Rue ~ Jill Birdsall

When I wake on my sixteenth birthday the Pope is standing over my bed.  He’s staring at me and he doesn’t look away.

“You and I,” he says.  He nods toward my window.  “Drinks under the tree.”

I follow him past our dock.  On the other side of the dock is Whisper Hill, and on top of the hill our tree.  From where we stand at the bottom of the hill, I see the very top of the tree.  That’s all I see.  Green leaves like a bow on top of a present I want to open.  It glitters in the sun.

“Come on!” he calls.

The rum my father has poured in my glass sloshes to one side and some spills onto my hand.  I lick my thumb clean and run up the hill.

“Ho!” he says.

I stop, my shoes bumping into each other.

Be careful!

More rum spills from my glass.

“Slow it down.  I’ll wait,” he says.  His voice is kind.

Bending over, I drink the rest.  Our rum is as dark as the bay.  It burns going down, a noon sun, my mouth like eyes wide open.  It only takes a few seconds to swallow but I feel it afterward.  It runs through me and inside I burn deeper.  I blacken then light up.  I wait there until I hear a woodpecker hammering in our tree.

Look up!   Move on!

The leaves sway in the breeze, the great green bow unraveling.  The present is opening.

He says I inherited it:   “Kalnienk Vision,” the Pope calls it.

I call him the Pope because when I was small and just learning to talk, he tickled my toes and said, “Pop!  Say Pop!”  Instead of Pop, I said Pope and it stuck.

“Kalnienk Vision,” the Pope says that morning of my birthday.  He’s refilling my glass then his.   It’s early in the day.  The bay smells sharp with brine, the earth beneath us still cool from the night before.   I can feel him looking at me.  He sits back like he does, straight against the spine of our tree, back inside himself where he knows more than I know and he’s preparing to tell me.  His eyes lock on me.  Without looking I know one of his fingers to be stirring circles inside his glass.

I’m looking straight in front of me.  I see a root, bare white and smooth just like a bone.

“Tunnel Vision,” my father says.  “That’s what that means.”

That root shines like the moon.

“It’s just a name.”

The Pope speaks carefully and although I hear his words, I can’t take my eyes off the root like a leg that stretches straight out then lazily lifts at the knee.

“Nothing different,” he says.

That root just picks up and steps over a caterpillar.

“Nothing new.”

As the Pope talks the tree walks.   I lean into his side and elbow him.   I don’t know if it’s me or the tree, but now his drink rocks and spills over the rim of his glass.  It splashes my cheek.

“But why?” I say, still staring at the root.  It takes another step and I point.

My father’s voice changes.  I know that sound, too, the shift from trying to no longer trying.

“In the beginning of time,” he says and moves closer to me, drying my cheek with his sleeve.  “The mangrove tree was one with man.”

He smooths his shirt carefully where it is untucked over his jeans.

He tells me there is an aborigine named Giyapara who looked exactly like our mangrove, his hair wild like leaves.  Way back Giyapara walked the mudflats of Australia.

One hand in his pocket, my father looks like he is ready to pull another story from there.  I think he has researched and memorized these details just to tell me.  His hand reaches down deeper.  He is full of them.

“I’ll take you to Australia,” my father says, his voice hopeful again.  He looks up suddenly.  “Do you want to go to Australia, Rue?”

I rest my finger on the ground in front of the caterpillar and wait.  It crawls onto my nail then across my knuckle.

“Did Giyapara become a tree?” I say.

The caterpillar circles my knuckle like a ring but the woodpecker hammers overhead.

“Look up!” the Pope whispers to me.

I always look down.  In the house, under the mangrove, wherever I am, I look down.  My father says, “Look up!” like other parents say, “Sit up!”  But I can’t.

I don’t know how I got it.  Tunnel Vision.

“What causes it?” I ask him because I know that’s what he wants.  He wants to talk about it.  I see what he’s doing.  He’s trying a dose of honesty figuring I’m old enough now.

“No one really knows.  Migraines, panic attacks.  The bite of a Black Mamba snake.”

“A Black Mamba snake,” I say, petting the caterpillar then letting it dangle from my finger.  I swing the caterpillar left then right like I’m conducting.  “So what’s the difference?” I ask him.  “What’s so different about the way I see?”

My father is quiet.  He looks out over the water.  “All I can tell you is I know what you see.  I’ve seen it.  I can still see it.   But I can see something else now too,” he says.  “There’s a whole bay stretched across the horizon, Rue.  A line of houses all with docks–”

I don’t see a bay.  I see black with a pinhole in the middle, one house with an open window.

“Like the shutter of a camera,” the Pope continues.

I hear a flock of geese and I see only one…

“In tunnel vision, it’s ninety-five percent closed.”

…but I really see that one.

“That’s Tunnel Vision.”

I see one house across the bay.

“It is five percent open, though,” he says, his eyes smiling at me.

One girl.

“Sometimes it’s beautiful,” he says following my eyes.

But I look down.  The caterpillar is wearing a woolen hat.  I see so many chills run up its back as it inches its way across my arm.

“And sometimes it’s not,” he says.

Together we stretch our arms toward the water.  He touches my glass with his.  Happy Birthday!   And it is a pleasing clink, a joyful sound of occasion and celebration, of drinking together, that echoes across our bay.

My father and I live alone, just the two of us, in an old brick house on the northern tip of Old Nauvoo.  His studio is in the attic.  On the floor below, my room faces the bay.  There are no curtains on my window which means at night I have no choice but to see the boats coming and going.  Their lights travel across my ceiling.  They come in.  They sail out.

I don’t remember my mother.  She may have been there when I was very small but off to one side or the other.  She couldn’t have been straight ahead.  If she was, I would have seen her.

What I do remember is his first woman rising out of the bay.  I heard her climb onto our dock.  A loud sucking noise lifting and then heavy dripping.  She was quiet except for a few gulps of air as she ran up the grass.  This is how I knew she was at the house:   Her fingers turned the doorknob below my window; they were sweating and slipping and I heard her struggle.  Stockinged feet climbed the stairs past my room.   At the top knuckles knocked for him to let her in.  From my bed I listened as one after another feet landed soft and muffled on the floor of his attic room, the ceiling of mine.

Not long after, I saw her like the Pope saw her–the image of a beautiful woman filling a canvas propped under a window at the southern end of our house.

My father is a portrait painter and a very good one.  He is known across the world.  In France they say he is brilliant.  The Swedes call him master.  In Italy he is treated like a prince.  The Pope has devoted his life to painting.  He specializes in women.

When I was small I didn’t know anything was wrong with me until the Pope tried to cure me.   He had work in Oxford, he said.  The Pope lies.  We went so he could take me to Saint Margaret’s Well.  We walked down long metal tracks through Binsey.  We stopped at Perch for ale.  The Pope ordered fish and chips for me but I didn’t eat it.  He gave me a sip of his ale and told me about the treacle well.  He said it would heal me.   He said it like he thought I already knew there was something to heal.  We were sitting outside in the garden and there was a hole in his shirt.   I reached my finger toward this.  I wanted to go inside it.

“Stop that!” he said, swatting my hand.  “Pay attention!”

“I am,” I said.

Then he took my hand, his all warm.  He pressed my fingers to his shirt.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

I could feel his heart.

We walked down a long line of trees to the well.

“How much longer?” I asked and he just said “Soon.”

The Pope wanted me to immerse my eyes.  He hoped it might wash away what even then he knew wasn’t right.   If this well cured Henry VIII, he said, it could cure me.  Before I could protest, the Pope took me through the door in the ground and dipped me under.

“What do you see?” he asked right away.

I told him I saw the worn knee of his jeans when I went down and the same worn knee when I came up.

When the water of Saint Margaret’s didn’t work, the Pope and I returned home.  There he took to turning my head when he wanted me to change focus.  His big hands lifted my chin.  He tipped me whichever way he wanted me to look.

On the other side of the water I see one house and one house only.  The Pope and I sit close under our tree so he sees this too.  We wait for her door to swing open.  The noise of her family briefly escapes until the door falls shut again behind her.

My father was pleased the first time he saw what I was up to.  He knew because he’d seen her too.  He probably thought it was all his idea.   It wasn’t.   I noticed her long before he had the idea for me.  I noticed her before I even knew it myself.  How could I not?  How could anyone not notice her?  From where we sat, she seemed just about perfect.

My father was happy to see me looking at her that first time, as happy as he’d be every time after.  So happy he was talking like it was the first day of spring or something.  Actually, it was, but that’s beside the point.  He was too happy.  Which meant he would take this too far.  He always did when I was involved.  He just wanted too much for me.

The Pope keeps his hair long.  When you look at him you think he has long hair, but I don’t think he remembers it’s long at all.  My father doesn’t notice it other than when it falls forward every so often and he reaches up like he might smooth a wrinkle in his shirt, in this way re-tucking the hair behind his ears.  Mornings at home when his hair falls forward, I see the colors he’s painted the previous night.

I bent a stray branch in half and broke it off.   It was awfully close to his face.  I made sure nothing blocked his view.

“She likes the sun,” he said.

“Does she?” I said, pretending not to have noticed.

“She does,” he said.  “Look.”

He sounded disappointed, as if he expected me to see or at least I should have been willing to admit I’d seen.  He thought I would never know how to handle myself.

She liked being outside.

We sat quiet.  I glanced over toward her then looked down.  I was so obvious, it was embarrassing.  I had to stare at her longer when she sat on the dock because things were happening that I didn’t want to miss.  She swung her feet over the edge.  She swooshed them forward and back underwater.  I imagined her stretching her toes.  It was ridiculous but I couldn’t stop myself.  I was about to just break out laughing, figuring my father would understand, when he motioned with his head toward her.  He was very serious.

“Deirdre–” he said.

He knew her name.  Don’t ask me how, but he knew.  He was surprising that way.  I’d learned not to put anything past him.

She carried a small paperback in her pocket.  She opened it.  She leaned over to read while circling her feet in the water.

“What’s Deirdre reading?” he asked after awhile.  He was still staring same as me, only he was thinking aloud now.

I shrugged.

But you’d better believe he was coming up with a plan to find out.  Once he got an idea, there was no stopping him.  I watched him study her.  The way she breathed, when she yawned, the way she turned each page.  He was getting to know her.

“Look!” he said when she stood up.

The Pope has an eye.   He sees art everywhere and in Deirdre I see it too.  It’s the way she moves.  The way most of us feel the earth under us, she feels the air around her.  The Pope smiles at me when I look at her.

My father’s eyes make me think of birds when he smiles.  The corners of his eyes fold into triangle-like wings.  His eyes light bright but far away, the reflection of all that lives inside him, I think.

“Who’s that?” he asked, suddenly suspicious.

I had been relaxing but right away I sat up straight and paid attention.

It was that guy from her class.

“Uh oh,” the Pope said.

At least he’d forgotten about her book.  Or maybe not.  He held his head in his hands.

“Who’s the guy?” he wanted to know.

“I dunno,” I said.

I didn’t want to get into it.  I didn’t remember how I even knew.  I remembered him from a long time ago when I went to school.  And God knows I hadn’t been there in years.  My father pulled me out at the beginning.  To travel, he said.  But we only traveled sometimes.  Mostly we stayed home so he could work.  He pulled me because I didn’t know how to go to school.  I didn’t know how to stand in line and do homework and eat lunch in a cafeteria.  My father wanted me to have friends and I didn’t know how to do that either.  I think he figured he could do a better job with me than they could.  After all those years, he was still trying.

“He’s her friend,” the Pope told me.  He sounded annoyed.

He stared harder, squinted across the water as if it was in his way.  He bypassed it with his eyes half-closed, then closed even tighter, until the water was no longer there.  The Pope decided to ignore the intruder too.  He called him Hartley.  I wasn’t sure if he made that up or not.  There was no way of knowing with the Pope.

“Hartley here has to go to his homework now.”

The Pope laughed.  He had no use for anyone interrupting our day.  As far as he was concerned, Deirdre already had visitors and we were sitting right here.  He leaned forward, squinted so hard his eyes were barely visible.  I understood.  Narrowing his vision, the Pope would see only Deirdre.  Of course I wore the same blinders.

“She likes it,” he said.

It was her book.  He was going to venture a guess.  He was feeling confident.  He had an idea and he was ready to let me in on it.  But I knew there was no way anyone could see that far.   He couldn’t know, but he “knew.”  This was the way the Pope did things.  He wouldn’t see the title of her book.  He’d “see” it.  He’d pay such close attention to her that he’d be able to narrow to a few choices, and then he’d just have a hunch from there.  This was how he read people.  He figured them out from the inside.  He felt things.  The Pope was all about feeling.

“It’s literature,” he said.  He told me he was thinking British.  “That’s what they study in high school at your age,” he said.  “British.”

“They’re reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald this year,” I said.

I don’t know why I said this.  Sometimes I just wanted to say the opposite of what he said.  This time it was true.  I saw a reading list long ago.

“You should be reading more,” he said looking at me then.

You’d think they were on my face, the titles of all the books I’d read.  The way he studied me, I felt like a shelf, each author’s name there for him to scrutinize:  Joyce, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky.  I’d read my share.  Camus.  He couldn’t say I fell short in the reading department.  The Pope may have been a reader of people, but I was a reader of books.

The bay always flowed smoothly by our house until it was churning.  A small whirlpool formed at the foot of our tree.  The water circled in on itself.  The whirlpool trapped fish and pulled them inside a tunnel of water roots.  It sucked them in.  Once inside, they looked pathetic.  On their backs, their tails flapped.  They were pulled down fast then they were gone.

I watched a fish sucked into the swirl of water, thinking it was exactly like it had been flushed down a toilet, when the Pope interrupted my thought.

“Through the Looking Glass,” he said.

I wasn’t following and he looked frustrated with me.

“She’s reading Lewis Carroll.”

I was with him now.  It was just that I had been thinking about the fish and the toilet and had forgotten where we were for a moment, that we were talking about Deirdre and her book.

“Through the Looking Glass,” I said and looked up at him, paying attention.

“She reads extra, on her own,” he said.

He explained his process, as if by explaining he could teach me.  He believed I was  teachable.

I thought the conversation should have been over.  He knew the book.  Or he thought he knew the book.  We should rest.   I leaned back against the tree, closed my eyes.  But I knew the truth–the Pope was already somewhere else with this.  He was on the next step.  And chances were this would involve me in ways I was not comfortable.  Like the fish flapping on its back, what choice would I have?  He was the Pope and it was his plan.

So began the conversation about Lewis Carroll.  I didn’t want to read him.  What was the point?  I would never talk to Deirdre.

“When you talk to Deirdre–” the Pope began.

This got me to look up.

“I won’t talk to her.”

“Of course you will.”

I shrugged.

Her friend from school was calling to her now.  His mouth was moving, his hand cupped like a megaphone.  The Pope tried to hear.  But the bay was wide between us and the wind didn’t carry their voices our way.

“Looks like a nice enough guy,” the Pope said.

I knew when he didn’t mean something, and he didn’t mean this.  He was just trying to be adult.  I knew it wasn’t looking good across the bay because the Pope’s face had changed.  He could have been sucking an onion picked from the lawn.  What about him was usually sweet was suddenly bitter.  But he caught me looking at him and I quickly looked down.

“How’s your experiment going?” he asked, changing the subject.

“All’s good.”

He studied me.

I didn’t like to lie but I did this for the Pope.  No sense worrying him.  I hadn’t looked at my experiment in over a week.  I’d forgotten about it.

“You’re quite the scientist,” he said.

I shrugged again.

Since I’d lived at home all these years, then traveled around with the Pope, I’d never had traditional classes.  My “experiment” was just something about plants I’d been playing around with.  Honeysuckle.  I was interested in collecting its honey.  I had glass vials.  Some were filled already.  There was a place behind our house, the chimney room, where I worked on this.  It was my place and I didn’t like to talk about it, even with the Pope.  I especially didn’t want to talk about this with him.  He knew everything about me.  He really knew everything.  I think there could have been one thing that was just mine.  So I really wished he wouldn’t ask.

“You could discover things.  The way things work.  What’s underneath them.  The how.”

He said this kind of thing a lot.  I slumped lower against the tree.  He was on a roll now.  It might take a while.

“You could figure things out.  Solve problems.  Come up with solutions.  You could do so much, Rue!”

I pretended I was asleep.

“That guy,” he said to himself.

He was thinking for me and had forgotten about me, both at the same time.  I knew he was really worrying.  I felt bad so I opened my eyes.  For the Pope I glanced across the bay, just a second, but enough to see them walking to the water together.  Was he holding her hand?

This made me angry.

“Let’s go inside,” my father said.

“But we didn’t finish–”

I wanted to stay.  Deirdre looked especially pretty to me.

“One more minute,” he said, smiling because he saw.

The Pope had some thinking to do, it was obvious.  He needed a better plan.  Just sitting under the mangrove every day wasn’t going to do it.

“It’s a good book,” he said.

“You’ve read it?” I asked.

“You’ll like it,” he said.

He smiled again as if he saw a future for me that I couldn’t see for myself.

I didn’t think I would.  Not at all.  But I knew one thing.  I’d be reading it all right.  Starting that night.  Because the Pope didn’t wait for anyone or anything.  If I was right, by this time the following day, we would be having our first real conversation about how to get to Deirdre by way of Lewis Carroll.

Sure enough at night a copy of A Tangled Tale, Knot 1 by Lewis Carroll waited for me on my bed.  The pages were still warm, so I figured he had just re-read it, maybe even a couple of times.  It was an old edition, an original no doubt.  Inside the cover it said 1880.  I liked the age but I particularly liked that it was his, the cover soft and creased from his hands.  I may not have liked what was inside, I didn’t know yet, but I very much liked the feel of this book my father had held.

After dark, when the boat lights crossed my ceiling, I thought of Deirdre.  I worried about her friend Hartley.  On my ceiling in the dark I saw them together.  He had blonde hair, lightened by the sun, long like the Pope’s.  His body was out of proportion, or maybe I was seeing this wrong.  His smile was easy.  To me he seemed to be always swinging, like he was flying forward and back with a wind rushing at him while everyone else remained still and at rest around him.  Hartley stared at Deirdre when they talked.  And this is what really got me.  He folded his body lower than her then lifted his head up from under so he was looking into her eyes.

I was interrupted by a knock on the attic door.  The Pope opened up.  I heard something scraping like furniture across the floor, then a shuffling and voices.  Eventually, there was a hush.  Like a rain shower, it was at once refreshing and recognizable.  He was busy at work.  He stayed in his studio long after I fell asleep on top of his book.