L’Embarquement pour Cythère
by Diana Pollin
|part 2 of 3|
But Herr Baumer was a man of tradition and went through the gestures. He had sought refuge in books, which were a comfort against his wife’s disease and his child’s deformity, and he did not know whom to blame or if to blame anyone at all when, after they had written the simple prayer, Astrid took his hand and led him down the dark Cyclops clock hall. Two candlelit shadows, Mademoiselle and Mama disappeared into the eaves.
Truthfully he knew nothing and wanted to know nothing, and trembling, he left her at the door of her room, after kissing two of his fingers, which he placed on her cool little forehead. But Astrid had come running back to him at the end of the hall, past Cyclops to shout “The painting, dearest Papa! The painting!” And he had to be the patient father, again, take her in his arms and back into his study, take down the painting from its hook on the wall; and he said a prayer for the dead, although he believed in no god.
Astrid threw herself onto the divan and stared at the copy of his painting, stared at it as if it were a raft that would tide her over to somewhere, out of the old creaking dark house and the rains of Berlin and her stare grew to be a mask of happy catlike contemplation, and her thick leech lips opened to say,
“It is truly Supreme Love, dearest Papa! You and Mama are the couples on the shore. Helga is a tree, all she does is burn logs and there will be a ship, Mademoiselle Pierre, coming to shore. The ship will take you...”
“Mama and I will leave for a marvelous voyage?” He interrupted her in a frightened voice.
“No, dearest Papa, you will stay with your books in their solid wooden bookcases for you are like Helga: a little bit stony and solid, but Mama and Mademoiselle are like the fireflies at night, sprinkling their love.”
“Love Astrid? What sort of love?”
But in answer she released a hideous peal of laughter. How could a child know things like that? Things he had just discovered, things that made him want to retreat further into his books, his dust, his darkness.
The apothecary had the face of a sated vulture. His wife possessed the wide and silent placidity of sunlight on a pond; rarely would she answer with anything but a chuckle, but the niece ‘s tubular body disappeared under a pair of huge dark eyes.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, they sang in hollow unison.
“Brilliant my friends! Brilliant! ” Herr Baumer clapped loudly. His pince nez jiggled on his lean nose. He was half bald and feeling the cold about his head. “Every year, better and better. Have you the...?”
The vulture produced a tiny bag from a pocket and pressed it into Herr Baumer’s hand. “Christmas wine for the rats, Herr Baumer. Hah ! Hah! Aha!”He had a hellish hacking laughter, his placid flaccid dove chirped and chuckled.
The maiden niece seized Herr Baumer’s cold hand with her heavy woolen gloves. Herr Baumer had recently become a widower and he was wealthy.
Shy and hesitant, the day arrived at Astrid’s shutters. She loved its creeping timidity, so different from Helga entering gracelessly as if she was to plow a field. Then, there was the opening of the shutters and Helga’s impatient and, she felt, jealous bustling whenever Mademoiselle Pierre was around.
Helga at odd moments spat out Ausländerin meant to be heard but not commented, and Mademoiselle Pierre would shake her little head, — God knows what rejoinder was forming on her French tongue — and the lessons would start after she was properly dressed. But sometimes Astrid would mope and brood, and Mlle Pierre would make her copy out long French phrases for her “horrid moping.”
The soft gray light stood now like a sentinel around the doll house in her room, which she called the Land of Everywhere, she could see the shadowy lines of Pépé, Pépita, Francesca and Kalin, the dark-skin straw Mexican dolls Papa’s colleague brought back from his expedition to the Yucatan. What a funny name and what funny dolls! She laughed and even Papa could not take them seriously; after all they were only dolls and so far removed from the Gretchens and the Hanses who peopled all the doll houses in Berlin.
Mother giggled and hid her lips behind a napkin, for she was always apologetic and fearful in laughter, which made her cough. Death before Pépé and Pepita would not be a proper death, at all, Astrid decided the night she received the dolls, and she was a little nervous as to how they would like her big doll house that Mademoiselle Pierre called the gingerbread horreur.
But that was unkind of Mademoiselle Pierre; they were, after all, giving the Mexicans a home for life and safety from the Emperor’s police, because, she would never denounce them as immoral foreigners although she would be tempted to if they were naughty.
She had kept a broken soldier doll that a cousin had given her, unwillingly, and only after he had so horridly pulled at her apron and she had wailed. He wore a Potsdam guard’s hat and cape, and one arm remained half way up and twisted outward, so he seemed to be begging, not saluting.
She had tried to force his twisted arm into place and had given him a severe scolding, but he would not budge. So she tossed him into a corner, like an old tradition, scoffed at, but there. One day, perhaps she might find a use for him, if only because he carried a musket and looked as fierce as a lion. She called him Herr Just Because and gave him the title of Justice of the Peace.
The morning light was not strong enough to reveal the Mexican dolls’ flamboyant dress, their blood red kerchiefs knotted about their round heads, or, in the case of Kalin, a sombrero. They brightened the gray, cheered her somber hours when the pages of sums that Mademoiselle Pierre made her write briefly blighted her existence.
But she knew that the gray Berlin light hated the brightly colored, exotic dolls, she knew that the gray and stodgy moist light of the Berlin streets, which found a way of penetrating even the thickest walls, wanted to burn the little Mexicans in the doll house.
Herr Just Because hated the brown straw guests with stitched-on smiles. But she protected them from Herr Just Because. She hid them in the huge gingerbread cake doll house, although it seemed a little odd for them to be there and not in the adobe huts pictured in her geography book.
The rain that morning agreed with her benevolence, it was drumming out a lively Mexican hat dance on the window pane, and there was a fiesta in full swing in the voluminous doll house that was so thoroughly German, even to the tiny geranium boxes on its balconies. Pepita was dancing with Pépé. Kalin and Francesca were...
But the door to the Land of Everywhere was slowly opening onto the Great House and its hall. The shadowy figure of Mademoiselle Pierre was entering followed by Helga with the tray. She pretended sleep. Governesses and cooks are the crossest people in the morning, which was quickly losing its charm; and today would mean lessons, and afterwards, the museum. Papa, certainly, and maybe Mama, if her health allowed it, were to take her, she kept whispering to herself.
“Terrible news... your wife.”
“Yes, it is,” he responded, her grip was tight. She placed his hand on her flat chest and smiled showing white pointy teeth. “Feel feel how my heart beats for you. Feel!”
“Christmas wine for the rats!” The vulture cackled again.
“Christmas must be so hard for you and your dear dear child,” the worm lady oozed.
“It is... It is...” Herr Baumer replied, his eyes burning with a wild desperation. The wide wife chuckled gravely. But Herr Baumer turned his head to the table where Astrid was flattening Helga’s pastries into little coins.
“So very hard that I shall come tomorrow and spread the Christmas cheer the dear Lord has bestowed upon me.”
“Oh, yes do, Fräulein Kopf, do,” said Herr Baumer; anything to speed them away.
But the pale daylight that had sought so timid an entry now flooded the Land of Everywhere, and Helga coaxed open the last shutter while the flame snake-danced. A closet door creaked and a perfume of roses that the moist air made sweeter, escaped like the soul of the newly dead. “Magda Countess of the Morning” Astrid had decided a short time before, in remembrance of Magda, her playmate, gone to the Heavenly Father, who had sent the shortness of breath, the fever, the cough, the wasted and distant look, who had sent the angel of death, but who had made the roses smell so sweet, drop so delicately on the coffin, disappear so completely beneath the handfuls of dirt covering their ruby nakedness in black.
Magda’s soul would gather them and make a ghost rose garden as they had been put to death with her. She would, after being properly introduced and curtsying to the Heavenly Father, smile with all the roses of death on her cheeks, and He would send her back to her ghost garden. That was what Magda told her before she became an angel, that there is no real death, just a passage, as from a solid into a gas, and Astrid had cried as the maid tending the dying child closed the curtains about the bed.
Magda was an angel recalled to the angels, she understood why death had come for her, she had understood why that capsule of air in the center of her poor aching chest was in reality a marvelous balloon that would float her to the Heavenly Father, and that for her exploit, she would be given roses, as Bürgermeisters gave heroes huge bouquets of flowers when they returned from perilous adventures.
It was Magda’s soul and its roses that surrounded her coffin, crushed and wasted, but lingering in the strange scent that wavered between extreme sweetness and putrefaction and that emerged from the closet where they used to play on gray and rainy afternoons when they could not go walking down the boulevard.
They would squeal with joy when someone’s nose hit a leather purse or when a face sunk into a soft velvet lining redolent with perfume and wearing Mama’s or Mademoiselle Pierre’s shapes. And now it was that closet that had become The Land of Magda’s Roses, or perhaps it was just a province in her Land of Everywhere. Yes, just a province that escaped Mademoiselle’s cruel remarks, Helga’s scowl, the pages of sums for moping, the justice of Herr Just Because.
Yes, she recalled, it was Magda and her roses... Magda in some green garden plot, frothing with white marble row markers all set in neat rows of dark earth sprinkled with red petals, the red darting through the black, the red alive with the ants and the flies that now kissed Magda’s phantom cheeks as once she, Astrid, had kissed them.
The pastor evoked a long trip Magda had taken, never to return, but she was sure that the eulogy was untrue. It was Magda, and her rose-tinted, rose-scented voice telling her that death is not a long voyage, but a shifting from a coffin to a closet, like a bride led to the altar by an angel on a flower-strewn carpet, forever young, forever untouched. Death must be a continual wedding ceremony, yes, a sort of feast with the dead in white, waiting beside someone concealed in a gray morning cloud. An angel in the place of a pastor blesses them forever. Then they spend the rest of their time huddling in closets trying to escape the living, the dead, after all, only want to enjoy their roses.
“I shall bring little knitted things for your daughter, and we shall have wine...”
“Christmas wine for micey-micey-micey,” the vulture croaked. His white dove wife chuckled.
“Christmas wine for lovers.” The niece blinked, her worm eyes brightened. “I can sew, knit, cook, tell pretty tales. Your child needs a mother. ”
“Come away Senta. Come away Beatrix. The good professor needs his rest.” The apothecary adjusted his cape.
“Good night to you, but first I’ll send Astrid to greet you.” Herr Baumer called his daughter to the door while he returned to the table. Astrid curtsied in the tightly pinned crimson gown.
“What a sweet sweet girl,” they cooed together.
“Christmas wine for rats! Don’t forget now Herr Baumer. My niece will come tomorrow. Fare thee well and to all a good night!” The vulture, the dove and the worm shuffled out into the snow while Astrid returned to the table and skipped up onto the seat of the chair.
“ Helga’s cakes are dry this year, my dearest. I have dipped these in brandy. My finest brandy. A special treat. Have one. Let us pretend you are a grown-up. Just like...”
Copyright © 2010 by Diana Pollin