copyright Roberta Kalechofsky (c) 2014
Advice to Jewish Travelers in Gentile Lands
If a man accuses you of having a tail at the end of your spine, you may dispense with modesty for the sake of our people and lower your pants to display the truth to your accuser. If it is a woman who accuses you, forgo the pleasure of truth, else you may find yourself accused of worse.
- Anon, circa 1255
Three hours went past, hours in which they breathed as one, hours in which K was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering into a strange country, farther than ever man had wandered before, a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air, where one might die of strangeness, and yet whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and lose oneself further....
"Then who am I" asked K, blandly as before."
- Kafka, The Castle
From the time Harriet had entered graduate school, she expected to write her thesis on Marie de France under Dr. Watkins, the foremost female medievalist. But halfway through her research, Harriet changed her mind and chose instead the redoubtable problem of Chrťtien de Troyes' identity. Her interest in him had been stimulated by an insignificant footnote which stated that Chrťtien may have been a Jewish physician who had converted to Christianity.
Everyone tried to dissuade her from changing her thesis topic, and their arguments were impressive. She had already done so much research on Marie de France, why throw it away? And why risk the ire of Dr. Watkins, the expert on medieval female writers?
Over a lunch of cheese and salad, Laurel argued with imprisoning clarity. "A thesis topic isn't supposed to intrigue you. It's supposed to get you through your doctoral program. Marie de France is a great subject for a woman. We need scholars to write about medieval women writers, not about medieval male writers who have had a ton of research done on them already. What's more, Professor Watkins will be your enemy forever if you drop her pet topic. The point is to make the bureaucracy work for you so that you can get on with the work you love. You hate what you do for three or four years so that you can do what you want to do the rest of your life."
There were no dark corners in Laurel's decision about her thesis on an obscure female poet in 18th century Tennessee: "The Feminine Bard in Pre-Revolutionary America." To Harriet, Laurel seemed to live in an academic frictionless world. She had gone from high school to Smith College with the blessings of two professional parents, while Harriet had gone to a small college on Long Island over her mother's disapproval who felt she had had enough education and should get a job. Her older sister had not gone to college, her mother pointed out, and was not unhappy. Her brother had gone to college and was weird. A creature of obsessions, Harriet had always to argue her case against practical wisdom and her arguments, like all visions, mystified her friends and teachers. Even David, though he never argued with her. You do not argue with a consuming passion. You domesticate it. When Harriet was willful, he stepped aside. A footnote lying below the mounds of history and literary criticism had revealed a complicated vista to her: It was odd that the most famous writer in twelfth century France should have been a Jew who had converted to Christianity. The footnote intrigued her, then it haunted her, then it obsessed her. She nodded obligingly to Laurel's pragmatism, re-assembled her notes, and submitted a new thesis outline to Professor Connell.
He was not displeased by her apostasy from Watkins, but his pedagogic responsibility constrained him to point out to Harriet that her change of direction was not wise. She resisted his arguments, as he knew she would. He had noticed her as a fledgling graduate student, bright, a conscientious scholar but impulsive, attractive, very stubborn and combative, which he felt was part of the modern female make-up, cut on the template of an avenging angel. He had learned the lesson, well or ill, that academic women were sensitive about what they considered to be their intellectual prerogatives. Still, he persisted with the avuncular feelings he indulged himself in for his favorite student. He reminded Harriet that the Chrťtien field was littered with scholars, the competition was "harrowing" and it was unlikely that she would be able to make an original contribution to the field.
"Chrťtien's identity is lost, gone," he said, as if referring to the poet's hair. "At least, with Marie de France you have something to grab hold of, two possible identifications, both situated in the thick of the social context."
That was the problem. Marie de France had either been an English nun in the twelfth century, perhaps a certain Mary, abbess of Shaftesbury in England, or she had been a member of the French aristocracy, educated and urbane, the inestimable Marie de Champagne, with all the dizzying associations of being the daughter of Louis V11 and his immortally discontented wife, Elinor of Aquitaine. You could smack your lips on a lineage like that. But who was Chrťtien? A brilliant poet but an elusive nobody, a footnote, his genius embedded in a dispersal of identities. She intended to reconstruct them, using Marie de France, the more likely Marie, as her lens through which to see Chrťtien in his literary and social contexts.
Professor Connell sniveled with dark warning. A scarred warrior-scholar, chair of the department and respected in the field, he was aging crankily, having had his theory of Chrťtien as a Christian manquť challenged by Holmes' theory that Chrťtien had written the Percival as a conversion poem tract; and having had his Celtic theory of the grail sources wrenched from him by the followers of Jessie Weston. He did not wish to see his star pupil sink into a quagmire of theories. He preferred to relinquish her to Watkins, much as he disliked feminist theories of medieval writing. Literature had enough influences without creating gender motivations. The great influences to him were national and demographic. Henry ll was already in the habit of giving away Irish acres to his loyal followers in the twelfth century. "And," as he had written in over three dozen articles, "Elinor of Aquitaine was Henry's wife after she had had her marriage to Louis annulled. It took no great intellectual leap to see how Celtic literature had gotten into France. Irish scholarship, Irish Christianity, had always stayed closer to its pagan myths than had Latin Christianity. As soon as the colonists from Henry ll's entourage had stepped into Ireland, the poetry flowed into their frozen Saxon veins." The transmission of grail material was obvious to him. It followed the flag, and that flag had been planted in the twelfth century in Irish soil, and then into French hearts when the British lay claim to Brittainy.
He knew what lay in store for Harriet if she crossed over into Chrťtien territory: shoeboxes full of index cards, cartons full of notebooks, an attic full of acrimonious rebuttals and a lifetime of answering them. Is that what she should take upon herself? He knew she would. She was fearfully single-minded, doing combat with academia, like St. Agnes with the corruption of Avignon. Serious, very serious, earnest, intensely earnest, she always fooled him with her blonde-headed angel face and her blue eyes because he knew there was this other side to her, the lean, rapier side which roller-bladed in the streets, the modern female side with no spare fat, the tenacious side which waited for him to sign his agreement to her proposal. There was no frivolity in Harriet, no flirtation, no cunning wedding pictures of her and David feeding each other cake or throwing her garter through the air. In the family wedding portraits Harriet and David faced the camera guardedly, conscious of the abyss between their cultures. Her mother was lost in pink chiffon, her fading blonde hair crimped in a new permanent that looked like a bad wig. Barely five feet tall, she was smothered by everyone around her like a dinghy in the shadow of yachts, her paranoid gaze at the camera fiercely insulted. Harriet's Swedish father loomed gigantic in his dark suit, his gangly arms searching for a boom to give him ballast. Her sister Dawn hid her two hundred twenty pounds behind her husband, while her elfish brother Lionel grinned maniacally and held up two fingers at his hip to make the hex sign. David's mother, Elsbeta, Betty to a few people whose Americanisms she had made up her mind to live with, expressed the autocracy of good grooming which had carried her from Austria to Brooklyn, down the social scale and up again; his father Ira, a mathematics professor, poised with the affability of his Jewish generation, with layers of behavior over those he had inherited; Aunt Yetti, recently retired from her fourth marriage to a pharmacist, up from Florida for her favorite nephewís wedding, her frizzy red hair looming over his shoulder, and Laurel, her maid of honor, amused in her bronze colored dress, her defiance against sentimentality. The faces of David's brother Kenneth and his Japanese wife Leela, occupied the background as a sign of their indifference to middle class celebrations. They had been married by a Justice of the Peace and had not had a wedding which, in Elsbetaís view, made it mandatory that David should. Harriet did not smile for the camera, and David's eyes still bled shock, having just signed off from his academic career, releasing Harriet to pursue passions which were a mystery to him.
Professor Connell wanted to know what motivated Harriet's interest in this implausible affair between Marie de France and Chrťtien. An ancient literary relationship? Someone else's love affair? It was not clear who Chrťtien and Marie were, much less if they had known each other, and whether Harrietís inquiry was a suitable finale to his last supervision of a doctoral thesis before he retired.
Harriet pointed out the poetic parallels in Chrťtien and Marie de France, and both their concerns with identity. Anonymity was common for medieval writers, a fate which could happen to any talent, but was more likely to happen in the medieval world to a woman or a Jew. Marie was edgy about her identity. In one poem she insisted on her aristocratic lineage, that she be addressed as "Dame Marie," and that no one else claim her poetry. In La Vol Sainte Audre, she had written: "Here I write my name, Marie, that I may be remembered." In an age when there were no last names, no hall of records, no DNA to trace identity, she wrote what words she could concerning her impassioned identification: "Marie is my name and I am of France." But she was not remembered. The same had happened to Chrťtien. He had boldly identified with the growing national French literature of chivalry.
"Our books have informed us that the pre-eminence in chivalry and learning once belonged to Greece. Then chivalry passed to Rome, together with the highest learning which now has come to France. God grant that it may be cherished here."
Prophetic words, considering that France was not yet a nation, only the idea of a nation, the expansion of royal powers which would be implemented half a century later in 1215 with the conquest of southern France, the prized Midi. In 1180, scarce a century after the first crusade, and thirty years after the second, with events fostering the emergence of France, Marie and Chrťtien shared a political posture: national identification even before the nation existed, pre-national ardor similar to the pre-national ardor of the American colonies, a sense of what winds were blowing. France came into being and remained. The identities of these poets disappeared.
But they had once existed. In spite of their descent into anonymity, they had once existed and had been famous and feted. They had been flesh, blood, bones, and souls filled with the power of their talents and their longing for fame. In their time people knew who they were. Harriet believed it should not be impossible to trace their stories. If Chrťtien was the Chrťtien most scholars thought he was, he had become a cleric late in life in the abbey of St. Loupe in Troyes and the aristocratic Marie was his patron, the lady of the castle who held the key to the world of culture and recognition which every writer craves, and perhaps to his sexual longings. Amy Kelly had called Chrťtien "Marie's literary vassal." It is the part played by Launcelot in his poem, "The Knight of the Cart," who is made to travel in a wagon that was used to carry dung or prisoners, forever stigmatized with that original status no matter how many jousts he won and no matter how high he rose. The queen tells him that he will pay dearly for even thinking of making love to her. Chrťtien was pitched between options in identity, pitched as the medieval ages were pitched between monastery and worldliness, between the reclusive life and the life of knighthood.
Maybe Chrťtien never knew Marie personally. Though they both lived in Troyes, they resided in two different spheres of crown and scribe. Maybe theirs was a relationship through the mails or whatever the medieval equivalent was. Harriet doubted this. Was it possible they knew each otherís poetry, had parallels in wording and themes, respected each other as equals, yet had never met? That their poetry had mingled only as bird notes in midair. They celebrated sensual love between male and female as equals, but condemned its fiery alliance with adultery, condemned the passion of Tristan and Iseult whose love had cast outside the social institutions. Perhaps they had felt, for the sake of their poetry, the necessity not to succumb to the excesses of the new movement, the courts of love dominated by women. Marie and Chrťtien celebrated passionate but married love, yet could not marry each other. Had Chrťtien converted, thinking that would undo the barrier? Harriet believed that one piece to the puzzle of Chrťtien's identification was his relationship to Marie.
Professor Connell waved an exasperated pen at her. "You're writing a thesis, Harriet, not a novel. Rubbish! You've become intrigued by the possibility of a romance between them. Rubbish! Marie de France came from an aristocratic family. Brilliant though Chrťtien was, he was probably a lowly cleric, possibly an ex-Jew. It doesn't matter as far as your thesis is concerned. Marie de France would not have taken up with him, no matter how much she admired his poetry. People in the Middle Ages may have put up with adultery, but never with marriage between unequals. They took status and power very seriously, they took land very seriously, and they took a dim view of adultery between aristocratic women and landless nobodies. Chrťtien was brilliant, but he was a nobody in a society where status was as important as religion. That's two strikes against him."
True, Harriet reflected, there was no evidence that Chrťtien ever achieved any social position or power, that his conversion ever benefited him materially. His signature was not fixed to any legal documents. Except for a reference to someone with his name as a cleric in Saint-Loupe's Abbey in his native Troyes, his name was not fixed anywhere, not to any marriage proposal or purchase of land, which were the main avenues to status outside the Church. There was only the reference to a Jewish physician who had converted and had taken the name, "Chrťtien," a rare name in the twelfth century. If Chrťtien had converted for professional reasons or social ambition, there is no evidence he was successful in these pursuits. Except as a poet he did not exist.
And it was doubtful he had converted for religious reasons. He sought no high office, like other converts. His poetry did not convey religious enthusiasm. His was no conversion like that of Theresa of Avila or Simone Weil. Few scholars other than Urban Holmes thought Chrťtien even took religion seriously. Frappier described him as a "cleric-poet in the service of nobility," similar to a class of clerics at the time called "the clerical fringe," a social niche filled by people who did not easily fit anywhere else in the social structure. That would be her Chrťtien. Loomis wrote that the tradition of the Grail "violates the most elementary proprieties of Christian ethics and ritual." Percival chokes on his conversion. "Never will I cross myself," he declares. Beneath the poet's assembled use of medieval material runs an ironic stance towards its preached virtues. Half of it is spoof. There is sexual laughter in the background. The text flirts with meaning. It is the tone of a man who does not fit into the authorized social structure. Many secular people entered abbeys and convents at the time, trading the finickiness of the outside world for intellectual pursuits in a sheltered abbey. Often they were men of letters and humanists, not religious enthusiasts. Chrťtien would have felt more comfortable among these. But if Chrťtien had converted and was not a believing Christian, whom did he write for in a Christian world? How had his conversion benefited him as a writer?
Harriet knew who his continuators wrote for. They had turned his Percival into a Christian epic, twice converting him. Chrťtien had died, leaving his poem unfinished, in mid-sentence, ripe for continuators to take it up:
"Lady Lore heard the grief throughout the hall, from the gallery she ran down and, like one totally distraught, came to the queen. When the queen saw her, she asked her what she had ..."
Only violence, a sudden seizure or death, or a remorseless apathy that had gathered in the poet's soul until it had paralyzed his hand, could explain such an ending, a spiteful finish to the greatest practitioner of medieval French verse, the shrewdest commentator on knighthood with the keenest eye for the social scene, joining myth with social reality. But he could not write what his grief was and died with his ambiguities in mid-sentence, his talent left for others to bend to their will.
Rupert Pickens called the Perceval, "The most beguiling mystery of the French Middle ages." The clue to the mystery, Harriet believed, lay in Chrťtien's conversion, which was the only way his genius could be expressed. As Launcelot says, "You must pay close attention to your alternatives."
"Be reasonable," Professor Connell warned, "save yourself from wandering into a dead end. This was a Catholic civilization, not liberal Christian, but Catholic, monastic, warrior, and feudal. Its morality was fused by land power and fear of hell. Theirs was not a religion of sweetness and light. They did not forgive their enemies. Jesus was not a pacifist and the cross was not a symbol of love. The holy war, the Crusade, was their perfect synthesis, war and remission of sins in the service of God, in pursuit of property and power. We dismiss the Crusades as an embarrassment, but they registered the medieval mindset completely. War was glorious and often profitable, and holy war was the most glorious of all. One died guaranteed to go to heaven. Are you listening, Harriet?"
He eyed her for a crack in her resolution, and Harriet was intimidated. She knew that what everything everyone was warning her was true. Academic failure had happened to others, to David for example, who had given up on his math thesis after five years of bad dreams and staring at a blank equation. Their plans to get married had been put on hold until he would have his degree. Davidís cutting his ties to the academic world was an affront to Ira, for whom the academic world was the Jewish intellectual's home.
But David had to do it, disappoint him and go into exile in the business world because he and Harriet were being bled financially and psychologically. Harriet had quit school and had gone to work for three years to support them. They had other friends who had stared into microscopes or telescopes for years, studying the trail of an idea that should have led to a gene or a star, but never did. Academia had its roster of martyrs, among them dear David who had finally given up on his thesis and had become an accountant so that they could get married and get on with their lives, and Harriet could go back to her studies. Everyone was grateful except Ira, and David who took two years to recover from the shock. Ira never recovered, and never forgave David for "betraying him."
"Are you listening, Harriet?" Professor Connell said, "because I don't think you've gotten this thing straight, though Lord knows why, since you've taken three courses with me." He was determined not to refuse her outright and risk being called a macho pig. "You're confusing an age with its poetry. First and foremost, an age is its politics, its taxes, garbage disposal systems, food supplies, diseases, prostitution, inheritance laws. The modern world has turned the Middle Ages into a tale of knight, unicorn and damsel. The eighteenth century regarded the era as barbarous, which it was. The nineteenth century reversed that decision. Wagner toasted it, wrote operas with men strutting in armor. My dear," he said, with lofty pity for her illusions, "no knight ever strutted in armor, let alone sang in armor. He fought in armor and crushed men's skulls in armor. That's what armor is for. Otherwise, a suit of armor is a metal garbage can. All your bodily functions take place inside it. Once in, everything stays inside and trickles down your legs, feces, urine, sperm, lice. If you should get carried away with lust, the smithy has to unscrew you first. Only the modern world could be so ignorant about the past as to convert it into something it never was, the knight into an emblem of perfect Christian virtue." He snorted with disgust. "The Middle Ages were invented by atheists like William Morris as revenge on the industrial revolution and the middle classes. The modern world doesn't love the Middle Ages for what they were, but for what it craves itself to be, because it's dying of functionalism, cramped virtues, efficiency and predictability. Narrow your focus, Harriet, or you will sink into quicksand."
Harriet was intimidated but adamant, which often went together for her. Threatened, she dug her heels in. "If I narrow my focus, I don't have a thesis. My focus is about social interaction. How do you narrow that?"
Professor Connell knew it would not be wise to appear hostile to Harriet's proposal, but he felt goaded by the irresistible argument that it was a greater kindness to destroy her enthusiasm before she burned herself out with it. "Culver Smith and Watkins will have to be on your committee." He said this like a verdict, and Harriet accepted it as one. She knew not to argue with his decision, though the choice was bizarre: Culver Smith was a Jungian who would not be sympathetic to her sociological ideas influenced by Henri Pirenne and the deconstructionists. She suspected Professor Connell's motives. Was there something political in it, or was it his way of trimming her sails? As for the choice of Watkins, well Watkins was his concession to Watkins, his way of letting Watkins have a slice of the action of her former disciple. Harriet knew she had used up her allotment of arguments and said, "I accept."
"You're hopeless," Professor Connell said. He had meant to frighten her. Instead he had hardened her determination. He should have known that that was how she would take it. Blonde hair, lanky legs, stiff upper lip. He picked up his pen and signed his approval to her thesis change. "I feel as if I'm signing your death warrant."
Harriet clicked her teeth at this hyperbole.
"At least a ten year sentence," he said.
Ridiculous, she thought. She and David planned to have a
family in five years, and her thesis done by then. She was twenty- seven and thirty-two was a good age for the first pregnancy. David was thirty and said he wanted to be a father before he was forty--as if he had the biological clock. She had waited long enough for her turn.
"You won't get out of this easily," Professor Connell said. Then to her surprise, added, "But I'm glad you didn't take up Dr. Watkins' invitation," and to her dismay, added, "Feminist theory will be dead in five years, like every other theory."
The remark infuriated her, but she responded as she thought Laurel would, accepting the politics of academia now that his signature was on her proposal. "Then I'll find another theory. You said yourself one could make a career out of deciphering the grail."
"True, a lifelong career, but not a happy one."
Happy! she thought sardonically, bitter at being put through what she would report to Laurel and David as a "grueling experience." She escaped from his office with alacrity. A jogger, she was halfway down the corridor when he shouted to her, "Poetry lies, Harriet, remember that. You can still back out and do your thesis under Watkins and leave Chrťtien alone. God knows he's had enough of his flesh picked off him." She turned at the end of the corridor on a swing of defiance. "You mean leave him to you!" He put up a hand in a gesture of self-defense. "No, please, this is not a gender problem."
"Yes, it is," she shouted back, with tears of relief to be free from his pressure. She did not wait for the elevator but headed for the exit sign at the end of the corridor and ran down the four flights of stairs to the lobby to call David. "Hard to believe," she said to him, "thatís what his problem was all along, why he kept me there for over an hour, trying to talk me out of my proposal. He really wanted me to go over to Watkins, pretending that he was trying to protect me. Now he's thrown me to her like bait to a lion because he wants to keep Chrťtien as his own sanctuary, petty little macho academic fiefdom."
Academic problems were now remote to David, but he was glad Harriet had settled the issue, and that they would no longer have nightly discussions about it. "At any rate," he said, looking for his sandwich beneath a client's tax forms, "you're on your way."
The anticipation of David's pleasure faded. "I guess so," she said, and called Laurel who could not be expected to congratulate her. Luckily, Laurel was not home, and Harriet did not leave a message on her answering machine. Laurel would tell her what she did not want to hear. She pushed down the opposing voices and caught a bus to the 42nd Street library, where she needed to go to explicate her intuition and bury herself in ten years of research, an offense to her body and temperament which craved physical movement, air and space.
Research must have its rituals of place and time if anything is to be accomplished. Fanaticism and obsession have to be anchored in calibrated habits that cannot be overwhelmed by bad weather, missing manuscripts, or the flu season. In a few weeks Harriet had developed her research routine and took the same seat in the back of the libraryís reading room every morning by ten, behind a nun who read Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry with unnerving attention. If weather permitted, Harriet jogged or roller skated from their Greenwich Village apartment to the library. Air and physical movement were the counterweight to the world of books she was forced to live in because the human imagination has spilled itself more on to the printed page than into any other form, and has left more of its tracks in texts than anywhere else. By ten every morning, she ran up the library steps, past the guardian lions, and the homeless who slept there during the night, signs of a mysterious descent, and emptied her backpack of books and notes on the table behind the nun.
If the weather was rainy, David dropped her off near a subway and picked her up in the evening. They shopped together for supper, usually a combination of soup, salad, quiche and rice. Their apartment was one bedroom, a utility kitchen and a living room/dining room combination furnished with plants, posters, bookcases and oversized pillows. It had been David's bachelor pad during the years when he had imagined a bohemian life for himself, and wore open-necked shirts and string ties, directed small theater productions and engaged in protest rallies for neighborhood improvement, while he pursued a doctorate in mathematics for Iraís sake. His apartment became Harriet's escape from her Long Island fishing community. She liked being able to jog to the library, bike to museums, she liked being surrounded by cultural density, and the denser the better. She liked living in Greenwich Village near the
university. She wanted to stuff and glut herself on movies and shows, ballets and theater, picturesque side streets with shops and bistros that were open all night. She liked burrowing into difficult books, surprised by the people who thought her passion strange. Except for her brother Lionel, the rest of the family of aunts and uncles, accustomed to the life of a Long Island fishing community, fish pots and sail boats, were bemused by Harriet. What storm had cast up this anomalous fish?
Other scholars in the library, obsessed habituťs of books like herself, became familiar to her with their contradictory expressions of gravity and weightlessness, their burden with interests which were of no interest to anyone else: the el Greco wraith in a bulky maroon sweater unravelling at the neck who worshipped Tennyson; the five foot tall Sumerian scholar whose volumes, as he carried them to his desk, came to his chin; the man who looked like a banker but was a Luther scholar; and the stocky man with a French accent who requested titles on tenth century Narbonne. All took the same seats every morning, deposited their books on the same tables, under the same lamps with green shades. As if orchestrated by a mysterious geography they lined their bodies up in a precise latitude with respect to the reading room. The Sumerian scholar was discombobulated if he found his place occupied by an arriviste, and would grumble away to another seat before he could nuzzle into his text like a calf to his mother's teat. Once settled, he never moved his eyes from his books, never moved in his seat, even after five hours of sitting still, never sweated, never went to the bathroom. Harriet envied his discipline. Her body rebelled against the motionlessness required to read through obscure texts on medieval southern French names. It longed for the outside where trees were greening and early summer spread a humid light through them. The reading room disconnected soul from sky and air and weather. There was nothing else to do in the room but read your way through from the written beginning of the world, if you could sit for a millennium. The function of reading was stripped to the essentials of desk, chair and lamp. Muted light from the outside filtered through the columns of arched windows. In the winter the light from the outside was gray. In the summer it was blue gray. In the winter the room smelled of wet woolen sweaters, in the summer the air was heavy and dank, a discomfort accepted as a sign of reverence for the room's elegant austerity and mute passions. Only the nun and the Sumerian scholar seemed compatible with the atmosphere. The eyes of the Tennyson scholar wandered lustily, and by mid afternoon Harriet had bolted from the library to run two or three miles in the nascent summer.
Every morning she submitted her request for books to the reference librarian, whom she dubbed "The Keeper of the Manuscripts," a thin man with a bloodless face whose efficiency and familiarity with every title she requested impressed her. She fancied they were kindred spirits who dwelt in arcane literatures, but he was stalwartly indifferent to her requests; he was indifferent to everyone's request. No title caught him by surprise or raised an eyebrow. He had seen every variety of bibliographic passion and accommodated them all with the indifference of a brothel madam, distributing to everyone their obsession for the day. No request was too bizarre or could not be fetched up from the fathomless storehouse where every thought that had been thought or said or written, resided. No title amazed him: Luther's Seizures in the Light of Modern Medicine; The Destruction of Languedoc by Simon de Montfort; The Presence of Women in Troubadour Society; The Growth of Vernacular French in the Twelfth Century; The Knights Templar and The Growth of Modern Banking. The motivations of their readers were unexplainable by the usual human desires of money, sex, fame, lust for adventure, desire for quotidian comfort or discomfort. You might finally discern a murderer's motives, but never a researcher's. History has black holes into which people like Harriet fall, though they look like ordinary people. If you met them on the street, you could not tell them from secretaries, bankers, athletes, drama students, housewives or carpenters. Harriet gave no clue. With her flying blonde hair, she looked like a model on the cover of a dance magazine, all health and movement, while in reality her agitated mind groped for balance. Her physical appearance in a family warped by a lethal discontent, counted with them for more than her intellectual interests whom everyone but Lionel ignored. She escaped by running down to the Sound to swim or sail or run across empty pastures and chase birds. Her mother suffered from agoraphobia. Her body was wound tight as a nut shriveled into a shell; her sister was pathologically overweight, and her brother was small, sallow and suicidal. Harriet had inherited her father's Swedish bones and loose limbs, but not his messy lassitudiousness. She shared her intellectual intensity with Lionel but had learned to protect herself against his defeatism. They were five years apart. He was the little brother she could not shield from her parents or from anything else. He was a wraith with a screwed up face, stringy blonde hair and squinting eyes. No book could explain his congenital imbalance, though a book might explain Chrťtienís. That was the advantage of the past. The hand had been played, the difference between the living and the quit had been stated.
But mountains would have to be moved before she could lay bare her inquiries, elementary subjects would have to be tackled such as the dynasties of Champagne in the twelfth century, the interpretation of Medieval Jewish names and the deciphering of Middle French place names. She labored all summer and by autumn medieval Troyes had been transplanted into her brain with its stone buildings cupped inside its wall, the chimes from the cathedral every three hours, the winter rain and the spring rain on wet stones, and the sound of horse hoofs on the cobblestones. Outside the city walls the pastures steamed with cow manure, and beyond the pastures the forests rotted luxuriously with humid scent from autumn leaves, the tracks of animals and escaping serfs; the sound of muffled violence as disorganized mobs ran over dead twigs; the secret place in the woods where the boy Chrťtien hid behind a tree and caught his first glimpse of knights as the sun glanced off their chain mail like burning fuses, and he mistook them for God's angels.
The forest was inhabited by people one did not meet inside the walled town, woodsmen, herbalists, twig gatherers, hermits, and children who came there to plot their escape from the adult world. In the forest you could be secretive, imaginative pious or poetic, indulging esthetic lusts that lay outside your religious primer. You could smell the scent from the moss and pine needle floor and the honeysuckle that hung over the Seine's tributary. You could watch the leaves on the trees blow in the spring wind, first one side up and green, then the other side down with silver, the color of coins or knight's armor. You could watch the Crusaders come through the forest on their dappled horses, with lances and pennants, their faces smooth and beardless, their memories glutted with exotic places, their comraderie forged in adventure and male glory, as they bent their heads beneath the silver leaves and the sun crowned their helmets with gold.
Chrťtien felt their breath on his face as they went by, and as the steam from their horses' nostrils curled into his open mouth. The heat from the sun bounced off their shields and spread molten lava on the ground they tread on. "You are more beautiful than God," he wrote in The Grail. A knight spotted him in his hiding place and poked his lance playfully into his side. "Youth, have no fear. Come out from behind the tree. Do you think we are devils?" Chrťtien came out and grinned. "Not at all," he said, fixed with revelation. "I wish I were like you, so sparkling and so formed. You are more beautiful than God."
He told his mother he wanted to be a knight when he grew up. She did not receive this news with enthusiasm. "They may look like angels," she said, "but believe me they are not. Their business is war, to crack open the skulls of their enemies. They are foul- mouthed barbarians, particularly to women. Maybe a father would like his son to be a knight, but a mother would not."
His daydream had to be eradicated and she began to dismantle it at once. She pointed out to him that one had to own a horse, which he did not. He was built slight and might always be too small to be a knight and engage in battle. There were plenty of other reasons. His father had been a knight, and he had lost all his lands, his treasure, his wealth. Worthy men are often unjustly disinherited and exiled, their lands taken by others. His father had been wounded between the legs. His body was crippled and he had been carried in a litter into exile where he had suffered shame and poverty. "That's one of the things that can happen to you when you're a knight. It's not all glorious battle and winning the lady." Her head wagged with recriminations, but she soon dropped the sardonic tone, overcome by premonition. "Darling son, I want a different destiny for you."
But glitter is a powerful force. The year was 1147. The knights were gathering for the second crusade. They came through the streets of Troyes on their way to Jerusalem, lances with precious relics in their hilts, red crosses woven into their outer vests. They paused at the cathedral where the bishop blessed them. God knew what fate waited for them in such a far away land. And only God knew if they would return. Chrťtien considered the problem of his horselessness and said to his mother, "I am a poet. I can do anything I want to. I just have to imagine it."
He did not have to go far for that. Everything that mattered for poetry was in Troyes. It was the intellectual center of France, the cultural capital of Christendom, the birthplace of the medieval Renaissance, of the Knights Templar who made the Crusades coterminous with religion and commerce. It was a prominent city in a prominent century, the century of Maimonides, Heloise and Abelard, Rashi, St. Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs, Christian doctrinal expansion, the struggle against the infidel, the hunting of heretics, the menace of the Albigensis, the emergence of contra Judaeus, and the new class of knights from a disenfranchised aristocracy; the elevation of caritas as a theological principle, the deification of Mary, the humanizing of Jesus, as Christendom began to hunt its heretics; the troubadours, Elinor of Aquitane, daughter of a powerful troubadour and mother of her equally powerful daughter, Marie de Champagne, their courts of love created to challenge the legal and political power of husbands. Troubadours like Bertran de Born, women like Ermengarde of Narbonne, poets like Chrťtien de Troyes and Marie de France molded the new materials of love, marriage, and chivalry into an ethic that would soften the terrible maxim: "The husband has all the legal rights. You have only love on your side."
The great fair was held twice a year outside the city wall. In July and August it was held in St. Jean, and in November and December it was held in St. Remi. Troyes was a convenient destination for merchants rich with wool from the new wool trade to exchange with merchants from Venice and Milan whose caravans brimmed with spices from southern Italy, the Mahgreb, even from Northern Africa, and the East. Wealth flowed north from southern Europe and the tip of Africa, and immigrants followed the trail. The feudal system, locked into land value for half a millennium, was breaking down under the impact of movable wealth, silver that flowed, goods that could be carried anywhere. Commerce filled the air with energy and gave wings to the idea of freedom and nationalism. France was seized with a fever of cathedral-building as the compulsions of faith and commerce augmented each other. Pilgrims and crusaders exchanged goods and news with merchants from everywhere, especially about Jerusalem which the pilgrims said was sustained by a cloud of air and was filled with bearded Saracens who fought with a curved sword. The air brimmed with Crusader talk, their bells, their trinkets, their glorious banners, with chimes that rang the hours. The fields were filled with vendors' stalls crowded with cloths, furs, spices, jewels, tapestries, with tales of hunters who came to sell their meat and furs, and with rumors of an uncommon murder in Norwich that had drifted across the English channel. To be in Troyes in 1145 was to be alive with poetry exploding in one's head.
Harriet carried a copy of Chrťtien's Philomena and books on Medieval French names to her table in the back of the reading room. Chrťtien's name was uncommon and difficult to trace. Aside from Thomas a Becket, who had adopted the name when he had fled England, the only evidence of it was that of our unidentified cleric in the Abbey of Saint-Loupes. This persuaded some scholars, certainly Harriet, that this Chrťtien was the Chrťtien, was her Chrťtien. The Church was the repository of learning and culture in this era. It made room for all kinds of talented drifters who could study Latin, Scripture, theology and the liberal arts. Many of these clerics, such as Chrťtien must have been, took only minor orders or, "just the tonsure," as the scholar Frappier sneered: it was these "anonymous" creatures, an offbeat class who had made the revolution in culture, clerics of this type who read to noble ladies and who were probably the authors of courtly romances in the second half of the twelfth century, men of letters rather than men of the church, and humanists after a fashion who transmitted Latin and Greek poetry. With classical and worldly learning, the cleric-poets could enter the broader cultural world of the court, where they helped refine royalty and identify it as an institution of cultural transmission. In return, in feudal fashion, the court gave them protection. This likely was the class Chrťtien belonged to.
It is every writer's dream to be sustained by an institution that makes few demands on his time, where he can live out his years, positioned at a desk near a window, doing what he loves best to do, reading, writing, and watching the seasons drift over the countryside. Other than success, what would an aging poet want more than to be left alone with time to round off his life with a magnum opus such as The Conte de Graal? Why would Chrťtien wish to be anywhere else? His poetry was the landscape of social behavior set in a legendary land of knights. He could perch himself on his stool, his tonsured head bent over a sloping desk in a badly ventilated, badly lit area. This was his kingdom where he recorded the view from his window with fascination and irony. In the winter, the cold rose from the stone floors around his ankles and his candle spluttered with inadequate light. But in the spring he drank in life like the waters of eternity. The dead woods turned green and noisy with the tramp of carters and horses. Cities awoke like animals from hibernation. He strolled among the knights and merchants who crossed the Seine's tributary outside the city wall and brought with them their most precious commodity: news of the world. Rashi's heirs emerged from their Yeshiva which stood cheek by jowl with the cathedral where Peter Comestar preached the Church's new doctrine of transubstantiation. Jewish and Christian scholars hurried to the town square for another debate on who was the true God. Philip of Flanders arrived to court Marie de Champagne, after her husband died. Not only governments, but a poet's security rested on the outcome of the courtship: Philip was Chrťtien's patron at the time and the scourge of heretics.
Years after her marriage to Henry of Champagne, though she had four sons, Marie turned down Philip's proposal. Was it that she no longer needed marriage for position, or no longer wanted it? Was she Dame Marie now, not concerned with power but with poetry, concerned to answer the question: what is love, can it be reconciled with marriage, or must it always be the bastard child sowing the chaos of Tristan and Iseult?
Harriet pursued Chrťtien's view of the problem while Laurel mourned the demise of Harriet's promising career. She mourned more her new position as a remedial writing teacher in a small New Jersey college where academic success had deposited her. The unthinkable had overtaken her world. The humanities, which had shaped her ambitions, were unraveling and she, a victim of its decline, received the transformation with a buffer of irony. The classical categories had been swept away. Why mourn it, Harriet wanted to know. Hadn't Laurel aided in its demise? Laurel perched a cold shrimp at the end of her fork and lamented. "The bottom has fallen out of American academia. Unless you're willing to go to Nevada or Idaho, there are no jobs in the humanities. Ever since sputnik went up, only science is being funded. The humanities are dead. Literate people are dying in the streets."
"That's a sobering thought," Harriet said, searching in her lettuce for a shrimp.
"The only ray of hope is women's studies and ethnic courses."
"What's the trouble then? That's your field. matter of time until you'll find something you like."
"Only a matter of time! I'll be thirty next year. worth the effort if I can't get a job in the city."
"You're only twenty minutes away."
It's only a It wasn't
"It doesn't matter. I'm not interested if the traditional humanities are dead." Harriet was impressed. Laurelís dismay was genuine. "At least the chairman is a medievalist from England," she added as if that might rescue the situation, even though she was not a medievalist. But Harriet was, and was interested. Perhaps she could get a job. She was not toxic to New Jersey as Laurel was, and David would understand. Probably.
They sat in the glass encased restaurant, "The Chikn and the Chickpea" with its salad bar a block long, Laurel's choice because she was dieting, as usual. The salad bar featured tortellini, three kinds of bulgur, oriental noodles with ginger, tomatoes with thyme, rice pilaf, spinach salad with basil, marinated mushrooms, corn on the cob, shrimps on beds of crushed ice, beets in vinegar, shredded Chinese cabbage with snow peas and truffles, guacamole, rice
pudding with green pistachio nuts, goat cheese, three kinds of hummus, baskets of corn muffins and pita bread. Outside the tinted glass, dungareed teenagers ran for a bus, high-heeled women walked little dogs and carried oversized shopping bags with expensive labels, boys with caps on backwards rollerbladed, topless men jogged between taxis, and cab drivers cursed them all.
Laurel looked mournfully at the scene. "I might as well be ten hours away."
"Absolutely. But what's the point of surviving in New Jersey?"
Harriet never knew whether to take Laurel seriously. They had met in a graduate course on Milton, that doughty, sensual Puritan poet of revolution and lawful liberty who had drawn out of his darkness a paean to Adam's sacrificial love for Eve. Adam, their teacher had pointed out, also bit into the apple so that Eve would not go into exile alone. Harriet's head spun on the sentiment. Laurel marshaled facts for the date of Milton's death that amazed her teacher. She was brilliant and superficial, a puzzle to Harriet who found Laurel's intellectual abilities dismaying because she took them so lightly. It offended her Lutheran conscientiousness. To them that have much, much is to be expected. Laurel expected only good grades.
When weather permitted, Harriet brought her lunch with her to the library and ate it on the outside steps where the homeless ate theirs from disheveled bags. Here she had met David for the first time, leaning against one of the lions, his ascot blowing in the breeze. She passed him like a form that had leaped from a Nordic fairy tale, a flight of white and gold, Rapunzel, Cinderella, the Lady of the Lake. She should have been sitting on one of the lions. Hair of spun gold whipped across her face in an autumn wind. Longing gripped him. His civilization smote him in his thigh. Conscious of his gazing eye as well as of being on her way as a graduate student, she tried to pass him by but their eyes met with a riveting destiny. His were dark velvet with thick lashes that covered the wound in them. He followed her into the reading room and whispered into her ear, "My name is David Gold. I'm thirty-two and my family says it's time for me to get married." Her concentration was broken. She fell in love with his eyes, he fell in love with her hair. They lived together for three years and married a year later. He persuaded her to drop out of school and go to work so that he could finish his doctorate before she went back for hers. He did not care about Chrťtien or Marie de France or the origins of romance, but he adored Harriet, ardently and mysteriously, and he was ready to put up with anything that made her happy, even old texts.
Occasionally the Tennyson scholar came out on the steps. Surprised to see the sun, he looked at Harriet with watery lust. She knew what could come of locked gazes and avoided his eyes. She preferred conversation with the Luther scholar or the stocky man with the French accent, because she assumed their age protected her. The stocky man was often outside, not to eat lunch but to smoke. He smoked profoundly and complained about the anti-smoking spirit that had overtaken the United States.
Harriet was not sympathetic to his complaint. He was taken aback by her astringency and felt it might be futile to joke with her, but tried. "Smoking is such a little sin compared to most, and people everywhere have to sin in some way."
"There's nothing little about it. My uncle died of lung cancer. It's a hideous death."
Her cleanliness was sterling but unerotic, as cleanliness was to his Gallic nature. Still she was attractive in the manner of American women, which he found dazzling though daunting. He was curious that their intellect often accompanied such physical health. He stamped out his cigarette with a gallant flourish. "I see you here often. What are you studying?"
"I'm doing a doctoral thesis," she said evasively.
Her answer did not surprise him. American women were throwing themselves into academia. He was not against it but curious, knowing how demanding books were. They defeated you more than children did. "May I ask on what subject?"
Harriet would have preferred not to say. The subject did not unveil itself like a thesis on Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, authors who never have to be exhumed like a Lazarus from buried texts. She had had plenty of experience trying to explain her thesis to her parents or Davidís parents. Braced for misunderstanding and amusement, she said edgily, "Chrťtien de Troyes."
"Really! My hometown, as you Americans say."
Her brow wrinkled critically. Was this a new form of flirting? "Chrťtien de Troyes is not a town," she said icily. "Only Troyes is the town."
So young, so attractive, and so deadly, he thought. He responded diplomatically. "Of course. That is what I meant. I apologize for confusing you." But her face did not relax. "I assure you it is so," He took out his wallet and fetched a business card. "There is my name and address, land surveyor, geographer, Maurice Belmont, 8 rue Hennequin, Troyes."
A shooting star found its mark three thousand miles away. Troyes was a real place, circumscribed on a business card, actual, locatable, a place of business, of buying, selling, eating, having babies. History licked at her senses. "And you," she asked, feeling herself covered with fairy dust, "what do you study here?"
He had also learned that esoteric subjects do not invite conversation. However, he hoped that someone who was doing a thesis on Chrťtien de Troyes might be a co-spirit to his own interests. "Several things. Research on property confiscation in Narbonne in late twelfth century. And Rashi."
Alas! Marooned again in his interests. But she showed his card to David that evening. She had picked up some vegetables for supper, threw together a stir fry with pasta and salad. Pouring red wine, she showed him the card with an expression that put David on guard. Or perhaps it was the ponderous way she poured the wine. The thought of going to Troyes might not have occurred to Harriet yet, but David knew by the way she turned the card over in her hand that now that the city had assumed physical reality, she would swim the ocean to get there, if she had to. Her fantastical Jerusalem existed. He had an impulse to tear up the card. He trusted Harriet more than he trusted himself, but he didn't trust her dedication.
"What's he doing in New York?"
She detected an unsympathetic note in the question, and answered him prissily, knowing the answer would not mean anything to him. How could it, if it didnít mean anything to her. "He's doing research about property in southern France in the twelfth century, and studying someone called Rashi. Something like that. What difference does it make?"
David struggled against her emotional tide. "Aren't there any good libraries in France?"
Fair enough question, she thought, and asked Maurice the next day at noon, unwrapping a pita sandwich from her bag: why did he come to New York to do his research? The answer was simple, but no balm to David. His only daughter lived in New York with her American husband, with their son, his only grandchild, three years old. His wife had died twelve years ago. He came every summer to see his daughter's family, and "why not?" he held out his hands in what she regarded as a very French manner. "Why not take advantage of this wonderful library, one of the greatest in the world?"
Did it not bother him that his daughter lived so far away? "Mais oui, but that is life." His resignation interested her. Her mother complained seven times a week that Harriet lived in Manhattan, two hours away, and came to visit only every other week. Her parents would not drive to the city. Highways and city traffic confused them. Train schedules, planting seasons, and Dawnís need for help with her many foster children delayed trips to the city from one year to the next.
She and David went to dinner every Friday night with Ira and Elsbeta. "The tradition," as Harriet referred to it. She envied Laurel whose parents travelled frequently and left her alone. Independence was Laurel's religion. "Just say no," Laurel said to Harriet, "you know, like no to drugs." Assertive as she could be elsewhere, Harriet felt she risked some sort of damnation if she said no to Elsbeta. Then there was the other reason: The price for Davidís academic failure was their assumed agreement not to disappoint his parents in anything else.
They lived in an apartment house near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, on a street lined with linden trees, where nature and city life had grown compatible like an old married couple in the predicament of living together. In the spring, the neighborhood was washed in yellow forsythia which bloomed by the massive ton. Pink magnolias blossomed down nearby avenues into the park where they were overcome by masses of green trees. The apartment houses had been built during the 1930ís, in the style of castles with turrets and fake moats and stained glass windows. It was the architecture of the depression era for new middle-income neighborhoods. In the winter a large fireplace in the lobby was lit with false logs and decorated with Christmas stockings in December. The apartment houses were rent-controlled and people had lived in them for decades. They had seen each others' children marry and have children. They conducted tenantsí meetings, negotiated about parking spaces, expenses for lobby cleaning, put up death and birth notices in the elevator. Iraís sister, Yetti had lived here with three successive husbands and one daughter. People saved their apartments like family jewels. The building was convenient to transportation, to shopping, to schools, to parks, to libraries. There was an Austrian bakery, a butcher shop, a fruit and vegetable store, a sandwich shop, even dress shops, a jewelry store, and a florist within a few blocks. The neighborhood was an urban village. It was unnecessary to go anywhere else.
In the spring, the sky and branches of a linden tree spread across Elsbetaís kitchen window in a reverie of green, a patch of peace she believed she would not be lucky enough to find elsewhere. Growing older, she thought about the "elsewhere," from time to time: the three bedroom apartment was now too big for her and Ira, it should go to Harriet and David. "You'll have children eventually," she would say to Harriet, you'll need the extra bedrooms." This desperate charity did not extend to Kenneth and Leela, who were both lawyers and owned a house in Yonkers. Kenneth was four years older than David and had taken an overseas position in a Japanese law firm out of law school. He returned four years later with a wife and bought a three bedroom house in Yonkers. They were exempt from coming Friday nights for supper because they were planning to have a baby, and Leela had a career, but Harriet had no plans for either. She and David did not plan for a baby or a house "until after Harriet gets her degree." Elsbeta did not feel it imperative for Harriet to have a baby, but this was not a degree that seemed to lead to a career. Still she was prepared to support Harriet because she respected books, though she did not understand the books Harriet read, nor their preference for two small rooms in Greenwich Village to her three bedroom apartment with its breakfast room, walk-in closet, and separate dining room.
The problem was not space, or convenience. David argued that moving back to the street where he had grown up lacked adventure. Elsbeta was not convinced. Something else lurked behind that argument.
"For adventure you go on a cruise. It's not an adventure to pay exorbitant rent for a small apartment." She liked to spend money, but took pride in practicing a stealth thriftiness. Every purchase, even vegetables, was carefully thought out, except for clothes and jewelry, which were her passion. She tried to control her impulsive behavior about these purchases, but more often failed. Mr. Hammondís jewelry store was her special bete noir, right in between the florist shop and the bakery, unavoidable to pass. If she saw a pin in Mr. Hammondís jewelry store, like the smoky topaz she had seen the other day, before she knew it she was in his store, "just to price it," she told herself. It was always more than she thought she should spend, but Mr. Hammond would brush aside her protests with a cavalier wave of his hand, remove it from its case, register her problem with keen insight and confide that the price would probably come down in a month or two. If she left her card, he would let her know when. She assuaged the problem by telling herself that if she bought it she would put it away for one of her daughter-in-laws, though they didnít wear that kind of jewelry, being more into bangles and ankle bracelets.
She was embarrassed that she went so often into his store without buying anything, but Mr. Hammond did not seem to care. "Take your time," he assured her. And it was delicious to be there, to stand on his plush light blue carpet, with the teacart inside the door with a limoge tea set on it, with scones and lemon poppy tea cakes she remembered from the times her Baba Bella made them on Christmas afternoons.
Mr. Hammondís manners, his pin striped suit, his cufflinks, his indefinable accent, most likely middle Europe, but not clearly so, reminded her of how her father had dressed. An attorney, he also kept his business cards on a silver plate on a tea cart, as Werner Hammond did: Dealer in Estate Jewelry. Ira called him a sleazeball," and said that wherever he came from, it was not on his map.
One day Mr Hammond rapped on the store window and beckoned to Elsbeta as she went by. He had something special to show her, a ring from an estate auction, a sapphire with 1-1/2 point begets on each side. Stars in the night sky. He was pleased that he had seen her through the window so that he could show it to her before anyone else became interested. She put her hands up as if to ward off a blow. She was in a hurry. She waved her bunch of tulips. "No problem." He would put the ring away for another time. But she would have first call. If anyone else made an offer, he would tell her. She was relieved. The balance between impulse and the instinct to restrain herself was preserved. She hoped he did not notice her hesitancy, she would rather be esteemed as knowing and cautious than as not willing to spend money. It was hard to tell what Mr. Hammond thought. He was always dressed in his pin striped suit with a linen handkerchief in his breast pocket. His clothes, his remote accent, his manner deflected from identity. Why did the young turn their backs on clothes and cover their world in dungarees? How could one explain such a discontinuity in fashion? "Itís a revolt against the bourgeoisie," Ira said. "Good clothes arenít cool, and the bourgeoisie arenít cool, especially when they try to be cool."
"Dungarees are expensive too," Elsbeta said after investigating a Gap shop near her. "True, but they look like rags," he said. "Is that why David wonít move here?" Elsbeta asked, "middle class isnít cool?"
"Yup," Ira said with predictable scorn. Elsbeta raised a dismissive shoulder to show her contempt. It was one thing for David to live in the village when he had aspired to write plays. She supported this aspiration along with his string ties, but pretentious as an accountant and she told him not to wear the ties when he came to visit. It was one thing to wear them in Greenwich Village, another to wear them in middle class Brooklyn. Worse, it was a waste of money to live in Greenwich Village if he was going to be an accountant. Greenwich Village was not a place for accountants, and Brooklyn was not a place for string ties. Unsaid responses compressed themselves behind Davidís lips. Families succeed by following the path of the unsaid which sometimes disappears by itself, while the said goes into the record of things that should have been left unsaid, and never goes away. The aftertaste of the unsaid floated in the air.
One Friday night after they had gone, Elsbeta, in a ruminative mood, persisted in probing the unsaid. "What other reason could there be?" The question circled the room like smoke from the Sabbath candles after they had burned out. She suspected the answer, hideous after all these years, especially here in America, but the pain of it would not let her go. What other reason could there be? "Do they think Brooklyn is too middle-class? Too Jewish? Too boring?" Though she said it, the question shocked her, like opening a bathroom door while someone was sitting on the toilet in an act that otherwise had no public acknowledgment.
"All of the above," Ira said and pulled the blanket over his head.
Davidís grandparents were part of the tradition, but they came only once a month by unspoken decree and by train and two buses, a trip of an hour and a half, carrying large shopping bags filled with food, dead fish whose heads stuck out over the top of an oilskin shopping bag. Ira always complained: "Why do you have to schlep food from Brighton? You think we donít have stores here?"
His mother always replied, "Sure you do, but prices are too high here."
"How do you know? You donít shop here."
"How do you know? I bet theyíre no higher here than where you live."
Not true, his mother thought, but kept her mouth shut.
Things such as the price of candlesticks, china, butter, fish, challah, eggs, coffee cake, was better left unsaid, and she and her husband sat in silence for most of their visits, shuttered into estimates of everything on the table, the chicken, the fish, the pickles, the coffee, and after two hours said, "We now go home," and left, carrying their empty shopping bags folded up to be used again, to be carried again next month into the upscale neighborhood of their son like an animal marking its spot.
Passover was worse. They brought a pot of soup and a tray of gefilte fish. By train and two buses. Their generosity felt like a weapon to Elsbeta. She was proud of her table, her linen cloth, her wine cups and decanter imported from Austria, her embroidered napkins. But most of all, her silver seder plate and carved silver kiddush cup which she had found in a shop on lower eighth avenue, a store one had to find by accident, wedged in next to an old bookstore selling porno dvds to stay afloat, crumpled between a row of apartment houses, eight stories of white brick and plexiglass doors. But Elsbetaís passion for the arcane found it. In a clash of civilizations, her eye found the plate under a stack of broken dishes from China and Toby beer mugs from England. Instantly, she knew the value of the plate and the kiddush cup. It was heavily carved silver with an embossed vine encircling the scalloped edge. The original owner had thrown in a set of four saucers for the charoshet, the bitter herbs, the shank bone, and the greens. The cups were blue, lapis lazuli, the "Stone of Heaven "first mined six thousand years ago in the Indus Valley. She guessed they were not the original dishes. The plate had traveled far, had passed through many hands, the silver was tarnished, almost black in places, as was the kiddush cup. But it was a set. The same carved vine went around the cup. It was a dificult job to polish the two pieces, but silver can always be brought back to its lustre. At first Elsbeta thought she would leave them with their tarnish, but she could not resist the gleam. David was entranced as he watched how the carvings of lamb and grapes and beets emerged from black tarnish. It became his job to polish the plate and the kiddush cup every year for the seder, and to fill the cup with wine for Elijah, who never came. He watched the level of the wine every year but never saw it decrease even once. Yet every year, against all odds, his mother set the plate and Elijahís cup, while he and Kenneth watched the level of wine in the cup to see if it fell, and Ira stumbled through the service with a nasal voice.
Leela and Kenneth always left early because they had to drive home to Yonkers. Leela was in a program in a fertility clinic and her moods were unpredictable, swinging fore and aft with hormone injections. Her legal briefs suffered, or so she said her employer said, who was "a macho bastard." So they couldnít stay until the end of the seder. Elsbeta wondered why modern women found it so difficult to become pregnant---yet seemed to want babies. Though she also heard it said that they did not want them. They seemed to want different things, or different women wanted different things at different times or wanted different things simultaneously. Did one have children to win an argument? What was the argument?
Elsbeta took an estranged interest in the Womenís Movement and one day on an impulse made up of equal parts curiosity and seeking vindication, invited Harriet to spend an afternoon with her in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Harriet was dismayed. No good could come of this. She found Elsbeta unnerving, collectively as a symbol and as a person. She was of Austrian origin and had escaped the Holocaust by being hidden in the false bottom of a truck carrying chickens across three borders. Still, at any time of day or hour, she was dressed with stockings and heels, suit or dress, and drop earrings which accentuated her Austrian-Magyar cheek bones.
Ira thrived on her esthetic poise and her esoteric-esthetic management of household things. They had met in Germany where the war had deposited Elsbeta as an escapee from a DP camp, at a time when Ira was serving in the army, wedged among boys from the American south who had never seen a Jew, and then in Germany where they hoped they had seen the last of them. She was hobbling down a dirt road with a broken ankle. Bent with pain and smelling from chicken shit, she looked like an aged crone. He stopped his jeep to offer her a ride before he could anticipate the rise of masculine interest when she straightened her back and looked at him with her gray-green eyes and grim calculation that she was safer in his jeep than on the deserted road. Her black hair had been cropped short, but her cheekbones and smokey eyes compensated. He was embarrassed to find that his thoughts wandered beyond the impulse of helping her and blundered, "I thought you were an old lady." She jerked her head with the bitterness of an aristocrat in disarray. "I'm sure I must look like one." She tried to regain some poise, and straightened up as well as she could, but could not hoist herself up the high step into the jeep. He got out and helped her. Any romantic potential he might have felt was dissipated by her exhaustion and the odor from her clothes. She sat beside him in despotic silence, a discipline she had acquired despite her youth. The road was hot and dusty and empty, but she was adamant that she would survive. The situation was not worse than everything else she had experienced. Icy, distraught, sitting in paralyzed silence, she sensed his upright bearing, a muted masculinity, an educated man. He had mastered inconspicuousness in a lean body, thin wire glasses on a fleshless nose. Calculating that she would be safer with him than on the road, she said her name was Elsbeta. She sat erect in spite of her broken ankle. She was just twenty.
She came to America a year later, one among the 150,000 war brides who left Europe after June, 1946. It was a week's journey by boat. She was going to the United States, the great country that had defeated the monster who had crept out of Europeís bowels. The ocean wind cleansed her of grave mound. She cut out her past like a rotting organ that could infect her body if she did not throw it away. She purged her memory and set her thoughts on survival. Ira met her at the dock with new clothes to introduce her to his family, a suit with a fashionable peplum on the waist, a hat with a cream colored veil. Everything was going to be new. Her clothes were new, the country was new, her family was new. Rebirth was possible. She had climbed out of Europe's grave and was going to live.
America's domestic productivity had been put on hold during the war and had not caught up with the housing needs of thousands of soldiers returning from the war, eager to marry and start their families. People moved into basement apartments, and families moved in together. Like so many returning soldiers after the war, Ira and Elsbeta moved in with Iraís parents in a three room apartment in Brighton Beach, two bedrooms and a kitchen. Ira's sister Yetti had to relinquish the bedroom she had enjoyed for the duration of the war, and went to sleep on a cot set up in the living room/ diningroom/kitchen. She and Ira and Elsbeta took turns using Yettiís bedroom on weekends and holidays, when she used the room only to dress and put on her make-up. Yetti could have used her parents' bedroom since they were out of the apartment by six in the morning to open their fish store a few streets away, but she would not move her clothes out of the closet in what had once been her bedroom because she knew that if she moved out her clothes, her cosmetics, her lingerie from the drawers, she would never get her bedroom back and might descend into depression in spite of her determined good humor. She staked out her claim to her small area of privacy by leaving her belongings where they had been for the war, and tried to be as un-invasive as possible, entering the bedroom quietly every morning to get her underwear, her shoes, her stockings, her dress, jewelry, and perfume, before she took the Brighton line on the "Elevated" to a fashion design school in lower Manhattan. As it was, she moved out of the apartment before Ira and Elsbeta did.
Elsbeta watched her every morning, pretending to be asleep, crushed against the wall on the inside of the bed. The room was tiny and crammed with oversized furniture, an armoire, two dressers, a bed and a rocker. The train rumbled overhead. The window in the room looked out over a patch of backyard with a straggly tree and demented cats whose cries kept her awake at night. Ira was up by six:thirty o'clock and out by seven to catch a train to Columbia University to finish his doctorate. It was a two hour commute each way, and he didn't come home until seven in the evening. "Everything will change once I have my Ph.D.," he said whenever the subject came up of their moving. "There's no money right now, and no apartments. You have to bribe the superintendents to let you know in advance when someone's moving." The aftermath of the war hung over everything, as the war once had. Sex was difficult in that apartment.
By nine o'clock everyone was on their way to somewhere except Elsbeta, who stared out the window at the disorienting ocean. There was no one to talk to, and nothing to say, and no way to understand how she had arrived here. Sometimes she walked the boardwalk or the streets with their startling population: endless food shops with large brazen signs in Yiddish, unshaven old men who threw their snot into the street, old women dragging shopping carts filled with food, boys on roller skates, bicycles, home-made wagons made out of boxes on wheels, young girls in pencil-slim skirts and high heels. Jews, all Jews. She was alone in an abyss.
His parents did not come home for lunch, they ate their tuna fish sandwiches in their store. His mother had a humped back and arthritic, gnarled hands from plunging them into vats of icy water to drag out fish for customers, chop their heads off with an ax, and wrap them in newspaper. The name Goldwasser's Fish was famous. She told her customers, "The best fish in America. It swims in golden water." They were patient with this encomium heard a thousand times, nodded compliantly, wondering if the name cost them more. One paid for everything, even a bad joke. The neighborhood survived on it. They were discreet about the daughter- in-law who was invisible. Goldwasser---Mr. or Mrs.--made up stories about Elsbeta: their son had met her in the library on his army base where Elsbeta worked as a librarian. Nothing about her origin or how he had met her made more sense. The status of refugees, always unclear, and the Holocaust still floating outside the Jewish psyche like a detachable bubble, they did not wish to discuss it. Elsbeta was a mysterious figure who had emerged from an incoherent something, from an alien planet and dressed as an alien someone. Mrs. Goldwasser always wore a bulky sweater and a large dirty apron in summer and in winter, a slightly heavier sweater in the winter, and ate her lunch sitting on a stool in the back of the store, bent under her tuft of coarse gray-red hair, and resented that neither Yetti nor Elsbeta helped in the store.
Yetti too was an alien. She had no idea what Yetti did at the school she went to, and her husband did not know where Columbia University was. When Ira spoke about it with a hint that this degree would bestow unlimited potential on him, his father's watery eyes peered out from a mass of tough wrinkles and bushy eyebrows with puzzlement. They worked twelve hours a day, six and a half days a week, summer and winter, and raised two children who plotted to escape them. They had survived pogroms, emigration, poverty, the terrible steerage crossing and unrelenting hard work, by never losing their focus. They felt, not unreasonably, like animals sacrificed for a cause of human improvement they did not understand. Their lives were nothing more, nothing less than a sacrifice. Ira and Yetti were in flight.
Elsbeta came into the store once and rarely ate fish again. Live fish swam in crowded barrels, flapping helplessly for space, or lay in the counter on beds of ice, their gills slowly suspiring until they stopped moving altogether and lay with eyes popping with death. The store was crowded with women who all looked like Ira's mother, stocky with overflowing bosoms. They carried black oilskin shopping bags, and quarreled in Yiddish. The streets were stuffed cheek by jowl with grocery stores, fruits and vegetable stalls, bakeries, pharmacies, five and ten cent stores, clothing stores which seemed to sell little else but underwear and aprons, and every street corner had women selling knishes or pretzels from steaming pushcarts. Everyone was always shopping for food. Women went from one store to another with a shopping cart or with their black oilskin shopping bags, heads of dead fish sticking out of their bags, quarreling over the price of an onion. The neighborhood pulsed with Yiddish signs which Elsbeta could not read. She spoke four languages fluently. English or Yiddish was not one of them. Ira came home for supper, but Yetti never did. Fish was served five times a week, cooked in an oily cast iron skillet, and eaten with onions and black bread. Yetti came home close to midnight with the smell of steak and wine on her breath. Short, like her parents, she wore bold high heels which Elsbeta could hear clicking on the tiled hallway at midnight. Full bosomed with hips to match, short waisted, she wore flared skirts that swayed on her hips with a saucy swing, matching her steely good humor. Elsbeta doubted that she went only to a fashion design school, and envied her wherever she went.
She complained of boredom. Ira threw the problem back into her lap. "My God! You have the longest beach in the world, and Coney Island is world famous. Take a walk." She shriveled at the thought. Everyone on the boardwalk looked like Iraís mother, short and squat with flabby bellies and bosoms, swollen legs in dull cotton stockings tied at their lumpy knees, with swollen feet stuck into their shoes.
The younger people lay on the beach and soaked up the sun with gritty determination. The sand was coarse and cluttered with banana peels and lunch bags, blankets and crying babies. The ocean was dirty with condoms and jelly fish. There were no cabanas or umbrellas with red and white stripes, no pennants flying from gazebos. Europe was so beautiful. Why had they destroyed it? It was no use to tell that to Iraís parents, to tell them that seen through the filter of no longer being in danger, she preferred Europe's brutality to these miles of democratic flesh pressed upon the beach.
One morning Yetti did not leave for her fashion design school. She announced that she was getting married. "To a pharmacist," she said with satisfaction.
"You want a wedding?" her mother asked, as if this were an insurmountable hurdle.
Yetti threw her slender legs and small feet off her cot, clutched her makeshift nightgown around her and said with matter- of-fact resignation, "Not necessary. We'll get married by a justice of the peace and go out for dinner to a restaurant."
"He's not Jewish?"
"What makes you think that?"
"How come you're not getting married by a rabbi?"
"I don't know any."
Yetti and her pharmacist were married the following weekend by a Justice of the Peace. Her parents and his parents, her best girlfriend and her girlfriend's fiancť, and his brother and his brotherís fiancť, and Elsbeta and Ira attended, and went to dinner afterwards at Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay. Yetti left for a short honeymoon in the Catskills, came back, packed up everything she had in two suitcases and moved out. It relieved the congestion in the small apartment.
A month later, Ira and Elsbeta were invited to dinner at Yetti's new apartment. She took Elsbeta on a tour. There was a walk-in closet, a terrace on the living room side, a kitchen with a breakfast nook. The street was lined with trees. Store signs were in English. Sid's pharmacy was three blocks away.
"How did you get the apartment?" Elsbeta gasped. "Influence."
"Whatís influence? What do you mean by influence? How do you get influence?"
"You want Sid to try to get you an apartment here?"
Unexpectedly, she took Elsbeta's hand with a pressure of grave understanding. "We'll do what we can." Elsbeta was surprised. Yetti to her was a creature as incommunicative as her parents, less truculent, but otherwise of the same genre. She became Elsbeta's lifeline.
"We can't afford it," Ira said.
"I'll find a job. I'll work in the fish store if I have to. " For the second time in her life, Elsbeta understood that it was possible to escape one's fate.
"Don't do that," Yetti said, "they'll never pay you. Look, there are ways of doing things. Go to school, learn English, learn to type, get a respectable job. You've been here a year and wasted it."
Elsbeta surmised that judgment had been passed on her, but a veil had been lifted. Here in America one had to make one's own way. "And you?" she asked Yetti, "are you going to go back to school?"
"I'll think about it," Yetti said with jaunty self-indulgence. Ira got his degree and a position as associate professor of mathematics. Elsbeta went to night school and got a job as a secretary, and they got an apartment. It took three grim years to remake herself into an American working girl, nine to five, on the subway every morning by eight, home by six, even fried fish and life in the small apartment, was o.k. while she dreamed about escape and her new apartment. It finally arrived with Yettiís help: a one-bedroom apartment, no walk-in closet, no terrace, on the ground floor with bars on the window. Elsbeta kept her face averted. Two years later they upgraded it for a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor. It had a walk in closet though the kitchen window faced an alley, an enclosed space where the two wings of the apartment house formed a semicircle enclosing a space where the garbage cans were kept, and a ghost lay at the bottom of the space. You wouldnít think there would be a ghost in a six-story apartment house for sixty-six families in the center of Brooklyn. A few years ago a tenant had jumped to her death with her baby in her arms, and left her imprint in a circle of dried blood on the stone pavement of the alley way. Children who seek out the dark places in defiance of the reality their parents wish them to learn, found the blood stain, but ignored it: the alleyway was the best place to play stickball, away from traffic, and the ball couldnít roll out into the gutter and get lost. They played punch ball, using the garbage cans and the blood stain for a base, and evaporated when tenants came to empty their trash into the garbage cans. The ghost of Mae Tannenbaum, a young mother of twenty-two, hardly haunted anyone.
Since rent control had been established in New York, rents could only be increased when a new tenant applied for an apartment, and an underground business to maintain low rents had come into existence: tenants secretly kept their apartment in the name of the original renter as long as they could, especially if they were members of the same family or were friends, and made their financial adjustments with each other. Like Gogolís Dead Souls, tenants were living there who had long since gone elsewhere. The practice fostered clusters of families who had lived in these apartments for decades. When Yetti moved to Florida she left her apartment to Elsbeta, which was Elsbetaís last move and final apartment: three bedrooms with a terrace off the living room facing the front street, and a pleasant next door neighbor, Dolly Schrader, a lanky blonde who had been raised in Austin, Texas and who had converted to Judaism to marry her Jewish doctor. Her father had been the doctor for the regional prison system near Austin where he had met Melvin Schrader, invited him home for dinner one night out of curiosity about New York Jews. Things got out of hand, and Dolly and Melvin eloped.
To Elsbeta, it was in the logic of things that Harriet and David would take over her apartment when the time came. In the meantime, Elsbeta traded her knowledge of four languages for a job in an export/import business. Her hair had grown back, thick, black and glossy. She wore it in an old fashioned French knot, and furnished the apartment with heavy oak furniture. With each upgrade in their apartment she shopped for furniture, carpets, dinnerware, flatware, towels and linen, reconstructing a barely remembered past. Each item, lamp or ashtray, absorbed her soul. She lavished love on bedspreads, worried over the color of drapes, bought and returned, measured, bought and returned, and bought. She placed brass Sabbath candlesticks on a shelf, and once placed, like every item she bought, they acquired the sanctity of a relic, never to be moved. The past before the hiatus in her memory became her model for order and propriety. Each purchase stretched the canvas of her childhood European identity over her American one. She bought a large wooden sideboard and silver flatware. She kept her hair dark, like her eyebrows. With red lips and black lashes, and heavy oak furniture, she communicated a foreign glamour, astonishing and resented.
But Dolly was curious and generous, willing to help with whatever: waiting for deliveries, letting in the superintendent to fix a faucet, coffee at an odd hour. A "good neighbor" had a special standing, helpful but not intrusive, more than an acquaintance, less than a friend, reliable but not intimate. Dolly was that: easy-going, athletic, she went horseback riding in Prospect Park, played tennis, drank Southern Comfort and sunbathed afternoons in the summer on the aspiring rooftop garden, which the tenants often snickered about, but the women used as a retreat for gossip and sunbathing. Elsbeta thought of Dolly as the essence of America, long limbed and blonde, always in dungarees or tennis clothes, but indifferent to art and culture. When she could she joined Dolly on the roof for sun and gossip, with an aluminum sun reflector under her chin.
It was Dolly who told Elsbeta about the fateful Mae Tannenbaum who had jumped--or fell-- to her death, infant in hand. Married one year, women became pregnant early in those days. She was twenty-two. Even Dollyís sangfroid registered dismay. Perhaps her husband hadnít come back from the war yet, or perhaps he had come back changed. A woman in distress, but how could one know. "No one thought anyone would do something like that in this neighborhood. But I guess given enough time someone will do something like that anywhere."
"There must have been a reason." Elsbeta spoke with an edge in her voice that was critical of Dolly, dismissing Dollyís easy- go willingness to accept the absence of logic.
"No reason that makes sense. She had a wonderful husband. He and Mel were friends, but he moved away after her death and remarried, and weĎve lost contact. Mel said she was suffering from one of the those things women sometimes get after they give birth."
"Post-partum depression, I guess. Something like that. Something to do with hormones."
A disorganizing wind swept through Elsbeta. "They say hormones as if that explains everything."
"Weíll never know," Dolly said. "Canít know."
"Did you ever hear of a man suffering from hormones after his wife gave birth?"
"Men have balls, women have hormones."
"That doesnít sound fair."
Dolly lowered her aluminum visor to look at Elsbeta "Whatís fair got to do with it? The fact is balls are more fun than hormones. Natureís not fair. Knock on her door and register your complaint to her." That was as pointed as Dolly ever got. She avoided deep waters on the intuition that a good mood, like good breeding or good manners, will get you further than philosophy or religion. Her steely insouciance fascinated and annoyed Elsbeta. She was fascinated by Dollyís seemingly utter lack of inner conflict, which she took to be very American. "Then why arenít youíre in favor of the Womenís Movement?"
Dolly was surprised at this turn in the conversation and moved her lanky legs on the beach chair as if to adjust to the new idea. "For those who want it, o.k. But Iím not going to work," she said with a mirthful clarity which dismissed all other women.
Elsbeta could not understand this movement, and Dollyís remarks did not help. Disappointed in her comments, still Elsbeta envied Dollyís luxurious ease with the world. But she was no explanation for Mae Tannenbaum. Elsbeta wanted it to be an accident. Nothing and no one to blame. Accidents donít need explanations: the original parapet had been only knee high in those days, more like a warning than a prevention. After the event---Dolly always referred to the accident--or suicide--as "the event"---Maeís husband said it was an accident, anyone could have fallen over the ledge as it was, and he sued the owner of the apartment house. The case dragged for five years. "So they put up this new wall that is supposed to be accident and suicide proof, like the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. Itís waist high and slanted in, too high to climb over, but once over, difficult to get back. You canít change your mind. They tried to make the Golden Gate Bridge suicide proof too, but guess what?"
"Maybe the baby fell out of her arms and she tried to save it," Elsbeta said, trying to create a palatable scenario.
"Maybe. Could be maybe anything." Dolly sipped her Southern Comfort.
"She tried to save the baby," Elsbeta said with a surprising decisiveness. "You can see that." No, Dolly couldnít see that. The wave crashed on a shore too foreign for her. "She gripped the baby to her chest all the way down," Elsbeta said. "She cradled its head in her hands. She did what she could to protect it, even as she fell."
Gripped her all the way down, cradled its head to her chest. Neighbors said. Protected her and killed her. The thud of the body exploded in Elsbetaís head. When she heard stories like this, she suffered a kind of petite mal, but her doctor said there was no evidence of anything. Shudders donít register medically.
When Elsbeta felt a bad mood developing she went shopping. That was her antidote to images that closed over her like a metal helmet. The world of goods, mostly jewelry, was her antidote, better than Southern Comfort she once told Dolly who always wore sweat pants. Elsbeta liked her informality, but could not engage her beyond that. Occasionally they went to a local movie together, but never to Broadway, to a play, or a museum. "I did all that when I first got here," Dolly said. "I think I maxed out."
Sometimes Elsbeta went with Ira, but mostly she went by herself. Her discovery of old stores on the lower East side drew her like a magnet. She could spend hours rummaging through old glass ware and crocheted pillow cases run by refugees from Croatia or Latvia who had escaped with candlesticks and teacups, a cameo from Venice, to set up business in the new world. Rarely was there anything valuable, except for the search. Ira did not mind going occasionally, but Elsbeta was insatiable. No one Ira knew cared about things with such intensity as Elsbeta did. She was always bringing home a small pin which delighted her, or news about an opera or a new exhibit. Everything he knew about art, theater, and about people who went to museums, plays and operas, came from books he had read, a realm of discourse that might have transfigured him if he could have mastered it. Elsbeta awakened an appetite in him for the refined exotic, a conception of culture that lay in buried ideas about pre-war Europe, as in Elsbetaís Viennese pastry, Limoge china, caffe mit schlage, the Louvre, the blue Danube, prints and etchings, hobbled from a tourist guidebook. This was not the Europe his parents had come from, and at first he believed he had found the solution to his discontent in Elsbeta,---and she in him, who wondered how he could have been shaped by his parents in that neighborhood, in that beach apartment. Their lives wove a pattern of saving each other. He saved her from Nazi Europe, and she saved him from his Jewish America. Elsbeta escaped his past, then she escaped Ira's past. He felt simultaneously enlarged and diminished by her knowledge of furniture, the art world, the theater, concert music. He aspired to a world he was not comfortable in. Pretense became a technique to a new identity. He became what she wanted him to be more than he wanted to be it. As she inherited her past and became what she had been, he became less of what he had been until they seemed to be alike. But pretense became a burden: he retreated into his world of mathematics and philosophy, and tolerated the theater and museums for the sake of not arguing. They developed separate spheres, like church and crown in the Middle Ages and, like those spheres, collided continually in an unspoken war of attrition, not over power which Elsbeta was indifferent to, but because of temperament and personality, the constituent tissues of everyday living. Elsbetaís passion for shopping, for dressing, for good tailoring, for shoes and handbags, jewelry and flowers, even her volunteer work at the Botanical Gardens irritated him. Her clothes dominated their closet space.
Eventually it was bound to happen: truculence set in, at first in a mannered way disguised with good humor, then undisguised with snappish humor. She seemed to have a passion for everything that could be held in her hands, smooth objects, small bowls, ceramic shapes of animals. She took visitors on tours through the Botanical Gardens, through the Shakespeare Garden and the Japanese Gardens. Gratified, believing it must exist somewhere, she believed she discovered an America she could defend. She stopped almost every day at the nearby florist to buy flowers. Ira felt like a Quaker who had fallen into a temple suffocating with incense. Her curios and flowers and china gave him a headache. Her aesthetic needs were so exacting. A scratch on the dining room table spelled doom. The entire apartment was her space, their bedroom, her kitchen, her living room. her dining room. His space was David's empty bedroom that had been made into an office for him. It was filled with books on science and mathematics, biographies of mathematicians. Stacks of articles, papers, journals, and magazines strewn everywhere grew like mushrooms, journals sticking out of desk drawers, spilling off the windowsill, off shelves, from the top of the bookcase. A computer had been set up on the pecan wooden desk Elsbeta had bought for him, then a printer had been added, then a scanner, and the pecan wood disappeared beneath the advance of modernity. A wooden carving of Pan she had put in the room disappeared behind the printer, then fell to the floor. The room resisted her efforts at reform like a turgid rock. There was nothing for her to look at in his room, nothing that beckoned her eye to rest on it, and she stopped going into it. As also the cleaning woman. There was no way to clean the room without destroying it.
Luckily in appearance, Ira was the opposite of his room. He disliked personal slovenliness. His chinos were always pressed. He appreciated clothes, though shopping for them dismayed him, so Elsbeta chose the cashmere jackets and silk ties. His size thirty- four in suits and fifteen in shirts never changed; his diet never changed, except when Harriet and David came to visit, and he had to give up meat. He did not care much about museums or entertainment of any kind, theater, movies, restaurants, ballet, or opera. She could not understand how he could live in the greatest cultural center of the world---next to Paris and Vienna---and be indifferent to culture. He said he was indifferent to wherever he lived. All he needed was a piece of pencil and some paper. "My world is in here," he tapped his head. He liked its self-sufficiency, its elegant boundaries of definition, its lack of clutter, though there was clutter everywhere else. He had no need to do anything except think. It finally came to this: the only way they could live together was by living apart.
Ira took no interest in Elsbetaís campaign to have David agree to take the apartment "when the time came"--- the euphemistic expression she used, which could squint two ways, to their demise or to Harrietís pregnancy, in which case they would move out for the greater good of leaving the apartment to Harriet and David, and they would find a smaller apartment in the same building. It was not uncommon in Europe for families to live together in the same apartment house. Families did not fear each other in the same way they seemed to in this country, she told Harriet, but Harriet had no such experience of family life, and Elsbetaís insistence on the subject irritated her: it was almost a mania with her that David should take over the apartment
David fended off the argument with defenses Elsbeta thought were spurious: Harriet needed to be near a big library. "There are special reference books Harriet needs." He knew the excuse was lame. Even to himself it sounded as if he was begging when he tried to explain why they did not want the apartment. "The books she uses don't circulate. They're old documents. That kind of thing." The words drifted over his tongue like dust.
What kind of thing was that kind of thing? The Grand Army Library might have limitations compared to a world scale library, but it was sufficient for the college students who lived in Brooklyn, and it should be sufficient for Harriet, if she embraced it.
Harriet's work was not a subject Elsbeta could explain to friends. "What is your daughter-in-law studying?" She could not say. "How come she's been doing it for so long?" She could not say. "Canít ask. Young girls today like to have their own lives." They nodded with pained understanding. Their daughters had grown up alien to them like their husbands had grown up alien to to their fathers. Each generation was another world, with its own music, its own protests, its own ambitions. Deeper reflections hung like a caesura between themselves and the generation of their daughters. But Harriet was an enigma even among the emancipated. Leela could be explicated. "A corporation lawyer!" But not Harriet. As an example of the progress of women, she was a non-starter.
Harriet could not explain her position to her parents either. Her mother was quick to seize on the anomaly. Too bad. With her looks, Harriet could have made something of herself. But what? A supermodel! Why couldnít she be normal? Like a supermodel? Every other Sunday Harriet and David rented a car and drove out to Old Harbour. The ride was boring for the first hour, highways and small new cities on land that had once been farms or estates. Then the landscape opened, trees became dense, gardens and front lawns became larger, small scattered farms appeared where families set up roadside stands with corns, tomatoes and eggs, such as Harriet used to tend when her parents owned their farm, six acres that stretched along the north shore of the bay. They sold it twenty years ago to developers for a million dollars and remained unreconciled to what they had done. They had kept an acre for themselves, and their old house, graying and decaying clapboard, which stood in the middle of condominiums, fieldstone ranches and brick split level houses. Their neighbors hated them for hanging wash on a clothes line, for growing vegetables on their front lawn, for giving the neighborhood an appearance not in keeping with modernity. Her family had lived there for four generations, but their place had been washed out from under them by newcomers who took the train to work in the city, shopped in the city and went to the city for entertainment. The local movie house closed down, the local markets closed down. There was nothing local anymore. One had to drive by car to buy a loaf of bread, and Estelle did not drive. She had two friends whom she spoke with by telephone several times a week, conversations which left her cranky. She would recount them to Anders with spiteful asperity. He was never interested. Her voice became shrill as she tried to make him interested. "Caroline and Ed are taking a cruise to Bermuda. Can you imagine them on a cruise? I can't. They can't dance, Caroline doesn't fit into anything, Ed isn't permitted to eat anything. Why do you think they'd go on a cruise?"
It wasnít a question. It was an argument. It intimated that there was a hidden reason why people like the Straws would go on a cruise, a reason that had to do with novelties of entertainment she wanted to know about, and to know why she was excluded from them.
"Maybe they like being on the water."
"Ed gets seasick." Her voice accused him of trying to wriggle out of a real answer. "Remember? He could never go sailing with us because he always got seasick."
"They have pills for that nowadays."
"That would be like Caroline to fill that poor man with medicine so that she could go on a cruise. And it would be like him to do it for her."
That's where their conversations ended, with an accusation hanging in midair and her disappointment thick as fog. "You want to go on a cruise?" She would decline to answer. She knew he did not want to go on a cruise, and neither did she. He wanted to ward off her accusation that he never offered to take her anywhere and his offer was a counter accusation that her desires were not legitimate. She wanted him to want to go on a cruise and she wanted to know why he didnít want to go. She knew why. They didnít fit in with cruise people. She wanted to know why.
She spoke to Dawn every day, recycled conversations of what she and her friends had said to each other, and what she and Anders said to each other about what she and her friends had said to each other. Each time she pressed home the point that someone was getting something or doing something that she couldn't. She never visited Dawn unless Anders took her because highways confused her. with their signs and exits and cars passing at sixty miles an hour. Whenever she was on one, her mind went bizarre. What if the highway suddenly ended, what if God had re-arranged the exit signs? How would she know where to get off? Then you would have to follow the road no matter how you felt about it, if you missed your exit you were lost forever, suddenly in a strange town you didnít know and didnít know how to get back on the highway. It was amazing how easy it was to get lost on a straight line. How do people make their way around the world? It was a mystery to her. There were no landmarks, no way to tell one road from another. All highways looked alike. If you missed a sign, you might drive forever. Sometime after Lionel had been born, something dizzy spun off in her head. The mall down the road had vacuumed up the stores, the villages, and businesses she had known all her life. Her doctorís office had been replaced by a medical center, and his office was somewhere down one of three corridors. Only the old First Lutheran church still stood on the highway, catering to a diminishing congregation of Lutherans who viewed with approval the painting of Luther in his dark velvet robe and large velvet hat. He had risked martyrdom, death and hell for rejecting the doctrine of Transubstantiation. The gravity of the struggle was apparent in his jowls and heavy eyelids on the peeling plaster wall. Anders rarely went, but was firm in his support of the church. Dawn went once a month, which was all the time she could spare, and occasionally managed to take Stella with her, who took inventory of who was there and who wasnít.
Everything else had moved down the road or into the mall or around the harbor to the other side, new condos and inns and fancy bed and breakfast places. Suddenly Stella was living in a resort area. Bulldozers and earth movers changed the landscape. But their wooden clapboard house remained with its two floors, three bedrooms, a parlor that did service as a living room and a dining room. The furniture remained the same as her parents had used, overstuffed armchairs and overstuffed sofa. Only the kitchen had been remodeled, the wooden counters replaced with formica, and a dishwashing machine installed. The mantel over the fireplace was still populated with graduation pictures of Dawn, Lionel and Harriet, of Stella and Anders on their sailboat, The Frisky Miss, Stella in a blue and white nautical outfit. Mostly the photos were of Stellaís ice-skating days, the competitions and the trophies she won. She had been a winner in every regional competition and the local newspapers had come to interview the local hopeful for the Olympics, local star in a local patch of heaven: trophies stood on the mantle with framed newspaper articles and pictures, Stella the doll in her blue sequined tutu with layers of tulle hand sewn by her mother and aunts, sparkling on her miniature body, the DNA of her memory, the applause, the cunningly erotic music hypnotizing the audience as the cameras flashed to catch The Frisky Miss executing a perfect Bielman spin with her free leg lifted behind her up to her head, sailing over the ice into the heaven of applause. Once mastered, you could do almost anything on the ice. There was no friction, only the freedom of movement, one with the element like a fish in the water or a bird in the sky.
Her depressions grew worse as the children grew older and she looked at them with confusion. They were so different from her, growing up in a world she didnít recognize. As they got older, every year separated them further. Agoraphobia hemmed her in, limiting any direction she might think of going, if she could think of a direction, while the children grew up, married, or went off to college.
The seasonal population that had come for half a century no longer came. They had been different from the tourists who came today, here for a weekend and gone by Sunday night. They had been people who had owned estates, the hunting and horsey crowd, people who lived in New York and Boston, who came from Connecticut or Rhode Island and took the ferry from Block Island, who came in the fall to horseback ride, and sent their servants to shop in her parents' grocery store, or the jet setters who came in the summer to sail their boats out of the harbor. You could set the seasons by them, the razzle dazzle of the splintering summer sun, and the autumn trees radiant in death. In the past, the rich came in the spring and set up their nets on their private tennis courts, blue and white pavilions went up and tennis balls bounced in the air. You could not see the players behind the hedges, but you could hear the smack of their rackets and see the balls fly though the air. Their servants went down to the harbor to bring their boats out of winter storage. Estelle and Anders sailed their dinghy in the shadow of their yachts, curious about the distant stars. Estelle looked like a doll in her striped blue and white shirt and white pants, plum colored lips in a pearly face, blue eyes slanted at a delicious angle. Small, she dressed to make herself look smaller with dirndle skirts that emphasized her nineteen inch waist, and thin cotton blouses that made her small perky breasts look like a child's, an appearance she guessed that evoked contradictory feelings in men: the desire to protect her and the knowledge that they could squeeze her nipples like berries.
In the past when summer returned, the rich returned too. Tents went up behind the hedges on the lawns, and bands played music under the night sky. Men and women dressed in light summer clothes, and the heat never bothered them. Rich with expectation from their accidental good luck to be situated on a strip of enviable beach near a good harbor, the town decorated itself with plants and ribbons, stores were stocked with adventurous foods, marzipans, ripe figs, candied dates, cheeses from around the world. In the winter, when the rich left, taking their limousines and horses and boats and servants and music with them, the village shrank to a spot covered with snow. Now the rich no longer came in the summer or the autumn, and their estates had been chopped up into housing developments. A few stores stayed open in town with bicycles to rent and sailboat cruises to take by the hour. Four generations of Millars had been lobster men and small farmers, the geography of place secure in their memories of northern Europe, ocean, coastline and land molding their occupations and concerns, thoughts never far from the weather. Anders still scanned the sky to read his destiny for the day: foul weather, shut in, radio, t.v., arguments.
Dawn and her family came as often to visit as Dawnís time allowed. She had had three trimester miscarriages and had gained thirty pounds with each aborted pregnancy, deposited layer upon layer of disappointment on her body. She refused to go to a fertility clinic, she claimed, for religious reasons. The argument was that she had put the issue in Godís hands. She and her husband Robbie adopted disabled children and had become foster parents to three other children. They arrived in a caravan truck with diapers and bottles, wheelchairs, breathing mechanisms, crutches, walkers, toys, pacifiers, blankets, and special chairs. It was an hour's drive around the coast of the inner bay. Estelle wanted Dawn to move closer to her. She could give her a hand with all those kids if Dawn lived closer, but Robbie had his business on the other side of the Sound and Dawn said they couldn't move. Estelle didn't believe this answer because Robbie was a carpenter and could set up his business anywhere. She suspected the real reason was because Robbie wanted to live near his family, and Dawn didnít.
Harriet's brother, Lionel lived in an ashram in the Catskills and rarely came to visit. It was not pleasant when he did. He was moody and spaced out on something, which he claimed only happened when he came home for a visit. David found him interesting but menacing and incoherent, his world view put together from Nietzsche, Confucius, Schopenhauer, the Gospels and Zen. As children Harriet and Lionel had been conspiratorial in sustaining each other, but an incoherence had overtaken Lionel after he graduated from college. David could not converse with him. Everything flowed from Lionelís photographic memory, systems and arguments which he launched like campaigns. As he aged, this volume of the worldís learning skinnied down to two or three pithy statements. Dawn, whose wounded body in its struggle to give birth had led her to a capacious absorption of all life forms, absorbed her brother with her own kind of incommunicable wisdom which did not need conversation or rationality.
It was difficult for Dawn to come in the winter, she did not like to travel on the highways with five children and back roads rutted from ice and thawing. The rich retired to their homes in Florida. Their neighbors went on cruises. Lionel never came in the winter. Anders sat by the fireplace and read the newspaper.
The Millars werenít the only ones who had kept a few acres of their original farm and refused "to go modern." There were other families, the Junipers and the Macys, their stubbornness a thorn in the side of the new community. You would have thought Stella and Anders might have found comraderie with them. You would have thought. Stella complained that she had made overtures to them that were never reciprocated. The Junipers in particular and Harrietís weird friendship with them, raised her bile. They were the oddest birds on that spit of land that hung out on the estuary. Lobster people, but they never sailed. "Tory people," Stella said with a dark lining to her words. "Havenít been Tories around here for two hundred years," Anders said. "Donít matter," Stella said, "historyís thicker than blood." Every so often you could hear Mr. Juniperís hunting rifle go off. "Hope thatís a rabbit, and not his wife," Stella said.
Stellaís inflammation concerning the Junipers began one day in the fall of Harrietís twelfth year. On a late afternoon when the clouds were scuttling across a cold sky and the summer birds were getting ready to leave, Harriet and Lionel found Juno Juniperís house. She was an actual person. As riverine children, the coastline was Harrietís and Lionelís hideaway from the adult world. Adults hate muck, and the shoreline was overhung with tangled branches, corrupt with erosion where the land was always collapsing. Harriet and Lionel loved everything adults hated, where feet slipped into mud and clothes got dirty. They often had to go into the water to get around a fallen tree. Sometimes Harriet lifted Lionel over a large tangle of thorny brush. He was small like Estelle, almost elfish, with limp pale hair, and she could lift him easily. She took after Anders, and Lionel thought she could do anything, even carry him. They tramped along the shore, pretending that inlets covered with fallen trees were piratesí coves. Rumor had it that there had been rum runners here long ago. A long time ago. And if not, anything would do for a story. The muckier the better. They sometimes slipped into the water, barely escaping the dragon that lived there. Their sneakers filled with mud and tiny fish. They found a field where they took off their shoes and tried to dry them, and thatís how they found the Juniperís house on the north side of the estuary in a tucked-in piece of land that had not yet fallen into the river, but would soon. For now it clung for support beneath two massive willows hung with lobster pots and nets.
"Come on the porch and dry off," a voice said. "I ainít got a gun and I ainít gonna hurt you." She sat in a rocking chair, a crone in a flowered house dress, plump arms and rings of fat under her face, and could be seen there almost any time, steadfast as a lighthouse. She knew who they were, the Millar children. She knew who Anders and Stella were. She knew everybody along the coast, where they had come from and who their ancestors were, who was lying about their past and who wasnít, even though she never left her porch. The house leaned to a side and looked ready to fall into the mud: it was only a matter of time. One or two good winter storms, one hurricane that wasnít predicted, and it would be gone. It was a form of gambling, to outwit the elements. Everything was in a state of disrepair, waiting to be mended, pottery, crockery, an umbrella, a window shade, except for Mr. Juniperís prize possession, a twelve cubic foot freezer in the kitchen. The family lived off what they caught and what Juno grew in her garden, and anything else Mr. Juniper shot in the field. They heated the house with logs in a pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. The developers scorned their land because it was preyed upon by the tides that the ocean brought into the river, and they suspected mold. Mildew and rot in the house and three warts on Mrs. Juniperís face assured them of this. She made a bad impression on the landscape. But time and nature would take care of that. Why raise a stink now? Time was more efficient. "Want some lemonade and a cookie?" she asked. Harriet and Lionel hesitated. "Sure you do." She was Juno Juniper and that name was reason enough to accept a cookie from her. The second reason was that she had books in her house they had never seen before, old books on an old ramshackle bookshelf in the ramshackle front room: very old books, the oldest books they never heard of, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Adventures of Parzival, "Ever heard of them?" Cookies and children and books was the plan of her world.
"Iíve heard of The Chronicles of Narnia," Lionel said. "Ever read it?"
Silent crumbs fell from his lips. "My sister read it and she told me about it."
"Come back next Saturday and Iíll read you a chapter from Gilgamesh. Might as well start at the beginning. Too late today. Men folks returning and they get irritable if they donít eat." She was pleased with their visit and did not want to jeopardize it, pleased that they were pleased to come every Saturday afternoon. She had three sons as big as trees, and she missed children. Her husband was spent, and that was that. He played the harmonica now and then, but that was that.
She knew the Millar family, knew what everyone knew, with variations. There were sightings of the children, word of Dawnís miscarriages, her adoptions, her patient husband. Who was the greater saint? The other two children ran around like badgers looking for a hole, and they came back the next Saturday, glad to have cookies. Cookies and children and books was the plan of the world, she reckoned, and she was right about the Millar children. They came back every Saturday for two years, scrambling along the shore in the spring and the summer, through the inlets and streams during the spring rains, trudging through snow and ice in the wintertime over the Juniperís meadow in the winter, water squishing from their galoshes, tramping through Gilgamesh until they reached Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Juno warned them to carry a red flag when they crossed the meadow in deer season. "Mr. Juniper is very near-sighted." She read to them in a voice as cracked with age as her face, yet mounting to a thunderclap when Gilgamesh assaulted Einkedu over his betrayal. What betrayal? Lionel wanted to know. Hush, Mrs. Juniper said, "youíll find out soon enough. Oh, Einkedu," she wept, "my dear Einkedu, where have you gone." Was that the betrayal? That he had died.
Grief permeated her wet walls. "Do you know where he went?" she asked. They shook their heads. Where would Einkedu go? And why couldnít he hear his dear friend Gilgamesh weeping for him. The willows around the house wept. They could hear that. The water from the bay wept at the doorway. They could hear that. Everything in the house was moist and dank. Mushrooms sprouted under the front steps as Juno Juniper read to them. "The oldest story in the world, five thousand years old, it was carved into a rock with stones. What do you think of that? I bet you didnít even know there were human beings 5,000 years ago."
"I knew," Lionel said.
"Did you know they wrote stories?"
Crumbs fell from his lips.
"Thatís what man is, a storyteller. Our folks always told
stories. Everywhere we went, we carried stories with us."
"Oh her!" Stella said. She was a troll that had crawled out from under a rock on Long Island Sound. She wanted to know where Harriet and Lionel went every Saturday afternoon, and she was not happy about it. It was said that the Junipers came of Tory stock, that they had fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War, had settled in New Brunswick or off an island near Nova Scotia, some place out in Canada, returned a hundred years later and resettled in Old Harbour.
"Whyíd they come back," Harriet asked.
"Looking for something," Anders said, "or maybe her family couldnít make a living. Thatís mostly why people get up and go. That and war."
"People like them are always looking for something and canít make a living wherever they go." Stella said.
"Whatís a living?" Lionel asked.
"Something youíll never know," Stella said.
Tension developed. Stella said the Juniper sons looked like "they were up to no good." Three big men and Harriet on her budding stage. Every visit caused so much difficulty that Harriet and Lionel began to lie about their visits, but Stella sniffed it out. "Bad enough youíre visiting them, but lying about it! What are they up to with you? I swear Iíll take a gun and shoot them."
They stopped going. Harriet and Lionel recited the stories to each other at night. "Einkedu, you have gone where I cannot find you."
Where was that? Lionel trembled. How could someone disappear? He clasped Harriet to him. "I never want to lose you."
"Donít worry. You wonít. This is only a story. In real life people donít lose each other." Lionel thought otherwise. In real life they could not find each other.
ĎBut youíre planning to go away, and I donít even know where you are planning to go. "
"Iíll show you. I have a map in my bedroom, and Iíll show you where I am going." She took out the map from her closet and unrolled it across her bed. "Look. This is where we are. Right here on the river, on this tiny point in this inlet on the Sound. The train station is two miles away. You can walk there. And the train," she drew a line with a marker that went down into New York city, "goes almost to where I plan to live. In a place called Greenwich Village. Many famous writers have lived there, and thatís where I plan to go. I will go to the university there and with my degree I will be able to write and publish."
"What will you write about."
Harriet hugged her knees to her chest. "Donít know yet. I have so many things to write about, I have to sort them out. It may take me my whole life."
"But I still donít know where you will be."
"Yes, you do. Look, this line will be like a ribbon between you and me. Itís a railroad that goes from where we live to where I will live." She took his finger and put it on the map. "You can trace the railroad right down Long Island to New York city and you will always know where you are and where I am." Lionel looked dubious. "Even if you never take the train, you will know where I am. Thatís what maps do. They connect points between people and places. You have to know where you are so that you can know where you can go." Where Harriet saw a direction, Lionel saw only lines.
Three years later, Harriet visited Juno Juniper to say goodbye.
"So the day of leaving has come," Juno said, smoothing a pleat in her housedress. "It always does. What you plan to do with that learning?"
Harriet had been sure of what she planned to do until Juno Juniper asked her, and pulled the rug out from under her future. "Donít need to go to college to read, donít need to pay people money to do that. You know how to read books. I taught you how."
"I want to teach others to read, and they wonít let me teach unless I have the right degree. And if I write papers, no one will publish them unless I have accreditation."
"Oho, so thatís the problem, people making money out of other peopleís learning."
Juno Juniper did not understand the world. She lived in a broken down house which would fall into the river one day. "Iíve gone away many times," she said. "Always going away and always coming back. Actually, when you think of it, I canít settle down. I went from Cornwall, then I went from Halifax to here when you settled your problems with the British. We were also fisher people in Cornwall. Every book I have read has been in my head with me from Cornwall to Halifax to here. Took them with me from Halifax and took them with me everywhere I went, took them with me from Cornwall. I guess in that way, Iím always home." She sat in her rocking chair, five years older than when Harriet first climbed onto her porch and discovered a treasure the pirates had forgotten. Her face was burnt with fading light and her eyes glazed with lost expectations. She took Harrietís hand with an apology. "Itís right for you to go, but ignore the fancy talk. Real literature ainít made by fancy people, the stories make the people. Real stories have no authors. Thatís a modern invention." She got up from her chair. "I want to show you something." She went into the kitchen and pulled out an old metal box from under the couch, a box about the size of a ream of typing paper. It could have been a jewelry box, but it wasnít. It held a sheaf of old yellow papers. "For you" she said, "when you graduate and tell me what you have learned. Promise youíll come back to get it." She read Harrietís bewildered expression. "Yes, itís old, " she snorted, "older than this country. Itís an old manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, been in my family since our Cornwall days. Itís for you because you will know what to do with it. When you graduate. You will have the right background to be believed, and I guess thatís necessary. I ainít never been believed. Now go. You donít want to be walking along this bank when the dark comes on." Then a shadow crossed her mind, the presage of the corruption of time. Knowing how the things of the mind had been preserved, she had never felt uncertainty, never doubted that an old story was stronger than the grave. Until now. She grasped Harrietís hand, "Promise youíll come back. I ainít got no one else to give this to."
But Harriet was leaving for a world with libraries and teachers who did not speak like Juno Juniper, who had also read every thing and even more, and she never wanted to come back to a world that was crumbling into the mud and the distant memory of the story-haunted times with Lionel. Loved them though she had, she was no longer a riverine child. Embarrassed, she promised. Juno Juniper picked up her hand. "Donít lie, child."
Harriet asked Anders what he thought about her promising something she might not do, lied right in the promising. "Havenít the faintest idea," he said. "But I practically made a death-bed promise to Juno Juniper that I might not keep." They were sailing in his new boat which had been bought with the money the developers had given them. He took it out every day that weather permitted, riding the wind. He had asked Stella to christen it, but she refused, "Donít care what you call it," she said, "just donít call it Frisky Miss 11." Three years later it still had no name. Anders said he didnít go with death-bed promises. "People have no right to hold you to it because no one knows what the future will bring." They headed for Block Island, she and Lionel and Anders, one of the few nearly perfect days they would have together. Stella grouched as usual about their going, their leaving her alone, but she would not come, repeating her list of terrors, the boat might capsize, she would drown, they would drown, a storm was expected. "But Mom always sailed when she was younger," Harriet said, critical and curious. "Yes, she loved it. Then." The wind whipped at them as they approached the open ocean. The sky was a million miles of blue. Autumn clouds sailed along. They skimmed the water like flying fish. Whales hung out on the horizon. Early Canadian geese honked their departure, and flocks of the Great Cormorant spread their wings across the sky. Larks and swallows flew along the coastline, keeping pace mile for mile, wishing the world God speed. The setting sun silvered their wings. Ecstasy wiped away Harrietís slate of questions. The great moment of being had arrived, the moment every bird knew when it stretches its neck toward the sun. What happened to people who had found the perfect pitch of their lives and decided to ride it forever, to stretch their necks towards the sun, towards the wind and the moon? Why couldnít they go on forever, and not return? Like Enkidu, no one ever came back to say that they had gone on forever, gone where the blue is forever, gone where the loons and the gannets, the herons, and the plovers migrate forever. Suddenly she was weeping. "What happened to Mom, Dad? I want to know." Anders changed the direction of the boat so quickly the wind tore the words from her mouth. They flew into the sky, and the birds caught them and flung them about. "Something scared her," he said. Harriet sat huddled in her life jacket with an arm around Lionel who huddled into his lifejacket next to her. Water covered the bottom of the boat. "I canít just think of her this way forever," Harriet wept. "She fell," Anders said, "It was a bad fall, she twisted her spine."
"That canít be everything," Harriet said.
Anders brought the main sail around again. Wind and water washed over the railing and over them. He said, "No, it wasnít everything."
"What else? Didnít you try to help her, take her to a doctor?" The fearful question was squeezed out on the wind. Anders responded breathlessly as if that was the least of the thousand and one decisions he had had to make. "Oh, that. She was in the hospital for several months until her back was fixed, but she thought that when her back would be fixed, she would be able to skate again. It took half a dozen years for her to realize that it was over. " He headed back to Old Harbour. Dark clouds blew up with satanic triumph. Birds flew back to their nests, watching the darkness scuttle after them. Chipmunks and mice scampered along the banks, looking for a hole. Leave it alone, Harriet said to herself, but she couldnít. "Do you think she will ever get better?" This was not a conversation for bad weather. Anders busied himself with scanning the sky until the waiting of the children became too heavy to ignore. "No," he said. The fatality startled them.
"Our mother will never get better?" Lionel asked.
Harriet put her hand over his mouth to prevent the demons from escaping, but she herself repeated the question. Nothing could be so obdurate. All sorts of people got better, all the time.
Anders had a different story to tell. "Some time after your sister was born, they said your mother was suffering from post-partum depression, something that seems to happen to some women after they give birth. We thought it would go away. Then you were born, and she started to lock doors and windows, put paper into cracks around the doors to shut everything in, didnít answer the door when someone knocked, and stayed in bed for days at a time. "Whatís happening to me," she said one night, "Iím going crazy, arenít I?" I went dizzy with fear. Then she started to laugh, as if it was the best joke she had ever heard. I persuaded her to go to Landmore Hospital. Maybe that was a mistake. How do you know? She was there for six months, and I thought that would do it. They said it would be best not to visit until the treatment was over. But when she came out, she looked gray and cried for weeks. She made me promise never to take her there again. "I did it for you," she said, "because I knew you wanted me to be sane, but I hate sanity."
At college, Harriet threw herself into reading, believing she would find an answer, she would break the code of human behavior. "Think outside the box!" she said to David.
"There is nothing outside the box because the box is us. We built the box"
"If the box is us, then we control the box, then why canít we explain everything?"
Too late Harriet realized that Junoís last words to her were meant as an antidote to death.
"Why don't you move to the United States?" she asked Maurice one day. There were reasons of ancestry, associations, habits, he told her. "I still have my mother," he said. "She is elderly, but I still have her, and two sisters who live nearby. Our roots in Troyes go back eight hundred years, more or less, with a few interruptions, plagues and exiles, but we always go back I am like an old tree. Pull me out, I will leave a hole in the ground, where my seeds will fall. Someday my grandson will be old enough to visit me by himself. I look forward to that. I want to show him my world. I would not want him to come and find a hole where I once lived." The homeless remained on the steps of the library like broken branches. As the temperature dropped, they climbed up the steps higher and higher and huddled against the door.
By summer's end, Maurice had gone back to Troyes. The Luther scholar was gone too. The nun, the Sumerian, and the Tennyson scholars remained throughout the winter. The first snowstorm came and made it impossible for Harriet to bike or rollerblade to the library. Snow fell on the lions, ice gave them whiskers. By Christmas, the Salvation Army had set up a Santa Claus on the sidewalk outside the library. From autumn to winter, the homeless huddled higher up the steps. People entered the library wet with winter rain. Harriet left her roller skates on a mat in a closet. It was the season for retreat. By autumn in twelfth century Europe, wars and sieges were winding down. By winter the roads were impossible for armies and merchants to travel on. Honey was stored on shelves. Herbs hung from rafters to dry out, wood and vegetables were piled up outside the door, and peasants and barons retreated into their hives. People and hunting dogs hibernated together. Europe hibernated under a blanket of snow that stretched from Denmark to Provence.
Candles were expensive and only the rich had light after sundown. The royal party travelled to their castle in Caen for Christmas festivities. Otherwise winter was intensely boring. The soul ached for spring and when it came forests and fairs sprang to life and the roads were filled again with pilgrims, merchants, and warriors. War was perennial and seasonal like summer blooms, as cyclical as the grass and the daisies. The knights appeared in the forests, on the roads, on the hilltops, around the castles. Pastures turned first green, then red with blood. The peasants planted and the knights' horses destroyed their crops. By autumn harvests were stunted, whole landscapes surrounding the castles had been ploughed under the hoofs of the knights' horses, and hunger set in. The wasteland was wherever war was, and in the spring war was everywhere.
The Church fought the warrior spirit of the knights and declared peace movements, declarations not to go to war on Thursdays or Sundays or on Ash Wednesday. But without war there was no reason for knighthood. The Church and the knights were deadlocked until Urban ll preached the Crusade in Clermont in November, 1095.
"Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs, since this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by mountain peaks, is too narrow for large populations; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissension and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says 'Floweth with milk and honey' was given by God into the possession of the children of Israel. Jerusalem is the navel of the world, the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights."
That Christmas, Urban preached the Crusade in the Limoges Cathedral, then he went north through Poitiers to the Loire Valley. In March he was at Tours, then he turned south through Aquitaine. May and June he was in Provence, in August he recrossed the Alps into Lombardy. Everywhere he went he preached the Crusade in the name of peace, and by the summer of 1096 knights took the pledge and organized for war against the infidel instead of against each other. The warrior spirit and the crusader spirit fed on each other.
It took all winter to make preparations, for the Crusade was costly. It took enormous sums to finance it. Money had to be raised, money had to be raised in huge coffers and bagfuls. Some knights sold their lands or placed them in escrow with the Church, or with other knights who declined to go. Commerce was galvanized, and brought excitement to the dormant land. Populations shifted. Provencals left the land they had lived in for five centuries; some went south and east, and some went north. But most went somewhere. Restlessness seized the land. The Midi stirred like earthworms turning the land over. Traders, bankers and usurers came up from Sicily, merchants from Italy and Provence to set up shops in cities along the way. Jews made their way from the Midi to northern cities. Smithies, forgers and usurers were needed. For the first time in centuries there was abundant work. Armor had to be bought, horses obtained and shoed, provisions, food, ships, passages to be paid for, tolls, bribes, gifts to give emperors of recalcitrant kingdoms, like Byzantium, that lay in the way. Jewish communities along the way were plundered, and communities left and moved eastward. The changes were titanic, like an army of red ants setting fire to the land. Whole populations shifted. Normans became French, Italians became Germans, Jews became Russian. The Provence was plunged into turmoil, Narbonne was almost swept into the sea, a kingdom ploughed under the hoofs of the crusadersí horses.
By the second Crusade, usury became the mainstay of financing the Crusades, and Jews were conscripted as nostri judaeus, "servants of the treasury," to relieve the Christian of the sin of usury. They were brought into the cities to make money for the Christians, while Black market moneylending flourished in a stew of land reverence and land sales, knighthood, piety, crusade, war, religion, and the need to finance it all. War and glory are expensive, and someone has to pay for it, whether through looting or taxes. Wars are fought by taxing, enslaving, looting, plundering, taxing, enslaving and taxing. Miraculously, the sums were always raised and by spring the roads from Germany to Provence were filled with horses, crusaders, and knights going east. Knights came down from northern Europe like rivers rushing to the Mediterranean, and merchants clogged the roads going north. Whole villages picked up and left like ants on the move, communities in the Provence disappeared and new ones along the Rhine appeared. Peasants and farmers left their lands to rot. The poor had nothing to lose and swelled the rear lines behind the knights, the carters, the armies, the suppliers and the prostitutes. They wore distinctive brown capes with a cross on the shoulder and regarded themselves as the Hebrews escaping slavery and serfdom. Women gave birth along the way, many died in childbirth and their children died along the way with them. Some women carried their dead children to Jerusalem, believing they would be resurrected there.
Courts had to be set up along the way, for crimes were committed, most of all rape by unmarried men tormented by sex. Crimes were committed, even against children, but in the determined atmosphere they believed that all would be forgiven once they reached Jerusalem. That was the goal: to be forgiven for being licentious, for being liars, for being fornicators, for being poor. They were united in Christian hope for a new world, and carried their human nature on their back and between their legs like a tormenting itch they could not satisfy, an itch for sex, for food, for a good fight, for salvation. Theft, gossip, rape, and common enmity broke out again and again. Sectarianism infected them. The Crusaders from Rouen did not like the Crusaders from Bayeaux, and the Normans did not like the men from Provence. A century later, they marshaled an internal Crusade against them and destroyed them. But in Jerusalem all would be forgiven, enmities and sins would be forgiven, and their souls would become white as newborn lambís wool. For the moment they halted in Constantinople to wait for Raymond IV, the Count of Toulouse who was coming from Hungary to join them there. He was powerful in land and reputation and piety, and in enemies who regarded him as greedy, merciless, fanatic, and superstitious. He was religious and took the cup of Saint Robert from the abbey of Chaise-Dieu in Languedoc for good luck and protection, and for guidance when he led his contingent from Provence to the East.
There are less savory stories told about him: that he had ordered the hands and feet of his Slavic prisoners to be cut off and their mutilated bodies scattered along the roads. Such stories must be judged by the spirit of the time: Other knights, like Simon de Montfort, when he conquered Languedoc for France and Pope Innocent 111 in 1208, did the same. Mutilating bodies was a strategy of war, meant to establish proof of one's ferocity and intimidate the enemy. Judged by his own time, Raymond lV was commendable in all ways, even in ferocity, as a valiant knight and a devout servant of God.
In spite of his piety, however, he had been excommunicated twice, once for a consanguinous marriage, and the second time for defending his provincial clergy. His first wife mysteriously disappeared and Raymond established better relations with the Church. His Provencal realm, established on Roman laws, included thirteen fertile counties in the Midi, among them Toulouse, Narbonne, Nimes and Beziers, which were accounted as the most stable and the most culturally fertile area in twelfth century Christendom. Merchants like stability and had little to fear from disorderliness under Raymondís rule. Both commerce and culture flourished in his province. Wealthy towns dotted the warm landscape, small kingdoms, diverse people flourished, and love songs grew in the mischkulture of Arabs, Jews, Catholics, Catalans, and Cathars. Poetry flamed from the sparks of cultural rubbing. Two generations later, his descendant, Ermengarde, was the prized viscountess of Narbonne. Married at fourteen, she drove off the knights and the Catalan armies, saved Narbonne for the French, and the troubadours blessed her. The cult of love developed, and values like honor and individualism flourished. But a century later, that sun cooled and the temperate climate withered in the first fires of the Inquisition. For the moment however, in the languorous and prosperous Midi, there were many temptations not to go East. Raymond's powerful vassals, the viscounts of Narbonne and Toulouse, declined the trip to Jerusalem. Their response was a portent of disunity to come.
The pope appointed Adhemar as his vicar to accompany Raymond to make sure that the spiritual message of the Crusade did not get lost in the welter of so many knights seeking earthly glory, and to provide a sense of unity among the Norman and Provencal knights. Some thought this diminished Raymond's position as the indisputable leader. Others, biblically haunted, saw Adhemar and Raymond as a modern Moses and Aaron returning to the lands of the pagan. They spoke of the rod of Aaron that would bloom in the East. They thought of themselves as the Maccabees willing to die for religious freedom as they moved eastward, Christian warrior and knight, the poverty-stricken and the prostitutes, in a spiritual cross of biblical heroism, Christian piety, venal lust and song:
Do you know what God has promised those who take the cross?
By God! He has promised to reward them well!
Paradise for evermore, paradise for evermore.
The spirit of togetherness melted in the Byzantium heat: A feud broke out between the Normans and the Provencals over an alliance Raymond had made with the Greek throne to ensure passage through its territory. The knights from Provence were at ease in Byzantium, they were acclimated to a mixed culture, but the Normans were not. They were Norsemen, Teutons, many of them new converts to Christianity and they distrusted the alliance. This was not their kind of civilization, effete, esthetic, convoluted, deceptively courteous, mannered. They did not feel comfortable here. Many of them new Christians, they were rude and abrasive, distrustful of old civilizations. They shocked Anna Comnenius, the daughter of the emperor, who wrote a memoir about the migration that crossed her Byzantium homeland. "They trampled farmlands beneath their horse's hooves; they let their poor starve and become cannibals in their desperation; they descended on Byzantium like a raging human storm, impossible to halt; their priests engaged in war, bashing skulls with their maces." Her emperor-father absorbed the shock of this passage across his kingdom and made the best bargain he could, but the Normans claimed the bargain endangered their safety. Cultural irritations and distrust deepened with every step the knights took eastward.
In Antioch, Raymond's troops, besieged, starving and cut off from supplies, ate their horses, which was like eating their inheritance. "Among the Franks," the Arab emir Ousama wrote, "all pre-eminence belongs to the horseman. They are in truth the only men who count. Theirs is to give counsel; theirs to render justice." The Aztecs believed that the knight was a God, half man, half horse. But in Antioch, Raymond's troops ate their horses. Then Raymond and Adhemar became ill. Bohemond, that rangy Norman knight, seized the opportunity to wrest control from them.
At this crisis, an earthquake struck Antioch on the night of December 30, 1097, and a Provencal peasant by the name of Peter Bartholomew had a vision revealed to him by Saint Andrew of the lance that had pierced Christ's side. Before he could bring the lance to Raymond to show him the wondrous object, Saint Andrew hid it and told Peter it would be revealed again after the city had fallen to the crusaders.
The story was immediately told everywhere and in two days it sounded like the truth. The Provencals believed it, but the Normans did not. The story of the lance finally destroyed the shaky alliance between them. The dispute in Byzantium over treaties made with the Greeks widened into a religious-nationalistic quarrel. A hundred years later northern Europe won the argument when other crusaders led by Simon de Montfort destroyed Provence, and absorbed it into France. The house of Raymond lV, his progeny and his place in French history, were swept away, or swept into a clutter of poems by troubadours from Provence. The cup Robert had carried to Jerusalem was never recovered.
One afternoon, by the intuitive sense that overtakes assiduous researchers that something important is on the next page, Harriet found a transcript of old Provencal family names which included Gois, Goi, and Gos. And there in the Philomena, was Chrťtien's name, spelled out with all its ambiguities: "Ce conte Crestiens le Gois." The word 'gois' in Old French meant Gentile. It was the term Jews used for converts, perhaps intended as an insult like "marrano" four hundred years later. Curses on etymology: the word also meant "dwarf" or "little dog," like Marrano meant pig? In any event the name was his assessment of his place in the world, perhaps sardonic assessment, a self-inflicted wound. Whatever interpretation, Chrťtien did not choose his name carelessly. Names are thematic in his poetry. In Percival, the hero has difficulty naming himself, and his name is a play in Old French on the phrase, "pierce," an invitation to readers to puzzle out the hero's identity. "Pierce the veil," Pierce the vizor. Who can tell what knight, visor and helmet over his head, gallops down the tournament field? Or how many soldiers-of-fortune disappeared behind the disguise to be rewarded with a sack of gold and the flush of adventure. Momentary joy? Enough to last a peasantís lifetime who had gamed the system.
Many of Chrťtien's tales are about people with multiple selves in pursuit of another self, the identity crisis as an historical process, also a theme of the historical imagination, cross-cultural people like Saul/Paul, Rahel Varnhagen, Isaac Babel, and Kafka, whose identities got lost in their fictional enterprises. Did Chrťtien regard Christianity as the potential mediator between his genius and the world? In the text his name is flattened out on the page without tone, neither wistful or sardonic or self-punishing. How could Harriet tell how he meant it? Time had sapped out its Provencal intonations, but Harriet believed the word pointed like a compass to a Provencal origin, and conviction struck her that there was a Provencal background to Chrťtien de Troyes, a Provencal root that had struck him in his groin and in his pen, and that now struck her. The story of the cup/chalice/grail had come from Provence, along with the many Provencals who had migrated to northern France, attracted by the new jobs in trade and banking, bringing with them their native songs and poetry. A Provencal origin had been conceded by the German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Literature travels over mundane bridges, exalts in mischkulture, aids it and spreads it. Almost anything supports its route, a song, gossip, a letter, a diary, the wind. Wolfram had written that he had received the material for his Parzifal from a Provencal poet called Kyot, a writer who seemed to represent the Catalan-Arogenese-Provencal mischkultur. Eschenbach, the stalwart Christian, confessed that he recognized the unChristian volatility of the poem, and was grateful that his baptism protected him against its hermetic magic. What did that original text contain that was so dangerous to Eschenbach's Christianity? The Jewish culture that had existed in twelfth century Midi or Provence resembled the later Jewish culture of Spain in the fifteenth century, marked by a high degree of intermarriage among the upper and middle classes, and by heterogenous religious modalities. Benjamin of Tudela, that stalwart Jewish medieval traveller, came through this area and commented on the prosperity of the Jewish communities. Since the time of Charlemagne the Jews of Toulouse had been permitted to own land and had enjoyed a comfortable existence there. For one hundred and fifty years, they had had their own kingdom with the arcane name of Septimania, which had sunk beneath history like Machu Picchu. Yet it was here, in Southwest France, in Bťziers, Toulouse, and Arles that the custom arose of striking a Jew on the cheek outside the church on the morning of Easter Sunday. In the medieval world, Jewish prosperity and precariousness went hand in hand. As soon as Charlemagne was dead and the empire was weakened by its division among his sons, bishops pressed the sons to prohibit Jews from owning land. Little by little their land was nibbled away and their agricultural existence was transformed into a commercial one. By the thirteenth century, their official status as "Servants of the Treasury," was sealed, they were chattel serfs whose function was to make money for Church and crown, for Church and crown were always in need of money.
There were other changes in the cultural climate which took decades to reveal their meaning. Heresies sprang up like poppies in the Provencal countryside. Itinerant preachers galvanized peasants who were fed up with the luxury and corruption of the Church in the Midi. Meanwhile, the Cathars grew prosperous. They built their own churches, gained the protection of powerful counts and challenged the authority of Rome. Like all newcomers on the social scene, no one but their adherents took them seriously at first, but by the end of the thirteenth century Christendom took heretics very seriously and it became a persecuting society. The end of the twelfth century had found it laden with humanistic values, the philosophy of Abelard and the piety of Bernard of Clairvaux, but the groundwork of the Inquisition had also been laid. It began with small responses to the heretical challenges, and then with bulls, anathemas, excommunications, inspired the crusade against the Provencal heretics, It began inconspicuously in 1175 when a papal mission was greeted by the Cathars in Toulouse with jeers and obscene gestures. The Church could not be expected not to respond to this challenge to its authority, and the Midi braced for the response. When the storm broke, the Catholic faithful often defended their heretical neighbors, would not yield their names to the Inquisition and often hid them from the Inquisitors. It was difficult to tell heretic from the faithful, Jew from Catholic, Catholic from heretic. Only they knew who they were. A story developed that the pope's legate complained that he couldn't tell the faithful and the heretical apart, and that the pope's response was, "Slay them all, God will know His own." Innocent 111 found a more practical way of implementing the differences: He forced the Jews to wear a yellow star to identify themselves, and preached a crusade against the Cathars. It was now Christian against Christian, and the civilization of the Midi blew away, absorbed into National France. The war against heretics bloomed into the Inquisition which lasted six hundred years. It was the Inquisition and secrecy as much as militancy that destroyed the Cathars and turned a pacifist people paranoid.
From 1170 on, the news from the Midi grew steadily worse as Chrťtien wrote romances about knights in unidentifiable places. He understood the problem of foreignness, the search for identity masked as the expat's retreat from identity. "I could display my valor better in a foreign land," Launcelot says. It must be presumed, Harriet decided, in spite of the fact that Chrťien covered his trail, that he took an interest in what was happening in Languedoc where his family had probably come from. The atmospheric change could not go unnoticed. Harriet decided on the first interpretation. The fact that Chrťtien once used the Provencal form of his name, li gois, indicated attachment. Did he speak with an Occitan accent? Launcelot says in The Knight of the Cart, "Thinking pleased him; speaking pained him." Speech defines origin, class and status as Orwell said of the English cockney, "They are damned upon the tongue."
Metaphors are mongrels which evolve into strange creatures. Harriet believed Chrťtien knew the story of Raymond lV's crusade, of the cup he carried, from his Provencal background, and the disputed lance of Peter Bartholomew. It was this mixture that held the story of the grail together. It had been planted in the loamy earth of the Jewish-Christian-Cathar-mischculture of the Midi to bear Christian fruit in northern Europe. Its sexual symbolism is implicit. Launcelotís sword spouts blood. If it is the blood of Longinus' sword, why does it spout blood above Launcelotís burning bed after a terrific but futile seduction scene. The passage rocks with sexual symbolism. At midnight, the lance falls from the rafters like lightning, head first, and almost pins Lancelot's thigh to the quilt. It does not pierce his heart--it pierces his thigh, the wound that characterizes the fisher king's wound in Conte de Graal, that characterizes Jacobís wound when he struggles with the angel. It has an historical pedigree, and a blazing pennon attached to it which sets fire to Lancelot's bed. He is trapped in the burning bed but manages to hurl the lance from him and put out the flame. Freud would have gone crazy with the symbolism, the lance, the burning bed, the shooting flames, the wound to the thigh.
Harriet hesitated to write that to Professor Connell, who would convert it into a metaphor of religious ecstasy "This is a religious age, Harriet. Everything is seen as a religious experience." She would have to fight him again. They might fight forever.
By the following spring she drew up her first outline and presented it to Professor Connell. "He's going to reject it," she said to David, preparing for battle. "I have been sleeping with this man for a year." She meant Chrťtien de Troyes. I have had him by my side with every bite of food I have taken, he has been inside my head every day for three hundred and sixty-five days and nights. I have thought about what he thought about when he woke up in the morning, when he washed his face, when he took his meals with his brethren, when he walked the halls of St. Loupe Abbey, when he made the decision to convert, when he underwent the baptismal ritual, when he adopted the name of Chrťtien, when he joined troubadours and Marie at their Court of Love and mingled with famous poets. Did he walk with slippered feet? Talk with a slippered tongue? The man of genius, twice removed from his origins, stretching his talents to see how far they would take him, measuring condescensions. "Bertran de Born," he greeted the famous Occitan poet with an agitated lisp, uncomfortable at being seen in conspicuous company, in spite of his spreading fame, coveted and feared. "I am as you see, a dwarf among men." Bertran de Bornís attention was arrested by this first sight of the famous Chrťtien, poetic vassal of Marie de Champagne, and who knew what else? So this was the great Chrťtien. He abstained from other courtly flourishes: "Not so," he said graciously "A poet among poets." Crťtien bowed his head to the compliment. "Nobly put," he said but thought, "everywhere else a dwarf among men." His Percival was raised in the Desolate Forest as a country bumpkin ignorant of the Christian world who must ask his mother, "What is a church? What is minister?" He was religiously naked in the Christian world where the only way to tell time was by the church bells that rang the hours for prayer. Was his writing to be seen as a piece of wily autobiography that reflected a willful ignorance, or game playing?
His mother tells him what a church is. "A place where the service is celebrated to the One Who created heaven and earth, and there placed men and beasts. The minster is a beautiful and sacred house filled with holy relics and treasures where the sacrifice of the Body of Jesus Christ occurs, the holy prophet whom the Jews treated so shamefully." The fictional mother informs the poet's readers of the new sacrament of Transubstantiation, which aroused the rebellious Peter Waldo to reject what he considered an affront to reality. But Christianity rejected his rejection. The world became startlingly blood conscious, and every morning the faithful remembered the perfidious role of the Jews. Peter Waldo was condemned for heresy and Percival turned his back on his mother, determined to become a knight, not a Christian. The fictional mother collapsed in bitter death.
"Harriet!" Professor Connell enjoyed expressing exasperation at her. "Harriet!" he growled, "where are your sources for this interpretation?" His emotions were getting rheumy, worked up by self titillation.
Harriet felt he spit the words at her and checked the impulse to spit back. She suffered from an ardent respect for scholars and had nothing but her guts to defend herself with. "My sources are my intuition. How do we know anything about anyone?" She knew he loathed this argument and it cost her an effort to restrain herself: footnotes buttressed intuition. Laurel's cautionary advice ran through her head like a ditty with talons. "Agree wherever you can. Never argue obviously. Catch them off guard with a riposte."
"What sources did Jessie Weston have?" She congratulated herself that she had sidestepped his question. "What else could I do?" she later asked David, hoping he would not criticize her, not let her fall from her standards. She equated honesty with innocence. "It's no big deal," he said. She should have anticipated his phlegmatic response. He did not understand her pain, or couldn't deal with it, or wanted to forget his own academic trauma. Laurel understood the game and knew how to keep the gatekeepers at bay with whimsy.
"That was fifty years ago," Professor Connell said, as if time was the great disposer of theories. "Jessie Weston wouldn't get away with that today. Her theory rode the fascination with the Golden Bough. That's why Culver Smith pushes her theory every chance he gets. Your Provencal connection is interesting, but you're hanging it all on a family name. What response do you have to those scholars who identify the lance with the lance of Longinus?"
Knowing Professor Connellís predilections, she tried to minimize the force of what she intended, but there was no hiding its implications. "Lancelotís lance has no religious symbolism. Itís all sexual symbolism. Talk of a Jungian connection! What about the lance that bleeds over the burning bed in the Knight of the Cart. Talk about Freud! Talk about Jung! You can't get better sexual symbols than the burning lance and the burning bed." She stabbed Professor Connell with her final dart. "Culver Smith would understand."
"Ah, is that your game? Something for everyone? Cover your bases. I thought you had more integrity than that."
Harriet was stung. She had written nothing that she didnít believe. Professor Connell should know that, but he was weary. He had been swimming in theories his whole career. No one had a single conclusive fact. They swam in an ocean of theories. "Symbols are like molasses, you can pull them in any direction."
Harriet was drained. "We can agree on that," she said tartly, and so they settled in a no-manís and. But Harrietís retreat was a pause as she regrouped her argument: "Symbols are protean, true. Holmes believed the Percival was an allegory for the conversion of the Jews living in the Champagne. But if so, why does Percival's conversion torture him? He tries to evade it, it takes him five years to confirm it, in which time he lives in a religious no man's land, torn between his fascination with the world of knights and his mother's loathing of them. When she sees that she cannot prevent him from becoming a knight, she instructs him in feminism and the new code of love: "If you must become a knight, at least use your knighthood to protect ladies and maidens. This is the basis of all knightly honor: If you are granted a kiss, do not take the remainder; but if she grants you her ring or her purse (sexual metaphors?) you may take these. Know the name of any companion you travel with. Seek out worthy men for your companions. Enter the Church and minster to pray to our Lord so that He may grant you joy and honor." The road was split by a symbol, a burning lance: one side went down to knighthood; the other to Christianity.
Harriet threw caution to the wind. "My evidence that the Grail story comes from Provence is as good as your evidence that it came from Ireland. Eschenbach described an author by the name of Kyot, from whom he had received his material as a Provencal, who saw this tale of Parzival written in a heathen language, translated into French, and then into German by Eschenbach. There is evidence that Chrťtien knew Kyot, who charged Chrťtien to do justice to his story. It would seem that some of those who wrote of the Grail at the time knew each other. Some believe there is a Provencal connection and have even identified Kyot with Benjamin of Tudela." She threw that in to torment him, but he knew which arguments and methods would be acceptable to the committee and which would be rejected. Harriet was becoming careless. Whimsical ideas were not the way to prepare for the dissertation committee. He would hate to see Harriet fail because she was incautious, but she was difficult to warn. So he placated: "You do have an argument, but you have to back it up with sources and citations." He paused judiciously. "Like it or not."
"Right," Laurel said cheerfully, "don't make a move without a footnote. Footnote everything, even your name. You're not stupid, Harriet. You can learn to do that."
"It's amazing," Harriet said to David, "where I feel rage, Laurel feels amusement."
"She's mastered the technique of how to succeed."
At her next meeting with Professor Connell, Harriet took out her notes to make sure that she had pinned down each argument to a source. That was the key: sources. "The Kahanes describe Kyot as a man of the twelfth century Renaissance who represents the culture of the Catalan-Provencal fusion, which developed in the atmosphere of the Arabic-Jewish-Spanish culture, a culture which sought its unity in a hermetic gnosis. Mixed cultures," she paused judiciously, "often develop a private gnosis, a secret belief. Itís the cultures in between the main culture that have a way of becoming the main culture. The subversive agenda makes its way in. Especially with minority groups. The culture splits into separate limbs of learning, theories of the universe hidden from the overarching cultural theory." Professor Connell developed a haze over his eyes. "Modern gibberish," he said. "too much Foucault." Harriet ground her teeth, but practiced smiling. "Why should social power work differently in the Middle Ages than now? Who gets to transmit the cultural symbols? Today itís the academy, the universities. But thatís breaking down, and we donít know what will take their place, who will own the means of communication, who will get to say what means what? Probably the collective media. Perhaps things ironically were more democratic in the Middle Ages, carried by word of mouth, by anonymous minstrels and troubadours. This man Kyot, of whom we know so little, had the story of the chalice and the lance from the expedition of Raymond lV. Chrťtien learned of it, was attracted to the material because his family had come from Provence. Someone told someone a story, and Chrťtien learned of it. Why does transmission have to be more difficult than that?" She paused, then went forward with emphasis, "I know this much is certain. You can't ignore the evidence of his name. Le Gois is a Provencal family name." That was her base point and she wasnít going to retreat from it. "Finally the word graal itself is cognate of old Provencal grazal and old Catalan gresal, which were terms for various types of vessels in southern French dialects. His name and the words for grail cry out a connection to the Midi. What we don't know is if Chrťtien was a first generation or a second generation man of Troyes. Everything depends upon the migration patterns of Jews from Provence to the North, but things point to the possibility that his family came in the wave of the second crusade around 1145, or the name would have undergone change." She believed her argument was brilliant. Unprovable, but brilliant, the Big Bang theory. "That's my thesis based on the evidence of family names and the word for vessel. " Her intensity exhausted Professor Connell, but she wasnít finished. "There are things about his poetry that can be explained only by the fact that the man who wrote them was at odds with his world and at odds with himself. Why didn't he write in Latin, for example, the language of the religion he adopted if he intended a religious poem? We don't know what language he was raised with." Her argument was a spiderís web, sustained by threads. But take away the footnotes, most arguments were. "It would be wonderful if we knew what language his mother spoke to him." Was it Occitan or Judeo-Hebrew or something of both for Chrťtien, the mameloshen of the mischkulture? It had disappeared from all the tongues around him, but it may have remained in his inner ear like a worm in the canal. Did he write in French to rid himself of it? Or as a sign of his identity with the new French nationalism? Did he choose it as a revolt against his past, as a revolt against the Latin of the Church, or as the embrace of himself as a Frenchman, the new man reborn on a new soil. The Midi was gone, the languorous Provencal had been swept away into a new nationalism. In Troyes he stood on French soil and became the dominant French poet of his time. He embraced France and wrote:
"Our books have informed us that the pre-eminence in chivalry and learning once belonged to Greece. Then chivalry passed to Rome, together with the highest learning which now has come to France. God grant that it may be cherished here, that the honor which has taken refuge with us may never depart from France."
He understood history.
Of course, one doesn't have to be a convert to be an odd man out in literature, but if you were a convert in the twelfth century chances are you were an odd man out. Like a pie that didnít fit its dish, you had to tuck in the dough, nip it here, smooth it there and push it around until the filling wouldnít spill out.
There were too many "ifs," "ands" and "buts," to Harrietís thesis, someone had to keep her from flying off the earth. "You will have to deal with the fact that Raymond of Toulouse carried a chalice to Jerusalem, not a grail, and that the grail is not a chalice, it's a dish, and that the lance is a Celtic symbol."
"God, he's stuck in his Celtic mud," she said to David that night. They sat on the stoop to their apartment, under a sycamore tree beginning its bloom. Spring had come to the street. Chartreuse colored the air. Flowering dogwoods were still shy, but flower boxes on apartment windows sprouted pansies, and stamp size lawns were covered with daffodils. Teenagers roller skated by and their neighbors walked their dogs. Someone was playing a guitar and
someone else was carrying a radio. Convertibles with their tops down went by like coaches. The mellow weather released Harriet from the claustrophobia of winter when she was unable to roller skate or jog. It came to David with the deluge of tax forms. He had posters in his office. "The taxman reams the asshole of the nation." "April is the cruelest month." Everything was different for the tax man. Everyone elseís emotional life expanded in the spring, his cramped up. He went against the grain of the seasons. He was an unnatural man, the most hated man in America, the bearer of bad news, the governmentís cop. He hated his job. Hated it that people thought of him as the angel of death. He was the angel of death, the detector of liars and schemers, all those people who fudge and smudge their way through life, who have only enough to get by on, who always want more than they have, another car, an anniversary cruise. Death and taxes! The perimeters of American life. He would like to write a play, apologies to OíNeil: "The Tax Man Cometh," the accountant as the angel of death played by a song and dance man in a straw hat, a musical with a dozen chorus girls singing, "Tax man, come and do my taxes." He became involved with a small theater group, to see what his options were. Usually nil. They were thrilled to have someone on board who could do their taxes. He bartered his help for a role in their upcoming production of Death of A Salesman. He resented that Harriet never cared to hear about his problems. And defended her position! "Who wants to hear about taxes?" "It keeps you in school," he retorted.
"No," Harriet rebutted as if she hadnít heard a word he said, "I can see it now. If I don't bring in the Celtic angle he won't accept my thesis, but there's as much evidence for a Provencal connection to the grail and the lance as there is for a Celtic connection. My God, David, Chrťtien lived during the time of the Crusades. This had to be the greatest story of his age. The lost kingdom is Provencal, maybe even Septimania.
"What do you think about a musical about income tax returns?"
"What! Have you not heard a word I said? Connell is just protecting his turf. The lance could be both Celtic and Provencal. Symbols undergo transmutations. I never said that Chrťtien rejected the Celtic influence, he probably used it whenever it suited him. Listen, David," she sensed he had gotten lost in his inner tantrums again, "The point is that the Provencal influence in the first crusade could not have escaped his attention."
"I donít know," he wept, exasperated. "Why should our lives be defined by taxes? Iíll tell you what, thereís no romance in that, thatís the problem." He shuddered, "Accountants are not sexy. But who says? I like sex."
"Drat! Iím on the verge of working this out. All I need is confidence. I need you to listen." She clutched his arm. "I need someone to listen. I feel imprisoned. Iím working in a private world that no oneís even heard of. Here is a lance and here is a chalice, or a grail, a large dish, objects which appear in many literatures. I don't have to prove what Chrťtien rejected. I have to prove what he accepted, that there were Provencal/Jewish influences in his poetry, and how could there not have been? There could only not have been if our Chrťtien, my Chrťtien, is not the Jewish physician who converted. But many scholars accept that much. What they don't accept is that a poet could have grown up in a Jewish household, celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family, listened to Jewish songs, and went off to write the greatest French medieval romance without a shred of Jewish influence. Transmutation! Writers do it all the time. A brilliant transmutation! They disguise and sublimate their identities. Writers do it all the time. More so for a Jewish writer in a Christian world. What are your choices if youíre a poetic genius and a Jew in the twelfth century? Where would your audience come from? Not likely from Rashi, even if he practically lived next door. Dig that conversation! Dear Rabbi Rashi, could you spare an hour to read my story of Perceval? Weíre practically neighbors. Chrťtien looked over the scene, saw what his options were and converted. If Christianity didnít matter much to him, neither was being Jewish. What mattered was an audience. Whatís a writer without an audience?"
David was asleep, but half his brain was awake, the half that belonged to Harriet and that feigned interest for her sake, for the sake of their marriage, for which he was prepared to put up with a lot, go without supper, do the laundry, be an accountant, and listen to stories about remote people whose names he couldn't remember. Personally, he didn't think either side, the Celtics or the Provencals, had much to go on. They both waded in conjecture up to their necks as far as he could tell. Now take taxes. Thereís nothing conjectural about that!
She passed sentence on David for his obdurateness: He refused to understand, would not or could not. "It's the nature of this kind of inquiry. Unlike the sort of thing you do." Pure Harriet! She always concluded in this manner, as if mathematics and accounting, or any world in which equal meant equal or the maxim that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, were suspect. In the world of numbers where David had taken up his abode, ambiguities were shunned like criminals. "How divine," Harriet would say scornfully, "so unlike my world where itís all a matter of which conjecture is more probable, more sensible, more likely." Her tone was a sledgehammer to let David know that in the real world, that is her world, that's how things really are, whether David knew it or not, or could make sense of it in his accounting book. In the real world, proof was only by nuance and inference.
Laurel's wedding invitations were sent out in November, and she and Harriet shopped for her wedding gown. "What do you think?" Laurel said, "shall I come as Little Bo Peep or in a gown to match the wedding cake?" Kitsch was Laurelís comment on the world.
"Why can't you come as a bride?" Harriet asked.
Laurel smirked at her sobriety. "Actually I'd like to come as a dominatrix in black leather. I think Malcolm would appreciate that."
Laurel avoided the calamity of sentimentality. She came down the aisle in a black and white shantung gown with a long black sash sprinkled with rhinestones that trailed behind her, a white pillbox on her forehead with a brief veil that came halfway down her face. "Very elegant," Harriet assured her. The wedding was held on the afternoon of New Year's Day at the Hampshire House. The groom trusted Laurel to interpret the social cues of this crowd made up of American academic and professional people, grandmas and grandpas who looked at him quizzically as if he were a bird of paradise, and swinging cousins who took over the microphone from the bandleader and sang raunchy songs. From his family only his brother made the journey from England. "Right," his brother explained to those who had the temerity to ask why Malcolmís parents hadn't come. "Mummy feels that Malcolm is grown up, has made his bed, and so on. It's difficult for her to take time away from her work just now." She was a social worker and things are sticky at the moment in the mill towns of England. "Were there still mill towns?" someone asked. "Yes, and not prospering ones. Much crime, drinking, but she will take a holiday hopefully next spring and come over. She's always wanted to see the states." Harriet met Laurelís parents for the first time and was surprised that her mother was a short, dumpy woman who made loud speeches about how unnecessary it was for women to marry these days and hoped Laurel wouldnít ruin her career with children. Her father was a slim, short man with a mustache. Three decades earlier, he would have been called "dapper." He looked quizzical that his daughter was getting married, given his wifeís pronounced feminism, but he was a mild man who went along for the ride, wherever it was going. Malcolm looked deserted in the New York academic and Jewish worlds and drank too much. The service took seven and half minutes and was followed by a two hour buffet. The table linen was white with black napkins to match Laurel's gown. Dahlias that had been dyed black were the centerpiece on each table.
David was not optimistic about the marriage. Malcolm Fernwell was too quiet, too gawky, too British, too different, too slight in build. His field had nothing to do with Laurel's. He was a medievalist. How had a boy from an English mill town wandered into Medievalism? Harriet did not find it unlikely. Nothing was in her universe. She had hopes for a job in his department, once she got her doctorate. She would not mind living in New Jersey if she could get a job teaching what she loved, but the academic world was transforming itself into something unrecognizable. The old classifications by century were gone. "Romantic Poetry" had been buried beneath "The Emergence of The New Consciousness," Victorian literature had disappeared into "The Roots of the Modern Malady." Literature and science were studied as social weapons. Perhaps they had always been such, disguised as poetic experiences. The academic world was in the grip of deconstructionism, finding hidden meanings of imperialism in Shelleyís "To A Skylark," or KeatsĎ "Ode On A Grecian Urn." Banal sentences, such as "If winter is here, can spring be far behind," were stripped of hopefulness and decoded as irony.
"He's not aggressive enough for Laurel," David said.
The remark annoyed Harriet. "You mean he's too much of a gentleman, and that Laurel needs someone who will put her in her place?"
"You know what I mean. He was a scholarship kid in a fancy
English boarding school. They always come out whipped."
"Then Laurel will be good for him. Laurel isn't mean. She's definitive. What's more, she's naive."
"Naive!" David's drink slopped over his wrist.
"Yes, naive. She'd be shocked to know that her style encourages enemies."
David knew that Harriet meant him. He stood accused and accepted it. Laurel grated on his nerves. She glittered cheaply and spoke clever bon mots in a dry voice. She threw parties and invited odd people in silly clothes who wore purple riding boots, carried old fashioned muffs they found in thrift shops from the 1920s, and spoke as she did. She was theatrical and was everything people thought of when they thought of New York, and never thought of people like himself. She beclouded and co-opted his presence in the mind of his country, and he felt people like himself were punished for that. Harriet did not understand the crusade he waged for the appearance of normalcy and sobriety. She blamed his parents for these values in him, which she felt he possessed in too great abundance, she blamed them for his lack of joie de vivre. She felt as if Elsbeta had been welded together in a shop and had tried to weld David too. She blamed Ira for David's profession and his stalwart literalness.
"Somebody has to make a living." It was Davidís ultimate criticism on Harriet's choice of a thesis which no one would read or understand other than Professor Connell, if him. He would pass it through as his farewell gesture to his lackluster career and as revenge on Professor Watkins.
"So you think no one should bother studying things like Latin and Greek, Homer, Virgil and the Greeks because you can't make a living from such subjects?" The problem defined their crisis. Laurel sympathized with David, who stripped the problem to its barren expression. "You know the old joke about cleaning toilets and oral sex. It's dirty work, but somebody has to do it. C'est la vie. Somebody has to earn a living." He thought academic women like Harriet and Laurel got "a free ride," perched on womenís rights, but would never say it. He admired Harriet for her crusading tenacity, but she really did live in an undefinable world. He wanted her to do the thing she loved to do and to succeed in it. Someone should love what they do. No one encouraged her, except her brother who thought her choice was amazing and that she must be channeling Joan of Arc. Nothing Harriet did worked for her, while Laurelís strategies always worked, even when they were blatantly cynical, as if what the world enjoyed most was a wink and a nod. No one appreciates a good con man more than a con man. In two years Laurel had worked her way out of teaching freshman composition into teaching elective courses on modern women writers. She took over a mini trial department on Women Authors and expanded it. In four years, she became the department head. Laurel checked it off as predictable. "Every society and every profession has scud work that has to be done by someone. You know the old joke. The quicker you stoop the sooner youíll rise. It wonít go on forever. There's always another generation of scuds coming up after you. Somebody will do the work." Harriet was tied in knots of envy and amazement. She sent out half a dozen articles on Chrťtien de Troyes, on the history of Troyes, on the love courts held in Troyes. They all came back: "Lacks applicability." "C.S. Lewis has exhausted this subject." "Whatís your point?"
"But she's still in New Jersey," David said to console Harriet, who thought it was a pathetic consolation. "But far ahead of me," she said with masochistic self contempt. "At least she's teaching what she wants to teach, even if she has to live in New Jersey."
"You can have the same choice. "
"No I canít," Harriet said defiantly because what others came to regard as "her choice" had come to feel like an imprisoning obsession. She could not let go of her subject, or the subject would not let go of her, and she could not explain it to others. Professor Connell complained that her research was stagnating and David was tired of her conflict with him. "So what if this guy, Chrťtien or whatever his name is, came from Provence or from Paris, was born Jewish or converted?"
"Thatís like saying, so what if Bob Dylan came from Mexico, or Derek Walcott from Connecticut, or Kafka from New England. And donít ever call him this guy again." She was almost in tears, wringing her hands. "Only the New Critics would adopt your point of view."
"Who are they?"
"People who think literature comes from a computer, not from a human being."
"You can still go back to Marie de France," Laurel said. "Professor Watkins will welcome you with open arms. In fact, it would be more of a victory for her to have you come back because she will tell herself that you finally saw the light. She'll see it like the return of the prodigal daughter."
"I'll think about it," Harriet said. She knew she wouldn't, but she did not want Laurel to think she was bereft of any practical bone in her body. She clung to the line from Hopkins: "Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine." Research was plod, terrible plod, plod, plod and plod. Passions were fed with plod. Cry! Lament! The truth wonít budge until after years of digging. In two yearsí time, the nun hadn't moved her eyes from her volume of Hopkins' poetry. She was writing a book on him. A mountain of notes had grown up under her hand, next to the book of poetry. Every line was scrutinized three times over. Such devotion deserved attention, and Harriet dug up her old volume of Hopkinsí poetry to read. The fingertips and lips of the Tennyson scholar had turned brown with nicotine from his cigarettes. His cheeks were gaunter and he sported something on his face that looked like scrubby weeds, or perhaps it was an unshaven chin, an index to his decline. The Lutheran scholar had disappeared for a while, called back to his banker's world, and then recalled back to the world of the Reformation with a question about it that caused him also to have seizures in the middle of the night. Was he channeling Luther? Maurice Belmont returned for two following summers. His grandson was now seven. "It won't be long before he will be able to come by himself and visit me in Troyes."
"I should like to see Troyes," Harriet said impulsively.
"Of course, come. I shall be delighted to show you around." "When," she said to David.
"Are you crazy? Never."
"I'm not going to let you tramp around Europe with a man I
"What do you mean let me?"
They both stood riveted by where the conversation had gone
all by itself, spun off in a direction neither wanted. "For God's sake, David," Harriet said, putting the blame where she thought it belonged, "he's about sixty."
"So what? You think he doesn't erect anymore?"
"I can't believe you. If you can't trust me, what's left of our marriage?"
"A lot. That's why I don't want you to go."
"O.K, so why don't you come with me. I need to go."
David knew that when Harriet used the word "need" it signaled a situation like starvation or desperate thirst. An idea would never let her go until she was satisfied or dead. Desire in her progressed from "I want to," to "I need to," to "I must." When she hit "I must," there was no living with her until whatever drove her was fulfilled. From the moment she had uttered the words, "I should like to see Troyes," David knew he was mired in her compulsion and everything else in their lives would be put on hold. If she had said, "I would like to see London," it would not have had the same effect as "I would like to see Troyes." The object of the verb, "I would like to," conditioned whether this was mere desire or desperate lust. Nor would she say "I want to see London," or "How about a cruise to the Bahamas," which he would enjoy when the tax season was over. Harriet did not "take vacations," or indulge in recreational sports. Everything she did or planned fit a goal no one else knew or cared about. She slaked her soul from secret waters, from a well without markings on anyone's map. Now she plotted to go to Troyes, and everything was subordinated to this trip. It was useless to spend money on a bigger apartment because she needed the money for the trip. There was no point thinking about children until she had gone to Troyes and had done research there. A baby would make it impossible for her to do this. He reminded her that they had agreed to wait three years, and that the three years had been up three years ago. Harriet yelped like a dog whose tail had been stepped on. She took pledges seriously and felt it was rude of David to remind her of them.
"She's monomaniacal," Laurel said in her inimical tone, summarily dismissive and incisively knowledgeable. "There's nothing you can do about that. Resign yourself."
She and Malcolm had moved to the west side of New York. "I knew she'd get back," Harriet said. "Poor Malcolm," David said, "now he has to commute to New Jersey." "It was a good career move," Laurel said. "Howís that?" David said. "His new journal," Harriet explained. "Itís better to be in New York where the publishers are."
There was a dual celebration of the new journal, "The Modern Medievalist" and a housewarming party with pots and pans, pasta makers, casserole dishes, and an expresso machine. "What's all this," Laurel said, as she opened each box with surprise.
"Housewarming gifts," the guests said. "What else should we bring?"
"Champagne," Laurel said, "but Malcolm will love these. He likes to cook."
Copies of "The Modern Medievalist" were spread on the tops of tables throughout the living room. David thought the title strange, but declined to ask what it meant. "It sends out esoteric vibes," a guest explained, studying its brown and burnished gold cover of a modern room furnished with medieval tapestry, and a knight in armor sitting on a Danish rocker staring into a television set. The cacophony was eye-catching. "I'm an accountant," David said, "what do you do?"
"I'm the printer. I don't care one way or the other about the articles, but the printing job is fantastic, don't you think? Look at the paper, creamy semi gloss. The weight of it is fantastic. Look at the print, the fonts, Gothic set off with Chicago bold. It's genius to do that. I worked hand in glove with the book designer. Let me tell you," he said, acquiring a confidential tone, "it cost them a pretty penny."
"Who's the them?"
The printer shrugged his shoulders. "I would imagine his university."
David wondered about that and asked Harriet. "Malcolm put up his own money, or at least his family did. I think it's guilt money. Remember Mom and Dad didn't come to the wedding. Maybe this is their wedding gift, that or a severe case of guilt. Malcolm had enough money to print three thousand copies, which they sent to libraries free of charge. Of course, if the thing takes off and they get subscriptions for future issues, it's a great business investment. The cover is very clever. I like the touch of the knight sitting in front of the television, watching The Lion in Winter."
"It must be guilt," David said. He knew that Harriet was putting a brave face on the publication of the journal. No one had consulted her about it, asked for her advice, or even for an article. Laurel had informed her, offhandedlyóas if it didn't matter that Harriet was a medievalist--- "Malcolm's publishing a journal. Don't ask me what it's about. It's his baby." But she promptly began throwing parties with a medieval theme.
"I hope she doesn't serve a hogshead," David said
"I told you we should have taken the train. You can never find a parking spot up here."
"Lucky we didnít come by horse," David said.
"Stop it," Harriet screamed. "I will not stoop to envy." But she did. She envied Laurelís briefcase, her open-backed shoes, her herring-bone suit, her shopping bag, her fluffy earmuffs, her gold oyster pearl earrings, while she herself wore rubber boots in which she trudged from Forty-second street to Sixtieth with Davidís plaid scarf on her head to protect her hair from the snow, with a backpack stuffed with books shunned by thieves, to meet Laurel and Malcolm at the Chikn and the Chickpea for dinner, a monthly tradition to keep their friendship from withering. As vegetarians, dining out with friends meant meeting in a neutral place where Laurel and Malcolm could find something they would find interesting to eat. Italian, Chinese, Japanese with shushi worked for them, a Mexican restaurant offering an avocado salad worked for Harriet and David. They could find these dishes and more at the Chikn and the Chickpea. That worked for all four of them.
Harriet was late, the exigencies of a mile trudge in bad weather. David, always sensitive to her moods, partly to protect himself from surprise, guessed that something was up--an unpleasant telephone conversation with her mother--or his mother-- either one made no difference--or another rejection slip. He suffered for her, because of her, by her, and through her. He dreaded hearing about her dead-end interviews for a job, her rejection slips which she kept in a suitcase under their bed and reread from time to time to see if she could find a glimmer of hope in one of them, a sentence like "Weíd like to see more," or "Not quite right, but try us again." He believed she had more integrity than anyone else he knew, certainly more than Laurel and her medieval knight in an Armani suit, who had propelled an obscure college in northern New Jersey into academic limelight. By his sixth year, Malcolm had instituted an August medieval scholarís retreat, jousts held in the green hills of New Jersey behind the physics department, cookouts complete with hogsheads, tankards of beer and cooks in medieval clothes who served dinners under buzzing flies. One year Laurel---no surprise to David---made an entrance as Lady Guinevere on a dappled horse, herself in a flesh colored body stocking and a long blonde wig. By the ninth year the event had morphed into a masquerade party. Tourists made pilgrimages from New York and Delaware dressed as Eloise and Abelard, Tristram and Iseult, Elinor of Aquitaine and Henry ll, troubadours, knights, bards. Readings from Chaucer and Percival were given under an apple tree with fruit ready for the mouth. Brochures were sent to every medieval department in every college on the Eastern sea board. The University of Upper New Jersey had been placed on the academic map. Important medievalists, scholars and department heads, even Dr. Watkins, made the decision that "the event should not be missed." Harriet greeted her on a green slope, waving away smoke from the barbecue pit with the despair of a vegetarian and the diffidence of inexplicable failure. Watkins was not diplomatic. "Whatís happening with your thesis, Harriet? I havenít seen you in two years. Youíre not giving up, are you?"
Harriet stiffened. "Absolutely not."
"Why not?" Dr. Watkins twittered. She gazed at Harriet from under a floppy sunhat that was not doing her any good. The brim went back and forth, revealing an old freckled face. "Donít you have better things to do?" It was the same question everyone asked. Things had passed from curiosity to dismay. Other people spoke about her thesis as they would about cancer, glancing sideways. Something treacherous had happened. The world had gone off in another direction and Harriet, loyal Harriet, had passed the point of no return. She became truculent, refused to discuss her thesis and walled herself off with silence. She should have been prepared for Dr. Watkins and was dismayed at how easily she had walked into her trap.
Still they too "made the pilgrimage" year after year, David reluctantly. He regarded the personal invitation that came from Laurel as an insult. Harrietís article, "The Mask of Chrťtien de Troyes: His Conversion and the Consolation of Poetry" had been returned for revision three times, then lost. The final letter came with a sympathetic note from Laurel that what the magazine was looking for "was work that could be a bridge between the medieval and the modern." As she "remembered" Harrietís article, it did not do this. Perhaps Harriet would consider an article on the symbolism and origins of the gargoyle. There was a great deal of interest in that right now. Interior decorators have been flooded with calls about towel hooks with gargoyle faces. Vanity Fair is doing an article about it. Would Harriet consider it?" Harrietís ribs caved in on her lungs. She gasped and stretched her arms out across the table where she had been sitting. Her fingers clutched Laurelís letter with the grip of a dead man. David thought she was having a stroke. He could not uncurl her hand. "Iím calling an ambulance," he said. That revived her. "Donít you dare. I will recover." She slapped the table with her open hand. "I will recover."
"Please let me call an ambulance. For my sake. Look at me." She looked at him, nine years older than when they had first met. "I need to lie down," he moaned, "I need a hospital bed."
Harrietís pregnancy was met with celebration in some quarters, regret in others. As was her miscarriage in the second week of her fourth month, though not by the same people. Elsbeta had to unwind from her plans to give them her apartment and retrieve her deposit on a smaller apartment she had found for herself and Ira in the same building. Ira blamed Harriet for all the confusion. When news of her pregnancy was first announced, he was phlegmatic, but the miscarriage evoked paranoia. He felt he was being cheated of his due. He had taken no interest in the pregnancy, suspecting this was an excuse for Elsbetaís determination to move and dislodge him from his office. The grim mandate had been uttered: start packing your journals. Then the news of Harrietís miscarriage came, but it brought him no relief. The dread of having to move hung on like post-traumatic stress syndrome. He was at pains to conceal his relief. Furthermore, it was a messy miscarriage, with incumbent duties on Elsbeta to administer some nursing care. Halfway through her fourth month, Harriet experienced contractions. Her gynecologist was on vacation. His replacement told her to lay in bed and keep her legs elevated. "For how long?" she asked. He mumbled something vague from his closet of misinformation, and she knew it was over. She could feel the mass ooze out between her legs. She put her feet down on the floor and reached the bathroom just in time. It fell into the toilet bowl, something that didnít want to be born.
The doctor asked if she had saved it.
"How," she asked, trying to imagine how she would scoop up the blood.
"Probably in a jar. It might have had some value." "For what?"
He moistened the tip of his pencil and wrote something on a pad. The skin on her face stretched to bursting. "You need to go to the hospital immediately for a D and C. Just an overnight procedure to be sure that nothing infected was left behind."
She sat in a taxi with David and clutched her bag for the hospital. "Itís just an overnight stay," he repeated and held her hand.
Hope is that feathered thing. Dickinson is a terrible companion on the way to an execution. "He seems to think I should have saved the junk."
"You know, the stuff I flushed down the toilet."
He drew her head down to his shoulder. "Thereíll be other pregnancies."
"I wanted it for your sake." He drew in his breath and thought unhappily, and not for your sake? Her fidelity to her thesis was a noose around their lives. Everything could be argued with, discussed, prepared for, except a vision. "Iíll be there first thing in the morning to take you home. As early as they allow me to come."
"Come alone. Donít let Elsbeta and Ira come. They mean well"--a gratuitous comment---"but I donít want to hear Elsbetaís disappointment."
"No disappointment," he said falsely. "When you get back, youíll write that article on gargoyles. Itís a good way to get your name known."
"Of course." She pushed her tongue around her dried lips and, under the circumstances, gave him her best smile, pursed and mean.
Hope is a feathered quill. It scratched all night on her brain, until a womanís cavernous groaning stopped the pen. Nurses
opened doors to check how far the alarm had spread. that terrible? "Is she in labor?" Harriet asked.
"No. Thatís her fifth miscarriage. Sheís in shock."
"Imagine," Harriet said to David in the morning. that will be me?"
Was birth "What if
"It wonít be." Valorous consolation.
"How can you be sure? Look what happened to Dawn." "We wonít let it be."
"How can we not let it be?" Birth was an imponderable. "Imagine how badly she wanted the child." Harriet hemorraghed for three days, lying on her back with her feet propped up on pillows, confined to a single position like a turtle on his back. Healing waters retreated. Elsbeta came with a vegetable stew and a noodle pudding. "Itís not easy to know what to cook for you, since you donít eat meat, but I figured you canít go wrong with vegetable stew and noodle pudding."
"David brings in takeout."
"That can be expensive after a while."
Laurel came to visit with a bouquet of daffodils, and asked how the article on gargoyles was going. The apartment was disheveled and sloppy. Harriet felt as if everything about her was coming undone. Aunt Yetti sent a postcard, "Bubbele, come south. The temperature is 76, and never a scolding voice is heard." Her daughter, Deborah, nťe Diana, sometimes Devra or Debra, Yettiís only child, stopped by, a successful implant by her first pharmacist husband, in town for an opera audition. "Wish me luck. Itís my fifth audition."
Perhaps it was Harrietís aborted hormones retreating into her body, but she burst into startling tears, "Oh, I do, I do."
Deborah paused to consider her auntís heartfelt reaction to her disappointments. Harriet grasped her hand. "Donít count. Counting failures is the devilís arithmetic."
People called, even Davidís brother and sister-in-law came to visit. Leela had entered another program in a fertility clinic and was optimistic. Elsbeta was not. Leela barely weighed ninety pounds, "not enough to hold half a cup of sperm in her body, let alone a baby." Dawn called and urged her to come to Long Island. "It will be a good change for you, and I promise the kids wonít disturb you." Her call mobilized fears. Three miscarriages. Perhaps it ran in the family. Harrietís obstetrician said it did not, but he advised her not to get pregnant for a year. "You had a nasty miscarriage, rare for the fourth month. Let your system rest." The womanís screams in the hospital rolled through several nights like thunder and devoured Davidís consolation. Had Dawn screamed like that? Had she gone on trying to become pregnant, even as she adopted children and put the maternal instinct to work. How did Robbie feel about this? Becoming caretaker to half a dozen handicapped children? Big, handsome, strapping Robbie, high school football player, wiping the drool from his sonís mouth instead of throwing him a ball. Davidís disappointment was a weight. So was Professor Connellís. He wanted to know when she would get back to her thesis. "I would like to see it done before I die."
It was three weeks before she returned to the library, climbed the stairs for the five hundredth time, for the seventh season, for the seventh spring saluted the lions and the homeless bundled into their torn coats against the chilly spring. Her eyes swept the reading room. Computers now adorned the desks. The keeper of the manuscripts was a technician who roamed the room to see if there was a computer idiot who did not know how to look up a title. A new pile of notes had accumulated under the nunís arm, next to her volume of Hopkins. The Tennyson scholar smiled gratefully to see her back and looked lingeringly at her. She imagined he wet his lips and became nauseous. He must be getting senile at an early age. Surely, she didnít look attractive anymore. Her face had gone grayish, the skin puffy under her eyes like half-baked biscuits. She was surprised to feel that she missed her good looks, which had allowed her to tolerate her disappointments. The Luther scholar was missing. So was Maurice Belmont. How would she know if something had happened to him, if he had suffered a heart attack or had had a stroke. She would never know. She did not know his daughterís name. She could not contact anyone about him. There was not a bell she could ring to summon his presence or knowledge of his whereabouts. Yes, there was. She had his card, his address in Troyes. She must find it, now that the gates were closing. She would do the article on gargoyles. Everyone loves a good monster, and gargoyles were so visual. David applauded her decision. He wanted to see her get back to something. There was a gargoyle on the Chrysler building, he reminded her. People were interested in this architectural anomaly on a modern skyscraper. "As compared to the anomaly of Franceís greatest medieval poet being a Jew?" she sneered. Scorn was becoming a way of life with her. He gripped the edge of the table and said diplomatically, "This way at least the French wonít be angry at you."
She called Laurel to tell her she would do the article on gargoyles, ordered three books on the subject, and decided to go to Dawnís to work. A change of scene, a change of subject, a change of direction. Tax season was coming. David would hardly notice she was gone.
The train swept past shores where the land kept an uneasy truce with the water, betrayed when storms came. The people who lived along these shores, the ones who lived in cottages and small houses with big picture windows facing the ocean, or sat on front porches facing the estuary, read the water like gamblers read a racing sheet, they watched the water every season, watched the rain and the snow splatter on it, watched the ducks come back in the spring and listened for the frogs. The train went through farm lands, through cities and small towns, through malls and shopping centers, crisscrossing highways, none of it there a half century ago, the text of every country built into the boundaries between town and suburb, suburb and farmland, farmland and mall. The train stopped at lilliputian stations where farmers still boarded, housewives returned from a mall, a few businessmen boarded, carrying the Wall Street Journal. Snow patches still on the ground fled by the train, but green shoots asserted their tremulous presence. Church spires punctuated the view, American primitive, Grandma Moses sapped of venom, buildings on a monopoly board.
The train hit a bump. Harriet put her hands over her stomach, a retrograde movement. The habit had taken hold of her like a nervous tick. No more bump in her belly, she still imagined it was there. What if a mistake had been made? "Not likely," Dawn said. "But possible," Harriet said. Dawn knew the problem, grieving for something that had lived inside you, then was not there. The gray in-between area. David held her tighter. "Pregnancy is freaky," the doctor said. "Fifty percent of women swear thereís another baby inside them after they give birth." David held her. "It will pass. Your hormones havenít caught up to reality."
"Damn that theory!" But if not that, what else, a bump on her brain, something that went off by itself ticking in the wrong direction? "Stop," she scolded her body, "donít go there. Itís dead."
"So, itís not fun to have your plans go poof!" Stella said.
Harriet had wanted to go to Dawn first, before visiting her mother, a difficult decision as any decision involving Stella was. Harriet put forth reasons: Robbie could pick her up in his truck. So could Dad, Stella said. "Donít want to bother Dad." The lie drained her heart. She didnít want to be alone with Stella, didnít want to hear how "nothing ever goes right," didnít want to hear, "What are we going to do about Lionel?" Didnít want to smell the liquor on her breath. Dawn disapproved. "Just spend a day with her. Iíll come and get you the next day."
"I canít sleep in that house." Dawn understood but persisted. "Spend a day or two with her. Sheíll appreciate it. And Dad too. Especially Dad. Itíll be a tremendous favor to him. Theyíre always alone."
Harriet spotted her fatherís pickup truck at the train station. He waved his large lanky, ever genial wave. "Heís amazing," Harriet said to David on the telephone that night. "And Robbie too."
"Are you daft? How many men would put up with the kind of life my father has put up with, or Robbie has put up with Dawn?" David felt that not many husbands would put up with
Harriet either. Considering that Robbie was usually surrounded by five or six handicapped children, drooling, whining, crying, throwing temper tantrums, he was amazingly affable---most of the time. Occasionally his fist came down on the wooden table with a ferocious, "Enough!" It brought a stunned silence for two and a half minutes.
Dawn was foster mother to difficult children, "throwaways" Stella called them. The local cable program did an interview with Dawn and televised her small, three bedroom house, flooded with diapers, snowsuits, crutches and wheelchairs. People wanted to know what motivated her. She dodged serious discussion. "Itís like taking in cats. Before you know it, you have twenty." Charitable people sent donations and gifts. Dawn was embarrassed and gave the gifts to a local orphanage. Stella was not impressed. "She should have adopted two normal children. At least one boy who could throw a ball so that Robbie would have the pleasure of playing with a son, and I could have a grandson I wasnít afraid would break if I touched him."
The house was the same, Stellaís mausoleum to her three years of fame paid for by relatives and friends who had sewn her costumes. Not that one could not understand her motherís horror-- a slip on the ice--a broken back, six months in traction, and debts.
"Hi, Dad." Harriet reached up to kiss the fixed smile on his mouth. His loyalty was stunning.
"Already?" She smiled. "He wants to be sure the train arrived without anyone shooting us up."
"Yep. People still remember that." He put her luggage and lap computer into the back of his truck and held the door for her, an old fashioned man who did not break his vows. His familiar gestures registered home, brutal and tender.
The road from the train station was paved for half a mile, then unpaved for the next half mile. "Town never did get around to this part of the road," he said indulgently.
Snow and ice clung to the sides of the road. Even though it was spring, the potholes were filled with icy water. "Must have been a difficult winter." Harriet said.
"Depends. Itís the same as when you and Dawn and Lionel were growing up. Seasons remain the same. Or used to. I often think itís just as well your mother never likes to go anywhere."
Harriet changed the subject. "How often does Dawn get here?"
"When the weather is good, she sails over once a week, sometimes even with a kid thatís not too bad, if Robbie can stay with the others. Sometimes she comes with a car and takes your Mom shopping, but thatís hard. Itís a long way around the shoreline. Dawn can still sail real good." Proud. He had taught the three of them, Lionel against his will, who did not like things he could not see beneath. Or beyond.
Anders pulled the car in under the carport, jumped out to get Harrietís luggage from the back and carried them to the main bedroom that had been cleared for her. "How long you staying?" Stella called from the bathroom.
"Depends," Harriet said. "A day or two."
Stella came out of the bathroom galvanically, as if she had heard the announcement of a storm with a sudden thunderclap, her face steamed up, her gray hair disheveled, uncombed in a nasty, ratty way, but her glassy blue eyes steady in her perverse pleasure to face down surprise at her disarray. "Hardly paid to take such a long trip for a day or two."
"I meant a day or two with you. I also want to spend a day or two with Dawn."
Stella smirked: she knew when she heard a lie, but said, "They have no room for you."
Harriet lapsed into the mental vacuum she always felt in front of her mother. Her voice trailed off inconsequentially. "Weíll make out. Dawn said she could set up a cot in the dining room."
"Is that what you want? To sleep on a cot in the dining room? Where is she going to feed all those kids if youíre sleeping there?"
Harriet changed the subject. "Have you heard from Lionel?" No one ever did.
"Why do you ask? Doesnít he write you?"
"Sometimes. Not as often as I would like to hear from him." "Thatís because he doesnít like that husband of yours." "Maybe you could make some tea," Anders said. "Harrietís
been on a train for three hours."
"Who told her to move so far? She thought things were
better in New York. Same thing, Iíll bet, even among the Jews. You think they donít have crazy people?"
"Thereís about two hours to daylight, enough for a run up the river," Anders said. "What do you say, Harriet, for old timeís sake. Weíll just go up a little way, past the Juniperís place."
"Theyíre not there anymore," Stella said. "Gone but not forgotten."
"What are you saying?" Harriet said.
"You think Iíve forgotten any of that?"
"Come on, Harriet." Anders pulled a life saving jacket from
a hook in the hallway and flung it at her. "Letís go now."
Harriet called Dawn that evening and asked for help. "Youíve forgotten a lot," Dawn said. No, she hadnít, but Harriet had hoped to find herself stronger. She hadnít expected that her mother would be different, but thought she would be. The vacuum in her mind returned with its familiar paralysis. "If you can squeeze out another day, Iíll take you and Stella to a mall tomorrow. She always likes that and it will give Dad the afternoon off. Tomorrow Iíll come and get you. I promise it will only be one more day."
"Mom know you had to set up a cot for me in the dining room. Why didnít you tell me there was so little room."
"Because I wanted you to come. Itís been years since weíve been sisters. Weíre gonna have a time together for ourselves."
Did Dawn ever get time for herself? For herself and Robbie? She had gained more weight. Her bulk took up the frame of the doorway. Yet she was spritely. Always efficient, she arrived when she said she would and put Stella up front in the car and buckled her in. "Whereís Anders?" Stella asked. "Isnít he coming with us? If he ainít coming, I ainít going."
Anders stood behind the car, patient with the fuss taking place. "Iím not leaving Anders behind,í Stella said.
"For Godís sake, weíll just be gone an hour," Dawn said. "An hour," Stella wailed.
"Get in the car," Dawn said to Harriet, "the quicker the better."
Harriet got in the back seat and before she could buckle up, Dawn had put the car in gear.
"Anders," Stella called with anguish. He ran alongside the car for a few feet.
"Anders?" Stellaís voice rose. She watched his retreating figure in the rear window until he disappeared, then rolled down her window and shouted, "Help. Iím being kidnapped."
Dawn was exasperated. "You always ask me to take you shopping. Now I have taken the day off to take you shopping." A portend of mounting difficulties made her regret the offer.
"What for? I donít need anything. I donít go anywhere. Your Dad never takes me on a cruise. Everyone else gets to go on a cruise. Iíll get lost if you donít stay with me. Anders always stays with me. He always stays with me. You know I canít see anything. I need someone to tell me where I am." Here it was, here it began, the litany of vituperation, and she had hardly turned the key in the car.
"Iíll stay with you," Harriet said.
"You!" Stella turned her face on her. "You ran away to New York."
"I did not run away."
"Oh, so you walked to New York."
Dawn wiped her forehead. "I swear you two are worse than
the kids I take care of."
"I always knew you cared more for them than for me."
Dawn pulled the car over to the side of the road. "Weíre a
mile from the mall. Do you think we can have quiet until we get there?"
"No," Stella said grimly. "I bet you were hoping Iíd be tame by now. Like a dog on a leash."
"I swear Iím going to turn around," Dawn said.
"Turn around. See if I care."
"I care," Harriet said.
Stella turned around again and eyed Harriet with venom.
"You ran away so far I donít even know where to find you."
Dawn started the car again. "Iíll tell you what." She picked up a bottle of water. "I need quiet in this car and I will squirt water
into the face of the first person who talks."
"Ainít gonna be me," Stella said. Dawn squirted her. "I said
the first person." Stella howled, "I only wanted to let you know that it wasnít gonna be me."
"Yeah," Harriet said. "Thatís not fair. Letís start over again after I count to three."
"No, Iíll count," Stella said.
"Thatís it," Dawn said. I see the handwriting on the wall.
I might as well be home."
"What wall?" Stella asked. "Youíre mad, Dawn. How can
there be a wall in the middle of the highway?"
Anders heard the returning car and ran out to the road, not
much surprised. Stella did not leave his side often.
"We had a great time," Dawn said. "Unfortunately, we didnít have enough time to spend at the mall. I have to get back. Canít leave Robbie for too long. Not fair to him. Iíll be back here tomorrow at two."
Harriet was alarmed. "Donít go." Dawn patted her hand. "Go to sleep early. Stay in bed as long as you can. Take a long walk in the morning. Iíll be here by two oíclock. Robbie will be glad to see me back so early today, heíll give me the extra time tomorrow." Molded by habits formed by daily crises she put the car in gear and left.
Stella put her arms around Andersí neck and cried. "They tried to kidnap me. You know it wasnít me. I wouldnít leave you."
Harriet was furious with her. Even the insane can be unfair, destroying any sympathy one wants to feel for them.
"Donít feel sorry for her," Lionel had said, "you donít feel sorry for the gatekeeper. Sheís had us buckled up, imprisoned."
"Ha," Dawn said.
"What do you mean ha?" Harriet asked.
They sat in the sailboat, rocking on the waves. "I thought
Lionel knew better."
"Knew better about what?"
"Where the beginning and the end of the knot is."
"Where is it?" Harriet asked.
"There is no beginning or end. It will always be a knot." Anders made supper. "I got some fish, but what will you
eat," he asked Harriet
"Nothing, "Stella said, "she canít eat nothing, nothing in this house."
"Donít worry about me," Harriet said, feeling the discomfort of
everything about herself. "Iíll make some rice and vegetables. What about Mom?" she asked, determined to show Stella that she cared and could be accommodating, but Stella had already disappeared into her room, trailing conversation under her breath, "Who cares about me?"
"Canít say, "Anders said, "it depends on how the mood hits her. Sometimes she eats, sometimes she doesnít."
Harriet buried the impulse to say, "How do you stand it?" She had never known her father to draw a free breath. Lionel was right. There was no such thing as a tragedy of one.
"I think Iíll take the boat out after supper for a run up the river. Think youíd like to come?"
"Canít say. It depends on what your mother wants. But you go, just be back before dark. You havenít sailed in a few years."
Harriet intended to take the boat out only long enough to put her mind into another gear, to feel the dusk stir, and the twilight moisture chill the land. She sailed past the Juniper place. Juno should have been sitting on the porch, her favorite twilight spot, but the porch was empty, engulfed by the willows. Still there was evidence of life: Lobster pots and two rowing boats tied to the collapsing wharf. Other houses along the coast were making ready for the night, swirls of smoke from chimneys, birds sitting on rooftops nestled in the odors of cooking. The wind filled her sails and her lungs. Flights of geese heading north, spring at their back. The sky swelled with their honking. A gannet dove down into the water, its line of flight split the air. Sailing was a narcotic, the wind an addiction like freedom. Sirens sang of the hallucination of flight. She had forgotten how wonderful freedom felt, wonderful and illusionary. Nothing to think about but keeping the boat on a straight course forever or for as long as she had the wind at her back.
But at Shelter island the wind died suddenly like an unexpected death and the life sucked out of the sails. A white fog came from nowhere and settled inches above the water with a funereal mist on the shore, spring and winter in a fatal embrace. The outline of Shelter Island became smudged, like seeing it through a dirty lens. Twilight hung down in mountains of shadows, lowering itself inch by inch until night swallowed the twilight and fell on the water, and the water rushed in like a tidal bore between Shelter Island and Montauk Point. A big wave slapped the boat, picked it up, spun it around and she was headed perilously for the open sea. The wind rushed down the air channel. Mountains of rain fell, the light from the lighthouse came and went through a stinging curtain of water. She pushed herself down into the bottom of the boat and let the rain pour on her. Spent. It was difficult to find enthusiasm beneath so much disappointment. The waves held out outstretched arms, the hum of wind, the hiss of rain. the song of death. A few more minutes and she would be in the open sea. Alone. But David would be alone too, and their lives hung on a continuous rope. If she snapped her end, it would snap his end. She could drown within minutes, but he would suffer for years. She grabbed the mast and put all her weight on it until the sail caught the wind. She passed the Juniper house again and other cottages on the shore. In sailing communities, every boat that was lost made a hole in its universe. Cowbells and lights hung from some houses, marking a course in the river that shone through the sheets of rain, as if the world was invested in her survival. She kept a steady tack between the two shorelines of mood, while the wind almost tore the mast from her hand and she struggled with it like Jacob with his monster. She leaned on the mast with all her might until she saw a light on the shore, like a great code reaching out over the water. It was Anders signaling to her. Left, pull left, pull left with all your strength.
He was in the water, waiting to pull the boat in. "That was unexpected," he said.
"Lucky there was no lightning."
"They spotted you from the lighthouse and called ahead." "Everyone lit up the shore." She broke down in tears.
He wrapped her in a blanket and made tea. "When someone
is out there in danger we all know it. Dawn called. We have to call her back and tell her youíre alright."
Harriet took her tea into her bedroom and did as Dawn advised: she stayed in bed as long as she could, and in the morning went for a walk. Anders made breakfast, flapjacks and blueberry jam he had made himself. Stella did not come out from her room until afternoon.
Dawn came at two oíclock as she said she would. She drove a pickup truck with shopping stacked in the back, pampers and groceries. "Was it very bad?" she chuckled. Harriet could not fathom her mood. "Not good," she said. "But you held your own?" Dawn said. Was that all that was expected, survival in the face of cacophony. She put Harrietís luggage and laptop in the back of the truck.
"How is your work going?" she asked. The question made Harriet gloomier. "If I donít think about getting it published or read by someone who could understand it, itís going well. Lionel reads my entries. And maybe one other person understands it."
"You mean Laurel?"
"Hardly. She could if she would, but she wonít. Always busy. Everyone I know is always busy."
Dawn never indulged in a conversation that was headed for a brick wall, but she hadnít seen Harriet in over a year and catching up was what this visit was about. Harriet was an enigma to her. So were Stella and Lionel, but they were labeled as such. No one expected sanity from them. Harriet was a failure being gored by a truth. "What is Laurel busy with?"
"She and her husband publish a magazine called The Modern Knight and theyíve started a summer festival, a celebration of the Middle Ages. Everyone comes to it. Everyone loves it. Everything they do is successful." Dawn didnít miss the despair in Harrietís voice. "Itís so kitschy," Harriet said. "Laurel came as Lady Godiva one year and wore a flesh colored body suit. It made the papers. "
"That sounds like Laurel." Dawn laughed. Harriet did not. "Canít you write something for them?" It was the inevitable question.
"I am writing something for them," Harriet responded gloomily. She fought off the image of failure she knew was lodged in everyoneís mind, even Dawnís. Dawn never allowed anyone to think of her that way. Something in her personality cut them down, even when they said, "Shame. Went to Community College for one year, met Robbie and that was that. Bright girl. Could have made something of herself."
"Iím doing an article on gargoyles. Apparently, gargoyles have become fashionable again. "
"Frightening things never go out of style." They plunged down steep hills around the Sound. Harriet thought Dawnís driving was reckless. But it was like Dawn, always under pressure to get things done, plunging around curves with self-confidence, like she solved problems, with impatience, no time for doubt. Maybe thatís what attracted Robbie to her, her self-confidence. He had talent, but no confidence. Dawn brought the car into a side road, the only place she could be sure a child wouldnít wander under it. "Iíll get a wheelbarrow to unload." Robbie came out to help.
"Howíd things go?" Dawn asked, against her better judgment.
"As usual. Lousy."
She didnít ask for details. Everyone was alive. If otherwise, Robbie would have sounded differently. They pushed the wheelbarrow to the front of the kitchen door. The house looked like a one-story dormitory with three bedrooms and a dining room/living room/kitchen combination. It had only one door so that if a child wandered out of the house, Dawn knew which door it had gone through. It was built on a half acre of land a quarter mile from the river. Three children, dangling between crutches or in a wheelchair, appeared with stored complaints. Robbie wouldnít let them play with their nintendo, Robbie let Mark have the special swing all morning, Robbieís not fair, not fair at all. One little girl was silent. "How come she doesnít complain?" Harriet asked. "Canít speak," Dawn said. "Thatís one way to solve the problem. Let me show you around. You havenít been here in a while."
Everything was crowded and damp, special cribs, special high chairs, special beds with guardrails painted with arrows, numbers and geometric designs, mobiles over the table, over the cribs, anything that might awaken a recalcitrant mind that didnít know it had been born. Harriet shuddered. How precarious birth was. Then there was the problem of how they would raise the child. "Do these children have a religion?"
Dawn paused in the folding of laundry. "A religion!" She looked at Harriet incredulously. "They donít even have a life."
"But if it had been otherwise," Harriet persisted.
"You mean my being Lutheran and Robbie being Catholic?" "Something like that."
"In the first place, strictly speaking, weíre not Lutherans.
Weíre Waldensians, pre-Lutherans. Heretics, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. But then so are Lutherans. Hard to find a church that really speaks for oneís self. Lutheran was the best we could do. I told Robbie all that. He was all right with it, actually amused him that he was marrying a heretic. Always heard about them, he said, never knew for sure what they were. But there were people who said that was the reason Dawn always miscarried. Her mother said Robbieís being a Catholic was worse than Davidís being a Jew."
"At least heís not a heretic," Harriet laughed. "Itíd be hard to accuse Jews of being heretics."
"Thatís true. Thatís one thing you canít accuse them of. So what do you think of this furniture Robbie has built. Mom says you could buy them in stores, but we need special furniture and special sizes at prices we can afford. Let me show you the swing Robbie designed." They went out into the backyard where an autistic child sat in a sand box, wondering what to do there, and a boy, his body twisted with cerebral palsy, swung in a rigamarole that was half hammock with protective sides that came up. "Thatís the special swing," Dawn said. "He cannot fall out of it and itís rigged to a motor that keeps it swinging. If you ordered something like this or tried to buy it, it would cost a few thousand dollars, just because it was out of the ordinary. Robbie built it for about a hundred. Built a special rocking chair for Sam---thatís his name. Robbie has been looking at catalogues for special needs children, and has been able to reproduce some of their furniture for half their prices. Weíre thinking of going into the business ourselves. I know what these kids need, I see how they use things. Even babies born to crack mothers can recover some of their digestive ability, if theyíre swung or rocked."
"What is the value of what I am doing?" Harriet emailed David that night. "It causes me pain and it doesnít seem to have any value. Everyone thinks I am a totally nonproductive member of society, that I should get a job and earn a living. Friends from school email and ask me what I am up to and say, Chrťtien what?"
David knew there were no friends from school who would ask Harriet that question. Laurel was the only post-graduate friend she had left, and Laurel knew it was futile. Harriet had plunged into one of her goofy moods where her weathervane lost its direction and was spinning freely, but David knew it would pick up wind and find its direction again. Harriet was Harriet, tenacious as a bulldog. That the chief French poet of the Middle Ages had been a converted Jew did not rank high on anyoneís list of the worldís top curiosities. And that was eight hundred years ago. A lot of writers had come and gone in that time---mostly gone, all subject to the special injustice that afflicts writers. So o.k. If she stayed the course, he would stay the course with her. And she would stay the course. She would rail and curse and stay the course. In the meantime, she might write the paper on gargoyles. They practically promised publication, and in such a gorgeous book, heavy weight glossy paper with illustrations, and her name in the table of contents. It was wonderful when evil could strike an appealing image, a comedic representation of itself, no children dying of hunger, or heretics burning in an auto da fť, or floods drowning hundreds, no mad gunman shooting children down. The gargoyle stuck his tongue out and said, "Precisely. Donít take me seriously." Bernard of Clairvaux had condemned these "childish" images, water sprouts, pipes with pagan heads, decorations that had come to be believed. "What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brethren as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? Several bodies with one head and several heads with one body, a quadruped with a serpent's head, a fish with a quadruped's head, an animal half horse, half goat." Yesterdayís monsters are todayís decorations for a bathroom shower. Deformity has its appeal.
"For Godís sake," Laurel wrote the next day, "that last sentence is an attack on interior decorators." Harriet responded by sending her the quotation from Bernard. Laurel emailed back that the quotation from Bernard was "over the top. Who but a Catholic scholar would know who Bernard was?"
"We can footnote it," Harriet responded. Laurel did not.
Furious, Harriet emailed that the representation of evil was an intriguing subject itself. For three nights the air was filled with her cantankerous bits and bites, quotations about evil from the worldís literature. The only light in the room came from her computer screen, the only sound from the clicking of the computer keys. Everyone slept, except for those who tossed and turned in an effort to find a comfortable position that would not crack a bone. Brenda was the exception. Attracted to the light coming from the computer she came each night like a visitation pinioned by the dark, stood in the doorway to the dining room, or hung out in the shadows just beyond the edge of Harrietís room.
"Whatís with her?" Harriet asked Dawn.
"Her nameís Brenda. Sheís been here a few months. Family Concerns called one day and asked if I could take her in. The best we can make out is that her father beat her so badly she lost a kidney and her speech. Motherís gone. Who knows where? But thereís nothing wrong with her vocal cords. Her loss of speech is due to shock." Dawn did not pause in her tale, she covered every horror with work, shopping, building, planting, cooking. "She loves to be read to, if you have the time. Sheíll listen all day long. She wonít talk, but she will listen."
"What sort of books do you have?"
"All kinds. Thereís a small bookcase in my room. Mostly childrenís books that have been donated from libraries."
Dr. Seuss abounded, and Maurice Sendak, also a childrenís edition of Gilgamesh. "Imagine finding that here," Harriet wrote to Lionel that night. She went in search of Brenda who was sitting on the rail on the side porch, watching the autistic child in the sandbox fill a pail of sand, empty it and fill it again. She emailed Lionel that night, wherever he was, as she had been doing for years, sometimes sending him drafts from her thesis. Of course he sympathized, wanted to know who this boob Connell was. This night she typed out, "Do you remember Juno Juniper reading to us from Gilgamesh?"
"Of course, I remember," he wrote back from outer space. "She would blow her cheeks up whenever she spoke of Humbaba the evil monster."
"I fear my article on gargoyles is not going well."
"I am not surprised."
"What is your image of evil, if you have one?"
"Dense fog. Something you canít see through. Shape shifters.
Also a labyrinth. Something you canít get out of."
She said goodnight and clicked the computer off. She feared his pain.
In the morning, Brenda came looking for her. She had impossibly large brown eyes that swallowed her face.
Who would dare lay a hand on you? Harriet thought.
"Perhaps the thing about evil," she wrote Lionel that night, "is that one must not dwell on it."
"True," he wrote back. "The great philosophers tell us to turn our back on the world."
"Neither Jesus nor Moses did." "True."
"Shit!" Harriet thought, what if we all went into a retreat somewhere, and signed off on the world, but she wouldnít say that to Lionel.
Neither could he stand her pain. "Goodnight," he wrote and clicked off.
The news of the capture of Adolf Eichmann by a team of Mossad and Shin Bet agents in a suburb of Buenos Aires was broadcast on May 11, 1960. "The Mossad agents had arrived in Buenos Aires in April 1960 after Eichmann's identity was confirmed. After observing Eichmann extensively, the Mossad agents waited for him as he arrived home from his work as foreman at a Mercedes Benz factory," etc. The Mossad had not yet become famous. Now they became a household name, as did Eichmannís, and Hannah Arendtís aphorism, "The banality of evil."
Elsbeta returned from shopping, turned on the news and turned it off and put away forsythia branches in a glass vase. Her life fell into two halves, before the war and after. The bridge between the two was gone. No explanation. Kenneth would be home from school soon, and she would have to get David. She did not let David walk home by himself yet. Kenneth was eleven. Six years after their marriage she was surprised to find herself pregnant, neither pleased nor upset. She had gone to night school, had become a secretary in an importing/exporting firm, trading on her knowledge of European languages. They wanted her to open an office in France, but she would never go back to Europe, no matter that she missed it. She knew that what she missed had been killed, and she had jumped over the ditch in which that Europe was buried. She had not gotten used to America, she missed Europe, but she knew she missed a Europe that was no longer there. Then nature drew another design, one irrelevant to love and desire or her expectations. Men and women, devoted to each other, weep for children they cannot have, while women who detest their bodies, detest the man--or men--who took them like prizes in a war without a name, without signposts with which to find the villains or the victims, without maps, without an origin and without an end, without reparations or treaties, get pregnant and suffer the wretchedness of bearing a child against their will. Elsbeta did not wish for children, and Ira was indifferent: Kenneth was born old with a surreptitious knowledge of their indifference that marked his wrinkled face, the knowledge of those whose lives are a matter of indifference to those around them. Elsbeta had seen children dropped like animal droppings into ditches where cows deposited their feces. Dropped with the droppings, fertilizer for the earth, raked out by a farmer in the morning. Kenneth refused to be comforted because he had survived. He lay like a wrinkled gnome in his crib. At four months, he turned his face away from Elsbeta if she tried to sing to him. He did not like to be held and flung himself off her lap. He did not like to be cuddled. She came to believe that her maternal instincts had been buried in the ditch with the cowsĎ droppings, and that Kenneth knew it. She had hoped things would be different once he was born. She had heard stories of women who had been changed by the act of giving birth, prostitutes who had become domestic. She remained the same, caught on the hook of the past. When he was older, she took Kenneth to museums and bought him the latest educational toys. She was dutiful, but they did not want each other. She did everything correctly, made sure his shoes fit, kept him in clean clothes, did his homework with him, but they did not want each other. When she walked him in his carriage or sat in the park, she watched other women coo to their babies and their babies coo back, the universal dialogue between mothers and infants. Even in the concentration camp, babies cooed to their mothers, even when their mothers tried to smother their sounds, you could hear their coos through the blanket, until they stopped. When the infant was found and confiscated and drowned in a pail of water the mother passed out. The bond which had kept the world in place since the dawn of creation, kept it in place between duck and ducklings, between cow and calf, was broken. Every woman witnessed how the bond was broken. The umbilical cord was torn from her, the birth flung into a ditch. At night they heard lions crying for their young, elephants weeping for the broken birth. Elsbeta aborted her pregnancies with the help of other women. Kenneth was born with an old manís frown across his brow, as if he had been witness. There was no infancy in him. When he was learning to walk, he yanked his hand out of hers if she tried to help him. Yetti was the only one he came to. She bounced him on her knee when she came to visit, and he laughed wildly, anxious he would not get enough of this delicious body sensation. When he was two, he would shriek, "more, more," until Yetti pleaded that she had to rest. "Aunt Yettiís knee hurts." Kenneth would caress Yettiís knee and kiss it. "ImakeAuntiYettiís knee good and Aunti Yetti make more." Everyone laughed at his cleverness, though Elsbeta was envious. What was Yettií secret? Unflapable bonhomie. From what wellspring? "No, Aunti Yettiís knee so bad she will not be able to walk home. Mommy will bounce you." Kenneth wailed, searching for his childhood. "Youíve had enough," Elsbeta would say. "No, not enough," Kenneth cried, and punched her in her belly. "Yes, enough," Elsbeta said, "Aunt Yetti has to go home." Kenneth would bite her arm. It was war between them and little better with David, except that David never bit or hit or scratched. He was a moaner, and entertained himself in his crib, rocking back and forth and moaning.
She stopped briefly in front of the television set, her nightmare a public matter now, soldiers splitting the universe, tearing children from their motherís hands. The egg was broken, the yolk spilt into a ditch. She was relieved when Kenneth went to college and then to live in Japan. She could have gone back to work at the export/import firm but preferred volunteer work as a fundraiser for the museum and the Botanical park, her Hadassah meetings. She donated her flower-arranging creations to a hospital. Ira did not need her income and she liked volunteer work. But a rising tide of scorn surrounded her. She knew what a hiss sounded like.
One day on impulse, she invited Harriet to visit the park with her. Harriet felt gloomy about spending a day with Elsbeta, but no reason surfaced to reject the invitation. She was vulnerable. Everyone knew she did not have a paying job, that she made her own working hours, and they regarded her work as not "real" work. Real work was inflexible. Real workers did not take a morning off to roller skate through Central Park. Real workers did not sit in a library all day. The winter that year was difficult in more ways than the weather: Iraís parents had died within six months of each other. David and Kenneth and their wives sat shiva with them and then went back to work. Elsbeta called Leela a few days later and asked how Kenneth was. "Fine, just fine." She called Harriet and asked how David was.
Harriet was flummoxed by the question. "He seemed to take it all right."
"But should he have? Should there be such silence after death?" How strange, Harriet thought, for Elsbeta, to be perturbed about this. "He hardly knew them," Harriet explained. The mathematics was clear: Saw them once a month for a few hours, twelve times a year. What could you expect?
"Our fault, mine and Iraís," Elsbeta said. "We didnít foster connections." No use regretting it, she thought as she remembered that first year in America, the small apartment that always smelled of fried fish. Not that she could logically hold that against them. They were what they were. That was the logic of it. Time and space were the enemy. Even Yetti, whom she had once been fond of, it was clear when she came up for the two funerals had changed or had become more of what she had been. Elsbeta noticed the latent vulgarity, her red hair turned bronze from too much coloring, a new boyfriend with her each time. With the death of his father---his mother had died first---Ira stopped shaving and slept on the floor. When his mother died---the old lady was ninety---he had brought his father back with him after the funeral to their apartment. A notice was posted in the elevator about the death of Iraís parents, and neighbors stopped by to give their condolences. The winter was a season of mourning. Her Hadassah group sent baskets of fruits, jams and cheeses. The old man sat in a chair and drank tea. He held his hand out weakly to each well wisher and let his tears fall into his saucer. Elsbeta thought with surprise, "He will miss her." Though there was room for her in the apartment, Yetti went to a hotel both times, each time with a different boyfriend. She had graduated from pharmacists to dentists and felt her status deserved a hotel room. "The old man should sleep in one of the bedrooms," she said. Elsbeta pressed the point. There was Iraís office, once Davidís bedroom, which sustained a pullout bed. Yetti was adamant and opted for a hotel. After the second death, her daughter, Devra, slept on the floor "in the manner of an eastern spiritual." To Elsbetaís annoyance, Kenneth and Leela made the trip there and back, from Yonkers to Brooklyn, each day for three days. Leela drove the car. Kenneth no longer fit behind the wheel. He had gained weight, A hundred pounds could be tabulated on a scale, twenty pounds a year for the past five years. There was no stopping the march of the pounds. He entered a room like a small whale, still fastidious in dress like Ira, but six sizes larger. Under such conditions, it was generous of them to come, even heroic. What would the trip do to Leelaís fertility schedule? Elsbeta found such determination to become pregnant stiffening, was it a militant determination to prove that one could have "it all." What was the "all"? Why should one have children at all? What did they prove, but that the womb was indifferent to the heart and the brain, a separate organ that did not communicate with the other organs. One day a woman woke up, her breasts ached and she was nauseous. Whatís this? Throughout history it had been useless to ask this question. Now that one could ask it, no one knew how to answer it. So many children already here wandering in the wilderness, dropped in the fields, some suckled by an animal, others ploughed under. The earth groaned with over-population, yet women risked misery to add one more child to the funeral pyre. Physical exertion was getting difficult for Kenneth. Perhaps that was the problem why Leela couldnít conceive. Without a spoken word--who would dare articulate it-- scenes of Kenneth mounting her circulated through peopleís minds, or her mounting him. "Sheíd roll off," a cousin thought and the thought circulated through the room, or Elsbeta heard them say it, or thought she heard them say it. "Hard to find traction on the mountain." Hard to find the right word-- overweight, fat, obese. He confessed to weighing three hundred. "At least," Ira said. The sight of Kenneth and Leela together, side by side, was painful--or mirthful-- depending upon whether you were parents or friends--the hemisphere and the perisphere, the 1939 Worldís Fair symbols: The World of Tomorrow. Dismantled to make armaments for World War 11. Only the old people did not notice or did not care, unperturbed by passing fancies of size. The hemisphere and the perisphere were long gone, but Kennethís girth was larger than ever, expansion without explanation.
No one could say they had been caught unprepared for the old peopleís deaths--they were in their nineties---but they had been a fixture. Their grainy endurance felt permanent. Relatives that Elsbeta could not remember, showed up, piously, the passage of time marked by a younger generation of polite husbands and critical wives who sat in a knot of chairs and examined each othersí careers like baboons in a cleaning ritual. Advancements were marked: Leelaís admired; Harrietís not: It was still difficult to place her. No children, no job, no income. Dependent on her husband. Irrelevancy marked her. Even worse, she appeared to be someone who didnít know she was irrelevant or refused to know it. But in fact, it was just the opposite. She tried to be relevant, or worse thought she was relevant and tried to find her way into the conversation. "You might be surprised to know there was a Womenís movement in the twelfth century." Interest stirred hazily in her direction. "Really! Is that what youíre working on?" The tone was not inviting. "Did they rebel against wearing a chastity belt?" Laughter.
"I canít imagine anyone clamping one of those things on me. My vagina would explode."
"It was only partly about sex," Harriet said, wrong wording, wrong tone.
"What else could it be, Duh?"
"It was about controlling reproduction and who got to be the legitimate heir. An illegitimate heir was a terrible problem in that age. The chastity belt was not to restrain the woman, but to restrain men in an era when rape was rampant."
"Now that sounds interesting," Devra said. "Why donít you do your thesis on that, something the Womenís Movement could use."
"Maybe when I finish my main work, I will do that." A concession. She had never thought of that "angle" before. She did not think of "angles."
"When will that be?" someone asked, a better question than "what is your thesis," but the answer was just as uninviting. People like Harriet never had answers that were inviting, answers that led to conversation. "Hard to say. Research is not like a baseball game Nine innings to the finish." Clever, but not useful, not even elucidating. How could it be that Harriet had been so well schooled for so many years and yet could not make an interesting response. She was a mishmash. Emancipation for her did not indicate a sure direction.
A few weeks after the funeral of his father, Ira went back with David, Harriet and Elsbeta to clear out their parentsí apartment. No one expected Harriet to come after her miscarriage, but she insisted. The landlord had sent three statements to the effect that if they didnít come, he would hire someone "to clean it out." Little had changed in the apartment. The small bedroom Elsbeta had shared with Ira and sometimes with Yetti was as crowded as ever, but with different furniture. The dresser was still there, but there was a sleeper couch, a club chair and a television set. The cot Yetti had slept in was gone from the kitchen/dining room/living room, but the smell of fried fish clung to the stained wallpaper. The persistence of the olfactory sense was remarkable. The cast iron frying pan was still on the range as if a meal had been prepared the night before. Their store had been bought out and replaced by a modern delicatessen. Goldwasserís fish swam elsewhere. They had spent their days walking on the boardwalk in spring and summer, clinging to each other in addition to a cane and a walker, and watching the world from their twenty-six inch television set. They walked every day except when winter winds stopped them, marking changes in the weather and on the streets. Storefronts were spruced up with modern merchandise, rows of canned goods and nature drinks in shiny orange and yellow bottles. Fish no longer swam in tanks in the windows, but died just the same, memorialized in plastic. Check-out counters moved the merchandise on a belt. To the consternation of the check-out workers, the Goldwassers refused to use credit cards and counted out their payment in wrinkled dollars. Half naked boys and girls jogged on the boardwalk or walked, carrying radios, heads wrapped in headphones. Music burst out from a cafe with balloons on the roof. The neighborhood was preparing for new immigrants.
They hired someone to take the furniture and pack the old clothes into cartons, the old sweaters and the faux fur winter hats, the cotton stockings, the shoes with crippled heels, the chipped dishes and the cast iron frying pan. Then the photographs fell out of the wooden drawers and down from the shelves of the closets, they tumbled out of drawers and came out from under the bed, boxes of foreign looking women with babies on their laps, marriage pictures of strangers, a man standing in front of a wooden shed in the middle of a field staring expressionless into the camera, eyes stunned by the pop of light. The pictures were brown and grainy as if the people lived in a world brown from the earth up to the brown sky, a brown species with eyes fixed like glass. No light in them, straight stares into the camera, mouths open with shock at the pop of glare. Even the babies on the laps of their mothers stared with shocked eyes.
The smell of disintegration mingled with the smell of cooking oil. Elsbeta put her handkerchief to her nose, an irritating gesture of her condemnation of tissues, symbolic of a disposable generation. She waved her handkerchief at the fetid atmosphere--she still smelled fried fish in it---and announced that she had to get some air. Then thinking this might be an opportunity to mend an invisible fence, asked Harriet if she would like to go too. She wanted to understand the women of her generation. Could they really be so blind to history, so optimistic that they thought they could throw the rider from their backs? Harriet hesitated, but deference to a mother-in-law made her say yes, and they walked to the boardwalk. The sunlight fought unsuccessfully against the gloom of the two women. Death, even when its victim is remote from the centers of our being, fetches up the disturbance of disintegration. Lives end in a clutter that has to be swept out. That was the real death, boxing up old clothing, carting out old pans, tossing out old photographs. No one left alive who can identify them. They walked in self-conscious silence, formally friendly Ocean spray mingled with a chilly wind beneath the warm sun. The breaking waves splintered foam on the shoreline and sparkled sunlight on the sand. "Do you know" Elsbeta said, "I am sorry we did not visit them more often. They must have been very lonely." Harriet wondered if one day she would feel the same way about her parents, and yet could not go more often. "Perhaps they have only themselves to blame." Cruel statement, meant to console a vacuum. To her credit Harriet did not believe what she said. Neither of them gave it credence or knew what it meant, but the sentence made the problem seem manageable. Elsbeta changed the subject. She wanted to understand Harrietís generation, which she felt held the secret to this countryís optimism. Liberation from what? From sex? From men? From bearing children? There was a naivete about the movement which rankled her. "To put it bluntly," Elsbeta asked, preparing Harriet for Gotterdamerung "Do they not realize that women cannot rape?"
Harriet was flummoxed by the question. For the sake of their relationship, she strained to keep her tone pleasant. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Itís the bottom line."
"I donít believe that."
"Because of that women will always be dependent on men for their safety."
Harriet gasped as if Elsbeta had kicked hr legs out from her. "Unless of course they wall themselves in and surround
themselves with guns and kidnap children to raise up the next generation. And if women decide they donít want children, men can force themselves in. The entire edifice of civilization is a camouflage over this."
"There are civilizing forces," Harriet said. Instructions meant to tame the climate of rape. Hadnít Parzivalís mother instructed him, "Donít take more than you are offered." But what would Elsbeta know about this?
"So they say." It was this American faith, generous and duplicitous, that had kept Elsbetaís mouth shut for forty years. Hard for Harrietís and Leelaís generation to imagine the anarchy of sex let loose like gunshot over the heads of terrified girls running through the woods like deer. Experience was an impassable gulf. To Elsbeta, Harrietís expression was a visage of duplicitous optimism, as difficult to cross as a moat. She said that they should go to back to the house in case they were needed to make decisions about what to keep and not keep, though she was not intending to keep anything. A line thinned her lips, experience compressed into silence like the sphinx keeping consort with stone. The innocence of Americans was unbearable. Putting that aside, family was a tradition worth keeping, even pretending to keep, and she invited Harriet to spend an afternoon with her.
Building bridges is an arduous task. It does not come naturally except to beavers. Perhaps every family should spend time in the diplomatic corps. A month later, Harriet took the train from Greenwich Village and got off at the Brooklyn Museum station to spend the afternoon with Elsbeta in the Botanical Gardens. Though the weather was glorious and the cherry trees were on display, everything went wrong. Nature could not rescue them. After ten minutes both women knew this was a bad idea. Elsbeta wanted her way of life to find value for her daughters-in law. Ironically, she felt more alienated from America because of them than when she had first arrived. She was on the board of art museums and dance groups and was president of her local Hadassah chapter. Once a week she played cards with women in her apartment building, once a week she went to the theater, once a week she went to the hairdresser, but she understood that to her daughters-in law time spent his way was regarded as frivolous. Harriet also wanted her life to be ratified, but without paid work, it was regarded as meaningless. Leela was respected, her failures commiserated with: her first and second attempts at the fertility clinic had failed, she was now on her third effort, part of the drama of the new American woman. Still, the stuff and glue of family life seemed unchanged. Harriet had had a miscarriage; that winter Iraís parents had passed away within six months of each other and Ira, who had always chafed in their presence, retired to his office for longer and longer hours. A grimness, like holding the battle line against loss, settled into their lives and crept into Elsbetaís understanding that what she was was not enough. Only Dolly seemed enough. The distances between Elsbeta and her sons and their wives were insurmountable, through no fault of anyone, the fault of history, the march of time, progress and all that. As they approached the Shakespeare garden, a patch of seventeenth century England in Brooklyn, and walked beneath the flowering trees, Elsbeta retreated into official language. "This was the first city garden in the entire country. Numbers of children have developed their instinct for natural beauty here, children from every background." Her pride was meaningless. It could not lift Brooklyn out of the bourgeois taint it suffered from. She omitted the one fact salient to her personally: beauty consoled her more than human beings did: the stilled music, lines written on a Grecian vase. Human genius held the walls against the ferocity of the ocean which could rip everything down. If Harriet had been asked, if Elsbeta could have asked her, Harriet might have told her it was Chrťtienís talent worked out in the solitude of an offending civilization. But neither woman knew where the bridge was, or if there was a bridge. Elsbeta suggested they go to eat. They found a small delicatessen, which Elsbeta immediately recognized as an inauspicious choice, but it did have vegetable soup, potato pancakes and applesauce.
Harriet ordered the soup and a salad.
"Of course, how stupid of me," Elsbeta said, flustered. "We should have gone to another restaurant where there would be more choice for you." Harriet was embarrassed, as always, when her vegetarianism caused other people discomfort. "Donít worry. Thereís plenty for me to eat."
Elsbeta scrutinized the menu and chose the same dinner Harriet did. Conversation went the same way, limping from topic to topic. She had asked David many times what it was Harriet was studying, so they would have something to talk about. The question always prompted diffidence. Did he think she was prying? She shuddered at the thought, and asked Ira. He waved the subject away. "It seems like a dead end." As far as he was concerned every subject was a dead end. Academia had become a dead end. Mathematics was a dead end and now science showed signs of becoming a dead end. You could go on examining things forever, discovering smaller and smaller particles and making bigger and bigger machines to find them, to figure out what they were doing, jumping around into black holes, disappearing squiggles down the drainpipes of space. Why werenít people satisfied with the explanation the Bible gave? He was amused at his own answer: it had come to him one night reading The Industrial Digest "Because it doesnít make money, doesnít do a damn thing for the national GNP. Thatís why. Canít sell it on the stock market. If you canít turn it into an industry, itís no go." The answer was not an indication of his interest in the Bible, of which he had none, but an indictment of the zeitgeist which was sweeping past him.
Elsbeta did not understand science or religion and never read the Bible except when she went to Temple and was then unconvinced because she did not like the rabbi (the cantor, a woman, had a beautiful voice, well trained---Elsbeta wondered why she had settled for being a cantor----what gloomy disappointments about an operatic career lay behind that?) Maybe women today chose careers for reasons of advancing the world in some direction that she sympathized with, but she couldnít see how any of the evils would go away. She had nothing against women working---women were entitled to do the same dirty work men did, go to war, work in cemeteries, dig ditches, be garbage collectors---most of the work of the world was dirty or boring. But when women spoke of their right to do menís work, they meant to be stockbrokers, doctors and lawyers. Harriet was not headed in any of these directions. "Do you like your work?" The question popped out of her mouth like a toad. Was there no way to talk to Harriet about her work? Harriet had come to the dire insight that there wasnít. She had come to a crossroad in her life where she was grateful for inane conversation, but Elsbeta was embarrassed by it.
"How long will David be gone?"
"Another two days."
"I hope this yearís tax season wasnít too taxing." The joke went on forever. "I hate to burden David further, but there are some financial papers his grandparents left that should be attended to.
They parted at the entrance to the subway, tensions covered with good manners. Elsbeta walked home, grateful for the good weather, perhaps the best gift the world has to offer. Harriet went down into the subway. After the brilliant cherry blossoms and the eighty different flowers and herbs in the Shakespeare garden, the gloom of the subway was startling. Toiling people made their way back and forth in a sunless rushing tube. When she climbed the steps out at her station, the elm trees beginning to bud seemed sadly fragile, as if they might not come to bloom. But beginnings are always dubious. She called David as soon as she got into their apartment. "Um," he said, "I guess we forgot about that problem. But shouldnít my Dad do it? Heís the logical one."
"Your mother seems to feel heís become," she couldnít figure out what word to use and settled on "ineffectual."
"What does that mean?"
"I donít know."
"Why didnít you ask her?"
Harriet regarded the question as an attack on her. "Iím
leaving for Troyes in September."
"What does this have to do with my grandparentsí will, and
besides this is only March, and who said youíre going to Troyes?" "Itís finished, David. Iíve decided. Iíve gone as far as I can in my research." She hung the phone back and started to tremble. Defeat was imminent if she did not jump across the burning lake. She took out her books on courtly love to calm herself and re-read them to assure herself that the revolution in romantic love was not a mirage, searching for Chrťtienís part in the revolution. Eliot had said that true revolutions were revolutions of sentiment. Romance was one of the greatest ideas to channel the violent sexual impulses of a warrior culture and to level the playing field between men and women in sex. But its career had become bumpy, first as liberation, then as a trap for women during the rise of the bourgeosie in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Revolutions were mercurial and could change into their opposites.
"The love courts were not the great liberators of women and they did not over-run the social habits of their world. In fact, they often endorsed them." Again, Professor Connell, pen wagging at her, experience letting youth know the road was paved with disappointments, even though she hadnít asserted any of the things he said she had asserted. "Reread The Art of Courtly Love by Capellanus. No matter what they said about love liberating women from strangling marriages, the sex act was riddled with class distinctions. A man doth not lyeth with a peasant woman as he would with the lady of the manor, nor does a husband with his wife. Even desire is not to be expected there, certainly on the part of the woman. Even in the Kama Sutra the sexual act is defined by social barriers, in fact riddled with it. The Victorians were expert in this knowledge. We can only imagine what the milkmaid was expected to do."
Harriet could not imagine. She did not read analyses or studies, like Masters and Johnson, and if she did she wondered that women could talk about themselves so intimately with strangers. She was a romantic and abhorred talk about techniques and strategies. The art of love for her was not the science of love. The women in Percival did the seducing. It seemed to Harriet that Chrťtien had turned rape on its head.
Elsbeta walked home through the park. The day was warmer than one would expect in mid April, tulips stiffly blooming in garden patches, the parade of baby strollers not as handsome as the ones she had used when Kenneth and David were born. Her carriage had been regal and elegant. Now the carriages were lightweight and flexible and accommodated athletic mothers who jogged with them. The world seemed airborne, lighter, lightweight yet sodden with heat. She missed the gravitas of the world she had known. She missed the knives her mother had cut bread with, her soup pot, the chickpeas she dried on a turkish towel, rolling them back and forth in the towel, she missed her fatherís elegant suits, his handkerchief in his breast pocket, his shoes always shined, left outside the door at night on a rubber mat. She had learned the rights and wrongs of life in another world, the doís and dontís, the way to curtsy, the way to cross a street, the way to pick up a fork, the way to say thank you, the way to sit with a straight back, a set of rules that donít apply anymore. The tritest parts of life throttled her brain with loss, rain on the pavement, the hiss of hail on the window, her motherís blue and gold dishes. Why should a china cup mean so much when childrenís necks had been snapped like twigs?
Her body was burdened with the jacket she wore. Hipless women in jeans and tank tops skated by, weightless. Her feet hurt. They had swelled in the heat. It was an achievement to walk a mile in demi heels. But she was almost home, almost, always almost. A little shopping to do, some bread, some cake, something to enliven dinner with, a pause at the jewelry shop. She would not go in because she was not going to buy anything, and she loathed entering on the pretense that she might. But of course she might. Of course she might. No one could ever be sure of anything, least of all of oneís self. She would ask to see the ring she coveted even though she was not going to buy it. There was no room in her life for such an expensive ring. Mr. Hammond was in the window, as she feared he might be, removing a necklace on display, a strand of small diamonds alternating with blue pearls, to hang on a woman with a very bad neck where it got lost in her flesh. He saw Elsbeta and diddled slim fingers in the air to beckon her in.
Mr. Hammondís specialty was his sympathy for every weakness in a middle aged woman as she crossed the threshold into his store. He caught Elsbeta by her elbow, tucking her arm against his ribcage Her bones ached where the electric current of touch began, seduction accomplished by a pinstriped suit, a handkerchief in a breast pocket, the mystery of his past, his disdain for America, for his customers, his accent light as perfume, a trail of touches to sell a ring, to bring a woman to bed. "You look tired. Tea and cake?"
"Iíve just walked from the park." She said this in a breezy tone, confidential and self-deprecating.
"Good heavens. Let me get you some cold tea."
"Itís no bother, but I must first see if Mrs. Stiner wants to buy the necklace."
Elsbeta looked at her neighbor covertly, and whispered to
Mr. Hammond tete a tete, "Itís beautiful."
He lowered his voice. "Exactly. Just sit down and Iíll be with you in a moment."
"But not for her," Elsbeta whispered.
Mrs. Stiner unclasped the necklace from around her neck,
put it back in the box, picked it up again, put it on again, looked in the mirror again, twisted her head this way and that, and took it off again. Did she know she was a caricature? Yes, her agony was visible: if only some fate would strike me dead as I stand here and let another fate emerge from the cocoon of my dead self. "Itís for my niece, a graduation gift."
Do not buy that necklace, Elsbeta thought. We know itís for you, but it will never be for you or your niece. The mirror in the store is lying. When you get home and look in your own mirror, disgust will overtake you.
"Very generous of you," Mr. Hammond said, and the necklace disappeared into a gift box.
Elsbeta had an impulse to flee before a doom. She could not afford the ring, but sat there pretending she might buy it even as she said against her will, "I must go. I have some shopping I just remembered."
"Let me show you the ring again." Eve did not wrestle harder with the snake.
"Really, I must go. My husband will be furious."
"Put it underneath his pillow and when he finds it, make a fuss about what a generous man he is. He wouldnít want to deny that."
Play a game like that with Ira! "Let me think about it. Iíll be back when I have more time." She hoped not to. Perhaps never. Things had come to such a pass---how, she could not tell---but there it was---the ring would stand between her and Mr. Hammond forever unless he sold it to someone else. She would never feel comfortable enough to come back. Fearful that temptation would return with delay, she walked into the street, crowded with young mothers with their carriages, women in jeans or warmup clothes returning from a gym, past the hubub of the speciality grocery store, the liquor store, the Austrian bakery, the flower shop, past her reflection again and again in shop windows, something trotted out of a 1940s thrift store. Borne on flight from despair, she ran into a small department store that specialized in casual clothes, and asked to see a pair of jeans. The word tumbled out of her mouth as if she had asked for a bottle of whisky.
"What kind?" the saleslady asked.
"How many kinds are there?"
The saleslady suppressed amusement. Elsbeta was embarrassed. All jeans looked alike to her. She was not in her element, not even in the right place, nor the right store, "Cloths for the Free Miss." "What kind would you suggest?"
The saleslady tried her best to be sympathetic. This was a special case. "I wouldnít recommend hip riders."
"They end beneath the waistline."
"Donít tell me what you wouldnít recommend, tell me what
you do recommend. Iím not interested in the science of blue jeans. Just something that will look----" she tried to find a painless word, "Normal."
"Gotcha," the saleslady said and whisked off. Annoyed that her sympathy had been turned down, she returned with three pairs, one baggy, one less baggy, and one with tight legs. Elsbeta chose the "less baggy," described as "Slimming, but roomy enough to sit in." The price was $150! Farmerís clothes---$150! Something to dig in a garden with! The seams were not even piqued! She looked at herself in the three-way mirror and felt awry beyond recovery.
The saleslady pushed back the curtain. "Iíd say that oneís for you."
"No, it isnít," Elsbeta said, struggling to get out of the pants. "No, it isnít" she repeated grimly.
"Would you like to see another style?"
"No, no, thank you." She redressed quickly, but the image in the mirror was the same. Awry. Something was wrong with America, with its values. Compared to the cost of farmersí clothes, the sapphire ring was a bargain. One could resell it, trade on it, use it for collateral. What could one do with dungarees!
"Do you think Iím the type for blue jeans," she asked Ira at supper time.
He glanced up from his paper. "For what?" "The type for blue jeans. What type am I?" He glanced up again. "The type you are." "What type is that?"
"Oh, hell, Iím trying to read something."
It took five days to fight her capitulation when she returned to the jewelry store. So ridiculous to buy a ring like that! Where would she wear it? But just to own it! People bought paintings they could not wear, just to own them, to own something grand. It was more responsible to buy precious jewelry that would always keep their value than a new car which lost its value as soon as you drove it out of the parking lot. The ring was a better investment than stocks. There was monetary justice in the ring, and Mr. Hammond said she could take it home and wear it for a few days to see if she really wanted it. "What if I lost it." His generosity was overwhelming "We have insurance." He put the ring in her palm. "But donít lose it," he smiled fleetingly, "itís one of a kind. Like you." He closed her fingers over the ring. "Americans love freedom, but they donít understand beauty."
Ira did not notice the ring on her finger at supper time, though she put each dish in front of him with an effort to get his attention.
"What do you think?" she finally asked. "About what?"
She held her hand out. "About this ring." He glanced at it. "Doesnít look real."
"It is real," she screamed at him. "Itís you who is not real." "Well, youíre not planning to wear me on your finger!"
She flung her napkin down and left the room. Mr. Hammond was right. Americans did not understand beauty. Ira pretended he did so that he could feel superior to his Brighton Beach roots, but the veneer had worn off, and Brighton Beach Ira poured through the cracks. She went into their bedroom, sat down with her hand in
front of her mirror and trembled with temptation. The ring could never become something else or be sold for less. It would be valuable a thousand years from now. But she could not afford it. She could not cross that line, and she could not tell Mr. Hammond, "I canít afford it. I canít afford it, or even afford to think about it."
"Too large for me," she said as she tried to return it.
"The fit is perfect." He admired her hands, slim fingers, the hands of a pianist he told her. "My mother used to play the piano and had the same kind of hands." She suspected that he knew the real reason she was returning the ring.
"Perhaps we can reduce the price. It comes from an estate, and they can be bargained with." Her body shuddered with embarrassment. He still held her hand. She felt she could not withdraw it without wounding him. Then he said, with a nonchalance that amazed her, as if her body were not already burning enough, like a teenager at her first date, "I wonder if you would join me for a small dinner some time." Caught between civilizations, signals failed her. She looked at him for too long as she tried to make sense of the invitation. An ungainly wrinkle popped up across the bridge of her nose.
"I always eat with Ira."
"Of course, but afterwards. Just wine and dessert in my apartment. Itís quite near here." He took out a business card that he kept in the breast pocket of his suit behind his handkerchief, his name and address in gold lettering, "Dealer in Antique and Estate Jewelry."
She retreated to the door, embarrassed by her longing and her ignorance.
The next day, at their rooftop rendezvous, she confessed to Dolly, not everything, mostly her love of jewelry and Iraís lack of understanding. Dolly had become her key to understanding
American habits, a hybrid of Texas and Brooklyn. "Some men buy their women jewelry as a gift."
Dolly snorted. "Not many."
"Doesnít Mel buy you jewelry?"
"Iíd rather have a horse."
Elsbeta laughed off key. "Mr. Hammond doesnít sell horses."
"Him! Anything he sells wouldnít gallop. What a phony!"
Dolly would say that! Never wore jewelry except her wedding band and hoop earrings. What would she know of a ring made of sapphires mounted in platinum, with beget diamonds? Elsbeta took it out that evening from its box and slipped it on her finger as she imagined herself reaching for a helping of grilled asparagus in Mr. Hammondís apartment. The scene pierced her with longing. The following week, just after twilight, after dinner with Ira, she carried the ring in its box to Mr. Hammondís apartment, and set it on the table, feeling nauseous and remorseful, as it moved out of her hands. "Thank you, but no thank you." Dessert was enough. His conversation was enough, his presence in this apartment with prints of Vienna, the Schlos Schonbrun, peacocks strutting on its lawn winding through the countryside, his apartment with its landscape of wicked memory. Lust for home gripped her soul. Misunderstanding the thousand shades of longing, he took her hand knowledgeably. "Donít say no," he whispered, "donít ever shut the door on happiness," and to her astonishment, led her hand to the designated place inside his open pants and wrapped her fingers around his organ where the flesh was soft and hungry. He closed his fingers over hers, stood up, and began to move her hand up and down. She tried to wrench it free. "Donít stop," he said, moving her hand rhythmically, "another few minutes." She screamed. "Donít be a fool," he hissed. "Iím not doing anything to you. Help me another minute." She wrenched her hand free and ran to the door. His pants open, his shirt tails out, he could not follow her. She ran the four blocks to her apartment house over the icy streets. Ira was in his office and heard her come in. She went to their bedroom and sat down on the edge of their bed, trembling with cold. her bare stockinged feet covered with snow. Layers of experience pealed from her mind, leaving a vacuum. Whereas in the past, struggle had been meaningless, in the camps sex was equated with terror, with Ira as compliance, she had never known desire, now she had been complicit.
Stella laid down for her usual afternoon nap, and Anders left the house to do some shopping as he also usually did when Stella laid down for her nap, but this afternoon she jumped out of bed as soon as she heard the door click shut and the car start thirty seconds later. He would be gone about an hour, to buy some food, enough time to unsettle the universe. She had laid her plans, and the click of the door set them in motion. Anders would never suspect what she was up to. But then who would? She hadnít sailed in thirty-five years, but they say that once you know how itís like riding a bike---you never forget. Nor how to shoot. She stopped by the broom closet and got out the AK. and checked it to make sure it was loaded, then went down to the dock where she lay the rifle in the bottom of the boat, stepped into it and unfurled the sails. It was a calm afternoon, and even if it werenít, her spirit was filled with wind. For a woman who had been practically immobile for more than thirty years, who couldnít find the exit off a highway, she felt there was nothing she couldnít handle, nothing she wouldnít handle. No one could imagine her cunning and independence, but she always knew things would be this way once she took matters into her own hands. The dead years didnít matter. They sloughed away. The river was not a road. It was not a highway, she didnít have to follow signs. It was enough to follow the river. It doesnít betray you. There are only only two directions. She picked up where she had left off and sailed along the coast to the Juniper house, sure she would be able to identify it even though she hadnít seen it for thirty years and the cottage had sunk beneath thirty years of disrepair. Once you know how to ride a bike you never forget.
Lots of people were on the water, lots of sailboats this beautiful April day, blue intensity above, one rapscallion puff cloud in the sky, a piece of candy cotton. Juno Juniper was at her post on the front porch. Everyone waved to her and she waved back to everyone. God was in his world. Juno was on her porch. She spotted the Millar boat, the only boat out on the water without a name. That was not Anders in the boat, or Harriet. It was the friggin mother, but no matter, she waved anyway, and Stella headed the boat straight towards her dock. "Give me a hand," she said, "help me out."
"Does your husband know you got his boat out here."
"This ainít his boat," Stella said, her face bloated with anger. "He bought it for me and I am now using it."
"Where are you going with it?í
"Right here. I got business with you."
Juno sniffed suspiciously, "What kind of business?"
"Not exactly with you. With your husband and sons."
"Donít make no sense. What kind of business can you have with them. They donít know you."
"Donít matter. I know them. And they knew my little girl-- knew her in the Biblical sense, if you know what I mean."
Juno arose from her seat cautiously, retreat in mind. You donít argue with a wild woman anymore than with a wild river. Aintí no language useful for that. Stella jumped for her rifle and rocked the boat. The rifle went off. A flock of birds rose to the sky. Juno turned and fled, shouting for her husband and sons who were rabbit hunting out back. "Was that you, woman?" her husband asked as she came flying through the back door.
"Flee. The Millar woman is here and aims to kill you."
"That little girl you read books to? What for? I always told you no good could come of that."
"Not her, you idiot, the mother."
The answer was given: Stella came through the back door, rifle in hand and shot at them. The Junipers took off, all five in five different directions. "What the hell!" one of the sons said, "I ainít gonna get shot by a friggin woman." He turned, took aim, and shot her in the foot. The bone in her ankle shattered---the ankle that had supported her in pirouettes on the ice. She fell to the ground, astounded. She would never be able to ice skate again. These stupid men had no idea what they did. They killed the bird of paradise. She lay on the grass, moaning. "Next time the head," the shooter son said.
"Get a doctor," Juno said.
"Canít do that," her husband said. "We ainít supposed to be shooting rabbits."
"You didnít shoot a rabbit," Juno said.
"Yeah, but thatís what we were doing. She just got in the way of the bullet, and we canít eat her."
"No, you canít," Stella screamed. "I may be down but Iím not dead. One of you is gonna pay for robbing me of my career." She picked up her rifle.
"Donít do anything foolish," Juno yelled.
"Foolish!" Stella said, "you already blew my ankle off." "Now Iím gonna blow your head off." Junoís son said, "thatís the difference."
Junoís blood froze in her body. "Give me a chance. Let me call the police, someone."
"You bring the authorities here and theyíll take our permits away."
"Stand aside, Ma," her eldest said, "weíre gonna take her down. No law can say we done wrong. We didnít ask her to come here. She trespassed."
"Trespassed!" Stella yelled at them, choking with fury. "Youíre the trespassers. Outsiders, Tories, mountain people, Catholics, who have no understanding of Jesus." A mountain of history fell on their heads. She picked up her rifle and took aim from the grass where she was sitting. "What the hell," the baby son said, and blew her head off. Birds flew into the air. The rifle shot was heard down the river, people muttered that to some hunting season was all year around.
Juno went over to her, cautiously. She was definitely dead. "What now?"
"Donít worry about a thing," her husband said. "Boys, grab her legs and the top of her. Weíll carry her down to the boat and set her for Montauk. With a little luck, sheíll get caught in the whirlpool and go under. They wonít find her for days, and weíll be gone by then." Just like riding a bike. "No, wait," he cautioned. "Donít want her found ever. Put her in the freezer and roll it into the river. No one will think of looking there."
"Not until it smells."
"Thatíll take moren a week with all the ice I got in there, and weíll be long since gone." And they were. They were packed and gone by the time Anders called Dawn and told her to come as fast she could.
"Right now? Right now is not a good time. Robbieís gone to town to buy some stuff. I canít leave five kids and I canít pack them up that fast."
"Your mother is missing!" Anders said through stiff lips.
What the hell, Dawn thought, that was not necessarily a bad thing. "Probably gone for a walk."
"The boat is missing too. She hasnít sailed in thirty years."
"Iíll get there as soon as I can. Donít let your mind wander. She used to be a good sailor, and someone will spot her and warn the coast patrol."
"I already called them."
Rumors flew up and down the shorelines, faster than the birds. Anders moaned, "I should never have left her." There were no consolations and not one thought that would accommodate another. The freezer fell like a dead weight to the bottom of the Sound, where the fish glided over it for two years until some boys, diving for adventure, spotted a locker at the bottom of the river, and pried it open out of curiosity. Stella was a mess, mostly decomposed, certainly unrecognizable. "Some bad meat," one of the boys said, when they re-emerged to the top. "No oneís gonna eat that." They left the door open, and the fish did the rest. Neighbors said they had heard gun shots from the Juniper place the night Stella disappeared. That was not unusual, but the police checked it out anyway. Everything was gone including the 12 foot cubic foot freezer, some cots and chairs and the van. Even Junoís memorabilia box was gone. The police put out an alarm for them, all the way to the Canadian border, but they were never found. Only the boat was found, pieces of it floating near the lighthouse on Montauk Point. The freezer eventually made its way down the Atlantic coast, when a hurricane carried it to a New Jersey beach, and it bobbed to the surface carrying seagulls and other birds. attracted by the smell. By then, Stella was definitely gone. Even three years later, everyone believed there was a relationship between her disappearance and the Junipersí flight, but what was it? Some of the younger generation joked that maybe she had run off with them, and were reprimanded for such a thought. Too wounding to repeat. Hoped it would never get back to Anders. That man had cared for her for more than a generation, took care of her, took her shit, kept every stitch of memorabilia from her. Too wounding to repeat. They dragged the river for a week, all the way to Montauk point, putting nets along the coast on both sides, that bumped up against the freezer. Old man Juniper was right. Nothing was ever caught but fish. Some wood floated into shore, but it wasnít from the Millarís boat, which had been painted light blue like Stellaís eyes. Still she must have gone somewhere. Nothing just vanishes from the earth, and nothing could settle down until she was pronounced dead. The most reasonable guess was that she had run off with the Junipers, just like the teenagers said. "Howís that reasonable," Robbie asked. "Put it to rest," Dawn said. Anders sat slumped, the wind knocked out of him. What to do next? There was no next. Nothing came to mind. "A funeral would be a good idea," Robbie said, "give it some kind of finish. Anders has to realize sheís gone," but Anders would not realize it, and insisted on collecting all her trophies, her scrapbooks, her ice skating costumes, every article about her, and put them in a coffin which they lowered into the earth. "This is her," he said to the minister, "the real her. This is her soul."
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
Harriet told Lionel not to come, but he came, limping in soul. Honor the household gods, even the demented ones. He looked paler, more bedraggled than ever, his hair stringier, more unkempt, his chest thinner. Harriet was dismayed. He peered into the hole into which the empty casket was lowered, as puzzled as when he was a child peering through the surface of the water as if he had cataracts over his eyes. Harriet kept her hand through his arm, as Anders threw a handful of earth on to the casket that held Stellaís trophies and awards. The photograph of her, age fourteen, in her blue skating outfit was mounted on the coffin, her eyes an iconic mystery like Mona Lisaís smile.
David hoped, even expected, that given her motherís tragedy Harriet would postpone her trip to Troyes, and made the mistake of bringing up the subject. Harriet thought it rude of David to ask, as if he hoped her motherís death would put her life on hold, as if her motherís life hadnít done that all her life. "I plan to go," she said with a "now or never" edge to her tone, and spent the next two months preparing for the trip, that is researching and worrying. Maurice did not appear at the library until late June. Harriet suffered anxiety, thinking something had happened to him. Their relationship was so strictly contextual, he did not exist for her outside his connection to Troyes. They plotted together. After Troyes, they would rent a car and go to Provence, to Carcassonne and Narbonne, perhaps Lunel. "If you want to trace the route of Chrťtienís ideas, letís see what we can map out. Weíll go south and follow the route migrants took in the twelfth century." She had only a week for the trip! Arguments and compromises had come to that; a week, a century to David. Bad enough Harriet was going overseas to spend time with a strange man, but now they were plotting a trip together. This aspect of the trip did not register with Harriet. In her odd way, Harriet was naive, and David knew how Harrietís mind worked, that her fantasies seemed reasonable to her. The train from Paris would deposit her in Troyes, next to Chrťtienís desk in the Abbey of St. Loupes. Impediments like tickets, luggage, passports did not exist. David would take care of that. She would arrive in time for Marie de Champagneís court of love, or some such festivity, and all the notable poets of the twelfth century would be there, like at a writersí conference, with a common theme: the new subject of romantic love, a subdivision of the subject of knighthood from the lord to the courtly lover and his lady, sex diverted into a new channel, a revolution that overturned the relationship between men and woman, rerouted the libido from the sword to a rose. The Church was suspicious of the elevation of the sensual and the redirection of piety from Jesus to woman. Bernard of Clairvaux, a near contemporary of Chrťtien, transformed the Song of Songs into a mystical relationship between Jesus and the Church and rerouted libidinous energy back to God. The Abbey of Clairvaux, which Bernard founded, was a half dayís walk from the Abbey of Lupus in Troyes, where Chrťtien wrote his romances. David made Harriet promise that she would email him every night. All arguments exhausted and resigned to her going, he kissed her goodbye and trembled for her welfare. "Remember, email me every night."
A last request from her: "And David, print them out, so that when I get back Iíll have a record of the trip. It will be like keeping a diary."
Last minute requests and reminders came to an end, he clasped her to his chest and Harriet picked up her backpack and laptop and disappeared into the security line. The plane ascended. The sky became dense and impenetrable like a river, and the world below became small and unreal. She did not like the experience, boring and scary, and now she had left in the midst of a crisis with Anders and with friction between David and herself. Dawn had decided that Anders should sell his house and live with her. Robbie would add a room to the back of their house for him. Anders could help Robbie with the carpentry and the furniture Robbie was designing for the children. So far so good. Then Anders decided it had been a mistake to bury Stellaís trophies, her scrapbooks and costumes, and wanted to dig them up. Stella was too gone without them, gone as she had never been gone, even when she was crazy. He moaned that he had betrayed her, but there were forms to fill out and red tape to have her coffin opened, and in Andersí mind nothing could be simpler than to dig up the hole, which is what he did one night and got arrested, charged with violating a health ordinance. Anders explained to the police that Stella was a part of American history, she had been the feature article in a teen age magazine. Dawn called Harriet and told her, "Youíd think he would be glad to see the end of those things."
"It was their life," Harriet said.
"It was not their life. Itís what sucked their life out."
"What should we do?
"He can dig them up and bring them here. Thatís all right
with me. As long as they stay in his room." "Explain that to him."
"Iíve tried. He was offended. He said theyíre part of American history. Which part? I asked him. If I let him indulge in this thing, heíll make a museum out of her clippings and trophies."
"Jump," Lionel emailed Harriet. "Donít delay your trip. Open your parachute and go."
"I canít go like this. Itís unfair to Dawn."
"Dawn doesnít recognize fair or unfair categories. Those arenít her."
"Going to Troyes seems so irrelevant."
"Compared to what?"
Harriet suffered from irritability, nausea, specifically morning nausea and counted the days back to her last menstrual period, then threw the calendar at a wall. Maurice became difficult. Signing off with LOL did not diminish his sudden authoritative tone. They differed about how to go about managing the trip. He advised a car trip through southern France. "Here are the cities you must see if you want to trace the Jewish origins of Chrťtien: Lunel, the Vaucluse region, Avignon. The Jewish community has roots that go back to the fourth century. There is a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras that existed until 1322 when the grave markers were removed to build the townís ramparts." Yes, study cemeteries, follow the tombstones. Stones live forever. A tombstone can become part of a church gate.
"I advise a course in archeology." David said, trying to sound light, but grinding his teeth when Harriet told him what Maurice planned.
"This trip," Harriet emailed Maurice, worried that she was being taken out of her time zone, "will take three weeks or more."
"Mais oui? I have only a week."
"Why is that?"
She retrieved her calendar from where she had flung it against the wall, and counted the weeks from her last period to the beginning of the second trimester. "I donít have three weeks. LOL."
David had his suspicions, but not the right ones. He looked as if the air had been sucked out of his face as he took Harriet to the airport. His lips lay flat against his teeth. For Harriet, there was the suspicious nausea and there was the daytime terrors that Anders would call and plead with her to stay until he was more settled, that Dawn would call and say, "youíre not being fair leaving him with me," that David would finally succumb to suspicion and stop her from going. That she was hiding her pregnancy from David seemed to puncture a trust between them that was indistinguishable from love. Though everyone criticized, no one stopped her from this threadbare undertaking. She sat on the plane, with a bof bag near her, and went over the itinerary she had planned with Maurice: two days in Troyes, half a day in Rheims, one day south to Lunel, one day in Narbonne, perhaps they could squeeze in Septimania (Mauriceís idea). "Are you taking this trip for him or is he taking this trip for you?" David asked. "There are overlapping interests," she said and arrived in de Gaulle airport with backpack and computer and made her way through the airport crowd with a stop in a bathroom to vomit. No time for a stopover in Paris. Just as well. Paris was barely a city in the twelfth century---no Louvre, no gardens, no Champs Elysee, no Eiffel tower, just mud streets and a dirty river. Seen through the lens of the twelfth century, Champagne was the great cultural and commercial center, and Harrietís itinerary was the twelfth century, the trade and cultural routes that went from Provence to Troyes. She would save Paris for a trip with David, a honeymoon trip. Paris was for lovers. Troyes was for historians. By the time she boarded the train at Gare de líEst, for the hour and a half trip to Troyes, she was very sick. No delusions. Really sick. Still she declined Mauriceís invitation to meet her at the airport and soothed his Gallic disappointment. He understood her refusal to have him come to Paris as her determined independence and hoped she would not insist on paying her own way everywhere they went. She did. Even offering to pay for the rented car that would take them to Provence, and for the gas. Davidís idea, who regarded that as a message to Maurice. "That way you donít owe him anything." Harrietís antlers of defiance reared up. "For Godís sake, David, he lives with his mother." No balm to David, who thought that remark stupid. There was no end to Harrietís naivete, while Maurice stamped his foot at such American female independence, and forecast a gloomy future for the human race, at least the American part. Davidís suspicions made her nervous. She refused the hospitality of Mauriceís apartment and booked into a hotel two blocks away. Not far enough, David thought and sat glum in the taxi as they drove to the airport. How can this be? Harriet thought.
"Why shouldnít he be suspicious?" Laurel said. She knew better than to ask, but it was fun to prick Harrietís idealism.
"Because he knows me," Harriet said.
"But he doesnít know Maurice."
"Would Malcolm be suspicious if you went to Europe?" Laurel laughed a pitch raucously. "Malcolm would be delighted. He would love to have the apartment to himself."
Harriet thought she understood. Everyone needed a vacation from Laurel.
The nausea subsided after a while. The countryside soothed.
It passed by her window draped in grape vines that crossed meadows and went out to distant estates, to churches and the doors of stone huts, along highways where trucks and cars sped by, around ancient castles that had escaped destruction. The luck of geography and climate! The grape was precious, and wine from Champagne could be traded for equally precious wool from Provence, Italy and Spain, when Troyes was the center of twelfth century France and the hub of its two greatest fairs, where two yards of magenta dyed wool, a fur lined cape, and a decanter of champagne could get you an introduction to a count. Culture follows trade routes. Even the great Rashi took time from his studies to cultivate a vineyard. Multi-colored air balloons glided like fabulous birds over the fields, the tree lined roads, the stone huts and remoter mansions, over a bicyclist who cut a ribbon through the countryside where there had once been caravans of traders and knights on horses galloping with the news of a victory or a defeat in the East.
Maurice met her at the train station, alarmed at how sick she looked. Her nausea had returned and she could barely walk to her hotel. The trip had been fraught with a stealth she was not accustomed to. Not telling David that she was probably pregnant made her feel treasonous. Emails from Lionel that Brenda had foundStellaís"stuff" packedupandhiddenawayinAndersíroom, had touched the blue gauzy ice skating outfit--the one with the spangles and sequins---pinched a nerve in Harrietís belly where the fetus had taken up its abode. Her right foot dragged as she got off the train. "Motion sickness," she said to Maurice who suggested pills he had for that, but she declined. Her determination was impressive, Christian girl consumed with Chrťtienís Jewish origins.
"This is not about religion," she explained as they sat in a cafť later that day, "itís about the artistís search for an audience. If he had been Chinese in that culture at that time, the problem would have been the same. Itís an identity he sought in order to have an audience. Names are like metaphors, signals that the bearer belongs to the culture he is trying to reach, the culture that embodies his audience. Bob Dylan wouldnít have had the audience he wanted as Bob Zimmerman. Whatís in a name? Everything. Would Marie have extended her patronage to Rashi de Troyes, even if the poetry was the same? For a writer, an audience is a matter of life or death. What audience could Chrťtien claim in a city of one hundred Jews who probably regarded the creation of knighthood as a goyisher novelty." Maurice was amused by the Yiddish word, probably picked up from her husband or through New York osmosis, but smiled gallantly which annoyed her. She had little patience for artifice and snapped, "You may scoff but Chrťtien made the right choice. We wouldnít be sitting here today if he hadnít, and no one would have heard of him in a city of a hundred Jews. His would have been a death by anonymity. Chrťtien had looked at his options and with a stroke of his pen cut himself loose from the one hundred."
She sliced frivolity out of their relationship and Maurice was put on notice. They each had a stake in this trip for different reasons, overlapping but different. He had a map. He showed her the route he proposed from Troyes to Narbonne, going southwest into land once known as Occitan. "We will follow the vine."
"What does that mean?"
It was a fanciful way of conjoining Jewish medieval agriculture with biblical imagery, but too difficult to explain, too many layers of explanation. He too was used to the ignorance of others, where answers fell into a vacuum to be hopefully rescued by scholars.
Harrietís email to David that night astonished him. He was tempted to think it was a camouflage, but he knew Harriet better than this. There was no subterfuge in Harriet, naivete but not subterfuge, and the esprit was all hers, Balboa standing on the shores of the Pacific at the expanse of this new ocean he had found.
Maurice spread out his map. By the time of the second crusade, declared by Bernard of Clairvaux, who also helped in the establishment of the Knights Templar, created as a religious alternative to the rowdy knights of Arthurís court, everyone was on the move, the Crusaders from the north, the Jews fleeing them, refugees from southern Europe, from Narbonne, going north to places like Troyes and Paris. It was fatuous to think that populations stayed put like trees, especially during an event like the crusade. The Knights Templar invented banking to finance the crusades. Banking and credit destroyed the feudal world. People seized the new order and moved on: It was a revolution. Money was the ticket out of serfdom. The world became mobile and fluid. "Your poetís family might have been among those who came north." She could surmise it, but where was proof?
"Proof?" Maurice spread out his hands in ten separate spastic fingers, in gallic frustration. Leave the realm of numbers, where was proof for anything? Taste the ocean, smell the ocean, to a blind man it could be a lake.
Her ice coffee and pastry tasted marvelous. Her stomach shifted and settled into a more quiet unease. For the first time in two days she felt on the verge of arriving, not there, never there yet, but on the verge of unfolding the mystery of Chrťtien de Troyes. Her nausea was almost gone, and the delight and anticipation of the bibliophile returned. Tomorrow she would spend the day on the trail of Chrťtien. She lowered her eyes under the declining sun, but a cold thought returned. "Professor Connell will never buy it. Then what?" Getting an interpretation accepted against the currents of the scholarly streams was a terrible struggle. But for now she would ignore that problem, or her nausea would return. Right now her mission was to weave the strands of probability as she saw them. It was unsettling for her to think that she was in the town where Chrťtien had lived, exhilirating, fraught with anticipation but he was not in the town, not even part of it. Not even his ghost was here now. Not in the Abbey of St. Loup, now a museum where it is said he had been a monk when the museum had been an abbey, and his fingers had brushed the wood of his desk as he embraced it, where he had sat through seasons of spring and falling snow, dawn light and winter twilight, writing the Percival, where he had looked out over the landscape and wrote his last lines as war clouds gathered over the Midi. The Cathars were becoming ever more confrontational towards the Papacy, and the Papacy was becoming ever more hardened its posture towards the heretics.
"Lady Lore heard the grief through- out the hall, from the gallery she ran down and, like one totally distraught, came to the queen. When the queen
saw her, she asked her what she had ..."
The pen stopped. The homeland teetered. The landscape through the tinted window stretched toward the woodlands where the Seine separated into two tributaries, and a messenger galloped on horse from the east carrying news of a defeat. The roads to the south and to the east turned into clods of death under the crusadersí horses. Chrťtienís plight in the abbey marked the narrow place of choice between life as a Jew or death as a writer. ĎYou must pay attention to your alternatives.í The heart of the misplaced writer beat beside the embryo of the child waiting to be born. Then the pen stopped, an imperious foot kicked the side of her belly.
The next day she walked through the countryside by herself where Chrťtien had crouched in the forest and had watched the knights go by. Entranced, blinded by starlight, his imagination flooded his brain. "You are more beautiful than God." They were his first love and his first betrayal. Initially, he forgave them for the sake of the vision, then transformed it with satire. The smell of autumn roused memories in her of cold to come, a wind blew the leaves up in a swirl of brown, red, and gold. Time rushed, measured by her pregnancy.
The next day she and Maurice sat in a cafť at a table under the shade of an umbrella. The town was like a pearl in an oyster, its sixteenth century timbered houses surrounded by the old medieval walls, surrounded by modernity, skyscrapers, banks, and railroad yards in the distance. Circles of history surrounded the town like rings in the trunk of a tree.
Maurice sensed her disappointment. "Let me at least show you the Rashi Institute," he offered, to divert her disappointment and allow him to expiate on his own interests. "Itís possible your poet knew of Rashi. You see how close the Christian quarter was to the Jewish community in those days. Not like today. Tomorrow we will go south. Anything we find today will be good."
When she returned to her room, there were three messages on her computer, from people who had read her article on gargoyles, one asking if she would like to endorse a new line of bathroom fixtures with gargoyle decorations, one telling her he was impressed with her attempt to relate the gargoyles to metaphors about evil, and a brief one from David. "Please return ASAP." "Help," she wrote back, "Whatís the urgency. Give me a clue."
"Too complicated," he wrote back. "Elsbeta has met with an accident."
She closed the computer, preferring not to ask for more information which could trap her into having to return sooner than she had planned. It was better not to know more. Elsbeta was probably in a hospital and the emergency would be over by the time she got back. David had to learn to handle things. She opened the computer again, hoping to see a different message. No, Davidís was the same, and her gargoyle admirer wrote, "Why gargoyles?" A pointless question.
"Whatís a better metaphor for evil?" she asked. "Itís a stupid metaphor. A childís idea of the monstrous. You canít represent evil any more than you can represent the atmosphere. Analysis destroys. What else are you working on?"
She wrote back: "On the relationship between Chrťtien de Troyes and Marie de Champagne."
He responded immediately. "Thatís better. A solid configuration. I have a lot to say about that. I believe they were lovers."
"Oh, God," she thought, and closed the computer again, a defense against flim flummery.
She met Maurice at their designated coffee shop in the morning, and told him that unforeseen circumstances forced her to shorten her journey. Not sure how serious Elsbetaís accident was, she decided "Not more than two days on the road." Anyway, she couldnít afford more time of her suspended life. If Maurice was suspicious, he betrayed nothing: A husbandís rights, even beyond sex, were inviolate. They would still go south, but they would not linger. Two swift days by rail from Paris and return, one day in Narbonne, not enough, but half a loaf, etc. American optimism cut short the truth. They would depart from Paris and return there, where Harriet could catch a flight back to the USA. " Seeing unease on her face, Maurice reassured her, "Everything will work out.. "All is not lost, today we can visit the Rashi Institute where there is a map, the length of a plaster wall with details about each city along the way, going south. For her trip back to the states he would make the arrangements before they started out. He took out his cell phone and within minutes arranged for a flight to New York in three daysí time. She was no match for his competence. "Come, we still have half a day before our trip tomorrow. We will drive to Paris in the morning. Just enough time to visit the Rashi Institute today. And see what you will be missing," he smiled with a hint of disappointment." It was not often he had such an enterprising young woman to tutor.
Harriet emailed David. "Returning asap. Changed tickets. Catching flight on Wednesday. Canít you tell me how serious it is?" He was to blame for not giving her enough information to make her suspend her entire journey, only just enough to annoy her. She would come home in mid journey, stimulated and starved, her usual condition, tongue hanging out, gasping for water. Lucky children who could vent their disappointments in unabashed weeping.
An autumnal rain fell. Grayness wrapped them as they walked down an inconspicuous side street to an inconspicuous gray building. Two teenagers went by on mopeds, a woman pushed a carriage with her infant under a wet plastic cover. "This is not what Chrťtien saw," Maurice said with subliminal amusement. He could not reproduce the twelfth century for Harriet and felt that she needed to be reminded of the present reality. They must do with books and reconstruction, papier machť, wooden models, and luck that the institute was open. A map on the white-washed plaster wall helped. A road on the map that looked like a spine went southwest through Rheims, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Narbonne, "Your poetís family might have taken this road in the eleventh or twelfth century, of course it wasnít paved then, but it was very well travelled, especially by merchants to the fairs outside of Troyes, and all these cities had Jewish communities. He might have come from any city in the Midi, but Narbonne was the most likely city he would have come from. It was the center of troubadour culture, with a mixed population of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Once the fairs were established, merchants and traders went back and forth from Narbonne to Italy, to Spain and the north It was a great trading center, one ruled by Ermengarde, you might call her the queen of Medieval France and the subject of much of the troubadorsĎ poetry. It was she who established the Courts of love, not Eleanor of Aquitaine."
"Then why do the history books always refer to Eleanor as the founder of the Courts of love?"
He put his index finger on his lips with an impish expression, ĎThatís the secret of history. The Midi was swallowed up in the Albigensian crusade. Victory is always more than victory on the battlefield. It is the victory of the story. The migrants who went north in the twelfth century from cities in the Provence, fleeing with baggage and stories, some as traders with goods and legends. But in spite of wars and fraudulent governments, the old cities still exist, they can be seen from an automobile, across cow pastures or up winding roads, still lively behind their walls, with flags and sun umbrellas and tourists." His amusement at what were life and death issues to her annoyed her. She thought he understood her passion.
Inside the institute, the map covered the whitewashed wall across twelve feet with toy roads marked out in a blue pen, toy flags and markers for cities with Jewish communities, while other cities with Muslim and heretic populations had fallen off the maps along with the Albigensis of the twelfth century who were destroyed in 1215, after which the Midi and its language, Occitan, disappeared like Atlantis, and prosperity went north permanently
"Yourpoetís family may have travelled down these roads. In Carcassonne you can still see signs in bookstores, that read, ĎOccitan spoken here,í and find a book or two written in the old language." Her imagination lapped at the markers, little pins with little flags. her soul wept for the lost opportunity to see the stones. She deserved to see it. The world owed her this opportunity. Aware that Maurice was trying to make the best of it for her sake, she struggled to show interest: "How many speak Occitan today?"
"Almost no one. Some scholars, some die-hard patriots. But people are always reviving old languages and one never knows where or when birth will happen."
In the morning, she met Maurice in the lobby of her small hotel. Reliable, he was parked outside the entrance with his car, ready to drive to the de Gaulle train station in Paris to catch the 6:20 a.m. high speed train. They would be in Narbonne by noon, and return the next day on the 6:20 am train to Paris, two tickets for the night for two rooms in a small hotel in his pocket, with a detailed map to the city, and a ruler. He wrote notes, studied maps, drew lines on them, drew his own map of Narbonne, recast for the 12th century. "You forget I am a surveyor," he explained to her surprised expression. She carried her laptop but did not open it. What would she do anyway, if Davidís message about Elsbeta was bad. She would have to explain why she was not already on the plane.
The train ate the countryside. Hills flattened, autumn burned in the grass. Spires cut the horizon. A city arose as if by magic, a construction of civilization on the land, where animals had roamed. They took a taxi to their bnb. Harriet did not want to rest. She was tired of resting on the train. Her trip to the Midi would be too short to permit her to rest. They would be able to see only one city Instead of three cities with the sumptuous delight of the poet Sidonius,
Hail, Narbonne, rich in health, beautiful to see in the city and the countryside, with your walls, your citizens, your fortifications, your shops, your gates, your forum, your theater, your sanctuaries, your capitals, your money changers, your baths, your arches, your storehouse, your markets, your meadows, your fountains, your islands, your lagoons, your river, your merchandise, your bridge, your high seas.
So he sang in 465 CE when Narbonne was a Visigothic city on the banks of the river Aude, emerging from five centuries as a Roman city first built in 115 BCE. Situated on the Mediterranean and on the old Roman road, the via Domitia, all southern trade from Northern Africa, across the Pyrenees came this way. Then the Mediterranean silted up, the port became a beach. Trade went elsewhere. Narbonne moved eight miles inland. It had bustled for two centuries, its history written in stone and brick, the Archbishopís palace, the Cathedral de St. Just, the market where they ate wine and cheese. Then it ended.
They walked into the countryside to escape the late afternoon sun, declining behind them. Ten, fifteen minutes away, the tall grass dried in an emptiness of late afternoon heat. Maurice with an Aussie hat to guard against the sun, scanned the landscape with binoculars and notebook in hand.
Hot, heavy, burdened, worried about David, about Elsbeta, sweat in her armpits, needing a bathroom, Harriet waved at a late season bee.
"Iím sorry," Maurice said, "I have taxed you too much, made you walk too far." He had a purpose, she did not, a rendezvous with an old wooden sign? "Jew Street," stuck on a pole overlooking an empty field, pointing where. Rude, a stain on the landscape. And why? Maurice gave her the binoculars. Embarrassed by the effrontery of the sign, she murmured, "Ridiculous, thereís nothing there."
"Maybe not now. But itís like a fossil. Jew Street runs through Christendom. Who knows what this sign points to here. I am looking for a cemetery. Cemeteries donít just disappear.
Narbonne was once the chief town in the department of Aude. Jews settled here as early as the fifth century. They lived with their Christian neighbors, amicably for the most part. Although in 589 the council of Narbonne forbade them to sing psalms at internments, on pain of a fine of six ounces of gold. The usual thing. In 673 Narbonne Jews took an active part in the revolt of Count Hilderic of NÓmes and Duke Paul against King Wamba. The king was victorious, and the Jews were expelled from the town. In 768 Pope Stephen III. complained to Archbishop Aribert of the privileges granted to the Jews, among others, of the right to own real estate, to live in the same house with Christians, and to employ Christians in the cultivation of their fields and vineyards. "The usual thing. And there you have it. Almost. The greatest interest, which has focused the attention of scholars was the Siege of Narbonne by Saracens in the 9th century, as related in the ProvenÁal romance of Philomena. After the siege, Charlemagne or, according to others, Pepin the Short, granted numerous privileges to the Jews of the town in reward for the part they had taken in the surrender of the Saracens, and presented them with the gift of one-third the city with many privileges, such as self-rule. The gift was set aside as alloidal land, a technical adjustment in the feudal arrangement, it fell outside the curious arrangement of feudal land with its tiers of oaths of allegiance. Something like a reservation for native Americans in your country. Communication between the community here, called Septimania and the Jewish community in Babylon began almost immediately, and scholars and rabbis crisscrossed back and forth. By the twelfth century the Jewish community became famous for its scholarship and learning. In the twelfth century it numbered about 2,000 but in consequence of a war it dwindled to 300 Jews, the rest having emigrated to Anjou, Poitou, and other French provinces. Plagues, the Hundred Years War and the community almost vanished, leaving this sign. Perhaps Chrťtien knew this story of this lost kingdom, and combined it with other strands of poetry, knew it from his family who left in the eleventh or twelfth century, snd knew of the troubadour tradition that had been here. This was the heart of the troubadour world, and Ermengarde the viscountess who came to rule at the age of fourteen when her two older brothers died, was heir to the culture of the Pyrenees, from Barcelona to Narbonne, and rule she did for fifty years." The scholarly mystery roused her for a moment. "Why is the life of the Viscountess Ermengarde the subject of Jewish Chronicles written here?" Maurice shrugged his shoulders. Not a pittance of explanation. "How nice it would be to know."
"Then why is nothing more heard of Ermengarde? Why is it from among the women of the twelfth century, we know only the names of Eleanor and her daughter?"
"That is the oldest story of civilization, the story of victory and defeat. You must look in the cracks of the streets to find it. The Midi was destroyed in the Albigensis Crusade, and with it the countries of Ermengarde, the world of the troubadours and the Jewish communities, who left their chronicles which tell her story. Why them," he shrugged his shoulders, "Jews keep accounts. But all history is partial, because no history can tell the whole history, or it would never finish. A beginning and an end is already a lie. "
The grass was tall here, not like grass in a suburb, or like grass that has grown in he cracks of city streets, over collapsed houses and stores. It was mournful straggly grass over a lost landscape. She understood: Maurice had brought her here deliberately. "I like to dig in old signs. You like to dig in old records. We live on stranded pieces of civilization." The sun was declining in the west, gold haze over the dry grass as if to set fire to it, but it was a cold sun, its heat gone, and the night stirred with winter. Harriet felt as if they had walked miles, her toes were cold, her body stiff with unaccustomed weight. "I would like to go back,"
"Of course," Maurice apologized for keeping her so long. "Itís only a fifteen minute walk, not as far as it seems." He was right. It took ten minutes to reach the first paved street of the city. They had not gone far at all, but she felt as if they had walked over the edge of the world. Where pavements end so does civilization, the record of life in artifacts.
In her room chilled and tired, she lay down on the bed, grateful for the clean sheets and fluffy pillows, but lonely, too far from David, in miles and in centuries. Could he ever travel this way with her? These distances from him pressed on her consciousness.
Dear tolerant David, wanting peace more than anything else, peace from Ira, peace from the nagging sense of failure. She fought the remorseful prompting from her conscience to open her computer. She did not want to see his message, but it was someone elseís message, a wayward one, which made her slam her computer shut.
"Have you ever thought," samizdat.com wrote, "That Chrťtien and Marie were lovers?"
"Oh, God!" Well, at least thatís good for a laugh. Professor Connell might have a heart attack if she suggested it to him. "On what evidence? Chrťtien was a landless nobody. He may have been a brilliant poet, but he was an ex-Jew and a landless nobody." Not easily dissuaded, samizdat.com wrote back. "She may have taken poetry seriously, and like all royalty of the middle ages, she took class more seriously. But who was to know about her bedroom? She was the Queen there. There are no published documents about this. In the absence of evidence, we turn to common sense and the inevitable. It was exactly his social anonymity that would allow her to take this chance. Who would suspect---not even you."
After a six hour and a half hour return trip the next day she was back in Kennedy airport, burdened with belly, with Samizdatís outrageous speculation, with Mauriceís tacit suggestion that she take up the cause of Ermengarde as she had that of Chrťtien. "No, no, no" she screamed to all of them "I am going to have a baby. Isnít that enough for now?" The kiss she gave Maurice was dry with anxiety.
"You must let me know what happened to your mother-in- law."
Of course, he deserved an explanation, as who doesnít? But there was no explanation. As she found out, Elsbeta was dead, and there was no explanation. If it had been sickness, David would have said so. Or an accident? David would have said so. That there was no explanation made her mind numb with guilt. She had cut her trip short, she had not gotten to Carcasonne, for what? She struggled against malicious thoughts because decent people donít sink into accusations against innocent others. David was not duplicitous. In time she unravelled the strands of disappointment, guilt and accusation, but for the trip she was relieved that the seat next to her on the plane was empty, and that she could spread out her notes on it like wounded birds. Once the plane had ascended, she placed her laptop on the drop-down shelf and sent an email to Dawn, to explain why she was returning. Had she heard from David. Anything? Dawn had heard nothing. But if David had asked her to come back, it must be serious. David was "morally sober," Dawnís favorite judgement. "Dad, on the other hand, has become unhinged. Brenda wants to take ice skating lessons, and he is encouraging her. Have a safe trip."
Harriet was tempted to tell her she was pregnant but voted herself down on this. Dawn would write back, "Good thing youíre coming back." Pregnancy perilous, good thing she was returning. Also voted herself down telling David by email that she was pregnant. Some announcements should be face-to-face. She would like to see his expression, hopefully delighted, but maybe angry that she had left, knowing she was pregnant. "What do you mean by knowing? I suspected, but I didnít know." He would see through the language cheat. "Yes, you knew." Better not tell him for a few days. Better concentrate on my notes. Better continue the research. She wrote to Laurel: "Trip aborted. I got as far as Troyes and Narbonne. Something has happened to Elsbeta and David asked me to return. Do you know anything about this?" Laurel responded immediately. "Sorry, no. As you know, Iím the last person David would contact. No offense meant, but no secret either. I would be the last person David would contact about anything. At any rate, have my own troubles. Malcolm very sick. Will discuss when I see you in NY." Not like Laurel to sound flustered. Thank God for the empty seat next to her and for Wikipedia, so that she could continue her research:
Ermengarde of Narbonne had not come from the north, but she was part of the trio of women in the twelfth century who had captured the attention of the troubadours: Elinor of Aquitaine who had ridden bare chested to Jerusalem (so they say) during the Second Crusade founded by the pious Bernard; her daughter, Marie de Troyes, and Ermengarde, the viscountess of Narbonne, married at fourteen to protect her inheritance from the Counts of Toulouse, an inheritance of great trade value. Commercially very important and, therefore, politically important. With a large Jewish and Saracen population, Narbonne had contacts with Northern Africa, the Maghreb, Italy and northern Spain, kingdoms of the sun, it was a jewel desired by Charlemagne and the Saracens, and occupied by Christians, Jews, and Saracens, a mischculture of the medieval Mediterranean, which caught the sails of the Troubadours who composed passionate love lyrics to its women, imaginations spurred by that twelfth century female triumvirate: Ermengarde, Elinor and Marie.
Ideas are seeds, weird demented seeds that hitchhike on to every traveler, uproot communities with wayward sprouts and drive people crazy. The Song of Songs was transformed as a counterforce to the songs of the Troubadours, by St. Bernard, the same who founded the Knights Templar to anchor the knightly impulse in religion. Far from Clairvaux, the court of Ermengarde of Narbonne became one of the cultural centers where the spirit of courtly love developed. Why was her name lost in this history which was dominated by the names of Eleanor and Marie de Champagne? How does cultural power become transferred---or obliterated? Ermengarde reigned from 1134 to 1192, and was a contemporary of Chrťtien, perhaps spawned on this soil.
Centuries fled through her head. The seven hour trip collapsed into questions. She could hardly wait to get home and write it all up Yes, Professor Connell, I believe I have found the source of the Nile: In the 12th and 13th centuries, Narbonne went through a series of ups and downs before settling into extended decline. The Jewish community of Septimania continued for four centuries, but the old Jewish/Christian/ Saracen nexus was destroyed in the Albigensis crusade, which had centered in the city of Carcassonne, (a stab in her ribs--- baby or regret that she had not gotten there) stronghold of the Albigensis heresy in the 12th century and the birthplace of the Inquisition. Simon de Montfort was picked by the pope to lead the crusade and cleanse the city of its heretics, with the promise that its property would be divided among the Crusaders. Simon de Montfortís military philosophy was terrorism, and town after town fell before his army. The mere mention of his name and the approach of his army brought out the populace waving white flags. Even while Raymond-Roger de Trencavel was imprisoned in his own dungeon and allowed to die while negotiating his city's surrender, Simon de Montfort, unapologetically ruthless, arrived outside the city walls, took four prisoners, cut out their eyes and set them wandering through the countryside with a sign: Darkness awaits all who resist. On August, 1209, he was appointed to be the new viscount, and soon built more fortifications. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and the kingdom of Aragon (Spain). In 1240, Trencavel's son tried to reconquer his old domain in vain, the city submitted to the rule of the kingdom of France in 1247, and the Occitan culture went into decline. Louis lX founded the new part of the town across the river. He and his successor Philip ll built the outer ramparts. Scattered contemporary histories cite the location where the retreating Albigensis, remnants of the crusader genocide, are believed to have hid great wealth in the mountains of the Pyrenees. Chrťtien did not live to see this. Didnít have to. Foretold his delusion with chivalry and with moral systems. The devil always holds the trump card. Carcassonne fell, was absorbed into the growing monolith of France, and eventually became a UNESCO heritage site, famous for its castle and walls.
"Lady Lore heard the grief through- out the hall, from the gallery she ran down and, like one totally distraught, came to the queen. When the queen
saw her, she asked her what she had..."
The pen twisted out of control. The vision instructed: "We are starting our descent. Computers and other electronic devices must be closed down now. We will be landing in fifteen minutes. Make sure your seatbelt is fastened and your seat is in the upright position." The blue sky outside the window was vacant, without a clue as to direction.
David called Harriet on her cell phone as soon as the plane landed and told her to look for him in the arrivals section next to the information booth. Gratitude that she was back fought his guilt, knowing what this trip meant to her. "Thanks for returning," She wanted to cry at the sound of his voice. "I know how much this trip meant to you, but I so need you." He hugged her fervently.
She bit her lips. "Ssshhh. Itís not worth any regret." But it was. She fought back tears. He took her back pack. "I canít talk about it here. Letís get out of the airport and find a cafť." She did not point out that there were dozens of cafťs in the airport. This was Kennedy airport. He was urgent to leave, to be on the road, heading toward some sort of solution to an unknown problem. She noted they were driving to Brooklyn and not Manhattan. "How come?"
"Weíll meet Ira. Canít leave him alone for long." He took an exit off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and found a coffee shop off the highway, a stop for gas and donuts.
"Hungry" he asked, not caring what her answer was.
"Not really, but coffee is always good. Airplane coffee stinks. I worked most of the way, and then slept for a while. I really think Iíve wrapped up my argument." A flush of irrelevant enthusiasm went as fast as it had come. He squeezed her hand with a warning, "not now," and parked the car.
They took seats in the back of the cafť. "How can I begin? The last few days have been a nightmare. The day after you left, there was a message on my phone from Ira, which said call back immediately. Since Ira always talks like that, in commands, I didnít think anything about it." He paused. "Thereís no good way to say this." He looked at her as if he hoped she might find a path through his confusion, but she did not know what the confusion was about, and his clarification did not help. "You know the place between the buildings where the garbage cans get collected, where kids sometimes play running bases---I did too with Kenneth when we were younger." He paused, took her hands. and the remnants of his tale disgorged themselves. "Elsbetaís body was found there."
The words locked into place so tightly, there was no room for ambiguity, but she asked, "What do you mean found there?" knowing her words were irrelevant. Death had come.
"I mean found there," he said irritably. Were the words not clear? "Some kids found her there. One of them was Dollyís son and he ran up the stairs to get her. She called the police. When we get there you will see the whole apartment house has been declared a crime scene and cordoned off. Elsbetaís body has been removed to a morgue. At first no one could leave or enter the building and the tenants were in an uproar. Now at least they can go in and out but have to show identification to the police. Ira goes from a state of outrage to mortification, from grief to bewilderment. Donít ask too many questions when you see him," he warned, "talk if he talks. I will give you all the information as we drive home. There are three theories: A womanís body disappears from her roof where she went to meet her friend." He laughed harshly. "I feel like Agatha Christie. Itís a suicide, an accident or a crime. People donít end up six flights down at the bottom of a building shaft by a mysterious force."
"And crime and suicide are not mysterious?"
"Donít get fancy with me now."
She backed down. "Then maybe it was an accident." "That was ruled out almost immediately. The owner of the property argues vociferously that it could not have been an accident because the protection wall was built in such a way as to make it impossible for someone to fall over it---unless they worked at it. He doesnít want a lawsuit. But heís right. I have to admit that heís right. Itís pretty hard to fall over that wall by accident. It would be like drowning in the desert." He took her hand, his face puffy as he dealt with the details. What hour did this happen? Where was her friend? Dolly told the story. They had gone up to the roof, as they had done a thousand times. No one could get on to the roof without a key to the door to the roof, which they each had. They sat for about five minutes when Dolly remembered she had forgotten her sun lotion and went down to get it. Could she had left the door to the roof unlocked? Dolly could not remember. She was only gone about fifteen minutes. She got a phone call, but didnít talk that long. But when she got back to the roof the door was locked, she remembers having to open it with her key. And Elsbeta was not there. She assumed she too had gone back down to get something, and didnít think anything of it. But when Elsbeta didnít appear after half an hour or so, she began to wonder. Elsbeta had moods. She called her apartment on her cell phone. No one answered. Maybe she had gone down to the lobby to get her mail. Another five minutes and she would appear. Then she heard the kids below screaming, "Help. Someoneís sick here. Somebody get a doctor."
Testimony was given and testimony was taken to account for every minute of that day and for everyoneís movements. The body was not removed for twenty-four hours. It gave no testimony of any kind, it was too smashed even for forensics to do a rape test. It was left in the alleyway and the garbage collectors were off limits. But the building had made its mind up. It was rape, and her assailant had thrown her body over the roof. Women believed this. They didnít let their children take the elevator by themselves. They had to ring up from the lobby and a parent went down to get them and bring them upstairs. "They go out in pairs to shop," David said and grabbed her hand "God, Iíve missed you, and I feel so guilty that I asked you to come back."
"I feel guilty too."
"Why should you feel guilty?"
She put her hands over her stomach. The future was filled with police and questions and confusion. The rabbi had reminded David and Ira that Elsbeta must be buried as soon as possible. It was already four days and she lay in a morgue, her head pummeled into her shoulders as she had fallen head down, jammed into her body, her pubic area pushed into her stomach organs. Neighbors shuddered. They did not want to think about the possibility that someone had gained entrance to the roof, raped Elsbeta and had thrown her body over the wall. They preferred the suicide explanation. The landlord preferred it. David preferred it. "Why is that?" Harriet asked.
He pulled the car into a parking spot three blocks away from the building to avoid stares. He had become notorious. They had become notorious. The building had become notorious. Police milled about everywhere. Testimony was taken again and again from Dolly. What hour did they leave the building, what hour returned. What hour did she use the elevator. Did Elsbeta always shop alone? Did they ever sit on the roof garden alone?
"What roof garden?" one tenant asked maliciously.
Suspicion and fear crept into every brick. No one went on the roof anymore, especially not Dolly who was having trouble sleeping. She too thought it was suicide. Elsbeta had been---she couldnít think of the word---morose?----the last few days---and had returned to the story of Mae Tannenbaum several times: "Imagine her sleeping out on the street like that," Elsbeta had said that morning. "Someone should cover her body." She meant the blood stain. The body was long since gone. Dolly thought Elsbetaís reference weird, but did not offer it as evidence. What kind of evidence was a weird thought? The police went over every pebble on the roof, looking for a footprint, for evidence of struggle. Only Elsbetaís faint print, made by her sandals on the pebbles, was found going from her chair, which she had left with her sun glasses and sun hat on it, and a Good Housekeeping magazine found on the floor, open to a page as if she expected to return and continue the article on how to bake lasagna.
"Ridiculous," Ira said, "we never eat lasagna."
Dollyís insomnia got worse, and Mel gave her sleeping pills.
Davidís lips stiffened as he talked. "Aside from the fact that it is the only explanation that will end this madness and allow the building to return to normal, I prefer to think that she took her own life rather than that her life was taken from her. I canít bear to think of her being attacked. I prefer to think that she took her own life. I think she made a decision when Dolly went down to get the sun lotion. She had probably been thinking about it for a while, but decided then. I donít think it was an impulse. Does anyone commit suicide on an impulse? The streams that feed this river are underground. When they emerge they always surprise."
He rang the bell to the apartment. There was a shuffling of chairs as if someone was re-arranging the mind of the room, then a cautious voice, "Who is it?"
"Itís us, David and Harriet." The door opened and Yetti threw her arms around them.
"What are you doing here?" Harriet was relieved to see her, relieved that they wouldnít be alone with Iraís grief, with his contempt for the police, for the neighbors, for civic niceties and civic procedures, impatient with a world that had foiled his efforts to climb out of his pit. He sat hunched in a chair, unshaven. David was shaken by how much he now looked like his father, stricken with bewilderment. Even the apartment looked shrunken, suspended between assessments, waiting for its destiny to become clear, as if each item anticipated that
Elsbeta would return and breathe her claim of ownership, a coda of its era, into the thimbles on the what-not shelves, the cut glass water pitcher, the silver seder plate, the brass candlesticks. Harriet thought, It must have been an accident. It would not be like Elsbeta to abandon her identity. "But the landlord will fight this explanation," David said, "and this will drag on for at least a year, probably more."
Yetti agreed. She made coffee, put bagels and cheese on a tray, salad, tomatoes, a noodle pudding. "Dolly, her neighbor, the last one to see Elsbeta alive has been shopping for us and bringing us food. Itís not that we canít, but Ira doesnít like to go into the street. Everyone stares." So their conversation went in circles for an hour or more, repeating the same questions, caught in amazement that the questions did not change or transmute into answers or transcend their origins. Mud was stirred up and settled back into the same pattern, until the telephone rang and startled them. A current gripped them with the same thought, that the police were calling to say that the wrong woman lay in the morgue. But it was Laurel, least expected, least needed. Harriet gasped. "How does she know Iím here?"
"Every one knows weíre here," Ira snarled, "weíre big news, in the papers every day. Especially now that Elsbetaís death has touched off an investigation into how apartments get passed down. Itís blown the lid off rent control."
"Answer this goddamn phone. I know youíre there." Laurelís, voice commanded
"No mystery here,"Yetti said, "your friend figured out David would get in touch with you and that you would come home. Sheís been calling for three days."
Annoyed, Harriet said into the phone as irritably as she had ever been with Laurel, "Whatís so important that it couldnít wait a day?"
" I apologize," Laurel said as meaningfully as she had ever said anything, "I know Iím being intrusive, but I really need to see you." Her voice crackled with urgency over the speaker phone.
Harriet thought it broke into sobs. "Can we meet at the Chikn and the Chickpea tomorrow for lunch?" This was outrageous, even for Laurel, but Ira snarled into the phone, "Sure she can."
"Whoís that?" Laurel asked.
Laurelís voice sounded tremulous, unlike Laurel, no quip lingering on the lips. "Iím so sorry to call at what I know is an inopportune time, but I have to talk to someone."
"We planned to stay here tonight and tomorrow. Maybe you can come into Brooklyn?"
"Brooklyn? I havenít been there in twenty years."
"Itís in the same place," Ira shouted into the phone. "You have to meet me tomorrow." Laurelís voice broke volcanically, "Malcolm is very sick. He has AIDS."
"Oh, my God," Harriet said.
In the management of death and the disintegration that disease brings, no plan sounds good. "Go ahead," David said. "You can take the afternoon off tomorrow. Iíll be here with Yetti. Weíll go home for the night. I have to return the car anyway. Iíll come in by train tomorrow. Maybe by tomorrow the police will have made a decision and we can bury Elsbeta," David spoke as if with Elsbeta buried the road to normalcy would be found. A notice in the elevator said there would be a tenantís meeting about the investigation into the rent control policy of the apartment building tomorrow night pending other matters, other matters being a decision about Elsbeta. Explanations competed with explanations, and competed with rumor. Exposťs always followed suicides The neighborhood waited, then made its mind up. It was suicide. It was the only thing that made sense and would make the police go away. The landlord was grateful and would overlook the underhanded game the tenants had played.
"What does he mean by underhanded?" Mel Schrader asked. "It was a loophole. He should have kept the building in better condition. The lobby is an embarrassment."
David returned the car to the rental office near their home. They ordered a vegetarian platter from the nearby take-out Chinese restaurant and ate it in gratitude for their quiet apartment.
"What will become of Ira?"
"Heís talked about buying a condo in Florida near Yetti. Sheís not thrilled. It will spoil her lifestyle."
"I can imagine. Sheíll spoil his for sure unless sheís run out of pharmacists."
Contrary to Harrietís expectations, she was glad to be home, glad to be with David, glad she had not betrayed herself with anger, glad to lay down next to him in their bed, her cheek on his back. Would this be the right time to tell him? There was a hole in the world where Elsbeta had been. Would her news of a coming baby fill it for him? A breeze flapped the curtain on the bedroom window. "I have something to tell you." The smooth skin on his back was tense with exhaustion, four days of police, of neighborsí questions and worries, of the coronerís report, of Iraís bewilderment. "I think Iím pregnant."
The curtain blew in and out of their bedroom window. He turned to her and squeezed her hand. "When did you know this?"
"More or less on the plane, coming home. The nausea was terrible."
"Sorry about that."
Elsbeta was buried two days later in a cemetery near Islip, Long Island, in a family plot the Goldmans had bought half a century ago, as members of the Lithuanian Jewish chevra, or burial society. The message was posted in the elevator, with information about the chapel service, and directions to the cemetery. Shiva, the mourning period, would be held for three days following the funeral, in the apartment of Ira Gold. "Please wear proper attire. No shorts and sandals."
Dollyís boys said, "Thatís stupid. The dead donít care."
Dolly told them to stay home. "The dead donít care either about your attending." What do they care about? they asked. Laurel declined the invitation to go to the funeral. It felt irregular, but she said it anyway, "The dead donít care whether I attend or not." She and Harriet met at The Chikn and the Chick Pea the day before the funeral.
"What do they care about?" Laurel shrugged her shoulders. "Not much. Thatís the advantage of being dead. Youíve left your worries behind." She was shop worn. "Is it true what you said about Malcolm?" Harriet asked.
"That he has AIDS? Yes---and apologies for splurting it out like I did when you have so many other things on your mind."
Astonishingly, Laurel sounded contrite until Harriet said, "Did I tell you Iím pregnant?"
Laurelís head whipped up. "Apologies---but I donít remember." She pushed her shrimp around her salad determinedly. "Whatís going to happen with your doctorate now?"
"I donít see why that should stop me. Iíll continue. It may be difficult, but Iíll continue.
"Itíll be difficult, all right. Everything will be difficult. But if I had to choose, Iíd rather have a baby than spend my life nursing Malcolm." She flashed a quirky smile. "At least a baby can go to daycare."
"But what about you? Have you been tested?" Laurel took the question better than anyone else would. It brought back the Laurel who saw mirth in the devil. "Thereís a silver lining to every cloud. Heís gay, you know. Or maybe you didnít know, which would be a wonder. Pardon if you didnít know. After the first week, Malcolm and I never had sex. We gave it a try." She shrugged her shoulders.
"That was almost ten years ago," David said. "What did she do for sex in the meantime?"
"Nothing, as far as I can tell."
David whistled. It was the one cheerful moment he had had in a week. "If anyone could manage that, Laurel could."
A dozen cars followed the limousine from the chapel to Islip, Long Island, mostly Iraís neighbors. David and Harriet re-rented their car. Harriet knew it was inappropriate to stop to visit Dawn but who knew when there would be another opportunity, what with her pregnancy and her thesis to finish. She pointed out to David that since they were out on Long Island it was an opportunity to visit her father and Dawn. "A short visit. Weíll stay overnight at a motel and be back in Brooklyn tomorrow." She emailed Lionel that they would be at Dawnís the following Wednesday. For one day only. Could he come for a visit?
"Not likely." No, not likely. Lionel never left his ashram anymore. He stayed under wraps morning and night, sunlight and moonlight.
They congregated at the graveside, a company of twenty, Yetti and Ira, Dolly and Mel, Kenneth and Leela, who was pregnant. "How nice," she said, "our children will be cousins.
Have you thought of a name? They will expect you to name the baby for Elsbeta. Thatís their tradition."
"Really?" Harriet said.
"Yes, Kenneth mentioned that he would like the baby to be named for his mother. You donít have to take the whole name, just the first initial will do. So my baby will be named Elizabeth. We know itís going to be a girl. My only problem is that others will call her Eliza or Liz or even Lizzy. How do you stop that? We have no control over nicknames."
They huddled under a cold November rain behind Ira, who leaned on Yetti, who leaned on her daughter, Devra, behind David and Harriet, and Kenneth and Leela, chief mourners, their shoes wet and sinking into the ground around the burial site. The gravediggers leaned on their shovels at a respectful distance. Harriet whispered to David about whether it was true that she would be expected to name their child after Elsbeta. "It would be nice." he whispered back. "Why donít you name the baby after someone who is living?" Harriet whispered back., "That way I could name him after you, and he could be David Jr."
David was not prepared to educate Harriet here in the rain, during the funeral, in the byways of Jewish life. When he no longer feared that Harriet might miscarry, that indeed they were going to have a child and that that child was going to be a boy, he envisioned a long discussion with Harriet about "things." For the time being, he said, "We never name children after living people." Rain dripped from his hat. "The point is to commemorate someoneís life, even if itís just by a letter."
Harriet thought that was a slender reed, but she could go along with it. "How about Edward.?"
Ira, who had never taken an interest in such things, turned around to them, red-faced and wrathful. "Elizabeth and Edward! What is this, the British commission on Palestine? Over Elsbetaís grave!"
A hiss went up from the other mourners. The rabbiís eyebrows knitted together. "Have respect for the dead."
Dollyís son thought that was an odd statement and when they got home, he asked about it. Mel said he was too young to understand. "But I was the one who found her," he said. Silence descended. Silence and rain. A handful of tenants from the apartment building crowded in to the gravesite. Dawn and Robbie joined them but left as soon as they had thrown their handful of earth onto Elsbetaís casket, apologizing: they had left five sick children with Dawnís father. Winter was in the trees. Geese were going south. Winter skies ahead. Dead leaden gray air down to the earth. Trees were being stripped of life. "Margaret, are you grieving?" Hopkinsí poem swept through Harriet and lifted her up into the wet gray skies. She mourned for the things she didnít know about her mother-in-law and wished she could read the poem here. A confused grief enveloped her. She would name the baby for Elsbeta, but not Edward which, God forbid, might become Ed or Eddie. The politics of naming the baby overwhelmed her, and it was just her fourth month. She could still miscarry. She could miscarry anywhere along the line. "Not likely, the doctor said, "but possible," she thought. She had miscarried in her fourth month before. Two pounds of terminated breath had been taken from her body. "He would have been a big boy," Stella said at the time, "someone Robbie could have wrestled to the ground." They huddled under memories.
After the funeral, Yetti told them it would be all right for them to visit Dawn. "Nothing to worry about. Iíll look after Ira. Youíll be back by tomorrow. For supper? Nothing to worry about," but her voice was burdened.
Harriet assured her, but told David she planned to visit Junoís cottage. "I must." He knew that tone.
"I owe her an apology." "For what?"
"Not sure. But I know I do."
Dawn told them the Junipers didnít live there anymore. "No one knows where they went."
David hoped that that would change Harrietís mind, but it didnít. Dead people and lost people hovered with atmospheric pressure. By some weird emotional concatenation Anders had inherited Stellaís spite like a homeless ghost, and spit out at Harriet when he heard she planned to visit her place, "Good riddance to bad rubbish. Royalists. They didnít belong here. Guess they found that out."
Nevertheless, Harriet and David took the sailboat out in the morning. Brenda came with them, enjoying the privilege of being a year older and being a small celebrity in the area. She had won a local ice skating contest, and had the newspaper pictures to show for it. The water was leaden and choppy, but the sky had partially cleared. Sunlight limned the large clouds that hovered above. Junoís rocker was empty and creaked with the wind. A sign tacked onto the weeping willow, "No trespassers," warned them that they were intruders. Harriet took umbrage that she would be considered a trespasser and tied the boat to the pier. "Thereís a box I promised Juno I would come back to get."
Brenda was delighted with the adventure and clambered out of the boat on to the porch. They ran to the kitchen while David kept a worried eye out for a patrol boat. The signs of a hasty departure were everywhere. Bedding had been pulled across three rooms. The twelve foot cubic freezer had been dragged through the kitchen, out through the door and down the steps to the water, cutting a large wound in the earth which had filled in with yellow weeds. The furniture was gone. Harriet ran through the rooms, opening drawers and doors,
but Junoís box was gone. She came back out on the porch, her face punctured with disappointment. "But what are you looking for?" David asked. Harriet sat down on the top step of the porch. "It was a box," she said, "just a box, but I promised I would come back for it."
"Well, you did."
"Too late," Harriet said with remorse. "Too late." That night, she emailed Lionel, "The box is gone. I feel I have sinned against the light."
"It canít be helped," he emailed back.
Brenda sat next to her. She could not speak, but she could read. Back in her room, she dragged out from under her bed her dearest possession, her box of ice-skating memorabilia and gave it to Harriet to take the place of Junoís box, which they couldnít find.
Harriet took it back to their apartment, but never opened it. She knew it contents very well, and it came to rest under a yearís worth of old magazines, too daunting to read.
At the end of her fourth month Harriet circled April 30 on her calendar. Was that a good date? Was it propitious? Would she have her thesis written by then? Yes, she would. But so much else to do: find a larger apartment, get baby equipment, a crib, a carriage. Where would they put it in their two room apartment? Baby doesnít need anything until heís six months old, Dolly said. "Baby needs a mother whoís not out of her mind with anxiety."
"Itís going to be a boy," Ira said. "We have to have a bris." Harriet shuddered. "He never cared about anything Jewish."
"Donít worry," Dolly said, "Iíve been through it three times.
Donít believe the things you read these days. Mel was circumcised and I can vouch that none of it is true. If I hadnít tied my tubes, Iíd have six kids by now, but donít tell that to Mel. There are some things women have to keep to themselves. Secrecy is the lubricant of life. If you like, I have a woman friend who is a Reform rabbi and a mohel. Sheís really good. Sheís a mother herself. Sheíll be happy to do the circumcision. And, when the time comes, Iíll show you how to change the bandage."
"I thought Mel wasnít religious."
"He isnít, except when it comes to circumcision. Itís the sign, he said."
So, Harriet thought that night, eyes closing on sleep, Marie must have known, and kept his secret.
Ira said he would pay three monthís rent to keep the apartment in the family, three months for them to think about taking it. After that he was going to Florida.
"A step at a time, a step at a time," Harriet said to herself. "I will do this," and she organized the notes she had made on the plane. In the beginning was Ermengard. She was the inspiration for the Troubadours. Narbonne and the Midi were her native grounds. Once promised to Alphonse Jordan (scholarship confusing on this---may have been promised to Alphonse, but never married, may have married, but never consummated---she was about twelve at the time), he was the son of Raymond 1V of St. Giles, Raymond who carried the cup of St. Giles to Jerusalem during the first crusade.
A movement is made of mosaics. Bit and dots come together. The puzzle was completing itself. Maybe she was not ready to take on Professor Connell, but she dialed his telephone number anyway. An answering service responded: "Professor Connell cannot answer your call at this time. Leave your name and telephone number and a short message, and he will get back asap. Speak clearly and repeat your name and number twice. If this is an emergency, contact Professor Watkins at extension 4." Not likely, Harriet thought, but when she continued to get the same message after a week and four efforts, she dialed extension 4. "My dear," Professor Watkins said with sympathy and mirth, Professor Connell has had a stroke, and I am the replacement for his two remaining graduate students who were writing their dissertations with him. You now belong to me."
Harriet had tumbled into catastrophe. David did not see it that way, which infuriated her. Everything he said made things worse for her. "All the work is done, itís the same cast of characters. Just tweak it in her direction," he said, as if you could "tweak the truth."
"Heís right," Laurel said. "Donít be a fool. Finish the damn thing. Donít let this carry past your due date. Once the baby is born, you donít know how much time you will have." Harriet panicked, and decided to visit Professor Connell in the hospital. "He has improved," the desk said.
"Is he speaking?"
"Yes, but it would be best not to tire him out."
"Sounds perfect," she told Laurel. Sympathy call," she sneered. "Courtesy call," Harriet said, preferring not to reveal her opportunistic motives. She could get the January degree if she moved fast.
She dreaded seeing her old professor with an unaccustomed weakness, less than adversarial, almost supine, which made her feel ignoble, but with a countdown to birth, as if she were living under a gun, what were her choices?
No longer an opponent, Professor Connell lay flat on his bed, imprisoned by tubes and monitors, his unshaven chin resting on top of a blanket. His eyes flickered with pleasure when Harriet came into the room, then soon cringed when he spotted her portfolio of notes. She was embarrassed by them, and apologetic. It was not right to burden him, she said, leveling her voice to sound in control, "but time was of the essence." She patted her stomach. A film floated over his eyes, which she took to mean that he appreciated her feelings. He would not desert her now either. There was still the bond of scholarly love, if not for each other, then for the subject. He crooked a finger, beckoning her to communicate. She removed her notes from their portfolio. A glimmer of haunted passion clouded his eyes, but faded as soon as she started to speak. "The twelfth century Midi was the birthplace of the twelfth century womenís movement. Therefore, we can presume of Chrťtienís inspiration." Tears of reproach replaced the warm moisture. Harriet did not notice. She was in the flush of enthusiasm. Neither Professor Connellís disorder nor her morning sickness would hold her back. "Assuming Chrťtienís family had originated in the Midi, it was natural for him to take an interest in what was happening there." She looked at Professor Connell to see if he understood the implications of what she was saying. He was supine, either acquiescent or overwhelmed. She noted his discomfort and suppressed a grunt of conquest. ĎWhatever it takes"ĎLaurelís voice whispered. "Itís all here," Harriet said, and held up her formidable roll of notes. "Here is the core connection, the womb of ferment: Ermengarde, orphaned at five years old, heiress to a powerful piece of land, kept in storage until her hormones readied her for marriage: Every seed-bearing daughter of a count or powerful knight was a cauldron of potential power. Hell broke loose among the suitors." She smiled subliminally. "Alphonse I of Toulouse, claimed his right to the regency of Narbonne during Ermengarde's minority (i.e. their marriage could not be consummated, their ambition was tempered by unyielding biological fact--she was pre- pubescent), and invaded the viscounty in 1139 with the support of Archbishop Arnaud de Lťvezou. In the same year, Ermengarde witnessed a charter in Vallespir, in the territory of her cousin Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, with whom she must have taken refuge in the face of the threat from Toulouse. In 1142, Alphonse, whose wife Faydid of Uzes had either recently died or been repudiated (one never knew in the Middle Ages), sought to marry the now-adolescent (i.e. sexually ready) Ermengarde. In reaction to this prospect, which would overturn the balance of power in the region by adding Narbonne to the control of Toulouse, a coalition of Occitan lords formed an alliance against Toulouse. In 1143, at age fourteen, Ermengarde was married to a vassal of Roger II, Bernard of Anduze (other scholarship is firm on this fact), Alphonse was defeated by the coalition and was taken prisoner, forced to make peace with Narbonne, and to restore Ermengarde and her new husband to the viscounty before being released."
Harriet watched Professor Connellís face, but he was felled by semi-paralyzed vocal cords and the march of Harrietís documentation. She did not allow him recovery time. "Sex and territory were the grounds of the medieval play for power. How to disunite them, how to uncouple the vagina from the acre? (she didnít say exactly that) In the waywardness of medieval politics, a copy of "The Art of Love" by the French cleric, Andrť le Chaplain fell into Ermengardíe hands and ignited her body and therefore her mind. And not only hers. Troubadours sang of this new idea, up and down the Provencal countryside. This new idea: sexual love, not sex as an adjunct to business and politics but sexual love came into the world. Cupid unleashed arrows into Ermengardeís vagina. (She didnít say that either.) And yet---and yet-- some scholars maintain that Andrťís book was a satire, that he never meant the absurd idea that sex could be elevated to romance: Who could believe that the vagina had such power (nor did she say this), but it was too late. Venus choked on laughter: She had gotten knighthood by its balls. (excised sentence). Andrť Capellus came north to Troyes, and is said to have become a courtier in the court of Marie de Champagne. Chrťtienís family, spawned in the same territory as Ermengarde, brought the stories north with them from the Midi." She spared him Samizdatís interpretation, that Chrťtien had become Marieís lover. "In the realm of unfootnoted speculation" he had emailed her, ĎI can't help but find it unusual that Marie's husband died suddenly almost immediately after he returned from the Holy Land. Then despite the advances of noble suitors, she opts to not remarry. She was first married in 1160 at the age of 15. 1160 is also the year when Chrťtien first began working at the court of Champagne. His romance, Clige was written purportedly in 1176, two years before Marie's husband left for the Holy Land. In Cliges, a young girl (Fenice) is forced to marry the Byzantine Emperor, though she is in love with his nephew (Clige). With the help of her maid (Thalassa) who is knowledgeable in potions and poison (always helpful) and who is sympathetic with romantic love, she gives her husband a sleeping potion every night. The husband dreams that he has sex with her, but in fact never does. In this instance, it's love at first sight and elaborate trickery for the illicit lovers to fool the husband. (Not very knightly behavior) Marie was young, attractive, brilliant, literary, ruler of her realm and without a husband. And Chrťtien was young, attractive, brilliant, literary, and dependent on her as his patron. The works (which Marie supported/patronized) were all about romantic love--not platonic courtly love, but physical passion that gets consummated. The plots of his romances often hinge on disguise, people mistaking one person for another, questions of identity. It's easy to imagine Marie and Chrťtien having an affair that lasted many years, one that included role-play seduction fantasy as a common mode---and reality, she the countess, he a Jew and a landless nobody.
"No, No, No," Harriet had emailed back. "You forget realty. Chrťtien really was a landless nobody."
"Yes, and he accepted the division and paid it respect in his poem, "The Knight of the Cart," in which he does obeisance to the social distance between them, becoming a knight who rides in a cart filled with dung. But the bedroom is neutral territory. In sex, there is neither black nor white, Christian nor Jew, queen nor commoner, young nor old. Marie and Chrťtien may have given rise to the tradition of pretending to belong to a different class during the act of coitus, the milkmaid with the prince, the maid with the merchant. Anonymous plays footloose with social roles here."
"So you think she knew he was Jewish." "Absolutely."
"How did she know?"
"The only way she could have known."
"Sex is profane."
Aha, Professor Connell, I have found the source of the Nile.
Water is water and it all flows together. Who can tell the drops apart? She lay her notes on the table next to his bed where his urine dripped into the bottle on the side, held in place to his bedsheet by a clip She handed him a pen: Sign your approval, Professor Connell. His grimace was daunting. Still she left a copy of her thesis on the top of his blanket. With a mighty effort he raised a hand, indeterminant warning or commendation? The old warrior was incoherent. She wished him well and left, the rest of her notes bundled under her arm.
Her talk clarified her ideas to her, if not to him, and she felt she could now put together a good defense of her thesis: That Chrťtienís origin was in the Midi, likely to probably, Narbonne, most likely in Narbonne where there had been an influential Jewish community, one that had engaged itself in Ermengardeís world and recorded her battles and treaties. Odd how the south of France had fallen off the historical map.
"Pity," she e-mailed Maurice, "that we did not take a longer trip into the south of France."
Harriet went into labor two weeks early and a week after she defended her thesis: Chrťtien and The Three Queens: The influence of Ermengard, Elinor of Aquitaine, and Marie de Troyes on Chrťtienís concept of female sexuality and courtly love. The baby, a boy, was named Elijah. "Not possible to reduce that beyond El," she said to Leela in a phone call. The apartment in Greenwich Village became crowded with gifts, a crib and baby things, a bassinet, a cradle, a lightweight carriage which Dolly bought so that Harriet could jog while she wheeled the baby.
Three weeks after giving birth, in the second week of May when the dogwoods had flowered into their pink and white fullest, Harriet put Elijah in his carriage and walked up Fifth Avenue to the library at Forty-Second Street. The sun was warm and it lay on Elijahís pink eyelids as he slumbered under more blankets than he needed. She had pinned her pony-tail back on her neck and quickened her stride almost to a trot. "Not so bad," she said to him when she spotted the lions in the front of the library, defenders of arcane knowledge. Next year she will get to Carcassonne. She should be finished nursing Elijah by then.