by Rose Lemberg
(originally published in Not One of Us, October 2011)
You made a necklace strung with silver wire and beads like tender vials filled with blooming light. Its power drips into your bones, coloring your insides green and amber. People don’t see the warmth, but they edge closer. Even He does.
You ride in the elevator together. He is round and solid, a condensed giant who is happy at a buffet, or in the library. In Old Icelandic poetry, the giants are called rock-whales.
The elevator moves up slowly, but you feel privileged to be there, to carry His books to class. Scholars’ hands had released these hopeful volumes to fly across the ocean home to Him like word-filled gulls. Between the covers folktales crowd, whispering to each other about the heroes and scholars they’d known.
“You said you had a tale for me?” He’s playful, the remnant of His white hair a wisp of a halo in the elevator’s gloom. It is stuffy in here and warm by His body, and you never want this to end.
You say. “Oh, the one where the travelers lost in the wilderness find a hall to spend the night in it. Come morning they notice they slept in the Giant’s mitten. In the other variant, travelers are drowning at sea, and the Giant scoops them up into his mitten, and carries them gently to shore. And the name of the Giant is…” You whisper, and his smiling eyes grow wide.
The elevator stops, the doors slide open. You have to step out now, to leave, to go home, and your home is loss and ice. But He says, “Take a week off. I have to see these connections written out. My office hour is still at three o’clock.”
You step out of the elevator. The corridors tunnel through hills to the university’s heart. The library’s there, that great buffet of words; but with every step you dry up, you are transformed, transported to the subarctic lands, to Siberia, Newfoundland, Iceland, and you know all the lost that had drifted away from the shore, all the shivering, withered and praying for someone to guide them; they pray for a giant of mild fire.
The library chair is too smooth. Worn by generations. It will serve long after you go. It’s so cold in here, in the small of the earth, but He told you to write, and you do. “… a series of strikingly similar tales that exist in circumpolar diffusion…”
Love, you mean. Only love.
You emerge. A butterfly or moth. Your wings wet, glued together, and you’re blind and miserable. It’s quarter to four. Time to make it to the end of office hours, or get a cup of coffee.
Coffee, you decide. Let one of the others carry His books to class.
In the seminar room you sit by Him, your paper cup already cool to the touch, useful only to mark your place among the other disciples. “I have the essay,” you say, and He winks back, anticipating. Oh yes. You have made this for Him. Old stray wanderers lost, their tales beacon-beads gathered together by the warmth of your scholarship. The old tales alive again. And your Giant’s hands will hold them, shelter them, make you shine in his eyes.
You touch your necklace for luck – but your hand finds only the hollow of your throat. With a sinking heart you pat your pockets, shake out pens, a subway ticket, a coffee card with three punched holes. He coughs.
You pat the essay pages on the table in front of you. Later, you think. Time to shine later.
He speaks of Marxist theory. His words slow down, stumble. He looks so tired. “You will, of course, notice…” He soft lips move, soundless. His eyes look at you, only at you. The last disciple.
He is leaning away.
You dare not touch him. What if you touch him? What if your fingers cross that boundary of space, of age, of marriage, of desolate silence, what if you dig into His puffy, homey, warm arm and find purchase, and never let go, and never let go –
From the other side of the seminar table, someone’s voice rises. “Professor Dundes! Professor Dundes, are you all right?”
You all run to Him, frightened children jumping around a beached whale. His chest and round belly heave with short, ragged breaths, and His face is ashes.
Can you push your whale off this shore, back into the deep water? You try, you all do. You take turns at trying.
He doesn’t make it to the hospital.
You release the essay pages above the grave. In the first folktale, the Giant has carried the freezing travelers home, and now he is tired, so tired he lies down and falls asleep. Becomes a boulder. A rock-whale.
It’s been six years now and you know you will never find your necklace again. But the old craft-box is still around, unopened since the day. Here. You take out the round-nose pliers. They are clumsy in your hand. The brilliant silver wire has tarnished with time. You sift through paper scraps, used-up subway tickets, more wire-working tools, a few coins, a coffee card with three punched holes. In this box, at the bottom, there should be some leftover beads.
You want the warmth back. Is it too much to ask?