Poetry | March 01, 1985

to Audrey Rugg 

Two white whales, the father and the bolster

That he hugs, rolling his sour stomach for relief

Until the medicine becalms. Something he ate.

High up in the hotel room the roof beams,

Carved with bluebirds and red crocuses,

Are thatched with shadows. Hammocks

Of cobweb luff in the rising heat.

His wife pages through a guidebook. His children

Finger new purchases, the girl her dirndl skirt,

The boy his Swiss watch with 17 jewels,

Already a glinting scratch across the crystal.

August, a rainy month in this small country,

A gray scrim lowers on the castle at the window.

Now he is snoring, whom the doctor sighed for

Listening to his chronicle that accused

Last night’s Italian dinner: “Ah, but you are a foreigner.”

Sleeping now, the man-long pillow in his arms.

 

Last night among candles with their children,

The parents took off their masks of worry.

The folio-sized menu backed with white satin

Printed in German came to life as boats

Of sauces, soup tureens, platters full

Of smiles. After the long, grinding climbs,

The stint of travel poverty, along rivers,

At shrines in passes without bathroom facilities,

They smiled, breaking their painted, wooden reserve,

Adding their children to their happiness.

Last night, in this reposeful cup

Between the upper Rhine and the Santis Mountains,

Happiness rose as light as a fleck of snow.

But then it spun, a harrowing spur,

All night in Father’s guts, turning singular,

Exclusive. He needs to be alone.

 

Out in the little capital, the day above

The heads of the mother and her boy and girl

Combs rain out that hangs too high as yet,

Lapsing over the castle’s roofs and windows.

The children ask questions about the prince

And reason that, being only a prince

And his castle small, he might welcome a visit.

But Mother says the way looks wet and steep.

They find a konditorei of covered tables,

Sober as snow in an empty city square

Where statue-like two pairs of men eat ice cream

At separate tables, a table in between them.

Two of the men whisper head-to-head.

The others, old and young, both smile.

The mother lets her children say the French

For ice cream, and at once the old man speaks.

His elephant ears are nests of silver hair,

His bald head faintly blue with broken vessels.

He compliments the girl’s black braids,

The boy’s blondness, and their mother’s youth,

Nimble with English, with flattery.

The white ice cream tastes sweeter than its color,

Like the flesh of pears and apples,

And comes in tulip glasses that, empty,

Show a smokey tinge and weigh no more

Than cobwebs. The old man keeps talking,

“It is a pretty place, our country,”

And they nod despite the weather. Then changed

By sweetness, they say, “Yes, yes, it is.”

He admires the boy’s new watch, the girl’s dress

Spotted with ice cream, and sympathizes

That Father back at the hotel is sick and sleeping.

Strands of wet snag on the window panes

Then rain falls in a rush, tress after tress.

“It is a pretty place,” he says again.

“You would not think it an unhappy place.

Yet like America it has its history,

Much older, of course, and just as sad.

Our little country gave up one in ten,

One in ten, 300 out of 3000, 300 years ago.

But you, too, know of witches hunting in America.

A kleinstaat, however, is like a small town.

There were jealousies and the wild assumption

That eternity could be won for the accused

And for the living peace of mind—with fire.

 

The woman and her children stare, enclosed

Now by the rain and by this voice,

This confidence that starts a conversation

Anywhere with anyone and tells a story.

“But the witches tale a child would love I know …”

The boy and girl swallow their ice cream

And feel it down their throats, a cold paste.

The old man’s young companion poises, but well—

The woman appears intrigued and arches

Her fine American neck toward him—he sees it—

Sap-gold as barkless fruit wood.

“The minnesängers have an old love song.

I could sing it but my voice has hit

Its tree line—rocky now. It goes, in sum,

That hunting once for capercailzie

(You know them? Game birds, gallinaceous),

A hunter pierced a woman in a clearing.

When he bent to her to break the arrow,

He held a mass of feathers that squirted away.

He followed the blood, like scarlet stitchery,

To a black hollow, slimey with old leaves,

Under a willow’s root. There he thrust in

His hand, and found a passage, fresh with air,

Lit by the door ajar at the other end.

At this door, he watched her, the witch, as you might

Watch one of your children dress for bed

When they are very young. He watched,

But she was not a child and not a hag, hurt

Above the heart, winding a bandage, so.”

And for the children, watching like witnesses,

0’s of ice cream circling their mouths,

He makes the motion as if tying a band

Around his own chest. “She knew he watched,

Knew when the wound was dressed,

He too would be bound. She made the knot.

The door opened—and she had him!

She set him up in feathers,

A capercailzie cock, to finish her autumn forage.

His plumage blurred among the evergreens,

The gray, green, and black shadows,

His will mute, his protests. Then, an arrow

Broke his first flight and he was free.

This hunter was the daughter of a count.

She found him lying as he had found the witch,

But he stayed human in her hands, oh yes,

And spoke to her, healed by her touch,

Which was as smooth as polished fruit wood.

She was fascinated that a bird, in a blinding second,

Now lay in her arms, a man. He spoke …”

 

A pop like a flash bulb’s startles them

There is a quiet second of deadened breath.

One of those weightless tulips has been broken

At the other table. The German cries

Coming through cupped hands are quickly translated

To the mother’s shock: ” ‘What have you done?’

He’s saying. ‘Why?’ ” The attacker,

The glass stub in his hand, shakes his head, dazed.

He does not know what he has done.

His friend’s nose, split at the tip, pokes

Through one hand, the other curls over eyes.

Both children glimpse the blood; their mother

Whisks them out; the rain has stopped.

At the hotel, the bolster lying against his thigh

Like the pillar of salt Lot might have taken to bed,

Father’s his old self, rising like warm air,

A thawing breath of valley-flooding wind

Rolling timbers of welcome against them,

The red-eyed children, the pale, shaken wife.

He’s ordered supper, been reading about Italy.

What is wrong? She tells as much as she can:

A brawl in a coffee shop, a man shoved

A dessert glass into another man’s face.

And the children go on about a story

Of bird-men and women, and a bald man,

And witches burned here by the thousands.

Father feels weak again. The evening comes.

 

She meets the knock as if she dreaded

It would come, one hand on the door’s panel,

The other on the knob, pressing against opening,

A quiver from her running through the door.

In bed, her husband, feeling better now,

Leans curiously. The children stand in bathrobes.

It is the young, silent man from this afternoon,

The one who translated the cries for her.

“I have come to make apologies, I hope.

That was not a picture of our country,

No more than we get on TV of your country.

I came to make it up, with gifts.”

He gives each child a clear, waxed envelope

Holding three stamps. “We make them,”

He draws his hand, thumb and index pinched,

Beside his temple, squinting. “Engrave them,

Uncle and I.” The children peer at them,

Three rectangles of sunstruck reds and blues

Embossed with black tracery to make

Three stained glass windows: a coat of arms,

A haloed woman holding a church, and another—

They know her—Mary with her baby.

In the upper corners, there are landscapes

Made of sunlight. Bowing a little,

The children put the stamps back carefully,

Surprising their mother, and say, “Merci. Danke.”

But when she turns to him as if to receive

Something, too, he shows his empty hands.

“No,” she smiles. “How did the story end?

The hunter was about to speak. What did he say?”

“The story? Yes. Let me say

It was not right even without an end.

The cock makes many flights, always coming back

With what he finds—grubs, grains—

For the witch’s winter. He loves her.

Love is his spell. Shot by the countess,

This spell is broken and he must die.

In another version, he is just a bird

In love with a human being, doomed

By his feelings. These are big birds,

You know, these grouses. The horse of the woods.”

 

Her husband has drowsed off and wakes,

Looking attentive, like a turtle poking out

To watch the continuing drift he might have—

But doubts that—he has missed.

She sees between them a fraternal commiseration,

The two men about to speak, turning away

From a woman and her children, to that peculiar language

That, now she knows, can break glass in a face.

Already, the splinter of this place

Glints in her memory, point-in.

What has he suffered but some indigestion?

What has he done but missed it all and made her

Present for it alone, with no more than children?

He nods inside his snowy, mountain shell.

“You are ill, sir, I understand,” says the stamp engraver.

“Yes. Something I ate last night. Canellone?”

“Possibly. But, of course, you are a stranger.”

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.

SEE THE ISSUE

SUGGESTED CONTENT