The Condor and the Lizard
by Diana Pollin
That place out in the Hamptons. Something about celebrating a new tennis court. Spring of course. When was it? Two years ago? Going out there with the Lufts. One of those sports cars that looks like a racing dog taut on its haunches and about to leap. The ride, a whooshing hallucination, perfection. Miles on the tape deck, NASA at the dashboard, and the hood doing sci-fi rolls.
The Lufts, not talkers, fortunately. The roadster eating up the white road markings; thought of a rope climber gripping onto the next one, a bit higher, gave the impression of moving up, physically and... the prize at the end of the rope. An old camp song buzzing in my brain. A confetti of sounds. Disturbing. Then the evening — I probably made a fool of myself on the tennis court... No, wait a minute, I did pretty well that day.
It was night and the fountain and the moonlight licking the fountain — no water — just sort of a marble statue, a cherub with horns. The moonlight drew eerie ovals on the basin.
Suddenly a voice and a hand with a glass. “Moonlight tastes better with champagne.” A young lawyer recently arrived in the city. A guest, like me, same age, same “lost in the woods” sensitivity. The wiry nonchalance of Fred Astaire.
But he wore his grace like a shortcoming, and his attempts to walk in a cutting and abrupt manner rang false but somehow did not seem devious; he was only trying for an effect that was foreign to his nature. Dark, neatly cut hair and a face of even features with an attractive prominence to his brow covering the upper lids of his eyes. A foxlike feature I thought at the time.
We walked around the fountain, the moonlight was distracting, like the sun at the beach at noon. The ovals on the basin brightened and waned, disappeared and reappeared. The conversation turned to art. He knew a lot about the Post-Expressionists, Germany between wars and France between republics.
He looked down at his feet, not at me, but expressed interest, smiled a thin-lipped serious smile, assumed a haphazard posture of being there and not there at the same time. We played with the champagne glasses, twirling them in the moonlight. Some of the colors were green; yes, green ghost lights.
He took me home in his Corolla, a gift from his mother. "A most boring car from a most interesting woman.” Roman arch of a tunnel somewhere entering the city. No more Miles. A serious radio channel. Some quartet with a foreign name. I almost made him change it.
It was a celebration of Springtime, Fifth Avenue, an unending Easter Parade, Madison arrived as a Parisian boulevard in an operetta, and Park announced an awesome grandeur, a belief in massive and showy permanence, a self-conscious homage to mausoleums and pyramids.
And still Julie walked on, past Lexington and Third and Second, a graceless chain of shops, banks, eating places and grocery stores. A proud and stubborn sobriety ran from First to the Drive, but the side-street tenements entombed somber histories lying like beasts in early spring, half-awake and ready to pounce.
And it was through a light, lacquered alley that Julie strolled, whimsically impotent to order her will, a drifter feeling no more important than the wayward debris the wind threw against the walls before it died and abandoned them to trampling feet and rolling tires.
And the condor approaching her as the Lord of the wind whispered that life was like that aimless detritus, both substance and dreams, and that the sky was a matrix which all God’s creatures could reach, and that the only tragedy was their believing they could not reach it.
Then, the condor revealed its wings which let it soar and Julie saw that the condor wore the soaring, and the limit beyond which it could not soar, stamped on its feathers. It was a happy, solitary creature, and a lover of the winds, which lent the bird the illusion of mastery that it relinquished when it returned to its nest.
But what street was this? “65th Street,” the lizard at her feet told her, shifting from side to side, its belly licking the earth, and despite the comical webbed stumps that gave it a form of locomotion, it crawled like a snake. It searched deep into the dirt for the screams that she had quieted but not stilled forever.
“The pawn,” said the lizard, “who negotiates a passage by neither killing nor being killed, is a stupid and lowly miracle which no one really wants to see.”
“Walk on,” said the condor, “I dissolve all suffering at the bottom of the chalice, walk on.”
The green ghost lights... and Mayson drawing near in the moonlight. She felt the warmth of his flesh, she sensed the possibility of his embrace, there in the moonlight drawing weird ovals on the waterless fountain.
“I want a child,” Julie said to Mayson when, after a while, it became suitable to discuss marriage.
“We’ll see.” His affirmations were always half-open doors.
“Walk on,” said the lizard, “you’re doing fine.”
The disease had devoured Mayson’s youth, had put him into a wheelchair, had painted on him that half-face he wore as a cigarette-smoking death mask. He raised a trembling arm to his lips; the Marlboro was pinched in his fingers, his V-shape fingers, reminding her of a stupid military decoration of a third-rate power.
Another meaningless wager he had made with his death? The poor kid knew nothing about wagers; they don’t do that sort of thing where he comes from. A cherry-red mouth let forth a mocking cascade. “The facade, Julie! It saves us all except when it doesn’t. You did not really expect him to die on a battlefield! I mean, like, everyone knew! Ha Ha Ha!”
And Julie, who had known nothing, was pushing him in the wheelchair. She was older now, she had lost the slimness of youth and her figure was plain. She was wearing a full canary-yellow silk coat to cover her thickness which, like Mayson’s disease, was spreading; and the features of her face were smudged. But no matter: she had always sensed that time would smudge them, and there was a small tire of flesh about her chin. She did a baker’s roll with it just for amusement.
“There is something else,” whispered the condor perching on her shoulder. “Walk on.”
Three little girls skipped across her way. Their hatred of Julie ran hot behind cupped-hand whispering. They were Barbra, Stacey and Jennifer, and the first two were ordinary, but Jennifer had aquamarine eyes and the inky mane of a panther, and her name sounded royal and wild.
Julie wrote poems to Jennifer in her copybooks with sketches darkening all the margins. The school desks, at that time, opened from the top.
Julie had to wait outside the door until the Head Mistress had finished with Mathilda, who emerged dabbing her nose, her green eyes gray and glassy.
Julie’s desk had opened to the teacher, who had spoken to the Head Mistress, who had called in Mathilda, who had left Julie in a brine of self-loathing while the hard keys of a secretary’s typewriter beat like a drum roll.
The “how could yous” fall like axes in the hands of Shame, the hangman, who gloats joyfully at any execution. Guilt, the old crone, never far off, sits in a corner rubbing her hands. They, at least, are immortal.
“Never mind the past. Move on,” said the condor. “Go to the end of yourself. There is...”
“Your salvation, but we wonder if you want it,” the lizard said with a provocative chuckle.
The condor flitted like a humming-bird above Julie’s shoulder. “Walk on. Childhood is a disease that can be arrested, never annihilated. Think of a mountain that blesses the climber who reaches the top. Walk on. Remember, wherever your feet take you.”
“Where are you leading me?”
“Who is leading you?” the lizard asked.
“Who is leading you?” the condor asked.
“Where am I going?”
“We dissolve all suffering at the bottom of the chalice, but we wonder if you want to drink the wine,” the condor and the lizard said together.
“Which wine? Where?” Julie asked. The light-licked mists had tumbled over the River. A strange hush had seized the street. She started to turn on the asphalt patch with the sky spinning her like a top, no longer the master of her movements nor wanting to be.
Her lashing arms formed the blade of a sickle, cropping through all the accumulations to the wonder of her mere being, and she soared, as the condor would soar, above the line that dreary Fate had traced and which she no longer chose to follow, if indeed she had ever chosen. She was a sail that the impetuous wind pushed to a port, she cared not which; she desired the unexpected.
After a time she stopped her turning. The condor and the lizard had left her, she had no need of them now. She knew where the sheep grazed and why the wolves gazed at them with brotherly indulgence; and she knew where the chalice lay and tasted the wine that filled it to its brim and overflowed onto the mists that were bleeding like sunsets and blushing like dawns.
Copyright © 2011 by Diana Pollin