Night music, p.31
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       Night Music, p.31

           John Connolly
 

  To Mier, this is an artist at work.

  III

  I admit that I have never seen the painting in question. I have only a vision of it in my mind based upon my knowledge of such matters. But why should that concern us? Is not imagining the first step toward bringing something into being? One must envisage it, and then one can begin to make it a reality. All great art commences with a vision, and perhaps it may be that this vision is closer to God than that which is ultimately created by the artist’s brush. There will always be human flaws in the execution. Only in the mind can the artist achieve true perfection.

  IV

  It is possible that the painting called The Anatomization of an Unknown Man may not exist.

  V

  What is the identity of the woman? Why would someone force her to watch as a man is torn apart and compel her to listen to his screams as the blade takes him slowly, exquisitely apart? Surgeons and scientists do not torture in this way.

  VI

  So, if we are not gazing upon a surgeon at work, then, for want of another word, perhaps we are looking at a murderer. He is older than the others in the picture, although not so ancient that his beard has turned gray. The woman, meanwhile, is beautiful; let there be no doubt of that. Mier was not a sentimental man and would not have portrayed her as other than she was. The victim, too, is closer in age to the woman than the surgeon. We can see it in his face, and in the once youthful perfection of his now ruined body.

  Yes, it may be that he has the look of a Spaniard about him.

  VII

  I admit that Frans Mier may not exist.

  VIII

  With this knowledge, gleaned from close examination of the work in question, let us now construct a narrative. The man with the knife is not a surgeon, although he might wish to be, but he has a curiosity about the nature of the human form that has led him to observe closely the actions of the anatomists. The woman? Let us say: his wife, lovely yet unfaithful, fickle in her affections, weary of the ageing body that shares her bed and hungry for firmer flesh.

  And the man on the table, then, is, or was, her lover. What if we were to suppose that the husband has discovered his wife’s infidelity? Perhaps the young man is his apprentice, one whom he has trusted and loved as a substitute for the child that has never blessed his marriage. Realizing the nature of his betrayal, the master lures his apprentice to the cellar, where the table is waiting. No, wait: he drugs him with tainted wine, for the apprentice is younger and stronger than he, and the master is unsure of his ability to overpower him. When the apprentice regains consciousness, woken by the cries of the woman trapped with him, he is powerless to move. He adds his voice to hers, but the walls are thick and the cellar deep. There is no one to hear.

  A figure advances, the lamp catches the sharp blade, and the grim work begins.

  IX

  So: this is our version of the truth, our answer to the question of attribution. I, Nicolaes Deyman, did kill my apprentice Mantegna. I anatomized him in my cellar, slowly taking him apart as though, like the physicians of old, I might be able to find some as yet unsuspected fifth humor within him, the black and malignant thing responsible for his betrayal. I did force my wife, my beloved Judith, to watch as I removed skin from flesh, and flesh from bone. When her lover was dead, I strangled her with a rope, and I wept as I did so.

  I accept the wisdom and justice of the court’s verdict: that my name should be struck from all titles and records and never uttered again; that I should be taken from this place and hanged in secret and then, while still breathing, be handed over to the anatomists and carried to their great temple of learning, there to be taken apart while my heart beats so that the slow manner of my dying might contribute to the greater sum of human knowledge, and thereby make some recompense for my crimes.

  I ask only this: that an artist, a man of some small talent, might be permitted to observe and record all that transpires so the painting called The Anatomization of an Unknown Man might at last come into existence. After all, I have begun the work for him. I have imagined it. I have described it. I have given him his subject and willed it into being.

  For I, too, am an artist, in my way.

  A HAUNTING

  The world had grown passing strange. Even the hotel felt different, as though all of the furniture had been shifted slightly in his absence: the reception desk moved a foot or two forward from its previous position, making the lobby appear smaller; the lights adjusted so that they were always either too dim or too bright. It was wrong. It was not as it had once been. All had changed.

  Yet how could it be otherwise when she was no longer with him? He had never stayed here alone before. She had always been by his side, standing at his left hand as he checked them in, watching in silent approval as he signed the register, her fingers tightening on his arm as he wrote the words Mr. & Mrs., just as he had done on that first night when they had arrived for their honeymoon. She had repeated that small, impossibly intimate gesture on their annual return thereafter, telling him, in her silent way, that she would not take for granted this coupling, this yoking together of their diverse aspects under a single name. She was his as he was hers, and she had never regretted that fact, and would never grow weary of it.

  But now there was no Mrs., only Mr. He looked up at the young woman behind the desk. He had not seen her before, and assumed that she was new. There were always new people here, but, in the past, enough of the old had remained to give a sense of comforting familiarity when they stayed. Now, as his electronic key was prepared and his credit card swiped, he took time to take in the faces of the staff and saw none that he recognized. Even the concierge was no longer the same. Everything had been altered, it seemed, by her departure from this life. Her death had tilted the globe on its axis, displacing furniture, light fixtures, even people. They had died with her, and all had been quietly replaced without a single objection.

  But he had not replaced her with another, and never would.

  He bent down to pick up his bag, and the pain shot through him again, the impact so sharp and brutal that he lost his breath and had to lean for a moment on the reception desk. The young woman asked him if he was all right and he lied and told her that he was. A bellhop came and offered to bring his bag to the room, leaving him with a vague sense of shame that he could not accomplish even this simple task alone: to carry a small leather valise from reception to elevator, from elevator to room. He knew that nobody was looking, that nobody cared, that this was the bellhop’s purpose, but it was the fact that the element of choice had been taken from him which troubled him so. He could not have carried the bag, not at that moment, even had he wanted to. His body ached, and his every movement spoke of weakness. He sometimes imagined his insides as a honeycomb, riddled with spaces where cells had collapsed and decayed, a fragile construction that would disintegrate entirely under pressure. He was coming to the end of his life, and his body was in terminal decline.

  He caressed the key card in the ascending elevator, noting the room number on the little paper wallet. He had been in that same room so many times before, but always with her, and once more he was reminded of how alone he was without her. Yet he had not wanted to spend this, the first wedding anniversary since her death, in the house that they had once shared. He wanted to do as they had always done, to commemorate her in this way, and so he made the call and booked the suite that was most familiar to him.

  After a brief struggle with the electronic lock—what was so wrong with metal keys, he wondered, that they had to be replaced by unappealing pieces of plastic?—he entered the room. All was clean and neat, anonymous without being alienating. He had always liked hotel rooms, appreciating the fact that he could impose elements of his own personality upon them through the simple act of placing a book on a nightstand, or leaving his shoes by the foot of the bed.

  There was an easy chair in a corner beside the window, and he sank into it and closed his eyes. The bed had tempted him, but he was afraid
that if he lay down he might not be able to rise again. The journey had exhausted him. It was the first time that he had traveled by plane since her death, and he had forgotten what a chore it had become. He was old enough to remember a time when it had not always been so, and an element of glamour and excitement remained. On the flight down he had dined off paper, and everything that he ate and drank tasted of cardboard and plastic. He lived in a world composed of disposable things: cups, plates, marriages, people.

  He must have slept, for when he opened his eyes the light had changed and there was a sour taste in his mouth. He looked at his watch and was surprised to see that an hour had passed. There was also, he noticed, a bag in the corner, perhaps brought by a bellhop while he was napping, but it was not his. Silently he cursed the young man. How difficult could it be to bring up the correct piece of baggage? It wasn’t even as if the lobby had been very busy when he checked in. He got to his feet and approached the offending item. It was an unopened red suitcase, and lay on a stand beside the closet. It struck him that perhaps he might have missed it when he entered the room, wearied by his trip, and it had been there all along. He examined it. It was locked, with a green scarf tied around the handle to help distinguish it from similar items on airport carousels. There was no name apparent, although the handle was slightly tacky to the touch where the airline label had been removed. He glanced in the trash can, but it was empty, so he could not even use a discarded tag to identify its owner. And yet the case seemed oddly familiar to him. . . .

  The telephone in the bathroom was closer than the phone on the other side of the bed. He decided to use this one, before pausing and looking again at the bag. He experienced a brief surge of fear. This was a big hotel in a large American city, and was it not possible that someone might deliberately have abandoned this case in one of its rooms? He wondered if he might suddenly find himself at the epicenter of a massive terrorist explosion, and saw his body not disintegrating or vaporizing, but instead shattering into countless pieces like a china statue dropped on a stone floor, fragments of his being littering the remains of the suite: a section of cheek here, an eye, still blinking, there. He had been rendered fundamentally flawed by grief; there were cracks in his being.

  Did bombs still tick? He could not say. He supposed that some—the old-fashioned kind—probably did. Just as he had relied upon his windup alarm clock to wake him for his flight that morning (he lived in fear of power cuts when he had a plane to catch, or a meeting to make), perhaps there were times when only a straightforward, ticktock timepiece with a little keyhole in the back would do the trick if failure was not an option.

  Carefully he approached the bag, then leaned in close to it and listened, holding his breath so that any telltale sounds would not be masked by his wheezing. He heard nothing, and instantly felt silly. It was a misplaced case, and nothing more. He would call reception and have it taken away.

  He stepped into the bathroom, hit the light switch, and stopped, his hand poised over the telephone. An array of toiletries and cosmetics was carefully lined up beside the sink, along with a hairbrush, a comb, and a small vanity case. He saw moisturizers, and lipsticks, and in the shower stall a bottle of green apple shampoo alongside a container of jojoba conditioner. Blond hairs were caught in the hairbrush.

  They had given him an occupied room, one that was already temporarily home to a woman. He felt anger and embarrassment, both on her behalf and his own. How would she have reacted had she returned to her suite to find an elderly man snoozing in an armchair by her bed? Would she have screamed? He thought that the shock of a woman yelling at him in a strange bedroom might have been enough to hasten his mortality, and he was momentarily grateful that it had not come to such a pass.

  He was already composing a tirade in his head when he heard the main door open, and a woman stepped into the room. She was wearing a red hat and cream mac, both of which she discarded on the bed along with two shopping bags from a pair of chichi clothing stores. Her back was to him, and her blond hair was tied up loosely at the back of her head, held in place by a leather clip. Now that the coat was gone, he saw her lemon sweater and her white skirt, her bare legs and the tan sandals on her feet.

  Then she turned and stared straight at him. He did not move. He felt his lips form a word, and he spoke her name, but she did not hear him.

  No, he thought, this is not possible. This cannot be.

  It was her, yet not her.

  He was looking not at the face of the woman who had died barely a year before, her features heavily lined by old age and the depredations of the disease that had taken her, her hair thinning and gray, her body small, almost birdlike, where she had shrunken into herself during those final months, but at the face of another who had lived by that name in the past. This was his wife as she once was, as she had been before their children were born. This was his beloved as a young woman—thirty, perhaps, but no more than that. And as he gazed at her, he was taken aback by her beauty. He had always loved her, had always thought her beautiful, even at the end, but the photographs and memories could not do justice to the girl who had first entranced him, and about whom he had felt as never before or since about a woman.

  She moved toward him. He uttered her name again, but there was no response. As she reached the bathroom he stepped aside, performing a neat little dance that left him outside the room and her inside. Then the door closed in his face, and he could hear the sounds of clothing being removed and, despite his astonishment, he found himself walking away to give her a little privacy, humming a tune to himself as he always did in moments of confusion or distraction. In the short time that he had been asleep, the world appeared to have changed once again, but he no longer had any understanding of his place in it.

  He heard the toilet flush, and she emerged, humming the same tune. She cannot see me, he thought. She cannot see me, but can she somehow hear me? She had not responded when he called her name, yet now here she was, sharing a song with him. It might have been coincidence, and nothing more. After all, it was one of their mutual favorites, and perhaps it was hardly surprising that, when she was alone and content, she would hum it softly to herself. He had, by definition, never seen her alone. True, there were times when she had been unaware of his presence for a time, allowing him to watch as she moved unselfconsciously through some of the rhythms and routines of her day, but such occasions were always brief, the spell broken by her recognition of his presence, or his belief that there were important matters to which he had to attend. But truly, how vital had they been? After she died, he would have given up a dozen of them—no, a hundred, a thousand—for just one more minute with her. Such was hindsight, he supposed. It made every man wise, but wise too late.

  None of this was relevant. What mattered was that he was looking at his wife as she had once been, a woman who could not now be but somehow was. He went through some of the possibilities: a waking dream, perhaps, or a hallucination brought on by tiredness and travel. But he had smelled her as she passed, and he could hear her now as she sang, and the weight of her footsteps left impressions on the thick carpet that remained visible for a moment before the strands sprang back into place.

  I want to touch you, he thought. I want to feel your skin against mine.

  She unlocked her suitcase and began unpacking her clothes, hanging blouses and dresses in the closet and using the drawer on the left for her underwear, just as she did at home. He was so close to her now that he could hear her breathing. He spoke her name once more, his breath upon her neck, and it seemed to him that, for an instant, she lost her place in the song, stumbling slightly on a verse. He whispered again, and she stopped entirely. She looked over her shoulder, her expression uncertain, and her gaze went straight through him.

  He reached out a hand and brushed his fingers gently against the skin of her face. It felt warm to the touch. She was a living, breathing presence in the room. She shivered and touched the spot with her fingertips, as though troubled by the presence
of a strand of gossamer.

  A number of thoughts struck him almost simultaneously.

  The first was: I will not speak again. Neither will I touch her. I do not want to see that look upon her face. I want to see her as I so rarely saw her in life. I want to be at once a part of, and apart from, her existence. I do not understand what is happening, but I do not wish it to end.

  The second thought was: if she is so real, then what am I? I have become insubstantial. When I saw her first, I believed her to be a ghost, but now it seems that it is I who have become less than I once was. Yet I can feel my heart beating, I can hear the sound my spittle makes in my mouth, and I am aware of my own pain.

  The third thought was: why is she alone?

  They had always arrived together to celebrate their anniversary. It was their place, and they would always ask for this room because it was the one in which they had stayed that first night. It did not matter that the decor had changed over the years or that the suite was, in truth, identical to half a dozen others in the hotel. No, what mattered was the number on the door, and the memories that the sight of it evoked. It was the thrill of returning to—how had she once put it?—“the scene of the crime,” laughing in that low way of hers, the one that always made him want to take her to bed. On those rare occasions that the room was not available, they would feel a sense of disappointment that cast the faintest of shadows over their pleasure.

  He was seeing her in their room, but without him. Should he not also be here? Should he not be witnessing his younger self with her, watching as he and she moved around each other, one resting while the other showered, one reading while the other dressed, one (and, in truth, it was always he) tapping a foot impatiently while the other made some final adjustment to their hair or clothing? He experienced a sensation of dizziness, and his own identity began to crumble like old brickwork beneath the mason’s hammer. The possibility came to him that he had somehow dreamed an entire existence, that he had created a life with no basis in reality. He would awake and find that he was back in his parents’ house, sleeping in his narrow single bed, and there would be school to go to, with ball practice afterward, and homework to be done as daylight faded.

 

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