Night music, p.32
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       Night Music, p.32

           John Connolly
 

  No. She is real and I am real. I am an old man, and I am dying, but I will not let my memories of her be taken from me without a fight.

  Alone. She had come here alone. Or alone, for now. Was there another on his way, a lover, a man familiar or unknown to him? Had she once betrayed him in this room, in their room? The possibility was more devastating to him than if she had never existed. He retreated, and the pain inside him grew. He wanted to grasp her arms, to demand an explanation. Not now, he thought, not at the very end, when all that I have been waiting for is to be reunited with her at last; or, if there is nothing beyond this world, to lose myself in a void where there is no pain, and her loss can no longer be felt but merely absorbed into the greater absence beyond.

  He sat heavily in the chair. The telephone rang, but whether in his world or hers, he did not know. They were layered, one on top of the other, like twin pieces of film, each containing a different actor. His wife, her shoes now discarded, skipped across the floor to the bed and picked up the receiver.

  “Hello? Hi. Yes, everything’s fine. I got here okay, and they gave us our room.” She listened. “Oh no, that’s too bad. When do they think they’ll be able to fly you out? Well, at least you won’t miss the entire stay.” Silence again. He could hear the tinny voice on the other end of the line, and it was his own. “Well, it makes sense to stay at an airport motel, then, just in case. It won’t be as nice as here, though.” Then she laughed, sensual and throaty, and he knew what had been said, knew because he had said it, could almost remember the exact words, could recall nearly every minute of that weekend, because now it was coming back to him and he felt a flurry of conflicting responses to the dawning knowledge. He felt relief, but also shame. He had doubted her. Right at the close, after all their years together, he had thought of her in a way that was unworthy. He wanted to find a way to apologize to her, but could not.

  “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and to acknowledge his fault aloud gave him some relief.

  He went through his memories of that time. Snow had hit the airport, delaying all flights. He had been cutting it pretty tight that day, for there were meetings to attend and people to see. His was the last flight out, and he had watched the board as it read DELAYED, then DELAYED again, and finally, CANCELED. He endured a dull evening at an airport motel so that he would be close enough to catch the first flight out the next morning, if the weather lifted. It had, and they spent the next night together, but it was the only occasion on which they had found themselves apart on the eve of their anniversary, she in their room and he in another, eating pizza from a box and watching a hockey game on TV. Recalling it now, it had not been such a bad night, almost an indulgence of sorts, but he would rather have spent it with her. There were few nights, over the entire forty-eight-year history of their marriage, that he would not rather have spent by her side.

  There was something else about that night, something that he could not quite remember. It nagged at him, like an itch in his recall demanding to be scratched. What was it? He cursed his failing memory, even as another emotion overcame him.

  He was conscious of a sense of envy toward his younger self. He was so brash then, so caught up in his own importance. He sometimes looked at other women (although he never went further than looking) and he occasionally thought of his ex-girlfriend, Karen, the one who might have been his wife. She left to attend a small, exclusive college in the North-east with the expectation that he would follow, when instead he went elsewhere, choosing to stay closer to home. They had tried to make it work at a distance, but it had not, and there were moments in the early years of his marriage when he had thought about what it might have been like to be married to Karen, of how their children might have looked and how it might have been to sleep each night next to her, to wake her in the dark with a kiss and feel her respond, her hands on his back, their bodies slowly entwining. In time, those thoughts had faded, and he dwelt in the present of his choosing, grateful for all that it—and she—had brought him. But that same young man, carefree and careless, would arrive the next morning, and take his beautiful wife to bed, and not even understand how fortunate he was to have her.

  She hung up the phone and sat on the bed, running her fingers across the stone of her engagement ring before tracing circles around the gold band that sat below it. She stood and then, as he remained in his chair, aware now of flurries of snow falling outside, she drew the curtains, turned on the bedside lamps so that the room was lapped by warm light, and began to undress.

  And it was given to him to be with her that night, both distantly yet intimately. He sat on the bathroom floor as she bathed, his cheek against the side of the tub, her head resting on a towel, her eyes closed as the radio in the room played an hour of Stan Getz. He was beside her as she sat on the bed in a hotel robe, a towel wrapped around her head, painting her toenails and laughing at some terrible comedy show that she would never have watched had he been present, and he found himself laughing along with her as much as with it. She ordered room service—a Cobb salad, with a half-bottle of Chablis—and he saw the fingerprints she left upon the chilled glass. He followed the words on the page as she read a book that he had given her, one that he had just finished and thought she might like. Now he read along with her, the contents of the book long since forgotten, so that together they both discovered it anew.

  At last, she removed the towel and shook out her hair, then took off the robe and put on a nightdress. She climbed beneath the sheets, turned out the light, and rested her head on the pillow. He was alone with her, her face almost luminescent in the dark, yet pale and indistinct. He felt sleep approach, but he was afraid to close his eyes, for he knew in his heart that she would be gone when he awoke, and he wanted this night to last. He could not take being separated from her again.

  But the itch was still there, the sense that there was an important, salient element to this that he could not quite recall, something linked to a long-forgotten conversation that had occurred when he had finally found his way to this room. It was coming back to him; slowly, admittedly, but he was discovering more pieces of that weekend in the cluttered attic of his memory. There had been lovemaking, yes, and afterward she had been very quiet. When he looked down at her, he saw that she was crying.

  “What is it?”

  “Nothing.”

  “It can’t be nothing. You’re crying.”

  “You’ll think I’m being silly.”

  “Tell me.”

  “I had a dream about you.”

  Then it was gone again. He tried to remember what that dream had been. It was relevant, somehow. Everything about that night was relevant. Beside him, his young wife’s breathing altered as she descended deeper into sleep. He bit his lip in frustration. What was it? What was he failing to recall?

  His left arm felt numb. He supposed that it was the position in which he was resting. He tried to move, and the numbness became pain. It extended quickly through his system, like poison injected into his bloodstream. He opened his mouth and a rush of air and spittle emerged. He experienced a tightness in his chest, as though an unseen presence were now sitting astride him, constricting his breathing and somehow compressing his heart so that he saw it as a red mass grasped in a fist, the blood slowly being squeezed from it.

  “I dreamt that you were beside me, but you were in distress, and I couldn’t reach you. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get to you.”

  He heard her voice from afar, the words returning to him as an echo. He had held her and stroked her back, touched by the strength of her feelings yet knowing in his heart that he thought her foolish for responding to a dream in this way.

  She moved in her sleep, and now it was he who was crying, the pain forcing tears from the corners of his eyes.

  “I dreamt that you were dying, and there was nothing I could do to save you.”

  I am dying, he thought to himself. At last, it has come.

  “Hush,” said his wife. He looked at her, and althoug
h her eyes were still closed her lips moved, and she whispered to him: “Hush, hush. I am here, and you are here.”

  She shifted in the bed, and her arms reached out and enfolded him in their embrace. His face was buried in her hair, and he smelled her and touched her in his final agony, his heart exploding deep within him, all things coming to an end in a failure of blood and muscle. She clasped him tightly to herself as the last words he would ever speak emerged in a senseless tangle.

  Before the darkness took him.

  Before all was stillness and silence.

  “Hush,” she said, as he died. “I am here.”

  My god, I love you so.

  Hush.

  Hush.

  And he opened his eyes.

  LAZARUS

  I

  He wakes in darkness, constricted by bonds. There is stone beneath him, and the air that he breathes is rank and still. He seems to recall that he has heard a voice calling his name, but it is silent now. He tries to get to his feet, but the bonds around him hinder his movements. There is no feeling in his legs. He cannot see, and he struggles to breathe through the cloth on his face. He begins to panic.

  There is a sound, stone upon stone. Light breaks, and he shuts his eyes against it as it pierces the fabric. Now there are hands on him, and he is raised from the stone. Fingers gently remove the coverings. He feels tears upon his cheeks, but they are not his own. His sisters are kissing him and speaking his name.

  “Lazarus! Lazarus!”

  Yes, that is his name.

  No, that is not his name.

  It was once, but Lazarus is no more, or should not be. Yet Lazarus is here.

  A man stands before him, his robes covered in the dust of many miles. Lazarus recognizes him, beloved of his sisters, beloved of himself, but he cannot speak his name. His vocal cords have atrophied in the tomb.

  The tomb: he stares down as the last of the grave wrappings are torn from his body, and a sheet is thrown over him to hide his nakedness. He looks behind him at the stone that has been removed from the mouth of the cave.

  Sickness: he was ill. His sisters mopped his brow, and the physicians shook their heads. In time they believed him to be dead, so they wrapped him in bandages and laid him in a cave. A mistake was made, and now it has been rectified.

  But this is a lie. He knows it even before the thought has fully formed. Some great wrong has been committed in the name of pity and love. The one whom he recognized, the beloved, touches him and calls his name. Lazarus’s lips move, but no sound comes forth.

  What have you done? he tries to say. What have you taken from me, and from what have I been taken?

  II

  Lazarus sits at the window of his sisters’ house, a plate of fruit untouched before him. He has no appetite, but neither can he taste any of the food that has been given to him in the days since his return. He still struggles to walk, even with the aid of a pair of sticks, but where would he go? This world holds no beauty for him, not after the tomb.

  Lazarus does not remember what happened when his eyes closed for the last time. He knows only that he has forgotten something, something very important and beautiful and terrible. It is as though a roomful of memories has been sealed up, and what was once known to him is now forbidden. Or perhaps it is all merely an illusion, just as it seems to him that the reality of his existence is obscured by gauze, a consequence of the four days spent lying on the stone, for his eyes now have a milky cast to them, and are no longer blue, but gray.

  His sister Martha comes and takes the plate away. She brushes his hair from his forehead, but she no longer kisses him. His breath smells foul. He cannot taste the decay in his mouth, but he knows that it is there from the expression on her face. Martha smiles at him, and he tries to smile back.

  Outside the window, women and children have gathered to gaze upon the man who was once dead, but is dead no longer. They are amazed, and curious, and—

  Yes, fearful. They are afraid of him.

  He leaves the window and staggers to his bed.

  III

  Lazarus can no longer sleep. He is terrified of the darkness. When he closes his eyes, he smells the fetid air of the tomb and feels the bandages tight around his chest, and the fabric blocking his mouth and nostrils.

  But Lazarus is never tired. He is never hungry or thirsty. He is never happy, or sad, or angry, or jealous. There is only lethargy, and the desire for sleep without the necessity of it.

  No, not sleep: oblivion. Oblivion, and what lies beyond it.

  IV

  On the third night, he hears footsteps in the house. A door opens, and a woman appears. It is Rachel, his betrothed. She had been in Jerusalem when he woke, and now she is here. She runs her hands across his brow, his nose, his lips. She lies beside him and whispers his name, anxious not to wake his sisters. She leans over to kiss his lips, and recoils, but her fingers continue to move down over his chest and his belly, finding him at last, stroking, coaxing, her face slowly creasing in confusion and disappointment.

  She leaves, and never returns.

  V

  The priests summon Lazarus. He is brought before their council and made to stand below the dais of the high priest, Caiaphas. Lazarus’s voice has returned, but it is an imperfect thing, as though his throat is coated with grit and dirt.

  “What do you recall of the tomb?” they ask, and he replies, “Nothing but dust and darkness.”

  “In the four days that you lay dead, what did you see?”

  And he replies, “I do not remember.”

  Caiaphas dismisses the rest so that only he and Lazarus remain. Caiaphas pours wine, but Lazarus does not drink.

  “Tell me,” says Caiaphas. “Now that the others have gone, tell me what you saw? Did you glimpse the face of God? Does He exist? Tell me!”

  But Lazarus has nothing to offer him, and eventually Caiaphas turns his back and tells him to return to his sisters.

  It is not the first time that Lazarus has been asked such questions. Even his sisters have tried to find out what lies beyond the grave, but in response he has been able only to shake his head and tell them what he told the priests.

  Nothing. There is nothing, or nothing that I can remember.

  But no one believes him. No one wants to believe him.

  VI

  Caiaphas calls another council, but this time Lazarus is not present.

  “Is there no sign of the one who summoned him from the tomb?” he asks, and the Pharisees reply that the Nazarene has hidden himself away.

  Caiaphas is displeased. With each day that goes by, he grows more resentful of Lazarus. The people are unhappy. They have heard that Lazarus can remember nothing of what he experienced after his death, and some have begun to whisper that there is nothing to remember, that perhaps the priests have lied to them. Caiaphas will not have his power challenged.

  He orders the stoning of three men who were overheard discussing Lazarus in this manner. They will serve as an example to the others.

  VII

  Lazarus burns his hand on a hot iron. He does not notice until he tries to release his grip, and instead leaves a patch of skin behind. There is no pain. Lazarus would find this curious, except that Lazarus no longer finds anything curious. The world holds no interest for him. He cannot taste or smell. He does not rest, and instead experiences every day as a kind of waking dream. He stares at his raw, bleeding palm, then explores it with his fingers, tentatively at first before finally tearing at the flesh, ripping it apart until the bones are exposed, desperate to feel anything, anything at all.

  VIII

  A woman asks Lazarus if he can contact her son, who died in his sleep two days before, and with whom she had argued before he went to bed. A man asks him to tell his dead wife that he is sorry for being unfaithful to her. The brother of a man lost at sea asks Lazarus to find out where his brother buried his gold.

  Lazarus cannot help them.

  And all the time, he is confronted by those who ques
tion him about what lies beyond, and he cannot answer. He sees the disappointment in their eyes and their suspicion that he is lying.

  IX

  Caiaphas is troubled. He sits in the darkness of the temple and prays for guidance, but no guidance comes.

  In the case of Lazarus and the Nazarene, there are only so many possibilities that he can consider.

  i) The Nazarene is, as some whisper, the Son of God. But Caiaphas does not like the Nazarene. On the other hand, Caiaphas loves God. Therefore, if the Nazarene really is the Son of God, then Caiaphas should love him too. Perhaps the fact that Caiaphas does not love the Nazarene means that the Nazarene is not, in fact, the Son of God, for if he were, then Caiaphas would love him, too. Caiaphas decides that he is comfortable with this reasoning.

  ii) If the Nazarene is not the Son of God, then he does not have the power to raise the dead.

  iii) If the Nazarene does not have the power to raise the dead, then what of Lazarus? The only conclusion to be drawn is that Lazarus was alive when he was placed in the tomb but, had he been left there, he would most assuredly be dead by now. Thus, Lazarus should be dead, and his continued refusal to accept this fact is an offense against nature, and against God.

 

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