For what else was life, at the end, but a series of rooms through which one had passed, leaving artifacts?
Impossibly thin Townie Rivington wore a delicate green snakeskin of a dress that spared no forgiveness for even an ounce of fat.
The Girl in the Fabrilon|
by Marly Youmans
|The time machines of John Faber Smith were strewn across the worktable, next to a heap of original documents: a pamphlet titled How to Use and Care for the Marvelous Fabril-Glass Viewers of Faber Smith; another, The Work of Metatron in These Latter Days, an attack on the machinations of demonic powers, including mesmerism, all forms of divining the future, and Smith's "infernal contraptions" for seizing the prerogatives of the Almighty and mastering time; nine X-rays revealing the interior corridors of the mouth-blown structures with their inset crystals and perforations; and a series of letters from the hand of Smith's former employer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, protesting the use of the name Fabril glass, so close to his own Favrile.
"Lucky for us that Faber Smith summered here," Lyle said to one of his students. "So many city people did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We have nine of the eleven Faber Smith viewers known to be in existence, but six of ours have some degree of internal breakage. You can hear the shattered crystal shift when you tip one from side to side." He nodded in answer to a sudden thought. "Rather like an hour glass, wouldn't you say?"
Phil lifted one of the machines and put it to his eye.
"I don't see anything."
"Did you expect a vision? They're charming little creations, but I don't suppose that sensible people thought that they would work, even in the nineteenth century. Although there are some letters that talk about sightings and revelations. The alien-watchers of that day, I guess."
The director heard a faint sift of crystal.
"Here. The one you're holding is defective. Try the peacock blue one with the bulges and dents. That's one of our three perfect ones."
Lyle passed it to the younger man, watching him raise the toylike instrument to his eye. He enjoyed the time he spent with the students from the museum program. Not being from Templeton, with its shrines devoted to the region's history and its old-fashioned caste system, they reminded him that another world lay beyond the village limits. They were more curious than his colleagues and easier to excite with a new project. Now director of the museum as well as head curator, he found that his hours as a mentor increased his love of art and historical artifactshe liked to share his knowledge even when, as in this case, there was so little that had been preserved.
"Nothing." To Lyle's eye, Phil looked genuinely disappointed.
Of course, the director thought, twelve years ago he probably still believed in Santa Claus. He deliberated and chose one of the two remaining intact fabrilonsthat was the name John Faber Smith had given themand gazed into it.
"I hope this one isn't damaged," he said slowly, "because I see something white. Some condensation, perhaps." Cupping the chamber in his hands, he peered at the outermost lens. Removed from his eye, it seemed to be clear enough.
"May I take a look?"
Lyle offered the fabrilon, then reached for the last unbroken one.
"Strange," he murmured. "This one looks whitish as well. But it's a damp day. Must be moisture on the glass. I think it's all right. They couldn't both fail so suddenly."
"I don't see a thing in either of these. I'll trade you"
"Here." Lyle swapped his for the other and lifted it to his eye. An unmistakable cloudy whiteness still glowed in the tubular chamber.
Phil shrugged, pointing the lens toward the sunny doorway. "I still don't make out"
"Maybe it's me. Maybe fog is in my eyes today." Lyle thought about cataracts. But he wasn't old enough for that kind of cloudiness. Anyway, it wouldn't show up in just one spot, one situation.
The boy was turning a fabrilon over and over in his hands. "They look likeit's as if Tiffany were working on designs by Dr. Seuss."
Lyle was amused by the idea, though his mind was still fretting over the whiteness. And why couldn't Philip see it? He had always demanded a good eye from his future curators, and it bothered him to think that this student might not be as quick with visual elements as the others. But he didn't speak of these issues. For one flashing instant the figure of his mentor leaped into his thoughts: Professor Rafe Thornton, lanky and unstooped in old age, his thistledown hair standing in a dry, staticky halo around his face. "Lyle, you've got the best eye I've encountered in the last forty years," he had told him. "A discerning eye. You see what is invisible to the others." Dear Rafe! One couldn't get over missing people like him. It wasn't much comfort to know that, elsewhere in time, he was still at workporing over some uncatalogued treasures, say, or just talking with that eagerness that had marked all their interactions.
The memory made him feel tender toward the young man, just beginning his foray into the great museum. For what else was life, at the end, but a series of rooms through which one had passed, leaving artifacts?
"The broken fabrilons are like kaleidoscopes to me," he said. "The sound of sliding crystal. The way we peer in, catching glimpses of shards in a heap
Lifting the third perfect glass, he was met again by a soft pallor. Lyle swung around to face the sunlit door and breathed in sharply as the figure of a girl emerged from the cloud.
He jerked the fabrilon from his eye and realized that Ann Marfleet, another of his students, was standing in the doorway.
"Oh, it's you" He felt profoundly relieved. The girl hadn't been a phantasm; it had just been Miss Marfleet, the slim, pretty favorite of the group. A few years of added maturityshe was all of twenty-sixhad made her the natural leader in the Master's program. Several of the young men would have been glad to be more than friends, but she had never shown a flicker of romantic interest in her classmates, so far as Lyle could tell. She was pulling a transport cart behind her.
She gave him a mischievous glance. "Yes, it's only poor me"
"I didn't mean that, my dear. I was just startled." He wondered at himself. Was he growing so old? My dear. He sounded just like Rafe, who had denominated his students by my dear. It saved learning the names, Lyle suspected. Only a few were honored with a more specific and occasionally correct name.
"I've come to collect the Faber Smith spyglasses. Is that okay? You're still examining them"
"Yes, yes, it's fine. I just thought that I had seen something insidea bit of white andhere, you try." Hastily he held out the troublesome thing.
Ann bestowed her usual radiant smile and took the viewer, exclaiming over its beauty. It was one of the golden fabrilons, with glistening tints that fanned into the dominant color like oil rainbows in a puddle.
"Shall I leave one with you? Were you looking at the future? Did it feel like magic?" She tilted her head to look at him, and he felt the glance like a playful slap. She made them all feel that way. It was some secret mode of expressing a private intimacysuggesting that there was something passing between them that no one else could possess.
"A future like rain on glass," he said. "Just some vapor on the lens. And then you"
She offered him another of her astonishing smiles. Once he had described them to Rosamund as wondrousas bright as a mirror tilted to the sun.
It had been years since Lyle had caught himself daydreaming about a girl. After all, he was the most contented of husbands. But Ann Marfleet had done the trick. He caught himself beaming at her now and laughed at himself; he was a happy man. He could be so amused without a second thought, because in middle age he had had a renewal of his love for Rosamund. He had no need for a fabrilon to show him another woman in his future. Just thinking of his wife disposed him warmly toward these twoboy and girl, he felt them to be, with the fairy glamour of youth. And lately he had noticed his home affections growing even deeper, though that was the work of Rosamund's illness and the fear of loss. Yet all would be well. She would be well. His only regret was that they had had no children.
"No," he told her. "Take them. You and James Henshaw have done a grand job on the display. Just photograph them for the museum website and arrange them in the case as you please. I don't ask to know the future. Demon or angel or plain old mortal, Faber Smith was certainly a wonder-worker. But I don't need any more magic than these arabesque shapes and colors."
The students nestled the nine pieces inside a box of foam.
"You shouldn't be so casual about things like demons and angels." Ann looked at him sidelong.
"You're not serious, are you?" Phil mocked her, making a frightened face.
"Sure. I'm afraid of them both. Of course, demons were angels." She gazed out the casement, as though checking to see if a throne or a seraphim might be flitting by. "Just think how terrifying to see an immensity with six wings and four faces, brighter with reflective light than the moon, crouched on a stone in the lake
"Why crouched?" Phil put the lid on the box.
"Oh, I don't know." She turned away from the window. "Maybe because they're as wild as big cats. A jaguar angel, a tiger angel, a cheetah. Ready to leap on us and rock the world with an earthquake of news."
"Ann Marfleet, believer in angels." The boy wrapped his arm around her shoulders, but she twisted away so neatly that Lyle suspected she had performed that operation many times.
"I don't like anything uncanny. Spirits and such." She gathered the papers and squared them on a shelf under the box. "My grandmother used to see ghosts when anybody in our family died. Even before the rest of us had word that someone had passed away. Grannie Tippen told me that the air is jammed with powers; when we breathe, we breathe in the stuff of angels. I wouldn't even pretend to peep through a fabrilon. You couldn't make me! I'd clench my eyes shut!"
Lyle was startled by the vehemence of her last statement.
"Where's your scientific spirit?" He spoke lightly, watching as Ann bent to admire the packed glass.
"Scientific?" Phil hooted, tossing a folder of clippings on top of the other documents. "Ann, you wouldn't see anything but what was at the other end of the lens, anyway. If you pointed it at the director here, you'd just see him in your future."
To Lyle's secret amusement, Miss Marfleet blushed. He was accustomed to thinking of her as wholly unflappable. She was more in the habit of testing the aplombthe flappabilityof others. Since it seemed the mannerly thing not to indulge in too much pleasure at her expense, he came to her rescue.
"And she'd be absolutely right, Phil. Probably with a diploma in my outstretched hand. And scientific is correct as well. That's how John Faber Smith saw it. He called himself The Scientist of the Marvelous and The Projector of Time. I have a lead on his journals, you know. If I can buy them, it might be interesting to find a glassblower to reproduce his work."
"If he recorded all his secrets," Phil said. "Though I suppose he would, if he meant to be truly scientific."
"Scientific or no, I'm still not going to try one," Ann declared. Tossing another of her flashing smiles over one shoulder, she disarmed Lyle completely just before vanishing into the hall.
"Just make them look good, then," he called, leaning from his door to watch her pull the cart toward the main gallery, Phil hovering protectively alongside.
· · · · ·
"Ran out on her husband. Really! Did you hear how fast she left? Forgot her jewel box!"
Impossibly thin Townie Rivington wore a delicate green snakeskin of a dress that spared no forgiveness for even an ounce of fat. Rosamund could tell that the gown was expensive, and she knew it was Italian because Townie had already told her friends about purchasing it in Rome. She had come home from the last three weeks in Paris as a brunette; everyone has dark hair in Paris, she had said. If you're a ninety-year-old Parisian, you're still going to sprout hair like jet.
Rosamund realized that her mouth was slightly ajar; she closed it, glancing around the table. Although she felt grossly out of place, she hoped no one could tell. An attractive woman, her prematurely white hair had grown coarse and thick as packthreads in middle age and was cut to emphasize its unexpected, unplanned-for boldness. She used no makeup, for she had fine-pored skin and in middle age her mouth had ripened to pluman appealing color, though a shade too bluish. Lyle had made her wear the pashmina shawl and the heels and the necklace of gold beads and chunks of amber; he had been right, knew his own class of people: potential donors, all.
The sensation of being in another time washed over her. Mid-century, she thought it might bethe last century before the millennium. Why had she agreed to cross the threshold? Why had she even been invited? As some pet monster? The token musician? In fact, why had she moved to this town and this state and this region of the country? Wasn't this little village the most stratified, provincial, self-worshipful, and downright hierarchical place she had ever known? The thoughts swept through her in an instantnot so much separate ideas as a tidal surge of emotion automatically connected with those familiar doubts.
"No! Who would do a thing like that?" Mouse Anxton lolled in her chair, releasing a warm, lazy smile that dissipated slowly, like a smoke ring. She had the air of a woman who knew that she was only playing a part and that behind the role were other meanings that she and the others well understood, though Rosamund did not. Mouse kept rubbing a fingertip on her engagement diamond, as if a genii might be summoned.
"Nobody we'd want to know!" Char Templeton chimed in, and the three friends tumbled into gales, their eyes flitting to one another in merriment.
Rosamund didn't grudge her lunch companions their pleasure or its secret sources. She didn't even go so far as to disapprove of them. That there should be such people was no surprise to her; that they should shatter into laughter like brittle glass over a tale so serious caused her no discomposure. At stray moments she felt a kind of sympathy for themnot so much with their concerns but with a certain neediness and hunger that seemed to loom behind their gossipand this coming-and-going warmth for them always startled.
Yet the words of Townie, Mouse, and Char kept on jangling in her head. To drive them out, Rosamund began alphabetizing: Aoyama, Camac, David, Horngacher, Obermayer, Pilgrim, Venus, Salvi Aida
The habit dated back to childhood, when she had combated the disorder of her home with the tidy, simple structure of the alphabet. The names were harp makers, among them those that Rosamund usually recommended to her pupils. Most of her students learned on a small, lightweight harp. That gave them the beginner's challenge of a single row of levers on the top of the stringsthe levers lifting each string by a semitone.
The alphabet wasn't helping today; Rosamund could still hear the phrases, making a useless music like swept shards of glass. Nobody. Who would do? Left her jewel box? Nobody we know! Nobody we'd want. Did you hear? A thing like that?
The voices distracted her from a leaden sensationthey and the woman at her elbow who kept inquiring politely about the performances Rosamund was giving with a soprano from the Met. The pair had arranged seven in the Northeast, to be followed by an equal number in the deep South, scheduled for winter.
"Yes, the last two pieces are La Lettre du Jardinier. By Marcel Tournier. In a Persian Garden. Lehman. Liza Lehman."
Rosamund struggled to hear what her neighbor had to say over tumbled pieces of the disintegrating conversation: jewel box thing nobody want hear a thing like that nobody. Evidently she was befuddled by the choice of program.
"I really don't know why you haven't heard of"
As the woman interrupted her again, Rosamund felt the heaviness in her limbs and thought, I am turning to marble. It lapped into her bones. Twice before she had felt this sluggishness that crept slowly but inexorably. The sensation was as of being buried alive. A wretched fear flooded over hera vision of yielding to stone like a calcifying baby, the lithopedion slowly dying in the womb.
"Harps are so cunning," Townie was saying, perhaps trying to include her in the conversationat least as a subject for talk, if nothing more. "Charming to see one standing in a corner wearing a big red mitt, isn't it? Looks so friendly and silly."
Rosamund thought furiously about the selling points of the harp which Lyle had given her for her birthday. If she could only pin the salesman's patter down with precision, she could escape the luncheon-table talk. The new harp was a modern thing, very up-to-date, which stayed in tune longer than her other harp, though somehow she loved the old one best. The feeling seemed perverse, but there it was. The new harp's action was almost silent, and the plates were anodized aluminum instead of brass. Jewel box. Who would? The natural disks rotated counterclockwise, and the sharp disks rotated clockwise. Nobody. Nobody we'd want. No pedal felt, no pedal rods: the harp used rubber bumpers and stainless steel cables. So fast she forgot. The sound board appeared stiff in the center but grew lighter and more flexible toward the edges. A crown topped the capital, with its beadwork, symmetrical arabesque plants in elegant bands set above a fluted pillar. Inside this veneer, a hollow tube formed from epoxy and carbon fiber made up the column's jewel box
"Excuse me." She stood abruptly. The napkin fluttered from her hand and collapsed onto the floor, where its face of crumpled linen lay staring up at her.
Rosamund made her apologies to the hostess, Maud, a woman made notable to the town by an extreme thinness and by a devotion to petit point. She was "feeling unwell." It had "come on very suddenly."
Did she consider telling Maud the truth? Not a bit of it! How can one woman say to another, Your unreality is turning me into a figure of marble? Your silver and your Sèvres grow weighty. I cannot lift your adamantine soup spoons, and your soup is molten. I have a terror of your flowers from the hothouse, their leaves of basalt, their obscene trumpets. Help me! The price of your meal is too high. It may end in my destruction, every atom of flesh replaced by one of marble. Already I can barely move my legs. The only thing alive in me is a rising panic that the stoniness will extend to my hands and fingers so that I will never again be able to play a harpan absurd fright, since I will neither eat nor walk nor touch when I am stone.
The concert harp endures two tons of force from the strings yanking on its neck.
Perhaps she was becoming not a marble statue but a harp.
"You really do look a bit unwell," Maud offered. "Here, let me pour you another glass of chardonnay. Why don't you go and sit near the door? I'll get your jacket."
"Thank you," Rosamund said faintly.
In the library, she sank onto a couch, resting her head on an immense pillow with a needlepoint rooster and elaborate fringe. She remembered the room from a prior social call. Why? A trustee. Maud or her husband, Palmer: one of them was a trustee of the museum. She had come here with Lyle. The gilt-framed mirror above the fireplace was not what it appeared but a two-way glass with a flat-screen television set beneath, so that it was now a mirror and now a glowing image. She noted the expensive, inharmonious elements of the chamber with its fumed oak wainscoting, rough silk wall covering, and a good deal of delicate furniture poised to scuttle away on disklike feet.
"Thank you for the wine."
"Why don't you stay? You ought to have someone to accompany you, I imagine." Maud had materialized with the coat, which she draped over the arm of the couch. "Where were you planning to go?"
"Just outto the lakefront park, I think. I'll be fine, really."
Rosamund stood, her feet planted wide apart for balance. Her fingertips brushed the shelves as she passed. Breathless, she paused near the door to read the names along the spines of a shelf of books.
"Ghosts," she murmured.
"Nothing. A silly idea. That old novels are like ghosts. Their owners dead, you know, but still telling stories," she added. And these are twice dead because no good, not one. Who could resurrect them, their mouths full of sawdust and worms instead of music?
In the hall, Rosamund made slow ceremony of removing her shawl, putting on the coat and wrapping the shawl around her shoulders, and drawing her cane from the spike-maned Chinese serpent of the umbrella stand. She noticed that someone's mohair wrap must have been lying against hers and had shed wisps of white on the black wool. Outside in the bracing air, she straightened then dragged herself down the stairs to the sidewalk.
"Are you sure I shouldn't call your husband?" Maud leaned out the door as she called to the sick woman.
"Yes." The syllable was a sigh.
Rosamund's tall frame was proving difficult to maneuver; she pictured herself as a Greek marble pillar sculpted in the form of a koré, uneasily holding up the roof of the world. Absurd. She was far more likely to be the column of Earth's harp, the filaments of her hair held back by thousands and thousands of tons of pressure.
"Just need fresh air," she gasped.
"Heart murmur, is it? Townie says it's soshe knows everything. Pumps her husband for information, though that's wrong, isn't it? There's patient privacy and all that. Of course, when you're a fifth husband, you need to please a wife, wouldn't you say? Poor thing, she's buried four of them. They say it's a love match with Dr. Rivington, though before him she'd never had a husband who did more than play with his trust funds. We can't keep anything from Townie; it's all filings to the magnet. That's how we heard about the murmur, you see. But that's a terrible thing. Too bad." She raised her voice. "I'll just call and tell your husband that you're not feeling well, that you've gone to the park for a breath"
Rosamund nodded weakly, accepting any action, and Maud cried out a good-bye"If you're sure you're all right"before the door snubbed shut.
Diffused through clouds, a cool northern light bathed the outer world. Almost immediately the sky let down rain. Tiny pins winked against her skin and vanished. In response, she lifted up her face, glad, grateful that there was a chance to dissolve the burden of weightiness. She lumbered forward, catching at the fence and pushing herself on.
"The wife of Bath," Rosamund muttered; that was the bitch who had wooed and wed and buried so many men, snapping them up like bites of air.
· · · · ·
Lyle loped along the sidewalk, his glasses dewy with mist. Some years had passed since he had been fit, and so he panted, taking large, irregular gasps of breath. Several tourists stopped window-shopping long enough to glance his way and wonder at his hurry. The remains of a young handsome self lingered in his face. Rosamund perceived his former beauty, but for almost everyone else the old face had been consigned to albums. It made no difference. What remained was a rugged profile and high cheekbones, the last sign of a Seneca grandmother. Women called him craggy, whereas men tended to find themselves reaching for the old-fashioned word, manly.
To Rosamund, he was the boy who had read Yeats to her under a linden tree on the day she fell in love. It had taken him a long time to read all the poems about Rosamund, the rosa mundi, the rose and rose trees, the sorrow of the rose impaled on the cross of time. Almost a quarter-century had passed, and there was nothing reserved or hidden between them. The sole gap remained that he had brought them to this cold place and convinced himself that it was best, though she could not, would not, agree.
"Don't you dare bury me in the frozen ground!" she had told him once in a fit of pique. But where else was there but in the graves scraped out at spring thaw or in the columbarium cabled with icicles? One didn't need the glass machines of a Projector of Time to know that end.
Maud's determination to track him down had alarmed Lyle, though no more than several incidents of the past month. The call was inconvenient, as he had dropped in on a major donor and was forced to excuse himself after only twenty minutes. "You'd think that John Faber Smith would have warned me not to come," he had joked with his host, disguising his worry; the story of the fabrilons had interested the man, a retired broker from the city, and the museum director had assured him of a private viewing. He would have Ann Marfleet display them, Lyle had determined. The call had derailed a very promising encounter.
His car parked elsewhere, he had decided to walk and only began to run as worry mounted. This heart murmur of Rosamund's; how had it passed inspection for so many years? Tomorrow they were seeing a specialist, and everything would be fine. He was glad that he had brought her to this place, so close to the town where he had grown up. It was lovelyas she was. The setting suited her, as the right frame suits a picture. And the hospital seemed first-rateit was surprising to find an academic hospital in a rural district.
He hurried down Pioneer Street, crossing Main and Lake, racing out of the old village and into the scattering of newer residences near Glimmerglass, replacements for a block of federal houses that had burned fifty years before.
The park swirled with mist. Thinning and shredding, the clouds disclosed occasional patches of the scene, sprinkled by rain: the stone platform for the village band, the bronze dog and Indian on their boulder, a real dog standing stiff-legged and alert, howling at the whiteness. A fat drop splashed against Lyle's cheek.
She didn't answer; the park was oddly quiet, except for the half-smothered barking of the dog. Poor creature! It sounded as if he were crying in fear or pain. Briefly Lyle remembered Ann Marfleet's talk of demons and angels. He jogged around the perimeter of the park, pausing on the retaining wall to stare, when a cleft was torn from the fog. Kingfisher Tower and a path over the waves became momentarily visible.
Had she gone home?
Strange, an odor of lilacs streamed on the air, though the season wasn't right. October in the village was the time for decay and dust of leaves, snow, rain with a scent of rotted vegetation
Still, he was partial to lilacs, always had been. Was it the scent of his grandmother's dusting powder? Every spring Rosamund shoved exuberant armloads of branches into vases, until the whole house was fragrant.
The scent made him slightly uneasy. Then he heard the harp and forgot everything else. Had she brought a lap harp to the luncheon, and was she playing it in the rain? If only the clouds wouldn't keep thickening!
The mutt still yodeled his distress, though it seemed to Lyle that the music ought to quiet him. The raw noise of the dog made the hair at his nape prickle. Mist played tricks with the notes, spread them into the sky and over the lake. It muffled the echoes from the hills. The dog's clamor, too, was hard to locate and seemed to veer headlong from the heavens.
He looked about, catching a glimpse of emerald grass starred with Norway and sugar maple leaves. It was dizzying the way that the music seemed to rise and fall from no particular fount. And he felt reluctant to move, stopped by eerie yowls: they arrived from every quarter now, as if all the hounds of earth and heaven were tuning up to glorify the first dog's dismay.
"Delusion," he muttered. He hated how the familiar landscape had been swallowed by an enormous blankness.
The harp ceased, though the dog and its idiot cohorts did not shut up but keened worse than ever. He heard a laugh close by. "Rosie," he whispered. He edged nearer to the lake, taking slow steps; he could easily take a spill. When he collided with one of the park benches, Lyle grimaced; wood and metal had rammed him on the hipbone. Although certain that the atmosphere was too dense for eyes to penetrate, he felt watched.
No one answered. Yet when the whiteness opened again, he saw a girl standing in the rift, lake and tower to her back. A wisp of déjâ vu touched his mind. A girl in a cloud
Where have I seen something like that? Since she looked familiar, he assumed that she must be a village child, rather than a lost touristthese were common enough near Main Street.
"Oh." The word was an exhaled note of relief. "Shouldn't you go home? It's not safe here; you could fall into the drink. What pea soup!"
She didn't seem to notice him at first. Then the girl turned her head very slowly. What a lovely long neck she had, with her hair lying along its curve, caught and tamed in a French braid. She looked such an innocent in the white gown, her form seeming to sparkle in its loose cocoon. Her face was pale, her lips as coral as those of a small child, though he supposed she might be sixteen or so.
"I'm looking for someone," Lyle told her. "I've lost my wife." Saying the words made it real, and his voice became tremulous.
The girl had some yarn in her hand. Mohair, he thought it might be; she kept pulling bits of the fuzzy stuff from the skein and letting it drop, as if she were nervous.
A fanciful thought came to Lyle: what if she were somehow responsible for the mist? What if it could all be wound up again into a bunch in the girl's hand? What if, sufficiently unrolled, it could smother his whole world?
He scrutinized her face. If he'd had to say, he would have vouched that she was confused and hardly knew what was happening. Perhaps she was afflicted in some way, her mind not right.
Opening his hand, he held the palm toward her to show that he held nothing and meant no harm.
"What's your name?"
She didn't speak, just kept on plucking at the yarn. The snips wavered in the grass, catching and drifting into the cloud.
· · · · ·
Swaying, Rosamund had walked the few blocks to the park, where she sat and stared at the lake with Kingfisher Tower like a finger raised in admonition in the distance. The air felt moist, nudging against her skin. For a few minutes she idly plucked the wisps of mohair from her coat. Some of them formed a loose ball in her hand, and others were caught by a light wind and blown toward the lake. Then, closing her eyes, she yielded to the weather and let the increasing rain splash onto cheeks and neck and soak her hair. Her clothes became heavy. Water music pattered along the stone wall and on the slats of the bench. Rosamund wept. She cried partly because of and partly for the luncheon party. Oh, I have been a fool, she thought, accepting the cap and bells and the capering. I have danced like a bear in the market. What a waste! What a comedown. So low and ordinary and joyless. When the universe is queerer and more fantastic than anyone can imagine! Even here, in this cold place. She would not do foolish things anymore, she resolved; she would not be foolish. It was all she asked at the momentnot to be foolish.
A swell of relief poured through her, and her fingers twitched with desire. She wanted to go home to her harp and her husbandher one and onlybut first she let the wind pluck at the waves and the sparrows dive through the shrubbery, chattering to one another. The next time she looked toward the stone tower, she discovered that it had melted away. Mist had blurred the line between water and shore, and the distant boundary of the lake was no longer Lion Mountain but sheer endlessness. The sight came to her as a pure pleasure, Maud's ornate rooms having given place to this sweeping whiteness and world without end.
"Oh, that was close," she whisperedand thought, only half jokingly, I have seen my salvation.
When joyful notes came swirling along the hilltops, she began to hum. Curious how one's never any older on the inside, she thought; at seventeen, I would have pirouetted on the grass, feeling just as I do at this instant, quickening with music. Only not breathless. Never that. The landscape opened like a precious box of jewels, the lid of clouds lifting and letting in a gleam of sun while torn leaves quivered, flew, and, juggled by air, dropped in stages to the lake. Limber young trees yielded into the breeze and flung their heads over until the green of foliage barely kissed the green of the grass. Drawn to the edge of the water, Rosamund leaned forward, feeling the park stretching behind her like a boat eager to snap its moorings. Where was she going? Where had she been? Was she the figurehead of the ship, the column of the harp, the bard who had fled and was sure to be going along the road singing and strumming and looking for fresh faces to please? She didn't know; she was all of them, none of themthe music, the strings, the player, the listeners, and the outward-going vessel.
"That's what there was to lose," she said to the gust.
The wind had slowed; then the drops had come down in long strings of rain, and she had put out her hands to play.
· · · · ·
As the girl stared at him with enormous dark eyes, Lyle caught a snatch of harp music again. That was good! He hadn't lost Rosamund after all; he would find her, just as soon as more cloud liftedthis nonsense that suffocated sound and made the known world mysterious.
Abruptly he cried out his wife's name: "Rosamund, Rosamund, Rosa"
Like a ballerina, the girl ran on tiptoeright up to him with her gossamer skirts bunched in her handsand stood looking at him gravely, her lashes wet with drops: still on tiptoe, still with skirts gathered. The act reminded him of the motions of a cat scampering and halting in mid-rush to delicately inspect a stranger. She broke the stance; she looped her arms around his neck and laid her head upon his shoulder. It was an extraordinary thing to have happen! That she should trust him sothe gesture touched and startled him.
Yet, almost immediately he longed for her to be gone. She was cold but not shivering, and he rested a hand on her waist, as if to push her away. For something about the girlperhaps the pallor of her skin, or its coolness, or else the music that now seemed to swell and to envelop hertroubled him and made him flinch. He began to feel that her presence was intolerable, that he could not, could not bear its frost for another instant! It felt blighting; he might go to a mirror and find himself grown unrecognizable, the skin she had pressed gone mushroom-pale and wrinkled and marred by bruises. As he reached to loosen her grasp, her fingers tightened at the nape of his neck. A dread he recognized from nightmares of flight and pursuit crept over him; he tried to unfasten the fingers, now laced together, but they clung with strength.
"No, no," she pleaded in a whisper, her breath like a frozen puff of mist against his neck.
"Who are you?" He wrenched at one hand and succeeding in unlacing it from the other.
At this she drew back, looking not so much in pain as unhappy. Again Lyle had the sense that she was confused; this did nothing to soften his own rising, unreasoning fright. One of the girl's hands still shackled his neck; it clung there unnaturally, as if frozen to his skin. The terror brought on by this sensation made him cruel; he struck at the arm until she pulled away and cradled it against her breast. Yet the cold still held him in an embrace; it seemed to emanate from her as perfume from a flower.
"Go home, childare you afraid?what is the matter? Go home! Go!" He thrust at her with one hand, waving the other toward a gap in the clouds, though he didn't mean that she should fly to where Kingfisher Tower rose from the waves.
She gave him a look; not angry, though seemingly reproachful, her glance moving across his face as though looking for somethingkindness or acceptance, perhaps. Whirling, she fled as if in search of a path across water. Cloud blotted out her passage; she was gone, though he called, "Wait, wait"
He halted, arms paddling the mist. What would Rosamund imagine, should she hear him? When he moaned his wife's name, it sang tremblingly back to him from the hills. All at once he noticed a hush over the lapping waves and the tall park trees and the emerald grass with its bright leaves. He was very uncomfortable, listening to the echo of Rosamund, Rosamund, Rosamund.
"Madness," he whispered, again thinking that, after all, his wife had probably rested and trudged on home. He had missed her in the cloud. She would be waiting for him in the kitchen with a pot of Earl Grey steeping under the cozy. But he hadn't shaken off the uneasiness that had settled on his breast with the girl's embrace. It seemed an echo to his morning disturbance on staring into the golden fabrilon. But who wouldn't feel so on such a weird afternoon, with the sun leached from the sky little by little? The world felt infinite and unfinished, like an early day out of Genesis. He wouldn't have been surprised if a gulf in the floating mist had disclosed one of Ann Marfleet's angels, flashing with warning brightness like a lighthouse. The park was as cold and damp as a lakeside grave; no wonder that he craved warmth and ease.
Just then he struck his hand against the topmost slat of another of the park's benches. Leaning forward, he discovered a figure slumped on the seat. So clear had been the mental picture of Rosamund with tea cups at the table that Lyle could not, for a moment, recognize her face. Her glance was toward the lake and Kingfisher Tower; her eyes were filled with rain and stared through its glaze without blinking.
He knelt in the wet grass and rested his head against his wife's breast. So this was his destination. There was nothing left in all the world but a purgatory of whiteness that held, as if framed by a lens, a single chamber of air and a woman's shape.
The news hadn't yet leaped at his throat. And because he was a man accustomed to much talk and the making of speeches, Lyle already was dreaming up her funeral praise, here at the very entrance to his grief! The lines came to him as if already delivered. All of life interested her, and she was delicate and generous in its pursuit. Rosamund loved music and art and me, though there were certain experiences of hers that I well knew were out of my ken. She achieved something: she made her mark on the infinite expanse of time.
Time. The rose upon the rood of time. What nonsense! To shape words when the time was beyond words. A raw, unfinished sob was locked in his chest. The tears in his eyes, chill as ice, had not yet fallen.
He remembered the dark gaze of the girl; he remembered the figure glimpsed in the fabrilon of John Faber Smith. Bone-deep, he knew something that he would not name. He could never say the words, not to anyone. The knowing was a fire that in an instant would melt his tears and make them gush forth: he could feel the drops loosening, climbing from their deep fount. But what had it meant, he thought with dread, that she had run to him on tiptoe and laid her head on his shoulder? Had he failed her in the extremity of the moment? Pale and beautiful, the figure had appeared loving but cold, cold, cold: like his wife's body, pressed to his cheek.
It seemed to Lyle that the racket and song of the universe had entirely died away. There wasn't one note left to mar the lake of silence. Glimmerglass and the land around was a stillness, grave and without color, like the whiteness he had seen in the fabrilon.
And hadn't she been barefoot? Her feet were snow against the grass. Oh, the round globe and the sky were white with her passing!
He was breathless, and yet he would speak. Something demanded it of him; something wanted him to tear at the hush. Strained and edged with tears, his voice wavered on the air.
"Rose of all the world," Lyle said to the body of the woman he had loved and to the girl who had skimmed like a bird toward Kingfisher Tower and to the endlessness of cloud that had abolished the edges of earth and water and air.