The Sweet and the Sour

I like to sit outside a marriage counsellor’s and watch the couples come and go. There’s a café across the road, I take a window seat and do crosswords. The appointments are regular, business is good. Strong emotion (4). There goes a duo now, they’re going in; she brisk, he exaggerated in his movement, sarcastic compliance. They’ll be out in an hour. They always come out different. Whether it’s working or not, they come out different from how they went in. Love? Matches the E from scale. But then, so would hate. If scale is right.

The marriage counsellor works out of one of those tall Georgian houses that remind me of tall, well-dressed men in top hats. The plaque on the wall says, Karen Massey, Marriage and Family Counselling, second floor. I picture that couple just gone in, taking the stairs, perhaps her briskness flagging, his mannerisms tamed.

Scale has to be right, it fits with carousel and bean.

The café serves a passable coffee but the cheesecake more than makes up for it. Baked raspberry and lemon, blueberry and soured cream, caramel and fleur de sel.

When the couple reappear I can see they’ve been through the ringer. There’s a new awareness of each other though it’s too soon to tell if it is optimistic or wounded. They are hiding it. The wariness is evident in the distance between them, a formality that could be the result of a conciliatory reappraisal. Or not. That said, they set off in unison, slightly rigid, with heads high.

Of course, small rodent would be vole, which puts an L at the start of the four-lettered word.

The next couple arrive separately. An hour later they emerge, expressions changed. As I suspect, they go off in different directions.

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Fugue No. 1

SUBJECT
Antonia was running. Johan chased her.

DEVELOPMENT
– Antonia was running along a dried out riverbed. She ran over stones of every size and shape, slipping on drifts of pebbles, skipping rocks, and clambering boulders. Johan trailed her from the air, his eyes running over these stones, and pebbles, and rocks, and boulders.
– As Antonia was running, she realised it had always been thus; she ran, Johan chased. Along pried out streams of consciousness, over stories of every size and form, tripping on shifts of meaning, the ticking clock, the clamouring elders.

RECAPITULATION
Every time he was just about to catch her, they began again. But roles had been reversed. Johan ruined, Antonia chaste. He would never catch her. She would be forever alone. Tired out. With only reams of stories left, sifted for meaning, stammering, elderly. Antonia was running away from herself. And Johan chased her there.

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Those Dancers

Polaroid art – Donald Ng

I am convinced it is the song of cicadas that regulate temperature and not the other way around.

I say, those dancers remind me of Buenos Aires, and they say, they’re not dancers, granddad, they’re statues.

But I see them dance.

In the shimmer of siesta I see their angles and elbows move, counter clockwise, and from between them, flanked by an ocho and a quebrada, come the men in grey coats, defined not so much by the colour of their clothes, but by their bodies ignorance of the music, the clumsy shape of their walking as they approach.

The music stops, the dancers break the embrace. Strong hands on my arms. The band is applauded and I know that Teresa is dead.

Windowless rooms, screams, the taste of blood.

Nothing they did to me could hurt as much as the hands upon my arms that day in the Milonga. The realisation that you were gone. My dear sweet Teresa, you knew the risk, but you were not afraid.

Are you okay granddad?

What? Yes. I am fine. It’s the heat. It reminds me of home.

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Cache 11 – Papyrus 326b

When the tyrant Peisistratos announced he would pay his weight in gold to the man who could show him verifiable evidence of a physical paradox, conjurers, swindlers, and madmen flocked to Athens to claim the prize.

An office was set up to handle the crowd, and I, Petros Kleitos, senior magistrate, was charged with finding the impossible.

After a few days the initial rush abated, but a steady stream of hopefuls continued to appear as the news spread from city to city. They were laughable, the lot of them. One I remember, a money-changer from Sikyon, claimed to have a stone that could multiply whatever it touched. I asked him how he carried it, he told me there were fifteen of him. When I asked to meet him all at once, he didn’t come back. Another, a sprightly seventy-three-year old mariner from Akragas, declared the ability to make the moon sway. He could only do it when standing on a ship.

One day, a young man came to see me. He told me he was a disciple of Pythagoreanism and he was breaking the vows of his order in visiting me. I offered him wine, but he refused. He gave me a concise outlay of his beliefs, namely, there exist the limited and the unlimited. Without both, we would have nothing, for, in his example, it is the gaps between one, two, and three that distinguish them. He then produced an object from his bag.

It was made of wood and I remember basic shapes, a circle, a triangle within it, a square, each a plane, intersecting the others. He held the thing in front of me and began to turn it.

I will admit I had drunk a lot that afternoon; I am a magistrate, it’s part of the job. But what I saw next – what happened when he had completed half a turn, it would be better to deem it an effect of the wine.

A space opened in the middle of the object, simply opened. Inside there was nothing. Understand, though, by nothing I do not mean the lack of something, I mean a bottomless void, a thing so dark I noticed the room begin to dim. It was not possible to look away. I could feel the pull of it, every part of me leaning towards it, and I had to fight with all my strength to keep from throwing myself at it.

He turned it back, the void closed, and I collapsed in my seat, exhausted. I could see by his face that he was regretting his actions. He quickly dismantled the object, put it in the bag, and left without a word. I tried to stand, but was still too weak from the experience.

I never saw him again. After much deliberation, I decided not to tell anyone of these events. I write them now, old and regretful, soon to meet that void once more.

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The Representative Returned

As if artifice was an answer.

Maguire told me that Leonardo only once painted a portrait to the best of his ability, and swore never to repeat the act, as it drove the man who paid for it into madness to see his beloved wife reproduced so exactly.

I was sceptical. He laughed. As if artifice was an answer, he said again.

The sun was going down behind Donard. The water in the harbour darkened. A ship just in from the Pale was tying up for the night. At the edge of the village, a gang of men were laying off for the day. The creat they were building was nearly done; tomorrow they’d do the thatch. The bare frame of the roof looked more like an unlit bonfire than a house.

He did visit him, though, the man he called the Great Leonardo, spoke with him, in the artist’s last days, propped up in Clos Lucé to receive Francis, king of the Franks.

Sometimes Maguire tries to tell us about the paintings. The halls and halls of paintings, and gold leaf, and mirrors, and books, and lamps of a hundred candles each that hung from the high and colourful ceilings, and he can never manage. He says the paintings were enough to turn your head, that each one was like a whole story, stood in front of you so you could look at it. He goes on about a smile, some woman in a Spanish veil, a look she gave him that near knocked him down. He stares up at the sky, grows impatient. Whatever they were, he obviously loved them.

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Then and now

We heard them when we were young. But we didn’t know then what they were. When Jennifer was fourteen she saw the movie and told us about them. We were still young, we didn’t know. Jennifer had seen the movie and she said she knew, but we didn’t understand what she told us, because we were so young then, and we didn’t know what they were. But we heard them, and Jennifer, trying to tell us what they were because she had seen the movie and she knew, couldn’t. So we heard them, when we were young. But we didn’t know what they were.

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The Ghost

A man walked into a bar and made straight for an empty table at the back of the room. Larson was somewhat worse for wear. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face. He set the hat on the table. He waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Silently, suddenly, the ghost appeared. Baxter, dead for five days, and somehow looking well for it. Baxter, his most hated enemy. Larson knew not to cause a scene. It was happening with greater regularity. As soon as he was alone, and wherever he found himself, Baxter would turn up, just sitting there not saying a word, being dead. On this particular night, in his cups, Larson decided it was time to confront the ghost.

“Why do you do this?” he whispered.

With a barely perceptible movement, the other shook his head.

“Why are you shaking your head? It’s over, don’t you get it? You’re dead.”

Another shake of the head.

“I killed you,” said Larson, trying to stay calm.

Baxters’s eyes moved slowly to meet Larson’s and regarded him with unconcealed contempt. The headshake was more pronounced this time.

Larson felt a chill. His fear made him angry and, snarling, he lashed out at Baxter. His hand went right through him. He drew back, horrified. But the damage had been done. Events were repeating themselves. The room grew dim and he put a hand to his head and his hand went through his head. Then he realised, or remembered, he had no head, no hands, no body, and he disappeared.

Baxter picked up the hat, put it on, and walked out of the bar.

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Kerbstone K13

When it was my family’s turn, we started the carving before the stone was even put in place. Two teams, three in each, under the guidance of the master mason. They were good. They were precise. The way they made it all come so clear when you looked at it. All put out on the stone like that, like someone’s talking made rock.

The rest of the lads were on hunt for most of that summer. After my fall, I got to sharpen chisels.

Otherwise, I just watched. I’d watch my family put down our lives in the stone. Making them part of the stone, and the stone a part of us. Many summers, many hunts, many feasts, so many moons. I count them on the stone with my fingertip, the way the children do. How many people will do the same? How many will come, sit here and count out their moons and years, their hunts, and feasts, and loves, and losses?

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Superior temporal gyrus scan

I stood at the edge of the labyrinth. The one I’d designed myself. At the entrance was a tessellated floor, a pattern easy to remember: eight square tiles alternating black and white, arranged around a central red square. Repeated.

The voice of the brain scan, warm and female, began.

“Black … white … black … white.”

I focused on the voice as it spoke my thoughts, using each word it uttered as a meditative cue. My aim was to create such an entrenched feedback that I would slip into a self-induced trance. A good practitioner could shut down an interrogation scan within minutes.

They knew what I was doing and immediately counteracted. By periodically introducing their own words into the computer they could knock me off balance.

“Branch,” said the woman’s voice, coaxingly. My mind couldn’t help but grab hold of it. Associative words sprouted, I tried to keep them innocuous.

“Leaf … green …sunlight.”

I strove to keep the words above ground, large and unspecific, but they were quick to respond.

“Root,” said the voice, and I struggled to get back to the labyrinth.

“Black … white … root … earth … black … deep … buried …” went the voice, persistently.

The maze disintegrated and they had my secret.

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The Beholder

When the copy was finished, Baudril invited a number of specialists to give their professional opinion of the painting. All three declared it genuine.

The original, worth many millions of dollars, went into the specially constructed safe and the impostor took its place.

As it was on display in his living room, Baudril spent a lot of time looking at the copy. The craftsmanship came home to him. Often he would take the original from the safe, hang it next to the other, and study for discrepancies. He took to using a magnifying-glass. Stroke for stroke it was a perfect reproduction, and not just the painting itself, even the frame, as far as he could discern, was a flawless replica of the original, flaws and all. So overwhelmed by the excellence of the forger’s skill was Baudril that he began to value the copy more than the original, seeing in it a verisimilitude only he and the forger knew to exist. Eventually, for Baudril, the copy became the more precious of the two paintings. It was removed from the wall and locked in the safe; the original took its original place, on the wall.

The thieves who broke into Baudril’s house had information. Thanks to the forger, they knew the billionaire kept a duplicate of the painting. Their information also included the combination to the specially constructed safe. They took nothing else and left no trace. Baudril, when he awoke, was the only one who knew a crime had taken place. Without hesitation he burned the original and informed the police of the theft.

The painting was never recovered.

(This piece is a translation and, in that respect, a retelling of an anecdote related by Louis Gailhan in his Ici et Ailleurs, Une Vie)

Published in Atticus Review, 2013

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