Part 1 — The Folly
August 18, 2013—The church bells were ringing as I entered my blog this Sunday morning. I came upon Moriarty in the back kitchen sweeping up the spam.
[My “Sebastian Quartet” comes with a soundtrack: Click on my “The Dream” player (right sidebar) for no. 32, Thomas Tallis’s ethereal 16th century “Spem in alium” and no. 33, Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice, Dance of the Blessed Spirits” (Italian version).]
“You let this stuff accumulate,” said the Phantom of My Blog. “It piles up like mountains of greasy crumbs.”
“We’ll have ants,” I said.
“There are some,” said he, “who would create elaborate measures to spare the life of an ant, yet would crush a human, without compunction, without compassion, without giving thought to understanding, too closed-minded to recognize that the other gives thoughtfulness and tolerance.”
The bells stopped.
“A bell can’t ring when it’s intolerant,” he went on. “There’s no leverage for movement, no tangible embodiment of openness to accommodate sound, to bear the clapper strike, thereby to be heard by the sincere.” He bent down, and with a whiskbroom began sweeping the piles of spam into a dustpan.
“I love the sound of bells,” I said. “La Campanile.”
He dumped the spam into a big, black plastic bag. “Let’s build a campanile beside the folly in an iris garden I’m going to build across the field from the blog,” said Moriarty.”
“You’re building a folly? Whatever for?”
“A place to go, to do nothing, to open our minds, to chill,” he said. “A place that means nothing, a place to be taken at face value.” He swept the last crumbs of spam into the dustpan and emptied them into the bag. “There are those who spam you with their minds; they overlay their own emotional baggage on you.” He tied the bag, struggled to lift it and carried it out the back door and to the trash. I held the door open for him.
I followed him. I don’t know why I was following the Phantom of My Blog, but I did, despite his unprepossessing manner – or because of it.
“And besides,” he said, as we turned to go back inside, “from the windows in the top we can get a good view of the blue deer.”
I went up to the cupola. He followed. We wanted to look for the blue deer. He kept talking. He must have consumed a garrulous biscuit for breakfast, I mused.
“Indeed, as it were, the folly is a place to which to take flight,” he said from behind me as we climbed the winding wooden staircase.
I smiled. The “indeed” and “as it were” he incorporated into his speech often. It was a giveaway to his proclivity. He read history much, had majored in it in college; it is peculiar to historians to utilize “indeed” and “as it were” often.
“What’s this?” I asked. Something new had been added to the furnishings in the cupola.
“It’s a record player,” he said. “I found it in Missouri and brought it back with me.”
“Missouri? I thought you said you were going to Arkansas, that your family lived in the Arkansas Ozarks.”
“I did. Arkansas. I meant Arkansas. I drove through Missouri, a corner of it. It stayed in the corner of my mind. Somebody set this by the side of the road there – in the corner of Missouri, actually; so I did mean Missouri.”
He had leaned a few LPs against the suitcase-style player. He pulled one out of its jacket and placed it on the turntable.
“Somewhere in Time,” I said. “I love that soundtrack, and the movie. That brings back memories.”
“History. We must not forget our history,” he said. “If we don’t remember where we’ve been, how can we recognize how to go forward? That’s a mandala, I think. How can you be complete if you keep doing the same stuff over and over? Your circle winds tighter and tighter and in time you disregard the world around you. In fact, you are likely to become too tightly wound and snap.”
He sat down in the chaise, the one with the plastic webbing like a beach chair, between the windows, in the corner.
I stood gazing out over the meadow. It was a gray day. They were calling for rain. I thought of an episode I had just watched of the long-running British TV series, “Foyle’s War,” called “The Hide,” featuring the extraordinary actor Andrew Scott along with the venerable Michael Kitchen portraying the protagonist of the series. Why was Andrew Scott’s character so protective of his secret, even when erroneously convicted and imprisoned, that he was willing to be hanged for it. What was the tragedy he had witnessed as a child and why would he not come forth with the truth? Well, you’ll have to watch the story to learn. I’ll not give it away for you. But, the premise intrigues me; it can be applied to so many instances in life. It may not even be a secret, but we end up carrying it around with us in the quiet recesses of our minds, so much old baggage.
I think I’ve pretty much gotten things out over the years. But, my parents’ divorce when I was 14 left a scar, that and their giving to the SPCA my dog and companion of nine years without even forewarning me. I came home from school one day and he was gone. That was it. That’s crushing a human – and an animal – without compunction. I hope I don’t do that, I really don’t; I have no intention of doing so; if I have, it’s been unwittingly.
“What—?” said the Phantom.
“Did I say something? I didn’t say anything. Did I?”
“You were thinking loudly,” he said.
“Oh. Just old stuff,” I said. “Spam on the roadside of my mind.”
“Somewhere in Time” had ended. “I have to leave now,” he said. He put the record back in its jacket. “I have an appointment. R is going to cut my hair.”
“Well, don’t be late,” I said.
“R says some people’s minds play like a broken record,” he called to me over his shoulder.
He left. I stayed in the cupola. There was a heavy haze in the air, almost like a mist. I listened for the patter of raindrops on the cupola roof, on the leaves of nearby trees. Mourning doves called and responded. They seem to come around here this time of year, late August. Crickets chirped.
A distant church bell tolled, for a late service I supposed. Then … rain began falling.
I was on my way to ending this session and heading down the staircase when I spotted a small dark thing in the corner of the chaise. It was a brown leather-bound book, about five by seven inches and a good inch thick. It was well used. Moriarty must have dropped this. I was intrigued. I opened it. The script appeared to be a woman’s hand, dip pen and ink, faded, old; the pages were yellowed, some curled and tarnished on the edges.
I sat down in the chaise and began reading. It began, “Sept. 15.” No year was added. “Sebastian came by this afternoon. It is a fine weather day. We walked out to the little bench in the garden and sat among the roses and talked for two hours….” I kept reading. I couldn’t stop. It was a diary and the story unfolding on the pages held me spellbound. Outside, evening fell, mingled with the rain. I pulled the light chain on the bridge lamp. I read long into the night.
Part 2 — Masquerade
August 26, 2013 — The wine I sip is rich and red. It warms my insides. I sit at the big oak round table in my blog. I have turned the last page. I close the worn diary and stare into the flame of the tall, orange candle, ruminating. This is the diary of a woman. I do not know her name. The woman lived long ago. Her diary chronicles her mystifying relationship with a man named Sebastian. Clearly I need more to do than to sit entranced, venturing into the dark realms of thought to find the hermit down at the far end of the tunnel, holding an LED lantern. I stand, pinch out the flame and take my glass. The aroma of wax drifting off the spiral of smoke from the doused flame precedes me partway up the stairs to the second floor catwalks, dissipating as I climb the narrow winding wood staircase to the cupola above. On the way, I flick off flakes of white paint that fall onto the dark sleeve of my sweater as I brush against the walls.
At the top, I go over and look out the windows surveying the scene across the meadow. The day is late and an orange-gray mist rises off the stream, obscuring the earth-most region of the woods on the far bank.
The blue deer and her fawn, Batik, stand on the near bank. And, then – what? To the left, in the meadow along the bank, is a small herd of deer, all blue, some fawns, blue with white speckles. I am mesmerized. An uncommon herd. Where have all the blue deer come from?
I smell a nutmeggy aroma, hear a creak on the step. I turn. My heart stops beating. I stop breathing. I cannot swallow. In the shadows at the top of the staircase, it is a hunchback man with a frightening face and wild puce hair. In his lowered hand he wields a large gun and something smaller, transparent, with it.
“It’s me,” comes the subdued, muffled tone – my low-talker, Moriarty, the Phantom of My Blog. He is wearing a grotesque mask with wild puce hair attached. I take a long draft of wine.
“I saw your bottle of wine and carried it up with me,” he says.
“I thought it was a gun,” I say. I remember to breathe; my heart still pounds; I gulp more wine.
He lifts his banjo, by the shoulder strap, from his back, sprawls in the chaise lounge in the corner between the windows, removes his mask and lays the banjo across his knees.
“What, then, must we do?” he muses, wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand.
Balancing his banjo with one hand, he flips out the cork and pours wine into his glass with the other.
“Look at the herd of blue deer,” I say. “Did you see them? Extraordinary.”
“I know,” he says. “I put them there. I ordered them. They came on a Greyhound bus. I had to go meet it. They’re cardboard. I found them on Amazon. Made in China, I think.”
“And, why are you wearing a mask and that hideous hair? I ask. “It’s got, like, mint and mauve streaks in it.”
“Masquerade,” he says. “It’s all a façade.” He plucks a series of strings individually on his banjo and sings, “‘Masquerade, paper faces on parade. Masquerade. Look around, there’s another mask behind you.’ From my favorite musical, ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’” He plucks a final string, giving it tremolo. “Life in twenty-first century America. Thomas Jefferson would say, ‘I told you so.’ So would Barry Goldwater.”
Paper faces on parade
Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you
Masquerade! Every face a different shade
Masquerade! Look around, there’s another mask behind you
Masquerade! Burning glances, turning heads
Masquerade! Stop and stare at the sea of smiles around you
Masquerade! Grinning yellows, Spinning reds
“Before they sing the song in the musical, they say, ‘It’s a shame that phantom fellow isn’t here.’ That phantom fellow is always here. ‘Seething shadows breathing lies … leering satyrs peering eyes. … Take your turn, take a ride on the merry-go-round in an inhuman race’: The poetic gospel, the Alice in Wonderland side of religion. The Mad Tea-Party. Move around the table until no more clean plates remain. I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours to get.”
“Their mansions,” I say, “gilded on the backs of the other ninety-eight percent, the peasants whose only expectation is to reap the harvest of their hard work sowing the seeds in what’s become a field of clay. They may as well be pulling weeds from between the cracks in the pavement.”
“R speculated while he was trimming my hair, which he said looked perfect as it was, that ‘they soon will be coming to harvest our organs – then feed our withered intestines to the hungry buzzards.’”
He goes on: “What are the masqueraders afraid of? Why do they hide behind their false faces? Control. Politicians running for office, in office, or to impress a superior or potential investor, move with their spouses in lockstep, like a pair of carved wooden love doves appearing from the cuckoo clock door to tweet the hour. Shenanigans. It’s like a shell game. I offer you an example: They create a fantastic tableau, as I have with my cardboard blue deer out there, perfectly posed for the photo op.” He sweeps his hand across the swath of vacant domain before him, finishing with a flourishing gesture toward the bank of dusking windows.
“Just like Sebas—“ He feels his back pocket, he feels around in the chaise. “Where is it? I’ve lost it. I thought I had it.”
His wide-eyed expression, like that of a surprised cat, or round as doubloons in a treasury, bemuses me. “You mean Sebastian and the diary?”
“Yes – where…?”
“I found it in the chaise after you left the other night. It must have fallen out of your pocket.”
“Did you read it?”
“Yes. All of it. Whose is it? Where did you get it?”
“It’s Manon’s. I found it in a trunk full of stuff in the family attic in Arkansas. I think when they moved there, they just stuck a lot of stuff up in the attic and forgot about it. Manon was my great grandmother’s sister, my great great aunt.”
He pulls out his wallet. “Here. Here’s a picture of her.”
I take the small photo. In the cupola half-light and although the light and shadow of the image were faded, I can see: “She is very beautiful,” I say. I gaze at her a long time. Why do I feel as if I know her? Was it the diary? Yet, I felt a connection, even when I began reading her words. I hand it back to him.
“I sat down right there in the attic,” he says, “and started reading. The dust on the trunk made me sneeze, but I couldn’t stop reading. I didn’t sneeze on the diary. I became intrigued by her straightforwardness with him and in her prose, her sincerity. I asked my family if I could keep it. They said yes.”
I must admit, I have never seen my low-key Moriarty so passionate about something.
“What was the matter with Sebastian?” I ask. “Why did he—?”
“I’m hungry,” says Moriarty.
It is getting dark, and I haven’t brought a flashlight; I hope I don’t fall down the winding stairs.
“Let’s order out,” he says. “We’ll talk over some Chinese.”
He heads down the staircase and I follow.
Part 3 — Perigee
September 21, 2013 — Manon began her diary of Sebastian and their strange, mystifying relationship in the middle, allowing it to fan out from the center to the tips, the beginning and the end, like a sunflower burst into yellow flame for a summer, and then in the autumn, drooping its head, the seeds falling at its roots:
Sebastian came by this afternoon. It is a fine weather day. We walked out to the little bench in the garden, sat among the roses and talked for two hours. We spoke of our relationship and the closeness we feel with one another, and that it has caught us unawares. We do not know what to do with this. He came by for afternoon tea, he said. But, in the garden, our conversation soon turned to our feelings. I feel so natural with him. I believe he does with me, too. I could tell him anything. We talk endlessly on every subject; we could probably talk for days, almost without breath; yet, our silences are communicative and deep. Kindred spirits. I feel as if I have known him for lifetimes. There is a haunting quality to it, though. Something… something dark, something I see beyond him, as if when I sit looking at him he is transparent, and there’s this dark entity behind him. He has said nothing about it; nor I to him. He may not see it. I sense he is hiding something, or he fears something, something unsettling to him.
Reflecting at this late evening hour, I cannot recall our first meeting. It seems in this lifetime we never had a first meeting, but that he was always near me, an unseen but felt presence, and when we matured on our separate paths, we would become aligned and meet. Thus, this happened: eventually, we evolved into the same group of friends and associates; then we knew each other, yet had little direct contact until recently.
The light burns low now and the air holds a chill. At the hearth, I have stoked the fire, gift of Prometheus, and what remain are glowing embers, spirits of the flame. The wall sconce in the corner hisses with gaslight, and here at my writing table, pools of wax clot around the stunted candle base.
When we will see one another next I do not know. Our meetings are spontaneous and erratic. I have my garden club and the orphan children’s benefit; he has his businesses and men’s club. It is as it should be. It is part of the natural flow of our relationship. I inhale the essence of what it is and expect nothing more.
—Yet, the dark side. It carries a sad mysticism, something from long ago, like something from a past lifetime. I can see bits of it, like faded photographs in an uncompleted album, our loving companionship abruptly and tragically cut short. Why? Or am I having a premonition?
He knows. He doesn’t want to face it…. The hour is late. I must go to bed.
I sat at my blog round table rereading this opening of Manon’s diary when Moriarty entered. He had been in the back kitchen, this time sweeping up enormous droppings of Japanese spam.
He’d brought his fluffy black dog, Dickens, with him. I stroked the white patch under Dickens’s chin, scratched deep behind his ear, finishing by running my hand along his back, ruffling his coat. He shook, then, sending pieces of disconnected Japanese character strokes flying, like loose spider legs.
“He rolled in the spam,” said Moriarty.
“My last post, part two of this story, attracted page after page of Japanese language characters,” I said. “Must have been the keyword ‘masquerade.’”
“I built the foundation for the folly,” Moriarty said. “Come out and see it. A low wall we can sit on and finish our discussion begun the other night over the Chinese.”
We walked across the tall yellow meadow grass to the foot of the folly, parallel on the hill to the blog, overlooking the stream. I carried Manon’s diary.
Moriarty had set a cornerstone into the foundation and carved into it Sept 2013. What a Phantom. I beamed at his thoughtfulness to detail. Sitting on Moriarty’s masterpiece, I tilted my face upwards and took a long draft of the deep blue September sky, the honeyed warmth of sun drenching my face.
Dickens sat next to me and leaned against my leg; and then he lay down, resting his head on his tan forepaws. Crickets chirped and locusts buzzed. The rubber tip of the dog’s nose twitched as he sniffed the air. Maybe he smelled blue deer. I patted his head.
“There was a strange sadness to Sebastian,” said Moriarty, sitting down at the opposite end of the foundation wall and crossing his leg over his knee.
“Sebastian typified perfectly what most humans fear – they are afraid of the light, not of the dark,” I said.
“Clearly it seems,” I went on, “that he was deeply drawn to Manon in the beginning; he drew her in; their association blossomed, becoming close.”
“And then he got scared,” said Moriarty.
“He fell into the flame he had kindled, and then tried to flee; he erected a firewall of superficiality,” I observed.
I opened Manon’s diary and read:
Sebastian has turned. I wanted to know his darkness. We have become very close. Of late, though, he has begun to be controlling. In truth, I want to know if he is worthy of me. Would he always be respectful towards me. Would he accept my work for women’s suffrage? If we are to go forward, I want clear understanding between the two of us. I sent him a note. Would he talk with me? That’s all I wrote: what point would it be to discuss with him in a note what I want to discuss with him in person?
He wrote back: “When I have time. I shall let you know.” I replied that I understand he has other priorities, that such is as it should be. However, I stated, I do find that we must talk presently. I sought to prevent a miscarriage of our friendship, although I did not tell him this latter.
Part 4 — Flight Path
September 21, 2013 — I held Manon’s diary open, Moriarty and I sitting on the folly foundation in the warm September sun, and I continued reading aloud:
I sit now among my roses breathing in their sensuous aroma. I hold his response on my lap:
“My dear Manon,
You expect too much of me. I will only disappoint you.
Therefore, I find I must avoid you.
Our relationship was but illusion, as is all life.
“What a jackass,” I said, placing my thumb on the page and closing the book.
Moriarty gave me a steely look I could not define. I opened to the page and continued to read:
I am stunned. I cannot stem my torrent of tears. How cruel. Whence has this arisen? In fact it is he who has created the illusion. I hold only the kindest thoughts for him. He has not listened, nor does he care to listen. He does not wish to know me. Instead, distancing himself, he has created a false image of who I am: in his delirium he has created of me a Frankenstein’s monster, Prometheus bound. I cannot get through to him. This is undeserved. How could he twist this? Surely, he thinks of someone else. In his arrogance he is like a blowfish that swims through a crevice into a cave, puffs up and then cannot get out. His ego has outsized his head. He seems unable to take me at face value.
“You can take me at face value,” said Moriarty.
I looked at the Phantom.
“He sabotaged the relationship,” Moriarty said. “Whatever he was going deeper and deeper into, he was unknowingly and simultaneously trying to escape. Hiding behind his mask, he was only masking himself from his true self, trying to escape himself.”
“‘To know and to love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.’” Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited,” I said. “I think Waugh was right. Though I wonder if this covers men marrying trophy wives and women marrying men for economic advantage, and then you’re always pushing your spouse to dazzle the neighbors, pushing your spouse to do more for you because, in your sterile arrangement, you don’t find him or her fulfilling. I suppose where you are married to a metaphor and you get along superficially you can still achieve some spiritual growth.”
I opened Manon’s diary three-quarters of the way through and read aloud: He has traveled to Phila. on business. He has written to tell me.
“And, then …,” I flipped a couple of pages ahead:
We have commenced carrying on a correspondence, writing every few days to one another. He could not face getting close here in these last months, yet while he is away he writes to me often. Often our letters cross.
He expresses his inmost thoughts as he used to when we were together, as if he trusts me implicitly. In his letters from Phila. he feels closer to me than he does in person.
I flipped ahead two weeks.
He has come back to Boston. Will he come back emotionally? I wonder. …
I turned to the next entry:
… Sebastian has not come to see me in the weeks since his return home, and his letters have stopped.
“Further …,” I turned a few pages … I handed the thick, little leather-bound book over to Moriarty.
He read, I encountered Sebastian in town today. He barely spoke to me and hurried on his way. It is curious why he picked up our communication while he was away in Phila. and now he has stopped. I never know whom I am going to get, the warm, natural Sebastian or the superficial, masked one.
“Maybe he just got tired of her,” I said.
Moriarty smiled quietly.
“‘The cruelty of lust and the frailty of love,’ I think Maya Angelou said that,” I went on. “She said to Anderson Cooper one night on TV recently, ‘Fear motivates cruelty. You have to laugh, otherwise you’ll die of solemnity.’”
Moriarty’s sudden laughter startled Dickens, who leaped to his feet and barked just on general principles. He shook his head, snuffled and sneezed; assured that the air was clear, he lay down and resumed resting his head on his forepaws.
Friends have told me that Sebastian engaged in unsavory deeds in earlier days, that he has redeemed himself and made reparations. Perhaps, too, something he witnessed in childhood caused his present reactions. Sebastian’s past and his past deeds matter not to me. I esteem him as he is now, unconditionally. He is just as human as the rest of us.
Could it not be that his harshness towards his past actions, instead of giving himself credit for good deeds, and his immature idealism lead him to see the world rather narrowly…? He acts as he thinks a man of the world ought to act and began treating me snobbishly and coldly, patronizing me because he regards me as a second-class citizen, a lowly woman – while yet he can be compassionate and generous to others. Instead, to impress me and others, his desire for and pursuit of advancement leads to an unhappiness he must mask with his false bravado. I believe that it is in his constitution to stop now, abiding in the night at which he has arrived. Come the dawn, he will see. Maybe in another lifetime. He is where he needs to be, as am I. Yet, for a season, I was his folly.
“Look where we are,” I said to Moriarty. “Our lives are as beautiful as our surroundings – this blog with a round table and a cupola, soon a folly, a Dickens of a dog, this sweet-smelling meadow and clear-running stream – and blue deer.”
Dickens lifted his head at the mention of this hoofed forager, barked a muffled bark, “Biff, biff,” that puffed up his cheeks, then laid his head back down.
“At the end of the path, all is right here,” I continued. “It’s not out there somewhere. Reading Manon’s diary and sitting here this beautiful day, we know, we have come to the end of the illusion. Social position is not the most important thing in life; the striving to attain which can cause one, caused Sebastian to hurt those he loved the most. Seeking retribution against others for his pain only caused more pain in others, not retribution. But the dream, the dream we can make real, when we have faith.”
Moriarty had handed over the diary to me. I turned to the last page. Five months had elapsed since Manon’s previous entry. I read her final lines:
Sebastian is afraid to follow his heart. He is ashamed of his own unhappiness. He has taken flight.
I quickly moved the diary out to my knees so that the tear that escaped over my cheek wouldn’t spill onto the page and blur the faded ink. I looked at Moriarty. “What happened to them, do you know?”
“I asked my family,” said Moriarty. “Manon met someone, actually while Sebastian was in Philadelphia. Ultimately, they married. They didn’t have children. She became one of the leaders in the women’s rights movement for suffrage, and she edited a women’s magazine. That’s how my family knows as much as they do about her.”
“And Sebastian?” I asked.
“Oh, he went to Italy and became a priest.
“They were alike,” he said.
I closed the little book.
Beauty appears when something is completely and absolutely and openly itself. —Deena Metzger
With thanks to Evelyn Waugh, revisited;
And a nod, neverending, to Thomas Hardy, “Jude the Obscure,”
his story of Jude and Sue I read lifetimes ago.
Oh, you must be my neighbor across the way, whom Moriarty pointed out to me, in that castle with the pointy turret hat.
We will tread across the meadow one fine day and pay you a visit. Dickens will join us. We’ll carry a light so hopefully we will not fall into the well along the way, or our names will be Red.
Dearest friend, dear Old Light,
From an open window, wide, of the tallest turret, in the northwest quadrant of the palace in my mind, as dusk settles, a pall shaken and spread over the landscape, I, standing at the round dark oak table with a myriad and multitude of uncommon literate minds, a herd not unfamiliar to you, gazing northward toward your Paris-like lighted studio and conscientious cupola, as the church bells toll, we, each, raise an orb of hand blown glass, damming a perfect pour of a blend of fine red wine, with layers of dark red fruit complimented by hints of vanilla and mocha, to salute you, your low talker, the folly, your steep spiral staircase and your celestial catwalk to the moon.
With some success, trying to get there, early,
“Truth is the bottom of a bottomless well.”
– Sebastian Venable
“Truth is the one thing I have never resisted.”
– Catherine Holly