The Cure of Madame Zelenska – Editor’s Pick

“It’s these neck wrinkles,” said Claire McCurdy. “See—here and here—well, of course you can see them.”

Madame Zalenska closed her eyes and intoned massively, “Neck wr-wr-wr-wrinkles.”

“Yeah,” said Claire. She said it abruptly. The intoning seemed a little phony. Well, a lot phony. “I noticed them when I was riding with my son and daughter—well, I mean, I’ve always known they were there, the neck wrinkles, I mean, not my children—but when I was riding—it was in the back seat of my car, my son was driving, and the rear-view mirror was tilted at just the right angle to show these neck wrinkles. I mean, nothing more of me was visible—so I was naturally—” I seem to be babbling, Claire thought. It was those courses she was taking in counseling. They’d sharpened her ordinary introspection into laser beams.

But what else could a person do with Madame Zalenska (who might have neck wrinkles but swathed herself in so many scarves you couldn’t tell) sitting across from you immobile as if she’d gone into a trance. In the candlelight her eye shadow gleamed fierce copper.

The room of her “Consulting Parlor” was small, cramped, and full of things with bobbles and beads: tablecloths, lamp shades, window curtains (drawn). It smelled aggressively of incense and delicately of cats. Inconclusive music slithered around the room. Madame herself was small, with popping eyes and feathering red lips and tiny crumpled hands with ferocious nails.

Claire stirred, suddenly annoyed at it all. Why had she come here? Because she was interested in things different from her life among privileged private-school kids in the Midwest; because she gravitated toward certain forms of the bizarre; because her friend the woman spirit art teacher who had cast off her patronymic (her legal name was now Zora Mora), threw parties celebrating moon cycles and menopause, and sculpted figures with squashed bums and saggy breasts, had said, “Look, I can see these neck wrinkles are really bugging you. Zalenska will cure you—trust me!”

Well, as far as she could see, Zalenska belonged in a community theatre revival of Blithe Spirit, and the incense was giving her a headache—

Madame Zalenska suddenly opened her eyes. The copper gleam folded up and she looked at Claire with a huge gaze, sharp as a nail and shrewd as a priest.

Clare swallowed. She was rather forceful.

“Of course, I can see your neck wrinkles.” Claire couldn’t quite place her accent; so far as her limited Midwestern ear went, she thought the Bronx. “Anyone can see neck wrinkles. Nobody wants them. How old are you? I put your age at fifty-four.”

Claire said, “Yeah—about that.” In fact, she was exactly fifty-four.

Madame Zalenska shut her eyes.

Claire put a hand up to her neck and surreptitiously felt the offending wrinkles. She was both gratified and chagrined at Madame Zalenska’s accuracy—especially after she’d just dismissed her as a quack. She’d always assumed that people didn’t think she was in her fifties.

“Of course, you assume people don’t think you are in your fifties,” Madame Zalenska said. Claire caught her breath. “You have a very youthful face,” Madame Zalenska pronounced.

Claire said, “Well, I—”

“It’s your cheeks,” Madame Zalenska said.

“My—oh—well, yes, they’re pretty round—”

“They are fat,” Madame Zalenska said. Her own looked like rouged canyons. “There is nothing wrong,” Madame Zalenska said ponderously, “with fat cheeks. It is the incongruity that startles and offends.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I was exactly—”

“However,” pursued Madame Zalenska, “at fifty-four you have to expect neck wrinkles.”

“Well—yeah,” said Claire, “but—”

“You expect, but you do not accept,” Madame Zalenska said.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t accept,” Claire objected.  “It’s just—”

“Illusions. Dr-r-r-eams,” pronounced Madame Zalenska somewhat obscurely. “This I can take care of.” She got up and left the table. Her feet, in worn carpet slippers, made no sound at all. The curtains clicked apart and back, and then for some time after, with little settling sounds like a leaky faucet.

Claire sat there, listening to the ticking curtains, her own mind a clash of absurd conflicts. Madame Zalenska found her predictable, conventional, ordinary. She’d lost interest in her—just when Claire was beginning to be interested in Madame Zalenska. She’d return with some useless wrinkle cream and dismiss her. Just a moment ago Claire had wanted out. But now, perversely, she wanted in. At least far enough for Madame Zalenska—phony though she might be—to find her other than predictable and ordinary. She rehearsed speeches to disclaim concern with neck wrinkles, to shift the issue to a more metaphysical or philosophical or even spiritual plane.

When Madame Zalenska returned through the clicking curtains, carrying the inevitable small round box, Claire said, “Actually, it’s not so much the neck wrinkles in themselves, as the significance of them. A sort of metaphor for—well, for passages.”

“Of course,” said Madame Zalenska. “Here.”

Claire said, “What—?”

Madame Zalenska said, “Take it.”

At least the box wasn’t plastic. It was carved, rather oddly carved, and smelled of cedar. She said, “I don’t really think I need—”

“Twenty-five,” said Madame Zalenska.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Twenty-five,” said Madame Zalenska. She rubbed her the fierce twigs of her thumb and forefinger together and said, “Twenty-five smackers.”

“Twenty-five dollars? For—”

“Such a deal. A steal at the price. Open it when you get home.”


“VISA and MasterCard accepted.”

“Twenty-five dollars for a box of cream—?”

Madame Zalenska drew herself up loftily. She was about five feet tall. “Cr-r-r-r-r-eam,” she intoned with majesty, “I do not sell.” She stretched out an open, imperious hand. “Give it back if you do not want it.”

Claire flushed. “All right, I—”

But then something happened. Perhaps it was a swing of candlelight, disturbed in the movement of Madame Zalenska’s gesture. But something in the pattern of the carving—a cross, a circle, a stem of grass, a folded rose—she could never quite find it again—swung up, danced up, from the surrounding wood, shining as if in sudden sunlight. And Claire heard herself saying, “No—no—I want it.”


At home in the candle and firelight of her own house, the box looked completely ordinary. Dark, crisscrossed with carving. Well—maybe not completely ordinary. There was still that something curious, eccentric even, in the crowded pattern of its design, though the particular object that had sprung to light in Madame Zalenska’s parlor didn’t appear now.

Had she just been screwed out of twenty-five dollars she could ill afford to spend, on a box that might have come out of a cheap pseudo-antique store?

She snuffed the candles, banked the fire, and took the box to her room.

In her pajamas, she lifted off the lid.

Inside she found a small piece of paper, thick, soft, brown-stained along its folded edges. Beneath that lay a roll of narrow blue velvet ribbon.

The smell of old things—paper, mildew, dust, and the faint aroma of cats—clung to the objects.

Claire unfolded the scrap of paper gently, careful of its fragility.

Three lines of browned slanting script:

The dark is rising, rising;

I cannot see the way—

Oh I wanted to do so much, so much, and now


Claire shivered suddenly, violently. Turned the paper over. Age blotches, like marks on old hands. But no more words. Only those two lines….

A slim form appeared in her doorway. Claire leaped.

“Mom?” the slim form said.

“Oh God, Caroline, you startled me. You might knock.”

Caroline looked around the room, then said carefully, “Uh—Mom? Who were you talking to?”

“Talking,” Claire said. “Oh, talking. I must’ve been—I’m looking for this tape.”

“What tape?”

“For my course. You know—the ones I’ve made of my practice counseling sessions.

I’m supposed to bring one of them to class tomorrow night, and I can’t find it.”

“Didn’t you label them?” Caroline inquired, with annoying fifteen-year-old reasonableness.

“Don’t you have some homework?” Claire said.

Caroline smiled. “Good luck, mom.”


The tapes turned up in various places, like in a Where’s Waldo? drawing. She found four in her bookbag, another couple in her dresser drawer, one in her coat pocket, several under her bed, two on top of the computer monitor, and perhaps most unexpectedly, one in her refrigerator. (Oh yes, the night she’d been having a few students in and had half an hour to tidy the house.) She gathered, dusted, defrosted, and stacked them tidily beside her recorder. Order and method.

Of course, it was the refrigeration that did it. That much, at least, was obvious to Claire. She had only a dim comprehension of things technological, but she did realize that extremes of temperature produced capricious mechanical malfunctions.

She pushed the tape in (having previously written a neat #3 in her notebook). Hit PLAY. For a few seconds, the usual nothing happened. Then instead of the sudden respiration of silence—the strange scrape and gasp of it, filtered through the miracle of electronics, there was music. Piano music. Not the thin and jangly stuff that comes over homemade tapes, but real music, rich and full and subtle and inflected, as if the instrument were being played right there in the room. So real did it sound that Claire turned her head sharply. Bed, dresser, closet; sprawl of books. No piano.

She got up, went out to see if by some chance Caroline was playing. Not that Caroline had ever played that well in her life. But the living room was dark, only the tiny red sequins of the ending fire to focus sight. And the piano music went on. Slowly, pulled by the skeins of it, she went back to her room.

It was there, it was alive, and there was no piano and no player. It was a gentle and haunting air, full of subtle shiftings of expression, like a play of light. It sounded vaguely familiar, but Claire couldn’t say how. Then it changed. Gathered power. The gentle, wistful reach of it went into darkness; the delicate questing melody broke suddenly into a passion of grief and rage. Claire felt her chest constrict with the pain of it.

Then there was a hard sob, and the music stopped abruptly.

And Claire’s own voice, flat against a pulse of mechanical sound, said, “…talk about some of these questions you have, some of these things you’re afraid of.”

She ran across the room and punched the machine off.

And stood, the back of her hand against her mouth.

For she had not sobbed. She had not. Had she….


Pan Amore, the local bread shop and deli, was bright, crowded, noisy, and mercifully unhaunted as Claire squeezed between breasts, buttocks, and biceps to a single table. It was the following noon. She was feeling hungry and normal. No peculiar manifestations had invaded her day. She’d gotten up early and plowed her way through tapes that played what they should have played. Her morning of counseling at the high school for privileged Midwestern kids had been blessedly uneventful.

She looked up from her turkey, Asiago and sprouts to see Darcy Luce gliding massively across the room.

Darcy, the resident feminist watchdog at the local college where Claire’s former husband taught, was a person of substance.  She embraced feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, and new historicist theory. She had a nose like a hawk, a mind like a knife, and a voice like a grater.  Every time Claire saw her, she seemed to have grown several inches in all directions.

She was a formidable person.

Fired with her new sense of control, however, Claire stood and greeted her boldly as she hove past her table, scattering the hapless or inattentive in her path. “Darcy—hello.”

Her unswerving progress arrested (she’d already downed several small children and a mid-size busboy), Darcy peered suspiciously from beneath her bob of brown hair—as if a cockroach or a formalist had had the temerity to address here.  Her thin mouth curled in a semi-permanent sneer. She said, “Oh—hello.”

Claire’s sense of well-being took a sudden dive. Nonetheless, she swallowed and said heartily, “How are you?”

Darcy rarely concerned herself with the ephemera of social exchange. Her life was too real and earnest. She frowned at Claire now, not so much in disapproval as in an effort to download and retrieve Claire’s identity.  Something clicked and she said, “I understand you’re studying our local poet.”

Wrong file. “I beg your pardon?” said Claire.

“Anna Bronson. She’s quite an interesting character. Of course, contextualizing her work gets you involved in the religious crises (the sneer lifted her lip almost to her nostril), but it does provide some fine deconstructive readings of some of her best stuff; I think particularly, for instance, of ‘The Dark Is Rising.’”

The room suddenly whirled. Claire gripped the sides of the round table. Phrases raced from the spin of academic jargon, like the piano music coming from the counseling tapes….Anna… dark is rising, rising….

“Of course, living in that rural community would easily explain her mindset,” Darcy Luce went on.

Claire said faintly, “Who told you I was studying—this—Anna—”
Darcy frowned. “I don’t remember. I talk to so many people. Of course, I may have gotten it all wrong. I often do. Well, good luck with her. I’ll be glad to see a copy of whatever it is that you come up with—it could hardly be formalist.”

“No,” said Claire. “No.”

So now, she thought, munching her suddenly tasteless sandwich, now I know her name….


The dreams began that night.

She was walking along a country road. On each side of the road prairie grass arched and swayed; wind was blowing. It was a soft, bright day, the brightness held-in, or maybe coming from the prairie grass. She turned a bend in the road and a low hill rose, like a swell in the stretch of grass, into the wide anonymous sky. And then she saw her.

Walking, climbing the hill, her long skirts blowing around her legs, hair blowing in bright tendrils around her head, loosening down her neck. A small, straight figure ahead of her climbing the windy hill with clothes and hair blowing and herself moving steadily, climbing toward that sky.

It was like watching a film, only it wasn’t because she was there, they were there in the same space, the same lifting wind. Claire was not yet lifted by the wind, but she was part of it, would be part of it as she followed that slender figure and climbed the hill. Only she was still on the road, and as she watched the figure kept walking, climbing, further and further away; and she watched her go and felt an urgent sense of loss—I must follow her, I must catch up with her—

She turned off the road and the grassy field suddenly gave way under her.

She woke up.

All right, she thought, pulling the sheet up to her chin in the darkness. I’ve done dream analysis; I can explain this. It’s that silly box from Madame Zalenska—and that goofed-up tape—and Darcy Luce talking about some rural poet, and I suppose my own curiosity—all logical, nothing mystical—

She rolled over and put the pillow on top of her head.

Which is how Caroline found her next morning when she’d overslept.

“Oh Mother,” Caroline said, more in sorrow than in anger, “you’re burrowing again!”




Subject: Anna Bronson

Rembrd smthng re AB.

Darcy Luce tended toward the extremely telegraphic, Claire remembered her former husband had told her. Eric had said he couldn’t decide whether she was really that busy or just an aggressively challenged speller.

You prbly know this anyway. Was quite a talented pianist. Hymns, unavoidably, alas [fem. pspectv] but also classic. reptry.  Said to have cmpsd own music, don’t know if latter extant. Cld check Andover Historical Society. You prbly have.

Luck w prjct

D. Luce

“Witch Bitch Goddess or Human Being?”


Piano. Piano music. Claire thought savagely, I don’t want to know anything about Anna Bronson. Don’t. Don’t. Leave me alone, Darcy. Leave me alone, Anna. Her finger hovering over the DELETE key, Claire suddenly and inexplicably hit PRINT instead.


That night the dream was different. Somehow Claire had gotten off the road (she didn’t know how) and was walking on the field alongside. Ahead of her the hill rose, the hill with the long blowing grass. She was walking toward the hill, toward the girl climbing the hill. There was light all around. Claire could see the girl more clearly: a long slender neck, smooth, delicately flushed; a narrow velvet ribbon encircling her throat; auburn hair loosening, flying….

And with each step, the light, haunting notes of a piano….

Then suddenly—a sob and a crash of discord.

And darkness.


The only thing to do was simply to put the damn box away and forget the whole thing, Claire decided next morning, patting absently at her still-evident neck wrinkles. Heaven knew, she had enough to do without chasing off on some mad quest after a piano playing poet who wandered up and down hills with velvet around her neck. (That detail, of course, had come from the ribbon in the box Madame Zalenska had given her. Claire was no fool.)

So saying, she shouldered her bookbag and went off to explain to Googs Morgan exactly why he’d have to stop hacking into the headmaster’s personal files.


Nightmare. She woke, writhing, trying to scream.

The sky had changed over the windy hill. The quiet shine had faded. A strip of cobalt lined the top of the hill, the grasses bending and thrashing against it. She was battling against the wind, the girl was battling, body bent, delicate curls torn and flailing.

And then, slowly, she turned. Looked straight at Claire.

Her face—her eyes—oh God—


Claire took a rare sick day and drove to Andover.

Andover is a village with two streets crisscrossed between cornfields and sky, five buildings on the national register of historic places, and a population of 150. One of its premiere citizens lives in a boxcar. Most of its residents have plaques on their houses.

She steered carefully past the historic Lutheran chapel, set on a windy hill studded with gravestones from the cholera epidemic of 1845; past the historic Lutheran Church (informally known as the New Church, having been built in 1875); into the into the historic main street, where the single eating place (helpfully designated Café DRINK COCA-COLA) listed its hours of business as 7 – 4. At the end of the street where the interrupted cornfields began again sat the historic Methodist Church, which now served as the office for the Andover Historical Society.

Claire parked her car and got out.


The woman on duty at the Andover Historical Society was wandering around the sanctuary, which sported, astonishingly, a carpet of orange, yellow, and green flowers.

“Excuse me—good morning,” Claire began.

“Oh—hello,” the woman on duty said. She was rather oddly but not unattractively attired in swamp-green drawstring pants and a droopy, mist-colored sweater. Her hair, an indeterminate shade reminiscent of some lichens, looked gently stirred about, as with a soft wind or an absent-minded comb. She had a nametag attached upside down to the droopy sweater. Claire said, “I’m looking for some information about—“ she cleared her throat; it was suddenly hard actually to speak the name—“Anna Bronson.”

“Oh yes,” said the misty woman. “Quite a few people come asking about her.” She nodded several times and put her hands in her drawstring-pants pockets.

Claire said, “Yes, I understand she’s a sort of local celebrity.”

“Well, I suppose you might say that,” the misty woman agreed after some hesitation. “Maybe not a celebrity exactly, though she seems to be becoming better known. I like her poetry very much. But then, I don’t have academic training.”

“Maybe it’s the kind of poetry you don’t need academic training to appreciate.”

“Well, I suppose that might be true,” the misty woman conceded. There was a pause. Claire said, “I don’t know her work.”

“Oh?” said the misty woman. “Well, of course, you might not like it at all. Not everyone does.”


The woman put her head a little on one side and gazed reflectively at the altar. It looked to Claire like a coffee table. But maybe that was the effect of the carpeting. “Well,” said the woman at length, “I think some people find it—gloomy. You know—depressing. But I think—of course it’s only my taste—but I think it captures certain feelings. And of course, she was very young.”

Young. Darcy hadn’t told her that. And the woman in her dream was young. Young and so sick—and desperate—Claire said, feeling her breath punching in between the words, “Actually I—I know almost nothing about her.”

“Oh,” said the misty woman. She nodded. “I think she was quite interesting. But that’s just my opinion.” She smiled. She had a very sweet smile.  As if it came from some important place, and if she had words, she could tell you about that place. “Well, it’s been very nice talking to you—”

Claire said, “Do you have—I mean, if I could get some information about her—”

“Oh. Well, yes, I believe we have some of that.” The thought of dispensing information seemed not to have occurred to the misty woman. She wandered over to a table in the narthex and poked vaguely at some brochures and booklets. “There’s this,” she said. “Maybe you could look at it.”

“Thank you very much,” Claire said.

She knew the first thing she picked up would be it. No matter what the first thing was.


The dark is rising, rising

I cannot see my way—

O give me strength to watch the night

And wait the weary day.

 Thy Word that was a lamp to me—

Say it will shine again.

So strong I wished to walk with Thee!

I falter now in pain.


Say Thou wilt give me comfort dear

O make me brave to move

In patience so I feel Thee near

And walk the way of love.


O lead me to that shining place

Where tears are wiped away,

O I’ll surrender all to see thy face

To wake from darkness into endless Day….

This booklet happened to be entitled The Legend of Anna Bronson.

She turned a page of the booklet. In the nostalgically uneven alignment of an old manual typewriter, she learned that

Anna Bronson (1819-1846) was the daughter of the Reverend Patrick Bronson (1789-1864)) of Andover Methodist Church. Her mother, Katherine Elizabeth Seaborg Bronson, died a few months after her birth. A delicate and talented girl, a musician and composer as well as poetess, Miss Bronson grew up in Andover and lived there for all of her short life. Hers was a life of quiet usefulness among her father’s parishioners, never traveling far from the parish of her birth. She found inspiration in the changing seasons of the rural Illinois countryside, and in the hymn tunes which she had heard from infancy, and on which many of her own compositions are based. Though Miss Bronson survived the great cholera epidemic of 1845, her constitution was so severely weakened by devoted nursing of her older brother and sister and by the grief at their deaths, that she developed a rapid consumption and died just a year later. Her father wrote that “She bore her illness with great fortitude and an assured faith that death would release her from suffering to a reunion with her Blessed Lord and Savior, who would ‘wipe the tears forever from her eyes.’”

The story is told that one afternoon in spring, just before sunset, she walked out to her favorite site, the hill south of the old chapel. She was by then very ill. It was a windy day, and the people from that time remember seeing her there. “The grass was thrashin, and her skirts was blowin and her hair all tossed in that wind,” one old fellow remembers. “There was a funny sound, too, like someone sighin up there.” Some observers claimed to see her lift her arms above her head, and to hear something like music or laughter. Finally she turned to come down the hill, stumbled, and rolled to the bottom. She died that night.

This poem by Anna Bronson is thought to have been written after she realized the inevitability of her own death.

Claire turned another page. On it was a badly Xeroxed photo of a miniature.

A young woman in profile, hair curled against her cheek and her long slender neck, narrow velvet band, precisely defined nose and eyebrows. Delicate and strong features. Stylized and artificial. Elusive. Anna.


The misty woman was sitting in the social hall reading a battered copy of The Immense Journey when Claire emerged from the narthex. “Oh—hello,” she said. “Did you find anything helpful?”

“Yes,” said Claire. “Yes—I did.”

“Oh really?” said the misty woman. She smiled her smile. “Well, that’s nice.”


The wind was coming up. The grasses on the hill swayed. At the top, the sky was thick with light and shadow. Claire climbed the hill, the wind pushing back her hair. What were you doing when you went up this hill that day? Running away—or running toward?

“Anna.” She said the name aloud. It sounded rough and peremptory, coming there, on that hill, against the wind.

What happened next Claire never understood, or really tried to. Nor could she ever describe exactly the sound she heard. To say it was a light and gentle and joyful laugh up there with no one else around would be to reduce the impact of it. It struck like the first cardinal you’d ever heard—if you could remember how that struck you; or the

first notes of a piano, or the first music that rearranged heaven and earth in the heart of you, and you with it. And none of that was what it was. It was a cleaving of the air, as with a sudden current of warm or cool, a new thing coming between the known and the to be known. It was tender and bracing; it was dancing and resting. It was absolute freedom. It was a figure on the other side of the hill, with windblown skirt and hair, walking, walking toward the place where sky and earth make things whole. All of these. None of these. And in the moment of it, nothing mattered and everything mattered. And then she felt the tears come, blown back along her cheeks.


“You were right,” said Claire.

“No shit,” said Madame Zalenska. She seemed to be surrounded with even more bobbles and beads this time, and the cat smell was less subtle.

Claire smiled. “But how did you know?”

“How did I—give me a break. You’re riding on stories. Prairies and plains, right outside the window, and you’re looking at neck wrinkles? It’s a no-brainer, dear.”

“Yes,” said Claire. “I see that. But—” and this was the hard part. “But—how did you know? I mean, the—how it all connected. Do you—”

Madame Zalenska stood up suddenly. “Sorry, dear. I got another client. Worried about going bald.  Bald. My god.” And then she looked at Claire with those relentlessly comprehending eyes. “The ribbon looks good on you.”


Photography Credit: Jason Rice (detail)

Ann Boaden writes from her home in the American Midwest. After receiving master’s and doctoral degrees in English from The University of Chicago, she returned to teach at her undergraduate college, Augustana (Illinois). Her work appears and/or is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Big Muddy, Christmas on the Great Plains, From Sac, Gingerbread House, Ginisko, The Penwood Review, Persimmon Tree, Sediments, Share, South Dakota Review, and The Windover, among others.