The Pulse: Alberta
Beatrice stood over the sink, rubbing her hands and letting her fingers slide up and down her perfect arms. In the background she heard the guffaws of her parents, who were savouring the pranks Ralph Cranston played on his wife Alice. The Jacky Gleason Show, that pretty much summed it up.
While the black and white television cranked out its eternal nonsense, Beatrice stared out the kitchen window and watched the violet sun fall into the dark fields. She asked herself, What did God make this skin for, without birthmark or freckle? Are angels banned — even dark angels — from this godforsaken place?
From the dry, thin air she heard a voice: What God? He left us on this burning plain to fend for ourselves. Forget all this nonsense about climbing back into His starry realm. That won’t last long. Why grovel and surrender? Why beg to be forgiven? What have you done? Take back control of your life!
Climb by your free will, your sacred free will, and take by guile what was lost by force! Climb, climb that tower of your self, that beautiful body soft and white ...
Beatrice dropped her dishcloth into the water, dried her hands absent-mindedly, and walked out of the kitchen. As if bewitched, she mumbled, Goodnight fair ladies, goodnight, and started up the stairs. Her father nodded distractedly as Ralph stuffed a pie into the face of Alice and then threatened to smash an cheap figurine against the cement of her innocent skull.
Beatrice climbed the stairs silently, just as Rapunzel, Ophelia, the Lady of Shallott, and all the other sorrowful virgins before her had climbed into the lonely towers of their forbidden selves.
Once in their towers, the sorrowful virgins spent their days wondering if their hair would ever be long enough to fashion an escape into the world of their hidden desires. This was what her grandmother, Güsfreude, had told her one night when she was eleven years old, just before her first period. Did Güsfreude know that she was going to have her period and therefore decided to tell her just as she was on the brink of womanhood? Or did Güsfreude's talk of womanhood induce within her the bodily transformation? Beatrice never figured this out.
Güsfreude also told her that she knew more than Rapunzel, Ophelia, or the Lady of Shallott, all of whom were invented by men who didn’t have a clue. Güsfreude had it on far more reliable information that it was in fact possible to slide down your silken hair into a world no one could see. And since no one else could see into this world, no one could tell her what to do in this world. She would be like Alice: in a world of her own, far from the books without pictures; irretrievably detached from the crude, everyday world where true love was only a fairy tale and where a princess could languish for decades without finding her prince.
Güsfreude was right about the hair and the escape. She was even right about the endless expanse of imagination and desire that lay within the heart of her grand-daughter.
Yet she was wrong that no one else could see.
Beatrice ran a brush through the silken waves of her hair exactly 1001 times — just as Güsfreude had instructed — staring all the while into an old mirror that someone had left at the end of their driveway a year or two earlier. The mirror was a plain mirror, yet she thought she saw animal figures capering around the edges. In its centre lay a crystal vortex that she could only see when the lights were out and the moon resembled a sickle’s edge across the throat of the prairie sky.
The straps of her white muslin outer garment slipped from her shoulders. Beneath it, her silk crimson gown followed the muslin to the checkered floor, her white skin exposed and glowing in the beige and rosy light of the room — the room which seemed larger than before, as if it had expanded geometrically to take on the dimensions of the world itself. But she had had enough of the world outside, with its endless stretches of prairie sky and with its vegetable love that grew so slowly in the vast fields of wheat.
She stared at her full breasts and her smooth skin, white as ivory. Her breath began to fog up the mirror, and she thought she could see a shape in the distant gloom: a cowboy in dark boots and ten-gallon hat, chanting sonnets to the moon.
She saw her body glowing in the mirror, her golden nipples sitting on her breasts like sovereigns on two alabaster orbs. She looked at her pelvis in the mirror: her pubic hair was rich and blond, with fine curls that became finer and softer as they disappeared into the fault line of her sex.
Who was this new woman she was becoming? And why was it at once frightening and exalting?
Again she thought she heard the voice, humming with a faint rumble in the twilight air: Climb, climb the invisible stairway. Enter the mirror. Seize the only thing that exists: your self. Seize the day. Welcome to the jungle.
In the kangaroo court of the Writer, the Writer has arranged the circumstances of the crime, committed the crime, hunted down the culprit, put him on trial, read the verdict, and thrown away the key. At the end of it all, the protagonist stands accused, now and forever, or at least as long as the verdict still penetrates paper or floats in tangled webs of ether. The protagonist, however innocent he or she really was, stands accused and convicted of whatever crimes the writer finds reprehensible: showing his fangs while he eats, hissing noisily into his phone while the Writer is sitting at a table in a cafe trying to come up with the exact phrasing that would elicit an olfactory response similar to that which a sweet sixteen year-old girl would get when she looks at herself in the mirror and smells the scent of roses through her open window.
A snake has clamboured up the drainpipe and is peeking into her room, the light current of roses in the air merely an irritant in his sensitive nostrils, which prefer the pungent flood of Drakkar Noir or Paco Rabanne’s Invictus. The snake has seduced the young girl with images in mirrors of Italian towers and Venetian canals, the Eiffel Tower throbbing in the dusk. Just as in Sumer in 2000 BC and in Qumran 2000 years later, the Writer pronounces the age-old verdict: the Snake did it.
Her lips pressed up against the surface of the mirror, pressing further than she thought possible. She wasn’t just kissing a mirror; she was kissing a second self deep in the recesses of her invisible body. She put one foot on the oak beam supporting the mirror, her knee flush against the edge of the round pool, the placid water in which she would be reborn. The other foot joined the first, and she let herself fall into this brave new world. She did a swan-dive from a great height, plunging deep into the clean water and then resurfacing with her mind refreshed. She had cleansed the doors of her perception, and saw everything as it is, infinite.
On the other side she saw a bed just like her own, but full of strange flowery dreams. She slipped between the soft sheets that were made from the spliced tendrils of the gandleflower, a rare alpine plant that sprouted on the margins of the upland brooks of Eden Valley. The fabric of the gandleflower was so fine that her fingers couldn’t distinguish between the touch of the sheet and that of her own skin.
In the air she could smell a warm, cinnamon current of melted brown sugar on buttered toast that drifted up from the floor below. That scent was all she wanted to know about the world below. A world that seemed to care about her, yet didn’t respond to any of her needs — a domestic purgatory that heaped ashes over her spirit, all the while smiling and prompting her to accept her fate and look on the bright side of things. She heard Annie singing, Tomorrow! Tomorrow! but could only think of Lady Macbeth and the fact that she would have died hereafter. In her mind she saw her mother, lines running all the way from her sad eyes to her permanent smile, urging her daughter to be thankful for their daily bread. Urging her to ignore all those sad existential thoughts and look instead up at God's bright blue sky.
Antonio watched her desperation with glee. He could see that she would sacrifice everything, even her silk lavender G-string, just to live in a place where people didn't spend all day talking about crop yields or fuel tanks. She yearned to escape to The City, to find a district teeming with coffee shops and martini bars; a place where she could discuss philosophy and poetry, perhaps even glimpse the outline of Sophistication as it drifted into a shop selling silk ties and Cuban cigars.
She ran her fingers across her lips as she thought of the places she would go. She thought of the famous city of high culture that rose majestically from the plains. She repeated its name, Edmontonium, Edmontonium, and thought of its Disneyland parliament building sprinkling fireworks into the cobalt sky. She slid her fingers along her neck as she mouthed the name of the even more powerful city, once called Petroville, now modernized to Calgarium.
She twirled a finger around the name, mumbling it, moaning it, chanting it out loud — Calgarium, Calgarium! — while her other fingers moved like horse-hooves over the grass-covered hill into the Bow River of her delirium. In a muffled roar she cried out Calgarium, Calgarium! Calgarium! clamping her lips around its hard C and its guttural G, three fingers plunged into her thick wallet of flesh, her other fingers drilling from behind, releasing a deep underground seam of premium grade sweet light Texas crude.
Her whole body shivered to think of the great metropolis of Calgarium, where poetry pulsed through every street, and where Pindaric odes flowed up from the depths of the earth and were then jettisoned by hydraulic pumps into the carburetors of the collective soul. All across the Central Plains, from the pillaged soil of the Hobbema Reserve to the clear-cut wastelands of Fort McMurray, she saw rising the steel girders of a desolate beauty. She saw a vast landscape of derricks manned by elegant cowboys who pumped their creative fuel up to the mastheads of the refineries which dotted the heavens like so many floating pyramids of Ghiza.
Watching all this within the vortex of his mirror, Antonio smiled. She was now ready to do anything to get out of Vulcan, that hellish town whose street names once echoed the glory of Greece and Rome — Minerva Street, Apollo Street, and Zeus — and were now named First Street, Second Street, and Third. She'd do anything to get hold of one of those boxes she had heard about, which a lucky girl named Pandora had learned how to open.
Next: At Sea