Of the great Victorian conservatory in Golden Gate Park, known formally as the Hall of Flowers, Christopher Westall’s mother had once said, “This is a place where glass is safe.” For some reason he thought of this first on finding her body, the plastic bag fitted so snuggly over her face. He held her hand awhile there in the cold. It felt reef-stiff. Her eyes were closed. She had somehow managed to tuck herself in quite tightly. Her face was soft, expressionless and tired. No hint of how it had been for her to die, there on the bed in his room, the bed under which he once thought knife-people slept.
When Christopher was in the second grade he told a first grader that his parents had taken him to the country and that all his fingers had been chopped off by some farm equipment and they had been replaced by a very special doctor with plastic ones and if you looked really hard you could see that his fingers were really plastic and you could see the little crisscross stitch marks at the base of each finger where they had been sewn on. The first grader started to cry and wouldn’t stop and told the other kids, and they told the teacher, and the teacher called Evelyn, so this created quite a stir. But nothing compared to when Christopher told his fellow second graders about the secret passage that ran from the play yard to his den.
OTHER PEOPLE’S DREAMS
When Christopher was a child he had dreams some nights that were not his own—dreams filled with people he didn’t know, places he’d never been, and circumstances that were unfamiliar to him. Christopher called this having other people’s dreams.
And once when he was twelve and studying Genesis for his confirmation, Christopher asked his mother if she’d ever actually seen a pillar of salt and what did it look like because he was having trouble picturing it. Was it glistening and transparent like a pillar of glass or rough and cloudy or gray and rough and sparkly like a granite slab?
Early one morning in late September, before the markets opened, on a trading floor in downtown San Francisco, a disheveled banker, still drunk from the night before, stood slouched against his desk, staring through a wire mesh window into the shaft of a light well. He was experiencing, however hazily, the somewhat unfamiliar sensation of worrying about someone else. He was worried indeed, about his friend, who had dropped from sight after the suicide of his mother—sending only an envelope with the keys to her still fully furnished house folded in a note—saying only that he’d had to go to Asia. Now weeks without word—gone—no details of where—no explanation of why—not even a hint of whether he ever expected to return.
When Christopher apologized to the first grader for the plastic fingers story, the teacher was standing right behind him with her hand in the middle of his back. She was saying “Christopher has something to say to you and he is going to say it now,” and Christopher said the words that the teacher had told him to say in a voice more hers than his, so it was more like ventriloquism than apology, and he knew that her lips were moving very slightly as he spoke. The first grader was anxious and shuffling and he would not look at Christopher’s face, and he would not look at his hands.
Even as a child, Christopher knew that knife-people lie so flat that you cannot see them. But he could just hear them, sharpening themselves against each other like hands washing—that wispy, metallic, sweep, sweep, sweep, almost indistinguishable from their breathing. In the morning he would go under the bed and collect the shavings and take them to the trash, and he never said anything about it to anyone.
Her arms were out of the blanket and her hands lay flat, palms down. She had removed her rings, he knew why, and placed them like little weights on the folded note that lay in the cloisonné dish they’d purchased together on McAllister Street when he was ten. He sat by the bed in the numbness and the slowness, in that feeling of feelings falling into depths and not diving in to retrieve them, that feeling of falling over spillways where the lights on the water are scissors chopping the surface to bits and bits and bits. How the shattered shapes are whole things in themselves. He could not look at her face through the plastic bag. Everything in the room seemed crisp and vivid: the light on the corner of the worn red Persian rug, the gunmetal blue of the bed. Everything singled-out and standing by itself. Furniture was steady like this. All the things in the house were steady and factual like this.
And he knew that it was okay to be dead in his mother’s house; it was okay for your body to be furniture or part of some piece of furniture or becoming furniture.
THE DREAM OF THE DROWNING CHILD
And one night when Christopher was eight and having other people’s dreams, he dreamed that a child was being swept down a river, and the child’s mother was running along the bank just keeping up and keeping eye contact with the drowning child as he was carried in the rapid currents. And the mother was running along the bank, running alongside her drowning child because she had no arms.
Evelyn left a list with the names of two friends and their numbers and some instructions. And they were friends from long ago in her life, and there were no other names on the list, and he saw how long ago her life already was. He told them she died in her sleep, and their voices were far away, as if a pound of gauze were stuffed in their mouths, or in the phone, or in his ears, or all of these—so far away and so indistinct that what they said didn’t seem like human speech, was barely speech, or another kind of speech that couldn’t carry what was meant like water falling through fingers or a language where what was meant was like a landslide or the workings of organs or trickles or a little inward-facing orchestra with a choir behind tin curtains—that kind of speaking; or a language where putting words in order was not the goal, or again, a kind of singing, but it wasn’t exactly singing, but singing like the singing of certain objects when rubbed together, but not metal objects but objects wrapped in cloth, like the rubbing together of gloved hands as a kind of speech. He told them she died in her sleep and after a little while of listening he hung up.
The Rubicon is the point of no return.
TIME AND THE DEAD
If you could ask the dead about time what would they say? Time does not always seem the same when you are alive—you know that time is different for one who is asleep. You know that the dead cannot sleep. Does time always seem the same when you are dead—is that the difference?
A BOY HAD A BIRD FOR A MOTHER
A boy had a bird for a mother, an ice age, a smoldering fire; a boy was raised by a bird, a glacier, a fire; he learned nervousness and patience and hunger, and he learned to keep her safe and to withstand the cold and to offer whatever he could find to keep her going.
THE SECOND FIRE
After the second Thorn fire, Christopher stopped being able to cry.
TRIPS TO JAPAN
Christopher’s passport had never been stamped. He had acquired it, at Evelyn’s insistence, a few years before, during one of her periods of planning trips to Japan—the making and subsequent canceling of reservations, the gathering of ship schedules, ports-of-call, the maps with the railway lines, the maps with the circled cities with dates penciled in, the brochures of the little inns and the temples and the museums, and she would have to insist on rounds and rounds of vaccinations and how petulant she became at the suggestion that they were not needed because Evelyn said there was no telling where they’d end up once they departed; the making and canceling of reservations over and over because of scheduling concerns, because of health concerns, because the accommodations weren’t quite right, the travel brochures, the letters to the consulate, the trips to Japantown asking shop owners, in a Japanese that was like someone walking on stilts for the first time, where they were from and what they would suggest that she not miss and what she should avoid.
TRIPS TO JAPAN
And finally she simply couldn’t go. Days of silence—days upon days of icy empty silence.
. . .
The dusty, rattled, and exhausted passengers climbed off the cramped state-owned bus which had finally traversed the countless valleys and mountain passes that lay between Jaigaon, India, and Thimphu. Christopher, now twenty-two, using essentially a bribe had, in San Francisco, arranged to take a graduate student’s place on the trip. His mother had been dead for five weeks when the group departed. The student’s designation as the tour-guide’s assistant had the consequence of leaving the guide, who was a professor of Buddhist Studies at Berkeley, without an American aide, and bunking with Christopher in the same hotel room. When visas were issued at the border, there had been some squabbling, also solved with money, about the name on Christopher’s passport not matching the name on the tourist list. With the guide, whom everyone called “The Professor,” stiffly withholding assistance, Christopher had to gain entry with the help of a Sikh army officer.
The hotel itself was a brown latticed jumble of hallways, parlors, rooms, and shared toilets, all smelling of sandalwood and mold. The newly replaced red carpet did little to lend a sense of modernity. The desk-staff was overly formal, as if they were “playing” hotel, and the “bellhops” dropped the bags roughly on the floors of the rooms and, given their shocked expressions, seemed to have no conception of what tips were. The professor, who apparently had a mosquito phobia, lit so many citronella coils that Christopher could barely breathe and, after a brusque good-night, Christopher pulled the harsh wool blanket over his head, which rested on a pillow he was sure had been stuffed with straw.
For Christopher, the first breakfast was like sitting down at the meeting of a club of which he was not a member, which is to say, he was invisible and talked-around. He was listening to the scholars and pilgrims comparing notes on their prior travels to India, Nepal, and Sikkim, quoting texts and delineating lineages, and he had nothing to contribute but the confession of an upset stomach, which he kept to himself. After moving the pile of eggs, chilies, and cheese around on his plate for fifteen minutes, he left the table and went outside.
THE FOLLY OF THE JOURNEY
With alarming speed the folly of the journey descended on him full weight. All the colonial visions of spiritual quaintness dissolved against the reality that Bhutan was grimy, impoverished, listless and feudalistic, even in Thimphu, with its dirt streets, shacks, cluttered shops, and squalid public squat-toilets with signs on their outer walls imploring people not to pass stools in the trenches behind their houses. What was he doing here among tattered banners, prim scholars, and pilgrims in a distant stopped-clock capital? What was he doing sitting on a stone bench in an empty square with two letters in his coat? There was nothing for him here—it was just the world, barren and rough, centuries whirring by, rocks stacked on rocks, words stacked on words, people preoccupied with the small-knot concerns of their lives. And expectations were tinsel, and plans were cardboard cars, and memories were false imaginings, and the ground was cold and flat and devoid of promise.
She didn’t end up in a bus station talking to the luggage racks. She did not wander the streets talking out loud to herself. She did not believe that broadcasts from the Chrysler Building controlled her thoughts. She did not believe that the luminous lines she saw around people’s heads from time to time had any meaning, or the ruins she saw in their hearts or the stress cracks in their eyes or the inside hammerings that seemed to deafen them. She did not steal, or drink too much, lie without reason, strike children or cut herself, wash her hands too often or blurt vulgar words. It was none of these. It was a very private, inconspicuous teardown—precise, inside the lines, with words that held their edges against the ice. But the edges could not hold.
Christopher didn’t particularly like his mother’s orange juice but asked for it often, because he liked to watch her make it: the sharp, sweet smell that followed the cutting in half of the oranges and their being ground, against the little glass grinder shaped like half an orange, with the twisting motion of his mother’s wrist and the small fine sieve that fit exactly over the mouth of the orange juice glass, through which the juice was poured so no pulp or seeds would get into the glass.
LOCK AND KEY
Many things were locked in the Westall House: cabinets, cupboards, drawers. And all the keys were hidden and all the doors to the outside had multiple locks which were always locked.
THE COST OF EVERYTHING
When he was a child, and especially during the year that he was kept home from school, Evelyn taught Christopher the cost of things; the values of antiques; the value of a particular antique based on condition: worn, cracked, broken, repaired, or perfect—If this had not been cracked it would be worth a fortune. Many cool clear afternoons were spent browsing through antique shops and going for tea in the Japanese Tea Garden and then to the Hall of Flowers. Mostly, they went to small shops in rundown neighborhoods, especially on the edge of the Tenderloin, but sometimes they ventured to Tea and Rarity, the elegant shop of Margaret and Ceryl Thayer on Bay Street. See how much more you pay for the surroundings—Evelyn would say under her breath just before Margaret offered tea—See how much more you pay because they’re British. Journey after journey, this thing that thing, good, better, best, a kind of glacial relentlessness. You have to know the value of everything—she’d say; this versus that; that versus this; which of the two is worth more given their actual condition; which would be more valuable if perfect; how broken things could be repaired but would never be perfect again, would never regain the value they’d had before breaking; how much more would someone pay if a piece completed their collection; how much more do you always have to pay for something you really want.