Tea with the Black Dragon


Perhaps not. She peered at the line where the iron blue of the sky hit the soft-colored water. So bare a sky did not shine over Coney Island.

A gull plunged, kissed the water and veered right and away, all ten yards from Mrs. Macnamara. Her head rose to follow its flight and her hands lifted, echoing the bird’s gesture. For a moment it seemed her prim figure, gray suited and graying, would fly away into the west—or north along the dirty beach toward the Bridge.

But that was just for a moment, and then the hands touched at the braids that coiled around her head, braids that threatened to slip over her ears.

“If you would know the Way,” she recited to herself, “observe the subtlety of water.” Martha considered these words as she watched the waves fling themselves roaring onto the sand. What was subtle in such a display of power?

With her round blue eyes very calm in her small round face Mrs. Macnamara watched the ocean. Slowly she smiled.

Where was Liz now—at work? Should Martha try to call again, or wait for her daughter to make the move? After all, Elizabeth had set up the reservation. Martha Macnamara would never have chosen to stay in a place like the James Herald Hotel. Oh, it was comfortable, doubtless, and the only person she had spoken to in the hotel—a bartender—had proven friendly; she had bent his ear for forty minutes at lunch—her dinner, what with the time change—perched on a red leather stool amid black oak and brass, rattling on about airplanes racing the sun, and how the violin had evolved from the viola when Europeans were able to afford carpets and drapes… But with the price of a night’s lodging at the James Herald she could have bought that bass bow she’d wanted since June.

Martha could just as well have slept on Liz’s couch as spent so much of her daughter’s money. It was all very strange. The smile disappeared from her lips as she considered how strange. She turned from the water and ascended the sandy slope.

“Mysterious meetings in expensive places,” she mumbled as she climbed. A wealth of sand was trapped in her open-toed shoes. “Intrigue. Suspense…

“Tune in tonight for shocking revelations!” The sole of her foot gritted against concrete; she stood on the pavement above the beach, emptying her shoes. Except for her gray form, unobtrusive as a rock, the beach was empty on this workday afternoon. Empty and cool. Martha shivered deliciously in the good wool suit she hadn’t been able to wear since May.

The Great Highway cut between the City and the Ocean, sharp as the mark of a razor. A young boy ran along the curb, all dressed in white, his feet making a noise like pigeon wings.

Thinking of pigeon wings, Martha’s spirits lifted once again. It was her spirits’ natural condition, to be lifted. She sprinted across the street in her cordovan brogues, her pleated skirt flapping, receiving the honks of motorists with quiet grace. On the far side—the City side— stood the stand of a pretzel vendor. His teeth flashed at her from a strong, Latin face. She bought a soft pretzel, decorated it with mustard, and ate it where she stood.

Three men walked by together, arm in arm in arm, and then a young woman with bushy hair red as a radish. A bare-chested boy on a spyder bike did wheelies in the street. Honks again. Martha’s approval was limitless; San Francisco bid fair to being as zany as New York.

And this was a good corner, probably packed on weekends. Close to downtown yet in sight of the water. She wished she had brought her fiddle. How invigorating to sit down next to the pretzel vendor and play a Bach passacaglia, or maybe a slip jig. Put out the hat. Liz would hate that! Liz behaved with propriety.

Martha Macnamara was smiling again. She licked mustard from her fingers and turned toward the hotel.

She took the stranger’s long hand in her own and shook it. “How wonderful! You could span way over two octaves!”

The hand retreated as soon as custom permitted. The owner of it remained standing, a dark figure in the shadow of a paneled wall. He bowed slightly to Mrs. Macnamara.

“ Mayland Long… Martha Macnamara…”The young bartender continued his introduction. “I thought you two should meet.”

Both parties stared at him. “Because of the violin,” he explained.

“But surely you play keyboards,” Martha insisted. “With such a reach…”

Mr. Long motioned across the white expanse of table, and did not sit again ’til Martha had lowered herself into the chair opposite. “Forgive the clutter. I have had a late dinner.” He spoke quietly, as empty plates and silver were cleared away before him. “Please have tea with me.”

My, thought the woman to herself. His voice. Lovely English. How wonderful.

“I don’t make music,” Mr. Long stated. “I merely appreciate it.” He sat in the shadow of his corner table, gazing across to where she sat touched by a beam of light. He saw a slim woman of some fifty years. Her features were small and regular, and her head set well on a slender neck. Her grizzled hair was braided around her head. The hair and her gray wool suit were back lit, causing Martha Macnamara to shine about the edges.

She saw a thin man, dressed darkly, hidden in the dark. The hands stood out against the white linen. They were very dark also, unusually dark, if this man were indeed English. She thought of the beautiful voices of the West Indies. Beautiful, yes, but not correct. Mr. Long’s pronunciation was faultless.

“But you, madam,” he was saying, “are a creator. I remember you.”

“I doubt that!”

“I have a record upstairs in my rooms. A 78. I believe the label is Seraphim. You play, among other things, the Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied violin 4n D minor, by J. S. Bach. I have never heard that piece played better.”

He leaned forward as he spoke. Martha Macnamara saw his face.

Her new-built conceptions fell apart as she looked at Mayland Long. The man was Oriental. At least his eyes were. But the rest of him… Too long a nose. Too much cheekbone. She gave up trying to place his origin.

“You must be an historian,” she laughed. “How many years has it been since they pressed 78s?”

He smiled but did not answer. The tea arrived. Mr. Long poured for her, then for himself. Ignoring the handle on the white china cup he wrapped his hand around it. The thumb overlapped the fingers.

Martha experimented, to see how much other cup her hands would compass. “Ouch! It’s hot!”

“Do not burn yourself, Mrs. Macnamara,” said Mr. Long. He smiled with excellent teeth. “I am not an historians—in any organized sense. If you tell me where to find your latest stereo album or Dolby tape, I will bring my collection out of the middle ages.”

Martha smiled in turn—not with the smile of flattery well received, but as though she were a child who was about to reveal a naughty secret. It was a smile that made her round face rounder. “Look under the label Ceirnfni Claddagh. I play fiddle in a Irish-American Ceili band.” Having uttered this, she sat back, wondering if she had become so jaded with the public life—a musician’s life—that it was now effortless to talk to strange men alone in strange places. And if she were jaded, then why were Mr. Longs attentions so pleasant?

“Thar Ci’onn! How wonderful,” he laughed.

“Oh. You mustn’t call my bluff. I speak very little Irish, though I’m taking lessons with a Meath man. He says although my spirit is willing, my accent is very bad. But then music is international, and with a fiddle under my chin I can’t talk anyway.”

She heard her voice echo through the empty dining room. “And I guess that’s the only time I don’t. But Mr. Long, I have to ask. Where are you from?”

He glanced into his teacup, then met her blue eyes again. He did not seem offended. “I was born in China,” he said. “But I am not entirely—Chinese.” Gripping the teapot around its portly middle, he freshened her cup.

“What is the name of your ensemble?”

“It’s called Linnet’s Wings, after a poem by Yeats.” She sighed. “Actually, it’s a poem Yeats hated…”

“I know it,” said Mr. Long. “ ‘There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet’s wings.’ He had schoolchildren prattling that into his ears for twenty years, so his distaste may be understood.”

“I’ve never been to Innisfree,” brooded Martha, staring across the dining room and into the deeper dimness of the bar. She swallowed a yawn. “I don’t even know if it’s a real place.”

The chandeliers were crystal. The tiny drops sparkled in their own light. The weariness of a day’s flight blurred her vision, and the play of light reminded her of snow falling into the bright circles of street lights.

But here in San Francisco there was no snow. Never. Just fog and sea. How strange. Unreal.

The voice recalled her. “It is quite real,” the voice was saying. She focused again. He meant Innisfree, of course. Not San Francisco.

“You have been to Ireland?” she asked. But she guessed his answer before he could speak.

“What did you do there?”

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