Sitting in the hot tub at the end of the deck under a roof just transparent enough to let in light, he was surrounded on three sides by orchids, begonias, red-kalanchoes in hanging pots and large free-standing tubs of hibiscus. Visible from here were the deep-green woods, a dressage ring and a pasture with three, browsing, unicorn-like ponies. The scene reminded him of the letter of Eusebius Hirenomymus (a.k.a St. Jerome) written to his friend Marcella in 385 A.D. In spring the fields are gay with flowers, and the birds’ plaintive notes will make our psalms sound all the sweeter. The letter had been assigned in one of his gymnasium classes. He could still recite it. Dr. Mezo, their Latin teacher, interpreted the letter as Eusebius’ approximation of heaven on earth.
Not more than twelve feet from where he was sitting, a tall steel contraption holding bird feeders was embedded in the ground. The tufted titmice and the Carolina chickadees were falling nonstop onto the feeders like minute meteorites. The wrens preferred the suet block. There were no squirrels on the feeders anymore. His wife’s long war with them had ended in victory last year with the installation of her birthday present, a special squirrel-proof cylinder. Now the squirrels congregating under the feeders had to wait for handouts from the birds.
A narrow metal plant hanger attached to one of the six-by-six posts upholding the transparent roof held the hummingbird feeder. Sounding like a large bumblebee, an iridescent, ruby-throated male landed and folded his wings. The buzzing ceased while he was drinking, then resumed when, shifting into reverse and lifting straight up, he flew to the hibiscus. Another male with slightly different markings was landing now. These two always chased each other. A drably dressed female watched them from a nearby branch. The next moment the riddle of the too-quickly disappearing hummingbird liquid was solved: house finches in their rose-colored jaunty caps were sitting around the hummingbird feeder taking long drafts. They looked like Irish laborers on payday with their elbows up on the bar.
Later, toward the end of November when the first possibility of frost occurred in North Florida, the open sides of the hot tub enclosure would be covered with plastic sheets and his own approximation of Eden would become obscured. The resulting hothouse usually saved most of their tropical plants.
He didn’t know what made him start to cry–a naked old man sitting up to his neck in warm water–when he was only trying to find the right words of thanks for his surroundings, for the world he was living in and for the miracle of his being here.
There were no warnings to prepare him for the onslaught of tears. They could be brought on by a TV ad picturing smiling little American children with trusting eyes, or Somali children with swollen bellies and haunted eyes, or by hymn 243: I sing a song of the saints of God. Patient and brave and true, Who toiled and fought and lived and died For the Lord they loved and knew. It was always at this point that he and his wife would look at each other, unable to go on singing. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, And one was a shepherdess on the green; They were all them saints of God–and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
It was on a visit to his in-laws in Devonshire in September 1960 that he first heard: “I sing a song of the saints of God,” at the eleven o’clock Eucharist at St. Winifred’s, a 12th century church in Branscombe named after a seventh century Welsh virgin-martyr. For twenty-six years Meg’s parents had lived and worked in Nigeria as part of the Church Missionary Society. In 1950 they retired to Beer in Devonshire to live in a house of their own choosing for the first time in their married lives and his father-in-law had become St. Winifred’s “guinea pig,” so named because supply priests had once earned a guinea (21 shillings) for each service performed while the parish was searching for a new vicar.
Somebody had described Branscombe as “half as old as Time.” The headlands were dotted with Iron Age tumuli and there was a homestead extant mentioned in the 1086 Doomsday Book. The outline of a rectilinear Roman military camp was visible next to one of the working farms.
That September morning standing on the terrace waiting for his father-in-law dressed in his black cassock to back the car out of the garage, he heard the bells of St. Winifred for the first time. Branscombe is only two-and-a-half miles from Beer but the narrow twisting, steep road between the hedgerows made it seem like a journey. The descent to the valley floor silenced the bells but the climb up the steep incline set them to pealing again with renewed strength, engulfing the car. Gazing on St. Winifred’s massive Norman tower he felt a happy disconnect from the 20th century. The central chamber of the tower had a Priest’s Room, with a small aperture in the floor that allowed the vicar to keep an eye on the altar. The parsonage down in the valley had been built after the Danish raids were past.
As on every other morning at this time Hercules, their son John’s ninety-pound Weimaraner, came trotting up the ramp in front of the hot tub. His son’s family lived just past the woods and the dressage ring. He knew that the invisible Pipin, his granddaughter Sarah’s Jack Russell, was right behind Hercules. It was their morning routine to visit Chupy, who was lying on the deck close to the hot tub. Chupy’s pedigree was mostly beagle, which showed in his brownish-red head, and black saddleback.
Now he could see Pipin, dwarfed by Hercules, shyly waving his stumpy tail in greeting. Chupy stood up and started to cough, sounding as if he were trying to clear his throat. This throat clearing had been going on for at least six months now. Chupy had been diagnosed with cancer. The veterinarian, a kind sympathetic woman, told them that with medications Chupy could go on for quite a while. They would know when the pain med wasn’t effective anymore. He got out of the hot tub, put the cover over it and carefully climbed down the wooden steps. The last step made a loud creak signaling the end of today’s session. It reminded him daily of his father-in-law’s bidding for a ‘closing hymn’ to end a church social.
He wrapped himself in a towel and went out onto the deck. He kept his eye on Hercules. Last week Herc had stepped on his left foot and it was still blue. Chupy, adept with symbolic gestures, was already at the sliding glass door to make sure he was first to enter. Herc and Pipin brushed past him on their way to check out the kitchen.
He sat down on the side of the bed with his feet on the small carpet where Chupy sat looking up at him, an act that through the years had achieved liturgical significance. The proper response was: “I love you Chupy,” and the patting of the tousled, faded, red head. Chupy had arrived twelve years ago on his 70th birthday, when Anne, his daughter-in-law, came walking through the woods followed by a hairy little dog jumping up and down as if attached to a bungee cord. It was the Chupy-dog of his childhood imagination.
At the beginning of his sixth year his days were spent on a sick bed in the nursery, surrounded by lifeless toys. Before he taught himself to read, they were days of endless grinding boredom. The only interruptions were his mother’s visits at lunch time that made him feel guilty for not eating when millions of children in the world were starving, and Dr. Hugo, who came three times a week to poke at him. Sometimes his parents also came at his supper time dressed for the evening. They were very beautiful.
There were times when he wanted to scream like the baboons in the Budapest Zoo but held back, not wanting to disturb Fräulein Mitzi sitting in the rocking chair by the door leading to ‘the children’s terrace’–now off limits to him–reading, or to irritate one of the maids, dispatched as his relief minder, sitting in the same place, smoking.
Before going to sleep he
and his sister, led by Fräulein Mitzi, used to pray Müde bin ich, geh’ zu Ruh’, schliesse beide Äuglein zu. Vater, lass die Augen Dein über meinem Bettchen sein. When he got sick, his mother taught him the Our Father in French, Fräulein Mitzi taught it in German, and his father in Hungarian. One morning, just after he had started praying the Our Father–it could be prayed anytime–he felt a breeze coming through the open terrace door that made the curtains dance like fairies surrounded by pale gold haloes and there was that lovely, almost unbearable, Christmas Eve feeling he used to have waiting with his sister for his mother’s little bell to ring and the double doors to open to behold the tree with the lighted candles and the colorful gifts underneath, their father and all the servants standing to one side waiting for him, the youngest in the household, to hand them their presents. Behind the sinuously dancing curtain fairies came a little dog with smiling brown eyes, fluffy brownish-red head, black saddleback and a long up-curving tail. He, too, was outlined by a golden nimbus like the saints in his mother’s church. It was as if he had always known the dog’s name because when he said “Chupy” the dog jumped up on the bed and flopped down against his legs. Fräulein Mitzi, back from the bathroom, patted his forehead and told him she’d give him a sponge bath right after their breakfast. Marie, one of the undermaids, came in with a tray. He could feel Marie’s resentment for having to come to the nursery to serve Fräulein Mitzi, who the servants said, “put on airs.” Marie fluffed up his pillows, put a tray on his lap and told Fräulein Mitzi that she wouldn’t have time to strip her bed today because all the servants would be required to set tables for the big party. The Regent’s older son would be coming to introduce his bride. Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute, sagen alle faulen Leute! Fräulein Mitzi chanted. He knew that Marie couldn’t speak German but the look she gave Fräulein Mitzi made him think that she understood that she was being called lazy. It made him gag on his bowl of lumpy porridge. Neither Fräulein Mitzi nor Marie noticed Chupy sitting on top of the bedcovers.
When Fräulein Mitzi went to see a doctor–his mother said woman-sicknessess needed different doctors–and he had his mother to himself, he told her about Chupy. His mother said she was sorry that he couldn’t have a real dog in the sickroom. He told her that Chupy was real. It was to be a secret between them. But grownups couldn’t be trusted. Some of his mother’s friends put on silly smiles and pretended to pat Chupy. He was certain that when Agnes was allowed into the nursery again she would see Chupy. Chupy was always with him. He knew that God would be in the nursery too if he had asked Him but he didn’t think he should. God had more important things to do.
One day he heard his mother say: “I pray every day that the boy won’t have to fight in a war when he grows up.”
“We are heading for another one just in time for his age group,” his father said. “But if it really is polio….”
“Hush,” his mother said.
He had taught himself to read while still on his sickbed but since his reading aloud disturbed Fräulein Mitzi’s enjoyment of her romances he had to whisper. Then, as in the fairy tales, the magic day had come when just by looking at the pages of The Jungle Book he could see and hear Akela, the Lone Wolf, the leader of the pack, Father and Mother wolf, Shere Khan, the wicked tiger, Mowgli’s special friend, and Baloo the brown bear, the teacher of the wolf cubs. Baloo taught that “sorrow never stayed punishment but punishment settled all scores.” There was to be no nagging afterward. He had decided then that this was how he would bring up his own children.
Years later, while reading The Jungle Book in English, he wondered what had happened to the grownup Mowgli. That mystery was solved ten years ago when Anne and John gave a tailgate party down at the barn and he met Babu, a perfect replica of the Mowgli of his imagination. Mowgli had become a psychiatrist, married Martha, a Polish girl also a psychiatrist, bought twenty acres next to their horse farm, and built a house and a barn for the Polish-Arabians Martha was breeding.
He heard the trainer in the dressage ring ask for an extended trot. Anne was riding Zoltan, her seventeen-hand Hanoverian gelding. Herc and Pipin came back from the kitchen to collect Chupy and the three dogs went outside. There was a knock on the front door. Babu had come by to drop off some papers on his way to work. They were for Meg’s Indian visa application. Just before her 80th birthday on September 2nd, Meg had announced that she didn’t want money to be spent on a big party. The children persisted. If not a party how about travel? To the astonishment of all, Meg admitted that she had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal. She had heard many stories about the Taj Mahal from her father when she was a little girl. Babu and Martha would be in India in October to visit Babu’s parents. It was the perfect timing for her pilgrimage.
He himself had no unfulfilled dreams of seeing the Taj Mahal or other exotic sights, having reached the place where in spring the fields were gay with flowers, and the birds’ plaintive notes made the psalms sound all the sweeter. This was the Land.
When asked to explain his aversion to travel, he blamed old age.
On October 17th, at eleven o’clock in the morning, he started for the Orlando airport. In his senectitude he felt more comfortable allowing ample travel time. Meg’s Delta flight from London should be arriving at 3:30. Meg had phoned twice from India, then on her way back, from London, where she was visiting her younger sister for five days. Chupy’s health was always among her inquiries.
Seventeen days should have been long enough to get used to sleeping alone but the absence of Meg on the left side of the bed allowed old nightmares to creep in with the early morning darkness, the favorite time for the scheduling of interrogations, executions and surgeries. It was a revelation to him that by the third day the conventions of breakfast, lunch, and supper had lost their power over him. He ate whenever he felt like it, whatever seemed to be the perfect food at that moment. On Tuesday before going to bed, he ate fruit salad topped with whipped cream and on Wednesday he ate a whole box of brie, wanting to O.D. on it to forget, once and for all, their period of tight budgets when the insufficiency of money had exposed his lack of backbone: he had accepted invitations to faculty parties where he could gorge on brie knowing full well that his immigrant enthusiasms for his adopted country would make him the perfect target for public ridicule. In China he would have been called a “Rice Christian.”
Driving South on I-75 past Ocala, there were still prosperous ranches and horse farms with their neat fences. But the sweetly perfumed orange groves that had stretched all the way to Orlando and beyond were no more. The land had been taken over by Disney and the tourist industry that brought a different kind of prosperity to this part of Florida. Now the weather–unless it was a hurricane past magnitude three–was not able in a few hours to wipe out a season’s crop or kill with an overnight freeze whole groves representing years of work.
In 1952 there were only two main highways running down the length of Florida: Highway 27 in the middle of the state and A1A hugging the coast. In February of that year he was driving his boss in a two-and-half-ton GMC truck pulling a cattle trailer on Highway 27. The orange blossoms’ five waxy petals bloomed white against a background of dark green leaves. The trees covered the land on both sides of the road like a perfumed chenille bedspread. Mr. Durance owned 32,000
acres that he had bought bit by bit for thirty-two cents an acre at a time when a ranch hand’s pay consisted of a dollar a day, the use of a milk cow, grazing rights for five to ten of his own stock, and grain for his horse. The rider had to furnish his own roping saddle and a cutting horse.
He loved to hear Mr. Durance’s stories about Old Times, the Spaniards’ escaped cattle whose descendants still roamed on the ranch. Like them he too would become an indistinguishable part of the landscape. In two years he would have the right to vote and even to decide who the next President of the United States would be. He already paid taxes.
The reason they were driving to Orlando was so that Mr. Durance could buy a dozen registered Brahman bulls to begin upgrading his scrub cattle and to get hardier calves from his English breeds to better withstand the heat, flies, and ticks. Dust-bags and dips couldn’t cope with the onslaught that at certain times of the year drove the cattle mad, preventing them from putting on weight. In 1952 nobody would buy lean beef.
The wind coming through the open truck windows brought in perfumed air that in Hungary, or the other countries of his sojourn, could have existed only in fairy tales. It was on this journey that Mr. Durance had promised him ten yearlings to start his own herd, the use of a milk cow, lumber to build a house and $200 a month. He was to be a fence rider.
He was getting closer to the airport. Years ago with Meg and the children in the car, throwing the proper change into the toll booth baskets and listening to the children shouting their magic “Go!” that turned red into green had been pure joy. Driving to the Orlando airport by himself was a trial. If he got off at the wrong exit, he wouldn’t know how get back on again. The highway was filled chock-a-block with unrelenting, speeding cars going south. Not that he was wishing for the old two-lane highways where passing the slow-moving trucks hauling oranges was, if not an outright suicide attempt, at a minimum a dangerous gamble. He was not yearning for the memory of the unreconstructed South either.
In 1950 they had left England and come to South Carolina, Meg’s mother’s home, so that he could be liberated from his indenturement to the Ministry of Labour. On arriving he had written on a picture postcard: “I reached heaven where palmettos grow and oaks are long-bearded, friendly uncles.” A few years later while memorizing the preamble to The Declaration of Independence with its self-evident truths about the equality of all men, it became evident that skin color still trumped all, dictating whether people could enter through the front door of a hamburger joint or had to wait outside at the sliding window in the back. Thomas Jefferson, like a thurifer sprinkling words instead of incense, warned of the dire consequences of slavery, but in not freeing his own slaves made Equality in the 1776 Declaration understood as not applying to all. For Equality to become the soul of the nation still needed more prayers, the deaths of more than 600,000, and the destruction wrought south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1865. Even after that fearful experience, skin color in the South still decreed, until 1956 (the year of the failed Hungarian revolution), that some Americans lived in the “quarters” hidden behind orange groves, out of sight of the Yankee tourists driving to Miami on Highway 27.
The last toll booth basket needed only seventy-five cents. From here on out he would be staying in the right lane till he saw the clearly marked exit sign to the airport and beheld the shark-like planes landing and rising into the sky. A different world from the fifties when he was riding for Mr. Durance. Before their son John was born, he, Meg, and their 18-month-old daughter Sibet lived in a virtual late 1800s without electricity or telephone. The exception was their pickup and a radio that worked off the truck’s battery. The presence of the not-yet-eradicated screw worm fly added to the difficult living and working conditions. The screw worm laid their eggs in any cut or scratch on man or beast. When the eggs hatched, the larva fed on the victim’s flesh.
While riding fence, he was constantly looking up at the sailing white sheets of clouds, watching for the anti-aircraftburst-like circles of buzzards slowly patrolling in their search for carrion that included afterbirth or even a weak calf. When the circle dipped, slipping sideways down the horizon, he moved his horse into a trot. All cuts had to be smeared with ointment to prevent screw worm flies from laying their eggs. If the cow was down, it was easy to deal with the newborn. A standing cow would try to gore him and had to be tied to a tree for the few minutes he needed to medicate the calf. In areas with no trees, the cow had to be roped, flipped over, and hog-tied. He never got over seeing the cows’ desperate struggles to free themselves or the shock of coming across dead ones covered by buzzards that formed a twitching black shroud. Most of the time the dead cows would bear the parallel puncture wounds of a rattler’s strike, reminding him of the cold mornings when, on his way to the barn to milk Rishka, he would see rattlers curled around the dry corn stalks in the fenced vegetable garden that was part of baby Sibet’s world. It always brought back his obsession that had started with the death of his father at the age of forty-five from a wound from World War I and his own confused interpretation of the doctrine of predestination as a merciless sentence that caused everybody he loved to precede him in death. When they had moved to Mr. Durance’s ranch, a letter was waiting for him at headquarters. It was from his mother, asking him to send a hundred dollars to some people in West Germany whose relatives in Budapest would pay her the equivalent in Hungarian Forint. (Behind the Iron Curtain nobody was allowed to receive foreign currency.) When he read the letter, he knew his mother had gone mad. She needed the money, she wrote, to pay a sculptor to create a wax figure of his sister Agnes, “like those in Madame Tussauds. I have her dress size and her full figure oil portrait. I want her to be dressed in her favorite frock to sit with me, she in the brown fauteuil and I in the rocker. I don’t think this is too much to ask.” Agnes, two years his senior, had been accused of spying for the “Americans.” Two members of the State Security had held her, arms outstretched, against a wall while another backed a truck into her. It took her three days to die.
After riding fence it could take as long as an hour to get home, all the while carrying the imagined death of his little daughter, knowing that the worst had already happened because it always happened and there was no reason for it to stop happening now.
The turnoff was easy but finding the color-coded name of the right airline was a nightmare. He was either chased by cars or cut off by stretch limousines and buses while he kept his eyes on the overhead signs straining to find DELTA, knowing that if he took the wrong curve in the road, he would have to exit and reenter the airport with all that entailed. While everybody else seemed to know where they were heading, he had become a foreigner in his own country. He was the Flying Dutchman condemned to drive around Orlando Airport till the Day of Judgment.
Suddenly DELTA was there. He took the left lane, stopped to reach for a ticket dispensed by a friendly machine, and then began climbing the ramp. Coming out of the gloom of the lower floors, he found a parking space on the top level lit mostly by the sun. He got out of the car, making sure of the ignition key in his pocket. Walking toward the elevators, he remembered a moonless night in September 1946 when, after having crawled through the reinforced barbed wire fence of the Hungarian-Austrian border, he was neither blown up by a mine, hit by machine gun bullets from one of the watchtowe
rs nor, the following day, spotted on the train going through the Soviet sector on his way to the International Zone. Like a gambler who, staking all he had on one throw of the dice, had won, he was feeling the same invulnerability now.
He was waiting with hundreds of others in a tremendous igloo-shaped glass and wood terminal with restaurants and shops of all kinds and a hotel up in the higher regions where two elevators slowly ascended and descended like the angels in Jacob’s dream. There were benches around an oval tropical garden with a few palm trees and artistically placed boulders. Through concourses laid out like the spokes of a wheel, passengers arrived and departed. The electronic Arrival and Departure tablets clicked from time to time. The arrival time for Meg’s flight had changed from on time to an hour late. He sat down again. It was curious how, even after such a short wait, he thought of one of the benches as his own, like the pew in his church where he and Meg sat Sunday after Sunday. He envied those families who had found each other and had become whole again. He remembered his mother telling them: “We are not a family anymore,” the day after his father’s death sixty-five years ago.
He watched the concourse Meg was to pass through. People were moving fast, almost running as if they were chased by some horror that recalled the oft-repeated TV scenes from 9/11. Meg wasn’t among them. Soon the tide receded. He sat down again to watch other strays trying to decipher the clicking Arrival and Departure times.
Two more tides rushed through the concourse before he saw Meg in the midst of a third one. She was wearing gray pants and lavender knitted top that emphasized her shining white hair, proceeding in a steady, straight-backed march, separated from the others the way a queen is separated from her subjects not alone by the trappings of her office but simply by the fact of who she was. His uplifted hand was the corban for the fulfillment of his prayers.
A week after Meg’s homecoming their children gave them an early Christmas present: the replacement of the two, twenty-two-year old, badly bent aluminum sliding doors leading to the deck. The new beautiful wooden doors were to be installed by Dean Reber, their seventy-year-old builder friend, and his son Rodney.
Promptly at nine the next morning Dean Reber arrived and as usual asked: “What’s happenin’?”
Forty years of living in Florida had not had the slightest effect on his broad Wisconsin dialect but Dean Reber’s blood had turned orange and blue, the colors of The Fighting Gators, the University of Florida’s football team who had named him “Bull Gator,” the highest honor given by the “Gator Nation.”
He was sitting in the hot tub in the plastic-shrouded enclosure crowded with additional plants–at the end of November the weather could behave erratically. Before going inside the enclosure, he saw the same birds on the feeders–residents and migrants–he had watched three weeks ago from the hot tub the day after Meg’s homecoming from India. Now the opaque plastic had made his Eden invisible, turning his physical reality into an allegory for him to contemplate. Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
Chupy had died on the seventh of November and the only visible changes were the piled up leaves at the foot of the trees, looking like garments dropped in a hurry, and the denuded upper branches reaching toward the heavens in desperation.
He was grieving for Chupy, “a being who is limited to the body–whose anima, whose life principle, has no capacity to transcend the limits of nature and history.” He did not believe that this description, by an eminent bioethicist, applied to Chupy. Secure in the mystery of his own redemption he knew that Chupy was also one of God’s creations.
At first, Chupy-the-vision was only a little boy’s need for somebody who couldn’t be taken away from him, couldn’t be put on the shelf like his other toys, a shelf that seemed to be forever beyond his reach. The unreachable shelf remained with him all his life, becoming as time passed a permanent divider between the quick and the dead. In church, when he prayed, And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, the liturgy allowed time for only a brief glance at the great cloud of witnesses.
In the last three days of Chupy’s life, when he had stopped eating and barely drank any water, he still followed him or laid down close to his chair. Their other dogs–Tallulah, Bailey, Jody, and Ralphie–whom he had buried in the old vegetable garden–had sought solitude under bushes and in piles of leaves when their time was near. Chupy did not want to be separated from him. He didn’t want the separation either.
On the seventh of November, the day Meg and Babu took Chupy to the vet, he went down to hide in the tack-room, pretending that Chupy had gone for his rabies shot. Fifty-two years ago he was working in a chute, loading cattle into trucks, when a steer hooked him with its right horn. Not being able to free its horn the steer dragged him toward the waiting cattle truck. Since then, unpredictably, the pain in his lower back flared up from time to time. This was one of those times, the wrong time for Chupy to die. He wouldn’t be able to dig Chupy’s grave.
Babu opened the door on the passenger side, lifted out Chupy’s body, loosely covered in a towel, placed him in his arms, then closed the door, got into his car and drove off. One of Chupy’s soft ears, touching his hand, made him forget for a moment the reality. “Dean Reber dug the grave while you were down at the barn,” Meg said. “It’s at the foot of the persimmon tree.”
The grave was neatly dug, the sides square, the dirt piled up on one side of the deep hole. Everything that Dean ever built was perfectly squared.
“I can’t bend at all. I can’t ease Chupy into it.”
“It’s all right,” Meg said. “Chupy is beyond hurting.”
The pale blue sky was slashed by a contrail that was crossed by a dark line, a f light of sandhill cranes trumpeting their haunting cry. He began to pull dirt over to fill in the grave.