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The Violet Hour
Author's note: I am a bird in a cage With a violet pen in hand Flapping my wings in rage Flying into quicksand.
I am flying. I am gliding across the ground. I am dancing above the clouds. I am stretching my wings and riding on currents of springtime air. The grass is only a green blur on the ground. The earth under my bare feet feels cool and fresh and new; I am grateful for it beyond words. What do I think about when I run? Vague colors come to my mind that I like-- fragrant purple the color of lavender, shades of elusive blue that are hidden away in the distant mountains, soft yellow like the color of winter sunshine. I don’t think complete thoughts. They slow me down, they drain my strength.
Sometimes I feel a twinge of emotion. I welcome it, because whatever it is--- joyous or angry or lonesome--- I convert it into my legs and it carries me an extra couple miles. I never think of words or people or places. The only exception is a strange thing. It’s a shadow filled with light. It’s the vague impression of an unknown person that should be in my life but is not. A boy, I think, who is tall and lean. That’s it. Sometimes I know without a doubt I see his shadow flicker in and out of existence. “Who are you?” My voice sounds like a mangled scream. It shocks me. My feet try to rouse my mind out of dreamworld by connecting with a tree root. Well, all that made me do was fall to the ground. I stare down at my feet angrily and then shove them deep into the grass. They can get devoured by the bugs, for all I care. After the bugs have punished my feet adequately, I get up and plunge them into the freezing cold stream.
Suddenly the sun begins to set, and I know that Mother will spend an extra hour torturing me with bobby pins and powder and lipstain if I don’t hightail it. “Bye,” I whisper to the wind in case the shadow boy can hear it. I sprint my way back through the woods. Just before the gates come into view, I turn to my left and reach in the hollow of a chestnut tree for my shoes. The white eyelet fabric covering the surface of them repulses me. I scoop up a handful of dirt and sprinkle it over the surface, then jiggle the shoe so it sets in the fabric. I look at them with satisfaction.
Then I take them up in my hands, slip through the bars of the gate, bypass skeptical Mr. Nellums, the gatekeeper, and slowly inch my way around the house, ducking under each of the huge windows to stay hidden. Finally I come to the window of my room. I quickly scale the tree next to it and hop into the window, then slam it before anyone realizes it’s open.
I’m sprawled out over the cherry-wood floor when I hear footsteps coming down the hall. Shoot. I was supposed to be spending “at least an hour” getting ready for some rich family or another, most likely containing at least one eligible bachelor, to come and eat dinner with us. I estimate I have about 45 seconds before Mother gets to my room. My heart pumping, I tear off my dirty clothes and sweep them under the bed. Then I race to my wardrobe, yank a fancy dress off a hanger, force it over my body, and zip it up. The footsteps are getting closer. I splash some freezing water on my face, wipe it off, then tear a brush through my hair and stick a jeweled pin in it.
“Vivi?” Mother calls.
Almost done….. I grab a tube of something-or-whatever off of my dresser. It’s lipstick and I slap on a coating. The handle is turning. I smooth my hair and adjust my dress and then Mother strolls in casually. “Vivi,” Mother says again, strolling into my room, all jewelry and fake Southern charm. She gives me the suspicious eye for a long time. I try not to squirm and look guilty. Finally she tells me, “Fix your lips. It’s smudged. I want you down in the dining hall in twenty minutes so we can be ready when the Baylors arrive.” She regards me coolly with her eyes and speaks with authority. The door shuts and I am enraged.
“Who does she think she is?” I mutter to the old-lady flower wallpaper. I hate that wallpaper, but I feel sorry for it, because it wants to get off the walls as much as I want it to. A couple times a year some workers come in and reattach the peeling corners to the walls with who knows what. Mother said this wallpaper belonged to my great-great-aunt Ernestine. They should have buried this loathsome junk with her centuries ago. I think we would all be happier. “Poor thing,” I say to the wallpaper again. “We both want to live our own lives, don’t we?”
For a second I glimpse myself as a stranger would, and of course I’m insane. My only friends are a shadow, whom I slightly doubt exists, and the suicidal wallpaper, who actually exists but is never any fun. I’m pacing around the room now with the urge to break something. Someone might hear me, though. One of the maids who loves to whisper about me with the others when they think I’m not looking, perhaps. I find a porcelain figurine Daddy brought me one time from one of his trips to who-knows-where. There is a nice carpet of dust on it. I throw it back in the chest and slam the lid, which gives a satisfying thump. I fling myself onto my bed and think about blue and purple and tree roots for a while as the sky begins to turn pink and orange with the sunset.
I fix my stupid lipstick and then I head down the stairs. They are freshly vacuumed. As I pass the last landing I put on my happy Southern belle face so Daddy won’t ask any questions after the guests are gone. I hear strains of laughter coming from the dining room. I cross the parlor and press my ear to the door. The Baylors are here. I sigh against the door, straighten up, then enter. Everyone stands up to greet me. Father walks over, grasps my hand, and raises it to our guests. “Well, here she is, Genevieve in the flesh herself!” There is a light sprinkling of applause, and then Mr. Baylor takes my hand and kisses it.He looks me in the eye and says, “It’s a real honor.” He is wearing a white suit and has a handlebar mustache that look out-of-place on his face.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Mother giving me the devil stare to behave, so I blush politely and smile at Mr. Baylor. “Well, now,” Daddy says, eyeing me, “didja find that rascal of a dog?”
“’Course I have,” I tell everyone with a sweet Southern-belle smile. “He was all the way out near the barn. I barely snatched his collar in time before he disappeared into the woods.” Everyone laughs on cue.
“That ol’ devil, we can never keep him contained,” Daddy tells the guests. After a pause, he says to me, “Why don’t you have a seat next to your Momma over there and get started on your soup?” So I sit down in the seat next to Momma and get started on my soup. Everyone is about halfway done with theirs. The conversation takes a polite turn towards politics so I can eat. Mother has put on a double strand of pearls and wears a light pink suit with a wildflower pin in her lapel. The table is full of greenery, more flowers, and a few candles scattered here and there that flicker whenever the maids refill a crystal goblet with the fizzy punch Mother demands the help make to impress our guests.
There are three Baylor boys. One is younger, twelveish or so. He has made a game of fishing out the greens from the soup and tossing them under the table. He looks like he’s done it his entire life, because he’s very sneaky about it and everyone is too busy trying to impress everyone else to notice that the youngest Baylor boy hates vegetables. The oldest one looks to be in their mid twenties or so. He is busy agreeing on how politicians from up North don’t know anything. He is handsome enough. They’re all handsome enough, with varying shades of brown hair and the same blue-green eyes. Now the maids have taken away our soup bowls and we’re starting on some over-prepared main dish. The ingredients taste rich, like the cooks melted dollar bills into the sauce.
The middle boy looks right around my age, maybe a few years older. I would guess nineteen or twenty, I suppose. Every time I take a sip of my drink I find him staring at me. His eyes gleam with shallow desire and self-obsession. So THIS is the one I’m supposed to fall madly in love with. Well, it’s never going to happen. I stare back at him fiercely, but he doesn’t lower his eyes. He just smirks, like he owns me.
Mother drags me back into the conversation. Are politics over? “…And our Genevieve is a wonderful artist. Ever since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, we had to rush around the house and take the pen from her hand before we had to call in men to replace ANOTHER piece of wallpaper. “ Mr. and Mrs. Baylor chuckle politely. Rich people are the best actors.
“Oh, and do you remember the time she drew the maid when she was just a little girl? She was so upset when we took it away from her. It’s just not right,” Daddy said, lowering his voice, “to associate yourself with the people who work for you. Poor girl. How could she have known?” The adults smile and nod sympathetically my way. I don’t ever recall any of this happening, except the maid incident, but that was last year. I was never a talented artist. The only reason I can draw is because my parents hired some French lady with an iron- board straight back who was good at sketches to “culture me”. I think it’s boring and tedious, especially because I’m not permitted to draw anything other than flowers and birds.
Suddenly, everyone at the table is looking at me intently and with anticipation, even the youngest boy, who has stopped playing with his food. This must be important. Darn you, dinner party.
“So,” said Mother, glaring at me underneath her mask of smiling makeup. I can see the wedding theme being conjured up in her mind. “don’t you agree? White is definitely your color.”
I set down my fork firmly on my plate and look her coolly in the eye. “I really prefer blue, thank you.” And then I smile sweetly and sarcastically, push my chair in, and abandon the lacy traps the world has set for me.
In my room, my infuriated hands find colored pencils and a sketchpad. They draw the lines of a picture. I lean back on a wall, content to let them work while I rest. After a while, I realize that it’s a picture of the dinner party we were having. There’s dollar bills everywhere--- melted in the soup, woven into the chairs, hiding in the lapels of coats, reflected in the glazed eyes of everyone. It’s such an accurate depiction of it that I laugh and kiss my hands over and over again for being so defiant and realistic. I mount it on cardboard and tie a ribbon on it, then run it past one of the maids that loves to talk about me and I tell her to present it to the company.
After a while I hear the glorious sound of the conversation being interrupted by the maid. There’s initial excitement drifting up from the stairwell I catch, and then quiet as the meaning of the sketch unfolds itself. There is unease, and every penny of it was earned by all the rich folks downstairs. I hear chairs being scraped across the floor eventually and hasty, taut, too-polite goodbyes being said. The pencils are surrounding me and sweet revenge is lingering in the crevices of my palm. Mother comes up the stairs and into my room, predictably. She is wearing a green spring dress and is no nonsense. Her eyes burn holes through my forehead, but I don’t care. “Tomorrow,” she says to me, scooping up all my art supplies, “they burn.” Then she is gone as fast as she came. My hands can heal, my hands can bruise, but she can’t tell the subtle difference.
For reasons that are completely unclear to me, a single tear rolls down my cheek as soon as the door is firmly shut. I kick my bedpost hard. I see a single colored pencil left on the floor. I pick it up with trembling hands. It’s a deep violet. I slap my hands with each other for being able to draw. But then it sounds like applause. This is so hilarious to me that I’m laughing hysterically and I’m crying from it. I clap for the wallpaper and for the curtains and for my pencils that are on death row and for my wallpaper again, for being so loyal. I stay there on the bed for a long time, thinking about the likelihood of that family coming back again, thinking about the crazy eyes in the girl in the mirror, thinking about how white is not my color.
Then I think about how tomorrow will probably be a punishment day where I get lectured on etiquette and waste my time making stupid tapestries that will be placed in a remote, dusty corner, never to be seen again. When I’m bored and all thought out, I glance at the clock. It’s a quarter past ten already. “Well,” I say to the bedspread, “There’s no time like the present.” I don’t know what prompts me to take the pencil, but my hands do, and it feels like it belongs here this lonesome night.
I awake with a start to be in my own bed. My hands are strangely warm. Nellie, the motherly, middle-aged wife of Mr. Nellums, is sitting next to my bed with a basin, a washrag, and a bowl of broth. Before I ask her, she says, “Miss Genevieve, you’ve done missed a good couple days here knocked out in bed with the fever.”
I’m so confused. After a minute of lying there I lick my lips and I ask her, “Mrs. Nellie. What’s the name of the man who chops wood here that was hired a week or so ago?” She eyes me suspiciously and says,
“I don’t know. Smith or Jones or something like that, why? You need a washcloth, Miss Genevieve?”
“No, no, but did he have a son?”
She sat there and pondered a moment. Her hands were working at knitting who-knows what. The shades were pretty, the colors I see in my head sometimes. “I think he did, by God Almighty. I don’t know for sure if it was his son, but I saw a boy leaving here with all of his things. Real nice looking fella, he had the light hair and the tall bones. I stopped him and asked him where he was going, and he told me he was going somewhere to learn to run better, then he promised to come back. He was pretty darn crazy, so I told him, ‘Son, you is pretty darn crazy, but come in here and get yourself some food to take with you,’ so he did and then he said goodbye and left. Heaven knows where he went, but we sure coulda used him around here.” She clucks her tongue and shakes her head sadly and stirs the broth I didn’t want to eat. After a while I tell her I feel much much better, and tell her I’m going to use the bathroom. I know I don’t have much time before she comes after me. My head is spinning, and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore. Down the hallways, turn corner, turn corner, here, the room with the rug. I open it and see everything there how it was before. I bend down and stare at the rug, afraid to know if it was real or not, afraid to know whether I was feverish and delirious or awake and alive. Before I think more, I lift the flap of the rug. Purple writing in two different hands. A bird drawn in the corner. I’m alive. I abandon the rug and run to my room in a daze and crawl back into bed because I’m dizzy and happy and young and confused and tired.
Chapter 3- Epilogue
My hands contrast starkly with the polished gold door handle. They are old and spotted with age. I don’t know how it happened. The years piled up on each other like sheets of paper so fast that every day feels like a whirlwind with paper cutout snowflakes. I turn it slowly and surely, forcing my hands to obey. Now that I’m ancient and wrinkled I want to make them do things, but now they lay by my sides like shaky blunt objects only useful for hitting people over the heads with. I open the door. Everything is exactly how I remembered it last was. It’s the same furniture of my girlhood, but now with dust on it. So much dust… How many years has it been? Fifty? Sixty? One? Too many for me to have the bravery to count. The house is full of movers and painters I’ve never seen before in my life. No one pays much attention to me as I walk in because the room is so busy. I’m a crazy old lady who is always dressed up in purple, and who has time to question it? The house is being sold to a newlywed, well-to-do couple who will set new roots in this place.
I smile at the deep red being painted over the hideous beige walls. It’s about time someone has done it. Those wretched walls were always so unforgiving. An unfriendly shove toward them, Mother would be on your case before you could explain why you kicked the wall. Oh, Mother. Oh, Daddy. They’re gone, they’ve been gone for several years now. First one, then the other a year later. Everyone is gone, gone, gone. Most of the people I knew are gone. Henry was only here for a few years, and then his mind was gone, gone, gone. I wander through the house like a ghost and look at all these people who are so young and carefree. They have lives ahead of them, they have people to marry, they have tomorrow to see! It’s a strange feeling to not walk among them anymore, but my spirit runs faster and further than any of them.
There’s the china cabinets and the carpets and the windows upstairs. It seems like the furniture was placed in this home since the beginning of time in such a way that if you didn’t walk like a lady, it would draw your shin to it. I walk around and around and come to my old bedroom. I take a breath and walk into the room. Of course, everything is the way it always was. The same old bedroom. I laugh and feel like I haven’t missed a beat. I’ve only been away for a day. One of the maids will come in any second with my washed clothes or to make my bed for me. I flop down on my bed. A small cloud of dust rises up.
The pain from my stiff joints is nagging at me, but I don’t care. It feels so good to remember, but it’s so painful yet. On my feet again, they carry me to a way that seems strangely familiar. I laugh as I see the doorway. Into the square room I go. And…. the two different handwritings and the bird are still there. Swept under the rug. The one night I was thrust into vivacious life, into featherweight happiness. I roll the heavy rug up so the writing is facing inside, wrapped up in itself. Then footsteps approach and so I leave the room and walk down the other hallway. A young man passes me in the hallway with a ladder. “Could I help you, ma’am?” he asks in the polite tone of what-the-heck-is-this-crazy-lady-doing-here?.
“No, I’m just passing through, thank you,” I tell him, smiling to myself at the thoughts that must be running through his head. I walk downstairs for the last time. My hands linger on the banister. Then I walk out into the woods, which is slightly thicker but still the same old woods. My knees creak and threaten to give out, but I know they’re bluffing as I find the beginning of the trail. My shoes are purple silk, and I realize for the first time how much they positively look like a pansy wears them. I want to feel the earth under my feet, so I take those things off my feet and I throw them into the river. I remember the way my shoe arched when Henry threw it into the river thousands of starlit nights ago as my shoe now falls into the river. When I feel the grass and the wind and the sky and the sun greeting me hello, something switches on, and suddenly I am running all over again. I am flying. I am gliding across the ground. The colors come back to me, and I feel the Henry I met long ago running beside me. I am seventeen years old and a bird escaped from a cage with a purple pencil in my hand. I’m everything that I always was and everything I always will be, all right here, all right now, all in this instant, all keeping the pace with myself.