Mother was old now. After all the years of being her son, I could finally judge her age: old. I wanted to say, ‘Just yesterday you were still young, Mom, but today you’re old.’ But that is not the thing you say to a mother, especially when she’s come to visit and is settled by you in a wicker chair on a porch.
The boy was drawing, the sun was sliding into the pocket of the horizon; the ship lay tethered to a roving sea.
‘The sea is roving under our eyes,’ my mother said.
‘The sea is roving, Dad,’ the boy repeated. He was fond of replaying certain words when their sounds suggested a shape or an image to him. He often made drawings of sounds, like the word ‘sound’ itself, which looked like an empty cave with a hanging light bulb, or the word ‘pirate’, which he once represented – in his more literal, realist period – as a rat-shaped pie with an eye patch and a needle-thin sword.
That was just a visual pun, I explained, a translation of parts of a word to a picture, and thus was much less interesting than his usual, more abstract and evocative images. He agreed, he said, but it was much harder to make images representing the heart of a word. Those images were painful to make, he said, because they did not come from his eyes but from a place deep inside him, from a place he had no words to describe.
From your soul, I wanted to say, but explaining that would have taken him too soon to a world he would one day, and on his own, discover. For now, he was drawing from life the ship at anchor in a flat sea. He put a full red moon above her bow though there was none there in the sky, nothing glowing there at all, not even a hint of a star as the night fell. Soon we would have to put on the porch lights and soon we would have to go into the house.
‘This will be for you, Nana,’ he said, holding up the unfinished drawing to his grandmother.
‘Why don’t I take you along with it,’ she said. ‘Then I can have both of you all the time.’
He laughed. ‘Nana, my Nana,’ he said.
‘Do you want me to get you some tea?’ I asked my mother.
‘I’ll be going home soon,’ she answered. ‘Stay here with me a while longer and let’s devour the time together.’
‘Let’s devour the whole night,’ I said. ‘Anyway, what’s the point of going home when you’re already home?’ I liked her, my mother. I loved her as much as I had loved my wife.
The boy looked up from his drawing and said, ‘Don’t go, Nana.’
‘I’ll think about that,’ she said. ‘Come up here and give me a big hug first.’
He rushed to her, throwing his arms about her neck.
‘Stay with us, please,’ he said.
‘Well, since you ask me so nicely, my dear boy,’ she said, ‘I think maybe I will.’
‘Stay forever,’ he said.
‘Forever’s a long time, don’t you think?’
‘Not long enough, Nana.’
‘Forever’s an eternity. I’d gladly spend an eternity with you, just as we are, right now,’ she said, hugging him to her.
It was soon his bedtime. He made no fuss but asked that his Nana come up and read to him, as she always did when she stayed with us.
Of course she would, she said, since little else in the world made her happier than to read to him, to be with him, to kiss those cheeks so smooth with childhood, and his eyes, she said, to kiss those eyes so sweet with life. She took his hand, letting him lead her, step by step, up the stairs to his blue room papered with stars.
When they left, I brought out my binoculars and took a long look at the ship in the last light. She was a shabby hulk, black paint scaling off the bow, rigging flopping in the breeze, lines laying about uncoiled in slack heaps. Some men appeared now and then, smoking in a shiftless way, looking over the gunwales toward the shore, towards me, a speck on a porch. I waved, but no one answered.
The ship had lay there all day and into dusk and now, at night, lolled about with her running lights in dull glow, like a string of dirty pearls. When I went up to see the boy, the ship was out there, and even after I kissed him goodnight and turned off the light she was still there.
He was reading one of his Tintin books when I came in, and looked up at me at the last possible moment before he felt it impolite not to do so. He had good manners, in any case. You carry your civilization with you; his Nana had taught him that at an age when it could stick. He took to the idea instantly, seeing it as part of a game, which indeed it is. That was what had made him seem older than his years – his manners, and the kindness beneath them, which gave them value.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I know you want to go on reading but it’s time for sleep.’
‘Well,’ he said, as if considering the point, ‘Why don’t you read to me.’
‘It would be the same thing,’ I said, ‘because you would still be up and awake.’
He nodded. He seldom argued unless he thought I or the world was being unfair. ‘Unjust’ was his ultimate word of disapproval. A friend who had struck him in the back or a teacher who had berated him for another’s wrongdoing was unjust, as was the world which caused night to come before its time. Tintin was his hero, because he was a boy who sought justice and fought to set the world right in all places and at all times of day.
‘What does that ship want out there, Dad?’ he asked.
‘Who knows? Nothing much; it’s just floating about until something better comes along.’ The odd truth was that she didn’t drift much the whole day, her position staying fixed as the sea dragged at her anchor and the wind pulled her from stem to stern, roving her about.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘there’s a ship just like that in Tintin, where the sailors keep the captain drunk so they can do whatever they want.’
‘What did they want, my son?’
‘To do mischief, Dad.’
‘You must know a lot about that stuff.’
‘Not me, Dad. I just do good mischief.’
‘The mischief is that you just tricked me into letting you stay awake three more minutes.’
He laughed, having seen the justice in that.
‘Goodnight then, Dad.’ He waited for me to kiss him. The final one until morning and the protective seal against the bumps in the night.
I turned out the light and left the door open a fist wide so he’d see the reassuring hall light if he woke up in the dark. I stood by the door a few moments until I was certain he was asleep and safe in his dreams. Then I made another visit.
My mother was in her room reading. Ever since I could remember, she read in bed before going to sleep. One of her few certainties, everything else just slips away, she always said. As her husband did – in good health, in good mood. In love with his wife, with his work, with his son, me.
In a second he was gone. Mid-sentence, so to speak. On the phone laughing with an old friend one minute and in the mute other world the next, the phone still in his hand. Comical, actually. As if Death had no interest in hearing the whole conversation. What is so pressing that makes Death so curt, so interruptive of the narrative? Death, clearly, has no sense or desire for the complete story, which means he has no curiosity. Which is why he is so flat, so empty. A silhouette of action.
‘Reading again, Mom? After lights out!’
‘Oh! Just catching up with the past,’ she said. She had earlier gone down to my library and pulled out The Pilgrim’s Progress.
‘A heavy stone before sleep, don’t you think, Mom?’
‘Not heavy enough,’ she said. ‘I was looking for The Magic Mountain, but you seem to be all out.’
‘I’ll have it for next time,’ I said, ‘and in German.’
‘Does he miss her very much?’ she asked abruptly.
‘He doesn’t say. But until a little while ago he used to call out for her in his sleep.’
‘You know that I generally love you,’ she said, turning from her book, ‘but I love him more.’
‘Maybe you just love him more freshly. In any case, I would feel the same.’
‘I’d like to be around a while longer, long enough to see him when he first falls in love. That would be sweet,’ she said.
‘He’s always in love now,’ I said. ‘Every week a new fling.’
‘Not that way,’ she said. ‘The passionate way, I mean.’
She was once a beautiful woman, my mother; she was a handsome one now, more vain of her figure then when she was young, when she said that only the mind mattered, that while the body grew old and ugly, the mind lasted in its attractiveness. Mothers always tell their sons that, hoping they will not be stupid when they grow up, hoping they will not mistake the beautiful form for the soul in it, although sometimes the two may be joined.
‘You mean the sexual way, Mom. Isn’t that what you mean?’
‘That too, of course. But mostly, I want to be there to help mend his broken heart the first time it gets broken.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, mouthing the platitude one says to the old: ‘You still have a long time ahead of you.’ She gave me a sly look: it said, who’s kidding whom?
‘Let me have ten more years, until he’s seventeen. He’ll be fully ripe then for love.’
‘And what about you, Mom? Are you ripe for another love?’
‘Not just now,’ she said. ‘Right now, I’m just roving. I’d rather meet a new book than a new man.’
‘I thought you had read them all,’ I said.
‘Just the good ones.’
I took her hand and kissed it. ‘You’ll outlive us all, Mom.’
‘I’d rather not,’ she said. ‘I’d just be left alone with bad books in bad bindings.’
I kissed her hand again, longer this time. And then once again. It was an old hand, like the parchment of a pirate map.
‘Sweet dreams,’ I said. ‘Till morning.’ Exactly her words to me at bedtime when I was my son’s age. She’d blow me a kiss, and I’d imagine the cloud of her breath coating me with an invisible armour against all the world’s harm.
‘I may make an early start,’ she said. ‘I may be gone before you wake.’
I shrugged and turned up my palms as if to say, ‘As you wish.’ My protests would have been pointless. Not my son’s though: what is more persuasive, after all, than a child’s earnest plea?
I went out and across the field to my studio. My mother’s light was still on even some while after I started trying to work. Where was she now in Bunyan’s pilgrimage, I wondered, and what was so compelling about it to keep her awake for so long? The world and its stories, we’re famished for them, and maybe, I thought, that is why Death is so jealous of us, since he has no story and is just an agent of terminations.
I was not an exceptional painter. I had gotten used to that idea long ago, before the boy was born, before I met my wife and fell in love with her. It was good for us that I had made that accommodation with myself before we met or I would have been an unhappy husband and a miserable father, gnawing at myself for my limits. What I could do well, I did. I found pleasure in the work so long as I did not yearn for what I was incapable of becoming in my dreams – an artist who painted what had never before been seen and who thus made the world newer and more interesting. The boy might one day do that. He was, I liked to think, already on that path.
I excelled in paintings of seascapes and harbour scenes, boats in port at sunset – lighthouses on cliffs in the whirl of a white storm I also did very successfully. Not very original work, but mine, I liked to think; work which was rewarded not lavishly but sufficiently well to keep a decent life.
For my own pleasure, perhaps for the glow, the vanity of the association, I made copies of narrative paintings long disregarded by the Modernists but still beloved by a few, myself included, obviously. Poussin was then in progress on my easel. Not him, naturally, but his painting in which shepherds are contemplating a plinth inscribed with the words ego in arcadia sum. ‘Even in Arcadia I am’, meaning Death is omnipresent, even in the most beautiful places, where life richly abounds, where bounty reigns. I had still to finish the figure of the shepherdess, a woman ravishingly solid, and simple, like an Ionian temple in a sacred grove of cypresses.
I had been stuck for a while trying to complete her, because each time I painted her face, it was not the face Poussin had rendered but the young face of my dead wife. As if my mind saw one thing but my hand another, and nothing I did made the face look as I intended.
I sometimes thought it a good thing, a sign of something original living within me. But, finally, I could not bring myself to let my little hint of romantic autobiography disfigure Poussin’s masterpiece, so I sponged out my wife’s face, leaving the shepherdess’s torso headless, in white, anonymous space. Audacity in art and in life was never my style. Even at the end, when Death comes and pays his one and only visit, I know that I’ll follow him meekly, acquiescent and compliant. ‘No trouble,’ I’ll say. ‘Here I come.’
I stayed in this self-defeating mood – the best to keep one from working – for who knows how long, when the boy rushed in barefoot, pale, and frightened.
‘Did you have a bad dream?’ I asked, lifting him up in my arms.
He did, and when he woke he went first to my room, where I was not, and then to his Nana’s room, where she was sleeping in a strange way. When he tried to wake her she would not wake. And so he came to me.
She was still in her bed sleeping, her book open. She was sleeping with blank eyes fixed on words. Was the story that bad, Mom, I wanted to ask, that you would rather have died than continue reading it, calling for Death to spare you from another boring syllable?
Nana was sleeping a sleep of sorts, I told my son. The sleep that carries you to the edge of life and then drops you into another life, one which we could not join while still awake. That is what I told him.
She was now where his mother had gone, where we all one day would go, where our souls would go, his and mine, too. The soul, I said, thinking it now was the best time to tell him, was that strange, unknown, invisible thing he felt inside him when he made drawings of sounds.
He knew that, he said, he had known it for a long time because Nana had taught him that long ago. But all that didn’t matter because he wanted his Nana here, with him, and not there with them.
‘With whom do you mean?’ I asked.
‘With the men in the ship,’ he said. He had dreamt that she was taken there, and that was what had woken him, his dream of her being carried away to the ship. So he was glad when he saw that she was still there in bed, until he realized, when she would not wake, that it was the other, invisible part of her they had taken away.
‘That was a sweet dream,’ I said, ‘but only a dream.’
‘It was not a dream,’ he said. She was there on that ship and, he added firmly, we should go there and rescue her.
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, ‘in the morning,’ after he had a good night’s sleep and thought things over in the daylight, in the light that dispelled dreams and brought them to reason.
‘It’ll be too late then, Dad,’ he said. ‘We’ll never get her back if we wait.’
My boy looked so much older now, when he spoke, older than I was, older and more knowing than the sea when it lies flat and blue in its bed.
‘I believe you, my dear boy,’ I said. ‘Yes, of course, we must go.’
And off we went, down to the dinghy, the boy at the prow and me at the oars, and we rowed out to the ship, glowing cherry red under the full red moon.
And no sooner had we reached the ship’s black hull then we were wafted aloft by a magical wind to its disorderly deck, and just as soon, as if on an elevator cloud, we floated below to a drab galley amidships and landed among a sullen, noisy crew and its unshaven, peg-legged Captain – who got right down to business.
‘You can’t have her,’ he said.
‘Then Death will,’ the boy said.
The crew went silent and looked about apprehensively. I was astonished at his words, almost as much I was by all the events that had led to them. He seemed so certain, my boy, of things unknown and strange, and it was clear that he was strongly in charge and that I was now under his wing.
Then the Captain laughed and, emboldened by him, the others followed suit, but hollowly.
‘What do you know about this matter, my little fellow?’ he asked
‘Enough to make you be sorry,’ my son said.
‘Sit down,’ the Captain said, ‘and let’s palaver like gentlemen of the world.’
He waved his arm and suddenly the galley glowed with rich furniture and golden lamps, and there appeared out of the air a huge candle-lit table heaped with golden bowls of fruit and nuggets of chocolates wrapped in gold tissue. The Captain beckoned my son to sit beside him, waving me to the table’s other end, where I sat beside a man in silver trousers and a shirt so blue I could see the sky.
‘Well, lad, what have you got to say?’ the Captain asked, spearing a red pear with a silver poniard.
‘Well, sir, I want Nana’s soul and I want it back inside her.’
‘I have her soul, but I can’t undo what Death has done, and neither can you. So that’s the final word on that,’ he said, slicing his pear to a sliver the weight of a breath.
The crew murmured their approval of their Captain’s firmness.
‘Hear, hear,’ my tablemate called out.
‘I understand, Captain,’ my boy said. ‘Death has his power and you have yours.’