Two parts of a Chapter from the “Magnetic Fields”

August 5, 2015

Summer of 1999

August in Plein Air is the quietest, most dream-like month of the year. Every rustle of sere leaves, every wrinkle on the indigo pond, every nuanced shift of sunlight and shadow, is noticed, marked, deserving of contemplation. A dry breeze rakes the woods and meadows and cleaves the stalks in the marshes. The grass is parched to golden stubble that crunches beneath your feet. The clinging humidity, which had strangled the region in July, begins to disperse here while maintaining its dominion and intensifying in the busy river valleys to the north. The whole world has gone to the beach and at night the lighted shore towns, with their fireworks, Ferris wheels and strolling throngs, glitter like caskets of jewels. But if you head 10 or 15 miles inland the contrast is striking. Here are mostly deserted and sleepy rural scenes. At times you hardly see another soul.

It is a land of berries: the ubiquitous cranberries ripening in the bogs; the blueberries, bayberry, Juneberry. The holly leaves are hot and waxy. There is white oak and cedar and pitch pine. Bunker fish, horseshoe crabs and blue claw thrive in the brackish estuaries. Osprey and heron feed in the estuaries, water droplets cascading like coins from their wings as they lift in flight. And in the groves and barn lofts the horned owl is king.

***

Ligeia had fled the scene last night. While Tom waited, ecstatic and oblivious, she had nimbly padded down to the first floor and once there pulled on a different pair of slacks she’d secreted in one of the bedroom bureau drawers. She had then slipped out the back door and, avoiding the workers, skirted the perimeter of the Ligeia love grass yard. The getaway car waited for her up the road, and when Ligeia had climbed in the passenger’s seat, out of breath, he’d asked her how it had gone. “I feel like shit,” she’d told him, which meant that it had gone quite well indeed. He’d given her further instructions before they parted, and oddly she was grateful to him, her fingers briefly squeezing his hand to let him feel her gratitude. She liked being told what to do; she liked being guided, without having to think for herself all the time. She made an excellent hypnotic subject, but she was fiercely stubborn and strong willed, and it was this paradox which accounted for the constant knot of tension inside her. Ligeia is the punisher and cruel abuser of herself. Her recent turmoil had little to do with Thomas Valenti. He wasn’t a part of her circle of monsters. She’d felt mild regret over Tom. Rene’ should never have introduced them in the first place.

Since returning home early this morning, she has hardly moved from a corner of her kitchen where she curls slumped naked on the floor into the angle where wall meets wall, a posture resembling catatonia. It is the early evening of August 1 and light outside, but the days, the evenings, have become noticeably shorter, and shadows bleed across the kitchen floor. Three fingers of sunlight, like a military insignia, are stamped to a section of the wall directly above her downcast head.

She is floating out of Time. The Dead burst through sprung snapped floorboards that make gunshot sounds. They pivot on their heels before unraveling upwards through the ceiling in chutes of colder air. A disembodied head trailing blood scuds about the room, bouncing off walls and ceiling. The head is reminiscent of John the Baptist in the famous Moreau painting of Salome’. Leering, it flies at her with a chainsaw hum and then cuts away a second before impact, grotesque and taunting. Amy-Ruth Podhoretz and Lady Nagasaki sit at opposite ends of her kitchen table with a large chessboard placed between them. The chess pieces are random alabaster representations of the various lives she has lived, including her present one, and those of the two players . . . the players are contemplative and infinitely patient in their strategies and moves. The girl wears a yellow pinafore and sits on the edge of the table, her body half turned, her small legs dangling over, kicking. Their faces reveal no gleam of small triumph or furrowed concentration or the stress of imminent defeat. As the ancient Japanese baba extends her arm to nudge a black queen, the radius, ulna, metacarpus and phalanges light up like the end of a tree branch wrapped in the translucency of her paper lantern flesh. . . .

Pawns are lives not fully lived, or lives lived basely with a monistic and myopic purpose. The 16 others are largely random because she possesses too many to draw upon. At times she sees the board from above, her arms and legs flung out, her hair splayed and streaming as if the air is supporting her like a pool of water. Below, on the tesselated battlefield, three-year-old fingers are arrayed against the attenuated brittle digits of the opponent.

Nefertiti is there, the beautiful consort of the sun worshipper, Akhenaton, and so is Theodora, the Empress who began her career as a prostitute and performed lewd comic dances with bears in the Hippodrome. There is a Tartar who guided Marco Polo to the capital of the Mongol empire and Kublai Khan, and a Dutch merchant in what is present day Borneo, and an English sentry who stole the severed head of Oliver Cromwell from London Bridge, a head not unlike the one that presently taunts her every few minutes. There is a voodoo juju priestess from New Orleans, and a late 19th century French poet of the Decadent School, not to mention an Incan ceremonial executioner, a Mameluke, and a New Zealand Maori chief, a famous Bolivian actress and singer, a Tibetan weaver.

Indian spirits are all around her too. On nights in late summer and fall when the wind picks up, she hears the distant beating drums of the Lenni-Lenapi and the colossal breath of the glass furnace in Wheaton Village from the older glassmaking days. She imagines the fiery orange and crimson maw of the furnace and the bulb of liquid glass dangling like a huge teardrop before it is spun on the pontil.

There had never been a tryst with a weightlifter named Paul; she’d simply contrived a clever tale of pubescent love as a snare for Tom. But maybe it had happened after all? Maybe memory had trumped imagination in sexual matters? Or was it the other way around—that imagination had altered and embellished memory, often to the point where remembering details of any sexual experience could be called into question. But if she had told Tom a made-up story, at least the masturbation part of it was true for her, maybe. If the first part of her story had at least hooked Tom, then it was her follow up and commentary on the earlier narrative that had easily reeled him in. His desire for her had been whetted more by her present vulnerability and then she’d gone and betrayed all that. She secretly hoped her exquisite back stab would cause Tom to murder her in a jealous rage, but killing from spurned love was certainly not in Thomas Valenti’s nature.

Shortly before midnight Ligeia slowly raises her body, a whisper of skin abraded within the crease of rough unpainted wood. Her bones and spirit ache and she could be 2000-years old. Wrought to a honed and tempered point of hatred, in her tears and execrations she presently vows revenge. Her fingers reach for the phone until she finally holds the receiver in her hand, its numbers a luminous green like the glacial hue in that house where only yesterday she’d committed her necessary treachery. She dials and waits. She soon hears a voice on the other end of the line, expecting her call.

“I’m ready,” she says.

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