The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Maiden of Nuremberg by Michael Ives  



Little more than a year after a boy had determined that he and his sister and mother had walked out of a picture book about an excursion to the raspberry patch and into their present situation, an older man took to loitering around the stone stairs which led from the lower to the upper terrace of their yard. From inside the house they watched as the man walked back and forth along the sidewalk or stood farther away at the foot of the driveway with his hands clasped behind his back. Occasionally he would even begin to ascend a few of the steps and stand and look toward the house as if he were deciding whether to come to the door or not. When occasionally he offered a greeting to the boy’s mother or sister, both would reply coolly and continue up the granite steps. The mother assumed he was motivated by a weird, ineffectual form of lechery, and she and the sister would often wait several hours until the man was gone before venturing outside again. Only the boy suspected that the raspberry patch – after their departure from it into the house they presently occupied – had assumed the form of this man and was watching them through his eyes, and that this man served as a navel or sole item of evidence that they had come from another place, even if most of the time they felt as though they had always been here in this world. A television program in which a little girl fell from her bed into another dimension of time and space only fortified the boy’s notion. Without a clear idea as to what such a dimension could be, he spent hours at a time searching every floor of the house, tapping the walls to see if his fingers would penetrate through to that other place. In the attic, where the roof trusses ran into an impenetrable darkness at the eaves, he discovered among some old magazines between two joists a cache of bass violin bridges. Though he turned them over and over in his hands and held one of them up to his face, he could not deduce their function, nor did they reveal their purpose when later, down in the cellar among old armoires fronted with panels of indecipherable marquetry and stairways terminating at doors that no longer opened, he ventured without conscious plan to nail the bridges in a row to a length of old leather. That his eyes, when he put the contrivance over his head, should align perfectly with the two lobes at either side of one of the bridges elicited a familiar, muted shame, for he assumed it wrong to take pleasure in such frivolous symmetries.

With slow, uncertain movements, as he toured the lawns, half-blind, the device teetering on his head like a lampshade, first holly leaves, then azalea leaves, then a corner of the house, passed across his sight fleetingly, as if they moved and he remained stationary. Near the stone stairs, he ducked in under the whip-like stays of a forsythia, where patches of sunlight fell across his legs in quick diagrams of lozenges and chevrons. At the very edge of his vision, he could see, across the carriage path, in a neighbor’s myrtle, a large stray dog urinating under the sweetgum. A few degrees further right and there appeared, just inches from his elbow, buried in tall grass and grapevine, an ancient sandstone lion recumbent on a plinth. Its features were so worn away as to render the couchant form of the beast nearly indecipherable. In the midst of these contemplations a large stag beetle ascended the rubber semicircle at the toe of his sneaker. He shook his leg in terror and scrambled out from under the bush, one hand steadying the mask on his head.

“Well hell’s bells –”  Someone was suddenly quite near him. “– an old harlot’s cage!”  The boy yanked the mask from his head to find the old man sitting on the stairs. “Saw one once in some booth or other,” he said. “Yes sir, must cover the faces of those naughty girls.” The broad plaid in his shirt seemed to pulsate in concert with his peculiar and arbitrary emphasis of certain words. “ … them, I mean, who dishallow their marriage vows.”  The dog had at this point crossed over the carriage path and now sniffed at the man’s pant leg. “Little mechanism over here –” he pointed to the side of the animal’s head in a demonstration that appeared impossibly spontaneous, “ – tightened the works according to the pleasure of the offended husband.” He then mimed with one hand the turning of a key while the other tightened around an imaginary skull. The boy felt an uncomfortable pressure build in his bladder. “Um … hi, I live up there,” he said, hoping that just to point toward the house might, this one time, transport him inside it. “Today we have such as governments –” continued the man in utter disregard, his tone suddenly scornful, “– to put an end to these venerable forms of justice.” 

The dog, by all appearances under the power of the man’s remote allusions, lay down on the sidewalk. Its glazed, erect penis lolled half out of its sheath. “No meaningful recourse anymore,” the man went on as though a crowd had gathered, “just blackmail and voodoo dolls. Hear what I’m saying?”  The boy’s discomfort bordered on panic, but all the same he felt obliged to say something out of politeness. “I’m … um … voodoo doll?” he finally stammered. “Not aware of much, are you, Petunia?” the old man replied contemptuously. Against the sun and drilling chirr of cicadas, the dog’s eye half closed. Its lazy priapism, while the man stared off into space, slowly sawed back and forth in the stiff, new mown grass. Oh, if only he could stop looking at it, the boy thought to himself in the excruciating silence. The old man at last, rose from the stairs to leave but then paused before the trunk of a honey locust. “Well now, what son worth his salt,” he said, breaking off one of its spikes, “doesn’t want to make his mama scream for the hell of it? Action at a distance, you read?” He extended his hand and once more approached. “Put ‘er there,” he said, and the boy without thinking took hold of it. So gingerly did the man then prick him with the thorn that, though he felt nothing, a tiny bulb of blood rose up on the heel of his thumb. “Now don’t tell your mother,” the man warned him. He placed the thorn in the boy’s palm.  “I’ve got a machine at home that’ll know,” he said over his shoulder from beyond the carriage path, “and if you do, it’ll turn your blood to stone.”  

And though it grow, still the droplet held, red and round on the boy’s hand – a fruit breaking through to an inaudible summons. And the raspberry patch fell away. Or the boy. No matter. “I am the word of life,” it cried to him and it slipped away.  “This is the life itself,” said the breaking drop.