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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.32
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.32

           Peter Carey
 

  I asked him was there any wood to chop.

  He did not suggest that was beneath me. He said his wife was eager to natter with me about "old times." Dear Jesus, what a thing to call those nightmares. I found her on the back veranda. She who I had always thought of as old Mrs. Piggott had turned out strangely glossy, slender and collected in her form. With bright birdie eyes she greeted me, looking up from her fresh-killed herons. She sat on a three legged stool, behind a narrow bench, and arranged the deceased, smoothing out their cooling bones.

  She looked up at me in the way of a woman interrupted darning socks, pausing as she threaded fine wires through dead flesh. It was sunny in the yard but all her labor was conducted on the chilly damp back veranda, on whose greasy black floors the previous inhabitants appeared to have butchered many beasts. A line of rusty meat hooks were suspended above her head. Like beads, I thought. R.I.P. In Memoriam.

  Perhaps, at that moment, when I was back among my own kind, amid the blood and tallow of New York, young Olivier was standing on Godefroy's uplifting porch. I drank cold tea and made a cigarette and watched Mrs. Piggott play with dead things. I leaned against the veranda post. I wondered how my thin-nosed Olivier was doing with his beautiful American.

  Mrs. Piggott bent and twisted the wires to raise the birds' inquiring heads toward me, as if to say wotcha, chap.

  She asked me did I wish to have a free ticket to Mr. Eckerd's theater. It was a roaring show about the French Revolution. As if encouraging me to leave, she nodded at the dappled muddy path which led from the veranda beneath the sumac, thrust through the tangled rose hips and beside the maple.

  I asked her would she mind doing me a favor.

  She said she was happy to oblige.

  I asked her would she tell me about my father. It was surprisingly hard to say those words.

  She laid a small soft bird upon her aproned lap. She was silent a moment while she measured wire from beak to tail.

  "As long as you live," she said, and one bright eye held me like a pin. "As long as you live, so does he."

  She clipped the wire, and I had no idea what was being said between us. I was a grown man but frightened as a child to imagine what those blue doll's eyes had seen.

  I said, "What brought you here?" In other words, please tell me anything but what I asked.

  She pushed her wire in up the birdie's bottom and, by dint of pinching and massage, managed to bring it out the beak and thus she was able to twist its head to look at me.

  "What brought me here?" She laid the dead creature beside her clogs and set to measuring and clipping wires. "Your father was a fine brave man," she said. "While you live, he lives," she repeated.

  Everything in me wished to know in which way I was like him, but I lacked the spine. She had seen him die, I knew it, but I did not want to live the horror of that day, the soldiers marching with their cheery yellow coffins while Monsieur tossed his sovereign with his single hand.

  "Afterward," she said, and I knew she meant after I saw your pater murdered, "afterward I had nowhere else to go but the place I did not wish to see again. Do you know," she said, "I was never Mrs. Piggott in any sense at all."

  I did not ask her how that was and never would. I looked at her, with her wire and birds and clogs, and I breathed the fall air and river wrack and lard, and I had no wish to descend into the maze of this peculiar foreign life. You can go mad that way, imagining the lives of others, all crowded in like a universe of stars all murmuring and crying with their dreadful want. "I returned to the printery," she said. "There was nothing but smoke and ruins and bans nailed on the trees announcing the punishment by hanging for a counterfeit. I made a gruel of flour and water and crawled down the fallen stair, and got in underneath like a cat set to die beneath a house."

  She was a young woman who had witnessed awful things. The best and worst she found beneath the ground floor of her former life--the burned man who would be her soul mate, as she liked to say, the luvvy she would sit beside the livelong day, grinding him his colors, frying his white bait crisp and toasty as he liked. She found him there beneath the earth line, broken like burned roast pork, whimpering and shaking, his hair become part of his skin like you see the grass in crusts of farmer's cheese or stoneware jugs.

  She saved him, or they saved each other, with a bath of the tung oil old Piggott had laid in for his floors, although it beggars belief how she moved the man without killing him and how he went about the business of eating and making waste inside this oily womb. The tung turned his open wounds a horrid color. Sometimes it appeared that she was poisoning him, and then she would order him out of it, and then she feared he was dying anyway and so he must return, and if I had a generous heart I would relate their struggles as winter came--frost and snow, starvation, fever--list every one of their ruses, their will to live in a sea of counterfeit and war and suspicion, but my lesser pain must blot them out.

  Down the end of Perry Street, within earshot of the slapping riggings, pigeons cooing, the perpetual upset of cattle brought for sale, sat a small aproned woman with a pair of handy pliers. In 1793 she had recovered her best purse and scorched it in a bucket and in this had placed the most serviceably burned counterfeits, and thence she took herself to a Catholic priest, and the priest himself took her to the Bank of England and insisted they replace her "widow's mite" as he was pleased to call these thirty pounds.

  There was much more than thirty pounds available, but it was her understanding that they might be hanged at any time and she was very cautious, only using this ruse one final time. Then she got her seeping stinking luvvy in sailor's clothes and thus, assisted by the revulsion and pity of all who saw him, got him on board a ship to America. He had no dowry but his burin and those bright blue willful eyes.

  She was very frightened of America, of the Comanches and Cherokees who cut the private parts of men and took white women as their wives, she told me, but Mr. Watkins was frightened of nothing. How will we eat? she asked him. He said nothing better could have happened to them because America had more birds than all the world had ever seen before and he would engrave every one and print the plates and bind a book which would go to every rich man in the world.

  What do you know of rich men? she had asked him.

  He knew nothing, of course, he was a Devon boy. He told her there was not a rich man presently snoring over his Madeira who would not want folios of pretty birds to show his friends. He said there was not a jumped-up Bradford mill owner who would not wish this book, three inches thick, gilt-tooled, morocco-bound.

  And who was Mrs. Piggott that she would believe him, the silkworm, burned, crusty? You would not even know him human but for his weeping skin. Later she saw an engraving of a poison fish, disguised as a stone. She wondered what she recognized, and it was him, her luvvy.

  He was carried in a litter by sailors--"There you are mate," the litter bearers called--each one thinking this was himself burned by oil at sea. Thus he was nursed like a precious creature all the way to New York. With his livid secret hand he drew their likenesses. He told them he was the author of The Illustrated Compendium of Birds.

  "And what of the great book?" I asked.

  "It would never have been possible in England," she said.

  VII

  SOONER OR LATER, one day or the next, the muddy path from Mrs. Piggott's birds led me to that ill-loved drain or stream and finally persuaded me through a stand of bright red sumac and brought me sidling, not quite honest-looking, up onto the King Street footbridge.

  And here I commenced my grandes vacances or tour.

  First I circled around to Greenwich Street where I could inspect the front door of the house. With geo wills blacksmith behind my back, and the late-afternoon sun lighting up the east side of Greenwich Street, and the masts of the great ships filling the sky above the west-side rooftops, the rigging in constant bickering argument with the wind, I addressed the front door, pretty much, I suppose, like a bull standing at the gate that se
parates him from his herd. If this sounds comic let me say that the farmhouse was as funny as a murder site or butchery, and it had been both. Even the broad spreading beech tree, which might be a thing of beauty in Wethersfield, had been gnawed by frightened cattle. The front door was secured with a padlock and chain threaded through a rough wide hole. For all that brutal practicality, some unknown punter once had hopes for this house--around the door were set expensive glass panels, composed of amber leadlight about two inches square. The transom contained a stained-glass peacock.

  As I assessed my new bolt-hole, the winter sun slipped round the upstairs corner of the inn behind my back. The peacock was thus suddenly, violently, ignited--Dear Sweet Jesus Come Again in Glory! or words to that effect. I retired to the Bull Inn in a frame of mind where I could have found a fight with almost anybody. I sat myself on the window bench where, before the first glass of rum, I witnessed the clever Jew emerge, crowned by the peacock, framed in golden leadlight splendor, his strange hair gleaming, his eyes cut against the light. I raised my glass. He did not notice me. He stooped to lock his chain, wiped his hands with his kerchief, and walked into Greenwich Street, a man of rank and purpose. How different was my own situation.

  All my life I had moved forward. No matter what misfortune I had faced, I always knew how to continue, and even when I lost my da, I had confidence I could negotiate the day, the tide, the force of the wind or river, to end up somewhere, carry my burden to the next place, wear a dress if need be, but always be a man, be in the flow of life, hurrying toward a destination, the evening rise of rainbow trout, a home, a wife, a child, a meal, sweet sleep, breathing the air of a lover's neck, and always with the strong certainty that I was Parrot and, being so, was a proud distinctive chap.

  I had still thought myself so blessed when the sun rose that morning. Had I not breathed that Frenchwoman's skin, the linseed oil, the turpentine? I was happy when I rose to stand naked to observe her rubbing and scrubbing at her portrait. I did not think myself useless. That is, I woke as Parrot, he who is loved to death, is again the government, a Joacobin, a socialist, a man of the future, a traveler on the tides of history, subject to the laws of Newton but not to those of kings, a subject, yes, but always in proud and personal rebellion. Such was my distinctive character that lords and counts referred to me by name. The Empress Josephine was almost of my circle. I was true to myself. I was not no one, if you please.

  But when I sat in the Bull Inn on Greenwich Street and saw Eckerd lock his door, I suddenly comprehended that the entire house was occupied by people who had occupations suited for the present age. They lived in the New World, and what an awful shock it was to finally understand. I was abandoned to this New World, but I was a habitual servant to a dying breed. I might be on my grandes vacances, but I was of no damn use. I had no art, no trade. I had traveled all my life to arrive here, but here was an abyss. I was beached on the corner of King and Greenwich, a creature with no purpose in the world.

  I had three rums, awful stuff, stinking of raisins and sweet as baby's sick. I paid. I left. I walked quickly to escape the Hudson's unrelenting wind, and soon enough I was on Broadway and all was business--barrow boys, bankers, whores in a hurry with something on their mind. This was not Paris where you might drift uselessly from place to place, affecting to carry your wit and learning in a conch shell up your bottom. There were no flaneurs on Broadway. They were 100 percent business and they banged against one another like marbles in a lottery barrel.

  I tried a burlesque and imagined myself a man of leisure, but everyone in the street was working at a plan, and I would not be a market for their enterprise. I rushed downtown and called in on the old boardinghouse, inquiring for mail. No one knew me. I headed across Park Row and there, by mistake, found myself confronted with the bloody banners of Eckerd's play. Of course I turned away.

  The oyster bars were open before noon and I ate a good two dozen, observing how they shrank from my lemon juice, curdling in horror from their fate. I chewed them without desire, while my own gray matter shrank back from the awful fact that I had no purpose on the earth unless it be to embrace a pretty woman, to raise her off the mattress with my arms beneath her spine and cause her an hour of pleasure before she set to paint again.

  I headed out along Downing Street, treading carefully amid the shit on the broken banks of the Manetta Water, and by the time I was in the stand of red sumac by the back gate of Mathilde's house I was admitting to myself that I missed the company of Olivier de Garmont. I never thought I would think such a thing in all my life. When I came into the kitchen I discovered that the old lady had produced a mighty stew. The rich vinous fumes made my stomach growl as always, but I was not as always, no longer the Parrot who had left that morning. I was some poor wretch who has lost his station, returning home with a misery he cannot share.

  VIII

  MATHILDE HAD AN EYE, and you could normally rely on her to notice the light in my eye, or where I looked as I chewed my food or changed my mind. But she was living deep inside her tar-pit paintings and arrived at table with that wild and startled look you see in artists when surfacing at dusk. She wore tall fuzzy socks up to her sweet round knees. She had not brushed her tangled hair. The skin around that eye was bluish, taut, her pupils very large.

  I knew she had not washed her hands for she was still wearing fingerless gloves--the kind market women wear to count the change--chrome yellow and ultramarine marked her nails and nose. She smiled at me, showing me her rosy gums, the tiny imperfect incisor with the pointy end.

  I smiled but at the same time I was thinking, She only dares do these things because someone else is paying for her. I meant those frightening canvases which no one could expect to praise except a lover, or some genius from another star. To paint like this was to shove an unacceptable fact beneath my nose.

  Soon I discovered her removing her paintings from their hiding place. I inquired if she had a buyer.

  "I am making money," she said. "Don't you worry, monsieur."

  "Monsieur?"

  "Monsieur my darling."

  I touched her little woolly hand and felt her icy fingertips.

  "How are you making money?" I asked.

  "Come to the theater on Friday night," said she, "and I will tell you then."

  By theater, of course, she meant the business set up by the Jew, and I felt so sad I could have cried.

  "You'll come? You promise?"

  "I promise," I said. Then I thought a rum and milk might improve my horrible mood, so it was out the back gate, through the rusty sumacs, up onto the bridge, and into the Bull Inn where I was confronted with about fifty roaring men--merchants from the Tontine, clerks, loungers, racetrack touts, reporters--all squeezed in and shouting and writing in their notebooks or on butcher's paper, pressed against the next chap's back.

  To the publican, I said, "So what is this?"

  Said he, "It is the packet Waterloo released by customs." And he nodded beyond the crowd where the smoke-yellowed windows had been thrown open to reveal the busy wharf, the windy river.

  "But what are these men doing?"

  "What are they doing?" He was a big cheeky red-haired Irishman with hard-used cheeks. "They are getting the news from England. That chap there is from the New York Sentinel." He listed the names of all the newspapers, and as he spoke I spotted the tall stringy fair-haired lad I had last seen strangling pigeons. He was not seated but had one knee rested on a chair and a little stub of pencil between two big fingers. At a certain moment he looked up from his labors and caught my eye and gave me an indication that he would be with me in a tick.

  The blood-cheeked Irishman was very happy to keep me tippled while I waited. I asked him could he get me paper and pencil which he very cheerfully provided, and for a while I occupied myself making a picture of the scene.

  I wish I could tell you all my old skills returned or, better, that new ones had developed in the years I slept, but of course that is not true. I had made nothing
useful of my life.

  Soon enough the pigeon boy returned, depositing himself heavily, laying his inky hands flat on the table.

  "Hello friend," said he.

  For that, I purchased him a sour mash whiskey.

  Then we sat turned sideways, his back to Greenwich Street, his pale scuffed yellow boot resting along his bench. Generally, the shine had gone off him--that is, he had swapped his gray suit and waistcoat for denim and coarse wool, and there was a much harder set to his mouth and a glint to his eye which made his high nose flinty and warlike, although I was sure he never meant to convey that particular expression.

  "Back in the pigeon business?" I inquired, for I had not forgotten how he got his stock prices from the English newspapers and flew them up to Philadelphia.

  "I'll be quitting soon enough," said he.

  I was about to inquire as to his brother but changed my mind. "Then back to Georgia," I suggested.

  "Ah, you remember."

  "Cass County and Paulding County," I said.

  "That's all sold," he said.

  "Good price, I hope?"

  "No one ever paid more than I did," he said. And then he told me how he and his brother Dirk had traveled to Georgia as they had intended, taking up the lot in Paulding County which was very pretty in its situation--black fertile land, a little swampy, but excellent for cotton (as was the opinion of other holders moved there recently from Louisiana). Among their neighbors, the family of O'Grady had been very hostile at the get-go but when the men had all wrestled they became friendly and the O'Gradys were soon ready to teach the business of cotton as they understood it.

  They had settled only two weeks when, without having had the time to sin against another human, they and the O'Grady wives and children were set upon by savages, and although they were well fortified in the O'Grady household, with logs driven five feet down into the earth, and although Dirk shot more than five Creeks and Peter himself a certain three, they were finally overwhelmed and men and women were slaughtered and children had their brains bashed out. Dirk had been pinned to the ground with a spear but instead of murdering him directly the savages cut the soles off his feet, and the last time his brother saw him he was running tied behind an Indian horse and screaming Lord-give-me-mercy.

 
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