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N OTES  of an A RTIST
(to himself)

by Miles Mathis

 

~~~~~~~~


Preface

As the discoverer of this volume, and therefore, by default, its editor, I have little to say in the way of an introduction. I have been pressed by the publisher to comment on its author, and its mode of transmission to me, in the briefest possible terms. This is all to the good, since my knowledge of Mr. Mathis begins and ends with the "autobiography" (for lack of a better word) that follows, and since its transmission to me is explained in one sentence. I found it in the house I had just bought, and which I had assumed was empty of my predecessor's perquisites. Actually the house was littered with the most personal objects imaginable, not just papers and drawings, but all manner of what some might call "interesting" finds, quite a few of them unmentionable. I was in the way of burning everything I could sweep into a pile when Amelia, my wife, arrived and immediately stopped my housecleaning. It was her opinion that, with some people's perverse interest in art, we might have something worth publishing. Unfortunately, the fire had already consumed all the drawings and paintings, so we will never see their value at auction. The illustrations in the book survived with it, and they may give you an idea of the author's taste. All I am allowed to say is that I am not an artist, but his tastes are not mine.

Amelia and I divided the typing of the work between us, deciphering Mr. Mathis' handwriting and blots of inks as we could and correcting spellings and filling in the most obvious word omissions or doubles as we went. We did not edit for content, or for readability (obviously). I can't honestly say that we read everything for meaning, since, in my opinion, that would have been futile. I am told that the publisher has gone back and reinstated the British spellings, as a nod to authenticity, but even the author's usage is inconsistent, and the whole issue is a hash. Amelia believes that the work should be read as a diary, not as a novel, making such matters irrelevant. For me this changes nothing, but that is all I will add.

The questions I have gotten from those who have read at least the first few pages concern not the narrative, but the illustrations. Where are all these works? The author claims that none are extant. Is this true? If true, where did he get these reproductions? Are these the only extant reproductions? I have no information to share on this, and I'm not sure anyone does. I destroyed a number of works, but not the work of a lifetime. Even the author admits this. He recounts how many were lost, and dismisses the rest early on. I am almost certain that none of these works were among the ashes I swept out. I think it is best to accept that we are dealing with a figure of slight historical importance, and to leave it at that. Many people have lived who we know absolutely nothing about. It should not be surprising that some were artists, or that some have died only recently. Certainly my several calls to England have been unfruitful, and the corroboration of other claims of the author will have to be left to those with more interest in the subject.

I will close with the theory that much of this autobiography, or diary if you will, is a creative fiction. Whether these works ever existed in the context the author claims is unprovable, in the same sense that the rest of the story is. All we know is that a very old man lived in my house on Canyon Road, that he died there, and that he wrote, or at least signed, this book. The rest is speculation. The whole adventure, from meetings with famous artists, and remembered dialogue, to the poems (his own and those of others), to the paintings and drawings, are none of them backed up with any scientific evidence. Just as an example, what is one to make of a poem from a ghost? I am sorely afraid that, despite everyone's wishes to the contrary, this work must stand or fall on its own. My best wishes to the author, for his good fortune is mine.

Eugene Lockley, PhD (September, 1940)

  ~~~~~~~~

Publisher's Note

It will be noticed that 58 years have passed between the composition of the Preface and the publication. The events of 1941 precluded release by the original publisher, which company is now defunct. The Lockley family lost interest in the project until recently, when it was exhumed by George Channing Lockley, Vice Provost for Womens Studies at New Mexico State University, Portales, and grandson of Eugene Lockley, PhD (1903-1971). Mr. Lockley has requested that his grandfather's prefatory remarks stand in lieu of his own.

Contrary to the desires of these "editors," we have treated this document as an historical one, whose value is yet to be proven or disproven. Obtaining the temporary possession of the original manuscript, we have printed all of the author's words as he wrote them. This has always been our policy, as is stated below our colophon. Likewise, as another part of the historical record, and by the same policy, we have printed the editor's remarks unedited for content; that is, unexpurgated. Mr. Lockley, as the owner of this manuscript (by that age old law of finders-keepers), is entitled to his opinion as to its value and authenticity. And you, as the reader, are entitled to know that opinion.

 



Chapter the First

Death is an otter
swimming rings around the moon
riverdaughter writing runes around the sun

Life is a fish
gills wide in flight from webby paws
scaled son-of-stars, stippled child of middlenight

Death is a bear
dancing a buzzing whirlpool fur-fearless
and honeycomb drunk

Life is a bee
pollen-dusted in sexy flower hop
unaware of ursa dipping overhead

 

Should the apocalypse arrive tomorrow, crashing down like waves of glass, galloping down a black and sea-torn wind, Satan clawing up from under us with his mass of horses, bridling and stamping for our souls, there are a few things I would like to have done with. To have finished that is, so that they stand in time regardless. One of these things is already done. One of these things is my paintings. Another is this letter, this letter posted to my bones, that I must surely scribble more quickly if my hand, with the world, is in fact shrivelling tomorrow. This letter I am writing, from my head to my hand and back again (a tight, feckless circle I am willing to admit), must be finished if I am to sleep in peace as the Demons go roaring overhead. It tells my story. And in telling it closes it.

You must understand this, diggers beyond the blast, unearthing loaming pages for your re-education: I am not who you were told I was. I am not that larger-than-life toppling monolith of a statue-man. Nor am I no one. I am who I say I was, and if you don't think so, you are wrong.

Who I am at this point, before the beginning, before I start telling you this story, is an old man, writing at an old desk, with a goddamned old pen that I would like to stomp on and give to the goddamned devil, except that it's the only one I have. I now understand why the sages have retired to the tops of their pillars, silently muttering curses; or measured deserts by the length of their bodies, like mad caterpillars; or whirled like frenzied dervishes, as in some manic attempt to dislodge earmites: the reason, of course~spluttery nibs. The holy man goes into the wilderness in search of a typist.

The year is 1939, you see, and I am in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where proper nibs are very hard to find. Goosefeathers everywhere, so to speak, but nary a usable nib. Also, I am angry whenever I have to write paragraphs like these two instead of that first one. Straight narrative bores me to bloody hell, but I have been assured by all concerned (I'm fibbing here~I'm the only one concerned) that I have to offer the reader at least the smallest and most widely and haphazardly placed steppingstones through this bog of my remembrance. That is, I must find a way to use a number of pedestrian writing devices, which even the most Zennish and progressive reader requires, such as times, places, people, dialogue. A certain Ladyfriend, who I am proud to say is not quite as old as I am~who is still partially mobile, that is~assures me that, at least at the beginning, I need to provide the groundwork of a shore before I fling (to speak jauntily) my fidus Achates, my faithful reader, into the ocean's maw. This I am attempting, with almost no success (I am told from the bed). This Ladyfriend is mouthing, with the largest possible fishmouth, the word "description" at me from under a blanket of cats and pillows, but is not happy that I am describing her, even if in the tersest and least incriminating of ways. She suggests I invent some succulent adjectives for my bald head and blue-green legs, but I think I'll pass. All you need to know about me, physically, at this point in my maturity, is that I retain the hands that Degas himself once called elegantes, and that I sleep unright, like a horse, with my coat coppertacked to oversize stretcher bars.

But enough of that. I know you clever people, who study fossils and other muddy things, find it amusing that I will not be young or normal or happy or whatever it is that all of our grandchildren and their hopping offspring are becoming after the Millenium (or just around the corner, leave it to me not to know). But in the back of my tottering brain, where the future exists for me, where possibilities beyond my brain are created by my brain for my brain's pathetic amusement, there is a boy, or maybe a girl. A little artist who has survived all the genetic upheavals and the masses of black and scary horses, chomping and chomping. An anachronistic egg hatched by the warmth of an unloved Sun. A solitary sea turtle flapping in an eddyless ocean. To this little dot of green, making his way, making his way, I say flap, my friend, as the laughing gull flaps above you, as the coelecanth still sucks below you. Make your way and I will see you somewhere, maybe, there where van Gogh, like a pale-blue peasant, coughs up his absinthe and toothes his pipe, where Cellini pulls down the very angels to crack a head, where Michelangelo sleeps on stone, a fine white dust clinging to his eyebrows like pollen on an oblivious bee.

And one more thing. You non-turtles, you slippery spirits of the aftermath who study letters like mine for profit, analyzing and interpreting for the amusement of your pathetic brains (brains which cannot paint to save their lives): To you I say this, and I am right. Leave us be. Let alone this message. It is not for you.

Dear Little Turtle, I am you. I am neither the hand writing nor the eye reading. The hand reflects. The page reflects. The eye reflects. And I am back to you.
   What will I tell you in this story of yours? Whose voice will you hear in your head? Read fast or you may hear yourself telling me this story of mine.
   When you were born you were very small and somewhat younger than you became. You were senses~movement, sounds, pains, pleasures. Everything you saw was you. Everything you felt was you. It was yours.

Do you know better now?

Once you reached for the breast. You saw it: you touched it, you tasted it. Once you reached for the moon. You saw it: you could not touch it, you could not taste it. And you understood. Near. Far. Big. Little. Dark. Light. Me. You.
   But you were not wrong before. The breast is still as the moon, yours and unreachable.
   What must you forget to remember what you have never known?
   I am you. Tell me.
   When you were born you were very large and older than you would ever be again. Nothing was not you. Since then you have whittled you down to yourself.
   When will you tire of whittling?
   An old man is a master carver, his life a pile of shavings. Sweep them into a pile and burn them to keep the young warm.
   The old man is dead.
   You have in your head, Lord knows why, what Leonardo said: "I thought I was learning to live. I was only learning to die."
   Do you know better now?
   Nosferatu drank blood. No master carver he. But blood is no more nourishing than breastmilk. Or moonbeams. Or board nails. Fire consumes wood. The tree consumes the sun.
   Are you tree or wood?
   As a baby, you brought everything to your mouth. You were the world and the world became you as you consumed it. The moon and the breast. The tree and the sun. Before you knew the difference, all were equally nourishing. Do you know better now?
   Let me tell you. I am you.
   As a child you slept eighteen hours a day, nourished by dreams, nourished by the you that is now not you. Awake, your work was play. Not whittling, but building. Now, no longer a child, you die by degrees. You burn your wood. The sun burns you. All is whittling. You master carver, asleep on a bed of shavings. But you do not swallow moonbeams whole, or blood or breastmilk either.
   You have told me this, so I know.
   In sculpting clay the sculptor adds on until a whole is reached. In sculpting stone the sculptor chips away until a remainder is reached. Are you stone or clay?
   Tell me as I sculpt you.
   What were you at eight? Do you remember? Has it been chipped away or does your clay still contain it?
   This you must know.
   Some there are who feel that every breath is owed to the air, and who exhale only from a sense of guilt. Those who cannot justify the length of their arms or the width of their beds. Those who are abashed to find their own footprints behind them in the sand.
   In ballet it is the dancer's duty to fill as much space as possible, to devour the air and to blanket the four dimensions.
   This is called beauty.
   In painting it is the artist's duty to consume the world, to demolish it and rebuild it with in the blink of an eye, to surround it as with a net, or the grip of a vast hand, and to squeeze from it its essence.
   This is called beauty.

Dear Little Green Dot, flapping a frothy sea, This is our latest story: my life. Or, if you like, the events ~such as I remember them~ from 1858 to now (interspersed, nay, crammed, with an extravaganza of extraneous and only obliquely related diversions). Those who like a straight line, pointing neatly and quickly to the last page of the book are invited to read the last page of another book. This one hits some narrative~I can't say for how long~precisely here:
   I was born a speckled egg and blue.
   In hot bath and cold bath Mummy would scrubb me white and shiny~would have scrubbed all my corners oval if she could, I think~but as soon as I was towelled and replaced under the chickens to sleep till dawn I would dream a spotty dream, holding myself by the heels over a cerulean Styx and counting the river monsters. Closing my eyes and holding my breath, I would dive for dragons' teeth and smooth black stones, my speckles being bites from those stygian beasties where the blue would not dye. These were the pores of my vulnerability, my St. Sebastian's arrowholes. I kept them plastered with rabbitskin glue and champagne chalk. Mummy and Poppy did not know these things.
   To get just a morsel more prosaic, and for those who find such information indespensible: I also had a red birthmark on my left knee, which soon went away. No doubt this was some omen of great urgency, which I have never been able to unravel. I leave it to the art critics of the future, who, if they are incredibly creative (and what art critic isn't), may be able to spin a Master's thesis or two out of such rich biographical material. Personally, I would tie that red knee into the poesy dream in the preceding paragraph, if I could find any way to do it without getting mawkish. But I can't. What else? Eggshell blue eyes and wavy blond hair (that went spirally at fourteen; and grey at 45; and mostly gone at 60). But never chubby, never cherubic (that was my little brother). Not a lap child: marginally pinchable, if at all. I have been told there is something devilish about my eyes~or my gaze, at any rate. I know who I am~I have never really scared myself~but no one listens to such things. A man is no longer taken at his own estimation. I may be guilty, I don't know, of a faraway look, or an unnatural seriousness, or perhaps even a good dose of standoffishness. None of that Stephen Daedalus blather, mind: I was no playground wimp~no muling, sickly, watcher-from-the-wings (remember that Leonardo, invert that he was, nevertheless could bend iron bars with his bare hands; that Cellini and Caravaggio fought anyone who said a crooked word to them--Cellini called himself 'Il primo uomo del mondo: the best man in the world'; and that Raphael was the most glittering jewel of the Court, sleeping with every Florentine woman between the ages of 15 and 25. Only the modern artist is a milquetoast). If I were being completely honest here, and I know that is beyond the realm of hope, and probably of necessity, I would describe myself, even in the crib, as an old man just waiting to get grouchy. Only my closest acquaintances can tell you what a bullseye that is. But it is also misleading, given away as a tidbit this early. For I was by no means a teary child, or a screamer. Mummy wrote quite proudly in my babybook that my 'terrible twos' lasted only a week (apparently I was very impressed by the beatings). I don't know how interesting any of this is to perfect strangers, but I do feel I have to flesh out my early life a bit, just to keep this whole enterprise from going completely topheavy.
   Here I remind myself, before I lose all confidence, that my reader is but a tiny green turtle, with the patience of all long swimmers, and who will beak up even seaweed if times are hard.
   So, as I was beginning to imply, I was rather a melancholy tot, comparatively. Not terribly social. Although friendly enough when pressed. I keep going back to my babybook for verification, (which is the only piece of corroboration I have from that period) because of course I want to believe that I was the perfect child, serenely well-adjusted from the zygote, only with the ill fortune to be birthed into a poorly adjusted world. Mummy is good enough to supply me with this quote, on page 18 (one year, eight months): 'Child quite (sic) as a mause (sic). Cheery, long as he has his thum (sic).' I don't think I need add much to that, except perhaps the fact that my 'thum' later saved me much trouble with tobacco.
   I might say here that this babybook I have already mentioned twice was posted to me from my little brother Fritz some years ago when Poppy died. Fritz, as the son that stayed on, of course got everything else, and a precious little everything it was, but he thought I might know what to do with this babybook (short of burning it, he said). It arrived, in San Geminiano I believe, just before the war, complete with a number of my earliest drawings interleaved throughout, on the yellowest and most sawtoothed of pages. For some reason there were also included, as bookmarks, a number of old twigs and larch leaves that I could make nothing of. When this parcel was delivered to me I was working on an outdoor mural for an Italian cakemaker named Potino or Pitono, I can't remember and don't care, and the mural began to disintegrate almost before I got to the train station, so I had other worries. I later heard, through a tortuous and transcontinental grapevine, that all my lovely fresco heads lasted until the next heavy rain, but no longer. Whether that is true or not, I can't say; but I didn't look at the baby book again for almost thirty years, until I got here and set up this tortilla stand/studio, and began thinking about writing this, this, this whatever this is.
   The first tangible piece of evidence I have that my life has not been a complete fiction, the hallucination of some drowsy orangutan or precocious porpoise, is this scrap I offer you dated 1860. It is only one of many similar figures scrawled across a page. This, I take it, is my first portrait:



   

[illustration here]

I do not remember who this might be a portrait of, although I suppose it is a self-portrait, my little brother being some three years younger and Poppy not having any hair at all. Also, his legs were longer. I found this little doodle~which is hardly prophetic of any future talent, despite the oracular ears~next to page 26, which shared this complaint of Mummy: 'cant keep him from marking the walls.' Her words are proved on the same page, which is covered with pen marks that look, to the untrained eye, like french fries floating from margin to margin. In my mother's tiniest printing, at the bottommost edge, is this: 'him again.'
   I almost forgot. The title of my baby book is Baby Milestones. This title caused me some trouble when I was a hobbledehoy. I still consider it, to this day, a perplexing co-incidence, but one I have never had the proper fortitude to pursue. At three, the question that became foremost in my mind, understandably, was why my brother's book was not entitled Baby Fritztones. I leave it to the historians and art therapists, whose thesis cups are beginning to runneth over.
   So I need not exaggerate, I am sure: I was no Mozart or Thomas Lawrence. I did not perform for Princes or Popes. I was only speckled. Speckled-and-blue. Not that everyone could see that I was, mind. Auntie Joan, more optimistic than accurate, liked to say that I was 'sunnyside up.' Uncle Nigel never failed to retort, my oddities being evident from an early age, 'Contrariwise, the boy is scrampled.' Until I learned, like Pavlov's dog, to flee at the beginning of these pronouncements, I suffered Uncle's inevitable follow-up to this witticism, which was, of course, a make-believe egg being cracked on my downy pate, fingers running down like yolk.
   Be that as it may, my natural propensities did begin to assert themselves, and to demand recognition, even as I looked on blamelessly, unaware of my own fate. My speckles, which were both my arrowholes and my bowstrings, would not fade or be blended. I will show you another one of these speckles, hiking my trousers and rolling my sock like a schoolchild exhibiting a precious scab (another 'baby milestone'):

[illustration here]
 

Mummy: But, Milesy Pie, whyever is the caboose so so small?
                     Me (age three years, three months): 'Cause, Mummy, 'tis further 'way, course.

 

This dialogue is imaginary. I needed it, so I made it up. But some conversation much like it, if not so lollypoppy, did take place (Mummy's pet name for me is no creation of mine, and I still have it sewn into all my frocks and pantaloons). One of my earliest memories is the family myth that built around the drawing of that train. I think the shock of it forever dazzled Mummy, and she could never look at me after that without confusion, as if trying to figure just how we were related, what incubus had known her. For if you think my parents were shocked that I had some innate understanding of perspective at age three, you see only half the story. They were shocked to discover that there was such a thing as perspective. They had never noticed it, and didn't want to admit it when they did. I honestly think Poppy considered it a sort of black magic, that two train carriages, which everyone knew to be identical, could look larger or smaller, according to position. I could see him look at the ground, to avoid considering the implications. He swore off looking at faraway objects, especially people, though he never admitted it, because he couldn't but imagine them as Lilliputians, stuck forever in three-inch bodies. If he espied them, in this faery state, he might curse them to that world forever, and end up a Giant in a land of Tom Thumbs, inadvertantly crushing friends and family under his Brobdingnagian boots,like errant eggs.

[That was all from chapter 1. The following is an excerpt from chapter 2]

I had made it near to London, past the village of Woking, near the banks of the river Wey, and all my store of apples had long since vanished. I sat down upon a mossy rock, listening to the chitter-chatter of the tiny birds in the rushes, when I became aware that the birdlets and I had other human company. There was a faint song wafting up from nearer the river, and it was not coming from the breast of any feathered beastie, no matter how small and quick of heartbeat~for it contained words! Nearly as high-pitched as birdsong, it yet meandered in ways too beautiful even for them, and betrayed a complexity of melody beyond the reach of beak. I crept closer to the sound, slipping amongst willowy fronds and tufts of stalky grass, and stepping gingerly between small patches of peaty water and cupfuls of bog. On the bank of the slow-moving Wey, about a stag's-leap in front of me, knelt an elf of a girl, maybe half my age~that is, five or six~with nothing on her white body but a pair of brown muddy clogs. Compared to the dark girl in Salisbury, she seemed near an infant: heartbreakingly small and delicate, almost pocket-sized, or duodecimo. And her hair was the lightest possible shade of tow: so light, you know, that her eyebrows were all but invisible. In a portrait, the shadow cast by her eyebrows would be darker than the eyebrows themselves, and would be the only thing you could paint, the only indication that she had them. Try it and you will see what I mean. Her skin was bluish white, especially in those areas normally covered. White to the point of transparency. The blue cast was caused by the veins underneath. Despite this, she did not look sickly or pale~not pale in an abnormal sense. She was not wasted or bony, just very small. Her clogs looked as if they had been stolen from a ragdoll, or from Benjamin Bunny. I might have used one to lure fish.
     She was in the process of washing her dress in the current; and, as it was a warm day, and, more to the point, since she had no other clothing, this was her method. It mattered not, for her little corpuscle of a behind and miniscule torso were completely undifferentiated, and if not for the length of her hair and the dress she rinsed among the weeds, I could not have told her sex. Still, I wondered momentarily at her lonely choice of worksite and seeming abandonment, until I espied, not twelve steps to my left, a sleeping man, whom I took to be the child's father or guardian. He looked as if he had just fallen from a Brueghel painting, minus the codpiece. He was very poorly dressed, and needed the same dunking his daughter's dress was receiving, both his clothes and his person. But he had nevertheless such a wholesome and carefree air, and smiled as he dreamed, that I never once feared for the safety of the child, or even of myself, should I wake him. He was clearly a vagabond, but I judged him none the worse for that, being for the time a wanderer myself, and scarcely cleaner even than him.
     I continued to listen to the child's song for a moment, enchanted by the carefree manner and unselfconscious wording she gave to the common tavern song she chirped~in a register surely two octaves above what it had ever benefitted from before~and by the curious lilt she gave it with an accent I judged to be Scots~although it was different from and much stronger than that I had encountered in Meg's speech. No doubt she had learned this rather bawdy rhyme from her father, and the words were not those one is accustomed to hear from a six year old. But, like a first-time opera-goer who speaks not a word of Italian, and yet is transported therefore all the more by the delicious quality and sheer virtue of the human voice, I attended only to sound and not to meaning, and the child's message might have been a holy cantata directed straight to heaven for all I knew or cared. And, in fact, it was, from her point of view and my point of view and heaven's, all other considerations being null.
     As she paused between staves, I halloed in the smallest possible voice, so as not to alarm her. She peeped around, and then, without a hint of shame or awkwardness, stood up and began wringing out her dress. I suppose my visage has never been one to cause sensible beings much fear; and besides, it occured to me later, this sprite was a world-traveler, camper with gypsies, and all-night walker. The sight of a twelve-year-old boy was nothing to her, whoever he might be.
     'I 'as to let me drress drra-ee', she began, 'or I'll be a mite col'er than I am. Yer nae a scared a gayerls, are ya?'
     This was her sound, though I'm not sure I'll keep up the dialect. I never cared much for reading a lot of misspelled dialogue, no matter how realistic it seemed. Her effect was singular, though, you may be sure: such a strong accent~as I had never heard~from such a wee thing. My accent was strong, too, as you have seen, but it was completely different. And I didn't know I had one, whereas hers was almost untranslatable to my provincial brain. Even more shocking was her question about girls, which put me at a complete disadvantage. Not only did she seem to see right through boys of all ages, with her very framing of the sentence, but she seemed to have a knowledge of relationships that I would never have, and even to be somehow above that knowledge, even at six. Such has the feminine mind always seemed to me, whether at its greatest complexity, or, as with her, at its least.
     Besides which, the situation at hand was so ludicrous~and I was quite unclear to what extent she saw that. Even were I unafraid of girls under normal circumstances, these were not normal circumstances. A naked female, of whatever age, dazzles the spirit of the male, even in a childish predicament like this. From the time of Uranus and Ge, from the time that Sky looked down on Earth unclouded, there have been unexplainable storms and winds; and my feet seemed to move beneath me and I swayed perceptibly. It was not fear I felt. Call it awe. It was a tiny sandwich of awe I chewed. It was not so much how she looked, for the physical differences between us were still small. But I now knew she was a girl and that made all the difference. She was no more woman than I was man, and yet the slimmest sliver of iron has its own magnetic current, and my fascination at her nakedness could not be quelled. The queerest thing of all, though, and what made some part of me laugh~some part beyond the storms and the tug and the pull~was that she was without dress, but it was I that seemed transparent to her.
     Her cleft drew me to look at it. And so I did, like a child. I felt no excitement, for I was all pre-sexual body, but I am sure I beheld it with a more artistic eye, found in it more amazement, than she would have beheld me and mine, had our places been switched. She might have laughed. I was bemused, but never amused.
     I explained my fascination with all such feminine things as strictly artistic for many years, my middle years of confusion and timidity. I lied even to myself. Or I would separate some interests as sexual and others as artistic. Or I would feel obliged to separate my models from my lovers, to keep my art impulse 'pure.' All nonsense, as I now see. Desire and inspiration are hopelessly and needfully muddled from the beginning, and there is no distinguishing them, or any reason to.
     So I stared, intently and long. Remember, I had only seen myself and my brother up to that point. Finally informed, my ignorance abated for the time, I remembered myself and continued the conversation. What I liked most, though, is that she gave me time to look, did not tease me for looking, and never mentioned my looking. Everything was understood from the beginning.
     'I'm not scared,' I answered her.
     'Help me with these clogs then. You can wash this one. Don't drop it or you'll have to get in and get it. They float.' She hopped on one foot, twisting her clog off. Then handed it to me. It was wood-soled and it did float. 'This is the river Wey, you know. Deddy says always when we come here, "We be going by London and we'll stop by Woking on the way. Ha, ha! Deddy is very clever like that, you know."'
     We washed the grime off, using rocks and twigs to scrape away the mud caked around the soles. Then, without further ado, she leapt in and paddled about for a bit. Suddenly she cried, 'I forgot soap,' and ran out of the water to her father. She found a cake of yellowy soap in one of their bundles, none too fresh it looked to me, and skipped back into the water. I watched all in the highest interest. I might have been there or not been there, it was the same to her. She washed her hair and splashed around in a desultory, dreamy sort of fashion, looking close at the ripples in the water, and then 'Ah! A fish! A fish. I don't like him!' she screamed, laughing, and jumped back on the riverbank like a frog. She shook her hair out good and long, and wiped as many droplets from her skin as she could, especially from her arms and legs, to avoid the chill. Then she ran up and snuggled into one of her father's folds of clothing, on the downwind side. She might have just as easily crawled into one of his pockets, like a puppy, or a large shiny coin, so little space did she occupy in the three dimensions. At this, the great bear awoke, put a massive paw on the shivering child and, seeing me, said with an uneven grin,
     'Hoi, hoi! So ye've met me little salmon, have ye? Me little waterbabby? Whenever I "swear by the salmon,"* that's what I'm swearing by, the very thing,' he said, motioning at the little girl with his elbow. 'Looks laike we could use the same sort o' biling, you and me, a bit o'water on the limbs 'ould do us roight, eh, Laddy?' And without further discussion or introduction he got up, putting his great tattered coat over the clean child, and proceeded to bathe just as she had. A hulking, shapeless, hairy figure he was, of not so much interest to my eye, I need not say. But I watched all the same, if only out of curiosity this time. His hair was reddish blonde, rather long and scraggly. His beard was of like color, with flecks of grey, and was perhaps four inches long. His nose was long and straight. His eyes deep set but blue. Well over average height, he weighed possibly 17 or 18 stone, or more. He smelled strongly, though not of drink, and markedly less so after he had soaked for a while. But, as he did not wash his clothes, and as more than half the smell of him was in them, he ridded himself of less than half in the water.
     I declined his friendly invitation to bathe not so much from shyness (I was, after all, a cottager, and therefore not above river bathing) but from the awareness that the sun was going down, and that I didn't want to get back into my clothes wet. Once he had got his trousers and shirt back on, though not buttoned, he came over and shook my hand.

*An oath of great antiquity and solemnity used by gypsies and other wanderers, originating in the ancient Gaelic myths of Tuan mac Starn.

     'Trelawney's the name. But you can call me Trelawney.' This impressed him as humor of the highest sort, and he chuckled long and low to himself, subsiding only when he could see there was no chance of me joining him. 'Over there, that little fish is called Sif. Just Sif. S-I-F-as-in-fish Sif, she is. Ane that roight, wriggles? Caught her one day on me great line and never threw her back. And never will throw her back, till she grows scales and swims away before me eyes.'
     She looked up at him sheepishly, without expression, but obviously in full agreement. This was what he always said. And that is the way she always looked when he said it.
     After a time I explained to Sif and Trelawney that I was on my way to London, and I said that if they were also going into the city, perhaps we could travel on together. Trelawney answered that they were stopping just outside London, about five miles from here, but that they would be happy to accompany me that far. As we walked I asked him advice about London and learned somewhat of his history, and Sif's. He carried a great pack on his shoulders, a pea-green pack in which a whole brood of Sifs might have ridden comfortably. I did later see her ride on the top of it at times, as a matter of fact, like a wee Sultan on the shoulders of a hoary pachyderm. Whenever Sif walked, though, the pack flowered with various poles and rods and nameless (for me) tools of great length that Trelawney left assembled, the easier to re-use. The tools were used in various skilled trades that Trelawney practiced throughout the Two Isles, mostly outside the biggest cities (where he felt 'like a plum in a pudding'). He knew somewhat of masonry, in which he could do the roughest repairs or the finest carving; of knife sharpening and sawblade retoothing; of woodworking of all kinds, from carpentry to simple sculpture; and he even dealt in scrimshaw and other ivory work of the most divers and wondrous kind. This last trade he plied as both dealer and artisan, collecting salable pieces in ports from Lochiver to Bantry Bay to Yarmouth, and carving his own intricate specimens from whalebone and sharktooth and elephant tusk. A few of these last he showed me, digging into his pack and pulling out a felt-lined purse about the size of a lady's muff. Unrolled it contained the most miraculous cornucopia of figurines imaginable: horse's heads, icons, mermaids, phalluses, porpoises leaping, stags jumping, unicorn horns, and naked ladies in every possible degree of contortion. These ladies impressed me the most, not so much for their accuracy in proportion and gesture, which was minimal, but for the loving attention obviously paid by the artist to certain anatomical particulars~which particulars may be imagined, and therefore need not be listed. Trelawney assured me he did a brisk trade in these chaste ladies, hinting that perhaps his very existence depended on them, both in inspiration and in coin. I won't say that Trelawney's example suggested to me the heights to which an artist could reach, given the proper subject; but it was perhaps put into my mind that art, of whatever level, might at least pass for one of the trades.
     Sif also had a collection which I was duly shown, and duly appreciated. In Trelawney's pack was another purse, heavier and unlined, which contained Sif's rocks. This was proof of the level of devotion from the father to the daughter, for this purse easily weighed more than the little girl herself. I couldn't have carried it across the road in a bet with the devil, much less circumambulated the British Isles with it. There were some lovely finds, to be sure and none to argue. A demi-geode was the star of the collection, which also included various polished river stones and a medley of sparklies~quartz, porphyry, mica, and the like. There was a chip of lapis lazuli, a natural agate marble, a disc of obsidian or jet (I could not tell), and a miscellany of serpentines, nephrites, and diorites. There were also bits of coral, a couple of very imperfect pearls, and other maritime refuse. One yellow sparkly caught my eye, seeming to be neither beryl nor topaz, and I asked Sif about it.
     'That one is a cairngorm. Cairn Gorm is great mountain in Grampian, where the Avon comes bubblin' out o' the ground. The northern Avon, you know. The river is only a fountain at Cairn Gorm, a rindle you could stop with your toe. But Cairn Gorm is high and buirdly, not as high as Ben Nevis, but a'most. Cairn Gorm is the brother of Cairn Toul and Ben Macdhui. Ben Macdhui is the tallest o' them by a bit. I learned that from the man at Balmoral Castle. He said at the heart of Cairn Gorm was a great yellow rock as big as the moon, and that if you peeked into holes in Cairn Gorm at night you could see it glowin' like a fiery di'mint. He said if you crawled in the wrong cave in Cairn Gorm at night, you'd be blindit. It's that bright. There was a blind man at Braemar, and he said that's what happened to him! Right, Deddy?'
     'Thars right, shiny fish. Thars what they said, a'right. Blindit. Couldn' see no more'n a cuttlefish in a kettle. No more'n a mole in a hole, Begore.' ('Begore' was, as I quickly learnt, Trelawney's pet oath, an exclamation for every occassion, like Poppy's 'Begad' or an Irishman's 'Begorrah.')
     I learned that Sif's mother had been a dancer, and that she had died in giving birth to Sif. Trelawney had buried her himself on the banks of the river Blackwater, County Cork, and had placed a dancing ivory figurine, carved by himself in her likeness, in her cold hands before throwing on the dirt. She and Trelawney had not been married, but he had known her longtimes, meeting on many travels. Trelawney had little else to say about her, and fell silent. Sif told me that since she was born in Cork she must be an Irish lassie, didn't I think so? I said I didn't know, to be sure. I asked if her mother were Irish.
     'Oh, yes. She was named Becuma, and had long white hands, the prettiest that ever were. And the reason she died was that Manannan, the god of the ocean, wanted her to be his bride, and Deddy couldna' say no to Manannan. So she sailt in her curragh down the Blackwater and out into Youghal Bay and Mannanan took her to wife in the sea and they have many pretty fishgirls who are all my sisters and I will see them someday and they will teach me to swim very fast.'
     I found this all quite fascinating, and said so. I think I believed it then, and I am not sure I disbelieve it now.
     But I said, 'Your way of speaking, is it Scots or Irish? I thought it was Scots at first.'
     'I dunno but its both and more again,' answered Trelawney, arising from his brood. 'I meself 'ave picked up so many ways o' talkin' and so many chopped words, I can't rightly say me ownself. Started out as to be Scots, as I'm Scots: Highlander until ten years old. Then Shetlan's, then Irelan', then 'Meriker, then Porch-e-geese (where I didn't know a word spoke for two years), then here again and all around here, stayin' on these islands for good. Sif's picked up a little word chice here and there, and allovers, same's meself. Might be mistook for just about anyone, 'cept a Porch-e-geese goose, right goosefish?'
     'How can I be a goosefish?' asked Sif, chickettin'. 'I'd have to have feathers and fins, then wouldn't I be a silly?'
     'Nae, there be a fish with a long neck, loike, and flippers looks like wings, long and flappy, and a beak, like this (making a long pointed kiss beyond his mustaches and chasing Sif like a great bird). Ay!!! Ayyy!!! 'Tis a wallopin' goosefish, and I'm the wallopinest one of all, and you're me little sea wormicle for breakfast, you are, rouff, rouff!' (grabbing Sif like a firelog and pretending to bite her arms and belly).
     Sif pummeled his head with her little fists~which had somewhat of the effect of pummeling a copper basin with live frogs~and Trelawney, pretending to be overwhelmed by the buffeting, released his catch. She scurried away to the grass on the edge of the lane, looked at us half-menacing, and then broke, almost as against her own will, into a slight grin. Then she yelped, 'I'm a gooseyfish~ goosey, goosey....rawwnk, rawwnk,' and circled us with her arms wide and her mouth open wide, wide. 'None can catch a gooseyfish, none can. Cause they swim fast. Look! Fast!' She passed Trelawney and swiped him with one of her 'wings.' 'You aren't fast enough to catch the goosey fish, you big walloping walrus mon, you big walloping whalehead mon!'
     'Nae, I doan think I am, fishy. Me whalehead is a might ploated from swimming roun' the whole world today. I think as I might just wallie about here and spout from me blowhole.' He reached into his breastpocket and pulled out a well-worn pipe, carved into the shape of a porpoise, and made ready to smoke. As he filled it with tobacco, strong and sweet, he put a hand to his mouth (to block his words from Sif) and spoke low just to my ear: 'Start a'fishing for the Sif-fish and she'll be tugging on yer line all day. Won't hardly leave you time to scratch your own itches, she won't.'
     Sif paused in her circling, seeing me addressed, and said, 'Bet you can't, anyway. None can't.' I smiled a half-smile at Trelawney, to throw Sif off-guard, and then suddenly lunged at her with a silly growl. She screamed and ran as fast as she could straight away from me, laughing. I gave a not too rigorous chase, letting her stay just out of reach, or slipping out of my grasp at the last moment. Finally I scooped her up into my arms like a great fleeing hen. She squirmed, and I held her, and we both laughed. Then, we stopped laughing. I didn't know what to do with her. She said, 'Put me down, Mister Boy.'
     Trelawney said, 'Ee's name's Miles, Sif.'
     'I know,' she answered. 'But it's a silly name and I don't like it. It reminds me of a signpost.'
     'Ee didn't name eemself, fishlet. Let 'em be.'
     'That I won't. I'm not hurting his feelings. Little people can't hurt bigger people. I'll call you Elfie,' she addressed to me, with complete finality and all the proper etiquette she could muster. 'Cause you look like an Elf, all curly and pointed so.'
     I thought 'curly' must apply to my hair (which was wavy but not yet curly, I think) and 'pointed' to my chin or nose. It wasn't to my ears. They have always been small and round and close to my head. So I took it all as a compliment. Impertinent, like Meg's impertinence, but still meaning no harm. And I have always appreciated a bit of cheek.

That settled, Trelawney proceeded to give me a wink and a nod as to the ways of the Great City on the Thames.
     'There be a kinder blighty area eastsides by the name of Little Saffron Hill. It's poor, but there's some good folks living there, same as anywheres. They's more like to take kinder on a half-growed feller as you is: which I can't promise for they gents westsides. Bloatin' around Picadilly or Chelsea'll get you nowhere but throwed in the workus or took for a thief and shipped to Australer. No matter what Mr. Dickings says, ant no Orphant made a Gentlemint everydays. Stay yerself east o' Sint Pauls and you'll have a chance of getting some bread from a mother whose wee heart'll beat for yer little angel's eyes for a day or three, til ye can get some work carrying something or scrubbing something else. Ant gonna be easy, Laddy. Ye'ed best a stayed in the fields, where food can be got or stole more easy, specially from them as you knowed. Be chary of the police, who's behind ever lamppost, and the thimbleriggers, who'll rob ye of yer wristbones and yer eyeteeth. Most important, Elfie (he said with a wink at Sif, who was now listening to his warnings to me), stay away from the lads of yer own age what's not got nae jobs. Them lads'll get ye in a kettle ye canna get the lid off.
     'Last time I took meself through London, that great den o' vipers~which I dunna do no more without verra dire need~there was a kind lady lived in Little Safron Hill, as I was tellin' ye 'bout. Look for The City Arms pub, under a great sign says Charrington's ales and stouts. If ye can't read, look for the letter C, like this (making a sign like that letter), like a great O with a bite took out on it, perched up high on a sign, and writ there bigger'n a man and black as the dewil's eye. Next door, or next door to that, I canna remember exactly, is a widder, poor but not too poor to give a good working lad a bit a porridge or a loaf if he's well-seemin'. If she's there yet, tell 'er it were Trelawney as sent ya. And Sif, too: she knowsa Sif. Sif doan know o' her, but she's seen the little bundle, when all Sif was is a bundle I kept next to me tobacker.'
     I thanked Trelawney for all his help~although I had forgotten most of it five minutes later~and shook his great hand (in which mine was lost) once more. Sif's hand I also shook, for she would have it so.
     Trelawney added, at parting, 'Keep to the narrow, Laddy, and look for us on the road, if ye have a mind to travel more. I wouldna' be sherprised if ye did, Begore. I wouldna' be tall sherprised.'
     Sif only said, 'Bye, Elfie.'
     'Bye, Sif.'


[painting of Sif here]


This is Sif at six, as I drew her from memory some years later. My drawings and paintings of her from life (as you will see later) look more like her. But somehow this one has always felt most like her, if you know what I mean.

I was reading this incident aloud to my editor-in-the-bed, rapturously caught up in my storytelling skills, when I suddenly received a pillow to the head. I ducked instinctively, half expecting it to be followed by a flying cat. The Aged Odalisque is of the violent opinion that my wordings are prosecutable, and that I will get us all thrown into prison. She takes especial opposition to Sif's 'cleft', or more precisely my cheek at calling it such, or even mentioning it. But, Dearest Lady Reclining, how am I supposed to have painted innumerable putti~the seraphim and cherubim~without having noticed the nude body? Is it possible to paint whilst looking the other way? And does God above, who created these naked children, not know all of their parts, by whatever name, not only their faces and arms? As Michelangelo said, 'Let me not be displeased by what is not displeasing to God.'
     But the hysteria does not subside. I am told that none but myself painted 'clefts' on his female putti, others preferring fortuitously or miraculously placed ribands or leafage; and that if my murals were always washed away or defaced, or crumbled of their own volition, it was divine judgment, judgment I surely deserved.
         Ah. Will the world never grow a day older?




[The following is from chapter 3]


But I'm getting ahead of my story again. At this point I should still be twelve, alighting from the piano and wishing Gerber luck at Cremorne Gardens, where he hoped to pass the hat and enlighten the masses. As the donkeys clopped slowly away, I stepped up to pull the bell, carrying my little clothes with me in a bundle. I looked up at the whitish walls dully reflecting the slow moving Thames. Then I looked out behind me as I waited, over Battersea Reach and toward Old Battersea House, barely visible in the fog. I sniffed the air, as one does on moist days, and caught a strange scent falling down over me, coming from above. 'Bobadee! [my own oath when I was that age, don't laugh],' I said to myself aloud, for I seemed to recognize that scent, as from a recurring dream. It was the smell of turpentine! I had never before smelled it, but I was immediately drawn to it, as one is drawn to ones past and to ones future. I don't know enough about life or death, even at my age now, to give a firm opinion on reincarnation; but I swear to you that there was a sort of recognition in that smell. It somehow confirmed to me, as much as anything before or since, that I was on my path, and that my map had led me straight so far. Nothing that day that was new seemed new; nothing that others might have found strange was strange to me. Linseed oil, too, smelled to me like my own pillow, so familiar it was. A man, married for ten years, who goes to war and returns, smells his wife's hair and knows he is home. These smells were that to me, though I can never explain it.
     As I stood there on the threshhold, agog in the telling of my own subconscious fortune, a youngish man opened the door and asked my business. I still was dressed as Mrs. Curlew had dressed me~that is, not too poorly~so the man was not impolite. I had no card to show him, so I explained as well as I could Mr. Whistler's request that I sit for him. He seemed to find nothing at all out of the ordinary in my story and invited me inside. We walked directly up to Whistler's studio and the man pulled me through the open door and presented me like a letter from the post. Whistler was standing at an easel looking out a window over the river below. There was a painting in progress, but he seemed not to be at work. Presently he turned and looked at me.
     'Walter, what is this? Where's Mother? I thought we were going to have tea.'
     'Mr. Whistler, Sir, this is a model what you met and asked to come see you. He says you asked for him to sit and all.'
     'Really, Walter. He has the cheek to say that, does he? Do you believe him? Would I ask him to come here looking like that? Do you think he looks paintable at all? Do you now? Say honestly!'
     'I dunno as I can say. He looks well enough to me.'
     'Well enough, eh? Not garish at all? Not a little overworked? Not like one of Burne-Jones pretty little angels? Not like some awful Botticelli? Hah, hah!' Here his fingers went into action, flippiting around like a handful of brushes. Dab, dab, dab they went, pretending to paint my cheeks, now nearly touching my hair. 'Not like Goldilocks, what do you say, yellow, yellow, yellow? Like a little canary? White collar? Blue frock? Black stockings? Who could paint it? No, Walter, I leave him to your brushes. I haven't enough colors, I'm afraid.' Walter looked a bit put out, not so much on my account as on his own. But I had an idea.
     'Sir, I brought me old clothes from Evershot like you said. Remember you said that you had a parrot that you fed to a man-goose and that the ladies should dress in mud and straw and that you would paint me if I came to this address what you wrote on that card.'
     Whistler and Walter (it was Walter Greaves I later found out) exchanged glances and then burst into laughter.
     'I said ladies should dress in mud and straw, did I? I do have some rather good ideas sometimes don't I, Walter? I really should do a large canvas of Lady What's-her-title in mud and straw to show at the Academy. About 90 inches should do it, don't you think? A 'Harmony in Brown and Gold,' I'll call it. Yes, fetching, quite fetching. A capital idea. Five hundred guineas. Lady Mud-n-Straw. And her husband Lord Loincloth. Brilliant! Hah, hah! Ah. But now, what about our little model here? Can we make something of him or not, Walter? Can he be dirtied up enough to have any character at all? Or is it hopeless?'
     Before Walter could answer (I'm not sure any answer was really expected), Whistler went on, 'Have the boy change into what he has there and take him down to the river. Once you get him properly muddied bring him back and well see what we have. You and Henry might take him hunting for turtles, or whatever it is you do. Take your time. And, Walter, where the devil is Mother? If I don't eat soon, I'll never hear the end of it. I'll never get back to work.'
     Walter told him he would look in on Mother Whistler on the way down, and we left him still talking to himself and waving into the air. After a few words with an old woman, who I understood to be Mrs. Anna Whistler, Walter led me into a back room where I could change. In a moment he and Henry, his brother, came for me and we walked down to the water's edge. They took me out on a little boat that they had moored there. There were some painting materials, a rickety portable easel and a rusted-out paintbox, still stowed in the bottom of it. But Walter and Henry only talked of Whistler, with mixed adulation and envy. I was ignored until we rowed back to shore. Walter and Henry had checked some lines and waved at three girls on the bank, but had otherwise done nothing. I, being a rather fastidious child, was not a speck dirtier than when we left. I had instinctively avoided even the small amount of mud on the rails of the boat. Even my shoes were clean. Walter looked at me disapprovingly.
     'You're not much of a lad, are you Boy?' he said to me. 'Ye've got the dialect of an urchin but the fingernails of a little lord. Me or Henry'd a been in the reever by now at your age, soaked to the skin and an eel in both 'ands. Well, no matter, the Master chose you, and we'll make you presentable, like he says.'
     With that, the brothers proceeded to besplatter me with all the jetsam available from that foul river, and I soon not only looked an urchin, I stank like one~or more than one. Henry even gave me a turtle to carry into the studio, meaning to make a small joke on the 'Master'.
     When we walked in, Whistler and his mother Anna were having dinner at a small table, lightly but nicely set. They were waited on by a young woman I hadn't noticed before, a servant. Anna was a thin and tidy woman of about 60 or 65, I should say, well dressed in black and white with an unfashionable but very respectable and very well-pressed bonnet of the whitest white. Jemie (as Anna called Whistler) had removed his grey smock and was now seated lazily in striped pants, grey and white, and a long darker grey coat. His tie was muted red of quite a dark shade and was tied very jauntily. Whistler always dressed a bit provocatively by modern standards, or one might say a bit French by English standards (except that even in France he was an ostentatious dandy~Degas once said of Whistler that if he were not a genius he would be the most ridiculous man in Paris). There is a portrait by Sargent of Robert Louis Stevenson lounging in a large wicker chair twirling his mustaches or some such thing, looking all legs, and everytime I think of my first encounter with Whistler I think of him like that, thin and birdlike, dapper and razor-sharp. Much shorter that Stevenson, he yet had a way of sprawling in a chair that made one feel somehow inferior. He had a way of looking up at one whilst appearing to look down. It was uncanny. And not just for me as a child. Always. Sometimes it was impressive, often infuriating, but always powerful.
     Whistler was chewing a piece of bread when we entered and playing with his forelock, which was already grey even at this time. He was thirty five or six then, I believe, but that lock of grey was already his trademark, and he flipped it incessantly. Anna, upon seeing me and the state of my appearance, let out a small cry, and Jemie woke from his reverie. He looked first at her and then at me, and then smiled broadly.
     'It's all right, Mother, just another model for the arts. I'm thinking of working him into a new Wapping, as a goblin crawling from the ooze. What do you think?'
     'Oh, Jemie, do you really need that turtle in the house? It's still alive, I believe. You can't possibly be thinking of painting a live turtle, dear.'
     'Oh, yes, yes. They simply adore that sort of thing at the Academy. A fish on a plate, you know. Absolutely nothing sells better. Shiny scales. Gaping red mouth. Lovely gore. And if you can have a fish on a plate, why not a turtle in the... saltcellar, say? I'll do the entire series. Fish on a plate, turtle in the salt cellar, frog in a spoon. The public will be mad for it. It's genius, by God. I can't wait to tell Burnsie!' [he meant his friend, the poet Algernon Swinburne].
     'Well,' interrupted Anna, 'If you must keep the child here, at least take him upstairs, where you sweep your own floors. And put him near the stove. He'll freeze to death with all that mud on him if he don't dry soon. And if the turtle dies, please throw him out promptly (she meant only the turtle, not me~I hope).'
     I found that Anna was not easily rattled. She was clearly used to living with the pranks of Jemie and his artistic crowd. The Greaves brothers took me back upstairs to the studio and sat me by the stove. I was already fairly dry. The mud had hardly soaked through, but I was glad for the warmth anyway. While we waited for Whistler to finish his dinner, I chatted with Henry a bit. Walter returned downstairs. Henry said little worth relating, but he was friendly and fairly talkative, once away from his brother. Henry was two years the elder, but one always felt that Walter had a bit more artistic talent. Neither one had much talent, but they both doted on Whistler, seeing him perhaps as their one way out of the family boating business. They acted in the way of apprentices, but they got on very slowly, in the main due to the fact that Whistler was more interested in treating them simply as unpaid 'help.' The Greaves brothers seemed not to mind this, however, and were glad to be of any use at all. Their sister Alice, whom Whistler liked to call 'Tinnie' (he found her rather unmusical~she didn't know his musical terms~he said she had a 'tin' ear), might also be seen about Lindsey Row, 'helping' Whistler. Tinnie avoided Anna for the most part. I later saw Whistler and Tinnie together at various times at Cremorne Gardens or in Hyde Park, and I suppose that the relationship may have occasionally transcended business or even art. Hence Mother Whistler was sailed around at a goodly radius.
     Be that as it may, Whistler finally floated up the stairs and joined Henry and me. Walter had gone back to the Greaves' house nearby on the river. The Master then explained to me, in all seriousness, how things would proceed. The turtle we wouldn't need again, and I might 'plop him back in the pond' on my way out. My clothes were now satisfactory, although the amount of mud was perhaps a bit excessive. I could see to that. We wouldn't be working today, since he required preparation: ordering the proper size canvas, toning it, and so on. When he was ready he would send for me. Payment was nine pence a day, not to exceed six hours any one day. With that he dismissed me and immediately began working, moving his easel about and looking for brushes. 'Oh,' he cried, as I was at the top of the stairs. 'Don't cut your hair for anything in the world. If you do I shall have to find someone else. Au revoir!'


[The following is from chapter 4]


I suppose my near illiteracy might have continued unabated, despite my classes with M'Smina, were it not for another fortunate run-in that occurred at about this time in my life. Conn and I had planned a trip to see Whistler again, and so sometime during that summer of my fourteenth year we went. Whistler had been travelling back and forth from the Leyland's. Frederick Leyland and his wife, Frances, were both having portraits painted, and Whistler spent a good deal of time at Speke Hall. He had become close to Frances, especially (rather too close as it turned out later). Whistler had also become engaged to Frances' sister, Lizzie Dawson. This was a short-lived engagement that went nowhere. Whistler was fond of the ladies, but preferred that they remain someone else's wives, I think.
     He was also busy that summer on a grand portrait of the famous writer, Thomas Carlyle. Whistler had finished the painting of his mother in the winter, and it had hung at the Royal Academy Exhibition in the spring. I had seen it there with Mrs. Curlew. Carlyle's portrait was to be similar in colouring and mood~ grey and somber, a study in low tones.
     When Conn and I arrived the house was full. We were expected (had been invited), but we were by no means the only ones. We were not early, but everyone else, it appears, was running late. Frances Leland had just finished a two-hour sitting. Mr. Leyland was downstairs, talking to Anna Whistler. Carlyle had also just arrived. He was to sit for an hour or so after Mrs. Leyland. We were to be fit in anyhow. We had only come for advice (and so that Conn could meet Whistler.) We had both brought a painting for Whistler to look at. When we walked in Carlyle was saying to Anna and the room in general,
     'I was about to take off my coat, but I suppose I shall leave it on. That's what the whole thing is about anyway, isn't it? Shall it be called "Carlyle" or "Carlyle's Coat" when it is finished, the painting, do you think?"'
     Frances Leyland, just entering the room from the stairs, answered, 'Oh no, Mr. Carlyle. You mustn't say it. Why, it's about the background, of course. Mine is to be called "A Lovely Composition of Blues and Greys... oh, and Mrs. Leyland, too."' She laughed archly~ a single ascending 'hah-ah'~ and moved into the room, next to her husband.
     'Frederick and I were just discussing music,' said Anna Whistler. 'I believe you play, Mr. Carlyle?'
     'I once did, in a way,' he answered. 'I haven't played in ages.'
     'Frederick is quite the virtuoso,' she continued.
     'No, no, don't say it, Anna,' interrupted Frederick Leyland. 'If you build me up so, I shall be sure to fall. I only play a bit now and again.'
     'You need a piano here,' said Carlyle. 'Then we might judge for ourselves.'
     'I know, but Jemmy won't have one,' Anna responded. 'He says they have to be tuned too often, and he can't stand to have the tuner here playing the same note over and over. I always kind of liked it myself. Found it soothing. But you know his nerves.'
     'What nerves, Mother?' said Whistler himself, now joining the downstairs party, still wiping his hands on his sleeves. 'I've an oriental patience. I must, to put up with such comments behind my back.' He patted Anna twice on the shoulder and exploded in his little 'hah, hah!'
     'Have you all met the boys?' he continued. 'Miles here is another of my disgruntled sitters. He began sitting at birth, so you see, and we've only just wrapped it up. Isn't that, right?'
     'No, Sir. It were only a few months.'
     'But it felt like a lifetime, eh? Never do it again for less than a quid a hour, I'm guessing.'
     'I wish I could get a quid an hour for sitting for James McNeil Whistler,' said Carlyle, emphasizing the Scots McNeil. 'I'd retire today a wealthy man.' Everybody laughed.
     'And I'd be bankrupt,' Whistler added. 'Who is your friend, Miles?'
     'Thiseers Conn Wycliffe. He be a painter also.'
     'Of course he is. Everyone is a painter. Hah, hah! Painting is a universal right. We need a painters' suffrage, wouldn't you say, Frances?'
     'Oh, to be sure,' answered she, in some confusion.
     'Well, Laddy, let's be started, what,' Carlyle said to Whistler, to save Frances from further embarrassment. 'If I don't get off my legs soon, I'll fall off them.'
     Whistler and Carlyle retired upstairs, and we were left to listen to the conversation continue with Anna and the Leylands. Conn and I were mostly ignored. They talked more about music, and I discovered that Whistler had taken his musical titles from a suggestion of Frederick. Mr. Leyland had been learning part of Chopin's rather large oeuvre, and Chopin's use of the word 'nocturne' to describe a certain type of work for the piano seemed appropriate also for the sort of night scenes that Whistler had been painting of the Thames.
     I asked Mr. Leyland if he knew Gerber Gamish?
     'Pardon? Gerber Gamish, did you say? I don't believe I have had the privilege. Is he a professional musician?'
     'Oh, yes Sir! He plays lots o' that there Chopin man. Bery bery fast he plays it. His piano be'ent the sweetest in the world. But he makes a pretty penny when he takes the donkeys out.'
     'He has donkeys in his piano!?' asked Frances Leyland, her eyebrows leaving her face entirely.
     'No, ma'am. He straps 'em to the front of 'er. That be why she's called "the portable." Gerber says it's the only piano in England you can take cross town and back, and not have to hire a cab on top of it!'
     'Fascinating,' answered Mr. Leyland.
     'Astonishing,' said Mrs. Leyland.
     'Incredible,' said Anna.
     But as I look back, I don't think any of them meant it. For they changed the subject completely. Jealously is powerful powerful emotion (that is what Gerber would have said.)
     I don't remember what else happened that day. I think Conn and I showed Whistler our paintings and got a few hurried comments. Whistler was tired after a full day of painting, and I think he only wanted to have a drink and a smoke. But the next time I saw him he asked me about Conn. It was several weeks later, when I ran into him outside the Adam and Eve (a pub on the river: I was painting, not imbibing~ if you were wondering), and he said,
     'That big lad you were with. What's his name? Dan. Van.'
     'Conn.'
     'Yes, yes. Conn. I need him to sit in Carlyle's coat for me. You won't do. You're too small. But Conn has the same shoulders as Carlyle. I've done with the head and Carlyle says what do I need him for anymore? He's an old man and he has better things to do than prop up his coat. I don't know what, exactly. Prop up his hat, I suppose, or fill out his gloves. Hah, hah! Anyway, tell Conn to send me a note where I can reach him. And don't get too much black in that water, Laddy! You don't want it to look like ink. There's colour even in black, so you see! Au revoir and Cheerio! At the reservoir!'
     I don't think I would have understood this last little joke, except he said 'reservoir' like re-serv-wah. It became one of my own goodbyes, and I don't think anyone in my group ever understood what I was talking about. It didn't matter. They didn't understand what I was talking about at other times, so it was all the same. Best not to ask.
     A little known fact of history: Conn did sit for that coat. That portrait is a portrait of Carlyle and my friend Conn Wycliffe. I saw it many years later in Glasgow, and I said to them I was with, There's me friend Conn Wycliffe. They hadn't a clue what I meant. And they didn't ask.

Alright, but I still haven't told you what helped me to become the astonishing writer I now am (thank the gaelic gods that the Aged Lady is away visiting at the moment~ I would have surely gotten a cuff for that one). What happened is this, as far as you know. I began to read at this time everything I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, Mrs. Curlew's library was rather limited. A few religious tracts left behind by visitors, some ancient issues of Household Words, and a tea-stained copy of Guy Mannering. I wasn't ready for Sir Walter Scott, so I had to look elsewhere. I borrowed a book or two from Mr. Simms, who had grown sons and therefore the books for boys they had left behind. But there were too few of these and I was soon left hungry again for print.
     One day, when I had accompanied Conn to Whistler's to watch him paint the great black coat of Carlyle, I happened to meet little Miss Cicely Alexander. Miss Alexander was having her portrait done, too, and her session ended just before Conn's began, as I suppose. She was a few years younger than me, perhaps ten or eleven~ but she had an eye for either Conn or me, we couldn't tell which. She lingered after her sitting, looking at the 'nocturnes' on the wall. She said, half-turning and speaking to no one in particular, 'My mother must be late again. She's always late.' This even though I had just passed her mother sitting downstairs waiting for her. Cicely wanted one of us to talk to her. Conn was busy getting the coat to fold in all the proper places (and he seemed uninterested in Cicely anyway~ she was very young for Conn). So I asked her if her portrait was going well?
     'I don't think I should say, here,' she said in a whisper, looking over at Whistler in both fear and exasperation. 'Come out in the hall.' I followed her into the hall and she took me by the sleeve. 'You wouldn't believe what a monster he is!' she said, still in low tones but with great intensity. Her eyes were very wide and she showed me every one of her pretty little teeth, I believe. 'He always forgets to let me sit down. I sometimes go hours without a break! Monday he forgot lunch. If Mrs. Whistler didn't come up to check on me, I think I would faint daily!'
     I found all this quite distressing, and said so. But then I said I didn't think he was really a monster. He just forgot.
     'Oh, yes, he forgot. He would forget until I fainted right away and never woke up again. Then he might remember!'
     I don't know that I saw the complete logic of this, but I gave her my arm with much commiseration and led her downstairs. She pretended great surprise at finding her mother there. As they prepared to walk out, Cicely said that I should come visit her.
     'Mother, this young man is going to be a famous artist (I had told her nothing of the kind~ she was making it up). He is the most... best student of Mr. Whistler. Can he come visit? I will show him my sketchbook and he will give me free lessons. He said so if you will give him tea!'
     Mrs. Alexander said yes (just to hurry Cicely out the door, I think) and she gave me a card with their address on it. I peeked out the door after them as they strolled down Chene Walk looking for a cab. Cicely looked back and waved grandly and showed me all those teeth once more.

A few days later I called on Cicely. They lived in a large beautiful house somewhere in Brompton. It may have been Drayton Gardens, I don't remember. I only went there the once. Her mother allowed us to go out with a nurse. We ignored the poor nurse entirely. She might have been a piece of baggage for all she was to us that day, I am sure. We kept running ahead to look at things in shop windows, and the nurse would cry out, 'Miss Cicely, do stop running! You are supposed to stay with me, do you hear?' But Cicely would ignore her like a lamppost, and say to me,
     'Miles, look at that doll. Isn't it the most hideous thing you've ever seen? I have a doll that is ten times prettier than that one. I would never put my doll in a dress like that. I would kill myself first!'
     We came to a bookshop and I stopped, finally interested in something myself. There was a small octavo copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence in the window. An illustrated copy! Oh, how I wanted it. Cicely was impatient, though. She cared nothing for books. When I told her how wonderful Blake was, she said 'Well buy it then. We have things to do!' And when I admitted that I had no money, she said, 'Take it then, you silly boy. I bet you won't. I bet you daren't.'
     But I did dare. Before she could say another word I was in the door and out again, with the Blake in my hand. But it was not to be so easy. For everyone had seen me: the nurse, the shopkeeper, and several others I hadn't even noticed. Before I could begin to think of running away, they were all down upon me.
     'The little thief!' cried the nurse. 'I told my Lady not to let Miss Cicely walk out with the likes of 'im. And now e's gone and pinched that book, right before me eyes!'
     'Got you!' cried the shopkeeper. 'That there book's not for you, you young rascal. But you're for the police. Help! Police! Thief!'
     Before he could cry out again, though, a tall slightly stooped man clapped a hand over his mouth and whispered in his ear. The shopkeeper turned angrily... and then recognized the man. He immediately became subservient and said not another word.
     'No, the boy was only getting the book for me and he must have thought I came out into the street,' said the man. 'Here I am, Laddy. Now, you and the lassie follow me. We don't need this book after all, Sir (to the shopkeeper). I have one just like it at home, you know.' The man pulled me along and Cicely and the nurse followed. When we got round the corner the man stopped and put his hands on my shoulders.
     'You're the puir lad from Whistler's, aren't you?' he said. And then I recognized him. Of course, it was Thomas Carlyle, in a different coat!~ a fawn-coloured greatcoat with a huge collar, just like the black one Conn had been wearing for Whistler. I nodded in answer to his question and he continued, 'If a lad has to be stealing, let it be books, I say. If it had been pocket handkerchiefs or watchfobs I'd a left ye to the man. But I've a soft spot for books, I do~ which'll be a shock to none. And for that book especially. Ye chose well, lad. Ye chose well. If they made books properly available to the young and the puir, people wouldn't have to pinch them, that's what I say! We need a library where people can pinch books legally. That's what a library is for, begod!' He signaled us to follow him and we hurried on.
     We went back down to Chene Walk. Carlyle lived only down the street from Whistler. The nurse was lagging behind us, obviously not used to all the walking, and regretting that she would have to walk back as well~ she had been given no purse for cabfare by her Lady. Carlyle took us up to his study. It was crammed with books from floor to ceiling. There was barely room to turn round in. Papers were piled on his desk in endless stacks, and dust covered everything except the seat of his chair. He rummaged through some shelves in the dark corner behind the chair for several moments before coming upon his copy of Blake. He had both the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. They were illustrated as well, but they looked nothing like the book in the shop window. Carlyle's copy was very old~ it looked as if it may have passed through the hands of Blake himself. Still, it was legible and the binding was good, and it was rather charming to have a well-thumbed copy. One already soft and frayed and smelling of tobacco. I have always liked old books.
     Carlyle told me to take it with me. 'And come back when you need something else. Just bring them back when you're finished. And don't drop them in the water or read them in the rain, you know. Oh, and that tall fellow that was with you at Whistler's. With the black eyebrows? He can come, too. Does he read as well?'
     'Yes, Sir. He reads all the time. And he writes good, too. His letters be'est something to see, Sir, letters this tall (I held my hands three or four inches apart) and black as coal. And it don't hardly take him no time at all to write them!'
     'Well, that would be something to see, I'm sure. You tell your friend he is welcome here. The letters may be somewhat smaller, but I have every book in four languages in this house, and there is no use letting them go to waste. No one I know reads them. You young lads may as well have a go at them. What about you, little Lassie? (to Cicely). Are you a reader?'
     'Oh, yes, Sir.'
     'You come, too, then. We'll make a party of it. Like one of Dodgson's boating parties, and you can be Alice. You can see yourselves to the door now. Goodbye!'

{Page 267, Chapter 8} ...I sat down on a small grouping of stones at the edge of the little lake. The sky was overcast but it was rather warm for the season. It felt like rain. The city lights reflected off the clouds and lit the surface of the Serpentine with a dim green glow. Tiny insects made circular patterns in this reflection, and one had the impression of a dizzy background of random movement, ill-lit and slightly confusing, like the patterns one's mind makes in the dark, waiting for sleep. At those times, I have fancied I could see the atomic structure of the universe, just as Democritus said, as the little dots and wands flickered in my head; and I felt the chaotic energy of the All-and-All first hand, as if it might at any moment disintegrate and re-integrate me at will into nothing or everything. Now I felt the same. As if those inchoate patterns disappearing on the surface of the water were the only final reality one could hope for. My hands, which I could also see~ what were they but another pattern, shorter or longer lived? And the mind that was seeing them: was it a flickering dancing pattern of dots and wands more permanent than my hands? Or less permanent? Or no more or less?

As I thought of Sif, and my inconceivable loss of her, I began to question my own control over what I had thought to be my own emotions. I had always known that my control over a situation was limited by the actions of others. But my own actions began to take on the same mysterious qualities. What had I done? And why? And what was to be expected of a future where even my own life seemed to move of its own volition, arriving at places willy-nilly. What of a position like the one I found myself in, where one could only say, 'This is not where I thought I would be now'?

Just as my self-composure was unravelling~ my thoughts going to pieces in the way thoughts will at such times, with the visual world swirling and the internal world caught madly in that buzzing whirlpool of its own making~ suddenly a larger ripple in the whole fabric made me re-align: whether with fear or only with the effect of a larger, more substantial agent that required my attention, I do not know. But the surface of the Serpentine suddenly changed! The tiny insects were superceded by a greater force. Symmetrical ripples, originating some yards away, made me aware of the movement of a more massive body nearby. At first I thought it was just a swan frightened by some creature of the night, or maybe a large fish rising to the surface for its own reasons. But some electricity in the air, some fire in the atmosphere that surrounded the entire occurrence suggested to me that it was something else. I felt a thrill, a serrated push from within, a distant moan of the spirit that set me on edge. Not frightened, my awareness yet increased in a way that I can't explain. I watched the lake expectantly, as in a dream where one knows what is there but cannot utter what it is.

And then the concentric circles began to outline a head, a head rising slowly, awash in long flowing hair and dark green leaves. Then the shoulders broke the surface, and there were clothes, or the remains of clothes~ long rags clinging still to the rising body. What had once been a dress of white, or perhaps pale blue. But now the figure was clear of the surface, all except the feet which remained in the water. She was naked, beyond the now useless dress which fell away in dripping tatters and floated about her knees. A beautiful woman she was, or had been, that was clear. Tall, thin, with long arms and neck. But it was her face that coloured all. Her eyes were wild with some internal madness, her lips half-parted in some eternal cry. Her eyebrows arched to heaven, she looked first up at the clouds and then down at the water. She seemed completely unaware of my presence, and I felt that I could not have gotten her attention regardless. This was a role not to be interrupted.

As she looked again at the sky and held out her arms, as if in preparation for something, or as if making some wordless plea to the nameless gods, I noticed, just above the black delta of her wet netherhair, the slight swell of her belly. And I knew. I knew why she was here. I knew what she had done.

Quite suddenly she began to chant a long meandering verse, at first seemingly to herself. But as the verses changed, they began to be directed at a person, a person who may or may not have been present for her. The verses flowed on, beautiful iambs all end-rhymed, but chanted so naturally, with so much meaning, one barely noticed the scheme. One was only aware that it all danced with a sad cadence too regular to be prose. The words had a terrible terrible power to them, and her voice, cutting with a clear low reediness, put in thrall the very stars and moon, and all stopped to hear her self-elegy. The curve of her words even had a strange sound, and an odd turn she gave to 'Ghosts' and 'poesy' left me eerily nostalgic, as when reading an old book or seeing a picture of a man long dead.

This is what she said that night~ if my memory, and later dreams of that scene may be trusted.

 

[The Self-Elegy of Harriet Westbrook Shelley]

1

I look down into the moss-green pool

my own reflected face flanked by clouds

inhabiting yet the heavens cold and cruel

unloose the binding dresses destined shrouds

I speak as listening to ghosts aloud

whispering my life unto the wind

promises broken promises once avowed

overheard by ghosts ghosts will not rescind

and aweful Queen of Ghosts these promises will tend

 

Water swirling through my sinking skirts

washing billowing blouse and filling dresses

with muddy Serpentine swelled with rains

to rinse with ash-blonde foam my flowing tresses

Water chilling skin with cold caresses

taking our child and me down slowly dreamily

almost weightless as the tide progresses

its silty sound swallowing me and our baby

will swallow you too My Love as Your Soul at last confesses

 

2

We haunt these waters gliding scaleless finless

naked with the naked fishes glinting

They like us adrift forever sinless

rising up from sunless sea-paths squinting

at dancing rays filtering down hinting

of warm red light above, hot-skinned creatures

gliding through air and Fate's breath unrelenting

burdened only by wind and rock-hard features

and voices mouthed all round, soundless unseen preachers

 

Listen to the water flowing over my grave

Listen to the current running down to sea

washing among the rounded pebbles a-lave

with muddy sediment. This soil will, free

from stream bed and bank, resalt the mineral sea

with the salt and dust of me and our baby's bones

It will flavor the ocean floor, far Normandy

and the coast of farther Leghorn as it moans

with the Tyrrhene tidal winds squalling in blackest tones

 

I did not even know Ophelia, never

doubting but 'gratitude and admiration,'

I saw you write, 'demand I shall love her forever'

But what sad dreamer dreaming since time began

kept such vow being but flesh and man

unless his vow and dream might coincide

which self-encircling artist will not plan

and god, foreseeing future, matches bride

with dream unchanging, dreamers dreaming side by side

 

Mediterranean waves washed you ashore

you wept for by all as genius lost

while I must grovel in London mud, no more

bemoaned than fishes or frogs or flotsam wave-tossed

For Poesy I am but the cost

staring skyward glassy-eyed from Serpent's flank

Of me Faith's Child the poets never guessed

You will Muse but never Woman thank

For you my maidenhead naively led twice sank

 

You say you cannot love what you do not

but I am lost My God unchaste unmarried

unloved and then from pitying hands unsought

a child that unfathered must never be carried

My past my present haunts cannot be buried

Fled you think a love is right or not

if not then virtue is to be remarried

But I am no mistake to be unbought

as fish of ghostly form I cannot be uncaught

 

3

That Deep that sparkles with riddles and grinning monsters

spread out around you though morning had dawned clear cloudless

and blue, sky reflecting sanely exactly

the silvery surface. Waveless nearly windless

the mast hardly cocked the stockstill lazy compass

Beneath this idyll Naiades eyed their prey

above Erinyes preened and whetted careless

The Sea grave of all waters watched lidless fey

the sea floor swelled to receive the salt of one more your clay

 

Fate tempted She rose from her deep abode

flanked by Furies followed by millions

out from their caves of darkness Sea Ghosts flowed

in circling waves of dancing writhing cotillions

and Percy you saw before you joined the billions

my billowing blouse rippling from every crest

my eyes in the faces of Triton's minions

and seaweed that sewed each frond a lover's tress

enwrapping you Love like curling sea snakes vengeance-blest

 

Gulls, oyster-albine bacchantes, screamed alone

or beating wing for breast tearing through the veils

of Delphic mists as swirling maidens swore atone

Below there leapt blue dolphins, breaching whales

who slapping flukes on briny greenswell wail

a long-drawn song an ocean jeremiad

awash with centuries-old earth-circling tales

of languishment and death and bones half-hid

by silt and wavy seaweed and eddies Neptune-bid

 

Pipers primly skipped from threatening wave

Scuttling crabs retreated always sideways

every beast that day did itself save

from Supernature's cast in Passion Plays

as Venus made a count of all the days

crushing under dainty goddess slipper

or whitest barest foot him who pays

the uttermost farthing and then must kneel and kiss her

lips with redeemed lips that then must ever miss her

 

4

Someday when I awake when I arise

when earth and water mix in Parousia

and look my drowned poet in the eyes

as Cronus meets the eyes of mother Rhea

and Uranus the gaze of mother Gaea

remember once you loved me knew not why

marred by Adam's sin non culpa mea

son of father's dearth back to Sky

who rains on Gaea as a cloud gone floating by

 

That dark night unrestful I will wake

beneath the blowing cattails lulling you

to sleep, that night I will at last forsake

the quiet earth and overreaching dew~

 

At midnight belly rounding with the moon

I will arise Astarte-like from the rushes

I will arise respirited too soon

like her whose presence all the Spirit hushes

display the perished bloom and hectic flushes

the falsely beating heart and warming womb

the graying lips of red and mother's blushes

I will awake untimely unentomb

bones best left enearthed and flesh and feeling numb

 

Then when Chaos stirs the bloody Earth

remixing limbs eyes Souls hearts

and making every death a crying birth

infusing salty water into parts

confused by Change and Time and Judgment starts

my water and your storm will be the same

I, Immortal Bird, will sing the Arts

and you will mouthe my pain not in name

but kissed from storm to storm no weather-lover's blame

 

You who hate the seed for taking root

will also hate the cloud that whitens high

the storm that overwaters virgin shoot

bass-boom thunder and the infant cry

of washed-out life weakening to die

beneath unsheltered sky. You will curse

the rain that fills the drowning stream and I

Skylark blithe but long deflowered and worse

unignorant of pain to innocently coerce

 

my strains to pure profusion~Not Purity

but Sacred Soilure, the Dirt of Ages

will bless my songbird bones~I will cloudless see

what you must miss unmuddied: the ghost-watched wages

of sin to Art and Love are not on gold-gilt pages

in Heaven but are writ in Runes upon the Earth

bloody kana venting Vulcan's rages

at Nazarene. Magdalene knew: not worth

pap a Pure Conception or a Virgin Birth

 

5

I will learn to rain and you to rust

The mud will take us both and both the sky

Sea-silt and Cloud-froth will bed our breath and dust

and we will learn to live and so to die

For now I wait the rain drips past my eye

you dig deep beneath the seas of Rome

The seas will rise and fall in circles by the bye

and when the sea floor meets the starry dome

soaked and salty you will take our baby home

 

Just as she finished it began to rain. She stood for a moment or two longer, as if waiting for some empyreal reaction, or an answer from the unknown listener. But I heard nothing and she heard nothing and she sank back down into the lake, ripples rolling out again as before in ever-widening circles.

I remained in a daze for perhaps ten minutes before I began to be seriously chilled by the rain and the cool night breeze. Then I huddled myself back home and sat drying in front of the fire thinking of what had happened. I stared at the flames for hours in the belief, with or without reason, that the apparition had not been random. That whether or not she~ that is the ghost of Harriet~ meant me to hear, somehow I was meant to hear it. This belief does not tally well with my thoughts just preceding her recitation on the chaos of the dots and fluttering wands and meaningless motes in the eye of the universe. But I only report what I felt. And my feelings that night were far from consistent.

At the time I did not know who she was or what it all was about. I only saw what it meant for me. But I had understood what she said of Percy Shelley, and I meant to find out who she might be. What her relationship to Shelley had been, and why she was in the Serpentine. It took many weeks of research to discover that she was Harriet, and that Harriet had been Percy's first wife, before Mary Godwin. She had been a sixteen-year-old daugther of a tavern keeper when she met Shelley. Percy was only nineteen himself. The marriage soon soured, due, if we are to believe Percy, on grounds of intellectual inequality. Harriet was beautiful, but apparently unable to maintain Shelley's astonishing level of discourse. So her physical charms were quickly superceded by another. One nearly as charming and much better read: Mary, daughter of two writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

I also discovered~what I already knew~ that Harriet had been pregnant when she drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816. Her body was not discovered for two weeks, and a ghastly discovery it must have been. Beyond all this, I found (and I believe I am the first to say it) that Shelley may have been the father of this child. Shelley and Mary had fled to Italy two years previously, to be rid of public opinion at their cohabitation. But in late 1815 they returned to England. As it turns out, Mary was also pregnant. Nine or ten months prior to Harriet's suicide, Shelley had been travelling back and forth from London to the countryside where he and Mary were now living. Imagine the situation. Mary is irritable in the cottage, due to her confinement, and Shelley is spending much time away from her. This much is known, for there is a large body of correspondence extant between Shelley and Mary. Because Shelley was often away, and because he needed to at least voice constant concern over the health of Mary, many letters crossed during these months. Mary, in fact, complains often of Shelley's absence. Then imagine this. While in London, Shelley runs across Harriet. Still full of guilt from his abandonment of her, and also sexually keyed up due to the circumstances~ Mary's pregnancy and his absence~ he falls to the attractions of a still young and beautiful Harriet. For old times sake, or what you will, they re-unite temporarily. Afterwards, Shelley repents of his weakness and flees again. But it is too late. This time, an older and more fertile Harriet has conceived. Months later, knowing she cannot expect Shelley to return, and fully recognizing that now no other man will ever have her, and fearing that society will ostracize her even though she is having the child of her own husband (since she has no way to prove it), she decides to kill herself. She goes to Hyde Park at night and throws herself off the bridge.

There is no way to know whether it happened this way or not. It is true that Harriet would have been distaught enough to consider suicide no matter who she was pregnant by. But it is doubtful that in her situation she would have slept with a man besides Shelley without some sort of promise or plan. Then she should have had at least him to turn to in an emergency. She and this lover might have fled to America or the Continent or any number of things. That she would have slept with someone of absolutely no means simply from loneliness is not of course out of the question. But it is much much easier to believe that she could justify sleeping with a man who was, after all, her husband~ despite the complications of the situation. And that she may have thought she could woo him back by sleeping with him. Nothing would be more natural, don't you see. The poor girl may have even been happy when she first discovered the pregnancy, thinking surely this would weigh quite heavily with the conscience of Shelley. She may have found, however, that it did not. Or she may have come to that conclusion on her own, after more consideration, and remembering how little real conscience Shelley had ever displayed.

Regardless, I became convinced of it myself. What is more, I learned that Shelley also died by drowning! Only six years later, while sailing in the Mediterranean, he and a friend were swept overboard in a storm off the coast of Leghorn.

This was the subject I had been looking for. Almost immediately I began working. I had always been told that there is nothing new under the sun. That all the great subjects had been exhausted by 1870. That is why, I was told, the Impressionists had to begin obsessing with color, and the Post-Impressionists with line, and the Moderns with more and more arcane and theoretical concerns. There was nothing left to paint; so one had to now just look at the paint, not the painting. Ones subject was no longer external to the canvas; ones subject was the canvas. Art then began to evaporate until, with Duchamp, it disappeared altogether. But I am getting ahead of myself. At that time, I simply felt I had found an important subject (or been granted it by the Muse). Here was a true story, set in the recent past, yet untapped by any poet or painter or musician~what Wagner might have done with it! Coincidence, the Sea, death, pregnancy, return, Fate, penance and retribution. The great contest of male and female, decided by the womb and the sea.