Mistress of Alchemy

Mistress of Alchemy

Mistress of Alchemy 1280 851 Ulrica Hume

History could have been so different, you once said. And it is true: reality is slippery, evanescent, problematic, perhaps it is all for the best that a peasant goes on eating potatoes and does not become a Joan of Arc, that a chap goes about the halls of Cambridge in his un-darned stockings and does not become a king. The point was that I was enough. You were always reassuring me then.

But nothing is enough, I have found since your bewildering departure, one moment swashbuckling, the next, shockingly weak, your familiar scree of identity listing away.

Today I wear my anorak to the memorial, because the day is mizzly, and in defiance. Your high-heeled wife is greeting the other mourners. Penny, she cries, and gives a little wave. Staggering a bit, she could easily be blown over. Anyway, this is my despicable judgment. Yet her raccoon’s expression is fixed on me in a way that is predatory. I linger by the draped table, where your headshot is propped by the box full of ashes. Stab of hope. Even imprisoned you still gather my senses, and I blush for the joys and degradations. It was not all good, was it? I craved your insufficient promises. I threw flower pots at you. I cultivated stray lines, bulges, temples of grey. Until what once was young was more a funhouse mirror, without the attendant amusement—only fear. There is no standard, no way to be when the waiting runs out and I realize I have been waiting, not for you or even her, but for myself.

When no one is looking I hold the black box, wishing it a proper urn, but like you it is rough, unornamented, your name in caps on the label. Remade in death’s kiln, tender body. A shelter from the big life waiting around us. I am feeling overcome by the dense weight of the box when your wife advances through a waterfall of tears to take it from me. Her needs are, and have always been, paramount, I realize as I juggle my grief like a brick, a remote superiority, or conquest, a laser exchange—it is an opportunity for which I am unprepared and in fact resent.

We hug; she as good and pure as a lily. The disingenuous way I say I’m sorry, while still holding on to the box. Soon we are fighting over it, she clawing at my anorak and I lost in her poufy scarf. A flute of champagne is knocked over, and the room stills, morphing into a mute pit of judgment. When she crumples, emitting a benign glow, I understand why you stayed. We console each other, broadly, abstractly, in a way that does not console, and I feel worse for the pleasure. Laurence loved you, she wildly says. And I say, No, you.

It will be like this in the years ahead: she and I will become fast friends, comrades in arms. We will dumbly cheer each other on. Hale sex a jokey recrimination. Your memory but a wishbone, phantom limb. We are both staggering now—toward what? Some resolution of history. Your wife will thrive, she will strangely blossom.

I cannot sing that song you liked today, about clothes worn where or when. I refuse the absinthe, lean alone against the darkened wall. Instead I watch the shivering ginkgo tree outside drop all its gold, one by one by one.

Header photograph © Emma Louise Leahy.

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