Resurrecting Ophelia

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

learned of Ophelia’s death at the Family Dollar Store on Broadway from her friend, Maggie. “She died three months ago,” said Maggie, not without pleasure, for she and Ophelia had had a parting of the ways a few years ago. Her eyes gleamed with malice as she told me.

Though I hadn’t seen Ophelia for years, her loss still sent me reeling, for Ophelia and I had at one time been close friends and kindred spirits. I felt an enormous sense of regret that I had let this remarkable friendship slip away without so much as a fond farewell, and now I would never see her again.

“Sad isn’t it?” Maggie said with such an evil smile that I wanted to slap her, but instead I got on my bike and pedaled away towards 4th and Gill, and home, but not before I noticed with some pleasure myself that Maggie was growing bald.

I couldn’t stop thinking of Ophelia, whom I had met more than 15 years ago when I lived in North Hills. One evening when I was walking toward home on Kenilworth Lane under the tall, swaying pines, I spied a beautiful woman with pale blonde hair that fell in waves to her shoulders.

Wearing a navy gabardine suit from the 1940s, high-heels, seamed stockings, and a large straw hat, she was gardening under the moonlight for all the world like it was a hot mid-summer afternoon instead of 3 o’clock in the morning under the magical light of the moon. I could hardly believe she was real, so ethereal was her appearance. She suddenly looked up and saw me watching her.

Walking up to her I put out my hand and told her my name.

“I’m Ophelia,” she replied, looking me with a directness one rarely sees, her eyes of such a deep green that I felt I was looking straight into the divine. We chatted for a few minutes, discovering we had many things in common. We loved Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. We adored animals. We hated museums, beer, and men who cheated.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked graciously.

The first thing I did when I entered her house was to sit at the upright piano and play Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” while Ophelia sang in a clear, strong voice. After a few minutes Ophelia disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a large bottle of Robitussin DM, along with two crystal champagne glasses.

“Would you care to share this with me?” she asked, as though she were offering me a glass of good, red wine.

“Why yes,” I answered, and she poured the thick, syrupy cough medicine in the glasses. We toasted, as if sealing the pact of friendship, which in a way we were. Robitussin DM is a poor man’s version of psychedelic mushrooms and within an hour everything became as magical as Ophelia herself.

I looked around the room. In an oversized chair in the corner was a life-sized doll with blonde, wavy hair dressed in a vintage dress. Bookshelves held works by Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Evelyn Waugh. Drawings by Ophelia decorated the walls. Atop the shiny black piano was a vase of dried flowers and a photograph of Ophelia and her husband, David, whom I would meet later.

A black cat named Oscar sat in Ophelia’s lap, staring at me with gray, somber eyes. A tall, thin cat of the purest white wound his way in and out of my ankles. Three or four other cats sat perched at various places in the room with eyes that spoke of mysteries from beyond the beyond. She put a recording of Gregorian chants on the turntable and we traveled back in time thousands of years. It was an evening of pure enchantment, like being in a dream one never wanted to wake up from. We sat without speaking for some time. 

All at once Ophelia stood up. “Let’s go into the kitchen and I’ll make tea,” she said.

Walking into her kitchen was like walking straight into the 1950s. A red Formica table with four chairs sat in the middle of the room. Betty Crocker cookbooks lay on the table, and embroidered aprons lay folded across the backs of the chairs. I half expected to see my very own mother manifest herself and pull a pan of cornbread out of the oven. A gentle breeze blew the filmy curtains back and the smell of wet earth and rain entered the room.

We spent many happy hours together after that, until I moved to another neighborhood and I lost contact with her.

But now, a nagging thought kept entering my mind at all hours of the day and night. It was the thought and sure feeling that my friend was not dead. Finally, I decided to check it out for myself. Arriving at her house at approximately 2 in the morning, I tapped on the window the way I had in the past. I wandered into the back yard, where beautiful, ornate rocking horses sat waiting as for children who never arrived. I half expected Ophelia herself to appear by the side of a horse—and, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. Wearing a beautiful, lavender skirt and white satin blouse, she walked up to me.

“You’re not dead!” I exclaimed.

She pinched herself.

“Why, no,” she replied, staring at me with that direct gaze. “I don’t believe I am.”

We laughed.

“I have been deathly though,” she said. “I’m not as pretty as I used to be. I’ve gained weight.”

I didn’t notice the weight gain, nor any new wrinkles—only those pure, intelligent eyes that made me feel that she was ageless and immortal, like all fairy creatures. As we held hands and walked into her house, back into the 1950s room, I swear I could hear Joni Mitchell singing “Blue” from the house next door. And why not?

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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