Heir to the Glimmering World (7 page)

BOOK: Heir to the Glimmering World
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"—they don't go to school now, it's summer—"

"
Wo sind sie dann?
"

"—gone down to the water. It's not far, it's only a little way. Come out and have a look."

"
—müde. Ich bin zu müde—
"

"—try, you can, papa wants you to."

"
Vielleicht morgen, ja? Wo ist der Vater?
"

"You know where"—exasperated. "In the city. At the Library."

"
—so heiss, ich bin so müde, ich muss ruhen,
" and it would end, Anneliese emerging with bright ears and flat angry mouth, her braid undone, as if someone had clawed at it.

"Go in there and get her
out,
" she ordered.

"If you can't, how can I?" I retorted. It was the first time I had ever dared to contradict Anneliese.

But one morning I was able to persuade Mrs. Mitwisser to put on her shoes. No one else was in the house—the boys and Waltraut at the beach, their father in the city, Anneliese gone to the greengrocer's.

From her bed Mrs. Mitwisser resumed her mournful singing: "
Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot.
.
.
"

I said, "Is it a lullaby?"

She did not reply; the singing went on. "
Röslein auf der Heide .
.
.
"

"Do you ever sing it to Waltraut?"—though I knew that lately Waltraut would not come near her.

She was all at once fiercely alert. "
Natürlich,
the child must not make a noise. When we go with the chauffeur in the auto. We go in the streets around and around. Gert and Heinz and Willi, my husband gives to them
Spielkarten
—" She released a sly brown look and reached under her pillow. Out came the pack of cards. "Will you like a little to play?"

I despised cards; I remembered my father's gambling.

"I don't know how," I said.

"I teach you." A marvel: Mrs. Mitwisser rising out of her solitude.

I pressed my chance. "We would need a table. There's one in the yard behind the house—Anneliese put it out there for Waltraut. To draw on with her crayons."

Mrs. Mitwisser was indifferent to Waltraut and her crayons.

"Your shoes," I urged.

"No, no. No shoes!"

"Frau Mitwisser, please. You can't walk out barefoot."

"I put on my shoes, they become no good. They become holes, no? And I have not any more shoes, only these."

"When they wear out you can buy a new pair."

But now there was danger: fury assaulted her nostrils; they panted wide as a mare's. "We have no money, the money is not our money, like beggars we take! I do not agree to be a beggar for money!"

It struck me that it was only the family madwoman who would mention money.

Thrust over the side of her bed, her white legs trembled; she was relieved, spent; her eyes were grimly sane. She let me push her feet, swollen from disuse, into her shoes. When Anneliese came back, Mrs. Mitwisser was sitting under the single tree in the tiny back yard, instructing me in the rules of patience. To Anneliese she said, "What a pity the Fräulein cannot when she hears him recognize Goethe."

That night I asked about the chauffeured car.

"Papa hired it. It had smoked-glass windows, no one could see inside. Only important people would ride in an auto like that, big and black, and the driver had a black cap with a shiny beak, like a policeman." And so for a week they were—precariously—safe. All over Berlin, Anneliese said, there were impromptu raids; people were being arrested right out of their own apartments, or the apartments of relatives or friends, wherever they tried to hide. You could be picked up at any hour, you never knew when or where, and there were still seven days before the ship to Sweden, they had their papers all ready, but where could they go in the meantime? Not home, not anywhere. "Papa gave this man, his name was Fritz, he owned the limousine, papa gave him the key to our apartment and told him he could take away anything he wanted, anything at all, if he would drive us around the city for a few days. Waltraut was so little then, she cried all the time, and mama had to sing to her, and the boys played cards, and we went up and down the streets day after day, and no one stopped us because the auto looked so important and official and dark. Fritz brought us food to eat in the auto, and when we needed to use the toilet we would hold our heads up and walk into any fine hotel. It made us nervous to do that, even though we were wearing our best clothes on purpose, and Fritz would get angry when Waltraut's diapers smelled bad, so we were afraid of him."

Anneliese spread her clean fingers into the shape of a fan and stared into the empty spaces between them. "He didn't trust papa about the key. Once he parked right in front of our own building and locked us all in the auto and went into the elevator and upstairs to make sure that it was really the key to our apartment. And when he came back down he told us that just next door he'd heard terrible screams, and when he looked in he saw some men beating an old woman and dragging her across the floor. Mama said 'Frau Blumenthal!' and papa said to keep quiet, and then Fritz said, 'Your place has paintings on the walls, what right do you people have to live like that?'"

She doubled up the fingers of her right hand into a fist.

"So we kept on driving round and round Berlin, until the last day before the ship to Sweden was due in Hamburg—it took six hours, that part, getting to Hamburg, and halfway there, when it was all country villages and little towns, Fritz stopped the auto and said he wouldn't take us any farther unless mama gave him her wedding ring, and he made the boys and me turn out our pockets to see if we were hiding anything, and he tore off Waltraut's diaper. Mama was carrying her mother's picture in her bag, an old photo in a silver frame, and Fritz grabbed it, but mama lied and said the frame was only plate, so he threw it down. At the pier in Hamburg he asked papa for some more marks, and then he told us to get out finally, and that was that. Whether there was anything left in our apartment when he got back there with papa's key we never knew.—Waltraut will want some water, won't she, before she falls asleep, so take care of it now, please. I'm going up to papa's study to tell him how much better mama was today."

And after that Anneliese never again disclosed any part of her family's travail.

9

S
OME PEOPLE THINK
the Bear Boy is the most famous boy in the world—famous the way, in those early years of movie cartoons, Mickey Mouse was famous, or, to choose a more elevated example, the metaphysical Alice. These comparisons do not exaggerate. I suppose that nowadays there would be replicas of the Bear Boy in every imaginable manifestation: stuffed dolls, of course, and toys that move on their own, and songs and animated films, and all the rest of the detritus meant to attract the modern child. The Bear Boy was not a modern child. He did not look like a modern child; he did not speak like a modern child. He spoke, in fact, mainly in verse, sometimes rhymed, sometimes bounced into a clever beat of his own. He was called the Bear Boy not because he lived among bears, as Mowgli lived among wolves, and not because he was whimsically accompanied by a battered plush bear, like Christopher Robin. The Bear Boy may have
resembled
a small bear, as many old-fashioned children do: his ears were round and his eyes were black buttons with artistic wedges of light in their corners, and his too-long-on-purpose bangs suggested fuzzy velvet when it is rubbed into a furious furriness.

That, at any rate, was his author's conception of him; and his author was also his illustrator. His author's name was James Philip A'Bair: hence the 'Bair Boy, popularly transmuted into the Bear Boy, and ultimately surrendered to by the author himself. I was interested in that apostrophe; I was interested in everything the Bear Boy might reveal. It was he who lay among my father's miscellaneous belongings in the box shipped from Croft Hall. It was he who had delivered to me my mother's death certificate, and the news and nature of her last illness. A few days after the arrival of my father's things—and soon after Bertram had disposed of those London-made shoes—I ran down the street to the brown facade of the Carnegie library, to learn what I could about the Bear Boy.

It was true that I was already acquainted with many of the Bear Boy's characteristics—who was not? To be oblivious of him would have been as likely as never having heard of Peter Rabbit, and the Bear Boy and Peter Rabbit had the same—what to call it?—constituency. Little children delighted in the Bear Boy—all, it seemed, but me. My father had never read aloud to me; I could not imagine such a tradition, a father reading to a child. When I finally came to books on my own—and I came to them with a driven hunger—I was already too old for the Bear Boy. I had missed the moment, I had passed him by. He belonged to the very young.

The apostrophe, I discovered, was an elision: the name had once been apBair, and before that possibly apBlair, somehow corrupted from its Welsh origin—an oddly evolved country name on the style, for instance, of Prichard, condensed from apRichard. James Philip A'Bair, according to my source (a thick and dusty authors' compendium), was born near Cardiff in 1843, emigrated to Boston at the age of nineteen, and was married, late, to Margaret Dilworth, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1887; their only child, James Philip Jr., was born in 1895. How far away these dates seemed! The author of the Bear Boy was long dead; he had sent into the ether three plays, some negligible verse ornamented with a border of birds and blossoms from the poet's own inkpot, and a pair of not very noteworthy novels, all the while supported in these mostly unremunerative strivings by Margaret A'Bair, who designed ladies' hats and eventually ran her own millinery shop.

It was one of those hats, in a period when women affected great swooping brims adorned by ribbons and feathers, that gave birth to the Bear Boy. Jimmy A'Bair, then age two and a half, plucked his mother's fabrication from the blank-faced dummy-head on which it was displayed for sale, and moved into it. He moved into it literally, like a hermit who has found an agreeable cave. The hat was certainly very broad, and very deep, and very green, and he could curl his entire body into its cavity, overhung, as by fronds in a forest, by waving green feathers. He slept inside it and he ate inside it; he reached up to play with its dangling bows, but he would not come out of it. If he drew together the two ends of its wide encircling brim, he effectively shut his door on any view of the outside scene. At first Margaret A'Bair was amused, and after some days vaguely worried; but James Philip A'Bair, who was already past fifty and had sparse affinity for small boys, was electrified. He took up his neglected watercolors and painted the boy who wanted to live in a hat; a strange and simple tale, made up of strange and simple syllables, tumbled out of him, he hardly knew how, but even as they jetted from his pen he felt them to be enchanting and unprecedented, like his wife's twisted-cloth flowers, the seductive forms of which existed nowhere in nature. From then on, greedily watchful, he kept his eye on the child, though in rather a distant way; he had no sympathetic insight into Jimmy, who nevertheless supplied all the bizarre tricks and curious marvels that the author of the Bear Boy could wish for. He almost believed that the child was his conscious collaborator.

The Boy Who Lived in a Hat
was the first of the celebrated series (and included an actual bear, who was served ginger ale on a visit to the boy in the hat). This was followed by
The Boy Whose Thumb Was a Puppet
and
Six Times Two Is Thirteen Midnights,
the acclaimed volume of illustrated rhymes, in which the Bear Boy counts up all the blue-black spaces between the galaxies. Bear Boy book succeeded Bear Boy book—there were fifteen of them, translated into every European language. Riches quickly mounted. Margaret A'Bair gave up her hat shop, and devoted her skills to tailoring fanciful blouses for her son to wear and her husband to paint. By the time Jimmy was six years old, he had the most recognizable tiny chin and round ears and furry hair and scalloped collar of any child on earth. His face and dress and robust little legs—especially their rosy knees—had turned into legend; the Bear Boy was indistinguishable from folklore. And the author was eclipsed by the boy.

All this was recounted in a reference work in the Carnegie library two blocks from Bertram's flat—the flat he would soon give up for Ninel's sake. I was particularly drawn to those far-off dates of marriage and birth. The story of the hat-cave had disclosed my mother's true fate. Might the Bear Boy have been one of her childhood treasures, precious to her and therefore precious to my father? Cynical about everything else, he was never cynical about his Jenny.

"The timing doesn't work," Bertram pointed out. "Your mother must have been ten or twelve when the series got started. At that age she wouldn't care for all that Jellydrop stuff."

It was the Bear Boy's habit to call everyone, human or animal—even his own thumb—Jellydrop. It was a magical spell.

"If it had nothing to do with Jenny," I said, "my father wouldn't have saved a thing like that. A picture book! It makes no sense. And look how long he's had it—the cover's coming apart."

"Maybe your mother bought it with you in mind. And was too sick, so it got put away."

I was skeptical: would my father have preserved something meant for me? His sentiments extended no further than his protracted mourning for his wife.

"Or it could be," Bertram said (I felt his impatience), "that your father kept the Bear Boy for himself. Because ... well, maybe because he just liked that sort of stuff. Some people do. Look, kid, I'm late. Just put the thing away and don't eat yourself up over it, what d'you say?"

He was kindly but restless. Ninel was waiting for him on a certain street corner with a placard on a tall stick; she was leading yet another march in favor of the downtrodden. But his words—they were, I saw, unserious, hasty, tossed out—opened a light before me. However my father had got hold of the Bear Boy, it was all at once possible that he had, on his own account, cherished the image of a child who lived in a hat. And why not? My mother was dead; being mortal flesh, he had to cherish someone. Since it wasn't going to be me, why not the make-believe Bear Boy? I could not discover—how would I ever know?—how a children's story came to rest among my father's few last things. He had been a reckless imaginer, a man of caprice, and his attachment to a chimerical boy was an explanation I was, for all my mistrust of him, willing to accept.

BOOK: Heir to the Glimmering World
9.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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