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I have obtained an invitation for you for tonight. B.
I refolded the slip of paper and took the sealed envelope from the child at my door and in a moment the little messenger had run off down the anonymous New York apartment hallway like an otherworldly imp and was gone.
The envelope, of excellent paper, was an ugly gray-brown color and resisted my attempts to tear it open. I had to resort to my little Turkish knife. Within was a thin gold colored coin – real gold? I weighed it in my hand. Heavy, it could be. And there was a printed invitation.
Admittance for one. Midnight.
The Hotel Thalia, Room 432.
I was astonished. I had asked B many questions as our friendship had progressed, and been most interested as I learned of his actual involvement in the sort of matter I had just barely suspected still existed. He’d taken note of my interest and we’d pursued some enthusiastic conversations late into several nights. But I had never thought that I might be so much as considered for an invitation.
While I was still holding the invitation in dumbfoundment there was another knocking at the door. I opened it to find an elderly, elegantly dressed gentleman with a singularly warm smile and open countenance. “I understand that you’ve received an invitation. Will you attend?” Wide eyed, I answered “Yes, of course,” and with a pleasant smile and nod, he took his leave.
Just before midnight my taxi brought me up the little circular driveway to the illuminated dead white glass marque of the Thalia. Paying the driver, I emerged into a windy, cold blue-blackness where little but the wrought iron and glass of the hotel’s door benefitted from the marquee’s light. I must have crossed the lobby and gone up in an elevator although I can’t remember it, for the next thing I recall was a blank door in a long corridor opening for me.
Within was absolutely dark. Someone touched me gently to guide me. It was some moments before my eyes adjusted and while blind I heard people murmuring, there were five or six I thought, both men and women. Several times my hand was touched and a hand quit definitely touched my breast, a small hind like a child’s. An odd place for a child, I thought. Taking my elbow, someone led me to a chair.
Gradually, a glinting light became perceptible. And then another. And another. I fixed my gaze in the direction of the small, faint lights, hoping to clear my eyesight. I stared hard, trying to determine the nature of the lights and perceived they were reflections on the surfaces of translucent sphere, their colors emerging through the darkness as I strained my gaze. The spheres were jewel like, giant jewels, perfectly round and clear: deep amethyst and glowing topaz, garnets and emeralds whose deep toned surfaces held you, drew you within their world of reflections such as, I’ve read, dark stars draw in time.
Each globe was solid and fit heavily on my palm when I reached out to touch it. And now I could see that each was hung upon a branch of what appeared a fir tree, but the branches were of crystals of black jet, their needles sparking with dull gleams as my eyesight grew better.
I turned to view the room, to see to whom the murmuring voices belonged, and who was the owner of the little hand. There were three men and two women, and the child who had delivered my invitation and, what was most remarkable, they were all dressed in spun gold cloth, the women in long, deeply gathered skirts, the men in what seemed ordinary business suits, apart from their remarkable material, the child, in a neatly fitted shirt of the same material all richly embroidered in silver, pink, beige and blue-lavender. Each of the adults wore a simple metal badge that appeared to denote some distinction.
At the far end of the room, beyond the tree, was a makeshift looking hearth of brickwork with a tin flue passing out a partly opened upper window. But my attention to the company and surroundings was broken by a sound of music coming from an inner hallway opening into the room. A harp was being played. The low hum of conversation ceased as the somber but sweet melody drew nearer.
Massive harp entered the room. It was fancifully carved of ebony or some such wood, so I thought at first. I waited for the musician to appear behind it, striding and playing as he entered. The instrument cleared the entrance, yet no person appeared. The harp floated, or rather, swam, for what I’d taken to be figures carved into the wood were all in motion, sweeping up air like fish’s fins or tiny wings, and each note sounded as the harp frame coiled upon itself and sprang back beneath the strings. A gigantic, writhing form was sounding the notes, a snake hamstrung and at the cords, a snake or eel with myriad fins suspending itself in the air. And each note that its contorting body stuck followed so exquisitely upon the last that the horror of the sight was lost in hearing’s pleasure.
The room itself reverberated with the sound as if the walls were the strange instrument’s own casing. I must have been benumbed, for only the strained muscles of my face betrayed to me my sense of the ghastly spectacle.
Then with a sudden sigh the thing settled to the floor, and appeared again to be a harp of wood and strings. As it lay motionless, a fine but otherwise apparently ordinary musical instrument, I began to doubt my memory of moments before. In the dimness of the room had my excitement, my expectation so ignited my perceptions? I wanted to touch the thing, but at the same time feared that the cool skin, the fluttering fins might revive.
A man and woman now entered the room from the same passage that the harp had come. The pair were dressed identically in plainly cut, wide and shapeless white garments which draped in folds from shoulder to foot. The man gestured in a sight but formal bow and said, “This evening I have the honor of serving as Artifex.” “And I as Soror,” the lady in white nodded…
We disembarked in the Land of the Bugubec, whom my guide, Chunmac, looked upon as a miserable race. I was therefore prepared to witness great suffering, starvation and all manner of privation. What was my surprise then when we sailed into a busy, prosperous port. Everywhere along the quays trade and barter were going forward with the energetic address of a great metropolis.
Trade was not carried on upon the docks, as in the previous ports we had visited, but was lodged in extensive covered markets neatly arranged with stalls, each stall displaying the foods or wares of its specialty. Here every item was meticulously labeled, with prices by the piece and by the local weight of measure, called in Buguese, the lum, equivalent to 3.7 of our ounces. Furthermore, each shop displayed proudly a government license, so that it appeared to me this surely was a diligent and prosperous land. Goods from all reaches of the world were here and plentiful: silks from India, spices and medicaments from the South Sea trade, pearls, rare plant and tamed animals, and curious works of art of every known antiquity and recent creation.
Many shoppers there were, crowding and eagerly buying even the rarest merchandise; great numbers of the population appeared to be masters of considerable wealth. No person that I ever saw, during my stay in Bugubec, was unclean of body, was ill clothed or showed any indication of material want. Everyone appeared prosperous, and equally so, as those I saw in the marketplace on my first day.
Yet every face looked sad and strained, so that I had to credit my guide with telling me the truth.
“Why,” I asked the wise Chunmac, “are these folk, who seem well blessed with riches and freedom from need, not happy?”
“It is due to their languages.” And the wise linguist proceeded to explain, “There exist in Bugubec two separate languages. The one is taught to the male children, the other to the female, from the time of their birth onward. Yet, though the languages differ completely, men and women here believe they understand each other.
“Hold a moment, my good Chunmac,” I cried, “I’m in complete confusion. How is it possible that two utterly different languages can exist side by side and yet not be a constant source of friction and misunderstanding? If Bugubec women do not speak the language of the men, nor can the men speak intelligibly to the women, how do they communicate?”
“Here is truly the wonder, oh my impatient master, for I was coming to this. The Bugubec themselves are not aware that they are speaking separate languages. For — and this is the most amazing — the two languages mesh perfectly, being composed of identically pronounced words. But the meanings of those words for men and women differ utterly.”
“You’re saying, men and women interpret the connotations of words differently? I’m afraid I don’t follow…”
“Not merely connotations, Sire. The very meaning of the words can be completely opposite, or simply unrelated. Yet the two languages exhibit such parallel structures that a sentence spoken by a Bugubec man will be thought entirely intelligible by a Bugubec woman in her own language. I’ll try to frame an example for you, Sire, though your own lucid tongue little bends itself to such confounding. But try these two sentences.” And Chunmac wrote: Fire flies like a storm. Fireflies like a storm.
“Oh, I see,” I gasped.
“So, even though the men and women speak in what seems each other’s language, and imagine they communicate in their own tongue, they feel only vaguely that what is said does not quite reflect their own sentiments and understanding. Until of course the differences become apparent from actions – and then unhappiness, or sometimes tragedy, follows.”
Here as it chanced, as we conversed by the railing of our ship moored to the quay, a couple, lovers, passed our deck, strolling on the boardwalk below. As they reached a point just beyond us, a boy ran by them shouting something, to which the man on the boardwalk muttered something in response. Chunmac has paused to listen.
“By my soul, Sire, here is an example. You see that couple on the boardwalk. Now, the lad who ran past them flung out an obscenity accusing the gentleman of effeminacy. To which the man – I’m sure you noticed how he turned bright red with anger – replied that he is in possession of the most virile (I hesitate to translate the blunt term he used) in Bugubec.
“The woman, on the other hand, has understood the boy to say – no doubt from admiration – that the man possesses all the gentle virtues that she holds most dear. Her gentleman, to her, appears overcome with modesty and so has feelingly denied it. Now see how she kisses him eagerly and tells him that she loves him, encouraging him to lay aside his hesitation in owning to his mildness. That his meekness may take heart, she kisses away his blushes.
“The man, of course, delights in seeing that his lady love tolerates so eager to make trial of his vaunted potency. The warmth of her response shows him how she is afire with the promise of his virile part. Yearning to prove himself the worthy partner of her expectations, he now hurries her along to the nearest lowly dockside inn with rooms to let.
For her part, until she sees where she is going, she believes him overwhelmed by her care for his tender feelings. A heart so full as his is rapture to her. Each partner is in the embrace of what each, differently, calls love.”
I sighed and shook my head, for I could see at last how this most dreadful congruence was able to deceive. I had been about to ask why, if the Bugubec did not share a single concept of mutual communication, their race did not die out, for I now saw the young lady, shocked and balking at the inn door. I asked my wise guide one more question.
“What shall become of that young lady now?”
“Her language, full of subterfuges, will persuade her to go with him. Thus their race does not die out.”
We were walking down a steep street. The sea shone in great gobbets of silver light below in the distance. All was radiant with the asserted fact of its being, more real than eyes can see by ordinary sight.
The street was cobbled and was so precipitous our knees wanted to buckle. Walling our way were building-fronts in the Dutch style, facades rising above the roofs to terminate in corbie steps or arabesques of masonry, flat as if formed by a cookie cutter, the stucco walls in pink and blue and apricot with white shutters and trim. All was reflectant in the shrieking sunlight that made volumes of the air. And always, down below, the sea was glistening.
And I knew I was there only in a dream, though it was more real than any waking. My companions were not there in any ordinary sense. I realized that they wouldn’t remember when they woke, so I could not trust to them as witnesses. Therefore I was intent upon remembering everything. And only now I realize that at that time they were dead.
At a main street crossing we three crammed ourselves into the back seat of a Volkswagen, and three or four more people crowded in the front. The press was stifling. I was beside the window on the right so that I had a little wedge-shaped view. Toni, who is very tall and slim (the widow of my father’s friend) was next to me, and next to her, my grandmother’s maid, Della, who is stout, with hard, tight-girdled fat. We were very close-pressed. Everyone was jolly anyway. There was an air of tantalizing expectation. Was it Shrove Tuesday? Possibly. All but I knew where were we going, though no one made specific mention of it. I was an outsider, although by some permission allowed to come with them.
We drove along a narrow road on the top of a cliff beside the sea. No other vehicle appeared while we were on the road. The sea was to our right, I saw it out my window, silvery gray and glistening. Dry grass blew, genuflecting to the wind in currents and eddies over the dry soil of the cliff, but nothing more of life was to be seen except, ahead, some pale olive trees upon a point of land, their leaves forming horizontal masses above the filigree of their old, twisted limbs. The peninsula jutted, a counter-plane of middle distance set between the cliff, the sea and sky.
But it was the sky that fused itself into my memory then most vividly. Its blue was filled with light and infinitely penetrable. Through and through, the fingers of my mind reached out and never felt resistance in that sky. Its never ending depth drew thought up to it. (My waking eye has never seen a sky so bright and deep.)
Everyone packed in that car was tolerant of the crushing, merry actually, eager to reach our destination, and their mood of geniality was infectious. I’m even now elated by the recollection, although the memory is six years old today.
We passed the point capped by the olive grove and turned inland, down a wide and deeply rutted dry dirt road. The road was short and ended. Here the soil was pinkish gold and the grass and weeds were dry, but in the shallow meadow ahead of us there was a lush lawn. I remember many people there, or was there no one?
We were stopped and asked to show, what? Our invitations I suppose, before we were allowed into the valley. Past the entrance, as if a veil were drawn aside, now the meadow seemed to be teeming, a crowd extraordinarily colorfully dressed. I glimpsed them through my window, trying to clearly see those who passed near us. One waggled her, or was it his, fingers at me in greeting, or in response to my stare, but I could see no face.
I’ve not been allowed to remember beyond that moment: where we emerged from the car, where we went, what happened there. The last thing I recall is the hollowness, the absence of memory, or quite possibly of consciousness itself, as recollection has been denied me, although I was among the happy who were granted a visit to that place, that celebration, ritual, event… for surely something of the sort is what occurred.
We were back in the car and on the road at the cliff top once more. I well recognized the road, the cliff, the point of land. The sun was now behind the olive trees, silhouetting them like a Chinese soapstone carving, showing glaring whiteness between the interwoven branches. The sea was a hard, shallow blue and the sky was shell-like, thin and palpable, finite and reflectant.
Since this seemed, regarding place and time, a tropic winter afternoon, I’ve calculated that it must have been approximately five o’clock when we drove back along the cliff. I’ve noted that the coast looked westerly, whether on an island or a mainland I don’t know. We’d left the Dutch facaded street at about one o’clock by the high sun. Since our travel time was brief, I judge I was in the meadow for some three hours. But what happened there is lost to me.
Nearby my house there is a row of trees whose branches interweave against the sky. When I see them with the bright illumined sky casting them in silhouette, I long for that time and place lost to memory. Although it was only a dream.
As he sat beneath the tree, evening wrapped her chilling arms about his breast, and deeply she breathed in his lungs. A hundred tapers grew up in the darkness through the grass around him and caught fire, Their wax shafts, slowly rising, flickered in each other’s glow. The twanging of the blades of grass, the clashing cymbals of the bodhi’s leaves, were orchestrated by a breeze, and the taper’s flames danced.
The dampness grew within his chest; the candles gave no warmth. The dampness grew until it formed a ball, and the ball spun, whipped by the dancing lights. And with each spin it grew.
And as he sat, the spinning damp within him glowed abrasively at its periphery, casting a dry white rasping light. Whirling faster, spun by the dancing candle flames, the sphere’s crust of light broke into sparks. And the sparks flew out into the field of rising columns topped with whipping fire.
The sphere within him spun faster, faster. Spun and threw out sparks that sped among the tapers until darkness closed behind each spark’s receding flight. The sparks flew out and spread, far, farther, and farther yet beyond the candle-spattered grass. Spray of lights poured from the spinning center till the lawn whereon the candle-fire danced was flooded by the hurtling sparks and a light like daylight glowed about the bodhi tree.
He looked upon the flight of sparks out from his breast into the void and thought himself just one of that infinity of sparks. He flew across the grass and past the candle flames until the last still slowly rising wax columns of tapers vanished behind him, until the bodhi tree surrounded by the ever steady burst of sparks grew distant and grew dim. And he flew on in darkness.
And he grew small and ever smaller until he fell into the tiny morning of the spark that sang the sun of day and of a newborn world awakening.
A lake of blue the hue of kingfishers lay nestled in a moss deep shore. And everywhere along the shore transparent golden flowers bloomed as rainbow beams of iridescent colors licked their glistening leaves.
He gazed at a gorgeous bloom and found, with mild astonishment, the tight closed round of petals at its center magnified and acted as a lens. And there beneath the dome of petals lay a city, a city full of towers, cupolas and balconies, minute beneath the soaring arch petals through which golden light down. Cascades and rivulets, shaded by trees and flowering vines, threaded between the multicolored crystal towers, and bridges in myriad shapes spanned, fine as spider thread, the winding water gardens. Terraces and porticoes formed rhythmic geometries, singing form’s perfection, to which the waters laughed in their free counterpoint. The whole city sang of the perfect of the beauty of the mind, and of the soul.
As evening grew chill about the bodhi tree and the lawn grew dark, the man beneath the tree drew closed the petals of his breast and slept with the singing city at his heart.
And when the women came to bring fruit to the saint who sat beneath the tree, he was no longer there.
The fringe-combed breeze caresses the little flame of the nightlight beside the bed. The heavy-threaded tassels hanging from the canopy let their dark filaments swing in the perfumed air, scented with musk and jasmine. And as the silken threads dance round, the glinting inlays of the bedposts spark, reflecting back the nightlight’s glow.
Starry bits of gold and coral, moon white mother-of-pearl spatter the rosewood pillars, rolled up in four scrolls between the heaven of the canopy and the rumpled coverlet of sea. Here the summer phoenix with a breast of pearl and coral eyes beats her golden feathers against the rosewood night. Here an autumn tiger with cold moon-bleak eyes stares out. Here a winter-raging boar with tusks of silver leaps for the tossed sea below. And here, twined round the scroll of night, a dragon coils out from beneath the canopy, stretching his length down the whole length of his shaft of time, his golden tongue outstretched. Flames sweep back from his chin and eyes. His small claws reach. His eyes protrude. Held in the arch of his long, liquid shoot of tongue there lies the coral-flaming pearl, possessed. From out the writhing throat a warm spring-dragon thunder rolls.
A gust of hot air run before the storm lets fly the tassels, making the dragon wink to the nightlight’s gigue. The sleeping isle beneath the waves, beneath the canopy of heaven, stirs and, in the hot wind’s breath, scatters the rippled surface and casts back the sea.
Wakened, I lie and wonder if the coming storm will bring an end to this incessant heat.
The following story is absolutely true, within my ability to recount the events of several years ago in their proper order.
My paternal grandmother, who brought me up and with whom I am on very good terms, had an aunt named Leonora. Nonie, for short. Nonie had never been gifted with good looks,, but by the time I knew her she looked a veritable Baba Yaga. Her nose and chin were so hooked that they nearly met. And she was amazingly scrawny. But she was brisk and lively for all her ninety-some years and would happily trot to her piano and play and sing “I’m a Merry Zingara” at the slightest hint of a request.
With her crony, her equally aged sister-in-law Czara, Nonie was a member of Bahai. No one in my branch of the family knew quite what Bahai was, but apparently it included a belief in the afterlife. For, when Czara died, she left meticulous instructions, according to her beliefs, that her body must not be moved for three days, she didn’t care if she was embalmed and buried or cremated.
The family found all this peculiar, and the hospital where she died made it impossible to comply. Nevertheless, at her funeral three days later (which I have report of from my grandmother, I did not attend) her friends, including Nonie, cheerfully chatted about how Czara had rapped on the kitchen table three times, or run a window shade up and down to signify that she was safely “on the other side.” I recall with what amusement I pictured these wizened ladies each trying to top the other with the story of her ghostly visitation.
About a year after Czara’s death, my grandmother went to pay a visit to Nonie and found her hobbling about in her apartment in great pain. She had fallen that morning and, as X-rays later showed, had broken her hip. Nonie was hospitalized, then was sent home with a resident nurse named Millie.
Millie took excellent care of Nonie but, just before her ninety-seventh birthday, Leonora Jacobs Mackey at last died. I attended her funeral at one of those big, antiseptic, non-denominational New York City funeral establishments with an elevator shaped to accommodate coffins. There was only family attending, for all the Bahia friends had gone on before. A few unmemorable words were said over the deceased, the family members and Millie squeezed into the limousine and rode out behind the hearse to the crematorium, with Millie all the way regaling us with descriptions of the chemistry of combustion.
My grandmother had been named executrix of Nonie’s will, and beneficiary of all properties not specifically allotted elsewhere. There were small amounts of money for various members of the family and Millie. And Millie was to take over the lease of the little rent-controlled apartment.
My grandmother did her best to pilot the will through various small legal embroilments, then forgot about it all – leaving all of Nonie’s furniture and personal effects in what was now Millie’s apartment. And worse. She utterly forgot a promise she had made to Nonie.
Though she always had been homely, Aunt Nonie had a rather interesting love life. She was married to the rotund, jolly looking Robert Mackey, editor of Maclure’s Magazine, a highly successful literary publication at the turn of the twentieth century. Bob and Nonie held parties in their apartment on Washington Square to which artists and the literati came. Kahlil Gibran, Jack London, Yoni Noguchi (poet and father of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi) frequently attended, as did my grandmother and her sister Ethel, young beauties and vaudeville headliners at the Winter Garden at that time. The sisters called their aunt’s social ventures “pickle parties” for the 57 Varieties of guests.
Nonie became the secretary to the poet Edwin Markham, whose “Man with a Hoe” children were all forced to read in school back in those days, and whose “Oh, Captain, my Captain,” on Lincoln’s death, still rings with some familiarity. Markham was as much a celebrity as poets can hope to be. And Nonie and Markham became lovers. Volumes of poetry – his own, written to her, and others annotated for her perusal, were her most treasured possessions, along with a large cartoon, by Thomas Nast, showing Markham holding forth, his white mane billowing, while a younger poet lies hopelessly drunk beneath a table bearing the punchbowl of Inspiration.
Markham was married and lived on Staten Island. And Nonie and Markham spent many happy hours, perhaps even holding hands, on the Staten Island ferry boat.
The promise that, in Millie’s presence, Nonie had extracted from my grandmother – which was ignored, and which I knew nothing about until much later – was that my grandmother would scatter Nonie’s ashes into New York Harbor from the ferry.
Not long after the funeral, Millie began sending bills to the executrix, my grandmother. Dry cleaning. Various medical bills of Nonie’s. Bills for expenditures Millie said she had paid out of her own pocket. My grandmother paid each, but with growing annoyance as the months went on, and on.
Millie agitated to have us remove Nonie’s boxes of books and papers that were cluttering the apartment. Grandma was lax, and finally Millie threatened to just put the out on the sidewalk with thrash. I was dispatched, with a friend who had a station wagon, to retrieve them. The cartons of books and papers were transferred from what was now Millie’s apartment to the basement of storage room of the apartment building where I lived. And there they remained unopened.
The cartons, Nonie and Millie were forgotten in the business of each day.
One night, when I was visiting my grandmother and staying overnight, I no sooner had gone to bed and turned out the light than I was overcome with a violent uneasiness. I don’t believe I moved or made any sound, but my dog Koko, who went everywhere with me, started barking hysterically, and barked without cease throughout what I’m about to relate.
The overwhelming stress I felt amounted to a silent, immobile, spiritual wrestling match. I had a hint of what is meant by Abraham’s “wrestling with an angel.” It was all I could do to oppose – but to oppose what? I felt I was opposing Aunt Nonie, in a sinewy-seeming struggle of the spirit. My mind’s eye identified her clearly near me, as well as the vague shape of an obese man in a background like fog. She – they – wanted me to do something. There was an oblong object that kept opening – and with all my might I kept forcing it shut. At first the object seemed a coffin, then a book with woodcuts depicting the corruption of the body after death. The thought of Poe’s story of premature burial flitted into my mind. But above all, I did not want to look in the box or book.
At last, exhausted, terrified that I could resist them no longer and they would force me to look in that opening container of death, I said out loud, as my dog barked frantically, “All right, I’ll tell my grandmother that you’re upset.”
Instantly all strain left me. The dog stopped barking. The room was back to normal. I was embarrassed and ashamed to go and wake my grandmother, but still frightened enough, and impressed with having given my word, that I decided I had better go and do as I had said, relying on her indulgence to overlook my odd announcement
I went to my grandmother’s room, gently prodded her awake and said, “I have an impression that Aunt Nonie’s upset about something.”
“Oh?” she said, opening an eye. “Why don’t you go back to bed.”
Feeling very foolish, I went back to bed. But again, no sooner had turned off the light and lain down to sleep that again I felt some abnormal presence. But this time the sensation seemed bot frightening, but very pleasant.
I had a strong visual impression of a young woman, dressed in the fashion of about 1900 and with a large, ostrich-plumed hat. This quite pretty woman was smiling at me. Over, or in any case associated with the woman, like colored slides one upon the other, I saw a birds wing, and understood this to mean, “I’m taking you under my wing.”
Far from frightened by this vision, or visitation, I was filled with a sense of joy, even of love, and I asked, “Who are you!” The vision had turned and was walking away from me, but turned back and showed another image in the rebus-like means of communication. The image was a yellowed, aged eye. It was a bit startling but not frightening and I took it to stand for the letter I. The woman smiled, then turned away again and faded as she walked away from me.
I was fascinated. In fact I was enraptured, almost in love with that woman who had smiled so comfortingly to me. I got up, went to my poor grandmother and woke her again. “Do you know of anyone in the family whose name began with an I? A young woman in about 1900?”
Grandma was very patient. She only said, and not unkindly, “I don’t think so. Now go back to bed.”
A few weeks later my grandmother had her final fiscal parting with Millie over the never ending bills. It was by now a year since Nonie’s death and she refused to pay, saying that if Millie had any more bona fide bills she should long since have submitted them.
Later that week my grandmother received a package from Millie. She unwrapped it with the expectation that it was some forgotten items of Aunt Nonie’s effects.
The box contained Nonie’s ashes.
My grandmother, in high dudgeon, telephoned me. She thought Millie had distributed the ashes from the ferry right after the funeral!
Out came the story of her broken promise to Nonie. This was the first I had heard of it. What had become of the ashes had never crossed my mind. I told my Grandma that I thought she ought to stand by her promise.
No, she countered, it’s against the law. It would be polluting New York Harbor, she argued, I thought irrationally considering the condition of the harbor.
I suggested, alternatively, that we call the local funeral home that had served for Grandpa’s funeral and follow their advice. No again! They would make her buy an urn and “perpetual care.” I returned to my original suggestion, but couldn’t prevail.
Grandma hung up and called her sister for advice. Together they agreed, or rather, my grandmother found support for what she wanted to do anyway.
She dumped the ashes, box and all, down to her apartment building’s incinerator, and that was the end of Aunt Nonie.
A month or so passed, and Grandma finally remembered the cartons of books and papers in my basement. Suddenly she was taken up with the notion of contributing Markham’s books to Dartmouth College (where my father was an alumnus, but Markham had no connection.) She felt an urge to establish a Leonora Mackie Memorial at Dartmouth to honor her so casually disposed of aunt.
The chief librarian was invited down – literally down to my building’s basement – to select whatever might be of interest. Mr. Latham, my grandmother and I opened the cartons. Those with papers were simply thrown out with nobody inspecting them. Those with books were browsed by Mr. Latham, with me picking over whatever he discarded. But there were some boxes full of photographs. Grandma looked through them, stuffing them into the discard box, and as quickly as she disposed of them, I pulled them out to save. There were playing-card shaped photographs of our ancestors, a tintypes of Nonie on horseback and on bicycles, our Viennese cousins receiving a visit from “our dear Franz Josef,” cousins from Prague and Kuttenberg and even Madrid, and Uncle Bache who was physician to the Emperor Maximillian, and Grandma’s grandmother Henrietta. A hair brush of hers was in among the pictures, its silver curlicues very like her own tight-curled hair.
And there was a picture of a young woman, gentle-eyed, with an ostrich plume hat. It was the woman I had seen, who had taken me under her wing. I turned over the card. In Nonie’s neat Spencerian had it said the picture was the daughter of Henrietta’s sister, and her name was Ida Aubrey Simon, known upon the stage as Little Ida.
My dear Franz,
This morning when I awoke I tried to yawn and could not. Being sleepy, I lay there for a few minutes not fully aware that anything was wrong. I reached for the glass of water in the night table. The rim of the glass pressed against my skin but I couldn’t seem to find my mouth. The water poured down my chin, drenching the bedclothes. I put the glass down quickly and with a wad of tissues daubed myself dry.
Dammit. A fine way to wake yourself up.
I took up the glass again and put it to my lips, this time more carefully. Gain the rim rubbed across my skin and the water poured down. It was then that the terrible, the absurd thought first occurred to me. I put my hand up to my face – and ran my fingers from my nose to my chin. It was all smooth skin. My mouth was gone.
I stuck my tongue out between my teeth as far as I could push it – it pressed against a smooth, unending wall of flesh. I got up from bed, trembling, and dripping from the spilt water, and went to the mirror.
How can I describe my feelings? Sick terror. But with the rational reassurance from the depth of my mind that this must be a dream and I would very soon wake up. But what a dream! I ran my hand across my face from cheek to cheek – all smooth. I moved my jaw and felt the skin stretch tight. I ran my fingernail to feel if there was at least some seam and scratched the long blank chin until the sight of my terrified eyes staring back at me from the mirror made me stop.
Lie down. It’s an hallucination. A bad dream. Whatever it is it will be over soon and everything will be right again if you just keep calm.
A large patch of the bed was wet with the water I’d spilled so I lay on the far edge where it was still dry. I lay there for some time, breathing slowly and steadily and trying to be calm.
Breathe in – hold the breath for a count of ten – breathe out. One… two… three…
I looked at the clock. Two minutes had passed. This is going to take time and I’ll perish of boredom and sheer fright will come rushing back. Think of something else. Anything else. Think of the circus. Yes, I can find a career in the circus… No think of something UNRELATED. Haven’t you read something interesting lately? There was that article about a new anesthesia for dentistry… Think of something else. What will I have for breakfast? No, let’s not face that yet.
It must be getting late. If this hallucination doesn’t let up soon I’m going to be late for work. In a little while I’ll be telling my co-workers about what a funny dream I’ve had… No,, maybe it would be better not to mention it.
It’s okay, I’m thinking rationally now. Just a freakish episode. The mind can do such funny things. Time to get up.
Just to humor myself I put my hand up to my face just to be sure. My fingers passa cross smooth skin.
Now don’t get hysterical. You’re just going to have to deal with this. No getting to work on time today. Forget that. You’d better call in sick and call the doctor.
Call…call in sick. How the hell am I going to call anybody!
I open my jaw and make a long, muffled hum. Thrusting my tongue against my teeth and downward I can just warble the sound into a llumm, llumm, llumm. My imprisoned tongue pokes hard against my cheek and I scream with all my might – to hell with the neighbors — I make a high pitched hum.
Shut up. You really don’t want the neighbors to hear you, come knocking on the door and find you like this. And don’t start crying for cripes sake. Be calm and think this out. You can’t be the only one that this has ever happened to.
I’ll have to go to the doctor’s office. They won’t like it that I didn’t call for an appointment, but one they see… they’ll understand. Once I get there he’ll know what to do and everything will be okay.
Gad, can I face going there? Oh for a burka. Or at least a good solid mourning veil. People don’t wear those anymore. But a burka. What a convenience! Maybe this happens all the time in Moslem countries? One would never know.
Forget the burka, you don’t have one in your closet and getting one would be more of an adventure than just getting to the doctor.
Take a taxi. And give the driver the medical office address on a slip of paper. You can hold a bunch of tissues to your face as if you have a nose bleed or something. Or something. The cabby’ll think you’re infectious and refuse to pick you up. A scarf. A scarf a little out of order, wrapped up to my nose.
… They’ll have to operate. Plastic surgery. Make a new mouth. What a mess. Oh why did this happen to me! I had such a perfectly good mouth!
I’m getting hungry. Oh, oh, oh, I’m going to have to live on IVs? What I really want is bacon and eggs – no, steak and eggs. The sheer pleasure of chewing, of flavors… Face it. It’s going to be IV’s, that is if they can operate.
Oh my poor face. Go wash that face and stop crying.
I stare in the bathroom mirror at my wall of a face and with my fingers pull my cheeks inti what would be a smile and peer at the ghastly stretched skin. Sucking the skin in between my upper and lower teeth at least I can make the semblance of an indentation and I try to hold the fold of skin between my teeth, but it slides out. Slippery mouth tissue.
Carefully designing each curve, I paint a mouth with my reddest lipstick. Maybe no one will notice that there ain’t no opening there. I blow a bubble through my teeth to give my painted lips fullness. The painted lips swell in the mirror like a mouth painted on a balloon.
No good. And how can I show that pathetic pseudo mouth to the doctor?
Cold cream, soap and water, brings me back to blank with a new flush of pink irritation. I finish dressing and try out a few techniques of scarf-wrapping. I look like a Hindu lady venturing out of purdah, or like I’m about to rob a bank.
Maybe some eye makeup will help, like a distraction.
I reach in the drawer for my eye liner but it’s not in the tray where it belongs. Take the tray out, rummage in the back of the drawer… at the back of the drawer my fingers touch something. Something soft, fleshy. I pull the drawer open all the way and peer in.
There, lying in the back of the drawer, smiling up at me…