by Morgan Hobbs
I was alone on the verandah.
You already said that part.
The full moon had come out. So it was night. We were having a nightcap. The guests spilled out onto the verandah and I joined them in a toast.
Was my husband among them? I often wonder where he can be found.
He was not there on this particular night. Once he sang your praise and confessed afterward that he had been paid a large sum of money to play the fool.
Not on my account, I hope.
Your husband is a consummate showman. He did it for the king. Later there was an overseas voyage and the discovery of a new flower.
I met my husband on a cruise ship in tropical waters. It was the first time I ever performed the dance.
On the verandah I was surrounded by vines and flowers. The stem of my glass reached almost to the ground. The cup itself was little more than a thimble.
I remember those parties. The wine came out in bottles that left little room for anything inside. Our cigarette holders stretched to the ends of the cliffs and would have gone farther had it not been the season for brush fires.
I remember something one of the servants said. A woman. She couldn't have been more than thirteen. It was strange seeing them in my mother's outfits like that, holding up their silver trays like swimming pools, like perfect luminous reflections of the moon. When the breath that carried her words reached my ear I shut my eyes, and the whole world disappeared.
I was alone for the first time when I joined the theater. Never before had I been so keenly aware of my part. Not even the makeup man could recognize me from afar. He wore leotards and had a pencil mustache, muscles like iron. The menacing slant of his eyebrows and the redness of his lips were the only true things about him.
After the toast, I raised my glass again, this time for myself alone, and allowed the last drops of moon light to swirl silently in the cup. The city beyond, stretching out like a canvas of tiny lights, bloomed one airplane after another from the fog shrouded night, their terrifying sounds like those from animals in the valley below.
I had never been aboard a ship until I met my husband. I had been a siren, in the theater. A mermaid in the bathtub spectaculars of that gilded age. I could barely swim then but looked comely enough in the outfit, and still do. This wasn't so long ago. My husband, before he became my husband, held out his arm and asked if I would do him the honor of performing my dance.
You didn't have a dance then, did you? The number of my own dances can barely be contained on the hands you see before you. I perfected them when I was abroad, drawing on many influences, from the martial arts to the Russian ballet. All it ever won me was acclaim.
What were you drinking that night?
When I toasted myself under the moonlight?
I recall my husband's fondness for the moon. When he proposed to me, the moon was my witness. It is mine now as much as his, as if he plucked it out of the sky and placed it right there on my finger.
I stood on the verandah and gazed out over the glittering kingdom. Before long the raising of glass turned to dancing, the men and women exchanging their drinks for the hands, waists, eyes of the opposite sex, and drank them in. I stood apart from the rest. A servant blushed upon finding me alone. I excused her and took it upon myself to find out as much as I could about the men and women who circulated among the terraces of these hills. Seldom did I see them stand and gaze out, as I did, standing at the edge and gazing out over California. The most beautiful cars in the world lined up for miles and miles on the side of the road, sometimes from this very house, snaking down like links in a chain, deep into the heart of the land below.
The animals upon which I intended to base my dance were warm blooded, mostly jungle cats. The bear, the dog, the moose, the deer, the pig, the great ape, these could not be considered to be erotic. The only other animal that exceeded the jungle cats for eroticism was the snake. I learned my dance from the snake, the slither and undulation, the flickering tongue, slow, sensuous constriction. Seduction. Betrayal. Eyes floating in venom. Rings. Rattles. Diamonds. Why of all the animals in the kingdom the snake? The jungle cats are their nearest kin. You can see in the eyes, those cold diamonds, like crystals of ice. Our world of sex of reptile design.
I felt myself awakening with the touch of an icy hand upon my own, and then I was off again. The hand, if it was truly a hand, had that power, to turn me on and off. And I spent some time like that, moving between states. The question that was on my tongue then is one that I am grateful to now remember. It concerned something I had seen moving through the scrub and brush on the hillside. It was quite dark that night, but I do not think I am mistaken about its color. It was black. The question: African or Asian?
South American. The panther is the only big cat that comes in black.
A natural migration then. How does that explain the lions and tigers?
I've seen them as well. The other morning I took breakfast out in the garden, on the terrace. I buttered an English muffin and poured a cup of hot tea. The steam rose to my throat like a bath. I closed my eyes and savored it. When I opened them I saw in the foliage an enormous whiskered head. The body of the great animal moved through the tangle of growth with a heavy silence, unfurling itself like a serpent, the black and orange stripes appearing and disappearing in the broad green leaves. That was only the second time in my life I had seen a tiger. The mouth opened and I felt the low rumble in my loins. The only other time I had been on a river boat in Mesopotamia. The animal appeared to me on the verge of sleep. In spite of the swift current, it carried away the man who was to be my first husband.
I, too, lost a lover in Mesopotamia. I had been on the verge of sleep as well, but rather than a tiger, she had been carried away by the fever. Some described it as yellow, but it was at times purple, red, blue, fuchsia, brick, navajo and soylent green. The heat, more than the change in color, is what did her in. There were burn marks on her heart, it scorched her central nervous system. She was laid to rest, entombed within the idols carved into the cliffs. Many of those same cliffs still stand today. Others have been destroyed by dynamite.
I have had lovers carried off by fever as well, although the usual culprits are tigers, panthers, cheetahs, albino tigers, several times by a creature that resembled a saber tooth tiger, and once by anaconda. The lover was found whole in the serpent's belly. He now rests in a museum of natural history, displayed in a vitrine, wearing the serpent like a shroud, his eyes for ever closed in beautiful eternal sleep.
Few have achieved such a perfect death, returned to the headwaters of the great circle of life, wrapped in the afterbirth of their perfect death. We have both lost lovers in Mesopotamia, and in other parts of the world. Love lost and love regained. Did you ever believe you would find love here, that a worldly love could be found in Los Angeles?
I remember my own misgiving the first time I spread my wings. A dance I performed in the water, carried down from a false sky in the open mouth of a giant oyster shell, my nude body carefully dipped in pearls. There was a man in the front row, very well dressed, his fortune made in rubble and dynamite. The way he stared in my direction, the blackness of his eyes-
-his gloved hand caressing the ivory handle of his cane. When my turn came, I shed my pearls and joined the others on the sea horse merry-go-round, stirring the waters with our paint brush legs.
That man, as you recall, was my brother, although history tells us there are dozens, perhaps thousands, more just like him, serving in ministries and shipping companies, financial conglomerates, information systems bureaucracies and cabinet positions, biding their time until the next revolutionary session. Do you see that man there, leaning over the rail, his drink tipping ever so slightly into the fathomless canyon, his eyes breathing more than seeing, the winds carrying the smoke from his marijuana cigarette into the nothingness of the night?
I noticed him when I first came in. We made eye contact once, as I left the powder room and descended the staircase. There were others who were watching him, and he quickly averted his gaze. A woman grabbed his hand and introduced him to several silver haired guests from Japan. As I reached the landing my heel turned, and I would have fallen had it not been for the alertness of one of the elegant men dressed in black. He caught me under the front of my dress--you can see what I'm wearing. My smile caused him to blush. I removed my glove and placed my bare hand on the back of my neck. I looked around the room. Then I continued the rest of the way down.
His daughter and mine, they went abroad together. They came back the best of friends, after spending several years in a temple in innermost China, developing deep breathing and relaxation techniques, covering their finery and silk bed linens with calligraphy, ritualistic drumming, head bowing, Chinese landscape painting and an indoctrination into the sacred arts of Chinese lovemaking. During parties, like this one, you will see any time now, they perform a Chinese acrobatic routine. My daughter, wearing a black leotard, takes on the most supple shapes ever assumed by a human being. Her friend, the man's daughter, allows herself to be spun hanging by her tongue beneath the chandelier, her tongue held between my daughter's clenched teeth. In the Chinese arts there is always cruelty. They perform without nets or wires. At the end of the routine, as my daughter and her friend dangle beneath, I shoot out the light bulb between my daughter's feet.
I bet that's a real show stopper.
Sometimes it brings down the house.
Sometimes, when I gaze down into the canyon like this, into the vanishing night, I swear I can see all the way to China. It's not that far when you think about it, like putting your eye to the key hole. A vision of lotus blossoms on the other side, a wall hanging covered in Chinese characters, ancestral dances in jade and silence. A flower in my hair and grass skirt about my hips, more nectarine flesh than a Tahitian princess. The flattering words I heard, from the concierge, as I stepped out onto the verandah of the old hotel, iron rails and cracked stucco walls, vines growing right up the side, reminded me of a song I once heard, sung by a tropical bird in the rain forest of the arboretum of the mansion on the hill side.
In different circumstances the bird might have sung just for thee.
There are birds in my family that have been passed down through the ages.
I wrote a letter of introduction and a song of tender sorrow with the brilliant blue and gold feathers. You will recall the time we met among the plantains. I watched your helicopter set down in the field. You stepped out, a hand on your hat, the other in that of the pilot, the blades of the helicopter stirring the sky. I met you there, in a white linen suit, the brim of my hat set to one side, and kissed you on the cheek as the helicopter returned to the sky. Your husband was standing right behind me, his smile carved of ivory. The papers were signed beneath the statue's single eye, in the heart of the cave. You asked my forgiveness in the breadth of a sidelong glance. Your husband begged our pardon and moved out into the sunlight with the others, certain matters to discuss, not a glance inside. We filled the silence with the warmth of our breath and the stillness of the air and the specter of your smile against the fire of my smile, your eyes turned down and to the side, to the vanishing darkness into the cavernous depths of all your dreamless nights spent wandering the canyons through the brush fires and sunsets you painted from memory on the valley floor and that you walked over night after night on your way to the southern land your adore. I set sail at dawn, half way around the globe.
I felt you sliding in behind me, your hand on my hip, breathing in my hair. You set my glass down. It was immediately filled by a young woman in an old woman's girlhood attire, underneath the most exquisite black negligee, the threads of ancestral lace wound around bare maiden thighs. You tipped her well.
Those were the days of gold bouillon and Capetown diamonds, the rarest orchids and most exquisite narcotics that could be found. I took the first step, your hand in mine. You came against me, your hips moving in rhythm with the sounds of traffic echoing in the canyon. I twirled you around.
The lowest, longest, deepest, most sensual dip of my personal life.
Sell it one step at a time.
One breath at a time. We come together time after time, like two rivers, like a traffic jam in the canyon. Love in the southern land, in the dunes.
Breathing the night, breathing the night with our eyes.
Sand in the wind, stars in my eyes. Deep down into the heart of Los Angeles.
About the author:
Morgan Hobbs graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1993, with a degree in English and History. He currently resides near the Rapidan River in northern VA. His work has appeared in Shattered Wig, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Mississippi Review, The Muse Apprentice Guild, The Nocturnal Lyric, Punchline, and Satire Magazine.