Chapter one: Once, Something
Morning here is not like any mornings Hannah Pearl has ever known. First, the young woman with hair the color of honey comes in. Her hair spills out of the barrette. She’s wearing a blue—uniform.
“Upsy—daisy, Hannah!” she says, raising Hannah’s bed. “Here’s your glasses!” She opens them up and puts them on Hannah’s nose. “And here’s your medicine.”
On the young woman’s uniform is a small—something—with Roxie on it. Of course she is Roxie. Hannah swallows her pills, one at a time, with water.
On this morning, the young woman—how is she called?—adds, “You’re having a visitor today, Hannah.” She smiles as she flips Hannah’s quilt off, and her sheets. “Time for the bathroom.”
One arm behind Hannah’s back, one holding Hannah’s right hand, the young woman pulls her upright. Slowly, Hannah sits on the edge of the bed. The young woman bends to pull on Hannah’s slippers, her honeyed hair almost touching Hannah’s knees.
“All set, Hannah. Now here’s your walker.”
“I love it when you call me that! Mademoiselle. I’ve got to get my boyfriend to call me that, it’s so elegant.” She holds Hannah’s elbow gently.
Hannah holds on to the silver handles and walks slowly to the bathroom. The young woman helps Hannah sit on the toilet. While she waits for Hannah, she looks into the mirror quickly, and tucks a strand of hair around her ear.
“Sharon will come give you your shower in a few minutes. So don’t you want to know who your visitor will be, Hannah?”
The young woman says Hannah like hand, with an h bold and blowing, just like that, and an a flat, like a marsh. Hannah is used to this, but privately she thinks of her name as having an h only when you write it. When you say Hannah, the word should open up at first, with no h at all, just a lovely “Ah!” and then another one. “Ahnah!” with more fullness to the second “ah.” How to tell the young woman this.
“Hannah? Don’t you want to know who’s coming?”
Hannah thinks of a rhyme. Who’s to visit Mrs. Pearl, Mrs. Pearl? A doctor, a something, a something, an earl. She is worried about splashing the floor, so she concentrates on making a single stream as the young woman—how is she called?—stands close by now, touching her shoulder. Hannah also likes the other one, with the warm voice, who sings. Her voice makes Hannah think of something her mother used to make—something warm and sweet, with pears. That one billows the new sheets like wings, like parachutes, as she sings.
“Hannah? Did you hear me?” The young woman is squatting down in front of Hannah now, smiling. “Your daughter’s coming this morning! She comes every week, right? She isn’t from France, like you, though, is she?”
The young woman’s words puzzle Hannah. She had a daughter, true, although that was in her other life, and how could her daughter, so young, find her here? This place—who could know where it is? The halls go on and on, making a puzzle. One can become lost just going to the—big room for meals. Hannah wonders how to say this.
“This—” she begins.
“Looks like you’re done. OK?”
The young woman takes a few sheets of toilet paper and wipes Hannah briskly.
“I can do that myself,” Hannah says.
“Oh, I know you can, Hannah, but I can just do it so much quicker. Up we go. Wash hands.”
Breakfast comes after a wait in the dining room. “English muffins,” says the woman who serves her. The other women are chatting together, but Hannah isn’t listening until they say, “Hannah, how did you sleep last night?” Hannah cannot remember how she slept, so she nods and says, “Very well, thank you.”
The woman with bright red hair says, “You’ll come out with us this morning, won’t you, Hannah? We’ll ask for permission to take you. It’s a gorgeous day for a little walk, a perfect spring day. We could walk just up the block, to see the marsh through the trees.” Oh, Hannah knows this woman, of course she does!
“I think her daughter, Mir, is coming this morning, Helen,” says the woman with white hair and dark brown eyes. She’s drinking her coffee, black. She is small herself, and a little hunched over. When she looks at Hannah she winks.
Hannah spreads butter on her muffin as she eyes the eggs all folded in on each other, with smooth walls. She could cook eggs more deliciously than this. A bright picture comes to Hannah of a kitchen, soapsuds frothing, her own hands warm and clean. Something’s about to go into the pan—eggs with a bit of milk, a bit of cheese—and something’s baking in the oven—Hannah closes her eyes to see and smell—little rolls for lunch.
Words come floating, out of a yeasty ocean: she melted, dissolving, queen no longer, of those waters. Who wrote this? Hannah loved Ovid in translation, and Shakespeare. A delicious language, English.
“Did you say something, Hannah?” the one with red hair asks, touching Hannah’s hand with her own. She’s a friend, Hannah’s sure now; both of the women are friends.
“Ah. She melted, eh? Sounds like not such a good thing to do, no? Melting is not so good.”
Soon she’s sitting in her chair by her bed. Outside the window the leaves wave, light green, new ones. Here in her room is her rug, braided with many colors, and her bed, and her—wooden something—with round circles one pulls, and her mirror, and of course her closet. Inside her closet, she is certain, wait important—documents. One day, possibly, she will look at them. She hopes for their safety. If the young woman with the honeyed hair comes in, Hannah will ask her to check. Maybe she will ask her to hide them.
Hannah’s hands look like landscapes, moonscapes, with ridges and valleys, changing with movement. She likes looking at them against the color of her skirt, a color like the little round fruits, bloodred, purplish, one picks from the tree in the garden. A something—a pit!—inside. Someone younger picks them with her, and drops the basket. Fruits scatter over the grass.
How has she come to have a skirt of this color? Maybe the young woman has given it to her. Un cadeau. Inside this language another waits. Hannah catches glimpses of it, like looking into the windows of a train going slowly past, as you stand in the field nearby. Hannah rubs her eyes. She does not like to think of trains.
When a woman comes in, Hannah is startled. She’s tall, wearing high heels, and she walks briskly, as if she’s on her way somewhere important. Her hair is shiny and her eyes look quick and lively. She has the air of someone from outside.
The woman comes close to Hannah and squats down, holding her hands and looking her straight in the eye. Pretty eyes, like shells. A mermaid, maybe. Hannah knows she’s being silly, but she glances at the woman’s feet for a hint of fin or scale. Mermaids drown you. They sing, though, too, don’t they? Songs like air.
The woman’s asking Hannah questions—so many! How to keep track? She asks one and, before Hannah can begin to understand it, she moves on to another. She talks quickly and her words rush together.
Now the woman is quiet. She squeezes Hannah’s hands—ouch!—and says something Hannah can grasp.
“Out.” That’s what she’s saying. “Let’s go out for lunch.”Sortons, sortons! Hannah pictures Maman, shooing plump Auguste, tail bristling, out of the kitchen. Out where? Hannah wonders. Not to a garden. Wall leads to wall. Someone will stop them. A line becomes a circle. You always come—home, she used to say.
The woman is looking at her with a question in her eyes. Hannah feels uncomfortable. What is she supposed to say? She doesn’t want to venture out, near the place where the women sit and talk on the telephone, in blue uniforms, in white coats.
But, “Out,” she says, in spite of herself, and nods. The woman looks happy now, as if she has plunged into clean, icy water on a hot day. I plunged like that once, thinks Hannah, proud for an instant, in another country, the pebbles hard on my feet, someone calling to me, Viens, Hannah! Vite! Come quickly!
“Yes, out!” says the woman. “To a restaurant! Where would you like to go?”
Where, indeed? Hannah pictures a house, cream colored, one of many all attached, glass with lovely colors in it—blue, red—in the window of the front door.
“I—” she begins, but the woman is too quick.
“Shall we go to the Pomegranate? You always like that restaurant. It’s the French one, remember? Remember the veal? You like it with the mushrooms, remember? Or what about the Golden Wings?”
What is she talking about? Hannah’s glasses start to slip down her nose; she catches them and fixes them. How is the woman coming up with names like this, Pomegranate, Wings? She must be mistaken.
Not wishing to hurt the woman’s feelings, Hannah smiles, and the woman smiles too. She is American, Hannah’s sure. Hannah notices how her eyes look puzzled—sad, maybe. She has a little line just above one of her eyebrows—how is that called? A something line.
“How about if we just get in the car and decide once we’re driving around?” The puzzled look changes into a hopeful one, and suddenly Hannah senses how her own kindliness toward this woman is blossoming into something else, courage perhaps. She decides to go along with the woman’s hopefulness about a restaurant outside. She can’t remember the last time she felt so ready to try for a change. To change places, why, that is a change indeed.
To Hannah’s amazement, the ones at the desk do not say, “Wait a minute! Where are you off to, Hannah?” as she and the woman walk up the hallway. A couple of them just keep looking into the big pink drawers filled with papers, or putting pills into little cups. One of them, in a white coat, looks up.
“Taking Queen Hannah out for lunch?” she asks.
Hannah wonders why the woman calls her this. Hannah looks at her shoes carefully as she walks, slowly, slowly, with her silver walker on its quiet wheels, the pretty woman’s arm around her.
“Yes! We’re off! I just have to sign her out.” The woman picks up a pen and writes something on a—white thing.
“Don’t get her back too late! She needs her beauty rest, you know!”
The pretty woman holds Hannah around the waist.
“She’s beautiful enough,” she says.
“Au revoir!” says the woman in the white coat, only it doesn’t sound right.
“Au revoir, madame!” says the pretty woman, laughing, with an accent just so. Perhaps she is not American after all.
Now Hannah walks down a hallway she cannot remember, past door after door. Outside one door, an old lady is stuck in a wheelchair. She looks twisted into an inhuman shape, like a squash or a cucumber that grew all wrong. She stares at Hannah with yellowed eyes, and Hannah almost trips, because the stare makes her forget what she’s doing. That staring one looks as if she would like to hold on to my ankles, thinks Hannah, and she wonders how to tell the woman about this possibility, when, miraculously, they reach two big doors, and the woman pushes one of them open.
Sunlight. Hannah blinks. The light warms her face and arms. Outside is a season. No soldiers, unless they are hiding, spying on her, behind trees.
“See how the leaves are coming out?” the woman asks. Hannah looks at the leaves, pale green and small. So many trees, arching like—women moving, bending. She sees yellow flowers under a tree with white—skin.
“See how the daffodils are up now? Remember our garden in New Haven, on Livingston Street? Remember the daffodils you planted out front, by the walk?”
Hannah rummages inside herself for a garden with yellow flowers. She pictures instead a small garden with a stone wall and a flowering tree. She has a sense of something vanished where something was (and, all in tears, she melted—who wrote that?). She pauses to look at the woman, who’s rushing on to name other parts of this splendid picture, all in light, laid out in front of Hannah now. Blue sky, she talks about, and forsythia, a boy on a bicycle racing along, the smell of the marsh, and—“Look! Here’s my car!”
Hannah looks. “Tiens!” she says. The car is white. How full of courage Hannah is. I am placing myself in this car, under this woman’s wing, and who knows where she will take me?
As the car moves, Hannah looks out the open window. She sees houses, and gardens, and children holding their mothers’ or grandmothers’ hands. Soon a green park spreads out in a square, with shops and churches around it in rows. A woman walks a dog; a child is held high on shoulders by a young man in a sweater the color of—sky.
Hannah pictures a square, not green but stone, in the city she once loved, a little table at the café near the cathedral, orangeade, a child tossing crumbs to the pigeons. The child’s eyes like almonds.
“The library,” the woman says, slowing the car a bit as she passes. “We could get some books for you after lunch.”
Hannah sees a walkway leading to a big—place—brick, with glass.
“Remember when I would sit on the elephant, in the library in New Haven, the one at the entrance to the children’s section?”
Hannah laughs—a delightful idea, she thinks, a woman on an elephant! Delightful too, to think of a place with an elephant inside. What a grand day this is indeed!