Perhaps you have never experienced Diwali, the festival of light, and you cannot know the fire I carry for your mother everyday in my heart across a river I cannot daily cross. Seeing you is both a pleasure and not. Perhaps you do not know what I would have given to be in that very taxicab the day she died, and that I offered to be. Perhaps you will even think I am the thief—these silly pieces of gold. You think I am the thief? I was at the house the night you appeared. Do you remember me? He now looked, for a hard flicker of a second, into James's eyes. Then something like the water of the dark Ganges flowed into the Indian man’s eyes again, swamping them, the flickers gone, and the almost-direct gaze too.
No, said James. But he remembered him. He must remember him. Someone who was there when he appeared that first time in his father’s house after his father’s funeral. Yes, Someone—at tables of food. A giant of a man, silent. He had assumed he was help, caterer, did not know English in a way that would have been polite to speak it in more than a mumble, thus sealed in silence. He was the one who had set the glass—the empty glass—out for him by the bed? It was someone else—or he? Who had filled it, put water in, and made no comment at all. Though, if the house was to be his, James' appearance had meant, metaphorically, the emptying of a glass, his own glass. He the Indian man, the silent man, had listened to everyone else speaking but he himself had not spoken, only watched carefully all the faces, neutralized himself in that setting by being voiceless, but also, cemented himself into James's memory: much of dreams are of unspeaking entities, people who should talk to you but don't, underlining your feeling of stupidities, of not belonging. These are the dreams—that become nightmares.
So James remembered him: that tall man Baj from India with sorrow in his face like embedded ash, coals, near trays of food, both cold and hot. It was the English faces who had set their forks far away, who had sat far away while James listened and they spoke. The ones who after the father’s death had called his mother and then had had to leave a message for his mother’s awful insensate and truculently fat sister—Dorrie. Whom James was with at botanical gardens in London, at the death hour, in a glass house, his mother in the back of a cab alone going to the funeral for this man in whose house, the front step, the man Baj and James now stood at, being pushy about squares of gold that make a man look well-dressed. It was, yes, must be the Indian man near table, plates of food, food which James had kept vigorously eating; James had never met the man who was dead, so felt little grief. The single plain glass of water by bedside also given James by him, Baj, symbolizing what was attainable, acceptable, holdable: the plain glass of water told James he was truly real and here, that glass of water a magic of purity, simplicity, even staved off the raging mental minotaur who was pursuing James all over London even in hotels with aunt Dorrie and let James sleep that night in his father's bed and now let him be in Great Britain to this day today.
Be like water, he had told himself; and at age twelve the calm glass of water helped soothe his terrible fears of days ago flying over the Atlantic, coming there, thinking of a plane falling and never being found: and then the country that gave no thought to George Washington or Lincoln.
Yet James also imagined, within minutes or hours after his mother's death, an Indian cab driver, one with skin like deeply browned falling rose petals. Had the memory of this man burned into James's remembered imaginings, of he and an Indian cab driver, rescuing his mother from the taxi, carrying her up into the sky? Or had James been clairvoyant, and had guessed there was some such man? He had anticipated someone from India. He did have a memory of his mother saying once someone offered her his house, a place to stay, a very intent Indian man who seemed to like the idea of benevolent adoption, and that had stayed in his brain, and so he had kept looking for the magic man who could have rescued her, taken her to his London hut. She had never said his name; he had the feeling she found it easier not saying his name, and he did not want to ask and find out it was someone offering this—whom she did not even know and she could have been acquired like an unpaid servant. Beholden.
Or perhaps she had said his name; and that was how James had known he was Baj, before Baj told him? Or had he heard others speak about a Baj? Probably that was it. But James had not been, ever, near any cab driver; the cab driver was not known. He, no one, would never know who the cab driver had been.
Yet he imagined one, very like this man who’d been at the house when James all age twelve had had the courage to appear. Dead Wolcott’s. Dead father’s. This was years ago. Ten the number of years since. Twelve to twenty-two.
Baj had been silence now a full minute after his full and unembarrassed declaration of love for James’s mother. Baj was still on James’s step, not wanting to move. He who had known his mother since before she was a mother, and somehow was loyal to Wolcott and his mother, but not ready to like or trust her son.
How, exactly, were you involved in my mother's life? James said. He was twenty two now, and it was a sentence he could say with some petulance. She was his mother, after all. And it fell like a grown-up’s question.
Oh, you little American cowboy, the Indian man said. All I can tell you is I know the weariness of the waiting and the circling cab, and I know the weariness of being useful, and I know what it is like to be hidden by people who would prefer you stay back, as an apology for the threat of coming forward. Your mother was not alone in this. These are cufflinks. They are gold. Remember they are extraordinarily gold. Why do I feel I am handing you little golden handcuffs? Very miniature? Because I am. Because I must. She was given them. Wolcott, in whose house you live, wanted her to have them, but they were a distinct torture for her. She said they made her feel as if she had a bad rash. All over. They made no sense. She handed them back. To me. She knew I knew what they meant but would never tell her. She got in the cab. She kept the box; she kept the ribbon. Everyone knew soon of her rejection of the gift. She took that cab alone when I should have gone with her. Take these, she said. I don’t want these. That day long ago she gave me the gold, but she could have handed them to anybody at the house. But I prefer to think it meant something that she gave me the gold. What do you call it? The hot potato gold? He smiled. Which Wolcott told me to give her, but not till after his death. You however are her son and these should go to you if Wolcott meant them for your mother. I have no other gift for your mother. Your mother is dead—
Why. I don't wear cufflinks. That takes a special shirt. Said James.
I should say so, the man said. James. What a nice British name she gave you. And in a way, such a nice forever British shirt. Your father’s. This house is a pleasing shirt in itself.
But those cufflinks which said in a heavy yellow way wherever the wearer went the wearer might do/did as he pleased were being held out to James; James took them, feeling their temperature, only slightly cool, turning them in fingers. Hasty Chinese almost-hieroglyphic of a bulldog was engraved by with varying depths, it looked, into each, with jagged serif to the side of each. Bulldogs slightly different. One had more of a sneer; one, slightly more of what might be almost a smile. Bulldogs, James thought, looked like old men displeased unless they’d sunk their teeth into something, or frightened someone. As Wolcott might be displeased, if he knew never-met James was here.
James was studying the bulldogs. Ugly dogs, bulldogs: like small stunted lions with misshapen teeth. But obviously it had been a gift of importance or love, once, to someone besides his mother. They were square, giving them even more of a bulldog character—because of the contrast they would have with the gentle slits of buttonholes and the pale soft mooniness of dress shirts, fabric.
Wolcott's, the man said. From him. That is sure. But a gift from another—to Wolcott. Probably never, ever, ever—meant for your mother. From Wolcott—regifting. Your mother—horrified when she opened the box. She must have known it at once, how it was wrong to be given them. A father’s ancient cufflinks are given to a girl’s suitor, as a sign of her affection and trust. Never given to a woman, except by death, her father’s death, and through her mother’s generosity. Most likely she expected a wedding ring. Overdue. But it was these. Which he gave. It felt all wrong to her. And it was. I should have persuaded him not to ask me to give them to her. If she’d not come for the funeral I would have flown to America to give them to her. None of us should have offered them to her at that emotional time, before the funeral. No. I could have mailed them—to America. That would have been easier. If only she had not come.
A black velvet box, said James. Ugly and big. I still have it. I found it in her things. In her purse after she died. Nothing in it. Empty.
Yes, the black velvet box, the Indian man said. I remember. A very ordinary gifting and keeping box. Serious like a very black night. A jeweler standard. To hide how precious these were. It must have been with her and you did not mention it that evening when you came by the house and shocked us all. That box definitely, most definitely, could have gone in the post to her. Long long ago he could have given them to her. But I am here now in person. I could have sent them in such a box. I could have stopped by the jeweler’s for another plain black box. I could have gone to the post office. But—it was not something I wanted traveling by post. Though it would have been better.
Could have been mailed to her? James felt his face go angry. It had had to be scientifically determined Wolcott was his father. Thus house his, James’, not graciously, but scientifically.
What his mother had suffered in America! In England! In silence! What he had suffered! Living his life in America like a banished curse. But how much could England ever care? They were—to the English—an untranslatable. How do you like people who dressed like American Indian braves and threw your tea in the harbor? The truth was they were still, Americans, churlish help from ungrateful colonies, a burden which had to be suffered and acknowledged.
She his mother had really only been been a flirtation of Wolcott’s for a while. She could save embarrassment by disappearing, and James could be sent to the snarly colonies called America and go dim there. The British empire would never set on this son. He was in America, in a wrong place, a collection of ungrateful colonies.
Shocked us, yes. It was one thing to know about you and another to see you. Can I say you look like neither of your parents? I was probably the only one there—who knew. Except your father, who wanted to forget. You thought I was the cook, I am sure. I was, but I was more, he said.
My mother the perfect martyr, wasn’t she. Suffering was all silence. These so heavy, James said, holding the bulldog cufflinks.
Please, thought James, not one more man saying his mother owed him something, or explaining how his dense mother was cornered by all men forming one careless minotaur; or how hopelessly out of place and out of time she was in London. England. James was holding the chunks of gold and letting them do their awkward quarter-roll, brought to stumping stop by their gold posts that looked like goalposts, to set at wrists, to remind people your mold was formed like gold. James had only held one other pair of cufflinks in his life, belonging to his mother’s husband, his erstwhile father, their landlord of sorts. He had inherited miserable land and house, none of it cheerful; he had inherited a sort of handcuffs to that town. His responsibility, he’d been told, was to stay and never sell it. His cufflinks ultra-shiny chromed steel, awkward reddish triangular logos on them commemorating—what was called, out of exasperation about defining it, a service organization. Kept in a lacquered bowl of—useless things. Army badges. Old bridle bits, rust biting into them. Old spurs, crimped and leftover. No one would ever use. Photographs of aunts and uncles with strained smiles: they’d hoped, poor things, to inherit what his father had, every one of them eager for the same trap.
Why so—gold? said James, mockingly, casually. He was wanting neither the cufflinks or the conversation. Friends of his, Santoro and Davies, his best friends thus far here at university, were in the other room, guests, drinking dark lager, now surely arching their eyebrows and as they listened. The rooms were small, all small enough to be called alcoves, and near the open door as James stood above the step and the man from India stood on it, he was still much taller than James.
Immeasurably gold, the Indian person was repeating, making clear he hated the young mocking sound of James’s voice. By the way, my name is Baj, but Wolcott, the rest of them, solved that with Babar. Yes, like the kingly big elephant. My mother loved the Brits with their white safari hats, their adorable watercolored dithering Babar from the French dreams of kings. She has been dead she my mother somewhere between thirty and forty years. Once I knew the number. And that number of how purely gold these are. Metals have numbers. Ask a chemist. But racehorses have numbers too. Their number at the post. At the starting gate. And the price of their purchase and their sale. The ratios of their bloodline. How much Arabian, for example. How much Turk. Baj turned them in his hand, but probably he was too old to see so small a number; he was, James thought, at a grandfather’s age. Baj continued. What would that ratio be, of the purity of the gold, of how many years dead she is, how many dead mine, my mother? After she, my mother, died, I came here. As you after your mother’s death came here. Like you in that way, somewhat, except our translocations were—different.
He looked out to the trees, giving them a disappointed look. Your mother made me brilliantly happy, but mothers are only a chore to their sons. I know very well. Who are your friends I see here? In the other room? I had many years. In these rooms.
Just University of London friends, James said, though he had known them only for a short while.
Your mother was more descriptive. I stand now on this step where you once appeared that night, American boy, not even allowed to attend the funeral, but appearing after, after your mother’s sudden death that night: eventually claiming Wolcott's house.This house—would be mine—this step would be mine—if you had never come into existence. Or if you had come into existence but not run away from your aunt. Whom you left sleeping at the Hotel Piccadilly. You were here, with your mother suddenly dead, and I saw the day sky shot with blue with fireworks—and then the nighttime—you like the last sputter of the fireworks and the beginnings of the candles floating on the water, on the Ganges, Baj said.
Really sorry. I guess I am. But I don’t think I wear cufflinks, James said. What could he say? The man was sputtering angry true love for his own mother, and James’s mother, but both mothers were no longer accessible: they were the lost-in-space. Dead. It could not be undone. James was already thinking if he must accept them to be polite his he must quickly chuck the cufflinks, to avoid thinking of all the places Wolcott may have gone wearing the cufflinks after having chucked his mother.
Or had Wolcott only kept them in a box, a talisman of something past or future? Precious untrusting metal, but not something James wanted in his own lifetime museum of metals, hoards which all people seemed to heavily, dutifully, guard and keep: if his own mother had—according to this man—denied them. Denied this overly late and decorous gift. Only men wearing bespoke Turnbull & Asser wore shirts purposely made to harbor cufflinks. She was a she. James wasn’t a known. Or had he been?
Our Wolcott never wore them. Much too worried—about losing them. He left them to your mother, however. Giving you these now, Baj said. You may have the wisdom—his eyebrows rose up—to accept them.
Why not, said James, but looking all around the dark beyond the house, not at the giant Indian man's face. Gripping the heavy tininess of the cufflinks, ungripping, absorbing for a moment whatever bad squished luck his mother had been avoiding, but couldn’t head away: no great goalie she.
I had to have kept them, the Indian man said. My name Babar. Like the elephant. My mother liked the happy colored books. But well nicknamed you might agree. As. Elephants never forget. Much. Here I am the Indian to amuse you and look into your eyes and to carry all your palm trees. To explain England to you. And British. To clear your jungle. To never complain. To never forget. People ask for it all. And Assam estate tea at the end. When you are Indian and the rest are English pastish-pale and bored, I am your tonic, your exotic—
He held his palm open again, before James; not directly asking for them back, bur giving James the opportunity to return them to his palm. James did; it was a simple cure.
Very obviously you don't—want them now? You must someday, when you guess where they are from. I will be by, said Baj-Babar. A better time. They deserve a better time.
He was leaving, so quickly James almost wanted the cufflinks back. Babar/Baj was leaving with the double and miniature clutch of gold, rich man’s Monopoly pieces, in his enormous sad Babar hands. To Wolcott this man would have been a younger and vital man, but to James then and now, this tall Indian man was old, his life a garment already sewn. The young know to avoid the older and their mockery, though there were some whom James knew who craved the companionship of the old because something in them wanted to conquer the old. While they pitied them; these people considered the old a charity which would benefit them. If they were girls they were called the vampire flag, toting their young blood and body as reviving perfume and bait; that was what, of course, his mother had probably been, to old Wolcott. If they were young men they were called rock climbers on a doomed mountain, because only a fool of a young man would consort with the relentless old, the pensioners. They would drag you too close to the colorless place, their judgements. They saw too clearly all your falsehoods, your mistakes.
Too late, after he was no longer in sight, obscured as everything is in Bloomsbury by trees—James wondered if he should have asked him about the tiger pelt he’d found rolled in the attic, the RAF overcoat, here, both, boxed five foot-lengths away from each other, Wolcott’s house, this house. Was it true about Wolcott, or had his mother lied? That he was a safari man? A secret services man? Lies only stupid young American women/unknown sons would believe enough to be curious about?
Or the tiger had even been shot by Babar, not Wolcott? Wolcott had just been propped up in a Range Rover holding extra rifles? That tiger skin then had gone on to be something propping up his mother's illusions. Men, James guessed, lied to women they didn’t care much about. They might as well, to prop themselves up as mightier.
James was about to turn and go inside, and suddenly Big Babar was back, like an elephant someone had shot at and missed. The elephant had won. Babar/Baj was on that step of doom and hope, and rage, the shape of a simple slab coffin, a slab of brick and cement, the coolness of wet sand and dirt and dry death.
If life was truly stranger than fiction, Babar was even in secret service for the Crown, a Her Majesty man, and Wolcott was the prop to fool you, the distraction: the one who was supposed to look like official intrigue, but wasn’t. Props, he’d heard, were essential to secret services; good and necessary distraction, as important as the real game. They were the prestige of the game.
Baj, or Babar, was returned, standing on the step again, the very threshold James had once stood on a child and trembling with fear between his father’s funeral and his mother’s a week later. One hand of Baj was tightly curled around the offensive, inexplicable cufflinks.
I loved her, Baj said.
This was as welcome to James as vomit at his feet. Baj/Babar on the step, James's step of history, to which he had fled from aunt Dorrie's rude remarks, from his American faux father's years of sitting by coffeepots with bad coffee in bankrupt stables, to avoid the nearby factory’s windows stuffed with cardboard. Babar bitter on his step.
Babar threw out one more nightmare-maker, words he had probably thought up on the way, or was bursting out with here, and they were movie-theatrical: You don't want to hear how much I loved her. It's obscene to you, to any son.
James felt a horrible burst of headache as he headed into the house without gold, to friends, James more stranger in a strange land than before Babar who had lived most of his long life here had arrived/returned to this step to tell James it was not really meant to be his.
But, James realized, even as he approached his two friends, all friends' failure to translate is their value. Thus they provide confusion, obliteration, distraction. Thus the true artist or writer likely avoids all but the most tangential of friends, collecting instead mostly people of complete self-absorption, who cannot possibly really be true or close friends, James was sure; they must be almost pure stupidity and distraction.
Babar had loved her. Or said he did, to make James feel bad. Yet he had had them almost a decade—while James lived in this house, getting rid of one housekeeper after another—gloating over the gold cufflinks, withheld souvenir? Or substitute, compensation, for not being able to live in Bloomsbury, blocks from the University and the British Museum, the land of dusty velvet armchairs.
It was apparent: James’ mother that day of her death before getting into the taxi of doom—had flung them back at Baj ten years ago, her bitter job at that moment to appear at a funeral to possibly find a way to celebrate a man who had discarded her, whom she had wanted to be hers.
Then, before even arriving at the funeral, probably to be the only American there, her stored and miserable blood had risen up, brain aneurysm they called it, bursting its bounds, liquidating her, ending her London dream forever. She had loved the flower shows, the restaurants with tables by the windows, the gorgeous scarves. The tea. While James was looking at turtles and lilies and trickling streams in the botanical garden, wondering why he was being kept away like a rude and angry treasure his mother was not supposed to display, or own—gone she was, like a bad sparkle, an excess.
He, James, had hated Wolcott's very British things in his house, tea sets, towels, and for an intense set of years had waged war on them, demolished them; gold cufflinks would be easier—had Babar had suddenly guessed this, thus turned and thus had taken the cufflinks with him?
What had the gold cufflinks, for a woman, not a man, been given to her for? Punishment for something? News of something? Notice of her displacement? Reminder she had no key to becoming an everlasting Brit? She, reminder of the hell of Wallis and David/Edward? Sent to drink rum in the Bahamas? The mix of England and America? Banishments? After this strange late-night dandling of the mis-gifted gold cufflinks in front of him—the cufflinks were also extremely offensive to James. He knew well when his mother was horrified: an unprofound, severe expression, total silences over days.
If Baj came again with them, giving them to him—could a trip to a pawn shop liquidate their dangerousness, the soft muted gargoyle's gloat of those bulldog twins? Or would Baj/Babar somehow find them there, find out that he the boy had given them away? Guess they were there, and find them?
Babar had asserted himself as keeper again—of their mystery, where they had really come from, making the house James inherited by presentation of himself (a right to inherit, an only child’s forcing hand) look like simple greed in comparison. The remaining jumble sale of artifacts still in many ways belonged still to the dead oversecure prickliness named Wolcott.
He and Babar, neither of them, ever thought they’d deserve here: the house should have been sold. They were—both—plodding British impostors. So two clowns had stood together at that step.
James sat in the biggest velvetiest armchair, which his friends had left empty for him. It was a high-sided square, a bit royal. It calmed the nerves always.
Tell us what the American hell that was tending toward, Davies said, his icy blue eyes blinking above his pale gray Shetland jumper, or sweater.
But friends, James knew, do not really want to know much.They just pretend they want to know. They want to laugh at whatever you claim.
Indian hell. A disturbance for you, I feel, said Santoro. But laughter on his face.
You don't know, said James. You just don't know. A man you haven't seen for years—-waving gold at you.
It had a slap-slap sound, said Davies. That whole conversation. What was his point; or was there any point. He laughed.
But a man bringing gold is always an important thing, said Santoro, with mocking seriousness, the kind all children with two real parents, James had always noticed, always seemed to effortlessly have. It was how their fathers had treated them. They never forgot.
He took the gold, said James. He looked at both of them and pretended to mop his brow like a comic book character. We came here to read manuscripts. Let’s read. Who wants gold that’s probably been melted and remelted from—angry people.
He did not want to talk about his mother; perhaps they really were friends, because Santoro and Davies didn’t ask him about his mother. They laughed at Baj.
James read them his piece he had written about fey seahorses which came out of the ocean and tried to rule the world. But even after they mastered breathing the air, people could not understand what they were telling them, what they were saying. There were no interpreters. Davies read about his ancient uncle in Cornwall who had known Daphne du Maurier and couldn't understand why she wouldn't invite him to tea.
But Davies, after reading, said they should not talk about his loser uncle in Cornwall. Davies wanted to return to the seahorses. Seahorses, though, boring, said Davies. They’re not half as interesting as women.
I think your seahorses are your true father whom you never knew, said Santoro suddenly. It had nothing really to do with the story about seahorses. Did it? Santoro’s mind was understanding from clues things about James’s mother; he’d heard and understood a lot of the fervor on the porch.
Great, thought James, he's translating, explaining, I'll have to cross him off my list of friends.
He turned to Davies, and to distract asked if that shade of gray was called Elgin Marbles. It was the color of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Cream and dove and pigeon colors.
Davies ignored this; asked James if he'd been to the ballet lately. What ballet needed, Davies said, was magicians, to make dancers appear and disappear. Then, they venture to Mars, outer space. Davies’ expression was annoyed but sincere. Anything—but stay every minute on the stage, said Davies. Blast them off to Mars—all people who want to take me there—to ballet—and the frolicking creatures. I was just at ballet last night at the National. They need to modernize ballet. They need to fucking modernize ballet.
Ballerinas, said James.
Curserinas, said Davies. They're like memories—of Princess Diana. Keep dancing on your roof. Keep you—from going to sleep. But why am I thinking of Diana? I’m far too young for her. Or old for her. How do you date that when someone’s dead?
Someday we will be dead, James said.
Very deep, said Davies.
Oh, yes, very deep, said Santoro.
Neither of them, of course, knew what it was like to not have a mother or a father at twenty-two. And wouldn’t want to know. Whether he, James, was meant to have gold cufflinks which seemed to have to keep moving constantly, for a reason he, James, couldn’t now know, and Santoro and Davies really couldn’t understand or care; they didn’t have the same loud searchlight running looking for love from vanished home.
I would have to be a writer to divine the meaning of the cufflinks, James said, pretending helplessness, pretending that a writer was born from bad puzzles. Or was it true?
Yes, and say goodbye to the seahorse puppets, said Davies, and suddenly James saw Davies as a very old man, in the very same gray Shetland sweater.
Yes, indeed, indeed, said Santoro, and began laughing, and for a long time could not stop.
My name is Wart, said James. I’m about to be a king, do you think?
Oh, we think, said Davies. That an American idiot king would be fantastic. You’d be an apologist. Let’s make you a crown out of seashells.
We all think a lot, said Santoro. And get nowhere, just like you. We think too much. All of Britain thinks too much. Then the beer starts. And hey, the rain. He went to the window to look out. It was raining, deeply, outside.
Baj got here just before the downpour, Davies said. Sparing the boys the delicious sight of a madman in the rain.
It was too perfect imagining Baj as a doused madman. This all made them fall into so much laughter they poured more beers and began sitting sideways in their chairs—Wolcott’s chairs. James loved Wolcott’s chairs; they, each one, were a separate island kingdom—dream. Each a different dark color, velvet. High boats, which did not travel or move like spurned girlfriends, the blood in your veins, the dark leaping panthers of taxicabs moving somehow even more rapidly in rain; boats happy where they were, moored to the island of Wolcott’s house, which Wolcott no longer lived in, and Baj, their madman, wished he was living in, remembering and making a monument of a spurned American who’d hoped she could stay here forever. Beloved, especially in the rain.
Rebecca Pyle has work upcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, and Pomme, and Die Leere Mitte (poetry); Bridge Eight, Muse/A Journal, and Litro U.K. (two essays and a short story); and photographs which will be covers for two ssues of the new journal Castabout. Rebecca Pyle, who lives in Utah, is also an artist and has artwork in many journals: William and Mary Review, JuxtaProse, New England Review, and on the covers of Oxford Magazine, Castabout, Raven Chronicles Journal, and The Underwater American Songbook (her poetry chapbook; Underwater New York, 2018). See rebeccapyleartist.com.