“What shall I do without Eurydice?
Where shall I go without my love?
O heavens! Answer!”
– Orfeo ed Euridice, Glück
On the farthest shore of the stillest lake, the boatman was only a child. I thought he would be older – skeletal, perhaps -in some kind of robe. He was just a little boy in dirty, mismatched basketball shoes, and a worn-out soccer uniform. He was covered in jewelry. His fingers were coiled in rings that sparkled even in the muted moonlight of this place. His neck was covered in necklaces. His wrists and ankles were lined with bracelets. His face was hollowed out, like the kids I had seen with me in the cancer wards.
His paddle boat was not what I expected, either. It was a plastic two-seater. Both people had to pump their legs on bicycle pedals to drive the little boat forward.
Of course, paddle boats are always rentals.
-Hey there, lady. You going across?
-I guess so.
-You can swim for it, but you’ll drown.
-Or, we can take your paddle boat.
-Yeah, but you gotta pay me for it. They leave you anything good?
-You want jewelry?
I pointed to his hands and arms and ankles and neck.
-Yeah. Or money. No paper money. That stuff don’t count. Only coins. One Euro’s good, but not a hundred. I don’t give change.
-I got you covered, kid. Why?
He grunted at me, and shrugged.
-Got anything good for me?
I slipped one of my earrings out. I handed it to the boy.
-Do you take pearls?
-That ain’t real pearl. The gold is real. I like gold.
He plucked it from my hand and ripped off the fake pearl, leaving only the gold stud. He turned around, and I saw his back, at last. He had earrings lined up on his back like fish scales. He felt around with his hands for an empty place among the pearls and bangles and loops.
Feo hadn’t even left me wearing my grandmother’s pearl earrings. He had left me with the fake ones I wore when I was hanging around our apartment. I hope Feo gave my grandmother’s pearl earrings to my sister. He would.
The boy struggled to find a place for the gold stud on his back.
-Just a minute. Can you help me find an empty spot?
I looked closely into the dense jewelry pinned to his shirt.
I saw a place where my little stud could fit in the center of a hanging hoop. I touched it with my finger.
-There’s a spot.
-I like coins, better. You can make wishes with coins.
-What do you wish for?
-If I tell you, they won’t come true. Don’t you know anything, lady?
After I placed my golden stud without a pearl on his back, he adjusted his clothes after all his contortions. Then, he helped me into the little plastic paddle boat.
-You have to paddle, too, or we’ll just spin around. It’s not funny.
I sat down gently on the plastic seat. The boat rocked. The dark surface of the lake rippled gently, like heavy ink.
He flopped into the seat next to me. I startled and grabbed the edges of the paddleboat. He laughed at me, and it sounded like coughing. He smiled at me, with a kid’s goofy, gap-toothed smile. I started paddling and he didn’t do anything to help. He sat there, smiling. The boat spun in circles
-I thought you said it wasn’t funny to do that?
-It’s only funny when I do it.
I stopped peddling.
-If you’re going to be this way, I’ll want my earring back.
-You can’t have it. It’s mine, now.
-I’ll swim if I have to. Give me my earring back and I’ll swim.
-I’ll want it exactly as I gave it to you, too. You’ll have to fix it. You’ll have to find some glue and find the fake pearl where you threw it.
-Yes, fair. If you’re going to be a brat, I’ll take my earring back, and you’ll have to fix it or I won’t go anywhere until you do.
He conceded with a grunt. The little grump set his jaw like a tiny boxer. He stared straight ahead at the far shore across the lake. We paddled together. We still drifted towards my side, but we didn’t drift too far.
(I heard Feo’s voice in the distance, far behind me, calling out my name. I thought of turning back to look, but what was the point of looking backwards, now? The past was never farther from me than it was at this moment in time.)
The boy looked back.
-He ought to wait his turn.
At the farthest shore of the stillest lake the boy guided our paddleboat to a giant abandoned amusement park, all lights off. I stepped off onto a wooden dock among the paddle boats. I was careful not to get my feet wet on the rock beach. I had heard about these waters. The amusement park’s fence was cut up, and rusty. It wouldn’t keep a soul out of the park. From the fence, I looked in at all the rides, and they looked no better than the fence. All the doodads and whirligigs had snapped limbs, and everything was loose in a swamp rot. Bits of thread hung like cut shoelaces from the parachute drop. The rollercoaster in the distance wouldn’t survive someone walking along the tracks, much less the running of rusted cars.
I went straight to the funhouse, in the center. I wanted to see if I could walk on the ceiling, now, where all the furniture was pinned up. I wanted to walk through the surprises that jumped out to scare people. More than anything in the world, I wanted to lose myself in the mirror maze.
I walked through the giant clown’s mouth, past the ticket booth and the turnstile that counted off visitors. The number on the turnstile was very high.
Just past the turnstile, the employee’s-only door hung open. I peered inside, at a small dressing room. A yellow dog slept on a pile of torn clown costumes, in the center of a three-way dressing mirror. Three reflections from three angles slept there, with the dog.
I walked inside with my quietest steps, careful not to wake the animal or the reflections of it.
I looked at myself in the dressing room mirror. I was a dark shape, there, so far back from the mirror, and draped in black. I searched around the room for better clothes.
Garish clown clothes hung on a rack beside a dressing table that had no mirror, anymore. Wigs in heaps across the table. Empty drawers open, everything dusty with bits of hair.
I took a vest that appeared to be my size. I selected the cleanest-feeling wig from the dresser. I carried them back outside. I walked five steps away, softly, from the sleeping dog. I shook out the dust from my new things. I stripped my black suit jacket off, and replaced it with the clown’s vest. Out in the moonlight, I saw it had yellow stars, all shaped at odd angles, in a field of bright, joyful red. I removed the respectable wig Feo had gotten me for Christmas, and scratched at my bristly scalp. My new wig was a bright, purple ball of whimsy.
I stepped past the entryway, into the funhouse.
The first little room of the funhouse was full of optical illusions. A black and white picture on the wall could be spun in its round frame. Viewed one way up, it was an old crone with a hideous nose. Viewed the other, it was a beautiful woman in a wedding gown. Other pictures were of either elegant vases or mirrored silhouettes of famous presidents, all cracked with mold and damp.
I climbed down a set of stairs, looking for the mirror maze.Dogs barked in the distance. They barked and barked. I heard shouting, too, and maybe music, but it was muted too much by the funhouse walls to make it all out. It didn’t really matter to me.
I quickened my steps down into the depths of the funhouse.
Kerosene lamplight spilled out from a doorless doorway up ahead. I walked towards the flickering kerosene, quickly.
A strongman sat on a bent lawnchair. His oak tree face squinted at me from atop his giant’s body. He wore a leopard-skin unitard that only reached a strap over one shoulder, the sagging muscles of his ancient chest exposed.
-Nothin’ to say. All are welcome here, no matter what.
I looked past the old, resting strongman, to the room he had chosen.
A long chain of metal chimes, like a giant’s xylophone, accumulated cobwebs along the wall. I imagine children were encouraged, once, to pound the chimes with hammers and make the cacophonic music of the very young to rattle through the funhouse walls like ghostly chains. The chimes were silent now, and not even the kerosene lamp light seemed beautiful reflecting off the scratches and scuffs.
A magician’s assistant slept on a cot in the corner beside the chimes. She had a rough, military-surplus blanket, but beneath it she wore a spangled leotard and black fishnets down her arms and legs. Stiletto heels waited like red cats at the foot of the musty cot. She did not wake up for me.
Adjacent to the xylophone, two clown statues gestured at passageways into the mirror maze. One clown was an entrance, and one clown was an exit. This was the place I had wanted most.
The strongman picked up a can of beans from the floor behind his boot. He ate his beans cold with a rusty fork.
-Go on, then.
I did. Into the mirror maze, alone. I gazed into my own eyes, and looked my body over from every angle in the world. I stared ahead at the bottom of my feet, and above at my own side. I found my right face to my left, sideways from my own self.
My funereal make-up was layered on so thick, and so plain. I hated it. I smeared my eyeliner around the thick layers of foundation with my thumb. I used the back of my white sleeve to pull the heavy, purple lipstick wider. I wanted to be smiling, not serene.
-Look me in the eye and do you see how happy I am, everyone?
Everyone was smiling at me. We were all so happy here, and everywhere we looked there was someone lost, and found again. Every corner in the mirror maze is the shadow of the lost and found, attempted embraces with glass, and laughter. We were all friends here, in the mirror maze, and all of us were smiling and dressed like happy clowns.
Then, I heard a man wailing. I heard the strongman laughing at the wailing man. Was it another one like me? No, I recognized the wailing man.
-Feo has come for me.
-Well, the strongman won’t have any of that. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I can hear the tone of the shouting. I hope they don’t wake the strongman’s wife.
-There, it’s quiet now, friends.
The chimes shuffled off their dust and cobwebs. Mallets struck the cobwebs loose. A tune echoed through the funhouse walls.
I recognized that tune, like I recognized the voice.
-He’s come to win you back, everyone is saying.
-Well, I don’t want to go back. Dying was so much work. I was glad to be rid of the old bones that let me down so badly in the end.
-His song is so beautiful. It might work.
-Have husbands ever come here looking for their wives?
-Of course. Dozens. Hundreds, even. A giant came once that grabbed the strongman by the throat and shook him like a leaf to rescue another man’s wife that the giant had accidentally killed. Men come here, and win back their women.
-Any wives ever come for husbands?
-Of course not. Don’t be absurd. Why would we?
-Exactly. Women understand. Birth and death are our domains. They are too worldly.
-Still, such a famous husband…
-Have you ever lived with a composer? You think his song is beautiful on the chimes. And it was beautiful on a piano, too. Then, after the week had passed, and he was still hammering out that same tune (My famous husband! The composer! The genius!) I couldn’t escape the song. I wandered the city, humming it. I rummaged for apples that were just right (He would only eat Roma apples, but I’ve managed to fool him with some Braeburns once or twice when I changed the sticker.) and I had that horrible tune stuck in my head, chasing me everywhere I went, and making me forget which apple is which. And the musical pacing! At night, he woke up and paced, humming to himself, that same tune and variations and counter medleys while I was just trying to get some sleep. God forbid I missed a note on the piano. I used to love playing the piano, but not anymore. No, not anymore.
-Did he ever beat you?
-No, he never beat me.
-Then, be grateful. Many of the others were beaten, and their husbands came here looking to beat their wives for dying when we weren’t supposed to. The husbands were so angry at their wives, they’d do anything to hurt them again, even follow them here.
-That’s awful. No, he didn’t beat me. He never beat me. I almost wish he had sometimes.
-Don’t say that! That’s awful!
-I said ‘almost’. It would ease the tension in the air and give him guilt to carry so he’d treat me better. Look, have you ever been married to a creative genius? Do you know what it’s like? All the mood swings, and constant grumbling and moaning and whining about this critic or that critic, this review or that review. Sometimes, he’d throw things around and act like an ogre and he was just trying to get himself in the right mood to write an angry part of the music.
-That’s not so bad.
-You didn’t have to live with it. I was always walking on pins with him.
-You sound like you didn’t love him at all.
-I did love him. I married him, didn’t I? Wait… I know this part of the song. He’s going to add a counterpoint. It will be lovely, even on those musty old chimes. He really ought to find an organ. This song sounds lovely on a big, grand pipe organ. It does. Look, I admit it. I’m glad I heard his best song one last time.
-You’re still in love with him. You love his music, too.
-Of course I love his music. Look, just because I loved him and his music, doesn’t mean I want him here chasing after me.
-What about him? Who will take care of him?
-That is an excellent question. He can’t take care of himself. I kept the bills paid on time. I put him on a strict allowance. He collected butterflies, you know. He’d spend a fortune if I let him, spending everything on dead butterflies in jars and bins. And him in the kitchen? He could start a fire trying to boil water. I’ve seen it happen. The towel he used to lift the pot’s lid was too long and caught fire. He didn’t know what to do about it. He held up the flaming towel, utterly confused, with no idea what to do about it. Someone has to take care of him or he’s just lost. He’s completely lost.
-Listen, the song is so beautiful. Don’t you want to go back to him?
-But I had to be quiet all the time, living with him. I had to walk quietly, with muffled steps. If I made too much noise, he’d shout at me to be quiet. I watched television with headphones. I listened to records with headphones. If they got too loud, even in the headphones, he’d come up behind me and thump my head. He’d shout, I need it quiet! I’m trying to work! God, I had to be so quiet all the time. Here is the part where he starts singing. He’s got a lovely voice. He could have been in musicals. He had wanted to be an opera singer, once, but he didn’t have the voice for that. Musicals, though, he’d have done well in musicals. Ready, two, three, and sing, my love!
-To live with his beautiful music… Maybe it will be different this time.
-For a time, perhaps it will. Listen, don’t let the music fool you. He’s not a beautiful man, inside. He’s clingy, and sweaty in summer nights, sweating all over you. He loves spicy food and farts constantly. Burping, too. Here’s where he will let the chimes echo, and he will just sing alone. Really, it’s lovely, the absence of the chimes. Listen to him. Doesn’t it make you want to weep, how much he loves me?
-Of course it does!
-But it’s a sham! He has talent, that’s all. It is only talent. His love for me is no greater or smaller than any man’s. He just has more talent to express it, that’s all. His grief is nothing special. Look, the song’s almost over. One more muffled chord… And… There.
-Oh, it’s over. Oh, it was so beautiful. How could the strongman refuse such a song?
-Easily. He’s no softie, that strongman. I saw him myself, eating cold beans with a nasty fork.
Songs don’t sway men like the strongman. A good fight, that’d work. Not music. Listen, do you hear the strongman, now? He’s laughing. Good for him. No song will work on the strongman. Look, let’s leave this subject alone. I’m sick of it.
-Listen to the chimes, now. It’s the oldest song in a child’s mind, as nostalgic as it’s enemy, the lullabye: the chime song of a grandfather clock, and waking up. He starts his song again.
-The strongman won’t listen to him, don’t worry.
-Not the strongman now. Do you see in the corner of the corner of the shadow by the dustmite and the cobweb? There is a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of your husband. There he plays on, a beautiful song of love and grieving, but he plays for the strongman’s wife. She’s woken up from her dream. She’s rolled over in her cot to see the melancholy composer at the chimes.
-Well, that’s pretty smart of him. I could get Feo eating out of my palm if I wanted to. I could really get him going. I could get his attention no matter what. I had my ways with him, more powerful than his songs.
-Now the strongman’s wife is crying. Weeping, even.
-My husband… He could find another caretaker for himself easily enough. There are plenty of wealthy divorcees lingering in the opera halls, waiting for a song to burn them back to life. It was hard work, dying. It took months of work. Doctors and nurses and all sorts of technicians were involved. They were all very smart, hard-working people, and it’s so rude of my husband – so typically rude – to throw their constant effort back in their faces. Not to mention the undertaker… The people at my funeral…
-Look, I can see the strongman standing up.
-His wife is crying. Looks like I’ll have to go, soon. I don’t know when I’ll be back, my friends. If I ever cried, Feo would do anything – anything. That’s what husbands do. It was great meeting all of you. I’m sorry I have to go so soon.
-The strongman is here, in the mirror maze, and he’s coming for you.
And, like magic, he appeared.
-I’m leaving, aren’t I?
He wasn’t the strongman, anymore. He had been wearing a strongman costume that was all an illusion of lamplight and mirrors and latex over foam muscles. The old oaken face of the man was the same, but beneath the thick strongman costume, he was dressed like a stage illusionist in a black, velvet suit. It was a very dirty suit. It had holes in strange places, and smelled terrible.
-Hey, you’ve got to come with me, now.
-He made your wife cry, didn’t he?
-I told him you’d go with him. The bastard. I don’t like people coming here and messing with my wife.
-I’m sorry he made your wife cry. I didn’t want him to do that.
-Bastard thinks he won, too. I’m supposed to let him take you. He has to watch the far shore, and never look back. If he looks back, I’ll kick his ass and you stay here forever. I don’t want to see his ugly face, looking back where he made my wife cry.
-I’m sorry he made her cry.
I’ll walk so softly, just like when he was working, and I had to be so quiet. I couldn’t imagine children in the apartment, making noise, making him yell and fume and stomp. I couldn’t imagine piano lessons, with him leaning over their shoulders and correcting them all the time, every missed note and every wrong inflection of the palm above the keys. Look, I love him. I married him, didn’t I? I put up with all his ways for years. But then, I got sick, and it was so much work to die, and it was the most work I’d ever done about anything, and it was a lot of work for a lot of very smart people to keep me hanging on as long as I did in pain so I could be with him a little longer, because I love him. I sacrificed enough for him.
I’m flattered he came. I’m very flattered. Don’t think that I’m not. I’m grateful, too. It’s just that here I am, where I’m supposed to be, with all my happy new friends, and he’s come here to take me away and he never asked me what I wanted. It was what he needed. It was for himself that he came here, not for me.
I’ll be quiet as a mouse.
He won’t trust the silence. He’ll hold his breath and listen. Composers have excellent ears. Better than cats’ are composer’s ears. All they asked of me in life will curse them now. I won’t whisper. I won’t breathe. I won’t let my arms swing and brush against the cloth of my fabulous new vest.
He’ll turn and look. I know my husband. That is what he does. He is impulsive. He will walk without hearing me with his brilliant ears. He will call my name. I will not answer him. He’ll turn.
He’ll turn and look at me.
I’ll smile for him, a madcap smile with my new wig and my new vest and my improved make-up. He’ll barely recognize me because I’ll be so happy to see him one last time. I’ll smile and tell him I love him, and I’ll wave. Then, I’ll run away as fast as I can.
When he’s gone at last, I will scrub the funeral off my face at the night lake of forgetting. I’ll look up at the moon. I’ll howl so loud you’ll think I’m a banshee.
I’ll howl for a thousand years.