Starry Night Melancholy
Fugue by Jay Caselberg
by Jay Caselberg
Jorge had been thinking for a while about how he might change his world. The problem was that the world seemed to have a mind of its own. The skinny fingers of circumstance plucked at his thoughts, discomfiting and constant, but there wasn't a thing he could do to shift the feeling, nor to shift himself from the place in which he seemed to be stuck.
He sat now upon the sea wall, watching dirty foam swirl around the edges of boulders piled by unseen hands a hundred years before memory. Cold, cold, the gray-blue water crashed against the man-made barrier, sucking back to leave traces trickling between the cracks, the hint of salt spray casting a thin veil over sky and sea. On a day like today, he could almost be guaranteed his solitude. This was his place. His alone. The collar of his dark coat was turned up against the chill breeze, his thinning hair blowing in strands back and forth against his face. Lifetimes could pass here without him marking their passage, and that was one of the things that drew him here. Back home there were ... things he'd rather not think about while he was here in his place of refuge. But he had to think about them. Knowing what he had to do, he tossed a pebble into the water and watched it sink from view.
With a grumble deep in his throat, Jorge clambered to his feet, shoving cold, pale hands deep into the pockets of his thick coat. Steel-gray waves rolled in toward the sand, blanketed by a dull sky above, the stiff breeze whipping white spume from their tops. Back along the beach, a solitary figure walked, a mere smudge against the flat expanse.
With a sigh, Jorge turned from the faded pastel beachscape. Fine spray from the waves pattered icy droplets against one cheek, but he was immune to the cold. Up at the beach end, thin wooden slats had been laid across the dunes between the tufted grasses to form a walkway, the wood turned white and rimed with salt, making the pale strips look old and desiccated. He was hunched, negotiating his footing slat by slat, when something made him stop, pause. Slowly he lifted his gaze, sea-gray eyes fading into the wave wash behind as if one might see right through his head to the horizon.
"We are indeed the hollow men," said the angel with a smug grin.
Jorge worked his mouth, but nothing would come. He frowned, blinked a couple of times and ran the tip of his tongue over wind-cracked lips, but still there were no words. What did you say to an angel? The sun was starting to slip behind the mountains, casting a fiery corona around the being's wings, making it difficult for Jorge to make out a face. He hadn't expected wings made of leather. No, not at all. Now he could smell, it too. Deep and rich, the scent of tanned hides and deeply stuffed couches. The wings stirred slowly, languidly, seemingly unaffected by the breeze that rippled invisible fingers through the grasses and little trails of sand around Jorge's feet. So, this was an angel. He could tell it was an angel. The white robes and everything. It wore sandals on its feet too. The sun drifted a little farther, giving Jorge a better view of the angel's face.
"All right?" he said and started to head for the top of the rise and past.
One leathery wing stretched out to block his path.
"This is the way the world ends," said the angel.
Jorge shook his head. "I don't think so." He stepped past the outstretched wing and headed on up the trail and over the rise, leaving the angel behind.
Anyway, how could he take seriously a creature that was spouting misplaced T. S. Eliot at him? Eliot and Prufrock. Well, it wasn't Prufrock, but it was all so appropriate in a way. He thought briefly about rolling up his trouser legs, taking his shoes and socks off to feel his fish-white toes squeak through the sand before he reached the grassy park leading across to the road proper, but knew he wouldn't. It wasn't in his nature. At least not now. Especially not after seeing the angel, Eliot or not.
Time after time, Jorge was drawn inexorably back to the sea, back to that mirror glass blackness in the dead of night, the waves sucking sand grains into whispering lips, to spit them back out again with a disappointed hiss. Even here, now, in the small park, so close to the water's edge, he could feel the pull. Behind him, though, stood the angel, and that wouldn't do at all. At home, Caroline was waiting for him ... or would be if she even knew he had gone. There were days when she seemed to feel and hear nothing, others where her round, wide-eyed face was more animated, her frail hands moving, instead of draped together limply in her lap. It was on the bad days that Jorge knew the real traces of the fear. Somehow, though, time had done much to manage that fear, placing it in a hard, round place deep inside him. Hard and steel-gray like his eyes.
Pulling his coat more tightly about him, he headed for the roadside and his battered, green car, barely holding together now, but running all the same. Long ago he'd given up the pretense of filling the back with rods and fishing gear. He needed no excuse to be sitting out alone on the breakwater. He was just a solitary old man, these days. Nobody really paid him much mind. The car waited for him, parked by the edge of the rise leading down into the park between two large Mediterranean pines. In the warmer months, you could smell them. An old brick beach kiosk sat at one end of the park, and at the other, a path leading up to the grassy headland with a stone bench placed right out near the end, a bequest to the memory of someone long forgotten. He thought for a moment about taking that path, going and sitting up there at the very edge of the world, staring out across the waves to the horizon of his memory, but knew he wouldn't. Caroline waited for him at home. Who knew what she was up to right now and what might lie waiting for him when he got back? Sometimes, it was just better not to think about it.
* * *
He pulled into their street, testing random thoughts about what might be waiting in their simple shrub-dotted yard, the even flowerbeds holding thorny leavings of the roses that had bloomed there in past seasons. It had been a long time since he'd given them any attention. Once, when he'd driven home, pulled into their drive, there had been a unicorn waiting for him, but one with smoldering, fire-filled eyes, its mouth full of sharpened teeth, grinning at him with its own dark intent. As with many of the others, he'd tried to ignore it, but then he'd learned about these things over the months and years. There were better ways of dealing with them. Like the angel. You simply acknowledged their presence and wandered on. In any other direction lay the beginnings of madness, as if that state had not already begun. Today, the yard was empty.
At the rear of their simple cottage, spindle-stick trees thrust empty fingers toward the slate sky. In winter, when the sea mist rolled in from the water, it draped them, shroud-like, with a pale and insubstantial blanket, hiding threats that Jorge could barely imagine, barely dare to imagine. When the mist was in, Jorge went nowhere near the trees. He had his reasons.
He eased into the drive, parked, and opened his door, wincing a little as it creaked loudly. It was better if he didn't actually announce his presence to the random population that inhabited his existence from time to time. He preferred to walk like a shadow amongst them, for the most part unseen and unnoticed, unless they confronted him directly, which also happened now and again. Well, that was his hope, to pass, remaining unworthy of their attention. For that reason, he left the car parked in the driveway, rather than struggling with the aging garage doors, scraping their crumbling wooden bottoms against the solid drive. It was just more noise to alert those that might choose to listen.
There wasn't much left in the garage now, not that he'd ventured inside for a while. A few stray tools hung suspended from old rusting nails. A couple of half-empty pots and tins huddled together at the end of one shelf. A single, yellowing, grime-smeared bulb hung suspended from the ceiling, festooned with dusty cobwebs. Feeble light trickled in through the single murky window at the rear, but these days, that was the only illumination the darkened space received. One day, he supposed, he'd venture back in, but not for now. Such an action would be an acknowledgment of what had been before, and he wasn't prepared to take that particular step yet. Rather than fussing with the needs of the garden, he preferred to leave it all to the man who came weekly—the man who carried his own tools along with his tanned shoulders and face.
Carefully, slowly, Jorge eased the car door shut, applying pressure with his body till the lock clicked into place. He gave the garden one more quick glance, then headed for the back door, his keys clutched firmly in his left hand. It appeared that in the time it had taken him to drive back from the beach, Caroline had moved on. She went through phases like that. He grunted with a kind of satisfaction and stepped into the small room behind the kitchen, closing the back door quietly behind him. He listened as he shrugged off his coat and hung it on a peg near the door, but there were no sounds coming from the lounge. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. Taking a single slow breath, Jorge closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, preparing, then headed through the kitchen toward the living room.
* * *
When he first met her, it had the feeling of true accident rather than any sort of design. Jorge had been sitting on a train, half-staring at nothing in particular, when someone in his line of sight had moved to get a better grip on the handrail as the carriage rocked to one side. The man had leaned over, resting his forehead on his arm, the arm itself crooked into a curve. The space between the man's arm and his face had formed an almost round frame, and beyond it, revealed, was Caroline's face. There was something about her features, something about the framing that reminded Jorge of Botticelli or perhaps Titian. She had that pale-faced smoothness, the roundness of feature reminiscent of their paintings. A face from another time. Jorge sat fascinated. She didn't notice him watching her. When Jorge had left the train and headed for work, he craned, looking for her, trying to see which way she went, but it wasn't long before he lost her in the crowd. Somehow, his heart had been heavy for the rest of the day, as if he knew that it was an opportunity lost. It was illogical, irrational.
* * *
The man with half a face was back again. His features flowed into some sort of formless, melted-plastic shape on the left side. He'd stand and stare at Jorge, not saying anything, just standing there, watching. This time he was across the other side of their white picket fence, a long gray-green coat pulled tightly about him. Once upon a time, Jorge had acknowledged the man, just like he acknowledged the angel, but after a time he had simply given up. The man with half a face never said anything, and in fact, Jorge wondered if he could, the way his lips had been sealed together on one side, but it made sense that it was probably enough to keep him from anything resembling real speech. Jorge merely glanced at him and continued down the driveway on his way to the shops.
Caroline, inside, was probably watching, seeing things in that inner vision that was uniquely hers. He wondered if there was some mythological root to the man without a face, but for the life of him, there was nothing that came to mind. Anyway, they'd run out of milk, and that was more important for the moment. He could hardly make Caroline a nice cup of tea if they didn't have milk. She liked her cup of tea, in the more lucid moments when she seemed to be in touch with their actual reality.
She had been a voracious reader once, drawn to histories and folklore, for they seemed to spark her imagination. That had been before her decline. Jorge suspected that many of the beasts from her landscape sprang half-formed from tainted rememberings of things she had read. Whatever the source, knowing what it might be did little to help him deal with them. When he glanced back up at the house, the man with half a face was gone. Jorge nodded to himself and turned his attention back to the road. Milk, and perhaps he'd get them a treat. Some cake. Maybe chocolate. Maybe Caroline would be aware enough to enjoy it.
* * *
Jorge had finally met her, again seemingly by accident, in a supermarket, wandering the aisles with his solitary trolley, picking out the various meals for one that he thought might be vaguely palatable. It was always a risk. You never knew what you'd get in some of those prepackaged affairs, and he was reluctant to try anything new. Today was a little annoying, because some of his favorites were out of stock. He looked dubiously down at the new selection sitting in the trolley in front of him. He would just have to wait and see. He sniffed and wheeled his trolley out from the shelves holding the ready meals and headed for household goods.
He had just entered the aisle with the washing powders when she wrestled her own trolley around the corner at the other end. Slick fluorescents shone along the metal frame and they drew his gaze at first, rather than her. Everything felt artificial in the stark supermarket lighting. Her trolley was one of the ones you hate to get with a wobbly wheel--difficult to manage, particularly around corners. As she struggled with the half-full trolley, she lost control and it careened into a shelf. Boxes of washing powder tumbled all around her, smacking of the edges of the basket and scattering about her feet. Forgetting about his own trolley altogether, Jorge dashed up the aisle to help.
Of course, he knew she was the girl from the train. He avoided looking at her face, and instead stooped to grab the dented boxes and shove them haphazardly onto an empty space on the shelf.
"This always happens to me," she said. "Oh, I feel like such an idiot."
"No," said Jorge, still not looking at her face. "It happens to all of us. You're not so special." He caught the lie as soon as it had escaped his lips. "They just need to do something about these things." He grabbed the edges of her trolley and shook it till it rattled.
"Thanks," she said.
Jorge nodded and bent to gather more of the fallen boxes. She stooped and reached for the same box. It was like a movie. In that moment, their fingers met and a cool spark ran up his arm and settled high up in his gut. Slowly he lifted his face to meet her gaze. She was watching him, looking quickly from eye to eye, an expression of deep concentration on her face.
"You're really here," she said.
Jorge frowned, the briefest flicker. "I'm not sure, I ..."
She seemed to shake herself back to awareness. Her eyebrows flickered and then she frowned as well. "Oh, I'm sorry. Look, my name's Caroline." She thrust out a hand.
Still confused, Jorge reached for her pale fingers and pressed them gently. "I'm Jorge," he said.
They both rose slowly and stood there looking at each other. There were still boxes on the floor, but Jorge cared nothing about them just at that moment.
"Listen ..." they both began at once and stopped.
Caroline glanced down at her shopping and at the remaining boxes. She turned her attention to the shelves where Jorge had hastily shoved the damaged goods. She turned back to face him. "Tell you what," she said. "I'm bored with shopping. Do you want to go grab a coffee?"
They left their shopping carts sitting there abandoned at either end of the aisle.
* * *
When he got back to the house, swinging the white plastic shopping bag in one hand, the area was clear. No unicorns, no angels, no dragons sat waiting for him on the front lawn. Just the neatly tended flowerbeds and the tidy grass slope. He nodded with satisfaction. That was good. It meant that Caroline might be in a state to savor the cake he'd bought. He climbed the stone steps at the front of the yard, heading for the front door, then changed his mind and walked around the side of the house to the back. He just wanted to make sure there was nothing else lying in wait for him, nothing outside the periphery of his attention to surprise him. He juggled the white plastic bag from one hand to the other as he reached the back door, and digging out his keys, he opened the door, pausing for a moment to stamp his feet on the back step before walking inside.
* * *
At the very beginning, they simply decided to move in together. A cozy little apartment and not a care in the world between them. At least not at first. That initial meeting, that strange little shift from perception of reality should have alerted Jorge, but he was far too smitten to pay it any mind. He hung on her every word, watching her as she walked across the room, as she stumbled around in her half-awake state first thing in the morning before she'd had her first cup of tea, as she emerged from the bathroom with the big fluffy robe bundled around her. Little by little, however, the episodes became more frequent. Caroline would say things that made no sense at all. At first, he thought they were simply evidence of the uniqueness of the treasure he had found in her and still he couldn't believe his luck. She was everything he hoped she'd be and more. There was nothing to tell him otherwise.
More as a concession to the people they mixed with, after a few months, they decided to get married. They'd tested the boundaries of their relationship together, and they understood that they worked. Even the slight aberrations in Caroline's behavior were not enough to make him think there was any reason to doubt his decision. He couldn't, for the life of him, even imagine being with anyone else, ever. Life continued—their marriage made little difference to the joy of what they had together. Jorge went to work, Caroline too, and eventually they accumulated enough, scrimping and saving, to buy a small house in the suburbs, a house with a yard and a fence and flowerbeds. They weren't too far from the beach, and that suited Jorge just fine; he loved the ocean. He loved listening to the distant sound of waves in the darkness as he drifted off to sleep, Caroline's regular breathing beside him. The beach was just an added bonus to spending his time with her. On occasion, he would simply stand in the doorway of the living room, watching her. He could barely imagine what life would be like without this woman. She was perfect.
Her decline was so gradual that he didn't really notice it for a full year. Sometimes, even in mid conversation, Caroline would fade off into someplace removed. She would get a vaguely wistful expression on her face and stare fixedly off into the distance.
"Caroline, what is it?" Jorge would ask, but she didn't answer. When she finally returned, he would question her about it, but she seemed to have no recollection of where she'd been. She accused him of being silly, of playing games with her. Was he trying to make her think she was mad?
"No, of course not."
Jorge tucked his concern away and decided he'd watch and wait. If the situation worsened, he would seek advice, though he was reluctant to do so. Not for his Caroline. When she started talking about unicorns and goblins and elves, his concern grew, but he put it down to her overactive imagination. He had already reconciled himself that she had a slight problem with her attention span, but then, that wasn't so unusual.
It was a complete year before the first manifestation. The miniature dragon on the back steps had taken him completely by surprise. He stood watching it for a full half hour before it spread its wings and took flight. He tracked it till it disappeared into the cotton wool sky, and then he stepped inside and leaned heavily against the door, rubbing his forehead. When he'd walked into the living room to tell Caroline what he'd seen, she was unreachable. Though he squatted in front of her, her eyes were unseeing. He had gripped her forearms, gently, trying to coax some sort of reaction out of her, but his efforts had been in vain. His own fear forgotten, it was then that he started to be afraid for her, but it was then that he started making the first connection. Though he didn't want to admit it, he knew there was something wrong.
* * *
Putting the plastic bag down on the kitchen bench, Jorge carefully opened it and pulled out the cake and the milk. He opened the fridge, put the milk in and closed it again. Reaching up to the cupboard, he pulled out two floral cups and saucers and arranged them carefully on a tray. Filling the kettle with water, he put it on to boil, then found the teapot, removed its lid, checking that it was clean before spooning in two heaped teaspoons of leaves and one extra for the pot. He unwrapped the cake and placed it on another plate, pulled out a knife from the drawer, making three cuts into the chocolate round so there were two good slices, placed the plate on the tray and two smaller plates and forks beside them. Just then, the kettle boiled and he poured the steaming water into the pot, stepping back away from the cloud that rose beneath the kitchen cabinets. Retrieving the milk from the fridge, he poured some into a small white jug, then replaced the carton in the fridge.
"Jorge, is that you?" called Caroline from the living room.
"Yes, dear," he said. "I'm just making us a nice cup of tea."
"Oh good," she said. "I could do with a nice cup of tea. I was having the strangest dream."
Jorge nodded to himself. He could imagine the sort of dream she'd been having. He had seen them, day after day.
He wished there was something he could do for her. He had wished for years that there was something he could do for her. At first he had sought advice, but they had suggested medication, and finally institutionalization. Jorge was having none of it. He took great pains to assure them that the problem had simply gone away. He told no one about his own insights into the creatures that stalked her inner landscape. He reasoned that putting himself under scrutiny would do nothing to help her, nothing to help them both. So, as Caroline withdrew further and further, Jorge maintained the illusion of their normal life and marriage. Dutifully he went to work, brought in an income, and made sure they had enough to sustain themselves. Caroline, of course, was less able to function in the outside world as her time in her other world grew more frequent. People started to notice. Finally, in one of her more lucid periods, he had convinced her to give up work. She had been perfectly content with the idea, and Jorge had breathed an inner sigh of relief. It was funny, for though she seemed to accept her condition, she appeared happy that it was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing she should worry about. The world she lived in was better than the day to day they had to put up with.
The only real regret Jorge had was that there was less time he had to really be with her. He missed her attention, but he resolved that he would be there for her. He loved her after all.
"Here we are," he said, walking into the living room carrying the tray before him.
Caroline clapped her hands together. "Oh lovely! You've bought some cake."
Placing the tray down on the table between their two chairs, Jorge carefully poured the tea and passed her a cup. He then slipped a knife under one slice of cake, placed it on one of the small plates, and passed that over to her too. He placed a piece of cake on a plate for himself and then sat back, leaving the plate on the tray. He left his cup sitting where it was.
"How are you feeling, my love?" he asked.
She glanced up at him, popped a small piece of cake into her mouth, and licking a stray crumb from her lips, smiled at him. "I'm fine, Jorge. How are you?" Her thin white hair made a corona around her face, touched by light from the window behind. Her hair had been white for years now.
"I think I'm tired, Caroline. I think I'm tired. Sometimes I just wish we had a normal life together. I wish we could do things that other people do."
She gave a brief frown. "But we're so perfect together," she said. The frown quickly disappeared as she sliced another piece of cake and popped it between her lips.
Jorge watched her. She was right; they were perfect together. "I just wish there was something else I could do for you," he said.
"I don't know what you mean," she said with a slight shake of her head. "There's nothing you could possibly do. You've already done everything you could." Slowly, she placed her plate back down on the tray. "And you know, Jorge, I love you. I love you for everything you have been and done." She fixed him with a look, gazing intently into his face.
"I saw an angel today," he said.
She nodded. "So, it's come to that." She sighed. "I wish it hadn't come so soon. So ... at last, it's time," she said.
Jorge frowned. "Time, for what? I don't under—"
A tall, familiar figure stepped out from the light behind Caroline's chair. Sweetly, Caroline smiled, her look full of gentle affection.
* * *
Jorge sat back out on the sea wall. His mind wasn't fixed on anything in particular; his attention simply meandered across the landscape like the seemingly random swirls of foam gracing the water's surface by the rocks. His legs hung over the edge and he swung them gently back and forth. Despite the noise of waves and water, the slight breeze coming off the surface, he heard, or rather sensed the motion behind him. And despite the breeze, he caught the scent of rich leather swelling the air around him.
The angel walked up soundlessly and took up a place beside him, tucking its robes around its legs and easing itself down to the cold hard wall. For a while there was silence between them. Jorge could sense the stirring of those massive wings, though he couldn't see them. He gave a quick sidelong glance at the angel's face, but apart from that, he refused to look. He'd been acknowledging these damned things for too long. It was time he put a stop to it.
"Hello, Jorge," said the angel.
Jorge grunted in response despite himself.
The angel reached around behind itself and felt along the wall, finally locating what it was seeking. Jorge glanced again to see what it was doing. The angel held something small and hard in its hand, rubbing its thumb over the smooth surface. Gently, it nodded, then with an easy motion tossed the pebble out in front of them. It plopped into the water and quickly sank to the depths.
"This is the way your world ends," it said.
Jorge watched the place where the pebble had disappeared to the bottom for some seconds, saying nothing. Then without looking up into the angel's face, he finally spoke.
"Hmmm. You're probably right," he said. "You're probably right."