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
I know there has been much speculation on the strange circumstance of my birth, about which many myths have been told. I’ve heard all sorts of versions; I’ve heard people speak of me as the Pilot, as if I’d come rafting down upon them and did not belong to their world. One woman goes about swearing she was the one who found me, naked among the cabbage in a farm on the outskirts of our town. I have never met that woman, though I hold nothing against her for her tale. So many mysterious events have come to pass of late that I am sure she believes what she claims.
What irks me about these stories is not that they are false, but that they are so intent upon leaving out my parents. It seems they do not want me to have been born with all the messiness of a “life before” like theirs.
I have kept silent on the subject because I myself did not know how I came into this world. Until now. Recently my father, whom I had not seen for many years, handed me the account that follows. Though he did not say so, I think he wrote it himself. He only said: “This is the way it was, Pilot. This is the truth.” (I begged him not to call me Pilot like the others, but he cannot help himself. He is as blinded as the rest by my renown.)
When I read these pages a dim memory sparked to life inside me, a preternatural memory that must have lay dormant within my heart. I recognized the aching voice of Mama and knew at once this simple account was true, that this was the way I was born.
* * *
It was sea covering earth, blackness and red dawn; it was the thunderbolt of white fire.
Wanda felt it was as it had always been, that nothing was unknown. Not that she had imagined it beforehand, or even uttered it in a conscious thought—she had not, but that was what made her certain.
She looked especially lovely sitting beside Leon in the car, her white cotton dress shot through with printed arrows and stars. The dress clung to her from two shoulder straps that were so thin it seemed all he would have to do was pinch them to make the veil come sliding down. Leon wondered what the arrows were aimed at, for they seemed to float this way and that across the landscape of her body with no particular target. He thought of them as being connected to his tremendous desire, but also to the air that inexhaustibly surrounded her and made his desire seem silly and picayune.
“Stop the car,” she said.
He gave her a puzzled look. “Here?” They had been silent for some time.
“Yes; no, up ahead a ways, darling, please … over there.”
Though Leon drove, he had the distinct feeling it was Wanda who was at the wheel, that he had merely followed her through these streets, streets which grew emptier and less familiar as they went on.
“Now,” she said. “Pull over.” And she grasped his arm.
He obeyed at once, for it suddenly seemed that this was not the woman he had married four months ago beside him; she was someone else now, indefinable and stronger, a presence perhaps, or a smell; a disembodied voice he could not have contradicted if he had tried.
It was very late. The black streets glistened; tails of smoke curled up from the road as if the newly laid tar had not yet cooled off or dried. Beyond, he caught a glimpse of the river: a length of black cloth that soaked up light from the shoreline rather than shimmer it back to them as the river did in other parts of town.
In the air was the feel of heavy rains that had just ended. This made him wonder how far they had traveled: elsewhere in the city the weather had been bone-dry for days.
“Come,” she said, “let’s go to the river.”
“Do you think it’s safe? The water sounds fast. If it runs up on us we could drown.”
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, and the truth was he was not; he trusted her like a child; he felt guided by her rather than led or pulled along.
They entered a long narrow pier, so decayed it yawed like an unanchored ship on the river. He felt sure they were floating, for to keep their balance they had to lean heavily from side to side.
A snake crashed to the ground in front of them and he pulled away from her with a sharp cry.
“Oh don’t worry about that,” she said and when he looked closer he saw the snake was only a length of copper piping that had fallen. “See?” She pointed to the rafters that supported the pier’s high, elaborate ceiling. Upon them were perched small watchful figures who almost looked like little baboons.
“They’re okay, Leon. They are the helpers. Like you.”
“Like me?” It belittled him to be related to these “helpers,” hanging up there with their unmistakable maleness, gnomic and ragged and idle like little demons around a fire. “What do they do?” he asked but she was too intent upon guiding him forward to answer.
Then they saw the women, seated along the decrepit walls. They seemed to be waiting. But for what? For whom? They looked so patient and chaste with their faces averted from him like sunflowers under the moon. They sat with their dresses smoothed out over their laps as if to receive a garland or a coin. Would they give themselves up to the man who threw them one? Was that what they awaited? Maybe, but there was more: he had the sense that they were the guardians of something treasured and vital, and that just their presence was enough to keep that treasure from being violated or abused.
His eyes darted round; everything seemed to swim in front of him like the water. Especially Wanda, slow and light-moving as if she were in a trance.
They came out from under the roof and above them, like fur, was the sky. The pier creaked and groaned as if any minute it would break away from the shore and batter downstream. Wanda and Leon clutched each other and swayed from side to side.
“What kind of place is this? Why are we here?” No sooner were the words out of his mouth that she hushed him, and he was further startled to see that they were surrounded by more women of all types and ages: web-skinned old hags, teenagers painted like cockatoos, mothers, tarts, and pertly naked little girls, each carrying a jar. They were very intent and busy, these women, dipping their jars carefully in the river or else pouring the water back into that turbid mass from where they had gathered it, here a pint, there a quart, once in a while upturning a jar till not a drop remained. As soon as they finished with one jar they would hurry to fetch another, going back and forth like shift workers in a plant.
This time Leon did not have to ask who they were; somehow he understood, understood that they were giving and taking away people’s lives, that they were the Keepers, that each jar held water only as long as a person lived and that when his jar was emptied the one it belonged to must die.
While he cringed at the innumerable, careless deaths taking place all around them, he realized that far more were being born, half of these with but a drop in their jars as if they had slipped into the world and left it with barely time enough to let out a single cry.
Leon longed to ask the women to produce his jar, so he could see what was left, but when he turned to Wanda that selfish impulse deserted him and he forgot all about his own life and thought only of the life they had come here to spawn.
Then it happened: Wanda pulled him to her and he fell atop her and they rolled over and then were still because the river rocked them, the river made love for them and they needn’t move a muscle or even strain to breathe. The water was warm, it swirled up and licked at them and carried them forward on its tide. The blackness bathed them. The pier creaked so loudly he thought it would drive him mad. His testicles, he had to admit, felt like two enormous sacks of flour, and, while the exaggerated weight of this embarrassed and pained him, he felt soothed by Wanda’s clasp, protected from the heart-freezing gaze of the keepers because he knew Wanda was of them and that as long as he was with her he belonged here and would not die.
Later they did not speak of that night or try to go back to the pier, and Leon often wondered if it wasn’t something he had imagined, if it had risen out of him involuntarily like a dream. But if it were a dream how could he explain the ache he sometime felt in his ears, or the slight limp he had acquired as if a little demon (one of the helpers?) walked next to him, yanking a rope every now and then that pulled him off balance?
If it were a dream how did Wanda get pregnant? When could it have happened? Certainly not after that night, for when it was over he fell into a state of exhaustion and sexual deadness such as he had never known. Why? Wasn’t this the same woman he could not keep his hands off during those furious weeks of courtship and then marriage? He wondered if she had set him up, if he’d ever had any say about their love, or this child—his child—that now grew inside her.
He tried to put it together from the beginning. But where was the beginning? The day she had sauntered into his bakery, tilted her large delicate head at him and asked for “one of those lovely cherry pies?” In retrospect even that seemed planned—for wasn’t it then, in their first meeting, that he stepped over the frontier of his world? He didn’t realize it at the time of course, but when he thought of it now he knew she had picked him out, had already decided to take possession of him and turn him into—what? her vehicle? her mate? Was he ever anything more than a sperm bank for her precious child?
“Is it true,” she had asked after buying that first pie, “that if a baker does not love what he bakes I will not love to eat it?”
“l think it is true, yes,” said Leon after a moment’s thought. “My father hated his work. Many times he told me it was why everything he ate had a bitter taste for him. Like acid.”
“What was your father’s job?”
“To enforce the law,” said Leon. “He was a policeman. When he discovered I had a talent for making delicious pies, he reasoned I must love to bake, since love has a taste, and if I loved to bake then I should be a baker.”
“Did your father love your pies?”
“Others did. To him they were bitter. Like everything else.”
“Then the eater must love too. What good is a baker who loves to bake if the eater is bitter.”
“We must love each other,” said Leon. And the blood rushed to his face, for he felt at once he had said just what she had wanted him to say, that their whole conversation had been designed by her so that he would utter these five words.
All that night he could not sleep for thinking of the way she had grinned and encouraged him as he spoke, as if to say, “That’s right. You’re doing fine.” And all morning while he did his baking and then opened the shop, he felt that something eerie and foreign had crept into the worriless air that usually surrounded his labor.
She came back during a lull when the shop was empty and said, “I loved your pie. I loved it very much.”
“Shall I wrap you another?” he asked, turning from her to hide the fire that had ignited inside him the moment she’d stepped through the door.
“No. This time I’ll try …” She scanned the glass shelves for a few seconds before saying, “… the muffins. Give me six.”
Every day she returned to buy something different and to deliver her verdict from the day before. And though he lived for these verdicts, (lived to hear her say, “I loved your raisin bread, I loved your tarts.”) he never failed to breathe a whiff of regret in their wake, for each time she left the shop a portion of the peace he had taken for granted in his life seemed to follow her out the door.
When she had tasted everything, he was inspired to convect new foods for her, liquored cakes, meringue, and puddings that he had not the confidence to try before. And when she had eaten these and his baking talents were exhausted, they went to his room and tasted each other.
After that Leon was gone; there was nothing in the world but his fury for Wanda, his drive to make love to her, again and again, which did not pause even when he was piling his ovens with breads and pies. He did not even realize that his bakery had become famous; the newspapers raved of his uncanny confections; rival bakers practiced espionage to try to pry away his secret, and so many customers stormed his little shop that he invariably sold out the torrid loaves of his labor by mid-morning. Which only meant he could spend the rest of the day loving Wanda.
Now deadness; nothing; as if she had primed him for that one night at the pier, making his desire grow higher and higher til it reached its peak and he spilled every cooked drop of seed he would ever make in her honor and was now as empty as one of those discarded jars.
In the mirror he saw a face that had become gaunt, eyes that were exhausted and full of sorrow. While Wanda was just the opposite: more radiant and imperturbably beautiful as the baby grew inside her.
“Why did you do this to me?” he demanded. “I’m like a dried up old man!”
But she too had drawn away, removing herself from everyone except the life inside her, as if they already comprised a complete world.
“Don’t be dramatic, darling,” she said without looking at him. “You’re not old. For god’s sake, you’re younger than I.”
Her indifference to his plight enraged him. He cursed the day she had walked into his store. He longed for the simple contentment of his working life before he had known her. Oh how he wished someone had lashed him to the basement wall until, like a storm, Wanda had passed over! But would it have made a difference? Could his attraction have passed? It was so much more forceful than he; it had come upon him like a wave, a hum, of which he could remember nothing other than its sheer power and drive, and his sense that it had to be, that this single involuntary act—the conceiving of their child—was why he, Leon, existed at all.
When he looked at her belly, her regal belly, high and hard and as perfect as a dome, he felt inexpressibly tired and pale. Months passed without his being able to entertain the idea of making love to her. He grew weak as soon as he entered a room she was in, as if the fetus were sucking its life from him, not her, through some auxiliary, invisible cord. Yet he could not keep away from her, he sought her out, looking for every chance he could find to serve her. “I saved you some cherry pie,” he’d say. Or: “I brought tea; it contains an herb the Asian midwives swear by.” He brought her bars of chocolate, a can of sardines, trying to anticipate her cravings, which was really his craving to enter the process of this pregnancy, her fertility, for which he believed so much had been forsaken.
“Are you comfortable? Does it hurt?” he asked, fluffing pillows behind her back just for the chance it gave him to get nearer. “Ah Wanda, if only you’d eat a single morsel of my pie, I’d be so happy.” But the more he hovered about her, the more removed she became, until in the last quarter, spotlessly gravid and round, she ceased to acknowledge his existence at all. One day, when they saw a newborn wheeling by, he cried, “It must be just impossible to watch the little ones and think we still have to wait … what? How much time is it now … ?”
When alone, he remembered the helpers on the pier, how she had told him he was of them, and he realized it was true, he was a helper, a little baboon who had served her when she came to the bakery and who served her now.
But then who was the child? Who was this chosen child?
One night near the very end he had the temerity to crawl up next to her and ask: “May I touch it? May I feel it move?” His eyes were bright and hopeful as he put his hand on her stone hard karn. She did not so much as twitch a muscle or move, staring with glassy peremptory joy into the middle distance as if she were completely alone. He kept his hand on her just the same, thinking: “Egg Boat Moon Mountain,” till he was able to achieve the belief that it would be his child too when it came.
When water broke she thought of the river leaking out of her, her broken jar pouring forth water from the lower depths like the earth.
She shook Leon from his sleep and said, “Paulie’s ready. It’s time.”
“Who is Paulie?”
She laughed excitedly at the pool of water between her legs. “Have you been asleep so long that you’ve forgotten? The baby boy!” She imitated his pouting, tired expression. “Poor Leon. Do you think it was I who decided we should have such a child? He comes from …” She made a sweeping gesture as if to indicate some vast and mapless region beyond their walls.
“But you did decide!” He felt totally baffled. What did she mean by suggesting she was as helpless as he was and had nothing to do with their child? “You led me to the river. It was you who decided.”
Throughout the drive to the hospital he felt a suspense that went far beyond the expectant birth of their child. It was suspense without tension, suspense that sat in the nest of Wanda’s serenity like a hatching bird. He’d given up trying to understand her. He took her power for granted; she was a woman of certainty, while he had lost everything he’d believed in and tumbled into utter confusion. He could not bear the idea that she too might be confused. He depended on her certainty, which she constantly proved. How did she know, for instance, that they would have a boy? And she had already named him Paulie. When he looked over at her, hands at rest on her great belly like a goddess, what he felt was not love (though he might easily have mistaken it for love) but a form of worship.
As soon as they got to the hospital she became vociferous, demanding, shooting out orders, marching through the corridors like an inspector despite her burden. She stormed into the delivery room, announced, “This won’t take more than an hour,” and ordered the attendants to turn off the lights which burned down on them with cruel brightness.
The doctor couldn’t believe his ears. “What does she think this is, a movie house? Maybe I should put on some music for her too. I suppose it doesn’t matter if the doctor can’t see what he’s doing.”
“That’s exactly right,” cried Wanda who had already assumed her position on the delivery table. “We really don’t need you at all. I only came here because it’s clean. Now turn off the lights. I must have total darkness.”
“Well then, better do what she says or she’ll make our jobs even harder.” The doctor winked conspiratorially at his attendants, deftly produced a needle and made ready to stab. “We wouldn’t want another hysteric on our hands.”
Wanda was too quick for him. “Don’t you dare!” She lashed out with a fierceness that sent the doctor reeling and, while he appealed to the nurses to help shoot the tranquilizer into her body, Leon cut the lights, plunging the room into darkness.
All at once the place belonged to Wanda. The air was electrified; no one dared interfere or go near her. For she was speaking to Paulie, directly to Paulie, coaxing him out of her as if she were walking him along a narrow ledge and through the safety of an open window.
“… come my sweet, my chosen, my child, come out of the river, the darkness is good, you’ve bathed long enough, my precious, come feel the outside of mommy …”
She gave no sign of pain, no indication of the normal contractions of labor. There was only her voice, her soft burble of a voice, mesmerizing them like a snake charmer even as she called Paulie out of his cave.
“… Come along my love, have a good smell, the air is warm, nothing to harm you here …”
She rotated her hips in perfect rhythm to her words, so it was as if she danced him from her, danced him through the canal of her body, out of which he floated like he was made of smoke, white and luminous in the darkness.
The doctor stood stone still, bewitched by the ease with which Paulie had slipped into his world. He had to be reminded to cut the cord and it was almost with deference that he performed this simple task, briefly holding the child to make sure he was real. Then he stepped back again. While, speaking in whispers, the nurses saw to the afterbirth, able to work without light now that their sight had adjusted to the darkness.
“… come feel me my berry, my handsome one, my prince …” And to Leon who stood beside her, his eyes aglow like a disciple in the shining proximity of his master: “Welcome your son Paulie to the world.”
Michael Greenberg is completing the novel which is introduced here. He lives and works in New York City.
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