Lynn Strongin

Audubon Wallpaper


I

The stilled, impeccably drawn bird in palest tones by Audubon is part of my American childhood in the South, watercolored, and is superimposed upon the dark wood carousel horse brought over on a boat from Europe, red painted saddle, black hoofs. One papered our walls, one we rode round and round. Both are grafted upon my 8th year. Horse and blue heron: composed a double-spread in a fairytale book whose illustrations shone from glossy clay-based paper.

We’d never had a dining room and this was the room where symbolically and in reality we took and meals, where the heart began to be starved. But apple-papers covered the walls with scrolls of fiddle fern and magnolia bloom, their small cigarette-burns and magnolia blossom with their small cigarette burn like those on the piano teacher’s piano.

* * *

Forbidden to run our fingers along the elegant wallpaper, we’d put our hands over our heads, Rach and I, or behind our backs passing the aviary. But when I did break down and do the forbidden thing, I thought Indigo, my name, was the rebel’s color. Looking to right and left, scanning the field, I’d cadge the golden moment and I’d run my index finger from light-switch to one delicate blue heron and to him alone.

The search for air beyond the smoke of experience drove me.

There, in the corner of the paper he inscribed with the burin of a pen; John Jacob Audubon with a flourish. In museums we were forbidden to touch, and in school we absorbed the message in the air from the older girls, “Nice girls don’t touch.” But I touched now; this was alluring as an etching, a bas-relief, a sculpture. In the classical winter-light of our post-war dining room, those Audubon birds became the symbol of the unattainable, the gold ring on the merry-go-round, transfixed and transfixing. Audubon, I’d read, was half-caste: part Creole, part French, which gave him allure. The touch of this spare era was upon our bodies. Divorce, like war, eroded a canyon in the land of our lives. I allowed my strange compulsions sway until, obeying them, I felt I fell into a state of grace.

But the next compulsion was more haunting, more inexplicable: Hillary Kronengold had had polio; she wore a brace on her left leg which was withered, icy to the touch, and thin, and turned purple in the cold. I wanted to be the one to lace her old-fashioned boot on after she took the brace off for a nap. I wanted to be in on the mystery, which affected mobility and carried with it the cold thrill of icy steel on warm human flesh.

As it turned out, it was just what I was to inherit. Only my involvement was more extensive. I required two long leg braces, foot to hip. Plus a corset when I was stricken in 1951. I was one of the last polios. Hillary must have caught hers around 1944. I had running for a longer time. A natural tomboy, this polarity between immobility—the birds—and revolving, the carousel horses was to become the pole on which you could place the pattern of my life: stilled toucan, or stork, or pelican—or racing stallion, palomino, pinto. I became each by turns. The decades were the demarcation.

Like the Mason-Dixon Line, the divorce further divided one part of my life from another. And I was the one who was to adopt two lands, immigrating, further drawing an ebony line, as though on a map reflected in water, upon that early geography: married versus divorced; South versus North, walking versus paralysis, homeland versus adopted land.

* * *

The Audubon wallpaper was our parents’ pride which we later learned we scarce could afford. Our father had fallen in love with an old Colonial house in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York where he worked at the hospitals These birds pristine: exotic: flamingoes, storks, and blue herons, poised like crystal, feathered floated beside us where we ate the on old mahogany table inherited from Grandmother Tisanne 1945. We were putting down roots after years of travelling.

* * *

During those long brown afternoons, I took Rachel by the hand. Sometimes I led her downstairs to the kitchen by the backstairs, “The maid’s stairs,” to the lino-floored yellow and black kitchen. If, on rare occasions, we took the front staircase, we’d stop at the landing—halfway down—to look out the large window over our ragged back orchards. The colors of the birds were stunners: orange-pink (for the storks and pelicans,) celadon-green and thrush were fawn-brown. (There was also, disturbingly, a tinge of blood lens in the eye of some.) Later I was to see with my own eyes the very deltas and savannas of the American South. Cypress and Spanish moss groves moss green were foreshadowed in the birds. Sarasota, the divorce which was forecast (although I hardly twigged then) by Mother sweeping another dinner off the table, folding the white linen and giving the birds a scathing glance ”Girls, you know we cannot afford this.” She went on with that Southernism, "I am chagrined, you both rile me."

She took a symbolic journey with us on the romantic night-train, dark, smelling of raisins, with its wood paneling and Black porters all the way from the North down into the South, both are real. We left the book of Country Christmas crafts behind: teddies with button eyes, toyboxes hand painted by mother. In a profound sense, it was as though I at 8 and Rachel at 4 years of age were leaving the first segment of our childhood behind: the enchanted part despite the metallic cast war threw over our winters, turning to pewter the sky’s lid. The light brought disenchantment because it revealed everything: flaws, cracks in the pavement, in the doll’s skull, in the very construction of existence. I learned then, at age 9 that light is pitiless and grew to loathe and seek shelter from scalding, blinding sun.

But the rain was our last touch of old world luxury, with overtones, reflections, echoes of Rosenblum’s Tudor estate because, with valises, and wearing our best winter coats from grandmother and our bowler hats with elastic under the chin, we trained from Grand Central Station down to Sarasota, to establish residence, thus file for divorce in a state where adultery was not the only ground. This was the Promised Land: this flat country off the Gulf of Mexico where the very air and land were anemic toned down ten notches of color from the North. Adultery was out of the question in our case: it was a question of a deep rift from the start, emotional incompatibility. “Does it have to do with being an adult, Mother?” I asked Marcelle the first month. “Yes and no,” she said. “Indigo, fold that clothing I’ve just ironed.” Thus she bit the thread short off the spool But never did she say, “Indy, you’re too young.” No, not that. Not in a million. Tallahassee, Sarasota—those names pinpointed the towns where our parents made formal the diction and the dichotomy

I felt the blue in the air those evenings back in 1947. Something had caused the mechanism of our parents’ marriage to be broken. The Army Post left colors upon my retina dun, dung, merde. I felt blue, strung-out cobalt with reverberations of my name, Indigo, like ripples from a shot stone: in the air those evenings back in 1947 when I was 9 and Rachel 5. The years we’d just survived tended to flash in my dreams, or to illumine eidetic images upon my eye: these were Permanent Military Quarters, P.M.Q. Barracks, row-upon-row, haunted me they were so like Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and the Ausuchwitz I had seen on newsreels spooling off cellophane like oil separating from water. But they stuck; those pictures lit up by the dusty cone of whirling light the projector threw. The idea of a row, a queue was now the nightmare-triggering image. I had dreams of soldiers in trenches I’d saw in the Warner Pathe news. There I learned the meaning of the words, optical illusion because I had a squint which obliged mother to administer orthoptics to me, a small wooden stick with viewer and an early slide which caused the boy to leap thru the hoop by focusing my two eyes upon the one thing: he really did become one boy, not two. I was being cured of astigmatism, which meant I wouldn’t need eye surgery. But there was a deeper grief: there was no way I could marry my two parents again. They had established hostility so that by now, they moved thru a division of volatile hours during Army Post days, a schism, which would only end into total rending.

That’s why the cream background of these birds drawn as if in water, perfectly reflected, was all the more astounding when it fractured: shattered as if the elegant birds were made of glass. One thing we were forbidden: we must never, ever under any condition put our hands upon this wallpaper. If our grubby little mitts were found to have left tracery upon them. . .

I did it on a dare. I now see it as another of my schisms: between turmoil, and calm. War and resolution. But in this case I provoked conflict. It was a compulsion, compulsive neurotic disorder they might call it. I had to walk five times from molding to lightswitch and drag my index finger along the cream paper with the tracery of birds. I’d run my index finger from molding to light switch in a beeline. Something was smoldering in me, which made me cross the line. The evidence of my crime was clear: the faint and eerie gray smudge my finger had made.

We lived in winter brightness. There was the sunroom, all glassed roof and walls which let sun shine thru glass but which was austere, demanding that I give my full and undivided attention, read and concentrate upon my grammar or spelling for hours on end. “Sunny,” Rachel would give us one of her rare smiles. But Marcelle would turn and say, “It’s a severe brightness, Indigo, come to bloom.”

So my art was destined to come to fruition in the cold, in glacial North where my destiny had to be realized above the ocean. With the hindsight of nearly sixty-five years, I read the forecast now in those New England winter dawns. It hurts to lose anything you once had; youth, beauty, legs but with age, you can almost look back upon it as somebody else’s youth, beauty, mobility. I am able to read life with a more quieting love.

* * *

Homer’s rosy fingered dawn continues to come. Feeling the old torsion of my life, all the same, on this teal crust over the ocean I dare to place— . . .an Audubon cardinal, or shall it be the greater blue heron? Thin as a pencil, the ocean-bird leans, tilting, with that amazing curvature of the neck which makes him look like an “S” he stands, almost imperceptible, immobile, his beak at the ready to prong a fish for dinner.

I live with fracture: Mother’s portrait, perfectly oval, just that bit askew, thrawn in its oval frame to make all her features appear exaggerated in her Byron collar, and peach coloring, Mother breaking hearts at twenty-one. (Was she a man’s woman? Or a woman’s woman?)

II

“Indigo,” Mother phones from Massachusetts, “It’s bitterly cold here. There?” I think of her severe but with a bloom. It is foreboding, dark-thoughted as a witchhunt. A Puritan Rachel who is down the road from Marcelle, asks me the same question, hinting at the melancholy, which haunts our family. With other families, it is addiction. Full of life a fresh dime, I feel. Blue-black, a night sky which is clear as crystal when I go out on the terrace.

. . .Mentally, I have not left the issue of the suicidal child. I bring Rachel along in imagination where I go. Those phone conversations we had they are carved in stone. “It will pass,” I told her, “Rowena’s a ballerina used to pain, she’s not necessarily suicidal. Maybe it’s a cry for help.”

Where did she burn herself? I thought, immediately when I heard, that it must be her wrists. But, no, it was directly Into her abdomen. Sometimes twenty-two little cigarette burns looking like tiny nails to a coffin. Blood-orange, it brings back to my mind’s eye the wings of Audubon which I flex in my imagination picturing, lifting, then folding in that classical glass-clear light.

How could she jolt her child from this frame of mind?

She tried the South of Spain where she and Row went into exile as a dyad. Here the streets with their sidewalk cafes exuded sensuality. They were sultry, sexual. An enormous undertaking, she sold her home and left Texas. It was then that it began my haunting by the vivid Southern birds (perhaps the way Jerzy Kozinski was haunted by the painted bird of the Holocaust, bearing a boy in basket on his back.)

* * *

The first time she came to me, her wings were not dipped in blood, but in ink, like a pen. So much of my childhood is steeped in, based upon impressionism: a robe with arms on the washline frozen, its pockets turned inside out. A bit of laundry blows, frozen, to my feet. The white sheets I step out of the morning I have polio are drenched, cling to me like dead birds. I shudder. I have no more tears to spend.

“How will we ever get over the ballet? I wake at night to find you sobbing, your chin curled to your knees, your boombox on, Rowena.” How will I ever get over walking?

Head down, counting pirouettes at which she excelled, under her breath, Rowena in the last days before she took up the razor. She crashed with the uncontrollable sorrow of a child over what she does best and must forfeit, emotionally exhausted, burned out at fourteen. I, on the other hand, was just getting going, into first gear. I too had grand ambitions. In modern dance, leaps were my greatest joy.

The autumn before she went thru the wall, before they discovered that Rowena, like Rachel, had inherited scoliosis, curvature of the spine, Rowena heard her Mother say, quietly, with dignity and pride, reined in, “Row, you realize you have passed some of the toughest national ballet auditions.” Rachel, stood in the doorway, arms akimbo. She imagined Row was lighting up, behind the flimsy wood door, smoking, scarring her lungs, darkening her teeth, crushing out the butt, turning the boombox on again. But it was silent. (She was recalling herself at the same age, fourteen, travelling to the Mozarteum in Salzburg.) She lists the ballets: Bolshoi Ballet, National Ballet of Canada . . .“They have you fast-tracked for prima ballerina at the Houston, you know.”

“I know,” the child piped back from behind the bolted bath doot. Blue-black, the girls’ hair shone. “It got too heavy, my bun,” she smiled, “So I had to keep cutting it. It was like cutting my belly by working on my abs.”

At night, Rachel would hear a voice in Row’s bedroom, knock and come in, “To whom are you talking?” Rachel asks.

“Myself, mom.”

Rachel turns, quietly closes the door, and goes down the stairs to their linoleum-floored Austin kitchen faintly reminiscent of the kitchen in their New Rochelle home. It has the overtones of another life, the early life with the Audubon wallpaper: but this was a pale comparison. A ghost of the former time. Texas. Why did they ever come to Texas where air burned like dry cigarette paper being ignited? Houston, beginning of their tragic days. It was hard: hard, when Rowena first began working four hours a day at age eleven on her abdominal muscles. But Rachel bore it because like me she had been raised in the arts. It would pour. A pelting Southwestern rain, then fashflood. Then it would stop and they all would go outside stare at the cottonwoods as dry tired-gold, dusty-gold as though no rain had fallen at all. Rowena developed thrush, and entered puberty, showing small knobs of breasts. A Botticelli Primavera. the second summer (there were only to be three before the great undertaking of leaving that noman’s land for the land of green New England once again.) Three summers in hell. It was hallucinatory, as if Row were moving in a dream:

After the burning, there came the unstanched blood. It showed up all over. Kleenex balled up in the bathroom, the bedroom wastebaskets. Rachel began scrubbing and scrubbing. She painted the girl’s chair with Rowena's favorite color trim, Periwinkle. Our Rowan-berry. She was dream thru a lens of blood for years. “Nobody can help me. My days—begin at one or two in the morning. ” She told me. Could Chel remember back to those clear days like lagoon water before the cutting? When this child with the silken skin Asian blue-white and the hair blue-black had moved untroubled thru her hours toward the ballet with which she was to engage in a love-hate embrace from the age of thirteen to fourteen?

Spain, Barcelona. It rained and rained .”I’m devoting my life to her, just to get her beyond 13,” you said. Rachel, you urged your child to observe the discipline of ballet, and in another language. “I was born to dance,” the child laughed, and did a pirouette or one of her fabulous extensions. She wore her backpack like all the French children, her table, Thursdays and Tuesdays she went to ballet lessons. Her mother made a chignon of the black hair and pinned it back. Mother and daughter made a special trip from Barcelona to Madrid to buy toe-shoes.

Back at the memory box, I, at Row’s age, fourteen, was in traction in state hospital or having my leg stretched by the physiotherapist in what I felt to be the sort of light which pours thru prison windows.

* * *

These 5 centimeters of snow don’t simplify life for the postal carriers the first full workweek of  the New Year. I see snow, its purity. The Audubon birds, and Rowena’s scars.

Flashback. . .It is the second winter in New England.

Rowena has gone into the bathroom. The clock on the kitchen wall is ticking loud as a gun. The fields are cream white, background color for Audubon’s birds. Rachel, you stand outside the bath door, heart in mouth.

“What are you doing, honey? “

“You know what I do when I feel trapped, mom. Hey, I didn’t burn myself, when I was dancing.”

Chel, you go back thru the hallway to the kitchen where, as you always do, you lay your head forward on your arms for a moment, then you pour yourself morning’s black coffee from the chipped enamel pot. You have brought your broken child, your prodigy, to psychologists in Europe, psychologists in New England and now back home. Bank accounts are all at the bottom. You take a second mortgage on the benighted home, the godforsaken plot of land where you have come to so much grief. You are thirty grand in debt. You took her to Yoga masters, chiropractors—sometimes they asked, “What has happened to you?’ “I burn myself,” she replied, ingenue, in that singsong of a child, now in her fourteenth summer. Autumn is panicked parents phoning the child psychologist late at night. Then it becomes winter again.

New England. Icicles hung from eaves and trees. Your house on Texas is on the market but is a monkey wrench. You cannot unload it: ten months, eleven. You make a bid on a small Colonial on a side street, a cul de sac, and hold your breaths. The most expensive neighborhood in Vermont. The deal comes thru. You will be in the red for years. You do not love the home, but it will suffice. What marks must it leave on a mother’s body when a child self-inflicts? Is it not like living a birth backward, cutting away to an abortion of what broke the heart by breaking the flesh.

III

“Happy New Year,” I say to Rachel.

“I don’t believe in new years,” she says.

“You have been thru the years in hell,” I reply.

“All times, to me, are one.”

Age has made me more tolerant, though still the lion of rage can wake in me and roar. Like me, Rachel has that touch of that post-depression era upon her body. Economical light “with a bloom.” Things are pristine up North. I imagine that I stand in a Creole-clear dawn. Feather-by-feather. They never fly As soon as I close my eyes, those pink-orange pelican stuns: explodes, first into white snow, then into the firebird. It is Rowena at Lincoln Center at age nineteen.

As I stood in that diaphanous, ethereal dawn down South, yearning for the solid, the opaque birds on the real bough of the North, how could I realize it would be precisely this torsion which would drive me in the direction of my life: writing. Did I realize that this was propelling me into that faith which is the challenge to carry soul’s dialogue with God from one year into the next?

* * *

Port de bras, floating, Row moves. Feet cushioned by lambswool, but still forced into toe slippers with wooden toe which will leave her feet bruised black and blue for years, with these points, she hardly brush earth. Look closely. though. She has caught fire! How sweetly she smiles as she burns. The audience horrified rise to their feet but they cannot smother their flame.

When Nijinsky made his leaps, they said he was a madman. Although I was only 8 at Jacob’s Pillow. the elan was not lost on me, I remember the floorplan of that theatre as I remember all floorplans: The exit was to my right, that meant stage left, and it was thru wooden doors onto forested ground. The pen, which drew that, too, was dipped in blood.

Coda

When you hovered in the air, you were a hummingbird, Rowena against those burned out Texas evenings of sad-eyed junkies and porno strips where cottonwood so dry they rattled like castanets made their music in the wind.

Considering a white latticed front porch, I decide “A Southern belle having dreams of the North.”) A neurotic, compulsive child—or one twice alive, driven?

The stilled impeccably drawn bird in palest tones is superimposed upon the mahogany or oak carousel horse brought over from Europe, red saddle and all. Both are impaled.

“I’d give you my legs,” Marcelle said.

* * *

I, too, went thru the wall. One thin foot strapped in leather and steel brace comes down to touch floor. It tingles as though it is on flame. I reach out, Rowena, to take your Pavlovian hand and pull you out of the flames. We close our eyes, Over snowfields as over bayous, and deltas, we float, snowbird and firebird, the paralyzed and the dynamo, the extra energy kid whom everyone swore would be the next Pavlova and the kid who climbed the highest mountain in New York State at age eleven. “I have a temper,” Row laughed, “Like Grandmother Marcelle.” Rowena had been known to break every object in her room. When I could no longer hike, I trashed my wolverines. Nijinksy’s portrait on the wall curls to white silent ash. Crematory. One expects to hear crackling.

But all becomes silent. In a stage whisper I say, “Dance! Just once more for us.” Fawn-colored, and rose birds gaze with eyes like black mirrors. Eagle-sharp. I touch one more time, the blue heron, compulsive-neurotic child, twice alive, South-steeped, North-born, driven. It feels delicious with its eggshell-cream background for these birds are both sharp-eyed toward the earth and hinting at that which is beyond.

* * *

Lynn Strongin's "Audubon Wallpaper" is a part of her memoir Indigo. In 2006, the University of Iowa Press will publish her anthology The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy . She also has two chapbooks of poems coming out in 2006: Dovey & Me (Solo Press) and The Birds of the Past Are Singing (Cross-Cultural Communications, New York).