At the age of twenty-seven I spent three months tirelessly courting a young woman who taught history at the local college. I chose the summer months when I thought she would be free of the distractions of academia as well as the advances of other suitors. Despite these supposed advantages, I had difficulty in the first month in securing, or even awakening the affections of Hazel Bishop.
She was pleasant enough when in my company, and made every indication that she valued our afternoon constitutionals through the aviaries of the Coronado Esplanade, but always there seemed a barrier between us, as if she were one of birds turning circles inside her cage as I hovered about the outside. Though I was old enough to know better I had decided that a grand gesture was in order to break that wrought iron barrier.
I had inquired about her family and was met with only evasions. Despite assurances that I cared nothing for lineage, bloodlines, or dowries(myself born of humble origins) she was reluctant to divulge the names of either parent. After further conversations with mutual acquaintances I had learned a number of theories on the matter, the most intriguing of which asserted that she was the secret daughter of hermetic screen actress Marie Doro.
Though I did not put much credence in the theory I couldn’t resist thumbing through the catalogues in hopes of finding a handbill from one of her more popular films. I came across three, all of which seemed to lend evidence contrary to my assumptions. The resemblance between Miss Doro and my Hazel was uncanny to the point of unsettling and I endeavored to become an expert on the life and works for Marie Doro.
Such expertise, it turns out, was narrow and hard won. She was, by all accounts, a fiercely intelligent woman, but undercut by the vapid roles she was offered under the increasingly suspect mechanizations of the Hollywood machine. After a steady rise over the course of eighteen films, despite unflagging popularity and potential, she retired to New York City and grew increasingly reclusive until she disappeared from the stage, then society altogether.
She was very secretive in those later years, constantly switching hotel rooms and creating elaborate trails of forged letters and fabricated receipts to hide from friends, family, and anyone else who might seek her out. The few who saw her at that time described self imposed exile as a kind of spiritual asceticism that intensified until she disappeared from society altogether.
There were photos though. Handbills, newspaper clippings, portraits…I poured over all of them, struck by her resemblance to my own Hazel Bishop. I broached the subject with her and she was taken aback,though secretly impressed, I imagined, at my amateur sleuthing. She offered no answers however, save a coy smile and a bat of her dark lashes, and I decided to let he matter lay idle for a time. I suspected that if there were a secret worth keeping, she would tell me soon enough.
Before long my companion gradually volunteered hits of information here and there about her disappearance. She described in her mother a number of changes: First a sudden devotion to an unnamed spiritual movement(not a religion, her mother asserted), an increasing interest in the avian population of Central Park(She recalled weather charts crudely modified to reflect the migratory patterns of various birds lining her mother’s walls), and an utter contempt for the people, whomever they were, for burying(her words) for one of her final films, The Stronger Passion.
When our next afternoon walk began I plied her for more information about the film but, either out of protective secrecy or of genuine ignorance, she claimed to have no more information to give. By now I realized that she was conflicted bout my questions and had concluded that my continued interest was perhaps a little unhealthy in regards to our possible relationship and I had concluded that perhaps it was not the best method to endure myself to her further.
But as we wandered through the gardens identifying this bug or that plant, my mind kept pouring over the mystery and the small piece of the puzzle I was already privy. I was at least passively familiar with The Stronger Passion as I was a devotee of the source novel’s author, though not necessarily of that particular novel. My memory of the plot was sketchy however and I vowed to revisit the novel as soon as we concluded our constitutional.
The walk was silent for some time as we made our way past a series of eroded statues done in the Greek style. She wondered aloud at the faded faces, convinced that they were carved in that fashion and made to look worn out before their time…“ruined by design,” she said. I remarked that she was probably right and soon we were deep in conversation concerning the romanticism of all things struggling stay intact against storm and strife.
Those thoughts resonated with me as I cut a fresh copy of Beattrice purchased at my usual seller on Pliny Street. It was a handsome volume bound in rich burgundy leader that would weather nicely overtime(though I confess I have since lost it).
Unfortunately, my recollection of the book was largely confirmed upon a second reading of the tome. While I could admire the elegant prose and precise construction I was predisposed to prefer the authors more fantastical creations. It seems even the most engaging stories of today cannot compete with the tales that captured my adolescent mind. It did however pique my interest in the film based upon it and I resolved that very night to track it down.
I learned quickly that tracking down a decades old film not directed by Griffith or Demille was no easy feat. In my increasingly desperate search I was give the name of a man who may be able to help. A one Theodore DePurna, known by locals as The Collector. I was directed to his home by the gardner of Julian Blackstone and assured that the hillside mansion, while a little foreboding in appearance to the casual passerby was in fact inviting even the most obscure callers.
Though I did not find the home foreboding in any discernible way, in fact the three hairs mural was quite charming, I was intrigued instantly by the intricate bird cages worked into the the peaks of the wrought iron entrance gates. They were empty the first time I entered, though they left a lasting impression on that day. The day that I met The Collector.
I learned on first meeting that he preferred the epithet of Curator. “Collections,” and I quote directly here: “were gathered for the sake of amassing objects with the ultimate goal of obtaining every possible specimen of a given categorical group. My archive has intentionality, an accumulation of specific knowledge to be used for a specific purpose.”
He worked in many “categorical groups”: stamps, coins, handbills, phonograph records, cattle brands, bird skulls…indeed, I could spend a considerable time listing his areas of interest as their very own categorical group and could divine not even a theory as to what his “specific purpose” may be.. Suffice it to say, if he did not have a thing or something like it, he had some idea how to get it.
His collection of films was small only by his measure. It was kept in a carefully sealed cellar and organized by date going back to 1902. He sifted through the canisters dated ’14 and found none with the title The Stronger Passion. He took the film’s absence as a personal failure and asked if there was another title he could possibly produce to redeem himself. I produced for him an incomplete list of Doro’s other films and we set about looking.
I was disappointed, though not surprised to find Doro completely unrepresented among the reels of film. The Curator was incensed. He was certain that, despite the inadequacy of his collection, he had in his possession a copy of both The Wood Nymph and Oliver Twist. He assured me that a crime had been committed and immediately set about plans to make amends.
Intrigued by the possibility of such an inscrutable crime, and having some experience in tracking down stories that don’t necessarily want to be told, I offered my services to him as much as they would be useful. He accepted those services with the the casual air of one who assumed them already.
I set to work immediately, interviewing the owners of the two local theaters, the extravagant Meridian and more pedestrian Arcadian. Both of them, unaware as to the specifics of my errand, allowed me free reign to peruse their archives. Neither collection was as large or well organized as Mr. DePurna’s, though I was able to secure, with The Curator’s funds, a print of Midnight Gambols which held a place of high esteem with The Meridian’s projectionist who considered himself an ardent fan of Ms. Doro.
At the invitation of Mr. DePurna, I watched the film that evening in his screening room and was dumbstruck. Seeing Marie Doro in action was like watching my own Hazel Bishop flit across the flickering screen, and over the six reels of film I fell completely in love with both women.
I told Hazel about that singular night the next day(leaving out the division of my affections, of course) and marveled to her about striking resemblance. “It was like watching you travel back in time,” I said, thinking that the remark may delight her as we were discussing Well’s fine novel just the week prior. At the time, her reply only endured her to me more as she referenced novels even more precious to me: “Or,” she started demurely, “Perhaps, at this moment, you look upon an immortal.” I resolved in that moment and out loud that our courtship could only end in marriage.
The Curator (we had settled on referring to Mr. DePurna as such since it so amused Hazel) had offered me a handsome stipend to continue my search for his missing works of M. Doro, as well as any additional films I may procure. That money, I assured her, would supplement my income enough to secure for her a fine ring and, for us both, a fine home. I thought the notion profoundly romantic: to be ultimately united by the quest to preserve her mother’s eternal memory.
She did not share my romantic notion.
She was uneasy about unearthing those flickering unnatural memories and was content to remember her mother without title cards and “accompanying music of rare quality.” And more pressing to her was the fact that my search would take me away from her for an extended period of time in which she claimed, many a tragedy could befall us both.
It took considerable effort but I finally convinced her of two things: One, that I would be away no more than two weeks at a time and would visit her at every possible opportunity, and Two, that the money the Curator promised to pay would allow for not only security, but a certain luxury that would be worth the wait.
There where two weeks remaining until the new term started and Hazel would be back to work. I decided to delay my errand for those two weeks and spend the time in the rapturous company of my new bride to be. However small their number, those days remain the beacon on which I have oriented by life before or since. I am certain now that the intoxication of blossoming love’s precise intersection with the promise of a cultivated life long romance creates euphoria beyond that of any drug or accolade.
But still, at the time, I pursued accolades. On the day that I left she gifted me a tattered red ribbon and battered matchbox that contained a curious ornamental spiral fashioned from an aged copper wire. Though I am still unsure of the meaning that either of them held for Hazel, or should for me, they remain my most treasured possessions.
She was resigned when she pressed them into may palm and our parting kiss held an unmistakable note of finality that I somehow managed to interpret as a some kind of ardent yet reticent passion. At the time I was so focused on my pending investigation I failed to recognize the most basic of clues.
I spend the next week combing through dusty reals of film in search of Marie, though always my mind was on Hazel. The work proved to be far less monotonous than one would anticipate. There are an untold number of uncatalogued films lying in half empty storehouses and private homes, and The Curator’s name held a good deal of weight with almost all who heard it. By necessity I became a competent projectionist and gradually contented myself to watch hours of unaccompanied film in search of a woman who looked like my waiting love. In the second storehouse of the second week, I found her.
She was in The Wood Nymph, a film written specifically for Doro by Griffith himself in 1915. The picture was enigmatic to say the least. I expected a tale about a dryad seducing a woodsman, or perhaps an adaptation of Rydberg’s apparently under appreciated poem. I won’t go into the details of the story here but will say only that the narrative was unforeseen.
Though I was merely an intermediary spending someone else’s money, I spent a considerable amount of time negotiating but ended up paying a premium price regardless. No matter, after contacting The Curator he was ecstatic and insisted I return at once so that he may examine his latest acquisition.
I followed those instructions and returned directly to the home fenced with iron cages. I shuddered this time as I passed beneath those black gates. Crows had taken up residence in those spired cages so elegantly integrated into the archway. They tracked me with their dark, unblinking eyes and watched my every step with a deliberate intelligence absent in most human beings. On that day the house was foreboding.
The Curator himself answered the door while his man waited in the wings of the foyer doing his best to imitate the crows at the gates. I followed The Curator through a curiously narrow corridor and into a study brilliantly lit by the afternoon sun through the floor to ceiling bay windows. As The Curator set to work examining the film I was served perhaps the finest drought of cognac I have ever imbibed. I savored the drink while he poured over every frame with an elaborate jeweler’s loupe. Though he claimed to be satisfied I was certain that he was intent on finding some specific detail that never fully materialized that day. Far from discouraged though, he then helped himself to glass of the magnificent draught(Hors d’age he called it) and pulled a ledger from his spindle-legged desk.
He wrote me a check for the agreed upon amount and though it was agreed upon I still found the amount staggering. He read my expression well and directed me to set out again as soon as was convenient. He was a little surprised when I elected to stay the weekend in order to see my beloved but wished us both well as he walked me to the door.
I rushed immediately to the office of Hazel Bishop expecting to find her sitting behind the desk amidst a pile of papers needing graded or lectures needing preparation. Instead I found the office empty, stripped of all accoutrement. My despair was instantaneous and I obtusely equated my heart and soul to that empty office in a self-consciously maudlin, but nevertheless justified, metaphor that I still ponder almost daily.
Before leaving I noticed a symbol of some kind freshly scratched into the north-east corner of the weathered desk. There, only a few centimeters in diameter, was a near perfect concentric spiral.
My hand went unconsciously to my breast where I kept the spiral she gifted me those two weeks earlier wrapped in my only silk handkerchief and tucked into the watch-pocket over my heart. I unwrapped it carefully and slid the box open. Perhaps it was the shock of the moment, or maybe my recollection of the original gift was clouded by my previously articulated euphoria, but the spiral in my possession was perfect, untarnished copper that shined in my open palm despite the ill lit room.
Of course I tried her home and acquaintances but my initial instinct proved justified. She was gone. After spending that miserable weekend attempting to plot out a decisive, nobel and heroic quest to retrieve that which was most precious to me, I decided that there was no real course left to me except to return to my work for The Curator. My existence became a penance of sorts as I moved from town to town, even crossing oceans on occasions, to spend my waking hours scouring collections of old tins and watching scratched films in dusty basements hoping to catch even a glimpse of my lost love’s flicking likeness.
An early story from the enigmatic Cordova, who's identity has remained a mystery for over 70 years. Previously thought lost, The Currator is likely one of the author's early mature works as it contains many of the themes present throughout his(hers?) body of work, though the nested narratives and labyrinthine structure, which would come to define the author's major works, are only in their nascent stages here.