Read an Excerpt
A House Like a Lotus
Constitution Square. Athens. Late September.
I am sitting here with a new notebook and an old heart.
Probably I'll laugh at that sentence in a few years, but it is serious right now. My sense of humor is at a low ebb.
I'm alone (accidentally) in Greece, and instead of enjoying being alone, which is a rare occurrence, since I have six younger siblings, I am feeling idiotically forlorn. Not because I'm alone but because nothing has gone as planned. What I would like to do is go back to my room in the hotel and curl up on my bed, with my knees up to my chin, like a fetus, and cry.
Do unborn babies cry?
My parents are both scientists and for a moment I am caught up in wondering about fetuses and tears. I'll ask them when I get home.
The sun is warm in Constitution Square, not really hot, but at home, on Benne Seed Island, there's always a sea breeze. Late September in South Carolina is summer, as it is in Greece, but here the air is still and thesun beats down on me without the salt wind to cool it off. The heat wraps itself around my body. And my body, like everything else, is suddenly strange to me.
What do I even look like? I'm not quite sure. Too tall, too thin, not rounded enough for nearly seventeen, red hair. What I look like to myself in my mind's eye, or in the mirror, is considerably less than what I look like in the portrait which now hangs over the piano in the living room of our house on the beach. It's been there for maybe a couple of months.
Nevertheless, it was a thousand years ago that Max said, 'I'd like to paint you in a seashell, emerging from the sea, taking nothing from the ocean but giving some of it back to everyone who puts an ear to the shell.'
That's Max. That, as well as everything else.
I've ordered coffee, because you have to be eating or drinking something in order to sit out here in the Square. The Greek coffee is thick and strong and sweet, with at least a quarter of the cup filled with gritty dregs.
I noticed some kids at a table near mine, drinking beer, and I heard the girl say that she had come to stop in at American Express to see if her parents had sent her check. "It keeps me out of their hair, while they're deciding who to marry next." And the guy with her said, "Mine would like me to come home and go to college, but they keep sending me money, anyhow."
There was another kid at the next table who was also listening to them. He had black hair and pale skin and he looked up and met my eyes, raised one silky black brow, and went back to the book he was reading. If I'd been feeling kindly toward the human race I'd have gone over and talked to him.
A group of kids, male, definitely unwashed, so maybe their checks were late in coming, looked at me but didn'tcome over. Maybe I was too washed. And I didn't have on jeans. Maybe I didn't even look American. But I had this weird feeling that I'd like someone to come up to me and say, "Hey, what's your name?" And I could then answer, "Polly O'Keefe," because all that had been happening to me had the effect of making me not sure who, in fact, I was.
Polly. You're Polly, and you're going to be quite all right, because that's how you've been brought up. You can manage it, Polly. Just try.
I'd left Benne Seed the day before at 5 a.m., South Carolina time, which, with the seven-hour time difference, was something like seventeen hours ago. No wonder I had jet lag. My parents had come with me, by Daddy's cutter to the mainland, by car to Charleston, by plane to New York and JFK airport. Airports get more chaotic daily. There are fewer planes, fewer ground personnel, more noise, longer lines, incomprehensible loudspeakers, short tempers, frazzled nerves.
But I got my seat assignment without too much difficulty, watched my suitcase disappear on the moving belt, and went back to my parents.
My father put his hands on my shoulders. 'This will be a maturing experience for you.'
Of course. Sure. I needed to mature, slow developer that I am.
Mother said, 'You'll have a wonderful time with Sandy and Rhea, and they'll be waiting for you at the airport, so don't worry.'
'I'm not worried.' Sandy is one of my mother's brothers, and my favorite uncle, and Rhea is his wife, andshe's pretty terrific, too. I'd be with them for a week, and then fly to Cyprus, to be a general girl Friday and gofer at a conference in a village called Osia Theola. I've done more traveling than most American kids, but this time, for the first time, I'd be alone, on my own, nobody holding my hand, once I left Athens.
Athens, my parents kept telling me, was going to be fun, since Rhea was born on the isle of Crete and had friends and relatives all over mainland Greece and most of the islands. Sandy and Rhea were both international lawyers and traveled a lot, and being with them was as safe as being with my parents.
Why hadn't I learned that nothing is safe?
'Write us lots of postcards,' Mother said.
'I will,' I promised. 'Lots.'
I wanted to get away from my parents, to be on my own, and yet I wanted to reach out and hold on, all at the same time.
'You'll be fine,' Daddy said.
'Take care of yourself,' Mother said. 'Be happy.' Underneath her words I could almost hear her saying, 'Don't be frightened. I wish I could go with you. I wish you were a little girl again.'
But she didn't say it.
And I'm not. Not anymore. Maybe I'd like to be. But I'm not.
My family knew that something had gone wrong, that something had happened, but they didn't know what, and they respected my right not to tell them untilI was ready, or not to tell them at all. Only my Uncle Sandy knew, because Max had called him to come, and he'd flown down to Charleston from Washington. This was nothing unusual. Sandy, with or without Rhea, drops in whenever he gets a chance, popping over to the island en route to or from somewhere, just to say hello to the family.
Fortunately, I'm the oldest of our large family, including our cousin Kate, who's fourteen, living with us and going to school with us on the mainland. So no one person comes in for too much attention.
Mother put her arm around me and kissed me and there were questions in her eyes, but she didn't ask them. Flights were being called over the blurred loudspeaker. Other people were hugging and saying goodbye.
'I think that's my flight number' I said.
Daddy gave me a hug and a kiss, too, and I turned away from them and put my shoulder bag on the moving conveyor belt that took it through the X-ray machine. I walked through the X-ray area, retrieved my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and walked on.
On the plane I went quickly to my window seat and strapped myself in. The big craft was only a little over half full, and nobody sat beside me, and that was fine with me. I wanted to read, to be alone, not to make small talk. I leaned back and listened to the announcements, which were given first in Greek, then in English. A stewardess came by with a clipboard, checking off names.
'O'Keefe. Polly O'Keefe. P-o-double l-y.' My passport has my whole name, Polyhymnia. My parents should have known better. I've learned that it's best if I spell my nickname with two l's. Poly tends to be pronounced as though it rhymes with pole. I'm tall andskinny like a pole, but even so I might get called Roly Poly. So it's Polly, two l's.
Another stewardess passed a tray of champagne. Without thinking, I took a glass. Sipped. Why did I take champagne when I didn't even want it? Not because I don't like champagne; not because I'm legally under age; but because of Max. Max and champagne, too much champagne.
At first, champagne was an icon of the world of art for me, of painting and music and poetry, with ideas fizzing even more brightly than the dry and sparkling wine. Then it was too much champagne and a mouth tasting like metal. Then it was dead bubbles, and emptiness.
I drank the champagne, anyhow. If you have a large family, you learn that if you take a helping of something, you finish it. Not that that was intended to apply to champagne, it was just an inbred habit with me. When another stewardess came by to refill my glass I said, "No, thank you."
A plane is outside ordinary time, ordinary space. High up above the clouds, I was flying away from everything that had happened, not trying to escape it, or deny it, but simply being in a place that had no connection with chronology or geography. All I could see out the window was clouds. No earth. Nothing familiar. I ate the meal which the stewardess brought around, without tasting it. I watched the movie, without seeing it. About halfway through, I surprised myself by falling asleep and sleeping till the cabin lights were turned on, and first orange juice and then breakfast were brought around. All through the cabin, people yawned and headed for the johns, and there are not enough johns, since most of the men use them for shaving.
Window shades were raised, so that sunlight flooded the cabin. While I was eating breakfast I kept peering out the window, looking down at great wild mountains. Albania, the pilot told us: rugged, dark, stony, with little sign of habitation or even vegetation.
A dark and bloody country, Max had said.
Then we flew over the Greek islands, darkly green against brilliant blue. Cyprus. After Athens, I would be going to Cyprus.
I had a sense of homecoming, because this was Europe, and although we've been on Benne Seed Island for five years, Europe still seems like home to me. Especially Portugal, and a small island off the south coast called Gaea, where the little kids were born, and where we lived till I was thirteen.
Then we moved back to the United States, to Benne Seed Island. Daddy's a marine biologist, so islands are good places for his work, and Mother helps him, doing anything that involves higher math or equations.
Being brought up on an isolated island is not good preparation for American public schools. Right from the beginning, I didn't fit in. The girls all wore large quantities of makeup and talked about boys and thought I was weird, and maybe I am. Some of the teachers liked me because I'm quick and caught up on schoolwork without any trouble, and some of them didn't like me for the same reason. I don't have a Southern accentwhy should I?so people thought I was snobby.
The best thing about school is getting to it. We all pile into a largish rowboat with an outboard motor, and running it is my responsibility. I suppose Xan's taking over while I'm away. Anyhow, we take the boat to the mainland, tie it to the dock with chain and padlock around the motor. We walk half a mile to the school bus,and then it's a half-hour bus ride. And then I get through the day, and it's bearable because I like learning things. When we lived in Portugal, there was no school on Gaea, and we were much too far from the mainland to go to school there, so our parents taught us, and learning was fun. Exciting. At school in Cowpertown, nobody seemed to care about learning anything, and the teachers cared mostly about how you scored on the big tests. I knew I had to do well on the tests, but I enjoy tests; our parents always made them seem like games. So I did well on them, and I knew that was important, because I will need to get a good scholarship at a good college. Our parents have made us understand the importance of a good education.
Seven kids to educate! Are they crazy? Sandy and Dennys will probably help, if necessary. Even so ...
Charles, next in line after me, will undoubtedly get a good scholarship. He knows more about marine biology than a lot of college graduates. He's tallwe're a tall familyand his red hair isn't as bright as mine.
Charles and I were the only ones to get the recessive red-hair gene. The others are various shades of ordinary browns.
Alexander is next, after Charles, named after Uncle Sandy, and called Xan to avoid confusion, since Sandy and Rhea come to Benne Seed so often. Xan is tallof coursebut last year he shot up, so that now he's taller than I am. It's a lot easier to boss around a little brother who's shorter than you are than one who looks over the top of your head, is a basketball star at school, is handsome, and adored by girls. We got along better when he was my little brother. He and Kate team up against the rest of us, especially me. Kate is beautiful and brown-haired and popular.
After Xan is Den, named after Uncle Dennys. He's twelve, and most of the time we get along just fine. But every once in a while he tries to be as old as Xan, and then there's trouble. At least for me.
Then come the little kids, Peggy, Johnny, and Rosy. Because I'm the oldest, I've always helped out a lot, playing with them, reading to them, giving them baths. They're still young enough to do what I tell them, and to look up to me, and to accept me just as I am. And I feel more like myself when I'm playing on the beach with the little kids than I do when I'm at school, where everybody thinks I'm peculiar.
Under normal circumstances I would have been delighted to get away from the family and from school for a month. Mother tries not to put too much responsibility on me, and everybody has jobs, but if Mother's in the lab helping Daddy work out an equation, then I'm in charge, and believe me, all these brethren and sistren have about decided me on celibacy.
The plane plunged through a bank of clouds and the stewardess called over the loudspeaker that we were all to fasten seat belts and put seats and tray tables in upright position for the descent into Athens. I kept blowing my nose to clear my ears as the pressure changed. With a minimum of bumps, we rolled along the runway. Athens.
I joined the throng leaving the plane, like animals rushing to get off the ark.
I followed the others to baggage claim and managed to get my suitcase from the carousel by shouldering my way through the crowd. As I lugged the heavy bag towardthe long counters for customs, I heard loudspeakers calling names, and hoped I might hear mine, but nobody called for Polly O'Keefe.
The customs woman peered into my shoulder bag; she could have taken it, as far as I was concerned. But I couldn't refuse the bag, which Max sent over from Beau Allaire, without someone in the family noticing and making a crisis over it. It was gorgeous, with pockets and zippers and pads and pens, and if anybody else had given it to me I'd have been ecstatic.
The customs woman pulled out one of my notebooks and glanced at it. What I wrote was obviously not in the Greek alphabet, so she couldn't have got much out of it. She handed it back to me with a scowl, put a chalk mark on my suitcase, and waved me on.
I went through the doors, looking at all the people milling about, looking for Uncle Sandy and Aunt Rhea to be visible above the crowd. I saw a tall man with a curly blond beard and started to run toward him, but he was with a woman with red hair out of a bottle (why would anybody deliberately want that color hair?), and when I looked at his face he wasn't like Sandy at all.
Aunt Rhea has black hair, shiny as a bird's wing, long and lustrous. I have my hair cut short so there'll be as little of it to show as possible. Daddy says it will turn dark, as his has done, the warm color of an Irish setter. I hope so.
Where were my uncle and aunt? I'd expected them to be right there, in the forefront of the crowd. I kept looking, moving through groups of people greeting, hugging, kissing, weeping. I even went out to the place where taxis and buses were waiting. They weren't there, either. Back into the airport. If I was certain of anythingin an uncertain world, it was that Sandy and Rhea would be right there, arms outstretched to welcome me.
And they weren't. I mean, I simply had to accept that they were not there. And I wasn't as sophisticated a traveler as I'd fooled myself into thinking I was. Someone else had always been with me before, doing the right things about passports, changing money, arranging transportation. I'd gone through passport control with no problem, but now what?
I looked at the various signs, but although I'd learned the Greek alphabet, my mind had gone blank. I could say thank you, epharisto, and please, parakalo. Kalamos means pen, and mathetes means student, and I'd gone over, several times, the phrase book for travelers Max had given me. I'm good at languages. I speak Portuguese and Spanish, and a good bit of French and German. I even know some Russian, but right now that was more of a liability than an asset, because when I looked at the airport signs I confused the Russian and Greek alphabets.
I walked more slowly, thought I saw Sandy and Rhea, started to run, then slowed down again in disappointment. It seemed the airport was full of big, blond-bearded men, and tall, black-haired women. At last I came upon a large board, white with pinned-up messages, and I read them slowly. Greek names, French, German, English, Chinese, Arabic names. Finally, P. O'Keefe.
I took the message off the board and made myself put the pin back in before opening it. My fingers were trembling.
DELAYED WILL CALL HOTEL SANDY RHEA
They had not abandoned me. Something had happened,but they had not forgotten me. I held the message in my hand and looked around the airport, where people were still milling about.
Well, I didn't need someone to hold my hand, keep the tickets, tell me what to do. I found a place where I could get one of my traveler's checks cashed into Greek money, and then got a bus which would take me to the hotel.
It was the King George Hotel, and Max had told me that it was old-fashioned and comfortable and where she stayed. If Max stayed there, then it was expensive as well as pleasant, and that made me uncomfortable. I wouldn't have minded my father paying for it, though marine biologists aren't likely to be rolling in wealth. I wouldn't even have minded Sandy and Rhea paying for it, because I knew Rhea had inherited pots of money. But it was Max. This whole trip was because of Max.
It was in August that Max had said to me, 'Polly, I had a letter today from a friend of mine, Kumar Krhishna Ghose. Would you like to go to Cyprus?'
Non sequiturs were not uncommon with Max, whose thoughts ranged from subject to subject with lightning-like rapidity.
We were sitting on the screened verandah of her big Greek revival house, Beau Allaire. The ceiling fan was whirring; the sound of waves rolled through all our words. 'Sure,' I said. 'But what's Cyprus got to do with your Indian friend?'
'Krhis is going to coordinate a conference there in late September. The delegates will be from all the underdeveloped and developing countries except those behindthe Iron CurtainZimbabwe, New Guinea, Baki, Kenya, Brazil, Thailand, to name a few. They're highly motivated people who want to learn everything they can about writing, about literature, and then take what they've learned back to their own countries.'
I looked curiously at Max, but said nothing.
'The conference is being held in Osia Theola in Cyprus. Osia, as you may know, is the Greek word for holy, or blessed. Theola means, I believe, Divine Speech. We can check it with Rhea. In any case, a woman named Theola went to Cyprus early in the Christian era and saw a vision in a cave. The church that was built over the cave and the village around it are named after her, Osia Theola.'
I was evidently supposed to say something. 'That's a pretty name.'
At last Max, laughing, took pity on me. 'My friend Krhis is going to need someone to run errands, do simple paperwork, be a general slave. I've offered you. Would you like that?'
Would I! 'Sure, if it's all right with my parents.'
'I don't think they'd want you to miss that kind of opportunity. Your mother can do without you for once. I'll speak to your school principal if necessary and tell him what an incredible educational advantage three weeks on Osia Theola will be. It won't be glamorous, Polly. You'll have to do all the scut work, but you're used to that at home, and I think it would be good experience for you. I've already called Krhis and he'd like to have you.'
Just like that. Three weeks at Osia Theola in Cyprus. That's how it happened. That's the kind of thing Maxcould do. Now that I thought about it, it seemed likely that Max had paid for my plane fare, too.
The week in Athens, before the conference, was something Max said I shouldn't miss, and my parents agreed. I had never been to Greece, and they were happy for me to have the opportunity.
We were all less happy about it by the time I left Benne Seed than when the plan was first talked about, Max enthusiastically showing us brochures of Athens and Osia Theola, the museums, the Acropolis. Those last weeks before I flew to Athens, my parents looked at each other when I came into a room as though they'd been talking about me, but they didn't say anything, and neither did I.
And now I was on a bus, sitting next to a family who were talking loudly in furious syllables. The man wore a red fez, so I assumed they were Turkish, and Turkish is a language I've never even attempted. During the drive I began to feel waves of loneliness, like nausea, until I was certain the hotel wouldn't have a reservation for me, and what then? I certainly wasn't going to call South Carolina and ask someone to come rescue me.
But I was welcomed, personally, by the manager, and given a message which said the same thing as the one at the airport.
I liked the hotel, which reminded me a little of hotels in Lisbon. But I felt very alone. I followed the bellman to my room. He opened the door, put my bag down on the rack, flung open doors to closets, to a big bathroom, opened floor-length windows to the balcony.
"Acropolis," he said, pointing to the high hill with its ancient, decaying buildings, and I caught my breath at the beauty. Sounds of the present came in, contradicting the view: bus brakes, taxi horns, the wail of a siren.I stood looking around, first at the view, then at the room, which was comfortably European, with yellow walls, a brass bed, a stained carpet, and an enormous bouquet of mixed flowers on a low table in front of the sofa.
After a moment I realized that I'd forgotten the bellman and that he was waiting, so I dug in my purse for what I hoped was the right amount of money, put it in his hand, saying, "Epharisto."
He checked what I'd given him, smiled at me in approval, said, "Parakalo," and left, closing the door gently behind him.
The sunlight flooded in from the balcony, warming me. Despite the heat, I felt an odd kind of cold, like numbness from shock. I unpacked, spreading out notebooks and paperbacks on the coffee table to establish my territorial imperative. No photographs. Not of anybody.
Whenever I stepped out of the direct sunlight, the inner cold returned. And a dull drowsiness. Although I had slept more on the plane than I had expected, it was a long time since I'd actually stretched out on a bed. The early-afternoon sun was streaming across the balcony and into my room, but my internal time clock told me I was tired and wanted to go to bed.
Max had suggested that I get on Greek time as soon as possible. 'Take a nap when you get to the hotel, but not a long one. Here.' And I was handed a small travel alarm. 'I won't be needing this anymore, and it weighs hardly anything. Sleep for a couple of hours after you arrive, and then go to bed on Greek time. It'll be easier in the long run.'
I didn't want Max's alarm clock, and I didn't want Max's advice, no matter how excellent. If it hadn't been for the telephone, I'd have gone right out, defiantly, andwandered around Athens. But I couldn't do anything until I'd heard from Sandy and Rhea.
'Do you still love me?' Sandy had asked.
'Of course I do.'
'It was I who introduced you to Max.'
'I know,' I had said.
It all seemed a very long time ago. And yet it was right here in the present. I had crossed an ocean and still I couldn't get away from it.
The sunlight fell on the bed. I stretched out in its warmth, lying on my side so that I could see the Acropolis. I looked across twentieth-century Athens, across hundreds of years to a world long gone. To the people who lived way back when the Parthenon was built, who worshipped the goddess Athena, what had happened to me wouldn't be very cosmic. To the other people in the hotel, also maybe looking out their windows from the present to the past, it wouldn't seem very important, either.
'It's all right.' Sandy had his arms about me. 'You have to go all the way through your feelings before you can come out on the other side. But don't stay where you are, Polly. Move on.'
There was a knock on the door, and I realized I had been hearing Sandy's voice in a half dream. I sat up.
"Who is it?"
"Some fruit, and a letter for Miss O'Keefe."
I opened the door to a young uniformed man who bore a large basket of fruit, which he put down on the dresser. "With the compliments of the manager." He handed me an envelope. "We neglected to give you this when you arrived."
"Epharisto." I shut the door on him and ripped open the envelope. One page, in the familiar, strong, darkhandwriting. "Polly, my child, take this week in Athens in the spirit in which it is given. Forgive me and love me. Max."
I crumpled up the letter. Flung it at the wastepaper basket. The phone jangled across my thoughts.
It was Sandy, sounding as close as when he called at home, ringing South Carolina from Washington.
"Polly, you're there!"
"Sandy, where are you? What happened?"
"Still in Washington. An emergency. Sorry, Pol, but in my line of work you know these things do happen."
His work has more to it than meets the eye. He and Rhea don't just work with big corporations and their international deals. It's top-secret kind of stuff, but I know it has something to do with seeing that underdeveloped nations don't get ripped off, and when tensions rise in the Middle East or South America or Africa they're often sent there to ease things. Rhea and Mother are close friends, and I have a hunch she tells Mother a good bit, but the most I've ever got out of Mother was an ambiguous 'They're on the side of the angels.'
I said to Sandy, "I know these things happen, but are you going to come?"
"Of course we're coming. I'll be dug out by Monday night, with Rhea's help, and we've changed our flight to Tuesday. We should be with you in plenty of time for dinner, three days from now. Will you be all right?"
"Sure," I said without much conviction. But Sandy always makes me feel that I can manage anything, and I didn't want to let him down. "Do Mother and Daddy know?"
"Do you want them to?" he asked. It was a challenge.
I accepted it. "No. They might worry." Funny. We've been given a lot of independence in many ways, we'vehad more experience than a lot of kids, and yet we're also in some ways very overprotected. They would worry.
"Do you have enough money?" he asked.
"Max gave me three hundred dollars in traveler's checks. Daddy gave me two hundred. I'm rolling in wealth."
"Good. Don't blow it all the first day. But make a reservation on the roof restaurant of your hotel tonight, and just sign for your dinner. There's a superb view."
"There's a superb view from my room," I said. "I can see the Parthenon."
"Good. Max is an old friend of the manager. I knew you'd get one of the best rooms."
"It's very European and comfortable. Sandy, it's got to be expensive."
"Forget it," he said briskly. "It's peanuts to Max. Check with the concierge and get yourself a ticket for a bus tour or two and see the sights. Don't waste these days till Rhea and I join you."
"I won't. I'm not a waster, you know that."
"That's my Pol. You all right?"
"I'm fine," I said, which meant, I accept your challenge, Sandy. I'll be fine in Athens on my own. I'm not a child.
"See you Tuesday," he said. "I love you, Polly."
"I love you, too. See you."
When we hung up, I lay down on the bed, fighting the tears which Sandy's voice had brought rushing to my eyes. Sandy believes that things have meaning, that there are no coincidences, so I had to suppose there was some meaning to his being detained in Washington. Maybe it was to knock my pride down, to remind me that I might have seen a good bit of the world but I'd never been completely on my own before.
I went into the bathroom and took a hot, soaky bath; wrapped myself in two large, thick towels and sat at the open window to dry and look at the view. In the distance the Acropolis and the bright stones of the Parthenon were dazzling. In the foreground were the streets of Athens, with tropical trees which reminded me of home.
When I was dry I put on a cool cotton skirt and top and looked at my watch, which I'd changed to Greek time on the plane. Just after 2 p.m. I went to the balcony again to set myself in time and space.
The great city was spread out before me. And I wondered: What do the old gods, the heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey, think of the cars and buses and gas-and-oil-smelling streets of today, or the modern hi-rise buildings going down to the harbor and stretching up the mountainsides? Piraeus, the port, and Athens are one vast city. In the days of Homer, what did all this look like? Were there great plains between the city and the harbor?
I went down to the lobby and made a reservation for dinner on the roof. The restaurant didn't open till eight, and the concierge looked at me as though he thought I was gauche when I asked for an eight o'clock reservation, so I put on my most aloof look and told him that I had jet lag and wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour, which, after all, was true. Then I checked on Sandy and Rhea's reservation, and of course they'd already taken care of changing it. I asked about tours, but there were so many I decided I was too tired to choose until I'd had a good night's sleep, and I just went out of the hotel and across to Constitution Square.
I passed three evzones. Rhea had talked about themGreek soldiers still dressed in the same colorful costumes they wore in Turkish times, white-skirted tunics with vivid splashes of red. They were marching briskly along, looking ferocious, and suddenly I had a police-state kindof feeling. But all around me everybody was bustling, hardly turning to stare, and I heard a lot of American accents and saw women in pants, which I should have thought would be too hot in this weather, and men with cigarsthe ugly Americans Max had talked about. We didn't see that many Americans when we lived on Gaea, but we were in Lisbon often enough for me to have to face the fact that we aren't very much loved. Most of the shops around Constitution Square seemed to be entirely for the benefit of American tourists, junky gift shops, phony icons, sleazy clothes, and pictures of American credit cards on the glass fronts of the doors. One souvenir shop had a sign reading, "Welcome, Hadassah," and was recommended by some Jewish Association. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a shop window with a commendation by the Pope, or another by the World Council of Churches. I didn't like it. But that was judgmental of me. I still didn't like it.
Most of the Americans seemed to be clustered in the cafés on the sidewalks across from the Square. There was one big café which appeared to be used exclusively by kids my age, or not that much older, all dressed exactly alike in jeans, with backpacks which were dumped on the ground by their tables. In the Square itself, where I went to sit, there were some Americans, but also many Greeks, relaxing and drinking coffee and reading papers.
The light was the way Sandy and Rhea had described it, blue and gold, alive with color. I'd thought they were just rhapsodizing, and that nothing could beat the blue and gold of south Portugal and Gaea, but this was really different, more dazzling, with a quality of brilliant clarity, so that I could almost see Apollo driving the chariot of the sun across the sky. And in this light I could believe in Pallas Athena, could see her eyes, the same blinding blue of the sky.
Max said my eyes were that color, and that's unusual in carrottops.
Max was, theologically, heterodox. Religion, Max said, is divisive, and went on to cite the horrors going on between Christians and Moslems in the Middle East, between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. If we could forget religion, Max said, and remember God, we might have a more reasonable world.
Max liked reading aloud, and had read to me from books written in the very early days of Christianity, works by Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great and Clement of Alexandria, because their world was like ours, changing rapidly, with the Roman Empire falling apart around them.
'Listen to this,' Max said one winter night when we were eating supper in front of the library fire and the northeast wind was beating against Beau Allaire. 'Clement of Alexandria:
Now the fables have grown old in your hands, and Zeus is no longer a serpent, no longer a swan, nor an eagle, nor a furious lover.
Isn't that superb?'
I turned away from Max in my mind. No more furious lovers. I was no Semele.
Max's house, Beau Allaire, is built of soft pink brick and surrounded by three-story white verandahs, a house built for shade and breeze. It is at the far end of Benne Seed Island from our house, just past Mulletville, which used to be a functional fishing village till a developercame in and started an expensive housing development, now that islands are becoming status symbols. It's a cocktail-partying place, cheek by jowl with what's left of the original village. There's a causeway from Mulletville to the mainland, and a school bus comes to take the development kids to Cowpertownthose who don't go off to boarding school. Beau Allaire is set on a hundred acres, but even so, Max is not happy about the development on what used to be an almost private island.
Between Mulletville and our house are two privately owned plantations and a state wildlife preserve, so we're moderately isolated. Benne Seed is shaped like a crescent moon, the Mulletville and Beau Allaire point of the moon much closer to the mainland than our point. Our house and Beau Allaire are in all ways at opposite points of the compass. Beau Allaire is a great house, often photographed for books on Southern architecture. Our house was once a motel, but Benne Seed is really not a tourist-type island, or we wouldn't be there. There's a tricky undertow, and swimming isn't safe unless you know the waters well.
Mother and Daddy rebuilt the falling-down motel, dividing the rooms so each of us kids would have our own bedroom and there'd be a few extra for the uncles and aunts and other visitors. Mother and Daddy's bedroom was what had originally been the office and lobby, with a big screen porch off it, facing the ocean. Our rooms were off on either side, and the ocean side was all screens in summer, with enormous storm windows for winter. There were two wings, one for Daddy's labs, with cases of starfish and lizards and squid and various kinds of octopuses and a medium-size computer for Mother; the other had a big long living room, a big dining room, and a good kitchen. The wings made a kindof court, where we had swings for the little kids, and a picnic table under an ancient water oak. The wood of the house was weathered, so that it was a soft, silvery grey, and behind it were great, jungly trees, full of Spanish moss and mockingbirds. We were fairly high up on the dunes, so there was a long wooden ramp which led down to the beach. It was comfortable and informal.
Beau Allaire was formal. The Greek revival columns rising up the three full stories emphasized the height of the ceilings. It was by far the most elegant of the three plantation houses, and the best kept up. The other two were owned by Northerners who were seldom there and probably used them as tax write-offs. Max has always had several yard men, and a couple living over the garage to take care of things and clean the silverand everything else of course, but there is a great quantity of silver. All the doorknobs, for instance, are silver. 'They come from my mama,' Max said, 'and I treasure them.'
There are Waterford chandeliers and candelabra, and paintings by Max, and also by Picasso and Pissarro and even a Piero. And portraits. Southerners do seem to have a great many portraits, and Max had more than most.
But, until last Christmastime, Beau Allaire was no more than a name to us.
Early winter was miserable, cold and rainy and dank. In Cowpertown it seemed as though the sun never shone, and the fluorescent lights at school glared. Nobody turned on any strobe lights for me. And I certainly didn't have that inner luminosity Max saw in the portrait of me in the seashell, a luminosity which Max brought out in me. December was grey day after greyday, with fog rolling in from the sea, so bad that Daddy wouldn't let us take the boat to Cowpertown but drove us the fifteen or so miles to Mulletville to take the school bus from there, and we hated that.
And then Sandy and Rhea came for Christmas, and Uncle Dennys and Aunt Lucy, bringing Charles with them. It was wonderful having Charles home for three weeks. He's by far my closest sibling. But when Uncle Dennys and Aunt Lucy decided that Kate needed to live with a family and stop being an only child for a few years, they suggested that Charles go to Boston as a sort of exchange, partly because they didn't want to be completely without children, and partly because Charles is a scientist, or will be, and the science department at Cowpertown High leaves a great deal to be desired.
It was our turn to have everybody for Christmas. One of the good things about being back in the United States is getting together for holidays. Almost all of us. Daddy's parents are dead, and his family is pretty well scattered. But there are Mother's parents, who are also scientists. Our grandfather is an astrophysicist, and our grandmother a microbiologist. Then there're Sandy and Rhea. And Dennys and Lucy. Dennys and Sandy are twins, and very close. Mother's youngest brother, the one Charles is named after, is off somewhere on some kind of secret mission, we don't know where. Anyhow, when the larger family is gathered together, it makes for a full house. This past year our grandparents didn't come, because our grandfather was just getting over pneumonia. We missed them, but it was a lot of people, in any case.
The morning after everybody arrived, Sandy and I were alone in the kitchen, because Daddy had taken everybody else out in his cutter to show them aroundthe island. Sandy and I warmed our toes at the fire and had one last cup of cocoa made from some special chocolate he and Rhea'd picked up in Holland.
The phone rang, and I answered it. 'Sandy, for you.'
'Me? Who on earth would be calling me here? I told Washington under no circumstances ...' he muttered as he took the phone. 'Max!' His voice boomed out with pleasure.
When he finished talking (I washed the dishes to give him privacy), he rubbed his blond beard and smiled. 'Polly, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. I think you'd get on.'
Sandy knew things at school were not going well for me. He'd pumped me thoroughly, and it was not easy for me to keep anything from my favorite uncle. 'Who? Where?'
'A painter. A very good painter. And not far from here, at the other end of the Island, Beau Allaire. Want to drive over with me?'
I'd go anywhere with Sandy. 'Sure. Now?'
'Anything else on your social calendar?'
Coming from Xan, that would have been snide. From Sandy it was okay. 'I didn't know anybody was living at Beau Allaire.'
'Max has been back only a few weeks. I want to find out what on earth has brought Max to Beau Allaire.'
We drove through the stark December day. We never have snow on Benne Seed, but winter can be raw.
'Max's family built the hospital in Cowpertown,' Sandy said. 'It's named for Max's sister, Minerva Allaire Horne, who died young and beautiful. But I suppose you know all about that.'
I shook my head. 'No. Only that it was given by a family with pots of money and Daddy says it's an unusuallygood hospital for a place like Cowpertown. He knows some of the doctors there. And he and Mother were saying it was too bad nobody lived in Beau Allaire.'
'Max has had it kept up. The land is rented for cotton. And there are gardeners and two old-time Southern faithful retainers, Nettie and Ovid, like characters out of a movie. Max usually comes for a week or so each winter, but Beau Allaire hasn't really been lived in for years. Max said she was staying all winter. Wonder why.'
'Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne. The parents gave both daughters absurdly romantic names. Minerva AllaireAllaire was the mother's name and the plantation came from herwas always known as M.A., and Maximiliana Sebastiane is called Max, or Maxa, or sometimes Metaxa. Metaxa is a rather powerful Greek brandy, and it's not a bad name for her.'
We drove up a long driveway of crushed shells, lined with great oaks leaning their upper branches over the drive till they touched and made a green tunnel. The car crunched over the broken shells. As we drew near, I saw the graceful lines of a verandah, and Sandy pointed out the beautiful fanlight over the door. 'And eleven chimneys, count them. The architect was well aware of the dampness that can seep into an island house.'
We got out of the car and started toward the door just as a sports car pulled up behind us. Out of it emerged a tall woman wearing a dark green velvet cape lined with some kind of soft, light fur, with the hood partway up over midnight-black hair. Her light grey eyes were large and rimmed darkly with what I later learned was kohl.
'Good enough for Isak Dinesen, good enough for me.'
Isak Dinesen was a Danish writer who used to be famous, and Max said that the wheel would turn and she'd come into her own again.
Now Max held her arms out, wide, and so did Sandy, and they ran and embraced each other. It was theatrical, but it was also real, and I envied the freedom that allowed them to be so uninhibited. I stood watching their pleasure in each other, feeling that I shouldn't have come in old jeans and a yellow sweater that was too small for me.
After a moment Sandy and the woman broke apart, and he introduced me. 'Max, this is Polly O'Keefe, my sister's firstborn. Pol, this is Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne.'
I held out my hand. 'Hello, Mrs. Horne.'
She took my hands in hers, and from her hands I realized that she was older than I'd thought. 'Max, please, or Maxa. I'm not Mrs. Horne. My husband was Davin Tomassi, but I had already made a start as a painter when we married and he wanted me to keep my own name.'
He was. So she was a widow.
'Come in, come in, don't stand out here in the cold.' She opened the heavy front door, which creaked. 'I'll have to get this oiled,' she said, leading us into a large hall.
Sandy took my elbow. 'Look at this hall, Pol, it's an architectural gem, with a groin-vaulted plaster ceiling and beautifully proportioned woodwork.'
It was gorgeous, with the walls papered a color I later learned was Pompeian red.
Max opened another door, to a long, high library, the kind of room we'd love to build onto our house, wherewe've long ago run out of book space. But this wasn't a beach-house room. It was so high-ceilinged that there was a ladder which could be moved along a wooden rail so the books on the top shelves could be reached. There was a fireplace with a wood fire burning, though the room still smelled and felt damp. The mantelpiece was Georgian and beautiful, and over it was a portrait, in a heavy gold frame, of a young woman with black hair, wearing a low-cut ivory gown. She was so lovely it made you draw in your breath, and I assumed it was Max when she was young.
Max took off her cloak and flung it over a mahogany and red-velvet sofa, then went to the wall near the fireplace and pulled on a long, embroidered piece of cloth. A bellpull. I'd read about bellpulls, and when our TV worked I'd seen them in plays with Victorian settings, but this was the first one I'd seen in real life.
I studied the portrait again, and Max said, 'My sister, Minerva Allaire. M.A. was truly beautiful.' She perched on a low chair with a hassock covered in petit point. She wore narrow black pants and a black cashmere cardigan over a white, softly ruffled blouse. And yet, while I knew she was quite old, older than my parents, she did not seem old, because a tremendous, sunny energy emanated from her.
There was a knock on the door and a woman came in, a woman who somehow went with the house and the bellpull. She was stocky and had grey-brown hair, short and crisply curly. She bowed elaborately. 'Madame rang?'
Max laughed. 'Don't be dour, Ursula. It's damp and cold and this house hasn't been lived in for thousands of years.'
'Madame would like some consommé?' the woman suggested.
'Consommé with a good dollop of sherry,' Max agreed. 'And some of Nettie's benne biscuits.'
Sandy asked, 'Max still bullying you, Urs?'
The woman smiled, and the heaviness in her face lightened. 'What would Max be like if she didn't bully us all?'
'Ursula, this is my niece, Polly O'Keefe. Pol, this is Dr. Heschel.'
I'd thought she was some kind of servant, a housekeeper.
She shook hands with me, a good, firm clasp. Her fingers were long and delicate and tapered, but very strong. 'I'm glad to meet you, Polly. Your Uncle Dennys and I are colleagues.'
Well, then, she had to be a neurosurgeon. I took another look.
Sandy said, 'The world of neurosurgery is small. Dennys and I, as usual, both have connections with Max and Ursula. Davin Tomassi was a colleague of mine. So, separately, we've known Max and Urs for a long time. We'll have a terrific reunion.'
Dr. Heschel asked eagerly, 'Dennys is here, too?'
'The whole kit and caboodle of us. I don't know if the name rang a bell with you, Urs, but Polly's father is the O'Keefe who's done such amazing work with regeneration. His lab is now full of squid and octopuses. I suppose I have to take it on faith that their neurological system resembles ours.'
Dr. Heschel flung out her arms. 'Good Lord, when we left New York and came to Benne Seed I thought we were coming to the wilderness, and here is not only Dennysbut a scientist I've long wanted to meet. Before I get overexcited, I'd better get out to the kitchen and see about that consommé.'
'We'll have a party,' Max said as the doctor went out. 'We'll bring Beau Allaire back to life with a real party.'
Sandy and Max talked about mutual friends all over the world until a frail old black man came in, carrying a silver tray which looked much too heavy for him. He wore rather shiny black trousers and a white coat. He put the tray on a marble-topped table in front of a long sofa, looked at Max with loving concern, and left.
Dr. Heschel sat in front of the tray and handed out cups of consommé in translucent china. I thanked her for mine.
'Call her Ursula,' Max ordered. 'She gets enough doctor-this and doctor-that in New York. People treat neurosurgeons as though they were gods. And many of them fall for it.'
Dr. HeschelUrsularesponded mildly: 'Your iconoclasm takes care of that.'
'Are you on vacation, Urs?' Sandy asked her.
'Leave of absence.' And, as though to forestall further questioning, she added, 'I was overdue a sabbatical. I'm glad to see you still have your beard, Sandy.'
'I grow tired of it,' he said, 'but it's the best way to tell Dennys and me apart. We still look very much alike. Max, show Polly some of your paintings.'
Max shrugged, so that her thin shoulder blades showed sharply under the cashmere. It looked to me as though she needed a doctor handy, though an internist would likely have been more help than a neurosurgeon.
'Most of my best stuff is in museums or private collections,' Max said. 'Contrary to opinion, I do have to earn a living. M.A.'s untimely death caused my fatherto start a hospital in her memory, and that's where the money went. Not that I begrudge it.'
Sandy gave a snort and turned it into a sneeze.
'You ran through a good bit on your own.' Dr. Heschel Ursulasmiled.
'True, and I enjoyed it. But now I have to work for the finer things of life.' She looked at both of them and burst into laughter. 'Like many filthy-rich people, I tend to cry poor.' She smiled at me. 'Never believe people who tell you they have no money, Polly. People who don't have it seldom mention the fact. People who do, tend to be embarrassed about it, and so deny it, especially in front of someone like Sandy, who spends his life fighting the big international megacorps. Come on, and I'll show you some of my work.'
'Don't forget the painting of Rio Harbor,' Ursula said.
'First I want to show her my self-portrait.' Max drained her cup and put it back on the tray. 'Come on.'
I followed her into the big hall and up a curving staircase and then into a room which was as large as the library.
There was a huge, carved four-poster bed, with a sofa across the foot. I turned and saw another high fireplace, with a large, white fur rug in front of it, and I could imagine Max, in black, lying on the white rug and staring into the fire. The fire was laid, and there was a copper bucket of fat pine beside it. The far end of the room had a big desk, a chaise longue, some comfortable chairs upholstered in smoky-rose velvet. A long wall of French windows opened onto the verandah and the ocean view.
On the wall over the desk was a portrait. I knew it was Max because she'd said so. She was as young in this picture, or almost, as the girl in the portrait in the library,and they did look very alike, with the same dark hair and light grey eyes and alabaster skin. Max was thinner than M.A., and she was looking down at something she held in one hand. A skull.
It reminded me of etchings of medieval philosophers in their studies, with skulls on their desks and maybe a skeleton in the corner, contemplating life and death. It was a beautiful painting. A shaft of light touched the skull, and the shape of bone was clean and pure.
'I was a morbid young woman in many ways, Polly, and felt it would do me no harm to cast a cool eye on my own mortality. It did keep me from wasting time as I might otherwise have done. I've had an interesting life, and I've had my fair share of vicissitudes, but it hasn't been dull and it hasn't been wasted. What are you going to do with yourself when you finish your schooling?' She sat on the foot of the chaise longue.
'I don't know,' I said.
'Where do your interests lie?'
'Almost everywhere. That can be a real problem. I'm interested in archaeology and anthropology and literature and the theatre. I pick up languages easily. I'm not a scientist, like my parents.'
'But you're intelligent.'
'Oh, yes. But I haven't found my focus.'
'You've got a couple of years,' Max said. 'When the time comes, you'll find it.' She got up. 'Come, I'll show you the picture that Urs likes.' On the way she pointed out some of the other pictures. A Hogarth. A de Chirico sketch. A Van Gogh. 'Fortunately, the Islanders don't know how valuable they arejust Maxa's junk. Even with Nettie and Ovid living over the garage, we aren't immune to burglars. If I'm short of cash, I sell one of the pictures. I do have very extravagant tastes.'
The painting of Max was what is called representational. The one of the harbor at Rio was expressionist, I think, with vivid colors which looked one way straight on and another if you glanced sidewise.
'Why isn't this in a museum?' I was awed by it.
'Because I won't let it go,' Max said. 'I have to keep a few things. Urs wants to buy it, and if I sold it to anyone it would be to her.' She looked at the painting. 'She'll get it soon enough.'
We went back out into the hall, and as we started down the stairs I saw something on the landing I hadn't noticed on the way up, a wood carving on a marble pedestal, of a man, with his head thrown back in laughter and delight.
'That's the Laughing Christ of Baki.' Max paused. 'I had a reproduction made. The original is life-size and gives the effect of pure joy. It's probably nearly ten thousand years old.'
'The Laughing Christ?'
'The Bakians simply assumed, when the missionaries told them about the Son of God, that it was their statue, which had never before had a name. Anthropology is one of my hobbies, Polly. Someday I'll show you the sketch books I've made on my travels. This statue is one of my most favorite possessions.'
'I love it,' I said, 'I absolutely love it.'
We went on downstairs and back to the library, and Max had another cup of consommé, complaining that Nettie hadn't put enough sherry in it. 'She disapproves. Nettie and Ovid are growing old, and I'd like to get someone to help them, but they won't hear of it. Urs likes to cook, and Nettie and Ovid come in after dinner and do the washing up, and they bring us our breakfast. Nettie is a firm believer in a good breakfast, grits andfried tomatoes and eggs and anything else she thinks she can get me to eat.'
'You could do with a few more pounds,' Sandy said.
Max sat on a low chair and stretched her legs out to the fire. 'So you and Rhea are here for Christmas, Sandy? How can you take all those children?'
'Very happily,' Sandy said. 'We'd hoped to have children of our own, but that didn't happen to be possible.'
'Oh, God, Sandy, I'm sorry.' Max put her hands to her mouth.
'It's probably just as well in our line of work,' he said. 'We have to travel too much of the time. And with all our nephews and nieces, we don't do too badly.'
I'd wondered about Sandy and Rhea not having kids of their own.
He looked at his watch. 'We'd better go, Pol.'
Max put her hand very lightly on my shoulder. 'Come back and see me, little one, and we'll talk about anthropology.'
'All right,' I mumbled. But I knew I wouldn't. Not unless Max called me. And she did.
But not until she and Ursula had joined the throng for Christmas. As soon as Mother and Daddy heard that Max and Ursula were at Beau Allaire, and about the connections with Sandy and Dennys, they invited them for Christmas.
'Max won't come,' Sandy said.
But she called and accepted the invitation. 'So Urs will have someone to talk neurosurgery with.'
'Granted,' my Uncle Dennys said, 'Ursula Heschel has overworked ever since I've known her, but it still seemsatypical of her and Max to come here in the dead of winter. In the spring when the azaleas are out, yes, but not in December.'
'It's quiet,' Mother said.
'True, it's quiet. But I'm the one who's the researcher. Ursula's a superb surgeon.'
'You're right, Dennys,' Sandy said. 'There's something odd about it.'
Christmas was cold and clear and perfect. The sun glinted off the Atlantic. We had fires going in both the living and dining rooms. The little kids played outside with their new toys, so the rest of us could have some reasonable conversation indoors. Dennys, Urs, and Daddy talked about the mysteries of the brain, and Daddy took them off to the lab. It does seem weird to me that the octopus and the human being share so much of the neurological system.
Max, Mother, Rhea, and Lucy talked about the state of the world, which as usual was precarious, and about the state of American education, which was deplorable.
'Kate is getting an education just living in this zoo,' Aunt Lucy said while we were gathered in the kitchen basting the turkey and doing various last-minute things.
Kate was nibbling the candied grapefruit peel we'd made a few days before. 'Cowpertown High's okay. I'm learning plenty.'
'And going to all the dances?' Aunt Lucy asked.
'Enough,' Kate said. She could have said 'all.' Kate always had half a dozen boys after her whenever there was a dance, and I knew that Mother and Daddy felt responsible for her and worried about whichever boy was driving and whether or not booze or joints had been sneaked in. But Kate had sense enough not to drive home with anyone who was stoned, and she had already calledtwice to ask someone to come for her. Though we didn't tell Lucy and Dennys.
If Mother and Daddy worried about Kate being popular and successful, they worried about me being alone too much. It was okay. I didn't want to go. Kate loves parties and dances and barbecues, and she gets bored if she doesn't have a lot to do. Not me.
We'd put all the extensions in the table. Max had brought over an enormous damask banquet cloth, and with candles and oil lamps lit and the Christmas tree lights sparkling, it looked beautiful. The little kids all behaved reasonably well, and no one threw up. It was a good Christmas.
And then Max and Ursula asked us for New Year's Evethe grownups, plus Charles and me.
Charles had grown taller, though he wasn't quite as tall as Xan, but he was still my special brother Charles who understood me better than anyone else. We spent hours up in our favorite old live-oak tree, talking, catching up. I was going to miss him abysmally when he went back to Boston; in my eyes, Kate was not at all a fair exchange for Charles. But at least Charles was still here for New Year's Eve, and Beau Allaire was a perfect place for a party.
All the verandahs were full of light as we drove up, and the great columns gleamed. Nettie and Ovid passed hot hors d'oeuvres, and there was lots of conversation and laughter. We played charades. Sandy and I were the best at pantomime, and Mother and Max were best at guessing, but we all threw ourselves into the game and had a lot of fun.
As all the clocks began to chime midnight, Ovid opened a magnum of champagne, and after a toast we all put our arms about each other's waist, standing ina circle, and sang Auld Lang Syne. When we were through, Ursula put an arm around Max, tenderly, protectively. And I thought I would like to be protected like that.
Sitting in Constitution Square, being warmed by the sun, I did not want to think about Max. But that was not very intelligent of me. What I needed to do was to think about Max objectively, not subjectively. I'm enough of a scientist's daughter to know that nothing can be thought about completely objectively. We all bring our own subjective bias to whatever we think about, but we have to recognize what our bias is, so that we will be able to think as objectively as possible.
Daddy had said that he could not even study his lab creatures totally objectively, because to observe something is to change it.
That was certainly true. Max had observed me. And changed me.
I had finished two cups of the thick, sweet coffee, and that was more than enough. I put my pen and journal back in the shoulder bag, crossed the street to the hotel, went up to my room, and napped. It seemed that all I wanted was sleep, and not just because of jet lag. Sleep is healing, Sandy said, and when I woke up, I did feel better. I had one foot in Athens and the present, and although the other foot was still across the Atlantic and dragging in the past, at least Max had made me aware of how complex we can be, so it did not surprise me to be in both worlds simultaneously.
The problem was that I could not comprehend the vast span of Max's complexity. My parents are, as humanbeings go, complex, but also moderately consistent. I can count on them. And the bad people I've met have been so bad that I could count on them being bad, which does simplify things. But shouldn't I have learned that life is neither consistent nor simple? Why did it surprise me?
I looked at the travel alarm I'd put on the bed table. Nearly eight. Just time to dress and go up to the roof for dinner. I took a book so I wouldn't be lonely. I love to eat and read, but in a family like ours I don't often have the opportunityonly if I'm sick enough to stay in bed, which doesn't happen often, and when it does, I'm usually too miserable to read.
Sometimes, when I went over to Beau Allaire, Max and I ate together, with books open beside us on the table, and didn't talk, unless one of us wanted to read something to the other. We usually ate in the screened part of the back verandah, rather than in the formal, oval dining room. A breezeway went from the screened porch to the kitchen, which was slightly separated from the rest of the house, in the old Southern manner.
'Pol, listen to this,' Max said. 'It's by a physicist, A. J. Wheeler. He says: "Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as 'sitting out there,' with the observer safely separated from it by a 20-centimeter slab of plate glass. Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, we must shatter the glass." ' She made a movement with her hand as though breaking through glass, and her face was bright with interest as she looked up from the book, blinking silver eyes against the light of the candles in the hurricane globes. 'We cannot separate ourselves from anything in the universe. Not from other creatures. Not from each other.'
But I had put the glass up between Max and me, erected a barrier, so that we could no longer touch each other.
I got up to the restaurant at two minutes before eight, and the doors were just opening. I was the only person there, though people did begin to trickle in after a few minutes. It was a beautiful, open-air restaurant, with lots of plants, and candles on all the tables. I had a waiter who spoke good English, so I didn't try to practice my Greek. He was concerned that I was all alone, so I told him about Uncle Sandy and Aunt Rhea and that they would be with me on Tuesday.
This seemed to reassure him, and he began explaining the menu to me, and I didn't think it would be polite for me to tell him that I had a Greek aunt and was used to Greek food. Anyhow, I liked his taking care of me, and he was a kind of surrogate uncle for an hour or so.
Two couples came in and were seated at tables between me and the view of the Acropolis, and I think one man thought I was staring at him when all I was trying to do was see the Parthenon.
Dinner tasted good, really good. And that in itself was a big improvement. I ordered fruit and cheese, and my waiter told me that if I lingered over dessert and coffee I'd see, if not hear, the son et lumière show at the Acropolis.
I ate slices of pear with Brie, a French rather than a Greek dessert. I don't have a sweet tooth and I'm not fond of baklava or any of the other pastries dripping with syrup. Spreading the soft Brie on a crisp slice ofpear, I felt a presence behind me, thought it was the waiter, and turned.
It was the black-haired kid who'd raised his eyebrow at me while we were sitting in Constitution Square. And he was tall. Taller than I.
"Hi, Red," he said.
If Sandy and Rhea had been with me as planned, I'd have ignored him. Though likely if I'd been with Sandy and Rhea he wouldn't have spoken. I intensely dislike being called Red.
"Saw you walk over to the King George from the Square this afternoon," he said. "I'm Zachary Gray, from California. You are American, aren't you?"
"Yes." Did I really want to talk to this guy?
"May I sit down?"
"Feel free." I still wasn't sure.
"What's your name, and where're you from?" he asked. He was really spectacular-looking, with black eyes and long black lashes. I envied him those lashes, though I'm happy with my own eyes. Kate would have fallen all over him.
I didn't exactly want to fall over him, but I decided I did want him to sit down. "I'm Polly O'Keefe, and I've come from an island partway between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina."
"You don't have a Southern accent. Almost English."
"Middle Atlantic," I corrected him. "I spent a lot of my childhood in Portugal." Max's accent was softly Southern, not jarringly, just a gentle, musical rhythm.
"So, what're you doing all by your lonesome in Athens? Are your parents with you?"
"My parents are home on Benne Seed Island. I'm here for a week, and then I'm going to Cyprus. What're you doing here?"
"Just bumming around. I'm taking a year off from college to wander around Europe and get some culture."
He didn't look like the typical American backpacker. He looked like money, lots of money.
The waiter came over and Zachary greeted him. "Hello, Aristeides. This young lady's a friend of mine."
I almost told Aristeides I'd never seen him before in my life, but I shut my mouth on the words. I was lonely. And being picked up by a desirable young man was a new experience.
Zachary ordered a bottle of retsina. "It's a white wine, soaked over resin. It tastes like the Delphic Oracle."
Rhea looks down her nose at retsina.
But Zachary went on: "There are other Greek wines which are much better; I just happen to like it. Aristeides, by the way, means someone who is inflexibly just."
"You speak Greek?" I asked.
"A few words and phrases. You pick it up."
A waiter's name which means 'inflexibly just' would be fine to set down in that journal I was supposed to be keeping for school. "How do you happen to know Aristeides?"
"I like good food and pleasant places to eat it in. And Athens is my favorite city. I infinitely prefer it to Paris or London or Rome. How come you're going off to Cyprus right at the beginning of the school year? You don't look like a dropout."
"I'm not. It's an educational trip. I'm going to be a gofer at a conference in Osia Theola."
"How'd you get chosen for the job?"
"I'm not afraid of hard work."
Zachary said, "Your parents must trust you, to let youcome this way all alone and stay all by yourself at a hotel in Athens."
"They do trust me," I said. I didn't think it necessary to say they had no idea I was all alone in Athens.
"So where's this place on Cyprus?" he asked.
"Osia Theola. It's a small village with a conference center in what used to be a monastery."
"Maybe we'll have a chance to get better acquainted before you go. I decided when I spotted you this afternoon that you were someone I wanted to know."
How to respond to this? Kate would have known exactly the right thing to say. I didn't.
"I'm glad your parents put you in the King George. You'll be safe here." His tone was condescending. "What's on your agenda for tomorrow?"
I replied firmly, "I'm going on a bus tour." I didn't want this Zachary taking too much for granted.
"No, no, not a bus tour," Zachary said. "They're the pits. You're coming with me." He sounded very sure of himself. "I just happen to be free for the next couple of days, and I'll give you the million-dollar tour."
Aristeides brought the wine and two glasses and looked at me questioningly.
"No, thank you," I said to him. "Not after I spent all last night on a plane and my internal clock is all mixed up."
Zachary started to protest, so I added, "I'm underage, anyhow," and Aristeides nodded at me and took my glass away, then poured some for Zachary, who held the glass out to me. "Take a sip at least."
Because of Rhea's taste in wines, I'd never had retsina. Maybe my tastes are low, but I liked it; it made me think of pine forests, and Diana walking through fallen needles, her bow slung over her shoulder.
Aristeides moved away to serve another table, and Zachary looked at me over the rim of his glass. Zachary really was in Athens on his own, while my being by myself was because of some kind of crisis in Sandy and Rhea's work. And I was suddenly grateful that my parents cared enough about me so that I was not like this Zachary, or the other kids checking in at American Express for their money while their parents did whatever parents do who just want their kids out of their hair.
"How old are you?" Zachary asked.
He leaned toward me. "It's hard to tell by looking at you. I'd have thought you were older, except that your blue eyes are a child's."
"I'm not a child."
"Thank God. Tell me about this Benne Seed Island where you live. It sounds as though it's out in the boonies."
"Beene Seed makes the boonies look metropolitan," I said. "But isolation is good for Daddy's work."
"What does he do?"
"He's a marine biologist," I said briefly. We've learned never to talk about Daddy's experiments, because they're in an incredibly sensitive area and in the wrong hands could be disastrous. But Zachary seemed to expect me to say something more, so I added, "My father needs a lot of solitude for experiments that take a long time to show any definitive results."
"Isn't that hard on you? How do you feel about all that solitude?"
I shrugged. "I have six younger brothers and sisters, so it isn't all that solitary."
He nearly swooned. "Seven kids! What got into your parents? You Catholic or something?"
I shook my head. Sometimes I wondered myself what had got into my parents. It seemed to me that when we were living on Gaea they felt they had to repopulate the island all by themselves so we'd have people to play with.
Who, of all of us, would I send back? Not even Xan, who's the one who rubs me like sandpaper.
From my seat I still had a good view, despite the middle-aged man who thought I was looking at him, and suddenly the walls of the Acropolis were lit by soft, moving lights, shifting from pale rose to green to blue. "Look," I said.
Zachary turned around in his chair, and back. "It's pretty vulgar." (Rhea would have agreed with him there.) "But I'll take you tomorrow night if you like."
Again, I didn't know what to say. Yes? Kate says boys don't like it if you're too eager. The only person I'd ever dated was Renny, and I'm not sure having pizza with Renny even qualified as a date. He was an intern, and I was a kid who listened to him talk.
I pushed the thought of Renny away. If I was going to go out with Zachary the next day, I ought to know something more about him. "When you finish getting culture and go back to college, where are you going? What are you planning to be?"
"One at a time," he said. "I'm going back to UCLA, and I'll be studying law. My pa's a corporate lawyer, and I mean a multinational corporate lawyer, with his finger in pies on every continent."
As I thought: money. I watched the lights shimmer on the hillside and then blink off.
"I'm taking this year off to find out what I really want. I'll tell you what I want right now. I want to spend tomorrow with you."
With me. This extremely gorgeous-looking young man wanted to spend the day with me. It sounded a lot better than going on a bus tour with a lot of people I didn't know. I wasn't sure I trusted Zachary. But I didn't have any reason to trust a lot of strangers on a bus, either.
"Here we are, both on our own"Zachary reached across the table and lightly touched the tips of his fingers to mine"and I think we can have a good time together."
Not only had I not mentioned to Zachary that my parents had no idea I was on my own, I also did not tell him about Sandy and Rhea.
He went on. "When I saw you in the Square this afternoon you reminded me of a wild pony, ready to shy off if anybody frightened you. You still have that look, as though you might suddenly leap up from your chair and vanish. You're sophisticated enough to be eating alone on the roof of the King George and yet you have an innocence I haven't seen in anyone your age in I don't know how long."
For want of anything better to say, I murmured, "I've lived on islands most of my life."
"I was expecting to take off for Corfu tomorrow, but I'd much rather stay here and show you around. I'll rent a car so we can go off into the countryside."
I was flattered. I suspected my cheeks were pink. Kate collects male animals as I collect specimens for Daddy, going out in the boat to get squid or whatever he needs. Nobody anywhere near my age had ever wanted to spend a day with me before. "That sounds like fun. But I think right now I'd better go to bed and get a good night's sleep if I'm to be awake for you tomorrow."
"I'll take you to your room," he said.
"No. Thanks. I'll go myself."
"Don't you trust me?"
I shook my head. "It isn't you."
"You are a wild little animal," he said. "I'm not a wolf."
I stood up. "What time shall we meet tomorrow?"
"I'll pick you up. What's your room number?"
"I'll meet you in the lobby."
"Okay, okay, pretty Pol, I suppose you have every right to be suspicious of some guy who's just picked you up. I'm staying at the Hilton, by the way, because it has a better view. Wait till you see it. Lobby of the King George. Ten a.m. tomorrow."
"I look forward to it," I said. I was glad I'd already signed for my meal, so I could just walk away, without looking back.
The view from my room at night was as beautiful as it had been in the full sunshine, although the son et lumière show was long over. I looked at the ancient stones and wondered what all those centuries did to our own troubled timeput it in more cosmic perspective perhaps? But even if the Acropolis speaks of the pettiness and brevity of our mortal lives, while our lives are going on they matter.
The ancient stones seemed lit from within. Sometimes I think the past has its own radiance. I turned from the balcony, switched on the lights, and ordered my breakfast for the next morning, hanging the breakfast chit on the outside of the door. Breakfast in the room was my Uncle Sandy's suggestion. He and Rhea like to keep theirmornings quiet when they're traveling, and I thought I might like that, toocontinental breakfast, café au lait and croissants, and a book. It sounded good to me.
The bed had been turned down while I was at dinner, and it looked so comfortable that I got undressed right away and climbed in, pushing the pillows up behind me, dutifully writing in the journal for school. Most certainly the day in Athens had not been in the least what I had expected. No Sandy and Rhea; instead, a boy called Zachary. That was not the kind of thing to write down. I thought for a moment, then described the view from my room and mentioned Aristeides, the inflexibly just, to prove that travel is truly educational.
And then the phone rang.
I was not entirely surprised to have it be my Uncle Dennys calling from Boston. Sandy and Dennys have the special closeness of twins.
All Dennys wanted to know was that I was okay, that I wasn't lonely or frightened. He and Sandy use the long-distance phone as though it were local. They both feel that it's very important to keep in touch. And I suppose they can both afford it. Nevertheless, it awes me. He asked, "What are your plans for tomorrow?"
"I'm going sightseeing."
"No, I met this guy from California who knows a lot about Athens, and he's going to show me around."
"Are you sure he's okay?"
"Who can be sure about anyone? I can take care of myself."
"Sure you can, Pol, but be careful."
"I'll be careful. Don't worry."
"Sorry Sandy got held up, but maybe it'll be good for you to have this time on your own."
"Don't tell Mother and Daddy"
"Never fear. Sandy's already made me promise. Strikes me he's being more protective of them than he is of you."
"He just wants me to grow up," I said.
"You will. You already are, in many ways." We said goodbye, and I felt warmed by Dennys's call. Sandy had promised me that what Max had called him about wouldn't go any further, he wouldn't tell anyone, even his twin. And I knew he hadn't.
When I put the phone down I looked at my school journal and decided I was too tired to write any more. I slid down in bed and turned out the light. It was cool enough, with the balcony windows open to the night breeze, for me to snuggle under the covers. I plummeted into sleep, and slept deep down dark for a couple of hours, and then woke up and felt myself floating to the surface. At first I thought I was in my familiar bed at home. But I heard street noises instead of the surf rolling and the wind in the palmettos. I was alone in a hotel in Athens. Sandy and Rhea were still in Washington, but Zachary Gray was not far away in the Hilton. Amazing.
What time was it at home? Never mind. I'd better get body and mind on Greek time. I leaned on my elbow and peered at the travel alarm. Midnight. I lay down. Wrapped the covers about me. Too hot. Pushed them down. Too cold. Slipped into half sleep. Half dream.
(With a name like Queron, who wouldn't be called Renny?)
Like Zachary, Renny was tall, taller than I. Most of the kids at Cowpertown High were shorter. Zachary was sophisticated and exotic. Renny was serious and nice-lookingin a completely unspectacular way. His light brown hair bleached in the summer from sun and salt water. His grey-blue eyes peered behind thick lenses in heavy frames. In the dream he was standing beside me on the open verandah at Beau Allaire, wearing his white doctor's coat, with his stethoscope dangling out of his pocket, looking like a young doctor on TV. He said, 'An intern's life is hell,' the way he had said it to me at least a dozen times, but in a tone of voice that belied his words. Renny loved being an intern. He loved the hospital and everything about it. When I first met him I assumed that he was at the M. A. Horne Hospital because it was the only place he could get. Renny is from Charleston, and there are bigger hospitals in Charleston. There are bigger hospitals in Savannah and Jacksonville. Or Richmond or Baltimore.
In the dream he sat on the white rail of the verandah. 'You watch out for this guy who's picked you up. I don't trust him.'
'I can handle him,' I said.
'You're much too sure of yourself, Polyhymnia O'Keefe. Pride goeth before a fall.'
'I'm not really sure of myself,' I said. 'It's just a front.' It was. I'm sure of myself as far as my brain is concerned. I've got a good one, thanks to my genetic background. But in every other area of life I'm insecure. I can talk easily and comfortably with adults, but not with kids my own age.
'Watch it,' Renny said, his voice echoing in the dream. 'Watch it ... watch it ...'
His warning woke me and brought me back from Beau Allaire to my bed in the King George. I was hot, so I got up and went out onto the balcony, and the night sky was that extraordinary blue which was deep behindthe stars. Greek blue. Blue and gold by day; blue and silver by night. I wondered how much human nature had actually changed in the thousands of years since the Acropolis was built, and if all that had happened to me was so extraordinary after all.
I'd seen Renny every week or so during the past winter and summer. Going out with him for barbecue or pizza on his rare free evenings, and listening to him talk about tropical medicine, was a good antidote to not being asked to a dance at the Cowpertown High School, but that's all it meant, until a couple of weeks ago.
Renny was still an antidote, but for something far more cataclysmic than not being asked to a dance, or watching my cousin Kate go off with a bunch of kids, usually including Xan, while I stayed home. Kate is everything Mother and Daddy would have liked me to be. She's not short, but she's shorter than I am, and when she goes to a dance she doesn't loom over the boys. And she's beautiful, full and beautiful. I'm no longer the same measurement all round; I have reasonable curves both in front and behind, which is a big improvement over the pole I used to be, but Kate has pheromones which draw boys to her like honey. I wasn't exactly jealous of Kate; I didn't even want to change places with her; I was just wistful.
The light on the Acropolis was different now than it had been earlier, a deeper, darker blue, with many of the city lights extinguished around it, though not all. Cities never go completely to sleep. While they are alive, that is. I stood looking at the pearly light on the stone until I was chilly. Then I went back to bed. Edges of dawn were outlining the windows as I slid into sleep. I didn't wake up till there was a knock on the door.
Breakfast. I was wide awake in an instant. Breakfastin Athens. I grabbed my bathrobe and rushed to open the door. A nice young waiter who looked like pictures of Greek statues carried in a breakfast tray which he took out to the balcony. There was a pot of coffee, a pitcher of hot milk, a dish with croissants and toast, jam, honey, and butter.
When we lived on Gaea and school was whenever Mother and Daddy decided we should start lessons, breakfast was unhurried, too. We fixed trays and ate in our rooms and emerged into the day when we felt like it, some of us getting up at dawn, some not till seven or even eight. But at Benne Seed we were on a schedule; we had to get to the mainland in time for that school bus. So, though Mother set breakfast out and we were free to get our own and eat it whenever we liked, we couldn't help bumping into each other. If Mother and Daddy could have gone on teaching us I might have loved Benne Seed as much as I loved Gaea. It was Cowpertown and the high school which depressed me. The island itself was home.
So breakfast alone in Athens reminded me of breakfast on Gaea, though it was much more elegant. I thanked the waiter in Greek which was, if not flawless, at least understandable, and he beamed at me. "Parakalo," he said, and then he pointed to the Acropolis with the morning light bringing the stones to life, gabbled at me in Greek, beamed again, and left.
The telephone rang, jolting me. I went back to the room and answered, and why was I surprised when it was Zachary Gray?
"I just wanted to make sure we were getting together today."
He was worried about me backing out? "Of course."
"Have you had breakfast?"
"I'm having it right now, out on the balcony, enjoying the view."
"We'll have lunch together somewhere, then, though I want you to see the view from my balcony first. Can you be in your lobby at ten sharp?"
I looked at my watch. It was just after eight. "Sure. See you at ten."
The sun was so bright as it slanted across the balcony that I hitched my chair back into the shadows so I could see to read without being half blinded. The croissants were crumbly and delicious, and the café au lait was good, much better than the sweet thick stuff. Instead of reverting to childhood, having breakfast alone in Greece as we used to do in Portugal, I suddenly felt very grownup. Absurd. Why did it take being alone in Athens to make me feel mature enough to look at human nature and feel part of it? Not better. Not worse. Just part.
I was reading a book Sandy had given me, about Epidaurus, where he was planning to take me. There's a magnificent theatre there, though we were going to be too late in the season to see any plays. And there were holy precincts in Epidaurus where, back in the high days of Greek civilization, people were brought to be healed, some with physical ailments, some with mental ones. There were really interesting things in the book. The snake pit, for instance. Those snakes in the pit where really sick mental patients were put weren't just snakes, which would have been enough to send them out of their minds for good; they were snakes with a strong electric charge. So it was, you might say, the first electric-shocktreatment, and probably no more inhuman than any kind of electric-shock treatment. I wondered what Renny would think of it.
The brilliant sun dazzling off the stones of the buildings and onto my stretched-out legs and arms was a shock treatment in its own way. My spirits lifted, and I took the last bit of apricot jam and licked it off the spoon.
The sun tingled against my legs, which had a good tan from summer. Unlike a lot of redheads, I do tan, as long as I'm careful and do it slowly. I also have long, straight toes, probably because I've worn sandals or gone barefoot most of my life. Feet are usually not the prettiest part of the body, but my feet were one of the things I could feel pleased about.
In Epidaurus, before sick people could go into the sacred precincts for healing, they had to stay outside the gates to pray, to be purged of bad feelings, anger, resentment, lack of forgiveness. Only then could they go in to the priests.
I looked at the words: anger, resentment, lack of forgiveness, and in the brilliant light the letters seemed to wriggle on the page like little snakes. I needed that purging. Nobody could get rid of all those bad feelings but me, myself. The warmth of the sun on the balcony, and those words leaping off the page at me, had made me see that much. Or maybe it was getting away from everything and everybody so I could see it in perspective.
'You'll like Krhis Ghose,' Max had said, showing me a snapshot of a thin man who looked something like Nehru. We were up on the second-floor verandah outside her bedroom, where she had comfortable Chinese wicker furniture, and the breeze from the ocean, plus theceiling fan, plus mosquito coils, kept the insects to a minimum.
'Is he a Hindu or a Moslem?'
Max fanned herself slowly with an old-fashioned palm-leaf fan. 'A Christian. One who actually is one. A person of total integrity. Why we get along so well I'm not sure, but I count him among my closest friends.'
'How did you meet?'
'In Bombay. Much against my will, I was dragged to a lecture Krhis was giving on the connection between religious intolerance and land boundaries. And instead of being bored, I was fascinated, and we went out with him afterwards and talked all night. He's come through hell. Saw his wife and child shot. God, they do keep shooting each other in that part of the world. But he's come out on the other side, somehow or other. Without bitterness.'
You could not go into the sacred precincts in Epidaurus with bitterness in your soul. Inner and outer illnesses were seen as part of each other, and both patient and priest participated in the healing. The Greeks understood psychosomatic, or holistic, medicine long before they were heard of in the West, where we've tended to separate and overspecialize. In Epidaurus, healing was an art, rather than a science.
Sandy and Dennys say it's an art for Daddy, too, and that's why he's had such remarkable results in his experiments on regeneration.
Ursula Heschel was fascinated by Daddy's work, and when she and Max came over for dinner, she and Daddyalways spent time together in the lab. Xan and I both helped in the lab, feeding the animals, cleaning the tanks, and I had to wash down the floor with a hose once a day. Max was interested and intelligent, but Ursula was the one who truly understood. She and Daddy really hit it off.
Once in January, Daddy and Ursula went to Florida to a lab there specializing in the nervous system of the octopus. In February they went together to Baltimore, where Daddy was giving a paper at Johns Hopkins. They had lots in common.
Xan said once, 'It's a good thing Ursula Heschel is much too old for Dad.'
'What are you talking about?'
'They sure like each other. Kate's noticed it. But Mother doesn't seem jealous.'
'They're just friends. There isn't any reason to be jealous.'
And indeed Mother, rather than being jealous, often suggested asking Max and Ursula to dinner.
But if Urs, as it were, belonged to Daddy, Max belonged to me. And my parents encouraged the friendship. Mother said, 'I expect too much of you, Polly. The oldest always gets too much responsibility foisted on her. I should know. Of course you can go over to Beau Allaire this afternoon.'
If the car wasn't free I'd go to Beau Allaire right from school, taking the bus from Cowpertown to Mulletville and walking over from there, and then later on, Mother would come for me, or Urs would drive me home.
Max had called and asked me for tea early in January. The uncles had left, Charles had gone back to Boston with Dennys and Lucy, and Kate had stayed with us. The house was back to its normal population. Schoolhad started again and was as stultifying as ever, and I was glad to be going over to Beau Allaire, but a little shy, driving over by myself. I'd got my license on my sixteenth birthday. One of the good things about Cowpertown High was the driver's-ed course, though Mother and Daddy said that driver's ed and similar courses were one reason why the science department was nearly nonexistent, and why no languages were offered.
As I climbed the steps to the front entrance to Beau Allaire, Max flung open the door and welcomed me in. Nettie and Ovid were setting out tea in the library. I didn't see Ursula.
'Urs went into Charleston on a consultation,' Max explained. 'They don't have a neurological service at M. A. Horne, more's the pity. It would keep Urs busy. Dennys introduced her to the chief of neurology at Mercy Hospital and one would have thought Dennys had given him pure gold. In a sense, he did. People flock to New York to see Ursula. They'll flock to Charleston just for a consult. Maintenant.' She spoke to me in French. 'Did you bring your homework with you as I suggested?'
I replied in Portuguese: 'It's here, in my canvas bag.'
'Not Portuguese,' Max said. 'That was Portuguese, wasn't it?'
'Yes, and it's the language I speak best,' I answered in German.
She laughed. 'I concede. You're good at languages. Let me see some of your schoolwork.'
I pulled out my English notebook. On the bus from school to the Cowpertown dock, I'd written a sketch of the natives on Gaea, comparing them with the Indians we'd met when Daddy took Charles and me with him for a month when he was doing research in Venezuela.
'That's good, Polly,' Max said, to my surprise. 'You really give a flavor of the people you're writing about,but you haven't fallen for the Noble Savage trap. You look at them with a realistic eye. Where did you get your gift for writing?'
'I didn't know I had one. Daddy used to write when he was young, and Mother says he should go over his journals and have some of them published. But he's too busy.'
'If he's that good, he should make time,' Max said. She began leafing through my English notebook. 'You use imagery well. That's a good snow metaphor, soft flowers that perished before they reached the ground. Where have you seen snow?'
'Sometimes it snowed in Lisbon. And we've seen snow when we've stayed with our grandparents in New England.'
'Good. I didn't think you could have written that if you hadn't seen it. Does your English teacher appreciate you?'
'She gives me B's. She thinks I'm showing off when I write about Lisbon and other places we've been.'
'No. When she wants a description of a place, I have to write about places I know.'
'True. But I can see that it might seem like showing off to your English teacher. What's her name?'
'Hardly a good South Carolina name. Who are your favorite poets?'
Sandy and Rhea often give me poetry for Christmas. This year it was a small volume of seventeenth-century writers. I loved it. 'There's someone called Vaughan, I think. I love the way he relishes words.'
'And Miss Zeloski?'
'If anything rhymes, Miss Zeloski says it's old-fashioned. She likes poetry thatthat obfuscates.'
Max leaned back on the sofa and laughed. 'And I suppose she likes all that garbage full of genital imagery?'
'Not at Cowpertown High. The PTA has its eye out for obscenity.'
'Go and catch a falling star,' Max said. 'Get with child a mandrake root.'
'She doesn't like John Donne. I think he scares her.'
'That's not what she calls it. But yes. I think she's afraid of reality. So if the poetry doesn't mean anything, she doesn't have to cope with it.'
Max climbed up on the library ladder and pulled a book off one of the top shelves and read a few lines. 'e. e. cummings.'
'I love him,' I said. 'Sandy and Rhea gave me one of his books for my birthday a few years ago.'
'Not cool enough for your Miss Z.?'
Max climbed down from the ladder, and refilled my cup. It was a special tea, smoky, and we drank it without anything in it. I liked it. I liked Max. I liked talking with her. At home, everybody (except my parents) was younger than I, and our conversations were limited. And at school I didn't have any real friends. It wasn't that I was actively unpopular, I just didn't have anyone special to talk to. Mostly I felt I was walking through the scene, saying my lines reasonably well, but not being really in the show. At school I tried to play the role that was expected of me, as best I could. With Max, I was myself.
She laughed at me gently. 'What a snob you are, Polly.'
'Me?' I was startled.
'Why not? It's obvious that school bores you, and that there's nobody to challenge you, teacher or student.'
'A lot of the kids are bright.'
She cut me off. 'Go ahead and be a snob. I'm a snob. If you didn't interest me I wouldn't give you the time of day. Being a snob isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can mean being unwilling to walk blindly through life instead of living it fully. Being unwilling to lose a sense of wonder. Being alive is a marvelous, precarious mystery, and few people appreciate it. Go on being a snob, Polly, as long as it keeps your mind and heart alert. It doesn't mean that you can't appreciate people who are different from you, or have different interests.'
Max made me not only willing to be Polyhymnia O'Keefe but happy to be.
It was, oddly enough, through Max that I began seeing Renny. He called me early one evening late in January.
Xan shouted, 'Hey, Polly, it's for you. Some guy.'
I ambled to the phone. Sometimes kids in my class call me to ask about homework.
'Is this Polly O'Keefe?'
'You don't know me. I'm Queron Renier, and I'm a distant cousin of a friend of yours, Simon Renier, the one who's staying in Venezuela.'
'Well, hello,' I said. 'It's nice to hear from you.'
'I'm an intern at the M. A. Horne Hospital in Cowpertown, and I thought maybe we could get together.'
Interns usually move in sometime in early July. Thiswas January. 'Well, sure.' I didn't sound wildly enthusiastic.
'I haven't called before because I'm basically a shy guy. But I was talking with an outpatient who's a friend of yours. I guess she saw I was lonely, and somehow or other I mentioned that I'd heard of you through Simon but I hadn't felt free to call'
'Who was it?' I was curious now.
'A Mrs. Tomassi.'
It took me a moment to remember that Max's husband's name was Tomassi. 'Max!'
'I guess. She lives on Benne Seed at Beau Allaire'
'What was she doing at the hospital?'
A pause. 'She was just in for some blood tests.'
I wanted to ask what for, but Daddy has talked to us often enough about confidentiality, and I knew that Renny wouldn't tell me.
He said, 'Well, could we get together sometime? Take in a movie in Cowpertown or something?'
'Sure.' I realized I wasn't being very hospitable.
'Would you like to come to dinner? Do you have anything on, your next evening off?'
'It's tomorrow,' he said. 'It's sort of short notice, but no, I don't have anything on.'
'Well, good. Come on over. Do you have access to a motorboat?'
'Well, come by the causeway, then. It's a lot longer, but if you don't have a boat it's the only way. We're the far end of the island.'
'About six?' I gave him directions, hung up, and then double-checked with Mother.
'Of course it's all right,' she said. I knew she was worriedthat I didn't bring friends home the way the others did.
Renny was nice. Everybody liked him. Kate made eyes at him, but fortunately she really was too young for him. Fourteen, after all. Anyhow, Renny and I got on well. He was almost as shy as I was, and I think he was grateful to have someone he could be purely platonic with. I mean, he hardly saw me as a sexpot. But he asked me to go out for something to eat, and see a movie, on his next free evening.
I saw Max the day after Renny came for dinner. She called me to come over after school, to do my homework at the long table in the library, and stay for an early supper.
Ursula was in the library, too, sitting in her favorite chair, deep in some medical journal.
'So how did you like my nice young intern?' Max asked.
'You described him,' I said. 'Nice.'
'He just came over for dinner with the family. It was kind of a mob scene. But he was able to cope with it, and that says something.'
'Max, why were you having blood tests?'
Ursula looked up from her journal but said nothing.
Max replied shortly, 'When one is my age, every time one sees a doctor, one has to have a million tests.'
'Why did you need to see a doctor?'
'When one is my age, it is prudent to have regular medical checkups.'
'Renny called you Mrs. Tomassi.'
'It was, after all, my husband's name.'
'You never use it.'
'Therefore it gives me a modicum of privacy, of which there is very little around here. And stop prying. It is not a quality I like.'
'Weren't you prying about Renny?' I countered.
'At my age, prying is permissible. Not at yours. Please treat me with the respect I deserve.'
Ursula put her journal down and stood up, stretching. 'I'm off to finish up in the kitchen.'
'Need any help?' I asked.
'No thanks, Pol. Nettie and Ovid already think I'm displacing them. I do try not to hurt their feelings, and I'm more than grateful to have them wash up. It's a dream of a kitchen, and cooking has always been therapy for me.'
At Beau Allaire it wasn't always easy to remember that Urs was at the top of her profession. She seemed to enjoy acting the housekeeper.
'I take outrageous advantage of Urs,' Max said, as the doctor shut the library door. 'But she doesn't have to let me.'
'Well, she loves you.'
'So, are you going to see Renny again?'
'He's not on call on Thursday. We're getting together.'
'He's coming to the Island for dinner again?'
'No. I'm going out with him.'
This seemed to please Max. And that surprised me. Max did not strike me as the matchmaking type.
Ursula came in with a decanter of sherry and said she'd fixed a good French peasant stew for dinner and it could sit on the back of the stove till we were ready. 'Like Nettie and Ovid, I tend to ignore the electric stove and use the old wood-and-coal one. I suppose I'll begrateful for the electric stove come summer.' She poured a small glass of sherry for Max, half glasses for herself and for me, and put the crystal stopper back in the decanter. 'You're good to spend so much time with us, Polly.'
'Good! You've rescued me! You've no idea how lonely I've been.'
'I do,' Max said. 'I grew up at Beau Allaire. I, too, went to school in Cowpertown. You were probably luckier on your Portuguese island, where you were the only Americans, the only Europeans, really, and had to make your own company.'
I nodded. 'I was lots less lonely than I am here. It's not the islandI love Benne Seed.'
'Too bad you and Kate don't hit it off better. M.A. and I made life under the Spanish moss bearable for each other.'
'Kate and Xan are the ones who get along. And Kate's wildly popular at school.'
'You're not?' Ursula's voice was gentle.
'I think the other kids think I'm weird.'
'You're brighter than they are,' Max said, 'and that's threatening.'
'A couple of guys in my grade killed a tortoise the other day,' I said, feeling sick all over again. 'I mean deliberately, and I could have killed them. I wanted to, it was awful, but then I realized that the tortoise was already half dead so it was better to let them finish the job, and everybody laughed because I was making such a case of it.'
'Kate and Xan, too?' Ursula asked.
'They weren't there. Xan would have stopped them.'
Ursula spoke reassuringly. 'Don't worry, Polly. You'll have friends, too, even if you have to wait till you get tocollege and meet more people. You're friend material, and once you have friends you'll keep them for life.'
Renny had borrowed a motorboat from one of the doctors, which saved us nearly an hour. He took me to a Greek restaurant, Petros', near the dock, which shared a run-down sort of boardwalk with a seafood restaurant.
Renny and I sat in a booth and he told me about his special field, tropical medicine, especially in South America.
That surprised me. I looked at Renny sitting across from me, and there was something solid about him. His blue-grey eyes behind the thick lenses were amused. 'I inherited the Renier myopia,' he said. He'd have been good casting for a young doctor on a soap opera. If I'd been asked to guess what he was going to specialize in, I'd have said orthopedics, or maybe general surgery.
No. South American amoebas and parasites.
'What about India?' I asked, because I've always wanted to go to India. 'Aren't there vast quantities of amoebas and parasites there?'
'Yes, but I'm particularly interested in some parasites which are found largely in South America. They get into the bloodstream, andto try to simplify a long procedureeventually invade the heart.'
'Doesn't sound nice.'
'Isn't. The parasite Trypanosoma enters the body usually through the bite of an insect. There are two types of Trypanosoma problems I'm interested inChagas' disease and Netson's. Netson's disease is even more lethal than Chagas', particularly to someone with no immunities.When it gets to the heart, ultimately it kills, and thus far we don't have any successful treatment. More important than treatment is finding a means of prevention.'
'Hey. Is there any of this disease around here?'
'No, no, don't worry. So far, it's found almost exclusively in South America. None indigenous to North America.'
Behind Renny was a large poster of the Acropolis, the Parthenon prominent. Despite the Greek decor, the menu was Italian. But I had no idea, that first pizza with Renny, that I'd ever be going to Greece.
'So how come you're interning at M. A. Horne in Cowpertown if you're so interested in South American diseases?'
'Because Bart Netson's on the staff of M. A. Horne. He's my immediate boss.'
When I looked totally surprised, he grinned. 'I have the feeling you suspected that M. A. Horne was at the bottom of my list when I applied to hospitals.'
I could feel myself flushing. I had once again jumped to conclusions. I had judged Renny quickly and unfairly. 'Offhand, a small general hospital off the beaten track doesn't sound like a number-one choice. I didn't know about this Netson or his disease. Why is he at M. A. Horne?'
Renny laughed, a nice, hearty laugh. 'He was born in Charleston but spent most of his childhood in Argentina because his father was in foreign service. He came back to Charleston to medical school and married an Allaire. He spends a couple of months each year in South America doing research. He's published a lot of good material, probably the best in the field of tropical medicine, and it's prestigious for M. A. Horne to havehim. They're heavily enough endowed to give him pretty much whatever he wants.'
'So he's a sort of cousin of Max's?'
'Has to be. Her mother was an Allaire.' He cut two more slices of pizza and put one, dripping cheese, on my plate. 'Polly? If I go on riding my hobbyhorse, we'll miss the movie.'
'That's okay. I'd rather talk.'
He looked eager. 'Sure?'
'Sure. I'm interested. I wouldn't think you'd have many patients coming into M. A. Horne with South American diseases.'
'You'd be surprised.' He took a large bite of pizza and a swig of milk. 'With the continuing flood of refugees from South American countries, some of them coming in via Cuba and Florida and filtering up through Georgia, we get quite a few. And because of Bart Netson, their problem is recognized more quickly than in other places. For instance, a mild case of conjunctivitis plus a fluctuating fever isn't usually equated with a parasite.'
'Conjunctivitis? You mean pinkeye?'
'The vectorthe biting insectoften bites the face at the mucocutaneous junction'
'The lip, or the outer canthus of the eye.'
'How'd you get involved?' It did seem an odd choice for a perfect Southern-gentleman type like Queron Renier.
'I spent a couple of summers working in a clinic in Santiago. Eventually, I want to go back.'
'Like a missionary?'
He shook his head. 'To do research. A lot of good medicine has, in fact, come from medical missionaries who give their lives to help people nobody else gives ahoot aboutmillions of people worn down and living half lives.'
'So how'd you get to Chile and this clinic?'
He looked over my head at one of the Greek posters. 'I met a girl from Santiago while I was in college. Jacinta was over here taking pre-med courses and stayed on for medical school. It was through her I got the summer jobs in Chile.'
'You were in love with her?' He nodded. 'And vice versa?'
A shadow crossed his face. 'To some extent. But there wasn't any future for us.'
'For one thing, Jacinta was Roman Catholic.'
'Would that really matter?'
'To her, yes. And she came from a big Chilean family, and she was engaged to someone there. They still arrange marriages.'
'She sounds like an independent type. Why'd she accept it?'
'Who knows? Maybe she liked the guy. Maybe he had enough money for her clinic.'
'And you don't want me to ask you any more questions about her.'
'It's okay,' Renny said. 'I've pretty well got her out of my system.'
'But you're still into tropical medicine.'
'Yeah. I guess I'm grateful to her for that. I really am fascinated by it.'
And he was still bruised over the Chilean girl.
'Jacinta's interning in Louisiana,' he said. 'I might bump into her if I ever get back to Chile. But she'll be married by then. They make good baklava here. Want some?'
'Too sweet. You go ahead.'
After we finished eating, he drove back to the dock and we got into the motorboat. About halfway to the Island, he cut the motor and kissed me, which Kate had given me to understand was mandatory, whether the guy really liked you or not. I hoped that Renny liked me. He kissed nicely.
'I'm glad your friend made me call you,' he said.
That was Renny, and I liked him, as the older brother I'd always wanted, even if I got a little tired of tropical medicine. And maybe I was helpful to him in getting his Chilean girl out of his system.
The view of the Acropolis from the balcony at the King George was very like the poster at Petros' in Cowpertown. I took longer over breakfast than I'd expected, looking out at the view, reading bits from the book on Epidaurus (Sandy would expect me to have done my homework), relaxing in the warm morning sunlight.
So I had to dress in a hurry to get down to the lobby by ten. Not difficult. I don't have a large wardrobe to choose from, unlike Kate, who could barely get all her clothes plus herself into her room at Benne Seed. Well, Kate's an Only, and if I had that many clothes I'd have a terrible time deciding what to wear.
I put on a blue-and-white seersucker dress and my sandals and was ready when Zachary pulled up in a diesel taxi with flames coming out the tail pipe. I remember thinking the car was on fire when I first saw a diesel taxi in Lisbon.
I felt simultaneously warm with excitement and frozen with shyness as I sat by this extremely handsome youngman on the drive to the Hilton. Zachary did the talking, so I didn't have to worry about what to say. "And listen, Red"as we drew up to the Hilton"uhPolabout coming up to my roomit's perfectly okayI mean, I'm not going to try anything or anything like that. So just relax."
His room was on the eleventh floor of the Hilton, "in the best curve of the building," he told me as we went up in a very swift elevator. He led me through his room and right out onto the balcony, and I caught my breath in awe and delight. He had a view not only of the strange, flat-topped hill with the Parthenon but also a wide vista of the harbor at Piraeus, with the Aegean Sea to the left. And there was a high, stony mountain rising out of cypress trees, topped with a stone belfry, and then a large, white building, probably a monastery. It was far more spectacular than the view from the King George, or the poster at Petros'.
I had let my breath out in what was almost shock at the vast sweep of gloriousness. He gave me a proprietary smile. "Told you it would wow you."
It did. But the funny thing was that despite the staggering magnificence of the view, I liked my old hotel better than the Hilton.
As though reading my thoughts, Zachary waved toward the room. "The decor is pure Hilton, and a Hilton is a Hilton is a Hilton. However, my pa has connections, and the view redeems it. And the bathroom is European, black marble, with a tub made for people who prefer baths to showers."
"Like me," I said.
"I can't start the day without a shower. Okay, what now?"
"The Acropolis, please, if you haven't been there too many times."
"The Acropolis, pretty Pol, can't be visited too many times. We'll just grab a cab."
"Can't we walk?"
"We could, if we had nothing else to do all day. I want to drive out in the country with you, and then come back to Athens, and maybe go to the Plaka to one of my favorite small tavernas." He was planning to be with me the whole day. I felt a thrill of pleasure ripple over me. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He was just as gorgeous as I thought, and at least two inches taller than I.
It was a glorious end-of-summer day. Despite Zachary's chatter about the terrible pollution which was destroying the Parthenon and other ancient sites, and which gave him allergies, to me the air was clear and crisp and invigorating. It would be romanticizing to say it was like Gaea, because Gaea had as much fog and dampness as any other island, but it was like Gaea as I remembered it.
Zachary insisted on paying the entrance fee for both of us, and I was not happy about this. I didn't want to be beholden to some guy I had just met who came from the world of megabucks. I pulled out my Greek money and my booklet of traveler's checks, but he brushed me aside and got our tickets and I couldn't very well arm-wrestle him in the middle of the throng. I followed him through the gates, along with a lot of other tourists. Many were bunched together in groups, with guides herding them like sheep.
Zachary pointed to a cluster of Japanese tourists slung with cameras. He nudged me. "They say that Japanese tourists really aren't pushy. They just get behind a German." He laughed, then said, "Or don't you approve of ethnic jokes?" Just at that moment we saw a big, red-facedman in lederhosen pushing his way through the crowd.
"See?" Zachary said. But the man opened his mouth and called to someone, and he spoke in pure middle-American. "Ouch." Zachary made a face. "Corn belt. What does he think he's trying to prove? No wonder most of the world hates us. Come on, Pol. If you think there's a mob today, you should see it in midseason." He took me by the hand.
I pulled back, looking at the scaffolding partly concealing a beautiful building. "Not so fast."
He stopped. "Okay, listen, this is really interesting. They're literally inoculating the stone with antibiotics to try to slow down decay. The Caryatidsyou know what Caryatids are?"
Max had seen to it that I would not come to Greece unprepared. "Female forms, sort of like columns, holding up a roof."
I think Zachary was slightly annoyed that I knew about Caryatids. (Kate had said to me, 'Listen, Polly, guys don't like it if they think you know more than they do.' 'I do know more than they do.' 'You don't need to show it.') "Okay, then," Zachary said, "they're trying to restore the Caryatids which hold up the Erechtheion. That's what all the scaffolding is for. And that's why the Parthenon is roped off, because all those tourists' feet were wearing down the marble. Okay, Red, c'mon. The Theseum is one of my favorites. What gets me is knowing that all this beauty was destroyed not so much by the erosion of time, and normal wear and tear, as by war, and greed, and man's stupidity. It really makes me more anti-war than some of the more obvious things, like nuclear stockpiling. Lots of these fallen columns were destroyed by people scavenging for metal."
I shuddered. "You mean they really destroyed gorgeous temples just to get a small quantity of metal?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"And Lord Elgin, all those marbles he took" I looked around. "I suppose he really thought he was saving them from the Turks, but shouldn't they be back now where they belong? At least those which didn't get lost when that ship sank?" Why don't you shut up, Polyhymnia. You're showing off how much you know again, reeling back the tape of what Max taught you.
Zachary knew I was showing off. But he was nice about it. "You've done your homework, haven't you? That's okay. Lots of Americans don't know anything about what they're gawking at, and don't really care. Like my pop. He has a fancy camera and takes hundreds of slides, and when he gets them home he can't even remember where he was when he took the pictures." He led me to a marble bench in the shade of an ancient olive tree. "Let's sit for a minute, and watch the crowd go by, okay? You know, Red"
"Don't call me Red."
"Polly. You really intrigue me. You aren't like any girl I've ever met."
Was that good? He made it sound good.
"You said you're nearly seventeen"
"I'd say you're nearly thirty and nearly twelve. And there's something virginal about you. Nice contrast to me. But don't worry. I won't do anything to hurt you. Trust me."
Did I trust this guy? I was not in a trusting frame of mind. But I didn't have to trust him to enjoy being with him.
"Are you?" Zachary asked.
"Am I what?"
I hesitated. She who hesitates is lost.
He gave me a long, scrutinizing look. "Still waters run deep, eh?"
I tried to recover myself. "That is not a question you should ask somebody you have just met. It is not an acceptable question."
He actually looked discomfited. "Sorry. Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. And you make me intensely curious, pretty Pol."
"I don't play around," I said. "Not ever."
"Sweetie, I never thought you did. Not for a minute. Whatever you did, and with whomever, would be totally serious." He touched my arm lightly. "I didn't mean to upset you. Shall we change the subject?"
"Please." I was trembling.
We got up and started to walk along again, brushed by tourists who were hurrying to catch up with their groups. If there was going to be any further conversation between us, he would have to start it. I wanted to tell him to take me back to the hotel, but my voice was lost somewhere deep down inside me.
After a while he spoke in a quiet, normal way. "The Parthenon is probably more beautiful to us today than it would have been when it was built, because now it's open to the Greek light that plays on the marble and brings it to life. In the old days, when it was complete, the main body of the building, the sanctuary that housed the goddess, was enclosed and had no windows, so the only light came from the doorway."
"Wait, please." I dug into my shoulder bag. "Let meget some of this down, so I can write about it in the journal I have to take back to school."
"Now you sound like a little kid again. Why bother? Teacher'll spank you if you don't?"
"I said I'd do it." I opened the journal and made a couple of notes. My hand was steady.
"You might add," Zachary said, "that despite their brilliance, the Greeks were limited in their architecture, because they never discovered the arch. With the arch you can support lots more weight, and that's why the great cathedrals can be so spacious."
Writing furiously, I said, "You certainly know a lot."
"I'm not stupid. I got kicked out of several prep schools because I was bored. But if I'm interested in something, I learn about it. Okay, take your notes and then we'll go on. We can come back to the Acropolis another day. It's so overwhelming you can't take too much at a time."
I wrote down what Zachary had said, and I wondered about the Greeks and their gods. Why had they closed in the Parthenon, so that the goddess Athena had been hidden?
Zachary surprised me by picking up on my thoughts. "Odd, isn't it, Pol, how all the different civilizations want to box God in. The ancient Hebrews wanted to hide the Tabernacle in the Holy of Holies, so the ordinary people couldn't see it. Christians are just as bad. Peter wanted to put Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in a box on the Mount of Transfiguration."
We had come to another bench, and I sat down; it was not easy to write standing up, and the notes I had taken were an untidy scrawl.
"I'm an atheist, obviously," Zachary said.
I looked up at him. "For an atheist, you seem to know a lot about religion."
"That's why I'm an atheist."
Maybe it was because Zachary was older than the kids I went to school with that he did not seem to be afraid to talk about ideas. I was far more comfortable with ideas than with ordinary social conversation.
Athena was the Greek name for the goddess. The Romans called her Minerva. Max's sister was Minerva Allaire. This was the kind of conversation Max delighted in.
The sun was hot, the same sun which beat down on these stones and other people thousands of years ago.
"Penny, Pol," Zachary said.
"Ohjust wondering what it would be like to worship a goddess." Was that a Freudian question?
"You a feminist?"
"Liberation for all," I said. "The Greeks had a pantheon of gods of both sexes, didn't they?" I put the notebook in my bag. "Why am I suddenly famished?"
"Breakfast was a long time ago." Zachary took my hand to pull me up. "I've ordered the car for eleven. We'll drive to Delphi and have lunch at a xenia. Know what a xenia is?"
Sandy and Rhea and I would be staying at xenias. "Greek-run inns." ('You don't have to show off all the time,' Kate said.)
"Ever been in one?"
"I just arrived yesterday."
"Okay, c'mon, let's go."
The car was an old VW Bug, a bit cramped for our long legs.
"Sorry about this rattletrap," Zachary said. "It was all I could get at the last minute."
"We have a Land-Rover on Benne Seed." Daddy could drive it over the dunes, and it didn't get stuck in the sand the way an ordinary car would. "This is a lot less bumpy than that."
Zachary drove too fast. I buckled my seat belt tightly. I'd much rather have puttered along and looked at the countryside. But I kept my mouth closed.
Zachary was a new experience for me, and I didn't want to turn him off by saying the wrong thing. If he was intrigued by me, I was certainly intrigued by him. I couldn't figure out why he had picked me, out of all the kids in Constitution Square. But the fact that he had certainly did something for my ego.
I think I expected Delphi to be bigger and grander than it turned out to be. It's a small village on top of a mountain, facing a great valley and what appears to be a large lake but is actually part of the Bay of Corinth. We stopped at a small xenia set in the midst of gardens built on several levels, with the roofs of the lower levels planted with grass, trees, flowers, so that the xenia seemed part of the hillside. If Delphi was smaller than I'd expected, it was also lovelier, and the mountains were higher and grander. I was overwhelmed by the mountains.
The xenia served only one dish, a lemony chicken that was delicious. But again I felt tongue-tied.
"What's wrong, Red?"
"Polly. What's wrong?"
"Come on. I know better than that. Someone's hurt you."
"You can hardly get to be my age without being hurt."
"You're a constant surprise to me. When I relax intothinking of you as a child, you turn into a woman, wounded."
"Don't be romantic."
"Don't you want to talk to me?"
"Of course I want to talk to you. What've we been doing all day?"
"Chatting. Showing off how much we both know. With a few minor exceptions, we haven't been talking."
Well. He was more sensitive than I'd realized.
"So, shall we talk?"
Out of desperation, I asked, "Why don't you talk?"
"Well, why are you in Greece instead of college? It's not just for the culture."
"Little Miss Smarty-pants. No. It's not."
"So who wounded you?"
As though stalling for time, he signaled the waitress for the check. "I got dumped by a girl I liked, and I deserved to be dumped. As is my wont, I showed off, tried to prove what a big shot I am, and when she really needed me I let her down. I don't like accepting that about myself." Suddenly his face crumpled. Then he was back in control. "My self-image took a beating. Hey, Red, I don't talk about myself like this, not with anybody. What've you done to me?"
This time I didn't tell him not to call me Red.
He went on. "So it seemed wise to take some time off, to find out more about who I am, what I want to be."
"Have you been finding out?"
"No. As usual, I've been running away. It hit me a couple of days ago in Mykenos. I've been running so I wouldn't have to stop and look at myself. Do I want to be a lawyer, part of an enormous global corporation, like Pa? I always thought I did. Putting growth andprofit over the interests of any nation. Multinationals are not accountable to anybody. That's Pa's world. Do I want to inherit it?"
It occurred to me that the world which Zachary stood to inherit was the world which Sandy and Rhea were devoting their lives to fight. Sandy and Rhea put the interests of human beings above the interests of corporations, and I knew they'd upset several global oligarchies.
"Do you want to inherit that world?" I asked.
"It's power," he said.
"Well, Red, I don't know, I just don't know. It's easier to face your own weaknesses in a context of money and power than looking in the mirror in the morning while you're shaving. If you have enough money, and enough power, nothing else matters. Pa's never loved anything except money. He and Ma endured each other she died a couple of years ago. The extent of their conversation was, 'I need another ice cube.' Or, 'Where shall we go for dinner?' I doubt if they ever slept together much after I was conceived. What about your parents? Do they still have sex?"
He'd revealed too much about himself, I thought, so he had to turn it on me. My voice was cool. "They sleep in the same bed. What they do in it is their own affair."
Zachary paid the bill, putting out what seemed to be a very small tip. "Let's get out of here and climb up to the stadium."
It was quite a climb, and Zachary got out of breath. If he was wandering around Europe finding out who he was and what he wanted to do, he must have been doing it in taxis and rented cars and expensive hotels. I felt sorry for him. But he also represented a world which was ruthless, where money mattered, and not people.We'd had to leave Portugal because of that world, because of people coming to Gaea and trying to get hold of Daddy's work on regeneration and exploit it, long before it was safe. I liked Zachary, and not just because he liked me; there was just something about him that appealed to me. But I was also frightened by the world in which he'd grown up. Mixed feelings. As usual.
The stadium was impressive, with many of the original marble seats intact, carved right out of the hillside. We sat looking at the mountains looming above us, at the valley far below, caressed by the golden air. The land was very dry and bare-looking. There were a few trees, but very little grass, and that was parched and brown. But this was only part of a great cycle, Max had told me. In the winter the rains would come and the earth would be green again.
I didn't like it when Zachary asked me about my parents' sex life. I'm not like Rosy, of course. At four, Rosy still thinks of Mother as an extension of herself. I don't. But still, I want Mother to be Mother, Daddy to be Daddy.
Max, in a different way from Zachary, also separated my parents from me, seeing them with her clear grey eyes in a way that I had never seen them.
'Your mother's restless,' Max said, one rainy winter day when we were sitting in the library.
'Oh?' Mother, restless?
Max got up from the long sofa and put more fat wood on the fire. 'She's been a good mother to all of you, but it's beginning to wear on her. She's got a fine brain, and not enough chance to use it.'
'She helps Daddy a lot in the lab, does all the computer stuff.'
'Yes, she does, and that's a saving grace, but it's not her own thing.'
'She's going to finish her Ph.D. as soon as Rosy's in school.'
'Easier said than done. You do a great deal, too much, I think, but you'll be out of the nest soon. The boys aren't going to be that much help.'
'Everybody helps out,' I said. 'Everybody has chores.'
'Most of it still falls on your mother,' Max said. 'She's so tired and so restless she's ready to do a Gauguin and walk out on all of you.'
'But she won't' The idea was preposterous.
'No. She won't. Your Uncle Sandy told me that your mother suffered as an adolescent because her own mother was beautiful and successful in the world of sciencedidn't she win a Nobel Prize?'
'Yes, for isolating farandolae within mitochondria.'
'Your mother felt insufficient because of your grandmother, and she didn't want the same thing to happen to you, to make you feel you had to compete. So she's held herself back, and it's beginning to tell. She will get to her own work, eventually, but eventually no doubt seems a long time away.'
I stared into the fire. Now that Max had pointed out that Mother was restless, I could see that it was true.
'Your mother is a truly mature human being, and they're rare. She's learned to live with herself as well as with your father, and believe me, your father's no easy person. He may be a genius, but single-minded scientists tend to let people down.'
She cut me off. 'Of course he does. We all do. Youwon't grow up until you learn that all human beings betray each other and that we are going to be let down even by those we most trust. Especially by those we most trust.'
I didn't like this, but it had the ring of truth. And I didn't like that, either.
'If we put human beings on pedestals, their clay feet are going to give way and they are going to come crashing down, and unless we get out of the way, they'll crush us.'
And I didn't get out of the way.
I hardly heard Max. 'Your mother has the guts to stick it out on this godforsaken island with amazing grace. Your father's work is important, and it demands isolation and considerable secrecy, but it's hard on the rest of you.' She continued to squat by the fire, poking at the smoldering logs. The fat wood caught and its bright flames soared. Satisfied, Max sat back. 'Your parents have one thing going for them. They love each other.'
My response was again a reflex. 'Of course.'
Max turned from the fire and smiled at me, her loveliest smile. 'There's no "of course" about it. Lots of married people barely tolerate each other. People stay together because of the children, or for financial convenience. Divorce is expensive. But your parents love each other. They're lovers, and that's probably incomprehensible to you, but it's a wonderful thing indeed.' The fire was blazing brightly now, and she got up and sat next to me on the sofa. 'It worries your mother that Kate goes to all the school dances and you don't.'
I shrugged. The wind beat the rain across the verandahand against the library windows. 'I don't like disappointing her.'
Max put her arm around my shoulders. 'You don't disappoint her. She just doesn't want you to have the same kind of difficult adolescence that she did. But she weathered it. You will, too.'
'Polly, love, having it easy is no blessing. To my mind, it hinders maturing.'
Zachary and I climbed down from the stadium to the sacred precincts and the theatre. I wanted to be able to walk in awe, here where so many extraordinary mysteries had gone on thousands of years ago. It was here that people came to consult the Delphic Oracle in times of emergency. How lonely the Oracle must have been, speaking only in riddles, with no one to understand her except the priests, who may or may not have translated correctly what she was saying.
The guides were herding their groups like goats-sheep at the Acropolis; why did I think of them as goats in Delphi?and shooting facts at them in German, English, French. The noise cut across the clarity of the air. Noise pollution is as destructive as any other.
If I focused on one of the guides I could translate what he was saying. But the facts were delivered with the boredom of repetition.
"Apollo was worshipped here," Zachary said, "and Dionysus. Light and dark, reason and fecundity, waxing and waning like the moon."
We were standing on a green knoll. Across the valleywere the great, dark mountains. The sky moved upward into a vanishing vastness of blue.
"I'm an Apollo worshipper," Zachary said. "Or would be if I lived in Greek times. Apollo, the god of reason."
"You strike me as being rather Dionysian," I said. The name Dennys comes from Dionysus, but my Uncle Dennys is both sober and reserved. Sandy says it's because Dennys spends his time with the unfathomable mysteries of the human brain.
Zachary bowed. "Thank you. I take that as a compliment. But I don't want you to think about philosophy. I want you to pay attention to me."
"Even you can't compete with all this."
He took my hand. "Avanti! Let's go."
It was a good day. Confusing, but good. Zachary made me feel I wasn't just a gawky, backward adolescent who didn't even need a bra till I was fourteen, but that I was mature, and attractive to him.
We went to the son et lumière show at the Acropolis, which somehow had less magic close up than it had had from the roof of the King George the night before. Then to the Plaka for a late supper, a small place Zachary had discovered that wasn't touristy. Good food and Greek music and lots of laughter in the air. I decided that I was meeting Sandy's challenge pretty well. Very well.
After the meal, we sipped small cups of the sweet Greek coffee and I was sorry the day was almost over.
"Polly, I haven't had this good a time in ages. You don't put any pressure on me. You take me as I am. Dare I ask you to spend tomorrow with me?"
Dare he? I hadn't dared dream that he would. "Dare ahead."
"We'll do something fun. Take a drive. Have a picnic. I'll pick you up at ten again, okay?"
"Fine." What would I have been doing if Zachary hadn't picked me up? Going on that bus tour and feeling sorry for myself?
Max had once said, 'We cannot afford the luxury of self-pity.' Self-pity is destructive, I do know that. But Zachary made it very easy for me not to need the luxury.
In the taxi he leaned toward me and brushed his lips against mine, then kissed me, gently. "That's not your first kiss," he said.
No, but it was different. I was different.
He kissed me again. "Polly, I don't know what you're telling me."
"Good night," I said firmly as the taxi drew up in front of the hotel. "And thanks, Zachary. It's been a good day, a really good day."
Back in the room, I undressed and bathed and then wrapped myself in towels and sat at the desk, getting my journal for school finished for the day. How would Miss Zeloski translate what I had written? I wrote about what I had seen, but not that I had been with anybody.
Then I took a postcard from the stationery folder and wrote the family. Wrote a separate card to Charles. And to Renny.
There was one postcard left. Should I write Max and Ursula?
I shut the folder.
Writing the journal for Miss Zeloski was as much fun as it was work. Even if I didn't tell her about being with Zachary in Delphi, I enjoyed writing about Apollo and Dionysus.
Max had shown me some sketchbooks she'd made in Greece. Line drawings not of the present but of the past Semele and the swan; Jason being brought up by the centaur Chiron; Orpheus with his harp.
There were other notebooks I'd loved looking through, each one dealing with a special place and time. The Bushmen of southern Africa, a race of tiny people who had come, Max thought, originally from Egypt. The Schaghticoke Indians from the part of New England where my grandparents still live and where I was born. The nomads, or Numidians, of North Africa.
Max had not been familiar with Gaea, so I showed her some more pieces I'd written about the native Gaeans. I didn't go into anthropology, just wrote about the way they lived, accepting some things from the twentieth century, rejecting others. She liked my Gaean pieces, and so did I.
It was nevertheless a complete surprise the day she called and suggested I come over for supper, that she had something to show me.
'Let's go to the bedroom,' she said. 'I've a good fire going, and with the February northeaster blowing, it's the warmest room in the house. It can be colder on Benne Seed Island than in the Arctic.'
'Shopping on the mainland. Planning something special for supper.'
I paused on the landing, as usual, to look at the LaughingChrist. There was no way one could feel self-pity in front of that absolute joy. Even in laughter the face reflected a tolerance and forbearance that made me ashamed of my own tendency toward judgmentalness.
Max paused, too. 'I'm glad you like him.' We went on up the stairs. The long windows in Max's room that led out onto the verandah were closed, and though we could hear the wind sweeping around the house, the fire was comforting.
'What do you have to show me?' I asked.
She smiled at me, the firelight bringing out silver glints in her eyes, then moved slowly to her desk and got an envelope, which she handed to me. It was addressed to Polyhymnia O'Keefe, c/o Maximiliana S. Horne. It had come from a travel magazine, not an important one, but still a real magazine, and they had accepted one of my pieces on Gaea. I wouldn't get any money, but I'd get two complimentary copies of the magazine. I couldn't believe it.
Max laughed and took my hands and swung me around, and I saw an ice bucket on a stand near the fireplace. 'This calls for a celebration.' She put a napkin over the bottle and uncorked it gently. 'The idea that the champagne cork should pop up to the ceiling is insulting to good champagne.'
We lay on the rug in front of the fire, and after a while Ursula came in and joined us. She brought a bowl of shrimp which had been caught that afternoon, and some spicy sauce. It was lovely. One of the happiest times I'd ever known.
And I was happier at home, too. The fact that I hated school no longer seemed important. Max was my teacher,as Mother and Daddy had been my teachers on Gaea. And because I was learning, and felt happy about it, I was more patient with the little kids. I helped get them ready for bed without being prodded, read to them if Mother was working with the computer in the lab. I let Kate borrow my favorite necklace for one of the school dances. Xan and I didn't spat as much as usual.
And at least a couple of times a week I did my homework over at Beau Allaire. When I'd finished with the written stuff, Max would pull a book down from one of the library shelves and have me read aloud to her. 'You're going to have more than one option when you come to choose a career. You have a lot of acting ability.'
'I'm too ugly.'
'You aren't ugly at all. You have the kind of face that comes alive when you're speaking. Why would I want to paint you if you were ugly? I'll take you over Kate, any day.'
Max taught me to see the world around me with her painter's eye. Now I noticed not only the loveliness of a new moon seen through a fringe of Spanish moss, I saw also the delicacy of a spider's web on the grass between two tree roots, saw the little green lizard camouflaged under a leaf. And this seeing the particular wonder of the ordinary was reflected in what I wrote for school, but if Miss Zeloski noticed it, she didn't particularly like it. And Miss Zeloski was the one who gave the grades, and I had to get good grades.
'Why?' Max demanded. 'One does not live by grades alone.'
'I want to go to a good college, and I need to get a scholarship. After all, there are seven of us to educate. So grades matter.'
Max put the back of her hand to her forehead in aswift gesture of apology. 'Of course. Stupid of me. Like most people who've never had to worry about money, I can be very dense. So. How do we win Miss Zeloski? Get her to give you A's instead of B's? What does Miss Zeloski want? That's the first question you have to ask. You don't have to compromise in order to please her. Find out what she's looking for, and then give her that in the very best way you possibly can.'
'I don't want to give Miss Zeloski anything.'
'You really dislike her, don't you?'
'She grades unfairly.'
'You are very opinionated, Polly. Part of becoming a mature woman is learning compassion.'
'I know I'm opinionated. I'm sorry.'
'Don't be sorry. Just think. You talk about being odd man out. How do you think Miss Z. feels?'
It took me a while to answer. 'Lonely.'
'And maybe insecure. And that may help explain why obscure poetry is comforting to her. I'll bet she loves footnotes and all the vines of the groves of academe. The next time she gives you a free writing assignment, give her a well-documented essay. It'll be good discipline for you.'
It was. Max made me see the fun of cross-referencing, of finding out, for instance, what was happening in the world of science when Montaigne was writing his essays, and what the lineup of nations was, and who was painting, and what was the popular music of the day. And it worked. Miss Zeloski didn't seem such a bore to me, and her nasal Southern accent didn't grate so, and she gave me A's.
Max taught me to understand that Miss Zeloski was far lonelier than I was. She taught me to see that some of the kids who drank and slept around were lost andgroping for something they couldn't find. But she didn't have much patience with those who hunted down animals and birds. 'Sadism isn't limited to the rich and corrupt. One doesn't tolerate it even when it comes from ignorance and stupidity.' Then, 'Come out on the porch. I brought in a Cape jessamine bud this morning. It's blooming in a small crystal bowl and the air is full of its scent and the promise that spring is just around the corner.'
Through Max's eyes I saw more than I'd ever seen before.
One beautiful early-spring evening, Max and Ursula came to dinner. Daddy and Urs went to the lab, as usual. When dinner was ready, Mother sent me to call them. As I came to the screen door, I heard my name and stopped.
'You mustn't let Polly bother Max,' Daddy was saying. 'Polly has Max confused with God, and she'll give her no peace if Max goes on encouraging her.'
Ursula laughed, her warm, sane laugh. 'I dare say God gets no peace, either, and I'm sure he continues to give encouragement.'
'Max has certainly brought out the best in Polly.'
I realized I'd done enough eavesdropping, and banged on the door to call them in to dinner.
At dinner Kate and Xan were talking about tryouts for the school spring play, open to everybody in the highschool. It was always a Shakespearean play, and this year was going to be As You Like It.
Xan said, 'They chose that because there are so many female parts. They never get enough guys.'
'Oh, come on, Xan,' Kate urged. 'If you try out, you'll get any part you want.'
'It'll interfere with tennis.'
'No, it won't,' Kate said. 'They schedule rehearsals so it doesn't interfere with anything.'
I knew she'd talk him into being in the play. And she'd probably be Rosalind.
Max asked, 'What are you going to try out for, Polly?'
I used Xan's ploy, which hadn't worked for Xan. 'I'll be practicing for swimming.'
'I told you,' Kate said, 'the rehearsals are during school hours. You could have one of the boys' parts if you want, Pol. They always have to use girls, too.'
I saw Max and Ursula look at Kate, then at each other.
Daddy said, 'I don't think Polly needs to limit herself to male roles.'
'Oh, I didn't mean' Kate said. 'It's just that she's tall and they need tall girls to play men.'
I'd tried out for the play the year before, and had a walk-on. Even so, it was the most fun I'd had from school the whole year.
'Do you get a choice of whom you try out for?' Ursula asked.
Kate said, 'Well, you can ask.'
Xan said, 'I'll try out if Polly will.'
'Oh, sure,' I said. 'At least I can paint scenery.' I did not mention that I had no intention of trying out for the backstage crew; I was going to try out for Rosalind or Celia. Miss Zeloski did the casting.
In March, Beau Allaire was brilliant with azaleas in great banks around the house. Max's gardener got extra help, and the grounds rivaled the great gardens in Charleston. The magnolia trees were heavy with waxen white blossoms. The camellias were exceptionally brilliant. All the long windows were open to the verandahs and the ocean breeze and the singing of the mockingbirds.
On the day of the tryouts I got home from school to find a normal kind of chaos. The little kids had friends over and were shouting out on the swings and slide. The lab door was shut, with an old hotel DO NOT DISTURB sign on it, which meant Mother was doing something tricky with equations on the computer and needed to concentrate.
I called Max. 'I have news.'
'Come on over and tell me. Urs is in Charleston and I was going to call you anyhow. You beat me to it.'
I didn't want to disturb Mother about the Land-Rover, but Xan said go ahead, he'd tell Mother as soon as the lab door was open again. So I headed for Beau Allaire, singing at the top of my lungs.
Max was out on the steps, waiting for me. 'So what's this big news?'
'I'm going to play Celia in As You Like It.'
She flung her arms wide, then gave me a big hug. Then pulled back. 'Who's playing Rosalind?'
'One of the seniors.'
'What about Kate?"
Max laughed. 'I'm delighted about Celia, absolutely delighted. She has some splendid lines. With the right director, Celia can be almost as good a role as Rosalind.'She pulled me into the hall. 'Let's go up to my verandah. There's a lovely breeze.'
On the landing we paused to look at the statue of the Laughing Christ. 'He approves,' Max said. 'He thinks you're terrific.'
When we got out on the verandah I sat at the glass-topped table to get my homework out of the way. Max curled up on the cushioned wicker couch and read till I'd finished. When she saw me putting my books away, she said, 'Your parents have done a good job with you, Polly. And they've taught you something contrary to today's mores, that instant gratification is a snake in the grass.'
'What do you mean?' I zipped up my book bag.
'When you eat a meal, what do you eat first? What do you eat last?'
'I eat what I like least first, and save what I like best till last. Why?'
'Because people who eat the best first, and then likely can't finish the meal, are apt to be the same way with the rest of their lives. Fun first, work later, and the work seldom gets done.'
'A couple of years ago when we spent Christmas in New England with the grandparents, I was asked out to dinner with some friends who had a daughter my age, and they had turnips. Ugh. So I ate mine up, fast, so I could get rid of them and get to the rest of the dinner. And the mother saw me, and beamed at me, and said how wonderful it was that I liked her turnips so much, and before I could say anything, she gave me another great big helping. I was almost sick.'
Max laughed. 'Don't let it stop you from saving thebest. When you came in today you sat right down and did your homework, not putting it off till later.'
'Well, as you said. If I put it off, I won't get it done.'
'What about your classmates?'
I pondered briefly. 'Some do the work. Some don't.'
'How do they expect to live?'
'I don't think they think much about it. I think about it, but I haven't got anywhere.'
'You'll do all right, whatever you choose. Wait.' She disappeared into the bedroom and came back with a book.
'Listen to those mockingbirds,' she said. 'They sound right out of the Forest of Arden.' She riffled through the pages. 'Here. This is practically my favorite line in all of Shakespeare, and it's Celia's: O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful! and yet again wonderful! and after that, out of all whooping!'
'It's going to be fun.' I said. 'Rosalind has a line I love: Do you not know I am a woman? when I think, I must speak.'
'A bit chauvinist,' Max said.
'Maybe men ought to speak more than they do?' I suggested.
'Stay here,' Max said again, and disappeared once more, but instead of coming back with a book, as I'd expected, she came with a bottle of champagne. 'Nettie and Ovid have left some salad for us in the icebox,' she said.
We never got to it. We kept reading bits and pieces from As You Like It, and then some other plays, sad ones, funny ones. I'd never before realized just how alive Shakespeare is, how very present.
When I got home I parked in the shed at the end of the lab wing. I felt tingly, and as though the ground was about a foot lower than it ought to be. I walked to the dunes and stood looking down at the water. Then I turned back to the house and heard the phone ring. It wouldn't be for me, so I didn't pay any attention. When I reached the lab, Daddy was standing in the doorway.
'Come on in the lab for a minute, Polly.'
I went in and sat on one of the high stools.
'I just answered the phone, and it was Max, very apologetic because she was afraid she'd given you too much champagne and shouldn't have let you drive home.'
I could feel that my cheeks were flushed. 'You always let us have a little wine when you have it.'
'There is such a thing as moderation. I'm grateful to Max for calling me, but surprised she let you drink so much.'
'We didn't have that much.' How much had we had? I had no idea. Max kept filling my glass before it was empty, and I certainly wasn't counting.
Daddy sat on the stool next to mine. On the high counter was a pad full of mathematical scribblings: Mother's writing. Daddy moved the pad away. 'Max was concerned enough to call to see that you were safely home.'
I felt deflated. And defensive.
'You're a minor, Polly, and you're not accustomed to drinking, and it's very easy to have too much without realizing it.'
'Please don't make a case out of it, Daddy. Max isn't in the habit of giving me too much to drink. We were celebrating.'
'I'm going to play Celia in As You Like It. It's a really good role.'
'That's wonderful news, honey. Just don't overcelebrate next time. Have you told Mother?'
'I haven't had a chance to tell Mother.'
'She's reading to the little ones. Why don't you go tell them? And send Xan out to me if you see him. He hasn't cleaned the lizard tanks.'
I cleaned my share of the tanks in the morning before school so I wouldn't have it hanging over me. Xan probably does a better job than I do, but he leaves it till last thing. He does itI don't think he's forgotten more than oncebut he puts it off.
'What, my dear?'
'I'm not drunk, really. It's as much excitement about getting a part in the play as anything. Xan's playing Jaques, by the way, but he couldn't care less.'
'She's one of the shepherdesses.'
'Is she disappointed?'
'Yes. But I didn't have even a walk-on when I was Kate's age.'
Daddy put his arm around me. 'We hoped that Kate would be a friend for you, a girl you could have fun with.'
He pulled me closer. 'Polly, you don't have to compete with Kate in any way. Not in looks, not in talent, not in school. I wouldn't have you be any different. You don't need to prove anything, to anybody. I truly don't have favorites among my children, but you are my first child, and very special. I love you.'
I returned his hug. 'You're special, too.' And I wished that there were more times when Daddy and I could have time alone.
Daddy and Ursula went to Charleston together the next week, and I think they talked about all that champagne, because there wasn't any more after that. At least when Ursula was there. And, as a matter of fact, the next time Max brought out champagne was the day after the production of As You Like It. The performance was in mid-April so as not to interfere with all the academic stuff that accumulates in the last semester.
As You Like It was a big success, and I even got my own curtain call, and everybody said what a pity it was to put in all that work for one performance. But it was worth it, at least for me.
Max called me over to celebrate. Ursula had been to see me play Celia but had flown to New York in the morning for some kind of big consultation. Max brought out a bottle of champagne, but we had only one glass each, and with it a lot of fried chicken which Nettie had fixed for us, and a big casserole of okra, onions, and tomatoes. I don't like okra, I think you have to be born to it, and I told Max I was eating it first to get it out of the way.
That weekend there was a school dance, and I went with the guy who played Orlando. Rosalind was going steady with another senior. We were to meet at the school, so I drove Xan and Kate. Xan was going stag, and he said he didn't trust Kate's date to bring her home.
If Daddy wanted me to have a warning about booze,I got it. The girl who played Phebe got sick all over herself.
'Go help her clean up,' Xan said disgustedly. 'The kids she came with are all stoned, and so's Kate's so-called escort.'
Kate came and helped me.
Not that Cowpertown High is full of alcoholics and junkies. Just a few, like any other high school. But even a few is too many.
After we got Phebe moderately tidy, Xan and Kate wanted to go home. I was actually having a good time with some of the kids from the play, who seemed aware of my existence for the first time. The boy who played Oliver was dancing with me when Xan came over, followed by Kate, who was followed by half a dozen boys. I didn't want to leave, but I was the one with the driver's license. And maybe it was better to leave while I was doing well and wasn't what the Cowpertowners still call a wallflower.
We talked about the dance the next night at dinner, and I suppose it was a good and maybe unusual thing that we could talk with our parents.
'Pot is an ambition damper,' Xan said in his most dogmatic voice.
'You're right,' Daddy agreed. 'But on what do you base your conclusions?'
'The kids who use pot regularly aren't doing much, and they don't seem to care.'
Den put in, 'I'm pitching in the next game between Mulletville and Cowpertown. Y'all coming?'
Kate picked up on Xan's last remark. 'They didn'tlearn their lines for As You Like It, and they simply dropped some of the light cues. The shepherdesses were practically in the dark.'
'Hey, you should see me do the double flip.' Johnny tried to get our attention.
Xan cut across his words. 'It hasn't helped the tennis team.'
'Any addiction's a bad thing,' Daddy agreed.
Peggy said loudly, 'We're going to have an addic sale at school.'
'Xan's addicted to tennis,' Den said.
'When do you think I'll be old enough to wear a bra?' Peggy shouted loudly enough so that she was finally heard.
'A long time, if you're anything like Polly,' Xan said, and went on, 'I don't want to be addicted to anything. I don't want some chemical to be in control of my body. Or mind.'
'A lot of kids are smoking,' Kate added. 'Not just pot. Cigarettes.'
'Yukh.' Den made a face. 'With all the pollution we have no choice about breathing, why add to it?'
'Smoking's gross,' Peggy said.
'More rice and gravy, please, please.' Rosy jogged Mother's arm.
'We can't do anything about acid rain,' Xan continued as though there had been no interruptions or interpolations, 'or red tides, but we don't have to put gunk into our lungs on purpose.'
Den grinned at me. 'Or does he mean on porpoise?'
At least Xan and Kate hadn't called me Puritan Pol.
Later, while we were brushing our teeth, Kate asked me, 'Have you ever tried pot?'
I shook my head. 'Minority me.'
'I don't like it. Don't worry, I haven't smoked here, it was last year in Boston. I hated it. You know what, I think it's more square to try pot than not to. I hope your parents don't think Cowpertown is unique. It's no worse than any place else.'
'I know,' I agreed.
'And at least we have swimming and crew almost all year round. And Shakespeare. You were really good, Pol.'
That was nice of Kate, and I thanked her. Playing Celia had done me no harm at school.
I was in my Celia costume, but I was not in the Forest of Arden the kids had made with branches of trees hung with Spanish moss. I doubt if there was Spanish moss in the real Forest of Arden, but it was a pretty set.
Renny was dressed in the forest-green costume Orlando had worn. I was dreaming. In Athens, I was dreaming of Renny, who led me under a tree which became enormous, looming up through the roof of the stage at the end of the school gym.
Why Renny, in Athens, two nights in a row?
Why not Renny?
I saw him maybe every other week. Sometimes we went to the movies, if anything decent was showing in Cowpertown. Usually we sat in our booth at Petros' and talked. The place smelled of cheese and tomatoes and a whiff of fish from the other restaurant on the dock. Renny went on and on about his pet South American diseases. He talked to me about medicine as though I could understand everything he said. He thought I was terrific as Celia, and he'd had to get someone to coverfor him in order to come see the show. I liked the way he never put me down. I liked the way he kissed me, giving, rather than taking.
Sometimes he talked about his girl, Jacinta, in Chile. They'd really had a big thing going. Someone would have to do a lot of measuring up to get Renny's attention. Sometimes when he kissed me I understood that steady, sturdy Renny could unleash a lot of passion at the right moment, and with the right person. I was safe, because I was too young.
I wasn't too young with Max, and that's one reason I loved being with her. Chronology didn't enter into it. Max was as young as I was, and I was as old as Max. And when Ursula was there, I was treated as an equal.
I had emerged from my dream of Renny into that half-waking, half-sleeping state where thoughts are not really directed but shift around like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. I slid deeper into sleep, thinking to myself about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.
I woke to the glory that was Greece, about five minutes before breakfast was brought and set out on the balcony. It was another blue-and-gold day. I had a date with a young man who would set my cousin Kate reeling. I felt moderately reeling myself.
Zachary and I started off by going to the museum, because he said it was mandatory. There was far more than I could absorb in an hour, though it wasn't quite as overwhelming as the Prado in Madrid. Nevertheless, it was a city museum, and it would take days to see everything. There were some marvelous, very thin gold masks,ancient, thousands and thousands of years old, and yet they reminded me of faces in Modigliani paintings. We saw the statue of the Diadumenus. He seemed to be tiptoeing with life, even though parts of the statue were missing.
Zachary kept checking his watch, and after exactly one hour he said, "Okay, that's enough culture. Let's go."
The VW Bug was waiting for us, and as he opened the door for me, he said, "A funny old place called Osias Lukas."
"It's an old monastery tucked into a cup in the hills, and there are good picnic places nearby."
"Osias Lukas-Blessed Luke?"
"Yes. His chapel was built in the tenth century, I think, and there are some nice icons. And the mosaics have been well restored. It's a small enough place so you can see it all and not get saturated. Osias Lukas was a monk who, allegedly, was a healer."
Why do I dislike so intensely the skepticism, the self-protectiveness, of allegedly? It's part of the legal jargon Zachary was inheriting, but it still strikes me as a cowardly word.
Max's attitude about theology makes more sense to me than Zachary's dogmatic atheism. Max was always willing to take a metaphysical chance, Sandy said once; she was an eager observer, tolerant of human foible, open to the unexplainable, but nobody's fool.
We stopped at the entrance of Osias Lukas to buy postcards for me to send home. There was a comfortable feeling to the cluster of buildings nestled against the hills, protected from weather and the anger of the gods. I wondered if people had truly been healed by OsiasLukas. Ursula, who didn't talk about religion, agreed with Daddy and Dennys that not only attitude but faith had done almost unbelievable things in the way of healing. They were scientists, properly skeptical, but open.
I wondered if Osia Theola in Cyprus was going to be anything like this protected place. Osia Theola, Max had told me, was reported to have been given the divine gift of truth after she had seen her vision. People still came to her church to pray, to seek the truth.
'Superstitious, perhaps,' Max said, 'but if one should go to the cave of Osia Theola to seek the truth, one would need to be extremely brave.'
"Daydreaming?" Zachary asked me. We were standing in the chapel and I was looking at the fresco over the altar without seeing it.
"I was just thinking Theola and Lukas might have liked each other."
"They were nearly a thousand years apart," Zachary said.
I thought I'd better not say that people like Lukas and Theola probably weren't bound by chronology.
Suddenly we were surrounded by a group of Japanese tourists, and Zachary said, "Come on, let's get out of here. The Hilton has packed us a super picnic, and I know a good spot."
We sat on a hillside overlooking water and sky. Zachary made me feel amazingly happy about myself.
Then he spoiled it by pulling me to him and kissing me, much more of a kiss than I wanted. I pulled away.
"Why not?" he asked.
"We don't even know each other."
"Getting to know people takes time."
"But we make music together. You like me, don't you?"
"And you told me you aren't a virgin."
I pulled further away. "I didn't say that."
"Your silence did. Or am I wrong? Are you a virgin?"
Silence was admission, but I could not speak. My throat was dry, my tongue tied.
He put one hand on my cheek and turned my face toward him. "Did it hurt you very much? Was the guy a bastard?"
I moved my head negatively against the pressure of his hand.
"Sweet Polly. Someone has hurt you, and you're putting a hard shell of protection about your wound. But unless you break the shell, the hurt can't be healed. And I'm speaking from very painful experience."
I nodded. Blinked. I would not cry. Would not.
"I won't do anything you don't want me to do," Zachary said. "You're beautiful, Polly."
Max had made me see that inner beauty was better than outer beauty, that it could, indeed, create outer beauty.
'You shone as Celia,' she said, 'in that depressing gym, on a dreadful stage, with appalling lighting. You had a radiance nobody else in the cast even approached.'
We were in her studio, which was a separate building to the north of the house, with the entire north wall made of glass. I was sitting for the portrait in the seashell.'You have elegant bones. Tilt your head just slightly to your right. Beautiful slender wrists and ankles, like princesses in fairy tales. Bet Cousin Kate envies them.'
I didn't think Kate envied anything about me.
'Don't move,' Max said. 'What splendid eyes you have, like bits of fallen sky, and wide apart, always suggesting that you see things invisible to lesser mortals.'
Ursula, coming in with iced tea, heard her. 'Don't turn the child's head.'
Max paused, paintbrush in hand, a dab of paint on her nose. 'It can do with a little turning. She still underestimates herself.'
Ursula put the tea down and came to stand behind Max, looking over her shoulder at the painting, nodding approval.
Max said, 'Enough for today, or I'll start overpainting.'
Playing Celia and having my portrait painted were definitely doing something for my ego.
It was a beautiful painting when she finished. Even if I didn't recognize the Polly Max saw in the seashell, I knew that the painting was beautiful. Max brought it to my parents.
'It's a superb painting,' Daddy said, 'but we can't possibly accept something that valuable. It's much too great a gift.'
Max smiled calmly at his protestation. 'It's little enough. You O'Keefes have made a winter which could well have been the winter of my discontent into a stimulating and pleasant one.'
Daddy looked at her, a brief, diagnostic glance. 'It's abeautiful picture, Maxa. We're more than grateful. Where shall we hang it?'
Well, it ended up in the living room, on the wall over the piano. We keep a light on by the piano because of the beach humidity, to keep it dry enough to stay in tune, so the portrait was well lit, and it dominated the room. The little kids said, 'Polly's eyes keep following us wherever we go.'
Xan and Den made rude remarks, which I did not take personally. Kate said, 'I don't know why nobody's ever painted a portrait of me.' She said it several times, once in front of Max, but Max simply smiled and said nothing.
About a week after the portrait was hung, we had the first really hot weather of the season, so that as soon as we came home from school we put on shorts and sandals. At dinner the little kids were wriggly, and the moment they'd finished eating, Mother said they could go out and play and she'd call them in for dessert.
As soon as they had gone outdoors, Xan asked, as though he had been waiting, 'Do you think it's good for Polly to spend so much time with those dykes?'
Daddy paused with his fork halfway to his mouth, looking at Xan. 'Who're you talking about?'
Xan looked at Kate, and Kate looked at Xan.
Kate said, 'Well, some of the girls were talking to me at recess, and I didn't like what they said about Polly.'
'Kate, what are you talking about?' Daddy demanded.
Again Kate and Xan looked at each other. Xan said, as though sorry he'd started whatever it was he wasstarting, 'Some of the guys said Polly looked really pretty as Celia, with makeup on.'
'I don't wear makeup,' I said.
'Well, that's part of it,' Kate said. Kate didn't wear much makeup, but she wore some. I had no idea what she and Xan were looking at each other for. I asked, 'Why do you two keep looking at each other as though you had some secret?'
'It's no secret,' Xan said.
Xan looked down at his plate. 'You do spend a lot of time over at Beau Allaire.'
'Why not?' I demanded. 'I'm welcome there. I'm happy there.'
Again Xan and Kate exchanged glances. 'Of course we know Polly isn't,' Kate said.
'Isn't what?' I demanded. 'I don't know what you're getting at.'
'Don't you?' Xan asked.
Daddy said, 'Xan, is this something you really want to talk about?'
Xan flushed a little. 'I'm sorry, but if Polly doesn't know people are talking, I think she ought to know.'
'Who's talking? About what?' And suddenly I didn't want to know.
'Some of the girls from Mulletville,' Kate said.
Xan went on, 'Mulletville's right near Beau Allaire and you're always there with Max and Ursula and everybody knows they're'
Mother tried to calm things down. 'Xan and Kate, I'm surprised at you. What "everybody knows" is usually gossip, vicious gossip.'
'I know it's vicious,' Kate said. 'I hate it.'
'I don't like hearing glop about my sister,' Xan said.
'You punched that guy,' Kate said.
Den got into the fray. 'All you and your friends think about is sex and who has it with who, and who does what. It's sick.'
Daddy banged a knife against the table. 'This conversation has already gone too far. Xan, you know what we think about gossip, either listening to it or spreading it.'
'But, Dad, I thought you ought to know. Polly'
'Stop him,' I said. 'How can you let him say vile things about our friends? They're your friends, too, aren't they?'
Daddy replied quietly, 'They are indeed our friends. Ursula Heschel is one of the finest people and one of the most brilliant surgeons I've known. You've always been interested in the brain, Xan. And your father's a neurosurgeon, Kate, and Ursula's friend.'
'And Max is one of Sandy's closest friends,' I cried. 'Sandy introduced us to them.'
'Sandy makes mistakes, like everybody else,' Xan snapped.
Den pushed away from the table. 'May I be excused? This conversation is gross.'
'Yes, go, Den, by all means,' Daddy said. When Den had left, he turned back to Xan and Kate. 'Do you think your Uncle Sandy would introduce Polly, or any of us, you two included, to people he didn't trust and respect?'
Kate and Xan looked down at their plates.
'Do you think Mother and I would have them here so often if they weren't our friends?'
'I'm really sorry,' Kate said. 'Xan and I talked about it, a lot, and we thought you ought to know what people'
I interrupted. 'It's a good thing the little kids are outside. I'm glad they aren't hearing this garbage. Den was right to leave.'
Mother absentmindedly passed the salad to Daddy, who tossed it. 'Sandy knew we had a lot in common with Max and Ursula. That's what makes friendship. Like interests. Your father and Ursula have nourished each other this winter.'
'And Max has nourished me,' I said. 'She's made me believe in myself.'
'Sure, she flatters you,' Xan said, 'paints your portrait, swells your head'
Daddy cut him off. 'Xan, are you feeling well?'
'I have a sore throat. What's that got to do with it?'
'After we finish eating, I'm going to take your temperature. And I would remind you that a morbid interest in people's sexual activities is as perverse as anything else.'
'We're sorry,' Kate said.
Mother added, perhaps trying to bring this ugly conversation back to normal dinner-table talk, 'Possibly the high divorce rate has something to do with a tendency to equate marriage with sex alone, instead of adding companionship and laughter.'
'Ursula and Max aren't married.'
'Alexander!' Daddy was getting really 'angry.
When Xan gets hold of a subject, he can't let go. 'Lesbianism does exist. I should think you'd be worried about Polly.'
We all spoke simultaneously. I said, 'Leave me out of it.'
Mother said, 'Xan, I think you're feverish.'
Kate said, 'We're just trying to protect Polly.'
Daddy said, his voice so quiet we had to stop talking in order to hear, 'Don't you have any faith in Polly? Orour ability to understand and to care? Of course lesbianism exists, and has since the beginning of history, and we have not always been compassionate. I thought it was now agreed that consenting adults were not to be persecuted, particularly if they keep their private lives private. We human beings are all in the enterprise of life together, and the journey isn't easy for any of us. Xan, come with me. I want to take your temperature. Polly, you can bring in dessert and call the others.'
Xan had a fever of 102°. He was coming down with a strep throat. He went to bed with penicillin instead of dessert.
'That explains it,' Daddy said. 'I'd better keep a close watch on the rest of you. Polly, will you come out to the lab with me, please?'
I followed him. He gazed into one of the starfish tanks, jotted something down on a chart, then sat on one of the high stools. 'I don't want you to be upset by what Xan and Kate said.'
I perched on the other stool, hooking my feet around the rungs. 'I am upset.'
'In this world, when two people of the same sex live together, assumptions are made, valid or not.'
'I hate the Mulletville girls. They think they're better than anybody else, and they love to put people down. They didn't like it that I got Celia in the play, and they didn't like it that I was good. None of them got anything but walk-ons.'
'You think they're getting back at you for succeeding?' Daddy asked.
'Sure. I've been the bottom of the pecking order. They don't want me to move up.'
'Polly, I don't want this to affect your friendship with Max and Ursula.'
'Don't worry. It won't. It hardly affects my feelingfor the Mulletville girls, either. It was already rock-bottom.'
Daddy hugged me and I burst into tears. 'It's your first encounter with this kind of nasty-mindedness, isn't it, Pol? Island living has kept all you kids more isolated than you should have been.'
'That's fine with me.' I reached for the box of tissues behind the Bunsen burner.
'No, Polly, you live in a world full of people of all kinds, and you're going to have to learn to get along with them.'
'And, Polly, I don't want you to worry about any gossip about you. You're a very normal sixteen-year-old.'
'You are. You're brighter than a lot of your peers, you're physically a slow developer and intellectually a quick one.'
I said, 'I'm not a lesbian, Daddy, if you're worried that I'm worried about that.'
'Sure.' I pressed my face against his firm, comfortable chest. 'But I wish we were back in Portugal.'
'We aren't. And even in Portugal, time would have passed; you'd still be in the difficult process of growing up.'
'I've got some history reading to finish,' I said. 'I'd better go do it.'
'All right, love. But don't let all of this get out of proportion. Put at least some of it down to strep throat.'
"Sure. Thanks, Daddy.'
Xan did not give me his strep throat, but he had planted an ugly seed, uglier than strep. Talking about Max and Ursula the way he had was a far cry from the remark Xan had made weeks ago, that it was a good thing Ursula was older than Daddy. That, at least, made a certain amount of sense.
But the seed was planted.
While we were little, Mother and Daddy were anything but permissive parents. The little ones don't get away with much. But once we get well into our teensand that meant Xan and Charles and me, and Kate, while she was with usthey moved into a hands-off policy. If we hadn't learned from all they had tried to teach us when we were younger, it was too late.
And what we'd learned was as much from example as from anything they said. Our parents were responsible toward each other as well as toward us. What's more important, they loved each other. Max didn't need to tell me that. I knew it. It was solid rock under my feet. And love means that you don't dominate or manipulate or control.
Xan missed a few days of school. Den was the only one to catch anything from him, but Daddy was watching us all, and Den lost only a day. The rest of us were all right, as far as strep was concerned.
What Xan and Kate said shouldn't have made any difference. I should have thrown it away, forgotten it.Or I should have asked Daddy when we were out in the lab together if he believed what they'd said about Max and Ursula. But I didn't ask him. And what's said is said. Xan's and Kate's words were like pebbles thrown into the water, with ripples spreading out and out ...
It kept niggling at the back of my mind.
I didn't want to think about sex. The male population of Cowpertown High was still in intellectual nursery school. Renny didn't want me to be anything but a kid sister to him. Who else was there?
Friday night I couldn't sleep. Finally I got up and went into the kitchen to make myself something warm to drink. We'd put away the winter blankets, and the night was cool. Mother was already there, in her nightgown, waiting for the kettle to boil.
'I'm making herb tea,' she said. 'Want some?'
'I'd love some,' I said, 'as long as it's not camomile.'
'I don't like camomile either, unless I have a very queasy stomach.'
'My stomach's queasy,' I said, 'but I still don't want camomile.'
'Why is your stomach queasy, honey?'
'What Xan said.'
'What, that Xan said? Xan says a lot.'
'Xan and Kate. About Max and Ursula.'
Mother got two cups from the kitchen dresser and fixed our tea. 'I hoped Daddy'd relieved your mind about that.'
'It keeps coming back.'
She handed me a steaming cup, and we sat at the kitchen table. The windows were partly open and the steady murmur of the ocean came in, and the wind moved through the palmettos, rattling them like paper.
Mother slid one of the windows closed. 'Xan and Kate are both fourteen. At that age, children tend to have a high interest in sexual activity, because they're just discovering themselves as sexual human beings. Their interests do widen after a while, as yours have.'
'When I was fourteen, I hardly knew lesbianism existed, and I wasn't particularly interested.'
'You and Xan are very different people. You and Kate, too. For one thing, if you'd heard upsetting gossip at school, you'd have come to your father or me privately. You wouldn't have brought it up as dinner-table conversation.'
'Xan thinks anything's okay for dinner-table conversation.'
'That's partly our fault. We encourage you to talk about what's on your minds. You've always been interested in an unusually wide variety of topics. What do you and Max talk about?'
'Philosophy. Anthropology. Lately she's been on a binge of reading the pre-Platonic philosophers. She says they were the precursers of the physicists who study quantum mechanics.'
'Shouldn't that tell you something?'
'Tell me what?'
'Where your interests lie. And Max's.'
I couldn't hold the question back any longer. 'Mother, do you think Max is a lesbian?'
Mother sighed and sipped at her tea. Outside, a bird sang a brief cadenza and was silent. 'The point I thought I was making is that what's important to you about Max is her interest in ideas. She's someone who appreciates and encourages the ideas you have. You might not have tried out for Celia if it weren't for Max.'
I couldn't leave it alone. Maybe I'm more like Xan than I realized. 'But if she is a lesbian, wouldn't that worry you and DaddyI mean, that I'm over at Beau Allaire so often?'
Mother sighed again. She looked tired. Daddy had been off to Tallahassee with Ursula. Mother had stayed home with us kids. Daddy had been promising her a few nights in Charleston, to go to the Dock Street Theatre, to the Spoleto Festival, but there hadn't seemed to be time. Or money. Charleston may not be New York, but theatre tickets aren't cheap anywhere. The neurosurgeon Dennys had introduced Ursula to, who also knew Daddy, had offered his guesthouse, which put it in the realm of possibility. It just hadn't happened. Daddy traveled around, to medical meetings, and Mother stayed home.
'Polly,' she said, 'there are a great many areas in which Daddy and I simply have to trust you kids. We have to trust that how Charles lives his life while he's in Boston is consistent with the values we've tried to instill in all of you, just as Dennys and Lucy have to trust Kate while she's with us. When Kate and Xanand yougo to a school dance, we have to trust you not to give in to peer pressure and experiment with alcohol or with drugs you know to be harmful and addictive. We've been grateful and perhaps a little relieved when Kate has called us to come get her, rather than drive home with someone who's been drinking, and I suspect Dennys and Lucy feel the responsibility for Charles as strongly as we do for Kate.'
'Kate's got good sense.'
'And so do you. And that's why we trust you; and we trust Max and Ursula not to do or say anything that would harm you. Has our trust been justified?'
'Yes.' I nodded agreement. This was how Mother and Daddy thought. This was how they behaved.
'If they were pulling you away from other people, then we'd think that was not a good influence. But you've been happier in school, haven't you?'
'You've been asked to be in the chorus, haven't you?'
'Yes.' I did not tell her that the teacher who taught chorus went into ecstasies because she said I had 'the pure voice of a boy soprano.'
'You're getting more phone calls from your classmates. Things are generally easier for you.'
'Yes.' I'd hardly realized it consciously, but it was true. Except for those snobs from Mulletville.
Mother continued. 'Trusting people is risky, Polly, we are aware of that. Trust gets broken. But when I think of Max and Ursula, I don't feel particularly curious about their sex lives, one way or another. They're opening a world of ideas for you, ideas you're not likely to bump into at Cowpertown High. I'm sorrier than I can say that there's been ugly gossip from the Mulletville girls and that the gossip has touched you. You're young to bump into this kind of gratuitous viciousness, but it hits us all sooner or later. I've had to sit out a good bit of gossip about your father and female colleagues.'
'But it wasn't true!'
'No, it wasn't true, Polly. That's the point I'm making. If you can, try to forget Xan and Kate's fourteen-year-old gossip.'
Now I sighed. 'I'll try. But I wish they'd kept their big mouths shut.'
'So do I, Polly, so do I.'
She had not told me whether or not she thought Max was a lesbian. But perhaps that was part of the point she was making.
April, turning into May, was Benne Seed's most gorgeous weather. We had a few summer-hot days, but mostly it was sunny and breezy and the air smelled of flowers and the sky was full of birdsong. Kate made a tape of a mockingbird to take home.
Daddy and Ursula drove down to Florida again, overnight. Daddy was to give a paper on new developments in his experiments with octopuses, with Ursula giving another paper about how it could be applied to neurosurgery on human beings. I found myself wishing that Xan was still concerned about Daddy and Ursula.
Max called when I got home from school, as she almost always did when Ursula was away. I drove over; Urs and Daddy had taken Ursula's car; a Land-Rover's not great for long distances. And suddenly, when I was about halfway to Beau Allaire, the fog rolled in from the ocean, and the outlines of the trees were blurred, and the birds stopped singing. There was a damp hush all over the island. Turning on the headlights just made visibility worse, and the fog lights didn't help much. I slowed down to a crawl, and was grateful to arrive safely at Beau Allaire. We went right up to Max's room, which is always the pleasantest place when the wind swings to the northeast. When the sun is out on the Island, it's warm, even in winter. When the sun is hidden by fog, it feels cold, even if the thermometer reads 80°.
We were sipping tea when Mother called, to makesure I'd arrived safely and to say that the visibility at our end of the island was nil. She agreed without hesitation when Max suggested I spend the night and go to school in the morning on the bus with the kids from Mulletville.
That was the only part I didn't like. I looked into the fire so Max wouldn't see my face.
But she saw something. 'Your mother's confidence in me means more than I can say. But'
'But what?' I asked, still looking away from her.
'For some reason you're not happy about going to school with the Mulletville contingent.'
'They're all snobs, and anyhow, I'm needed at home to handle the boat.'
'And you don't want the students from Mulletville to know you spent the night here.' Her voice was flat.
'If the fog lifts, I'll get up early. Anyhow, I have to get the car homeMother didn't think of that.'
'What she was thinking of was your safety. When your father and Ursula get back, Urs can drop him off here and he can drive your Rover home.' I didn't say anything, but I turned to look at her, and her eyes were bleak, the color of ice, and the shadows under them seemed to darken. 'I hope this isn't going to compromise you any more than you've already been compromised.'
I stared back at the fire. 'I don't care.'
I could hear Max draw in her breath, let it out in a long sigh. 'It's taken a long time for gossip to reach you, hasn't it? I expected it to raise its ugly head long before this.'
'Gossip is gossip. Mother and Daddy take a dim view of it. The girls from Mulletville are the bitchiest group at school.'
Max sighed again, and I turned once more to look ather, lean and elegant, stretched out on her side, leaning on one elbow. 'I'd hoped this conversation wouldn't be necessary. Urs said it would be, sooner or later, since the world considers personal privacy a thing of the past. Have you noticed how, whenever there's a tragedy, the TV cameras rush to the bereaved to take pictures, totally immune to human suffering?'
'Wellour TV doesn't workbut I know what you mean.'
'And I'm avoiding what I need to say. You're pure of heart, Polyhymnia, but most of the world isn't. I wish Urs were here. She could talk about it more sanely than I, so that it wouldn't hurt you. WeUrsula and Ihave been lovers for over thirty years.'
I stared down at the white fur of the rug. If Max wanted to avoid this conversation, so did I.
'When people think of homosexuals they usually think ofUrsula and I have had a long and faithful love.'
In my ears I heard Xan's words about two dykes. It didn't fit Max and Ursula. Neither did the words I heard at school, gays and faggots and queers.
'I love you, Polly, love you like my daughter. And you love me, too, in all your amazing innocence.'
There was a long pause. I hoped the conversation was over. But Max went on. 'Ursula'she paused again'Ursula is the way she is. She's competed in a man's world, in a man's field. There are not many women neurosurgeons. As for me'
I don't want to know, I thought.Keep this kind of thing in the closet where it belongs. That's what doors are for. It doesn't have anything to do with me.
'We'd better go downstairs,' Max said. 'I asked Nettie and Ovid to set the table on the verandah.'
I followed her. Instead of going directly out to theverandah, she paused at the oval dining room, switching on an enormous Waterford chandelier which sparkled like drops of water from the ocean.
Mother and Daddy have eaten in the oval dining room at Beau Allaire. When I ate with Max and Ursula, it was supper, not dinnersometimes if it was chilly, on trays in the library, or sometimes on the big marble-topped table in the kitchen. Ursula kneaded dough on that table, and the kitchen usually held the fragrance of baking bread.
'Nettie, really!' Max exclaimed, and I saw that two places had been set at the mahogany table, which, like the room, was oval.
As though she had been called, Nettie came in through the swing door which led to the breezeway and the kitchen. 'Verandah's too damp, Miss Maxa. Table's wet. Fog's thick.'
'Fine, Nettie,' Max said. 'You're quite right. We'll eat here.' She sat at the head of the table and pointed to the portrait over the long sideboard, a portrait of a man, middle-aged or more, stern and dignified, with white hair and mustache, a nose which was a caricature of Max's, and a smile which made me uncomfortable.
Ovid came in and lit the candles on the table and in the sconces on the wall.
'My papa.' Max nodded at the portrait and her smile matched the smile on her father's face. I felt cold, chillier than the dampness the fog brought in.
'Looks like him,' Max said. 'Spitting image, as they say. It's not a bad piece of work. One has to admire the artist's perception which transcends the stiffness of his technique. What do you think?'
I couldn't very well say, 'His smile gives me the creeps.' I said, 'He looks rather formidable.'
'Formidable? Oh, he was.'
Nettie and Ovid came in with silver dishes, cold sliced chicken, hot spoon bread, served us, and withdrew.
Max said, 'When my sister and I were little, we used to think God looked like Papa, and I suspect he fostered the idea. Papa liked being God. You don't make as much money as Papa did without a God complex. Beau Allaire belonged to Mama, and Papa got a job in the family bank. He was a big frog in a little pond, but he made the money not only to keep up Beau Allaire but to build a hospital. And he had no hesitation in shoving people aside if they got in his way. After all, isn't God supposed to do whatever he wants?'
That wasn't the way I thought of God. Or the way I thought Max thought of God.
She took her fork and spread spoon bread around on her plate. 'I wonder if God ever feels guilt? The M. A. Horne Hospital is Papa's big guilt offering. Urs sees God as a benevolent physician. That's a better image than mine. The only way I can get rid of the false image of Papa as God is to think of the marvels of creation. The theory now is that everything in the universe, all of the galaxies, all of the quanta, everything comes from something as small as the nucleus of an atom. Think of that, of that tiny speck, invisible to the naked eye, opening up like a flower, to become clouds of hydrogen dust, and then stars, and solar systems. That softly opening flower I visualize a lotusis a more viable image of God for me than anything else. I keep the portrait of Papa to remind me that God is not like him.'
I liked the image of the gently opening lotus. I didn't like the man in the portrait.
Ovid came in with a bottle of wine in a napkin and poured a glass for Max. 'This will help your appetite,Miss Maxa. You need Nettie's good spoon bread.' Then he put a very small amount in my glass and filled it up with water. My talk with Daddy was still clear in my mind. That was plenty for me.
'M.A. and I were only eleven months apart, and were more like twins than just sisters. Not that we didn't think for ourselves, but there wasn't anything we couldn't tell each other. She was the younger, and when we were four or five years old our mother diedshe had a weak heartand that made us closer than ever. Mama's portrait is the middle of the three across from you.'
I looked at the three gold-framed portraits. The middle, and largest, was of a fragile-looking woman, almost beautiful, but too washed-out to make it. She was not vivid like Max, or translucent, like M.A. in the portrait in the library. 'She looks pretty. But tired.'
Max laughed, not a happy laugh. 'Papa was a tiring man. Our maternal grandfather, our Allaire grandfather, must have been equally tiring. Poor Mama. Her name was Submit, and her two sisters, in the portraits on either side of her, were Patience and Hope. Which gives you an idea of the frame of mind of our Allaire grandmother. Mama's calling us Minerva Allaire and Maximiliana Sebastiane may have been her way of getting even. She died before we had much chance to know her, but she was affectionate and gentle.'
Ovid came to take away our plates, checking that Max had eaten most of her meal. Nettie followed him with salad, delicate greens from the Beau Allaire greenhouse.
'Keeping this enormous house with inadequate help killed Mama. I have one wing completely closed off, but while Papa was alive, all the rooms had to be ready at a moment's notice. Papa did not make his business deals on the golf course, he made them here in the oval diningroom, over port.' She paused. 'The portrait's uncannily like him. I don't think the artist realized how accurate he was.'
We sat in silence for a while. Then she said, 'I'm not really a portraitist, but every once in a while there's someone I know I must paintlike you. Ursula's never allowed me to paint her, but she can't stop me from making sketches.'
Nettie came in, bearing crème brûlée, which she put in front of Max, beaming. When she went back to the kitchen, Max laughed, a nice laugh this time. 'Nettie feels she must compete with Urs. Bless Urs. She has to make godlike decisions all the time, but she has more genuine humility than anyone I've known. She picks up her scalpel and she holds life and death in her hands. No wonder she comes home from the hospital and bakes bread and creates casseroles and listens to Pachelbel and Vivaldi.' She served me a luscious dish of crème brûlée. 'Bless Nettie, too. I'm far better served than I deserve.'
When we had finished dessert, Max suggested we go upstairs again. The fire had died down, and she rebuilt it, then sat on the rug, head on her knees, watching the fat pine take flame. 'As soon as we were old enough, M.A. and I became Papa's hostesses. After Mama died, he got a good housekeeper, but M.A. and I sat with him in the dining room every night, were with him when he entertained business guests. I think it was expected that eventually we would marry from the guest list. Money tends to marry money. And when Papa snapped his fingers, we did whatever he wanted us to do. He wasn't beyond hitting us if we didn't obey promptly. M.A. was deathly afraid of him. I suppose I was, too, but I pretended I wasn't. I talked back to him, and he liked that. One didn't show fear in front of Papa.'
Something in Max willed me to turn from the fire and look into her eyes, grey, like the fog, the silver glints dimmed. She spoke in a low, chill voice. 'Papa was a lecherous old roué. It killed my mother. But she submitted, poor darling, until her heart gave out, living with a man completely unprincipled. He killed M.A., too. He hated women, I think, but he wanted them. All of them. One night when I was away, he ... She got away from him and ran out into the rain, and died of pneumonia. And anguish. I will never forgive him.'
I shuddered. The fog seemed to be creeping into the room. It did not seem like May.
'Sorry, Polly, darling Polly. Hate is a totally destructive emotion, I know that. But I hate him. I hope you will never have cause to hate anyone as I hate Papa. I would like to forgive him, but I don't know how.'
I stole another look at her. Her eyes burned, and I thought she had fever.
'It's extraordinary how I can hate Papaand at the same time acknowledge that in my youth I wasn't unlike him, completely indiscriminate in my affairs after my marriage broke up. What I did had little connection with love. And then I met Ursula. Blessed Ursula, who loved me and healed me. We have been good for each other. Nourishing. As your parents nourish each other.'
Max comparing herself and Ursula to my parents? Was that possible?
'Sandy trusted me enough to bring you over to me. I value that trust. I want never to hurt you. And I already have, haven't I? Or vicious gossip has. People are assuming that because you are very dear to me, you are like me. The world being the way it is, they'd assume it even if I was straight as a pin.'
'Never mind,' I said clumsily. 'They're stupid.' Ithought of the girls from Mulletville who thought they were better than anybody else. To put themselves up, they had to put other people down.
Max said, 'I love you as I would have loved the daughter I couldn't have. You don't need a mother, you have a fine one. But every adolescent needs someone to talk to, someone to whom she is not biologically bound, and I serve that purpose. We are alike in our interests, you and I, but not in our ways of expressing our sexuality.' She looked straight into my eyes. 'Don't be confused about yourself. You're not a lesbian. I know.'
I suppose, looking back on it, that it was brave, maybe even noble, of Max to tell me all this.
She took a long brass wand and blew into the fire. The flames soared. She put the wand back, speaking as though to herself. 'Bad hearts run in the Allaire family. Mama. M.A. My little' She broke off. 'I have a heart as strong as an ox. What irony.'
I didn't understand the irony.
A sudden crash of thunder cut across my thoughts. Almost daily thunderstorms are part of summer on Benne Seed Island. Five minutes of lightning and thunder and rain and the air would be cleared. This sudden storm would dissipate the fog.
'Your father and Urs are friends, Polly. I don't know whether or not they've talked about this, because it isn't within the context of their interests, but I suspect your father knows.'
I suspected that both my parents knew. That they knew before Xan and Kate brought it up at dinner.
Max said, 'I asked Ovid to light the fire in the green guest room to cut the damp. We'll just wait till this storm is over.' She took a soft wool blanket from the chaise longue and tucked it around me. I was overwhelmedby great waves of sleep, a reaction of shock from what Max had told me.
'Little one,' she said softly. 'Let it go. You don't have to bear it with me. It's over. You have a terrifying ability to enter into the experience of others, that's why you're such a good little actress. You feel things too deeply to bear them unless you can get them out of yourself through some form of art.'
I closed my eyes and her words drifted away with the smoke.
When I woke up, it seemed that a light was shining in my eyes. The fog had cleared, and the moonlight was coming through the windows. By its ancient light Max was looking at me, her eyes as bright and savage as a gull's.
But her voice was gentle. 'Time for bed.'
I staggered to my feet and followed her to the green guest room. The fire had died down to a glow, but it had taken the damp away, and the breeze coming in from the window was summery. I slipped into bed, and Max tucked the covers about me. I drifted back into sleep.
In the morning I got up early, drank a glass of milk, drove the length of the Island to our house, and took the boat across the water to Cowpertown and the school bus.
Stubbly grass was prickling against my cheek, and a hand moved gently across my hair. I opened my eyes and looked up at Zachary.
"Have a nice nap?"
I sat up and pushed my fingers through my hair. "I guess I'm not quite over jet lag yet. Sandy says it takes a day for each hour."
"Sandy? Who's Sandy?" he asked suspiciously.
"My uncle. He and Aunt Rhea are coming into Athens tomorrow, late afternoon, I think."
"Are you going to ditch me for them?"
"We do have plans ..."
"Will you at least spend the day with me, Sleeping Beauty?"
I probably looked a mess, with grass marks on my cheek and my hair sticking out in all directions, and here he was asking me to spend another day with him. "I'd love to spend the day with you."
"You cried out in your sleep," Zachary said. "Listen, about whoever it was who hurt you, remember I've been hurt, too. It's not a nice feeling. It takes the already shaky ego and shrivels it, like putting a match to a plastic bag. I'm not pushing you, Polly, but it really might help if you talked about it."
I shook my head. "Thanks, Zach, I don't want to talk about it till I have it all sorted out."
"Sometimes talking helps sort things out."
"I'm not ready. You talk if you want to. I'm sorry you got hurt. I do care."
"You do, don't you? Thanks, Pol, but I'm a selfish bastard and I deserved anything I got. I lived by sophomoric mores, Number One all the way. In my world, love affairs were taken with incredible seriousness, which ought to mean at least an expectation of permanence."
"Ha. Totally serious can mean a few days, and then along comes someone over the horizon who has more money or more prestige, and whoops, musical chairs, change partners. You know how, at cocktail parties, the person you're talking to is looking over your shoulder, in case there's somebody more important to talk to?"
I didn't. I'd never been to a cocktail party.
"In my world they're looking over your shoulder while they're making love, and it's musical chairs again." He sounded bitter.
"Are you talking from experience?" I asked.
"Pretty Pol, in experience I am old enough to be your grandfather." He put his head down on my lap, and I ran my fingers through his silky black hair. Another first for me. I was amazed at how natural it seemed.
"You're lucky, Red," he said. "My parents don't know anything about trust. They never trusted each other, and they never trusted me. And I've never trusted them. And your parents trust you, enough to let you come to Greece all alone, not because they want to get rid of you, but because they trust you. I mean, that's pretty incredible."
Even though my parents didn't know I was in Greece all alone, their trust in me, and in the rest of us, was indeed pretty incredible. And that trust had been betrayed, and I hoped they'd never have to know the extent to which it had been betrayed. Part of growing up, I was discovering, was learning that you did not have to tell your parents everything.
Did Mother and Daddy carry trusting us to an extreme?
What choice did they have? The three little ones were the only ones young enough to be monitored twenty-four hours a day. Den was in junior high, the rest of us in high school. We did have curfews, and if there was a valid reason we couldn't make them, they trusted us to phone. When Xan and Kate were late, twice, without calling, they were given a 10 p.m. curfew for the month, which meant no going to Cowpertown after school hours. From their point of view, that was only an inch awayfrom capital punishment. They complained the entire time, but they kept the curfew.
If I'm a slow developer, Kate's a rapid one. I knew that she'd gone a lot further with boys than I had, not that I'd had much chance, and that this concerned Mother and Daddy. And sometimes Xan seems older, as well as taller, than I. But how much did Mother and Daddy know about string-bean Xan? He was already six three, and good-looking, and a little arrogant, and he brought home straight A's and was star of the basketball team and president of his class. But did they know him?
And how much did they really know about me? When I went out with Renny, Mother and Daddy knew what our plans were, whether we were going to drive, whether Renny had borrowed a boat. They probably suspected that Renny kissed me good night. Did they trust us blindly?
How could Max ever trust anybody again, after what her father did? And yet she trusted.
And I knew that there wasn't any other way to live. You simply cannot go around sniffing suspiciously at everyone and everything, expecting the worst. At least, Mother and Daddy couldn't. And, by gene and precept, neither could I.
'People are trustworthy only by virtue of being trusted,' Daddy had once said.
Having your parents trust you is a pretty heavy burden.
On the other hand, I trusted my parents.
"What're you thinking?" Zachary asked.
"Oh, trusting people. Letting them down."
Zachary patted my thigh. "I can't imagine you letting anybody down."
I ran my fingers through his hair again. "You don't know me very well." The thought flashed across my mind that I had let Max down. I pushed it away.
Zachary yawned. "We'd better be getting back to town. I've made reservations on the roof of the Hilton. We'll have drinks outside first, and I've reserved a window table. The view is better than the food, though the food's not bad. Rather bland, to please unexperimental Americans. You can even get a hamburger." He eased out of my lap, stood up, held out his hand to me, then took one finger and touched my cheek. "So soft," he murmured. With the tip of his finger he circled my eyes, then leaned toward me and kissed me.
I pulled away, and started toward the car.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "You know our chemistry's explosive."
"Chemistry's not enough."
"Why not?" I didn't answer. "If you gave in once, why not now, when you know things are really fizzing between us?"
"I said," clenching my jaw, "chemistry's not enough." I picked up the picnic basket and put it in the car.
Zachary ran after me. "Hey, wait up. Was I being offensive?"
"You might call it that."
"Well, listen, Pol, hey, listen, I'm really sorry. Okay?"
"Okay." I still sounded pretty chilly.
"You're going to have dinner with me tonight? I'll be good. Promise. Okay? I've never met anyone like you, and I've learned, honest I have, it's a mistake for me to think you're going to react like anyone else. I don't want you to. I like you the way you are. So you will have dinner?"
"Sure. Dinner will be fine."
I'd never had anyone pleading to have dinner with me before. If I needed affirmation, Zachary was providing it.
The view from the roof garden of the Hilton was as spectacular as the view from Zachary's balcony. I ordered lemonade, and Zachary had a Metaxa sour.
Metaxa. Urs often called Max that.
"Have a sip?" Zachary asked.
I shook my head.
"Polly, I'll see you tomorrow?"
He was saying it, and I still didn't quite believe it, that he really wanted to be with me three days in a row. "I'd love to."
"And after tomorrow, what? Am I ever going to see you again?"
"Who knows? It's a small world."
"I'd like to be friends with you forever. I want to know there's something permanent in human relations."
I sipped my lemonade. "I'm not sure there is."
He signaled the waiter for two more drinks. "I'm the one who's the cynic, not you. What about your parents? They sound pretty permanent to me."
"As things go in this life, I guess they are."
"And that's what you're looking for?"
"Ultimately. But not for a long time. I have to get through college and figure out how to earn my living."
"And you're going to wear your chastity belt all that time?"
"I don't know," I said. "If I've learned nothing else, I've learned that you never know what's going to happen. But right now, tonight, in Athens, I'm wearing mychastity belt." I thought I'd better be firm about that, for myself as much as for Zachary.
The maitre d'hotel summoned us then, and took us to our table. After we'd ordered, Zachary said, "I wish I knew who he was, this guy who hurt you so much. He's made you put your armor on so there isn't even a chink. Why are you rejecting me?"
"I'm not rejecting you. We've just met, and already we're friends. I could have been very lonely, and you've been wonderful."
He smiled at me across the table. "If you ever take off that chastity belt, Polly, it'll be for real."
He walked me back to the King George and kissed me gently just before I got in the elevator. I took another long, hot bath, to help me unwind. Got into bed and read. I realized that I missed the family, even Xan.
He had come into my room one night while I was reading in bed, knocking first, which is a tradition. Our rooms are our own.
'Yah?' I didn't sound very welcoming.
He stuck his head in the door. 'I'm sorry about the other night.' He was so tall that he almost had to bend down to get in the door. His wrists and ankles showed past his pajama sleeves and legs, and he was skinny, because of having shot up so quickly.
'What other night?'
'You know. What Kate and I said about the Mulletville kids and stuff. About Max and Ursula and you. I'm really sorry.'
'Okay.' But it wasn't okay, and I didn't sound or feelgracious. Maybe eventually Max would have told me all that she'd told me, but it mightn't have hurt so much.
'I hate those Mulletville kids,' Xan said. 'It's not fair.'
He sounded so vehement that he reminded me of my little sister Peggy, who frequently stamped and said, 'It isn't fair,' and Mother would reply, 'We never told you life was fair.' 'But it ought to be,' Peggy would insist.
Max had said once, 'The young have an appalling sense of justice. Compassion doesn't come till much later.'
Was I looking for justice without compassion? I'm not even sure what justice would be. If the milk has soured, there's no way to make it sweet again.
Now I said to Xan, 'Since when did you expect things to be fair?'
He hovered in the doorway. 'Can I come in?'
'Sure.' I closed my book, a finger in it to mark the place, to give him a hint that I didn't want him to stay long.
'I had a long talk with Dad.'
'In the first place, I shouldn't have listened to the Mulletville kids. In listening to them, I was encouraging them.'
I shrugged. 'I listen to gossip, too.'
'People don't gossip much about you.'
He sat on the foot of my bed. Because I'm the oldest, I have the room farthest from the main part of the house and Mother and Daddy's room. I have a combination desk/chest of drawers. A chair. A closet for my clothes. And a view of the ocean through an enormous chinaberry tree, which is a favorite of redbirds.
Xan said, 'Dad told me that Ursula is very highlythought of, and he feels privileged to be her friend, and Max's.' He looked at me and added, 'At least all this has taught me something.'
'I used to think of lesbians as being different from other women, kind of freakish. I didn't think they were like other people, like Ursula Heschel doing a good job. I mean, being a neurosurgeon is tough.'
And Ursula managed it without playing God. She came home and baked bread. And took care of Max.
Xan said, 'We do gossip and bitch at school about things we really don't know about. I'm as bad as Kate. What I want to say is, I'm really sorry we brought it up. Being sick was no excuse.'
'Forget it,' I said.
Xan stood up. 'It's hard to keep your head on straight in a world like this.'
'You're right,' I agreed. 'It's not easy.'
'You're not still mad at me?'
On the whole, I thought, Xan kept his head on straighter than I did. I decided I'd write him a postcard all his own, not just a family one.
I woke up in the night hearing sirens. Greek sirens. I do not like sirens, anywhere. They mean police and fire and violence. They made me feel very alone in a hotel in a strange city. I comforted myself with the thought that Sandy and Rhea would be with me in time for dinner, and it might be a good idea if I made a reservation for a table at the roof restaurant.
Zachary and I were going to meet in the morning,drive out in the country again, and take the ferry ride from Itea, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, to Aegea, and wouldn't be back till late afternoon. Was it because I was seeing Zachary in a new country, with home far behind me, that we had come to know each other so quickly? It took weeks and weeks of seeing Renny before we could talk the way Zachary and I had talked in only two days. I had mixed emotions. In a way I would almost be glad to say goodbye to him when Sandy and Rhea came, because he did have a powerful effect on me, and it scared me. And at the same time it would be a wrench to leave someone forever who had appeared when I really needed rescuing.
Zachary knew that I expected Sandy and Rhea, but not that I'd expected them to be at the airport to meet me, that these days alone in Athens were not part of anybody's plan. If I still believed in guardian angels, I'd suspect it had all been prearranged for my benefit.
Max sometimes talked about the delicate balance between a prearranged pattern for the universe and human free will. 'Sometimes our freedom comes in the way we accept things over which we have no control, things which may cause us great pain and even death.'
I didn't understand then that she was talking about herself. We were sitting on the verandah, overlooking the ocean. The wisteria vines were in bloom, the blossoms moving from pale lavender to deep dark purple. Pungent scents from flowers and herbs wafted toward us.
She changed the subject. 'I wonder how long BenneSeed will be the kind of lovely island it is now? If the other two plantations should ever be sold, there'd be more developments like Mulletville, only bigger.'
'I'd hate it,' I said. 'Daddy'd hate it. He'd have to look for another island.'
'I don't think it'll happen for a while. Spring and early summer, before the long heat sets in, are as lovely here as any place in the world. I'm not sure why I love Beau Allaire. I was never happy here. M.A. and I came out in Charleston, but most of the time Charleston seems as far from Benne Seed as New York. And I've spent far too much of my life on that asphalt island. Maybe that's why I love to come here. But I'd die of loneliness, intellectual loneliness, if I had to live on Benne Seed for long.'
The idea that Max might not stay on the Island was horrible, but why had I ever thought her return to Beau Allaire was permanent? I remembered Sandy and Dennys questioning her coming, thinking there was something odd about it. But I felt that I, too, would die of loneliness without Max to talk to. 'You're not leaving, are you?' When she did not reply, I asked, 'Is Ursula's sabbatical over?'
Max looked down at her hands, lightly folded, pale against her dark dress. 'No, Polly. And no, I am not going back to New York.'
During the normal pattern of Max and Ursula's year, Urs took August off and they traveled abroad together. In the winter, Max went off by herself to paint, to check on Beau Allaire, to get away from the city.
'And,' she added, 'from Ursula. We're both dominant personalities, and people who love each other need to be apart periodically. I have my own studio on Fifty-seventh Street, but even a city as big as New York canbe too small. And I enjoy travel more than Urs does. Even though it's getting daily more difficult, and one expects planes to be late, connections to be missed, trains to stop for hours instead of minutes, I still love it. Two years ago I spent a month in Antarctica. I nearly got frostbite on my aristocratic nose, but I was totally fascinated by that wild, cold world. I wanted to bring Urs back a penguin, but only if I could bring back a square mile of its environment.'
For a while I was embarrassed when Max talked about Urs, but she was so matter-of-fact that it stopped bothering me. She talked about Urs as anyone would about a good friend. Slowly I began to forget Xan and Kate's gossip, even to forget what Max had told me. As Mother had pointed out, it was not where Max's and my interests lay.
Mother and Daddy seemed to take it for granted that I might go over to Beau Allaire a couple of times a week. I got my chores in the lab done in the early morning, helped with the little ones as much as possible, once a week stripped the beds and put the sheets through the washing machine. What time was left, apart from school, was my own.
Max and Ursula came across the Island to have dinner with us every few weeks. And if Xan and Kate heard any more gossip, they didn't say anything. Sometimes I wondered about Max's husband, Davin Tomassi, and why they'd married, and what had happened. I asked Mother one day when we were taking sheets off the line, smelling of ocean and sky.
'I don't know much about it,' Mother said. 'I gather Max and Davin remained very good friends, and kept in touch until he died. Max is a very complex human being. A very fine one.'
The phone rang. In the middle of the night, in the King George Hotel in Athens. Groggily, fearfully, I reached for it, heard a thick male voice asking for Katerina, got an apology for disturbing me. I'd have been furious if I hadn't been half awake, anyhow. Even so, it scared me. Phone calls in the middle of the night aren't usually good news.
I'd thought it might be about Max.
One warm May afternoon I was over at Beau Allaire. Ursula and I had gone for a swim. Max said she didn't feel up to it and I thought Ursula's glance was anxious.
But the two of us had a fine swim. We knew the tides and undertows and so were able to go out beyond the breakers. When we got back to the house, Max was on the verandah, curled up in the wicker swing, a pile of her old sketchbooks beside her, one open in her lap.
Ursula picked up a sketchbook Max had filled when they were on safari, shooting with cameras, not guns. Ursula had the camera, Max the sketchbook, and had filled it with pictures of wildebeests, honey badgers, lions, elephants, giraffes.
'Get dressed,' Max said sharply. 'I don't want sand and salt water all over my sketchbooks.' Then she smiled at us, her special, slow smile which made me feeloh, not just that Max was fond of me, but that being Polyhymnia O'Keefe, just as I was, with red hair and legs that were too long for me, was an all right thing to be.
I changed in the green guest room, which was beginningto be 'Polly's room,' and went back to the verandah. Urs was in the kitchen, 'doing something elegant with chicken and fresh dill,' Max told me.
I picked up another African sketchbook, this one filled with people rather than animals, pencil drawings of Africans doing tribal dances. Pygmies. Bushmen. Matabeles.
Another sketchbook. From Asia. More odd dances, people wearing masks, leaping about fires. 'What's it about?' I asked.
'Aggression,' Max said. 'Getting rid of it legitimately. We don't, nowadays, we sophisticated peoples. As society evolved, we began to repress the destructive, aggressive instincts we needed to acquire back when we were living in caves and trees and had to protect ourselves from wild animalsor wild people. What do you do about your own anger?'
'I chop wood,' I said. 'That's the good old-fashioned way of getting it out of your system, but it works.'
Max pointed to a pen-and-ink sketch of naked people dancing. They had long legs, and long slender necks, and Max had given them a wild rhythm. 'They're acting out their feral feelings in a way which doesn't endanger society. Kids in inner cities, or even places like Cowpertown, don't have any legitimate way of working out their aggressions. Not too many of themin the South, at leastchop wood.'
'Benne Seed gets mighty cold, and we use a lot of wood. I can split a cord as well as Xan.'
'Even the old scapegoat'Max riffled through the pages 'was a useful device whereby people could dump their sins onto the animal, and not be crushed under a burden of neurotic guilt.' She put down the sketchbook, picked up a pad, and began sketching me. 'If I had it to doagain, I'd be an anthropologist. Who is it who said the proper study of mankind is man?' I didn't know the answer, and she went on, 'We all have our own burdens of neurotic guilt. Sketching helps me get rid of mine.'
I reached for another sketchbook. It was filled with watercolor paintings of brilliant, jungly-looking birds, flashing color in deep-green forests, and then more people, wearing masks and dancing.
To my surprise, Max grabbed the sketchbook. 'I don't like those paintings.'
'Where were you when you did them?' I asked, not understanding why she was so vehement.
Ecuador. In South America. 'Were you in the jungle?'
'For a while.' She pulled out another sketchbook. 'Now look at these sketches, Polly. It's from my last China trip.'
'When were you in Ecuador?' I persisted.
'Last year. Look, here's the Great Wall of China. It's almost unbelievable, even when you're looking right at it.'
I looked, not at Max's drawings of the Wall, but at Max herself, her pallor, her thinness. And the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fitted together. This was why Max had come home to Beau Allaire, why Ursula was on leave of absence from her hospital in New York.
If I'd seen Urs alone, I'd have asked her if my guess was right, but there wasn't a moment. Once Urs called to us that dinner was ready, the three of us were together the whole time, and then they both waved me off when I left for home. I wished the Land-Rover hadn't been available, so I could have asked Urs to drive me.
As soon as I got back, I checked in, and then went out to the lab and called from the phone there, called thehospital in Cowpertown and left a message for Renny to call me. I'd never done that before.
I took the hose and sluiced down the cement floor of the lab, so I'd be there to grab the phone when it rang. I was cleaning one of the tanks when he called.
'What's up, Polly?'
I perched on one of the high stools; the telephone was on the wall above a shelf full of beakers and jars and a lot of lab paraphernalia. 'Max was in Ecuador last year. Has she got one of your awful parasites?'
A pause. Then, 'Thousands of Americans go to South America every year.'
'Max was in the jungle, not on a cruise ship.'
Renny was silent.
'Listen, I know all about doctors' confidentiality, but you've talked to me a lot about your field, and unless you tell me I'm wrong, I'm going to assume that Max got infected while she was in South America, and this thing is going to kill her. Is killing her.'
Renny said, 'Polly.' And then, 'Look, I can't talk on the phone. Where are you?'
'In the lab. There's no one around.'
'Pol, I can't talk about it at all. You know that.'
'Then it's true. Okay, I know I'm not next of kin, I have no legal right to ask. But Max is my friend. She matters to me.'
Renny sounded very far away. 'If Mrs. Tomassi wanted you to know, she'd tell you.'
'That's telling me. Thanks.'
'What are you going to do with it?'
'Nothing. You're right. If Max wanted me to know, she'd tell me herself. But I want to talk to you, please. Not about Max. You've talked to me plenty about vectors,and parasites circulating in the blood of the host in Trypanosomal form.'
'You know too much about too many things,' Renny said.
'You don't have to talk to me about Max. Just talk to me about Netson and his research.'
'I suppose I owe you that much. It's all my fault that you guessed. I'm not on call tomorrow evening.'
He'd borrowed a boat, so we went to Petros' as usual. Renny had brought an article by his boss in the New England Journal of Medicine, and I skimmed it, then went back to read more slowly. Clinically, the patient experiences a recurrent fever. The Trypanosomal organisms go through some kind of change, but eventually they get back in the bloodstream and invade the heart. In the case of people like Max (though we never mentioned her name) who have no immunities whatsoever, severe heart disease develops. Even with people who have lived for generations in areas where the disease is endemic, about ten percent of the population end up with congestive heart failure, and sudden cardiac arrest is common.
'How did Max find out she had Netson's?' I handed him back the New England Journal. Renny began leafing through it, not answering.
I felt angry and frustrated, and at the same time I respected his attitude. I spoke slowly, quietly. 'You don't have to tell me. I can figure it out. Max is no fool, and Ursula is a doctor, even if tropical medicine isn't her field. But she must have heard of these diseases, and Max is an omnivorous reader. If she had a bite on the eyelid, followed by conjunctivitis while she was in Ecuador, she'd have suspected. One of the foremost specialists intropical diseases is her cousin, on the staff of M. A. Horne, which was started with her father's money. Ironic, isn't it?'
Renny looked at me over the magazine, but said nothing.
I went on. 'So it would be a logical thing for her to come home to confirm a diagnosis she and Ursula already suspected, and to stay here, because Dr. Netson's in Cowpertown, and Beau Allaire is home. And Ursula's on leave of absence, to be with Max until' My voice broke, and I looked at Renny. He did not contradict me, so I knew I was right, if not specifically, at least generally. For a moment a wave of nausea broke over me. I fought it back. 'Isn't there any treatment?'
'Nothing satisfactory.' Renny spoke reluctantly. 'We're trying primaquine in the dosage suitable for malaria. And there's a nitrofurazone derivative that shows promise. But if there's organ damage, it's irreversible, at least at present.'
'What about a heart transplant?' I suggested.
'They're chancy, at best, and contraindicated in Netson's. Polly, I've told you more than I should.'
'You haven't said a word about Max. You've just talked to me about a disease in which you're particularly interested. If Max weren't involved, you could have said everything you've said to me, and it wouldn't have hurt. That's the difference.'
His voice was heavy. 'She's a special lady. A real lady, and there aren't many around nowadays. I truly admire her. I wish there were something I could do for her. You're lucky to have her for a friend.'
'Yes. I know.'
We didn't finish our pizza. Petros came and asked usif anything was wrong with it, and we assured him it was fine, but he wanted to make us another, on the house, and finally I convinced him I didn't feel well.
Renny asked him for the check. 'Polly, sweet. I'm sorry.'
'For all the breaks we've been getting in medicine, there's still a lot we can't do anything about.'
My voice was brittle. 'Nobody ever promised us life was going to be safe. Everybody dies, sooner or later.'
'Would you want not to?' Renny asked. 'To go on in a body growing older and older, forever? Even if we could keep the body in reasonable shape, would you want to live forever?'
'Yes,' I said, and then, 'No. Forever would be crippling. One would never have to do anything, because one could always do it tomorrow.' One couldI'd picked that up from Max, as so much else. 'But not extinction. I can't imagine Max being annihilated.'
Renny didn't say anything, and I didn't want him to, because he's an intern, and I knew what he'd say. At least I'm older than Renny in that way. He can take on faith that there are mitochondria and farandolae, and that there are quarks and quanta, even though they can't be seen. Well, so can I. My parents are scientists, after all. But I can also take on faith that Max is too alive to be extinguished by anything asas banal as death.
Renny paid for the pizza. 'Polly'
I looked at him.
'Can you keep ... what you've guessed ... to yourself?'
'I'll try. If I don't see Max for a couple of days, maybe I'll get it all into some kind of perspective. I'm not very good about hiding things from people I care about.' Maxhad guessed immediately that I'd heard gossip about her and Urs. But this was different. I'd have to keep her from knowing that I knew.
We drove to the dock and jumped into the small motorboat. Halfway to Benne Seed, Renny cut the motor as usual, but instead of kissing we looked up at the stars.
'In the life span of a star,' I said, 'our lives are less than a flicker, whether we live for ten years or a hundred.'
'In the life span of the universe,' Renny said, 'that life of a star is less than a flicker.' And then he kissed me. And I wanted him to. Just as it was beginning to build, he broke off. 'Time to take you home.'
Heavy with unwanted knowledge, I went to my room, saying that I had a lot of reading to do for school. Which was true. Exams were coming up, and I had to do well.
And my room was full of Max. The little crystal bird she'd given me for the opening of As You Like It was on my desk, by the window, where it caught and refracted the light sparkling off the ocean. Over my desk chair was flung a Fair Isle sweater Max had loaned me one early spring night when it had grown unexpectedly chilly, and then told me to keep because she didn't need it anymore. On my bed table were books she'd taken down from the library shelves at Beau Allaire and given me to read.
Now that I knew all that I knew, I couldn't understand why it had taken me so long to realize just why it was that Max had come home to Beau Allaire.
But I learned that I was capable of keeping a secret.
Max and Ursula did not know that I knew.
In the King George Hotel in Athens I woke up with tears on my cheeks, and the sound of the redbird in the chinaberry tree in my ears. The sound faded into the night noises of a city, and I knew that I had been crying about Max. Suddenly I heard a soft rain spattering on the balcony floor, and a cool breeze came in. And I went back to sleep.
In the morning the sky was even more brilliantly blue and gold than it had been, with no heat haze, and a cool breeze.
Zachary called while I was having breakfast, the Fair Isle cardigan over my shoulders. He explained that we'd need to make an early start if I wanted to be back in time for dinner with Sandy and Rhea. "Can you be in the lobby at nine?"
"Sure, why not?"
"Leave a message for your uncle and aunt, that you may not be back when they arrive. When are they getting in, by the way?"
"I'm not sure. Uncle Sandy just said in plenty of time for dinner."
"Okay, then, he doesn't expect you to hang around. I'll have you back at the King George in good time to bathe and change. Just leave them a message."
"Will do." Sandy would certainly not want me to hang around.
"That was quite a downpour we had during the night," Zachary said. "Did it wake you?"
"I heard it." It was mixed up in my mind with theredbird in the chinaberry tree and my conversation with Renny. "But now we've got the most glorious day of all." I had carried my coffee cup from the balcony to the telephone in the bedroom, and took a swallow. It was cooling off. "See you at nine."
The air was dry and warm when we started off in the VW Bug, which was beginning to seem like a familiar friend. Zachary'd brought another picnic basket, not from the Hilton this time, he said, but very Greek: cold spinach pie, feta cheese, wrinkly dark olives, taramasalata, cucumber dip.
"And I got them to make me some fresh lemonade at the Hilton. I don't suppose you want to greet your uncle and aunt with wine on your breath."
"I'm not much of a drinker," I told him.
"There's a difference between having an occasional glass of wine and being an alcoholic."
"Of course. But I'm still a minor, in case you've forgotten, and I've seen enough of the results of the abuse of alcohol to be very wary of it."
He looked at me with open curiosity. "Not your parents?"
I didn't say Max. It was a while before I realized that sometimes she drank too much. She frequently switched from wine to bourbon. 'It's good for elderly hearts,' she said.
I asked Renny if it was all right for her to drink bourbon, and he said that to an extent Max was right, that a moderate amount of whiskey actually dilated the arteries. And he added that it was a painkiller. He gave me another of Netson's articles to read, this one way over my head, but I gathered that in the last months of the disease there is a good deal of acute pain, and thedamaged heart muscle will not tolerate ordinary painkillers.
One evening when Max and I were alone at Beau Allaire she talked to me about her husband. We were sitting at the table out on the verandah, and she was sipping bourbon. Only the slight flush to her cheeks made me realize that she was drinking more than usual, but there was nothing ugly about it.
'I married Davin Tomassi in good faith,' she said. 'I wanted family life, wanted children, and I thought Davin and I could make it. He was the gentlest man I have ever known, and occasionally he could get through all my blocks and inhibitions, but not often. God knows it wasn't Davin's fault there was no miracle. He was infinitely patient. And when I got pregnantoh. God, how we rejoiced. But the baby was born with the Allaire weak heart, and lived only a few days. After thatit was apparent things weren't going to work out for us as husband and wife. That was my worst time, after I left Davin. I fell apart in the ugliest possible way. Then I met Urs. And was able to be friends with Davin again. I will always love Davin, in my fashion, and be grateful to him.' She put her hands to her cheeks, and her fingers trembled. 'I think I want you to go home now, Polly. I'm tired.'
I left. It had been almost as hard for Max to tell me about her marriage as it had been for her to tell me about her father and M.A. I wondered when she was going to tell me that she was dying.
The next time I was at Beau Allaire, Ursula was there, and I managed a few minutes with her in the kitchen (Max didn't give us much time alone, basically becauseMax didn't want to be alone). 'Urs, I don't mean to pry, and I know Max doesn't want to talk about it, and nobody told me, I mean Renny didn't say anything, but I guessed'
Ursula turned from the stone sink. 'Did you? I thought you might have. How much do you know?'
'That Max has Netson's disease, and that there's no cure.'
Ursula wiped her hands carefully. 'Oh, Polly child, this is a lot for you to handle, and you're in too deep now for you to turn your back on Max and withdraw.'
Withdrawing had not occurred to me. 'Can't anything be done to help her?' I knew the answer, but Ursula was older and more experienced than Renny.
'Not much. When Bart Netson confirmed the diagnosis I don't think she realized how much she was going to have to endure. With some people it's just a slow wearing down of energy, and then quick heart failure. It's being much slower with Max; she's very strong. The pain is bad, and getting worse. I'm grateful to you, child, for all you do to help Max. You're both friend and daughter to her. Did she tell you that she and Davin had a little girl?'
'That was a devastating blow to Maxa, seeing what appeared to be a perfect infant, and then watching it wilt and die. You're Max's child, Polly, the child she couldn't have, and that's an enormous burden to put on a sixteen-year-old. What have we done to you, Max and I?'
'You've made me alive,' I said quickly.
'I worry about you.' She turned back to the stone sink. 'I hope we're notI hope we're not destructive to you.'
'Constructive,' I said quickly. 'Sandy brought me to Beau Allaire to meet you, just me, remember? Hewouldn't have, if he hadn't known I needed you and Max.'
'Bless you.' Ursula refilled the kettle and put it back on the stove. 'Bless Sandy. Dennys, too. They're good friends.'
Mother went to Charleston with Ursula, at last, to go to the Spoleto festival in the afternoon while Urs was consulting at Mercy Hospital, and then go out to dinner, and back to the festival in the evening. She came back glowing.
The following week Max said, 'It's your turn, Pol. Urs has to go back to Charleston to see Ormsbythere are times I could kill your Uncle Dennys for offering Urs to himbut Urs needs the stimulation, so I'm simultaneously grateful. There's an interesting play on at the Dock Street Theatre in the evening.'
'Tomorrow. We've already cleared it with your parents. Urs will be getting her hair trimmed, so we'll kill two birds with one stone and get yours styled.'
'You're not coming?' Of course she wasn't coming. She wasn't up to it, and I knew it.
'Not this time. You go with Urs and have fun.'
Ursula and I stayed in the Ormsbys' guesthouse, which was a separate building behind the house and had been the kitchen in the old days. There was a comfortable sitting room overlooking the garden, a bedroom with twin beds, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchenette, so the guests could be self-sufficient. The furniture was antique and beautifulMrs. Ormsby was an interior decorator and there was air-conditioning.
We said hello to Mrs. Ormsby, who was welcoming and chatty and asked about Daddy and then Uncle Dennys, and talked about getting Mother into Charleston more often, and wouldn't Ursula be interested in serving on some committees? 'And how is Maximiliana doing?' she asked, a tentative note coming into her voice.
'As well as can be expected.' Ursula's tone was carefully noncommittal.
'I wish we could help, my dear,' Mrs. Ormsby said.
Suddenly and for the first time I realized that Ursula was bearing Max's death on her own shoulders, bearing it for Max as well as for herself. And I had a faint glimmer of what that death was going to mean to Ursula. Max had said that they had been together for over thirty years. That was longer than Mother and Daddy had been married. How would either of my parents feel if they were watching the other die? I couldn't quite conceive it. Now, as I watched and heard Ursula being courteous and contained, some of her pain became real to me.
Mrs. Ormsby, returning to her social, light voice, told us there was iced tea in the fridge, and a bottle of white wine.
We thanked her and then went to the hairdresser, chic and undoubtedly exorbitantly expensive. I felt a little odd, having my hair styled. Kate's chestnut hair is curly, and even when she nibbles at it with the nail scissors, it looks just right. If I hack at mine with the nail scissors, it looks exactly as though I've hacked at it with the nail scissors. Mother usually cuts it.
'Cut it short, please,' I said to the stylist, 'as short as possible.'
'Why so short?' he asked.
'It's an awful color, and the shorter it is, the less of it.'
'If I could make up a dye the color of your hair, halfmy ladies would come flocking. You have a beautiful neck. We will show off your neck to the best advantage.'
(Kate's reaction when I came home was, 'Golly, Polly!'
Xan said, 'Gosh, Pol, what'd they do? You look almost pretty!'
'She is pretty,' Mother said.
Max simply made me turn round and round, looking at me critically from every angle, nodding with satisfaction.)
I could hardly believe it myself. When the stylist was through with me, my straight hair actually lay in soft curves, capping my head.
Ursula's hair looked nice, too. 'Max found Dominic for me,' she said. 'If Max didn't see to it that I go to a good stylist, she knows I wouldn't bother. After all, a surgeon's hair is frequently concealed under a green surgical cap.'
When we left the hairdresser, Ursula went to the hospital and I went to the art gallery, where there was an interesting exhibition of women painters: Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe. Hm. Two f's. I liked the way it looked. My parents had not objected when I put the extra l in Polly, but I doubted if they'd let me get away with putting an extra f in O'Keefe.
I'd gone back to the cottage to change, and was delayed by Mrs. Ormsby, so I was a few minutes late and Ursula was waiting for me. She was evidently known by the people who ran the restaurant, and the waiter was smiling and respectful. 'We have the moules marinières that you like, Dr. Heschel.'
'Splendid, François. I think you'll like the way they prepare them here, Polly.'
She did not order wine. We had Vichy water. 'This place is small enough to be personal, and I've got in the habit of eating here when I'm in Charleston. Did you have a good afternoon?'
'Terrific. It's ages since I've been in an art gallery.'
'Sometime I'm going to take a real sabbatical. But it's been good for me to keep my hand in during all these months. Norris Ormsby called me in today on an interesting and tragic case, a young woman in her thirties who has had a series of brain tumors. Benign, in her case, is a mockery. After her first surgery, some nerves were cut, and her face was irrevocably distorted, her mouth twisted, one eye partly closed. A few days ago another tumor was removed, and several more smaller ones were discovered. I agreed with the decision not to do further surgery. She said that she is looking with her mind's eye at the tumors, willing them to shrink, seeing them shrink. And she quoted Benjamin Franklin to me: Those things that hurt, instruct. An extraordinary woman. A holy woman. She looks at her devastated face in the mirror and, she says, she still does not recognize herself. But there is no bitterness in her. She sails, and as soon as she gets out of the hospital she plans to sail, solo, to Bermuda. At sea, what she looks like is a matter of complete indifference. My patients teach me, Polly. Old Ben knew what he was talking about, and it's completely counter to general thinking today, where we're taught to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Pain needs to be moved through, not avoided.'
Ursula was referring to her own pain, I thought. And Max's. And mine.
'Why is hurting part of growing up?' I demanded.
'It's part of being human. I've been watching you move through it with amazingly mature compassion.You've been the best medicine Max could have. Well, child, it's a good thing the play is a comedy. This is more than enough heaviness.'
We spent two hours in the theatre laughing our heads off. Then back to the guest cottage. Ursula went into the main house to have a drink with the Ormsbys, and I got ready for bed, and read until she came in. She took a quick shower, and then got into the other twin bed, blowing me a kiss. 'Sleep well, child. I've enjoyed our time together.'
'Me, too. It's been wonderful.'
'We'll have a bite of breakfast at seven, and then drive back to the Island before the heat of the day. Sleep well.'
'You, too. Thank you. Thanks, Urs.'
Urs wasn't Max. But she was still pretty special.
"Who?" Zachary asked as we drove toward Mount Parnassus.
"Who what?" I asked stupidly.
"Who's abused alcohol, to make you so uptight about it?"
"Zachary, I go to high school, okay? Occasionally I get invited to dances. Kids sneak in booze and drink themselves silly. You have no idea how much time I spend holding kids' heads while they whoops, or mopping them up afterwards if they don't make it to the john. It's enough to make me join the WCTU."
"What on earth is the WCTU?"
I giggled. "The Women's Christian Temperance Union."
He didn't think it was funny. "Your parents aren't teetotalers, are they?"
"No. But they're moderate."
"Anything good can be abused. I know that from very personal experience. But I've learned that I am capable of temperance, and temperance means moderation, not abstinence."
"Okay, okay, I'm not arguing with you. Moderation in all things, as the immoderate Greeks said."
It was from Max that I'd heard about the Greeks talking about being moderate. It was, she said, because temperamentally they were totally immoderate. Starting a war over Helen of Troy is hardly moderate. The vast quantity of gods and goddesses isn't very moderate, either.
We'd talked comfortably over a cup of tea, Ursula making cucumber sandwiches for us, and then I sat at the table on the verandah, and did my homework, while Ursula sat in the white wicker swing, reading a medical journal, and Max sketched. When I was throughit wasn't a heavy-homework nightI left my books and papers on the table and went to stand by Max, looking down at her sketchbook. A sketch of me. One of Ursula. Several sketches of hands.
Something in her tone of voice made me stop.
'Urs tells me that you know.'
Ursula let the magazine slip off her lap onto the floor, but did not bend down to pick it up. The swing creaked noisily from its hooks in the ceiling.
'Yes, Max, I know.'
'Because of Renny, I suppose'
'He never talked about you'
'No, he wouldn't. He just talks about tropical diseases ad infinitum. And you're no fool. Dear, square Renny. I'm glad he's assisting Cousin Bart. Glad you have him for a friend. I'd hoped to spare you, Polly, at least a little longer.'
'No, no, I'd rather' I started, and trailed off inadequately.
'Not many people have the privilege of being given time to prepare for death. I can't say that I'm ready to dieI'm still in media res and I have things I'd like to paint ... things I'd like to dobut I'm beyond the denial and the rage. I don't like the pain.'
'Oh, Max' I looked helplessly at Ursula.
Urs glanced at Max, rose, picked up the journal, and dropped it in the swing. 'I'm off to the kitchen. Come and join me in a few minutes, Polly.'
'Little one,' Max said. 'There are worse things than dying. Losing one's sense of compassion, for instance; being inured to suffering. Losing the wonder and the sadness of it all. That's a worse death than the death of the body.'
I was silent. Trying to push back the dark lump of tears rising in my throat.
'I don't know how long I have left,' Max said. 'Bart doesn't know. I'm strong as an ox. My heart is not going to stop beating easily. But it's been an immensely interesting journey, this life, and I've been given the child of my heart to rejoice me at the end.'
She stood, pushing up from her seat with her hands, and I was in her arms, tears streaming down my cheeks. She wiped them with her long fingers. 'Dear, loving little Pol. But it's better this way, isn't it? Out in the open?'
I nodded, pushing my fingers in my pocket to lookfor Kleenex. She put a handkerchief in my hand. 'Max, I don't want to go to Cyprus.'
'Nonsense.' Her voice was brusque. 'I am not going to allow my plans for the education of Polyhymnia O'Keefe to be disrupted.'
I wanted to ask, 'Will you be here when I come back?' I mumbled, 'I still don't want to go.'
She smiled at me. 'You'll go, Polly, if only for me. You won't disappoint me. Now. Go help Ursula. And let's have a merry meal. I've had a rich life, Polly, and I'm grateful indeed.' She gave me a gentle hug, then a small shove, and I went out to the kitchen.
I could ask Urs what I couldn't ask Max. 'Urs, if I go to Cyprus, will Max be ... will Max be alive when I get back?'
'I can't answer that, child. I don't know. There are no tidy answers to Netson's. But things aren't going to get better.'
'I don't want to go.'
'You must. You know that. Part of growing up is learning to do things you don't want to do.' She looked at me gravely. 'Child, I promised Norris Ormsby I'd go back to Charleston next week. Just this once more. I've made it clear that it's the last time. Max won't ask you to stay with her, now that she knows that you know. She won't want to burden you. But I'm going to ask you to come stay with her overnight. Are you up to it?'
'Yes,' I said.
'It's a lot to ask of you. I know that.'
'You don't need to ask. I want to be here.'
'You're a strong child, Polly.'
It's all a front, I wanted to say, but I didn't. And I didn't mind when Ursula called me child. I'd have hated it from anyone else.
She handed me a plate of cold chicken and ham. 'I hope you're not going to regret these months since Sandy brought you over to Beau Allaire as his Christmas present to Max and me.'
'Never!' I cried. 'I've learned more in these past months than I've ever learned in school. I could never regret them.'
'Never' is a long word.
"Am I never going to see you again, after I take you back to the hotel this afternoon?" Zachary asked.
"It's been wonderful being with you," I said. "I've had a marvelous time. I'll write you postcards from Cyprus."
"I want more than postcards. You really do something special for me, Polly, you really do. Do you honestly enjoy being with me?"
"I wouldn't be with you if I didn't." Zachary evidently didn't even suspect that I was anything but a social success in Cowpertown and that having a young man after me was a totally new experience.
"Mount Parnassus isn't that far beyond Delphi, O goddess mine," he said, "but I won't trace any of our route. Did you do your homework?"
"Sure." In my mind's eye I saw Max sitting with me on the verandah swing, showing me pictures and sketches, got a whiff of her perfume, of Beau Allaire's flowers in the spring. "Mount Parnassus is sacred to Dionysus, and the Thyiads held their Bacchic revels on one of the summits."
"I'd like to have a Bacchic revel with you." He tookone hand off the steering wheel and pulled me close to him. I must have stiffened. "Relax, pretty Pol. I'm not going to hurt you."
I did relax during the ferry ride. We stood on deck and the light of sun on water was so brilliant it was almost blinding. The sea was choppy, white-capped, with a high wind which dried the spray as fast as it blew up at us. To our right was a barren coast of stony mountains, with only a little scrubby-looking vegetation on the lower slopes. I wondered if it had been greener for the Dionysian revels; I could hardly imagine them on hard, bare stone.
The sea got choppier and choppier as we approached land, and the sky more lowering. "It rained last night," Zachary said. "I forbid it to rain today."
But as we got back in the Bug to drive off the ferry, big raindrops splattered against the windshield. Zachary swore. Then, "There's a place nearby where we can have a glass of tea and see what the weather's going to do."
The small restaurant he took me to was right on the shore, and we could watch the rain making pockmarks on the water. The waiter seemed sorrowful but not surprised when Zachary asked for tea and nothing else, and while we were drinking it the skies opened and dumped quantities of water, and then, abruptly, stopped.
"I have a rug for us to sit on," Zachary said. "I think we can drive on and have our picnic." The sun was out, and the wet flagstones outside the restaurant were steaming.
The wind was still strong, and it was a wild, warm, early afternoon of swiftly shifting clouds which went well with the grandeur of the scenery. Zachary drove to a grove of ancient pines, from which we had a view of acrumbling temple, the stone shining and golden in the post-storm sunshine.
Zachary spread a rug over the rusty needles, and we ate comfortably, protected by the trees, which swayed in the wind, sounding almost like surf. Zachary popped a wrinkled little olive into his mouth, and then lay down, looking up at the blue sky through the green needles of the pines, a high, burning blue with golden glints.
I looked at one of the crumbling columns. "It's so old"
"And gone," Zachary said, putting his dark head in my lap. "As our own civilization will soon be gone. It's a never-ending cycle of rise and fall, rise and fall. Except that there's a good possibility we'll end it." He spat out the olive seed. "With the new microtechnology, there'll be less than a fifteen-second lapse between the pressing of the button and the falling of the bombs. All those bomb shelters people have built, my pa among them, will be useless. There won't be time to get to them. When it happens, it'll happen without warning."
I pushed his head off my lap. "Shut up."
"Ow." He rubbed his head and put it back on my lap. "It might happen now, in the next few seconds. A light so bright we'd be blinded, and heat so intense we'd be incinerated before we realized what had happened. It wouldn't be a bad way to go, here, with you."
I pushed at his head again, but he didn't move. It's one thing to contemplate one's mortality realistically, another to wallow in melodrama. It was almost as though this strange young man was deliberately inviting disaster.
"Don't be an ostrich," he said, "hiding your head in the sand."
"I'm as realistic as you are, but it doesn't do anygood to dwell on the horror. Nobody wants it, and it doesn't have to happen."
"Give a child matches, and sooner or later he'll light one."
"We had an essay contest, not just our school, but the whole state, on how to prevent nuclear warfare, and I wish the President of the United States would listen to the kids."
"Did you win?" Zachary asked.
"I was a finalist. At least I was able to speak my piece. And we have to live as though there's going to be a world for us to live in."
"What's the point of making plans?"
I countered, "What's the point of not making plans?"
"We're at the end of our civilization, let's face it."
"Oh, Zach." Absently I began to run my fingers through his hair. "Think of all the groups who decided they knew exactly when the end of the world was coming, because of the lineup of planets, or some verse from Revelation, and dressed up in sheets to wait on some mountaintop for Judgment Day. Or had big Doomsday parties. And refusing to live, because it wasn't worth it when the end of the world was so close, and even selling their propertyand then, when the world didn't end at the predicted moment, there they were."
"I'm not selling my property," Zachary said. "You needn't worry about that. Just in case, I'll hang on to what I have."
"You can't take it with you."
"I'll keep it till the last second. I've got five thousand dollars in traveler's checks with me right now."
I did not like this aspect of Zachary. I'm realistic enough to know the possibilities for the future, but there are some positive ones, too, as I reminded Zachary.There are people like Sandy and Rhea whose work is about diametrically opposite to Zachary's father's, though I didn't mention that. A lot of doctors are refusing to take part in emergency medical-disaster planning, making it clear that it's unethical to delude people into false beliefs that there are any realistic mechanisms of survival after an atomic war. More and more people are rising up against nuclear stockpiling. At home. Abroad. We don't have to blow up the planet.
Max said once, 'We do make things happen by what we think, so think positively, Polly, not negatively. When you think you are beautiful, you are beautiful. If you believe in yourself, you will do well in your life's work, whether you choose acting or writing or science.'
It was a warm summer evening and we were out on the verandah upstairs, off Max's room, watching night fall. The sky over the ocean was rosy with afterglow, which Max said was more subtle than the sunset. The ceiling fan was whirring gently. In the purply sky above the soft rose at the horizon a star came out, pulsing softly so that it was more like the thought of a star than a star, and then there it was, followed by more and more stars.
Max pointed to the sky. 'The macrocosm. Stars beyond countless stars. Galaxies beyond galaxies. If our universe is finite, as many astrophysicists believe, there may be as many universes as there are galaxies, floating like tiny bubbles in the vastness of space.'
I was sitting on a low stool at Max's feet, and she reached out her fingers and massaged the back of my neck gently. That's where I get tired when I write a lot, and I'd just finished my last long paper of the year for Miss Zeloski.
'The last time Urs and I were at your house, Rosy and Johnny were blowing bubbles, lovely little iridescent orbs floating in the breeze. And when one thinks of the macrocosm, and then the microcosm, size makes no never-mind, as Nettie would say.' She laughed gently. 'Is a galaxy bigger than a quark? I lean more and more on the total interdependence of all creation. If we should be so foolish as to blow this planet to bits, it would have repercussions not only in our own solar system but in distant galaxies. Or even distant universes. And if anyone diesa tree, a planet, a human beingall of creation is shaken.'
How different that was from Zachary. Frightening, but in a completely different way, because it gave everything meaning.
'Never think what you do doesn't matter,' Max said. 'No one is too insignificant to make a difference. Whenever you get the chance, choose life. But I don't need to tell you that. You choose life with every gesture you make. That's the first thing in you that appealed to me. You are naked with life.'
And wasn't that what drew me to Max, that abundant sense of life?pointing out to me the fierce underside of a moth clinging to the screen; fireflies like a fallen galaxy on the dunes in front of our house; the incredible, pulsing life of the stars blooming in the night sky, seeming to cling to the Spanish moss on the old oaks.
I looked at the crumbling golden columns near Zachary's picnic spot, the chipped pediments, and thought that Max would see in them not the death of a civilization but the life. I got up and walked slowly toward the temple, and Zachary followed me.
He dropped his doom talk. "When am I going to see you again?"
"Uncle Sandy has plans to take me to various places for the rest of the week, and then I'm off to Cyprus."
"I like Cyprus. I'll come see you there."
"No, please, Zachary. I'm there to do a job, and I'm not going to have time for anything else."
"How long is this job?"
"Three weeks." We'd reached the temple, and I sat on the still-damp stone of a pediment with a lotus-leaf design. Did the Greeks think of the lotus as flowering into an entire universe?
Zachary counted off on his fingers. "Three weeks, okay, I may go to Turkey for a while, then. How're you getting home after the conference?"
"Cyprus Airlines to Athens, then on to JFK in New York, and then to Charleston."
"You change planes in Athens?"
"How long do you have between planes?"
"Nearly three hours."
"I'll meet you at the airport, then, and we can have a bite together and a chance to catch up. When we get back to the hotel, write me down your flight numbers."
"Okay, that would be fun." I tried not to let on just how thrilled I was that he didn't want to drop me when Sandy and Rhea arrived.
He touched my nose, then my lips with his finger. "I can't imagine anything nicer than fun with you, Polly. You're like a bottle of champagne just waiting to be uncorked. Or don't you like that analogy?" I had turned away, and he pulled me back. "I didn't mean to hurt you, sweet Pol. Since you haven't told me anything, I can't help blundering." He pressed my face against his shoulder, gently.
It was nearly seven when we got back to the hotel. Zachary insisted that I give him the Cyprus Airlines flight number, so I let him into my room just long enough to check my ticket and write down the information for him. He was looking around the room, and I'm sure it gave him the impression the O'Keefes are a lot richer than we are. But I didn't explain.
He kissed me goodbye, and electricity vibrated through me. But we don't have to act out everything we feel. I'd learned that much.
"I've got to call Uncle Sandy's room. Thanks, Zach. These have been good days for me. Really good. Thanks."
"Believe me, the pleasure was mine. And this is not goodbye, Pol, you're not going to be able to get rid of me this easily."
I hoped he would be at the airport to meet me at the end of my three weeks in Cyprus. But I thought I'd better not count on it.
I rang Sandy and Rhea's room, and he answered. "Polly! We arrived about an hour ago and got your message. Glad you were off doing something. Been having a good time?" There was both question and challenge in his voice.
"Yes. I have. I met a guy from Californiadid Uncle Dennys tell you?"
"He mentioned it."
"I've been off sightseeing and doing things with him."
"Not too much, I hope?"
I laughed. "No fault of his, but no, not too much."
"My, you sound grown up."
"It's about time," I said. "I hope it's all right that I went ahead and made a reservation for dinner on the roof at nine. I thought that might be easiest for you"
"It's just right," he said. "Rhea's napping, but I'll wake her up in time. See you at the restaurant."
I soaked in a warm bath. Zachary had been an escape route in many ways. I could forget that Sandy was likely to ask me questions. Some of the questions had no answers. But there were other ones which I was going to have to respond to, and I wasn't ready. I felt as though a splinter of ice had lodged deep in my heart. While I was with Zachary I was able to forget it, but now it was there, chilling me.
I stayed in the tub as long as possible, but it didn't thaw anything. Then I dressed in the one dressy thing I'd brought with me, a soft, floaty geometric print of mauves and blues and lavenders, which softened my angles and brought out the blue of my eyes and made my hair look less orange. Rhea had given it to me for Christmas, and I'd worn it for the New Year's Eve party at Beau Allaire, and for Zachary when we went to the Hilton for dinner. Rhea knew how to buy clothes which were just right for me.
At nine sharp, I was standing in front of the elevator, and when I got to the roof, Sandy and Rhea were waiting. I hugged them, rubbing my face against Sandy's soft golden beard, smelling Rhea's familiar, exotic scent, embraced by them both. For a fleeting moment Rhea reminded me of Max. They both had black hair. They were both tall. They both had fine bones. They knew how to dress. But that was it. Max's eyes were silver, and Rhea's like dark pansies. Max was thin, and Rhea wasslender. Max vibrated like a plucked harp, and Rhea was serenely quiet. Max, with her acute awareness of life, was dying, and Rhea still had her life ahead of her.
We were shown to a table with a good view, one of Aristeides' tables. He greeted me like an old friend, and I introduced him to Sandy and Rhea.
"You seem to have made yourself very much at home," Sandy said.
Rhea smiled at me approvingly. "We're proud of you for managing on your own so well. Of course we knew you would."
Sandy and Aristeides spent quite a while discussing the merits of various dishes, and when Rhea said something in Greek Aristeides was delighted, repeated everything in Greek, rattled off a list of wines, and approved of Rhea's choice. It was not retsina.
During dinner, Sandy and Rhea told me that after they had visited some of Rhea's relatives they'd been invited to tour the islands on a friend's yacht, and then they had a job to do. They didn't tell me what or where, but I was used to secrets. A lot of Daddy's research was secret, too.
Rhea and Sandy were even more cosmopolitan than Max, and I was only Polly, the island girl, but I was completely at ease with them.
Zachary came with the after-dinner coffee, appearing at Sandy's elbow and introducing himself.
"I thought you might like to see who it is who's been escorting Polly these past few days." He looked handsome in dark pants and blazer and a white shirt.
Rhea invited him to sit down, and I could see they thought I'd done pretty well, until Zachary mentioned his father's corporation, and something in Sandy's eyes clicked, like the shutter of a camera. Then he switched the conversation to my job in Osia Theola, and the tension evaporated, and we talked comfortably. Zachary flattered Rhea without being obvious, and was politely deferential to Sandy. He shook hands with them as we parted, kissed me on the cheek, and said, "Be seeing you, Pol," and left us.
Sandy laughed slightly. "Your young man doesn't suffer for lack of funds."
Rhea spoke gently. "You can't blame him for his father."
"True. I'm glad you had a good time with him, Polly."
Sandy had rented a car big enough for the three of us and our luggage. As I left my room and my balcony I felt a sudden pang of homesickness for this place where I had been for only a few days.
Sandy came to my room to see if I needed anything. "Set?"
"I think so. The flowers are pretty well wilted, but I've put the rest of the fruit in a plastic bagI thought we might want it while we're driving."
"Good thought." He sat down on the sofa. "I talked with your parents last night." Sandy and Dennys must have astronomical phone bills, but still I was surprised. "Everyone's fine, and I gave them a good report on you. They haven't heard from you yet, it's too soon."
"I've written every day, at least a postcard."
"They're aware that mail takes at least a week or ten days. Should I have phoned when you could talk with them?"
I shook my head, slowly.
"And I talked with Ursula and Max. We could call again, if you like, so you could talk."
I shook my head again, bent to pick up my shoulder bag.
"Max is weaker, Urs says, and in a good bit of pain." It was more a question than a statement.
I slung the bag over my shoulder. We'd had all the big conversations on Benne Seed. I had nothing to add.
Sandy went to the door. "Someone will be up for your bag in a moment. We'll meet you in the lobby." His voice was even, not condemning, not judging.
"Okay." I sat down to wait. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to be going somewhere with Zachary. I'd been devastated when Sandy and Rhea were not at the airport to meet me. Now I'd be delighted if they were delayed for another week.
A knock on my door. Time to go.
Rhea insisted that I sit in front with Sandy since she was so familiar with the countryside. I told them what Zachary and I had done, where we'd gone, and they approved.
"He wasn't very thorough. One hour in the museum. And I'll have to go back to Delphi, and Osias Lukas. It's all so overwhelmingthere's far more than I can manage to see in a week."
"And you don't want to get saturated," Sandy said. "Just a sip here, a taste there, and you'll know what you want to drink of more deeply the next time. And there'll be a next time, Polly, maybe not for the next few years,but you have travel in your blood, and Greece will draw you back. Now, my loves, my plan for today is this. We'll stop in Corinth for lunch and a little sightseeing, and go on to Nauplion for the night. Then tomorrow we'll push on to Epidaurus. We'll spend a good part of the day there, and then we'll have to head back to Athens to get you on your plane to Cyprus."
"We'll stick to a fairly easy pace," Rhea added. "Sandy and I are in the mood to putter along, enjoy things without pressure. All right?"
"Fine. Absolutely anything's fine. Charleston is the farthest I've been from Benne Seed in years, and I've missed Europe."
Rhea leaned over the seat. "Have you read Robinson Jeffers's play about Medea?"
"Max had me read it, along with a lot of Aeschylus and Sophocles."
"How did you get along with all that classicism?"
"With Max's help, pretty well." I didn't want to talk about Max, but with Rhea and Sandy it was impossible not to.
Sandy and Rhea were much more thorough sightseers than Zachary. "If we want to plummet Polly back thousands of years," Sandy said, "Mycenae's the place."
It was. As we drove steadily uphill, the sky clouded over, and as we approached Mycenae, the wild grey of the sky seemed to go with the stark and ancient magnificence. Max had shown me her sketchbooks of Greece, but they hadn't prepared me for the reality. She'd taken me through a good bit of Sophocles, some of which I thought was absolutely fantastic and some of which was boring, and I knew that the Acropolis of Mycenae was the setting for his plays.
We parked the car and walked through the stone gatesat the top of the mountain. Sandy grasped my arm. "Do you realize, Pol, that these are the gates through which Agamemnon and Orestes walked? Come on, I'll show you the place which is thought to be where Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in his bath. You'll read Sophocles differently after this."
I reached for his hand. "Why are human beings so violent?"
"We can be tender, too," he said, "and we can laugh at ourselves. Didn't Max give you any comedies to read?"
"I think we just didn't get to them."
"Perhaps she thought they were too bawdy?" Rhea suggested.
Sandy laughed. "I doubt that. Max is committed to opening Polly's eyes."
But Max's plans for the education of Polyhymnia O'Keefe had been interrupted before we got to the comedies.
In the xenia in Nauplion, Sandy and Rhea had a large corner room, facing the Bay of Argos. From their balcony we could see a Venetian fortress. My room, next to theirs, overlooked the water, and the sound of wind and waves was the sound of home, but wilder, because here the sea beat against rock, not sand. But it was still the familiar music of waves, and I slept.
I was in a small boat in the wide stretch of water between Cowpertown and Benne Seed Island. The waveswere high and the boat was rocking, but I wasn't afraid. I held a baby in my arms, a tiny little rosy thing, but it wasn't Rosy, or any of my younger siblings. It had no clothes on, and I held it close to keep it warm. Above us a seagull flew.
And then something seemed to be hitting at the wooden sides of the boat, and I looked over to see what it was
And Sandy was knocking on my door in the xenia in Nauplion and calling, "Wake up, sleepyhead. Come and have breakfast with Rhea and me on our balcony." "Be right there," I called.
But I dressed slowly, still partly in the dream, which had been strangely beautiful. Bending down to fasten my sandal strap, I remembered, with somewhat the same windswept clarity as in the dream, that last evening with Max, when we sat drinking lemonade before dinner and she had talked about her baby again. Her little girl had been born in the same month that I had, and just the day before, though a lot of years earlier. Max's voice as she said this was cool and calm, with the barest hint of sadness. Birds were chirping sleepily in the oaks, and the rolling of the breakers was hushed. The air was heavy with humidity, and heat lightning flickered around us. But Max seemed relaxed, and the pain lines which were permanently etched in her forehead seemed less deep than usual, and her grey eyes were not shadowed.
She put her hand gently over mine as she said that sometimes when one gives something up completely, as she'd given up the thought of ever having another child, then God gives one another chance, and God had done that for her, in me.
And she said that, said God.
So that was what the dream was about, I thought, and perhaps it had come to me because I went to sleep with the sound of the sea in my ears. But why was I holding the baby?
'Dreams are messages,' Max said. 'But don't get faddy about them. Take them seriously, but not earnestly. It can be a form of self-indulgence if you overdo it.' Nettie came and refilled our glasses. I think Nettie was always delighted when Ursula was away, but Nettie also loved Max, and knew that Max needed Ursula.
When Nettie had withdrawn to the kitchen quarters, Max said, 'Don't be sorry for me, Polly. I've had a good life. I'm not a great painter, but I'm a good one, and I've had more than my fair share of success. I have few regrets. Not many people can say that.' We were silent for a while, listening to the evening sounds around us. A tiny lizard skittered up the screen. Summer insects were making their double-bass rumblings. 'There isn't anything that happens that can't teach us something,' she said, 'that can't be turned into something positive. One can't undo what's been done, but one can use it creatively.' She looked at me and her eyes were sea-silver. 'I'm glad I had the experience of having a baby. I wouldn't undo it, have it not have happened. The only thing is to accept, and let the scar heal. Scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the body. Did you know that?'
'So I shouldn't be surprised if it's the strongest part of the soul.'
Perhaps, when the ice thawed, the scars on my soul would heal.
But had Max's? Once again I thought of the portraitof her father, of the smile on his face which gave me chills. Did healed scars ever break open again? Get adhesions? Could one get adhesions on the soul?
I fastened the second sandal strap and went to join Sandy and Rhea on their balcony, where wind from the sea blew the white tablecloth so that it flapped like a sail.
The theatre in Epidaurus was impressive all right, great stone seats built into the mountain. It must have seated tens of thousands. Rhea and I climbed to the top row to test the acoustics, and Sandy stood in the center of the stage and recited "The Walrus and the Carpenter." We'd thought we were the only people there, till a group of kids rose up from the seats and began applauding. They drifted off, and Rhea and I climbed down and took the stage. She recited a passage from Antigone, in Greek, which made me shiver. I didn't understand more than a few words, but the Greek rolled out in glorious syllables.
"Your turn, Polly," she said.
Uncle Sandy called down, "Do one of your speeches from As You Like It."
"Oh, do," Rhea urged. "We were so sorry we couldn't be there for the performance. Only one performance for all that work!"
"It was worth it," I said. "Okay, here goes." I stepped to the exact center of the stage, where the acoustics were supposed to be perfect. I chose a speech early in the play, where Rosalind is about to be banished by Celia's father, who was just about as nasty as Max's father. But Celia stands up to him, defending Rosalind. She remindshim that after he had taken the dukedom and banished Rosalind's father
I did not then entreat to have her stay; It was your pleasure and your own remorse. I was too young that time to value her; But now I know her: if she be a traitor, Why so am I; we still have slept together; And wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans, Still we went coupled and inseparable.
Sandy and Rhea applauded, and Rhea said, "That was superb, Polly. If I'm ever in need of a defender, I'll take you."
Sandy said, "The Elizabethans understood friendship. This pusillanimous age seems afraid of it. You can have sex with someone without commitment, but not friendship. You were excellent, Pol. Have you thought of acting as a career?"
"I've thought of it. Max says I read aloud well, but I doubt if I'd have a dream of making it on Broadway. Or even at the Dock Street."
"You made friendship real again. Did any of the kids misinterpret?"
"Of course. The Mulletville girls. Miss Zeloski talked about affluence going along with intellectual deprivation. I think she was pretty upset that it was the kids with affluent backgrounds who made the nastiest cracks." I did not add that the cracks were particularly nasty because of Max, though they never actually mentioned her name.
"In a world where pleasure rules, people tend to be underdeveloped in every other way. Your Miss Zeloski sounds like a good teacher."
"She is," I said, "though it took me a while to realize it."
"Let's go on to the sacred precincts," Sandy suggested. "There's a lesson in compassion."
"It's a sort of B.C. Lourdes," Rhea explained, "dedicated to the god Aesculapius."
"I gave Polly a book about it." Sandy galloped down the high marble stairs as agilely as Xan.
When we got to the sacred precincts, we stopped talking. We saw dormitories for sick people, saw the special baths in which they were given healing waters. In the museum we saw ancient surgical instruments, and Sandy remarked that some of them were like those in Dennys's office.
When we left the museum he said, "They knew a lot about psychology, those old Greeks. One of their medicines for healing was comedy. The patients sat just where we were, and on the stage the best actors of the day played comediesEuripides, and other less well known playwrights. They were exceedingly bawdyShakespeare would have been right at homeand exceedingly funny, and laughter does have healing qualities."
"Miss Zeloski said that Shakespeare was bawdy, but never dirty."
"True." Rhea nodded. "The Greeks were way ahead of the present world in many ways. I'm proud of my ancestry." I thought I saw Sandy give her a look, a signal. She went on, "I'm rather tired and I think I'll just sit and rest for half an hour. Then it'll be time for lunch. You two go on."
"You all right?" Sandy sounded concerned, so maybe it wasn't a signal after all.
"I take longer to get over jet lag than you do. I'm fine, and I'll be famished for lunch."
"Okay, Pol?" Sandy asked.
"Sure." We wandered along the path together. I was glad there weren't many other tourists that morning, because the ancient stones, even the air we breathed, filled me with awe.
We stood near the site of the snake pit. "You read the book on Epidaurus I gave you?" Sandy asked.
"I finished it last night."
"A patient couldn't get through the outer gates until all bitterness and self-pity and anger were gone. The belief was that healing wasn't possible until the spirit was cleansed. I think you're better, Polly, but not all the way. Am I right?"
"What are you holding on to? What can't you let go?"
I turned away from him.
He followed me.
"Zachary said I'd put a hard shell around myself."
"That's more perspicacious than I'd given him credit for. Hardness doesn't become you."
"I'm not asking you to forget, Polly, because you're never going to forget. What you have to do is remember, with compassion, and forgive."
My voice trembled. "Uncle Sandy, I don't like having a piece of ice stuck in my heart. It hurts!"
"Sit here in the sun," he said, "and let it thaw. I'll be back for you in a few minutes. I'm going to see how Rhea's doing."
He was leaving me for Rhea just as Ursula had left me
Stop it, Polyhymnia ''Keefe. That's plain self-pity, self-indulgent self-pity. None of that.
I sat where Sandy had left me, on an uncomfortablestone bench. I closed my eyes, and a vision of the dream from the night before came back to me, unbidden. I was in the boat, protecting the baby, and the seagull flew over us.
And the seagull was Max.
Ursula had called Daddy to tell him she was going to Charleston for one last consultation with Dr. Ormsby, and asked if I could go over to Beau Allaire to stay with Max. Nettie and Ovid roomed over the garage, and it was not a good idea for Max to be completely alone. Ursula would be back as early as possible on Saturday.
'Do you want to go?' Daddy asked me. We were in the lab, and it was September-hot; sometimes it seems September is the hottest month of all. Daddy wore shorts and a white T-shirt. I had on shorts, too, and a halter top, and I'd just scrubbed down the floor and cleaned my tanks.
'Max shouldn't be alone.' I looked at him. I'd talked with him about Max, and he'd treated me as an intelligent adult. I didn't want him to treat me as a child now.
He didn't. 'I've talked with Dr. Netson, and he doesn't expect any radical problem in the immediate future. But this disease is unpredictable, so if Max should show any kind of alarming symptoms, call him at once. Or call Renny. And of course, call me.'
'Okay, but you don't think there will'
'No, Pol, I don't think so. Your mother and I are very fond of Max and Ursula, and I'm glad we can help, even a little. Max has given you a lot, in self-confidence particularly.'
Daddy was sitting in an old leather chair that was too battered, even, for our house. I perched on the sagging arm. 'Daddy, people are so complicated!'
'That hasn't just occurred to you, has it, Pol?'
'No. But Max and Ursula seem particularly complicated.'
'In a way, they are. But, you know, I prefer their kind of complication to some of the cocktail-partying, wife-swapping, promiscuous lives of some of the people in Cowpertown.'
'Yes. Many of them are on third or fourth marriages. Love has to be worked at, and that's not popular nowadays.'
'I'm glad you and Mother don't worry about being popular.'
'We do work at our marriage. And it's worth it.'
'And I'm glad you trust me,' I said.
'Over the years, you've proven yourself to be trustworthy.'
'I hope I'll never let you down.'
He pulled me onto his knees. 'You will,' he said gently. 'It's human nature. We all let each other down. I may be putting too much responsibility on you, in allowing you to go over to Beau Allaire to stay with a very ill woman.'
'I want to go.'
'I know you do, and I'm glad you do. Your mother and I have always given you a great deal of responsibility, and you're a very capable young woman. Just remember, call me if there's even the slightest sense of emergency.'
But I didn't get a chance to call.
On Friday I piloted everybody home in the boat, thenpacked my overnight bag. Mother was going to drive me to Beau Allaire because Daddy had some kind of meeting to go to and would need the Land-Rover.
'Just call on Saturday morning when you're ready, and I'll be over.'
'Urs said she might be able to bring me home.'
'Whichever. Just remember, it's no trouble for me.'
She dropped me outside the house, waited till Ovid opened the door, waved, and drove off.
Ovid led me through the house and onto the back verandah. The ceiling fans were whirring, but the air was oppressive.
Max held out her hands in greeting. 'Heavy electrical storms forecast, with possible damaging winds. I lost a great oak in the last storm, and I don't want to lose any more. Nettie has fixed a cold meal for us and left it in the fridge. She and Ovid feel the heat, and I told them to take the evening off. We'll leave the dishes in the sink and they'll take care of them in the morning.'
We watched Ovid retreating toward the kitchen, a slight figure in his dark pants and white coat, and cottony hair. Then I regarded Max and was grateful that the pain lines were not deep.
Ovid came back in to refill the pitcher of lemonade, then said good night to us and left. I wondered if he and Nettie knew how ill Max really was.
She took a long drink and put her glass down. 'Do you believe in the soul, Polly?' Max never hesitated to ask cosmic questions out of the blue.
'Yes.' I thought maybe she'd turn her scorn on me, but she didn't.
'So, what is it, this thing called soul?'
This scarred thing, full of adhesions. 'It'sit's your you and my me.'
'What do you mean by that?'
'It's what makes us us, different from anybody else in the world.'
'Like snowflakes? You have seen snow, haven't youyes, of course you have. All those trillions of snowflakes, each one different from the other?'
'More than snowflakes. The soul isn'tephemeral.'
'A separate entity from the body?'
I shook my head. 'I think it's part. It's the part thatwell, in your painting of the harbor at Rio, it's the part which made you know what paint to use, which brush, how to make it alive.'
Max looked at the silver pitcher, sparkling with drops, as though it were a crystal ball. 'So it's us, at our highest and least self-conscious.'
'That's sort of what I mean.'
'The amazing thing is that one's soul, or whatever one calls it, is strongest when one is least aware. That's when the soul is most aware. We get in our own way, and that diminishes our souls.' She pushed up from her chair and headed toward the table, which was already set with silver and china. 'Be an angel and bring the food out to the verandah.'
We ate comfortably together. Max had a book with her and began leafing through it, looking for something. 'There's a passage our conversation reminds me of ...'
'In the Upanishadsa series of Sanskrit works which are part of the Veda. Here it is, Pol, listen: In this body, in this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus, and in that house there is a little space. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole world outside. Maybe that little space is the reality of your you and my me?'
'Could I copy that?' I asked.
'Of course. I've been watching that little space within your heart enlarging all year as more and more ideas are absorbed into it. Some people close their doors and lock them so that nothing can come in, and the space cannot hold anything as long as the heart clutches in self-protection or lust or greed. But if we're not afraid, that little space can be so large that one could put a whole universe in it and still have room for more.' She stopped and her hand went up and pressed against her chest, and I could see pain dimming the silver in her eyes.
'Get me some whiskey. Quickly.'
I ran into the house and into the dining room, turning on the lights. The Waterford chandelier sparkled into bloom. I hurried to the sideboard and got the decanter of bourbon, with its silver label, turned out the light, ran back to the verandah, and poured Max a good tot.
She drank it in a gulp, so quickly that she almost choked, then sighed and put the glass down. 'It works, and quickly. I'm sorry, Pol, I don't like you to see me in pain.'
I reached across the glass top of the table and put my hand on hers. It was hot and dry. Mine was cold.
'Don't be afraid, little one. I'm all right. These episodes are bad, but they don't last.' She reached for the decanter and poured herself some more.
'You're sure I shouldn't call'
'Polly. I'm all right. There's nothing anyone can do. Don't fret. The pain's much better.'
I took our plates out to the kitchen, rinsed them, and left them in the sink for Nettie and Ovid. I thought that maybe I should try to call Daddy, and then decided that it would make her angry. When I got back to the verandah, dark was falling. The long evenings of summerwere behind us. Night was closing in early, though the shadows of evening still held the humid heat of the day.
Max was leaning back in her chair, and there was just enough light for me to see that the look of pain had eased. She took a sip of bourbon and put her glass down. 'It leaves me tired,' she said. 'Let's sit here for a while and watch the stars.'
I sat across from her, glancing at the unlit candles in their hurricane globes. 'Do you want any light?'
'No. Even candle flame adds to the heat. Look, there's a star.'
The wind was rising, but it was not a cooling wind. The gentle whirring of the paddle fan, the slow rolling of the waves across the sand, the chirring of locusts, were hot, summer sounds. A seagull screamed.
'Another star,' Max said. 'All the galaxies, the billions of galaxiesthe possibility of billions of island universes floating like bubbles in a great spacious sea'
'There's the Big Dipper,' I said, relaxing a little.
'The Great Bear,' Max said. 'I talk about the unimportance of size, the microcosm as immense as the macrocosmbut then I think of Beau Allaire sitting on a small island on an insignificant planethow can God keep track of it all? Do you think God really does count the hairs of our heads?'
'I don't know why. It's just what I think.'
'At least you don't give me glib answers. If human beings can program computers to count astronomical figures, why should God do less? If there isn't a God who cares about our living and dying, then it's all an echoing joke. I don't want my life to be a bad joke, so I have to believe that God does care. That there is a someone whobegan everything, and who loves and cares.' She shivered. 'Funny, how intense heat can make one break out in gooseflesh, just like cold. Let's go up to my room. It's cooler there. Why don't you get ready for bed, and I will, too.'
We paused on the landing, as always, to look at the statue of the Laughing Christ. The light touched the joyous face, and there was compassion in the eyes.
While I was changing in the green guest room, thunder began to rumble in the distance. The air was so thick with humidity you could squeeze it. The sky flickered faintly with electricity.
Max's nightgown was ivory satin, so lovely it could have been worn as an evening dress. She sat on the white rug, her hands about her knees. A Chinese screen was in front of the fireplace, gold background with flowers and herons painted on it.
'You've grown over the summer,' Max said. 'You're going to be tall.'
My old seersucker nightgown was too short. 'Not too tall, I hope.'
'You come from a tall family, and you carry it well. Don't ever slump. That just makes one look taller. Hold your head high, like royalty.'
The light from one of the lamps glinted off the decanter of bourbon and onto Max's glass, half full of amber liquid. I hoped that she knew how much she should drink. Then I noticed a bottle of champagne. 'I really don't need anything,' I said awkwardly. 'There's more lemonade if I get thirsty.'
'I've already uncorked the champagne,' Max said. 'Hold out your glass.'
I picked up the tall fluted glass which was on the hearth in front of the Chinese screen, held it out, andshe poured. I thought her hand was a little unsteady, and I was concerned.
Why should I worry about that decanter of bourbon, or that maybe Max was drinking too much? If she was dying and it eased the pain, what difference did it make?
But it did. It did make a difference. This was not the Max I knew, the Max who made me believe there were wide worlds open for Polyhymnia O'Keefe.
Thunder again. Low. Menacing.
'To you,' Max said, her voice slurring. 'To all that you can be.' Some of her whiskey spilled on the rug.
I wanted to throw it at the Chinese screen. This could not be Max, this woman with her hand clutching the decanter of bourbon.
She poured herself more. Her eyes were too bright, her cheeks too flushed.
Lightning flashed again, brightening the flowers on the screen. 'That's too close,' Max said as the thunder rose. We could hear the wind whipping the trees. 'I'm afraid, oh, little one, I'm so afraid ...'
Not of the thunderstorm.
'Afraid of the dark. Afraid of nothingness. Of being alone. Of not being.'
This was naked, primordial fear. I wanted to call Daddy, but what would I say? Max is drinking too much and she's afraid of dying?
Lightning again, but this time there were several seconds before the thunder. 'Are you afraid?' Max whispered.
'No. I don't mind thunderstorms as long as I'm not alone.'
A slow wave of thunder rolled over her response. 'I need an affir'her words slurred'an affirmation. Anaffirmation of being.' She picked up her glass. I glanced at the decanter and saw that it was half empty.
Oh, Max, I wailed silently, I wish you wouldn't.
She bent toward me, whispering, 'Oh, my little Polly, it's all so shortno more than the blink of an eye. Why are you afraid of Max? Why?'
Her breath was heavy with whiskey. Her words were thick. I was afraid. I didn't know what to do, how to stop her. How to make her be Max again.
In the next flash of lightning she stood up, and in the long satin gown she seemed seven feet tall, and she was swaying, so drunk she couldn't walk. And then she fell ...
I rolled out of the way. She reached for me, and she was sobbing.
I scrambled to my feet. Ran. I heard her coming after me. I turned at the landing, rushed down the stairs, heard her unsteady feet, then a crash, and turned to see that she had knocked over the statue.
I ran on, panting, past the dining room, slipped in my bare feet on the polished floor, and almost fell. I reached out to steady myself, and my hand hit the light switch, and the crystal chandelier bloomed with light, and the light touched the smile on the face of the portrait of Max's father.
'Pa!' she screamed out, staggering toward me, carrying the statue. 'Damn you! Damn you! I'm just like you, damn you!'
I pushed open the heavy front door and burst out into the pelting rain.
I ran up the long drive, hardly realizing I had on only my nightgown. The crushed shells hurt my feet but did not slow me down. My nightgown was drenched andclung to my body. I felt a sharp pain in my foot. Rain streamed from my hair and into my eyes, so that the headlights of an approaching car were nearly on me before I saw them, and heard the shells crunching under the tires, and veered to the side of the road.
Brakes were slammed on. The car stopped. A window was opened and someone looked out. 'Polly!'
It was Ursula.
'Something told me' She flung open the door. 'Get in, child.'
Ursula would take care of everything.
I stumbled into the car.
'Child, what happened?'
'Max is drunkoh, Urs, she'sdrunkand I got away from her and ran. She ... she ran after me, she knocked over the statue of the Laughing ... and the light came on and hit the portrait of her father, and ...' I babbled on, hardly knowing what I was saying.
'Oh, Max,' Ursula said. 'Oh, Max.' She started the car again and drove up to the house. 'Wait here, child.' She ran indoors. I heard her calling, 'Max! Max, dear, it's Urs. Where are you?' And the door slammed on her words.
A HOUSE LIKE A LOTUS. Copyright © 1984 by Crosswicks Ltd.