A homeless woman, lets call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, or it could be Baltimore or Detroit. She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain. The woman thinks theyre the red eyes of a leopard from her dream last night. The voices below tell her not to jump, but the ones in her head are winning. In her story there are leopards on every corner, men with wild teeth and cat bodies, tails as long as rivers. If she opens her arms into wings she must cross a bridge of fire, battle four horses and riders. I am a swan, a spindle, a falcon, a bear. The men below call up to save her, cast their nets to lure her down, but she knows she cannot reach the garden without the distant journey. She opens her arms to enter the land of birds and fire. I will become wind, bone, blood, and memory. And the red eyes below are amazed to see just how perilously she balances on the ledgelike a leaf or a delicate lock of hair.
The Order of Things
Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory.
Walter Benjamin, Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus
. . . Climb the mountains, search the valleys, the deserts, the seashores . . . the deep recesses of the earth . . . for in this
way and no other will you arrive at . . . the true nature of things.
Petrus Severinus, 16th century Danish alchemist
The Subterranean World
Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think its her. I stumble out of bed ready for the worst. Then I realizeits a wrong number, or a friend calling from the other side of the ocean. The last time my mother called was in 1990. I was thirty-one and living in Chicago. She said if I didnt come home right away shed kill herself. After she hung up, she climbed onto the second-floor balcony of my grandmothers house in Cleveland, boosted herself onto the banister, and opened her arms to the wind. Below, our neighbor Ruth Armstrong and two paramedics tried to coax her back inside. When the call came the next time, almost seventeen years later, it was right before Christmas 2006, and I didnt even hear the phone ring.
The night before, I had a dream: I was in an empty apartment with my mother. She looked like she had that winter of 1990her brown and gray hair unwashed and wild, her blouse stained and torn. She held a cigarette in her right hand, fingers crossed over it as if for good luck. She never looked like a natural-born smoker, even though she smoked four packs a day. The walls of the apartment were covered in dirt. I heard a knock.What do you want? I asked the stranger behind the door. He whispered, Make this place as clean as it was in the beginning. I scrubbed the floors and walls, then I lifted into the air, sailing feet-first through the empty rooms. I called out to my mother, Come back! You can fly too! but she had already disappeared.
When I awoke there was a message on my machine from my friend Mark in Vermont. He had been keeping a post office box for me in Burlington, about three hours from my home in Western Massachusetts. The only person who wrote me there was my mother. A nurse from a hospital in Cleveland called about a Mrs. Norma Herr, he said. She said it was an emergency. How did they find me? For years, I had kept my life secret from my schizophrenic and homeless mother. So had my sister, Natalia. We both had changed our names, had unpublished phone numbers and addresses.
Excerpted from The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. Copyright © 2011 by Mira Bartók. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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