Variations of Thomas and Viola

Patrick Cottrell

Thomas persuades Viola to wear a series of masks of his own devising. Thomas purchases a book of generic bird illustrations and tears out pictures of the birds he likes best. With the precision of a surgeon, Thomas cuts open a mouth-hole with Viola’s cuticle scissors. Viola nods in approval. And what will you say as a bird-masked creature? asks Thomas. My studies have shown they prefer not to use words, says Viola. As the paper beaks drop to the floor with a hush, Viola trains her syllables to quiet. Says Thomas, Obviously, you will learn to speak in colors.


Thomas and Viola take the white path to the Ministry of Public Health, where they have been hired to produce a documentary on the conservation of bees. On their way to the Ministry, they encounter a child waiting for a school bus. Hello beautiful, coos Viola. The child lets out a shriek that sounds like a miniature trumpet. How hateful you are! says Thomas. But what a lovely shady mouth you have! says Viola.

Inside the child’s orchard-dark mouth Viola discovers a Flemish shipyard where she spots Thomas operating a crane to right a capsized vessel. Thomas’s skillful manipulation of the crane draws the rapt attention of a bevy of spinster barmaids. A fog lifts. Spinsters like that will trick Thomas into going to lookout sea, frets Viola. Am I not myself sufficient? She slips on her best peasant smock and floats across a bridge. She sweet-talks a sailor smoking beneath a yellow tree. The sailor leans in closer and closer, then closes off Viola’s shape with his hands. I admire your philosophy, says Viola as she takes off her smock.

Abandoning his work with the crane, Thomas sets off on a search for Viola. He peers inside a spinster’s hovel, he crosses a bridge backwards. He considers the advice of a sage who brushes his teeth with pennies: Have you tried the yellow tree? He collects rain in a rabbit-seamed purse and trades it for a map of yellow trees from a failed historian. When he finds Viola with the sailor, he cuts off the sailor’s hands and arranges them in a vase. What a barbarian gesture, remarks Viola. All the same, an elegant solution. I do accept it!

Thomas and Viola spend the afternoon leisuring on a hill overlooking the Flemish harbor. Thomas considers writing a book of theology or a treatise on mathematics, whichever comes to him first. Have you noticed that it hurts to breathe? says Viola. A giant plume of smoke billows across the hill. With great reluctance, Thomas and Viola climb out of the child’s mouth.


Thomas and Viola, now the leading conservationists of their generation, receive an invitation to give a lecture at a conference on the rapid decline of the bee population. They travel to Iceland, where they sleep in bunk beds underneath a greenish sky. At lunch, the keynote speaker asks them if they are a couple, if they are in love. He speaks with a cadence from a Japanese tea ceremony, Viola whispers to Thomas. I can’t understand a word. That night, Viola crafts a wind chime out of the long-forgotten sailor’s hands as Thomas huddles under a blanket embroidered with the faces of brother-sister dolls and ponders his relationship with Viola. It would seem the many permutations of attachment are all equivalent to some kind of death, he announces, but what kind exactly I have yet to determine. He decides tomorrow he will ask Viola to join him in hiking up to the highest point in Iceland, then together they will hold hands and roll down the hill into the banal.