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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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But just last month Paula Feist had enough. She could no longer hear and she could no longer taste. The chemo sizzled her buds, she said; everything for shit. For a while she seasoned her eggs, her Ensure, with green chili powder, a gift from her oldest hotshot daughter in Santa Fe, a daughter who cast small goats with long horns out of bronze. A daughter in the newspapers. It all meant something Paula Feist had long ago forgotten, something vaguely religious, or pagan, or animistic. Paula Feist’s hotshot daughter sold the goats in a gallery on a road of galleries run by other hotshot daughters, women in brightly patterned outfits with turquoise jewelry. The last time Paula Feist went to visit she had thought that perhaps she might live there, too. She liked the other women; she liked their smells, their clothing, the way they had of calling one another sweetheart. She liked the look of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, blood-red at sunset, or sunrise. She liked the whole thing, she told her daughter. The whole package.

Her daughter had smiled, wanly, Paula Feist said, and said, “No, Mom. I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to live with me. Sorry.”

They knew it all already and besides, it is not a story to be told again, not one of the stories that will make them laugh until they have tears in their eyes. Those stories they can hear a million times but this story they would rather not hear again. Paula Feist understands this by the way the other women shift in their seats, looking out to the frothy waves, white-capped, ominous. The sky darkens, the sun filters through in brilliant shafts of copper and pink. They remember it well, the sun, remember how Paula Feist chose this day to climb out, the way her old legs seemed young, again, the way her arms pumped to push her forward.

Or maybe the boat has always been empty.

II
. Thirteen and a stale bun in her hand, cold cup of tea—they believed her seventeen and she let them, she at her desk filing or mimeographing—would it have been mimeographing? Always a quick study. Purple ink on her fingertips, her raggedy nails she bit when she couldn’t find a cigarette. The machines they used. Bulky monsters. The sounds of the tick-ticking, or the thunk, or the whiz. You listened for the sounds and it would always be her luck to get in line behind Bramwell, greasy-haired married man she had tried to avoid: him with his wife and children in Cheshire waiting it all out.

If there weren’t no war he would’ve made one to send the wife away, Shirley said. Shirley of Camberley-Frimley—like a bad limerick, Abe said—and the London flat they shared with its broken heat box and wet walls and blackened windows and the little potted plant Shirley called Alice and the poor goldfish with no name she called No Name that swam around and around in the hazy water of its glass bowl. She told Abe once about it; she told Abe once about everything and then she did not ever again: Shirley with her black-inked eyes and shorn hair and tiny, elfin hands. She had had some sort of childhood illness that kept her small. She knitted socks and listened to the wireless with the rest of them, never hurrying, reluctant to go to the public shelter and then going as if only agreeing to dance with the last man because he was the last man. If I must, Shirley said, up from her chair and tucking her knitting into the wicker basket with the leather strap meant for fish. My father’s, she told Marie: dead in the First. They went down the steps to the darkened room, the air dank, stuffy, listening to Jerry’s offerings, praying someone had lit one of the oil drums nearby, praying for a night dark from burning oil but the nights were never dark; they were bright with fires, the stench as sharp in the morning as the blaring all clear. Shirley at Balham Station when the bomb ruptured the water main; Marie may have been there, too, but in the country that day with Alice. Take Alice, Shirley had said. She needs a little cheering up.

XXIV

H
elen is swept along in the rush of water at Great Falls, her mother’s voice jerked away as quickly as the flip-flops yanked from her feet. She reaches for overhanging branches that have snagged other things but they snap in her hands and were never strong enough anyway. She cannot breathe.

She is drowning. If she opens her eyes she might see but she cannot open her eyes; they are painted shut. She imagines an empty boat, anchored and steady. She thinks hard of the anchored boat rushing toward wherever she is being rushed toward. It could also be a house, or a palace. It could be a cathedral. If she could open her eyes she would know if this were the dream again or if this were real but she cannot open her eyes. She can only feel the rush and the pull and the constancy of the water, the constancy of the constancy of the water in the dark.
I

I
. It was her father who had told her the story of the Cathedral of Ys, the legend Debussy had in mind when he wrote “The Sunken Cathedral,” a legend from when languages were spoken that no longer are spoken, when legends stood in for history, he said: one and the same. He told her this story as he had told her the story of the Black Swan and the Remarkable Tailor because, he told her, he believed her to have a passionate soul, a soul that hangs back, watches, takes it all in: Think of deer bounding into a glade, he said. Some of them, most of them, know no better and leap in unaware—picture a meadow full of April wheat and wildflowers and everything else that would be delectable to the deer, hungry from a harsh winter. Who can blame them? But a few hang back, maybe one or two, waiting. They know that a man might stand in the shadows of the distant woods, his rifle poised. That at any moment they might hear the crack of gunshot, smell the spent metal smell though of course they don’t know the words for these things, only the feelings. Those are the deer that will survive, her father said: the ones with the passionate souls, the feelings. The ones that look hard.

Do
you
have a passionate soul? she had asked him, and her father had thought about it for a moment before answering, Yes. I believe I do.

XXV

T
here always remains the possibility that Progressive K–8 will be canceled due to inclement weather. It often is: sleet, snow, ice, wind. Last week the subways broke down again and the buses were stranded in pools of water on the east and west highways, water that rose and sloshed over the already battered guardrails, insurmountable flaws in the grading and infrastructure of everything. Chita Goldman, in Riverdale, watched it all on television, thinking not for the first time that her ancestors, fled here from Latvia, had it right to choose the Bronx. Higher ground, she thinks. Not like Far Rockaway. Or God forbid, Staten Island.

Now she sits at her seventh-floor window looking out at the rain that falls in torrents. No Hudson River light today, no more the subtle glow that inspired all those painters, that fell on the river at a certain time each day. The Palisades is a fortress of black and gray rock and here, in her neighborhood, the sycamores snap like twigs, the air alive with all the swirling leaves never raked from autumn. The first winds will be the strongest, the newscasters had said, though who believes them anymore? When it comes at last, when it
lands,
like a train crashing through an actual station, or a satellite dropped from the sky, a whoosh and a blow, a screeching hurl, Chita Goldman, given her lineage, given the hellholes her relatives survived and then some—on both sides—is not as afraid as she imagined she would be in the next disaster. She runs to shut her bathroom window tight against the driving rain, fastening the lock as if the rain were a thing with hands and will, wanting in.

XXVI

“D
o you want to know my Who We Are fantasy?” Elizabeth asks Pete. It is early morning of another week.
I

“Us,” she says to Pete. “What we have. I probably don’t say it very often.”

“Ever,” he says.

“I probably don’t say it ever,” she says.

“Never,” he says.

The sun in their bedroom they have agreed they will miss the most. The sun in their bedroom and the view of the sycamore branches from their bedroom window. The red-brick glow of the seminary at a certain time of day and the entire brownstone street, systematically purchased by a Russian billionaire who banks, rightly, on the neighborhood’s property values given the construction of the High Line and Manhattan real estate in general: that they will not miss, or the influx of the British—why?—or the wail of the ambulances now crossing over for Bellevue.

“So maybe, Paris?” she had said. They were considering options of where to live next—the suburbs? “I could home-school Ben. Or Denmark. I’d be up for that. The happiest people live in Denmark. I read it somewhere. Did you read that? And Denmark has all those systems against the rain; they’ve got it figured out.”

“I’m going to commute from Denmark?” he said.

“Maybe,” she said. “You could do the transatlantic thing.”

“And this,” she says. “Where we are now. Who we are,” she says.

“Okay,” he says.

He looks tired.

“Okay,” he says again, passing her on his way to the bathroom.
II

Pete walks back in from the bathroom and sits on the edge of the unmade bed tying his dress shoes; then he straightens up and looks at her, hamster trance.

“Early meeting?” she says.

“Yup,” he says. “I’ll check in later.”

“Okay,” she says.

Behind him the old print from graduate school, bought at the Met or one of those stores in New Haven: Matisse’s
The Conversation,
the husband standing and the wife sitting, looking up at him. The man, Matisse, hand in the pocket of his striped pajamas, the woman, his wife, Amélie, in a long black dress, her arms on the arms of the straight-backed chair. There is a beautiful garden through the window; there is a canvas of blue all around them. Maybe they have just wed. Maybe they are long married; maybe he’s a saint; maybe she’s an angel; maybe he’s a sonofabitch; maybe she’s unfaithful; still: here they are who they are: together.

I
. The truth is she
had
been on her way to the third floor, the art room—the papier-mâché sea creatures strung with dental floss from the orange-painted water pipes, Ben’s a slow-turning, wonderpus octopus. He had loved those creatures once. She could still remember him insisting she nightly ask the questions—did they still exist? Yes. What did they eat? Other fish, crabs. Where did they live? The shallow waters of Indonesia and Malaysia. She was on her way to find brushes or, even, spray paint. She was going to write something, or draw. Something big. Something she had been meaning to remember forever—the way her Ben had once been a little boy, the way he had wanted to know if she, too, counted the wonderpus octopus among her favorites; and Molly, always Molly: Molly turning and waving with her mittened hand. Just that morning demonstrating how she could tie her laces the rabbit-ear way. And now, getting to the edge of the pond Elizabeth saw how Molly had already run onto the ice, the ice already cracking as she waved, happy, her shoelaces untied, both boots. But she said none of this to Carlos. Instead she told him how she had always liked the art room best. How things had been a little tense: her husband’s job; a teenage son; time passing; the City.

You don’t know the half of it, Carlos said. We’re all in the same boat.

Are we? she said. We are?

II
. He is an eighteen-year-old boy walking his girlie pink bike next to her, following until he finally gets the nerve.

“Aren’t you in Nietzsche?” he asks.

“Dostoyevsky,” she says.

“Right,” he says.
“The Possessed.”

He is an eighteen-year-old boy who rolls his own cigarettes, a boy who camps in the boiler room too poor to pay the dorm fees. A sneak he was then and the janitor knew and the janitor kept a lookout for Maintenance or Grounds or anyone else coming around, promising to warn this poor boy he has taken such a shine to and in the meantime, he says, go ahead and stash the sleeping bag near the warm pipes. The janitor’s name Poppy, he tells him—Poppy’s real name too difficult to pronounce, French by way of Haiti, did the boy know Haiti?

Pete, Pete says.

Too many ghosts, Poppy says.

Poppy leans against his mop in the boiler room where he has found Pete in his sleeping bag, Pete oversleeping—he’s usually already gone, the sleeping bag stashed on the landfill, between the rocks. Idiot he is, folding a shirt over his eyes to drown out the red exit lights and in the too-dark and warmth he’s already missed two classes. This is a temporary arrangement, Pete says, and Poppy laughs, saying, “What’s not a temporary arrangement?”

“Nothing, I guess,” Pete says, rolling a cigarette, offering it to Poppy.

“Your age I worked in the hospital. Port-au-Prince. All day long sick people,” Poppy says, flicking some tobacco off his lip, lighting the thin cigarette with a steady hand. “Wished I could go to school.”

“I can imagine,” Pete says.

Poppy cocks his head, stares straight at Pete, and blows.

“You can’t imagine shit,” he says, pinching the end of the cigarette and putting it in his shirt pocket.

“Sorry,” Pete says, lighting his own.

“Against the rules,” Poppy says.

“Sorry,” Pete says.

“Have to make it known,” Poppy says.

“I’ll find somewhere else,” Pete says.

“No smoking,” Poppy says, then looks at Pete and laughs.

The next morning Poppy arrives before Pete has the chance to slip out—Poppy temporary, too, he tells Pete, until the Lord decides otherwise.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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