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BLACK CURTAINS AND DREAMS
All day he hid in his room with shades drawn, each curtain pulled tight and pinned, even though he had painted the windows black.
He fought sleep. It was a descent into an anxious world full of foreboding, revisiting the horror of his long life. Exhaustion, as always, won out.
He dreamed of a gray sky aglow with explosions, the cackling of machine guns, the hissing and whining of bullets, of rats running in packs over the bodies of the dead and around the feet of the living.
Once more, that penultimate orgy of gore replayed in his dreams.
He was slinking through the trenches at the battle of the Somme. The battle lasted half a year and claimed half a million men. He was responsible for more than a few fallen soldiers on either side.
When they were shot, he leaped upon them, covered the wound with his mouth, and drained them until their eyes clouded over. Pity the soldier standing by who witnessed his attack; a razor flashed, and they too fell into his arms also to be sapped.
He could move faster than the eye could follow, and the after-image added to the rumor of a murderous phantasm in their midst.
Older soldiers would terrify the younger with stories of a demon among them—perhaps the comrade next to them. More than one was driven to the brink and often over the top by these tales, preferring the sure and quick work of the machine gun to the terror of an even more horrifying death. A few cruel veterans would laugh—until one of their hard-bitten numbers were taken, then they too sat mute in the mire and held their cigarettes with trembling fingers.
During a lull in the battle, he crawled on his belly up and out of the trenches. He recalled the story of Eden, and stifled a snicker that he slithered through the fields to slip the skin of one sort of serpent for another.
At the edge of the forest, he stripped off the uniform—he carried the gear of both armies in his pack—changed, arose and wandered through the woods watchful of cadres searching for deserters. Over hunter’s breeches and boots, he donned a knee-length, skirted, pitch-colored coat. Even in the woods, with war all around, he never forgot or forsook his noble station. He did not notice the prominent red-brown stain on the dress shirt beneath.
A breeze brought a ravishing smell. He followed the scent till he came upon a wine cellar in the side of an earthen mound near Bois d’Eville. The heavy wooden door creaked when he pulled it back. A dozen young French girls and three Sisters of the Filles de la Charité startled at the strength needed to snap the bolt like a match stick.
The wine vault served as a makeshift school where the nuns taught the girls, safe from the incessant shelling. Even in his dreams he remembered how enchanting their braided hair, starched white blouses, and black jumpers were. He had wondered how they kept them crisp in these conditions.
There was an ensemble sigh of relief from them to see that it was not a rapacious soldier but a solitary, dignified gentleman in proper formal garb who had discovered their sanctuary--until they noticed that his blouse was stained red.
But it was his eyes full of undisguised hunger that announced to these virgins their premature doom.
“Please don’t hurt me!”
“Please Jesus, save us!”
One older girl was calm. She stood and spread her arms and looked up and shouted, “Forgive my doubt, my Savior. Protect me in this place!” He went to her first.
They sensed their doom. Most cowered horror-stricken in the corners and prayed. Others scurried for refuge behind the bottle racks. Two brazen maiden ones flung magnums of champagne; fear gave one of them strength to pitch a bulky jereboam of Veuve Cliquot at this devil. He sidestepped them or batted them away. When these daring girls realized the fecklessness of their resistance, they relented, and yielded to their fate. They knelt, blessed themselves, and prayed, but as he approached they covered their heads with their hands and curled up as they had been in their mother’s wombs just before they were born, as we all are, amid blood and screams. They were about to depart surrounded by the same.
The nuns were not spared. He frolicked with one exsanguinated sister, waltzing with her limp body. Having donned one of their cornette winged headpieces, he laughed as he danced, repeatedly humming the few snatches of Liszt’s Totentanz that he could remember, transforming it into waltz time, to accompany this pas de deux with his lifeless partner.
He knocked the wooden stopper from a barrel of 1907 Chateau Margaux and drank from the stream. With his silver razor, he did the same to the youngest nun with the pretty face. Drunk on both, he sat and surveyed this placid ecole that in such a short time he had turned into an abatoir.
He had swelled like a leech, his skin glistened crimson. His eye-whites were brilliant orange.
Happy and full, he turned to leave.
Over a door hung a crucifix.
He had long ago rejected that mute god who had made his son bleed to death in front of soldiers and strangers.
An unexpected and long-suppressed memory flooded through him. He remembered his mother praying with him before he went to sleep, then hugging him goodnight, his kneeling at the communion rail and the crispness of the Eucharist, the otherworldly smell of incense, the purified feeling after confession, the pathos that wracked him when he imagined walking with his gentle childhood hero up the hill to Golgotha.
He looked back at the young girls and those untouched brides of Christ he had butchered.
Something human arose in him, and he spewed up the crimson mess.
He wept red and went round to each butchered body to beg forgiveness.At that moment, he resolved to kill the innocent no more.
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He snapped awake from the pounding from the room above. He must have been screaming in his sleep. Again.
He lay there and brooded on his fate and his choices.
Nevermore to kill his fellow man—indeed if he could still count himself a man. None more—not even the wicked. His abstinence must be absolute. Any exception would easily allow him to slide into his old ways. It would open the door to that delectable feast of the maidens he vastly preferred, that unadulterated burgundy that lay just below the surface—the stuff that raised him up above all others.
Leaving that voluptuous life behind was agony. It had withered him. But he knew that doing it again, ever, would lead to madness.
He had steadfastly resisted the company of young women. The more he wasted away, the easier that became. They no longer turned to him as he passed, or smiled, looked down, then back up at him, with that palpable desire he was used to all his life from women both young and old.
It was not always so.
There must have been an artist in his mother’s womb. From infancy into adolescence, he was adored. Women’s eyes would widen to take in the fine cheekbones, those green almond eyes with flecks of gold, his Nordic-like blonde hair highlighted by the bright blue Transylvanian mountain sunlight. His nursemaid had initiated him into carnal pleasures long before puberty. Many a maiden, more than a few married noblewomen, one princess, and countless menial wenches had gladly relinquished their virtue to him—rather sought him out, cornering him in the alcoves of his father’s castle. With as much practice as he’d had, he became masterful at giving pleasure.
It drove his brothers berserk with envy—even the eldest who would be ruler did not receive nearly the attention and opportunity. They regularly tried to smash those exquisite cheekbones, but he always covered his face when they attacked. His father grinned at the way women reacted to this superfluous son. With such fine features and elegance in the boy’s manner, the old war lord had worried that he might have bred a catamite, but a lad with such a reputation at this fresh age doubtless preferred women.
The opium eater or absinthe drinker, once having got the poison flushed out, does not need that smoke or liquor in order to survive. But he was giving up not only passion and release, but the very food that sustained him. His diet went from princely dinners to the equivalent of gruel, and he suffered from the lack of that particular, singular nutrient.
He had been steadfast for more than three years. He counted the days.
The more one resists addiction, the more desperately one longs for just a touch, just a taste of it.
He had another solace to relieve the pain.
THE FACE OF THE MOON
He looked at his arm and thought of the face of the moon. Craters and mounds, a rivulet of a distended vein leading to a dark pit. When he entered it, it led to a silvery, glowing release and relief, like coming out of clouds.
He assembled the two glass tubes, slipping one into the other. Then he withdrew his needle from the red velvet insert of the box where it lay in its own outlined impression as if it were its own little bed. Time to awaken and dream.
He had stolen two sterling spoons with filigree handles, and had bent the handles so they balanced on the table.
He unfolded the small square of waxed paper and held it so that the edge rested on the lip of the first spoon. He tapped it until half the cocaine precipitate tumbled in. He folded it gingerly and packed it away into the black lacquered box. He added a few drops of water then dipped the needle into the spoon and sucked the dissolved cocaine up into the syringe.
From the watch pocket of his waistcoat he retrieved a white “bindle”—that was the argo for an envelope that holds narcotics. Heroin. Heroic. Tetra acetyl morphine. Transcendent lethargy. Add cocaine and it roused one’s wits to a place that is better, much better, than living.
He had had enough of living. But, try as he might, so far he couldn’t die. He had given up trying.
Half and Half. Half of each. Half for now, Half for later. Later would come all too soon.
He held the other spoon up to the chimney top of the kerosene lamp for the heroin must first boil to do its work. Once again the needle dipped, the plunger sucked.
He wound the belt around his upper arm, held it between his teeth, and, biting down into the leather, pulled it taut, slapped the crook of his arm until it roused a vein, held the needle parallel to the vein and pushed through the skin. Holding the contraption still to keep it lodged in the vein, he maneuvered the plunger backwards. It was an intricate skill that required much practice, and not for the squeamish. It sent a small swirl of blood into the syringe. Seeing this confirmed that the bloodstream had been entered. Releasing the tension on the belt, he depressed the plunger, pushing in the mixture, slowly but not too slowly for fear that a clot might form and clog up the works. He silently reminded himself: get the needle out of the vein and place the apparatus back on the table while still able, for in a moment it will bathe you, purify you, amaze you.
When all your friends have died, you don’t venture to make new friends lest you have to grieve over and over again. When you have been on the earth a very long time, you feel very alone. There could be no better company when alone than making the full circuit connection with yourself. Making ecstasy your companion can make all other company gratuitous.
When the doctor talked of the power that symbols have on our mind, he had understood intellectually. Now he was thunderstruck by them. The addiction was as much if not more to the act than to the potion injected.
This ritual was as if he were sexually penetrating himself. The sight of the blood, the onrushing, near-orgasmic euphoria, flying, free, sans souci, the thudding of the heart. Binding the upper arm, releasing the bondage, he saw this cascade of sexualized images as if seeing it in a penny flip book whose drawings flickered into motion when riffled though.
In the throws and thrills of the short drugged journey, he was overcome by this revelation, now seeing through the glass clearly. He was in awe to recognize that one is always in the thrall of a metaphor buried deep below one’s awareness.
He had been faithful to this penance and numbered the days of the pain since he pledged his abstinence. Each hour he edged toward starvation and derangement. How long could he persevere? Would he hold fast to the last?
Who could help him? Who would believe him?
For centuries he had devoured books to pass the time but more to seek answers to his dilemma, to find some sort of solace in the hopes and tragedies of others, real or fictional.
In a ruined library in Berlin, he found half-burned books about an Austrian neurologist whose patient characterized her treatment as a “talking cure.” He was wary to chance talking about this to anyone.
Twice he had chanced to confess the truth; twice he had been locked in chains in some stinking madhouse. He survived on his fellow bedlamites, dumping their drained carcasses into the latrine. Every time an inmate went missing, his keepers blamed him, whipped him, starved him. But he never seemed to mind, which maddened his keepers, who redoubled their efforts until, to preserve their own sanity, they chose to pretend he was not there, and he slipped away.
In desperation, he boarded a train to travel the 800 kilometers to the city of Mozart, humming Dies Irae over and over again till the other passengers in the compartment sought other accommodations.
From the Vienna Hauptbahnhof train station, he asked the carriage man to convey him to a cheap hotel near the Bergasse. The driver pulled up in front of a decrepit Baroque building and took down the young gentleman’s trunk. A large man, he struggled to get the weighty luggage out of the boot and onto the curb.
“Shall I carry it up for you, Mein Herr?” “No, thank you.” He dismissed him with more money than expected.
He waited until the carriage was around the corner, then picked up the trunk by the strap with one hand, and carried it up the five landings without bending, as if he were carrying a box of tasty pastries tied with a simple string.
He paid the innkeeper before he ascended the stairs. His room overlooked the cabarets and coffeehouses, with the ladies who came out in the evening in attendance –- prowling back and forth or leaning on the buildings at every corner. He would have to blot it all out. But then consciousness blotted out the temptations for him.
Like a cat, he slept for all but four hours per day for five days.
He slipped out at night to pilfer some black paint and material from a theatre. A rodent or a stray sustained him.
He would have to arrange to meet this specialist who he had traveled so far to see. On his next forage, he secured stationery, a pen with two nibs and ink to ask for an appointment.
A week later, he received a reply.
CONTINUED IN THE NEXT COLUMN
Continued from previous column
The bourgeoisie crowded into the Kaffe Landtmann to mingle with the bohemians under the yellow glow of the recently installed electric lights.
Each loved the other--to their faces. It made the nouveau riche feel chic. The promise of patronage made the poets and painters toady to them. Burghers offered a different sort of support to the actresses and sculptresses and, certainly, to other young women whose beauty was their art.
All of them were trying too hard to light up the gloomy dusk on the Ringstraße. Raucous and forced. The loud chatter and steins clinking. Excited on coffee and tipsy on schnapps. The smells and the noise made him grimace. A grimace on this skeleton of a man was startling. But there were many destroyed faces and limbless men who begged for a pfennig on every corner.
The Great War was over, a scant two years and one month to the day that half of Vienna was destroyed. The half that had escaped ruin was another city.
Had they forgotten the unspeakable carnage and friends and countrymen dead for no reason?
Their constant toasting brought bile into his mouth. Loud noise, bright lights—they were needles in his ears and eyes.
Was the gaiety of the crowd a way to repress the recent nightmare from which the continent had just awakened?
Te young nobleman wondered what the doctor would make of his observation.
“Repress” was a new and powerful idea he had learned from him.
He sat at an outside table to distance himself from them, an untouched Kaffee mit Schlag in front of him, He watched the sweet, white whipped cream dissolve into the blackness. His shoulders were slumped, his head held in his hands. His melancholy went unnoticed; it was a popular posturing among artists.
A passerby might have taken him for a shell-shocked casualty. He face was wan, he was ghastly underweight, and his black frock coat hung loose.
The carousers had devolved into singing “O, du lieber Augustin.”
He wished them all dead.
They had no idea how lucky they were.
To the depressed, the lively are always frivolous and insufferable. His sensitivity was real. But he wondered how much was his attitude toward the revelry a defense against his dreadful loneliness?
He sat and waited for the Anker Clock to strike the hour. It was December, and Advent in the very Catholic Austria. Christmas songs would ring out when the bigger hand pointed heavenward. He imagined the lives and legends of those historical figures whose statues paraded out of the clock each hour of the day. Where are they now? Why am I still here, and they are gone?
Even though he anticipated it, he was still startled by the clock. He quickly arose for the thirteen-minute walk to the Berggasse. He was obsessively punctual, and had measured out the time in which a brisk walk carried him to his daily appointment at a quarter past the hour. 19 Berggasse was the home and consultancy of an internationally renowned doctor, a specialist they called an “alienist” — the new term was “psychiatrist.” When he heard the former name for the field, he smirked: the most alienated man alive treated by the most famous alienist.
Quarter past seven was the last appointment of the doctor’s day, but with this singular patient, it often went beyond the shortened hour he allowed for others. Another might have found this allowance curious or flattering, but, having grown up noble, he was accustomed to special treatment.
He did not mind that the doctor was Jewish. He liked that. It meant he had some idea what it was like to be an outsider. And though he imagined that the good doctor probably thought him to be delusional from the wild tales he told, it seemed as if he did not think the young man to be a danger to himself or others.
Little did he realize…
Dr. Freud’s apartments were warm, unique and exotic. Upon their first meeting, the doctor greeted him formally with a bow—this was still an age where nobility was acknowledged. When he returned the bow, the doctor’s eyes widened just a micron in surprise—something that few others would note given the nearly imperceptible instant in which it crossed the physician’s face. The physician could make himself an expressionless blank slate better than any other he knew. But he could read the momentary and minimal of expressions.
This hyper-awareness accompanied by neurasthenia, melancholy and a myriad of other symptoms intrigued the physician. The doctor had had his own black dog nipping at his heels for years.
This “talking cure”which he had developed was one in which the patient freely related his thoughts in the hope of discovering the roots of his or her neurosis. He played “Joseph” to the bourgeoisie, interpreting their dreams to heal their fixations and aberrations. Many thought his inspired practice to be quackery. It was not strictly scientific in a world where the medical establishment saw the body and mind as machinery, and anything that could not be measured was “cognitively meaningless.”
There was a rumor that he had been ostracized by his skeptics from the established medical societies, but it was not so. Yet the legend of his being a pioneer underdog like Galileo or Darwin and spurned by those stodgy and all-too-often ineffectual societies did not hurt his practice. Rather, it drew those who aspired to be in the cultural vanguard to his curious consulting room with the prominent couch at the center.
The haggard young man arrived at the doctor’s door and waited the two minutes till his appointed time before he rang. He contemplated the little talisman that Jews hung on their doorpost, tilted inward as if pointing the way into a welcoming home. The name began with an “m” and had a “z” in it as so many Yiddish words did, but he could not recall—perhaps his mind was slipping along with his body, but he remembered that it was a pleasant word and tickled the tongue; there was an almost humorous melody to the language of these strange folk.
When he rang, the doctor’s daughter answered. Her name was Anna. She took a keen interest in her father’s work and had a brilliance of mind in her own right, far above what one would expect from a woman.
He was relieved that it was she who greeted him.
When the doctor’s wife Martha answered, she averted her eyes, did not speak, but only gestured for him to enter. After he passed her, and she felt safe that his back was to her, she kissed her fingers and touched the talisman—ah, mezuzah! that was the word!—and muttered a few words that sounded as if both German and Hebrew had married one another. It wasn’t that he had “eyes in the back of his head,” but some unnatural awareness hounded his life, and the burden of always knowing the way others regarded him plagued his mind and was part of his misery.
The first time they met, Anna smiled slightly and slowly cocked her head, as if to study this gaunt young man. Others would have taken this as coyness, but he had been studied before and knew the look and the tilted gaze. He avoided it.
The fragrance about her had always been a light lavender and rosemary. But tonight he detected a different scent that surprised him. It was a parfum of the body rather than that purveyed by the perfumier. He often detected it when women gazed at him overlong.
She was dressed in the fashion of the day. Hair bobbed and short, a loose shift-like dress with flared pleats from the thighs to below the knees.
There was no hint of a bust line unlike the days before the war.
He mused that the accentuation of the breasts satisfied two needs that helped the species survive. It let a man know that the woman could nurture children. And, of course, the thrill of fulfilling his hungry lust.
Neither were women immune to such cravings. When he had had more than one woman in his bed, they were invariably beguiled by the other’s breasts, even when their preference was not usually for their own kind.
The doctor had suggested that it was thus for a reason somewhat below the surface—where the unknown motives lie. Breasts were our first joy and nurture, and our first disappointment when weaning stole them away. Through a haze of cigar smoke, his new friend had professed his radical theory that our first sexuality was in sucking and biting. The doctor’s original ideas fascinated him.
“Some sherry this evening? Warm up the chilly night? We have some fragrant tea!”
They went through this ritual each evening. Her genteel hospitality followed by his apologetic demurring. Then she would say that it had been another long day, and, excuse, please, but she would be indulging.
When she turned away to the drink cart, he spied a photo of her and her father he had not noticed before and picked it up to study it. In the picture, she was dressed in a polka dot dirndl with a white apron, her hair piled atop her head in the style before the war, a picture of domestic femininity and filial devotion. The style was quite a contrast from current couture. Perhaps women now dressed and styled their hair as they did to look more like a man. A fitting response to the theory that women had smaller brains and were not a man’s equal. Such fashion and coiffure made them less alluring. Although, it did make them easier to converse with and share ideas since it quelled the urge to fixate on the bustier—though even the most proper mind would eventually cloud with fantasies when a pretty woman was about.
He smiled to himself at this little revelation. Perchance the insights of Die lieber Doktor were having their effect on him.
He was so caught up with his musings and the charm of the photograph that he did not notice that she had turned back toward him. He was rarely taken by surprise.
“Oh, don’t look at that old thing!” she pleaded. “I was such an awkward young girl and that dress makes me look like a peasant from the Alps.”
He set it back on the shelf, and feigned appreciation of the Beaux-Arts frame. He scanned the ornaments, artifacts, and photographs that revealed much of the learned household. The expressions in some of the photographs intimated some of troubles of this family. Better than staring at his shoes like an abashed schoolboy which she might have interpreted as inattentive and rude.
If he had looked at her, looked into her eyes, all would be lost.
With an askance glance he noted her lithely lower herself into the red velvet Victorian chair with her knees together and toward him. He would not have expected such poise in a female intellectual-- rather sturdy shoes and owlish glasses. She was the portrait of enticement and propriety.
Since he would not look at her, she took the opportunity and license to take him in without reserve.
She did not deny the turmoil his presence caused her. A rigorous honesty about her thoughts and desires, admitting the truth of them to herself at every turn, had been instilled in her since she could speak. Her father’s doing. This mind-churning, ongoing analysis was sometimes a benefit, sometimes an annoyance, and often an impediment to spontaneity. In the last few years, since her father had formally started to analyze her, her scrutiny of details had become razor-sharp. Her concern that this scrutiny cut both ways had become obsessive.
She could therefore not ignore that for months now, every evening, at quarter past seven, when the doorbell rang, she felt her nipples harden and her pulse quicken.
She shook her head at this betrayal by her body. She thought of that dog in the Russian experiment.
In her father’s study, alongside busts and paintings of Hindu goddesses, Buddhas, and African totems, was a painting of The Christ. Father referred to him as “my Jewish friend.”
The man in front of her could have sat for the painting.
His Jesus curls smelled like opium and musk.
His debilitated state made her want to comfort him.
Her maternal instincts and her arousal brewed in the same pot.
She smirked to herself, “What would father make of that?”
She felt her cheeks. They were hot. She feared that they showed red. She comforted herself that he would not notice.
She recalled a line written by that peculiar American poetess, the one who was surprisingly insightful given that she had cloistered herself in her parlor, the one who she read with such ardor. “The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care”
More often, it wants what it can’t have.
She would have preferred not to care
The silence and their struggle to ignore what was happening between them drove him to the sanctuary inside his mind.
In a moment of fugue, a delusion came to him. This one seemed more real than others had lately.
This proper young woman in front of him was transformed, the long skir split to the thigh, the revealing blouse, the pearls. She began to sing and dance seductively.
Their outstretched arms, hands entwined, paused for a moment of the heavy rhythm. He reeled her in to him crushingly close. to the rhythms of the Cayengue tango, the style he learned in the low bars and whorehouses of the Nueva Pompeya barrio.
The dance was part knife-fight, part despair, but it was always a drama about unrequited passion.
The Spanish lyrics rushed at him “Many years have passed. Him in his flashy suits and his wild delusions He haunts the gin-mills like a scourge of God. Sad and alone, past his prime, with defeat eating at his soul, An empty suit, condemned, And when he hears an edgy, swaggering tango he recalls the past.”
At the last chord, he pulled her hair back, arching her back and readying her throat for a deep kiss.
But the woman bore no resemblance to Anna.
Anna’s voice cut through his daydream. She had never seen such heartsick reverie.
“My dear Count, are you quite well?”
He closed his eyes, breathed slowly and deeply, looked toward the coffered ceiling.
“So sorry. Just a small excursion of the mind. To a place best left behind.”
He felt the heat coming off her.
To be in an enclosed space with such a brilliant person who was available and attracted to him was unbearable for him.
Every moment of the day, he begged just to make it through the next few minutes.
And now, in the place where he sought help, was a nearly overwhelming temptation.
He dare not look.
But then, being swept away by that which we cannot resist is heaven itself—and hell, too, of course.
As if in a trance, against the shrieking protests of his mind, he eyes began to rise to meet hers.
They both smelled the cigar before they heard the doctor’s voice.
The doctor burst in through the white double doors.
“Mein Herr Graf Tepes! Guten abend es Ihnen! Please, come through and we will talk. Thank you, dear daughter, for entertaining the Count.”
Anna, her back turned from her father to the drink cart, poured herself more sherry. She knew that he knew that she was hiding. Sometimes it was stifling to live with someone who could nearly read your thoughts. She knew she must face him, and turned round with that demure and impermeable mask; she had gotten good at it after 25 years of practice
She also knew from her father’s outsized greeting that he too smelled something in the air.
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THE VIOLENT HISTORY
AND REPENTANCE OF
by John McMullen