Fiction || NARCISSUS by Toti O’Brien
And of course the whole thing about vanity was an artifact. A cheap gossip or else a lame excuse. They all reveled in those bits and pieces of talk: so they vented the trouble lingering in the secret folds of their bellies.
They kept saying he was vain and death had been his punishment. “Vanity doesn’t become boys,” they whispered over and over – for the legend to take a life of its own, for the myth to enthrone itself and bear responsibility, shaking fear off their shoulders.
They had been unkind to him: they knew but they couldn’t help it. Maybe… if chance had allowed private encounters besides their daily meeting at the pond – where they arrived with their loads of laundry and their garrulous mood.
Well, their chirpiness wasn’t properly happiness. Contrary to commonplace, youth is rarely contented. It is busy with ripening: all that stretching of cells itches when it doesn’t hurt. They itched – all of them – with a vague wish to claw at something other than their own skin.
So they scratched at him: not badly, on the surface. I’m not sure he noticed.
When they arrived he was there. He must have come early in the morning. He stood planted on a large rock, his line cast, fingers loosely wrapped around the fishing pole – with no tension, just a matter of balance. He was balance itself: probably his most irritating feature. Especially since their own equilibrium had become precarious, bodies sprouting in unexpected directions at a disconcerting rate. They envied him, in fact.
He stood still like the oak tree whose roots came close to the water, knotted like rheumatic fingers but tenaciously gripping the soil, crumbling it, claiming territory. The roots touched at the rock, wood and stone melting in mossy communality – just like muscle and bone.
The oak shaded him, it wrapped him with obscurity he certainly didn’t need. His skin – olive – his pitch-black hair, luscious, oily, his mud-colored eyes already singled him out. No: his darkness didn’t need accentuation.
Narcissus wasn’t his name. Well of course. Boys don’t get named after flowers, the most female of symbols. So that’s where malignity started: with the nickname they picked, for his name they couldn’t pronounce.
Strangers get annoying – don’t they – from the beginning. You are still well intentioned, neutral at least, when you shake hands and trouble starts. They introduce themselves, as if nothing was, with some gibberish you try to reproduce out of courtesy, and your tongue stammers, and your brain cannot piece together that weird sounding nonsense.
They couldn’t pronounce his name. Who said Narcissus first? Not sure… They were muttering flowers’ names and giggling – more giggling than muttering – covering their mouth with their hands as they were taught. Daisy, Pansy, Lily. Chrysanthemum, Amaranthus, Narcissus. The last one stuck, for they laughed so much they could no more talk.
They were embarrassed, of course: no boy besides him would come to the water and remain in sight. That was where girls should be among themselves. He purposely tagged along, they thought. In fact he arrived first, but that didn’t count… he still managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They named him the day he passed them on his way back to the village, basket full of fish and pole on his shoulder. Long cadenced strides and not a nod, not a smile (was he too shy? too proud?) They were struck by the waft of scent he left behind – an intense flowery smell. Did he perfume himself? That fired the irresistible giggling. Whispers went up and down their tight rows, hands squeezed hands, elbows punched neighboring hips, waists, rib cages.
Did he perfume himself? He oiled his hair – that dark nappy jungle –each morning, from the jar mother left on her bed stand with other belongings. With a mirror: a triangular shard he often held in his hand, turning it around. Such a useless thing: it reflected no more than a fragment at a time. An eye maybe, or a mouth but in sections. Upper lip. Lower lip. Stupid shard of glass, only good for cutting your wrists. Was it why mother kept it there? He didn’t ponder.
Three gold ringlets in a large coral colored shell. A chain, long and thick. A folded napkin embroidered with a single letter L. A very long-teethed comb that he used as well, dipping it in the oil that lasted and lasted… thickening a bit through the years, caramel, honey like.
Quickly he plunged the comb in the jar, which was wide and tall. The stuff spread like a magic potion, loosening off his knots. He took care of tightly closing the lid, then he passed his fingers through hair slick as ribbons. Now he could weave it in one long braid as he had seen mother do. He tied it with a piece of rope.
What did mother put in the jar? Mirth and rosemary, clover and sage. No narcissus, of course. Narcissus… come on.
Mother died three years earlier, while father survived a while. He went only at the end of last winter, when the snow started melting. He did not see the spring.
That was better. If there is a good time for dying, that is not spring. Though dad probably didn’t care: not about seasons, the weather, anything at all. He had been sick for too long. More spent since mother passed -although it didn’t make such a difference.
He was sick before she was. Illness got him as soon as they arrived. A slow poisoning of the blood: his skin yellowing like parchment, his strength sucked away. Mother took care of him…and she did the washing for people. At the pond, but she didn’t go with the girls. She went on her own at the crack of dawn.
She brought him along as far as he remembered. Always: from the moment they arrived she brought him along. She helped him on the rock where he stood till she finished. He liked fishing. They didn’t talk: he heard her sing now and then, bits of tunes interrupted with no reason. Never mind: he loved those songs in a language he no more understood. To him it was nonsense, still he liked the songs.
Mother didn’t teach him how to fish. Someone else must have. Dad, before he got sick? He didn’t remember. He knew how to fish with a pole since they had arrived. Before? He didn’t remember.
After mother passed he kept coming. He always caught some: that’s what they ate, lunch and dinner. Father only wanted soup: he sipped a bit then he turned towards the wall, leaving a half full bowl on the bed stand. When his breathing grew louder the boy picked the bowl. He eagerly drank what was left.
He was thin but muscular. As we said balance was at home with him. If you’d pierce a bullet hole at the very top of his head and drop something in – a coin? a marble? a tear? – it would hit the ground right between his feet. Now… why would you want to pierce such a hole? You could feel the line, straight but flexible like his fishing rod.
Who gave him the rod? He didn’t remember. It must have been with their stuff when they came. Father didn’t give it to him, just as he didn’t teach him how to use it. He fell ill as soon as they arrived, as if he had preferred not to. As if he would have liked it more to die at sea. Or earlier, over there, before they fled.
Daddy’s soul didn’t make it through, it got stuck somewhere: that was clear, but it took them time to understand. Understanding wouldn’t have helped anyway.
He wrapped mother inside the striped rug that came – with the fishing pole – in the bundle daddy had carried during the voyage at sea. Then on land, until they reached the village. Because dad used to be very strong, he remembered suddenly.
He rolled her into the striped, thick, prickly, colorful rug. He knew she would have liked it. Every night she kneeled on it for prayer. Well, he couldn’t really tell. She squatted on the rug, her face tensely facing the door – where she had spotted a crack, long and thin. That is where she looked, mesmerized. A blade of moonlight sipped in – sometimes dim, sometimes almost blinding.
Just a shard, like that piece of mirror she kept on her stand – a large crate she had managed to barter or buy, from whom she didn’t say. She brought home three of those, over time, to go with their mattresses. She and father didn’t sleep together. Never had since they arrived.
Every night she looked at the luminous crack – that scar breaking the darkness, fissuring its compact embrace – and she muttered in a language he no more understood. Prayers, or something else. He stared from his bed, eyes wide opened and perfectly still. He liked rest more than he liked unconsciousness. The sick one – dad – made the air stuffy. That dampness was familiar, securing. Its sour odor meant home.
Before dawn mother arose with a cat’s swiftness. Sitting up in bed she opened the jar, she combed and braided her long hair. He woke up at the scent embalming the room for a while – a draft of prairies in bloom. They stole out in minutes: the laundry was already stacked by the door. While he grabbed it she carried board, soap, bread wrapped into the L embroidered towel. They ate on their way: two slices, large and fresh. She had carefully wrapped them the night before. She had kept them on her bed stand like a sacred thing. They bit hungrily, chewed slowly.
He wrapped mother into the rug, then he dug under a pine tree, on a naked hilltop surrounded by the widest view – kind of infinite. Swept by wind: he knew she would have liked it. He could tell by the way she looked at the crack, at that secret window. He could tell by the way her nostrils flared when they walked to the pond each morning. As if she sucked in the crispiness, the chill.
He didn’t ask permission for digging. No one saw him. Someone might ask later, or not.
She died after three days of cough and great weakness, while she lay in bed and sweated profusely. He cooked food that was already in the house – he didn’t go fishing, didn’t leave the two of them for a moment, feeding both but they needed little. Mom turned on a side, quiet as always. Breathing became hard but never got labored. She passed fast, with no agony he could detect. She slipped between his fingers.
When he knew, it was late evening and he didn’t touch her. He lay in bed until dawn cleared the sky: time to wake up, their time. He rolled her in the carpet.
Then three years went by: father took his time. The boy kept the same routine: fishing provided most of their food. In the afternoon – when he came back to the village – he worked, mending nets. That came easy as a breeze: someone must have taught him though he didn’t remember. Mending supplied all the money they needed.
He was good at sewing and that made the girls giggle. Sewing was women’s work. But he really was better than them all. He worked fast to get done before sunset. Leaning against whitewashed walls, sitting over a bench or a barrel: they would never call him inside, where they got ready for dinner. Mending was an outside job.
The girls peeked at him from the windows. They whispered half words. But he focused, head down, and he didn’t notice.
He had never gone out with a boat. No one had invited him. He had no friends, though he could speak the language, of course. Also mother did, since she had started the washing… Mother could understand but only talked in case of necessity. Otherwise she sang things incomprehensible. She murmured things inaudible, looking at a single string of moonlight. Now she was under the pine – that smelled almost like the oil she left in the jar.
He had never been on a boat (besides, sure, the one that brought him there) for high-sea fishing. He only cast his line in the pond for freshwater fish –good enough, and he always caught some. During winter the pond froze. During winter all nets were thoroughly mended.
He had grown very tall, not a man yet. Although perfectly aligned and straight like an arrow. Not a man. Will he ever be one? Lingering at the pond where the women-in-bud came to wash their laundry. And he didn’t see, didn’t mind them. As if they meant nothing to him. He did not engage in teasing, conversation or games – sulking in pride or timidity, they believed.
Not a man, uncaring of other boys’ company, quietly sewing his nets or staring hypnotically at the water, waiting for the subtlest whirl – then ready to snap up the line with a tinge of ferocity no one saw.
His long braid, his exotic perfume made his maleness doubtful: scent was the culprit. It was what earned him the fame of being frivolous– that of course he wasn’t.
Someone said, when they came back to tell he had vanished from the rock…
He was there, they could swear, and a minute later he wasn’t. Then he was nowhere. No splash? How could they tell? They were washing laundry. They were splashing to their heart’s content, also chatting, yelling and laughing. No splash that they heard, and no motion over the greenish surface: not that they saw, but did they watch? Pole and line were left askew on the large stone where he had perched all morning –the basket leaned on its side, and no fish.
He was there, his skin glistening its fawn leather hue, sharply singling him out. Still and mute – a statue, a tree. Then a moment later he wasn’t. One of them said he looked down to fix his hair –leaned too far, lost his balance and fell. But we know he was balance itself.
The pond was said to be bottomless. They believed it communicated with the ocean through an invisible channel. The old folks said it: they must have some kind of proof. Something was lost there (a sandal? a tunic? a bird cage or a wedding ring?) then was found stuck inside a net. The pond flushed its secrets at sea.
He had looked at his handsome face and he had fallen for himself, since he didn’t care for lassies – so they gossiped to unleash the fear grabbing at their guts, because of that mystery. In fact he might have levitated. Disappeared in thin air. Disembodied.
They had never learned his real name. They couldn’t recall it.
Later, when spring truly marched on, narcissi were all over the hill with the lone pine. Where he had buried father as well, wrapped in nothing. There was only one rug – sheets and blankets were worn, soaked in dried sweat. After mom went not much laundry was done. He had buried dad in his clothes: it did not matter.
Wild narcissus is white as china and nicely shaped. Its perfume is acute and pierces you like a bullet. It spreads your nostrils open, shoots into your brain and bursts like a single stabbing of longing. As for what, you have the choice. Or you don’t.
Wild narcissus’ scent is strong but it doesn’t travel. It stays put. You have to come close. You have to crouch on dirt – on this naked hill it might be unpleasant. You have to kneel and lean forward, face down.
Higher up the pine scratches the air with a pungency that spreads far and wide – like a wish, an invocation, a song or else a lament. It comes in gushes, then is gone. All of this is immaterial. Intangible. None of this lasts.