She is heavy, this woman who has come to stay with them a few days. Claudia does not think of people as thin or as fat, and in any case the woman is not fat. She is broad and there is a heft to her and everything she does. There is the fall of her look upon you; the tug of her scratched oboe voice; the weight of her slow sure movements; and most of all, the undertow of her long silences.
She is heavy but there is something else as well, a quality Claudia cannot yet put words to. There is something that softens the heaviness. Claudia sees her get up and cross the room and expects the floorboards to creak loudly, like they do when her father walks them; they don’t. It is as though the woman walks on a different world, one that gives. When she and Claudia’s father are reading in his study at night her big hands turn the pages lightly, like a breeze. And at the dinner table, with barely a smile, the woman will tease her father; talk to him in a way no one else has or would; certainly not her mother. But her words land soft and not hard; her father looks pleased, and when he doesn’t it seems he’s only pretending.
The woman gets away with this, Claudia thinks, because she is his sister, his older sister. This explains much. Including her father’s own silences, no longer so strange to Claudia now that she has seen them silent together, their eyes sad and observing and yet somehow gone away. They are brother and sister.
It doesn’t sink in right away. At dinner, that first night, Claudia watches her father and her aunt. She looks back and forth. At her father and thinks, brother; at her aunt, sister. Brother, sister.
The following morning it makes sense. Claudia has not slept well again but gets up very early anyway, alive to a feeling that the house is different. She finds them in the kitchen, alone, dipping knives into a soft cheese left over from dinner and spreading it on thick slices of dark bread. They chew slowly, each gripping their coffee mug with the whole hand, taking loud sips in between mouthfuls as they read the newspaper. They don’t speak except to ask the other for a new section of paper.
Claudia has been standing in the hall just beyond the kitchen for several minutes before her aunt looks up at her.
“Come in child,” the woman says. “I’m not dangerous.” Her father looks up at his sister and turns a page loudly. “Well, only a little.”
“Don’t be afraid of your Aunt Emma, Claudia. If I can handle her, you can. You didn’t have any of this last night. Do you want to try some now, or just cereal?”
He asks with his eyes.
“I can get it.”
She gets her cereal and juice and sits down at the table with them. While she eats they read the paper and don’t speak to her. Now she gets it. Brother, sister.
Claudia finishes her cereal quickly and gets up and reaches high to put the bowl and glass in the sink, her aunt’s eyes on her the whole time. She thought she would go off by herself, but decides to return to the table. There is something about the two of them silent together, the weight of it. She sits down and asks her father for part of the paper.
Her aunt looks at her carefully as her father hands her the movie section, with more pictures and larger print. “What grade do you start in the fall, Claudia?”
“The third. I just finished second grade.” She sits up on her knees, takes the paper from her father and works at opening it like she sees him do. The paper fights her and her father helps her with it.
Claudia smoothes the paper in front of her and bends down over it. Her aunt reaches out for her and there it is again, the mix of hard and soft. The hand coming toward her, the back of those big fingers just brushing her forehead; one finger catching a dark curl, running through it, releasing it; all so soft she could have been dreaming it. As the three of them sit there reading the paper and not talking Claudia wishes the others would never get up.
The rest of the day Claudia keeps to herself and stays out of the way, but tries when she can to watch her father and her aunt together. Then she looks at her brothers as they run about and wonders if it will ever be with them like it is with her father and aunt. It is hard to imagine. Maybe it is because the first three are older and it only works like that if the girl is older. But she looks at Richie and still it doesn’t figure. So maybe the girl has to be the oldest of everyone, like it was with her aunt and her father and uncle. Or maybe it is because her own brothers are so noisy, and Aunt Emma and her father are quiet and sad. She doesn’t remember him, but her father says that her Uncle Raymond was sad, too.
The following day Claudia wants to get up early again but she is excited and falls asleep late, and by the time she opens her eyes everyone else is up. Her brothers are in the kitchen so she just has some juice and then pads down the hall to her father’s study. Her aunt is there, seated behind her father’s desk, a strange sight, because Claudia has never seen anyone do that. She is writing things into a thick notebook, and looks very far away. When her father is working at the desk he sometimes looks like he is in another room; her aunt looks like she is in another world.
Claudia is nervous but this is her father’s study, her favorite room in the house, and so she approaches her aunt and asks if she is writing poetry.
“Yes, that’s right.”
Her father has told her that this is something Aunt Emma devotes a lot of time to, and she has asked him what poetry is. He talked about words rhyming, and compared poetry to some of the books he reads to her at night. But when Claudia was looking at her aunt writing in the notebook it didn’t look like she was writing anything like that. She asks her aunt to explain what poetry is.
“It can’t be described.”
“Can’t you try?”
“Listen to the words, child: It can’t be described. Those are words that say there are no words.”
Claudia senses her aunt wants to be alone, but she isn’t ready to leave, so she tries another tack and asks what a librarian does. She doesn’t quite get the word right, but her aunt doesn’t correct her. She sighs.
“Let’s make a date, the two of us. Your Aunt Emma has to concentrate right now. After lunch we’ll come back here together and I’ll show you what I do.”
Back in her father’s study, Aunt Emma explains to Claudia what a librarian does. She talks about arranging books according to the last name of the author, her fingers playing over the spines like piano keys. She explains what a reference book is. They sit on the old couch and look at a dictionary, an encyclopedia. The couch is the only old thing in the room and was her grandmother’s. Claudia realizes her aunt has the same smell as the couch and from then on the smell will remind her of libraries and books.
Claudia is still confused. Her father has so many books and he keeps track of them on his own, without any help. Why do we need librarians? The woman takes a big soft hand and guides her over to the globe in the corner. Claudia has always loved this globe. The world, spinning: think of it!
Aunt Emma runs her fingers over the globe. Most of these dots, she says, represent large cities. Like New York, where I live. Or Los Angeles. You’ve been there, right? Well, the world is so big, it carries so much, there isn’t room here for Victorville, where we are now, even though it is a world in itself.
Now, she continues, in each of these dots, in each of these big cities, live many, many, many people. Millions of them. Millions is a number too big for you to understand. Too big for me to understand. You can spend every minute of a whole day counting to a million and not get there.
Some of these people write books. Over the years, over all the years that people have been breathing and writing books, each city, each dot, has produced many, many, many books. Your father’s beautiful study, times a hundred. And then times a hundred again.
So you take all those dots, and all those books behind each dot, and you have quite a collection, quite a world. It becomes a full-time job to keep track of it all.
“Have you read all the books, Aunt Emma?”
“Only a fraction, dear. That is why each of those dots, each of those cities, has many, many libraries; and many, many librarians like me.”
Her mother is exceedingly polite to Aunt Emma. That night, at dinner, she asks her to say grace. Aunt Emma pauses and then recites a passage Claudia has never heard, a strange singing thing. Her mother smiles and asks where it is from. It sounds like Emma is saying it is a song, but she is not quite saying that, and the passage was not a song even if there was a kind of music to it.
Her mother asks Aunt Emma about New York. Her father has been there many times, and studied there; her mother, never. “I was watching this documentary the other night,” her mother says, “on PBS, about the making of the Brooklyn Bridge. We drive over these bridges, thinking nothing of it. People died for that.”
Emma speaks of the other bridges that link the city, which is an island but unlike other islands that feel at the edge of things this one is at the center, and there seems little chance of floating away.
Even in the city, she continues, you sometimes feel you are crossing a bridge. Strung between the great avenues that rush like highways are smaller streets, some of them narrow and crowded with stores and people and crowded as well with their many languages. You can’t close your eyes as you walk down such a street but if you could you would feel sped through many different countries as the many different tongues bled by. And when you opened your eyes at the next avenue you would find yourself in still another world.
Claudia goes to bed early and goes to sleep late. She pays no mind to the clock but it is often after two and even three in the morning before she sleeps. When there is no school the next day she remains in bed until after nine, late for a child her age, the last of her brothers up a good two hours ago.
She keeps busy at night: reading by flashlight, listening to the radio, talking to herself. Tonight she shines the flashlight at the wall, makes animal shadows with her hand and thinks of things for them to say. Her parents have long since gone to bed, and she has forgotten about her Aunt Emma, who sleeps little, walks softly.
The face suddenly looms before her, as though it leapt out of the small circle of light on the wall. The big fleshy hands rest on her small bony shoulders. “Alone in the dark, studying shadows on the wall, letting them speak: that is poetry.” Emma fears she has frightened the wide-eyed girl and holds her tight against her, where she breathes in the musty couch smell and rests, quiet and still.
Emma is due to leave before noon and so that morning the whole family sits down for a big breakfast. Claudia’s mother has prepared pancakes and a platter of scrambled eggs; Emma has made biscuits; her father pulled a sheet of bacon from the oven. The boys are especially chatty, and ask Emma questions as they eat. They anticipate a return to old routines but seem to sense that something will be lost today.
Her father asks Aunt Emma about a new book that was reviewed in the paper, a book of poetry. Emma says the writer sells well but is second-rate. Claudia wonders if that is like second grade; something to finish and then move on from. Her father has read the writer’s previous book, and thought it was pretty good.
“What can I say, Henry,” Emma says to her father. “You study literature; have written some decent essays on the subject: but you yourself are not a poet.”
As she does at dinner, Claudia keeps quiet during the meal, picking at her food, chewing slowly, her focus falling randomly on small details that she studies as long as she can bear it. At the word “poet” she looks up, and Emma, though across the table, though next to her father and leaning towards him, looks over to Claudia. As if she knew she would look up; as if the word had been for her, and not for her father. Emma locks eyes with Claudia for an instant only, and looks back at her father. Then she returns her attention to the meal before her, which she eats steadily and with great enjoyment. She shares a few words with Claudia’s father, answers the boys’ questions and tries to ask them about school. She doesn’t speak to her niece.
Claudia, for her part, is quick to return her focus to the plate before her as well. She does not want to call attention to herself. Though her aunt ignores her the rest of the meal she feels a rare lightness in her heart. She wants to smile but does not want to give her brothers something to pounce on. Inside, she is smiling. It is her first memory of being one thing on the outside, and another thing, a very secret thing, on the inside.
* * *
(Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Sotto Voce.)