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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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The bird sailed out the door. The bird sailed out the window. They ate the bird for dinner.

She helped her mother with the stone soup. She gathered all the stones she could find. She was not under any circumstances to cross into the rectory orchard. She was not under any circumstances to speak to Dudam or Benoit, to leave the shadows of their own house. She was to do her job and return quick as a rabbit. Did she understand?

She found the stones beneath the moss, embedded in the moss: tiny perfect orange and white and pink pebbles, perfectly delicious. She picked the pebbles from the moss like crumbs from a plate. She smelled the rotting fruit from the rectory orchard and her mouth watered. She licked her fingers and picked the pebbles until she had a skirtful. The pebbles were from the Stone Age, her mother told her. From the glaciers that defined the mountains, lakes, and valleys of the earth. Did she remember the Stone Age? her mother said. We are living in the Stone Age, her mother said. We must figure things out.

Her sisters cried because the boys they were to marry had run away. The boys had put on disguises and sewn treasures into the bottoms of their hard-soled shoes. Beyond looked better now to the sisters but now was too late.

Besides, they did not own hard-soled shoes, only work boots split at the toe and heel.

Be quiet, their mother said, or I will make shoe soup.

Their mother wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

I like stone soup best, one of her sisters said.

Better than chicken with dumplings, her other sister said.

Better than leeks and Brussels sprouts, her mother said.

They all three laughed and she did not understand what was so funny: she sat with a lap full of pebbles picking out the bad ones as if she were cleaning beans.

Her brother, Ernest, read in the corner. She liked a quiet place to read. She liked school. They had closed the school and sent her mother home with all her Latin books and history books.

The Egyptians were the ones, her mother said. They really figured things out.

Her mother piled up the good pebbles into a pyramid and then she poked a hole in the pyramid and the pebbles fell again, scattering.

The neighbors took her mother’s soup pot. They took the ancient mirror and the umbrella stand. They took her father’s tools and led his two horses from the barn steaming cold. She watched them from her hiding place in the rectory orchard. The neighbors did not see her though they slunk about as if watched by something: they shuttled in and out like water rats, she thought. If that one dropped the magic soup pot she could make rat soup.

Rat soup would be delicious, she thought.

She would figure things out.

When the blue-dark went black she snuck back in to find what they had left but they had left nothing and so she went to the woods where her father had once told her she would find good fairies if she needed protection.

He said the word
protection
and she had no idea.

The woods were dark and cold like the fairy tales her father sometimes read to her at night. She liked history better. The Ice Age. She had a book called
The Dawn of Mankind
with illustrations drawn in pen and ink—ice forming, ice melting, giant creatures receding and emerging. Not so far from here, her mother said, our ancestors painted pictures of animals that no longer even exist. They did not paint them to remember them but to imagine them into being. If they painted them, they believed, the animals would show up and then they could kill and eat them.

In the dark woods she sat against the spruce where before she had watched the orange-apricot light so sharp she had to close her eyes. The dark there behind her eyes was as dark as a cave and as cold because her mother had said to see the pictures painted in the cave you must wear your mittens and your coats, all of them, and wrap your neck in scarves. It is very cold in the caves where our ancestors painted their pictures and they must have been shivering when they imagined the animals that would save them. She shivered and imagined, painting pictures of the good fairies with her hand that did not hold the bad pebbles. The fairies had shiny wings and golden hair; they wore flower-blossom clothing—trumpet vine caps and skirts of white rose petals and pink morning glories. They smelled sweet. On the wet, cold cave wall the fairies glowed and from time to time one of them flapped off the cave wall and darted around the dark cave until she held out her hand, quietly, and the fairy hopped on, and she said, shh, shh.

She opened her eyes to see a man with a thick beard and hat who said, shh, shh, and with him a woman who held out a horse blanket. She could smell the horse but she could not see in the dark. She did not know whether she was in the woods or in her mind’s eyes imagining but still she went because she was cold and it was dark and she felt very much alone.

XV

S
id Morris stands to clear and wash the dishes, the soapy water turned blue from the paint still on his hands. He should leave after this; he should find his way home. He had been coming to express his condolences, Simone’s death having reached the School of Inspired Arts late by way of Duane Reade, who had heard because pharmacists hear things, he said, his pale eyebrows nearly disappeared, the mustache, thicker, dyed and waxed; it stood out against his face, which stood out against his lab coat.

Duane Reade leaned in. The stories I could tell, he said. Addictions, he said. Murder. Creepy stuff, he said, leaning back and staring Sid Morris full in the face.

Another time, Sid Morris said. Cold and they were on the busy corner of Twenty-Fifth and Eighth.

Sid Morris had assumed Simone temporarily felled by a setback of one sort or another, not death. They came and went, these old women; their bones brittle, requiring stitching, physical therapy; they had surgeries to excise tumors, suspicious lesions; or they left for months to care for grandchildren, putting their own lives on hold, stepping aside so the real passengers could take their seats. He has seen it all with Veritas. Poof! Or, how had she put it? A momentary sabbatical. A year, maybe two. She needed to think. She needed to reaccess, using one of those store-bought terms you never heard below Fourteenth Street, not where he grew up, not from the mouths of his parents. His mother’s hands, he could tell you. What she hadn’t seen. And the hospice worker calling to express her condolences at his mother’s death leaving a message on a machine saying she would be happy to talk if he needed any comfort as he moved through the grief process. Grief process. Shit.

His first thought on hearing from Duane Reade of Simone’s passing: her lovely skin, so soft—a secret, she had said; and her general smells, her powders—all gone.
I

He had kissed her wrists.

“Do I repulse you?” he asked. She shivered.

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“I am a man,” he said, inexplicably.

“Me, too,” she said. “I mean, a woman,” she said.

He had kissed the tributary of veins on her wrist. Where had they been? Madison Square Park, a walk. A thawing winter day, some snowdrops already in the warm spots. Flowers in December! So odd! she had said. She loved the yellow crocus best; he, purple. Flowers!

Sid Morris had asked the Thursday class to stand for a minute of silence. The model donned her Chinese robe. The students shuffled up, Helen quietly tearful; she had grown fond of the two old Frenchwomen, the way they hurried in, late, the walk, they apologized, longer than they anticipated given the bad weather and, Simone would say, their waning sense of direction—she the talker of the two, so that Helen now understands she will not see Marie again, either; Marie too shy, or maybe something else: pensive, or maybe just not as interested, although it was to Marie that Helen had felt the stronger kinship, Marie’s imagination—the forests and odd animals, the sense Marie had been trying to paint something lost to the world, or not yet imagined; something difficult to picture, almost impossible.

The group waited, awkward, Duane Reade the most bent out of shape—he had assumed he would bear the news. But Sid Morris did not notice. He suggested they face east toward the Woolworth Building, the Empire State, the East River, and the contested Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, and then he watched the clock, a full minute—endless—before he began.

“We are here to remember our good friend and fellow artist, Simone,” he said. But that was wrong; none of them were here for that; they were here to paint, to replicate the model’s stance, to see in the way one must see to be alive. We are here, then, to be alive. To live. Ironic, Sid Morris thought, given the circumstances. This all in the span of gathering his thoughts, of attempting to picture Simone’s face in his mind’s eye though he pictured only a fur coat too heavy for a woman as old as she, too heavy for him to hold at that dinner a hundred years ago, or maybe last week—time folding in on itself at his age, weightless, fleeting.

“Devoted wife,” Sid Morris continued. “Kind mother,” he said, rushing it closed as Veritas rose up to accuse him of everything.

“Amen,” he said. “Amen,” the gathered said, the model’s amen especially loud, almost strident as she dropped her robe and resumed her position on the claw-footed divan, a droopy slouch, one leg crossed over the other, head back as if in ecstasy. As if in ecstasy, Sid Morris had earlier instructed. You know ecstasy, right, dear? he said as the model looked back bored at the dirty old man.

I
. The powders were caked in tubes or pressed into compacts from the fifties, their plastic clamshell lids and palm-size mirrors flecked with black. How many times had her mother seen her own face in these, and now only Katherine looking back, a stouter version of her mother, more her father’s build, stocky, short-waisted, but in this mirror none of that, only her face, pretty like her mother’s though not as pretty, not nearly as pretty, she thinks, dumping the tubes and the compacts, the dried-out mascaras and spent lipsticks, the beveled-glass bottles of perfume—some nearly empty, others almost full—and the one her father gave her mother every year for Christmas, her mother pretending she had no idea, squealing like a little girl—into a cardboard box she believed she would throw out but on which she later wrote with Sharpie, MOTHER.

XVI

B
ut it appears Sid Morris has no intention of leaving. They sit in the dark backyard in twin wrought-iron chairs, white-painted, rusting, their springs long sprung. Hold still, he says, balancing his cigarette in the old clamshell on the matching table and propping Marie’s cast in his lap. It had been Sid’s idea to paint her cast, to make her an original Sid Morris. She listens to him now and tries not to breathe as directed. She has taken more for the pain and the wine, too, so the pain is a muffled bell she detects in the distance: someone late for dinner. Sid Morris picks up the cigarette again, inhaling then flicking ash, the smoke dribbling from his nose, its familiar smell sharp, nostalgic in a way that surprises her.

Next door the movie star’s floodlight, fixed over the movie star’s back door, lights his forsythia and birch like museum pieces, his backyard awash in contrast, treasure and not, pools of ink its corners and on its roof, unseen, the movie star declaiming—this his late-night habit, Marie has explained to Sid Morris. You get used to it, she says. (The need for space alone: the baby, the new house, new wife.)

“Alas, sir,” they hear, and then, “Horatio,” or something. Is it Horatio? Could it possibly be, Horatio? Or maybe, Mercutio? He has moved through several tragedies and now, apparently, is to finally appear onstage. He hopes she will see him.

They stand near her front stoop. That close she feels how the movie star is buoyed by extra air. She has just returned from the fruit vendor, a plastic bag of plums looped to her wrist. People who pass turn to be sure he is who he is though they do not quite believe their eyes so they turn again, and then again.

“And those?” Sid Morris is asking.

“Privets. Abe liked topiary. He used to sculpt them: that one’s a chick.”

She had led Sid Morris to the back door—his suggestion, the backyard, he needed a smoke, fresh air—and pushed up the policeman’s bolt to the balmy night, the wet rush of traffic, the possible crickets already—too early—and Roscoe from nowhere, the beggar, in a rush back in. “Shoo,” Marie said. “Shoo,” she said.

They sat in the rusted wrought-iron chairs, his cigarette the only color in the dark: orange where he settled in, something to follow, his breath. She sat across from him. The grass wet, the seat cushions wet: dew, or mist, and on the table the old clamshell for ash puddled; he knocked the water out. Yesterday rain, tomorrow even more and a new storm brewing. Just last week some bulbs rose from the dirt with weak white shoots, molding, soft to touch, or maybe the dirt just washed away. And who are you? she had said to them. My tulips? My narcissus?

At a great distance, the steady toll of the bell, the pain. She turns her cast in Sid Morris’s lap so he can better see. Earlier, in the muted light of one of the fringed lamps from a certain dynasty—sixty-watt, Abe had insisted, so as not to scorch the silk—Sid Morris chose colors and a brush from her tackle box, Very Grand rising as if she might swoop down and take a bite.

“Do you miss him?” Sid is saying; his hair, too long at the collar, and the way his braces crisscross his shoulders.

“Every minute,” she says.

He concentrates, biting his lip. He wears the same dirty shirt he wore when they first met. Months ago now; one lifetime: Simone standing with Henry’s Brooklyn Bridge, already flirting.
I

“What?” Marie says. The medication has made her very tired, a bit out of it: the day, the evening. She no longer sleeps but if she did this is how it would feel: exhaustion. Sid Morris is talking.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
11.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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