Winter 1996, Volume 13.1
Gene Washington is Professor of English at Utah State University. He has published fiction and poetry in Weber Studies, New Mexico Humanities Review, Light, and others. Scholarly articles have appeared in Swift Studies, English Language Notes, and The Scriblerian. See other work by Gene Washington in Weber Studies: Vol. 6.2 (essay), Vol. 22.1 (fiction), Vol. 18.3 (fiction)
Men die because they cannot
join the beginning to the
end — Alcmaeon of Croton
The man held the dress up. He saw that it was made of silk damask, elaborately woven with threads of gold. High lights of the cloth, changing with the light, came from the special effects of its long floats of warp and weft. The weaver had obtained shading, along the sleeves and collar, with a maximum float of four weaves—each of a different color.
Jewels, shaped like small roses, circled the hem of the dress.
He turned the dress over. A silver brooch, set with the doves of Venus surrounded by laurels, bows and palms, was still pinned to the area where the heart of its wearer had beat. The man expected the dress to have a musty, heavy smell. But he could only detect the faint scent of something like jasmine.
Why, he thought, would anyone leave it here? It was obviously very old, but very expensive. It impressed him, the way light and color changed along its surface when either he or the dress moved. As he was unfolding the garment, feeling its texture and weight, a black and white moth flew up, out toward the shadows near a ceiling corner at the other side of the room. Later he would try to catch the insect to add to his collection. It looked like an eight-spotted Forester. But perhaps he was wrong. He would have to look closer. It was unusual for the Alypia octomaculata to be found this far north.
The dress reminded him of his daughter's wedding. The place, set back from a beach, had smelled of rain, spicy food and exotic flowers. One of the bridesmaids, he remembered, wore a low-cut cotton camisole with tassels. A film of perspiration made her breasts look especially heavy, sensual. The shape of the camisole, the way she held her shoulders and face, gave her the appearance of a chambermaid of the Ancien Regime. It was something he later regretted, not introducing himself to her. He watched as she drove away, alone, in that red car of hers, into the hot night. Why hadn't he spoken to her? Maybe even tried to follow her?
He looked up, trying to follow the movements of the Alypia. It was not one of the insects he had come here to find, but it was one still uncollected by him or any of his friends in the club. Its four false prolegs, and "primitive" frenulum, suggested that it formed a transition to the Epiplemidae. Its affinities with the Papilionides, he knew, were not wholly clear even to professional lepidopterists.
There was just enough time, turning back across the room, to meet his wife at the door and to help her with bags. After they were settled, they would go out for a drink. He had seen, driving into the city, a couple of places that looked as if they sold wine. Or could suggest where it might be bought.
This is their house. It's a fine one to raise children in. Other people, with their kids gone, might want to move into a smaller place. But not them. Tom and Marge keep it in good repair. The neighborhood here is safe, or at least it was when the kids were young. Tom and his kids planted those elms in the yard. I think the lindens were here when they moved in. The city wanted to take them up. Said they were ruining the sidewalk. But Tom wouldn't let them. With Sam Mead's help (his good friends call him Curtis) he stopped them. If Tom is out of town, there is always someone who keeps an eye on the city for him.
Marge has Mrs. Peterson in once a week to help her clean. Sometimes more if company is coming. Mrs. Peterson told Susan, that's my wife, that she thought the house was under-furnished. (I know for a fact that the remark was not supposed to be a reflection on their financial status.) Just a few chairs in the living room with that oak cupboard, with the glass doors, where Tom keeps his collection of butterflies. Upstairs, with the exception of the bedroom, a couple of rooms are completely empty. Since the kids left, I think it's fair to say that they don't heat those rooms there anymore. But then I've never been up to see in cold weather.
—Marge never asks Mrs. Peterson to clean up there anymore.
The room, like its house, was longer than wide. The bed, with a chair and a desk, sat as if they had been jammed into their corner. In another corner a table held a large blue and white pitcher and a brown bar of soap. Only the ruffled bed, its pale yellow sheets trailing off onto the carpet, seemed recently used.
Late afternoon light, giving a feeling of great age to the room, came through a window and fell on patterns in the carpet. Dust was filming the tops and surfaces of things. The walls and ceiling looked as if they had been done in something cream-colored. The man couldn't make out the designs in the ceiling. An odd shaped piece of tapestry, about a yard long, hung on one wall.
Where had the Alypia gone? A crepuscular insect, it was not likely to have left the room yet.
The man imagined that a smell like smoke from candles, but higher, sweeter, like the scent of hot honey, was drifting along the ceiling. If only he could stretch higher, or find a chair to stand on.
He heard the door close after his wife. He pointed at the worn carpet.
"Look. Griffins. Signs of an extinct royalty." The woman looked, trying to see what he saw. But all that was there were jagged, irregular patterns, like spills of red wine.
"I won't stay here. I don't like this room," she said. The light and the air of the room made her feel smaller, shrunken. Shadows from a corner of the room hid the left side of her face, scarred by childhood smallpox. She looked at her large, square hand holding the suitcase. Her father often teased her about her hands, saying that they were outgrowing the rest of her body.
She was tired and she was anxious to look at the photo-album her mother had sent her for Easter. One of the pictures, her sister had told her, was of their parents' wedding. Her sister had smiled at the memory of it, their mother wearing a hat and square shouldered dress, their father a double-breasted suit. The sister had also remarked about another photo in the album. One of the whole family, skating on a pond somewhere in a woods. Could she remember where it was? Would she write her if she did? The pond, the sister had said, was too small for the one near their childhood home. Was it the one on their grandparents' place, in the thick woods behind the barn?
Their mother was now alone, cleaning out the closets, giving their father's clothes away.
The woman wanted to sit down. But she was afraid it would show her husband she was willing to stay the night. She looked across the room at the curtains, trying to see if they were moving. The room was getting darker, closer. Something moved in the trees outside the window. Her hand squeezed the handle of the suitcase. She thought she saw, out of a corner of an eye, something flicker in a far corner of the room. But perhaps it was something reflected in the light from the outside.
She looked at the bags. There they were again, something to annoy her. The long strips of yellow tape her husband had stuck on one end of the suitcases. The taxi-driver and doorman at the last hotel had both stared at them. Even now, she imagined, they would be talking about them. Why yellow? Why not something less garish?
Why was the room so silent? What had happened to the noise of the city? She stood listening, her grip tightening, for the sound of something mechanical, a clock, an air-conditioner. At this time of day there should be traffic building to a roar.
"I am sorry. How could I know all the rooms would be taken." The material of the man's coat made a scratching sound as he shifted his weight to his other leg and reached inside a pocket.
"Why would anyone want to come here this time of year?"
He lit a cigarette.
"Do you see an ashtray?" He was looking around the room.
"No. Where's the bathroom? Would you go down and ask?"
"In a minute." The man walked to the window. He pulled the curtains back and pointed out the window. "Look at this."
"I don't want to look. I want to leave. Why do we always have to go where you want to go?"
He turned back from the window and tried to touch his wife on the shoulder. She pulled away and sat down on the edge of the bed. She looked down. The sheets were obviously made of fine linen. But the weave (the weft and warp running diagonally to each other) looked strange.
An odd looking stain lay at the center of the sheet.
"Those damned bugs of yours. Why don't you collect the ones at home?"
"This is the only place I have a chance at the Euchromia formosa this time of year. It's too late for South America."
"I wanted to go. I had the time. You wouldn't let me, remember." His voice was weak, apologetic.
"I am tired of dead things in the house, the smell of that stuff you use on them. We can't ask people over anymore."
She stood up and looked around. She couldn't see where to turn the lights on. She lowered her head, put one hand on the door-knob to steady herself, and ran the other along the wall close to the door. She could feel nothing but the grainy surface of old paper and heads of some old nails. She took hold of the doorknob. It seemed loose, tentative. She turned it to open the door. She had heard that some of these old houses have the switch outside the door.
—There's a big fireplace in the living room. Tom laid the tile himself. It's sort of a pale green color, very nice. I think I heard that he had the other tile, like that in the shower downstairs, installed by someone else. I think he said he had the ceiling plastered by Mr. Barnes. It has a floral pattern. Some of Marge's favorite flowers, lots of daffodils.
—Tom's not much interested in gardening. But Marge may want to show you her flowers. Tom just has those butterflies. Reading about them, thinking about where to go to find a different one for his collection. The only butterfly I can identify for sure is the monarch. I've also seen a lot of small white ones around here.
—The back of the house? Let's walk around there and I'll show you, before you meet them, what you can see from there. The view may surprise you.
"Come look at this. Before it gets too dark." The man's voice, coming from the area of the window, seemed remote, almost desolate.
The floor of the landing creaked under her foot. The woman looked down. At the bottom, worn, wooden stairs disappeared into silence and darkness. Near the door someone had placed a black marble plaque. She leaned closer. All she could make out, in sunken gold letters, were the words, Sta Viator. Probably the name of the owner, or someone who had lived here. Or maybe rooming houses in this area, like some in Europe, had names for their rooms?
She wished she had talked to the landlord with her husband. Had he asked the old man about the lights? How to adjust the heat? A morning newspaper?
But she had been afraid of the man's large black dog. So she stayed in the car, looking at the map, and thinking about a place to eat that evening. It would have to be somewhere close. She had never felt so tired. It was good none of her friends were here, noticing her appearance, asking her what was wrong.
She made a note to ask her husband later why the man had been dressed that way. All he had said was that the landlord's accent was hard to understand, that he seemed to be blind in one eye.
—You see that window up there? It's got a good view across this ravine, which is just beyond these trees, to the river over there. Tom says it is a "good room to be sick in." I think what he means by that is there's a lot to see out of it when you don't feel like doing anything else. Or when you want to get away from the wife for awhile. If you look hard you can see a trail over there, beyond that bypass. In good weather you see lots of families and children walking up and down on it. In winter kids like to ski and sled there.
—You're right. The river's interesting, the way it loops. Reminds you of a big, green snake. Those trees below the window are firs, I think. If you look close, you can see some humps in the ground where their roots are. You can bet those trees have been here a long time.
The landing became darker, more silent. As the woman started to turn back to their room she heard the door to the room shut and the sound of its doorknob falling down the stairs. Who or what shut it? She didn't feel any wind or see anything.
She shouted at the man through the door that there were no lights in the house, that they couldn't stay here. Something bumped on the stairs below. Was the doorknob still falling?
She put one hand on the wall and pushed at the door with the other one. A finger touched the surface of the plaque. She hadn't been mistaken about the words on it. There they were again, Sta Viator. She thought she almost knew what they meant. The surface of the plaque was cooler, almost cold.
—Tom showed me once how you fix a butterfly's wing. To look at its veins better. "Venation?" That's the word. You have to use alcohol, an acid and a bleach. Tom uses some of Marge's Clorox. "Hydrochloric acid?" Yes, that's it. That's strong stuff. I can still smell it.
—You have to get the color out to see the veins. For some of the really pretty ones it takes more than one bleaching. But I see you know about that.
—You cut off the wing first.
The man did not hear the woman call. He was looking through the window, beyond a cluster of graves under the trees, to a river. A tall line-of-battle ship, with full sails, and flying the blue pennant of an admiral, was leaving a silvery-orange wake on the surface of the river. At the stern, the wings of great birds, rising, falling, batting the air, caught the last light of day.
—You'll like Tom and Marge. They're easy to talk to. They both like to dress casually. You might even see them out here, especially of a morning, with their pajamas on. This area, with these trees, is pretty closed in.
The man saw, along openings in the ship's hull, the dark muzzles of cannons. The lower tier of cannons was low, dangerously near the water-line.
"Look," he shouted, "before it disappears." He pushed the window further open. He thought he could smell gunpowder and hear screams. Was the ship in action? The great ship, its hull sending a wave toward the opposite shore, heeled back as its cannons fired. A heavy rattling, cutting the tops of the trees and scattering their leaves, went over the roof of the house.
The man held himself steady on the window sill. He could see that the ship was taking heavy damage. One of its three masts had been shot away and great slabs of wood, like turf being taken up, were being sliced from its hull. Shot struck orange sparks from the ship's anchor and metal fittings.
The man thought he could smell on the wind, mixing with the gunpowder, the scent of beeswax.
He leaned further out the window, looking hard to see the movements of the men serving the guns. Could they see him, the man at the window of the smooth, stone house?
If only his wife had not forgotten to bring the binoculars.
But what he could not clearly see, he could imagine. He focused on the moving shadows back of the gunport of a 32-pounder. The six-man crew was all there, from the gun-captain to the powder-monkey. Two of the men, sweat running down their naked chests, were pulling the gun back for re-loading. A gun fired from a port to their right. The man felt a sudden wind on his face and hair.
Behind him in the room the door rattled. Probably the wind, trying to come through the window.
—Marge is hell on weeds. She uses Roundup. Says it goes down to the roots. Especially, the quack grass and bind-weed. Tom, I don't think he cares. Maybe he likes to keep a few, something for the butterflies to eat on.
—Silence of the Lambs? I haven't seen that movie yet. Notice how the paint seems to be peeling off here. It's the sun. A moth as poster star? To advertise a movie?
—Notice how high the gables are on this side. Some people tell me you can see them from the river. There used to be a squarish-looking pond back here. When they built that bypass they filled it in.
—It was a good place to dump things in.
The great ship, the man could see, had rolled back too far for its guns to bear. The gun-crew would have to wait a few more seconds. The ship's signal flags, before the mizzen mast, were being torn away by shot. On the starboard side of the ship the limbs of wounded sailors were falling into the water. Or was someone throwing them overboard?
The soles of the man's shoes and the palms of his hands suddenly felt wet, slippery.
"Help me. The door won't open." The voice of the woman was hollow, slow. Stillness began to press her like the palm of some invisible hand.
—Let's go up and ring the bell. I've told Marge you were coming. She'll be happy to know someone's interested in the house. She'll be happy someone from the university is interested in the place. You're a professor of—what was it? Vernacular architecture? Yes, that's right. I heard that you were looking at other houses around here.
—Tom's probably here too. But he may be upstairs working on his collection. It's the one up there, the big, bay window. I think I saw his shadow, moving up there, a minute ago.
—Smell that? That's the stuff I was telling you about. There are wings all over the place up there.
—No, it's not too late. There's still some daylight left.
The weight of the window began to press on the man's back. He rotated his shoulders and tried to pull his body back into the room. Force from the window increased. Pain started in his lower back and ran down over his buttocks and upper legs.
"Help me, the door's stuck."
The man's shoes slipped on the wet floor. His shoulders and neck became numb. He thrust his knees into the wall below the window and tried to pull himself back. A cool, oily fluid soaked through his trousers and spread wetness around and under his knees. The weight on his back increased.
The crew loaded the great gun with double-shot.
Silence moved from beyond the door toward the man at the window.
His screams forced tears from his eyes. The rush of another heavy movement, this time lower, went through the trees and over the roof of the house.
The gun-captain felt the ship begin to roll back. He waited to light the fuse, watching the gun-barrel go down, approaching the correct level.
—Maybe they've gone shopping. I know they have a new grandson. Marge showed us a picture of him last Monday. Tom thinks he has his hands. Says they'll be good for catching butterflies. Fixing their wings. Judy, that's their daughter, is bringing him home this summer. Lance, the son-in-law, has to go to South America on business most of the summer.
—That daughter of theirs. She's a clothes horse. Likes to wear a lot of silk.
—I am off work tomorrow. Why don't we come back then? Vernacular architecture? That's the kind we created ourselves, isn't it? There's still a little light. Let's walk over to the next block. There's some houses you'll want to check out there.
Would anyone hear her, the woman thought, if she shouted down the stairwell? Why couldn't she hear the sound of her own breathing?
The silence flowed passed the man at the window, low over the graves and out toward the river.
—We have to keep a sharp eye out here. The caterpillars are thick this time of year. Crossing over here, head to tail. Tom wouldn't like for us to kill any of them. Some of them, the ones the birds don't eat or the cars don't run over, become butterflies and moths. Pesticides, weather? Those too, sometimes worse than the other things that do them in.
—Tom also likes to collect cocoons.