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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.31
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.31

           Peter Carey
 

  "What happened to your canvases?" I asked.

  She referred to Eckerd.

  "Burned," he said.

  I looked to the Jew and he caught my eye and held it very hard.

  Said he, "Not a single specimen survived."

  Tildy broke my stare and drew me into the kitchen, a big old room with a brick farm floor. While Eckerd watched us from the doorway, she held my hand against her mouth. Mr. Eckerd fetched me an arrack in a deep blue glass which I would have rejected had I sufficient character, but my entire body was frozen and exhausted and I took three of them in a row, waiting while he filled the thimble to the full.

  Mathilde set to heat water for a bath. I observed Eckerd and how he stood, his feet astride, arms across his wide and wire-wool chest. I wondered did he plan to watch me at my toilet. When Tildy moved to take down the tub from its hook he rushed to help her.

  I asked her where her mother was.

  She smiled at me and melted my heart and held her hand to her ear and thus drew my attention to the old familiar breath.

  "What caused the fire?" I asked.

  Again she looked to Eckerd.

  "Tell him," said he.

  She said her mother had been frying fish and spilled the pot. It was lucky she was not burned to death.

  I wished with all my heart to hold her and love her but why did she need his permission to tell me everything? When the bath was ready Eckerd retired to his bedroom--I noted where it was, on the ground floor, at the back. But even when the pair of us were alone together I was very distant with her and insisted I wash myself while she sat on a chair and looked at me. We were silent, irritable and sad.

  I found dry clothes in my duffel and we went up the stairs, conscious of every brush and accidental bump, questions, accusations, one step at a time. At the top of the landing there was a door, a light shining underneath.

  "No," she cried, as I reached for the handle.

  Naturally I entered.

  In the corner, sitting cross-legged before a canvas, I beheld a creature more awful than any of the twisted hacked-up beggars who haunt the Eglise Saint-Sulpice. His forehead was high, his skull hairless, and all his face was scarred and tattooed in such a way I thought the burning fat must have spilled all over him. However this creature was not newly made, but ancient, and his pale blue eyes peered out from his own tattered skin as if they were prisoners inside the trunk of a blackened antipodean paperbark. I stared at him and the dead bird he was painting--gold and black, as big as a blackbird, its beak partly open, its legs and claws tied tight around a rack, and the whole of the poor thing threaded through with an armature of wire.

  He held his brush in the air, clearly waiting to be left in peace.

  Mathilde drew me back across the corridor and there I found a pallet on the floor and all her pretty quilts and shawls which had wrapped and tangled us so many nights. I did not yet set down my duffel.

  "Let me show you," she said.

  Along one wall there was a ladder such as they use in apple orchards, by which I mean you would need to recruit Tom Thumb himself to walk the upper rungs. This implement Mathilde now used to poke at the ceiling, thereby lifting a trapdoor and shoving the pointy end of the ladder up into the attic dark. Ascending until the rung could not accommodate a single foot, she reached inside and brought down a canvas about three foot by three foot, in other words a tight fit even on the diagonal.

  "I'll take it."

  But she kept it hidden from me until, now on the floor, she flipped it around.

  Dear Jesus what was this?

  Why Mathilde, I thought, you have made a portrait as charming as burned milk--the monstrous little man with his pale eyes peering from the devastation of a war. His face dire black and delicious pink, a horror, a bad dream. He had a bird upon his rack, but not the one I had seen. Along its base was carefully inscribed, like holy writ in Greek: h(t) = Xitb.

  The creature's eye was bright, those long blue feathers shone like silk, the man's skin was made from paint, thick, stirred, brown, red, a mix of raw and cooked.

  "Dear Jesus."

  Even I could see the genius of this horror. No one would buy this, ever. She dared me to say it. I would not. I praised her, in a secret fury at her selfish artist's will, but I praised truly, although it would remain in some secret hole a century and thence it would be taken out and burned.

  "Cher Perroquet, tu m'aimes toujours?" She held my eyes, her face wreathed in that familiar grin, and she was as a Venus and a gargoyle all at once, the Devil dancing on a wire between two steeples over fire. When she was like this she was a goddess, bare-breasted, bright-eyed, drunk on liquors a mortal should not touch. How could I resist her?

  And so I placed my duffel down, and we loved each other once again, and made an awful scatter of the quilts, and lay in each other's arms and talked, and only then did she reveal to me the financial balance of the fire. Mr. Peek, in his frenzy to take every penny from her, had forced her to buy insurance from his own company, not only for the house but for all her paintings which he, having paid top dollar for his own, now made her value highly.

  And then there really was a fire, and the insurer, as usual, had no wish to pay. So he came to her boardinghouse and accused her of burning it herself. That day Eckerd engaged for her a brainy Jewish lawyer, and in the end Peek (or the Hand in Hand Insurance Company) paid up. At the same time he was happy to inform her that neither he nor anyone else would insure her ever again.

  But this was of no concern to her, she told her Parrot, laying her head upon his chest and tickling his nose with her fragrant hair. I should ask her why.

  "Why, my beloved?"

  Because she had sold that block of land, the same one I had stumbled around with my lantern, to Mr. Ruggles. I should ask her who was he.

  "And who is Mr. Ruggles?"

  A rich man who added it to his parcel of land north of Union Place, and she was very well provided for by the fire. It had worked out perfectly. So now they had bought this farm which was very cheap because of the gruesome murder done here.

  "And who is they?"

  "In partnership," she said.

  "With who?"

  "Well it must be Mr. Eckerd, of course," said she. "I cannot insure in my name."

  "Do you have this in writing?"

  "But have I not been clever? Can't you see? You thought I was a fool, but I am not. It is an agreement with Eckerd, my darling," she said. "I trust him."

  "And who is this Apollo?" I said, nodding to the portrait on the floor.

  "He is a partner also."

  "And how do you know him?"

  "He is a good friend of Mr. Eckerd."

  She was ridiculous. Impossible. Desirable. My body was aching and exhausted, but I could not sleep, not even when she did. I snuffed the candle and lay in the dark, aware of the sweet musty odor of her body, the thin yellow knife of light beneath the door. I closed my eyes. I saw the carriage lurch. I was haunted by my jealousy, my doubt. I saw the endless yellow roads, and a vision of the burned man, laboring at his exquisite bird. He was so grotesque, and yet so troublingly familiar, the way he sat, his tortured forehead unnaturally high, his back straight, his legs folded. Like a bad tooth I could not keep my tongue from, in the end I knew I must address it properly. Carefully I separated myself from Tildy's white, rose-tipped breast. I slipped from the bed and drew a quilt around myself.

  When I opened his door the second time he looked approximately as he had the first, except I understood him as Mathilde's portrait taught me to, the pale, pale eyes, their queer determination, the flicker around the melting mouth that might have been a smile or sneer.

  "What's your name?" I asked.

  "Who wants to know?" he said, and I heard the burr of Devon in the vowels.

  "Mr. Watkins," said I, "I am the boy."

  V

  WATKINS HELD ME away from him, clamping my forearms, and all his melted features shivered like an oyster or a quaking bog or tarry bed.
Who would have expected his feelings to be quite so strong?

  "Marie," he called, in such a tone as if to say Quick, bring the net. "Marie, raise yourself."

  I expected Marie would be a child, but she was a slender old woman and her fine bones and clear kind brown eyes were lively in the dancing light.

  "Marie, it is the boy."

  The stranger in the doorway smiled at me so brightly, so familiarly, she might have been my long-lost aunt. Carefully she set down her candle on a chair which, like every other object in that smoky unsettled room, had only recently arrived in a rush from someplace else and had no useful connection with its fellows. Quiet as a cat, in gray woolen socks, she moved to hold my hand and I was embarrassed to feel her private skin against my own.

  "So there," said she, and gave me a little shake. "I don't know why you look so shocked. He was always going to do it. Nothing would have stopped him."

  Then she stood beside Watkins with her long plain hand hung across his shoulder, more like a girl, I thought, and there was such sweet affection between them, I knew she must be his wife, and yet the Watkins I had known was a bachelor and who would marry him after he had been so cruelly burned.

  "He has spoken of you often," she said, kneeling to place a lump of coal into a brazier whose crooked tin chimney teetered upward and out through the open window. Her English was not English to the ear, and I was reminded of the speech of Walloon printers whose trade had taken them across one too many borders in the dead of night.

  "But of course," she said. "It was a surprise to me, to hear an ink-stained little boy should carry such a gift."

  "And now you have taken a French wife," she added.

  I thought, What gift?

  The burnt artist shook his frightful head. "Very nice," said he. "Could not be happier."

  "We have talked about you so often," the woman said. "The little printer's devil running through the woods. We prayed for you."

  I thought it queer that Watkins was religious, but a man who walks through fire is entitled to believe in fairies should he please.

  "They were shooting at him," he said, as if I had not been there.

  "You were like a rabbit," she told me.

  "He was like a rabbit."

  They were very moved, each reaching out a hand to me while I, in confusion and embarrassment, shyly made myself available.

  "I do not remember you," I admitted to the woman finally. "Forgive me."

  "You knew me in a different way," she said and I wondered could she possibly be the girl at the Swan whom I had delivered the dockets to, but there had not been sufficient years for that girl to have become so old. I had been in Ditisham in 1793. Thirty-seven years had passed since Piggott's printery had killed my father.

  "I was Mrs. Piggott," she declared.

  Good Jesus, I thought. Strike me dead, I never saw a soul less like the awful Mrs. Piggott, the tightest, smallest, driest, least affectionate creature ever born.

  "No," I said.

  "You must let me know my own name," said she, and from Watkins' shaking mouth I understood this was most definitely Mrs. Piggott. Yet was not Mrs. Piggott old so many years before? How could she be transformed into this supple lady with shapely white feet, teal silk gown, and a complexion which could carry that single highlight, the kiss and blessing of Vermeer?

  She had been just a girl, she soon told me, when they took her husband off for hanging. She had thought her life was ended then.

  I had harbored hatred for her all my life, she and her awful husband. I felt it must show in my eyes, so I turned toward the burned man's canvas which was as crisp as he was churned and charred, and which displayed, to the most elevated degree, the achievement of that ambition he had confessed to me so long ago. I will produce a book, he had told me, containing all the birds in the world. Or did he say America?

  And there it stood, a miracle, like the Baby Jesus in the manger--one bird, one painting, one jewel in the pigsty of a house with fluff and dust and rat-shit pellets in the corners.

  "It is beyond anything I ever saw," I said.

  Watkins began immediately to push the praise away and, instead, gave full and passionate credit to America. He and Marie had arrived impoverished, in such a damaged state, knowing no one of any influence, but what was bestowed upon them were twenty thousand unnamed birds. These came, like the land itself, with the opportunity to profit from them, not handsomely perhaps, and it sometimes made Marie sad to see his artworks so dispersed, and not always to those who might appreciate them.

  "Look at us," he said.

  "Look at him," she said. "God bless America for that."

  Everything I knew, everything I thought I knew, was now called into question. Had she been his lover all the time? Did she crawl along that passage late at night? For if Mrs. Piggott had snaked through the intestines of that house, who else had crawled and slithered, and if she had been a lover with a hot sluicing heart and soft hungry lips, what else of my history had happened in the dark?

  "But you," he said, "who got away unscathed. What are you doing? What have you done?"

  There were no more seats available than an upturned bucket and the chair, so we stood near the brazier, and the former Mrs. Piggott attended to it carefully, arranging the coals like flowers in a vase, eking out the fire as poor people do, but when I saw their eager heated faces, like Rembrandt's shepherds, I understood they had, with years of continual conversation, gloried and elevated the little Parrot to something that Parrot would never be: that is, an artist.

  "Enough," I said, and truly the pain was awful.

  "You are too modest."

  "I am a servant! Nothing more."

  "Aye," said Watkins. "Art is a hard master."

  "Stop!" I cried. "Did you not once tell me I was not an engraver's bootlace?"

  But nothing could shake him. "Well, think how big your head would be by now."

  "It is clear," the woman said. "You have grown up very nicely."

  "Madam, I am forty-nine years old! Yes sir, no sir, two bags full. A servant."

  "The curse of great facility in a child," said Mr. Watkins, "is that it easily produces laziness. I was the same. Thank Petey, I was taken down a peg or two."

  His face moved like a shaking sort of bog and I guess he was laughing, but for myself I could have ripped my face right off my living bones. What torture to hear that a life had been available to me that I had not been man enough to live.

  Again I sought refuge in his canvas--the blue-winged bird, the white-ringed eye, the beak, the crunching locust. I felt bilious, and very very sad, to have arrived in this great new country with my heart and my pockets and my life so very empty.

  "In any case," I said, "we can discuss my work another time for it is late. Fate has given us the opportunity to spend many hours together."

  And so, without even having the politeness to ask them how their unlikely marriage had come to pass, I bade them good night and slipped into bed beside Mathilde whose throaty contented murmur should have reminded me of all the sweet and sweaty comforts of our convivial conjugal life, but now, on my back, straight as a plank, staring into the inky ambiguous air above my head, I was cut and twisted by a considerable sadness in whose particular rubbed and layered charcoal I recognized the dye of jealousy. All around me in that cold and empty house art was being made such as had not been made before. These artists showed themselves each day more remarkable than the day before while I, who had apparently been granted talents in plenty, had wasted and abused my gifts.

  How can you love a woman and be jealous of her? By this light my admiration of Mathilde took on another hue, and I lay awake listening to the condemned cattle become restive with the dawn.

  I had thought myself a young man until then.

  VI

  WHAT PLEASURES I had expected of my grandes vacances must stay as private as Long Island oysters in their blue and ashy shells, but finally the morning came when I woke to find myself alone in heaven and Math
ilde departed to her linseed shore--some five feet from my hand. There she once more scraped and rubbed and pounded at two yellow faces glowing from a muddy ground.

  I nuzzled her neck, inhaled her sleep and tobacco smoke. She murmured in her throat and kissed my lips and eyelids, and I soon understood I was put out to pasture on a promise, as they say, from a genius of the female sex.

  Down in the brick-floored kitchen my lovely screw-spined mother-out-law gave me her garlic welcome--a tin cup for my tea and a slathering of white lard and salt on a heel of black-crust bread. As for conversation, Maman was occupied arguing with her Pennsylvania stove, riddling and raddling and poking and punishing it, until--seeing me about to take my breakfast out on the front porch--she sternly ordered I must never show my face out there as this access was reserved only for the clever Jew.

  She spoke to me like that? Well, bless her muddled head. I was a fool to be offended, and I was much too exercised by the gentleman who had his portrait painted with his legs apart. I carried my tea and the huge burthen of my pride and jealousy up the cold and dusty stairs. Mathilde made it clear she would permit just one final kiss, well never mind, ma'am, that will be enough for now.

  She wished to know why I did not visit my old mate Watkins.

  Damn this, I thought. I came down all the way from Wethersfield, and now I am sent out to the back paddock for the day.

  Across the hallway the second great genius of our age donated me a bright blue eye from his crusted mussel shell of a face. He asked me how I liked his heron wing and was it not about the best heron wing that man had ever made? The back of his hand was like those knurled Australian banksia seeds, scorched lips and scumble, but he had maintained the maiden treasure of his palm and fingers, petals the color of white English rose. He held them up to me, an awful sort of vanity, I thought, a badge. Such arrogance in the midst of such misfortune. The very same man who had told me I was not worth a bootlace.

 
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