The Strange Voyage of Annabel Lee

(a spoondrift, a flickering filmstrip, even a dream)

Distant cities may or may not exist; they are only real in imagination—until you visit one, causing it to collapse into brick and glass, red tiled roofs, hard clay streets, salty wind, white beaches, and small offended rodents scurrying across the wharfs.

Meet our headstrong protagonist, with her peculiar allergies; the way she sits in a café in one of those ubiquitous white plastic chairs. She is thinking of Edgar, who is stand­ing on the small acropolis at sunset trying to cast shadow puppets on the full moon rising huge. That afternoon they were in a garden, sparring like courting fig wasps gazing into the juicy pink interior of a ripe fig, contemplating the juxtaposition of opposites and the properties of magnets.

Edgar waits for her on the acropolis with her medicine. But: the cruel sea captain. The curve of his smile. The curve of his carving knife. Annabel gazes upside down at a tattoo of the number 13. Our headless protagonist, her shadow paces the walls of the old camera obscura. Her body has disappeared; now you see her, now you don’t.

In Edgar’s stereopticon: a ghost image, double vision. The café where Annabel sat waiting: A wicker table filled with broken bric-a-brac: small china figurines, odd seashells, a ceramic ashtray. The leg of an upturned chair, tilted in air, shocking white under sodium lights. An abandoned cigarette on the cobblestones, smoke still curling tightly like a soft black metal spring. A spilled drink. A potted plant. A pigeon pecking a drop of blood.  Nearby: a neon sign with a rolling wheel, animated alternating spokes; red and orange and white and red and orange and white. A stiff shaft of wheat behind his ear, Edgar plays her new game, holds the stereopticon’s wooden handle below his chin and searches the lenses. Double worlds. Nothing there. Or there.

The full moon shrinks as it rises. Dark clouds mass above the acropolis.

A coin of small value, marked by the point of a carving knife, is tucked deep in the cruel captain’s pocket, along with a pair of dice and a rope that is all knot. Bulging from a shirtsleeve, a tattoo of the number 13. A back pocketful of stale breadcrumbs, a frayed hole in a pair of pants, he leads a parade of pigeons. Soon silhouettes of ships angle upside down across the surface of a black mirror, tangled reflections of rigging on the moonlit bay; scrying the mirror, finding his ship. Closer now, the captain hears his captive crew, the sound rats make when they’re scratching to get out. With the weight of a heavy sack on his bent back, the pocket weight of knife, dice, coin, rope, of breadcrumbs, the cruel captain boards his ship.

A sign on a wall says οιωνός. Omen. A sign on a door says μνήμη. Memory. Her absence is a hole of precise shape and size, so Edgar kneels before keyholes. He talks to their dark ears, traces their empty mouths with his index finger. Some are shaped like seeds. Some are fat seeds. Some seeds have wings. Others look like eyes, but those brass eyes are closed. His own eyes turn again and again. They lift to the rooflines: the double lenses find a squirrel staring back, chattering. The moon has turned to a small yellow stone, and someone has thrown it over a chimney. There is another moon beside it, white as a pigeon. The stereopticon makes the moons hover together and look like one moon; the full moon has its ghost moon.

Cool wind sifts her sea-wet hair, gripped tight above her scalp. Salt stings her cold red cheeks. Lanternlight tricks her eyes: she sees wooden breasts rise and fall, fall and rise; waves spray painted pink nipples, a slender neck carved to a point. The cruel captain jams her severed head onto the shattered figurehead. Her heart rolls below decks in the bilge water; through her shock, she still feels its odd, unsteady pumping.

Edgar walks past ancient figures alongside a canal, giants sculpted in stone, immobile angels with no memories, no prophecies. The moonlight that silvers the water darkens, tarnished by clouds. Edgar shouts: All ye, all ye, come in free! He looks behind this angel, that angel. No Annabel under the bridge, no Annabel at the sepulcher. He shouts again and again: All ye, all ye, come in free!

Beetles with tiny scritchy claws are crawling all over Annabel, swarming. They make her itch. She tries to shake them off—shake them off right now!—but she can’t figure out how. Horrid little insects scurry across her decks, creep up her masts. Creep inside her! She wants to cry. She wants them gone, gone, gone.

Sunrise. Confusion. Sharp shame. He’s running, sweating, aching eyes tearing. Why shame? A hard curve in Edgar’s pocket: the vial of medicine pressed against his thigh. Annabel is really gone? The game of hide-and-seek turns to panic.

Noon sun, blinding on the sea, shows no shadow. Someone’s thin tanned freckled arm reaches around Annabel’s wooden shoulders. One sunburned hand appears, near her face, holding a tin cup. “For you.” Annabel swallows, sweet honey in warm water, vaguely wondering where it goes. Painted breasts heave forward on the waves, rising, falling.

A headless shadow waits, pacing, as Edgar searches obscure and meaningless places. She’s waiting for him, watching as he points the stereopticon into alleys, into windows, as he moves through the town, farther from the sea. The neon wheel spins backwards: prophesize, don’t forget.

 A hand out of nowhere, from behind her head. A hand, with a grape. A freckled hand out of nowhere, from behind her head, feeding her a grape. A thin brown freckled hand, disappearing behind her head. Reappearing, with another grape. “For you.”

The way a grape resists when you gently squeeze it in your teeth. And when you continue to press, the way it bursts.

Edgar, walking slow. Two candles burn dim, far in the distance. Two oak trees, lost in gray sky, frame two stone pillars twice his height. Then, a square white boulder, tilted in the ground, rises in the fields. Clouds are getting lower, darker, Edgar long out of town.

Yes, like a bedspread on a bed, folded down at the top. Yes, like an abstract painting: dark blue, division, light blue. Above and below do not matter to her. Search the division, Annabel. Search where water ends, sky begins. Is there anything between the two?

Pitted concrete. Rusty rebar. An altar to a forgotten deity? Edgar sits, looks down: spots of red wax on brown oak leaves, and underneath, a photo, wrinkled and damp, color lost, contrast lost. He sees Annabel’s face, smiling, destroyed. Things fall from his pockets. Two candles go out in an instant. Dark hands descend, and the clouds push him away.

A black rose on a red banner, the silhouette of a giant on horseback, thunder of hooves on cobblestones. Clouds drop to the horizon, hunch down, vast dark headless shoulders. Her crew, staring wary at the sky, unfurls her storm sails. Belowdecks, the cruel captain fires her engines.

The field he cuts through is vast, row upon row of curving furrows, the fingerprint of a giant. The horizon is a dark smoky wall, it’s all around him, and he’s turning and turning because he doesn’t know which way to turn.

A shadow in the crimson light on the waves, in the sun setting on top of the sea. Shadows of moving fingers, shadow of a hand. And a small brown thing. The shadow’s trying to stuff this small brown thing in Annabel’s mouth. It’s just dirt, sweet bitter mud. A high tenor sings, “For you.”

The stereopticon doubles the furrows, blurs them. Edgar sees a labyrinth now. He starts to walk, curving, left hand at his side, right hand out for balance, curving, curving. It’s evening, but darkness is falling too fast.

Her doctor had told her she shouldn’t eat chocolate.

Panic. Sudden stop. He pats his pockets. Goes back, staring at the ground, curving, curving. Sky darker, dropping clouds. Back the way he came. Remember each turn, and hope it’s no omen.

Yet chocolate tastes good. It tastes like bitter mud. It tastes like earth. Far, far at sea, chocolate tastes like land.

The toss of dice. Four times five. Caw! Caw! Caw! The cry of a gull. No, the cry of a sailor. No, the snapping of a whip. Caw! Caw! Caw! As the whip works its rhythm, Caw! Caw! Caw!, a voice Annabel knows cries, then screams, a high keening, “For you.” She doesn’t care. She’s lost her heart, belowdecks.

A curve of dull yellow light against brown oak leaves. Edgar bends. The vial of medicine. When he rises, both candles light again. The setting sun is pursued by a dark mouth, black clouds stretched wide, low, grinning across the sky. Behind him, this darkness touches the ground and rumbles.

Spoondrift. Windrack. Scud. The sun rests just above the waves. The bud of a great black rose opens in the sky; a black rose that rises across sunset’s red banner. A dark giant eats the sun and then it swallows the sea. Then the sea swallows the ship. Lightning opens swift vistas. Dark rain washes her cheeks, stings her eyes, races down her throat.

Leather and salt water. Knotted ropes soaked tight. Wet gray sails slam, slap. Now a whip snaps; a high cry is lost in thunder and crash. When the storm gentles, the thin sailor tied to the mast will receive the rest of her reward: for comforting the figurehead, Annabel’s spiked head, a dice roll of four times five. For you.

The ship is a bucking horse in the storm, a rocking horse. Captain, go to the prow, rein in the horse.

The sea, raging, is infinite and very personal. Death is the same. The sea is a cat and Annabel Lee a mouse racing its infinite jaws. No time. No time to think about the sea. It raises you high and sucks you under. Its beauty kills you. The pumps can’t keep up.

A black umbrella: well planned. A well-planned man, under a black umbrella in a typical downpour. Neon colors sparking in the rain. Wet boots. Empty streets. Dark windows. Closed doors. Empty cinema. The Petrified Forest, opening credits rolling into the ceiling: Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis…

Sound of hooves thunder on cobblestones. Edgar looks around, sees nothing. Town: black in the rain. Town: empty in the rain. Rain: a veil for his eyes. Rain: a heavy, unwanted overcoat of water. Rain: shoes in puddles, puddles in shoes. No clop of hooves: it’s only rain. Rain.

A sting, sharper than the storm, stinging, stinging, stinging. Wood can bleed. Yes, she can feel it, bleed red blood. The captain screams behind her. Then: Caw! Caw! Caw! Cargo shifts in the hold. The masts stand half broken. Water pours down the hatches. Belowdecks, her engines are dead.

Hard rain pounds the roof, high above, echoes in the empty cinema, drowns the desert on the screen. The well-planned man still holds the handle of his black umbrella, but the umbrella is folded, pointed to the floor. Great crash of thunder; the projector flickers, jumps. The picture shifts slightly to the left. Images ripple. Bogart stops talking.

Annabel times her cries to the whip. She makes her cries mimic the snap. She controls the ship, now wants to control the whip, reverse the pain. Salt water floods her, chokes her. She sees straight down the ocean’s dark foaming throat. Now straight up to rain, lightning. Now over and up into deep water and down to the flashing night. Lightning cracks doors open, dark doors in the sky that beckon, slam, boom, closed. Wind carries the cruel captain’s voice away, the voice that says nothing, or never says anything she can understand. The sea rolls her to her side. The cruel captain tumbles, hangs on.

Frames snap, glide. Silver images slide back into movement. Light settles down again into scenes. There is sound, dialogue. The well-planned man settles back. Then turns, watches Edgar stumble, dripping down the theater aisle.

His screams, his whip, mean nothing to her, just a damned nuisance. She’s so tired. So heavy with water. Bloated. Pregnant with the deadly sloshing sea. And sick. So sick. Stomach aches and rises. She gags. Turns her head to the side.

Scraps of her photo in his hand, stubs of red candles poking from his pockets, glass vial full of yellow light, a small chip of green stone caught in his handkerchief, Edgar raises the stereopticon. He wants to take off all his drenched clothes and hang them in front of The Petrified Forest. He watches double images of desert and sea.

Gasping for breath, endlessly vomiting salt and water, great strings of puke washed away in the tumbling storm, she’s a seasick boat spinning dizzy.

The well-planned man has become uncomfortable. A person stands in front of the front row. A crowded theater would be acceptable. No people at all would be acceptable. One person, however, demands attention of some sort. Attention is costly. It costs breath.

Then again, it could be the chocolate. She coughs and spits, gargles a mouthwash of waves and wind. She feels lighter now, maybe capable. Storm, are you distracted by this toy?  My pumps are working.

“My friend,” he said, “you are blocking the screen.” Seven words. You can count them.

The projector behind Edgar casts his shadow among people moving in a desert, actors who have been dead for decades. Edgar’s fascinated by this. He’s right there with them, his living shadow mingling with their dead ones. He can’t stop thinking about what that might mean.

He could have said, “Down in front,” three words, and would have if there had been more people. That would have been easy. That would have saved breath. If there had been even three people sitting in the theater, there would have been no demand made on this well-planned man. But a person alone is no longer anonymous. The well-planned man is now obligated to offer this person a contract.

(To be continued in Part Two:
The Strange Death of Annabel Lee)

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