She came to live in our house at the beginning of October, in 1911, a month after my thirteenth birthday. My mother and Sophie were first cousins, close in girlhood but long separated by their respective marriages, one disastrous, one lustrous.
"Oh, Alice! Alice," was all Sophie said before my mother's arms went round her. Mama had to duck beneath her cousin's wide-brimmed, flower-laden hat. Late afternoon light, flooding through the etched glass of our broad front door into the vestibule where we stood, poured over the two women like syrup. Their two bodies, the same height hut far from the same girth, made me think of Mary meeting Saint Anne in the stained glass window above the side altar at Holy Name. When they drew apart, my father was still standing to one side, derby in hand, regarding them with a fondness that seemed somehow equally distributed. The two women stood with fingers lightly linked. Sophie was a blurred copy of my beautiful mother. They were the same age, thirty-four, but Sophie was fat--not plump, but fat--in the kind of glowing, fragrant way that the ripe Alberta peaches in my mother's garden were fat. She regarded Mama with hungry delight. Mama was laughing softly, for no reason, for sheer joy. The white of her shirtwaist glowed in the mellow light; her bosom (which for a year or so I had been trying not to look at, or at least not to be seen looking at) moved up and down with her laughter.
"Charles!" Papa motioned to me to step forward. "Shake hands with your cousin," and I did. Papa said, "Leave your mantle with your valise, Sophia. Effie or George will see to them. Alice, my dear, shall we have tea?"
My mother, pink with embarrassment because these suggestions should have come from her, took the coat--one of those voluminous garments called "dusters," meant for riding in the new horseless carriages--out of her cousin's hands and laid it across her large ostrichskin bag. Sophie unpinned her hat and Mama set it on the hall table. Then she led the way through the carved double doors into the parlor.
Over tea in front of the big fieldstone fireplace, the grown-ups talked of things that did not interest me. From my corner I watched them, seated around the fire--built high despite the warmth of the October day just ending--three points in a triangle.
Papa shook out the evening paper and ran his eyes down the front page. "The Turks are at it again," he observed, stroking his mustache. He had more than one vanity, but the greatest of them was his dark, abundant mustache. "Cholera. Censorship. And they've expelled all the Italians."
"Poor souls!" Mama said. "All those families made to leave their homes."
"Taft claims he's got the railroads under control ... Trusts now curbed ... Researchers find beer keeps best in brown bottles ... Mrs. Taft to go to hot springs for health. Ah, yes," said Papa, folding the paper and flinging it onto the carpet by his feet. "Maybe they'll feed her beer in brown bottles."
Sophie laughed. Her nose, still wet at the tip, caught the firelight. She gleamed all over: her wide face, her hands, plump and ringless, her arms in tight silk sleeves the color of blackberries resting on the carved arms of her chair. For some reason I remembered at that moment that silk was spun from the saliva of silkworms: my cousin wore a dress of spit. Between the grown-ups' remarks there was quiet in the room except for the snap of the fire in the grate, the occasional passing of a carriage in the street outside. Effie had not yet lit the lamps. Allotted one cup of grassy-tasting China tea, I drank and watched dusk accumulate in the corners of the room.
A silence; then, "Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music/ Creep in our ears," Mama said. My mother muttered poetry the way other people hummed tunes, unaware, in snatches. When she was happy, it was Shakespeare; when she was sad, Keats; if she was terribly worried, she threw off bits of Dante's Inferno.
"It's what music would look like," Sophie said, staring into the flames. "Fire. It's the sound of trumpets."
Papa said nothing, only stroked his mustache. He stretched out his long legs--he was six foot four and slender, a graceful giraffe of a man--and crossed one elegantly shod foot over the other. A position he would only take en famille. But then, Sophie was family.
It's so hard to know, at the time, what to treasure. Now, so long afterwards, that first evening seems a template for all that followed. For the whole extended, languorous, breath-held autumn of 1911, the last we were to spend as a family. If (as Papa, smiling his gently cynical smile, would have said) human beings can learn from experience, wouldn't I know what it is I should be cherishing now, in 1971?
Looking back, I see the three grown-ups seated companionably around the fire, separate but connected. And I? I am sitting on a hassock off to one side, wondering for the thousandth time whether I will ever be tall like Papa. Instinctively I've taken up the position of observer; and so I will remain. Voyeur--a word from the French novels I am not supposed to know the hiding place of. Simply what, not quite having left childhood, I have always been?
The morning star was still faintly visible from my bedroom window when Papa left the next day, as usual, for the factory. I watched him walk briskly down the wide, semicircular driveway, derby hat at its usual raffish angle, coat collar upturned against the chill morning air. The big, iron gates clanged behind him. I could still hear the decisive sound of his steps on the cobblestones after he'd vanished into the street. My room faced east; I sat for a while watching the sky stain a deeper and deeper rose. It was in these moments at dawn that I felt closest to my father--not to him, but to the essence of him, the visceral, almost-breathing link between him and the factory he had made out of nothing.
"Rope, Charlie! Rope! Ca va sans dire. Virtually no one," my father often declared, "understands the importance of rope." Think, he would exhort me (or Mama, or Effie, or even my friends), of all the things that could not exist without it. Block and tackle, tents, elevators, grandfather clocks, hot-air balloons, military uniforms, bridges, hammocks, toboggans, boxing rings--the list went on and on. Think of all the things we would not be able to do: brand cattle, climb mountains, ride a Ferris wheel, throw a life preserver to someone drowning.
And the best, the strongest, the most trustworthy rope made? Oiseau's, of course. If everyone did not know that, they should; because every time they rode in those elevators, crossed those bridges, stepped into one of those hot-air balloons, they entrusted their lives to rope. The crates in which my father's rope was shipped bore the legend:
On the day I turned seven--the Age, according to Holy Mother Church, of Reason--my father had taken me into his study and set me on his big leather chair. He sat on the edge of the glass-topped desk, swinging his long thin legs, and told me a story.
Before he became the husband of Alice, the father of me, Francis Xavier Oisean had belonged, for nearly two decades, to no one. His parents were killed in a boating accident in 1877, when he was nine years old. In Quebec, where he'd live all his life up till then. A steamboat whose boiler exploded in midafternoon of a windless gray day on the St. Lawrence River. Most of the two hundred passengers were killed: burned, blown to pieces, drowned. Un horreur, ca, un horreur que dure toute la vie. Clinging to his life preserver, the boy Francis saw his mother float by in the turbulent, scalding water, headless, holding his two small sisters in her arms.
My mother burst into the room through the French doors. "For God's sake, Francis! What's possessed you?" She was very angry, red-faced, shouting, her hair askew from working in the garden--exactly the way my elegant father liked her least. They were still arguing that night, after I'd been put to bed. I heard my mother's voice as they ascended the stairs: "... your benighted Church!" She'd been raised Congregationalist and had only converted to Catholicism in order to marry my father. Papa's reply was indistinct; Mama got louder: "... reason descends on everyone at the same age? And at that age? Obviously it failed to descend on them!"
The sound of dogs barking, at first distant, then louder, flowed down the street toward my open window. The lamplighter paused outside our gate and raised his pole to extinguish the gaslight there. I became aware d the house awakening: the far-off clang d the stove's iron lids, Effie on the back stairs, singing (He took her by the lily-white hand), the slap d the morning-room shutters briskly folded back. Then the sun burst through the honey locusts by the high stone wall where our driveway ended.
It must have been a hot, sunny day, that day in my father's study. I can still recall the smell of dust and library paste (which tasted--I had verified this some months before--exactly like it smelled) and the sound of a trapped fly assaulting the windows. My father's father's body was never found. There were no other relatives; he and his sisters were brought to a Catholic orphanage. Nine years alter that, the Anzacs took young Francis and sent him overseas to fight in the Zulu War. Discharged in the spring d 1890, he came to Providence to visit a former comrade-in-arms and stayed. With the army pay he'd saved and a loan from the comrade, he started Oiseau's.
Nowadays a child of seven would never be told the story of my grandparents' death. The Age of Reason--no one even uses the phrase anymore. Perhaps my mother was right? Looking back from what most would call a venerable age, I do not think so. Looking back, I see the sunlit plain of childhood with its view in all directions, pure and clear as mathematics; and then the occluding cloud of puberty--of unexpected hair and traitorous voice and swelling and yearning--of unreason--descends.
I escaped into the burning autumn afternoon with Brother Aloysius' bell ringing behind me. "First one out, are ye then, Charles?" he shouted, as he did every afternoon, hauling on the rope while the bell above him flung its recurring shadow across his round red face. He had to turn around in order for his words to follow me--was that fast. In the five weeks since school started I'd already established myself as the best sprinter at Holy Name Academy.
The Dugout, as I called it, was my destination. On the western edge of town, carved into a hillside beneath a profusion of wild grape, its opening further hidden by an old wooden door onto which I'd glued masses of brambles. Between the road--rutted and little traveled--and the Dugout was an old, unused orchard. Unharvested apples lay in the long grass, giving off a rich, haunting smell of decay. Bees puttered ceaselessly among them. Their collective hum rising up around me seemed to draw me in--to separate me from the world of carriages and pocket watches and factories.
I shifted the heavy door; brambles clawed my hands. I pulled aside the piece of cheesecloth (stolen from Effie's cleaning closet) that served as a curtain to keep out bees and threw myself down. The Dugout's packed dirt floor--it had hardly rained all that autumn--felt cool through my woolen school uniform. The space, a natural grotto that I'd gradually enlarged over the two previous summers, was five feet wide and six feet deep. If I stood up, my head hit packed earth held in place by roots and rocks. On this blue-and-gold October afternoon I lay on my stomach in the pleasant, chilly gloom with my weight on my elbows and my chin on my palms and breathed in the odors of earth and rotting apples. Outside, two cardinals called from tree to tree. I could tell their sex by their calls. The female cardinal has two: a brief, inquiring one that sounds like "Where are you?" and a longer, fancier one, "Oh! There you are!" The male has only a single soaring cry: "I'm here! I'm here!" Over and over this female called, and the male responded. There would be a few minutes' pause. Then she'd begin to ask again.
Was this how it was supposed to be between the sexes?
I'd gone through the whole eight years of grammar school with Cordelia Huddle. In fifth grade, we'd shared a double desk. By the end of that year, in which we discovered a mutual passion for reading books purloined from our parents (holding them on our laps beneath the broad wooden desk top and turning the pages stealthily), we were best friends. Secret friends. It was, we knew, a toss-up which of our classmates would have been more contemptuous, the boys or the girls. This year, the first year of high school, we were both at Holy Name. Long pants; a book bag instead of a leather strap; moving from room to room down dim, polished corridors. But the girls' half was completely separate; there was one connecting door, at the end of the second-floor corridor, and that was kept locked.
It wasn't the way it used to be, between me and Cordelia. Or rather, it was, and then suddenly it wasn't, and then it was again. We met nearly every day a half-hour or so before school started. Papa's early departure for the factory woke me, and Cordelia got up before anyone else in her house. She slept with a long string tied to her wrist that she let down the wall outside her bedroom window, and the lamplighter tugged on it when he passed by. We'd be sitting on the chill stone of the Academy wall, sitting and talking, the way we'd always talked, about a book we were reading or the latest secret code one of us had discovered (we were crazy about cryptography) or the unfathomable idiocies of grown-ups. Carriages would begin to rattle over the cobblestones, and the milkman would come clinking down the street and cry, "Morning, you two!" Then suddenly, in mid-sentence, there would come this sense of intrusion. As if a stranger had sat down between us. Cordelia felt it, too. I could tell by the way her eyes slid away from mine and her hands clasped each other, long fingers with their bitten nails gripping right.
I turned over onto my back and lay looking up at the packed dirt and roots of the Dugout's ceiling. The smell of the earth on which I lay, of the long grass beyond the cheesecloth curtain, dry and sweet, of apples decomposing--these blended and seemed to enclose me in a single scent not vegetable at all. Without my willing it, I felt my penis rise, my buttocks tighten. One hand unbuttoned the fly of my trousers. The other, of its own accord, closed around the shaft. It began to slide up and down, its palm tickled by the soft new hair. I heard a cardinal's call again. Only the male, my mind noted, while my hand moved faster. I'm here! I'm here! Over and over he called, unanswered. Over and over. Faster and faster. I'm here! I'm here! Until I found myself at the edge of the realm I'd discovered years before and then for years forgotten, the place I called Quet. The place of warmth and soaring light and peace.
Entering the orchard was like coming home to myself. I called it The Dugout after the ones that settlers made to live in on the Kansas prairie; fort was childish, and foxhole had yet to be invented, along with all the other horrors of the Great War.
A pair of legs in black-and-white-striped stockings swung back and forth at the level of my head. The crossed feet, shoeless, arched and nuzzled each other like small, plump animals.
"Cousin Sophie?" What an idiot I must have sounded! Who else could such limbs have belonged to?
"Charlie!" She sounded pleased to see me.
She was perched on the scaffolding above the door I'd just opened. If I hadn't jumped back, she would have kicked me. She sat facing away from the door. I ducked under the swinging legs and walked into the middle of the room. Room isn't the right word. There was a floor of polished slate; but the walls were no more than a semicircle of iron arches open to the October morning, and above my head the intense, blue sky was divided into triangles by the iron frame of what would eventually be a large glass dome. Sunlight glinted off metal where the dew had not yet dried. Dazzled, I looked away.
Sophie lifted one of Effie's rhubarb tarts to her mouth, and her small, white teeth sank into the crust. Something about the way her full lips pressed together as she chewed made me want a rhubarb tart more than anything in the world. She threw back her head. Her hair floated out around her in the quickening air. It was the first time I'd seen it loose, though she'd been living with us now for nearly two weeks. Crinkled, like the crystal pleats of my mother's best shirtwaist, it fell nearly to her waist, and in the sun its unremarkable dark blond became a rainbow as she moved. I tried not to stare.
"Isn't it a beautiful, beautiful morning?" she cried, her mouth still full. Bits of rhubarb pulp arced into the sunshine; one struck me on the cheek and stuck there. It would have been impolite to wipe it away.
"How did you get up there?" I asked.
Sophie pointed behind me. I turned. Around the perimeter of the orangerie there was scaffolding, as high as my head, with--at the far end of the room-to-be--pegs hammered into one of the posts. "You climbed up?" My voice, always treacherous now, gave a mouse-like squeak on tip. "You walked those planks?"
"'Course!" Sophie crammed the rest of the tart into her mouth and chewed. I tried to imagine her skipping around the room on a foot-wide plank. For reasons I couldn't articulate, it felt wrong for her to be here, in this place that was my mother's, so long imagined by her and only just beginning its existence. It was as if Sophie had invaded my mother's dreams.
The plump, striped legs resumed swinging. Sophie's long, yellow skirt flew up and down, revealing a froth of petticoat that made my heart stammer. In the fashion of the day, her wide breasts were covered yet somehow offered. Try as I might to keep my eyes away from legs, froth, breasts, I could fed my face grow hot. The dome's iron skeleton cast a net of shadows over the two of us, and the morning noises of birds, like an orchestra tuning up, filled the air with possibility.
During our exchange a far-off honking had drawn nearer. Now a flock of Canada geese passed above our heads. Their formation, wavering but purposeful, traced a dark V. The sky above them looked as if it might burst; below them, blood-bright maples--the ones that would shade the unfinished dome in future summers--burned.
"Isn't it glorious?" cried Sophie. "I can't see why in the world Alice wants to wall this in. She ought to make a terrace here, a big open space. Not a conservatory."
"Orangerie," I corrected. The rush of her feet, back and forth, past my head, stirred up the smells of the place--cold iron, fresh-sawn wood--and Sophie's own smell, like summer grass. The combination went to my head like a few sips of port at Christmas. Feeling disloyal, I tried to push away this pleasant dizziness. "It's Mama's lifelong dream," I said. "To have an orangerie. My father has given it to her for their wedding anniversary, their fifteenth." Inexplicably, a sappy phrase I would ordinarily have died rather than use leapt out of my mouth. "He loves her dearly."
Sophie looked up into the bright sky. "You're a tad pompous, aren't you?" she said. Then, "Look!"
"What?" But as I spoke, I saw it.
A bird had flown into the space beneath the dome. It darted from one side to the other, more and more agitated as if the glass had already been installed, as if it were truly trapped. It was a sparrow: brown with a black bib.
Sophie cried, "Oh, Charlie! Do something!"
Her voice made me feel suddenly taller. I ran across the floor and clambered up the ladder of pegs. Sweat from my hands made them slippery. Up on the scaffolding--narrower under my feet than it had seemed from below--I felt as if the blue sky were pulling me into itself. The bird, by now a concentrated ball of terror, was dashing itself against the broad iron frame of the dome, bouncing from point to point along the circle, freedom inches above its head. The scaffolding made a square just inside the circle of the dome. I stood on one side of the square; Sophie sat in the middle of the adjoining side. Midway between us was the bird.
I edged closer. The pine plank shifted beneath the leather soles of my boots. The sound whenever the bird hit the iron was surprisingly loud. Thump! Thump! Moving slowly towards the bird, I felt the impact in my own chest. I didn't dare look down. When I got level with the bird, I stopped. Now what? There was a good six feet between the scaffolding I stood on and the iron frame against which the bird continued to hurl itself. I imagined a lariat, like the ones cowboys used. Putting one hand on a joist for balance, I started unbuttoning my suspenders with the other.
"Be careful!" Sophie said.
I left the right front button for last, so that I could grab one end of the suspenders as they fell. I looked down. The slate floor looked far away and very hard. The bird came to rest on a sort of ledge where the dome's base rested on a massive iron column. It sat, quivering, at the level of my eyes and about six feet away. I could see the bright black shoe-button of its eye. We were two creatures equally afraid.
I flung my arm wide, swinging the suspenders out and up. The motion pulled me off balance. I grabbed the joist. The end of my makeshift lariat missed the bird but drove it upward. It hung there--in the open sky. I could see its scaly feet clutch at empty air. Now! I thought, and let go of the joist. Balancing on the very edge of the beam, I threw my suspenders at the bird. It flew upward, flapping its wings in quick bursts so that it seemed to bounce on the blue morning air. Then it disappeared into the trees.
"Bravo!" cried Sophie. And as I turned to look at her, heart pounding, alight with pride, my foot slipped.
If I hadn't fallen that October morning, would everything still have happened as it did?
"Dreams are the soups sneezes."
My mother's voice. Opening my eyes, I found myself in bed, in my own room. There seemed to be two of her, and I waited, blinking, until they overlapped.
"You were dreaming," Mama said. "You were twitching and jerking like a dog that dreams of rabbits."
Not rabbits. Legs, striped, ascending into a froth of petticoats--the innermost of which was the color of the hearts of roses--burned in my brain. When Mama's eyes met mine, I felt my face grow hot. She laid her palm across my forehead, my cheek. "Fever?" she murmured to herself.
"Mama--don't." I shifted away from her hand, and fire shot through my chest. A blurred kaleidoscope of images--wings, iron bars, blue-fire sky--whirled in my brain. "My suspenders!" I said.
"You fell. Do you remember? In the orangerie. Sophie said you were after a bird. You broke two ribs on your left side. Does it hurt a lot?"
I nodded. When I breathed in, it felt as if I were being squeezed in a giant's fist.
Mama smoothed my hair back from my forehead. This time, I didn't move away. "Sleep, Charlie. Doctor Becker will be back this evening. He didn't want to wake you. Sleep now."
Papa was in Quebec City on business. But Doctor Becker came (warm hands, cold stethoscope, fat gold watch on its gold chain), and my mother came (again and again, as is the nature of mothers), and Effie came (bouillon, poached eggs, a dose of Beecham's, chamberpot). Sophie came. My bedside lamp--turned low by Effie out of reverence for my condition--shed a glow of gaslight over her abundant flesh and made the whites of her eyes shine like boiled eggs. Altogether, I got as much attention as a thirteen-year-old boy could stand; no one reproached me for climbing the scaffolding because my father felt that boys should take risks. A boy who never injured himself never tested himself. C'est ca.
On the third morning Papa came. I woke to see him hesitating in the doorway. When he'd made sure I wasn't asleep, he came in and stood beside my bed. His mustache was gone. Dawn light seeping through the drawn curtains showed his upper lip, which (I realized with a cold little trill of surprise) I had never before seen. Full as a woman's and as pink, it met his lower lip in a way that suggested, even to my innocent eye, desire and determination inextricably mingled. On some level far below words, I understood why he'd kept it covered. But why reveal it now?
The dawn dimness was noisy with waking birds (my mother believed all sickrooms should have open windows), and though I could see Papa's lips move, I couldn't hear what he said. I struggled to sit up. It hurt like the devil.
"You're better," he said. "Grace a Dieu!" When he smiled, his face looked less like a stranger's.
The bandages gripped my chest. Pain made me dizzy, but I nodded.
"You're better. But when will you be good?" His joke, perennial; his fiction, which I pretended to share, that I was brash and unpredictable, a taker of risks, a rebel.
He leaned toward me, and I thought for a moment he was going to embrace me, though that wasn't his way. Instead, he reached around me and extracted my pillow and pummeled it, then tucked it behind my head. The cool smell of starch from the pillowslip made me feel small again, and cared for.
Papa sat down at the foot of the bed, the way he used to do when I was seven, eight, nine years old. I'd wake in the twilight just before dawn to see his dim shape outlined in lifting darkness. "Oh--since you're up," he'd say. And he'd speak, in a quiet voice, about whatever was on his mind. His right-hand man at the factory drinking again; whether to hire an engineer, like the larger firms; the merits of a new kind of hemp from the Philippines. Less often, he'd talk about my mother. "Your mother" was how Papa referred to her, ta maman, as if investing me with some unique insight into the mysterious woman who was his wife. In those early morning conversations--or rather, soliloquies--he never asked me for advice, and of course I never offered any; yet I could feel, when at the edge of dawn he left, that he was somehow lighter.
Now I waited, as I always had. Now, instead of merely feeling his form at the foot of the bed, I could see it clearly; yet I had the sense of knowing less, rather than more, about his state of mind. There was only a feeling of tremendous energy held in check, a galvanized quality. A sort of readiness. Effie's voice sounded from the back stairwell, singing. He took her by her lily-white hand, and kissed her mouth and chin. He led her to the water's edge and gently pushed her in.
"Charles," my father said. My father was how I thought of him at that moment--not Papa--this mustacheless man whose eyes moved to the comers of the room and back. "There are things--how shall I put it?--things that one does because one wants to, and things that one does because one must. And, very rarely, things that are both. One day you will see. But even now, I know that you know this. Because of the bird."
He sat there at the foot of my bed for a long moment. The room was growing steadily lighter, but his eyes were in shadow. His hand grasped my ankle under the counterpane. A squeeze, a little shake; and then he left.
My mother was not so much mysterious as private. I didn't know her--no one knew her--but I never doubted her. If you could have entered her interior world, it would have made sense. She was all of a piece, as Effie used to say.
Convalescence. A crashing bore, Cordelia would have said. On the fourth day I was at last allowed out of bed and, having mysteriously lost my taste for the novels locked behind glass in Papa's library, I decided to amuse myself by going through the boxes and barrels in the attic. This wasn't exactly forbidden; but it wasn't encouraged either. I waited till late afternoon, when Effie was in the kitchen making butterscotch (Send me a kiss by wire ... Baby, my heart's on fire), and Mama was out in the garden.
At the top of the attic stairs, the stored heat of the day lay in wait. It was like entering a dense cloud of butterflies. I pulled the stairs up after me, and the trapdoor clicked shut. The hot, still air smelled of mothballs and cedar. It made me feel odd, my head heavy and floating at the same time. Moving awkwardly--my ribs were still taped--I rummaged through some trunks of Mama's former finery, incomplete sets of china, old draperies brocaded with dust. At last I came to a little pearwood chest with mother-of-pearl inlay in the top. I thought it would be locked; but it wasn't. As I lifted the lid, its frayed silk lining gave way along one edge. Three small sepia photographs slid out.
The first showed a young woman in a pale suit cut in the reserved, graceful fashion of the 1890s. She'd begun to open a heavy, carved wooden door but turned back to smile at the camera. Long hair coiled into a weight on her long neck. Wedding corsage of gardenias, lustrous as moonlight.
In the next photograph there were two young women. Same heavy, shining hair; heads tilted at an equal angle; but only one of them beautiful. Hands behind their backs, they faced the camera with identical small, tucked-in smiles.
In the last photograph the bride stood between her cousin and a tall man with comb tracks in his hair and a clear, beautiful brow. The two women kissed each other on the lips, their faces obscured. The cousin and the groom held hands across the bride, who stood with her own hands thrust behind her, out of sight.
They weren't meant for me, or anyone, to see. Yet somehow I couldn't bring myself to return them to Mama's pearwood chest and close the lid. For some reason I thought of the one retarded boy in my class at Holy Name: Mickey Dwyer, a legacy, accepted because his father and grandfather had gone there. His round face (already wearing the faint beginnings of a beard) was creased in a perennial expression of trying-to-think, and he worried each new event the way a dog worries a bone. He didn't know; but he knew that he didn't know. Like Mickey--or rather, as I imagined Mickey--I felt as if there were a net of considerations strung across the world, visible to others but invisible to me, and I kept walking into them. Kept entangling myself in their sticky strands, like when I walked into a spiderweb spun, tight and fresh, across the entrance to the Dugout.
When I went downstairs in the twilight before dinner, the house was filled with sound. From the library off the foyer came the clack of the new typewriting machine, which Sophie was learning to use. Slow, a key at a time, an unsteady tsk! tsk! tsk! of disapproval. The door was open. I could see a slice of candy-colored shirtwaist, a skein of dark-gold hair thrown over one shoulder. In the room beyond, the room that opened onto the unfinished orangerie, the workmen were finishing up for the day. I could hear the rattle of bricks into a wheelbarrow, the clang of metal on metal, a quick, soft explosion of Portuguese. From the kitchen came my mother's calm, clear voice interspersed with Effie's deeper one.
Immaculate sounds. Sounds in theft places; all as it should be. And yet .... My father whistled lightly between his teeth when he came into the house that evening. "Be there in two shakes!" he answered when Effie stuck her head into the parlor to announce that dinner was ready. Two shakes. That was Sophie's phrase. I'd never heard Papa use it before she came. His voice sounded young--younger than I felt.
What I had seen and heard should have felt harmless, ordinary. It didn't. It weighed on me. I wasn't even sure what secret I was keeping; but I said nothing.
I have them still, the photographs I found that afternoon more than half a century ago. I'm looking at them now, in the sunset Light pouring in through my open window, Like me, they've faded. Down below, on Wickenden Street, I can see the young in one another's arms, flowing hair and flowing garments, the summer sounds of Fox Point rising tinselly and joyful as a thousand banjos. The photos tremble slightly in my hands, and the late light illuminates every tortoiselike spot and wrinkle. I feel, God knows, my age and then some. And yet, the realest part of me is still back there in the long, golden autumn of 1911, fixed there by my silence as surely as these images are fixed in gelatin silver on this shivering paper.
Secrets keep us, not the other way around.
The sixth and last day of my convalescence--Doctor Becker had pronounced me fit to return to school, but Mama always liked a little margin--we spent in the garden, readying it for winter. After days of drawn curtains and comforters and Effie's endless spoonfuls of Beecham's and cod liver oil, the garden seemed like heaven. Yet it held, despite the hot sunshine, an autumnal wistfulness. Mama must have felt it too, because she murmured to herself, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun." I trotted back and forth between the shed and the sundial with armloads of bedding straw while my mother collected rakes, trowels, twine, shears.
"'And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/These lovers fled away into the storm.' Take it easy, Charlie, please?"
I piled the bedding straw in the clearing around the sundial. It felt grand to be outdoors, to be moving, my chest now only lightly taped. Leaves floated down, bright as birds: scarlet from the maples, gold from the birches, yellow-green from the honey locusts. They lay in shining drifts across the flagstone paths that radiated out from the sundial, between the white and rust and yellow chrysanthemums, over the dry, flattened stalks of summer's irises and day lilies. All that glorious dying.
It was me-thirty in the morning. Friday, it must have been, because it was on a Sunday that Sophie and I freed the sparrow. My father had long since left for the factory; Sophie had gone on the streetcar to North Providence to see her dressmaker.
"Cousin Sophie's been here for almost three weeks," I said.
Mama handed me a rake. "We'll pile the leaves against the side of the shed, like we did last year. George can burn them when the weather's not so dry."
"Three weeks is a long visit."
My mother took the shears and began cutting back the roses that grew in a ring around the sundial. She had to crouch to do this, and she moved among the bushes without rising, on her haunches. She wore an old duster whose rusty black made her look like a huge crow, hopping and pecking, Here and there a blowzy late bloom nodded on a yellowed stalk. Snap! went my mother's shears.
"Well?" I said. "Isn't it?"
"Sophie needs a rest. She's suffered trials."
For my mother, the greatest source of life's trials was the male sex. Cousin Sophie's husband, then? No one had mentioned him since she'd arrived. I said, "Trials?"
I'd finished clearing one of the five flagstone paths. I piled the leaves at the end of it and leaned on my rake. The smell of the leaves was earthy and sharp in my nostrils. In some way it made me understand that I was no longer a child.
My mother had finished beheading the roses and was cutting lengths of twine. "Can't you rake any faster than that?" she said.
My father thought she ought to leave the yard to George, who after all was paid to take care of it. I knew that Mama wanted to finish before Papa came home, as he generally did on Fridays, for lunch.
"What kind of trials?" I said.
The snap of the scissors slowed. Deliberately, I bore down through the leaves and dragged the metal tines of my rake across the flagstones. The sound was like the cry of a small wounded animal.
Mama leaned back on her heels and sighed. "Why does anyone hurt anyone? Why pick on somebody weaker than you? So you can comfort her afterwards, and in that way, comfort yourself?"
Raking assiduously, I kept my head down so that my mother would not be reminded I was there. Mama's discussions with herself had always been one of my best sources of information.
"Maybe," she sighed. "Yes--perhaps. Masters beat their servants. Fathers take the strap to their children. Husbands strike their wives."
The husband. He and Sophie lived in Woonsocket, only an hour's ride on the Providence-Worcester Line; but they never visited us. I'd seen him only once, four or five years before. He came with Sophie to spend a Sunday afternoon playing croquet on the wide back lawn, and left abruptly, without explanation, before supper. But I remembered the small, black eyes in the shadow of a seaman's brimmed cap, the square bear's body. Waldemar--that was his name.
"Or would you just lash out, to protect yourself? So as not to have to see that terrible fragility anymore? Not to have to know how fragile you are?"
And I remembered a story of rescue at sea, of many days on a life raft without food or water, Waldemar's companion having taken off his life vest and jumped out of the boat. I wasn't supposed to know about this--I'd been eavesdropping behind the dusty velvet folds of the parlor drapes. Because of its similarity to Papa's childhood experience, Waldemar's story had lodged in my mind and formed the stuff of nightmares. When I read about the Donner Party in one of Papa's history books, cannibalism became part of them. What, my dreams demanded, had really happened to Waldemar's companion?
"Look!" cried my mother. By this time I'd finished raking the last of the flagstone paths. I shouldered my rake and went over to where she knelt among the yellowed stalks of gone-by flowers. Her hands cupped a small plant with heart-shaped, hairy leaves. Clearly a weed, I thought. Sheltered by hemlocks, it had hung on past summer. A few dry-looking clusters of flowers, deep reddish-purple, clung to its stem. My mother touched them with a fingertip.
"Amaranthus retroflexus," she said. "I'd never have thought it would grow in this climate! Remember the seeds your Uncle Thomas brought back from North Africa? Love-lies-bleeding, they call it there. Here it's called pigweed." She stroked the coarse leaves tenderly. "The Wife of Bath was fond of them. 'It tickleth me about my heart's root.' Of course, this one will die. But when I have my orangerie ..."
She stood up, slapping her palms against her hips to dislodge the earth from them. Her face, upturned to the sky, shone with the snail tracks of tears. Surprised, I put my arm around her shoulders. She shook her head and moved away. Taking the other rake from where it leaned against the sundial, she turned and began to walk down the path to the gazebo.
"Spread that straw around the roses, would you?" she called over her shoulder. Duster billowing darkly around her, she disappeared into the shadowed recesses of the gazebo.
I knelt on the flagstones and began packing straw around the roots of the rosebushes. Now and then a thorn bit my fingers. Tears? My mother? It was so unlike her, such a breach of her privateness, that I was ashamed, as if I had come upon her naked. I breathed deep, inhaling the smell of earth and straw and decomposing vegetation, and I bent my thoughts to my work, as a man would do.
That smell. Years later, in the trenches of Belleau Wood, it would come to me, clear and pungent under the stench of urine and rotting flesh, and I would remember this October morning.
The city streets wore Cordelia like a brilliant brooch when, on the following day, we went downcity together, as we'd done so often before. At first it was the same as always. The clang of the streetcar bell; the smell of electricity and horse dung; three boys at the back of the car, still in short pants, scuffling and whacking each other with their caps. Cordelia sat next to the window in a grass-green coat that followed her body closely, nipping in at the waist, and a grass-green skirt with a slit in front that showed her ankles. For the first time I understood how covering the body could make it more insistent, not less. Cordelia knew it, too. I could tell by the way she sat beside me, ankles crossing and uncrossing in shiny buttoned hoots, hands uncharacteristically still in her grass-green lap. She smelled like carnations, faintly funereal.
Running down out street at noon, late for out meeting in front of Grace Church, I had planned to tell Cordelia everything. The photographs; my father's mustache; Sophie's ever-lengthening visit; my mother's distress. I thought if I talked to her it might all make sense. Cordelia would show me that my fears were groundless, that Papa's interest in Sophie was merely cousinly, that Mama was just going through one of her strange times. Now I hesitated. Cordelia's ankles, her perfume, made it impossible. I felt awkward beside her, callow, as young as the bare-kneed boys now shoving each other onto the floor behind us.
Cordelia muttered, "Oh, bugger!"
"I forgot Mama's list. Bugger, bugger, bugger!" Cordelia snatched at her pockets, clicked her little beaded bag open and shut.
I said, "The butcher ... the baker ..."
Cordelia frowned, blowing upwards to lift the fringe of coppery hair off her forehead. Sweat shone on her upper lip. The afternoon was too warm for grass-green wool.
"... the candlestickmaker ..."
She shot me a look meant to wither, then laughed instead.
At Market House, the conductor went out of his way to hand Cordelia down the steps. The trolley tracks glittered like mercury in the hot sun. Cordelia's new boots skidded on them, and she would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed her arm. Her body pressed into my side for an instant, and my hand on her waist encountered the boniness of stays. A corset? Cordelia?
On the river a barge sounded its horn. We walked around to the back of Market House and watched the men unloading wooden crates of pineapples and bananas and oranges. The river breeze carried the smell of the ocean. Above our heads, seagulls skated on its updraft. They made a sound like angry babies, and the dockhands called to each other in Portuguese, and someone somewhere played a mournful tune on a harmonica.
In Goettner's Bakery, the line of people waiting stretched through the open door and onto the pavement. We took our places at the end. Just ahead of us a nursemaid in a frilled cap and apron pushed a baby carriage the size of a small surrey. Cordelia made faces at the baby inside, swaddled in blankets and pink as an Easter ham from the heat. Time was, the faces she made would have been threatening--the two of us had always been sworn enemies of babies--but not now. Now there were sweet smiles and cajoling squeaks. How could I speak to this new cooing, corseted Cordelia about my fears?
A boy in knickers and an old, crushed fedora passed along the line hawking the Daily Journal. Two women behind us shooed him away, and he went off down the street shouting, "Yankees Drop Two Games to Sox! Foreign Warships Menace Newport! Only a nickel!" At the corner, I saw him jump over a steaming coil of horse dung.
Cordelia pulled at her hair, fastened at the back of her head with a green-and-white-striped ribbon, and shook it out behind her. "If only I could put my hair up! I've asked and asked. But Mama is so fogyish."
The nursemaid began struggling to push, then pull, the baby carriage up the two brick steps into the bakery. I stepped in front of Cordelia and lifted the front of the carriage. The nursemaid backed through the doorway. Between us we got the carriage inside. The line had shortened enough so that Cordelia and I could enter too.
"You are nice Charlie," Cordelia murmured into my ear. Her breath felt like feathers. Heat from the huge iron ovens in back carried the fragrance of bread baking, the sharp disinfectant smell of javelle water. I studied the loaves of dark rye lined up on the counter, the rack of long, serrated knives, Mrs. Goettner and her daughters bustling back and forth; but what I felt was Cordelia's body, the slope of her breasts, the curve of her waist. The dear print of a hand outlined in flour on the counter seemed like my thoughts made visible.
"If only Mama would let me!" Cordelia was flapping her hair again: it was even hotter inside the bakery than it had been outside on the street. "Then I could wear hats. I'd wear really smart, distinctive ones, with ostrich plumes and pleated organdy. Hats like that one!"
Her arm grazed my chest as she lifted it to point. If only I had worn a hat! As it was, I had nothing I could use for concealment. I put both hands in my trouser pockets to even out the bulge and hunched my shoulders so that my jacket would go lower. Cordelia was still pointing out the window of the bakery. I turned to look.
Down the street, in front of the greengrocer's, a couple stood arm in arm looking up at something. The way they stood, their bodies touching, fitting into each other like two pieces in a puzzle, made me feel strange. Excited and afraid at once, so that I had to catch my breath. The woman, whose broad back was turned to me, had one hand on the wide platter of flowers on her head. The man--
A carriage pulled up and obscured my line of vision. The driver got out to check the shoes on one of the horses. He took off his bowler and fanned himself with it. Then he walked around the carriage, checking the wheels. When he got back in and ambled off, the couple were still standing there, still locked together, looking now at each other. The woman, head tilted back, laughing, was Sophie. The man was my father.
I didn't tell my mother what I'd seen, or confront my father. If I had, would he have stayed with us?
Oh, one could just keep going back and back. Where does Papa's story start, really? Where does mine? My mother, as a little girl, sat on the lap of William lames in her parents' house in Boston, twisting one of his lapels in her small fat hands.
What holds the world up? she asked him.
The world, he told her with the whimsy that childless adults inflict on children, rests on the back of a giant turtle.
And what holds the turtle up? my mother persisted.
It rests on the back of an even larger turtle.
And that turtle?
James held up one large, freckled hand. It's no use, he said, and smiled. It's turtles all the way down.
In the parlor after dinner, my father and Sophie sat together on the slippery little Victorian sofa, passing the stereopticon back and forth. "Oh!" Sophie, every now and then, would say, so softly the word was no more than an indrawn breath. She gripped the binoculars in her fat hands and peered, entranced. Then she passed them to my father. Did Papa's fingers stay for a second on hers? He lifted the stereopticon to his eyes and adjusted the focus.
"Charles!" he said after a few moments. "Come and see this. You'd swear the creature was galloping straight toward you."
Reluctantly I left the jigsaw puzzle Mama and I were working--a picture of the battlefield at Gettysburg--and went over to the sofa. Papa handed me the heavy steel binoculars. They felt cold against my face. I squinted through them at a mild-looking brontosaurus pursued by two triceratops. There were some little brittle trees in the background, a swooning lavender sunset. I could smell Sophie's scent, like grass in summer; she was so close that the warmth from. her body radiated out to mine. Her skirt rustled faintly, like wind in the grass.
A log snapped on the fire. I pulled away. On the other side of the hearth, Mama looked up from the puzzle and smiled. It was as if her heart traveled across the room to the three of us on some invisible pulley line, like the one on which Effie sent clean, wet laundry out into the side yard on a sunny day.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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