They had arrived at the old hotel in New Paltz after dark, after driving up a long curving road, and Jasper had in her anxiety pictured the tires’ edges falling off the pavement into space. Opening the car door, she stepped out into winter as it had not been in Manhattan. Spruce scent filled the air and her breath made white tunnels. At dinner, safely stowed in the “adult” dining room, where people who were deemed dangerous to children went, they looked at a panoramic window full of night. The drinks came in highball glasses. For dessert, they shared rainbow sherbet that came in a sundae glass, accompanied by a triangular wafer.
Post-dinner the guests of the place went walking, settled in what were called winter lounges or alcoves, or played word games or music. The children, festive in striped velvet dresses or buttoned shirts, went down to the piped basement and played video games in an old laundry room. In the library, an old woman wrapped her legs in a mohair blanket and read Quaker booklets about mountains. The founders of the hotel had been ardent and philanthropic: one wall showed the plans of Haverford College in blueprint, with ornamental scrolls framing the halls’ names.
Henry said, “let’s just walk,” when they had left the dining room and found the central stairway that formed the building’s spine.
Jasper said, “OK, let’s.” She was named after her father’s dog. She didn’t hold it against her father. The first Jasper had been a collie who was brushed every day and fed lamb and rice stew (or whatever the people members of the family were having). The second Jasper brushed her hair a hundred strokes each night with a Mason-Pearson brush or she let Henry do it for her, if he agreed not to double count.
Henry was named after his grandfather. His middle name was Riley and his last name was Hachette and so he avoided monograms.
Because Henry was black and Jasper was white, they were somewhat used to being looked at when together in public. Jasper had lately begun to look first, to look better, to mold her eyes and lips and her entire mien into one of something extreme—shock or abhorrence, or a slow quizzical dawning, she wasn’t sure which. Henry preferred manners and so said, “hello,” or nodded, if in town.
When they had looped the full (square) loop of the floor, they sat in the library. The reading woman had fallen asleep. Her husband had added a pine log to the fire. Its knots of pitch fizzed and snapped like downtown firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Henry picked a rose-clothed wing chair and a Mountain News, 1894, Week of October 5. Jasper picked the newer sofa, next to the husband. She bent down and unlaced and slipped off her shoes, in imitation of the old woman.
“Hello,” Henry said.
“Evening ,” said the husband.
“Hi-ii,” Jasper said.
“Evening.” The husband covered his narrow mouth with a narrow hand. He was thinking. He wanted, politely, humanely, all the best ways, to warn them. Of what, he wasn’t sure. When his wife shifted a little, he raised an ear towards her. The room seemed to breathe in with her, out with her, and the pine pitch hissed.
“There was a lovely bit of moon when we arrived,” Jasper offered.
“That’s the new.” The man stopped listening for sounds from his wife. He stretched both arms out as if opening and then refolding a newspaper. “It’s pearly here,” he said.
Henry, who sensed the man’s restrained way, the cloud of all he wasn’t saying, wondered why the man wanted to warn them. Why he was thinking at all of them, especially. Why Jasper. Why Henry. The ones who warned them usually were the worst ones, the whispering in stage whisper ones, the secret batterers.
“You’ve been here before,” Henry said. An infallible guess, based on the sleeping wife’s firelit sense of su casa.
“Sixty years,” the man said, “Before that, my parents—they had sleighs up here and a boys’ school, at some point.”
“You feel it,” Henry said. “I mean, the sloped floors, the rockers on the porch looking at the frozen lake, but it’s not just that.”
“Some things in this country are OK.” The man was looking for a bellows. He found one and blew dust from the pleats. “Not a lot, some.”
Jasper stopped trying to replicate the woman’s posture. She put her shoes back on—they came from Cherry’s on Orchard Street and were squash yellow lace-up boots. They were old designer. She looked at her feet in them. (She has her moments, Henry thought.)
“Six-ty years,” Jasper said. To prepare herself for being looked at she often sounded preemptively hollow, in a breathless movie-ish kind of way. She crossed her ankles.
“My parents went on a moonlight sleigh ride with cocoa in flasks and one orange,” the man said. Henry, who had put his hand on the vamp of Jasper’s boot, took it off.
“We just sit around talking,” Jasper said, and then, weaving her hands together into a here-is-the-church shape, “I mean. No, we talk. We—talk.” The old man exhaled with pleasure. Henry turned two pages of the Mountain News—they were tabloid length—at once. “I understand,” said the man. “They haven’t any sleighs now. They have the idea of them and they have them as logos, but the thing itself, no.”
“Not the thing itself,” Jasper echoed. The pink taste of the sherbet was nauseating her. Plus, she felt sick with anxiety. As often with her, she lashed out blind and wrong.
“Henry, you’re not talking to us,” she said. “Mr.—
“Cadwallader,” said the man.
“Mr.Cadwallader and I are talking about the old days here, his parents went in a sleigh, can’t the paper wait?”
“I’m listening,” Henry said. I sound like the wizard of oz, he thought.
“Henry,” Jasper said. Her lips hurt from delirious social smiling. She exuded a cool ring of fury, trembling and shaped as the snowdrops that she and Henry and the Cadwalladers had just missed, and which had poked in threes and squares and crooked quincunxes from the sunned open places at the end of January. It was President’s day weekend now. The crocuses would not bloom soon.
As if touched by this cool bloom of Jasper, (Jasperity, Henry thought, is catching), Mrs. Cadwallader woke up.
“Tom?” She said.
“You fell asleep,” Tom Cadwallader said.
Jasper yawned and uncrossed her ankles.
“Good-night,” she said. “Good-night,” Henry said immediately. They stood and walked to the doorway together, looked at some pamphlets on a cherrywood rack, and left.
“I can’t get used to it,” Susanna said. “I wish to.”
“I can’t either,” Tom said. “Did I stare?”
“You were a paragon,” Susanna said. She gave him one side of the tasseled blanket and they folded it into quarters.
Henry and Jasper walked to the fourth floor. He kept his arm close around her and she looked down, and the people who passed them stared with regret, as if feeling bad but unable to stop themselves, and asking secondarily for Henry and Jasper to forgive them. A girl with a beet-red hair ribbon ran past and her brother, with chocolate on his face, followed. A few minutes later the parents appeared; they walked side by side like carousel horses whose poles attach to the same rotating crossbar. Two blond horses looked at Henry and Jasper. Quickly, after filling their calm eyes with pictures, they looked away.
Their room was in the turret and so was round with a round window.
“Hey cookie,” Jasper said. She kissed his neck close to his earlobe. She dragged on the earlobe with her small teeth. The window became filled with the moon and she steered him there, maneuvering his arms like semaphores.
Henry stopped thinking, started again, and restopped. Jasper ran her tongue (scalded by peppermint tea) over the cartilage in his ear which (the ear) was a sweet shell, she thought, sweetly spiraling and then not.
Trancily, Henry took her opalescent shirt off. He was good with the buttons. She said, “I like how good you are with the buttons” and he blushed.
On the square bed, they kicked the rest of their clothes off like kids. Jasper ended up on her back, which she didn’t mind because she was lazy and because she liked to feel as if she were floating which, presently, she did. Henry, by contrast, felt as if he were sinking. When Jasper began to pant he began to hyperventilate, not scarily, but in a luminous sort of way to keep her company. They had that sort of effect on each other. Jasper’s insides fluttered when she came.
Because of so much being looked at, they closed their eyes when they made love and they kept them closed, at home, until a siren or a car alarm or the clock’s blue light became too pressing. Here there was nothing but the steady pour of moonlight traveling over the scratched floorboards.
Henry started thinking again.
“What do you think of Tom?” He asked. Jasper twirled onto her side, seallishly.
“That man?” Her breasts were night blue.
“He was worried about us,” Henry said. “Mean-worried, good-hearted.” He rested a hand on his chest and noted the pulse.
“Ahh Hen,” she said. “Don’t dwell.”
The next day, with sun covering all the snow and making diamonds of light, they exchanged their shoes for cross-country skis in a wooden shed. Henry felt good with the skis over his shoulder; he was scared, having never been, but filled with clarity.
“This is what carrying skis feels like,” he thought. The poles, he felt, fit nicely under his arms.
“Now,” Jasper said. They walked in a file to the head of the trail, which was marked with green dashes on the map and made a long loop up and down a hill-mountain.
“Step straight down like into the ground,” she said as Henry tried to attach the boot to the ski. He did, and the boot clicked.
Then she began and he followed: parallel tracks left by earlier skiiers furrowed the trail, which glittered with crackled skims of ice. They went up and the cliff dropped away beside them, and pine boughs stuck out, heaped with ridges of snow.
Jasper pictured skiing off the edge by mistake and at times she felt she was sliding, drifting and outside her body. In those times a black panel unrolled over her mind’s eye until she, with force and breathing, tore the panic-fabric down. To Henry, she seemed smooth and gorgeous, a model almost of that fluid heartbeat motion that was the right way.
Higher up, the gazebos and gazing stations dotted the trail at intervals. Victorian nature mania had placed them there so that hotel guests could contemplate or reflect or whatever it was they, Tom Cadwallader’s parents and the rest, had done. The entrances were too close to the railing and the air for Henry, who wanted to come in summer when there would not be ice, this rainbowy slick thing that waited like an animal.
“Jasp,” he said, not loudly. Thinking of falling, he had done it, and his calves were splayed at angles. She had gone ahead out of sight—in the one-two, one-two swish, the image of tumbling became dappled over by snow, sky, cedar bark and then by the memory of the night before, when she had felt halfway in as if she were engulfed by a school of quicksilver fish. Henry’s voice reached her as a thought, almost. She turned around and skied back.
“I can’t stand up,” he said. He had flung one pole into the brush.
“You threw away a pole,” Jasper said. She couldn’t understand. “They’re to help you balance.”
“I realize,” he said. “Help me.” She retrieved the pole and then, standing firmly at a right angle to the tracks, she told him to put one ski next to hers.
“They don’t feel attached to my feet,” he said. There was no going back, he realized. Down would be worse. I’m liking it sort of, he thought.
“Stand up,” Jasper said.
He did and then he told her he loved her and he loved her when people stared at them too and he wished they wouldn’t.
“Yeah Hen,” Jasper said. The main problem, she thought, was how much she loved dancing. They danced often in their living room with the blinds down—to Nat King Cole or to old merengue—and they whirled around and she felt as if she were in a trance, she felt a way she had thought was a book lie but which wasn’t. In public when they danced people cleared away, leaving them an inequitable amount of the floor but also in a rubbery halo of shame, pride (consequent upon the shame and so inane) and clinginess.
“Let’s go,” Henry said. Across the valley that their mountain dissolved into, on top of another one, was a stone tower with a crenellated top. “What’s that?” He asked.
“A tower,” Jasper said. “Let’s look it up when we get back.” She moved out in front again and he followed, putting his skis where hers had been for luck. Beside the trail lichen grew on some rocks—the spongy plants blazed out green and variegated, shining from all their crooked cells.
“I wouldn’t have seen these,” Henry thought, “otherwise.”
In a short file, in bright windbreakers with striped sleeves, they ascended.
Susanna and Tom Cadwallader sat on a stone bench at the summit, which was called Eagle’s Rock. They had walked, against orders, up the opposite side from Jasper and Henry’s trail. Susanna leaned on her husband and then straightened. Her posture never flagged for more than half a minute. Despite this, she was generally warm. Her eyes were like two blue lanterns, metal on the outside edge, and on the inner, burning.
“They don’t lead tours of the Folly anymore,” Tom said. That was the tower. It had been built by a founder for his wife, who enjoyed dressing up in medieval tunics and pretending to be an imprisoned princess. During one of her stints in jail she tumbled out the narrow window and onto the rocks. This fact was now kept out of the hotel literature. As an old-timer, Tom knew some secret things. He knew for how long the place had stayed segregated and for how long it had been close to broke. He knew who the real ghosts were—the one who shut doors and brought with her the scent of mountain laurel in June.
“They don’t have the sings anymore,” Susanna said, and thought, we are declining, we are looking only back.
“Fine day,” Tom said.
Their backs curved a bit into the rough back of the bench, into which years worth of initials were carved. Also hearts and arrows.
“Ours are here,” she said. Tom didn’t remember but she began to look, feeling also with her gloved fingers for the gouged letters. She had been thinking of songs then too, and humming one or humming a scale, while he worked the yellow-handled chisel.
“Here,” she said. She had stood and walked around the boulder the bench became. “Here.” Tom’s knees hurt but he joined her, he saw the T and the C and the S and the K (she had been Kerr). A square filled with cross-hatching covered the top curve of the S.
Susanna remembered other things too, such as a day when she and a friend had sucked at the ends of dandelion stems for the milk (clear and bitter), but she kept quiet. They had been coming here for so many years that she thought she must have remembered everything, every scene she had—an ice cream parlor in Puerto Vallarta, wide pink and white stripes on the walls and green parrots swinging in gold cages—while sitting on this bench.
“Cold?” Tom said. He rubbed her arm from the bent elbow up. Once he had gone to the Folly alone and climbed up its tiny mossed steps. At a turn, in a crevice, he’d found a broken string of beads. That was before he met Susanna. He had been small and wandery.
“Hey-y.” Jasper rounded the turn the trail made and saw them, side by side like Egyptian death casts. (Bad dog, she thought.)
“Good morning,” Susanna said. And Tom said, “Good climbing?”
Jasper used her arms to reach them, as the incline was steep; she hauled herself up, lifting and planting each pole with vigor, dislodging soft snow showers.
“Henry fell because of the ice and he’s never been before.” She was in front of them looking down. They looked up at her and Susanna’s eyes burned bluely.
“He’s not hurt?” Susanna wanted him to puff around the bend and not need help. This view, the long silver sheet of air between Eagle’s Rock and the Folly, calmed her. She did not want to move.
“I’m fine, snowy,” Henry said.
“He’s snowy,” Jasper said, nearly at once, and she smiled. They had been together for a long time.
“I thought you couldn’t hike if there are green dashes,” Henry said. He had wanted to walk up. Jasper, who liked a good rule, had become frightened; she had said, “Hen” and “Bay-bee” and “There’s a first time for-.” In the bed’s middle, each in silk long underwear (hers red, his blue), they had picked certain trails, discarded others, followed each other’s fingers tracing curlicues on the map.
“We’re a bit illicit, I’m afraid.” Tom brushed snow from Henry’s flank. “Can’t stop hiking this way, we’ve done it so long.”
“No.” Jasper wanted to make friends. “Such random rules.”
“Not at all,” Susanna returned from her air-swimming. “The rules make perfect sense, because walking damages the tracks, you see; every morning a staff person lays in the tracks and naturally they don’t want them ruined.”
“I meant aggravating.” Jasper was unused to accuracy.
“Perhaps I misheard,” Susanna said. She was used to proper usage.
“What is that tower?” Henry asked. He had followed Susanna’s gaze out to it and back.
“The Folly?” Tom sounded as if there were another tower, or several, but Henry couldn’t find them.
“That one,” Henry pointed.
“A founder built that tower and his wife enjoyed spending time there. She was a history buff in her way. He thought it would be good for surveyors, birdwatchers, nothing so fanciful.”
“Oh?” Henry was a medievalist. When people looked surprised he said, “what” as a statement. The looks sometimes meant “black men cannot become scholars of medieval history;” sometimes they meant, “a what?”
“They used to give tours, they would list them on the board, but they’ve stopped.”
“Oh?” Henry wanted to go on a tour.
“Umm--vacation?” Jasper said. She did not want to tour a tower. “Henry’s a historian,” she said.
“But the wife fell out one day, I’m afraid,” Tom said. “She fell onto the rocks.” Jasper and Henry glanced at one another. We didn’t want to know that, the glance said.
“We’ll just sit here for awhile,” Susanna said, the words like a dish of hard candy passed around, something in it for everyone, a sour lemon, a coffee, a tangerine.
“I’ll follow you now,” Jasper told Henry; he walked to where the tracks led down and placed his skis in them. “Good morning,” he said to the Cadwalladers, who smiled. “Bye,” Jasper trilled. He started, feeling the skis slither over ice patches, feeling them stall when the snow was thin over the inches of pine needles underneath.
Tom held Susanna around the waist as they continued to sit. Soon she held him too and they leaned into each other for more warmth. Her balaclava, which she had knit herself from aquamarine merino wool, was moist by her mouth.
“Martha will be back,” she said. Their daughter had gone to Peru to work in a village without a doctor. Her letters came on blue paper.
“We’ll see,” he said.
By the time Henry and Jasper reached the bottom, Henry was in stride; the branches with their snow burdens went past like arms full of rhinestones and quartzes, the lichen went past, and the spaces between the trees.
“Let’s go again after lunch,” he said and Jasper laughed. They put their skis on their shoulders and looked like other skiers who had done the same. On the hotel’s porch, in the part of the ell that did not hold rocking chairs, was a series of pegs that held equipment. Jasper bundled theirs together. They went to change before lunch, pleased by the paw-shaped water stains their boots made.
“Sorry,” she said, when they were in their room. She was in the room’s rocking chair. (Rockers appeared behind most opened doors here, as if the need to reflect and move a bit might strike at any time.) Her turtleneck made her face loom especially, Henry thought. “You can go on the tour of the tower,” she said, “of course.”
“There is none,” Henry said.
“We’re not in a fight?” Jasper rocked a little with her stockinged feet flat.
“No,” Henry said.
“Yeah?” Jasper felt grateful. Henry held her face between his hands and she felt that way but more.
“I am not always in a fight when I think I am,” she thought. To him, she said, “I think Susanna’s eyes are like lamps.”
“Yours are prettier,” he said, and she said, “thanks.”
On the way downstairs, Henry asked about the PJ Harvey tickets.
“I forgot,” she said. “Let’s call Trina.”
“They’re gone now,” he said.
“We’re too old.” Jasper thought maybe she had forgotten to buy the tickets on purpose. Age-appropriateness was one of her rules. She didn’t like it, she just had it.
A lively fire was burning when they arrived in the main dining room. Its flames stretched up to the flue, becoming thinner there and transparent.
“By the window?” Henry said, and Jasper said, “yeah.”
No one had stopped them from entering or had suggested that the other room might be more comfortable. They thought jointly that last night’s dinner was an aberration, that a new girl had been working. (“Let’s try downstairs, hm?” She’d said, smiling demonically. “You’ll be more comfortable there.”)
“This is nice,” Jasper said when they’d filled their plates from a long buffet and sat down again. “Nice mashed and nice gravy.” She dipped buttered bread into it until Henry put a hand on her wrist. That moment, when he touched her, was the one when people looked at them, but no one now did. Instead, Jasper looked at the others, at the triplets in red overalls and the teenaged boy with an odd hat. Gazing at the entrance, she saw Susanna and Tom enter, and Susanna’s gait was a little off; she seemed to hear a down beat in her head.
“Hide,” Jasper told Henry. “Hide Hen, for real.”
“Can I . . .” Henry said. He left out “ask” because this was what he always said.
“I don’t want to sit with them and I don’t want them to see us and be forced to come over.” Jasper ate several large bites of potato.
“We’re at a two-table,” Henry said. Jasper swallowed and drank some seltzer.
“Oh yeah,” she said.
“I can’t hide,” Henry said. “The only other black people here are the salad runners.” That was his name for the waiters who brought new trays to the salad bar and took away the empties.
“You know what I mean.” Jasper noted that the window curved here too, as it did in the other dining room. In daylight the view held columns of pine trees in scraggly lines, a few deep, backed by a low mauve range of hills. She thought of the way the air had taken her when they’d arrived, of the steam she made breathing and the way the moonlight filled her in a rush. When people don’t stare I think human thoughts, she thought.
“Know what I think about the tumbler?”
“The tumbler out of the tower?”
“No,” Jasper said. Henry was getting an idea. He needed to write a new book.
“She dressed up in a funky conical streamered hat and a tunic, she went out there to the folly, and she imagined a prince waiting for her, and she imagined so hard that she saw him there, saw him on a horse, saw him waiting, and just fell out trying to meet him, thought she’d land side-saddle and off they’d go, boom.”
“Sorry?” Jasper tried to follow but she couldn’t. Out the window, the off-purple hills turned bluish. The sun made ladders of light on the ground.
“Maybe,” Jasper said, thinking of dancing, thinking of the trance feeling of dancing with Henry, “may be she got chorea and twirled out the window kaboom.”
“Chorea?” Answer man has a question, Jasper thought.
“Dancing mania, St. Vitus’ dance,” Jasper said. She had her own researches, she thought.
“Isn’t that a plague thing?” Henry wanted his picture to trump hers.
“It’s a random thing,” Jasper said.
“Want a glass of wine?” He asked. He did, badly.
The busboy appeared then with the pitcher and poured for Jasper, but not for Henry, who had not drunk much.
“He didn’t give you more,” Jasper said. She felt bristly.
Henry pushed his chair back so that it made noise; he put his pink napkin on the table and went to the counter lined with bottles. For a long time the place had been dry, and he had calculated the advent of alcohol to be coincident with the death of the founder’s wife. Jasper remained at the table and overcompensated. She felt it from the way her throat constricted and from the rising thud of her heart.
As Henry poured his Shiraz, the triplets made ice cream sundaes in tall glasses. Two added a cherry on top of hot fudge, but the third, with great care, drizzled butterscotch onto her vanilla-filled dish and topped it with a dollop of wet nuts. The teenager snapped his fingers into his napkin; he slouched deeply, radiating boredom. The horse couple motored to seats in the opposite corner of the room, from where they stared around, taking in images through their wide gray eyes. Near the fireplace, Susanna was cutting a piece of meat into squares. Tom saw Henry passing and smiled without opening his mouth. “Alright,” Henry thought.
“Martha would scold me,” Susanna said. She lifted a square of sirloin to her mouth.
“Martha,” Tom said, “is self-righteous.”
“I think she’s plain right.”
“I should tell him to leave,” Tom said. “Before he hates it here.”
“Do you know I was in Mexico once?” Susanna asked. “Have I told you that?”
“Yes, in Xochimilco where they cover boats with flowers,” Tom said.
“That was someone else,” she said. “Someone you knew before.”
Henry smiled at them, holding his wineglass near the base. He took the shortest route back to his table.
“Mr. Cadwallader wants to tell me something,” he said. Jasper held his hand.
“He’s a sometime thing,” Henry said. Jasper touched his cheek.
“It’s Saturday half-done already,” she said. “Let’s rest.” As they climbed the stairs to the turret, she felt that they had been living here for a very long time. Henry’s back hurt. “The more you do the more you have to do,” Jasper said when he complained. “We’ll go back out later.” I should have tenure by now, Henry thought.
In the fireplace, the logs shifted. The char of one lay in a wide stripe, hissed a little from the embers that were still alive.
“The dance tonight,” Tom said.
“I brought my red skirt.” Susanna’s pupils had constricted so that her eyes seemed wholly blue.
In their room, Jasper and Henry slept with only their fingers touching. A shift in the floorboard made the rocking chair rock back, and cold pressed at the window, where the pane was distorted and thin.
“That wasn’t you?” Tom asked. “The long barges filled with flowers that you wanted to accompany?”
“I was in Puerto Vallarta.” Susanna stood up. “I saw a parrot.”
“Well parrots,” Tom said, but he stopped himself, watching how she clamped her teeth to her bottom lip and limped (a dancing limp) out.
The library was full and so Tom and Susanna settled themselves in the winter lounge, a room with a wall of windows.
“Wintry,” she said, putting her feet on a wooden stool. Tom started to fill his pipe, remembered smoking was no longer allowed, and replaced it in a dark case.
“It’s not your business,” she said. “How they’re treated.”
“Zandy,” he said. No one had called her that in a long time.
“I know,” she said, retreating behind closed eyes. “I have been better.”
Then she and Tom fell asleep too; like Jasper and Henry, they touched their fingers together, and their hands curled like old leaves.
Throughout the afternoon, the triplets raced each other up and down the long halls. When they collided with an obstacle—taller, slower—they shook their blond heads sideways and stamped, and went on. The one who had branched out to butterscotch sometimes stopped and watched her brothers diminishing as they reached the ends of the corridors. “We’re not the same person,” she thought. And she smelled the inside of her wrist, where it joined the hand.
The horse couple made love with non-equine torpor and when they were done, he said, “did you see them?”
“God,” the woman said. “You never think.”
“But they must,” the man said. He got the top sheet from where he’d placed it on the floor and flapped it out over her. “They must realize that people can’t help it still.”
The slouching teenager walked in the woods, snapping iced sumac twigs from bushes. He held them up to the sun and saw how each swell of ice became radiant: then he threw the twigs over the edge of the cliff. He continued until a groundskeeper in an orange parka told him to “quit it now, quit it.”
“Very retro,” the kid said. He asked the groundskeeper some questions about the names of trees and went back to the main building, wanting hot chocolate.
In the halls, on the old rose carpets, sun lines made kaleidoscopic patterns. The girl triplet noticed and wanted to show her brothers but they were wrestling now. She pretended to be a referee: “No teeth,” she said. When one of them grabbed her ankle and pulled her down, she gave way with a little train-like puff.
“Not my locket,” she said. They twisted her head around by pulling on the reins of her braids.
“It’s not the same,” she said. They were both on top of her and she couldn’t breathe; if she admitted that her being with her boyfriend was exactly the same as the woman with the long red hair being with the black man who wore cool glasses, they said, they would let her up.
“It is not the same.” Could I die? She wondered She was seeing an occasional star. “Jimmy’s Honduran,” she said.
At four o’clock, Jasper and Henry and Tom and Susanna woke up.
“Mmm hmmm.” Jasper curled into a ball with her spine against Henry’s.
“I’m still skiing,” he said. The motion of it was in him, as if it were waves.
“Hmm hmm.” Jasper kept dreaming, but part of her was awake. She saw the towel stand and the pile of ski clothes in their room and she saw the long branch-filled mountain trails of her dream, she saw men dressed in mourning, she saw herself standing in a copse of birch throwing buttercups at the men’s legs. “It’s a funeral,” she said, “my dream. Or a wedding.”
“Didn’t dream,” Henry said. His legs and his back and his arms hurt, and he thought with affection of his grad student carrel, from where he had never imagined that one day he would be cross-country skiing at on old upstate hotel with Jasper.
“Stiff?” Jasper uncurled herself. When Henry didn’t answer, she said, “We have to ski more now.” They put their jeans and shirts and sweaters over the long underwear; they let the room’s door click gently behind them. Henry thought fondly of a French-cuffed shirt, a glass of whiskey, and a pronounced lack of trees.
“Jasp?” He said. They were at the landing, looking at the evening’s dropping dark blue. She let a breath stain the window.
“It’s too late,” she said, “now.” They considered each other, each dressed for more skiing.
“Let’s change.” Henry kissed the back of her hand. “Let’s start the next part of the night.” Naked, by the armoire with its walnut latch, Jasper noticed that the room had no mirrors, a thing that was fine and rooted. She got into a black velvet dress with slit sides and a lace panel on front. She put on patent leather t-straps.
Henry shaved and chose his shirt and debated between two ties.
“The gold,” she said. He took the other. When they were ready—Jasper smelling of lemon and gardenia and Henry of sandalwood and Seville orange—Jasper took her shawl, that had been Henry’s mother’s, and led the way back to the staircase. A silent promenade flowed down with them, as if by unspoken assent: the triplets in dove gray matching flannel, a small girl in a cherry-red dress, the watching couple in black like them but somehow, Jasper thought, better, apter, and more calibrated. Unlike before, the couple noticed nothing, and the children gorgeously surging around their feet and waists might have been dust.
“What a doll,” Henry said as they passed the one in cherry. The girl was tremulous and sturdy, both.
“She wobbles but she doesn’t fall down.” Jasper wanted to kiss her. She refrained. On the topic of children they were, as a couple, undecided. Separately she wanted one; separately, he did too.
Susanna and Tom had dressed more quickly and reached the main floor earlier. They were again in the library, again by a fire that was partly fueled by pine. Susanna’s nap had reestablished her in the present: she looked at everyone now, she commented on the clothing, the manner, the sort. She drank cointreau from a thin glass with tiny birdish gulps. Tom humored her. He said “mm” at the right moments. Once he turned to look at the objects of her comments. Not seeing the ‘disgrace’ or the ‘awful frump’ or the ‘dear tragic Lady Di-ette’ she’d mentioned, he turned back to face the window. Their reflections made colored rectangles through which the outline of a bough sometimes snuck.
Jasper saw them first. From the corridor, the library’s entrance shimmered, beckoning; and in it, straight, still, the backs of the Cadwalladers’ heads were dark oval signs saying “go back.”
“Turn,” she whispered. Henry hadn’t seen them yet. “Turn,” she said more loudly. They sheared away from the walking people and ended up in a bay without an overhead light.
“What,” Henry said. He wanted that drink now, and the smell of burning wood.
“It was them.” Jasper rearranged the shawl. “It was them and I don’t want to see them.”
“You don’t want them to see us,” Henry said. Jasper shrugged.
“Same diff,” she said. Her voice cracked a little. “The first Jasper loved mountains,” she added. “She would roll in the snow.”
“You’re embarrassed,” Henry said. “Miss Progress is embarrassed.”
“I’m sick of it is all.” Jasper held the shawl’s edges together and looked (Henry thought) maternal.
“Miss Progress is embarrassed to be in this fine American hotel, in this fine shrine to the American plan, with a colored man to whom she is not (through her own, I add, choice) married. Miss Progress has a secret.” He was beginning to shout and stopped himself.
“I don’t like it either,” Jasper said. “If that helps. If it helps, I hate myself too.”
“I love you,” Henry said. “Is the problem.”
They looked at their feet. Jasper’s face felt gaunt and she wiggled her shoe to liven herself up. The first Jasper never felt shame, she thought. The first Jasper cavorted. Henry remembered his mother in the shawl. The maroon fringe had brushed his head when she walked past him in it; the silk knots had smelled of camphor and geranium.
“Hen,” Jasper said. She didn’t know what to do.
“Be back,” he said. He touched her cheek with a knuckle so that she wouldn’t panic too much. Then he was gone: turned and gone, and she kept standing in the darkened alcove, as guests walked by in the lighted parts. In the lighted parts, people moved slowly. Owned the place, regal as kings.
I can’t stay, Jasper thought. She went to the library and sat next to Susanna and began, with urgency, to talk.
Henry left by the main doors. Outside, he became wrapped in blue: the trees had been dipped in it and the branches, and the ice that lay on the lake. Walking with a heavy stick made the way easier; he dug in with it, as he retraced part of their morning’s trail. At the place where the path forked, he turned. He headed for the tower they had seen, from where the founder’s wife had fallen. Blue ice. Blue lichen, blue moss sodden by moon.
Twenty minutes, thirty. He walked as Jasper had skied, forgettingly. As he got higher, so did the moon.
The Folly had no door. A Romanesque arch gave onto a dry round space where the stairs started, and he followed them up. Moonlight in thready lines began to appear as he approached the top; it seeped in through chinks between stones and fell in through the one still-invisible window. At the top, he sat down. The bench seemed never to have been moved.
“Okay,” Henry said. He was scared of heights. He counted to three and then looked out.
Blue valley, blue night peppered with stars. Across the valley, on its own stony plate, the hotel shone out and strong.
She’d sat here looking down at night, he thought. She’d imagined the new -school rider who would appear one day, on a silver horse. She would go with him, maybe to Pennsylvania or Cologne or Quebec. Then she would not be the founder’s wife any longer. Then she would no longer explain to guests the details of the American plan. Or maybe it was true what Jasper had said: a single case of chorea, the woman started dancing and couldn’t stop and danced her way out the window. To die joyfully, then. For once, at the end, to live. He began to see how the research could work: a meta-ish thing, but living. Not medieval. But this wife, this woman of the American nineteenth century, and her creation of a habitable past.
At the hotel, a bank of windows lit up. Henry figured they were in the main dining room or the ballroom. I should get back, he thought. But he stayed and looked down at the silver things and at the blue things and at them all.
“Never acknowledged it,” Jasper was saying. Susanna’s eyes were on her, as Tom said “oh yes” and “how trying” and “dear.”
He would go back soon and find her. He would hold her arm on the way in to dinner. He would think of her silly boots and her easy motion and all of her, even the bad parts. The founder’s wife though. Did she wear tunics? Did she make them all do may poles, bonfires, long mid summer’s eves?
“One’s feelings, you see,” Susanna said. “Leaping up.” Jasper leaned towards the old woman, as if she were about to bite her cheek.
Braid her hair with ribbons and mountain flowers? Did she escape?
“It may be uncomfortable for you.” Tom touched Jasper’s knee. “For you.”
Henry sat back. In no moon now, he remembered how Jasper’s face had flushed in the alcove. Her hanging head with strands of hair lifted by static. He had been calm with the saying of something he’d always known; she startled, like someone who has fallen down a hidden flight of stairs.
He would go back now. He sat; his back was cold against the stones. He would press together her two small hands.
“Different,” Jasper said, with the library’s blanket wrapped around her legs. The boots were off, the feet were up—they had convinced her to relax a little, it was still early. They had time to talk. She tasted Susanna’s drink and liked its orange flavor, no, she hadn’t ever. No. No. Would the music start before dinner and call them in? No, she hadn’t. No.
Henry looked for his shoe prints on the way down. He planted the walking stick with vigor; he felt the trees there, close, their living selves. No people was gorgeous: blue branches reaching up. But lonely. They would scrap together some way of being that contained this moment in it, this fight and this admission and this swing out of his, alone, up the cliff at night. He watched his breath turn on the air into globes.
When he got back and found her in the library, Jasper was rolled into a blanket, her feet at one end of the couch. Glazed, she looked at him. She was alone in the room.
“They tried to get us not to dance,” she said. “They were very nice and they gave me drinks and they helped me talk but they want us not to.”
“I know,” Henry said. He was the draught in the room now—bringing the outside in.
“You don’t.” She sat up and felt for her shoes.
“That’s what they do,” Henry said.
“But they’re not,” Jasper said. “They’re not like that.”
“I know,” Henry said. He found the left shoe under the couch. “Let’s eat.”
A violinist, a guitarist, and a mandolinist stood on the raised platform at one end of the ballroom. When the pianist, a woman in a print dress, arrived, they lifted their playing hands and held them still above their instruments. The pianist sat down. She fanned the pages of the sheet music back and forth. She replaced the music on the ledge. She cracked her knuckles. At her nod—so slight it was almost nothing—the music began
When the music began the guests danced and danced in wide circles.
In the frame houses along the service road, men were preparing for bed. They would scrape the hotel of rust at five the next morning, or salt the paths, or shovel.
“Buenas noches,” one said. His roommate had received bad news.
“Buenas,” the roommate said. “Que hielo hoy. Que hielo todos los días.”