Friday, December 14, 2007

"New Clothes" (A Short Story by Dale H)

Well, I haven't had much to write lately but I've had lots to read. One of the things I've enjoyed reading lately have been some short stories of some friends of mine. I asked them if I could share them. Here's one by my friend Dale at seminary. In a week or so I'll post one from my friend Dave M. I won't say much about them but if anyone comments I'll make some comments too. Be nice to my friends though! I love stories that take you to another place or into another person's mind or heart. Both of these stories do that. If you have some time, give them a read! Peace, Jon.

New Clothes

A Short Story

If one could somehow know, before it occurred, that this or that experience would leave its indelible mark on the imagination, I suppose one would make a more conscious effort to absorb as many of the details as possible for later rumination. As it is, I remember very few, and those I do drift intangibly before my mind’s eye like grains of dust suspended and illuminated but briefly in the sunlight shaft of my memory.

I remember especially the heat. It had gripped me like a sweaty fist all that day as I waited for the evening’s performance. I had whiled away the sun and the time in the shade of the carefully manicured greenery of Vienna’s Stadtpark, reading the last pages of Camus’ L’Etranger. If I had not been laboring so hard to effect that existential objectivity I so admired in its narrator, I would probably have allowed myself to indulge in the sense of absolute Bohemianism the whole scene evoked—the drifting traveler in repose, detached and foreign, sitting and reading an existential French novel in the dappled shadows by the banks of the Donau, oblivious of the crowds rushing past him along the Schubertring.

In retrospect, I must admit, the majority of Camus’ sparse prose was wasted on my ungainly schoolbook French, but the odd phrase here and there—"Do you wish my life to have no meaning?" "I had no soul, there was nothing human about me"— whet my appetite for the profound just enough to keep me engrossed. I read and reread the final paragraph somewhat tremulously, trying to absorb the essence of those last sentences. Though I did not understand his des cris de haine, I knew well enough what he meant by la tendre indifférence du monde-- a world which had ceased to concern me.

Perhaps this is why I was disappointed that evening to find that the two Americans so annoyed me. My annoyance bore witness to the failure of my contrived detachment. We were all crowded together in the dim light of the standing-room-only section of the Vienna State Opera House: these Americans behind me to my left, a stoic British couple just in front of me, to my right the Australian tourist who had chatted so affably at me in the line while we waited for our tickets. In this crowd, the heat of the day, not at all waning with the evening, swarmed oppressively. Many had already accordioned their programs into fans and were desperately trying to wave it away. My Lonely Planet had assured me that Stehplatz—standing room only admission—to the Vienna State Opera House could be purchased for a mere 20 Austrian schillings, and the cultured exoticism of it all had been irresistible to me. It may be that I was not the only pseudo-bohemian traveler looking for a taste of the exotic after spending the day reading French nihilistic literature by the banks of the Donau, for the standing-room-only section densely packed.

At any rate, these Americans annoyed me. They had struck up a conversation of the most transparent kind with the woman standing next to me. She was a girl, really, perhaps twenty, and the tone and tenor of these two young tourists was particularly grating: "Have you been to the Opera before?" "Are you from Vienna?" "We’ve been traveling through Austria for two weeks now." Without effort the image came to me of these two college kids back home in Connecticut regaling their friends with stories of the time they had with that girl they met at the State Opera House in Vienna, like some trophy snapshot in a sordid photo album captioned with ugly words like "score" and "chick."

That the girl spoke English with an extreme brokenness, which she tried to hide behind fluttering, averted looks, made the whole scene the worse. They pressed her. "Are you Austrian?"

"No… not Austrian." Her accent was German. "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

Because of the crowds, I could not help but notice her. She was quite lovely, in a timid way. Her complexion was porcelain-white, and the hair that fell in dark curls past her shoulders, together with the wide darkness of her eyes, exaggerated its fairness to pale. She smiled faintly at their conversation but something about the hint of nervousness in the gesture, the furtive movement of her eyes as she did so, suggested to me a mother bird feigning a broken wing to distract a predator from the vulnerable hatchlings in her nest.

Her figure, too, though graceful, had a fragility about it that was accentuated by her unusual attire. A simple white dress hung straight from her shoulders, curvelessly to her feet. Aside from the obvious newness of the dress—its stiffness and brightness—there was nothing remarkable in it alone. Even the platform sandals she wore, though they gave the impression of a child playing at dress-up in her mother’s high heels, were not especially unusual. It was the brilliant sash bound about her straight waist that caught the eye. A bright, lime green silk, it seemed all the more green for being the only swatch of colour she wore: a brilliant star of green in a perfect night of white. On any other figure, in any other setting, this combination would have seemed eccentric, even clownish. In her it somehow gave her loveliness a bashful naiveté, pitiable perhaps, but not laughable. I could close my eyes and imagine this timid young innocent donning this plain white dress, her newest and best, for her first time at the ballet, scrutinizing herself before the mirror with a look of humble dissatisfaction, and then, with artless triumph, completing her ensemble with this garish green sash, blissfully ignorant of the glaring effect, and all the more lovely for that ignorance.

"You speak German?" one of the Americans was asking.

"Yes…German."

"We’ve never seen ballet before." The other was confessing. "Do you like it?"

Again the mother-bird fluttered her broken smiles: "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

"Well, when you’re in Vienna, you have to go to the Opera House at least once."

"Yes. It is so… beautiful."

"I’m Josh."

"And I… I am… Sofia."

The British couple ahead of me was mumbling placidly to one another about the pending performance: "It says here the show tonight, ‘L’Existence’ is an experimental modern ballet."

"Experimental and modern? I wonder what we should expect then."

"Something deep, I’d say. Interpretive, no doubt."

Next to me the effusive Australian was imposing on my attention some anecdote he had read in his tour guide about the Emperor’s commissioning of the Staasoper. "Look here, mate," he was saying, "it says the architects of the Opera House committed suicide after the Emperor Franz-Josef made some off-hand remark about the building being too low to the ground. Can you imagine?"

Apparently the foundation had been laid before the surrounding street was finished, and the street ended up being higher than planned. In his chagrin over his role in their deaths, the Emperor sought to avoid the self-destruction of other artists by confining all subsequent aesthetic judgments to a simple: "Es war sehr schön, es hat mich sehr gefreut"—it was very nice; it pleased me very well. "Not much of an art critic, was he?" laughed the Australian as he recounted to story.

All the while I listened to him I kept the corner of my attention fixed on that strange girl and the two Americans. Before my annoyance could pin itself to a justifiable excuse, however, the ballet began.

The lights faded and the noise of the crowd dimmed to silence. For a few moments my eyes and ears gaped wide in the perfect darkness as we waited for something to happen. Then, the faintest scratch of a bow on a violin moaned distantly, and ceased. It scraped again, ceased again, and then the sound began in earnest. To call it music would somehow fall short in conveying the dark, swirling chaos of tonal textures— staccato creaks, piercing wails and guttural groans—that escaped in irrational intervals from that unseen horsehair scraping wire somewhere in the darkness. It was not unmelodic. It was deliberately and calmly antimelodic.

Though no doubt these noises were all carefully contrived, the ear sought vainly for some pattern which it might cling to and call rhythm in the sinuous bursts of sound. In the back of my mind I wondered if this was what was called atonality.
Whether my eyes had begun to grow accustomed to the dark, or whether somewhere on stage a light had come up, I couldn’t tell, but peering ahead an image slowly materialized: two hunched forms occupied opposite corners of a large square platform elevated some four feet off the main stage. In the hazy but growing light it appeared to be hovering there, suspended in a void of nothingness. It was lit, I now felt certain, from above with a grim grey light, but what made the scene hazy and indistinct was a transparent veil or curtain that was apparently hung in the darkness before the stage. In the centre of the platform sat a large, white cube.
Still the sound writhed around us.

For what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. Then the figures rose and began their movements. Their black leggings and the shadows along the muscles of their naked upper bodies gave them a sinister air in that gloomy light. The music having no perceptible rhythm, it was somewhat difficult to discern a dance in their gyrations, but as they moved toward one another, the most unexpected thing happened. The platform began to tilt with the shifting weight of their bodies, pitching and heaving like some enormous, two dimensional scale. As it did so, the white cube in the centre began to move and slide with it.

Once the movement started, it could not stop without threatening to dump one, the other, or the white cube off into the pit. So the two figures drifted continually through the gloom and shadow, sometimes chasing, other times grappling each other, or else twining together to form some subtly grotesque tableau before flinging apart. And every movement was somehow punctuated with that eerie, formless sound.
Gradually the randomness of the scene wore off and a story, or perhaps more accurately, a pattern, could be made out. The two men were in competition, but this was only clear from the way one would attempt to tilt the platform such that the other came precariously close to disappearing over the edge. They were also striving for control of the white box; and through manipulating the scale just so, one might cause it to slide to him, only to have it wrested from him by the machinations of the other.

At times the two would lock together leaving the cube to slide itself dangerously close to the infinite abyss of the edge, only to be spared this just in time by further shifting of the platform’s angle. This continued through no clearly defined progression until, after a time, by some chance coincidence of vectors, friction and forces, the cube came to rest safely in the centre of the platform again, the two figures balanced on opposite corners. There they hunched again to their original positions. The violin heaved itself to a near-rhythmic tattoo, dropped darkly to a long whispered sigh, and stopped abruptly. The faint light was snuffed out and darkness again descended. With it fell a palpable silence.

The lights rose and for the briefest glimmer of a pause, the audience digested what they had just witnessed. Then a knowing ripple of applause began. It was not enthusiastic, but neither was it was obliging. It was an ovation of assent, not an approval, as if in one voice the audience was merely saying, "Es war sehr schon, es hat mich sehr gefreut," without passing any aesthetic evaluation on what had passed on stage. Clearly refined, the only thing the crowd seemed eager about was to prove there was not an uncultured Philistine in all their midst.

I stood there for a while after the applause had died, suspended between consternation and bemusement. "Well then," the Australian interjected at my right, "That was unexpected." His words brought me from my indecision and settled me squarely in bemusement.

In the row before me, the British couple had begun to ponder the performance between them, their voices quiet with a taciturn, if somewhat cadenced detachment. "But what did it all mean?" she asked him, her voice betraying not the least hint of disquiet.

"I suppose that’s entirely the wrong question," he answered knowingly. "Or a question impossible to ask. It meant nothing. Or rather, that there is no meaning."

She nodded acquiescence: "But it was experimental?" "Indeed."

Indeed. The faintest hint of a thought glimmered in me: if it was truly so, with what could it have possibly been experimenting? Even as that revealed darkness dimmed, I stole quick glance across the crowd and seemed to see the whole mass of humanity in new light, blithely rationalizing the irrational. With mild interest they had already assented to it, uncrumpled and consulted their program for the next piece, as if to say, "Well, even so, life must go on."

Then she began screaming.

"Nein! Es ist eine Lüge!"

And there is not a word sufficiently clear of cliché to convey the piercing cry. Frenzied, hysterical, lunatic, even bloodcurdling, haunted: it was all these things at once, and yet none of them. It was feral, to be sure, yet so precise, so oracular was its tenor, it came more as a clarion call than a howl of horror.

To make it worse, everything I heard in her cry was garbled with that enigmatic ecstasy of an unknown tongue.

"Nein! Nein! Das kann nicht sein! Wie können Sie diese Spötterei schön nennen?"

As usually happens when the unconventional shatters the nice platitudes of manners that keep the pond-water of society serene, it took a moment for the multitude to agree on an appropriate response. I could see people looking at one another with uncertainty and censure, and, concealed beneath them, that ancient terror of the weird. At first they gestured with their chins and condescending nods: "What is the matter with that one?" But like a pebble breaking pond water, a ripple spread concentrically from her, the standing crowds pressing back until there was a clearing around her of considerable radius.

And all the while she cried out: "Es ist eine Lüge! Können Sie das nicht sehen?Es ist Hässlichkeit und Leere! Eine nackte Lüge! Es ist nichts drin!"

Even those in the auditorium general, down below our crowded section, had begun to turn, look up, and murmur against the commotion in the standing room only pit.
But I found myself somehow paralyzed by the cry of this strange young sibyl: I could not press back from her with the others. For a moment it seemed as if my whole consciousness had narrowed on her cry, or that somehow the radius of the clearing around her and I had stretched to infinity. I looked nervously for those two Americans, but they had disappeared completely.

Then she turned her eyes on me, and as she did so, her body collapsed against the wall and she slid slowly to the floor. The look in her eyes trembled between pleading and defeat. She was weeping now. I felt her reach up and clutch my hand. And those fingers, their strange flesh, felt like ice against my skin. Her eyes held me frozen. She was babbling now, spent, though even subdued her voice had and inexorable urgency:

"Wieso? Warum können sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

I could not escape the lowering impression that her eyes were imploring something of me. Some response, some sympathy was expected of me. I stood there stupidly. She rose up on her knees, still clutching my hand in that icy grip. She turned her voice one last time over the crowd, and shouted a final indictment:

"Können Sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

Then she collapsed again against the wall, weeping exhaustedly, her chin drooped on the breast of her new white gown.

The confused murmurs of the crowds trickled towards me; part of me longed to discretely shake my hand free of her grip and join their condescending indignation at the disturbance. But I stood there, still stupidly.

"Was ist denn mit Ihnen los?" The voice of the usher broke the tension. Surely someone had summoned him to discretely usher away this impropriety. Her face was ashen as she lifted trembling eyes to him: like one stirring from the dead.

"Kommen Sie, lasst uns gehen. Sie sind wohl betrunken?" That he spoke German could not veil from me the utter contempt in his voice.

"Ich bin nicht betrunken."

Her voice was subdued now, but her eyes cast about with still a hint of their previous wildness. "Aber was war denn das? Ich dachte, es sollte schön sein."

"Kommen Sie, Fräulein. Lasst uns gehen." He reached out his hand, a menacing invitation.

She rose resignedly to her feet. Her hand was still against my fingers, but it felt now like air, not ice. She let it slip away, and my fingers were left haunted by the frozen imprint it had burned against them.

"Aber es war nicht schön…."

The usher snorted. "Nein, das war Kunst."

She left a kind of awed stillness in her wake. Slowly the crowd pushed back to fill in the void of her passing, as if in one mass they were trying to shrug off the memory of her. The hushed murmurs rose up again, but more subdued this time. "What was that all about?" they asked, expecting no real answer.

Behind me I heard one of the tourists who seemed to have a smattering of German translate for another. "She asked about the ballet… what it meant. He said it was just art." Her knowing "Ah" at this information crept across my spine.

The lights were dimming a second time, signaling the end of the intermission and the start of the next performance. I tried to focus my reeling concentration on the music that was now rising with the falling light.

This was a ballet in the fullest tradition of that word. Flowers, ribbons, tight silk stretched across taut bosoms and terse thighs pirouetted across the stage through a music that washed over all with a lush, fecund, somehow verdant sensuality. The gyrations and leaps of horn and flute and string were echoed and echoed by the luxurious movement of those carefully honed bodies.

My ears rushed with it, until it became a roar. Even as I watched, I felt my body convulsing with the urge to vomit. The heat, the press of the standing-room-only crowds overwhelmed me. I groped for the exit frantically, burst almost gasping for breath into the foyer of the Opera house, and rushed out into the moist night air, swirling with the traffic on the Opernring. My hand still burned with cold.
When the convulsions finally left me, and I was able to somehow compose my self, I began making my way slowly through the pressing, hot night towards my lodgings. But every step was a labor, and those eyes—like the haunted eyes of one who has looked behind a veil, a torn veil, and seen the gaping void of nothingness behind—pleaded with me through the darkness. And in my burning ears, as if it would never leave me, rang that forlorn howl of execration.

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