The Devil's Hat - Part Three
If you're just getting here, please read Parts One and Two from previous weeks. Otherwise, this will make as much sense as trying to wash a marshmallow before eating it (we had a pet racoon that used to do that, and it was hella funny to watch though)....
“Evangeline!” The man’s face goes from pink to scarlet. He sputters like a tricky motor, searching for something to say to rebut my daughter’s rudeness. Finding nothing, he squares himself back into a forward facing position. He adjusts his hat, smoothing his whiskers with both blunt hands, but his ears still burn red.
I breathe deeply and steadily, a constant rhythm. I grip Evangeline’s hand tightly and squeeze, passing along my displeasure, but she jerks it away and presses her fingertips to the window. My body crowds hers as I lean over to look.
There he stands, carved and as still as a statue. Our train creeps slowly by, so slowly that I am sure a child could outrun it. His black hair is pulled back tightly into a Chinaman’s queue. It trails over his shoulder like a languid snake. He holds a shovel in his hands and his face and unfamiliar clothing are streaked with red dust. The black hat sits incongruously on his round head. As we pass, his eyes lock mine, crinkling shut with obvious pleasure and he lifts the hat by its singed brim in greeting. The other men skulk about, staring at the train as it slithers by, their faces blank, unreadable.
The edges of my vision begin to close in; I have not been breathing. I sit back in my seat, dimly aware of the continuous buzz of chatter as the train moves forward by mere inches. An old familiar smell wafts back to me and my dread is complete. My stomach roils as the man in the brown bowler begins to attack a roll with vengeance. The smell is sultry, even though I am dimly aware of the impossibility. It has been many hours since the last stop – it is impossible that the bread is still warm. Nevertheless, the smell is there, mingling with the musty smells of bodies kept too long in close proximity to one another.
“Mother?” Evangeline breathes my name. Her face is still close to the glass. She reaches back, groping with one hand, to make sure I am still there. I take her hand and clasp it between mine tightly. My wedding ring surely cuts into her delicate girl-fingers, but she does not protest.
I have remained largely silent about her father, only relating to her the bits and bobs which rounded out the good aspects of his character. His generous laugh (that could turn cruel without hesitation), his gentleness to his horses (that did not bridge the great divide to me) his beautiful and stormy eyes (that speared me nightly with his hate). They are her eyes too, and I am fearful; by sparing her the details of her father’s true character, it is entirely possible that I have ill-prepared her for life apart from me.
I put my arm around her, drawing her back from the window. She settles against me, childlike and still. I glance through the glass, willing myself to cast my eyes backwards.
He is gone. In his place, there is only a lonesome shovel, leaning against a pile of railroad timbers. Inert, but watchful.
I noticed the hat straight away as the women filed to the stage to speak, but I kept resolutely silent. My heart beats powerfully at the base of my throat, keeping its own time. It has been a long while, I think. I have not forgotten.
The woman who wears it has a rouged, full mouth and red hair. It is pulled back neatly but a few wisps have escaped and rest fetchingly against her cheeks. Her green eyes shimmer with amusement as they meet mine in this sea of motherly faces. Evangeline stands beside me. She squeezes my arm. She is as resolute as any general and ready for battle. She holds tightly to me and I take comfort in her steely grip. She has seen her too. I am sure of it.
We are midway to the stage and the tide of women laps against us as they strain to hear the woman who is presently speaking. She is a tall woman with graying hair and a broad, grim face. She promises us, loudly and without apology, true equality and protection under the laws of God and man. The woman with red hair smiles widely at this, under the open air and sun. One of her eyeteeth glints gold.
The applause is thunderous for the tall woman as she finishes. She is a famous face of the movement, but I have long not cared for her and her platitudes. I am an ambivalent member at best anyway, and have mainly come along only as a traveling companion for Evangeline. I am too old, at sixty-seven, to have much push against established order. My daughter, however, in the throes of raising three daughters (and a son) of her own, has carved out an important place for herself. Her husband, being progressive and ultimately mild-mannered, champions the cause alongside her. But her daughters are caught up in their own lives as of late (the oldest being newly married) and so the task of accompanying Evangeline has again fallen to me.
I wait for the applause to die its natural death. The wind is constant, biting, grabbing at our hats, plucking at our sleeves like an insistent child. The woman to my left unwraps a sandwich and bites into it ferociously, wiping at the corner of her mouth inelegantly with her fingers. It is a Greek sandwich, with falafel bread (I know this from an international foods event that the Ladies Auxilliary Club of Smithfield had put on a few months back. I had picked Italian and the lasagna that I had brought was a crowd pleaser). As the smell of the bread rises, I instinctively lean away from the strange woman and into my daughter who is already pressed up tightly against the woman on her right.
“Mother!” Evangeline hisses at me, but I cannot manage to right myself entirely. I crowd away from the other woman, although she remains oblivious to me and goes on happily tearing into her sandwich.
”Good afternoon, leibchens,” says a sharp, crackling voice from the front. I turn my attention to the stage, my fear rising. It is the red-headed woman. The black hat with its burnt brim shimmers in the cold spring sun. The woman winks as I catch her eye. The crowd hushes and all faces turn towards her in rapt silence.
“We have been waiting for our time for generations. A time where our voices will rise above the ashes of our grandmothers and our mothers who have toiled and slaved in silence for thousands upon thousands of years. That time is now. We will no longer be silent. We will stand together, arms linked and it is now that we will say –”
A terrific groan overshadows the cadence of the speech; a shocked silence decends as the stage begins to tilt towards the audience. Towards Evangeline. Towards me. Too late, there are gasps and a single scream from somewhere behind me and then the wooden structure begins to slide carelessly towards the crowd. The women in front ripple with fear, pushing back away from the looming menace. It only takes seconds for the powerful women on the stage to fall like pawns on an upturned chessboard, flipping and tilting merrily into the crowd.
The crowd in front surges backwards and the ones in back surge forward; Evangeline and I are caught somewhere in the middle. We are squeezed against these opposing factions. Our neutrality cannot save us; I dimly wonder who will win. Women begin to tumble and flail and I am caught up in the tidal wave. I clutch for my daughter but she is swept away, pulled under. I do not see her face again. Inexplicably, I am lifted up above the fray and over the woman who, just moments ago, had been eating the Greek sandwich. I feel her hands pushing against the terrible weight of me as she surrenders.
I move about with the fickle tide. My head above, untouched, I scan frantically for my Evangeline. I am desperate for her and her honey-colored hair that has only just begun to fray out at the temples with age. But I do not see her; she must be lost somewhere below.
What I do see is this: a black hat bobbing cheerfully atop a mass of glinting copper hair, as it is carried right up to the blessed shore and to safety.
Golden Movie Theater
My fingers are slick with butter from the hot popcorn. The movie has not even started and already it is half gone. Although I am an old, old woman with an ancient face that keeps my secrets well, I eat like the gluttonous child that I used to be. My great-grandson, Robbie, sits beside me, his long body folded like an accordion. The plush red theater seat gives poor relief to my old bones, but I love the mystery of moving pictures, so I endure it.
The face is two stories high on a scratchy, blipping newsreel. It speaks in an ancient language, clipped and guttural, one that I have spent years forgetting. He has a funny mustache and wears round spectacles that give off a terrible glare under an unforgiving sun, as he pledges an undying allegiance to the Vaderland. He is small, with hands that look soft and feminine, and they burst forth with a terrible and frenetic energy, giving cadence to his words. At the end he gives his stiff-armed salute, aiming his flat palm to the sky as if controlled by an invisible puppet. The arm is comically short, more like a child than a man.
The camera pans out. He is surrounded by multitudes, rapturous, upturned faces as if they are soaking up rays from an infinite sun. Robbie squeezes my arm sympathetically. What he knows of my history is minute, but I appreciate his company, so I pat his leg with my paper-thin hand.
The man on the screen steps off of the dais backwards. I do not hear any more of my native tongue. I am not listening to the American propaganda being delivered in a muted, accentless voice-over. Instead, I watch one of the faceless German soldiers from the background as he looks directly into the camera. He has a funny, lopsided smile that only quirks up one corner of his mouth. The rest of his face is resolute, immoveable, as he clamps a black hat, singed at the brim, onto his blonde, otter-sleek head.
“Good Christ,” Robbie says in a low voice. I say nothing. We stay for the movie, a screwball comedy, and laugh, even as the warm smell of the popcorn rises and turns my aged belly to lead.
Clyburn Home for the Aged
The door clicks softly behind me. I wake, but not fully. I have fallen asleep in my chair. My neck is kinked and I reach up with my gnarled hand to rub it. I hear the soft tread of my Robbie as he moves behind me.
“Grandmother Hilde?” he says, a question. His voice is pleasant and soft. It is his voice, but under is the sound of something I cannot name; it is soothing, like a lullaby. I hear him move closer until I can feel him behind me. The smell of his cologne reaches my nose. It is sharp and bitter, but even it cannot mask that other smell that he carries, the smell of something rising, possibly a little too done and starting to burn.
He steps to my left. Just past the corner of my eye I see his hand, upturned. His palm is the color of peaches that have been warmed by a gentle sun. It is young and unblemished. It is Robbie’s hand; it is ageless. His first two fingers are crooked slightly and from them, dangling without a care, is the black hat.
So, so tired, is all I can manage to croak out. My voice surprises me – it sounds ancient, like the earth, and I speak in my old language, a language I barely remember: also, also müde.
“Oh, no, not yet, Hilde,” he says warmly. His tone rises and falls evenly, like a well-played violin. “We have a ways to go still, liebchen, you and I.” At this, he gives the hat an expert twirl and it spins so cheerily, it gives off sparks. They glimmer like dust motes in the afternoon sun. It has won out against the clouds and now slants mercilessly through my window.
He presents his other hand to me, an offering. Gently, gracefully, like a man who had once given a starving child bread, a continent and a century away. A secret to last the ages.
My graceless heart beats dull and heavy. It thuds with precision, a metronome. Without question, I know it could go on for another thousand years.
Against the unforgiving sun, I close my weary eyes. I reach out my hand, and surrender.