Ancestral

I.

“Death is not ‘an eternal sleep’ Citizens! efface from the tomb that motto, graven by sacrilegious hands, which spreads over all nature a funereal crape, takes from oppressed innocence its support, and affronts the beneficent dispensation of death! Inscribe rather thereon these words: ‘Death is the commencement of immortality!’”

-Maximilien Marie Isidore Robespierre

 

II.

Outside in the park, the koi didn’t know who or what it was, and it was quite happy that way. Spending its life swimming in idle circles, interrupting them only to snatch for flies that had gotten too close to the surface of the pond, it didn’t think, didn’t care, didn’t ever bother to speak. All it knew were the junipers overhead inclining their tops in whatever direction the wind bade them, and the scales of its kin that shed all the colors of the rainbow into the water when a solitary sunray kissed them from the right angle at the right time. The koi might not have known what a rainbow was in the first place, but that certainly didn’t bother it either.

Sometimes, the koi remembered that it had once been in a different place, a place with less light and more companionship. It was haunted by flashing pictures – a net, pale, scaleless faces, a pile of green dollar bills and the roaring of something both alive and juxtaposed to all living things. At those times, it swam one or two of its circles in utter disarray, maybe pondering, maybe indulging. But soon thereafter its nature took its toll, and it forgot again. It might even have smiled if its anatomy had known such a thing as a smile.

Inside the house, however, the old man remembered all too well. Or he believed himself to be remembering, which was pretty much the same, all things considered. He lay on his bed, his head resting on a pillow – partly because that enabled him to see out of the window and down into the park, onto the junipers and the pond glistening in the April sun, partly because it created the illusion that he could just fade back into the pillow and have his face covered and his breath taken away by it, all the woes and the stockpile of memory that he called a live long lived wiped away in a heartbeat.

It comforted him, but he wasn’t happy.

“Penelope?”

“Dad …” The young woman who sat in an armchair next to his bed had eyes of the kind which the koi would most likely have confused with the scales of its kin. “It’s me. Leda. I’m Leda.”

“Penelope, how long have you been here?”

“I … Half an hour, Dad. Merely half an hour.”

The old man smiled weakly. “Half an hour, and I haven’t cared at all – have I, Penelope. Haven’t entertained you, haven’t even talked …”

“You talked a lot, Dad. You always do.”

“I didn’t … Just as my father wouldn’t talk to me. He didn’t like the path I chose, have I ever told you that?”

“You might have.”

“Didn’t like it at all, right? Didn’t think much of priesthood and the grace of God, did he, my old man! A lawyer, that’s what he was, he and his father and grandfather before him, an old family, strong family, yeah, sinful family, dating all the way back to Babylon, I tell you … Even my brother chose their path, the only good man to come of the whole bunch. ‘Frances Bloom,’ my father once said to me, ‘a man has to take his fortune into his own hands. Has to go out and make something out of himself, by virtue of his will and his sharp mind and a kernel of chance, perhaps. Clinging on to a God that doesn’t exist will only hold you back and undermine your own will.’ That’s the kind of man he was, pah! Bet he regrets talking like this now, simmering in the Perhapser’s pot of boiling pitch. Yes, I found my way, went back to what really mattered. Oh, and look where it got me, look at all of this. Look at all the grace the Lord has bestowed upon me! A man from real estate came by lately. Said this place is now worth twenty-eight million at least. Twenty-eight million, Penelope! Can you imagine?”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Makes me proud to be a man of God, I can tell you that. Twenty-eight million …”

“Dad … Do you need something? Should I make you a cup of tea?”

“No tea … Wine would be better. The savior’s blood, for here I lie bleeding.”

“The doctor said you shouldn’t drink wine in your condition. But I brought fresh chamomile, that could do you good.”

“Wine, Penelope, I tell you – who am I to care about some ungodly doctor’s opinion! I –“

“Leda, Dad. My name is Leda.”

 

III.

May was unusually cold this year, freezing the first brigade of sprouts to death all over the suburban gardenscape. The skies were grey, their potential of snow neither a promise nor an empty threat, the sun broke through them only as an ominous gloom. Weather broadcasters and farmers were equally concerned – the formers about their social reputation, the latters about their harvest and financial future.

Reverend Bloom stood on the sidewalk outside the dilapidated apartment complex he lived in, and smiled. In his white trench coat and mittens, he might as well have been a Greek statue carved from marble, his hawkish features only adding to the impression. A man like this might equally likely have been portrayed slaying either Cetus or Perseus, starring in a Hollywood movie or leading the gang of notorious kidnappers in the true story that inspired the script. But none would ever have pictured him standing like this, in one of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, silently smiling at the body of his wife who had just been run over by an azure Ford RS 200 in what passed for broad daylight these days.

He was a tall man, Reverend Bloom, towering over the stellar car’s driver by almost a foot. His temples were dusted in silver, though his hair was still full and told stories of a youth in which women had held their breath over this man walking by. A cigarette was idly hanging from the corner of his mouth. The fire had gone out unnoticed.

The driver was a shaking puddle of tears. Only seconds before, his humanity had been well protected behind a façade of Armani, Dior, too much hair wax and Depeche Mode on the radio asking about what made a man hate another man. Now that it had broken through, the smell of money about him had turned into a stench – or, rather, the sweet scent of triumph for Reverend Bloom.

“I … God, oh my God, how could … This can’t be real! Not real, no, I’m dreaming, I … She just ran in front of my car, sir, you’ve seen it, you must … just ran out … Fuck! Oh God – but she’s gonna be alright, sure she is, she …”

“God?” Reverend Bloom’s smile hadn’t waned in the slightest. “God must have given me a gift.”

“What … Sir, I don’t understand – help me, please help me, we need to get her off the road, we … A payphone, we need a payphone, need to call an ambulance … Oh my God, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Only now Reverend Bloom stepped forward and let a look of concern take over his features. “I must ask you to refrain from such profanity. The Lord is listening.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so … so sorry …”

“This woman was my wife. This woman, Cal … We married more than 30 years ago. Said our vows and never broke them since, through good times and bad times, spiritual and financial straits. I won’t deny that.” He took one more step toward the shivering man and his car. “We had two daughters. Penelope and Leda – Penelope just graduated College on scholarship, all on her own. They loved their mother. So did I, for that matter, and so did my brother – he’s a lawyer, just like our father was.”

“Sir, you … We need to help her!”

“You come here driving, grinning like the infantile prick that you are, neither looking ahead nor saying your prayers for the Lord to do so in your stead. Am I not right?”

“Sir …”

“Am I not right?!”

“I guess … No, no, no, it was her who ran right in front of my car, I had no chance to –“

Reverend Bloom cut him off with one quick gesture. He took one last step and crouched over the body of his wife. He shook his head. “She’s dead. How fast were you driving, 60? 70? In the heart of the city? You will come with me, right now. We will go inside, and then you’ll sit down and wait for me to call an ambulance and the police. You’re gonna confess – the Lord himself shall hold you accountable if you must make this more tedious than it’s already going to be. We’ll wait together for the cops to arrive, and then we’ll schedule our next appointment: in court.”

“No, sir, please, I didn’t –“

“Did, didn’t, what does this matter, son? You killed an innocent woman and brought the most terrible grief over her family. I shall not rest before I see atonement for the pain you’re causing me!”

“She ran out! Fuck, I tried to doge, but I didn’t stand a chance!”

“What happened, son, is totally subjective. Us humans are inherently flawed. We might remember one thing and forget another, or remember a thing that never happened at all. Do you know, in the English language alone, there are more than 300 Bible translations, each with their slightly varying version of the events, the words, the underlying meanings? It is not about which one is true, or which one has actually happened – it’s about which one the right people believe is true.”

“What are you talking about??”

“I’m talking about the invaluable gift that I will soon be able to leave this rathole – yeah, the apartment right up there, where you’re coming with me now! – and buy a house outside of this graveyard! One with some green around, a pond perhaps; wouldn’t that be beautiful?”

“Sir …”

“Praise the Lord, my son. Praise the lord!”

 

IV.

It was a curious thing how wedding invitations still seem to find their way to people who have long forgotten even the names of those getting wed. When Frances deciphered the ornamented names atop the carefully folded sheet of marbled paper – Paul Homolka and Carla Bernado, soon to be Mr. and Mrs. Homolka –, he vaguely remembered some boy or another who had attended high school with him, might have been the blond one who always sat in the front row, or the long haired one who had a closer connection to Jim Morrison than to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the invitation promised a free five-course dinner preceding a “masked ball, Venetian style,” and for Frances, who was one year short from acquiring his theology degree and thus seized every opportunity for free food and free drinks, this was reason enough to carefully position the invitation on the upper right corner of his desk.

“Alison, babe!”

“Yes, honey?”

“We’re going to a wedding, June 28th. Some high school friend of mine who couldn’t keep it together any longer. They want us to bring masks.”

 

He picked an abstract guise in turquoise that was half human, half avian, with glistening plastic stones around the eyes and a crown of iridescent feathers, a thing that he in fact liked so much that he paid the price of seven dollars without hesitating a second. Alison, his girlfriend for almost four years at the time, knew better than to argue with him about that – instead, she picked the cheapest mask in the shop, a swan covered in so many glued-on plumes that they looked like snowflakes.

They went to the wedding as who they had always been, waited and conversed and dined with people that pretended to never have been anyone else either; they entered the ballroom as themselves and exchanged one last, reassuring smile. Then their faces vanished behind green and pearl white feathers, and, like everyone else in the room, they became new born, newly forged, never moving faces in which only the eyes still remembered what had been before.

Champagne started flowing.

Frances and Alison stayed together for the first few minutes, they danced in the dim red light to music that started with Mendelsohn’s “Wedding March” and a Toccata by Widor, but soon deviated into more daring territory, drifting from Miles Davis to The Beatles to Bowie’s haunting collages of guitars and eclectic wails, before at some point they lost sight of one another in the masked, ever whirling crowd.

Alongside the ballroom, several big fireplaces were lit, and somebody had fed the flames with something that pretended to be incent, but had a softer, more soothing smell that coiled and whispered and blossomed in translucent arabesques all across the room. Outside, the sun had long set, curtains had been drawn in front of all windows, and behind them a rising wind sang in not too unpleasant discord with the stereos. Frances moved without destination, canapés and chalices full of golden sparks emerged from the crowd and settled in his hand. With every sip, the liquid seemed to tell him stories in a language he didn’t understand, but liked to listen to nevertheless:

“Loin, trop loin de mon pays de naissance, loin de mes memoirs et les champs de la France, je ne me souviens plus, et je ne veux pas me souvenir, rien ne plus – oblie, mon amis, oublie tout, parce tout est inutile, tout est aléatoire …”

People floated by him on the tide of alcohol and music and light, or not people at all, but rather endless creatures most beautiful – he saw fish and birds and purring cats, abstract geometric patterns, a giraffe, a viper, President Nixon with devil’s horns, and all of a sudden, a swan again.

He touched her shoulder as if he was afraid it might evaporate under the physicality of his fingers.

“So we meet again.”

“Hi … yeah.”

“You look even more beautiful than I remember.”

Eyes that smiled, and an immobile beak that seemed to attempt the same: “Thank you. You make quite the impression as well!”

A short silence – moments, minutes, hours or centuries passing unnoticed. Then Frances cleared his throat. “I think we should leave.”

“If you say so?”

“Let’s.”

They left the ballroom hand in hand and stepped out into the cold, silent embrace of the night. Frances waved a taxi while the swan fumbled for something in her purse.

Only once they both sat in the cab and closed the door behind them, they took of their masks.

“Oh, you look even more impressive without all that glitter on you.”

“You … You’re not Alison!”

“Alison? Who’s Allison? Sorry, handsome, if you want a name for me, call me Cal.”

“Cal?”

“It’s the short form. My parents had the audacity to name me ‘Calypso’!”

“Cal … I’m Frances.”

“I like your name. Who’s that Allison you confused me with?”

“She … Ah, never mind. Only three more blocks, then we’re at my place. Would you mind putting your mask back on, for me?”

“Sure, handsome – that is, if you keep wearing yours as well!”

 

V.

Amidst the dead silence that heralds a storm, a girl chased a raven over the evergreen hills of July. Though it was only late afternoon, the sky was pitch black, a maelstrom of thunderclouds gathering in soundless fornication before they’d strike as one and wage war on the helpless, yet indifferent earth.

The girl didn’t take notice of them. The only blackness that she saw was that of the raven’s feathers.

She might or might not have been some seven years old. Her joy was timeless as she ran across the fields in pursue of the bird, which formed the center of her world right then. She deemed it a miracle, a miracle clad in black and uttering senseless cries – if it had spoken “nevermore!” or recited the entire books of Moses in Hebrew, she couldn’t have been more amazed. She neither knew why she was chasing the raven, nor what she would do should she actually catch hold of its fluttering wings. She just wanted to chase it, that’s all she needed to know.

She leapt over a fence, and merely a few yards still separated her from the bird that glided low above the grass, maybe because it could sense the gathering storm alright and was looking out for cover. A quick, crystalline laugh sprung from her mouth, tried to spread its wings in imitation of the raven – and then, all of a sudden, it turned into a shriek of terror as the ground caved in under the girl.

She fell maybe ten, maybe fifteen feet before she hit a bed of mud. In an instant, the color of her world had changed from emerald to coal, for the walls of what she, after shock and pain had finally faded, found to be an abandoned well, were as black as the sky overhead.

The girl trembled.

She wasn’t hurt too bad, although some thick, hot liquid slowly sought its way down her left forearm. After what could have been seconds or could have been years, she tried to scale the walls, but almost instantly found that this was impossible – they were made of some material too soft; it felt like clay and gave way to her fingers whenever she tried to get a hold of it.

The girl cried.

If only I was a boy, she thought, I’m sure I would be stronger, and I could get of here in a wink!

Her world remained as black as before. From afar, a first, ominous thunder came rolling over the fields.

If only I had a light!, she thought.

If only …

If only …

If only …

And all of a sudden, there was a gleam in the darkness next to her. It seemed neither more nor less real than the storm clouds, the raven, the girl herself, so she accepted it without even wondering. Maybe the darkness was a canvas, and all she had to do was decide what colors she wanted to spread on it? What else was there to do, after all?

Next to the light that she eventually decided was of a sweet, pale scarlet, there appeared a jug filled with lemonade. She took it, lifted it to her lips and drank eagerly, feeling the bubbles like music in her throat. After she had quenched her thirst, she decided there was also an armchair and a pillow filled with lavender, because she felt weary and desired some rest, and the gentle smell reminded her of home.

There was another roll of thunder, it was either closer or farther away – or was it just the same one as before?

She decided there was a plate of sweetrolls, moreover a ficus and a record player that plaid some of Bach’s Inventions that her mother frequently listened to, because she had found it to be way too silent down in the well.

After that, with her stomach full and her arm covered by a band aid that she’d decided had to be there, she slowly grew more joyous. The scarlet gleam was drowned in a bigger, brighter light that had the color of cherry blossoms. It shone on her through the prism of a goldfish tank, and all around there were robins singing to the tunes from the rotating vinyl. The girl decided she wanted to be older, so she could drink red wine instead of lemonade, and also that she was beautiful, wearing a pearl white dress that caressed her skin and at the same time was as light as fog in November. She giggled, a sound that was clear and childlike in one moment, full like the voice of a lady at the peak of her life in the next.

She decided that the robins around her were black, and bigger, and called “ravens” instead.

She decided that the sky overhead was blue, no, that there was rain, but that it only fell around her, forty days and forty nights unceasingly, and that she remained happy and dry while the waters rose and mankind slowly drowned.

She decided that she was not one, but two.

That she contained multitudes.

She decided that she was a fish for one, a big, beautiful fish whose name she didn’t know and didn’t care to decide on, and that she was a raven too, and that she was younger than she was, and older, and strong, and most of all, a boy.

He decided that he wasn’t in the well anymore, but lying on the grass, panting and shivering, with the black clouds still circling high above, like the biggest vultures the world had ever seen.

He decided that he still had his old name, because he had grown somewhat attached to it: Frances. It would serve him well. He decided that he was real, not just ink or light or make-believe.

And at that moment, lying there and maybe even being himself, he realized that he was afraid.

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