by Marilee Dahlman
SOMEHOW MY SOUL got poured into an iron box and shut up good and tight. The box has a label: Sam the Scrubber. It’s true that I clean whatever the hotel manager Mr. Franks tells me to, but I am also an artist, with a thread of talent running from my brain to my hands, invisible but real. I see everything. Including what the bellboys and porters do during quiet times in the fancy dining parlor. Those boys breathe in beauty and gag out sin. They bunch up at one of the oil paintings, while I wipe tables, and I know exactly what they’re snickering about.
There is more to the painting, of course. A crystal blue waterfall, towering rocks, a dense forest dripping silver, the gold eyes of prowling creatures. Lots of mist, like the whole place is up near the clouds. A glittering comet speckles the heavy black paint at the top of. the canvas.
Grubby fingers ignore all that and go after the maiden kneeling on a granite ledge, frozen in the act of dipping a wooden bucket into the water. She is nude. Honestly, there is no good reason for that. Maybe the artist was just being artistic. To be sure, he created something beautiful. The eternal maiden is perfect, and what do the boys do? Smudge and smear, pick at the oil and flick off her body bit by bit.
This was not the first time I’d stayed in bed longer than I should, worrying about two things: my locked-up soul, and the plight of the waterfall maiden. And what could be done about either one.
Today was auspicious. Three weeks ago, like the scientists said, a real comet had appeared in the sky. This day—May 19, 1910—it would gleam the brightest. A comet in the painting; a real comet above me now. It had to be a sign. It was time to act.
I joined my family at the table for morning tea.
“The comet looks like a teardrop tipped sideways,” I said. “I would like to paint it.”
Father’s chair scraped hard on the wooden floor. He took my cup even though I hadn’t taken a sip and handed it to Mother at the sink. He went downstairs to the laundry, my brothers clomping after him.
I picked at a splinter in the table and tried to ignore the thud of hot iron below us. “The Chinese American,” I finally said. “It says the comet might be an omen of doom.”
“An omen, yes.” Mother flipped a curtain back and peered into the predawn dark. “Doom, no. A comet means a change in dynasty.”
I nodded, considering the information, while Mother went back to rinsing cups. The exclusion laws had squeezed tight, and were strictest about women. Now Mother was one of only sixty Chinese ladies in Chicago. Her knowledge concerning comets was to be respected.
“Lionel Mulgrave owns the hotel,” I said. “I heard he’s returned from his travels. Maybe the hotel will have a change in dynasty.”
Mother chuckled. “Perhaps a Chinese man will rule over all of us. Or even a woman.”
“Perhaps someone who is both man and woman.”
Mother’s movements stilled at the sink. I couldn’t see her face.
“The lo faan are acting crazy,” I said quickly. “Worse than usual.”
Mother took small, careful steps toward me, her dark eyes close and kind. She touched the old scar on my thumb. A rat bite, from when I was still a baby. After it had happened, Mother had drawn a picture of a white tiger and hung it above my cradle. The rat never returned.
“Go fast,” Mother said. “Straight to the hotel.”
I knew she was thinking of the Moy laundry, broken into last week.
Drawing tigers could not solve everything.
“Don’t speak to any lo faan.” She paused. “Except Margie,
I hustled downstairs and through the humid ground floor. My father and brothers sweated over the sloshing wooden tub and scrub board. Damp shirts heaped the ironing table, bare lightbulbs dangled from the ceiling and folded clothes wrapped in paper stacked the shelves. Hot soap scent stung the inside of my nose.
A small altar to our ancestors was fixed to the side wall, along with photographs of relatives—mostly weddings—and a few of my paintings and drawings, wrinkled and splotchy. I grabbed my paint box. The underside of the cover showed Cupid painting a ribbon of the words, “for a good boy.” I was twenty, now, but no one could see that picture if the lid was shut.
South Clark smelled wet from overnight rain. Hammers banged, saws scraped and workers shouted, the angry clamor of buildings being forced upward. Pale light from the comet-lit street cars and carriages and the jostling sidewalk. Men all alike in low derby hats, round club collars and double-breasted sack suits stamped through shimmering puddles. If I brushed too close, they jabbed out an elbow the same way. I gripped my paint box tight to my chest, heading for the great hotels along Michigan Avenue, conscious of my flapping brown trousers, too wide, and corduroy jacket, too short.
A change in dynasty, Mother had said. Tomorrow, would I saunter down the sidewalk in shiny Oxfords, thumb on a heavy watch chain? The comet’s silver spray covered the whole sky, it was growing so close. Would it sprinkle down and remake the whole world?
I caught up to Margie a couple blocks from the hotel. She wore her checkered pink and ivory dress and patted her hair every few steps.
Her head swiveled, quick as a lizard spotting a bug. “Hi Sam.” She twitched a smile, her lips punch pink. “Did you know, a store on our block is selling gas masks? My daddy said that the comet tail is filled with cyanide.”
“The comet isn’t poisonous.”
“You think I don’t know that?” She skipped ahead and called
Nancy fell in beside her. The girls linked arms, fitting together like petals on a peony. The Royal Chicago Hotel loomed before us, a great stone palace with crumbling buffalo gargoyles glaring down. I imagined strolling next to the girls, beaming and chatty. Wearing white pumps that tapped a matching clip-clip. Snippets of Margie’s words floated back to me, mostly about which bellboys and porters were ‘going places.’
One of them, Jimmy, met us at the hotel’s side entrance in the alley.
“Girls,” Jimmy said. “Come on back to the lake.”
“Oh—is it the poison?” Margie’s voice sounded higher than normal.
Jimmy didn’t answer, he just grabbed her wrist.
We cut through the alley to the back of the hotel. We went past the columned veranda to where a few oak trees rose from trampled grass, and the ground dissolved into weeds, cattails and the lake. Stars still hung in the morning sky. The comet shone brighter than any of them. The water loomed vast and inky black, and each creeping wave sparkled silver.
Shadows studied the sky and passed something about. Getting closer, my stomach dropped. All porters, decked out in pink uniforms with gold-trim, laughing rough.
“Here—try ‘em.” Jimmy held out a glass jar to the girls.
The girls each took one. “Tastes like sugar,” Margie said thoughtfully.
“That’s what it is,” I said.
“Shut up, scrubber.” Jimmy shoved. My knees hit the mud. The boys closed in, and I threw myself over my paint box, knowing a bad game was about to begin.
A sharp, violent crack echoed from the hotel.
The boys froze. Margie gave a quick ‘oh.’
I looked up, and saw Lionel Mulgrave at the veranda. It was definitely him—I knew Lionel from the portrait over the fireplace in the lobby, where he was dressed in white tie, just like a prince. Now he held a walking stick, and he rapped hard on the porch’s rail, scowling.
The others scrambled toward the hotel.
Mr. Franks, the manager, joined Lionel on the veranda. Franks had a figure that Men’s Togs Catalog might call ‘corpulent.’ He patted his vest with both hands and shook his head. “Looking as pretty as cakes today, ladies,” he said as Margie and Nancy passed by.
Lionel stayed silent, his head tilted up to gaze at the sky.
I wiped off my knees and heard the porters laughing as they disappeared into the alley.
“Jimmy’s like the rest of us,” I said, loud enough for my ancestors to hear and nobody else. “He’s not going any place.”
“SAM, THE TABLES scrubbed?” Franks snapped from somewhere
I stacked the last plate and hurried into the dining room. It was empty—the waiters and waitresses were on break in the alley—and still smelled of the lunch’s fish course, codfish fried English style. Franks must have felt the same because he had opened the French doors leading outside.
It had been Lionel Mulgrave who’d added the doors, as well as marble-topped tables, inlaid with glistening mother-of-pearl. He had also crammed gilt-framed mirrors and oil paintings onto every inch of the walls. Great Plains landscapes, steam trains thundering through snow, wild mountain horses with manes flowing in the wind. The waterfall oil painting was the biggest.
I shined up the tables, getting them ready to be laden with tonight’s dinner. According to the Thursday night menu, it was vegetable soup, choice of oysters baked in shell, calf’s liver with onions, or baked beans and pork, and dessert of apple fritters with wine sauce.
A proper waiter at the Royal Chicago Hotel, Mother always wrote to family in China. He wears a pink-striped bow tie and soon he will open his own restaurant.
Jimmy and the other porters sauntered in from the back hallway and stopped at the painting. Jimmy’s finger went up and rubbed the canvas. The rest smirked and snorted like they’d never seen it done before. The pack headed into the kitchen.
I finished the tables and went to the painting. The hard oil of the maiden’s body was chipped and worn, but her profile remained regal. Gold clasps coiled up her black hair. Delicate mist from the cascade rose around her. The dark forest of fir and spruce, lit by the streaking star, looked so real--exactly like the comet above us now. The maiden herself must have been someone, long ago.
“I will help you,” I whispered.
“Sam!” Franks rapped his knuckles on a table.
I rushed over. Franks pointed at a bloody smear on white marble. “People like you are hard workers.” He frowned, and his heavy nose wrinkled and reddened. “But you have to stay clean.”
It wasn’t that I was dirty. My hands were raw, my nails cracked. They never had time to heal all the way. I didn’t say anything. On this day, what I had planned, it wouldn’t do to make Franks suspicious. I just nodded until he puffed his cigar and strolled into the kitchen, shaking his head.
I stared at the red stain. The blood was so dark I could hardly believe my body held that liquid, that its coursing made my feet ache. I squeezed my bloody finger and watched more spill onto the marble. People only saw me on the outside. Inside, my bones and organs and muscles were painted a thick, gleaming red.
AFTER DINNER, I hunched up in the shadow of a burr oak by the lake. The comet’s radiant light grew stronger, stars twinkled farther beyond, and oily darkness spread everywhere else. I squinted and searched for silver galleons flying among the stars like ships on black water. I could see myself on a flying ship—I’d clamp a straw boater on my head, lean out to collect stars like dimes and toss them into lakes on new planets for luck.
I bided my time until I felt too jittered up to wait any longer. The staff entrance was always unlocked, so slipping inside the kitchen
was easy enough. My paint box was where I left it: the back of a cupboard stacked with copper pots. I ran a hand over the red-tinged, varnished wood.
The dining room felt foreign now that it was dim and empty. A veranda door stood ajar. Shadows lingered in the garden, stargazing, laughing, clinking glasses. Close enough I could smell the liquor.
I stood before the painting, and had to decide: erase the maiden into the mist, so she wouldn’t be exposed and toiling forever? I had cerulean blue and zinc white. Mixed together, it might provide a luminous effect that would work well with the cascade. Or fix the chips and smudges, and restore the perfection of her body? For that, I would need my brown paint, something I was always reluctant to use, as I’d heard that brown pigments were made from ground up Egyptian mummies. If I had any red, I could dress her in a modest qipao, like a bride.
I flipped open the box and squeezed brown paint onto the mixing tray. A careful dab of yellow. I licked the camel hair brush to a point with my tongue. I swirled the paint, pursed my lips and planned my stroke.
The light changed.
In that first moment, I thought someone had turned on the chandeliers. But that wasn’t it; the glare was too severe. The painting’s wooden frame gleamed silver. The comet, the forest, the maiden—they all glowed. I touched the paint of the mist, almost expecting a fairy dust to come off on my fingertip.
A footstep behind me.
I knew I should turn. Look about. But something had moved on the canvas—a flickering shadow in the trees, or maybe a dew drop sliding down moss—
Stabbing darkness and angry voices, pain exploding low on my spine, needles bouncing between my temples, black blots and white streaks bursting under my eyelids. My paint brush and box clattered to the floor.
My head, how it smarted! But only one thing mattered.
The maiden had moved.
Slowly, she placed the bucket at her feet. Her form, now fluid, turned toward me. I drowned in heavy mist, my limbs molded to lead, and with each breath I inhaled the aroma of living green—rotting bark, wormy mud, cold water on rock. A bird shrieked and a hissing white tiger emerged from the forest.
Something yanked me back. I saw the copper ceiling and dark chandelier, and the thought fogged my brain that I must grab my paint box, and run, just run. More twisting about, and jumbly flashing images—Margie in a doorway, half her face in shadow, wet shoe prints on the floor, and there—through the windows, beyond the veranda and the lakeshore, on the water itself—
Just a glimpse, but I saw them distinctly. My ancestors strolled on the lake’s surface, backs straight, faces smiling, all utterly handsome. Women in full-sleeved robes embroidered in white lily and orchids, sashes of crimson silk, jade necklaces and tasseled headdresses. Men in Imperial uniforms emblazoned with golden thread badges of peacocks and cranes. My living family had been generous in blessings—our ancestors were happy and wealthy! They beckoned me with their hands and smiles. And more animals! Four shining white tigers trotted at their feet.
Four tigers. Four, the number of death.
My ancestors were mature, distinguished. Old. Each a shell of man or woman, the same form they had been in life.
My body fought the shadows, and my spirit spun toward the waterfall maiden.
A final burst of pain—a glimpse of tin paint tubes on the floor—then spray hit my cheeks, my feet landed on rock, and raw, dark wild surrounded me. The maiden’s icy breath brushed my face and slipped down my throat. The skin on my hands slid off in tiny pieces. Velvet black sky veiled my eyes. I gagged on smooth, curving ferns and green tangy weeds, choked on the waxy red bud of a wildflower and its sticky inner stem. The maiden’s damp fingers ran down my temples, seized my neck, scraped muscle from bone, each caress colder, until flesh formed again.
Floating waves of comprehension that I was freezing, naked, paralyzed.
At first, my eyes searched for her. Then I understood—my hair, now long and thick, was clasped loosely off my neck. My hands held a bucket. I was kneeling to collect water.
TREES GLOWED EMERALD, wind rattled black branches, wild creatures screamed. No sunrise purged the starlit gloom. I was the maiden—and beautiful—or so I heard, when that single, splendid word sometimes penetrated my primordial world. I was stranded in this savage forest, and somehow on display. My life was as trapped as ever. Nevertheless, I reflected that in my new form, even a tiger-clawed death would be supple and gorgeous.
Years disappeared into the cascade’s mist.
THEN AND ENERGY flared, an unrelenting longing, which I recognized
because I had once felt it myself. My muscles heated, and I turned my head and beheld a woman, her face marked by illness, peering intently at the canvas.
Come closer, I willed. Touch the canvas, the barrier between us, and touch me.
Her finger grazed my shoulder, and the weight of freewill buried me. Paint, and some other liquid—something alive—slimed over my skin, bubbled over my lips and ears, and my clammy body fell through the canvas and slick feet hit marble.
Dead quiet. The sterile scent of musty paper. A fumble with the woman’s garments heaped on the floor, a realization that I wore my old body. Surrounding me, marble-wrapped elegance—oil paintings on the walls, including the waterfall painting itself, immense and boldly colored, exactly as I remembered. Even the waterfall maiden was the same.
You had wanted paradise and beauty, I thought, staring at the maiden and thinking of the scarred woman. The vibrant green foliage contrasted with her angel’s wing glow of her skin. Now you would have it.
A tiger brushed against my leg. We padded through lofty stone chambers filled with paintings, worn blue velvet benches, and bronze statues missing limbs. In a hall of armor and weapons, a memory of terror—fear of bright-eyed Margie, and fear of men. I outfitted myself in an iron breastplate and helmet, and draped a bright red banner over my shoulders.
Outside, a hard dawn, harsher still with a comet streaking close above and a blinding, bone-yellow sun beyond. An apothecary smell blanketed a city bleached white. I clanked down a cracked street littered with glass shards and shining bent spires. Long-limbed and graceful city citizens roamed like wraiths, heads down, patches of ashen scalp showing through chalky hair.
The hotel was gone and soaring glass rectangles with pitted domes crowned the shore. A ripped wire fence caged the lake. The water
lay lime-green and calm, fine silk unfurled as a gift. I tried walking on it, as I’d seen my ancestors do. Instead, I plunged deep into the lustrous green.
WHEN I EMERGED without my armor, others ascended with me, creatures human but neither man nor woman. There was no city, no language, no understanding except that sun ruled the day and stars ruled the night. Our earthly reign began in a firelit cave. With ochre and charred bone and wood we painted the walls brown and black and dusty red, creating birds, trees, spears, and also tigers, which we now worshiped.
Soon we painted ourselves.
“I SAW OUR ancestors.”
“A new people were born from a glowing green lake.”
Mother frowned at that. I was in bed, mind afire with pain and
recollection—Margie’s white arm raised, finger pointing, the squeak of shoes on the floor, men’s grunted words—private property!—kicks, blows, darkness.
Soft yellow filtered through the window. Warm light, nothing like the glare of the comet.
“You’ll stay here and work downstairs. Very safe.” Mother touched the scar on my thumb. “My beautiful son.”
A few days later I felt well enough to stand and squint at myself in the mirror. A purple welt swelled above my eye. Most of the bruises throbbed on my side, under my clothes, where nobody could see. I limped downstairs and through the laundry, ignored my father and brothers’ late afternoon sweating labor over the tubs, Mother’s cry from her corner chair, mending on her lap.
The hotel was still there, dominating the street in twilight. I heard pans clatter and bang as I passed by the staff entrance. Mr. Franks barked something. I crept down to the shore, keeping to the shadows of the oak trees.
The lake was dark and rough. No ancestors, no tigers. The comet
“A change in dynasty.” I shook my head, picked up a rock and threw it into the water, pain shooting up my ribcage. “Nothing changed.”
I went to pick up another rock, and stopped short.
A broken paintbrush lay in the mud. My heart pumped blood that was ice cold. Nearby, closer to the water, a tin tube of zinc white. I could imagine my paint box sailing through the air—see it clear as day—someone tossing it with a guffaw, the box hitting the water with an abrupt plop. Anger spread along my spine, soaked my brain, a vacuum like the oblivion that surrounds the stars. In this world, some of us are stars, most of us are the dark nothing in between. The comet had arrived and disappeared and taught me that.
I picked up my zinc white and stormed back to the hotel, gripping the tin tube so hard its edges bit into my palm.
At the alley, I was just in time to see Margie leave.
“You’re nothing, Margie. Same as me.”
Her head jerked toward me. “My daddy says that people like you dishonor honest labor.” Her bright eyes quickly looked away and she strutted off, her white heels sliding a bit in the alley’s gravel.
Franks came down the short concrete steps next. He cleared his throat and stabbed his cigar in my direction. “Got enough scrubbers, boy. Don’t need trouble like you.” He clamped the cigar back between his lips and fished a key from his vest pocket.
I hurled myself forward, scooting inside, pain darting up an ankle and my side not feeling so good, either. I scrambled through the kitchen, through the dining room—past the waterfall painting, still there, and I knew it would exist long after all of us, wielding transformative power so much stronger than the simple, careful blend of colors on canvas—but I kept going, because I belonged in this world, and I knew what I wanted to do.
I strode into the back hall, slipped through a side door into the promenade, and followed it until the hotel lobby in all its gold and scarlet opulence spread out before me. A bustling night, with ladies in finery at the balcony, trunks and suitcases piled at a wall, an angry guest confronting the desk clerk, and at the far end of the room, men smoking cigars at the fireplace. Above the carved mantle, the great portrait of Lionel Mulgrave.
And there—halfway down the grand staircase and dressed in
evening black, holding his silver-tipped walking stick—Lionel himself.
Lionel halted when he saw me. His free hand gracefully went to his chest, his fingers long and still, like he was posing for a portrait.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Franks said from behind me, not sounding sorry at all. “I’ll remove him.”
“I will paint you.” I took a step up the stairs. Lobby chatter continued all around. I bit my lip and added: “As you truly are.”
Lionel gave a short laugh. “And what does that mean?”
He tilted his head, his gaze fixed on me, and I thought of glinting dark metal. If I ever painted his eyes, I would need a whole tube of cool, deep black.
Lionel continued down the steps and stopped in front of me. Close enough to smell his scent of cloves and cedar. He studied me like he had all the time in the world, then looked at his portrait above the fireplace. “Well,” he said finally, giving an elegant, one-shouldered shrug. “Perhaps.”
Franks made a disagreeable sound in the back of his throat. “This fellow Sam was among that mob of porters, he was defacing—”
“He can help with luggage.” Lionel chopped a hand at trunks piled against the wall. He adjusted his tie, and strolled across the lobby, his narrow back to both of us.
Franks frowned and shook his head.
“I’m not a porter,” I said. “I’m an artist.”
“You’ll have to be a porter,” Franks said. “He fired the rest.”
WEEKS LATER, LIONEL left for London. Or perhaps it was Prague. Either way, I’d not painted him yet. He would return, he said.
I had accepted the porter position. At work I wore a salmon pink uniform, gold braid down each leg and at the shoulders, a stiff high collar and matching cap. I looked like I was going places.
One evening after my shift ended, I found a quiet stretch of lakeshore. The water was now tranquil summer blue. I flipped open my sketchbook and turned a charcoal pencil over in my fingers, planning my stroke. I would draw the lake, I decided, just like someone long ago had once painted the paradise waterfall and the maiden. But how to show the lake’s dark depths, with ancestors above that can’t always be seen? How to show earthly brutality and a gleaming, dead city?
Something easier, to begin. Calm water. A maiden on the shore.
I would draw myself.
Marilee grew up in the Midwest and currently lives in Washington, DC. Her other stories have appeared in Cleaver, The Colored Lens, Five on the Fifth, Metaphorosis, and online at The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.
© 2020 Marilee Dahlman