From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Début-de-siècle

“Do you know what we should do?”

Vine-creeper-curls of smoke unfurl from Siegfried’s nostrils. They spread across the space between us and into my eyes and nose. I cough, hacking, water-blurred vision, everything swimming in front of me, uncertain. Siegfried’s question, however, is rhetorical. He shakes out his newspaper and turns it so Ernst and I can see it. He points to a column of dense ink on the front page. The words, “Artist found dead,” perched at its top.

“We should find this man.”

“As your first port of call, I would suggest the morgue.” Ernst, dark-haired, thick moustache well waxed, beard cropped short, eyebrows poised like vultures, leans back out of Siegfried’s cloud of acrid, herbal smoke. Leather creaks beneath him. He looks amused, replete despite his narrow frame.

“Ha!” The noise is like a gunshot from deep in Siegfried’s barrel chest. Smoke billows from him. He claps a hand onto Ernst’s shoulders. Ernst rolls his eyes but remains as jovial as he is likely to ever become. Then, abruptly, Siegfried’s demeanor changes. He leans forward, shaggy dark mane of hair hunched around his shoulders. “This is the third time,” he says. “Three men: two artists, one composer, all Jewish, all dead. The killer carves a symbol into their chests. It is the work of one man. We should find him.”

“Why?” My voice slips from between my lips, my mind is elsewhere, still fogged by the previous night’s excesses. I shield my eyes from the daylight that leaks in through the café’s open windows. Outside, pedestrians and carriages look flat on Vienna’s streets, like paper cut-outs in a child’s play. We sit apart—critics; players in our own distinct play.

“Why?” Siegfried is outraged, almost on his feet. “The impetus of forward motion! Imagine if we do nothing. Every artist spread upon the floor, some madman’s symbol emblazoned upon them. His art ending theirs. Every musician’s music halted at the command of his knife-bladed baton. Every philosopher—”

He carries on in this vein for quite some time. Ernst catches my eye and yawns elaborately.

Siegfried pretends not to notice.

“Enough,” Ernst says finally. “We understand. Why always this need for excess? This is the very thing that ruins your artwork. Demonstrate a little self-restraint for once.”

“I am sorry,” Siegfried says, and he is not, “that I cannot bring myself to censor myself at the behest of some bloated overlord.”

“Gentlemen—” I insert. But the differences have been brewing between them for too long.

“That I can exercise enough competence at my job to meet an editor’s requirements is a guarantee of my success. That you cannot recognize it as such is just another indication of your doomed future in this city. I have no time for this fool’s errand of yours.” He drains the last of his coffee, black and bitter, its scent biting through the stench of Siegfried’s cigarette. He pushes out of the booth and towards the two dimensional figures of the world outside.

Siegfried harrumphs and snorts at his retreating back then turns to me.

“He will calm down,” I say.

“I do not care what he does.”

“As will you.”

“Forget him.” Siegfried exhales more smoke. “Now let us discuss the capturing of this villain.”
I wave my hand weakly.

“I have my commission,” I say, apologetically. “I have my own deadlines too, and my progress is still slow.” This is a generous description. For four weeks the blank canvas has regarded me with a baleful blind eye. It taunts me without words, mocks me without expression. It is the void into which I pour my creativity. The flesh husk that remains grimaces at Siegfried: an attempt at a smile.

“So be it, my friend.” Siegfried sags momentarily then puffs back up again. “Still, I will not be to blame when they find your corpse on the street floor.”

“You will not find it,” I say.

“How so sure?” Siegfried, thrusts forward, chin pointing accusatorily. “Unless you are the murderer?”

“You forget, friend, I am not Jewish.”

* * *

The sun is stark, everything thrown into startling contrast, black shadow on bleached white. Men and women promenade at respectful distances. They are neatly starched and pressed, turned out for display. They move in straight lines, as if on tracks. I weave between them, momentarily falling into step behind one man and then spinning off onto another’s path. Not a single eye turns towards me, my paint-stained suit, my disarrayed hair, my creased skin. Their disdain is noticeable in the absence of their gaze.

The bank looms before me, encrusted with age. An architectural abomination, imitations of pastiches piled upon each other. I only wish I could call it an aberration but it is typical. Instead it is Olbrich’s Secession building and its ilk that are in the minority, tender flowers clinging desperately to life in this weed-choked city.

The bank’s doors do not welcome me, but I push through anyway. The cavernous interior space arches up and away from me. Several stout city guards survey with a certain amount of suspicion but none of them accost me. A young woman asks if she can help me, though her tone makes it clear she believes me far beyond any help she can offer. I inform her that I know the route to my father’s office quite well enough and she backs away. I feel her distrustful eyes linger on my back.

I knock on the door and sepulchral paternal tones invite me inside. He sits stooped over his desk, overshadowed by his chair, framed by bookshelves and ledgers, the backdrop white light painted on the glass of his windows silhouetting him.

“Herman, please enter.” He cannot even attempt familiarity these days. “You are keeping well I trust.”

“I suffice for the present.” Lines of familial connection seep from him and arrest me, mold me, fix me, push me. I battle these invisible manipulations, becoming a caricature of myself. It is his power over me.

“That is good to hear.” He nods curtly. We sit in silence.

“And you?” I ask after a while.

“Well. Yes, well.” Another peck of his head.

“And mother?”

“Well. I believe.” His mouth twitches a smile in response to my evoked petulance.

I scan his desk. “Where is mother’s daguerreotype?

He pauses fractionally too long. “It fell,” he says, “cracked. She will be sitting for a new one.”
Then, deciding that we have paid enough lip services to social contracts, he asks, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Herman? You are absent from us so often these days.”

“I need supplies,” I lie.

“Supplies?” A minimal movement of a single eyebrow.

“Pigments, brushes, certain oils.” My hands wave, dismissive.

“For the commission?”

“Of course.”

“How much do you need?”

I name a sum as large as I dare, and he acquiesces without a word. He dips his pen and scratches out a check. He prepares to sign it but hesitates.

“How goes the painting, Herman?”

My lip curls. “Well.”

“Herr Bohm is eagerly anticipating his first viewing.”

Herr Bohm—the tourist of the new, the indulgent merchant, condescending to patronize me after my father’s long years of massaging his fortune.

“As long as he is willing to overcome your generation’s preconceptions and embrace the new, he will not be disappointed.”

“I am sure he will be happy with it.” The head bows back to the check, and the final pen flourish is made. He holds it out to me and I reach to take it but he will not let go. His eyes survey me, my clothes, my crumpled form.

“I know you don’t think much of me, Herman,” he says, voice suddenly low and thick. “That is the prerogative of youth. But don’t be too hasty to reject my generation entirely. We have made mistakes, yes, but we have some wisdom as well. I hope you see that.” He releases the check and I snatch it, unable to slow my fingers.

“You are quite alright, aren’t you?” he asks as I move to the door. “There has been news in the papers of a killer.”

I manage something close to a laugh. “Do not worry about me, father. Why, indeed, this killer should fear me. Siegfried and I intend to catch him.” I posture bravado, feeling foolish, lying so.

“You shall do no such thing.” His voice snaps, his beard quivering. “If you ever have the misfortune to learn anything more of that man than you read in the newspaper you shall proceed immediately to the police. Do you understand me?”

I laugh again. This is my power over him.

There is a rap at his door and I take it as my cue to leave. Flinging the door wide, I reveal a beautiful woman tightly wrapped in her clothing. She clutches a stack of musty folders to her chest. She gives my father a curious glance as I walk away. It is only as I reach the end of the corridor that I hear their laughter trickling after me.

* * *

There is no path forward. All that lies behind me culminates in this: this nothing, this empty space devoid of paths. My paint brush hovers unable to draw its own way. How long have I stood like this, posed, trapped in stasis?

The future. That is my commission. To paint the muse of what is to come. Herr Bohm’s offer and curse, given to me with an insidious smile and the promise of a sum only made believable by the salon I sat in. I could not refuse.

I shall not receive my fee.

There is a pounding at my door and it shakes me from my frozen pose. The paintbrush clatters to the floor. I go to see who it is at this late hour.

Siegfried stands there, flushed, his fist raised to once more assault my door.

“Herman! Friend! Sir!” And then, with a wink, “Gentile!”

“Come in.” I step aside to allow him entry.

“In? But there is no time!” He pulls me back toward the threshold. “No, it is you who must come out. And quickly, my good man.”

“Whatever for?” I feign bemused reluctance but his certainty is infectious.

He raises a theatrical arm and booms, “Fraulein Cortez.”

“Who?”

“Get your coat, Herman. I shall explain upon the way.”

Purely for a sense of decorum, to demonstrate to Siegfried that he cannot simply barge in and presume to disrupt my evening I begin to prepare some delaying tactics, but the cast them aside. Why deny the impulse? Why give in to outdated social contracts? Is it not the spirit of the secession to find new ways? I gather my coat while Siegfried obtains us a coach driver.

Seated in the back, Siegfried lights one of his potent cigarettes and passes another to me. I light it and feel the smoke swirling down and down inside of me, filling me, inflating me. I am a paper lantern aflame in the night, a spark of brightness in the city lights, floating and bobbing in the shadows.

The city floods past us, whorls of society men, society women. I float on the river of their bodies, Siegfried’s spirit blowing me where it will.

“Fraulein Cortez is a miraculous woman, rumored to be of Romany extraction.” His voice is a syncopated beat, a skittering trumpet against the groundswell strings of the city. “She knows things forbidden to mortal men.”

Smoke moves in and out of me.

“She can contact spirits from beyond the grave.” The trumpet glistens in the city lights, beckoning me ever on, drawing me with it.

“We will speak to the spirit of the murdered artist while it still lingers on this plane, and he shall identify his killer. All shall be success and we shall be free of this stalking shadow.”

A triumphant fanfare. A blaze of fire.

“I say. I say!” Siegfried calling from the carriage to a man in the streets. A new instrument, a dischordia, an oboe playing against the trumpet. Its face is familiar.

“Ernst!” A familiar name.

“What are you doing here?”

“Search . . . for . . . ” I cannot answer.

The trumpet and oboe sing their songs. The carriage carries us further on and then I am descending. Or the world ascends… The orchestra hushes and walls raise around me. A room, a cavern, candles and strangers in a circle.

The conjuror: majestic, tallow-skinned, her frame swallowed by reams of golden fabric. She sings her own song, unfamiliar chords and rhythms, a new song that denies Vienna.

And now the smoke breathes me—in and out and in and beyond.

Time passes, walls crumbles, glass cracks, falls, splinters swallowed by the tide of weeds and grass, trees rising even as wood rots, the endeavor of this city rejected in one vast uprising. And as the city falls, the music swells, the conjuror woman’s unearthly tones swelling, erupting, a mad pipe tune whistling between the ruined avenues. And here comes the piper, Siegfried, his goat legs tapping to his own tune, his prodigious circumcised phallus exposed to the unbound elements. The populace follows, naked and howling their lust and violence, their ecstasy of the flesh. A madness, a release, a rejection, everything hidden beneath the shutters of this city brought out into the light. My father and the woman who stood at his door are naked and thrusting in a fountain that pumps wine six feet into the air. My mother, with a single sword blow, opens them both from brow to breast.

A few stand against Siegfried and his inevitable march. Ernst is among them. They come at him, reigning down blows, but a blast from his pipes opens them, and their organs bloom from their chests. Flowers erupt where their blood touches the ground.

* * *

The present, the now, comes back to me with the flicker of sunlight though my studio windows. For a moment I am gripped by the conviction that I spent the night painting, but then I look up and see the blank canvas standing watchful over me.

Unable to bear its gaze, I stumble back to the café. The city bewilders me: its choreographed citizenry, its stage-set architecture, the coquettish whispers from its unseen wings.

I try to hold an image of Fraulein Cortex in my mind but she sputters in and out of my memory, everything blurred and false. Damn Siegfried’s drugs. Maybe I should ask her to pose, to be Bohm’s muse.

Siegfried is waiting in the cool shadows of the café. I am sitting opposite him before I see that his face is contorted by bruises.

“My God, man, what happened?”

He regards me balefully from behind his black mane. “You don’t remember. God, you were far gone.”

Guilt suddenly grips me. “I did this?”

Siegfried snorts. “No, it was that fool, Ernst.”

“But why?” I cannot comprehend the reason.

“Because he is a close-minded philistine.”

This is a little strong, but I can forgive Siegfried, considering his state. “What could have provoked him?” I wonder aloud.

“I do not wish to speak of it.”

“But—”

“I should go.” Siegfried stands. “I have an opening tonight and the gallery owner has more enthusiasm than sense. I should ensure that he has not made a mess of things.” And with that, he stalks away.

* * *

I seek out Ernst at the offices of his newspaper. They are small and reek of ink, trapped on the upper stories of an unattractive edifice. Still, it gives Ernst and his colleagues a fine view of the city that they criticize—attacking with bombast its outmoded bureaucracy and its poorly hidden depravities.

I find my friend sitting at his typewriter, talking heatedly with the German, Rudolf Kraus, their art critic. A tremor of nausea shakes me but Ernst has already seen me with his one good eye. The other eye is almost closed behind a purple-yellow clot of swollen skin.

I shake my head. “What did you two do to each other?”

Ernst glances quickly at Rudolf. “I do not wish to speak of it.”

Rudolf smiles. “I shall leave you two alone. But, Ernst—you will be there, tonight?”

“Most certainly.”

“Excellent. Many of the city’s most powerful men agree with our vision. You will make good friends. Unity is the only answer.” Rudolf smiles again and claps me on the shoulder. “And you, Herman, I can only repeat what I wrote about your paintings last month. Quite extraordinary.”

“I . . . ” I begin, but he is already walking away.

“You should foster his support,” Ernst says, nodding at the German’s retreating back. “His star is rising and his opinions reach many an ear.”

I shake my head. “The work he saw was derivative at best. I am a mockery to the secessionist movement. He was being polite.”

“Nonsense. He is not polite, he is honest. It is one of the Germans’ more admirable qualities.”

I hold up a hand. “Enough. I do not wish to speak about painting. I wish to speak about you and Siegfried.”

“I am as reluctant to speak of it as you are to speak of your art.”

“But what happened? Did you provoke him? He you?”

“I do not wish to discuss it.” He pushes a hand through his oiled hair and regards his typewriter. “However, if you are willing to speak of other things then I have an interview to go to, and I would appreciate the company along the way.”

Glad for the distraction from my malevolent canvas, I agree. We descend to the street and, with his angular arms uncharacteristically exuberant, he tells me of the politician with whom he is to speak.

“He is very forward-thinking. He sees the future and it is Germany. We Austrians must abandon our thoughts of independence. The Hapsburg empire collapses and our nation is flailing out, obeying only its basest impulses. We are unable to carry ourselves in a fit manner and that will be our downfall. United with Germany, with the Kaiser’s guiding hand, we shall not only survive but flourish.”

This spiel is a familiar one, its ethos spreading through the city like an infection. I nod and smile at the appropriate points. After all, I do not know the answer. Perhaps he is right.

Still, I will not be dissuaded from my course and after I judge sufficient time has passed I ask again, “What led you and Siegfried to blows last night?”

“I have told you, I do not wish to speak of it.”

“Why were you even at Fraulein Cortez’s last night?”

“Do you not remember? Siegfried’s drugs will be the end of you. It was certainly not my idea to attend the séance. I was on my way to the Opera when Siegfried hailed me from your carriage. He was conciliatory and I thought perhaps we could repair the breach in our friendship so I accompanied you. I wish I had not, for at the gypsy’s den, he proceeded to cross all boundaries of taste and decorum. That is as much as I shall say.”

“What did he do?”

Ernst stops walking and takes hold of my shoulders. “Listen to me, Herman. Those people, gypsies, Jews like Siegfried, they shall drag you down. Avoid them. Abandon them ”

“But,” I laugh, “Ernst, you are yourself a Jew.”

“I am no longer.” He looks at me defiantly. “I am no longer Austrian. I am a German, whole and pure. I consider you one too.”

I laugh but see he is serious.

“It is the way of the future,” he tells me and leaves.

* * *

In the following days I see little of either of my friends. I read Rudolf’s review of Siegfried’s exhibition. It is scathing and cruel. I seek my friend at the café, but he is absent from his usual seat. I travel back to my canvas and stare its unblemished surface. I still think of asking Fraulein Cortez to sit for me, but I do not know how to go about contacting her. Siegfried was the one who knew the way to her. Every time I think to try him at his home guilt overtakes me and I return to stare at my canvas. So, I travel back and forth, from studio to café, trapped in a familiar route, achieving nothing.

Finally, after a week’s absence, Siegfried is back.

“Where have you been?” I ask him.

“Reading!” He thrusts a book at me, something to do with interpreting dreams. “It is phenomenal. The author lays the psyche bare. He exposes our masks for what they are. It has changed me.”

“You seem in remarkably good spirits,” I say. “I feared you were wallowing in despair after Rudolf’s review.”

“That fool?” Siegfried bellows laughter. “He is too busy defining rules for our art, trying to delineate and ensnare it. Our art is evolution, it is change, he cannot contain it and what he cannot contain he despises. His disapproval is arbitrary and meaningless.”

“You took it well then.” I smile.

“He denies his own id.” And then, off my confused expression, he again thrusts the book at me and says, “You must read this!”

“Alright, I will. I will.” I take the book. “Now. Please, you must tell me, where can I find Fraulein Cortez?“

Siegfried gives me an odd stare.

“The gypsy, the spirit woman,” I explain, more urgent now.

“Do you not read?” Siegfried asks me. “Are you utterly divorced from events in this city?”

“What?” I ask him.

“She died two days ago. Murdered by our man.”

“No!” I am dumbstruck, mouth agape and silent. My hope, my glimmer of direction cut loose and sent astray. The light in the paper lantern is snuffed as it floats away towards the oblivion of the canvas void.

“Yes!” Siegfried reaches into a pocket and produces a battered piece of paper torn from a newspaper’s column. He reads, “—was found in her chamber, the killer’s familiar sigil—a broken cross—carved into her chest.”

“We must stop him.” I say, still aghast at this disaster.

“There is truth in our dreams.” Siegfried taps the book that I have placed on the table in front of me. “I have read about how the natives of the New World smoke certain drugs and go on quests in their dreams, searching for answers to the questions of the mundane world. We too must quest, must find this killer. And who more likely to be found in the dream world than someone who was powerful in life in the ways of the spiritual? We will quest for Fraulein Cortez herself!”

He continues like this. I nod and smile, after all I do not know how to proceed. Perhaps he is right.

* * *

I am of the smoke and in the smoke and it is in me. We float, languid, in and out of our lungs, encompassing the room, then sucked back in, encompassing the building then back, the city, then back. I am in streets, cobbles, buildings, the architecture spread out before me, the city center rotting and collapsing even as the edges strive outwards, until the weight of the city is too much for the earth to take and it cracks and crumbles and buildings and citizenry tumble pell-mell, hell for leather, down, down, down, into smoke and fire. I am the smoke, above and below, I see it all, know it all. I see the new alignment of the streets as they fall to earth, the regimented criss-cross lines arranged in the pattern of a broken cross, a pinwheel that obliterates landscape, trampling hills, filling valleys in its insistence of being. The people collapse into tidy rows and are immediately commanded to their feet, the voice sharp, quick, demanding. No-one dares disobey. People move as one, processing to the city center, from which the voice emanates. The smoke follows, fascinated. It sees its mother and father, hand in hand, marching. Its mother acts out a smile as the woman from the bank marches alongside its father. The marching becomes faster and faster, carrying the citizenry towards Ernst, for of course it is Ernst, at the city center, shrieking his orders. Stretched out before him is Siegfried, prostrate and bound, so only his face and his cloven hooves show. Then Ernst plunges a knife deep into Siegfried’s chest, tearing skin, and muscle, and bone, scratching that pinwheel cross irrevocably into him. And Siegfried screams, and he screams, and he screams.

* * *

There is the smell of meat and the buzz of a fly—a small insistency in my ears, a nagging wrong-ness that drags me back out of the abyss and up into the city real. My body is thick and useless, a flopping flesh marionette. My eyes are crusted shut. My flailing hand finally picks them open. I am in my studio again. Seigfried’s book is in my hand. Across from me lies Siegfried.

Siegfried covered in flies.

Then I smell the meat stench again and gag.

How long have I lain here? How long?

The floor around him is slick with blood. It is on the walls. His chest is opened. I reel back and the flies take to the air. Amid the mass of bone I see the familiar pinwheel cross carved into his flesh.

As I flee the room I notice that not a drop of blood has stained my canvas.

* * *

Ernst is not at work. I tear through the city, through looming façades and carriage crowds. I must know. It could not have been him. And yet, perhaps there is truth in dreams. Could I have seen… I couldn’t have seen. Dreams occlude and obfuscate—smoke and candlelight, paper lanterns winking in the night with a knowing nod to the masquerade. I cannot be right. But I must know.

My fist pounds at his door. He answers, bewildered at my insistency. Taut faced, unsure whether to spit invective at my poor manners, or to be concerned.

“Where were you?” I grab him by his lapels, shake him. He pushes me from him.

“Calm yourself! I have guests.”

“Where were you?!”

“When? What is all the about?” He adopts bemusement.

“Last night. It’s Siegfried.”

“I told you last time we spoke,” he waves a dismissive hand, “be done with him. I cannot help you if you tie yourself to him and his depravities. You will all sink.”

“He is dead.” I search his face for pity or guilt. There is only my flat reflection in his eyes.

“That is unfortunate,” he says after a pause, “but nothing surprising. It is no great loss to the art world. You saw Rudolf’s last review.”

“Is that all you can say?” My breath is ragged, my nerves as frayed as my fingernails.

“It is one less Jew in the world.”

“You are a Jew!” Tendons stand out on my neck. Spittle stains his immaculate collar. Ernst flushes. He grabs me, pushes me back with shocking strength. His face is inches from mine, livid. He speaks in the voice of my dreams.

“Never call me that again!”

There is a noise from down the hall. We both turn. There is a man in a doorway and it takes me a moment to recognize my patron, Herr Bohm. He holds a book in one hand.

“Is there something the matter?” he asks. Then he spies me, “Herman?”

Ernst releases me.

“Herr Bohm.” I nod.

“It is nothing,” Ernst says. “We are friends. I have not seen Herman in quite a while. I was a little… exuberant in our greeting.”

Herr Bohm remains impressively impassive at this claim. “Will you be joining us too, Herman?” he asks.

“No,” I say.

“Well, I’m sure I shall see you soon, Herman. I am looking forward to seeing my painting.”

“Of course,” I grimace a smile. “It is proceeding very well.”

“That is excellent to hear.”

Ernst is already half way down the hall, away from me, turning towards Her Bohm. He sees the book in my patron‘s hand and asks, “Where did you find that?”

“On your shelves, Ernst.”

They withdraw and I only glimpse the cover of the book but my blood runs cold. It shows a large stained-glass window. The main motif in the glass is a cross, broken to resemble a pinwheel.

* * *

The detective who takes my statement is a small, impassive man, who dispatches his men to various locations with the indifference of a general drawing battle lines on a map. Some go to my studio to claim Siegfried’s body, others to speak with Ernst, others to check the validity of my claims. I sit, small and desolate in the office, wrapped in the smell of paper and cigars. I have followed my father’s advice and sought out the police. After all, I could see no other way forwards. Perhaps he was right.

* * *

I sit alone in the café. My coffee is as cold as the seats beside me. Siegfried is dead, his memory scrubbed clear from my studio walls. Ernst is in jail and awaiting his trial. There has not been a murder since his arrest a week ago, and that seems evidence enough for the journalists. I have had no dreams. My canvas is blank.

Eventually the hour forces me to leave the café. I wander the streets, fingering the cigarette in my pocket. It is the last memento of Siegfried that I have. I found it trapped between two floorboards, missed by the police.

The streets are as pristine as ever. Formal crowds move from theatre to opera house, voices kept at a respectful murmur. Horse hooves resound primly on the flagstones. But behind the shattered windows red lights burn low and dull, and no one can tell what they do not see. The irrepressible urge can only be held back so long. It must uncoil, unfurl, reveal itself, like a breath of smoke on the night’s air.

I pass a store upon the window of which someone has painted in red, “Do not buy from the Christ-killers.”

I should talk to Ernst. I should explain and give him the opportunity to do so. A madness in this city has gripped him. Maybe he knows what it holds for our future.

Instead, I light the cigarette.

I walk where the city takes me, listening to its music swell, a formal waltz, strict tempo, conservative. Everyone steps in time to the rhythm. On their faces is a mixture of dedication and fear. They dress in black and white and red. When someone stumbles from the rhythm the others descend, an impenetrable mass, obscuring the offender, then they step away as one and the offender is again back in step, his or her face a little paler, his or her movements a little twitch-twitch-jerk-jerk falling, the rhythm driving them on.

As the darkness thickens on the city the people carry candles so they can still observe each other closely, but one by one the candles die and all is night. Then the piper plays his tune and now all the joy is gone from Siegfried’s dance. His blood and his happiness have flowed from him. Around me the dance steps falter and the waltz and the pipes battle, but in the darkness the conductor can no longer command his troops. The pipe music swells, its song bludgeoning through blackness and the footsteps falter, then become a cacophony, a riot, everything blurred, undistinguished, feared. Breathing—hard and close in my ear. A scream. A gurgle. Warm wetness on my skin. And I am dancing too. How can I not dance? We all dance even though we long for sleep.

When the light comes, the streets are slick and red and we dance the conductor’s waltz through the gore, careful to keep time.

* * *

With the morning comes sobriety and the news: Ernst is dead. I wake in bushes and stumble out of a small park, picking leaves and brambles from my hair. As I make my disheveled way back to the café, I hear two men speaking of it. A waitress confirms the story—he was found in his cell, his chest defiled in the now familiar style, the word “Jew” scrawled on the wall in blood. The police have taken an official position of embarrassment.

My last scraps of certainty desert me. If not Ernst then… And it was I, I who brought this to pass, who brought Ernst to the killer’s attention. For once Ernst’s name had been in the papers then, of course, so was his religion. “The Jewish Jew killer”—how the society men and women loved a hypocrisy that was not their own.

I did this.

I did this . . .

Realization like the first brush stroke on a canvas.

Who was alone with Siegfried the night he died?

And not even I can account for my whereabouts last night. Last night when I planned to visit Ernst.

I am not a Jew. I am not a gypsy.

I did this . . .

* * *

The small detective looks at me. Slowly he extracts a cigar, cuts it, lights it, and blows smoke at me.

“Where, sir,” he asks, “do you get the gall?”

“Pardon me?” I am not familiar with police technique but I suspect more outrage at my crimes that this polite disdain.

“You come here a week ago and claim testimonial evidence that your friend is a murderer. It turns out you are lying. Now you come to me again, with an even more preposterous lie—this one rife with descriptions of your abuse of drugs—and you expect me to swallow it whole. I repeat, sir, where do you get the gall?”

I splutter.

“I should arrest you for your flagrant self-centered disrespect but I fear it would only waste more of my precious time. Remove yourself before I lose my temper and give the sound thrashing you so desperately need.”

I can only obey.

* * *

The streets. The streets again. Always on the streets moving somewhere but only ever arriving at the same destination. Do any of these roads leave this damn city? Is there a path that does not turn back upon itself? And if not, where can I find the knowledge to build my own? I cannot even paint myself an answer.

I see a group of young men, somber-faced throwing stones at a shop selling kosher food.

I see my father and his bank girl walking parallel down either side of the street, eyes fixed on each other.

I see nothing else.

Am I the killer? If so, can I be stopped? And if not, who can find him? In a city so adept at hiding things from itself he can run loose indefinitely, only stepping forward when he chooses. A perpetual fear.

Darkness embraces the city and still my footsteps fall, hollow, echoing, chasing each other, all sense of direction given up for lost. I cannot even find my way back to the blank canvas.
The echo of my footsteps is not quite an echo. It does not ring true. I turn around. A figure of shadow stalking me. I turn back to my path and quicken my pace. My false echo quickens too. Somewhere, someone shouts, “Jew lover!”

The city starts to slip past me. My feet move faster and faster, so does my pursuer. The city flows, changing but never ending: shops to mansions to shops to houses to hovels to the shells of factories, but never ending. The moon rises and never falls.

My pursuer is gaining ground. I am not the killer. I am just a fool with no future.

Yet the urge to survive, born and bred through the generations, from cavemen slaving in the dirt, to me, indolent and refined, will not sit quiet. It pushes me on, takes me to one of those great, crumbling edifices of industry and I climb through a broken window into darkness. My pursuer is quick behind me and I hear his feet and his breath as I dash through moonlit space, crashing headlong over boxes and obstacles. I am bleeding and ragged, his feet on my heels.

Through a door and into blackness—pure and unknowable. The door swings shut behind me, but I know that he is here with me. I make a dash one way, my feet thundering on the concrete floor. I hit something unforeseen and crash downwards. It is easy for him to hear me, follow me, swift in the wake of my noise. I feel his hands on me, the stirring air of his knife slash. Somehow I break his hold and fumble away in the darkness.

All is silent.

Then I dash forwards again and the scene repeats except it is harder this time to break his grip. He is growing stronger, more confident. His blade opens up my arm.

Then, again, I am free and alone in the pitch black, on all fours. I listen for him and cannot hear him, but I know he is moving around, searching for me. Each time I plunge forwards, heedless, I am in danger, but if I stay here in stasis my discovery is inevitable. I cannot afford either choice.

Instead, I stay on my knees, slowly creeping forward, one hand stretched out, feeling for obstacles before I meet them.

* * *

A canvas standing on an easel in a studio. The artist is nowhere in sight. It shows a single hand reaching out into darkness, fumbling, pursued, fearful, but always with the glimmer of hope that there is an exit.


Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He lives on Long Island with his family and keeps 80 monkeys chained to typewriters in his garage. He passes their work off as his own, selling it to places like Behind the Wainscot, Fantasy Magazine, Farrago’s Wainscot, and Electric Velocipede. Their less coherent meanderings can be found at The Rambles of My Headspace

Tagged as: