Three poets sat beneath a tattered awning that shaded the afterdeck of a wooden barge moored in the backwater of a great harbor. The barge had not moved from the pier for many years. Instead of hauling cargo, it functioned during the summer months as a modest dockside café.
Tourists thought it quaint, and willingly clambered up its sagging gangplank to stroll about the deck, examine the antiquated lines and gear, and peer into the clouded windows of the low-slung cabin. The barge owners survived on the basis of this curiosity. They operated an espresso machine and served small cakes and pastries brought from a local shop.
Strong black coffee was being served to the poets now, in mismatched cups and saucers, by an elderly woman in a housecoat. The loose skin on her face was blotched and her eyes were red from weeping. Her companion, the skipper of the barge, a stout man with several fingers missing, was clad in his usual threadbare pea-jacket. He too looked miserable as he dragged additional chairs over to the wicker table where the poets sat.
There were three of them – two men and a woman. They were poets, but they were also professors. They lived convenient lives, and had been well rewarded for their willingness to suggest that art can be taught. Now, they had put on tailored black suits, of the kind normally worn for academic ceremonies.
They had come to make arrangements for the funeral and burial of a woman named Elena, who possessed no last name, and who had lived on the barge for most of her life. Elena, who may have been in her thirtieth year, had been the poets’ ward for at least a quarter of a century.
She had been looked after all that time by her foster mother, Marie, and by Marie’s husband, Conrad. They were the owners of the barge. The couple had found Elena wandering along the quay, near the fishermen’s docks, when she was two or three years old. Inquiries were made, but no one claimed her, and no one else wanted her.
She was a small, elfin child with tow-colored hair and changeable eyes that had no particular color or texture. At times they seemed blue, at others aquamarine. If she glanced your way at all, she seemed to look right through you, and into some other dimension. From the beginning she was well-mannered and soft-spoken, but the only person she really talked to was herself.
When Marie, her stepmother, had been a girl, she had heard her own father tell about Blind Boone, a celebrated Negro pianist of the nineteenth century, who could hear a piece played on the piano a single time and then sit down and reproduce it note-perfect. Any piece. Any melody. Of any degree of difficulty. He could imitate at will the most difficult compositions by Liszt or Chopin.
Marie noticed the child Elena had a similar power. It was in the way she spoke. Once she heard someone say something that interested her, she began to repeat it, but only to herself, with strange and intricate variations that went on for hours, or even for days at a time.
Marie had a friend who cleaned house for a woman whose husband taught at the university. Marie wrote down a brief description of Elena's talk and asked that it be passed along to this man. One of this man's friends, a visiting writer, happened to be in the departmental office one morning and noticed the text of a letter being typed up by the secretary. It was a routine letter thanking Marie for her interest, and making promises that would not be kept.
The visitor glanced through the letter from Marie and told the secretary that he had an errand to run down at the waterfront, and would be happy to take the second letter to its intended recipient. He put it in his pocket. No one in the office realized that it was never delivered.
After searching along the docks, he found the right barge and went aboard, and spoke with Marie, who in turn introduced him to Conrad, who was fishing off the stern. Elena was sitting beside him, learning how to bait a hook, and helping him keep an eye on his bobber. Marie called her over, and allowed the visitor to walk a few paces along the deck with the child.
She was entirely unafraid of the stranger. The two of them stopped for a moment in a patch of late-morning sunlight. The poet listened to the soft, seemingly random modulations of her speech. They resembled echoes issuing from a deep well, through which a stone, occasionally grazing against the dark walls, was endlessly falling.
Another poet, a few years older than the first, was at that time staying elsewhere in the city. The first poet hurriedly summoned the second, and together they returned to the barge. They took the child for a second walk along the deck and listened to her remarkable speech. The words came out of her in a blaze. As she spoke she did not seem disturbed or upset. She was obviously not possessed. But it was equally evident that she was quite mad.
The two immediately proposed to Marie and Conrad to pay for her upkeep. Above all they did not want her taken to a hospital, or a sanitarium, where doctors would poke at her, and people would try to give her quack drugs or shoot electricity through her head. This arrangement was quite acceptable to the couple, and in the days that followed, Elena’s life on the barge continued much as it had before.
Not long after, the two sponsors found a third poet, a woman of considerable means, who was also willing to contribute to the child’s care. The sum required from each was not large. Marie and Conrad understood that the young girl was special, and needed to be protected and kept from prying eyes. They welcomed the additional financial assistance. They loved Elena and did not want to part with her. They were not extravagant people.
During most of the warm months Conrad was occupied with his fishing. He spent evenings with his cronies in a tavern farther down the quay. In the fall and the cold months of winter, Marie and Elena stayed in the barge’s cabin and kept warm beside a well-vented charcoal stove. Marie knitted sweaters and thick footwear for her husband. Elena talked to herself and leafed through old magazines. The poets made sure she had an adequate supply of publications containing colorful photographs and advertisements.
When warm weather came, Conrad and a friend from the next boat would rig the patched, tan-and-white awning that had been part of the barge’s gear for many years. There were several sets of tables and chairs, all made of wicker, and these were dusted off and carried out and placed about the deck. Marie supervised the sale of cakes and coffee to people who came down to the harbor to look at the ships, and who ventured aboard the barge.
Elena waited on the customers. Marie would not let her converse with them, and scolded her from behind the counter if she did. The barge was a pleasant place in the summer, with a constant breeze coming from the sea. Below decks there were restrooms, which the poets paid to upgrade and modernize, and which Marie and Elena kept clean and orderly.
Other furnishings, such as the antiquated awning, were left unchanged. Tourists thought the barge was charming, and certain visitors even regarded it as fashionable. Sometimes there would be little candied tarts and glazed fruit cups to offer to the patrons. The visitors liked being there, and often lingered for hours with their coffees and their newspapers.
The three poets arrived once a month and sat under the awning and were served by Elena. It would be early in the morning, before any of the regular customers had arrived. Marie would tell her that it was permissible to speak with them. Each time she would remember them, but only vaguely, like characters in a storybook. She liked them, and looked forward to their visits, especially since they brought her small gifts and favors. But she could never recall their names.
After the first few years, each of them contrived to come there alone, in the vague hope of being able to listen to the child when the other two were not around. But as she grew older she became more retiring, and seemed unnerved by such attentions. Sometimes she would excuse herself and go below to the cabin.
Similarly, if paper and pencils were brought out, she would rise from the table and retreat to the stern of the boat. And she seemed to know, intuitively, if any of them carried, in a briefcase or handbag, even the smallest or least intrusive of recording devices.
The monthly visits seemed as much as she could accommodate. The poets were forced to rely entirely on their memories and recollections of the way she spoke, and gradually they realized that it was enough. Each year their careers prospered and their works became better known. In time they came to be considered among the finest writers of their generation.
Although they never discussed it, they understood that in fact they owed everything to Elena, and that the sound of her voice had suffused their own words. The brilliance of her language had transmuted and changed them. Of her madness they seldom spoke.
As the years passed, and she became a woman, each poet came to realize, in his or her own way, that she was the beloved. She was the flame, they were the moths. Each dreamed of her, each desired her. None had the courage to touch her, for fear of breaking the spell.
She had been beautiful as a child, and now she seemed even more striking as an adult, but she remained remote and unobtainable. She understood little that was said to her except a few practical instructions. She seldom left the barge, and then only to accompany Marie to the market. She knew nothing of the world beyond the precincts of the harbor.
During the hours when the café was closed, when Marie and Conrad had gone ashore to supply the boat, Elena's only companions were the gulls that were forever settling on the mast, or stalking along the deck, searching for morsels of food. She paid them no attention, since they had been there from the beginning. There were always two or three perched nearby, as though they had been summoned by the seamless flow of her words.
On a windy morning in September, after a night’s rain, Elena had gone on deck to sweep, and was struggling to move a tall stack of wicker chairs. When the stack tipped over, she lost her footing, slipped against the rail, and tumbled over the side. The chairs clattered after her and splashed beside her in the dark water.
Conrad, who heard the gulls rise up in alarm, and recognized her brief cry, called out to Marie, then hurried on deck. Instantly he understood. He flung himself off the barge and swam to Elena's side. He held her head out of the water. Marie ran to bring help from the neighboring boat. But it was of no use.
A loose spar happened to be drifting in the water below. She had hit it headfirst and her neck was broken. She had died instantly, according to the officers of the harbor police, who came to investigate. There would be an inquiry. Her body was taken by the authorities to a municipal mortuary.
Two of the poets, informed of the tragedy, hurried to the barge that same afternoon and attempted to console Marie and Conrad, who were terribly shaken. The two were up in years, and disoriented by the accident, and stricken beyond words. The poets pressed bills into their hands, and put their arms around them, and wept with them.
The next morning the third poet arrived, and the three of them assembled at the barge. Marie and Conrad had spent a sleepless night, but they were more composed now. Conrad led the visitors out under the awning and bade them all sit down. Marie brought coffee in irregular cups and saucers.
Although the proprietors of the barge never mingled with their customers, the poets urged them to sit down with them now. Conrad drew up the extra chairs, Marie brought two more cups, and the five of them gathered around the table, sipping their coffee and looking out at the harbor.
The poets explained that they would make all the necessary arrangements. There would be a quiet, dignified service in a nearby chapel. As Marie had requested, Elena's body would be taken to a cemetery a hundred miles inland, where Marie’s people were buried. A sum of money would be settled on Marie and Conrad, one that would see them through when the café was eventually shut down.
After a time they ceased to speak, for there was nothing else to be said. Nor did there seem to be anything worth hearing now. There was the wind, and the sounds of the harbor, with its occasional horns and whistles, and there was the life of the great city behind them. But the strange torrent of words from the mysterious child-woman had been silenced. None of them would hear those elusive syllables again.
A large ocean-going tanker, nudged by half a dozen tugboats, was passing through the main channel and slowly coming about, turning toward the open sea. Legions of small craft, their white sails gleaming, darted across the waves. Above it all, gulls ceaselessly wheeled and banked in the wind.
First published in Bohème Magazine, November 2005.