Changeling by W.F. Lantry
“Know thyself,” the Oracle commands. People are always saying things like that. Davies, for instance, and Jim. So often we even know the Latin for it: nosce te ipsum. It’s encompassed even in my small Latin. I have far less Greek, but even there it gets used all the time. As for myself, I don’t have the slightest idea who I am. No-one, I guess. Maybe everyone.
And I have no idea who Miranda is. Oh, I know all the facts you’d get from a shilling life: where she came from, her schooling, the stamps in her passport. How she’d ride the boardwalk near Fairfield when she was young, or all those days on Okemo. But does that tell us anything?
She wondered if I could join her in Rockville. She had to do something first, but then she’d be free. I hustled Briseis out the back door, threw a golf ball into the bin, and headed Northwest.
Fitzgerald began in Rockville: before Zelda, long before the azure coast, or even West Egg. Maybe he even walked these same streets. Before the pike went through, before the farms were bulldozed for malls, he may have climbed trees like the rest of us. When they built the theaters and the Courthouse, they left his graveyard alone. I’ve never been.
I couldn’t believe I found myself there. I only know who I’m not, and I’m not fond of court. I had the feeling I should abandon hope as I entered, that I may never return, that none would know my fate. But I had to go in to meet her. “It’s just jury duty,” she said, “I’ll be out in a flash.” It was all over my face. “Don’t worry. If you don’t like it in here, you can go back outside. Wander the shops.” So I did.
She was right, it didn’t take long. She found me outside the woodworking store, gazing in at the sawblades and jigs. I always had to make my own from scraps and recycled screws. Everything seemed to come out of my shop slightly off-square. Once, I tried to take apart a picture frame I’d made, and rebuild it. It only made things worse. I learned to slap on a coat of lacquer and call it done. “A blind man will never see it,” my father used to say, “This ain’t no piano we’re building!”
“But how,” I asked, “did you finish so soon?” “As soon as I said I was a judge’s daughter, they couldn’t wait to dismiss me.” Another fact for my assemblage. I was gathering them as one would collect bits of colored glass, in preparation for crafting a mosaic. But how big should I make the frame? I had no idea, then, that no mitered frame would serve, no matter how carefully I routed the edges. “I just had to sit through a training video. I didn’t even get to the witness stand. Now, what about lunch?”
The first circles along Rockville Pike are parking lots. Circled around those are the stores. And in the circles behind, you can sometimes find restaurants. One called to her in Italian, “Amici Miei.” Don’t ask. I don’t even know Latin. It wasn’t too far away. Frescoes made it seem Naples near noon. The waiter suggested Barbaresco. Since it was early, he brought it right away.
Holding her hand across the white table, I told her she seemed different. Was it her hair? She blushed. The waiter took our order, scrawling it on a corner of the paper tablecloth. He left, and I brought up the subject again. Her hair looked like Diane Sawyer’s. Or maybe not her hair. No, it was the same as before. The pin, the necklace? Something.
“There’s something I haven’t told you.” she said. “That woman you just named? She did the jury training video I watched. One time, I was riding the train to Madrid. After a couple hours, everyone spoke to me in Spanish. They just assumed I was local. And in Ireland, after a few days in a village, everyone thought I was born there. I become whatever’s around me. You should have seen me in Paris. I can’t imagine what would happen if I went to India. But when I look in the mirror, even in those places, even while it’s happening, I seem the same to me. If you took a photograph, I would look like this.”
Her voice trailed off, as if I wouldn’t believe her. But the evidence was my own experience. I was the man who watched her change, who noticed it before she spoke. “I tried to do theater, but I would always become the woman I played. It wasn’t a good thing.” I was touching her face with my fingers as the waiter approached. It was almost as if he’d been drawn into the scene, drawn towards her somehow. He stood there and talked. And talked.
The restaurant had filled while we drank. There was a boisterous table behind us. “They’re celebrating a birthday,” he said, “We made a special cake. I’m going to have to sing. It’s expected. There will be no music. It will be terrible.”
She told him she was a singer. “If you will sing for them,” he said, “I will give you both free dessert. And another bottle of wine.” For a bottle of wine, she’d do the Baroque Happy Birthday. A handshake sealed the contract. When it was time she stood.
A trained opera voice, a coloratura soprano’s, can fill every space in a concert hall, as it filled every space in that small Rockville dining room. She became the room, or the room became her, I can’t tell. She was transported, and she carried us with her. Then it was over. The women were weeping, the men simply gazed. As she sat back next to me, I watched Italy leaving her face. She was just a woman again, her fingers entwined in mine.
W.F. Lantry, a native of San Diego, holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He received the Paris/Atlantic Young Writers Award, and in 2010 won the Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Award (in Israel), Crucible Editors’ Poetry Prize, and CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Asian Cha, Literal Latté, Istanbul Literary Review, Aesthetica and Blip (formerly Mississippi Review Online). He currently works in Washington, DC. and is a contributing editor of Umbrella.