I have seen the Dervishes in pictures: their white robes make perfect circles as they spin, spin. Of course, the pictures are still, the spinning is in my mind, where I can hear their feet thump the floor, their breathing like raspy bellows, the flute somewhere distant and unadorned.
Gravity is pushing at us, while the moon is pulling—thirsty—the ocean, the lakes, the rivers and ponds, even this cup of tea to her. And just as the tea is pulled, so am I.
Pulling and pushing us like a name. Mother named me Cleo. I wanted my daughter unburdened. I called her Geneva after the place she was born. Her name is just a fact.
All of us spinning so fast, whirling. Over a thousand kilometers an hour, spinning, circling the sun even faster than that, and yet the tea in front of me is still, calm enough to see my reflection in it. To be at the center of the turn, the Sufis call it the Great Stillness; it is a kind of ecstasy.
They spin on the tips of their toes. To build endurance, I read, they put a nail, point up, through the heel of their shoes. As they wash the dishes, walk up the stairs, there is that constant reminder. We endure. The Germans have a word, sitzfleisch, sitting flesh, mother taught it to me, it describes the endurance needed to sit absolutely still. They recognize that stillness is an effort—more than that, it is a virtue.
During my lifetime, the solar system came into view: ’59, the far side of the moon; ’64, the first close-up image of Mars; ’73, Jupiter; ’74, Mercury; ’79, Saturn. I like to follow that sort of thing in magazines. There are no stars in the city, but even if there were, even if you were in the center of the desert with the whole night open and in front of you, you couldn’t see them all. They look still, but they are violent—turning and exploding and pulling and tearing. It’s a hunger, gravity.
I was informed of her death by a letter of eviction. It was curt; after all, the estate was happy to have the mistress out. Two weeks to vacate, and it had taken the letter a week to find me, but I could have done it in a day. There wasn’t much of value—costume jewelry and couture dresses a decade out of fashion. Photographs, dishes, and letters—her handwriting changed depending on whom she wrote. A few tins of fish, a jar of hot mustard, and another of cornichons. I left it all for others to pick through.
She named the dog after a Hollywood actor, someone she had shared a scene with once. She had only one line in the film. She looks straight at the camera with her famous dark eyes—someone once called them wounds—and asks or says, A beautiful view? This was supposed to hint at one of her current scandals. Once, on one of those rare nights when she asked me to sit with her after dinner, her face red with port, which she drank out of those miniature crystal glasses you have to hold with your fingertips, she said, That’s your father’s name. Of course, the years don’t add up, but then my mother was never interested in the truth, or rather, her truth was fluid, changing with circumstance or whim. But she didn’t lie, she believed whatever she said completely. This, more than anything else, was why men fell in love with her.
People forget that the Dervishes were warriors. The museum in Baghdad is full of Sufi weapons: axes and polearms and swords and spears. I’ve read the catalog a dozen times. It doesn’t have any pictures, just sparse descriptions written with the dry lucidity of an accountant. Still, they are sharp in my mind, and in particular, one axe: the blade curved like a crescent moon and blackened by some process. Etched into the black is a poem revealing the steel underneath. I haven’t found a translation of the poem. It’s attributed to Hatayi, but that doesn’t mean anything. Hatayi is a name several poets used. A name they put on and took off. Blood would fill the etchings, the poem. The violence spins, spins.
Her solicitor’s letter came shortly after. To me, she left a stack of debts, a few furs, a string of pearls with a disputed pedigree, and that wet-eyed, stupid dog. He sent several clippings, including a lengthy obituary. It mentioned the films she had been in—mostly cameos—and hinted at the rumors she had spent her life constructing. The furs hadn’t been stored well. There were thin spots; it felt like running your fingers through the hair of a middle-aged man.
I left the dog on the steps. The pearls were sold quietly by a third party who took twenty percent. Years later I received a letter demonstrating provenance, demanding their return. Every so often, another letter would arrive. A lot of nasty words. Collaborator.
Sometimes while sitting at work, I write my obituary: She was wearing only milk glass earrings and a molted fur coat. It made them think, when they pulled her from the water, that they were pulling out the carcass of an animal. They used a hook. When they rolled her onto the shore, the coat spilled open to reveal a shining white leg and a pale, too thin blue body. Like Little Red Riding Hood birthed from the wolf.
Can you imagine little Geneva reading that? Or her Headmaster pulling her from class, how she would stand awkwardly in his office while he told her there had been an accident. Of course, people would say it was an accident (and whisper later, But she was naked under the coat!). There must be a lot of paperwork with something like that. Anyway, in fairy tales, the mother is always missing. There’s a grandmother and a dutiful daughter, but never a mother. Unless she is a wicked stepmother, but that’s not really a mother—there is no obligation.
If you look at anything hard enough, you can see that it is something else. Mother is a star, a force others orbited. Constantly visible, impossibly far away. Rarely—if ever—occluded. And my daughter is a comet, occasional and brilliant. Mother sent her to school in France. One of her old admirers had some pull—a hunger—I assume. Geneva writes; she bemoans the distance. But distance isn’t real. I’ve tried to explain this to her. Is it any different if you are in the next room, or the center of the desert, or the other side of the universe?
Here is another: Cleo Abuladze, daughter of the famed Anastasia Abuladze who dazzled the world with her blah, blah both on and off the screen, fell in the bathroom or was hit by a milk truck or swallowed a pound of tranquilizers or was eaten by a bear. She is survived by her daughter Geneva, a beautiful young lady of promise who studies at the esteemed blah, blah. At Cleo’s request, there will be no funeral services.
Planets and moons do not give off their own light—they reflect the light of the closest star. The light off of Mars is red, and Venus is yellowish-white, like mother’s old ivory comb. Sometimes I would sneak into her room to touch the bottles and brushes and pins she laid out on her vanity. Stroke a brush against my cheek—squirrel hair, I believe. Sometimes, I’d dare a dab of her perfume on my wrists. Or run her ivory comb through my hair. Until the night it stuck in my tangles, and one of the teeth snapped off.
I ran to my room and hid under the bed, terrified of her anger. I held that piece of ivory so tightly my palms went red. It is a seed, I thought, like one of those magical seeds Jack got in exchange for a cow. I waited so long, so quiet and still. Sitzfleisch. When morning came, I was still in my dusty hideout, dinner had come and gone, and mother hadn’t noticed I was missing. She wasn’t cruel—cruelty requires intent, intent requires recognition. I crawled out from under the bed and swallowed that ivory seed, it grew inside me, and I was never hungry again.
To look at my daughter is to see her grandmother. Even from a young age people treated her differently. Her beauty surrounds her, pulls people to her. One evening I had guests over, and although she was supposed to be in her room, Geneva shyly appeared. Is this your daughter? Did they emphasize your? She is such a delight! What they meant was, Isn’t she beautiful?
Having always been seen, she does not appreciate the freedom that comes with invisibility. Put me in a room, and I can do anything I like. I could tickle the host’s balls and not get so much as a hello. I doubt any of my former classmates could pick me out of a lineup. The invisible woman, I could walk right into the bank vault.
The first generation to work, mother spat at me. Though, of course, mother had worked. Never a shop girl or waitress, but nonetheless, she earned the apartment we stayed in and the china plates with blue pastoral scenes of Canton, where they find different constellations in the same stars. We live under different skies, different pulls and destinies, different meanings under the same writing. In the southern hemisphere, it is even worse; there are stars there I will never see.
Things far away, things on the horizon, are blue like those Canton pastorals: blue houses and in them blue men who work the blue fields with blue tools. They go home and on their blue plates are scenes of Niece or Lisbon. But it is different with the stars. The astronomers have figured out that when something is leaving, it is redder and bluer when it is approaching. The blue stars, like Rigel, Orion’s right foot, are the hottest. But here, blue is the color of distance, leaving. Blue is cold. Blue is pulling away. My little blue daughter studying algebra.
I have a blue dream. It is an erotic dream: I am standing in a pool of thick blue mud. Faceless people, three or four of them, rub the mud over my body until I am the most brilliant blue you can imagine—the blue of Technicolor films. So when I saw it in Time magazine—naked women smearing their blue bodies on a canvas—I felt as if something had been taken from me. Klein. He is very famous. He even owns the blue. I read everything about him that I can. He makes the girls paint themselves. In this way, I stayed clean. I no longer dirtied myself with color, not even the tips of my fingers, he said.
Those dirty women. The Dervishes don’t require celibacy the same way we do. Though there are a few celibates among them, of course, “the delicate path,” National Geographic called it. But most are free to marry and have children. Only the spinning and the ecstasy of it. Nails in their shoes, like a heel flipped upside-down. Nuns used to experience ecstasy during prayer. Some of them did, the ones that would become saints. They burn both witches and saints. In Rome, there is a statue of a saint-nun in ecstasy, her mouth is open, and her eyes are half-closed. There is an angel on top of her holding a spear. You don’t have to look hard at that for it to become something else.
I don’t know which angel it’s supposed to be, but they all have names. Although they are innumerable like the stars, each one has a name. Spinning around God, their robes perfect white halos. I wonder what sound they make. People used to think the stars hummed, but now we know there is no sound in space because there is nothing to carry it—a great stillness.
There is a statue of mother somewhere in Germany. I’ve seen a picture. She was fourteen when she posed for it. Naked. She is supposed to be St. Gertrude. The caption says the statue is in the courtyard of a “House of Mercy,” whatever that is. I can imagine her posing in some garret, the artist leering over her. During the breaks, she would wrap herself in a comforter or some kimono one of his other models had abandoned. He’d offer her a coffee with a drop of whiskey. Even if he didn’t touch her, he touched the stone and imagined it was her. She has a short-bob haircut more like a precocious boy or a woman of the cabarets than a saint. And a slight smile that is hard to see in the picture, which is just a photocopy from an old newspaper, but the smile is there if you look for it, a sort of hungry smile. How does a child learn to smile like that?
In paintings, the Madonna wore blue robes; she was covered in blue. It was the most expensive color, lapis lazuli, a rock mined in Afghanistan. This is before the Russians and the Mujahideen. (Or maybe they still mine it, I do not know.) From one little mountain, outside of one little city. They built bonfires next to the rock—bathed it red—then doused it with cold water. The sudden shift in temperature caused the stone to crack. They broke a mountain that way. Moved a mountain. Bags of those blue rocks were carried by mules to Baghdad and Istanbul and Rome, even Canton.
Her robes are the sky, and wherever there is a gap, you can see the stars. Klein said he was trying to make a blue bluer than Giotto’s. Giotto painted the whole vault of a church with lapis lazuli. His blue heaven. At the center of the ceiling are the Madonna and child and circling them like planets are the prophets and a thousand eight-pointed stars. There are not a thousand; that is just a number I use to say many, many stars. I would like to know how many. I have only seen pictures of it, and the pictures are incomplete. If I could go to that little church in Italy, I would lie on the floor and count every star while the congregation spoke as one. They would repeat exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way they have since the paint was wet. Since that rock was brought from Afghanistan and ground into powder. How many hands? How heavy? Hold it, a piece of sky in your hand.
What did that nun-saint imagine in her ecstasy? I doubt it was vulgar, but it must have been terrifying, a violation of your body, a warm vertigo. Perhaps she imagined herself painted in the Madonna’s blue. The pain was so great, she said, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.
When my daughter came home from school, we were required to pay mother a visit. Pay the same way she paid for the school. Dinner was silent but for our knives scratching the china. The dog ate off the same plates—its tongue gradually wearing away tiny blue Canton—pushing the plate across the floor as it lapped and snorted. She served rillettes and cornichons on toast. It was her favorite meal, but it looked like what the dog was eating, or maybe the dog was given rillettes as well.
After dinner, we retired to the living room leaving our plates on the table. I can’t imagine mother washing dishes. Perhaps she just gave them to the dog to lick clean? She favored indirect light and sat in a maroon wingback chair with an exaggerated show of posture. There were photos of her on the wall, like a doctor with his degrees. Black eyes and white skin—a hundred eyes are looking at you—a thousand. Try to count them all. Those eyes staring at me, I want to yell, Look hard! Don’t you see a Dervish with his axe?
She asked questions, and Geneva dutifully answered. Inquisitor and captive. Mother was educated unevenly, so most of the answers must have meant nothing to her. I sat there seeming still, chewing on a candy that tasted like perfume. Planets and moons do not give off their own light—but I’ve already told you that, and I realize now that I haven’t told you anything about Geneva’s father. I married early and gave birth a few months after the ceremony. Mother encouraged it. We have to be realistic, she told me. What else is there to say? No men, but the residue of men.
I picked one of those photos at random to put on top of her casket. No pain, but they would say that either way. The undertaker told me that her rings wouldn’t stay on her fingers—he had them cupped in his hand—he suggested glue. A wedding ring would just slip off, she had said in one interview.