by Lisa Okon
I see a girl standing at a window, wistful, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for life to happen. Her head is filled with dreams, her heart with desires she is unable to define, all of which leave her sad and aching. In a year or two her longings may take on a more material form, yet that which she wishes for will always remain beyond her grasp. Some day she will be told that she is beautiful but by then life will have taught her otherwise. She will seek out beauty in others, think she has found it, only to have it vanish, like smoke in her hand. Tomorrow it is always gone. Slowly she accumulates wisdom.
She turns away from the window and I can see her face, brown eyes, a fringe of dark hair cut straight across her pale forehead, braids, just past her shoulders. Not a remarkable face. The simple face of a child.
I stretch to reach beyond the lifetime that separates us. To diffuse myself into this little girl, so many things would I wish to tell her. To take her into my arms, this child that I was. But now she is observing me with that small impatience, that expression of resignation. Wordlessly. Maybe it was a mistake for them to bring her, this tall woman with the Botticelli hair. Who can she be, I wonder, stepped from a painting to cross the carpet to the window and stroke her hair. Come, she tells the child, Nana’s tired.
My grandma was a tiny woman from the old country. She clutched a white handkerchief twisted in her fist with a coin hidden. These were for the grandchildren. Here, take. Damp coins, given out secretly. Treasure. Her name was Libby. Liebe. Love.
An old lady comes to see me bringing a gift of flowers. Sixty-five if a day but holding her head high. She calls me Mother. Botticelli is with her. You always did love flowers, I remind her. See these, daisies, buttercups? Flowers every which way. She bends to take a peek.
What are these?
Your paintings. From when you were young.
No, these aren’t mine.
Yes they are, dear. You’ve forgotten.
On the other side of the window is the desert that I inhabit. The Desert of my Choosing. At once my ancestral home and my place of exile. The landscape dreamed by the unremarkable child was of soft meadows. There was rich earth, moistened by spring rains, giving up its scent of mold and new life. Trees, whose branches in the wind shed leaves the color of jewels in the crispness of autumn. The tinkle of icicles was the tinkle of the words she wrote, crystal bright and sharp, without ambiguity. All abandoned. All lost. It is a desert that devours your words, ravenous, until all that is left are the voices of the wind, the scratching of sand on the glass. The bones of you, rubbed dry.
I have my bad days and my good days. Today is one of the good ones. Words come to dance in my head. I must glue them here, between the lines, before they float away. Ninety, they say. A ripe old apple. Not that I have all of them. Still…
But here she comes, the old lady, with an armful of expectations. That I remember her. Hello dear, how nice of you to come. She is smiling. Tiptoeing about the room, opening drawers. She heaps the paintings on my worktable by the window and the sun lights the sunlight on the shimmering flowers. Fields of anemones. Sitting beside me, taking my hand, talking slowly. She thinks I will understand better if she draws out her words, pulling out the loose threads, one by one. Of course I understand. I may be senile but I’m not stupid! They want to put up a show. An exhibition of your work, she says. It’s not my work, dearie. My work is to stay alive. To keep on breathing, from day to day. To stretch my legs and feel the muscles, moving inside them. When I look at you all I must strain to remember. But today she is alone, gathering my watercolors, the colored waters that I have poured onto the sand. A painted desert. Making the desert bloom. I think sometimes that if I had stayed put it would be different. My liquid words, sucked up into the burning desert air. My life, evaporating before my eyes. If I had stayed put I would be different. Articulate in my writing. Fluent and fluid, flooding the page with my words. What remains of me are tiny flowers, on a white gallery wall.
Sometimes, sitting in the patio, a bird alights. Pecking for crumbs. Peck peck peck. I crumble a piece of bread in my fingers and toss it into the air. They rain down. More birds come. I hand some bread to the child and show her how to do it. She is my afternoon visitor. It was in the mornings that we fed the birds, the pigeons, early on our way to school. Me and Elizabeth. Noisy gray flocks, circling down. New birds come and gather round our feet. Pecking at our breakfast toast. It was a great green park where they lived, in the tops of trees. Cooing and flapping. It was where we played. The windows of my house, looking out at the trees, words fluttering down from the branches. I try to tell her. To test her memory. Do you remember, my sweetness, how we fed the pigeons in the park?
Her mother comes to take her home. Here, Grandma, I brought you a cake. Would you like some tea? She makes the tea and brings it out in cups. A plate of sliced honey cake. You’re such a honey, I’d like to paint you. The child is off watching the ants. She sits down. Your show has been a wonderful success. Most wonderful. You’re quite famous really.
Are you happy?
Oh yes, Grandma, are you happy?
Oh yes, mother.
I have my good days and my bad days. It is on the bad days that I think of them. All the words that I have never written, never said. The words I left behind for others, flying up and circling on the breeze. Children leap into the air, catching them in their fingers. Men at desks, writing. Leaning over the page in the lamplight, with their pens. Their typewriters. Click click click, they jump out, onto the white paper. Outside their window the stars punctuate the sky. There is nothing that can not be said in words. Nothing that can not be made to feel.
I was a writer once. May it be written on my grave. Like this, in gentle letters, whispering, demure. She was a writer once.
Today is a good day. I no longer remember what it is I have forgotten. All around, the silence. I search. I grope. It is gone. They stand above me, waiting. Only the little one, the child with the braids, runs off, chasing down a lizard. In her hand, the mama, with the Botticelli curls, is her newspaper, fat and inky. She unrolls it and the paper rustles and crackles with its signs and symbols. I’d like to read you what they’re saying about your work, Grandma. No, no, don’t read, I tell her inside my head. Your gibberish will only put me to sleep. Anyhow my eyes are heavy. Who are they anyway, to say things about me in signs and symbols? I droop my eyelids down, my forehead falls onto my chin.
Dreaming. Two little girls are wading across a stream. The child with the braids is me, the other is called Elizabeth, taller and more clever. My best friend. The water is icy on our feet. The stones are slippery. I reach for her hand. Slip, slip, I am slipping, toppling into the freezing water. My eyes open and I see my bare feet, looking at me. Freezing in the desert chill. Mama Botticelli arranges a blanket over my knees. Forgets her paper when she goes.
The little girl with two short braids and dark fringe across her forehead has turned into an old woman. Where did the time go? She looks at her watch. She walks gingerly. Sits beside me with pain in her eyes that I do not remember her. Let me tell you a story, I say. She sits, waiting. She is waiting to become me. She knows. She runs to jump into her lap. Grandma, she says, bouncing.
We had a pink ball and bounced it in front of the house. Tossed it at the stoop and jumped to catch it as it flew up. It bounced over our heads and made a sound when it hit the pavement. There has to be a word for the sound it made. What word would that be? I can only remember it, the sound of a new pink rubber ball. I look across. She is still waiting. Me and Elizabeth, I say.
She’s dead now. Everyone is dead now. A theater of dead people waiting for me to join them and reaching out their arms to me in my bed. They comfort me as once I would comfort the child.
Was it wasted? I ask her.
Nothing is wasted. Look at what you’ve done.
It’s not what I wanted.
The look of sadness.
We wrote a book together. Me and Elizabeth. In secret, in her bedroom, on the floor, in a brown notebook with a spiral. We loved it, making up the sentences and watching it grow. One day we would publish it, we said.
Are you sorry?
Sorry for what?
Sorry that you had me?
And what would I have done without you?
A young woman in a young country, making love in the desert. He takes her in silence; she smiles to the moon beyond his head, bathing their skin in its pale light. I could stay here forever, she thinks.
Each one with his texture and the music of his language, whispered in the air around my head. One said, I have nothing to give you. We opened the dictionary and looked for the words to say. Here, he said. “Longing.” I long for you.
There was a poet. He had three daughters. Their names were First Daughter, Second Daughter and Third Daughter. He told me his poems. Where are they now?
Soon they will be coming to clear out my things. My papers. Letters. Poems dreamed in the fields. The novel I never wrote. All will be tossed into the trash. It is my birthday they tell me.
Here they come, the three ladies in waiting. Waiting to sift through my belongings like grains of sand between their fingers, blown away by the dry desert wind. Oh what a sandstorm they will make, the words of my life. The air will be thick with them before they rest. I have left them nothing.
But now someone is requesting me to do something. A book of paintings, seventy years of my work they tell me, that requires an introduction. Can I write something for them? A few words? The irony of it, when all my words are gone. Please Nana, says the little one. I look at her. What business is it of hers? Run along and play sweetheart. And take your silly mother with you.
What is he doing in my room, this literary young man, curly black hair, unfurrowed brow? Does he wish to make love to me? The way he is looking deeply into my eyes? No, I wouldn’t mind, though it has been many years. The backs of his hands are brown, strong fingers spread on muscled thighs. Take off your clothes, man of the earth, and I will paint you. Go there, stand by the window, and the sun will drape your shoulders in a golden cloak. Run my palms along your sides to measure your height oh David of the psalms. Drink poetry from your lips.
Ninety-one years old and wanton as a girl, riding her camel in the desert.
I no longer walk to the patio. My legs have left me stranded by the fire. I cannot rise. No, nothing warms me. My hands tremble. The eternal glass of tea by my side, the color of amber. She holds it to my lips. Botticelli, out of sight, is occupied with her child. She brings her in. The old woman bends to take her. She is weeping.
The room I sit in no longer contains my memories. It is a cold room, the fire gives no warmth. The old woman tucks a blanket around my legs. Holds a glass of tea to my lips. The child is weeping. Botticelli bends to lift the weeping child. She is tired. Wishes to sleep, deeply in her bed, under the blankets. It is cold here. The tea is the color of amber in the glass. Nothing remains.
I remember nothing. I know nothing. I only know that I love them. I love them all. The child. With the braided hair. Who I sometimes think is me. Her mother. The tall one with the Botticelli hair. Who I never was. And her mother. The old woman. Who I will always see as young and beautiful. For she was my daughter. My sweetest little girl.
* * * * *
© Lisa Okon December, 2009