The Glass Dagger
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side.
«But,» he said, smiling a little, «I believe, in reality, you don't love me.»
«Of course,» she said, «I hate you very much.» He stood out on the balcony that overhung the canal. The afternoon lay in a broad sheet across the water which, once the sun moved below the western buildings, would grow sober, equally impenetrable. It was not a surface ever to be seen through, it must be taken on trust. And so too perhaps the somber cool young woman who lay in the rumple of sheets and pillows, their bed of love, looking at him sidelong as did men of his acquaintance with whom he gambled.
«No, not hate. Nothing so intent. You like me, you enjoy me, somewhat.»
«And you, Michael, take me much too seriously.» She rose from the wave of sheets, shaking back her black hair that was neither luxuriant nor very long. The warm sunlight described her as she would have described a subject in one of her own illustrations. A slim body, quite strong, of course not ugly, but hardly luscious, or perfect. Her face might have passed unremarked a million times, and had done so. Her eyes were oddly shaped, very dark, but often lacking luster when she had worked too hard at her paintings or been locked up too long in the dusts of her sculpted stones. Her hands were graceful, but rough and calloused; they passed over his pampered athlete's body like sandpaper.
He was a fundamentalist; he had never fussily asked of himself why, from the instant he beheld her, in blank, unmagical daylight outside the Temple-Church, he had wanted the artist Valm'e: her. He was handsome and rich, an aristocrat, a foreigner, much pursued. He had had many women. He could have, within temporal reason, almost anything he desired. And in this way, desiring her, he had got Valm'e also.
She had arrived calmly, in cotton gloves and a washerwoman's dress, with a straw hat on her head. She entered their liaison without demur, willingly but not eagerly. Her work she continued and he would never have dreamed of attempting to prevent that. Though he did not understand it, or even especially value its results, her talent was obvious—besides, others too thought so. She was independent, and perhaps this was part of her allure. Though probably not. It seemed to Michael Zwarian that if he had found her begging in a market, able to do nothing but whore, he would yet have had to have her.
As it was she came to him a virgin. An accomplished practiced lover, and in all his physical beauty, he rode into the kingdom of her body sure that through this alone he could make her love him. He had expected her love, for love had always been given him, usually unasked. But though he was innocent of complexity he was not a fool, and by now he knew. It was established between them. And his sad joking on her balcony was not an appeal or a test of her. It was if anything to show her that she need not pretend. And she in turn was too courteous either to protest or to confirm. In her bed (hers, like this room—she had refused to leave them) he might give her pleasure, if she were patient enough to allow it.
Today she had wanted to return to her folio of work, seven ink drawings for a volume of poetry. She had been glad to please him , as if he deserved it for his niceness to her, his good heart. And she herself had said, «Forgive me, I haven't the energy. I'm content. Bless you,» and kissed him. And now she had begun to dress, wanting him to go away, but not to hurt or offend him. So he said, «Well, I regret I must be off. Tomorrow evening, you'll dine with me?» And she, rewarding his tact, replied that she would happily be present, she anticipated it, she might relax then, her labor completed.
Outside with him he carried away the image of her ordinary body captured in the vast tilted mirror beyond the bed. This held too the perpetual exact image of the canal, the far western bank, the sky. So he had seen her, in the glass. Had he looked at her in the flesh in that last moment?
Zwarian's carriage trundled down a cobbled alley, following the canal to its source, the river. One day soon, discounting tradition and having no one to answer to, he would want Valm'e not as mistress but as wife. Would she refuse, or would her avowal be as benignly unimpassioned as her mistressdom? It was not that she used him (he would never forget the first trinkets given back, apologetically, sternly). She did her best. She had never loved anyone else—except once or twice creatures on paper or in marble. He went to supper in a tall house near the Angel, where pretty women stared at him in astonishment, blushing and fretting.
Valm'e's room was L-shaped; beyond the crook of its arm, and behind a screen, lay her studio. Two or three figures always stood in it, silent attendants on all her doings—they were larger unfinished works, one of which would occasionally be completed, only to be replaced by another. At present the god Dionysos dominated the chamber, draped in a sheet as if the City sun would never be divinely warm enough. The walls were covered in sketches, and a few paintings of which Valm'e was fond. A stove, now cold, and a huge worktable holding a convention of paints, brushes, pencils, papers, rags, and implements, apparently of torture, occupied the remainder of the space. There was no window, but in the ceiling a round vent brought down the light to make a blazing hole as though into another dimension.
Valm'e, dressed now for her trade, did not at once go to the seventh illustration propped up on its board. Instead she moved about the studio, silently realigning herself with its inner structure, as if she had been several months away. On these returns, there were always certain objects that she touched— the Dionysos now, inevitably, a particular ink drawing of towers, an ivory elephant… things that held an intimate reminder. She was very private, Valm'e, and even her few acquaintances, even her lover Zwarian, who had sometimes looked on the studio, knew the personal significance of scarcely anything. One item, though, which was seldom on display, Valm'e had recently begun to remove from its box, holding it up into the well of daylight. This she did now. In her hand it was a shard of burning nothingness, a sort of hard-edged flame. To glimpse it in this way was to be entirely puzzled as to what it might be. And when she lowered the thing, it gave off a flash like lightning, striking the walls in a flaming cartwheel, before going out. What was this apparition? Was it some magic trick learned from her wretched beginnings in the slums of Paradys?
Her father had been a priest. That is to say, was suspected of being one. Her mother's husband, a bookseller, had caused them to exist in a strange, dim gray artery of a street, where he crouched over his wares, and drank heavily, selling virtually nothing. Into this grim life, somewhere in the intervals of boiling turnip soup from half rotted vegetables gleaned off the market floor, and applying ointment to the bruises he gave her, Valm'e's mother absorbed a child. The only man she might have been said to spend time with (including her husband) was the priest. His church stood minutes away from the apartment above the bookshop in the artery. He was old, but very strong, and things had been said of him, once or twice. Valm'e's mother's husband suspected some discrepancy, and unoriginally struck her, but she too was strong, and he weak. That his wife carried the bastard of another man, probably a religious one, fueled the drunken bookseller's self-pity. He was enabled to become for himself a character in one of the books upon which he crouched like a gargoyle on architecture. «You know what she has done to me,» he would say to fellow drinkers in the tavern. Meanwhile the woman had instinctively gathered about herself the impoverished and tangible wives of the district, who, as they assisted her over her pregnancy, became a fortress of chignons, skirts, and aprons. Giving birth amid a thorn hedge of women, she had nothing to fear but the dangers of parturition, and these her tough body refused.
The child, Valm'e, emerged then into this world where women were reality, and men soulless creatures, monsters, myths.
Of course, the drunkard hated the child that was not his, but some indefinable moral sense kept him off her in the first six months. By the moment, therefore, when, at her baby's fractious crying, he turned on her, his arm upraised, the woman had reached a momentum. «Touch her, I'll kill you,» she said, and in her hand was the knife from the turnips. As he moved, however, she did not after all stab him to death, which would have sent her elsewhere, and so deprived her child, she caught him instead a blow with the side of her fist on his nose. It bled, he fell. And lying on the floor, he vowed to see to her. But Valm'e's mother answered, «No, we'll have an end to that. I've had enough. What are you, you sniveling bottle? What have you ever done for us that gives you the right of violence over me, or her?» «Not given her to you, surely,» he said, through the blood. At that she laughed. «No, squeeze you and only cognac would come out. Think what you like,» she said, «touch her and you'll never touch another thing in your life. They'll have you out in a box.» She was strong, he weak, and this, at that time, enough.
It would come about, in later years, that the drunkard, by then reduced to total sponge, would fawn on his wife in company and out of it, praising her, saying she was his rock, saying he would be dead but for her, and perhaps all this might be said to be true. He never again raised his hand to her, or the child. He ceased to curse her quickly too, for that alone did not satisfy. He dropped easily into the role of the pathetic, guilty, and useless, surviving on the kindness of his wife. For her part, she went on feeding him and securing his clothes, she took in sewing and even began to sell cheap novels in the shop (from such works he hid in fear), thereby making an income for them all to live on.
Valm'e had the little schooling that the nuns could give her. She showed an interest at six or seven in the Virgin. She began to draw the Virgin, taking strange, lovely, unblasphemous liberties with her garments and symbols. The drawings were re-markable, said the proud nuns and the proud mother, in the way partial teachers and parents always do. But it happened that, in the case of Valm'e, they were correct.
At twelve years, the scrimping and saving of her mother put Valm'e into a school of art across the river in the old Scholars' Quarter. Among the quantity of pupils, only five were females. On this distinction, most of them rose and sank, but Valm'e paid no attention to anything that did not have to do with her work. Her reading improved, that she might read books on her subject, while to her tabulated species of the male was added one other, the Tutor. Those whose tuition she found valuable became nearly real, for Valm'e. The others, like the pupils, she dismissed. None of that made her popular. But in the end this did not matter. For once, the best was also the most influential. These powers protected her and, at the age of fifteen, she emerged from the cocoon with remunerative and creative work already before her.
Five years after this she was able to buy for her mother a modest house in the hills above the City. Here the dregs of the father swiftly flowed away, mopped up finally by the healthful air, the pure food, the gentle lowing of cows and white meandering of sheep. For herself, Valm'e acquired her apartment at the canal, her reputation as an artist, her consolidated and pleasing life. For pleasant it was. She liked to be alone, for her solitude was never unpopulated by anything except the human race. The aspirations she had observed in other women— to be feted, to be adored, to mate and to produce small toy replicas of themselves—Valm'e lacked. She did not even deposit in her room a cat, to act as surrogate for these things, although she was fond of cats, spoke to them on the streets, and fed such strays as occasionally haunted the bank of the canal.
One morning she had gone to church, as she did three or four times a year, to absorb the embers of windows, the music, the genuine excellence and truth of the teachings of Christ— which did not affect her in any way but the intellectual, as a perfect mathematic would the mathematician. Coming out of the Temple-Church, she was met by a tall and handsome young man in exquisite clothing. He delighted her eye. She stopped and allowed him to speak to her. Economically, he apologized for his approach, expressed a desire to walk with her, and being permitted this, gradually, another desire to take her to dine. Valm'e had been propositioned by one or two others, though possibly by more than she had noticed. She had fobbed them all off. Now it seemed to her that perhaps an affair might be of value to her, extending her perceptions. To his riches she was, and remained, impervious. She saw no want of them, she had what she needed. As for his looks, although they had arrested her, as a masterful painting would have done, they evoked no fleshly response: She could only, if she had to, place Michael Zwarian in the category of the Mythical Man. She did not think he would like her for long, and was surprised when he neither tired of her nor imposed upon her. For his tact in every area of their relationship she came to value him somewhat. But only for himself. If he had left her, she would not have mourned. He did not enhance her life, merely added to it elements she felt she did not properly require, and sometimes, momentarily, he cluttered her. But he deserved only good of her, like her mother, and to both she was dutiful, the one because she was real, and the other because he tried to be.
She had been—the accepted term—Zwarian's «mistress» for two years when they were strolling one day together through the long traceries of shops below the cathedral. It was his intent to buy her a present, hers to frustrate him. Already there was a basket of dark grapes, but on this they feasted together. At the bangles, silks, even at the books, she stared as if such items were incongruous. «You'd let me think you live in a cave,» he said. «So I do,» she said. He was subtly persuading her toward a place where artistic materials were sold. Here she might give in. He did not want to buy for her such stuff, but would consent if she would. Then, under an awning, there was a pheomenon, a glass window full of glass. It was so odd, it caught her eye, Next, the colors, clear, smoky, chemical, and ethereal at once. «Something here?» he asked her gently. «No,» she said, even more gently, for he made her impatient. «But to paint such a thing.»
So they stood gazing at goblets and vases sucked out of the sky and the river, from various drinks and ichors, some mingled.
It was not allowed, to go into the shop. She would be off if he suggested it.
Finally, she said, «Michael, what is that? Isn't it a knife made of glass?»
«Yes,» he said.
«But what use could it be?»
«A glass dagger,» he said. «I imagine one would be able to kill an enemy with it.»
The dagger of glass lay on a cushion of black plush. Where the other objects of the display were made of colored, perhaps liquid, emissions, this one thing had been cut from sheer air. It was hard, not fluid. Yet, colorless, it was hardly there. She could not see any ordinariness in it, for first of all she had assessed its parable, though not to understand the meaning.
«This you'd like,» said Zwarian softly. «Let me—«
«No, of course not. You're already too generous. No . But tell me about it.»
«I don't know anything. Shall I find out?»
«I'm so thirsty,» she said, and turned from the window.
So he must buy her crushed fruits in a common glass, not the paradox. That once, he went against her. Part of his tact maybe, to judge where he could overstep the mark, or rather what might be essential enough she must accept…. Luckily no price had been displayed on the dagger. It was costly. Probably she would guess, but had not seen.
His note, which accompanied his gift, relayed this:
«The proprietor was vocal on the dagger. A century ago they were, he said, in vogue at Rome and Venice, the weapons of assassins. The blade kills, much as a shard of bottle glass can. The top and hilt can then be smashed with a stick, leaving slight evidence to the undiscerning. At least two hundred skeletons, according to my informant, lie in Italianate mausoleums, with such glass blades wedged between the ribs, and lacking a handle. Dearest, be careful of the point, which really is quite sharp.»
It was this, then, this dagger made of harsh and tactile air, which Valm'e had taken from its box and lifted up into the light, flashing and dying, like a flame.
Why should that be so? She had never attempted to paint the dagger. She kept it close. Had it become for her a cipher of what her lover should have been? Not necessarily noble, handsome, or wealthy, but an enigma, transparent and merciless, blazing and incalculable, the instrument of sudden death, and mystery?
«You'll come to the theater?»
«Perhaps,» he said, because they hemmed him in. He did not want to go. A walk along the river alone in the dull lamplight would have agreed with him better.
«Yshtar is singing in the comedy.»
He had heard of Yshtar (who, as was the fashion now among artists and performers, went by one name only).
«Very pretty, I believe.»
«Oh, a sensation. Not a hoyden. A woman of class. A lovely voice, and the whitest arms, palest hair. They say she's parted from Dauvin. Naturally, how could that grocer keep her?»
At the Goddess of Comedy they watched two acts of a play with songs. Michael Zwarian was bored and restless, but his good manners kept him by his companions. In the intervals, they drank champagne. In the third act, Yshtar appeared. She portrayed a Roman priestess in a charming, inaccurate costume, whose main function was to bare her arms, feet, ankles, and half her breasts. She was indeed beautiful, an amazement, and with a delightful voice. Zwarian was impressed by her, as most of the City had been since her advent half a year before. He had never seen her, as it were, alive, although he had read of her in the journals, most especially the flighty Weathervane , whose proprietor was said to be one of her patrons.
«We'll go backstage before the last act,» said Delorette. He knew Yshtar, at least had met her. She was, he said, yet more wonderful when seen close to.
If Zwarian felt anything at this moment, as he was towed behind the towering bulwarks of the sets into the warren of the hinder stage, it was curiosity. He was not considering the actress Yshtar as a woman, or even a female creature. She was a marvelous waxwork that lived.
Her dressing room was cramped and shabby, crowded with stained mirrors and fly-blown, candle-spotted velvet, but freshened by torrents of flowers sent up that very evening by admirers.
The maid admitted them, reminding Zwarian of the brothels of which he had heard but to which he had never had recourse. It amused him, and also he felt sorry for the singer. She was like a poor lily put out for insects to crawl over and try to feed on.
Then she emerged from behind a partition.
She was clad in a satin dressing gown that fulfilled the rules of decorum as the costume had not. Her hair was still pinned up in the Roman mode, and her face was garishly plastered with the cosmetics demanded by her role. Through this mask the gorgeous, flawless sculpture of her face and neck, her lips and eyes, looked out like unsullied swans from a thicket.
«Gentlemen,» she said. She appeared neither pleased nor offended, in fact immune, but kind, mild. She would not hurt them if they observed the boundaries.
It was easy to be taken with the actress Yshtar. She favored none of them especially, was gracious to all. She declined to have supper with Delorette, although he was so insistent. (She allowed Gissot to joke about writing a play for her.) Only as they were leaving, just before the last act, giving her merely five minutes to don her concluding costume—she did not, either, try the trick of putting it on behind the partition in their presence—only then did she offer Zwarian the faintest and most insubstantial smile.
He stayed for the last act. As he watched her on the stage, he wondered if it would be possible to strike a bargain with her. She was, he thought, primarily a woman of business. She had no heart, only some dainty, strong silver clockwork that ticked away in its place. Her own talents would gain her whatever it was she desired. But she would presumably like money, provided it were coated with delicacy, offered via a placid etiquette, to match her own.
He grasped exactly the spirit of Valm'e's past from the very little she had told him. She had had to work for everything she found valuable. She had never had to work for the attentions of Michael Zwarian.
The affair of Yshtar with Michael Zwarian was somewhat talked of, as was inevitable. (Valm'e's attachment to him had scarcely been noticed.) Meanwhile, he did not see Valm'e, although he sent her a very courteous letter, explaining that although he would not be intruding on her time, he was, should she want his assistance, always her servant and her friend. With the letter he sent no form of money or expensive present, which she would have disliked, only a basket of fruit and flowers. This the artist painted. In reply she sent him a letter even more courteous than his own. If he had tried to frighten her with the loud whiff of desertion, she seemed not to mind it. She thought of him most warmly, she said, and with gratitude for his many generosities. She did not think she would need to call upon his assistance, but as a friend she would always remember him, and wished him well as such.
Zwarian was not yet daunted. He had expected nothing else. Nevertheless, even expecting nothing else, perhaps he had hoped for something else. Would Valm'e, hearing of his attentions to the actress, fastidiously brush him off the cuff of her life? He did not actually enjoy the sense of manipulating her. He became impatient, and sequentially, a few hours after, the lover of Yshtar.
There was a summer storm of great force. The sky cracked and roared and pieces of it seemed to fall dazzling in the canal. Seen through the casement wavered by the downpour, the water boiled in the rain, while on the skylight of the artist's studio a herd of crystal beasts galloped ceaselessly by.
She had lit the lamps, it grew so dark. And yet the energy of the tempest, penetrating like a germ, sizzled in the air. Restlessly she paced from the fluttering dimness of the studio to the angle of the bedroom, longing perhaps to run out into the cauldron of wet and galvanism. But some veneer of decorum did not let her now, when three years before, probably, she would have had no scruple.
How strange. Surely she had avoided convention. What had changed her? Could it be her short time with Zwarian had done this? Insidious, then, maybe to be feared. It was as well he had, after all, grown tired of her and taken up with his actress.
The rain stabbed down. It wounded the canal over and over.
Valm'e conceded that she was becoming absorbed by the idea of the woman called Yshtar. She found she thought of her often, and never having seen her, formulated idle pictures, both mental and on paper, of her appearance from description. There was, it seemed to Valm'e, a momentary intimacy between them. For Zwarian had known the flesh of Valm'e, and now embraced the flesh of Yshtar, and this provided an infallible, if curious, link, as though indeed the two women had lain together face to face and breast to breast, naked on a bed. There was to this nothing either sensual or homosexual. Yet it was immediate, and constant. How can a man take the impress of a lover and not carry away some of it, like the mark a shell will leave in sand, which the new consort must sense stroke against her, as they couple?
Perhaps she should visit the theater, and watch Yshtar at her trade. That would be difficult, however, without an escort—and of course now she had none. Besides the vapid sugar of the plays in which Yshtar practiced did not appeal to Valm'e.
The rain continued through the night. It washed the heat from Paradys, down her towers, along her roofs and walls, and through her gutters, Unseasonably cool, the morning.
Five weeks after Zwarian had left her, held in that season of cool and filmy weather, another letter was brought to Valm'e. It was not vulgar, not scented, and yet a reflex in the handwriting gave it away. Before she opened it, the artist knew she had hold of something of Yshtar's.
«Mademoiselle, it has been suggested to me that it would be useful to my career at this time to have painted a portrait of myself. Your name in turn was recommended, the freshness of your work, its faithful yet unflattering likenesses, which I have myself seen and been moved by. Your fee is yours to state. My agent will attend to that. I hope most sincerely that you will be able to undertake the commission, and trust that you will not find it inconvenient if I call on you tomorrow at the hour of eleven in the morning. I am, mademoiselle, very truly yours. Yshtar .»
There was no question or offer of evasion. Like an empress, the actress presented herself, inescapable, and sensitively tactful as only such authority demanded.
Then again, Valm'e had no wish to evade. To her slight surprise, her pulse had quickened. She was to meet, here in her «cave,» her lover's lover. She was to see her, hear her voice, was to be given indeed the ultimate power over her, that of painting her picture.
Could it be Yshtar knew nothing of her connection to Valm'e? Or had she too been drawn to see the ghost of the shell?
Rain was falling, and the City was a wet slate where nothing could be written, when Yshtar's carriage entered the yard below the apartment. Shielded by a manservant's white umbrella, Yshtar entered the building. Five minutes later she stood in the L-shaped room.
«It's very kind that you should allow me to call.»
«You gave me little choice,» said Valm'e quietly.
«My God, is that how it struck you? I'm sorry. If you prefer, I'll return another day.» Yshtar too was quiet and composed. Naturally, she said without a word, I must remain.
«Naturally, you must remain,» said Valm'e. «Do sit down. Will you take coffee or tea?»
«A small glass of kirschvasser, if you have it.»
«I do,» said Valm'e. She kept the liqueur on her sideboard in the corner opposite the bed. Had Zwarian told?
Yshtar wore a pale-gray dress, white gloves, a hat with a smoke of feathers. In her ears were silver chains of pearls. That was all. Her skin and hair, her garments, were in accordance with the weather. How does she garb herself in the heat of summer? In winter?
After they had sat in silence a long while, the actress sipping her drink, Valm´ coiled in her chair, studying her, Yshtar finally spoke. «Will you be able to grant my request?»
«Probably. I must discuss the fee with your agent.»
«I have his card here with me.» The white glove laid the small card on a table, where it might be picked up or not as the artist chose.
«Why,» said Valm'e, ignoring the card, «are you disposed to favor me? My name's scarcely well known.»
«Perhaps,» said Yshtar, with total un-bad taste, «I can make your name for you.»
«Yes, that's a chance. You're very beautiful and your bones would be a challenge to anyone, and your pallor. One of the oldest exercises, mademoiselle, is to paint a still-life, lilies, and clear glass on a plain table napkin. White on white. Who,» said Valm'e, «is the portrait for?»
«For myself. But obviously the theatrical management is interested in it. A classical play, something in the Greek mode. Will that be possible?»
«You would make,» said Valm'e, as if hypnotized, «a sensational Antigone. But could there be songs in such a play?» She added to insult.
«They would be written especially,» said Yshtar, implacable. «But you must be a reader of minds, mademoiselle. That's the very part.»
Valm'e said, «You'll hang at the end.»
«Off stage,» said Yshtar.
Valm'e thought her a worthy opponent. She gestured to the bottle of kirschvasser, the bowl of almonds. Disappointing her, Yshtar shook her head. She said, like a princess, «I may come to you, then?»
Valm'e felt a deep masculine surge. Again, it was not sexual, but it caught her, was not deniable.
«I'll look forward to it, mademoiselle. Whenever you wish.»
«Tomorrow,» said Yshtar.
She sat for her portrait for two hours almost every day, between noon and two o'clock. If she was unable to attend the studio, a message was brought around at about ten. Valm'e became apprehensive until this hour was passed. Then she would begin her preparations. At twelve, Yshtar would manifest in the doorway. Her clothes were never the same, but for the sitting she would put on, behind the ebony screen (while Valm'e prepared coffee), the Antigone costume, with its clusters of unreal but creamy pearls, its darted pleats. Her flax hair was already in the Grecian mode.
They spoke very occasionally throughout the sessions. Yshtar might eat a candied fruit, sip coffee or water—never again the social kirschvasser.
Valm'e wore always the same dark smock, striped with tines of chalk, clay, oils.
They never mentioned Zwarian.
The painting, beginning like a scatter of pastel seeds, the faint outlines of the map of a garden, gradually blossomed out in tones and contours, colors and form.
Valm'e was excited by the canvas. It seemed to her the finest thing she had fashioned. She would not let her sitter see the work; Yshtar obeyed this stricture without a hint of unease. When the actress was gone, punctually always at two, Valm'e would labor on at the picture, perfecting, exacting from memory every iota she had missed in present time. In the night, wakened by rain upon the skylight, she would get up, light a lamp, prowl about the picture, the brush in her hand.
She has known all along that he and I were lovers. Didn't she place before me the clue of the liqueur? And how else had she heard of me?
At three in the morning, under her lamplit parasol of roof and rain, Valm'e stood considering the portrait she made of Yshtar. Soon—four more sittings?—it would be done. The task would be over. And what then?
As the artist worked, the actress sat, each woman had maintained her trance, with only those occasional movements, words. Now and then, Valm'e had crossed the room to rearrange a pleat of the Antigone dress, to draw a highlight onto a coil of hair or jewel. The body of the actress she never touched. She was not afraid of the firm muscles and damask effect of Yshtar's skin. But it was as if she knew Yshtar through. It was as if Yshtar were her own self, a reflection: altered, new, the same. And Michael Zwarian the pane of glass that separated yet made each one accessible to the other.
Shall I confront her? What shall I ask?
How beautiful she was, there was no need to be beautiful oneself if such stars rose from the mass of humanity.
Valm'e studied the lines of the painting. As she had studied the face. As if in a magical spell. Surely, surely she had captured the soul of Yshtar.
Standing before the conjuration of her own sorcery, Valm'e felt start up in her a winding wave, emotion, thought, part unidentifiable. She had never felt it, its like, before. She clenched her fists, and in the right of these the sturdy paintbrush, pointed forward like a weapon, snapped and splintered. Valm'e gazed after it, amazed.
Jealousy. It had come to her at last. The eternal beast, the creature of the shade by the glim of whose eyes all things are made freshly visible. Could it be?
Why ask her anything? I have her here.
Valm'e remembered a story she had illustrated, in which a cheated lover, a great portraitist, had thrust into the painting of his mistress the knife for grating colors.
The women of Valm'e's world were real. Through the truth of Yshtar, Valm'e had found the way, by night, onto the shining terrible path of actual feeling.
Suddenly she let out a cry. Through the mirror of Yshtar, she saw what she had lost. The tears ran down her face, as the natural rain poured in the water of the canal.
Four, five further sittings arrived, were. And had ended.
«And may I see my painting now, mademoiselle?»
«No… Not yet. If you'll be patient just a little longer. Some further details that are best worked on alone. And then, « said Valm'e.
«But, mademoiselle,» said Yshtar, the first time that Valm'e had known her arch—perhaps a method kept for inferior opponents—«I shall start to wonder what you're hiding.»
Valm'e said, with pain, «You're too beautiful, mademoiselle, to have any qualms. The only danger would be that I'd paint only your beauty and not yourself. But I don't think I've failed you there. You'll be able to judge quite soon. Let me get all as perfect as I can before you look. If you'd be kind enough to return tomorrow, say—«
«Alas, not feasible. Rehearsals begin for the new play. You will have to send the portrait to the theater. Tomorrow? My agent can arrange the means. What hour would be suitable?»
«But then,» said Valm'e, «I shan't know if you're pleased with what I've done—«
«You're too modest. I have no doubts,» said Yshtar, dusting off the weeks of their duality so it scattered in tiny motes about the room.
Valm'e must say, «Four o'clock would suit me.»
A minute more and the actress was gone. Her carriage was gone. The rain filled up the spaces.
Valm'e knew a feverish tension. The last vestige of Michael had been drawn out like a thread from a needle. She had let it go, could not have held on to it. For Yshtar had long since become Michael. She had brought him to the studio tinted on her fresh skin, smoothly tangled in her hair and breath. Yshtar's lips had caressed him. Her arms had held him. Now everything was gone.
What shall I do?
Valm'e stared at the painting, which needed no further work— to work further upon it would be to mar, to unmake.
Taking up paper and a crayon, she began to draw the face of Michael Zwarian, to sketch with now unsure lines his body. She blushed as she did so.
What would follow? Enormities of time, and she adrift in them. There were two commercial commissions. She glanced at them in a sort of scorn, for what could they be to her now?
Days not like any others, and nights without sleep. She saw them waiting. The vista was like that of a cathedral, a place of anguish.
She did not even doze until dawn. At midday she started up from a pit of nothingness. Remembered: Yshtar—Michael— would not be with her any more.
At four o'clock three strong men appeared in the doorway where Yshtar had gone in and out as a nymph of rain.
They took away the portrait. They were like warders, jailors.
Valm'e tore the sheet from the Dionysos and began to polish its cold dead limbs. She knew the great madness that this god was able to inflict—drunkenness, hate, religious mania, or love.
There would be omens. There began to be. (She had longed for them.) A sudden shaft of sunlight through the forward window, over the canal, so clearly wrought twice, outside and in the tilted mirror. A boat passing down to the river with a shadow sail at twilight, in the glass a barque upon the Styx. And a crack in the skylight through which the rain had commenced to infiltrate, a single tear dropped over and over on the worktable. He will be mine again. No, he never will be mine .
Days not like any others. And nights without sleep. But the days grew slumberous, as if impregnated by opium—easy to sleep then, deathlike, and to go back in dreams. To see him. At night there were the confines of her marvelous prison cell which she might not leave, and where she could summon up no wish to labor. Waking dreams, hallucinations, omens, in every corner. He had said this to her, and that. She was full of hunger, the greed for pain, and almost knew it. She rubbed herself against the razor's edge. She reveled in her wounds. She had loved him. She loved him now. It was always to be so. She drew his face over and over. She depicted him as a knight, a priest, a king, as one who had died. She sketched the lines of his body, blushing.
When she must go out, how sharp as broken glass the intervals of sun. The knives of the rain entered the mirror of the canal a million times over. On the street, returning with her meager provisions, she would weep. (She had wept before the laundress, who had not known what to make of it, had asked if she was bereaved. And Valm'e recalled her mother like a stranger.)
Yshtar had all of him now.
Valm'e dreamed of Yshtar. She sailed on a mirror of water, dressed in white, the white sail of the boat above her and copied out below, a swan. In the dream Valm'e yearned and became Yshtar. Yshtar-Valm'e raised her white arms and Michael Zwarian lay down in them.
Waking, she wept her rain into the pillow.
Her clothes were all too big for her. She was growing thin, and in the darkness of her hair had come all at once a strand of white, Yshtar's hair brought on by grief.
Valm'e went one night to the Goddess of Tragedy , where Yshtar's latest play had been put on. To her astonishment, in the foyer, an exquisite painting was displayed, Yshtar as Antigone. Valm'e's portrait. (He will have seen it, he will have understood that I painted it. He will recognize how I have captured her, a butterfly on a pin. But no, of course he will see her quite differently, imagining I have fashioned wrongly.) The fee for the portrait had long since been sent to Valm'e, who had scrupulously placed the money where it would do most good, old teachings of her thrifty mother—but without being quite aware of what she did. Yshtar's small note of praise and gratitude she had had too. She had kept the note. The hand that penned it traced the flesh of their lover.
At the theater, a woman alone, she was somewhat insulted. She watched Yshtar from a great way off. Could Yshtar, after all, act? It seemed so. She had something of the quality of a vacuum, elements and passions, powers and perhaps angels flowed in, and filled her. Her stasis expressed more than the ranting of the best of her accomplices upon the stage.
Valm'e remained through the several acts of the play—in which no songs occurred. At the end, a standing ovation bore up Yshtar like a lily.
Valm'e pictured Zwarian among the audience, alight with applause. Now he would go behind the scenery, up into the cliff behind the proscenium. Aloft, he would take her to him.
The artist walked through the night, twice accosted, on the northern bank, as a whore. In the gutters peelings and papers. In windows miles high the sweet dull lamps of love.
Never in her life had she known such hurt. Nor lived so, from the gut of the heart.
Those very few who had believed themselves to be intimates of Valm'e discussed her briefly. She had become thin and peculiarly graceful. She had the qualities of an actress immersed in a serious and probably classical role. It must end in her death, whatever it was: She walked in the rain, ate nothing, drank too much wine or that odd liqueur of hers. She would fall prey to a consumption. She would be consumed. A pretty, a fearful death. Who would have thought her legitimate for it? She had always been so practical. And her work suffered. But there, she had become her work. She had become one of her own pictures, an exquisite witch bereft and languishing after some deed of terror. She was almost lovely, now.
Those who had known of Zwarian did not guess that he might be the cause. No, this was some other swift affair that had sunk its teeth in her.
And some of them mentioned the glass dagger they had located in her studio. It had recently been hidden behind a pile of books—they glimpsed the locked box. Had she not had said, despite the information given her on its uses, that she still asked herself its proper purpose—for there was more to a dagger of glass than mere butchery, mere murder.
It was as if the glass dagger chiseled away at her, as her own implements had down at the stone, finding out the thing within. Whittled, pared, polished fine by an agony of crystal. Down, down, to the bone of the soul's soul.
Michael Zwarian had been away on business in the north. It was winter when he returned to the City, everything set in a pre-frost waiting whiteness. He had had letters every fifth or seventh day from Yshtar, during the weeks of his absence. She was clever, the actress. He was intrigued by the network of spies she had amalgamated—what a criminal she would have made. He had never fathomed her fully, or maybe it was only that he had not felt the driving need to sound her depths. Or again, probably she was quite straightforward, by her own lights simple nearly in her dealings, her cunning only learned through the rule of survival, put to his service with the selfless, careless largesse he had formerly associated only with saints.
The building, the stair, were adorable to Zwarian. He could not stop himself running up the steps like a boy. He was anxious too, and behind him the man was already toiling with the hamper and the wine. «Wait a moment,» said Zwarian. The man halted thankfully a flight below. Zwarian knocked. His circulation was sparkling in him. He was conscious of not wanting to shock, and of wanting to shock, that she might scream or shout, slam the door at once, drop in a faint, and he would be ready to catch her. He was remorseful. He was half frightened by what he had achieved—or what Yshtar and he had achieved between them. He longed for this to be over. He desired these moments stretched to infinity. Like Valm'e, although he did not consider it, he had found true feeling, its colossal rush like wild horses, winds, chariots, blood.
The door opened. The artist stood at the entry of her cave, the irritating and beloved L-shaped room. He did not see it. He saw her, haggard, demented, and voiceless before him, her eyes glazed, her hair lank and unwashed, her lips colorless and dry. Love churned in him. He was the master magician who had produced this awful wreck. He gloried in her ruin, for he could repair it. Yet he was stunned, despite all that Yshtar, through her own observation, her web of gossips, had relayed to him. Valm'e was his, could not exist entire without him. It was so cruel what he had done, what he had allowed Yshtar, clever Yshtar, who had thought of the scheme of the portrait, to do. And he loathed Yshtar at that second, and himself, naturally.
«Don't speak,» he said softly. «Let me come in.»
«Why?» Valm'e said. She was like a dumb thing given the ability to talk by accident.
«What you've thought of me—you were mistaken. I love you, Valm'e. Always and only you. Let me come in.»
«No,» she said, but vaguely. «This is some joke.»
«Don't make me offer my confession here, on the landing.»
«Valm'e,» he said, and laughed at her and guided her gently into the room, and closed the door to shut them inside. They were before the mirror. He noticed how they reflected in it, upon the misty gleam of the canal and the passing boats, the boatmen and their passengers visible, these irrelevancies super-imposed backward upon the reality of the chamber and its two lovers.
There, innocently enough, he told her, he confessed what he had arranged, and why. The trap to take her. And if he did not confess that he had once possessed Yshtar, that was kindness, not cowardice. Valm'e need never suffer that sting. He could now atone for it for the rest of their lives together.
«But you're saying to me,» she eventually murmured, after he had repeated, in various forms, the truth of the bargain and the charade, over and over, conceivably twenty ways, «that you and she are nothing to each other?»
«I owe her my happiness, if she's brought you to a revelation of need for me. I'll be in debt to her forever. But nothing else. It was all for you. A wicked game, concocted in desperation. My darling, how I've hurt you. Can you forgive me?»
«Oh,» she said, «yes.»
He held her then before the mirror. He took joy in her thinness, her sad hair. He knew that he was their balm; an infallible healer, his touch could cure all.
When she pushed at him a little he let her go, and led her to a chair. She sat down and said, «This is a surprise to me,» as if nothing much had happened. Truly a shock, how terribly he had shocked her—he saw it like a physician.
«Allow me,» he said.
«Please,» she said, so muffled it was inaudible, he thought he read her lips, «I must be alone. I must— will you go now, Michael?»
He did not know for a moment what he should do. Then he saw, beneath the flimsy wrack of wires and tatters she had become, the vestige of her strength, which he had loved and respected, and which had so discommoded him, returning. And he was glad, for now he had brought it on, was its fount, and need be averse to it no longer. Alone—yes. She would want to enhance herself as best she could for him. She would need time for her recovery, for the lessening smart of happiness burning like a warm fire after snow.
«Then, I'll leave you. Allow my man to put in some things I brought—a few savories, some good wine. I'll come back at six.»
«Yes,» she said. «At six.»
He went down the stairs, only slightly put out. He had expected something else, but given the circumstances, anything had been likely. In seven hours he would be with her again. He was a villain. He deserved to be kept waiting.
If startled by an apparition, Yshtar did not show it. Valm'e had gained access to the actress's dressing room during the late-morning rehearsal. There they had placed a chair for her—the room itself was locked in the maid's absence. Now she sat on the chair, a figment of darkness, and stared at Yshtar in a detached yet feverish way. «Did you suspect the porter is susceptible to bribery?» asked Valm'e. «You'd better know he is.»
«But he would understand,» said Yshtar, «that you painted my portrait, and might therefore be permitted to seek me. How can I be of service, mademoiselle?»
Valm'e rose. There in the corridor, at the ends of which other doors were now opening and shutting, young women darting to and fro, Valm'e blurted, «He came to me with a lie. He assured me that you and he are no longer anything to each other. What do you say?»
«One moment,» said Yshtar mildly. She unlocked her door, and beckoned Valm'e inside. A huge vase dominated the room, bursting with flowers. Amid the paraphernalia of drama there had begun to be the symbols of wealth.
«Michael Zwarian,» said Valm'e.
«Yes,» said Yshtar. «Do please sit down again. I'll tell you without delay. As he will doubtless have stressed, Monsieur Zwarian and I have only been allies. He was kind enough to extend to me some patronage. Our arrangement was of a business nature. In regard to you, mademoiselle, I'm afraid he was so determined to acquire you, he played the oldest trick. He made you jealous. And I was the accomplice, a piece of acting I performed for a good friend.»
«I don't believe you,» said Valm'e.
«Of course not. You love him, mademoiselle, and suppose all women must do the same. This is the common mistake of the lover. But I'm a businesswoman, mademoiselle. I daren't let my heart rule my head. It was a naughty game. But if it's brought you to your senses—then excellent! I apologize most sincerely for any pain or anger I had to cause you. But Monsieur Zwarian is charming, virtuous, and estimable. You've been very fortunate in winning the regard of such a man. One who would go to such lengths to have you.»
Valm'e stood on the floor of the dressing room like a lost child.
«No,» she said, «it's absurd.»
«I can,» said Yshtar, «offer you proof that I've no connection in the romantic way to monsieur.»
Valm'e looked at her. Valm'e's eyelids fluttered convulsively as if she might faint or be overcome by nausea. She said thickly, «What proof?»
«Tomorrow afternoon I shall be in the company of Monsieur de Villendorf. You've heard of him, I expect, a great patron of the arts. He's at his City house for the winter. He and I… I needn't, I think, offer particulars.»
«So you've taken another lover.»
«No, mademoiselle. He and I have been intimate some while. And tomorrow there's an excursion in the delightful boat he has had built, in the classical mode, and frivolously called Antigone . We'll pass your very window, mademoiselle. You may see for yourself.»
Valm'e said, «You never loved Michael Zwarian.»
«Never. And for him—though he was never so indecorous or unkind as to speak to me at length on your peerlessness, you alone are of interest to him.» Yshtar smiled. «You were liberal enough to call me beautiful. But there are many other qualities that inspire passion. He has his own beauty, and doesn't need mine.»
Valm'e cast at her a strange, long look. It was of a hatred so deep, so static—as to be unhuman. Yshtar did not seem to recognize it.
«Thank you,» said Valm'e.
«If I've set your mind at rest, I'm truly pleased, mademoiselle. Some small token for the wonderful painting. Some slight recompense for any wrong I did you.»
On the stairs as she went down, passed by two girls of the theater sisterhood, Valm'e was noticed. They grimaced and thought her an ill sign, some unlucky fortune teller or sick prostitute come as a last resort to beg money from a relative.
In the half-light they held hands, the lovers. They had drunk a glass or two of wine. It was he, as formerly, who had been vociferous. She sat passively. She had only told him one specific thing.
«But I must go with you.»
«No, no. That would fuss her. I'll go alone.»
He had agreed reluctantly, seeing the sense in some of what she said, only nonsense in her refusal of his carriage, his servant to attend her on the journey. Her mother's house in the hills was easy to reach. Her mother, so unwell, must have utter quiet, no novel thing to alarm, until she had recovered.
«But you'll send for me if you've any need?»
She promised that she would.
It was with the news of her mother's illness, her own necessary departure to nurse and tend her, that Valm'e had put him off from the second scene of love he had determinedly planned. His restraint, his consideration now were—as always—faultless. He did not carp or agitate. He wanted only to help. He even mentioned cash, boldly, if it should be required. For herself Valm'e would accept nothing, but on behalf of her mother, no foolish qualms must interfere. Valm'e vowed that if matters came to it, she would also apply to him for funds.
And so the bed lay pristine as the windless canal under the moist hushed onset of evening. And so tomorrow and for an unstipulated number of days and nights, he could not be with her. Thus, through the falsehood of her mother's malady, a kind of dreadful tempting of fate, she had kept him off, could continue to do so, for a while.
«But you'll write to me, Valm'e.» At first she might be too tired. He must bear with her. «Yes, how selfish I am. Then I'll write to you, my darling.»
He had thanked God that he and she were reunited before this latest blow fell. He had been forestalled in mentioning marriage. She knew she had forestalled him. His eyes, his mouth, his manicured hands were brimmed by what he might have said and done.
She managed even to get rid of him before the stroke of ten sounded from the river churches.
Then, in the dark, she sat alone and drank the wine.
She was like the victim of a disaster, a hurricane or earthquake. She could not feel. All feeling had left her. She had been robbed of it.
For she believed in the plot they had laid, Zwarian and the actress. Their flamy flight had been a masque. Now she had been shown, the character of each made it plain. Yshtar had not enchanted him, he had not loved Yshtar. Tomorrow her proof would be on the canal, the curious boat, the party of perfect figures of which Michael was not one, disporting themselves in a crisp winter radiance.
All the agony was past. It need never have existed. Valm'e was reprieved.
She stood under the scaffold like an orphan, knowing as only her kind could know, that the despairing moments of her ride toward death had been the climax of her experience, her triumph. For then she had lived. She had lived . Not cerebrally, not emphatically through the pen, the brush, the aching insensate stone and blind canvas. Not in her mind but in her body. She had been real. She had been one with all the generations of those, the billions, who had loved and suffered, that vast entity, that unison of exquisite, comprehending grief.
And none of it was left. No tumult of yearning, no unscalable mountain of desire. Zwarian loved Valm'e, as usual. Everything was as it had been, in the days of unwoken boredom and unneed. He would marry her now. He would snatch her up—how could she refuse? And all her days would be dust.
Sunlight rained in the L-shaped room, finding every perch. It was the cold sun of winter that has no mass, a spirit. On the canal outside a few curious papers floated like swans, moving behind Valm'e as she stared into the mirror.
She was waiting, stupidly, for the last act of her drama, for the passing of the silly boat named Antigone .
She could not have said why, or only that through this she beheld a completion, however pointless and nullified. As if, once it were done, she might retire from her stage, and cease to be.
On the bed, different from everything, lay the glass dagger.
She had taken it out of its box during the night. She had turned it in her hands. She had wanted something, some cipher for her predicament, but the dagger was not that. The sun described it as it had in the shop window, air cut sharp and bright and hard. The dagger was all she had. It resembled a memory—but of what?
Midday, and the glacial sun went over the skylight, and then the skylight faded somewhat, and the sun had slipped beyond the roof.
Valm'e watched the mirror. She was there inside, and the canal, the farther bank, its buildings, bits of sky that hung between: The stage.
But Yshtar did not come, the boat did not appear, sailing out beneath the mirror's proscenium arch.
And a wild and groundless hope stirred in Valm'e—that she had been deceived. And miles down, the glory of her pain, which being life to her she had loved, that stirred. And faded. For it was all so trivial. Whatever happened or did not, the facts had been established.
And it seemed to her for a moment that there never had been any great love. They were all deceptions, of the self or another. It was only this, to live, day to day, and the forcing of illusions by eye or hand, the pretense to enormities of which no mortal thing was capable.
She turned from the mirror and went to look at them, the actual unmagical world, the truth of the water, the bank, and the sky.
On the balcony, she glanced about, bitter as a soldier whose city has surrendered. And saw, drifting toward her along the canal, all that humanity was liable to, the idiotic representation of the dream. It was the boat, modeled after some ancient dictum misunderstood and made suitable for present-day purposes only by technical jugglery. It had a type of Grecian style, a curving sickle of sail. Oars moved in the water, but they were little and out of proportion, not rowed by fairies but through some mechanical device.
At windows here and there on the farther bank people had affixed themselves, amused by the boat. The canal had just sufficient depth to bob it up.
The boat was a parody, and as such completely apt. It said everything.
As the craft wallowed nearer, Valm'e made out the ten or so persons on the deck, the glitter of wine goblets, heard a chamber-music trio of musicians playing a song in spurious classical mode.
And Yshtar. The flash of white like the glass.
Seen from this slight distance drawing close, in the crowd of ordinariness and insipidity, Yshtar shone like a pearl.
Valm'e remembered. The face she had portrayed. The being. Of all things, Yshtar was the reality of the dream. There she was now, encircled by the arm of a big man in furs, her de Villendorf. That was the proof she extended, but of course the proof was of another order. For Yshtar demonstrated what was possible.
So beautiful. No, Valm'e had not forgotten. But she had lost her faith. Here was the miracle to open her eyes.
The actress's furs were white for the man's sable, he set her off as black plush had set off the gleaming crystal. The sun lit her hair into a cloud.
The artist saw and judged as only an artist could. If Yshtar's beauty had loved Michael Zwarian, if it had determined to have and possess and keep him, whatever his plan, he could not have strayed. Not from the beauty of Yshtar. But Yshtar had let him go, not exerting herself. She was a sorceress with the power of demons and other dimensions in her grasp—but she did not bother with them. She might take up a wand of fire, instead she plied a purse.
Valm'e slunk back into her cave.
The warmthless sun was bright; to any who passed, her room would be a hole of darkness, a cave indeed, with the balcony hung from it like a basket.
In the dark after the bright, the artist stood beside her ashy bed, and gazed back at the mirror on the wall.
She waited, and the confectionery boat slid into it prow first. In the mirror now she watched the dummies of the extras, the unimportant, self-important rich man, and then the beauty of the dream, the reality of the magical woman.
Yshtar was drawn slowly over the surface of the water and over the pane of the mirror. Her reflection floated behind Valm'e, coming out from her side like the birth of the moon.
For moments only, the mirror would contain her. There, she slipped toward the further edge—
Valm'e sprang, her hand to the bed, and up into the air. Something dazzled like a lightning. She saw what she did, and what occurred, for one split and splitting second—a shard of light, a point like clear ice entering a frozen lake—and then the tilted tear of the mirror shattered. It cracked into a hundred distortions, and triangles and orbs of glass flew off into the room.
Outside, beyond the window, there were shouts. The music ruptured and ended.
Valm'e turned her head a fraction. She had an impression on the tail of her eye, as the boat drew itself from the window frame, of confusion and rushing, and she heard the high voices of women crying out. She did not go to see, although all along the opposite bank the watchers were craning forth, gesturing and squeaking. Valm'e did not need to verify. The first glimpse had been enough. It had turned to vitreous in her mind. That second when the propulsion of the glass dagger she had flung had pierced through the mirror, penetrating to the hilt the reflected left breast of the whiteness of Yshtar. And the ethereal face caught forever in a faint incredulity, stopped like the heart. And the ripple that spread from the dagger's plummeting, the breast, the cessation, and smashed the mirror into bits.
Every one of the journals reported the death of the actress Yshtar. It was a sensation painted black. The sudden and inexplicable destruction of the young and beautiful: the sacrifice to the gods of a matchless thing.
Perhaps it was the extreme cold of the day that had killed her, and the drinking of the chilled wine, an unforeseen flaw in blood or brain—the word apoplexy could not be used in conjunction with such a woman.
«She was standing one moment on the deck of the boat, laughing with her friends and admirers, the next, without a premonition, she fell.»
«The actress made no sound,» reported the judicious Weathervane . «Her companions said she gave no evidence of feeling unwell. She looked, as ever, and as this bereft City has so often seen her, unrivaled in charm and wholesomeness. The stage has lost in her perhaps a budding genius, all else aside, certainly one of its loveliest and best.»
A lesser journal, of slight circulation, reported that two or three of her fellows on the boat had noted, at the instant she was struck down, a muffled sound of breaking glass, which seemed to happen in midair.
There was not a mark upon her. Nothing had been spoiled.
Not one journal remarked upon the inevitable postmortem dissolution of the human body, the breaking of its flesh so unlike the shattering of glass or an image in a mirror. Not sudden, nor clean, not sparkling bright and of a cutting edge, having no noise but a dim murmur like the swamp, the blunt crack of a bone, the shifting down to dust.
Curio shops are wonderful things. Who would think they lead to graves? Of course they do, like everything else.
One night an astronomer was searching the skies, so high and far beyond Paradys as to bear no relation to the City, when he saw something, beheld something, out in space itself. Naturally, he had been looking for things, for planets, nebulae, after the machines of war had passed, for the machines of war had made the night sky full of other stuff, fire and flesh falling, and metal arrows of death unlike stars.
It was a quiet time, the peace. It was a convalescence. And staring through his extraordinary lenses, the astronomer saw on the tapestry of space a silver man, walking through eternal night.
The immediate reaction of the astronomer, once the initial shock subsided, was to think someone had played a joke on him. Someone had, somehow, interfered with the immaculate telescope, forcing it to produce this sight, some superimposition on the fields of space.
But then he looked again, intrigued, and watched the silver man walk, and the stars show through him, or the nearer ones show before him. And a cold clear conviction stole over the astronomer that what he saw was actual, was real. And it meant something, but in God's name, what?
Curiously, he did not think he looked upon God Himself. A god, perhaps. An angel. A giant, who could move about the airless, gaseous regions alight among beautiful poisons, at home stepping across the distant worlds, too large to be seen except like this, suddenly, freakishly, and by accident.
The astronomer stayed at his lens until the great figure finally went from view, vanishing away as if over a hill of galaxies.
The silver man had been only that. He had had nothing very peculiar about him, except that, unclothed, he had neither any hair nor any organs, yet was so manlike he could be nothing but a male. His face was not handsome, but it was perfect. He had no expression. He shone, and the light of suns gleamed upon him like lamps.
After he had gone, the astronomer did not bother to investigate his telescope (although in after days he dismantled it, had other experts in to try it, rebuilt it, and later searched the skies again for his first sighting of the silver man, which was ever repeated). He merely sat that night, in his chair, the vague hum and glow of the City beneath him, the cool air of his hilly garden on his face through the open roof.
What he had seen had no significance. It was too monumental to carry any import.
He told no one, making only a brief note in his diary. I saw tonight a silver man who walked across space —something like that.
In later years once or twice he referred to the phenomenon in company, without explaining, as if it were a common thing many had witnessed. Perhaps they had.
Once, but once only, he dreamed that as he lay on his bed, the silver man walked through the room and through his, the astronomer's, body. There was no discomfort, not even a warmth or coldness, the feeling of a breeze in the blood. The vast limbs went by like columns, and were gone. Waking, the astronomer felt annoyed, as if he had missed something, but what was the use? He slept again, and in the morning made no note of any sort.
It is a poor little plot, this one. Who is lying there sleeping and dead? Bend down, part the uncut grass, and see.