L’Embarquement pour Cythère
by Diana Pollin
The jumping fire worked its usual prank of blurring all. Hisssssss went the sparkling flame as it cast out its babes, the tiny glowing sparks, which would be like Mama’s life; brief, brilliant, beautiful and tender like the delicate flowery Dresden china cups Mama sipped from when her chirping birdy friends came to tea. Astrid was obliged to sit like a discarded toy swallowed up in an enormous red velvet chair; she was such a shriveled little creature, and weak.
But her slumber was not deep and she could hear the lovely birds’ cherry-lipped chatter. “It is a shame,” they said among themselves, “that she has such a strange air. She is really so so nice and wouldn’t hurt a flea.” And often they flitted away before she awakened, leaving traces of strong perfume and festoons of lip marks on cup rims, like the sentinel of velvet ropes standing guard before the painting, Astrid was sure.
Helga threw another log into the fire. She tottered on her wide peasant legs, a rude kerchief was tied in a simple triangle about her colorless hair, her rough face and hands were covered with the skin of a woman used to throwing logs into fires. But Mademoiselle Pierre, swept in, past the chimney, past the squatting peasant and drew the bed curtains, “Debout! Il pleut comme d’habitude. Et aujourd’hui on s’en va au musée!”
“Rain?” Astrid asked mischievously, flinging both arms upward from the downy eiderdown. “No Mademoiselle, not rain; gray pearls tam-tamming against my window. A sound of Africa that my mute picture book cannot drum to me. Listen to the pitter-patter, think of a thousand fingers on drums made of painted wood and animal skins. A thousand wet fingers tapping out Charlottenburg-Charlottenburg in true tarantella feverishness.” Astrid replied in French, the language imposed by Papa and Mlle Pierre’s raison d’être in the household.
She rose quickly from the bed, dispelling the torpor of the morning, the cold shackled her naked ankles as the fat, well-fed flame, sputtering and hissing, sought to rival the drumming of the rain. Helga, duelling with the fire, poked furiously at the extra logs in anger at Mademoiselle Pierre; or had she also scented Magda and feared that the cold would claim another victim?
“It’s rain, you little fool ! “ The governess said, moving to the table as Astrid put on her robe. “Rain can only be rain. I have told you how dangerous this constant day-dreaming is. I shall have to give you lines to copy again, and...”
“I still say it is telling me about Charlottenburg or” — she paused as a new idea lit up her small face — “it is the ghosts of Africa, cut up by the sorcerers into little pieces, they have crossed the seas. When they were alive, they were brave warriors captured by a rival tribe whose sorcerer cut them up into little pieces; and the only things that remain are their tam-tam fingers beating against the window pane, and I am sure that I will see them in the museum in Charlottenburg.”
“Comme tu es sotte! Come have breakfast and put that foolishness out of your mind.” Mlle Pierre brushed the front of her dress, there was work to do.
Yet, after breakfast, after dressing, after lessons, after copybook, after Mama had come in and taken morning tea, the perilous thoughts of Africa remained: gray pearls of rain, once fingertips, shimmering in the tenderness of the morning, flying against Astrid’s window pane, so happy to escape the evil sorcerers’ tortures. But, there were no evil sorcerers in the painting, just happy courting couples and a sightless statue, perched on a column, writhing in roses, pale and tainted as corpses.
The Land of Everywhere grew darker, and Helga had to bring in more candles even before noon. Astrid was busy at her French lesson. Mlle Pierre had enthroned her meager little body into a comfortable armchair, and Mama had strolled in, bringing her handiwork. She sat by the window: her profile, etched in an inverted question mark, shone clearly in the eerie gray light.
She was working busily at the white brocaded squares, prudishly covered with a white cloth over an egg-shaped basket. The thorns of Magda roses’ had magically turned into pins and needles and mother was the queen dragonfly tending to the hives’ eggs which would hatch as blood roses on a white background.
Mlle Pierre loved the hug of the great chair, while Mama always sat on the bed or on a stool. And Astrid delighted in their comical routine of rehearsed misunderstanding. Mlle Pierre would inevitably offer Mama the armchair and Mama who said that that was time enough for coffins, would always refuse.
But whenever Mama came in, Mlle Pierre would rise from the armchair, thinking only of her mistress’ comfort, but Mama had memories of her older brother lost in the war with the French at Sedan, and hated dream-inducing chairs. The ritual of their exchanges played out like an old train chugging to its final destination until the simple necessities of time cut short their act.
Astrid bit her pen, and received a cold look from Mlle Pierre who demanded discipline with graciousness at all moments. Astrid looked out at the panes revealing through a trick of the soft candlelight, an outside world with a gently glowing fire, a governess in an armchair, and two hands and their handiwork. Only Mama’s face did not appear.
Astrid ate greedily. “Yes, Father dearest, they taste so much better when they are soaked with your finest brandy. Father, I do miss Mademoiselle Pierre. Where is she?”
“She must be in Poland, daughter. Remember, Count Stanowski retained her services. She wrote to you?”
“Yes, a long sweet letter. I cried. She mentioned the painting, still the object of my desires...”
Astrid paused and lowered her eyes. “Father, I burned the Mexicans...”
“You did what, my child?” A clog of dryness gripped Herr Baumer’s throat, he could hardly speak.
“The dolls, I burned all of them. The Mexicans saw Mama die. Maybe they caused her death with their wickedness. Maybe they sent prayers up to their gods to take Mama’s life. I burned them and I burned all the other dolls. I kept only Judge Herr Just Because.”
“And why did you keep Judge Herr Because?” Herr Baumer’s voice was weak, the glazed look in his eyes said that nothing mattered anymore.
“I kept Herr Just Because because he is divine justice, as I am divine beauty. We are eternal, we cannot be squelched, except if we learn the secret of the painting. The painting, dear Father, is my life, and I fear now that we will never see it together.”
Herr Baumer, rising from his seat, forced a laugh, “Nonsense, dearest daughter, of course you shall see it again, of course you shall learn its secret. Come let us go to my study, and look at the queen’s painting. You are the grand lady tonight; I shall give you my arm.”
“But my dearest Father, if I find the secret of the painting tonight, my life is over.”
But before Herr Baumer could answer, Cyclops broke the silence in a clang. And Astrid took her father’s arm.
“Oh, yes, Father, let us go to your study to say good night to the painting. But first a question. Will you re-marry with Fräulein Kopf?”
“I don’t know, my love,” he answered, “do you want another Mama?”
“If you do,” Astrid said ceremoniously placing one foot after another as they walked down the long corridor passing the time churning Cyclops, “please ask her to embroider roses on white squares of cotton, like Mama. If not, I think I shall hate her!”
“Don’t worry about that now.” Herr Baumer patted her tiny hand as they entered the office where the tall, dark wood bookcases creaked like unseen ghosts.
Pouvoir, Mademoiselle’s strident voice directed. Astrid’s eyes hastened back to her copybook. Mademoiselle demanded not only the verb but a sentence correctly illustrating the irregular past form. But Astrid was distracted. What did that mean, the stitching hands with no face, no eyes, therefore, no soul in the window world? A wave of panic shook her little chest.
Mourir, Mademoiselle’s voice bellowed, causing Astrid’s eyes to tear; the perfume of Magda’s roses grew acrid. The candle light, burdened with the wet and the cold of the room, distorted all forms, and Mama did not appear at all, either in the inside mirror or the outside ghost world. Mourir, Mademoiselle growled and looked cross. Astrid was afraid that she would tell Mama to prohibit the museum trip.
A sentence had to appear, any sentence, they had come to the end of the exercise and Mademoiselle would be very angry and the excursion to the museum would be canceled. She narrowed her eyes and wrote: Je bénis Maman morte aujourd’hui. Nous n’avons pas pu aller au museé.
She ran to the closet where the rosy soul of Magda had risen and hovered, and she touched the soft furs she had touched when she and her playmate fleeing the sound of the tam-tam rain, ran into the closet. She knew the soul of Magda was near. She felt it under the furs, she felt it in the heavy caress of the leather bags and in the silk scarf dangling on a hanger, where it swayed and dropped sinuously about her neck and down to the closet floor. She sensed it was near, so near, and she uttered a prayer to Magda, who could work the miracle of the roses drifting from the closet and settling on Mama’s lap as bright red thread. “No blood must fall. No blood must fall. No blood must fall.” She heard Cyclops’ at the end of the dark hall cut the hour into squares and knew that blood would fall.
A scream reached Astrid’s ears as she lay buried in her closet nest. The log in the fireplace had sprouted little flames, running up and down its length, darting red about the fireplace. The cold was haughtily intense. Papa had come running followed by Helga and Hans pounding ponderously on the floor, thinking perhaps that noise could repel death, drumming with their feet the sorcerer’s dance she heard the rain drum at her window. Astrid discovered that, when she was hiding in the closet, Mademoiselle Pierre and Mama had unexpectedly switched seats. Was this Mama’s punishment?
The room had become a cage of screams and cries, voices rose from shadows shifting swiftly, Mama’s limp arm stretched out from the armchair. Begging for a little more of life? Mama’s sewing basket lay helplessly on the floor at the foot of her chair, without its white linen cloth, and with all its pins and needles scattered.
Astrid emerged in cat-crawls from the closet, baby dragonflies had hatched instead of roses. Tiny steel dragonflies about the white unfinished squares. Papa raised Mama’s limp arm and put an ear to her breast, a whispering plea to live simpered from her mother, but the dragonflies buzzed furiously about the fire, as Helga added another log, and covered Mama’s legs in a wool blanket.
But it was the other arm which caught Astrid’s eye, the one still folded on Mama’s lap and bleeding with a pinprick, the one that caused her to cat-crawl out from the closet and up to the arm of the huge chair to suck the blood threatening the pure white linen square. So she sucked and sucked until the wound was dry.
Mademoiselle Pierre’s sharp eye saw her crawl from the closet, saw her sucking the wound. Mademoiselle Pierre went to the writing desk to read: Je bénis Maman morte aujourd’hui. Nous n’avons pas pu aller au museé. Astrid showed her little pale head with its shriveled features, “Mama will stitch no more roses. The white cloth will remain forever white.”
Mademoiselle Pierre turned her head away as Mama gasped, a faint raspberry hue brushed her cheeks. Death would not be horrid, Astrid was sure.
“Now daughter, tell me what you see in the painting that you love so well.”
“Well, I see things in it I have never seen before.” She wedged her head into his armpit. She had sprung not from a woman’s womb but from a monstrous detachable extension of his being, but she fit into him perfectly.
“What do I see now? Well, those merry little people, they look merry and sad. I think it is possible to be merry and sad. They ripple over the hill and border the fuzzy shore where no boat will dock, and they seem to be speaking about love but not embarking at all.
And perhaps it is too dangerous for them to be journeying to the land of Supreme Love, because the mountain cliffs in the distance might be the jaws of monsters that will eat all the doll people up in one gobble faster than the fire devoured the Mexicans. And the Venus statue on a column of roses.
Papa, that underbrush looks like my chignon stuck with so many pins. But the cherubs forming a wheel... They turn on themselves, the couples look away from the shore. Ah! I am frightened!”
“Frightened of what, little one. Of the painting you love?”
“I loved it... But now I know it is not the Supreme Love I imagined but the picture of a mouth, a horrid, flea-ridden mouth. The little people are all the insects, fleas, maggots and the statue is decaying with her pale roses. Roses are red, they don’t look like that. And there are many tongues in the mouth...”
“You are seeing things, dearest Astrid, and you are cold.”
“Father I know now that it is a horrible picture, and yet I still long to gaze at it. It is me, Father, me. I am disappearing into the red gullet.”
“Quiet, dear little girl.”
“It is commanding the darkness and soon your little lady of divine love, will enter its gullet and... I feel like a flower, Father, a white rose on the dark red of your divan.. A pale little sprig of white in a red mouth.”
“You do look pale, daughter. You...”
“I am pale, Father, and sickly. I am a little sullied white rose on the red side of the cloth. I have gone where I should not go. Mama’s darning needle brought up a pale, red sullied rose from the cloth beneath. Her dear little fist is knotting and tightening. Magda, is speaking to me with her perfume, Father. I know why you wanted me to wear Mama’s crimson gown. May I shut my eyes and...”
“I will put the painting back on its hook. Sleep, my dearest, my only child. Sleep forever.”
Herr Baumer folded her white hands with their scarlet fingernails on her pale chest. Then he went to his desk, opened a drawer and put a gun to his head.
Copyright © 2010 by Diana Pollin
L’Embarquement pour Cythère (1721), by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)