|Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 17 (view annotations)
|The hugest dictionary in the library said under Lip: "Either of
|a pair of fleshy folds surrounding an orifice."
|Mileyshiy Emile, as Ada called Monsieur Littré, spoke thus:
|"Partie extérieure et charnue qui forme le contour de la bouche
|. . . Les deux bords d'une plaie simple" (we simply speak with
|our wounds; wounds procreate) ". . . C'est le membre qui lèche."
|A fat little Russian encyclopedia was solely concerned with
|guba, lip, as meaning a district court in ancient Lyaska or an
|Their lips were absurdly similar in style, tint and tissue. Van's
|upper one resembled in shape a long-winged sea bird coming
|directly at you, while the nether lip, fat and sullen, gave a touch
|of brutality to his usual expression. Nothing of that brutality
|existed in the case of Ada's lips, but the bow shape of the upper
|one and the largeness of the lower one with its disdainful
|prominence and opaque pink repeated Van's mouth in a femi-
|During our children's kissing phase (a not particularly healthy
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|fortnight of long messy embraces), some odd pudibund screen
|cut them off, so to speak, from each other's raging bodies. But
|contacts and reactions to contacts could not help coming
|through like a distant vibration of desperate signals. Endlessly,
|steadily, delicately, Van would brush his lips against hers, teas-
|ing their burning bloom, back and forth, right, left, life, death,
|reveling in the contrast between the airy tenderness of the open
|idyll and the gross congestion of the hidden flesh.
|There were other kisses. "I'd like to taste," he said, "the inside
|of your mouth. God, how I'd like to be a goblin-sized Gulliver
|and explore that cave."
|"I can lend you my tongue," she said, and did.
|A large boiled strawberry, still very hot. He sucked it in as
|far as it would go. He held her close and lapped her palate.
|Their chins got thoroughly wet. "Hanky," she said, and in-
|formally slipped her hand into his trouser pocket, but withdrew
|it quickly, and had him give it himself. No comment.
|("I appreciated your tact," he told her when they recalled,
|with amusement and awe that rapture and that discomfort. "But
|we lost a lot of time—irretrievable opals.")
|He learned her face. Nose, cheek, chin—all possessed such a
|softness of outline (associated retrospectively with keepsakes,
|and picture hats, and frightfully expensive little courtesans in
|Wicklow) that a mawkish admirer might well have imagined
|the pale plume of a reed, that unthinking man—pascaltrezza—
|shaping her profile, while a more childish and sensual digit would
|have liked, and did like, to palpate that nose, cheek, chin. Re-
|membrance, like Rembrandt, is dark but festive. Remembered
|ones dress up for the occasion and sit still. Memory is a photo-
|studio de luxe on an infinite Fifth Power Avenue. The fillet of
|black velvet binding her hair that day (the day of the mental
|picture) brought out its sheen at the silk of the temple and along
|the chalk of the parting. It hung lank and long over the neck,
|its flow disjoined by the shoulder; so that the mat white of her
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|neck through the black bronze stream showed in triangular
|Accentuating her nose's slight tilt turned it into Lucette's;
|smoothing it down, into Samoyed. In both sisters, the front
|teeth were a trifle too large and the nether lip too fat for the
|ideal beauty of marble death; and because their noses were
|permanently stuffed, both girls (especially later, at fifteen and
|twelve) looked a little dreamy or dazed in profile. The luster-
|less whiteness of Ada's skin (at twelve, sixteen, twenty, thirty-
|three, et cetera) was incomparably rarer than Lucette's golden
|bloom (at eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty-five, finis). In both,
|the long pure line of the throat, coming straight from Marina,
|tormented the senses with unknown, ineffable promises (not
|kept by the mother).
|The eyes. Ada's dark brown eyes. What (Ada asks) are
|eyes anyway? Two holes in the mask of life. What (she asks)
|would they mean to a creature from another corpuscle or milk
|bubble whose organ of sight was (say) an internal parasite
|resembling the written word "deified"? What, indeed, would a
|pair of beautiful (human, lemurian, owlish) eyes mean to any-
|body if found lying on the seat of a taxi? Yet I have to de-
|scribe yours. The iris: black brown with amber specks or
|spokes placed around the serious pupil in a dial arrangement of
|identical hours. The eyelids: sort of pleaty, v skladochku (rhym-
|ing in Russian with the diminutive of her name in the accusative
|case). Eye shape: languorous. The procuress in Wicklow, on
|that satanic night of black sleet, at the most tragic, and almost
|fatal point of my life (Van, thank goodness, is ninety now—in
|Ada's hand) dwelt with peculiar force on the "long eyes" of
|her pathetic and adorable grandchild. How I used to seek, with
|what tenacious anguish, traces and tokens of my unforgettable
|love in all the brothels of the world!
|He discovered her hands (forget that nail-biting business).
|The pathos of the carpus, the grace of the phalanges demanding
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|helpless genuflections, a mist of brimming tears, agonies of un-
|resolvable adoration. He touched her wrist, like a dying doctor.
|A quiet madman, he caressed the parallel strokes of the delicate
|down shading the brunette's forearm. He went back to her
|knuckles. Fingers, please.
|"I am sentimental," she said. "I could dissect a koala but not
|its baby. I like the words damozel, eglantine, elegant. I love
|when you kiss my elongated white hand."
|She had on the back of her left hand the same small brown
|spot that marked his right one. She was sure, she said—either
|disingenuously or giddily—it descended from a birthmark Ma-
|rina had had removed surgically from that very place years
|ago when in love with a cad who complained it resembled a
|On very still afternoons one could hear the pre-tunnel toot
|of the two-two to Toulouse from the hill, where that exchange
|can be localized.
|"Cad is too strong," remarked Van.
|"I used it fondly."
|"Even so. I think I know the man. He has less heart than
|wit, that's a fact."
|As he looks, the palm of a gipsy asking for alms fades into
|that of the almsgiver asking for a long life. (When will film-
|makers reach the stage we have reached?) Blinking in the
|green sunshine under a birch tree, Ada explained to her pas-
|sionate fortuneteller that the circular marblings she shared with
|Turgenev's Katya, another innocent girl, were called "waltzes"
|in California ("because the señorita will dance all night").
|On her twelfth birthday, July 21, 1884, the child had stopped
|biting her fingernails (but not her toenails) in a grand act of
|will (as her quitting cigarettes was to be, twenty years later).
|True, one could list some compensations—such as a blessed
|lapse into delicious sin at Christmas, when Culex chateaubriandi
|Brown does not fly. A new and conclusive resolution was taken
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|on New Year's Eve after Mlle Larivière had threatened to smear
|poor Ada's fingertips with French mustard and tie green, yel-
|low, orange, red, pink riding hoods of wool around them (the
|yellow index was a trouvaille).
|Soon after the birthday picnic, when kissing the hands of his
|little sweetheart had become a tender obsession with Van, her
|nails, although still on the squarish side, became strong enough
|to deal with the excruciating itch that local children experienced
|During the last week of July, there emerged, with diabolical
|regularity, the female of Chateaubriand's mosquito, Chateau-
|briand (Charles), who had not been the first to be bitten by
|it . . . but the first to bottle the offender, and with cries of
|vindictive exultation to carry it to Professor Brown who wrote
|the rather slap-bang Original Description ("small black palpi . . .
|hyaline wings . . . yellowy in certain lights . . . which should be
|extinguished if one keeps open the kasements [German print-
|er!] . . ." The Boston Entomologist for August, quick work,
|1840) was not related to the great poet and memoirist born
|between Paris and Tagne (as he'd better, said Ada, who liked
|Mon enfant, ma sœur,
|Songe à l'épaisseur
|Du grand chêne a Tagne;
|Songe à la montagne,
|Songe à la douceur—
|—of scraping with one's claws or nails the spots visited by
|that fluffy-footed insect characterized by an insatiable and reck-
|less appetite for Ada's and Ardelia's, Lucette's and Lucile's
|(multiplied by the itch) blood.
|The "pest" appeared as suddenly as it would vanish. It settled
|on pretty bare arms and legs without the hint of a hum, in a
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|kind of recueilli silence, that—by contrast—caused the sudden
|insertion of its absolutely hellish proboscis to resemble the brass
|crash of a military band. Five minutes after the attack in the
|crepuscule, between porch step and cricket-crazed garden, a
|fiery irritation would set in, which the strong and the cold
|ignored (confident it would last a mere hour) but which the
|weak, the adorable, the voluptuous took advantage of to scratch
|and scratch and scratch scrumptiously (canteen cant). "Sladko!
|(Sweet!)" Pushkin used to exclaim in relation to a different
|species in Yukon. During the week following her birthday,
|Ada's unfortunate fingernails used to stay garnet-stained and
|after a particularly ecstatic, lost-to-the-world session of scratch-
|ing, blood literally streamed down her shins—a pity to see,
|mused her distressed admirer, but at the same time disgracefully
|fascinating—for we are visitors and investigators in a strange
|universe, indeed, indeed.
|The girl's pale skin, so excitingly delicate to Van's eye, so
|vulnerable to the beast's needle, was, nevertheless, as strong as a
|stretch of Samarkand satin and withstood all self-flaying at-
|tempts whenever Ada, her dark eyes veiled as in the erotic
|trances Van had already begun to witness during their im-
|moderate kissing, her lips parted, her large teeth lacquered with
|saliva, scraped with her five fingers the pink mounds caused by
|the rare insect's bite—for it is a rather rare and interesting mos-
|quito (described—not quite simultaneously—by two angry old
|men—the second was Braun, the Philadelphian dipterist, a much
|better one than the Boston professor), and rare and rapturous
|was the sight of my beloved trying to quench the lust of her
|precious skin, leaving at first pearly, then ruby, stripes along
|her enchanting leg and briefly attaining a drugged beatitude
|into which, as into a vacuum, the ferocity of the itch would
|rush with renewed strength.
|"Look here," said Van, "if you do not stop now when I say
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|one, two, three, I shall open this knife" (opening the knife) "and
|slash my leg to match yours. Oh, please, devour your finger-
|nails! Anything is more welcome."
|Because, perhaps, Van's lifestream was too bitter—even in
|those glad days—Chateaubriand's mosquito never cared much
|for him. Nowadays it seems to be getting extinct, what with the
|cooler climate and the moronic draining of the lovely rich
|marshes in the Ladore region as well as near Kaluga, Conn.,
|and Lugano, Pa. (A short series, all females, replete with their
|fortunate captor's blood, has recently been collected, I am told
|in a secret habitat quite far from the above-mentioned stations.
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