Poetry

Ten Poems for the End of Time

by Grace Andreacchi

 
UNDOING

a smear of blood
a section of fine lace dendrites
cut crosswise
a leaf caught under a turning wheel
a chair without arms
a single palm leaf folded
to make a cross
you are no longer
these things
lie down upon your bed and fold your arms
to make a cross

*
INVITATION TO THE AFTERLIFE

once you were
tormented in 3D

now you’re called
saved from everything

eyes washed clean
as the sky after rain

they say there’s
love in the afterlife

beautiful garments
a blue glazed heaven

your tears in a jar
pickled and precious

a long long table
with seats for everyone

the rings of saturn
are jasper and onyx

the wings of mercury
grow from your shoulders

the Pleiades sit
beside you and chatter

your name’s on the poster
you are the guest here

you may even be
the bride at the wedding

*
HEADSHOT

a lamb with a great white head
and seven black stars for eyes
comes to the table
opens wide his mouth
inside are beasts with many horns
the lamb lies down upon the table
waves his legs in the air
as if he were dancing
just as we’re about to
plunge the knife in
vanishes

*
THE FOREST WHERE EVERYTHING VANISHES

the tree trunks bleed when you touch them
in the underbrush small mammals scurry for cover
each bears the face of someone you loved once
this is my mother
this my brother, my sister
the branches reach for you
the birds are crying but you
don’t know why
you have forgotten your name
and why you have come here
hopping on one leg
(the other is broken)
is that your hand lying alone
among the crumpled leaves
is that your head
speaking from inside the badger
a polluted stream thick with
the blood of corpses
now try to cross it
from stone to stone is just a step
you slip and the forest vanishes
falling towards a lake of fire

*
DEPARTURE LOUNGE

into an airport lounge
an invisible gamelan orchestra plays
the dance of the foolish virgins
skycaps in purple livery
bring rice cakes perfumed oranges
lotus seeds in cellophane doré
massage your feet with spikenard
draw concentric circles into
the palms of your hands
blue-winged songbirds scavenge crumbs
twittering softly their incantations
klauhi Zis…
Thautouri andirahho…
soon they will call your flight
prepare for take off

*
SIDEREUS NUNCIUS

dots begin to appear
tiny light-encrusted bits
saw-toothed seven times
it is the dots that connect the lines:
this is a werewolf, this a mermaid
this a lady’s beautiful hair
an artist should be seen
as well as heard
space is what happens
between the stars

*
BURNT OFFERINGS

at the graveside the ghosts are gathering
they set out your favourite meals
your photograph in red ribbons
your missing teeth your childhood doll
a rose coloured parasol a wad of cash
then set fire to it all
feeding the flames with rum
your brother swigs from the bottle
stumbles laughing over your grave
your little sister is crying
your children no longer grown but
small once again look on in silence
wondering where has mommy gone
they are about to cry so you sing to them
hush a bye my baby don’t you cry
your voice rises from the fire
they are comforted and pile more
fine bright things on the flames
your portrait in pastels drawn when
you were only ten
the shoes you wore to your first dance
the ones with the chrysoprase heels
your journal from the winter of starvation
and then whole bags of paper money
toys and animals
a house with swimming pool
and armed guards even a Porsche
everything burns
everything is consumed utterly
everybody’s drunk and everybody’s crying
what a send off
good-bye good bye good bye
see you in the afterlife
see you soon

*
CELESTIAL GEOGRAPHY

this is the key to the city
a large smooth golden key
like those in old flemish paintings
it opens the gate where the bright things
go in and out
this is the street where you live now
it’s paved with jasper and chrysoprase
most of the inhabitants appear to be dead
most appear to be happy
(but nobody speaks to you)
jewel bright salamanders cling to the
boughs of the trees (these too are of gold)
their ruby tongues go in and out
in and out their red eyes wink at you
the sky too is glass or gold
it hurts to look at it
you’d like to go home
but you are home now there is
no place but this one
time has been rolled up
into a great scroll kept in a secret library
you don’t have the key to that one
they said there would be love
they promised you love
so you wander the golden streets
distraught and confused in search of it
this is familiar perhaps
you are where you started
in the beginning was the word
the romance of Jesus
and the space between the stars
twelve gates to the city
some day he’ll find you

*
CLOUD WRITING

dark shapes spill on a field of milk
slowly the serpent’s head emerges
slowly the moon and sun
celestial bodies seven times pointed
your mother is standing in the air
under her feet a moon
the colour of blood
the serpent has bitten her heel
wounded her
see how her head droops to one side
she’s crying now
a dark cloud is under her feet
a white cloud is over her
she says your name softly
and her breath is a cloud
on which you are written
and all your deeds
and all your empty promises

*
INVITATION TO THE DANCE

break open the burial urn
glass shards blue glazed
ice flowers
seven-pointed stars

somewhere the leaf is trapped
beneath the wheel
all this has been a distraction
you are not that

break open
the urn
a flurry of light
opus 133

the sky is falling
the stars are falling
the heart is breaking open
this is the music

slip on your dancing shoes
the ones with the chrysoprase heels
it’s time for the dance
the world is over

nobody’s crying
nobody’s missing
everyone’s singing
and everyone’s dancing

and the Angel of Death says, Come
and the Lamb that was slain says, Come
and the Burning Bush says, Come
the Lord of the Dance says, Come

*

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.

graceandreacchi.com

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jane26art by Jane Gilday

detail from Crucifixion of Kathleen

(watercolor and crayon on paper)

Standard
Fiction

White Lilacs

by Grace Andreacchi

The first time I caught sight of him he was just a boy really, no more than twenty, the Church was crowded and hot, it was Easter Sunday and there were flowers everywhere lilies hawthorns and white lilacs. He sang one of the Bach cantatas, I had to crane my neck to see him, a fragile boy with a head of thick, curling bright hair combed carefully back out of his eyes, he sang so beautifully, a warm sweet boyish voice, high and pure almost as light as a child’s. I knew from that moment that I would always love him more than anyone else in the world. The first time I spoke to him he was coming out of the canteen, there was something tucked under his arm rather awkwardly, a brown paper parcel, he was walking quickly with his head down and so we collided in the doorway. ‘Excuse me, please’ he said and blushed, and smiled at me easily the best smile I have ever seen. I love you, I said. I am going to marry you… ‘You sing at the Nikolaikirche,’ I said. ‘I saw you on Sunday.’ He allowed that this might be true. The next time I saw him he was sitting at one of the bad tables way at the back at the Empire Café. He wore a shiny old evening suit that was probably older than he was, he wore a melancholy expression and was smoking a cigarette languorously, like a tough guy in the movies. He waved when he saw me and I sat down at his table but this time I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘How did you like my singing?’ he said. He looked at me with enormous twilight eyes, it was an urgent question that must be answered with absolute honesty. I have been looking into those eyes all my life, I thought. ‘It was beautiful,’ I said, speaking with absolute honesty into those astonishing eyes. He had just finished a set, I had come to the Empire on purpose to hear him, he was beginning to get a name for this sort of thing. Tears rolled down my cheeks when he sang those sentimental songs. ‘Did you really think so?’ he said. Marry me, I said. Kiss me this minute before I die. ‘It was so beautiful you made me cry, indeed you did!’ I said. He made me cry, makes me cry, present tense. Will always be able to make me cry. ‘This isn’t what I want to do,’ he said. ‘I want to be an opera singer…’ ‘You will,’ I said. He asked me to a concert he was giving the following week at a church in Potsdam.

It was on a day in spring. All the way to Potsdam the rain had been pelting down but just before the train pulled into the station it suddenly stopped, the sun came out and the whole world was now glittering as if a shower of jewels had just fallen from heaven. I stepped out onto the platform and immediately caught sight of him standing about a hundred feet away, his arms full of white lilacs. That fragile, somehow melancholy figure. Then he caught sight of me as well and waved as if from the deck of a ship and we walked towards one another slowly at first then faster and faster till we were actually running towards one another, smiling into one another’s eyes. I was only nineteen and did not bother to hide what I was feeling. Why should I? You are the One, I thought. I have found you, and I will never let you go. Once we were face to face he stood there smiling at me and holding those lilacs – they were just a bunch of wild lilacs he had cut in the fields, they grew in great abundance all along the railway sidings, and the air was thick with their scent. I love you! I said. ‘Are those for me?’ I said. He seemed to have forgotten he was holding the lilacs, he just stood there smiling at me, he hadn’t said a word. Then started as if he’d just woken up and handed them to me, still wordlessly. I put my face right down into them and the million tiny petals tickled my cheeks and kissed my lips and my forehead as I breathed in their overwhelming, sweetly melancholy scent. ‘Oh how beautiful!’ I said. ‘I love lilacs, they’re my favourite flowers…’ ‘They’re just wildflowers,’ he said, blushing slightly. He blushes like a girl, I thought, what a delicate boy he is. I love this delicate boy. I love him to distraction and we have only met – what – two weeks ago? Oh but I have known thee forever, from before the world began, my Prince… ‘I love anything wild,’ I said. ‘They’re much nicer than store-bought flowers, don’t you think? They have such a scent! Come, try for yourself…’ I held the lilacs out to him and he stooped a little, bent his head and buried his face as I had done in their white beauty. A lock of hair fell across his forehead and when he looked up at me again I saw a few of the tiny white petals clinging there. Gently I brushed them away with a white-gloved hand. While I did this he stood perfectly still, smiling like an angel. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘This way, Madame, if you please!’ He gave me his arm and we walked together not the streets but the air itself pure spring air made of nothing but sunlight raindrops lilacs we walked all the way to the church we saw nothing but each other.

‘Invite him for dinner,’ said Mama.

‘He’s shy,’ I said, ‘I don’t know if he’ll come.’

‘Of course he’ll come,’ said Papa, ‘What nonsense! Bring the young man round for a proper inspection. Does he have something to be ashamed of?’

‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘He’s simple, that’s all – you’ll frighten him, Papa…’

‘Oh my, if he frightens that easily I don’t think I’d have him if I were you!’ said Papa.

‘It’s not you he’s interested in,’ said Mama.

‘That’s just what I was afraid of! You’re already making fun…’ I said.

‘Nobody’s making fun, Matti, just invite the young man for dinner – what’s so complicated?’ said Mama.

‘You are,’ I said.

‘Nonsense,’ said Papa. ‘We’re simple people as well, theatre people. What’s wrong with that?’

Johannes came to dinner. He brought us a parcel of calves’ liver, something that was very hard to get, the blood had leaked through the paper and stained his hands and the gently frayed edge of his shirt cuff. He handed this bloody packet wordlessly to Mama, along with another enormous bunch of white lilacs. I took the flowers and arranged them in a vase, noticing that the bottom petals also were stained dark with blood. Mama called to Marthe, the cook, who marvelled at the liver. ‘My father’s a butcher,’ Johannes said. These were the first words he spoke to my family. ‘A useful profession these days more than ever,’ my father said. Johannes blushed. My little sister Lise went right up to him and gave him her hand, which he kissed solemnly. ‘Matti says you want to be an opera singer,’ she said. ‘My Mama’s an opera singer!’

‘I know,’ he said. He wouldn’t look at my mother, who was smiling at him, but he looked at Lise and smiled easily, that smile again.

‘I’m Lise,’ she said. ‘I’m going to be a famous pianist when I grow up.’

‘Of course you are,’ he said.

‘Matti plays the violin,’ she said. ‘Have you heard her? She can play all the Bach partitas and I can play the Preludes and Fugues. Are you going to sing for us? Mama wants to hear you sing.’ Johannes said nothing but continued to smile that ravishing sweet smile of his. Lise still had hold of his hand. ‘Are you Matti’s young man?’ she said. ‘Are you going to marry her?’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Johannes didn’t say anything, but he allowed Lise to lead him to the sofa where she sat down beside him and whispered something in his ear that made him smile even more if that were possible. Then she gave me one of her looks and said ‘If you don’t marry him, I will!’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Everyone was laughing. ‘It’s a promise,’ Johannes said. ‘If Matti won’t have me I will certainly marry you!’ ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘I want to show you something…’ She disappeared off to her room. ‘It’s love at first sight…’ Papa said, smiling at Johannes. Lise came back with her beloved Struwwelpeter held flat against her chest. She sat down beside Johannes and opened the book. ‘Look here, he looks just like you!’ she said. She held up the book for all of us to see the picture of the boy with the full head of hair and melancholy expression. ‘But I did comb my hair!’ said Johannes, laughing as hard as any of us. ‘This is what it looks like combed. You should see it in the morning when I get up! I look like a wild animal!’ He growled like a beast and pretended he was going to eat Lise, who went mad with delight and beat him off with the Struwwelpeter.

Mama had the liver cooked with onions and we ate it along with a blood red burgundy Papa said was only right on a special occasion like this. After supper Mama sang an Italian song accompanied by Papa at the piano, then Lise played one of her beloved fugues with that serious self-critical air that always seemed comical to me in a child so young. ‘Please won’t you sing something for us?’ she said, turning those shining eyes of hers on Johannes. He didn’t make a fuss, but got up and looked through the music, quickly chose something and showed it to Papa, who nodded in agreement. It was a song from ‘die Schöne Müllerin’ and the whole time he was singing this song he looked directly into my eyes. My knees were trembling my heart was in my mouth I thought dear God let me die of happiness right this minute for I shall never again be as happy as I am now with this boy’s eyes shining into my eyes and his sweet urgent voice piercing my heart. ‘Dein ist mein Herz!’ That is what he sang. And gave to me, that Sunday afternoon in May, the raw and bleeding implacable gift of his heart. Mine forever.

Into the Woods

Johannes came for us in an old clattery wooden cart, it was the same they used to deliver the meat, he said, but not on Sundays, his father had allowed him the use of it for the entire day. At the front of the cart stood a gentle white horse, his coat carefully brushed. Lise went mad when she saw that horse. ‘His name is Falada,’ said Johannes. ‘Here, give him something to eat and he’ll give you a kiss.’ He reached into the cart and took an apple from an overflowing picnic basket. Lise held out the apple and Falada took it in one bite, munching thoughtfully while eyeing her sideways, then suddenly turned his great white head and nudged her shoulder. Lise stood very still, not sure whether to be afraid or not. The horse put out his large, thick tongue and licked the side of her face and neck. She gave a little scream and clung to Johannes, who was laughing softly.

‘He’s not going to bite me? Is he?’ she said.

‘Of course not, Schwesterlein. He likes you very much. Falada never bites anybody, do you old boy?’ And he patted the horse’s neck with that fine hand of his. Then lifted Lise into the cart, and turned towards me. ‘May I have the honour, Madame…’ he said, and bowed low as if he were inviting me into Cinderella’s carriage. There was a red and white checked woollen blanket spread across the wooden seat, I can still see that blanket, exactly the way it looked, with bits of hay clinging to it. He smoothed the blanket though it didn’t need smoothing and Lise and I sat down. Then he took hold of the reins and said a quick word to the horse and we were off, clattering through the streets of Berlin under the ever-changing greengold shadows of the morning.

Soon we had passed the outskirts of town and were out into the broad open country where the sky stretches all the way to the perfectly flat horizon. Not a cloud in sight, only blue sky and greengold fields of ripening grain, and the endless allées of apple trees whispering gently in our wake. We passed through village after village, each with its small, stalwart brick church pointing hopefully towards heaven, its cluster of houses, its animals and children dotting the fields. As we drove along the bumpy lanes we sang, just old songs that everybody knows about flowers and love and springtime. Lise was singing the loudest of all, I was afraid she’d sing herself hoarse. ‘Settle down,’ I said after a while. ‘You’ll tire yourself out like that.’

‘No I won’t!’ she said.

‘You want to save something for later,’ I said. ‘Don’t you want to go swimming? You quiet down and let Johannes sing something for us now.’ She crept up to where he was sitting and put her face round to look at him.

‘Will you sing one just for me, please?’ she said.

‘Very good, little Princess – I will if you promise to sit still and listen,’ he said. Lise crept back to her place at my side, a big smile on her face. He sang a song about a little bird that misses its mother, a funny old song that was also a little bit sad.

When we entered the woods it was like entering a great quiet church on a hot day, suddenly cold and still, and filled with strange echoes. I felt a shiver down my back. Water was glinting in the filtered sunlight – we came to a lake lined with reeds taller than a man. ‘This is the place,’ said Johannes. He drew the cart to a halt and we got out. A strange cry came to us across the water, it must have been some sort of water bird but it startled us. Among the reeds a number of swans, their white shapes drifting like clouds upon the dark green water. On the face of the lake golden chains of seeds and tiny broken leaves, above the lake bright insects whirring, the arms of the drooping willow, the wild roses in clusters and the golden pears, and in the depths of the lake the summer sky and the whispering treetops, the clusters of wild roses.

‘I want to show you something,’ said Johannes. He was speaking in a whisper now. ‘Come this way,’ he said, so we followed him, away from the lake into what looked like an impenetrable thicket. Something whirred in the dense foliage – a bird? an animal? Johannes pulled at a thickset pine branch and beneath was an old broken gate, half off its hinges. We passed through and found ourselves standing before a little tumbledown chapel. It wasn’t really much more than a heap of stones, a young oak had made its way through the floor, and the stone walls were barely visible beneath the quivering vines. But the small, square bell tower was still upright, and wore its pointed hat with a certain air of defiance.

‘It’s a church,’ said Lise. ‘A teeny tiny church in the woods…’

‘It’s what they used to call a Lady Chapel,’ said Johannes. ‘It was built a very long time ago, to honour the Mother of God.’

‘God doesn’t have a mother, that’s silly,’ said Lise.

‘Don’t mind her, she’s such a little heathen,’ I said.

‘Well Jesus definitely had a mother,’ he said. ‘Mary was Jesus’ mother, and this chapel is hers. Come, I’ll show you…’ He pushed at the door and as he did so there was a sudden flash of red and a little half-grown fox cub darted out and disappeared into the wood.
Inside all the green things were growing wild upon the walls, twining themselves over the altar and round the lovely bones of the old stone windows. The startled birds fled as we entered, leaving only the clatter of their wings behind them. The three of us stood quite still, as if under a spell. Behind the altar the whitewashed wall had been cleared of all the vines and debris. There was a small round window at the top of it and just below this, painted onto the wall, a Madonna in a faded blue dress with a baby on her lap was sitting on a slightly crooked throne. She did not look directly at us, but slightly off to one side, and the expression on her full, childish face was sad and serious. The baby Jesus, who was nearly as big as his Mother, held a little bird in his hand.

Johannes walked up to the painting and looked at it for a long minute, smiling a secret lover’s smile. ‘I found it,’ he said, turning around to smile at me now. ‘Nobody cares about it, nobody even knows it’s here. It was under all these vines, totally overgrown.’

‘You cleaned it up?’ He nodded.

‘Nobody knows about it. You won’t tell?’ We promised never to tell. I wondered who he thought would be interested in this old painting in the woods anyhow…

‘She’s my own,’ he said. ‘Like my own mother…’ I knew that his mother was dead, had died when he was still only a small boy.

‘So you’re taking me to meet your mother?’

‘Why not? Didn’t I meet your parents? I want you to marry me, so we have to meet all the relations. It’s normal.’

What did he just say? Did he say that?

‘Then let’s have a wedding,’ said Lise. ‘We can have one right here.’

‘What a good idea,’ he said. ‘Go and get the flowers for the bride and we’ll have it right now.’ Lise went running off to look for flowers. ‘You will marry me, won’t you?’ he said, smiling at me again. Those smiles of his! I never knew anyone to smile like that, only angels are supposed to smile like that, with all the heart in the eyes. I said yes.

Soon Lise was back with her arms full of wild roses. Johannes twisted them into two wreathes and put them on our heads. ‘Now you’re my Queen,’ he said to me, ‘and that makes you the little Princess.’ Lise stood solemnly while he placed the wreath upon her dark hair.

‘Who’ll be the minister?’ she said.

‘Our Lady will do it,’ he said. So we knelt down before the awkward little Madonna and said that we would be true to one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death alone should part us. But we were not thinking then about death, for at twenty nobody does. Lise said the words along with me, softly under her breath, pledging also to love him through every sort of calamity, till death should part them. I didn’t try to stop her, what would have been the point? She loved him too much to be stopped, she was all in earnest, she was only seven. When we had done with the vows she strewed more flowers across the broken pavement. ‘I claim the first dance!’ said Johannes, and began to waltz me round and around the little chapel, all the while humming at the top of his voice a waltz from Johann Strauß. Lise too was dancing, and soon we were laughing too hard to keep it up, but just collapsed in a heap all three together and then went running out into the sunshine.

‘Time for lunch!’ said Johannes, rubbing his hands together. We spread the blanket on the ground and unloaded the basket. There was so much lovely food – sausages that tasted of earth and applewood, a whole loaf of dark bread, even butter, and those fat golden pears from his father’s garden… I don’t believe anything has ever tasted as good since. While we ate the whole chorus of woodland birds sang for us gentle songs rippling above our heads in time to the swaying shadows. Mother had given us a bottle of wine and we drank it all, Lise too, though I knew I ought not to allow it, I hadn’t the heart to say no. Soon my head was spinning and the insects seemed to be talking much louder than before, though I couldn’t quite make out the meaning of their chatter. Johannes was lying on his back, the dappled light caught in his eyes. I rolled over onto my stomach and looked down into them.

‘You’re eyes have spots,’ I said. Dozens of bright golden flecks were floating on the surface of his deep grey eyes. For a moment I thought I saw the sky in there, the clouds and the birds, and the overhanging branches… He smiled and blinked a little. ‘You ate all the sausages,’ I said.

‘No I didn’t!’

‘You did! I saw you do it! Lise, didn’t he eat all the sausages?’

‘You ate as many as anybody,’ she said. ‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘You hear what our little sister says, don’t be stupid…’ said Johannes. He took hold of my hand and drew me close. He was wearing a white shirt open at the throat, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, I could see the smooth wall of his chest as he bent towards me, and his naked forearm strong and slender with a light down of gold upon the pale skin. Then he was kissing me, with kisses so soft, so deep, I thought – this is what I have been waiting for all my life, this is exactly what I have been longing for for my whole life long only I didn’t know it – how is it that I didn’t know… We lay on that blanket and kissed and kissed, it seems to me we must have been kissing for hours or days or even years, there was no time in it, for we kissed the way a dog eats, the way a bird flies, simply and correctly and without thought, and in our hearts was perfect joy.

You’re not supposed to watch people when they’re kissing. It’s boring anyway, all they do is lie there. I wouldn’t want to go on kissing all day like that, it’s stupid. I wonder if there might be any fairies living here in the forest? I wonder if I might find that fox cub again and make friends with it…

Lise wandered off to look for the fairies. First she looked in the mossy nooks under the great old oak trees, but she found no fairies there. Then she looked among the pale, curling ferns, parting them carefully with her fingers – she found many small wildflowers, pink and white, some of which she picked, but alas, she found no fairies there either. She headed for the lake, slipping and sliding on the muddy bank, for she wore her city shoes, which are not made for this sort of thing at all. Quickly she grasped at the branches of an overhanging willow and slid to a halt. Before her was the lake, covered in water lilies, thick and darkly green. The reeds reached right over her head, shutting her into a bright watery palace. The swans took no notice of her, for they were very busy, dipping their long heads continually among the water lilies. A dragonfly settled on her arm, and she watched it without moving. His wings are glass. He is made all of glass like a Christmas angel. The dragon fly flew away. No fairies here either. Lise was sure they must be somewhere nearby. Here was something – a small, overgrown path. She began to follow it, deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon she could no longer see the place under the oak tree where they had spread the blanket. Sunlight poured down through the treetops, covering the path in greengold light. This must be the way to the fairies’ castle. I’ll bring them these flowers as a gift. Those fairies are so tiny, they can use them for umbrellas when it rains… The path twisted and turned and sometimes it was so narrow she could barely pass along it at all. After a while she noticed the day was no longer bright and sunny but had begun to grow cold and dark. Ahead of her there rose a tall, round stone tower, it cast a long dark shadow over the path. Lise stood very still, looking up at the tower. A witch must live there. From the tower came a strange and terrible sound, like the scream of a great bird, but there was no bird anywhere to be seen. Then she saw a face at the window, high up in the tower someone was waving to her. A woman in a blue dress with a face like a witch, pale and terrible but also beautiful – the woman was beckoning to her, begging her to come closer, and still closer… When she was right at the foot of the tower the woman suddenly smiled, showing her terrible teeth and a terrible mouth big enough to swallow Lise whole. The mouth opened wider and wider and just when it seemed certain the witch would swallow her Lise suddenly found herself inside the room at the top of the tower. The woman was gone, but a man was standing there, at least she supposed he must be a man, but he had a dog’s head on his body. He was dressed all in black, soldier’s black, and on his dog’s head was an officer’s black cap with a shiny silver skull that glittered at her in the dark. The inside of the room was very dark, and many small lights were winking and twinkling from different places on the walls, the lights were blue, or else they were white, moving and changing in circles around her, or were these only the stars turning round in the sky… There was a strange smell, a very bad smell, something was burning, and then a loud noise, a very loud noise, and it was coming from outside the tower just above their heads. There was a noise like the biggest thunder in the world and the tower shook and shook and then began to break apart. All this time the man with the dog’s head stood perfectly still, watching her with his nasty black dog’s eyes. He had a whip in his hand as well, but he didn’t say a word, only watched silently as the floor opened up beneath their feet… and now she heard the witch’s terrible screams, wordless and shrill, like the cries of a great bird.

We must have fallen asleep in one another’s arms, for when we sat up it was beginning to grow dark and Lise was nowhere to be seen. ‘Oh my God! Lise! Where can she be? Lise! Lise!

‘She can’t have gone far,’ Johannes said, but he looked worried too.

‘What if she’s fallen into the lake?’ We rushed towards the lake but found no small white body floating among the indifferent swans. ‘Where could she have gone? Lise! Lise!’ We called and called, stumbling among the trees, calling, shouting, no Lise anywhere.

‘She’s lost! What if we never find her?’ Johannes was bent over, pulling reeds from the bank and twisting them together; he looked up, and I felt my heart turn over at the look in his eyes. How is it that he only has to look at me for me to feel safe?

‘We’ll find her,’ he said. ‘Don’t get so hysterical. People get lost in the woods sometimes, but they also get found. She hasn’t been carried off by the fairies you know.’ He had made a torch from the reeds and lit it, a great smoky flare went up. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let’s use our heads. Where would she go? Look, here’s a little path – she probably went that way.’ We followed the path but it soon split in several directions, each time it split he would look carefully at the ground and then say ‘this way’. It grew completely dark and the moon rose and began to shine through the trees, covering the path in silvery light. We found her at last, sitting on an old overturned boat beside a stream, huddled together, shivering and crying. ‘I’m sorry!’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry!’ Her eyes were enormous with fear, I had never seen her like that before.
‘Lise, what happened? Are you hurt?’

‘There was a witch…’ she said, and began to sob very hard. ‘A blue witch, and a man with a… a man with a head like a d-dog…!’

‘A witch? Lise, at your age…’ But Johannes put his hand on my arm, motioning me to be silent, then knelt down and took her up in his arms.

‘Never mind, little Princess, you’re safe now,’ he said. We both of us believed him. We believed in him completely. He was just that sort of boy.

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Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.
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Kreso15
Painting by Kreso Cavlovic
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Fiction

Caro Amor

by Grace Andreacchi

 

The hand the colour of ivory darkened till it stood out a black claw upon the rose pink china silk, then the girl in red ribbons came in to light the lamps. The Princess had been dreaming of a dog, a great sleek white deerhound called Fritz – he had been among the many wedding gifts from her husband’s family. In the dream they were running side by side through the forest, the two of them young and wild went like the wind through the pine woods around the little mountain village where she had passed all the summers of her life. She could smell the pines and the black mushrooms, she wore a short white dress, side by side she ran with Fritz, she ran as fast as the dog, she would never tire. Unblinking, she turned her eyes upon the white camellias beside the bed, the gilded mirror that caught the flicker from the grate, the rose silk bed curtains. No, I won’t go, she thought. Too tired. And it’s so very cold. The water had frozen in the fountains, the coverlet beneath the hand was as smooth and cold as a sheet of pink ice. What then? A frugal supper – oysters, a single glass of champagne, then sit in the drafty hall and read St. Thomas Aquinas until her eyes were too tired to persevere any longer, and so to bed. The Princess sighed and rang for her maid. Her long, heavy tresses were brushed until they glowed the colour of ripe chestnuts, then wound carefully and dressed with perfume and flowers. She dressed in black lace that rustled like autumn leaves on the snow of her neck and arms. At her throat, her ears and fingers she wore topaz stones en coeur the same lambent yellow as her eyes. She looked like a very expensive doll that had been put away in a cupboard and forgotten (perhaps her little mistress had grown up and no longer needed her) but still bore the elegant stamp of the fine Parisian shop from which she had come. In the carriage on the way to the opera house she remembered there was to be a new tenor and smiled to herself. She was right to have come out after all.

The young man was billed as Giovanni Foli, but one heard in an instant that he was not an Italian. He spoke and sang the Italian language well enough, but with a wild, lilting accent the Princess recognized from long ago. One also saw in a glance that he was not an Italian, for he was far too tall, the effect was almost comic for he overwhelmed the rest of the cast, he was tall and straight and clumsy and sang with his rich head of black curls thrown back, his white throat pulsing in the brilliant gaslight above the green velvet of his close-fitting tunic. His voice like an angel’s trumpet rattled the bandbox fineries of the little provincial theatre. He seemed never to breathe. According to St. Thomas the angels, when they appear to men, have not such bodies as ours, but altogether superior bodies which are composed of a kind of vaporous cloud. This permits them the exercise of such human faculties as, for example, eating, without in any way compromising their wholly spiritual nature. Perhaps the so-called Signor Foli has such an angelic body, she thought. She examined him closely through her opera glasses. He had a large, square head, square shoulders, the deep chest of a born singer. The face was arresting, handsome, terribly young, with a long, flat, undulating upper lip, a white, square brow under the black curls, a neat, square jaw. She wondered what the eyes were like up close. Yes, it was possible, this tall, clumsy young man – one could easily picture him with large, multi-coloured wings springing from his muscular back – the wings would annoy him, he would push them back before beginning to sing, he might trip over them – he had already tripped several times on stage; the others were doing everything possible to see to it that he would trip. Going by the voice alone, he might well be an angel, it had exactly that annunciatory quality one associates with the heavenly host. If one granted that an angel might clomp about the stage like a peasant, might hold his handsome, vaporous body as stiff as a board – and one might easily grant it, for the angel’s area of expertise is, above all, that of song, and this young man sang in a manner that was completely right.

Perfection is always effortless, or it would not be perfection. I don’t know how to tell you about the singing of the young Giovanni Foli. If you have ever watched a gull soaring far out over the sea, its white wings spread upon the sky, and seen how fearlessly it alights on the one outcropping of rock that rises above the crushing surf, then you have seen it.  He couldn’t act, he didn’t want to act. He wanted nothing but to sing, and, as the completely ridiculous role of Don Ottavio left him no device but song, he was thoroughly happy. He sang with an innate refinement, a delicacy and purity of style that gave back to the music its original splendour. Where on earth did he learn to do that? she wondered, but at the same moment remembered, such things are never learned, such things are gifts from the gods, who, everyone knows, torment us for their sport. Stricken with delight, the Princess laughed silently, clutching at her heart, alone in the pink silk box filled with the odour of winter camellias.

He was an Irishman, she said, twisting the rings on her skinny fingers, the topaz and the gold. I knew nothing of Ireland – it’s one of those far-away north countries, cold, barbarous, and wet. I had been to London once as a girl – it was enough for me. It was in the month of April and I believe that it rained every day. We sat in the hotel with our governess – we were not permitted to go out in the rain. My mother was afraid we would take cold and die. It was impossible to get proper food. I used to play in the lobby with my sister – there was a doorman who wore a green livery and used to show us card tricks. We spoke English well, for we had an English governess, all the good families had English girls for their children. Her name was Miss Eileen. I believe she was an Irish girl, for my mother would not have a heretic in the house, but she never spoke of her country, she never spoke of herself at all, and being children we never thought to ask. So it was, I knew nothing of Ireland. ‘You have a remarkable capacity for tristesse,’ I said, ‘for one so young.’ ‘ It’s the Irish,’ he said and smiled. The smile was not what you think. There was nothing of vanity there, nothing at all of the young cad who makes love to an older woman, it was a pure smile and of course a sad one – he was thinking of his home. It happened more in the eyes than the mouth. That long, undulating upper lip barely lifted over the white teeth – it was the eyes that smiled. Up close they were so blue – reckless, I thought, that is a reckless blue. The colour itself caught and pinned there within like blue-winged birds, one felt the life in them, saw the wings beating as shadows that move over the water. I learned from those eyes what northern skies are like. I had him here, he sat where you’re sitting now. No longer young, I knew enough to ask, and he told me of his country, of his songs – he came from a place called Athlone. ‘It’s a country town,’ he said. He had trained with the cathedral choirmaster in Dublin. The lilt of that speech so far away and yet familiar – I seemed to feel again the crackle of my old pinafore. His speech was peculiarly sweet and plangent, a music at once arrogant and mild, as only the very young man. I watched his long upper lip. He sat stiffly, his boots were dusty, he wore his coat badly and it was a badly made coat. The curls sprang like a wild growth upon his head. He did not kiss my hand but shook it as if I were a man. He spoke well and sweetly. I watched that long lip undulate, the play of the white teeth between, the movement of the throat. He spoke of his fiancée, a certain Miss Foley, an Irish girl. What a stupid child! To speak to me of this girl. I shall send him away now, I thought. But he was smiling again with those eyes. I gave a supper for him and invited all the best people, those from Genoa as well. The Bishop, my cousin, was there, and my uncle, the Duke of Parma. He sang for us, Mozart and Händel – here in this room. Even the Bishop, who had known Mario, was completely won over by his singing of Händel’s Caro Amor. As if he were only speaking the words in his own angelic tongue – ‘Caro amor…sol per momenti, lascia in pace l’alma mia’ – as if he were pleading with some private deity, a goddess no doubt, though he was a devout Catholic, perhaps Miss Foley. He stood with his feet planted apart, head thrown back – a little, not too much, you don’t want to constrict the throat …lascia in pace. But he knows nothing yet, the foolish boy, I thought. He doesn’t wish to be left in peace, on the contrary is eager to suffer the trite pangs of youthful love. I gave him a white camellia from my sash, I kissed his cheek. I had to prompt him to bend over me – he was too far out of reach and it never would have occurred to him. His cheek was still soft under the light stubble, there was an odour like yeast and fields, an odour of young man’s flesh. At the moment of the kiss a flush overspread his features – he had not guessed my intention – and I felt the warm blood flow into him under the pressure of my mouth. You must come again, I said. Come in the summer – I will show you the mountains. He said he would come.

‘You are a beautiful woman, Camilla. People are talking,’ said my cousin the Bishop. ‘Let them talk,’ I said, in the villa by the lake; my cousin was in the habit of paying me a visit every summer when the heat in Genoa becomes insufferable. ‘A widowed lady must be careful,’ he said. ‘ A widowed lady may do as she likes,’ I said, answering perhaps too sharply, not meaning to wound him, for I am fond of my cousin. I took his hands. ‘Forgive me, Carlo,’ I said. ‘If the fools wish to wag their tongues, is it my affair? John is happy here. He’s a virtuous young man, more’s the pity. He’s just a great baby.’ The Bishop kissed both my hands, first one and then the other, and he laughed. ‘You’re right, Camilla,’ he said. ‘But babies too can cause trouble.’ ‘I ought to know,’ I said. ‘I buried three.’ ‘Be careful,’ he said again. ‘I don’t want you to be hurt. I’m afraid of these virtuous young men.’

Rising with the first light, knowing not what had awakened me, for I’m in the habit of lying late, lying until the sun is well overhead and the air already heated, the chill of morning disagrees with my bones and the grey light of morning renders me susceptible to sadness – whether it was a sound, some sudden disturbance of the atmosphere, or perhaps a dream – yes, I had been dreaming of Fritz, my big white dog – he ran down the path to the lake and leapt from the pier, a stunning flash of life against the green – then fell like a bird into the water. He loved to swim, he was of course a fine gun dog and would fetch the birds from the most impossible places, but he loved water for its own sake. I went out onto the balcony. It was still and cold, but already the mist had risen several feet above the lake and was streaming from the dark sides of the mountains. The birds had not yet begun to sing. Something rustled in the trees below, then I saw him emerge from the wooded path and run out onto the pier, nakedly white, his long arms extended over his head. He leapt out into the misty air and then down, like a bird, he was not clumsy now but cut the water keenly, then struck out with strong white arms across the lake. I shrank back into the shadow of the house and watched him cutting the water with those arms and I laughed for the sheer loveliness of the thing. He came out dripping – I saw! and shook himself like any fine young dog. I pulled down the shade and went back to my bed – I laughed and laughed until it hurt.

He sang every night, she said, looking out into the windswept garden. You can’t imagine what it was like to have him in the house, always singing. In the morning, the very first thing before I opened my eyes, I would listen for it. I could feel the morning light on my closed eyelids, my room looks to the east over the lake and there I had long been accustomed to listen before rising to the various music of the place – the cowbells, the birds, the wind in the pines, the footsteps of the maids upon the stairs, voices from the courtyard below – my father’s, my husband’s – I would hear in the sounds what kind of a day it was going to be. And suddenly there was this voice – for he was always singing, he sang as naturally as a bird – little things of Mozart’s or Haydn’s, big coloratura arias, the sad songs of his own country – but always something, always singing. With my eyelids shut I saw only pink, it was warm under the eiderdown – I could lie still for an hour and still he would be singing – the whole house rang with it like a giant sounding board, the walls began to resonate, the banister gave off a sweet tone if you merely touched it on the way down, the stairwell was swimming in bright sounds. ‘Are you never tired?’ I said. ‘No, never Princess,’ he said. ‘Is it that I’m disturbing your rest?’ ‘I like to be disturbed,’ I said. ‘ You must go on disturbing me as much as possible.’ He didn’t know whether I meant a joke or what I meant. He was easily troubled, sensitive to slights. I took his hand and pressed it – his hands were large, white – they had a blind, helpless look, he was unable to direct them very well. ‘Please go on singing,’ I said. ‘Never stop.’ He liked that when I pressed his hand.

He sang every night for the Princess in the green and white salon, with the windows open to the lake the moonlight the clustered lights of the pleasure boats far out on the water one heard the splash of an oar a ragged waltz from the village band the hiss of falling stars birds settling upon their nests plaintive frogs, in the flickering light that started shadows upon his untried face, in the watery cascade of her gown. He has trodden on the lace that edges the skirt. The thin be-ringed fingers feel for the keys and strike them gently, ivory upon ivory, rippling like laughter in the dark. Behind them the Bishop in black listens with his head on his hand. He sang every night, for example, the early Mozart, a child’s music to which he brings the inordinate optimism of his tender years – he is only twenty-two! Ballads of heartbreak and loss, the verismo anguish of Verdi, no matter the import, he sings always with the same singular serenity, unacquainted with grief. When he leans over to examine the music she can feel his breath on her neck. He sings Caro Amor a second time at the Bishop’s request. Tea is served – he sits beside her on the sofa, smiling with his blue eyes, he stirs sugar into his tea and drinks it heartily – he has sung a lot, he is thirsty, he is fond of tea. When he has drunk his tea she sends him to bed, kissing him first on the both cheeks, and he obeys her as if he were a child. The Princess is aware that her second child, Alfredo, would also be twenty-two had he lived. She will sit in the dark a while longer with her cousin, the Bishop, sometimes only a few minutes, sometimes an hour or more. ‘You should have put in gas, or perhaps now you will have electricity.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I like the dark. This house has always been dark at night. You can feel the country in the dark.’ ‘But you can’t see the music, Camilla.’ Her white shoulders moved in the dark like something apart from her. ‘He doesn’t know where to put his hands,’ he said. She looked at him sharply, laughed, again sharp. ‘No, of course not,’ she said. ‘He has no idea what to do with his hands, what to do with his feet – not even his mouth. He has no other idea in his head but to open his mouth and sing.’ The Bishop sighed. ‘And he has such a pretty mouth,’ he added. ‘You noticed that,’ she said. ‘He sings like a choirboy,’ he said. ‘He is a choirboy,’ she said. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I mean the sound of the voice itself – it has the child’s clarity and freshness without the sugar.’ ‘He tells me he was a choirboy in Ireland,’ she said. ‘You can hear it,’ he said. ‘He permits me to kiss him goodnight,’ she said. ‘I think someone has told him the Italians are always kissing and so he has decided it’s all right.’ ‘He will permit you anything, Camilla, said the Bishop. ‘The very first time I saw him he reminded me of one of Thomas’s angels,’ she said. ‘Because, as you said, it’s that kind of voice – not cold or passionless, but full of light – a northern light, you can see it in his eyes as well, and I think this light is like the light of pure reason that belongs by rights to Thomas’s angels.’ ‘I’ve never really seen eye to eye with Thomas on the angels,’ he said. ‘They gave him a deal of trouble.’ ‘They’re so very reasonable!’ she said. ‘Such reasonable angels. Their love for God is just this – a perfect rational understanding of His perfections, and the full enjoyment of that understanding. But God’s love for us isn’t like that! It isn’t rational, it’s completely and wildly irrational – didn’t He have Himself nailed to a cross for our sake? What’s so rational about that?’ They sat a while in silence in the dark. The boats were all gone from the lake, the candles had burnt down to their wicks, the moonlight was streaming through the window. ‘Why should angels sing, after all?’ she said. ‘It would seem,’ he said, ‘that angels do not sing…’ ‘Be serious a moment, Carlo,’ she said. ‘Did you never wonder about it? It isn’t evident that they would. I’d rather have expected them to restrict themselves to a silent perpetual adoration.’ ‘They might become bored with that after a while,’ he said. ‘Oh, I don’t think so! They’re very intellectual creatures, all kinds of mental efforts are their especial delight. They have to contemplate all those divine perfections all the time – geometry, mathematics – oh, it makes my head ache just to think of it!’ ‘Their heads aren’t like ours,’ he said. ‘They’re much lighter, they haven’t any humidity to weigh them down. It makes a difference.’ ‘Well, all right,’ she said, ‘but why sing? Aren’t they busy enough with all those perfections to contemplate?’ ‘They sing because they’re happy,’ he said. ‘Song is nothing but the movement of air, after all. And angels are creatures of the upper air. So, you see, song is the proper medium for angels, they’re quite at home in the air, and their spiritual delights give rise to certain, as it were, currents in the air which we call song.’ ‘Not bad,’ she said. ‘Tell me, Carlo, do you believe the angels weep?’ ‘I believe they wept at the death of Our Lord’, he said. And they will weep at the Last Judgement to see so many damned. But in between? I don’t know.’ ‘I want them to weep,’ she said. ‘I want them to.’ ‘You may very well be right,’ he said. ‘We know that they rejoice when even one lost sheep is returned to the fold. Why should they not weep?’

We were alone now in the house on the lake; my cousin had kissed him on both cheeks and gone back to Genoa. We went out onto the lake. It was already September but the day was one of the hottest of the whole season. The trees along the shore were stippled with gold, the mountains with fresh snow; I trailed a hand in the water painfully cold and the sky over us a hard bright blue but the sun shone down with such fervour, it was as if all the heat of the past weeks had been gathered into this one day to make a last bonfire of summer’s vanities. He had taken off his coat, he wore only a thin shirt, open now nearly to the waist, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. Rowing is hard and pleasant work for a young man. The sweat stood out on his brow, the shirt clung to him. Despite weeks in the sun he was still very white. He made long, even strokes with the oars, throwing the weight of his back and chest into it, then pulling himself upright with a smooth, elastic motion of the arms. He was wearing dirty white canvas trousers – these long, athletic legs nearly touching me. There was no wind at all, I held a parasol against the sun. When we were far out where all the villas look like little toy houses and all the trees like matchsticks, where only the mountains and the water and the sky are big and all the habitations of man are reduced to their original insignificance there he stopped and put up the oars, scattering bright drops over my dress. He dipped some water from the lake to bathe his brow. ‘By God, that’s cold!’ he said. ‘It comes from the melted snow,’ I said. You could see the mountain upside down in the lake. The sunlight on the water dazzled the eyes – one felt smaller, one saw only shadows and that light. ‘That’s new snow on the aiguilles,’ I said. ‘You’ll be off to Milan soon.’ He looked downcast, or perhaps it was only that the sun was in his eyes. ‘You still haven’t kissed me,’ I said – at this he looked up – ‘And I was so much hoping you would.’ He kissed me then. He had not much idea what to do with his mouth, with his hands still less. He reached for me blindly and squeezed – here, there, anywhere, as if I were a melon he was testing for ripeness. He tasted – so sweet! of grass, milk, and rich blood. ‘Attenzione! Don’t tip the boat,’ I had to say. He did not speak, but smiled with those reckless blue eyes. He was more than ever like Fritz. I ran a hand through his black curls fine as silk and he turned his head and caught my wrist gently between his teeth.

He followed me to my room as naturally as if he were really my dog. When I took him in my arms he trembled very much. I kissed him, I showed him – what to do with his mouth, his tongue, his hands. Afterwards he lay on his side and twisted his hand in my hair. ‘My dear lady, is your hair red?’ he said. ‘We call it chestnut here,’ I said. ‘There’ll be a bit of the Irish somewhere,’ he said. After that he made a habit of brushing out my hair every night, holding it up in his hands to feel the weight of it. Then he would be kissing me again, down on his knees, groping with his blind hands after the forbidden fruits. ‘Please, my lady,’ he would murmur. ‘Again, please.’ He had a young man’s appetite – I was happy enough to feed him, but I wanted him to learn to eat with finesse. Naturally delicate in all his feelings, he learned quickly the manifold uses of the long, undulating upper lip, the tongue, he learned to be sparing with the teeth – he never was much good with his hands. One day I found under his pillow a velvet slipper I had been missing for some time. I smiled and slid it back into place before he saw. You must have a better keepsake than that, I thought.

He sang for me that night for the last time, for he was going away in the morning, his box stood already strapped in the hall. It was raining, there was thunder on the mountains, we had shut the windows and even had a fire it was that cold. The rain lashed the lake, the trees, drove the frail boats against the pier. His voice like a cool gale fanned my burning cheeks. He sang for me Mozart, Padre Martini, Händel – he sang Caro Amor, but halfway through he stopped. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘Go on!’ He had not sung it half so well before – I only wished my cousin the Bishop were there to hear. ‘Why don’t you go on?’ I said. Then I looked up and saw that he was in tears. ‘I shall not sing it again!’ he cried. He turned his back to me, that I might not see him weeping.

I had a ring, a very beautiful topaz, it was the mate of this, she said, touching the large ring on her ivory hand. I took it off and placed it on his little finger – I had to force it down, it barely fit. He wore that ring the rest of his life, she said. I believe they buried him with it still on his finger – it would have been quite impossible to get it off after all those years. She held her hand to the lamp and the light flashed for a moment in the yellow stone. Then the tired hand sank back upon the coverlet, the maid came in to turn down the lamp for the night, and when I left her it stood out like a black claw upon the pale silk coverlet.

 

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Grace Andreacchi is an American-born novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears inHorizon ReviewThe Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.

Angie42

Photo by Angela M Campbell

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Fiction

Mater Dolorosa

by Grace Andreacchi

 

When at last he lay broken across her knees, his long body greenish in the lurid light of the torn sky. When at last he lay once more in her lap, helpless as an infant but no longer seeking her gaze with his. When at last he lay quiet, it was then she understood it had all been in vain. In vain to have borne him in her fearful girlish womb, in vain the twelve hours – a whole dark night of pain beyond words as she fought to bring him, struggling against the light, into the world. In  vain the midnight vigils when she had held him while he screamed open-mouthed, inconsolable from a place of such darkness it made her tremble. Now he lay in her lap, broken. His mouth hung open, the teeth gleaming between the bearded lips, the lips encrusted black with blood. How heavy he was! She held him, she would not let him go – not yet, though he weighed upon her, a stone as big as the world. She could not yet let him go. She wanted to think, now, while she still held him, one last time, in her arms. It had been so long since she had held him like that! He did not permit it. As a child he had been warm and sweet, even timid, and always fierce. His love for her as fierce as his fight with the world. As a child he had clung to her, sucked angrily at the breast, never satisfied, always crying aloud as though he craved some other food, something she could not offer him. As a child he had needed her. This was her joy, to be needed by him.

 

When had he begun to vanish from her sight? There was the time she had come seeking him, her heart in her mouth, he was only twelve – what if they had lost him forever? God’s child, a holy trust, fallen by the wayside, killed by robbers perhaps or taken by thieves… for three days and three nights they ran from one house to another, unable to eat or sleep – surely the Lord would punish them for losing his child, surely the Lord would protect him, or else he would not. He was in the Temple talking quietly with the old men, he looked up, vexed with them for disturbing him, and asked her what was she was thinking? Did she not know he would be about his father’s business? Her husband took him by the hand to lead him home, and the boy looked at him coldly. ‘You’re not my father,’ he said. ‘Let me alone.’

 

Well. He had never been like other children, did not know how to play with them, indeed seemed to frighten them with his strange talk and odd ways. But he was good with his hands, spent hours in the workshop where he made cunning toys from wood – a bird that could flap its wings, a lamb with its mother, a little cross. ‘Look mother, I’m the lamb’, he said, holding it up proudly for her to see. ‘And this one is you, my mother. Shall I make a wolf too?’ He made a wolf, then broke it apart with a hammer, a small line of vexation between his soft brows. His dreams were terrible. Sometimes he told her bits of them, stories of demoniacs and lepers with oozing sores, of crowds of people chasing him through a desert wilderness. Once he dreamed of walking upon a great sea of burning glass, and beneath the sea myriads of tiny fish glinting with all the colours of the morning. The fish were swimming towards him, hungrily, and he had to feed them, and did not know how…

 

Ah but how to tell of his loveliness? He was not the most beautiful boy, simply her heart and soul. He was always a bit too thin to be really beautiful, always that darkness in his great soft eyes, that restless anxious longing in him. But his smile had been like the small rain upon the tender grass. He was the lily among thorns, the apple among the trees of the wild wood. When he put his thin childish arms around her and pressed his face to her belly she was sick with love.

 

He was far too clever, and could read as well as a rabbi while the other boys his age were still struggling to learn their letters. She had been proud of her odd, bright, clever little boy. But as he grew up he grew harder to reach, no longer told her his dreams, nor asked her to explain the mysteries of life and death. Why can’t I fly like a bird, mother? Why do the lambs have to die while they are still only babies? Why does the night come and make everything dark? You will fly like a bird some day, my son, when you have found your wings. The lambs must die so that we may live, their flesh is our food, given by the Lord. The night comes so that we may rest from the heat of the day. But he no longer asked her these things. He worked with his father (but ‘You’re not my father’ stood between them always), he sat by himself, he went to the synagogue and to the desert to pray. He fasted and grew thinner, he who had always been so thin. His eyes grew larger, darker, she saw things in them that frightened her. When she asked him to do little favours for her he now pretended not to have heard. When she reached out to stroke his hair he did not draw away, he did not need to, his eyes merely failed to notice her, and her hand came away as if she had burned it. She had seen again the small line between his brows.

 

When her husband died he left for a while, saying he must pray forty days and forty nights. She sat alone in the empty house. She had never been alone before, it was odd to sit there and listen all day to that silence. The sound of cicadas at twilight, and of small birds at dawn. Mother, why can’t I fly like a bird… You will, my son, you will. He returned from the desert somehow taller, his hair and his beard shaggy as a wild goat’s, and a deep furrow drawn as if with an awl between his brows. With him were two angels, she recognised them easily by their bright garments, but they parted from him at the door and did not come in. There were angels here now, in great number, she felt them standing around her, drawn up in ranks, ready to bear him away but she would not let them have him – not yet. There were angels hovering just above her head, the night sky was thick with them, mourning and weeping tears of blood for him. Let them weep – what were their tears to hers? She held him closer, pressing his broad broken shoulders to her breast. He had been so little once, so soft! And now this. Ah she would not let him go, not yet, not yet, not until she had understood – why had it all been necessary, the sword, the cross, the sacrifice? What did the Lord want from her? Nothing more perhaps. Could she believe that…

 

One of the weeping angels took hold on her son’s left hand and pressed it to his lips, right there where the nail had left a blue black wound. Another held the iron nail in his palm, showing it to her, his face full of reproach. What did they want from her? Was it her fault he was dead? She had never been a part of this, it was not her plan. Ah but she had been the gate, she the golden door by which he entered. He might have stayed with his Father in heaven, might have spared them all this grief had she only said : No.

 

Now she bent over him and pressed her lips to his forehead, pushing back the heavy hair with her free hand, mingling her tears with his cold sweat. She kissed his cheek, then his lips – he could not prevent her kisses at last. How she had longed to kiss him like this! He had learned to disdain her, a woman and weak. Now he was broken and she still whole. How was it possible? She would gladly have died in his place, but it was not her plan after all, but the Lord’s. This incomprehensible sacrifice. Look mother, I am the lamb, and this is you. This is you with your one ewe lamb lying dead in your lap. Let me kiss him now with the kiss of my mouth, she thought, kissing him, tasting the terrible odours of blood and pain. He did not yet taste of death, that would come soon, once he was laid in the tomb, but tonight he was hers alone in this garden of pain, and she would kiss him with the kiss of her mouth. She had not known it was possible to weep like this, rivers running down to a sea of burning glass.

 

The time she had sought him again, now a man surrounded by crowds of hungry people, gorging themselves on his words, his looks, his miracles. ‘Who is my mother?’ he said, looking round at the upturned faces. ‘All of you who do the will of God, you are my mother and my brother and my sister.’ And she went away quietly, and did not seek him any more. Had she not done the will of God? Behold the handmaid of the Lord… When the terrifying angel came with his lily and his tale of a holy child, had she not fallen on her face in the dust? For this I was born, she thought, to this moment I was raised, a daughter of God. She might have said: No. It had not even crossed her mind. As she sat there holding him she could hear the creak of graves opening, and the dread footsteps of the dead. She felt a cool hand laid gently upon her hot cheek. A shower of snow fell from heaven, covering the two of them with a veil as white as wool.

 

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Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.

 

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Samuel24

painting by Samuel Barrera

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