SUMMARY: Something special today, or maybe just odd.
|Here you can pretend that I just turned around from
writing a new story.
James James Morrison’s Mother by Ellen Levy Finch
Copyright 1997 by Ellen Levy Finch
— appeared in the February 1997 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction magazine, Algis Budrys Ed., the last print edition
Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 19
James James / Morrison Morrison / Weatherby George Dupree
Took great / Care of his Mother, / Though he was only three.
James James / Said to his Mother, / “Mother,” he said, said he:
“You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don’t go down with me.”
A. A. Milne, “Disobedience”
She couldn’t find the good bluestone teapot. How she hungered for a simple sit-down tea, with fresh-baked crumpets slathered in strawberry jam, crusts broken open to moist, buttermilky interiors. If the muffin man came by, she could get them, still warm, from under the linen towel on his tray.
But how could she enjoy it all without the bluestone? Earl Grey just wasn’t right coming out of the stubby spout of the dented tin pot. The bluestone’s elegance transcended the tinner’s by as much as the King’s surpassed the muffin man’s — and the sentimental value was stronger, it having been sent by her husband from Paris before he was killed in the War.
Or — no — it had been her grandmother’s, she thought idly, settling to her knees and peering under the woodbin beside the stove. The stove, its iron walls still holding deep the warm memory of this morning’s fire, cooked up a vague image of a grandmotherly woman pouring tea in a house in Cheshire. The image floated through her mind, translucent and occluded by an equally vague image of a man of her own youthful age.
Oh, no, the War was quite over in 1918. She sat up abruptly at the thought, knocking her stylishly bobbed head on the end of the stove’s large iron door handle.
Sitting on the floor, rubbing her skull, she looked at the 1923 calendar on the wall and calculated: If JimJim is three, but the husband hasn’t been home for at least five years —
She shivered, determinedly stymied a wave of emptiness and nausea, and stood up, steering away from the confusion. The vagaries of her mind distracted and frustrated her, and yet — and yet —
“Vague vagaries,” she murmured to herself, opening the china dresser next to the ice box for the third time at least. She smiled at the feel of the words peeling off her tongue. Something to smile about, anyway.
She peered into the icebox itself; sometimes, after the ice block had melted and before the iceman came, there was extra room for storing things.
She jumped, just a little bit, and turned towards the door. He stood there, arm raised so as to cling to the crystal doorknob. Barely tall enough for his head to reach the stove handle, she noted absently, wondering, lost for a moment, where the child had come from. Then he came into focus, suddenly, as though she viewed him through a seaman’s glass, twisting it to bring the boy and her life into convergence.
Her son, of course: James James Morrison Morrison etc. A bit of a fancy, that; there were Jameses on both sides of the family and they couldn’t decide which to name him after — Or perhaps that wasn’t the reason at all?
“Mum, what on Earth are you doing?”
“I can’t find the teapot,” she responded sharply, angry at herself for not knowing him immediately, and at him for knowing her without a blink.
“It isn’t anywhere near tea time.”
“I can’t find it.”
He cocked his little blond head in that precocious manner that she thought she probably hated. “The bluestone?”
“Of course the bluestone. You can see the tin one right here on the stove.”
“You planted geraniums in it. It’s in the garden by the dovecot.” He was talking down to her, she was sure of it. And how could he always manage to do that, given their respective heights?
Still — dovecot — yes, a vague recollection — not a memory exactly, more like a stereopticon with the two sides mismatched, the three-dimensional view distorted and not quite real.
She sank into the chair by the window, hands folded in her lap, gaze fixed on the child. “JimJim, why would I do that?”
Her son shrugged, and for a moment the gesture transformed him into a cuddly, snuffly, warm and ingenuous three-year-old that she could envision loving tenderly and maternally. For only a moment. “A recurring lapse of connection with reality,” said James James. “If you don’t remember now, then that knowledge is undoubtedly lost to us both forever.”
“You should jolly well have stopped me.”
“I’m only three,” he said.
“Tommyrot.” She almost blushed at her own uncouth language. “You always know what’s best. You always take care of me. Why not this time?”
“Mother, I advise you to the best of my ability, given that I have only the limited life experiences of my three years.” He took a shallow breath through his baby teeth. “However, because you appear to have motivations that are beyond the scope of my experience (and, I sometimes think, beyond the scope of your own), it seems pointless to ask why you are doing the thing or to ask you to stop.”
Oh, bother, how she hated his tone. And his sentences were longer than an average three-year-old’s entire attention span. “You know how much I like that teapot,” she said, knowing somehow that he did know but not remembering how he might have come by that knowledge nor, for that matter, why she would know that he knew. It was all too complicated, which made her even angrier.
“Oh, Mum.” He put his little hands on his hips so that his baby-fat arms stuck out all akimbo.
Oh, the uppity Little Lord Fauntleroy! “Don’t use that tone with me.” She struggled briefly, desperately, for something to say to take him down a peg, and as if from a memorized chapbook, she drew: “I’m going to have to speak to your papa, you know. When he comes home.” No image came to her mind with that; no papa, no home but for the kitchen she stood in. The words were an incantation without context.
JimJim’s face, however, melted nearly to tears; his lower lip trembled. He turned and ran from the room, his quick footsteps echoing down the hallway towards the drawing-room — ah, yes — his favorite hideaway, she knew suddenly.
Still, his retreat set her quite aback. Talking to papa was not so bad, after all, was it? Something prodded at her memory, something that could have upset him, something she was thinking about earlier when she thumped her head — no, gone.
She stood up, meaning to go after him and catch his soft tiny self up in her arms and tell him how very much she loved him.
Then in they came, flickery picture-show memories using her mind as their theatre, all at once so that she couldn’t distinguish one from the next. Her husband (or perhaps her brother?). The War. The birth of her son — no, a trip to Buckingham Palace — no, that wasn’t right, either. A tangle of scenes, faces, and churning colors.
The discordance made her so angry. As though childbirth had been reduced to photogravures, as if it hadn’t happened to her at all. As if her husband hadn’t said good-bye just that morning — and, confused by the cacophony, she wasn’t sure whether he had.
But why couldn’t she remember? His face should be as clear and as close as the flowers on the wallpaper — but it eluded capture. And what was his name?
She took two steps towards the hallway door, angry all over again. It was the boy’s fault. As though everything she knew — ought to know — somehow escaped her and roosted in his brain.
The room spun about her. She grabbed the doorjamb with one hand, steadying herself, and began banishing the jangling, contentious thoughts from her whirling head, one by one.
Exhausted, finally alone with the silence in the kitchen, she leaned in the doorway, eyes closed. Every time that she tried to think, tried to understand, pain burst into her head like — like —
She couldn’t quite remember what it was like, although she thought she ought.
Thought — ought — Words again. Where did they come from? She focussed on the words, because they never disoriented her, always gave her a sense of harmony, symmetry, balance. She turned and slowly walked out the back kitchen door to the garden.
There it sat, nestled among the blue-spiked delphiniums. The broad crinkly leaves of the geranium did look good against the bluestone, although she could see now that it would outgrow the pot in a matter of weeks. If she remembered to water it. Perhaps it would rain.
Kneeling among the colors of springtime, she carefully upended the pot and shook it gently to dislodge the plant. The geranium came out into her waiting palm along with a shower of loose, dark soil, which dusted her forearm and skirt. She had a memory of the scent of the soil, rich and aged and moist; her perspective shifted and she could actually smell the soil now, just as she remembered it from — from —
She shook her head quickly to disperse the smell and the memory and the empty places in her head. Balancing the geranium’s root ball in one hand, she scraped a hole among the peonies large enough to accommodate it. She settled the geranium carefully into its new home, pressed the soil in slightly around it so that the roots would make contact with the new bedding, and brushed the dirt from her hands.
She rose, whisked her hand across her skirt to free it from the dark clinging bits of garden, smearing it instead. She sighed and looked around her. The day was beautiful — for north of London it was an extraordinary day. An excellent day for sitting in the garden, perhaps reading some poetry; something to shake away the dark clinging bits of her mind’s overgrown weed patch.
She couldn’t very well go downtown, for example, not by herself. She glanced quickly at the house, guilty at even thinking it. JimJim would insist on going with her. It was a pattern engraved in her soul, like the sun’s morning ascension and evening subsidence, though she could not recall from memory any single sunrise, nor sunset, nor trip to the end of town with or without her progeny in attendance. Anger again: just a little ride into town without him now and again, visit around a bit, perhaps pop in to Harrods, and still be back for tea. He would never notice.
But never mind that; she didn’t wish to invite the jumbly whirly mismatched thoughts in again. A spot of poetry in the sunshine was just the thing.
As she walked into the parlor to find a book, she tried to remember what her son had been like as a two-year-old, but the memories remained teasingly elusive.
Her bookcase, like her portfolio of remembrances, sat nearly empty; a single book bound in pale red calfskin perched on the shelf, basking in its own significance. How very queer, she thought. It seemed that there should be more books, should there not? Her mind flooded, fleetingly, with a veritable wall of books, each like a softly colored stone, all held together with mortar of dust and cobwebs.
Then the only cobwebs remaining were those clinging tightly to the empty vaults of her past.
She snatched the lone book quickly from the shelf, lest it too should vanish into the mists of her mind. Clasping it against her chest with both hands, she tiptoed back out into the garden, shutting the door ever so gently behind her. She wandered past the earth-spattered teapot where it sat askew beneath the dovecot and settled onto the settee near the garden gate by the lane.
Settle, settee — she smiled to herself and placed the book on her lap. The pages fell open to Longfellow, and she read.
“The Village Blacksmith” appealed to her today. She lingered among the gentle rhythm of its phrases; nothing complicated, nothing to struggle with. De-dee, de-dee, de-dee, de-dee; a simple beat, simple words, simple images for a plain man with an uncomplicated life.
How she envied him his simplicity. Toiling, — rejoicing, — sorrowing, Onward through life he goes. All of these feelings, she realized with a pang, were foreign to her. She couldn’t recall having experienced any of them, not a one. Just confusion, dismay and anger at the confusion, and then confusion again. And only, simply, clearly in her mind, her precocious child, taking care of her as though she were not capable of it herself.
Not for her the blacksmith’s rejoicing as he sits among his boys in the church and thinks of his departed wife’s voice, singing in his mind’s ear. She had no such memory to cling to; she had no idea whether she had a husband — living or dead — now, or yesterday, or five years before.
What did the blacksmith think about when he thought about his past? She tried envisioning a blacksmith’s life; failed; chided the poet for his failure to complete her picture of the man. It had seemed so evocative, at first; she had seen so clearly the village square, the cool shade of the chestnut tree harboring the heat and the raging flame of the forge.
But now the omissions began to pick at her. Week in, week out, from morn till night, he stands there. And then on Sunday he goes to church. Did he have a life, really, other than the hammer and the anvil and the fever of the blasting forge? The story was so incomplete, now that she thought about it.
Did he have a life before the poem? A childhood? A mother and father? Did he go to school, have friends, dance, sing? How did the food get on the table if he spent all day working the bellows? Was he putting a little aside for his future? For his children’s education?
Even as she realized how important it had abruptly become for her to know the details, she knew that her obsession was strange and unhealthy. Still, she wanted to know; the importance bruised her heart, tangled her nerves, shattered the sunshine around her.
Perhaps because her own life had so many holes in it — indeed, seemed one large hole — she couldn’t abide the same omissions in another’s life? Fictional or not, the smithy had seemed as real to her as the firmness of the settee’s wooden seat beneath her and the tingling of the sunshine dappling her skin.
There is nothing for him there, nothing! but for the swinging of his heavy sledge, week in, week out, through all eternity. She found herself resenting how the poet had created this simple, limiting scene and then enslaved the blacksmith with his words, trapping him forever in an endlessly repeating scenario.
Well, now, she had intended to sit out here to relax, not to become inflamed again. She scrunched her shoulders up, then relaxed them slowly, rolling her head gently with eyes closed. It would be so refreshing to think about something that had substance; her life had so little thereness in it.
But the blacksmith’s quandary tasked her.
Maybe the smith experienced something different every time someone different read the poem! She imagined his late wife as a plump, genial dark-haired peasant who smelled insistently of camphor. Did the blacksmith remember her the same way? Would some other Longfellow devotee full of whimsical romance picture the woman as an angular Aryan with a limp and a walleye? What then, if both readers consumed the poem at the same moment, though miles apart? Would the poor befuddled smith have to sort out which memory was the real one? And which was real?
She shuddered; what would that be like, memories all jumbled up, never making sense, never remembering the same thing the same way twice? Everything in the past foggy; your entire life changing its texture, its substance, its flavour with the personal experiences of readers whom you never see and never know exist.
The concept was rather a bother, she thought. (Rather a bother — how curious that so many things rhymed in her head, even now!) The concept crept down her spine and along her arms, raising the little hairs it found there, and she shivered.
Poetry — no, not today, she decided abruptly, her mind suddenly clear and free. She hesitated. Hadn’t there been something, just a moment ago, something eating at her ragged edges? She couldn’t quite recall just what. She thought for a moment — but, no, it was gone, whatever the thought.
Maybe she truly did need a change of scene. Maybe, just maybe, she needed to get away from the oppression of her son’s care and concern. She longed to take him up in her arms and give him the deepest, warmest, cuddliest hug that a three-year-old could ever want, but it seemed impossible at the moment.
Yes, that was it. She would go downtown, alone, and gather herself about her. She would dress up nicely, make herself feel different and special. That should lift her spirits, indeed.
She set the book aside, barely aware that she did so, and rose from the bench. Her mind made up, she moved resolutely towards the house, banishing the tiny nagging feeling that before, somewhere, sometime, she had had just this same idea.
James James / Morrison’s Mother / Put on a golden gown,
James James / Morrison’s Mother / Drove to the end of town.
James James / Morrison’s Mother / Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down to the end of the town and be back in time for tea.”
A. A. Milne, “Disobedience”
|Author’s note: I wrote this a couple of years before it was published, so some time before Clarion. If I were to rewrite it now (which I won’t), I’d change it quite a bit. FWIW. On the other hand, it’s much better than my early fiction writing in the late ’70s and ’80s.