Issue 128, Fall 1993
That day we saw three Jews in full-length black coats and black hats standing on identical stools looking into the funnel of a pasta machine. One stepped down from his little stool and went to the front where the pasta was stretching out in orange strands. He took two strands and held them up high so that they dropped against his coat. He looked like he’d been decorated with medal ribbon. They bought the machine. The Italian boys in T-shirts carried it to the truck.
They bought the machine because they wanted to make pasta like ringlets to sell in their shop. Their shop sold sacred food and the blinds were always half drawn. The floor was just floorboard, not polished, and the glass counter stood chest high. They served together in their hats and coats. They wrapped things in greaseproof paper. They did this every day except Saturday and after the machine came they made pasta too. They lined the top of the glass counter with wooden trays and they lined the wooden trays with greaseproof paper. Then they laid out the ringlets of fusilli in colors they liked, liking orange best in memory of the first day. The shop was dark but for the pasta that glowed and sang from the machine.
It is true that on bright days we are happy. This is true because the sun on the eyelids effects a chemical change in the body. The sun also diminishes the pupils to pinpricks, letting the light in less. When we can hardly see we are most likely to fall in love. Nothing is commoner in summer than love and I hesitate to tell you of the commonplace but I have only one story and this is it.
In the shop where the Jews stood in stone relief like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace there was a woman who liked to do her shopping in 4 ozs. Even the pasta that fell from the scales in flaming waterfalls trickled into her bag. I was always behind her, coming in from the hot streets to the cool dark that hit like a church. What did she do with her tiny parcels laid in lines on the glass top? Before she paid for them, she always counted them, if there were not sixteen she asked for something else, and if there were more than sixteen she had a thing taken away.
I began following her. To begin with I followed just a little way, then, as my obsession grew, I followed in ever-increasing circles from the shop to her home, through the park past the hospital. I lost all sense of time and space and sometimes it seemed to me that I was in the desert or the jungle and still following. Sometimes we were aboriginal in our arcane pathways and other times we walked one street.
I say we. She was oblivious to me. To begin with I kept a respectful distance. I walked on the other side of the road. Then because she never noticed, I got closer and closer, close enough to see that she colored her hair. The shade was not constant. One day her skin had a hanging thread and I cut it off without disturbing her. At last I started to walk beside her. We fell in step without the least difficulty. And still she gave no sign of my presence. I began to wonder about myself and took to carrying a mirror to see if I was still there. So far we had walked side by side in silence. Eventually I said, “Did you know that parrots are left-handed? This is very rare in the animal kingdom. Most creatures are right-handed like us.”
She said nothing and I dredged my mind for things that might please her.
From that day I told her everything I knew. The origin of The Magic Carpet, the nature of cities that last only one day and disappear at nightfall, the register of notes available to a frog during courtship and every story I could remember, including the shortest story in the world. It is by a Guatamalan writer called Augusto Monterroso, “Cuando despero, el dinosauro todavia estaba alii.” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.)
Just as Scheherazade prevented her death so I prolonged our life together with my stories. I bound us head-to-foot in words.
Nothing I said had any effect. I felt like Marco Polo who crisscrossed the world searching for a single treasure to please Kublai Khan. The Great Khan was not interested in the Silk Road or the cedar forests he owned. Rich beyond measure he desired something he could not possess. Only one thing could please him, and he did not know what that thing was. Polo brought home intricate and fabulous toys and shamans who could teach the emperor how to fly. But when the emperor died, old and exhausted, he knew the world had eluded him.
I rummaged through the out-of-print sections in secondhand bookshops and spent all my spare time in the library. I learned astronomy and mathematics and studied the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in order to explain how a watermill worked. I was so impatient to tell her all I had discovered that I started waiting for her outside her house. Eventually I knocked on the door and knocked on the door at 7 A.M. sharp every morning after that. She was always ready. In winter she carried a torch.
After a few months we were spending the whole of each day together. I made sandwiches for our lunch. She never questioned my choice of filling though I noticed she usually threw away the ones with sardine.
St. Teresa of Avila: “I have no defense against affection. I could be bribed with a sardine.”
So it is with me for whom kindness has always been a surprise. In the lives of saints I look for confirmation of excess. To them it is not strange to spend the nights on a mountain or to forgo food. For them the visionary and the everyday coincide. Above all they have no domestic virtues, preferring intensity to comfort. Despite their inhospitable ways they ferment with unexpected life like those bleak railway cuttings that host horizontal dandelions. They know there is no passion without pain.
As I told her this as I had told her so many things, she turned to me and said, “Sixteen years ago I lived in a hot country with my husband who was important. We had servants and three children. There was a young man who worked for us. I used to watch his body through the window. In the house we lived such clean lives, always washed and talcumed against the sweat. Not the heat of the day nor the heavy night could unsettle us. We knew how to dress. One evening when the boards were creaking with the weather he came to us where we sat eating small biscuits and dropped two baskets of limes on the floor. He was so tired that he spilt the baskets and went on his knees under my husband’s feet. I looked down and saw my husband s black socks within his black shoes. His toe kicked at a lime. I ducked under the table collecting what I could and I could smell the young man smelling of the day and the sun. My husband crossed his legs and I heard him say, ’No need for that. Jane.’
“Later, when we put out the lamps and I went to my room and Stephen went to his, my armpits were wet and my face looked as though I’d been drinking. I knew he d come. I took my nightgown off and on four or five times wondering how to greet him. It didn’t matter. Not then or afterwards. Not any of the two months that followed. My heart swelled. I had a whale’s heart. The arteries of a whale’s heart are so wide that a child could crawl through. I found I was pregnant.
“On the night I told him he told me he had to go away. He asked me to go with him and I looked at the verandah and the lamps and Stephen’s door that was closed and the children’s door that was slightly ajar. I looked at his body. I said I had to stay and he put his head on my stomach and cried. On the day he left I lay in my room and when I heard his flight coming over the house I wrapped my head in a towel. Stephen opened the door and said, ’Are you staying?’ I said I was. He said, ’Never mention this again.’ I never did. Not that or anything else.”
We walked on in silence. We walked through the hours of the day until we arrived at nightfall and came to a castle protected by a moat. Lions guarded the gateway.
“I’m going in now,” she said.
I looked up from my thoughts and saw an ordinary house fronted by a pretty garden and a pair of tabbys washing their paws. Which was the story and which was real? Could it be true that a woman who had not spoken for sixteen years except to order her food was now walking into this small house full of everyday things? Was it not more likely that she would disappear into her magic kingdom and leave me on the other side of the water, my throat clogged with feelings that resist words?
I followed her across the moat and saw our reflections in the water. I wanted to reach down and scoop her in my arms, let her run over my body until both of us were wet through. I wanted to swim inside her. We crossed the moat and she fed me on boiled cabbage. I have heard it is a cure for gout. She never spoke as we ate and afterwards she took a candle and took me upstairs. I was surprised to see a mosquito net in England.
Time is not constant and time in stories least of all. Anyone can fall asleep and lose generations in their dreams. The night I spent with her has taken up my whole life and now I live attached to myself like a codicil. It is not because I lack interests, indeed I have recently reworked Leonardo’s drawings and built for myself a very fine watermill. It is simply that being with her allowed me to be myself. There was no need to live normally. Now, I know so many stories and such a collection of strange things and I wonder who would like them since I cannot do them justice on my own. The heart of a whale is the height of a man. . . .
I left her at dawn. The street was quiet, only a cat and the electric whir of the milk van. I kept looking back at the candle in the window until it was as far away as the faint point of a fading star. In the early sky all the stars had faded by the time I got home. There was the retreating shape of the moon and nothing more.
Every day I went to the shop where the Jews stood in stone relief and I bought things that pleased me. I took my time, time being measured in 4 ozs. She never came in. I waited outside her house for some years until a FOR SALE sign appeared and a neighbor told me the woman next door had vanished. I felt such pleasure then, to know that she was wandering the world and that one day, one day, I might find her again. When I do, all the stories that are folded into this one can be shaken out and let loose. But until then, like the lives of saints, more is contained than can be revealed. The world itself will roll up like a scroll taking time and space away. All stories end here.