Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie



The whole world was red and green, mostly red, but green where it counted.

They were very quiet for a time, in the red and green, with some white, too, blinking. Her face was against his thigh, still, and his hand was in her hair, stroking it softly, forgetting, then stroking again when he realized he had stopped. He said, soft and matter-of-fact,

—It’s Boxing Day, now. We really should do something about all of these boxes.

He could feel her smile against his skin, the corners of her mouth lifting, and turning into a kiss that turned into her own voice, and she said

—They’ve been here so long, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

—I know where to begin, he said, smiling. We begin by you bringing us our robes.

She kissed his leg again, and stretched with a sound that was protest and satisfaction, and she stood up. She was red, too, still, and he watched her blushing cheeks as she walked into the next room, and he saw her whiteness as she returned, her dark maroon robe open, and above it her face flushed, her lovely white mask, and she knelt again, and handed him his black robe to swallow his red and green tinted whiteness.

Then he stood up, and he whispered good girl, and she lit up, not like a Christmas tree. Deeper than that, more red, more green. He said,

—Bring me a small one. From the top.

Her hand held on to his robe for half a second, long enough to say without words kiss me, but he did not kiss her, and she sighed, then turned and narrowed her eyes, as if in thought. At last she walked to the center of the pile, the pile that ran the length of one wall, and took down a box twice the size of a shoe box. It wasn’t a red or green box, like the ones nearby that sat torn and empty, having disgorged their secrets, broken like eggshells but retaining the simple beauty of an eggshell even after it’s cracked. These boxes were brown and bound with yellowing tape and covered with labels and thick black marks: addresses, instructions, admonitions. FRAGILE. THIS END UP. Traveled boxes.

She brought him the box, her eyes reading the letters. She said,

—It’s not very heavy.

He pulled a chair up, and sat down, his robe parting as his legs became a lap. He said

—Any guesses?

She shook her head.

—It’s been so, so long. I can’t remember. It could be anything.

She sat on his lap, balancing the box on her knees as he handed her the widened scissors. She drew them across the tape, and the lids, so long held fast, came apart like the wings of something that could no longer fly but remembered what it felt like, that first, shrugging, swelling motion, that pause.

Gingerly, she pulled the lids apart over a sea of rice paper. It crinkled as he watched her hands unearth something dark and glossy and hard.

—Oh… Oh! she said. Oh, I remember this!

—Wow, he said. That’s stunning. Where did you…?

­—In Malaysia, I think… no, it was Bali. There was a strange little shop in the hotel. We were there for a conference. It was strange because all they sold were these and European magazines that were three months out of date. I think… (she dug down deeper). Yes, here it is: a copy of Le Monde. I think the little old clerk threw it in for free. As if this wasn’t enough.

—It’s exquisite, he said quietly. Then, excited, as if the morning had returned, What else?

The rice paper flew in waves over the tops of the box. She brought up several buds of tissue paper, blue and pink, and opened one and laughed as her finger teased it apart.

—Oh, yes. From Hong Kong. There should be a whole set of seven. Hand-carved by Dr. Wu. He was the project director. I was so honored when he gave them to me as a good-bye gift, until someone told me that he was OCD and that every moment he wasn’t working he was carving these and that even the bellhops got some as tips.

The blush of her face waxed, waned, became dreamy and far-away, present and excited by turns, as she took each thing from the box and unwrapped it and told its story as he listened and commented and made little jokes about this or that, until the tissue and paper were no more and they had reached the rough, empty cardboard floor. He cleared his throat, and said in that tone that they shared, now,

—This box is empty.

—Why yes, she said. It is.

She shook her head, a little wonderingly.

—But there’s so many more, she said. How will we ever…

—We are, he said, soft and stern. Now bring over another. A larger one.

She obeyed. She dragged over a box the size of an ottoman, a heavy one. Something clanked, metal on metal, inside. She dropped to her knees, again drawing the scissors across its sealed surface, and he leaned forward, eager, smiling, watching her smile, her eyes, expectant.

And what wonders they brought forth. Sandalwood. Ivory. Jade. Incense, and the comforting mustiness of old paper. Leaves, carefully pressed. Bone. China. Hard plastics, too, and softer ones, and a riot of color filtered through the red and the green. Cotton. Silk. Glass, and behind the glass faces, or in the glass her face, than his as she lifted it up, silvered, somehow unshattered. A little real silver, some gold. More paper, glossy, and manila folders, reeking of the office, and of Manila. Stainless steel. Boxes within the boxes, brocade and gunmetal gray, with their own locks, their lost keys. Newspaper, newspaper, newspaper, tissues, newspaper. Things carved, things sewn, things held together by ancient Scotch tape. Things sentimental, things practical, things utterly mysterious. And holding it all together, in box after box, the web of her handwriting, spidery, blotched, precise, in notebooks, in the margins of books, on the backs of bent business cards, those little coffins of old identities, other wages. China, Nepal, Tibet. Japan, Korea, Singapore. Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia.


A whole world, slowly unpacked in the red and the green. Washed up as from a shipwreck; the two of them, on a desert island surrounded by winter, by the scent of pine needles and the ghost of snow, kneeling amidst box after emptying box like devotees of some cargo cult. A whole world, giving up its past.

He thought to ask her if it was bittersweet, these memories, at last recalled, unearthed. But she was laughing, flushed now with delight. He could see her moving forward even as she tracked back. He helped her sort, his tone—orderly, precise, loving—flowing through the objects, categorizing, placing, directing. He felt his own delight. It had been an overwhelming task, but now the wave had receded. After the deluge, me, he thought. He smiled to see her smile, still red but greener now, newer. His new world.

He held a piece of driftwood in his hands as she stuffed spent paper into a transparent bag, and he said, smiling,

For I am every dead thing,

In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

She looked up, smiling.

—What’s that? she asked.

—Donne, he said. From his poem on St. Lucy’s Day.

Her eyes shone from her mask.

—Wasn’t that just last week? she asked.

—Yes, he said, placing the driftwood into the pile of miscellany. It’s the solstice.

He drew his robe a little tighter. There was a chill. He began to put small, empty boxes into larger, empty boxes.

—Boxing Day is actually St. Stephen’s Day, he said. That’s where that line in “Good King Wencelas” comes from, about “the feast of Stephen.”

She held something small up to the twinkling lights, listening, and said

—I never could keep track of the saints. Which one is he?

—Why, he’s the protomartyr, which is a fancy way of saying he was the first saint, he said. He paused, holding up a tiny origami bird, holding it in his palm as if it might leap into the air. St. Stephen’s Day is sometimes known as Wren Day in England, he continued. It seems Stephen was hiding in some bushes from the people who were looking to stone him, and he was betrayed by the song of the wren.

He put the origami on her bookshelf.

—I guess that means no wrens in heaven, she said.

He looked over at her, and she was not looking at him. She was intent on her task, and smiling. They had been chatting like this for hours, in perfect ease, as this whole world slowly grew around them. He looked at her, and he had never known anything more beautiful or simple or right.

—Well, he said, in an ironic voice, I don’t think a saint would carry a grudge.

—True, she said, and, laughing, They’d take away your holy decoder ring for that sort of behavior.

I love you, he thought, in the deepest red and green of his mind, his heart.

And, just like that, all the boxes were empty; the world, unpacked.

—Come here, he said. She turned, and put down what was in her hands, and still kneeling she came, flushing red, weaving slowly between the little mountains of pirate treasure rescued from her past into their present.

It took her a while to navigate her way to him, a few extra seconds of felt hours; for the world had risen between them that night, even as they discovered it, and re-discovered it, and mapped it anew. The world had risen as if a tide.

—Open your robe, he said.

And she did, all undone.

And he, open, in red. In green.

And neither knew, then, the tide: its hour, its height.

Reader Comments (1)

oh. I remember this, yes.

In the train station: the father, the widow's stars, the eyes on the clock all rang like dinner bells after days of hunger.

October 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterd

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