Looking glass land

Christy D. Di Frances
Boston, Massachusetts, United States (Spring 2018)

 

I

Statue in the garden of St. John’s Memorial Chapel,
Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

It begins the way stories often end: that excruciatingly one-sided conversation with some loved one or another. His grandmother. Finally something seems to awaken her from the obscurity of her world. ‘Do ye ken where he’s gone?’i She frames the question in a conspiratorial whisper, her eyes such a watery blue. ‘Where can I find him?’

His reply is brief, clipped by the limitations of his patience. ‘Find who, Gran?’ She nods, turns towards the bay window beside which they sit so that he stares at her thinning white hair. ‘Find who?’ he prompts again, more softly this time.

She sighs and rubs her hands together: pale, paper-thin skin barely concealing the blue veins. The twisted gold of her wedding band glistens in evening lamplight. ‘Hamish.’ His grandfather – long, long gone. Dead before they could ever have met, back in Scotland, years ago.

‘Hamish isn’t here, Gran. He’s not here any more.’

‘Yes.’ Her voice is wistful. ‘Yes, but I cannae mind… cannae mind where they put him. Which side of the kirkyard was it, ma bairn, like? Where did they lie his auld, dear bodie?’ii She pauses, glances out the window again. Her Scots, he notices, is broader than usual this time. Her hand seeks his and, finding it, squeezes feebly. ‘What is the chief end o’ man, then, ma bairn?’

He delves through memories, staring awkwardly at his reflection in the window. ‘To…’

‘Yes, yes!’ she croons. ‘That’s it—’ She recites the words mechanically, a Presbyterian device. He sighs, shaking his head. She looks at him, suddenly. ‘That’s a good lad, now.’

None of the others come to visit often. But he is staunch in his monthly ritual of attendance: ringing the bell, striding through the home with its neutral upholstery, its stale-smelling air. So different from the hospital where he spends most of his time. Chief resident this year.

The skin on her pale forehead wrinkles in concentration. ‘Aye, you’re a good lad, like. A fine lad. Mebbies ye can tell me where he is? Do ye ken if he’s beside the steps or beneath the auld birch tree? I cannae just mind where it is that he’s lyin.’iii

She has asked him the question before. Why, he wonders, is it this memory to which she clings so ardently? Why should this detail be most elusive? Does it matter what piece of foreign sod marks whatever little is left of him by now? Whether that already-fading headstone is noted by grass or tree, gate or crumbling wall? He pats her fragile hand. ‘Gran, I don’t know. I wasn’t there then, remember?’

 

II

Three days later and he is sitting in Logan airport, waiting for a delayed flight to Chicago for a conference. He looks up from his papers to see a girl standing at the ticket counter, distraught. She wears a filmy, bright-blue dress that is more suited to some Victorian illustration of a forest nymph than to a real person. Somehow she seems out of place in this garish ecosystem of plastic and sterilized metal.

‘What do you mean?’ she is asking the gate agent. Her dark eyes are open wide, mirroring the night windows in which he can articulate his own form. He sees himself easily: tall, well-built, exuding an aura of professional calm – of practiced consideration. Not a crease visible on his crisply-ironed shirt. He looks back at the girl.

‘I mean,’ the agent is telling her, ‘that you’ve missed your departing flight and will need to book another.’

‘But how – how’s that possible?’ Incredulity emanates from her porcelain-fine features. It is a face like a china doll, or maybe just fragile. ‘I’ve been waiting in the airport for six hours. They told me that the flight was delayed, but they didn’t know how long.’

‘You should have checked the monitors.’

‘But I have been,’ she insists gently. ‘I’ve been checking all afternoon. They weren’t being updated; I can’t understand why.’

‘Well, I’m sorry,’ says the man, his lack of sincerity almost blatant. ‘But this is not your flight. Look at your boarding pass; the numbers are different. We operate several flights a day to Portland, you know. This is one of the later ones. Your plane left fifteen minutes ago from the other end of the terminal.’

‘But that’s where I’ve just been, and they said to come here. I can’t understand…’ her eyes are imploring, enough to beguile the most indifferent listener. But familiarity does, as the adage goes, invite a form of contempt that transcends any ordinary expectation of compassion or empathy. So the gate agent just stares at her with a vacuous indifference which in another circumstance might be perceived as inhuman. ‘Can’t you let me on board? I need to get there tonight. Does it really matter so much which plane?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the man says, ‘but it’s really impossible. And unfortunately this is the last flight to Portland today. Downstairs at our sales counter you can buy a ticket for one of tomorrow’s flights.’ It is almost grotesque, how he stresses the syllables in unfortunately.

She is shaking her head. ‘But I’m a student. How will I afford another ticket?’ The gate agent takes a call. The chief resident forces himself to look away, a convenient shuffling of papers. When he lifts his eyes again she is gone. Her retreating figure, limping slightly, melts into the dimness. Nearly eight o’clock. He ought to have dinner.

Returning from the brashly lit food court, he is surprised by the noise and commotion caused by a small crowd gathering near an otherwise vacant gate. The airport has begun to feel abandoned by this time of night, absurdly cavernous after the midday rush. So this is an anomaly: onlookers jostling for a better view of police officers and paramedics, who administer some final vestige of dignity by the deft covering of a lifeless body.

He glimpses something blue and filmy escaping from beneath the blanket, stops suddenly for confirmation of this unlikely occurrence. Is it her? The nymph-like girl, almost ephemeral enough to have been imagined – a passing fancy across his immaculately ordered mind? How could it be? He lingers while the crowd dissipates, then approaches one of the paramedics, asks what happened. The woman eyes him steadily. ‘Did you know her?’ she inquires, but without waiting for his answer offers a terse explanation.

He should understand this, of course. Invisible weight of the stethoscope even when it does not lean against his neck, even in an airport. But for some reason the disillusionment is instant. I am base. He realizes it with terror: I am as base as anyone alive.

 

III

It is unprecedented, really, the way this isolated incident has affected his thoughts, and he cannot for the life of him understand why. That man was only doing his job, after all. The company policy is probably strict about these things – perversely regulated down to the minutia. It is madness, this level of control. Suffocating. He feels that he must escape it, at least temporarily, so makes plans for a long weekend in Scotland on his precious time off. Returning to his roots and all that. When he tells his grandmother, she requests (in a rare moment of lucidity) that he find out about the burial plot. ‘Won’t ye be stoppin at the kirkyard to look?’ she beseeches. ‘It won’t take ye sae lang to find out where they put him. Nae trouble to ye, ma bairnie—it’ll be nae trouble, like. Do ye ken?’iv

So he really could not have avoided the promise that brings him to this old stone church all alone on the moor. And now in twilight, what the Scots call the gloaming, he feels vulnerable, perplexingly aware of the visual isolation. No one to observe him here, but still he senses his strangeness from the place he has come seeking. His presence is invasive, a blot on the windswept landscape. Before getting out of the rental car he tries to settle his nerves with a practiced glance at the rearview mirror, but what stares back at him seems the visage of a stranger, galling perfection in those too-symmetric features. He averts his eyes.

The cemetery is bigger than he expected and surprisingly overgrown with heather and yellow grasses. After an hour’s search he still has not found his grandfather’s headstone. The gloaming time is nearly passed; rain begins to fall. Tall grasses obscure the chiseled names so he has to clear away this bracken. Soon he is on his knees, fighting through the sharp undergrowth, arms and hands stung, burning, bleeding. The foliage, tumbled and long at summer’s end, lashes against his forearms. He will never forget the grasses here for how they cut him, cut him to the heart. He should stop and return tomorrow but knows that he will not. Such action would be insufficient to the achievement of this retribution. Or penance. He is not sure which. Even so, his face remains too handsome for communion with the truth of the place. And he knows it – knows beyond any shadow of a doubt.

So it is ending the way many stories begin: one figure alone in the vast, wild Highlands, a body awake in the dreamland of words. He will stay out here long, very long through the darkness, and never will he think of leaving ‘til day. This dirt will be mingled with blood on his hands, on these wounds that will heal his perfection at last.

 

References

  1. Scots. Ye ken – you know.
  2. Scots. Cannae mind – can’t remember; kirkyard – churchyard; ma bairn – my child; auld – old; bodie – body.
  3. Scots. Mebbies ye – perhaps you; cannae just mind – can’t quite remember.
  4. Scots. Ye – you; sae lang – so long; nae – no; ma bairnie – my small child.

 


 

CHRISTY D. Di FRANCES, PhD, MA, is the Director of Training & Education for the American Heart Association’s Tobacco Regulation and Addiction Center (A-TRAC) and the Director of Narrative Writing for the Department of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine. Her academic and research interests include medical education, literature and medicine/narrative medicine, and creative/reflective writing. She has also worked in faculty development and education at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and served as a fiction reader for the Harvard Review.

 

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