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Before sunrise the clouds are crimson above ice blue mountains, ephemeral splashes of color soon to dissolve.
The sun strikes over the horizon like a fist hitting the mountains in the face, striking them pink. When you see pink mountains in illustrations (as in the work of Maxfield Parrish), don’t think: Well, that’s just in fairy tales. The mountains ARE pink at dawn.
From a bottomless sleep in which dreams are dark rooms left unopened, I open my eyes. Who I am, I am uncertain for a while.
What day it is, what month, what year, will come later. Meanwhile I prop up my head and see daylight. Daylight is creeping over the earth once again, as always. Before me, after me, with or without me, the light spreads. Vague shreds of glimpses into some of these rooms, which opened their doors to me as a lover opens his arms, beckoning me in. But I no longer enter them. I know they are filled with generations of old furniture, heaped up as in storage, covered with dust and appraised by strangers for purposes of disposing it. Or utilizing it. Usually, it all seems too useful to discard and I decide to pull it out of storage and put it to some use, polish it up. From this endeavor I’m always thwarted by some stranger who shows up and says it’s his.
Well, if it’s not mine why should I even look at it, much less decide what to do with it? I don’t enter rooms any more. If a dream wants to catch me it’d better be outside.
I stand up and look out the window. The mountains look made of pink sherbet, one of those unnatural colors you hesitate to eat. The bedroom walls are blue, intense, an also unnatural color as you’d find in a swimming pool.
Like a window the mirror steps up to me and a small round sink moves towards me. A thin arm with a rough dry hand turns on a stream of clear water.
How is it we have water here, out here in outer space?
Maybe if I splash some into my face I’ll stop thinking about these things.
Even hot, the water is still clear, what a marvel, this stream, like liquid light!
I dread looking up, into my face, but I know I must. The passage of time, all the days of my age, are written there. The blotches, the wrinkles, the silver strands. The bloodshot eyes and dark circles from too many cigarettes. The teeth look like someone else’s, not mine. That whole person there in the mirror is frightening, so thin, is that the beginning of a stoop, is that the spine caving in? I can see my whole body folded up like a card table and put away.
No no no no no. I say. I don’t want to die, even if it is part of the plan. The fact that it’s there, at the end, if you’re aware of it, kind of heightens the poignancy and futility of everything.
Everything is futile. It will all disappear.
I brush my teeth, wash my face, run wet hands through my hair but they don’t look like my hands. When did they get wrinkled and dried. When did the nails get black and broken? Twinges of pain in the joints. I’m only 50, but this whole body is not the body I knew. Never mind. The show must go on.
As on every other morning, I put on make-up. I do this even if I’m not leaving the house, even if I don’t expect to see a soul. That way, when I catch myself in a mirror (and the house is full of mirrors) – I’m not shocked.
As I smooth foundation onto my face I feel like a Noh actor preparing for the theater. I am a male, in his late 30’s perhaps, famous for a female role. You know, of course, that in Noh drama all parts are played by men. This feeling, of being a male impersonating a female, is so intense I ought to give him a name, or find out his name. I buff the mask of my face with a tissue. The surface is even as paint. For a Noh actor, the foundation would be white. Tagata. OK. I outline the mouth with a carnelian pencil, and fill in the lips with the darkest shade made.
Tagata, as a Noh theater female impersonator is probably bisexual. With his fine bones, slender frame, perfect mouth and winged brows, enhanced by make-up, he makes an attractive woman. I feel him in my fingertips as I pat my lips and spread the color on my cheeks. From an old colorless hag a diva emerges, he will heighten the illusion with kohl and lengths of silk. I have a feeling he committed suicide.
This must be from a past life. My husband also had some connection with Japan. He’s furnished this whole house in Japanese style, and wasn’t it just last night we ate at a Japanese restaurant? And there ran into someone we hadn’t seen in ten years. Maybe he was there with us too, in Japan, 18th century, or maybe 15th, I really ought to find out when it was. It was definitely at the height of Noh theater; that would be a way of pinning it down. This fellow we ran into, an old friend from school, he’s got the persona of an old Japanese woman. My husband, on the other hand, has never been a woman. There is not one shred of female identity in his consciousness, and to him I am always a woman.
Well and good, we can eat more sashimi and wear kimonos, vacation in Kyoto and listen to koto. We can perhaps even find the very house we shared, probably nothing ever changes in Japan.
I had a revulsion for Tokyo the 3 days we were there. The militarism puts me off. The mania for perfection is unnatural. I would rather step into a piazza than a temple rock garden. Better to be Italian. I can’t stand these Japanese. It’s all exquisite but in a dead sort of way. The chaotic fountain of emotions in the piazza, the warm sun, the pigeons, the old palazzos sunk in vines, lovers openly fighting and reconciling in the street.
If I was ever Italian I was one of those women who had ten lives squashing grapes with her feet. She had ten children and stayed within the Church, adoring the gold face of the Madonna. A peasant flush with life who never questioned anything. What is there to question? The sun pours honey over the hills, the grapes swell on the vines, the harvest is brought in. Through the piazza she walks on Sunday, to and from Church. Everything is always the same, as it should be, as it is. Forever in the same village she’s gone barefoot. Her feet are flat and broad, firmly planted in the soil, like a vine herself she grows, on her head the crown of morning.
Enough, enough. I come downstairs, it’s almost 7:30 A.M. I must get going. My dog is waving his plume of a tail. He’s the size of a wolf. Alright, alright, perhaps a walk. But first, let’s put on the coffee, my kingdom for a cup of coffee!—and a cigarette. I am dying, probably literally, for a cigarette.
Say good-bye to the kids, good-bye to this vaguely Japanese husband—good-bye, good-bye, kisses and good riddance. I light up.
Can’t smoke and walk the dog at the same time, he’s too strong, but then finally there we are, running up the morning street, children at the bus stops, on until we reach the park where not that long ago buffalo were running. There is still a protected herd a mile up the road, on Federal property—I actually go up to visit it once in a while—this vision of buffalo, shaggy deep brown against green and tawny hills. My dog and I run across the park under a big sky. A few clouds in the west will bring the weather in 3 hours. I know this from my Indian self, met in a shock of awareness one night when just as I was falling asleep three ruffians with unshaved cheeks and old flannel shirts, miners they looked like, dragged me into a ravine where they raped and shot me,—and slit me open like a deer.My husband wanted to buy me a deerskin jacket once. It was beautiful, western cut, a white stripe down the back, but just looking at it gave me the shivers. With long braids in my youth and long skirts, I planted corn on every piece of dirt.
My dog and I run over the rolling land of the park with its gone-to-seed streams. We were together then too, weren’t we? Was this the gully, the one behind my house, where it happened? I had on fringed buckskin and was inside her, I could only see her hands, my hands, that view one has of oneself, gaze pouring down one’s own body—the state of no-face.
I am a no-face Indian girl with her dog, running, running—the dog, once my brave, absent and unable to save me then, protects me now.
Flushed and alive we return home. I give him food and water; an embrace.
It’s 8:00 A.M.! It’s time to leave!
I check my mask before going out the door.
Last night I dreamed I met my mother in Bad Reichenhall. As the site of my childhood state of innocence, I was relieved to see it for the first time in a dream. To this place I would have gone every night of my life if I could have. How fresh and sweet were the memories of the childhood I had spent there. A small Bavarian spa town, nowhere as renowned or elegant as Baden-Baden, Bad Reichenhall was nonetheless a charming place. Surrounded by crisp mountains, it had a beautiful park with an ornate bandstand made of wooden lace, where a band always seemed to be playing. Its main attraction was the Kurhaus with its mineral baths. Next to it stood a tower covered with vines. Mineral water dripped endlessly through it, clearing the air with a scent of snow and pine.
Here my childhood unfolded, in the deep shade of the large trees surrounding the house. It was a square butter-colored apartment house of 3 stories, with balconies overlooking the park. Here I was a little girl in a red hooded coat with white satin lining. My father had dealings in Munich and Salzburg. It was just after World War II and the Allies had not yet restored order. Money could be made transporting cigarettes, coffee and chocolate. My father, young and handsome, brought me wonderful things, an entire zoo of stuffed animals, an exquisite doll, and countless colorful books.
My father was a Polish Jew who had survived the war by the skin of his teeth. His entire family had been wiped out by the Third Reich. But he hadn’t yet mourned or realized the impact it would have on him. He was caught up in the post-war excitement in Germany and would have done better to stay there; would that we could all have stayed there, in that perfect world.
A little town, Bad Reichenhall had all the amenities health seekers require, first and foremost, half a dozen konditories, that is to say, pastry cafes. Amid shops carrying souvenirs and toys were butcher stores fragrant with sausages and bakeries with amazing window displays. A baroque movie theater painted cream and tiny boutiques and cafes made up a main street. All the buildings on both sides of this street were made of butter-colored plaster, with statues of saints carved into the eaves. From all the sparkling windows hung waterfalls of flowers. Ten blocks down, the road curved to the left into the mountains, the foothills growing deeper green and blue, one behind the other, in the fine rain. In the top corner of the last building was a sewing shop. It must have been where my mother bought her embroidery thread.
As I recall, we frequently went, perhaps every day, to a pastry café and had a piece of torte. We also went into the forest, where she would read or sew.
I can see myself there on the forest floor. I am lying in a pool of sunlight, biting into the sweet stem of a white clover blossom. All around are bushes loaded with fragrant white flowers: spiraea, bridal veil, snowball, white lilac. I have not yet discovered what just happened in the world. Everything is still pure.
My mother was young, far from her war-torn home. So much had been lost, nothing gained, as she played with me. But she too seemed at peace in Bad Reichenhall.
Compared to what happened afterwards, that was as good as it got. The wheel turned and with it the channel, from sunny Bad Reichenhall to gloomy mid-winter Manhattan. From there an ever descending spiral carried me down, to the lower depths, where the truth raised its head.
I dreamed I met my mother in Bad Reichenhall, the last place I knew to be sunlit and clear, where shadows were blue and the color black did not exist, even in the deep shade of ancient trees. No poverty, illness or death was visible anywhere. As at all resorts, an air of light and gay illumination shone on people’s faces, pervading the air like the pine-drenched fragrance of the spa. The glistening white peaks of the mountains twinkled. There was no fear or dread anywhere.
This was all soon to change. When we left Bad Reichenhall, blown by the winds of history and fate, the fragile shining bubble burst. I was six when the gates of Eden closed like a mirage behind me.
The wheel turned.
By black wind over black water we were carried to another continent, where we learned how to be humble impoverished refugees. My father no longer smiled and fell into what was to be a 20-year silence. The golden balconied apartment overlooking the park vanished and I found myself on a street with dilapidated houses, cracked sidewalks and backyards filled with weeds. My father, relegated to the lowest order in a factory, grew sullen. My mother cried a lot. By the time word of the holocaust reached me, I had already lost everything.
Down through the black bitter hole of the years I remembered Bad Reichenhall. I could almost taste and smell it. In the spring it bloomed with the fragrance of chamomile and lilac, the bushes weighed down with white flowers dripping rain. Like a square yellow wedding cake neatly frosted in cream, the house stood facing the flower-lined park and its emerald eternity. But I most fondly remembered the garden with its deep shade and huge trees. To one side stood a small private library, the size of a playhouse, facing the side street. This garden was as deep as a forest, under a canopy of dazzling shade, where I played with other children. The tiny white library which stood on the property was very clear in my mind through all the dark years. The whole town remained in my mind, in infinite detail, like a rose floating in a bowl of water, like a lotus on a lake, like a vision, or the one primal memory of freedom a prisoner retains, like a crystal it remained, untouched and unchanged, through all the gloomy painful years of exile.
One summer, when I was in college, I found myself in Europe and made straight for Bad Reichenhall. There it was, untouched and unchanged as in my memory. There was the park, there was the house. I stood there transfixed, unbelieving. Walking through the park and town I looked every child in the face, looking for one I recognized, looking for myself. But my childhood self and all my childhood friends were gone, adults now. And though Bad Reichenhall was still pristine as a postcard, I now knew what had happened and I viewed the Germans with different eyes. These Germans had done things no one could comprehend. But Bad Reichenhall remained pure, as I had been pure in the days when the world was perfect and suffering, misery and death did not exist. Bad Reichenhall, even in my horrible knowledge, remained pure.
The years washed over me in waves, some murky, other clear, which took me everywhere I didn’t want to go. Philosophy was grace but the demands of fate dragged me through terrains I now hold dear, but which were, at the time, sheer Tibetan hells. The paths of ordinary life were darkened by the shadow of mass mourning.
Buddhism zapped the gates open and blew out the windows too. What’s a few million dead in the face of the annihilation of the whole universe? And even IT is only an illusion.
Ten years later I showed the house on Marienbadstrasse to my husband. We were driving around Europe and went straight from Munich to Bad Reichenhall. There was the house, still standing, in a spa town virtually unchanged. The library was still in the garden, but abandoned. And the house itself was a bit frayed, now with a sign, a retirement home. The rest of the town was unchanged. The Kurhaus was open, its ornate whipped cream entrance still led to the baths within. The marble halls shone like mirrors along inner gardens where elderly Germans strolled, holding cups of mineral water. Outside, the tower of dripping vines stood, fragrant as heaven. The house, its facade slightly peeling, made me wish I could buy and restore it to a small hotel. My husband confessed that he’d never believed the part about the library in the garden and we looked in the windows that were dusty and cracked. It was empty inside, of course, and locked. But the blue shade under the high trees was the same, and the white bushes bloomed, and the white mountains ringed the town as always.
By then my parents were on their feet. My father had come out of his mourning, but it was too late, I was grown, and didn’t know him at all. But much of the pain was left behind, there was only that far we could drag our dead. My father had survived, even America. My mother bloomed beyond the mantra of her losses and beautiful always, was ravaged now only by the vicissitudes of ordinary life.
“Wouldn’t you just love to go back and see Bad Reichenhall?” I asked her as we looked at the few pictures I’d taken (why hadn’t I photographed every square inch of the town?)
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t have such happy memories for me.”
“What do you mean? It was beautiful!”
“Well, I lost my family. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know from one day to the other what we’re doing. When we got to Poland and Daddy saw everything what happened, his parents, brothers, everybody dead, he cried… like an animal. We were 4 years in DP camp. The house on Marienbadstrasse was for a short time at the end, only 18 months. I wouldn’t go back. I got nothing there to look for.”
“It was the happiest time of my life,” I said.
Ten years after that my husband and I took our small son the see the house, but it was gone.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. We had come from Munich. Munich was the same, as was Salzburg and the entire town of Bad Reichenhall except for the one spot where my house had stood. The property had been absorbed by the park and Marienbadstrasse turned into a walkway with flowers and benches. I couldn’t believe it. How could my house disappear? The lot had been entirely razed and replanted. None of my bushes were there. My little library, my tall trees, my blue shade, all gone. I could find no shred of my former life there. But the town, well, the town was still the same, except that the whole main street had been turned into a pedestrian mall. But still, some of the magic remained. I would not let go.
Now my father is gone. My mother has another life. Even the weight of all the words said and left unsaid has evaporated. We sailed out of that dark storm into a shining cove of calm water.
The pain of the past is shed as water, shaken off as dark dreams that never really were. The pale scrawny refugee and all the rest that followed, along with the millions of souls following me, melted off like running water.
A while ago the mountains on my horizon began to resemble those around Bad Reichenhall, even if they are further away, and the shadows began to look blue. The fragrance wasn’t there, but it was close enough to give a fleeting feeling that I was still a child in Bad Reichenhall. I learned to sustain the exact feeling for minutes at a time. It feels like regaining a lost world.
It is only after turning my whole world into Bad Reichenhall that it appears to me in a dream. After so many years of longing to dream of it. I dreamed I met my mother in the street. We had been expecting to meet and spent some time looking for each other. After going through all my beloved streets I found her, in front of the café. All was calm. The trees, the shops, the park, it was all there, even the house, brought into being by the magic of the mind.
I awoke as from a long illness.
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...