Anjali Deshmukh
 
 
 
Apartness

1991. I haven't seen you since then I think. My memory's crumbling, but today I felt the loss of you acutely, and I wonder why. I wonder; why I haven’t seen you in so long and why I have had such a sudden concern for the reality of you. You are real, and no one should make you think otherwise.

Were it not for my great affection for security, perhaps I would have gone looking for you, perhaps I would have left this place and taken some path out into the world to come find you rather than writing with some egotistical assumption that my words were strong enough to reach you. But this place is actually very comfortable. It teaches me to remember things that burrow. Without it, nothing would be left. Perhaps you would rather that this would have been the case, but I don’t like to forget things.

My room is a tribute to the poisoning, a memorial of victory around which I sit watching the last embers of our family glowing in my spark. My room, it emanates from a column of glowing white granite, smooth and intricately veined with interlocking spirals of carved laurel leaves that wind around and around from the base. It is a stem from which the room itself spins into its own obsolescence; the stem drags the room in tow upwards upwards, dissolving at night in caverns and echoes that disintegrate its glowing whiteness until I start again.

And I do. I see its smoothness mottled by transparent and rough jewels on the surface, in angled and slanted rings cutting away at imaginary lines. When there is light, when I fail to miss the daylight, I see the ceiling canopy, that from far away resembles the underbelly of a rose's outer petals inverted into a concave dome, petals curling under the weight of gravity. The stem narrows infinitely and the canopy balances on its tip—it is absurd.

The column is the only real thing in my octagon room, my great open space, which, over the slow passing of years, has been invaded by a large ornate oval mirror and chandelier that serve faithfully as the two main companions of my old age. The chandelier hangs from a long chain that disappears high into the crevices of the ceiling.

I can't remember what has happened to the rest of the house or if the rest of the house is as it always was. I feel some vague intuition that perhaps I cannot leave here, because of the rectangular sets of rusted iron bars that radiate along the entire periphery of the room. These bars always shift from feeling like a protective moat and a flimsy cage. Flimsy in its failure; it cannot prevent me from leaving, yet my own fear makes me obey its intent. In some ways, the periphery had allowed me over time to feel safe in looking out the large windows that are embedded on the upper quarter of the curved walls.

I am floating on the surface of deep ocean waters, breath suspended, with the chandelier sun on my back, ripples of light entering the very edges of my field of vision, and my greatest focus on the limitless depths above. And I hear the birds outside in my water-sleep, meaningless cries and variations on a singular pattern, backward, forward, inside out, reflected, filtering through the closed doorway and circulating to rest at the center of the stem. I look up at the beginnings of this tinted glass cylinder; it allows me an opportunity to see the birds outside without their sounds causing my eyes to close in the light. I am silent on the waters.

*****

In the long past, I felt our house to be filled with strangers that mingled with the furniture and army of servants that were at our mother's beck and call. The house had an immensity to it that could only be matched by the incandescent dining rooms and dark shadowed corners. I had felt we were always under the lights of judgment there, manners supervised from behind a one-way mirror. I could see myself reflected through my mother’s eyes, her strictly ordered hair.

It's a struggle to remember, but I know that we had been holding up wine glasses, testing the colors of gold ambers and reds for a fantastic gathering. There was the mild smell of smoke in the hazy air. My eyes stung and blurred the outlines of the shapes in the room. Sitting at the head of the table, elbows leaning, I had broken an expensive glass. It snapped like the stem of an orchid, powdery glass embedding itself in my fingers and drawing tiny drops of blood. This was an uncontrollable urge on my part to see its contents spread across the lace tablecloth that had been recently purchased in preparation for my mother's gathering.

The spill of red liquid on white leaving a pale pink stain as it rushed through the lace to splash in a thin stream onto our polished wooden floorboards.

Our mother had been planning for months: "My life currently….depends upon it….," she had said, the skin on her knuckles stretched thin from nonchalantly gripping the collar of my pale shirt. Stretched with the same severity of her youth, tight and ageless features that made her appear to expand in front of the eyes even as my height was making its way in years towards hers.

That shirt I wore nearly all days, the make and model in repeats, multiples with little variations on the hems. There was an awkward and conspicuously aberrant similarity between my mother and I that often caused strangers to question my relation to my father, who I looked nothing like although we shared the same hues. But he was dead before I could remember anything of him, so their curiosity did not touch me.

"Sevti," she said, turning her graceful doe’s neck just as she gripped mine, "when you set the table, please put the meat there,” pointing with the other hand, long finger. Abruptly she let me go and turned to leave the dining room. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling to watch the lights in our dining chandelier flicker out, leaving us lit only by the falling sun angling its reddish rays at our shoulders. For the past several weeks, we had had repeated, short electrical blackouts.

"And while you are out, please purchase some candles." For several weeks, her errands had sent Sevti to the market, to the flower shop, to the various locations that would add weight to her event. I saw Sevti glance at my mother’s white satin shoe. Only she could see the pink footprints trailing behind her walking figure. I could only guess.

Sevti was my original companion, at meals and after school, in all walks of my orderly and superficially expensive life. Even though you barely met her, perhaps you remember her? Her features had a resemblance to mine, mother's; what an ego mother had, to surround herself with herself. More possibly, it was the result of a commiserating silence that inculcated the house and its inhabitants.

Parted silvery hair and sun-darkened skin hid a mark Sevti had received from a fall down the stairs. Mother had allowed her to remain in the house, despite the new shudder that seized her head and neck at the sound of clinking metal, the smells of cooking flesh. The doctors had diagnosed her with a form of synesthesia; perceptual experiences of sound and smell somehow translated into a winter coldness for her. It was not uncommon for Sevti to be heavily layered in a brown woolen sweater that, in combination with her severe features, made her appear older than she was. I imagine that she must have been so cold in the bowels of the kitchen.

I remember her often and clearly, when the breeze off the ocean makes my windows shudder under their weight, and I can taste the salt.

Her demeanor, however, was no indicator of her personality, which was kind and rather fond of flower arrangements, frequent trips to the warm beach, where she could be temporarily unburdened of her state of cold. These were the smells of rawness. Her position in our household was not the most advantageous for her illness.

Later, I found that the beach was also a sort of meeting place for her, that our weekend trips were destinations at which she expressed her sorrow at the loss of her own home, which had rested for generations long ago on this beach. She had such memory, even those that were not individually hers. It is as though she remembered for everyone. Does she remember for me still? I knew little of Sevti's life outside of my own home. I sensed that she had had children, but I had never seen them. Ultimately it must have been unfortunate for them, with the weight of the world resting on their minds and the distance of her guiding hands pushing, or attempting to push, events smoothly through life. But she always took me with her.

*****

After she left our house abruptly, soon after our mother's gathering, I lost nearly all human contact. Sevti was the only one willing to make an effort to communicate with me. I cannot remember where she went, but before she left, she said to me, “You must leave this place, it is ok to leave this place…” and she touched my cheek and pulled me by the hand before walking across the brittle grass, blackened ash. But I did not know where to go. I did not know how to go, and there was too much fear. I have often wondered what became of her children. Everything is so foggy, until it comes again in a wave that only leaves behind crushed memories for me to sift through.

Sevti’s life revolved around the beaches, mine around our mother and the house. The house eventually became some strange focal point around which we all maintained the gravity of our daily lives. It was rounded at its edges, with a balcony that surrounded the second floor. On the western side, we saw a far flat horizon, over which lay the ocean. From the house itself there was very little of the water I could see, but the humid salt air and slight echoes came over the hill-less land, along with the sound of the moving grasses.

My focus lay more in the interiors. Our stairs were steep and winding, a series of angular shadows opening into occasional corners of darkness in which I had occasionally slept or watched as a child. These were my spaces for their invisibility; they allowed me to be unseen in consciousness and unconsciousness. I might have, for example, slept with my ear to the floor, listening to a conversation between mother and you, while commenting aloud on the tone of her voice, the sounds of scraping chairs.

I did this to be close to you. Because you were good to me. When you came home, you would climb the stairs and sit with me, or take me down to the yard and we would lie in the grass, with our eyes close to the ground so that the horizon was all we saw, tall blades of grass slicing through our vision. "One day, I will show you what is over past that line,” you had said, pointing to the horizon that lay to our east. That way was inland, I knew. That was all I knew, all I imagined past the mysterious borders of our property, the edges of lush greens pushed against a dusty road and no shade from the heat. Sevti, who had an uncanny night vision after her injury, was the only person in the house that knew of my weird habits in the house’s darkness. Considering her illness, however, she chose not to inform my mother of my own perceptual behavior. It would not have been fair.

I remembered these things when we prepared that afternoon for the gathering. The stairway had long been torn down to build an addition to the house, which had cost my mother dearly. A slowly declining income had not curbed her spending habits on alterations in the house. But things were changing now. The money could not outrun the crumbling, and although a visitor could not discern from her ready smile, it became evident to me that day that this whole set-up had some greater goal for her. Emptiness descended as the house was dismantled in puzzle pieces... Our small collection of intricate Thomas Baines paintings had slowly disappeared from the walls, and I had begun to see the first cracks of dissatisfaction, sometimes terror, in my mother’s long fingers. But maybe underneath all of the emptiness, the walls themselves meant something. The house had been built on top of, or intertwined with, the ruins of a small 17-century Dutch-style cottage. A bastard of international styles, really, woven into a European fantasy. All of these changes were inextricably connected to my own life in the house. I could see the ruins through it all. You, instead, had simply left, over and over again. But she could neither succeed at removing the ruins nor could she leave, only sit and watch the dilapidation slowly reveal itself. Yet I knew that many of these guests had also taken note of this over the last several months, that the trafficking did not exempt any objects. Even me. They were clinging to a past that had taken on grotesque proportions. They cling to it even now I think.

*****

We sat in the dining room immediately, and the guests were not allowed to roam outside of the room unattended. Occasionally in the name of tradition, guests sat in our dining room, as was the case today, a sea of seemingly three hundred figures, each with a place at the huge oval dining table that had yet to disappear. There was a feeling of discomfort. I recognized many of these faces, but I had not seen any guests in our house since you left me five years before. I received rapid looks of desire and distaste simultaneously, although none looked at me for more than the compulsory glance of acknowledgement and awareness. I did exist. You do exist.

But they all seemed to naturally approach mother. I sat six seats to the left of her, near the door that led out into the large living room. Sevti stood behind me, her hand resting on the back of my chair. She had said: “This seat is for you: there is your special drinking glass,” and smiled at me as I grabbed her hand, gripping it on the armrest.

I felt competing choreographies of intention, expectation, and action coming together, all to converge on the beautiful standing figure of our mother, slightly lit and flickering above the candles that were patterned in the shape of a net across the oval table. Her head was still, directed at what seemed to be the dimmed shapes of figures that were most distant from us. Yet I could see that she addressed solely, it seemed, the empty chair that stood at the far end of the table opposite her. Is it you? “Today, I am announcing an auction.”

I looked up at Sevti, but she was not looking at me. Instead, she was silently regarding our mother with a blank expression. She was not surprised, I think. I saw her look past mother, towards the door that lead into the foyer, but I could see nothing but a deep space and the occasional light thrown on white plaster. But I knew that she was looking at something more than the darkness. I tapped her hand and she nodded at me, smiling.

“I have lived here for many years. I have not stepped out of this house since my son’s death five years ago. But it is a large house, with its own world inside. Now many of you have seen the lengths I have gone to preserve this environment over the last year. Very little had changed until I let the world re-enter. But I have noticed the changes that took place outside this house, and I see that there are changes on the inside as well… Many of you may remember the funeral.”

Outside on level sand near the beaches, the same faces and averted eyes; brimmed hats and long shadows. Flocks of cormorants, voiceless and flying overhead, black or murky brown, with long necks. It was the end of the summer; the heat had been deep, and we would sit on the western balcony, inventing shapes within the silhouette of the roof, with its long shadow throwing itself against the hard boundary lines of grasses marking our property. Sevti echoed throughout the house, gasping tiredly in the house’s warm and stifling rooms. You were cremated cinder and ashes mixing with the sand and water now. I sit in the sand nearby, making a replica sculpture of you in his new form, talking to the sand, listening, piling rocks for solidity and smiling as I watch them remain standing and trembling in precarious balances. Everyone stands in rows and columns, curved around your coffin like a pineapple.

It was a closed coffin, in the curved shape of an almond, a shining black Galjoen fish with delicate fins and globe eyes; no one but Sevti and I knew that you were cremated.

“We have many objects here. They were my inheritance, along with this house. It holds our treasures. But within the next three days, the fires will come across the plains and end at the ocean.”

We sat on the western balcony, peering through the railings and imagining tsessebe running awkwardly on the grass, gazing up at us in calm confusion. Oh yes, I remember! Beyond the borders of the grass on our property. They were free, tapping their curved and rough horns, and we laughed at them enviously. But they were not free here, they were only under our illusion of freedom. And there were the same clothes you had worn the day you left the first time. Your eight years above mine made it easy for you to see over the railing, all curved and round so that I could look up at its rims above, the underside ledge muted in the mild shadows in which we sat.

I looked up at you, amazed that you are so far away that you cannot hear me. But I could still see guilt seeping from you; your inability to look at me directly, and you do know that I am aware.

“The fire will destroy this house, and I would like to be here to watch it rise up in flames. It must burn, but there is some time to remove its contents. Be sure that I am far from desperate. Although I know that some of you come here surprised at my decision, you have known for a long time that this house was all I imagined of my life. Without it, the objects are meaningless to me.”

We laughed together at them enviously, the tsessebe, and you were looking down upon me with a knowing look, confused and relieved. And you do know, that I feel a tiny wave of joy because I can sense their freedom from here! Just as I know that you do. And my eyes close for a split moment in which that expanse of vivid green grass and the dust of the road merge seamlessly with the darkness in my mind, and truly, what a different day that this is!, and I am thanking you for it with a rare unrestrained smile just rushing through me until my eyes are wide open watching you with such certainty that I am sure I gave you more confidence than you would have had on your own. And before taking your eyes from mine, you are up on the balcony and silently floating as I see you from between the slats in the railing as though you have compressed yourself into a small narrow space, and you tell me that it is I that have done so. My hands were leaving fingerprints on the sun bleached wood, and I pushed my wrist through, but you were much too far away. I was quiet, and as I sat on the floor with my wrist trapped between the bars, Sevti heard our silence and came to me, to find me watching the grass below, a deepening stain of red slipping through its blades, the same blades that were our screen to the horizon’s edge, to mingle with the dirt on the downward slope towards the ocean, the tsessebe momentarily scattered, rejoining in useless herds and pools on the lawn before I have forgotten them entirely.

Sevti looked at me, her frustration at the bruise on my wrist transforming into fear mixed with reproof as she reached my eye level and was pulled towards the sea. I could hear her rushing through the house a loud tear of collapsed wood and sounds that ran in a pouring stream from the hallway behind me to the first floor, where it crashed below, water against rocks. The house began to tremble with the pressure of voices and steps scattering, and I watched the sky darken long after the sun had come into my eyes, weakly falling beneath the horizon. “This must be completed tonight. Everything, you leave behind.”

I remember being one of the accusers in an audience overflowing with unfamiliar, gluttonous and eagerly intellectual faces as I watched mother stand from her chair at the head of the table. They seemed to crave the silence and stillness that we had lived in, but they did not care about its costs.

I turned to Sevti and watched as she still strained towards the door, with her natural clarity that sharpened edges and doused objects in light. I could barely see the outlines of a reddish glow hitting the walls, the smoke that I had felt in the house punctuating the air and mingling with the candle flames near. There were the faint rumbling snaps of heat, which no one but Sevti and I heard in the craving silence. She whispered to me, “Everything you leave behind can remain behind…” Our mother was frozen in a temporary moment of, almost, euphoria, as she raised her fork to her lips, to pass the verdict on the meal and drink the red cloudy wine that had been handed to her.

Statuesque and steady, bracelets rustling in the stillness of the room, as an occasional laugh sent breaths flying through the air. In her unwavering confidence, she did not look down to find that the meat was raw until far too late.



Paa Joe, Coffins
Simon Starling, “Inverted Retrograde”
John Currin, “Thanksgiving”
Jay Defeo, “The Rose”
Kirsten Hassenfeld: “"Object of Virtue”