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Mara Buck’s “The Binoculars Marked H. Houdini”

Mara Buck writes, paints, and rants in a self-constructed hideaway in the Maine woods. She hopes to leave someday. Recently short-listed for the Alpine International Fellowship. Winner of The Raven Prize for non-fiction, The Scottish Arts Club Short Story Prize, two Moon Prizes for women’s writing. Other recent first places include the F. Scott Fitzgerald Poetry Prize, The Binnacle International Prize. Awarded/short-listed by the Faulkner/Wisdom Society, Hackney Awards, and others, with work in numerous literary magazines and print anthologies. The ubiquitous novel lurks.

 

Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you her story:

 

The Binoculars Marked H. Houdini

by

Mara Buck

 

She wore her beauty as casually as she wore her clothes. She radiated purity like the halo of a Renaissance saint, an intellectual painter reducing the natural world to fractals and cubism. My own work was pedestrian, wed to a suspicion of Monet, feebly attempting to capture light, merely decorative wall coverings. I demonstrated techniques to matrons and aspiring teens and paid the bills. She exhibited in critically-acclaimed galleries. I basked in her reflection, proud to share the planet, let alone a name.

I’ve always been Michael—never Mike, certainly not Mick—only Michael. Conversely, my wife’s name changed with circumstance. Christened Louisa May loathsome to her contemporary nature, throughout childhood she insisted on Weezie. During an existential phase, she became LuLu, smoked Galoises, emoted to Piaf. As The Artist LM, she strutted about SoHo wearing men’s vintage and a fake mustache. I finally bestowed the ideal name—Diana. Goddess of the moon, the forest, the hunt. She accepted me as her worshipping acolyte. “I, Diana, do take thee, Michael. On my terms.”

*

What did she know of magic? What do I?

Sometimes greater justice swallows the innocent for the greater good; it takes more than a murmur of magic to understand the larger plan. Yet sometimes the spaces between the leaves are fully as solid as the leaves themselves. That can be a hard lesson to learn. There are places across that boundary where she and I should never have trespassed.

Northern Maine is a forest of buttressed pines, dark cathedrals orderly spaced by an unseen architect. Fungi march up the trunks, glowing candles on an altar. Black bear and whitetails guard the secrets of millennia. With each human footprint the forest groans, marshals its forces, and, ultimately disgusted, repels the intruder back to whatever passes for civilization.

Loggers wreak devastation, their operations a horror of auxiliary destruction— scurrying creatures crushed by gasoline monsters, trees ripped from their roots, powerful jaws leave splintered amputations. Fires erupt from engine sparks. Men laugh and shoot terrified animals fleeing their flaming homes. The scent of blood mixes with the fumes. The drone of metal beasts erases the sighing of the breeze through the pines. Skidder-marked mutilations spawn lunar craters from fern-covered glades. Even in this wasteland, life resurrects beauty; the forest returns—meaner, leaner, ravenous for blood.

That perfect day last year, she and I wandered into such an area of desolation.

We left early to cram the most sunlight hours into a short November Sunday. From a claustrophobic tunnel through blackened spruce, the road escalated above a plain, a spectacle of autumnal color. The goddess commanded, “Pull over, Michael! Look!” I obediently settled the Volvo into a convenient scenic turnout.

Feline fast, Diana sprang from the car, within seconds searching for a path downwards. “Quick! Hand me those binoculars. I see something moving!” Her body craned forward, one leg looped around the guardrail, straining towards her target. I hustled over, handed her our estate bargain binoculars. The huntress Diana was riveted on her prey, all else superfluous. I grabbed her as she fell forward, yanking her back over the guardrail. We tumbled together onto the safety of the gravel.

My beautiful wife elbowed my ribs like I’d mugged her. “Let go, dammit! A bear! You made me lose it! Shit!” She stomped around like a child corralled by an overzealous parent.

“Honey, that’s a horrendous drop. You could’ve been hurt.” I glanced over the edge and winced. Only blackberry brambles to break a fall. The guardrail existed for a reason.

She waved her new toy and pointed. “Sorry. I’m an asshole. A bear looked directly at me like he could see me from this distance. You try, darling. They’re terrific.”

I focused, following her point. Just crystal clear foliage. No sign of life. “Mr. Bear’s vamoosed. We scored one helluva deal on these. Only twenty bucks, but very expensive in their day.” I handed them to Diana who resumed scanning, stretched toward her quarry, on the hunt.

I myself attacked the coffee thermos, poured a cup and settled against the bumper, contemplating painting from this secure spot. No hiking, no backpacking, minimal bugs.

“Hiya, handsome. Pour me one?” Her lips brushed my cheek. Her slightest touch never failed to remind me of my subservient position. “Please?”

I groped for the elusive second travel mug and heard her gasp. “Michael…did you notice the inscription on these binoculars?”

“Yeah. Zeiss. Bausch and Lomb. Great stuff.”

“Noooo. A professionally-engraved inscription on the bridge. From W. Bausch to H. Houdini, 1915. How many H. Houdinis have you ever heard of? These are Harry Houdini’s personal binoculars! His eyes looked through these very lenses where ours have looked. How incredible!” Diana cradled the binoculars, stroking them, the goddess conveying reverence. “Harry Houdini.The greatest magician who ever lived.”

Coffee forgotten, I was beside her in a shot. She was right. In period engraving, a presentation from the head of the optical company. “Houdini did his first underwater escape in Rochester. Bausch and Lomb was located there, so it makes sense.”

Diana smiled a secret smile, clutching the binoculars tighter. “Binoculars. Such a tiresome word. Cold. Impersonal. I christen this object—Harry. Henceforth, my Harry.”

She opened the tailgate and tugged out our painting gear. “Saddle up, Michael. Time to hike into the unknown. There’s a whole world down there begging for exploration.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re not seriously considering staying here? With the car?”

“Well, seems logical. I see lots of clear-cuts. From this angle they might become a decent composition, but once we get closer they’ll be ugly. Besides they’ll be a bitch to walk through.” A weak argument, useless against her need for conquest. I was obligated to make it anyway. Our pattern. I was me so she could be whatever she wished.

“Don’t be silly. Let Harry show you how fantastic it is. Look to the left. Where the sun is highlighting. Like Eden.” She persuaded me with the cloying sweetness of a born courtesan. Another pattern. I always knew my part, remembered my lines.

The binoculars held the her warmth when I put them to my eyes. She was right. The landscape looked inviting, undisturbed. I took them down, squinted and saw tree-stumps, splintered trunks, bare earth, yet through the lenses all was lush, virgin. An illusion? Curious enough to indulge her, I nodded and locked the car.

Within minutes, Diana—courtesy of Harry—discovered a maneuverable path. Despite a couple heart-stopping skids on my account, we reached the forest floor unharmed.

Harry had deceived us. Only a few scrubby alders at the borders masked the loggers’ work. Except for that green oasis in the distance, the landscape before us was a war zone of naked gravel, excavated boulders, and exposed roots, giant claws grasping nothingness.

“Well, I guess we’ll have to walk a little farther.” Diana frowned. When the goddess frowned, the offender made amends, yet here the reality stubbornly remained—Harry had betrayed her after such a brief courtship. Still, we could see the temptation of that verdant island looming, highlit by fresh morning sun, beckoning us.

We trudged along the skidder trail, splintered spires and piles of slash haphazard, crushed, scorched, unrecognizable. Occasionally I heard crackling in the brush, careful footfalls keeping pace, but Diana laughed at my fuddy-duddy nerves.

Perhaps frightened by our voices or something else, a perfect doe leaped across the path, a ballerina without music. There should have been a family group, but we saw only the single startled female left on her own, possibly to meet her fate when the hunters returned. Clouds of flies had alerted us to bloody viscera along the trail and we’d turned our heads, walking along subdued, thinking our human thoughts.

Wolves and mountain lions are long vanished from the Maine woods, natural predators for the deer, competitors eradicated by human hunters. Omnivorous black bears will take an occasional whitetail, but bears themselves are game animals, thus supported by the sporting community, making men with guns necessary to prevent over-population. Culling the herd. Survival of the fittest. Every year a number of hunters meet their own fate in the forest. Nature always seeks a balance.

We held hands as we walked, swinging our arms like nonchalant children in a scary place. As a conjoined couple, we cast an irregular shadow that slunk behind us in the mid-morning light, crooked as a fairy tale creeping over the skidder ruts.

“Do you ever think of him, dream of him?” she asked. No name. None was needed. I knew, and she knew what my answer would be.

“All the time. He was part of us, even so briefly. All the time.”

“We could try again. I’m not too old. Not yet.”

“Diana, don’t even think about it! Way too dangerous. The doctor explained what might happen.”

“Might! Could! Nothing definite, Michael. It’s well worth any risk.”

“Risking you? Never. We’re fine the way we are. What would I ever be without you?”

“Don’t be silly. Nothing’ll happen to me. I’m the strong one, remember?” She leaned closer and pushed me off balance. I stumbled into a skidder rut. She laughed and skipped away, indeed the strong one. Diana leaped graceful as the deer, nothing fearful in her movements. I was her only pursuer and I was no threat—only Michael.

Retrieving my footing (plus a shred of dignity) I glanced up the path. In the midst of this battlefield was the oasis we’d seen clearly from the ridge—the area unscathed, Eden highlit by the autumn sun, the chosen refuge. Harry had pointed us in the right direction. Not an illusion after all. The devastation stopped abruptly at the branches of virgin trees, lacy hemlock fronds like a dense curtain guarding the privacy of an elegant estate.

The day was rabbit-warm. I remember she wore a white shirt with Mexican embroidery. Her eyes winked up at me from under a ratty straw hat and I was as in love with her as I’d been decades earlier. I held a branch aside with a silly gallant gesture and she giggled and disappeared ahead of me into the gloom, the whiteness of her shirt becoming one with the forest. Thinking back, despite everything that’s happened, my mouth goes dry with the beauty of the turn of her shoulder under that branch. Just the turn of her shoulder. Just so. I’d give everything I have left to relive that moment.

This forest exuded a cloying heat, personal, like a shared bath or clothing recently discarded by another. Beyond the outer ring of hemlocks, the space appeared vast yet simultaneously interior, like manicured royal gardens or palatial rooms. Native trees grew profusely, fall foliage more brilliant against the dark evergreens. Every leaf and needle displayed infinite colors, each color infinitely layered—I’d never understood the gradations so clearly.

“Oooh, my Harry, thank you! You’ve outdone yourself.” Diana breathed in reverence, her eyes huge, pulsating with excitement. “I could paint here forever! Michael, do you see it? Fractals. Everywhere you look. Such possibilities!” In ecstasy she twirled, face to the sky, arms outstretched, the goddess claiming her world.

When we were young and foolish, we dabbled at the fringes of hippie hallucinogens with raucous rock and roll, boundless sex, and simplistic catch-phrases best left to rough-cut footage of Woodstock. This experience was far different. Here our senses were engaged with full knowledge. Here in this Eden birds trilled opera, butterflies soared like jewels, and aromas were themselves living things, perfumes of potential. We strolled among trees, through clearings, wandering at random. Like the first humans.

Beneath a giant pine we discovered a nest of ferns piled and flattened by some creature lingering before us. A friendly, homey spot with enough open space to try the binoculars again. Diana raised them, adjusted the wheels, focused into the darkness beyond the tree trunks, started away from the lenses, squinted, stared hard in the same direction, and shook her head.

“What? Don’t they work in here?” I spoke as if within a room. The undifferentiated blue of the sky was a ceiling.

“Too dark to see anything. The light moves around. I only get a reflection of myself. Makes me dizzy.” She turned away, lay down in that nest. “I’m really sleepy.”

It was an inviting place to nap and I dropped down beside Diana. The ferns radiated a steady heartbeat that was soothing, as if I’d known it all my life. I doubt we were asleep for long.

I dreamed vividly, in the way of short naps, living within the dream, all senses alert. When I awoke, Diana was staring down with the most alluring smile.

The forest floor throbbed beneath me. Diana’s heat blazed over me, her heart racing through me—I was simply a conduit between her and the forest. No longer Michael and Diana, but primeval atoms floating on pollen motes, riding insects through the slanted light in the pine cathedral, fractals seen through another lens without time or place or planet. Minutes? Hours? Only bliss—and Diana. The longings, the cravings, went on and on until, satisfied, the world became as inanimate as a river rock once the current has passed.

Diana lowered amber eyes, smiled faintly, and I heard what seemed a purr of contentment. It occurs to me only now the effect of that forest light. Her eyes had always been a deep soft brown, but there, at that time, they were decidedly amber, and her dark hair, tawny gold. I accepted the changes readily that day. In my euphoric state I was to accept far stranger things.

I voiced a disparaging grunt when I staggered up. Diana was flitting around, limber as a teenager. “Poor old Grandpa! Up from his nap? Need a cane? A walker perhaps?”

Her white shirt remained morning-crisp, but I was covered with pine needles and moss, like a body awakening from premature burial. She pranced, mocking me, flaunting her energy, her supple joints. She was my wife. Of course I loved her dearly. At that moment I didn’t particularly like her much.

“Aaargh!” My shirt stuck painfully to my back. I tried to rearrange it. My hand came away bloody. “Diana. Look at my back. I think I’m bleeding.”

“Grandpa’s been lying in the berry juice! Michael, you’re such a wus. Lift your shirt. Lemme see.” Quicker than I, Diana yanked up my shirt and drew in her breath. “You stud! What’ve you been doing while I was napping?” Her voice still held that teasing lilt—with a different undertone. “These scratches are like claw marks! I’ll get the trusty Bacitracin.”

Rummaging and grumbling, Diana located the first aid kit, but upon again examining me, antibiotic in hand, she gasped. “They’re gone! Must’ve been indented wrinkles from your shirt. Michael, I declare you’re making me a worry-wart. One in the family’s quite enough.”

My skin was unbroken and smooth to my own touch as well. Her initial assumption was correct. Berry juice, no doubt. I am indeed Michael, the wus.

Diana had already disappeared into the gloom beyond. I could hear her humming to herself and I obediently followed the sound, shouldering her gear along with my own. The goddess unencumbered.

Barging through the woods burdened like a pack-mule was rough going. The easels jutting off my shoulders snagged on tree trunks, bouncing me back and forth, and the double packs were hardly well-balanced. I pressed on, following the aroma of Diana’s perfume, self-concocted from civet and musk. Her straw hat, caught on an overhanging branch, slapped me in the face. The royal chapeau of her highness. The game of Michael-Who-Follows was another familiar pattern, so I added the hat to my load. After all, it was only straw.

Her humming grew louder. I called her, subsequently tripped over her hiking boots and fell flat, knapsacks and easels clattering atop me. The forest floor was mossy-soft and leaf-littered, but my chin smashed down on a root and I bit my lip. We’d been vegans for years, and I myself loathe that salt-sweet taste of blood, especially my own. I gagged, instantly nauseated, though the wound was laughably minor. Feeling considerably less benevolent towards my spoiled wife, my erotic memory was fast-fading. Oddly, I never questioned why she might tear off her boots— the laces were actually shredded. Struggling up, spitting out a dollop of bloody saliva, I tied them onto her backpack with what remained of the laces, uncharitably hoping she’d stub a toe during her barefoot romp. Then I’ll have to carry her, too.

Despite the time it had taken me to fall, tie up her boots, and reshoulder our gear, the humming was closer, louder. Fucking tease. She’s watching, chuckling, waiting for me. I refused to give her the satisfaction of calling again. That taste of my blood had darkened my mood.

This Eden shown by Harry seemed never-ending, much larger when tramping on foot than seen from afar. Even in my grumpy state I was overwhelmed by the light, the pungent aromas. Air filled my lungs with energy beyond simple oxygen, an intoxicating brew that with every breath reawakened sensual memories of Diana. She was right—enough inspiration for a lifetime.

Each step brightened my disposition. The packs lightened. The humming increased until I absorbed it like a primitive drum connecting me to the greenery, the secret burrowings, the dust motes, and to Diana. All sensations were one, all of a piece, and nothing existed outside this oasis. I imagined myself a rutting satyr of the woods. My middle-aged heart pounded with erotic images of what I’d do when I caught the goddess.

She was the one who caught me. Her hands gripped my shoulders with astonishing strength, tossing aside our gear as paltry decoration. She clung to my back, flattening us onto the forest floor. Her voice came low and throaty. “Time to go another round.” Her teeth sank into my ear. “Ummm. Tasty.” Diana gave a raspy snarl and flipped me over.

The dim light silhouetted her—hair an iridescent halo, eyes glowing embers, mouth an oven with a flaming tongue that lapped my face. Her breath singed me. I inhaled fire.

She was in absolute control. Her back arched and her mouth explored me; her fierce hands grasped me, pinning me to whatever position suited her. I hung from her, powerless, writhing in passion, helpless with lust, a mere adjunct to the command of the golden goddess who snarled and growled to pleasure herself—along with me, the ready acolyte.

Diana of the graceful curves and lazy motions had morphed into a length of tawny sinew whose embrace strangled me, whose nails raked me to burning ribbons, whose teeth nipped and bit, whose tongue lapped the fresh blood from my skin until I shivered with intoxication.

Alhough the binoculars lay half-buried in leaf litter, I surveyed us through Harry’s eyes, like watching a film from a great distance. Outside my body (perhaps outside my soul) the scene unfolded Technicolor-vivid—granite ledges where Diana and I frisked and tussled, woodsy glens where we coupled and rolled. Her body heat melted into mine until we were the same. Amber eyes met amber, growl spoke to growl. We rested, purring in exhaustion, then passion flared again. And again. An illusion of time, cellular memory of constant yearning, magic ancient as the rocks beneath us.

The golden goddess at long-last fruitful, a lion of the forest, unvanquished, primeval, battered me, savaged me. All was allowed and forgiven for the sacred possibility of our cub. Harry had granted her this fresh body; I was only the catalyst, a basic contrivance, a most willing instrument indeed.

I conceded to this ancient instinct—salmon spawning, swallows swarming, the male mantis obedient food for the female—for the privilege to mate. My head and heart hammered together; whether to explode or implode I ceased to care. I was invincible. I lived to serve the goddess.

The passion done, Diana stroked me, crooned my name, yet I remained only exhausted meat beneath her velvet paws. Her teeth now gentle, her eyes wise, the stretched length of her longer than I, clothed in tawny down luxuriant and supple. I didn’t need to question. She nodded and the amber eyes flared.

We stood upright, embracing, her paws around my neck, her head on my shoulder with a sigh that held more than a little of my wife. In one elegant leap she bounded away, in mid-air spinning briefly towards me, perhaps in nostalgia, perhaps in regret, certainly in love. The dark swallowed her.

I abandoned the packs though I knew she wouldn’t need them. I slung the binoculars around my neck. Harry holds her image within these lenses. I know if I ever dare to look, I’ll see Diana and our son.

I am Michael. I have installed a child seat in the Volvo.

THE END

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