A Short Story by Athena Kildegaard
SOME DAYS IRIS was allowed to go outside and one of the silent women who wasn’t a nurse would follow her through the garden. The woman would let Iris sit on an iron chair outside the dining room to watch birds in the marble bird bath while the woman would go in and fill salt shakers or sweep crumbs off the tables with a whisk broom. Once, Iris entered the dining room when the silent woman was folding ironed napkins into crisp wings. “Doves flying,” Iris said. The woman shook her head, “Napkins.”
At night Iris would walk alone down the stairs, turn right into the long hallway of the east wing with a bank of windows on one side, and then she’d cross the library where the smell of shellacked leather and extinguished paraffin lamps lingered and she’d open the door on the opposite side that led to the conservatory. For a few moments she’d stand and sniff at the air like a fox, and then she’d make her way around the boxes of herbs and tender lettuces and the two palm trees that came from the Caribbean, and she’d stop below the staghorn ferns descending from the ceiling in great antlery determination, ferns that had been there a long time, Iris knew, but that seemed almost ready to walk away. She’d open the door and step out onto a brick patio with benches on either side that faced one another but were too far apart to allow for conversation. And here she’d stay until she grew cold or until dew began to settle on her naked feet and then she’d make her way back just as she’d come, the pads of her feet soft on the marble stairs. She’d slip under her covers and loft the sheet and blanket above her, and she could smell the outdoors that came in with her, sometimes sharp and green and other times dark red and burned. In the morning when the bell rang she’d loft the sheet and blanket again and the smell would still be there. “What are you doing?” Carolyn, who slept in the bed next to Iris’s bed, asked once.
“I’m reliving the night.”
“Tell me,” said Carolyn, who liked to hear stories and dreams.
“A new constellation fell like dew.”
One night, as Iris sat on the bench, goosepimples rippled down her arms because a cat rubbed against the back of her calves. The cat didn’t stay, but passed under the bench, across the patio and the grass beyond, and then disappeared under the hedge that divided this part of the grounds from the kitchen garden. Several nights passed before Iris saw the cat again, and several more before the cat stopped at Iris’s feet and allowed her to pet it, though only one stroke from its shoulders to its tail, and then the cat ran off, its back leaping and curving like a kite in a breeze. And then the cat became part of Iris’s night outside, a visitor to her visiting, a sleek and silent guest of the wee hours who never stayed for long, but whose citrine eyes would narrow and blink, speaking to Iris in a dash-and-dot code.
Iris didn’t tell anyone about the cat. Cats weren’t allowed, nor were dogs or cockatiels or snakes. Carolyn had an uncle who kept a snake, a big black snake, in a glass box with a kerosene lamp beside it to keep the snake warm and he’d give it live mice and frogs to keep it from being hungry. “Once,” said Carolyn, “someone brought a cricket that sang all night and then at dawn the snake reached out its black tongue and snatched up the cricket just to stop the noise.” Iris wasn’t sure she believed her. Some days Iris saved a bit of cheese from dinner to take with her to the cat, but that was hard to do as she’d have to open the cupboard to retrieve the cheese from the pocket of her day dress and sometimes the cupboard mewed as it was opened.
At lunch one day, Dr. Baumann announced that after dinner there would be a special concert and that everyone was to attend. It would be held in the library. A visitor had come from Cincinnati with a very special instrument. Someone clapped then, and Dr. Baumann said to save the applause for the end of the concert, though he was very glad for the anticipation. It wasn’t often that they enjoyed concerts. Iris could barely remember the last one: Hannah’s aunt sang Italian art songs, but Hannah left long ago. The clapping stopped and then Dr. Baumann stopped talking and the silence surrounded Iris, like the night silence on the patio. She liked the clapping for the quiet after.
Later Iris played pinochle with Faith and Carolyn and the twins. Faith said anything could be a special instrument if used in the right way, and one of the twins—was it Horace or Harvey?—said he had a great aunt who played a swashbuckle, but the other one, Harvey or Horace, said no, it wasn’t a swashbuckle, though he admitted that he didn’t know what it could be. Iris said a swashbuckle, if it existed, might sound like a dandy lion. Surely not, said Faith.
After the game Iris went upstairs for her nap. She woke up to a strange sound, a screeching, strangled sort of sound, not ugly, exactly, but not beautiful either. It was the sort of sound that awakened memories, long-lost boundings of the heart. Of rolling downhill in a white frock, her arms tucked up close to her chest, her hands folded almost in prayer beneath her chin, of rolling over grass and dandelions, dandy lions, down dally lions, edible and bright, each one calling out her name as she rolled over them, Iris! Iris! Iris! All the way down. And at the bottom the son of her father’s boss, a dark boy with porous eyes, held out his arms like a cradle or a barrel stave and she eased to a stop in his embrace and breathed out luxuriously.
The strange sound coming from downstairs stopped, and Iris lofted the sheet and blanket to smell what was there, but it was a dusty smell, not at all the exuberant smell of the night before.
After dinner straight-backed chairs from the dining room had been brought to the library and arranged in rows to face the conservatory door. Fiction and poetry were shelved on the right, but there were more shelves on the left—more facts in the world, Iris thought, than possibility. Dr. Baumann came from the non-fiction shelves as if, Iris thought, out of a constellation, and he stood before them all. Someone clapped, perhaps the same person from before. Dr. Baumann held up his pink hand for silence, and then he explained that the visitor had arrived and that, in fact, the visitor was Dr. Baumann’s brother-in-law. Dr. Baumann rubbed his pink hands together and said that everyone should give a nice welcome to Dr. Curtis. Dr. Baumann leaned toward the audience and clapped. It sounded like petals or wings, or water lapping, Iris thought.
The conservatory door opened and two men Iris recognized—they swept the stairwells and cleaned the windows, even on the outside of the second floor—carried in a box on legs. The men, who were angular with bushy sideburns like black caterpillars, put the box on legs down in front of everyone. Though it made no sound, Iris could hear the presence of the instrument, as if it breathed.
The two caterpillar-cheeked men went back through the conservatory door and returned immediately. The first man set down a small table and the other man put on the table a black box. Two boxes, Iris thought to herself, two gifts for the evening, one alive and breathing, the other like the coffin for a boa constrictor or a raccoon or a pair of mynah birds.
Then the conservatory door opened once again and a tall man with a great announcing mustache and white gloves and pants that hung in perfect straight lines came out and stepped up to the box on the right. He smoothed the top with his right hand, smoothed from left to right, as if to stroke the back of a tired child.
A young man—also tall, but wearing no gloves—stepped up to the other box, lifted the lid, and began to play. It was a piano, only small and quiet, and instead of singing it seemed to chip at the air. Iris didn’t know what it was, but she thought it was beautiful. She wanted to stand up and dance, but she knew that if she stood, someone would come and lead her away and then she’d never find out what was in the box the white-gloved man had caressed with his elegant hand.
When the young man finished playing, the older man pulled open a door on the side of the box facing him and then he lifted the lid. Iris heard a sneeze, an abrupt and scratchy sneeze, and she was certain it emanated from the box.
“Good evening,” the white-gloved man said. “I’m Dr. Curtis. It is an honor to make music for you. My son here is playing a clavichord and I’m going to play an instrument I discovered when I traveled to Italy. It is called a catano.”
The son began playing simple chords without any melody. Then Dr. Curtis moved his white hands behind the catano. They rose up light as wings and came down with the certainty of starlings.
The melody began, each note a scratchy vibrato of wind and tendon, some notes overlapping, some standing on air as if they had been pulled out of a magician’s hat. The sounds were either great blurts of energy or they were the cries of a sheep who had forgotten to follow and had found itself trapped between the rungs of a fence. Iris held her breath and pressed her hands together until her wrists hurt. She wanted the sound to end. Even the clavichord’s celestial sound was drowned out by the catano.
And then it did end.
“Let me tell you about my marvelous new instrument,” Dr. Curtis said. “Each key is connected to a cat’s tail and when I strike the key, as I do now,” the sound of ice shifting against ice, or the wheels of the farrier’s wagon in the rain, “a cat, the cat that is connected to this key, makes a sound. Inside this box are twenty-four cats.” Dr. Curtis caressed the cat-filled box. “One sings very low, another sings with the voice of Jenny Lind, one tabby kitten provides the highest tones. Altogether they make a music not heard on this continent before.”
Dr. Curtis and his son began playing music Iris knew but could not name. She felt her mind turning the sounds as they came into her head, turning them, polishing them, trying to make them glisten. But this was exhausting and she could not keep it up. She wanted to be on the patio or under her sheets, she wanted to be away from the library, away from the tall men who dressed like strangers, whose Adam’s apples jutted from their necks, who had abandoned tenderness. She wanted it to be over. So she clapped. Slowly at first, in time with the music. She began clapping faster and she watched her hands as they flapped together, fluttered above her lap. One of the silent women moved away from the shadows of possibility and Iris knew the woman would come lead her away. Then someone joined Iris in clapping, and someone else, and then everyone was clapping. They couldn’t stop, even though the young man had stepped away from the clavichord and the old man had closed up the catano, and their clapping got faster and louder and it seemed to Iris that the sound of the clapping reverberated off the walls and ceiling of the library, multiplying like bees gone wild under crabapple trees.
Then Iris noticed another sound rising above the clapping. The cats howled in unison, a taut and harrowing sound. The clapping ended and Iris didn’t know what to do with her hands, whether to put them in her lap or to hold them against her ears. She wished she could loft a sheet above her, above Carolyn and Faith and the twins and everyone, so they could smell the outdoors, the newly mown hay from the farm down the road, the tender scent of violets and pansies. But there was only the high keening of the cats.
“That is enough,” Dr. Baumann said to no one. Mr. Curtis and his son carried out the clavichord and the two caterpillar-cheeked men carried away the catano, and Iris and the others stood and began filing out of the library in one neat line. Iris could hear the cats, even though the conservatory door was closed, and she imagined their yowling carrying up under the two palm trees that someone had brought all the way from the Caribbean, where, Iris was sure, cats did not live, and she thought of the palms and the staghorn ferns in their antlery calm and the high-pitched and desperate sound below them in the dark. She thought of the cats, trapped in the black box.
Up the stairs Iris and the others went in a tidy row like deer moving through woods. Iris was behind Carolyn, and she wanted to reach up and rest her hand on the warm center of Carolyn’s back, but someone might see her, someone might disapprove. In bed, in the dark, Iris moved her arms above her, making, with her hands, the shape of ferns and then of doves and antlers, and then of a cat, and the shape of night flowed around her and gathered up what it could.
After a long time Iris got out of bed and made her pilgrimage. In the conservatory she looked up at the ferns, at their heavy black presences above her. The cats were gone. On the patio, it was raining, a very light and warm rain and she could feel the droplets standing up on the top of her head like tiny gems, though there was no moon and there were no stars, so the gems would not be glistening in the rain. Still she felt them and they were delicate, the way they rested on the top of her head. Iris sat on the bench and waited until the rain stopped, but no cat came. Of course not, she said to herself, it is too wet for a cat. She bowed her head to blow on her fingers for warmth and all the gems fell from her head onto her arms and hands, and instead of blowing she licked the skin of her hands in long, slow, tender laps. Soon the sun began creeping up and Iris forgot that she should have returned to her bed.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Ventriloquy, from Tinderbox Editions. Her poems have appeared in Tar River Poetry, Grist, Barn Owl Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Four Way Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.