Chapter Six

This Hovering Honeyed Mist

I trust the reader has enjoyed our little digression. Now we must return to Madame Fat, with whom I was put in contact by the same colleague who had so inconsiderately run off in the middle of his story. The next day I told him that my aunt had recently died, that we had never been close, that there was residual ill will between us over a trifling incident involving her adolescent grandson, my nephew, many years ago, and that I sorely wished to contact her. He looked at me strangely, suspecting, I think, a joke, but surrendered the name of his friend in Omaha without asking any questions. Discretion is a rare thing indeed.

I called the professor of French, who confirmed the red scarf story and enthusiatically provided Madame Fat’s address. She had moved to Lincoln, whither I betook myself the following morning by car. (For those readers keen on fatidic dates, I note that this was the 2nd of July.) Nowadays I drive a powerful white Volvo station wagon, and the trip from Cedarn to Lincoln, pleasantly free from state troopers and jack-knifed semis, was effected beneath cloudless skies in under five hours.

In keeping with her name, and contrary to the description I had received of her as frailly skeletal, Madame Fat was fat. When she answered her door, this fact created a burst of cognitive dissonance that momentarily struck me dumb: I would have had no problem referring to a bony Asian lady as Madame Fat to her face, but calling a fat woman Fat strayed well beyond the bounds of my personal sense of decorum. I quickly began considering a series of alternative pronunciations, Faht, Fate, Fuht, when she beamed at me and said:

“You Doktah Keenbote! Come een, come een, welcome!” Her speech was a weird blend of lazy American vowels and razor-sharp “e’”s that made the skin of her ample amber-colored face assume a series of bizarre distortions.

I guessed that this had to be she and settled, sounding like some inept grandee, for plain “Madame.” She ushered me unceremoniously into her parlor, identical to her Omaha one, to judge by the bamboo blinds and corny Oriental fixtures.

“Seet, seet” she said, patting the back of a cane chair, beside the small round table, that looked much too weak to support my considerable bulk. I sat down hestitantly to a chorus of crackling. The sun had set an hour ago and the apartment was dim, lit only by a few flickering candles and an elaborate lamp of red lacquered wood and translucent paper hanging above the table. A moth was bouncing off the smoky ceiling around it in inverted parabolas, like a small resilient object caught in the gravity of some upside-down dimension interpenetrating our own.

Madame Fat sat down opposite me, her chair protesting even more loudly than had mine. Smiling placidly, she placed her plump hands, ringless fingers stumpily outstretched, flat on the table and asked “Who you want? You want Seereen?” She made the name sound like a prescription drug. I nodded. “We begeen.”

As we sat for some time in silence, I became increasingly aware of my own breathing and a peculiar smell, a blend of spices and molten wax. I had automatically shut my eyes, presuming this was de rigueur for such procedures, and the darkness, I admit somewhat sheepishly, was beginning to spook me.

A chair, hers or mine, creaked.

Now, there are many of you, no doubt, who, based solely on the scurrilous rot circulated by envious colleagues, believe me to be, if not mad, then at least a fool. I assure you I am neither. It is especially important, esteemed and skeptical readers, that you give me, as the expression goes, the benefit of the doubt, if only for the nonce, for the remainder of this all-important chapter. Please pay attention, and I implore you to suspend judgment until you have read everything, everything.

Suddenly there was a noise which began as a soft tremulous murmur, like the blurry sound of a rotary fan beginning to whirr in another part of the house. Initially I mistook it for the moth fluttering against the ceiling above us, but it was not this. Or rather, it was this and more. As I strove to regain my aural bearings, my eyes still shut and my arms laid tensely on the table before me, a second sound began to swell in chorus with the first, akin to it and yet more human, remote and yet seemingly nearby, a susurrous sound like someone sighing in his sleep. This graded into an audible “Ahhh” and Madame Fat spoke:

“Eeven.”

I didn’t know if interrupting was wise. I waited.

“Yes?” This was Madame Fat speaking again, but the voice was decidely unlike her normal tone. How does one address a ghost? Sir? Master? Mister? Your Excellency? I completely lost my composure and began to stammer.

“Uh uh ah, I’ve come to ask a few questions, please, sir, if I may.” My voice sounded unusually husky. I cleared my throat. My eyes began to twitch and water.

A pause. The tremulous whirr continued.

“Yes.”

I swallowed what little spit I had and gulped a mouthful of spiced air.

“Can you tell me what it’s like, the other side.” Said matter-of-factly, no question mark, no rising voice at the end of the phrase. For reasons unknown I was now speaking extremely slowly and meticulously articulating each syllable, the way one asks a native for directions in a foreign city: “Can ... you ... tell ... me....”

Almost before I had finished my phrase the voice rang out musically, exultantly:

“Smert' mne kazhetsia ne groznoiu zagadkoi, --
--a etim reiushchim tumanom medovym.”

This was definitely not Madame Fat. I longed to open my eyes but dared not. The sudden stream of Russian combined with my temporarily unsighted state disoriented me, and it took me a moment to comprehend what I had just heard. The words were familiar, but I could neither place them nor grasp their full import. In Zemblan I would have described myself as forblöffet or even lyudatuprusket, but neither of these conveys the depth and breadth of my amazement with the same cheek-wobbling thunder as does that fine English word of uncertain origin: flabbergasted.

The droning silence had returned. I waited, my heart racing. A cold tap on the back of my tensed hand nearly elicited a howl of abject terror until I realized that it was not a spirit’s touch but that I was weeping icy tears. Madame Fat was silent too, and I wondered whether she had been swept away into some nether realm. The moth, which had fallen silent or whose futile flutterings I had been distracted from hearing during the recent exchange, grew restless and noisy once more, its wings buzzing resonantly against the taut paper of the lantern above my head.

I waited, silently, every nerve rubbed raw and ravenous for sensation, for what seemed a lifetime. Nothing.

When I could bear the suspense no longer, I spoke once more. My voice was thin:

“Is there anyone there?”

No reply. I waited.

With no warning Madame Fat, her own voice returned, sang out laconically:

“OK, we done. You pay now.”

My eyes popped open, smarting from the tears. I blinked. My amazement graded instantaneously into panic.

“But we’re not finished! I have more to ask! This is outrageous!”

Madame Fat had already risen and was busying herself with a small porcelaine teapot on the counter beside where she had been sitting.

“Nex time, nex time,” she said distractedly. “You pay now.”

In agony, but quickly convinced by Madame Fat's stonily impassive face that further pleading would be in vain, I sat back in my chair, exasperated. After a moment of recovery, I reached into my left breast pocket and withdrew my check book and pen. I leaned forward, uncapped the pen, and just as I began to make out the check, something small and soft fell onto my sleeve and tumbled from there onto the table top: the moth. I paused to look. It lay on its back, its furry feet flimmering frantically, soundlessly, in the air above it. Then the wings took up the rapid rhythm and thrummed against the wood. Somehow it managed to right itself. Its streamlined body was brownish-pink, its hind wings short and spotted with twin blue ocelli. I cannot be sure, but its eyes seemed to glow like two miniature coals.

While I slowly finished the check, Madame Fat surprised me by swiftly scooping up the dazed creature and carrying it to the open window, where she released it, extending her short arm into the blue night and coaxing the insect, in a language I didn’t know, to take flight.

“Too manee bugs,” she said as she returned.

Shaken, I handed her the check and left.


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