Happy Birthday, Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s birthday is October 27, 1932. I always feel a little breath of space in the world on this day, the absence where she should be. To remember her, I’m re-posting something silly that I wrote for my friend Sheila O’Malley on the occasion of Sheila’s birthday (it includes Tracey). Enjoy.

The Present

In the baggage claim at Heathrow Airport, Cara Ellison paced, checking her phone, attempting to avoid the surveillance cameras, while she waited for her friend. Three days. Three nights. It had come to this.

Through the smash and crash of travelers, her eyes sought her friend, discounting the ones – not him, nor him, nor him– all masses trundling round the globe. Then quite suddenly, on a stair, Sheila rose with her red hair above the crowds, her face featureless from this distance, like fine Jew linen.

As she came nearer, Cara lurched forth, grabbing her in a solid hug. “Oh my God, you look so skinny!”

Sheila shrugged out of the embrace, laughing, “I do not!”

“You do, not do! You do, not do! Oh, black shoes!”

Sheila looked down at her black patent leather heels, worn with the miles of a thousand walks. “In which I have lived like a foot, for thirty years. Poor and white.”

Cara embraced her again.

“I can barely breathe or achoo!” Sheila laughed and squirmed away.

Years of destiny lay between them as the women chatted and luggage arrived on silver rotating wheels. Sheila grasped her roller bag and a large canvas bag, which she hefted onto her shoulder. “Marble heavy,” she complained. “A bag full of God.”

Cara lifted one heavy bag from her friend’s shoulder and together they began the trek to the other part of the airport, where the last of them was due.

“Darling, all night I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.”

“You worry too much,” Sheila replied. “We will get away pure as acetylene virgins, attended by roses.”

The wait was a weight, as they waited for an hour. Or three, if you want to know. Then the girl whose skin was fine as Japanese paper, golden beaten skin, infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive, arrived in Isadora’s scarves and blue peajacket, her loveliness too pure for anyone.

“Does not my heat astound you. And my light,” Tracey said, and hugged her friends. “You regard me with such attention.”

The three women hurried to the car waiting outside, their faces masks of indifferent pleasure. The shining multiples, The innocents —

The English town was scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars, and death hung in bare trees. Sullen smokes rose from distant factories, black lunged workers had died in fields in previous generations, the hard-bitten English countryside as dull as the tongues of Cerberus. North, the long blackness. The chalk light laid its scales on the windows of the car, the passing light hurtling from the devil’s gaze.

The car had been rented by Cara in London, and it serviced well through the hinterlands, until they arrived at the new townsquare. It was dark out and the shoppes were dark, the streets empty.

The three women quietly dressed in the car. The air was thick. It was thick with this working.

“My blacks,” Tracey whispered, “crackle and drag.”

“You shall not be a heroine of the peripheral,” Cara replied softly. To herself, she mused only that it was if their hearts had donned faces, and walked into the world exposed as babies.

After they dressed completely in black, Cara eased the car down the long sullen road. They were miles from civilization, the black car the only thing to catch light and gleam on a cold night, the highlands whispering with wind and not even God to allay fears.

A wall around a green property came into view. “That’s it,” Sheila whispered, her voice drawn with awe at the stones piled high, the gated property possessive as a pregnant woman.

Cara wordlessly drove a little farther up, the yews hiding the shape of the car, a mechanical bee.

Stepping into the cold, Tracey shivered. “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.”

The three women walked quietly along the sodden grasses, the grasses unload their griefs on their feet as if they were God, prickling ankles and murmuring of their humility.

“Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place,” Sheila said.

Cara flexed her black-gloved hands, the cold permeating. “The moon drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet.”

“Speak not of dark crimes,” Sheila hissed, her face as white as a bridal dress, that pallor.

Was there a crime? No, Cara resigned, and she made her face and hands stiff with holiness. This was not a crime. This was a revolution, yes, but a quiet one. A liberation, like the Jews of Auschwitz. The only risk was coming too late.

Separated by the house by a row of headstones, the three women approached. The message of the yew tree was blackness. Blackness and silence.

From now, they would work as if tape had ripped across their mouths like a slap.

The house was enormous, a mansion of stones, darked windows black as Hitler’s soul. Along a pathway, lined with the corpse of a raven, the trees and shrubs had melted under winter’s waxy substance. The women climbed the wall, and heaved themselves into the garden.

Silence and stillness commanded them. They waited for a light to flicker onward from beneath a Nazi lampshade inside, but nothing disturbed the cold peace. A statuary, selves not theirs, performed a dumbshow on the black grass, the crooked stones.

They crept to a basement-level window, gone yellow with age and neglect, like a bubble about to break. In silence, as they had planned in Belgrave, London, places not home to their own language or their manners, Cara eased the device in between the panes, latching the crooked hook, jagged as a baby’s cry, and easily lifted the window open. Looking into Sheila’s aryan eye, she nodded, and Sheila slipped inside soundless as love. Tracey followed, then Cara eased into the black void.

The room was not God but a swastika, so black no sky could squeak through. Mouthless, eyeless, stitched bald heads beneath the black caps. Black ghosts, are we death?

Cara had examined the architecture plans, the ancient onionskin documents found in a bureaucrat’s drawer, but she found herself useless. Without light to see, why bother to try?

She unclipped the tiny pinlight, and flashed to the walls. Eking a small path toward the door, she took Tracey’s hand and Tracey grasped Sheila’s and they inched like crabs across the rotten floor, their feet careful not to bang into the antiques, once loved, now forgotten. At a rotted door, the knob easily turned, and Cara parted it from the jamb. A cryptic staircase up.

Cara found her balance and stepped upward, proudly halting only once to listen for the sounds of a life in the living house — stillness is a lie — but the rats had eaten away the phone lines and the residents quieted, faces blank as the day they were born: sleep claimed their minds like husbands.

Soft steps silently sang serious sighs as the three women tapped up the stairs. Another door at the top! Same magic allowed them in. A long hallway, like death, snaked into the bowel of the house.

The stink of mildrew, age and secrets permeated the wallpapers, sodden furniture as grey as wind. The darkness was total, but for the pinlight, and they creeped mouselike through the house, every cell aware of the other living creatures, one floor above. This house was not a place for marriage; too anchored in solitude.

The planner pointed up. “Attic,” she whispered, and the other two inhaled, barely nodding like dolls.

The slowness… their feet nearly taking root, drinking minerals from the wooden slats. Afraid to breathe, the three women progressed like syrup upward, in a slow robotic shift. At the landing a deep snore startled them. Looking wildly to the other two, who represented longevity and daring, Cara pointed down a hallway which seemed to exude the sounds of sleep, thoughts gone dim.

They slowly walked the other way, toward the switching staircase. On shoes soft as beach sand, they continued upward.

The house was in open conversation with God, for every room led to more rooms, and the eternal diversion was a Cubist painting. The small narrow passageway behind a slim door was the only possible way to the attic. Tracey entered last, pulling the door shut too firmly.

They froze, waiting for the shriek of an angry homeowner, the last wail of defaulted promise of safety, but nothing came, nothing.

At the top of the stair another door, and through that door – queer light, the diaphanous satins of a January window. Oh ready for enormity, Sheila stood blinking, trying to make sense of what she saw.

It was the attic exposed with large windows, and sky heaved upon them like God’s knowing eye, tilting blue the neutral airs of crime. A vast space full of junk and old loves. Cara breathed in, filling veins with invisibles, with the million probable motes that tick the years off life. You are silver-suited for the occasion.

“What is this,” Tracey whispered. “Behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges? I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.”

“Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?” Sheila asked.

There was too much. O jewel! O valuable! Old whore petticoats.

“I suppose we ought to dig and discover on our own,” Cara said. “Each snail, each pearl button accounted.”

They surged waist-deep in history. Boxes of marriages now dead and the dead now buried. The quiet combings discovering fetid wombs, the light of history occasionally lighting a memory as a cathedral’s shadow. There was nothing they came for. A raped extravagance?

The cauldron of morning was lighting the edge of dawn. The chimneys of the city were beginning to breathe. To go empty handed into the future was a sin, like the sin of love wasted.

The three women stood, sweated from their search, the boxes rendering junk.

“We’ve only hours,” Tracey said.

“But hours spent wisely are hours that multiply,” Sheila replied.

“We’ve discovered only sorrow,” Cara whispered.

Tracey turned and walked to the windows. A living doll. She turned again and looked at the acres of memories, lives distilled to the junk shop window.

Suddenly her head tilted and with it the world. “That chest,” she said.

Sheila and Cara spun and saw nothing.

“It’s a chest, verily, I say to you, the chest.” Tracey walked to the large mirror, where a scarf hung nearly to the floor and a wooden edge peeked from under rough, dumb country stuff. Tracey ripped aside the scarf, and behind the mirror was the chest.

“Heavens,” Cara whispered.

Sheila’s eyes began to tear.

They approached and silently worked to move the mirror. Kneeling down, they opened the chest.

A low guttural sound kicked from Cara’s mouth, the low soft moan of a woman in childbirth. One journal was a plain composition notebook; the other a folder. Reaching inside, Sheila held them in shaking hands.

She opened the cover of the folder, and there, having known it all along, was typewritten words on pink Smith College stationery.

The final journals had been found.

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