I added this short story to my blog in serial form recently, then thought it might be easier to read as a single unit than as seven separate posts…
Shadows lick up between your fingers, Gil, as you stretch your hands toward the fire for warmth. For all their blunt size, those same fingers are as careful and sensitive as cat whiskers. You love cats, especially the one in your lap now. You stroke Leo’s face as if he were of immense value to you—one of your many artifacts that litter the walls, the shelves, the floors of this office. Leo might easily be a cat of Pompeii, all gray-ashy and immutable.
“Yes, just here. See?” Your fingers tremble through the short fur between Leo’s notched ears. “Every striped cat has an ‘M’ between its eyes,” you continue, smoothing the points of the ‘M’ without quite touching it.
How you always know such things is beyond me, but of course you will explain.
“It was in Romania—oh, years ago, now—I was looking into things there…”
You might as well tell me it was a dark and stormy night, too. It always is. If your stories weren’t true, I would hate you for them. But you do not allow me the dignity of overlooking your exaggerations, and I must hate myself instead. I listen to your words, absorbing them, because they come from deep inside, rumbling up as you remember. Leo purrs in perfect contentment, enjoying the heavy vibration of your voice. Two males in tune, at their ease in the depths of the shabby Morris chair that nothing would induce you to part with, or even re-cover.
Leo, I envy your position, secure atop the wide-wale corduroy trousers your master favors. You great striped melon of a cat, smiling at me, winking your heavy-lidded half-moon eyes.
“And the landlady of the place kept some little mite in the kitchen—a scrubber and fetcher, I suppose. Ragged but clean—I imagined her a gypsy, of course. Not more than eight, I should think, but already wise,” you continue, rubbing your cupped hands along Leo’s jaws, marking him as he marks you.
“Every morning, she—her name was Zylya, I think—have it in a journal for sure—she’d bring a wooden cup to me. Full of something the landlady brewed herself. My Romansch isn’t much, mind you, but it seemed to be called ‘heart in a man’ or some such. And do you know, after I drank it, I could go all day with nothing else till sundown? Remarkable stuff.”
“And Leo’s ‘M,’ Gil?” I prompt you, curious now despite my intention to remain disinterested. You always draw me in, always have. I listen to your stories as often as you share them, resenting the hold they have on me, but greedy for them.
A small brass goddess lives on the fireplace mantel behind you, and I see her smiling down at the top of your head. Like Leo, the goddess has known the whisper of your fingers, touching the secret mark between her eyes. What caste, I wonder, suddenly desperate, must I belong to before you touch me? Which antiquity, which ancient land, which dusty collection would make you see me? Your indifference hangs on me like an albatross.
“So it was my final morning there—my bags waiting by the door—but no sign of little Zylya and her wooden cup.” Your left hand absently smoothes the almost-sleeping cat. A fluid line, unbroken from end to end.
Sometimes I dream that I leave you here, among your notes, looking out of your ivy-crowned tower. Perhaps I’ll lose you in the past; the one place where your rounds of writing and speaking and dazzling the faculty at dull luncheons leaves you no time to be. Pyramids might help me forget you, or the flames of a gypsy fire might burn you from my mind. Most likely, though, I will continue here, in this heavy chair that once knew a Norseman’s backside, watching you and Leo while I toy with the pearl buttons of my new primrose sweater.
I bought it for me, Gil, not you, I remind myself. It was on sale, after all, and the day was gray and cold. The first time I wore it, I put my elbow down on one of your charcoal sketches, erasing the face of the Sphinx more effectively than Napoleon’s soldiers managed to do. But I digress—the only habit of yours that I am able to share.
“How did Leo get his ‘M’ after all?”
Your hands flow over the cat in question, his striped and spotted fur rippling with occasional pleasure at your touch. Firelight has turned you to rusty gold, Leo to dull pewter. I think myself pale and clouded as alabaster, the very stuff of paperweights and ash trays and souvenir chess sets. The kinds of things people bring home from the airport for the people they remember at the last minute. I still have the pen holder you brought me from the Roman dig in York, just last year.
Your office door opens, without warning, with force. Rebounds on its hinges into the far wall and back, just shy of the tiny figure that propelled it. I say tiny only because Shelli makes me feel such a mammoth, lumbering around in a wooly sort of way. Leo makes his feelings clear; he digs in, you wince, and he launches himself into the dark by the edge of your chair, jangling the fire tools in their stand.
“Gil, darling!” Shelli’s bright lips frame the words, she arrows for you. Arms open, coat swinging, all in motion. Rising from your chair, you enfold her, blotting out all but the color and sound of her. I think one of those dead lady poets said it best—the red racing sloop in the harbor, long-neck clams out of season. If I understood it, I could despise her even more. Instead, I watch as you break on the rocks that have lured you to her, as much a siren as ever brought a sailor low.
Leo stalks past my ankles, tail lashing, a cat scorned. I sit forward, soothing and smoothing his fur and his feelings. I know better than to try to hold him; his legs would bow out in scrambling resistance, his back stiffening into a curve of rejection. He wants little of me, except the brush of my fingers along his arching spine.
“Is there any of that tea left—the green jasmine?” you ask, not looking away from the woman in your arms.
It’s easier this way, now that I have a job to do. I wasn’t sure how to get out of my seat before, how to get past the two of you and slip out. My hands flex on the great carved claws that form the arms of the Viking chair. I push myself up, careful not to bump Leo. He’s endured enough for one evening. Carefully skirting the heavy edge of your desk, I move toward the tiny room that acts as a kitchen to your office on days and nights when we work in.
“Yes, half a tin at least. Of the tea. Half a tin of green jasmine.”
Shelli turns at the sound of my voice, her face rearranging itself into the kind of look she saves for the women who work for the men who are her lovers.
“What a good idea, Gil,” Shelli says. “It’s so damp out tonight…Can I help at all, Miss Harris?”
I smile her offer away, shuddering at the thought of her crimson coat cuffs dangling over the gas ring. An errant spark and poof—she’d kindle like a candle and go up in flames. Too risky to have her kind in the kitchen, even for something as simple as tea. Leo follows me, knowing the fridge holds greater promise than your office.
You settle Shelli into the recesses of your chair; I hear the faint squeak of the leather and the grate of its feet on the floor as you turn it toward the fire. Shelli protests your action with a low laugh, murmuring words that I can’t quite reach. As if I wanted to. Groping with one hand against the cabinets, I bat around in the dark to find the pull-string that turns the light on. Leo inquires of my progress with a single throaty note.
Blink, stutter, buzz—the florescent bulb flutters to dismal life at my command. The tea kettle is a battered enamel one that I found at a junk shop; its hopeful little pattern of dented daisies made me unable to leave it behind. I imagine it was a wedding present once, boxed and bowed and presented with love to some happy couple. The wear and tear might have occurred over the years, or perhaps the bride pitched it at the groom’s head when he forgot their anniversary.
I used it as a pitcher to water my Christmas tree, until I came to work for you, Gil. For the past few years, I haven’t spent enough time at home through the holidays to warrant a tree that needs water. You don’t keep a schedule during that time, but you have to be ready for each new year. You speak, you teach, you travel according to the master list I compile. Christmas time last year—alone here in the office, I sent you to Cairo and Alexandria for March. I re-organized the sculpture file labeled ‘Heads; Broken’ and cross-referenced it with ‘Limbs; Missing.’ I found a florist who would deliver parrot tulips to an ambassador’s daughter in Reykjavik. She, I gather, was the Shelli of Christmas past.
The kettle hisses as the flame licks up underneath it. I don’t remember putting it on the stove, but awareness is not a prerequisite to boiling water. I lean beside the stove with my elbows on the counter. Leo jumps up to join me, rubbing his head against my chin. Leo, why is it that the men in my life—you and Gil—only need me because I have opposable thumbs? Gil finds my typing and filing and organizing to be of value to him, and you need me to operate the can opener and work the door handle that lets you come and go.
I put an inch of nearly-boiling water into the tea pot. No chipped enamel here—one of your admirers sent you a Japanese iron pot with a feathery pine needle pattern gracing its moon-shaped sides. A pot that was old when this country was new, and you call for it as casually as if it were of no value. I spoon green tea into the ceramic filter built into the pot—the Japanese have always known how to build a better product, it seems.
Tiny white jasmine flowers curl among the green leaves of the tea, shut in upon themselves until the water makes them bloom again. Out with the warming water, in with a fresh, furious boil that releases a cloud of steam. The kettle whimpers a little as I set it on a back burner. The kitchen smells green as the magic of tea begins.
“Be sure to set a cup for yourself, Enid,” you call from the office.
At least you’ve dropped the Miss Harris business, but I wonder if it’s made any difference. I do not want to drink tea with you and Shelli. I want to drink tea with you and Leo, savoring the sight of your hands wrapped around a delicate cup that once belonged to an emperor. I want to watch you stir the tea in your cup with the curious motion you use—around and slow, back and around again. I want to see you balance your saucer—Tao Ling dynasty, ninth century—on one knee, Leo on the other.
Lingering in the kitchen, wiping off the tray, finding an extra mug, smoothing the napkins. Not knowing how Shelli takes her tea, I add a sugar bowl to the set. Leo plays his cello atop the counter, with one striped hind leg hoisted over his head; he stops grooming for a moment to regard me. No use in stalling, Leo. It’s tea time.
“Here we are—“ I begin, balancing the tray on my hands and negotiating the narrow kitchen doorway with my elbows.
You are putting on your heavy coat, Gil, I see. The cinnamon-colored wool that came from a shop on High Street in Aberdeen, after the airline lost yours. It was the only one in the place that didn’t bind your shoulders, you told me, and you thought you’d get used to the color. (Of course you got used to it; you looked striking in cinnamon and everybody told you so.) Forget the safety of camel or tan or charcoal—but you do clash with Shelli’s crimson.
“Sorry, Enid,” you say, snuggling the collar up to the edge of your beard. “Change of plans—couldn’t be helped.” You ease Shelli’s strawberry curls out from under the brim of her hat—scarlet felt, what else?—and smooth them with the tips of your fingers. The tea tray dips forward, wavering out of my control for a minute.
Shelli smiles at me out from under her hat. Not for the first time, her eyes remind me of hard blue marbles pressed into the chalk oval of her face. I set the tray down on top of the desk, needing to be free of the weight of it before it hits the floor.
“No problem,” I say, trying to mean it. “I have some things to catch up on, anyway.”
“See?” Shelli says, tapping your arm, flexing her red talons into the heavy wool of your coat.
She’ll need to change the color of her nail polish if the two of you continue to see each other. If she lasts longer than the ambassador’s daughter, or the dean’s wife, or the grad student with the white Jeep. Of course, the grad student was allergic to Leo and that was a problem. I remember running out of the office to buy Benadryl on more than one occasion when she was sneezing and puffy and miserable.
The two of you move toward the door. You open it with one hand and usher Shelli out ahead of you. I wonder if you will be in tomorrow, or if I should start cancelling your appointments in the morning. You have a meeting with the History Chair at 10 a.m.—he’s interested in pursuing a grant based on your findings in York.
At the last instant, you turn your great lion’s head back to glance at me. “Best cancel everything for tomorrow, Een,” you say. “Shelli says it’s getting nasty out there.”
Een—that’s worse than ‘Miss Harris,’ if possible. Sounds like a horse or a dog or a faithful old retainer, patted on the head or the muzzle for a job well done. Shelli says something, her voice carrying in from the landing, her tone unmistakable.
“Yes, coming, darling,” you soothe, smiling out into the darkness where she waits. Turning back to me you add, “If it’s not too bad in the morning, you might just come in and get those notes organized for the presentation at Carlyle’s.”
I nod, dismissed, and you are gone. The door settles back into its frame with a wheeze and a sigh, tired of being held open on its elderly hinges. I am drawn to the window, lifting one slat in the blind with one cautious finger, determined to see what I have no desire to see. Scarlet and cinnamon entwined, oblivious to the swirl of snow that dances around you and flashes diamond-bright in the glow of the lamps that line the street.
Nothing left for me but the Morris chair and my solitary tea. Three cups reflect the shimmering firelight, mocking me. I reach for my own, accidentally knocking over the one that I set out for Shelli. It falls, its amber-green contents splashing out in a wet fan to darken the priceless Khibiri rug under the desk. The cup lies unbroken in the midst of the stain, its wide mouth turned to me in a grin.
I look at the cup. The cup looks at me. I think of you, Gil, and Shelli, somewhere together, drinking a hot, fresh cup that some stranger brought to you in a new pot with no history.
Three strokes, with my whole heart and weight behind them, and the fireplace poker makes its own sort of history with Shelli’s cup. You’ll be picking china shards out of your precious Khibiri for years to come, Gil.
Leo appears atop your desk, sure paws unsure atop the sliding stack of papers and charts and notes. After settling his haunches on a diagram of some tomb, he raises one front paw, the white-toed one, and licks it round and round to his satisfaction before raising it to polish his mysterious ‘M.’ It looks more like a salute than his usual self-absorbed bath.