Sunday, January 24, 2010

An Act in Three Plays

He picked up the flask, glanced at her, put it down. She watched him without expression. He studied a knot on the pine floor; it had oozed resin as a green log and the sap had hardened into amber, trapping the past. She watched him. He picked up the tiny bottle, fingered its jade cap, worn smooth from centuries of decisions like this one. He looked into her jade eyes, similarly worn. He hesitated. He set it down. Her expression didn't change, but he grew more agitated. He pulled his fingers through his hair repeatedly. Like a man leaping from a pier into the eternally icy waters of Hell, he unstopped the flash and drank it down. Finally, she smiled. She took his hand and they left the house together.

The fluid was called Verdigris after its gray-green shimmer in the bottle, but no one had ever explained exactly what it was or how it had come to rest on her mother's dressing table. She had heard the story, of course; she could already tell it perfectly herself, but she still loved to hear the aunts tell it. She had asked questions every time, sometimes the same old questions, sometimes new ones as she grew. Always the reaction was the same. the sisters' eyes would open wide and one finger would cover their lips. A warning.

Her mother permitted her to touch the bottle, even to pick it up when she got older. She felt very grown-up the first time, even though her mother cupped the tiny hands in her own. How many times had Mama warned about carelessness? Too many to remember but the secret danger made the flask larger than life. Maybe larger than death, if she had been a dramatic child.

When the cup breaks, Mama had said once, the tea loses its shape. You will see it briefly on the earth, then it will be gone to you. This made no sense, no matter how many times she turned it in her head. She tried to remember if Mama had been drinking tea when she said it, but the memory felt like a voice in the fog.

She watched the colors play on her hand as she held the flask to the afternoon light in the window. Even things that must never break sometimes do. She woke from a daydream to hear an animal scream in the distance as the fluid danced briefly on the floor like mercury, then vanished. She jumped away from the shards to confess to the sisters what she had done, and the house remained silent.

My mother taught me to use less perfume than I needed. "People stop smelling themselves," she warned, "but other people smell them just fine." I heard it as an etiquette lesson and nothing else, until I saw The Bottle. The Bottle had come from a roadside shop, the kind that sells Evening in Paris and Orange Blossom Express. I was drawn to those cobalt bottles, sure that something magical lived inside. Maybe not just a delicious scent but a tiny genie who could actually whisk me away to a French twilight or an open-air train through the Florida groves. This Bottle was different, and someone should have known better than to leave a Bottle like that lying around, even if that someone was my mother, and someone should have known better than to pick that bottle up, even if that someone was eleven years old.

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