My Own . . . My White Plume

Margo Berdeshevsky


One thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own and that is . . . my white plume.


—Panache, a French translator corrected me, the right translation is not plume, it's panache, for which there is no good translation. Yes, I know about double entendres. Mirrors. Lakes with no bottom, thin red threads of connection like underfed veins. A new woven shawl for springtime. I wear it as I walk to the Boulevard Saint Germain.


A man who promised and promised and never showed up has been writing to me again. Sends a Chinese proverb: The ancient Chinese legend of the red thread tells that when children are born, invisible red threads connect them to the ones whom they are fated to be with. Over the years of their lives they come closer and eventually find each other, overcoming the distance between, and cultural and social divides. Could I believe the seduction this time, probably not. So walk and walk and walk. He's my dark muse. Let it go at that.


She thinks it began at a café opposite a museum. She remembers his long legs, crossed, scuffed oxfords, patterned socks. They both smoked. Smiled through stained teeth. He remembers the aisle of a theatre. "No Exit" was playing." He extended one long leg and she tripped. Edit the past. It began on a battlefield, each one's thumbs cutting off the air at the other's throat. A death in each other's hold. One of several beginnings. Another myth from the East . . . Edit the present to a springtime moving of her limbs. Their skin more fitting for an older woman. She's an older woman. The blush of the man remembering her, reigniting the never-quite-was. Imperfect. She buries it. Walking. He remembers the weight of her breasts under yellow silk, and that he should have—could have—didn't. His swollen hands rest on his own knees. Finger an imaginary old Chinese proverb. Its red threads.  


Editing. Their shadows leaning now over a pond. Swollen-bellied fish avoiding the shadows, hungry for sun-sparks. We avoided the light, she remembers. I was afraid of your eagerness, he remembers. Enter the editor. We were old souls, ready to murder one another again. Instead we walked into forests, broken branches east and west, branches could be sculpted into knives. We hadn't the stomach for more blood. Exit the editor. We kissed from opposite sands of two weather-disturbed oceans. In between, old fish avoided trawlers, lines, and hooks. Last night in my dream, this time we lived together, he writes. Old soul, you said, and pointed to where we, in repose, breathed in concert.




At lunchtime women head for good or decent restaurants for different reasons, ways to partition the hours between chill and sun, hunger and wine, loneliness and solitude, art and mission, lassitude and a promise to move the flesh, to ignore the loosened muscles, the mirror of middle aging with the memory of being a beauty, or not.


The café called Les Editeurs serves those who edit their manuscripts or lives or hours too. Some shudder like forests of branches loaded with nervous blackbirds.


There's a woman in a black and green belted coat, determined to be kind to strangers. Catches her reflection in windows. me. me. me. She's passed three stranded bodies curled over street grates on the way. No shelter, no lunch, soiled scripts. Admit that the detritus frightens and angers her editor. She hates God, maker of desolations so piercing in the City of Light. Her Paris. Her darling Paris. She wants to kill God. Otherwise, she's a good person. Paris. Childhood dream, middle-aged refuge. Is her life common? Shared? Reflected? Useless?


Her kitchen table dances with a vase of blood-bright anemones, their black centers so like the center of her right eye, cut open for a cataract last week. Did it bleed? She didn't see if it did, they'd injected Hypnovel's heavy dose of forgetting to stop it all, the trembling of her limbs on the surgical slab while the nurse hummed under her breath—she remembers only that, and then a dark center and a slow return to seeing the clarity of her century, her body, shop window mirrors, men on street grates curled into detritus next to dog shit, wars, women, monopoly, solitaire, a disdain for the game, any game.


She sits on the banquette of the café, beside another woman couched cross-kneed in noon shadows. Women head for lunchtime for different reasons. She orders the same meal as her voisine, and they will exchange pleasantries. No. They will exchange dropped feathers.


I cry every day. It's like knives attacking me, the banquette neighbor confesses, while I eat. She wears a discreet round red rosette of the Légion d'honneur on her left lapel. Unasked, in a quarter hour, her life. French women don't speak this way to strangers. This one does. Her highs and lows, her chateau owned, and lost, her lovers betrayed and betraying, her five children, her Chanel and Prada clothes, her fortunes lost, made, lost, chemo every month, the once long blonde hair long and lovely as yours Madame. Her autobiography written, she's renowned, accepted for publication and lost —I lost my life again, the computer crashed, I rewrote it all better in three weeks, but I lost my life, I've been robbed, raped, betrayed, I cry. I cry every day. I cry. I'm a famous woman. Summers in Morocco or the Himalayas or the Vineyard. I created so many successes. And I cry.


—What do you most want, today, I ask. —A lover, she says, staring straight ahead.
—What do you want today, I ask once more. —Peace, she says. Peace.


—What do you do, Madame, she asks, sudden with awareness. Someone is listening to her. I am. She stares at me like a child at a new insect, into the dark center of my eye. She's awake.


—I'm not a famous poet, I say. Not famous at all. And yes I always want to meet a good muse and a stranger on a bridge. Every day. It hasn't happened in a long time. My only lover is self. Solitude. Soul.


The editor is succeeding. The man who promised and promised . . . will not come to find me. The newly operated eye sees colors more brightly, now that its cataract has been sliced out. But the edges may remain uncertain.


—How old are you, she asks. I tell her. We are the same age, she says, one hand raking her scraps of new-grown white hair.


For a moment, she has paused in her mariner's tale of albatross and tears. —There's a lake I went to once, I tell her. Tamblingan, it's called, in a faraway language. It was stiller than peace. It's up an Indonesian mountain past slopes of blue flowers, and then a lake as still as an unknown death of a pigeon at dawn.


Stiller than peace. Ringed with tattered parasols, rain-rotted temple cloths, it waited.


What does the name mean?
—Remember the medicine. 


A fishermen's raft and a few boat hulls floated. Decrepit temples at the periphery. A son of a priest took me there once. A bad boy who would not join the lineage. But he took me to the lake whose name means remember the medicine. He whispered like a screen covered with dozing flies, and then he left me alone and quiet at the gray dirt shore of that lake. And I wasn't ready.


And then, so suddenly, I wept into that lake. I gave it all my tears for a very long hour. —Who would you give your tears to, I ask her. She leans and kisses me, French style, on each cheek, and wraps her shawl of red threads and her dark coat and dons a wide brimmed hat to cover her scraps of hair. —You are my muse today, a little light. She kisses me again. I remember the medicine.


Once, after I'd seen the end of the world, and I had, I remembered that place. Take me there, please, I'd begged a stranger with inked jaguars drawn on every inch of his skin. He obliged. The fog shawled us. Clustered and violent blue hydrangeas sloped road banks, then there was a path, and it led me again to that lake. Now, go, he urged. Crossed his tattooed legs and sat blankly, a lost page in a field of weeds. He closed his eyes. —Just go.


I knelt at the lake's lip and reached my fingers into it. In a minute I was howling. Everything forgotten, everything remembered, the lake received all I gave it. A thousand of mine, and then everyone else's sorrows. The lake lay still, with its dozing medicine.


The one with tattoos was waiting for me when I returned to him. —They want you, he said more gently than before and I asked no question. Until my own skin was stained with his jaguars too. Believe it, the hot breeze added, leaving only its after-chill on my skin. —Stay, said the man, staining me one more time. —And now, go.


I don't know who said that. I, or the breeze, or the lake. In the matter of muses . . . there is no good translation.


The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
—Walter Benjamin