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Martha Macnamara stood at the Pacific, her toes digging into the froth. She had come the length of the country in one day's flight, and she had trouble believing that this was a different ocean.
"Oh go on, admit it," she grumbled, kicking the ivory scum from a pile of kelp. "You're all the same water."
Perhaps not. She peered at the line where the iron blue of the sky hit the soft-colored water. So bare a sky did not shine over Coney Island.
A gull plunged, kissed the water and veered right and away, all ten yards from Mrs. Macnamara. Her head rose to follow its flight and her hands lifted, echoing the bird's gesture. For a moment it seemed her prim figure, gray suited and graying, would fly away into the west-- or north along the dirty beach toward the Bridge.
But that was just for a moment, and then the hands touched at the braids that coiled around her head, braids that threatened to slip over her ears.
"If you would know the Way," she recited to herself, "observe the subtlety of water." Martha considered these words as she watched the waves fling themselves roaring onto the sand. What was subtle in such a display of power?
With her round blue eyes very calm in her small round face Mrs. Macnamara watched the ocean. Slowly she smiled.
Where was Liz now-- at work? Should Martha try to call again, or wait for her daughter to make the move? After all, Elizabeth had set up the reservation. Martha Macnamara would never have chosen to stay in a place like the James Herald Hotel. Oh, it was comfortable, doubtless, and the only person she had spoken to in the hotel-- a bartender-- had proven friendly; she had bent his ear for fortyminutes at lunch-- her dinner, what with the time change-- perched on a red leather stool amid black oak and brass, rattling on about airplanes racing the sun, and how the violin had evolved from the viola when Europeans were able to afford carpets and drapes ... But with the price of a night's lodging at the James Herald she could have bought that bass bow she'd wanted since June.
Martha could just as well have slept on Liz's couch as spent so much of her daughter's money. It was all very strange. The smile disappeared from her lips as she considered how strange. She turned from the water and ascended the sandy slope.
"Mysterious meetings in expensive places," she mumbled as she climbed. A wealth of sand was trapped in her open-toed shoes. "Intrigue. Suspense ...
"Tune in tonight for shocking revelations!" The sole of her foot gritted against concrete; she stood on the pavement above the beach, emptying her shoes. Except for her gray form, unobtrusive as a rock, the beach was empty on this workday afternoon. Empty and cool. Martha shivered deliciously in the good wool suit she hadn't been able to wear since May.
The Great Highway cut between the City and the Ocean, sharp as the mark of a razor. A young boy ran along the curb, all dressed in white, his feet making a noise like pigeon wings.
Thinking of pigeon wings, Martha's spirits lifted once again. It was her spirits' natural condition, to be lifted. She sprinted across the street in her cordovan brogues, her pleated skirt flapping, receiving the honks of motorists with quiet grace. On the far side-- the City side-- stood the stand of a pretzel vendor. His teeth flashed at her from a strong, Latin face. She bought a soft pretzel, decorated it with mustard, and ate it where she stood.
Three men walked by together, arm in arm in arm, and then a young woman with bushy hair red as a radish. A bare-chested boy on a spyder bike did wheelies in the street. Honks again. Martha's approval was limitless; San Francisco bid fair to being as zany as New York.
And this was a good corner, probably packed on weekends. Close to downtown yet in sight of the water. She wished she had brought her fiddle. How invigorating to sit down next to the pretzel vendor and play a Bach passacaglia, or maybe a slip jig. Put out the hat. Liz would hate that! Liz behaved with propriety.
Martha Macnamara was smiling again. She licked mustard from her fingers and turned toward the hotel.
She took the stranger's long hand in her own and shook it. "How wonderful! You could span way over two octaves!"
The hand retreated as soon as custom permitted. The owner of it remained standing, a dark figure in the shadow of a paneled wall. He bowed slightly to Mrs. Macnamara.
"Mayland Long ... Martha Macnamara ..." The young bartender continued his introduction. "I thought you two should meet."
Both parties stared at him. "Because of the violin," he explained.
"But surely you play keyboards," Martha insisted. "With such a reach ..."
Mr. Long motioned across the white expanse of table, and did not sit again til Martha had lowered herself into the chair opposite. "Forgive the clutter. I have had a late dinner." He spoke quietly, as empty plates and silver were cleared away before him. "Please have tea with me."
O my, thought the woman to herself. His voice. Lovely English. How wonderful.
"I don't make music," Mr. Long stated. "I merely appreciate it." He sat in the shadow of his corner table, gazing across to where she sat touched by a beam of light. He saw a slim woman of some fifty years. Her features were small and regular, and her head set well on a slender neck. Her grizzled hair was braided around her head. The hair and her gray wool suit were back lit, causing Martha Macnamara to shine about the edges.
She saw a thin man, dressed darkly, hidden in the dark. The hands stood out against the white linen. They were very dark also, unusually dark, if this man were indeed English. She thought of the beautiful voices of the West Indies. Beautiful, yes, but not correct. Mr. Long's pronunciation was faultless.
"But you, madam," he was saying, "are a creator. I remember you."
"I doubt that!"
"I have a record upstairs in my rooms. A 78. I believe the label is Seraphim. You play, among other things, the Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied violin in D minor, by J. S. Bach. I have never heard that piece played better."
He leaned forward as he spoke. Martha Macnamara saw his face.
Her new-built conceptions fell apart as she looked at Mayland Long. The man was Oriental. At least his eyes were. But the rest of him ... Too long a nose. Too much cheekbone. She gave up trying to place his origin.
"You must be an historian," she laughed. "How many years has it been since they pressed 78s?"
He smiled but did not answer. The tea arrived. Mr. Long poured for her, then for himself. Ignoring the handle on the white china cup he wrapped his hand around it. The thumb overlapped the fingers.
Martha experimented, to see how much of her cup her hands would compass. "Ouch! It's hot!"
"Do not burn yourself, Mrs. Macnamara," said Mr. Long. He smiled with excellent teeth. "I am not an historian-- in any organized sense. If you tell me where to find your latest stereo album or Dolby tape, I will bring my collection out of the middle ages."
Martha smiled in turn-- not with the smile of flattery well received, but as though she were a child who was about to reveal a naughty secret. It was a smile that made her round face rounder. "Look under the label Ceirníní Claddagh. I play fiddle in a Irish-American Cei li band." Having uttered this, she sat back, wondering if she had become so jaded with the public life-- a musician's life-- that it was now effortless to talk to strange men alone in strange places. And if she were jaded, then why were Mr. Long's attentions so pleasant?
"Thar Ci'onn! How wonderful," he laughed.
"Oh. You mustn't call my bluff. I speak very little Irish, though I'm taking lessons with a Meath man. He says although my spirit is willing, my accent is very bad. But then music is international, and with a fiddle under my chin I can't talk anyway."
She heard her voice echo through the empty dining room. "And I guess that's the only time I don't. But Mr. Long, I have to ask. Where are you from?"
He glanced into his teacup, then met her blue eyes again. He did not seem offended. "I was born in China," he said. "But I am not entirely-- Chinese." Gripping the teapot around its portly middle, he freshened her cup.
"What is the name of your ensemble?"
"It's called Linnet's Wings, after a poem by Yeats." She sighed. "Actually, it's a poem Yeats hated ..."
"I know it," said Mr. Long. " 'There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet's wings.' He had schoolchildren prattling that into his ears for twenty years, so his distaste may be understood."
"I've never been to Innisfree," brooded Martha, staring across the dining room and into the deeper dimness of the bar. She swallowed a yawn. "I don't even know if it's a real place."
The chandeliers were crystal. The tiny drops sparkled in their own light. The weariness of a day's flight blurred her vision, and the play of light reminded her of snow falling into the bright circles of street lights.
But here in San Francisco there was no snow. Never. Just fog and sea. How strange. Unreal.
The voice recalled her. "It is quite real," the voice was saying. She focused again. He meant Innisfree, of course. Not San Francisco.
"You have been to Ireland?" she asked. But she guessed his answer before he could speak.
"What did you do there?"
His eyebrows lifted, and the lean face softened in memories. "I was looking for something." There was a silence Martha allowed to grow. Then he spoke again, with animation.
"Mrs. Macnamara-- it is Mrs. Macnamara, if I remember?"
He did not falter. "Mrs. Macnamara, have you heard the story of Thomas Rhymer?"
"I know the ballad," she admitted. "But it's not Irish."
"That ballad? No. That is Walter Scott. But the story itself is Irish, I believe. It was an Irishman who told it to me."
"Listen!," he began, and as he spoke he stirred his spoon in his cup with a silver sound. Mrs. Macnamara noted this gesture with amusement. She was sure that Mr. Long had not taken sugar.
"You know how Thomas the Rhymer was taken off by the queen of Elfland on her horse of the nine-and-fifty bells. How they swam the river of blood, and how she showed him the roads to heaven and hell, avoiding both of them to take a third. How he served her seven years in delightful capacity, and how in the end his poor reward was that he was made incapable of lying. This much is what got back to Scott."
"There is more?"
"Obviously. The ballad is cut off just where it becomes interesting. It does not touch on the predicament of a bard bereft of his stock in trade-- flattery. It does not so much as mention the Rhymer's son."
Mr. Long straightened in his chair, thereby disappearing into shadow. His hands touched together and then opened, as though he were releasing a bird into the air. "Thomas Rhymer," he stated, "had a son by the queen of Elfland. The boy was five years old when his father's term ended and the Rhymer was sent upon his way." Mr. Long paused, breathed deeply and stared into the air above Martha's head.
"Thomas left, but he came back again, fording the river of blood, blundering through the tangle of green which hides that road from mortal eyes. It was not so pleasant a journey for a man alone, but Thomas Rhymer found his way back to the land of the not-so-blessed and he stole his little son away."
"No. I've never heard this," whispered Martha Macnamara. "Have you got the verses?"
He stopped and drew breath. "There are verses," he admitted. "But I don't sing. Humor me."
And he continued. "Back in the world again, Thomas Rhymer took to his trade, and the lad went with him. But fortune no longer smiled upon him."
"Because he couldn't lie."
"Quite likely, Mrs. Macnamara. And before the year was out, the Rhymer began to hear the wailing of the Sidhe in the night and he knew he was hunted."
"Oh no!" exclaimed Mrs. Macnamara, finding herself moved, almost frightened. It was that voice ...
"Hiding the boy at the monastery at Lagan-- this was in the days Cormac O'Dubh was Abbot-- he rode off, leading the hunt away."
"Crofters heard the racket of his horse's hoofs pass in the early night, but in the coldest hour they saw the passage of riders who made no sound, a company with faces like chalk and horses shining without moonlight. This part of it has been remembered in Lagan Valley from then til now."
"In the last hour before dawn this ghastly company arrayed itself before the gates of the monastery, and she who led them threw down upon the grass the body of Thomas. Knowing she could not storm such a stronghold of the new faith she offered a trade: her son for the small breath of life she had left in the father."
"Cormac himself stood at the gate. He was a burly Abbot. He cried out that he would pray for souls, but he could not sell them."
"But out from the gate squirmed the boy himself, and he ran to his father and knelt beside him. Spurring her horse the queen plucked up her son. In the same moment Abbot Cormac O'Dubh ran out from the monastery gate to Thomas Rhymer. Him he took and carried to safety behind the gates."
"But even this is not the end of the story. For the queen of Elfland, chalk faced on her pale horse, let out a wail of anger, and she held the boy at arm's length from her, and she put him down from her horse."
" 'He stinks!' she cried. 'He stinks of the dove! My boy, ma'cushla! Heart of my heart, has been dipped in the filthy bowl!'
"And all the shining horses reared up and sank into the earth, and the Sidhe were gone."
"Because the good Abbot had put the boy beyond the reach of his mother's people as long as time holds sway. He had baptized him."
"Ah! Of course." Martha hit her palm against the table. "The obvious solution. I never thought of it."
"But Thomas Rhymer ... he's alive? I mean, he was alive after that?"
"He lived. He was a very quiet man in later years."
Mayland Long stared into the depths of an empty cup.
"I believe you have that tale from Thomas Rhymer himself," said Martha. "You tell it with such... authority." She sighed, once more aware of the time change. While Mr. Long was speaking she had forgotten she was tired.
"From the Rhymer?" He leaned forward and lifted his eyebrows in mock wonderment. "How could that be?"
"He was unconscious during the crux of the story. I have the story from the boy, of course. The Rhymer's son."
"Beautiful boy," he added, after a moment. "Resembled his mother."
Martha blinked twice. The hour and the moment combined to overwhelm her. Cradling her head in her arms she laughed until she hiccupped.
"Forgive me-- I'm tired. Jet lag. I'd better turn in now. Getting up at five." This last word dissolved into a yawn.
As she pulled herself to her feet Mr. Long rose also. "You will remain through tomorrow, though?" He spoke with some alarm. "I have not let you talk about your music. You must join me for dinner."
She put her hand to the gray braid above her ear and scratched thoughtfully. "Tomorrow I'm supposed to meet my daughter. That's why I flew in. But she hasn't called yet, and I can't reach her. Can I call you sometime in the middle of the day?"
"Certainly. My schedule is not crowded; if I am not in my rooms, you can leave a message at the desk."
His voice pulled at her once again as she turned to leave the table. "Mrs. Macnamara. Why so early? Why five o'clock?"
"I sit," she called back. "Zazen."
Mayland Long stood alone beside the empty cups. "Zazen?" he whispered to himself. His dark face was lit with an amusement which grew and deepened.
The bartender stopped her on the stair. "Mr. Trough," she greeted him, and continued walking.
"Jerry," he corrected. "Can you spare two minutes?"
"Just about," Martha smiled, and putting the key to her door, she ushered the young man in.
Martha's rooms were not the largest or the most opulent in the James Herald Hotel. Had Martha herself made the reservations, they would have been the cheapest. As it was, she had a bed-sitting room with three chairs, all of which were too large and too soft to be comfortable and a canopy bed that dwarfed her.
Jerry Trough was still clutching a damp bar towel in one hand. He sought for a place to put it down, rejecting the walnut table, the quilted satin spread, the brocade seat of a side chair. At last he dropped it to the carpet, where it lay by an open suitcase which spilled over with white cotton underwear and paperback books. He cleared his throat.
"I saw you leave the dining room and wanted to catch you before you turned in. It's about the man I introduced to you tonight."
She turned quickly, leaning her hip against the Chippendale reproduction dresser. "Mr. Long? Yes, we talked an hour away. What about him?"
"What did you think of him?"
She smiled at the impudence of the question. "I found him informative and entertaining. Not to mention exotic. I may have supper with him tomorrow."
"Watch out," mumbled the bartender. "I know. He can be a real-- actor, and all. Loads of fun. He's a friend of mine, too, in a way." Trough shifted from foot to foot.
"Just 'in a way'?" Her eyebrows lifted interrogatively.
Trough shrugged. "Okay. He is a friend. But I ask you to be careful, Martha. I don't think he's quite all there."
"Mr. Long?" Her voice rose in consternation. "I've rarely met anyone more-- more there. More present, I mean." She glared at the bartender. "If the man is schizophrenic or something like that, why did you introduce me to him?"
As though Martha's outrage had shaken the starch out of him, Jerry Trough sat down on the edge of the bed. His eyes darted about the room and he laced his hands together. "I told you why. Because of the violin. And because you're a lot alike in other ways."
"Oh. I'm a nut too?" Martha's eyes went even wider, and she put her hands on her hips.
The young man sighed and ran his fingers through his curly black hair. "Of course not. You take me wrong. What I mean is that you both seem to like ... conversation. Have large vocabularies. And you're both alone-- you because you just got here, and he because ... he just is."
"And when I see you get excited about little things. Like the way you talked about racing the sun in the airplane and almost winning except you had to stop at the end of the country. Well, Mr. Long's like that too; he's got these old, falling apart books of Chinese poetry he says nobody's ever translated before, and he brings them to the bar and sets them down and scribbles in little notebooks. He gets excited about it, but I never hear about his translations getting printed anywhere, so I don't know ..."
"I used to think he was really stuffy until I noticed that half of everything he said was a pun or a joke. You're somewhere around the same age ... I think ..." Here Trough's words faded. He knew himself to be treading shaky ground on the subject of age.
"So I thought he'd interest you-- to talk to for a few minutes. But Mr. Long ... I want you to know if you get him drunk," Trough said, "old Mr. Long will tell you that he used to be a dragon. And he's not joking around when he says it."
Martha pushed off from the dresser and came to stand beside the awkward young man. On her face a triumphant smile was blossoming.
Trough regarded his own feet as he continued. "He told me he used to be ten yards long and solid black, with a head like a chrysanthemum. Not any other flower-- he insisted it was a chrysanthemum. He also thought it was important I knew that he had had five toes on each foot. As a dragon, that is."
The worry had cleared from Martha's brow. "Oh!" she breathed. "I see. Well, Jerry, me boy. This night he told me that he was personally acquainted with Thomas Rhymer."
"Or at least knew his son," truth compelled her to add.
Trough stared blankly. "And he doesn't?"
"Not likely. But don't you see where his head is at, when he says things like that?"
She gestured in the air above her head, as though calling all available Muses to her aid. "Why he's ... exercising a scholarly imagination. He's smashing the world, to recreate it in his own pattern. That man is an artist, and conversation is his medium.
"If he appears a bit crazy it's only because he's too much alone," she concluded. "I understand him. Or I think I do. I can't explain any better than that." Her blue eyes stared at the carpet, the pile of books, the wet bar towel ..."
The bartender stood up. "Still, be careful, Martha. They found a body in the hall last year, in front of his door."
Martha Macnamara took Trough's place on the bed. It bounced. "What? A body? Whose?"
"The dead guy was a junkie, I heard. Police record long as your arm. No loss to San Francisco, I guess, but that was just a freaky way to find him, you know? No marks, no blood, just his neck bone snapped. Coroner decided he fell, but why he was there in the first place, and why he should fall so hard he broke his neck ..."
Here the bartender stopped portentously.
"So you think poor Mr. Long is a secret killer, do you? He's part Chinese-- perhaps he knows some deadly Oriental way to kill a man from behind a wooden door. Perhaps he's the head of a Tong!" Eyes flashing, Martha rose to her feet.
"I rather like old Mr. Long" she stated. "He may tell me that he used to be a dragon, or will be a dragon come Tuesday next, or that he actually is a dragon underneath his suit jacket and white shirt-front. I will try to receive such a confidence in the spirit in which it is given."
She paused for breath, and her bright outrage flowed away from her. She regarded the bartender more calmly. "And I doubt very much that you'll find me in the hallway outside his door, dead with no marks of violence."
Mr. Trough shrugged an ineloquent shrug. "Sure. You're safe, I guess. Besides, he never drinks much with dinner." Martha's irritated frown sent Trough out the door.
She put her face between the panels of the drape and rested her forehead against cool glass. Outside the city swept twinkling north and west to the sea. No snow. Also no fog.
That little interview had almost ruined her mood. She decided she wouldn't let it. After all, she was in San Francisco neither to fight nor frolic, but to talk to Liz, who evidently had problems and wanted her advice. Martha had been able to give her daughter little enough as a child-- surely she could now spare a week and a little maternal concern. Regardless of impudent bartenders. Regardless of fascinating men.
Where was Liz's apartment? San Mateo. That was south. Behind the hotel. She could not play the game of pretending to locate her daughter among the lights below.
Was Liz nervous also? Sleepless? Afraid of the interview for which she'd called her mother clear across the continent? That would be unlike Liz. She was probably sleeping soundly, believing her mother was getting in on a late flight. Or she could be out on a date, or what was most likely of all, at work amid a clatter of computers. Liz would get in touch.
She turned from the window and yawned. Her thoughts returned to the man she had met tonight. What a wonderful voice. Impossible hands. And that strange hybrid face, falling in and out of shadow.
It was easier to think of this brief acquaintance than it was to think of her daughter. Easier and more fun.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the dresser mirror. One of her braids was falling over her ear. She shook her head dubiously at her image. She could not see herself a remarkable beauty.
Yet Mr. Long-- she felt-- liked her. He knew who she was. He was interested to know more. Her gaze searched the mirror.
So he has an old 78 and a good memory-- the mirror told her. And he likes an audience. Her shoulders sagged as she kicked off her shoes.
But in five seconds this depression also vanished, swept away in the tides of Martha's good humor. She threw off the tweed suit and stepped out of her underwear. Stark naked, she dialed the switchboard and asked for a wake-up call at five.
In darkness, leaning against a wall of red brocade, Mayland Long waited for the elevator. He smiled, and his teeth glinted in the greenish light of the control buttons.
Zen.... to have come so far, to this stone city where the ocean was on the wrong side of the sun, to wait and watch himself age with cruel speed, foreign in form, in speech, in feeling.... Here to find again the trace of his own interminable, floundering search. And in such unlikely shape as that of Martha Macnamara.
There was that odor about her: not a sweetness, exactly, but a wildness suggesting breezes that have touched cold water and living wood. The air surrounding Martha Macnamara was charged with ... reality. Unpronouncable reality: Long could feel her reality against his face like sunlight or rain. Her every gesture had spoken to him in certainty, yet she had expressed no opinions, leaving such pronouncements to him.
Martha had something which drew him to her, like a wandering beast to the fires of men. She had what he lacked, in her laughter, her simplicity, her quick passions, her certainty. It was the taste of existence-- of being.
It was the Tao.
His breath escaped slowly between his teeth. He wanted to see her again, and feared chance would not allow it. Out of habit he tamped down that desire, attempting to snuff it before it could do him harm. He would see her or he would not; pain was irrelevant to the future.
The elevator shuddered open. It was bright inside, and empty. He stepped in and pressed the button for the seventh floor. Memories competed with the drum of the motor.
Old hands. The smell of rain-- the smell of Ch'an. Quiet words in rough Cantonese. "I am not to be your master. Your master has to be stronger than you are-- has to tell you you are a fool and make you to know it. And make you feel content in being a fool. How could I do that for you? I'm old. You are too strong for me; you are full of chi." The old man had paused then, huddled against the wind while clouds thickened above them.
"I will tell you this, Long," he continued. "Before you find yourself you will lose your chi. Also you will leave behind you all pride of body, pride of mind. You will be reduced. Like me." The old man closed his eyes, and rain began to beat against his gray, crew-cut hair. He pulled his coat closer. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and he looked Long in the face.
"You must leave China. Go across the ocean. There you will meet your master." He set down his teacup with a palsied hand. His voice rose, grew fierce.
"I tell you this, most honored and impressive visitor. You are a fool, yes, but you will find the very thing you seek. You will find truth!"
Mayland Long stepped out of the elevator. The words of the old man faded. They had been polished by repetition in his mind til they gleamed gray: links of iron, beads on a chain. They were a string of beads that Long told daily, while he waited and studied and thought.
He yawned and felt for his key. He didn't want to think any more. He'd rather tell stories to Martha.
Copyright © 1983 by R.A. MacAvoy