Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
Songs of Solomon
Virginia Ellen Baker
[p.166]It’s midnight. There’s a strong snow outside. Blowing against the window, against the pane of warm glass where the flakes cling and then, for one brilliant second, crystallize. When they melt, the light from the street lamp outside strikes them and they glitter there like tears.
Holding my love in this rippling light, in the darkness where the snow falls like stars beyond us, I pray in secret, in a closet of my own making.
I lie awake, watchful; as always. I tell myself they won’t come, but in my heart I know they will.
They always do.
Somewhere between the falling of the snow and a bell tolling deep in the city, I feel myself going. Slipping into it. Trying to clutch at David, but no longer having arms or legs to hold him with.
Fighting it this way, I go into my dreams.
“You always were the rebellious one,” Grandmother tells me. She holds me with a hard hand around my wrist, even though she’s been dead for thirteen years.
As she shakes me, shakes my arm hard enough to bring the tears, another face overlays this one, and suddenly I have two Grandmothers: one, this mask Corrections wears; the other, the overlay, the real Tante, but sadly as I last recall her. I stare, fascinated, as this last face overlaps the first and becomes more defined. More solid. Startling. Such a clarity. I see every line: pale, her face, the color of snow under a grey cloud, [p.167]surrounded by the casket’s silk pillowing. Her eyes are closed, her mouth sewn shut. The pain in my wrist, in my chest, is the same when I see it: the same as the day they lowered her into the earth.
Hearing her voice like this, so sharp and strict, so unlike the truth, is like that pain to me.
Briefly: I wonder if this is not deliberate. My own dreams have never been so sharp, so brilliantly defined. So solid. Tante’s closed mouth. The x-crossed stitches on her lips. Still, I hear the ranting behind it. The script is the same. Every night. It doesn’t change, no matter how much I cry, how much I beg them to stop.
But tonight there is the face of her death. And though the pain of it is bad, there is something else: something of me that makes it sweet.
I realize suddenly that I am holding my own.
Then the face behind her face, the one with such deep lines and dark furrows at the top of the nose, intrudes, and I know someone has seen, has been sharp on the job, and has adjusted the programming.
Grandmother disappears entirely, leaving me with their rendition of her: The Grandmother-Construct. Horribly familiar. Every line the same. But her hair and eyes wild. The soul of a Fury in her face.
“You listen to me, you little shit,” she says, hissing behind her teeth (which I know are false), and in that instant I know there is a man behind this vision of her. A simple programmer. Or maybe just the semblance of one. A visit from Corrections. I am on parole, and they know it. “Try that again,” Grandmother says, “and I’ll drop-kick you into the next world. And you know that isn’t far from here.”
I know. At any given moment the dream-scene could shift; at any point I could find myself flying over a gorge or being dashed from the top of the Goosenecks or falling from Dead Horse Point into the river below it. They know I hate to fall.
I look away from the Grandmother-Construct to see that she and I are standing on a plain filled with poppies. The plain is a low bowl at the belly of Mt. Olympus, and the city of Salt Lake, as I have come to know it, shimmers beyond us. In this dream I see it as a mirage of light. The sun glints off the windows of a multitude of homes, bright orange fires that dot the hillside. But it is the poppies that I want to see. Bright red and pink, their heads are tossed by a light breeze. Each petal is so thin, so delicate and fragile, I take a small moment to fear for them.
The Grandmother-Construct slaps me hard, hard enough to put me into the dirt of the mountain trail we are on.
[p.168]“Look at the city,” she says, and commands me where to look, exactly, by extending a long finger and pointing into the city’s heart. For one crazy second I half expect fire to come from her fingertip and think, Oh God, she’ll kill us all. But nothing comes, and I follow along the line of her pointing finger and look.
Before she says it I know the worst part is to come: “Write about the city,” she says. “Write the song of the righteous.”
Once again I begin to cry. The sun is still setting. I can see the angel Moroni on fire with it. He raises his trumpet and this, I think, is where the penance really starts.
Waking in the morning I see that David has covered his pillow with blood. His face too is washed in the color of it, a bright swath of red against his pale face. His nose and eyes are clotted with it. For some reason it does this to the men. Women bleed in other ways.
“Was it bad?” I ask him, though this has become more of a ritual than a need to know. I know. I know how bad it is. The blood tells me everything.
To my horror, he begins to cry. They have never gotten him to do this before.
I touch the gently pulsing point at the base of his skull and feel nothing. Of course. Hidden, only those of us who wear the pain of Correction know they are there. My fingers curl into a fist. I wish I knew who they were. Where they were. I would kill them, if I could.
I wash David’s face as gently as I can. He does not resist, doesn’t really move at all. Just sits on the edge of the bed. His tears streak the blood before I can wash it completely away.
“We could go to the park,” I say. “Buy some coco from the vendors. Ride the carousel. If you’d like.”
David lifts his head as if to nod, then stops, looks out the window. I know what he’s thinking: That it is beautiful. That he could capture it in oils with all its light and subtle shadings. If he could still paint it. If.
A covering of snow lies on everything outside. White. Thick. The cars are buried under it, the high metal fences, the leaves of the trees; bark encased in crystalline carbuncles.
Under the wild oak that grows beyond our bedroom window, an orange-swirled cat sits in a high bough, washing its face.
“You could bring your easel to the park,” I tell him. “You could paint. You could.”
[p.169]He sits as still as the snow outside. The cat has lifted its head from its upraised paw and stares at him now. Its eyes are pale gold. I watch the two of them watching each other, both of them frozen, like the tree, like the buried cars in the parking lot. I just watch. What else can I do?
A heartbeat, maybe even more than that, and the cat suddenly winces. It puts down its paw, puts all four paws down more firmly on the bough of the tree. Then it hisses at David and jumps down from its place, down onto one of the cars and out into the lot. It leaves dark imprints in the new snow, its paws sinking more than an inch as it minces away slowly—taking a step and shaking off the snow, the wet off from that one paw, then stepping again. Though I can’t see its face, I can imagine its deep disgust; it is written in every line of its long body.
Finally David shakes his head. “I can’t go to the park. Listen, I’ll stay home and read. It’s a good day for it. See? I could build a fire. You go.”
I nod because I know there is nothing more to do for him. They have been running scenes of a beach in his mind at night. A tropical beach with a television preacher and a choir singing spirituals. They play it so much, he hardly dares go out anymore, though I tell him there isn’t a tropical beach within a thousand miles.
He so loved the snow when I first met him. On my way out I glance back to see that he hasn’t left the bed. He is still sitting there, his skin pale as marble in the winter light, looking out of the window at the snow.
Out in the park I am permitted to go only so far, only to certain places. Friends say I could disregard my programming. Just last week Sally Hobart said, “I don’t think I even believe it happens. They took you in to examine your art, then let you go. That’s all.”
I told her to touch the back of my head. She did. Tells me it’s nothing, that she can’t feel a thing. Just hair and skin.
I can’t tell if she can or can’t, or if she’s just being Correct. You never know. I can only feel it a little myself. A slight, spongy mass just under the bone. I can’t feel it on the outer skin so much as on the inside, when I touch it. Reminds me of a loose tooth. But I can feel the softness there, inside.Finally Sally put her hands in her lap, palms up, and looked somewhere hard beyond me.
[p.170]“And anyway, you knew it would happen,” she said. “I think you wanted it to.”
To fight the Commission, yes. To be declared subversive, dangerous, a criminal—maybe. If it would do any good.
But mostly, to make something of some worth, of some beauty. As I saw it.
Now I have this. No prison sentence, no barbed-wired fences or cells or bars to contain me.
Just this. The dreams. The pain. And oh God, the fear.
How can I explain it to my friends? We are all programmed after all. They feel a tickle in their noses and sneeze. I see green and begin to cry, a “sneeze” of hysteria that grows worse for every minute I do not go back inside. The one time I tried to stay, I clawed furrows into my cheeks that bled for days. I have the scars. See?
For now I am glad only that the park is warm and white, that the green is covered and that even the cold is tempered. Drops of water fall sporadically from the surrounding trees and buildings, but the sound of it is muffled. It is quiet. So wonderfully quiet. Like a church made for one.
While I am looking at a mural (actually fairly well done; they’re getting better at this, which is the worst for me, I think), a woman comes up to me. She is dressed in the standard outfit, the ubiquitous pantsuit in dark colors, the cuffs below her wrists and the collar pulled up around her neckline. If she has breasts it is impossible to see.
“He does such wonderful work,” she says. “I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to come out and see it, even on a day like this.”
She looks at me for the response, the expected reply that has replaced ritual for so many here.
I have no choice but to nod, but I close my mouth up tight, until my teeth hurt with the effort of it.
A frown draws her eyebrows close. For a moment she reminds me of the Grandmother-Construct in last night’s episode.
(Corrective dreams. So sorry. God.)
Having control of myself (for this struggling instance), I look at the woman in her drab clothes and think, This could only happen in Salt Lake. We used to say so all the time. That didn’t make it true. It only started here, I think. Here and other places like it. Wherever people were just too damned afraid. Of everything that was not like them.
[p.171]Suddenly I’m very hot; my skin is burning. The heat wells just under my cheeks, and I wonder that the woman can’t see it moving under the skin there.
It’s happening everywhere, I think, and the panic is so deep I can hardly see, can hardly breathe. Everywhere.
The woman is looking back at the mural. I have no choice but to look with her. I am programmed, now, to do it.
It is a very Mormon painting. Though I know in other places the scenes would be different. For here, for this place, it is epitomal.
A family of wives stands against a sunlit horizon. Their backs are strong; their faces are plain and hard, but the austerity itself is its own beauty. Their hands are huge, like the hands of their men.
Or their man, rather. Though this singular male is not illustrated in the picture, he is implicit in it everywhere: in the women’s waiting eyes, watching the deep russet skyline for a sign, for any sign of his coming. The little dusting of homespun cottages scattered along a river. The unsullied white of the clouds. The butter-yellow of wheat that has been blessed, growing in such straight lines that not a furrow, not a stalk, is out of place.
A strand of hair is flying loose from one sister’s tightly pinned bun. The sister next to her, glancing toward her; her hand reaching up, forever reaching, forever halfway there, to put the escaping strand back in its place.
But at least it is not the Ten Virgins again.
And I say to the woman, “I like the Ten Virgins best.” Inside I curse my lack of vigilance. Helpless now, as the faces of all Ten Virgins are recalled to me. Five of them are all the same: coolly knowing, more shrewd than wise, I think. What they know makes them choice. And in some odd way, they are both sad and glad that the rest of us do not know it.
The other five are all different and seem, in their variety, to represent every sin a woman could aspire to: the Glutton, the Sloth, the Bitch, the Whore. The Heretic.
No need to ask which are the wise, which are prepared in just this way and thus acceptable to the Bridegroom, and which are not.
The woman’s face lights up. “Now there’s a lesson,” she says, nodding. “I have a copy in each of my daughters’ rooms.” Her smile is more relaxed now, though I know I have not passed all the tests, not yet. “Which ward are you from?” she asks.
[p.172]Ahhh, I think. Here it comes. So I try. Try to tell her I have no ward, no stake, no church, no faith at all anymore. There is so much to say, so much to tell her. So much, and I cannot even open my mouth.
Inside the images begin to reel out behind my eyes and I see the green—acres and miles and worlds of it. The tears begin. The salt of them chaps my skin. It’s cold in the park after all.
The woman, expecting any answer but this, looks more closely at my face. She sees the furrows, the marks of my previous, uncontrollable anguish. That I am damaged. Not like those wise virgins, whose composed and knowing faces are all clear and younger and lovely. Whose eyes say they possess every touchstone needed to pass. That the others do not. That they know.
Can you not see? they ask. The righteous, they should see the outward signs and know.
Like this woman. She backs away from me, smudging the snow on the sidewalk so that her footsteps are no longer clearly human marks. With a furious glare, she turns her back and walks quickly away.
At home I dry my face on a clean towel and draw a bath. The water, so hot it steams, blurs the mirror. All I can see in the mirror now is a smudge of black hair under a rainbow beret and a pale oval underneath, as swirled as a thumbprint in the glass.
I got the beret in Moab, where David and I went together for Memorial Day weekend years ago. The red of the rocks there warmed the evenings when the sun set and made a fortress of dark, upraised wings for the love we made by the fire at night.
We have not made love for months. Not since.
But that same vital orange-red is woven into the beret. I sweep my hand across the mirror and see it more clearly, as though under water, but water that is clear: that vital red and vibrant blues and greens.
I touch the throbbing softness at the base of my head and laugh.
That woman should have known. My beret should have told her everything.
Still laughing, I go into the bedroom to tell David my little joke. As poor as it is, he would understand it.
He’s on the bed. His pillow is soaked with blood. There is more blood there than I have ever seen, from him or in my life.
I whisper his name into the hard grey darkness that is coming on, [p.173]not daring to turn on the lights. Then I go to him. His skin is cool, not quite cold yet.
“Oh, God,” I say; and it hurts to say it, hurts horribly in angry bursts that flare along my head and settle, like stinging nettles, at the base of my skull.
But it hurts even more not to say it.
I gather up David’s head and see that the blood has come out of his nose, from his eyes. All the blood.
On the floor beside him is his easel, his brushes scattered like a match-stick gathering of wild colors. Blues and greens are smudged on the hardwood floor where the brushes fell.
He has painted me, nude; naked and smiling. The smile as fragile as poppies. Like the first time we made love.
He even managed to finish it.
Holding him close, I close my eyes. It isn’t long before they come for me. Grandmother again, the Construct with a man’s voice behind it. Flying over the poppies, their red and pink spotting the deep green field like a virgin’s blood on her marriage bed.
You are not prepared, they tell me. The Bridegroom knows you not.
The scene shifts. Abruptly. My stomach rolls with it, and I am slammed into: a meeting house. It is huge; an eternity of walls that go on forever. Windows everywhere.
The tabernacle on Temple Square.
I’m sitting in a pew, right up front. The Christus, the only statue of Christ left in Utah, stares down at me. The hollow eyes are stern. They have moved him there, out of the Visitors’ Center (where anyone could come to him) and into the tabernacle. I don’t know why.
He stands behind the old wooden pulpit. It’s much too small for him.
The sacrament table is just below. It is covered with a white cloth. A myriad of small bloodstains splotch the fabric, and I wonder just what it is that this sacrament represents.
The Christus intones, though his mouth does not move, “Take. Eat. This is the flesh of my body. My blood.”
I shake my head. This is not His sacrament. This is nothing like it.
The face of Christ is harder than the stone he is made of. “Where was your oil?” he says. His voice loses its vast, tonal quality. Takes on [p.174]the shrill tones of the Grandmother-Construct. “Where were you while I tarried?” he asks.
Why? I think. Why do they always come to me in visions of the things I have loved?
But I am still holding David, I realize. He is in my arms, his blood on the pew, on the plain brown carpet underneath. And I know I am half in and half out of the dream. I look up at the statue’s white stone face. The hands are outstretched; the whole attitude of the thing is that of looking down. He is bigger than me. But he is not the god they would make me think he is.
Tired. So damned tired. David’s blood smeared on my hands, sticky as it dries.
But still I say what has bothered me all along, all this terrible time, of Virgins.
“Where were you?” I ask. Crying. Ignoring the Construct. Giving this image of God more of my soul in anger than I have ever given in love. “You were the one who tarried. You were the one who wasn’t there. Where were you?”
Grandmother again, slapping my face. “Who do you think you are? You aren’t any kind of virgin, much less a wise one.”
But I don’t want to be a virgin, I tell her. I am getting hysterical again. But this time, it is of my own making. I am still talking past them, past the familiar Grandmother-face and into the face of the stone Christ, which I force them to make kind, the way I remember it. The way it was made.
The program is slipping. It is not the strength of my fighting that makes it go; I know that right away. It is that I am going as David did: Out. Beyond their range. Where I am. Where the Christus still stands in a swirl of stars, and smiles. Just barely. It is a small smile. A Mona Lisa smile. No mocking or even mystery. So small, you could almost miss it.
But they can’t take away what I’ve already seen.
And I am flying. Suddenly I am flying, but not afraid. No heights, no gradations of high or low. No place to fall to. I am going straight up on a gentle curving stream of air. Everything is pale, like the snow outside my window as it passes through the brilliant glow of the lamps.
They give it one last try: The mural of the Sisters blocks my way. Panoramic, curved around all sides. Stretching out around me. I keep flying, thinking, Surely I will break through.
[p.175]But then I have become the thing. See that I am in it, a part of it. My back is straight, a tendril of hair escaping the bun that is bound so tightly to the back of my head. The woman next to me comes to life, moves her hand to put that elusive strand back in its place.
And I have a revelation: that if she can move, then I can too.
A deep breath and I come to life, lifting my plain brown skirts high around my knees. Bounding toward the crops. Legs long and bare. Flashing past the winter wheat.
Thinking of David, whose gentle face I see so much like that pale smiling stone. I send a swarm of locusts into the straight gold-and-green fields. I send it from my heart; with my thoughts I send it. I am the white roe. I am the breast of my love. I sing the Songs of Solomon. Dancing with a tambour. Crying out the songs.
Everything melts then into swirls of color and light that are free and strong and just waiting to be made.
Far off I can hear the voices of a dozen Constructs. Fainter now. Cursing God, cursing me. I am still connected, but fading fast. This is good. I look upon it and see: That it is good.
Above the bed, above the bodies slowly cooling there, I laugh a song of great delight, and dance.