Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
I returned downstairs to the living room to find four-year-old Charlotte standing in front of the open face of a humungous dollhouse, a foot taller than herself, with her head peering inside an upstairs bedroom. Her father Marcel was fast asleep on the living room couch, having just driven us ten hours, counting stoppage time for Charlotte, from Montreux, Switzerland to his holiday house in the south of France. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was playing on Marcel’s old record player. This was Charlotte’s favorite composition, its haunting melody part of the atmosphere in which she thrived. During the car ride, she bounced up and down in her seat, “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune! Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune!” I desperately needed a drink. I plucked a Bordeaux off the wine rack. Marcel rolled over and continued slumbering as deeply as I left my mother upstairs in the guest bed. Charlotte gave me a terrified look.
“Where’s Sylvia?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, Charlotte, she’s sleeping.” I popped the cork. “She nodded off about ten minutes ago. I think she’ll sleep into the night.”
She turned back around and said, “Sylvia est une sorcière! ” In her hand was a six-inch piece of pink yarn.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
She looked at the yarn as if she had forgotten she was holding it. Then she furrowed her brow and said, as if I were stupid, “It’s for a noose.” She turned back to the dollhouse. “Cindy is going to hang herself.”
“Who is Cindy?” I asked.
“Who is Lilly?”
“Who is Kristina?”
She gave me a condescending glance. “The mother of Cindy and Lilly,” she said.
I forgot why I cared who these dolls were so I shut up and poured myself a glass of wine. I stumbled over to the couch and sat at the end by Marcel’s feet, tucking my legs underneath me. Charlotte dropped the yarn and went over to the bathroom where she washed her hands with hot water and soap. She remained scrubbing at the sink for five minutes. She did this almost every fifteen or twenty minutes. By nightfall, she will have washed her hands approximately fifty times.
“Serena, could you help me tie the noose?”
“Sure,” I said. “Give it to me.” I placed my wine on the coffee table. Charlotte handed me the yarn and sat on the floor watching as I carefully constructed a small knot and—voila!—the noose was complete. She swiped strands of hair from her face in one kick-jerk and gently took the noose. “Merci.”
At that moment, I wished she were my child. I was fascinated by her beauty, which was quite ugly. I could have observed her forever. She had prominent features that didn’t quite fit her face. Hair parted on the side, it fell in dirty blond waves to her shoulders. Sand-colored face with freckles, deep brown eyes that could stop any sea from rolling. She looked familiar to no one. I wondered what Marcel’s late wife looked like. As for me. Well. I looked familiar to everyone.
The words “Prélude”—“à l’après-midi”—“d’un faune!” still chanted in my head.
Charlotte took one of her dolls, a Barbie doll, and put the noose around its neck. She stood in front of the dollhouse searching for a place to hang her. She poked her head into each room then stood back. She was perplexed. I could have suggested objects, like the dining room chandelier, or the tiny plant hanger that jutted out from the side of the dollhouse, but I thought it best that the little girl’s creative process develop on its own. She turned to me, frustrated. Then turned back and studied each room. I opened my mouth but it was her voice that happened: “The chandelier.”
“Good choice, Charlotte.” I took a sip of wine. She attempted to tie a knot around the metal neck of the chandelier with fierce concentration, but the noose kept slipping off the doll’s head.
“It’s too big,” she said. “The loop is too big.”
As I examined the intensity on her face, I asked, “Why does Cindy want to die?” She ignored me.
“There,” she said. She taped the loop to the Barbie doll’s neck and taped it all to the dollhouse’s kitchen wall. Barbie was standing. Her feet touched the ground.
“Cindy is dead,” she announced proudly.
“Not dead,” I said. I swallowed my wine in one gulp. “Cindy’s still standing.” I poured another glass. “What you could do, Charlotte, is bend her legs at the knees. This way she won’t touch the floor.” Charlotte examined the situation with careful precision. She cocked her head one way. Then the other.
“Her knees don’t bend,” she said.
I hadn’t noticed. Did Ken’s knees bend? I wondered. “Do Ken’s knees bend?” I asked.
“Who’s Ken?” she said.
“Nevermind.” I glanced out the picture window. The rain stopped and a rainbow spread itself over the Mediterranean like a woman in heat.
“Hey, Charlotte, I know.” I was about to score points with my new lover’s wunderkind. “Since Cindy is in the kitchen, why not stick her head in the oven? She could gas herself instead.” She gave me an expression that told me, once again, that I was stupid. “It’s electric,” she said in a you-don’t-know-shit tone that made me want to slap her.
“The oven,” she said. “The oven is electric. Not gas.”
“It’s a toy, Charlotte. It could be anything you want it to be.”
She smirked. As I was about to suggest that the doll swallow an overdose of pills, I remembered that the doll’s mouth was painted over in plastic and spared myself the humiliation of a new label. I lit a cigarette and wondered if Marcel kept a gun in the house. Charlotte rose to her ritual.
Charlotte was the most fucked up four-year-old I had ever met. Marcel had told me that she was obsessed by death. She didn’t want friends. She was smitten with suicide and anyone who committed it. She ate nothing but vegetables and coffee. What is Charlotte but a character in a story? If I were to write a review on Charlotte, it might read: “An Exhilarating ride through childhood. A Psychological thriller.” – Serena X, Charlotte’s father’s latest lover.
Meanwhile, Prelude rolled softly in the background.
End flute. Enter oboe.
Charlotte wanted to be an artist and paint for a living just like her father when she grew up. She reveled in a new artist each month. This month it was van Gogh. Marcel read to her each night from a book about his life, and she knew everything there was to know about him and could identify most of his work. Expressionism was a relief, as last summer Charlotte was a Dadaist and blasted a hideous recording she copped off the Internet again and again.
She sat on my lap and flung her arms around my neck, holding the stuffed rabbit who’d had half its left ear lobbed off. She smelled of violet soap. “Let’s go upstairs and spy on Sylvia,” she whispered. Her father was out cold and didn’t stir. It was going to be one hell of a week, I thought.
Back again to flute.
“Not a good idea,” I said.
“Why not?” she said.
“Because Sylvia hasn’t been well, Charlotte. She needs to rest. This is why we took her on vacation here.” I thought this was a good opportunity to bond with the girl. “You see, Charlotte…” But she shot off my lap and was halfway up the stairs before I finished my sentence. I chased after her, shouting softly, “Charlotte, stop! Charlotte, don’t!Charlotte—!” My uncle Wyatt, Sylvia’s brother, hanged himself a year ago. Sylvia hadn’t been mentally stable since. But how could I expect Charlotte to sympathize with that? On the car ride down, Charlotte insisted they play hangman in the backseat, where they sat side by side, to pass the time.
Charlotte wins no trophy for tact. At the same time she cannot be accused of insensitivity—not because of her age, but because this precocious sea vegetable never met my uncle. As it was, Sylvia went wild with rage at Charlotte’s suggestion. Spitting and shouting. She told the child exactly why she wouldn’t play and Charlotte had thought Sylvia would hang her too.
Charlotte was quick. She was waiting for me at the guest room door, her hand on the knob. She wanted to catch Sylvia in the midst of the ultimate form of human vulnerability: sleep. She gave me a sinister smile.
“Go ahead, Charlotte. See what Sylvia has to say.” I stood arms akimbo and challenged her.
“If Sylvia is the noise I want to hear,” she said.
“What Sylvia isn’t,” I said, “is the piece spinning calm on the turntable downstairs. So let’s go.” I headed down the stairs, certain she was trailing behind me. I went over to the couch and poured more wine. I sat a moment or two, savoring the music. Charlotte wasn’t with me. I went back up. She was still standing with her hand on the knob. I lit another cigarette and as smoke flowed from my mouth I said, “I thought you were afraid of her, Charlotte.”
“Why should I be afraid of an old woman?” she said.
“Because you talk too much.”
She peeped through the keyhole. “She looks dusty,” she said.
“Let me see.” I pushed her out of the way. There was Sylvia, recumbent on the mattress, still as water and just as deep. A grey hue shrouded her and hung independently from the lingering lamplight, which cast a yellow tinge in the room from a corner we couldn’t see. I had given her a tranquilizer when we arrived, what with her outburst in the car. Charlotte, her back against the wall, slid down slowly and took a seat on the hallway floor. She looked distressed.
Large raindrops splashed, widely dispersed, on the skylights. I sat down on the floor next to her and lit up again.
“How will Cindy die?” she said.
Drop, drop, drop.
“She won’t,” I said, staring straight ahead at a burgundy-painted wall, flicking cigarette ashes on the floor.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because she’s dumb.” I took a long drag. “Only intellects—really smart people—commit suicide, Charlotte.”
“Why?” she said.
“Because they live in a world that’s too small for them.”
“So if I’m an intellect, will I commit suicide?”
“Ambitious, aren’t you?—but no. Not all intellects commit suicide. Only most people who commit suicide happen to be intellectual.”
She considered this.
Downstairs the music stopped. “The music stopped,” I said. “Shall I replay the record?”
“No,” she said, “it replays itself, haven’t you been listening?”
Un. Deux. Trois.
The melody began and Charlotte was lost in its maze of musical cells, a harmonic fluidity that conducted her world. I was lost in the maze of Charlotte. I grew fond of her fast. Charlotte wasn’t ill. I’d miswritten her. Charlotte’s behavior was the repercussion of a grandiose instance.
A series of clouds moved in on the eight p.m. sun.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
The record played over again and over again. My head rested on my shoulder and the next thing I knew I woke to a smell that I can only describe as wicked. My cigarette had been smoldering and cast a black hole in the carpet. Charlotte hadn’t noticed. Charlotte wasn’t there. Or maybe I was someplace else. I heard running water. Charlotte was back.
“Charlotte, how long have I been asleep?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Tell me this then. How many times have you washed your hands since I’ve been asleep?”
“I don’t know.” I calculated that she must have washed her hands more than once, or she would have known. Therefore, I’d been sleeping for at least thirty minutes.
“But you’ve slept through five Preludes,” she said. This was how Charlotte measured time.
“Are you hungry?” I knew she’d decline, but it was my nurturing instinct to ask anyway. “Would you like me to heat up the duck c assoulet we took home from the restaurant?”
“I don’t like meat,” she said. “Je v oudrais une tasse de café .” She sat back down. I could tell she was tired.
I made her instant coffee with no milk, no sugar, while her mind swam in the music that told her she was significant. Our luggage was splayed by the front door. I gathered Charlotte’s nightgown and toothbrush. We’d unpack the rest in the morning.
“Here you go.” She was about to take a sip of coffee then with a sudden bolt of energy, sprang up, having forgotten my mother, and peered through the keyhole.
“She’s still there,” she said.
“I know,” I said. I was tired too.
“Come, Charlotte. It’s getting late.” I handed her her nightgown and took her by the hand.
“I’m too tired to sleep,” she said. Charlotte, I might add, does not know how to sleep. She is a diehard insomniac. What I mean is, she falls asleep, but she does not stay asleep.
To step into Charlotte’s room was to strike strange. A merriment of colors exploded about the room’s expand, stimulating yet depressing. The walls were painted in shocking pink with lemon-yellow molding. A poster of Das Kotsbild hung over her bed from her Dada days. Wall-to-wall carpet, a field of peridot. A throw rug in midnight blue. Tubes of pastels were strewn about. Caps missing, paint oozing. Watercolors. Oils. A half-emptied jar of linseed oil. Oiled cloth. Piles of books askew in one corner. From the works of Cézanne to Warhol. Rimbaud, Goethe, Shakespeare, Donne.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune!
She changed into her white nightgown with yellow flowers on it and moved to the bathroom to exercise her ritual one last time before bed. I tiptoed downstairs, past the couch that cradled Marcel for the night and gathered the turntable and record. When I returned, Charlotte was tucked into her four-poster bed. I set up the turntable and its speakers on a small table meant to entertain elegant dolls with tea parties that would never be. I carefully placed the needle on the album.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
A flute solo intruded whatever it was I was to say next and I sat on the edge of the bed, savoring the passage with her. My attention was drawn to an easel in one corner of the room with a half- painted canvas, upstrokes feverishly wincing in, light blue and violet oils. A swirl of green. A smear of orange. It might have been a wheat field. It might have been the sea.
“What were you painting?” I said. She looked confused. Or maybe she was concentrating.
“It’s finished,” she said.
She turned her head in the painting’s direction, but she didn’t focus on it. Her eyes were fixed on nothing. “The painting,” she said. “It’s finished.”
I followed her gaze slowly, my eyes from her eyes and focused on nothing with her. The rain fell in sheets, drowning out the flute.
“What is it?” I asked her, staring in the same direction as she.
“My mother’s death,” she said.
I turned to her. “The painting?”
“Do you want to talk about it?” I said.
“No,” she said, “I just want to look at it.” Her eyes moved up toward the canvas and rested there.
“No, I meant your mother. What happened to your mother?”
“She died,” she said. She rolled over and shut her eyes.
“Daddy and I went to the beach one day last summer,” she said.
“What happened at the beach?”
“Nothing. My mother stayed home and when we got back, she was dead.”
“Had she been sick?” I said.
“No,” she said. “She had been sad.”
I didn’t press her. If she wanted to talk, she would talk.
The rain tapered off and I cracked a window to let the metallic scent in.
“Charlotte? Can I read you a story?” She reached over, not opening her eyes, grabbed a book off her nightstand, and handed it to the air. While other children her age around the world were listening to their parents read Dr. Seuss, she opted for Keats. The sound of waves hit the shore in the distance.
Darkling, I listen .
And back to flute. Clarinet.
…and, for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful death.
Violas. Violins. I read:
“’My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains…’”
Charlotte’s breathing became deep, in sync with the melody. As sleep closed in on her, the melody was exhausting itself to its end.
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep/In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?