The painting is precise, photographic. It features industrial buildings with paned windows, a few propped open to release fetid air. It shows aluminium pipes and rivets, steel cables and junctions. The brickwork is meticulous. The perspective is definitive: five railroad tracks converge a third of the way up the picture - linking the world outside this painting to the dead centre of the canvas - and then they slip away into the bright indistinctness of the distance. This is a street in the heart of Detroit depicted in grey and sepia.
The people in the painting are almost invisible by virtue of both size and colour. One by one they emerge, three men heading away along the front of the building on the left hand side, two men lower down to the right - a white man glancing back at an African American man. Starting a conversation? Ending one? Staring blankly through him? And then there’s the man anyone would miss, high overhead in the centre of the painting, walking across a gantry.
The hatching on one of the steel cross members is detailed, the shadow of a window intricate, yet the people are indistinct pokes of a brush, almost incidental. This is the 1930s when Ford’s mechanisation of manufacture is king and men are ten a cent. While agricultural land decays into dust, this street in Detroit is pristine.
Imagine a woman coming into the bottom right hand of this picture, an African American woman in a place where even the men barely belong. Perhaps she is heading towards the African American man - his wife or sister? But she ignores him, as though he is invisible, and steps over each of the tracks with a flick of her heel. And just as we think she is going to speak to the man in white shirt, we are startled to discover a seventh man, one with only one leg and one arm protruding from behind a vertical iron girder, his face barely visible under the peak of his cap. He is painted from the same blend of grey oils as the girder he is half-concealed by, and now we have seen him we wonder how we could ever have missed him, for it is this man that the woman is staring at as she purposefully crosses from right to left.
“Frank.” The woman calls the name that she has used ever since the days when he delivered blocks of ice cut in winter from the great lakes and transported south by cart, by wagon, by train till they finally reached Plainfield. On the back stoop of Mrs Kennedy’s house she waited to watch as he took a saw to the dripping giant on the back of his truck, resting the off-cut on the wet piece of sackcloth slung over the shoulder of his leather vest.
“Hoo-whee,” he said. “It’s a hot one.” And he raised a hand to his forehead, pretending to let the ice block slip, winking as she reached forward to prevent the contrived catastrophe. “Would you like me to set this in the ice box for you, Hattie?”
In the painting the man doesn’t so much as smile, he glances around to see if any of the other men have noticed a woman in their midst, an African American woman at that, one who is now talking to him. He puffs out and then says, “Why you here?”
“Sorry, Mister Finch.” She shouldn’t have called him Frank just now. She realises that in this formal city the codes that were bent on a back stoop are as absolute as the iron work surrounding them. She knows how the rules of this painting work. She adjusts her glove, hoping he won’t notice where the thumb and forefinger have worn through, and whispers, “It’s concerning your brother, Mister Finch.”
And she searches the grey face shaded by the cap for a reaction, remembering when that face was sun-reddened, when the eyes reflected the blue sky and the cheek bones the white sun. She remembers the time before refrigerators reached Plainfield when ice came with a kiss and a tingle, when hands were held out of sight, the time when people had food in their ice boxes and stomachs. But the man won’t look at her.
“Ain’t he dead?” he says.
Hattie twitches her elbows to her sides, holding her purse firmly in her gloved hands, and notices the indent of a bristle across his forehead which speaks of guilt. He hasn’t written to his family back in Plainfield, not since who knows when. Now Hattie is here she partly understands why. Things are different here. There can’t be much to say about attaching fenders to automobiles, about precision. She’s got plenty she could tell this Mister Finch about Plainfield if he wanted to know, how the store’s closed down, how the cattle are all gone, how Mrs Kennedy moved to live with her sister somewhere in this city.
“No, sir,” she tells him. “He ain’t dead.”
The man straightens, but still remains in the shadow where he has been painted. His brother isn’t dead. All is well. No need to talk to her any more. He stares over her hat and Hattie is caught between one leg and the other, not comfortable on either. Not happy at being here in this painting at all.
“He, Mister Finch, the other Mister Finch.” Hattie pauses. “It’s my sister Minny. You remember her, sir?”
“Mister Finch, well he’s gone and, and now Mrs Gregory has let her go and she can’t feed herself let alone a baby. She gonna starve, Mister Finch, and he, the other Mister Finch, he don’t wanna know nothing at all. So I was wondering, whether you could see your way to giving her a dollar or two, just a bit, to keep her, for a little, till the baby comes.”
The man pushes tightly to the girder. The man in the white shirt moves on obliviously, permanently in half-step, and the man on the gantry looks down on the scene, tapping the ash of a Marlboro. He doesn’t really have a role to play, just stuck up there by the painter to break the skyline.
“I thought you might, you know, after, well,” she looks down. She wouldn’t be asking at all if it weren’t Minny, barely grown up enough to work let alone anything else, all skin and bones as it is.
“Nooo,” he says slowly, shaking his head. Plainfield is as far away as the other side of the gallery. What happened back there, back then, means nothing, not here.
“She’s carrying your blood,” Hattie says.
He shifts, as though deciding on something.
“I’ve got me a plan you see, Hattie,” he says. “Get me a tyre shop, make a little money. Need every cent I earn for my plan, I do. Can’t go sending none to Plainfield.”
He settles back. He belongs here now, this is his world.
“Could have been us,” she says, wishing she didn’t have to say it out loud, even if her voice is no more than a gallery whisper. “I could tell them that.”
The man shakes his head.
“Makes no odds to me,” he says.
Hattie looks around at the scene depicted in this barely more than monochrome painting. The almost incidental people pictured are here for good, stuck together for ever, each alone. Who here cares about anything beyond the frame? And even though he is the man and she is the woman, he is white and she is African American, he has money and she has none, she feels sorry for the half-man the ice man has become.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017, Bristol Short Story Prize Vol 4, Litro, and Neon, nominated for prizes including the Pushcart Prize 2016, read at festivals and performed. She lives in Woking, England and has two delightful sons. www.RuthBrandt.co.uk
The Light of Their Lives
It was perhaps inevitable that some bright spark in the Research and Development Department of a certain, internationally famous company would, during a brainstorming session, come up with the idea of a beverage consisting solely of pure light. The essential concept behind it was simplicity itself: Why, in these modern, fast-paced times, go through the lengthy and convoluted process of needing the Sun's light to be photosynthesized by plants into chemical energy, which then has to be converted into carbohydrate molecules, which we then have to consume and digest in order for us to finally incorporate the energy from the Sun into our systems? Why not bypass all the intervening stages and just capture, bottle and imbibe the sunlight energy directly?
The management loved the proposal and supported its realization by all means possible. Thus, less than a year after the go-ahead was given, the product appeared in the shops: a soothing, delightful elixir of natural sunshine, free of any preservatives, added sugar or artificial flavours.
The drink provided an instant energy boost, sating hunger without any necessity for digestion, as well as immediately quenching thirst and making one feel warm all over. And, of course, it was suitable for all types of diets including but not limited to kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan, gluten-intolerant and fruitarian. No one could take any issue with it, for it was pure light straight from the Sun. And, fortuitously, it was also very suitable for those dieting, for according to the famous E = mc^2 equation, even a tiny amount of mass released a tremendous amount of energy and thus one could quaff great quantities of this potation with hardly any weight gain.
Amazingly enough, apart from satisfying the most basic physical needs (food, water, warmth) in the hierarchy of needs, this beverage also enabled the consumer, and this was a completely unforeseen consequence, to become instantly spiritually enlightened once they have drunk it and thus fulfil the highest need in the hierarchy of needs - the yearning for self-actualization. (Perhaps it should not have been so unexpected, for, by ingesting light one, ipso facto, became illuminated within, which is exactly what enlightenment is, and also as the very morphological structure of the word "enlightenment" indicated its intimate connection to light.)
This serendipitous effect was perfect for the contemporary society, for given that the online world now provided instant information, instant communication, instant entertainment and instant gratification of needs and desires, it was only natural there would also be a great demand for instant self-realisation. And with this product, one no longer had to spend countless hours meditating and repeating the mantra, or sit at the feet of a guru, or clamber up the Himalayan mountains in search of monasteries. Instead there was the convenience of immediate spiritual awakening in a bottle, accessible to all.
The advertising campaign was built around the slogans "Instant EnLIGHTenment™ in a Bottle!", "Fast Food for Body and Soul!", and "Let the Light DeLIGHT You!". For once the reality corresponded exactly to the promotional claims, as it truly was a unique kind of an invention the likes of which had never been seen before.
And so, as was to be expected, everyone flocked to buy the new drink, for, apart from its obvious appeal to the general public, its attraction was also irresistible to a diverse range of people with specific needs, such as the athletic types looking for an immediate energy fix, the spiritual seekers looking for the truth about themselves and the Universe, and the weight-conscious dieters, who immediately added it to their fastidious regimens. Of course children loved it too, given its novelty value and its almost-magical properties.
This unqualified success gave the company the freedom and the impetus to experiment with new varieties of the product. The flavour of the original sunlight brand was a mixture of melon and orange. Later on, many more flavours became available, as the company's researchers went about capturing and bottling light from other celestial objects, as well as from man-made sources.
It was discovered that each planet and star had its own unique taste: Moonlight was cooler on the palate than sunlight and had an indefinable element to it one couldn't quite put a finger on; Mars tasted a bit like tomato juice; Venus was quite tart and almost vinegary, and thus was best drunk in combination with light from other sources; Jupiter and Saturn, as befitting their gaseous nature, were like the finest bubbly champagne; and supernovas had a mouth-exploding, extremely hot chilli flavour that only the very brave and the foolhardy dared to sample. It was also found that the illuminations of every city had their own particular flavour, although the health-conscious preferred only drinks made from natural sources and scorned the artificial flavours of light globes, fluorescent lights and neon signs, which invariably tasted like cheap wine.
With this product on the market, many believed the world was surely heading towards a utopian existence in which humanity would finally be liberated from its burdensome, imprisoning dependence upon plants and animals for nutrition; and the common man, having become instantly enlightened, would see beyond the constricting confines of self-interest and self-preservation and realise everything is inextricably connected and we are all one.
Yet, those who were optimistic that an idealistic state of being would at last be achieved had forgotten all about a deep-rooted and paradoxical aspect of human nature, namely that anything that brought pleasure and enjoyment was open to abuse, misuse and overuse. Consequently, the very source of gratification and bliss, like for example alcohol, could and did mutate grotesquely into a dire threat to one's very existence. Thus obesity and all the maladies it caused was rife in those societies in which food was in ready supply; alcoholism was the scourge of many a land; addictions to both legal and illegal substances destroyed countless lives.
Given the way this beverage immediately satisfied, in one neat package, a person's needs on so many levels, it was inevitable some would become hooked on it. As is often the case with addicts, they found ways to bypass the option of legally purchasing a limited quantity of the product, instead consuming for free limitless amounts by staring directly at the Sun and letting the light flow both into their open mouths, as well as into their eyes. Imbibing light through the eyes was something non-addicts would never do, and that particular experience was likened to mainlining heroin, giving an even greater kick.
These addicts quickly became known as "sunkies" (a portmanteau word blending "sun" and "junkie"), and this word coincidentally had the additional connotation of "sinking" which was very apt, for no drug addict had ever sunk as low as these sunkies. Most of those hooked on narcotics could be rehabilitated and again become respected members of a community. The Sun junkies however voluntarily gave up their sight and their mobility, two of the most precious and vital features a human being possesses, and assumed a static, plant-like existence, remaining rooted to one spot. They cared for nothing else but to follow with their turning heads the Sun's daily progress across the sky, using their sense of warmth to locate it, their retinas having been burnt out, and to drink in the light.
"In Sol Veritas", in Sun all Truths lie, was their motto and guiding principle, believing as they did that the Sun is the portal to the ultimate reality and the sole source of eternal, absolute truths. Their proselytizing spiel to the non-addicts was quite persuasive, claiming that once you started staring at the Sun, you would quickly realize how petty and drab are the affairs of daily life, and how overflowing-with-meaning and magnificent are the inexhaustible revelations and infinite beauty emanating from the Sun, the place where perfection, transcendence, purity lies. The sunkies also extolled the stability and the security their lives now possessed, for the Sun's motion, perfectly regular and unvarying each and every day, scorched away the unpredictability and the uncertainties of their previous everyday existence.
One saw these sunkies everywhere one went, sitting, standing or lying on the pavements, roads, grass, in the mud, in puddles, in gutters, totally oblivious to their surroundings. Their limbs became atrophied from complete lack of movement and turned into something resembling gruesome, withered tree branches, further accentuating their plant-like appearance. The sight of these addicts was both sickening and unspeakably sad, especially as many of them were young people who had sacrificed all the promises the future held out for them.
The greatest tragedy was that the sunkies denied their lives had turned into an irrevocable tragedy. Not only did they become physically blind, they also became blind to the reality of their situation, convincing themselves into believing they were the superior beings living superior lives, and the only ones in possession of the ultimate secrets of existence. They saw themselves as part of an elite caste, the vanguard of an egalitarian utopia to come, for, before the Sun everyone was equal. These Sun's Sons (as they preferred to call themselves, in reference to their claimed filial kinship with the star, for they felt reborn through gazing unwaveringly at the Sun, and also in reference to the brotherhood they felt they had entered into) were totally untroubled by their loss of sight and mobility, for there was nothing down on Earth they wanted or needed to see or do. Indeed they considered their blindness and immobility to be a godsend, for not only did it stop them from being distracted from giving all of their attentions to the Sun, but, even more importantly, it prevented their minds and souls from being contaminated by the imperfections and iniquities that so marked and defined earthly existence.
Thus, light in a bottle, previously the greatest blessing to mankind, became its greatest curse, causing a calamity the likes of which could not be imagined before its arrival on the market, for who could ever envision healthy people willingly becoming immobile vegetables, sacrificing their lives just so they could stare at the Sun and feel its warm smile upon their faces. The sunkies were now completely lost to society, both bodily and mentally, and no kind of rehabilitation was possible for them. In the bitterest of ironies that occur so often throughout the course of history, mankind, having liberated itself from its dependence upon plants, and thus attaining the greatest freedom it had ever possessed, now found an ever-growing proportion of its population choosing to lead a plant-like existence.
But this unfolding global tragedy was of little concern to the company that brought the beverage into the world, for its technicians were busily working on an even greater creation which would undoubtedly trump the bottled sunshine for popularity. Inspired by instant coffee, the new invention-in-the-making already had the brand name of Insta-Life, and, once completed, it would allow a person to experience their whole life in an instant. This surely was, or so the management thought, the ultimate desire and goal in this instantaneousness-obsessed era, for by condensing all of your life into one single moment, you no longer would have to trudge through decades of endless drudgeries and tediously repetitive routines of daily existence, through all the banal and boring stretches of life, and instead get it over and done with in a jiffy. Additionally you would gain an unbeatable upper hand over your rivals in the field of fast living.
With the lure of holiday profits in their minds, the management kept prodding its engineers and scientists to work harder and harder, so that Insta-Life could appear on the market around Christmas time. And so it was only a matter of time before this new invention swept the world, and people would begin to live and die faster than mayflies.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
Lullabye of Uncle Magritte
Salvador Dali never was a person at all.
Overweening pride led a half-mad eccentric - also named Dali - to concoct a chimerical entity of a plastic head grafted upon a waffle iron torso. Dali then set out to convince the whole world that his creation was a human being of great artistic talent.
The world soon grew bored of the Anthropomorphised Dali and forgot all about him. And that's how Rene Magritte, going for his daily constitutional, found the discarded remnants of the Dali Simulacrum melting under the hot hyperxiological sky, the golden metal endoskeleton grotesquely twisted and exposed.
Taking pity upon the atavistic vestiges, Magritte placed them tenderly upon his lap, shielding the molten body with his umbrella and caring not that Dali's aristocratic blue blood permeated and stained his hands, suit and shoes.
Pablo Picasso remained aloof, watching the scene from a distance, his arm resting upon cubes of sky he had carved off with his chisel.
The geometrical sky looked on approvingly from above, happy in the knowledge that the events down on Earth mirrored the events in the celestial sphere.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
Somewhere in the West
Madge the Mysterious, what he called her when they met, waits stiff-backed in red dress on red bed in room with red chair. Viking bones could conquer his pasty freckled skin, towering insecurity about her towering height. Instead, she wears low heels, slouches beside him. She hopes he will admire her from the west-facing windows when he returns with another pack of cigarettes. He yelled last night. Because she needed a restroom? Because she turned the radio dial? They didn’t speak for miles. Didn’t speak even when he took her from behind in the night, then rolled over. He’s a good man, mostly, she had told her friend Lena. He just gets mad sometimes, over details. He likes order. Likes his way more like, Lena said, having seen blood flush his face on their double date when Madge ordered another drink. They walked behind the men after dinner. Madge whispered, I hate how he tastes after a smoke. She didn’t smoke but always kissed Hank back, not saying anything, not since a few weeks after they met. Wealthy, well-traveled Hank made her want to abandon her hometown, secretarial job, family, her life. Madge wants to be irresistible so Hank will take her farther in his peacock-proud green car. He said they’d see red-pink-beige mesas; mountains; canyons. But all she’s seen is miles of crop fields, crosses, red-white-blue flags, cattle, ranches, so many star symbols, barbed wire. She said, This isn’t what I thought the West would look like. Hank flicked the burned down Camel bud out his open window, the window that let wind in to whip her ash-blonde hair into her eyes. This ain’t the West yet, honey. She’d never been this far from Baltimore, thought, This must be the middle-west, or thereabouts, a godforsaken place of tornados raging, tossing, tearing, taking at whim. Hank talked nuptials but hadn’t proposed, had wandering eyes that glue-stuck on other women. Madge formulated the plan while he drove, while she pretended to sleep. She had money in her suitcase lining. She would leave where and when he least expects. Not Vegas or Hollywood. Not that far. Madge will disappear in some city with a bus or train to take her to a place that shows a shade of red she recognizes in herself; a place that cannot own her; a place that will save her life.
Janet St. John
Janet St. John lives and writes in New Mexico. Her poetry and flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines includingThe Nebraska Review, Poet Lore, StepAway, After Hours, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Canary: A Literary Journal of Environmental Crisis,and bosque: the magazine. With arts funding under attack, she is dedicated to writing and creating even more art, keeping convos about the arts even more alive, and personally supporting as many artists and arts programs as she can. Her weekly blog series "Art & Soul Shorts" is part of that mission: https://www.janetstjohn.com/blog
Homage to L.A.: a Slaughterhouse of Dreams
The smell hits you as soon as you step out of the air-conditioned airport. You feel the residue, the fallout of broken dreams hitting your palate. The charred remains of incinerated hopes mix with the omnipresent smog and invade every pore of your being.
The shuttle bus takes you to your hotel over miles and miles of pulverised aspirations paved over by concrete highways. From the bus window you can see Hollywood Boulevard, where gold stars are set into asphalt, merging imperceptibly with the Promenade of Dead Dreams where the stars are wrought of dirty, soggy cardboard and are stuck onto the pavement with scotch tape or wads of old gum. Each star marks the exact spot where a particular dream breathed its last.
Different dreams die in different ways. Some shatter into jagged shards and one gets badly cut trying to piece them together again. Some fragment into neat, symmetrical fragments and reconstruction is a relatively straightforward task, sort of like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Others just crumble away, like burnt paper, and nothing is left to do except to warm your hands over their long-cold ashes.
Around each broken dream throngs of people sit in huddles, protecting it as best they can from the elements and the vagaries of fate, and keeping a vigil just in case it stirs and shows signs of life, for no dream can be obliterated completely.
L.A., a Dream Slaughterhouse masquerading diabolically as a Dream Factory. The city takes particular delight in finding new ways to kill dreams, in finding new dreams to put to death. Special extermination squads roam its streets, ransacking every nook and cranny of the peoples' souls and minds for any treasured hopes that might be in hiding there. The perversity of L.A.'s depravity is such that it even gives birth to dreams just so it can shoot them and watch them die.
The dream incinerators keep working around the clock, day and night, producing clouds of smoke that comprise of dreams reduced to their constituent elements: deep yearnings, life-long desires, burning ambitions, great hopes, ineffable hunches rumbling just below the conscious mind, indestructible beliefs, faint, half-remembered childhood premonitions of future glory that are more potent than any Law of Man or Nature, secret aspirations that one does not dare to share with others lest they be derided, yet which are a crucial part of one's identity and which one is absolutely certain will be realized.
The city makes you come face to face with your shortcomings, makes you confront your failures. It knows all the delusions that comfort us throughout our lives; the delusions that get us out of bed in the morning and inspire us to do things with our lives; the delusions that keep us warm and secure at night; the delusions that sustain us through our daily struggles; the delusions we use to solve our existential crises and that provide us with reasons for living; the delusions that help us through our darkest times; the delusions we stubbornly hang on to, nurture and cherish and that we would defend to our very deaths.
Every delusion gets hunted down and taken care of in this town: the delusion that you are special and unique; the delusion that you have singular and extraordinary talents; the delusion that you are in possession of insights into life the rest of the world lacks; the delusion that you possess fundamental truths everyone else is blind to; the delusion that you are destined for greatness; the delusion that you are a genuine genius whom the world doesn’t appreciate or understand; the delusion that you will find a soul mate meant just for you and whose love will save you; the delusion that the convictions you tenaciously hold on to are not delusions at all but are rather veracious, valid beliefs derived from experience and insight, and are supported by evidence from both the outer and inner worlds; the delusion that you are above the laws of humanity and deserve to be treated differently; the delusion that a lucky break will come to you in the end; the delusion that somewhere some person, angel or god is looking after you, working on your behalf and trying to help you with your journey through life; the delusion that you are protected by fate and special good fortune from bad things happening to you; the delusion that there will come a day when you will begin to live happily ever after; the delusion that some day you will find meaning in your tribulations and thus your life will be retrospectively justified; the delusion that it all will turn out well in the end; the delusion that all is well that ends well; the delusion that your life is just a bad, absurd dream and that you will eventually wake up to find yourself living a happy life that makes sense; the delusion that you alone, out of the multitude in the present world and throughout the course of history, will be spared from death; the delusion that you are dead; the delusion that you are alive; the delusion that you do not have any delusions.
Over the eons, the native denizens of the city have evolved a protection mechanism— they dream only fake dreams and have only counterfeit delusions so that when their hopes are destroyed, it doesn’t hurt at all. Only the unwary outsiders possess no genetic defence system and it is their dreams the metropolis preys upon.
The mountains, mute witnesses to the adversities and sufferings down below, are always there, solid and eternal, their paradoxical presence contrasting sharply with the ethereal, evanescent dreams floating around in the valleys.
Yet there might be an explanation for this incongruity, for according to an old American Indian legend the L.A. area was once as flat as a pancake. Over time the detritus of destroyed dreams landed on the outskirts and amassed to create the mountains. Just as coral reefs are comprised of myriads of dead organisms, so the mountains around L.A. are composed of fragments of lost hopes, scraps of unfulfilled ambitions and shells of dead dreams, with each broken dream contributing about 2/7th of an inch to the mountains’ height.
The mountains, mute witnesses, say nothing, expressing themselves through that most ancient, most articulate, most authentic and most profound language of all—absolute silence.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
J. Petrinovic, to Her Viewer
The following interaction with Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of J. Petrinovic was recorded in the University's art gallery Nov. 13, 20__
Yes, it is me you hear. It happens, rarely, but sometimes.
Look at my portrait. Please see me, or at least how Brockhurst, as he had me call him, painted me. Don’t follow your gentleman into the next room. I need you more. Stay.
I heard the disdain with which he spoke. It’s how my husband and Brockhurst talked to me. Maybe that’s why you can hear what so many do not. We share circumstances, perhaps? You are his girlfriend? Mistress? Wife?
Did he present you those beautiful pearls and the matching teardrop earrings, or did you buy them? They frame your face perfectly, and I hope they memorialize a happy occasion. I purchased these graduated pearl strands from money my husband gave me to help me get over the loss of my daughter at the hand of that low, alleyway doctor to whom he sent me.
Do I see sadness in your face? Can I help? In life, I desperately wanted a friend with whom to share my story, trust in her response, and be, in return, her giving mirror. Instead, I am now an unsympathetic figure, my background a few hills and indistinct light, hung here unable to offer or receive comfort. Those who knew me in life are gone, and I am eminently forgettable to the relative few who take more than a moment to glance inside my frame.
At least the docents find me useful. A few times each day they gather groups before me, offering the same introduction each time: “With portraiture, the artist paints a story you get to tell about someone you didn’t know.” Then they ask for a story, and the criticism begins.
My jaw is too prominent; my blush or lip paint too obvious; my hair too severe, parted on the wrong side with an auburn shade unlikely for my colouring; my look accusing. I am not heroic like the woman seen around the corner on a Jacob Lawrence panel. I am just a stuck-up bitch, one young person said. Can you imagine such a horrid phrase?
How can people think they know me like that within seconds? Your clothes, like mine, are fashionable, not flapperish. Do people talk of you as they do me?
The nice things said, such as they are, are voiced by children. A particular boy and another girl said I was pretty, but then said no more after their teacher hectored them to explain why. In another group, a few children decided I must be rich, and they would be nice to me so I would buy them lunch, new clothes, sneakers, and maybe even video games.
For nearly every adult visitor who comments, I am the stooge they compare to my neighbors on this wall. Many see me lacking in natural graces juxtaposed to the innocence and natural beauty they find to my left in the smaller portraits by Milton Avery of a “Nanny,” and Daniel Huntington’s “Study of a Young Woman.” People’s faces light up with happiness when taking in Robert Henri’s young man, “Johnnie Patton,” to my right. A shadow falls as they shift their glance toward me.
It suggests paranoia if I talk of conspiracy. Still, I occasionally wonder if the curators have hung me in some way to make the boy seem more heroic by comparison. He is here courtesy of the family for which this gallery is named. But that is madness, yes? The result of too much time to worry my fate.
Brockhurst was celebrated and well compensated for making women glamorous with his brush and oils. His, I suppose, was the luster my husband wished to reflect through this commission. Everyone knew the artist’s history with women. His two wives often modeled for him because, like Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, they foolishly thought reducing his intimate exposure to other women would keep him from cheating. During my sitting he joked about dabbing some of his wife into my features to keep her off the track. I did not accept or encourage his advances.
Do I read in your eyes similar experience? Will you trust that I am not lying? I am not sure my husband did, leading to the argument over money between him and Brockhurst that leaves me—this portrait of me anyway—undated. The omission must imply to many observers I am unfinished … unworthy.
Brockhurst would lecture while he painted and speak of how an artist attempts to capture the subject’s mind, brain, and especially her soul on canvas. Could there have been too much of the latter, which has given me this cursed afterlife? Was there too little, which is why nobody sees anything closer to the real me? Was I cursed into this eternal melancholy by his wife? My own husband?
Perhaps I lost a competition—one I was most unaware of—with that debauchee, Margaret Campbell, Dutchess of Argyll. Her sitting overlapped mine. Our portraits are similar, although hers is commonly discerned as a finer example of his work.
With forever to think, my mind stops, starts, and revolves on the same track like a boardwalk carousel. I am not, as I’d hoped, a figure inspirational and tragic, like the unknown woman of Poe’s “Oval Portrait.” Not a metaphoric expression of tortured artistry like Wilde’s closeted Dorian Gray. Regrettably, my definition has become what I am not—so much moreso than what I once was.
Funny, when no guard or visitor obstructs my view, I spend hour after hour staring straight across the gallery at Jean Dubuffet’s mostly golden “Geomancier.” Visitors kindly describe that heavily layered oil abstract. Somehow it comes across as three-dimensional and inspiring of multiple interpretations, while I am two-dimensional and easily dismissed. One day Brockhurst described the book he was reading, Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland,” about a two-dimensional world. Could he somehow have whisked those ideas onto the palette, defining the woman you see here? Some of the women who stand in your place--
Wait. Please don’t leave because he calls. I know what happens if you let him choose your direction for you. I am what happens. I need you. Stay.
This story first appeared in Easy Street Magazine.
Kent Oswald’s work has appeared in LA Times Book Reviews, Tennis Industry, Cigar Aficionado, Six Sentences, and elsewhere. He tweets @Ready4Amy and @CupidAlleyChoco
The Moneyed Universe (or, Origin of Specie)
The idealistic amongst us used to believe that Nature is the final reserve of purity and innocence; that mankind would do very well to return back to the ways of the natural world. Of course, this was before our first observation of a butterfly, with gold coins for wings, fluttering about.
Initially, we refused to believe what we were seeing, but the evidence grew before our very eyes until it became futile to deny it. Flowers started to replace their petals with rubies, diamonds and sapphires; instead of scales, fish now had doubloons covering their bodies. Rather than having worthless leaves made out of unprocessed material, trees replaced them with bill notes of world's leading currencies. And instead of changing the colours and shapes of their leaves according to the seasons, the trees now altered them according to the financial year and the fluctuations of the stock market. Thus, at a particular time of the year, when the U.S. dollar was the strongest, the leaves assumed the appearance of a greenback. At other times, when euro or yen were stronger, the leaves became identical to those banknotes.
The final blow, the coup de grace, was the Sun arising one morning and revealing its new face to be a 22 carat (92% gold, 8% copper) sovereign that was worth around 200 pounds in 19th century Britain.
Thinking back, it now seems inevitable that things turned out this way; that rather than man taking on nature’s ways, it would be nature taking on man’s ways; that the materialism and avarice so prevalent in the human world would permeate and contaminate the natural world as well as the heavens. It was only natural and to be expected then that all the living creatures on Earth and all the stars in the sky would also want to get a piece of the booming economy. Consequently, animals and plants evolved bodies composed of precious metals and gems and stars transformed themselves from being valueless, unprofitable spheres of superheated plasma into valuable hard currency.
This was a type of pollution no environmentalist could ever fight against. Not only was it adopted voluntarily by both animate and non-animate matter; more than that, it was a spiritual pollution that infected the very soul of the natural world.
All natural sciences now became branches of economics. Instead of studying the physical characteristics of the universe, astronomers treated it as one giant stock market and determined its total monetary value to be 12599435797842039745203740238430483023843084 American dollars and 17 cents. Chemists used the post-Keynesian econometric approach to explain how molecules and elements interacted. Biologists found that the best way to analyze and predict animal behaviour was to use neoclassical macroeconomic methods and model all creatures as independent agents that seek to maximize utility and profit.
And so, as we look back at those momentous changes that have rocked and radically transformed our world, we realize that the ultimate truth of the Universe has finally been revealed to us all: not only is Time Money, but Nature, Cosmos and Spacetime are Money, too.
Editor's note: Unfortunately, we were unable to contact the artist for permission to show the very unique paintings that prompted this story. While beautiful in its own right, the image shown is more of a placeholder than a parallel example of the works that inspired Boris's fiction. The Ekphrastic Review asks that you please visit these links to see the original surreal imagery by Vladimir Kush, so that you can better enjoy the story. Many thanks.
What the Fish Was Silent About, by Vladimir Kush
Treasure Island, by Vladimir Kush
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
“Perpetually tardy, I see.”
Trish Mannova stood at the other end of the room, but did not fail to see Amelia slide into the studio. The young dancer dropped her bag and finished tying back her hair just in time to meet Trish’s stare.
“It doesn’t do one good in this business to be late, girl. What if this were a show? Would you let an expectant audience sit and wait while you fumbled around backstage? Would you let your partner hold his leg up in the air for ten minutes before you decided it was time to show up and continue the piece?”
“Well, would you?”
“Then, I expect next time you give me the same respect you appear to have for your colleagues and customers.”
Trish addressed the room. “We’re making art, people. It pains me to think that the people in this sacred studio don’t take it any more seriously than the world outside. We have two weeks until the Lincoln Center show. Let’s get to work.”
Trish wanted to start choreographing the piece for the upcoming show, but nothing she tried with this group would satisfy her. It was like they had never danced together before, despite most of them being in the same company for years.
She closed her eyes, shook her head, and then looked to the accompanist.
“5,6,7,8,” she said, and the pianist started, rocking backward and forward to the 4/4 time of the full-bodied piece.
Trish walked around the room as the ten dancers went through their warm-up, stretching and strengthening their muscles in unison. The Manhattan morning sun filtered through the windows, making the dust sparkle as the dancers created wind with their limbs. Their joints cracked and their bare feet stuck to the pale wood floors as they tried their first turns of the day. Trish’s short hair was dyed a bright red, the only color to break the monochrome black of her daily outfit. Trish roamed through them, wringing her wrinkled hands and stepping carefully, led by the heel of her foot, hips following and long neck lingering to examine the dancer in the back.
Trish Mannova did not like Amelia. Trish had not wanted to accept her into the company.
“She doesn’t get it, Paul,” she had said to the artistic director. “She doesn’t have the spirit.”
“Well, spirit must be lacking here in the big city. She’s the best dancer we’ve seen in a long while. She’s strong. Her lines are impeccable. She picked up the phrase more quickly than anyone else at the audition.”
“Pick any old ballerina and they can do the same things she can. They can all do fouettes for hours, Paul. She’s not that special. She doesn’t know why she moves. She’s empty.”
"You can’t say that. You haven’t ever talked to the poor girl.”
“But I’ve seen her dance. And that’s a language I’m fluent in.”
Now, Trish turned to stand directly in front of Amelia. She looked at the dancer and noticed how she held her breath and never let her fingers move from their porcelain-like position. Like a doll with no life behind her eyes.
“She doesn’t hate you, Amelia. Who could hate someone as beautiful as you?”
The weight of Amelia’s chin bore down on her fist as she glanced up at Joey from the kitchen counter. He turned his head from the stove to give Amelia a goofy grin, waiting for her to smile back.
“Joey, she does. She really does.” Amelia continued, her jaw still clenched. “She yells at me. She makes me do things the other dancers don’t have to. She literally will stand in front of me and just glare while I’m trying to warm-up.”
“Well, maybe she’s just jealous. Because you’re so talented.”
“No. That’s dumb. She used to be beautiful. She’s danced all over the world with the some of the most famous choreographers. She’s not jealous.”
“Well, Amelia. I don’t know what you want me to say. Why don’t you just go put your dance stuff back in our room and relax. Dinner will be ready in ten. I’ll come get you.”
“Joey, this is a real problem. I can’t just take of my shoes and relax. What am I supposed to do? The person who holds the fate of my career, of my whole future, is torturing me every day and has been for the past month.”
“Why don’t you quit then?”
“I can’t quit.”
“Why not? You’re not a modern dancer, anyways. You’re a beautiful ballerina.”
Amelia stood up. She looked at Joey’s back moving beneath his navy cotton shirt as he chopped the red peppers in unequal squares. He scraped the peppers into his hand and dropped them into the pan, resulting in a loud hiss as he stepped quickly back from the splatter of hot oil.
“Whoa,” Joey said. “Almost got me, didn’t it?”
He smiled again at Amelia.
“Yeah,” she said, looking at the ground. “Almost.”
Joey reached out to Amelia and pulled her close to him. “I’m sorry that dance is hard right now,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. “But, it’ll all work out, right?”
She stepped back and looked up at him. A half-smile was still plastered on Joey’s face, but as their eyes met, Amelia wondered if she had ever really seen him before. After a year of living together, he still always looked put-together. His dark hair still somehow stayed in just the right place without any gel and his hands were never too dry or too clammy. But, when she looked into his eyes, she felt herself exerting a great amount of energy to ignore a stomach-turning loneliness. Even though he was there, she still felt alone.
Amelia’s right arm flung to the bedside table to stop the buzzing alarm. Her hand found her phone and brought it to her face. Her eyes adjusted to the screen as she made sure to get rid of all the red notifications that had popped up overnight. Her eyes scanned a few messages from old friends who wanted to catch up. She quickly scrolled through the list of names she didn’t recognize of people liking photos and statuses and tweets.
“I don’t know any of these people.”
Amelia checked the time. 8:17. “Shit.”
Joey had gotten up early for work and left some crumpled sheets and lingering smell of stale coffee.
Amelia pushed herself up and hurried into the kitchen.
She threw a water bottle into her bag, grabbed her shoes and almost forgot to lock the door as she left the apartment. Luckily she could catch the L train just a couple of blocks down. The commute from Bushwick to Manhattan was about 35 minutes with a 15-minute walk to the studio. Amelia went over the math in her head. Nope, no way she would be there by 9.
After securing a seat on the train, Amelia searched for the podcast she had been listening to and put her headphones into her ears. She found it. A reading of Martha Graham’s essay, “An Athlete of God.” Amelia listened. She wanted to believe the words of this woman, who was worshipped by so many of her peers, and especially by Trish. She wanted to be successful in the company she was in now, so different than her dreams of Juilliard and American Ballet Theatre. She wanted to earn the respect of her teachers and peers. She was a hard worker. Amelia remembered how she had stretched every spare moment of the day when she was eight years old, just so she would be the first one in her class able to do a split. And then she had given up public school so she could be at the studio more often. She even moved to New York when she was 17, leaving her family in their small Connecticut town.
But, Graham’s words just sounded like too much. She spoke of spirit and holiness as if dance was some higher form of art than any other. Graham seemed pretentious to Amelia. A crazy old woman with too much hair.
Amelia heard the two-toned ring as the train slowed. “14th Street Station.” She made herself thin, slipped out of the train and fell in step with the crowd climbing the stairs to sunlight. Amelia’s long legs carried her quickly through the Chelsea neighborhoods. Her pin-straight hair caught the late autumn breeze, and her chestnut strands erupted. Gotta tie that back before class.
She checked her phone. 8:59. Well, I’m not late yet. She started darting through crowds on the sidewalk and veered to the far left to bypass other walkers. She was moving remarkably fast. She noticed the brick buildings and tall glass doors blur beside her as she pushed forward, all the while trying to keep her bag from slipping down her arm and messing with her aerodynamics.
She spotted a roadblock ahead. A wide man with large bags was walking right in the middle of the sidewalk. She slowed her pace a little so as not to slam directly into him. She veered to the right — wrought iron gates for the next three blocks. She veered back to the left —a steady stream of traffic and a line of parked cars. She walked directly behind him now, hoping when they crossed the next block, her path would open up. She looked at the back of the head of this man, who stood about a half foot lower than Amelia. He had dark curls that bounced a little as he walked. A black cord with several tangles ran up from his pocket and connected to his massive headphones. His brown sweatshirt had a light stain on the hood and was well-worn around the hem. His jeans didn’t fit right, loose in some places and tight in others. His neck bobbed slightly with every step he took, and Amelia wondered if he was bobbing to the music or the hollow clap of his feet against the sidewalk. She watched his feet and felt her body falling into the rhythm of his steps. Right, left, right, left. The deep sound of his heavy combat boots and the light tap of her sneakers melded into one amidst the chatter of the city. Amelia’s neck started to bob, too. Jutting slightly forward as it went up and down. And then she noticed the man’s shoulders rising slowly and falling quickly. Two steps to breathe in, one step to breathe out, one step, rest. Two steps, in, step, out, step, rest.
Amelia and the man were walking at the same pace, one behind the other. Two specks in sync in the disorder around them. Amelia wondered if their hearts were beating the same, too. Two quick bursts of blood and life to two bodies separated only by distance.
“Amelia! Where are you going?”
Amelia stopped on the sidewalk and looked over to see Dan, another dancer, running toward her.
“You just passed the studio,” he said.
“Oh, right.” Amelia noticed the buildings around her were unfamiliar. “Must’ve not been paying attention.”
She turned around and ran with Dan back one block to the studio.
“Trish is going to kill us, you know. She hates it when people are late.” Dan was breathing heavily. Amelia wondered how long he had been running.
“Amelia, come here,” Trish said, with her head turned away from the dancers.
Amelia walked forward.
“Would you please help me with a demonstration? It seems that we are all having trouble connecting with one another.”
Amelia nodded, trying to smile at Trish even though the woman refused to make eye contact with her.
“Okay,” Trish said, turning to face Amelia, head on. “I’m going to make contact with you, and I want you to react with movement.”
Amelia nodded again, this time not even able to fake a smile. She didn’t know what Trish meant. React with movement? What did that mean? She watched as Trish’s black sock slid along the floor, getting closer to Amelia’s foot, lifting off the floor and tapping the back of Amelia’s calf.
Amelia didn’t move.
“Girl, what are you doing? React, do something.” Trish’s hands were in fists. “Talk to me with your movement.”
This time Trish twisted her arm around and tapped Amelia’s hip with her elbow. Amelia jutted her hip to the other side.
“Good, good. Now what does the rest of your body do? Do your arms move with your hips? What about your legs, your torso, your neck?”
Amelia let her hip carry her backward and her right arm floated upward to tap Trish’s shoulder. Trish spiraled around, looking upward and then shot her knee up to touch the back of Amelia’s, which made Amelia’s left leg soften and her right leg fling forward, her toe nudging Trish’s chin.
They moved along the front of the studio, their bodies carving out space like letters on a page. They lunged and spun, moving more and more quickly, a hesitant conversation morphing into an argument.
Their eyes bore into each other as their bodies sparred. The other dancers in the room had moved back to allow the two free range of the studio. Then, Amelia straightened her back and gently put her hand on Trish’s shoulder. Trish stood, and their gazes softened.
“Very good,” Trish said, the corners of her mouth lifting slightly. She turned to the dancers.
“You see, this thing we’re doing here isn’t just a walk in the park. We aren’t putting on a circus so kids can come and ogle at us. We are communicating with our audience. And we have important things to say. Our work isn’t easy. It’s brutal on the body and it’s even harder on the soul. Our art demands all of us, all that we have to give. So, to start this piece, we must be honest with one another. Not with words. We walk in the realm of words our whole lives. Let’s take it a step further, shall we? Let’s be honest with our movement.”
Amelia was breathing heavily, noticing how something had broken inside of her. It was like she had forgotten she had swallowed a ball of yarn until it completely unraveled inside of her. Her heart was beating too fast and her breath was too hard to catch, but her muscles felt loose, and if she closed her eyes and let her head spin a little, she thought she was light enough to fly.
“Amelia,” Trish turned as Amelia opened her eyes. “Please stand in the center.”
Amelia walked to the middle of the room.
“Let’s begin the piece, shall we?”
The lights broke the black as the curtains lifted. Heavy beams bore down on the stage as the dancers ran on from stage right. The light washed out the complexions of the single line of dancers as it intensified.
Amelia stood in the center of the stage, just as she had rehearsed in the studio. Her head hung down, but she could feel the stillness settle over the dancers beside her. She closed her eyes and waited as her lungs grew until her chest forced her head up. Movement rippled through her body, directed by the ebb and flow of her steady breath. The dancers around her were caught in stillness, but Amelia’s body was liquid. She chased each movement to the end of her fingers, open just wide enough to comb the air around them, until the stomach-punch of an exhale drew her back in to herself, only for her hips to circle and her legs to reach out beneath her, leading to another burst. Though her movement was frantic, Amelia confined herself to an arms-length radius, not touching another dancer, not drawing the audience’s attention to them. Each wave now came quicker. She reached higher and fell lower and threw her body more forcefully, dizzying herself so the bright lights seemed to come from all directions.
Then, she stopped. Her body was extended and frozen, breath held in a moment rigid with tension. Amelia waited here, listening for the breath of those beside her. She drew herself up, faced the audience and began a phrase.
As her right arm swung over her head, the dancer to her right began to follow. As their left arms reached forward, two more dancers joined in. Then four more torsos bent forward and all the dancers were together, one unit floating across the stage, one set of limbs moving up and down, left and right. Their simple movements so undistinguished they became one bright blob of moving muscles, one long exhale of feet sliding and sweat flinging.
Then, the lights faded to black. The sounds slowly ceased. And the audience sat in stillness, listening to the heavy breathing of the dancers, before nodding and clapping and rising to their feet as the curtain closed.
Janna Childers is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying journalism and global studies. She is fascinated by the interaction of art, culture and communication and hopes to work after graduation to amplify the voices of artists and creators.
The Red Monk
Rachel had begun to hear a call within her, an uncomfortable and eerie voice urging her to transcend her life and fill herself up with a food she had not tasted. The feeling frightened her and initially made her think she was going mad, but soon she began to believe that her condition was not madness but something mystical, outside the normal state of consciousness. The inner call wanted her to find or be something new, as if her real life was elsewhere.
After reading about the sacred sites in India, Rachel believed that India had the answer. Her salvation would be in the holy shrines in the middle of the street, the river Ganges that could purge and purify, the temples and caves that were sanctuaries of holy people for centuries, the profound stone carvings and painted messages on their walls, the monks and nuns who wander the sacred grounds who could guide one to a higher life, and the retreats led by gurus with possible answers to her plight, perhaps bringing some kind of enlightenment.
Her husband Murray frankly preferred a holiday in Mexico or Costa Rica, but he knew that going to India was an obsession for her. In her state of mind, he didn’t want her to go without him.
The Ellora caves were their last stop on an extended tour around sacred India. They had visited Amritsar, the Ajanta Caves, Kanchipuram, Sanchi, Allahabad, Khajuraho, Mount Shatrunjaya, the Palitana Temples of Gujarat, and Varanasi. After completing this journey through so many sites of supposed spiritual power, Rachel had grown more and more anxious and sometimes sick from the mounting confusion about her life that had driven her to India. Now, at Ellora, she could barely move from what she believed was a fear of the next stage or of no resolution. Despite this sense of dread, she was determined not to run and return home; she would confront this voice that beckoned.
Murray roamed with the other tourists, amazed at how the artists had carved such beauty out of hills, but he did not venture beyond that observation and had no revelation. To him these carvings were like fairy tales told in stone; they were great art, but art that meant nothing to him because he was not Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, and had no acquaintance with the stories of Vishnu, Krishna, Ganga, Brahman, Parvati, Shiva, and the many other divine manifestations.
Rachel sat cross-legged and gazed at the walls within the eighth century Kailasanatha Temple, a multi-storied structure much larger than the Parthenon carved out of a giant basalt hill from the top down and dedicated to Shiva. The magnificence of the carvings and sculpture depicting Ramayana and the Mahabharata tales was overwhelming not only because the exotic mystery and majesty of the monumental stone art were undeniable, but because she believed that the art had many stories to tell that could transform her as it had apparently transformed others.
Walking around, sitting on the ledges, or squatting were also nuns and monks in many coloured garments. One of them hidden in the shadows in an orange robe had caught her eye. In the Lotus position he sat, reciting a chant she could barely hear. On the ground beside him was a book with worn covers. She stared at him for some time. At least twenty minutes passed while she waited for him to finish his ritual and emerge from his trance. Finally he stopped and turned toward her. When Rachel looked at his eyes, she saw the reflection of the figures of the sculpture in them from the nearby temple.
“They move, you know, and communicate,” he said to her. “Shiva not only expresses reality through those tales but brings them to life and guides you, if you are ready.”
“What?” Rachel said, somewhat surprised at how he had skipped pleasantries and spoke to her as if he had known her for many years.
He pointed at the sculpted friezes.
“If you come at a certain time, and if you are in a certain state of mind, you can see them move and hear them talk to you in your mind. When that happens, you’ve felt something of reality and it will draw you into the transcendent realm they represent. It’s like the effect of profound music. You become filled up with special harmonic patterns which move you away from your humdrum existence. Art becomes a vehicle for change.”
Rachel nodded, not fully sure what he meant.
Just then she noticed another monk in a red robe leaning on the wall with a smirk on his face.
“Don’t believe a word he says,” the red monk said, “or any of them for that matter. Their spiritual condition more reflects the ruins than the inner spiritual forces of long ago. Most of them are beggars, preying upon tourists, pretending to know something profound.”
“Most of them?” Rachel asked.
“Yes,” the red monk said. “Some are like this fellow, sad searchers.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m someone searching for truth,” the orange robed monk said.
“No,” Rachel said, “I was asking the red robed monk.”
“You see the red monk?” the orange monk asked.
“He speaks to you?”
She nodded again.
“But how could that be? You’re a…a…tourist.”
“I want to…” Rachel began to speak.
“You want to what?” the red monk interrupted.
“That is your husband?” the red monk continued, pointing at Murray, who was clearly watching her while looking at the temple.
“Does he know you’re tired of your life?” the red monk asked.
“What’s he saying, the red monk?” the orange monk asked.
The red monk moved closer to the orange monk and sat in the diamond pose directly in front of him.
“I didn’t say that I was tired of my life,” Rachel said to the red robed monk, “I was going to say that I want to know…”
“Know? Know?” the orange monk interrupted upon hearing the word ‘know.’ “Is he talking about divine knowledge? Tell me. What does he say about divine knowledge? How do we know? Is he commenting on the Vedas?”
The orange monk stood up.
“Unfortunately,” the red monk said, still sitting, “so many poor innocent people talk to these jokers seeking some spiritual solace. Only a very few can help them.”
“Ask him about how knowledge…,” the orange monk said.
“Tell him nothing,” the red monk said.
“I love my husband,” Rachel explained to the red monk, “but my life seems so hollow, and I need to find what will cure me of this emptiness, or inspire me, because I’m hurting so much that often I can’t breathe. Something inside is calling me to something greater. My soul seems separate from me.”
“Interesting,” the red monk mumbled. “Are you sure it’s not spiritual illusion?”
“Why are you so negative?” she asked. “You belittle other monks, you doubt my experience. No, it’s not illusion. I know the difference. It’s something quite real, too real, on fire real.”
“Ah, reality,” the red monk said. “I think you may be burning up because you haven’t developed your own reality. First develop that to the fullest, then take the next step. To grow you must carefully nurture your seed. To fly you must crawl out of your cocoon.”
“Don’t talk to him,” the orange monk said. “He tries to keep people away from the temple. He thinks everyone is unworthy. Did he mention reality?”
“Is your real as real as mine?” the red monk asked Rachel as he laughed.
He smiled, stood up, and started to walk away.
“Yes, yes,” she said, following after the red monk.
“Where you going?” the orange monk called after her.
“I’m following the red monk,” she said.
Rachel chased after him but the red monk disappeared around the corner of a temple.
“You can’t follow him,” the orange monk said. “He has no followers. He’s a guardian.”
The orange monk sat again on the ground in another shadowed area and Rachel joined him. They stared at each other for a brief period before he spoke.
“You’re not from India?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Neither am I. Three years ago I was helping my family with their restaurant and I told my parents I wanted to visit my grandparents in Aurangabad. So I traveled to India and I lived with my grandparents for a time but only to prepare. Then I began this life, became what you see. I had the yearning and the call and what I now describe as the need for union with the other.”
A long pause occurred between them.
“Who is the red monk?” Rachel asked.
The orange monk grimaced.
“Who? There is no ‘who.’ He’s like the creatures who guard the temples. All ye without pure intentions and heart, stay away! He scares people who see him.”
“What’s he guarding?”
“What’s real,” the red monk answered, suddenly appearing again from around the corner of the temple.
“You believe?” Rachel asked the red monk.
“No, I don’t believe what most of them believe,” the red monk said, “but I know what’s real. I scoff, I ridicule, I disagree, and I denounce because there’s nothing here for them. It’s all in their heads. I want them gone.”
“But you’re in a monk’s robe,” Rachel said.
“I am a monk. The others I must defrock so that they leave the space.”
“Don’t listen to him,” the orange robe said. “You have a legitimate yearning.”
“How would he know?!” the red monk said. “This area should be empty and at peace. Instead these predators prowl around it the way the tigers once did at Ajanta.”
“I’m saying you’re not alone,” the orange monk said to Rachel. “There’s a hunger in many of us, a lacking…”
“A lacking?” Rachel asked.
“Yes, a lack of life, of that life,” the orange monk said, pointing to the temple walls, “…of…”
“…of reality!” the red monk said.
“…truth,” the orange monk concluded, “and that—what those stories portray and give and teach—gives me life!”
“Oh Brahman!” the red monk mocked. “They’re just carvings by some poor artists who had nothing else to do but pray, recite, read scripture, carve, sleep; then again, pray, recite, read scripture, and carve, and occasionally eat. For years! They were devotees but few experienced the profound ways. I don’t demean them. They were great artists, devotees, but few of them had a grasp of what they carved. They were under the spell of the muse, and did its bidding.”
The orange monk stood up and placed his face within inches of the frieze.
“I know what the red monk thinks. He thinks for almost everyone they’re just carved stone. Yet he’s wrong. Why is he part of it if they’re just carved stone? Art is the greatest and most profound philosophy and no one can deny what I feel. Each day, hours every day, I meditate and chant and try to overcome the walls that block progress and remove the garbage in my soul. Only before them, here, do I sense progress.”
He stopped and turned around to face her.
“That’s my quest,” the orange monk said. “I have nothing else to offer you.”
“That quest has little value for you,” the red monk said to her. “Take nothing from him. He’s creating it himself.”
“But you have advanced....” Rachel said to the orange monk.
“Advanced?” the red monk interjected. “There’s no scale of achievement. You’re either on land or in the water. The challenge is get to land, then stay on land and not drown in the water.”
“But after so many hours and days of contemplation,” Rachel said, somewhat in awe of what the orange monk was struggling to achieve.
“Months! Years!” the red monk said. “Who cares? So what. Time has no meaning in this space.”
“All I have is one fact,” the orange monk said. “I have heard its call: I know that it is there, that there is a realm, an extraordinary plane, and it’s expressed in these sculptures, in this place. Here there is a portal, a space, and I shall find it and shut all of the doors preventing my way out. If it’s not true, why is the red monk here? Ask him that?”
“And those others?” Rachel pointed to monks and nuns in yellow and orange robes. “They are chanting, reading scripture, and meditating. Are they all like you?”
“I don’t know,” the orange monk said.
“Some of them are like him,” the red monk said, “but some of them are scam artists. But he’s right about one thing. There’s an extraordinary dimension. And I am here, and I am real. But he struggles too much.”
“You chant, you read scripture, you meditate,” Rachel said.
“Just tools,” the orange monk said; “but tools don’t indicate I know anything or have found anything special. I’m slowly erasing what I lack by opening the doors that lock me out. I’m creating another kind of emptiness, the emptiness inside the seed of the great oak tree that can one day produce within me an oak tree of transcendence.”
“Must you do this in India?” she asked.
“Of course not,” the red monk answered. “Do you think reality has a location?”
“Yes, I must,” the orange robe replied. “My old life was a life of wandering from my true state. Going back to where I grew up forces me to overcome too many obstacles and will fill me up with what has no depth and was a lie, the garbage of my existence. Why should I try to make that false life work? Here there is something to find, something to keep me searching, the emptiness in the seed of the oak tree.”
On hearing these words, words that expressed the raw truth of her own dilemma, Rachel suddenly broke down, crumbled to the ground and held her head in her hands, covering her face.
When she removed her hands, the orange monk had left. Instead Murray stood before her and the red monk was nearby.
“Oh Brahman, don’t listen to the orange monk’s words,” the red monk consoled; “they’re just fancy abstractions that have no existence. He can’t articulate any of this. The man is trying, I grant you, but he’s hiding what no one do or say. He must transcend the words and the thoughts and the actions. But he won’t and now he has a bunch of excuses!”
“What’s wrong?” Murray asked. “I saw you talking to that monk. What did he say?”
“Monk?” Rachel asked. “You mean monks. There were two.”
“No, I saw only a fellow with an orange robe.”
“Nothing,” Rachel replied and began to cry.
“What is it?” Murray asked, putting his arm around her.
Her eyes in tears and her face red from despair, Rachel looked at the concerned face of her husband.
“Nothing,” she said. “Really nothing. Don’t worry. I’m just tired. You didn’t see the red robed monk?”
Murray shook his head.
“Whose book is this?” Murray said, picking it up.
“Could I see it?” Rachel asked.
Rachel opened up the battered covers. No writing or print was inside. It was a large collection of white empty pages. The orange monk had not recorded a single experience or observation.
She ran after the orange robed monk to return the book to him. She searched for him throughout the complex, but she could not see him in any direction and returned to the temple.
The orange monk eventually returned and faced the temple carvings next to her. She handed him his book.
By then the afternoon shadows were beginning to spread across the walls, each of the figures on the friezes seeming to glare at her. One in particular had the face of the red robed monk. Rachel became mesmerized by the poses and motions of what she saw on the wall. The more she focused on the face of the red robed monk, the more she experienced an ineffable sense of release and enlightenment, but it was only a quick sensation, as if a door opened, she glimpsed something wonderful within, and then the door closed.
She pointed out the stony face to the orange monk, but he did not understand what she meant. He was already in meditation with his eyes closed.
Murray had sat down beside her, but his eyes were on his wife because her face was slowly losing colour until it finally had a greyish tone. It lasted for a minute and then her colour returned.
She looked at Murray and smiled.
“Are you okay?” Murray asked.
“I’m fine. Let’s go.”
“What happened?” Murray asked. “You looked like you were about to faint. Your face lost all colour.”
She hugged Murray tightly and stared briefly at the orange robed monk, who had opened his eyes and perusing the frieze and chanting.
“Not sure how to explain it,” she said.
“So you’re happy we came to India?” Murray asked her.
“Of course. A part of me shall never leave.”
Hidden behind several carved figures in a crowd, on the wall with the red monk, unnoticeable to anyone, she saw a nun with a face not unlike her own.
D. D. Renforth has published eight stories in the last year and is a graduate of Syracuse University, Duke University, and the University of Toronto (Ph.D). Renforth offered a year-long course that examined the transformative qualities of art.
The Piano and the Violin
Dan Raulberg had graduated from the small college in upstate New York ten years ago, moved to Manhattan, and become a famed violinist. The Times review of his third CD spoke for most critics in summarizing him as “an artist of depth, colour, and virtuosity." Raulberg made good use of the recognition. He connected with another violinist he thought a quality performer, then two other musicians to form a quartet. The group had synergy and it gained acclaim as it performed in well-known venues across the country. Raulberg continued to appear solo even as the quartet recorded several CDs that proved popular among classics' listeners. He performed with passion and great skill just as he had in his works earlier. Many of his listeners said it was beautiful that success had not spoiled him.
Recently, Raulberg made a friendly phone call to a former mentor at his alma mater. He was very interested to ask about the music department. He wanted especially to know about the department’s coming Winter Music Revue, a musical variety show that featured several of the college's music students. When his contact gave some idea of the young people expected to present-- "Many quality ones, I can tell you"-- Raulberg promised to attend. Raulberg’s mentor shared the news around the music department and soon Dave Fowler heard of it too. Dave was a sophomore violin major at the college who believed firmly he would win a slot in the Music Revue when he auditioned. The news that Raulberg would attend the Revue made the event newly important to him. Dave was proud that Raulberg was his alumni and felt it would be an honour to give a quality performance before the well-known artist. While that itself would be satisfying, Dave hoped delivering a good work at the Revue might result in something greater. He knew the violinist recently had made an example of a student performing in a concert at a college in Manhattan. In the backroom after the event, Raulberg sought the young man, who had presented a beautiful Schubert piece as part of the student program. "You have given an excellent performance and I think you have had the making of a great future artist," Raulberg was reported to have told him. Dave did not believe any such recognition from Raulberg at the Revue would mean he himself was destined for success, just a sign it was more possible than he had imagined.
Already Dave believed he was one of the better violin students in the college’s music department. He acted certain of it to be sure. He spoke emphatically of violin music as if his words and opinions on that topic deserved noticing. He appeared proud in his focused eyes and firm lips that never fully relaxed when talking with people. The idea he gave of his pride made people suppose he had achieved something to be so. His fellow music students who had heard him perform knew however he was talented. They showed it asking him about his technique or by a restrained comment after he presented a piece in rehearsal. Dave liked their praise—he never dismissed a compliment—even though he felt no reason to like most of what the students talked about otherwise.
Auditions for the revue Raulberg would attend were soon and Dave picked to audition with and present Massenet’s Meditation from Thais as his piece in the program. He thought the Massenet piece would be an excellent way to both captivate and display his skill before the visiting artist. Dave rehearsed for the audition well but not hard, feeling he would outshine the other music students as usual for a slot. Two days after the auditions, Dave stopped by the college’s music auditorium, the place where the Winter Revue would be held and where musicians for the program would rehearse, to read the list of students chosen for the event. He found the list posted on a corkboard by the stage and his name as expected. He read on, curious of who else had made the program, until he came across an unfamiliar name, Charles Fontaine. Charles was presenting Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, he read. Dave knew the students in the music department but did not recognize Charles. He thought it stranger for Charles's choice of the Hungarian Rhapsody. Few performers would present as complex a piece at a student show.
A student soprano came alongside the corkboard as Dave stared at Charles's name. Dave happened to know her so asked if she knew Charles.
“He’s a new sophomore transfer; he’s up there on the stage right now, the one in the middle with blonde, curly hair. I met him the other day. I could introduce you. He’s a very nice guy.”
"I'd be interested."
So the two went on stage and the soprano student made introductions. Dave shook hands with Charles and they chatted briefly. Charles came across as a respectful and modest guy. The fellow had a kind, polite smile that suggested he could be quite friendly if he chose. However, Charles had a quiet, half tense air as he stood by the piano on stage. He looked anxiously once at the keys. Dave had a feeling from this that Charles might not be too confident a performer. Dave had listened to several insecure students perform in his classes and had thought it always less than great. He imagined Charles had overreached in choosing to present a serious, powerful piano performance like Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Dave responded to Charles a little more kindly for apprehending this fault as they spoke on by the piano.
Dave retired to his apartment and spent the next few days practicing his Massenet for the revue. To impress Raulberg, Dave thought he must master the work perfectly. He rehearsed until he thought his performance right. But Dave could not accept the fact once he had. He supposed he had mastered the piece too easily and that he must have overestimated himself. I must do more to improve, he decided. He listened again to his performance and rendered the tempo more slowly. He stressed the emotion in his piece in careful, sad passes with his bow; he mastered the difficult moves after much longer than most musicians would have attempted. He rendered the piece smoothly at last. Dave believed no other student in the revue would attempt to rehearse or succeed as well with their pieces. He liked this thought and it made him more confident Raulberg might notice him.
When he finished practicing, Dave had his friend Johnny McAdams over to his apartment. Johnny was a voice student in the music department and an upbeat, cheerful guy. He was very thin for a tenor and very freckled; he looked almost juvenile for it. He did not resemble a man who would sing in opera and musicals for a living. But Dave never made Johnny conscious of it since he seemed to like his violin performance more than anyone else. When they had gathered that night, the two talked about the revue where they both would perform. During the program, Johnny was to sing “On the Street Where You Live” from the movie My Fair Lady.
“I wish I was prepared as you seem to be,” Johnny said, after hearing Dave talk about how he had practiced. “I guess I’m not as dedicated to rehearsal.”
The comment made Dave a little smug but he tried to downplay his effort so his friend would not feel bad. “I don't practice as much as you make out.”
"You work hard enough though." Johnny went on to mention some people he had heard rehearsing for the revue at the auditorium. “They played pretty nice.”
“Oh, like who?”
“Well that ensemble, Athens Players. They’ll be doing some Mozart.”
Dave had heard the Players, a serious minded group. He thought they did a fair Mozart.
Johnny went on. “Then Steve Mittleson, he’s doing a cello work by Bach.”
Dave knew Steve was an eager performer but that many times his enthusiasm had made him deliver pieces too quickly. Steve might not do well with the slower, subtle parts in Bach's cello work. Dave felt confident he easily would stand out from him. He began to feel glad of it when Johnny added, “I also heard that new student Charles Fontaine. Now that guy can perform the piano.”
“Oh? How’s that?”
“I heard him practice. He’d left the door open in his rehearsal room. He did a beautiful Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two. Made it sound serious but not too heavy. I don’t think I’ve heard that piece played as nicely before to tell you the truth. He wavered in a few parts, but delivered well most of the time."
Dave was surprised. He said however, “Perhaps that is a good sign for him. But still you can't tell how he might perform before everyone based on one practice.”
“He sounded very good. I bet he’ll get the piece down by the time he has to perform.”
“I’d have to hear it before I decided if he was.”
“Everyone else I know who’s heard him at piano says he’s wonderful. He probably is.”
Johnny continued to other news. Dave tried to listen but continued to think about Charles. He decided Charles suddenly was a serious challenge in his bid for Raulberg's attention. It made him angry to think; for over half a year, Dave had known no one else who was as good a music student as he. Now someone from out of the blue looked like he might outshine him when he wanted recognition most.
“So,” Johnny said, breaking into Dave’s thought, “did you want to see that movie you told me about at the Cineplex? It’s playing tomorrow night. It’s supposed to be really good.”
“I’m sorry but I'll to be practicing again.”
“Oh, come on, you practice too much. You need to take it easy.”
“Sorry, I can’t. I feel uncomfortable suddenly with how I’ve rehearsed.”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders. "Fine, I'll go alone."
That night after Johnny left, Dave practiced the Meditation from Thais with new relish and continued to over the next days. As he rehearsed, he pictured Charles practicing at the piano and it gave him new determination. Dave rehearsed the Massenet until he trusted Charles could not match it for quality in his Liszt. Dave was more certain than ever now his performance would be the one to impress Raulberg.
However, Dave thought he might do more to assure a good reception. He went to Kravitz, the revue director, at the auditorium during his office hours and asked that he bump him toward the end of the event. Dave knew the last pieces of a program were often seen better just because they were the last ones heard. He felt sure Kravitz would oblige him in the request. The man was known to accommodate students as far as possible.
Kravitz did listen carefully to his request he found. Once he had put it, Dave said, “Couldn’t a good musician like me make a quality finale to the program?” Kravitz had heard him perform in other productions, so Dave assumed he had a good opinion of his talent.
Kravitz, a short, bustling man, smiled at Dave. “Many others in the revue are good musicians, too. They cannot all close the program.”
“Well, I’ve worked on my Massenet awhile and it’s a difficult one to perform. Most of the other students are doing simple, easy pieces. Someone with a more serious piece like me shouldn’t be stuck at a poor time because of it.”
Kravitz scrunched his eyebrows as he seized the schedule book from a shelf and opened it. “I don’t think you should dismiss your fellow musicians as doing so little. But I agree you are putting on a serious piece and probably have rehearsed it well. I will give you a later slot.”
“There,” Kravitz said over the revised schedule book, “you will be right before Charles Fontaine.”
Dave made a face. “You’ll have Charles later than me?”
“I'd like to try him as the last instrumental. I don't know if you've heard him perform. He is pretty good. I heard him the other day. I thought he'd be perfect to close the instrumental section. I don't think that steals any good light from you, however. You perform as you can and don't worry about him.”
Doesn’t that stink? Dave thought, walking from Kravitz's office. Charles on the tail end of my piece. Charles being favoured over me. Well, I never thought Kravitz knew how to treat a good musician right. Dave went home and practiced the Meditation from Thais again. High on his mind as he did were thoughts of outshadowing Charles, however well the pianist performed.
Two days before the revue, Dave went to book a rehearsal room at the auditorium for the time immediately before he would give his number. As he entered the auditorium lobby from outside, he heard the end of some piano music being performed. Dave passed into the auditorium and looked up toward the stage; there he saw Charles Fontaine at the piano, speaking to several students gathered around him. Dave saw the close attention in their faces even from the back of the darkened auditorium. Charles spoke to them with what seemed good spirit. His neat appearance in wool sweater and formal shirt and the deliberate gestures of his hands looked as if it pleased them all very well. When Charles cast an intelligent look at the piano keys, everyone seemed to look him with admiration and expectation.
Dave considered that all the people around the piano must have been there to hear or been drawn toward the sound as Charles performed. Maybe, he thought, they really had admired Charles’s performance, just as Johnny and Kravitz had. But this kind of admiration in their faces Dave had never seen for another music student. The possibility of this being true crashed upon Dave like a millstone. He hurried from the auditorium, his business about the rehearsal room forgotten; he wanted only to leave before he received any certain sign the students respected Charles for his performance on the piano.
Outside, walking home to his apartment, Dave thought he had been absurd. He recalled all his work to rehearse the Massenet piece and thought condescendingly of Charles talking in his easy manner to the students on the auditorium stage. I do outperform him however well he might, Dave thought. I know I do. I'll surprise those people who were admiring him at the auditorium once Revue night comes. I’ll be better than him. Yet he doubted himself once at home as he reflected on his rehearsal of the past days. Had he performed as well as he might? He took his violin and performed the Meditation from Thais, hoping to hear it come the right way. His sense that it worked eluded him, as he listened to the piece as a whole, then in parts. However, he told himself his performance must improve if he rehearsed more. He rehearsed then. He paced his delivery, weighing if he went too fast or too slow at each measure in the music. He sped and slowed his hand, then with sharper doubts than earlier slowed sections he thought he gave too fast. He was sure some musicians would say he split hairs; his changes seemed to make little difference heard individually. However, the changes seemed to bring forth a smoother production that Dave was sure would affect his listeners positively.
Dave made more changes. He emphasized some parts of the music and deemphasized others. He added stress to the middle of the Meditation where the music gains a passionate height. While he knew most performers did not put stress on the mid-section, Dave thought it would be a refreshing and interesting variation on the piece. It certainly would catch the audience’s attention, a plus when he sought the attention of the famous musician among them. So, he rehearsed the music’s middle part until it reverberated with the utmost feeling and tenderness. The result sounded dearer than he had hoped. Then he re-did the middle and re-practiced the final part in the music to have it come off more beautifully. He practiced, feeling he sharpened the emotion in the music with each pass of his bow on the violin strings. At last, he thought it the best he could do. But Dave’s suspicion that he might improve convinced him to rehearse the ending again. He lost any sense of diminishing returns to his labour. Both criticism and praise for doing it appeared irrelevant. He thought only of winning the respect he wanted.
On the revue night, Dave Fowler arrived back stage at the auditorium and went to the rehearsal rooms. He discovered one that did not have a RESERVED note on the door and closed himself inside. He had doubted his performance as he walked to the auditorium and was eager to give it some last minute adjustments. He played the piece again and listened carefully. He thought he heard some off quality in the music he had not earlier. He tried to identify the cause. He decided finally he only had imagined the music wrong when there was no real issue. Dave would not let go his doubt however. He kept trying to find something wrong. He rehearsed parts of the piece several times. Then he considered whether the problem might be his violin. That must be it, he thought. I didn't string the instrument right. I should have thought of it sooner. He adjusted the strings then played a note on each one before he proceeded to another. At the end, he had adjusted all the strings. Everyone else in the show would have wondered what was wrong if I didn’t catch this, he thought, relieved. Would they have thought I couldn't maintain my own violin? I could have forgotten about impressing anyone then.
Dave’s time to perform neared. With his violin, he went backstage and found Kravitz and some students who already had performed watching a girl present some flute music on stage. She gave a mediocre performance flattening the piece's colour and brightness as Dave felt. The flutist finished and when she had exited, Kravitz went on stage and announced Dave as the next performer. With a last pained breath, Dave, his violin and bow in hand, strode onto the stage. He stopped somewhere under the lights and faced the darkened arena of the audience. One quick thought skirted his mind for the visiting musician he had practiced to impress. But he did not dare survey the audience for him. He was expected now to perform.
As soon as he started, Dave heard something was wrong. The first notes, meant to be gracious, came in just too high a sound from his violin. He was horrified hearing it. The next few bars of music were to be passionate, suggesting a lover’s address. They came out closer to a whine. Painfully, Dave realized he must not have strung his violin properly in the rehearsal room. But he did not see what he could do about it now. He was in the midst of the music. He could not stop to check and adjust his instrument without ruining the continuity of the performance. So he continued. He came to the first emotionally tender part of the music, a scene meant to sound gentle and peaceful. As if to make up for the poor introduction, Dave tried to put emphasis in the lulling air of this section of the music. He found he missed capturing any of it. He delivered with too many vigorous thrusts of the bow. He slowed hoping to create some of the gentle sound this section of the music had, but a harder, less than tender emotion came from the violin. He proceeded to a rise in the music, where he planned to stress the elevated themes of the piece. He overdid the emotion. The overemphasis sounded like a break with the earlier sections of the music, rather than the progression he meant. He felt how he had failed once he performed this section, but ran on to the rest.
A moment of consideration or meditation was to enter the music. Dave came to it with every thought to present it delicately. He performed and had a feeling he managed in a way the audience must dislike. Dave came to another tender part of the music and took unusual pains to render it well. He weighed the sound of the section as he performed. However, his scrutiny interfered with his keeping an even tempo so that he had to hurry after a couple of chords as if unsure when to deliver them. He gave this part of the music an intense air as he wished but he felt it strove to seem so, as if he seemed intense rather than was. He worked to present the end of this section in its true, warm character and believed, despite some doubts, he did it.
Dave reached the final, very lofty part of the music. He caught onto a faint, straining air as he began it. He believed that the sound, reminiscent of the first whine in his performance, could ruin the music’s end, the thing he dreaded more than anything. With tortured pulls of the bow he hardly imagined would work, he managed to get the proper sound from the violin. He ended the Meditation with a controlled neatness, fitting to the piece but felt hollow to him after the great strain and agony of his presentation.
Dave looked quietly into the darkened auditorium when he had done. The audience applauded as for the flutist before him. He heard no jeers or boos but no calls of acclaim that greeted a quality performance. He gave a polite bow to the darkness and walked off stage with as cool and normal a gait as possible. Yet he knew the music had failed and that everyone else must have recognized it.
Back stage, Dave’s friend Johnny gave him a friendly smile but Dave could see the sadness in his eyes. Dave walked off without saying a word. He sank on a crate near the stage where soon he went unnoticed. The stagehands moved past Dave as they rolled the piano onto the stage for Charles’s performance. How did I go as far wrong as I did tonight?, Dave thought his head bowed over the floor. And how did I think to re-string the violin at the last minute? His eyes watered as he thought of his errors.
Dave halted in his self-criticism as he heard Charles Fontaine announced and received on stage. He watched Charles bow to the audience in a neat, considerate way. In his sharp, black suit, he showed little of the self-consciousness Dave earlier assumed he had. Charles took his seat at the piano; then brought his thin boned hands to the keys and began. Charles’s opening to the Rhapsody was pronounced and emphatic. Dave heard how well Charles controlled his timing as if giving reverence to the opening. Dave knew he had not presented the start of the Massenet as neatly nor as cleanly as Charles did his work’s. The pianist tapped out the first few measures after the introduction as if considering his way to proceed, much as the music seemed to consider its own. Dave sensed the restraint needed to evenly maintain this neat, serious presentation. Charles performed however as if thought of restraint was nothing for him; his real concern rather to outline the piece’s progress. When he came to the first, excited digression in the work, he fled into the thing, making it seem flighty and free of forethought. Dave considered the actual difficulty of delivering this part of the music and thought Charles might make a mistake if he was moved and performed too quickly. However, Charles drew up to the digression’s end neatly, emphasizing how it broke at its end. The tempo of the music quickened, its tone lightened; the piece gained a dance-like element. Charles made it brisk, bright, and happy. The sound was intoxicating and Dave imagined again Charles might lose his even performance if he were not careful. But Charles’s quick fingering made this section of the music sound a comfortable, easy thing to perform. The pianist transitioned into a new digression that he made flicker and shake in the piano keys. Charles raced the music, and it came forward natural and fun. He performed at just the right tempo, a difficult feat for those presenting spirited piano music.
The phrase from the rhapsody’s beginning returned, breaking and slowing as the music grew more serious. Charles delivered it with dark forcefulness while seeming to reflect on its sombre qualities in his pauses. In no sense, however, did Charles belabour or overstretch his presentation. He gave his honest effort and did not try to outdo himself, Dave believed.
Charles rendered briskly and colourfully the next measures of the work. His presentation sounded a happy thing to give, energetic and bright. He ended this section with a gentle tap of his hand on the keys. The rhapsody became heavier and more broken then. The music arrived in halts, each more depressed in spirit than the last. Charles channeled the refrain from the introduction, giving a dark emphasis to its delivery as if sympathetic to the slowing music. He delivered with great care, adding by every keystroke subtly to the somber effect of this part of the music. He never drew attention to his crafting hand the whole while, Dave felt.
Charles ended the first half of the music by slipping gently into the pause at the work’s centre. The music re-started in a self-serious phrase with a strong, clear, repeated lead chord; this chord seemed to ride beautifully through the rolling current of this section of the work. Charles timed the chord to create unusual moments of excitement whenever it recurred. Dave saw the excitement was designed for in the composition but that Charles emphasized it with attractive effect. His timing came as if by a special intuition. Dave knew he had lacked this intuition delivering his broken, tortured Massenet a few minutes earlier. What made this realization more painful though was that Charles’s intuition seemed spontaneous rather than the product of any special attention to his work. It recalled Johnny’s praise of Charles in rehearsal.
The music quickened, the strong leading chord in the music became louder, taking on a new mischievous character. Charles presented exciting contrasts in the music without losing any time with its ever-quickening undercurrent. Fluidly he switched emphasis between them. The piece seemed to brighten as he alternated tones.
Completing this first part of the second half, Charles delivered several runs up and down the piano keys that alternated in character from light to warbling. He made the parallel runs come neat and with a happy, quick spirit. His presentation seemed easy and no labor at all. It suggested that by enjoying the music, he delivered it correctly, a much different philosophy than Dave had performing his piece. Once he delivered the runs, Charles came to a playful, emphatic ascent in the music, broken by the strong lead chord of earlier. He rendered the ascent in a childlike air, making it seem that the further he went on, the more pleasant the music would sound. His hands and the piano seemed to cooperate in producing the playful effect. It became interesting in itself to think how well Charles orchestrated his performance.
Charles’s skill was not lost to his fellow performers backstage. Dave turned to them and discovered their eyes glowing on Charles. Johnny’s eyes shone, a thing Dave never saw. Kravitz smiled clearly proud. Their approval for Charles weighed on Dave as if insisting he also admire the pianist. But Dave would not after all his work to outperform him. As he saw growing happiness in the faces around him, Dave struggled not to sulk. Charles delivered a new delicate ascent in the music. He rendered the steps to it light and free of affectation as earlier. Dave had trouble accepting the extent of Charles’s grace in execution, as he considered the tribulations of his own violin work. However, he had to admit Charles delivered his piece with skill and flare.
Charles reached the famous finale to the Liszt. He presented its vigorous, dense complexity in the fullest way, all the pieces assembling, it seemed, in marvelous order. His hands moved nearly automatically as if in perfect tune with the piece. Charles's ending, Dave saw, was fabulous and outstandingly coordinated. It has all the qualities I should have had in mine, he thought. There he is showing them off. In all this, Dave caught Charles to make no sign of pride. The young man seemed interested simply to present a good performance.
Charles ended, and the auditorium and backstage burst with applause. The people's enthusiastic clapping and calls burnt Dave without mercy. He hated the sound. Johnny, noting his friend did not clap as the rest, smiled and said, “Hey Dave, you clap too. Don’t you think Charles was great?”
Dave picked up his drooping head and stared at Charles on the stage. In the unanimous approval for Charles’s act, he was frightened to seem as if he disagreed with everyone else’s feeling. But he could not bring himself to clap even for form. As Charles came off stage to warm handshakes, musicians pushed forward to greet him, stinging Dave’s pride anew.
Maybe I should not stay for the rest of the performance, he thought, seeing Charles walk from the backstage. I’ve ruined my chance to impress anyone. If Raulberg liked anyone who has performed so far, he would have Charles. I don't have to wait for any good word to come my way. Then Dave considered Johnny. His friend stood by the side of the stage watching the stagehands set up the microphone for the coming vocal performances. Johnny's eyes had lit with anticipation. Suddenly Dave felt some regret over his anger. I can stay to hear a friend, he thought. I can’t leave and seem disinterested when I like and respect him. He is one of my better friends. So, Dave crushed down his ill feeling over Charles and waited.
He listened politely to the first vocalist, then applauded as Johnny went on stage and took his stand before the microphone. His friend delivered his song’s first few lines joyfully. His strong singing had a contagious energy for Dave after his low spirits of earlier. He listened eagerly. When Johnny did not show the humour of the first few lines as well as he could have, Dave did not feel it lessened from the song. Johnny's happiness made up for it, giving colour to the performance.
Johnny went on to sing more slowly and seriously as he suggested his love interest.
I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before
In his excited tone, Johnny made clear the love implied by the lines. He sounded perhaps too serious, but someone who did not understand the lyrics would have heard what he felt. Dave listened further. He sensed Johnny’s control and suggestion as he sang of the lilacs and the lark and even in his question about enchantment. The command in his voice recalled Charles at his piano. As he came to the next lines, this control undercut some of the emotion he put in the lyrics. He compressed and quieted a part, usually delivered with warmth, in order it seemed to keep it from overextending. Dave appreciated Johnny’s choice to as he heard the bit’s subdued tones of love.
Johnny’s voice became wonderfully rounded when he sang of his “towering feeling." The phrase seemed to complete the music's ascent in that part. Then his voice came soft and serious in the falling line after:
Just to know somehow you are near
He pronounced the words as if to let the audience feel and love them. Only a critic or musician might have noted he had altered the tempo too quickly between the lines but no one else. The lines taken singly sounded very fine.
Johnny arrived at the song’s finale. His voice went high and hit the swelling mood right. His delivery had energy and excitement, if too much of it. But Dave applauded when his friend had finished. After failing in his own performance, Dave relished recognizing his friend’s.
After his friend, two other performers sang, more or less decently, but Dave did not judge them. He was too quiet and inward turned now as the night drew on to heed too well their careful voices, the flow of their music. After the last performer finished to applause, the lights in the auditorium went on and the audience moved to exit, talking eagerly. The end of the event set the people backstage moving as well. Musicians fetched their instruments and met their friends who came backstage to congratulate them. From the midst of the bustle, Johnny, his face all happiness, came to Dave, who was by himself near the empty stage.
“I just talked to Charles,” Johnny said. “He’s asked us to join him at Collin’s Pub. There’s a rumour Dan Raulberg might go to Collin’s for a drink. We might catch him with any luck.”
Dave looked at Johnny. He remembered he had not told Johnny his great ambition for that night nor his ill feeling toward Charles who had outshone him. Dave thought not to offend Johnny by explaining it now.
“No, you go with Charles and have a good time for me.” Dave listened to his own words and heard in them his first serious respect for Charles.
Norbert Kovacs is a short story writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Squawk Back, Corvus Review, New Pop Lit, Ekphrastic, Down in the Dirt, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE (from "My Fair Lady")
Words by ALAN JAY LERNER
Music by FREDERICK LOEWE
Copyright © 1956 (Renewed) CHAPPELL & CO., INC.
All Rights Reserved
Used By Permission of ALFRED MUSIC
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