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Vernissage

by Maureen Howard

for Kiki Smith

Miss Pru is lovely tonight in a muslin gown. She floats across the parquet in her rose satin slippers. Pru will give us a little Mozart before the liqueurs are served. Such a delicate touch, though this evening she hustles through the andante-allegro giving no mind to non troppo.

Will they ever go? The ladies plopped on the sofas, balanced on delicate chairs, waiting for the gentlemen to be done with cigars, brandy and serious talk in the library, waiting for the little crystal glasses with viscous yellow and green fluid to be passed with perchance a macaroon. In the mirror over the pianoforte they might observe Pru's scowl, her pretty-plain face distorted with rage, but there is the new Unitarian minister who must be spoken of, his visits to the barrooms on the waterfront are inappropriate to say the least, no matter he counsels the inebriate. Prudence has moved on to a tune by Stephen Foster, such a spirited girl. In the mirror she watches her fury fade to boredom, slack jaw, eyes blink, blink to stay awake. The new minister is said to misquote Mr. Emerson almost in jest. It has been noted that though we are well into September the carpets are not down, the summer curtains hang limp at the drawing room windows. Muslin is out of season. Slap bang, the lid of the pianoforte. Will anyone notice Pru slip round the pedestal with bronze Diana concealing her nippleless breasts? Or Pru catch her mother gulping a glass of golden liqueur before the tray is passed round by Mary? The gentlemen smelling of their manly pleasures are so welcome.

"Prudence," her father calls. She does not want to please him, puts a hand to her temple. "Our Pru is delicate," he says to Mr. Huxley with the hideous mutton chop whiskers growing out of his face. She does not want to be introduced to the great man of science who sat at the far end of the dinner table. Isn't it enough that she's been at his lectures with mother? Mother who quotes Tennyson-Are God and Nature then at strife-but can not recall the next line while Pru is perfectly happy to share her hippocampus with the apes, to admire all the beetles and fish spines in the Agassiz Museum, if only her father would let her be. Let her be up in the attic. Up the back stairs in her rose slippers, unlatching the door, reaching for her canvas apron in the dark, feeling for the gas lamp. Oh, in the light she sees the big book stolen from her father's library. Stolen, the proper word, not that she isn't encouraged to read any book she chooses in a household liberal as any on Louisburg Square. She has carried the leather bound book up to her work room with a window on the Square, with an easel, water colors and brushes. Our Pru has a gift for pretty scenes, though lately, lately she has not shown us her portfolio, lately she has put a padlock on her door so that neither maid nor mother can see what she is up to all those hours well into the night. This night was to be consuming, the end of all her efforts, but there was dinner with the great man which she had quite forgotten, and the Mozart which drowned out the gossip, and if she regarded herself in the mirror above the pianoforte she would miss her mother slipping out to the pantry for the liquor, plain liquor before the dainty glasses are served.

She turns down the gas lamp so that the light is diffused, unearthly; presses open the book, the valuable book, Da Vinci's notebooks, one of the few facsimiles in existence which will go to Harvard when her father dies. There is flight captured on the page, wingspan, weight, calculations. Pru's bird will look down at the master's drawings, the bird she found in the garden, stunned still trembling, the bird she put in the case with her charcoals and studies of the male body, running through the back streets of Boston, searching out the taxidermist, the poor creature dead, as we now say, on arrival. Huffing and puffing (Have we noted Pru's age, well over thirty? Girl is a kindness.) she came late to her lesson in the studio, sketched the untouchable model, an alabaster boy skillfully draped.

She wires the bird's claws to a ball of twigs soaked and bent into a cockeyed sphere. Let it be the world stuck in a white-egg cup, salt dish? A useless trinket bought in Brighton, now useful junk for her work. The last of the carriages trotting off round the square, Mary and Cook, tongues wagging, come up the back stairs. When she is blessed with silence, Pru studies the marks on the page, unable to read Da Vinci's invention. He must tell of body and air, of how we might-lift, leave, soar? Hunting for a word, she can not put a name to his sketch of the impossible. And can not name her bird, surely pictured in her father's books of ornithology. Her work must be all, contemplation of the dream, disquieting yet lovely as a girl in a muslin gown.

A gentle rap on the door. She thinks to hide the book, the bird. Her mother's voice, chirpy yet pleading. Our Pru, ever obedient, opens to a woman known yet never seen, gray hair streaming to hunched shoulders, shivering, ghostly in a flimsy dressing gown. Cold, so cold. Mid-September, carpets not down, velvet drapes stored away. So cold in the attic, the woman says to her daughter, her voice surprisingly clear, You'll catch your death. She touches the page of the precious book, smoothes the feathers of the flightless bird. Her pale hand on the white china trinket. Brighton! The Pier. A giddy day-toffee, clowns, puppets, father lecturing-Decadence! Ornament! Folly!-above the honky-tonk music. Will he never leave off? Pru wraps an old shawl round her mother. Together they feel the globe of twigs with longitude and latitude scrambled. Pru's mother twists the beak of the bird. Now he peers down, his dead weight balanced above Da Vinci's aeroplane. Together they step back to look upon beauty. And fear-dare not call it that. Silence, then: I came to coax you to bed. If you would rather stay at your work?

The first fall leaves whip against the window. I'll stay, Prudence says.

 

Maureen Howard is a novelist and critic. Her most recent work, Big as Life: Three Tales for Spring (Viking, 2001), is the second season of a proposed quartet. She has received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaches in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. (4/03)

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