04 - 11

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 42

04 - 11

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11

TANNA AND I LAY in the grey light of our room in Haarlem, listening to the traffic pass by the open window. There was the clatter of carriages, the low moan of an aged horse. From somewhere far off, so that it carried only faintly to us, came the cry of a child. Ice broke up softly in the water urn on the washstand across the room. In the corner, the two-headed specimen sat hidden in its case.

I kissed her still-damp skin, the hollow at her throat. She tasted of salt. Naked and with her hair spilling about her, she appeared smaller, vulnerable.

“I adore your naturalness,” I said, kissing her breast.

She gave a lazy smile. “Is that a euphemism to say I’m plain?”

“I admire your lack of adornment.”

“So I am plain.”

“Surely you noticed Peter Haas staring at you. You augment your beauty gently, with small things, so that your actual features are the more noticeable.”

“You have been reading a manual on how to make love to a woman, I see. God save us.” She smiled faintly. “The irony is that for years and years I begged my father to allow me to wear jewels, and to paint my face, and to dress in the latest fashions. And he resisted me a long time, long past the point when such a thing was natural for girls my age. When finally he allowed it, I was given a purse of money and told I could purchase the four items I most desired: a dress of pale muslin; a handbag with a single emerald clasp; a skin powder; and a very red lipstick. I put them on at once.”

“And you looked garish, like a street mime.”

“I looked breathtaking—very like a living doll. My father was so astounded by the transformation that he apologized for having so long refused me. I think he saw at once the fine match I could make, the easy life I might have as a beauty. And yet. Something happened to me, dressed so. I became emphasized in the world, sharpened. I stood out, and felt the constant touch of others’ eyes. And the more people looked, the more effaced I felt, as if I were disappearing. It was the strangest feeling. I did not feel as though all those glances were scraping away some essence, though that is possibly a part of it. It’s more that the heightened expectation made me retreat deeper into myself. I had a feeling as of physical obstruction, as though I were standing in front of myself—I needed to shove this second self away, to open the view to the true self. I was so dull in those months, Wash. At every conversation, a great vacancy would fill my eyes, an air of departure, as if I’d already left the room. I began to get a reputation for being stupid. Pretty and stupid.”

“No one could think you stupid, Tanna.”

“Silly, then. Trivial.”

“Well, now you are silly and plain,” I said teasingly, kissing at her hair, “what purpose do you serve?”

“To stop you acting out stupid whims.”

I smiled, but felt softly criticized. I settled back onto the pillows.

“Mister Haas’s story about his stolen instrument took on quite the opposite resonance for me from the one he’d intended, I think,” she said. “I kept thinking, but what of the poor Tahitians? Being shot at, having to suffer the condescension of these strange arrivals and their frightening tools.” She shrugged.

“Morocco,” I said. “I would never have thought it. I wonder what it is that drew him there.”

“Shadow grams, wasn’t it?”

“Why say it that way?”

“What way?”

“Disdainfully.”

She breathed out deeply. “Your obsession is grown so relentless you have even begun seeing him in strangers.” She rolled onto her side. “At Newgate, when you ran from me in the crowd—you thought you saw him, didn’t you? And now you are already thinking of rushing off again.”

“Rushing off?” I said.

She gave a bitter shake of the head, a few fine strands clinging damply to her forehead. “Must we pretend? Must we entertain this ruse?”

I said nothing, watching the light drift in a slow creep across the ceiling.

“I used to believe it was only a matter of finding the source of your origins. That Titch represented your early life, that there was something unresolved there. But we did that, we went to the Abolitionist Society. Kit was your mother. And yet here we find ourselves, in Amsterdam.” She raised her softly rounded thighs, hooking her arms across them. I stared at the back of her matted head as she mumbled something. Realizing she had not been heard, she turned her face to me. “Do you mean to kill him? Is that it?”

I glanced at her, taken aback.

“Of course you do not—I say it only to show you how senseless all this has been. How confusing and strange it all seems to me. I do not understand it—I have tried and tried and I do not. Why do you hunt him so? Do you imagine you will be made stronger by this?” She shook her head. “You will be weakened. You will be wrecked.”

I was flooded with anxiety, with sadness. I knew in some measure she was right. But something in me would not cease—a great lunging forward, a striving rooted as deeply in me as the thirst for water. I had gone this far, seeking a truth that might not exist; I could only go on.

“Is it because you feel my father stole your idea?” said Tanna, her voice anguished, her face calm. “Is that why you run from us? Ocean House was taken from you, and now you are moving farther and farther away from it, as if to rid yourself of the loss.”

I knew I should bite my tongue. Instead, rising up on one elbow, I said, “Well, was it not taken from me? I’ve spent over a year working out the science of it—even now I work on it. And what will it bring me in the end? Nothing. My name nowhere.”

She was trembling softly. “Is it a question of your name?”

“No,” I said, and it was the truth, though it also wasn’t. I knew only that I had believed the project would be a testament to my contributions in the world, and that this, somehow, would mark my passage through it, confirm that my existence had been meaningful, and worthy. But already that certainty was fading; I did not know what to believe anymore.

“Washington,” she said.

“I am tired,” I said softly.

She hesitated.

The room was darkening, cooling, and in the moist air the whine of a fly could be heard.

“My father’s brother,” Tanna began, and her voice was so quiet I almost could not hear her. “Uncle Sunshine, we called him. He was very morose. When he would visit my father, I had only to see his carriage in the distance to begin running away. He came and he moped and was gloomy. I suppose it’s the Goff temperament—even Henrietta and Judith are often melancholy. Father, too. And of course Aunt Miranda killed herself. But Uncle Sunshine, he seemed to delight in his misery. My laughter only seemed to sadden him further—all children saddened him, as if they were but small reminders of an age when he was truly happy.

“When my grandmother died, she left him a sum of money, as she did to all her children—three hundred pounds each. My father spent his immediately on scientific instruments. My uncle? He bought himself a grand headstone for his plot in the family cemetery.

“He went every day to visit his own gravestone, leaving flowers upon it. Any small purchase he allowed himself would be tied in ribbons and laid chastely on the grave. Once he left himself the dark Portuguese figs we’d given him from our trip to the Serra da Estrela. How I’d wanted him to taste those figs. But onto the grave they went. In the end, he visited that grave more than he visited us. It became his sole destination. When finally he died, it was like a homecoming.”

I smiled, sadly. “Did he even exist?”

Tanna rested her damp head on my chest. “The world is large, larger than we sometimes allow it to be.” She breathed shallowly, her face pressed against my skin.

How exhausted I felt, how drained.

“I will go with you,” she said.

I had already closed my eyes, and falling asleep, I felt myself reach out for her fingers.

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