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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Cold by Nicki Pombier Berger

Editors' note: This story was written for Underwater New York's January 24 event at Winter Shack, a temporary exhibition space designed by Alex Branch and Nicole Antebi, who curate a series of site-specific installations/readings/exhibitions that encourage audiences to engage with one another's work and to build community in the darkest hours of the year.  


OBJECT: Green teacup with internal scene of house and people

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


I remember when the cold hit Barren Island. It came from the east, across the open sea, and pressed like a hand at my back as I rode the Friday ferry, hurrying me home for the weekend. It seemed to still the smell, the cold, and hold it in one place. I could have drawn a line around it, or marked where it started and stopped. I suppose that’s what I do when I remember you, too.

How strange, that my world before was blank of you – no you to even lack. I think about that, sometimes idly yearning the world into symbols – trees with their vanishing leaves, the sudden mourning bay of a steamer receding – or else it hits me stripped bare, as when I watch my girls take their tea.  Is there any pain as sharp as what it costs a mother to bring, from a blank, life for another?   

There you were, half a cantaloupe in each hand, their sherbet fleshy insides flashing, stepping up the gangway like a poem. Where had you come from? You found me, wrapped to my chin in a flannel scarf from the island, breathing in its taste of the homes of my students, bacon and cabbage and brine. “I come bearing summer,” you said, and slipped. One half plunked over and floated there, gaping like a mouth around an “Oh!” In my memory, I’ve burrowed further into my scarf to laugh there in secret, but you see me – right away, you see me – and then you draw me out.

You were a journalist, trained to pin a story, hold it still – a fish caught and mounted, glazed to look life-like and whole. I was a teacher, a mother-in-training I suppose. A fish on a wall just a fiction.     

You had a hunger that spread the more you fed it. On our first ferry ride, you made me name the islands, Duck Point, Fish Kill, Bergen, and then you were there again the next week, ready with their legends and lore. On one, a whole meal once washed ashore, course by course, cheeses and linens, a fat roast and a full head of lettuce, a jar of soup screwed shut. Off one, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley scuttled a brig and waded in, laden with Mexican dollars. A local barkeep fed them, keeping his life, and after each bite Gibbs licked his fingers, pulled out a coin, shined it bright and swallowed it whole. On another you could hear nothing but the breathing of the sea.

Despite your profession you believed in things, and in this way too you were like the fishermen we must have passed each week that fall. If I try to remember seeing them I can’t, but surely they were there, thigh high in the frigid marshland or rocked by our wake in their little boats, patient in some faith sometimes rewarded, or straining against its sudden proof. How else could I summon them so clearly now, in this my mainland life, with no view to the sea?

“You don’t need to have seen it to see it,” you would say.

“Is that what you tell your editor?” I would play along, and you would bring me books to prove me wrong: “Read these and you’ll see.”  

We sometimes have these talks. This one while I thumb the empty spines in my library. I can’t remember when I lost your voice, just the ache of the search for it since, and the drone of my own, thrown back and back to me, like a tide.   

All fall we rode the Friday ferry back to the mainland, finding each other at the Canarsie dock again on Monday to return to Barren Island, after our weekends at the homes we never mentioned. You with your notepad and a deadline like the horizon, always out there, never closer. I was the one whose life loomed. In December I would stop for the winter and the mainland would reclaim me. I would step off the ferry with my jelly legs and climb up for one last carriage ride to the Brooklyn Flatbush station, board the Brighton Line and watch the windows slowly fill with noise until, at Fulton and Franklin, there he would be, waiting, and you were a dream or invention, a tale of your own telling, and the whole of Barren Island would be erased with one wave of his hand, as a name etched in sand.

What’s there to remember? The stink, of course, though I can’t describe it. That was all they wanted to know, back home, about the smell. What could I tell them? The impatient captain rush rushing us aboard and then swaying there, starboard, staring at the sky. The sea oats weaving to some music we can’t hear. The bark of the immigrant mothers, calling their boys by their given names, not the ones we gave – Peter was Piotr, like a dishrag whipped, and more than once I saw her pull him in sweetly, lose her face in his hair. Yes they took our trash, but they had their own treasures. One man hammered stolen glass with brutal swings into shards he shaped to Celtic crosses, which he gave away grinning to any who asked. I left mine in the window of my boarding room the day I left, with no time to go back and get it. Every now and then I flush with shame that he thought me too haughty to take it ashore, and then the final sadness, that he does not think of me at all. None do, I am certain, or ever did. Another girl took my place the next spring, and another, and another, until it’s been ten years. Today my own little girl broke a teacup – the green one painted with a family on a hillside, all that space to breathe – and I sent it like a missive to the trash. Tomorrow a team of horses will cart it off to the island with the rest, and soon enough the horses themselves will be worn by life into bodies, borne to Barren Island, boiled into bone.   

The small grey space of my boarding room there, its bare walls and one little window, the angled square of sunlight that arced across the room, true as a clock. My simple desk with a sprig of some beach flower dying there, my thin, firm bed, the constant brush of sand on the floor, the twilit daytime indoor dark where you once appeared, still and grey and unreal as a photograph, silent while the room between us roared. I moved toward you and you moved away, as if we were locked those two yards apart, until – did this happen? – you slipped out the door and ran.    

For years I looked for your bylines, but they slowed to a trickle and stopped. Sometimes still I search the faces on the Fifth Avenue El, looking for you, perhaps, or more likely that old promise – that in a blink, from a blank, things can change. But I rattle along up there inside the train car, one errand to the next, the world the thing passing through the panes, sometimes nearly believing in the girl there beside you on the ferry, with her back to Canarsie, her face to the open ocean, the coming cold a kind of life she could not see.     

1899


Nicki Pombier Berger is the founding editor of Underwater New York. 

Crack and Break and Heal by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT : South Street Seaport Museum

BODY OF WATER : East River


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Editors’ note: This story was written for an UNY reading in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition “COMPASS: Folk Art in Four Directions” at the South Street Seaport Museum. She was inspired by the history of the Museum’s building and, among others, the works of art “Cane with Female Leg Handle” and “Noah’s Ark.”


 

1848

Of all us hotel souls, burdened and bound to the Parkers by birth or debt or a blindered need of work, you’re the one the world will fail. Like the headlines you hawked before you landed here – two cents a week, two weeks two weeks too many you said – chance and place will collude to kill you:

LABORER CRUSHED TO DEATH BENEATH BOULDER

CHILD DEAD FROM TEAKETTLE SCALDS

EXPLOSION OF A STEAM BOILER ON TWO-TON TUG

I hear the newsboys on Fulton each morning; the headlines are hungry, the teapots have teeth, the earth lifts its shoulders and kills with a shrug, and even the boats explode, fire eats its fill of the crew and leaves their ash to dirty the water that wouldn’t save them.

I would save you, my fool, from the sea.

*

I once broke my needle, split in the unforgiving sole of Mr. Parker’s boot, whose heel my knuckles know by heart. You stole a great bone from the hotel kitchen and shaved of it a fistful of needles thin as hair, strong as teeth. I suck the needles now, before I lick the thread to get it through.

Only you see my hands where the crushed bones heal and break, heal and break.

I don’t know what Mr. Parker does to loose his boot sole so. It’s there each week, slick with fish and stinking in my piles of mending, the tenants’ breeches and sheets torn or stained. Lemons for rust, butter for tar, boiled milk for wine, salt for coffee and for blood.

You sharpen your knife nightly with a piece of coral stolen from a sailor, a treasure from unreal words: Bora Bora, California. One day I’ll go, you say. Stay, I think. The coral pink as a tongue. A prick of blood the time I licked it.

*

A girl is staying here, her hair a weave of braids tighter than my stitches. She sits beside the window, taps it absently with her paintbrush, in the dirtied light grey as a corpse.

How can you stand it, she says, this endless day.

I move my broom, embarrassed by her insolence.

You, she says, are you dumb?

I’ve never been seen, am saved from speaking as her mother walks in. The girl becomes an angel, her face softened to an attitude of sadness, her hair like two hands folded.

I’m nearly done with the border, she says, see the boughs?

You have your father’s hands, the mother says, and runs a finger along some line I can’t see.The ship should be leaving, my dear, not coming.

It’s her, the angel cries, staring at me, I can’t think.

Crack and break and break and heal. A Captain’s widowyou stupid girl. I taste the fish of his boots on my knuckles.

And still I can’t stay away. I cup my ear to her door, to the silence of her painting, while her mother attends to the family affairs. Rosetta from the kitchen kicks me, shaking the tray of tea she’s brought, smacks me on her way out.

Later in the kitchen, we’ll sit by the stove and she’ll hold me in her lap and stroke my cheek with the cool hump of a spoon, she’ll tell me how the captain died, shipwrecked and starved until he ate his own flesh, finger by finger, down to the bone.


*

I find you, my fool, hunched over and fighting yourself where we all sleep. The pale daytime dark shifts with your short, hard breaths. Your teeth gleam and vanish, gleam and vanish. You look hungry, your face a rumpled sheet. I know your hungry face, the one you swallow to save the Parkers satisfaction from your pain.

How much hungrier you’ll be shipwrecked, my fool. I came to tell you. Get out girl, you shout, and tip onto your cot like the ship I know will fail you, sucking in the air the sea won’t share, calling Jesus Lord!

I know He’ll fail you, too. Fear closes my throat like a fist. Is this what it will feel like, sinking? On the cot, your back to me, your ribs lift and fall, lift and fall like the gills of fresh caught fish.

*

I know the world will fail you because it unfailingly holds you up, using up your store of luck on foolish foolishness. I want to shout it at you like a newsboy, Foolish Fool Wastes Luck on Foolishness!

There you are, walking down Fulton just out of reach of a workhorse straining at its bit, teeth the size of mallets that would crush you to the bone, and you laughing, skipping beside its blinders, flicking it with filched pepper until the fishmonger’s whip nearly snaps you.

There you are, standing just behind Mrs. Parker, fingertips in two pitted cherries, the red-black bulbs held up like a bust and my lips risking insolence, quivering back a laugh.

There you are, at The Bridge Cafe, an ear for some sailor, his back curved like a question over the dark shine of the bar, gripping his drink like an answer, yarning the night away, so far lost in the seas of his mind that he doesn’t see you’re the one tapping the street stones home with his scrimshaw cane.

You show it to me the next day – a backbent leg, smooth as a banister, dirty white as cream, the toes neat like nice teeth. You spin and slam it to the stone, you cock your elbow and feign fancy, give me your gentleman’s smile.

Needles from bone are nothing to what I’ll send you from the seas.

I pinch its thin ankle, want to snap it off. A whole lady, you say, running your thumb up and over the bend in the leg, slow so I blush and turn away. You laugh, and flaunt and vanish the cane the whole month of the sailor’s stay.

There you are atop the tumbler, one slip away from death. Come, you say, come see this.Shush, I plead, your unwhispered voice like a drape whipped open, like the sudden sun.

You sneak me from my corner, wrap me in your jacket and tuck up my braids under the hat I’m mending. The hat rank with unfamiliar sweat and the overripe fruit of an Argentine balm the sailors who live to tell say blocks the hungry sun. The balm and the danger, your calm, my sour milk coward’s stomach, the thrill rising in silence up my throat – is this what it would be like at sea, you and me? We sneak up the staggered servers’ staircase to the top floor, and then there you are in the dim heights where the Polacks crank the tumbler endlessly to shake each coffee bean from burlap sacks as big as beds.

For a moment we watch them from the dark of the stairwell, each bag smothering their chests and heads, entangling their thighs, as they sigh and lift each like a fainted woman, boneless and deadweight, up, up and over, into the giant wheel.

You step out and greet them and I cling to the shadows, watching as you reach and grab the wooden lattice and then, no, climbing as they start to crank, no, climbing, no, against the wheel, you and the Polacks laughing, the wheel spinning faster now and you at the distant ceiling, leaping from beam to beam as the wheel spins and the wood moans like the dying and the bags within shush shush like the sea, the hidden beans clatter to waiting trays in pops like Rosetta’s fry oil, and I’m laughing too, and crying at your grace, your long legs the legs of a horse, swift and unthinking or no, the grace of a sail that needs only speed to start and never stop, whose need is only and always to fill and fill, or no: finally, you’re a fool, and I’m not crying, I’m clawing with a bone needle at the soft brick. If I knew my letters I’d write it clear: Fool. Fool. Fool.

You steal from the Polacks, too, whole fistfuls of beans you roll over your tongue and crush with your teeth while you work. You smell like morning all day long.

There you are in the hotel parlor after the Parkers’ anniversary party, alone now in the room where all night we’d been locked in battle against the seaport elite, whose grip on the Parkers’ good glassware loosened as the night went on until the parlor looked bucked by the sea.

We were there to right things, to steady the china shivering in Colonel Hofsteader’s hand, palsied with brandy. To save from dripping the enormous candlestick Mr. Parker lifted and held with both hands beneath his belt, a roar like fire filling the room in one breath, and you there to smile along, to kneel before him and cup your hand beneath the candle, to catch the burning wax, to return it to its place among the ravaged platters of lamb.

We were there to offer our anonymous bodies to the midnight needs of their blinded hands, the round of Rosetta’s shoulder which my cheek knows by heart now home for someone else’s, the Irish girls brought in for the night locking eyes with one another while their milk white, freckled necks stiffen to the reaching fingers of the Parkers’ guests.

I sink into a corner and watch the Captain’s Widow want you, watch you know this and grow bold, watch you lift your fox face just so, so your trim nose and lean arms and neat black brows all seem to point to her, no matter where in the room you are.

I see her see only you, see her slide up beside you and lift from the table an empty oyster shell, see her point it at you like a tongue. You dip it in her brandy, feed her the little sip. Her lips open in a laugh I can’t hear over the riotous piano, the stomping feet of those still able to stand and dance.

And now all are gone but me unseen in my corner and you, unknowing fool. There you are, holding a dying candle beneath Mrs. Parker’s tin bonnet, an anniversary gift, a whole wardrobe of these intricate tin jokes lined up along the mantle, stiff as the dead.

You hold the bonnet head-high, the weak wick of candlelight bloomed to flame within the cave of polished tin. You sway to the music still ghosting the air, the same music I hear as real in my head as the face you must see in that empty bonnet.

You’re hearing the same music, I know because you dance in time to it, and it’s my face you see, I know this, too, it must be, and I nearly emerge from the corner but you spit on your finger, extinguish the flame with a hiss, replace the bonnet on the mantle.

You walk past me to the window, unknowing, and as you pull back the drape to let the dawn seep in, I see her broach pinned to your sleeve at the wrist. It bears her dead husband’s crest, the vessel that wrecked him, a small brass serpent wound up its mast. I’ve seen it in the girl’s painting, studied it while I dust. I know it means I’ve lost you.

It will vanish into the vault so hidden even I, your constant watcher, don’t know where you keep it. With your coral and your scrimshaw and your pennies, with your knife and your schemes, with your notion of leaving for the sea. Don’t you know you’ll need the one thing you fail to stow away – luck, wasted here on steady ground, you foolish unsuspected thief?

*

The girl and the Captain’s Widow stay on.

You’ve joined me in the listening, only you get through her door easy as a ghost, and then it’s you I’m hearing. In the morning you’ve brought her Turkish coffee, dirt thick in the Turks’ tulip glasses. Come noon it’s cucumbers, peeled how I like them and cut to glistening blooms. Later you ask me for a fistful of elderberries to take her. I’m in the kitchen washing up. I whip you with my wet rag and you catch my wrist and pull me to the stove, hold my hand above the rattling kettle until it starts to scream. Rosetta comes in and shrieks, you drop my hand and leave.

Rosetta pulls a spoon from the icebox and I hold it, thinking of the meadow you snuck me to last summer, as far north as I’ve gone, where the roads all think better of it and only Broadway goes on, up to the edge I’ve heard newsboys shout about, bears and falling boulders, some lunatic wants to make it a park.

It was thick August, the Parkers took to the sea, Rosetta was limp with fever and you took your time with our costumes, Mr. Parker’s hunting jacket, his spatterdashes hiding your bare shins. For me a lady’s shawl, left by some guest the winter past, too thick for the season but I won’t touch Mrs. Parker’s things, not for anything. A pair of gloves from the Irish girls, who give you anything you ask. The gloves to hide my bulging knuckles, hands no lady would ever have.

You sifted flour into your palm and with a feather from my duster brushed my face. Hold still,you said, your voice sterner than I’d heard you but I couldn’t help laughing, you looked so studied, your head tilted, a tip of tongue pulling back your lower lip, looking hard at my chin, my cheekbones, my point of pride, my thin lady nose.

I felt unseen, as when we’re at a window, when you’re looking at the river and seeing the sea.

You plucked a black berry from the boughs Rosetta keeps in a vase and crushed it, your fingertip bright with its blood. Like this, you said, kissing the air. It’s poison, I said, Rosetta says! Your finger shushed me, brushed my lips. Just don’t lick, you said. There. A lady. All day my lips dry as scones.

We walked west to where we wouldn’t be known, you hailed a coach and held my hand and I held my skirt and climbed in, just as I’ve seen them do a thousand times and more. To rattle and bounce aloft in the coach – is this what it feels like at sea? No grip on the ground, I held hard to the bench and tried to like it.

When we got there the air smelled nothing of the water, no whiff of fish or clam, no boat rope or balm and we couldn’t even see the river, I didn’t know up from down. The light spread thick as honey, soaked up by the brush and branches of the towering trees, not skittered and scattered, resisted by the river.  You spread out a borrowed quilt, one I’d bent over mending. I found a seam of my stitches and sat on it so not to see. We passed the day, me sitting prim and you like a puppy, up and down and sniffing about, laughing and jabbering and still and quiet for long moments, laying on your back and dreaming aloud of where you’ll go.

The light grew long and I didn’t know how we’d get home. You wandered off and came back with a fistful of elderberries, knelt down beside me, dead serious. You lifted my wrist with two fingers, undid the tiny buttons of my glove and pulled it off finger by finger, pinched my sleeve and pushed it up, up to my elbow, twisted my wrist to bare my forearm. Wait, you said, and pulled from your pocket a tin case blazoned with initials that couldn’t be yours, and from within it a long, curved needle, one I thought I’d lost.

Crack and break and break and heal. I wanted to smack you, whack you with my ugly knuckles.

You pulped the berries in your palm, you soaked the needle tip, you told me I’m true north for you, wherever you go you’ll return to me. You wanted to write your name there, in the plain of my arm, so I’d always know. You pricked my skin and nothing showed, you tried and tried, you said the sailors, whose tattooed bodies look blue with disease, told you this would work, and this, your first failure, is when I began the road to losing you. The Captain’s Widow is just the last stop.

What you bring her elderberries for I don’t know, but later as I’m dusting I see – their dried pulp in an oyster shell, the girl’s fine tipped paintbrush nearby, and laced on the waves of the girl’s painted sea, so small someone less studied in this painting would never see – the string of letters I know must be your name.

*

Even the Parkers see you’ve changed. All fall while the Widow lingers and her daughter pouts, your plot grows so clear it becomes ordinary, and before Christmas you’ve grown a beard and shed your servant’s brogue, you scold the girl behind the door with knowing, fatherly tones, you eat with them in the Widow’s room because while the Parkers won’t abide you at the guests table, neither will they deny a Captain’s Widow what she will. Only a fool mourns the living, Rosetta says over supper. Foolish Fool Mourns the Living. I pick at the bones in my stew.

Next day the new footman’s doing what just a month ago you would: packing up valises, filling up a coach. Pennsylvania, you say. The family estate. I’m stirring the fireplace coals, and you walk to the window, pull back the drape. A bright line of winter light slices the reddened daytime dark of the parlor. Pennsylvania Dutch.

You tap at the window, squint and scratch with a thumbnail at a warp in the glass, then clasp your hands behind you. I stand and wipe the coal off my hands, for one last time I slide up beside you, lean past you to look out. The winter shipyard looks like a painting, a line of steam puffing from a lone tug, the dockhands crisp little pictures of busy men, frozen in a moment’s work. The white sky, a bleak sun, Brooklyn the pale horizon and the river bleeding blue.

What time do you sail? It’s the first we’ve spoken since the kettle.

You laugh in your booming new fatherly laugh. You really know nothing. Pennsylvania? It’s west.

Near California? 

You begin that false laugh again but stop yourself, turn and look at me. For a moment I see the boy I knew, and then you let the drape fall and straighten your gentleman’s jacket, give each cuff a yank. California’s not a real place, you say, and I know as you turn away you think I believe it.    

I watch from the window as you and your Widow watch the footman work. I’m not mourning the living. You’re already dead.

*

Come spring the newsboys are screaming, and dumb souls by the thousands stream into the seaport, flood us with their greed and dreams.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills, they say.

One day I’m walking down Fulton, bustled and knocked, the fish I’ve got for Rosetta fresh dead and still rank with the sea. Some drunk pitches into me and I grip the hotel wall for purchase.


I see it then, a brick greened with brine and loose like a rotten tooth in its socket. I pry it out and there’s your store of treasures – the scrimshaw cane top, the Widow’s broach. A few pennies you stopped needing, the coral pink as a tongue. A thick kitchen bone I’ve never seen, half shaved into a flower.  I take the lot and throw all but the pennies in the river. Those I cup and shake like dice. I’ve saved my luck. I’ll shave off my braids, flatten my chest, make my way aboard like the rest. You missed your chance. I think I’ll take it.

 

PHOTO CREDITS:

-Noah’s Ark Artist unidentified Probably England 1790–1814 Bone and wood with iron, pigment, paper, and nails 8 1/2 x 14 x 9 1/4″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Jane, Steven and Eric Lang and Jacqueline Loewe Fowler in memory of Robert Lang, 1999.14.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Mourning Piece for Captain Matthew Prior and His Son Barker Prior Attributed to Jane Otis Prior (1803–?) Bath or Portland, Maine c. 1815–1822
Watercolor on silk 17 1/2 x 21 1/4 x 1 1/2″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Museum purchase, 1992.25.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Cane with Female Leg Handle and Cane with Female Leg and Dark Boot Handle, Artists unidentified, Probably eastern United States c. 1860. Whale ivory and whale skeletal bone with horn, ink and nail (left); whale skeletal bone, mahogany, and ivory with paint (right). 29 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (left); 34 x 3 3/4 in. (right) American Folk Art Museum, promised gift of Ralph Esmerian, P1.2001.320, 321.

-Anniversary Tin: Man’s Top Hat and Eyeglasses, Lady’s Bonnet with Curls, Slippers, and Hoop Skirt Artist unidentified Gobles, Michigan
1880–1900 Tin Hat: 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 5 1/4″ Eyeglasses: 1 1/8 x 5 1/8 x 5 1/8″ Bonnet: 14 x 9 x 16″ Slippers: 6 1/2 x 9 x 8″ Hoop Skirt: 28 x 24″ diam. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Martin and Enid Packard, 1988.25.1, 2, 6, 9, 12, 19 Photo by John Parnell, New York

-Tattoo Pattern Book Artist unidentified New York City 1873–1910
Ink on oiled cloth, with buckram binding 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 x 3/4″ (closed) Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Anonymous gift, 1995.29.1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

 


Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.

The Birdcage by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Kate was scouting the pan-Asian buffets when she first saw the magician. A few chirpy women were clustered around him, and Kate watched from a distance while he rendered them boneless. They gripped each other’s elbows. They tittered and yelped. She moved to the edge of their circle and watched while the magician folded the nine of hearts into a triangle, stabbed it through with one woman’s lapel pin, an emerald dove, then vanished both from his hand. The card reappeared, unwrinkled, unpoked, in the liner pocket of another woman’s jacket.

The women shrieked. None asked what happened to the dove.

Kate was impressed, but didn’t stick around for another act. She was not a woman predisposed to wonder, not a believer in much beyond the evidentiary. As a litigation lawyer, she manipulated language to conjure or advance a particular reality, which might seem to some like slight of hand.  But there was no magic in it for her. She wasn’t looking for it.

She was looking for her husband, who wasn’t where she’d left him. Kate had her third gimlet in one hand and her first plate of food in the other, and went right to hungry rage when she couldn’t find Mike. They had a system for these non-tabled events – she hunted and gathered, he schmoozed and held the plates. Where was he? Kate brought her plate up to her chin, took a nibble of Pad Thai.

They were at the holiday party for Mike’s firm, an investment-banking biggie whose belief in the failed magic of real estate securities spelled impending disaster, evidenced nowhere. Here was Midtown indulgence at its finest, the same degree of shebang Kate had been going to for ten years now, undiminished, if anything enhanced by the mood of coming doom. She wove through banquettes by the hundreds, spread thick with slick meats, and fruit plates too landscaped to eat, cheeses and cakes and steaming vats of this and that, sushi rolls like zygotes, eyeing her from every table.

“Speaking of zygotes,” she said, picking up a spicy tuna roll with her drink hand and wagging it at Angie, a fellow wife who materialized beside her. Formerly Kate’s partner in food scouting, Angie was secretly pregnant, six weeks along and not telling anyone except anyone who asked anything like how’re you doing, which was everyone here, of course.

Angie made a face. “Don’t rub it in.”

“Can you believe you’ve got a little fish in there?”

“I hope not. God, put that thing down, I feel sick. The smells in here!” She clutched her stomach. Kate rolled her eyes.

“Seriously! And I’m stuck with this.” Angie lifted her vodka-less soda, and Kate clinked it with her gin.

“Have you seen Mike?”

“He was with them.” Angie rounded her hand over an invisible stomach. Mike’s department had four women huge and hard with late-term pregnancies, their belly buttons visible like third nipples. It’s like a disease, he told Kate. I hope you’re not a carrier, she said back.

She poked at Angie’s future mound. “You’re one of them now.”

Angie moaned miserably, clearly ecstatic. “I should find them, actually. Get a few tips. Before I never see them again.” She gestured vaguely at the room. Kate saw Mike’s boss not far away, gripping a highball, laughing himself pink to the scalp. She saw one of the first-year analysts bent over a brick of Manchego, sawing hard against its rind, his wine glass spilling unnoticed. Kate saw, high above, an acrobat, hired like the magician to charm them all blind to the end. The acrobat dove through an arc to no oohs or ahs, her bare legs bound in spirals of ribbon, and alighted alone on a platform near the ceiling. Kate saw the magician amid another clutch of women, and clicked her glass against her teeth to keep from laughing.  And then she saw the magician see her; Kate bit down on her glass, tipped it back, downed the rest slowly, showing the length of her neck.

“You go ahead,” she told Angie. “I’m still hunting.”

Angie left, and the magician lifted his chin at Kate, pointed to his shoulder. Kate touched hers, and there it was: the nine of hearts, slipped beneath her thin strap, cool as a palm against her skin. She put the card on her plate and her plate on a table and grabbed a glass of white from a passing tray, and when she turned back, the plate and card were gone, and though the magician was nowhere to be seen, she could feel him, as a wire feels a bird just taken flight.

Taking another glass of wine from the bar, she made a full circuit of the room, raising her two glasses with a shrugging smile when she passed people she knew, or thought she might know, or should. Can’t talk, important business, delivering drinks. No magician. Down a corridor lined with silent auction prizes, yacht rides and Hampton mansion weekends, lunch with Eli Manning and portraits painted to order from all manner of artists, she passed into a room crooned to by a Dominican Sinatra, and there he was. Mike, standing with Angie and the others beneath a behemoth ice sculpture of the bank’s crest, an eagle with wings held primly in, beak cocked, knowing and silent.

Kate turned quickly, took shelter behind the charity obelisk, a towering glass cylinder filled near to the tip each year with kumquats, each fruit attached to some child whose life was somehow bettered by the bankers. Who counted out the kumquats? Where did it come from, this fruit in such bulk? By what measure does a child become a kumquat? Kate ticked her fingernails against the obelisk and finished her wine, peeking back at Mike. From this distance he was small – squinting, she did a mental I’m squishing your head – and abstracted. A Mike-person, a banker, and a handsome one at that. Another sip of wine. Animated as always, Mike reached a hand out in emphasis, touching Maya’s forearm where it rested on her belly like it was a desk. A husband person. Kate felt like that acrobat, unwatched, watching from a private landing high above. By what measure does a life require a kumquat?

“Blue skies,” sang the Sinatra person, “smiling at me.”

They’d had an understanding. They didn’t need kids. But when the Mayas started blooming, at Mike’s firm and Kate’s, too, and among their friends, and Mike’s sisters, the space between them started to feel like an absence. Kate resisted, maintained a vigilant silence on the subject, deeply resented the suggestion that it was simply a matter of time. She was still fine. Another sip of wine. Mike and Maya looked right, side-by-side, and it struck Kate as impossible that it was she who was attached to Mike, that Mike was her husband-person. From this distance he was so clearly Maya’s.

She felt relief so sudden and deep and fleeting she rested a palm on the obelisk to steady herself. When she pulled away, the nine of hearts clung to the glass where her hand had just been, and when she looked up, the magician was there in place of Mike, a deck of cards alive in his hands, his face visible to Kate between Mike and Maya’s backs. He caught her eye, lifted his chin skyward.

Perched on the ice eagle’s beak was an actual bird. And then came the bad magic.

A caterer passed by, a raven tattooed up his neck. Kate backed out of the room, moved quickly to the nearest bar, where the bartender’s wrists were inked with wings. He shook out a gimlet and stuck it with a parrot-topped stir stick, and Kate startled, knocking into a man whose eagle crest cufflinks caught the light as he shook spilled drink from his hand.

Kate put down her gimlet and made for the bathroom, but the bathroom attendant was readingTo Kill a Mockingbird, and, in the mirror, there was the tremor of a forgotten feather in Kate’s own hair, peacock, pinned just above her temple, drawing out the flame in her hair, the blue of her dress.

She needed Angie. Food and Angie. Back in the party, she hit the first table she saw. Oysters, thank God, as far from flight as animals can get, limbless and slick, like little stopped hearts. She picked one up and slurped it down and heard a caw and shut her eyes, opened them when she heard it again, looked up and there it was, the bird again, no sparrow or chickadee or wren, but a crow that no one else seemed to hear or otherwise notice, a crow, possibly the first of thousands soon to come, thousands with intent to descend and blind them with their beaks, deafen them with Biblically thunderous wingbeats, feathers loosed in fury and drifting like ash, like burnt scraps of paper, the crowded ceiling descending, crumpling down in the shapes of these birds, each bird a shard of untold truths and failed hopes and petty victories, a bird for each transgression—

But. Kate didn’t believe in transgressions, didn’t believe in Biblical fury, didn’t tamp her hopes down into some dark inner pearl. She plucked an ice cube from the platter of oysters and sucked it, nice and slow. She smiled at the caterer, who had the loveliest skin, cloudy tan, like wet sand, smooth as a sea-stone and completely blank. She looked up: the bird was gone, and she moved to the window, needing to touch something.

The night sky had a cozy glow that signaled the hope of snow. Below her the city’s millions lit windows and taillights and who knows what private little fires. Kate fingered the waterspots on the glass, felt herself returning. She needed Mike. She wanted her husband-person. She turned from the window and bam, a bird struck the glass. Kate shrieked. The band went up a decibel, and with the panicked feeling that is the opposite of surprise but also the embodiment of shock, she recognized the opening notes of Free Bird, and someone hollered it out, Free Bird! and Kate finally lost it.

She slid along the window to an unmanned banquet, dropped to the floor and crawled under the table, pulling the heavy drapery still behind her. The dark was pitch. The carpet was a comfort and a surprise. The table was high enough for Kate to sit up, and she took off her heels and wrapped her arms around her legs and pressed her face into her knees.

The curtain lifted, and Kate saw feet, and then shins, and, all at once, a birdcage. The magician peeked in at her and smiled. Up close, his face was round and pale, his nose nudged like putty, smashed a bit to one side. He had the chin skin of a daily shaver.

He climbed in, arranging himself cross-legged, pulling in the empty birdcage, lit a squat white candle stuck within in. He grinned at Kate and pulled the curtain closed. His face vanished. The birdcage lantern cast little light, but Kate could see his hands, and the cards they worked like thought made visible, fast and synoptic, hypnotic, and she stared and stared.

“Pick a card,” he said.

Nine of hearts.

“Remember it, okay?”

Nine of hearts. Nine of hearts.

“Have you got it?”

Kate nodded, and then spoke. “Nine of hearts.”

Their laughter threw the flame into spasms. He tried again, and this time Kate kept it in her mind. She released the card back to him and it took on a life of its own, surfacing over and over as though it were some kind of gravity or true north the deck must always come to rest on, no matter the configuration, no matter the shuffle or split. And then it took flight from the deck entirely, appearing in her hair, in the crook of her arm, tucked in the inner velvet of her tiny clutch. He tore it into shards and opened his mouth and pulled it whole and dry from within.

“Hand me your ring,” he said.

A pause. In their silence the muffled party out there raged on, and Kate could tell even through the curtain that things were approaching that level of hysteria they do around midnight, when things start to get middle school, slip into cliché, when secret crushes get clumsily revealed, when kisses are sloppily planted, when threesomes are casually suggested in transparent jest, when desperation is betrayed on everyone’s faces, when even the happiest of them begin to wonder whether they aren’t, after all, deeply unsatisfied, or whether their satisfaction is in fact just complacency.

“First tell me something about what you’re doing. One thing,” Kate said.

“One thing… Magicians never tell their secrets.”

“Something I don’t already know.”

She heard the wingbeats of cards shuffled, shuffled and shuffled, a separate breath under the table, a third living thing.

“Magic is wasted on believers,” he said.

“I’m no believer.”

“Marriage is a believer’s game.”

Kate handed him her wedding ring.

He made it disappear.

Her nose stung. She turned her face so he couldn’t see.

He reached toward her, and his wrist brushed her ribs. Kate stiffened.

“No,” he said, “I’m just…” He pulled a tissue box out from behind her in the most ordinary of gestures. She took it and clutched it in her lap with both hands, as if it would fly away if she let go.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry. I don’t know.”

“Why are you sorry?”

Just yesterday Mike sketched and framed a fat, maternal owl for their friends’ baby son. By what measure does a family require a child?

“I feel trapped.” Kate felt a small release, like the words themselves were birds that had been waiting to be freed.

“Magicians don’t believe in trapped.”

“How convenient for you,” she said. She could feel the closeness of his face, feel his hand on her bare arm, the grainy rub of his pant leg against her thigh where her skirt slid up under the coaxing of either magic or his other hand, which touched her so lightly that, of all that night’s questionable realities, it was the one thing she could not convince herself was really there.

“I’m not,” Kate started.

He let her go.

He blew out the candle. There was the momentary tang of candle smoke, scattered by a sudden rush of wings, and the immediacy of another breathing thing in the dark. Kate heard the bird fluttering in its cage without crying out. The magician found her hand and pinched one fingertip, and then touched her knuckle with the small cold circle of her ring.

Kate crawled out with as much dignity as she could muster, and the evening began to right itself. The magician was shorter than she thought, and younger. No more than twenty-five, Kate guessed. He pulled the birdcage out and produced a comb and ran it through his thick hair in two quick strokes.

They walked silently to the elevator as if ending a date. The button was pushed but no one was around. The elevator opened and he held the birdcage out to keep the doors from closing.

“The thing is,” he said, “you’re not – ” he shook the birdcage. “You can do whatever you want.”

He looked like a child.

“You sound like my mother,” Kate said, and that was the end of the magic.

He handed her his card. It said just Magician. Kate tucked it into her clutch. She found Mike, who stroked her hair where the feather had been, his palm warm, his voice low and slurred, his smell familiar. “You love that feather!” He looked genuinely dismayed.

When she got home, Kate looked for the card, wanting to throw it away. But it had already disappeared.




Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.