Issue 35, Final Fringe

Patagonia

by Zoe Gilbert Issue 30 03.05.2012

East Dean Institute
15th September 1906

Q, Old Friend,

While I am ever grateful to you for recommending me to the research institute, I wonder what I have taken on with this project. The remittance is not quite as you described it to me. Rather than simply cataloguing, with an historian’s eye, a collection left in trust, I am set the challenge of reconstructing the whole life, in mind and deed, of the man who left this peculiar legacy. My research thus far, as you know, has led me to handle only manuscripts, and I fear I lack the delicacy of hand and the artist’s eye required to interpret these precious parcels. The institute committee members are as mystified as I am as to why someone should leave their substantial worldly goods packaged up in layers of coloured tissue paper. However, their confidence in my professional abilities is such that I must attack the task with gusto and hope to provide them with an analysis fit for publication within the allotted twelve months.

I finally began the practical work today. With some trepidation I chose a parcel from the jumbled piles, and in carrying it to the bench the first layer of tissue fell away like brown flakes of pastry. A fragment of paper drifted down and lodged on my trouser knee, stuck there, it turned out, by the oily imprint of a mouth in purple lipstick. The colour was like the one Margie used to wear, when kissing her was still a fantasy I shared only with you. I thought of her lips, still as plump as those on the yellowed scrap I held in my hand, though unadorned now, I imagine. On the other side was writing – curly, impenetrable – something in Spanish. I couldn’t read it, though I admit the lipstick stamp made the message appear obscene.

The next layer of tissue was just as brown, but came away nearly whole, like a shed skin. This time a silk stocking, as fine and brown as the paper, slid from the parcel to the floor. Again, I thought of Margie, those silken, slithery calves we have both admired but only I have had the privilege to caress.

I try to calculate, to track her voyage across the globe. No doubt she writes to you with her traveller’s tales; she could not resist an audience and alas, she and I did not part happily.

The stocking had a hole at the toe, where the fabric crunched slightly between my fingers. I was still clutching it when I woke from a reverie of kissing Margie’s small, rounded feet. I fear I have grown rusty and must relearn the discipline required to work alone and steadily.

Yours, overwhelmed but optimistic,

Richard


Hotel Los Flores
Cancun
26th September 1906

My Darling Q,

I hope this letter finds you well. I make progress, though not at the speed I had hoped. If this reaches you at all I may well be nearing my destination by the time you read it.

Does Richard write to tell you of his research? I saw the parcels before I left, rooms full of them, and I confess I laughed inwardly at the thought of him tearing his way through such mysterious wreckage. I departed without his blessing but I am grateful for the determination his obstinacy has given me to make this journey. It is not easy, but my heart’s desire is sated a little more each day.

The sky is bigger than the world here.

Marguerite


East Dean Institute
2nd October 1906

Q Old Friend,

Perhaps this crosses with your reply to my previous letter in the post. Or perhaps you are as distracted as I find myself, with your garden and your entertaining of the new undergraduates.

That first parcel was a hard lesson. I dismantled it slowly, painstakingly, fearing I may damage the thing. In truth, if damage was done it was to my confidence in dealing rationally with its contents. I will describe it to you as it illustrates in miniature the nature of my gargantuan task here.

It had nine layers of tissue paper and at every one, however ridiculous or mysterious the item that fell from it, I was reminded of Margie. Layer three contained a ladies’ undergarment in ochre silk, a shade she favoured though I blush to divulge such intimacies to you. Layer four, a pair of peach stones, still red in their pits: the fruit of our summers at the Dove House. Layer five was empty and spoke of absence. Later, theorising, I wondered whether this had been deliberate, or simply an aberration on the part of the parcel-maker.

Layer six held another letter fragment, in infuriating Spanish. Layer seven, a rabbit’s foot with the same cream fur that, you will recall, edged Margie’s cape in the days of the violet lipstick. From layer eight fell several photographs of the same exotic tree, taken from different angles. It was a kind of palm, of the type likely to be found in those faraway climes that Margie now traverses.

It all seemed a terrible, horrible coincidence that the first parcel should be full of the essence of Margie, and I was appalled at the thought of what I might find in the weeks and months of unwrapping to come. I see the logical explanation now, that I could have conjured Margie from any combination of objects while there was no other story on which to hang them. I comfort myself with the belief that once I begin constructing the story of the parcel-maker, Margie’s presence will melt away. I wonderwould you too have sensed her in that forlorn, extravagant collection of objects?

Layer nine, the centre of the parcel, was at least a prize: a stuffed seagull with a diamond ring around one orange leg. I need not remind you that Margie and I were engaged within six weeks of that first purple kiss she bestowed upon my lips.

If she sends you news of her movements, I would grateful to hear of it. She need not know that I enquire.

Your nostalgic friend,

Richard


Hotel Chimbote
Lima, Peru
28th November 1906

My Dearest, Darling Q,

We have resorted to journeying by sea, this being a slightly less bumpy and convoluted way to travel the length of Chile. I feel sure Richard would be triumphant to know this, confirming as it does that he was right not to join me on my expedition. You remember his reluctance when we enticed him onto a punt that July day? He was positively green, though the Cam is hardly riven with waves and currents. I wonderif pity had not tugged at my heart where the wine had done its work, whether I would have kissed the captain instead of the seasick passenger.

I begin my letter with ‘we’ for I have acquired a cohort of fellow explorers and very fascinating they are tooa taxidermist, a writer obsessed with birds and a third man who claims to be returning home, though we others do not quite believe him. He tries hard to disguise a Welsh accent. It will not be too long now before we reach our destination, and my soul grows with every mile of coast we pass.

I hope Richard is keeping up your long habit of correspondence, and that his project prevents his mind from wandering too much. He would never admit it, but he is one to muse on things.

Yours, saltily,

Marguerite

East Dean Institute
5th December 1906

Q, my Forgetful Friend,

Are you gallivanting amongst your eager new students? The ways of the young must be a fascinating subject for an ageing anthropologist.

I struggle with all that is new to me here. For instance, now that I have counted I believe there to be no less that 453 parcels in these rooms. I may uncover more. To date I have opened up exactly sixty of them. Cataloguing the contents is the only structure I am so far able to impose. The objects I find inside send the mind off on such flights that my careful theories unravel and crumble with the flaky crusts of tissue that are my daily bread. I am less and less sure of things; I find evidence to support none of my hypotheses about the parcel-maker. Rather, each skeleton theory I build is dashed by the next day’s findings. I doubt the ability of my own imagination to grasp that of the man behind these packages; either that or it is the work of a damned trickster. I dare not suggest this to the institute committee.

Take parcel number six, for example. This contained more letter fragments, mostly in Spanish but some, now that I have had them returned from a local language teacher, apparently in Welsh. The attempted translations by Mr Flores of these parts are questionable in my opinion but the Spanish phrases are clear and when pieced together with other fragments appear to discuss building plans. The details are frankly insane, and I would take the letter to be a joke were it not for everything else I have found in the parcels.  The writer describes a house with a miniature waterway that would pass through the rooms, allowing kitchen staff to place dishes in tiny boats to float in the current (I have not discovered how that might be generated) through small archways in the walls to be taken up by the diners when they arrive elsewhere in the house.  Empty dishes may then be replaced in the boats to continue their journey back to the kitchen.

I cannot help but imagine continually what Margie would think of such things. No doubt she would make some kind of sense of it; her inner world can accommodate the fantastical where mine rejects it. This frustration is particularly stinging now, while she is embarking on a fantastical quest with absolutely no logic to it, and I am left to decode a mind more like hers than I could have anticipated. She would adore the centre of parcel number six: a map where rivers have been pasted over with coloured ribbons, mountain ranges decorated with moss, and annotations added indicating where particular folk tales may be found. Probably she is using just such a useless guide to navigate her way South, picturing herself in fairyland.

If you find a moment to put pen to paper, I would appreciate the diversion from this whirligig of strangeness. I am sure that Margie will have reached land by now, and written to tell you of the marvels she finds.

Yours, in wretched anticipation,

Richard


La Sirena
6th December 1906

My Dear, Long Lost Q,

We are afflicted with hallucinations. Apparently the bread supplies are riddled with mould but that is all we have left on board to eat and so we may choose between sanity or starvation. Such sea monsters I have never dreamed of but they dive and lurch alongside the ship. The taxidermist is determined to catch one for his collection but the nets we have are no good for ghosts.

I am told we will reach our port within days but my sense of time has slipped away so this is neither good nor bad news. If Richard asks in his letters, do tell him I am so far successful in my pursuit of my dream.

I hope your rich life is entertaining you as much as this voyage is changing me.

Yours,

The Mermaid Marguerite


East Dean Institute
17th January 1907

Q, Old Faithful,

I appreciate your taking the time to scribble me a brief note, though I am forced to say I am less pleased by the words in it.
In my uninterrupted solitude I had achieved a kind of rhythm in the unwrapping, labelling, laying out and reviewing of my research which had sufficed me to keep Margie from haunting me too much. Or perhaps it was just that my mind has been so overwhelmed by the parcels that there has been no room to think of something as beautiful and wayward as Margie. I have enough of both those qualities around me to occupy me forever.

Your news of her time at sea and her failure to mention me at all in her letters has perturbed me deeply. I had expected her anger at our parting to subside, for distance to cast its spell. I thought she would be missing me. Did she really not ask after me at all? I realise that part of what had lulled me up until now was the small but stone-hard belief, lodged somewhere amongst all my new outlandish thoughts, that Margie would tire of her silliness and come back to me before long.

Desire and reality do not mix well but it seems Margie has still not learned this. Instead she is out there, floating in the curdled mess of a world that pays no heed to the human heart, yet still imagining she is on the right course. Poor Margie. Of course hallucinations will only play to the delusions she holds and strengthen them. I have torn parcels to shreds today. She knew I would not go with her. No sane person would embark on such a mission.

I remember the night, when she first said the word. We stood in the still, frosty air in the garden of the Dove House, near midnight, and her eyes shone with the stars. Her lips were bare then, but I still saw them as I first had, rich aubergine cushions that invited, provoked. They provoked me then. Patagonia. She said it like an incantation, trying to cast the same spell over me that the word had cast over her. It was not effective; to me it still sounds, as it did then, like some inferior type of pansy. Patagonia: the end of the earth, the limit of human understanding. Margie has never understood what philosophy really is, preferring continental flights of fancy to proper rational investigation. No wonder the idea took hold so easily in her mind.

I’m sure you would agree that she has always been riddled with giddy longings and contradictions, and you know as well as I do the danger of feeding them. I am thinking of that time when you let her believe you could read the stars and told her she would be one of the few whose destinies match their desires. How far from the truth that is now.

Yours, with consternation,

Richard


La Sirena
14th December 1906

Dearest Q,

Is it cold there? It is cold here, I write to distract myself. You are lucky; the bird-obsessed writer has begun eating his paper and this is one of the few sheets I have been able to steal away and hide in my underwear. The mouldy bread ran out and now our hallucinations result from hunger, and are not of sea monsters but cream cakes and roasted chickens. I believe I can taste one right now.

Still, we are told we will find the port soon enough and keep our spirits up remembering great feasts from our pasts. I suspect some of the taxidermist’s reminiscences are of creatures he stuffed rather than ate. For my part I described that banquet of oysters and beer you once brought to the meadow at Grantchester, though I omitted, as I did when I told Richard, the moment you fed me an oyster from your own hot mouth.

My joy at reaching Patagonia now will be beyond human expression. I wonder if you tell Richard of my adventures.

Your hungry Marguerite


East Dean Institute
25th January 1907

Q,

I am dogged in my application of the highest principles of empirical research, but I find that these parcels are making their own story of a kind, and it is one I cannot believe. I cannot detect the source of the defect – do I imagine too much, or too little, in my hunt for sense and structure? What is one to make, for example, of a square of green carpet with the impression of a wet footprint, not stained, but woven in? And in the same parcel, dried seaweed fronds, a sealskin case of peculiar proportions and inside that a collection of notes in Spanish on the correct tuning of bells?

My professional experience is proving useless against this tide of unruly fragments. Constantly my helpless mind asks what Margie would think, what deductions she would make about the infernal creator of these parcels. Even if her suppositions were preposterous and her conclusions even more so, she would have some opinion.

The only definite idea I have formed thus far is a dreadful one: that the person whose legacy is now confounding me intended – I hardly dare write it – to travel to the Southern reaches of the Americas. I can answer for myself what Margie would think of that. The plan on arrival would be to construct this house I glimpse now and again in the letter fragments, with its miniature waterway, palm garden, bell towers and endless seascape mosaics. In my dreams I wade through its rooms, always seeking a couch or a bed, but there is no soft surface to be found and my feet begin to adhere to the floor, leaving sticky footprints that will not wipe away. I hear waves crashing but from its windows see only vistas of lush vegetation.

This house is at least a clear idea that I have gleaned from the parcels. The ghosts of those who meant to live in it are more baroque, more fanciful than even its most eccentric features if the parcel contents are to be taken as an indication of their characters. There is a woman always in silk, I infer from the clothing now piled at one end of my bench, with feathers pinned in her hair and a predilection for night swimming. To my chagrin she seems to favour purple lipstick and would appear to hold the parcel-maker in such thrall that he dresses his houses so as to capture her physical charms. The footprint in the carpet is hers.

I begin to wonder if you knew what lay in store when you put forward my name for this project.

If you do write back, please share any words that Margie has sent to you. I feel anything from her may help me to gain a grip on my task.

Yours in weary confusion,

Richard


Casa del Corazón
Punta Fernández
Patagonia
February 28th? 1907

Dear, Prophetic Q,

We make losses and gains. Of my companions, the writer who loved birds is gone; the taxidermist is here in body, but his spirit leapt overboard to join the monsters he coveted. Our friend who claimed to be homeward bound struck off into forest while we slept one night.

All that was some weeks, maybe months, ago – the storm, the wreck. Thank heavens I am a strong swimmer with no fear of the dark.

The losses have been worth it. I may sound callous to you, dismissing the death of the writer, but I wear feathers in remembrance of him.

We found a house. It is my soul’s home, so much so that I need not describe it to you; simply imagine me as I truly am and you will see it. The taxidermist may be silent but he retained his powers of restoration, and together we have made this place the glory it must have been when first dreamt of.

It nestles near the coast where we landed, so we listen to the sea as we gaze out at the profusion of exotic life around us. There are birds I cannot name (the writer could have helped, but who needs names for such beauties?) that flash colour and wild songs through our windows. After much scrubbing we uncovered mosaics of that very sea that brought us here, in which monsters and dragons fly; these make the taxidermist as happy as our situation makes me. For, finally, I may live without the constraints of convention.

If I wish to take my breakfast in a bell tower, I do so. If I wish to sleep in a hammock strung between palms, then I may. In fact, this is so pleasant a way to rock to sleep that we have done away with beds altogether.

We do not speak much here, not wishing to upset the taxidermist who lost his tongue. Rather we write, and if one has a message for another inhabitant, one simply folds the paper into a boat and sends it sailing down the tiny river that runs in a meandering circuit through our rooms.

So you see, you were right: the world does match my heart. The fit is so perfect that while I remember it was you who sewed the seed of Patagonia in my mind, I believe it was the stars that brought me here. I am released from past agonies, knowing that I choose neither you nor dear Richard; rather my life is now as it should be, being mine alone. This is glorious freedom.

Besides, Richard would hate it here. I will be forever grateful that you provided something sensible like research for him to do instead, especially in a subject you knew would be so fascinating. I picture him happily logging his finds, making of someone else’s mess a neat history and footnoting it with logical explanations.

Now that I have an address of sorts, please would you pass him a small request? Ask him to send me a stick of my favourite lipstick. He’ll know which I mean, the purple one; it is called ‘Night Swimmer’.

On second thoughts, now that I have no care for discretion, I beg you to send this entire letter straight on to Richard. I would very much like him to know my fate, and my true thoughts, expressed as freely as they are to you. Richard, when you read this, try to be as happy for me as I am for all of us.

Your friend,

Marguerite


East Dean Institute
11th March 1907

Q, Old Friend,

Your envelope arrived this morning, but I confess it lies unopened in front of me. I will read what you have to say after months without word, but I fear it may be advice, or guidance on how to proceed with my research. It arrives at an unfortunate moment, for today has been a day of revelation, and I am compelled to lay out this development for you before anything can divert my mind from such welcome certainty.

I have worked through the night. As I attempted before dawn to assess the object at the centre of parcel 189, I had a kind of epiphany. Not all epiphanies are positive, but they always bring relief, and in its horrid way this one has. I wept the sweetest tears of my life.

As I sat on the floor in my dust-stained trousers and a shirt I had worn for more than a week, contemplating a scroll of parchment many yards long and decorated from end to end with grotesque sea monsters, I allowed myself the thought that has ended this endeavour for me: this should have been Margie’s research. Only her fluttering mind could have coped with this cacophony of obscurity. Only she could revel in a life that so stubbornly defies responsibility for the sake of surreality. Why, I asked myself, did you suggest me for this work instead of Margie? She lives already in that kind of dream world that stretches and shrinks, turns the recognisable into the bafflingly bizarre, and this endless onslaught of parcels would have seemed to her only an extension of that.

The moment you have finished reading this letter, I urge you to send word to Margie that she must return home. Surely by now she has reached land somewhere, and has furnished you with an address? You must press upon her the importance of this research. Flatter her if you must, though it is not flattery to say that she was meant for these parcels, and they were meant for her. Her destiny lies here at the institute. She will make her name and be recognised for her work just as we are.

I will be gracious in handing over the reins; I will even tutor her in proper annotation and cataloguing methodologies. In fact it will bring me great pleasure to do so for such a cause as this, and I dare to hope that, thus fulfilled, we could be happy again, Margie and me.

Now I have understood this, I am more contented than I have been since our halcyon days at the Dove House. You were instrumental in that, finding the place so close to your own glorious home and urging us to buy it. Do the same now. Help to bring Margie back to her fate, and in doing so bring mine to me.

When I have posted this, I will read the contents of you envelope, though I smile to think that the advice you are sending may now be redundant. I hope we will all soon be together, Margie on my arm, and the imprint of her purple kiss on both our cheeks.

Yours, in happy anticipation,

Richard

Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert

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Zoe Gilbert’s short stories have been published in Luna Station Quarterly and Halfway Down the Stairs, as well as various UK print anthologies. She also writes novels, one of which is long-listed for The Times children’s fiction competition 2012. She lives in London, where she occasionally writes fiction to complement the work of visual artists, blogs about creativity and writing, and messes about in the forest whenever she can.