Avatar Review

Carmelinda Blagg


     He believes if they were to cut his body open, they would find all kinds of maps inside. He sits in his blue wingback chair surrounded by boxes.  His daughter, Eva has been busy packing his things all morning.  He knows what she thinks.  That he cannot live on his own any longer.

     Perhaps she is right.

     An old topographical map of frayed and yellowing silk is spread out in his lap.  It shows the Pyrenees with their jutting, undulating ridges and cartoonish halos of clouds shrouding the tallest peaks.  Stains the color of tea freckle across its sheen.  When he lifts it up to the light, he can see the threads separating, the blotched faded images of mountains and sky wavering against the bright air.  With a palsied finger he traces its lines, remembering the gray winter landscape of France, his stomach flat against the earth, his cheek resting against his rifle.  He had floated down to earth; the dome of his parachute spread open like a vast apron in the sky.

     He remembers the open grave they had ordered him to dig, the clumps of dark, muddy earth on his shovel, his face sweating in the freezing air. He remembers the smell of the earth.

     Eva is playing a CD of Mozart arias, her voice softly echoing the soprano's.  She sounds like her mother. He closes his eyes, drops his head back.  He dreams of the open grave, thinking of his escape.  Harrowing.  The stuff of novels, which he had turned it into.  Six years of work.  Now it is just a thick dusty manuscript, thanks to that sorry New York agent who couldn't sell ice cream to a six-year old.

     "Poppi?"  Eva touches his shoulder.

     He opens his eyes, looks around.  Bare windows.  The room feels strangely unfamiliar.  He looks up at her face, her quiet eyes, her slight smile.  She has her mother's voice, her pale beauty.

     "How about some lunch?" she asks.

     He nods.  "Did you know when your mother left me, she not only took you and Niels, she took the good silver, too?"

     Eva drops her face, purses her lips, shaking her head.  "Oh, Poppi, that's so long ago!  You know how she was.  She just couldn't stand being away from Vienna."

     "She couldn't stand not inflicting her own kind of punishment."

     Eva laughs.  "For God's sake, Poppi" she sighs.  "Why do you always drag yourself back through all that ancient discord?"

     "Ancient what?" he mutters, feeling irritated with Eva as she turns, heads back to the kitchen, singing along softly again, Exsultate jubilate.  Beautiful B flat above a C.

     "I'll make you a sandwich," she says, partly jubilate.

     "You know I only tell you these things now to make you laugh," he says. Her voice rises again.  She chides him as she spreads mayonnaise on bread, laying slices of turkey and tomato on top.

     He looks at the silk map.  The sky is a flat blue, but he remembers it as something at once deeply iridescent; something you could travel through without ever hoping to get to the other side.

     Sonya still remains a bruising mystery.   He had met her in Vienna after the war, when her star as an opera singer, was rising.  She was from Linz.  He would watch her at the Statsopera backstage.  His vigils had been many, the bouquets he had delivered to her dressing room elaborate. His patience, his adoration had ultimately proved persuasive.  They were married in a ceremony at the Votivkirche, the church founded by a grateful Franz Josef.  By the time they crossed the Atlantic together, she was pregnant with Eva.

     It was a world no longer at war.  They were happy.  They flew to America.  He promised to build a house for them by the sea.

* * *

     There are things for which a transcript does not exist.  Things which belong only to him.  It is hot in the small hospital room.  The window is open, only partly, because there is no screen.  There is, occasionally, a breeze, but it is so hot, so utterly stifling it makes breathing painful.  His right thigh burns.  The pain emanates through a dense, morphine induced slumber.  It is the kind of pain that stuns him into a deep silence.  The hospital is in Naples, and from some of the windows, other soldiers can see Mount Vesuvius, calmly rising from a mist in the distance.

     He cannot see the volcano from where he lies.  Beyond his window is a gray building. Lines of laundry hang in startling profusion; row after sagging row of white bed sheets and lace underwear, T-shirts, a man's khaki pants, a woman's cotton scarf that carries a pattern of roses, children's socks that look like the tongues of animals.  The building next door was bombed, but this one has remained, and the women here still insist on hanging the laundry in the sun.

     He sleeps.  It is not yet the future for him.  The wound on his thigh has been cleaned and stitched.  The torn ends of his skin have not yet fused.  The bandage is large and wraps around his thigh like a woman's girdle hugs her waist.  His knee is a swollen yellow knot, twice its size.

     He hears Eva, it must be Eva, moving boxes, muttering and sighing, but it feels as if she is miles away, like a vector on a distant horizon; and it is only possible to discern the aura of her fretfulness, her disagreeable love.

     He dreams.  He is swallowed by that dream.  The dream of the boy who is running, always running.  He runs across a field, wearing dark shorts and a white shirt, arms waving in the air.  There are large gray clouds above, blocking the sun.  The landscape is flat and brown and open, and there are trees,- fruit trees, pear and apple, that look small against the sky and in the sky the gray has swallowed the blue.  There is a low fence, the fence he built to enclose the orchard, and the boy runs alongside it, his fingers grazing the white wood as he races towards the house.  The arrangement of tree and fence and field and sky have become distorted; stretched and expanded so that everything is smaller and too far away.  The boy is too far away and it would not be possible to run after him.  Now he cannot see the boy, cannot see how small he is as he loses his footing where the ground slopes downward.  But he remembers where that shallow dip and rise of earth occurs, how easily it breaks one's stride, there just near the orchard.  He knows that before the lightning strikes the boy, he will cut his knee on a sharp piece of rock as he falls, before the force of the lightening throws him, leaving him lying there stunned and motionless out beyond the last pear tree. The telegram rests, like a folded handkerchief, on his bandaged thigh. He remembers seeing the words about the boy and about the tree -- which he imagined to be the pear tree he planted when they first bought the farm - and about the lightning.  There is nothing about the boy's bleeding knee, nothing about the swallows that he knows would have been there, flying mournfully above, fleeing the storm clouds; nothing about the boy's face, startled and mute.

     It is not yet the future for him.  He remembers the telegram, but was it in the dream?  Or did it make the dream?  A breeze lifts the telegram and it falls away from his bandaged thigh, floating to the floor. The sound of Eva's voice; something that brings him back, something that locks him in time.  One summer many years later, he sits on the balcony of his small apartment on Amelia Island watching the sea.  Eva is there, sitting across from him, quietly peeling an orange.  She asks him about this boy who, had he lived, would have been her half-brother.  He is quiet at first, but then, in a low voice, he tells her the facts of what happened.  He talks about how the boy just tripped, a freakish accident, and then the lightning struck.  Eva listens, nodding, her mouth drawn down as slowly, carefully, she lays pieces of orange peel in a neat pile on a small glass table between them, his tumbler of bourbon nearby, ice melting in the sun.  He remembers the simple declarative words of that telegram; how his incomprehension betrayed their clarity.  And the dreams that followed.  Always, those birds are there circling the skies, always that unbidden premonition of how quickly the sky darkened, how the drops of rain gathered, pouring through the trees in the orchard as the boy's breathing ceased.

     The sea moves in, retreats, making a sound like breathing, over and over again.

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