told me not to mention Leelah to him because he wasn’t in the mood. Leo grabbed a paper off an abandoned booth seat and scoured it for movie listings.
We had a choice within three blocks of either a film about some homicidal maniac or else Casablanca — one of our mother’s favorites. I convinced Leo by whining that we should see Casablanca yet again. It played at the Soho Gardens, a tiny theater that showed ancient, scratchy films, had cheap admission, and smelled like musty chocolate and popcorn.
The whole time the movie played, Leo breathed so hard it was as if he were snoring. People around us told him to shut up. Halfway through the movie, I said, “Ilsa looks like Mrs. Castle.”
“You may need glasses.”
When the movie ended, he leaned in to whisper. “You know, I never figured out before what this was about.”
“What’s it about?”
“You never get what you really want in life. So you make do.”
“Don’t blame me. I didn’t make the movie. It’s also about how love messes you up for the rest of your life and –“
He went silent mid-sentence. The lights came up.
Most of the audience had already left; we were among five or six stragglers.
Leo looked at me as if I should be telepathic all of a sudden and understand everything the boy genius understood.
“What?” I asked in that dumb way you ask when you feel like you missed a vital clue.
“We should never have left Howard alone with her,” he said.
It began drizzling as we walked back to the hotel. Leo outpaced me; I struggled to keep up. Then he began going even faster as if some new bomb would go off if he didn’t get back to the hotel in time.
I guessed the bomb: Leelah wrapping herself up in our father.
A thunderclap echoed, followed soon after by a flash of lightning. Buckets of rain dumped down on us as we ran the last block.
I thought of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman kissing in the movie and my father kissing Leelah Castle in the very hotel where he’d first kissed my mother.
It would kill something inside me, I just knew it. I had to keep him from kissing her. It felt as if the world would end if their lips met. Kissing spelled the end to everything, even in movies.
In our hotel room, Leo and I stood inside the doorway, catching our breath. Lightning flashes from outside the window lit up the entire room and then dimmed to shadows of torrential rain all across the wall.
Mrs. Castle sat alone on our father’s unmade bed; the light from the lamp beside her held half her face in shadow.
“Where’s Howard?” Leo asked.
I’d been mistaken. Leelah didn’t look anything like the actress in the movie.
I glanced over at my brother. We were soaked to the skin.
“You’re back early,” Leelah said.
She called us over and patted her lap. Leo took the chair opposite and I went to stand by the window, still shivering from the rain.
Leo’s words played in my head. I couldn’t look Mrs. Castle in the eye.
“I took your father to the hospital.”
“Right after you left.” She paused. “He’s all settled in.”
“Okay,” Leo said. “Let’s go.”
“He needs rest.”
Leo muttered an obscenity under his breath.
A few seconds passed while a hundred thoughts filled the room. The rain outside slowed to a drizzle, punctuated by distant thunder.
“I need to get things ready,” Leelah said. “Just wait here. I’ll come get you.”
She gave him a look as if the answer were obvious.
“We’ll figure things out.”
“I don’t like this one bit,” Leo said.
“Leo,” Leelah said. “Think of everything that’s gone right in life and how little has actually gone wrong.”
“I don’t get it,” I whispered.
“She means we’re fucked.” Leo said.
“It means,” Leelah said, “it’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
She slid off the bed and walked straight over to me. I tried not to look up at her face, but felt rude. I wondered if Leo wasn’t wrong about her.
“You need to dry off.” She smoothed my wet hair.
“Get your stinking paws off my sister, you damn dirty ape,” Leo said. It made me smile to hear it. I was sure we’d both heard that line from some movie but I couldn’t remember which one.
Before Leelah left, she tried to shake Leo’s hand but he wasn’t having any of it and instead did his T-Rex imitation, which I hadn’t seen him do in a long time.
After he’d locked the door behind her, my brother sat up and stewed. He called four hospitals but couldn’t find the one with Howard in it. We ordered pizza. Leo didn’t say a single word about what had happened and I was too afraid to talk about it.
We watched TV until my eyes closed without even thinking of sleep.
I awoke to a cracking sound. Sunlight streamed in through a window. I glanced over at the door just as it burst open.
Howard stood in the doorway looking like a big wild bear in a blue cotton hospital robe, slippers on his feet, all wild-eyed, red-faced, his hair askew.
He threw his room key on the bed near my feet.
“Close those damn curtains,” he barked at Leo, who was already up.
“That woman is a menace, an absolute Medusa – no wait, she’s more like Scylla and Charybdis!” Howard slammed the door, checking the lock. “She wants to take everything away from me, including the two of you. Well, that’s just not happening on my watch. No kid of mine’s going in the System and no Grigsby’s ever again going to the booby hatch.”
The phone rang.
We all looked at it.
Howard put his finger to his mouth to shush us.
He motioned for Leo – obediently shutting the curtains – to answer the phone.
Leo hesitated. The ringing continued.
Howard clapped his hands to get Leo’s attention. Only then did my brother leap for the phone.
He picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” Leo watched our father’s face.
Howard mouthed words that Leo apparently understood.
“No, he hasn’t. No. That’s right.”
Leo nodded to our father.
“Of course.” Leo said, his voice slow, cautious of missteps, a puppet to Howard’s mouthings and hand-signals. “We’re fine. Yes, yes. We’ll see you then. Yes, of course. No. Yes. I understand.”
He paused, listening.
In the pause, our father sliced his finger across his throat.
Leo shot me a curious look.
“Well, that’s terrible. Oh no. Never said a thing like that before. Awful. Of course, not a word, not a word. We’ll get ready. Okay. Sure. We’ll just wait by the phone, Mrs. Castle. Yes…Yes…Yes.”
Leo hung up.
My father put his hands on his hips.
“What’d the witch say?” Howard asked.
“You broke out,” Leo said.
“Not true, Mr. Smartypants. I checked myself out.”
“She’s coming to get us at noon.”
“Flying in on her broomstick is she?”
“Leelah’s pretty sure you’re going to head over here. She’s calling the hotel desk right now.”
“Gestapo tactics. What else?”
Leo winced a little as he related the next part. “She may be bringing Keystones.”
(Howard called the city cops Keystones and Nottinghams and made a point of removing parking tickets from cars whenever he saw them “because we all pay city taxes and why should anyone here get an extra tax – on top of all the other taxes — for parking? The street’s already owned by all of us.”)
Leo turned to me. “Leelah Castle wants to take us home with her.”
“Kidnapping is what she wants to do,” Howard said. “Next up, blackmail followed by torture for all we know and then we all end up in The System. That woman will stop at nothing. Nothing!”
He spat a string of complex, multisyllabic versions of the colorful words I’d heard my mother say only in her deepest fits of drink. He took a long breath after. “She’s a monster, kids, an awful crazy Lopsider if there ever was one, and believe you me, she’s the kind of woman who throws grenades when you’re not looking and bakes you a goddamn lasagna while sucking the lifeblood through a straw in your throat. No wonder her husband left her. I bet…I bet she killed that little girl of hers! And to think, to think I used to take her birthday cake! I wish she’d choked on every last crumb!”
The room went dead still. I looked at my hands, then over to the wall clock. It was nearly eight.
Only then did I glance back at my father.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah of course, honey, of course, now that we’re together, but what a night, what a night, kids. It’s all 1984 and Brave New World and electrowhatzits and creepy doctors and the worst kind of reactionary Drugoons who love to push all these opiates and crap. Oh how they enjoy making zombies for their experiments – and don’t think it doesn’t happen even here because it can and it does and I just barely got out of there alive. They can lock you up and nothing you can do about it. And that lasagna-baking witch wants to throw away the key.”
His face shone bright with tears by the end of this.
When he cried, it gave me the terrible feeling of a landslide inside. I’d lose something enormous and wonderful that I could never get back if he didn’t stop weeping.
When our father went to shower, Leo turned to me and in as gentle a voice as possible said, “Leelah thinks he’s dangerous.”
“But he’s not. He’s Howard.”
“She is a nurse.”
“But it’s Howard.”
“Well, she thinks he needs to rest a long time. She put him in the one hospital I forgot to call,” my brother added and then spelled B-E-L-L-E-V-U-E as if he were afraid to say it out loud. “She says he’s paranoid.”
He did. I said it ten times silently.
“What’s it mean?”
Leo shrugged. “Afraid of things. Of people talking about you behind your back. Being followed. Something like that.”
“But someone is following him,” I said. “Mrs. Castle.”
“That’s the problem of paranoia, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “She told me something else.”
“She said Howard believes she killed Melanie. Why would she even tell me that?” Leo asked the air, because he certainly didn’t want my opinion. “Who does that? I mean, he never said it to us before, right?”
I created a new scenario in my head as I rewound (in a split second) the events of the famous day in February. Certain stills caught in sprockets: the unlocked door, the lights going out, and in my own sherlockian way (the Basil Rathbone Sherlock, our father’s favorite), my mother slamming so hard down on the linoleum when she fell which seemed impossible to me but not if I imagined Mrs. Castle doing something awful in the dark as she came up behind Melanie.
And then, of course her lasagna, which was meant to win us all over and perhaps was drugged so we’d all become zombies for Mrs. Castle’s purpose. She was a nurse, after all, and nurses were one-call-to-the-pharmacy away from Drugoons.
Reading my mind, Leo said, “Oh come on, Meen. Leelah Castle didn’t kill her.”
But people were capable of anything and murder could happen in all kinds of inexplicable ways; I’d seen enough movies and had read headlines from the papers.
“It could really make you think all the stories are true,” Leo said, closing off the discussion. “About the Grigsby curse.”
This statement surprised me; I’d never doubted that the Grigsby curse existed.
That would be like not believing in the unassailable and immutable laws.
A short time later, Howard emerged from the steamy bathroom wrapped in the mangy Fenwick Arms, Where Luxury Reigns towel that just barely covered his hide. A glaze of humidity coupled with poor lamplight cast a hue of jaundice across his Roman general face.
The word paranoid went through my mind, a stench left by Mrs. Castle, not a trace of bergamot in it.
Howard started in on doctors, nurses and psychiawhatzits, and how nobody understood the opposite of symbiogenesis, so fuck them all and the coelocanths they rode in on with their stupid prison schools where they taught a new army of sheep to stick their necks out for the wolves in power to rip open.
And then there was the damn Grigsby legacy – which weighed heavily on all our minds by that point.
“I thought I’d saved us from it when I got away from Pumpkin Hill. But it’s back. I know it’s something I did. I broke one of the laws. Even if I can’t remember doing it.”
It hurt me to watch the pain in his face.
I imagined that cockroach pointing a feeler at me: Confess! You’re the one who did it. You brought the curse down around him. Liar! Stealer!
“We’re going down,” Howard said.
At first I thought he meant we were sinking like our Great-Uncle’s Proteus’ ship.
“Where?” I asked.
“To the muck,” he said, not in a sad way but as if it might be the portal to a whole new exciting adventure in the lives Grigsby.
“And just where we going to find this muck?” Leo asked.
“In that glorious bunker of yours, you goddamn genius you, bright boy, smartie-pants Da Vinci spawn,” Howard said.
Let’s rewind to a scene I forgot to mention, because at the time I didn’t think it was important; but you’ve got to fill in some areas once you get an idea of the whole movie instead of just the individual scenes.
And the bunker ended up on the cutting room floor.
We learned about it from hanging out in the lobby after midnight.
Leo sat in a chair off to the side while he flipped through back issues of a magazine called Film Quarterly.
The night desk clerk, Sam – a long-haired NYU student, majoring in film studies, six years older than Leo but possibly not smarter, infinitely nicer than the day clerk — kept a stash of magazines next to the potted palm. He had a magazine called – simply – Art, and when I flipped through it, I marveled at pictures of weird paintings and naked people and other arty things.
Leo knew he’d met a kindred spirit in Sam. My brother had been deeply into the idea of making movies ever since he’d started up with his little Super 8 camera (which broke the year after Howard gave it to him for Christmas) at the age of nine and made the now-famous movies Melanie Smokes A Pack and Mina Spits Up and Weirdoes in Our Building, among other classics.
Those nights in the lobby, I’d eavesdrop on their conversations. Leo and Sam would talk about various films, how they’d been made, about French and German directors we’d never heard of, words like “expressionism” and “nouveau vague” and “Alla Nazimova” and “Kurosawa.”
Leo became rapturous when he found out that Sam would – one day soon — sneak him into a college screening of a Russian movie called Potemkin, if Howard gave permission.
Somewhere on these long nights the topic of a hidden place under the hotel came up because it reminded Sam of a movie about a bunker; and then, he had to explain what a bunker was; and then Leo asked why the hotel would even have a bunker.
Most people who worked at the Fenwick hadn’t even known about it before what happened the previous winter when Sam was a freshman and had just landed the night desk job.
In fact, Sam wasn’t sure that anyone but one of the maids and he, himself, knew.
“Even the manager didn’t know about it, but I’m guessing his dad did, because the old man said we should cover it up later, sort of brick it over, but the city wouldn’t let him because it might be needed if anything happened again down there.”
One night the entire laundry room exploded after midnight.
“Like a bomb?” Leo asked.
“Not quite,” Sam said.
He continued with a tale of water pipes and a surge and something wrong with the entire system that management was too cheap to repair when they should’ve and then other problems the city had on that block particularly since all the construction was going on and some of the buildings nearby were practically falling down and there was this snowstorm. It was all getting pretty involved and I tuned most of it out until Leo gave me a strange look and during a break in Sam’s story, said two words to me, “the blackout.”
Sam returned to a legend of this hidden room beneath the deepest basement, full of catwalks and drops down to “God knows where.”
“And there was some dead guy way down. He must’ve lived there for years. He did something to some of the heating ducts and that’s really why the laundries all exploded. Well, that and the freeze – that was one rough winter. But he electrocuted himself.”
I tried not to imagine what electrocution must look like.
“So guess who was part of the clean-up crew?” Sam said, pointing to himself. “It’s like a rat maze, all these tiny rooms and steps and stuff. Goes way down. Take a wrong turn and end up in Timbuktu – or one block over. For all we know he was going in and out of every building on this street. The maids all knew somebody’d been sneaking up and stealing stuff. Sheets went missing – and towels. Toilet paper. That kind of stuff.”
“Didn’t anybody ever go check what was down there?”
Sam shrugged. “The maids thought there was a phantom of the Fenwick or something.” At this point, Sam went off into something about a silent movie with an actor named Lon Chaney whom we’d never heard of. Then, he got back to the underground. “Door’s kind of out of the way, behind all the machines, dark corner, trash cans in front. I sure as hell didn’t want to go down there. I hate the basement. It’s like something out of Metropolis.”
“A movie,” Leo said. “About robots and stuff.”
“You saw it?”
Leo tapped a copy of Film Quarterly. “Read about it.”
“Someday you’ll see it,” Sam said.
“Just like someday we’ll see this place way down in the dark that nobody noticed before,” Leo said.
“How could they miss it?” I said, completely caught up in the idea of a hidden door.
“Who knows? You work in a place and you don’t notice half of it,” Sam said. “Anybody who saw it probably thought it was just some lousy corner of the basement. And where this dead guy lived, it wasn’t right up by the door. He’d been smart enough to hide, I guess – and there’s a lot of places to hide down there — if anyone ever looked in. Wasn’t locked, but now it is.”
“Nobody knew he lived there at all?” I asked.
“Anybody know who he was?”
Sam nodded. “Marcus Drucker. Took awhile to find out. He just stepped off the edge of the world one day in 1931. Apparently, he was a fugitive. Robbed somebody of a lot of money.”
We marveled at the year, and the more than forty years that had passed since that day till the night we three sat in the lobby after midnight and thought about this old guy getting shocked to death.
At the end of all this, Sam agreed that if we hung out til three in the morning when nobody else ever came through the lobby, he’d take us to the laundry and maybe even open the legendary door so we could see in.
I napped on the lobby chair. Sam got a thin blanket and tossed it over me as I closed my eyes but it was warm enough in the lobby that I pushed it away.
“Wake me up when you go,” I said.
Leo and Sam kept chatting as I sank into oblivion. Then, someone shook me awake.
“We going?” I asked after I’d wrenched my eyes open.
“Back to our room,” Leo said.
It was nearly dawn. I’d spent the night in the lobby, and Sam was just getting off shift.
“I wanted to see it.”
“I tried to wake you up but you just kept going back to sleep.”
“But you saw it.” I felt as if he’d committed a crime.
Later, Leo told our father about it.
“Ah, the notorious Marcus Drucker,” Howard said.
“You knew him?”
“Read about him. When I was about your age. He bilked people out of a hell of a lot of money back then.”
“Bilked?” I asked.
“Well, stole, basically. He was what you’d call an old-world aeronaut combined with a new-world con man, I guess. He’d been kind of a hero of the first World War. I was into this stuff because he was all about the personal flying machine. He had a plan for some special contraption, apparently, sold all these muckety-mucks and hoi-pollois on it. Can’t remember much else about it, but I bet if you went to the library you could find stuff in old newspapers. Unless this is another Marcus Drucker, of course.” He paused, scratched behind his ear. “Imagine it. All those years down under the city. Stolen money, fugitive from justice, living unseen, unknown, afraid of ever being spotted, that kind of crazy genius thief. He was made for the sky, but he lived beneath the streets. Must’ve been ancient when he kissed the live wire.”
“He kissed it?” I whispered to Leo who gave me a dismissive look.
“He was in his eighties,” Leo said. “Sam showed me some clippings. He stole a million dollars.”
I took in this amount; I believed you owned the world if you had a million dollars.
“Why would anyone want to live down there all that time?”
“Who knows?” Howard said. “Maybe he came up for air now and then. Maybe he was one of those crazy hermit geniuses. Maybe he despised everything up here.”
“He was just crazy,” Leo said.
“Well, sounds like a superb bomb shelter, this place of yours,” Howard said. “Perfect for when some idiot in some other basement who doesn’t know ass from elbow sets off a homemade H-Bomb. It’ll happen someday, believe you me. And then we’ll just go down to Marcus Drucker’s little hidey-hole, safe as roaches.”
“Sam called it a bunker,” I said.
And then fast-forward to the moment with Howard wearing the Fenwick towel around his ample waist as he said the word “bunker.”
He added, “Well, thank god for Marcus Drucker, and no one in the world ever thought they’d say that.”
Using a hotel pen, Howard scratched up a list on the back of our eviction notice. He waved it in the air.
“Leo, while I get dressed, you run down to the place on the corner,” our father said, dropping the paper on the bed closest to the bathroom. “Get everything on that list. And pick up a little breakfast from the Greek place. Make my coffee blonde and sweet. Make sure you and your sister have something substantial like an egg sandwich, sausage — you know — and maybe get some apples or bananas, too. Oh – and get some mineral water. Fresh water may be hard to come by for a day or two.”
“I need some cash,” Leo said as he scanned the list.
“How much witch money’s leftover?”
“Maybe twelve bucks.”
“Hang on.” Howard returned to the bathroom and we heard him rooting around in the cabinet.
“I guess he’s got a stash,” Leo whispered.
As I said this, Howard tossed a clip of bills on the bed, giving us a fixed look as if he wanted to make sure we were on board. He shut the bathroom door behind him. He starting singing one of his old bathroom songs.
“Not bad,” Leo muttered when he picked up the money clip and counted.
After Leo left, I dressed and waited near the bathroom listening to my father massacre a song.
Howard came out of the bathroom all clean, dressed and whistling as if we were going out for a museum day.
“Here’s the deal, sweet pea,” he said as he went to start packing. “Everything can be reversed. Even curses.”
“They can?” I wondered – in my mind only – if we could reverse the famous February day when my mother died, a coelacanth on the deck of a ship.
I went in search of the little mementos of my mother, hidden in places in the room so that no one else could find them.
Once we’d packed everything and I cleaned up — and after Leo returned with breakfast and necessary supplies — we three loaded up and went out into the hall and took the service elevator down to the basement.
I assumed this would be just a day trip, a way to brush off Mrs. Castle and possibly the Orwellian Keystones who wanted to take our father away from us and maybe kidnap us somewhere we didn’t want to go.
When we reached the door at the farthest corner of the laundry room, careful to duck and hide behind something if we thought a maid might see us, I was surprised at the door itself once the trash cans had been rolled back.
I’d expected a door from some magical book or movie, the kind that sparkled in some way or whose knob spoke to you or in turning it, perhaps you’d be transported to another realm.
Part of me hoped it was a time machine of some kind and maybe we’d go back to February 15th of the previous winter and if we did that, I wouldn’t play hide-and-go-seek at all. I’d sit and do the Da Vinci Flying Machine jigsaw puzzle while Melanie smoked voluminous fogbanks on the couch.
But it was just a regular old door – small, narrow, the kind you’d think would be full of brooms and cleaning supplies.
Leo grabbed the key – on a little hook on the wall – and unlocked it.
We trooped in, dragging out belongings.
I had a few seconds in the dark. My father grabbed my hand.
Leo closed and then locked the door behind us.
We no longer heard the grumble and whoosh of the laundry.
A cavernous silence enveloped us.
Then, following flashlight beams, Leo guided us down a dozen rusty steps.
“This is as far as I went with Sam,” Leo said, his voice echoing slightly. “I don’t know what’s up ahead.”
“Don’t worry,” Howard said, pushing his light through the murk. “Think of Columbus, think of Marco Polo, think of your namesake Leonardo. We’re discovering a New World.”
“Or the Old World of Marcus Drucker,” Leo said.
We stepped cautiously across what seemed a cat-walk above a slow-dripping tunnel beneath the city. Every ounce of my body wanted to turn and run back up to the hotel, to those clean sheets and pillows, to throw myself on the mercy of the manager, to beg for someone to take us in, to let Mrs. Castle do what she wanted, to believe that the world above would find a place for us and maybe all this would be a brief if unhappy dream.
Leo clutched my hand. I took another step, then another, and another.
“It’s just down here,” he said.
“I’m scared,” I whispered.
“We won’t be here forever,” Howard said. “Just think of this as a place where we’ll build our personal flying machines and then we’ll glide away in Drucker-like fashion.”
But I felt as if we were on the verge of jumping off the planet toward some dark universe unlit by stars.
We followed the path cut by flashlights.
Through wide, jagged cracks in walls, we glimpsed distant campfires and heard the stormy rumble of trains.
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Check back soon. I may put up a new work-in-progress. This is my way of sharing my office with you a bit. I hope you enjoy what you read, and I’ll post here and elsewhere about publication dates as the novels and novellas are finished.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
(We begin in the last bit of Chapter 3.)
A loud crash followed as if something slammed down. The floor shook. I imagined a cyclone of snow wrenching our apartment loose, dragging us into the street as giant hairy elephant monsters with curling tusks chased after us while dark wriggly things shimmied up drainpipes during the blackout.
My heart raced. I began breathing rapidly, unable to catch the air at all. I suddenly became convinced that I no longer was the real me. I had become the wrong Mina. And someone sat nearby in the dark who wanted to take my place.
A feather-soft something crawled across my hand. Flinching, I almost let out a yelp.
The lights came up.
I flung open the doors and crawled out, catching my breath, brandishing my weapon against anything that might come at me.
My mother lay on the floor, staring at me.
There was blood, too, so that all her golden hair turned muddy red.
She looked at me. Her lips moved. I remembered seeing the coelacanth in the museum. I wondered if its mouth opened and closed like this when they first pulled it out of the sea.
The film of memory kept cutting between the fish, my mother, the fish, the blood, the lights, my mother’s hand, a cigarette, the fish.
The music from our neighbor’s apartment started playing again, only it sounded warped as it came up and then we were back on the islands somewhere, leaving Kingston Town.
Kitchen lights overhead flashed on and off as if someone played with the switch.
The wall blotch, Mr. Darkness pulsated, expanded, bubbled.
I dropped the bread knife and it narrowly missed slicing off my toes.
Within seconds – or hours or days or months or years — I heard our front door open and Leo shouted something about one hell of a quickie blackout and Lazarus whozits and woolly mammoths and abdominal snowmen and our father was laughing just before he stopped laughing forever.
The film sped into fast-forward:
Howard and Leo in the kitchen, the way they looked when I saw them as they saw me near Melanie’s body, two bags burst across the linoleum, white cartons of spilled white rice and brown noodles everywhere, terrible sounds, phone calls, shouts and mutterings.
Mrs. Castle showed up to check on Melanie, her pulse, her eyes, her heart.
I slipped behind curtains in the living room to look out into the white darkness and see if some weirdo watched us; then I went to guard the front door beyond which neighbors stood along the stairs.
Paramedics ran up and down, in and out.
Melanie’s turquoise toenails stuck out from the bottom of a blanket.
I felt caught in a net.
Howard took off with the ambulance.
Leo shut himself in his room.
Mrs. Castle sat in the kitchen with a cup of tea and said she’d stay until our father returned.
She watched me.
I grew concerned she’d say something harsh or question me about exactly what happened and ask where certain items might have disappeared to.
I felt I’d broken an expensive vase or ruined a pair of shoes or lost something valuable that no one could ever find again.
I anticipated a terrible punishment.
I wondered if the real Mina would feel this way.
At first I went to my tiny room and counted my beautiful broken things and rearranged them as if doing this might rearrange the film of life and edit out the bad parts and maybe create a different outcome.
I put the Dutch boy next to the glass swan perfume stopper, and then separated the headless triplets so that two stood guard along with the dog and cat at the far edges of the shelf.
I made up a prayer to a non-existent deity that I decided to call the god of Beautiful Broken Things and promised that if we could rewind a little bit to just before the hide-and-go-seek game, I’d just sit with my mother on the blue sofa and watch her create fogbanks of smoke.
After my prayer, standing in solemn vigil by Leo’s room, I tapped a Morse code of nonsense on his door.
I pressed my face against wood, thinking Leo was just on the other side, also with his face pressed against the door. You hate me? I wanted to ask the door, but couldn’t. My mouth felt as if it were sewn shut.
A dreadful silence followed, the kind where you hear the muffled tapping of a clock, the slow tick-tock of the crocodile of time coming to gobble you up.
Then a strange thing happened and I wouldn’t normally tell anyone this because they might put me away:
A small brown cockroach ran along the wall until it arrived just about level with my face. It paused. Its antennae twisted around as it picked up my wavelength.
Was it looking at me?
I could swear it was. A voice that sounded exactly like my teacher Miss Nolan said:
You know exactly what you did, young lady.
The damn cockroach got inside my head and was fucking with me.
You can pretend you’re all innocent, but you’re not, you’re the one who made this happen and now you’ll pay, Mina Grigsby, you’ll pay. And what’s that in your pockets, thief? What are you hiding?
Was this the high priest of the god of Beautiful Broken Things?
I slapped the bug and missed. It skittered away, up the wall. I chased it into the kitchen, hoping to kill the damn thing before it ran to safety.
It zipped along until it ran right into the Mr. Darkness blotch, as if this weren’t an old greasy burn mark shaped like a sideways dark heart but an entryway into another world.
Clearly I’d begun losing my marbles. I felt little electric shocks in my chest. I couldn’t breathe fast enough. I would die if I stayed inside the apartment one more minute.
I turned around to half-smile at Leelah at the kitchen table with her endless cup of tea.
“Can I get you something?” she asked.
“Hall. Out there. Got to go. Wait for Howard. Just outside the door,” I said, barely able to get the words out. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
I felt my throat closing up and my breath vanishing as I moved as stealthily and normally as I could toward the door out of that alien landscape that had once been home.
Once free of the apartment, I caught my breath.
Mrs. Cat-Lady stared at me from her doorway while I paced back and forth in the hall counting my steps along the flat green carpet with cigarette burns in it.
Our strange neighbor was old but my mother said she always pretended she was still a girl. You live too long in this dump, I could practically hear Melanie’s voice, you end up like that. Blue hair, crabby face, a little looney, collecting cats. None of the cats spilled into the hall although the legend was that she kept nearly ten of them in an apartment half the size of ours.
“You okay, hon?” the neighbor asked.
Despite her disarray of scruffy bathrobe and enormous feet couched in shabby slippers, she’d done her blue hair up like she was getting ready for a night on the town.
I stopped pacing.
She stepped toward me, crouched down, eye-to-eye.
“Your Mommy okay?”
I shook my head, hands in pockets.
Tears pressed against my eyelids, unwilling to come out.
“The woolly mammoths killed her,” I whispered, the big secret. “They stampeded. In the blackout.”
She winced as if it hurt to hear it.
“It really was the woolly mammoths. Or else…” I could barely say the name. “Maybe…maybe it was Mr. Darkness.”
Mrs. Cat-Lady reached over and felt my forehead. Her hand burned even though I was all ice on the inside.
Leelah Castle materialized. I hadn’t heard our door open and hadn’t even sensed her presence until there she was, right next to me. But she wasn’t like a ghost suddenly appearing from gathering mist or anything; she was more a crack of lightning. She made me jump a little when I saw her.
“I thought I’d lost you,” she said.
Mrs. Cat-Lady stood up using my shoulder as leverage and seemed about to say something but didn’t.
Leelah passed me a green mug.
“Drink it,” Leelah said.
I weighed the option between it being poison or just plain old milk. My father once gave us a lecture about household poisons and how it was easy to mix bottles up and things around so that “you end up keeling over because you drank the turpentine instead of the apple juice.”
But would Leelah poison me right now? Wouldn’t it look suspicious? Mrs. Cat-Lady was right there. She’d tell the police later that Leelah Castle – who had already lost a husband and a child – was on a rampage and wasn’t satisfied with one death in a day but had taken the poor innocent little girl nextdoor, too.
No, if Leelah was a poisoner, she wouldn’t do it now, I thought.
Warming my hands against the mug, I looked into its milky depths and then up to her face. I thought of Alice and her bottle marked Drink Me.
I took a sip and waited to shrink small enough to disappear through the cracks.
It tasted sweet and bitter at the same time and brought up a scent of something familiar. I remained my usual height.
“What’s in it?”
“A little honey and vanilla,” she said. “Some cinnamon.”
“It almost smells like bergamot,” I said as I took another sip.
“There’s zero bergamot in it, I promise.” Leelah removed her black-framed glasses and rubbed her eyes, which were small and dark. Her black hair, pulled back tight, made her face seem a perfect oval like an old-fashioned mirror.
“Everything good?” she asked, looking between Mrs. Cat-Lady and me.
Mrs. Cat-Lady’s shoulders rose and fell slightly.
“Why don’t we wait inside,” Leelah said, a gentle drop in her voice.
“I’m sorry about your Mommy,” Mrs. Cat-Lady said just as I was about to turn away.
“We never called her that,” I said. “You know I was named after her?”
That’s when I noticed the shadows of neighbors along the stairway below and heard whispers from the two weirdoes. I recognized their voices — one was the woman who had the famous sister that got killed a long time ago, and the other one being the short man we nicknamed the Russian Spy who had shockingly blue eyes and spoke in foreign mumbles.
I felt a spotlight shine down on me for the first time in my life.
“My real name’s Melanie,” I told my audience, both seen and unseen. “But Leo couldn’t say it right when he was four. He called me Mina.”
“You look just like your mother, too,” Leelah said, trying to charm me back into the apartment.
“I do?” I asked.
This seemed impossible. Melanie was a star with golden hair.
I was just a brown-haired guardian of the cracks in the sidewalk, one of my mother’s katzenjammers, Meen, a loser of mittens, a collector of beautiful broken things.
Melanie used to tell me that I couldn’t have been hers because I didn’t have any pizzazz.
She’d say this with an ice-stuffed glass of Scotch in hand, often among a gathering of old friends from “back when things were fun,” a cigarette bobbing up and down at the edge of her mouth as she groaned about all the dreams she used to have and now look where she was, selling diamonds to big shots for their child-brides, with a husband who hated teaching but taught pimply kids how to make bombs with beakers, living in a cozy, slightly-cramped, perfectly-nice six-floor walk-up.
Only she’d leave the cozy and perfectly-nice parts out.
What I’ve patched together about Melanie’s life before she married Howard:
Melanie Walthorp was born, an only child, in a river town somewhere else. Her parents died in a train crash when she was a teenager. The third worst crash in history, she said, it was just awful.
Where were you? I once asked.
I was in school that day. Or else maybe with friends. I can’t remember now. I blocked it all out I guess.
After that, she was pretty much left to her own devices. She stayed in other peoples’ horrible homes that she said were worse than anything we could imagine and we should all thank our lucky stars that we had what we had because not every kid does and many end up in The System.
At some point, she got to Manhattan and worked the lobby at the Paramount Theater as a cigarette and candy girl. After the showing of a movie called A Place in the Sun, she met an agent she called Dodo-Head who bought all her cigarettes and most of her candy and told her he’d take her out West and make her into a movie star like Elizabeth Taylor.
Eventually, she returned to New York and later on met Howard. There were plenty of gaps in her tales of early life, but she edited all of it down to what could be told between the first sip of a drink and its second refill.
“And that’s when all this happened,” she’d say, fumes pouring from her nostrils and glasses clinking while Leo and I eavesdropped from the kitchen. “Living a life you think you’ll never get stuck in.”
No one can break your heart like your mother can, my father once told me.
I wished I could be like Melanie. A movie star, someone who lit up the world with her presence and got drunk in a way that released beautiful damage onto the unsuspecting.
But I wasn’t like her at all.
Her real little girl wouldn’t hide under the sink.
Or steal things.
When I first emerged from the cabinet, after watching my mother die and before Howard and Leo showed up laughing, I saw the dropped items:
A few matchbooks, the kind that people like my mother got in bars with names like Castaways or The Hideout or The Spot. These lay beside a cigarette, and next to it, four packs of Gitanes with the blue woman on the box covers.
And the ring, but that was way over in a corner.
My mother’s ring must’ve slipped off her finger in the fall and then the spun, rolled, running away from her.
Melanie had never gotten her wedding ring to fit right.
When I picked it up, I read the inscription out loud, remembering when Melanie first showed it to me:
Amor Vincit Omnia.
“It means ‘Love is shit’,” my mother told me at least a year earlier. Then one night Melanie threw the ring across the living room and cried and I tried to cheer her up and she said, “Everybody deserves to be loved, don’t they?”
Don’t they, don’t they, don’t they, I remembered her voice as I slipped the ring from one finger to another.
Did I deserve to be loved?
Howard said later that my mother didn’t die just because the lights went out for a minute or two. It was an aneurysm that killed her – “probably before she fell” — and then explained how that could happen.
We spent a few days moving things around the kitchen trying to find the wedding ring.
“You sure you saw it?” Howard asked.
“Over there,” I pointed.
My father on hands and knees reached beneath cabinets.
“It couldn’t just disappear.”
Leo told me that the paramedics probably stole it, or someone at the hospital, or maybe it just fell off in the snow when they took her to the Emergency Room.
We stopped short of blaming Leelah Castle.
We kept Melanie’s ashes in her old wooden jewelry box, which was ridiculously large and generally empty.
“Is that all of her?” I asked when I peered under the lid.
“Can’t be,” Leo said. “Probably just the important bits. Like her heart, maybe.”
I imagined Melanie’s heart, not in a pile of ashes, but beating beneath her breast which fell in a lump out of her slip and hung on for dear life while she leaned over the bathtub shaving her legs before we went to school, a cigarette in her mouth. She tapped out the razor on the edge of the tub. Her hair fell down to the side when she looked over at me with her not-quite-awake eyes and said, “Meen, make me a cup of instant, will you? ‘Member how?”
Of course I remembered how. I’d been making her instant coffee for at least three years, boiling water, pouring it carefully in a mug, stirring in dark crystals, then a little milk and sugar and taking a first bitter taste to make sure it was how she liked it.
I wished I could make a cup of instant and have her back again.
I wanted to see her everywhere again. In a chair. In bed. Complaining about her boss. Pointing out weirdoes and circus people in the zoo of life.
Even using the soul-sprite words of swear and curse that were practically her mother tongue.
Long quiet days followed. Mrs. Cat-Lady’s music played through the wall on the slowest nights. I began to decipher hidden meanings in the songs.
Strangers arrived, then vanished. Relatives remained mythological.
I spent hours going in and out of mind movies. I projected them on the walls so that even when someone talked to me, I was too busy watching my memories of books I’d read and movies I’d seen, all accompanied by the soundtrack from our neighbor’s place.
I felt mostly hollowed out.
Leo avoided me but managed to put together all one thousand pieces of the Da Vinci Flying Machine. Using glue and toothpicks, he replicated the flying machine in three dimensions. He created a series of models that became more complex and seemed part dinosaur – some taking an entire week to complete — until he’d exhausted the toothpick supply. Using rubber bands and other doohickeys, one of these models flew around in the air for a solid ten seconds before crashing. Then, he began making an even larger one using the wooden dowels from closets and a broken old broom from the storage room at the bottom of the long stairway, hammering them all together until it resembled pterodactyl wings.
He’d built a flying machine that could never fly, but he could wrap his arms up in it, close his eyes, and pretend. Howard told us over and over again that we just had to believe and good things would happen.
“What’s the difference between pretend and believe?” I asked.
“That’s the same difference between outside and inside, or day and night, or over and under,” my father replied, confusing me further.
I could tell Leo wanted to believe he could fly.
I wanted to believe it, too.
Sometime later, Leo tore up all these creations and filled an entire trashcan with the toothpicks and put his broomstick wings outside on the sidewalk on trash day.
Mrs. Castle came upstairs and made dinner four nights a week.
She told us all about the strange goings-on in her emergency room. These tales all involved bizarre incidents which began with someone saying, “So I was just standing there minding my own business,” (when suddenly someone stabbed or shot someone or stuck something up somewhere or tripped over something) to the point that you’d think all bizarre and terrible accidents, crimes and tragedies must happen when you’re just standing there minding your own business.
She also baked us a deep-dish lasagna that lasted all four nights. It would’ve lasted a fifth if Leo hadn’t tossed it out.
She kept prodding Howard to recount stories about the famous Grigsbys of Pumpkin Hill and how his great-uncle Icarus beat the Wright Brothers to the punch except for the fact that nobody but the other Grigsbys had known about his flight on a blisteringly cold Christmas Eve which blew him across into Maine and smashed him down into a lake, killing himself and an ice skater at the same time; or of his great-great-grandfather Hephaestus who’d converted gas lamps to what he called lightning-bolt lanterns but was – in the end – electrocuted by his own invention and then “that damn scoundrel Tom Edison got his electric lights up all over the place as if he’d created the universe.”
I enjoyed these stories, the oral history of our accursed clan passed down through generations, the tale of the Grigsby who was the son of one of those girls in Salem who accused people of witchcraft and later accidentally hanged himself, then the one after that who became a whaling captain and was thrown overboard by a mutinous crew, and then the one who ran the cider mill that ended up nearly poisoning half the state, the one who drowned in his self-made outhouse invented to solve the problem of waste disposal, the ones who took voyages on various ships with names like Titanic and Lusitania, the ones who invested all their money in Grigsby’s Perfect Buggy Whips right as the first Model Ts rolled off the line or the cousins who bet everything on the stock market in the early fall of 1929, and even our unmet grandfather Prometheus, who gambled so much he lost his house, his car, his wife and then one day, Howard said, he bet his mind — and lost that, too.
“He lives chained up in a big asylum of his own creation and all your stygian uncles and aunts — turkey buzzards all – daily eat his liver, which renews itself the next morning. He forgets how horrible they are, all the awful things he’s done, and he thinks it’s all my fault because I got the hell out while I still had the chance. Ah, what a merry life that must be. Ain’t ya glad you never met ‘em?”
All the stories of the Grigsby curse hit the men of the family hardest, the geniuses, the bright boys of Pumpkin Hill, of which my father had been in-line-for until he left and never looked back. He didn’t want to be anything other than a famous novelist but knew that any aim for success or fame or fortune would bring the curse back because that’s what ambition led to, ultimately, the breaking of unassailable and immutable universal laws. The curse would’ve descended even unto Leo if our father had pursued his inner calling, so he went for a job he hated and “cut my fate off where it counts.”
“But you wrote a book once,” Leo reminded our father.
“’Once’ is the saddest little word in the English language,” Howard said.
The Dangerford Cyclopia was about a family of one-eyed siblings named Dangerford who lived on an isolated island and were, like the Grigsbys, cursed. Our father never wanted us to see it, so of course, we’d scoured the apartment and searched high, low, in buckets and beneath piles of laundry until we finally discovered its sacred burial ground.
Turned out, our father kept the manuscript under his bed in a big brown filing box marked Tax Papers 1959-1964 but pretended (for our benefit) he’d torn that book up in a fit of rage a long time ago.
Leo memorized the first few sentences and would recite them to my glee long after we were supposed to be in bed:
On Christmas day in 1938 on Butternut Island, Maine, six Dangerford children were born all at once. A miraculous litter, each of these siblings had only one eye at the center of her or his forehead.
Phoebus, the youngest Dangerford by thirty seconds, was the only among them born absolutely eyeless, except on the inside, where he saw everything with absolute clarity.
Phoebus — Leo and I were sure — was an eyeless reflection of our father, the youngest among our three untoward uncles and two unimaginable aunts.
“Sure I wrote that book,” Howard said, while we interrogated him about it over our plates of leftover lasagna. “I spent seven years of my life on it. But no one shall ever see it. It’s smithereens now.”
“But what if it was a good book?” I asked.
“It was. Brilliant. Maybe the best novel ever written with a few exceptions, of course, like that one by Dostoywhoski and maybe the one by F. Scott Fitzwhatzits,” Howard said between bites. “But that’s the problem. If I took it to a publisher and they wanted it, it might destroy us all. I mean, America loves that kind of book about dashed dreams and tragic outcomes. The French, of course, would eat it up because it’s full of wine, cigarettes and convenient existentialism. But why risk the curse? When you aim too high and your name is Grigsby, that’s when the olympian shit-storm comes down. Ordinary life saved me. And you,” here he looked solely at Leo, “you’re raised away from all that so you’ll be safe when you reach for the stars.”
“What’s so funny?” Leo asked Mrs. Castle, whose smirk faded when we looked in her direction.
“It’s nothing. Just me being silly.”
“We like silly,” I said.
Mrs. Castle looked down at her plate and – with her fork — organized asparagus spears into single file.
“You find all this Grigsby stuff laughable,” my father said in a way that didn’t sound humorous at all.
“No. I don’t. I really don’t.”
Leelah looked as if she wished she could be anywhere in the world but at our table.
“I just think there’s no such thing as a curse. You make your luck. Everything else is just what happens. That’s all. For instance…”
She hesitated. Howard nodded to her and made a characteristic wave of his fork, which meant, Continue, keep going, no going back now that you’ve stuck your foot in it.
“Well, with this novel you wrote. What if you’re wrong? What if you showed it to someone and they felt it was going to open peoples’ eyes to something important, or it was some big literary event of the year, or even it would give you a career you might want. And then what if no curse happens because there is no curse, it’s just accidents in life, which happens to everyone at some point. Like I said, we make our own luck. But it must be made.”
We stared at her as if all her teeth had just fallen out. She was the opposite of everything Grigsby and she’d just laid out her outlandish ideas as if they were some unnassailable and immutable laws.
“If we make our own luck,” Howard broke the silence, “then name one person who’s any good at it. And if they are, what’d they do to make it? The world’s full of misfortune. Think of children born in poverty. Did they make that luck? And are you really suggesting that those people with great good luck all made it themselves?”
It was obvious from Leelah’s face that this wasn’t what she meant at all, but there was no interrupting my father once he got going.
“We live in a compromised world, and all this so-called success just masks crime. And wealth! Don’t even get me started,” Howard said.
He named famous bankers born from four generations of criminal behavior who destroyed the economy at one time or another, and then the more notorious lopsiders who’d messed everything up after World War II and then a politician and a celebrity and a whomsoever…followed by every tyrannical and monstrous dictator the world has known, including Mussolini, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Caligula, Nero, and even my teacher, Miss Nolan.
At that point, I wasn’t sure if Howard hadn’t gone off some deep end. Leo glanced over at me, red sauce and drippy cheese on his chin, what the hell?
Howard ended with, “And my wife, did she make her own luck? Was that her intention when her brain popped like a helium balloon at 50,000 feet?”
I almost cried when I saw the look on Leelah’s face. It was as if she’d been slapped – and slapped hard. I hoped she had a shatterproof heart.
I guessed at what she was thinking:
Her utter lack of luck, happiness; of everything we had and didn’t even know we had; the loss of daughter; husband; or even (as Leo suggested to me later) the remembrance of all those people with torn arms and legs and bullets in their stomachs and flashlights pushed into peculiar and improper sockets and skulls bashed in who came through her Emergency Room doors after just minding their own business.
Whatever it was, Leelah’s face turned bright candy-apple red. She excused herself from the table.
I watched her go and for a second thought I’d run after her so she wouldn’t feel so very lonely to the nth degree.
“Well, one thing’s for damn sure,” Leo said.
I turned to him.
“No more lasagna,” he said.
I spent days watching the empty space on the blue couch where Melanie used to smoke and read magazines. At night, with the lights out, I’d tiptoe into the kitchen and go find the place where Mr. Darkness seeped into the wall and I’d touch it, thinking I’d open it up into another world where I could go and ride woolly mammoths and trade places with the real Mina and not be in the apartment thinking of my mother’s mouth opening and closing.
One night, so late that my father’s snores shook the rooms and there was almost-light outside the windows, I flicked up the kitchen lamp, sat down at the table with a piece of my mother’s stationery and one of the pens kept in the junk drawer.
I wrote a letter to Mr. Darkness. When I finished, I rolled it up like a scroll and tied twine around it to hold it in place. I put it in the undersink cabinet, behind various cans of cleaners and poisons, among the outermost spider webs.
I said things in that letter I would never say aloud; things that I wanted to bury and forget and never believe were true again.
Howard began stumbling around, coughing, drinking martinis before dark.
In bed, he’d open Melanie’s round bottle of perfume and dab some on his fingers. Leo and I watched as he wiped his hands all over the sheets and blankets and crawl into bed clutching pillows and inhale bergamot and iris and violet — and groan.
The entire room smelled of Melanie. I cried whenever I went into that bedroom in the late morning to shake him out of his coma.
Howard came down with a fever. He coughed so much some nights I couldn’t sleep from the noise. He sweated even when it was cold. He stayed home sick more days than not. Summer came and went for us and I didn’t even notice.
The perfume ran out.
I cupped the bottle in my hands and smelled the last of Melanie. Her word “katzenjammers” bubbled up, and film clips of the way she walked or how excited she got when she took me shopping or after a movie when we’d go to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate or stand up at Gray’s Papaya and have hot dogs and soda and she’d tell me about Hollywood and the old days and all the dreams she used to have and the blue skies ahead.
I carried the empty bottle with me everywhere until Leo took it – by force, prying it from my fingers – and threw it down the trash chute on the fourth floor.
I leaned over the edge of the chute and heard the perfume bottle smash into a million pieces far, far below where nothing could ever be put back together again.
Time flattened. Weeks, months, hours, all of it mashed together. School became a forgotten dream; perhaps our school or even Howard’s school called once or twice, but the phone stopped working so it didn’t matter. I began writing in spiral notebook diaries, making up a fascinating life I didn’t have so that one day when I looked back on all this, I wouldn’t recall my terrible wish that I could reverse time and make death go away.
Our father inevitably lost his job; he’d just never gone back to it.
“But this is not the curse, I promise you. I’ll find something else,” he said, in between rattling coughs and wheezes. “We’ll get through this. We’ve still got a little cash. Don’t you kids worry. Money always arrives in the nick of time. You’ll see.”
Mrs. Castle returned just long enough to yell at Howard over things he hadn’t done and dozens of things he should be doing.
Gale Force Leelah, Leo joked later.
On her way out, she passed me in the hall.
“I’m just wasting my breath,” Leelah Castle muttered. “You can’t save anyone in this world who doesn’t want saving.”
We got in a cab soon after the Leelah detonation.
Howard’s fever subsided enough for him to feel a little peppy. We grabbed stuff, clutched multiple suitcases, made sure that the little things we cared about came with us, the rest could be left, our father said, “to the turkey buzzards.”
Our father told the cabbie, “The Fenwick Arms and step on it.”
We always liked to say, “and step on it,” whenever we got in cabs, just like they did in old movies.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of Mr. Darkness, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
School let out before noon as snow crowded the sidewalks. Snarling traffic clogged the wide avenue outside. Inside, behind a wall of glass, my brother and I watched other kids leave.
Monstrous buses poured black soot onto piles of slush just beyond the school steps. People became blurry, bizarre creatures rushing past.
“Everybody looks like abdominal snowmen,” I said.
“Meen, it’s uh-bom-in-a-bull.”
“Uh-bomb-in-a-whatzits,” I said.
“Where the fuck’s Melanie?” Leo asked — sick of me, sick of waiting, sick of the zoo of life beyond the window.
You’ve probably guessed by now that Leo and I were allowed to use bad language whenever we felt like it.
Howard held the conviction that language itself was a living thing, a vibrant sprite of the soul. Only lopsided thinkers added terrible meaning and bad intent to its near-perfect pitch. Their reaction – he said — was a sign of inner conflict and had fuck-all to do with the actual spoken words.
“It’s just language and it needs to mean what it means and if it’s the right word, it’s the right word. If you can’t say words out loud you might as well shut your yap and hold it all in like a fart at High Mass until you explode in your pew.”
He believed that if we used the more socially-frowned-on words freely at home – usually first discovered in movies we weren’t old enough to watch or when Melanie stubbed a toe or our parents drank too much or blew up over some infraction of house rules – that they’d lose their power over us and we’d be less inclined to say them in front of some lopsider who might misinterpret our exuberance.
None of this proved true. Our elementary school labeled Leo a bad influence for his fairly constant and exuberant wordplay. Yet he was beloved there, too.
And as we waited for our mother to show up during the birth of a snowstorm, my teacher Miss Nolan came up behind Leo in that precise second he’d used the f word.
But of course he got away with it.
My teacher despised girls, loved boys as if she might possibly want to date one of them. I was positive she’d make a move soon on a French boy named Didier of the violet eyes, who looked (Miss Nolan said) exactly like a movie star named Alain Delon. The whole world apparently looked like various movie stars but I had no idea who Alain Delon was other than, perhaps, violet eyes and very French.
Miss Nolan hated me. She never called on me in class except for purposes of humiliation, mercilessly critiquing my cursive writing – particularly the rocker curves, which I reinvented as rococo vines circling endlessly across paper. On my compositions, she’d write things like: Watch your run-off sentences and dangling whatzits, indefinite modiflyers, steam of consciousness and all this rumbling-on where the predicate comes before the subject, which is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I might be misremembering her notes but you get the gist.
On the famous blizzardy day, I felt her hand on my shoulder– more grip than squeeze.
“I wonder why she’s so late,” Miss Nolan said, not a question at all.
“Maybe she’s busy,” Leo said. “She works, you know.”
“Everyone works,” Miss Nolan said. “I work, too.”
Leo shrugged. “For all we know, she’s lying dead in the street, hit by a bus that skidded on the ice and won’t you feel terrible when we get the news.”
“Oh, you,” Miss Nolan said in that affectionate way that she never said to any little girl in her entire life.
If I’d made this crack I’d already be at the principal’s office, a note to my parents practically pinned to my collar and no recess for a week.
Ignoring such inequity, I glanced from one passerby to another through the blurry window, hoping my mother’s face would appear.
Miss Nolan checked her watch and mentioned the precise time down to the second and how long ago she’d called our mother and why was it that she was always on time for everyone else but no one was ever on time for her.
“It beggars belief,” she said.
“Whatever that means,” I whispered.
My brother nudged me, squinting, grimacing, and curling his hands into claws – shorthand for Tyrannosaurus Rex.
A second later he was just Leo again.
“Finally,” Miss Nolan said after a long moment as if we’d been waiting – indignantly — for hours and hours for a rescue party to come find us in a frozen tundra.
Melanie emerged from the crush of snow and hurry. A tangerine scarf snaked from her golden hair and wound around her throat. Her high-collared white coat fell across shoulders and drifted down just past knees toward shiny red boots.
I’d never been so happy to see my mother in my life.
My teacher opened the door ahead of us.
When I looked back, Miss Nolan glared as if every ounce of irritation right down to her brittle bone marrow stemmed from the fact that I’d ever been born.
Melanie swept Leo’s chin with blue-gloved fingers as if school had smudged him in some way. Grabbing both our hands, she drew us down the steps.
“Took you long enough,” Leo grumbled.
“If you want, I’ll take you back to your girlfriend Mrs. Nolan.”
“Miss Nolan,” Leo corrected.
“That does not surprise me.”
I tucked up against my mother’s coat while we walked. Her perfume had iris, violet and something from a strange fruit called bergamot in it. Berg-a-mo, yet another word I mentally said over and over after my mother first told me about it. How often had I snuck into my parents’ room, tiptoed to the dresser, opened the round glass bottle to steal a drop of shimmering amber perfume? It conjured her when she wasn’t around.
Leo called it Mom-in-a-Bottle. She left traces of it on everything, letters she wrote, grocery bags, the telephone, the top of my head.
At a stoplight, my mother wiped flecks of snow from my cheeks as her scent infused me.
We trudged, cautious of slips and slides. Melanie started talking about the julery shop.
Leo corrected her: “Jew-el-ry.”
She ignored him.
Our mother was late picking us up – she said — because a young man in a tailored suit walked in just as they were locking up and he took his damn time but bought a necklace that cost more than you could make in a year at the julery counter.
Again, Leo corrected her, or tried to.
“That’s who you marry, Meen. A guy who buys you that kind of julery. A real prince.”
(“It’s jew-el-ry, you pronounce the syllables, oh why do I even bother,” Leo said, thrice ignored as my mother and I kept chattering.)
“Was he a handsome prince?” I asked.
“The handsomest,” Melanie said. “And a flirt. Told me I was too young to be out of school. Really? I said back. You must be what, seventeen, eighteen? he tells me. So I go, ‘I’m nearly thirty, even though people always think I look much younger’.”
Both Leo and I knew she was older than thirty.
Near a subway stop close to our building, we saw Ukelele Man. He stopped playing his namesake instrument long enough to stick his hand out for change.
“Poor old guy.” Leo reached into his pocket.
“You are not going to waste your milk money on that guy. He’s practically king of the city,” Melanie said, pulling us along.
“That’s one hell of a gross exaggeration,” Leo said.
“Is it? He might be Howard fucking Hughes for all we know.”
I caught one more glimpse of Ukelele Man before he disappeared down subway steps.
The king, I thought.
Within a block, Melanie came to a full stop surrounded by swirling snowflakes. She turned toward us. The gray light of winter’s shadow lit her from behind. Snowflakes melted into diamond tears on her face.
My mother seemed movie screen big. She may have cussed like a demented sailor and possessed fathomless flaws and moods that swung from one end of creation to the other — she may have been cruel sometimes when I wanted her to be sweet — but when she turned on it was as if a spectacular new film had begun.
She held out gloved fingers, wriggling them for me to grab hold.
“Come on, katzenjammers,” she said. “Nothin’ but blue skies now.”
We stood just a few feet from the steps of our building.
The woman on the first floor looked out her window at us.
This woman on the first floor was nearly a mystery to me. What I knew of her was hearsay and, according to my brother, would not hold up in a court of law. Her name was Leelah Castle and she was younger than our mother but not by too much. I used to tell Leo that someday he’d have to marry her because their first names sounded like they belonged together.
Mrs. Castle wore black-framed glasses and her nose was more memorable than any other part of her.
She was a nurse in Emergency Rooms. “Everything about that woman’s an emergency,” Melanie said once or twice.
Mrs. Castle used to have a daughter, but the little girl died and then her husband moved somewhere else. He was a no-goodnik, my father said, and that poor woman has been through the wars.
Howard would occasionally fetch groceries for Leelah Castle. He told me to be kind to her because she had things inside her that probably hurt all the time. My father would leave a piece of cake for her whenever I had a birthday because he said it was a nice thing to do but not to tell my mother about.
“Mrs. Castle’s very, very –very to the nth degree — lonely,” he said.)
As Melanie unlocked the door to our building, she glanced over at Mrs. Castle’s window.
“God, I wish that woman would just move away,” Melanie said.
Upstairs (we lived in between two other apartments just under the roof) Melanie pushed open our door.
She cussed a bit because it was already unlocked.
“Maybe somebody broke in,” Leo said.
“Or,” Melanie said, “somebody forgot to lock it for the third time this week. Check all the corners and closets for weirdos, kids.”
After hunting for weirdoes, I tried the TV set just in case it happened to have repaired itself overnight. It had just stopped working two weeks before. My mother dropped a puzzle box on the carpet next to where I stood.
“Just pretend it’s a TV show,” she said.
The ancient box cover showed a huge skeletal glider with wings almost like a pterodactyl. The words Leonardo Da Vinci Flying Machine 1000 Pieces were just above the wingtips.
“You like jigsaw puzzles,” she said.
“Leo likes them the most.”
“But you like them, too.”
“Now’s a good sometimes.” Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “So, where’d you put ‘em, ya little squirrel?”
After I told her (against my better judgment), Melanie went to get her cigarettes in one of several hiding places around the apartment.
“I know there’s half a carton somewhere in this damn place, Meen,” she said, trailing smoke upon her return. “Hope it shows up soon or somebody may not be going to the movies Saturday.”
“The surgeon general said…” I began.
“I bet that old hypocrite has a three-pack-a-day habit.”
Melanie sank down into the blue sofa, slid an ashtray beside her like it was her best friend, stubbed out the finished cigarette and sifted through a small stack of magazines before settling on one. She shot me a glance — what you staring at?
Then, she lit a new cigarette and began a performance that never failed to fascinate me.
My mother was what you’d call a Smoking Artist. She knew how to light a cigarette with barely a flick of a match and then she’d draw the smoke in. She’d hold all that cloud of smoke – you could count to four and wonder where she held it in that surprisingly petite body – and then release.
A roiling plume poured from her nostrils, assuming shapes of dancing bears and flying geese and lords a-leaping as it spun out in the air. She told me that girls in French movies smoked that way and mentioned her idol Jeanne Moreau who was “everything a woman should be – beauty, mystery, and three steps ahead of everybody else.”
Melanie even developed a way of holding smoke on the cliff of her lower lip like a mountain fogbank while time itself stopped. Just as the fog congealed — and you began to imagine frozen, crashing waves within it — she’d suck the white sea into her mouth and, eventually, the count of three or four, out from her nostrils.
“Drives the boys wild,” she told me.
Leo stood in front of the big window, his face nearly pressed to the glass.
“You see something?” I asked.
“The end of the world,” he said in that radio voice he could do when he wanted to give me goosebumps.
I padded over to stand beside him and look out the window, too.
Lightning flashed across the dimming sky, cutting through a mist of snow. The apartment shivered just enough for me to wonder if it might topple.
I scanned the blurry street. Crazy wind raced around the corners of our building making the pane rattle. Snow whooshed and whirled.
“Looks like the same old world to me,” I said.
“The lights,” he said. “They’re flickering. That means they’ll go out. All of them. Like when you were born.”
We both knew the remarkable tales of our emergence into the world. Every year on our birthdays, Melanie or Howard or both of them in chorus would recount how it had transpired.
Our mother could never just give birth. It had to involve an element of wrong place, wrong time and a whiff of the cinematic.
Leo was born in the middle of a Coney Island sideshow after Melanie got a terrible shock when Dr. Atomic the Human H Bomb touched her hand, causing her to go into labor right there.
And I’d been born in a blackout.
I could practically recite my own birth events from memory.
It was November 9th. A Tuesday. My father got off work early to meet her at the Coronet Theater on 59th Street. It was a film Melanie was dying to see but she and Howard could never agree (in telling me later) which one it was.
(“It was The Collector,” she’d say.
“No it wasn’t. It was that Jerry Lewis movie. About the stewardesses.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Jerry Lewis movie. It was The Collector.”
“I’d never get off work early to go see a movie with Terence Stamp in it.”)
But right in the middle of the goddamn movie, as my mother would say, someone comes a-knockin’.
Howard tried to get a cab but he couldn’t find an empty.
Or else (as Melanie told it) he was too cheap.
They took the subway.
The train stopped before it could get to the next platform. They got stuck and things went black as pitch. It was crazy, Howard said. All the trains stopped dead. The whole Northeast got hit. Something about Niagara Falls made it happen but I never understood that part. Melanie woke up in the hospital later. They put me in her arms.
The official story included a midwife who happened to be in the subway car, emergency lights, people helping, flashlights, and Howard nearly passing out.
But that’s not the version Leo told as we watched streetlights flicker in the storm. The lights on the train didn’t come up very soon, Leo said.
How would you know? You had a babysitter, I shot back. You were in diapers. You probably can’t even remember anything.
“I know because I know. And someone else rode that train, too,” he said. “You know who.”
“It was Mister,” was all he had to say and I knew the rest of the name.
It’s what we all called the blotchy grease-burn mark on the wall in the kitchen.
Everyone blamed things going wrong on Mr. Darkness.
Howard told us that Mr. Darkness was written into the lease and if we tried to get rid of him, a black hole would open somewhere else in the universe and thousands of stars would be sucked into it.
But the truth was that when I was four, Melanie threw a hot, greasy pan at my father and it missed him but hit the wall and Mr. Darkness was born.
If you stared at the blotch sideways long enough it would begin to look like a dark Valentine’s Day heart, almost, with scratches all over it.
“The real Mr. Darkness rides a woolly mammoth,” Leo turned toward me wearing his serious face, his voice getting louder. “He took my real baby sister when you were born. Put you in her place. Maybe he’s coming back for what’s his.”
Sometimes you just want to slap the genius out of your brother.
“You’re just trying to scare me.”
He raised an eyebrow — am I? — and shook his head. “Howard told me more. On one of those nights. His drunkathons.”
Our father’s famous drunkathons happened exactly twice a year: Christmas and the night just after the last day of the school year.
Leo leaned in. “The hour you were born, every single light went out everywhere. And all anyone heard was…”
Leo paused. Deep breath in, then out.
“The terrible yowl of a newborn child,” he finished as if this were the creepiest story ever told.
“Don’t upset your sister,” Melanie called out from the couch.
“You’re a big fat liar,” I snarled at my brother.
“You think I’d risk the Grigsby curse with a stupid lie?” he whispered so Melanie couldn’t hear. “There’s a little girl who’s supposed to be you in some cold, smelly cave way, way down where terrible Lazarus Taxons feed, while you’re here all safe and warm. Imagine how angry she must be that you stole her life. Imagine how we must feel. I mean, I don’t even know my real sister. I just get you, a shoddy imitation. Who knows what you’re capable of? And she’s there in the down down down of it all.”
A film clip played in my head:
Something dark and slimy, lit by fireflies, twisting and turning like an eel, moving toward a baby wrapped in newspapers at a cave’s entrance.
Melanie headed for the bathroom, warning me — as we passed each other — not to get in a fight with Leo while she painted her paws.
“Me?” I said. “What about him? Geniuses get away with murder.”
I returned to the living room to face the boring jigsaw puzzle.
Now and then I’d glance up at the TV set that no longer worked as if my mind could make it suddenly turn on. The lights flickered once or twice, making me worry about blackouts.
Eventually, Leo plopped beside me “to help.”
“You’re too mean to help anyone.”
“I like helping the shoddy imitation of my sister,” he said with too much glee.
He pointed out what I was doing wrong with the puzzle, how this was part of that and that didn’t add up to this and this didn’t look right and you can’t just squeeze pieces together any way you want to.
I tolerated him.
Howard arrived, throwing the door open so hard it bounced against the wall. He stamped off snow in the hall.
“Honey?” Howard called out.
Melanie leaned into the hall.
“About time,” she said.
Howard jogged over to the open bathroom door and drew our mother into his arms, heading in for a kiss. She averted her face so his lips landed on her scalp.
“You know school,” he said.
“I guess yours was last to let out.”
“Plus the train took forever. Packed like smoked oysters.” Then, fatally, Howard added, “Wait. You upset?”
Leo did his Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“Maybe a little annoyed.”
“The front door.”
“Our front door?”
“You left it unlocked this morning.”
“With all the crazies out there on this block.”
“I know I locked it.”
Melanie made a noise.
“Hey,” Howard said. “You just snorted at me.”
“Maybe the lock broke,” Howard said.
Howard returned to the front door. Rattling the knob, he turned the lock so its clicks could be heard across the room.
“Bravo. Excellent performance.”
“I’ll fix it.”
“Fix the TV while you’re at it. And the toaster.”
And so it went until Melanie headed back inside the bathroom to finish her toes. The poisonous smell of nail polish made me feel a little light-headed.
Howard offered up his famous goof face for Leo and me as he approached.
When he saw the puzzle all sprawled out, our father said, “Hey, haven’t seen that one in years. You know, when I was about your age, my Aunt Andromeda gave me that and…”
“Can we get take-out?” Leo interrupted.
After debating possibilities – chinese, pizza, burgers — Howard gave me a light squeeze on the neck. “You just put your feet up and we’ll be back in two shakes.”
“Watch out for woolly mammoths,” I said as I followed them into the hallway.
Once I’d shut the door behind them – checking the lock twice — I headed to the bathroom where my mother finished her toenail masterpiece.
“Is what Leo says true?”
“Depends. What’d he say?”
“When I was born somebody took the real me and put me in her place.”
“The real you?”
“The one Leo says lives in a cave.”
Her left eye twitched as if she’d gotten dust in it.
“I think I’m going to have a little talk with your brother when he gets back.”
Following her into the living room, I continued with my line of questioning. With all those cotton clouds stuffed between her toes, she walked like a duck.
“Meen, close the curtains,” Melanie said in lieu of telling me to shut up. “The weirdo’s probably watching us right now.”
According to my mother, the outside world teemed with weirdoes, particularly right across the street. One of them – she claimed – had a telescope aimed at our big window. Weirdoes lived down on the fifth floor, too. Perverts, weirdoes, crazies, oddballs – you had to navigate their lairs whenever you walked out the front door.
Returning to the couch, Melanie put her bare feet on the coffee table. She wiggled her cottony toes and lit another cigarette.
As I drew the curtains together, I shot one last glance at the building right across. From what I could see, the weirdoes all had shut their curtains, too.
“Can we play a game?” I turned around.
She gave me a look: We have to?
The game would be hide-and-go-seek, I decided. Melanie began counting down slowly from twenty, in between cigarette puffs.
“Trust me,” she said. “I won’t.”
By the time she hit the number fourteen, I’d already scanned the kitchen for its potential.
Muffled music played through the wall that separated our place from the neighbor’s.
I peered into the pantry for space among piles of cans and boxes. The sink with its drip-drip caught my attention. Below this lay a particular cabinet I’d always understood to be off-limits. Leo used to threaten that he’d push me in and lock it shut.
Would I even fit? I’d begun to grow a little gangly. Still small for my age, maybe I could’ve fit in there a year before, but now? Would I even dare try?
With seconds to make a decision, I drew back the cabinet doors.
Stacked with cleaners and mysterious poisons, the under-sink cave held in smells that could make you pass out or even die.
Not wanting to go in there without some protection from the kind of things I knew lived in dark little places hidden away in apartments, I went to the counter and grabbed the bread knife.
Thus armed against the whatzits, and holding my breath, I took the plunge. Inside I went, scrambling for space in the cabinet, which was its own universe of too many things. Pushing aside a clatter of cans and jars, I sidled up to a cold metal pipe and wiped away imaginary cobwebs. I felt like Alice in that drawing where she’s grown too big inside a cottage and her arms are sticking out the windows and chimney pots.
I finally exhaled and drew the doors closed. I imagined myself at 92 crouched among the cleaning potions, time having swept past me, too well-hidden from the world.
A light seeped in from the door gap, interrupting dark. Through this – my spyhole — I saw a slice of kitchen. I expected my mother’s feet to come into view at any second.
Spiders, mice and other possible vermin roamed my imagination.
And roaches, the weirdoes of the insect world.
I knew for a fact roaches scampered all over the dark damp places under the sink during winter months. Howard said they were the smartest insects and could survive a nuclear blast, had really high I.Q.s (like Leo, which didn’t surprise me), were terrible at keeping secrets, and once created a popular dance called the Jitterbug.
(I saw them sometimes when I flicked the kitchen light up at night but they never seemed like they’d been dancing.)
I clutched the knife, careful of its crocodile teeth, and waited.
I imagined myself standing out on the brown linoleum. I nearly saw the other Mina, who decided not to play hide-and-seek as she retrieved a cracker from the box by the unfixable toaster.
My imagined-self evaporated.
Where was Melanie?
I pictured her looking in closets, under beds and around curtains.
After a thousand years, my mother’s soft footsteps began their gentle series of thumps so rhythmic you could clap along with them.
The music from the neighbor’s stopped and then started up again. (Our neighbor that we barely knew – Mrs. Cat-Lady — was from the islands. I imagined these islands had yellow birds flying around and banana boats floating endlessly and someone named Marianne sifting sand, mainly because these things were in the songs we heard through the wall.)
Peering out from the gap as Marianne sifted sand somewhere, I watched Melanie set a footstool inches from my face.
Her feet came into view as she stepped up onto it, the turquoise of perfect toenails glistening, the cotton clouds beginning to disperse from between her toes.
It occurred to me that she hadn’t been playing hide-and-go-seek at all. She’d been hunting for the packs of cigarettes I’d stashed away hoping they’d never be found.
Then, the lights went out. The wall music stopped.
The dark pressed against me.
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Introduction to Today’s Chapters
Youth is a cliff. You leap, and repair the broken bones later.
When you’re older, you draw the map, retrace your steps and find the cliff’s edge, only to wonder:
Would anyone ever jump if they knew how far down it went?
I jumped, once.
I’m broken in unseen places.
My name is Mina and I lived in your world a long time ago, back before symbiogenesis, a word my father taught me.
Once it happens, my father wrote, it never lets you go.
You may have heard of us, the Grigsbys. There’s some unfortunate fame attached to our family crest.
Howard – my father – was meant (by fate and inclination) to write fiction but ended up being a teacher. He made up words (at times) so I was never sure which were precisely real and which were not, or even if he used them the right way.
He regularly spewed mouth-stuffing words like symbiogenesis and I had to figure them out for myself or quiz him endlessly about meanings. He even manufactured new words, stitching together one called “dungeous,” which had something to do with dungeons and dung and unguents, and another called “febrilliance,” describing the quality of mad genius that arrives as a fever in the middle of winter – preferably February — and never lets you go.
He began suffering from a debilitating and dungeous febrilliance when the muck came calling.
About my father:
“The Right Honorable and Unrepentant Howard Grigsby” — as his obituary read, which he’d typed out on near-transparent onionskin paper using the smudged and sacred Underwood Champion typewriter rescued from his boyhood in Pumpkin Hill, New Hampshire, a million miles from our place in lower Manhattan – “of the once-prominent but accursed New England family, taught chemistry at an uptown prep school for the over-pampered and under-prepared children of privilege though he’d once dreamed of becoming either a famous novelist until he met Melanie Walthorp of the Susquehanna Walthorps or was it the Hokendauqua Walthorps? Regardless, this Howard person foisted the ignoble and nigh-disturbing name of Grigsby upon her. They raised two remarkable children who no doubt have already changed the world for the better and invented personal flying-machines that will send them soaring beyond the clouds.”
Howard made obituaries for each of us by the time I’d entered third grade. We were not allowed to look at any of ours, only his and our mother’s.
When Leo asked him why he typed all of these up, Howard said, “Death is assured, Leo. Once you accept that fact and look it in the face, everything else is a cakewalk. Most Lopsiders are surprised by death, but no Grigsby in his right mind in New York City is going to be. Prepare for the possibilities, you brilliant son and,” glancing at me, “wise daughter. Prepare for the possibilities.”
Our father truly believed that an unheralded disaster might happen whenever you set foot out of bed.
He kept a bundle of the obits in a suitcase in the upper reaches of the hall closet; carbon copies were stashed in his desk at the school where he taught “just to have on hand in case a bomb goes off in the basement and we’re all blown to smithereens.”
Howard was sure a bomb would explode someday. This unnerved me as a child because it actually happened when I was little, not far from our building when radicals blew up a townhouse over in Greenwich Village.
After that, Howard talked openly in public about bombs and The Bomb, the bomb-makers-of-the-world, the Hippie Conspiracy, the Orwellian Keystones, the insidious and commonplace Sherwoods and dangerous Nottinghams, the Raging Radicalites, the Reactionary Lopsiders and the White Collar Drugoons – all of whom were going to blow us to kingdom come one day, believe you me.
He spoke of explosives frequently enough – to waiters, to clerks in bookshops, in line at the movie theater — that my brother Leo became convinced our father’s name must command its own bulging file cabinet at the FBI.
When Howard mentioned the symbiowhatzits word, not a single ounce of the old bravado and bluster remained in his voice.
“To get through life you need a shatterproof heart,” he said. “Mine’s made of clay. I’m devolving, sweet pea, day by day, back to the muck – and oh, what a muckety-muck it is.”
“What about the word?”
“Symbiogenesis happens,” he said, “when two become one. But it can degenerate, too. It’s the deal you make with life. Back to the slime with you, says life. But you know what? It ain’t so bad. It’s what you’re born from.”
He said the word again. Sounds like a made-up word, I said. Look it up, he said, and then grumbled about being too worn out to keep his eyes open.
Symbiogenesis. When two become one.
But there’s more to it than that. Let’s rewind.
The past is a darkened theater; you wait for the movie to come up.
There’s this one scene from when I was small, innocent, ignorant, unimportant, unaware:
Three of the four Grigsbys went down subway stairs after a museum day.
My older brother Leo raced ahead, two steps at a time, no fear, the splendid boy who resembled our mother in face (peaches, cream, eyes of delight) and hair color (blondish on the edge of angelic), a blur of gray sweater, the bluest of jeans and bright unmuddied sneakers.
My father hung back with me. I approached each descending step as a unique challenge and held, white-knuckled, to the railing. My terror of falling derived (Howard told me) from a tumble I took at the age of three.
I felt the world itself would slip out from beneath my toes.
And it might: the lace of my left shoe hung, undone, ready to trip me up.
In the zoo of life (Howard often said) Leo was a bird – a sparrow, perhaps — and I, a mouse. Your brother leaps and soars and you skitter back to your corner.
But before my brother’s head exploded from the compliment, Howard would turn to him and say, “But sparrows can be annoying, too, so don’t go overboard on all this leaping.”
In that same zoo, my father seemed the impossible love-child of meerkat and eagle, with a Roman general’s face atop a long neck. His eyes earthy brown, his nose a disruptive promontory. Somewhat comical ears showed themselves under thick hair that had grayed prematurely from a once-deep black. On his chin, there was always some scruff, because he often forgot to shave in the morning.
You’ve never seen such a wonderful face in all your days.
Howard grabbed my free hand and squeezed while others brushed past us. I was thrilled with his touch – something about the museum and its cavernous halls and bones and mysteries had overwhelmed me. I could imagine falling down every step that lay ahead, leading down to the trains.
But my father’s hand clutching at mine.
His fingers, warm as toast.
I tried to imagine not falling and the hideous coat I’d had to wear that day because of a bullying and icy autumn wind — and why couldn’t we just take a cab home?
I didn’t know that this would be one of the last moments of my innocence.
Awareness of innocence is loss of innocence, our father wrote down in his famous unpublished novel.
You live in Eden only so long as you don’t know that Eden exists.
We didn’t live in Eden back then.
We occupied a cozy, slightly-cramped, perfectly-nice six-floor walk-up with bad heating and no air conditioning at the tail end of a dicey part of lower Manhattan at a time in history when much of lower Manhattan was pretty damn dicey.
But none of this mattered because we – the Grisgbys – were a spectacularly special family, having escaped a curse.
Our branch of the Grigsby clan sideswiped fate when my father moved to New York City. He cut all ties to his stuffy, stodgy and unwholesome New England relations, all of whom were named for mythological characters. Hypocrites! Fisher cats! Ruthless and rude guests who flip tables on you! Using sweet words and petting you until their leash becomes a noose and they throw you on your back and tear out your insides, all of them rascals and charlatans, moneygrubbers and prevaricators!
But we escaped it all — and why? We rise above, we have the personal flying machine of hope and love and those three unassailable, immutable laws that are the glue of the social contract. Why, Hammurabi, Moses and even Ben Franklin never put it so simply!
These were among the famous Sunday sermons – which had nothing to do with church or Sunday. They happened mostly when either my brother or I were about to break an unassailable and immutable law of the universe.
Our father fell into the Biblical cadences of his lecturey voice to make sure We. Un-der-stood. Ev-er-y. Sin-gle. God-damn. Word.
“Lie, cheat, steal – my family did it all for generations. You may as well piss on yourself as do that. But we’re breaking the tradition. You can cuss a blue streak, you can tell me something abominable right to my face, you can reach in my wallet and take cash right in front of me, you can bring home straight Fs and I won’t bat an eye, but if you so much as tell a fib for reasons of killing the truth, take something that’s not yours without permission, or use crib notes in class or write answers on your hand or copy someone else’s answers because you want to ace a test — you have just fucked us all for another generation and possibly double-damned any future generations, too.”
Later, I’ll tell you more about the whole issue of using foul language in our family; it was a tradition. But now, back to Howard:
“It’s a blight on the crop of existence, and you’ll feel it and it’ll spread like – like – like,” and here he searched his brain bank for a word that we’d need to look up in the dictionary later, “like pellagra and we’ll have you to thank when everything falls apart. Better to flunk out. Better to starve. Better to feel the sting of a whip on your back. Better to hide in humiliation in a hole in the ground. There’s more honor in it.”
And then he’d add – every single time — “A little luck doesn’t hurt, either.”
We were luck personified, what with our cozy, slightly cramped, perfectly-nice home and our stunningly, achingly beautiful mother and the sunlit brilliance that was Leo (named for Da Vinci of course) whose recent I.Q. test had come back with a score of 1,000 or more (I guessed), and the multifaceted misfit me and all the movies we watched, museums we hit, record shops we ransacked, bookstores we overran — and the way we had more freedom than most children our age.
Life, our father taught us, was to be spent.
“Some families hoard days and keep them under lock and key,” Howard said. “But not us. We, the New and Improved Grigsbys, get out, we don’t let anything tear us down, not rain, not snow, not stupid people.”
Saturday was meant to be filled up with adventure until it overflowed. Let’s rush here, there, grab a hot dog, a pretzel, laugh at jokes, stare at people, make up tales of wonder, travel the museums of the city for as far as our legs could carry us, talk about millions of years ago as if it were more important than that very morning.
This particular Saturday, during a post-Natural History Museum high, we chattered about extinction, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and things that vanished but could they be, my father asked us, still here? Unseen? Somewhere no one had yet looked?
Waiting for our homebound train, Leo practiced his newly-famous Tyrannosaurus Rex imitation. I battered my father with questions about the coelacanth I’d seen.
“Meen, it’s not Koala-canth,” Leo said, stepping away from his T-Rex. “It’s See-luh-canth.”
“Your brother’s right.”
See-luh-canth, See-luh-canth, I said in my mind ten times over as I remembered the exhibit with the strange fish with its odd tail that was rounded and creepy, and that sea-monster face with nasty teeth.
“There are probably coelacanths everywhere,” Leo said, as if he genuinely knew this for a fact. “In the river. In the sewers. Coming up through the toilet to bite you.” He slapped his hands together and wriggled them like a fish in water.
Howard shushed him and told us to look around. “Your brother’s only half-right. Dinosaurs of the future might indeed walk among us.”
“Like a Bronchitis-saurus?”
(“Brachiosaurus,” Leo corrected me.)
“Maybe. Or just things that never evolved. Or possibly a Lazarus Taxon.”
“More a whatzits,” Howard said. “A weird creature we thought was just a long-extinct fossil but then it shows up later. Alive. We find out it’s been here all along, maybe hidden or just unnoticed. We’ve been arrogant to believe it was ever gone. Like your coelacanth.”
“Like Mina,” Leo said, doing his T-Rex again.
“But everything already got discovered,” I said, ignoring the boy-genius beside me.
“Not on your life,” Howard said. “We don’t know the half of it. There may be earths beneath this earth and skies beyond the farthest skies and people within people. Imagine that. Even in a place like this, Lazarus species could be lurking in disguise.”
Leo made his usual obnoxious comments about my collection (“She wants to find one of those Lazaruses and put it on her shelf with all the other fucked-up whatzits,” which was genuinely not far from the truth at that particular moment) and my father regaled us with the brief story I’d heard a million times about one of our mythological cousins and “dinosaur pawprints” in New Hampshire granite because (according to the gospel of Howard) “New Hampshire was once the beating heart of prehistory.”
I let their chatter harmonize with the hums and thrums from people around us waiting for the subway, across whose faces I panned and tilted my eye-camera in case I might spy a lobe-finned fish somewhere among them reading the New York Times and wearing a crisp white shirt and fat lemon tie.
That’s when I first noticed the boy with the stain on his face.
There were certain people you avoid looking at for too long when you wait for the train. This boy was one of them.
He stood in front of a movie poster that showed a handsome man grasping a beautiful woman in a lip-lock.
He wore a faded sweatshirt with pulled-up hood, under which brown pine-needle hair thrust out.
The unblemished part of his face was pale. The purply discoloration began just above his left eye and flowed — an amazon river — from eyelid down. I imagined it ran all the way beneath the sweatshirt.
I wondered what the fossil of him might look like.
Beside the boy, an old lady sat mumbling in a wheelchair.
My father called her Miss Havisham in honor of a “a lady who caught fire between the pages of a book.”
We’d noticed her several times before, always in the same place.
“Glad to see she’s out and about,” Howard said when I pointed her out.
Miss Havisham wore faded ribbons entwined in her limp, gray hair. If you got too close, you could hear her mumbling and if you drew even closer, she’d talk about someone coming to meet her and she had to look her best for the dance. When you looked in her eyes, it made you want to cry.
“Why doesn’t she ever go home?” I whispered.
“This may be her home.”
“People live here?” I said, slow to understand. “What about her family?”
“Some people don’t have families,” Howard said. “Or anyone who cares. And – in this elevator world of Lopsiders — if you ain’t goin’ up, you’re goin’ down.”
“Poor Miss Havisham,” I whispered. In a second, I’d created her entire life as an elevator dropped twenty stories, which left her somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred years old, with unmendable legs at the subway station.
“You’re not really sad for her,” Leo said, reading my thoughts. “You’re sad because now you got to think about her. You never in your entire life ever thought about anybody but Mina Grigsby.”
“Leo, enough,” Howard said. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a couple of dollars, told me to hold out my hand.
My fingers closed around the crisp bills.
“She can probably use it,” he said covering my hand in his, making me feel toasty again. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Yeah, she only bites if your coat’s ugly,” Leo said.
Why did I have to be the one?
I stepped over to the wheelchair without looking at Miss Havisham’s face. I pronounced coelacanth in my head. My hand trembled as I held out the money.
“Here,” I said.
Havisham chattered to herself, picking over the ragged blanket on her lap. I caught the words “dance,” “he’ll show up,” and “my escort,” but the rest was a jumble.
The stained boy stepped between us, looking at my curled-up fingers as if he were hungry.
“It’s for her,” I said, ready to swat him if he so much as touched me.
The boy drew his hand along the dark side of his face. The purple color turned greenish as his fingers pressed down against the skin. Something changed in his face then, something seemed lizardy about him, or maybe even coelacanth.
My father called out my name.
“Mee-nah,” the boy repeated, as if it were a foreign word. “Don’t be afraid.”
In that moment, his skin became translucent. Something glowed beneath; a firefly lantern came up and then died again.
In my head, the word: Lazarus taxon, even though I couldn’t say it out loud.
I felt as if the world around me was nothing but shadows and everyone else was a thousand miles away.
The boy darted toward me, a jack-in-the-box. I took a deep breath. The stain, his pine-needle hair, his hood, his gray eyes — all of it — hovered in front of me as if I were in the first row of a movie theater and everything on screen had grown gigantic.
I saw a creature beneath the skin of his face, something terrible and dark and twisting within a soft light. An odd curiosity made me want to reach out to touch him where the light came up.
Less than an inch apart, nearly eye-to-eye, his lips parting slightly, my vision blurred.
The word kiss came to mind.
“Afraid,” he whispered.
The light of the world began blinking. It was like watching one of those old silent movies, where people don’t speak even when they move their lips and they live in black-and-white and they flicker strangely whenever someone moves as if there’s a blank spot of pure and blinding light between each frame of film.
Time resumed, the film ran, color and sound exploded, and the boy drew back as swiftly as he’d moved into close-up.
Leo shouted a warning “Hey!” the way he did whenever someone got too near me. His voice brought me to the surface: the boy, the poster, the old woman in the wheelchair, the subway station.
The sound of an incoming train; the rush of wind as it approached.
I tossed the money on the old lady’s lap. Skittered to my father’s side. Grabbing his hand, I tugged him toward the platform’s edge and didn’t look back even after we sat down inside the train.
“You see it?” I asked my brother.
In my mind, I ran through a dozen words to describe what I thought I’d experienced.
“The Lazarus whozits.”
“Taxon,” the genius said. “Lazarus Taxon.”
“The one with the scar thingy? What, was he a coelocanth? You see his tail? Because they all have tails, those little monsters.”
“He tried to kiss me,” I whispered so quietly I was afraid Leo wouldn’t hear me.
“You’re funny,” Leo said as if I were not funny at all. “Well, Mr. Lazarus Taxon probably recognized you as one of his long-lost Taxon cousins. After all…” He didn’t need to mention the rest of the mean and false story he liked to tell about me.
“I am not a Taxon,” I protested. But I suddenly imagined myself with round fish-eyes, a green-gray coelacanth with a lobe-finned tail and the ability to crawl from water to land.
My brother (barely noticing my furled eyebrows and intense glare) turned away and began debating (loudly and obnoxiously) with Howard about who would win in a battle between a Tyrannosaur, a pack of Troodons and a Raptor.
It was the first time I wondered whether my head was screwed on right. I grew nauseated while I sat there, feeling every lurch of the train as it rounded curves, imagining Mr. Lazarus Taxon, the way he looked at me and said my name, the stain on one half of his face.
What had glowed under his skin? Had he meant to kiss me? Why would he do it? Who was he? What did he want?
Everything seemed less solid.
The scene would’ve ended there, if I hadn’t looked around at other people on the mostly-empty train.
I noticed a girl sitting far down at the end of our car, all by herself.
I was almost afraid I’d see another face beneath her skin, too. I was seized with a brief but intense sense of panic. I no longer felt as if I were inside my own body.
I nudged Leo and tilted my head in the girl’s direction.
When the girl noticed us staring she turned to face the window, covering the side of her face so we could see nothing but her wavy brown hair and the back of her hand.
She got off at the next stop.
“That girl looked just like me,” I whispered to Leo as the train sped us homeward.
“She did?” he said as if he hadn’t noticed anything unusual. “What if she’s you and you’re not who you think you are? I mean, you’re very convincing playing the part of Mina, but are you really my sister? What evidence do we have of this?”
I floated outside myself. I didn’t even think I walked right anymore; I loped; I paused; uncomfortable in my skin; I looked down at my untied shoe and did nothing about it; my ignition didn’t quite start fast enough.
I suppose I was at that age where you always over-imagine and then wonder for the rest of your life what was real and what was not.
You imagined it, I concluded in that particular moment.
I became certain of this the more the minutes ticked by and the ordinary world of what’s for supper and can we get Channel 4 if we twist the antennae around and who forgot to turn off the hall light all materialized once the comforting walls of home surrounded me again.
The sense that something else lurked under the boy’s face began to seem silly, yet I couldn’t shake my memory of it.
Childhood contains its own insanity. Your mind spins through film clips of the stranger who is you:
Drawings you made in school of half-bird, half-machine animals. Two scary movies last month when the TV worked. The crazy thoughts you had when the lightning storm woke you. Dinosaur exhibits and skeletons and dioramas at the museum and obscure and difficult words for them and your stupid thoughts when you heard about coelacanths. A man in Central Park who terrified you because he sold hand-puppets with loopy eyes. The grease blotch on the kitchen wall that you and Leo made more real by naming it. The strange words in bubbly letters scrawled on the subway tunnel walls when your train whizzes past. You begin to believe you travel through the house late at night when your body stays behind in bed.
The flash of memory cuts between all these strange moments while you just sit there and listen to your mother or walk over to the counter to pour yourself a cup of milk and you know you’re just a kid and you know that you’re wrong and everyone else is probably right, but you have a moment when you think: what if they’re not?
What if I saw a firefly lantern under the boy’s skin? What if he is a Lazarus Whozits?
The stained face with its strange glow fused with a brief memory of standing on the grass in a city park watching another child hold up a glass jar full of fireflies on some summer night.
The flashing of fireflies like stars inside the jar, and then the boy’s face again, the diffuse light beneath his skin.
It was as if my mind tried to make sense of it all while switching channels.
I went to check my collection of beautiful broken things, all of which stood safely in a row on the small shelf over my white-with-gold-trim dressing table upon which I mainly kept my seashells and very little involved with dressing.
I picked up each little ceramic nothing, turning the Dutch boy left and right to check to make sure the chip where half his head had come off still was in the correct place; rearranging the little dog and cat and pig, each with paws or hooves or ears missing; the glass swan bottle topper that was cracked in a way that was perfect as the entrance to another world of Great Glassland; and then the other three, which were some headless figurines I’d found together as they’d escaped their executions by leaping into the trashcans near the Polish diner where Howard liked to take us for his Sunday afternoon excursions of potato pancakes and sausage.
All of them seemed in their usual spirits and nothing from my off-kilter almost-kissed world had tampered with them.
At the kitchen table between forkfuls of mysterious casserole, I asked Howard about Lazarus Whozits again and he explained the term as best he could while my mind ran the film of the boy in the subway and the girl on the train. Each time I rewound to those moments, I believed less and less in my own original memory movie and began to see lobe-finned fish swimming in a lake of fireflies from which a boy with half a face arose.
You could add special effects to rememberings.
What I thought I’d seen became preposterous by bedtime. At that point, I figured I’d imagined everything except for the threat of kiss. The world was made up of walls and blankets and pillows and photographs on a wide dresser and traces of my mother’s perfume as she sat down at the edge of my bed with an unlit cigarette in her hand.
When I calmed down enough to think I was just batshit like my mythological grandfather and had better hide it from everyone or risk being put in some asylum, I asked Melanie — my mother — about kissing and boys. What it meant, was it scary, what did it do to you, why did people say ‘give me a kiss,’ and what were you giving and was it always about love?
“Why you want to know?” Melanie said. “Something happen?”
I mentioned the movie poster of the kissing couple. Not officially a lie; parts were just left out.
“Well sure, in movies, that kind of kiss means romance.” My mother came over and sat beside me. “But it’s just make believe. You know how you cry in movies? Whether they’re sad or happy?”
She put her arm around my shoulder and pressed her cheek against the top of my head.
“It’s because you know life is never going to be as good as it is up there on the damn screen.”
My mother combed her fingers through my hair.
“Same way with love,” she said.
These sequences of memory go dark when I think too much about them.
Few of them ever burst into a blizzard like the famous February day when House Grigsby met the beginning of its demise with the first hints of the dungeous febrilliance to come.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of Mr. Darkness, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
I couldn’t resist posting this. You love the original movie? I think it’s one of Hitchcock’s best for just going into the psychological nightmare (made manifest).
You know what? I’ve never done a natural-world-attack kind of story (that I can think of). The closest, possibly, is A Madness of Starlings, a short story you can find in Wild Things and Night Asylum, but it wasn’t about an attack…although it had to do with birds.
One of my favorite things in the original movie is of course the schoolyard suspense sequence. Check out the DVD if you missed this one. While it bears zero resemblance (beyond bird attacks) to the original Daphne Du Maurier story (which is brilliant for an entirely different reason), it’s really an unfolding nightmare of inner psychology, played out in a brutal and tragic universe.