The world is a fine place to live. At least that was what my mother always said. But now I don’t know whether it’s true. I’ve always believed it, because, how can you not believe someone who says something, a phrase so profound, so religiously? She said it and maybe she’s true about it. I don’t know if her saying is actually true or not, but she said it was from the bible and that made it real; whether the world was indeed a fine, great, amazing place to live, or not -rather an awful, horrendous and ugly place instead – it didn’t matter to me. My mother said that the world was fine and so I believed it was.
Even though it was burning all around me.
I’m not sure when I noticed for the first time, but I believe that it went gradually, just like so many things occur to one. Like the moment the coke has lost its sparkle when it has been sitting on the table for too long and you wonder where the time has gone. Because you remember very clearly that you poured the glass to the rim and then it was still fizzing, so much so that the little bits of liquid sprinkled on the side of your hand. But now it’s flat and you wonder what you’ve been doing in the meantime.
That’s how I like to think I noticed. You know, for real. I imagine that at first, I enjoyed the warmth of the glowing embers. Then dim, red flares painted the walls in front of me and it looked imposing but they weren’t too big yet. Because I didn’t know it then. Probably spent some time staring at it, or no, I saw them occasionally from the corner of my eye, like insignificant flashes of movement. They were there alright.
But I was busy with something else. They didn’t look so alarming to me at first, more like added decor to the living room or sun-faded spots on the wallpaper. But then it became hotter. Not only around me, although that too was warmer than before, like protruding steam that annoyingly hung around me, smelling bad and not at all what steam smells like when you go to a sauna. Or so I think at least. No, it was warm under my feet. Hotness crept through the spaces between my toes and it climbed further up my ankle and my shins and my knees and when I finally figured out I was on fire, it was too late. Clearly.
I should’ve known, seen the signs, but I was blinded or perhaps plain ignorant. I don’t blame myself though. It was only that I was gullible. I believed in a line that was always said to me. And maybe I still do. It’s a fine place indeed.
It must have been mid-October when the unfortunate man set out for a stretch of the legs. Frank enjoyed his afternoon strolls. He’d set out precisely after dinner which finished at 6:15 pm. He wore his white woollen socks to the rims of his knees, his khaki shorts with the two hidden pockets, his orange blocked button-up tucked in and secured by his leather belt where he’d punctured an extra hole. Not because he’d lost weight but because the belt was on discount.
‘A perfectly good belt,’ he thought, ‘going to waste.’
He was not a man to worry himself about fashion. He was a man of function; deliberate. A man of miraculous punctuality and mirthless structure. Although one could say his yellow-shaded glasses were funny.
A lukewarm breeze slid over Frank’s cheeks as he pushed open the wooden fence. Damp mist hung low over the meadow, almost purplish, the droplets cloaking the field in a silvery hue. Briskly he ascended the hill towards the old beech tree which roots dug firmly into the hillside. He didn’t notice the two shades on top of the hillside adjacent of the tree. A pair of men with arched backs and distorted faces.
Those men would come often on late afternoons, sometimes even at nights, when everyone has fallen in a nocturnal slumber. Their business is obscure; their intentions nameless. No good things happen when they are around. The pair is known by Blame and Pride if they’re known at all. They most certainly do not come from the village below.
Their appearance is quite frightful, unlike anything seen before. Blame is a cup and a half taller than Pride, but Pride could fit into two Blame’s and is not embarrassed to say so. Pride’s somewhat like a creased ball of newspaper that tumbles down busy streets, kicked by leathery feet and taking into the air; a ball of paper with no location to go or a place to stay. His face is that of a fat sluggish-frog submerged in murky waters, eyes bulbous like preying night-cats. Blame on the other hand has the down-determined expression of a penniless salesman; he looks like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep drunk on a dripping-wet barstool in a Scottish pub; delirious, but stubbornly persistent, and after waking up, you’d carry a nauseous feeling in your stomach as if something you ate was a few days off.
There exist no greedier, ruder or nastier pair.
They chuckled wistfully as they regarded the old man taking off his glasses, wiping them with a cloth, peering through the frame, squinting his eyes and wiping them again. At one point he stopped to remove a smudge with the side of his thumb. Mid-October afternoons are always foggy and bad here for the less-fortunate far-sighted folk.
‘My dear friend, do your eyes spy the same calamity approaching?’ Blame spoke slow with a sound low, creaking like the crushing of desiccated bark.
Pride, who had been digging the frozen ground fervently, jolted upward and pierced the twilight sky with eyes bright ablaze such as a cold fire. It didn’t take him long to spot Frank.
‘He’s come too early,’ Pride’s high voice slithered through yellowed teeth.
Pride started to dig more urgently now, his shocking, slender body appearing to fight off the shapeless identity of time. The shovel slashed through the earth, sometimes with ease but more often it bounced back where it had hit a rock or a root. ‘He’s come too soon. I can’t finish the grave,’ he panted. Blame nodded and made a musing noise that could be interpreted as ‘let’s come back later’. Or perhaps it meant ‘there is still time; he’s stopped again to catch his breath.’ There was no way of knowing.
But it didn’t matter. Pride had had enough.
Both men regarded the shallow hole with jagged rims and strands of unearthed grass scattered through it like malachite shards. It was clearly not big enough for a human body.
‘We could slice him in two,’ Pride said, ‘he’s very skinny nowadays. We’ll use the shovel; its edges are still sharp.’
‘You seem to think that the body is made of twigs and sand,’ Blame said.
Pride gave an insulting frown. ‘I’m no fool! I know that it has strong bones, thick muscles and lean flesh. In fact, I’m quite sure I know a lot more about many things than you do.’
‘You didn’t dig fast enough; that’s the problem.’
He was probably on time after all.
The pair stole into the shadows, hiding behind the lowest branch. The hole concealed by the mists’ obscurity.
As Frank reached the top of the hill, he felt the burning of his lungs. He noticed that there were still leaves on the white beech tree, though not as abundant as you might see in summer. Some were fiercely bright as acidic wine and, on the ground, the leaves were evenly speckled like fragrant, sweltering oranges. If you happened to step on one of the old ones, they’d sigh and disintegrate under your sole with gratification. The tree always gave Frank the impression of a large eagle that spread-out its wings. It gave him reassurance.
Hardly anyone came here except some children, to play. They’d hang upside down from the thick branches and laugh until they looked sick, or they’d bounce their ball against the fat trunk until it rolled down the hill and they had to climb up again. But today they weren’t here, and Frank was glad for it.
He turned around. From here he could see the bird fountain made from marble that once was white but was now coated with a damp, furry moss that, according to some villagers, added to its magical appearance. And to the right, the Old Roman church where the back of the roof had collapsed and caused dreadful leakages when it rained, and, specifically frightened the tending pastor.
Frank adjusted his shirt and gave his neck a quick rub, then rolled his shoulders up and down, let out a big puff of air so that his chest deflated. This was good, the walk. It took his mind off the thing he tried to forget so hard. If only his heart would have a little more strength.
‘You have arrived at the perfect time.’
Frank leaped around, scouring the dimmed surroundings. ‘Who’s here?’
There was some movement a few meters away near the line of the woodland. The second time the voice spoke, he couldn’t suppress a small shriek. It originated from the tree.
‘You’ve arrived at the right moment!’ it said.
‘Alright! Heard you the first time.’ He searched for words. ‘What do you mean, the right moment? Who are you? Where –’
‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ it said.
Thickness swelled up inside Frank’s throat. He moved closer, his head cocked, his left ear pitched to the tree, but not too close – he didn’t dare to lose the moonlight.
‘What is it you want?’
Somewhere a blackbird shot out of the shrubs, screeching into the hastening blackness of the night.
‘Now, don’t be so brisk,’ the voice growled, ‘why assume there’s something wanted?’
He sniffed the cool air and tried to pull himself together. There could be no such thing as a talking tree, he knew, because he’d read it in books but never heard of it on the news; and the news always said the truth, awful truths, but things that were there, happening, in the world he was part of. Or used to be. He wasn’t actually sure whether he wanted to be part of it any longer.
Frank then was convinced that something else was at play. Something unnatural that he hadn’t yet encountered. The waxing moon surrounded the ivy on the tree with a halo, translucent as barrel-aged whiskey.
‘There’s always something needed in life,’ Frank said as he fumbled the rim of his khaki shorts.
It was quiet for a moment.
The higher voice said: ‘Not if you’re good enough. Then, you have everything.’
The lower voice said: ‘There’s always someone who’s better. Who’s more successful than you.’
The soil was frost-bound. Frank could tell from the shuddering heather. He suddenly felt very tired. Tired of this game that was obviously a ruse and how dare the tree talk about being good enough and whether or not he’d had success in his life.
Then the voice continued. ‘But now that you mention it, we do need something.’
‘Look, I’m not sure what you’re playing at, “tree”,’ he did quotation marks in the air and then felt very foolish since there was no way the tree had eyes, ‘but I’ve had enough. I’m going to start walking back now.’ And he turned around with determination, his eyes fixed upon the small village with the flickering light-bugs and the aged copper-coloured roof-tiles. In the embrace of the falling night, the town invoked a sense of bewitchment and trance. He wished he was back in his chair near the window. He wished he could’ve had more time.
After he’d taken a few steps he half expected to be called back by the tree; most certainly the voice would reappear after he was almost out of ear reach, but the tree remained silent. It stayed quiet for such a while he began to think that he’d imagined it all. Maybe he’d eaten something funny. An odd mushroom.
But then the tree spoke again.
‘You know you can’t go back.’
Frank knew. ‘Why?’, he heard himself ask. The white beech tree that suddenly felt like his only best friend. There was an uncanny familiarity to the voices as if he’d heard them before in a dream, delirious and hazy. Were they even real?
‘You know why. You’ve tried long enough,’ the voices both said. ‘You’ve thought about it long enough. Every time you opened your eyes in the morning when you made weak green tea for yourself. You asked yourself the question; every time you watched the creeping shadows engulfing yet another day, another day where it didn’t get better. Where nothing happened or changed. You’re tired, had enough. And it’s alright. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’
The silent breath of the wind caressed the clothes around his body and urged him back toward the tree. Was this really why he was here?
For the first time in his life, he felt that he could cry. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long while. He’d felt the emptiness alright, not just in his mind, but the mundane and bland coldness that flowed through his limbs and chest like a late November fall-day where the sky seemed ashen white but it was clouds that covered the sky and it was not truly the sky but the clouds, all over.
Nothing came and nothing left.
He’d gone through his life with no particular emotion. He performed every movement as if it were directed by a shadowed entity, face dark, dark eyebrows. He had regarded his life patiently as if it were a long moment to endure and even though he might’ve been youthful when he was young, he’d always thought of himself as old. There had been moments where he found he couldn’t breathe as deep as he liked, only shallow breaths and it had made his head fuzzy. Maybe it was the right time after all.
Frank stepped closer. He noticed the fresh soil dug up in a big pile next to a shallow hole.
The voices seemed to sense the question in Frank’s head. ‘It’s your grave. We’ve started it but you finished it.’
‘You’re not real,’ Frank said.
‘We’re glad to see that nothing escapes on old crook like you.’
Frank sighed and picked up the shovel and started digging. ‘I’ve let a fulfilling life, you know.’ The blade went into the earth and uncovered worms wriggling naked and pink in the black soil. ‘it was just the last years that were tough. After she passed, the only woman I’ve ever loved, it wasn’t the same anymore.’
The white beech tree moaned as the icy wind pushed and pulled its branches.
‘You couldn’t have helped her even if you’d been there,’ the highest voice said.
The other one seemed to let out a howl so fierce that it rumbled the dug-up dirt and set the leaves to shiver. ‘It is because you weren’t there that she died.’
Frank’s insides turned to water. His legs felt too heavy and his body cumbersome. He wanted to lay down, just for a moment.
‘I shouldn’t have left her.’ Frank said meekly.
‘It was your fault.’
The earth felt frosty and the cold seeped through his clothes and his skin and into his bones. He wondered if he’d see her again soon. At that moment, mortality seemed only a thin mist. One that would fade with the rising of the warm morning sun.
‘What do you need,’ he asked as he laid down.
His spine relaxed and he thought of her.
‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ Pride and Blame answered.
Hardly aware of what he was doing other than a slight feeling of shame, he hurried under the couch. It pressed down on his back a little, and he was no longer able to lift his head, but he nonetheless felt immediately at ease and his only regret was that his body was too broad to get it all underneath.
Last month when I found out that I could download a lot of the classic books for free on Apple Books, I came upon Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. I had heard his name before, but never read anything and mainly out of curiosity did I start to read the first page. I didn’t think I would finish the novel so quickly.
Although the story itself is quite odd; the main character Gregory Samsa wakes up as a ‘monstrous vermin’, which details give the reader the occasional nauseousness, talking about his little, jerky legs or in general his slimy body; the writing itself and the tension building is extraordinary.
The book starts with Greg waking up and finding himself turned into an insect for reasons that are not explained in the book. Kafka writes about this moment so detailed: Greg waking up and perceiving his body, trying to get out of bed, attempting to communicate with his sister Grete and parents outside the locked door, but they only hear squeaks.
It’s interesting here that Greg doesn’t seem the panic about his new body so much as that he worries about the welfare of his family. He is the main provider for the family and can’t lose his job. But when they finally find out that he’s turned into an insect, despicable, hideously looking, and unable to work, he’s locked up in his room where he resides mostly under the couch or hangs from the ceiling.
As the story unfolds, the family lose interest in him. He’s neglected, injured by his father and finally perishes from starvation when he realises that he’s a burden to the family.
It’s a tragic story in its own right and, to me, a metaphor that I interpreted as Greg being ‘vermin’ in the eyes of his family after he was unable to provide for the family (and lost his function). Although the family first experiences great distress from finding their son turned, they later seem happy that he’s gone.
Often Metamorphosis is seen as influenced by Kafka’s father problems, but he denies this. According to him, the sister Grete that’s his downfall. I agree that Grete makes his life harder, although Greg at first interprets this as good intentions. It also shows to me a certain ignorance from Greg’s perspective. He’s never truly angry or upset by his change; he’s worried about his family and he even accepts his death in order to ‘relieve them of him’.
The story seems simple, but it’s very layered. I read through it because I wanted to find out to what insect specifically he’d turned (I suspect a cockroach), whether he was going to turn back to a human, what changed him; but as I progressed through the story, the intricate social interactions kept me going.
What I also liked about Metamorphosis is how Kafka manages to write seemingly unimportant scenes and turn them into interesting parts. The time spent by Greg in his room without doing much didn’t bore me at all; Kafka described the room, talked about things Greg does and thinks, goes back to previous occurrences and so keeps the reader interested in what a man-turned-into-a-cockroach might do with his spare time. That’s good writing.
This story will stay with me for those reasons. It shows how people’s feelings and opinions change after a significant event that affects their life. In the end, they didn’t see Greg as their son, but as a burden. It’s a story about the selfishness of people, the rusted habits in which people tend to fall back again and again and it’s a story about a kind-hearted man who turned into an insect.
The day I started to walk with a limp was the day I decided that I might as well just act the part. I knew that it suited my appearance; my right shoulder was positioned lower than the other and consequently, my head hung to the right-side in a cramped, agonising angle. I tried to squeeze my muscles to relieve the pain a little. As I was hauling the lifeless leg behind me over the pavement, I suppressed a muscle spasm. My foot is carrying a small residue of gravel on the top of my shoe.
I pulled my olive coloured button-up down when I saw that I was approaching his house.
As I regarded the old naked man in the front window of his small middle- suburban two-story house, I watched how a few kids ran over the street without looking. How careless. A car could’ve hit them. Or a van could’ve intercepted them, captured them, and taken them to a far-off location in the woodlands and killed them. Or worse.
They didn’t know the danger; the eminent luring presence of an accident that might cause your leg to fall off or your ears to explode. I consider myself lucky that my leg is still attached. It could’ve ended differently altogether. It was just a limp now.
The naked man in the window waved and I smiled a half-smile and tried to maintain eye contact as I was waving back, but my peripheral vision couldn’t deny the dangling worm bouncing up and down. There was a rumour that I didn’t fully believe in, although it had some credibility since I had heard it from my mother. And there was the indisputable fact to the story that the naked man was indeed frequently seen naked, so that added to the story.
People love good stories anyway although they might not be true. Stories are like this; the truth is the trunk and the branches of a tree and the leaves are the lies that cover the branches so you can’t see that the branches are actually rotten. Just like my limp.
Anyway, the story is in fact pretty sad; the naked man is a man who was born in a large household of an absurd number of children, sixteen or something. Clearly birth control was not a known aspect in that family.
The parents did come to realise that they had an abundance of offspring when their savings began to suffer so badly that they had to give up colour TV and chocolate biscuits. When they heard the news that the sister of the mother of the family was infertile, I imagine they scratched their heads as to how to solve this enigma.
Enigma is a tough word that I learned once from my high school teacher when I met her on the train to Winchester. I had graduated high school only two years. While she was sobbing, she told me that her husband had left her and that it was an enigma why he had done so. I tried to imagine the pain she was going through. I had no experience in partner dramas, although my life has been clouded by many other sad matters.
But then I noticed how erratic she was behaving, and only now did I notice how aged she looked, with straw-like grey hairs in her black, short hair and yellow teeth. She was clearly not what he thought he was marrying at that time. How can she expect a man to stay with her looking like this? I felt disgusted at this pathetic person in front of me, so much so that I couldn’t stand her wailing any longer and I got up and left without a word.
The story of the naked man starts after the parents of the absurdly large family and the soon-to-be parents decide that the next baby that is born into the nineteen-sized family, is to be placed into the arms of the childless sister. This promised baby was sprouted within a year and a fortnight and after labour, handed over in not so much as a blanket.
The child grew up loved by his adopted parents but shunned by his biological siblings and parents. Because he had no one to play with, he never learned to socialise. As a 6-year old he would walk over to the house where his siblings lived and wait outside in the bushes until they came out; and he’d ask if he could play along, but they’d say: ‘you’re not one of us. We’re not supposed to play with you.’ At first, this made him very sad. But then frustration took the better of him. One day, he waited in the bushes, seeing how his brothers and sisters played inside, ate nice bread-rolls with meat, and got hugs from their mother. He felt the anger rise in him; it overtook him, like acid in the stomach when you’re nauseous. When they left the front door, he sprang out, ran towards them, and then tried to set his youngest brother on fire with matches he’d saved in the small pocket in his jacket.
The children dispersed in a flurry of frenzy when they saw the cotton shirt of their youngest brother flare up.
If the mother hadn’t been looking out the window, the child would’ve sustained serious burn wounds – although I’m sure the shrieks alarmed the whole neighbourhood. I was never to see his siblings or mother again.
When his adopted parents died, he inherited the house and lived a lonely life as a pizza delivery man with three cats. Maybe it would’ve been better if he moved since everyone knew what he’d done, but I can imagine that he felt that his only possession was the house. He had nowhere else to go.
Moreover, no one wanted to live next to him and so he became the lonely naked man from around the corner who waved at anyone crossing the street.
I grew a beard to accompany my limp to look more dishevelled.
If you would walk up on a sunny day to the pathway that leads towards the high stairs that villagers here still call the ‘Sky’s Stairs’, and if you then look to your right, you might see, if there are no grey clouds that day, the roof of my house and you might wonder who could live there in such a wealthy manner. You might notice the very straight roof tiles, the polished windows with the red curtains behind it, the smoke rising from the black chimney and the russet bricks surrounding the large, wooden front door. I am aware of its grandeur and it is true that once there lived a very rich man. But if I were to inform you that its occupants these days are merely the descendants of a simple goat farmer and that these descendants praise themselves lucky that they were able to purchase this house in a time of recession you might be surprised. If I were to tell you instead that the previous owner of this majestic house was none other than Theodore Van De Moor, you would understand its magnitude.
It is possible that you are new to this town, that used to be a large city, and have never heard of him, although he’s well known by the villagers in town and by the people in the surrounding areas. I could tell you that he was a painter and a very great one too. In his time, he created many paintings which were desired and very often asked for by those who could afford them. Naturally, those paintings no longer adorn the walls in this house; they were auctioned off after the previous owner passed away. But I do remember that I’ve heard that those paintings were something out of this world, extra-terrestrial and that the people, those who have seen them and others who haven’t but had heard of their brilliance from others, whisper only praise about them. You might wonder what kind of painting could be of such splendour that it seems extra-terrestrial. I’ll explain. If you were to walk a bit further down the street and if the sun would shine on the left corner of the pointy roof, you might see a statue. It is not a large statue and it is not in the same size as the well-known painter when he was alive, but you might be able to distinguish some of its features.
I have to confess that when I first laid eyes on the house, I didn’t notice the statue. It is hidden from the main entrance of the house, and I was taken aback by the magnificent copper-coloured bricks and chestnut front door, and I imagined then what the windows would look like if my family were to hang red curtains behind them. The property was for sale for only a trifling price, probably not even worth half its value that it would have been before the recession. You might think me foolish, and, with the knowledge I now have, I would too, but the only excuse I can find now is that I was ignorant. I had never heard of Van de Moor and in my innocence, I merely saw a beautifully preserved house in which my family could grow old. Besides, the bakery in this town is known to have the best croissants in the province and I have a terrible weakness for buttery pastries.
If you were to have a better look and you might need to squint your eyes, you would see that the statue doesn’t depict a grand painter, but instead, a more distorted figure that I fancy resembles a gargoyle, with its sharp wings and dark, weathered stone and malicious claws, and the face that is deformed into an unnatural looking kind. I am aware that it is an unpleasant statue to behold and to be quite frank with you, it makes me uneasy that it is attached to my splendorous house. But I can’t take it down. That I know for certain because I once attempted to do so. I had bought all the equipment: ropes, a pickaxe, and a hammer paid for with the funds we saved so we could hire a professional to repair the leakage in the third bathroom. My dear wife could no longer stand the sight of it. I admit that at first, I didn’t see the harm of it since it was on the roof and not visible from the entrance of the house, so I didn’t set about the matter very quickly. But my wife grew more uneasy every time she heard it mentioned in the market where she buys fish and lavender soap, I so went out to buy the tools.
I remember that it was a clear day, mercurial hot, I was sweltering on top of the roof, and I could think of many other things I would have preferred to do that moment. The ladder I had used to climb up was firmly planted against the wall with the ceramic pots as support. I imagined that I first would secure the ends of the ropes around the legs, body and the arms so I could give the statue a good pull after I had struck the base with my pickaxe, a tool that wasn’t of very high quality but seemed sharp enough to cleave the weathered stone. I gave it a few test swings. But as you would have it, after I had made sure I had a good grip on the roof ridge and that my left foot was secure in the gutter, and I then heaved my first strike, the tip of the pickaxe bounced back after it touched the stone as if it were made of rubber. Can you believe it? I made another attempt, this time confirming that I was making for the statue – maybe I had accidentally hit something else than the statue. But even when I had put all my weight and force into the swing, the pickaxe bounced back and the counterforce made me lose my balance. Only a bit further down the roof was I able to grab the roof vent and pull myself up. Was this wretched statue indestructible? After I crawled back and laid my hands on the statue so I could inspect it, I noticed the dark clouds on the horizon making fast towards the house. The sun had disappeared, and I was overcome by a feeling that someone was watching me. I hurried back, down the ladder and into the house.
After I had told the story to my wife she laughed. ‘There could be no such thing as an indestructible statue,’ she said. I knew that it sounded ridiculous, after all, it didn’t even look stable, but very frail. But I couldn’t deny what had happened there on the roof. ‘I know my dear, and it sounds unbelievable, but what if it’s made of some sort of strong material from before the recession? Maybe it was even made of a type of rubber.’ I immediately regretted the last suggestion, because I saw her face change and regard me oddly, maybe wondering why she married this fool. ‘No, you’re going back up there as soon as the clouds have disappeared. I will not stand those people on the market making fun of it – of us!’ I tried to think of other things we could try, maybe hiring someone to take it down or hoping that lightning would strike it someday, but I saw the tremor in my wife’s chin and I knew that it would be even more foolish if I’d go against her. ‘Yes, my dear, I’ll go back up as soon as I’m able.’
It took about a few hours for the clouds to dissolve and to greet back the insatiable heat that characterises countryside France in the peak of summer, and I smelled the drying ivy and lavender that grew outside our house, and frankly, populated the whole town, where the speckled leaves and purple merged into the crème coloured sand-brick houses. The notion of lightning striking the statue seemed to grow more believable with every step I took up the ladder. But the chances of the clouds returning were slim.
Now, I’d like to have a little intermission before I tell you what is about to happen on top of the roof, as I climbed up for the second time. At that moment, I had no idea why the famous painter was so poorly represented in the statue. Of course, some suggestions had crossed my mind like, maybe he once painted a gargoyle and it had become something of a tribute to his admirers, or he identified himself with a metaphorical, distorted-looking creature. But I didn’t know the truth, while I later learned that so many in our village did. They knew that he was known as authentic, unbalanced, sometimes erratic even. That Van de Moor often didn’t leave his house for weeks. That he was referred to as the Cursed Painter. And even the villagers didn’t know exactly why he was cursed, because I suppose that even if someone is acting strange, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cursed. All of this, I learned a few weeks later after the incident, from an elderly man who could’ve well been of the painter’s age if he were still alive. What I’m about to tell you has never crossed my lips before and I intended to have it stay that way, but the urge to share my sorrows with someone, a stranger like you who I’m sure will not pass this tale on to others, is too great. I suppose it’s only human to feel the need to be understood or at least to be listened to. Why would you ask? Well, revealing the truth and consequently laying this burden on my family would be too harmful, for they are so content living in this house and I’m quite certain that I could never afford a better, larger house than the current one. And if that means that I have to live with this dark secret to keep my family save, so be it.
I learned the story from a stranger much as yourself. I happened to meet the elderly man while I was sitting in front of my house. There was a raw, waning sun that shone yellow upon the wicker bench and with my eyes closed, my thoughts had wandered off to a peaceful memory I like to think back to on these occasions. I had heard his footsteps approaching but didn’t think much of it. It could also have been my wife shuffling around in the garden, tending to the purple rain and the Fragonard roses. But when he spoke, the voice was unmistakably not my wife’s. ‘I see you’re enjoying the splendour of this mansion, as you well should.’ I opened my eyes, disheartened that someone had come to tear me from my daydreaming. The man stood with an arched back and a long neck, white whiskers and thin hair but surprisingly voluminous. Friendly eyes, green, I think, but they also could’ve been hazel. I couldn’t recall then whether I had seen the man before, although it was likely – the town wasn’t that large anymore, and he seemed to have read my mind. ‘I live in a town nearby,’ he explained pointing to the south with his thick thumb, ‘but I’ve come to look at the house that used to be owned by the magnificent Van de Moor. I’m a great admirer, you see. His paintings are extraordinary, the colours seem to jump off the canvas, the strikes of his brush hit every accent so beautifully as if he was simply tracing the actual scene.’ The old man’s face had become flushed with excitement. I didn’t know what to respond. I couldn’t bring up the courage to say that the owner of the great painter’s house had never seen anything of Van de Moor’s work. ‘That sounds nice,’ I mumbled. It appeared to be enough; the old man smiled proudly. ‘Amazing, his paintings are. I’m a collector too, although I flatter myself in saying so; his paintings are quite expensive nowadays. That wasn’t the case when he was alive, unfortunately.’ Creases emerged between his white eyebrows as if the thought of the painter not earning enough money during his active years was of a personal matter. I asked him why. ‘It had nothing to do with his art, I’m sure of that. But over the years he became quite mad. Although you often see some type of eccentricity in great artists, Van de Moor crossed the line between a little quirky to absolutely bananas. He thought that he was cursed by a witch, you see, and not just some witch!’ He leaned closer and I smelled his eggy breath. ‘The witch from the legends.’ I had heard of this legend before but not in detail, for it normally didn’t interest me. But the old man had such a knack for storytelling that I suddenly wanted to hear all about it. ‘What legend?’
The old man smirked. ‘The Witch of Dauphiné. It is said that when she was born the first plague in France began; crops turned black, inedible, and it didn’t take long for the country to go hungry. No one knew that people were starving because of the birth of a child who seemed normal. But normal she was certainly not. You see, she was given the Mark of the Devil, a long scratch on her left thigh that was always burning hot red as if the Devil’s flames itself furnaced the scar. No one knows why she was chosen to do the Devil’s work though she accepted her role completely. Antoine Lilly was her name. It is said that she feasted on human flesh, bend minds and bones to her will, change into the shape of a werewolf and that she particularly relished in strangling little children. The world is lucky that her malicious work didn’t last long; she was captured before her 25th birthday in Dauphiné and tortured until she confessed. Then she was burned alive on the stake. They say that it took four days for the flames to take her and that the witnesses can still hear her wicked laugh in their sleep. And it happened right here, on this spot, where this mansion is now built.’ I blinked. He made a point of adding: ‘of course that happened a long time ago and it probably doesn’t affect you in any way’.
Here I have to apologise to you, for I am sure that these gruesome details were not enjoyable to hear. You have to forgive me; I’m only telling you what the old man told me. After he had finished telling his terrible tale I have to admit I sensed an electric shock going through my body, but I kept my face straight.
‘How could the burning of a witch affect the life of a painter? There should be a lot of places around France where many innocent women and men have met their agonising ending; there is no evidence that this Antione was any different.’ I regretted asking after further about the legend. It showed to have been a plain ghost story, told by a demented man who I now hoped would leave very soon. But he didn’t. ‘Antoine Lilly wasn’t just an ordinary witch. She was a direct descendent of the Devil, marked in the womb. After she was burned, her skeletal remains disappeared, and they say that worshippers tried to revive her.’ He nodded his head towards the roof. ‘That statue wasn’t sculpted to resemble the likeness of a gargoyle. It became this way after Theodore Van de Moor converted into a zealous devotee himself. Over the years, the painter’s madness trickled into the statue and now it exposes the blackness of his true nature; deformed, contorted, a madness caused by the wicked whispers of the Devil’s descendent.’ I could hardly believe the nonsense the man was saying. ‘Well, I’m sure this is a great, scary story, but –.’ ‘Have you not truly looked at the statue? Seen its ugliness?’ he interrupted. ‘Did you not think it was odd that this majestic house was for sale for such a nominal fee?’ I tried to get inside, but the old man followed me to the door. His face seemed to be burning as if he had a high fever. I yanked at the handle of the door. ‘I only came to warn you, to tell you the truth!’ he exclaimed as I tried to get rid of his hands on my arm. It seemed now impossible to end this conversation politely, and only after I had closed the door and found myself safely on the other side did I shout some sort of goodbye.
I wish that I had had this knowledge before I climbed up the roof, for it could’ve saved me from my current predicament. But my dear wife had told me to go back onto the roof and so that’s what I did.
I peered over the ridge of the roof and climbed up, hesitantly, so I could sit next to the statue. In the magnetic afternoon light, the pastures were blank and receptive, and I visualised myself running through the rough, tall, emerald grassland breathless, like a young child. For some reason, I couldn’t muster the courage to look at the statue, and I recall now that something stopped me from touching it too. It was as if I didn’t want to acknowledge its existence. I played with the rope, pulling strands of twine, folding and unfolding it, and weighing it in my hands. I might have sat there for a full hour because I remember the gold-crusted sun sinking so that it almost touched the earth. Something had to be done though, so I turned around. The coarse stone was gritty, and I wiped some of the fragments off of the wings, and then I felt that the statue was strangely warm, toasty even, which alarmed me at first but then I remembered that it had been a hot day. I wasn’t sure what type of stone this was – not that I knew much about minerals and rocks, but when I came closer, it seemed as if it was radiating, indeed, with my face so close to the stone I swear I could see veins; not black ones that one might see in marble, but crimson veins; oozing, smouldering, flaring veins as if lava was pushed through the stone with amazing force. And the statue felt hot, radiantly hot, scalding hot, so hot that I pulled my hands away for fear of burning them and as I leaned back, the blood sank into my feet. Its head had turned around and was looking at me. Blazing red eyes, smoking, fuming, and the jaws exposed a horrid, beastly set of teeth; my whole body shuddered, and I froze, and then the bloodcurdling creature moved forward, biting rhythmically, and then I was sliding down the roof on my back, waving my arms frantically, trying to grab something that would stop me from falling, but I was too late and my body smacked on the sandstone pathway, near the Fragonard roses.
There you have it. I went up the roof to take a statue down, but instead, I believe to have seen a Devilish creature coming towards me and then I fell off the roof. I’m sure this must be the most preposterous story you’ve ever heard, but it’s true. I count myself blessed that I didn’t perish; another wrong turn or any odd obstacle in the way could’ve caused my neck to break. Instead, I live, though both my legs are broken, the fractures so complicated that I now have metal pins to strengthen them. I won’t ever be able to walk fast or run again. But at least I can be with my family and see them grow. The only thing that still bothers me, and I’m sure it is only a minor issue, is the red scar on my upper leg that doesn’t seem to heal as fast as the other wounds.
There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
– Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I found this book through the Masterclass given by Carol Oates and I just went to it on Apple Books to see if I happen to have downloaded it, and then I just went to read a few pages but it hooked me; I had to read it ’til the end.
It’s astonishing how she can keep on going about the wallpaper without it beginning to bore you. I gave it a bit of thought and I concluded that it was because the wallpaper is a living thing – it starts out as ugly wallpaper, but as the weeks, months, go by, the narrator (some people argue its Jane, some say its a misprint of Jennie) starts to see that the lines in the wallpaper move and shake and then there are ‘bulbous eyes’ staring at her and then heads stuck in bars of the wallpaper who try to come out. Gilman does such a good job of describing this process. Without ever saying that ‘then she became crazy’ or ‘she knew it wasn’t real’ – the narrator (let’s call her Jane) truly believes that what she’s seeing is real, even when she starts to notice this ‘creeping woman behind the lines’. (When I read it for the first time, I had goosebumps. I imagined this grudge-like person staring at her and creeping.) It’s an unnecessary statement that Gilman is a good writer, but what she’s done in this book is beyond belief. The way she can describe Jane’s thoughts in such a believable way shows true skill.
I thought about it after and I thought what it would be like to write this story. You would have to ‘climb’ into this personage, be her, and then see and write through her eyes, and it seemed to me an unbelievably hard task. How can you imagine what someone like Jane is thinking, seeing? Then I found out (searching online) that it’s almost an autobiography; it’s inspired by the hardship of marriage and the struggles of depression she experienced in her first marriage. John, the husband in the story, starts out to ‘have the best interests for her’, by locking her up in a ‘haunted’ house, in the nursery where she’s hardly allowed to leave or do anything (?). She needs bed rest, and absolutely should she not write! As the story unfolds, you start to notice that John is not that nice at all.
How the book emphasises the struggles of marriage seeps through the prose in sentences like: “He (John) is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” and “John laughs at me, of course, but one can expect that of marriage.” The book is being considered as a feminist, where Jane tries to be cut loose from the restrictions of marriage, and manages so, by literally breaking free from the lines/bars of the yellow wallpaper. In the end, she tears the wallpaper down, creeps around the room and shouts:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
I initially interpreted that sentence as her being finally free of her mental struggle (in the book she has a nervous breakdown, but nowadays it would be considered as a postpartum depression/psychosis because she gave birth to a baby just before her lockdown). But readers interpret this also as her being liberated from her husband and ‘that she ain’t going back to his sorry ass!’ Good on her.
The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a diary without chapters, and the days melt into each other because of that. There’s no clear indication when Jane stops writing and when she begins, besides the occasional clue of passing time. I think that’s a very clever way because it adds to the tension build-up, and to the understanding of Jane’s mental problems. Besides the story being inspired by her first husband, it’s also a response to her doctor who treated her for depression by putting her on ‘rest cure’. I can imagine that anyone who has to lay in bed for a long, long time, and stare to the walls will start to see things move. I love that Gilman sends her doctor a copy.
Although Gilman’s mental issues are a thread that keeps coming back throughout her life, she’s shown a tremendous will and intelligence in her writing (and the impressive amount of pieces she’s produced). I am a fan, and I will definitely recommend this book to others. It’s given me inspiration on how to write about feelings of my main characters and how they can perceive them as true and real, even though they might not be so.
Rosemary’s hands rest on the ivory keys for just a second and then she starts playing nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor by Chopin. Fingers with nails dark red tap the keys delicately, the small living room zings with a melody that reminds me of zesty oranges, toasted almonds and the slight perfume of lilac. Her curly, thick hair that almost looks dark grey in the twilight sun waves as she moves her head up and forward and sideways to scan the paper, her right foot methodically tapping the pedal. As I sit next to her, I regard her slender body, her long legs, a body that always come when children are spurred into adolescence and I am envious. Although I’m still slender, the skin has started to crease, sink, as if gravity tried to untangle it and stretched it irreversibly in the process.
“I like your nail polish today,” I say after she finishes.
Her smile is shy, a little childlike, endearing, with teeth freshly shaped after braces.
I tell her that she’s improving and that we can try something different next week, a piece of Beethoven perhaps, and she pouts. I don’t understand why. Jane says that Rosemary has trouble at home. Maybe she doesn’t want to go home now.
“Or if you like you can stay and —,”
“No, it’s okay Myrtle, I need to go home for homework anyway.”
Those blue eyes look daring; perhaps she’s smarter than I give her.
She tucks her hair behind her ear and swings the schoolbag over her shoulder and leaves through the backdoor, a flurry of warm air rushing through the room. It reminds me of someone who used to be her age. Her hair was curly too, but not as thick as Rosemary’s.
I start to clean up and I strike my index finger over the top of the piano. I wipe the dust on my navy blue skirt that I bought a week ago. David said that it looked nice, a rare compliment, and I wear it now so he’ll notice when he comes back from work.
Upstairs, I absorb the mess of our laundry; has he ever folded his clothes? I pick up a shirt, dark pink with pinstripes and there is a long, curled hair on the right sleeve. I have it short and straight, and I have let my hair become silvery. The hair feels thick between my fingers. It probably fell off my shoulder after playing with Rosemary.
He always comes home after 6 pm and I like to make sure that he has his beer cold, his slippers warmed near the heater that stands in the hearth, and that diner is ready. I find that it’s the best way to shake him out of his work slumber and it gives me a certain satisfaction that I can influence his mood. Sometimes, I get a kiss on my cheek and the warmth always flushes my face like a teenager.
To amplify the dark, beamed living room, I light long candles and short ones too and place them on the mango-wood side table, the glass desk and the dining table with the chequered table cloth. I pause when I hear the front door open. He often enters the house with certain respectability that changes the atmosphere, a decorum that stems from a dignified charm and a modest vanity that allows him to enchant almost everyone.
I watch him eat his sausage uncut, straight from the fork, and I look at mine, neatly cut in slices and then again halved so that it mixes better with the mashed potatoes. Has he always eaten so quickly, hurriedly, almost barbaric? What’s his rush? He pats his stomach. He’s in good shape still for is age. Although his hair is receding slightly and his beard has turned grey 10 years ago, I find he’s aged well.
I am about to get up to clean the dishes and turn on the TV for him so he can watch the news when he says that he has to go out.
“Why?” I ask.
He slides the chair backwards over our creme carpet. It makes a hushed sound, like when stroking a hand over a woollen jumper.
“Meeting with people from work.”
I want to ask him what meeting could be so late, but I bite my tongue and see him leave through the front door without knowing when he’ll be back.
No kiss on the cheek.
In the damp morning, the sun has fled behind a veil of milky clouds, I notice Sandra, bowing over her daffodils and I consider talking to her. She’s always friendly, but more often I sense she’s just being polite. Jane from two doors down told me a few days ago that she’d seen a man go into her house, pretty late in the evening, and he didn’t come out until at least 1:30 am. Jane has trouble sleeping and sometimes she lets out her dog, just for a quick round, across the street.
“Sandra is seeing someone we know,” Jane says, “and she doesn’t want us to know who.” Listening to Jane’s gossip is so exciting.
As I pluck at the weeds underneath the young willow, I ponder over this mysterious man who goes into Sandra’s house and leaves late. It must be exciting to have a visitor in the night, a secret, that only you and this man share. The thrill when he touches you and whispers into space between you, laying in hot bedsheets where the night air puffs up the blankets; your hands cupping his clean jaw and cheeks, and you listen to his calm breathing that forms a melody -silk violin and ecstatic contrabass. Just him and I.
It’s a thrill I haven’t had for a long time.
A lot changed after she left and it never became quite right again.
Tonight it will be different though. I bought steak from the butcher where I used to go when Lawrence still owned the shop. Steak with garlic butter and peas, I know he’ll like that. Maybe we can watch a movie after. As I season the meat with pepper, salt and rosemary, I try to formulate how I can ask him about last night. The lock of the door clicks and I pop out of the kitchen to greet him.
As we eat, he seems pleased. He’s in an unusually cheery mood, joking, his hands dancing up and down, talking, and he has a boyish smile on him. I smile too. When I stand up, I strike my hands over my new skirt, not the navy blue one, but the one with ombre and dark red autumn flowers, and I pause for a few seconds. I have read that men find women more attractive when they wear red; or was it the other way around? Confidence overflows me and I start to share with him the gossip about Sandra.
“She’s an attractive woman,” he says, gulping his beer, “so what if she has a lover? She’s been alone for a long time, right?”
I agree, my voice not as strong as I intended, and I jerk my hands apart when I notice that I’m pulling the lace of the table cover.
I think about the hair on his shirt. The thickness in my fingers, the soft bends in which it curled, and the dark colour. Sandra has dark curls. They’re about the same age. They know each other. My gaze scrutinises David’s expression, his pale eyes, his grey, round eyebrows, and in my mind’s eye, I see him, his quiet footsteps disturbing the grass, slipping into her house.
I startle when I see David walk across the living room towards the coat rack and he picks his dark leather jacket with lined fur.
“Where are you going?” I ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.
“I have to get back to work,” I hear him say, “they’re at the bar and we have to go over some papers. Not very important.”
He waves his hand, disappearing into the hallway, and then he strides back and leaves a fleeting kiss resting on my cheek.
My hands shake when I order the sheets and place them in front of Rosemary.
“Let’s start with where we were last week.”
She’s wearing a new perfume, some kind of thick, flowery fragrance that doesn’t suit her age. Her back is straight and she plays.
My mind drifts. I wonder where David goes every night, the bar but a poor excuse. Does he see Sandra? Our marriage indeed changed after our daughter left but it doesn’t justify cheating. It’s greedy, conceited; but I see the appeal. As he said, Sandra is an attractive woman. I search my memory if I’ve missed something, if I’ve ever seen them together; a fleeting touch of the hands, a daring glance that conveyed that they knew and nobody else. The thought buzzes through my head.
The telephone rings. Rosemary’s eyes shoot up, the last tunes muffled by the high pitched ringing. For a moment I hope it’s our daughter, Lisa.
“Is this Mrs Greywater?” A weathered, female voice on the other side. Lisa has a different voice, or could it have changed over the years?
“Your husband has been in an accident,” she says and I hear a gasp leave my throat. “He crashed his bike and has broken his leg.”
I’m nauseous. My gaze wanders around the living room and I think about all the things that I have to adjust so David can be comfortable, laying on the couch and watch TV while he recovers. It’ll be good for us, him being home more.
“I have to go to the hospital”, I say and turn around to face Rosemary.
She looks aghast by the news. It’s kind of her to be so emphatic to my feelings.
“What for? Is David hurt?”
It strikes me that I never knew that David and Rosemary might know each other. Rosemary always comes during the day when David is at work, and I don’t recall talking about him to her. Maybe she’s seen his name on the mail. Now I come to think of it, they may have seen each other that time when Rosemary had left her jumper and David found it. He drove over to her to give it back. That she still remembers his name.
She wants to come with me even though I tell her that it’s not necessary, it’s only his leg that got injured, but she insists and it’s probably because she doesn’t want to go back to her house where her parents always fight.
The drive to the hospital is quiet and I try to think of things to say to Rosemary. Her hands are folded tensely on her lap and I wonder about her age. She’s probably about 17, maybe a bit younger. I should’ve asked her, but now I don’t know how to start that conversation. There is a lot of things I don’t know about her, although I’ve been teaching her for almost a year.
The doors of the hospital are heavy and as we enter, the pungent smell of cleaning detergent and sweat wave through my nostrils. Rosemary looks more nervous than I do – maybe she hasn’t been to a hospital before.
It crosses my mind that, if David is having an affair with Sandra, I could let it happen and pretend it doesn’t exist. It will probably end by itself. He won’t be able to visit her for at least 6 weeks and in that time I could try harder. I could buy a new skirt that would reveal a bit more leg, or buy new underwear. He might like that.
He sits on the bed and smiles apologetically when I come in. Rosemary follows me shyly. It’s a small room with one window; curtains, bed and side table all in that despicable off-white that hospital furniture keeps.
“My poor David, how could this have happened?” I reach down to kiss him, but his eyes are fixed on something behind me. It’s a curious gaze, and for I moment it strikes me that he might be in some sort of shock. It must’ve been frightening to have been in an accident. Softly I stroke his shoulder.
“I hope you’re not in too much pain,” Rosemary says.
Something in her voice, the easiness with which she speaks those words, the familiarity and warmth with which she addresses him, reveals a level of intimacy that makes me swerve around. In that split second, I see her blushing, her demeanour giving away an infatuation for the man sitting on that hospital bed, and then she recoils, her features mystify into a fabricated concern and I know. It’s not Sandra.
I shiver. My heart is bruising my ribcage, my head is a whirl of which I cannot make sense. I resist the urge to collapse, right there on the off-white floor. Instead, I regard the husband that I’ve had for 22 years, that has influenced my life so greatly that I cannot begin to fathom who I would’ve been without him.
He averts my gaze, denying that something significant just happened. I need him to look at me. I find my voice; my feet finding the ground.
“Don’t you dare to look away from me,” I hear my voice say with such imminent malice it frightens me.
He tries to stand up and grab my arm, but his plaster leg prevents him to do so.
“SHUT UP YOUR CRYING”, he screams at Rosemary and she scampers.
How could he treat her like this? Poor girl.
“Myrtle, please —,” he begs. Are those tears on his cheek?
Their affair wasn’t as great as mine. I did love him; he doesn’t love Rosemary.
“It was nothing. She was just passing time.” He sobs, quietly, his hands cupping his face like a child, his shoulders jerking up and down. It strikes me that he’s not who I thought he was. He is not a price husband to be placed on a pedestal. Our bond was lost long ago. The love I had felt had become unquestioning loyalty, for I felt guilt. Guilt for what I had done. I had made a decision then, to stick with him at all costs.
Look what it has resulted into.
The fury changes into something powerful, an encouraging strength, resignation, and I hear the coldness in my voice.
“That’s a shame.”
David’s eyes look pitiful, his body is pitiful, and I can taste the disgust in my mouth like bitter, cold coffee.
“A shame? Is that what you think this is?”
As if he wants me to acknowledge that it was a worthy affair. I feel my lips curl.
“Yes, a shame. You’re a pitiful man, sleeping with a girl that’s almost 35 years younger than you. It’s a shame that it was not worth your while.”
The words reverberate through the room. The tears seem to evaporate from his eyes the moment he looks up at me, his posture changing, enlarging as if ready for a brawl.
“Don’t you think I knew about you and Lawerence?” The words slither through his clenched teeth.
To hear him say his name is as if he grasps my neck and tightens his fingers. He’ll never take the memories I have of Lawerence, sweet Lawrence.
“I let you stay with me and tried to accept what you had done, for the sake of Lisa. And then, when he left, I had to endure your sulking. Don’t you think I fought, for us?”
“And then you sleep with my teenage piano pupil?”
He looks away, his fingers pressing against his closed eyelids.
“She’s still so young!” I say.
“She’s almost 18.”
I pause for a moment. Suddenly, I want to sit on the bed next to him and be hugged.
“She’s Lisa’s age.” The tremor in my voice surprises me.
I thought it would have made everything worse, but instead, he starts to cry again, long, heaving wails and I look around to see if anyone is seeing us. Two ridiculous adults, who are incapable of continuing to live and finally crumble under the unforgiving weight love carries.
“She was Lisa’s age.”
I sit down on the bed next to him.
“It’s my fault she left, stormed out the house that evening. She found out about me and Lawrence, and I always knew she already hated me but stayed for your sake. She found this little note, Lawrence and I used to write on, little things that made our days a bit better. I suppose I’d become careless, the note fell on the floor from my pocket and, I can’t quite remember what it said, but next thing, I see her eyes filling with so much anger and then she left. I couldn’t say anything and it would not have mattered.”
“Our little girl,” David says in one breath as if the words disappear from him as she had done.
Once there were three daughters, equal in birth, blood and colour. In the morning they went to get water from the well, at midday they ate bread and cheese, and in the afternoon they listened to music. They were equal in interests, plays and smiles, though the youngest was unequal in beauty. As the days grew shorter, Ariana’s cheekbones sharpened, her deep ocean-blue eyes became deeper and her roselike mouth became softer. The two other sisters watched her grow more beautiful by the day and envied her, though their strong sisterly bond withheld them from jealousy. When they were old enough, their father accepted the hands of two men who married the oldest sister and the middle sister, while Ariana watched them with envy.
“Don’t worry,” the two sisters said, “there will be someone for you as well.” But no one came, for all the men thought Ariana too beautiful to be within their reach. She spent her days going to the well, eating bread and cheese, and listening to music in profound loneliness she had not known before. Her father watched it quietly and sought to find her a husband. A rugged man came to him and said: “I see Ariana is lonely and yearning to share her life with someone. If tomorrow morning, when the peaked hill is still hidden in mist and the heather is still damp from the night’s tears, she goes up that mountain and stands on the cliff, she will meet an ivory dragon to take her to her fate.”
It was dusk when Ariana climbed up the mountain alone, her body chilled and her hands muddy. As she reached the peak, she watched the bleak morning sun rise over the rugged hills and waited, weeping from fear. A strong western wind came and a monstrous ivory dragon with crimson eyes landed before her. “Don’t fret. Climb on my back if you want to meet your fate, but beware of my scales. They are made from the pearls of the Red Sea and sharp to the flesh,” the dragon said. Ariana stepped back in fright, but then climbed in between his wings. As he took flight, she saw the magnificent pearly scales of the dragon and stroked them gently.
The dragon landed in a valley so lush and prosperous, the pine trees and white ashes had grown twice its size. “This is the valley of Zedoaria,” the dragon said. “To meet your fate you must walk towards the forest between those two hills and then follow the stream until you come to a palace of coral marble. You may drink from the stream and eat from the pear tree, but you must not pick the yellow flowers or touch the red leaves.” Ariana promised she wouldn’t and the dragon flew away. She felt tired and slept in the dense grass. Then, she walked towards the forest between the hills. Just before the treeline she became thirsty and bent down to cup her hands into the clear stream, but she heard a cry from the shrubs.
“Help me, please,” a bee said, “I’m so thirsty, but I cannot reach the yellow flowers for my wing is torn.” Ariana took pity but hesitated to pick the yellow flowers that bloomed around her ankles since the dragon had warned her not to do so. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so thirsty. I only need one yellow flower.” And so Ariana picked one yellow flower and gave it to the thirsty bee, who thanked her and drank.
She entered the forest and saw glorious, deep green ivy and moss falling down the high trees like curtains. Ariana walked until she came upon a sunlit grass field surrounded by trees. A lone pear tree stood in the middle and she reached to pick a pear so juicy that the sweet sap dripped down the round belly of the fruit. Then she heard a cry.
“Help me, please,” a deer said, “I’m so hungry, but I cannot reach the red leaves for I’m with child and my belly is too heavy.” Ariana reached towards the red leaves that grew from shrubs around the pear tree, but she thought about what the ivory dragon had said. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so hungry. I only need one red leaf.” And so Ariana picked one red leaf and gave it to the hungry deer, who thanked her and ate.
Ariana walked until she saw the magnificent towers and walls made from coral marble and she entered through the large, hard oaken door. A servant came to her and gave her bread and cheese, and another servant gave her a bath. Then, Ariana laid down in a plush bed with golden curtains and fell asleep. In the night she was awoken by a rustle beside her. Frightened, she reached to the candle on the bedside table to illuminate the stranger that had crept into her bed, but a friendly hand touching her shoulder stopped her. “I am your fate,” the voice whispered. “I will love you, but you may never see me.” Ariana reached once more for the candle but the voice said: “Because you picked the yellow flowers to quench the bee, you cannot see me. If you do, the ivory dragon will come and will devour you.” There was a kindness in his voice that Ariana had yearned for in her loneliness. She let go of the candle and allowed the stranger to kiss her and to stay the night.
When she woke the bed was empty. Ariana searched the palace and asked the servants about the stranger, but they only said that he was a handsome and wealthy master. The following nights she was again awoken by the stranger and, although she found it hard to accept in the beginning, started to enjoy his company more every day. With her hands and lips, she felt His face and she found that she could see him now in her mind’s eye. The desire to see Him faded as the years past and Ariana was happy. She spent her mornings walking through the tall grass, her middays eating bread with honey, and in the afternoon she bathed.
It was a crisp night and the cool wind sighed through the bedroom and caressed the silken curtains. Ariana let her hands follow the outline of His chest and asked why she had not become pregnant yet. “You cannot conceive a child,” the voice whispered. “I love you, but because you picked the red leaves to feed the deer, we cannot have a child.” This saddened Ariana so that she asked how she could make this right. “For building a castle in this sacred valley I was cursed by the ivory dragon for he is its protector. I am never to leave this valley and my life is always under his influence.” Ariana asked if he could destroy the ivory dragon and his voice became so soft she could hardly hear his words. “I cannot destroy the ivory dragon for his scales are made from the pearls of the Red Sea. His skin is impervious.”
When He had fallen asleep and Ariana listened to his regular, deep breaths, she thought of what he had said. Would the ivory dragon truly come if she now let the candle unveil his face? Hesitantly she stretched her arm and felt for the candle. The heavy metal of the candle holder felt cold in her hand as she allowed the flickering flame to pour light over His face. In his sleep, he looked calm. He had handsome features, a strong jaw, a brown mole above his dark eyebrows and his hair had the colour of freshly polished copper. Ariana admired His face, but then the candle dripped hot wax and it fell on his shoulder. His eyes shot open. “What have you done! Now the dragon will come.”
As he uttered the words, a strong western wind came and the ivory dragon landed on the balcony of the bedroom. His enormous body crushed the coral marble columns as he approached followed by the morning sun. “You have seen his face,” the dragon’s voice bellowed. “You have broken the promise and now you will die.” He lurched forward, his knife-like teeth aiming for Ariana. “Hide!” He said and he pulled a glimmering sword from underneath the bed. He puffed, then took one deep breath and moved forward, sword pointing at the neck of the dragon. He jumped over the tail, his body glided to the left and then to the right and then he sprang forward, allowing the sword to come to the dragon’s neck with fantastic force. But the sword did not pierce the shiny scales; it fell in fragments on the marble floor and He was swept sideways against the strong wall by the dragon’s sharp paw.
The ivory dragon smiled an uncanny smile and came closer to Ariana and he swallowed her whole. Her dress was torn by his teeth, her hair and body wet from his saliva. She felt the dragon move and she feared for Him. In the belly, she could hardly move. But in her hand, she held a pearly scale she had taken when the ivory dragon had flown her to the valley, and now she pierced his flesh and cut so fiercely that the dragon halted and screeched in agony. Ariana let her hands guide her through the flesh and she then stepped out of the belly of the ivory dragon, who wobbled and screamed and finally fell on the floor. The blood she was covered in was thick and sticky.
Ariana sprung to Him and took his hand. “You’ve set us free,” the voice whispered. “We’re free.”
No one had ever died in this room. I had seen it coming and the doctor had seen it too, but the shock came anyway. My aunt Mary had known it as well and now I saw her crying in the corner as if she hadn’t known. Her shrieks echoed through the white-panelled house we lived in and I walked to the window that overlooked the road with the baker on the corner that sold those cinnamon rolls that made the house smell like brandy. My father had liked brandy. I looked at the creases in my hands and at my fingernails that had mud underneath them from the hole I had dug earlier this morning. It was not a big hole, just a small one. The silver sun had drawn lines around the apple tree in the backyard as I had felt the sweat glide in between my shoulder-blades. I had known my aunt was watching me, so close I could feel the heat of her body on my back. I had told her we needed to dig a hole because he was old and she had said that it was too early and that the sun was still young and I had said that no one else would dig a hole and she had swallowed her weak tea and had cast her pale eyes onto the hard-oaken side-table where we kept the medicines in a box. I had wondered how big a hole should be to fit a grown man. He wasn’t a grown man really, not any more. His skin had become loose and yellow and his back had been bent from crawling through those tunnels. I reckoned I could fold him in half so that the hole need not be as big as it would have been for a grown man. Like paper.
I had thought those things as I had watched his dull face and had listened to the rasping sounds of his breathing. The sun had not warmed the porch yet and the currawongs had been asleep still. I had touched his deep-creased hands, eternally stained from the red dirt he had felt and handled in the tunnels. His straw hair still smelled of coal. I had placed my hands over his face and after, his ragged breathing had stopped. After that, there had only been the waving roar of cicadas and the rapid beatings in my throat.
I had walked downstairs and had told my aunt that I had killed him. She had been sitting in the scarlet armchair that faced the hearth and the mirror with the broken corner and the terra cotta vase with the dried wildflowers. Her dog had been sleeping near her feet. I had said that I had killed him and she had said that I hadn’t because the tunnels had given him the poison and I had told her that I had been the one to take his breath and she had said that it was time for tea. She had been expecting the doctor to come round any moment now.
I watched the doctor when he told her that her brother had died. He licked the saliva of his yellow teeth and wrinkled his nose when he said that we all had seen it coming and that his departure had not been painful. I saw my aunt drop on the floor as I held her dog’s mouth closed so he would not bark. He was a fragile little thing. I felt I could crush his tiny bones with one determined push but I didn’t. I watched the doctor leave through the backdoor into the backyard with the small hole and the silver-lined apple tree and I said that we should wash him and dress him in his dark grey suit with the pinstripe lines. I already had chosen a tie.
My aunt sobbed when we laid him in the bathtub and I scrubbed his shrivelled skin and red-stained hands and she washed his straw hair that smelled of lavender. The vapour veiled the white tiles as the water vanished into the drain. We laid him on the bed and we dressed him in a crimson shirt and a black tie and the dark-grey suit and his eyes were closed as if he denied he had died this morning and my aunt kept wailing, along with the currawongs. He wore his good leather shoes. When we carried him down the stairs, my aunt held his head and his shoulders and I held his feet. She tripped and my fathers’ head smacked on the jarrah stairs and he laid there for a few moments with his eyes closed and his red hands and skinny arms laying alongside his body and I felt my belly turn.
Then he was on the grass next to the hole. The hard sun shone on our hot bodies as it rose above the arid land that surrounded us. The eucalyptus trees casted distorted shadows over us and the dead body that lay in-between. My aunt said that we ought to say some words and I said that he had been a good man and we both knew that I was lying. She kneeled beside him and stroked his cold cheek. She said that he had loved me, always loved me and I said that I knew and I said that I had loved him too, but we both knew that wasn’t true. He hadn’t loved anybody.
The hole was not big enough when we tried to lower him in and I had to dig a bit more. I went to the shed that stood in the corner of the garden and got the spade and walked back to the hole and started to dig. My aunt wept and howled and the jasmine flowers jam-packed the air with a pregnant fragrance that clouded my brain. The cicadas roared. The spade cut deep into the crimson dirt and as I the pierced the earth I felt the rush of blood through my chest and I heard the high-pitched noise my aunt created and I felt the unrelenting violence of the spade carving and wounding the ground where I was going to fold my father into. I turned and I saw the ugly gash gaping in my aunt’s throat and the fright in her pale eyes and I heard the shrill squeaks of her failed attempts to breathe. I watched her shudder in the grass.
The fierce scent of blood fused with the jasmine and the eucalyptus and the golden rays of the sun glimmered the garnet puddle where my aunt lay in. I held my breath. I spat in my hand and erased the stains from my father’s suit with the pinstriped lines and held his red-stained hands and folded him in two and dropped him down the hole. In the silence of the garden, I heard the soft thump that felt like a sigh. I whispered that I had been a good boy. I picked up the spade and shovelled the dirt and the grass and the blood into the hole until the sun had reached its highest point in the sky and then I sat down on the grass and drank his brandy that smelled of cinnamon.
There’s this bird in our garden that picks berries from the tree. The tree is not big and has large leaves and bony stems and shudders when the wind travels through it. Not always are there berries in this tree, that looks more like an outgrown shrub, but when there are berries, the bird will find them. Magnetised by the scent, the bird appears. It could be a purple-crowned lorikeet or a musk lorikeet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo or a glossy black-cockatoo, but a gang-gang cockatoo or a western corella it can not be. Nor can it be a cox’s sandpiper. Now that I come to think of it, it is most likely a little lorikeet. The lorikeet sits on the bony branch of the shrub, its belly empty. The cicadas thrum and the newt that rests in the shade of the ornamental rock licks its lips. The grass has turned into hay. There’s a husky eucalyptus scent that lingers like a mist above it. [Skilfully], the bird picks one magenta berry from the twigs, but then it drops on the floor, rolling besides the rock and the empty spot where the newt had slept. The lorikeet cocks its head.