A WILLOW AND THE MOON I.
It was once a sanatorium high up in the mountains. My mother worked there. In the summers I woke with her early and took the wooded trail near our home. She brought us breakfast, usually some bread with cold jam and butter, and halfway up the slope we found a spot with a view and rested.
In the valley there was the town and the distant river. On some days we could see the train come up from the city, blowing smoke into the sky. South of this was our house and the horse farm my father was employed by. Sometimes I could even see my father cross a paddock; I recognized his strange gait, from when a horse kicked his hip before I was born.
He came from a family of farriers. The house was one we rented from a wealthy Dutchman whom I never saw. It had four rooms on one floor. Our most valuable possession was a piano my mother owned. She used to play, before the first war. She had come to America to perform in a concert hall in Manhattan.
Her name was Joséphine. She was from France. She was supposed to be in the city for only a week. One afternoon she went to a market and my father was there, trying to sell old horseshoes to the children, for their games.
My father, who was too shy to speak to anyone, slipped one around her wrist as she browsed. She looked up, startled by the gesture and his boldness, the unexpected weight of the shoe, then the iron, which quickly warmed against her. It startled him, too, because he had never done something like that before.
They didn’t see each other again until a few days later, at the same stall, when she returned, her fingers stiff from repeating a phrase on the piano all morning. She had wanted to look at his face one more time. He smelled like hay and fire.
She never returned home. She followed him north and tried to make a life with him in the Hudson Valley, both of them in their twenties, with the barrier of language between
them, and only the faith of some attraction they held on to for as long as they could.
Joséphine gave lessons here. They had me.
Then, in 1914, everything changed. She heard about France on the radio. She wanted to do something. I used to think that if she could, she would have gone back. But she didn’t. She pulled away from my father instead. I never discovered what caused this or whether they themselves could have articulated it. But they drifted apart, quietly, over time, as I grew older, creating separate lives, separate rhythms to their days.
My father I saw less of. He took on more work in the farms across the valley and came back well into evening. Years later, in those times when I would think of him, it was never his face I recalled but his shape in the distance, in the field, as he went to shoe a horse. Or the way his arm hung over the chair as he fell asleep, the book he was trying to read slipping from his hand and dropping. How I would pick the book up, sit on the floor with his palm on my head, and wait for the twitch of some dream, imagining what world he had found himself in as I listened to his steady breathing.
It was my mother I spent most days with. Helping her around the house. Going into town with her to buy draperies for the windows. My love, help, she would say, and I rushed
to collect the gauzy fabric that spilled from her arms like old sails. And when she began to volunteer at the sanatorium, she took me, and I watched as, through the years, she helped the patients and later the North American wounded who were sent up from the city, along the river, and transported here by trucks, to be closer to home, to recover, to die.
I outlived her. How was that possible? I never knew what made her, in a slow descent over the years, begin to use the medicine she gave to the patients at the sanatorium. What it was she hid or kept from me and my father.
But I loved being with her then. I loved watching her work. Her patience and charm with strangers. Her uniform, and her dark hair I didn’t inherit, pinned up. Up there, she laughed easily. She was gregarious. She sang French songs for the convalescents and for me.
And I loved, almost as much, the sanatorium itself, which was tall and endless, with all its windows and dormers, the heavy curtains and the chandeliers like some old palace. The rocking chairs on the porch, which faced a lake. And Theo, who would come down from the house that was connected to the main building, carrying a towel the size of a bed over his shoulder, to take me swimming.
Theo was the son of the resident physician. They were
British but had come here when he was an infant, their father working first in the city. No one knew where his mother was. They had already been at the sanatorium by the time my mother began to volunteer. Theo and I were around the same age and we often sought each other’s company on the mountain, the two of us floating on our backs in the lake, wondering about what was happening in France.
He was smaller than I was, but he moved like a dancer to me. Light-footed and assured as we explored the floors of the building, hunting for ghosts and secret passageways. He liked to show me the patients that terrified him. A man with strange scars across his chest; another who couldn’t stop coughing and spitting up blood. He would bend down toward the keyhole, his long bangs falling over his eyes, and peer in.
Eventually, my mother found us, kissed Theo and me, and she and I headed back down before it grew dark. Theo, like a gentleman, always walked us to the start of the trail, watched from there, and waved.
I never saw him leave the mountain. It didn’t occur to me to think of that as odd then. He was always Theo on the mountain, as my mother called him. Like she had done for me, she taught him some French. Brought him pastries from the town.
Later, I heard he was sick. An incurable illness. I never found out what it was or if this was true. He was strong to me. Bright-eyed. He dove often and first into the lake. Held his breath the longest. Ran across the lawn the fastest. But one day he didn’t appear outside. And I didn’t see him the next day either. And when I hadn’t seen him in a long time, I was told he had gone away. Him and his father both. No one seemed to know where, not even my mother.
A new physician moved in. The days grew colder. I wrapped myself in a blanket I had stolen from a ward and sat on the rocking chairs with the wounded who had begun to appear from France. One was named Henri Loze, but he went by Henry. He was Canadian. He let me hold his cigarette lighter. He spoke of the Argonne. He joked about the girls in Calais. About the one he met on a bridge who had followed him, trying to sell shoelaces, buttons, bottles, things taken from dead soldiers.
Oh, her breasts, he said, and he began to cry, openmouthed, his shoulders shaking and his saliva dripping onto his blanket, which hid the fact that he was missing his legs.
My mother appeared and gave him something—I couldn’t tell what—and I saw her slip something else under the sleeve of her shirt as Henry called her by her name and, in the warm sunlight, calmed.
My father came up to the sanatorium a few times. He told me this in a letter once, many years later, saying good-bye. He used to watch as Theo and I followed the paths, caught in our own private worlds. And later, when I was older, he watched as I helped some patients into the boat so that they could row out across the lake. He said he liked seeing me in my uniform. He thought my mother would have liked seeing it, too.
He never told me if he ever approached her while she was working or whether he simply stayed for a while at the edge of the property and climbed back down. Whether he ever continued on to the building and talked to anyone, curious about the place that perhaps still contained some part of my childhood and that had consumed his wife so deeply. He never told me if he ever found her in the corner of a room, erasing herself with the morphine she had continued to use and that, one day, she never woke from.
Two orderlies found her. And then they came down, meeting my father in the field beside our house and, in a moment of grief I wasn’t witness to, he beat them, nearly killing one.
My father left not long after. I didn’t know where he went. Just that he walked to the docks one night, got on
a boat, and left the valley, his house, and the horses he had worked with all his life.
I never saw him again. It was the start of the Second World War and I used to wonder if, like me, he had entered it somewhere, in some far continent. For a time, I checked lists and asked people passing through if they had seen him, or knew him, but no one ever did.
I was in England during those years. I had joined the Red Cross, working for a hospital in London. I was almost thirty, unmarried, and I spent most days in the wards, doing what my mother had done, or wandering the streets, not yet accustomed to the city. There was a café near the hospital and from my window at night I would listen to faint music, sometimes a singer. I tried to name the café songs. I read again the only letter my father ever wrote to me, surprised that he had written at all, surprised that it arrived:
The sanatorium closed. I think because of the war. Like you, all the doctors have gone. Tomorrow I will go up to the garden they were growing and take what is left of the vegetables. I am here in the room with the piano, noticing for the first time that it is missing a key. Was it always missing? Yesterday, I had a dream of you as a boy: I was in a chair and you were sitting on the floor beside me, leaning up into my hand.
The bombings started that fall. I disobeyed orders and stayed, living in the hospital basement for one hundred fifty days.
More than anything, we cherished lightbulbs.
Once, in a narrow corridor, a girl asked for my address. She had given me hers, slipped it into my shirt pocket.
In case, she said.
I didn’t have time to give her mine. I hadn’t even caught her name. She had reached for my shoulder, touched me as though playing a game. It was the lightest touch. Her eyes delirious in the dust and the blinking dark as she rushed by, pushing a wounded man against the wall to steady him, to operate on him.
I took out the paper. An address in Montreal.
I thought I saw her again during those one hundred fifty days. There was a six-inch window in the room I shared with seven others as we took turns trying to sleep. It was our only view out into a city that was being destroyed, hour by hour. We watched families attempt to scavenge whatever they could—a cup, a radio, a window curtain—as the cobblestone around them was pummeled. I saw the branch of a tree fly into the air and spear a woman’s heart, catapulting her backward into a crater.
Paper fell like snow.
Across the courtyard, there was another window, where there were other doctors and nurses. The passage connecting the wings of the hospital had long ago collapsed, so we signaled to each other with candles, this brief joy at catching the blurred, lit shapes of other people’s faces over the rubble.
I thought I saw her there, her profile passing the windowpane. I waved. In a moment of quiet someone lifted her and she squeezed through the window and I watched her sprint, waving a flashlight. I wondered if she was looking for something or going to find help or running away. The light hit my eyes and I lost her.
That night the statue in the courtyard fell and covered our window. We lost electricity. For the rest of the days we were strict with our candles in that room that smelled of our bodies and the earth. Ten minutes every evening to see each other and remind ourselves we were still there, and to write our letters. We had a gramophone and one undamaged record, Billie Holiday, so we listened to a song as we wrote.
I didn’t know who to write to, so I wrote every night to Theo:
Canada. I like the sound of that word in my mouth. It feels like a calm winter to me. A warm fire. A word to hold. Maybe
my father’s there. Maybe you are, too. One day I’ll visit. I’ll knock on your door with the pastries you love, the ones with the chocolate in the center.
I want to see the landscape we tried to paint together—you started with twilight; I put in a harbor and a small boat. Was it cruel to paint alongside the patients? I wonder. The ones who painted to pass the hours, to distract themselves from death. You never met Henry Loze. You would have liked him. He was funny and kind and told stories. He often held himself as though trying to vanish.
I am starting to understand that instinct, when wounded, to find a small, dark space. Through the only window I see a narrow strip of sky and I wonder if that is enough. I am beginning to grow comfortable here in the dark. I am beginning to get used to the air. I wonder if I will ever step outside again. Maybe I was always here.
I think we live in museums.
There were once photographs on the walls of this building. Portraits. The faces of the first doctors. The countryside in the evening. A lake, low-lit. A willow and the moon. We burned them for fire.
I keep thinking of your laughter. Which was like the snow. A note on the piano. The shape of air. We promised each other
we would never steal from the pockets of the dead. I broke that promise here.
I’m losing track of time.
Once in a fit of anger I broke off a key from my mother’s piano and hid it in the sanatorium’s attic. It must still be there. My mother never scolded me, even though she knew I was the one who had done it. She continued to play, masking that missing note.
Theo, you first stole the morphine for her, didn’t you? You thought it was a game. You would sneak into your father’s office, unlock the cabinets, and come back to her, waiting for her to smile, waiting to feel her hand on your hair. I knew. But I’m not angry about that. I think you knew you were dying. And you did everything you could to please everyone. You, who would never come down from that mountain. Only wave. As though there was something in your life, something deep and bright, that was never in mine.
I saw you once leap into a rainstorm like an animal, like a swimmer, your wild body lit by lightning.
I have come to think privacy is both sacred and sacrilege.
Tonight, I don’t remember my father. I look up at the window where a stone face, with a shattered eye, stares down.
It ended in the spring. I didn’t leave right away. We found as many people as we could, or they found us, and we treated them. We swept, we cleaned. We repaired walls and windows. And then in the summer, as I was leaving the hospital on an errand, a family followed me out. Two children and their parents. They appeared dazed in the heat and the sun, unsure of where they were, what day it was, what year. They stayed close to me and didn’t speak.
I was supposed to pick up medicine from a mill that had been converted into a barracks. Instead, I took the children’s hands and helped them over the rubble and around the wagons and the wheelbarrows.
We saw the Thames. We followed the curve of the river, past town homes and factories with tall smokestacks. In what had been a store, three mannequins stood unharmed, their clothes gone, and the children stopped to mimic their poses. A café was open, serving coffee, and the father bought one and shared it with his wife, the two of them taking turns holding the ceramic cup. It was hotter now in the afternoon, and I had nothing, only my uniform.
As the day went on I thought I recognized the father. I thought he had been in the basement room with me. I didn’t remember a family. The woman was wearing boots like the ones soldiers wore. There were holes in the leather and as she stepped over mounds of bricks and cobblestone I could see flashes of her orange-colored socks.
We kept walking. No one bothered us. We reached a hill as the sun went down. In the distance, small fires were beginning to form; they were on the streets, along the river, in houses that were missing walls and roofs. We could see people gather, lift their hands for warmth. I thought I heard a gunshot. The echo. Glass breaking. I could see the mill I was supposed to have gone to, standing on the outskirts of the city near a long field. I spotted someone in a wheelchair navigating a blocked bridge. An old woman bent down on a street to water a flower that was still alive.
It was getting late. We were hungry and tired. The children wandered the ridge as though at a loss, confused as to how they ended up here in the growing dark, so far away. The father turned to me wanting to know what I would do, what they should all do, and I did nothing.
I missed my mother. I missed what little I ever had of my father. In that moment, on that ridge, I imagined the
days before they met. And that whatever labyrinth they had run into when they were young had never happened. That he continued to sell horseshoes at a city market, and she was playing the piano in the evening, in an auditorium. And that I was there. Now. In the audience, watching as the braid of her hair came loose and fell with the notes, under the lights.
That night we caught a supply train heading north, and as we left the city, the family fell asleep in the corner of the car, huddled together with their arms around each other. I cracked open the door. I watched as we entered the country, unable to remember the last time I saw a living tree.
Hours later, I felt the shock of the ocean ahead of me—the bright expanse of it, the glass.
I lost the family. When morning came they left, jumping off into a high grass meadow where there were horses, and entered their new life.
I kept going. I wasn’t yet used to being alone.
Eventually, the train stopped at a depot somewhere in the late night, and I snuck away into the country. I followed the moon. I found a tall maple where I sat down and, for the first time, wept.
Years later, I returned to the sanatorium.
I walked from the town. I started early in the morning, following the trail up the mountain. It was the end of summer. It was beautiful to see the valley and the colors and the fog that was moving over everything.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought someone would be there. Some old hope. But I found it still abandoned. Windowpanes were broken and the paint of the structure had peeled away long ago. There were three rocking chairs left on the rotting porch. They were close together, facing the lake, which held the reflection of clouds, the water breaking from a bird. In the courtyard, a bicycle wheel was lying in the fountain. I could smell the wet, undisturbed earth.
The entrance doors seemed the only thing that looked as how I remembered them: ancient, mythical. Doors for giants. I pushed and, to my surprise, they opened, creaking loudly, a burst of stale, cold air escaping. From a hole in the high ceiling, feathers fell down the height of four stories, past the bones of a chandelier.
I wandered the halls. In the rooms, some of the cots were still made with clean linen; others had old evidence of squat
ters. There were clothes in drawers, crosses on the walls. I found a spinning top, like the one I used to have as a child. Daguerreotypes of people I didn’t recognize. The sun came through the windows, reflecting off the metal trays on the tables. The cabinets were empty, all the drugs and medicine gone.
I ended up on the top floor, where the ceiling followed the shape of the mansard roof. I liked that floor best when I was a child, with its strange angles and the rows of beds like some orphanage in a story. It would grow unbearably hot and no one actually slept up there in the summers, so it was ours, I thought, mine and Theo’s, some private place we claimed.
Through the dormer windows there was a view below of the house where Theo and his father used to live. The grounds surrounding the house still looked as they had when I was young, and I was happy. I had survived the war. I was here.
I leaned down. I lifted the loose plank under one of the beds. I reached in.
My fingers caught something cold, and I pulled it back up and held it to the light. My mother’s piano key, worn from the years and her playing, which I pocketed before I went outside.
I still thought of it as Theo’s house, though of course it hadn’t been for a very long time. None of his things, or his father’s things, were there anymore but there was a bed, a long table in the kitchen, framed maps on the walls, and some books on the shelves—things I assumed had belonged to the other physicians who had lived here after.
Mice had nibbled at the large rug on the floor. I dragged it to the porch and beat the dust from it. I swept the floor. I straightened the maps on the walls. I had brought some food with me from the town—a loaf of bread, sardine tins, cheese, tomatoes—it was plenty for a few days.
I wondered who had stayed here through the years. I flipped through the books. Some of them fell apart in my hands, and I collected the pages and tucked them in again. I had planned on visiting my own house, but the hours passed. I pulled the sheets from a convalescent’s room and came back and made the bed.
That night I slept in Theo’s house for the first time, thinking I would begin in the main building tomorrow, collect the broken glass and the trays, fix the rocking chairs. I dreamed of Theo’s father. We were in London together in an empty factory without walls. He was wearing his doctor’s coat and giving me a tour. In his arms, he was carrying lightbulbs, and
I knew they were for the chandelier. Then something far in the city collapsed, and I opened my eyes.
One day, a young woman and a boy appeared on the mountain. I hadn’t seen them come up. They were standing on the lawn, holding hands and looking out at the open valley. I wondered if they were lost. It was late in the afternoon. The woman was wearing a long-brimmed hat and carrying a long canister of some kind. She was perhaps in her twenties. The boy was about five. I watched from the door as they crossed over to the lake. Leaves had begun to fall into the water. She let the boy walk over to the small dock, beside the rowboat, and he studied his reflection.
The woman saw me and waved, so I made my way out to her. The other day, scraping the walls, I had fallen off the ladder and wrenched my knee. It was better now but I was moving a bit slowly and she met me halfway.
We shook hands. She introduced herself as Elsa Marie Loze and I immediately recognized the family name. She was Henry’s daughter. She had been on a trip, on her way back to Montreal, when she remembered her father had been a patient here.
She looked around and behind me at the building.
And this is Tom, she said.
Hi, Tom, I said, and the boy buried his head against his mother’s legs.
Do you live here? Elsa Marie said.
Just for a little while, I said.
Like a caretaker? she said.
Yes, I said. Something like that.
Shadows had begun to extend across the lawn. I could hear a wind passing through the high leaves. She opened the canister she had been carrying.
He became a painter, you know, she said. My father. A decent one. A museum was interested in his work, so I brought some down with me. Here. Come look.
We went to the car and carried the rest to the house. She rolled them out for me on the kitchen table. I made her tea while Tom explored, studying the maps on the walls and playing with the spinning top I had found. He fell asleep in the chair by the fire, holding an opened book and wearing his mother’s hat.
The paintings were mostly of Montreal. The quays and the water in winter. A pastry shop on rue Saint-Jacques. A pair of children’s boots over a telephone wire. Others he had done from memory. The mountain lake. The two children from a theater troupe who had appeared at the sanatorium one summer—they had gotten lost, showing
up on the mountain in the evening in their costumes, like a dream, the girl with her face painted and the boy with wings.
I stopped at a portrait of a young girl in a concert hall, playing the piano.
That is Joséphine Belgard, she said.
I didn’t respond. I waited to see if she would say anything more. I stared at the painting, not wanting to ever look up.
Here was something I learned that day: Henry Loze knew who she was. He had always known. When he was younger his parents had taken him to see her perform. She had gone to Canada before heading to New York. She was going to be a star. The next Chopin. Hands like birds. Hands that would, a lifetime later, lift him into a bathtub on his first day here and wash his body.
What made someone give up a life and start another? What made my mother stay in New York? What did she think she was stepping toward? She chose my father and the shape of a life she could have never imagined. For many years I was sure she regretted it. But perhaps this was untrue.
The light in the room was falling. Elsa Marie checked her watch and said that she had to go, that she should get on the road. She asked if there was a restaurant in the town.
I said there was. I asked where she was staying.
she said, looking across at the boy. We’re driving. Canada, tonight.
She said Tom loved the road.
We’ve been all over, she said. Just him and me. My one, true man.
She bent down, lifted her hat, and picked him up so that his head rested on her shoulder, and she carried him like that as I opened the door. I brought her hat and the paintings for her. We made our way to the front of the main building where she had parked.
I want to ask you something, she said. Before we go. Do you know which room was Henry’s?
Yes, I said, and pointed to a window on the first floor, facing the lake.
The sun was now moving behind the ridge. She climbed up to the porch. Carefully, with the boy still asleep on her, she peered through the broken window.
You were in the war? she said.
I said I was.
She pointed at my knee and said, Will you be all right?
I will be all right, I said.
She stood back up. But then, changing her mind, she sat down on one of the rocking chairs, still carrying Tom.
Maybe I’ll rest for a moment, she said, and sighed.
She looked tired. I could see the fatigue in the way she carried the boy or maybe it was something else I couldn’t articulate. She looked lovely, sitting there against the last of the daylight, and I wondered where she had been and what her years had been like.
I wondered when Henry died. What he was like as a father. Where all our time had gone.
It was getting cold. I gave her my coat, which she draped over the two of them, and she rocked once, in the chair, and settled. So I sat with her.
Look at that, she said.
She had turned toward the lake. The rowboat had become untethered and was now drifting away. I saw it move as though it were being pulled by a long string, going farther and fading.
I watched until I couldn’t see it anymore.
Then Elsa Marie, holding her boy, closed her eyes, and the day ended, and there was only the water in the night.