She went down the coast virescent with spring.
The rust of numberless poppies be-topazed the hills swarming with squirrels. The dry strength of oaks spiraling from the earth in contorted rhythms told of deep roots, stubborn and firm. Like locks of hair they emanated the powerful magnetism of the body-earth that bore them in defiance of the drought. There must be some rich blood flowing deep down to bear the rigidity of trees — sycamores, redwoods, massive oaks. Rich blood, rich humus, golden wheat, golden poppies, golden fruits, gold, gold and yellow sun, steady and strong where the kiss of the sea does not moisten with fog the parched skin of the land.
She went down the coast virescent with spring.
Because she liked freedom she bought a small car.
Breathing deep the rain, one with the soil, imbibing with fervor the gift of water, she zigzagged through valleys and hills drinking freedom and sun like one reborn. She rolled herself upon the grass; her body gave in love to the vast breasts of the earth to the deep womb of canyons rounded in expectation of seeds. The air was soft with flowers, pungent with orange-whiteness. It flowed through the crisp leaves of the oaks like woman-hair through millions of combs. It flowed through her, kissed her legs bared to the caress, kissed her browning flesh offered to the sun through dawns of sun ecstasy. It glowed in her eyes, staring at the light. She was drunken with mimosa, drunken with radiant orchards, drunken with fertility and rain, her body ploughed with passionate languors.
In freedom she roamed for weeks along the great ocean.
Then she reached the city of glamorous screen-fame.
Because she was young, agile, and beautiful, she was told she should have no difficulty in piercing through the host of potential stars starving through weary ordeals, and would be singled out. She took rooms in a studio club filled with youthful cravings and hectic pursuits. She found soon that women with beautiful bodies and easy characters were many, a common fare for men who retained the absolute power of casting or pushing one through the illogical steps to motion picture fame. She waited for hours and hours in crowded offices with mobs staring at some small window whence would come signs of possible favor. She had to disrobe to the weary eyes — yet never too weary — of casting officials in search of tempting curves for oriental screen-orgies. She saw in their looks the appraising of connoisseurs feeling skin and muscle, evaluating also the boon of easy-gained nights.
She had reached "screenland," modern slave market.
At first she laughed it off, bewildered yet amused.
She was too proud really to mind the banal desire of all-powerful bosses. Small pride only fears being insulted by small men. She looked back with ironic scorn and politely joked with them, as with misbehaving children. The whole show seemed such a farce that she could extract but humor out of the amazing scenes that came before her every day. She was eager to know all life, to sink her own vibrating soul as a sounding line into all depths, even though filth might cling to it and weigh it down for long miseries. It was all mankind, the living pulse of passion; not to dismiss, but to understand. How could one understand unless one would live through, if not with the muscles, at least with knowing looks?
And so she went through it all, bewildered yet amused.
But soon a strange disgust began to creep in her.
It was a slack time when she reached movieland. Thousands of "extras" were crowding outside gates, running credit accounts if lucky, or nearly starving; contented, if they were brave, with sunbaths and meals snatched here and there. She found it hard to get an entry to the sanctuary of the huge hangars, factories of dreams, temples of deception. Weeks of long waiting passed; endless procession to studio gates, or afternoons mobbed in narrow halls facing one door through which the chosen ones would disappear, often sacrifices to the strange Moloch of the soulless industry; soulless because of its world fame, because men and women were rushing in with dreams from all over the earth, hundreds competing for every little bit, all fitted just as well for the easy work. How could choice be made save on grounds of personal preferment, which meant lust or drink, or the gambling away of this or that?
And slowly, insidiously, disgust seeped into her.
But money was scarce and she had to keep on.
She could laugh at insults and ward off banal greed; but the drawn out, depressing routine of days reaching nowhere made her life rebel in helpless anger. Helpless, for there was no one to be angry at; no one but a machine, but the grinding of unorganized wills flaring excitement into emptiness or polite refusals worse than insults: "Nothing today! Nothing today!" The dull refrain, ending long errands from mountain to sea over miles of roads, far and wide roads to many a Gethsemane. "Nothing today! Nothing today!"
But money was scarce and she had to keep on.
She made many friends, women and men.
A strange comradeship there was between these many-raced faces gathered at the foot of the hills, browning there with the rainless summer. She was kind but distant; and most were kind but distant. Mornings, as she would rush in her car to some studio beyond the hills, she would pick up on the roads straggling pieces of humanity waiting, moneyless, counting on good luck for a ride. They stood on corners with tortured eyes, anxious for the passing of minutes which might mean being last and a failure. The word would come that beards were needed; and files of hirsute faces, as from a world long past, would flock on the trail to five dollar checks, ten dollars perhaps for the lucky . . . living in many cases on a week's, even a couple of days' work a month.
She made many friends, kind yet distant.
One had to be kind.
One could never know when some strange trick of luck might not transform long-drawn features, peering through casting windows from the outer world, into the powerful boss glancing through some windows from the inner world dispensing salvation. But one had to be distant; for who knew what thief and polluted one might not glare behind sad countenance, heartrending misery, arousing pity, or the composure of evening-dressed gentlemen wearing moustaches like coats of arms heavy with ancestors. It was all a huge, heartless gamble, bitter contest and ferocious struggle most of the time — all weapons free to slander favored ones, or to drag some director from the body of a long-beloved.
One had to be distant.
At last she got her first break.
After nearly naked ordeals in front of high-ups — "Turn around! Head up! Bend your back! Dance! . . . Hum! not so bad! Good skin . . . Will register well. Breasts a little thin. Oh! well, it will do . . . " — she was selected for a "bit" in a big Arabian picture to be made on location. She was to be the favorite slave attending the queen. Her clothes she could hold between two fingers; small trunk and some pearl strings. She was signed up. One hundred a week and free board in the camp, somewhere in the dunes.
That was her first break.
Weeks of "location" work.
Broiling sun beating on a camp with hundreds of tents, small and large. Work starting at daybreak in cold chilly air moist with sea-fog. Gulping hot coffee and banal fare, after cold nights and colder awakenings before dawn. Then hours of waiting practically naked on the sand which but slowly warmed up to the touch of the sun; then orders, counter-orders, confusion. Beasts and men herded into masses, swayed by contradictory whistles, thrown into panic, to and fro. With the zenith sun, dancing would start. Hours of dancing, swirling, dropping, perspiration on the sizzling sand. "Once more! Once more!" slashed weary muscles again and again. Exhausted, scorched; yet going on once more . . . once more.
Weeks of "location" work.
Weeks of steady, cruel work.
She had to dance under the lash of some huge black figure, some tragic mimic of despair. The man was kind but awkward. He was afraid to hit. The director got mad. "Darn you! Can't you use a lash!" The man lost his head. "Picture!" The camera ground. He used the lash. She nearly fell, her breasts cut; but she was reckless; she went on. The assistant yelled, "Hey! Go easy! You fool!" The man did not hear. He lashed. She danced; she danced; her teeth clenched; she danced — until she fell fainting, bleeding. It was a good shot. They had made the man drunk to make it more real.
Weeks of cruel, relentless work.
The director thought she was game.
He went to her and helped her up. She opened her eyes enough to see his face agleam with sadistic grinning. He stared at her. He could not do much now before the mob; but she understood. They gave her a day of rest and treated her well. One senses soon when favor falls upon one from on high. One must be very kind then, very kind. For the favorite may either crush or grace from her bed of pleasure. Other girls laughed and sneered: they were jealous. He was hard to please. His pleasure meant fame. They must watch her and begin to slander her, carefully though — most carefully.
The director thought she was game.
He told her so plainly when location ended.
He asked her to come to his office. He was very kind. He inquired about past and family. He played at fatherly tones, essayed a few silly gestures. She laughed. She knew she could not do it. He was domineering and cruel. She felt his craving like some foul animal twisting round her limbs. She could barely breathe. He had almost hypnotic power. He tried to seize her. She flung herself back and with cutting words threw him away to his desk. He sneered like a beast. "Proud, hey! Well, you know, better not play with me . . . dangerous game here." She asked to leave. He frowned, rushed to her, almost crushed her both hands. "Now girl! Don't be such a damned fool! What do you want? A house, car, jewels? All right . . . but, my God!" She looked at him slowly, up and down, shrugged her shoulders and simply said, "I am not for sale, that's all." He burst out in cramped laughter and let her go. "All right! Go your own damned way, little idiot. But you hear, no monkey-talk and not one step of yours back in this studio — or else . . ." and the gesture that ended was harsh and cutting like a curse.
In this manner "location" work ended.
As she went through the waiting room a man followed her.
Face flushed and a somber anger in her eyes, she did not see him. He was an old man, had played the high priest in the lashing scene. When she was outside the gates, something broke within her. She bit her lips, clenched her fists, not to let go. But when she came to her car, she dropped on the wheel and sobbed. She was startled as she felt a kind hand pressing her arm and a voice saying: "That's all right, girl! Don't take it so bad. He didn't kill you after all. You aren't the first one. That's the game. Don't mind it." She looked at a smiling face shaking with fatherly pity; she remembered him. He knew. He had seen her come in and out of the boss's sanctuary. He knew. Her face told. She tried to smile too, grinned only and cried bitterly in his arms.
The old man who followed her was kind.
He took the wheel and drove her to the beach.
They lay on the cooling sands watching the withdrawal of light and the slow rise of the fog, the cold, heavy breath of the compassionate sea moving earthward to mother the leaves and wipe the dust off their scorched eyes. There was a long silence. She was quiet now, looking far and away, following the motion of some things of the sea swaying on the big waves curling and breaking with the back power of great infinitudes. He looked at her distantly, as if she had no name, but were some transparent symbol of sorrow to be cared for, lest it might vanish and leave the earth empty, meaningless. He was dreaming through her at life; and it felt good to the wounded one, for that was quiet, silence, selflessness.
He lay near her for hours upon the beach.
Then she looked at him, whimsically.
The thing was absorbed now. It had struck and hurt. Now the time had come to shake off the ugly dream and live again more knowingly in the strength of one's soul, intangible. She fixed with a long clear look his restful countenance, a face long past middle age which must have suffered and forborne, and perhaps forgotten. His eyes did not shrink. They were deep grey lakes with soul-mist rising from old memories of sorrow. They were kind, full of acceptance, shadowed by some intangible dream almost beyond life.
She looked at him and laughed.
And gaily he also began to laugh.
Like two big children, they laughed at life, at themselves, at all the foolish water, tear-wasted throughout the ages. "What do you think he did to me?" she asked. "Don't know," he shrugged off. "I guess he might do anything. But the way you looked, I rather think he hadn't it easy!" and he smiled. "Easy!" she retorted. "Not on your life! I don't care, old man. I am not a silly girl to waste tears on my body, taken or not. You know what hurt?. . . " No, he did not know. "His eyes. They were awful. They pierced and tore me. It was ghastly. My body, what's the difference? He might just as well have had it, as long as he would get thrills out of it. It might have done him good. Men are such strange animals. But I couldn't bear his eyes. Anything, but not that."
His face was grave now. He understood.
She was a strange girl.
He had not yet seen anyone like her. Obviously she had known much of life otherwise she could not have this freedom and peace of a turned-loose self, whose moorings suffering must have burned, ere it could rise from the old fears and the old restraints — yet remain a self, unmovable and real beyond the tricks of flesh. He wouldn't question her. She might tell of her own accord. He had respect for all depths, this kind man whose eyes were heavy with soul-mist from memories of sorrow. He began to feel a deep tenderness for the lean creature whose heart was beating with a rhythm unfrequent among the herd of bodies called women, loving for food or for love. Old memories he had thought vanished lifted their heads to watch the new life-throb moving on from within toward the stranger.
She was a rare, mysterious girl.
She suddenly felt hungry.
They hurried back to Hollywood, growing proudly her first skyline, as a youth his moustache. Adolescent, easy, tense, inert, excited and unreal . . . indeed an adolescent youth in love with love and movement, amazingly self-conscious, innocently depraved and foolishly aping vices which cause no thrill but soothe the rush of blood from head to sex. The Boulevard was gay, rouging its facades with neon lights. Musso-Frank was recovering from rush hour and late players coming in, grumbling at directors who dragged on the scenes and kept one hungry and weary, in sheer obstinacy over some business which meant nothing. Rania and her new friend sat in a booth and ate the good fare, interrupted by passing "Hellos!" and open, lovely faces looking in, amused and gay. The evening poured into them — the rich, fragrant California evening, softened with fog, yet warm with the glowing of the earth that sun had so well loved.
Hunger appeased, they went on riding.
Over the high ridge above the lake they sat.
Under the moving fog glowing from below, thousands of lights were dancing. In long lines they shone, brightly marking the main boulevard, fainter ones for the cross-streets. All the south was scintillating; and north, along the San Fernando Valley, new cities were rising, coruscating the dark combs of mountains. Desert winds blew from afar, warm and soft, vast tender arms to relax into and taste of love, soft pungent fragrance like chrysanthemums. Men were children, mad, selfish children. They made love; they could never be love and silence and repose in the beloved-vast, endless repose from the weariness of self. Rich nights, never forgotten, the real live hours of California, when the sun had waned and the earth breathes perfume, and men might be beautiful and smile in love and repose. . . .
The hills were moaning under the winds, like flutes.
He asked her to let him be her friend.
He could help her along a great deal in the studios. He had worked many years for types; he had written successful plays years ago, cheap things he cleverly put together. Then he grew disgusted with the game. He had enemies who blocked his way. For a while he acted on the stage; then his health broke down: weak lungs followed a pneumonia taken foolishly in the madness of some broken love. Just a banal story. But somehow he had seen through it and won. He had lived in the desert; he had still a cabin on the Mojave Desert where he retired when studios got on his nerves. He had been five years in Hollywood; had seen the little churches go and the eucalyptuses, and tall buildings grow that broke the sloping of the hills. He had seen men, of all nations flock by trainful to sunshine and moving shadows. He could have made much money perhaps, but cared little. He had just enough to be free, if needed, and live in the desert whose bareness and silence are kind to one who had suffered. He worked when good bits came. He did not know much perhaps, but had forgotten much. Is it not what one has forgotten that makes one wise?
He knew at least one thing — how to be a friend.
And so their friendship grew, strong and loving.
Some people smiled; others openly said the usual ugly things. But they were happy. He brought her to casting directors whom he knew well. With the few hundreds she had earned in location she bought lovely gowns, made others. She was ready for the game. Her strong features and big eyes registered well. She fitted exotic scenes. French and Russian sequences saw her running, from queen to beggar. Much of the dreary waiting in casting offices was over. She found enough work to keep her going without harassing assistants and directors for personal help; and the strange captivation of this unreal life began to possess her . . .
With her old friend, Johan, she found happiness.
It was a quiet, beautiful happiness.
For the first time in her life she felt a rich, unobstructive affection surrounding her. She yielded to its warmth as to the soft air of sweet-scented nights. He was gentle and full of humorous anecdotes. He had seen and traveled much. He had a keen sense of people, intuition of their inmost self, much respect and much patience. He was with her almost every evening when they worked in the day, often went for long rides, perhaps camped under trees, on the desert. He was patient and simple. He knew he was old and none too strong. He did not care to force his love upon her. He was waiting, dreaming often of her loveliness, of the supple body he watched dancing and running on sloping hills. He never asked her anything. She was happy, he knew. What did it matter? She might feel some day the need for his arms yet strong enough to press her as a lover and stir her young body . . . But he was willing to wait, not to spoil the rich comradeship, the quiet, beautiful happiness.
He lived in a small canyon toward the north.
A young, reckless friend of his, Richard Newell, had built the bungalow. It had several rooms, live fireplaces with updancing flames, a library filled with books, and solitude under huge trees — eucalyptus spears smelling fresh, rose-wigged pepper trees comforting in their stolidness. The grounds were left wild, still hairy with sage and darting yuccas. The soil was black, pungent with shed leaves. It rose rapidly as the slope of the hills joined in rounded embrace, two firm thighs vibrant with earth-love. A few goats were roaming under dark bushes, relics of old days. An old Italian kept them nearby. Rania loved them, drank their tasty milk. It awakened memories of her mountain-youth in Karpathian wilds.
It was a small, hidden canyon toward the north.
Richard Newell had left a year before.
His father was a wealthy man; his passion: oil. He roamed over the earth hunting oil, digging for oil, smelling oil. He was tall and lean, an old derrick sullied by the hell-born flow. He loved the game of adventure in strange lands. An Englishman, he worked with the diplomatic service of his country, and bribed and stole and killed to uncover the viscous thing that clung to his bones. Richard inherited from him a strange wanderlust and a violent nature, hardly tempered by softer mother-strains. He loved big deeds and crushing passions. Intensely selfish, he adorned himself with proud gestures whose glamour haloed him. He had fought in the air in Arabia. His tales were glorious, were true. He could do anything . . . and undo anything. His soul was of a condottiere; his body strong, nervous and irresistible. He knew it. He used it. Suddenly weary with Hollywood, he disappeared toward Asia. He had not been heard of since.
Richard Newell had left a year before.
The library was filled with books.
There were books of travel, books of adventure, book of science, books of philosophy. His dead mother, abandoned by his father, was a great reader, trying to forget and understand. She had traveled in the Orient and brought back in her soul the quest for silence and infinitude of the ancient races. Chinese, Hindu, Persian poets and lovers, mystics and sages, she read; hoping to reweave the rug of scattered memories with the many threads of wisdom. She left her books to Richard, who cared little, but kept them, partly because of being drawn from within to their mystery, partly to show off depth to impressionable conquests. Johan loved to read; he read aloud to Rania listening in wonder, asking big questions — unanswered yet, but stirring on, arousing, shattering also.
The library was filled with books.
She became feverish with knowledge-thirst.
She brought books with her on every set where she was working. She stole away from the yawping group of extras, away from improvised bridge parties behind scenery between director's whistles. She was tired with the constant aimless chattering of long days of illusion, in gilded costumes, tawdry gowns or rags. Adventures, love affairs, little scandals, tips for this or that . . . she knew them all. She became careless of comradeship, she hid in corners far from the lens, striving not to come into close-ups, letting ambitious ones fight for "getting in" near the star, indolent; but devouring books, books, more books. They laughed at her. Assistant directors chided her, rebuked and menaced. Distantly she obeyed, performed hackneyed gestures — "being French" with foolishly stereotyped demeanor to please Mr. X, who had been in Paris and "knew it all"; "being Russian" with languid, exotic pallor and blackened pupils; "being full of pep" with squirming contortions and shallow grinning. It was business. It had to be done. So little registered; who cared anyway? She was far and beyond.
She was feverish with knowledge-thirst.
She read all the books about Eastern lands.
She read travel stories. She dug into philosophy with passionate intensity. She began to grasp inner meanings she had never fathomed. She saw that the old visions and dreams she had nearly forgotten had been real experiences, vestiges or forebodings. She pondered over, dissected, compared, played with ideas, as with lives she loved. In her fervor, she sank into them; with her enthusiasm, they glowed, as huge diamonds dazzling upon soul-fingers. She read evenings, nights. She could not tear herself from the library. Johan, smiling at her new passion, suggested she might as well stay for good in his house, as long as she hardly ever slept in her own clubroom. She looked at him, straightforward, with clear soul. She knew he loved her. She was grateful. She bowed her head, smiled a little, whimsically, a little weary perhaps. Then she faced him with open love and joyousness. "All right, Johan! Friends always? As before?" "Of course," he answered.
Her soul had been caught in the dream of the East.
But it was too much for her body.
Hardly sleeping in spite of her friend's admonitions, tense over printed pages, strained in weary self-questioning, tired out by the routine work, long standing and waiting of the studios, her strength gave out toward the spring, and she fell ill with flu. Johan nursed her devotedly through days of fever and long convalescence. He was not well himself, and every cold he got roused again the old lung trouble never quite cured. But he was happy. She was sweet and tender like a young child resting in mother-love. She felt secure. She was drawing in fresh things that were life from the very threshold of a possible death. It was strange how illness would open up great fields of light, as if her strong body had been shutting them out by the glamour of health. She would not awaken. She would sleep long hours peopled with dreams and beautiful faces-dark faces of power like those she had seen years ago, and at times a curious shadow, the features of a man, indistinct, yet somehow spreading darkness and sorrow.
It had been too much for her body.
But summer and sunbaths gave her rebirth.
Climbing slowly up the canyons in the places of darkness of the hills, she bared her body and gave it to the light. And light took her and made her a thing of its realms, brown and glowing like warm fruits, ripe pineapples, growing from the soil amidst darting yuccas, bodyguard of speared watchers.
The sun was rich and stirring.
The sun beat forcefully on the place of darkness of the hills, on the Place of darkness of the flesh. It was too much to bear alone, this potent sun, craving extension, inrush and possession.
The sun was strong and fierce. The sun would take one and melt one, and soft, lucent nights would follow with hot winds that creep beneath white sheets, that open windows, doors, and love gates. And amidst the fervor of the dry earth crackling with sun power, she drew, supple and warm into Johan's arms, that knew strength once more and rhythm and glory. Life flew in her, sun-born, sage-scented, where the hills meet like firm thighs in the Place of darkness beloved on the sun; and it made her well.