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L’Embarquement pour Cythère

by Diana Pollin

part 1 of 3

She was a little girl, a very little girl, in a long crimson gown sitting at the end of a very long table. The child in the mother’s gown vanished into the darkness. Only her hands, folded in half circles on the table, her neck and her small craggy face were revealed in the pale incandescence of the tapers.

The candlelight graced the darkness it could not banish. The plaintive wind chanted as snow fell in dainty curtsies outside, while, at the table, the tapers cried sluggish tears onto the roses of the cloth. The crimson silk whispered when she moved.

Long ago, she remembered in a passing vision, Mama’s needle had sewn blood-red roses on the white brocaded squares. Long ago, she remembered looking at the needle, how rebellious it could become when it drew blood to rival the thread that Mama twisted into roses. The droplets of the needle could fall freely, but the red thread was confined to its bouquet, as it should be.

“A princess with hair as black as ebony, lips as red as roses and skin as white as snow,” Mama said and sucked the wound dry. But she laughed as she stroked the cheek of the fair little girl sitting at her side. Quickly, her small fist spun like a fly about the red thread, which it knotted, and a small scissor cut it on the side of the roses. No blood would ever seep over to the other side; the white would remain white forever.

Every Christmas, the little girl would wear her short white frock, but Mama would put on the gown of crimson and would sit with her back to the window, insensitive to the cold.

The day they were to visit the palace, a pallid dawn showed at Astrid’s shutters, scattered light about the dollhouse, alighted pleadingly on the dolls’ faces, and fled like a thief before a growl of thunder.

“Give me just one more minute of life,” the pale intruder intimated, “before the mists rise from the embankments and I shall be dissolved.” But the mists were already there, slithering about necks, collarbones, ears, crawling into lungs, little lungs especially, rotten as plums with frothy brown beards.

And yet, the rain that day in daylight-drowning November landed in a merry splash; today would be the day, certainly the day, that they — Mama and Papa, and perhaps, Mademoiselle Pierre — would go together to the palace of the queen, where the painting held court under the chandeliers’ diamantine light.

In Number 8 Frankreich Strasse, Cyclops, the tall hall clock woke Astrid from her dream. Helga was heard, humming in the distance.

The day wavered now between light and shadow. Astrid was thinking of Charlottenburg, the palace of the queen, which she could not enter because Mama said she was too much of a devilish spirit who would distract and be distracted.

Six months before, she had scampered wildly about the courtyard where cobblestones gleamed like glass under a spring rain, and it was thrillingly pleasant to kick rockets up from the puddles, and water was everywhere, hiding in clouds, forever looming, forever carrying from the banks of the Spree and the gardens of Berlin the odor of wild roses and honeysuckle whose sweetness coiled in the back of her throat.

But why had Mademoiselle Pierre let her race about the courtyard like a drunken sailor boy? Was it fatigue at the end of a long walk? Did Mademoiselle Pierre, who ridiculously adjusted a little hat veil against the Berlin downpours, remember the merriment of her own childhood? Or was it her nasty French nature that led her young pupil to the sanctuary but forbade her to kneel at the altar?

Yes, Astrid decided, it was just French meanness, for she must have stood admiringly before L’Embarquement pour Cythère, and she must have heard the painting speak of the Land of Supreme Love through the mouth of its eyeless Venus, whose bust rose from a horn of corpse-pale roses.

Was one of the roses Magda, so withered and pale that Astrid thought that she would crumble into a powder? Was Magda now part of the rose-scented powder Mademoiselle dabbed onto her sunken cheeks? Yet whether in a courtyard thrashed with water or at the feet of a coughing, crumbling child, Mademoiselle had always adjusted her lacy veil and passed on.

Yes, she was certain that Mademoiselle Pierre had seen it, and had maliciously wanted to keep her from seeing it, saying that the copy in Papa’s study would suffice until she behaved like a lady and not “shamefully run about.” And then, in the queen’s courtyard, in May, when all Berlin had raised umbrellas against a vicious onslaught of rain, she held a handkerchief to Astrid’s nose and pinched so hard that she almost snuffed the life out of her!

Sullen and efficient-looking under the useless umbrella, deaf to screams, blind to stares, that was Mademoiselle Pierre. Dropping her handkerchief, she looked haughtily down at Astrid, who threw her arms about her waist, and hugged the drenched flowers on the governess’ skirt. She was, at ten, still such a little girl and so in need of love.

Mademoiselle was shaking, her hands were icy, the lips of her long and narrow face quivered and she coughed nervously. Her long legs devoured the courtyard in long strides. She had given into an impulse and was angry at herself and unaware that Astrid was running alongside her, promising breathlessly to walk like a lady the next time even in the rain, which polished the cobblestones, forming, she was sure, the scaly backbone of a terrible underground dragon coiling and uncoiling.

Astrid’s haunting, hollow voice resounded feebly in the rain. But when they finally reached home, what a fuss Helga made! What in God’s name was the French woman trying to do? Kill her with the cold, like Magda?

“Papa,” Astrid said in a low voice, “ I am deeply honored and not a little pleased that you wanted me to wear Mama’s gown this Christmas.” She spoke in complicated sentences and wore a complicated chignon with hundreds of red pins piercing the balconies of braided hair.

Where had she come from? From which warped and withered limb of his did that slab of smooth flesh fall, and pucker into this child of ten... rotting calf tripe, frothing with maggots?

“The choir will be here shortly, my dear. Helga’s specialty, these sweetmeats. Pastors’ hats, they call them, in her village. She baked them before she left. Take one.”

Astrid’s pointy painted nails clamped about the ball of sweetness, held it to the flame lamely dancing, the snow had caused the walls to cry pearls of moisture and the dark wood panels creaked, the bones of the house were aching as the walls wept . Herr Baumer shivered, but Astrid sat with her back to the window, insensitive to the cold.

Six long months had passed and the blessed moment had come, at dinner last night when Mama judged her neither distracting nor prone to distraction and suggested an outing to the museum. Astrid, in the interval, had shown every sign of not “behaving like the wild woman of Borneo” — Mademoiselle’s remark — and with tears of joy, clouding her blue eyes, she promised Father and Mama, sipping their wine, that she would walk as a “young priestess bearing offerings to an altar would walk.” What was in the arms of the priestess? What dark, pointy shadow was the god she worshipped? What demon of sin had stood by at her conception?

And now, snuggled in her little bed and listening aimlessly to Cyclops outside her bedroom, she saw herself walking into the palace, solemnly, like the cherished image in her picture book of the proud Knights of the Teutonic Order on white horses entering Jerusalem. Yes, she promised, as the fire snapped and hissed its life away, today she would wordlessly march through the Charlottenburg halls as a pilgrim on a strange pilgrimage demanding awe and silence.

Her tiny mouth opened and a trio of fangs snipped at the little brown ball, which partly crumbled to the table. She flattened the fallen half with a finger and giggled like children bathing in a stream. In the pale, flickering light her chignon’s red darts ant-raced .

The snow had stopped falling, the bedraggled moon had pulled night from the eaves of the evening. There was a rapping at the window and a vague chain of black capes could be seen bobbing through the fallen snow.

The fire in the chimney was dead now . “Helga will enter, throw in another log, another useless log, for I am not cold, but rainy days mean extra logs and so she will place Madam Useless Extra Log into the pit to burn. I think we should explain to the log why we are burning it before we send it to its flaming death.”

She had not yet risen from her bed, but there was no need for haste, Mademoiselle Pierre had not yet entered nor had Helga. They were preparing for Charlottenburg and the museum. The day hearkening Cyclops’ clanging, would go through its expected routine, until the outing.

“Play,” Helga had said once, when she was braiding Astrid’s waist-length hair, “is like a luscious cake at the end of a meal.” But banish the day and its obligations for the moment, she had a few more minutes to linger, and while the pale light flitted about the room, the eiderdown vessel brought its sole passenger to shore.

Now, however, the night was over. Sleep, which so resembled death, had died, and she could remember only blurring snatches of her dream, fleeing like ghosts before a single starkly burning candle. The prayer she said every evening returned in the morning like the street sweepers’ brooms, but the fickle November morning coming and going at her window carried memories of two ghostly figures of the night before, the long looming shadows of Mademoiselle Pierre and Mama holding hands, while she recited, faithfully and in her strange voice “the prayer that Papa found in his bookcase.”

Shadow Mademoiselle held an ax and nodded faintly to Shadow Mama. Only prayer could stave off the killing in the penumbra, only prayer could persuade Cyclops to hush the tick of the hours as a soft buzzing hovered about the fire and a stillness seized the room.

“Dear God and Kindly Heavenly Father, hear my purest childish wishes. I am your servant. My name is Astrid Baumer. Astrid means divine beauty, so I am like a bright little star that will sit in the Heavens next to You when my life is done, but until that moment, bless all our household, Mademoiselle Pierre, Helga, Gunther the gardener and Hans the messenger boy. Give us all health and peace, bless especially Mama and Papa. Guide me to the good I want to do in my life as a kind and strong helmsman guides his ship and its sailors. Amen.”

Now the day fell like a cruel and obscuring curtain. As Mademoiselle Pierre once said, “Life is not a dream world and one day, mon cher enfant, you will have to end your childhood.” And one day, she would become like Mama, a vessel filled with obligations that only a deathly pallor and a cough could call away when she “was not up to it” — Helga’s bizarre way of describing Mama’s illness — and had to take to her room to lie in darkness before the final lying, with roses. It would not be too horrid.

But Astrid liked the prayer she and Papa had written together, because it blessed Mama who needed to be blessed. The night they had written it in his study, she was smitten by the awe of the hushed room, where the struggle between light and darkness played upon her face and the shadows around her eyes and about her mouth, which was disproportionately big and red and with a lower lip shaped like a ship’s anchor and set among features that were so tiny and wizened, that Herr Baumer, when he saw her, thought of a leech. And he was fascinated and repelled in the presence of his daughter, as if he had come upon a plate of apparently ordinary food to find it writhing with maggots.

His fork dipped and turned, the worms mounted to the surface like Mama’s darning needles twisting the red thread beneath the white brocade. He had to bring himself to enact the expected gestures of affection, but when he looked at her small almond shaped face with its chin already lined and its eyes of lackluster blue, watery, like the drained eyes of an old person, he recoiled, and his heart beat tremulously.

“Come in, Good People!” Herr Baumer cried, answering the door. He was a tall tired man given to sudden bursts of energy that deflated like a balloon. The apothecary and his wife and their ugly niece of forty went singing from house to house singing, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. They remained like vampires at the door, sucking the incidental mirth out of their hosts.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Diana Pollin

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