That first morning after Aaron kidnapped me from the Ferris wheel and the Acacia Harvest Fair where the pipe organ played and Ramon had driven the long car through the night I felt cold lips touch my cheek and I opened my eyes.
It was not my mother smiling over me, the smell of coffee and home-cured bacon wreathing the air, but the man who had said his name was Aaron.
I turned my face from him, I was bruised, something had been pushed, then reversed. In my dream I had found myself alone, in a room full of gloves laid in pairs on a table that kept growing in length. They were all inside out and I raced to undo them and hide their scarlet lining before my father came home.
Now I saw a blood stain on my dress.
“Where am I?”
Around the car stood brown hills and in the narrow valley green fields with rows of vegetables. Trucks and horses and wagons moved along the road bordered with poplars. The driver dressed in blue didn’t turn his head but looked forward like stone. In the mirror I watched his dark eyes and olive skin below the robin’s egg cap and black bill.
“We’re nearly there,” Aaron said. “Did you rest?”
The silver car left the farmland and climbed a mountain of gold wild wheat and wind-bent, black-trunked oaks.
At the crest I discovered the wide world of gray granite water spread forever and everywhere the whitecaps like the wings of drowned birds.
“Have you seen the Pacific?”
At Santa Cruz a hundred years ago I tossed the bright ball with my sisters in rented wool suits, on the warm sand in the prismed light through the drifting summer spray and my father and mother in shoes and black clothes on a blanket watching under a red umbrella while my brother, Bryan, swam far out in the surf—
“I’ve seen it.”
But buildings like towers rose above the silver, sunlit bay.
“It’s all been rebuilt.”
Oakland City Limits
The car rode across the water on the deck of a ferry as the citadels cast shadows and their windows blazed. In late August the morning breeze stung cold, salt and sharp, San Francisco air.
In the city under wheeling gulls writers had described in books the car crawled up steep, sleepy avenues between high narrow houses that looked crooked with the sidewalks going by at a slant. We passed ice wagons and flat carts with rose-colored milk cans behind horses breathing pink steam. The pavement glowed, each pebble in the asphalt like a jewel as we entered the canyons between buildings like trees in a forest of stone.
Trees where people lived like birds, a thousand million bricks, up and up. In the lowest windows, mannequins wore furs and satin dresses, diamond pendants, strings of pearls. The early sun flooded a store like a huge beautiful barn with shiny blue and yellow cars parked on the red tile floor.
Little huts stood at corners, soda and tobacco signs nailed to their sides and old men and children hawking papers:
“Extra! Read all about it! Brits Die at Bloody Somme!”
At an intersection I looked down a long street like a slide and saw the bay and fishing boats in it. Straight ahead a woman in a scarlet dress and shawl and yellow kid shoes trudged up a hill. Above her the street ended, with only the sky beyond her narrow folded shoulders.
A policeman in a blue suit and gold buttons sat astride a brown horse at a stop sign and I smelled coffee and something warmly sweet like sugared bread and felt hungry.
I stared at the wide thoroughfare the Swedes from New Lund had measured with a tape before laying out their main street so a four-horse team could turn in a U and where the band from Lemas had marched in the 1908 Exposition parade and performed their town song, “Home of the Peach.”
I half-hoped to see people I knew, wearing uniforms with tassels and braid and holding out bright trombones and tubas, striding proudly up the avenue blowing their brass trumpets through the cheering crowds forever because once they had promenaded there—
All the choice produce of California flowing in from every ranch and farm and rich river bottom appeared on glorious display with a fanfare of color.
Red meat and blue fish markets of hanging quarters and fins swept past for open stalls brimming with perfect fruit and vegetables grown in the San Joaquin and I nearly wept at the spilling harvest of golden grapes and rosy peaches like rising suns, night-colored plums and cherries and striped rattlesnake melons, beside halved cantaloupe the orange of Valley August moons, scarlet tomato and the white cobs of shucked corn, carrot bunches like giants’ fingers and pyramids of purple eggplant and sweet yellow onion—
The men smoked pipes and wore high rubber boots, carrying dripping slatted boxes of lettuce and pushing handcarts, whistling and speaking strange languages that soon sounded like varied strains of a human pipe organ that played in San Francisco where the citizens sang portions of the Earth’s odd single tongue.
An unshaven man in a black cap like a sock strode by with a huge purple-blue fish over one shoulder, its open watery eyes staring straight at me as its tail brushed the car and I smelled the salty ocean on its sleek skin and imagined I was swimming in a teeming sea of people darting in schools of a hundred textures and shades.
It was hard to believe everything had fallen down and caught fire, 700 people died in the Great Earthquake—I’d felt the tremor in the front yard in Acacia when I was six and the doves flew up with bubbling cries from the two umbrella trees.
A shadowed foggy park appeared with glistening grass and roses planted in a horseshoe, a glass house full of trees, a herd of humped, horned brown buffalo six feet tall behind a black iron picket fence.
Monuments and statues stood on the highest hills of the city.
“There’s Columbus,” Aaron said, nodding.
Down a hill past a cable car and its capped driver striking a bell—Aaron leaned toward me, explaining that under the street stretched a cable on a pulley attached to an engine—I saw a white ship in the harbor. Smoke came from its white chimney, little waves all going the same way rose and broke whitely against its hull.
We drove down the street toward it, the ship I might take to Europe or China, Turkey, where they bought kidnapped girls as white slaves, then turned sharply right, along another, narrower street that went out onto a cliff of wind-leaning cypress with flat branches like blown hair.
The single white house climbed and built upon itself, a shining mountain of sculpted ice, a Matterhorn of soaring turrets and sharply pitched gables.
I had to arch my neck and squint to see the widows’ walks and distant wrought-iron railings, French doors and scalloped balconies, bay windows bulging from onion-shaped cupolas, spires with leaded blue and green portholes like eyes and everywhere fretwork and sudden chimneys.
And a navy-blue flag—embroidered with a single, large yellow letter, it looked like a glinting A—waving from a staff at the highest roof peak—
Inside it was all velvet and chenille and gilt and crystal, polished inlays and copper and thick Persian rugs under paneled walnut ceilings supporting chandeliers like many-tiered wedding cakes made of icicles sorted and saved from winter.
A butler with shiny gray hair bowed, holding a blue letter on a silver plate. I’d never seen a butler before, in a black suit and tails, except in a Galsworthy play at the opera house in Acacia.
I remembered and with a hand I hid the spot on my dress.
“A letter, Senor Aaron, from Zurich.”
“Afterward,” Aaron said, turning toward me. “Cepeda, this is Senorita Dolly. Dolly, Cepeda. The young lady will need refreshment.”
Cepeda bowed and then Aaron guided me up the curving staircase to a room with a black marble fireplace, chiffon-upholstered wing-back chairs, one with buffalo horns for arms, a rosewood bureau and a mirrored dresser, brass lamps with Tiffany shades, all of it surrounded by gold and pink foil wallpaper patterned with conch and scallop shells.
A bed with a brocade coverlet and oak posts carved into tassels of ripe wheat dominated the room.
The portrait of a black-mustached man wearing a silk bandanna and a caballero’s collarless short jacket stared from the wall above the headboard.
“This is your room, Dolly. The bath is here. In the armoire you’ll find fresh things. Tell Cepeda if anything is missing.”
Aaron took me in his arms, whispering, “Beloved,” then quickly pulled back.
“Dinner is at eight,” he said distractedly, then nodded and closed the door and began whistling a fading tune.
I looked up at the painting, the black proud eyes holding me in place as if they knew and owned me but only because a secret desperate part had just given herself eagerly at his urgent plea—
The man had galloped fifty miles and had fifty to ride, vaulting from his horse to have a likeness done if the painter hurried, the knotted scarf just settling from the swirling dust, unseen ivory pistols at both hips as the artist patted the vaquero’s tousled hair and quickly stepped back with palette and brush.
He was rough-hewn and ready and yet gentleness showed at his nearly smiling lips and in the two furrows of his candid forehead. He seemed both mysterious and familiar, a lost face from a history book, and with an effort I turned away from his anxious searching gaze, tried the handle of the French doors and went out onto the balcony to stand in the wind.
The sea advanced in moving hills of molten lead, the ranks of gun-gray waves dashing in white explosions against the sheer rock cliff. I shivered in the salt-pungent air, grew dizzy from the straight drop and looked up, wondering what destiny raced toward me with full sail from beyond the ocean’s rim.
I trembled violently and hurried inside, feeling the sudden jolt of the rocking Ferris wheel, hesitating and staring about the shining room, then striding to the great armoire and grasping the porcelain knobs, throwing open both doors.
The thick cedar rod held 30 dresses trimmed in fur and velvet, lace and ribbon and corduroy, ball gowns with low necks and silver thread, austere thick tweeds and rich pleated Scottish plaids, a scarlet hunting blazer and a green Chinese robe with a black sash, several shawls. I touched the striped slacks tailored for a woman and red and blue wool capes with yellow piping, a beaver stole and a hooded, fleece-padded seal coat, on a row of pegs fox mufflers and hats.
I lifted a muslin dustcover.
Braid on braid—with a raised design like a slanting A down the bodice—an embroidered bridal gown and train leaped whitely from the shadows and I dropped the muslin like a shroud.
Below the dress low shoes and pumps and boots and gilded Aladdin’s slippers with upturned toes lined the shelves in a warm perfume of polished leather. Someone had worn them, walked and danced and shaped them to her feet. I leaned forward, pulling open the wide drawer.
In stacks a foot deep folded lingerie lay across the blonde sandalwood—silk slips and stockings, lacy camisoles and corsets, shadowy sheer negligees.
Under an unfolded handkerchief, hand-stitched pink tap pants, sewn with a script monogram A—
With a finger, like a woman reading Braille, I traced the raised shiny letter, again and again as if I touched the wedding dress and the initialed blue flag on the roof.
I shut the drawer and began to tilt forward among the hanging elaborate clothes, to embrace them for sympathy and support, and recoiled from the sheen of a cashmere blouse. My throat tightened as I breathed a rich woman’s scent above the mothballs. I backed up, nearly running to the bed, curling tightly on my side, then rolling on my back and staring past the portrait’s eyes to the recessed ceiling.
The interlocking L-shaped niches fit one into another, on and on, like the turnings of a maze, until I was lost forever and closed my lids as my breathing finally slowed.
I woke to a yellow fire throwing dancing light against the gold and pink walls that glimmered like an undersea chamber. I brought a hand to my neck, feeling that my dress was still buttoned at my throat, staring at the bedroom’s walnut door. I got up and glided across the deep rug that showed an Oriental garden with roses and a pool of blue water.
Quietly, I turned the knob.
The house remained silent as a conch shell on a beach. I considered slipping down the spiraled staircase from a dream, racing up the marble-tiled foyer to the door and out, losing myself like a leaf in the crowds of the city, or hailing a constable and making him find the white house and accost the man named Aaron for kidnap and mashing.
But there was no one I knew, just the policeman on the brown horse and the man who carried the blue fish. My coat was hidden away downstairs, Cepeda had taken it. My purse held $1 from last night’s fair.
I glanced back at the shimmering room, closed the door and advanced toward the rosewood bureau where a tumbler of milk stood on a tray beside a plate piled with cold meats, cheeses and cut fruit, a purple plum. I drank greedily with both hands and lifted a soft roll to my mouth, chewing hurriedly and swallowing and dipping the remaining half against the ball of whipped butter. I ate a thin wrapped cylinder of beef, slices of apple and pear and green and black pitted olives and what I later learned was a date.
Carefully, a spear of chicken breast in one hand, I pulled back the bureau’s top drawer.
Its contents winked and came alive with the firelight, like quartz veins lit by a lantern in a mine.
A rainbow of brooches and earrings lay arranged in a horseshoe across the black velvet bed, surrounding three necklaces, one of glass or diamonds with a large watery pendant, and a tiara encrusted with dark pearls like the eyes of the butterfly brooch I didn’t know yet.
A dozen gold rings, each with a blue, green, yellow or icy stone cut in changing facets like a child’s kaleidoscope, sparkled in a circle. At the center shone ruby hairpins, a jeweled open pillbox with four hollows for capsules, and a hand-sized enameled pirate’s chest with a lock and a perfect tiny key you could twist.
I raised its hinged lid, exposing a mound of loose, gleaming gems.
I let my fingers move over the rich trove, then plucked a vermilion that twinkled and called to me from the rest, which I would grip extra tightly so it wouldn’t dissolve if I woke.
Holding up the red emerald in the firelight I saw my flaming image multiplied in fifty angled frames. All, all of the bright faces were Dolly.
I could take it and slip out to a jeweler, pay my fare to Acacia, the thought shining and lighting up the fields I’d seen last night from the silver car.
Instantly, at my back I felt a man staring, I was sure someone stood silently in the room but when I swiveled it was only the man in the painting who watched my every breath.
Thou shalt not steal!
But hadn’t Aaron already taken from me?
I turned from the portrait’s knowing stare and the mustached mouth about to speak and accuse, stepping to the French doors.
The trackless waves glared foreign and green-dark, stretching beyond my farthest sight. No ship or beacon showed on the vague horizon. The vast ocean had fallen from another planet, the foreign waters rushing, spreading and flooding Earth.
But now Venus and the first gentle, familiar evening stars burned calmly upon the night sea.
Wish I may, wish I might.
The black fireplace crackled behind me, its leaping yellow flames mirrored in the window glass that returned my own flickering mouth and eyes and hair. The wallpaper too was reflected, I stood among pink and golden seashells as I heard the breakers’ muffled crash like a whisper.
I closed my palm and gripped the red jewel, hard, so it hurt and almost cut, then let it fall to the carpet of roses and blue quiet water woven by patient fingers of veiled women half a world away.
Backward to Acacia promised scandal and disgrace, forward lay an uncertain undiscovered island in a mist, where shipwreck waited and dragons lurked and the lit towers of a far castle stood among the clouds.
Charge my attacker or marry my true love?
I went to the bureau and in three bites ate the sweet purple plum, hurriedly undressed and tied my clothes like shed skin in a ball, using the sleeves as taut ropes.
I filled and drained tubs of steaming water and bubbling soaps and oils as I bathed and bathed until every inch of me felt cleansed, scrubbed and reborn, and stood and dried before the triple mirrors above the veined-marble sink, turning and watching as I saw myself repeated—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow—the first full night of my womanhood—
At 10 minutes after eight my gloved palm slid down the banister’s turning wood as grandly I descended in floor-length snowy satin, my thick gold and red-brown tresses held up with three ruby-headed pins, a string of black pearls around my bare neck, the half-moon of my breasts perfumed and veiled discreetly by a crimson shawl of Spanish lace.
Golden Gate Park. Sausalito. Sans Souci.
A dipping arc of colored lights on a motor yacht strung together a Sunday picnic with caviar and champagne in a sunlit meadow and a midnight dinner among candles and sterling baskets of warm bread in a private dining suite atop a building.
Beneath my shining fork I saw the 100,000 lights of the city, and darker Oakland across the wide bay, the ferry’s green light and moonlit wake.
We toured the deserted pavilions of the World’s Fair, the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and the Palace of Fine Arts I’d read about in Acacia, weeping when Aaron showed me “The End of the Trail,” the enormous, uncast plaster statue of the exhausted horse and its slumped, dying Indian rider, the lance lowered at a slant under one arm, two down-turned feathers at the back of his bent head.
“Utter injustice and senseless loss, frenzied but futile bravery, final heartbreak,” Aaron murmured, “before the afterthought of welcome death.”
Together we observed the fireworks display and studied the graceful, melancholy Roman temple and its arches mirrored in the new lagoon.
“So stood Julius Caesar and Calpurnia, Antony dreaming of Cleopatra—”
Looking nightward at the exploding blue and green, silver, gold and red fire, I stared at Aaron’s lifted profile, at the elevated slanting brow, beaked nose, heavy mustache above a long, pointed chin. His eyes reflected the broken stars falling in slow trails toward the water lapping against the fresh ruins, as if he beheld the burning pieces of his world—
Days I spent alone in my room above the ocean cliff, the breakers and the foghorns of ships always at my ear as I went about my simple daytime occupations. On woven linen paper I wrote careful letters to my mother and father and to my brother and each of my four sisters, telling them I was all right, that I was fine and enjoying the city by the bay, soon I would visit with my husband and explain all that had transpired.
After the first correspondence the sealed envelopes came back—only Bryan answered for a while, distractedly, his mind on the war in Europe—and finally I didn’t write anymore, understanding that for good or ill my new life was only my own when after rain I walked the washed gravel path through the garden.
I took books from the shelves of Aaron’s library and studied them from my chair with arms of buffalo horn, to make myself a fitting partner for my mysterious guardian, to prevent his tiring of my charms I myself was only just discovering.
I poured over ancient histories of the Romans and Greeks and Persian poetry and Shakespeare’s plays, a Harvard survey of Western philosophy, the Hindu Kama Sutra, treatises on mathematics and the brain, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Richard Burton’s search for the source of the Nile and books of travel and adventure across deserts and jungles, explorers freezing and starving at the poles, gruesome biographies of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton tending amputations and cholera, Grant’s, Lee’s, then Napoleon’s memoir—
One whole day I read a monograph bound in blue leather about an English woman shipwrecked and washed up alone on an African beach, where the natives found her, nursed her back to health, and tattooed all of her body before they wed her to their king—as Queen from the Island Beyond the Blue Ocean, she reigned at his side until her death at 73.
Between chapters I glanced at the portrait above my head.
Mexican, I thought, beautiful, sad, with obsidian eyes like bullets going toward your heart.
At first he frightened me, like Aaron he seemed to know all my secrets, what I dreamed, what words I thought or whispered to myself as I lay on my pillow in the dark waiting for sleep.
Then quickly he became my sentinel, guarding my days, my nights of love, protecting me those sudden barren hours when Aaron’s obscure studies flayed his nerves and left him mercurial and contrary, instantly difficult and morose—
“The moment I discover the certain outline of my goal the longed-for object shines enticingly like a floating pennant of sun-shot silk, with 10,000 separate glinting strands, and just as suddenly disappears into air, as if the agile thought that conceived its diaphanous complexity guaranteed its elusive impermanence, that to desire and to grasp are immutable antagonists—”
Weeks and months turned in a blur of fog and waves, blazing hearths, china platters and tureens, gold brandy in goblets mirroring fire, all interspersed with sudden rants and storms allayed by intense calms of tenderness and passion.
Late nights as Aaron gripped me in his arms, I gasped for breath, not caring if I breathed as something inside me broke and retreated and built to break again and I heard a muted roar and ran along a mist-shrouded beach inside a seashell. I realized it was too far, the chasing tide would catch my ankles and pull me out beyond the land. Then I opened, completely, waving with long drifting tendrils, closing on the backwash, like the feathered anemones I had seen with Aaron at the bottom of the rock cliff.
Now mostly we stayed at home, often I saw only Cepeda.
Once a month guests appeared for dinner and to give a performance or presentation: an opera prima donna gesturing expressively with heavy arms and singing Carmen with such force that the chandelier’s crystals wavered and the light altered with each note’s coloration, the beautiful brother and sister who starred together in Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth on Broadway and were rumored to be devoted lovers—
A massive Irish boxer with handlebar mustache and oiled hair parted in the middle claimed he was the illegitimate son of the world heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan and the English actress Lillie Langtry.
The Incan wife of a Chilean diplomat wore jewelry of beaten gold and a striped blue and yellow wrap woven from the wool of an alpaca—an animal closely related to the llama, the “Camel of the Andes”—the black-eyed woman explained in dialect (as her husband translated), lifting one of the perfect figurines that dangled from her ancient necklace—
Often Aaron and I had dinner alone in my room, and twice Aaron brought gifts: a tiny hourglass filled with gold dust, then a ring with a black uneven stone he said was a meteorite.
“A star to wear on her finger, a fitting spoil of war for she who conquers night—”
He smiled, holding my hand near the candle’s flame.
But Aaron was moody, distracted, when he knocked at my door I never knew if he would speak more than a few words or stay until morning.
Those solitary evenings when finally I laid aside my new volume of knowledge and turned down the pink-shaded lamp so my room darkened slowly like the lining of an undersea shell, I would sometimes hear his study door open and shut, the key turning in the lock like the key in the treasure chest in my bureau, then the whistled tune that had no start or end, no decipherable escape from its repeating clasped circle, and I would see the green jade snake biting its tail in the book about the Celts.
“It’s Greek,” Aaron told me, “a song I learned on the isle of Crete, home of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.”
Instead I would wait and listen for the sad eloquent guitar winding its way up the stairs and corridors to my door as it bid me rest, sleep, dream. I heard it too those nights I wandered the confusing maze of love, the hurt sweet melody like a floating shining thread I could grasp and hold until morning.
“The guitar?” I asked Aaron over lunch as he poured the brown autumn beer, “the one I hear at night?”
“Ramon,” Aaron said, setting down the carafe, “from the servants’ quarters.”
“The gardener?” I asked.
Finally, I knew the name and face of the man who serenaded my late hours with mournful Spanish songs. The man in blue with the boots and billed cap, smooth olive skin and black eyes, was Ramon Zapata, who drove the car all night from the Ferris wheel and Acacia to the Golden Gate.
The guitar told a story I could never quite interpret with my ear but my heart knew the tale from the first plangent notes and I looked up at the portrait above my head as if the song Ramon played belonged to the man who never spoke the nature of his pressing errand.
Was Ramon as sad as I, did his lover also refuse to marry?
One April night—April is the cruelest month—in the midst of lovemaking, Aaron cried out, a single word, a name:
As he slept, I lay awake, watching his shadowed face—listening to him breathe and whisper half-words as he dreamed—hearing the gold-initialed banner waving in the night atop the house, the flag of Aaron’s true, native country.
And the stacks of monogrammed underwear in the scented armoire—
The letter burned my breast in a branded A, as if I wore the wedding dress that hung in the shadowed armoire as tall as a haunted house.
I lurched from the bed and snatched up a wool cloak—Anna’s cloak!—then threw it off like something electrified and stood on the balcony, shivering, letting the night air pierce my bones, listening to the white lines of surf as the stars dropped in clusters behind the sea.
I wanted to leap upward and away from the tilting horizon—in a wave of nausea so strong I felt giddy, I gripped the wet metal railing as I saw how small the Earth was, how swiftly it turned, like an unblinking eyeball rolling in space, blind except for a single spot of sight.
In the morning, as Aaron reached for the black-headlined Chronicle on the breakfast tray, I asked, “Is this Anna’s room?”
He looked at me coldly.
“Last night,” I said, watching his face. “You spoke her name.”
“Anna died. Three years ago.”
“You must have loved her,” I said bravely, “the way you still remember her. The way you keep her things—”
He rustled the newspaper, then lowered it, carefully creasing it in half and setting it down on the bedspread, then looked toward the foggy balcony.
“She was returning from singing before King George at Prince Albert’s Hall, a maiden voyage, Southampton to New York, a calm April night, the Atlantic still and cold south of Newfoundland.
“Captain Smith had been warned by wireless. Seaman Fleet, his own lookout on the mast, struck three bells.
“But Smith sailed on at full speed, 22 knots, to break the transatlantic record.
“Then came the glancing blow, the frozen spur ripping the starboard strake in a gash 300 feet long. At first there was unconcern, all alarms ignored. Amused diners ordered waiters to collect ice from the deck to chill their cocktails, before panic descended.
“As you’ve read, there were few lifeboats, the first ones setting off half-filled, parents passing children into the arms of strangers, wives and husbands embracing farewell, others refusing to part, men dressed as women slipping across the crowded gunwales. The boats rowed away to avoid the whirlpool, their lucky occupants staring back at the lit decks.
“Water flooded the boilers as the stern rose, the bow slipped under. Anna sang in the ballroom with the orchestra, ragtime, then hymns, until the lights went out. I was told this by the last man to leave the wreck and survive.
“When the ship struck the ice, the California steamed not more than 15 miles away. Captain Stanley Lord lay drunk or asleep, he ignored the distress call. The Carpathia arrived 20 minutes too late. She picked up the 700 survivors.”
“I didn’t know,” I said, remembering the Thomas Hardy poem I’d read with a chill a week before, “The Convergence of the Twain.”
Unknown, in the farthest north, from the instant the boat’s long keel was laid, the iceberg was born and started to grow like a twin. Bright-eyed fish scanned the wreck and wondered. Aaron’s love remained there, in the great hall among the sunken instruments, below the sea on the Titanic.
“How could you?” he asked. “You never knew Anna—”
He still flew her flag.
That night Aaron brought the purple dress, admiring it with me as I turned before the mirror.
“I had it made for Anna, to celebrate her homecoming. It was to be an engagement present.”
I stopped still, frozen before the glass. Even this dress was Anna’s.
“Take pleasure in it,” Aaron said. “Anna would want you to.”
I looked at Aaron.
“You would have been great friends, like sisters.”
Who was this Anna? Why were there no pictures of her?
“You have things in common, things as yet you don’t realize.”
I didn’t like being compared to a dead woman, especially to Anna, who must have been so beautiful, so talented and brave.
He smiled eagerly.
“You’re like Pocahontas, Sacajawea, Doña María—heroines, the guides of explorers, of John Smith, Lewis and Clark, Cortez. All doors open at your touch, all veils pull back.”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“Wait and see,” Aaron said, his eyes bright and intense, lit by some fire I didn’t understand, not yet.
“Didn’t I tell you, that first night, on the great wheel, that you took the first step toward a beautiful city?”
“Yes.” I wanted to ask him when we were getting married.
“There’s another city,” he said, looking at me in the glass. “It has no name, or many. A city of shining towers, of legend.”
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Here,” Aaron said, moving his hand to his black coat, “in the human heart.”
In the days that followed, I felt unsettled but I no longer feared Anna’s name or memory, the touch of the things Anna had worn or held in her drowned hand. When I put on the velvet dress, I sensed Anna’s protective presence like a sister’s, as the dark man in the picture had become a brother’s.
At the back of a dresser drawer, I found Anna’s comb. I held several golden strands between my fingertips, lifting them to the light, then wound them into a curl and slipped the blonde hair into the silver heart-shaped locket I wore at my neck, that my father had given me on my 13th birthday.
In the library I realized that now I stopped short at certain titles and authors: Journey to the Center of the Earth. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. King Solomon’s Mines, by Ryder Haggard. She. And finally at Donnelly, where I began to read about the lost world of Atlantis.
A mid-October morning Aaron gave me the large case that held the wonderful and strange butterfly brooch. Even though it was early, first he asked me to put on the velvet evening gown, then pinned the wide wings and graceful body with the black pearl eyes to my breast.
“Do you like your butterfly?”
He stood back, admiring the jeweled double spans of mother-of-pearl, then nodded toward the rhinestones and garnets sewn across the purple velvet.
“Those are diamonds too, among the other stones. Cepeda sewed them last night. From Murrietta’s buried treasure—”
“Ramon helped me find it, when I hypnotized him, but you led me to the gold. Remember what I said, that like Anna you were a guide?”
“I don’t understand—”
“What was lost is found.”
Now he sat in my horned chair and stared past me, looking up at the portrait above the bed as he described the dream vision he’d received after our lovemaking, of the treasure’s location and the death of Joaquin Murrietta and Three-Fingered Jack and the others, at the hands of Captain Love and the posse in the desert near Cantua Creek.
And of his own death—that’s how he’d found the gold under the flat stone, in his dream he rode with Murrietta—by the sulfur spring inside the box canyon—
“I want to show you something,” and on the phone he called Ramon to bring around the car.
And we drove down the coast toward Monterey and Pacific Grove and the hawk swooped for my feathered hat in the open car and for the first time I knew I was in love with Ramon, before he told me “Buena suerte” and we drank chilled brut—”To the treasure hunters!”—on the sand and saw the clouds of 10,000 Monarch butterflies coming in off the blue Pacific, the future spread before me 10,000 times and I never knew—
“Muchas alas,” Ramon said, pointing at the sky.
“Si amigo,” Aaron answered. “‘Many wings.'”
Ramon announced that he wanted to act on the silver screen, that someday he would play Murrietta who had loved the tragic Belle Solar, his ravished and murdered fiancée, and he sang a melody about the butterfly—
“Butterfly, Butterfly, where is my pretty wife, pretty as you, Butterfly?”
And later we climbed the stone tower in Carmel and the poet Jeffers told us about the mermaid in the surf—
Now Aaron paid special attention and took me places again, introducing me to prominent and glamorous people in the City, bought me new dresses that were mine alone and not Anna’s and displayed above my heart the great sparkling butterfly large as a bird when at Aaron’s request I unpinned it from the purple velvet.
He led me to art galleries and the opera house like a fantastic gilt cigar box, to see Otello and to boxing matches and wonderful red-lamped saloons where we drank beer and ate sausages and raw oysters and awful things Aaron made delicious, pig’s knuckles and pickled eggs, while Ramon waited in the long car.
My favorite food was French and I loved the corner restaurant Chez Baptiste, savoring the snails with melted garlic butter and green flakes of parsley and little toasted slices of bread, escargot you pierced with slender silver forks and pulled like tasty unremembered dreams from their shells. And the buttery flaky rolls called croissants, shaped like gold sickles of moons.
At low tide we exchanged absinthe toasts on the beach below the house, and hot embraces before we dropped our expensive evening clothes in the sand and waded out into the freezing surf breaking white as sheets, the sheets breaking white as waves in our own warm bed with the French doors open and the wind blowing, the curtains billowing like moon-lit sails, until I felt like Botticelli’s Venus riding in on a seashell.
Nights and days whirled away like the cars of the Ferris wheel and for a week or two I didn’t hear the nighttime guitar—
Aaron had never been happier—he was teaching me things, encouraging me to learn, giving me special books about the Rosicrucians and the Cathars, magic and Theosophy and breathing exercises to deepen and focus my concentration, special ways of arithmetic that unlocked the mystery of numbers.
For the first time he showed me his locked study where he spent the silent hours, all his papers and old books, yellowed charts and dusty, ungainly machines, a marble mortar and pestle, halved river stones that exposed a world of blue and purple crystals, tufts of fur and broken bone and horn.
I saw scrolls with hidden ciphers only blood would reveal, a tiny inlaid Spanish box and inside it the fossil of a seahorse, a great clock six feet high with gears and weights and strange letters that gave the phases and positions of the moon in Arabia.
My hand touched a bronze astrolabe built by an Italian named Bruno who was burned at the stake, then examined an iron chair that sprouted cruel spikes and other rusty ornaments of torture.
“The Grand Master never spoke—”
With a flourish, Aaron swept a sheet from an easel, unveiling a translucent parchment stretched across a wood frame, dotted and lined with connected constellations in a sky I had never seen at night.
He opened a thick tome of numbers and tables, from which an acrid dust rose up, the warning
DEATH TO WHOEVER OPENS THIS BOOK
WHO HAS NOT PIERCED THE VEIL
OF THE INMOST CHAMBER
OF THE BROTHERHOOD
OF THE MARTYRED
emblazoned across the frontispiece. Above a seven-pointed star, compass dividers, and a growling lion with four pierced paws, stood a cross entwined with snakes whose forked tongues flicked toward a passing comet.
Aaron threw back the lid of a strongbox and scooped handfuls of white and yellow scarabs, carved chalcedony likenesses of the scarab beetle, the Egyptian god of transformation. He translated the faded picture-writing of storks and dog-headed men on a Pharaoh’s winding sheet as I felt the brittle varnished linen between my fingers.
“This is an ankh,” Aaron explained, pointing at a table laid out with green copper crucifixes with an oval at the top. “Symbol of eternal life, conjunction of the sexes.
“And yarrow sticks,” he said, gesturing with his hand, “to consult the I Ching.”
I stared at the book covered in gold silk.
“An oracle, a book of divination.”
“To tell the future?”
“And the past.”
“And this?” I said, afraid to touch the watching, life-size glass skull.
“Quartz, from the Aztec priests of Huitzilopochtli the hummingbird god, and Smoking Mirror on the Left. Once the Sun ate 100,000 hearts in four days.”
Aaron lifted a faded bone. “St. Sebastian.”
“The one killed by arrows?”
“And a ram’s horn,” Aaron said, “to summon help.”
“From Israel, from the Hebrews?”
“Olifant. Durandal was Roland’s sword. Help never came.”
Touching the cloven horn, I heard a whisper at my ear, the Browning poem I had read alone at night in my room, the day I had first learned of Anna and her death at sea: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”
(Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,—
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! In a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set
And blew. “Child Roland to the Dark Tower came.”)
“A Mandan medicine man’s buffalo robe. Yokut phallus stone. A ghost shirt from Wovoka.”
“That’s a turtle.”
“A magic tortoise shell, the Chinese characters written in cinnabar, the principal ore of mercury. The Moon Rabbit uses it, to pound the Elixir of Eternal Life.
“A wand. A Sufi turban. Meteorites, like the stone in your ring. And these are tektites, glass from outer space.”
A man’s long underwear hung from hangar—a backward “L” on the right breast, a “V” on the left, and sideways lines at the navel and one knee.
“North Star, Square and Compass,” Aaron said.
From a cabinet, he brought a dark butterfly encased in a cube of amber.
“A Black Admiral.”
I observed its round eyes, its slender legs and intact shiny wings like sails edged with a scalloped yellow line. The butterfly looked as if it had just landed to drink from a flower and at my breast I felt nervously for my own jeweled brooch.
Aaron studied the captured insect, frowning.
“Who knows? One languid afternoon, as the white capital took shape beyond the palace walls, perhaps it perched for a moment on Nefertiti’s finger, inspiring pale Ikhnaton to pluck his lyre and begin a poem…”
I breathed a sudden stifling wind, as if the butterfly beat its wings in its square of hardened sap, fanning the musty centuries—
The sour gust blew from desiccated tombs, bringing germs and contagion of the moldering dead. I brought a hand to my mouth, sensing cobwebs and desperate twisting corridors where footfalls echoed and skeletons clutched spent torches or grasped the bars of blocked portals as the poisonous breeze rushed past them…
In the corner, behind a curtain, stood an x-ray machine, to scan for invisible writing, and for the Tetragrammaton, the 100th unspeakable name of God.
“Where did it come from?” I felt faint. “What’s it all for?”
“Don’t worry, dear Dolly,” Aaron reassured me, gently offering his hand as we stepped from the unhealthy, time-haunted room.
“I’m just a treasure hunter—”
He paused to glance at a dark book on the desk, then locked the door with the long silver key and I wondered if he knew that those nights when he worked late that I still heard the music and now like a swallow descended the spiral staircase to meet Ramon Zapata as he prepared for his screen test and new destiny as the actor Domingo Esquivel—
It rained a dark rain and Cepeda drove the car, Ramon sat beside him on the seat without his uniform and cap, in a derby and brown suit. At the station Aaron and I said goodbye, best of good luck, keep us informed of your grand adventure, and through the train window Ramon waved and for a last time met my eyes as his silent lips made the words, “Buena suerte—”
The guitar was gone, I felt suddenly bereft of my only sacred love, my heart’s companion had flown away, but I said sincere prayers for Ramon’s success, that his hope to become a star and play Joaquin Murrietta might really come true, as I watched Venus and then the other evening stars appear.
“Mariposa, Mariposa, dónde está mi esposa linda, linda como tú, Mariposa?”
Ramon had a dream, that in another life he and I had been deep in love and become engaged, to be man and wife…
Anyway, there was little time to mourn, the great silent house enjoyed a sudden advent of unusual activity—
A beautiful Gypsy arrived in a silk turban with a jewel, Madame Zanda, who read palms and dealt Tarot cards and picked racehorses and stocks that always proved winners.
And the trance medium Robert Belvedere—his “control” was named “Helion” and spoke in a scratchy voice of great coming changes, the dawning of a New Era given birth by elemental psychic forces unleashed by the World War.
“Behind each face is another face…”
The Frenchman, Vandemay, swung a pendulum above an alphabet arranged in a pyramid, to prescribe the special herbs and potions for each subject’s optimum beauty and health, and wrote out prescriptions.
Magnuson was clairvoyant and blindfolded could take a key or bracelet or watch and tell you who’d come to call in a week or what news in a letter was soon to arrive—I let him hold the butterfly brooch, hoping to hear something from my family, and he said that within two months I’d receive an important visitor from the East who would wear the butterfly on his vest.
A minister brought his young blonde daughter, Faith, not more than 10, and she stared into a basin of rose water lit by candles and described the faces of our loved ones now deceased, and later I realized she had seen Bryan, my brother, in his bloodstained uniform—
(But I only knew after Aaron was killed New Year’s Eve as he left to meet Anna—she was Lei Wang, a 12-year-old girl in Chinatown—and I returned to Acacia and started my true life that brought my fame and devoted lovers numerous as stars—)
These persons appeared regularly, but never together, and Aaron and I and a circle of somber well-dressed women and men sat at a round table under the darkened chandelier, after Cepeda served sherry and hors d’oeuvres. Aaron apparently knew and esteemed our fellow participants, but they seemed wary of conversation and seldom offered last names.
Before each evening’s performance, Aaron met with the guest of honor in the upstairs study.
Like Jack London, a few visitors arrived alone, for a private dinner with only Aaron and me, an archeologist fresh from the jungles of Bolivia, and an expert in Voodoo who’d lived many years in the mountains of Haiti.
And, most surprising, a real ghost, a legendary and romantic controversial figure whose elaborate obituary had filled all the newspapers—
I was introduced to a man Aaron claimed was Ambrose Bierce, Hearst’s prize writer and Jack London’s one-time enemy. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with gray hair and mustache, and if he were really Bierce evidently he had not died with Pancho Villa in Mexico.
But Bierce’s life had been transformed by something that had happened to him there—after dinner he asked Cepeda for a wooden platter, and from a small gold case he drew a packet and from the packet a brown, shriveled lump. With his knife, a pearl-handled gift from Villa, he cut the lump in half.
“Forgive me, pretty Dolly, if I leave you out of this. For this, you need years of preparation, many decades of cynicism and disillusionment.”
“What is it?” I asked. It looked like a clump of moldy raisins.
“A simple mushroom,” he answered. “And not so simple.”
He offered Aaron one half on the end of his knife and Bierce took the other, chewing slowly, as if eating a steak.
“It’s what I wired you about, from Aguascalientes, when I really was in hot water, before I headed farther south, into the mountains. You’ll see, in a way I did die.”
Aaron smiled. “You mean you’re not Bierce anymore?”
“No,” the man said, seriously. “I’m not. Nor did I write The Devil’s Dictionary. Or work for Hearst, or hate Jack London.”
Later, over brandy, by the fireplace in the big drawing room, Aaron became very quiet and excused himself. Bierce stood, watching him go, then turned to me in gracious farewell.
“Great beauty is a gift, great poise and kindness an accomplishment,” he said, kissing my hand. “Please, tell no one you saw me.”
“I won’t, Mr. Bierce.”
“I’m planning a trip, very soon, to the East. For me it’s a kind of escape.”
“Like to Mexico?” I said.
“In a way, but even more so.”
“Chicago?” I asked. “Or New York?”
“A little farther east,” he said, smiling at me, “across the ocean.”
“Europe,” I said. I’d never been, though Aaron had promised to take me.
“India,” Bierce said. “With one stop. Benares. Then on to my real destination.”
“Where’s that?” I asked, the image of a globe spinning fast before my eyes, all the different seas and countries in bright colors.
“I don’t know it.”
“In Tibet,” he said. “Dolly, goodbye.”
After that the house remained shut and six days later a stranger materialized as Magnuson had predicted, a visitor from the East, and I would die and wake as someone else.
May Eve, the last night in April, the elderly man in a frayed collar and black ribbon tie stood suddenly at my bedroom door. He carried a brown leather satchel. He bowed, smiling, then began taking a dozen colored bottles from his bag and placing them in rows on the dresser, and unfolded a large map and hung it across the mirror.
I looked at Aaron, who had risen from his chair beside the lamp, putting down his book.
“It’s all right. He’s a doctor. Dr. Bolger.”
“Come with me, Pretty Lady—”
Dr. Bolger led me from the love seat to the bed, guiding my arm as I lay down and he leaned over me, smiling.
“Lie easy and dream of the Earth like a star beneath your wings.”
Now Aaron was above me, holding my shoulders as the stranger lowered a handkerchief soaked with ether to my mouth and I fought it, twisting my head from side to side, seeing Murrietta’s face flash from the picture on the wall, calling to him—”Joaquin!”—until I breathed in fully the dizzying scent.
Aaron gripped my hand and for a moment I felt as if I were floating just above the white sheet, my body had become a bed of burning coals and like clear wavering smoke I hovered just above the pink unclothed woman on the bed.
I wondered if dying might be anything like this, I wasn’t frightened, it was peaceful. Dr. Bolger worked at the dresser, the colored map shining above the different vials like bright thimbles. I turned my head and saw Aaron standing by the French doors, a tall shadow beyond the light.
Or was it someone else? Ramon? Was the wind blowing? Or was it his guitar?
“Ramon,” I said. “Is that the wind?”
Dr. Bolger brought his smiling face close to mine.
“Ten,” he was saying, “count backward now…nine, eight…seven…six…”
Grasping the wooden bar locked across my lap I was riding the Ferris wheel in Acacia again, it was going too fast, then faster, faster, it was all I could do to hold on and not be thrown forward from my seat—
Too fast and the wheel broke off its axle and was racing across the Valley and climbing mountains, crossing flat land and mountains again and flat until it was fording a wide river and then the sea and I saw the Eiffel Tower stand up like a curved stairway above the horizon—
I could make out things far below the metal spokes, so far and small it was a long time ago, castles and rivers and little figures in a field cocking gold hay, and then closer, the wheel sweeping down and the yellow stubble at my bare feet before the wheel rolled on and abruptly I was hoisted backward and up.
“There’s Notre Dame,” I heard Aaron say. “And Versailles.”
I felt the sudden warmth of a bright light, like a mirror full of sun, but before I could see the Sun King something plucked me from my seat and looking up I saw it was the red hawk we had seen that day when we drove to Pacific Grove for the Monarch butterflies and Ramon sang, only much larger, now it was an eagle, all white with slowly beating wings.
Inside its snowy plumes I felt safe and closed my eyes on the snow-capped mountain impossibly high and far in the distance because I knew that now—like Ambrose Bierce, Anna, Belle Solar—I was flying to Tibet—
When I woke I was terribly thirsty.
The little man sat in a chair beside the bed. Under his arms his white shirt was dark with sweat. His worn collar lay open at his neck, his black tie hanging in two withered strands. His face looked thinner than before, older.
I was going to ask him for water when he moved, something sparkled, and I saw the butterfly brooch pinned to his vest.
I couldn’t feel my body. Was I sick?
“Aaron, he stole the Butterfly,” I tried to say.
“Time to wake up, Pretty Lady— “
“Who are you?”
“You know me. Dr. Bolger—”
Carefully, I raised myself on one elbow.
My legs and chest were numb, something was wrong. A sheet lay across me. Beyond the circle of lamplight the room was hazy, the air creased with slanted wrinkles.
“Aaron!” I was terrified. Had I lost a child?
“You’re all right,” the doctor said kindly.
But I wanted a drink of water. It was hard to speak, my throat hurt.
“Thirsty?” Dr. Bolger asked with raised brows. He held a crystal glass to my lips. “Careful, drink it slowly.”
The water tasted so good, clear and cold, like water from a flowing mountain spring. I drank and drank, now the room was clearer. I tipped back my head and my old friend Murrietta looked down at me from the wall. I heard the gold clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
“How long have I slept?”
Dr. Bolger’s face broke into a wide smile that showed his stained teeth. The butterfly sparkled on his vest.
“Would you like to see?”
“Take a deep breath,” he instructed.
His hands lifted the sheet and helped me undo the cotton shift.
It was terrifying. Beautiful. Strange.
The strangeness of the miraculous, like the thought that a man might die, sleep, rise again like Lazarus from his shroud.
I had died and awakened in the blinding plumage of a phoenix, brilliant feather upon feather, blue flames and orange, burning gold leaf.
“Ah,” said Dr. Bolger, holding my knee, “think of the men who will leave the Earth on the wings of the Butterfly. And before you die, Pretty Lady, you will know—it will fly away. What a wonderful death!”
He turned and put on his coat, touching the butterfly brooch.
At his side he held his satchel, again he bowed. From the doorway he pointed to a brown short bottle on the nightstand.
“For a week. One spoon in the morning, one at night, with some tea. For the New Friend—”
I looked down at the Butterfly. Gingerly, I moved and immediately it responded, jade green and deep azure, endless ultramarine like the sea that took Anna—
The least breath sent a shiver of color, a changing ripple across its tall wings. Sudden oxblood and coral swirled to cinnamon and amber, lush lemon and Chinese red instantly turned indigo, deep purple and then teal. Like a hummingbird’s breast, bottle green shimmered silver and rose, an instant spectrum of yellow, blue, fathomless shade on shade to dizzy and exhaust the eye—
Two black lines grew narrow and violet and midnight blue as they arched from my stomach and parted to encircle each breast, reaching far from the bright narrow body that rested at my inmost self.
I felt something stirring within me, as it wobbled its way upward like a bubble I realized it was the beginning of a scream and stopped it high in my throat.
At the door Aaron Markham appeared with a crystal vase of large staring flowers. He took the yellow roses by their stems, and dripping water he came to the bed and knelt, kissing me tenderly on the cheek, taking and urgently caressing my hand.
The water ran from the roses’ cut ends that he laid across my breasts, petal and thorn against my changed skin.
After that for a while I learned to live with Aaron and the Butterfly.
Sleeping by the sea with the long nights of stars and planets and the window open to the wind, I let the Butterfly enfold Aaron and carry him aloft and away or dive with him deep under the cold Atlantic.
Once, with the wind and stars rushing through my hair, I felt the night slide past me like water and I could hardly catch my breath.
It was then that I sensed it was not all just leaving, that there was something beyond the night I was traveling through, the darkness parting in fast V’s at my sides as something flickered now in the distance like brief sun against silver, a glancing light that touched something shadowed and large, and went out. The flaring burst both frightened and made me very happy, my heart racing in praise to something whose face or name I never knew.
Was it real? Or only some rapture of the deep?
I wondered, opening my eyes wide, as somewhere leagues and countries away Aaron murmured “Anna” through trembling lips.
I never saw Dr. Bolger again.
“Who is he?” I asked Aaron once as we lay in my bed with the light out, our quick breaths slowing to the rhythm of the waves. We looked past the high bedposts carved like tasseled wheat, toward the balcony and the sinking quarter apricot moon.
“I met him in Hamburg. He’d just returned from the East, from the court of a great prince.”
Aaron touched my shoulder.
“Don’t worry. There’s one Butterfly. In all the world there’s just one.”
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals. “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.