creative ramblings & reverie

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Years

This was inspired by an exercise, based on Virginia Woolf's book of the same name, and the various vignettes I've included here have been worked subsequently into my long Cretan novel, Reading the Stones.


In the circle of light in the microscope’s lens, the scales of a moth wing have become fantastic—an ordinary miller caught in Abel’s bedroom with his cupped hand, against the wall.  Like owl feathers, they are, in one of the ceremonies, like seeds transparent, quick with life—light strokes of owl brown except for three which are mysteriously grape blue.  Who could have guessed all that was in there?
Abel, a junior at Gallup High School, small for his age and next to others of his family, as usual doesn’t leave the science lab until the janitor has to lock up for the day, and then he drags his worn-out denim jacket off the wooden stool reluctantly and shuffles out into the mild spring evening made to go farther by Daylight Savings Time—like his father’s stews, which he stretches with a can of chopped tomatoes or of Campbell’s beef and barley soup, sometimes a couple of handfuls of hard posole or pinto beans, or a cup of vodka if he wants to make it fancy, Stroganoff.  “Stew for the Czars,” his father says, pronouncing the c.   (They kid him he’s a Sioux chef, with all his experiments with food, except that he’s a Ramah Navajo.)  What use, though, the extra watered-down time, when they lock the microscopes up at the old time anyway, and then there’s nothing to do with it but homework, television, chores.  Running—he likes to run best in the dark.
The microscope shows Abel the world he has never been able to see, what others of his family must see, what his cousin Billy tells him—every chance he gets—he saw during his vision quest out on Black Oak Mesa last year.  Now that the spirits have revealed themselves to Billy he is Red Hawk and wears his ear pierced with silver, but Abel can still beat him easily at the 5,000-meter run, and any relay you like.  Even now that he has discovered the worlds that live inside the microscope, playing possum in the nondescript surfaces of all things, what Abel wants most is to be one of the runners who gets to carry the Olympic torch, someday.  His own ceremonial name is Running Boy—or if you ask his Grandfather Joseph, Sees What’s Here.  Which is okay with him, except when Billy gets going.  Which is every time he sees him, you can count on that.  To Billy he is Hey Dumbshit.

The bark is rough under Marcella’s bare legs, the cottonwood leaves rustling around her (always whispering among themselves about something, telling tree secrets).  Between the black silhouettes of two branches crossing above her the moon calmly observes the town of Chimayo, New Mexico settling down for the night.  Marcella can hear the faint distinctive chinks of plates and silverware being washed, through the open kitchen window.  Cassie’s turn to do the dishes.  Miss Future Housewife of America.  The Queen of Clean.
A dog barks persistently somewhere across the valley, just one urgent note over and over and over.  Cerberus, Marcella thinks, the dog that guards the River Styx—or the Acequia Styx, rather, being a lesser, New Mexican Cerberus and chasing cows on its days off—trying to keep some restless shade from escaping the underworld to go out to the Cadillac Bar for the night like anybody else.  In the darkness, washed out by the moon which silvers too the edges of the riverlike cottonwood leaves, she can smell the lilacs, lush and rich, a dusky purple smell that catches in her throat and makes her yearn for things not yet articulated.  She is fourteen, and it is all beginning.  Somehow she knows that, sitting in the tree on this spring night, almost the end of the school year.  It’s part of what the leaves have been saying, though they tell themselves she hasn’t understood.

Chorus makes a warning hum.
The horse-actors enter, and ceremonially put on their masks—first raising
them high above their heads.  Nugget stands in the central tunnel.

They’re getting to the end of the first dress rehearsal for Equus, and Anna, sitting next to some of the young students who help her with Props, in the second row of the makeshift theatre the Players have been using this year, has been enchanted by the effect of the spooky ceremonial masks, transforming the simple set she took almost straight from Peter Shaffer’s stage directions.  It’s a play of strange and profound power.  The fey Will Bryant, playing Alan, is doing an amazing job, after the migraine he had earlier, waiting to go on.
In the light from the stage Anna looks at the wristwatch she has just bought herself, defiant purple against the saggy skin of advancing age—and too many years of gardening.  Damnation.  She’s got to leave already if she’s going to get to the hospital to visit Gerald before visiting hours are over; and if she doesn’t their younger son Howard will have hissy fits.  So unbecoming in a Statistician.  (Especially if she decides to needle him.  “Sorry, darling, I was with that gorgeous young man….”)  She thinks how much better she likes the fey boy than her own tedious progeny.  She can’t bear what’s coming, though, when he blinds the horses.  She’s almost glad they have run late tonight, so she can leave pretending it doesn’t end badly, just once.  She touches the hand of the girl next to her—Tracy, is it?—in goodbye, and slips down the side aisle of the theatre to the door.
Outside, the mild normality of the Philadelphia spring night takes her aback; but a huge sulphurous moon, primordial, comes out toward her from behind the Tastee Freeze, and follows silently along beside her as she drives just a smidgen over the speed limit to the hospital, to make her nightly peace with husband and son.


Abel is running in the city twilight, Charles River on his left, and somewhere off to his right the Public Gardens, with a white patch of swans not gone yet for the winter.  He can see his breath, faintly, ahead of him, a small ghost—the spirit his people would see, visible to him now too.  He laughs at that.  A group of three businessmen passing on their way home look back at him, smile.  The trees are almost bare now, lights instead of leaves hung on the dark skeletal branches.  What a difference running here.  He thinks of how he used to run at morning in the high desert, startling up the smell of rabbit brush and sage as he swept through it, along the sandy bottom of a river-cut canyon, instead of in these canyons of glass and steel and lights and the eyes always on you from the hundreds of offices above.  So hard for a Navajo accustomed to privacy.
Privacy.  That will be gone everywhere, anyway, in a week; he will be married and forever in the company of another.  But she is myself, Abel thinks; maybe it won’t be any different.  Only a kind of fuller, richer privacy.  She doesn’t take up all the air you needed to breathe, the way other people—someone like Marcella—would do.  A person like that takes up a lot of air, somehow.  I wonder if she feels it, like a kind of constant thirst?  Above him on the Longfellow Bridge, a lighted train passes on its way to Cambridge.  Even in the foreignness of this place that is now his home, he feels undeservedly lucky, the cold air off the river igniting in his lungs as he runs.

The rush of warm air stirs the small hairs on the nape of her bare neck with an uneasy frisson.  Marcella stares into the mirror while the stylist works around her weightless head with the hand dryer.  Who is that in there?  She has just had her hair cut mostly off, and now she thinks she wants it back, but it’s lying on the floor behind her, not moving.  Things she wants back, she thinks, throat tight.  Oh Abel.  She was only ever right with him, and now she’ll never be that way again.  The perfumey smell of mousse the stylist has worked, ice cold, through her stubble of hair, with both hands, is not something she recognizes either.  Though it’s on her, it is not her smell.  So what is it that makes a person, anyway? Marcella wonders.  The hair, the hurt, what?  Where does it all start and end, what defines us?  Daphne, girl turning tree— did roots come easily?
In the mirror she imagines leaves beginning around her pale face.  (Art Deco, for some reason, enamelled green and gold.)  She thinks of making pictures of those hidden things that make a person; the places and encounters that have gone and will yet go into what we are.  The absences, beyond all else.  How do you catch what is no longer there?  She’s interested.  She wants to learn how to make those pictures— double-exposures or time-lapse or whatever it takes to superimpose one state of being on another.  She will take some classes, she thinks; she will find out how on film or in the printing process, out of a slow bath of developer, to turn herself into someone the god might have chased, and lost.
It would be something to get her through the winter, anyway.  How old she sounds.  Pathetic and melodramatic.  But she hates this time of year, when everything is dying.  On the East Coast (Boston), in the mountains where her mother is, even here in Tucson when things start closing earlier and the dark comes before you’re ready for it.  That will all come out in her photographs, too, once she learns how to disclose the essences.  The woman with fall in her eyes.  The eyes fatigued with distances—behind, ahead—but innocent, finally, of Abel.

With a circular motion Audrey runs the flat steel curry brush across the appaloosa’s withers, following the whorls of the white-flecked black hair, the rounded warm solidity of horse.  She can smell the comfortably worn saddle leather, and hear the husky oats pouring like water from Delano’s feed bucket as he empties it, ten times in all, progressing down the line of stalls in the low-roofed stables.  It’s chilly this Saturday morning; she’s wearing a turtleneck sweater and the hand-me-down sheepskin jacket from Leah, over her jeans.  They are companionable, she and Delano, not talking.
The Navajo head wrangler had turned out to be an uncle or cousin of that archaeologist Marcella knew at UNM, Abel Joseph, who she’d been surprised to meet walking around the trout pond last Fourth of July weekend, with Delano and a grave foreign woman—his fiancee, a concert violinist from Ankara, Turkey, Delano later told her.  Audrey hadn’t thought Abel would remember her from the dinner in Albuquerque Old Town, the last birthday Marcella spent there, but he stopped when he saw her, surprised too, and shook her hand warmly.  He told Delano he had been friends with her daughter at the university.  (And nicely didn’t mention how she’d followed him to Arizona shamelessly, and even on to Greece, that summer).
Later in the weekend, when she was coming back in from a walk one evening after supper, in the lingering twilight, Audrey heard the sound of the violin coming from the open upstairs windows of the staff quarters.  Some haunting gypsy music, strangely at home in the New Mexico mountains.  She sorrowed suddenly for her daughter, who didn’t stand a chance.  Never had.


“No way in this lifetime will we sell 1,500 copies.”
Cam balanced the pencil flat across his knuckles, the way his piano teacher had taught him, to play scales, and ran through two octaves of C Minor on the conference table while Mark Ainsbury, senior marketing guru, and Beth Soames, the project editor, got done their lifeless bickering.
“If the Reps would make the tiniest effort to talk to the bookstores—“
He’d been pretty good at the crablike walk of hands across the keyboard, but lacking in expression, as it happened; all that had gone to his brother Peter.  Poor sod.
The interminable Monday meeting went on in its predictable course, and Cam just missed catching the pencil as it rolled off the table and out of reach.
Peter hadn’t been any good at the pencil thing, even before he lost all control of his hand movements from the trauma of slitting his wrists.  The audiences hadn’t ever seemed to mind though that he played the keys like an Italian puppeteer, drawing up and up out of them a sweetness and pain that followed his ungraceful fingers like eyes a mesmerist, silk thread a silver needle (stitching a flesh wound).  Expression was everything—up to a point.
Their father had more or less managed to balance his closet Romanticism with a remunerative life.  He was not a practical man, god knows, for all that he built watertight boats and had helped to get the Millennial Clock ticking away in good order—and good time—at Greenwich.  You really shouldn’t name your sons for rivers if you expected them to turn out to be solid citizens.  Peter Cherwell, Albert Cam—what was he thinking?  You ought more reasonably to name them for generals or commanders.  Or even pirates like Lord Elgin or that Cockerell fellow who crossed paths with Byron down off Sounion.
But favorite English waterways?  That was asking for trouble.  Cam followed the line of the Thames (not one of the family) with his eyes through the grayness of rain, the chilly wet glass of the conference room windows.  An idle journey, as far as it took him.  But he left it, and went further.  He let himself go back to the day on Skyros when he had walked with an unusually animated woman up (as he remembered it) between pots of oregano to the highest point of the island to find where Theseus had met his end.  He remembered how he’d followed her up between the dazzling white houses and the smell of herbs, followed her engaging stories and her quick smile to the stony outlook far above the sea.  Even that scene Peter had made, after, somehow hadn’t succeeded in spoiling the day, for a change.  And she had been delighted by the rivers.
It wasn’t far to Crete from here—even this gray river would get you there eventually.  It would be satisfying to put a chair calmly through the glass, salute his colleagues, and jump (just landing on a load of winter wheat fortuitously passing on a lorry bound for the Channel tunnel, and beyond).  Like some American movie.  He could see Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck doing it.  Hugh Grant was too British—like
Beth and Mark, himself and all the rest.  He’d love to see their faces though.  And to be out.  Drenched through by rain.  Moving, beyond his own painful control.  Living.

O lovely red mullet, Anna said to the fish as Vassilis in the Chania market held it up for her to inspect, cleaned and ready to wrap in paper once she agreed on its worth.  Such a fish for a February night, bringing into the house a whiff of the sea.  She would bake it in the classic Greek way, with tomatoes and olive oil, garlic and white wine, and they could drink the rest of the bottle with it—do them both good, after the depressing day.  Those miserable cans!  They’d cleared cans for hours, out of every damned cupboard, and Marcella had hauled them valiantly downstairs for Alexis to take away.  Anna imagined the former tenant, Mrs. Mary Walsington, walled up behind cans of imported English tinned foods, like some particularly awful horror story by Poe.  An impenetrable fort of Heinz baked beans, runny custard, beans in tomato sauce . . . and mushy peas.  To have a soul the color of mushy peas (if mushy peas could be said to have color)—what a way to meet your maker.  Anna shuddered inwardly and took her comely fish from Vassilis.  That, at least, wouldn’t be her fate, God wot.  Unless the spirit of Mrs. Mary Walsington got spiteful because they’d thrown her cans out, and transmigrated.

It was the Chinese New Year.  There were sea turtles in the bay, and a long table beside it under the palms, with a white tablecloth, set for eleven though they were twelve with the baby.  At the foot of it, Audrey watched as the Chinese dragons insinuated their way among the tables, fed red envelopes for luck.  They’d swoop and shoot up tall again, as the drum pulse moved them.
For the first time in her life she found she was not put off by the excessive movement and noise, the possibility of having to join in.  She didn’t have to make excuses and go off to the restroom behind the grass-thatched bar until it was over and the insistent drums still, the surf audible again in their lull.  The big dragon came nearer.  The dancer showed his face through the gaping red mouth, reassuring the children, letting them see that it was only a kind of play.  Audrey had met the dancer at the Zen center in the fall:  Kanoa, one of the best students from the martial arts school in Kailua.  It makes all the difference, to call the dragon by name.
Marcella would have liked this a lot, Audrey thought, memorizing the evening for the letter she would write to Crete.  I wish more than anything my daughter could be at this table among my new friends and family, children and elders and Shu all together eating grilled mahi mahi and Chinese noodles with slivers of things (black mushrooms, bamboo shoots, green onion) and fragrant sesame oil while the big rumbustious dragon and the imitating baby dragon dance the fortune of the new year in.  Maybe next year she will come, if I ask her?


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