Sweetness

[Another fragment of an incomplete idea.  After Poe or Rice, I suppose. – PM]

It is a lost island now, abandoned by people over a century ago, scrubbed clean by storms that came from the southern seas in later years.  Nestled a mile off the coast in the Carolinas, it was never meant for human feet, with its rocky meadows and thin woods, woven through with hateful sumac.  Now and then local youths take a boat out to it, though it is not easy to approach, and they build a fire on the narrow beach, leave crushed beer cans behind to glitter like silver in the sand and scrub grass.

At the heart of the overgrown mass, a pair of chimneys rise higher than the trees, wrapped to the top in woolly vines, surmounted by great nests for great birds who keep watch there.  In the autumn, when the winds sweep low and come up through the old flues, the air carries the ghostly perfume of wood smoke. These twin homes are made of many things, with bone and driftwood shards thrusting outward as if to escape or to project a warning.  The birds have collected an intriguing inventory: the leg of a doll, with lacquered pink toe nails; strands of a silk ribbon, French blue; pull tabs from cans; a lost gold cross, cheap little thing turning green where the shoulders of Christ would have pressed. The hairs of a hundred heads, a pearly run of eight track tape.

The chimneys belonged to a house that was broken by a fire in the nineteenth century and washed away by a  hurricane a hundred and twenty years later. Before it was ruined, it was a majestic house, the pride of an architect, the boast of a gentleman.  The brutal reflection of the ocean once glanced off the pale blue porch ceilings, wrinkles of light above the slaves bringing and taking, caring for their family with loathing at a smolder beneath every mandatory kindness.  The breezes carried the scent of Carolina pines into the rooms, set lacy shadows  dancing over mahogany chests,  and caused the fringes on the drapery to move like fingers coming out of sleep.

A soldier once came upon the island in the midst of the Civil War and his account of the place then would have chilled hearts in northern parlors, had he made it home to Pennsylvania.  He washed ashore from an overturned vessel into a chilly March twilight and washed out again on a warm June evening, his nude body curiously elegant as it whirled in waves and moonlight.  The tide carried his arms out from him, parted his legs, drew them together again, spun him down and lifted him up. Wet black curls shrouded his face from god and heaven and from the demon that watched him from the water’s edge. His mother had always loved his curls; he had kept them short most of his life.

His name was Joshua.  He’d been born on a farm, raised in a house on a ridge, where one tall oak shaded them in summer. He worked all his youth alongside his father and he dug the old man a grave when he fell in the rows, leaving behind whatever of grace and pain this world had given him.  During a long winter, Joshua remained beside his mother, their hearth bright but hearts heavy, limbs weary.  They shared their grief until spring, when he returned to the fields and the sunlight and new baby leaves reminded him that life, like the earth, must recover itself.

Mother could not find bloom.  Her face, when he came to the door at sunset, was a grey stone lifted to his worried glance.  He found himself studying the floor or his lap while they ate, rent by guilt that he was no longer filled with so much of the sorrow she could not escape.  When the war began, he enlisted with relief, arranging for an aunt in Philadelphia and her two young boys to come work the farm.  The last time he saw her, his mother was tucking a loaf of bread into his bag.  She pretended to think he was going on an adventure and that it would be good for him in the end.  He felt her standing on the porch, waving as he walked down the lane, but he couldn’t bare to turn and look.  There was a breeze rustling the wheat field, making the leaves near the crowns wave a final goodbye.

He had been on a schooner patrolling the Carolina coast for blockade runners, when the storm dropped, bedeviling the waves and rocking them faster and faster toward doom. There were no cries rising into the gloom when at last his shoulder washed firm into the grains of sand.  The tide bathed him again and again as he began to realize he had not perished, but had survived the sinking of the vessel.

He rose on clumsy, childish limbs, seeing the roof of the great island mansion ahead of him, rearing against the dusk, with a light in a window near the eaves. The sky just beyond the roof was a rich, dark lavender, like a bruise he’d seen once on his mother’s jaw.  He headed toward it, his ears still filled with water and the sound of water.  He thought he smelled wood smoke, but later he decided it must have been only a memory.

They used to line the walk to the house in crushed shell, the family that had taken to the island, so that he was able to follow the thin pale stream of it from the water’s edge to the verandah.  His boots, though worn through and wet, seemed unduly loud on the steps as he approached.  When no one came to answer his knocks – such polite sounds – he pushed open the door and entered the dim foyer.

In this time, though he could not have seen it in the gloom of dusk, the island still had about it the remnants of wealthy graces.  The hawthorn was vaguely the shape it had been when tended weekly by brown, calloused hands.  The stucco of the walls bore the ivory hue of a lime wash.  In the kitchen gardens, the fine plantings had not been choked yet by the native weeds, so that on a rainy morning, one smelled rosemary and sage along with the pine and sea salt.  Likewise, the great entrance into which he stumbled wetly had about it the vestiges of refinement.  The gilded frames of the mirrors held soft, warm highlights from the setting sun.  In the chilling air, the perfume of lemon oil had not closed itself yet, so that the fragrance of the furniture was carried on the air itself, despite the dust that had settled of late upon the rooms within.

She met him at the top of the stairs, the mistress of the house, a slender form in a long grey gown, her face covered over thickly in lace veils.  Her voice was leaden, as one entranced.  “You’ve come a long ways, I’ll wager, stranger friend. I saw you rise up out of the waves.”

He was startled to hear a voice.  The place had come to feel bewitched to him in his journey from water to marble hall.  Until she spoke, he’d wondered blearily if he were approaching the mystic realms beyond life as he had known it.  “I knocked…” he began.

She laughed at him. “The doors of this house are a jest.  Our ocean is the only portal that matters.  She never brings us enemies, though she often carries them away.”

He latched onto those words, despite his bewilderment.  The words became a puzzle, as tidy a handful as any parts to a small, but complex puzzle that a man might work through long, sleepless evenings.  They remained with him through the weeks that followed, when the encroaching tangle of the island began to thicken around the house, choking the vistas of the shores.

“I am not an enemy,” he said.  He wished he could see her face.

“That is a kindness,” she said. She lowered her head as she came to rest at the base of the steps.  They were now only a few feet from one another.

“I’m Joshua Pembroke,” he said. “I admit freely I am a Northern man, but tonight I am only a singular soul, a surviver of the ocean, through some curious benevolence, and not an enemy of you or your people.  I mean to say, I’ve not come as an enemy.  May I find succor on this place?”

She laughed.  “North and south are of little meaning here.  My people have always belonged to other lands, other islands.  I’ve no quarrel with you, stranger. And I am pleased to know your name, Joshua, although I am unable to return you the courtesy.”

“You will not give me yours?”

“I was never given a name,” she said. “Although they often called me Sweetness.”

“May I?”

“The name and I have never made friends, but nonetheless, I’ll answer to it, Joshua.”

He licked his lips, conscious of a sudden that his human needs were recovering from the torment of his ocean tumble.  He felt instantly a number of animal needs: he was hungry, he was curious, and he felt both sad and worried.  He decided that the worry was mostly for the woman whose face was hidden by the veil.

“I would call you Sweetness,” he said. “And I will do any service to repay your hospitality. I confess I am weary and hungered by my privations.”

A sound came from behind the lace, a liquid and light laughter. “Of course you are welcome as a guest.  It will dispel the loneliness.”

“Is it only ourselves here?”

“We are alone.”

As she spoke it, the last of the sunset faded from the sky outside, and the foyer and the great staircase dimmed.  Geese were flying over the island, their coarse calls sounding both lonely and hopeful.  They would be heading north, as Joshua had dreamed of doing the last two years.

He followed her to a room on the second floor, where she lit a lamp without saying another word.  He watched her in the lamp light as she opened a door to an armoire where gentlemanly garb hung.  She left him to undress, but within moments there was a light tap at his door.  When he swung it open, a basin of warm water was placed in the carpeted hall, along with a cake of soap on a flowered china dish and a stack of clothes, each smelling like the island of herbs and sea brine.

The only suit amongst the garments in the armoire that fitted his long, slender frame was curiously the finest of the clothes.  He felt unlike himself in ivory linen, although he would have lied if he denied the light clothing felt soft to his skin.  A silk cravat, though he knew not the mastery of it, made a warm knot over his chest against the cool dew of the evening.  He came down the stairs slowly, made new by his clothes, rendered a lord to the lost splendor of the house.  She met him at the base of the steps, herself changed int a gown of faded gold brocade, though still her head was shrouded in lace.

“You are quite handsome,” she said. “The tailor makes lords of clumsy men.”

“These garments are not tailored to me,” he said.

She lowered her head but said no more.

He followed her into the dining room of the great house, where the walls were painted with scenes of rural life, though nothing that spoke to the island upon which the house rested.  Here were the dark forests of distant Germany, with now and again a sunny glade that bespoke gentlemanly tours of Italy’s abundant gardens.  Larks were painted into drooping boughs of elm, the small eyes of auburn foxes glittered in the shadows of boxwood gardens.  In the distance, there was a soft light, neither dawn nor dusk, yet each altogether, making the room one in which both beginnings and endings were denied dominion over the other. A single candelabra was fully lit at the center of the table, casting light over a platter loaded with glistening pheasant, mounds of Carolina rice, jeweled with fig and almond, scented in cardamon. Joshua found his mouth watering as he took a seat at the head of the table, where she guided him with a lilting gesture.

“How do you come to be here alone?” he asked, loading his plate self-consciously.  He studied the folds of lace covering her from him.  There were stories he’d once been told by a young teacher, wherein monsters hid their faces from men, and souls were lost to temptation.  Memories of these tales crowded close to him as his mouth closed hungrily over his first forkful of the savory repast.

“I will not deceive you,” she said. “I am not the mistress of this this place.”

He poured himself wine from a decanter at his fingertips.  She had not moved to place any portion of the feast onto her own plate.  Rather, she pushed back into her chair, splaying white gloved fingers on the table before her.  “I was brought here to be hidden and hidden I have remained.”

The meal was rich, tasting like more than any ingredient his eyes could spy in the dishes.  The flavor was like every meal he’d ever had, but also like each gorgeous morning, rich with promises.  His mouth ran with watering over the scent and taste.  He became speechless as he ate.  She filled the silence with her story.

“I was born on another island, far away where it is always balmy, always friendly.  When they brought me here, I was only a child.  It never felt like home here and from the beginning, the lady of this place said I was bedeviled. Maybe she knew best.  Yet I do not think I was truly bedeviled until I was a young girl, when they brought the devil himself here to this rock.”

A part of him could hear her words, knew that her words were strange and that they ought to frighten him.  Still, the meal held him seduced, and the scent of the place and of her, and the light on her brocade dress.  He ought to have been thankful that he was alive, determined to find a way off the island, but he found that resolve too late.  The first night, her magic possessed him.  He ate in silence while she told her tale.

“The devil was my uncle, I came to discover later.  He was a clever beast with a wolfish beard, a white grin.  He would call me Sweetness until everyone did the same.  He could make the others come out of their cabins into the moonlight, dance in step as though he pulled their elbows and their knees by a single string.  Making them dance for him was his greatest delight.  He was careful for a while, until one night he could not resist a dare, and in the dim light of a half moon, he plied his mind to it and made the master and his women march out onto the lawn and jig along the dew-silvered grass until the sun rose. How their eyes flashed the next day, as they struggled to find a reason for their sense that something was amiss, as they wondered at the weariness of their arms and legs after a night of sleep.  The devil tucked himself into his work all the day, but under his lowered head, he grinned from ear to ear.”

Her words began to cut through the spell of the feast and, as he decided she spoke the truth, the food in his mouth began to taste of ashes.  He glanced down at the platter before him, but the plump bird of before was now a scrawny gull, not roasted, but torn open at the breast, the wings still covered in feathers. And the mounded tureen of rice and figs was a mess of crude things gathered from the island: worm, grass and hard little winter berries.  He cried out, rising from his chair, but his legs gave beneath him.  As he fell, his hand knocked the goblet, and it toppled with him, spilling blood milk and not wine.  It rinsed his eyes and the last blurry sight he remembered was tainted red.  She leaned over him, lifting the veil, but he was under before he could see her face.

 

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