A novel about artists--Notes of an Artist (to himself)--by Miles Williams Mathis (2024)

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A novel about artists--Notes of an Artist (to himself)--by Miles Williams Mathis (1)

byMiles Mathis



As thediscoverer of this volume, and therefore, by default, itseditor, I have little to say in the way of an introduction. Ihave been pressed by the publisher to comment on its author, andits mode of transmission to me, in the briefest possible terms.This is all to the good, since my knowledge of Mr. Mathis beginsand ends with the "autobiography" (for lack of abetter word) that follows, and since its transmission to me isexplained in one sentence. I found it in the house I had justbought, and which I had assumed was empty of my predecessor'sperquisites. Actually the house was littered with the mostpersonal objects imaginable, not just papers and drawings, butall manner of what some might call "interesting"finds, quite a few of them unmentionable. I was in the way ofburning everything I could sweep into a pile when Amelia, mywife, arrived and immediately stopped my housecleaning. It washer opinion that, with some people's perverse interest in art,we might have something worth publishing. Unfortunately, thefire had already consumed all the drawings and paintings, so wewill never see their value at auction. The illustrations in thebook survived with it, and they may give you an idea of theauthor's taste. All I am allowed to say is that I am not anartist, but his tastes are not mine.

Amelia and Idivided the typing of the work between us, deciphering Mr.Mathis' handwriting and blots of inks as we could and correctingspellings and filling in the most obvious word omissions ordoubles as we went. We did not edit for content, or forreadability (obviously). I can't honestly say that we readeverything for meaning, since, in my opinion, that would havebeen futile. I am told that the publisher has gone back andreinstated the British spellings, as a nod to authenticity, buteven the author's usage is inconsistent, and the whole issue isa hash. Amelia believes that the work should be read as a diary,not as a novel, making such matters irrelevant. For me thischanges nothing, but that is all I will add.

Thequestions I have gotten from those who have read at least thefirst few pages concern not the narrative, but theillustrations. Where are all these works? The author claims thatnone are extant. Is this true? If true, where did he get thesereproductions? Are these the only extant reproductions? I haveno information to share on this, and I'm not sure anyone does. Idestroyed a number of works, but not the work of a lifetime.Even the author admits this. He recounts how many were lost, anddismisses the rest early on. I am almost certain that none ofthese works were among the ashes I swept out. I think it is bestto accept that we are dealing with a figure of slight historicalimportance, and to leave it at that. Many people have lived whowe know absolutely nothing about. It should not be surprisingthat some were artists, or that some have died only recently.Certainly my several calls to England have been unfruitful, andthe corroboration of other claims of the author will have to beleft to those with more interest in the subject.

I will closewith the theory that much of this autobiography, or diaryif you will, is a creative fiction. Whether these works everexisted in the context the author claims is unprovable, in thesame sense that the rest of the story is. All we know is that avery old man lived in my house on Canyon Road, that he diedthere, and that he wrote, or at least signed, this book. Therest is speculation. The whole adventure, from meetings withfamous artists, and remembered dialogue, to the poems (his ownand those of others), to the paintings and drawings, are none ofthem backed up with any scientific evidence. Just as an example,what is one to make of a poem from a ghost? I am sorelyafraid that, despite everyone's wishes to the contrary, thiswork must stand or fall on its own. My best wishes to theauthor, for his good fortune is mine.

EugeneLockley, PhD (September, 1940)



It will benoticed that 58 years have passed between the composition of thePreface and the publication. The events of 1941 precludedrelease by the original publisher, which company is now defunct.The Lockley family lost interest in the project until recently,when it was exhumed by George Channing Lockley, Vice Provost forWomens Studies at New Mexico State University, Portales, andgrandson of Eugene Lockley, PhD (1903-1971). Mr. Lockley hasrequested that his grandfather's prefatory remarks stand in lieuof his own.

Contrary tothe desires of these "editors," we have treated thisdocument as an historical one, whose value is yet to be provenor disproven. Obtaining the temporary possession of the originalmanuscript, we have printed all of the author's words as hewrote them. This has always been our policy, as is stated belowour colophon. Likewise, as another part of the historicalrecord, and by the same policy, we have printed the editor'sremarks unedited for content; that is, unexpurgated. Mr.Lockley, as the owner of this manuscript (by that age old law offinders-keepers), is entitled to his opinion as to its value andauthenticity. And you, as the reader, are entitled to know thatopinion.

A novel about artists--Notes of an Artist (to himself)--by Miles Williams Mathis (2)

Chapterthe First

Deathis an otter
swimming rings around the moon
riverdaughterwriting runes around the sun

Life is afish
gills wide in flight from webby paws
scaledson-of-stars, stippled child of middlenight

Death is abear
dancing a buzzing whirlpool fur-fearless
andhoneycomb drunk

Life is abee
pollen-dusted in sexy flower hop
unaware of ursadipping overhead

Should theapocalypse arrive tomorrow, crashing down like waves of glass,galloping down a black and sea-torn wind, Satan clawing up fromunder us with his mass of horses, bridling and stamping for oursouls, there are a few things I would like to have done with. Tohave finished that is, so that they stand in time regardless.One of these things is already done. One of these things is mypaintings. Another is this letter, this letter posted to mybones, that I must surely scribble more quickly if my hand, withthe world, is in fact shrivelling tomorrow. This letter I amwriting, from my head to my hand and back again (a tight,f*ckless circle I am willing to admit), must be finishedif I am to sleep in peace as the Demons go roaring overhead. Ittells my story. And in telling it closes it.

You mustunderstand this, diggers beyond the blast, unearthing loamingpages for your re-education: I am not who you were told I was. Iam not that larger-than-life toppling monolith of a statue-man.Nor am I no one. I am who I say I was, and if you don't thinkso, you are wrong.

Who I am atthis point, before the beginning, before I start telling youthis story, is an old man, writing at an old desk, with agoddamned old pen that I would like to stomp on and give to thegoddamned devil, except that it's the only one I have. I nowunderstand why the sages have retired to the tops of theirpillars, silently muttering curses; or measured deserts by thelength of their bodies, like mad caterpillars; or whirled likefrenzied dervishes, as in some manic attempt to dislodgeearmites: the reason, of course~spluttery nibs. The holy mangoes into the wilderness in search of a typist.

The year is1939, you see, and I am in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where propernibs are very hard to find. Goosefeathers everywhere, so tospeak, but nary a usable nib. Also, I am angry whenever I haveto write paragraphs like these two instead of that first one.Straight narrative bores me to bloody hell, but I have beenassured by all concerned (I'm fibbing here~I'm the onlyone concerned) that I have to offer the reader at least thesmallest and most widely and haphazardly placed steppingstonesthrough this bog of my remembrance. That is, I must find a wayto use a number of pedestrian writing devices, which even themost Zennish and progressive reader requires, such as times,places, people, dialogue. A certain Ladyfriend, who I am proudto say is not quite as old as I am~who is still partiallymobile, that is~assures me that, at least at the beginning, Ineed to provide the groundwork of a shore before I fling (tospeak jauntily) my fidus Achates, my faithful reader,into the ocean's maw. This I am attempting, with almost nosuccess (I am told from the bed). This Ladyfriend is mouthing,with the largest possible fishmouth, the word "description"at me from under a blanket of cats and pillows, but is not happythat I am describing her, even if in the tersest andleast incriminating of ways. She suggests I invent somesucculent adjectives for my bald head and blue-green legs, but Ithink I'll pass. All you need to know about me, physically, atthis point in my maturity, is that I retain the hands that Degashimself once called elegantes, and that I sleep unright,like a horse, with my coat coppertacked to oversize stretcherbars.

But enoughof that. I know you clever people, who study fossils and othermuddy things, find it amusing that I will not be young or normalor happy or whatever it is that all of our grandchildren andtheir hopping offspring are becoming after the Millenium (orjust around the corner, leave it to me not to know). But in theback of my tottering brain, where the future exists for me,where possibilities beyond my brain are created by my brain formy brain's pathetic amusem*nt, there is a boy, or maybe a girl.A little artist who has survived all the genetic upheavals andthe masses of black and scary horses, chomping and chomping. Ananachronistic egg hatched by the warmth of an unloved Sun. Asolitary sea turtle flapping in an eddyless ocean. To thislittle dot of green, making his way, making his way, I say flap,my friend, as the laughing gull flaps above you, as thecoelecanth still sucks below you. Make your way and I will seeyou somewhere, maybe, there where van Gogh, like a pale-bluepeasant, coughs up his absinthe and toothes his pipe, whereCellini pulls down the very angels to crack a head, whereMichelangelo sleeps on stone, a fine white dust clinging to hiseyebrows like pollen on an oblivious bee.

And one morething. You non-turtles, you slippery spirits of the aftermathwho study letters like mine for profit, analyzing andinterpreting for the amusem*nt of your pathetic brains (brainswhich cannot paint to save their lives): To you I say this, andI am right. Leave us be. Let alone this message. It is notfor you.

Dear Little Turtle, Iam you. I am neither the hand writing nor the eye reading.The hand reflects. The page reflects. The eye reflects. And Iam back to you.
What will I tell you inthis story of yours? Whose voice will you hear in your head?Read fast or you may hear yourself telling me this story ofmine.
When you were born you were verysmall and somewhat younger than you became. You weresenses~movement, sounds, pains, pleasures. Everything you sawwas you. Everything you felt was you. It was yours.

Do you know better now?

Once you reached for thebreast. You saw it: you touched it, you tasted it. Once youreached for the moon. You saw it: you could not touch it, youcould not taste it. And you understood. Near. Far. Big. Little.Dark. Light. Me. You.
But you were notwrong before. The breast is still as the moon, yours andunreachable.
What must you forget toremember what you have never known?
I amyou. Tell me.
When you were born you werevery large and older than you would ever be again. Nothing wasnot you. Since then you have whittled you down toyourself.
When will you tire ofwhittling?
An old man is a mastercarver, his life a pile of shavings. Sweep them into a pile andburn them to keep the young warm.
Theold man is dead.
You have in your head,Lord knows why, what Leonardo said: "I thought I waslearning to live. I was only learning to die."
Doyou know better now?
Nosferatu drankblood. No master carver he. But blood is no more nourishing thanbreastmilk. Or moonbeams. Or board nails. Fire consumes wood.The tree consumes the sun.
Are you treeor wood?
As a baby, you broughteverything to your mouth. You were the world and the worldbecame you as you consumed it. The moon and the breast.The tree and the sun. Before you knew the difference, allwere equally nourishing. Do you know better now?
Letme tell you. I am you.
As a child youslept eighteen hours a day, nourished by dreams, nourished bythe you that is now not you. Awake, your work was play. Notwhittling, but building. Now, no longer a child, you die bydegrees. You burn your wood. The sun burns you. All iswhittling. You master carver, asleep on a bed of shavings. Butyou do not swallow moonbeams whole, or blood or breastmilkeither.
You have told me this, so Iknow.
In sculpting clay the sculptoradds on until a whole is reached. In sculpting stone thesculptor chips away until a remainder is reached. Are you stoneor clay?
Tell me as I sculptyou.
What were you at eight? Do youremember? Has it been chipped away or does your clay stillcontain it?
This you must know.
Somethere are who feel that every breath is owed to the air, and whoexhale only from a sense of guilt. Those who cannot justify thelength of their arms or the width of their beds. Those who areabashed to find their own footprints behind them in thesand.
In ballet it is the dancer's duty tofill as much space as possible, to devour the air and to blanketthe four dimensions.
This is calledbeauty.
In painting it is the artist'sduty to consume the world, to demolish it and rebuild it with inthe blink of an eye, to surround it as with a net, or the gripof a vast hand, and to squeeze from it its essence.
Thisis called beauty.

Dear Little Green Dot,flapping a frothy sea, This is our latest story: my life. Or, ifyou like, the events ~such as I remember them~ from 1858to now (interspersed, nay, crammed, with an extravaganza ofextraneous and only obliquely related diversions). Those wholike a straight line, pointing neatly and quickly to the lastpage of the book are invited to read the last page of anotherbook. This one hits some narrative~I can't say for howlong~precisely here:
I was born aspeckled egg and blue.
In hot bath andcold bath Mummy would scrubb me white and shiny~would havescrubbed all my corners oval if she could, I think~but as soonas I was towelled and replaced under the chickens to sleep tilldawn I would dream a spotty dream, holding myself by the heelsover a cerulean Styx and counting the river monsters. Closing myeyes and holding my breath, I would dive for dragons' teeth andsmooth black stones, my speckles being bites from those stygianbeasties where the blue would not dye. These were the pores ofmy vulnerability, my St. Sebastian's arrowholes. I kept themplastered with rabbitskin glue and champagne chalk. Mummy andPoppy did not know these things.
To getjust a morsel more prosaic, and for those who find suchinformation indespensible: I also had a red birthmark on my leftknee, which soon went away. No doubt this was some omen of greaturgency, which I have never been able to unravel. I leave it tothe art critics of the future, who, if they are incrediblycreative (and what art critic isn't), may be able to spin aMaster's thesis or two out of such rich biographical material.Personally, I would tie that red knee into the poesy dream inthe preceding paragraph, if I could find any way to do itwithout getting mawkish. But I can't. What else? Eggshell blueeyes and wavy blond hair (that went spirally at fourteen; andgrey at 45; and mostly gone at 60). But never chubby, nevercherubic (that was my little brother). Not a lap child:marginally pinchable, if at all. I have been told there issomething devilish about my eyes~or my gaze, at any rate. I knowwho I am~I have never really scared myself~but no onelistens to such things. A man is no longer taken at his ownestimation. I may be guilty, I don't know, of a faraway look, oran unnatural seriousness, or perhaps even a good dose ofstandoffishness. None of that Stephen Daedalus blather, mind: Iwas no playground wimp~no muling, sickly, watcher-from-the-wings(remember that Leonardo, invert that he was, nevertheless couldbend iron bars with his bare hands; that Cellini and Caravaggiofought anyone who said a crooked word to them--Cellini calledhimself 'Il primo uomo del mondo: the best man in theworld'; and that Raphael was the most glittering jewel of theCourt, sleeping with every Florentine woman between the ages of15 and 25. Only the modern artist is a milquetoast). If I werebeing completely honest here, and I know that is beyond therealm of hope, and probably of necessity, I would describemyself, even in the crib, as an old man just waiting to getgrouchy. Only my closest acquaintances can tell you what abullseye that is. But it is also misleading, given away as atidbit this early. For I was by no means a teary child, or ascreamer. Mummy wrote quite proudly in my babybook that my'terrible twos' lasted only a week (apparently I was veryimpressed by the beatings). I don't know how interesting any ofthis is to perfect strangers, but I do feel I have to flesh outmy early life a bit, just to keep this whole enterprise fromgoing completely topheavy.
Here I remindmyself, before I lose all confidence, that my reader is but atiny green turtle, with the patience of all long swimmers, andwho will beak up even seaweed if times are hard.
So,as I was beginning to imply, I was rather a melancholy tot,comparatively. Not terribly social. Although friendly enoughwhen pressed. I keep going back to my babybook for verification,(which is the only piece of corroboration I have from thatperiod) because of course I want to believe that I wasthe perfect child, serenely well-adjusted from the zygote, onlywith the ill fortune to be birthed into a poorly adjusted world.Mummy is good enough to supply me with this quote, on page 18(one year, eight months): 'Child quite (sic) as a mause (sic).Cheery, long as he has his thum (sic).' I don't think I need addmuch to that, except perhaps the fact that my 'thum' later savedme much trouble with tobacco.
I might sayhere that this babybook I have already mentioned twice wasposted to me from my little brother Fritz some years ago whenPoppy died. Fritz, as the son that stayed on, of course goteverything else, and a precious little everything it was, but hethought I might know what to do with this babybook (short ofburning it, he said). It arrived, in San Geminiano I believe,just before the war, complete with a number of my earliestdrawings interleaved throughout, on the yellowest and mostsawtoothed of pages. For some reason there were also included,as bookmarks, a number of old twigs and larch leaves that Icould make nothing of. When this parcel was delivered to me Iwas working on an outdoor mural for an Italian cakemaker namedPotino or Pitono, I can't remember and don't care, and the muralbegan to disintegrate almost before I got to the train station,so I had other worries. I later heard, through a tortuous andtranscontinental grapevine, that all my lovely fresco headslasted until the next heavy rain, but no longer. Whether that istrue or not, I can't say; but I didn't look at the baby bookagain for almost thirty years, until I got here and set up thistortilla stand/studio, and began thinking about writing this,this, this whatever this is.
The firsttangible piece of evidence I have that my life has not been acomplete fiction, the hallucination of some drowsy orangutan orprecocious porpoise, is this scrap I offer you dated 1860. It isonly one of many similar figures scrawled across a page. This, Itake it, is my first portrait:


I do not remember who thismight be a portrait of, although I suppose it is aself-portrait, my little brother being some three years youngerand Poppy not having any hair at all. Also, his legs werelonger. I found this little doodle~which is hardly prophetic ofany future talent, despite the oracular ears~next to page 26,which shared this complaint of Mummy: 'cant keep him frommarking the walls.' Her words are proved on the same page, whichis covered with pen marks that look, to the untrained eye, likefrench fries floating from margin to margin. In my mother'stiniest printing, at the bottommost edge, is this: 'himagain.'
I almost forgot. The title of mybaby book is Baby Milestones. This title caused me sometrouble when I was a hobbledehoy. I still consider it, to thisday, a perplexing co-incidence, but one I have never had theproper fortitude to pursue. At three, the question that becameforemost in my mind, understandably, was why my brother's bookwas not entitled Baby Fritztones. I leave it to thehistorians and art therapists, whose thesis cups are beginningto runneth over.
So I need not exaggerate,I am sure: I was no Mozart or Thomas Lawrence. I did not performfor Princes or Popes. I was only speckled. Speckled-and-blue.Not that everyone could see that I was, mind. AuntieJoan, more optimistic than accurate, liked to say that I was'sunnyside up.' Uncle Nigel never failed to retort, my odditiesbeing evident from an early age, 'Contrariwise, the boy isscrampled.' Until I learned, like Pavlov's dog, to flee at thebeginning of these pronouncements, I suffered Uncle's inevitablefollow-up to this witticism, which was, of course, amake-believe egg being cracked on my downy pate, fingers runningdown like yolk.
Be that as it may, mynatural propensities did begin to assert themselves, and todemand recognition, even as I looked on blamelessly, unaware ofmy own fate. My speckles, which were both my arrowholes and mybowstrings, would not fade or be blended. I will show youanother one of these speckles, hiking my trousers and rolling mysock like a schoolchild exhibiting a precious scab (another'baby milestone'):


Mummy:But, MilesyPie, whyever is the caboose so so small?
Me (age three years, threemonths): 'Cause,Mummy, 'tis further 'way, course.

This dialogue isimaginary. I needed it, so I made it up. But some conversationmuch like it, if not so lollypoppy, did take place (Mummy's petname for me is no creation of mine, and I still have itsewn into all my frocks and pantaloons). One of my earliestmemories is the family myth that built around the drawing ofthat train. I think the shock of it forever dazzled Mummy, andshe could never look at me after that without confusion, as iftrying to figure just how we were related, what incubus hadknown her. For if you think my parents were shocked that I hadsome innate understanding of perspective at age three, you seeonly half the story. They were shocked to discover that therewas such a thing as perspective. They had never noticedit, and didn't want to admit it when they did. I honestly thinkPoppy considered it a sort of black magic, that two traincarriages, which everyone knew to be identical, could looklarger or smaller, according to position. I could see him lookat the ground, to avoid considering the implications. He sworeoff looking at faraway objects, especially people, though henever admitted it, because he couldn't but imagine them asLilliputians, stuck forever in three-inch bodies. If he espiedthem, in this faery state, he might curse them to that worldforever, and end up a Giant in a land of Tom Thumbs,inadvertantly crushing friends and family under hisBrobdingnagian boots,like errant eggs.

[That was all fromchapter 1. The following is an excerpt from chapter 2]

Ihad made it near to London, past the village of Woking, near thebanks of the river Wey, and all my store of apples had longsince vanished. I sat down upon a mossy rock, listening to thechitter-chatter of the tiny birds in the rushes, when I becameaware that the birdlets and I had other human company. There wasa faint song wafting up from nearer the river, and it was notcoming from the breast of any feathered beastie, no matter howsmall and quick of heartbeat~for it contained words! Nearly ashigh-pitched as birdsong, it yet meandered in ways too beautifuleven for them, and betrayed a complexity of melody beyond thereach of beak. I crept closer to the sound, slipping amongstwillowy fronds and tufts of stalky grass, and stepping gingerlybetween small patches of peaty water and cupfuls of bog. On thebank of the slow-moving Wey, about a stag's-leap in front of me,knelt an elf of a girl, maybe half my age~that is, five orsix~with nothing on her white body but a pair of brown muddyclogs. Compared to the dark girl in Salisbury, she seemed nearan infant: heartbreakingly small and delicate, almostpocket-sized, or duodecimo. And her hair was the lightestpossible shade of tow: so light, you know, that her eyebrowswere all but invisible. In a portrait, the shadow cast by hereyebrows would be darker than the eyebrows themselves, and wouldbe the only thing you could paint, the only indication that shehad them. Try it and you will see what I mean. Her skin wasbluish white, especially in those areas normally covered. Whiteto the point of transparency. The blue cast was caused by theveins underneath. Despite this, she did not look sickly orpale~not pale in an abnormal sense. She was not wasted or bony,just very small. Her clogs looked as if they had been stolenfrom a ragdoll, or from Benjamin Bunny. I might have used one tolure fish.
She was in the process ofwashing her dress in the current; and, as it was a warm day,and, more to the point, since she had no other clothing, thiswas her method. It mattered not, for her little corpuscle of abehind and miniscule torso were completely undifferentiated, andif not for the length of her hair and the dress she rinsed amongthe weeds, I could not have told her sex. Still, I wonderedmomentarily at her lonely choice of worksite and seemingabandonment, until I espied, not twelve steps to my left, asleeping man, whom I took to be the child's father or guardian.He looked as if he had just fallen from a Brueghel painting,minus the codpiece. He was very poorly dressed, and needed thesame dunking his daughter's dress was receiving, both hisclothes and his person. But he had nevertheless such a wholesomeand carefree air, and smiled as he dreamed, that I never oncefeared for the safety of the child, or even of myself, should Iwake him. He was clearly a vagabond, but I judged him none theworse for that, being for the time a wanderer myself, andscarcely cleaner even than him.
Icontinued to listen to the child's song for a moment, enchantedby the carefree manner and unselfconscious wording she gave tothe common tavern song she chirped~in a register surely twooctaves above what it had ever benefitted from before~and by thecurious lilt she gave it with an accent I judged to beScots~although it was different from and much stronger than thatI had encountered in Meg's speech. No doubt she had learned thisrather bawdy rhyme from her father, and the words were not thoseone is accustomed to hear from a six year old. But, like afirst-time opera-goer who speaks not a word of Italian, and yetis transported therefore all the more by the delicious qualityand sheer virtue of the human voice, I attended only to soundand not to meaning, and the child's message might have been aholy cantata directed straight to heaven for all I knew orcared. And, in fact, it was, from her point of view and my pointof view and heaven's, all other considerations being null.
As she paused between staves, I halloed in the smallest possiblevoice, so as not to alarm her. She peeped around, and then,without a hint of shame or awkwardness, stood up and beganwringing out her dress. I suppose my visage has never been oneto cause sensible beings much fear; and besides, it occured tome later, this sprite was a world-traveler, camper with gypsies,and all-night walker. The sight of a twelve-year-old boy wasnothing to her, whoever he might be.
'I 'as to let me drress drra-ee', she began, 'or I'll be a mitecol'er than I am. Yer nae a scared a gayerls, are ya?'
This was her sound, though I'm not sure I'll keep up thedialect. I never cared much for reading a lot of misspelleddialogue, no matter how realistic it seemed. Her effect wassingular, though, you may be sure: such a strong accent~as I hadnever heard~from such a wee thing. My accent was strong, too, asyou have seen, but it was completely different. And I didn'tknow I had one, whereas hers was almost untranslatable to myprovincial brain. Even more shocking was her question aboutgirls, which put me at a complete disadvantage. Not only did sheseem to see right through boys of all ages, with her veryframing of the sentence, but she seemed to have a knowledge ofrelationships that I would never have, and even to be somehowabove that knowledge, even at six. Such has the feminine mindalways seemed to me, whether at its greatest complexity, or, aswith her, at its least.
Besideswhich, the situation at hand was so ludicrous~and I was quiteunclear to what extent she saw that. Even were I unafraid ofgirls under normal circ*mstances, these were not normalcirc*mstances. A naked female, of whatever age, dazzles thespirit of the male, even in a childish predicament like this.From the time of Uranus and Ge, from the time that Sky lookeddown on Earth unclouded, there have been unexplainable stormsand winds; and my feet seemed to move beneath me and I swayedperceptibly. It was not fear I felt. Call it awe. It was a tinysandwich of awe I chewed. It was not so much how she looked, forthe physical differences between us were still small. But I nowknew she was a girl and that made all the difference. She was nomore woman than I was man, and yet the slimmest sliver of ironhas its own magnetic current, and my fascination at hernakedness could not be quelled. The queerest thing of all,though, and what made some part of me laugh~some part beyond thestorms and the tug and the pull~was that she was without dress,but it was I that seemed transparent to her.
Her cleft drew me to look at it. And so I did, like a child. Ifelt no excitement, for I was all pre-sexual body, but I am sureI beheld it with a more artistic eye, found in it moreamazement, than she would have beheld me and mine, had ourplaces been switched. She might have laughed. I was bemused, butnever amused.
I explained myfascination with all such feminine things as strictly artisticfor many years, my middle years of confusion and timidity. Ilied even to myself. Or I would separate some interests assexual and others as artistic. Or I would feel obliged toseparate my models from my lovers, to keep my art impulse'pure.' All nonsense, as I now see. Desire and inspiration arehopelessly and needfully muddled from the beginning, and thereis no distinguishing them, or any reason to.
So I stared, intently and long. Remember, I had only seen myselfand my brother up to that point. Finally informed, my ignoranceabated for the time, I remembered myself and continued theconversation. What I liked most, though, is that she gave metime to look, did not tease me for looking, and never mentionedmy looking. Everything was understood from the beginning.
'I'm not scared,' I answered her.
'Help me with these clogs then. You can wash this one. Don'tdrop it or you'll have to get in and get it. They float.' Shehopped on one foot, twisting her clog off. Then handed it to me.It was wood-soled and it did float. 'This is the river Wey, youknow. Deddy says always when we come here, "We be going byLondon and we'll stop by Woking on the way. Ha, ha! Deddy isvery clever like that, you know."'
We washed the grime off, using rocks and twigs to scrape awaythe mud caked around the soles. Then, without further ado, sheleapt in and paddled about for a bit. Suddenly she cried, 'Iforgot soap,' and ran out of the water to her father. She founda cake of yellowy soap in one of their bundles, none too fresh*t looked to me, and skipped back into the water. I watched allin the highest interest. I might have been there or not beenthere, it was the same to her. She washed her hair and splashedaround in a desultory, dreamy sort of fashion, looking close atthe ripples in the water, and then 'Ah! A fish! A fish. I don'tlike him!' she screamed, laughing, and jumped back on theriverbank like a frog. She shook her hair out good and long, andwiped as many droplets from her skin as she could, especiallyfrom her arms and legs, to avoid the chill. Then she ran up andsnuggled into one of her father's folds of clothing, on thedownwind side. She might have just as easily crawled into one ofhis pockets, like a puppy, or a large shiny coin, so littlespace did she occupy in the three dimensions. At this, the greatbear awoke, put a massive paw on the shivering child and, seeingme, said with an uneven grin,
'Hoi,hoi! So ye've met me little salmon, have ye? Me littlewaterbabby? Whenever I "swear by the salmon,"* that'swhat I'm swearing by, the very thing,' he said, motioning at thelittle girl with his elbow. 'Looks laike we could use the samesort o' biling, you and me, a bit o'water on the limbs 'ould dous roight, eh, Laddy?' And without further discussion orintroduction he got up, putting his great tattered coat over theclean child, and proceeded to bathe just as she had. A hulking,shapeless, hairy figure he was, of not so much interest to myeye, I need not say. But I watched all the same, if only out ofcuriosity this time. His hair was reddish blonde, rather longand scraggly. His beard was of like color, with flecks of grey,and was perhaps four inches long. His nose was long andstraight. His eyes deep set but blue. Well over average height,he weighed possibly 17 or 18 stone, or more. He smelledstrongly, though not of drink, and markedly less so after he hadsoaked for a while. But, as he did not wash his clothes, and asmore than half the smell of him was in them, he ridded himselfof less than half in the water.
Ideclined his friendly invitation to bathe not so much fromshyness (I was, after all, a cottager, and therefore not aboveriver bathing) but from the awareness that the sun was goingdown, and that I didn't want to get back into my clothes wet.Once he had got his trousers and shirt back on, though notbuttoned, he came over and shook my hand.

*An oath ofgreat antiquity and solemnity used by gypsies and otherwanderers, originating in the ancient Gaelic myths of Tuan macStarn.

'Trelawney's the name.But you can call me Trelawney.' This impressed him as humor ofthe highest sort, and he chuckled long and low to himself,subsiding only when he could see there was no chance of mejoining him. 'Over there, that little fish is called Sif. JustSif. S-I-F-as-in-fish Sif, she is. Ane that roight, wriggles?Caught her one day on me great line and never threw her back.And never will throw her back, till she grows scales and swimsaway before me eyes.'
She looked upat him sheepishly, without expression, but obviously in fullagreement. This was what he always said. And that is the way shealways looked when he said it.
Aftera time I explained to Sif and Trelawney that I was on my way toLondon, and I said that if they were also going into the city,perhaps we could travel on together. Trelawney answered thatthey were stopping just outside London, about five miles fromhere, but that they would be happy to accompany me that far. Aswe walked I asked him advice about London and learned somewhatof his history, and Sif's. He carried a great pack on hisshoulders, a pea-green pack in which a whole brood of Sifs mighthave ridden comfortably. I did later see her ride on the top ofit at times, as a matter of fact, like a wee Sultan on theshoulders of a hoary pachyderm. Whenever Sif walked, though, thepack flowered with various poles and rods and nameless (for me)tools of great length that Trelawney left assembled, the easierto re-use. The tools were used in various skilled trades thatTrelawney practiced throughout the Two Isles, mostly outside thebiggest cities (where he felt 'like a plum in a pudding'). Heknew somewhat of masonry, in which he could do the roughestrepairs or the finest carving; of knife sharpening and sawbladeretoothing; of woodworking of all kinds, from carpentry tosimple sculpture; and he even dealt in scrimshaw and other ivorywork of the most divers and wondrous kind. This last trade heplied as both dealer and artisan, collecting salable pieces inports from Lochiver to Bantry Bay to Yarmouth, and carving hisown intricate specimens from whalebone and sharktooth andelephant tusk. A few of these last he showed me, digging intohis pack and pulling out a felt-lined purse about the size of alady's muff. Unrolled it contained the most miraculouscornucopia of figurines imaginable: horse's heads, icons,mermaids, phalluses, porpoises leaping, stags jumping, unicornhorns, and naked ladies in every possible degree of contortion.These ladies impressed me the most, not so much for theiraccuracy in proportion and gesture, which was minimal, but forthe loving attention obviously paid by the artist to certainanatomical particulars~which particulars may be imagined, andtherefore need not be listed. Trelawney assured me he did abrisk trade in these chaste ladies, hinting that perhaps hisvery existence depended on them, both in inspiration and incoin. I won't say that Trelawney's example suggested to me theheights to which an artist could reach, given the propersubject; but it was perhaps put into my mind that art, ofwhatever level, might at least pass for one of the trades.
Sif also had a collection which I was duly shown, and dulyappreciated. In Trelawney's pack was another purse, heavier andunlined, which contained Sif's rocks. This was proof of thelevel of devotion from the father to the daughter, for thispurse easily weighed more than the little girl herself. Icouldn't have carried it across the road in a bet with thedevil, much less circumambulated the British Isles with it.There were some lovely finds, to be sure and none to argue. Ademi-geode was the star of the collection, which also includedvarious polished river stones and a medley of sparklies~quartz,porphyry, mica, and the like. There was a chip of lapis lazuli,a natural agate marble, a disc of obsidian or jet (I could nottell), and a miscellany of serpentines, nephrites, and diorites.There were also bits of coral, a couple of very imperfectpearls, and other maritime refuse. One yellow sparkly caught myeye, seeming to be neither beryl nor topaz, and I asked Sifabout it.
'That one is a cairngorm.Cairn Gorm is great mountain in Grampian, where the Avon comesbubblin' out o' the ground. The northern Avon, you know. Theriver is only a fountain at Cairn Gorm, a rindle you could stopwith your toe. But Cairn Gorm is high and buirdly, not as highas Ben Nevis, but a'most. Cairn Gorm is the brother of CairnToul and Ben Macdhui. Ben Macdhui is the tallest o' them by abit. I learned that from the man at Balmoral Castle. He said atthe heart of Cairn Gorm was a great yellow rock as big as themoon, and that if you peeked into holes in Cairn Gorm at nightyou could see it glowin' like a fiery di'mint. He said if youcrawled in the wrong cave in Cairn Gorm at night, you'd beblindit. It's that bright. There was a blind man at Braemar, andhe said that's what happened to him! Right, Deddy?'
'Thars right, shiny fish. Thars what they said, a'right.Blindit. Couldn' see no more'n a cuttlefish in a kettle. Nomore'n a mole in a hole, Begore.' ('Begore' was, as I quicklylearnt, Trelawney's pet oath, an exclamation for everyoccassion, like Poppy's 'Begad' or an Irishman's'Begorrah.')
I learned that Sif'smother had been a dancer, and that she had died in giving birthto Sif. Trelawney had buried her himself on the banks of theriver Blackwater, County Cork, and had placed a dancing ivoryfigurine, carved by himself in her likeness, in her cold handsbefore throwing on the dirt. She and Trelawney had not beenmarried, but he had known her longtimes, meeting on manytravels. Trelawney had little else to say about her, and fellsilent. Sif told me that since she was born in Cork she must bean Irish lassie, didn't I think so? I said I didn't know, to besure. I asked if her mother were Irish.
'Oh, yes. She was named Becuma, and had long white hands, theprettiest that ever were. And the reason she died was thatManannan, the god of the ocean, wanted her to be his bride, andDeddy couldna' say no to Manannan. So she sailt in her curraghdown the Blackwater and out into Youghal Bay and Mannanan tookher to wife in the sea and they have many pretty fishgirls whoare all my sisters and I will see them someday and they willteach me to swim very fast.'
I foundthis all quite fascinating, and said so. I think I believed itthen, and I am not sure I disbelieve it now.
But I said, 'Your way of speaking, is it Scots or Irish? Ithought it was Scots at first.'
'Idunno but its both and more again,' answered Trelawney, arisingfrom his brood. 'I meself 'ave picked up so many ways o' talkin'and so many chopped words, I can't rightly say me ownself.Started out as to be Scots, as I'm Scots: Highlander until tenyears old. Then Shetlan's, then Irelan', then 'Meriker, thenPorch-e-geese (where I didn't know a word spoke for two years),then here again and all around here, stayin' on these islandsfor good. Sif's picked up a little word chice here and there,and allovers, same's meself. Might be mistook for just aboutanyone, 'cept a Porch-e-geese goose, right goosefish?'
'How can I be a goosefish?' asked Sif, chickettin'. 'I'd have tohave feathers and fins, then wouldn't I be a silly?'
'Nae, there be a fish with a long neck, loike, and flipperslooks like wings, long and flappy, and a beak, like this (makinga long pointed kiss beyond his mustaches and chasing Sif like agreat bird). Ay!!! Ayyy!!! 'Tis a wallopin' goosefish, and I'mthe wallopinest one of all, and you're me little sea wormiclefor breakfast, you are, rouff, rouff!' (grabbing Sif like afirelog and pretending to bite her arms and belly).
Sif pummeled his head with her little fists~which had somewhatof the effect of pummeling a copper basin with live frogs~andTrelawney, pretending to be overwhelmed by the buffeting,released his catch. She scurried away to the grass on the edgeof the lane, looked at us half-menacing, and then broke, almostas against her own will, into a slight grin. Then she yelped,'I'm a gooseyfish~ goosey, goosey....rawwnk, rawwnk,' andcircled us with her arms wide and her mouth open wide, wide.'None can catch a gooseyfish, none can. Cause they swim fast.Look! Fast!' She passed Trelawney and swiped him with one of her'wings.' 'You aren't fast enough to catch the goosey fish, youbig walloping walrus mon, you big walloping whalehead mon!'
'Nae, I doan think I am, fishy. Me whalehead is a might ploatedfrom swimming roun' the whole world today. I think as I mightjust wallie about here and spout from me blowhole.' He reachedinto his breastpocket and pulled out a well-worn pipe, carvedinto the shape of a porpoise, and made ready to smoke. As hefilled it with tobacco, strong and sweet, he put a hand to hismouth (to block his words from Sif) and spoke low just to myear: 'Start a'fishing for the Sif-fish and she'll be tugging onyer line all day. Won't hardly leave you time to scratch yourown itches, she won't.'
Sif pausedin her circling, seeing me addressed, and said, 'Bet you can't,anyway. None can't.' I smiled a half-smile at Trelawney, tothrow Sif off-guard, and then suddenly lunged at her with asilly growl. She screamed and ran as fast as she could straightaway from me, laughing. I gave a not too rigorous chase, lettingher stay just out of reach, or slipping out of my grasp at thelast moment. Finally I scooped her up into my arms like a greatfleeing hen. She squirmed, and I held her, and we both laughed.Then, we stopped laughing. I didn't know what to do with her.She said, 'Put me down, Mister Boy.'
Trelawney said, 'Ee's name's Miles, Sif.'
'I know,' she answered. 'But it's a silly name and I don't likeit. It reminds me of a signpost.'
'Ee didn't name eemself, fishlet. Let 'em be.'
'That I won't. I'm not hurting his feelings. Little people can'thurt bigger people. I'll call you Elfie,' she addressed to me,with complete finality and all the proper etiquette she couldmuster. 'Cause you look like an Elf, all curly and pointedso.'
I thought 'curly' must apply tomy hair (which was wavy but not yet curly, I think) and'pointed' to my chin or nose. It wasn't to my ears. They havealways been small and round and close to my head. So I took itall as a compliment. Impertinent, like Meg's impertinence, butstill meaning no harm. And I have always appreciated a bit ofcheek.

That settled, Trelawney proceeded to give me awink and a nod as to the ways of the Great City on theThames.
'There be a kinder blightyarea eastsides by the name of Little Saffron Hill. It's poor,but there's some good folks living there, same as anywheres.They's more like to take kinder on a half-growed feller as youis: which I can't promise for they gents westsides. Bloatin'around Picadilly or Chelsea'll get you nowhere but throwed inthe workus or took for a thief and shipped to Australer. Nomatter what Mr. Dickings says, ant no Orphant made a Gentleminteverydays. Stay yerself east o' Sint Pauls and you'll have achance of getting some bread from a mother whose wee heart'llbeat for yer little angel's eyes for a day or three, til ye canget some work carrying something or scrubbing something else.Ant gonna be easy, Laddy. Ye'ed best a stayed in the fields,where food can be got or stole more easy, specially from them asyou knowed. Be chary of the police, who's behind ever lamppost,and the thimbleriggers, who'll rob ye of yer wristbones and yereyeteeth. Most important, Elfie (he said with a wink at Sif, whowas now listening to his warnings to me), stay away from thelads of yer own age what's not got nae jobs. Them lads'll get yein a kettle ye canna get the lid off.
'Last time I took meself through London, that great den o'vipers~which I dunna do no more without verra dire need~therewas a kind lady lived in Little Safron Hill, as I was tellin' ye'bout. Look for The City Arms pub, under a great sign saysCharrington's ales and stouts. If ye can't read, look for theletter C, like this (making a sign like that letter), like agreat O with a bite took out on it, perched up high on a sign,and writ there bigger'n a man and black as the dewil's eye. Nextdoor, or next door to that, I canna remember exactly, is awidder, poor but not too poor to give a good working lad a bit aporridge or a loaf if he's well-seemin'. If she's there yet,tell 'er it were Trelawney as sent ya. And Sif, too: she knowsaSif. Sif doan know o' her, but she's seen the little bundle,when all Sif was is a bundle I kept next to me tobacker.'
I thanked Trelawney for all his help~although I had forgottenmost of it five minutes later~and shook his great hand (in whichmine was lost) once more. Sif's hand I also shook, for she wouldhave it so.
Trelawney added, atparting, 'Keep to the narrow, Laddy, and look for us on theroad, if ye have a mind to travel more. I wouldna' be sherprisedif ye did, Begore. I wouldna' be tall sherprised.'
Sif only said, 'Bye, Elfie.'

[painting of Sif here]

This is Sifat six, as I drew her from memory some years later. My drawingsand paintings of her from life (as you will see later) look morelike her. But somehow this one has always felt most like her, ifyou know what I mean.

I was reading this incident aloudto my editor-in-the-bed, rapturously caught up in mystorytelling skills, when I suddenly received a pillow to thehead. I ducked instinctively, half expecting it to be followedby a flying cat. The Aged Odalisque is of the violent opinionthat my wordings are prosecutable, and that I will get us allthrown into prison. She takes especial opposition to Sif's'cleft', or more precisely my cheek at calling it such, or evenmentioning it. But, Dearest Lady Reclining, how am I supposed tohave painted innumerable putti~the seraphim and cherubim~withouthaving noticed the nude body? Is it possible to paint whilstlooking the other way? And does God above, who created thesenaked children, not know all of their parts, by whatever name,not only their faces and arms? As Michelangelo said, 'Let me notbe displeased by what is not displeasing to God.'
But the hysteria does not subside. I am told that none butmyself painted 'clefts' on his female putti, others preferringfortuitously or miraculously placed ribands or leafa*ge; and thatif my murals were always washed away or defaced, or crumbled oftheir own volition, it was divine judgment, judgment I surelydeserved.
Ah.Will the world never grow a day older?

[Thefollowing is from chapter 3]

But I'm getting ahead ofmy story again. At this point I should still be twelve,alighting from the piano and wishing Gerber luck at CremorneGardens, where he hoped to pass the hat and enlighten themasses. As the donkeys clopped slowly away, I stepped up to pullthe bell, carrying my little clothes with me in a bundle. Ilooked up at the whitish walls dully reflecting the slow movingThames. Then I looked out behind me as I waited, over BatterseaReach and toward Old Battersea House, barely visible in the fog.I sniffed the air, as one does on moist days, and caught astrange scent falling down over me, coming from above. 'Bobadee![my own oath when I was that age, don't laugh],' I said tomyself aloud, for I seemed to recognize that scent, as from arecurring dream. It was the smell of turpentine! I had neverbefore smelled it, but I was immediately drawn to it, as one isdrawn to ones past and to ones future. I don't know enough aboutlife or death, even at my age now, to give a firm opinion onreincarnation; but I swear to you that there was a sort ofrecognition in that smell. It somehow confirmed to me, as muchas anything before or since, that I was on my path, and that mymap had led me straight so far. Nothing that day that was newseemed new; nothing that others might have found strange wasstrange to me. Linseed oil, too, smelled to me like my ownpillow, so familiar it was. A man, married for ten years, whogoes to war and returns, smells his wife's hair and knows he ishome. These smells were that to me, though I can never explainit.
As I stood there on thethreshhold, agog in the telling of my own subconscious fortune,a youngish man opened the door and asked my business. I stillwas dressed as Mrs. Curlew had dressed me~that is, not toopoorly~so the man was not impolite. I had no card to show him,so I explained as well as I could Mr. Whistler's request that Isit for him. He seemed to find nothing at all out of theordinary in my story and invited me inside. We walked directlyup to Whistler's studio and the man pulled me through the opendoor and presented me like a letter from the post. Whistler wasstanding at an easel looking out a window over the river below.There was a painting in progress, but he seemed not to be atwork. Presently he turned and looked at me.
'Walter, what is this? Where's Mother? I thought we were goingto have tea.'
'Mr. Whistler, Sir,this is a model what you met and asked to come see you. He saysyou asked for him to sit and all.'
'Really, Walter. He has the cheek to say that, does he? Do youbelieve him? Would I ask him to come here looking like that? Doyou think he looks paintable at all? Do you now? Sayhonestly!'
'I dunno as I can say. Helooks well enough to me.'
'Wellenough, eh? Not garish at all? Not a little overworked? Not likeone of Burne-Jones pretty little angels? Not like some awfulBotticelli? Hah, hah!' Here his fingers went into action,flippiting around like a handful of brushes. Dab, dab, dab theywent, pretending to paint my cheeks, now nearly touching myhair. 'Not like Goldilocks, what do you say, yellow, yellow,yellow? Like a little canary? White collar? Blue frock? Blackstockings? Who could paint it? No, Walter, I leave him to yourbrushes. I haven't enough colors, I'm afraid.' Walter looked abit put out, not so much on my account as on his own. But I hadan idea.
'Sir, I brought me oldclothes from Evershot like you said. Remember you said that youhad a parrot that you fed to a man-goose and that the ladiesshould dress in mud and straw and that you would paint me if Icame to this address what you wrote on that card.'
Whistler and Walter (it was Walter Greaves I later found out)exchanged glances and then burst into laughter.
'I said ladies should dress in mud and straw, did I? I do havesome rather good ideas sometimes don't I, Walter? I reallyshould do a large canvas of Lady What's-her-title in mud andstraw to show at the Academy. About 90 inches should do it,don't you think? A 'Harmony in Brown and Gold,' I'll call it.Yes, fetching, quite fetching. A capital idea. Five hundredguineas. Lady Mud-n-Straw. And her husband Lord Loincloth.Brilliant! Hah, hah! Ah. But now, what about our little modelhere? Can we make something of him or not, Walter? Can he bedirtied up enough to have any character at all? Or is ithopeless?'
Before Walter couldanswer (I'm not sure any answer was really expected), Whistlerwent on, 'Have the boy change into what he has there and takehim down to the river. Once you get him properly muddied bringhim back and well see what we have. You and Henry might take himhunting for turtles, or whatever it is you do. Take your time.And, Walter, where the devil is Mother? If I don't eat soon,I'll never hear the end of it. I'll never get back towork.'
Walter told him he would lookin on Mother Whistler on the way down, and we left him stilltalking to himself and waving into the air. After a few wordswith an old woman, who I understood to be Mrs. Anna Whistler,Walter led me into a back room where I could change. In a momenthe and Henry, his brother, came for me and we walked down to thewater's edge. They took me out on a little boat that they hadmoored there. There were some painting materials, a ricketyportable easel and a rusted-out paintbox, still stowed in thebottom of it. But Walter and Henry only talked of Whistler, withmixed adulation and envy. I was ignored until we rowed back toshore. Walter and Henry had checked some lines and waved atthree girls on the bank, but had otherwise done nothing. I,being a rather fastidious child, was not a speck dirtier thanwhen we left. I had instinctively avoided even the small amountof mud on the rails of the boat. Even my shoes were clean.Walter looked at me disapprovingly.
'You're not much of a lad, are you Boy?' he said to me. 'Ye'vegot the dialect of an urchin but the fingernails of a littlelord. Me or Henry'd a been in the reever by now at your age,soaked to the skin and an eel in both 'ands. Well, no matter,the Master chose you, and we'll make you presentable, like hesays.'
With that, the brothersproceeded to besplatter me with all the jetsam available fromthat foul river, and I soon not only looked an urchin, I stanklike one~or more than one. Henry even gave me a turtle to carryinto the studio, meaning to make a small joke on the'Master'.
When we walked in,Whistler and his mother Anna were having dinner at a smalltable, lightly but nicely set. They were waited on by a youngwoman I hadn't noticed before, a servant. Anna was a thin andtidy woman of about 60 or 65, I should say, well dressed inblack and white with an unfashionable but very respectable andvery well-pressed bonnet of the whitest white. Jemie (as Annacalled Whistler) had removed his grey smock and was now seatedlazily in striped pants, grey and white, and a long darker greycoat. His tie was muted red of quite a dark shade and was tiedvery jauntily. Whistler always dressed a bit provocatively bymodern standards, or one might say a bit French by Englishstandards (except that even in France he was an ostentatiousdandy~Degas once said of Whistler that if he were not a geniushe would be the most ridiculous man in Paris). There is aportrait by Sargent of Robert Louis Stevenson lounging in alarge wicker chair twirling his mustaches or some such thing,looking all legs, and everytime I think of my first encounterwith Whistler I think of him like that, thin and birdlike,dapper and razor-sharp. Much shorter that Stevenson, he yet hada way of sprawling in a chair that made one feel somehowinferior. He had a way of looking up at one whilst appearing tolook down. It was uncanny. And not just for me as a child.Always. Sometimes it was impressive, often infuriating, butalways powerful.
Whistler waschewing a piece of bread when we entered and playing with hisforelock, which was already grey even at this time. He wasthirty five or six then, I believe, but that lock of grey wasalready his trademark, and he flipped it incessantly. Anna, uponseeing me and the state of my appearance, let out a small cry,and Jemie woke from his reverie. He looked first at her and thenat me, and then smiled broadly.
'It's all right, Mother, just another model for the arts. I'mthinking of working him into a new Wapping, as a goblin crawlingfrom the ooze. What do you think?'
'Oh, Jemie, do you really need that turtle in the house? It'sstill alive, I believe. You can't possibly be thinking ofpainting a live turtle, dear.'
'Oh,yes, yes. They simply adore that sort of thing at the Academy. Afish on a plate, you know. Absolutely nothing sells better.Shiny scales. Gaping red mouth. Lovely gore. And if you can havea fish on a plate, why not a turtle in the... saltcellar, say?I'll do the entire series. Fish on a plate, turtle in the saltcellar, frog in a spoon. The public will be mad for it. It'sgenius, by God. I can't wait to tell Burnsie!' [he meant hisfriend, the poet Algernon Swinburne].
'Well,' interrupted Anna, 'If you must keep the child here, atleast take him upstairs, where you sweep your own floors. Andput him near the stove. He'll freeze to death with all that mudon him if he don't dry soon. And if the turtle dies, pleasethrow him out promptly (she meant only the turtle, not me~Ihope).'
I found that Anna was noteasily rattled. She was clearly used to living with the pranksof Jemie and his artistic crowd. The Greaves brothers took meback upstairs to the studio and sat me by the stove. I wasalready fairly dry. The mud had hardly soaked through, but I wasglad for the warmth anyway. While we waited for Whistler tofinish his dinner, I chatted with Henry a bit. Walter returneddownstairs. Henry said little worth relating, but he wasfriendly and fairly talkative, once away from his brother. Henrywas two years the elder, but one always felt that Walter had abit more artistic talent. Neither one had much talent, but theyboth doted on Whistler, seeing him perhaps as their one way outof the family boating business. They acted in the way ofapprentices, but they got on very slowly, in the main due to thefact that Whistler was more interested in treating them simplyas unpaid 'help.' The Greaves brothers seemed not to mind this,however, and were glad to be of any use at all. Their sisterAlice, whom Whistler liked to call 'Tinnie' (he found her ratherunmusical~she didn't know his musical terms~he said she had a'tin' ear), might also be seen about Lindsey Row, 'helping'Whistler. Tinnie avoided Anna for the most part. I later sawWhistler and Tinnie together at various times at CremorneGardens or in Hyde Park, and I suppose that the relationship mayhave occasionally transcended business or even art. Hence MotherWhistler was sailed around at a goodly radius.
Be that as it may, Whistler finally floated up the stairs andjoined Henry and me. Walter had gone back to the Greaves' housenearby on the river. The Master then explained to me, in allseriousness, how things would proceed. The turtle we wouldn'tneed again, and I might 'plop him back in the pond' on my wayout. My clothes were now satisfactory, although the amount ofmud was perhaps a bit excessive. I could see to that. Wewouldn't be working today, since he required preparation:ordering the proper size canvas, toning it, and so on. When hewas ready he would send for me. Payment was nine pence a day,not to exceed six hours any one day. With that he dismissed meand immediately began working, moving his easel about andlooking for brushes. 'Oh,' he cried, as I was at the top of thestairs. 'Don't cut your hair for anything in the world. If youdo I shall have to find someone else. Au revoir!'

[Thefollowing is from chapter 4]

I suppose my nearilliteracy might have continued unabated, despite my classeswith M'Smina, were it not for another fortunate run-in thatoccurred at about this time in my life. Conn and I had planned atrip to see Whistler again, and so sometime during that summerof my fourteenth year we went. Whistler had been travelling backand forth from the Leyland's. Frederick Leyland and his wife,Frances, were both having portraits painted, and Whistler spenta good deal of time at Speke Hall. He had become close toFrances, especially (rather too close as it turned out later).Whistler had also become engaged to Frances' sister, LizzieDawson. This was a short-lived engagement that went nowhere.Whistler was fond of the ladies, but preferred that they remainsomeone else's wives, I think.
Hewas also busy that summer on a grand portrait of the famouswriter, Thomas Carlyle. Whistler had finished the painting ofhis mother in the winter, and it had hung at the Royal AcademyExhibition in the spring. I had seen it there with Mrs. Curlew.Carlyle's portrait was to be similar in colouring and mood~ greyand somber, a study in low tones.
When Conn and I arrived the house was full. We were expected(had been invited), but we were by no means the only ones. Wewere not early, but everyone else, it appears, was running late.Frances Leland had just finished a two-hour sitting. Mr. Leylandwas downstairs, talking to Anna Whistler. Carlyle had also justarrived. He was to sit for an hour or so after Mrs. Leyland. Wewere to be fit in anyhow. We had only come for advice (and sothat Conn could meet Whistler.) We had both brought a paintingfor Whistler to look at. When we walked in Carlyle was saying toAnna and the room in general,
'I wasabout to take off my coat, but I suppose I shall leave it on.That's what the whole thing is about anyway, isn't it? Shall itbe called "Carlyle" or "Carlyle's Coat" whenit is finished, the painting, do you think?"'
Frances Leyland, just entering the room from the stairs,answered, 'Oh no, Mr. Carlyle. You mustn't say it. Why, it'sabout the background, of course. Mine is to be called "ALovely Composition of Blues and Greys... oh, and Mrs. Leyland,too."' She laughed archly~ a single ascending 'hah-ah'~ andmoved into the room, next to her husband.
'Frederick and I were just discussing music,' said AnnaWhistler. 'I believe you play, Mr. Carlyle?'
'I once did, in a way,' he answered. 'I haven't played inages.'
'Frederick is quite thevirtuoso,' she continued.
'No, no,don't say it, Anna,' interrupted Frederick Leyland. 'If youbuild me up so, I shall be sure to fall. I only play a bit nowand again.'
'You need a piano here,'said Carlyle. 'Then we might judge for ourselves.'
'I know, but Jemmy won't have one,' Anna responded. 'He saysthey have to be tuned too often, and he can't stand to have thetuner here playing the same note over and over. I always kind ofliked it myself. Found it soothing. But you know hisnerves.'
'What nerves, Mother?' saidWhistler himself, now joining the downstairs party, still wipinghis hands on his sleeves. 'I've an oriental patience. I must, toput up with such comments behind my back.' He patted Anna twiceon the shoulder and exploded in his little 'hah, hah!'
'Have you all met the boys?' he continued. 'Miles here isanother of my disgruntled sitters. He began sitting at birth, soyou see, and we've only just wrapped it up. Isn't that,right?'
'No, Sir. It were only a fewmonths.'
'But it felt like alifetime, eh? Never do it again for less than a quid a hour, I'mguessing.'
'I wish I could get aquid an hour for sitting for James McNeil Whistler,' saidCarlyle, emphasizing the Scots McNeil. 'I'd retire today awealthy man.' Everybody laughed.
'And I'd be bankrupt,' Whistler added. 'Who is your friend,Miles?'
'Thiseers Conn Wycliffe. Hebe a painter also.'
'Of course heis. Everyone is a painter. Hah, hah! Painting is a universalright. We need a painters' suffrage, wouldn't you say,Frances?'
'Oh, to be sure,' answeredshe, in some confusion.
'Well,Laddy, let's be started, what,' Carlyle said to Whistler, tosave Frances from further embarrassment. 'If I don't get off mylegs soon, I'll fall off them.'
Whistler and Carlyle retired upstairs, and we were left tolisten to the conversation continue with Anna and the Leylands.Conn and I were mostly ignored. They talked more about music,and I discovered that Whistler had taken his musical titles froma suggestion of Frederick. Mr. Leyland had been learning part ofChopin's rather large oeuvre, and Chopin's use of the word'nocturne' to describe a certain type of work for the pianoseemed appropriate also for the sort of night scenes thatWhistler had been painting of the Thames.
I asked Mr. Leyland if he knew Gerber Gamish?
'Pardon? Gerber Gamish, did you say? I don't believe I have hadthe privilege. Is he a professional musician?'
'Oh, yes Sir! He plays lots o' that there Chopin man. Bery beryfast he plays it. His piano be'ent the sweetest in the world.But he makes a pretty penny when he takes the donkeys out.'
'He has donkeys in his piano!?' asked Frances Leyland, hereyebrows leaving her face entirely.
'No, ma'am. He straps 'em to the front of 'er. That be why she'scalled "the portable." Gerber says it's the only pianoin England you can take cross town and back, and not have tohire a cab on top of it!'
'Fascinating,' answered Mr. Leyland.
'Astonishing,' said Mrs. Leyland.
'Incredible,' said Anna.
But as Ilook back, I don't think any of them meant it. For they changedthe subject completely. Jealously is powerful powerful emotion(that is what Gerber would have said.)
I don't remember what else happened that day. I think Conn and Ishowed Whistler our paintings and got a few hurried comments.Whistler was tired after a full day of painting, and I think heonly wanted to have a drink and a smoke. But the next time I sawhim he asked me about Conn. It was several weeks later, when Iran into him outside the Adam and Eve (a pub on the river: I waspainting, not imbibing~ if you were wondering), and hesaid,
'That big lad you were with.What's his name? Dan. Van.'
'Yes, yes. Conn. I need himto sit in Carlyle's coat for me. You won't do. You're too small.But Conn has the same shoulders as Carlyle. I've done with thehead and Carlyle says what do I need him for anymore? He's anold man and he has better things to do than prop up his coat. Idon't know what, exactly. Prop up his hat, I suppose, or fillout his gloves. Hah, hah! Anyway, tell Conn to send me a notewhere I can reach him. And don't get too much black in thatwater, Laddy! You don't want it to look like ink. There's coloureven in black, so you see! Au revoir and Cheerio! At thereservoir!'
I don't think I wouldhave understood this last little joke, except he said'reservoir' like re-serv-wah. It became one of my own goodbyes,and I don't think anyone in my group ever understood what I wastalking about. It didn't matter. They didn't understand what Iwas talking about at other times, so it was all the same. Bestnot to ask.
A little known fact ofhistory: Conn did sit for that coat. That portrait is a portraitof Carlyle and my friend Conn Wycliffe. I saw it many yearslater in Glasgow, and I said to them I was with, There's mefriend Conn Wycliffe. They hadn't a clue what I meant. And theydidn't ask.

Alright, but I still haven't told you whathelped me to become the astonishing writer I now am (thank thegaelic gods that the Aged Lady is away visiting at the moment~ Iwould have surely gotten a cuff for that one). What happened isthis, as far as you know. I began to read at this timeeverything I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, Mrs. Curlew'slibrary was rather limited. A few religious tracts left behindby visitors, some ancient issues of Household Words, and atea-stained copy of Guy Mannering. I wasn't ready for Sir WalterScott, so I had to look elsewhere. I borrowed a book or two fromMr. Simms, who had grown sons and therefore the books for boysthey had left behind. But there were too few of these and I wassoon left hungry again for print.
One day, when I had accompanied Conn to Whistler's to watch himpaint the great black coat of Carlyle, I happened to meet littleMiss Cicely Alexander. Miss Alexander was having her portraitdone, too, and her session ended just before Conn's began, as Isuppose. She was a few years younger than me, perhaps ten oreleven~ but she had an eye for either Conn or me, we couldn'ttell which. She lingered after her sitting, looking at the'nocturnes' on the wall. She said, half-turning and speaking tono one in particular, 'My mother must be late again. She'salways late.' This even though I had just passed her mothersitting downstairs waiting for her. Cicely wanted one of us totalk to her. Conn was busy getting the coat to fold in all theproper places (and he seemed uninterested in Cicely anyway~ shewas very young for Conn). So I asked her if her portrait wasgoing well?
'I don't think I shouldsay, here,' she said in a whisper, looking over at Whistler inboth fear and exasperation. 'Come out in the hall.' I followedher into the hall and she took me by the sleeve. 'You wouldn'tbelieve what a monster he is!' she said, still in low tones butwith great intensity. Her eyes were very wide and she showed meevery one of her pretty little teeth, I believe. 'He alwaysforgets to let me sit down. I sometimes go hours without abreak! Monday he forgot lunch. If Mrs. Whistler didn't come upto check on me, I think I would faint daily!'
I found all this quite distressing, and said so. But then I saidI didn't think he was really a monster. He just forgot.
'Oh, yes, he forgot. He would forget until I fainted right awayand never woke up again. Then he might remember!'
I don't know that I saw the complete logic of this, but I gaveher my arm with much commiseration and led her downstairs. Shepretended great surprise at finding her mother there. As theyprepared to walk out, Cicely said that I should come visither.
'Mother, this young man isgoing to be a famous artist (I had told her nothing of the kind~she was making it up). He is the most... best student of Mr.Whistler. Can he come visit? I will show him my sketchbook andhe will give me free lessons. He said so if you will give himtea!'
Mrs. Alexander said yes (justto hurry Cicely out the door, I think) and she gave me a cardwith their address on it. I peeked out the door after them asthey strolled down Chene Walk looking for a cab. Cicely lookedback and waved grandly and showed me all those teeth oncemore.

A few days later I called on Cicely. They lived ina large beautiful house somewhere in Brompton. It may have beenDrayton Gardens, I don't remember. I only went there the once.Her mother allowed us to go out with a nurse. We ignored thepoor nurse entirely. She might have been a piece of baggage forall she was to us that day, I am sure. We kept running ahead tolook at things in shop windows, and the nurse would cry out,'Miss Cicely, do stop running! You are supposed to stay with me,do you hear?' But Cicely would ignore her like a lamppost, andsay to me,
'Miles, look at thatdoll. Isn't it the most hideous thing you've ever seen? I have adoll that is ten times prettier than that one. I would never putmy doll in a dress like that. I would kill myself first!'
We came to a bookshop and I stopped, finally interested insomething myself. There was a small octavo copy of Blake's Songsof Innocence in the window. An illustrated copy! Oh, how Iwanted it. Cicely was impatient, though. She cared nothing forbooks. When I told her how wonderful Blake was, she said 'Wellbuy it then. We have things to do!' And when I admitted that Ihad no money, she said, 'Take it then, you silly boy. I bet youwon't. I bet you daren't.'
But I diddare. Before she could say another word I was in the door andout again, with the Blake in my hand. But it was not to be soeasy. For everyone had seen me: the nurse, the shopkeeper, andseveral others I hadn't even noticed. Before I could begin tothink of running away, they were all down upon me.
'The little thief!' cried the nurse. 'I told my Lady not to letMiss Cicely walk out with the likes of 'im. And now e's gone andpinched that book, right before me eyes!'
'Got you!' cried the shopkeeper. 'That there book's not for you,you young rascal. But you're for the police. Help! Police!Thief!'
Before he could cry outagain, though, a tall slightly stooped man clapped a hand overhis mouth and whispered in his ear. The shopkeeper turnedangrily... and then recognized the man. He immediately becamesubservient and said not another word.
'No, the boy was only getting the book for me and he must havethought I came out into the street,' said the man. 'Here I am,Laddy. Now, you and the lassie follow me. We don't need thisbook after all, Sir (to the shopkeeper). I have one just like itat home, you know.' The man pulled me along and Cicely and thenurse followed. When we got round the corner the man stopped andput his hands on my shoulders.
'You're the puir lad from Whistler's, aren't you?' he said. Andthen I recognized him. Of course, it was Thomas Carlyle, in adifferent coat!~ a fawn-coloured greatcoat with a huge collar,just like the black one Conn had been wearing for Whistler. Inodded in answer to his question and he continued, 'If a lad hasto be stealing, let it be books, I say. If it had been pockethandkerchiefs or watchfobs I'd a left ye to the man. But I've asoft spot for books, I do~ which'll be a shock to none. And forthat book especially. Ye chose well, lad. Ye chose well. If theymade books properly available to the young and the puir, peoplewouldn't have to pinch them, that's what I say! We need alibrary where people can pinch books legally. That's what alibrary is for, begod!' He signaled us to follow him and wehurried on.
We went back down toChene Walk. Carlyle lived only down the street from Whistler.The nurse was lagging behind us, obviously not used to all thewalking, and regretting that she would have to walk back aswell~ she had been given no purse for cabfare by her Lady.Carlyle took us up to his study. It was crammed with books fromfloor to ceiling. There was barely room to turn round in. Paperswere piled on his desk in endless stacks, and dust coveredeverything except the seat of his chair. He rummaged throughsome shelves in the dark corner behind the chair for severalmoments before coming upon his copy of Blake. He had both theSongs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. They wereillustrated as well, but they looked nothing like the book inthe shop window. Carlyle's copy was very old~ it looked as if itmay have passed through the hands of Blake himself. Still, itwas legible and the binding was good, and it was rather charmingto have a well-thumbed copy. One already soft and frayed andsmelling of tobacco. I have always liked old books.
Carlyle told me to take it with me. 'And come back when you needsomething else. Just bring them back when you're finished. Anddon't drop them in the water or read them in the rain, you know.Oh, and that tall fellow that was with you at Whistler's. Withthe black eyebrows? He can come, too. Does he read aswell?'
'Yes, Sir. He reads all thetime. And he writes good, too. His letters be'est something tosee, Sir, letters this tall (I held my hands three or fourinches apart) and black as coal. And it don't hardly take him notime at all to write them!'
'Well,that would be something to see, I'm sure. You tell your friendhe is welcome here. The letters may be somewhat smaller, but Ihave every book in four languages in this house, and there is nouse letting them go to waste. No one I know reads them. Youyoung lads may as well have a go at them. What about you, littleLassie? (to Cicely). Are you a reader?'
'Oh, yes, Sir.'
'You come, too,then. We'll make a party of it. Like one of Dodgson's boatingparties, and you can be Alice. You can see yourselves to thedoor now. Goodbye!'

{Page 267,Chapter 8} ...I sat down on a small grouping of stones at theedge of the little lake. The sky was overcast but it was ratherwarm for the season. It felt like rain. The city lightsreflected off the clouds and lit the surface of the Serpentinewith a dim green glow. Tiny insects made circular patterns inthis reflection, and one had the impression of a dizzybackground of random movement, ill-lit and slightly confusing,like the patterns one's mind makes in the dark, waiting forsleep. At those times, I have fancied I could see the atomicstructure of the universe, just as Democritus said, as thelittle dots and wands flickered in my head; and I felt thechaotic energy of the All-and-All first hand, as if it might atany moment disintegrate and re-integrate me at will into nothingor everything. Now I felt the same. As if those inchoatepatterns disappearing on the surface of the water were the onlyfinal reality one could hope for. My hands, which I could alsosee~ what were they but another pattern, shorter or longerlived? And the mind that was seeing them: was it a flickeringdancing pattern of dots and wands more permanent than my hands?Or less permanent? Or no more or less?

As I thoughtof Sif, and my inconceivable loss of her, I began to question myown control over what I had thought to be my own emotions. I hadalways known that my control over a situation was limited by theactions of others. But my own actions began to take on the samemysterious qualities. What had I done? And why? And what was tobe expected of a future where even my own life seemed to move ofits own volition, arriving at places willy-nilly. What of aposition like the one I found myself in, where one could onlysay, 'This is not where I thought I would be now'?

Just as myself-composure was unravelling~ my thoughts going to pieces inthe way thoughts will at such times, with the visual worldswirling and the internal world caught madly in that buzzingwhirlpool of its own making~ suddenly a larger ripple in thewhole fabric made me re-align: whether with fear or only withthe effect of a larger, more substantial agent that required myattention, I do not know. But the surface of the Serpentinesuddenly changed! The tiny insects were superceded by a greaterforce. Symmetrical ripples, originating some yards away, made meaware of the movement of a more massive body nearby. At first Ithought it was just a swan frightened by some creature of thenight, or maybe a large fish rising to the surface for its ownreasons. But some electricity in the air, some fire in theatmosphere that surrounded the entire occurrence suggested to methat it was something else. I felt a thrill, a serrated pushfrom within, a distant moan of the spirit that set me on edge.Not frightened, my awareness yet increased in a way that I can'texplain. I watched the lake expectantly, as in a dream where oneknows what is there but cannot utter what it is.

And then theconcentric circles began to outline a head, a head risingslowly, awash in long flowing hair and dark green leaves. Thenthe shoulders broke the surface, and there were clothes, or theremains of clothes~ long rags clinging still to the rising body.What had once been a dress of white, or perhaps pale blue. Butnow the figure was clear of the surface, all except the feetwhich remained in the water. She was naked, beyond the nowuseless dress which fell away in dripping tatters and floatedabout her knees. A beautiful woman she was, or had been, thatwas clear. Tall, thin, with long arms and neck. But it was herface that coloured all. Her eyes were wild with some internalmadness, her lips half-parted in some eternal cry. Her eyebrowsarched to heaven, she looked first up at the clouds and thendown at the water. She seemed completely unaware of my presence,and I felt that I could not have gotten her attentionregardless. This was a role not to be interrupted.

As shelooked again at the sky and held out her arms, as if inpreparation for something, or as if making some wordless plea tothe nameless gods, I noticed, just above the black delta of herwet netherhair, the slight swell of her belly. And I knew. Iknew why she was here. I knew what she had done.

Quitesuddenly she began to chant a long meandering verse, at firstseemingly to herself. But as the verses changed, they began tobe directed at a person, a person who may or may not have beenpresent for her. The verses flowed on, beautiful iambs allend-rhymed, but chanted so naturally, with so much meaning, onebarely noticed the scheme. One was only aware that it all dancedwith a sad cadence too regular to be prose. The words had aterrible terrible power to them, and her voice, cutting with aclear low reediness, put in thrall the very stars and moon, andall stopped to hear her self-elegy. The curve of her words evenhad a strange sound, and an odd turn she gave to 'Ghosts' and'poesy' left me eerily nostalgic, as when reading an old book orseeing a picture of a man long dead.

This is whatshe said that night~ if my memory, and later dreams of thatscene may be trusted.

[TheSelf-Elegy of Harriet Westbrook Shelley]


I look down into themoss-green pool

my own reflected faceflanked by clouds

inhabiting yet the heavenscold and cruel

unloose the bindingdresses destined shrouds

I speak as listening toghosts aloud

whispering my life untothe wind

promises broken promisesonce avowed

overheard by ghosts ghostswill not rescind

and aweful Queen of Ghoststhese promises will tend

Water swirling through mysinking skirts

washing billowing blouseand filling dresses

with muddy Serpentineswelled with rains

to rinse with ash-blondefoam my flowing tresses

Water chilling skin withcold caresses

taking our child and medown slowly dreamily

almost weightless as thetide progresses

its silty sound swallowingme and our baby

will swallow you too MyLove as Your Soul at last confesses


We haunt these watersgliding scaleless finless

naked with the nakedfishes glinting

They like us adriftforever sinless

rising up from sunlesssea-paths squinting

at dancing rays filteringdown hinting

of warm red light above,hot-skinned creatures

gliding through air andFate's breath unrelenting

burdened only by wind androck-hard features

and voices mouthed allround, soundless unseen preachers

Listen to the waterflowing over my grave

Listen to the currentrunning down to sea

washing among the roundedpebbles a-lave

with muddy sediment. Thissoil will, free

from stream bed and bank,resalt the mineral sea

with the salt and dust ofme and our baby's bones

It will flavor the oceanfloor, far Normandy

and the coast of fartherLeghorn as it moans

with the Tyrrhene tidalwinds squalling in blackest tones

I did not even knowOphelia, never

doubting but 'gratitudeand admiration,'

I saw you write, 'demand Ishall love her forever'

But what sad dreamerdreaming since time began

kept such vow being butflesh and man

unless his vow and dreammight coincide

which self-encirclingartist will not plan

and god, foreseeingfuture, matches bride

with dream unchanging,dreamers dreaming side by side

Mediterranean waves washedyou ashore

youwept for by all as genius lost

while I must grovel inLondon mud, no more

bemoaned than fishes orfrogs or flotsam wave-tossed

For Poesy I am but thecost

staring skywardglassy-eyed from Serpent's flank

Of me Faith's Child thepoets never guessed

You will Muse but neverWoman thank

For you my maidenheadnaively led twice sank

You say you cannot lovewhat you do not

but I am lost My Godunchaste unmarried

unloved and then frompitying hands unsought

a child that unfatheredmust never be carried

My past my present hauntscannot be buried

Fled you think a love isright or not

if not then virtue is tobe remarried

But I am no mistake to beunbought

as fish of ghostly form Icannot be uncaught


That Deep that sparkleswith riddles and grinning monsters

spread out around youthough morning had dawned clear cloudless

and blue, sky reflectingsanely exactly

the silvery surface.Waveless nearly windless

the mast hardly co*cked thestockstill lazy compass

Beneath this idyll Naiadeseyed their prey

above Erinyes preened andwhetted careless

The Sea grave of allwaters watched lidless fey

the sea floor swelled toreceive the salt of one more your clay

Fate tempted She rose fromher deep abode

flanked by Furies followedby millions

out from their caves ofdarkness Sea Ghosts flowed

in circling waves ofdancing writhing cotillions

and Percy you saw beforeyou joined the billions

my billowing blouserippling from every crest

my eyes in the faces ofTriton's minions

and seaweed that sewedeach frond a lover's tress

enwrapping you Love likecurling sea snakes vengeance-blest

Gulls, oyster-albinebacchantes, screamed alone

or beating wing for breasttearing through the veils

of Delphic mists asswirling maidens swore atone

Below there leapt bluedolphins, breaching whales

who slapping flukes onbriny greenswell wail

a long-drawn song an oceanjeremiad

awash with centuries-oldearth-circling tales

of languishment and deathand bones half-hid

by silt and wavy seaweedand eddies Neptune-bid

Pipers primly skipped fromthreatening wave

Scuttling crabs retreatedalways sideways

every beast that day diditself save

from Supernature's cast inPassion Plays

as Venus made a count ofall the days

crushing under daintygoddess slipper

or whitest barest foot himwho pays

the uttermost farthing andthen must kneel and kiss her

lips with redeemed lipsthat then must ever miss her


Someday when I awake whenI arise

when earth and water mixin Parousia

and look my drownedpoet in the eyes

as Cronus meets the eyesof mother Rhea

and Uranus the gaze ofmother Gaea

remember once you loved meknew not why

marred by Adam's sin nonculpa mea

son of father's dearthback to Sky

who rains on Gaea as acloud gone floating by

That dark night unrestfulI will wake

beneath the blowingcattails lulling you

to sleep, that night Iwill at last forsake

the quiet earth andoverreaching dew~

At midnight belly roundingwith the moon

I will arise Astarte-likefrom the rushes

I will arise respiritedtoo soon

like her whose presenceall the Spirit hushes

display the perished bloomand hectic flushes

the falsely beating heartand warming womb

the graying lips of redand mother's blushes

I will awake untimelyunentomb

bones best left enearthedand flesh and feeling numb

Then when Chaos stirs thebloody Earth

remixing limbs eyes Soulshearts

and making every death acrying birth

infusing salty water intoparts

confused by Change andTime and Judgment starts

my water and your stormwill be the same

I, Immortal Bird, willsing the Arts

and you will mouthe mypain not in name

but kissed from storm tostorm no weather-lover's blame

You who hate the seed fortaking root

will also hate the cloudthat whitens high

the storm that overwatersvirgin shoot

bass-boom thunder and theinfant cry

of washed-out lifeweakening to die

beneath unsheltered sky.You will curse

the rain that fills thedrowning stream and I

Skylark blithe but longdeflowered and worse

unignorant of pain toinnocently coerce

my strains to pureprofusion~Not Purity

but Sacred Soilure, theDirt of Ages

will bless my songbirdbones~I will cloudless see

what you must missunmuddied: the ghost-watched wages

of sin to Art and Love arenot on gold-gilt pages

in Heaven but are writ inRunes upon the Earth

bloody kana ventingVulcan's rages

at Nazarene. Magdaleneknew: not worth

pap a Pure Conception or aVirgin Birth


I will learn to rain andyou to rust

The mud will take us bothand both the sky

Sea-silt and Cloud-frothwill bed our breath and dust

and we will learn to liveand so to die

For now I wait the raindrips past my eye

you dig deep beneath theseas of Rome

The seas will rise andfall in circles by the bye

and when the sea floormeets the starry dome

soaked and salty you willtake our baby home

Just as shefinished it began to rain. She stood for a moment or two longer,as if waiting for some empyreal reaction, or an answer from theunknown listener. But I heard nothing and she heard nothing andshe sank back down into the lake, ripples rolling out again asbefore in ever-widening circles.

I remainedin a daze for perhaps ten minutes before I began to be seriouslychilled by the rain and the cool night breeze. Then I huddledmyself back home and sat drying in front of the fire thinking ofwhat had happened. I stared at the flames for hours in thebelief, with or without reason, that the apparition had not beenrandom. That whether or not she~ that is the ghost ofHarriet~ meant me to hear, somehow I was meant to hear it. Thisbelief does not tally well with my thoughts just preceding herrecitation on the chaos of the dots and fluttering wands andmeaningless motes in the eye of the universe. But I only reportwhat I felt. And my feelings that night were far fromconsistent.

At the timeI did not know who she was or what it all was about. I only sawwhat it meant for me. But I had understood what she said ofPercy Shelley, and I meant to find out who she might be. Whather relationship to Shelley had been, and why she was in theSerpentine. It took many weeks of research to discover that shewas Harriet, and that Harriet had been Percy's first wife,before Mary Godwin. She had been a sixteen-year-old daugther ofa tavern keeper when she met Shelley. Percy was only nineteenhimself. The marriage soon soured, due, if we are to believePercy, on grounds of intellectual inequality. Harriet wasbeautiful, but apparently unable to maintain Shelley'sastonishing level of discourse. So her physical charms werequickly superceded by another. One nearly as charming and muchbetter read: Mary, daughter of two writers, William Godwin andMary Wollstonecraft.

I alsodiscovered~what I already knew~ that Harriet had been pregnantwhen she drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816. Her body wasnot discovered for two weeks, and a ghastly discovery it musthave been. Beyond all this, I found (and I believe I am thefirst to say it) that Shelley may have been the father of thischild. Shelley and Mary had fled to Italy two years previously,to be rid of public opinion at their cohabitation. But in late1815 they returned to England. As it turns out, Mary was alsopregnant. Nine or ten months prior to Harriet's suicide, Shelleyhad been travelling back and forth from London to thecountryside where he and Mary were now living. Imagine thesituation. Mary is irritable in the cottage, due to herconfinement, and Shelley is spending much time away from her.This much is known, for there is a large body of correspondenceextant between Shelley and Mary. Because Shelley was often away,and because he needed to at least voice constant concernover the health of Mary, many letters crossed during thesemonths. Mary, in fact, complains often of Shelley's absence.Then imagine this. While in London, Shelley runs across Harriet.Still full of guilt from his abandonment of her, and alsosexually keyed up due to the circ*mstances~ Mary's pregnancy andhis absence~ he falls to the attractions of a still young andbeautiful Harriet. For old times sake, or what you will, theyre-unite temporarily. Afterwards, Shelley repents of hisweakness and flees again. But it is too late. This time, anolder and more fertile Harriet has conceived. Months later,knowing she cannot expect Shelley to return, and fullyrecognizing that now no other man will ever have her, andfearing that society will ostracize her even though she ishaving the child of her own husband (since she has no way toprove it), she decides to kill herself. She goes to Hyde Park atnight and throws herself off the bridge.

There is noway to know whether it happened this way or not. It is true thatHarriet would have been distaught enough to consider suicide nomatter who she was pregnant by. But it is doubtful that in hersituation she would have slept with a man besides Shelleywithout some sort of promise or plan. Then she should have hadat least him to turn to in an emergency. She and this lovermight have fled to America or the Continent or any number ofthings. That she would have slept with someone of absolutely nomeans simply from loneliness is not of course out of thequestion. But it is much much easier to believe that she couldjustify sleeping with a man who was, after all, her husband~despite the complications of the situation. And that she mayhave thought she could woo him back by sleeping with him.Nothing would be more natural, don't you see. The poor girl mayhave even been happy when she first discovered the pregnancy,thinking surely this would weigh quite heavily with theconscience of Shelley. She may have found, however, that it didnot. Or she may have come to that conclusion on her own, aftermore consideration, and remembering how little real conscienceShelley had ever displayed.

Regardless,I became convinced of it myself. What is more, I learned thatShelley also died by drowning! Only six years later, whilesailing in the Mediterranean, he and a friend were sweptoverboard in a storm off the coast of Leghorn.

This was the subject I hadbeen looking for. Almost immediately I began working. I hadalways been told that there is nothing new under the sun. Thatall the great subjects had been exhausted by 1870. That is why,I was told, the Impressionists had to begin obsessing withcolor, and the Post-Impressionists with line, and the Modernswith more and more arcane and theoretical concerns. There wasnothing left to paint; so one had to now just look at thepaint, not the painting. Ones subject was no longer external tothe canvas; ones subject was the canvas. Art then beganto evaporate until, with Duchamp, it disappeared altogether. ButI am getting ahead of myself. At that time, I simply felt I hadfound an important subject (or been granted it by the Muse).Here was a true story, set in the recent past, yet untapped byany poet or painter or musician~what Wagner might have done withit! Coincidence, the Sea, death, pregnancy, return, Fate,penance and retribution. The great contest of male and female,decided by the womb and the sea.

A novel about artists--Notes of an Artist (to himself)--by Miles Williams Mathis (2024)
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