The Sphinx

Alexander Nemser

There’s a story about my great-grandmother: how, whenever you came near her, she would beckon you to her, enthroned on her green, plush, overstuffed armchair ringed with brass tacks on the arms, wool shawl draped across her lap, take you up on her thighs, and kiss you. But she didn’t just kiss: she’d be putting her lips to your cheek, and suddenly, bzzz, she pinched. You could smell her, wool, smoked black tea, and broth, and feel her lips on your cheek, then bzzz—you never knew where it would come: your neck, your cheek, or worst, your upper arm. It left a pink mark and a riddle. Every time, you tried to get away from the trap, but she was the matriarch of the family, so you learned to flinch while being loved. And secretly, you felt as much pleasure at the pinch as at the kiss, the unforgettable riddle of the whole thing.

My mother did something similar, only in reverse: she got down on her knees, put her hands on my shoulders, she smelled like bamboo and Bourdeaux, pulled me to her, wrapped her arms around my neck like she was slung from it—then suddenly pushed me away, got up and went back to whatever she was doing. Before I could kiss her back, she pulled herself beyond my reach, and escaped.

Later, I had a lover and we’d be there kissing and, if we were really getting into it, I felt her arm reach over my shoulder past my head like she was scrambling up a rock, and push my head out of the way. Once I tried pinching her arm while she pushed my head out of the way: she only slapped my hand.

Someone is getting pinched, and someone is trying to hold on; it makes every- one part of a Houdini routine: someone plays the daredevil escapist, the heavy casket, someone the accomplice chain, the “innocent” water flooding the tank.

There’s a story about Houdini: he was touring in Hungary, and he went up into the mountains to perform with a tiny village circus. He did his routine with padlocks and a blinding hood, then found himself sitting with an old man from the circus telling riddles—Houdini loved riddles; they reminded him of his chains. This circus, being on the edge of the forest, had no lions, but it was famous for its wolves: the wolves ran in a swishing circle, stood on their hind legs to howl in chorus for meat, leapt through hoops of fire. And the man Houdini was sitting with, turned out to be the tamer for the wolves.

So they’re sitting by the fire, and the old man asks Houdini, You know the riddle of the sphinx? Houdini said, Sure, What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs mid- day, and three at night? And you know the answer? Everyone knows: a human being. In the morning, as a baby, it crawls on four; then midday two as an adult; then three at night, in old age with a cane. The tamer looks at Houdini. You know there’s another answer which went unrecorded? Houdini bristles with curiosity. The question is the same, four legs at morning, two midday, and three at night; but the answer is different. Houdini’s eyes bulge. The tamer looks: a wolf. In the morning, when it’s in the wild, it runs on all four legs; then midday when it’s tamed, it gets up on its hind legs and howls and begs its trainer for a piece of meat; and then at night, it goes on three, when it’s bit- ten off the leg caught in the trap.

Which brings us back to love. Because there’s an old story about my heart. My heart used to own a small piece of land, and had a neighbor who owned the plot next to it. Between the two pieces was a small stretch of woods. The woods were full of wolves they’d trap and eat. Half the wolves were born on my heart’s land, half on its neighbors.

So one day the neighbor comes to my heart and says, One of your wolves is caught in my trap. My heart says, How do you know it’s mine?

Well, the neighbor says, It bit off the wrong three legs, and it’s still in the trap.