Conjunctions:39 The New Wave Fabulists

The Least Trumps
The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth Hand’s contribution to Conjunctions:39.
In the lonely house there is a faded framed LIFE magazine article from almost half a century ago, featuring a color photograph of a beautiful woman with close-cropped blonde hair and rather sly gray eyes, wide crimson-lipsticked mouth, a red-and-white striped bateau-neck shirt. The woman is holding a large magnifying lens and examining a very large insect, a plastic scientific model of a common black ant, Formica componatus, posed atop a stack of children’s picture books. Each book displays the familiar blocky letters and illustrated image that has been encoded into the dreamtime DNA of generations of children: that of a puzzled-looking, goggle-eyed ant, its antenna slightly askew as though trying, vainly, to time in to the signal from some oh-so-distant station. 

     Wise Aunt or Wise Ant? reads the caption beneath the photo. Blake E. Tan Examines a Friend. 

     The woman is the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Blake Eleanor Tun, known to her friends as Blake. The books are the six classic Wise Ant books, in American and English editions and numerous translations. Wise Ant, Brave Ant, Curious Ant; Formi Sage, Weise Ameise, Una Ormiga Visionaria. In the room behind Blakie, you can just make out the figure of a toddler, out of focus as she runs past. You can see the child’s short blonde hair cut in a pageboy, and a tiny hand that the camera records as a mothlike blur. The little girl with the Prince Valiant haircut, identified in the article as Miss Tun’s adopted niece, is actually Blakie’s illegitimate daughter, Ivy Tun. That’s me. 

     Here in her remote island hidey-hole, the article begins, Blake Eleanor Tun brings to life an imaginary world inhabited by millions. 

     People used to ask Blakie why she lived on Aranbega. Actually, just living on an island wasn’t enough for my mother. The Lonely House stood on an islet in Green Pond, so we lived on an island on an island. 

     “Why do I live here? Because enchantresses always live on islands,” she’d say, and laugh. If she fancied the questioner she might add, “Oh, you know. Circe, Calypso, the Lady in the Lake ...”

     Then she’d give her, or very occasionally him, one of her mocking sideways smiles, lowering her head so that it’s fringe of yellow hair would fall across her face, hiding her eyes so that only the smile remained. 

     “The smile on the face of the tiger,” Katherine told me once when I was a teenager. “Whenever you saw that smile of hers, you’d know it was only a matter of time.” 

     “Time till what?” I asked. 

     But by then her attention had already turned back to my mother: the sun to Katherine’s gnomon, the impossibly beautiful bright thing that we all circled, endlessly. 

     Anyway, I knew what Blakie’s smile meant. Her affairs were notorious even on the island. For decades, however, they were carefully concealed from her readers, most of whom assumed (as they were meant to) that Blake E. Tun was a man—that LIFE magazine article caused quite a stir among those not already in the know. My mother was Blakie to me as to everyone else. When I was nine she announced that she was not my aunt but my mother, and produced a birth certificate from a Boston hospital to prove it. 

     “No point in lying. It would however be more convenient if you continued to call me Blakie.” She stubbed out her cigarette on the sole of her tennis shoe and tossed it over the railing into Green Pond. “But it’s no one’s business who you are. Or who I am in relation to you, for that matter.” 

     And that was that. My father was not a secret kept from me; he just didn’t matter that much, not in Blakie’s scheme of things. The only thing she ever told me about him was that he was very young. 

     “Just a boy. Not much older than you are now, Ivy,” which at the time was nineteen. “Just a kid.” 

     “Never knew what hit him,” agreed my mother’s partner, Katherine, as Blakie glared at her from across the room. 

     It never crossed my mind to doubt my mother, just as it never crossed my mind to hold her accountable for any sort of duplicity she might have practiced, then or later. The simple mad fact was that I adored Blakie. Everyone did. She was lovely and smart and willful and rich, a woman who believed in seduction, not argument; when seduction failed, which was rarely, she was not above abduction, of the genteel sort involving copious amounts of liquor and the assistance of one of two attractive friends. 

     The Wise Ant books she had written and illustrated when she was in her twenties. By her thirtieth birthday they had made her fortune. Blakie had a wise agent named Letitia Thorne and a very wise financial adviser named William Dunlap, both of whom took care that my mother would never have to work again unless she wanted to. 

     Blakie did not want to work. She wanted to seduce Dunlap’s daughter-in-law, a twenty-two-year-old Dallas socialite named Katherine Mae Moss. The two women eloped to Aranbega, a rocky spine of land some miles off the coast of Maine. There they built a fairy-tale cottage in the middle of a lake, on a tamarack- and fern-covered bump of rock not much bigger than the Bambi Airstream trailer they’d driven up from Texas. The cottage had two small bedrooms, a living room and dining nook and wraparound porch overlooking the still silvery surface of Green Pond. There was a beetle black cast-iron Crawford woodstove for heat and cooking, kerosene lanterns and a small red hand pump in the slate kitchen sink. No electricity; no telephone. Drinking water was pumped up from the lake. Septic and gray water disposal was achieved through an ancient holding tank that was emptied once a year. 

     They named the cottage the Lonely House, after the tiny house where Wise Ant lived with her friends Grasshopper and Bee. Here they were visited by Blakie’s friends, artistic sorts from New York and Boston, several other writers from Maine, and by Katherine’s relatives, a noisy congeries of cattle heiresses, disaffected oilmen and ivy league dropouts, first-wave hippies and draft dodgers, all of whom took turns babysitting me when Blakie took off for Crete or London or Taos in pursuit of some new amour. Eventually, of course, Katherine would find her and bring her home: as a child I imagined my mother engaged in some world-spanning game of hide-and-seek, where Katherine was always It. When the two of them returned to the Lonely House, there would always be a prize for me as well. A rainbow map of California, tie-dyed on a white bedsheet; lizard-skin drums from Angola; a meerschaum pipe carved in the likeness of Richard Nixon. 

     “You’ll never have to leave here to see the world, Ivy,” my mother said once, after presenting me with a Maori drawing on bark of a stylized honeybee. “It will all come to you, like it all came to me.” 

     My mother was thirty-seven when I was born, old to be having a baby, and paired in what was then known as a Boston marriage. She and Katherine are still together, two old ladies now living in a posh assisted-living community near Rockland, no longer scandalizing anyone. They’ve had their relationship highlighted on an episode of This American Life, and my mother is active in local liberal causes, doing benefit readings of The Vagina Monologues and signings of Wise Ant for the Rockland Domestic Abuse Shelter. Katherine reconciled with her family and inherited a ranch near Goliad, where they still go sometimes in the winter. The Wise Ant books are now discussed within the context of midcentury American lesbian literature, a fact which annoys my mother no end. 

     “I wrote those books for children,” she cries whenever the topic arises. “They are children’s books,” as though someone had confused the color of her mailbox, red rather than black. “For God’s sake.” 

     Of course Wise Ant will never be anything more than her antly self-wise, brave, curious, kind, noisy, helpful-just as Blakie at eighty-two remains beautiful, maddening, forgetful, curious, brave; though seldom, if ever, quiet. We had words when I converted the Lonely House to solar power— 

     “You’re spoiling it. It was never intended to have electricity—” 

     Blakie and Katherine were by then well established in their elegant cottage at Penobscot Fields. I looked at the room around me—Blakie’s study, small but beautifully appointed, with a Gustav Stickley lamp that she’d had rewired by a curator at the Farnsworth, her laptop screen glowing atop a quartersawn oak desk; Bose speakers and miniature CD console. 

     “You’re right,” I said. “I’ll just move in here with you.” 

     “That’s not the—” 

     “Blakie. I need electricity to work. The generator’s too noisy, my customers don’t like it. And expensive. I have to work for a living—” 

     “You don’t have to—” 

     “I want to work for a living.” I paused, trying to calm myself. “Look, it’ll be fun-doing the wiring and stuff. I got all these photovoltaic cells, when it’s all set up, you’ll see. It’ll be great.” 

     And it was. The cottage is south facing: two rows of cells on the roof, a few extra batteries boxed in under the porch, a few days spent wiring, and I was set. I left the bookshelves in the living room, mostly my books now, and a few valuable first editions that I’d talked Blakie into leaving. Eliot’s Four Quartets and some Theodore Roethke; Gormenghast; a Leonard Baskin volume signed For Blakie. One bedroom I kept as my own, with a wide handcrafted oak cupboard bed, cleverly designed to hold clothes beneath and more books all around. At the head of the bed were those I loved best, a set of all six Wise Ant books and the five volumes of Walter Burden Fox’s unfinished Five Windows One Door sequence. 

     The other bedroom became my studio. I set up a drafting table and autoclave and lightbox, a shelf with my ultrasonic cleaner and driclave. On the floor was an additional power unit just for my machine and equipment; a tool bench holding soldering guns, needle bars, and jigs; a tall stainless steel medicine cabinet with enough disinfectant and bandages and gloves and hemostats to outfit a small clinic; an overhead cabinet with my inks and pencils and acetates. Empty plastic caps await the colored inks that fill the machine’s reservoir. A small sink drains into a special tank that I bring to the Rockland dump once a month, when everyone else brings in their empty paint cans. A bookshelf holds albums filled with pictures of my own work and some art books—Tibetan stuff, pictures from Chauvet Cavern, Japanese woodblock prints. 

     But no flash sheets; no framed flash art; no fake books. If customers want flash, they can go to Rockland or Bangor. I do only my own designs. I’ll work with a customer, if she has a particular image in mind, or come up with something original if she doesn’t. But if somebody has her heart set on a prancing unicorn, or Harley flames, or Mister Natural, or a Grateful Dead logo, I send her elsewhere. 

     This doesn’t happen much. I don’t advertise. All my business is word of mouth, through friends or established customers, a few people here on Aranbega. But mostly, if someone wants me to do her body work, she really has to want me, enough to fork out sixty-five bucks for the round-trip ferry and at least a couple hundred for the tattoo, and three hundred more for the Aranbega Inn if she misses the last ferry, or if her work takes more than a single day. Not to mention the cost of a thick steak dinner afterward, and getting someone else to drive her home. I don’t let people stay at the Lonely House, unless it’s someone I’ve known for a long time, which usually means someone I was involved with at some point, which usually means she wouldn’t want to stay with me in any case. Sue is an exception, but Sue is seeing someone else now, one of the other occupational therapists from Penobscot Fields, so she doesn’t come over as much as she used to. 

     That suits me fine. My customers are all women. Most of them are getting a tattoo to celebrate some milestone, usually something like finally breaking with an abusive boyfriend, leaving a bad marriage, coming to grips with the aftermath of a rape. Breast cancer survivors—I do a lot of breast work—or tattoos to celebrate coming out, or giving birth. Sometimes anniversaries. I get a lot of emotional baggage dumped in my studio, for hours or days at a time; it always leaves when the customers do, but it pretty much fulfills my need for any kind of emotional connection, which is pretty minimal anyway. 

     And, truth to tell, it fulfills most of my sexual needs too; at least any baseline desire I have for physical contact. My life is spent with skin: cupping a breast in my hand, pulling the skin taut between my fingers while the needle etches threadlike lines around the aureole, tracing yellow above violet veins, turning zippered scars into coiled serpents, an explosion of butterfly wings, flames or phoenixes rising from a puckered blue-white mound of flesh; or drawing secret maps, a hidden cartography of grottoes and ravines, rivulets and waves lapping at beaches no figure than the ball of my thumb; the ball of my thumb pressed there, index finger there, tissue film of latex between my flesh and hers, the hushed drone of the machine as it chokes down when the needle first touches skin and the involuntary flinch that comes, no matter how well she’s prepared herself for this, no matter how many times she’s lain just like this, paper towels blotting the film of blood that wells, nearly invisible, beneath the moving needle bar’s tip, music never loud enough to drown out the hum of the machine. Hospital smells of disinfectant, blood, antibacterial ointment, latex. 

     And sweat. A stink like scorched metal: fear. It wells up the way blood does, her eyes dilate and I can smell it, even if she doesn’t move, even if she’s done this enough times to be as controlled as I am when I draw the needle across my own flesh: she’s afraid, and I know it, needle-flick, soft white skin pulled taut, again, again, between my fingers. 

     I don’t want a lot of company, after a day’s work.

Elizabeth Hand is the coeditor of Conjunctions:67, Other Aliens. The bestselling author of sixteen novels and five collections of short fiction and essays, she has received multiple Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson awards. Her many books include Glimmering (Harper Prism), Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories (M Press), Generation Loss (Small Beer), Hard Light (St. Martin’s), and most recently, Curious Toys (Mullholland Books/Little, Brown). The Book of Lamps and Banners, the fourth novel in her acclaimed noir series featuring punk iconoclast Cass Neary, will be published in 2020 by Mulholland Books. She splits her time between the Maine coast and North London.