The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination

Issue Thirteen

Alice Whittenburg
G.S. Evans

This issue went online
February 1, 2005

copyright 2005 The Cafe Irreal
all rights reserved

Čeština Translations into Czech


irreal (re)view #4

Shadows on the Wall
by Mark Budman

The second thing Len noticed in the museum room was the painting of Eve, the serpent coiled about the voluptuous body of a 17th century Flemish homemaker. It looked like she wore a snakeskin outfit, designed to protect her from the sinful eyes of her future children.

The first thing Len noticed was the hair of a woman looking at the painting. The color wasn't striking--grayish-black, though the woman was not older than twenty-five. The thickness and luster were remarkable, but even that didn't rise much above the ordinary. But her braid snaked all the way to her ankles, and to miss that, a man's mind would have to be hijacked by madness.

Len came closer, and said, smoothing his own carefully parted chestnut hair, "I know why your chin is up."

They were alone in this room at the Met. She turned to him, and ran her eyes over his six foot, 200-pound frame enveloped in an outfit that engineers, following an unwritten fatwa, wear while on a break during a business trip--sensible loafers, jeans and a wool sweater over a white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar.

"Why?" she asked, looking at him as if he had asked her to lift her skirt.

"Because of the weight of your braid," Len said, and added, "I love your hair."

"You do?" she said in a softer voice.

"Everything is good in its own place," he said. "Hair is good on a head, not in the soup."

She didn't laugh. "Thank you for the compliment," she said. "But may I return to the painting?"

"Let me guess," he said. "Your name is Rapunzel, right? I want to rescue you."

She came closer, took off her glasses and looked him straight in the eyes. Her breasts were heavy under the thin turtleneck.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

Len was reasonably sure. He guesstimated, about 90% sure. "Yes," he said. "I am sure. Please drop your braid from the window and let me climb in."

"Aren't you afraid of the witch?"

"No," he said. "I'm not afraid of the witch."

She thrust her hand into his. "Let's go," she said. "Let's face the witch."

She hailed a taxi, and they rode in silence. He tried to put his hand on her thigh, but she brushed him off. A few minutes later, they walked under a red awning, and entered a gray stone condo building. A bald doorman, his cap on the desk next to him, watched them with his beady eyes.

The woman led Len up the stairs to the second floor. She unlocked the door and let him into the apartment. The hallway was dimly lit. Len noticed a good copy of a Monet, a carved wooden table with a few magazines on it, and an old-fashioned umbrella propped against a coat tree. A man came from another room, and Len shuddered. The man was taller than Len and wider in the shoulders. A deep scar divided his left cheek in two, and his arms were covered with serpent tattoos. A good quantity of grease covered his jet-black hair.

"Hi, Gladys," he said. "Who's this guy?"

"He's my Prince," she said, taking Len's hand. "He came to rescue me."

The man laughed. His laughter was dry and coarse, like two chunks of concrete scrapping against each other.

"Why do you need to be rescued?" he asked. "Didn't you come last night?"

Gladys turned to Len. "You see how this witch is treating me?"

"I thought witches were female," Len said. His tongue was heavy now. "Should you be called a warlock?"

"I'm a male witch," the man said, stepping forward.

Len stepped back. He had a Swiss Army knife in his pocket, but it was too small to be a weapon. He would probably cut himself before wounding the witch anyway.

"I'm going to pack my things," Gladys told Len. "Hit him right in his ugly face if he tries to stop me."

"You are not going anywhere," the witch said.

"Why not?" she said, regarding him as if he were a dangerous but caged beast.

"Because I love you."

"Ah," she said. "That changes everything. All I need is love. Love is all I need."

"I mean it, Gladys." He took a ring from his pocket and showed it to her. "Two carats, Gladys. From Tiffany's. Will you marry me?"

She turned to Len and checked him from head to sensible loafers once again. "Sorry, Prince. Come some other time."

Len took a few backward steps, facing the pair. He feared that the witch would knock him down and strangle him with Gladys' braid. Len's shirt was wet on his back. I can take him, he thought, lying to himself. I can take him.

He took another step and opened the door. Gladys and the witch kissed and embraced each other. The witch wore a T-shirt that said "Cornell" on the front and "Breast Center" on the back. Normally, Len would ask, "Why does it say 'breast' on the back?" This time, Len closed the door behind him silently.

He stood there, sweating, yet unable and unwilling to leave. Something heavy dropped inside the apartment. He hoped it was the coat tree. The witch's voice boomed, punctuated by Gladys' shrill cries, but Len couldn't make out the words. He took hold of the doorknob, yet he didn't dare to turn it. He felt like a troglodyte, judging the world outside by the dancing shadows on the cave wall.

The doorman sneered as Len passed by him. Outside, the city belched at Len with exhaust and ethnic food. Taxis yelled at him, and a man with the shoulders of a bouncer shoved him aside. Lying on the sidewalk, tasting blood in his mouth, Len opened his eyes and saw a human braid, secured by a stainless steel bracket, creeping down toward him from the second floor window.

Mark Budman's fiction and poetry have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, McSweeney's, Iowa Review, Happy, Exquisite Corpse, Web Del Sol, Parting Gifts, Conversely and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash (short-shorts) fiction magazine Vestal Review.

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