By Raji Singh
I am James Thaddeus Fiction, the Fifth – a true Fiction. Typhoon tears me from my mother and father on board a sinking ferry near the Lindian coast. A thousand minus one perish. I alone survive. I become an orphan foundling, taken in by new loving parents Dr. Ben and Indira Singh. Now I am Raji. These are my found and foundling tales.
* * *
Sometimes late at night, I can’t sleep. Tenille and our children are upstairs in bed. So, I roam the grand old rambling Fiction House and examine the portraits lining the walls. They are those of the hundreds of Fiction House former ‘residents’.
I know them only in my imagination.
They are relatives, authors, friends of the family, and some foes. Others – characters in stories – it’s hard to tell if they are real, or if they’re fiction from the bookshelves.
So quiet! You feel tonight is different from other nights. Then you hear – barely audible at first – whispers. They rise from the paintings.
“Tell our stories Raji. If you don’t it will be as if we’ll never have lived.”
I gently touch the canvas face of my great-great grandfather James Thaddeus ‘Blackjack’ Fiction, the Fiction House founder. It’s cold, yet it warms my hand as if he’s alive as he was when he sat for the artist. He’s a handsome devil. (See above picture) Looks just like me. (Hee! Hee!) I take Blackjack down to dust his old frame. I believe the dapper old gent just smiled appreciatively.
As I hold great-great granfa close, I notice something I never before did – or maybe it’s a strange magic of night. The wall covering beneath the hanging is no darker than the rest of the wall. The burgundy fleur pattern from the 1850’s isn’t faded.
THE TALE OF THE WALL COVER OF THE FICTION HOUSE (even it has a tale)
It is made from the finest, most expensive deeply dyed silk from Lindia. Its installation is the result of Blackjack’s abolitionist relationship with his friend-decorator, Madame Rrrose Heather. She operated a chain of bordellos along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – from Cincinnati to New Orleans – that served as safe houses on the Underground Railroad. She used the design at each location.
“Seek safety in the whure of the fleur,” became an abolitionist password. Torn swatches of the wall covering became discreet codes along southern trails. They pointed the way to northern safety for runaway slaves:
To safe houses like the Fiction House.
“Tell our stories Raji…”
THE TALE OF RAJI
The portraits’ beckoning haunts me, nicely. I’ll not refuse their request. I, Raji, know little of them because I became an orphan, a foundling, at a tender age. I continually discover who, I, am through their stories.
In my role as archivist-editor for the many generations-in-existence family business, Fiction House Publishing, I’m continually finding the writings of my Russian immigrant great grandmother Shelva Fiction.
They are tucked discreetly but haphazardly hither, thither, and yon within the tired home: Beneath re-upholstered settees to build them up.
Reams of wadded writing pack tightly into dusty airshafts. Fistfuls more, they’re insulation for the attic, and draft dodgers in the basement.
No rhyme, reason, nor explanation for this word-hoard, or their hiding spots.
Since Shelva shelved them – many over 100 years ago – mine eyes are the first to see them; hands first to touch; nose to smell their not quite completely faded lavender scent.
Oh, the treasure trove of history and drama they hold for me to reveal to the world: journals, diary, and biography. It is the treasure I’ve dreamed of, hoped for – stories of my past I’ve never known.
It is every editor’s dream coming true. Every glorious find an archivist may discover.
G-gra’ma Shelva barely spoke English when she arrived “to Amerika” from her Mother Russia. One can see, over the decades, by the flow of her prose, how she became proficient – second-to-none in her adopted language.
Shelva enjoyed, and became impassioned by the unique and adventurous lives of the Fiction House women. Through the scraps of Shelva’s writing I find, I piece together their stories told in their words, through Shelva’s caring voice.
Shelva showed special interest in an elderly healer-midwife named Mama Lucy. Shelva’s husband Doc Fiction, my great grandfather, based many of his healing medicines and pharmaceuticals on Mama Lucy’s bayou potions and notions.
“Tell our stories Raji…”
Down the hallway gallery I go to Mama Lucy, 125 years old if she’s a day. In her portrait she cradles a floppin’, flounderin’ foundlin’ baby gator. Her blind eyes seem to scrutinize me, and pity me for being a foundling too, and encourage me to discover my past by telling of all those who are pictured on the walls. Mama Lucy does all this with the same deadeye look.
A poet who spoke in Lake Pontchartrain Cajun strains, Mama’s words came softy and sublime, often in sing-song rhyme.
‘Yer life, Raji, it be a dereliction,
If you not be tellin’ the tales ‘a the House ‘a Fiction.’
I answer her in kind.
“Yea, my Mama Lu,
I be Fiction true.”
I straighten her painting. I wonder: Maybe it has been askew for over a century? I notice that Mama’s is much heavier than others of the pictures I’ve handled. I remove it from the wall, slip away part of its backing. Out slides hundreds of formulas for the notions and potions.
A recipe catches my eye – Madame Rrrose Heather’s Whure’s Delight, nutty fudge, with a few merry alterations.
A newspaper review is attached to it. In the mid 19th century of the Sunday culinary section of the Cincinnati Daily Opine, the cooking editor describes it, “A bawdy repast for the never to be bored again boudoir. Just one taste will assure your just desserts.”
* * *
The portraits in the Fiction House, they beckon me – ‘Tell our stories, Raji.’
I shall, every Sunday night in these postings. Join me, won’t you? No telling what grand adventuring we’ll be invited to be part of amongst these 1,001 tales.
NEXT WEEK: THE TALE OF RRROSE HEATHER’S WHURE’S DELIGHT
(Read more of Mama Lucy, King Creole, and the gators in the novel, Tales of Fiction House. Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. My novel is available at Amazon, (Kindle and Trade Paperback) and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh
©2014 Raji Singh (New material)