hillary keel | writing


In the house, windowed and gardened, cactuses and the waxy leaves of rubber plant, branches far reaching. House of staircases, two, no three. Staircases curved toward, directions boxed and labyrinthine, balconies contrast of larch, a deep red wood, a smell and texture, doorframes, brass handles, no longer, but still. Once. I painted arcs, semi-circles, half-ovals, one over another. I couldn’t, unskilled and inept, but all the same, looking for mine, my, the place and shade, a tint of me, dipped brush into scarlet, stroke across, and on and over. I need this, a solution, a cure, to mark my mark. Soon hammering nails and hanging framed photos of our dead, haphazardly, at whim and wish, ungrounded but this was my ground and I would fix it with my heart. Our life, we had a refrigerator and insisted on art, my piano, a wine cellar. I made my library and hung curtains, went from room to room painting walls, starting in mine, ending in yours. I was there. I was not. Just. A ghost hovering over your table, laid on your platter with knives and forks, lace cloth, old world. Or I put candles in holders, lit the place up like a Hanukkah night. I said, I didn’t say, stuttered my Rs and slurred my Chs. I listened to codes and curtsied before your acolytes with Easter baskets. Incense and the smoke from your Sprühkerzen—that was yours, while mine was popcorn and the hum of dishwasher, this was our bone and axe. You taught me to ski, put meat on me, hung me on your cross—like a teacher you’d once dreamt of and molded me after. I tried; I wouldn’t without the snap and flood of storm.

There I painted, the children having no part, hidden in rooms or up on the hill, at tram stop, a lesson. This me, Verlegenheit deine, peinlich, peinlich, I shivered. The water, the color, the brushes. I splattered and stroked. This was due, would do, joking, I pressed my eyes shut and wished. Arcs upon arcs, I adjusted shades, blended. I stopped and paused, wishing. I wished. Eyes shut then opened I continued from room to room, your room last. Were we married? Your room, separate staircase of oak by glassed Wintergarten, branches and beams. I admit, a confession, with a laugh, how we’d run off to the woods, poems by Bachmann, a crown of birch leaves, or in Prague with passports for police, your princess in men’s overcoat, we walked through Kafka’s city, the iron moment of fog, the melancholy of Schubert and winter approaching was no preparation. I thought, I didn’t think but promised, no I’ll never go back, yes, just this you and wool sweater is enough, I thought, your father’s shirts. It gave me a world. He spoke of Hitler, he whispered and dreamed forgiveness, to see his life, mapped it out, brought me apples. You, the Maoist, the handsomest in Vienna, books on Marx and Lenin at the flea market. I admit, there was fun. If I knew, saw, but couldn’t though some warned. Quite, but I couldn’t buy. That I wouldn’t, the thing to prepare me for this. A life, a part, my baby-booming American illusion, from rectory to college to Wohngemeinschaft and then you. No amounts of marijuana, Quaaludes, cocaine and LSD could wash those smudged pews from me, the upstate New York and Philadelphia, I’d only hoped. Then your village, the apples, and snow—and there I was mother—the day you slapped (newborn in my arms), pulled me to the ground, the terror of your night while our babies slept and still I wasn’t savvy.

Night had been your worst, and the memory of infancy, to let cry or hold? But children do and this frightened yours. Memories on wood, mine all erased, no I have never smelled wood, I’d reassure, milk trickling from my breasts. But when you’d said there’d be no friends in this province, and my speech frightened the cows, the sheep, their peasants, your pull and shatter of love at night was when I’d begun to lay my head. Said I’d slipped on the icy steps, but it was your fever. Why does he push so hard, why can’t he sing or even hum? Give the boy some water after sleep! Show the girl some space! No, you’d bark, had gone livid from chick peas and wanted soothing. Ah, but after, morning would chisel its way through iced-glass and glowed pink on the wall and I loved. This is love, I’d think, something my mother had never done upstate. I’d stayed and stayed in your house, kneaded dough, formed loaves, baked and smeared them with lard or jam, lit fires in ovens all for the sight of pink light, your lashes, baby flesh. If only this. If only I paint these walls now, I thought, the kids smirked, praised, shrugged, shut their doors. You stepped in disbelief, in mockery. Look, a paintbrush in her hand, you thought, that was our dance, our time, just time. Though I kept, had sex, drank your whiskey and white wine and my masterpiece in your room, but nothing, a left-handed marriage, morganatic. A wall round you, the unspeakable candle in your corner.

No simple bad luck, you, my ribcage, my flesh buried in your ground. You banished me in your dark. Desolate, and I needed to know, and find the will to love and then go. To be gone. I needed you behind, like my brother, long dead. No amount of warnings, no gypsy girl enchantment—though at your corner I’d opened my palm to her, she said you had a car, a marrying love, but something, eyes flashed bad German, to protect, herbs wrapped in paper, dropped in my pocket, and even that.

That I would pick your berries and watch your family in someone’s milk and rural song. I tried to sing and get some reason in that. Your mother’s sorry nodded off, then five days after a black scarf wrapped around his jaw. Spoke to him the very day. Even before, you’d had your ennui and being an orphan made you chirp. It brought insufferable freedom, to you alone, but catching wind, I put my finger on and wouldn’t let up. Though you scratched for years, I tangled, untangled, dangled and scrambled my way out.

Now Viennese café in the East Village and your electronic message of change, new houses, diminishing funds—the old walls, now painted over—and a red heart appears to tell me you are scot free. East Village sleep sees me barefoot in snow, there’s somewhere, I’m left out, can’t go, but I look. Snow turns soft, warm, smooth—sand on a beach, oozes through toes.

First published as “Marriage Location” in Dear Sir, issue seven