Dark Lapis

By Robert F Gross

Illustrated by Rowan Lewgalon

Dark Lapis Rowan LewgalonAfter it was clear that the pestilence had passed; after it was clear that those who were going to die of it had died and the rest were spared, for the moment at least, and were fated to meet some other end… After the churches and brothels reopened and the sounds of commerce could be heard in the marketplace, muted and uncertain at first, but with growing confidence and even vehemence as a few proved it was once again possible to make the occasional killing… After the bells tolled for the first Christmas and the first Easter and the practical folk asserted (as they always do) that it was best after all to honor the dead by living, and that it was time once again for weddings, babies, litigation, and public executions—all of which had been neglected for too long… After all that, things returned to normal for most, as far as most could see.

Not that there wasn’t the occasional widow who still insisted on dressing all in black, but such behavior was soon dismissed as affectation or a sign of mental imbalance. They had all suffered losses—why should one of them assert the superiority of theirs over all the others? There was a widower who haunted the cemetery, but that was turned quickly enough into the subject of bawdy speculation. There were whispered rumors of private rituals, secretive, guilty obsessions with the dead, decently kept out of public view and only discovered through indiscretion or accident: The mother who kept a clean set of clothes for each of the five children she had lost, all starched, pressed and ready to wear. The husband who had not yet relinquished his wife’s brocaded gown, which should have been made over into a chasuble for the bishop. The rumors might be inaccurate or exaggerated. They might be attributed to the wrong matron or merchant, but no one doubted that they were in essence true about someone. There must be secret ceremonies going on, despite the resolute public hygiene of practical citizens. One could feel it.

There were moments when silence moved like a ripple through the entire city, stilling the smith for an instant with his hammer raised, the seamstress at her sewing, the grinder at his wheel. For an instant the city seemed dissolved, and everyone was elsewhere. Then the smith’s hammer struck the anvil, the needle descended into the cambric, the wheel turned, and everything returned. The reassuring sounds of everyday life returned. But the silences indicated that there was much more going on: Secret ceremonies going on back behind the thick, defensive walls of the burghers and, less clandestinely, in the cottages of the poor, who had discovered, thanks to the pestilence, a measure of space and privacy usually only afforded to their betters.

As the burghers saw it, Magnus appeared to have lost far less than most—almost nothing. He was from a distant city beyond the grip of the pestilence, and his contacts were mostly commercial. His clerk and two apprentices had died, but the demand for his goods had plummeted and he did not need to replace them. His cook survived but he let her go back to her much-diminished family, finding his needs were few and he had no desire to entertain. It was enough to take one meal a day at the inn and pretend to listen to the merchants and bankers. In the still-convalescent market he found he could do everything that needed to be done alone with a minimum of effort. He did it as meticulously as ever, despite rare, unaccountable lapses that did not bother him as they would have before. On bright days he would sit at his desk and watch the shafts of sunlight swimming with countless motes of dust—an incessant, silent society of uncommunicative entities. On rainy days he would stand at the window of his study and watch the countless raindrops hurled down and shattering on the paving stones below. On foggy days, which he liked the best, he watched the city dissolving around him as if embraced by ghosts. On foggy nights he would put on his cloak and velvet cap and wander through the streets, as if mist and darkness had given him the privilege of invisibility. He opened his cloak and felt the dampness caress his face, his hands, and permeate his clothes till it touched him more intimately. Sometimes he would unlace the front of his blouse and feel the cold creep down his neck, the snowflakes cool his chest.

All the first fall and winter, Magnus had no secret ceremonies, no commemorative rituals for those he had lost. He was surprised by his own coldness. He should have felt more. He should, he concluded with a certain gravity, have been a very different sort of man from the start, more like the others, more given to outbursts at the deathbed and graveside, swept up in the grief and hysteria of the city if not for any reasons of his own. He tried to mimic the mourners, but only fleetingly and with awkwardness. But he did not feel what they felt; he was sure of that. And he wondered if he would have felt any differently had the pestilence struck the city of his birth rather than this place where he would always be a stranger. Not that he hadn’t chosen this estrangement. He had, deliberately. Perhaps he was simply a very cold man, either from birth or a lifetime of discretion, and had congealed.

But then spring came and an unexpected wave of feeling broke over him. Only the fog and rain helped to mute it. Suddenly he recalled how the pestilence had arrived with the tulips and forsythia, and their return struck Magnus like whips, year after year. He winced at the first crocus and turned away. Turned away from the sailors and dockworkers in the harbor. There was the memory of spring chained to the pestilence and here was the reality of spring without the pestilence and here was the reality of spring forever with the memory of the pestilence, and the reality of that spring would always be the memory of the pestilence. So he stayed indoors on sunny spring days in his dark-paneled study with the shutters drawn, and went out when the rain and fog tamed the intensity of all the blossoming things. Few people would be out, but he could read the differences in the city just the same: Light coming from kitchen and dining room windows; the smell of smoke and stale beer rolling into the fog from out of the taverns; motets played on the lutes and recorders, all stateliness and measured time. And then a gigue.

Or he would wait till nightfall, slip on his finger a ring of lapis lazuli set in silver without once looking at it and let the city lead his footsteps into the deserted districts, wandering until shortly before daybreak. Lapis lazuli, the stone King Solomon used to control the unruly demons he employed to construct the Temple. A griffin carved into it, rampant.

Magnus noticed more on these explorations. Among the signs of returning life there were other, disconcerting signs that could otherwise easily be passed over. Deep cankers no bigger than pinpricks persisting on an otherwise recovered patient. Suddenly a house would be deserted, the doors and windows boarded up. Some survivors had left for other cities, where the memories were less vivid and the springs somehow different. Others would be found on their beds, a vial of poison on the bedstead alongside pictures of the deceased or hanging from a beam in the washhouse. (Magnus had contemplated that course for himself, had gone so far as to put a penknife against his jugular to see if it felt appropriate. The next moment he felt revulsion at what seemed to be tasteless histrionics. Others no doubt felt that appropriately; for him it would be excessive. He was not that sort of man.)

These were clearly exceptions. The city was returning to its weddings and babies, lawsuits and public executions, and the anomalies were generally spoken of with a sigh, a shake of the head, a pious reference to the long-term costs of the pestilence, and an abrupt change of topic. But Magnus was drawn to anomalies. Though he would not admit it to anyone, he distrusted the return of the city to normalcy just as much as he was horrified by the return of spring. He preferred the fog, the darkness, the lapis lazuli ring on his finger. The incised griffin turned inward toward his palm, caressed with a thumb.

The cruel fact was Magnus missed the pestilence. He could scarcely contemplate the immensity of this truth to himself, nor could he communicate it to others. To think of it was like holding a hot poker to your flesh, but there it was—the truth—and it rarely left him. Not that he was anything like the mad monks who raved on the street corners at the height of the pestilence, relishing how the Scourge of God had smitten the sinners. Not that he wished another human soul a moment’s suffering. But he was not yet willing to put it out of his mind as the others seemed to have done, and he walked at night searching for proof that it had not yet lapsed completely into forgetfulness.

The city had marshaled its efforts behind recovery; religion had become reasonable, gentle, and omnipresent. Services were watercolor washes of music and flowers, and the ministers wore white as if they were officiating at weddings. The goal, their flock had been admonished, had been to persevere and in time forget the bad memories and continue with only the good. As if, Magnus thought, the horror were the flesh, the final memory the skeleton, and time were decomposition. He found this offensive. How could he ever forget the worst that had happened? The boils. The vomiting. Fever and ravings. The remedies as violent as the pestilence, which never worked for long if at all. Later he found it loathsome. What good was memory that was so skittish and indulgent, so afraid of pain that it locked the door and boarded it over?

Those days had been a light so unspeakably brilliant you could neither open your eyes to it nor close your eyes tightly enough to keep it out. Even with your eyes shut you were blinded by it. It was so intense that only in retrospect could you take in its excruciating vibrancy. The change, the loss, the revelation; the multiple obliterations of them, of everything. The vividness of one minute corner of existence until it threatened to set you and the whole universe ablaze or tear you open like a knife ripping through canvas. And now nothing had that. Not even the spring blossoms could match it. He had been given the griffin at the height of that intensity, when even the stone seemed on the verge of flaring up and vanishing. A family heirloom from a distinguished line, now extinct. A gift that made it feel almost like a marriage. But clandestine and punishable by death.

He told himself he remembered next to nothing of young Albrecht, bearded and fiery as a griffin. Thick hair covering his chest and a body that twisted in his embrace like flame. Even at the end. But that was on the far side of the pestilence, fleeting and best forgotten, he reminded himself. Amazing how memory could flare up for moments, with the rest of the time a muddle. How one could live for days as if it had never happened. Magnus walked more briskly.

Most of this district behind the Carmelite monastery remained deserted. The living clustered to the living, leaving zones like this abandoned. Ghettos of the dead, Magnus called them. Here he might find what he wanted. He slowed his pace… Listened… Looked more closely. At the dead end of an alleyway, a worn, pale blue door, hanging from a single hinge; a broken window pane; the scampering of rats. The next door, russet, fallen off its hinges. The muted but unmistakable sounds of clandestine sex close by. Magnus passed on, quietly, so as not to disturb them. Better sex here than in a burgher’s bedroom. It had once been an affluent neighborhood but among the first and most aggressively infected by the pestilence, a fact that had been seized on by some of the more radical preachers as proof of the merchants’ depravity. Why had they been taken more fiercely in their cleanliness than the beggars in their squalor, the fanatics asked. Whole households had been annihilated in a day. Passageways like this had been closed off in hope of containment, but it was already too late. In time it would become a place for robbers, but superstition or fear of contagion still kept most of them at bay.

Another door, green paint giving way to creamy scales, responded to his touch lightly. Magnus stepped in and stood in what seemed to be absolute darkness. He felt his way along the wainscoting farther into the darkness. An opening on the left. I know how this house is laid out, Magnus told himself, only because they were all laid out the same. He turned. The wainscoting turned to leather: the backs of books. A library. Thick volumes. Aristotle? Cornelius Agrippa? It was too dark to tell. He would need to bring a lantern to know, or come on a night when the moon was full. But he was not looking for books, though some of these might be rare. Magnus no longer studied philosophy. All attempts at cosmic systems, which had fascinated him as a youth, seemed pointless now. How presume to understand the motions of stars, the forces of moving objects, the arrangement of the cosmos, if the smallest eruption of pain can undo it all in an instant, piercing into the order of things like a lancet? How ludicrous to chart a master plan when a single detail, one moment, could provide more intensity than one could endure in a lifetime. One night, a fellow wanderer had extolled the praises of the Kabbalah, telling Magnus it contained in its intense speculations some of the fire of an annihilating moment. But Magnus had broken into a trot and darted deeper into the nocturnal maze. He had not come here for books. Books he could find elsewhere. Learning was cheap, compared to this knowledge.

He turned back into the hallway, reached out to the right, feeling for the anticipated staircase. There it began, with a solid column surmounted by a dark wooden obelisk. He began to ascend. He was seeing more clearly now and walked more confidently, but still moved lightly. One turning of the stair, then another, a few more stairs, and then a candlestick to his right. An ornate frame. A heavy door, which opened.

Voluminous hangings, thick and spectral, marked the bed. They were velvet and smelled of mildew. Magnus imagined them as rose and gold. As a hunting scene. He was close to tears. Usually they tore these down, burned them. Some doctors said they held the exhalations of the infected, capable of spreading the pestilence. Magnus doubted it was true—the poor in stables were as susceptible as bankers surrounded by these luxuries. It did not matter if you were in a palace or a ditch. Besides, Magnus told himself, he was not looking for contagion. He had heard of such, sleeping in the bedclothes of the deceased, kissing the open sores of corpses. But Magnus no more wanted that than he wanted a penknife in his throat.

If the curtains were here, then the room was most probably undisturbed, he told himself. He embraced the hangings, groped for an opening. The darkness of the night and within that the darkness of the house and within that the darkness of the bed … the opening.

Nothing to do now but ease oneself in, touch, touch delicately, as reverently as possible, starting from the head of the bed down. There. It fit in his hand perfectly. Fit as if anticipated. What intelligence had been there? What dreams? What plans suddenly cut short, suddenly cast into this unexpected…? Not man not woman not child any more. No age now. No memory of this, Magnus says. None.

Sit gently beside it now, being careful not to. A limp hand. A lace cuff. Someone had been cared for. Kept clean. Watched over. To the last. He raised his feet from the floor and reclined next to it. On his side. One arm lightly, so lightly over the chest so as to reassure without hurting. The dying are so sensitive. They feel everything. He remembered what it was like when… How he learned to touch when.

Gazing into the eyes that do not see him, Magnus feels secure.

But then he hears a voice: You haven’t forgotten. A quiet voice, light and tired. Magnus can never tell anything about the dead by their voices.

“No. I haven’t.”

You miss it. You’re one of those.

 

“You choose to stay here?”

Some of us adjust well. And some of us are lonely.

“You could say the same of us.”

We don’t come free of the world all at once. Not most of us.

 

“I understand. We’re the same.”

Come closer.

Magnus obeys, stretching his body out along the length, pressing, brushing beard against beard, staring into where the eyes had been. He knows what is coming next. He tells himself this is not why he makes these nocturnal expeditions; these things happen despite him. Yet he cannot resist. Some force on the edge of memory.

I understand, says the voice, and Magnus covers them both with his cloak. Folding the stranger into him, remembering how it felt to try to protect the others. Comfort the other. And Magnus bends down and puts his lips where a heart once was, and Magnus’s cock is released from his trousers and feels what a hand used to feel like around its thickness.

Magnus moves his lips down, wanting to imagine warmth and a heartbeat. Tenderly, remembering how the dying can be so sensitive. “You don’t have to, you know,” says Magnus. “You don’t have to do anything for me,” his cock aching at the insistent ministrations of his paramour.

You don’t have to do this either, comes the reply. You needn’t come here and find us.

“But you are lonely,” says Magnus. “And you were beautiful, and once you were loved, and it is all here now”—from the life to the suffering and death and now beyond. Memories mount up, press against him, rupture.

When the moment comes, Magnus turns abruptly away toward a gap in the curtains and releases his seed out into the darkness. Then suddenly ashamed, he does himself up. He feels himself alone in the room. The smells of mildew and decay make him want to gag. He tells himself nothing happened. He wants to flee. He wants to be back home.

He draws away. He feels the lapis signet on his finger. He never wore a wedding band, was never married. He is touched, embarrassed, does not know what to say. He stands, leaving a gap in the hangings, readjusts his cloak. Waits in silence.

Then from the darkness, the soft, dry voice that does not come from a larynx. One moment, almost one; the next, almost strangers. Just like being alive.

Magnus preferred silence afterwards. It’s shame, he thought. My shame and his embarrassment. The need to fill it up with words.

 

I said it’s just like being alive.

 

“I suspect it is. In a way.”

One advantage. I don’t have to wash up afterwards.

 

“I know.” Magnus winces.  The dead have their little jokes, he thinks.

You needn’t worry that your wife will smell me on you.

 

“Haven’t got a wife.”

Had a wife?

 

“Had someone.”

And the ring?

“I wear it sometimes.” Out walking. Only rarely. Magnus fingers it, anxiously. Feels the griffin carved in lapis.

And you remember?

Magnus turns his back on the bed, wanders to casement. It’s over, thinks Magnus. I need to go soon.

You’ll be back to see us? said the voice, fretfully.

“I always tell myself I won’t.”

But here you are.

 

“Are there many like me?”

Many? I’m told there are. We receive a good deal of attention. Thoughts and flowers. Prayers. Oaths. But most shrink back at a certain point. Most don’t go so far.

 

But I do. He felt a shy pride in his daring.

You go further than most; but you stop short, too.

“I?”

But then, you were always an inhibited lover. Passionate, but restrained. Always a touch of shame.

 

Magnus grinds the ring around the base of his finger.

And short of a real kiss. Our lips never—

“You know me.”

You find the one you look for. You find the one you imagine. The one you never dared to

“I couldn’t. It astonishes me that I do this. That I go this far.”

But you did that night. That last night you held me and it was all the same as tonight, except you kissed me when it was over. Kissed me for the first and only time.

Magnus had held him, had tried to comfort him in his fever. Everyone had fled; they were alone. He was nothing but bone, there was no beauty in the young man anymore, no seductiveness. He was bone and fire. Yet the embrace had turned to something other than solace. As if the fire consumed them.

“You have no lips,” blurts Magnus. “Your lips rotted long ago.”

 

Where there’s a will. Some night, if I use all my charm, you will. You enjoyed me. You even enjoyed me when I was dying. I think you enjoyed me most then. You think I still have charm, don’t you? You like me better than the others? There were others. Have been since.

“Don’t be disgusting,” snaps Magnus. “You know I loved you best. You know I stayed. You know I’m here now.”

Something pulls at Magnus. He’s being drawn back into the bed. Feels an excitement.

Going now that you’ve had your fun? We could go further. It’s safe. We can do anything now.

 

“You’re shameless now. You’re harsh.”

Shame’s for the living. It rots away.

Magnus pulls away. He tears at the mildewed curtains frantically, looking for a way out. Can’t breathe. Finds an opening. Hurls himself out into the room, trips and falls.

Don’t you want more? What do you come for if you don’t want more?

“I don’t even want this,” Magnus shouts. “I don’t want you.”

Magnus runs up against one wall, then a second. A third. Where is he? Is there no way out? Staggers back toward the bed.

I slipped the ring on your finger the last time. No strength for anything else but that. You came; I slipped it on you. Just like we were married. You kissed me. At the moment I died, you were kissing me, Magnus.

“I don’t remember that,” Magnus asserts. “That never happened.”

Magnus feels himself pulled back. “I don’t want you anymore,” he cries. “I loved you but I don’t want you anymore.” A strength from the bed. His body forced back as he struggles against it, no breath left. Then he wrenches into the chamber. No remembering, he tells himself. Whatever comes, no memories of that.

He struggles toward a patch of fog. Runs toward it. Hits glass. Rupture. Fall. Then everything rips apart, flies open. A chest exploding. Everything in all directions. Clothes, linen, jewelry, flowers, clockwork, the fierceness of a griffin… rampant. Magnus falls. “Albrecht!” he screams as he shatters on the pavement.

No sense in trying to shove it all back in. Night.

Given Magnus’s stature in the community, the authorities said little, dismissed his presence in a sordid section of the town as the result of having lost his way in the fog; attacked by thieves. Magnus was never in any condition to offer an explanation. He was a mass of wounds. A pane of glass had cut across his face and pierced one eye, the pavement had shattered his pelvis. Something had crushed his larynx. Repeated bleedings did nothing to restore him to health, reason, or speech.

A young married nephew arrived to administer the business. Magnus’s cook was called back to care for him. She found he seemed most content at the window, watching the motes swarming in the sunshine, the raindrops shattering on the pavement, and the fog making the city disappear.

Sometimes, as he sat there, he would stare at the lapis lazuli griffin on his finger, cracked but held firmly in its silver collar, no longer deep blue, but black as if charred. Then the smith’s hammer would pause above the anvil and the city would be still.

One Response to Dark Lapis

  1. Pingback: Horizon Line – by Robert F. Gross | Gay Flash Fiction

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