WHR January 2016
RED AND BLACK
Anita Virgil, USA
“Should be some haiku hanging around the house with a painter up and down ladders with paint cans and brushes, etc. In fact, seems to me I recall seeing a number of painting-the-house haiku. I even wrote one myself. Think it was just about an empty ladder.
quiet spring day
Cor van den Heuvel
an empty ladder leans against
the side of the house” 1
Oh Cor, what to write about getting the house painted at last this spring? The delicious smell of fresh paint? The suppressed joy of seeing all come to a perfect conclusion, layered over by small gestures of cordiality for the fine workmanship I watch unfold? Offerings. Simple gifts. Hot coffee with cream and sugar on chilly mornings when his white truck pulls up, ladders on its roof. Ice cold soda in the hot afternoons when his fatigue kicks in. How to make connection with a stranger? A dedicated worker. And quite a religious soul I learn from things he says. At his mention of Armageddon, the parameters are established. Yet this once I quietly counter, “The book I read about the Middle Ages said back then, too, many felt it close by. . .” Early one afternoon, he leaves for a church event; another day he tells of his trip to Israel with his church group.
One day—of the many it takes to do the whole exterior what with spring rains interfering -- I hear the clanking of ladders, ratcheting up. Outside, before he begins work, we pause to talk. He looks up at the Japanese maple and says he has a tree like that—but something is wrong with it. “ No leaves in the middle. “ To find out what to do, I tell him first he has to know what kind of tree it is. He’s not sure it is like mine. “Take some leaves from my tree with you. “ He does not.
Next day, I hear his truck pull in. “Coffee?” He nods and comes to the door bearing a twig with bronze leaves, somewhat like the Japanese maple’s. But not. While he goes about painting, I look them up. Norway maple. What ails it he must find out from an arborist. Still, how warm it makes me feel that he brought me leaves from his sick tree.
Today, the Promethean task draws near its close. All chinks sealed over, paper wasp nests chipped off, mildew wiped away, woodpecker holes filled, old paint sanded smooth, carpenter bee holes caulked, and the black woodwork where it meets the ivory stucco--every edge crisp and clean. The front door glossy red. I offer a wedge of Glazed Orange Cake. Its recipe from Fanny Pierson Crane’s 1796 cookbook, fuzzy soft from use over the years. And this cake, made with the chopped rind of an orange and dotted with raisins has a crusty blistered topping: a glaze of granulated sugar wetted with a bit of orange juice and bourbon. When the cake is baked, the sugar mixture is spread on top and sizzled “with a red hot salamander.” 2
But why, in colonial days, did they call it a “salamander”? I have salamanders in my woods. A tiny young one [a red eft] found its way out to the edge near the driveway. Fiery red. Not much of a stretch to perceive it as something dangerously hot. (Nevermind it is damp and cool from the forest floor’s litter where it begins its life.) In states of ignorance and awe at what man-with-dominion-over-all
beholds in his piece of world, this creature gains attributes that reach far beyond its nature. But not beyond man’s imagination at a primitive animistic level. To minds accepting witches, devils, ghosts and such, this innocuous five-inch amphibian is given magical attributes. It is believed to go through fire unscathed. By such rationale, it is transmogrified into an iron cooking tool.
And then we spoke about the Shaker village in his hometown of Alfred, Maine. His admiration for Shaker pieces. Mine, too! We both have examples of their chairs. Along with my weaver’s chair is my ladderback rocker, lightweight as can be “with the peculiar grace due to the maker’s belief that an angel might come and sit on it.” 5
The fine paint job proceeds. All along, admiring his skill, I tell him he is an artist. He denies he has any talent. I remind him what the Shakers say: “Hands to work, Hearts to God. That’s you. “
On his knees, his final task--painting the chocolate syrup brown porch floor. As the birds arrive on time at the feeder waiting for seed, another question occurs to me before he goes out of my life: “Maybe you know why many porch ceilings on the big 19th century houses here are painted light blue? For coolness? To emulate more sky?”
“To keep the birds from nesting on the porch,“ he says. And then thinking more on it, brushing paint, he looks up at me, adds: “Some man told me painting that light blue keeps out the spirits. The haints.” 6
1. Personal correspondence: by permission Cor van den Heuvel and Anita Virgil, April 2015.
2. Fanny Pierson Crane Her Receipts 1796 Confections, Savouries and Drams adapted 1972
for Israel Crane House, Montclair Historical Society NJ.
3. iron salamander
4. photo: red salamander Bill Peterman, by permission.
5. Thomas Merton 1840. Shaker rocker: shakerworkshops.com.
6. haint is a Southern U.S. colloquialism for ghost, apparition, lost soul.
7. A.V. allusion to “In my hut this spring,/ There is nothing--/ there is everything!” Sodo Yamaguchi.
THE TWO DOLLAR MYSTERY
Anita Virgil, USA
Aubrey Beardsley “Salome”
On the thrift store book shelf the sign reads Hardcovers $2.00 Paperbacks $1.00.
I reach for The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.* Yellow dust jacket by Aubrey Beardsley, good as new.
Amid the scent of roses, honeysuckle, and the buzzing relentless carpenter bees, I open the huge book to its end and for the first time read De Profundis. Such a veiled J’accuse to a selfish and worthless pretty face that poisoned an already dangerous existence! Wilde’s veering off into morals and religious philosophizing at the end does not lessen the main cry of a broken man.
On and on I race through pages to more highlighted admonitions of Lord Henry, such as: “Live the wonderful life that is in you ! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants.”[ p.32]. Over halfway through the story, he declares: ”You will always be fond of me, Dorian. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.” [ p.70].
As this new layer of reading proceeds, the heavy book’s dust jacket keeps sliding off and with growing impatience, I keep fitting it back on. Anxious to return to what has become a peculiar quest for answers to other than the original story. Finally, folding the slippery jacket over the inside cover again, I notice an almost-hidden inscription. It is clearly written in small precise upright printing. [I delete the full names here. ]
From: L _____________
10th Grade English teacher
as a graduation present
June 23rd, 1998 6:00 pm
How very odd. Obviously this notation was placed in the book by the recipient -- years later . What struck me most of all was the inclusion of “6:00 pm” . . . Ah, the persistence of memory! Surely, some great significance accrues to that unique detail.
I read on, and wonder: Are there more under-scored passages in this volume? Flipping through the thousand pages, they only appear in The Picture of Dorian Gray! Another piece of the puzzle fits. My fingers, still holding onto the heft of pages, sense something bumpy under them.
On the very first blank page opposite the inscription, the bottom right corner has an elegant-looking embossed seal. Impossible to read the tiny letters encircling it. Lifting the book into direct sunlight, I tilt it, create shadows of relief. In the center is a square containing the initial “F.” The four corners of the square show the tops of fleurs de lis like sun rays. “From the life and time of” circles the top half of the seal, and the lower half is filled with the full name of the recipient. ( In the inscription, he only used his middle initial. It is a match.)
Not far from the closing scenes of horror: “Moments when passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature, that every fibre of the body…seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women …lose the freedom of their will.…Choice is taken from them , and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all , lives but to give rebellion its fascination, and disobedience its charm . . . “ [ p.144].
I feel I am eavesdropping on an incipient relationship of the late 20th century. Not that it is anything new at all. But in 1895, British sodomy laws were firmly in place when the enraged father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Marquess of Queensbury, left a calling card addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite”, [sic]. The famous playwright promptly filed a civil suit against Queensbury for libel. Wilde’s case failed when evidence of his true behavior was presented tot eh court by Queensbury’s lawyers. For the criminal offense of “gross indecency,” he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned at Reading Goal for two years’ hard labor.
The subtext told by all the underlinings in my second-hand volume leads me to infer this English teacher was successful at drawing a very young student into an entanglement like Wilde's.
* The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1994
Out of the Mouths of Babes
I'm out with my young daughter for an early morning walk. We notice our dog stop up ahead on the path, sniffing at something on the ground. We wonder what it's found. As we near, we see that there's a dead bird with a broken wing. My daughter becomes upset as she wonders how it happened and if there's a family in a nest somewhere waiting for its return. She insists that we bury it and say a prayer. When we get home, I tell my wife about the dead pigeon. My daughter corrects me by saying that it was a dove and not a pigeon. When I tell her that they're the same thing, she says that what we name something is important and that in school she learned that doves symbolize peace. This, she states, is why we had to say a prayer.
Tug of war
My baby listens to his bedtime story. Once the story is over he showers me with kisses all over my face and says
"Anna! Come sleep with me now"
"I have work to do son. It is very late, close your eyes now."
"Ok will you sit with me for another minute?"
Five minutes pass and he is still awake. I sternly tell him to go to sleep. As I am about to walk off
"Anna! Give me one last hug"
Putting his little arms around me tightly, gleefully he declares
"I won't let you go now. You can't go to Manchester tomorrow"
In a minute I hear his soft snores in my ear.
WHR January 2016 >