No way, I said, I can’t stand it—I have to somehow make some enchantment for myself, I said, that’s all I can tell you.
Henri Matisse, The Moroccans, 1915-16. Oil on canvas. From the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. © 2016 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
It got busier and brighter, and the buildings were much taller, grander, made from gigantic bricks of golden sand. The light was beautiful and euphoric, it bustled and soared from thing to thing—from door handle to bag buckle to windowpane to pear drop, to an assortment of glazed petit fours and glinting baklava, to eternity ring to highlighted mane to poached egg to rocking horse. From hubcap to hatpin. From beer bottle to bicycle bell, to a rippled vase of white lilies and white rhododendrons, to piss puddle to withdrawn meathook to gimlet to gobstopper, to dubious escutcheon. From a lone fishknife to raised saucers of ginfizz to The Spirit of Ecstasy to nibbled sugar cube to a pair of goldframed glasses, and there, behind the goldframed glasses, was my most suitable friend, one eye momentarily invisible, scoured by the sun, wearing the clothes he’s always worn these last few years—a copious woolen cardigan buttoned up beneath an unbuttoned corduroy jacket and trousers that might appear to match in threadcount and tone were I to view him from several feet away, from that window there perhaps, where women with long astute noses in velvet headgear sense the slender lemon resurface grayly in their Assam tea, you look like a lion, I said. Camouflage, he said. Yes, I said, I’m having difficulty keeping an eye on you. Have you had lunch, he said. No, I said, I don’t have much time. Oh, he said, where are you going? I haven’t the faintest idea—I have to proceed to the check-in desk. Don’t even know where it is. Come along and eat something, he said, I know a ship-shape place very near here.
The streets were crescents. In fact everything was on a curve, which made everything exciting, I now realize.
The streets were crescents. In fact everything was on a curve, which made everything exciting, I now realize. One never turned a corner—you were forever rounding a bend. Finger tips trailing along the sabulous walls as if swirling through a blushing dune in the rose-gold desert. Heart blanched and uplifted. Not knowing what was coming. Not ever knowing what was coming.
Would you like to see the menu said the waiter holding a very large white card high up. Certainly, I said. Very well, he said, not altering his position one iota. He didn’t have any hair and his eyebrows were black and thin and arched. Are you a clown adrift I thought but didn’t ask, his nose and cheeks were very shiny, as from illness brought on by widespread deception perhaps, or perhaps there is a mass of people here I cannot see and perhaps he is the prophetic tsar of this crescent-formed kingdom and perhaps they have all travelled down various spirals to get here, the core, in order to attend to the last lasting words of this frangible off-color tsar who stands so still so close to me holding up a large white valedictory card. I looked across at my friend who appeared to be sitting on his hands. Are you swinging your feet? I asked. Let’s have some wine, he said—I can’t be late, I said, there’s a group of young people waiting for me somewhere. I got lost. The peaky soothsayer snapped out of it and handed me the menu with much deference and delight. It was entirely blank, then, right up near the top edge, it began to thaw and two short lines of words so small and faint appeared. My hands were freezing. I brought them closer and read—
Veal left side
Veal right side
This is ridiculous, I puffed. Don’t you have salads? We have three excellent salads, he said. Blue cheese salad, prawn cracker salad and Olivier salad. But they are on Tuesdays and today is Wednesday. Oh naturally, I said, and plumped for the left side. Gruner Veltliner! said my exultant friend—his eyes, obscenely ablaze—like pilfered Texan rhinestones.
Rocks. Boulders. Much bigger than that even—I can’t explain. Like the mountains of Amanus. Like upended islands. Vertical islands. Islands balancing on one toe. Colossal. Seven colossal hives shunting into the skirting clouds. And in and around them were all these intricate structures, sort of incised, sort of embedded—I can’t explain. Terraces and pergolas and porticos and minarets, one on top the other, arranged in tiers with aromatic plants and orchard fruit trees, not jumbled in the least—and boulevards and roadways and narrow twisting lanes, right across the sky with no barriers, and on, into the next rock, mountain, upended island, colossal hive. Gargantuan hives! Full of craft and industry and life! Like many Towers of Babel (let us see for ourselves if the heaven above is made of clay, or of brass, or of iron) it was primeval and sublime, hectic and concordant, undaunted and doomed. I was not startled I was no fish out of water I was no greenhorn I did not gawp I did not look the other way. This is the world inside the world, I thought. The megaliths I noticed as I passed along a most edifying fir and fern furnished boulevard through the sky all stood along a crescent, and the last megalith was crouching with its burdened head flanked by a pair of porous hands. The hands were holding the head and there were rarefied entryways carved out between the somewhat defeated fingertips. It was not so far away yet it was entirely out-of-reach; one day, I thought, one day. Right now I had a group of young people waiting for me and they were all really energetic and conscientious and things mattered to them. I don’t know who they were, I’d never met them, yet it was easy to picture them all, standing together; midriffs, high-tops, roll-ups, top-knots, turn-ups, long-straps, low-slung, high-waisted, off-the-shoulder; grey, white, black. Joined-up and unburdened: things mattered to them in a way I recognized but have not directly experienced for oh at least a decade.
Near the inner sanctum was a canteen and now I think about it the shelves were rounded of course which made it nigh on impossible to get at most of the delicious refreshments there on display.
Near the inner sanctum was a canteen and now I think about it the shelves were rounded of course which made it nigh on impossible to get at most of the delicious refreshments there on display. Bunches of black grapes on white plates so cold they had a mist on them. I reached out to wipe one but they were too far away. I wriggled in closer to the counter which wasn’t easy because of the exorbitance of the fur coat I was wearing—how long have I been wearing this I vaguely wondered and went up on tiptoe and there was my finger, in a glove now, a black and white glove, wiping mist away from the see-through skin of dark grape. I want those, I thought.
I want those, and it was the most clear-cut and assured thought—and the nature of the thought combined with the object I wiped mist from—these are diamonds, in a way—could anyone tell them apart, in a wayvand look, look at the butter!
Not even the butter had corners I realize now. A little log of butter wrapped in smooth parchment, not one crinkle or tear, fastened with orange wax. Why on earth orange, I wonder, orange is vile, I abhor orange. But here, on this small stick of butter, the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, well, I can see now, I can see very clearly that orange has its place and that place is right here, on the edge of this beautifully smooth parchment wrapped tightly around a little log of coolest butter. It was cold and absolutely solid—I could not pass it by. So compact! Apparent yet concealed—it was everything I wanted to be. I could not pass it by.
So I stood there.
I believe there were several of these quietly ostentatious butter logs.
There must have been surely.
There wouldn’t have been just one.
I don’t know how they were arranged.
No, I don’t remember—but I know they didn’t touch one another.
Good god if you bring it with you it will soften within moments and the pens and books and umbrella in your bag will inscribe and distort it and it will look mauled and be utterly depreciated and the paper will scuff and rip and the wax will flake off, adhere itself to other things, turn white and look dreadful. There was yogurt in an etched Venetian tazza. Set yogurt upturned so the shapes of the mini ramekins from which it had been ousted were disturbingly discernible. I thought of Frankenstein, out there, loping in the snow-splattered hills. It was very lumpy and shone beneath a row of lights that were fitted into the underside of the wooden shelf above. You’ll have to put that in the microwave a few seconds said a voice somewhere behind. She was wearing something on her head—the sort of corny flimsy thing nurses in comedies used to wear, and she was scrubbing a malachite slab very thoroughly with a darkening bundle of steel wool on account of having just chopped lambs’ liver into much smaller pieces on it. Thank you, I said, and once again went right up on tiptoes.
There they were, all standing there, like an uber cool dance troupe from the ghetto, pretending to look world-weary, but instead looking striking and galvanic. Midriffs, high-tops, roll-ups, topknots, turn-ups, long-straps, low-slung, high waisted, off the shoulder; gray, white, black. This was my crew. Where we going? The conveyor belt was wonderfully contoured, as was the impeccable check-in desk. Their jewelry was so simple. I touched my nose and the awesome tiles gained ever more brightness. We will explode, I thought.
The following evening I was in France and when I ordered wine three glasses came, one by one. The first to arrive was a short tumbler and I noticed the wine had tiny bubbles through it that jostled up close, peered out sheepishly, then turned away with god knows what purpose. The next glass came down on the right of the tumbler, it was a bog-standard Paris goblet and the wine in it had died, had been flat out for a long time; it was obvious that this wine had been left behind many many years ago. Ordered in immured distress then abandoned untouched just minutes after, after a stroboscopic and sickening exchange. Gloves held with both hands, barely on the stool, sort of propped, looking down from beneath the blurred hat rim at the lap and the recoiling gloves held there with both hands in the lap, looking down at the squirming maroon leather of the damp clenched gloves pushing down on the forsaken lap that bristled so. This must surely be the last moment of life, catastrophic and banal, can hardly breathe, because all the air is suddenly forceful, has come from god knows where, intrudes upon the searing body, barges right in, forcing life to go on, for god knows how many chafing moments more. The final receptacle in quick succession was a conical flask filled less than halfway. It was put down next to the short tumbler on the left side. It looked like it had come from the laboratory. Is this someone’s urine, I said. Are these coy bubbles entirely free from blame, I said. Did someone leave this one behind to simply die, I said. Tell me! Then my most contrary friend enters. This place is great, she says, shimmying up onto the stool beside me. Is that wine, she says, wow! And turns on her stool to face the bar. Don’t think I want them, I said, and jumped down.
I’d eaten a lot of meat. Lots of small birds maybe. Hedgerow birds with small neat beaks and tonsil hearts.
I’d eaten a lot of meat. Lots of small birds maybe. Hedgerow birds with small neat beaks and tonsil hearts. Something small that I could hold and turn and gnaw at, with dead eyes, my heart steady and full of self-belief. Something with wet reedy flesh in any case, small hedgerow birds with rain-swollen breasts, I had so much meat stuck right in between every one of my teeth. I walked around the medieval street of this medieval French town, high up and far from the sea, on a summer’s evening, tugging at the meat caught between all of my teeth and each time a string of flesh or a flap of fat came loose I felt honed and elated. And what I did was this; I kept each warmed strand of shredded bird breast in the upturned slightly cupped palm of my left hand—I must keep this for the dog, I kept on thinking. Though where that dog was and what his attributes were I didn’t quite know. It didn’t matter; there was a feeling, always, that everything was unfolding, one just had to keep moving along; one just had to keep rounding the bend.
At dusk there was a place near the old wall, a garden, where people, especially women wearing plush hats, sat sumptuously on benches in front of privet hedges and shrubs clipped into pyramids and spheres—yews, lavender, boxwood—there were beams overhead and vines grew around the beams, sinuous and vague, and there were grapes on the vines the color of sea treasure—pale, pale jewels motionless and deaf on the sea’s made bed. I sat back between two women and listened to the sparrows flocking and nuts cracking and dogs simpering and wooden wheels creaking and the cursed fingernails of the woman closest me, delving around beneath her hat. A woman in black walked up and down a clear path. When I looked at her and looked away I saw green green green and a small rowboat approaching an island incorporated by the dead. She was holding a tray with rough corners, the sort of careless corners that snag a cardigan or shawl, and now I could see there was a waxed strap fixed to the corners of the tray that went around the back of her neck. Her neck. It was a very wide tray, laden with an alluring range of edible treats, yet when she stopped in front of me they seemed only to be in the way of her. I could not reach her, and I so very much desired to. My hand dropped aslant onto a small baked apple, there was a toasted almond pressed into where the stalk would have been—I would have liked to have gone on looking at it a while longer it was so pretty but no sooner had I conceived the wish than the woman on the other side slapped my wrist very hard. She doesn’t have a card, do you, she said. You can’t have it if you don’t have a card and I know you don’t have one. Immediately the apple toppled back into its little place between the other apples and the other edible treats, which I could now see so very clearly.
I am awake for some time before I acknowledge it and the reverie continues and you would think this piece of the dream would be easy to retain but in fact it vanishes all at once alas and although I know I will not be able to retrieve it I do not rule out the possibility that it will some night find me out again. I believe my adamant good health in the face of biting temperatures and lukewarm overtures is in no small way down to the unabashed magnificence and haunting tenderness of these recent dreams. My heart is no longer immersed and the mornings come like frigid air, stinging my unconsumed heart into rude awareness. In anguish the scales of my heart splay and contract and the eye of my heart gapes and is tragic and the tail of my heart, the tail of my heart flinches, wildly at first, wildly, and then only mechanistically because it no longer ripples with appetite but is more or less only a reminiscent mechanism with a little cooped up zing. In the bed I arch my back and my spine is limber even first thing so I can make a splendid arc if I so wish under the covers and I do so wish, but I must move slowly, slowly guiding my heart as high as I can while the bed still stows me. Once my heart is raised up the blood tide turns and the crones that congregate during the thickening hours are rinsed rinsed, rinsed away like widows in heels and macs collapsing in the rain, and only then can I become upright and walk without fear for my life to the sink in the bathroom. I find my face in the mirror above and move in closer—for the third morning in a row the skin around my left nostril is very red and very dry.
You are not going out, he said. You haven’t been out for weeks. People have been in touch with you, he said. Why don’t you see them? They are your friends, he said.
You are not going out, he said. You haven’t been out for weeks. People have been in touch with you, he said. Why don’t you see them? They are your friends, he said. Put the cheese back in the fridge and stop telling me what I should do as if you don’t know anything at all about me. I sleep as much as I do, I said, because I never dream of here, or of anywhere near here. I never dream of anywhere I’ve ever been in fact. But what’s wrong with here, he said. What’s wrong with it—I thought you liked it now, I thought you felt at home again. I am quite happy here, I said, in all probability, in all probability there is no better place. But I will never see a woman like that. I will never see a tray like that, adorned with lovely things like that, and I will never know what it is to walk like that, with my left hand upturned, filled with wet strands of mushed up bird meat like that, near sunset, in and out of the chateau-fort gardens, somehow waiting to cross paths with a grey dog that I have somehow been told to care for. I used to believe anything, anything at all, was possible. Nothing is promised to us, he said… but the power to remain true to what comes to us, I said. They are just dreams, he said. Exquisite dreams, by the sound of it, but still, they are only dreams—they cannot replace life. Well it’s funny you should say so, I said, because it’s occurred to me that they are in fact the only thing keeping me alive. My heart feels so done in here, so timid, so hollow, I barely know it’s there. Its absence thuds; it used to lead me astray, but now, not even that. It’s the same for everyone, he said. It is, I said. Sure, he said, what did you think—you get used to it. But it’s so deadly, I said. Yes, it’s pretty dull, he said, but it’s all right; it’s more realistic. No way, I said, I can’t stand it—I have to somehow make some enchantment for myself, I said, that’s all I can tell you. And this flat is completely unenchanting, look at it—it has no atmosphere whatsoever! It’s not so bad, he said. No, compared to other places I’m fairly well off, I realize that. It’s sketchy though, kind of makey-upy, sometimes when I am sitting here in the mornings I have the feeling the table and chair—the whole thing—is going to drop through the floor. I have more faith in the substance of my dreams. Is it very lovely there, he said. Mmmmmm, I said, mmmmmm—radiant, mysterious, attentive—I’m so much nicer there. You’ll be fine here too, once you get some plants and stuff, he said, there are no plants in here—no wonder you can’t breathe. I don’t want any plants—I’m afraid they’ll die from my indifference, I said, I am very neglectful. You’re going to be all right, he said. Yes, I said, of course. Will you go to sleep now? he said. No! I said. What are you going to do, he said. Not that it’s any of your business, I said, but, oh, I will sweep the floor, hang a few clothes to dry over the balcony, sort out some books, shake off the tablecloth, go and buy bread and eggs, scrub the shower door, write something sentimental perhaps, pour my fading heart out, move the furniture around, and so on. Ah, but look, he said, what’s this little dry twig? That’s Moroccan mint, I said, smell it. I think it could do with some water, he said. Someone gave it to me on the street the other day—why don’t you take it with you, I said. I don’t have space for it, he said. Space! I said. It’s tiny! It looks nice there, he said. Yes, I said, yes it does—it gets a lot of sunlight there actually. Like in Morocco, he said. Just like in Morocco, I said.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s short fiction and essays have been published in The Moth, The Irish Times, and other publications. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013. Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland and debut novel, Pond is out from Riverhead in July.