S H O R T S T O R Y
THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT
b y m a r y o v e r t o n ~ b u r k e , v i r g i n i a
MR. MURDOCH, a member of our church, came to dinner once at my parents' house. "And what do you do?" he asked me in the benign way of adults.
"I fly," I said, self-righteously.
My parents hid their discomfort, and Mr. Murdoch said, "Do you really, now?"
Without moving my chair I flew directly up from the dinner table, turned a triple somersault and ended with an arabesque over the pot roast.
"You did mention her flying," Mr. Murdoch said to my mother.
I spun like an ice skater over their heads. My mother looked with consternation at the dining room light, which I was in danger of hitting.
"What else does she do?" Mr. Murdoch asked.
"Not much," my father admitted.
"If she ever needs employment," Mr. Murdoch said, "once she's out of school, I mean, then send her to my company. The Agency takes on flyers, and I guarantee her a job."
My parents accepted his business card, returned his professional handshake, and thanked him with an intensity I found embarrassing. I wondered at the fuss. I knew what an outrageously good flyer I was. I anticipated more out of life than employment.
I did not think of Mr. Murdoch's offer until eight years later, when I left college without graduating. In fact, I left three different schools. I had become unpopular for flying during class, floating rather, at window level when possible and imagining my own feats in the bright broad daylight skies. Those who were kind smiled indulgently, and I learned to feel shame.
It could not last, so I scheduled an interview at The Agency and was presented to Ms. P. Danaan, an intimidatingly elegant woman of early middle age. She anchored her hair with silver combs. Her face was so white the blood from it seemed to have drained into her painted lips.
Ms. Danaan smiled at me with wonderful intelligence. I wanted very much for her to understand the sincerity of my flying. I leaped up toward the ceiling to perform a handspring off the acoustical tiles, only to discover they were not fastened but lay suspended on a metal gridwork. Tiles tumbled up into the dark dead space above, the space for furnace ducting and electrical cables. Two tiles broke. They shattered dust over my hair and rained pieces of plaster onto the teak desk. I hovered over Ms. Danaan, my arms buried to the shoulder inside her ceiling.
"You have a lot of energy," she said warmly, diplomatically.
I settled in a chair and used my hands to brush off my skirt. Ms. Danaan took a file from her drawer. She opened it on top of the ceiling debris.
"The Agency does have several positions for pure flight," Ms. Danaan said, ruffling the papers with her red-tipped fingers. "They are, however, only offered to flyers with great experience and national reputation. You need an entry-level position." She smiled like an aggressive animal, all her teeth showing. "Messenger, perhaps. A fair number of our messengers fly." She looked at the ruined ceiling. "Recreationally, of course."
"Mr. Murdoch referred me," I said, baffled by her words. I showed her the business card he'd given my parents. "Mr. Murdoch's seen my flying, and he guaranteed you would want me."
"Oh, dear, Mr. Murdoch," she said with some grimness. She closed the file. "That explains it. He does these things, I'm afraid. Mr. Murdoch plays jokes on me, and you are one of his little jokes. He retired recently, you know. Sometimes I think I will never be free of his jokes."
I looked at the card. It said:
Ms. Danaan seemed relieved by the news and less elegantly imposing. She sent me away without a job at all, but before I left she tried to cheer me by reading my palm. It was a hobby, she said, that complemented her work in personnel. She squinted carefully at my hand and rolled it this way and that, assembling the possibilities. Finally she told me that God had granted me three children, two to be a blessing and one to test me.
"That explains it," my husband said at a much later date. We had this conversation at a time when my shame had taught me to fly only at night. I was not getting enough sleep and my husband was tired of my crassness. "She couldn't give you a job when she knew you would be having kids. How can you fly when there are babies to tend?"
Mr. Murdoch said the same thing.
I was digging then, for a living. I had a selection of shovels and I freelanced holes for shrubs, for gardens, and for pipes needing burial. It was good work, healthy, except when I made the mistake of looking up into the bright daytime sky. I would be overcome with longing.
"You have to sacrifice the children," Mr. Murdoch said when I was working in his yard. Most of my digging jobs came from church referrals.
"They haven't been conceived," I said.
"All the better to do it now," he assured me.
Mr. Murdoch referred me to a necromantic gynecologist who ran fertility clinics. She agreed to cut out the roots of my three unborn children.
I could not sleep on the eve of the operation. To keep from waking my husband, I flew away into the sky, looking for solace but finding only the lighted windows of our church, where I hovered and saw my mother, in gloves and Sunday hat, read aloud the scripture lesson:
Thou has shown thy people hard things:
Thou hast made us to drink
the wine of astonishment.
A clerically garbed Mr. Murdoch administered the wine with a tablespoon, much as my mother had given me medicine when I was a child. The worshipers sat ready in their pews, braced themselves for it, took the wine by spoonfuls. Each one screwed up his or her face as the liquid coated the inside of each mouth with a phony fruit flavor, a deception that failed to mask a harsh medicinal taste. After the people dutifully swallowed the wine, their eyes opened wide with astonishment as they saw the hard and impersonal truths of the world.
Eagerly I flew inside the church. I took the wine, and my eyes opened. My eyes saw into the past, beyond my mother, all the way back to my grandfather's farm, where a red heifer struggled because her horns were caught in a thicket. Thus Abraham avoided the sacrifice of his son Isaac when he found a ram trapped by its horns in the underbrush. He made the exchange with God's blessing. I could do the same.
Immediately I went to the young cow. I thought I would offer her in place of my future children, but God was on her side, had given her a presentiment of this fate and the strength to escape it.
God appears to have a sense of humor very close to Mr. Murdoch's.
Even as I flew to catch her, the red heifer tore free of the brambles and loped away, past my grandfather's gate. Bless her heart, the last time I saw her she was trotting west along the highway, ignoring the airhorns of truckers.
In the days when flying became obsolete, I continued to fly and to entertain baseless hopes of glory. My husband tried to dissuade me, but I told him that the loss of my children was as much sacrifice as I could bear. I would not sacrifice my ambition.
He reminded me of our prenuptial agreement to split living expenses fifty-fifty. "As for ambition," he said, "what would you think of the ambition of a fish that longed to walk?"
"I knew it!" I cried, and I became, forever after, suspicious of him. "You are a creationist."
Nevertheless, his pragmatism won. He had me involuntarily enrolled in a human-potential seminar called Reality-Based Living. Among its participants were compulsive hitchhikers, secret anarchists, women who opened antique shops, honest priests, IRS employees, fashion models, dinner theater actors, and subscribers to Town & Country magazine.
The workshop/seminar was a famous, nationally franchised one. We gathered in the largest meeting room of the Hyatt Regency Hotel where we sat in armless stack chairs and held notebooks embossed with the seminar's logo. The three-part plan for learning the secret of maturity was as follows:
1. DISCRIMINATE one's dreams from reality.
2. SURRENDER those aspects of one's dreams that do not correlate.
3. SMILE as one forsakes them.
To my left sat Philomena the hitchhiker, familiar looking, a woman made wise and patient by her intimacy with truckers and with salesmen in Pontiacs.
"The problem with hitchhiking," I told her, "is that it makes you vulnerable to the kindness of strangers. To fly is to escape strangers, to be free of them."
Philomena was very thin. She ate only when someone bought her a meal, and she collected her clothes from the poor bins of Midwestern churches. She gave me a dry and rueful smile. "The hidden vulnerability of flying," she said gently, "is elitism."
I was embarrassed.
I looked to my right where Anthony, the secret anarchist, sat and dripped with sweat. He was having the hardest time, unable to bear the slow and structured pace of the seminar. He gnawed his shirt cuffs. The only meetings he ever attended, he told me, were those of his secret anarchist organization. Their gatherings were irregularly held and never announced -- formless meetings during which the non-members, as they called themselves, would sit, stand, gesture, and all talk in loud voices at the same time, each one facing a different direction, each one arriving and leaving at undisclosed intervals.
"When I feel oppressed," I said to him, "I read the Psalms." I told him about drinking the wine of astonishment, and how it opened my eyes to the hard things of the world.
Anthony shrugged. "That's all well and good," he said, tugging at his bit of anarchist beard, "but is it intellectually consistent?"
"Oh, all God aside," I said, "there are some useful scriptures. I can prove it to you."
Anthony looked dubious. At that moment, as if by design, the seminar coordinator (a woman who looked suspiciously like Mr. Murdoch) yelled at me for talking in class.
I laughed out loud. I stood on the plastic chair and waved my embossed notebook. I shouted:
Ye shall be slain all of you:
as a bowing wall shall ye be,
and as a tottering fence.
The female Mr. Murdoch signaled to activate the security system. Rented cops appeared in the corners of the room.
Let death seize upon them,
and let them go down
quick into hell.
Anthony applauded. I continued, thrilled with my own defiance:
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth.
Break out the great teeth
of the young lions, O Lord.
Drugged and pale expressions filled the faces around me, all but for Philomena. Elegant as a queen disguised in shabby clothes, she stood next to me, on her chair, and she proclaimed:
Let not them that are mine enemies
wrongfully rejoice over me.
Let them be ashamed
and brought to confusion together
that rejoice at mine hurt.
The guards circled around behind us. Philomena and I acted as of one mind. We put Anthony between us, we took hold of his arms, and we flew up to the ceiling, then horizontally across it to the double doors, where we ducked down and crashed through. In this same manner we careened down the wide halls, through the lobby, and out the grand foyer of the hotel. Feeling impish, we took a number of hats with us.
Philomena flew like a natural. Anthony was a different case. His thought-filled brain weighed so heavily that when we coached him and let him go for test flights he would plummet straight down, head first. Philomena and I had to catch him by his feet. In this way he lost his shoes and socks. By nightfall he developed a graceless but workable dog-paddle, and the three of us traveled the dark skies, risking collision with birds or accidental decapitation on utility wires. Anthony wore a tie clip that doubled as a penlight, so we used it for illumination.
At daylight we landed, joyful and exhausted, at my house for coffee. My husband pretended not to be annoyed by the unexpected company. He showed us the morning paper, full of stories about a penlight-sized UFO that had been sighted repeatedly over the city and countryside for a hundred miles around.
"You'll never get this flying out of your system," he said, "until you face that there's no money in it."
Anthony shrugged. "There's no money in anything interesting as far as I can tell."
I wanted to prove them wrong. I concocted a good story about the three of us having met and flown with aliens from the UFO. Philomena and Anthony agreed to go along with it.
"If it gets in one paper," I said, "all the other papers will call. We will have speaking engagements on National Public Radio and we can publish a newsletter."
The plan started brilliantly. A reporter and a photographer arrived within twenty minutes of our phone call. They took notes and lots of pictures, during which I levitated, Anthony shouted polemics, and Philomena wore all the hats we had taken from the hotel.
The next week I proudly showed my husband our group photo in a supermarket tabloid. He pointed out to me that there was no article about our aliens. The caption identified us as award-winning vigilantes who had broken up a dognapping ring.
"You look like crackpots," he said.
My eyes filled with tears.
No phone calls came.
We did look like crackpots.
I gave up flying.
I sacrificed it, too, rather than endure further humiliation.
To reduce temptation, I nailed shut the bedroom windows and I sewed lead inserts to my shoes. My husband did not dare complain.
I took up, instead, a career.
I joined a pyramid sales scheme and began selling cosmetics and vitamins at home parties. Anthony recruited me. He showed Philomena and me a wall chart from his anarchist days, an old political theory diagram that he'd converted into a graphic organizer for his sales empire. Arrows and circles expanded in all directions, proving, he said, the profitability of his business.
During my training, Anthony discovered that I had a talent for makeovers, the sleight-of-hand that uses face paint to create from a nondescript woman, her own remarkable and glamorous avatar.
I wanted to practice on Philomena, but she declined. Her only beauty routine was to wash in rainwater. I remade myself instead, redesigned myself so not a blemish, not a pore showed. My confidence grew tough and opaque.
"What of the ethics?" Philomena asked. She followed me, holding the nail jar as I sealed shut the rest of my windows.
"Ethics?" I said. "In selling there are no ethics."
Philomena thought about this. "I suppose I believed the same thing when I worked for The Agency," she said. "Until Mr. Murdoch got me fired. I interviewed you years and years ago. Do you remember?"
I was stunned. I looked at her plain face, naked and vulnerable, like the face of any unimportant person. "You can't be Ms. P. Danaan. She was worldly and successful. She was perfectly groomed. She was older, back then, than you look now."
"I know," said Philomena Danaan. "Isn't it amazing?"
"And you talk to me about ethics," I said bitterly. "Because of you I cut out the roots of my children. Because of you I stopped flying in daylight."
I turned away and banished Philomena from my life.
After my career's inglorious start (I did not sell a lipstick my first thirteen makeovers) I became enormously successful, hosting six, seven, sometimes ten parties a week, a top producer in my pyramid. I was so grave and earnest that the clusters of women sitting across from me were afraid not to buy my scented depilatories and my vitality-enhancing vitamin powders, my pots of enameled eyelid color and my tonic water for skin.
I remade the women, painted their portraits over the tops of their faces. I understood that they, too, each one of them, had abandoned a cherished hope. Even as I exploited them, I shared their secret grief.
Biological changes happened inside me when I worked. High winds blew; windstorms filled my inner ear. Electric sparks ran across my tongue. My pulse adjusted itself to that of my customer. Euphoria picked me up in a mental state suspiciously like flying.
I made more money than my husband and still I needed to sell. There were not enough home parties to satiate me. I carried a portable booth to the shopping malls, where I caught women in mid-flight, so to speak, between one store and another, beneath the eye of the security camera. It was tricky to snare customers in the open, like rare and dangerous birds. With experience, I came to recognize the ones who had even a small corner of desire for my wares, and if they had that desire, I sold them.
The ones hardest to stop in public, the ones who conversely most coveted my makeovers, were the haughty suburbanites in their sport clothes. They believed, like a religion, in the makeovers they had already created, and being reminded of the process disturbed them. They believed only the lower classes revealed such intimacies. The well-positioned could not bear to look at me as they hurried through the mall, just as they could not look at janitors and car wash attendants. If one did stop, it was to toy with me, in the mean and naïve way of an adolescent on a prank phone call.
Mr. Murdoch, looking prosperous, suburban, and slightly senile, stopped at my booth one day and pretended to want a perfume for his granddaughter. He did not remember me. His manner ridiculed me, as if to say, Don't you understand the embarrassment of your occupation?
"But Mr. Murdoch," I said, "don't you think all occupations are an embarrassment?"
Mr. Murdoch used his left hand to stamp his cane on the shining mall floor. His right hand, the business hand, stayed buried in a deep coat pocket. "You don't know my name!" he shouted. "Don't call me by my name because you don't know it."
"But I do," I said, gathering my wits behind the perfect surface of my face. "I am Philomena Danaan. You had me fired from The Agency."
"What agency?" he said.
"The one on your business card," I said, and pulled from my sample case the soiled and tattered card he'd given to my parents eighteen years previously.
Mr. Murdoch looked aghast at the souvenir.
"You are the reason for the ruin of my life," I told him. "You are the one who bedeviled me with pranks at The Agency until you destroyed my reputation, until you reduced me to this, to peddling eye make-up."
"That was a long time ago," Mr. Murdoch said. "I'm an old man now. I'm retired now."
"You will never stop being part of The Agency," I said with authority.
"Surely there is something I can do for you," Mr. Murdoch said slyly, "something you want, something you need."
"Buy out my inventory," I challenged.
He nodded before the lens of the security camera.
"Give up your retirement," I said. "Sell cosmetics and vitamins for me."
He blustered and stamped his cane on the floor.
I thrust out my right hand. "Then it's a deal," I said.
The quickness of my gesture, a lifetime of business etiquette, and the security camera all conspired to trap him. Mr. Murdoch had his own right hand half out of his pocket, his right shoulder jackknifed to his ear, before he realized the consequences of shaking my hand. We stood and looked at one another, me pretending to be in a time warp, Mr. Murdoch struggling with his honor.
I saw that whatever trickery or manipulation befell Mr. Murdoch, it would never be more than what he had administered to others.
With my hand outstretched, I levitated three feet. I loomed over the old man. I repeated slowly and carefully, in the voice of a parent granting one last chance, "Then it's a deal."
He had to reach to shake on it.
I was flying again, or rather, levitating. It expanded my market and my career. Before I learned the secret of enchantment, I sold products only to those who entertained the notion of owning them. Now I had the power to sell to the unsuspecting and unprepared. All I had to do was present my argument and levitate. A helpless, hypnotic glaze clouded the customer until he or she submitted to my will.
Those were heady days.
I sold cosmetic makeovers to the following: a blind, born-again seamstress, a Korean house painter who spoke no English, a homesick Russian spy, the owner of a used-car dealership, a family of migrant workers broken down by the side of the road, a young couple struggling to make their cable TV payments.
I worked one hour a day and wrote twenty-three orders. I was almost rich. I bought a new house for my husband. It had a detached garage for his projects and a spare room so his mother could visit. I bought china and gave our Melmac dishes to the Midwestern poor bins. For the first time in my life, I wore colored underwear and pearl earrings.
I stopped sleeping. I stopped washing my face. Each morning I applied another layer of make-up until it formed a crust on my skin. I lost track of how many days and weeks I had not slept. At night I lay rigid, like the freshly dead, in my bedroom where the windows were nailed shut. Finally, as though I had been waiting for it, a noise came against the glass. Philomena stood outside, tossing gravel at my window.
I met her at the kitchen door. "What do you want?" I asked with the hostility of one who remembers a past humiliation.
"There's something wonderful for you to see," she said, and took my arm.
"I don't fly," I said stiffly.
"The hell you don't," Philomena laughed. She had put on weight and looked more like the imposing Ms. Danaan I remembered, the silver combs back in her hair. Her feet floated several inches above my porch. She carried a jug of wine.
"Maybe this once," I said.
She hurried me up into the night where, in the blink of an eye, the triumphs of my career turned to vapor. We flew like mad-women. We split the wine fifty-fifty, and it inspired us to stunning feats of daring, to stalls and flips and elaborate woven loops.
"Do you see now?" Philomena asked. "Are you beginning to see?"
Due to the wine, I was seeing not one truth, but many.
"There they are," Philomena urged again.
Above us, in the backlit city sky, I saw the red heifer, free at last from the highway. On her back rode my three children.
"Thank you, thank you, Mother," they cried, voiceless, as they slipped away behind the stars. "Thank you for sparing us earthly lives."
They dropped coin-shaped blessings that hit my face like cold round kisses. The blessings washed my skin clean.
"Ungrateful creatures," I said. "They didn't want to be born."
The sacrifices over which I had dedicated such anguish had never been mine to sacrifice at all. In that case, I thought, I would rather fly.
Philomena and I flew, anonymous and spirit-struck, into and around each other until we crash landed at dawn in the crown of a tree.
"I am finally drunk," I told her. "I am drunk with astonishment."
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