All entries for Thursday 18 September 2008

September 18, 2008

Old Nick

He waits below the treeline for her ghost. Dawn is breaking over the speechless landscape. He shuffles his feet closer together.

She will come, he thinks. She knows the time.

The garish-blonde-dyed girl kisses him on the lips and asks,

-What was the worst part of it?

     Her nimble fingers wander over his slender, unhealed back, arched like a ferret’s. You’ve become too used to tensing, she said when he first revealed his nudity to her. You’ll never relax again.

     -There was a machine...he says, and stops. His arms, he remembers, which now seem so free, so thoughtless, were pinioned together behind his back.

     He blushes, and explains it to her. He runs his hand up her thigh, just to prove to himself that he still can.

     -Some men appreciate powerlessness, she says.

     That’s a vice reserved for men with power, he replies, and some women who don’t know what’s good for them.

     She brushes his hand away, stands, and shakes her hair. His frustration, he realises, has been made too clear: she’ll never allow him that same authority over her again. She crosses to the window, gazes over the muddy dawn, and says,

     -Shouldn’t you be getting back to your wife?

     The burly friar, he thinks, who knocked at the door and told him,

     -Nicholas...the farmer’s daughter...Adele...

     They found her in the winter sludge at the northern roadside. Her yellow locks, the friar said, had melted into goldish mud, and the body had been roughly handled. Somebody had violated her- and the tough old man was trembling as he made a rapid sign of the cross- hours after her neck had been broken.

     He sat on the bed till nightfall. Marietta, sensibly, busied herself elsewhere in the house, only entering later on to ask, would he be attending the funeral?

     Dear Marietta, he thinks, indomitable in all things but so pliant, as if she’d decided at some point that he wanted nothing more from her but agreement.

     No, he told her, he wouldn’t be going, and kissed her as if that was a statement of his love for her, and a lack of concern for Adele. He was frightened of what he might do the body, supine and helpless.

     Church-bell tolls spin through the sky to his hidden perch. He rises, and walks down the scree-filled track to the village.

     -And what does our writer think about this dark age? asks the abbot of Saint Bartholomew, wrenching him from dreams of Adele in a hostel doorframe. Marietta carves the pork in silence.

     -Young men run amok, the landowner Balducci says, swigging from his cup, the politicians lie and cheat for the good of their reputation, the infidels seek to bring our good civilisation down from all sides- surely this will be the end of the world, Nicholas? His wide, rugged face grins from the far end of the table.

     He picks at his food, without replying. The abbot and Balducci move on to the farmer’s daughter- the young slut!- and her shameless glances. Balducci approves; the abbot argues that such provocativeness is unseemly in a young woman.

     Balducci, with the magnanimity of an honest man, claims an equality of the sexes: the abbot, rubbing his thin beard, replies,

     -And when a woman rises too high, as in the Borgia...

     -Then she will use her power over men. And why not? It’s only natural, isn’t it, that both sexes should press their advantages?

     -Nature, the abbot says primly, has nothing to do with it.

     Balducci asks Marietta for support. With a compliance that stirs his hatred, she agrees with the landowner, and begins to tidy away the platters.

     -What is natural? he asks, aloud. I’m not certain- at least, not for man. The hyena of the Dark Continent lives in a society where the female rules over the male. Their genitals, I have read, protrude in a masculine manner, and are positioned in such a way that they have utter control over which males mate with them and which do not.

     -A Satanic creature indeed, the abbot says, laughing. The example you have chosen proves beyond a doubt whose side you are on.

     Balducci is watching him. The meal seems to last forever, the conversation trickling into nothingness.

He finds his old letters beneath her mattress. It seems almost theatrically clear that she did not treasure them. The corners of the oldest have become ragged and moth-gnawed: a single piece of string binds them together.

From behind the door, someone coughs; her father, still grieving, is loitering in case he tries to steal anything.

     He reads through them backwards, beginning with the last.

     I will meet you at the treeline at dawn. Don’t be late

     We shall meet, out of sight, in the

     I love you. It’s only now I realise

     I must have you

    

     He stops.

     One letter, in a very different hand, has been jammed into the middle of the pages. The same sentiments, he thinks, skimming over it, as mine, the same gilded phrasings. No wonder she felt it deserved a similar burial.

     -I could not have beaten you, he says aloud, at the down-and-dirty games of love. It took the parlour-tricks and wordplay of the city to do that. You were clever, but not in a way I could have appreciated.

The rogue letter is signed,

    

     BB

2

     He tears the door open and Adele’s father almost tumbles through it, flailing. He grabs at the farmer’s collar and snaps with inappropriate violence,

     -I know there were other men. Who were the other men? When did they come and see her?

     The old man rubs one rheumy eye.

     -There were other men, he says at last. But only after you. It was for you she made herself a slut- my little girl never played with the boys, never shamed her family, not before you came and ruined her.

- She told me what you told her- how they racked you, and you squealed and begged for them to let you stay in the city. They had sense, wanting you out. You’re a damned snake, and you put a spell on her- that's the truth of it.

He asks, blushing bloodily, straining to hide his anger,

-And the money I paid you so that I could visit her every night? Do I get that back?

The old man holds his gaze, refusing to budge; his lips set in righteousness.

I’m powerless, he thinks, trudging through the village square, against someone like that. Brawn and might. Even when his dishonesty is unmasked his conscience goes untainted.

He sleeps at the hostel that night with a young peasant girl called Irena who can’t keep her mouth shut. Clenched above her, he whispers,

-Here I come, Adele.

(Lying on her bed together, still in a kind of harmony, their two imperfect bodies cupped and fitting perfectly, he says,

-Adele. Adele.

She is awake, but stays quiet, to keep him unsatisfied.)

Irena, curled beneath the sheets like a resting doe, says without hesitation,

-Oh, yes, there was another man, and I know because she boasted about him to most of the pub one night. I’m sorry; I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but if you want to know what she said...

-Fine, he replies, staring at the anonymous ceiling. He has spent wordless nights here with Adele so many times.

-Well, my father didn’t bring me up that way, but she told us how she was cuckolding a married man for a landowner-

-Balducci, he says. His name is Balducci.

(-Consider, he says, running his hand across her neck, trembling, how man always hopes to change- himself, or society- and is never able to defeat the status quo. A man who is always reinventing himself, but unable to escape from the core of himself. To be forever in hope of escaping yet always unable to do so...that is how I imagine hell.)

Irena takes a gulp of the cheap mulled wine he’s bought for her and adds,

-There was one thing I heard from her, but I don’t think I can tell you.

He waits, in silence. She blurts,

-She was waiting to tell you...about him, about the landowner. She said she wanted to see the look on your face. She said it’d make her laugh, to see you all outraged and hurt.

(Adele shakes her blonde hair away from him and says,with a glance of scorn,

-You do like to play the ‘irredeemable martyr’, don’t you?)

-It was her final move, he says aloud. She was going to checkmate me.

Dawn is swelling into morning by the time he reaches the field on the southern edge of town. Balducci crouches, two of the peasants at his side, examining the soil. Crows scatter as he stands.

-Balance, he explains, extending his hand to shake. A little lime on the earth helps make it more fertile. But then, I don’t think you’ve ever really understood balance, have you, Nicholas?

-There’s no such thing, he says, his temper rising. He raises his finger; lethal, accusatory.

-Before you ask, Balducci says calmly, and try and, you know, make a tragedy out of this whole thing; yes, I murdered her.

Balducci hands his hat to one of the peasants.

-I slept with her, he says, and I strangled her. The latter...became a sort of natural climax to the former. Her father knows; I’ve paid him well for it, and apologised. I mean, what’s he going to do about it? Honestly?

Balducci gazes at him, folding his honest forearms across his chest. The peasants stand, with animal patience, on either side of him.

-What were you hoping for, Nicholas? he asks. That you’d denounce me, have me arrested? I own these hills, and these fields, and these people. I cannot be touched, least of all by the likes of you.

He leans close.

-What power do you think you have, Machiavelli?

Balducci spits. His hand crumples into a fist, by his side. He brings it up, as if threatening to strike, and then thinks better of it and lets his arm dropped.

Balducci laughs, uproariously; the peasants smile.

-You’re going to fight me? he asks. And what will that solve, when I’ve broken your feeble arm, and maybe that little rat-like head of yours as well? Do you really think your life matters any more than hers did?

The truth begins to drain his rage from the pit of his belly. Turning, he trudges away through the field, stepping onto the muddy edge so as not to disturb the half-dead crops. Balducci shouts something after him, but it’s lost.

Lying awake, separate from his wife’s outstretching arms, he asks the question,

-What is more pathetic than a man who must control the world?

Adele, he knows, will not respond.


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  • This is really good Jon. Nice understatement that subtly builds to an excellent final sentence. by on this entry
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