Your seatmate from Heathrow to Copenhagen is a beautiful young Estonian woman who, thankfully, is talkative. You are starved for conversation. You were alone at Heathrow for several hours with nothing but your vodka to talk to. She lives in Tallinn, a beautiful city. You were once there in December in the old town and the architecture was breathtaking behind the falling snow.
Her name is Annika, and she has been traveling since early this morning from Buenos Aires, where her boyfriend lives. She is interested in literature and humanitarian work and makes her living as a tango instructor. You tell her you have a foot in all three worlds at once: you have written a novel about a torture survivor who dances tango.
“You dance tango?” she asks.
“I wish. I’m terrified of dancing.”
“With the terrified men,” she says, “I start out only walking with them to help them find the rhythm to their bodies.”
Her casual acceptance that some men fear dancing convinces you that this woman was sent into your life to liberate you from that strange fear. “Are there many men like that?” you ask.
“Everyone is terrified of something,” she says, and her young eyes grow distant. “Some are terrified of dogs, some of cats, some of rats, spiders, of prison, of flying, of elevators . . .”
You wonder what terrifies her, but think it inappropriate to ask. You lean back your head and contemplate her list of fears. You don’t really have any of them. It occurs to you that instead of fear you have vodka. You think of telling her that fear changes with age, the things you fear when you are young are less specific. Is that true? Instead, you say, “I’m sure that you are the only person in the world who could teach me to tango.”
“But,” she points out, “you live in Copenhagen, and I live in Tallinn.”
You tell her you have scads of frequent flyer miles and it is only a hop from Copenhagen to Estonia.
“You would really come to Tallinn to learn tango from me?”
“Sometimes people meet for a reason,” you say.
In Kastrup, she has to run for her plane, but gives you her card, and you continue through passport control to the taxi queue and get home happy, picturing yourself dancing the “Blue Tango.” You let yourself into your little apartment and can’t wipe the smile off your face. You are not drunk. Okay, you are drunk, but you think you will allow yourself just one more vodka before sleep.
You stand in your living room, sipping three fingers of exquisitely spiced Polish vodka. You are peering at the two life-sized Polynesian fertility goddesses whom you consider your muses. You met them ten years ago in the apartment of Dale Smith, a very tall African American blues singer who lived at that time just around the corner from you. He had bought the goddesses in Polynesia when he was on tour in the ’70s with Miriam Makeba, had them sent home by ship and claimed them at customs in Copenhagen harbor on a Long John delivery bicycle during morning rush hour.
He laughed from deep in his barrel chest when he told how people stopped to gape at him, a giant black man on a black Long John with two life-sized painted wooden fertility goddesses lashed to the front platform, standing up, their horse-hair wigs flopping in the harbor wind, their staring painted wooden eyes open wide, teeth bared, their painted wooden hands framing their pudenda in presentation.
You thought they were fuck-ugly, but when he told you he was about to deliver them to Bruun Rasmussen for auction because he was moving and they would surely be bought by foreign collectors who would take them out of Denmark, the prospect of them disappearing forever into the world for some wild reason struck panic in you—it was as though your mother was about to be sold into slavery. You asked how much he wanted for them.
With the terrified men, she says, I start out only walking with them.
The two wooden ladies have been with you ever since, just about a decade, and you never have figured out the meanings of their toothy smiles or even if they are smiling, but you decided early on that they came into your life to be your muses; you only began to get lucky with your writing after they entered your abode. And this was after 40 years of trying.
One of the muses is your favorite—the shorter of the two, with five large teeth—the other has only three rabbit-like teeth and a lazy, flaky look to her eyes. You like her well enough, but your fave has an intricate stitching of scars on her face and a crack in her forehead, and piercing eyes.
Oddly you discover that your glass is empty. You are certain that you just poured a drink. So you say to your favorite, “I’m not finished talking with you just yet. Be back in a sec.” You never address her by name because Dale did not know their names, and you feel it would be disrespectful just to tag them with whatever name you fancy.
When you come back into the room, glass in hand—and this time you know there is vodka in it—as you step toward your favorite goddess-muse, you accidentally put the toe of one shoe under the edge of the new Iranian carpet instead of over it, and that causes you to stumble forward, casting vodka and rocks before you while retaining the glass in your hand and cascading headlong over the heavy kidney bean–shaped coffee table against the pedestal of your favorite muse, toppling her. As near as you can figure, her pudendum, which is large as a grapefruit and cut of hard wood with sharp lips, strikes you upside your skullcap.
A moment, or possibly many moments later, you open your eyes and sit up, waiting for your head to clear. You are still holding the tumbler and it is empty. You place it on the coffee table over which you have just fallen and set the goddess up on her pedestal again, looking her over for damage.
She still has the same crack in her forehead, the same split in the wood between her little gray-white breasts with double black circles around the nipples, still has her five teeth and big red gums and all her horsehair, and you still don’t know her name or what precisely she means by that grimace-smile or her staring eyes. The pupils are large and black and the irises consist of very thin concentric circles of yellow, white, red, and black surrounded by thicker, staring whites. You follow the mesmeric circles of color, stare into them. Those irises, you notice after all these years, give her eyes their intensity.
Your skull hurts where she bopped you, and you feel around your scalp. You locate a goose egg on your noggin. You tell her, “You did this to me.” She does not answer. “I think you did it on purpose,” you say. Still she does not answer.
You sit down on the red ottoman and try to think. Then you remember that you are on blood thinners because last year you had blood clots in your lungs, and you recall a doctor telling you that a thump on your skull could induce bleeding in the brain, a stroke. You think about that for a moment. Probably everything is okay. But you might wind up half-paralyzed or unable to speak or see or hear or incontinent or a combination of any or all of these things and several more.
If you go to bed, you might also fail to wake up tomorrow. You consider whether you find that desirable or undesirable. But you might wake up trapped inside a living vegetable.
It is midnight now. Quickly you call the emergency ward on the other side of town in Frederiksberg, get a nurse on the phone, and explain the situation to her. She urges you to take a taxi there immediately. Which you do.
The nurse is slender and blond with narrow eyes. Denmark has centralized, computerized medical records, and your whole life is an open book that the nurse is reading on the screen in front of her. She knows about your prostate and what percentage of it does not function and how high your PSA is; she knows about your blood clots and your NDE last year in the trauma center; she knows you are not married, how many teeth you have, what you look like naked; she knows how you demand a morphine suppository whenever anyone approaches you with a catheter or to do a bladder probe; she even knows how many drinks you have every day—or at least how many you told about.
Can I still take my three drinks a day? you aska joke. Yes, she says. But not four.
She looks up from the screen and reaches to palpate the lump on your skull. You wince. She asks if you have generalized pain in your head or only in the goose egg, if you have double vision, blurring, dizziness. You can truthfully say no to all these things. But you are sore where the wooden goddess bit you.
Satisfied that you have no concussion or brain bleeding, she measures your INR. The INR—or International Normalized Ratio—indicates the thinness of your blood, the clotting factor. A normal INR is between 0.8 and 1.2, but if you have a tendency to blood clots you are prescribed warfarin tablets to thin your blood to between 2 and 3 INR. You take two tiny tablets a day, three every other day. They are dry blue bitter little bastards.
A drop of your blood from a prick in a fingertip, smeared on a strip of paper, inserted into a machine is enough to calculate the factor. This time the number does not pop right up on the little screen; instead there is the image of an hour glass with the virtual sand pouring through again and again.
The nurse seems concerned. “Taking this long usually means it’s too high,” she says.
Then the figure appears on the screen, and her baby-blues open wide with concern. “It’s 6.7,” she whispers, staring intently at you. “Have you had some change in diet?” she asks, then gets to the point. “For example, an increased intake of alcohol?”
You allow that your holidays were rather festive and that just after New Year you attended a literary conference in England where the participants tend to party a bit. You were just having fun, right?
“Thomas,” she says. “Three drinks a day. You can have three drinks a day. When you go out to a party, it is so easy to lose track, but you mustn’t when you’re on the thinners.” She looks even more deeply into your eyes—so you can see the flecks of purple in her blue irises—and touches your forearm with both her hands so gently as to bring water to your eyes.
“Thomas,” she says. “Do you realize how very very lucky you are? With an INR of 6.7, and hitting your head? You could have had a massive stroke. By all experience, you should have had a massive stroke.”
“Maybe it’s because my Irish head is so thick,” you say.
“Thomas, this is not a joke.”
“I’ll never do it again,” you promise.
“Three drinks a day,” she says. She is still touching your arm, still looking into your eyes.
“Will you have them with me?” you ask.
She laughs and smacks your shoulder lightly and tells you, “Go home,” with a smile that tells you that you are an incorrigibly randy old goat. That’s fine with you.
“Don’t take your thinners for three days,” she says.
“Can I still take my three drinks a day?” you ask—a joke, assuming she will forbid that for three days, too.
“Yes,” she says. “But not four.”
“I love Denmark,” you tell her, and she seems not to understand what you mean by that.
At home, it is well past 1 a.m., the first hour of a new day. You wonder if you want to take one of your three drinks before you go to bed. You ask the muse who cracked you on the head.
She says nothing. She never says anything. On the other hand, you wonder if she was trying to kill you by cracking you on the head in your condition with the 6.7 INR. Maybe she is tired of you and figures if she kills you, she will find herself a new home. Maybe it is a plot of goddesses. You look over to the other one. She still has those three bunny-rabbit teeth and her lazy gaze. A lazy goddess like that could not plot anything. You wonder what, if anything, could be in her mind behind that lazy gaze.
Abruptly you realize that you must have had a stroke after all.
You try to imagine the artist who discovered the form of these goddesses in the wood cut from a tree. You don’t even know what kind of tree, what kind of wood, can’t even imagine the artist, and don’t care really. Sometimes we have only the vaguest idea of the origins of our closest friends, our most admired icons. How can you expect or hope to know where and how these goddesses originated? Isn’t it irrelevant? Isn’t the impulse that compelled you to keep them from disappearing into the world enough? They are with you now.
Then it occurs to you that your favorite muse might have been trying to get you to go to the hospital to discover how high your INR was. Maybe she was concerned. Maybe that’s why the drinks disappeared. Is that an insane thought? You look into the intensity of her fixed gaze, which tells you she is a queen and a goddess and is quite content to be naked because she has no fear, no need or use for shame. In fact, she just saved your life—or at least saved you from a stroke by choosing just the place to hit your skull that was thickest and could withstand it.
You want to kiss her in thanks, but that mouth, those horsey gray teeth, those enormous red gummy gums. So you just pat her on the shoulder, shed your clothes, and crawl beneath the royal blue cover of your comforter.
The night is far from done, however.
You cannot sleep so you begin to read the top book on your night table stack. At some point you vaguely realize your eyes are shut although you are still holding the book above your face, and you are hearing a voice sing-talking from the other room—a strangely familiar male tenor voice that is sing-talking both to you and of you.
The voice sings, Thomas goes riding the silver sunset. Thomas goes walking the silver road. Thomas talks to the silver goddess. Then, with a single distinct concluding statement that wakes you, Where is Thomas. A question that is not a question, spoken in a strange objective manner, not inflected as a question. You have never dreamed a voice before, and you become convinced that someone is in the next room.
The lamp beside your bed is the only one lit in the apartment. You are pooled in yellow light, but looking into the dark you see only dimly through the two doorways visible from your bed—one into the little hall, one into the living room. You see the two shadowy muse-goddesses standing there. Can you see another figure in the dark with them? Your heart pulses erratically. Your mouth goes dry.
Nonsense, you think and turn back to your book, but as soon as you turn your eyes away from the living room door, you see movement in the dark. Terror begins to crawl up from your trunk toward your brain. You look quickly to the lazy-eyed goddess. It was she you saw moving, beginning to step off her pedestal, but as soon as your gaze sweeps back to her she freezes, is still as the wood she’s made of. Wood never dies, you think. She is still alive. She has been waiting all these years. Your scalp tingles. The hair on your arms lifts. Perhaps she has figured you out, that she is not your favorite. Perhaps the lazy goddess is the polar opposite of the intense-eyed goddess. Perhaps the one gives fertility to good, the other to evil. Perhaps they are battling for your soul, your mind. But as long as you stare directly at them, they cannot move, they are frozen in their wood. As soon as you look away, they can move, step closer. Maybe they are closer already, closer to the doorway. You have to leave the lamp burning or they will rush in a whisper across the floor, be joined by the sing-talker who sings to and of you. You continue staring directly at them, freezing them from movement.
But you forgot about the closet. Across from the foot of your bed is a closet and the closet door is ajar. If anyone were in there, he or she could fling open the door and leap directly upon you. As you stare at the goddesses, to check their advance, you see a movement in the closet out the corner of your eye, and you have to look away from the goddesses to peer directly into the closet to identify whatever is moving in there. But the door is not open enough to see what it is. Distinctly you see an arm. Is that the sleeve of a shirt? But even as you try to decide, you perceive from the corner of your other eye a movement in the living room again and must turn your gaze back in that direction to stop the advance from there.
Are you going mad?
Abruptly you realize that you must have had a stroke after all, or a concussion. The realization makes you relax a little. An explanation. Science. No supernatural creatures. A knock in the head is what did it. Everyone is terrified of something, you remember Annika saying on the plane, wish you had asked what frightened her. You see yourself here in bed, sweated with fear of phantasms.
Without the fear to brace you awake, you grow sleepy now. The book falls onto your chest, and your eyelids lower to reveal the backs of their violet curtains and you are slipping backward into the jungle of your mind. You know you should not sleep but you are so tired. You realize you might die if you sleep, but then you hear distant voices, a peaceful croon, and your mind floats toward a wood of black and silver-gray trees, tall and slender, with darkness between and behind them, and then you are gone.
When you wake again, as far as you know, you are still alive. Unless you have died and entered a facsimile of the life you were living before. Perhaps in this new life you will learn to dance tango.
You rise, put on coffee, splash your face with water. You brush your hair and wince as the boar bristles sweep across your goose egg. You pour a mug of café noir, black, swallow some, put down the mug and look through the pockets of the shirt, jeans, jacket you wore on the flight yesterday. You search the various pouches of your wallet, the compartments of your carry-on. Annika’s card is not to be found.
Perhaps something very bad would happen if you learned to tango. Perhaps Annika was a phantasm.
You carry your mug of steaming black coffee into the living room and look at your nameless muses, say good morning.
They say nothing.
“By the way,” you ask them, “were you entertaining last night? Who was that dude singing? What does, ‘Thomas goes riding the silver sunset’ mean?”
They say nothing.
You look from the one to the other. “What does it all mean?” you ask.
They say nothing—which is what they do best.