The Scheyndel-Wangs always said you'd never understand the Scythian Idol until it spoke to you in dreams. It had never spoken to me until last night.
The Scythian Idol sat on a log in the middle of The Salon, a place of honor. Although the Scythian Idol made wherever it sat a place of honor.
In a previous incarnation the room had been the Scheyndel-Wang den but now it was The Salon. So artistic were the Scheyndel-Wang girls that the room had become their studio and gallery, which they called The Salon.
This role had devolved on the den by virtue of its size and the Vermeeresque light slanting in from windows that ran along the whole south wall, but most of all by the presence in its midst of the Scythian Idol.
Which had been there as long as even Alison, the oldest, could remember.
Everything about the Scheyndel-Wang girls was poetry. In the poetry of the Scheyndel-Wang girls, the Scythian Idol was the center of the Scheyndel-Wang house. It was alpha and omega, foundation stone, and roof-tree.
For example: Alison writes a software program with a quill pen. Ada taps out a verse-tragedy on her laptop. Little Annie drafts a film treatment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, set on an alien planet. And there the Sycthian Idol sits, all proceedings of equal interest.
Or: today they are working in clay. Or: It's the weekend, with dad they make up a jazz quartet. And there the Scythian Idol sits.
Do you see? Do you begin to see?
The Scythian Idol is squat and stone and has a stern, skeptical grimace. Maybe scary, maybe not - at times it makes you want to laugh along with it. Is it a gryphon? A dog? Some kind of demon? A demiurge? Who knows?
How had the Scythian Idol come to the Scheyndel-Wangs? There are conflicting versions: an uncle trading in the Far East, a different uncle in the foreign service in the Near East, still a third uncle in a pawnshop in the darkest days of the Depression, who thought he heard it humming him towards its corner. In one way or another, it had made its way along the Silk Road for quite a distance, east or west. In one way or another, it had come hither from yon.
And where was yon? Scythia, of course.
The Scheyndel-Wang girls were Old School and the Scheyndel-Wang girls were New School. Fresco in one corner, video installation in another. The blue periods and classical revivals and decadent formalisms and post-pop ironies came and went, avant-gardes and fifth columns and third wheels, but the center remained the same no matter what. The prevailing style was eclecticism; the presiding spirit, the Scythian Idol.
There were three Scheyndel-Wang daughters and with their parents they made five. The perfect number, said the Scheyndel-Wangs, because five makes a star.
Or a starting five. They weren't snobs. There was a hoop in the driveway, over the garage. Annie had the quickest first step, but Alison the softest hands around the basket.
Everyone learned Spanish so that they could put on their own Mexican soap opera. Ada had to play the lead, and terrible, melodramatic things were always happening to her. If Alison or Annie tried to morph it into a musical there would be fights. "¡No cante! ¡No cante!" Ada ran to her room, hands over her ears. And then, before slamming her door: "It's not that kind of opera!!!" On all of which the Scythian Idol gazed inscrutably and smiled its little smile.
Ada might determine to strike back. Alison's new painting was greeted with silence at its unveiling. Finally Ada spoke up: "I guess some people haven't caught up with the fact that montage changed everything." It's true that Alison could be wedded to traditional forms and media, but sometimes it was difficult to tell honest critique from sibling rivalry. There were more tears.
The Scythian Idol, however, saw time in its fullness.
And before you knew it they'd be tearing up the turf in masks and motley! Pagliaccio! Columbina! Arlecchino!
Or at dance around the Scythian Idol: Alison executing a grand jeté and Ada working out her booty-shaking hip-hop chops and Annie involved, involuted even, in improvisational eurhythmics, her own inventions spontaneously recapitulating and celebrating our evolution from microorganisms to hominids with postures and steps for each phylogenetic stage in a sequence which managed simultaneously to telegraph a phantasia on the history of dance itself, thus enfolding the moves of her older siblings in a kind of Hegelian Aufhebung, at once negating and completing them in the same gesture of trans-
(Wait, just let me catch my breath! You try keeping up with these Scheyndel-Wangs!)
-cendence, and yet it all fit together because there at least, in that house, in the Salon, in the ambience of the Scythian Idol, whatever was discordant at one level was woven to concordance at a higher, in registers infinitely ascending-
-such that Annie could burp, and Ada yawn, and Alison cut a little fart, and still they were The Three Graces. Time for bed!
All of the sisters were dark passionate brilliant, and all had beautiful hair. On the mother's side there had been a star of the Chinese opera. An opera star! Imagine that! On the father's an editor of a communist newspaper in Yiddish.
In fact, everyone on the father's side of the family had been reds.
The sisters understood that capitalism was a terrible thing, a terrible terrible thing. But sometimes factional battles broke out in the family. Someone accused someone else of being a Browderite liquidator-
-That's nice for you to say, because you are a Trotskyite! You are left in form, right in essence!
These battles were fearsome. You felt that a purge might be coming. The heat would be turned down so that everyone had to stomp dramatically around the house in thick sweaters, hugging themselves and trailing their exhalations like trains pushing through Siberian nights. Annie could take these periods especially to heart. Once she met me behind the garage and, blinking up at ice-glazed branches against a grey sky, confessed she felt no better than a petty-bourgeois dilettante. Her voice shook and her eyes filled with real tears.
But when we came inside everyone was laughing and eating dumplings in the bright steam-filled kitchen, and Alison played her violin adaptations of Hugo Wolf Lieder while Ada sang tragically.
Of anything with strings Alison was master, whether bowed, plucked, or struck - jinghu, harp, stand-up bass, ukulele, zither, mandolin, sitar, and the Appalachian dulcimer - but her deepest affections she lavished on the viola, that neglected second-fiddle to the violin. And because Music linked up with Math and the Mysteries of Universe in her Medulla Oblongata, she could also Oraculate on the Subject of String Theory.
This was why she always seemed distracted when you spoke to her, or like she was just then roused from slumber - there was so much to attend to inside as well as out! Her nobly-shaped skull was a vast and intricate astrolabe, wheel upon wheel ad infinitum, making music of the spheres. Which accounts for her slow patient way of response and decision.
That and a weight of responsibility which her youngers did not share, certainly not Ada the Diva. Not that Ada lacked a sisterly side which came out in Cooking. She was resident expert in Chemistry and Construction. Her spot-welder she used to Carmelize the tops of her Crème Brulés. She was voted Most Likely to Take Up Armed Struggle.
With Annie it was Animals and Organic Forms. The Wire Birds started as her idea. She set me straight on Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups.
(And yet - can you believe it? - they got mediocre school grades!)
(But what do schools know? Schools!)
Even their pets were personality-plus. E.g., the brilliant but temperamental gerbil who perished (in a fit of pique) before I had begun frequenting the Scheyndel-Wang Salon. And for a while, an amusing turtle. Imagine that! But I saw the turtle myself, and it was amusing.
Most of all there was Tailgate, the Cat Like No Other. Somehow in a past life his tail had been bent in the middle. It bobbed like a divining rod, pointing down. How had Tailgate's tail gotten bent? An accident? Was he born like that? Who knew? It happened before the Scheyndel-Wangs got him, or rather, before Tailgate had chosen the Scheydel-Wangs, because that's how it went down: Took one look at the Scythian Idol and knew he was home.
Tailgate would sit and stare at the Scythian Idol for hours, blinking slowly, in squares of sun on the floor of The Salon. Unblinking, the Scythian Idol stared back. They communed.
It was Annie who noticed first. "Look, Tailgate and the Scythian Idol are communing! Tell us the secret, Tailgate! Tell us where the treasure is buried!" Then one day Tailgate died. Annie found him asleep under the pyracantha, then found he wasn't asleep. Just like that! They buried him in the backyard and held a service. Annie said, "Tailgate himself was the treasure, and he is buried here."
Yes, there were tears, but even the tears had a tincture of joy, because they were tears of the Scheyndel-Wangs!
The backyard could be a jungle or a junkyard, depending on how you looked. It was an exercise in post-realist parallax perspective, the Scheyndel-Wangs explained. Same with the front. Guests had to park on the street after the driveway filled up with 'found' art. Beneath a hedge which showed the last signs of one of the girl's transient stabs at topiary sank the vine-covered bust of Pallas Athena or a department-store mannequin.
Folks new to the neighborhood might complain - "What an eyesore! That certainly needs a coat of paint!" But the neighbors who had lived there longer would assure them, "Oh, that's just the Scheyndel-Wangs! That's what they're like!" And pretty soon the new neighbors became old neighbors and stopped minding, most of them, or stopped noticing, at least. As one wag quipped, "You wouldn't want them to fix it up, anyway! Who knows what it would look like then!"
Inside was a junkle too: books and sweaters and unopened bills and pie tins and chipped cups everywhere - and sheet music, drifts and drifts of sheet music! Scores upon scores of scores! You took your life into your hands going up and down those stairs, and yet the sisters always flew - one flying up and another flying down, so fast their naked toes barely skimmed the steps, skirts flying behind them, someone's beautiful hair always wet and fresh from a shower!
All the girls kept diaries, which they swore bloodily were Top Secret but which they continually read to each other and you too if you dropped by, flying after you from room to room with the open book.
And such interesting people always dropped by! Every evening an impromptu salon around the Scythian Idol in The Salon!
"We have a wide circle," Alison matter-of-factly observed, making a circle in the air with the tip of her viola bow. Instantly it was taken up by the others. "We have a wide circle! We have a wide circle!" "Well, we do!" Alison objected, adorably scrunching her lush eyebrows.
Or more likely: all who dropped by became interesting in the Scythian Idol's orbit. I can attest to this, because I was not interesting before I started frequenting The Salon, nor have I been interesting since. Yet while there I discovered a facility for foreign languages and shadow animals I seemed to possess nowhere else. Look! A giraffe! ¡Mirada! ¡Un giraffe! Kijk! Een giraf!
By this time I was desperately in love with Alison. Of course I was in love with each of the sisters - all who dropped by were - but I felt I must pay court to one in particular. I was among them more than most, yet among them I was one of the least, for I tended to be a bit of a wall-flower (flor de la pared; muur bloem), and Alison was the most like me in temperament. I loved her seriousness and the slow way her quickness had and the shadows of her brightness. I was a year younger and she looked upon me as a brother. So I put my hopes in the Scythian Idol, in whose august presence all things seemed possible.
And before you know it Spring comes and sticks wildflowers in a ceramic vase on the kitchen table, and then a vase in the dining room, and then the living room, and suddenly there are vases with wildflowers everywhere, and the pottery-wheel spins and the kiln is stoked to produce more ceramic vases. Produce, and overproduce! Wildflowers! Wildflowers! - what were weeds in the backyard in the vases are wildflowers!
Yellow and red and violet and blue - in the chiaroscuro late-afternoons with the shades half drawn they are impasto textures smooched onto the dusky air . . . Then a last ray glances them straight on - they ignite into fountains of fireworks! Boom boom, boom boom!
Up go the house lights!
Alison, humming a little melody, slips a white blossom behind her ear. Ada, not to be outdone, grips a red one between her teeth, thrusts her arms into the air and stamps her feet upon the floor! Then Annie bites off a yellow one and chews it and swallows it! "I am a horse," she says. Everybody bursts into laughter! Except Annie, who neighs! Flower petals fly out of everyone's mouths! The Scythian Idol is covered with petals - he wears a garland, a coronet, a crown!
And the Scythian Idol smiles his smile - he is satisfied. Oh thou all-ravishing groom of quietness!
Summer neared with something in the works. Lo and behold THE WIRE BIRDS, their masterpiece, their great collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk: Opera! Dance! Video! Painting! Sculpture! A graphic novel! An interactive hypertext website! It ran through solstice week in The Salon, MC'ed by the Scythian Idol.
Somehow everyone had a part to play. Many of us didn't even know we'd been rehearsing our parts in advance of the opening, so seamlessly had the sisters woven us in. I discovered I was Page of Cups.
I sometimes think the performance presaged what followed. Do you remember that part, in the recitative, that goes-
And where are the haunts of Wire Birds?
Do they hang from Reverse Pedestals?
And the answering voice booms from afar:
ONLY IN THE MUSEUM OF TEARS.
How true this turned out to be.
It was high summer when the Turkish Engineer first visited the house. His name was Sedat Yavuz, if you can imagine irony on such a cosmic scale, and he was really an engineering graduate student. But I always thought of him as the Turkish Engineer.
He was fêted with the rest of us in The Salon. Unlike the rest of us, however, he did not fall in. He had a way of folding his arms across his chest. Not churlishly, but urbanely - that was the worst thing. The girls really put themselves out to get him to fall in, especially Alison.
Urbanely the Turkish Engineer stroked his refulgent mustaches. He crouched to bring his nose level with the Scythian Idol's nose. He grimaced, the Scythian Idol grimaced back.
The next day a man from Interpol came, bringing with him a stamped document, a crate, an archeologist, an official from some consulate or other, and a big bag of styrofoam peanuts.
The spot in the middle of the room where the Scythian Idol once stood seemed glacially vast. It was no longer The Salon. It was hardly even a den!
There's not much more to add. College was done and I had to get a job. Alison and Sedat got married and moved to the suburbs and had a family, and Ada and Annie got jobs or had kids too or something - I don't remember exactly what.
Last night the Scythian Idol spoke to me in a dream. After so many years! He told me to drop by the old house.
I did it this morning on my way to work. But it's not on the way and there's always a lot of traffic, so I almost didn't go.
For a minute I thought I'd missed the place, it looked so different. It's all fixed up, with olive-grey siding and a mowed lawn. There's a Jeep Cherokee in the driveway.
I don't know who lives there.