Tuesday, March 7, 2017

National Women's Month Toti O'Brien's short story "Cassandra"

                                          "Cassandra" © 2017 Toti O'Brien

      You looked like anybody when you left the bus, aiming at the marble bench in a corner of the noisiest, most crowded square of our town… and still magical, spilling beauty from ancient ruins, arches, columns. Spilling out a beam of eternity: a blade, sharp, insinuating.
     The past glory didn’t impress you. You were born there, you had sipped it with milk. But the rest took its toll—the traffic, the rumpus, the chaos. And those buses, so loaded you didn’t miss room, you missed oxygen. So sticky you’d peel off your skin. Was it why you rushed to the door? You needed air, you would later say.
     You did not make it to the bench. You sat on a wall, reverberating white coolness and a promise of rest. An island peering out of your sudden vertigo. That was it, correct, Sandra? A whirlpool of pain sucking you from the inside, cutting your legs, choking you.
     Hurt, though, wasn’t in your muscles or viscera. Where? You couldn’t tell. You just starved for something firm to grab on—the bus wouldn’t do. You wanted a cube of air for you only—nothing big, a prison cell would suffice. But you couldn’t be squeezed among hips and elbows, not for the next hour.
     That’s the time you spent sitting, while the afternoon morphed into night, bringing a change in colors—darker shades, imperceptibly soothing. Then you stood up. You boarded the next bus. You went home.
     What happened in those sixty minutes? You guessed it but you couldn’t name it. Of course you recognized it. It wasn’t the first time. You knew it wasn't yours—by the intensity, so thick it almost detached itself. As when you paint over something in too many layers: there’s a point when the medium doesn’t adhere to the surface… it takes a life of its own. Or when you insist with crayons until you pierce the paper. Again, the surface gives in to the medium’s overwhelming presence.
     Now you were the surface and that thing imposed on you, pushed you like a hand against your throat, but it came lose somehow—alien, extraneous. “It’s not mine, take it away,” you murmured quietly. No one heard you. You looked like anybody, Cassandra: plain, neutral. And the thing passed, leaving no trace behind.
     That night at the dinner table you learned grandma had died. Thousands of miles away, while you sat on stone, unaware: those things require perfect ignorance or they can’t be. Slowly you let her agony leak through your cells, in a rated version of course. An echo, a reflection—that is normal.
     Still she reached you. She got you off the bus. She sat you as for a sacred function, a wake. You were named after her though you didn’t especially love her. You had seen little of her, didn’t have any particular bond.  
     None of it counts, Sandra, in this kind of geometry. You should have known by then. Your tastes aren’t the point. It’s not love traveling through the ether, scattering time and space, winning over gravity and matter. Not the love we believe we feel.
      You were her namesake, she chose you. She nailed you to the wall: white, like the grave she was about to rejoin. If you’d wish for me to tell you what for —what she had to pass down—I can. But there is no need, sweetie. You will find out.
      There will be other deaths, Cassandra. Always far away, at a distance. You will lose your mind and start turning in circles like a caged animal. You’ll pretend not to know what’s going on until you’ll be tired of pretending. You will learn how to stop your frenzy sooner than later, sit and breathe, whisper your mantra: “take it away, let it pass”.
       A bit later the phone will ring. A week later the mail will reach you and you’ll check the date, the hour, the minute, to discover the unfailing coincidence.
       You will wonder about what they’ll want, those random deceased of yours. Not the dearest, not the closest… love isn’t the deal, we said.
       You will find out, no worry.
       How you’ll miss it, when there’ll be no more virtual agonies left, no more calls from the trespassing zone. Then the real gloom will begin.

     Of course this isn’t all. There are words, written, spoken. There are objects: the scariest.
     Those earrings you stole, for example, then you never wore. You were traveling by bus (once again), on your own. You traversed the Black Forest, exploring the wild life, the rapacious birds you so liked. Falcons. Hawks. Eagles. Dark. Large. Larger. Tall trees, castles. Medieval towns. Mighty mountains.
     At one stop, an Alpine resort, you ambled through the gift shop while waiting for the bus to refuel. You saw those plastic trinkets among edelweiss and beer steins: a pair of cheap ear-clips, a small man and a woman, climbing. Smiling. Happy. You took them in your hand and started looking for a clerk who was nowhere in sight. Now the bus was boarding. Nervously you gazed around, then you closed your fist.
     But you never wore them. You didn’t know why you picked them in the first place. They fit neither your age nor your style. You just couldn’t let go. You stored them in the safest pocket of your wallet. You looked at them daily—they were company. They grounded you, so to speak, though they were gaily climbing, one foot in the air…
     One day you were climbing as well. His stairs. Some stairs, leading to one of the apartments where he nomadically abided. Where you went to meet him, nomadically following his path. Unhappy as unhappy can be. Younger than he was. Way more stupid, too. Forgive me, Cassandra.
     Unhappy for you were in love and couldn’t help it, while he wasn’t and never would—in your dumbness you understood that much. Still you climbed those and many other stairs, to join him when he so wished, to gather whatever crumbs he had spared you.
     And you called it love, so let me repeat: there’s a fundamental confusion you need to clarify. Yes, love is involved in what tripped you on those steps. But another quality of it, can’t you see?
     You were going up the wooden stairs—so typical of our capital town, the ancient matrix, playing lives on its grid—when your eyes caught them and you stopped, petrified. Your earrings! Another step and you’d trample them. You got mad at yourself: can’t you look after things you care for? Why don’t you keep them safe? You bring them along with no reason. Then you drop, lose, destroy them.
     Contrite, careful, you bent to rescue your toys. Too late, the girl’s foot was broken. The left one—strange, you had fractured yours many times. It was your Achilles’ tendon, your weakness.  You were dumbstruck for a second... then you opened your purse to hide your treasure, broken and all. And you stopped dead, again. Your earrings were in the pocket. These you found were doubles: a mock pair, an echo, a reflection.
     No, they weren’t sold in each supermarket of town, you were sure. You had seen a pair only, in a very remote tiny village. They had struck you because of their idiosyncrasy, their uniqueness.
     Now they had produced aliases, with a mutation—an injured foot, yours. They had come closer—kachinas, voodoo dolls. Your blood slowed down, staggering through your veins. You were suddenly afraid to climb and ring at his door, for the girl was injured while the boy... what could it possibly mean?
     You tell me, Cassandra.
     Other things will multiply, split, appear, disappear. You’ll get used to it. Let it pass. Do not talk about it, no need. For you look like anyone else: plain, neutral. Sometimes a bit lost.

© 2017 Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionis­t with the Irish Last name. When she’s n­ot at the squeezebox she spins stories a­cross a language or two. She lives in th­e City of Angels, in a miniature house b­y an oversized grapefruit tree. You’ll f­ind some of her jam recipes at www.totihan.n­et/index.html

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