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Actually, it wasn't that hard. When they see it people say, Gosh, that must have taken her forever. I want to tell them—Really, it was easier than it looks. Especially with my assistant helping. She's invaluable. I couldn't have done it without her.
The pyramids themselves went up in about three days. And that was with coffee breaks, siestas, time to talk on the phone—everything. I just don't believe in this workaholic business, you know, twenty-hour workdays and all that. It's inhuman. And it's not as though it's necessary to get things done. I told my assistant—Martha—I told Martha, "When you get tired, now, you just take a little break. There's no point in driving yourself to exhaustion. You'll get more done if you're well rested, fresh each day." And you see? I was right.
Took three days. We even finished before sundown on the third day, so we could enjoy the vantage point of our new creation while there was still light. I brought up a bottle of champagne to surprise Martha, and she was good enough to pull together some tasty snacks—cocktail olives, goat cheese, a baguette. Sitting together on that uncomfortable little point at the top, clinking champagne glasses, we surveyed our work and the hot surrounding calm of the desert. We admired the smooth edges of the great cubed triangle we were sitting on; we joked about how, even after all that workout we'd just had building them, we both got out ofbreath climbing up to the top. We chatted a little about what they'd be used for—Martha thought they'd be good to stage plays in, what with how dramatic and dark and, of course, voluminous they were inside. I told her it was my understanding that people were to be buried in them. This disappointed her. "What, all this work for dead people?" she asked me, with some indignation. I tried to explain to her that it was out of our hands at this point, that our clients had the right to do whatever they wanted with them. I could see this didn't sit well with her. I understood. She's young still, doesn't fully appreciate the nature of the job, wants to be able to keep control over everything rather than realizing that at a certain point you have to let go. I remarked that probably one day they'd degenerate into mere tourist traps anyway, and this perversely seemed to cheer her up.
After that we just sat there, watching the sun sink slowly to bloody the desert, each thinking our own quiet thoughts about the world. My back ached, my brain was tired. I'm not about to deny we'd been working hard. It occurred to me that there is always a melancholy dimension to creating anything: the moment when you shrug your shoulders, declare it done, and turn your eyes from it to face the next thing. I tried to communicate this to Martha with the look I gave her and a sympathetic patting of her shoulder. I don't know if she got it or not. She drained her glass, took mine from me, cleared up our things, and then we went back down.
Initially it was altogether jollier working on the Great Wall. You can imagine it would be. Not quite such a morbid project, first of all, and logistically just so much easier. Also there's something intrinsically comical about building a structure for defense, and I tried to help Martha see that. (We kept our voices low, of course. I'm a professional—I'd never dream of making fun of a client to his or her face.) The thing is, I said to her as we were slapping the bricks down, working pretty fast and loose with the mortar—both wearing overalls, so we didn't mind the mud flying—who is this really going to keep out, in the end? Don't you have to expect that at some point some clever guy or gal will come along and find a way over? Defense structures date fast, I told Martha a little dogmatically, because there's always some new offensive something or other just around the corner, waiting to lay waste your precious plans. Martha told me to lighten up. It was just a wall, she said. Why not build a wall? They're cute, she said. They're very impressive from the bird's-eye view. They create a nice line in the landscape.
"Line in the landscape," I repeated. "My, aren't we getting sophisticated." She threw a little mud at me then, so I threw some back. We got into a mudfight. It was undignified, but fun. (The texture of the wet earth clean on your cheeks is refreshing.) As I said before, I am not a big believer in keeping people nailed to the grindstone. One good, raucous mudfight, and three extra watchtowers got built later in the day—more than I was expecting us to get through.
Of course that meant that the mood was all wrong later when I tried again to broach the serious subject of walls: what they connote, how people speak of them. "Inside walls are a much better protection than outside walls," I suggested with caution, but Martha merely rolled her eyes. "That's deep," she told me with a straight face. "I'll think about it."
"I'm just speaking about defense—" I said to her. "The metaphysics of defense, you could say, or the zen of defense." I thought I might catch her interest with the word "zen." People seem to find it an appealing word.
"Am I getting double time for this?" was her answer to my philosophizing. I let it go. Later on, after the project was over, I decided to take her to task about her attitude. I don't mind irreverence, I told her, and I don't mind some kidding around, but there are times when I have something to teach her and then it would be just as well if she paid attention. She'd get double time when she was supposed to get double time, but she'd only get nuggets of thought from me when I was in the mood to dispense them. It was worth paying attention. I probably came down a little harshly, but I think you have to be firm with people and not lose your authority. There was a small coolness between us for a while after that, but I would never have dreamed of letting Martha go, so I just rode it out till relations got back to normal.
The thing was, it was a slow period after that, busywork mostly. We were twiddling our thumbs waiting for something really big to sink our teeth into. Boredom doesn't do anything very positive for a working relationship—though I suppose it gave us time to share a few discreet stories about our families and childhoods—so I was relieved when the next big project came around.
It was a cathedral. House of God, you know. It made a change. Knowing what I knew about Martha—she's not exactly an atheist, but she certainly doesn't have much tolerance for the spiritual approach—I was worried she might be sullen or even go so far as to protest or refuse. How wrong I was. She chose to skim over all the iconography there and instead took pleasure in the sheer aesthetics of the piece. As she kept pointing out, it was a remarkably beautiful work we were building (I blushed modestly when she described it that way but it was true, all true) and that, she said, was compensation for everything else. She got a crick in her neck tilting her head back to construct the complicated pattern on the ceiling; she burned her hands once or twice melting lead for the windows. But she never complained—she's a tough cookie is Martha—she just sighed in awe at the jewel we were creating.
Chart, she persisted in calling it. I told her it was Chartres, but she never got the hang of that last little growl in the throat. I tried teaching her French so she'd feel more at home, and she did figure out how to ask for building supplies and foodstuffs. I'll give Martha credit, she's good with people. Throw her in a new environment and she learns to adapt. So she didn't have any trouble getting around the little town there, buying her apples and potatoes and gazing awestruck at the tall towers. I'd never known Martha to be so sensitive to glory before then, to be frank with you. I could see I'd misjudged her. The passion in her eyes when she stood still in that great, hollow, holy space, the scattered light of the gem-bright stained glass falling all over her—this was a passion I hadn't known my assistant to own. At that minute her smooth face took on the golden sweetness of honey; her still, full lips the pale red of persimmon. People keep themselves private when they work with you, and there were plenty of things, too, that Martha didn't know about me. Still, I filed that away, that impression of her nobility. If there came a time later when I was hoping to chat with Martha about something deeper than blueprints, I'd have a chance to remind her that she had the capacity for it. I've seen your face in a rapture, I'd tell her, probably smugly. Your eyes in a blessing. We'd see what smart answer she could come up with for that.
It was not a surprise that she was all go on the next one. I predicted that the moment I heard of it. Pretty pretty mausoleum for a sadly dead wife. White pure marble the color of ice floats. Who could resist such a spectacle? Who could wait to dig in? (If death had bothered her on the pyramids, it was no longer a problem. She was a little older now, a tad more contemplative. Besides, this one was personal.) We set up shop there on the riverbank and proceeded to give shape to the Mumtaz Mahal. Later to be known, through the flawed human ear, by a name that was picked up by casinos and blues singers—the Taj Mahal.
He was a sad fellow, our client. He really did miss his wife. Martha found it all very moving, and I have to admit that even I—and I'm not usually so moved by your basic human drama, being fonder of concepts and shapes, and directional pulls—found myself choking up on occasion. He'd sweep past us in his bright grief-stricken clothes, the tears running silently and constantly down his clove-brown face. "Make the minaret poetry," he'd insist when he could remember how to speak. His orders carried the weight of a man sunk in mourning. "Let the pinnacles be perfect, the parapets sheer grace." These, we were given to understand, were of course the qualities of his wife. She was the most beautiful of the earth's creations: this description was passed along, too, and it made me anxious. After all, at least God is not a figure anyone recently can have claimed to see—not in the sense of knowing God's hair color or the width of His nose—so building His house gives you that much more leeway. The wife, however, was someone whose beauty was known. They wouldn't let us forget about it, and it was a lot to live up to.
Martha helped me in this case, though. She outdid her duties as my assistant. Grasping in an instinctive way the bereft peace this man lived in, she was inspired to build something that gave shape to his heart. It was teamwork on the Tai Mahal, in other words—the final project had both of our marks on it. (I once looked at her as she was working, whistling away cheerfully. I don't think she noticed me, thank goodness—it would have been embarrassing if she'd seen the admiration on my face. Would have damaged that professional rapport we had built up.) We were both extremely proud in the end, if frustrated: the thanks of the emperor were muted at best. He was moved by the white palace, and he repaid us handsomely. But we left him with shoulders sagging as sad as the first day. It would have been nice if he could have forced out just one little smile as we parted.
You get used to these slights, though. They toughen you. You knock yourself out on behalf of another person; they thank you, pay you, and send you on your way. You have to take pride in your own accomplishment and not expect profound gratitude from them, because you probably won't get it. It's why you and your co-worker are there to provide each other with encouragement and praise. I mentioned this to Martha, that this was why I was a little more cynical than she was, why I didn't get so involved in clients' lives. I warned her not to get so caught up that she'd leave disappointed. There was no eye-rolling this time. She nodded, said she could see what I meant. Her sea-colored eyes frothed comprehension. Still, she said she liked to have that emotional connection with her work.
After all that drama it was good to come back to earth. As I said before, I'm fond of projects that pose questions or problems. How do you join up the eastmost of Europe with the eastmost of Asia? What does it really mean to connect? I got very excited by the Trans-Siberian Railway. I thought it a terrific idea and was so glad to be of help. I could tell Martha was bored, and beginning to want to strike out on her own. She wasn't getting the bigger picture. I tried to draw it for her—in the air, I mean, in her mind—I tried to tell her about opportunity and export, new settlements, migration. It wasn't as if she was a stranger to travel and couldn't identify with movement. But all Martha saw when I tried to get her excited was the track after track that we were going to have to lay: the monotony of that task, the sheer repetitiveness of it. There was a terrifying moment when she said maybe I should go out there alone, that I clearly had the project in hand and might not need her assistance. My heart chilled then. I thought Martha might leave me. (It's so hard to find someone both smart and reliable.) But I stayed firm and, trying to keep the catch from my voice, told her I certainly did need her, that I couldn't do it without her. I think that flattered her into agreeing to come along. Once we got there and started, she got into the spirit of the thing. Martha's good that way—not stubborn about holding on to her once-firm beliefs. She could see its value, its lyricism even. She came to appreciate the geometry of it. This time when we finished, I thought some sort of vacation was called for—this time we really had been working hard—so I asked my client for an inaugural train ride all the way across. No skimping this time: we'd really deserved it. Caviar and blinis, cool pepper vodka. Speeding by tundra and small outposts of wedge-faced humanity. Talking and singing together late into the night. It was the perfect conclusion to our perfect labors. It's tricky, building the off-work relationship, but by now Martha and I knew each other well enough that I figured such intimacies were warranted.
Besides, by now, you see, I was thinking about retirement. I'd been at my job for so long, with such magnificent projects. I had a great deal to be proud of. And I could see that Martha wanted to strike out on her own. That work at the white palace. Her attention to detail. She had different interests from me, I knew, and I could tell she would make it big in her own way. She had that quality in her. Martha, I wanted to tell her, you've grown a lot since I first met you. You've got a wise streak now where you used to just have a keen organizational ability. That deep sympathy I saw in your eyes for the emperor in mourning—I see it in you all the time now, even when you're just on the phone placating some crabby client. Martha, you half-built the great Taj Mahal. Martha, I watched you while you slept on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Your dreams animated your face and your face then was beautiful.
I didn't tell her any of that, of course. It wouldn't exactly have been professional! Instead I let her know, quite formally, that my last project would be this upcoming bridge we were working on. She was surprised. Not so much about the retirement, but that the last one should be such a low-key, comparatively straightforward affair—building a bridge between two low hills, over a none-too-wide strip of bay. "No, this isn't a tough one, Martha," I confirmed to her questioning glance. "Nonetheless, it's the one for which they'll remember me." She shrugged, mostly to humor me, and sat back to let me give my imagination free rein.
If I'd had my way, it really would have been gold. I pictured a great, golden gateway into that spectacular mountain-hugged bay. Maybe I was getting old, a little whimsical, a little crazy. In the old days of course I was very simple with materials—brick, mortar, and mud were all that I needed. Maybe it was the railroad ties that gave me this urge toward metal. Maybe the time had finally come when I wanted to show off. Needless to say, the gold plan was shot down—I guess I didn't have the influence I'd have had some years earlier. My genius was questionable these days. What could I do? We painted it orange instead. Martha consoled me about this last lost battle. She said the color would look lovely. She also pointed out, under her breath—Martha had gained tact, over the years—that they were just going to have to go on painting that bridge, year after year, to keep it the characteristic orange. It would become a tourist landmark, she predicted, just like the pyramids. There would come a day, forty years into repainting, when they'd regret not having just built the whole darn thing out of gold like I'd wanted to.
Golden Gate Bridge. Don't know whether you've seen it. If I were to pick a swan song—I mean, thousands of years ago, when I was there in the desert with Martha in the early days, if you'd asked me to pick a swan song then—I wonder if I could have closed my eyes and imagined it. Something gloriously transitional, perhaps I'd have said—some great landmark of hope, something forward-looking, something New Worldish. A piece that speaks to freedom and travel—to movement and balance and grace over water.
I have time to get philosophical about these things now I've retired. I bore Martha with my speculations, my memories. She lets me. She's indulgent. Half the time she probably isn't even listening. That's all right. She's busy, I know. Deadlines of her own to meet.
It's pleasant here in the jungle—certainly different from the kinds of communities folks normally retire to. Very green and steamy, lots of animals and birds. I've never been that compelled by wildlife, but Martha's helped me to hear the joy in a parrot cry, to admire the flicker of snakes in the grass. We're here because of her. This is her project. You can't say the girl's not ambitious. Landscape gardening, I call it, when I want to bug her. It's not true—it's just my joke. She's actually redesigning and fixing up the rain forest, that's what she's doing. It's been so wrecked by everybody. They needed someone with a lot of energy—and that's my Martha, all right—to come along and try to pull it back together. So she's in there day after day, replanting and reseeding, drawing up new plans; stripping out the man-made garbage and trying to restore the place to some of its former magnificence.
I admire her. It's nothing I would have done. This is a new generation, right? You've got to expect their priorities to be different. It doesn't bother me one bit. I know Martha admires me and the work I've done. She's old enough now to admit that she learned a lot from me, all through those years when she was my assistant. Graciousness is something that's come to her as she's matured.
Besides, how can I begrudge her this? You remember that rapturous look I mentioned way back in Chartres? (Or Chart—I still tease her sometimes about that.) That expression is on her face nearly every evening now, when she returns from a full day's work in the forest. She comes back to me, her eyes bright and holy, and she lets me chatter on for a while with my reminiscences, my small revelations. I lie back with my head on the moist alive ground, staring right up at her pretty face, and she's kind enough to draw her hands through my hair, soothing me as I reconstruct my past. Later, after we've dined, we switch roles. I'll sit up with Martha's delicate strong frame in front of me and I'll rub some relaxation into her warm neck and shoulders. So tight, after all her work for the day. Out of her mouth will spill stories of the river life and the forest, the trees she's nursing back into existence, the hope she has for the tigers and tapirs, the monkeys and mongooses, the many small toads. She speaks of the rubber plants that will no longer be bled to make superballs, she chats about the wood that will never again become A-frames. She talks of tearing down factories. She revels in getting rid of the office sprawl.
Martha tells me of her day's work unbuilding. Graceful, calm, sure of herself now. While she tells me about her hopes for the future the sun abandons our forest to its jungly darkness. I hold her shoulders in my fading fingers, touching her carefully, knowing with pride that she will realize them all.
These are some of the urgent questions raised by Sylvia Brownrigg's starkly original Ten Women Who Shook the World, which was a Los Angeles Times best fiction selection in 2000. Across a series of vivid, untamed landscapes her characters wander in search of the obvious-love, fame, a good recipe for canapés-as well as the less obvious. In "Hussy from the West" the narrator undertakes a long erotic quest for satisfaction; in "The Bird Chick" a visionary organizes some unusual park inhabitants for a bold experiment in theater. Wherever these maverick women travel, their bold, comical voices urge us to follow.
DISCUSSIONQUES: Q: Does the author seem to be celebrating heroic women, as the title implies? What kinds of heroism do you see in different characters?
Q: What are some of the different attitudes towards creativity suggested in the stories? [Amazon, Gal of Ambition, Bird Chick, Girl in the Red Chair] How do these artists interact with their audiences?
Q: How does the theme of loss emerge in several of the stories-what do different characters lose, and how do they cope?
Q: Discuss the titles of the book and the individual stories. How does the Julia Roberts quote in the epigraph come in?
Q: If some of these stories were fables or parables, what would their 'morals' be?
Q: Where do you imagine the different stories to be set?
Q: What role does humor play in the stories? Which elements did you find comical?
Q: Why do you think the author chose to create such surreal scenarios for many of these stories?