"Fifteen bucks, for the lot"
Sunday morning flea market at the fairgrounds, I hold a bunch of old letters and postcards, tied with a soiled ribbon of pink grosgrain, looking not to have been untied since the last postmark. The papers are faded with age, writing slanted and fine, stamps speaking of foreign territories and long travels. I'm attracted to the body of them, the weight, my aesthetic stirred by the promise of the things themselves.
I clutch the letters to me, my voyeur's treasure, and fumble the money to the merchant, crumpled bills for a private correspondence.
I take the letters back to my apartment where I have an extra room set aside for my flea market finds. The corner worktable is covered wide with curled photos and carving knives, bits of mirror and sparrow wings, heirlooms gleaned from family and strangers. I have the idea to use these letters in some of my pieces, collages of found objects, disparate items brought together to make a whole. I untie the ribbon carefully, picking at the decaying knot with cautious fingers, the attic smell of the letters filling the air.
Shuffling through them, I see postmarks from worlds far away, places I've dreamed of but somehow have never seemed to find. The places of the world have always attracted me, but as much as I've dreamed of the cities and sites themselves, I somehow never placed myself there in my mind enough to make the journeys real. Daily life intrusions and ambition stunted by routine kept me close to home and the dreams faded to a charming reverie.
The postcards and letters are all addressed to Camille Paige, 2013 South Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, dated from the 20s and 30s, a few Opened By Censor labels. I pull one at random, relishing the odd stock of paper and fountain pen ink.
Arrived in Vienna this morning, with the snow clogging the tracks, making me slip on the way to the hotel! It feels brilliant to finally be here, to sit for a while. The city is glorious out the window; I've got the fifth floor at the Royal (see the stationery!), and am writing you first thing. I think I missed your last letter in Amsterdam, I had to leave two days early because of the weather, just to be sure to get out. I think I'll rest here for a while, visit the surrounding countryside and villages, so I'll be sure to be here for your next post.
My newest sketchbook is already bulging and I think my first stop will be the stationers for another one. The museums are bright with new styles here, and my sketches are becoming fast and clear. I feel I'm mapping my travels through the art I see, my diary images instead of words.
the kids? I'm sure Sarah is long over her cold by now. Tell them their
Aunt Sophie will send them special presents for Christmas from Vienna.
(Show them where I am on a map!) Give Charlie my best and say hello to
Mother. I'll look forward for your letter to arrive here at the Royal.
I sit cross-legged on the rug, back against the table leg. I pull out a postcard of a photo of an elephant, ridden by a woman with her face covered by a veil, her trousers hand-painted blue, faded to a dusky eggshell. The script on the back is spidery and warm, slanted slightly to the left, postmark September 22, 1927, Marrakech.
A quick note to make you smile. Going through the bazaar today and thought of how we were as children: you were always the one to jump and I would take the long way down. Yet here we are, on distant ends of the globe, and I'm the one jumping. I know you find your way down long, but are you sorry that you're there?
When I was young, I led the group, diving headlong into what I thought was real. Poison oak itch, blackberry scrape and, once, a broken arm, I was fearless, the captain of any vessel we created, tom-boy bully to get my way. Now I'm careful, observant, always calculating the distance of the fall. I pay my bills on time and take my trips in magazine ads. I hold these letters in my hands, a record of a life lived. I feel mundane.
. . .
That night I dream I am she. Steam ship billow of white arcs through a blue dome. Wide oceans crest before me, a speck of land far distant, approaching Cape Horn and the Atlantic beyond. The wind flows through me, my hair, my fingers, and there are tears in my eyes, I think from the salt sting.
I got your latest post yesterday evening and am so sorry to hear about your trouble with Charlie, or rather, Charlie's trouble with Charlie. I had rather hoped, as had we all, that he'd gotten past all that, but I suppose some things can't be helped. I know Mother won't mind having you for a while until things get settled out; she loves spoiling the kids. You can be stubborn at times (I should know), but I know where the bother lies. Mother always took care of us, was our shield, so she knows the role well.
To cheer you, I'll tell you of an occurrence which delighted me. I don't know what you know of Venice, how still it is, how the streets converge and double back, piazzas springing from alleyways, bridges crossing silent fingers of the Grand Canal. How easy to get lost, unless you follow the innumerable signs to the Rialto. I thought I knew my way and was confident in my navigation, yet found myself in darkened lanes unknown to me. My confounded look betrayed me, as my dress must have betrayed me a foreigner, and I was approached by an older gentleman who, when first he spoke, I realized immediately was American. He recognized my problem, being intimately familiar with it, and sought to remedy it as best he could. We fell into conversation and I quite forgot my evening's plan, content to converse with an expatriate like myself. He's from Salt Lake! And knows many of the same people we do. We ended at Harry's Bar, newly opened, stone's throw from San Marco square and the lion topped columns of the Doge's Palace. This coaster's from there and I think this drink will delight you. I know champagne is expensive, but toast me on a special occasion.
Sometimes the world seems very small, vast as it is. I think of that globe Uncle John had, with its angry black oceans, spinning on its canted axis. We'd mark Salt Lake with a pin and spin the world with our eyes closed, sometimes wishing ourselves into the middle of a vacant ocean, sometimes to the heart of a livid desert. It seems I've spun that globe many times since I left and I hardly know where I'm going to end up next. Amsterdam calls, I think, with its canals so different from these, kites echoing overhead. We'll see. I'll let you know where the globe stops this time.
My globe has lately betrayed me, landing on Omaha and Billings. Maybe my trailing finger has been slowing it closer to home, safe and sound, on purpose. The world is there but who am I to rush and meet it? The routine of my life that once meant security has come to be confining, a ready indication of the choices I did not make. My habits have lead me away from believing that I am someone who would jump.
I place the letter back with the rest and pull the door closed behind me.
. . .
The postcard shows a woman standing small in front of an edifice, pigeons stalking at her feet. Her grin is enormous, shaping her face under her hat, and her hands are pointing up, as if to encompass the building behind her. The lines of stone stir something in memory and my eyes wander as I try to remember. My gaze lights upon a photo a friend sent from Sienna, with the Duomo and its Byzantine striping, the three doors representing the Holy Trinity. I compare the two images, squinting into tiny detail. She stands to the side of the left door, the Son's door, and spreads her hands to say look, look at this!
I found a man to take my photo in front of the magnificent cathedral in Sienna! Look how tiny I am! That's how these buildings make you feel, infinitesimal, yet wholly significant. You should see it, you'd bloom wide open to walk on the stone drawings that litter the floor inside. I will sketch them for you and include one in my next post. Love to you, little sister.
I lean back, rub my eyes. These letters make me want to call my mother. Sophie doesn't look the way I would have thought her to, though I'd never really painted her in my mind. She looks so normal, like pictures I'd seen of my grandmother and her friends when she was young, wide smile to meet the jaded Continent. She looks tangible and now her voice has an anchor.
There are about fifty letters and postcards in the stack and I can't decide whether to put them in order or continue to read them haphazard, falling into Sophie's history where I may. My hands want to devour them, read them all right now, but I hold back. I want to savor them like I savor a favorite poem or story, reading slowly and repeatedly, fixing the words in my mind like one fixes the face of a loved one.
These letters excite something in me, wake something in me that's been dormant for so long I didn't even remember it was there. I'm reminded of when I would stay up late with friends and we'd talk about all the places we were going to go, all the journeys we were going to take, with maps spread before us, crumpling under our feet, spread on pillows and tacked on walls.
Ah, Aix en Provence, my elementary French serves me well here, but you were always better than I with languages. The tree-lined street that runs up the center of town is alive with cafés and hotels, green shaded, people sitting at tables set on the walks, a shining patisserie on the corner that makes me think of us as children. The train from Nice brought me through fields of sunflowers, each bloom a luminous yellow face stretching to reach the sun. I fear the travelers sharing my compartment thought me odd, my face pressed to the glass as it was, making sketches like the one enclosed. I tried to catch the flowers with their arched necks, the way they reminded me of eager children, smiling up at the sky.
I hope this letter reaches you in time for your birthday. I never know how long a letter will take to arrive, the ships are slow, especially now, but I hope a month in advance will be time enough. I wish I could be there to celebrate with you, it's been several years, but I know you understand why I'm here. Salt Lake was holding me too close and I was afraid that if I didn't leave, I never would.
I think I'll head to Paris next and stay there through the New Year. I want to see the Eiffel Tower in the winter, strung about with necklaces of snow and frost. I will write again when I get settled, so you will know where to find me.
. . .
That night, I don't dream I'm her, but that I'm with her. We climb copper steps, holding hands, to look out at a landscape like a van Gogh farmhouse in Provence. She's telling me of her travels, long and true, and then she's telling me of my travels, with and without her. I protest, arguing my unvaried life, and she just smiles as she stretches up to kiss me.
The postcard of Sophie is on top as I pass the stack on my way to the entry. Her smile grazes me, catching my hand on the door, partway open. I stare back at her face, her hands spread to catch the world. I close the door quietly, deliberately, and go to sit at the table, Sophie smiling wider. I pull the globe to me, close my eyes and give it a spin, fingers feeling for my destination.
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