This is a novel that we’ll serialize each month until we reach the end.
Amor i Kaos
By Christopher Bernard
This novel is dedicated to the memory of the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo (1931−2017), whose example has given many the courage to follow the drive of imagination and desire wherever it leads, in fear, in fascination, and in wonder:
The Blind Rider, Count Julian in his pocket, Juan sin tierra on his eyebrow, Makbara at one ear, the Solitary Bird at the other, rides his blind horse over the blind country: a walk, at first slow, then a trot, faster, then a canter, faster, then a gallop, faster, faster, and yet faster, till the blind horse opens his blind wings and lifts him on the stones of the wind into the blind sky.
The wind rattling the kitchen window, wind he had hardly been aware of, was suddenly clear as the shaking of a cage.
— But you are not in love with me.
There was some satisfaction, at least, in twisting the blade with his own hand.
She continued watching him.
—Yes . . . No . . . I’m sorry . . . I can’t anymore . . . I have to . . .live past you. It’s not you, it’s . . . me . . .
She scowled at the inept cliché. Something she would usually have refused to commit, under penalty of an eternal shaming.
The shaking seemed to redouble its fury.
—I love you too. He spoke dryly, with the haughty intonation he always took when defensive. He was barely in control of the clot of rage beginning to close his throat. Unluckily for me, I am also in love with you. My dopamine, my psychosis.
He was aware of an inane smile on his face and became intensely aware of how perfectly Sasha’s eyebrows nearly met just above her regal, aquiline nose as she stared gravely at him, and his coffee mug, suspended in midair, sank down to the table with an almost noiseless sound like the single tick of a clock. And, as it’s said to happen when a person is drowning, his entire life—in this case, all the time he and Sasha had known each other—seemed to flash, in random pieces divided by bitter dreams, before his eyes.
As he walked out of the snowy landscape into the bar, little more than a cube of shadows, called The Philosopher’s Club, the sun stepped out of the clouds, waved his hat and withdrew. A crowd of eyes turned toward him from the battered counter like a host of flies, not unsympathetic but curious.
Grumbling, sighing, laughter.
—Pascal, my boy (the portly man said, a sympathetic look in his eye), tell me it isn’t so.
He had seen it in her face for weeks: defiant and sullen and distant, like coins falling down a well. The austere contempt around the mouth. She had dropped the vicious silences, heavy as attacks; that was one consolation.
—The only time she looked more beautiful was the first time I saw her.
Someone else was nearby: a short blond guy with spider glasses, a bully-type, behind the room divider.
The frost had come early; he’d walked across a mile of it to get here. The sun had been hiding behind a mask of gray wool flecked with crystals of ice sweat.
What he needed now was these random human sounds, grunts of noncommital sympathy, like the open strings of a guitar.
The buzzing immediately became softer, less itchy as it hummed. Like warm animals in a barn in the country where he grew up. Or damaged buses in a depot waiting for the mechanic’s whistle.
Maybe if I had been crueller, or kinder, more needy or more independent, paid more attention, completely ignored her, made her wonder “does he love me?” there’s nothing like doubt to make them stick like . . .
—Hey Manny! Look outside!
He couldn’t have been there that long, but all of them could see the winter beginning once again to cover the world with its impure whiteness. Like an enormous bleached sheet falling in great blowing swirls from the stone-gray clouds.
—And there’s nothing beyond but pitch black, he had told Sasha once. She’d been right here, not two feet away, looking at him with that exploratory expression of hers.
—You wouldn’t want me to go there, would you? Together? she said. Us?
—No, he said.
Was that the moment it started to unravel? Go to nothingness together, and settle there, as in a bee-loud glade, as in the poem.
He looked back across the whiteness.
Later, he’d gone on, in his usual thoughtless way:
—Because here, now, everyone can be seen, at all times, in all places. Naked, in theory, forever. So never despair. We’re at least being paid attention to. Which is what everyone seems to want these days. Shame is no longer shame when shared with everyone.
She had been troubled by that, her privacy being her most prized possession. And then there was the colossal weight of a civilization moving, in a glassy delirium, as calm as a sleepwalker toward shipwreck. Though they both knew, about the future, uncertainty was the only security. Even if it was logically sure, by fiat or the rules of Fergus and the brazen cars, or all the signs rushing toward them like a herd of terrified horses.
That had been even longer ago.
—So, little wonder you were freaking out, my boy. To be detached is to be radically divine: beyond me, at any rate. It was the portly man again. What was he drinking?
The trail of tears some called it, and they knew of what they spoke. The barred lines, red, white, and black, painted across their cheeks, the lonely, angry eyes. The astonishing loss of their power.
Perhaps later he’ll learn exactly what the doctrine they lived by was, but for the time being he had to resign himself to the memory of the horses slowly advancing.
Lines of sailboats leaned into the wind, tacking toward some unknown reef snuffling in the surf in the northern inlet beyond the jetty.
—Point: The elegiac tablets in the archaeological exhibit excavated in Helmand after we Americans left. They gave away two millennia hidden between the lines of distressed text: exact accounts, awkward poems. Erased by a thoroughly scientific restoration.
—They were meant for a science gone crazy with success.
—You’ve got that right, Sasha had said with a triumphant smile. “Crazy” is the least of it.
—Then jihadists blew up the ancient cities, the ruins of our memories . . .
Clouds run over the horizon like the head of his beer, a blue, embossed cap taking over the sky, Merriweather’s supreme promotion into the higher valleys. Cancelled tickets, overdrawn accounts, the banks running like fever blisters into fraudulent reconcilements. Unearthed webs, slick and sticky with suffocated flies.
—Who is the master spider of the world wide web?
—We can’t allow this. They can’t allow it. You can’t allow it. But you can’t escape it.
They swindled the arcane agents, sanctimonious as CIA torturers. Something about it that . . . no (she said), don’t say it.
—An inhuman low. No: a very human low.
—Eggshell. Minnow, Sasha murmured. Dryad. Blossom. Lucifer. Christopher!
—There are more where you came from, babe.
—Just a few seconds to flower. These berries are soft to the tongue and of just the right sweetness, she said, with a light drawl. It’s so lovely I am allowed to eat food. Breathe air. Feel the sun on my skin.
—A factory of genomes in the turf wars over the long sabbatical.
—Luckily (the portly man, piping up again, said), they didn’t really matter.
—Who’s they? —Just they. Them.
Pascal sighed over his drink at the tavern window, overlooking, on this side (yes, it must have been yesterday, or the day before, or last week?), the shabby avenue.
—I adored you. Really. Truly madly deeply, like in the old movie about the lover who comes back from the dead. But God knows you made me pay for the privilege.
—Never, she whispered.
—Of course I couldn’t escape, what was I thinking?
—Maybe it began in babyhood …
— … the obvious jeers, the templated, crafty betrayals discovered long after it was useless to take revenge. Perilous as window washing at the Windows on the World. So many guilelessly happy years ago. What is still amazing to me is that he walked so brazenly across that wire between the invisible towers. The ones piled up in the dim, candle-lit attic.
—A stroke, a shock, an ache. The stillness of the angels and the clatter of the spoons against the bars. Fading, windswept palms.
—Then the industrialists were all over us. Though it wasn’t just anybody, of course.
—Blame James Watt and his pernicious steam engine!
—De Jouffroy and his palmy Palmipède. Fitch and his pernicious Perseverance. Fulton’s Folly. Edison. Ford. Hooligans. Confetti. Patricide, matricide, take your pick. The yellow wax buildup on the floor of a hopeless advantage. Rising into the space between the cocktail cabinet and the spring that never came.
—You understand my meaning?
—Maybe, but I don’t want to play that hand yet.
—Another stroke and shock and ache.
He turned from the sheets rumpled on the floor.
Suddenly there seemed to be nothing behind Sasha’s eyes.
—I’m the first to admit I do not have a clue.
Shelters at the bottom of the garden. A pool for ducks and geese. A shed. A hammer. A chalice. The chinks in the roof between the dirt floor and the sun. Empathy was held in common in that place.
—Act as though it were a living thing that needed you as much as you needed it. That doesn’t sound too bad, do you think? Be nice to them and maybe they’ll be nice to you. There are bloody exceptions. Who ever said love didn’t require a certain detachment regarding your own precious skin?
—I won’t live forever, he said, with a skinny laugh, so don’t even think about it.
—Love is one of the luxuries. Live large and go when you must. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re going to survive. That’s guaranteed to make you behave very badly. I’ve always found it comforting to know there are always more where I came from.
— I was referring to the cow. What did you think I meant?\
—The field. The farmer in the field. The professor stepping gently over the cow pads. The students following him, very carefully. You know: philosophy.
—He gets so preachy at times, but the bastard is sometimes right. Anyway, his preachiness is less unbearable than his jokes.
The portly man took a long puff on his cigar. That came from having been cracked, like a coconut, once too often. Crushed like a pack of cards in the soldier’s kit. The bayonet at his shin. His reflection in a warm gully.
—I said only that it didn’t sound too bad. What was the way of wisdom in that land? Not to be too smart about it. Considering the viciousness deposited regularly on the computer screen.
Words themselves had become like clots of half-digested chime, bits of flesh and skin, lumps of pale, uncooked organs, speckled with blood. The nastiness of these creatures—the bullying and slandering, the gross insensitivity, their lack of consideration for anyone’s feelings but their own—had never been so palpable, so much on display. When the whole thing collapses (the old guy sitting next to you said), as it will, no doubt, later in the century, the earth will give a vast sigh of relief, creating gales that make the mountains cross the continents like great slow yachts.
It had come at a price, but now at last the abused globe would begin the long, painful but always hopeful, process of recovery, it would take centuries, good God, millennia. Even though it had lost the species for which the sounds “a-bused,” “pain-ful,” “hope-ful,” and “re-cov-er-y” had a meaning. For which any sounds—noises, really—had any meaning.
The wallet opened outward like a gesturing hand or a beggar’s smile. Crippled, lunatic and afraid of nothing. The epidemic of laws and the nightmare of freedom, they said with twisted mouths.
—Perilously disposed? Not a bit of it.
At the bottom of the vat lay a crust of spider’s eggs.
—Parachutes, tilburies, nasturtiums, hawthorn bushes, gear boxes, crankcases, peach blossoms, all lined up in what we thought was a speleological sequence. An archaeologist’s botanizing spree in a technocrat’s shirt pocket. I thought I heard them coming, but when I turned, they were gone.
—If you can say it right once, you won’t have to go on trying to say it forever. Between the burning bush and the pillar of fire. In retreat under the winter rain. … Sasha …. Sasha? ….
—Where are you?
—Where are you? …
He had broken icicles from the eaves and used them to write love letters to Sasha in the snow. She told him that at first she couldn’t think who they were for, since no one else lived within miles. A few birds that remained through the season fled through the trees, the black, spindly branches like ironic kanji as the night fell.
The sun closed its third eye, and the moon edged up the eastern wall like the other end of an immense teeter-totter.
The swing swung slowly to a halt. And most of the children went home.
—I stayed, said Sasha. There was something about an empty playground in the evening, after everyone had gone home, that I always enjoyed when I was a child. I’m not sure why.
—I was harrowed when young by the photographs. They haunted my dreams that February and March, into spring, the skeletal bodies, the rags, the big starving eyes. The horrible wheelbarrow. Of what order of evil was a man that he could do such a thing? If one person could, any person could, in theory. I myself could, given the right, the wrong, links in the net of circumstance.
He mustn’t think about it, but he couldn’t help it. It opened a door to a hole of darkness, a door he couldn’t close. No: close but not quite lock.
—Because, he said, anyone could, in theory. One step into the pool only to step out again. However black the ink. What is this ungainly creature, a man? A human being? A woman? A man? A pool of darkness. What does science have to say about that? Nothing. Or rather, too much. It leaves you gasping for the air it has deprived you of even as it shears off your wings. The screaming babble of the internet. Which nothing calmed. Once. Twice. Ten thousand times. The nattering drill. At the heart of the light a black clot of blood. Embolism. The heart hammering with anger, fear.
—What you call a “pool of darkness,” she had said. Peeling off the scab reopens the wound. Beneath the scar. An umbrella furled like an intention, a quick walk across the plaza in the rain. The mercurial stabs at statuary bronzed to a deep blue-green, a verdigris I could almost smell.
In that long-lost eastern spring. . . .
—Wake up, wake up, no, no, go back to sleep.
—Distant thunder in a Rockies sky, clouds piled up like a Restoration wig, gamboling wings from the rookeries in synchronized cloudlike shapes above the city. The way the fog disappeared, crumpled like an old cornet and blowing like blazes above the fields across the river. You don’t believe me? Neither do I, but that’s what they said when all was said and done, don’t go there even if your life depends on it.
A crowd of bumble bees in a jasmine bush.
A pinch of honeysuckle and the honey bleeds on the stem as he pulled it from the bottom of the stamen.
—Dina Fiore, who I should have had a crush on at the time, he said, and didn’t know I actually had until thirty years later.
—Ping! she said, flipping a finger against his shoulder.
Wake up, wake up, no, go back to sleep. The dawn is still miles away. It’s coming like a thief in the night.
—You still don’t believe me?
Her eyes were like a distant storm, flashing and rumbling above the horizon.
Pentecost passed. The farmlands extended to the forest, covering the hills like a lambskin glove. Gently slumped, in sadness . . . .
— . . . for our sins, then. Wouldn’t you feel guilty too?
—Try to be kind. Or is it such a burden?
—Imagine carrying a toothpick in the palm of your hand for a thousand miles. Anger, on the contrary, feels wonderful. I feel strangely strong whenever I’m angry. Have you ever noticed that in youself? Especially the righteous kind. Then you laugh afterward and everything is fine again. Amazing. But being sweet, being gentle always – not on your life. I’d rather cry my eyes out. I have cried. I cry regularly and on cue. Like a bloody fountain. Weeping like a grove of willows by a slow July river. Weeping for the living, who have nowhere else to turn. The tears collected in small glass vials, then sealed and labeled 1347 or 1621 or 1896 or 2001. They gleam in the light and magnify the hand that holds them. You can even count the whorls on your fingertip. Here. Look.
—Actually, when I’m angry, I feel overwhelmingly weak. So I’ll say it again: try to be kind.
—There was a time I forfeited hope for eternity, with a moor grinning in a glass case and a cook laughing in the pantry. Grooms in the stables, a jockey in the mews, a fast pitch over the plate. And steroids that corrupted the game pretty permanently. Or till they became common as coffee.
—It’ll be without us, then! you said, rising to a shout. (Sometimes only hysteria is appropriate.)
She seemed to find his calm offensive, as though the thought of drowning made him sing inside. A landsman, this knight of the winged glasses. Uplifted, the rambling cars. Toward whatever outlasts the celebratory toasts and the spilled seed between the sheets.
—Another, please. I’m thirsty today.
The gonads are itchy and the drawbridge is out.
—Come quick, my nymphs! I want to worship your smooth, soft tummy, to taste the sweetness of your thighs. Your breasts are my clouds. Your face is the face of the goddess peering down at me in graciousness and pity. I kneel and pray in the forest of the delta I disappear in, such joy is your sweet crown. Let’s drink the champagne of joy, let’s get drunk on desire.
And the angels opened their wings and filled the sky (it expanded like a bubble) with snow.