SWIMMING IN THE RAINBOW
“Teófilo,” I said. “Must your thigh be so hard? One can never get comfortable.”
“I apologize,” he replied in his soothing manner, “but you know there isn’t a thing I can do. Why don’t you bring a pillow next time?”
“It would be noticed. Someone would tell Mama. She’d have hysterics and Papa would forbid me to come just to shut her up. Then I’d have to begin all sorts of tiresome sneaking around. We must be careful.”
“Blow the bubbles.” Teófilo’s face grew mournful. “I feel I can move when I see them—break my bonds and fly to the sun. Try, do, Mistress, so I can carry you far from here, into a rainbow, where you’d be forever happy.”
I knew he couldn’t fly. He knew it too, but he liked to play this game. He’d played it since I was seven, and had climbed to our rooftop the first time, alone. On that occasion he had lured me with his description of the world inside a rainbow. It was like an ocean, he’d explained. I would swim in it. Breathe and drink pure color. I would become color, freed from human limitations. The thrall of that fluid fantasy had never relinquished its hold even when I grew old enough to realize it was no more than a fairy-tale, fashioned simply to entertain a lonely child.
His shoulder blades shivered. The ridge of black hair along his spine rose like the crest of a tropical parrot.
“I want to kiss you,” he whispered. “Blow the bubbles over me. One of these days, one will—”
“Yes, yes, wrap round you without breaking. I’ve heard this before.”
“Transform me into the one who can grant your every desire. Don’t forget that, Mistress.”
“I like you as you are.”
“But one day,” he said, “I will not be enough. And on that day my heart will break. I fear the pain of it….”
“Little Miss, are you up there again? Come down. Supper’s ready.”
I got up, wiping my hands on my skirts.
“Kiss me?” He gave me that look he knew would melt my resolve. I pressed my palms against each of his hard narrow cheeks.
“Close your eyes, Teófilo,” I said, as sternly as I could beneath that burning yet phantomlike fire-jewel gaze.
I kissed his lids, one by one, lingering, and went down to supper. His sigh followed me like a shadow.
I remember that conversation as though it occurred twenty minutes ago. I remember trailing down the dim, winding stone steps and through quiet cold corridors, following faint scents of food—onion, garlic, rosemary, and some sort of meat. Probably pork, maybe chicken. The corridor gradually warmed and brightened as I neared the areas more frequently traversed by those in the household. Bare wood floors gave way to deep rich carpet—a wide runner of Turkish design, held in place on the last four steps with gleaming brass rods.
I heard my mother speaking in a low drone as she always did, without the need for another’s input. Bending, I peered through the keyhole in the door and saw her, one hand fingering the string of pearls around her neck, the other plucking at her left eyebrow as if searching for hair, but she’d long ago yanked out every one. A servant constructed a fake brow out of paint each morning, but by suppertime constant rubbing and pulling had usually erased it. This didn’t look quite so bad as it could have, since her hair was white—not with age, but simply lacking pigment. The whiteness of old ashes. Mama wasn’t an albino. Her irises weren’t shallow-water blue or pink, but dark, intense blue, almost black. I used to compare her eye color to the blue of night when a slivered moon followed the edge of Alecto, the highest peak east of our house.
Blankets of tall narrow pines covered the mountains around our estate. They stood out like skinny giants when the moon floated behind them. How shyly that orb moved, like a bright wonderful girl who believed herself hidden, but, drifting behind the trees as she did, she merely accentuated her presence.
My mother’s pale, pure blondeness, was, I suspected, what had drawn my father to her.
I paused, drew in a deep breath, and released a low tuneless whistle. Then I opened the varnished oak door, a lovely old thing carved with an intricate design of ivy and pinecones—the knob itself was a brass pinecone—and entered the dining room.
My mother stared, as she often did, with an expression that asked Who are you? Should I know?
My father turned his head, which reminded me of a snowy mountaintop robed in clouds because of the perpetual smoke from his cigar or pipe—on this day a cigar.
“Well, well,” he said. “We’ve been waiting, you know. The food’s congealing.”
A black-coated servant bowed as he lifted my chair to prevent it from squealing against the floor and set it down again, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze in, my solar plexus pressed against the ivory tablecloth and rigid wood.
“Dreadful waste,” my mother intoned, her gaze leaping restlessly over the shining silver dishes, following the trail of steam that curled like ringlets of hair from the green beans. One white-gloved hand, the one that had been kneading her pearls, waved at the smoke and steam, destroying the pattern. “Poetry and prose, those people. Can’t smile, lock ’em up. Did you find out if the gallery has that painting—the fog and the stairway—the forest? It would fit in the library and in any case, those people mustn’t have it. It’s a secret, you know. Our secret. Will you promise me…promise—”
“Of course.” My father tamped out his cigar in a crystal ashtray. I’d watched him do this many times. It always seemed the smoke fought its inevitable demise. It would burgeon in an aromatic swirling gray-white tornado then waver across the table like a live thing—and I really could sometimes see eyes for the slightest instant—staring at me, and a dark, toothy, open mouth. But not this time. This time it simply made me cough.
“You’re giving the child weak lungs.” My mother glanced at me then away, nodding to the servant who offered whipped potatoes.
Did she really say The fog and the stairway—the forest? I am suspicious of such recollections. My mind could be playing tricks on me. Trying to make more of the past than what it was.
How vivid are my memories of those days. Sometimes I long for them. They were simple and honest, for me anyway, though most around me were lying.
I lived in contented ignorance of my coming fate.
But now I know better. Life is tilted, off-keel. I find myself mentally traveling backward, trying to make sense of that child and her life—hoping to conjure some potion that will help me choose a wise course in the present.
No room for mistakes now.
I have never felt so alone.
I barely saw Teófilo. He was high, almost touching the clouds. I lay on my back in the autumn grass, watching him, yes, but also observing the clouds, and the swaying top branches of the Salix alba, the white willow. It was a love dance, a pas de deux between wind, branch, and silver tapered fluttering leaves. Back and forth, flitter and flirt. Fingers, beckoning. Come up and play little miss.
Dance with me.
That same lecherous wind skimmed my face—fickle beast, to go with the first one who invites it in—as I did. I wanted it to fill me, and lured it with wide nostrils and open mouth.
Run fingers over brows. Ghost-touch. Down, then, over lashes. Kiss of wind. Am I here or not? I can see through my fingers, cloud wisps, blue sky, and Teófilo.
Sometimes I forget I am speaking of the past. I am not there, on that grassy hillside, wind stroking me like a wishful lover, Teófilo leaning over the rooftop’s edge, seeming to soar because of the slow movement of the clouds behind him. I often wonder what it would be like to be a cloud, to follow the wind, to majestically traverse that grand jeweled ever-changing upside-down bowl. The ceiling of our fancies.
Yet, if the universe is never-ending as scientists claim, there is no ceiling. Our fancies spire without epilogue. Beyond our control even.
It was Teófilo’s most ardent wish—to move, to fly, to soar. To shatter his bonds. But I never would allow it. I wanted him to remain my constant, and, for me, he consented. Not that he had any choice. Not even his promise to take me into the center of a rainbow, tucked on his back between his wings, would make me relent. In those days I was selfish, with the unconscious selfishness of a child who never questions the turning of the planets but assumes with tessellated arrogance that they spin simply for her amusement.
Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little Frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
O! don’t you wish that you were me?
When I was very young, this was my favorite poem. I liked to read it to Teófilo. He liked it too. He would sing the first verse and stick out his blue forked tongue.
You have seen the scarlet trees, it went on.
And the lions over seas;
You have eaten ostrich eggs,
And turned the turtles off their legs.
It seemed exotic, eating ostrich eggs and seeing lions. I had never seen a lion except in pictures, and just the thought of an ostrich egg lightly boiled, coated with butter, salt and pepper, made my mouth water. I loved eggs, and an ostrich egg must be much finer than a chicken’s if for no other reason than sheer size. I didn’t know what scarlet tree the author meant. Sorbus aucuparia, the rowan, perhaps? Or Acer japonicum, the Fullmoon Maple with the gigantic leaves? Rhododendron arboreum, maybe, or Nyssa Sinensis, its tapered leaves narrow as fingers.
Such a life is very fine,
But it’s not so nice as mine;
You must often, as you trod,
Have wearied not to be abroad.
This matched our feelings exactly. Teófilo and I had the perfect home and perfect situation. No one bothered us. Our days were our own. I sometimes wondered—would anyone notice if I walked away from here never to return? Of course I would never abandon Teófilo. He kept me locked in one place every bit as much as I did him.
You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell beyond the foam,
But I am safe and live at home.
Well, I must admit…much as I loved that poem, part of me…a tiny part, sometimes wondered what the rest of the world was like, and thought it might be exciting to explore.
I had read that Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of this poem, had been chronically ill as a child, confined to his bed for long periods. Here he’d invented wondrous magical realms of adventure. He had summoned companions out of dust motes—molded castles, dragons and heroes from folds of blanket and sugar cubes.
I loved Robert Louis Stevenson. I adored him.
If there were some way to manage it, I would follow him like a slave just to hear him speak.
Ensconced in my own bed at night, watching the fire in the fireplace flicker and glow, I’d wind my arms behind my head and fancy him there with me, my long-dead perfect friend. I had a picture of him. It was on the front of a book about his life. He was standing, leaning a little to one side. His right elbow and forearm rested on some kind of table or bar. A cigarette dangled between his index and second fingers. His left hand was shoved into his pants pocket, the tail of his coat tucked behind it. His dark coat had a line of lighter piping along the edges next to the buttons. Beneath it he wore a white shirt and a knotted tie. His was a casual stance, the way he leaned, the way he held his hands, the cigarette. The nuances said I am my own man. No one shall order my life but me.
His face I could examine happily for long stretches of time; I don’t think it was a handsome or beautiful face, though I am not one to judge. It was handsome and beautiful to me. His brown eyes spoke to me, tenderly at night, when I was alone and a dream had frightened and the world was cold and dark. They hinted of lust, though I was still young enough that such emotions were jumbled and confused. Those eyes followed weeping, laughing, or simply gazing, but always longing. They hid nothing from me. They were mine.
He was incomplete, my lover…the artist worshiped by emulsion, lens angle, light and shadow. Incomplete because he could not escape his bonds and touch me.
My tutor was a particularly impatient, irritable man. He came every day, spent six hours with me, then retired to my father’s study where he switched immediately to a laughing, garrulous creature who smoked fat cigars and drank vast amounts of clear liquid in glasses shaped like an upside-down-triangle. He drank so thirstily and gratifyingly that I thought the stuff must be delicious, and wanted to try it. But my father kept the study locked in his absence.
I know these things because I peeked through the keyhole. If a servant happened along, he shooed me away. I was like a mouse—there but hardly noticed, a nuisance, is all.
“You know what the tutor said this evening?” I climbed on the battlement and tucked myself into the crenellation that seemed molded for my convenience. I enjoyed gazing over the countryside that made up my world, swinging my legs, the front of me free and high as a bird with nothing to stifle or hold me prisoner, back sheltered by rough stone and solid rooftop. My heels butted rhythmically against the immovable wall, and I felt as safe as a kangaroo baby in its mother’s pouch, protected on both sides by the strong loving flanks of the granite merlons.
“What, dearest Mistress?”
Teófilo was licking his shoulder. He often complained of chilblains caused from constant exposure to the weather—and we had severe winters. I’d told him that licking the sore spot would make it worse, but he did it anyway.
Far below, my instructor’s coachman brought his master’s carriage around and stopped at the front steps. The conveyance was a black flat-roofed box. Two axles stuck out on each side, front and back, turning down to support the wheels. The entire thing resembled, rather uncomfortably, a daddy-longlegs.
I watched my tutor stumble down the front steps as he did every night, weave crookedly to his vehicle and fall in, making the horses snort and shy. He waved to my father, who stood in the doorway framed in yellow light. Did they ever suspect that I watched them? Probably not. My father no doubt believed me asleep in my bed.
“He called me a—” Lifting one hand, I ticked off each name on my fingers. “Shrew, ogre, bitch, drab, and doxy. Oh—and skinny.” The last one required the thumb of my other hand.
Beside and above me, the eternally gathered muscles in Teófilo’s foreleg twitched. His whole body seemed to hum as he struggled with his limitations. “And your father?” he asked, hoarse and jagged. “What did he do?”
I shrugged. “Nothing. He laughed. Oh, he did say ‘That skinny doxy is what provides all the gin and vermouth we can drink.’”
“If I could—if I could free myself—”
“What’s wrong?” I swiveled, pressing knees to chest and wrapping my arms around them. There was barely enough room for me to do this in between the merlons. The stone bit into the knobs of my spine, and I had to admit I was pretty skinny. “You’re going to break something.”
“I want to break something. Your father’s head!”
“Mind your tongue.” I mimicked one of the servants who often said that to me. “Show respect. He’s the one paying the bills, you know.”
“He should defend you. He’s your father.”
Again I shrugged, not understanding why Teófilo was in such a stew. “Let’s read from Travels with a Donkey,” I suggested. As I’d grown older, I’d put away Stevenson’s poetry for children and had embraced his love of exploration. He wrote visually, making me feel I hiked with him across the Cévennes. I sensed his grief. Every step he took was heavy and sorrowful, for he’d been separated from his Fanny—the jad. Had I been his lover, I would not have left him for gold nor Paradise.
“‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go,’” Teófilo quoted, his voice falling into softness as it did when we shared our mutual love of RLS. “‘The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’”
I peered up at him. His gray snout had turned black in silhouette with the sun gone behind the mountains, leaving the sky shivering purple. “That was lovely,” I whispered. “Exactly what I wanted to hear.”
“Promise you’ll never leave me,” he said, now anxious and fluttery. “I smell it in your voice, how much you want to go. And I’m afraid, Mistress. There is something happening. Out there in the world of men. I’m afraid. Won’t you please, please blow the bubbles so I can come to life and protect you?”
“What do you mean, ‘something happening?’ What?”
“I don’t know. That’s what frightens me. Don’t leave me here, helpless, powerless, useless. Things are changing…out there. Something’s coming.”
“Oh, stop it. You’re trying to frighten me into doing what you want me to do. And I won’t, do you hear? I won’t. Because nothing would be the same. You’d get bored and leave me. Don’t think I don’t know. Yes, I know very well how much loyalty and affection everyone feels for me.”
“You’re wrong. You are all that matters. I would gladly give my life for you. If only I could prove it to you.”
“Yes, well, you won’t have to. Because you’re going to stay right there and I’m going to stay right here and we’ll both grow old and die on this roof.”
His voice was faint, for I’d jumped off the battlement, grabbed my shoes, and was running for the trapdoor. I flung it open and climbed down.
“There,” I whispered furiously. “What can you do now? Nothing. Nothing, because I won’t let you—you—you ugly ogre!”