Illustrated Proof

This is the third short story of mine that my good friend Susanne from Blackpenart has illustrated in her expressionistic Noir Gothic style and the result is, I think you have to agree, simply excellent. You can view the previous two stories The Illustrated Unmade Again & An Illustrated Promise of Paradise by clicking on the links.

If you have enjoyed this story then make sure to take a look at my new collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions, Motion No.69, by Alex Severs and fulsomely illustrated by Thea Kiros.

Proof

Proof-bridge

All weekend long I had failed to act upon the ultimatum handed down by Sarah on the Friday night I left her to return home to my wife. Breakfast on Monday morning was my last opportunity. But I realized —as I sat down to cereals, toast and tea— that putting an end to a twenty-three-year marriage at 7:50 am on the drabbest of all days, seemed wildly inappropriate. I couldn’t cope with the inevitable ugly scene of harsh words, bitter tears, righteous indignation and promises of reprisals before leaving for the city and work. The trouble was I could now expect a row with Sarah. Hopefully, she would have the discretion to wait until after office hours, though I wasn’t optimistic. Her tact had been embarrassingly absent lately.

I kissed Catherine goodbye as I had everyday throughout the many years of our marriage, wished her a good day at work, for which she would soon be leaving, and drove away without a backward glance at her figure retreating into our house. Soon, the traffic slowed to its customary crawl, then to an absolute standstill. For once, I was relieved by the delay. Perhaps I could ponder a way out of my present predicament. Nevertheless, I needed more time than a temporary traffic jam afforded to come up with a solution; eternal gridlock might be required. The real problem was that I had no clue as to what I really wanted.

On one hand, I couldn’t quite shake the conviction that Sarah was just a means of establishing that I existed independently of Catherine; that I, in fact, actually existed at all. And yet, sometimes I felt that Catherine was the mistress of my destiny, controlling even the minutest of details, down to my last breath. My own thoughts and actions seemed so nugatory that I sometimes I wondered whether I was just a figment of her imagination. I can barely remember my life before Catherine. I don’t think I had a childhood, so dim is my recollection of that period. I must have, but it had to have been free of both trauma and definition.

My first memory dates from age thirteen and a moment of existential realization. I had been dozing in the bath, when I came out of my semi-slumber with a start and caught my reflection in the mirror that bordered the tub. I didn’t recognize myself. A series of questions raced through my mind in rapid succession. Who is that in the mirror staring back at me? Is it me? If it is, who am I and what am I doing here? These remained unanswered and left me wondering whether I possessed any claims to objective reality whatsoever.

Proof-Mirror

At first, it was only my existence that I doubted. But in time, it seemed to me that the world’s claim to authenticity was increasingly based on dubious suppositions.

My early adulthood consisted of a series of restless moves from city to city —a vain attempt at finding a place where I belonged. Of course, the difficulty did not lie with the locales; it lay within me because no matter where I was, I never wanted to be there. There was always a hell of a place next door, so I’d go there instead. I expected cities to possess a massive actuality —all that tangible brick and steel, glass and concrete— but they were only hastily-constructed, poorly-planned stage sets. And on these stages, I became the tenacious, wavering, insubstantial consort of wan, wannabe chorus girls,

anemic corps dancers, and anorexic bit actresses. I required something or somebody to lend me a presence, to give me density, to solidify my essence, to provide an anchor to stop me from floating away into the stratosphere and dissipating altogether. That’s when I met and married Catherine.

Lost in memories, I didn’t notice that the traffic had moved forward a full three feet until the angry blare of car-horns shook me from my reverie. I inched forward before coming to a complete stop again.

Catherine was unlike all the girls I had dated previously, fleshly and fulsome, where the others had been stick-thin androgynies. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and heavyset bone structure more than hinted that her remote ancestors had originated in the frozen North. I had found her, and still find her madly irresistible. Catherine will always be the perfect woman for me; she is as attractive in her forties as many girls in their twenties, including Sarah. As soon as we had set up home together she set about taking me in hand.

Naturally self-assured, she had confidence to spare and by proxy, I became a man of the world. Not that I didn’t have setbacks and mood swings, but whenever I was paralyzed by a sense of unreality, Catherine would provide rock steady support and nurse me back to life. Not to mention that there was always comforting to be found between her heavy bosoms.

Catherine has a telepathic awareness of everything I experience. She knows when the pressures at the office are becoming too much for me to bear and she gently chides me whenever I develop a minor crush on one of the office girls. At least she did until recently.

Above and beyond all that, however, she was the mother of my twin daughters, who provided at last some sense of purpose to my existence. I was a husband and a father to two lovely girls. I had responsibilities and duties. To my credit, I have discharged my duties admirably with care, attention, due diligence and most importantly, a genuine love. But there comes a time when, although your children are always your children in your heart, that they must grow up and enter the world and become their own people.

The knot of traffic had unravelled itself and soon after, I entered the company’s car park. I was looking forward to this Monday even less than usual.

Late as I was, Sarah’s office was empty when I passed it on the way to my own. It was unlike her to be late. I was in equal measures relieved and disappointed. On one hand, I had temporarily avoided the inevitable questions concerning the current state of my marriage and the repercussions that held to my relationship with Sarah. But on the other, I almost anticipated her reproach for my inaction. All weekend, I had imagined Sarah anxiously counting down the hours until Monday morning, when her loneliness and grief would be assuaged at the sight of me.

Proof-Lady

Last year, her affectionate but wayward father died —her sole remaining relative since her mother had committed suicide when she was five. Her childhood had been singularly unsettled. By the age of fifteen, she had extended stays in every major Anglophone country on four continents. She and her father had doted on one other and his death had left a void in Sarah’s life which I was particularly suited to fill. Her father was my contemporary and judging from the photo she kept on her bedside table, I noted a vague resemblance —we both had the dark hair, pale skin and green-grey eyes of the Celts. Moreover, I felt an affinity to the person Sarah described endlessly after our lovemaking; a potent combination of wanderlust, melancholy, wasted intelligence, unworldly innocence and a knowing complicity in his own failure.

Sometimes I doubted that I could ever displace the memory of her father. I began to resent hearing every last detail of her childhood, in which her father —as a single parent— played a larger than usual role, during the hurriedly snatched hours we spent together. I eventually concluded that Sarah had accepted me not because I was similar to her father, but because I was his complete opposite; stable, staid and boringly predictable. Certainly, my mid-life crisis, and my attempts to inject some validity into my existence though the agency of a chit of a girl in need of a father figure were conventionally clichéd.

When Sarah still hadn’t shown up by 11:00, I finally cracked and phoned first her home and then her mobile. No answer and the calls didn’t go to voice mail either. Where was she?

As I sat pondering this question and what I would do if Sarah came marching up to my office now, demanding to know why I had not told Catherine about our affair, the telephone rang. Thinking it was Sarah, I answered. It was Catherine, calling me on her break, a working day ritual.

While we were talking, I was struck by the fact that Catherine, who usually possessed an uncanny ability to gauge my psychological depths, had noticed nothing unusual since I had first become involved with Sarah —my first real infidelity of our marriage. Or if she was aware, then she wasn’t letting on. In either case, it seemed out of character. I was an open book to Catherine and this wasn’t something to which she would turn a blind eye. Maybe she was unconsciously aware but was in deep denial, or maybe she thought it impossible that a twenty-two-year-old girl would fall for a middle-aged nobody like me. However, both scenarios seemed highly unlikely. Catherine was far too shrewd to overlook the evidence before her and she had always questioned the real motivation behind my constant self-deprecation.

The conversation proceeded as usual with the obligatory I-love-you’s signing off. Nothing was amiss in Catherine’s attitude and, yet I felt that something was being left unsaid on her side as well as mine. I knew that this creeping paranoia was a manifestation of my guilt, but knowing the cause doesn’t necessarily rid you of the effects.

The rest of the day was a limping agony, every moment dragging uselessly and painfully. My indecision was total. Whereas I had previously dreaded an encounter with Sarah, when it was deferred though her absence, I positively longed for her presence violently and absolutely. How would it be possible for me to live the remainder of my life without her? Could I deny my feelings concerning Sarah if questioned directly by Catherine? Could I carry on living the lie with Catherine, pretending that there hadn’t been some form of sea change in our marriage?

Yet how could I abandon my wife of twenty-three years, the only person whose company wasn’t occasioned by barely-suppressed feelings of loathing and nausea? Catherine was the only person who’d been able to fill in the blank spaces. So, what was I doing with Sarah when I had already been completed by another?

The telephone was glued to my ear as I repeatedly tried Sarah. Ringing out no answer. Ringing out no answer. Whenever someone passed the office I would mouth some form of inanity to pretend that I was busy bantering to a client and consequently raking in the cash for the firm. Where was she, why wasn’t she at work? It wasn’t like her to miss a day. In fact, Sarah never missed a day because I never missed a day. Sarah had nobody but me.

By three o’clock, the suspense was unbearable. I couldn’t wait any longer, I simply had to know where she was. Thinking perhaps her desk would yield a clue, I hurried to her still darkened office. I let myself in and closed the door behind me. Dread settled on me like a shroud. Not only was the office unoccupied, but it also appeared unused. Had Sarah left the company and not told me?

I had to leave the office. As I rushed back to my own desk, I passed one of my co-workers. “Have you seen Sarah?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked.

“Sarah? Sarah who?” he replied absently.

I didn’t answer. I returned to my desk to grab keys and coat and let my boss know that I was ill. As I sped towards Sarah’s flat on the other side of the river, I imagined the worst of the worst-case scenarios. I had visions of bathtubs filled with bloody water, clotted syringes, discharged guns, empty pill bottles, fishnet nooses… that body that I had touched and kissed, caressed and stroked, worshipped and revered mimicking a thousand different postures of death.

Parking was always a problem in Sarah’s neighbourhood, but I found a place with ease, probably because of the early hour. Sarah didn’t own a car —instead she relied on public transport and myself to get around— so I was still none the wiser to her whereabouts. I buzzed the front door several times but without result. Now, I was beginning to get really anxious. I had a spare set of keys, something Sarah had insisted upon about a month ago, even though up until now I had no occasion to use them as we had always gone back to her flat together. I opened the front door and ran up the seven flights of stairs to her flat on the third floor and entered without bothering to knock.

Proof-Room

If I had found Sarah in bed with someone else, or I had discovered her dead body, I would have been less surprised than by what I beheld: nothing. The flat was empty, completely empty, save for the furniture doubtlessly belonging to the landlord. Nobody had left in a hurry either —the flat was clean except for an accumulation of dust. It was obvious that the place hadn’t been occupied for months and, yet I had been here just three days ago. It was devoid of any personal effects or stray items of clothing. Where was everything? Where were the clothes, shoes, lingerie, accessories, TV, computer, mobiles, books, pens, pencils, paper, ornaments, figurines, mirrors, pots, pans, plates, knives, forks, spoons, toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, toiletries, soaps, fragrances, kitchen towels, toilet paper, bed clothes, pillows, throws, coins, chequebooks, credit cards, purses, handbags, suitcases? Where had they gone? Where had she gone? And if she wasn’t here, and had never lived here, did Sarah actually exist? Had she ever?

If I searched around in the Human Resources department at work for the relevant and necessary documentation concerning Sarah Graves, would I find anything? If I contacted the various governmental agencies, would I be able to obtain a copy of a valid Birth Certificate or Driving License or National Insurance Card or Death Certificate to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sarah had once resided in the unoccupied flat where I was vainly searching for clues? That she had been born twenty-two years ago? That she possessed a definite, legal, irrefutable claim to reality? Even if I did stumble upon such proof, would it be enough to make me disbelieve the evidence of my own eyes? And was the evidence of my eyes enough to discredit my vividly tangible memories of Sarah?

I dug the nails of my right hand into the palm of my left to convince myself that I could at least feel pain. I could, but that did nothing to set realities aright. It merely demonstrated that this hallucination, dream, vision, delusion or whatever it was, possessed an internal, logical consistency. Yet surely that was quite consistent with the nature of delusions, visions, dreams and hallucinations. Certainly, if you are in the grip of madness, then by definition the hold of that madness upon you is gripping.

All this circular thinking didn’t change the central fact, however. Sarah had disappeared so totally that it appeared that there was no such person. Had I imagined her? Was she merely a figment of my overwrought imagination? Was she just a dream dreamt by someone in turn dreamt by another?

I retreated from the empty space, having found no answers, only enigmas.

I expected the streets to have subtly changed, to be transfigured and transformed, as if at last they could reveal their true natures to me. They were just the same old, same old streets however. There had been no rupture or rapture and the oh-so familiar scene contained no revelation for me. The only truth held by the streets with its buildings and in the incurious gazes of its passers-by, was a truth I had known all along —that I would always feel like a stranger here regardless of how closely I mimicked the mannerisms of its inhabitants.

Catherine was already home when I pulled up into our drive. I had decided to fake a migraine to deflect suspicion from my early homecoming and the haunted expression I’d be unable to mask. Catherine was very solicitous and mothered me accordingly, taking me to bed and tucking me in. She kissed me on the forehead and regarded me knowingly before drawing the curtains and turning out the lights. Did she know that I knew that she knew? “Sweet dreams,” she said, closing the door behind her, leaving me alone in the dark.

The South

Borges-Performance 1970
Borges-Performance 1970

… while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.” Jorge Luis Borges 

 

Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance is a goldmine of counter-culture and avant-garde influences. References to AngerArtaud, Bacon, Burroughs, Crowley and Genet abound, however the greatest acknowledged debt is undoubtedly to the Argentine fabulist and writer of philosophical fictions; Jorge Luis Borges.

Early on in the movie we glimpse one of the gangsters reading A Personal Anthology, while later on reclusive rock star Turner reads out aloud an excerpt from El Sur (The South) from the same volume. The second part of the movie set in Turner’s decaying Notting Hill mansion, (long before the gentrification of the area), is particularly redolent of Borges with its themes of identity, doubles, labyrinths and the constant, disorientating use of mirrors. One of the final scenes in the movie is of a bullet travelling through the brain that shatters an image of Borges. Legend has it that when the director Donald Cammell committed suicide, by a shot to the back of his head in 1996, that he didn’t die instantaneously and while he waited to die he requested his wife to fetch a mirror so he could study his reactions and repeatedly asked her if she could see the picture of Borges yet, a particular eerie and grim instance of life (or rather death) imitating art.

El Sur is a particularly appropriate choice as it foreshadows themes present during the movie and certain elements of the ending. Borges rated it as his best story and suggests that it could be read in an entirely different way, without clarifying of course which is the correct reading.

 

El Sur

The man who landed in Buenos Aires in 1871 bore the name of Johannes Dahlmann and he was a minister in the Evangelical Church. In 1939, one of his grandchildren, Juan Dahlmann, was secretary of a municipal library on Calle Cordoba, and he considered himself profoundly Argentinian. His maternal grandfather had been that Francisco Flores, of the Second Line-Infantry Division, who had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel; in the discord inherent between his two lines of descent, Juan Dahlmann (perhaps driven to it by his Germanic blood) chose the line represented by his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death. An old sword, a leather frame containing the daguerreotype of a blank-faced man with a beard, the dash and grace of certain music, the familiar strophes of Martin Fierro, the passing years, boredom and solitude, all went to foster this voluntary, but never ostentatioous nationalism. At the cost of numerous small privations, Dahlmann had managed to save the empty shell of a ranch in the South which had belonged to the Flores family; he continually recalled the image of the balsamic eucalyptus trees and the great rose-colored house which had once been crimson. His duties, perhaps even indolence, kept him in the city. Summer after summer he contented himself with the abstract idea of possession and with the certitude that his ranch was waiting for him on a precise site in the middle of the plain. Late in February, 1939, something happened to him.

Blind to all fault, destiny can be ruthless at one’s slightest distraction. Dahlmann had succeeded in acquiring, on that very afternoon, an imperfect copy of Weil’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights. Avid to examine this find, he did not wait for the elevator but hurried up the stairs. In the obscurity, something brushed by his forehead: a bat, a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him he saw horror engraved, and the hand he wiped across his face came away red with blood. The edge of a recently painted door which someone had forgotten to close had caused this wound. Dahlmann was able to fall asleep, but from the moment he awoke at dawn the savor of all things was atrociously poignant. Fever wasted him and the pictures in The Thousand and One Nights served to illustrate nightmares. Friends and relatives paid him visits and, with exaggerated smiles, assured him that they thought he looked fine. Dahlmann listened to them with a kind of feeble stupor and he marveled at their not knowing that he was in hell. A week, eight days passed, and they were like eight centuries. One afternoon, the usual doctor appeared, accompanied by a new doctor, and they carried him off to a sanitarium on the Calle Ecuador, for it was necessary to X-ray him. Dahlmann, in the hackney coach which bore them away, thought that he would, at last, be able to sleep in a room different from his own. He felt happy and communicative. When he arrived at his destination, they undressed him, shaved his head, bound him with metal fastenings to a stretcher; they shone bright lights on him until he was blind and dizzy, auscultated him, and a masked man stuck a needle into his arm. He awoke with a feeling of nausea, covered with a bandage, in a cell with something of a well about it; in the days and nights which followed the operation he came to realize that he had merely been, up until then, in a suburb of hell. Ice in his mouth did not leave the least trace of freshness. During these days Dahlmann hated himself in minute detail: he hated his identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation, the beard which bristled up on his face. He stoically endured the curative measures, which were painful, but when the surgeon told him he had been on the point of death from septicemia, Dahlmann dissolved in tears of self-pity for his fate. Physical wretchedness and the incessant anticipation of horrible nights had not allowed him time to think of anything so abstact as death. On another day, the surgeon told him he was healing and that, very soon, he would be able to go to his ranch for convalescence. Incredibly enough, the promised day arrived.

Reality favors symmetries and slight anachronisms: Dahlmann had arrived at the sanitarium in a hackney coach and now a hackney coach was to take him to the Constitucion station. The first fresh tang of autumn, after the summer’s oppressiveness, seemed like a symbol in nature of his rescue and release from fever and death. The city, at seven in the morning, had not lost that air of an old house lent it by the night; the streets seemed like long vestibules, the plazas were like patios. Dahlmann recognized the city with joy on the edge of vertigo: a second before his eyes registered the phenomena themselves, he recalled the corners, the billboards, the modest variety of Buenos Aires. In the yellow light of the new day, all things returned to him.

Every Argentine knows that the South begins at the other side of Rivadavia. Dahlmann was in the habit of saying that this was no mere convention, that whoever crosses this street enters a more ancient and sterner world. From inside the carriage he sought out, among the new buildings, the iron grill window, the brass knocker, the arched door, the entrance way, the intimate patio.

At the railroad station he noted that he still had thirty minutes. He quickly recalled that in a cafe on the Calle Brazil (a few dozen feet from Yrigoyen’s house) there was an enormous cat which allowed itself to be caressed as if it were a disdainful divinity. He entered the cafe. There was the cat, asleep. He ordered a cup of coffee, slowly stirred the sugar, sipped it (this pleasure had been denied him in the clinic), and thought, as he smoothed the cat’s black coat, that this contact was an illusion and that the two beings, man and cat, were as good as separated by a glass, for man lives in time, in succession, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.

Along the next to the last platform the train lay waiting. Dahlmann walked through the coaches until he found one almost empty. He arranged his baggage in the network rack. When the train started off, he took down his valise and extracted, after some hesitation, the first volume of The Thousand and One Nights. To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled; it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated forces of evil.

Along both sides of the train the city dissipated into suburbs; this sight, and then a view of the gardens and villas, delayed the beginning of his reading. The truth was that Dahlmann read very little. The magnetized mountain and the genie who swore to kill his benefactor are – who would deny it? – marvelous, but not so much more than the morning itself and the mere fact of being. The joy of life distracted him from paying attention to Scheherezade and her superfluous miracles. Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.

Lunch – the bouillon served in shining metal bowls, as in the remote summers of childhood – was one more peaceful and rewarding delight.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.

From time to time he slept, and his dreams were animated by the impetus of the train. The intolerable white sun of high noon had already become the yellow sun which precedes nightfall, and it would not be long before it would turn red. The railroad car was now also different; it was not the same as the one which had quit the station siding at Constitucion; the plain and the hours had transfigured it. Outside, the moving shadow of the railroad car stretched toward the horizon. The elemental earth was not perturbed either by settlements or other signs of humanity. The country was vast but at the same time intimate and, in some measure, secret. The limitless country sometimes contained only a solitary bull. The solitude was perfect, perhaps hostile, and it might have occurred to Dahlmann that he was travelling into the past and not merely south. He was distracted form these considerations by the railroad inspector who, on reading his ticket, advised him that the train would not let him off at the regular station but at another: an earlier stop, one scarcely known to Dahlmann. (The man added an explanation which Dahlmann did not attempt to understand, and which he hardly heard, for the mechanism of events did not concern him.)

The train laboriously ground to a halt, practically in the middle of the plain. The station lay on the other side of the tracks; it was not much more than a siding and a shed. There was no means of conveyance to be seen, but the station chief supposed that the traveler might secure a vehicle from a general store and inn to be found some ten or twelve blocks away.

Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had already disappeared from view, but a final splendor, exalted the vivid and silent plain, before the night erased its color. Less to avoid fatigue than to draw out his enjoyment of these sights, Dahmann walked slowly, breathing in the odor of clover with sumptuous joy.

The general store at one time had been painted a deep scarlet, but the years had tempered this violent color for its own good. Something in its poor architecture recalled a steel engraving, perhaps one from an old edition of Paul et Virginie. A number of horses were hitched up to the paling. Once inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the shopkeeper. Then he realized that he had been deceived by the man’s resemblance to one of the male nurses in the sanitarium. When the shopkeeper heard Dahlmann’s request, he said he would have the shay made up. In order to add one more event to that day and to kill time, Dahlmann decided to eat at the general store.

Some country louts, to whom Dahlmann did not at first pay any attention, were eating and drinking at one of the tables. On the floor, and hanging on to the bar, squatted an old man, immobile as an object. His years had reduced and polished him as water does a stone or the generations of men do a sentence. He was dark, dried up , diminutive, and seemed outside time, situated in eternity. Dahlmann noted with satisfaction the kerchief, the thick poncho, the long chiripa, and the colt boots, and told himself, as he recalled futile discussions with people from the Northern counties or from the province of Entre Rios, that gauchos like this no longer existed outside the South.

Dahlmann sat down next to the window. The darkness began overcoming the plain, but the odor and sound of the earth penetrated the iron bars of the window. The shop owner brought him sardines, followed by some roast meat. Dahlmann washed the meal down with several glasses of red wine. Idling, he relished the tart savor of the wine, and let his gaze, now grown somewhat drowsy, wander over the shop. A kerosene lamp hung from a beam. There were three customers at the other table: two of them appeared to be farm workers; the third man, whose features hinted at Chinese blood, was drinking with his hat on. Of a sudden, Dahlmann felt something brush lightly against his face. Next to the heavy glass of turbid wine, upon one of the stripes in the table cloth, lay a spit ball of breadcrumb. That was all: but someone had thrown it there.

The men at the other table seemed totally cut off from him. Perplexed, Dahlmann decided that nothing had happened, and he opened the volume of The Thousand and One Nights, by way of suppressing reality. After a few moments another little ball landed on his table, and now the peons laughed outright. Dahlmann said to himself that he was not frightened, but he reasoned that it would be a major blunder if he, a convalescent, were to allow himself to be dragged by strangers into some chaotic quarrel. He determined to leave, and had already gotten to his feet when the owner came up and exhorted him in an alarmed voice:

“Senor Dahlmann, don’t pay any attention to those lads; they’re half high.”

Dahlmann was not surprised to learn that the other man, now, knew his name. But he felt that these conciliatory words served only to aggravate the situation. Previous to the moment, the peons provocation was directed against an unknown face, against no one in particular, almost against no one at all. Now it was an attack against him, against his name, and his neighbors knew it. Dahlmann pushed the owner aside, confronted the peons, and demanded to know what they wanted of him.

The tough with a Chinese look staggered heavily to his feet. Almost in Juan Dahlmann’s face he shouted insults, as if he had been a long way off. He game was to exaggerate constituted ferocious mockery. Between curses and obscenities, he threw a long knife into the air, followed it with his eyes, caught and juggled it, and challenged Dahlmann to a knife fight. The owner objected in a tremulous voice, pointing out that Dahlmann was unarmed. At this point, something unforeseeable occurred.

From a corner of the room, the old ecstatic gaucho – in whom Dahlmann saw a summary and cipher of the South (his South) – threw him a naked dagger, which landed at his feet. It was as if the South had resolved that Dahlmann should accept the duel. Dahlmann bent over to pick up the dagger, and felt two things. The first, that this almost instinctive act bound him to fight. The second, that the weapon, in his torpid hand, was no defense at all, but would merely serve to justify his murder. He had once played with a poniard, like all men, but his idea of fencing and knife-play did not go further than the notion that all strokes should be directed upwards, with the cutting edge held inwards. They would not have allowed such things ot happen to me in the sanitarium, he thought.

“Let’s get on our way,” said that other man.

They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt.

Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.

Jorge Luis Borges 1944

 

After the Falls

Grosz-Ecce-Homo
Grosz-Ecce-Homo

After, (for there is always an after, the story goes on, there is neither resolution or finality, even death is only a pause, a quick breather in-between, a brief respite, a stage), the unstable reality of Eden Falls had been snuffed out like a candle-flame, the Melancholy Lieutenant had found himself, in a certain sense only because he knew that he was well and truly lost, on the streets of some Northern city in winter. He didn’t look at all out of place though, the avenues and boulevards were crowded with shell-shocked and war-wounded soldiers just returned from some calamitous battle; hungry, cold and bitter their talk was all of sedition, revolution, uprisings and coup d’états.
After the third night of rioting the authorities had cracked down and began to round up suspected trouble-makers and imposed a curfew at nightfall. The Melancholy Lieutenant was caught up in the dragnet and taken to a grim faux Gothic government building that had been converted into a temporary prison to deal with the influx of detainees. He was put inside a small room along with four other morose veterans.
Time passed by slowly, nobody spoke or moved, apart for the times somebody had to relieve themselves in the bucket wedged into the corner. Occasionally a guard would open the door, point toward someone and signal for them to follow. The person never returned to the room, instead a new inmate would take their place.
After three others had left the room with the guard it was his turn. He walked a short distance behind the guard, up narrow stairs and through dusty corridors that contained numerous offices. The guard stopped before a wooden door that had been painted a dim shade of burgundy sometime in the last century and searched through the numerous keys on the ring attached to his belt. He opened the door for the Melancholy Lieutenant and closed it immediately behind him.
He was alone, though he guessed this is where he would be questioned, perhaps interrogated. There were no windows, naturally, and the bare room was devoid of furniture apart from a flimsy trestle table and three rickety looking wooden chairs. The only light source was an old fashioned lamp, without a shade, that rested on the floor. Somehow the dull light emitted seemed to intensify the sombre gloom rather than dispelling it, which was obviously the intention of the police or the secret services or whoever was running the show here.
Though he doubted that a cat could find comfort in this derelict hole he was truly exhausted so he sat himself down in one of the two chairs facing the door. Obviously the single chair facing the wall was where he was meant to sit, but the hell with that. Sleeping with his eyes wide open he waited for his accusers to make their grand entry.

(This is the further adventures of The Melancholy Lieutenant, a recurring figure in my fiction. The previous installments are Eden Falls and X Marks the Spot. To make matters even more confusing these are just part of a larger series of loosely linked experimental surrealistic science fiction noirs starting with Showtime, though there can be read in any order.)

The Debutante

Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938
Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938

I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.

In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.

The Debutante

WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.

On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.

“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”

“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”

I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”

“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.

“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically  the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”

She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.

“Done,” she said all of a sudden.

There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”

“Certainly,” I said.

She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.

“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled.

“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her  and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”

“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”

“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.

“And the bones?”

“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”

“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off  her face. It’ll  hurt her too much otherwise.”

“All right.  It’s all the same to me.”

Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”

In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.

“You’ve certainly done that very well,”  I said.

Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”

When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her,  “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.

Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later,  I  noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.

“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that  thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”

Leonora Carrington-1939

Translation: Marina Warner & Katherine Talbot

The Captives of Longjumeau

Félicien_Rops_-_Les_Sataniques._Satan_semant_l'ivraie[1]Introduction

One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of  the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent  for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.

The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.

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