Friday, July 10, 2009
Prologue to "Cave Gossip"
The sun settled on the ridge of the western mountains, casting a red sheen across the manicured yard of the sixteenth century chateau, located near Avignon in the south of France.
Karl Wisent, a young German, lying on a chaise longue facing the pool, moved his finger slowly over the Greek text of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and whispered each word out loud, as a woman in her mid-thirties with long black hair braided down her slim back emerged from the house. She wore a white one-piece bathing suit and carried a large red towel draped over her right shoulder.
As she passed the reading boy, she ran her long tanned fingers through his thick auburn hair and whispered: “Quit reading and take a swim. You need some exercise, mon petit.”
The boy looked up, his eyes glassy from reading, and answered: “Mutter, did you know that Alexander’s mother worshipped the god Dionysius and that Alexander was the son of a god?”
She laughed, dropped her towel onto another red-wood chaise longue, stood on her tip-toes, pulled at the bottom of her suit and, then, dived head-first into the pool. Water splashed the stones of the patio and the boy jumped up to protect his book. “Mutter, bitte,” he squealed ineffectually.
She swam to the edge of the pool and laughed. “You and your books,” she said with a pout. She sank beneath the surface and then emerged in a rush before continuing: “Karl, put the book away and come in for a swim. Your grandmother is expecting quite a crowd tonight so we need to swim and change for dinner.”
He reluctantly trudged to a table near the kitchen door, put his book down, pulled off his shirt and kicked off his sandals, and ran to the edge of the pool. He hesitated for a split moment and then dived in next to his mother, splashing her with water. She fell back startled and then growled playfully and ducked his head beneath the surface.
Later, at dinner, Karl sat between Max Simon, a writer from Munich and close friend of his grandmother, and Laetitia Le Brayon, a painter from Arles. He raised his sun-burned shoulders as he struggled to cut up the roasted chicken on his plate. He preferred to tear the meat from the bones with his hands but he knew both his mother and grandmother would not approve so he continued to hack away at the dry meat with his knife.
Max Simon held his wine glass in both hands and leaned forward and asked Laetitia: “So when does the great Löwe arrive?” She swallowed and answered: “Martine said he was expected for dinner but of course he is not here.”
Karl said with a mouth full of chicken: “I read his book on South American butterflies.”
Laetitia answered, “ah bon?” Karl looked up to see her eyes sparkling at him and he knew she was making fun of him in some way so he concentrated on his chicken and tried to make himself invisible. She, however, decided to pull him back into the conversation and asked: “So how old are you?”
“Twelve,” he mumbled with his mouth full.
She sipped her wine and formed another question: “Where do you go to school?”
He swallowed and blushed. “I attend the Waldorf School in Berlin.”
“Waldorf,” she asked with a pout, “like the salad?”
He grimaced and answered: “No, like Rudolf Steiner. He created the schools. You do know who Rudolf Steiner is, don’t you?”
She shrugged and took another sip of her wine.
“He wrote a book on bees. You should read it.”
Max Simon nudged her and she turned back toward the man. Karl sighed with relief and stared down at his chicken.
After dinner the guests scattered around the lawn and the pool, drinking pernod on ice and chatting. Karl was the only child at the dinner and he wandered listlessly about the yard, listening to the conversations, until he decided to go upstairs to the library and read.
He entered the chateau through the kitchen door. In the hot kitchen several local ladies washed dishes, while one woman sliced up various fruit tarts for dessert. They called out to him and he waved, as he hurried through to the hall to the back stairs. Just outside the kitchen, a tall middle-aged man, wearing white slacks and a white tennis shirt, sat on the wooden steps and sipped a cognac.
“Hello,” he said in French, as he moved to the side to let Karl pass.
“Hello,” Karl replied as he climbed the stairs.
“Where are you off to?” the man asked and Karl stopped, cleared his throat, and answered: “To the library to read.”
“There’s a library up there?” he asked, standing and turning toward Karl.
“It’s my grandfather’s,” replied Karl.
The man started up the stairs, saying in a bright voice: “I love libraries.”
As they climbed, the man said: “I am Georg and you must be Karl.”
Karl nodded and stepped onto the landing in front of the library door. “So what are you reading,” asked the man and Karl curtly answered: “Life of Alexander, by Plutarch.”
“Excellent book,” said the man, pushing past Karl into the room. “It’s full of lies.”
The man walked to the center of the room and surveyed the shelves of leather bound books. “Magnificent,” he said. “Look at the ceiling. They don’t do work like this anymore.“ Karl looked up at the ceiling. He had spent every summer of his life in the Chateau but he rarely glanced at the images painted there.
“You know the story don’t you?”
Karl shook his head to indicate he wasn’t sure.
“It’s the myth of Diana the huntress and her admirer Actaeon. See there is Actaeon in the bushes spying on the bathing Diana, Diana the huntress.”
Karl stared at the painting and decided to look up the myth. The man threw himself in a leather chair near the open window. The fading sun illuminated his white blond hair and sharp features.
Not knowing what to say about the ceiling painting, Karl walked to the window and looked down on the garden and the people scattered around the grounds. Moths fluttered around the lamps as people paired off and disappeared into the creeping twilight.
The man stood up and joined him at the window. “Dusk is my favorite time of the day,” he said.
Karl spied his mother, holding hands with a French poet by the name of Jean-Luc Garrel, near a hedge north of the pool. She stopped and lifted her face for the poet to kiss. Georg said: “That’s your mother with Garrel, isn’t it?”
Karl felt embarrassed and angry. He said: “Salope.”
The man sipped his cognac and then dropped into one of the leather chairs near the window. “Why don’t you sit down, Karl? We can read or talk if you like?”
The boy glared at the man and then fell onto a leather love seat. Lowe pushed his thick blond hair off his forehead and said; “Let me tell you a story about a ghost I saw when I was a child.”
With the word, “ghost,” Karl felt his scalp tingling and asked: “Who are you, really?”
The man leaned forward, holding his cognac snifter in two hands, and said: “Georg Löwe.”
“The writer?” the boy asked.
The man nodded and then leaned back in the chair. “Do you want to hear the story or not?”
The boy nodded and the man looked up at the ceiling, cleared his throat, and said: “Where to start? Ah, I know.” He looked over at Karl and winked and then spoke in a flat monotone. Karl closed his eyes, stretched out on the love seat, and relaxed.
The man leaned back in his chair and smiled. Cicadas buzzed in the bushes and a woman laughed in the distance. The man scratched his left ear and began his story: “Some time prior to my birth, my mother and my paternal grandmother became devoted to one another. It was an unexpected alliance; nevertheless, my grandmother loved my mother as she would a daughter and the two became fast friends. We spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ home in Freiburg, especially when my father was away on one of his trips, which seemed to me to be most of the time. My mother was very lonely and my grandmother’s affection was welcomed by both of us.
“My earliest memories involve attending the church where my grandfather was pastor. We would sit in the family pew and listen to my grandfather preach his sermons. I usually sat between my grandmother and my mother and draw, although they didn’t like me to. Eventually, around the age of five or six, they refused to let me entertain myself by drawing my pictures and made me sit up straight and listen. Instead of listening, of course, I daydreamed and created all types of fantastical worlds during those hours in the church.
“In addition to being very religious, my grandmother was also superstitious. She believed in the power of magic and she possessed all types of amulets that she either wore or carried to protect her from evil spirits and, even though she believed the world was populated with demons, she had a pleasant personality and good sense of humor. She also believed the dead were still with us and that it was possible to communicate with the spirit world. Sometimes when my father was away on business, my grandmother would organize a séance at our house. She and a close friend, Frau di Muralto, would organize an evening devoted to card and palm readings and a séance. My mother was particularly impressed by these evenings and she was a believer in the cards. I remember that Frau di Muralto had a beautiful deck of medieval Tarot cards and she would take a place in the corner of the drawing room and shuffle her deck over and over again. There were usually six to eight ladies at my mother’s dinners when my father was away and, because my mother and grandmother were easy going, they usually allowed the two domestic workers of the house, Frau Miller and Signorita Josephina, to stand at the edge of the room and listen to Frau di Muralto read the cards. Once I was old enough to know what was going on, I usually tried to find a place to hide in the room, usually behind the couch near the fireplace. It was a safe and warm spot to hide and I could see most of the ladies who were sipping tea or coffee and listening intently to Frau di Muralto as she discussed the meaning of the cards.”
The man paused and sipped his cognac and Karl opened his right eye, like a crocodile, to see why the man had stopped. As the man resumed his story, Karl closed his eye.
“Frau di Muralto, on one of her visits, called to me to come and sit next to her while she was shuffling the cards. I approached her carefully because I was somewhat frightened of her. I felt she could see not only into my soul but also into my future. I was not the most obedient boy. I always had some scam or trick in operation, usually in an attempt to scare up a few small coins to buy candy or toy soldiers, which I was addicted to at the time. As I drew closer to her, I smelled an odd odor. I later learned it was menthol, a smell that emanated from an ointment she used to soothe her aching joints and muscles.
“At the time, I was probably five or six and Frau di Muralto was in her forties. She had dark black hair, black eyes, and an ample bosom. I remember that because she was always pulling me toward her and pressing my face against her chest.
“My grandmother told me that Frau di Muralto was from Venezia and I could tell from her odd manner of speaking that she spoke differently than us. Some people accused her of speaking ‘bird German’ or a strange Swiss dialect that we did not understand, but I have come to believe she spoke German with a Venetian accent and that her love of the occult arts sprang from her heritage. I believe our cultural heritage lives on in us and Frau di Muralto had a touch of the oriental about her and the magic of Venice.
“Anyway, she turned the card over and showed me a multi-colored medieval illustration, to which I was immediately attracted. I had never seen anything like those cards, and I cannot express the numinous feeling I felt as I gazed upon the major arcana. Each card seemed to spring some lever in my mind, opening up all types of associations and producing new and intriguing images. I felt the cards were sacred and they were speaking to me, calling me to read them, to handle them in a reverent, almost sensual fashion.”
Without opening his eyes, Karl asked in a soft whisper: “What does numinous mean?”
“Ah,” said Lowe, “it means something that creates in you a feeling of the spiritual. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” said Karl, opening his eyes.
“Have you ever stood on a mountain top and watched the sun rise or listened to Bach and felt a tingling in the roots of your hair?”
“I felt that once at Christmas Mass in Berlin.”
“That’s it. That is a numinous feeling.”
The boy stretched out and closed his eyes, while the man sipped his cognac. They let the silence of the room settle upon them before the man continued. Finally, Löwe resumed his story.
“Later, after dinner, and after I was put to bed by Signorita Josephina, I returned to the drawing room, entering silently through a side door, to take my usual place behind the couch next to the fire. The ladies did not notice me because they had all taken seats at the large round table in the center of the room.
“As Frau Miller turned the gas lamps down and Frau di Muralto prepared herself for the séance, I noticed the housemaids slipping into the room. Counting me, there were twelve women there.
“With the lights down low, the six women at the round table joined hands and the room became very quiet as Frau di Muralto closed her eyes and rocked gently back and forth. Soon the only sound I could hear was the whoosh of the oil-burning lamps, the tick of the great clock, and errant sounds from the coal burning in the grate.
“It was so calm in the room that I almost fell asleep. In fact, I think that I did begin to doze off, when suddenly, I heard a sound like a crack of wood; it was the sound trees make in the winter when they expand from the cold and break.”
The man paused and Karl opened his eyes. Once the man saw he had the boy’s attention he continued.
“Frau di Muralto asked in a low voice, ‘Is there anyone there?’ There was no answer, but suddenly, I felt the warmth draining out of the room. Where it had been cozy and snug a few minutes before, it was now becoming frigid.
“I could see the cold beginning to affect everyone in the room, including the working women of the house who had bunched together to keep warm and who crossed their arms. Fraulein Wise who was quite thin seemed to be especially suffering from the cold and I imagined or heard her teeth chattering.
“The temperature continued to drop and I noticed my breath as I exhaled. My nose felt icy.
“Frau di Muralto said in a louder voice, ‘I know you’re there. Announce yourself.’ With that pronouncement a plaster bust of a Napoleonic general fell from the bookshelf and shattered on the parquet floor and all of the women jumped, whereupon Frau di Muralto told them to calm down because the spirit would not hurt them. It was then I saw the creature; it was not a man, but a man-like creature, a cross between a monkey and man, and it was sitting on the bookcase, high above the women looking down upon them with a curious expression on its face. The creature had long arms, a leathery, hairless tail and the face of a monkey. It was studying the women in a way I interpreted as curiosity. Every time Frau di Muralto called out, it would turn its simian head toward her, but it was obvious that the creature did not understand her or that she saw him. Eventually, the creature became aware of my stare and it slid down the bookcase, crawling across the floor toward me. As it approached I smelled an acidic odor and I began to shiver just as Fraulein Wise was shivering. He seemed to be fascinated by my awareness of him and like a great cat stalking his prey, he lowered his body as he crawled toward me.”
Karl sat up and opened his eyes.
The man now addressed him and lifted his voice. “I wanted to cry out for help, but I seemed unable to speak, then Frau di Muralto shouted in a voice not her own, ‘Leave him! Leave him now!’ The creature, as if on cue, turned his head to look over his shoulder at Frau di Muralto, and in one bound, jumped first to the bookcase and then through the wall. As he disappeared, another apparition appeared, a woman dressed in a long, white dress that left her fair arms and breasts exposed. Her long hair was pulled up upon her head and held in place by an arrangement of small white flowers. She walked about the room examining each one of the women and stopped at my mother where she bent forward and kissed her upon the lips. As they kissed, I heard my mother emit a low moan and I noted as the woman lifted her head that there was a gentle smile upon her face. I could not take my eyes off of her. As she turned toward me and smiled, I recognized her as the woman with the red lion on the Tarot card called Strength.
Karl’s eyes widened and he took in a deep breath.
“As she stood next to the table, a cloud of mist began to fill the room seeping in from underneath the doors, raising the temperature, turning the frigid air damp. Suddenly, a great bird flew from the wall, a white owl, which landed upon the woman’s arm, as the mist continued to flow into the drawing room obscuring my view of the woman.
“Frau di Muralto called out, ‘She is gone, but another comes. Wait! Wait!’ She paused and then cried out in a man’s voice: ‘I am here.’
“From the mists, a man wearing long robes stepped into the room. He had long blond hair and tattoos on his face. He carried a tall staff and his robes were multi-colored. A white pony followed him and the two stood next to the table. I thought I heard the sound of pipes in the distance.
“Frau di Muralto asked, ‘Do you see him? He says he comes to see his descendants, to touch their heads and to bless them. Do you see him and his pony? He is here.’
“No one answered, but the sound of the pipes grew louder and I felt a great tingling sensation at the top of my head and I felt my body shivering uncontrollably. My mother began to cry and, then, she spoke in a strange language, a guttural sound, and fell forward onto the table. I, too, seemed to pass out for a moment and when I awoke, the lights were on and the women were talking and bustling about the room. They had moved my mother to my father’s leather chair and someone had poured a small glass of cognac for her.
“Once I recovered, I crawled from my hiding place and slipped through the side door, escaping to my room, where I hid under the covers.”
“How old were you when this happened?” asked Karl.
“Maybe eight or nine.”
“Did you ever talk about what you saw with anyone?”
“Yes. I talked with Frau di Muralto. I thought she would understand.”
“Did she understand?”
“I told her about the images or visions that I had and that I thought the woman was from the Tarot. She showed me Number 8, the card of Strength and we talked about the meaning of the card.”
“Did anyone else see the spirits?”
“Not that I know. Frau di Muralto felt them and she channeled their voices, but she did not see them.”
“Has it happened again?”
“Not in the same way. Instead, what happens is I have a thought or a vision while writing or meditating and, then, later, I discover evidence that what I saw or felt really happened.”
Karl leaned back and looked at the window. He was replaying the story in his head.
The man stood up suddenly, yawned, and stretched: “It was nice meeting you Karl and I hope you, too, see a ghost or at least a monkey. I need to speak to your grandmother before I leave.”
After the man disappeared down the stairs, the boy sat quietly and listened to the sounds of the guests in the garden. He had forgotten about his mother and Garrel and, instead, imagined the room filled with ghosts.
A bat fluttered outside of the window as the moon rose and illuminated the garden with yellow light. Karl yawned and snuggled into the soft leather chair. Just as he felt himself falling asleep he remembered his mother’s hand in Garrel’s and a cuckoo sounded in the woods.