I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
She was remembered as a solitary child, given to long walks in the far reaches of the garden, where she would hold burials for her dolls. They were a feeble lot, notwithstanding their fancy origins and the sheltered lives they led. Routinely they succumbed: to chills and fever, infection and malaise, melancholia. An eccentric turn in the weather might carry death, or weather too much itself: a breeze in the livid month of August; a blue and saffron day in late September.
Some of the dolls died quickly; others lingered, slipping in and out of consciousness, suffering a conspiracy of symptoms, a torture of attempted cures. She administered iced packs and mud packs; mustard, jam, and butter packs; baths in milk or vinegar; soups of grass and mud; or no food at all, not even water. There was total immobility with limbs tied down. There were calisthenics worthy of an Olympian. If it was fever, Anna cut the hair; chills, she turban-wrapped the head. There were splints and tourniquets, braces and elaborate wraps.
When in spite of all her efforts it became clear there was nothing left to do but wait, Anna consulted: oil beads in water, tea leaves, coffee grounds, the rosary, garlic cloves, clover leafs, the flowers of various weeds.
As death drew near the dolls had visions, punitive and violent. Screams to rend the flesh. But Anna was not afraid. Quiet like a stone, she was concentrating, sifting her attention through the filter of earthly agony to arrive at the nether-realm reserved especially for that particular doll. When that realm became familiar—and this could take some time—Anna loosed her hand from the pain-racked body, and the doll belonged to death.
But her vision remained with Anna. She had within her a palace that was out of this world. A structure that did not enclose, but rather opened outward. Each room was a singular universe, inhabited by the vision of a particular doll. The temperature varied wildly from room to room, as did the quality of light and the density of constellations. No vision could exist in a vacuum. In every room the elements were scrambled. Fish reclined on stars, eating apricots. Trees called each to each like dolphins, their leaves propelling them like fins. Flowers hatched in nests from pearls, lived on songs their mothers dropped into their petals.
Periodically, the palace grew. Windows, alcoves, rooms appeared; entire wings materialized. No door would yield; every window was opaque. Anna wondered, but knew enough to wait. The palace grew in preparation: for her birthday, her Saint’s Day, the 12 days of Christmas, all of which occasioned an influx of dolls. One by one, the rooms revealed themselves as the wondrous habitat for yet another ghastly vision.
Apparently she walked for hours among the thyme and basil, lavender and mint, a habit that in itself disturbed her elders. In reality she revisited her favorite visions, and walked in empty corridors of forbidden rooms. Her shoes crusted over with dirt and decomposing stems, but the timber of her steps was that of high-heeled boots on marble floors.
“That child is in love with death,” complained the Cook, “She empties my cupboards to feed it.”
“They’re treatments,” countered a maid.
“They’re feasts for the devil,” pronounced the Cook.
The gardener gazed at his wine. “I don’t know what the girl loves. I wish I did.”
After the end it was always the same. She covered the eyes with coins, secured them with a cloth tied round the head. She burned the clothes (and hair in case of fever), wrapped the doll in a pillow-case and lay it out overnight on her bedroom table.
She would ring for the gardener, for she needed a hole. Hole she always ordered, never grave. Her funerals were always perfunctory, and any flowers the gardener left her she ignored.
“She comes my way,” said the Cook, “I say the Apostle’s Creed.”
“She’s a sweet little thing,” said the gardener.
“In fact,” said the cook, “I say it twice.”
The family had lived as under an exquisite dome of glass.
“We are but amateurs,” the Count was fond of saying, “collectors of this and that.”
But his tone belied his ardor. His passion was to classify. He thrilled to shades of nuance, found holiness in scientific names.
It was known the Count and Countess had a penchant for anatomy. Arteries, Anna’s father called their corridors; canales, the narrow passageways. Homunculi were housed on every table in his smoking room. Pia mater was a pet name for his wife.
Their furniture had feet with painted claws. The library was a catalogue of taxidermy: birds in motionless flight; raccoons forever startled; rabbits eternally on the run. Fish appeared to swim against the walls. A mounted deer and moose, a bison and a buffalo gazed; their horns embraced their fields of vision. (Their heads denoted the four directions, as did the sculpted head of Negroes atop the pillars in the garden.)
The Countess mused upon her specimens ‘in the wild,’ spending sultry afternoons in the simian and aviary rooms. Hand-painted on silk-covered walls were detailed habitats, and monkeys or birds in typical activities. The Countess closely supervised the draftsmen and the painters. She was fluttery but not uncertain, almost always flushed. They wondered at her esoteric interests, her obsession for detail, her apparent unconcern for when they finished. Years after the rooms’ completion, she still missed the shared excitement that made her wilderness appear. Hour after hour she did her handwork there, so overwrought she’d stick her fingers with the needle for relief.
“My dear,” her husband often said, “you are a pagan.”
“You love your Homer, do you not?” “Indeed I do. but some parts more, much more, than others.”
The ruling deity of their reading room was Atlas, on whose splendid shoulders was enthroned its single globe of light. Anna’s parents spent their evenings reading poetry aloud.
“Words are the sinew of the language,” the Count would often quote, and then extemporize while gazing at the lamp, “A poem is a body whose muscles are divine.” Whereupon his wife would press him, “Please, dear, let us read.”
He would open Homer and let the story sing through him. At one with his heroes, he plotted, he contended, he fastened his armor with the sinew of ox.
Of Helen and Penelope his wife preferred to read. Of Beatrice and Laura. “Had we but world enough, and time …” But the Count would rarely yield. And so she’d quote Anonymous, “Ah, men are bats, fair hues no husbands see!”
“Pia mater,” the Count would plead, “Pia mater.”
Thumbing through this, browsing in that … This was an evening like many another, but for the ambush by an ancient chronicler: “Money is the sinew of the age.”
“A pundit, not even a wit,” spat the Count. “There’s no excuse in a Golden Age.”
“A Golden Age can well afford a little brass,” the Countess joked.
“A Golden Age can least afford it. There’s much too much to lose.”
His wife relieved him of the History and scanned the shelves.
By now the Count was trembling, and to hide it, stood. He pretended to examine his butterflies. Twice that very week he’d been attacked by that chronicler or his ilk. On the wall of the village tavern was similar depravity. Patently new ideas merely worried him, but ancient wisecracks in the platforms of ‘Progressives’ terrified him. And it was happening more and more.
He needed evidence of his own salvation. He focused on his mounted butterflies. Between the species the boundaries could be subtle, but nonetheless they lasted. The smallest crinkle in a wing, a phantom’s worth of weight—these things delineated eternal realms. An age entire said to move on common sinew blasphemed Creation. He was sure of it. Science proved that pedigrees were holy.
“Cavalcanti?” the Countess offered.
And then, beseechingly, “What if we retired?”
But in their bedroom the husband merely paced. At a table shaped like a kidney, before a mirror in the form of a heart, the Countess started combing her hair. ‘Midnight hair,’ her maid once complimented, ‘so black it’s almost blue.’ Her strokes were deliberately long and slow. Her husband walked, unseeing. She unraveled her braids against her breast. Her husband walked, unseeing.
Absently, he spoke. “Did you know that weeping sinews is a genuine pathology?”
“Weeping sinews?” She was pressing her fingers into the teeth of her comb. “I know what it feels like.”
“It’s pain, pure and simple.”
“Nothing is pure,” she hissed at him, “nothing is simple.”
They were in for a nasty siege of it. For days on end, the Countess stayed in her room. Only Elvira, her Siennese maid, was permitted to enter. Elvira, who massaged warm oil in her mistress’s hair.
The Count was sequestered in the smoking room. Day and night he was drinking grappa, chewing cigars, ordering dolls from imported catalogues. One of his windows gave onto the garden, where Anna, he saw to his astonishment, was walking past midnight.
Her dolls were dying off in record numbers. An epidemic, she explained.
As the Count interrogated his homunculi, his valet grew increasingly concerned. By turns the Count cajoled, grew distant, and murderously impatient. He had but a single question, “Who, in this house, is killing whom?”
One bright mid-morning, Anna’s mother re-emerged, her night-dark hair resplendent. She was pale and somewhat thinner, had the air of after-calm one associates with fever. Her mouth was softened, her lips were slightly parted, in her lap her hands lay open. She asked for apricots and coffee and buttered bread—late breakfast, in the bird room, with her family.
Elvira told the valet, who drew a bath, then told the Count. Reeking sweat and smoke and liquor, the Count refused the bath on the grounds of a half-degree of temperature. He fretted, swore, picked his ears and fingernails. He said he was happiest with his homunculi. The valet drained, and then re-drew, his master’s bath; disposed discreetly of the stinking clothes. Gingerly, the Count climbed into the marble tub, holding tight to his valet’s hand. Knee-deep he stood, complaining. Up and down his master’s thighs, the valet sprinkled perfect water. Soothingly, he lathered him with scented soap. He cupped his hands, made gentle showers to rinse him clean. Gradually, the Count relaxed, sat, and closed his eyes to be shampooed.
Anna was sitting near the westerly pillar in the garden, a load of linen in her lap. She was practicing knots for a new sort of bandage. She never had confidence in the lull that followed plague.
At table, Anna wound the linen strips around her wrist and fingers. When her mother objected and took the cloth away, she crumbled bread. Her mother licked jam from the blade of a silver knife. Her lips were glistening, red. Anna’s father began, and dropped, a disquisition on the apricot. They nodded to one another with every bite, tight-lipped smiles as they chewed and sipped and swallowed.
In her mind Anna walked the corridors of her palace. Room after room was under construction. The walls were partial skeletons. Night rained in, the stars fell screaming like birds on fire.
Her parents wished that Anna laughed a little more. Her mother drank to give herself a milk mustache; her father rouged his lips with jam. The couple clowned, joined hands beneath the table. They laughed out loud, pressing knees.
The Count conceived a violent longing for his wife. He lusted for the blood-red traces of the corset in her flesh. Well aware of the urgency of his passion, his wife pretended ignorance, focused more and more exclusively on Anna. Her indifference enflamed him all the more. He was exiled to his private hell of ecstasy.
His wife was trying different ways to tie her own wrists to her daughter’s. Single, double, triple knots; arms parallel or perpendicular; fingers free or clenched in one confusion. Their arms joined thus, or thus, called up images of animals. Anna’s linen trailed, limp like useless legs or wings, or else was so secure their veins grew fat and throbbed.
Suddenly Elvira came flying in followed by the valet, gray-faced, and the gardener, weeping. Elvira wailed and beat her breast, the valet spoke as from the grave.
—King Umberto lay murdered by a lunatic, some anarcho-madman named Bresci.
The Count leapt up as though to strike; Anna’s mother cowered, pulling so tightly on the tie that bound them that, in a blinding fit of pain, Anna fainted.
Off and on for several days, Anna was delirious. Useless, the Countess hovered near her daughter’s bed. It was the Cook provided the rash of remedies. There were powders and poultices, aromatics culled from onions, dung, and pungent weeds. There was emerald elixir poured from crystal into a silver spoon. It shone, a doll-sized lagoon, and made her vomit. After each attack of vomiting they moved her to a different room.
The Count came in when all was clean, and left soon after. He received and visited; with his friends from the Seven Families he sifted the news. They toasted the anarchist’s quick arrest, his certain life imprisonment. They all agreed the killer’s term would not be long. They bet on the remaining number of his days, seeing and raising each other, caskets of brandy. They talked about this; they talked about that; outwardly they were calm. They competed at rummy and billiards, and inwardly jumped at the collision of balls.
Over and over Anna was purged, moved to beds she didn’t recognize, in rooms she didn’t know, met by sounds she couldn’t locate. Night to night her parents also moved, to a suite nearby.
The Count insisted on their tallest tapers, enough to last the night. In the candlelight, their furnishings glowed, the heirloom portraits all had halos. The Count collected himself in this golden aura of possession, fingered his wife’s brocade.
It was her husband’s hooded terror that aroused her; his hidden fury that erupted in her cries of pleasure. Each time the Count and Countess started in, the Cook would purge their daughter.
“A child shouldn’t hear the likes of that,” she told Elvira, “with just a spoonful we’ll drown them out.”
When the Cook pronounced her health restored, Anna felt profoundly sad. Watching as she collected her jars and spoons and canisters, Anna began to cry. No one, since Anna was an infant, had seen her cry.
The Cook, for an agonizing moment, feared she really ‘had the touch,’ as she was fond of saying. The last thing she wanted was to bring to buried darknesses the light of day. Even more she feared her cures could haunt her. An Act of Contrition, the Apostle’s Creed and a few Hail Marys—all the while the wheels were turning. But it was Anna, who cuddled sniveling in her lap, let her know what she should do.
Anna took to living in the shadow of the Cook. She requested, and received, a stool of her own in the soup garden. She soon was adept at shelling peas, cracking nuts, picking basil and tomatoes. She was drawn, especially, to the pantry, where the air was cool and gray, the fragrances bright as August weather. She sat there to be enveloped in the hubbub of the kitchen, for the pleasant jolt of the dialect’s still unfamiliar, rough embrace.
In compliance with her father’s orders dolls began arriving from the Continent. They came in boxes, crates and baskets; they came in droves.
Gravely Anna told him, “They must all go home. There is something in the water here will make them die.”
The first summer of the 20th century, Sicilian gods of plenty turned their faces to the sea. So laden were the waters, the waves could barely rise. The tuna were enormous, anchovies plump, even sardines were voluptuous. Whole schools swam for the nets, as though the lamps on the fishermen’s boats were the lights of home.
Even here, dead center of the island, the markets were like festivals. The weights were high, the prices low, and after years of a blood-red tide along the coast, the people bought and bought and bought. Fins and tails and mussels the mongers gladly gave away. Crab claws by the dozen went for pennies.
In the hubbub, women traded menus and the esoterica of preparation. Ancient recipes were reincarnated; dishes that had long since disappeared were resurrected.
Enterprising children formed guilds and made a killing. Mongers’s kids fried soft-shelled crabs on fired stones; bakers’ kids wrapped these in bread; final flourishes from the progeny of herb-and lemon-sellers, e fatto!, a cut-rate feast.
The shopping-girls from the Seven Families were in their glory. They anointed themselves with orange water, tied their hair with brand-new ribbons. They exhibited largesse, buying lemons for itinerant jugglers, making requests of Piero, the blind musician. They walked leisurely, their skirts still heavy with abnormally large amounts of change. Most of the coins they wrapped in cloth so they wouldn’t jingle, returned only the loose coins to their respective cooks, who in their turn had reserved a portion of the daily allotment to begin with. Abbondanza—the syllables crowded the mouth like too big a bite of food.
Anna scoffed at the shopping-girls’ tales of market, didn’t believe in any such thing as the sea. She knew for a fact: fish lived in the salt pool shaded by poplars. Arturo brought them every year when they were small. They grew so large in the amber water that the family had to eat some, so the others would have room to swim. Where fish were born Anna never really wondered. As children went from crib to nursery to garden, she assumed that fish went from their nests to tiled pools.
The shopping-girls were utterly amazed, thought Anna stupid now as well as strange. But she had only ever seen a fish in their pool, or as filets on a china plate. The Cook had her helpers leave the kitchen, undertook to ‘show’ Anna, to ‘explain.’ The woman’s tone was quiet, her eyes were calm, her movements slow. In all tranquility, the Cook had decided: this idiot child would learn of more than the sea.
In her fourteenth year the Cook had born a child out of wedlock, whether a daughter or a son she never would know. She was tended by nuns who spoke not a word. The pains had made her delirious and by the time she awoke, there wasn’t a trace of her baby. The Countess’s mother stood in the doorway, “In the fields they can breed as they wish, but here in the house—and it is a blessing to work in the house—we have rules, we have decorum.”
Patience the Cook had in abundance. Over the years she had nurtured it, secretly, like a forbidden fruit. And now, it was almost ripe.
“Fish don’t ever live in nests,” she said to Anna, “they are planted.” She guided the girl to an old clay pot that was filled with dirt, then removed from her pocket one of the peas she like to suck on, and pressed it into Anna’s hand.
Anna scooped what she called a ‘cradle’ out of the dirt, and there embedded the seed. When she reached for the pitcher of water, the Cook restrained her. “Not until they reach a certain age, and then it’s nothing for them but water.”
“While ‘in the cradle’” the Cook explained, “fish need certain things. They need darkness, so keep the soil well tamped down. They need nourishment, tiny bits of orange peel are fine.
“In all good conscience, I cannot say they need—although they like—to be given things they cannot get underwater. My sister swears by mint leaves, my cousin cuts up lace. Myself, I mostly give them darkness. But that’s just me, and I’m peculiar.”
At this last, Anna protested, but the Cook went on. “Oh no, I really am. My fish are peculiar too, or so they tell me. But yours won’t be. You’ll figure out a way to make their lives just fine.”
Anna’s heart was racing, she barely heard the rest.
“They grow part by part. Lying on their sides in the dirt. First the tail, then the fins, then the fleshy parts of the body and, finally, the head. When the eyes are bright and round as brand-new coins, we call Arturo, because it’s time for the pool.”
Anna was thinking hard: If she were a fish, what gifts would she wish to remember—sounds? sensations? things she had smelled? or swallowed? And could memories sink in a fish’s mind, like the sparkling ring she had lost in the salt pool?
Anna’s father and his friends now were gathered more often than alone. For all the world they were tranquil. There was harmony between their beverages and the light of day: rosé for the first blush of morning; claret for the ripened afternoon; at twilight, amber sherry.
But their games had begun to unnerve them. They tightened their grip on the cards that whispered if they moved their fingers; winced at the bridled crashes during pool.
Rumor had it that Bresci was a most unruly prisoner, and that the warden of San Stefano had forbidden him to speak. It was said that Bresci then scratched Vengeance! on his cell wall with his thumbnail. It had further been reported that on a fence post in one of the Seven Vineyards, someone had echoed Bresci’s vow.
They were weary of distilling the news, anxious now to taste the liquor they had jointly refined.
His decision would be impartial. His decision would be fair. The Count made these pledges to himself in all humility.
The Seven Men of the Seven Families had agreed they must take action. As the Count explained it to himself, the murder of their King was the cry of a voice from the depths of the valley, a voice that needed more to hear itself than be heard by others. For like a body without a shadow, a voice without an echo is incomplete. They would be as Seven Mountains in a ring around that valley, and from each in turn would resonate that voice’s echo.
The Count devised a method. He would say each of his tenant’s names out loud: he would inflate them with his breath, so the names might float beyond the earthbound reaches of his consciousness, and disappear. Each name would flutter downward in its time; the first to regain his mind’s frontier would be selected.
The order of his pronouncements would be strictly alphabetical, according to the areas—lemons, almonds, vineyards—of his estate.
Alberola, Agostino, Benedetti, Gemelli, lacono, Manganelli, Pasini, Rossi, Rotondo …
DiRosa, Foglia, Gargano, Mando, Maggio, Oliveira, Pacella, Tarantino …
Esposito, Ferrantino, Paolillo, Ponsiglione, Scala, Schiano, Verrazano, Vezzuso, Viere …
To the Count’s astonishment, not a name into whose vague and grayish form he had breathed was floating free. From his breath the names took unintended nourishment: initial capitals grew huge, each letter gained both weight and definition, every name was grounded, but on the move. The names were bonding each to each as the body parts of an enormous beast.
The Count was terrified, but did not recoil. With the other Six he had committed himself to action, and with all his courage spat “Gargano!” at this horrid vision. In less than a week, Gargano would be no more.
This behemoth of the Count’s creation began to laugh. The sound was deafening, the spectacle straight from hell. It rolled and shook, it drooled, black tears ran out its eyes. But every name was legible, and imprinted itself on the bedrock of his mind.
What shocked the Countess was not the murdered peasant in the margin of their vineyard, nor her image of him lying curled in the warmth of his blood as though it were a blanket. She knew: That man had fallen in his turn, in a pre-determined order, in phase with a week-spanning arc of days.
By no means was it the peasant’s death that shocked her. For she had eavesdropped on the men in her husband’s smoking room, where it had been decided: Each of the Seven Families would ‘sacrifice’ a tenant, payback for the murder of their King. They were to start on Sunday, and end, on the following Sunday. Her husband, the Countess gleaned, had drawn the Six-of-Clubs, or Thursday. Today.
She had tried to penetrate their reasoning, but the movement of her thoughts was blunt and circular, like that of worms curling around themselves in mud.
“A serial lesson in needing our protection.”
And ‘protection’ they would give in spades—horse-carts on patrol among the almond trees, gunmen hidden in the lemon groves above the vineyards.
“They won’t know where it’s coming from.”
It was understood: Each family would tend to its own. He who drew the Two-of-Hearts, or Second Sunday, would have the seventh hired sureshot killed, as well. They would offer a special Mass when the siege was ended. Two-of-Hearts would alert the priest.
“They’ll thank us on their knees.”
Noblesse oblige. A sack of almonds for every tenant family, and for the seven most-recent widows, a reduction in the season’s rent.
“They will be made to understand: Any threat to the Seven Families can only mean disaster for themselves.”
They were confident that the walls of the village tavern would soon be whitewashed. They discussed reports that Bresci, though still alive (to their surprise) in prison, was prohibited to speak.
“Each thing in its proper time.”
Light and darkness, harvest and burned-back vines.
“In a couple of weeks, they’ll be a little wiser. And if not, well there are weeks and weeks and weeks to come.”
Every day since then she herself had grown a little wiser. And if surprise was indeed the proper word—her mind no longer seemed to relay energy, took sluggish note instead—it was precisely this that surprised her: Her shock had leveled off to nervous dread, which in its turn had calmed to expectation, which by its nature was inconstant.
“To Six-of-Clubs!” In the smoking room they were toasting the day.
However, she had almost forgotten, except that today her milliner was refusing to come, because of the recent problem with brigands.
As usual the Cook tossed the fish heads to the cats, who fought each other savagely for the eyes and cheeks and brains, and then moved off with their separate spoils and consumed them slowly, with their strange fastidiousness. The Cook liked to watch them as she filleted.
She had taken to saving the headless skeleton of every fish she served to Anna’s family. Beyond the cats who licked their lips though fast asleep, she carried them, vertically, neck-base down, in the voluminous pocket of her apron. She liked the subtle presence of the bones against her body, their barely perceptible weight. A skeleton, it once occurred to her, was like reeds describing a basket yet to be woven.
She hid the bones, here and there, on flat-topped stones obscured by vines. Periodically she turned them over, having rubbed her hands with olive oil, so the bones dried slowly, without cracking, and kept their sheen. Without breakage, she could take the skeletons apart. Some of the sockets were no bigger than a needle’s eyes, and twisting those little bones felt like twirling thread.
The first few days she had dashed from the kitchen to her hiding-rocks, feeling nervous and furtive. Her steps fell heavy, her skirts swung wide, and sometimes she waked a cat, which she regarded as an evil omen. For they looked at her inquiringly and then lost interest, just as Anna now interrogated certain objects with her eyes, and then dismissed them as unworthy of her fish.
Anna’s fish was growing nicely. As the Cook had told her, first Anna saw the imprint of its tail on the dirt she tamped down every day, religiously; now slender bones were filling in the proper places. This was a fish who liked its gifts to shine: it had a big brass button, a thimble, three finger bells joined by a leather thong. Anna sang to her fish and jingled the bells, held the button so it flashed as brightly as the sun. But in time she became so melancholy it almost made her sick. Soon her fish would be whole, soon it would leave her for the water. The Cook had taken fright at the child’s sadness and impulsively, offered another of the peas she kept in her apron.
Which gave Anna an idea: as soon as one fish sprouted bones, she would plant another seed. She would keep their salt pool full of fish. She demanded, and got, every pea the Cook had in her pocket. Anna kept these in a secret place, and then one at a time, she embedded them according to the progress of her other fish. Soon all the pots were Anna’s, even those the Cook used every winter to force her flowers.
After planting Anna sat quietly near the pot, thinking about which gifts she might bring. Each fish was different, liked different things, some of which were hard to find. The worst was the one that wanted orange flowers, a blossom long since past. She had had to steal into her mother’s wardrobe, find the proper hatbox, then snip the decoration from a hat she had bought last spring. She had gotten caught and then her mother wouldn’t speak to her when she learned her milliner wouldn’t come. Most of her fish were easier, they wanted feathers, pebbles, certain kinds of leaves. One fish liked her parents’ after-dinner mints, another needed chicory, still another liked tiny shadows on its dirt, which Anna made with her fingers every day. She had one fish—whose pot she isolated—who thrived on secrets.
From the kitchen to her hiding-rocks, the Cook walked more softly now. She let herself meander in the no-man’s land between the soup- and formal gardens, where the paths long since were overgrown. The sound of the brush beneath her steps was soothing, and she wanted soothing. Very soon, the first of Anna’s fish would be ‘ready for the pool,’ as the child put it. The Cook was haunted by the possible ends of what she had started, felt torn between stopping it once and for all, and wanting it to continue forever. She had come to like her morning walk, appreciated this rareness that was solitude. And the child wasn’t sad, or silent, anymore. She looked at things with incredible concentration, listened to them, smelled them, ran her fingers all over them. She went on little expeditions and brought things back. She was a lady and a beggar, a hunter-gatherer, a thief. And on her fishs’ preference, she could talk a streak. For a time the Cook had been persuaded that Anna would tire of it all, that she would discover that the world held just a few truly marvelous, gift-worthy things. But apparently each nascent fish endowed the world with just the things it wanted.
What really caused the Cook to wonder was herself. Apparently she was making a secret garden, and tending these bones as though they might bloom.
“Things will be getting back to normal now,” the heads of the Seven Families agreed.
But they felt enervated after their Special Mass, and strangely restless. Not one of them could settle on the Count’s majestic sofa or in his comfortable leather chairs. They sat for a moment to light their cigars, but with the first inhalation they were back on their feet, crossing to the windows, pausing at the boxes holding dolls, examining the Count’s homunculi. Back and forth, up and down, they fanned out at the edges of the room, reunited in the middle. Their stream of chatter now was babbling, now almost drained.
“At least the weather held …
“All told, how many sacks of almonds?
“What are you doing with all these dolls …
“I couldn’t believe the cartsfull…
“I don’t know who revolted me more—the priest or the
peasants’ widows …
“Is this a hospice, or a hiding place till Christmas …
“The priest …
“I think the widows …
“The priest …
“Seriously, I’m saving their lives…
“What do you expect of the widows …
“Anna says there’s something in
the water here that kills them …
Talk of Anna made the men uneasy, especially those with sons.
“I hope we’re not skunking their claret …
“Oh, give them champagne …
“A whiskey a day …
“An Apple …
“I counsel whiskey …
“She insists they go off and take
“Oh, dear …
“Our greatest concern is for the
newest arrivals …
“A whiskey a day …
“An apple …
“These dolls all have corsets …
“And bee-oo-ti-ful legs …
“As yet, they are unafflicted …
“Boots with leather laces …
“… the feel of silk …
“Healthy, in the bloom …
“These slips are Belgian lace …
“… garter’s blue as an angel’s eyes …
“This one’s red as the devil …
“Anna fears we are courting
“A whiskey a day …
“They shouldn’t stay here …
And so with bluff and bravado the men gambled, for each corseted, silk gartered, glassy-eyed doll.
Marguerite Feitlowitz was awarded a 1987 Fiction Grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She is a literary translator from the French, Spanish and Catalan and Literary Manager of River Arts Repertory. Anna, Who Didn’t Believe in the Sea, is the opening chapter of her novel, Rosalie.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee