Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 12 (view annotations)

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall
with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with
Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his
boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first
70.05 amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a re-
capitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours
between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take
over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on
from here, Ada, please.
70.10 (She). Billions of boys. Take one fairly decent decade. A
billion of Bills, good, gifted, tender and passionate, not only
spiritually but physically well-meaning Billions, have bared the
jillions of their no less tender and brilliant Jills during that
decade, at stations and under conditions that have to be con-
70.15 trolled and specified by the worker, lest the entire report be
choked up by the weeds of statistics and waist-high generaliza-
tions. No point would there be, if we left out, for example, the
little matter of prodigious individual awareness and young
genius, which makes, in some cases, of this or that particular

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gasp an unprecedented and unrepeatable event in the continuum
of life or at least a thematic anthemia of such events in a work
of art, or a denouncer’s article. The details that shine through
or shade through: the local leaf through the hyaline skin, the
71.05 green sun in the brown humid eye, tout ceci, vsyo eto, in tit and
toto, must be taken into account, now prepare to take over (no,
Ada, go on, ya zaslushalsya: I’m all enchantment and ears), if
we wish to convey the fact, the fact, the fact—that among those
billions of brilliant couples in one cross section of what you will
71.10 allow me to call spacetime (for the convenience of reasoning),
one couple is a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperator-
skaya cheta, in consequence of which (to be inquired into, to be
painted, to be denounced, to be put to music, or to the question
and death, if the decade has a scorpion tail after all), the
71.15 particularities of their love-making influence in a special unique
way two long lives and a few readers, those pensive reeds, and
their pens and mental paintbrushes. Natural history indeed!
Unnatural history—because that precision of senses and sense
must seem unpleasantly peculiar to peasants, and because the
71.20 detail is all: The song of a Tuscan Firecrest or a Sitka Kinglet
in a cemetery cypress; a minty whiff of Summer Savory or
Yerba Buena on a coastal slope; the dancing flitter of a Holly
Blue or an Echo Azure—combined with other birds, flowers and
butterflies: that has to be heard, smelled and seen through the
71.25 transparency of death and ardent beauty. And the most diffi-
cult: beauty itself as perceived through the there and then. The
males of the firefly (now it’s really your turn, Van).
The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a
wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm
71.30 black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a
ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their
quest came to its natural end. Van watched them with the same
pleasurable awe he had experienced as a child, when, lost in the
purple crepuscule of an Italian hotel garden, in an alley of

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cypresses, he supposed they were golden ghouls or the passing
fancies of the garden. Now as they softly flew, apparently
straight, crossing and recrossing the darkness around him, each
flashed his pale-lemon light every five seconds or so, signaling
72.05 in his own specific rhythm (quite different from that of an allied
species, flying with Photinus ladorensis, according to Ada, at
Lugano and Luga) to his grass-domiciled female pulsating in
photic response after taking a couple of moments to verify the
exact type of light code he used. The presence of those magnifi-
72.10 cent little animals, delicately illuminating, as they passed, the
fragrant night, filled Van with a subtle exhilaration that Ada’s
entomology seldom evoked in him—maybe in result of the
abstract scholar’s envy which a naturalist’s immediate knowledge
sometimes provokes. The hammock, a comfortable oblong nest,
72.15 reticulated his naked body either under the weeping cedar that
sprawled over one corner of a lawn, and granted a partial
shelter in case of a shower, or, on safer nights, between two
tulip trees (where a former summer guest, with an opera cloak
over his clammy nightshirt, had awoken once because a stink
72.20 bomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart, and
striking a match, Uncle Van had seen the bright blood blotching
his pillow).
The windows in the black castle went out in rows, files, and
knight moves. The longest occupant of the nursery water closet
72.25 was Mlle Larivière, who came there with a rose-oil lampad and
her buvard. A breeze ruffled the hangings of his now infinite
chamber. Venus rose in the sky; Venus set in his flesh.
All that was a little before the seasonal invasion of a certain
interestingly primitive mosquito (whose virulence the not-too-
72.30 kind Russian contingent of our region attributed to the diet of
the French winegrowers and bogberry-eaters of Ladore); but
even so the fascinating fireflies, and the still more eerie pale
cosmos coming through the dark foliage, balanced with new

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discomforts the nocturnal ordeal, the harassments of sweat and
sperm associated with his stuffy room. Night, of course, always
remained an ordeal, throughout the near-century of his life,
no matter how drowsy or drugged the poor man might be—for
73.05 genius is not all gingerbread even for Billionaire Bill with his
pointed beardlet and stylized bald dome, or crusty Proust who
liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping, or
this brilliant or obscure V.V. (depending on the eyesight of
readers, also poor people despite our jibes and their jobs); but
73.10 at Ardis, the intense life of the star-haunted sky troubled the
boy’s night so much that, on the whole, he felt grateful when
foul weather or the fouler gnat—the Kamargsky Komar of our
muzhiks and the Moustique moscovite of their no less alliterative
retaliators—drove him back to his bumpy bed.
73.15 In this our dry report on Van Veen’s early, too early love,
for Ada Veen, there is neither reason, nor room for metaphysical
digression. Yet, let it be observed (just while the lucifers fly and
throb, and an owl hoots—also most rhythmically—in the nearby
park) that Van, who at the time had still not really tasted the
73.20 Terror of Terra—vaguely attributing it, when analyzing his
dear unforgettable Aqua’s torments, to pernicious fads and
popular fantasies—even then, at fourteen, recognized that the
old myths, which willed into helpful being a whirl of worlds (no
matter how silly and mystical) and situated them within the
73.25 gray matter of the star-suffused heavens, contained, perhaps, a
glowworm of strange truth. His nights in the hammock (where
that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk
back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of
symbols in an orchal orchestra—as suggested to him by career
73.30 physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of
his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, un-
derhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time,
tingling about him and through him, as it was to retingle—with

[ 73 ]

a little more meaning fortunately—in the last nights of a life,
which I do not regret, my love.
He would fall asleep at the moment he thought he would
never sleep again, and his dreams were young. As the first flame
74.05 of day reached his hammock, he woke up another man—and
very much of a man indeed. "Ada, our ardors and arbors"—a
dactylic trimeter that was to remain Van Veen’s only contribu-
tion to Anglo-American poetry—sang through his brain. Bless
the starling and damn the stardust! He was fourteen and a half;
74.10 he was burning and bold; he would have her fiercely some day!
One such green resurrection he could particularize when re-
playing the past. Having drawn on his swimming trunks, having
worked in and crammed in all that intricate, reluctant multiple
machinery, he had toppled out of his nest and forthwith en-
74.15 deavored to determine whether her part of the house had come
alive. It had. He saw a flash of crystal, a fleck of color. She was
having sa petite collation du matin alone on a private balcony.
Van found his sandals—with a beetle in one and a petal in the
other—and, through the toolroom, entered the cool house.
74.20 Children of her type contrive the purest philosophies. Ada
had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had
elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being
initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of
certain classified things: "real things" which were unfrequent
74.25 and priceless, simply "things" which formed the routine stuff
of life; and "ghost things," also called "fogs," such as fever,
toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more
things occurring at the same time formed a "tower," or, if they
came in immediate succession, they made a "bridge." "Real
74.30 towers" and "real bridges" were the joys of life, and when the
towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it al-
most never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a cer-
tain light, a neutral "thing" might look or even actually become
"real" or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid "fog."

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When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed,
simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was con-
fronted with "ruined towers" and "broken bridges."
The pictorial and architectural details of her metaphysics
75.05 made her nights easier than Van’s, and that morning—as on most
mornings—he had the sensation of returning from a much more
remote and grim country than she and her sunlight had come
Her plump, stickily glistening lips smiled.
75.10 (When I kiss you here, he said to her years later, I always
remember that blue morning on the balcony when you were
eating a tartine au miel; so much better in French.)
The classical beauty of clover honey, smooth, pale, translu-
cent, freely flowing from the spoon and soaking my love’s
75.15 bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar.
"Real thing?" he asked.
"Tower," she answered.
And the wasp.
The wasp was investigating her plate. Its body was throbbing.
75.20 "We shall try to eat one later," she observed, "but it must be
gorged to taste good. Of course, it can’t sting your tongue. No
animal will touch a person’s tongue. When a lion has finished a
traveler, bones and all, he always leaves the man’s tongue lying
like that in the desert" (making a negligent gesture).
75.25 "I doubt it."
"It’s a well-known mystery."
Her hair was well brushed that day and sheened darkly in
contrast with the lusterless pallor of her neck and arms. She
wore the striped tee shirt which in his lone fantasies he espe-
75.30 cially liked to peel off her twisting torso. The oilcloth was
divided into blue and white squares. A smear of honey stained
what remained of the butter in its cool crock.
"All right. And the third Real Thing?"
She considered him. A fiery droplet in the wick of her mouth

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considered him. A three-colored velvet violet, of which she had
done an aquarelle on the eve, considered him from its fluted
crystal. She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, still look-
ing at him.
76.05 Van, getting no answer, left the balcony. Softly her tower
crumbled in the sweet silent sun.

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