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I stand here ironing, facing the wall, but there’s a big window in my mind, floor to ceiling, and through it pours a white light.
I’m ironing a silk blouse I bought at the Goodwill, old ivory with same-shade silk embroidery down the front. The buttons are intricately knotted ribbon. The cream colored silk goes flat and shining under the point of the iron. I can just fall into a color like this. The flowered motif blooms from the fabric, the work so delicate and perfect it’s hard to believe it came from human hands.
In addition to this blouse, I’ve got a dozen others, also bought at the Goodwill, all of them different.
I’ve always felt comfortable with silk. I don’t mean wearing it—you can’t DO anything when you’ve got it on. You can’t cook, bake, garden, paint or even wash your hands. I mean I feel comfortable cleaning and restoring it. I wash it by hand in icy water, use a yellow bar of naphtha soap on the stains, rinse it endlessly, wring it out, hang it up to dry, taking a full ten or fifteen minutes to smooth the whole thing out. Iron damp, very hot, the fabric crackles and takes on a sheen.
I am in an Imperial laundry room in ancient China. There are about 30 others here. We are washing and ironing all of the silk clothing of the Imperial court.
I am young, about 17, with two long braids swaying in front of me as I iron, with only the point of a heavy iron heated over charcoal, the intricate cutwork and embroidered details.
These clothes are very beautiful. The piece I’m ironing would be worn by a young lady of the house, perhaps to view the blossoms or the moon.
The moon, I suddenly realize, would really illuminate silk. This ivory blouse would come alive and glow with a moonlight of its own.
I am not envious that she is rich and I am poor. I have a lover. He works in the foundry. We meet in the evenings under the moon and the trees.
The volume of clothes is just enormous, mountains of it. The Imperial laundry serves several hundred people, it seems, though I know the number is much smaller and the reason for the load is that everyone changes six times a day.
It is all made of silk, from the shimmering undergarments rippling like water, to the stiff outer garments heavily embroidered with colored dragons.
1500 years ago.
I try to visualize it as I iron a cuff, its edge as detailed as a snowflake. I try to rouse the Marxist in me to anger, that the rich can do nothing more than lounge around in silk while the people work for them night and day.
But all I see is the incredible handwork of another woman like me, who has made this thing.
What the rich are doing is no concern of mine. That I am poor and must work, I would rather work. The true Imperial daughter is the one who cut the shining silk and sewed it into this garment; and the one who embroidered it. And me, who stands on swollen legs twenty years later, having married my lover and born him many children, who irons this piece, who resurrects it from drowning and crushing and makes it new again.
The Wizard of Ice
It was the day after a major blizzard which left the town sitting in two feet of snow. The sun was out, hard as a diamond, the turquoise sky brilliant. It was as if the town had been set into whipped cream. Around Eva’s house it lay in pure white mounds. There was so much of it the pine trees’ jade branches were pinned to the ground.
From icicles on the eaves, water dripped briefly, only for an hour, then refroze, even longer than before.
It seemed like a calm day with most of the city frozen, but it was a Monday and just a few minutes after 4:00 in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was Eva’s mother.
“Daddy’s gone,” she said in a low voice.
“What do you mean, gone?”
“He was kidnapped. Someone stole the car with him in it.”
“That’s incredible! When? Just now? Where was the car?”
“I picked him up from that daycare center he goes to on Mondays and we’d stopped for dinner. We came out to the car and I put him in. Then I remembered I’d left my scarf inside. I went back to get it and when I came out, the car was gone.”
“Oh my God!”
“It took me half an hour in this snow just to find a phone. The restaurant didn’t have a pay phone and refused to let me use theirs even though I said it was an emergency. By the time the police showed up it had been 45 minutes.”
“Oh God, he could be anywhere by now. Half way to Kansas. But why do you think the car was stolen? Maybe he drove it away.”
“He hasn’t driven in a year. He can’t even open the door by himself. He would have had to unbuckle his seatbelt, open the door, go around to the other side, get in and turn on the engine….”
“You didn’t leave the engine running?”
“The engine wasn’t on but the key was in the ignition. He would have had to turn it on, put it into reverse, and back out. He could never do all that.”
Eva tried to think. If her father was driving the car, the scenario she favored, he would have run a red light or had a smash-up within a few minutes.
“How long has it been?”
“A good hour by now. I don’t know what to do. The police gave me a ride home. I want to go look for him but I can’t leave because the police might call and say they found him and I don’t have a car. I can’t believe it. It’s like a nightmare. I just looked away from him for one minute, and he was gone.”
“I’ll be right over.”
She left a note for her husband and kids, put on her coat and drove twelve miles to her mother’s house. This was the house where she had grown up. She sat down on the white couch, next to her mother, and gazed at the intricate white Vienna-style curtains on the windows.
Her mother looked defeated. Her dark doe eyes seemed larger than ever. She was clearly terrified, but numb, in shock. For a while they sat looking out towards the black night, waiting for the phone to ring.
I can’t believe this is happening,” Lydia James put her face in her hands and began to cry. “I’ll never forgive myself. Who knows where he is now? Maybe laying scared, bloody, cold and hungry in a ditch. Whoever took the car would hit him over the head and push him out by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I can see his face in front of my eyes! Like a scared child. He’ll think I left him there. I’ll never be able to live with myself!”
“Mom, please.” Eva was in shock and felt very turgid. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. A fleeting sensation of relief flooded through her. If he was gone then the problem was gone. God had with the great palm of his hand swept Henry James away. They wouldn’t have to worry any more about lawyers, assets, power of attorneys, living wills, nursing homes. For a brief instant, their main problem of daily and nightly care had vanished. It seemed perfect, but only for an instant, when she realized that if he were never found, she would never know what happened to him and would end up going from flophouse to shelter looking for him, looking every wino in the face, trying to recognize him, for where would he end up if he survived? She could see herself going from one soup kitchen to another, searching for him, the rest of her life. It was unbearable.
“Why are you so sure the car was stolen?”
“There was an old junky car stuck nearby. I think the driver of that car was watching for an opportunity.”
“Why haven’t the police found him yet? They must be looking for the car. Maybe we should call the police station and all the hospitals again. Then let’s go look for him.”
They got on the phone and placed a few calls, yielding nothing. Then some concerned neighbors turned up to wait by the phone, while Eva and her mother went into the night to look for Henry. Eva drove up and down the boulevard adjacent to the restaurant. If he’d driven off himself he might have parked the car and gone into a restaurant or store if he was cold and hungry. They searched in every parking lot for the car, and in every store for him, looking up and down empty aisles. But nothing turned up and at 9:00 P.M. all the stores closed. They locked their doors and turned off the lights. Eva ran in and out of several restaurants. They drove back and forth on a few main boulevards, looking at pedestrians but it was too dark to see. The city was completely frozen and as black as the tomb.
By 9:30 they had no option but to return home and let the neighbors go. Mr. and Mrs. Prentice had both come over, and brought their adult daughter with them. When Eva suggested they all go home, they refused. Valerie, their daughter, had either come with them or surfaced later, Eva couldn’t remember, her senses were so slowed.
Valerie Prentice felt helpless. “Let’s go out again to look for him. I’ll go with you, leave your mother here. Let’s take some photographs of him down to the TV stations and try to get him on the 10:00 o’clock news.”
Eva looked at her watch. It was 9:40. Their hands swam through a box of photographs and they picked out a few, then bundled up against what was now a totally frozen night.
Why Eva offered to drive, she didn’t know. Her big old Mercedes had bald tires and the brake light had been coming on for months, she didn’t think her brakes were that good. Also, as they pulled into the night, like a ship on black water, she realized she hadn’t brought her glasses, which she used for movies and night driving. Now the streetlamps and headlights of other cars bloomed, each with ten halos.
The night was black and cold as outer space. The streets leading downtown were almost deserted. The entire city lay under a thick meringue of frozen snow, bisected by streets of solid ice.
In a daze, Eva guided her ship through lunar streets until she got to the first TV station. The doors to the building were locked and a buzzer finally brought out a security guard who listened to their story and agreed to take one of the photographs to the inner sanctum, promising nothing. At two more stations it was the same. At the last one their were no security doors, they just walked in and found themselves in a chaotic smoke-filled room jammed with metal desks and chairs with fifty or so people milling around. They stated their business and were led to two chairs. A young man with rolled shirtsleeves faced them. Eva stared at the sea of half-filled styrofoam cups and overflowing ashtrays.
“My father has Alzheimer’s and is lost in the city tonight. Maybe you could put his picture on the news so that people can help us find him.”
“Have you got a police report?”
“Yes. He’s been missing since 4:00 P.M. Case number 2483259.”
“It’s too late to get it on tonight.”
“But the news is still on.”
“We can’t put it on until 24 hours have passed or everyone in the city will be wanting us to look for people. We just can’t do it.”
“But he’s an older man and it’s below zero outside. He’ll freeze to death.”
“Leave the picture. If he hasn’t turned up, maybe we can get it on at 6:00 A.M.”
Dejected and hopeless, Eva cautiously maneuvered her big black car through the ice-maze of downtown and towards her mother’s house.
Eva and Valerie trudged back into the house. The police had not called. There was nothing. The Prentice family insisted on staying, but at midnight Eva persuaded them to go home, with the promise that, if her father turned up, she would call them, even in the middle of the night.
Then they were alone, she and her mother in the dimly lit room that resembled a stage set from Chekhov, with the awful truth that her father was missing on this freezing deserted winter night.She hoped they would find his body. She couldn’t live with having to search for him through the shelters and soup-kitchens of America.
He did not even know his name, much less his address or phone number. Even if he survived, he had no way of telling anyone who he was or where he belonged.
“He must have some I.D. on him,” Eva said. “Someone will find him and call us.”
“No. No I.D. at all.”
“Didn’t he have an I.D. bracelet?”
“I took it off a few days ago. It was chafing his wrist. I was going to get a different band.”
“Nothing in his pockets?”
“Nothing. I needed to change his clothes several times a day. Oh, I’ll never be able to live with myself!”
Her mother looked like a vision from the netherworld, like an Ophelia, her eyes red with crying, her hair in disarray. Lydia had taken off her wig and put on a dressing gown. Her whole body was shaking violently.
“He’s lying in a ditch, wet and crying. I can see his face before my eyes.”
“Mom. Sit down. Let’s just sit and wait.”
Her mother, who loved opera, looked like a diva on the brink of doom.
“You can drive me to Echo Lake.” This was the site her mother envisioned for suicide. An excellent swimmer, Lydia had once said that she would swim to the center of this mountain lake, a mere hour’s drive away, and go down.
“Please Mom, just sit down, they’ll find him.”
“It’s my fault! How could I take my eyes off him even for a minute?” Lydia was crying and wringing a cloth. Her grief was overwhelming. Anna embraced her and forced her onto the couch.
“Let’s sit here and wait.”
“You go home. Your family needs you. I can wait by myself. I’ll be alright.”
“No, I’ll wait with you until they find him.” This could take days or weeks, Eva thought.
They settled into sitting, and sat, and waited. The minutes seemed frozen and what felt like an eternity went by. Eva could not imagine that anyone could steal the car so quickly, but even if someone had, they would have put her father out. Even so, the car would be found. The state patrol was on the lookout for it. They could find the car but not her father.
Let’s assume, she tried another tact, that her father had, somehow, driven away himself. He would have run a red light or crashed into someone and they would have found him by now. then, he may have left the car somewhere, gotten out and walked away, immediately lost, he got lost in his own house. He would freeze to death on a night like this. The temperature was ten below zero. The sky was clear and the hard stars shone but the city was like a freezer, as if on a planet too far from the sun.
He would die, he would probably die on this night, if not found. There was nothing she could do. She felt completely stripped and helpless. The sitting was endless. They could wait for days. She jumped up.
“I’m going to look for Daddy.”
“Wait, I’m coming with you.”
“No, you stay here in case the phone rings.”
“I can’t stay here by myself. I’ll go crazy with worry for both of you.”
It was 4:00 A.M. but time had stopped for Eva. She stood by the foyer, holding her coat. The sheer magnitude of this event, which she could not alter, paralyzed her.
Henry didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but he found himself on a deserted street glazed with ice. Abandoned warehouses and a few wretched dwellings looked trapped in an ice age that had somehow enveloped the world since he last looked. He could see it was the middle of the night, some eternal frozen night illuminated by dim streetlamps whose lights bloomed. He struggled to get up. He took off his shoes. He took off his coat and threw it aside. He began to move. Toward the light. Several blocks down he could see more lights, blooming like electric flowers. Purple shadows lay across thick white blankets of snow, patterned like quilts. A sharp wind blew, rattling the branches and pieces of paper swirled through the streets. He ran after them. Important messages for him were written on them, but each time he finally grabbed one, the message dissolved. It’s a conspiracy to drive me crazy, he decided. He continued stumbling towards greater bunches of lights, which receded from him as in a dream. “The women are waiting,” he began to sing, “for the prince to return from the seas. But the seas are frozen and the ship won’t return, pity me, pity me.” He crashed into the corner of a metal dumpster and cut his face open. He reached up and felt something warm. In the alley a black dog was nosing through refuse. Henry was afraid of dogs. Always had been. In his family, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, on their deathbeds, had all seen a black dog enter the room. A black dog no one else could see. He turned and stumbled in the other direction, the black dog following him. The Milky Way was thrown across the sky like a starry shawl, the moon lit the landscape like a lamp, glinting off icicles sharp as daggers. “Under the full moon I found my love,” he sang, “but the moon waned and now we’re old.” “Under the full moon,” he tried again, “everything is cold.” Cold. Why is it so cold? Where is everyone? Are there no longer any people? Am I the only one left? Like the sole survivor of a neutron bomb he stumbled through glacial streets. Except for the dog there was not a soul to be seen. He moved faster, the dog after him. This is an experiment, he thought. A scientific experiment. He had still not reached any meaningful bank of lights. He had not seen a single car go by. He was moving slower and slower. His feet, in socks, felt nothing. His hands, when he looked at them, were covered with blood from his head. The quilts of snow, patterned with the moonlit shadows of branches, began to look like a feather quilt he’d had as a child. He washed his hands in snow and looked at them again. He looked at his hands a long time. They were blue. He lifted his pant leg. He was all blue. “Don’t fly away,” he sang. “Don’t leave me here all blue.” He tried again. “I’m blue for you.” By God, a blue man in a white night followed by a black dog which will probably bite off and eat my hands. “Don’t cry for me, I’m coming home.” Home. It was a unique thought for him. Home. Do I have a home? Where is my home? He tried to picture it. There was the vast apartment of his childhood with its dim drapery-hung rooms above teeming-traffic streets, where he played with his brothers and mourned his mother, lying pale as ivory in a brocade bedroom. He had seen the soul vanish from his mother’s face. She lay like a dead doll made of china. He had lifted her cold white hand to his lips, to his eyes. He had cried waterfalls of tears. Then there was his room near the university, into which sunlight poured. Maybe he could make it back to that room, littered with books, air filled, through which music washed. Then he remembered Lydia, his love, radiant as a Byzantine icon dipped in gold. Once wed, they had rented a small brick bungalow with mirrored walls. He could clearly see the large square mirrors, one above the fireplace, the other covering an entire dining room wall. Large squares of light. Sheer light. He would go there, to these rooms of floating light. He would walk in and find his 20-year old Lydia. But wait, there was yet another place full of crystal and lamps, across from a park where he jogged every day. He could see the park clearly, with all its trees and green ground, green, green, green. The birds are singing and there is a baseball game. All the people of the neighborhood are taking their daily turns through the park, a blue paved path like a Mobius strip, never ending, around and around, as the trees sweep past him, as he runs, the green trees and their greener shadows spinning as if he were on a merry-go-round. The turning platform of the green park spinning like a record. And his blond brick house. There is the driveway. There’s the front door, with its golden knocker. He lets himself in and goes to the bright yellow kitchen for a drink of water. Lydia is there, ready with lunch. They sit on the patio next to the garden filled with roses. His children are grown and gone. He stares at the lawn, green as Ireland. Where is that green world? Where is my home? The snow-covered rooftops glimmer like fluorescent rectangles. He is lost in the geometry of space. I’ll just lay down a bit and rest. Pull the feather quilt over me. When I wake it will be that summer place, green, green. Don’t wait for me. It’s a long time coming, a long time gone. Lydia! He seemed closer to the sea of lights than before. He could see streams of light flowing down a distant street. Lights of different colored neon blinking and blooming like fireworks. Lights spilling like jewels just there, so near, so far away. He stumbled on a jagged curb and did not get up again. He could not feel his feet. He had no feet, no legs, no hands, no body. He was just a heap of clothes left out for the trash collectors. He was no one and nothing. He had never been anyone. The rooms of all his homes flashed past him like dreams. The black dog came over and sniffed him, licked his blue bloody head. Henry floated like a ghost through all his luminous ghostly rooms, the rooms of a lifetime, lived and unlived, dreams fulfilled and dreams abandoned. And the deep freezer of the night with its distant flowing lights brought his mind to a standstill. All was white and frozen. He was trapped in a block of clear ice. He curled up and pulled the quilt over himself, the quilt of moonlight. All is forgotten, he realized. He could not remember anything. With open eyes he lay, now warm as a child in its bed, gazing at the fountain of colored lights. It’s so beautiful, he thought. It’s all so beautiful.
And the dog’s tongue felt like his mother’s hand stroking his face. With the jagged curb as his pillow he lay in a sea of swirling colored ice. Distant traffic on the street of lights sounded like the sea.
In the waiting room the women sat, trapped in the tableau of doom. Time dripped like an icicle and froze up again. It ceased to move. They had gone far beyond words. Lydia was sobbing. Eva was getting desperate. Would this awful night never end? It was like one of those nights when you fly to the other side of the world, when the night is two nights long. This night was already three nights long and she felt herself half-way to Mars.
Help me! Something within her cried out, the thought flung straight above her and caught the image of her grandmother, whom she was named for but had never known, dead before Eva was born. Help him! Help your son, your child! Help us find him!
The phone rang. The phone was ringing. It was ringing in the bedroom far away, like a hallucination.
They ran to get it. Eva picked it up with trembling hands.
“Is Henry James there?”
“No,” said Eva, let down. “He’s missing,” she added.
“Not anymore, he’s not!” chirped a cheerful voice. “We’ve got him!”
“It’s a miracle! A sheer miracle! How did he get there?”
“A patrolman dropped him off.”
“How did you know to call us?” Eva asked incredulously.
“He was able to tell us his name. We had him in our database.”
“It’s a miracle! What condition is he in, where was he found?”
“He was picked up on Broadway, on foot and half frozen. They brought him in half an hour ago. We’re treating him for hypothermia, but in an hour or so you’ll be able to take him home.”
It was a miracle, nothing short of a miracle. She’d never realized prayer could affect things that fast.
The two women fixed themselves some tea and her mother got dressed. Then they drove across town.
It was 5:00 A.M. and the frozen city trapped in the eternal night of outer space turned blue.
Driving home they asked him the same three questions again and again.
But he couldn’t tell them anything.
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...