The Condor and the Lizard
by Diana Pollin
The doors. The high front doors. Squeaky, glistening, transparent. Mint candy that Springtime licks like a lollipop. A mat, no, a giant sponge for wetting stamps, and beyond, an entry. A chessboard? No, life’s not the Battle of Austerlitz. A checkerboard, yes, ending in royalty. Death along the way? Collateral damage. A pawn jumping to the last row? No, not jumping, shifting, sneaking... Two lines of absolute protection, then, the center, a shadow zone, then the seventh row, a desperate and murderous passage, and beyond that, the eighth, when reached, if reached, and the anointing.
The stairs spill out across the hall, a welcoming gesture, I think. I can imagine an arm in their place. Or a chest of drawers. Think that has been done before. Magritte? Brown carpet, already fraying. Sunflowers. Absurd. Piss yellow on a dull as dishwater background. Rods chiseled to a point — and that is the ridiculous part of it, looking like asparagus or spears — keep the whole thing down, hide the beauty or the ugliness of the stone. I’m tempted to jiggle a pair up.
A red flush gripped Julie’s throat. A floor is only a floor and a carpet hides nothing that anyone would be interested in. Certainly not. She ran up the stairs to her office.
Stupid adolescent poetry, these fantasies! They should not, must not, go any further. Disgrace will tumble like crumbs at tea parties. Something about women maneuvering teacups recalls hens settling into a nest.
Eggs or excrement, ladies? Isn’t gossip hatched? Eyes doing “I can’t believe what I am hearing” blinks, swallows dropping like curtains in a “judge for yourself” manner. Giggles rising like cigarette smoke, adroitly avoiding the eyes.
A whisper from a cherry-red mouth addressed to one but meant for all: “The Ricardo girl, yes, and she was about to be married. What a shame! What a pity! When did you say she had the breakdown? And there was no cause for it, dear me. She had everything. Please pass the sugar.”
Julie’s office door gave its salutatory squeak; the boisterous morning was at a half-open window. A bright spring was in the chestnut trees, a sparrow preened fussily, a hidden turtledove offered its strange melancholic chirping. The routine moved from A to B, and a grid was laid down as a loose porous container of the tempest-tossed past.
But was it the past or something else that belonged not to time but to a personal universe which shuffled her thoughts like cards in a deck? And behind it all, a voice promised a ghost flung into or wrenched from oblivion; not a long-dead ancestor, and, no, it was not a ghost but a spirit entering with an entreaty and a promise. Knowledge may bring pain but not grief.
And pain? She had had enough of pain on fine, bright days. She remembered. A shield went up, partitioning the past from the present.
Or was she a monster of grotesque pretension? Her poetry, her art, the drawings she did on the sly, were they not a part of her, like every atom of her rosy blonde being which people liked to summarize in a glance?
An egg. Polished. Pampered. Sleek, but without the barest hint of slickness. Slippery but totally devoid of deviousness. Weightily bottomed, but tapered. The oval of praying hands while an Ave Maria droned in a cool sunlit chapel somewhere on a hill. A protocol of Easter decorum. They had laid the straw at the foot of the altar with the small decorated eggs, their beauty, no threat to God’s Creation.
But there she was, on this planet of Saint Martha’s Educational Institution where all smiles tried to be sweet reflections of the Virgin’s, and she felt cheap and ignoble and perpetually stuck in the vineyards of the Lord, where sheep can safely graze and lambs can idiotically gambol. Sheep! Couldn’t God find a more intelligent animal? Couldn’t He also understand the point of view of the wolves?
What had she done in her 28 years? What could she have done? Was there still time to do it? Break away from it all, leave Mayson, the school, New York City, the country, the cadre!
There was in this heady spring morning an urgency screaming in her ears, “Live! Grow! Learn!” Sister Tullier, the gray lady with the dark. steamy eyes, appeared with her needling truths. “Well, what do you expect?” Julie whispered to the apparition. “My inertia and silence are the product of the best salons. Some things are simply not done.” And the apparition remarked, “‘Simply not done’ is for the simple.”
Saint Martha’s, in Mayson’s words, had “rescued” Julie from the horror of the city public schools, and didn’t she owe these crisply studious nuns and the lay people, her colleagues, who dressed primly and walked in effortless asexuality, a debt too great to repay in full? They saved her from the nasty acid drips of the world, “the outside” they said, as a farmer would say “outhouse” and spit on the ground,
They enclosed her innocence in fresh pine-smelling classrooms and fed her sense of self-importance by installing her in the little room next to Sister Tullier’s office with a title: “Pedagogical Assistant and Program Co-ordinator to the Head Mistress" squiggling in grim gold letters on her glass door. Grim gold letters squiggling when the hall lights were dark or her eyes were tired, or...
When the offer from Saint Martha’s came, The Doctor had brought out his best red, and his wife looked at him and then at Julie. Doctor Ricardo, delivering the squeaking cork from its bottle, Mathilda, nodding her head...
They were a couple of eagles, her parents, readying for flight, their young bird was hungry. “Yes, that’s the answer.” The Doctor poured from the bottle.
“THE ANSWER,” Mathilda intoned. “Don’t you know that all young teachers would give their right foot...”
“Anything,” the Doctor broke in. “Only a fool would turn up his nose. Only a fool. And it worked out perfectly. They’d make a comfortable studio out of the maid’s room. Separate entrance. And of course, they would respect her privacy, after all. The eagle reached for the hand of its mate. They too had been young. And Julie bowed under the pressure of so much loving concern.
This was what the spring morning brought in, with the breezy chestnut trees, the fussy sparrow, and the odd chirping from the simple bird. Goodness! She had little to complain about ! So little to complain about and so much to do... There were calls to make and appointments, too: a meeting with Sister Tullier and another with Mr. Garrett, chief officer for... And then there was the dentist; she had to break the date. And Mayson for the theater tickets and...
The room was never entirely blue. Sea shell white, hiding in the curtains and the recesses, flashed in and out with the late afternoon sun although the shades were drawn, as they were always drawn or half-drawn, as light would blind or expose.
Her parents’ room faced south with a wonderful view of the river and the shore, but the height of their living quarters gave the river and the land a slashing streaky effect so that the bridges seemed incidental black dashes linking elements that were already alike and static.
Only breeds of clouds were permitted a soft stupid bounce. Or they drifted in and out lazily, like dowagers in tea salons. A breeze kicked a curtain, but the only sustained motion was the capricious summer light lingering on the perfume bottles on Mother’s vanity table, changing their crystal vapidness to tiny shimmering diamonds.
Julie had brought in the One Thousand and One Nights, which she manipulated like a Venetian mask. She was eight years old and sensitive to poetry already.
“Come here, my darling!” Mathilda called to Julie and Scheherezade. At 40, she was a handsome, stocky blonde. She was dressing for a party and the clothes on the huge double bed belonged to different personae. “Mother’s angel!” Mathilda at the vanity said, and patted a curl into place.
“Mommy, why?” The bright glossy book came down and Julie looked pertly up.
“Why what, precious darling?”
“Why did Scheherezade have to tell a story every night?”
“Maybe” — Mathilda hesitated; she was expecting another sort of question — “maybe that was really just another way the sultan had of telling her he loved her. Maybe the prince helped her along a little bit...” She coaxed a hairpin into a rebellious curl.
“No he didn’t! Not at all!” Julie cried. “I mean, it’s not fair. She had to do all the talking while he just sat there...”
“Julie darling! ” Mathilda swiveled away from the vanity and gathered her daughter in her arms. A tear trickled down her bare arm. “Hush, child it’s only a tale. How about trying on my pink open-toed shoes?”
Julie rushed to the closet and fished out the pink pumps. But the delights of dressing up could not dispel the cruelties of Oriental narratives.
“An’ she gotta do it for a thousand and one nights. Mommy! What’s that one doing stuck onto the thousand? Why couldn’t they just stop at a thousand an’ maybe he’d get greedy and that one will suddenly become a two and who knows where they will stop...”
“Julie honey! That’s just because love has no borders, it just goes on and on. These people live in far-away lands and their way of telling each other that they are in love is not our way, so they invent stories and — listen, this is what my teacher told me when I was your age — that — yes, now I remember — that when an Arabian prince loved a girl so very much, he would ask her for a story every night for a thousand nights, but when he really truly loved her to bits and pieces, he would go over a thousand and ask her for more. It is just that Scheherezade’s prince loved her more than anything else so he went over a thousand...”
The cries that Julie heard from her parents’ bedroom night after night were animal and beastly and had nothing to do with the soft music of princes and the poetry of their princesses, and the beastliness of her parents’ lovemaking prolonged the misery done to Scheherezade and made the cruel world crueler.
It wasn’t the plight of Scheherezade that had torn Julie’s world asunder, but her mother’s, and one night, Julie saw through a faultily closed door, a pair of egg shell blue eyes wondering whether love had incongruously passed into the kingdom of pain and distress.
“So, my little darling, that’s how they express love in Arabia. So don’t forget to take that story notebook you have started, if you go to Arabia and meet a handsome prince.”
“I don’t wanna go to Arabia! I wanna stay here with you and protect you and I don’t wanna get married ever ever ever!”
“Don’t want to get married? But of course you do! All girls get married, all princesses find their princes. Life is easier when you have someone to love you, hold you, cherish you...” Mathilda took Julie on her knee and started a distracting bounce.
“I don’t want to get married if my husband is going to hurt me like Dad hurt you last night!”
The bouncing stopped. Scheherezade’s tale had ended, the prince was a pauper, or worse, had the manners of one. “Julie, Daddy did not hurt me. It was a form of fun, like... like, you know, you telling Mr. Bozo you are going to burn his doll house down because he won’t be good. You know you would never hurt Mr. Bozo and Dad would never hurt me nor you.” She landed a kiss on Julie’s forehead, “Trust me. Trust us. We love you.”
A sudden chill quieted the music in the trees, the sun glowered behind an intruding cloud. It was past nine already and there was a meeting with Sister Tullier. The cloud had moved away on its fat-lady haunches and the blue of the sky, like the blue of Mother’s bedroom, that day, was a stage set for clouds and birds and the half-hearted April showers which dripped like water off bathers springing from pools.
Copyright © 2011 by Diana Pollin