1.6.16 White Overtone Mirror
“You’re late”, growled the old man from where he was puffing on a pipe, “And don’t make excuses, whatever they are, you’re late and that’s a fact; can’t be changed like a baby’s diaper.”
He blew out a series of smoke rings: one two three, they billowed past her, opening wider before bumping against her shirt.
“Here take a puff,” he commanded, passing the black soapstone pipe, “What, cat got your tongue?”
“Er no,” she said fidgeting, “It’s just that . . .”
“What? What? Speak up girl?! I didn’t take you for a namby pamby sort who squirms at the sight of a pipe, don’t smoke is that it? Why don’t you just say so eh eh?”
“Er well I used to but you see it interferes with clear thinking,” she blurted out in a rush then promptly turned red in the face.
He raised bushy white eyebrows, so high she thought they’d join his hair and disappear in salt and pepper, make her sneeze; but he peered over his spectacles instead.
“Hmmph, you sure? Don’t seem too sure to me. Come to think of it your thinking doesn’t seem all that clear either. Look here girl, if you say you’re going to do something then either do it or don’t! Anything else is weak, and listen: if you’re here to hear my story, fact is you’re going to have to make some leaps, build bridges, do some interpreting. That’s what it means to be a writer. Step on some toes, break some hearts, take a bitter tale from in a cold cave and write it all in rosy posys? You got that wrong sweetheart; to write it true, that’s going to be thorny business around all the roses you gals braid into your hair, back home wherever that is! You in or out?” he barked, pipe outstretched in his knotty hand.
She hesitated a moment then took it from him, surprising herself. It had been a long time since she’d last smoked. She held the pipe a moment, felt the cool stone: smooth beneath her fingers. She raised it to her nose and sniffed, then she lit it up and took a deep drag, inhaling forever. Time stop. She’d learned how to do it. What a thing to have discovered! Used to be a spell in a book with instructions on hypnotizing tarrasques. Last time she’d been anywhere near a spellbook was when she’d traveled to the outer planes on an errand for another old codger, he’d been sending her on seemingly innocent tasks to all manner of places and silly fool, she’d been only to happy to comply! sky walking, adventure, exploration; what was there to turn down? By the time she knew what he was doing he’d done it; she came away having learned time stop and a few other things. Now here she was with this old man, how come they got older and meaner, she wondered briefly before his barking interrupted her.
“Girl, snap out of it, we’ve got work to do here! And pass me back that pipe, you’ve had enough for now!”
That’s how it’s going to be eh, she exhaled. There was nothing there. No smoke, no rings, only air.
She reached over and handed him his pipe. Stood up. Picked up her cape and staff.
“Where you going girl? You only just got here! That’s it, all you can take eh?”
“Old man, I’m off. I can take more, I could stay here with you in this dark and dusty bit of apartment and take and take and take whatever it is you have to give::I’m choosing not to. Now, I’m not a namby pamby sort though if you want to believe I am that’s fine by me, you can imagine whatever it is you’d like. I enjoyed the pipe, thank you for sharing. It’s been a pleasure and in these few short moments I’ve uncovered a treasure. I’m going to go and sort through what I’ve found, out in the open, in the sunshine gold and glowing, where I can breathe and bump into other beings, beings with warm life imbued bodies. Yes, thank you for giving me your time, brief as it’s been it has been well spent.”
She bowed to him. To her surprise he threw his head back and laughed. A rusty sound, creaky, as though it had been too long since the last time he’d done this. When he looked at her a tear glistened on his eyelash, his eyes gleamed.
“Wait, before you go there is something else I would give you. Over there on that shelf is a book, bring it to me” he motioned to the floor to ceiling shelves, filled with books.
Books lined up, and then stacked over top of each other. Leather bound, plastic covered, fat, thin, torn papers peeking out from between pages, bookmarked, corners turned over, oh there were thousands of books there on that shelf! She grinned and walked over to where he had pointed. He directed her over to the right a few steps, to the second shelf from the top, to the ninth book from the left end of the line until she found the book he wanted and brought it back down to him from the ladder she’d climbed to reach it, a rolling ladder. She liked it.
“I want you to have this book,” he said from where he had started inscribing a page with a fountain pen, blotter paper at hand.
“Would you like me to lay a fire for you? Turn on the heat while I wait? Bring you something?” she asked, wondering who looked after him.
Wrapped in a shabby robe with slippers on his tissue-paper thin skinned feet, a velvet hat on his head with a few white wisps that had snuck out from under the brim, spectacles on the bridge of his nose, he looked ancient, like time itself, seated in a high back mahogany leather chair; his throne. Beeswax candles in clusters of a dozen flickered on a rosewood table, puddles of wax around the candelabras.
“Eh? Heat, no no, leave it be, too much work to lay a fire, who says I’m cold in any case,” he said, intent on his writing.
She looked around the room and saw a heavy blanket folded up on an armchair in a corner. She went over and opened it, sneezed a few times from the dust it let out when she shook it out.
“Mind if I drape this around you?” she asked him.
He nodded absently, and taking that as an indicator of assent she wrapped the blanket around his bony shoulders.
She sat down on the empty armchair and waited for him to be done. Tick tock tick tock time ticked on by. What in the world is he writing? A book? She felt alarmed for a moment as she thought indeed, that may be exactly what he was doing! Tick tock tick tock it went . . . .
Here was a young man, lean and muscular, tanned to a bronze patina he was walking toward: no right through her! His long shiny brown hair cascaded down his naked back, rippling down to the waist of his jeans. He knocked at a door set in a mud-plastered wall. Disappeared behind it. She hesitated momentarily then walked right through the door. Ah there he was, it was very dark in the corridor, then a white space, an open door leading to an outer courtyard where a fountain filled a pool in the center. A wizened old woman was seated on the edge washing clothes.
“No, no, I told you a thousand times already, I won’t teach you, yalla! Be off!” she spat out at him.
“But I’m ready Bibi, I’ve done all the things you told me to, even grown my hair, look!”
She rolled her rheumy eyes heavenward, shook a soapy fist at him.
“Yes yes, now go and sit there on that chair and shut your eyes till I tell you to open them, Esme! Esme come give this boy a haircut!!” she yelled.
A buxom woman clad in a flouncy black skirt, blue embroidered blouse, and a green shawl around her shoulders emerged from in the house. Her dark locks were pulled into two ponytails, only her lined forehead gave any indication of age, as she appeared youthful and cherubic. She carried shears.
“Ah Maman! Again? Teach him, look at all that he’s done for you already! How much more will you ask of him? Let him stay, this one’s handsome too, look at that chest, that hair, those teeth, vaa-i vaa-i, he’s sizzling!”
“Ah ah, Esme, always with the men you have a soft spot! Cut it off I say, cut it all off until there’s nothing left, then you, puppy boy, go and grow a beard and come back,” the old crone ordered.
Esme massaged his shoulders gently then went to working on his tresses, pulling the heavy weight of them up like a curtain that veiled her for an instant before they slipped as silk falling by the yard to the floor.
“Why? Why?” he cried, “Why does she do me like this Esme? Tell me! I can’t stand it anymore!”
Esme continued cutting his hair silently. His eyes were still closed though he wept like a baby. She sighed and continued snipping here and snapping there until he was shorn of his splendid shining mane. When she was done she turned to the old dame who was wringing her wash out with expert hands.
“He’s like a newborn babe Maman,” she stated flatly muttering “again” under her breath.
“Open your eyes and go put on a shirt you shameless thing! Chee cheeee chee, subjecting these old eyes to such sights, what is the world coming to? Such indecency, begone and don’t come back until, until . ..oh until you’ve grown a beard down to your navel with no head hair, understand, yalla!”
The young man nodded, his face lighting up.
“See how generous your Maman is Esme! She gives me another chance! Thank you Bibi thank you, I’ll be back, you’ll see, I’ll prove to you what a worthy student I am!”
He went away if good cheer. Esme turned to the old woman, hands on her hips, prepared to do battle.
“Why do you do this to him Bibi? You know he’ll come back, he’ll keep coming back, he’s devoted to you, he’d give his life for you . . . though who knows why! Be kind for once Maman, why not send him on his way? Better yet, teach him, hasn’t he proven his dedication to you, his diligence, a hundred times over? This is wrong what you do, ask me to do!”
“Hmm hmm the paragon of virtue he is Esme, purity incarnate, all well and good Esme, oh but Esme, you must know this by now:: we come here embodied my dear, embodied through the doors of the carnal, the fleshly, those willful actions leading here are no accidental mindless occurrences performed by the likes of your virtuous young man, handsomely bodied as he is! These merits of his that you extol ah ah Esme, now look:: I’ll be learning right from wrong from you eh? See here, what I ask of you, you choose to do . . . the feel of that skin under your hands must be too much to resist eh? Indecent I say to be guide by lust like you are . . just like your ”
Esme interrupted her with a roll of her eyes that was identical to the old crone’s.
“Yes yes, just like my father. My father who died from all the stress you put him through constantly with the fixing and telling him what he was doing wrong, pecking like the birds at rock, khit khit khit. Same with the second poor fellow who didn’t know what he had signed up for, no juice no carnality, more pick nick pick, he simply left with the clothes on his back and yes, we all know your opinion of the man! Who doesn’t know your opinions Maman? You air them freely, like your clothes drying on the line for the wind to blow. Always somebody else is the transgressor, less than ready, less than your standard, so all right now, turn it on me, make it about me, that’s what you always do as if you never had an indecent moment in your life! This game you play with the boy must stop, khalaas, I’ve had enough of it, in fact I’m leaving, yes, too long I have served you in this way, time and time again. And as you say I am just like my father, well I shan’t wait to die of stress at your hand, I’m going to go find my fortune and open up my kismet instead Inshallah!! In deed! You are like that boy Maman, he will keep coming back to you and you will keep sending him away and I, I won’t be a part of it any longer, the same old thing, does it not wear on you Maman after so long?!”
Esme disappeared into the house and the wizened one stood up with her basket of wash, stretched her arms up and rolled her neck. She picked up the basket and began hanging the clothes out one by one, shaking them out then clipping them on a line strung between two pomegranate trees where they flapped and began the work of drying. A little later Esme stepped out into the courtyard with a packed bag and looked at her mother, who didn’t take her eyes off the clothes.
“Off are you Esme? You’ll be back, you’ll see, the world is not as you imagine it. This is a folly, rash and impulsive actions always lead to disaster Esme, but I’ll be here when you return, never fear I’ll be here waiting to tell you I told you so, you’ll see Esme, you’ll see, go learn the hard way if you must, go then.”
Esme walked over and gave her mother a hug.
“Goodbye Maman, be at peace,” she said to the rigid old woman in her arms, then she let herself out a small door set in the back of the garden and vanished from sight.
The old crone’s body relaxed. She stared off in the direction her daughter had departed, a tear sliding down her cheek. The young man peeked out of the house and looked around before stepping out.
“Has she gone Bibi?” he asked.
“At last! It took her so long! How many years I’ve waited for this moment, wondering when she would walk away to find her own path, wondering does she not hear a call of her own? So long! You did well my son, I feel she never would have heard the urgings of her own heart without your devotion!”
The youth shifted uncomfortably.
“Yes but Bibi, do you not feel like somehow this is wrong? This deception on our part?”
The old crone pierces him with her gaze; one eye shimmers with tears, the other is cold and stony. Then her eyes narrow suddenly. She strides to where she, she has stood an invisible spectator the whole while. How has she been noticed?
“Who are you? How did you get here? You don’t belong here, who sent you?” the old one rapid fires at her.
“Nobody sent me . ..” but no sound comes out, no words are heard from her lips.
The crone peers at her. Speaks sharply.
“You should not be here, you should not be seeing this! Begone! Go back, back, back to where you came from jinee! This is not for you, this is not your place! You lost displaced being, go back back back I say!!”
The crone begins chanting and she feels herself slipping backward into the passageway, into the dark, the chanting grows fainter then stops and then she is back in the armchair, tick tock tick tock tick’s the grandfather clock, hickory dickory dock . . .
“Here you are,” the old man’s gravelly voice jolted her wide-awake, up on her feet. He was handing her the book. She took it from him.
“Thank you,” she said, tucking it under her arm.
“Hmm, you’re welcome. Now I’ll be taking a nap. If you want to come back one afternoon I’d like it if we went for a walk together, outside where you were describing?”
She smiled, “Sure thing, that would be good, I’ll see if I can make time, not promising anything though.”
He nodded, nodded off to sleep, so she let herself out, quietly shut the door behind her.
She was halfway down the road, standing under a streetlight when she noticed the full moon above. Pearly pockmarked beauty aren’t you? She opened the book under the glistening beams and saw inscribed in curly sprawling letters in blue arranged on the page::
“Now you are ready”.
She looked up at the dazzling Moon and responded, “Yes, Now I am.”
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