She was a little girl, a very little girl, in a long crimson gown sitting at the end of a very long table. The child in the mother’s gown vanished into the darkness. Only her hands, folded in half circles on the table, her neck and her small craggy face were revealed in the pale incandescence of the tapers. The candlelight graced the darkness it could not banish. The plaintive wind chanted as snow fell in dainty curtsies outside, while, at the table, the tapers cried sluggish tears onto the roses of the cloth . The crimson silk whispered when she moved.
Long ago,( She remembered, in a passing vision) Mama ‘s needle had sewn blood red roses on the white brocaded squares. Long ago, she remembered looking at the needle, how rebellious it could become when it drew blood to rival the thread which Mama twisted into roses, the droplets of the needle could fall freely, but the red thread was confined to its bouquet, as it should be.
“A princess with hair as black as ebony, lips as red as roses and skin as white as snow,” Mama said and sucked the wound dry. But she laughed as she stroked the cheek of the fair little girl sitting at her side. Quickly, her small fist spun like a fly about the red thread which it knotted and a small scissor cut it on the side of the roses, no blood would ever seep over to the other side, the white would remain white forever.
Every Christmas, the little girl would wear her short white frock, but Mama would put on the gown of crimson and would sit with her back to the window, insensitive to the cold.
The day they were to visit the palace, a pallid dawn showed at Astrid’s shutters, scattered light about the dollhouse, alighted pleadingly on the dolls’ faces, and fled like a thief before a growl of thunder. “Give me just one more minute of life,” the pale intruder intimated “before the mists rise from the embankments and I shall be dissolved.” But the mists were already there, slithering about necks, collarbones, ears, crawling into lungs, little lungs especially, rotten as plums with frothy brown beards. And yet, the rain that day in daylight drowning November, landed in a merry splash , today would be the day, certainly the day, that they – Mama and Papa, and perhaps, Mademoiselle Pierre – would go together to the palace of the queen where the painting held court under the chandeliers’ diamantine light.
In Number 8 Frankreich Strasse, Cyclops, the tall hall clock woke Astrid from her dream. Helga was heard, humming in the distance.
The day wavered now between light and shadow. Astrid was thinking of Charlottenburg, the palace of the queen, which she could not enter because Mama said she was too much of a devilish spirit who would distract and be distracted.
Six months before, she had scampered wildly about the courtyard where cobblestones gleamed like glass, under a spring rain, and it was thrillingly pleasant to kick rockets up from the puddles, and water was everywhere, hiding in clouds, forever looming, forever carrying from the banks of the Spree and the gardens of Berlin, the odor of wild roses and honeysuckle whose sweetness coiled in the back of her throat.
But why had Mademoiselle Pierre let her race about the courtyard like a drunken sailor boy ? Was it fatigue at the end of a long walk? Did Mademoiselle Pierre who ridiculously adjusted a little hat veil against the Berlin downpours, remember the merriment of her own childhood ? Or was it her nasty French nature, which led her young pupil to the sanctuary, but forbade her to kneel at the altar? Yes, Astrid decided, it was just French meanness, for she must have stood admiringly before L’Embarquement pour Cythère, and she must have heard the painting speak of the Land of Supreme Love, through the mouth of its eyeless Venus, whose bust rose from a horn of corpse pale roses. Was one of the roses Magda, so withered and pale that Astrid thought that she would crumble into a powder ? Was Magda now part of the rose scented powder Mademoiselle dabbed onto her sunken cheeks ? Yet, whether in a courtyard thrashed with water, or at the feet of a coughing crumbling child, Mademoiselle had always adjusted her lacey veil and passed on.
Yes, she was certain that Mademoiselle Pierre had seen it, and had maliciously wanted to keep her from seeing it, saying that the copy in Papa’s study would suffice until she behaved like a lady and not “shamefully run about.” And then, in the queen’s courtyard, in May, when all Berlin had raised umbrellas against a vicious onslaught of rain, she held a handkerchief to Astrid’s nose and pinched so hard that she almost snuffed the life out of her! Sullen and efficient looking under the useless umbrella, deaf to screams, blind to stares, that was Mademoiselle Pierre . Dropping her handkerchief, she looked haughtily down at Astrid who threw her arms about her waist, and hugged the drenched flowers on the governess’ skirt. She was, at ten, still such a little girl and so in need of love. Mademoiselle was shaking, her hands were icy, the lips of her long and narrow face quivered and she coughed nervously. Her long legs devoured the courtyard in long strides. She had given into an impulse and was angry at herself and unaware that Astrid was running alongside her, promising breathlessly to walk like a lady the next time even in the rain, which polished the cobblestones, forming, she was sure, the scaly backbone of a terrible underground dragon coiling and uncoiling. Astrid’s haunting hollow voice resounded feebly in the rain. But when they finally reached home, what a fuss Helga made! What in God’s name was the French woman trying to do? Kill her with the cold, like Magda?
“Papa,” Astrid said in a low voice , “ I am deeply honored and not a little pleased that you wanted me to wear Mama’s gown this Christmas.” She spoke in complicated sentences and wore a complicated chignon with hundreds of red pins piercing the balconies of braided hair.
Where had she come from? From which warped and withered limb of his did that slab of smooth flesh fall, and pucker into this child of ten… rotting calf tripe, frothing with maggots.
“The choir will be here shortly, my dear. Helga’s specialty, these sweet meats. Pastors’ hats, they call them, in her village. She baked them before she left. Take one.”
Astrid’s pointy painted nails clamped about the ball of sweetness, held it to the flame lamely dancing, the snow had caused the walls to cry pearls of moisture and the dark wood panels creaked, the bones of the house were aching as the walls wept . Herr Baumer shivered, but Astrid sat with her back to the window, insensitive to the cold.
Six long months had passed and the blessed moment had come, at dinner last night when Mama judged her neither distracting nor prone to distraction and suggested an outing to the museum. Astrid , in the interval, had shown every sign of not “behaving like the wild woman of Borneo” (Mademoiselle’s remark ) and with tears of joy, clouding her blue eyes, she promised Father and Mama, sipping their wine, that she would walk as a “young priestess bearing offerings to an alter would walk”. What was in the arms of the priestess? What dark pointy shadow was the god she worshipped ? What demon of sin had stood by at her conception?
And now, snuggled in her little bed and listening aimlessly to Cyclops outside her bedroom, she saw herself walking into the palace, solemnly, like the cherished image in her picture book of the proud Knights of the Teutonic Order on white horses entering Jerusalem . Yes, she promised, as the fire snapped and hissed its life away, today she would wordlessly march through the Charlottenburg halls as a pilgrim on a strange pilgrimage demanding awe and silence.
Her tiny mouth opened, she snipped at the little brown ball falling in crumbs to the table. She flattened the fallen half with a finger and giggled. In the pale flickering light her chignon’s red darts ant- raced .
The snow had stopped falling, the bedraggled moon had pulled night from the eaves of the evening. There was a rapping at the window and a vague chain of black capes could be seen bobbing through the fallen snow.
The fire in the chimney was dead now . “Helga will enter, throw in another log , another useless log, for I am not cold, but rainy days mean extra logs and so she will place Madam Useless Extra Log into the pit to burn. I think we should explain to the log why we are burning it before we send it to its flaming death.” She had not yet risen from her bed, but there was no need for haste, Mademoiselle Pierre had not yet entered nor had Helga. They were preparing for Charlottenburg and the museum. The day hearkening Cyclops’ clanging, would go through its expected routine, until the outing. “Play, “Helga had said, once when she was braiding Astrid’s waist length hair, “is like a luscious cake at the end of a meal.” But banish the day and its obligations, for the moment, she had a few more minutes to linger, and while the pale light flitted about the room, the eiderdown vessel brought its sole passenger to shore.
Now, however, the night was over, sleep, which so resembled death, had died, and she could remember only blurring snatches of her dream, fleeing like ghosts before a single starkly burning candle. The prayer she said every evening returned in the morning like the street sweepers’ brooms, but the fickle November morning coming and going at her window carried memories of two ghostly figures of the night before, the long looming shadows of Mademoiselle Pierre and Mama holding hands, while she recited, faithfully and in her strange voice “the prayer that Papa found in his bookcase”. Shadow Mademoiselle held an ax and nodded faintly to Shadow Mama. Only prayer could stave off the killing in the penumbra, only prayer could persuade Cyclops to hush the tick of the hours as a soft buzzing hovered about the fire and a stillness seized the room. “ Dear God and Kindly Heavenly Father, hear my purest childish wishes, I am your servant, my name is Astrid Baumer, Astrid means divine beauty, so I am like a bright little star that will sit in the Heavens next to You when my life is done, but until that moment, bless all our household, Mademoiselle Pierre, Helga, Gunther the gardener and Hans the messenger boy. Give us all health and peace, bless especially Mama and Papa. Guide me to the good I want to do in my life as a kind and strong helmsman guides his ship and its sailors. Amen.”
Now the day fell like a cruel and obscuring curtain. As Mademoiselle Pierre once said, “Life is not a dream world and one day, mon cher enfant, you will have to end your childhood.” And one day, she would become like Mama, a vessel filled with obligations which only a deathly pallor and a cough could call away when she “was not up to it,” (Helga’s bizarre way of describing Mama’s illness) and had to take to her room to lie in darkness before the final lying, with roses. It would not be too horrid.
But Astrid liked the prayer she and Papa had written together, because it blessed Mama who needed to be blessed. The night they had written it in his study, she was smitten by the awe of the hushed room , where the struggle between light and darkness played upon her face and the shadows around her eyes and about her mouth which was disproportionately big and red and with a lower lip shaped like a ship’s anchor, and set among features that were so tiny, and wizened, that Herr Baumer, when he saw her, thought of a leech, and he was fascinated and repelled in the presence of his daughter, as if he had come upon a plate of apparently ordinary food to find it writhing with maggots. His fork dipped and turned, the worms mounted to the surface like Mama’s darning needles twisting the red thread beneath the white brocade. He had to bring himself to enact the expected gestures of affection, but when he looked at her small almond shaped face with its chin already lined and its eyes of lackluster blue, watery, like the drained eyes of an old person, he recoiled, and his heart beat tremulously.
“Come in, Good People!” Herr Baumer cried, answering the door. He was a tall tired man given to sudden bursts of energy that deflated like a balloon. The apothecary and his wife and their ugly niece of forty went from house to house singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. They remained like vampires at the door, sucking the incidental mirth out of their hosts.
But Herr Baumer was a man of tradition and went through the gestures. He had sought refuge in books, which were a comfort against his wife’s disease and his child’s deformity, and he did not know whom to blame or if to blame anyone at all when, after they had written the simple prayer, Astrid took his hand and led him down the dark Cyclops hall clock . Two candlelit shadows, Mademoiselle and Mama disappeared into the eaves. Truthfully he knew nothing and wanted to know nothing, and trembling, he left her at the door of her room, after kissing two of his fingers which he placed on her cool little forehead . But Astrid had come running back to him at the end of the hall, past Cyclops to shout “The painting dearest Papa! The painting!” And he had to be the patient father, again, take her in his arms and back into his study, take down the painting from its hook on the wall, and he said a prayer for the dead, although he believed in no god. Astrid threw herself onto the divan and stared at the copy of his painting, stared at it as if it were a raft that would tide her over to somewhere, out of the old creaking dark house and the rains of Berlin and her stare grew to be a mask of happy catlike contemplation, and her thick leech lips opened to say,
“It is truly Supreme Love, dearest Papa! You and Mama are the couples on the shore. Helga is a tree, all she does is burn logs and there will be a ship, Mademoiselle Pierre, coming to shore. The ship will take you…”
“Mama and I will leave for a marvelous voyage?” He interrupted her in a frightened voice.
“No, dearest Papa, you will stay with your books in their solid wooden bookcases for you are like Helga a little bit stony and solid, but Mama and Mademoiselle are like the fireflies at night, sprinkling their love .”
“Love Astrid? What sort of love?”
But in answer she released a hideous peal of laughter. How could a child know things like that? Things which he had just discovered, things which made him want to retreat further into his books, his dust, his darkness.
The apothecary had the face of a sated vulture, his wife possessed the wide and silent placidity of sunlight on a pond, rarely would she answer with anything but a chuckle, but the niece ‘s tubular body disappeared under a pair of huge dark eyes.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht. They sang in hollow unison.
“Brilliant my friends! Brilliant! ” Herr Baumer clapped loudly. His pince nez jiggled on his lean nose. He was half bald and feeling the cold about his head. “Every year, better and better. Have you the …?”
The vulture produced a tiny bag from a pocket and pressed it into Herr Baumer’s hand. “Christmas wine for the rats, Herr Baumer. Hah ! Hah! Aha!”He had a hellish hacking laughter, his placid flaccid dove chirped and chuckled.
The maiden niece seized Herr Baumer’s cold hand with her heavy woolen gloves. Herr Baumer had recently become a widower and he was wealthy.
Shy and hesitant, the day arrived at her shutters, Astrid loved its creeping timidity, so different from Helga entering gracelessly as if she was to plow a field. Then, there was the opening of the shutters and Helga’s impatient and, she felt, jealous bustling whenever Mademoiselle Pierre was around. Helga at odd moments spat out Ausländerin meant to be heard but not commented , and Mademoiselle Pierre would shake her little head, – God knows what rejoinder was forming on her French tongue – and the lessons would start after she was properly dressed. But sometimes Astrid would mope and brood, and Mlle Pierre would make her copy out long French phrases for her “horrid moping.”
The soft gray light stood now like a sentinel around the doll house in her room which she called the Land of Everywhere, she could see the shadowy lines of Pépé, Pépita, Francesca and Kalin, the dark skin straw Mexican dolls Papa’s colleague brought back from his expedition to the Yucatan. What a funny name and what funny dolls! She laughed and even Papa could not take them seriously, after all they were only dolls and so far removed from the Gretchens and the Hanses who peopled all the doll houses in Berlin. Mother giggled and hid her lips behind a napkin, for she was always apologetic and fearful in laughter which made her cough. Death before Pépé and Pepita would not be a proper death, at all, Astrid decided the night she received the dolls and she was a little nervous as to how they would like her big doll house that Mademoiselle Pierre called the gingerbread horreur. But, that was unkind of Mademoiselle Pierre, they were, after all, giving the Mexicans a home for life and safety from the Emperor’s police, because, she would never denounce them as immoral foreigners although she would be tempted to if they were naughty. She had kept a broken soldier doll that a cousin had given her, unwillingly, and only after he had so horridly pulled at her apron and she had wailed. He wore a Potsdam guard’s hat and cape, and one arm remained half way up and twisted outward, so he seemed to be begging, not saluting. She had tried to force his twisted arm into place and had given him a severe scolding, but he would not budge. So she tossed him into a corner, like an old tradition, scoffed at, but there. One day, perhaps she might find a use for him, if only because he carried a musket and looked as fierce as a lion. She called him Herr Just Because and gave him the title of Justice of the Peace.
The morning light was not strong enough to reveal the Mexican dolls’ flamboyant dress, their blood red kerchiefs knotted about their round heads , or, in the case of Kalin, a sombrero. They brightened the gray, cheered her somber hours when the pages of sums that Mademoiselle Pierre made her write briefly blighted her existence. But she knew that the gray Berlin light hated the brightly colored exotic dolls, she knew that the gray and stodgy moist light of the Berlin streets which found a way of penetrating even the thickest walls, wanted to burn the little Mexicans in the doll house , Herr Just Because hated the brown straw guests with stitched-on smiles. But she protected them from Herr Just Because. She hid them in the huge gingerbread cake doll house although it seemed a little odd for them to be there and not in the adobe huts pictured in her geography book . The rain that morning agreed with her benevolence, it was drumming out a lively Mexican hat dance on the window pane, and there was a fiesta in full swing in the voluminous doll house that was so thoroughly German, even to the tiny geranium boxes on its balconies. Pepita was dancing with Pépé. Kalin and Francesca were …
But the door to the Land of Everywhere was slowly opening onto the Great House and its hall. The shadowy figure of Mademoiselle Pierre was entering followed by Helga with the tray. She pretended sleep. Governesses and cooks are the crossest people in the morning which was quickly losing its charm, and today would mean lessons, and after, the museum. Papa, certainly, and maybe Mama, if her health allowed it, were to take her, she kept whispering to herself.
“Terrible news… your wife.”
“Yes, it is,” he responded, her grip was tight. She placed his hand on her flat chest and smiled showing white pointy teeth. “Feel feel how my heart beats for you. Feel!”
“Christmas wine for the rats!” The vulture cackled again.
“Christmas must be so hard for you and your dear dear child,” the worm lady oozed.
“It is… It is…” Herr Baumer replied, his eyes burning with a wild desperation. The wide wife chuckled gravely. But Herr Baumer turned his head to the table where Astrid was flattening Helga’s pastries into little coins.
“So very hard that I shall come tomorrow and spread the Christmas cheer the dear Lord has bestowed upon me.”
“Oh, yes do, Fraulein Kopf, do.” Said Herr Baumer, anything to speed them away.
But the pale daylight that had sought so timid an entry now flooded the Land of Everywhere, and Helga coaxed open the last shutter while the flame snake-danced . A closet door creaked and a perfume of roses that the moist air made sweeter, escaped like the soul of the newly dead. “Magda Countess of the Morning” Astrid had decided a short time before, in remembrance of Magda, her playmate, gone to the Heavenly Father, who had sent the shortness of breath, the fever, the cough, the wasted and distant look, who had sent the angel of death, but who had made the roses smell so sweet, drop so delicately on the coffin, disappear so completely beneath the handfuls of dirt covering their ruby nakedness in black . Magda’s soul would gather them and make a ghost rose garden as they had been put to death with her. She would, after being properly introduced and curtsying to the Heavenly Father, smile with all the roses of death on her cheeks, and He would send her back to her ghost garden. That was what Magda told her before she became an angel, that there is no real death, just a passage, as from a solid into a gas, and Astrid had cried as the maid tending the dying child closed the curtains about the bed. Magda was an angel recalled to the angels, she understood why death had come for her, she had understood why that capsule of air in the center of her poor aching chest was in reality a marvelous balloon that would float her to the Heavenly Father, and that for her exploit, she would be given roses, as Bürgermeisters gave heroes huge bouquets of flowers when they returned from perilous adventures.
It was Magda’s soul and its roses which surrounded her coffin, crushed and wasted, but lingering in the strange scent that wavered between extreme sweetness and putrefaction, and which emerged from the closet where they used to play on gray and rainy afternoons when they could not go walking down the boulevard. They would squeal with joy when someone’s nose hit a leather purse or when a face sunk into a soft velvet lining redolent with perfume and wearing Mama’s or Mademoiselle Pierre’s shapes. And now it was that closet which had become The Land of Magda’s Roses, or perhaps, it was just a province in her Land of Everywhere, yes, just a province which escaped Mademoiselle’s cruel remarks, Helga’s scowl, the pages of sums for moping, the justice of Herr Just Because. Yes, she recalled, it was Magda and her roses … Magda in some green garden plot, frothing with white marble row markers all set in neat rows of dark earth sprinkled with red petals, the red darting through the black, the red alive with the ants and the flies that now kissed Magda’s phantom cheeks as once she, Astrid, had kissed them.
The pastor evoked a long trip Magda had taken never to return, but she was sure that the eulogy was untrue. It was Magda, and her rose tinted, rose scented voice telling her that death is not a long voyage , but a shifting from a coffin to a closet, like a bride led to the altar by an angel on a flower strewn carpet, forever young, forever untouched. Death must be a continual wedding ceremony , yes, a sort of feast with the dead in white, waiting beside someone concealed in a gray morning cloud. An angel in the place of a pastor blesses them forever. Then they spend the rest of their time huddling in closets trying to escape the living, the dead, after all, only want to enjoy their roses.
“I shall bring little knitted things for your daughter, and we shall have wine…”
“Christmas wine for micey-micey-micey,” the vulture croaked. His white dove wife chuckled.
“Christmas wine for lovers.” The niece blinked, her worm eyes brightened. “I can sew, knit, cook, tell pretty tales. Your child needs a mother. ”
“Come away Senta. Come away Beatrix. The good professor needs his rest,” the apothecary adjusted his cape.
“Good night to you, but first I’ll send Astrid to greet you.” Herr Baumer called his daughter to the door while he returned to the table. Astrid curtsied in the tightly pinned crimson gown.
“What a sweet sweet girl,” they cooed together.
“Christmas wine for rats! Don’t forget now Herr Baumer. My niece will come tomorrow. Fare thee well and to all a good night!” The vulture, the dove and the worm shuffled out into the snow while Astrid returned to the table and skipped up onto the seat of the chair.
“ Helga’s cakes are dry this year, my dearest. I have dipped these in brandy. My finest brandy. A special treat. Have one. Let us pretend you are a grown-up. Just like…”
The jumping fire worked its usual prank of blurring all. Hisssssss went the sparkling flame as it cast out its babes, the tiny glowing sparks, which would be like Mama’s life, brief, brilliant, beautiful and tender like the delicate flowery Dresden china cups Mama sipped from when her chirping birdy friends came to tea. Astrid was obliged to sit like a discarded toy swallowed up in an enormous red velvet chair, she was such a little shriveled creature and weak. But her slumber was not deep and she could hear the lovely birds’ cherry lipped chatter. “It is a shame,” they said among themselves, “that she has such a strange air, she is really so so nice and wouldn’t hurt a flea.” And often they flitted away before she awakened, leaving traces of strong perfume and festoons of lip marks on cup rims, like the sentinel of velvet ropes standing guard before the painting, Astrid was sure.
Helga threw another log into the fire. She tottered on her wide peasant legs, a rude kerchief was tied in a simple triangle about her colorless hair, her rough face and hands were covered with the skin of a woman used to throwing logs into fires. But Mademoiselle Pierre, swept in, past the chimney, past the squatting peasant and drew the bed curtains, “Debout! Il pleut comme d’habitude. Et aujourd’hui on s’en va au musée!”
“Rain?” Astrid asked mischievously, flinging both arms upward from the downy eiderdown. “No Mademoiselle, not rain, gray pearls tam-tamming against my window. A sound of Africa that my mute picture book cannot drum to me. Listen to the pitter patter, think of a thousand fingers on drums made of painted wood and animal skins . A thousand wet fingers tapping out Charlottenburg Charlottenburg in true tarantella feverishness.” Astrid replied in French, the language imposed by Papa and Mlle Pierre’s raison d’être in the household.
She rose quickly from the bed, dispelling the torpor of the morning, the cold shackled her naked ankles as the fat well fed flame, sputtering and hissing, sought to rival the drumming of the rain. Helga, dueling with the fire, poked furiously at the extra logs, in anger at Mademoiselle Pierre or had she also scented Magda and feared that the cold would claim another victim?
“It’s rain, you little fool ! “ The governess said, moving to the table as Astrid put on her robe. “Rain can only be rain. I have told you how dangerous this constant day dreaming is. I shall have to give you lines to copy again, and …”
“ I still say it is telling me about Charlottenburg or… She paused as a new idea lit up her small face, … “It is the ghosts of Africa, cut up by the sorcerers into little pieces, they have crossed the seas. When they were alive, they were brave warriors captured by a rival tribe whose sorcerer cut them up into little pieces and the only things that remain are their tam tam fingers beating against the window pane and I am sure that I will see them in the museum in Charlottenburg.”
“Comme tu es sotte! Come have breakfast and put that foolishness out of your mind.” Mlle Pierre brushed the front of her dress, there was work to do.
Yet, after breakfast , after dressing, after lessons, after copybook, after Mama had come in and taken morning tea, the perilous thoughts of Africa remained….gray pearls of rain, once fingertips, shimmering in the tenderness of the morning, flying against Astrid’s window pane, so happy to escape the evil sorcerers’ tortures. But, there were no evil sorcerers in the painting, just happy courting couples and a sightless statue, perched on a column, writhing in roses, pale and tainted as corpses.
The Land of Everywhere grew darker and Helga had to bring in more candles even before noon. Astrid was busy at her French lesson. Mlle Pierre had enthroned her meager little body into a comfortable armchair, and Mama had strolled in, bringing her handiwork. She sat by the window, her profile, etched in an inverted question mark, shone clearly in the eerie gray light, she was working busily at the white brocaded squares , prudishly covered with a white cloth over an egg shaped basket. The thorns of Magda roses’ had magically turned into pins and needles and mother was the queen dragonfly tending to the hives’ eggs which would hatch as blood roses on a white background.
Mlle Pierre loved the hug of the great chair while Mama always sat on the bed or on a stool. And Astrid delighted in their comical routine of rehearsed misunderstanding. Mlle Pierre would inevitably offer Mama the armchair and Mama who said that that was time enough for coffins, would always refuse. But whenever Mama came in, Mlle Pierre would rise from the armchair, thinking only of her mistress’ comfort, but Mama had memories of her older brother, lost in the war with the French at Sedan, and hated dream inducing chairs, and the ritual of their exchanges played out like an old train chugging to its final destination until the simple necessities of time cut short their act.
Astrid bit her pen, and received a cold look from Mlle Pierre who demanded discipline with graciousness at all moments. Astrid looked out at the panes revealing through a trick of the soft candlelight, an outside world with a gently glowing fire , a governess in an armchair, and two hands and their handiwork. Only Mama’s face did not appear.
Astrid ate greedily. “Yes, Father dearest, they taste so much better when they are soaked with your finest brandy. Father, I do miss Mademoiselle Pierre. Where is she?”
“She must be in Poland, daughter. Remember, Count Stanowski retained her services. She wrote to you?”
“Yes, a long sweet letter. I cried. She mentioned the painting, still the object of my desires…”
Astrid paused and lowered her eyes. “Father, I burned the Mexicans…”
“You did what, my child?” A clog of dryness gripped Herr Baumer’s throat, he could hardly speak.
“The dolls, I burned all of them. The Mexicans saw Mama die. Maybe they caused her death with their wickedness. Maybe they sent prayers up to their gods to take Mama’s life. I burned them and I burned all the other dolls. I kept only Judge Herr Just Because.”
“And why did you keep Judge Herr Because?” Herr Baumer’s voice was weak, the glazed look in his eyes said that nothing mattered anymore.
“I kept Herr Just Because because he is divine justice, as I am divine beauty. We are eternal, we cannot be squelched, except if we learn the secret of the painting. The painting, dear Father, is my life, and I fear now that we will never see it together.”
Herr Baumer rising from his seat, forced a laugh, “Nonsense, dearest daughter, of course you shall see it again, of course you shall learn its secret. Come let us go to my study, and look at the queen’s painting. You are the grand lady tonight, I shall give you my arm.”
“But my dearest Father, if I find the secret of the painting tonight my life is over.”
But before Herr Baumer could answer, Cyclops broke the silence in a clang. And Astrid took her father’s arm.
“Oh, yes Father, let us go to your study to say good night to the painting. But first a question. Will you re-marry with Fraulein Kopf?”
“I don’t know, my love,” he answered, “do you want another Mama?”
“If you do,” Astrid said ceremoniously placing one foot after another as they walked down the long corridor passing the time churning Cyclops, “please ask her to embroider roses on white squares of cotton, like Mama. If not, I think I shall hate her!”
“ Don’t worry about that now,” Herr Baumer patted her tiny hand as they entered the office where the tall dark wood bookcases creaked like unseen ghosts.
Pouvoir Mademoiselle’s strident voice directed. Astrid’s eyes hastened back to her copybook. Mademoiselle demanded not only the verb, but a sentence correctly illustrating the irregular past form. But, Astrid was distracted. What did that mean, the stitching hands with no face, no eyes, therefore, no soul in the window world? A wave of panic shook her little chest. Mourir Mademoiselle’s voice bellowed, causing Astrid’s eyes to tear, the perfume of Magda’s roses grew acrid. The candle light, burdened with the wet and the cold of the room, distorted all forms and Mama did not appear at all, either in the inside mirror or the outside ghost world. Mourir Mademoiselle growled and looked cross. Astrid was afraid that she would tell Mama to prohibit the museum trip.
A sentence had to appear, any sentence, they had come to the end of the exercise and Mademoiselle would be very angry and the excursion to the museum would be canceled. She narrowed her eyes and wrote Je bénis Maman morte aujourd’hui. Nous n’ avons pas pu aller au museé. And ran into the closet where the rosy soul of Magda had risen and hovered , and she touched the soft furs she had touched when she and her playmate fleeing the sound of the tam tam rain, ran into the closet. She knew the soul of Magda, was near. She felt it under the furs, she felt it in the heavy caress of the leather bags, and in the silk scarf dangling on a hanger, where it swayed and dropped sinuously about her neck and down to the closet floor, she sensed it was near, so near and she uttered a prayer to Magda who could work the miracle of the roses drifting from the closet and settling on Mama’s lap as bright red thread. “No blood must fall. No blood must fall. No blood must fall.” She heard Cyclops’ at the end of the dark hall cut the hour into squares and knew that blood would fall.
A scream reached Astrid’s ears as she lay buried in her closet nest. The log in the fireplace had sprouted little flames, running up and down its length, darting red about the fireplace. The cold was haughtily intense. Papa had come running followed by Helga and Hans pounding ponderously on the floor, thinking perhaps that noise could repel death, drumming with their feet the sorcerer’s dance she heard the rain drum at her window. Astrid discovered that, when she was hiding in the closet, Mademoiselle Pierre and Mama had unexpectedly switched seats. Was this Mama’s punishment?
The room had become a cage of screams and cries, voices rose from shadows shifting swiftly, Mama’s limp arm stretched out from the armchair. Begging for a little more of life?
Mama’s sewing basket lay helplessly on the floor at the foot of her chair, without its white linen cloth, and with all its pins and needles scattered. Astrid emerged in cat-crawls from the closet, baby dragonflies had hatched instead of roses. Tiny silvery dragonflies about the white unfinished squares. Papa raised Mama’s limp arm and put an ear to her breast, a whispering plea to live simpered from her mother, but the dragonflies buzzed furiously about the fire, as Helga added another log, and covered Mama’s legs in a wool blanket.
But it was the other arm which caught Astrid’s eye, the one still folded on Mama’s lap and bleeding with a pin prick, the one that caused her to cat-crawl out from the closet and up to the arm of the huge chair to suck the blood threatening the pure white linen square. So she sucked and sucked until the wound was dry. Mademoiselle Pierre’s sharp eye saw her crawl from the closet, saw her sucking the wound. Mademoiselle Pierre went to the writing desk to read Je bénis Maman morte aujourd’hui. Nous n’avons pas pu aller au museé. Astrid showed her little pale head with its shriveled features, “Mama will stitch no more roses, the white cloth will remain forever white.” Mademoiselle Pierre turned her head away as Mama gasped, a faint raspberry hue brushed her cheeks. Death would not be horrid, Astrid was sure.
“Now daughter, tell me what you see in the painting that you love so well.”
“Well, I see things in it I have never seen before.” She wedged her head into his arm pit. She had sprung not from a woman’s womb but from a monstrous detachable extension of his being, but she fit into him perfectly.
“What do I see now? Well, those merry little people, they look merry and sad. I think it is possible to be merry and sad. They ripple over the hill and border the fuzzy shore where no boat will dock and they seem to be speaking about love but not embarking at all. And perhaps it is too dangerous for them to be journeying to the land of Supreme Love because the mountain cliffs in the distance might be the jaws of monsters that will eat all the doll people up in one gobble faster than the fire devoured the Mexicans. And the Venus statue on a column of roses. Papa, that underbrush looks like my chignon stuck with so many pins. But the cherubs forming a wheel…They turn on themselves, the couples look away from the shore. Ah! I am frightened!”
“Frightened of what, little one. Of the painting you love ?”
“I loved it…But now I know it is not the Supreme Love I imagined but the picture of a mouth, a horrid, flea ridden mouth. The little people are all the insects, fleas, maggots and the statue is decaying with her pale roses. Roses are red, they don’t look like that. And there are many tongues in the mouth…”
“You are seeing things, dearest Astrid and you are cold.”
“Father I know now that it is a horrible picture and yet, I still long to gaze at it. It is me, Father, me, I am disappearing into the red gullet.”
“Quiet, dear little girl.”
“It is commanding the darkness and soon your little lady of divine love, will enter its gullet and…I feel like a flower, father, a white rose on the dark red of your divan.. A pale little sprig of white in a red mouth.”
“You do look pale daughter. You…”
“ I am pale, Father, and sickly, I am a little sullied white rose on the red side of the cloth. I have gone where I should not go. Mama’s darning needle brought up a pale red sullied rose from the cloth beneath. Her dear little fist is knotting and tightening. Magda, is speaking to me with her perfume, Father. I know why you wanted me to wear Mama’s crimson gown. May I shut my eyes and …”
“ I will put the painting back on its hook. Sleep my dearest, my only child. Sleep forever.”
Herr Baumer folded her white hands with their scarlet fingernails on her pale chest. Then he went to his desk, opened a drawer and put a gun to his head.
Copyright © Diana Pollin