“The Coast of New Zealand,” by Cynthia Ozick | #missingkids


To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

—Walter Pater

The last time George and the three women met, it was on a warm October afternoon in that same small Greek restaurant, with bluish fluorescent lights overhead, in Stamford, Connecticut. Their knees were crowded under the tablecloth, and inadvertently rubbed one against another. Though they all wore glasses (Ruby was seriously myopic), even so it was difficult to read the menu.

“Nice,” George said. “Gives the place the feel of a modest bordello.” And only Evangeline laughed; Olive made a face, and Ruby sighed in disgust, but it was merely to tease. Not that it escaped him that behind the ribbing was an old and avid jealousy; they adored what they could not attain. He had decided on Stamford as the geographical midpoint of their reunion, he told them, because it was equidistant from wherever their fates might eventually drive them. It was the very center of the planet’s fragile equilibrium. But why, they asked, this unprepossessing eatery smelling of fried eggplant? Because, he said, the eggplant is earth’s most beautifully sculptured fruit.

The four of them had been at library school together, and had exchanged clandestine notes in a course on the History of Books, which George, one of three males in the class, had named Spinsters 101. The two others he called Mouse One and Mouse Two. The notes were all about George, and George wrote notes about himself: “six feet two, brainy, unusual.” Or else: “early balding, doomed to success.” And once, nastily: “Lady librarians never marry.”

By the time they graduated, he had slept with all of them.

They had long ago forgiven him, and also one another. And they had all agreed to abide by the Pact—George’s invention. Its terms were simple enough: once a year they were to gather at this very spot, if possible at their usual table (but they must insist on this), the one closest to the kitchen. All correspondence, any exchange of any kind in the long intervals between meetings, was forbidden. Tales of dailiness and its intimacies, their cluttered lives, their tiny news and parochial views were never to be the object of their coming together. Consensus was forbidden; the Pact was a treaty of solitary will. “Our interest,” he explained, “lies in extremes. Abhor the mundane, shun the pedestrian. Cause the natural to become unnatural.” And then this: “What is our object? To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism. To know that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” He spoke these words with the portentousness of Laurence Olivier as Henry V rallying the troops on St. Crispin’s Day.

They were sensible women, and took it as the joke they believed it was meant to be: to live life as a witticism. As a feat. As an opera. But it was also an Idea, and George was a master of ideas. They had their Idea, too: they were committed feminists, despised patriarchy, and loathed what they could instantly sense was male domination. George was exempted from such despicable categories. He was a schemer of witchcraft. His brain was neither male nor female. It was, they understood, a vessel of daring, and they had only to climb aboard to feel its oceanic sweep. They were not four, or three, or two. They were, counting George, One.

He had been drawn to them, lured by those dusty old curios—their preposterous names. It was as if they had been situated together the way artifacts similar in the taste of an era are collected in the same museum vitrine. It must mean something, he said, that you are all named for grandmothers or great-grandmothers.

“Well, what does it mean?” Ruby asked.

“He thinks we’re ghosts,” Evangeline said.

But Olive said, “It was just the way the schedule worked out. We were assigned to the same class in the same room at the same time. It was bound to happen.”

“What a pedant you are,” Evangeline said.

Evangeline’s grandmother’s name was, in fact, Bella, but she let the misapprehension stand. She had no wish to admit that she was stuck with Evangeline because it was her grandmother’s favorite poem. Still, nothing could prevent George from declaiming the first twenty-two lines of it, which he had, in hoarse and secretive breaths, by heart. The rest of them could remember only the opening words: “This is the forest primeval.” Nowadays nobody quoted Longfellow, or even knew who he was. And they were all dumbstruck by George’s acrobatic memory. This alone set him apart.

It lasted—the Pact—four years. Or it might have been four, had the Greek restaurant with the bluish fluorescent lights not in the interim been replaced by a used-car lot.

On that fourth year, only Evangeline showed up.

“It can’t be a Pact if it’s only the two of us,” Evangeline said. “A Pact has to have several parties, like the Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the Triple Entente. It can’t be just us.”

They walked around the block, looking for a coffee shop. It was a shabby neighborhood, battered stucco houses with high stoops, noisy ragamuffins with their sticks and balls.

“Ragamuffins” was George’s word. Evangeline noticed that he had taken on something like a British accent, though not quite. He looked different. Not that old student outfit, sweatshirt and jeans and no socks. He wore an actual suit, with a surprising vest that had a little pocket for an old-fashioned watch on a chain. The jacket was a showy tweed, with outmoded leather patches on the elbows and pimpled all over with forest-green nubbles. The patches were a bright orange worthy of parrots. His tie was diagonally striped, and it, too, had the look of obsolescence. He’d acquired the suit in New Zealand, he said, to look more like the New Zealanders. They were notorious swimmers, and in summer went about half naked, but otherwise they dressed like peacocks.

In the end, they found a dirty little park, more concrete than leafy, and sat on a bench sticky with bird droppings. But it could not be avoided: they spoke of the mundane and the pedestrian and the parochial—what had become of the defectors. Ruby had found a job as the librarian of an elementary school in an obscure Ohio town (population 1,396). Olive, who had settled in Chesapeake, Virginia, was already the mother of two little boys, and worked part-time in the local branch of the public library. She was no longer Olive; she had changed her name to Susan—talk of the mundane! And even Evangeline, who hadn’t defected and remained loyal to the Pact, had to acknowledge that she was more chauffeur than librarian. She drove a green truck outfitted with bookshelves to a far weedy corner of the Bronx, on the odorous edge of rusted railroad tracks.

But George had emigrated to New Zealand. His position there, he said, had a future. Though he was now on the middle rung of a great university library in Auckland, in five years, he predicted, he would be its director. It was an ingenuity of foresight that had landed him in the very first library to digitize, not only in New Zealand but in the world at large. New Zealand was a model, and it was in connection with this revolutionary transition that he had been sent as a liaison to New York on an errand that required discretion. His value was recognized. The director had arranged for him to stay at the Waldorf, certainly to facilitate meetings but also for his personal comfort.

Evangeline herself had an unexpected story to tell. In that forlorn neighborhood, where on Friday afternoons the clusters of children and their mothers were congregated under umbrellas (it seemed always to be raining), waiting for the green truck and its cargo, she, too, beheld her imminent good fortune. She had seen surveyors’ chalkings on the pavements around a disused old comfort station, marked for renovation. It was a low handsome concrete building in the style of a Greek temple; weathered carvings of Hygeia, the goddess of health, and Amphitrite, the goddess of waters, ran across the frieze below its pediment. From the look of it, you couldn’t imagine that it had once housed public toilets. What it promised for Evangeline was that the truck with its dented fenders and its rain-damaged books would be cashiered, and she would soon be permitted to come indoors.

“An anointment,” George said. “From bottom feeder to kingfish.” It meant, Evangeline knew, that he didn’t think much of her prospects. She was letting down her solitary will.

They abandoned the bench and walked together to the train station. According to the Pact, its adherents were obliged to disperse immediately after the completion of the proceedings of the reunion; no one was to spy on the destination of the others. But it couldn’t be helped: they had to board the same train, and because of the rush-hour crowding had to sit in the same car. George was heading for Grand Central in Manhattan to get to the Waldorf and Evangeline for the Fordham stop in the Bronx. They had even found seats directly across the aisle.

Leaning over, Evangeline asked, “But we still haven’t decided where to meet next time. Or when.”

“Same date as always.”

“How do you know you’ll be able to come? Supposing the university doesn’t send you?”

“As it happens, I have another reason. A family reason. I’ve told you about my uncle.”

He had. He had told all three of them at their very first meeting in the Greek restaurant; he had told them every jot and tittle of what he called his blighted yet colorful bloodline. His parents were suicides. Side by side, like Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, in Petrópolis, they had taken poison. He was then a child of two. He knew nothing about it for years, only that his mother and father weren’t really his mother and father: they were his great-aunt and his great-uncle. They were both very old, and his aunt was dead. In their prime, they had been vaudevillians. Their closets were packed with stage apparel. George often had his dinners in the wings. The Waldorf was agreeable, he admitted, but he’d much prefer to stay with his unregenerate uncle, at ninety-nine still hankering after a gig.

None of the others had known where Petrópolis was. Olive guessed Greece, but Evangeline said, “Two suicides? One would be excessive, but two is exorbitant.”

Ruby asked, “Is that Oscar Wilde?”

“Evangeline, how heartless you are,” Olive said. Still, George didn’t mind: the uncommon was his legacy. It was what he sought. He knew he was a sport, a daring mutation. He took his stand on the precipice of life, and, if Evangeline wanted to mock, it was all right with him. He knew it was out of envy.

The train was rattling into the station at Fordham.

“Hello? Hello? I think you’re on mute?”
Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

“Fine,” Evangeline said, “same date, but where?”

“Same place.”

“But there’s nothing there!” she called as she stepped out of the car.

“There will be,” he yelled back.

The newly constructed library had a laboratory look, sleek and metallic. It betrayed everything library school remembered. Gone were the wood-panelled walls, gone were the wooden drawers with their rows of handwritten index cards. Gone were the pencils with those overworked rubber date stamps on their tails. And gone were the footprints of winter boots (here they left no marks on the all-weather carpet), and, in summer, gone was the staccato creak of antique fans as they turned their necks from side to side. Instead: rows of computers with their cold faces, air-conditioners, and their goosepimpling blasts. Polite young men with research degrees—Mouse One and Mouse Two—behind steel desks. Because of the double-glazed windows you could never smell the rain.

Evangeline blamed Hygeia and Amphitrite for permitting this invasion; they had since been removed as unfit for a contemporary building. The plumbing was new, the temple bare of its goddesses. Its visitors were called, condescendingly, customers, as if they were coming to argue over the cost of tomatoes in a market. The children’s room was located in what had been the women’s toilets, far from the hushed center. And, unlike the shrieks and the tumult that had greeted the green truck when it veered into view, here it was disconcertingly quiet. Many of the customers seemed to be hobbyists, or half-insane cranks catching up on their sleep, or lonely browsers searching for spiritual succor.

The more typical customers came and went with their emptied plastic grocery bags newly loaded, but the hobbyists were the most persistent. They would arrive at ten in the morning and sit at the reading tables until four in the afternoon. They were mostly elderly widows copying needlepoint patterns, or genealogical enthusiasts hoping to find a royal ancestor, or back-yard farmers who grew potatoes in pots and were looking into the possibility of beekeeping.

But one of these oddities appeared to be a generation younger than the rest, and turned up only one day a week, generally not long before closing. He was of middling height and habitually carried a worn canvas portfolio. He wore a seaman’s cap—an affectation, Evangeline decided, meant to counteract mediocrity. He would spend no more than half an hour with a writing pad and—this was notable—a child’s box of crayons, gazing at colorful photographs in sizable volumes and making notes. His subject was birds, she saw, each time a different bird. His drawings were moderately talented. He used every crayon in the box. Though he always arrived late in the day, he rarely overstayed; but once, hurrying to pack up when the lights were already switched off, he left behind one of his papers. It had slipped from the table to the floor, unnoticed.

Evangeline picked it up. It was a picture of a bird with pink legs and yellow breast feathers, and under it, in capital letters, “SMALL-HEADED FLYCATCHER.”

“I saved this for you,” she told him the next time he came. “I thought you might be missing it.”

“It’s extinct,” he said, “so it’s really missing. You can only see it in Audubon.”

“Are you an artist?” she asked, though she doubted it. He didn’t have the look of an artist. He said he was interested in bird-watching, and it was only his amateur’s illusion that he might some day spot an actual small-headed flycatcher. It turned out that he was a math teacher in a nearby high school. She asked him, politely, what subjects he taught. Elementary algebra, he said, intermediate algebra, geometry, trigonometry, spherical trigonometry, and, for the advanced students, introduction to calculus. His recitation was insistently precise.

After that she dismissed him as intolerably earnest. Even his drawings of each minute nostril hole in each beak testified to dogged monotony: beak after beak after beak, all with those tiny black specks. But he began arriving earlier, and lingered on, and now and then he approached her desk to display his latest work.

“This one,” he explained, “is a blue mountain warbler, and look at this eastern pinnated grouse, it’s really a species of prairie chicken. They’re both extinct. Did you know what a butcher Audubon was? He killed thousands of birds to lay out their carcasses to paint.”

And then he invited her to go bird-watching on the coming Sunday.

Looking up from her keyboard (Evangeline, too, was now digitized), she choked down a laugh. Was this middle-sized fellow in a seaman’s cap courting her?

“I have an excellent pair of binoculars,” he told her, “manufactured just outside of London. Very old firm, same outfit that makes the insides of grandfather clocks.” He held out his hand in formal introduction. “Nate Vogel. Unfortunately, my name is a coincidence.” And he added, in a voice she recognized as teacherly, “It means bird, you know.”

Evangeline glanced down at her computer screen to check the date. September 26th. In three weeks it would be time for the Pact. She had already consulted her “Atlas of the Seven Continents” for Petrópolis (it was in Brazil), but what did she know of New Zealand? Nor would she come to George empty-handed, with nothing unusual of her own to tell.

On this ground she agreed to go bird-watching with Nate Vogel. After all, isn’t the ludicrous also a kind of fanaticism, and must not the natural be made unnatural? And anyhow, she reflected, birds are the descendants of dinosaurs.

“You’d better put on your galoshes,” he warned her. “Where we’re going the soil can be moist. It’s only a short drive.” But galoshes were what Evangeline’s grandmother had worn when it snowed, and in the stifling dry heat of late summer sandals were good enough.

Their destination turned out to be a swamp. He led her through a watery forest of waist-high yellow-haired cattails where mosquitoes hovered in swarms, and showed her how to keep her head down so as to be camouflaged by the wild tangle of vegetation all around. The air was too dense to breathe, and the mud was seeping upward between her naked toes. Small thin snakes—or were they large fat worms?—came crawling out of the nowhere of this dizzying shiver of living things.

Evangeline said, “My feet are drowning.”

“Quiet, don’t speak, it makes vibrations they can feel. See over there?” He passed her the binoculars. His whisper was as thin as a hiss. “It’s a saltmarsh sparrow, nothing special, they’re common around here.”

“What am I supposed to look for?” she whispered back.

“You have to do your homework first. You have to be prepared.”

“Prepared for what?”

“The thrill of identification.”

What Evangeline saw was a bird. It was a bird like any other bird. And, like any other bird, it instantly flew away.

“Now look what you’ve done,” he said. “I told you not to speak. You’ve missed everything. Now we just have to wait.”

Submissively, she handed back the binoculars. They sat side by side in silence, squatting in the wet. And then, disobeying his own rule, he explained exactly what she had missed: “The saltmarsh sparrow has a flat head with orange eyebrows and orange sidelocks and a speckled belly. The male is sexually promiscuous.” Was this a direct quote from Audubon?



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