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“They’re part of our lives.”
“They’re not part of mine,” she said fiercely. Her gaze came back in my direction and I saw that she wasn’t so much enraged as sorrowful. I was revealing myself as a traitor with my desire to tell the story this way. She measured her next words with great care, like a lawyer making a pivotal argument.
“You realize, don’t you, that this may be the only way people out there get to know about our family?” she snapped, showing me a glimpse of her temper.
“All the more—”
“Now you let me finish. When I came in here suggesting you write this fucking book, it was because I had this feeling—I have this feeling—that we haven’t got very long. And my instincts are rarely wrong.”
“I realize that,” I said quietly. Marietta has prophetic talents, no question. She gets them from her mother.
“Maybe that’s why she’s looking so haggard these days,” Marietta said.
“She’s feeling what you’re feeling?”
She nodded. “Poor bitch,” she said softly. “And that’s another thing to consider. Cesaria. She hates the Gearys even more than I do. They took her beloved Galilee.”
I snorted at this nonsense. “That’s one sentimental myth I intend to lay to rest, for a start,” I said.
“So you don’t believe he was taken?”
“Absolutely not. I know what happened the night he left better than anyone living. And I intend to tell what I know.”
“Of course, nobody may give a damn,” Marietta observed.
“At least I’ll have set the record straight. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” Marietta replied, her distaste at what I had proposed now resurfacing. “I’m beginning to wish I’d never suggested a fucking book.”
“Well, it’s too late now. It’s begun.”
“You began already?”
This was not entirely true. I hadn’t yet laid pen to paper. But I knew where I was going to begin: with the house, and Cesaria and Thomas Jefferson. The work was as good as started.
“Well don’t let me delay you,” Marietta said, going to the door. “But I’m not guaranteeing you my help.”
“That’s fine. I’m not asking for it.”
“Not now you’re not. But you will. You’ll have to. There’s a lot of pieces of information I’ve got that you’ll need. Then we’ll see what your integrity’s worth.”
So saying, she left me to my gin. I didn’t doubt the significance of this last remark: she intended to make some kind of bargain. A section of my book she didn’t approve of excised in return for a piece of information I needed. I was absolutely determined she wasn’t going to get a single word removed however. What I’d told her was true. There was no way to tell the story of the Barbarossas without telling that of the Gearys, and thus also the story of Rachel Pallenberg, the one name I do not ever expect to hear crossing Marietta’s lips. I had deliberately not mentioned the Pallenberg woman myself, because I was certain as soon as I did so Marietta would be screaming inventive obscenities at me. Needless to say, I intend to devote a substantial portion of this story to the vices and virtues of Rachel Pallenberg.
That said, this narrative will be somewhat impoverished if I don’t get Marietta’s help; so I intend to be selective in the way I talk about what I’m doing. She’ll come round; if only because she’s an egotist, and the idea of not having her ideas in the book is going to be far more painful to her than my talking about the Gearys. Besides, she knows very well there are so many matters that I’m going to trust to my instinct on, matters that cannot be strictly verified. Matters of the spirit, matters of the bedroom, matters of the grave. These are the truly important elements. The rest is just geography and dates.
Later that day, I saw Marietta escorting from the house the woman I’d heard her talking to Zabrina about. She was, like almost all of Marietta’s lovers, blonde, petite and probably no more than twenty years old. By the look of the clothes, I’d guess she was a tourist, perhaps a hitchhiker, rather than a local woman.
Zabrina had plainly done as Marietta had requested, and relieved the poor woman of her panic (along with any memory of the experience that had induced that panic). I watched them from my balcony through my binoculars. The blank expression on the girl’s face disturbed me. Was this really the only way human beings could deal with the appearance of the miraculous: panic rising to insanity; or, if they were lucky, a healing excision of the memory, which left them like this woman, calm but impoverished? What pitiful options they were. (Which thought brought me back to the book. Was it too grand an ambition to hope that in these pages I might somehow prepare the way for such revelations, so that when they came the human mind didn’t simply crack like a mirror too frail to reflect the wonders before it?) I felt a kind of sadness for the visitor, who had been washed, for her own good, of the very experience that might have made her life worth the living. What would she be after this, I wondered. Had Zabrina left deep inside her a seed of the memory, which, like the irritant mote in an oyster’s flesh might with time become something rare and wonderful? I would have to ask.
Meanwhile, under the cover of the trees, Marietta had halted with her companion, and was saying a more than fond goodbye. Having promised to tell the truth, however unpalatable, I can scarcely remain silent on what I saw: she bared the woman’s breasts while I watched; she teased the woman’s nipples and kissed her lips, while I watched, and then, while I watched, she whispered something, and the woman went down on to her knees, unbuckled and unbuttoned Marietta’s pants, and put her tongue into Marietta, flicking it so cunningly I heard Marietta’s yelps from my balcony. Lord knows I’m grateful for whatever pleasures come my way, and I’m not about to pretend that I’m deeply ashamed of watching them make love. It was perfectly wonderful to watch, and when they were finished, and Marietta escorted the woman to the path that winds away from L’Enfant and back into the real world, I felt—though this may seem absurd—a pang of loneliness.
Though Marietta had mocked my belief that the house is a kind of listening device, which brings news from all its rooms to the ears of one soul in particular, that very night I had that belief confirmed.
I do not sleep well; never have, never will. It doesn’t matter how weary I am, as soon as I put my head on my pillow all manner of thoughts, most of them utterly without merit, circle in my skull. So it was last night; fragments of my conversation with Marietta, all rearranged so as to be nonsensical, and punctuated with her libidinous yelps, constituted the soundtrack. But the images were from some other store entirely. Neither Marietta’s face nor form appeared in my mind’s eye; rather the faces and forms of men and women I did not even recognize. No, I take that back. I recognized them; I simply couldn’t name them. Some seemed grotesquely happy with their lot; going naked, some of them, on the streets of what I think was Charleston, darting along the sidewalks and defecating from the chestnut trees. But there were others I dreamed of who were far less happy: one moment blank-faced brothers and sisters to Marietta’s concubine, the next moment shrieking like tortured animals—as though their forgetfulness had been snatched away, and what they were remembering was unbearable. I know there are some psychoanalysts who theorize that every creature which appears in a dream or waking dream is an aspect of the dreamer. If so, then I suppose the naked beasts in the streets of Charleston are the part of me that’s my father, and the other, the terrified souls sobbing incoherently, are that human part which my mother made. But I suspect the scheme’s too simple. In search of a pattern, the theorist ignores all that’s ragged and contradictory, and ends with a pretty lie. I’m not two in one; I’m many. This self has my mother’s compassion and my father’s taste for raw mutton. That one has my mother’s love of murder stories and my father’s passion for sunflowers. Who knows how many there are? Too many for any dogma to contain, I’m certain of that.
The point is, these dreams had me in a terrible state. I was close to tears, which is rare for me.
And then, in the darkness, I heard the sound of shuffling, and of clicking on the wooden floor and, looking down toward the noise, saw in a lozenge of moonlight a prickly silhouette waddling toward my bed. It was a porcupine. I didn’t move. I simply let the creature come to me (my arm was hanging off the bed, my hand close to the floor) and put its wet nose in my palm.
“Did you come down here on your own?” I said softly to the creature. Sometimes they did just that, particularly the younger, more adventurous ones; came shuffling down the stairs in the hope of finding a snack. But I’d no sooner asked the question than I had my answer, as my body responded to the entrance of the quill-pig’s mistress, Cesaria. You see, this pitiful anatomy of mine, wounded beyond all hope of repair, was quickening. It was uncanny. I was in the presence of this woman, my father’s wife, very rarely, but I knew from past experience the effect of this visit would last for days. Even if she were to leave the room now I would feel spasms in my lower limbs for a week or more, though the muscles of my legs were atrophied. And my cock, which had been just a piss-pipe for far too long, would stand up like an adolescent’s and demand milking twice an hour. Lord, I thought, was it any wonder she’d been worshiped? She could probably raise the dead if it pleased her to do so.
“Come away, Tansy,” she said to the porcupine.
Tansy ignored the instruction, which I will admit pleased me. Even she might be disobeyed.
“I don’t mind it,” I said.
“Just be careful. The spines—”
“I know.” I still had the scars where one of her quill-pigs, as she preferred to call them, had taken against me. And I think it had distressed Cesaria to see me bleed. I remember the look on her face quite clearly: her eyes like liquid night in that obsidian head of hers; her sympathy terrifying to me, because I suppose I feared her touch, her healing. Feared it would transform me, make me her devotee forever. So we’d stood, neither one of us moving, both distressed by something essential to the other (her power, my blood) while the quill-pig had sat on the floor between us and scratched its fleas.
“This book…” she said.
“Marietta told you about it?” I said.
“I don’t need telling, Maddox.”
“No. Of course not.”
What she said next astonished me. But then of course she would never be who she is—she could not trail the legends she trails—if she were not a constant astonishment.
“You must write it fearlessly,” she said. “Write out of your head and out of your heart and never care about the consequences.”
She spoke more softly than I’d ever heard her speak before. Not weakly, you understand, but with a kind of tenderness I’d always assumed she would never feel toward me. In truth, I hadn’t believed she felt it toward anybody.
“So the business about the Gearys—?”
“Must go in. All of it. Every last detail. Don’t spare any of them. Or any of us, come to that. We’ve all made our compromises over the years. Treated with the enemy instead of stopping their hearts.”
“Do you hate the Gearys?”
“I should say no. They’re only human. They know no better. But yes, I hate them. If they didn’t exist I’d still have a husband and a son.”
“It’s not as though Galilee’s dead.”
“He’s dead to me,” she said. “He died the moment he sided with them against your father.” She snapped her fingers lightly, and her quill-pig turned round and waddled back to her. Throughout this entire conversation I’d seen only glimpses of her, but now, as the porcupine approached her, she bent down to gather it up into her arms, and the moonlight, washing up off the boards, momentarily showed me her entirely. She was not, as Marietta had reported, frail or sickly; far from it. She looked like a young woman to my eye; a woman prodigiously gifted by nature: her beauty both refined and raw at the same time, the planes of her face so strong she seemed almost the idol of herself, carved out of the silver light in which she stood. Did I say that she was beautiful? I was wrong. Beauty is too tame a notion; it evokes only faces in magazines. A lovely eloquence, a calming symmetry; none of that describes this woman’s face. So perhaps I should assume I cannot do it justice with words. Suffice it to say that it would break your heart to see her; and it would mend what was broken in the same moment; and you would be twice what you’d been before.
With the quill-pig in her arms, she was moving toward the door. But as she reached it she halted (all this I only heard; she was again invisible to me).
“The beginning is always the hardest,” she said.
“Well actually I’ve already begun…” I said, a little tentatively. Despite the fact that she’d neither said nor done anything to intimidate me, I was still—perhaps unfairly—anxious that she’d blindside me with some attack or other.
“How?” she said.
“How did I begin?”
“With the house, of course.”
“Ah…” I heard the smile in her voice. “With Mr. Jefferson?”
“With Mr. Jefferson.”
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