White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Cherie Caswell Dost
Cherie Caswell Dost is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in Switzerland. Before the move, she was a regular contributor and host for Chicago Public Radio. She likes to write essays and poetry about art, life, the body, and whatever else rings her bell at the moment. www.cheriecaswelldost.com

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What time is it?

Cherie Caswell Dost

 

It is spring in Switzerland, and the sun flashes hot digital dots on the River Aare today, like a solar Braille, that murmurs and giggles and occasionally pitches, out of time, like a Yoko Ono song. The swans are looking for mates. The males are making a show of it, somehow turning a swim into a kind of strut. They arch their wings, and their beaks are colored like a sunrise, in hopes of persuading another to make a new tomorrow together. The downy whiteness of their feathers astonishes me, and I can’t grasp the purity of their petticoats—my eyes are simply too smudged themselves, I think. Some have already paired, and they nuzzle their necks together in affection, forming a perfect heart with heads and beaks touching. Before my eyes, the white swans are forming hearts against a backdrop of medieval walls and ramparts and towers, and I cannot tell you if it is 2010 or 1210, because the brown and white spotted cows are out to pasture on the eternal green hill, and they’ve been out to

pasture here for a thousand years or more, and it is a fucking fairy tale, right there, in front of me, a fairy tale ringing with cowbells and church bells and clock towers and there’s a moat with pure white swans and a drawbridge, for fuck’s sake... and I am not sure how I got here, really. Really? Really.

Not when I spent my girlhood with a bad painting of a black swan hanging over my head like a dark omen.

We were not the type of family to have paintings hung in the house. Kmart portraits with pull-down seasonal backgrounds, yes. Slightly askew wall-size photo mural of wooded scene complete with a flying squirrel, yes. Wallpaper of the Sears catalogue of the olde-fashioned kind selling typewriters for a dollar and tapeworms for a nickel—yes. But real paintings, like a person put a brush to canvas and tried to express something they couldn’t express anywhere else in their life, no. But we did have one painting, above our velour rust-colored sofa, thank you, a gigantic painting of a black swan on a criminally, hideously orange background. My father’s mother had painted it. Her


signature was scratched in the bottom corner, in large, painstakingly straight, but unaccomplished strokes, “JUANITA CASWELL.”

The Black Swan painting was hung on my father’s big “O” hook of Obligation. And it hung there for years—with my mother hating the painter even more than the painting— like a dark cloud over our heads as we watched Happy Days and played Odyssey with Kool-Aid mustaches. In my mind’s eye, all of our childhood pictures feature the three of us kids sitting pointy-collared and crooked-ponytailed, cute as all hell and full of all life, but with an enormous black swan flapping its wings above our heads, and squawking DOOMSDAY! DOOMSDAY! The black swan didn’t bode well for us. The black swan was our albatross, our cross to bear. It was the mascot of the silent war and furies and forces in our house and in our lives: Could my father ever shuck off the guilt and obligation of being born force-fed to him by his bitter and loveless mother? Could his mother ever stop resenting that her son married a Jewish girl, even though her own roots to Christianity were mired in shame? How many generations does it take before

the poverty of growing up on a dirt farm fades . . . or at least doesn’t still have the power to convince you that you are starving while the pantry is full? Would someone in the family please finish high school? Is creativity or freedom possible—or worthwhile— even if it is a crappy bird scratched out with dime store paint? Could my dad ever stop eating doughnuts?

The black swan presided over us as the judge and the jury and the gavel too, floating against a vomitous orange background—the kind of orange that is to the eye what nails on chalkboard are to the ear. But the question still remained, was the sky vomiting sunrise or sunset onto our black swan? That, too, depended on our own perspective, and the gut truth about what we felt were the possibilities in our lives. Time would tell.

My Jewish grandmother passed the painting every day on her way to her room upstairs and every day she shook her head at it, saying “Why couldn’t she at least have painted a pretty white one? Who in the hell paints a black swan?” It might as well have been a painting of Christ on the Cross, bleeding onto our shag carpet. Feh.

 


But what time is it?

I am seven hours ahead of Chicago time. I tell my mother this every time she calls me and asks, What time is it? She never does the math and always seems surprised by my answer, as if I had a big time wheel and spun it until it stopped on an answer. Ooh, is that what time it is? OK, talk to you tomorrow, honey. Love you. We’ll see what time it is tomorrow then. OK, Love you.

I haven’t worn a watch in ten years or more, but maybe I should give it a whirl, since I am living in the land of the precision watch. I go to the department store and stand before the overwhelming watch display. Some are shiny and studded, like ornate pieces of jewelry with a function. Others are fierce and sporty and meant to be sweat-proof and to keep track of the time on top of the Matterhorn, in air too thin to breathe. Maybe a funny one, I think, one that makes a joke with myself about the whole damn thing. But before I get any further, my wrist begins to itch, and I start to sweat and feel damp and humid and trapped, as if in a dungeon. Suddenly it feels like buying a watch is like shopping for a tombstone. I make a quick emergency exit.

My feet hit the granite cobblestone speckled and streaked with golds and grays and blues, and I wonder how long ago they had been laid there. How long does it take for a cobblestone street to wear down? How many feet, hooves, horseshoes trod before me? Can there be an equation for the erosion and passage of time?

Maybe time is erosion. How old are these Swiss mountains? How many millions of years ago did glaciers carve and sculpt these mammoth sky-huggers into shape? Don’t water and wind alone show the force of erosion over time? And aren’t the Alps constantly changing? Nature is constantly working its force of change, so so so slowly—too slow for humans and our silly idea of lifespan—that we cannot see the change, certainly cannot grasp it in our minds, let alone our hands.

Except for one instance I know where time is literally put at the touch of one’s fingertips. There is a gorge here in Solothurn that slices its way through the Weissenstein mountain. The Weissenstein, it is called, like it is a force to be reckoned with, a being with a name and a phenomenon with a power—the Weissenstein. It looks like a gigantic rock set down


for once and for all. My eyes follow the curves of its top, which play peek-a-boo with the clouds, until there is one large gap, a gaping gap in the middle of the immovable rock, the absence of mountain in this gap being almost as impossible as the immensity of the mountain itself. A negative space, punctured through the eternal. This is the gorge.

I hike my way to the gorge, through babbling brooks, and colonies of moss, and wise elder forests of Giacometti-like birch trees, and wild mushroom farms that sprout alien and sometimes dangerous blossoms. My pathway is packed in every direction with the lushness of nature. Then, suddenly there is nothing. There is drop-off. Absence. The contrast between the absolute solidity of rock versus the absolute ghostliness of only air. It is not quite a cliff, but a fierce gorge that winds its way mercilessly through the mountain. I follow the gorge, down deeper into its crevice; waterfalls are tickling the mountain, and there is no force that can stop the gurgling joy of water finding its way down, down, down, drunk on its own momentum. There are the remains of candles everywhere, on the rocky ledges of the path, tucked inside dwarf

grottoes that become impromptu shrines, and leading the way deep into a hidden cave. This is a place of pilgrimage, a holy gorge where a miracle was supposed to have taken place, long, long ago, as the story goes.

As the story goes, Holy Verena was a Christian saint (and virgin, of course) who lived in this gorge as a hermit. She had the power to heal the sick, and many pilgrimaged to the gorge for Verena’s holy touch. Then, one day, an enormous flood washed through the gorge with the power of the unleashed sky, pulling down and drowning anything in its path. Holy Verena found a small hole in the rocky side of the gorge and held on. She was untouched. This was a miracle. Today you can still find the spot in the rock where Verena held on—it called the Verenaloch—or literally, Verena’s hole—which a wise-ass like me finds ironic given that saints are virgins. Nevertheless, people have been coming here to find Verena’s hole, and hold on themselves, if only for a moment, for over a thousand years. There’s no marker or sign designating the spot—and no need for one, since you can’t miss it. It’s about the size of a hand and stained from the grease of so


many palms over so many years in the simple act of touching. People have continued to pilgrimage to this spot, considered a holy place of healing, in hope that a touch may bring a miracle, or at the very least, a relief from suffering, even if only temporary. In fact the ritual of touching has eroded the rock itself, so much that when I touch Verena’s spot, I am astonished to find my hand reaching inside the rock nearly six inches before I hit stone. I am feeling one thousand years of believing in this divine spot, one thousand years and innumerable humans, possibly traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles, to simply touch this rock, here, with their hand, with faith in their hearts.

This is the only way I know to tell time, I think, the touch of a thousand years, at my fingertips, looking for a miracle, if only for a moment. The aftermath of the flood and Holy Verena’s miracle is the sustained strength of human hope, powerful enough to carve rock, like the immense power of the flood itself, and the determination of water –like human life—to eternally flow on and on and on. And there is a magical power to Verena’s spot, I feel it, the power to melt time and distance and difference

between my hand and every other hand that has simply held out their arm and touched. We are all one, palm print upon palm print, if only for this brief instant.

 

Keep your hands to yourself

In this town of Solothurn, the number eleven is considered holy—or lucky, or some such—and because of that, the old clock tower only goes to 11, not 12. I can’t for the life of me tell what time it is, even though it is an astronomical clock that keeps track not only of the hour, but of the month, phases of the moon, and astrological symbol. It’s too many hands and symbols for me and gives me an instant migraine.

But before it gets too abstract, this keeping of hours and days and tides and horoscopes, the clock tower offers a special show to bring it all into perspective. To mark the hour, the skeleton figure in the middle of the clock face nods its head, and hits it specter against a bell—the damn thing looks me square in the eye and nods, I tell you—and so


it’s all borrowed time only, and only borrowed all the time. Have you got the time? The skeleton nods, didn’t think so.

Moreover, the hour hand of the clock is a golden hand taking an oath. Is time an oath? Do we swear to abide by it? Is a clock designed to illustrate the immensity of the universe, make us feel so very small within it, and only by swearing to it, can we be a part of it? Or is it the opposite—we are always a natural part of the universe and it is only swearing to time itself that makes us feel small and exterior and disconnected?

The clock tower here has been doing this gig since 1411, which means very little to me in a concrete way, honestly. I mean, had it been inaugurated in 1410 0r 1412, I can’t say I could mark the difference in any significant way. I still look at the stone tower and think of the labor of those who mortared and toiled. The average life span was about 30. Being poor could put you in jail (still can). No literacy, no hygiene, no human rights. In 1411 I know the clock tower told people the time to pray, the time to go to market, the time to plant, the time to harvest, the time to marry, the

time to execute. But I also know, in 1411, human beings just like me heard the clock tower ring through their entire body—erasing bodiliness, eroding the elaborate system of time itself, and breaking the illusion of the smallness of human doings and meanings within the cosmos. These are my thoughts, but certainly I am no Einstein. Luckily, Einstein was.

 

Timing is Everything

Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity here, in Switzerland, just a little upstream on the feisty, restless Aare, in a second-floor apartment at Kramgasse 49 in the city of Bern. He lived here from 1903 to 1905 with his wife and infant son, while working as a clerk in the Patent Office of Bern. The job paid the bills and left him enough time to pursue his scientific explorations on his own, publishing five papers in the year 1905 alone, including the one that would eventually bring him the Nobel Prize.

His apartment is a half block from Bern’s medieval clock tower, the Zytglogge—in fact, his


apartment window looked onto it. It’s a hefty astronomical and astrological clock, with its original mechanism ticking away since 1530, and the tower in which it is housed is even older and was used briefly as a jail for prostitutes who served the clergy. The old clock tower keeps track of the 24-hour clock, the twelve hours of daylight, the position of the sun in the zodiac, the day of the week, the date and the month, the phases of the moon, and the elevation of the sun on the horizon. Its hourly show—performed four minutes before every hour, is lighter fare than the skeleton nod. Instead there is a very tame parade of bears (the mascot of Bern) and a court jester who rings a bell with his head in an existential joke.

I can imagine 26-year-old Einstein, and the clock tower chiming away all day long, with the rush of people on Kramgasse (doesn’t it sound like a crowded street—cram street?) making their way to and from the train station, to and from work, to and from market, to and from the doctor... to and fro, the jester hits its head against the bell... to and fro... the jester’s idiot smile never changes... to and fro... the jester is laughing... to and fro... the jester is

laughing at you. An endless dance of time, with people bound to the clock tower by obligation, practicality, rationality, and the attempt to make some sense, or meaning, out of their life. (With the nagging question underlying: how might we really be bound to the stars?) People bound to the clock tower by oath—yes this one too features a golden hour hand taking an oath. And young Einstein too, was bound by that oath, by day, going to and from work, coming home, climbing his way up the narrow, creaking, winding staircase to his modest apartment, maybe sharing a little bite of dinner with his wife, kissing the sleeping baby, and then settling into his small desk, unlatching a wooden panel that folded down to a writing surface, and then, by night, beginning to plan how he might plant a theoretical bomb in that old clock tower and blow up its entire existence. About this scientific bomb he thought, and theorized, and planned, until the clock tower, I imagine, struck a certain hour and it was time for young Einstein to go to bed, and as he slept, the clock tower marked the phase of the moon. And the mountains watched and never blinked. Mythic, really. But Einstein would soon do


away with that too, exploding the mythology of time—and putting in its place human wonderment and endless possibility. Maybe.

 

Time Stands Still

I meet my German tutor for the first time and he is a tall, dark Swiss with a thunderstorm gathering in his eyebrows. His name is Fritz and his mouth rests in a permanent position of exhaling the smoke of disgust. I tell him I want to read German literature and poetry, that this is where my interests lie. Already I am divulging too much too soon. Fritz inhales quickly and holds it, knowing I’m gonna be one of those who doesn’t do her grammar homework. But my bubbly Americanness keeps rising to the surface and, like an idiot, I continue.

“Well, I just love the writings of Herman Hesse, I think he is the neatest,” and suddenly I am talking like Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ, windswept fresh from Kansas.

Fritz is sucking on his tongue in his mouth, thinking how my eyes might be beautiful strung on a necklace. “Read krimis,” he denounces me.

Krimis?” I say and I don’t try to hide my bewilderment.

“Yes,” Fritz condemns, “they are very pop-ular.”

Oh I see, I get it now. Fritz must have been told I am the wife. The company my husband works for will provide German lessons for the wife, so she can function at the grocery store and accomplish the wifey things. Here it’s called Hausfrau. And it might as well be 1950—at least I’d be wearing a kick-ass dress.

Krimis are for the Hausfrau. It’s like I told Fritz I want to read Shakespeare and he thinks I’ll be much better off with a Harlequin romance—you know, in between my insipid vacuuming and relentless general haus-frau-ness.

From my bag—and damn if it’s not a grocery bag—I pull out a copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha in German. “I’m halfway through,” I rebut (and now I am really putting the butt in rebuttal.)

Fritz snatches the book . “This will not help you.”


“It won’t?”

“No, this is not everyday vocabulary.”

“It’s not?” Fritz opens the book at random and points out a word.

Ewigkeit is not used in ordinary conversation.” (read: Hausfrau conversation).

“No?” I can only mutter miniscule articulations of my dumbfoundedness.

“No. That is of no use to you. “ Fritz flips the book closed, as in, end of topic.

“Read krimis,” he repeats, tiredly, and looks like he already needs a cigarette.

Ewigkeit means eternity. Eternity that is of no use to me.

I look him square in the eye before he leaves the room and I think directly at him, “I’m gonna dump you.” He understands me, though I’ve not spoken a word, and he has already forgotten me and begun thinking of what might be stuck on the bottom of his shoe and how he must remember to get those pills for his cat, when the door latch clicks shut.

I am swimming in the silence of the room. The room is filled with emptiness—empty chairs, empty table, empty chalkboard, and the only movement comes through the window. In the distance, at the end of a narrow winding medieval street, a slice of the Aare is sparkling in the sunlight and, in its constant movement, appears to stand still. But it never stops flowing, and I can barely hold on to the thought—having to squint from the powerful flashes of light reflected on its swift current—the thought of a drop of water from the Weissenstein flowing down into the Aare which flows down into the Rhine which flows down into the North sea, one drop being and becoming all drops, always flowing.

I open my Hesse’s Siddhartha to a random page, and the quiet begins to feel like I am in a place of worship and a moment has been pronounced inside of me and I am opening my prayer book—called to a particular page, without a number. This is what I read:

Cheerfully, he looked into the rushing river, never before he had like a water so well as this one, never before he had perceived the voice and the parable of the moving water


thus strongly and beautifully. It seemed to him, as if the river had something special to tell him, something he did not know yet, which was still awaiting him.

As I look up from the book and back to the river, the flashes of sun do not blind me anymore. I feel like my eyes have been cleared of a haze, of a certain indefinable hurt or obstruction, and as I look onto the rushing current of the Aare with new eyes, a black swan glides swiftly, effortlessly with that current. A swan as black and unfathomable as... Ewigkeit.

 

It’s time.

I had asked my father about the Black Swan painting before I moved to Switzerland. I hadn’t seen it in decades and no one talked about it ever. It came off the wall sometime after my father received all of his childhood things in a box: baby shoes and baby pictures, childhood report cards and a drawing or two, and a letter from his mother stating how he had disowned her.

My father’s long, wiry eyebrows lifted into his forehead when I asked him, and his lower jaw loosened enough for me to glimpse the few teeth of his own left on the bottom. The navy had pulled most of my father’s teeth when he joined, at 18, with an impoverished and neglected mouth that had never before opened to sing the silent aria to a dentist .

He knew exactly where it was. He took me directly into the basement, past the living room furniture my parents didn’t use anymore, past the 60’s style basement bar they never used, past the extraordinarily ugly sculpture I made in college (now we know where I got my artistic talent) they never needed, directly to the painting they never wanted. My father lifted the painting over the bar and I saw the back of the canvas first. I instantly recognized the limp, self-sorry handwriting in all caps: BLACK SWAN BY JUANITA CASWELL copyright 1976. It was the copyright that shot me through the ass: that special, charming combination of disenfranchisement, lack of education, and paranoia that made her think her artistic talent could always be stolen out from under her. The world was out to get her: first, by


not recognizing her painterly genius; and secondly, by potentially recognizing it but then surely swindling her out of it, as if her ability were a coveted gold purse that either proved the world to be jealous or stupid. Copyright indeed, on the black swan. That sure protected it.

Then my father turned the painting around. It was so much smaller than I remembered. And, I hate to say, not quite as hideous. Oh, it was still hideous, particularly the shade of orange that assaulted and burned my eyes. But the black swan itself, it had volume, it had weight and space, it had a curved neck not completely lacking in grace, and it had a beak that was... believable. Am I really saying this? Yes, I am—it was better than I could do. It was more raw talent than I had—and by raw I mean the steak is bleeding all over the damn plate.

“I thought you’d forgotten about this.” My dad seemed hopeful. I tightened up.

“Why did she paint a black swan?” I ventured, hoping my father wouldn’t think I was the one finally educated enough to suddenly discover his mother’s immense gift.

“She didn’t mean to paint a black swan, at first. She tried to paint what would sell, you know?” Oh, I knew. I’d seen the Spanish dancers, the patriotic bi-centennial drummers, the mushroom and the mouse—I had seen them all because they didn’t sell. Those were all painted on small canvas boards. But the Black Swan was on stretched canvas—an investment—and the paint was probably dime-store quality, but still, it had not cracked. I was looking at my grandmother’s pièce de résistance. The masterpiece, the one she had hoped would bare her talent once and for all.

“I told her to paint the apocalypse.” My father was already beginning to take his credit in her discovery story.

Suddenly I am not sure how I got myself into this moment, in my father’s basement talking about my wacko-grandmother’s vision of the friggin’ apocalypse... and I am treading on ellipses.

“You know, the end of the world—that was a popular subject back in the 70s and 60s. So I guess she tried and it didn’t work out. But she didn’t want to waste all that paint and the canvas—they’re


expensive, you now, she didn’t have too much, so she had to think of something to paint over it, something that would cover over...”

“ ...the end of time?” Now I am starting to enjoy it. How bizarre it all is. Including me.

“Yeah, so she musta come up with a black swan.”

“Had she ever seen a black swan?”

“I don’t know, honey, I think it was just to cover the other thing—you can take this if you want it.”

Oh shit. Why am I not prepared for this? “Um, no thanks, dad, I just wanted to see it—“

“—you can have it, if you want, you know...”

“Yeah, I know,” I say, knowing that refusing the painting feels to my father like I am refusing him. But the truth is, the painting is mine, it’s my inheritance, and I carry it with me, whether I possess it, or not. I have half a mind to take it and have it x-rayed, to reveal my grandmother’s vision of the apocalypse.

Unexpectedly, I think of a black-and-white photograph of his mother as a teenager on the family farm in southern Illinois. Her smile is all gums, but it is warm, and her hair is curled in a pretty way, and she wears a simple but lovely dress. There is something different about her in the picture: her eyes have a spark that must have long faded before I was born. Yes, her eyes were lit up—not just with youth, but also with hope. Like she might have actually believed—once upon a time—that she could make it happen for herself. That her life had possibilities.

But the background of the photograph is as dire and desolate as a dirt farm that bears nothing. Just a wasteland of infertile soil and a lack of opportunity and motivation. Acres-wide generations of poverty and ignorance and small ideas about what a woman could be.

She was swallowed by that soil, I think, and for the first time I feel compassion for her, young Juanita, who liked to sketch and paint on whatever she could find—a leaf, a napkin, a wall. Something about art made her feel hope and that she too—without school, without prospects, without


help—still had a soul and something soulful to express. And who the hell cares if it was naïve. At least it was. With all the odds against her, falling into the trap of young pregnancy to an alcoholic abuser, she still painted. Nobody understood her and still, she painted. Nobody cared and still, she painted... until the apocalypse and the Black Swan. I like to think of it as her last painting, her last expression of what finally swallowed her possibility—and I know what her vision of apocalypse looks like, without having to x-ray the Black Swan. Her apocalypse looks like that dirt farm in Southern Illinois.

“Go ahead, take it, take it!” My father is still proud of his mother. My throat is as dry as a dust storm.

 

If I Could Turn Back Time

Einstein’s old apartment in Bern on Kramgasse—the one that overlooks the Zytglogge, the one where he wrote the Theory of Relativity—is now a museum. It is remarkable in its unremarkableness. It is one apartment within a row

of medieval, conformist stone buildings, all the same height, façade, style, and built above the long, unending stone arcade of shops on the ground floor, which sit atop very small wooden, hinged cellar doors that exude a bit of mystery and plunge deep into the rock that Bern sits on. Gray, gray, gray, the city seems built on uniformity and a deficiency of color. Einstein’s old apartment windows are like a set of eyes within a long line of onlooking eyes, only distinguished from the other flats (now) by the cardboard cut-out of an older, well-known Einstein propped up in it. He looks bored. And kinda embarrassed.

The old shop on the ground floor of the apartment is now filled with mementos of Einstein’s time there, including a mannequin wearing Einstein’s hounds-tooth three-piece suit, and a photo of Einstein wearing it. It’s not the image of Einstein that he came to have—the wild hair, the untamed eyebrows, the gigantic head that seemed to overshadow his body. This Einstein is young and groomed and rather small-framed. The suit dresses him perfectly for the role of patent clerk—or middle-class working life. Nothing distinguishes


him, or shows any foreshadowing of the genius that was blossoming. Einstein appears to be like any other worker bee returning to his hive at the end of the day on Kramgasse.

And a beehive is a bit of the feeling I had, winding up the dark, narrow, creaking wooden staircase. The museum itself—the Einstein Haus—is really only two rooms on the second floor of the building. The first room gives you context: wallpaper, high ceilings, interior windows with clouded panes that look only onto ducts and the crude workings of an inner courtyard. Einstein’s desk is there—a modest, contained secretary desk, guarded over by a small green clock—a worker bee’s cubicle spilling over with honey.

But the next room, the main room or parlor room, firmly sets the apartment within a domestic space. There is an empty wicker crib brimming with period lace, and Mrs. Einstein’s wedding dress and shoes. Unlike other historical fashion dioramas where the waistlines are chokingly corseted and the shoes are narrow and small—as if to fit a stork’s foot—this clothing seems immediately to me to belong to a real woman—short, on the stocky side,

and with big feet. I bet those boots pinched her like a bitch. Her name was Mileva Maric.

Mileva came from a wealthy Serbian family which spared no expense for her education. She showed tremendous talent in both physics and mathematics and was only the fifth woman to be admitted to the Zurich Polytechnic Institute. There she met and fell in love with a fellow student, Albert Einstein. Her grades were better than his.

In the parlor room it is suddenly not a story of where genius blossomed—Einstein’s so-called miracle year of 1905—but a story of what a man’s ambition may do to his ambitious wife within the constraints of the turn of the century gender politics. Mileva may have begun as his equal, but the parlor room has walls with a decidedly narrowing effect and quite an oversized crib for their baby son, whom Albert doted upon. Time could not be a theory for Mileva. As the Zytglogge struck every fifteen minutes, every hour, it marked for Mileva the time to feed the baby, the time for baby’s nap, the time for baby’s walk, etc. Time for Mileva was not a matter of physics or mathematics; time was a series of domestic obligations to be


endlessly fulfilled. Mileva was bound to time by the oath of the Hausfrau.

Am I imagining too much from just one pair of white leather ankles boots, sized X-L, and a baby boy’s crib to match? Am I victimizing Mileva? After all, I’m telling a story here. Maybe, but then there’s this:

In Spring of 1901, Albert and Mileva rendezvoused in Lake Como for a few days. They were not married, but Mileva was not one to stick to gender conventions, and so they carried on a “modern relationship.” But a few weeks after, Mileva discovered she was pregnant and Albert had only excuses not to see her. In letters to Mileva, he hoped for a boy... if he hoped at all. Mileva returned to her home in Serbia, pregnant, unmarried, and twenty-eight-years old—a family shame with few prospects. How quickly Mileva had gone from a brilliant young woman breaking barriers to the same old story of pregnant, alone and optionless spinster.

Mileva gave birth to a daughter in January of 1902 and she named her Lieserl. There is no

evidence that Albert Einstein ever met his daughter. As to the fate of Lieserl, the Einstein Haus gives us the all-encompassing passive voice of history: “As of 1903, Lieserl’s whereabouts are unknown.” What is known: Mileva joined Albert in Bern in 1903 and married him—without their baby girl. Perhaps she gave the girl up for adoption, or perhaps the baby girl died from scarlett fever in the first year of her life. Whatever the case, Mileva lost a baby girl and Albert didn’t seem to grieve. She had failed her school exams, twice, and then turned to being a wife and a mother (again) of a much more desirable baby, a boy, Hans Albert, in 1905, Albert’s miracle year.

In the parlor of the Einstein Haus, I keenly feel the absence of Lieserl. She is somewhere, invisible, unacknowledged, lost in an equation that is never solved. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as it relates to Lieserl: if a baby girl is born out of wedlock, and her father is moving at the speed of light, then did she ever exist?

The jester strikes his head against the bell of the Zytglogge and never says a word.

 


Out of Time

Swiss TV is about as exciting as a snail’s intestinal tract. It is mainly talk shows—about as far from the American variety as you can get. The shows consists of panels or circles of speakers who have been invited for their particular wisdom and expertise—being an expert on anything is big here—and all their accreditation is neatly condensed under their name. The topics are ever so serious: What obligations does a government have to fulfill a child’s nutritional needs? It’s all very very rational, sensible, and civil. Oh, the civility!

Thank the heavens there is one channel I can always count on to whisk me away, if only for a moment. It’s called the Theatre Channel, but every time I tune in I catch the same modern dance troupe from the Netherlands, seemingly dancing without end. Their movements, their bodies, their expressions arrest me. They are athletes and acrobats and magicians and artists and humans in every flex of a muscle, every strain of a ligament. Oh, the complex workings of balance and counter-balance and timing... how do two dancers work so intimately and intricately with timing? It’s as if I am

watching every moment in the dancer’s life that led up to this very moment. All life experience, pains, weaknesses, successes, all that had to be in order for this dancer to perform this here, now. To express the inexpressible. All of that dancer’s life is condensed in every breath, every motion, so in time that it creates another kind of moment–one that is out of time. Beyond time. Breaks the illusion of time itself. All moments become one moment, present only before your eyes.

I like to think this dance channel is always playing, whether I watch it or not, whether I like it or not, whether I know it or not... whether I or not I. It is the dance of eternity, always unfolding in the form of a human limb reaching out into open space.

 

Time to Rise and Shine

It is springtime in Switzerland, and I am surrounded by weeping willow trees filled with the nests of Alsatian storks. In 1980 there were two left. Now I am breathless by their number and their nesting—a nest is big enough for me to curl up in and nap. It is mating season and the lovers click


their long, elegant beaks and nuzzle necks in elaborate foreplay. With a six-foot wingspan, the bird makes no noise as it glides with the wind effortlessly. It is not separate from the wind, but part of the wind itself. One flies overhead and my breath stops; two fly overhead and my heart stops.

There is no marking time when watching a bird that should be extinct. No way to record a moment that shouldn’t be happening. It’s as if the storks all slipped into a wormhole, stole themselves away from time, tricked time into looking the other way while those long, spiny orange legs slowly bend and lurch, finding the earth, once again.

Birds are everywhere, high in the trees, mid-flight, surfing the wind, and on the ground hunting, with one marble-perfect eye on the fish in the pond. The stork is a gorgeous beast, a plump and pure white that only gives way to the inkiest of blacks at the tips of their tails. I could watch them for the rest of my life and still not find the right words. Impossible bird! And then, suddenly, I see a flicker of black next to a bush. In the midst of this stork colony—fertile with nesting and breeding and effortless flight—is one solitary black swan, next to

a bush, nonchalantly preening its feathers.

I swear to fucking God.

A black swan was once considered only a mythic creature in Europe. But then, in the eighteenth century, Europeans saw a black swan, in the flesh, native to Australia. Such a discovery inspired the new phrase “It’s a Black Swan,” meaning that something which seemed impossible is, in fact, possible after all. Then the black swan got its own theory. The Black Swan Theory is used to explain the existence and occurrence of high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations.

So I am not sure how I got here really—doing such a fancy thing as living in Switzerland. It is certainly beyond my realm of normal expectations and I could not have predicted it. Is it an event of rarity or high-impact? Time will tell. For now, I am as unlikely as a black swan in the midst of an impossible stork colony, a black swan eternally muffling an apocalypse, a black swan feeling around for a miracle, a black swan gestating the impossible into the possible.

Copyright© Cherie Caswell Dost. White Whale Review, issue 2.2


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