Friday, September 25, 2009
On a heartbreakingly beautiful September afternoon Ruth drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin. It’s that time of day and year when the sparkle is on the water, and she would give anything to be going to Angel Island, with its circular harbor and sonorous old bell and abandoned immigration station, to be sitting with a book and half-bottle of cold white wine within the almost-Greek smell of its pines. Looking out towards the island as she changes lanes midway across the bridge, she catches a glimpse of sailboats tacking in a lovely drift across the bay; and like a clunky barnacle-encrusted whale among a school of quicksilver minnows, a huge container ship, the Yangtze, headed for Hunter’s Point or Alameda.
Crossing bridges anymore, Ruth can’t help thinking about terrorists. And now, as if that weren’t enough, how structurally unsound the bridges are, how we can’t afford to fix them. She glances west, where the Coast Guard is supposed to be patrolling. Out toward the Farallons, that mystic death-charged place (or is she thinking Avalon?)—the rocks and shoals where endangered seabirds find sanctuary. Over twenty species on the brink of extinction. Admittedly, she’s a little jumpy these days. Everything beautiful and grand has that doomed edge.
In Marin, she visits her friends Anna and Tom. They walk, under oaks beginning to show signs of the virus that has infected California’s coastal trees; eat salmon (not farmed, she’s sure) and organic fall vegetables lovely and charry from the grill; and after dark go to Kiri te Kanawa’s farewell concert in San Rafael. The Maori soprano must be in her sixties, leaving the stage before her voice goes. Ruth remembers the night of her debut in Santa Fe, in Mozart; and even more vividly the night the old Santa Fe opera house burned down, the summer before she came out to Berkeley for college, the town waking to smoke and then the ominous unworldly halo in the pre-dawn sky to the north.
One of the songs Kiri te Kanawa sings is Puccini’s “Mattinata,” the haunting melody stolen from the quartet in Act III of La Bohème, when the doomed lovers stand in the beginning snow, apart, singing and dying by degrees, singing the music of farewell.
Somebody hands up to the stage a bunch of obviously home-grown roses—generous blowsy blossoms from an old garden tea rose. Two women beam nearsightedly after their gift, looking so much alike, but one ancient, tiny, bent. The mother of the gardener, Ruth fancies, born in Devon or Hampshire and widowed for twelve years, who’s loved Dame Kiri since she sang at Charles and Diana’s wedding, and is sad for her that she has to travel so much alone, so far from home. The petals rain down as the singer puts her nose to them; soon the stage around her is littered with vivid red petals.
But what Ruth is remembering the whole while, during Strauss and Puccini, Wolf-Ferrari and Poulenc, is what she saw, by chance, that afternoon, when she looked over at the island. The unlovely container ship which dwarfed and blotted out the drift of fragile sails.
How low it rode in the water, bearing its load of shoddily-made Chinese goods under the bridge and through the bay, seeming to overfill it, even make it spill—the displacement of water you are taught in school.
How it streamed coldly past the island where the immigrants once waited to be let in (ironically so much more difficult for people than for things), writing their loneliness and fear in poems on the wooden walls in characters like dragons, pagodas, warriors.
How relentlessly it came. How wide its wake.
How silently it slipped past almost unnoticed that brilliant afternoon, with no alarm sounding, no Coast Guard boats surrounding it to prevent its making landfall. We’ve been right, Ruth thought, to fear for the bridges, the ways in.
She sees those identical containers piled up on the cargo deck, like child’s blocks with no alphabet letters. Labels aren’t necessary, in that functional sans-serif font that everybody’s using now. These aren’t the silks and teas and spices that the Orient once sent on ships to satisfy the world’s desire; not even television sets and sneakers, though those are coming too. Nothing you can distinguish. Some gray inert substance without odor or taste. A numbing mediocrity of mind and spirit carried on the water like a medieval plague, spreading and strengthening daily. Homogeneity, available for sale in the cathedral shop she visited in England in April or the little kiosk in the Tuscan hilltown up the winding road past pear orchards where she held for a moment in her hands the mystery of the Etruscans—two painted dancers and a rise of birds—before turning it over to find that, too, had been made in China.
But as the last note of the last song comes hushed and holy to an end, and there will be no more, not that night, not ever, Ruth shuts her eyes and sees again the red, as if in ecstatic slaughter, of the rose petals.
image: The Yorck Project, Etruscan Dancers