She speaks them aloud, without much feeling, as if they are words she picked up from the sidewalk.
After that, there is confusion. Is she addressing me, with casual gentleness and a promise of what seems more than an affair? Or is she referring to some other person, who is, in some way, her lover, maybe even her husband? There you are: from the first instant, from the moment we meet, there's this confusion, which leads to a larger world of possibilities. A world that
may even exist by itself, without any reference to our world, at least without any reference to my world of rational behaviour. A world lingering on the border of my potential madness. After these words, there's not much one can do, only guess at the immense possibilities, the alternates, the ever-bifurcating paths.
And finding oneself alone on one of those paths.
Her hands move in a very controlled way, as if she is repeating a dance performance, a ballet. She picks up a high-stemmed glass from the tray that a man in grey velvet holds up (I take another) and sips from the golden liquid. There is certainty in her glance—she is not mistaking me for someone else. At some point in the past, or during a longer episode of her life, she
has known me, has spoken to me, has confided some trivial secret to me—and now she expects me to remember these events, to remember even her name.
As we are guests at this party, and supposed to be generally friendly to other people, I smile and equally sip from my glass. The liquid is of unknown origin, as in a dream (although one cannot taste things in dreams). She comments on the blossoming flowers in the garden behind us, she says something about the host and his wife, she mentions the splendour of this palace by the sea. I refrain from sharing my thoughts with her, just smile. My left hand is behind my back.
Then her gaze drifts over my shoulder and fixes on something that is happening behind me. The expression in her eyes changes. It is hardly noticeable, but it cannot escape me, trained as I am in reading people's faces and discovering the nature of their most terrible secrets. It is not fear I see in her eyes, but some disquiet, bordering on disdain. Slowly I turn my head. Behind me a dozen people stand near one of the large French windows where the silken drapes hang
like frozen waterfalls. They are clad in black or night-blue, and they seem not to enjoy themselves. I recognize none of them. One of the men catches my attention, slightly nods and forms the faintest of smiles. He seems to prefer irony to good manners—that's the sort of man he is.
When I look back at her, her attention is again on me. She resumes the empty conversation we had before, and after two or three minutes excuses herself, as I had expected her to do.
Maybe that is the moment—the supreme moment—when the Angel passes our window, or maybe all of this merely happens in one of my odourless dreams.
The man in the dark suit may even have left his company to approach her, but then, and then again, I am unaware of either his or her intentions. I have a hard time understanding other people's intentions. I have an even harder time understanding my own intentions.
She is back and makes that gesture again—it surely means something, something subversive, something that has to do with those two words she spoke, words that could not possibly have been destined for me. Me, this poor soul, whose wanderings in the world will soon end. In the distance a rumbling noise resounds over the hills. There are people living in those hills, but they live in another land and—what is worse—another time. I've heard stories about them, and none
of these stories incites me to visit them. I must have patience with the habits of other cultures if I want to become a good diplomat, but patience goes against my nature. I will never make a good diplomat. I read too much Voltaire. I read too much Sade. I am not willing to shed my old habits. I distrust officials in black suits.
"Do you not remember the autumn in Kariningrad," she says, and her words, as the first of her words I can remember hearing, have a feel of thick milk, of gentle marble slightly warmed by a spring sun. I do not remember Kariningrad, it sounds like a place out of an opera, it probably does not even exist. She picked it out of some thick book by one of those obscure, nineteenth-century Russian writers, who had too much time on their idle hands. There never was an autumn in Kariningrad, and no other season either. No gentleman ever fought a duel in Kariningrad, no child was ever born there, no ship sailed from its foggy harbour.
"You behaved badly there," she insists.
I should tell her that I am in no mood for her games. But her eyes, the certainty of her expression, the hunger I see in the way she looks at my face. I may have behaved badly in my past, certainly, but never, never in Kariningrad.
She could not even mistake me for someone else, because there would not have been someone else in that doomed town. With its Roman Cathedral, its steep alleys, its yellow mosque, and the calls from the announcers of public deaths. No one she knew could have lived there, in that non-existent city, where writers came to stay the summer because the sea inspired them, and painters paid prostitutes to pose for them in rotting ateliers. Kariningrad, where the cardinal was not a man of virtue, and his priests wore thorns under their garments. This city, which did its
best to forget its own past, never existed, and no one could claim to have been born within its walls.
"You promised," she says, and for a moment I assume she is going to caress my cheek with the side of her frail left hand. I close my eyes, for an instant—it is stronger than myself: this feeling of warmth, this certainty that my life will not end here, in this immense palace, but will go on for some time, even longer than I am naturally permitted. She is recalling a promise I have no knowledge about. It is certainly a promise that belongs to Kariningrad, or some other fanciful city at the edge of forever.
Guido Eekhaut has published a dozen books in Belgium and Holland, including the three Orsenna books:
Orsenna (1994), Vacuumeiland (1996) and De Vivisectie
(2003). An SF-like thriller, Zombieworld, was also
published by Babel in early 2005. His stories have
been anthologised many times, and
several of them have appeared in translations in
Germany, Poland, Romania and Denmark. He has worked as a freelance journalist
for a number of newspapers and magazines
and still writes for the Belgian management magazine
Bizz. He has also published a number of
essays on literature, geopolitics, history
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