illustrated by adelaide wylde bunch
this is a work of fiction. any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
chapter 4: through the sky
princess atusa could hear the sky's fingertips
playing an anxious tune on the trembling window
the expectant air in the room moved heavily around her face
she could smell something new
a blue bird darted through the gray sky
shrieking ominously when passing by her window
on the shore the scene she'd been visualizing for months was taking place:
the thunder of her voice echoed in the dim room
frightening the maid behind the door
the tray of food was pushed hesitantly into the room
accompanied by the maid's shaky voice:
the queen personally will visit you this afternoon to inquire about the lost silver teaspoons
princess atusa's eyes inspected the loaded tray agitatedly
when the door was locked once again
she rushed to the tray and grabbed the small silver teaspoon:
the last one!
another thunder echoed in the room
she took out a bottle from under her bed
filled with a dark sticky liquid
the silver teaspoon was bogging in the potion now
sending tiny green bubbles into the air
seven drops of blood
dripping from her thumb
set the potion afire
she capped the bottle
shaking it frenziedly:
this afternoon i'll be just a shadow!
thus commences the quest for the golden cobra
that begins with her
and ends with me
a bloody battle between the lamb and the tiger
and my weapon will be
As soft as her hand was, she had a strong grip. Every few steps or so she would lift her feet off the pavement and let me carry her along.
“Just like flying!” she said, holding up her free arm. “I’m not too heavy, am I?”
“No,” I said.
She added her right hand to the left one that was already holding my right hand, and she did a chin-up, turning to look up at me.
“You seem awfully calm about my antics, Arnold. Most men would toss me into the nearest bush and run screaming. Why are you so nonchalant?”
“It’s all in a day’s work for me,” I said.
“I knew it! You’re special!”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I said.
“Can you lift me higher?”
I lifted her up a bit more, so that her face was almost at a level with mine.
“Lift me higher, Arnold!”
I stretched my arm all the way up.
She swung back and forth, kicking her legs.
“Higher!” she said.
“That’s as high as I can go,” I said.
“Oh, we can go much higher!” Keeping a grip on my hand with her left hand, she let go with her other hand and stretched her arm up into the air. “Hold tight now!”
And all at once it was not me lifting her but she lifting me, pulling me up off the pavement, swerving out over the street and up past the thick leaves of an old elm tree, beyond the dappled pools of light from the street lamps and up perhaps a hundred feet or so.
“Which direction shall we go in, Arnold?”
“Your choice,” I said. (Perhaps I should mention here that I still held her grey cardboard box under my left arm.) “But let’s make it quick. I really have to get back to my friends.”
“To the ocean then?”
“Okay, a quick run to the ocean, then right back.”
We flew over the rooftops, past Washington Street, Carpenter’s Lane, Hughes Street, no one looked up, and so no one noticed man and small child flying above their heads, and on we sailed past Columbia Avenue and Beach Avenue and over the promenade flowing with strolling people, over the slivery beach and the ebbing and flowing surf and on about a hundred yards or so out over the gently undulating dark and gleaming ocean.
Clarissa then zoomed straight up for a couple of minutes until we were perhaps three or four hundred yards above the sea. Her dark curls floated around her head as if she were underwater. She continued to hold me up by my right arm, gripping my hand in her small but powerful fist.
“Right, now kick your feet, Arnold,” she said, “as if you were treading water. Like this.”
By the thrashing of the folds of her dress I could see she was rhythmically working her small legs, almost as if she were riding a tricycle. I did the same, and now we were holding our height at a steady level, looking down at the glowing and sparkling town.
“It looks very beautiful from up here, doesn’t it, Arnold?”
“Yes, it does,” I admitted. The air was cool and fresh up here, smelling faintly of the ocean. “Can we go back now?”
“In a minute. I want you to try letting go of my hand. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you if you fall.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What don’t you know? Don’t be such a big party poop, Arnold!”
“Well -- all right,” I said. “I’ll give it a try.”
“Oh good, now, when I let go, just sort of wave your arms up and down, just as if you were doggy-paddling in the ocean, like so.” She demonstrated with her free right arm.”
“You forget I’m holding this box.”
“Just wave with your one arm then. It’s only to keep you steady in one place.”
“And keep kicking your legs. That’s key.”
“Legs up and down, and sort of steady yourself with your right arm, in a paddling motion.”
“Got it,” I said.
“All right. Leave go now.”
I let go of her hand, she let go of my hand, I continued to kick my feet, I started to wave my arms downwards, and I dropped like a stone, straight down toward the ocean like a sack of potatoes.
For some reason I still held onto that cardboard box, don’t ask me why.
But then just as I was about to crash into the water back-first the doll Clarissa swooped me up in her arms and carried me skimming along the crests of the waves and then up high into the dark air again. I couldn’t believe her strength, but there it was.
“Well, Arnold, I suppose you’re not so special after all,” she said into my ear.
And I supposed she was right.
“Mr. Jones?” said a woman, and Mr. Jones’s shoulders flinched again.
His interlocutor was a lady behind the screen door of the entranceway. Mr. Jones swiveled deftly about to face her, almost falling down as he did so. I reached forward with my left hand and grabbed his upper left arm.
The woman pushed the door open.
“Ah, Mrs. Davenport,” he said, “Looking lovelier than ever.”
She stood there with her shoulder holding the door open, her arms folded, and she looked from Mr. Jones to me. She was about forty or so, slender, wearing shorts and a flowered sleeveless top. Her hair was red, and wavy, almost curly.
“Who’s your friend, Mr. Jones?” she asked.
“Arnold,” said Mr. Jones. “He was nice enough to walk me home. Chivalry is not quite dead.”
It seemed to me that Mrs. Davenport was looking at me suspiciously, or at least warily.
Then Mr. Jones collapsed, again, falling back against me. I still had the doll box under my right arm, so I continued to hold him up awkwardly with my left hand gripping his upper left arm.
“Oh no,” said Mrs. Davenport, and she came down the two or three steps to us, the screen door closing behind her.
“Can you take this box?” I said.
She took the box, and I was now able to get my right arm around Mr. Jones.
“Sorry,” I said. “I just met him on the street, and I thought I’d better get him home.”
“That was nice of you,” she said. “Do you mind helping me get him to his room?”
“Not at all,” I said.
She went ahead up the steps and held the door open. I lugged him up through the doorway.
“He’s on the third floor?” I asked.
“He told you that?”
“No, he’s no longer on the third floor. I couldn’t have him climbing those stairs drunk every night. He’s got the first room on the left in here.”
I dragged him into the hall, I was holding him up with both arms around his chest. His straw hat fell off.
“I’ll get his hat,” said Mrs. Davenport, and she did so. “Here, let me get the door.”
The door was unlocked, she opened it, flicked on an overhead light.
“Bring him in.”
It was a small neat room, with a small brass bed. I laid Mr. Jones down on it.
Mrs. Davenport put the hat on the bedpost. She handed me back the doll box, then she slipped off Mr. Jones's shoes, cordovan loafers, and laid them side by side on the rug next to the bed.
Then she leaned over the old man, patted his chest, and reached into his suit coat and took out a pair of glasses in an old cracked leather case, laid the glasses on the night table.
“Of course he’s blind as a bat, but he won’t wear his glasses. He’s terribly vain.”
She bent over him again, loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar, then she stood up straight, turned and looked at me. She wiped her hands on her shorts.
“I refuse to undress him,” she said.
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
He lay there on his back in his grey suit, his mouth slightly open, his arms at his side.
“I’ll put the window fan on,” she said. There were two windows, and a fan was installed in the one closest to the head of the bed. She went over and turned it on.
“All right, he’ll be okay now,” she said.
I went back out into the hall and the lady followed me, putting out the light and closing the door. She turned and looked at me, and then at the box.
“What’s in the box, anyway?”
“An antique doll,” I said.
“Ah. For your daughter?”
“Well, no, I’m actually holding it for a friend of mine, who’s going to give it to his girlfriend, I think.”
“I see. What was your name again?”
“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.”
“I’ve seen you around town. I’m Myrna. Davenport.”
She offered her hand. I transferred the box from my right arm to my left, and I took her hand.
“Well, I have to get back to the end of my movie. I only got up because a commercial came on. They’re showing Sayonara.”
I could hear Marlon Brando’s voice from down the hall.
“Good night,” I said. I was about to turn and go but she said:
“Are you staying here all summer?”
“I -- yes, I suppose so,” I said.
“With your family?”
“With my mother. And my aunts.”
“Oh. You’re not married?”
“Never been married?”
“I’m a widow. My husband died of a heart attack a couple of years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“He was fourteen years older than me,” she said. “He left us a nice nest egg.”
“I have two teenagers, a boy and a girl. One is at band camp, the other one is a counselor at another summer camp.”
Marlon was still talking, in the background, but Mrs. Davenport didn’t seem concerned.
“I enjoy running my little house,” she said. “I teach school here in the winter. So what do you do that you can take the whole summer off?”
Finally someone in this town who didn’t know my whole sad history.
“I’m on a disability leave from my job with the railroad,” I said.
“You don’t look ill.”
Amazingly she didn’t ask what my illness was.
“Well, good night, then, Mr. --”
“Schnabel,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.
“Good night, Arnold. Thank you for bringing Mr. Jones home safely.”
“Good night, Mrs. Davenport.”
“Good night, Myrna.”
I went down the steps and around the house and to the front path.
“Very much the ladies’ man, aren’t you, Arnold?” said the doll.
“Not really,” I said, going through the gate and turning right.
“Could she have been any more obvious?”
“She was only being friendly,” I said.
“Desperately friendly. Open the box.”
I stopped and took the lid off. She sat up in the box. She touched my face. Her touch was warm and soft.
“I think I’d like to walk a while,” she said, and, she leaned forward and put her little arms around my neck. “Let me down now.
I bent forward till her feet were about a foot from the pavement, and she let go and landed gracefully, her long dress billowing up a bit as she did and then slowly deflating.
“Been rather a long time since I’ve been out of that dusty shop,” she said. She smoothed out her dress with her tiny hands. “Now take my hand and let’s stroll.”
She held up her hand.
“I can’t walk you into the Ugly Mug like this,” I said.
“We’ll just walk till we get to the corner of Decatur Street, then I’ll pop back into my box. Until we get to the bar of course. I so want to meet your friends.”
She wiggled the fingers of her upraised hand.
“But you’ll promise to be still and not talk?” I said.
“Well, all right."
I put the lid back on the box, put the box back under my arm, and took her hand. She had to hold her arm all the way up in order to put her hand in mine. We strolled along the pavement, the trees making their wishes above the streetlamps.
A young couple came walking along in our direction and when they came near us the woman said:
“Oh, what a darling little girl!”
She had a southern accent. She was a pretty blond young woman in a puffy dress, her hair sprayed into the shape of a mushroom, or a rutabaga.
The woman stopped and bent forward in front of the doll, which of course forced us to stop as well.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Clarissa,” said the doll.
“Clarissa, what a darling name! And how old are you, Clarissa?”
“I’ll be seventy-three years young next October.”
The woman touched Clarissa’s dark curly head.
“Aren’t you just darling?”
She straightened up and addressed me.
“You are very lucky, mister.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
“Now, let’s go, honey,” said the young man, smiling. He had a southern accent too, and he wore a light-grey shiny suit with a thin tie.
“Goodbye, Clarissa!” said the woman, waving her hand.
“Goodbye,” said Clarissa.
The young couple walked past us, and Clarissa and I continued on, hand in hand.
“I have that effect on the female of the species,” said Clarissa.