Winter ice and slippers. Instability on the black driveway. Well, there’s a reason they call them slippers. Slippery bed slippers. She should be slipping into bed. Or, determined as she was, she should have put on the boots. Even with having to sit down and bend and the shortness of breath and the undignified tugging at slippery boot tops in the freezing hallway. Why did coldness make indignity worse? Well, it did. It does.Oh, she’d thought, she’d just run out for a second and get… what was it? She’d forgotten and who cares now…from the car. It would just take a second. She’d gotten away with worse. Often
It says itself rapidly, she’s careening fast as a comet falling earthward through the dark night sky. She’s falling, whoopsie daisy: even now she can see the humor of it as her legs slip from under her. She begins to laugh as the hard bright ice looms up fast.
Waves of burning yellow-green light sear. Seas of cold blackness break in one giant shot of pain over all the history in her old head. Words all gone. Except for a whispered:
Good By, Sweetie.
Oh my love, she thinks.
Here in the depth of the sea, ever rolling slightly, touched and pressed by currents, warmer, cooler, moving. And the sounds, the resonant hollow songs drifting within currents, rising and falling on thermal shifts. Songs of vast migrations hidden in the dark.
A little girl saw the great blue whale in the Museum of Natural History. She wore a gray-blue tweed coat with a blue velvet collar. On wires it was floating in the air.
Now the great blue whale is swimming in the ocean darkness. Water touching every inch of gray-blue skin, conveying warmth and cold and song and in the forebrain the subtler impulses of magnetic poles. Rippling down, down through the sea, echoes of distant stars or pathways of moonlight or laughing expanse of bright and warming sun.
It’s all evolving around her: new kinds of living sea.
Sensation and skin inseparable. Inner/outer unmediated. This great singing warmblood is the ocean’s mind. Its heart is audible far off as the shimmery krill filters in the baleen with tons of water, the great whale moving easily, pouring through. Moving unseen deep below the surface. Effortlessly nourished. Vast and silent. Barely moving, deep at ease – mind.
Moving gently within its own realm. Inseparable in darkness
The great singer, the great knower, knowing something one does not wish to end, even as one begins to sense perhaps it is a dream. An inner warmth pervasive. A leisurely stretch of fin. A movement that does not feel like movement continuing in darkness.
But now she moves, and there is pain: pain and cold cold skin. She tries to let go of the particulars, to sift down into the easy depths. Almost.
Time has passed. A lot of time. How does she know? She knows.
Seen across the glassy curve,
The green arched back of the ingoing wave,
The brittle shore is so unimaginative,
So stolid and sad,
Its denizens so angular and conscious.
She is resistant but knows. If she stays in the darkness, she will remain in darkness.
Living in a world she can share will soon not be an option.
She sighs. Stretches. Shooting stars of pain. Don’t open your eyes.
She moves. It hurts.
Moving, she knows. She is trapped in the old body. Lifting her head slightly, she wants to vomit. She doe not want to open her eyes. Knows she must.
Open your eyes, you sleepy head. Time for school. She sighs, She can smell her own sour breath lingering on the ice. Bad gums.
Wait. Just for a moment more, don’t move. Stay.
She who for a glance of the earth-bound life, so yearned that she sloughed off her silvery skin, shimmering muscular body, her iridescent fins, her ability to fly and twist and dart and hover in the moving tides beneath the sea. To leap above the sea. To spin and glide. To hover in the dark water and drift on eddies and currents. To give that up for feet and gawky and bifurcated pale dry legs and pain and pain of walking on those bony feet.
And surrendered her dark red tongue that trilled in flowing watersounds moving subtly through the sea to be heard where all of skin is a tympanum. Or emitted fluid melismatic streams or laughs that tickled. Tongue gone, she could no more make shapes within the arid sea of air. Mute
And breathing too. That harsh, thin and abrasive air. The nourishing fluids of the salten sea left behind. No going back.
The bargain she made, terrifying, terrifying as she said yes she would do it. She trembled. She saw the arid void ahead and she was rushing headlong into an error without love, or solace. She remained faithful. She clung to that single glimpse, that single moment of desire that one flash of one kind of love embodied in a man who walked along the shore barefoot, muscular runner’s legs, musing yet confident, oblivious to her presence not ten feet away in the waves.
But she did it, no matter what. A magic spell became an invisible knife. It drove deep onto her. It cut beneath the silver scales, her legs, parting them. It carved feet and toes from waving frond-like fins. She was cut apart and re-shaped. Mute. She could no longer express the screams that writhed within her.
Through silent waves of excruciating pain, she walked awkwardly on land.
Now lying on the ground, the old woman groans. Even if it means entering further in a world of death, she rolls slightly to her side and presses against the ice. Moving, she feels her body. Its age pulls on her like gravity.
A wrenching sob as when she first heard the story of the mermaid.
There is a serious question she must ask. Somehow, she’s reached the foot of the porch stairs. Her feet frozen, her nightgown soggy at the knees sticks to her legs. She looks up, six steps.
Should she crawl up, ass in the air? Hard on knees and frozen hands? Private parts exposed to freezing breezes? Or should she turn and sit, then boost herself up to the next. Sit, boost, sit, boost. More stable. OK. Worth a try. Up. Ouch.
Push. Legs and arms together. It hurts. Can’t quite make it. Arms not so good. Push anyhow. Try again. Oooof. The wood scrapes her bottom, tugs at her nightie. Yes. One step done. Now. Again.
Half way up, sobs shake her. She just can’t do it anymore. She begins to cry. Hopeless. She looks up at the hard blue glitter of the stars. Orion, The Hunter. As a child, she asked if Orion was an Irishman. Her father laughed. Long ago. Well, she’s married to an Irishman now so maybe the constellation will bring her luck. She can’t bear the thought of her hostess finding her here, frozen rigid like some mummy. Push on. Exhausted though she is.
How she keeps at this crab walk, she doesn’t know. Maybe she passes out from time to time or snoozes for a bit between steps. The cold is in her bones. She knows she’s reached the top because when she leans back there’s nothing there. Tips over backwards. Bangs the back of her head: CLUNK. Not hard, but it hurts and makes the side of her head hurt again, And it’s loud. She’s frozen and it’s like her skin and flesh are rigid. She doesn’t want to wake her hostess. Really. She’s on her back.
Go with the flow, she says. Rolls onto her side. Not quite. Rolls back and forth again, a turtle-like struggle. Then she’s on hands and knees. Door, not too far away. Crawls, then onto scraped knees raising up to turn the handle.
Pray God that it didn’t lock itself. She feels a flare of anger. She doesn’t believe in him but when she’s desperate, she asks his help. “There are no atheist in foxholes,” say the smug televangelists. She’s sorry to give them or their cruel erratic deity the satisfaction. Job, she thinks, the most immoral story ever. Turns the handle, door swings suddenly in. She tumbles into the warmth of the dark house.
She crawls and pushes the door closed, then still on her knees, pushes herself up the wall. Reaches towards the switch, and
Blinded, dizzy the wall holds her up. Dazzled, she looks across an expanse of gleaming white marble to the array of designer pots and pans displayed on the smooth glass stove top. So pretentious. Oh, yes, her hostess, so very kind, really, but style? No. But the brass and copper rounded tops shine like the domes of Saint Mark’s. And the horses? Where are they? Off galloping in the dark.
Something inside her eyes rises like fog, mist. Beyond this, born on the solid sheen of pots and pans, a faint and magical other-worldly cathedral with gilded domes and shining orbs arises from the mist, rises from the sea. Pink marble walls in their variegated splendor, pointed arches, strange like nothing else. Glamour and the slight smell of rotting fish. A short skinny priest in black and a wide brimmed hat opens the great door. It is like an oven inside. The gilded tiles glow like ember. A young girl emerges, genuflects, turns to leave. She bumps into the priest. His hand touches her breast. The girl glares. Someone giggles. Somewhere further off, the old woman hears a sigh, a Bridge of Sighs, she sighs.
And behind her, she feels the great open square, a huge public reception room whose ceiling is the sky: Tiepolo clouds, eternally stylish, crisp and repetitive symmetrical marble facades, gilded cafes. Everyone’s invited. When she’d been there, she was so small. Carnival. A dream filled with masked characters. St. Mark’s square. Commedia del Arte. How does it go?
Olivia at her widow plays a love scene with Flavio standing in the street below. Flaminia, at her window around the corner argues with Orazio, as their love affair ends. An old man cackles lecherously.
The old woman is getting dizzy again. She’s cold and wet. Tea would be just the thing. Yes. Turns on the electricity below the teakettle that now looks exactly like St. Mark’s. Beautiful. So tired she is. She stands on the little carpet in front of the stove. Shivers in her wet nightie Exhausted. Sleeps standing up. Dreams of clouds.
Dreams of fluffy tufty steam clouds billowing up and up in puffy rounded pillows, then
A white, late morning seaside sky void. Pleasant. Warm on the front.
The steamship is in the pale green bay about to dock. The voyage is over.
Water lapping at the pier.
Ooooh and a horrible burning chemical smell.
Vile and man made
An oil refinery puking on the shore, puking out smoke, a counter-billowing
to those white tufty ones. These are stinky streams of smoke polluting the air with some awful inhuman acrid…SHIT …OH SHIT … OH NO
She wakes completely, standing there. The kettle has burned through. The splendid gold-domed kettle. The ex Saint Marks. Maybe she forgot to put in the water. She turns off the heat beneath the smooth black glass. And remembers…
Remembers her hostess is (was now) very proud of this teapot. Made a point of showing it to her. “It’s in the design collection at MOMA” Looks down modestly”Oh it’s ok to use it. That’s what it’s for.” Said, brightly, indulgently. Then told her the name of the designer… and the cost…. terrible. That’s what it’s for…
Oh, shit shitshit. Now her hostess will really have to be kind. Unbearably kind. More blessed to give then to receive? Not in this case. Receiving all that benevolent forgiveness? A tidy trip to hell.
Or maybe this will be the straw. Her charming hostess will reveal some Godzilla creature that’s lured forever deep beneath the seas waiting to be born and then Pow! stomping on cities, evicting self. Ayeeee. How to know? What is to be done?
Well, amends must be made and pronto. Where’s her purse?
For once the world is in a cooperative mood and leaves it for her on the table by the door.
Is it really going to help? She rummages. YES, her wallet is there. And credit cards.
She tiptoes to the family room. No family, that’s why they can put her up now. All gone.
She turns on the light. The beige leather overstuffed sofa invites her like a fat lady to sit in her lap. Goody.
But she remember the remote. Proud of herself. Clicks the thing. A blare of sound. Oooops. She turns it down fast. Proud of having even this iota of technological skill. Made it work. Her head aches like crazy, but she can still manage. HAH There it is. Out of the white fluorescent glare. A world is shaping up. Glittering. She’s made it. It’s going to work.
A parade of shiny objects displayed in even bright white light, robbing them of any life if ever they had it. But showing them bristling with brittle available, aggressively ready to enter your home. While the voices of a sporty enthusiastic young man. Well, they all seem young now, don’t they? And an accommodating and helpfully interested women describe said object in the most flattering way. How beautiful. How useful. How impressive. Your friends will… well, yes they will won’t they.
Yes. Thank God. The Home Shopping Channel. And thank god they’re selling house wares, not jewelry or sewing machines or automotive stuff.
A silver plated silver tea service, shining cheap and like chrome- Antique federal design, they say pops up, lingers, numbers whirl, tea service gone, supplanted by, what….. crystal candy dish?
Well who cares? For the moment it’s enough just to be here in this bazaar made of crystal white light and metallic sound. Whew.
Now amends can be made even before the loss is discovered. A new kettle.
And is the phone still where it was last night on the table at the end of the couch. YES.
The world is still showing it’s kindly face. WHEEEEEE. Her ship’s come in. And it’s like sailors are rolling crates and crates of goodies down the gangplank past her wondering eyes. Her eyes overcome by sleep. The parade of bright objects brought from afar for her delectation. Choices. But now choiceless: sleep. She’s slipped and drifts into the world beneath St. Paul’s whispering dome. Wandering on rain slick black pavement of London streets, she’s sure something marvelous may happen amid this salty hint of sadness. She can almost smell the wet wool.
The TV chatters on, there is a flickering outside her eyeballs. The pulse of objects following on and on brings a loneliness, a feeling of standing outside the store window in the rain and looking in where all is bright and clean and clear.. Sadness And the thread of tinny chatter. OH, as she begins to slide into kindly misty darkness, but feels the sorrow and loneliness of living amid the panoply of things. Their inhuman definiteness. They are what they are. She looks at them, but they do not look back. There is no mutual regard. This tension can be resolved: “Buy me. I’ll be yours. No questions asked.”
Then, a tender miracle, an older mellow voice has drifted up from the fog. It’s familiar, and she not afraid. He is walking companionably beside her, speaking. A dapper dandy. Cologne and not any cheap kind. Special scent like white irises on an overcast afternoon. A German-Oxford accent, old world culture here, its like not to return. He’s telling her of the bright lights, the old kind, neon and incandescent. They’re walking towards the Strand. Cold and mist make the lights so promising. He is narrating it all.
He’s narrating the world out there of things. A world of things. Things that are waiting, things that can change, things that can change you, your life. We move through the streets. The windows are bright with things. Canisters, porcelain, peau de soie, egret plumes, malaca canes, black silk hats, a platinum brooch, a Moire dressing gown, silverware.
Aha, there it is. That’s it. Fully awake, huntress ready to strike. She lurches for the phone, knocks it off the end table. She pulls herself together. Carefully grabs her credit card, remote control, slides to the floor. Streeeeetch. She’s got the phone just as they say the number to call. Fate has intervened. She manages the transaction. Gives the address. She’s done it. She’s upheld the proprieties. A replacement for the thing that burned. Her hostess will soon receive… shit!.. well, something, something nice.
Exhausted, she lays head down on arm, pulls up feet, sighs, Oh My, starts to cry and falls asleep.
In the evening, the Strand, Piccadilly. “The great elemental phenomena that have moved me deeply,” he says, “The sea, the mob, only then mountains, streams, plains, stretches of the sky. The metropolis contains the same poisons of longing as does the sea. The same mobile melancholy, dreamy, objectless melancholy full of objects.”
She feels the passage of time, the loss, the fullness of things and the loss of … what? A father, a time when London seethed, an ocean liner, a fancy tea-kettle? What on earth did she buy?
Twice in the hospital, half comic, still loving, ticklish, floppy wrinkly sex, she slung her arm back and whoopsie, lost balance, flipped herself in a slow cascade pulling the sheets along with here, and flopped with a thump down onto the floor. Twice. And twice laughter, and some pride in the telling.
The ravages of the flesh still stirred to, well if not exactly vigor, well motion, friction, heat and an expression of love that is not… abstract. Still in the flesh.
Oh flesh flesh flesh. Tender and so prone to ravages within and without. old crepe-y, flaccid, easily cut, easily bruise- big black and yellow splotches of a murderous sunset. And where did it come from
Oh and the muscles within, no longer responsive to will much less hope. A carnival of humiliations.
And she dreams of the military doctor in the urine smelling room. It smells of shit too but not quite so prominently. He has one of those elegant and cruel little moustaches. The sun glows on the dirty window. She can’t see in front. And he standing between the light and her is a dense shadow, his expression, his intentions not quite clear. No his intentions are very clear. He is going to hurt her.
Oh Oh She wonders? breasts now floppy , genitals lax and in his hands a crop, electrode, something. And she’s sure he has a little smile, perhaps, if he’s a real shit a certain feigned genteel sadness as if : Alas my, dear, it’s come to this. You… you could have prevented this you know…
But no, she could not have prevented it.
This body of flesh now hung on fragile de-calcified bones, rich in memories, subject now to breakage, to being struck and crushed, cut, torn into, twisted, bruised, hair, thin but still can be ripped out, burned, sizzled electrified. Every part of her that has felt pleasure ca now be turned into the most sharpest access of pain that will electrify her mind.
And a world of household items: knives and forks, hairbrushes, nail scissors, balloons, glass ware, frying pans, electric frying pans, screw drivers, pliers, ropes, plastic wrap, water air, earth, saw horses, anvils, charcoal grills, a trellis, an electric drill, a toy plastic submarine, condoms, a ladder, a metal side chair, a bucket of milk, a pound of butter, brandy, an iron, laundry detergent, a radio, anything –
If they appear in this room with this man at this time, the sight of them paralyzes her mind and sends it running in one direction only. The imagination leaps to how they can be applied to her body and cause her unimaginable pain.
The mind now imagines nothing but pain. Inescapable. No reprieve possible. There will be no other outcome. She may survive, but she will be maimed in body and spirit. Pain is her immediate future and the knowledge of pain. She has no control. Her body shakes.
She cannot control anything – herself. Hot stream of urine flow down her legs. She is sitting in acid, reeking shit. She trembles but refuses, absolutely refuses to sob. Tears though, they pour down her face. She is reduced to running fluids and collapsing flesh and the anticipation of terror and excruciation before which all memory of love, all recall of a seaport or a golden dome is carried off as on a vicious corrosive torrent of terror.
And, in a flash before she faints, just as somehow that mercy- and a temporary one she knows it to be- extends itself to her. Just before she falls into darkness. She knows that the world is filled with thousands of men and women and some children even who wait, just as she is waiting, for the torturer to emerge from shadow, his expression visible, the object in his hand also visible and he moves towards them.
It’s dark. The room is large and warm. She smells many familiar kinds of perfume. There’s a pleasant buzz of whispered conversations. She’s in a theater. The play is about to begin. She can feel the audience around her but cannot see them. There’s a comfortable feeling of shared anticipation.
With a whoosh the curtains part. And… the stage is dark. In the dim chiaroscuro, she can barely see the set. It’s a dungeon filled with men. Ill and exhausted, they lie, sit, lean against the walls. They wear tattered 18th century military uniforms. At either side of the stage, there is an officer in dress uniform with epaulettes, gold frogging, shiny boots, fancy tricorn hat. As one paces, the other tells stories to rouse or impress the wasted troops. Each ignores the other and acts as if the other is invisible and inaudible. They alternate, one pacing as the other declaims and tell their stories very fast.
One, Captain Bravento tells how he braved the desert on camel back, fled bandits, passed through the great wall of China, was imprisoned.
In staccato contrapuntal bombast, Captain Spavento tells his story. He is a soldier and fought for the King of Spain. He sailed for months across the oceans. He saw a mermaid. He’ll swear it.
Rescued by the jailer’s daughter, he made his way through mountain passes, was enslaved by a mandarin who later adopted him and sent him via the great Yellow river past hundreds of splendid towns and cities to Xanadu, the dazzling maroon walled capital of China.
He marched through steamy, insect ridden jungles, was attacked by savage indians and wounded twice by their arrows.
There he was honored by the Emperor, Kublai Khan. He became a trusted advisor. He had a tile- roofed palace, silk robes, hundreds of blue and white porcelain bowls, silver spoons, gold trays and lacquer boxes.. He had six wives and twenty slaves.
Above the audience and all around them: visions of silk and winding gardens dance in the air with dancing girls, jade ewers, pottery horses, jeweled bracelets, paintings of misty mountains, cinnamon. Thousands of things- everything human ingenuity can imagine and make.
Even so, eventually he yearned for home. He packed up all his treasures, disguised himself as a merchant, hid gems in his robes and silkworms in his rice. But on arriving back in Venice, all his goods were seized to satisfy creditors he had never heard of.
He killed hundreds and hundreds of the savages, invaded their stone cities, saw their altars sticky with the black blood of human sacrifice, received his portion of gold. With gold whose hot reflected luster burns in the eye, with a room full of gold capable of transforming itself into the object of any desire, he returned home to Venice.
The audience is thrilled. They can smell the gold-lust and sweat with the impenitent greed. It’s a terrifying glee that rises from the blood-hot yellow refulgence of bars of gold, as all scruples are crushed and all barriers conquered.
They swore he’d taken their money. So enraged was he at these liars that he struck one with his sword and killed him. He is puzzled that he has been accused not of murder but of swindling.
Buying what he wanted, buying friendship and admiration, he lived like a lord. He reveled in the tasseled beds of courtesans. His money ran out. He borrowed and gambled ’til no one knew him anymore. He is enraged. He’s been arrested for murder. That’s a crime he never committed.
As they tell their stories with ever more extravagant gestures, the prisoners giggle, groan, sigh. The two captains move slowly towards each other at the center of the stage. A door opens and a shaft of light illuminates their faces. They are identical twins. The audience gasps with amazement.
The Captains turn and stare directly at her. She is looking up at them eye to eye.
She rolls over and awakes.
Oh god, she’s peed and shit in her nightgown.
Help me. Help me.
She phones him. She knows he can’t help. He’s half asleep, He’s a wreck and can’t much move, doesn’t mind, even in the night being waked up. It’s all a dream he sometimes says. A nightmare really. And he laughs. What else is there to do but laugh. He can’t help at all. Not at all, and they both know it.
“The wicked witch,” he sings out to her. “The wicked witch has got me now.” She loves him no less even now nobly laughing in his prison of himself. Himself and age. Time and flesh plus unstable bones and crinkly nerves.
“Oh yes,” he carols, “she’s got me and she’ll keep me. And Ridiculous it may be but she’ll work her way with me in this absurdity ’til I’m gone gone gone.” He’s somehow managed to break his leg and he’s stoned. His mind is a carnival of theater from middle ages and on. “I love you,” he says uncharacteristically. “The Wicked Witch of the West has got me now. And I love you forever. I’m stuck. I’m doomed. I’m fucked out of luck. But it’s you I love and always and no other.” She cries because she knows it’s true and he almost never says it. “Come, get into bed with me. Come Come. Come.” He chants. His voices emerging from the phone like it was rattling down a long sewer pipe. Growing fainter?
“Oh. Oh. Oh.” She cries. “I can’t come. I can’t see you. I can’t. My blood pressure’s gone crazy. The Doctors say that when I see you, off it goes. Off the charts.”
“Oh, my love. The wicked witch has got me and I can’t escape.
“Please…” She begins to cry.
“Mercy me. Oh no. Don’t cry. Come into my arms. Do come. It’s now.
Will we live together? Let’s try. We can manage a little longer. Don’t you think?” They both are crying.
He knows, she thinks. He knows. The witch that’s caught him her net and holding him in a world he’d rather leave, that witch that bitch, that wicked witch of the west, which old witch? The wicked witch: that one holding him here is me.
He’ll never admit it, she knows. They can torture him. They are torturing him. He’ll never say.
Well, if he won’t, I won’t. There’s nothing to say. Who can explain it, anyhow?
So amid the cold wet urine, the smell of shit, she rolls over, back to sleep. Yes, her hostess will find her thus on the soiled carpet.. Let her deal with it. The filth, the embarrassment, the everything. It’s her problem now. Someone else’s She sighs happily.
In sleep, she laughs.
She laughs sliding down a greasy hill, shiny in the sun. It’s history, she says to herself. Falling into the all-encompassing chaos of the world, like sliding into a ruined city, a melted banana split, laughing or sobbing too as the chaos absorbs her. She’s history.
Douglas Penick wrote texts for two operas with Peter Lieberson (in Munich and Santa Fe) and three book-length episodes from the Gesar Epic. Publerati has brought out his new novel about the 3rd Ming Emperor, Journey of the North Star.