/ Fiction /
During the night the fire had crept nearer to their house in the deep canyon north of town. But after a perfunctory breakfast, lost in thoughts of past glories, and famously proud of never paying heed to anything that passed as news in this piffling bourgeois time they happened to live in, Edgar Sims sat in his leather armchair just inside the French windows, fondling the copper mask. More like a new father than an Endowed Professor of Military History and War Studies with a reputation for toughness and brilliance both in generous measure (though in that order), Edgar Sims ran the soft cloth along the delicate curve of the cheeks, the gentle half circles under each eye, the full lips.
“Worth every penny,” Edgar proclaimed out loud, lecturing the imagined detractors like a roomful of gormless freshmen in his best beligerent demigod tone, brooking no argument.
It was a Persian warrior he doted over—an inscribed copper mask he’d just bought at auction to add to the collection of helmets and masks he kept in climate-controlled cases upstairs in his study. Samurai and Masai masks, a Trojan mask—a replica of course, a Macedonian lionhead, an ancient Corinthian helmet bought on the black market for much less than he knew it to be worth, and a ham-handed replica of the so-called mask of Agamemnon. And, pride of place, a silver mask with gold Islamic calligraphy.
In a more delicate floral armchair across from him, angled as much as possible toward the windows, his wife of forty years, Ruth, sat mute and dull, the smile she’d been known for noticeably absent. Had this man ever touched her face like that? she wondered idly, looking back what seemed eons, and thinking not, not that she could remember.
She wasn’t really watching him, just couldn’t help seeing him there center stage in triumphant hue and cry since Edgar and The Chair had won the battle of the sitting room. The leather chair with bronze nailheads that he insisted on, the color of manly molasses, New World tobacco, though it clashed terribly with Ruth’s gentle English cottage decor, tapestries of primrose and cream.
“For Christ’s sake, woman, given their druthers the English did nothing but shoot bloody pheasants,” he roared when she’d mildly objected to the beefy chair in just that room, that spot. The rosy space inside the French windows that opened on the back garden, what had for so long been her favorite place to sit, the beauty both outside and in perfectly balanced. Her space, before he’d had to come and work at home.
Edgar was famously impervious to anything that came at him. Ruth’s self-assurance in his presence had long since been overwhelmed by his. More recently, though, and much more significantly, it was the mandatory face mask—plus the inability to gather and to hug—that hid and took away her self. She longed to touch, to talk in person, close up as could be; Edgar was perfectly happy lecturing on his big computer screen, on Zoom, from an unfathomable distance. But as a mother and a teacher she had always been hands-on, kids sitting on her ample lap while being read to, and pressed up against her on all sides like that tribal storyteller figurine from Cochiti Pueblo their son Reid’s on-and off-again sweetheart had given her the second time she’d visited with him, kissing Ruth on the cheek and saying “it reminded me of you.”
This morning, lacking any other audience in the big quiet house five miles from campus, with classes suspended for the remainder of the school year, and invigorated by his latest acquisition, Edgar lectured Ruth about the Persian Immortals, the group of elite infantry exalting Persia’s armies during the Achaemenid Empire from 550 to 330 BC, “whose fallen or disabled members were immediately replaced, Herodotus tells us, thus keeping the strength of the corps at always exactly 10,000 men.” He looked up as if to make sure she was taking notes. “Essential of course in the battle of Thermopylae, the conquest of Egypt, and Darius’s invasion of India’s western kingdoms . . .”
But Ruth couldn’t even pretend to listen. Known especially for her smile, her loving gathering-in of whoever she encountered, she had over these past few months lost her ready affection along with its expression, under the concealing face mask she had to wear everywhere now.
In the end Edgar’s monologue was interrupted by the phone—which Ruth was always expected to answer, switch to speaker mode, and pass to her husband if it was someone he decided he wanted to talk to.
It was Reid, calling from twenty minutes down the coast. Their son, a paleographer, had been stranded in Barcelona with a colleague when the lockdown came, and had just recently gotten back to California. Their daughters were both up in the Bay Area, and with small children hadn’t visited since early March. And now there was apparently a new threat, on top of the other.
“The canyon’s under warning now,” Reid said to Ruth, concerned. “I wonder if you won’t want to evacuate before the traffic out gets bad? They say the fire’s moving fast, fanned by the winds last night.”
“Give me the phone, Ruth,” Edgar said, and absently turned off the speaker to reduce the echo as he listened to Reid’s report of the fire news.
“Yes,” he said curtly. “Yes. Okay. Thanks, son. Talk to you soon.”
He went upstairs when he’d hung up, and after fifteen, twenty minutes came back down carrying two big bulging duffle bags, and wondered where the car keys were.
“I’m going down to campus to put my collection into the department safe. Just in case Reid is right—though I think he’s overreacting. It’s fireproof and burglarproof. There’s no way I would risk having my most precious possessions with me on the road somewhere—this kind of thing brings out the worst in people.”
“Be careful how you drive,” Ruth said mechanically, with no particular sense of concern.
* * *
In principle, Ruth had been fascinated by the masks. When Edgar bought the silver one, some years ago, she learned from Reid—whose specialism was epigraphy—about face masks with Arabic writing. He showed her photos of a Persian copper-plated warrior face, the cheeks with hand-engraved flower motifs and forehead with hand-engraved Arabic writing. Others with lovely Islamic calligraphy, calligraphic inscriptions from the Kuran meant to protect the wearer from harm or to help gain a speedy victory. She loved that. Like the newsprint she had used in the classroom for papier-mâché masks while still teaching.
Reid had told her about the mark branded on the foreheads of bondslaves. That the Greek word charagma, with its negative connotations, names the brand seared into animals to designate who they belong to, and also refers to the “mark of the beast” with which Satan brands his followers. The followers of God are instead sealed with a symbol of value, a more honorable proof or inscription, from the Greek word sphragis. Revelation 13:16, in Ruth’s favorite King James Version, didn’t go into the interesting detail, saying only “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads.”
The inscriptions on Ruth’s face weren’t there any more. She tried to feel the smile lines at the corners of her mouth, which old-time women’s magazines told you how to get rid of, but nothing she could find could tell you how to get back.
Michael Ondaatje wrote about old stone Buddhas blown up in Sri Lanka during the civil war, the artist from a village of stonecutters painting eyes on new statues, making them holy, as forensic anthropologists tried to reconstitute human identity from victims’ bones, as an epigraphist without sight tried to interpret ancient inscriptions. Only Ruth’s son could maybe read her, paint her smile across her face again, reclaim what she once was from what was left.
* * *
Reid called again, and Ruth was ages getting to the phone, moving as slowly as if underwater, in this day that was fuzzy, somehow.
“You haven’t left yet?” he asked, surprised.
“Edgar isn’t back yet with the car,” she explained.
“What—is he getting gas?”
“I don’t think so. He said something about going to campus.”
“Why in God’s name?” Reid exploded. He didn’t want to panic his mother, but he’d heard from somebody he knew who had an in with the fire department that the evacuation warning for the canyon would become an order in less than an hour.
“He had some business to take care of there,” Ruth said vaguely.
* * *
Next thing she knew, Reid was there at the house, furious that Edgar wasn’t. That he’d left Ruth there in the fire’s path.
“What was he thinking?”
“He’ll be back soon,” Ruth soothed her son, accustomed to being the one to soothe.
But Reid wasn’t to be deterred, having heard the latest fire reports. He told her emphatically that she had to leave now, not later.
“What do you want to pack, Mother?”
She didn’t want to pack. The thought of going anywhere was more than she could face. Anathema. To have to put on the face mask, cower away from everyone, be out among people without her natural responses, her smile and native English charm.
And worse, to be in close quarters with Edgar constantly, unable to escape his massive Being There. As things were now, she had the space of the whole house as buffer; she could shift from room to room, avoiding him as needed. Going where he wasn’t, where his hectoring pronouncements couldn’t reach.
But Reid insisted, and loaded things she might need into the Subaru. Something she couldn’t name led Ruth to grab the little storyteller figurine, and wrap it in a couple of silk scarves, not sure her son remembered who had given it to her, two Thanksgivings ago.
It wasn’t real outside, the air and everything a kind of sepia, from the smoke and the ash, which she could see falling like a powdery rain.
The garden was dull, an unnatural sepia as well, the lovely garden where she liked to serve Wedding Tea (white tea with rosebuds) to visitors—students, colleagues, family, and the many friends who’d loved to come to brunch or lunch or late afternoon hors d’oeuvres. For birthdays she’d made Clementine Cake sprinkled with edible flower petals from the side garden, and on summer evenings mint juleps, from Edgar’s native Kentucky. She’d been a proud faculty wife, besides a much-loved schoolteacher. She liked to gather and lavish in turn. In autumn she had shaped mandalas like the ones back in English woodlands of beech leaves and field maple, black bryony berries, acorns.
But all that was gone too, as if into these ashes, this absence of light.
“Where are you going to go?” Reid asked, starting the car. “What is the plan?”
“There wasn’t time to discuss anything before your father left.”
“Without a cell phone, think—how will you get in touch? How will Dad find you, if I drop you at one of the shelters, or a friend’s, or somewhere else?”
Ruth thought for a mad moment and then another how satisfying it would be to lose touch, disappear. Slip off into some periwinkle distance where none of this awfulness was happening, where masks were laid aside as if the morning after a masked ball, where Cinderella lost a shoe and gained a prince.
“You could come to me for now," Reid said, thinking furiously. “Though there isn’t much room.”
His mother objected. Not caring where she’d be, but not wanting to inconvenience him. They’d all lived their own lives, as sovereign territories, always respecting each other’s space.
“It would be easiest . . .”
“Not for me," she said dreamily, in her sepia guise. La vie en rose — la femme en rose, les roses in the ashen garden, cendreux like Cendrillon, colors faded, raison d’etre bled away, so why not follow the seductive trail of words and insubstantial possibilities to some kindlier state of things?
But to what purpose Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves I do not know. Other echoes Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
(T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”)
She had loved T.S. Eliot back in college English classes, but had, she realized, in the discombobulation of the moment, left her calfbound copy of Four Quartets in her bedroom library, to burn. And her mother’s Georgian sewing box with needle case and key.
“I’ll pull over and call Dad now,” Reid said, disturbed by her vagueness and seeming disinterest. “Find out where he wants to meet you.”
“No, please—don’t do that,” Ruth answered, suddenly panic-stricken, the enormity of the catastrophe come over her.
She foraged through her handbag for her small address book, thinking of her friend Sheila from CGU with her converted potter’s studio always available to Ruth, before remembering that Sheila had moved back to New Hampshire in February. She had taken out the little pottery figure during her search, and held it up to look at, slipping off its swaddling of scarves—its texture reassuring in her hands, and all those children clustered on the storyteller’s lap making her feel grounded.
“Do you remember this?” she asked her son. “The storyteller doll your sweetheart gave me, when I always had so many stories I wanted to tell?”
Reid remembered too well. But he was struggling to forget, how reprehensible he’d been. He hadn’t called Aggie for ages, hadn’t even let her know that he was back in the country. There was this mandate now to keep your distance from others, which made it less his fault, he thought. It was now circumstance or fate that had divided them. His early-hours-of-the-morning doubts about marriage had become irrelevant. Far-reaching concerns about anybody’s living out the year had rather preempted his negligible worries about whether he was doomed to follow the depressing family pattern. Both his sisters on their second husband, neither having learned much from the first . . . and as for his father as husband—well, don’t get him started.
“No,” he said firmly. “No, Mother, please—just let’s decide where I am going to take you. If not my apartment, then where?”
“Drop me on this corner,” Ruth said in her teacher’s brooking-no-nonsense voice, suddenly sure and bright again, “so you won’t have to lie to your father. You don’t know where I am.”
She fixed the mask over her face and so, anonymous, without telling features that anyone might recognize, though underneath the pleated fabric she was smiling at her son as rosily as her favorite sweet yellow-hearted Floribunda, slipped out of the Subaru Crosstrek, away.