by RW Spryszak
I forced myself back to the cathedral of St. Thorfinn. I had to go. It was unfinished business. Like rain when it doesn't fall. Like threat against the state. Like a weak fist.
I return because I know the glass coffin will be returned to the holy city in two days and I had only prostrated myself before it once. Once is never enough for the saints. They are as jealous as their God. I have to go. But I am weary. I am tired of fighting this thing that I have. This thing that possesses me. The sickness that has ruled my life since there was only a shell of a man in my clothes. The twisted disease of not being able to forget. The curse or remembering everything.
I've tried to talk it out with Alice but it is too late and I know it. I neglected her and sent her away when she did nothing wrong. She did nothing to me. She did not expect to be so dismissed. And, when I look back over the years, I sometimes find it hard to understand why I did what I did. How could someone as thin and pale and sick as me refuse the company of one so beautiful?
She was so beautiful. This Nordic maize colored hair and her green eyes. Slender and tall. Graceful and pleasant to look at. A gentle nature too. And a sense of humor. This was the essence of her soul, if souls we have.
There was no reason to send her away. No reason to stop our love. Our friendship. That which seemed like the perfect life before us. But I did it. I did it and I did it with a fearsome energy. A fierce heart. And heartless, then, after all.
Now she is in a sack by the window where I keep her during the day. Near the radiator. And I grieve over it. It would have been better, I think, if I'd killed her. You should understand - I didn't kill her. I am responsible for some things but not that. When I sent her away she had her life. She forgot me. Or, I should say, if ever she remembered me it was with scorn and hate. But no, I didn't kill her. in fact no one killed her. She died by nature and nothing else. It was years later when I found her, and brought her back with me. Because I was sorry, and remain sorry, for the terrible thing I'd done to her for no good reason. This, and much more, is what I seek absolution for.
The next day was the last day of the visitation by the saint in the glass coffin. The Holy Woman of wherever she was holy. I did not take Alice with me. My plan was flawless. By leaving her near the radiator I would not tire my large muscles. Therefore I would be able to set the candles straight. The monks watch the red sand and guard it with jealousy. Like the saints and their God. Religion is a jealous thing.
It was a liberating thing to do this because it was not my usual way of going. I always took her with me and was proud and happy to show her the sights. But I felt, and said to myself, maybe this time I will go alone. She's done nothing wrong and the holiest of all beings sees and hears all. He knows what I've done. I left her by the window where it was cool and cracked the window open just a bit so she could see better.
I was determined to make my final apology. Throw myself on the saints and priests and monks and all else available for mercy. So from the moment I crossed the threshold from the street into the vestibule I went to my knees. And I stayed on my knees the whole time. I got into line on my knees. I walked on my knees. Hands folded in perfect prayer position. All I wanted to project was the outward, physical showing of my sorrow and penitence. No pride. No ego. Nothing with money. And plain clothes. Plain clothes and brown shoes. And no whiskey either. Sober. Sober as a wrench in the moonlight. Solemn and humbled.
Most people did not bother to notice, as each of us came there out of our own private hells. Those that did notice, and some who pointed at me and smiled, were fakers anyway. Not fit for true blessings, I imagined. Religious for show. Those who do not take the principles of their faith into their lives. Those who scorn others for the color of their shirt. Those who put worms on hooks and mix the forbidden fabrics in their shirts. Let them laugh, I said to my imaginary Alice — because she was under the window by the radiator — let them go. They'll get their reward. Faith is all about others getting what they deserve. And I was well-practiced in this.
The progress was slow this time. Anyway slower than before. My knees buckled twice with sharp pains and I almost couldn't support myself. But I managed. I walked on my knees to the foot of the coffin, praying most of the way. Wishing I could go back to the past and try again. To not send Alice away. How better it would be if I did have the malady of those young men by the river and the walls. That would be nothing compared to this, and at least they could experience a momentary cure. Find some relief. Get succor and quiet their minds.
I put my hands on the cool glass and stared at the moldering saint inside. I think they'd put on a new coating of wax since the day before. I couldn't be sure. Something was different and new. It stopped me from my earnest prayer and I didn't know where to look.
Then I realized what was different. The daughter of the saint in the glass coffin was watching me from a door that led to her chambers. The well known Marta Vansimmerant. She who was the only child of the sainted woman laying there. She who accompanied the glass coffin wherever it went with the sanction of the holy fathers. A daughter of both the saint and the church. Living proof that the Holy Woman of Wherever had been real. Her sanctified mission. Dressed in black. Hollow eyes. Old but still young, somehow. She stared at me as I made my effort to pray on my devastated knees. The blains. The shooting, arching stab in each one. My offering. My penance.
When I finished my devotions I struggled to my feet, unhappy. Even resigned. I knew I'd done all I could do. I did not feel relieved of my burden. Like the lightness of confession when transgression is clean and you are free again. No earnest need to repent and make good, in gratitude for the weight being lifted. No. I felt nothing. Achieved nothing.
Marta Vansimmerant watched me at every step until I was out the door. Her eyes like claws.
If I stood before the window. No. I did stand before the window. The radiator pipes knocked as the heat went on. It's an ancient sound the others find quaint.
If I stood before the window on my return. I returned from the cathedral of St. Thorfinn of Hamar. It wasn't up for question. I was there. I am there still, in some sense. I don't know why I question myself. I don't know why I say ‘if'.
I stood before the window and did not see Alice. The brown sack. Burlap. Sometimes gray. Whatever it was. The sack was gone. Funny how only then did I notice the mud on the carpet and the blood on the door knob. I saw none of that coming in. Perhaps it wasn't there then. I don't know.
The radiator knocked as the heat went on. Alice always liked the sound of the air going through the pipes. Like a low hum from a motor. Like a fan of endless white noise. Somehow a comfort. Man has conquered the world and so there we are with comforting sounds not part of nature that we made. They help us to sleep. She liked that. She liked to curl up inside her sack and listen to the air go. I would put jelly on white crackers and watch her do it. So I know.
But she was gone. I left her alone and she was gone.
They took her and I stood before the empty window where a sack used to be full of Alice. I have a headache. Then it is gone. I lose my sense of timing. Is it now or then? Alice is gone and there are clues leading to the conclusion that while I was away someone took her. They were bleeding and had mud on their shoes. I was so proud that I would leave no clues for the police if ever they searched my rooms. Now the clues belonged to someone else.
My bedroom is dark. There is one pillow. A green blanket on a single bed. The window. The brick wall of the building next door, across the gangway. No clock. There are no clocks because my apartment is simple. I already explained this once to you. There is a small table and a chest of drawers. I have socks there. I don't recall if I mentioned sweaters.
I know what I own. I know what belongs to me. So look around, I instructed myself. Look around and see if there is anything here that doesn't belong to you. I said this to myself as if scolding a child. Impatient with the little one's obtuse demeanor.
I fall on top of my blanket and stare at the ceiling. The ceiling is white with little rosettes spinning in the distance. I must think. I hear music. Then I don't. But I know I must make a plan to save Alice. Clues. There are clues. And I should concentrate, but there are pictures two inches behind my forehead. Terrible pictures of Alice and what they might be doing to her. Whoever they are.
There are evil men in the world who see a dead woman and think this is their chance to violate her. She would never give in to them alive. Not my Alice. But now that she is dead, they think they can do what they want with her body. This is the sickness of the world. I sit up and put my feet on the simple floor. I must get going. There is no telling what they'll do to her. I must save her from it. It's why I put her in there in the first place. I must get control of my mind. It floods fast. This is what happens without a bag of Alice by the radiator.
I shouldn't have sent her away. There is nothing worse I could have done to her sweet nature and gentle voice. Her green eyes. The rhyming runes she spoke in. The smile. Her dirty feet. A face of gold.
It rumbles around in my head, these cats of light. My skin crawls. The window opens. There are ants. But also mud on the floor. Leading from the door to the silver painted radiator that clanks when the heat goes on. Footsteps occurred. Footprints they are. They are not mine. What isn't mine is a clue. How did I not see that before?
Brazen and brash like a dried river running right from the world. One, two, three. The thief appeared at night when he knew I was away. Sidebar. High train. Low road. He waited, of course. They watched me to see when I left her unprotected. Someone was watching. Are they still?
The thought of someone watching made me want to dance. I cannot scratch my chest hard enough to stop this itch. I'll sleep on it, says I. Let the mind grow. That's what happens. You figure out things when you sleep, they say. I swallow a yellow tablet and return to the covers I tossed and scrambled on just now. Clothes off to the cool feel. The blank pillow. Salty eyes and tight covers. The sleep of the dead. Let the brain work itself out. The best thinking is the unworking kind. Before you were born you knew nothing. There was nothing for you. This is what death is like. Nothing any more. And sleep is preparation. The ruminating columns of color hopping up and down the scale while the music goes. This is dreaming. And dreaming drives the train. I need to sleep so that the dreams may instruct me.
If I sleep.
If I sleep before the open window there will be risks.
The night passes. There are violins. I know nothing.
I awake to nothing. My open window tells no secrets. There is no breeze of a summer morning. No birdsong on the rooftops or from the worm offering ground. I am used to the sound of traffic on the high road. But there is nothing to hear. No sound of city buses. No cars pushing or trucks hogging. There are no airplanes overhead.
My apartment with no books or radio sits in a pool of no motion. Even the sound of a neighborhood door or floorboards overhead are missing. There is no crank and groan of small minded men playing narrow games in faded gray factories.
There was a drum going. I floated out of the room like an antique cartoon, all black and white ink in the film click jerks. A classic wave along the nothing air, sniffing the warm scent of cartoon food. To the seductive snake of a foreign piccolo. Down the door and out the walk. Through the nothing going on to something near the river. Hypnotized, baptized, realized, stigmatized. The Nordic drum amazed.
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