Sometimes the things dreamers do seem incomprehensible to others, and the world wonders why dreamers do not see the way others do.
—Queen Marie of Romania, at the dedication of the unfinished Maryhill Museum of Art, 1926
Eighty-eight beams of radiation. I know, because I’ve counted, over and over, through the muted music as the machine hovers in one of its six positions, fixes in its open eye the place where my breast used to be, and beams. Eighty-eight . . . a full piano. A total of sixty to eighty Gray (Gy). How interesting that radiation is measured in units of Gray.
Every Tuesday, 3:00 pm, I boarded the bus for the two-mile ride to take music lessons from Miss Curtis. She lived in a green Victorian with vast stone steps, a huge front porch, dark halls and darker furniture. Murky, threadbare Persian rugs. The perfect house for an older woman called “Miss.”
Every Tuesday, 3:45, there I was, sitting in the hallway, waiting for the girl before me to finish. The other girls were bigger, played better, didn’t come from the tiny town where I lived. They knew something about music, I was sure, because they always seemed to open their books to things called etude or nocturne.
My book was not yet the elegant cream-colored affair I saw them using. Mine held pieces that could only be described as “songs”—and then, of course, there were all those scales. Part of me understood the nearly mathematical beauty of how the scales progressed, took on increments of sharps or flats, worked their way elegantly up the black-and-white staircase of the keys. Part of me thought that once you understood how they functioned, you shouldn’t have to take that flight.
One Friday, right after radiation, my husband and I take a short trip south and east to the Columbia River gorge. Great river, swollen with water, rushing to the Pacific, its many rapids lost to a series of dams. And over the cleft of blue water, a series of bridges: Sam Hill Memorial Bridge, the Dalles Bridge, Bridge of the Gods. At night, streams of light mark the passage from Washington to Oregon.
The car winds down through miles of nothingness. Then, there it is: a full-scale replica of Stonehenge built by financier Samuel Hill, dedicated to the soldiers from Klickitat County who died in World War I. Perched high over the river, it seems somehow small, its clockwork perfection a diminishment. Each concrete “stone” traps the sky. It’s hard, here, in the middle of this simulation, to imagine yourself standing in darkness while the sun lifts over the Heel Stone as though night had opened up along its seam.
Gently, almost religiously, I set the silk in motion, and I saw that I had obtained undulations of a character heretofore unknown.
—Loïe Fuller, Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, with Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends
The total dose of radiation is fractionated (spread out over time). They tell me this allows normal cells time to recover, but what does that mean? Nothing is normal when you have a 75 percent chance of being alive in five years. And yet, each day I gain . . . if not confidence, then at least composure, as the lead rods wheel above me, start their syncopated whirr.
Miss Curtis herself was exactly what you would expect. Tall, thin, hair pulled back in a slapdash bun, tight line of lips, a pencil tucked behind one ear. It can’t have been easy, a single woman in 1949 making a living for herself. It can’t have been fun, haunting the rooms of that huge house, listening to its lonesome sighs. Its grand piano, blacker than the night. The pencil, it turned out, was for more than writing down the next week’s assignment. It was for rapping your knuckles when your wrist dropped too low as you played. So, you worked your way up the keyboard, worrying about when the pencil might suddenly pronounce you deficient, devoid of any musical talent, undeserving of her pencil smile.
A mile from Stonehenge, on the banks of the Columbia, Sam Hill’s Maryhill mansion rises out of yellow desert. Gilded, almost, like the Romanian furniture, a gift from his good friend Queen Marie. In the basement, along with the cafeteria, are collections of a hundred chess sets, Indian artifacts, sculptures by Rodin. And one whole wall dedicated to art nouveau posters for Loïe Fuller’s dance performances.
Loïe had dreams of her own. What girl from Fullersburg, Illinois, wouldn’t have dreams? The silk whips itself into a frenzy. Diaphanous. What do we see as we watch “Night Winds”? Air made tangible. A twister from the plains of her childhood. Largo to allegro, she whirls then waits then whirls.
We cannot become accustomed to the idea that we live in a world that is revealed to us only in a restricted portion of its manifestations.
—Marie Curie, “Radium and Radioactivity”
I do not close my eyes in this thick-walled cave as the emissions sculpt the profile of my disease. If I hold myself still, the session is over in a blink. But think of Madame Curie working in her storeroom, naming the radium she laboriously whittled out of pitchblende, naming herself as she searched out the rays that might eventually spell my cure.
At home, my mother took up the challenge. First, there was the practicing. Up and down each scale, over and over, up then down, thumb tucked under, fingers curved, up then down, up then down, over and over. Forty-five minutes a day, rain or shine, friends outside while I worked my way along the length of the notes, wishing my way out into the light. When our mother went to the grocery store, I bargained with my brother for the amount of time we should pretend we had “practiced”: twenty minutes for me, ten for him—that’s about the best we could hope for. The store was only a block away, and she was only going for a “couple of things.” The rest we would have to eke out somehow, rain or shine, friends or no friends.
Outside, day waited. I was a nine-year-old girl with a baseball glove and an ability to hit the ball. I was a nine-year-old girl who climbed trees and named herself Robert of Bruce. Outside day waited, and inside I practiced the scales. I played my mother’s dream.
On the upper floor of Maryhill, a black, low-ceilinged room. Three staged scenes, designed in 1946. Théâtre de la Mode. Here, several twenty-seven-inch models made of flexible black wire (once housed in the Louvre) strut the streets of Paris dressed in 1940s haute couture. Those tiny hats, mere whiffs of fabric. Little umbrellas. Strands of pearls. Miniature belts, petite handbags, diminutive high-heels. Never in my life have I coveted those shoes—but oh, to be living in the age of those coats, their collars testament to wind!
And in the basement, tucked in a small glass box all its own, one plain scientific pamphlet donated by Fuller herself—and signed Marie Curie.
HE SOUGHT REST
—Sam Hill’s solitary tombstone
I become aware of my breath. Its shallow in-and-out, over and over. I listen to its intervals, its duration. I watch the wing-like flutterings on the screen as they mete out the range of exposure. Technicians come in to lift off what they call “superflab”—the rubbery mat they use to direct the diffusion. It fools the photons into thinking it is skin.
My own piano was the enemy. A polished burden of a beast on the far west wall. Light streaming in from the tall south windows. The sun came up and the sun went down; the piano stayed resolutely where it was, with its wide, triumphant grin.
I remember it as ever-present, but my parents must have bought it after we moved in, sometime after my seventh birthday. From before that, I can remember the room with its two sets of French doors, somehow tinier—cozier—without the piano’s gloomy presence. I remember the colored lights of the Christmas tree, doubled and then tripled in the panes. I remember winter, white with pleasure, and the days drifting out, the yard a blank slate where our boot prints would sketch the maze for our intricate games of fox and geese.
I remember summer. Leaves keeping our secrets and the large back field echoing with argument: “Out.” “No, safe.” “No, out!” The apple branch broke while we were inching out on its length, and we rode it down like a storm. A flurry of whippet twigs, and my father’s voice calling over them, “Are you damn kids all right?”
Who in Sam Hill was Sam Hill to have collected all these things? He’s not the source of the saying—this burly industrialist builder of the first paved road in the Northwest, blustery seller of northwestern railroad bonds to European royalty, Quaker pacifist, and randy romancer whose illegitimate son carried his name while his daughter went mad and his son refused to speak to him—but he ought to be. And how did he collect all these people? Queens and sculptors and scientists, the dancer and the dance? Yeats had Loïe’s image in his mind, yet an American businessman named Samuel Hill also kept her spirit alive.
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
—William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children”
Two months after the night of The Recital, I quit piano lessons. Not easily—Miss Curtis did not make it easy, my mother did not make it easy—but indeed I finally quit. Whatever other girls might come after me, I could feel their knuckles cringe under the pencil, but I did not care. Let them learn how to quit. Let them learn that kind of courage.
The desert calls up something clear, and incontrovertible. The summer I turned fourteen, I spent two weeks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, doing what the Girl Scouts called archaeology. At Canyon de Chelly I dug up some potsherds, ones I only now realize were probably Anasazi, along with some kernels of burned corn—nothing notable, but still . . .
I hiked through Mesa Verde, descended ladders into the false night of the kivas, then up again into light. I looked out over land so flat that I could see what others must have seen before me: the short span of life any one person is given.
Loïe of such motion died of breast cancer in Paris at the age of sixty-five; Marie of such dedication died of leukemia, probably caused by the very elements she had discovered. And Sam Hill? He collapsed on his way to address the Oregon legislature, of something called “stomach influenza.” He’s buried on the bank below his Stonehenge. Across the river, the massive mystery of Mt. Hood fractures the sky.
I hear the girl she was. She’s practicing. She’s getting ready for The Recital, the one where she made the mistake that made her want to quit for good, that told her nothing would turn her into the musician she didn’t want to become. She, too, has collected things. Baskets and marbles and glass paperweights. Russian lacquered boxes, a red wooden apple with three tiny cups inside. On the windowsill, there’s a yellow porcelain piano, complete with tiny keys and a china music book, black upon white, waiting as if for her return. When you lift the hand-painted lid, you see a fragile box, holding a fraction of what she hoped to be.
Why measure time in days, when night will do? I overhear her metronomic droning, her calibrated dreams. She does not indulge the dark. Instead, she listens for the music of words, the way they clang and clatter, or fit smoothly into each other with an echo of consonant, an ease of vowel. She listens for the tempo of the mind. In the artificial daylight of the radiation room, she listens past the mechanical thrum of Muzak to count the pulses of the beams. She eavesdrops on the future, where she hears the high piping voices of children calling over snowbanks, winding their way through a circular maze where the fox cannot leap the blue shadows. Where they are, for the moment, safe.
Images, in order of appearance: Stonehenge War Memorial, Maryhill, Washington; Loïe Fuller performing serpentine dance, 1898, photograph by Isaiah W. Taber; Théâtre de la Mode, “Croquis de Paris” (Paris Sketch), by Jean Saint-Martin, recreation by Anne Surgers; Sam Hill with globe, ca. 1920. All images courtesy of the Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art.