A GRAND FOLLY
by S. P. Elledge
Copyright 2017 S. P. Elledge
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for Snudge and Oggie
Table of Contents
[*Part One: *]Enid
Part Two: Oscar
Part Three: Satchell
Part Four: Jubilee
A Defense and a Provocation:
Basil: Well? Well?
Rodolphe (dashing the pages aside): Don’t exasperate your reader, bud. No one in Podunk would actually look, dress, think, or talk like that.
Basil: That’s just it. Maybe they should!
from the two-act comedy Half Amused
by Morley Wrenn, based upon the “non-autobiographical” memoirs of Basil Blakethorne
Part One: Enid
Like hawk upon hare Enid Whitsell had surprised the dawn, for she very seldom gave the world witness before nine. Never mind the diamantine dew, the barn-bound owls, the dozy droning bees—potential inspirations all—never mind the sunrise that demanded an aubade. Today, on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday (when she would become irreversibly old), matters even more important than poetry loomed large and near. It was taxing to corral her many wandering thoughts, but she must try, weary as she was. Only by the grace of a few sips of a potent valerian tincture had she finally been able to sleep for a few short hours; with the first intrusions of daylight though her blinds she had fled from her bed as if it were on fire.
Oh, to be dissolved!
Out the door she ran, down the steps, across the lawn—somewhere out there she would find freedom, somewhere find an answer! Yawning, blinking, and jangling with jujus like a shaman, Enid took Rector’s Lane in fretful strides, convinced that she now knew exactly what a condemned prisoner watching the gibbet’s rise beyond the barred window feels.
Alas, it was intended to be a summer for engendering bright ideas that resulted in brilliant works, for with a great deal of forethought she had guided her two brothers and herself toward what should be their occupations of the season: “Oz” must leave off his mooncalfing and begin to get serious about his experimental novel, “Sax” had to collate his copious annotations concerning grotteschi from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment and commence work upon an actual working monograph, while she herself must try again to fit to a more eloquent frame her latest cycle of ekphrastic odes. But life as their studious little threesome knew it, Enid reminded herself, was going to change irremediably. Indeed, all they had planned was fizzling, soon to explode.
A simple but devastating postcard superficially of the usual sort had brought about this crisis. Enid had it now, concealed within one of the many pockets of her repurposed angler’s jerkin, and she was tempted to destroy it, but knew she never could, for one day it might prove to be evidence: of what exactly, she couldn’t at the moment formulate; events it foretold might or might not come true, given the author’s questionable repute.
The author was their mother, or “the Matriarch,” as they usually addressed her memory, which nowadays they seldom had call to do. She was dead—or should have been—for seven years now. Their much more kindly regarded father (“the Patriarch,” of course), was dead, as well, having slowly, extravagantly, and at last fatally poisoned himself—as much with books as with pills and booze; he had been gone now the same span of years ago as their mother, plus six or seven months.
What to do about her secret torment, how to undo all of the hateful and humiliating past, seemed more insoluble to Enid with her every stride. She could barely heed where she was heading. There, you see—she could have twisted an ankle when clearing that fallen limb in her damp dance slippers!
At that precarious moment Enid decided she must change tack, after all, stop expecting a sort of instant divine deliverance, instead allow the quotidian to subsume the more extraordinary urgencies of fate. Is that how she meant to phrase it? Well, then, she must sit on that stump a spell, breathe like a yogi, tighten her laces, and, steadying her feet, relaunch herself…
So, down the sleeping lane she sallied forth again, chin held higher, humbly challenging nature to provide, as ever it promised, all the distraction she should need. One might have thought midsummer could work its customary magic, but nature, as it so often had in her life, came up short: classifying the shifting clouds, tallying blackbirds balanced on high branches, trying to catch swallowtails or monarchs on the wing… conversely, with eyes back on the road, kicking pebbles, pitching acorns like false hopes into mud puddles—these timeless rituals she had practiced since childhood could not at present ease her pain. Still that creased, oversized card burned against her breast like the lingering sting of a wasp.
Enid’s usual first, last, and best weapon to deal with anxieties and ward off fear (or boredom, should she ever approach its yawning abyss) lay in losing herself in words, imagery, metaphors, art, all that. What better reason to go on living, if one must go on living? Typically she could find far greater minds than her own into which to retreat. Weighted as she was now with worries, however, intellectual immersion seemed well-nigh impracticable. Nobody, whether the most resourceful lyricist or the noblest of metaphysicians, could be up to the task. With every step this morning she felt at turns benumbed, dumfounded, or stunned.
Only with great effort was she able to drag to the surface of her thoughts a once-popular but really rather trivial photograph of “The Principessa Incorriggibile,” taken by Emile Celèstine three-quarters of a century ago, and only because just yesterday she had been poring over the pages of a forgotten London gallery’s even more forgotten retrospective of interbellum society portraitists. She had pulled the old water-warped catalogue quite at random from a hodgepodge of similar items while spring-cleaning the disused outhouse under the wistaria bower.
Something curious—even deceptive—about the princess’s nebulous likeness had arrested Enid later as she lay abed idly flipping pages. One must understand and appreciate, she reminded herself then and again now, that the artist, in this case a much-sought-after society photographer, often and wisely obfuscates motives or sentiments. Who was it said that mystery alone is eternal, not meaning? Celèstine, a well-respected professional voyeur, must have been in love with his subject: either that, or he was terrified of her, and maybe it is the same thing. (It had been much the same thing with He Who Had Sinned Against Her.)
As Enid remembered it, the palladium print showed the most dangerously alluring debutante of 1933 sulking behind a fan made of a lyrebird’s orphic tail feathers, revealing not much more of the girl than an eye black and accusatory, a lasciviously white shoulder, and, most importantly, half of what was much closer to a cynical moue than any girlish pout.
A smile that could be something quite contrary was, or could be, deeply subsumed within her latest villanelle, Enid had decided, excitedly slurping her afternoon Assam (two squeezes and two lumps, please, Sax). No need for everything to make sense the way tottings-up and tax rates are obliged to make dull fiscal sense; let the tercets and quatrain, like that controversial cotillion portrait, question, not strive to answer. She should change “aged” to “autumned,” should go ahead and make of her “heartfelt” emotions a burlesque—beat the world to it, at any rate.
Oh, but contemplating the complexities of versification could do her no good right now, right here, on Rector’s Lane! She still foresaw the noose’s pendulum swing before her, closer than those tragic undines and leering puppets evoked in her tercets and quatrains; she still felt, if she might mix sensations and methods of capital punishment, the blade grazing her slender bejeweled nape. Might as well face it: there was simply no use trying to incite or invite diversions on this day of all days.
Though it was a balmy morn in June, that most innocent of months, and though she was alone and willfully autonomous on a backwoods road in the rustic wilderness somewhere north of Missouri and west of Illinois, in a safe year at the end of a recent millennium, there was still everything in the world to agonize over—not the least being that, because the Matriarch had somehow been reborn, their whole household was balanced on the edge of disaster. For the Matriarch would, like the Aesopian wolf, be blowing off the jovial piglets’ rooftop in just around two days’ time. The big bad woman had said something or other on the card about statutes of limitation, Enid recalled, and how she had married again, and then again, but came out of it all no better off and in the end had no recourse but to regain her birthplace and resume her throne. “Resume her throne”! Those were her very words, or close to them.
So much of the woof and warp of life would change, all those easy and comfortable patterns they had long woven for themselves. Normally, at this hour of the morning, the Whitsells could be found at home, in their separate and inviolable habitats, in a wholly settled state: Enid, only lately awakened and poised for another day’s levee with her brothers, would already be dropping crumbs into the divide between translations and originals; Oscar would be submerged under the salted foam sloshing over his immense marble tub, a board like Marat’s accommodating the notebooks where he set into motion the Bavarian clockwork of characters he’d enmeshed in inescapable plots more intricate than seamless; Satchell, who arose the earliest to perform all his domestic duties, including serving Enid her tea and rusks and Oscar his newly shined shoes, might already have lifted the lid of his “Apollo” branded Pianette and once again be second-guessing the ear of the tuner. Such were the beginnings of what always had been very full if not to say fulfilling summer days for the Whitsells. How Enid would miss what she had taken for granted!
Lost in such sorrows, Enid suddenly saw that a very large and very imperial-looking toad stood squat and square in her path; in fact, she had almost trod upon the immobile amphibian. “Excuse me,” she mumbled as one might to a passerby. No answer or reciprocal pleasantry, of course. This prince of the order Anura simply goggled up at her, unblinking, evidently displeased, as if she had kept its royal highness waiting. Really, when eyed more closely, it could be called the perfect specimen of toad: gray-golden skin, rubbery toes or fingers, agate eyes, sardonic lips, a generally lovely wartiness.
It had long been young Satchell’s habit to rise with the robins and set about shooing toads and other small animals off the lane, lest any pickup trucks or tractors, operated by irresponsible farmers or farmhands, should flatten them before they could scramble out of the way. His older sister had mentioned to both brothers more than once how she disliked finding the carnage left behind by agricultural juggernauts when she was out taking her daily constitutional. Some days she had come upon as many as three or four sticky brown stains in the middle of the lane.
Such horrors could stop a developing rhyme-scheme right in its tracks. But this hour was too early even for Satchell, gentlest of creatures himself, so he was nowhere about with his hawthorn prod; Enid had to stoop as best she could in her twill-knit tourniquet of a skirt to interview the toad—she could not bear to touch or even step over or around it. Some sort of superstition held her back.
“O, Bufo bufo, you buff buffoon!” she chanted to it, never minding how comedic this picture must look to yon audience of skeptical heifers gathering along the fencerow. “Do hear me out, do,” Enid went on in that heightened, actressy tone she frequently took with both animals and younger brothers. “You really shouldn’t be courting danger this way. Anyone who finds this shortcut drives too fast down it. I’ve nearly been killed myself, dozens of times—it’s true. This roadway is a virtual Verdun of the fallen.”
And yet the toad did not bat an eye, assuming a toad can, nor did he alter one iota his supercilious expression.
“Why… I know you!” she said, close to kneeling, nearly eye-to-eye. “You’re Toby. Hello, Toby, my dear. I haven’t seen you for yonks.” Toby was what she called any large old toad who she took to be the biggest and oldest of the denizens of this region (in all truth, most looked alike to her).
Frogs usually obligingly hop out of the way; salamanders slither off without a howdy-do, but toads have a disquieting habit of squatting in the middle of moist pavement, staring one down and begging not to be budged. I have a right to my share of the insects that hover here, they let it be known. On other days Enid might have engaged Toby in conversations about the weather (which toads are always interested in) or the problems of poesy (which they never are). Today neither she nor Toby was in the mood.
So unflappable and fat and wise, there was a buddhist quality to toads that Enid endorsed—one could almost grant that they surpassed the determinism of certain Attic sages. I should be so stolid, she advised herself.
Then Enid felt moved again by an inexplicable despair. “Look, Toby, you absolutely must getting about your business,” she pleaded. “Naturally, you can read my mind, or you think you can. But in this case such an attitude is not helping. You see, I’m totally serious, I am! I give you my word, I only want to save you… ” With real distaste for her own feelings, she felt a cold teardrop dangling from the tip of what kind people alluded to as her “impressive” nose. This wasn’t just about the toad, of course.
Songbirds sang. Midges gyred in the air. The toad adroitly snatched a snack from his rump with his long, sticky, and surprisingly purple tongue. Somewhat revulsed, Enid at last very cautiously tapped the tip of her soft-soled schooner-shaped slip-on against the overgrown tadpole’s humidly pulsating ribs. It did not yield. “Oh, where oh where is Sax?” she moaned, and at the sound or vibration of her voice the little brute at last sidled away, more crab than hopper, to the side of the sandy lane. Relieved but still restless, Enid nonetheless decided to turn back.
Only to resume her litany of woes. Next in order of atrocities was that supremely offensive (yet really risible) review she’d stared down again under an indifferent moon, before she gave in to that sleep-inducing elixir. A botched bit of libel, it was, that review, worthy of further examination only at a more sedate hour—for the prick of the lowly nettle, caustic though it be, is harmless and fast to fade, she knew. (All last weekend long, however, she’d felt herself wincing.)
More important than that sarcastic affront, more important even than the sum of all her literary frustrations, was the fact that the Whitsells had no more money, at least not enough to make any difference, not enough to save their souls. No matter how she had begged them to, at last interrogation both bankbook and account book had refused to collaborate in the kind of sugar-coated fibs she approved. How long the three siblings could afford to participate in their charade of running a solvent business, not to mention a functioning household, she shuddered to admit. Bookselling as a whole was a dying occupation; used books by and large seemed worth less these days than their weight in feathers.
But that was nothing—all of the above was nothing at all, she yet again reminded herself—compared to what the nickel-plated gullet of the mailbox at the end of the drive had yesternoon disgorged. (Unlike the previous Saturday, or most days, Monday’s delivery had been hours late, probably due to a six o’clock windstorm, so Enid had volunteered to check again after lunch. Such were the workings of fate—and what a miracle that she had intercepted Satchell!) Now she patted her pockets again for the loathsome epistle which she had discovered all alone in the box, found it, held it before bleary eyes, but refused at the moment to reread it.
That dated diction, stilted phrasing, and schoolgirl script all undeniably belonged to Mary Seraphina Winchelsea Whitsell—the Matriarch, the monster—her! Today was Tuesday; on Thursday, at fifteen minutes past two o’clock by Amtrak time, their former mother had announced, she would sail through their front door, in all her gloriously ruined and despotic beauty, like a homecoming argonaut, so many creeping years after her fleet-footed but very welcome departure. She had pointedly used only first-person singular; apparently, the new husband, like another mentioned only in passing, was already left behind—divorced or deceased? Had that vain fiend effectively murdered him—them!—like the old one?
No wonder, Enid told herself, that before her encounter with the stubborn toad she had been thinking of the awful and awesome Elena Incorriggibile, later to become a legendary temptress and counterspy: surely, such an artful [_femme fatale _]could have been cousin to their mother, so much alike were they. The Matriarch had never winked behind exotic plumes or filigreed screen for an artiste like Celèstine—indeed, that wasn’t quite her era—but cameras had been invented for her sort, even if of course cameras like mirrors always deceive.
That wicked woman—boldly returning here to the land she had forsaken, after she had bankrupted their father and absconded with his (their) funds from Grandfather’s slow-witted savings and loan! (She had already burned through her own inheritance.) By all rights she should be in prison—and would be, if she had ever been located and brought to trial… This accordingly was news Enid knew she must concoct to conceal from her brothers.
Bright-eyed Baby Satchell had been barely ten when his mother deserted him; his sister assumed this meant then that he had no memory of her beyond an asphyxiating civet scent and a malicious glister of jewels and teeth. But Oscar, the middle child, was different; in a way Enid sometimes suspected him of still secretly worshipping this personage they had all vowed to denounce—after she had forsaken them and the Patriarch—categorically denounce until their dying days.
Oscar was twenty-two now and held that unseemly regard certain bashful, awkward young men reserve for the likes of flirtatious sirens they would never dream of affronting, still less touch. Enid felt that as a member of their own sex she could easily see through such females’ beguiling exteriors. She had not forgotten that just a few years ago, poor Oscar had become rather too friendly with a stuck-up girl who had been cast as ingenue in that year’s junior-class production (not just any old ingenue, but Electra in a trot through the entire [_Oresteia; _]Musquash Valley High School had a reputation for rather high-minded productions). It was probably only because she knew he knew something about fashion and design and so might be able to guide the caterpillar through its chrysalid stage before becoming something much more glamorous.
Enid had watched with apprehension as the incongruous couple’s relationship grew closer and more codependent—only to be abruptly terminated once the final curtain came down and a previously unmentioned suitor stepped up with roses; soon after, big sister had set a cold compress upon brotherly brow and mentioned in passing Eve and the Serpent. “Some of the most unrepentant misogynists the world has known,” Oscar testified on what he had wished at the time had been his deathbed, “are ladies of measured perspicacity, dare I say bluestockings, exactly like you, darling.”
Enid sighed, agreed, and forgave what she perceived as philistinism. Perhaps Oscar and even Satchell, she had often thought, remembered the unwonted maternal kisses and even more infrequent kindnesses with which she had never been bestowed, perhaps they like their father had been bewitched by false glamour and deceptive attractions. But not she, not Enid, never! For her mother had committed an act much worse than commonplace embezzlement…
It is sometimes said that that there is nothing a beautiful woman despises more than a homely daughter, and Enid doubted the veracity of this aphorism not at all. If she had been a quarter as majestic as her mother, they might have been rivals, likely as not, yet rivals who trade dresses and primp each other and don’t mind being mistaken for sisters. Instead, Enid lacked what her mother at her most benignant would call “proportions” or “features.”
For one thing, the daughter was too tall for her own good, as elongated and ungainly as a clubfooted goose, as the Matriarch said as often as not, scanning her from toes to topknot: the girl had no hips, no waist, no breasts, no straight-shouldered vitality, and simply no hope of attracting any more admirers than any old lame gray goose would. So, it was not-too-silently acknowledged, there was nothing much could be done about the body, in general—but posture—well now, maybe that could somehow be remedied. It was her mother who, almost as soon as Enid could talk, gave into what the witch doctors had prescribed and so nightly strapped her daughter into a sort of steel corset: to “correct” her, they all said—as if one could right one’s vertebrae as easily as one could revise erroneous punctuation. And there she had stayed in that “iron maiden” as Enid called it, night after night for years, until at thirteen her body outgrew the contraption.
During this period of enforced incarceration, Enid first began to explore what mere marks upon a page can do, there as she lay almost immobile in bed, scribbling in secret by the light of a purloined candle, just like a hostage in a dungeon; to her wonderment, she saw how, almost of their own volition, words and phrases would magically array themselves in patterns on the paper, and from those patterns ideas and imagery (whose powers she could barely keep in check) might be elicited and evoked. This did not happen all at once; it didn’t even happen most of the time, but it happened often enough to make her want to try anew each night. Among the Rectory’s incunabula Enid had recently come across a précis for one of her unfinished early poems, indicative of that former condition into which she might now, spiritually if no longer physically, be reconsigned:
see poor Rapunzel
locked in her own hell
no knight no pauper
no prince no harper
over her tower
birds from their bower
under her tower
bramble and briar
loose your raven hair!
the witch mounts the stair!
In Mrs. Whitsell’s opinion, Enid’s appearance was the source of immeasurable grief, and Enid was the one to blame—the girl did not know how to refute such an irrational rationale, even when she escaped into her higher self through self-revelatory writing. That “higher self,” like her other hypnogogic hallucinations, never outlasted the harsh light of day. Every time she encountered her reflection, it was an unwelcome surprise. Looking glasses were like tidal pools; the most bizarre and unlovely things went skimming across their surfaces. How could this pure-hearted vessel of such refined sentiments look so coarse, so repellent? she always asked her reflection. In turn, her reflection only accused her, in her mother’s voice, of being an imbecile to expect anything more.
Once she had learned that it is wise to be the first to mock oneself, Enid referred to her nose, that element of herself which people almost always encountered first, as “Ostrogothic.” Only gargoyles could envy me, she told herself; no wonder Satchell was so absorbed in them lately. True, her nasal arch did curve asymmetrically to the left, tapering to a protuberant point that might as well have been sharpened on a whetstone—and it was markedly more Habsburgian than Roman. But such was not her only facial fault, her mother needn’t remind her. She had her father’s deep-set blue-lidded Welsh eyes and also his truculent Scotch chin, which had enhanced his masculine bearing but was all too much for a young girl to bear.
Such a bizarre head balanced on a such a spindly neck, Enid feared, would suit an okapi perhaps or a tapir but not a human being. As for the rest, it was no better than “the attenuated silhouette of a sickly saint,” as an alliterative self-portrait of hers had once contended. Her extremities did indeed tend toward the emaciated: there were angles where there should have been curves, and it didn’t take a meddlesome mother to point out that her feet really should have stopped growing when the rest of her body had.
Every boy or girl deserves to be labeled cute or cuddly at least while still in the bassinet, but Enid had never heard that said of herself, and indeed if her mother ever chanced to look her straight in the eyes or inadvertently graze her daughter’s pale flesh, the woman would react as if pricked and in pain. To make up for her looks—to avert attention from her looks, that is—adolescent Enid had developed a pachyderm’s hide, determined that (after a lifelong devotion to culture and the critics who shape or define it) she would rather be regarded by the eyes of the world as a sort of objet d’art, however outré and eccentric and affected.
A thing like that wasn’t too toilsome to accomplish. She began at the top: around her limp and wispy bogwater-blonde locks, already riddled with silver by the time she came of age, she might wind yards and yards of gauzy crêpe de Chine and lamé, which she dubbed her “Turkestani toque;” or else, when she needed to do something with idle hands as the imp of the perverse ran rampant within her brain, she twisted her lifeless tresses into long Viking plaits Oscar and Satchell called “Medusa” braids—for that meant she was restless and angry and like their mother capable of paralyzing with a single glance. Other times she simply teased and tinted the strands into a sort of wild henna-hued aureole. “As madwomen do.”
After one’s hair, the rest falls in line. Enid had learned that one can further subtract from one’s physical shortcomings with the proper wardrobe. From late puberty on, her clothing, or rather costumes, became more histrionic, even ecclesiastical, constructed rather than just sewn, consisting sometimes of eremitic robes cut from discarded brocades, sometimes of cassocks composed of napped upholstery fabric, or often as not drooping Virgilian togas or Medici drapery, with wimples and snoods and cauls for added effect; her voluminous sleeves and dragging hems she fixed with cameos, brooches, and butterfly-tipped hat pins.
Yes, her jewelry! Rings, earrings, necklaces, necklets, bracelets, anklets, armlets, amulets, circlets, tiaras, diadems, coronets, cameos, medallions… It might have appeared that she had raided the coffers of rajas and moguls, but actually her barbaric gemstones (“my bezoars, my lapis philosophorum, my spells!”) were nothing but paste or glass, fished out of trunks in the attic and drawers their mother had neglected to raid, and her Bakelite wristlets and bronze-plated armbands were probably worth much more.
She strung her bijoux, as well as small shiny bones or shells, along spiky surrealist neck-chains, or clasped them to earlobes and lapels, even cemented them to her footwear and belts and cuffs. It was partly with the ingenious Grisha Z’s help that she had learned to dress this way, so he could paint her to fullest effect in such dazzling raiments—but, no, no, she must vanquish all memories of him! That was all a long time ago now. No one and nobody since, except Oscar’s Lomographic lens (bestowed by the same unmentionable Dobrujan) had seen her more immoderate or downright phantasmagoric productions, except by accident, for since dropping out of high school at the thirteenth toll of the bell she had almost never left the family farm’s seventy-seven acres.
But this morning, after her colloquy with the toad, Enid (dressed simply for summer, a trapezist’s sequined tights under vest and wraparound, topped with those requisite pendants of azurite and malachite) determined that she must pack her bags and leave on the morrow, as they say, after the “jubilee” her brothers had planned for this evening in the half-decayed, half-furbished garden folly down by the fire pond. She would leave them a letter telling them everything, explaining nothing really, for they would understand well enough why she and their mother, like frost and fire, could never ever coexist in the same space.
She would hurry by foot right out of here under stealth of night like a runaway slave, for she didn’t and couldn’t drive the family car, a rust-eaten Runcible hatchback that was ready for retirement; and so she would cast herself loose, down the nearest highway and then the interstate, all the way to California if a teamster didn’t offer her a ride or rape her first. After that—eternity, the universal, tidal waves, apotheosis, whatever came her way…
Overshadowing her now, its faded fieldstone facade miraculously formed of the very mists which rose from the sun-warmed lawns that surrounded it, a building whose outlines were something like a half-burned castle and something like a half-bombed armory took shape in this dubious crepuscular light like an hallucinogenic aquarelle. The Whitsells’ home was quite out of place in this humble countryside, even a bit ridiculous-looking, but if Enid loved anything, this was what she loved. “In sooth,” as she ofttimes said, “I can barely breathe the air outside The Old Rectory.” The Matriarch’s side of the family, as would not be unexpected, had always called their residence something that was true enough, and also derisive.
For it had actually once been the “real thing,” sitting a long time empty on the Cornish coast after Charles II or someone had set it ablaze. When all he owned fit into a bindle, great-great-grandfather Winchelsea had chanced upon it on holiday; much later, when he was very rich, he bought what was left of the structure at a cut-rate price from its impoverished parish, had it disassembled, shipped across the Atlantic, and then barged up the Mississippi. On this land Black Hawk’s second cousin’s tribe had been swindled out of (so local gossips claimed), the rectory or maybe parsonage (if one is technical) was expertly reassembled, greatly enlarged, modernized, and otherwise “improved.”
Architects or historians would be hard pressed to categorize such an abode, after so many major alterations or, so to speak, bastardizations. A hundred years after the last mason or carpenter had meddled with its bones, the Whitsells’ homestead still maintained a queerly romanticized blend of Celtic and Moorish influences, with its plethora of obscure ogives and oriels, corbels with crockets, porticos and pediments, all spaced between turrets that looked like minarets; projecting cornices that looked vaguely nautical; and a swooping slate-tiled roofline that looked like nothing else, complete and replete with any number of faux-heraldic fancies, fripperies, finials, and flourishes; while beneath its bulbous chimneys and bat-infested eaves, there were far too many rooms for a family who from generation to generation used its daughters, widows, and unmarried aunts as housekeepers.
“Rectory,” ha! Enid jeered, as she often did, no matter how strong her affection for the odd, old place—funny name for a domicile inhabited by a family with so little sense of religion or propriety! There was both exaggeration and affectation in the honorific. Neighbors who remembered older generations more charitably than the current one referenced it sentimentally as “Winchelsea Manor” (to call it a mere “house” or a nouveau-riche word like “mansion,” when it had no equivalent in the state, would do it an injustice). Time had not served the edifice well, however, primarily in its most recent decades of disrepair, for on the outside, shutters had unhinged themselves and sashes had splintered and traceries had crumbled and yards and yards of scrollwork had been nibbled to pieces by vermin.
Inside, ceilings sagged, pipes burst like fountains with disturbing regularity, a passing breeze could have knocked over newel posts and banisters alike, moths ate the carpeting full of holes, chandeliers tinkled with every footstep, rodents ran riot behind the wainscoting, electric currents came and went on whims of their own, doorknobs dropped off in the hand, doors and windows stuck as if nailed in place, plaster rained from the heavens when Satchell played too loudly, its whole frame listed so the house could make visitors seasick. Yet it was the only home the Whitsells had ever known or would want.
Decayed or dying as it might be, the house and the barn full of books and the almost worthless acreage were the family’s only collateral left—although given her present mood, she wouldn’t mind seeing a tornado dispatch everything in an instant. At times like this her home could seem just as stifling and spurious as its assumed name. Begone with you all, and good riddance! she forewarned the short alley of elderly elms leading to the house’s colonnaded portal (an entry too grand for everyday use). Enid paused, reflected, exclaimed to herself: Never could there be an arson’s or assassin’s heart so slow to thaw as mine!
The warped and weatherbeaten pinewood shingle outside the stable doors to her left read Nova Anglia Antiquarium: bare-breasted Britannia and Boadicea equipped with tridents and shields flanked the macaronic Latin. Ralph (they fondly pronounced it “Rafe”) Vernon Whitsell, like his daughter too clever for his own good, had painted and stenciled the sign himself when he came here nearly thirty years ago. The business concern he had created in far, foreign Ioway was intended to supplement The Matriarch’s dwindling dowry and the regrettably deficient legacy derived from his own parents. It saddened even more than it vexed Enid, to think her mother would no doubt soon get her wish and cart the shop’s surviving stock off to the knacker’s yard.
Sadly, theirs was no longer an establishment open to the public—not since the Patriarch had forsaken them—and supplies were never replenished, nothing ever added to the collection. Nevertheless, Oscar still circulated a sales sheet biannually, hand-printed and thermofaxed (all their equipment belonged to another, passing era), and if one didn’t count what remained of a paternal trust fund and the lease of most of their outlying grasslands to local farmers, the Whitsells’ few luxuries depended upon an inconsequential, increasingly unsteady trickle of mail-order sales.
Bibliomaniacs can always be sure to make impetuous and exorbitant purchases, but even if one could count on those seeking to stop gaps and round out collections, there were not enough of them—i.e. persnickety scholars and well-funded librarians—around these days for a specialty shop (which is all it really was) like the “Antiquarium” to pay the taxes and stay practicable. The final tally a few days ago had only proven that once again.
It used to be that the more recherché, the better, the more valuable; and their father had been right, in a fortuitous if roundabout way, to concentrate on Georgians and Edwardians who were largely overlooked by the average American anglophile, let alone the semiliterate rabble. When he had at last been lured away from the cloisters of Yale by their villainous mother (Destiny had entwined them, apparently the last two heterosexuals in the world, on a ferry-boat bound for Provincetown), the besotted postgraduate brought along all the volumes he had been willed by a nonconformist uncle, and also quite a few he had picked up in the dustier corners of bookstores in New York and New Haven.
Enid knew by heart the inventory her doting father had accumulated, and she could like poems or prayers recite much of it on demand. She had learned to read using those slightly unorthodox four-by-six cards like primers and had read most of the books they detailed herself, so she was always a little sorry after a sale was made to say goodbye to old friends, most often the more comely or unspotted ones. Last Thursday, it had been
: Earliest _][_April, Windoor & Chatham, London, 1919, first and only edition, decorative endpapers, hb, 79 pp, début volume of poesy, prime example of the “Mesmergogic” School, very good condition with only a few flyspecks, $13*
As ever, the Patriarch’s endearingly idiosyncratic notes, crafted on his bulbous mint-green Hermes 3000—yes, typewritten script can be just as individualistic as penmanship; for one thing, he economized on ribbons by typing half in black, then flipping up the spool every other line to red, so each card was reminiscent of a hymnal. His capitals took regular little leaps into obscurity, words often stepped on each other’s toes, underlining wavered like ocean waves, and long punishing use had made it difficult to distinguish a number of vowels from each other. An asterisk—and asterisks on his indices were as profuse as stars in the sky—meant there was a footnote on the verso, in this case
*one of only two bouquets she handpicked before marrying Baron Pflemme, of course.
Also last Thursday,
: Après les Dèluges, Meacham & Bros, Cardiff, 1930, second novel*, first edition, very scarce, hb, 232 pp, torn jacket, fair to middling condition, author’s portrait by Vivyan Knight-Jarre in frontispiece, $42
*first was deplorable!
Enid had to admit, C. R. V. Hitchkins Jr.’s first novel (Excelsior!) had been atrociously jejune, a bad attempt at “Cubist” narrative; seldom was there reason for her to disagree with the Patriarch’s critical acumen. But it was too bad she had never actually got around to reading Après les Dèluges before she had to prepare it as if for burial, wrap it and tie it and tape it and address it and bless it and pass it on to Satchell to ship out from the post office in Sassafras Junction. (She felt as much procurer as mortician at times, explicitly so when she was well aware that she was handing over a book to a dealer who would probably ask three times as much for it from some grasping Manhattanite. Prices had not been altered on any of the inside covers since Mr. Whitsell had penciled them there, circa the American bicentennial.)
Selling off even the most unremarkable title could be anguish for one or all of the siblings, since every time that meant losing yet another piece of their legacy. As luck would have it, there was an extra copy of First Cuttings—which she didn’t think so bad at all—in the Rectory library to consult, but that one, being a printer’s proof, lacked the magical moon-glow of those gilt edges and marbleized endpapers in the copy they had parted with, and featured instead their father’s faint collegiate inquisitions of the author in the margins, along with a lewd limerick about Miss Trelawny’s virginity (lampooning that once-fashionable Mesmergogic school). At least there were still a few collectors who coveted writers like Trelawny and Hitchkins and their hyacinth-tinted coterie; Enid thought of authorizing Oscar to send out fresh notices to remind the world that they also had titles like Empurpled Emperors and Last of the Lilacs and New Wine from Old Casks, by dead and buried and downright forgettable authors who eluded even the Library of Congress and the British Museum.
Once she had switched on the headache-inducing fluorescents inside the barn, Enid took a good long look at the stock at hand, as if this would be her last opportunity to say goodbye to it all, which it could well be. Kerchoo! (Spelling it in her mind: ker-choo.) Perhaps she wouldn’t miss this place, much. Mildew and mold forever assailed her sinuses and palate here—the smell of time, the taste of decay. None of the Whitsell children being very handy with wood-wax or feather duster except in their own rooms, it seemed today and not for the first time as if all the ashes of Vesuvius or Popocatépetl had settled upon the premises, and she could practically hear the booklice masticating; it was no wonder she had perpetually welling tear ducts and what is known as Reading Room cough.
Outside, the barn (as barns go) seemed unexceptional, when compared to the house; inside, it was cavernous, labyrinthine, almost never-ending, with all the twisting, turning, half-empty stacks where stalls and pens used to be. In former storerooms, confused rows of shelves bowed here and there under the weight of more prolix or prolific authors. And there were the many and oft-unseen nooks and dimly lit, unremembered recesses, stuffed with packing materials or old chairs and tables laden with farm tools and mislaid merchandise. One could waste hours foraging for a particular book, even though the Patriarch had once betrayed the orderly obsessiveness of a philologist and the methodology of a military officer (he had begun his education at Annapolis).
The trouble was his offsprings’ general disinterest in upkeep, as well as all the inaccessible corners and dizzy reaches and Oscar’s forgetfulness and Satchell’s bad habit of picking up volumes at random and putting them back in the wrong places (the younger boy’s intellectual pursuits were eclectic but rather sloppily conducted, Enid had long opined). Over time the premises became gradually barer and sparer, at least until one of the three of them hauled down another previously undiscovered cache from the hayloft.
Back in their mother’s youth, livestock still made their beds within the premises, and the things they had done helped make the floorboards warp or fall through to the earth below, while the dozen or so doors and windows refused to open—or to shut. The barn was an icehouse in winter (there was only one heat lamp above) and in summer it was a sweatbox (not even a fan). At least on a fair day in June, with the fresh air and not yet so many flies, the place was tolerable.
With a certain amount of relief, Enid slung up the accordion top of the former horse stables’ main feature—a piece of oaken furniture so high and heavy it may once have served a sacerdotal purpose, perhaps even in the original rectory—and discovered the elusive Cachou curled up asleep within. “So that’s where you’ve been, you oozle-woozle,” she cooed, gently picking up her pet by the scruff of its neck and nuzzling its muzzle. Cachou scratched at her nearest ear in an attitude midway between playful and hostile, although Enid was the one who felt more like biting today. Stroking its lustrous fur, she placed the animal on the straw-littered floor, only to watch it expeditiously scrabble up a supporting post, then disappear into the loft.
It was time to tackle the bewildering recesses before her. With all its crannies and cubbies (many so small they were unable to hold much more than a few pencils or pushpins) and drawers (every other one opening only with a curse) and narrow compartments (deeper than they were practical) and postal slots (which were just as likely to house mice as mail), the venerable desk might have held as many secrets as the archives of the Vatican or the Pentagon.
unsigned or unsent valentines,
intaglioed baptismal certificates,
black-bordered death announcements,
all had spilled out of the carrel’s sanctums at one time or the other, when people were looking for other things, or were discovered through idle curiosity—only to be ruthlessly handled, ridiculed, or determined to be worthless, then jammed back into the myriad niches from whence they had come. In a way the desk was family tree, cabinet of curiosities, and burial ground, all in one.
Enid was asking herself if there were somewhere here she should secrete the message from the Matriarch that she still carried upon her body like a burning ember—but would today be the day, if only by the most far-fetched of coincidences, Oscar or Satchell would happen upon it, in the most unlikely place? It might in fact be predestined that one of the boys would discover their mother’s communique without even trying. Never mind this old roll-top, then—there were a million other places she could hide the hateful thing, which she never once thought of destroying (again, she told herself, it was proof positive of some sort, and as part of a puzzle as yet unsolved, must be preserved).
Naturally, concealing the pictorial dispatch inside any of these books here or inside any of the countless other books around the house would be easy—and yet Enid was certain that whichever one it was, that would be the publication a restless brother would pick up at random to peruse, as peruse (like lambs upon fresh clover) they constantly and compulsively did. Oscar was liable to pick up any old guidebook or anthology to fall asleep with after the midday meal, peradventure even that decaying copy of Auguston’s Fall of Elliam under the tea chest in the spence or the almost immovable Mrs. Semple’s Cookery Book Fully Revised and Expanded holding back the “refectory” door; likewise, Satchell would undoubtedly go for the exact volume of the Encylopedia Romantica she had selected, even if it were Q-Ra with its scoliotic curvature of the spine.
Be it the poet Tavernus or the astronomer Stellerton or the journalist L’Argus de Ville, one or the other brother would be sure to open the prized tome at the exact place where she had secreted the devastating news. Enid knew her fears were inflated and her speculations absurd, that in her agitated state she was behaving any way but logically, yet she doubted not that the gods would, as gods will, conspire to expose her devious act. Her brothers would of course find out the truth soon enough.
Buying another twenty-four hours or so, however, might make a difference. (How she wouldn’t be able to make clear.) Responsible Enid affirmed panic-stricken Enid that she would leave the boys a long, penitential letter drafted after this night’s festivities, with corroboration attached. Today was the eve of both her birthday and a new sort of life; tomorrow when she was older and wiser she would manage better—tomorrow…. After staring into the bottomless pit of the massive desk with her mind running recklessly for what had seemed a very long time, in the end she came up with the crafty notion of putting the evil little rectangle into the Illustrated Sports Almanac of 1965; being decidedly nonathletic young men, she concluded it would be the last place they’d ever look, and besides she would place it on the sly atop the tallboy on the third landing of the “buttling” staircase.
She couldn’t resist another look first. Once she had given the premises a thorough once-, then twice-over to make sure no one was watching, including any meddling barn swallow, Enid retrieved the item from her pocket and spread it under her palms on the worn rawhide surface of the desk, as a botanist might mount a leaf on a blotter for closer examination. The glossy side of the card showed a completely banal, completely anonymous motel room (twin beds, twin lamps, twin dressers bored of their very existence) with a view through the window of a pool just large enough to drown in, two palms salaaming to each other, and contemplative peaks lost in the usual turquoise-blue yonder. The year might be 1971 or it might be never. She flipped the thing over and read it again, hoping that the words, within the past half-hour, had supernaturally been transfigured into something more innocuous, even welcome. But they persisted in telling the same story. In a single long congested paragraph, in Seraphina Whitsell’s infuriatingly tiny and aggressively slanted hand, employing finishing-school cursive with many double and triple underscorings, there was written:
“[+ Lost ]:
[Startled to hear from me at last? Well, your old Dam ain’t so dearly departed yet! I wonder if ever wondered. Remember, I am still your one and only and the Ol’ Rec has been and will always be MY _][_true home. I’m Mrs. Lumeer now, by the way, formerly the Widow Stonecroft _][neither surname was quite legible, as if to elude detectives].[ You might as well know neither left me a . Isn’t that ? Lately to get by, I’ve done a little light housekeeping ][or was that “bookkeeping”?][ …. So, with me to help out at the shop, we_][_’ll make a new start this year—how’s that? Another go? Life’s just LIFE, after all! Next week I’ll be boarding what used to be the Zephyr in Reno and will be back at the poor farm in…” _]
Etc., etc. Enid could do no more this time than skim the rest. Something about eyes like roulettes, something about humble pleas, well-intentioned but never sent. Signed below the address, almost as if it were part of the address, the worst thing of all: “.”
!! (As sometimes serves as a paragraph in certain quaint old books.)
The printed information in the upper left-hand corner of the picture postcard revealed only that the photograph on the other side depicted the risibly moderne Honeymoon Haven Motorcourt in Blind River, Arizona. Nothing more. The indistinct postmark read either JAN 5 or JUN 5; most likely and logically the latter date, which made the message all the more urgent.
Enid slammed the shop’s heavy nubuck-bound Sales & Purchases ledger down onto the flimsy piece of incriminating correspondence, exhaled, then violently split open the volume, in an effort to blot out the memory and image of that disgustingly facetious maternal autograph. Two creased index cards, margin line red and content lines blue, bookmarked the place where she had left off calculations—their father’s peculiar documentation of the last two books she had bidden Satchell to ship to some over-cultivated bookworm at Dartmouth. To reread the records soothed her somehow, slowed the world down long enough for her to gather oxygen again. Besides, they were often more entertaining than the books they described.
“,” (nom de plume for ): Tigress in a Trap: One Woman’s Year of Bondage Amongst the Deadly Pathan in Remotest Punjab, Alway & Alway, Edinburgh, 1919, hb, 414 pp, oversized, no jacket (poor shivering thing!), introduction by Glenn Glynn-Ffines, memoir (probably ghostwritten and shamelessly fictionalized; she was also the authoress of Snowblind: Amidst Lapps and Esquimaux), third edition, fifth printing, “illuminated” with tinted gravures, minimally foxed (like wrinkles on a babe), $13
: I Am Ramses XIII: Sonnets of a Clairvoyant, Smythe & Hayes Publishing, New York, New York, 1924, thirteenth edition, pb, 111 pp, poor condition, $3*
*intriguing only because it was a hoax—what is a pharaoh doing composing sonetto?
Enid knew these particular books; she had idled through them and others like them time and again as a girl, often literally on her father’s bony knees. As always, the more incredible the book, the more she had willed herself to believe every word, for to do so is to draw magic out of even the worst writing. Preposterous as they were, she regretted parting with these types of books more than the classics the Antiquarium occasionally sold, for classics are no trouble to find or replace. It aggrieved her to a much greater degree that the two books on the catalogue cards and the two she had recollected a few minutes earlier represented the sum totals of almost four weeks’ worth of sales. It said so right there in Sales & Purchases. Even if the shop were to suddenly sell the most valuable merchandise at hand—one of those second (and superior) editions of Talleyrand or the complete set of Elspeth Thistlebriar, with hand-colored engravings by Dôdot–it would not be enough to save this ship from sinking.
In cuttlefish ink blueish black, with blots here and there like fresh bruises inside and outside of the ledger’s grids, were her most recent mathematical estimations of household expenses versus money the Whitsells had access to at the 1st Agrarian S & L of Gypsum County: meaningless computations she’d added, subtracted, divided, multiplied, crossed-out, circled, underlined, corrected, totaled, and re-totaled again and again—the final equations at the bottom remained even less credible than they were reassuring. It was the end, or so it seemed today. Given the Whitsell children’s expensive predilections and the high cost of day-to-day living, there was no way the household could support another member, should the Matriarch return. Should she return—she would! And that was just like her, to come at such an inconvenient time with such short notice, with finances in shambles.
Could their mother find employment elsewhere, however—could she “help out”? She must have known some means beyond gambling and lonesome retirees to get by all these years. Out of the question, however, to think of anyone who would hire their mother, who had never worked an hour of her life outside hindering their father’s efforts in the Antiquarium, so far as her progeny knew. As far back as they could remember, she had spent most days in bed and most nights out, who knows where. They would, like their poor love-blind father, end up casting alms at her dainty feet.
Now, with hubris stuffed in their back pockets, Oscar and Satchell and Enid herself (if she were forced to carry on here) would all have to go out and find real jobs—at the convenience store in Sassafras Junction, say, or the truck stop at the intersection of A-15 and X-9, or even at the meat processing plant in New Hamburg—they would have to find out for themselves whatever it was young, unskilled, and generally unemployable people did to earn a few dollars in a region with many more declining farms than factories. We are doomed, Enid addressed the fine-lined pages splayed beneath her fingers. She could see every stitch of the dreary waitress’s uniform she would have to wear.
For all his height and hulk, Oscar could enter a room stealthily as a shadow. “So there you are, Enid!” he hailed her, without even an introductory clearing of his throat, then closed the stable door behind. “We were afraid you might have fallen down the well. A calamity like that would be so unbecoming of you, darling, on the eve of your revels.”
For a moment Enid, still preoccupied with their predicament, remained in her chair at the desk, blinking, open-mouthed, neither fully hearing nor seeing him. “What are those ghastly cerements and funeral rosaries you’ve adorned yourself with?” he asked. “Must have dressed in the dark.”
Enid had long practiced ignoring him when he chaffed her, so he wasn’t thrown off in the least when she didn’t immediately respond to his quips.
He was busy enough, twisting a crêpe de Chine scarf around his neck and through a thick lead signet ring. “Really, what are you doing out here at this hour? Why leave bed so insensibly early, to arouse even me?” Evidently, there was already caffeine in his system.
He adeptly completed his knot and his rapid-fire inquest: “Never mind—Satchell in his haste has most arrantly immolated our breakfast, and you know how that rattles you.”
At last, with a start and a cry Enid woke from her trance and clapped the thick sales book shut, relieved that the Matriarch’s annunciatory postcard was still concealed beneath. “Please oh please don’t sneak up on me like a sneaky sneaking sneak!”
She had already swiveled twice round like a top in the wobbly desk chair, attempting to follow her brother as he lumbered about the room and nervously bothered this or that pen-holder or stack of files. “How long have you been standing there, yammering on? You know I hate when you do that. Sit still, will you!”
He shrank away and she saw that his big broad-featured koala face looked genuinely contrite. “Oh, I am sorry, Oz,” she attempted to make amends, “but you know I hate figures, and I’ve been doing so much figuring I’m dizzy. I might as well tell you now that we’re sunk. As in burial at sea.”
Oscar moved two steps closer again to see what it was she had snuffed shut so hastily; she made a vain attempt to block him, afraid that he might next start browsing through everything else on the desktop. But he stopped short of that and sat down opposite her on a groaning piano stool and sighed a deep dismissive sigh, apparently having seen enough, which had to have been little—for he was quite myopic and would so often refuse to wear his specs except for reading or backseat-driving the Runcible. “We’re doughty folk, we’ve navigated through these maelstroms so many times before,” he said resolutely, reassuringly minding her metaphor.
Then he reached over and took her bangled wrist. “Enid, my love, my lodestar, my mentor, I am sure everything will work out.” He enjoyed taking advantage of opportunities like this to demonstrate his oratorical prowess. “Why, by all the gods and saints, I swear to learn a trade, become a lawyer or a wilderness guide and support us all, if it comes to that. Count on it—count on me.”
“You sound like the man who promised to walk across the water and then waited for the lake to freeze.”
“Well, we still have a tiny bit of capital stashed away for when the jam jar’s run dry, remember.”
“Not enough! Not with the high cost of eating and breathing nowadays. We live a frail existence. Lost, lost, lost is most of whatever we once had in escrow. The rest is melting like Easter snow.”
Enid could make the most of a dramatic pause. “We’ll have to sell the farm, simple as that.” With an oath, she shoved the ledger deeper into the desk and unfurled its roll-top, as if to say there would be no more office work and no more talk of business today, this last day she would be young. Oscar was still peering intently at her with his shortsighted eyes. Fingers cooled by the smooth stones of her pendants, she belatedly echoed his sigh and looked out the doorway that had swung open again behind him, revealing a world that shone with June light and June warmth. And yet, she thought, everything beyond my body and my mind is still so fresh and young!
A very sensitive and sympathetic boy despite all his bumptiousness, Oscar rose and lay his meaty palm on the twitching left wing of her shoulder, promising, “They’d have to drive us away with torches and pitchforks first, you know. Come along now. This evening’s gala will help lighten your mood. And, as you requested, we did spare expenses. Pity. Satchell says he even canceled the cake. Though it was to be as multitiered as Babel! We’ll have mulberry fool instead.”
For someone as thin as skimmed milk, it might be met with disbelief to learn that just the thought of sumptuous desserts soothed Enid even more so than worrying her talismanic beads. Food, she had always known, would be her downfall. It was big bulky Oscar who in fact did not eat much. “With lots of Devonshire cream, of course,” she said with a certain amount of wistfulness, for she had become aware that she’d had nothing yet to eat or drink this day, despite the fatigue of matutinal activity and mental anguish. Dear dear, this day had begun so unlike most of her days.
Most of her mornings she would still be deep within bedclothes, waiting for her hot cocoa to develop its delicious lactic skin while shifting through the mail Satchell had poured upon her eiderdown not long after she’d heard the postman’s jeep pulling away. Usually nothing but a few bills, perhaps an order or two, perhaps another rejection, and probably a couple of useless circulars or the Gypsum Country Shopper; maybe if she were lucky, a small packet of deliquescent medlars or cognac-infused truffles that in a sybaritic fit she had ordered from an overseas emporium. Never anything until yesterday from the Matriarch—and seldom from anyone else the Whitsells had ever actually met.
But on Saturday last of course had come something a little different: a large, suspiciously over-padded envelope with a loud red sticker across it that read Complimentary—Please Subscribe! “We’ll see about that,” Enid had answered aloud the plea, barely noticing the local return address before she’d ripped into the bubble wrap and withdrawn the latest issue of Rhyme and Reason, the very imperfectly photocopied and perfect-bound magazine from Flint Hills Community College in Shokokwan, the county seat. Well, well, what do we have here:
A construction-paper cover featuring a rude “xylograph” of a shackled angel suckling what could be mistaken for a piglet, hand-drawn ads for a diner and a hair salon and a thrift store, a lengthy Table of Contents and even lengthier page of Acknowledgements, letters to and from The Editor, the usual anemic short stories about heroin addicts or sexual mishaps, scads of poems that seemed nothing more than lower-case prose (bad prose at that) wriggling “artistically” across the page in short uneven lines, poorly replicated student artwork and darkroom experiments, a few more local ads, more serpentine verse, more ads, and lastly a Critic’s Corner…
Nose to the budget foolscap, Enid smelt brimstone.
Within five minutes she would summon Oscar to her room; knowing how calm and conciliatory Satchell could be, she wanted to broadcast her dudgeon to someone who could savor this first full flush of righteous indignation as much as herself. Oscar took his writerly travails almost every bit as seriously as did his older sister. Satchell, being so young, still had a tendency to tee-hee when taxed with important issues.
Besides, she didn’t want to call Sax away from his Variations in Tones of Puce (as was its somewhat stilted title in English), which she heard wafting from the “gentlemen’s quarters” at the opposite end of the manse. (He’d play very gently at this hour, at her request, so as not to compete with daybreak’s choir.) Early every morn for the past month he’d been working his way through Anton Scøszlo’s thirty-two pointillistic idealizations of beige dissolving into brown, and that was another reason not to disturb him.
She could picture the dear boy still in his nightshirt, pedaling away at his antediluvian instrument, stifling the metronome every now and then to pencil a note on the score. Cruel to interrupt such concentration. Oscar, however, being older if less robust, must necessarily be apprised that war had now been officially declared.
“ ‘And from somewhere near sweet old Sassafras Junction, high above the hallowed banks of the mudlicious Musquash River,’ ” Enid read in operatic pitch from the magazine flattened upon her breakfast tray, “ ‘comes flapping the arrival of Wings, an excessively lavish clothbound production, printed at what must be great expense by a firm in the Sunflower State that, as far as we can tell, otherwise specializes in quaint repros of Arts and Crafts pamphlets or other ephemera or esoterica of that ilk.’ ”
“Well, it was pricier than we’d expected, that’s true,” Oscar began to say before his sister hushed him.
“ ‘…of that ilk.’ Vile word, ilk! ‘This unique publication appears to have been largely overseen and orchestrated by three members of a family yclept Whitsell. The Whitsells are obviously not out to make money, but to change the world one line of verse at a time.’ Ah, such mordant wit—as if we had the means or power to change the world. Let me go on:
“So. ‘Editor-in-chief is Meister-mind Enid Whitsell, whose recently self-disseminated book of ‘spectrographic’ poetry, The Kaiser’s Kinetogram, we had meant to anatomize (with much a-/be-mused delight) in our last installment before we ran out of space and time. To say we are even more thrilled concerning this latest stratagem of the Whitsells would be an understatement, for to turn the pages of Wings: Volume I is to board a fast carnival ride after imbibing too many dollar beers. The poems and poetic skits within are a whirling cacophony of sound and vision guaranteed to leave one at least a bit giddy (and we’ll excuse anyone not stout enough to stomach such stuff).’ ”
“Oh, Eddie—” Oscar began, ink-smudged lenses already askant.
“Let go my arm! And let me finish: ‘In the grand tradition of presses named Hogarth, Hour, Dial, Black Sun, and the Prairie State Agricultural Report, Wings is unafraid to publish that which is bold, that which is new, and that which looks to uncertain futures. But lo, there is no pork in these pages, even if there be a lot of good Iowegian ham—blue-ribbon quality, mind you, and we thank the Unholy Trinity (Enid, Oscar, and Satchell Whitsell—no use avowing we can’t see through those anagrammatic sobriquets!) for brightening what has been a printemps sombre with their lightning flashes of unpredictable levity and inspiriting esprit. They are all savants of a sort.’
“Of a sort,” Enid emphasized, before returning to the article: “ ‘We are also grateful to the Flint Hills library for gambling fifty-five bucks on this one, because we often spend our funds far too responsibly…’
“Oh, hell’s bells, keep away! If you must know, it winds down and down from there. ‘We breathlessly await Vol. II,’ and so on. Unsigned, naturally.”
Waving Oscar away as he once more tried to seize Rhyme and Reason from her, she raced through the article for a third time to see if she had mistaken as snide or arch what was meant to be un-hypocritical. No, as usual her initial opinion was her best opinion; these words were obvious and unsubtle, and exciting as it was to receive notice—any kind of notice for an otherwise unheralded launch—the short critique had left her seething out the pores.
Her pretty papyrus-papered chamber, with its Cairo-by-way-of-Paris furnishings and latticed “mashrabiya” windows (the bedroom had been the parents’, when they still slept together) seemed, large as it was, to be crowded with the scoffing eyes and nudging elbows of that intelligentsia made up of “little magazine” editors and other demons. Enid glowered at Oscar as if he were one of the perpetrators of this attack and not a fellow victim. “Paradoxical title for their detestable rag,” she seethed, dangling it before Oscar like bait. “Being that there’s no reason for it and not a single rhyme in it. No wonder they hate that we exist on such a higher plane.” At last she tossed the limp thing in Oscar’s general direction and fell like a hyena upon the last glops of her mulberry confiture.
Oscar took the opportunity to plump himself upon her bed and, balancing his heavy hawksbill eyeglasses at the end of his thickish nose, scrutinized the notice himself while Enid skinned a persimmon. Poor Oscar, Enid always thought: It was not so much that he was unattractive, but that he was so very certain of it. When he read, like a one-eyed prior who strains over scripture in a lamplit abbey, one could see why his less compassionate classmates had often as not referred to him as “Squinty.”
He had already worked himself into a state of breathlessness, so he pulled from his pocket the asthma inhaler he relied upon as Carroll’s caterpillar did a hookah. A couple of spurts, Enid knew, usually enabled him to relax and concentrate.
In a minute or two Oscar told her that he found the piece as insensible as it was disappointing and was glad again that after graduating from MVHS three years ago he had not entered the local two-year college or any other institute of higher learning, but instead elected to remain at home as her apprentice, amanuensis, and domestic plenipotentiary. The truth might be, Enid feared, that he actually could not be too bothered about such affronts today, as he was probably still over-absorbed in tracing or retracing the footsteps of his hapless Whistlebott family; no doubt she had interrupted him just as they had boarded a banana boat to Borneo or disembarked from an icebreaker upon arctic tundra.
She was never as patient as he could be. “So you think this does not call for instantaneous retaliation?”
Weighty spectacles in hand, Oscar jabbed at uncarnate injustice as if he were a choleric dowager wielding a lethal lorgnette. This was an unnerving mannerism of his. “Oh, the ignominy!” he wailed. Maybe he was impersonating someone—herself?
“Stop this mimicry, Oscar, stop it, please. I am burnt to the end of my wick.”
Enid went on to detail how she had divined, at first sight, that the journal consisted of nothing more than the usual kind of self-therapeutic, identity-validating, politically motivated, emotionally expressional, free-associative drivel of the worst sort of written-on-the-latrine-walls-in-blood variety she had ever encountered. It was the direct opposite of anything she had ever believed in or revered.
To appease her, Oscar folded up his eyewear, sucked in his breath through his teeth, then restrained himself enough to say, “I too am scandalized, don’t doubt me. They’ve shown no courtesy or constraints in deprecating us. In Britain one can sue over misrepresentation of this sort, or so I have fancied.”
“Every day I am reminded that we are not in the UK or anywhere a quarter so interesting,” Enid replied. ‘But it is not 1895 or even 1925. Our only expedient nowadays in this country is, short of hiring a hit man, to ridicule the gutter press publicly—but how? They are biased against us in The Chanticleer.” The Chanticleer was Shokokwan’s weekly newspaper, which in spite of its progressive policies had not so far elected to print any of Enid’s poetry, even her most proletarian.
“And the Shopper is hardly the place to carry on esthetical disputations. The Des Moines Register and The St. Louis Times Dispatch are equally too distant to care. We might go to the college itself and demand they rescind what they printed, but I can only foresee administrative doors slammed in our faces.” She looked doubtfully at Oscar. “Oh, well, we could lob smoke bombs through their transoms.”
Oscar was busily divining the mystic paisley swirls of his nylon socks. “Winnie has told me,” he said to Enid without electing to re-don his glasses and focus on her, far across the wide rind-strewn bed, “that staffing of Rhyme and Reason is as variable as the weather and as prone to collapses as Latin American stock exchanges. Editorial discussions are brief and few. Students run in and out on their way to liquor stores and ‘pot’ parties. Imagine the attrition rates at such a place! It would be a royal pain to pin anyone down there, even if anyone in those pages has not gone truant. And now, to top it off, we’re between terms.” Winslow was his only friend from school, and the only one among his contemporaries Oscar had stayed in contact with through the years.
Enid snatched back the magazine and flipped to its masthead. “There is always the faculty advisor,” she said with a great deal of professional acumen. “Ha! Look at this, your sidekick Winslow must know her, maybe had her for an instructor.” Enid tapped menacingly at the page she held open for all the world to see. “Here, who is this Cyrie Epping, then? She’s the one who allowed this to happen. Who is she, forsooth?”
“I’ll tell you,” she answered herself, as she often did (whether or not anyone else was around). “She is nothing but a smug, semiliterate Poetaster.” The very word “poetaster” was wormwood in her mouth. It is the thing poets most fear being called themselves.
Oscar, curiosity clearly piqued, shifted a little over the bedspread in her direction. For his benefit, Enid summed up her assumptions about Assistant Professor Epping: “How could I forget for one second! That peculiar name… I’ve read all about her, I remember now. The publication of a chintzy little chapbook—Silos and Stars or Galaxies of Granaries, something like that—was cause for a feature in The Chanticleer’s monthly arts supplement last winter. Wouldn’t bowl me over to hear the reporter is an intimate of hers.
“Sample lines of what I would call overly free verse were quoted at length and to ill effect, I might add. Very confessional, very explicit, we know the sort, don’t we, Oz. Winslow will probably have already confirmed to you that he has it on good authority that Cyrie Epping is a highly frustrated Lesbian. Not, as you must understand, that I otherwise hold any objections to Inversion or most other vices.” Enid had long ago cultivated the habit of articulating certain words as if they were capitalized or italicized, whatever it took to make her point.
Although her memory was very nearly eidetic, Enid was never one to shun the use of embellishments for added effect. She recalled or thought she recalled certain elements of her rival’s biography in that article, and glossed upon them for Oscar:
Epping hailed from a dubious corner of the southernmost Middle West, graduating first with a teaching certificate, in all likelihood from somewhere unaccredited, then with a master’s in fine arts from a low-residency program of no repute; naturally, she was now flourishing at FHCC, where among other things she taught something called “creative journaling” and Contemporary American Authors. Such was this individual who had said she “always found writing to be such good therapy.” Enid recalled her saying she lived very happily all on her own—if you didn’t count her cats. Cats on counters and couches and chairs and beds and probably swimming in the bath; Enid, who had always suspected cats, however highly prized by many, of being distinctly philistine, had no trouble picturing the spinster and her feline companions.
“Cats are so sphinxian, so inspiring!” Cyrie Epping had actually gushed to the interviewer. She had also let slip her weakness for “moonflowers, night-song, and monastery gongs” as evinced in one of her mimsy versifications. God help her, the instructress also said that she couldn’t help having inherited certain good old-time Lutheran traits, while at the same time like a regular artiste she was very superstitious: albino squirrels are lucky and empty hearses are unlucky of course and so on and so on.
At some point even Enid knew she was manufacturing details, yet still she had no trouble profiling her enemy and invited Oscar to visualize this soi-disant “faculty advisor,” as well: her tiny obtuse eyes “like a mole’s,” her absence of good hygiene and concomitant smell of something acrid like turmeric, her fang-like eyeteeth, even her well-gnawed fingernails. It made no difference that the newspaper had not provided a publicity headshot of the author, for Enid was convinced she could already see the real thing, as contrived a personage as any identikit.
“Drab people like her drain the very color from life!” Enid declaimed. “What an unhappy female of the species she must be. We must erase her from our lives, Oscar, or else ‘quietly edit’ her out of our autobiographies, as they say in translations from messy authors.”
“Darling, I don’t know if—”
“Do let me speak. I was going to say that no doubt the faculty advisor is in love with the student editor, this, this—” Enid flipped to the masthead of R&R once again—“this Beverly Acton. Probably a blotchy, splotchy squeak of a girl easily molded into any size or shape needed. Picture the pair of them discussing enjambment over very serious pots of tea. Does Winslow know Ms. Acton, too? Was it she who wrote such resentful things about us?”
“No-o-o,” Oscar stated firmly, finally, with that protracted and affected vowel sound their mother, too, had often employed. Enid knew sadly enough that both of her brothers, as much as they loved her, were also more than a little afraid of their big sister. They often did not tell her the whole truth, she suspected. “Well, Winnie has never mentioned her, anyway. I can’t say who he knew there, he was only on the staff for a short time. Did I tell you he’s been setting my ‘Ode to the Moon and a Bassoon’ to music, up there for the interim in Grinnell?”
“Many times. But that’s not at all what we were discussing. I simply need to know—oh, do stop tormenting the tassels on your loafers. I can tell you’re no longer paying attention—godspeed then, get back to your Whistlebotts. Send them my regrets.” Oscar heaved himself to his feet, then fell to attention before her, tightening the sash of his dressing gown over his incipient paunch and awaiting further orders.
“Hie you, I said, be off,” Enid spurred him as if he were an obdurate old pachyderm, setting aside her breakfast tray. “Later we’ll think how to retaliate. Just don’t mention any of this to Sax. Let’s not forget how immature he is yet, still an idealistic naïf, really, certain the first release of Wings is going to get mention in the New York and London weeklies. We must continue to care for him like a crocus under crystal. There he is right now, back to that confounded Estonian he exalts on the ivories…”
After banishing Oscar with a flick of her fingers, after she had wiped away the spills and began to pull her wraps back around herself, Enid consulted her best-loved augur, a little terra cotta statuette of Isis, as to whether they had been a little too indulgent after all with the fledgling production of Wings; even though her brothers had been highly optimistic about assembling a periodical of their own proudly completed works and works-in-progress, she was the eldest and chief instigator, and she must on that account be first to take up shield and cudgel. Enid, who wrote the checks and harassed their late grandfather’s executors, perceived now that Oscar had been right to fret about depleting their rainy day funds. Isis in her alcove was mute in a way that Oscar never was.
“They may be assiduous at their occupations, emulating archaic methods of bookbinding, but those old beatniks don’t work for a pittance,” Oscar had said earlier about the couple with their own printing press far off in Lawrence, Kansas. It seemed the cost of vellum, shantung, Moroccan kidskin, even ordinary hoof glue, was always going up.
“Neither beatniks nor beats,” Enid corrected him. “Not even hippies. In your innocence, you probably think the Matriarch was some sort of flower child, when she was only following trends till she met our father. Just envision her if you can, Oz, an entire lifetime ago, levitating with those maharishis in Fairfield! Jetting to Tangiers, wearing Carnaby, surviving Est…”
Her sigh couldn’t help but be suffused with wistfulness, for she often begrudged things about their mother she hadn’t been privileged to learn firsthand… “Anyway, those folks you talk about are properly classified as Neo-Luddite Demi-Anarchistic Über-Artisans. Like our confederates the Reresbys, they have their own compound and furthermore are ecologically self-sustaining. Look—this brochure I ordered even has facsimiles of the Rossetti family’s Germ for sale! Including the one about the wombat. Our associates, you see, have their primogenitors in Morris, Ruskin, Pugin, even the Nearings or Eamses, I suspect. Retro-revivalists, you might call them nowadays.”
A meaningful pause as she refilled her sails. “In fewer words, others must call them cranks. Still and all, they’ve done a run of only fifty. Think how valuable just one copy of our Wings will be some day!”
“Uh-huh,” he uttered in such a way as to convey neither doubt nor accordance. He thought of the hoard on a closet shelf, doing nothing more than gathering age.
Without question the Lotus-Eaters’ Press did excellent, meticulous work: perhaps they needn’t have been convinced to go folio instead of quarto, but the weight and dimensions of their volume seemed to give weight and dimension to even the siblings’ most frivolous endeavors. There it was before her now, atop her armoire, a real thing that existed in the real world. The sturdy leatherette cover with its foil-stamped outline of Nike in mid-flight, the coppered corners and clamps along the spine, the thick and tight stitching, the silk moire endpapers, the rich and creamy pages with their waterlily watermark, the eye-catching but not-too-ornate serif called Diavalo, even the generous and exquisitely proportioned margins: all pleased her, once more all seemed worth it.
Though she would certainly never expose the workings of her heart to anyone living, Enid nurtured a secret hope that, though their enterprise was a losing proposition or at best a loss leader, in response to their mission might come recognition and appreciation from a few kindred souls; she went so far as to foresee vows made to her, of one kind or the other. A meeting of minds, perhaps, if only through the mails; it would be safer not to have fanatics peppering the Rectory’s windows with pebbles. She did, however, occasionally gratify herself by picturing a person with brooding eyes and beetling brows, nearly messianic in his devotion to not just the magazine, but herself. But perhaps that would be too much the parallel of something she had already known and lost…
Enid took up Wings in her arms that weekend morn like the invaluable object it was, and opened it carefully but randomly to one of her fractured trochaics:
List! lost Adam _][_lisps a fado
To the trap drum’s bastinado…
“What do you think of that, Angel darling?” she asked the diminutive deity; the naked figurine’s silence and unblinking enameled eyes were as good as any spoken affirmation. No longer hearing any music floating down the corridors, Enid left her room to go see what new ideas Satchell was working up for his dissertation, intended for the second volume of Wings.
Today, no ordinary Tuesday, almost as soon as Oscar had coaxed Enid into setting aside the dreary sorrows of the book business to follow him toward the breakfast room, she let go his hand halfway across the stable yard and turned back. Her welling eyes rapidly surveyed the green horizon, and below those familiar hills and hollows, that interminably undulating farmland renewed with each year’s unchecked growth: fields left fallow so long they were fields no longer; fenceposts broken, leaning, or toppled; tangled skeins of rusted barbed wire; eruptions of long-eroded furrows; harrows and plows abandoned, scattered like mastodon bones.
She saw too horse and cattle pastures already smothered under burdock and thistles, an apple orchard more unkempt than a forest, tall twisted maples and supple young ailanthus trees struggling to climb the sides of the dauntingly high house, and (nearest of all) their venerable, swaybacked, wide-hipped barn. That beautiful barn, with its worn and warped rose-pink boards, gaping hayloft doors, pigeon-plagued cupola—unlike the anomalous house—looked exactly the same as a million other decorously decaying barns in the Corn Belt, even if its purpose was quite different from most.
Heavy of heart, heavy of tread, Enid slowed down even further to listen to the shop’s shingle creaking on its chains like a wounded thing in the wind coming down the Musquash, that sluggish coffee-colored river forever lost in its own meandering thoughts on the other side of this property. Music to one’s ears, as they say. Oscar, just ahead, couldn’t have known why, but his sister wanted very badly to go back and rescue that picture postcard under the ledger—suppose Satchell (very absent-minded, always losing things in the most unlikely places) were to come looking for an address or his lost wallet? She would have to return to the office later and—to hell with the future!—destroy the card, after all, rather than keep worrying about where to hide it.
“Come now, have you still got that silly Epping woman on your mind?” Oscar queried her from the brick steps of the kitchen doorway.
His sibling, turning to face him across the farmyard, folded her arms as if to say, “of course not;” furthermore, she added a little impromptu speech, as was her wont. “It’s the end of an era, Oz. Look at the wreckage of our shop, just look. Soon there may be nothing left of the Patriarch,” Enid sermonized to her brother, who kept shifting his not insubstantial weight from first one foot and then another, “so we must make the most of memory, faulty or false though it be. As Xemonides I think it was foretold upon his deathbed—”
She interrupted herself, riffling mental notes, while a fork-tailed bird described a parabola between them. “Tell me instead, Oscar my brother, why do you think our father had this abnormal urge to collect what others discarded, or ignored, or held in such disdain? Why third or fourth editions of doggerel dictated by some medium at a séance, instead of Osgood Jameses sure to appreciate? Why minor or arcane authors who are admittedly marvelous, but no one today reads? He could have acquired many more valuable things for a song back in his bachelorhood.”
“I don’t think he was ever a bachelor. As much as he was beholden to her, he must have been born married to our mother.”
She might not have even heard Oscar. “However nobly he wanted to prove he could make a living by dealing books rather than becoming a scholar or instructor, I think he’d have opted to hold onto every single one. Once they made a nice wall between him and her. We have only further dismantled his legacy. We’ve gutted him—or you might better say his very essence been torn apart, scattered across the land like some sacrificed hero. I’m mixing all sorts of metaphors. But you see, when I’m gone—I mean, when we are all gone—and this farm is no longer ours… ” The bird flashed between them, chasing an insect. “Only—only barn swallows will ever recall that we existed.”
Oscar’s benign face half-managed to approximate his idea of a parody of a sneer. “One meddling swallow like that does not make my summer, sister. Besides, that’s a purple martin. Oh dear. Neither pulpit nor proscenium suits you, so stop acting like this is doomsday when we’re doing our utmost best to make of today a joyous affair. Besides, birds remember nothing but migratory routes. Go trade that mask of tragedy for its opposite.”
Smothering his snickers, as Enid held her peace, Oscar regained his usual placid composure after his somewhat forced witticisms. “Oh, but Enid, you are both wonderful and terrible! Like the last chapter of the Bible. Our sire’s very reincarnation, you know—we are each of us, in part. That’s the way it usually is, I guess, with parents and progeny.”
That seemed to please her, if one discounted their mother. “But you’re always reminded of him, too, aren’t you?” she contended. “With every book, every bookplate, and every book card he left behind? And any bookmark of his we happen upon, whether it be a hank of alfalfa or a Canadian dollar? Oh, do say you are!” She was scarcely ever this maudlin, but all the heightened circumstances of this day, as well as the sentimentality late spring always elicited from her, had their effects.
“But you think of her a lot more, don’t you?” Oscar said, opening wide the dutch door and beckoning Enid to enter the dark, cool expanses of the rectory’s kitchens.
“Never.” The only thing true about that was that they almost never invoked the image of their mother. Enid longed to tell Oscar then what the woman had threatened or, more accurately, promised, but knew she hadn’t the strength to do such a thing now. “Never!” Enid reiterated.
Bandy-legged Oscar stood there, letting in flies, while she hesitated on the bottom step. “Naturally you do,” he stated simply. “But you needn’t sulk so,” he added, capable of reading a facial expression she had kept purposely opaque. “She’s gone. She’ll never kill again. And, more importantly, she’ll never bother us again. She couldn’t possibly. To tell the truth, Sax and I no longer think there’s even a ghost of a chance she’s still alive.”
“Dead to us, but still no certificate.”
The tall but not overly svelte young man studied her, still poised upon the masonry below. “But tell me, now that we’ve gone so deep, do you… do you ever think of, you know—him—as well?”
By his tone she knew very well that her brother wasn’t calling attention to their father or any other male except one. Oscar, too, didn’t move a muscle, not even to flinch at the approach of a bothersome bottlebee.
He seemed to be in a defiant, even temerarious mood. Maybe it was the effect of too much time spent with his itinerant Whistlebotts, and a little of that restless, reckless pluck he’d endowed them with had rubbed off on him. Maybe it was because he’d been reading his Saffron Decade poets again, or because a day like this felt like the onset of an exciting new journey. Enid knew he knew that just like the Matriarch he was never to mention that entity who had once been called (ironically or not) the Gypsy Lover. “Enid,” Oscar said then, very very gently, “I’ve been wondering… Even though I was quite young at the time, how do you know for certain that they really could have… ” His ellipsis expressed all that need remain unsaid.
Internally, Enid bridled, though she wasn’t going to show it. “You were too young, indeed,” she said rather too airily. “As was I. But I didn’t need to actually see much of anything. My heart felt it—and my heart, though broken just that one time, knew what the truth was. And I heard their laughter from the other room. You know better than anyone what it all did to me. I couldn’t go back to school. How could I otherwise have carried on? I couldn’t hope the way I had once hoped. I had been deceived. But in truth, he and I had no pact, he couldn’t have cheated on me, if that’s how you say it, when I never expected him to be faithful…”
And then she managed to grin at herself just a little, for as always she saw the absurdity of her pose. No one had spoken of the Gypsy Lover in a long, long time, and at this moment He seemed as implausible and farcical as Old Nick in a morality play. “I’m famished,” she said, snuffing tears she knew were no longer there. “Today, the last day of my youth, I intend to totally give in to gluttony. I do hope it’s not true Satchell has blackened the toast yet again. Yesterday it was like biting into the cinders of a dying day.” (She had already placed that phrase in an elegy she had begun last week.)
“Well, what are we waiting for?”
Tall as she was, Enid had to liven her step to keep pace with the long restive strides of her even taller brother. They crossed a broad granite-tiled porch and went through another doorway or two, then along the scullery’s grimy tiles, past the long low servant’s table (servants reluctantly “let go” decades ago) and the sinks and ranges and freezers, catching only glimpses of soapstone and chrome and stenciled crockery, before rounding pantry corners in order to most efficiently access the breakfast room. With its multitudinous mullions and deep window seats and its smoked oak straight from the age of Plantagenets, entering the chamber was like entering another world, another time. Ghostly white lilacs (so late this year) breathed against the panes both inside and out and electric tapers smoldered coldly in their pewter sconces. From two stories above they felt the plangent resonances of one of Scøszlo’s chromatic etudes (brownish-purplish again) and could easily picture Satchell’s fingers frisking like fleas along the keyboard. Enid always felt more solace in this room than anywhere else in the house, excepting her bedroom.
As punctilious as a good butler, Satchell had laid out that morning’s light repast along the sideboard. Probably after finding Enid not in bed and the mailbox still empty (surprising they had not passed on the lane, but for once her schedule had run ahead of his), he had prepared a meal quite hearty enough for his big sister’s appetite on this most important day: oatmeal and bacon and hash browns and grapefruit and eggs and orange juice and whatever else he had found in the larder (he did the grocery shopping himself at the Hy-Lo in New Hamburg, never heeding their budget). Enid allowed Oscar to heap her plate as she settled into one of the pair of pews nestled within the dining nook. Through the bottle-green, bottle-thick glass of the surrounding windows she saw the darkly shimmering pond and the domed roofline of the miniature mock-medieval “gloriette” at the summit of the broad daisy-stippled slopes of the lawn. The effect was painterly, impressionistic, as if Nature dabbled in art movements, and as always, even on a bad day—and this was still the very worst—the view, such as it was, never failed to intimate that reality is negligible as dreams.
Of course she still had more to say concerning all that magazine brouhaha previously left unresolved. “About that dreadful woman you had to remind me of earlier—not the Matriarch, you dolt; I mean this Epping person,” Enid said as Oscar handed her one heavy dish after another. It was as if nothing else had interrupted their discussion of the weekend before, after the package from the junior college had been delivered. “ …I’ve been knocking about this idea of playing a complicated and delicate game, for one might think it’s the only thing to do in these circumstances.”
She was watching Oscar as he slathered a fresh piece of homemade sourdough with the remnants of the quince chutney, from the jar that had cost them a third of the price of an autographed copy of Benedict Whatley’s highly collectible Behind the Geisha’s Fan. She was hoping that this piece of bread was intended for herself. “We could dissimulate and act honored,” Enid continued. “What then would be my opening salvo, do you think? We could send Ms. Epping some flowers, some of those tawdry lilacs, even ask her to tea. Cultivate your enemies, as they say.”
“Who? What enemies, exactly?” The knife paused in midair.
“I don’t know—everyone.”
“But why? We don’t care what the world thinks, in this sanctuary.”
“I said, I meant, that was what I originally intended. But now I see I was heading in the wrong direction. I am not a vengeful person. I will take no easy, lazy swipes. Besides, there is no antivenin for the likes of the Misses Epping or Acton.”
She gave Oscar another hard look as he buttered away. “Tell me I’m wrong, but sometimes, Oz dearest, I wonder if it might be best for you to further your education outside these rooms. Go to FHCC, it’s close—commute, stay close to us. You should have it better than I’ve had. Why, you could even take what they call ‘workshop’ classes—” Here she mouthed the unfortunate articulation ugh. “And while you’re there, you big lug, get involved with [_Rot and Rhythm _]or whatever they call it, make a name for yourself in those hallowed halls.”
He sat unblinking, but she had not yet finished. “Satchell should go to college, too, but somewhere far away where he can ‘expand his compass’ and experience things you and I are too old and set in our ways to experience.”
A scintillation of silver as the knife slipped and fell upon the tablecloth.
“Let me help with that,” she said, snatching the plate with the piece of smothered bread from him.
“I like it here, with you and Satchell,” Oscar asserted, looking a little wistfully at the plate, for that alas was the last of the chutney.
“What if I were not here to take care of you two boys…” she began, although it was patently obvious that the two uncommonly self-sufficient and self-motivated young men took more care of her than the other way around. She slurped introspectively at her cocoa (never coffee or tea in the a. m.) and began again. “What if we really were broke? Or what if something else happened to turn our lives utterly upside-down?” Enid gave her brother an explicitly poignant look.
Oscar severed a crisp piece of bacon impertinently between his teeth. “I should simply,” he said, munching contemplatively like a somewhat smug species of rodent, “lower the blinds, light a votive to dear dead Auberon, steep myself a pot of courage, and get under my counterpane. They’d have to come cart me off like a nag to the knacker’s.”
Enid could see him doing just that—she knew his proclivities, she knew that portrait of A. F. Wryegate (his favorite balladeer of the previous fin de siècle), the one with questing eyes and hair drooping over his proud forehead like an equine forelock (hiding the dueling scar), and she knew how since he had left school she had helped to raise higher this wall around all three of them. Maybe that had all been a big mistake. “But seriously,” she said.
“You are never serious, or not overly so, dearest. And neither am I. You always told us that great artists never take themselves too seriously,” he countered. “Except of course when they’re not being serious. A conundrum, that. The way you’ve brought us up, I never can quite tell the difference, but still I strive to live untroubled.”
“I mean to say,” she contended, “that we’ve all three of us maybe been living a little too far outside of life.” Looking over an epergne and its mixed fruits, she fixed her gaze outside the windows, at this thing called life.
Oscar seized an enormous pomelo to impede her view. “I see nothing wrong with that. Nor does Satchell, I swear to you, regardless of his apparent popularity at school. He and I know this farm and its holdings, as well as our Athenaeum and our Art will always be enough for us.”
“Damn it!” she said, hurling a small teaspoon to the parquetry with all the fury of thunder from the heavens. “I’ve protected you both too well! And yet, yet—I don’t know if I’m right about anything now.” To no one’s astonishment greater than her own, she discovered she was crying soundlessly into her well-ironed and well-starched serviette. Oh, this day was, was—too much! Oscar took a precautionary whiff off his inhaler and sat watching her as she began choking on the tears that soon overcame her. At last she had to overturn her chair and run out of the room with napkin at nose, heading for the back stairs and the crooked little-traveled (by anyone other than herself) passageway to her bedroom.
What was she hoping to find there? A better era to call her own? Once upon a time she had made quite the fad of dynastic Egypt. The unmade bed with its Nile-green duvet, the ebony and ormolu mirror, the second-hand Second Empire chairs, the palmette-patterned wallpaper, her sylphlike Isis, the drafts atop the escritoire inscribed with something like hieroglyphics–the place was like Nefertiti’s tomb, though she—not such a great beauty—felt like the one ready for interment. Sighing, Enid ceremoniously laid herself out on her bed as if it were a bier.
Instead of this, she contemplated as she closed her eyes and felt an invisible Cachou bound onto the mattress, I should be packing a few things, hiding others. The day might well be the longest of the year, but she could never have enough time to prepare a flawless disappearance. Composing a suitable envoi for those left behind to find would in itself consume precious hours.
One floor and quite a few doors away she heard the spinet’s tinny falsetto reach its ultimate crescendo (when she had long stopped noticing that it had been plink-plunking away all through their meal) and after that the sound of its mahogany lid banged down—like a coffin’s, she thought. This old house echoed so. Satchell was putting his companion to sleep, and soon he would descend to clear the breakfast clutter, rearrange or replace flowers in their amphoras, then go consult the mailbox again. Enid wondered vaguely what else he might be up to today. The party, of course: she’d almost forgotten that, and wished now that it had never been planned.
To make things worse, invitations had been sent out. Oscar’s schoolmate Winslow was away and Satchell had declined to ask any of his old playfellows, so there would only be the Whitsells and their neighbors the Reresbys—the Moirai, or Three Fates, as she lovingly called them, with their driver—and maybe, even if they’d overlooked the RSVP, one or two of her long-retired grammar school teachers. If they were not dead. Short as the guest list was, the aggregate of guests and hosts, as well as her brothers’ usual extravagance, seemed to guarantee that they were headed for a regrettably Trimalchian smorgasbord. Enid did not know that Satchell had recently hinted to Oscar that in fact he might be bringing “some person or another,” and given what he now knew of Enid’s mood, Oscar wasn’t going to clue her in, chiefly because he knew nothing himself about this “person.”
Enid was very much obliged to her brothers for planning what they hoped would be a spectacular fête, but it still felt to her as though everything had been sprung on her against her will and her wishes. True, she had been reminded often enough. Just yesterday, the Reresby “triplets” had driven over from the “colony” in their big car, Sgt. Tiddles (or “Tiddly,” sometimes just “Tids”) chauffeuring up front of course, driving as if he were in a funeral cortège, the three comrades—Jones, Smith, and Brown—elbow-to-elbow and hip-to-hip in the back.
“We’re on an outing,” Brown called from the window when they braked near Enid on the lane.
“To Siam, if we can make it by din-din,” Smith wisecracked from the opposite window.
“How very nice for you,” Enid said, always glad to see them but sorry to lose the transient image of two acrobatic dragonflies conjoined in the shape of a heart upon a birch branch, which she had meant to conserve in her mind for a future divertissement.
“We’re looking forward to your little event!” Jones rasped from the middle, and though strictly speaking, Enid did not regard her silver anniversary as just another “little event,” she clasped her hands and begged them not to forget not to bring presents.
“Why, of course not,” Brown answered her ambiguously.
Enid looked longingly at the aerodynamic lines of the vintage Alouette, beautifully buffed and blue as the most flawless of sapphires because Tiddles kept it in pristine condition, when it was twice as old as Enid herself. “Oh, how I wish I could join you!” she had confessed then, thinking of the tragedy of her continued existence.
She wouldn’t have to go all the way to Siam—she could just go to the colony, with its rustic cottage, walled garden, smokehouse, and herbarium. There she could hide, be protected, vanish even more effectively from the world. The Reresbys, who were a matched set though not of the same parents or genders, had, she often thought, the ideal life. They were lifelong friends who had bought the foreclosed Reresby place at the dawn of the Atomic Age: ergo, the Reresbys, for their surnames (like their biological sexes) were just too indistinguishable. Together through many isms and istics and etics, Satyananda yoga through occult theosophies by way of very demanding physical and spiritual eurythmics, and always Bohemian in their abject impoverishment, they had happily gardened, cooked, drawn, painted, sculpted, collaged, filmed, edited, written, directed, acted, danced, choreographed, composed, played, and sung at a prodigious level of productivity, far surpassing what the better-off Whitsells had done so far.
The Fates were approaching their mutual tenth decade; though so divergently proficient, within living memory they had always been as perpetually slow and serene as those tortoises of the Galapagos—and increasingly even more so. To live among them would be a kind of unfettered floating, Enid sometimes thought, a very gradual ascension, and finally, maybe, divine assumption into a higher plane where Art and its consort Aspiration reigned supreme.
I am getting carried away, Enid thought to herself. Meanwhile, Brown, intermittently beset with spasms of catarrh, was complaining about rabbits in the cabbage. “Right out of Beatrix Potter,” and so forth.
A divine assumption, maybe, all quite tranquil and soul-satisfying, though one might foresee it could get very boring…
“No, that was the Velveteen Bunny, Bro,” Smith was saying.
“Br’er Hare, you idiots,” Jones added, helpfully.
“Not the same jackrabbit, Jo.”
“And don’t start telling us next about how you poached a few coneys when you were billeted in the Lake District, sarge!”
After that, they were all at each other’s throats, and the leporids they had encountered in their long lives were multiplying everywhere. Rabbits in the cabbage, rabbits in the cabbage, rabbits in the cabbage… Enid couldn’t get the phrase out of her head, but eventually she shook her chin, managed a few sympathetic clucks, and tried to look both concerned and amused, while secretly coveting any sort of redemption from this mindless jabbering.
At last Tiddles settled the squabble by reminding them of their appetites. “If it’s to be toddies in Timbuktu,” he interrupted, “we’d best be on the go.” Hurrying was something they were innately incapable of doing, but they all voted as one to carry on up the road.
With much kissing of fingertips, a few regal waves, and one chorus of commitments to catch up at the party, they began their protracted departure. Tiddles eased the coughing engine, and then, very gradually, the automobile’s motor purring like a flock of pigeons, they drove back down the lane and away from Enid’s sight.
At the height of her recollections of Monday, the day before, someone had rapped at Enid’s door not with knuckles but almost inaudibly, with courteous, well-manicured fingernails. Then waited in vain. She knew her silence would be enough to force even the most bothersome brother away. Let them just conjecture that she had taken laudanum or was lost in the midst of transcribing an epic that had been revealed to her in a dream! Sure enough, she soon heard the whisk of retreating moccasins on worn rug-runners.
In her mind’s eye, she could see Oscar and Satchell meeting outside the breakfast room’s entryway, then speaking in hushed hurried tones concerning what to do about their oh-so problematic, oh-so emotional sister. Oscar might even tell his brother about Faculty Advisor Epping’s withering appraisal of Wings. If he did that, Satchell might do something foolish—run out to the college to break down the department door, even engage someone in a fistfight. He could be that impetuous or you might say chivalric, given the chance. (Then again, Satchell unlike their sister was not in the least intemperate.)
Enid knew something had been happening during Satchell’s last semester at Musquash Valley High; he had begun coming home later and later, saying it was his chamber quintette’s rehearsal or an intramural fencing meet. Wisely no doubt she had never questioned him. But she had detected a coy luster in his big round marmoset eyes, increasing concern about his appearance, an adolescent bravado his brother Oscar had never displayed. She suspected it might be because of that one who played oboe and excelled at shot put, or perchance another one who was president of the debate club or honor society or whatever.
If Oscar made insinuations over a cold supper, the only reaction he could elicit from his brother was a reddening of the cheekbones while his bobbing Adam’s apple jounced up then down. “Enid, a little more torte?” Satchell might ask. For all his extroverted exuberance, the youngest Whitsell was good at keeping secrets—at least for someone going on eighteen.
Good, though, if he really were in love, Enid said to herself. It might allow him to escape this place when he was still strong enough to do so! Love had crushed her, annihilated any lingering hopes to integrate herself into humankind as other people did. Sitting up in bed, Enid brought a satin bolster to her breast and, without choosing to, summoned the spirit of The Gypsy Lover.
How would he look to her today? Both punier and rangier, weedier and runtier? Certainly he must be shorter than she remembered. The first time they had met, outside the school cafeteria when she had bent to lace her leggings, he had seemed to tower over her—and yet she was so very tall herself. (It must have been the height of his heels.) Introductions had to have been made, though surely she herself would never have instigated any. Grigore—that was his name—was a recent refugee (he said) from near Mangalia on the Black Sea, a region she had never learned of outside perhaps one of her father’s outdated Baedekers.
Too soon he told her he was a great-great-grandnephew of the famous dadaist whose mother’s name was also Shibboleth—she looked it up later and saw he meant Zibalis. “You know him perhaps I think as Samuel Rosenstock, that is, Trish-tan T-sharrra.” He spelled the unusual name out, vigorously trilling the r: “Tee-Zedd-Ay-Rrrr-Ay?” Except when buzzy sibilants twisted his tongue, his English was excellent if a trifle anachronistic, and he did not seem to be not shy at all.
This young man, this Grigore Zibalis, took her wrist, that first time, and she saw he wore nearly as many rings as herself. His breath was like paprika but twice as pungent. Depending on the light, his eyes could be described as coppery green, coppery gold, verdigris, nacreous, opalescent. Or, to be more poetic and most precise—opaline! Directly Grigore told her that he must capture her “with oils,” as he put it. For an embarrassing moment she was nonplussed, thought she had misunderstood—then recognized a fellow artist. “You might as well know I’ve always yearned to do a sitting,” she said at last, as if naming an explicit act.
He touched her rather too high up her simple raglan sleeve and she nearly fell into a Victorian swoon—how exaggerated of me, she thought both then and now. “But not with this—what is it called, this convent habit of yoursh,” he specified.
“You… mean?” she managed to ask, as students thronged around them and the fourth-period bell clanged.
“No…” he breathed upon her. “I mean you must drrress to esh, eth—ex-cessss,” he hissed.
She saw at once what he intended and realized that of course her clothing should become wilder and more individualistic than she had ever set out to achieve before—before, when she cared an iota what the world thought or said. But that world at that moment had stopped its spinning. She saw that he saw that her life would henceforth be inextricable from his.
Nonsense! she chastised herself as she tossed the bolster from her bed. How like a “lady writer” I color the past with rose-tinted nostalgia. Certainly he couldn’t have been the first unicorn in my garden. And yet…
It was only a matter of time before Grigore’s visits to the rectory grew rather routine. After school, by four-forty-five, once they had gulped down innumerable glasses of smoky souchong, all six feet of her would be bent and folded into an unforgiving settee in the most “formal” of the house’s parlors, which was never used for just that reason but did have good northern light. She would be swathed in yards of something like heavy velvet valances (on occasion exactly that) with perhaps a bandeau of glazed ivy laced through the hair he had disheveled to perfection, while, with brush held at arm’s-length, he assaulted the canvas before him: a tiger-tamer brandishing his whip. No one, not even her mother, had the temerity to intrude during these bizarrely pantomimed hours.
With no more than a tilt of his prematurely whiskered chin or arch of bristling eyebrow, he could communicate to her that her rictus should become more or less Giocondan, or that she should drop one foot to the floor, or stop trying to take a peek at what lay on the other side of his easel. She learned soon that anything she asked would be ignored. (It was often that way with him. It could have been that, like many people, immigrants or not, the English he spoke was better than the English he comprehended.) Once in a great while Grigore would sigh and touch a shoulder or knee to incite shifts in position, and every graze of his sensitive fingers was both torment and bliss—all the more mortifying because, as he often reiterated, he could like all the Roma read minds.
“Of course,” he reminded her once, which was enough, “you cannot be beautiful. How boring ith this thing called beauty! You posheth, pos-sess what is farrr more, more—I cannot name it, only perhaps with my native tongue. This is why I choosh to paint you.”
Enid could easily if a bit inaccurately picture herself as she looked then—younger, she supposed, with more pink than pallor, thinner even than she was today, so very un-beautiful—and yet this demi-mythological Gypsy Lover’s own visage seemed no more distinct in her mind than a tiny daguerreotype sealed within a locket. Why could she not see past the Svengali goatee and moon-fire of his eyes? Long ago, probably only to deify himself, he had given her a small framed self-portrait. It had obviously been done in haste and fury, before a fawning mirror, in red and black Conté crayon—perfervid, expressionistic streaks of “blood and filth,” as he had described the cartone himself when he presented it to her.
Enid never forgot how, minutes after that last apocalyptic brawl with her mother, she had extracted her late father’s beloved paper knife from an uncut novel like Excalibur from the stone and stabbed at the likeness—and yet later, significantly, she had not burned or tossed away the desecrated ikon, but stowed it among the rest of the immigrant’s archives in the farthest reaches of the rectory’s attics.
She had not had a single desire to reinspect any of his works since that horrific evening—those oils and acrylics, those gouaches and watercolors, were all but that one of herself, and consulting them would have been like stirring mummy’s dust, asking to be damned. Except that she was in a sense the one interred by Art, and today might very well be her last chance to gaze upon what once had been and yet could never be.
At first she strongly resisted this impulse to confront the past face-to-face and sought the assistance of the books littering her bedside table. The top one, meant for midnight only, was the most fanciful and, that being the case, probably the most dependable escape. Initially, she had been taken in by the flamboyant titling on the cover, words growing like a tropical vine from a gilded Jungenstil border. But today this story of passion in the dunes by the justly un-rediscovered “Miss Teague” had so urgently needed to tell took on an unhealthy aspect, specifically when the intrepid little governess cringed at the sight of the handsome sharif’s scimitar. It was criminal, Enid came around to realizing, that she had given such a trite love story so many pages to pretend it was in earnest.
The second and third and even fourth books provided no better distractions. They were a Restoration history, a “garland” of flowery Tennyson excerpts, and a how-to-do of dinner-party etiquette; and they either bored or stupefied her. Enough! Enid decided she must get up and go for another walk. She felt on the floor for her slippers, rammed her toes into the sweet satiny things although they were still too tight, and slipped down the back stairs, wishing to avoid either brother when she had to complete this very important job of exorcising demons.
Around and about the house and farm buildings she went, finding nothing whatsoever of interest, nothing at all to staunch her mind’s flow of reenacted duologues and bitter breakfast-table recriminations. Looking skyward, she saw that this hateful morning was finally coming to its logical conclusion, yet she had no more appetite for lunch than she had for any inquisitions regarding her mood or behavior. “Now, don’t you start in on me, too,” she snapped at a bluejay cawing at her for getting too close to its nest.
Sensing now that Purgatory affords its occupants too expansive a view of Hell, Enid turned back to the house and without further deliberation went indoors and upstairs to her suite. In some way it infuriated her that here these well-appointed spaces were again, and that they would endure, forever the same, forever waiting for her, whether or not she would be here or anywhere else, living or dead. She paced the dimensions of bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room and saw not Cachou but a long-legged Roumanian sprawled in that armchair, her mother reclining like an infatuated voluptuary, like Juliette Récamier herself, on that padded window seat. At last Enid came to the regrettable conclusion that she must get this whole damned episode over with, if she were ever to leave this place with any fraction of a cleared conscience.
Goodbye evermore, “mama”! I could not bear to see your smirking face again. But as for you, my darling Grisha… Though she had driven a stake through that vampire long ago, Enid was driven to accost him one last time.
A glassed-in sunporch like an airborne belvedere was attached to one side of her bedroom, here at the quieter end of the house; conveniently, adjoining that was a “secret” passageway leading to one of the claustrophobic stairwells that tunneled upwards to meet the rambling house’s gables and soffits. Still disinclined yet not to be dissuaded by misgivings, Enid set off on her short but nearly insurmountable quest, Cachou (always ready to roam) following her with exclamatory tail. Under the wobbly chimney-tops and mossy roof-tiles of the Rectory was an uncharted confusion of closets, cabinets, cavities, and compartments. A map and a flashlight would have been useful in this tenebrous world, for only long-inoperable gas fixtures, not electricity, had ever reached this uppermost floor. Thankfully, a few small windows, albeit with a perturbing quantity of broken panes, permitted enough slanting sun rays to see into more crawlspaces than usual.
Her eyes gradually adjusted to the noonday twilight, while her feet sensed instinctively (from days of hide-and-seek and “running away from home”) which planks were dangerously loose; a sort of sixth sense reminded her where a battlefield of dismembered dolls and broken toys might trip up newcomers. Around a half-concealed corner, under sagging joists and within a maze of old steamer trunks, was where the gallery of lost Enid Whitsells lay beneath torn bedsheets. Inquisitive Cachou had already darted past her and leapt onto one of the chests closing both of them into this tight, disordered space.
Heart in her mouth, Enid tore away the moldered shrouds—scaring her skittish pet away—and knelt before the disavowed daubs in their crooked frames and the loosely rolled canvases and the jumbled sketchbooks and notepads. A tad charily at first, then increasingly at odds with her emotions, she flipped through dozens of garish caricatures of herself; in a half-light not unlike that of an amusement park sideshow she fathomed maybe for the first time what freakish beings Grigore had divined within her: troll-eyed, Cyrano-nosed, Gorgon-haired, taloned and fanged and frightfully horned things.
The pigments were as gaudy as her apparel, the brushstrokes vicious yet precise. Back when, she had actually thought the paintings quite accomplished, quite original, complimentary in their own way. The youth had conceived his own substitute for beauty, or so he might have justified himself. Despite the choking heat of the attic Enid shivered: this really was like raising the dead. Simply put, that girl had died long ago.
But where was his self-portrait? It had been appreciably smaller than the others—she was certain of that, and it would be less exaggerated, more true-to-life; and true to life, he would have portrayed himself as something between god and devil. She was positive she had gouged out the eyes. One by one she flung the cruel daubs about, but could not find the damned thing she sought. Had she somehow imagined it? If it were not for the existence of these works, Grigore himself might have turned out to be no more than a phantasm.
In a flurry of dust and cobwebs, Enid fell back against a camel-backed trunk, out of oxygen at this elevation and now totally done in. Outside the narrow cusped windows, more befitting of chapel or chantry, the quality of sunlight looked to have changed—whether it was clouds or streaks upon the panes or just her mood, her eyes couldn’t say. For the second time that day she re-envisioned her final scene with the Matriarch. It was the month before Enid had been expected to receive her diploma; her father’s inquest had lately been reopened, embezzlement charges were about to be pressed by grandfather’s S & L, and as far as Enid knew, her mother’s bags—capacious enough for two—had already been packed.
In those fraught days she seldom met her mother outside the dining room, and then only at an occasional lunch, served by a local farmwife who came, cooked, and went so quickly each day her presence was scarcely felt by the family (she would soon be gone for good). On that particular Saturday, Seraphina Whitsell had looked uncharacteristically subdued in a Scotch heather suit, with no more than a touch of the usual Hollywood or Halloween makeup upon her face; Enid deduced she was scheduled to meet the institution’s board of trustees soon after eating (but on a weekend?). Most often during these sorts of family assemblies, there were more exchanges of eyes than words, but at this meal Oscar and Enid and Satchell had chattered about anything but anything of consequence, skillfully keeping their mother out of the conversation.
The cook rushed off, as she always did, followed soon after by the boys. Enid would have, as well, but had made the mistake of helping herself to another portion of tapioca, which was her favorite. “Do slow down, dear,” Seraphina had said, the dining room doors still swinging with the rest of the company’s departure. “You know all that gobbling makes you sound like a sow at the trough.”
Enid raised her eyes from her bowl. Criticism like this from her mother were to be expected, but this day the Matriarch appeared atypically anxious, the way she jangled her spoon within the sugar bowl and the way she stroked the linen she had tucked into her cleavage. Nevertheless, Enid ignored her and gulped at her pudding all the faster so she could go.
“You look tired. I’m wondering,” her mother said, taking a casual sip from her coffee cup, “if you haven’t been posing too much for Grisha. In fact, I think with final exams coming up you ought to stop seeing that boy awhile. At least until…”
With no caesura between her last swallow and something unprintable uttered under her breath, Enid very deliberately lay down her spoon, then deferred to old St. George and his well-extinguished dragon on the heirloom tapestry opposite. Her mother had used the diminutive only Enid used—Grisha! “Mr. Zibalis is a genius,” she told them matter-of-factly. “A great artist in the making. And he is my only confidante. One day he could very well be world-renowned. Museums will—”
“Really,” her mother interrupted this encomium. She was nonchalantly wiping greasy coral-tinted lipstick off her snifter (which had been brimming with aqua vitae). “You might as well know that I spoke to him yesterday before he left on that hellfire Harley of his.” The glass, as glasses sometimes do when rubbed, rang out a soprano’s highest “C.” It was meant to pierce her daughter’s heart.
Enid was listening, all right, but she had closed her eyes tight and was doing her best to will her mother out of existence.
“Outside formalities, he would never talk to you or take your advice,” Enid said, her larynx already tightening.
“Shows you how much you know. Tell me, was he guessing you were rich the first time you met? Oh, close your gaping mouth. Nothing about your gypsy could leave me speechless.”
Eventually Enid reopened her eyes and looked across the table aghast. Her mother repulsed her gaze by rising from her chair, then taking up Enid’s empty dessert dish (when it would be more like her to overturn a table than clear one). “Had enough?” Seraphina said. She turned away, then just as quickly put the dish down again and came up to Enid from behind. With her mother’s strong hands on either side of the high-backed dining chair, Enid felt trapped, unable to even kick her way out of this room. “Grisha and I have spent a fair amount of time talking, you know,” her mother said. “Behind your back, if you like to call it that. He finds you very amusing.” The way she said “amusing” could mean almost anything.
“Lie, lie, lie all you like,” Enid said confidentially, twisting in her chair to challenge her mother as directly as she could. “You’re nothing more than an old lady to him.”
Her mother howled with laughter, actually almost doubling over in her tweed suit. “Oh, that’s right!” she shrieked. “I’m nearly forty-six! Some men—even quite young men—believe that to be the height of feminine appeal. A rose about to shed all its petals is at fullest bloom.”
“It’s a cliché, but you might call that blowzy,” Enid retorted. “Next you’ll be telling me you paid him to keep me company, because I was so very lonely and miserable after Father died—you’d say it was for the portraits, of course.” That actually wasn’t the first time she had pondered that likelihood, Enid contemplated, years later, sitting on the sooty attic floor. Why was it that this conversation in her head seemed so false, like one of those “closet plays” she had once tried to write? And yet it had to have been the truth, or close to it.
In the dining room that horrendous afternoon, Seraphina Whitsell had gripped her daughter’s chin in one hand and lifted Enid’s face up to meet her own again. It was a gesture outsiders looking on might have taken for motherly affection, but Enid knew it was anything but. “A woman my age, even an aged mother, burdened with so much baggage,” she scoffed, “savors any attentions youth might bestow. At this point I won’t even talk about your father’s disgraces…”
Seraphina held Enid by the throat now, as if the girl were nothing but some floundering fish out of whose lip she would yank the hook. “Besides, I saw in ‘your’ Grigore real potential, go ahead and repeat that, he wasn’t like all those sissies around here I put up with…”
She would not let Enid go, nor could Enid hope to escape, for like a basilisk Seraphina could render victims helpless with a single expiration. “You should learn the difference between eduction and seduction,” she snarled as Enid clawed at her. “Why, I should have wrung your neck you when you were a kitten.” Her speech acquired new if archaic proportions. Who is to say filthy lucre always has to be involved, thou miserable, old-maidish, meddling, misguided chit?”
“And you’re nothing more than a, a—an adventuress!”
Then there was a resounding slap—who slapped whom, or if both of them had simultaneously slapped each other, it was impossible to tell or remember all these troubled years later. The sting—however—burned afresh upon Enid’s cheek.
Seraphina had thrust back her magnificent head then, green eyes blazing, brassy bob swinging (the Principessa!), vile tongue lashing, like a hooded cobra about to strike its fatal blow. “You can’t think…” she said between sobbing gasps as Enid cowered before her. “You can’t think such a young man so out-of-the-ordinary finds you in the least bit attractive, you big gabbling Goop?”
Providentially, nearby, atop the wide Venetian credenza, lay Ralph Whitsell’s trusty paper knife, exactly where he had left it six months ago, on the eve of his death. The knife Enid knew well, naturally; it was the same one she would not much later that afternoon use to mutilate Grigore’s self-portrait: blade of thin but strong carbon steel, handle of yellowed scrimshaw with garnet cloisonné—something that had been handed down in Ralph’s family since one of the first Georges was on the throne.
Beneath it was the eelskin-covered nineteenth-century murder mystery (its opening and closing chapters being the only ones cut), which he had put to one side before his final swig of bourbon with branch. For all their snooping, detectives and coroner had bothered neither knife nor book, one which Enid could easily call forth from her mnemonic catalog. It was a humorous thriller her father had waited all his adult life to cut and read, and, alas, he had never had the chance to finish it, though he must have cheated by looking ahead:
: [_The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling, _]Sonnenschein & Sons, Barmy-Upon-Tweek [sic], 1899, first edition, hb, 333 pp, yellow suede binding, excellent condition, this self-published edition—note pseudonymous press—with original unexpurgated epilogue, extremely hard-to-find and valuable, $114 (meaning I’ll never sell it!)
*formerly Tagliaferro Q. Featheringstone, who pirated his plot from Laird Kinnersby’s parodic In Sunshine or In Shadow
“Adulteress!” Enid screamed at her mother, spotting the glittering weapon and knowing now what she must do. “Villainess!” Her mother wheezed and struck out again, but Enid dodged her and shrieked as she had never once shrieked before: “Murderess!”
The vilified one looked upon her daughter not with shock, not with horror, but with tears of spiteful laughter in her eyes. What she spat at Enid might have been the virulent saliva of a rabid animal. Not imagining what could happen next, Enid instinctively seized the page-cutting dirk and in half a heartbeat brought it home between her rival’s ribs. The woman crumpled at Enid’s feet, lifeless and bloodless (for, as they say, it was ice-water in her veins), without so much as a whimper. No one had heard, and now no one would see.
For a woman so formidable in life, she was at first uncannily light in death; Enid found it not much effort at all to drag her corpse out the door, across the lawn, through the haunted orchard, and down to the pond. An angry wind had stirred up; the sky was ochre and pregnant with rain and storm, and black waves splashed wrathfully against the little diving dock. Her mother’s limp body thumped along the boards, growing heavier with each step—Enid felt like a careless child lugging a big useless stuffed animal behind her, and it was only with excruciating amounts of exertion that she was able to tow it to the edge of this gangplank and push it into the deep water below.
A blast of thunder having awakened her, Enid saw to some wonderment that she was not down by the farm pond, but up in the attic, beneath dripping slats, between towers of trunks, where the maids used to sleep. She wondered where Cachou, who did not appreciate storms, had run to. Outside, it was raining heavily, the sort of summer rain one knows will not last long. Of course she had fallen asleep—after all, she had had so little rest the night before—and of course she had dreamed about what might have happened—but didn’t—after the violence mother and daughter had somehow shared.
The denouement of their scene was to a fair degree even more disagreeable to Enid: she had reeled away from her mother in hot tears, like the wronged maiden she felt she was, and the wicked woman had dematerialized, it seemed at the time, in a conjurer’s great puff of smoke—although it might have been only her daily after-dinner cigarette. That was the last living impression Enid ever had of her mother, through wet lashes before she knocked back her chair and careened through the dining room’s double doors into a new kind of hell.
Part Two: Oscar
The mystifying Masquerades of Khayyamm, held in that capital of the seldom-traversed kingdom of Farroffistan, have for ages been notorious for their atmosphere of intrigue and danger. Intrepid adventurers and diplomatic envoys alike have made sometimes conflicting disclosures about these annual rites. According to their reports, revelers in the city’s Imperial Park let all quotidian inhibitions slide away as the stars increase, for at twelve-stroke one may without fear of any sort of reprisal perform acts of rape, revenge, robbery, or—it is sometimes implied—even regicide. Here in this remote mountainous land where Orient greets Occident and Austral meets Boreal, the winter solstice occasions one of only two times of year when you might see potentates in lurid rags pirouette like lunatics alongside serfs luminescent with gold-leaf and argentine lamé, while throngs of wenches and thugs cavort ever more wantonly amongst viceroys and viscountesses. Weird philters are quaffed, nargiles bubble and belch, narcotic taffies sell for a few pence. On this often frostbitten night, mitred archbishops stroll arm in arm with turbaned imams or shaven-pated lamas; children answer to no parents and students cane their headmasters; hirsute musicians descend from villages up in the alpine passes and play trancelike music on infernal instruments for hours on end; scapegoats and cockerels are either sacrificed or with a benediction liberated. There is an odor all about of incense and offal. Everywhere the snowdrifts are stained red.
Saphronia Whistlebott, dainty girl that she was, stepped halfway down from the hired charabanc, took one look at this saturnalia of absolutely Babylonian proportions, and blasphemed under her breath. “Don’t you think,” she asked at a higher volume, “that that horde is looking a whit too unruly?”
“Hightail it down there, Saff!” her brother Ashby demanded. “I can’t see.”
Their parents were next out of the conveyance. “You children must be careful amidst all these roisterers,” they said. “Remember, we are guests of His Holiness and must not do anything to impugn our good names, or our countrymen’s.”
“Oh—odsbodikins!” piped up young Rud from behind them all. “It sounds like loads of fun!”
“Don’t mince your oaths, dear—” Philomena Whistlebott cautioned her brood, “and mind what happened in Quizz. Those jailers were not among the most couth people I have ever met, and I for one don’t want to live on sour mash again.”
“Oh, fiddlesticks!” Rud shouted, racing ahead down the moon-spangled esplanade, beneath the yama-yama trees and the gargantuan idols. “We all have our disguises and forged passports, right? No one will ever guess we are spies of any sort.”
With something between a shout of surrender and a death rattle, Oscar Whitsell stopped his hand, tore the wretched page from the exercise book, wadded it up, and pitched it at the graying mezzotint of the “Cloud Palace” of Cho-Tsu-Tzen across from his desk (both desk and print relics of the Tea Trade days of a seafaring forefather). Below the palace, a veritable dune of paper discards had been accumulating steadily for two hours, maybe three. Look at that, look at me, he thought, seeing himself from above, as it were: cliché, cartoon. The Writer and His Work.
If it were more convenient, he might have put to better use an onyx inkstand in the shape of a sleeping hermaphrodite, and a pen-wipe with badger bristles, and a fine bamboo calamus and repoussé pounce pot, maybe even an Asian inkstone and inksticks, or at minimum a ruby-tipped and iridium-nibbed vulcanite or even vermeil fountain pen; instead he was forced by economy to use disposable ballpoints and dime-store tablets. Ivory-inlaid intarsia and rosewood marquetry are probably very inspiring; but he would have to make do with chipped plasterwork and peeling paint. The curtains here were permanently drawn, never admitting the light of this world to expose the room’s shortcomings. Moreover, when a knock at the door disturbed his reveries, it was never a servant come to heap more logs upon his nonexistent hearth; instead, it would only be Satchell, come to borrow a lexicon.
Notwithstanding the indignities of poverty, he cherished writing silently alone in his little corner, sitting upon his favorite Savanorola chair in his oak-paneled, book-lined studiolo, and would not mind at all if the most he ever got out of his stories was self-amusement and anonymity—no more than anyone could expect from a career in letters, these days, as Enid alleged. Taken to task for being too recondite, he would have owned up to not caring if he were to remain unsung and unknown; he would sooner have ghostwritten his own works, had Enid not insisted the Whitsells through Wings all act together as a well-publicized and irresistible force.
Gorblimey! Hang the Whistlebotts! They should all be hurled overboard in a steamship disaster, or blown to atoms in an exploding dirigible.
Enid had cheered on their exploits, but more often than not he seriously doubted his ability to construct a clear and concise sentence. Writing was a messy business, people said, and he feared he was by nature too exacting and nit-picky to attain fluidity. “A bit overly polished and neat” was something one of his teachers could very well have affixed to one of his book reports—or to his own person. Enid was always breaking new ground in her poems, Satchell was constantly coming up with alarmingly original “nonfiction fantasies,” but Oscar never saw anything but the watermark of other authors beneath the paragraphs he eked out.
Sometimes in a fit of Flaubertian exactitude he would contemplate a semicolon for a quarter-hour, letting it wriggle helplessly upon its stick-pin, as it were, before deciding where to place it in a paragraph. Lately such a pace seemed Trollopian in comparison. Most of this morning he had fastidiously sought to prefix and insert several of the allusive modifiers he collected as others might stamps or seashells—today’s neologisms included preprocrustean _]and [_antiultracrepidarian—but could not find space to cram a single one in (if he could even remember what they meant) and so had another reason for throwing down his pen.
(Like many a young tyro, Oscar had initially made the mistake of being too serious in both intent and execution: or so Enid, who hated all forms of self-indulgence but her own, had kindly indicated for his benefit. His saga of the Whistlebotts was begun as an allegory of all the horrors of the twentieth century, though he did not get past the Great War before raising the white flag. With high moral purpose in mind, he had wanted each chapter to end in total annihilation for the family, only to have its individual members reappear each decade in new and baffling guises, like the storied Comte de St. Germain. His heroes were to be like the Ubus—for hadn’t Monsieur Jarry foretold Herr Hitler? No, Enid had dissented, pointing him toward a less portentous direction; Jarry had only predicted a world such monsters could live in.)
Oscar listlessly tidied his desk, reflecting on all those years Enid had handed him back his manuscripts, scarified with her incisive if a bit too extensive commentary. Yet she always persuaded him to get back up on his hobbyhorse. “Just entertain me,” she would say. Every time.
Consequently, with all his past failures and today’s disquieting breakfast with Enid in mind, Oscar found it impracticable to concentrate any further on his usual diurnal employment. Keeping himself busy kept him from worrying about personal or family matters, so today’s markedly lackadaisical progress was in itself a problem.
His desk calendar dictated that this solstice should be a good one: he and Satchell, while separately minding their Ps and Qs, had coordinated the upcoming party to a T, heeding almost all of Enid’s tightfisted dictates, scrimping as much as they could on gifts and refreshments (in fact they had squirreled away quite a lot of money for this occasion), preparing decorations and party activities the way generals plan war. Regardless of her defects—and there were many—the brothers were just as affectionate toward their sister as they were deferential, and they hoped to make manifest their gratitude for her more-than-maternal care in the best way they could—though she was making that progressively more difficult.
Satchell had hinted that the event might provide an “unexpected delight or two,” and this apparently implied that they should have extra place settings at the ready. It could be Satchell had invited Oscar’s old comrade-in-arms Winslow down from Grinnell, or maybe Satchell was finally ready to introduce his family to that “special friend” he had obviously been spending a lot of time with these past few months. Someone from the fencing team or the school paper? It remained a mystery how gangly, stuttering Satchell had become such a success at MVHS, when Oscar himself, for all his inoffensive and mild-mannered ways, had felt a martyr thrown to the lions there, and Enid had so precipitately dropped out when she need only have suffered that prison two or three more weeks.
That thought took the young man back again to the morning’s bittersweet contretemps and recollections also of their mother and that “gypsy” Grigore. (Oscar often had the sneaking feeling that he was from nowhere more foreign than a borough of New York City. A complete charlatan, but a more than competent mimic, even with his harsh Castilian fricatives. His people probably worked out at the local slaughterhouse among the Hasidics and Sonorans.) The second-oldest Whitsell seldom let either of those regrettable humans—his mother or her presumed paramour— invade his daydreams this way, but Enid’s mood had so put him off he couldn’t help himself.
The year of Enid’s heartbreaking debacle, Oscar had been no more than a freshman, in another world far distant from the vastly superior seniors of “ol’ Musk,” and he could not really say for sure if he ever saw Grigore again after their mother absconded with more cash than it was credible a bank could hold. That was over seven years ago, in the merry merry month of May. Of course, Enid assessed what had happened was a sort of elopement—but Oscar was fairly sure he had heard that Grigore did manage to graduate and then returned posthaste to wherever it was he said he come from. In any case, neither the Matriarch nor the Gypsy Lover were ever seen together, nonetheless heard from again—thus, it was better by far to forget them both.
Obviously Enid hadn’t and couldn’t. All the more reason to try to sidetrack and overwhelm her with tonight’s royal jubilee. As far as their money problems went, such affairs, Oscar believed, always work themselves out of their own accord, don’t they? Make no odds of it, they were all still in the springtime of life, had their health, had their house. Oscar knew the charms of innocence and had long held status as the most impractical of the Whitsell siblings, something of which he was well aware, but that was an approbation he didn’t perceive as negative in every respect.
Youth and its companion naiveté had molded him in a way they never had his siblings—neither element incontrovertibly charismatic, Enid had reasoned and repeated to him. Certainly intelligent but often recalcitrant, a quick study who could also be a slow learner, he was not as naturally self-motivated as she was. He had not gone off to college the way other boys of his age with his combination of brains and sensitivity and funds usually do; however, the education he had received here in the Rectory’s “Athenaeum” (as they often called those two adjoined rooms devoted to books and learning), guided by Enid’s grueling tutelage, had seemed more than satisfactory for his shyly contemplative needs.
Most importantly, Enid had raised each of her younger brothers to be, like herself, an Artist—or a reasonable likeness of one—and that, Oscar reassured her, was what, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was determined to become. Of some sort. By some chance.
Still… on days like this, when everything he put down on paper seemed so inept, so plainly what would later be designated his juvenilia, he wondered if he wouldn’t have been able to mitigate the family’s financial predicament much more quickly and easily if he had undergone a different type of apprenticeship—or at minimum applied for the position of checkout clerk or bag boy. Regardless, regular paychecks and predictable amounts of income were not things their household should expect. Oscar had always taken for it for granted that the small moneys set aside by their father and grandparents would take care of shortfalls and overdrafts until their demises, but if Enid were not wrong, that was no longer true and in fact they could not now afford even the taxes.
Still—it was only money. It would all come out right, he could convince himself of that yet again. Literary concerns, on the other hand, were different. That spiteful squib about the first issue of Wings had shaken him to his core, and he felt he must do something about it, in a more direct yet more politic way than Enid with her volcanic temper would ever be able to accomplish. It was for Oscar a point of honor, of pride, that timid as a quail though he be, he should go speak to someone at [Rhyme and Reason _]himself, maybe even meet the terrible Cyrie Epping and beg her—no _demand that—she personally apologize to Enid, for whom Wings was everything and who would turn a quarter-century old tomorrow. What could be a more fitting birthday present?
Of course, never having been brave enough to pilot an automobile, he would have to ride the big, old, slow, and very heavy Caravel tricycle (it had been his grandmother’s last means of locomotion) all the way out to the county college—which on a hot summer’s day over dusty gravel roads up and down many hills could be as wearying for him on that machine as circumnavigating the globe would be for others. Besides that, institutes of higher learning intimidated him. He had in fact never been inside one, if you didn’t count high school.
“I suspect certain people need such places for the discipline they provide,” Enid had often enough said to her brothers. “I am a natural autodidact,” she might add, as firmly as others might state they were strict vegetarian or atheists. “So learn from me.”
She had in fact given them a semiclassical education to supplement what they had been taught at inferior public schools. Thanks to their father, she knew the rudiments of Greek and Latin; through Enid her brothers were able to consult Martial or Juvenal in the original and knew what was written on the walls of Pompeii, for she did not believe in censorship—not of that sort. Their apprentice poetry was invariably full of allusions to the tenants of Olympus or the wanderings of Vergil and Milton. Sister and brothers toiled together in their sunny vineyards, until it seemed to her at least that the grapes had ripened and the taste was good.
(She handed out a new syllabus every summer, and this year it included selections from Addison through Zweig. “I’m being both comprehensive and latitudinarian, so don’t you two think that when we reach Donne, we’re done!” she had told them in May at the dinner table, and they had all volleyed napkins and insults at each other.)
While Enid had long since presupposed that while college with its expenses and bourgeois inculcations made no sense for iconoclastic individuals such as herself, self-motivated education must prevail—so she constantly reminded her brothers. The eldest Whitsell, having easily taken care of herself, did not have complete faith in Oscar, even if he harmonized with her tenet that groveling for some dubious baccalaureate was demoralizing and replete with compromises. (As for Satchell, he was going to take a year off before making any hasty decisions about his future, which she had helped him see was the most providential thing to do.)
Oscar sensed the dangers of reflecting too much upon his own future. The past, that bountiful feast, so beautifully illustrated and safely bound within books, is all we really need, anyway, Enid was forevermore telling him. He did not always seem to attend with enthusiasm, she feared.
Acknowledging the situation for what it was—once Oscar had completed his studies at MVHS—Enid locked him for endless hours every day inside the Athenaeum; so very advantageous, she told him, to be trapped there with all those books that expected no more than to be read or reread. All of Alexandria, all of Athens, all of Rome or Paris or London at our disposal! she had once maybe a thousand times declared, perhaps a tad hyperbolically.
With the sloppy curation of succeeding generations and the diverse discards of several formerly erudite families merged, the rectory’s bookshelves and cabinets were already bursting even before they were augmented greatly by Mr. Whitsell; the stockpile now strained every shelf and colonized every corner and in cold wet winters caused the boards underneath the thick carpets to sag and squeak.
To think how happy for these rooms, Enid rhapsodized whenever prompted, to have the three of them come along when all their elders except their father seemed to have been practicing illiterates! The library’s collections had been formed haphazardly, yet following certain immutable laws like geological strata: the bottom layer chiefly their great-great grandfather’s grandiose and ostentatiously bound “classics,” each as heavy as an ingot of iron; the middle deposits their great-grandparents’ as well as grand -uncles’ or -aunts’ and half-remembered grandparents’ more eclectic but also more uniform three-volume novels and color-coded complete works and sober if not somber college sets; the top crust their father’s somewhat shabbier (and most tempting by far) oddities, memorabilia, and rarities—in large part the handsomer editions and series he didn’t want consigned to the barn or split up like slave families at auction.
Many, if not most of the volumes—including disheveled parades of moldering theological tracts, lengthy worm-eaten treatises on higher mathematics or animal anatomy, obsolete reference works, discredited medical handbooks, and tedious domestic or agricultural guides—could be ignored, as they had been for most of the Industrial Age.
But all the books on philosophy or ethics, the books on dance, the books on music, the books on art or architecture, the books on books, the books on books on books; as well as the innumerable poets and playwrights, novelists and storytellers and mythologists and madmen, even lowly cultural critics and their ilk—Oscar as well as Satchell must learn to either love or loathe them, Enid had made clear, and that takes getting to know them all intimately.
True, one might (for example) be as likely to stumble upon works on the level of Curew’s Titanothologos or Grittelhauser’s Maximius Maximinimus as upon those better-known, perhaps more level-headed products of the Shavian or Shakespearean brand; and perhaps there were a few more of the abstruse fabrications of, say, the Post-Fabian Wyndott-Levis or the Pre-Fabulist Levi Wynotte than either of the Eliots or any Tolstoy, but all fanciful or fantastical books in the Athenaeum were dear friends to Enid. Rationality has its limits. Never try too long, she cautioned her brothers, to draw too many distinctions between the real and unreal.
Oscar did love writers and writing, paintings and painters, singers and song, no denying that. Science baffled him. But it would have appalled Enid to guess that ultimately he preferred Nature to Art. He feared that some day he might have to confess to her that whether old-school or avant-garde, poetry and fiction sometime exhausted or exasperated him in a way the infinitude of the world outside their windows never could. When he tried going further afield, analyzing ancient histories or modernist theories, all of it made of nothing more tangible than logic and words, the leaden weight of lassitude would ofttimes tow him under… Ergo, he felt blameless whenever he would stealthily open the back door of the Athenaeum (Enid never seemed to realize most rooms unlock from within) and sneak through their father’s former den and then a screened verandah and out into the blessed open air.
Freedom beckoned beyond the grassy swards, the oxbows of the Musquash, and the lengths of riparian woodland that made up most of the family’s property. Thirty-some hectares, though small by mid-American standards, was still a lot to explore. Oh, he was no naturalist or biologist of any sort, but he knew he had to experience firsthand what the lyric and the orphic had praised. Flora, fauna, even fungi thrilled him, just to feast upon, or to hear, smell, frequently hold. Time and again he made many efforts to memorize Latinate hierarchies or learn to differentiate birdsong or tree leaves, but inevitably he was undone by beauty, which bears no constant name and resists classification. Even I myself am beautiful, he said like Narcissus to the reflection of himself in the pond, from the end of the dock—even if I do have what they call a rum face: jug ears and pug nose and such terribly insignificant eyes, like an insectivore’s. And yet I am still beautiful, in a way…
He would have been loath to confess it, but Oscar once liked to believe in imaginary friends—who are immeasurably more dependable than other kinds—and when he was much younger would often as not invite along on safaris his “Mauveist” idol A. F. Wryegate (b. 1875, d. 1901), to whom he would later dedicate a shrine in his dressing room. (Sometimes a mysterious mutual friend, Aloysius, would join them, but the physical exercises he contrived were so scandalous he was not often asked. Among other things, Aloysius smoked and wrote indecorous clerihews.)
Auberon, Oscar would incant three times aloud when liberated from adult supervision, “pack up your entomological net, your quinine, your vade mecum, and your paintbox—for we are trekking through yon jungle to rediscover Eldorado.” Auberon Wryegate, being a figment with no real will of his own, and of no exact age, had to come along, obviously, though he never had much to say. The jungle was an almost impassable spinney of buckthorns and spiky hollies at the bottom of the dying apple grove; El Dorado was an involuted network of fox dens; the Musquash, naturally, stood in for the Amazon. Later, the Anglo-Irish esthete, who would die so tragically young in a Helvetian sanatorium, would write one of his best-known odes (“Upon a Damselfly”) and dedicate it to a certain O. W.
Even the midsummer sun must set, and so Oscar would have to bid adieu to the sympathetic but still wholly invisible Auberon (maybe Aloysisus, too, if he had been good) and lope back to the house, to take up not another book but his alto flute. In more recent years it might be the immortal “La Mort du Grand Dieu Pan” or “Last of the Lilies” or something else both pastoral and melancholic, but he had started off with much simpler fare. Enid, around teatime, would be listening. Lacking Satchell’s dexterity, he always played as though all his fingers were thumbs, if with unequivocal gusto; she would crunch into a dry madeleine, turn another page, and sigh—sometimes tolerantly, sometimes not.
Enid did not enjoy music, although she encouraged it. Over the years, as Oscar had grown taller and his fingers somehow stubbier, she remained on guard—from his first lessons, when his tutor at school had shown him how to form his embouchure without smiling, through that period when he was endlessly disentangling the complexities of “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Mary Had A Little”—until his last sessions, when he was introduced to Rameau and granted permission to try out for marching band. Never a wunderkind, or even adequate on an amateur level, with much practice Oscar got marginally, ever so marginally better. Not that Enid, even Auberon, could have detected much difference.
He never marched with a band, but he began to investigate more deeply the repertoire. He did not at all mind playing for an audience of one or two—or none but himself. He was no more ambitious to build up a following with his music than he was later to try with his prose.
And then one day, when no one else was around, Oscar set down his flute and called for Auberon, but Auberon did not come. He hadn’t quite accepted it before, but Oscar was no longer a child; playmates, even make-believe ones, must be left behind. That was when he installed his shrine and began reading aloud a poem before Tarquith’s famed etching of the boy poet every bedtime. Sometimes they were A. F. Wryegate’s own works; other times they were Oscar’s wan imitations, but always his recitals were sincere.
Only because of his incarceration during that period between high school and achieving his majority did Oscar learn to be duplicitous, ready always to swear that he had never left the confines of these two airless rooms whose primary occupants were, in essence, no more than a mass of wood pulp and bits of leather and brass and twine. He could never admit to Enid that he had spent the better part of the afternoon communing not with books, but with tadpoles down at the pond or calves in an upper pasture, who like Oscar had escaped the supervision of their elders.
And that is the way things had gone it seemed for a very long time. Now that he was an adult, Enid allowed Oscar more independence, but added to his troubles by stipulating that he do his part for literature. If he would no longer submit to being locked within the library for so long, he must now lock himself in his own rooms and hammer at the teeth of their father’s old typewriter or scratch away in longhand within his notebooks. He was committed this summer to a chapter a week. Enid would take the first draft each Sunday, emend it as if it were a term paper, and hand it back for immediate revision. “At the start, all beginners can use a helping hand and eye,” she reminded him, to his continued dismay. Though she would never break his heart by telling him, she deemed the Whistlebotts exceedingly tedious.
Whereas Enid cultivated the bizarre in her appearance, and Satchell never cared much about clothes but could still be counted on to look proper if a bit ill-pressed, Oscar went for what he viewed as a certain soigné elegance, aping to an supremely self-conscious degree Des Esseintesian dilettantes and dandies pictured on dust jackets or described in the inscrutable contes of decadent nineteenth-century dissolutes. It was an affair of great concern, what he should wear this p.m., if he were to grapple with the infamous Cyrie Epping. Best to intimidate her with simply staggering amounts of style.
Oscar tore off “le smoking” he habitually wrote in. This shirt would not do; in June’s heat, better linen than cotton. This flouncy foulard and its signet cinch would also not do; he substituted them for an appreciably more subdued burgundy lavaliere with an imitation emerald tiepin and lastly donned a scarlet sports coat made of Bengali muslin, which clashed wildly with all the rest but was still as beguiling, he thought, as that one poppy mid the heather. (Not that he had ever seen heather in middle America.) Houndstooth trousers, herringbone braces, clover-clocked socks, bow-tied brogues, and he was getting somewhere. He wished he could have also worn his newest mail-order acquisition: a cashmere vest with gay little zebras zigzagging up and down it, but it was much too warm for that.
After setting a sisal-straw panama at the perfect pitch upon his high freckled forehead, then evaluating the effect in a full-length pierglass; after a good deal of titivation and second or third thoughts; after changing his shirt and neckwear yet again, he eventually decided he was fit for his public.
The Caravel, more scow than frigate, awaited him against the sun-warmed stonework of the pump house; he had only to snap on plaid ankle-garters to protect his razor-sharp pant-cuffs and sling on a rucksack filled with items filched from the Hoosier and Frigidaire. Nothing stirred but an awakening breeze, now that it was nearing noon, with (presumably) Satchell invariably in the kitchen again, hastily assembling watercress-and-caviar sandwiches (“black pearls on beds of seaweed” for a light lunch, and (even more presumably) Enid napping in her chambers after the unholy ructions of this morning.
Tires taut, gears well-greased, brakes reasonably pliant: all set then. For a five-speed, three-wheeled mechanism, the Caravel was awfully unsteady on its pins, but it was still capable of an arthritic sort of mobility. It jogged and jiggled on the rocky path, caught its breath, managed to gain confidence, then sailed down the driveway on its way to the lane, following the route that crossed the Musquash over rusted trestles and disappeared into gentler slopes beyond.
The land’s luxuriant splendor, its refulgent abundance, its abundant luxuriance (on and on—so many applicable permutations!) during this most spendthrift of seasons always made Oscar feel both humbled and blessed, under blue and benevolent skies, in the cool rushing air, and however parlously balanced he was on a bike seat built for far lither physiques. The hills, the streams, the ponds, the forests, the fields, the flowers! No wonder poets had their inalienable rights, too.
He had to remind himself on occasions like this that the material world is an actual certified fact, proven and re-proven again by scientist or sophist, and that he shouldn’t work at his desk for so long and allow his entire existence to become nothing more than cerebration, just thoughts in his head and words on paper—words and words and more words, until sometimes he felt he was becoming substantially less corporeal than one of those droll calligraphic silhouettes produced with pen, ink, and paper.
After miles of such musings, his baser instincts turned his thoughts to the pick-me-up in his pack. With squealing protestations from the brakes and a soupçon of hitherto-unknown swagger, Oscar brought the hulking vehicle to an unnerving halt alongside a deep culvert, where the water trickling across the corrugated iron was caroling as if it were as uninhibited as a mountain brook. Taking baby sips of malted milk while lustily licking up melted nonpareils from their foils, he watched a solemn processional of lumpish, elephantine rainclouds plod trunk-to-tail toward the steepest bluffs to the west. A child’s game, this. By the time he had finished his thermos, the aerial entities had expanded, then reassembled into a flotilla of warships and become a still more lugubrious, more ominous shade of gray.
Oscar knew he must try to outrun this weather, even if where he sat it was still as sunny and sultry as he imagined an atoll in the Coral Sea must be. With an ursine grunt he hoisted himself back over the cantankerous trike’s rickety frame and kicked off in eddies of fulvous dust like curry powder.
Now and then, when he was younger, he had fled the Whitsell farm like this, at times, for instance, when he could no longer bear to see his father drunk among his merchandise or his mother packing her bags for another clandestine weekend in Chicago. More often it was when the taunts at school had driven him in search of another, better world, out there on the other side of unseen, unknown, ever-imponderable hills and valleys. Sometimes his exploits ended at his first steep climb, sometimes they led him as far as the Brierbaum farmstead, halfway to Shokokwan.
At the Brierbaums’ he might run into his inconstant intimate, Winslow, and have cause to stay away from home indefinitely. At least the youngest Brierbaum was a better conversationalist than Auberon. Be that as it may, when they were boys, playdates were few and sleepovers far between. Oscar liked Winnie well enough, but more to the point was always a bit jealous of him. Winnie, who Oscar saw mostly only at recess, for they were a grade apart, got away with a lot by being perceived as “talented” and “musical.” He also had the benefit of five bigger brothers to protect him.
“Oddball” Oscar (or “Ozball,” when he wasn’t “Squinty”), on the other hand, was reckoned to be dangerously off-centered in conduct and orientation, at least until he got a little too tall and a little too broad of beam for all but the most fearless bullies at school to call him out. More with of a sense of relief than accomplishment, Oscar had welcomed graduation before permanently leaving formal education behind, for, with what Enid was always saying about academia’s teaming masses of conformists, it could all very well have been more of the same at college.
In those lonely, best-discarded days of his adolescence, he would now and then get hopelessly lost at deceptive rural intersections or along the mazy macadam drives that wound around the local reservoir. By evenfall the Caravel’s dying battery-powered headlamp could see barely five feet. When Oscar did finally arrive home, long after sundown and long past supper, no one seemed to have noticed his absence. That was always a bit disturbing, but just as well. He would pass, evidently as immaterial as a mirage, through the “informal” parlor, in which his parents sat silent and exhausted between bouts of petty bickering, or cross the drawing room where Enid and Satchell played pensive bouts of boule on the Persian rugs, then mount the stairs to his room—where at last he could noiselessly secure the door and read by lamplight until dawn. Into legend and romance he would vanish. The faraway past of poets long consigned like himself to oblivion was a safer place to retreat to, he felt, than any place out there in the cornrows and cow pastures.
In the summer, in the midwest, rumbling thunderheads come up like armies out of nowhere, and by the time Oscar had hit the broader, more level pastureland of the river valley, a storm was fast approaching. Never a great believer in maps, he was, as always, bewildered by the bridges and crossroads and farms and fields that repeated themselves again and again over hundreds of thousands of checkerboard acres, and with the midday sun chased from the skies he could no longer ascertain if he were heading east or north, where lay the tiny county seat and its toy-town college.
The only thing Oscar knew with any surety, once he saw the familiar faded billboard for Geode Caverns, was that he was, as in yesteryear, approaching the ragged edges of the Brierbaums’ property, where Winnie would be estivating now if he hadn’t gone to his young composers’ workshop. His erstwhile friend and he had recently had another falling-out, which happens often when you are the two most peculiar young men in the precincts. What had they last quibbled about, anyway? Something about whether the prewar Sigilists had used up sundials and satyrs (or perhaps it was skulls and dressmakers’ dummies) in their woodcuts, dance pieces, tone poems, prose poems, et cetera.
When the rain came, it came like… came like this, like that—Oscar, very much as his sister would have, searched for the appropriate comparison while bumping along tractor-tire ruts leading toward the first corncrib or hay barn he’d come to around the bend. [_Pish! _](an exclamation he regularly sounded in his head, if not aloud) who cared what the rain was like; he only wanted not to get drenched—but it was already too late. The indigo of his painted tie was running into the pale chartreuse of his shirtfront, and the splashing mud had sullied his impeccable creases and pleats. By the time he reached what was a disused cowshed, Oscar was convinced he must look like the survivor of a shipwreck.
“Oh, hello there. How nice of you to drop by.” An improbably baritone voice, creamy as caramel, arose from the shadows within the shed. Oscar let the lopsided cycle fall over like the slain Goliath and emitted a not very subtle cry of distress.
The voice sounded again, and this time the speaker stepped forward, from where he had apparently been bandaging something like a crippled Celtic harp. “Sorry to have jolted you”; Oscar saw immediately that this was one of Winnie’s older brothers, most of whom he had not seen for quite a few years. In those years, the Brierbaum boy’s muscles had grown appreciably and also the trim boulevardier’s beard upon his face, but not so much his height. You could call him dark, even swarthy, and very nearly handsome, but you couldn’t call him tall.
“Wet much? Come in, don’t just stand there… We know each other—you’re Winnie’s chum, aren’t you? Taking a spin on your rickshaw? In this monsoon?”
Although cordial, the youth kept asking him one thing after another. Anxious to talk to someone, obviously. Fair enough-looking chap, Oscar supposed. He remembered just in time that this was the brother named Wycliffe—Cliff if you were one of the family. He was taken to be even smarter than Winnie. He was—yes, yes, definitely better-looking.
“Good to see you again, Wycliffe, how are you,” Oscar said as flatly as a person with his excitable manner of speaking can; he was this way with all males more inherently masculine than himself. Suddenly it was as if the two of them had met at one of those lively cocktail parties where Oscar surmised more sophisticated adults spent many an evening. “I don’t figure Winnie—Winslow—is back yet from music camp?”
Oscar was well aware of the athletic fit of Wycliffe’s varsity “singlet” (as it is sometimes called, even in America; a dictionary had once etymologized for him that it was in a way half of a doublet). He recalled that back in school Wycliffe had once participated in Greco-Roman tournaments. It was conceivable that the younger boy had once lingered over photographs of the championship team in Enid’s yearbook. There was no doubt that even today, in the declining years of his youth, and despite being of a stature much shorter than long-legged Oscar, Wycliffe gave the impression of being barely contained by the shed’s roof-beams and floor-planks.
Once his pupils had properly dilated, Oscar observed that this shack was a kind of household repository, crammed to the rafters with old chests and chairs, lanterns and lamps, beds and cots, even older commodes, umbrella stands, hat racks, hall trees, what-have-you—odds and ends too worn or démodé to be kept in the home but too nice or too unusual to be sent to the junkyard. Not easy to picture it now, but once a farmwife had hung her bonnet on that hook, or wrung her bloomers through that mangle. This is how families dispose of a more dignified past, Oscar theorized, when present-day vulgarity keeps overcrowding it. The Brierbaums probably had the right idea; contrarily, the Past was all the Rectory had to furnish it; the Past had smothered its Present. If there were to be any Future—
“Sorry,” Oscar interrupted his own internal monologue, and then, furtively doffing his unflattering eyeglasses—something he wished he had done earlier—he did his best to evince rapt attention. “You were saying?”
Wycliffe grinned at him amicably. Evidently he hadn’t noticed or hadn’t cared when Oscar drifted away. “I said except for me all my brothers are away. Two of them are married. I’m minding the old folks at home for a while, chores and shoring-up, that kind of thing, before I hit the books again this fall—or maybe not till next year.”
“Oh—ah, um,” Oscar fumbled, at a loss for words, which the Whitsells seldom ever were. “Right. You… you…”
“Wait tables,” Wycliffe said, striking some sort of pose. “Part of the time. When not working on my degree. The Hegemonic Principle in Postwar Eurasian Society, you see. Very revisionist, very interdisciplinary. It’s not political science, exactly, it’s not sociology, and it’s certainly not anthropology, but I guess it is all three. You see, when the Soviet satellites…” He was drifting away himself.
Oscar knew that Enid, art-for-art’s-sake Enid, did not approve of what she called any of these “mixed-up, mixed-media, cross-cultural things they do these days. Death of the Author or whatever, it’s a load of bosh. Stay away.” His own opinions were not as yet fully formed. Most men look worse off with facial hair, he was simultaneously thinking, though his suited Wycliffe the way Lord George Gordon’s must have. Except the polymath didn’t have chin whiskers, did he? Maybe at Missolonghi…
“…and to hell with it, I should be completing my damned doctorate instead of diddling about here,” Wycliffe continued unabated, at last shutting the swinging doors Oscar had left open so no more wet weather would intrude. The long low room was instantaneously darker and also felt smaller, warmer, steamier, with the young men brought closer together. Oscar was both frightened and excited; he was seldom in such company. Was this the way it is at a hammam?
Outside, the rain had acquired a volume and vehemence not seen since Gilgamesh’s great flood, Oscar would have liked to write in a letter mailed to Mr. Wycliffe Brierbaum, for he could order his words better on paper. Water was trickling its way through the asphalt lining the shed’s roof and began to puddle along the threshold and under the leaky windows. The rain walled them off from the rest of the world, if only temporarily, and that was not a bad thing, he decided.
“Are you cold? Why, I do believe all six-feet-something of you is shaking.” To be heard over the torrent without, Wycliffe’s voice had taken on a senatorial aspect; he obviously relished his rich buttercream lubricity, and so did Oscar. So unlike the majority of voices he heard around here. At this point Oscar recalled that only Wycliffe, of the entire Brierbaum fraternity, had been sent to boarding school out east—because of an advanced intellect or because of disciplinary problems, or both, wasn’t clear. Obviously the experience had altered Winslow’s second-oldest brother inside and out.
“Don’t quite know if it’s meant to be bowed or plucked,” Oscar had last consciously heard his new friend saying. Now this middle child of the pack raised aloft the unvarnished triangle of willow-wood and gave it a mighty twang on its sole remaining string.
“This here psaltery I mean to mend is a kind of mountain dulcimer,” he went on to explicate, and the longer he spoke, the faster his words ran together. “I wonder of whose bones and yallery hair she is made. Never mind, that’s out of the Lomaxes. You know, the Folkways label.”
Without warning Wycliffe presented his right hand to Oscar, and for a second Oscar wondered if he were supposed to shake it—or something else? He suspected there was—no, actually could smell—grease under the unkempt nails and thought he saw that the hand, with its thick black hairs on the knuckles and so many sinews and veins, was shaking, moderately yet persistently; in this light it was hard to tell. Hard to tell, as well, if Wycliffe was just putting on a show, or actually that nervous a person. “Look at that,” he was saying, and dropped his arm. “Nowadays I’ve got to keep my hands busy, busy, busy, otherwise my mind takes over. I’m a little crazy at times, so forgive me if that shows… ”
He patted a pocket of his patched dungarees, then another, then another, then another. “Damn, I seem to have forgotten my flask, or I would have given you something already… ”
Oscar at last had an inkling.
“Anyway, I was told this belonged to my great-grandparents in Kentucky. Their last name is my first, but we’re predominantly krautkopfs, you know, out of the Vaterland. Musik! But wouldn’t you know it, I’m the only one in our family who’s not gifted that way, with my mother a piano teacher and all. I like music a lot, I tried, but I’m totally tone-deaf.”
A glum pause on his behalf, which Oscar wished he could have filled with something worthwhile to say.
Then Wycliffe resumed his cheerful if bantering tone. “Hey, look at you—you resemble a drowned Petrushka in that getup, you know? Saw it in Providence once. No, not the one you’re about to tell me about—an earlier version, by Namayov.”
“Sure, that one, so seldom revived,” Oscar averred, shamming expertise he hadn’t yet acquired (ultra-crep-idarian—now he had it), ready to agree to anything, although he didn’t know exactly what else Wycliffe might be implying. That he, Oscar, was some kind of foppish puppet? That Wycliffe was just too urbane for the likes of Hicksville? Maybe, like certain other people Oscar knew, Wycliffe said things just for effect.
Oscar cleared his throat and spoke more defensively. “An important classical piece, right, I know. Say it, will you, I’m all wet. I suspect I look ridi—”
“A ballet, to be precise.”
“Yes, of course a ballet. A burlesque. Satchell calls that sort of thing an unsung bouffe, or I grant you, buffa. Now I begin to remember.”
“Well, I take it neither of us needs to show off. Though it’s in my blood. My mother plays the Slavs to perfection on her big battered boat-like Bösendorfer, ausgesprochen schön.” He sniffed—at the rainy air or his own quips, no telling. “Anywho, where’s the party? I daresay that’s why you’re so dressed up.”
Oscar always fell for anyone good at umlauts. “Party? Yes, party—there is one tonight, in fact, at our place, for my sister. Say, you really ought to come!” The latter words had escaped his lips before he understood what he might be in for now. How foolish, for besides Wycliffe himself, what else had he invited? Oscar felt wetter than ever in his clothes. Sopping through and through.
Wycliffe was one of those people who can go from a paltry grin to a generous guffaw in no time. His laughter seemed entirely genuine, though it reminded Oscar of ducks and was nothing like his speaking voice. “Shall I bring a bottle?” Wycliffe proposed. “Or bottles, if you’re after the aura of a biergarten. I’ve got some wormwood purl and some really killer lambic.”
That grin grew from eyetooth to eyetooth. “Will there be dancing? Drunkenness? Debauchery?”
Affable as was this older man—for that is how Oscar still saw him—he seemed to rate himself a first-class showman, and Oscar would have been indisposed to contradict him, even if he hadn’t been enjoying the performance. Nonetheless, he was a bit taken aback when Wycliffe added, “But you ought to get out of those clown clothes in the interim.”
His last words sounded more a tease than a provocation to Oscar. Outside the rain came down like a… like a… And the tin roof clattered nervously all over. As did Oscar, or his bones, for he now felt that deep sudden chill one only experiences in the middle of a strong summer shower, fluctuating from hot to cold and back again to hot. He discarded his jacket and, noticing his emerald pin had become dislodged, thought of taking off his tie as well, but would have felt naked if he did any more than loosen it a little. Let every inch of the painted peacock on it bleed away before he exposed too much of his pale podgy self…
Several sequential bursts of lightning lit up the shed like someone fixing a fuse, although the shed obviously had never benefited from electricity. Wycliffe was not exactly Praxitelean in face or form, but had such solicitous, such tender eyes, Oscar saw vividly, if only for a second or so. (I should have kept my glasses on, he told himself, if only to see a bit better in this semidarkness.) This then was the wiser and more fully grown man, alive before him; he did not appear capable of crass feelings or boorish actions, of the disparagement Oscar had so often suffered, and yet…
Oscar tried not to meet those eyes that in his opinion had all the dark fire of a primitive saint’s, even when they seemed unafraid to gaze fully and unblinkingly upon his pitiable form. Were they brown, those eyes? Blue? Not blue? Light blue? Gray? No, only heroes or heroines in books truly have gray eyes, as far as he knew.
(“When I get this damned thing fixed,” Wycliffe was saying aloud to himself, as he rubbed its abalone rosette with a dirty kerchief, “I’m going to sell it, you know. I’m not sentimental, see, and I want the money to get out of here. Hell. It’s been months since I had a job and my grant dwindled away.”
His voice had reached a new and lower register and his eyes bore deeper into Oscar. “You want to buy this? I heard your house is full of antiquated junk. Ah, forget it. Does your big sister still live there? Little Satch? Hey, where were you headed before this downpour?”
(Oscar sensed this conversation would become parenthetically crucial to the rest of his life. “I was on an errand for my sister, actually,” he replied after an uncomfortable moment, cognizant of Wycliffe looking at him as if he were behind bars in a zoo or prison, but perhaps not really seeing or hearing him at all. “The party’s for her birthday, she’s twenty-five tomorrow. She’s been less than her whole self lately. I was, I wanted to—I wanted…”
(And then he realized how fantastically unreal his quest to uphold her honor, if that’s what you could have called it, had been all along. They would scorn or at worst ignore such a big oafish loutish loon as himself breaking into the sanctity of their tidy little offices—bulls and china and all that—even if anyone at all having to do with the college magazine were to be there during vacation. He would never go any farther today, of course; he would just shamble home and live his quixotic dreams of adventure through the Whistlebotts. All of that should concern him more, Oscar berated himself—but now there’s Wycliffe…
(He might yet have something to strive for. Surely Wycliffe was as compassionate as he looked, even if he’d had a few drops earlier—more so indeed, if he’d had a few drops earlier—and he would obviously go to any party as long as there was plenty of drink—indeed there would be a case of cheap champagne.
(Hours might have passed, though it was less than a minute.)
“You don’t have to yawn,” Wycliffe objected, breaking the spell with his quack of a laugh.
Oscar looked around wildly. “Sorry. My sister woke me so terribly early, rummaging about, so unlike her,” he said, suppressing another such eruption.
“In boarding school they’d have you naked under ice-cold water at five a.m.,” Wycliffe taunted him.
Reality rushed back into place. The summer sky outside the wide-open windows here (who had opened them?) was suddenly blue and bold as truth again. Last time Oscar had been so bold as to look up, Wycliffe was threading a fat wire string through the bridge of his Appalachian harp. Oscar screwed down the cufflinks of his dress shirt—celadon-green agates that called to mind alligator eyes. Wycliffe seemed to think nothing was out of sorts, for his end of the conversation never flagged. Maybe it’s schoolboy infatuation, maybe it’s a stupid dream, Oscar reproached himself—I still want him to follow up on his promise to come to the party. But he had too much self-respect in his stubborn soul to ask again.
At some point both young men had found themselves outside, standing by and then sitting on the tailgate of a haycart left stranded in front of the barn eons ago. A redwing’s ringing clarion rang out, but no one heard it. Wycliffe could carry on, but Oscar did not mind his seriocomic garrulity. It was nice having someone other than Enid doing most of the talking; besides, Wycliffe had a much nicer voice. And over time the two young men seemed to have moved closer together.
When they were just close enough, Wycliffe good-naturedly prodded Oscar’s still soggy shoulder. “Sir, allow me to adjust your cravat,” he said, maybe in earnest, maybe not. Oscar, not at all used to being touched, shrugged the hairy hand off instead, though not fast or forcefully enough to avoid his rain-soaked tie being given a serious wrench. “What is that, anyway?” Wycliffe asked, tie in his grasp, pulling Oscar nearer like a roped calf. Wycliffe was smaller but obviously stronger, and now he was breathing right on Oscar’s big florid face. “Expressionist abstraction?”
Blushing, when pinned or cornered, always colored Oscar as instantaneously as an octopus signaling its amorous or violent intentions. Usually this kind of boyish horseplay left him bruised and disgraced. Today he wasn’t sure what it was he felt. “Er… it used to be a peafowl,” he said about his tie. “Classic Cold War era.”
Wycliffe whinnied again and this time it was he who pushed the other away. “What a relic! Your great-granpappy’s, was it? Like Li’l Abner’s. Or Mannie the Moocher in a zoot suit. Don’t tell me your dad was ever that much of a dude…”
“My dad?” Oscar never used that particular endearment, although he had liked his father quite a lot, and notwithstanding all his instinctive or learned peculiarities, his father once seemed to have liked him—at least before he turned thirteen and rebelled in new directions. “I doubt very much my dad would have worn something at all like this. He was Hedera League, perma-press, madras and loafers.
“No, I never saw him wear any but the soberest ties, I’m afraid. Funny, when he was seldom what you call dead sober himself.” Now he knew he had gibbered too much.
Wycliffe gave Oscar another subtle look, a mere apparition of a look, which would be a chore to define: condescension? curiosity? dismay? simple surprise? “I remember Ralph—your dad—well,” was all he said, once his features had obtained a certain blankness.
“You do? Weren’t you always away?”
“Not always. Not before I was in middle school. Not summers. Mr. Whitsell used to volunteer in the children’s department at the Renishaw library, or have you forgotten?”
Oscar had in fact fully disremembered that. Due to governmental cutbacks, the Renishaw, a jewel-box Carnegie in Sassafras Junction, had been closed for over five years. But while it had lasted, the Patriarch had always been promoting books and literacy there, in whatever way he could. Summer reading programs, basement sales, fund drives. Get ’em while they’re young, it goes without saying.
Wycliffe sighed and stretched his not very lengthy but well-sculpted legs, as if admiring them, which he probably was as much as Oscar. “Your dad was great, he really got all us volunteers enthused. I think I had something of a Freudian fixation on him when I was a stripling, if you want to know the truth. He was so much older than me, but still only about forty, I guess.
“Did I think Rafe was good-looking? I don’t rightly recall. But I do know he was always very kind to me when I felt so dumb and all thumbs as a kid. And he never said anything about my height or weight, when I was such a pipsqueak back then…
“You know, you remind me of him? Really, not much at all, but that’s what you’re expected to say, and I guess you’ve got something of a presence, you might say, eh, Ozzie? You’re a regular character, too. I like that.”
Enid often called him “Oz”; Satchell always called him plain old Oscar. No one had ever called him Ozzie. Now, Oscar thought to himself, now, Oscar, you idiot, don’t get taken in. But also, almost schizophrenically: Shut up, Oscar. He’s good at spreading honey for homely flies like me. Then again, we’ll gladly take what we can get…
“But I was talking about your papa,” Wycliffe reminded Oscar. “It must have been tough for you. Everyone knew he had problems, but we brats didn’t mind. When I was a little more mature, I got to help him stock the bookmobile for the summer reading program.”
Oscar looked on him enviously, unsure of his own motivations or objectives. Both of them had left off sitting so uncomfortably close to one another and were now poking at gopher holes with rakes or the remnants of rakes, and being good farm boys at heart, ripping the random Jimson weed up by its roots.
Wycliffe carried on. “So then your sister’s compeer the painter came along. Naturally, you remember him. What a wise-guy! What a poseur! I didn’t like him, I didn’t like his phony accent; and your father gave him too much attention, that guy being the urbane Euro and all. You may speculate that I was jealous, in my immaturity, and you’d be right.
“Furthermore, Gregorio, Greg, Grig, Grish, Grisha, Grigore—oh, whatever anyone chose to call him!—detested hayseeds like me. When I was old enough, sometimes your father loaned me ‘adult’ novels and plays from his private library. Not really ‘dirty’ books, I mean, just ‘racy:’ maybe Tropic of This-or-That or some Olympian diary. Whereas I don’t think he ever quite trusted Grigore, and why should he have? Grigore sounded so sinister. You must remember. Either he couldn’t pronounce a z, or over-pronounced them, and Enid thought that so cute.
“Your dad caught on lickety-split, all right. There Grig was, total stereotype of a thieving gipster, alone with his girl-child… Well, we all have our prejudices.”
Wycliffe smacked his forehead as if in pain. “But, hell, I was the one who occasionally didn’t return a duodecimo or sextodecimo collecting dust under my cot.” Wycliffe’s facial configuration, whenever he was trying sedulously to cogitate, with eyebrows askance and underbite cocked, was nothing less than irresistible, Oscar had come to think.
Wycliffe resumed his oration, more falteringly than before. “But I do know one more thing about that impostor and your dad…” And then he tugged at his lower lip, knowing that now he, too, had said too much.
“Come on, tell me,” Oscar begged. “I can take it, it’s been years and years. Nothing you can say or do now can shake me.”
“All right, then… You see, I think Enid’s soulmate liked your father quite a lot, too. Everyone did, actually. But Grigore and Mr. Whitsell—well, they went away on a sort of junket together a few times, funded by your mother, to Des Moines, I think, to buy books—”
“So? I went with him on one of those boring spending sprees once, even Satchell did. The Patriarch had a bad knee and couldn’t carry heavy boxes. It was all very ho-hum, and the motel rooms always stank of the heavy smokers and dogs who had slept there before…. So… ?”
“So nothing. Nothing at all. I couldn’t conceivably understand what was happening or didn’t happen, and then again maybe I was too blasé for a kid my age, having seen or guessed too much about the world already.”
He stopped to lay aside his rake handle, removed his thin sweat-soaked shirt, and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. For the second or third time since meeting Wycliffe, Oscar was breathless.
“After all, I was an altar boy. Sufficiently grownup to be jealous, for all that, I must have already said. Yet I wasn’t the only one. Your sister—your sister, of course—”
“It couldn’t have been that simple! Nothing ever is!”
Wycliffe held back when Oscar flung down his rake, as well, then spoke again, measuring each word. “You’re right. I’m stupid about the whole thing. Forget I said anything, please.”
“You must know that Enid doted on our father, and he doted on her. He could do no wrong, no matter how drunk he might get. Enid was jealous of the Matriarch, our mother, that is. She was afraid to leave her in the same room as her so-called Gypsy Lover, she told me years later.”
“You don’t say! Funny how people get things so backward, and I don’t know if it’s me who’s mixed up about this, or her.”
Oscar felt that he must be incredibly naive or incredibly dense. “I don’t see what you mean.”
Wycliffe held a datura branch in one hand, picking apart a poisonous purple bugle with the other. “I remember your mother, too. She was sensational!”
“She was deplorable, like that weed.”
“Maybe that, too. Toxic. And frightening? I wouldn’t know. But I do know your dad let me know—not so directly, it took months of figuring—however it was I found out, I learned she didn’t want Grish going on any more excursions with him, after some sort of fight they had had—her and him, him and her, him and him, again I don’t know. Oh, it was all so complicated! A regular La Ronde.
“If you don’t mind me telling you so, I still don’t have all the farcical elements sorted out—not that I dwell upon who was stage-left or -right too much. It was your family, not mine, after all. If your father suffered an overdose (that’s what the coroner said, right?) because of what happened or didn’t happen, I can’t say. You see, I left this place behind that summer, I thought, for ever…”
Oscar took up his rake again, just to have something to hold, to do. “I still don’t understand. And of course it was suicide, I came to terms with what happened long ago.” At the moment—only for that moment, maybe for a few days or even longer—Oscar didn’t really mind or care how many new skeletons might be exposed in the Whitsell crypts and closets. What mattered is that he must stay friends with Wycliffe. It was imperative that now they must see one another often.
Wycliffe had already said something. That was lost, but never mind. “Sorry, kiddo, you probably are too young,” he said next, stroking his beard and kicking at the mud as if in cartoonish unconcern: The Scandalmonger, Triumphant.
Gossip is one thing, easily forgiven if delivered with a dash of humor. Even more than any unseemly innuendos about his family, Oscar hated being reminded of his youth. Especially by someone not much older than himself. But he bit a potentially very sharp tongue, for propriety’s sake. Here he was in alien territory. Beyond his ken, his sphere, his means. Wycliffe, having experienced so much more of the world, would always have an advantage of sorts. Also, this was the Brierbaums’ property, the Brierbaums’ world, where he had never been more than an interloper, even when he and Winnie got on best.
As seemed to be his habit, Wycliffe mollified his gibes with jovial self-denigration. “Oh, Cliff, you should just shut up,” he said aloud to himself, closing his eyes and wagging the pointed black beard that made him look so much like a roguish Knave of Hearts. Then he spoke again to Oscar. “Never mind anything I have to say. My brothers could tell you that despite appearances, I’m never the serious one. I shouldn’t be casting any aspersions. Really, to tell the truth, I was just an extra in your family’s drama; my part was so small, really, I don’t deserve any credit.”
Wycliffe chuckled until he almost choked on his own modest witticism. “Well, so long, pal,” he said suddenly, rising to full height on his cowboy boot heels and giving Oscar three enormous wallops on the back. Given his druthers, Oscar would have liked better a less ambivalent but equally “manly” hug. But he would take what he could get. The thwacking stung very much, just as Wycliffe’s revelations had, but somehow the physical pain felt welcome, almost cathartic.
Oscar managed to reach for his inhaler and drew from it as liberally as a surfacing deep-sea diver with an air tank. He hated having to do this in front of a relative stranger—but, then, he guessed, they were strangers no longer.
Having stifled the last of his neighs, Wycliffe, still shirtless and still demigod-like, yet so very mortal, leaned against the shed door and revealed a slow bright toothy smile that fluoresced winsomely, very nearly handsomely, upon Oscar and all that surrounded Oscar. A new kind of silence seemed to hang in the air, overtaking both of them. It was as if one more chess piece lay between them, waiting to be maneuvered into position. But where to exactly, and how? It was entirely feasible that Wycliffe had already forgotten about being invited to Enid’s party this evening. Oscar would not jinx anything by reminding him in such a way as to appear ungracious.
The sun sank a tiny bit lower in the sky as the two stood hands in pockets, one very shy, the other nearly half naked. “Well… I better let you get back to whatever it is that you do,” Wycliffe said a bit peremptorily after Oscar had ransacked his vocabulary but still could find no more to say. It was then that the hale young fellow took one hand out of his pants and at last swept back the hair that all the while had been plastered to his forehead with sweat or rain. Impressed upon his bland Byronic brow—was that an old scar or solely a wrinkle indicative of deep thought? Could it be that like Oscar’s idol…
Oscar strove to put to order his thoughts and his general physical appearance. Where had his tie gone, after he had been so mindful of it? Was his collar buttoned properly? Obviously it was his turn to say something—anything.
“So, I guess this is goodbye. Thank you so much for accommodating me, Wycliffe,” Oscar said, fully aware of how overly proper he was sounding. A handshake, even a bow, or nothing at all? He still was hoping to find the right tone to take with this newfound friend of his, who had already heading back toward the shed. He hadn’t foreseen that their conversation could end without the proper formalities. Still, the clouds had cleared and the Caravel was somehow back upright, braced to go.
“Call me Cliff.”
Oscar could have sworn that he saw the fellow wink before he disappeared, although it might have been just the glint of the newly recovered sun on the tin roofing that worsened his strabismus.
But, no doubt about it, “Cliff” had called him “pal”!
Oscar took another, shorter, surer route back home, this time passing the tidy premises of The Reresby Colony (so their breadbox-mailbox read). Jones, for all one knew the eldest triplet, sat on a folding chair out near the split-rail fence that marked the limits of their land, painting en plein air a seascape of the rolling fields on the south side of the road. At least the canvas-board on the easel that Oscar saw when he stopped to give his regards looked like it was filling up with waves, not vegetation, however blue timothy might look this time of year. One could always say that the artist had been rather “free” with hues and brushstrokes, for naturalistic representation was not one of her strong points.
Jones did not greet him or look up from her palette, but admonished Oscar not to “block the light, damn it.” As if, even given all his male magnitude, still a good yard from her, his shadow could obliterate an entire firmament’s illumination on an amazing afternoon like this!
He need make nothing of her curtness, for this was the afternoon and hour when Oscar had discovered that he loved everything, and so everything must love him in return. He forgave Jones her imprecation, forgave the world for all its past injustices and cruelties. “You’re really getting somewhere there,” he told her with a nudge, disregarding her remonstrations.
“I am already there,” she chided him, but that was just her bluff; she was the gentlest of nonagenarians. Oscar knew she loved him, and of course he loved her, he loved all three of the Reresbys, always and ever.
Oscar would have liked to palpate an exceptionally tempting dollop of fresh titanium white, but Jones parried his thrust before his fingers were halfway there. When she chose to, she could be quite agile for her age; when not comparing the trio to terrapins, Enid said they could surprise one so, springing up out of nowhere like… well, like springboks, though she had only a vague idea of what springboks are—large jumping insects? (Because they dressed and looked so much alike, Enid had also dubbed them the Three Androgynes, but that is only fit for another discussion.)
“Your wingding had better still be at seven,” Jones said gruffly, as the Whitsell boy had insulted her for not bringing the topic up sooner. “We’re coming, the whole lot of us, so make plenty of room.”
“I know, I know, it is, it is,” he said. “We’re thrilled that you’ll be there. This time I hope Tids doesn’t just wait in the car.” The colony’s aged factotum might have been older than any of his employers; Oscar could go for months without running into him, but knew very well that the old man still kept his license, they still had the same sedan, he could still drive.
Jones oracularly glared at the canvas before her, seeing perhaps the Lusitanian coast, from where it was rumored she had come as a babe, or something only her mind could make of such ordinary countryside. “We saw your sister yesterday,” she told him, setting her palette aside and only now meeting Oscar’s eyes with her amazingly bright and active eyes. “She’s looking disturbingly unwell for her age.”
“Well, she’s been under a lot of stress lately, she’s finally come round to telling me.”
The old woman (or possibly old man—Oscar had never been quite sure what she had been born as) wiped her big brush on what looked like a blood-soaked rag—although Oscar, a weekend painter himself at times, knew it was just coquelicot and linseed. Still, Jones wore the pinched countenance of a guilt-wracked conspirator. “It’s the effect of having lived so long with your mother, what’s raddled her.”
“Our Matriarch is dead,” Oscar stated firmly. “Or at least she ought to be, by now.”
Jones spat into her rag, something very old men and woman are allowed to do, even in polite company. “I never told anyone this, but your mother wanted to buy the colony from us once. It was no go, of course, however much we needed to pay our taxes. To tell the truth, I don’t believe she felt indebted to our influence on her growing daughter. Tyrants don’t like competition, you understand. Maybe we could have intervened more prudently.”
“Oh, you needn’t rehash the past, and you’re not exactly tyrannical!” he dissented. And then he did understand. “Well, I’m not exactly flabbergasted,” he said eventually. “Concerning Enid, our mother first lost her to our father.”
“It seems to me it was your poor father who lost… in the end. Our fates are always different, but in the end, still the same, for rich and poor, for good and bad. Isn’t that funny.” Her spindly yet still limber frame shook with acerbic laughter; today she was old Cassandra and also young Werther. “Christians and Buddhists alike tell us suffering is sweet. So, young man, let’s carry on…
“Oh, no need to look that way. Goodness gracious! Anyone could read your runes. You’re hiding a big secret today, but not very well.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you could be inferring.” But fair-skinned Oscar had already turned several different shades of purple.
“So it’s that way, then. My, my, isn’t life wonderful?”
“I still can’t fathom what you mean.”
“Mind you, it’s the only life you’re ever going to get.”
For a moment Oscar was visibly circumspect, letting the impenitent atheist’s sarcasm, if that’s what it was, sink in deep, and then he remembered how his universe had been irrevocably transformed this afternoon. At the moment only optimism or a non sequitur could save him from the chasm she had opened up before him. “Oh, Jones,” he said with unfettered emotion, “I hold you sacred! My favorite existentialist!” Before she could back away he had planted a kiss on a bloodshot cheek like a wizened pippin.
“Get back up on your howdah,” she told him, jousting at him with a brush like a lance, “before you get paint all over your fancy clothes. As you can see, I’m unbelievably busy.”
Oscar bowed to Jones like a courtier of the ancien régime and mounted his saddle not so gracefully as the equestrians of old. “There will be magnums and methuselahs!” he shouted down the wind to her. “Gateaux and crème glacée! Pin the tail! All of you, shine your shoes, wear your best frocks…” He whipped his steed harder and his voice wafted away from her more speedily than he exited the dead-end blacktop; he knew she was nearly deaf, anyway.
Almost home, from the bottom of Rectory Lane, Oscar espied what looked like a drooping, long-limbed somnambulist doddering around and about the granite memorials clustered against the hillock that overlooked house and barn. It was Enid, of course, so he pedaled as far as he could up the path (which was not far) before hopping off the cumbersome trike and clambering to her side as rapidly as he could (and he was never rapid). “O, me aorta! O, me achin’ aorta!” he yipped in imitation pidgin, slumping over the stone of an ancestor yclept Uriel. “Get me a gurney! Or dig me a pit, sexton, right here, right now.”
“Oz, Oz, Oz! Shut up, quit trying to be funny, and tell me double-quick, did you see anyone run past just now?” She was panting worse than he was and her eyes were dazed as if sun-struck.
Forthwith he’d been rescued by his inhaler, he answered. “Nobody, nothing. Why, what’s up? You’re as chalky and shaky as panna cotta.” (Hungry again after all he’d experienced this afternoon, he couldn’t stop concentrating on those luscious items Satchell had waiting… )
Having recovered her breath as well, she kicked at one of the granite slabs as if to topple it. “You saw no one at all?”
“Enid, one of us has been meaning to say—you’ve been looking rather ragged lately. In need of a rebind, love,” he pressed on. “If I were—”
“Do, do, do shut up and let me speak!” she implored, standing over him. “Oz, listen, only a couple of minutes ago, the most astonishing upstart of a girl galloped past me, down there,” she recounted to the brother who lay at her feet, ignoring his feigned misery even as he groped for her hand. She had managed to stop shaking. Her jaw was firm, he saw, and her voice dry and contracted, as if only through sheer force of will she was able to keep herself from screaming.
“If you insist on knowing [which Oscar had not], I was coming downstairs to the front hall from the attic.” Enid promptly regretted admitting that she had been in a place where they so seldom ventured, and for so long. It might look suspicious. “You see, I had gone up there looking for Cachou, who was yowling who knows where,” she dissembled, to excuse her lengthy absence.
Paying no heed to his own disheveled state, and with renewed vitality, she went on, faster with every phrase: “I was hunting for that scalawag for hours, it seemed. The morning had been so tiresome, it’s conceivable I might have nodded off a bit without knowing it. Yes, that was it. Up there, where it’s so warm… Then there was that horrific cloudburst—I do remember thunder like untamed broncos…
“But that’s all besides the point. As I was saying, when I was coming back down, this rather zaftig young person in a dress like a stiff chintz balloon that barely anchored her to the ground came careering down the center stairway right past. I’m not even sure she saw me. At the same time I heard Satchell’s door slamming above.
“And her back buttons were all undone. And I believe she was crying. I shouted at her, but she ignored me and ran right out the French windows there and as far down the allée as I could see.”
“Why, I would never have guessed,” Oscar stated.
“Satchell’s surprise! He’s never let on, of course, the old bluffer.” To himself but not to Enid he said, That had to have been his invitee! And then to Enid: “He never told me anything, either, though I should have known… But are you sure it was a girl?”
“A blonde, of course I’m sure.”
Oscar chewed on his lip before speaking again; Enid stayed only in her thoughts, looking at him with an incredulous gasp upon her face. “I’ll go find Cachou, dear sister. Meanwhile, you had better get ready for the party. Even if you don’t want to go, you’ll have to.”
“But what of that insolent girl?”
“We’ll be seeing her again soon, I predict…”
Within a few minutes, despite Enid’s wrath and the unanticipated concatenations of this day, despite a heart that seemed to want to force its way through his ribs, Oscar had retreated to the monkish solitude of his room. Let Enid’s blown-up outrage deflate in its own time and leave Satchell to his own amatory blunders, he mused as he assembled the weapons of his trade upon the leather desktop. I won’t let her or him, anyone or anything spoil my mood, if this is indeed merely a “mood” and not just a harbinger of the new person I am becoming.
When he took himself seriously, which was not often, he was quite capable of dispassionate introspection. It isn’t as if some toxophilite imp has lodged any arrows in my flesh, Oscar upbraided himself. I barely know Winnie’s brother! Nonetheless his inner happiness crested as he sifted through his many palimpsestic workbooks. And so, of renewed and gladsome disposition, maybe even in love if you could call it something humdrum and dumb-downed like that, Oscar essayed one last stab in the general direction of his Whistlebott family, before it was time to help Satchell with the last-minute party preparations. Being in love—again, if you could call it that—he wanted the whole world to be in love, so he was glad Satchell had probably at least once loved that girl of whom no one else had until this afternoon seen so much as a glimpse or glimmer.
Deals were brokered, plots hatched, snubs administered, affairs begun or ended, all in the lobbies and loges and balconies and boxes and mezzanines and even comfort stations of the Imperial Concertgebouw of Reiplitz. Here representatives of the state, the church, the arts, and the business classes commingled in a fog thick and heady with cigarillo smoke, erotic perfumes, and effeminate colognes, as well as aromatic ales from the canteen, tarry licorices from the confectionery, and balsam-scented furs still frosty from the blizzard raging out beyond the ticket booth. Opera was democratic in Bhuqarana, of a seldom-seen magnitude; peasants spat from stratospheric tiers, the bourgeoisie sat as reverently as at mass in the mid-priced stalls, whilst aristocrats in the front rows tittle-tattled and gulped bonbons and leered through lorgnettes or binoculars at those around them, in general ignoring the proceedings upon the stage.
Tonight was the first public performance of the one-act ‘operette,’ ‘L’esprit de L’escalier[_ ](or, Too Late the Wit)[, a comic collaboration between the renegade Erich Zannstein, late of the Paleo-Hellenic school of symphonists, and an unknown playwright. It was also to be the much-anticipated début in a leading rôle of Alfonze Honigkehle, late of the Reiplitz Conservatoire. The Whistlebotts had met the dashing and debonair young fellow along with his consort, the effulgent mezzo-soprano Arcadia Lultz, on the terraces of the Larksong Café in the bustling bohemian district. It was Saphronia who afterward called the leading man “rather dashing” and Ashby who allowed that the singer seemed very “]debonair[, if forced by modesty to censor other qualifiers.”_]
[“How I abhor such _]conventional[ adjectives,” said Mama Whistlebott, forking torte Voltaire into her mouth during their postprandial toasts at the local Rialto._]
[Over the main course, they had already compared the trinkets they’d bought each other that afternoon in the arcades, for they all cost-effectively celebrated their birthdays on the First of May: a tagua-nut snuffbox in the shape of a hedgehog (“Oh, the iddle-riddles! Shall I keep crystallized triolets inside?”), a small nephrite figurine of that old devil Silenus (“See how he leers, right out of Bakst!”); curl-toed Aladdin slippers like those that might have graced a pasha’s feet; a cigarette holder carved of narwhal horn, two feet long, in case someone wanted to take up a new bad habit; a gorgeous ring, _]chatoyant[ cut ]en cabochon[, with a hidden compartment meant for arsenic—“or just smelling salts”—fit for Herodias, said to give its wearer power to see in the dark; a box of “Juneau” truffles, sprinkled with edible gold dust; jars of tomatillo aspic and jellied eels and jugged kippers from the Galerie Lafitte, jars that coruscated like apothecary displays; and a complete series of ]The Thursday Reader[, a monthly gone extinct in the modern world and filled with autochromes depicting the sort of heightened reality the family had always longed to will into existence around them. But the author digresses… _]
[Neither Philomena nor her husband noticed that, while the tip was being calculated at the Larksong and Arcadia Lultz was powdering her pert nose, Herr Honigkehle had slipped a billet-doux into Saphronia’s purse and touched her hand quite purposefully while doing so. The next afternoon, on pretense of a headache that necessitated a good hour’s airing, she had met him in the _]tabac[ next his hotel. He reeked of premium aftershave and discount pomade, but she did not mind. The singer had bought her some iodine-infused bath salts and without prelude pledged his eternal love right there under the neon sign that fizzled with the brand name ]Virginiana[._]
[But that would all happen _]after[ the première; the night before, during the opening medley of popular favorites, through the overture, and for most of the operette, Saphronia had sat bored and disinterested, until Alfonze (playing the gambler-cum-dauphin) opened his ruffled blouse and appealed to Arcadia (playing the lady-turned-grisette) to tear out his heart. The mezzo responded with death-defying, breast-lifting melisma of the choicest sort, and rowdy applause for a solid ]moment[_—which is an horological unit of time consisting of precisely ninety seconds—did nothing but impede the plot.]
[_Mr. and Mrs. Whistlebott rolled eyes toward each other and fanned their programs suggestively. Because of a mixup at the box office, they sat among shopkeepers. From below them arose the moth-soft flutter of cotton-gloved hands; above them, the proletarians whistled and roared like a zoo. _]
Young Rud had thrown his boutonnière like one of the hoi polloi, though unlike the weedy bouquets belting the wings when Arcadia made a huffy departure, his carnations only reached the orchestra pit. This wasn’t because he was impressed, but because it was something fun to do when he didn’t understand the crazy language being sung or the even crazier emotions being evoked. Ashby, on the contrary, sat enraptured and wondered if love always came on like a punch to the sternum. How would he express it now, how tell the subject of his just-stirring desires, let alone tell the world?
Part Three: Satchell
Of all the living Whitsells, Satchell might have been the only one capable of achieving anonymity in an assembly hall or auditorium. Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, neither his physiognomy nor his clothing were anything but very everyday, very ordinary. This is not to say that Satchell dressed like most average American teenagers of his era would at school or a job; he most often wore pastel button-downs and baggy khakis or chinos perhaps more de rigeur among youth ministers and retired social workers. Also, the crisp if negligently ironed oxfords and back-belted trousers had a démodé cut to them which could only be excused by their having been hand-me-downs from his father (rejected by the more dapper Oscar, who could never have fit himself into them, anyway).
Unlike his much older brother, who parted and disguised his already thinning locks with a good deal of spruce-tar oil and a modicum of trompe l’œil, Satchell’s rebellious ringlets were kept in trim by something of a brush cut that nevertheless refused to quit growing out in unmanageable straw-like whorls. He went to a shop in Sassafras Junction once every month or so, but that did little good. His girlfriend, who sometimes he thought would be happier in a beauty salon than a rehearsal room, made a habit of tousling and tweaking the forelock and cowlick the purblind barber’s razor and scissors had left in place, often gumming his hair up with so much gel and spray he looked, as he said when cross-examining his reflection, permanently astonished.
“Honestly,” Satchell had often enough said. “I’m not your toy.” But of course, young and inexperienced as he was, he loved being just that.
Gemma, the girl Enid had encountered on the stairs of her own home, was on leave from music school for a semester and a summer, while she “sorted things out.” She had not done so well the previous year; she disliked all her tutors and teachers, she had told Satchell almost as soon as she had met him, at the junior college musicale that past winter. She was staying hereabouts because of her great-aunt Gwendolyn in Shokokwon, and it was elderly Gwen who had introduced them when Gemma complained that she never practiced, because she had yet to find an accompanist.
Satchell had been overawed by Gemma Newbury from the start: she was older and had had many lovers (a word that in itself impressed him), and sometimes she didn’t square with his idea of what yankees and easterners should be like—although, Gwen was proud to say, she was from the very best Beacon Hill stock; her father’s side went all the way back to the Puritans and Tories. Gwen, it should be noted, paid little attention to how late her grandniece could stay out upon a school night.
Every evening when weather permitted, it was Satchell’s custom to carry wildflower posies up through a windbreak of poplars to the graves in the family plot on the summit of a solitary wooded knoll. A few decades ago, local historians had determined that the hilltop was a prehistoric effigy mound that had been superseded yet not altogether effaced by the pioneers who came later to bury their own dead here. From above, an aerial photographer substantiated in Sassafrass Junction’s sesquicentennial town report, one could easily delineate the timeworn contours of an indigenous box turtle. The Whitsells favored something a bit nobler—a panther, maybe, or bear. But Satchell had always liked the idea of a humble turtle best.
Just as pioneers had usurped the Indians’ land, their mother’s side of the family (the prosperous Winchelseas) had supplanted the pioneers. Most of the increasingly unreadable epitaphs faced fields to the west; the sheltering pines, of no discernible variety, had been growing here since the Hoocąągra had left; at sunset, the black branches were often gilt-tipped and the atmosphere was more serene than melancholic—which is why that was when Satchell usually liked to pay his respects to the Anglo-Germanic family he and his siblings were no relation to but had adopted as their own.
Here they had laid claim to those they held to be their true forebears, early settlers as well as the highly civilized aboriginals who had beaten their mother’s kinfolk to this property by a thousand years. Most of the Anglicans on the distaff side had been punctually cremated and indexed within the imitation Beaux Arts mausoleum surmounting the hill. In such a bucolic milieu, among far lesser monuments, the lustrous marble inspired no higher introspections than would the minks and pearls of an overdressed parvenu. For Enid, Oscar, and Satchell, the two dozen or so gravestones surrounding the Winchelsea sepulcher constituted more honest and tractable antecedents.
The only monument large enough to dispute the pretentiousness of the epoch ending c. 1900—a declining obelisk honoring the redoubtable Hans Unwirklicht, paterfamilias—was endowed by the Whitsells with a mythical past that wavered between the waggish and the pathetic: In their most recent version, the dedicatee had been an impoverished duke who emigrated to America during the War of 1812; because he was from Kensington, he passed himself off as Prussian (Oscar argued it should be Hessian); soon after landing near if not on Plymouth Rock, he amassed a fortune by manufacturing a revolutionary waterproof boot-blacker. Herr U. chafed under the constrictions of the Brahmin upper crust after his son Arnold’s play Bluestocking Belles was banned, so he led the family west to San Francisco, where they built a palatial theater, exclusively to produce and perform plays of their own making.
As so often happened back then, their theater burned to the ground during an earthquake (“No, a tornado!” young Satchell insisted), and so the family hired a few Pullmans to head back east. Halfway there, a buffalo stampede across the new transcontinental rails ended up leaving them stranded in this land of gypsum mines and geode-prospecting. No problem—they could live more cheaply off the insurance money, like real landed gentry, here in the sticks. Eventually, as everyone must, primarily they all perished—in their case, although it might be impolite to say so—of syphilis (“No, typhoid!”).
Sometimes the children quarreled about what had happened to the younger occupants of the graves—Enid loved lives that ended in asylums or sanitariums, but Oscar and Satchell more often constructed somewhat happier obituaries for their more recent predecessors: triumphal final tours of the continent, memoirs met with public acclaim, lovers reunited in old age, morphine addictions that allowed debauchees their decline in dignity—any or all of these elements might play leading parts in tidy scenarios. The requisite number of untimely deaths Enid attributed to bad diets and influenza outbreaks, while the boys proposed that there had been many elaborately faked funerals ([_even newborns? and why? _]Enid wanted to know) or stolen corpses. All in all, the cemetery was replete with enough drama and doom for multiple boxed sets of family sagas, though it was as yet uncertain when they might get cracking on such pot-boiling money-making schemes, with all else they must do to astound the world with their genius.
Early on an evening last week, Satchell had carried up from the garden beds the last of the peonies and the first of the poppies. The unfussy lines of his graduation suit leant an appropriately ministerial air to the occasion, and even Enid’s shako and kaftan seemed correct—in them, church met chapel, bishop met deacon. His sister did not often enough accompany him on these ceremonies, and so Satchell was more talkative than usual. No matter: she was content to nibble upon cinnamon pastilles as he spoke.
“I’ve had to account for so many related issues in my thesis, I’m seeing putti in the clouds!” he complained with mock weariness, swinging the nosegay in a more pagan attitude than might a parish pastor. “Do you have any idea how many nightingales’ tongues and hummingbirds’ hearts the court of the Sun King consumed at the average soirée? The plantations of Versailles must have been virtually silent. There are one-hundred and seventy-eight cherubs on the ceiling of the Grand Salon, someone counted them. Though a few of the younger seraphim might be mixed in there, too.”
“That statistics-minded person wound up with a very sore neck,” Enid interpolated, withdrawing another pastille from the folds of her kaftan. “And it might sound good, but I believe hummingbirds, Trochilidae, to be specific, are native only to the eastern hemisphere. Unless they were imported.”
“Must have been meadowlarks, then!” Satchell said, chirping like a bird himself as he skipped through the thatched lichgate; he just as lightly skipped to another subject when he turned back to Enid, wading through high grass to keep up with his youthful ebullience. “At your commemoration, we’ll have to do something really fun,” he said, just stopping himself from bobbing his brow to the lilies and tombstones as if to waiting guests. “See, I’ve been hoping we could do a playlet! You or Oscar will have to write it, because I’m far far too busy.”
Satchell did not clarify to Enid right then why he was busier than anyone else on the farm, but in truth, he wasn’t busy just on the farm.
“We can all act in it and make fools of ourselves. It can be as earnest as you like, but put a sting in its tail, oh do. We need dementia, we need death and dying!” he importuned her. Such a request might not have been sensitive to Enid’s increasing maturity, but it was only natural, for they had come to Satchell’s favorite spot, a broken iron bench nestled within a small grove of the tallest pines—which should have been yews, even if they were not. The bench, brother and sister observed with delight, was surrounded by a surprise of dandelions that must have flamed into life only hours ago.
Above them, anxious dark clouds were eddying in the sky, like starlings congregating to roost. One would swear, Enid pointed out, that those spiraling arabesques were flocks of birds, if they were not so eerily soundless. Maybe they were spectral vapors rising with the night. A preternatural silence that permeated the skin and settled thickly among the trees and graves always contributed to this hilltop’s otherworldly atmosphere, and at this hour it was unusually pronounced. Enid held her little brother’s hand as if to protect him from this insidious gloom she felt pressing in on them both. It was a good thing the Patriarch’s ashes had been dispersed upon the waters of the Musquash and not elsewhere around here, or she would have felt that this was too oppressive a place to stop in.
Satchell sat not on the bench but at its feet, after taking one of the reddest poppies in his posey and putting it in his buttonhole; the remainder he flung one by one over the nearest plots, among the dandelions, allowing the ever-present wind to distribute what it liked (for how else could he be fair?). Next, with a blade of sage-grass instead of bugle or kazoo the boy tooted a few bars of “Taps,” gave his buttonhole a deep whiff as if it were the most redolent of gardenias, and rested back against Enid’s knees.
She liked watching her baby brother’s clownish antics, but told him she wished he would sit still in so sacred a place. So for a few minutes they watched the very last of the sun, sinking below a neighbor’s field of young seed corn that upon Enid’s suggestion resembled aureate rows of grapevines on the Apennine slopes.
“Sax,” Enid said eventually, unfastening the bottom three frogs of her garment to promote a better position on the bench. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you.”
Satchell was by then already busy scraping away the fuzzy lichen on one of the oldest headstones next to the bench; so far, he had unveiled only the head of a paschal lamb and the letters R e s q. “You know being so serious only makes me giggle,” he maintained, flipping a bit of moss at her.
“I have to be, this one time,” she stated. “Tell me, Sax, do you ever think of what it would be like for you to leave this place? …Now that you’ve got your sheepskin, I mean… ” she added.
“Never. And why would I? Even if I did leave for a while, if I ever did come back here with anyone, I’d make them stay here with us for the rest of our days.” He did giggle at that thought, although Enid had no idea of how much he might have given away of his private life.
“Will you listen to me.” And she gave him that look he knew so well. “Your brother and I are superannuated, set in our ways,” she said. “We could never think of any other place as home. But you—you still have a chance. You still have so many possibilities!”
He looked at her with wide guileless eyes, scratching the pale hairless shin above his argyle sock. “I know that very well. But I’d rather have handed me the impossibles, please.”
“Impossible in what way?” Lips contracted on hot cinnamon, she looked a little offended. “Do you think I’m impossible?”
He grinned up at her, his pixieish mien not much different from the one she had once watched burbling and chirping with delight in a baby buggy. “D’accord. But that’s our felicitous duty, Enid. Living here, working together, sans souci as sunbeams. That’s all I want. Anyone else will just have to fit in.”
“You are such a naïf, but I love you for that!” she said, bending over to kiss the curls atop his childish and childlike head. Satchell joined her on the bench and they sat not saying a word for some minutes (a trying feat for any Whitsell), watching the western sky’s spectrum shift from warm to cool as a bright solstitial night slowly overcame them, along with this burial ground that had known both Indians and immigrants. “Look at that,” Enid said to herself, but aloud, “long as it was, another day simply evaporated.” She sounded mournful; yet indubitably, if only for that most evanescent of moments, both of them were, very content.
There was only one thing—or rather, fellow human being, on Satchell’s mind to amplify his accustomed equanimity into something greater, verging on unbridled euphoria. Enid’s sorrows, however, were not going to relinquish for long their hold on her.
At length she gestured toward the east. “Behold Selene’s dagger,” she said, “stabbing in and out of its cloak of clouds.” Was she quoting or translating someone? Satchell could never be sure. Enid was capable of improvising like this for hours.
“I hope you’ve brought a stanza or two,” Satchell said to his sister, which was like asking the camel if it had remembered its hump. This was part of their ritual, and he was always honored to be first auditor of her freshest lines. As usual, he could not sit still, so flung himself down once again upon the dewy myrtle, amid the strewn poppies, ready to be regaled.
Enid closed her eyes and raised her chin, forgetting at once that she was unlovely and unloved by anyone but her brothers. She was, above all else, a beautiful thing: a Poet, in every way the most gifted of mortals. “As a matter of fact, I do have a little something here, something I’ve been working on for just the past few hours, so do forgive me if tastes a bit unripe. There’s just enough light, I hope, for a few stanzas.” She took the folded pages from a sort of ladylike sporran at her waist and spread it on the slats of the bench now vacated. “It’s provisionally titled ‘The Haunted Carousel,’ and this one I assure you has no gryphons or pantaloons in it. At least not yet…”
As they had planned, Gemma met Satchell at twelve-thirty among the overgrown plots of the same family cemetery, atop the scruffy ridge that overlooked the house and grounds. She had parked her cousin’s motor scooter at the gate and found her young boyfriend cross-legged on the turf, leaning against the obelisk dedicated to a forebear who had died perhaps a little too ingloriously in the Civil War. Satchell was peering narrow-eyed into a hefty suede-bound book thickly coagulated with blackletter type and blood-red rubrics.
“You couldn’t actually claim you can read that gruesome script any better than I could,” she said, kneeling down and taking the one-volume Cyclopedia Germanica of 1850 from him. She gave the thing a desultory once-over, and finding plenty of astronomical symbols but no pictures, lay it spread-eagled and face-down upon the earth.
“Oh, damn, you’ll crack its back!” he grouched at her, gently turning the book over as if were a living thing, an upturned turtle. Then he lifted her hair, which smelt of lemongrass, and contritely kissed her downy nape. “It’s only because artifacts like that, bequeathed by the first caucasians to till this soil, are so very removed in time and purpose from anything in modern life,” he added. “They give a confirmed agnostic like me a kind of assurance that there is a higher world. Also, I was looking for citations regarding Northern Gothic iconography.”
“Of course,” Gemma said, rising and pulling him up with her. She was already dressed for the evening’s party, in low heels and masses of apricot organza, though it was hours and hours early; still, she had apparently brought no other attire with her. Her ballroom gloves were from the back of her great-aunt’s closet and traveled past her elbows; presently she held his chin in her soft cotton palm. “Of course. Your research, for your sister. You really should just rest sometime.”
“This is what I call resting. I’ve been working like the devil all week to prepare for tonight. In between ordering victuals and libations, and making hors d’oeuvres and desserts, I’m whacking my way through countless authorities on antiquarian architectonics—as well as the evergreen Ernst Umbre, you know, my crackpot Tyrollean compositeur. Up to Eighty-Six, the “Phantom Sun,” this week. Do you know old Umbre died at one hundred and five, which was just one less than the number of concerti for clavier he wrote? Never mind… suppose I’ve told you that enough times before.”
She was fanning her face, waiting for him to finish. Yes, she had heard all of that before…
“You really ought to take off those gloves, it’s beastly hot.”
“That’s not all I can take off.”
“Please, pet, not here among my great-cousins and granduncles.” He drank in all of her peachy loveliness; she really was like a big, succulent peach in that puffy party dress. She was not a modestly proportioned girl—happily, nothing of the sort. With an amenable show of most of his teeth, he offered her a concession. “Although I do know of a place…”
In five minutes they were creeping through the back door.
“Are you certain she’s not here?” Gemma asked, shedding her shoes to tiptoe up the stairs.
“With Enid, one develops a sixth sense,” Satchell spelled out for her, not for the first time. He was several steps ahead of her. “I went to her bedroom; the door was open and she wasn’t there. I looked everywhere around the house, calling her and calling her, but she was un-summonable. I think she must have gone with Oscar to get refreshments for the party. You should see the two of them on that three-wheeler together.”
“Are you certain you shouted loud enough?”
“Enid complains of tinnitus, but she has bat-like sonar. She would surely have felt me if she didn’t hear me.”
“Well, in that case…” Gemma took another timid step over the first landing. “I have been dying to see your room. What a big, weird house, by the way. Lead me through it.”
“It’s nothing special, you’ll see,” Satchell called back to her from the hall that led to his comparatively conventual room (compared to Enid’s or Oscar’s expansive apartments, that is) in a front corner of a higher and sunnier floor.
“So very big and so very weird,” Gemma reiterated, floating light as thistle up the staircase. “I’ve only seen the likes of it in Salem, maybe, or abroad. There should be velour rope to keep tourists at bay.”
“We like it. We’re used to it.” Enid’s room, Gemma was about to find out, was an entire wing away. It was highly unlikely that she would see them—or hear them, if they were as lucky as they always had been when meeting on the sly.
“Must all mimes be so very white?” Satchell asked, peering again into his little dresser-top looking glass. There was no answer from the adjoining bathroom. “Did you hear me? I was saying I don’t think I’m so keen on this, after all. I wasn’t keen the first time you did this. We should be going over what I prepared first.”
“Hush, don’t talk, you’ll wreck my lip line,” Gemma said, returning with more cotton balls. “That first time, in the college theater’s changing rooms, you seemed to like my attentions. How could I not have wanted to try, with all that greasepaint about?”
“Yes, Gem, but now, here…”
“And you know what it all led to. Besides, you’re very pretty as Pierrot. Prettier than myself, but I don’t care. I used to practice on my dolls, like any other girl.”
“Yes, I know. You told me. Allegro, allegro, girl, I need to kiss you.”
“Oh, no! You’ll smear. Wait a bit. Let me just behold you for a while…” And she took up the hand mirror to give him a closer work at her artwork.
He had to admit that in a certain sort of way, done up for the Commedia, he looked as lovely if not lovelier than his lover, although he was not on balance an inordinately comely youth. A little less than average at best, he’d always ranked himself. Besides, he didn’t especially go for “looks.” Gemma was beautiful, but only from one angle; from another she was definitely plain—but he liked very much this changing Cubist quality to her face. More multidimensional than ordinary beauties.
“There! That’s how we do it,” Gemma decreed, triumphant, smudging just a dab more rouge onto his cheekbone. “All we need now is Columbine.”
“You’re much more Pierette than I am Pierrot, at your core, you know,” Satchell puckishly demurred. “As if you haven’t broken my heart already… Look here, I don’t care if I do mess with your masterpiece—” and he kissed her own cheek several times, leaving traces your average boy is unaccustomed to leaving.
Gemma raised a palm to ward him off, whisking her wet fingertips through the air as if sprinkling holy water from an aspergillum. (He had read his Church history.)
What a charming gesture, Satchell thought. Very Italian. Vaticanian, to be doctrinaire. Her mother’s side of the family, of course.
“You’re already rubbing the best of it off!” she groused at him. “I’ll give you the cold cream when I’m ready, naughty boy. Until then, don’t touch me!”
She was moody, mercurial; he knew that well. It was another thing he liked about her. Just like the lyrics in some song, she was like no other girl he had ever met—she was from wealth, she was spoiled, she came from a world he’d never seen, she actually liked him; she was for all intents and purposes an imaginary being, but she was real and she had come right to him when he had phoned this afternoon. He saw her cousin’s little wasp-waisted moped parked below his windows. What would Enid think if she saw that? He must ask Gemma to hide it behind the milk barn as soon as it was feasible…
Too soon, they agreed that it would be best if they spent at least a little of their valued time together practicing scales. Her voice was fragile but still rather pleasant; although he knew it really shouldn’t, he liked the way it broke with fierce vigor when reaching unanticipated heights but shrank to a hoarse soughing of notes when descending octaves. He couldn’t imagine how her music teachers back at the Longy could manage her, but with her parents’ financial endorsement, she had chosen voice over piano. Not grand opera of course; neither Gemma nor Satchell cared for it a tenth as much as Oscar and Enid professed they did. It was to be Art Song for Gemma: first the Germans, next the French, then in the course of her studies she would come to the English, Italians, and other less important contributors. Probably she would have made a more suitable folksinger, but Satchell was partial to people with aspirations.
She had begun well enough, with determination to complete each lap of the course, even if she were a little breathy today. But, as she had warned him, her diaphragm was not used to such rigorous rehearsal so soon after lunch. Or her corset. Also, the acoustics of the cramped room were less than ideal; in comparison to the rooms she had just passed through, it was so small, and its appointments were so spartan. The high molded ceilings competed with the thick drapes (drawn against the heat) to both echo and suppress the commingling of his compact piano and her wandering solfeggio.
Finally Satchell had to do something. As if braking for a deer, Satchell brought his foot down suddenly and heavily on the una corda pedal. Maybe now she would hear that she was wavering ever farther off key…
Her voice rang not so clear as a bell in the little corner room. She took one more plunge, then gave up in a gurgling diminuendo of laughter. “Oh, don’t stop just because I must!” she wailed, still trying to stifle herself.
He frowned at her across the japanned lid of the Apollo, where her own smile was so glossily reflected. “Oh, don’t mind me,” she begged pardon. “It’s just that you still have a little sheen on your lips and shadow around your eyes, and you’re just so lovely sitting there, being serious. There’s a Singer-Sargent I know… Or it a McNeill-Whistler?”
He rose from the stool and moved away from her. “Maybe one can spend too much time in training,” he said, giving in, giving up. “Do you want to have a go at what I revised last night, instead?” He was already at his schoolboy desk, ruffling well-riffled pages. Like the very worst, or you might say best, of poètes maudit, he wrote in deep indigo ink on lavender paper, very aware of what that might say about himself.
For months Satchell had been working on translations from the ballads of the Spaniard Emilio Pavoréal, which had been set to music by his fellow countryman and zarzuela-conductor Cristóbal Torroba. Pavoréal had written a little-known song cycle devoted to the joys of summer, which Satchell hoped to make better known. Tonight at the fest, with Gemma’s help, he would premiere three of the songs, dedicated to his dear sister on her first quarter-century. True, she would not appreciate the music, which was, after all, “rather tentative” as a snippy musicologist had once said, but she would prize his words, Satchell hoped.
Gemma took a sheaf of music paper from Satchell’s proffered hand and looked with a certain cross-eyed apprehensiveness at it. Much like Oscar she would refuse to wear her glasses. Oscar’s school-pal Winslow Brierbaum had provided Satchell with the music he had transcribed for contralto (the original was meant to be sung by a dying matador, meditating upon the clement season he would now be leaving for good). Under the score Satchell had scrawled the words in English which she should sing—unlike French or German, no one took Spanish seriously around this house, so he had to rely on what he had learned in ninth and tenth grade.
“That top one is a sort of Cuban habanera, I believe,” Satchell propounded, consulting his violet-tinged, lavender-scented memoranda. “Don’t try that yet, it’s too complex—how about the love-plaint called ‘La Novata,’ ’The Novice’?”
Gemma drew her arms around herself. “I’ve always hungered to play the part of a nun,” she said drily.
“It’s not by a nun, it’s to a nun,” Satchell enlightened her. “Although now you mention it, with you singing it, it might sound rather—um, sororal.”
“Sapphic, you mean,” she said with a snort. “All right, go to your toy piano and give me the tune.”
The tune may have been, as the critic said, “tentative,” but that exploratory quality did seem to suit his third attempt at fitting the words:
From your alcove,
Pure and white,
Of July’s night.
Your lips I’ll kiss,
Though I never
Did I guess.
Still I’ve watched you
_Chaste and bright _
As a star…
“A little sing-songy?” she asked, looking up, though she had assayed the melody quite aptly for a first go. “Is it meant to be that way?”
“Resist the rhythm,” Satchell instructed her. He played a halting flamenco pattern on the black keys, then stopped, unsure of himself. “Sorry, I guess that does sound a little too, too— Next time I’ll try taking things a little less marcato. It’s a song about conflicted ardor, you see, so the music should be a bit conflicted, too. This was experimental for its time.”
Repeating the pattern with his left hand, he reached blindly for her hand with his right, but she had already moved away from his reach. Outside, he heard unwed heifers, like the flower-fed bison of old, lowing from one valley to another; out there, among the lovelorn and the loveless, it was just another June afternoon.
Gemma had carefully chosen the sturdier of Satchell’s carelessly mis-paired chinoiserie armchairs. Since her dress was little more than some fancy crimping over a birdcage, it billowed up around her like a puff of organdy cloud when she fell into the chair. “How very much you look like one of those portraits by Forréget,” he said to her, slyly noting the lace of her lingerie. “You know the ones I mean—girls pouting in crinoline, limbs all bared and teeth set to bite.”
She scratched at the calico-covered armrests with her beautifully manicured nails. At first she appeared to be looking around wildly for something more resilient to fondle and hold. Then her nearsighted eyes settled on him again.
This time was more profitable if less expedient than the first. After they had had enough of each other’s mouths and limbs and impassioned sighs, they rose from Satchell’s monkish bed and sank into the seats beneath the bedroom windows, blissful but depleted of all resources, with absolutely nothing more to say to one another. When the clock on the wall cleared its throat and reminded them it was now five o’clock, Gemma leapt up and settled herself at Satchell’s little piano. Her younger lover (he was not quite eighteen, after all, and she was going on twenty) lay like a wounded warrior in a nest of needlepoint pillows, watching her idly rather than avidly, as someone watches a regular visitor to a bird feeder. She browsed through some of the sheets spread along the rack and chose a page that caught her interest for some reason. Usually her accompaniment was more dependable than her voice; after a few of his shattering chords, she took a deep breath like an aerialist about to leap from a tightrope and plunged into the setting before her:
_Ah, fickle Aestas, _
The long noons’
Now the hero
She took another breath—somewhat unattractively, he thought, like a fish gulping air—and began again on the next stanza:
When you’re gone
Come autumn’s sun…
“Really, Satchie,” she interjected. “Do you think these are appropriate for an aging woman?”
He rose up behind her. “That’s unfinished,” he said. “Still, my sister knows her metrical conceits, if that’s what you call them. She won’t take it personally. Frankly speaking, I doubt she’ll listen to a single word.”
“Why don’t I just sing it in the original, then?” she asked. “I’ve done other Romance languages, after all—no reason I shouldn’t try Spanish, though I prefer the Iberian ack-thent to the Mexican.”
“Then why would I be needed at all?” he said a bit petulantly. “I can’t very well console the mob with excerpts from my monograph on goblin-spires and hunky-punks.”
“Weathervanes and drain spouts, you mean!”
He gave her a look, and she knew that look, but it didn’t quell her.
“I know, I know, it’s your immemorial ‘masque of grotesques.’ Well, why bother doing anything at all, when there’ll be so few people there? We need only sing that stupid chestnut and eat the cake.”
“I don’t know what you do back on the gaslit cobblestones of Beantown,” he said, “but here we must make do with our own peasant customs.” He was really growing quite cross with her, and she could see that.
“Well, anyway,” she said. “This doesn’t quite scan, does it?”
“Spanish is so polysyllabic. It’s a struggle to fit the foot to the shoe, so to speak. I didn’t want to use the old standby siesta,” he interpreted for her, “so I fudged with the long noon’s. Best I could do.”
As if to demonstrate her problem with the score, she attempted again the line about noons and ardors. When her voice failed her on the portamento, however, she found Satchell at her shoulder, leaning in and drilling on the keys the two notes he had made of one word.
“No, no—sing lo-ONG! Lo-ONG!” he beseeched her a little too emphatically.
“Will you stop that!” she cried out, seizing him by either wrist, poised above the keyboard. “You sound like a damned woodpecker! Or cuckoo, or something.” Pinned between his arms, she was thrashing on the revolving stool, his chest firm against her back. Like a woman suddenly violated, her flesh was flushed with righteous anger. “Maybe you think I should give up singing and go back to acting,” she pouted.
He flexed his shoulders in an effort to shake her off, but she was larger than him and much stronger. “Let go my hands, please. You’re hurting me.”
“So I am.”
“Gem, we can start over, if you like—”
“Have it your way, then,” she said, tearing away from him. “I’m no circus act. I can’t just jump when you say jump. It wouldn’t be out of line for me to call you both terribly uncouth and cruel.”
“What can you mean?” He followed her to where she was propped against the windowsill, clutching at the damask roses, but did not have the nerve to touch her again.
“Why should I have to mean anything at all? Why does everything have to mean something or other to you and your family? Sometimes things just are.”
And then, after they had scowled dyspeptically and shot daggers at each other in what may have been desperation, or may simply have been the ineluctable enervation that follows lovemaking, things gave the impression of returning to normal again—although Satchell knew there was never a “normal” with a tempestuous girl like Gemma. Another reason he liked her so much, if the whole story were told.
Gemma resettled herself in the bigger-boned of the armchairs and took up a curiosity from the pedestal alongside it: The Kirk Grim in Literature and Folklore. While she idly flipped the pages, looking for illustrations (which, as she had feared, were few and inadequate), Satchell paced the room a while, then hovered at his desk, picking and poking among the disarray there, before ending up at the door of his closet. Gemma was paying as little attention to Satchell as to the words before her, but from the corner of her eye, she saw him slide a step-stool out from under the bed and bring it to the closet, so he could reach something above his head.
“Will you quit all that bashing about, please!” she said in a strangled voice he easily ignored, and having grasped that a “grim” is nothing but a ghoul, she threw down the book and went to his desk to busy her restless mind there.
Gemma made a short-lived effort to spruce up what she found there. Instead of an elegant ébéniste’s escritoire like Enid’s or an elaborate crackled lacquerwork secretary like Oscar’s, Satchell chose to work atop some two-by-fours he had balanced across a couple of battered metal filing cabinets he had found up in the attic. As soon as Gemma (who had an inborn compulsion to do such things) had lined up a row of small crystal-chambered geodes, which Satchell used for paperweights, she began creating neat piles out of his papers.
Satchell was lowering a big box to the floor when Gemma, still at the desk, abruptly ceased her rehabilitations. “My, my, are you stealing your sister’s mail now? Good for you, then…”
He was too busy to pay her any mind as he arranged his implements before him. All set, funnel in hand, he began to pour—
“Ooh—what are you doing? Be careful you don’t splash! That reminds me—you’re going to change before the party, I hope…”
Satchell looked up, from where he was kneeling and refilling an inkwell from a bottle so large it looked like it must have come out of a pharmaceutical laboratory. (Enid had carried on their father’s tradition of buying office supplies wholesale and in bulk.) “Of course, of course,” he said in answer to no particular question. “But what were you saying, I’m a postal thief? That’s a felony, you know.”
“This,” she said, fanning her face with the big envelope she’d just discovered. “Ugh ugh,” she grimaced in disgust. “Smells like a tomcat!”
“It can’t be!” Satchell exclaimed, tossing aside his tools and leaping up to seize what she held. “Give me that. Why, it is addressed to my sister—must have got stuck between those scores that came in the mail yesterday, or those reams last week. Cheaper by the barrel, you see, thriftier by the dozen, la la la…”
Muttering, he held the envelope closer to his eyes, then under his nose. “Impossible to say who it’s from, for sure—there’s no return, and the mailing address is printed in such big block letters they might have been printed by a toddler learning the alphabet—or anyone… Though I definitely have smelled something like that before, I think…”
Satchell gave Gemma a wan, apologetic look that was very nearly a smile. “Our mother always said she got her perfume in Paris. She never mentioned that she still had cases of it she had bought sans tariffs when she was a teenager on her junior year abroad. She could still be using it, after all this time.”
“But you told me first thing that your parents are both dead.”
“Oh, they are,” and he hummed a little melody of his own making. “Officially…”
Gemma knelt down beside him and took the envelope back from him. “Why don’t I go deliver it to her?” she teased.
“No!” he shouted, snatching the envelope back again. At once he was on the other side of his bed, on the other side of the room, as if meaning to be as far away as was feasible in such a small place.
Gemma rose to face him across the bed. “Really,” she said, cool as any girl her age and background could ever hope to be. “So that’s the way you want it?”
“Want what?” He was actually wincing, holding the envelope secure against his chest.
“I mean, you don’t want me to meet her, at least yet. At the party, yes, with other people around, where it will be safer… But you’re well aware she won’t like me. Don’t deny it! And I’m not so sure I’d like her. From what you’ve told me, she sounds like one of those people who acts as if she knows it all and can condemn anything and everybody.”
“Tell me you’re not the same.”
“Gemma!” Satchell flung the envelope down upon the quilt, as if what he had clutched had caught fire. “Dying to know what’s inside as much as you, I’d rather destroy that thing than spar like this. I’ve told you many times before how… difficult, you might say—my sister can be. But not bad, not malicious. Truth told, you both have rather strong personalities. Strong personalities often clash. Things will have to settle down, over the long haul, no way around it. Once she gets used to the idea of you…”
“Gets used to! Gets used to! Oh, like I’m just some strain of a lingering illness, a chronic condition one just must ‘get used to.’ Oh, Satchell, I think I hate you right now! Take that letter to her yourself—I hope it’s the death certificate you’ve all been waiting for. And tell your sister this ‘strong personality’ says go to hell…”
He came to her from the opposite side of the bed, and, for some reason, she did not kick at him when they had backed themselves into a corner, nor respond otherwise to his words and actions. “Tell me, this isn’t about my transcription, is it?” he pled, stepping back again to see if he had missed something in her face.
She said nothing.
He said nothing.
And then: “It is and it isn’t,” she said, rather too steadily, at last. “Unless I’m fooling myself, it’s about the party. I know your sister is going to hate me through and through.”
He looked thunderstruck. “Now, why on earth should she?”
“You know why. Because she’ll be jealous, of course. She’s bullied you two brothers all your lives.”
He took another step back and farther away from her, as if she had spoken the unspeakable. “That’s simply not true. She’s had to do so much on her own since our parents—died, vanished, et cetera. Enid has always helped us reach higher, find our better selves… ”
“What rot. You’ve been scared to death all spring that she’ll find us out. You told me yourself that she’d be very upset. You said any females less than eighty years old repel her. And now I’m required to pop up at this party and kiss her on the cheek and call her sister… ”
“You needn’t—” he began, but she pulled away from another attempted embrace, then crossed the room and went out the door without a word of warning. For a few seconds he remained transfixed at the window; by the time he had understood she intended to leave him right then and there, she was already on her way down the corridor. At the same time he heard someone coming down the stairs from high above, from the old servants’ quarters in the attic…
Boy caught up to girl down by the pond, where Gemma was angrily pinning a red crêpe ribbon from column to column of the dilapidated folly, or at least as angrily as one can when handling delicate, crinkly tissues and small, sharp tacks. Paper lanterns, satin pennons, ribbons of banderoles, floral bunting, candlesticks in crystal, tallow-soaked torches in sand, flambeaux atop torchieres, festoons of aromatic juniper, garlands of something that could pass for laurel, buckets of blossoming cattails, and watering cans brimming with larkspur and buddleia branches—all had been so liberally distributed inside and outside of the summerhouse that the place resembled a horticulture shop or a very festive greenhouse. When Satchell entered the room, toting his trusty harmonium, she did not even turn around to acknowledge him.
The portable organ was about the size, shape, and weight of an infant’s casket, something that had once belonged to the Rectory when it was a rectory, with a rector’s wife who liked hymns. It had developed rheumatism in its old age, but was still in reasonably good tune and well-tempered when massaged. Earlier Satchell had devised a bandstand of sorts in one corner of the building, for when he would play and Gemma sing—if she would still agree to sing. He set his keyboard on a sawhorse positioned between a workbench and a lyre-shaped songbook stand, also from the rectory’s previous life. Without saying a word to Gemma, he arranged a crescent of luminaries along the apron of his makeshift stage. She had strung leis of Virginia creeper and tendrils of vetch above, and now this corner, more than all the rest, made the place look perfect for merrymaking.
Satchell stepped back to estimate his work. When the candlewicks were lit, everything would be perfect. Except for Gemma, of course. He was frankly caught off guard when it became evident that she was not upset enough with him to say goodbye.
Gemma shortly completed her decorating and came quietly and quite uncoerced to her boyfriend’s side. Next to his stalklike lankiness, she seemed even fuller of form, surer of herself, and more of an actual adult than he could ever yet claim to be. He was cognizant of this and felt as dumb and immature, but every bit as gratified, as when she’d first approached him with her cousin, outside the college gymnasium. Naturally, it was time for him to say something. What tumbled out of his mouth was as much a surprise to him as it was to her.
“You’re right, my sister will dislike you, of course,” he said to the girl. “Even despise you. But she can’t help it. Maybe if you give her enough time. Oh, I know! If you just stop—”
In an instant rage, she turned from him, was about to flee the room, then appeared to think better of it this time. As the boy watched her, cemented to his own place, she came back from the door and sat herself down on the lip of the stage, scattering a few of the shot-glass candles and fern-filled vases he had just deposited there.
“Well?” she inquired, as if he had just asked her a totally impertinent question. “And how much time will it take before one of us gives in? When I fly back to Pinckney Street, I don’t intend to carry on like we’re no more than pen-pals. Your sister is just going to have to accept me—or you can disown her. There, you have your choice.”
He sighed. “Not everyone has to love you,” he remarked. “Even though you know I do.” This was the first time the word “love” had been mentioned in all seriousness between them, and for a moment it so awed her that she played at being too busy rearranging candelabra to say anything more.
Satchell knew that before he was in over his head in this specific scene, he had better provided a deflection. He knew it was all too soon, this talk of love. But he did want to talk about Enid and love.
“Darling, let me tell you a few things about Enid,” he tenderly entreated her, as she undertook a new arrangement for the candles. “I don’t mean to exonerate or excuse her, but just listen to what I’ve been working out for years in my head, please.”
Gemma would not look up from her task, but she did nod, if almost imperceptibly, he thought, and so he went on.
With no premeditation and no further ado, Satchell began to tell Gemma what had the depth if not the shape of a short story. “When I was no more than ten or eleven,” he said, settling down beside Gemma on the little stage and knocking a few objects over again, “I went to a museum… ”
“So what,” she said when his voice prematurely trailed off, as he gathered his recollections together. “We have lots of those in Massachusetts. They’re always too large and always too dull. And nannies treat them as playgrounds.”
Satchell resumed his nascent narrative. “Well, it was the first I’d ever been to one. It wasn’t dull nor that large, but it was a sort of playground, I guess—not that that had anything to do with what happened… ”
“So?” she beseeched him, snared at last. “What happened? What’s the big deal? What’s this got to do with your sister?”
Taking her at first noncompliant hand gently in his, he began again. “It’s everything to do with Enid,” he tried to soothe her. “So give me but the time, pilgrim, and I’ll relate the tale.”
As if he now had the lectern and speech in front of him, he cleared his throat and began again. “The museum, I was saying. Many many years ago, I came there with the Reresbys. Those three radically-minded oldsters you’ve heard me praise before, haven’t you? Such old dears. They are, you could allow, like the grandparents I should have been given instead of the ones I only met at funerals. Open casket, I mean. So, anyway…”
On that late winter’s day seven or eight years before, Sgt. Tiddles had allowed Satchell to sit up front with him in the antique Alouette, while Jones, Smith, and Brown huddled as usual in the back. That had made the boy feel of great importance, and it also gave him a better view of the land, as they drove into territories unknown. From the rearview mirror, he could watch his three substitute grandparents, sharing one smoke between them, windows rolled down to give them the brisk cold air they both craved and chose to foul. His mother had once dangled a cigarette out the driver’s side like that…
Enid had thoughtfully arranged everything that day. The Matriarch was who-knows-where, probably out of town, or else she wouldn’t have allowed to him to go. Even at his age, Satchell knew she disliked “those artsy-fartsy communards,” and adjudged them far too influential on her daughter, who was problematic enough. His father was probably drunk again (nothing escapes a child) and lost somewhere among the cartons and cases in the barn. In his last days, he would never notice, even if he had cared…
It was their special outing, the Reresbys’, and his, as well. The residents of the colony had planned this trip to the next market town upriver from theirs for a month or more. A special curation of the early works of Marl Groves (and his still living partner, Merlynn Farr) was opening at the late artist’s eponymous institution atop the high banks of the Mississippi. “Marl Groves” had always sounded to the young Satchell like the name of what they called a “memorial park” around this vicinity—in other words, another graveyard. That misconception alone had made him want to go, and even though Enid held reservations about “regionalists,” she had from birth taught her brothers to worship Art above all other gods.
The drive from the outskirts of Shokowan up to Sloughton had been eventful and exciting enough. They had stopped for sandwiches at a roadside diner, where Satchell was allowed to order whatever he wanted—which was a coffee milkshake so enormous he was half-sick before he had even half-consumed it. But he felt better again as soon as he was allowed a piece of peanut butter pie with whipped cream “to settle his stomach.” The Reresbys did not really know how to handle a boy his age with his demands, but just like real grandparents they relished cosseting him. And he liked them so much, they were so funny wearing identical overalls—identical except for their contrasting shades of orange (Jones rusty, Smith fluorescent, Brown brownish, of course), better for telling themselves from each other, they looked so much alike. Satchell couldn’t positively identify which of them were gentlemen and which were ladies, for such technicalities never concerned any of the Whitsell children.
After lunch they embarked upon the winding route beneath the bluffs that followed the “Mighty Muddy” northward. Although Satchell had never been on a boat larger than the inner-tube raft on the Whitsells’ pond, he felt like he was riding as smooth and high and grand on the sedan’s shock-absorbing front seat as those transatlantic passengers, New Yorkers and Londoners, Enid had read aloud to him from their father’s favorite books—those cosmopolitans who were constantly taking long, leisurely cruises back and forth across their own “pond.” In places the river was so wide it could almost be mistaken for the salt sea, and when he saw that they were side by side with a freight train below this road but just above the levee, he could easily play-act that they were trying to beat the much-written-about Trans-Siberian Express. He could be an international spy, and those could be suave counterfeiters or jewel thieves in the backseat or on the train itself. The sergeant drove so larghissimo, and the train was so laden with coal, that Satchell knew he could probably outpace them all on any ordinary skateboard.
When they came into town, they were in fact stopped by the border patrol—a Sloughton policewoman, that is, who helpfully pointed out to the chauffeur, who was not so used to traffic of any sort, that he was going the wrong way up a one-lane street. Satchell reminded himself where he was in the nonfictional world and told Mr. Tiddles that if Mr. Tiddles felt tired he could drive Mr. Tiddles if Mr. Tiddles didn’t mind, since it had been such a long, long journey. Brown, Smith, and Jo did not take long to interject with their complaints and counsel. The aged gent did not take kindly to any suggestions and reminded everyone that he was a sergeant, not just a mister, and that he held a license and no one else onboard did. By gum, he added, he doubted if anyone in the car had ever so much as held any kind of license, let alone an actual steering wheel, in his or her hands. Satchell was glad when a very unforeseen stoplight panicked them all.
At first Satchell was disappointed by the museum—it seemed no different from any of the bland municipal buildings, the post offices and town halls and public schools, that he had seen elsewhere in Geode and Gypsum counties. It stood granite-gray and relatively inconspicuous at the top of a corkscrewing cobblestone alley that rose high above the half-frozen river, too unprepossessing and too unostentatious a construction, it seemed, to hold any objects worth marveling over. Definitely not the stately acropolis the Reresbys had described. He knew the famous Marl Groves had grown up near here, but also knew that the artist’s fame had been consummated elsewhere, in big cities in more important states, and it was only after his early death that he had been warmly welcomed back to his hometown with postmortem awards and park benches and scholarships named in his honor. The museum was, in fact, a retrofitted appliance warehouse.
With great care and too much participation again from the backseat drivers, Tiddles parked the car in the lot, where Satchell almost mistook the prehistoric parking meter for a new form of sculpture, since he had never seen one in real life before. He had also never ridden on an elevator or checked his parka in a coatroom or been given an admission badge to wear, and he would do all three this day, in this very place. Smith wanted to hold his hand as they made their way through the palmy atrium, but he was too old for any of that. It didn’t matter so much, anyway, for the Reresbys, otherwise and elsewhere so talkative, had become so reverent and hushed, one would have thought they’d entered a great European cathedral, and not an art gallery in an insignificant American town.
Jones, who everyone rated a painter first and foremost, straightaway wanted to scope out all the newly discovered encaustics and temperas the brochure had guaranteed would be here; Smith, who was trained as a potter, wanted to check out what the apprentice Groves had done in the line of raku and celadon; Brown, who had once dabbled in dance as well as drama, knew that Farr’s set designs and ballet backdrops were somewhere. The sarge only wanted a peek at the nudes he’d heard tell of; he’d meet them later at the coffee machine. Satchell felt torn in four separate directions, and it was only after much discussion that it was decided he walked too fast for them, anyway, and therefore was mature enough to take his own tour—but he mustn’t touch a thing!
Like a cricket who has kicked itself out of the orb-weaver’s web, Satchell trotted down the main hall and then a lesser until he was exhorted to “slow your pony, young man” by an aroused docent who brandished her cane in the air between them. Figuratively struck through the heart (for he was always such a good boy, he told Gemma), he decelerated until coming to a dead stop at the gleaming doors of the former freight elevator. What a melodious chiming it made, and how bright and tempting the illuminated buttons! Who has the restraint or patience enough to take the stairs, in such a situation? Start at the top, he’d always been told, and though there were only three floors, it felt like he was rocketing to the stars.
The doors jerked open not with the spaceship hiss he’d expected, but with a steam-powered clanking Captain Nemo might have found familiar. Onto gummy gray industrial carpeting he stepped, under roasting halogen lights (the museum was hardly state-of-the-art) and surrounded by rows-upon-rows of handsomely framed chalks and charcoals—just a small component, it turned out, of the artwork the prolific Marl Groves had produced in his allotted thirty-three years. Interspersed among his own works were a good selection from others of the “school” Groves and Farr had helped to found, as well as a few mounted documents and the obligatory testimonials stenciled on the still-damp drywall. The “artist’s statement,” culled from letters to his agent, took up three-quarters of one wall alone, far too many sentences for Satchell to read fast enough (even at the college level for which his teachers had praised him), given just an hour to browse. Art shouldn’t have to explain or excuse itself, someone—probably Enid—had once said to him, and that phrase rang in his mind as he scanned the dense paragraphs.
It being a weekday, the top floor was empty, excepting a white-haired couple who passed him now and then, eyeing him as skeptically as they did the works on the walls. Even in the enormous Rectory, Satchell rarely felt this alone and isolated, up above the world as he was, high atop the Mississippi’s soaring palisades. It was a wonderful sensation, this unmooring from his everyday life. The old couple bobbed their heads to him when they passed, like two strutting fowl making the rounds of the barnyard, and would turn to whisper to one another, as people must do in museums, Satchell thought, same as in church. Though he had never gone to church and though the couple made it seem as if a boy his age might not be welcome here.
It was easy enough to forget their censure, nonetheless, when there was so much to see. And Satchell saw many, many drawings and drafts and designs that afternoon, not to mention paintings and pastels and post-everything pastiches displayed on both the top and then the middle floor of the building, so many that his brain began to fill up with treasures like a Louvre, and he almost began to fear there might soon be not enough room there for any ordinary mental processes.
He saw blue sheep and green cows, he saw models refracted like figures seen in shattered mirrors and fragments of other models masterfully collaged back together, he saw pretzeled contortionists and isoscelar trapezistas, he saw modest courtesans and obscene diocesans, he saw monochromatic prisms and kaleidoscopic quadrilaterals, as Marlborough Goddard Groves (and occasionally Merlynn Farr and a handful of their coevals) tried a little bit of this and a little bit of that in a tireless search for a style of his (or their) own. Umm, Satchell murmured to himself, the way he knew good gallery-goers are alleged to, hmm-hmmm, and ahhh…
His favorites, of a sensationalist sort which appealed more to the savage within him than the sophisticate—that is, those which predominantly tend to excite impressionable youth (he recounted for Gemma’s benefit, who now paced the stage, arms akimbo, dress froufrou-ing), included, in brief:
A sullen, sexless child with enormous eyes peering between the upthrust spears of a large potted sansevieria—rather too derivative of that primitivist who always painted jungles or was it wide-eyed waifs, rather too-too—until one noticed the whip and also the rocking horse, sawdust spilt through slashes in the corduroy…
A sort of zany—that is, a cousin to a clown—not one of Ringling’s or those of popular horror movies, but just as sinister, with a hammered iron skullcap and blood-streaked face paint and a simper like a feeble-minded Madonna’s, cradling a puppet or an infant to its withered breasts…
A pastoral scene—not morbid like the rest but somehow the most disturbing—in which the sunburnt sky and the umber hedgerows and all the fervently fulvous cornstalks were ablaze with a light like the fires of damnation, after the manner of the one known for his scream or the other known for his ear, upon whose barn-board surface chromes and cadmiums lay in thick shiny squiggles like bioluminescent worms, fresh out of their Winsor & Newton tubes—
Gemma held up a palm like a big-city traffic cop at this intersection where the two of them met at cross-purposes. “Basta!” she commanded, stamping her foot like the prima donna she was born to be. “Stop stop stop! Or I’ll pinch you next. I thought this was going to be about your sister. I don’t need all the colorful details, and look at the time, you know you still have to change for the party… ”
“I will, I will,” he consented to one thing or the other, not having yet exited the museum of his memory. And then he went on at great length describing the burning cornfield all over again…
His eyes, after this blessedly ungoverned hour in the Marl Groves, were growing weary with beauty—approximations of it or refutations of it. Satchell hated to admit it, since he knew Art was everything, but after so much of it, his whole physical and mental and spiritual being was getting a little restless. In chilly unlit passages between exhibits, where washers and dryers had once been warehoused, he lingered longer and longer over shifting views of the hilly town seen from the spacious plate glass windows. The business district with its ecumenical steeples and Italianate campaniles was becoming a good deal picturesque in itself, in the slanting light, under a fresh Petra-pink frost that had glazed every brick and storefront; below everything, to the east, the vast river and its hundred islands were tinged as well by an impending sunset. One wondered why Groves had to leave his home to find something worthy of painting. But even at ten or eleven Satchell knew that was his unworldliness doing the thinking.
It was when he turned a corner that denoted Groves’s conversion from latter-day surrealism to a purer ur-realism that Satchell, from the entryway, saw his sister’s enigmatic confidant Grigore sitting very erect on a long slatted bench in the middle of the room; even from his dorsal side, Satchell recognized that feral tsigane hair and the hooded lynx-lined capote the youth wore in chilly weather. Slumping slightly, her back to Grigore at the opposite end of the seat, sat a blonde with equally impressive hair, facing an almost blank wall (Groves’s most experimental phase).
The girl—more accurately, an adult woman—was as much as five or seven years older than Grigore, possibly even someone’s wife (for some reason, the epithet “bride-snatcher” popped up in Satchell’s mind right then). She must have left her coat in the cloakroom, because she was bare-shouldered in the kind of simple but high-priced couture one never encountered in these parts outside magazines. Also, Satchell remembered, she wore no makeup—her profile proved she didn’t need to—and her only adornment was a thin strand of platinum around her lovely naked neck.
Just by the way Grigore so studiously ignored the goddess two arms’ lengths from him, Satchell knew the two of them must be inextricably linked. That was even before he noticed the torn tissue paper and what looked like a jeweler’s box at her feet, or saw that she was very quietly crying.
As soon as he had seen them together, and yet not together, Satchell wondered if he should say anything later about this thought-provoking arrangement in form and space to Enid. Grigore, if he were to glance toward the double glass doors and see anything but his own reflection, would not be likely to place Satchell, whom he had only glimpsed from the far end of hallways and stairways, even while Grigore was instantly identifiable to Satchell. The fifth-grader had often watched the exchange student through a keyhole or a crack in the front parlor door while Enid modeled for him; sometimes he had been joined by Oscar, who was equally agog to hear what was really going on in there.
Turns out it wasn’t much, beyond the posing, which in itself is a very boring pastime. She would wear the outrageous “travestimento,” as they sometimes called it, which he had designed for (or assembled around) her long lean body, and he would find ways to use the settles and sofas around them to greatest effect. While working the two of them conversed very little, at least the times Satchell stood with his ear pressed to the bottom of a tumbler held against the other side of the parlor’s walls.
“Now, think of the agoniesh of Heaven,” Grigore might say, or, “Think of the ecstasiesh of Hell.” His sister was not religious and Satchell wondered what she made of these dubiously Orthodox notions.
Once Satchell heard a bit more of an actual conversation:
“But, Grishala,” she said, “if we were to tell anyone what we hope to do—”
“Intend to do—will do, and then how the canary will sing when rrrreleased from her cage,” was his overly inflected reply. (Only a certified linguist might have pinpointed his accent or heritage, whatever Grigore’s appearance.) “You must have faith in me, ash I have faith in you, Miss E.”
(“Miss E,” forsooth! Yes, that’s why he always called her, Satchell just remembered, and she seemed not to mind.)
After some shifting and shuffling of habiliments and paraphernalia, Enid’s voice spoke up again. “We’ll have the money, of course, when I gain access to it. But whatever will people say about us there? It’s a very conservative place, is it not? No one would believe we were brother and sister, or even cousins… ”
“People believe what you want them to believe, Miss E, and I am not the first to say that, of course.”
Satchell heard a great, protracted exhalation of breath. “It’s still such a very long way away,” Enid said dreamily. “It is not a language I can read or write… ”
“We are a people of many languages. No one speaks them all. Act deaf, act dumb, speak only with your handsh and eyesh, if you like. Once I have my own atelier and you your bestseller… ”
At this point Oscar had tapped Satchell on the shoulder and held out his hand for the water glass. “Sax! It is a convenient fictional device, but people of higher moral persuasions look down upon eavesdroppers,” he said, and, equally disappointed, both of them walked away. Right then Satchell chose not to impart to his brother what he had heard, or imagined he had heard…
Gemma looked equally unconvinced of Satchell’s behavior then and in the present moment. “You make him out to be some sort of who-was-he, the one with the beard who treated the tsarevich’s hemophilia. I mean as if this sloe-eyed Romeo cured your sister’s frigidity. So what if two people in love want to run off together? Isn’t it their natural-born right?”
He declined to investigate further, just then, what she might be postulating about their own situation. “It’s a shame,” he said, if only to redirect the flow of her thoughts, “that your mind engages in such parallelograms. He was or said he was Romani, not Romanov and not exactly a teenage Romeo. The banks of the Neva are practically a continent away from the delta of the Danube. Where’s your geography, girl?”
Satchell stopped Gemma with a solicitous kiss before she could lodge a complaint. “And besides, his eyes were cobalt blue, the bluest blue of Voroneț, as Enid put it, though at first I didn’t know what that means, either… For all I know, he might have been from anywhere, he might have gone to Eton or Harrow, since he spoke an over-enunciated sort of Oxbridgian, now that I know what to call it. He often had real trouble with certain harsh s-sounds, z’s I mean, sometimes more. If my recollections don’t exaggerate, I think he referred to me as ‘Thatch’ and my brother as ‘Othar’! That alone gives me shudders even today.”
This time Gemma’s silence was involuntary. “Truthfully, the worst thing I can say about him,” her boyfriend proceeded, “is that I fear he felt sorry for her—something she never would have tolerated! Oh, well, never mind. You weren’t there, you couldn’t know.”
Satchell pinched his eyes shut with his fingertips, remembering what he could and trying to forget at the same time. He knew he had to explain more, if he could. “Additionally, I’m not at all convinced they were ever lovers, in any traditional sense, paying no heed to the fact that everyone called him, at unguarded moments, her Gypsy Lover. Whatever Enid thought they were, he must have thought something different in every sense, hence what I surreptitiously caught sight of at the Marl Groves.”
“Which was nothing at all, you said as much. Still, he sounds like a creep.”
Deflating himself with a sigh, Satchell sat down beside her and took her chubby but quite lovely little hand. “If I’m to be fair, he really wasn’t, I don’t think,” he told her. “My father said Mr. Zibalis could ‘snake-charm the pants off anyone.’ Mother was enamored, there was no doubt. Even Oscar had some sort of schoolboy crush, I see now.
“Grig read books to kindergartners with our father at the Renishaw, he was gracious to the point of being embarrassing with our mother, through Enid he gave Oscar and me little presents from back in the Dobrogea. And he must have been, he was, very, very kind to Enid, most of the time. Sure, I know he was soft-soaping all of them, and playing them all against each other, probably, but if I had known him better, if I’d been older and hadn’t had this instinctive distrust, I probably would have liked him quite a lot, too.”
“But you didn’t, and you wouldn’t, I know you. What happened to the floozy at the museum? That was the only good part. Did her husband break in and shoot someone?”
Satchell’s recollections became a little muddled after the crystal-clear moment when he saw Grigore and the woman sitting together but not at all together on the banquette. Something had made him run away, and run he did, no matter how much the docent had menaced him earlier. He took the stairs this time, and ran into Tiddles on the second floor. The old codger looked a bit chagrined. “Nothing but splutches,” he told the boy, and together they went down the stairs to the coffee shop in the basement, as Satchell recalled, where they found the Reresbys, who sat shellshocked like troops sent home from the front, drinking their espressos, each immersed in his or her own individual silence.
All the way home, even while stopped for illicit burgers at a fast food chain (his family would never approve), Satchell kept ruminating upon Grigore and that contemptible pinstriped back of his. What had it all meant? It was too much for one callow but very perceptive boy.
After the sergeant had dropped him off at the end of Rectory Lane and Enid met Satchell at the door, she was full of inquiries about the journey and the exposition. “It was even more than I had anticipated,” he told her, and before she could delve to any reasonable depths, he made a show of imminent mental and physical breakdown, then ran up the stairs to his room to be alone and unmolested. “Touching that he’s been so moved by art,” Enid told Oscar later.
Although he was almost entirely unversed in the ways of the world, Satchell knew that Grigore and Enid had a special relationship. He had divined much about that relationship then, and extrapolated much upon the subject in his head later. He knew that up until the moment the lisping “gypsy” had come along, almost everyone who beheld Enid for the first time in a trice looked away. People either felt sorry for her or didn’t want to make an issue of it. It is always that way with ugly ducklings, he’d intuited. Conversely, the ducklings always want to clip the wings of the pretties around them. Cruel, but true. Imagine what Enid would think—or do—about that blonde in the museum.
From the beginning, Grigore had acted like no one else ever had toward Enid. He not only looked at her, but, like that most endangered of wild animals, he was capable of maintaining her gaze. She did not shy away, and neither did he. Something about her mesmerized him even before together they remade her. He didn’t judge her like other people, or compare, or inspect her in any superficial way—he saw her the way every human wants to be seen. It wasn’t just looking—it was acknowledgement. People want that more than to be “tolerated” or “accepted.” He knew her at once, he recognized her, in a sense. They were fellow beings.
“I have found,” Satchell told Gemma, “that the more you stare into someone’s eyes, the more you seem to become conscious of something in them you’ve maybe seen or known before.
“I’ve learned this watching you so closely for it seems years now. It’s as if we’ve always known one another, or at least parts of one another, don’t you agree?”
“No,” she replied at once. “The more I look into you, the less I understand. I guess you’re impenetrable.” She grinned at her minimal pun, for something in her was at last coming ’round.
“It’s not the same thing, recognizing and understanding.”
“It is to me. Go on… ”
“There’s nothing to go on with. When she was with him, maybe she forgot believing for a while about being unpretty and unloved. So, that’s my take on the situation. Her Grishala let her down, it does not matter if he wasn’t true to her, even if they were pledged in some anomalous way. He let her down. It was more than simple betrayal, which no one has any proof of. He just quit—seeing her, I guess. As she wanted to be seen, at the very least, as she deserved to be.
“So now you know why you must not mind my sister,” he finished. “She will dislike you—at first—but that will change, that will change. You must forgive her her feelings. She reserves hate for people she actually knows, or knew—her mother, her blue-eyed gypsy lover, who knows who else, but not you. Not you! I know you understand, my kind Gemma. Of course, you may leave if you wish, never have to put up with the ignominies of this social function, but I won’t blame you—though I might have to follow you—if you go… ”
Part Four: Jubilee
The Whitsells’ folly, which had been designed by an itinerant architect with a real sense of humor if not proportion, had a ceramic-tiled dome in form much like a gigantic pinecone, a half-bricked rotunda beneath, ringed by an iron-railed balcony, and a pilastered portal borrowed and reduced from the doorways of Wren or Hawksmoor; at dusk, on an overcast day, and viewed from a calculated distance, a traveler could be forgiven for mistaking this jarring amalgamation of period details for some sort of pseudo-Romanesque or quasi-Byzantine temple on the skyline. Coming near enough to probe the honeycombing of its rain-weathered limestone veneer, one would have to conclude that the folly was no larger than your average suburban two-story two-car garage, if notably taller.
Inside, the arched and latticed casements in their foot-deep wells looked onto a single hexagonal room with a floor of cracked concrete and walls of deteriorated plasterwork. A helical staircase had either disintegrated long ago or never been installed in one of the six corners, under a circular gap where an exit should be; instead, a gap-toothed wooden ladder rested there; none but the heartiest scaled the remaining rungs, which led up to the second level with its sweeping view. This meant Oscar, for one, being so afraid of high altitudes and not the most physically fit of young men, only once before had beheld the vertigo-inducing panorama of farmland, river, hills, and woodland spreading out in all directions beneath the balustrade.
Sundown this evening was concurrent with moonrise: on opposite ends of the earth, one tired eye was shutting, another more alert one opening. At the moment, there were no poets or painters around to memorialize this somewhat unsettling astronomical effect—until Oscar came limping across the dewy lawn, carrying aloft a tray laden with heavy covered dishes like the heads of infidels; necessarily, he must set the chased salver down on the bottom step leading up to the screened-in entrance, prop open the door, then transfer the dishes onto the improvised tables and countertops inside. Given his bestial grumbles and grudgings, and the ankles which were hurting him, he had apparently repeated this act a fair number of times already.
“Where oh where are you, Satchell, you nitwit?” he asked the fresh twilight from the middle of the echoing room. The sharp celluloid collar of his best dress shirt was too tight for all these calisthenics, and he found it ameliorative to blot his brow with a dimity rag he’d tucked up his cuff. This in spite of the fact that the vaulted chamber, situated so high on the hill, and with its bare walls and floor and open windows, was always much cooler than its surroundings.
Oscar had, every time he entered the structure, struck a few more matches to the scores of tapers and tea lights and Chinese lanterns and slow-burning cressets Satchell and Gemma had previously arrayed inside and outside what Enid sometimes denigrated as “nothing but a glorified gazebo” (though proud of their clan’s whimsy). From every direction below, one could see the windows filling up with light, which made Oscar think of torchlit pavilions from the age of troubadours and paladins. The streamer-bedecked fenestration of the building looked down onto the fish-and-fire pond, a little too far for a shout back to the house to be heard, but much too close to bother using a telephone, even if there were one here. With every trip Oscar had made back and forth to the kitchen, the brighter the profusion of tiny flames against the darkening sky, the more strident the antiphony of near katydid and distant whippoorwill—and still no one else had appeared.
He had reached his limit, but the refreshments, from shops local and international, were finally all there, even the case of fermented ginger beer he liked best. Flailing at an invisible swarm of midges, Oscar whirled, wobbled, then yielding to exhaustion, readily let fall his body upon one of the fat ottomans reserved for the elderly Reresbys. His long march was over! But, oh, his throbbing knees, his aching ankles in their rayon diamond-dotted socks…
Meanwhile, everywhere around him the sorbets on ice were rapidly softening, the chafing dishes were spitting and sizzling, the unreliable clock of his heart was ticking. It is past time, he told the unsympathetic moon; the invitations definitely stated, in a quintessentially Whitsellian way, “when Hesperus has crowned the horizon.” Look, there Venus was, sailing towards the meridian, and weren’t those the Dippers already, pouring out the night—but hark, finally there were voices!
And so it was that Satchell had at long last arrived, whistling a Te Deum, but who was that plumpish person trailing behind? He was looking immaculate in his summer flannels, balancing a ziggurat of cake tins against his chest, while she looked a bit… bedraggled.
In point of fact, the girl was only now bunching up and patting down her frothy puffball of a dress, while her frosted bouffant had been blown any which way by the wind—except there was currently no wind. So, so! this then was Satchell’s “surprise,” Oscar now understood.
“Sorry we are a bit late—” Satchell was quite unashamed to announce.
“—but we were held up back at the house,” said the wench, overtaking him and rippling all over with giggles.
Oscar, who was back on his feet and at the door, stared down the steps at her. Her shoulders could use a powder, her ear-hoops were less than ideal, and her maquillage rather— Instinctually polite, the young (but still older) man held out his hand as she ascended. “Satchell’s brother Oscar,” he said to her.
She emitted a kittenish roar and squeezed her arms around this next-of-kin’s pudding-soft waist. “…all about you!” is the most he could hear as his frilled shirtfront crushed her corsage; coincidentally, they were almost the exact same height—if one discounted the advantage of stacked heels. “My, you are starchy!” she added, leaning back in approval, yet retaining her grip.
Readjusting her cleavage, her face assumed a new aspect. “Ooh, how my butterflies must look now! And Satchie just took them out of your fridge.”
Satchell was still below, reeling and blundering under the weight of the cakes, which the brothers had conspiratorially ordered months ago from an overseas boulangerie known for its directoire-influenced concepts of presentation. “SOS! SOS!” the boy yelped, and the others came to his rescue; before another word need be spoken, they had already apportioned onto various tabletops the pretty pastel boxes with their coquettish bows. Not being at all used to such situations, Oscar didn’t know what to say or how to say it, anyway. In no time he had picked up on how the girl and Satchell kept tossing sly smiles back and forth to each other, as if they were sharing a jubilant secret to which no one else would be privy.
It was up to Satchell to make an effort now. “Oscar,” he said very simply, once they were all standing on their marks, “this is Miss Gemma Newbury. She is from a city you have heard of called Boston.”
Gemma leaped forward and squashed Oscar all over again, before Oscar could refute that fact or any other. “As if that’s all there is to say about me!”
“She’ll be lending us her lungs tonight,” Satchell updated Oscar, with smiling eyes aimed at Gemma. “Between engagements at Bayreuth, of course.”
“Don’t listen to his malarkey,” Gemma warned her new acquaintance. “My voice, at best, is still ‘maturing,’ so teachers tell me. I’d be lucky to be given soubrette rôles, even if I were after mere parts.”
“She’s more mignonette than soubrette, I tell her,” Satchell said, not very convincingly, given her physical stature. “But she’s a thespian as well as musician, and since neither you nor I can compose lieder, I promised Gem you’d write her a play or something along those lines.”
“But, Sax, I barely can—”
“Do, Oscar, please do, you’re sure to be an even better dramatist than Enid, and I’m much too much the ignorant amateur.”
Closing in on him once more, Gemma joined together Oscar’s big meaty hands and swung them between hers, which themselves were not petite but still quite feminine, even bereft as they were of ornaments. “Yes, make me a star!” she said, clenching his knuckles tighter and sniggering through her nose. Oscar was not sure if he liked being made such a puppy-dog plaything, but the lass was so vivacious, so full of well-meant bonhomie, he saw, it would have been churlish to say so much as ouch.
Satchell, as usual enlarging upon themes without regard to more pressing questions, had not paused in outlining the details of his proposition. Meanwhile, Gemma managed to wedge herself and her flossy dress between the brothers as they discussed her ambitions, for like most people she enjoyed hearing people talk about her as long as she was present.
“It can be as concise as a one-act, if you like,” Satchell recommenced, watching her eyes for approval and quickening his pace to forestall a more merciless catechism from Oscar. “Or it can be a trilogy of short acts—just imagine! Comedy, Romance, and Tragedy, the holy trinity, to showcase her talents. Splendid, don’t you think? Maybe I should become her impresario.”
And, as soon as Oscar had purred enough affirmations: “Gem’s very intrigued by what you might call powerful motifs—aren’t you, you know you are—she wants inspiration and inspiring places, and she wants to play someone with a fatal flaw this coming theatrical year. Wouldn’t it be nice, Gemima, if it were the Lady Alhambrina or The Second-Best Room? If need be, we could recruit others to write scenes for her, so long as she can die in every other one. We—at least I—have even thought of converting the Brierbaums’ old octagonal milk house into an in-the-round. She has the most original profile, don’t you think?”
Oscar took in all of his rawboned, fair-haired baby brother as he babbled away like this and had no choice but to shake his head yes yes yes. He did not know but could guess that when Satchell first glimpsed Gemma, it had been like those two star-crossed Florentines all over again, but apparently not so unrequited: within two hours of first meeting her, he would not be surprised to hear that his chivalric sibling had told her they would marry some day, and maybe she hadn’t demurred. Though Enid would never approve of Satchell leaving them, given time (years! decades!) she might be glad to see him more successful in courtship than Oscar had previously imagined she or he himself could ever be.
While the boys were conferring, once she had had her fill of flattery, Gemma eased herself away to go putter about the room, combing out some strands of ivy here, making origami swans out of the paper napkins over there, anything she could do without making a sound, so as to hear each and every word they said. People also like hearing what is said about them when they are not present.
Satchell never wavered, never waned; this was, after all, his first serious girlfriend. Oscar, growing a tiny bit weary of his brother’s zeal, bent to adjust his sock suspenders or knead his aching ankles every time Satchell returned to extolling his beloved. “You ought to know that back at the Latin School they said she was very good as St. Hilarion in The Anchorites,” Satchell told him for maybe the third time, presenting his brother his choice of restoratives from the platter he held out between them.
“But was she as good as our renowned Hypatia?” Oscar returned, and the brothers chortled over their private joke. Gemma, who had joined them again to avail herself of a canapé, asked to have this made intelligible to her. Very well, then, they agreed: Hypatia was “H. G. U.” on one of the inscriptions yonder, another of those occupants of the graveyard upon whom they had bestowed a colorful name and backstory, while most likely it had been just another infant mortality (“Unsterbliche Geliebte”). Gemma was still all question marks. The late actress, the brothers gladly elaborated for her (this was an old game), had been raised by pirates, trod the boards at the Abbey and the Royal Albert, slept in a coffin à la the Divine Sarah, was constantly escorted in rose-wreathed chariots by besotted undergraduates, and in her decline starred in motion pictures despite finding them “plebeian”—all before eventually succumbing to a particularly bad review.
“A sorry tale, I’m sure, but you haven’t mentioned where your guest of honor is,” Gemma said, in a move to stop what she now regretted she had begun.
Oscar and Satchell exchanged half-knowing glances. “Enid might not be coming at all,” Oscar conceded, twisting an amethyst cufflink. “When I saw her last, she was just the teensiest bit upset. This time it was more than just getting in a tizzy over new rhymes for ‘orange’ and ‘silver.’ She’s got her claws out for—”
Before he could embellish his exegesis of Enid’s behavior further, there was a dreadful commotion out in the garden, rising, it sounded, from deep within the beds of budding gladioli, where Satchell had been hoeing just yesterday. Gemma seized his hand, or he seized hers. All three stood stationary for perhaps too long, listening to what sounded like first one body, then another falling with a soft thud onto the loamy soil. That was followed in rapid succession by a leafy rustling, a scuffling of heels in gravel, and lastly whoops and hollers which an unkind bystander might have described as “drunken.”
Without needing to hear any more, the youngsters went whooping down the stairs, the screen door slapping behind, but were forthwith impeded by Sgt. Tiddles from the arts colony, singing a bawdy ballad on the pebbled path below. He was on two feet but swaying, carrying a big bottle of wine in each hand, one still corked and the other splashing upon the ground with his every gesticulation. The wave of trepidation on the youths’ faces did not subside before the Reresbys’ reliable old retainer finally cut short his salacious song and spoke.
“Please excuse us for such a raucous entrance, children,” Tiddles intoned with a lordly bow, “but someone among us advocated ‘getting in the mood’ a little early.”
Already the boys were hastening down the path, while Gemma, displaying her deepest dimples, but still a bit bewildered, awaited further details.
Tiddles pointed back down the moonlit path for her benefit, where two or three of the Reresbys could be descried, threading their way through trees and shrubbery, following the trail of elfin lights Satchell had previously strung from branch to branch. “Everything is perfectly in order, miss,” the sergeant reassured the girl. “A small mishap, that’s all. The Whitsells really ought to think about grading their terraces.”
“Ho, darlings!” came the salutation from the dark beyond. It was one or the other of the colonists. Another added, “No bother, boys, no bother! We might have lost a few presents back in the weeds, is all,” before Satchell and Oscar caught up with them. “We’re parked down by the pond,” Gemma and Tiddles heard someone say. “In fact, the motorcar may be halfway in the pond.”
In a minute or more all was sorted and requisite introductions made. Gemma helped collect what they could of the many packages that had decimated Satchell’s glads, laughing all the while as heartily as the older folks. Their noses were ruddy, they had dirt on their knees and elbows, their shoes were caked in mud, but they were all as hale and hearty as ever they could hope to be.
The four newcomers were quite the sight in assorted ways: Sgt. Tiddles was outfitted in an amalgamation of military costumes: cadet’s whites with calvary stripes, combat boots Shinola’d to blinding perfection, field officer’s smartly fitting tunic and tie, ensign’s or adjutant’s cap, and so on. The Reresbys, on the other hand, were per usual all garbed alike (this time sheerly for laughs) in tabards over leotards and trilbies over toupees, each in a different primary color, right down to the painted nails and false hair. “We must look like the Yuletide Revels,” Jones cackled while suppressing a belch, and Brown appended, “For aye we will compel you one and all to revel with us!”
“Also, we have prepared a musical trifle,” Smith, as voluble as any of them, chimed in, “being an adaptation of a madrigal written for William Dumshaw’s musical pageant—something of a harlequinade—The Sorceress of Bentbroke, the one where the poor little apple-girl and her sibs impart a paean to the be-hexed damozel they have saved from the snares of an evil knight errant. You may not know this, but Tids is an absolute primo lutenist, ain’t you, Tids?” For the first time everyone noticed that Tiddles had affixed to his bandolier a miniature broken-necked pandurina, no bigger than a toy ukulele.
And without any prompting, the Reresbys irrupted into an excerpt from their prepared song:
“O bright and wondrous fay!
O spell-cast Queen of May!”
Before anyone could applaud this premature outburst, Enid herself suddenly trilled from the deeps of the greenery outside:
“Strange marvel in our midst!
Hands so rev’rently we kiss’d!”
Apparently she knew all the words, if not the tune. And still singing, Enid emerged from the laburnums, resplendent beyond simile in an ankle-length gown of semi-translucent, sericultural gauze, patterned after that rarest of the rare, that bird of paradise taxonomists know as Sublima sublimus. With
sprigs of polychromatic quills for twinned aigrettes,
maroon and magenta marabou piping along a daringly deep décolletage,
golden pheasants’ down cunningly woven into the seams of her fleecy sleeves,
and a flowing Aztec priest’s cope fabricated from what looked like the flame-red wings of macaws and flamingos,
the cumulative effect was as if Enid had set an aviary afire. (“Don’t object, it’s all synthetic,” she interposed amid the group’s exhalations of general admiration.)
Her raiment, Enid felt obliged to disclose, was designed, cut, and sewn with just a little assistance from a modiste to the salons of Keokuk born, who she had coaxed out of retirement. (That infamous photo of Celèstine’s feathered deb had manifestly influenced them both.) Her present company, once they had taken her in from chignon to chopines, concurred among themselves that this was her best and bravest ensemble yet, worthy of all paradise, worthy of the estimable and inimitable Editor-in-Chief of Wings on her one and only twenty-fifth birthday.
Another important presentation must be made. Enid and Gemma, as might have been expected, did no more than nod toward each other (as females often are allowed to do) when Satchell did the honors. At first glance, Enid knew it was the distraught girl who had bolted past her earlier, but was cognizant of nothing beyond that, while hazarding not to guess a single thing more. The boy provided no immediate elucidation of Gemma’s position relative to his sister, who, in an effort to appear the life of her own party, after Oscar’s lecture, had resolved to appear lighthearted for at least an hour or so, if she could bear it.
“She’s from Boston,” Satchell attested, as if that would win Enid’s instant approval. For all she knew Satchell was trying to swell the crowd by having invited fellow graduates or other platonic associates. Surely others will come, maybe his pal Winslow also, she thought, glancing around, but the last little embers of hope were dying inside her…
Someone had put a twelve-inch record on the suitcase-sized, battery-powered “Musiette” Oscar had remembered to bring with him from the house. The family owned no recent or current favorites, counting instead on their parents’ and grandparents’ tastes, but compilations of lively dance music of the trecento would do nicely; sprightly saltarelli and tarantellas were soon filling the chamber. Enid was not one to dance, even on her own birthday, but of course the Reresbys already were. Tiddles stood against a wall, shouting out moves to them like the military man he was, keeping time to the nimble rhythm by tapping a spoon to a glass.
Only later would Gemma tell Satchell how very afraid she had felt at this first and most crucial meeting. For the moment, as if by silent agreement, she and Enid both affected respect, tersely commending each other’s hair or dress, until, as soon as she could excuse herself, Gemma joined the dancers. Enid gave her brother a penetrating look and without another word walked away. Keeping up appearances… Satchell, for his part, was more frightened than anyone by this painful situation he had somehow instigated. And he had yet to relay a very important secret…
After another elaborate dance had ended, as soon as Oscar could extricate Enid from the throng of admirers that had rapidly accumulated around her (by his calling everyone’s attention to all that pricey imported food soon to spoil), he solicited her: “Pass me a wafer, will you, you divine avian—and beg please tell me,” (he said, all insouciance) “how did you muster the courage?”
“My gown? A bodystocking under it all, of course. Oh, you mean why didn’t I just plant dynamite under this dome and be rid of you all?”
“I’m relieved you did no such thing.”
Enid looked world-weary under her pancake and powder. “Oz, oh, Oz, love, pity me and don’t try to stop me when I go,” she declared with a sweep of her carmine-colored cape. “I can open those tomorrow—or any other day…” Tragic as L’oiseau de feu bargaining for her life, she waved away the unsteady cairn of gifts on a tea table, parcels and packages of various shapes and sizes, wrapped and beribboned with varying levels of skill and expense.
Oscar shook her by the same elbow by which he had led her into this corner. “Enid, you can’t still…” he began. “After our brief talks today, I was afraid you really might catch the next bus out of here. Now you’ve met the girl and if that’s all you needed to see, you can go. But, remember, it is your party.”
She sighed as if exhaling all her undernourished soul. “Yes, yes, no, no,” and then she gave in or gave up. “It’s theirs,” she said, pointing to the others, cheerily conversing among the casseroles and tureens.
“Well,” Oscar said, spreading his arms hieratically, “the Reresbys came prepared for fun, you can’t refute that. But, listen, please, on Satchell’s behalf, when you talk to that poor girl Gemma again, will you try not to be quite so grand with her, as long as you can? For one thing, I suspect she doesn’t care so much for books. I actually don’t really know anything about her, either, but remember, those in love can be quite sensitive.” How to tell Enid about Wycliffe—that is, Cliff—he wondered.
In a flash of fury Enid was reanimated. “Pshaw! Love! Is that what you call it? Surely then it’s unrequited. They’re just classmates, it can’t be anything more.” But, reining herself in and taking a perfunctory survey of the jolly tumult around her, she exhibited an unprecedented ability to reverse her course without warning. “All right, then. I shall treat her even better than I treat you,” she vowed. “It’s instructive to sketch studies from life, after all. Rather than just imagine, as I have, a rather insane socialite very much like her who figured into my ‘Fugue for Dryad, Hamadryad, and Caryatids.’ ”
Oscar studiously did not react at all, knowing how she loved mounting a hobbyhorse.
“You know the one, Oz, which follows an heiress from a palace in Dallas to a tavern in Lucerne, the one who has hair every bit as unnaturally red as hers, ‘like flax dipped in martyrs’ gore,’ as I think I wrote. Hmm.”
Oscar nodded yes, no, anything. Best to let Enid vent her spleen…
Enid caught sight of Gemma, who was stuffing a chocolate-glazed strawberry into her mouth, and turned back to Oscar again, as if she had been pricked by a thorn. “That nymph should turn into a jonquil or else be knocked off a precipice. Now, now, don’t look at me that way—I can introduce a macabre element in my little fantasias, can I not?”
It does not matter at all what I say or don’t say, Enid was telling herself (for she had a knack for being able to discuss far-reaching issues like esthetics while thinking of entirely different matters simultaneously); soon enough the Matriarch will supplant me—and let her deal with this intruder! In the meantime, my heart is hors de combat; I will either be dead or far away; I am already lost…
Her grievances went no further, however, because voices in a new key were heard rising up between porch and pond. They were youthful, masculine voices, easily heard above the hubbub of those clustered around the buffet. “Satchell?” called one voice; “Oscar?” called the other. “Ee-ee-nid!” they both crooned together. “Is that you up there? Hip-hip hooray!”
Before anyone could lay down fork or spoon, two of the famous Brothers Brierbaum were storming the door. Winslow was in a slim-fitting frock coat, worn last when conducting an intramural ensemble, and Wycliffe was wearing a maître’d’s tuxedo from a recent tour of duty at a restaurant in some faraway city. Everyone began talking very fast and all at once. Of course, there was little imperative to pay much attention to what anyone else had to say.
Everyone did however notice Oscar’s abnormal elation, which was intensifying by the moment. Shy boys like him do not often demonstrate such public effusions, and when they do, they usually go overboard. “Winnie, you scoundrel, you scapegrace, you scamp!” Winslow’s oldest and dearest friend chaffed the startled young fellow, pumping his hand and thumping his back. “I must have been mistaken in assuming you were still cloistered! What happened? Did they toss you out of the seminar because of the “Song for Moon and Baboon? Or was it another moral infraction?”
Oscar was practically dancing on his toes, and his tipsy countertenor had approached a singularly melodic cadence before Satchell, in more measured tenor descant, could submit his own words of welcome. “Cliff! How very good of you to tag along. Yes, I knew your brother needed a driver, but I hadn’t latched onto the idea that you might be able to drive upstate to get him. You do remember Enid and Oscar. This by the way is Gemma Newbury. And here are the Reresbys and Sgt. Tiddles, too.”
In the confusion of kisses, curtsies, handshakes, and embraces, Cliff took advantage of the opportunity to get beard by jowl with Oscar (who had not yet said anything specifically to him), in order to provoke the lad’s instantly enflamed left ear. “Say, sir,” said Cliff, “could we go outside for a moment? It’s a bit stuffy in here—and the time has come, speaking Carpenter to Walrus… ”
This was nearly the last thing Oscar had expected even someone as spontaneous as Wycliffe to do or say, but he avidly accepted. The bold young man—perhaps made bolder by the contents of what he now liberally shared with Oscar from a slim flask he’d concealed somewhere in his beautifully tailored dress pants—smelled delightfully of a scented soap (vetiver? marrons d’inde?) that mingled with what what rose from his breath and clothing (mints? mothballs?). In his presence, Oscar had come over all muzzy, like a reader who has turned the pages of a novel too fast—little of this felt plausible or even possible. No, he reprimanded himself: it was not just the Reresbys’ devilishly good sauterne he’d already helped himself to, nor the throat-scalding whiskey Cliff was plying him with. At first he should say no, or at least not yet…
As the two new friends negotiated, Satchell tried more than once to abstract Enid from Winnie, who was overdoing it, as he was prone to do, with his praises—oh, the intricacies of her coiffure! the effulgence of her feathering! It would take an ornithologist to articulate her sumptuousness, and so forth… Enid understood this was all flummery, but was never one to forgo lapping up such sweet cream.
To gain her attention at last, Satchell brusquely plucked a plumule from an epaulette. It was the kind of thing only he could get away with. “Enid—don’t say that could have hurt—I almost forgot! I have a mysterious something for you, sweetheart,” he said, patting the folded envelope in his breast pocket to make sure it was still where Gemma had slipped it. “And also there’s something of utmost importance I must—”
“Don’t make me cross, Sax,” Enid said, snapping a profiterole in two. “Winnie needs to acquaint me with what they are teaching collegians these days about the uses of lyricism.”
“More like misuses! When upstarts of the outer vanguard inverted harmonies we have appreciated for a thousand years…” Winnie launched into a disquisition, pleased to be mistaken for an authority.
And then there was a minor turbulence. In too brash a display of enthusiasm, one of the Reresbys had somehow overturned two platters at once onto the concrete flooring, and each began blaming another for the mishap. In the ensuing scrum of bodies and foodstuffs, Cliff led the blubber-lipped, tongue-tied Oscar silently out the door, unnoticed by all.
Eventually, from under the pergola and out of the bushes, Oscar would emerge triumphant—but that was still to come; for the nonce, the rest of the carousers were too busy drinking and eating to have noticed anything untoward going on, anyway. As at any good party, agreeable conversations and decorous dissensions alike kept everyone pleasantly occupied. Every few minutes people would tactfully change partners and begin their duologues or trialogues again…
For better or worse, Enid found herself occupied for a long while with Winslow. Meanwhile, in discrete corners of the room, Tiddles was talking to Gemma and Satchell, Jones was talking to Brown, Brown was talking to Smith, Smith was talking to herself, and so on…
In one corner, at a certain moment, someone pointed out a window toward a spray of étoiles in the heavens. “Oh, look, the moon has ‘untethered its starry gondola,’ as I think a poet wrote.”
“That is Cassiopeia’s girdle,” someone else said.
“Only Orion’s loincloth,” said another.
“That’s no constellation at all. It’s your astigmatism, dearest, doubling everything.”
“I say,” came a last lone constituent of this group. “that moon’s a pocket-watch. Pulled out of the night’s velvet mantle. I may be quoting someone, too, of course. One never knows, as one ages… ”
When that ostentatiously poetical conversation had run its course, at other windows, in synchrony or not, arose other voices:
“Forgive me please, mam’selle, for saying how very well those flowers complement your complexion.”
“Master Whitsell, you’re much too young to imbibe, but have another spill…”
“You say these sausages came all the way from Bruges? That still doesn’t make them any better than good American brats.”
“No, you idiot, it was called Technocrats at Tiffin, by So-and-So Who’s-It—”
“You mean you all four… share bedrooms?”
“Unmitigated purpuration! There’s no other way I could describe such overwritten tripe.”
“Tonight she’s looking like Madame Sand by Nadar. More often it’s Bathsheba by Ingres.”
“So, a white crow at midnight in a blizzard, what would you see, then?”
“Take it, lambkins, it’s a Herefordshire Pomona, I think.”
“…and then the doctor answered, it’s Sav-AHJ!”
“Today I spent the entire morning contemplating a bowl of grapes. Then I got so famished I ate the whole bowl. Next I contemplated the empty bowl. Still no satori. I’m getting too bleeding old for this.”
“So you mean to say you like what they’ve done with post-representation.”
“Tell me is why this we’ve seen so little of you lately, young man.”
“That’s got to be Roquefort, and so lovely—blue from the caverns, fetid as death.”
“Wasn’t he simply shattered?”
“Well, I called him nothing but a third-rate cobbler and told him to stick to his last.”
“Oh, Jonesy, my dear, how that reprobate was caught up in the subcultures of the times, remember: Zimmerman, Zapruder, Zabriskie… ”
“Definitely, Mind the Diaeresis is the best of the lot.”
“Delicious! Don’t even think of letting me have another.”
Eventually Satchell was coupled in conversation with his sister, and had the chance to give her the mislaid correspondence. “Have you been hiding other things from me? Not just that chatterbox in the babydoll dress, you bad boy,” she rebuked him.
He bowed his head in shame, though neither of them took this action to be authentic. “A few days ago, I received my order from Bosley & Merritt, you know the scores to Irbe’s [Oceanus _]and Valančiūnas’s _Nocturnes for Noon, which I’d coveted for so long. Anyway, the packages were a little gooey from the mailer’s mucilage, and I guess the letter got stuck between. You can thank Gemma for finding it this afternoon on my desk.”
Enid was no longer listening to him; instead, she was trying to fully decode the surface of the oversized envelope in the insufficient light. There was no superscription or sender’s address, as Satchell and Gemma had previously remarked, and the postmark was too faint to read in this light; the big block letters of the addressee, slanting this way and that, spelled out
could have been the writing of a second-grader or a resident of a home for the mentally ill. It was a wonder the letter had made it through the postal service.
Before Enid could unseal the envelope, everyone in the room jumped at once when Gemma let out a scream and, in a near faint, staggered back against the dessert table. It took two of the Reresbys to interrupt her fall and the certain destruction of the table. “What is it that was just hanging on the ladder by its tail,” Gemma whimpered, “a cat or a monkey? Look—there it goes!”
Enid had already stooped to catch up the retreating Cachou barehanded. “Why, it’s nothing but our slinky little kinkajou,” she told the girl, snorting with disdain. Someone so sizable afraid of such a small thing! “Here,” she added, holding the harmlessly frugivorous Potos out to Gemma, “why don’t you give Cachou a fig and become friends? If you two can, maybe we can.”
Someone barked—maybe it was the kinkajou, or maybe it was Gemma. “I don’t much like animals,” she said, lurching backwards.
“Then you can’t like me.”
Satchell intervened. “Gemma,” he said. “Enid.” The two females stood gawking at each other, Enid a feathery quiver and Gemma a quaking mass of chiffon. “Let me take Cachou, and let us go back to where we were before. Please, I want you to both to get along, that’s important to me.” Satchell held out his arms as if he could enfold both women into him, but each withdrew further. In the meantime, Cachou squirmed out of Enid’s arms, raced across the floor, and sprang up the ladder again.
“I’ll get him,” Enid said, snatching up a brakeman’s lantern, and, as best she could in her cape and gown, leapt up the ladder after her furry companion. Down below, Gemma recovered herself only with Satchell’s attentive comforting, and the party was soon as it was before its proceedings had been interrupted: much eating and drinking, principally on behalf of Tiddles and the Reresbys, time flowing so fast no one had yet really made much of the absence of Oscar and Wycliffe.
Enid aimed her light into every corner of the upper level, looking for Cachou, who she soon came to realize had to have departed through one of the convex casements that served to support the dome above. Well, it was as good a time as any for a rest. It had been quite a while since she had climbed up here, she knew not exactly why, since the view always took her breath away. In a blink she had hiked up her hem and exited through the window opened the widest onto the circumferential widow’s walk. Tonight she wouldn’t have been too shocked to discover a stocking or garter dangling from the parapet, evidence that Satchell had “entertained” the girl here earlier, but the balcony was bare—and Cachou must have escaped by scaling the dome itself.
The boundless darkness below, mirroring the great tinseled sky above, was pierced and mitigated by a sprinkling of lights: the well-lit Rectory down past the pond, a scattering of distant farmhouse porches, the sparkle of far-off traffic, and the candlelit nimbus cast by the windows of the folly itself. She could not discriminate between the individual voices in the clamor below. At any rate, she wasn’t going to listen to what people were no doubt saying about her, and she wasn’t going to stop their fun.
It was warmer up here against stucco still warm from the sun; as there was no breeze, she removed her clinging cape and hung it over the railing, then found a more comfortable sitting position, spine against the wall and feet against the bars. She had almost forgotten the envelope still secure under her arm.
Once she had settled the lantern closer to her side, she extricated the item Satchell had given her along with his flimsy excuse. How very curious. How infuriating that Satchell hadn’t delivered it sooner. She re-examined the envelope: it looked fairly fresh, to be sure, if now a bit wrinkled. But that peculiar, puerile handwriting seemed to date from another historical period. It wasn’t clear why, exactly—maybe only because of the superfluity of serifs that had been added so painstakingly, an afterthought perhaps meant to impress the person to whom it was sent—namely, herself. She quizzed the document for quite some time, and then took no more than a second to rip through the dime-store stationery.
The pages the enclosed letter was written on had plainly been torn from a narrow-lined logbook; they were fastened together with a rusty paperclip. The entire epistle was in a kind of muscular cursive Enid had not seen since her extreme youth—the careful and very stilted uncial taught once by nuns or schoolmarms, employed by someone who does not usually write often or much, but who, when writing, applies the Palmerian, not the Zanerian method (since she handled correspondence for the Antiquarium, she had become an expert on penmanship). The letter read:
Donkey Jaw Creek, Idaho
Dear Miss Enid:
I don’t rite letters 2 offen & u dont know me, no reason u shld. but in a way I guess u can call me ur Pappa now. Yes that is rite as I ‘plited my troth’ w/ur Mamma in April of this yr & we had a v. good Marriage but I regret 2 tell u that she died just this last week after 5 wunderfull weeks’ we had toggether. She died v. peacefuly playing a round of Penuckle with me so dont u stress about that. The doctors said she didnt suffer, it was her bad heart. & at the time she died she was happy, I was owing her lots & lots of $$$$$!!
As I didnt have no tellyphone # I had to turn—Saffie’s what she spelt Seraphina—all her old suitcases inside & out 2 find this address & ur banks’ which I hope is the rite one.
Now I know that u & ur Mamma did not see eye to eye, that is neither here nor there since now she is dead. U want to know who I am, well here it is:
I am a widower 2x now. See I am a retired Rural-Route Postal Carrier never had much edducation never need it ha ha, worked 50 yrs & my first wife a beutifull woman 2, she was a waitress when we lived in Winnemucca. That was where I met ur Mamma just a month ago & u may think I am Crazy but I married her right away it being Nevada after we won, v. v. big at the local Injun casino.
[_Honnest truth is we both wanted 2 get away, start over after that & so we bought a nice little home & a brand new Jeep here in God’s Country where no one knows us atall. It has happened so fast I dont know where I am now but I do know I am Filthy Rich as they say ha ha & I can retire for good thanks 2 the grate good luck ur Mamma brung me. _]
Saffie before she died confessed everything to me so I am doing my best 2 rite every wrong she done. She was so sorry & wanted to make itall up. Enid u will find atached 2 this letter a copy of a Money Order for a v. generus amt. I have wired 2 ur Mamma’s daddy’s bank I mean S&L—its dated June 21st which Saff. said it was her Daughtters’ 25th b-day so it seems rite fine. I think it will see u & ur kin thru life & then beyond some I xpect. & I told the Bankclerk in the off. not 2 tell u until ur b-day so you will have a grate big surprize!!!
[_ Now dont think u have to thank me none when I shld. thank u for having a Mamma who was so v. good to me. & I got all the $$$ I can use!! She is burried here now, a nice big cross you shld. see it. I am not lonely no more having ur Mamma in my heart & I want the Lord 2 forgive me 4 all the bad I done when I was a youngen. Please do what you like w/ this money & know that even if we never meet & me being ur Mamma’s 3rd or 4th husband, u* v. much will allways be like the daughter I never had, She told me so much. _]
With Love & Blessings,
Ur “Pappy” Willis T. Farngold Jr.
*PS & ur 2 bros!
PPS Found one of ur ma’s scennted envolopes’ to mail this in.
Enid unfastened the receipt for the money order from the clip and vetted it as scrupulously as she could in the sputtering light. The chit certainly looked valid, even though the man’s signature was nigh illegible and the payment to Musquash Valley Savings and Loan was so immense as to seem a forgery. But the Western Union form, from an office in Boise, had about it an indisputable air of legitimacy; the order was signed and dated and notarized with an embossed stamp and signatures from the notary and two witnesses. Enid had to count the zeroes numerous times and then she let go her breath.
This of course meant many things: the Matriarch was irrefutably dead, for one thing, and could no longer pose a danger to herself or her family. Apparently, Saffie (she shuddered to think of her mother with a nicknames, of all things) had sent her postcard on JAN 5, not JUN 5, when she’d reached her wit’s end, just days before she had met this man across the baize-covered expanse of a craps table, and made with him the win she had long been staking her life on, as years and husbands and residences came and went. (Undoubtedly she’d forgotten she’d ever written the card, once she had been swept up into this brand-new lover’s world.) The other men the Matriarch had married had all predeceased her, but this one must have carried a rabbit’s paw, not a monkey’s—pinochle , of all things! So, it had to be true: all the Rectory’s debts would be paid and after that they would still have enough to live better than they had ever done—“& then beyond some.” They could save the Nova Anglia or let the shop run itself into the ground when they ran out of books, it made no difference; always there would be plenty of money to spare. And of course they could keep their costly vanity projects going in perpetuity…
With a sudden jungle-deafening screech, Cachou rolled and tumbled back down from the slippery apex of the pinecone dome and landed forelegs first in her lap. “Mind your claws!” Enid scolded, still and all snuggling the furry critter deep into her feathers. Should I be at least a little upset about the Matriarch’s death? she silently asked the spring-tailed arborealist. Of course not, my funny honey bear, she answered just as wordlessly—we hated each other, and now I am deliriously happy for the first time in so very long, maybe for the first time in my life!
Tossing Cachou over her shoulder, she uprighted herself and gave the view one last perusal. She felt now that she owned everything she saw, or could if she wanted to, for a dizzy, newfound joy continued to effervesce within her. Then she remembered the other slips of paper she had folded and concealed under a hidden strap inside her elaborately constructed gown. (So many messages on me, she thought, I might as well call myself a letterbox.)
An hour ago, on her way past the book barn from the Rectory, she had been stricken by a sudden spasm of terror: the Matriarch’s mailing—it was still in the very spot where she’d left it during the many indecisions of this forenoon! And there it still lay—a miracle, she thought, that neither of her brothers had chanced upon the card throughout its day-long tenancy under her accounts book. In the hustle and bustle of getting to the folly before the party was over, she had doubled the card within one of the many others that littered the top of the Antiquarium’s desk, so as not to risk smutching the incriminating ink further with perspiration. The enfolding cataloguer’s card, she saw in the lamplight, was one she remembered now but had not come across since she was a girl. How out of the ordinary that it had resurfaced now, but what a laugh it had been when the Patriarch had handed it to her many birthdays ago! It was the best kind of joke, at that, related with the least number of words:
Whitsell, Ralph Wellington III.: The Meaning of Life, Old Rectory Press, Sassafras Junction, Iowa, 19—, latest deluxe edition, zigrino binding, hb, 150 pp*
*highly recommended reading for my beautiful daughter on her tenth birthday. With greatest Respect and Reverence, Ever and Always, Your Doting Daddy
It was a blank book, of course, intended for her to fill in as she saw fit (though because she so very much loved the little book her father had bound in shiny greenish-gray sharkskin specially for her, she had never marred the purity of its clean white pages). When she had received the gift, Enid remembered, she had hugged her beloved father around his knees—and his trousers had smelled of tweed and tobacco and maybe a little splashed Glenlivet. Then he had lifted her miles into the air, pinwheeled her round and round, and kissed her cheeks a thousand times. Ah, well, that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?
Enid also had the reprehensible and now superseded postcard from Seraphina Whitsell in her hands—after one last look at the oversaturated motel-room photo on one side and the erratic penmanship on the other, she tore the whole thing into tiny unthreatening bits, small as flakes of snow or ash, which spun downwind from this height she stood upon and vanished into the night.
By lamplight she reentered the interior of the folly’s observation level and stole down the rungs before anyone could see what she was up to; she simply melted into the masses, as secret agents are said to do. A warped record still merrily skipped and crackled as it went round and round on the player, moths spun around the candle flames, people spun on the dance floor, and the conversations around her continued cycling through their various permutations of subjects and people, uninterrupted by her presence—although she felt the whole room must have sensed straight off how her heart was pounding and her spirit sailing. Enid was glad to see that Oscar and his new acquaintance Cliff (Winnie’s older brother, she remembered) were getting along so well together; in fact, their eyes were strangely misty, their cheekbones rosy as on a windy day in February, their laughter as nervous and irrepressible as new bridegrooms’, every ounce of them looking and behaving almost as carefree as she felt. Now, why was that?
Cliff’s tux was gone, and his shirtfront unfastened farther than was strictly necessary in this heat; Oscar’s bowtie was hanging on for dear life from one wing of his detachable neckband. Both of them were prattling on nonstop, inserting extra-anglian words or phrases whenever they could, with a comic fluidity Enid attributed to that crate of Beaujolais. “Alles gut?” she heard one say; “Molto bene,” the other. And then, together, “Mais oui!” It was like mixing up several Berlitz tapes at once.
It took a while, but with some effort she caught their eye—they didn’t seem to altogether mind her proximity—so she came closer to where they stood at a trestle-table, assessing labels on liquor bottles. Once she had succeeded in insinuating herself between the two young men, she spent some good amount of time tolerantly listening to them expound upon how they had “hit upon” common but fertile ground, so they told her, while deliberating such things as their aversion to brutalism in politics or architecture; their preference of neither vanilla nor chocolate, but Neapolitan or even tutti-frutti (because they are so all-inclusive); and their mutual weakness for all things pretentious, precious, or precocious.
Enid judged it the right moment to interject her own opinion. “Those often derided qualities you mention are among the only ones that I should regard as worthwhile in a world we collectively have made unworthy. Mark my words, for I have depleted the reservoirs of my psyche and I have prolonged pain, while misguidedly shielding myself from sunshine as much as showers,” Enid expanded on the issue for them, aware that her wayward loquacity was a defensive or subversive effort on her behalf—for she wanted very badly to steer the discussion toward her stupendously good news instead of delving deeper into their arbitrary chitchat, which she had little interest in maintaining, given her mood.
“Have fun, boys, the fun I should have been having. Now that I am so old and wise, I am quite sure that life is meant to be but a dance—why, just watch Smith and Jones and Brown! Whirligigs! Marionettes!”
Cliff and Oscar did look on admiringly at the trio of senior citizens cavorting madly across the room. It could very well be that someone might drop dead tonight…
During a momentary musical syncope, Enid’s head assumed an alert tilt. “Wait! Listen! Who can that be this time?”
Before Enid could break away from the boys, Gemma, as if she were the hostess (and maybe she was in a sense), came rushing to the greet the newcomers. “Nils!” the buoyant young woman squealed, “Cy! How nice of you to come, but how did you know? I hadn’t thought—”
The rest was muffled in a round of inebriated embracing and hand-clasping before Enid could quite make out who this couple at the door was: one was a scrawny, sallow, slightly insipid-looking girl in soiled slacks and bare feet, and the other was a shortish, baldish, stoutish, somewhat toadish man of about thirty-five or thirty-six pinched into a charcoal-gray lounge suit that might have been bespoke, before his waist size exceeded his age. At first glance, Enid judged both of them tremendously drab. Each of these late arrivals looked like extras methodically chosen to blend into the background of a far more ordinary scene than this. Here and now, they mainly stood out. Both wore countenances of congenial bemusement, having found themselves in such an unconventional place, among such unconventional people.
The fidgety half of the pair was the first to speak up, though her thin, tremulous voice was barely audible above the sound of another long-player of Savoyard court favorites. “Sweets, we’re so sorry… to invade your party like this… but how provi—dential… to find you here,” she told Gemma, hyperventilating in short sharp gasps and waving a tiny bugle-beaded purse for all to see. “You dropped… your clutch down by… the hitching post… and you’ve been gone so long… we were afraid… you might be scouring the state… or going from one police station to the next… or detained for not paying for your lunch at the diner in town… and I was so scared for you.. since you don’t know anyone here… We’ve been to… a dozen places… trying to track you down… then saw all the phan—tasma—gorical lights up here… from the four-way-stop down the way… Let me catch my breath, please!”
Gemma received the purse, which she had not yet missed, and compressed the trespassers between her powerful arms, just as she had done with Oscar. “Everyone—these,” Gemma announced to the onlookers, “are my country cousins, Phynilla and Cyrus. I’ve been staying awhile on my Aunt Gwendolyn Pettigrew’s estate with Nilla—Nils, and Cy lives practically next door, out near the highway.”
Phynilla spoke again, flapping her hands in front of her face to bring herself down to room temperature. “Sorry… I must look a mess… But I left the farm in such a rush, once I found the purse. Cy, on the other hand… Cy fixed himself up for an interview he had today… so I guess he’s a little more appropriately dressed than I am… Me, I’d been out doing the hogs when he came by, so I hitched a ride and showed him what I’d found… and we’ve been looking all over tarnation ever since.” And then her nervous titters overpowered her.
“You have two cousins?” Satchell said, making his way through the partygoers to shake hands, as well.
“But of course, you ninny,” Gemma insisted. “No one has just one. Cy lives nearby; he teaches out at that cute little college.”
Oscar and Enid looked as covertly as they could toward each other and away again.
“Oh, splendid, splendid!” Satchell exclaimed, appraising these specimens before him as skillfully and stealthily and swiftly as anyone could. What did they know already about him and Gemma? Had her wallet disclosed any secrets? He felt a bit more abashed than emboldened, as he had hoped to be when making his important announcement. “Phynilla, Cyrus,” he pressed on, unable to stop himself, as if nothing were out of sorts. “Such an interesting family, we’ve heard so much about you over the years. I’ve been to Pettigrews’ Pawpaw Plantations up on Rawlins Rise, but sad to say, not when you’ve been available. Welcome then to our humble Rectory, or part of it. Please let me pour you some of this bubbly I’ve just popped. We’re hoping Enid will open her presents soon, and then we have a few recreations prepared. Plus a sprinkling of lagniappes and bombonieres for our illustrious guests.”
There was a general murmur of approval, and then the middle-aged and very businesslike man stepped forward, taking stock of the dimensions of the room like a real estate agent, speaking to everyone and maybe no one. “How cozy. Such a quaint habitat,” he said, in a voice much softer and shyer than one would have guessed he owned. Then he turned to Oscar. “Do you all somehow—live—here?”
“I’ve only ever seen your big pineapple from down the road,” Phynilla mentioned timorously, sloshing some of the champagne one of the Reresbys had just handed her. “I always figured it was just a funny kind of silo.” All down her blouse already.
“Not at all, this frivolous place was never meant to be anything so utilitarian or agrarian,” Oscar disabused the poor skittish thing, who had the pert hips and haircut of a boy but did not appeal to him at all. “It was my great-great-great’s idea. An architectural pun for the family to appreciate. Modeled after something or other in a Highlands hunting park, or maybe not. Looking a little worse for wear now, I’m afraid. All those broken pantiles and falling chunks of stucco and stone. If we had the money, we’d restore this erection to former glories.”
Cliff, who had never really left his side, shook Oscar by the shoulder, convulsing with inappropriate laughter. “We’ll soon restore yours as well, mate,” he punned, lusty as a sailor, to his companion, which made Oscar blush, then blanch, then blush all over again.
As the party disintegrated into separate small factions once more, the man in his quite ordinary interviewing suit stepped toward Enid, who had her own justification for withdrawing from him as far against the westernmost wall as she could go. “Why, who is this iddle-biddle minikin? Is he or she an olingo or a ringtail?” he asked, brashly drawing nearer, and before Enid could gauge the compliment, he reached out to scratch behind Cachou’s small pointed ears; Enid had quite forgotten that the half-asleep animal was still wrapped around her neck and shoulders. “I had thought at first it must be some sort of fur stole.”
“This is Cachou, a domesticated and neutered kinkajou, not a ringtail, nor an olingo,” Enid sniffed, “and you should know I am Enid Whitsell, whose party this is you’ve invaded.”
Cy twinkled and tipped a hypothetical hat. “You, my lady, are so kind not to have simply thrown me out on my arse, excuse my language,” he said in what she might allow was a somewhat endearing and self-denigrating tone—if it were not so fraudulent, of course… Then he reached inside his silk-lined suit coat and withdrew something he held out to the entirely unimpressed kinkajou.
“I’m sorry,” Enid reproved him, “Cachou is not allowed treats this time of day.” She began to turn away right then, until she saw the minuscule, mouselike thing in his palm.
“My, but I was hoping they could coexist,” Cy said. “Not eat one another.” The button-eyed, sharp-muzzled infant in his palms looked up trustingly at both Cachou and Enid. Cy seemed to relish playing ringmaster. “This here is a baby eastern-barred pandi kokku, or common bandicoot, a harmless insectivore,” he eagerly informed his sole spectator. “Fresh from the pouch.”
Enid sniffed again. “Cachou is a rescue,” she stated. “I don’t believe in keeping exotica as pets. Besides, aren’t cats enough for people like you? Cats I can’t abide. Cats are hideous.”
And then she saw in his eyes that he really might be who she was afraid he was. “I don’t believe it,” she said half to herself. “I don’t believe myself. In my own backyard? You couldn’t really be who I think you are—”
“But I am, I think. And, no, they’re not, my cats, at least—while, yes, to go back a bit, I don’t believe in keeping such pets, either, but in this case—” Cy evaded her persistent verbal blows with what she would designate snivels and evasions— “in this case, I make an exception, for Bíbí, my baby, is from an organization in St. Louis that gives good homes to orphans and infants rejected by their mothers—the Marsupial Defense League. She was born in the St. Louis zoo and another cousin of ours, who works there, passed her on to me. Knowing how much I love animals.”
He paused, swallowed some of the champagne he’d been handed, and went on while Enid silently seethed. “She was rejected by her mother—not my cousin, I mean Bíbí. My cousin is named Doris; I’ve fostered other animals for her in the past. Today, with all my running about, I simply couldn’t keep her, I mean Bíbí, at home alone with the girls,” he added. “For now, my soft warm pocket is as close to nature as it gets for a bandicoot. I nurse her with an eyedropper.”
Meanwhile, the two mammals, one much larger than the other, were putting their long inquisitive noses to use. Normally Cachou might have either attacked or fled, so Enid was relieved to see that neither chose to continue a relationship. In a moment Bíbí was yawning, ready and willing to be put back soon into Cy’s close-fitting jacket.
For a moment Enid forgot that she stood face-to-face with her enemy, and she prodded the near-naked homunculus with two tentative fingers, for neither Cy nor his new pet seemed to mind; to be sure, the newborn apparently welcomed more such tickling, though Cy pocketed it nonetheless. “The wee sprite would be catching a chill,” he said, pressing deeper into Enid’s normally very restricted personal space.
“So. You know my cats? You must have read that inane article about me in The Chanticleer last fall. So many people ask me about ‘felines and wind chimes’ or whatever it was of mine they quoted,” he lamented, sounding a bit like a jaded celebrity who has been too relentlessly pursued by the fifth estate. “Made me sound like a mournful moonstruck moron. I should stick to conducting interviews, not granting them.”
Enid, who in her dotage seldom met anything new under the sun, remained steadfast if still incredulous. “Let me get a better look at you. Yes, that’s better, in the light… I still don’t see how it could have been you, but it must be true,” she capitulated, grudgingly, and when the music became a blurry drone of krummhorns and sackbuts, deftly lured him into a quieter corner behind the ladder. The annoyed kinkajou unwound itself fully from around Enid’s neck at last and slunk off somewhere into the night.
“You looked like Homemaker of the Year in that photo, now I remember it—right down to the pearls. Is there something I missed in that puff piece, or am I mistaken, or have you indeed altered your gender?”
“Oh, honestly, honestly!” he huffed. For a moment, in that dark suit and with that grim look upon his face, he looked less like a realtor and more like an undertaker’s assistant come to take measurements. “The damned incompetencies of a small-town tabloid! They mixed up my photo with one for an article on the next page, about investing a new queen of the Ladies’ Auxiliary. It’s been terribly embarrassing in many ways, and my department has sadly never let me live it down.”
Enid had to recollect herself. “So it is you. You should know, then, that I am the editor in chief of Wings. Which you so sorely denigrated.”
“Yes, yes, I knew that as soon as you gave me your name—or, rather, I guessed who you were even before you gave me your name. Your summer molt may camouflage you here, but I’d identify you anywhere, in this state, at least.”
“Well, then, you cad, you should know why I will having nothing to do with you. Or with your ladylove, Miss Acton.” She said this even while coming to terms with the possibility that—perplexingly and illogically and nauseatingly—she found this short, sweaty, portly, pugnacious man who smelled of his highly spiced lunch somehow a tiny bit agreeable. (Could it be on account all the wayward pheromones or hormones in the air? she wondered.)
Enid was still determined to state her case. “In rather ham-fisted fashion you sought to demean and destroy us. That may very well be unforgivable. One of us should be equipped with a gun and silencer—but which, I ask you?”
Now the man who plopped himself onto the bottom rung of the ladder looked thoroughly discomposed. “Please hear me out. That review was originally intended to be an hommage, nothing more and nothing less!” he defended himself, hiding his face in his hands.
After a moment of what might have been the weeping of a man unused to tears—might or might not have been—he peered through his pudgy fingers and spoke again. “Though I admit that because I was just getting over a very bad breakup at the time, the piece might have ended up sounding a bit… impolitic. In truth—oh, trust me, gentle lady!—I was infinitely resentful, you’re right to think that. Probably I couldn’t then acknowledge such unadulterated envy on my part. Damn me if you must, damn what I did.”
He took another stiff swig of what might have been vinegar, not wine. “Say, did you mention Beverly Acton? I can’t bear the girl. She likes jazz and has a terrible overbite. Don’t think it was she, please, anyone but.”
“Sometimes it is sensible to speculate,” she said, taking a tiny sip from her own glass.
His next words were delivered between a series of choking sobs. “You—you and your siblings are superb, I see now that the world you have created here is superb. I realized that immediately I entered this room tonight.” He was spreading his arms, palms uplifted, as if to shoulder this newly discovered world like Atlas.
“When I first happened upon your journal, I really was motivated beyond any sentiments I could honestly convey and gave up half-way through the piece to have my little breakdown. It was a colleague who signed off on it, and if I had been in a better frame of mind, I would never have sanctioned it. At any rate, I disappointed myself greatly and even more yourself, or you would have no need to be so righteously angry with me now.”
“I have every reason to be angry.”
Stricken, he was now balancing on one knee, a lubberly act for such a stocky man. “Did I mention I had a very bad case of hives this past February?”
“Every reason,” she repeated.
“Ah, I understand you understand these are all puny excuses. Strike me down, then, if you must!” He fell full upon both knees.
Enid raised herself up to her fullest height and wingspan, the conquering raptor, glad to see how easily she could trounce this portly little pipsqueak if need be. “Don’t patronize me, sir! The very formality of your speech rings false to my ears. If you really wanted to honor us, you could have done so by choosing other methods, without so much of what you must think of as your gimlet-eyed wit. We, my brothers and I, would have all been highly insulted if we had not so manifestly seen the irony of the situation.
“Faculty advisor for a student rag, my word! You with your carbon dust and us with our diamonds, glistening brighter than you could ever imagine.”
Cy—Cyrus—Cyrie Epping quailed before her. “I am so sorry that there is no straightforward way to describe something of, that is, one could say, something so—sui generis.” It was more than evident that it was a daunting proposition for him to find ample or precise phrases, but seeing him writhe pleased Enid. “How can I best express my regrets?” he ventured onward. “I shall demand that a lengthy and very candid retraction be placed prominently in our next issue. Signed by myself and all of the staff. I grovel before you, you fascinating woman, and honestly regret not having promoted your endeavors instead of making light of them.” Shamed and humbled, he rose, bowing his head deeply and deferentially enough to providentially display the saucer-shaped bald spot atop. But he kept looking up at her with a pair of big brown baleful eyes.
“Pooh,” she said.
“Your features are as lovely as your feathers, Mademoiselle Whitsell.”
“Pooh,” she said again, but gentler this time, as if not to blow out the tiny flame burning on the sill nearby. “You’re like someone who thinks Churchill got the Nobel for his landscapes.” Yet she had to remember, she enjoined herself, that verily, verily, nothing awful could overpower her now, now she and her brothers had all the money in the world. And now now now of course of course of course that the Matriarch was dead.
Cy winked away a smut—or maybe he had a stye—and held out a flabby palm. She blinked and stared at it, as if it were some dead cold white starfish he extended. “What is the German for epicaricacy?” he asked her. “Please don’t—how does it go—don’t make of me a gladiator’s holiday.”
Still she appeared unmoved, although one of her rings was clinking irritably against her glass. To him, she saw and appreciated, it might have been the toll of a doomsday bell.
He might have thrown himself back down again and rolled masochistically in the dirt, if one word hadn’t stopped him. That one word was stop, and it only took Enid’s whispering it three times to convince him to remain on his feet.
“I, too have suffered, so pity me,” he pleaded, groping again for her own hand. “My muse departed with that individual who left me last semester. I do nothing but eat and eat while starving my poetry.”
Enid paused at length, something she was not used to doing during the middle of a conversation. She compared the weights of disparate things on her mind and then she spoke. “To come clean, though I don’t know why I should—I can sympathize even from my lofty throne. Once there was someone who—well, never mind all that. Suffice to say I went through a period when I could no longer so meticulously lace my baubles along a strand. I wanted to give up playing the game of life. Why, I actually contemplated writing blank verse!”
“Don’t be funny.” His hand was still there, stupid and beginning to tremble. Enid frowned disparagingly at it and tried to tell him that for deeply complicated and pathopsychological reasons, reasons she needn’t parse nor he apprehend, she’d found out she was capable of disregarding imprudence more ungrudgingly now that it came from him, rather than when he was a woman. “Oh, you know what I mean.”
His hand reached out again toward hers. “Why can’t we, as in a Tin Pan tune, like rivals after the war, be friends, be allies?” he said, and then there was no telling whose palm met the other’s first. They did not shake, but they held fast for a memorable moment, for an eternity, then each took back what was his or hers and found the floor something much less onerous to concentrate on than each other’s face.
Only then did their senses tell them another record had wound down and Satchell was pinging Swarovski stemware and calling upon everyone to lend him their eyes and ears. He stood teetering at the edge of the stage he had built, Gemma tiptoeing behind. (She had discarded her heels numerous galliards ago.) The boy, who was never bashful and like his siblings seldom at a loss for words, cleared his throat and was evidently having trouble deciding what to say, if he had anything to say at all.
“We have gathered here tonight to sing praises to our darling sister Enid, as you all know,” he addressed the room. “And for that I have words prepared for later, before we cut into the triple-layer. But first, before we have all lost count of how many drams we have consumed, I wanted to let you all in on a little secret.”
Enid and Cy had moved from where they were half-hidden behind the ladder, into what might have been the orchestra, were this a real stage, and now mingled as best they could, not too close and not too near Oscar and Wycliffe and the others. The outer flanks of this audience consisted of Tiddles and the three Reresbys; meanwhile, Winslow and the high-strung Pettigrew girl were nowhere to be seen (not that anyone had missed them). By the time Satchell had formulated a few more phrases to enunciate, Gemma was inclined against his shoulder and occasionally availing herself a little too much of his earlobes and elbows.
“Although many of you have not met her before,” the youngest Whitsell said meekly, “it shouldn’t take much persuasion to convince you all that Gemma is a model of good breeding and—usually—perfect posture.” He welcomed a spate of laughter from the congress of fixed faces below.
“As you might all have guessed,” Satchell resumed, “Gemma and I are, that is, we have become a little ‘involved,’ since meeting last March and, and…” He trailed off, facing the gathering with a blank, big-eyed look that became more and more like a rabbit’s in the crosshairs.
A well-placed kick in the shins, the girl knew, can do plenty to motivate a soul.
“I’ll get to the point, then,” Satchell said, snapping to attention. “The truth is, we’re here together to advertise, in a manner of speaking, or to promulgate, if you’re following me, our de facto, that is, our future, be-, betro—that is, very shortly we mean to issue our banns.”
At first all those present believed they had misheard or misunderstood. “Gemma, you can be so—” he objected, propping her up when she began to slide, though in her voluminous skirts she was ever so unwieldy. He avoided seeking reactions, instead held as fast to her as he could—but being so much slighter of build…
His now publicly acknowledged inamorata managed to get back up on her feet by herself. “Never mind him. Why, look at you all! As my grandmama used to say,” she told the congregation, dusting off her dress, “don’t drop your monocle in your soup.” And when this too was met by silence, she clarified the outcome of the quarrel that had ended just a couple of hours ago: “What we’re trying to tell you all is that we’re going to get married.”
This was all coming so fast Enid had no time to reflect on how specious or serious this pronouncement might be before Satchell rapidly amended, “She means we’ve agreed to agree to agree to a sort of, a type of marriage. But not for a long time! A very long time! Like all good theater folk,” he said, beaming upon his fellow family members, “we believe in lengthy engagements. We’re hoping not before we’ve had at least a dozen solvent seasons. So don’t rush to sign our registry yet.”
Cy wisely stepped back from what might become an honest-to-goodness fray. But Oscar and Enid were already searching out each other’s hands and shoulders. He was telling her without words not to worry, it would all work itself out, the kids were both so young and foolish it couldn’t last, and she was telling him with the same extrasensory perceptiveness that nothing could upset her now, and she would soon let him know why. Being such close relations, having always arrived at their best results telepathically, they understood each other perfectly.
Pleased by such familial rectitude, Enid yet felt she had swallowed a considerable amount of a potentially harmful tonic she had never tasted before. But one gulps and goes on. “I hope you don’t expect me to fold you unto my bosom,” she told Satchell and Gemma when they descended, arms linked, from the stage. “For I have none, anyway, as our mother always reminded me.”
Satchell nodded of course not, Gemma stared at a distant speck on the wall. He would have liked to tell his fiancée that Enid’s humor was not dependably transparent.
“Normally I might be flying into a rage,” Enid resumed when her mirth was not echoed, “or crying upon this stage, if I were compulsive about my rhymes… ” Seeing her new ally Cyril Epping wince almost imperceptibly, she sped to her point. “Nevertheless, tonight I find myself flustered by this solemn occasion and my overabundantly magnanimous sentiments. Attend me for just a minute more, please,” and she raised her voice. “Sax, Oz, everyone, there is something I wish to divulge, but not until the witching hour, if only for the dramatic potential.”
Enid separated the young couple from the others with her eyes. “Brother Satchell, Miss Newbury, rest assured that at the moment I will not interfere with whatever you two plan to do, however inadvisable I deem it.” With that, she allowed Oscar to escape and joined her hand to theirs. Their eyes met as well, if perhaps for not so long.
“Some day,” Enid carried on bravely, “this place will all be yours. I intend to leave the Rectory in dependable hands. Sax, you are level-headed, much more so than Oz or me, and so I will not balk; I shall abide by your decisions. You are almost an adult; you must do what you think best for yourself, not me.
“And now,” she decreed, “I want you to gas up the gramophone and dance again, drink some more. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain—well, you know what I meant; excuse me when I repeat maxims word for word, if not in the right order. Tonight, my dearies, my mind is reeling round in a whorl. We could all use some cake!”
As soon as Enid had dismissed the couple and they flew like two doves from a magician’s hat, Cliff had exchanged positions with Oscar and was buttonholing Enid. “Has anyone seen my brother Winnie?” he asked her specifically. “It seems I lost him somewhere on the tarmac.”
Through the mosquito-mottled screen Enid had just seen two suspicious figures intertwined with the shadows at play beneath the wild grape arbor, not far down the pebbled path leading from the pond through the fruit trees to the folly. That pinched-looking girl in yellow had likely gone astray at approximately the same time as Winslow. Enid looked critically but half-approvingly at this rather raffish figure before her, this Mister Wycliffe, middle of the Brierbaum boys, whom she had not missed noticing had gained Oscar’s alert attentions this evening. “Did you see him?” He did have amazingly sympathetic eyes. His remaining shirt studs seemed to be watching and waiting for her to say something intelligent, too.
She took a stab. “I wouldn’t worry. He’s no doubt engaged in activities of his own,” she answered euphemistically, but in such a way that it appeared to please the youth, who went to rejoin her own brother over the cold Christchurch mutton. I should be altogether much more concerned, she castigated herself, watching Oscar install a morsel between Cliff’s lips, but somehow I am not…
Satchell, who in lieu of fresh records had resuscitated his rather pneumonic harmonium, began shortly to coax a lively little tune out of it that she should have recognized but did not. Before he reached another repetitious refrain she thought it appropriate to address the assembly one last time, before the speeches and songs (as outlined by the homemade, letterset programs the Reresbys had just distributed) would begin. With no fanfare (indeed, there were no buglers about), Enid mounted the platform and motioned to Satchell, who did not suspend the music but lowered it to a respectful susurration as she began to speak.
“I won’t take much of your time—for now,” she said, clearing her throat loudly enough to silence the room, “but there is something I must say to you all at once, before more formal gaieties begin.” She held the Reresbys’ puzzling itinerary at arm’s length, trying to decipher their misspellings and motives. “Thank you, kind brothers, first of all, for contriving a programme that strikes me would better suit the Pops or the Proms.” She waved the sheet in the air like a flag—not of surrender, but victory.
It took a little while for the cheering to stop. “As you may know,” she resumed, “I have not always been the most contented person. I have had a lifelong tendency to feel unfairly consigned—not resigned—to my lot—and others have said I can be a bit, well, tetchy, I believe the word is. But, lo and behold, we are all capable of change.”
“Hear, hear!” sounded sundry intoxicated Reresbys from the wings. In the meantime, Phynilla and Winslow were creeping through the door, singly and not together. From the looks on their faces (if anyone had been vigilant) one would guess that things had not ended well between them.
Enid gave the program another cursory inspection, as if consulting marginalia. “Please excuse me if I am sounding aphoristic tonight, but such is the mood I am in, friends. Maybe it is the midsummer moon, perhaps my immoderate intake of chocolate and alcohol. But all funning aside, I have so much for which to be grateful. My dear, dear brothers, just to begin… ”
Oscar and Satchell met each other’s eye. I wonder if I should stop her before she becomes maudlin, they both thought as one. Then again, it was her night and her right. Let her go on—and she did.
In the meantime, the Pettigrew girl was looking wildly around her, as if she must get away this very second. Winslow Brierbaum had crept to the other side of the room, very likely seeking a back door; it looked as though both of them wanted to remain miles apart in this room. No one noticed them much, although the collective’s majordomo genteelly ushered the girl to a chair and Smith, Jones, and Brown each provided Winnie with a different flavor of schnapps, all of which he would have gladly accepted, were he only to possess three hands.
A mayfly had been let in, maybe more than one. One was evidently poised to pester Enid as she caught another breath, but with a smack of her two hands it was vanquished, nicely emphasizing what she was saying about the brevity of life or death and taxes—something like that. Minds were starting to wander. Glasses were going empty.
Be that as it may, Enid was only just then hitting her stride. Ever the diseuse, she spoke at length about Art and about Age. Judging from her words, both had affected her equally. She deferred to the classics and she trumpeted the modern. Within a few minutes she had quoted from a dozen diverse authors, naturally including herself. She defended the Whitsellian legacy while inviting the most stringent scrutinization of their collective oeuvre (this with a chilly nod toward the critic in their midst, who dipped his chastened chin in return). When she couldn’t help but notice that some in the crowd were starting to loosen their collars or refer to their watches, she eliminated further preliminaries.
“Tonight,” she soliloquized, “we have new friends as well as old to be thankful for. Some of you have known me since before I could write my own name. Others have perhaps only now learned what it is. I welcome and delight in you all.”
As Enid improvised upon miscellaneous motifs, Gemma edged nearer to Satchell. “I am sorry,” came her sotto voce into his ear. “I guess your sister is not so horrible as I had thought her.”
“Hmmm,” was all he had to say, not looking up, down, or sideways.
“If you really want me to, I will sing just as we practiced. It is nice, what you wrote.”
“And after all, it is in the program your friends so thoughtfully printed, if I’m reading it right. How could I deny you now? Oh, stop your humming for once!” With that she kissed him for anyone to see (no one did) and clung fast to his side.
“There is not much else of any real profundity I can cite without an almanac,” Enid was at it still. “But, to borrow from the language my youngest brother speaks so fluently, I will epitomize, or extemporize, consonantly for your benefit, with few sour notes, in something of a C Major—do I make sense, Satchell?”
Enid paused to take a sip—maybe several—from her wineglass and wipe her eyes with a tissue she’d stowed within her plumage; during this interlude Cliff had beckoned to Oscar, who had followed the apparently famished youth’s footsteps as he went from dish to dish and bottle to bottle. His appetite was just another thing Oscar found entirely endearing. “Hey, pal,” Wycliffe whispered to him, while pretending to be completely captivated by Enid’s words and deaf to anything else. “I was considering something—”
“Yes?” asked Oscar with a rising heart, not caring for once if Enid noticed that he was not paying quite the attention she demanded.
Cliff put a muscular arm around Oscar to bring him even nearer; his breath was fennel and garlic, malt and grape, every atom in it tantalizing. “I’m planning on going to New Orleans next month, just to try my luck there a while. A friend of a friend of mine owns a Puglian place there, the tips would be beyond bountiful… ”
Panic suddenly seized Oscar, but Cliff pressed a finger to his brand-new best friend’s lips, to stop him from saying anything at all. “I’m not asking you to leave here, I’ll never ask you to leave here,” he was telling Oscar as quietly as he could—so quietly Oscar could not quite make out all his words. He was saying things about having Oscar downriver every third weekend, if he could; there would always be plenty of room, there would be so much to see and explore, and Enid certainly couldn’t object when everything in life, after all, was so very temporary…
Cliff gave Oscar’s tie such a mischievous tug that what was left of the bow unraveled in his hands. Wheezing, Oscar groped for his inhaler—only to come to the realization that it must have been dropped back among the rhododendrons.
“Really, you’re just as big and burly and bad as a mastiff with a bone!” Oscar said brusquely under his breath, elbowing his friend in a most intimate manner.
“You bring it out in me,” Cliff rejoined in a voice as low and soft as he could go. “And, listen, Oscar, you needn’t be alarmed, but do think about what I asked”—after which Oscar pledged to set about deliberating upon it all, once his head was dry and clear again. But for now, there was Enid only a few yards away, and she had yet to round her argument:
“Friends like family, strangers like friends, thank you, thank you, thank you! Let me say it again: I am so glad you were all able to come. Hush now, boys, or this will take me even longer…
“In drawing to a peroration—there’s a word for you—let me remind you all that setbacks, reversals, and outright tragedies are certain in the long run—so why not for now, and until our quietuses, value what we have and simply resolve to be happy?
“Oh dear. I’m afraid I’m beginning to sound platitudinous and may start speaking in epigrams. As you see, your love and esteem have buoyed me tonight in a way that has left me breathless, nearly speechless, for you are too, too kind… ” She waited while a few mild objections below extinguished themselves as the cheers had before.
“To draw short, I feel such great gratitude for you and for all I have accrued in life. As for life itself—well, there’s no meaning to it, nor does it matter, for we are each one of us most fortunate just to be alive. While life is most fortunate to have us in it.”
She cupped an ear. “What, was that skepticism I heard? Debatable, you say? Mark my last quip with an obelus in your Book of the Dead, then.”
And then she took one last poignant breath before her public.
“But, for now, I’ll make way for your agenda.” Thus Enid Whitsell.
Polite applause spattered around her like raindrops as she alighted into the middle of the circle of her disciples, and ere long glasses were raised, throats cleared, belts and stays loosened, and everyone was singing she’s a jolly good. Which nobody could deny. All three Whitsells, if they had been asked, would have been united in their response, and this they could not deny: life truly had never been so good, so full of unimaginable possibilities and incalculable opportunities.
By express order of her majesty’s newly appointed Equerry of Exchequers, the Whistlebotts had been invited to the coronation of Empress Vencerina III in the royal city of Regis, in the country of Empyria. The family had sojourned three weeks by caravan to get there, guided by an emissary with an eyepatch and a limp .
An anarchist’s bomb having been defused and an assassin’s bullet deflected, everyone was in holiday mood but understandably a little wary. Armed officers held back the well-wishers with locked arms, while sirens and bullhorns proclaimed an all-clear for the imperial entourage. In the ensuing pandemonium, the Whistlebotts became estranged from their cicerone and Mr. W had to resort to bribery even after displaying their visas and the monogrammed invitation.
But all the fuss was worth it, Mrs. W would say later. They were escorted to the basilica in a hansom cab the size of a pantechnicon, drawn by two caparisoned oryxes, and given plush pillowed seats in the third row of pews. The former Lady “Bitsy” Fitz had never forgotten how Ronnie (that was Mr. W) had provided her with a handkerchief that time she had been so overcome with emotion upon seeing the distant Spires of Paradise, on the road to Arkanopolis.
[The basilica looked “just like it were made of big pink sugar cubes,” said little Rud. The four Whistlebotts were duly impressed by the sacral space and its occupants. Inside, the atmosphere was more that of a carnival than an inauguration: vendors sold pretzels and taffies, the organ sounded like a circus, and all the attendants but the foreigners were costumed in spangled hosiery and those long black cloaks called _]tabarros[. Officiating at the induction of the new sovereign was a dwarfish old man with a plaited beard that trailed to his toes; under the marquee outside, their escort had whispered to the Whistlebotts about the terrible Pope Syrinnius I, leader of a breakaway sect protected by the country’s aristocrats._]
[In his flaring gray felt zostikon and stiff white ruff like the corolla of a rococo dahlia, the diminutive pontiff was imposing, notwithstanding his height; shirring his skirts, he deftly mounted a little stepladder _][_to part manifold veils and kiss the new queen. Beneath the starred mesh, lace netting, and passementerie he officially vouchsafed to the public Empress Vencerina’s face, still half-concealed, as tradition had it, beneath a jewel-encrusted domino mask. To the Whistlebotts’ general disappointment, the crown was no more than an austere aluminum fillet that looked to them like something donned at a children’s party. Around its wide band was engraved the regime’s motto, which only later, after Ashby had called upon his Latin grammar, did they appreciate: _]Quod licit lovi, non licit bovi[. (That is, the boy translated, Monarchs do not mingle with the masses!)_]
A fairy cymbal was sounded, answered by a titanic gong, as a flock of mute swans dyed in heliotrope and henna was uncaged (only to promptly disappear up the bell tower). Simultaneously a plainchant prayer was offered up by the heresiarch, in a language no one understood, and as soon as he as finished—maybe a little before—the restless royal relations (all of whom had had issues with orders of ascension) rose as one to bow before their new ruler, who was not quite sixteen years old and was said to be no more intelligent than she looked.
“Didn’t you see? Didn’t you see?” vociferated Ashby, in an unmodulated voice that rang from altar to vestibule. “She winked at me! Bitsy winked at me!”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” expostulated sister Saphronia, who had been snuffling demurely into her tatted cuff in a way she hoped would attract the attention of an earl or at least a baronet.
“Isn’t our Bits a picture!” Philomena Whistlebott said to herself and anyone else who cared to overhear.
Her husband smoothed his well-oiled moustaches and concurred. “The very image of oriental pulchritude. Who would think she grew up in Buxton?”
Baby Rud squirmed among the cushions and hymnals, bawling out something he’d learned to parrot from Nurse: “Absolute stuff and nonsense!”
February 14, 2017
A novelette, being the story of one important summer's day in the life of Enid, Oscar, and Satchell Whitsell.