The two men walked smoothly, effortlessly even, down the shimmering two-tone corridor, painted chlorine blue and surgical-glove white. One of the men, the one who was markedly taller, walked down the corridor with his hands folded behind his back, in the manner of an intellectual. His eyes won adjectives like “piercing” and “penetrating” from his colleagues, and his hair demonstrated the untamed disarray of a mind that had loftier matters than personal grooming to be attending to. The other man had his arms crossed in front of his chest, the better to stroke his soft chin. Both men had this in common: they wore long white smocks, which had been pressed and bleached until one could not say that they were either eggshell white or lamb’s-wool white or even snow white. They were simply white, and both of these men were medical doctors. As they walked they exchanged words, words of such uncommon gravity that they immediately dropped from their orbits about the conversationalists’ heads, falling irretrievably out of earshot to everyone who might have desired to hear, to everyone with the important exception of the two doctors themselves. We shall maneuver ourselves gingerly, surreptitiously, ever-nearer to the pair of interlocutors, upsetting a cart of glimmering surgical instruments in our clumsy haste, a prickly bouquet of scalpels, teraphim extirpation pliers and wending hooks clattering upon the waxed floor, dancing chaotically with their reflections. A hallway full of bandaged heads looks up in surprise. The doctors notice nothing, they are far too absorbed in their muttering and chin-tugging. At long last we have gained the necessary proximity to catch the learned dialogue.
“I want you to imagine, Higgins,” the tall doctor was saying with an expressive sweep of the hand, “that you are walking along, say, this very corridor. And impossibly enough, what should you come across but a river, very deep and filled with rushing water. The current is swift, indeed.” Higgins seemed about to voice a doubt, but this was overruled by an impatient wave of the tall doctor’s hand. “In such a predicament you would know full well
not to go jumping headlong into that river. But why would you know it, Higgins? Can you answer me that question?”
“Cause and effect,” muttered Higgins.
“Ah, yes, our old friends cause and effect, but it is not entirely that simple, is it Higgins? The effect of jumping into the river is only that you fall in. But then the effect of falling in is that you begin to sink, and then the effect of that is sinking entirely, which causes the swallowing of water and the filling of the lungs with water, which leads to …”
“Death,” said Higgins, stony-faced, ”Then we come to death, I believe.”
“Very good, Higgins. Now in the unusual case of Mr… (here a rapid flipping through pages on a clipboard) Delfour, this cause and effect system has broken down. When you and I stand by a river, we needn’t work our way through the thicket of causes, step by step, we skip straight to the upshot, i.e., drowning and death. But in each individual situation, Mr. … Delfour needs to shuffle through all the logical steps.
That is to say, the synthesis pan of his brain,” said the tall doctor, tapping a ball-point pen instructively just above his left ear, “is a wreck. A bona fide cataclysm. But I tell you Higgins, this could be an historical rupture …”
An historical rupture! Higgins swooned, only fractionally capable of following his colleague’s mountain-goat leaps of deduction.
The two medical professionals found Mr. Delfour’s substantial file at the secretary and acquainted themselves with his medical history. The usual stew of ruptures, fractures, fissures and sutures … but then something unexpected jumped out at them.
“The patient displays a (…) morbid anxiety of (…) failure, the dark, heights, fast movement, confined spaces, dogs, and yet has demonstrated (…) no associative fear of death.”
“Death?” murmured Higgins. It was his second encounter that morning with the word.
“Hmm,” considered the tall doctor, wiping his monocle on his smock and bunching up his forehead thoughtfully.
Mr. Delfour himself they found in room 317, in a remote ward of the hospital set aside for “miscellaneous” cases, those patients for whom medical history did not permit easy categorization. He was thickly swathed in bandages and propped up at a jaunty forty-five-degree angle. A ray of sunlight illuminated the room, and the tinny pluck of a guitar came from a small radio. A hanging bed-sheet divided Mr. Delfour from his ward-mate, a man who, to judge by his monotonous groans, must have sustained some sort of head injury. Had either of the two doctors taken the time to go behind the curtain, to step towards the wizened graybeard, whose very appearance suggested superhuman dignity and majesty, had either of them put their ear to the groaning man’s colorless lips, they might have perceived that he was stubbornly repeating the word “Yggdrasil” .. but even then, it is unlikely that anything definite would have been communicated. Both doctors wondered when he might be inhumed.
Higgins officiously approached Mr. Delfour’s bedside. His face was a carnival mask of leering sympathy, an expression he had worked on conscientiously, perfected, but then which had over time self-eroded into the present unwitting parody.
“Exactly … where does it hurt?” he cooed.
The patient outstretched an uncertain finger and indicated a few sites of particular tenderness at the back end of the cranium and along the strata of the rib cage.
“What … exactly … has caused this … unfortunate mishap, Mr. Delfour?” asked Higgins, selecting each syllable with the utmost care.
“THE FIRST CAUSE?” groaned Mr. Delfour in wide-eyed disbelief and horror. Some bemused chuckling resonated from the ward-mate behind the hanging sheet.
“No, let’s not bother with that … ” intervened the tall doctor, who was routinely made to feel uncomfortable by demonstrations of personal pathologies run amok, “Just proceed from the first cause which you vividly remember. State only those things which you have actually experienced.” Mr. Delfour seemed to understand and be reassured by this, and so both doctors took out their notebooks and readied themselves to write.
“In St. Bartholomew’s Church, a short stroll down P Street from the market stalls and the children drawing interconnecting networks of squares on the hot pavement, a regional variation on hopscotch which requires twice as many players and, shall we say, a more northern disposition, past the butchers’ district, where the meat shops are all decorated with bianca folia blossoms at this time of year, which serve to somewhat obscure the odor of over-ripened meat ferreted out of the trash bins by the neighborhood mongrels, whose ribs, had they been the cheekbones of a lady, might have been described as prominent and whose sudden furies are infamous, past a motley handful of youths with six-dollar haircuts and an unmanageable dread inspired by a first lesson in algebra, delivered in quavering soprano by a Mr. Edilsen Shpilman, who, when confronted by a question from one of his students pertaining to the specific nature of ‘x’ itself, a question he had neither anticipated nor actually puzzled through clearly in advance, heard his voice relating how in fact ‘x’ was an abyss, a terrible black space, comparable to the feeling one gets upon waking up in the dead of night with a momentary sense of total disorientation, which is inevitably thereafter replaced with a returning sense of location, but that does not address the dislocation itself, much like we never truly get to the fragile core of ‘x’. The boys kick stones at passers-by, who wonder how young people get to be so mean-spirited these days. A little further down P Street there is a medieval brick wall, the other side of which I have never seen, and am never likely to see, and then you are all but there, save for a time-worn stone path flanked with weathered statues depicting scenes of divine intervention …
“Thus: In St. Bartholomew’s Church, in amongst the gilded clutter and under the mural-painted ceiling crisscrossed with stone buttresses and rafters like you are in the rib-cage of some petrified whale, in the nave to the right of the wall-sized painting of a muscular man holding the slack length of his own skin, a wild grimace on his face not altogether reconcilable with any conventional notion of holy salvation, in just that place I saw …
“But what had brought me to the near-deserted and mildewy retreat of St. Bartholomew’s Church, you exclaim? Why not the merry pastel colors of the St. Kentigern Mungo, or the richly-illuminated and baroque-inspired St. Turibius of Mogroveio? Or even, come to that, the exquisite harmony of the various tints of blue that lull the faithful in the Church of St. Winfryd of Wales, patron saint of collapsed lungs, leaving trains and lumps in the throat? I had gone to Bartholomew’s to weep. My beloved Nicole, alongside whom I had spent every waking and uxorious moment for seven years and seven months … for whom I had removed slivers from tender, coral-red fingers, for whom I had provided weary consolation at 3:00 a.m., whose fingernails I had carefully pared — in short, I had scaled the frontiers of imagination to demonstrate my unconditional and boundless love, no act too vast or too minute, for in the final, celestial scales, every pared fingernail and wayward eyelash is fastidiously marked and weighed.
“Thus, it was unthinkable that anything might draw a shadow between us, but now I have the empirical facts at hand, this bedeviled history has run its course, and now I can only stoke the embers…”
“Mr. Delfour, I must insist ” began the tall doctor, polishing his monocle on his smock a touch too fastidiously, and stealing a glance at Higgins, who appeared utterly absorbed by the narrative, “… that is to say, if you will continue at the present, ambling pace … we shall never …”
The doctor was abruptly cut off by a howl from behind the sheet, either a cry of stabbing pain or an inhuman sort of laughter. Delfour’s ward-mate’s files had been lost some time ago, and none of the doctors could recall how long he had been in the hospital, what the exact nature of his ailment was, or even his name. Some doctors feared him, others denied his official existence. Delfour nodded his acknowledgment of the tall doctor’s criticism and resumed his story from a different angle.
“I am not sure how to introduce the matter of Mr. Codwell into this already fragmentary affair … But it is becoming apparent that I mayn’t get much further without his intervention. Suffice to say, when I call to mind Mr. Codwell, it is sitting behind his massive polished desk which offered a matte reflection of his office and, indeed, all available reality by smearing it into a lustreless haze. Mr. Codwell had a small round head, eyes that blinked rapidly, and a well-trimmed, reddish moustache. When he spoke there was evidence of his British ancestry, though he hadn’t set foot on the British Isles for twenty-three years. He ran a leather workshop, and on the one occasion that we met for conversation he spoke to me about his father (though this information was unsolicited).
“The elderly Mr. Codwell, Hugh by Christian name, had stumbled into the tanning business quite by chance. He had desperately longed to ask for the hand of Dolly Corshire, who was in every respect the classic Scottish beauty, down to the straw bonnet, and graced with glimmering green eyes to boot, but he had no earnings with which to ratify the request for her hand. So he abandoned his study of mosses, though his botany professors had been unanimous in agreeing that he showed promise, and that the moss analyses that brought regional fame to Clifford MacDuffery would scarcely have been thinkable: prior to the innovations developed by Codwell Sr., in favor of an apprenticing appointment in a leather-workers shop. This was work of the most arduous sort, but Codwell bore it out of grim necessity. He estimated that after one and a half years of work he would be in position to overcome the objections of Dolly’s parents with a substantial sum. He worked twelve-hour days, under the merciless scrutiny of a Mr. Flaxit, the proprietor of the business and his immediate supervisor. The two men swiftly built up a smoldering hatred for one another, only tempered by the recognition that they were an indispensable commodity to each other.
“It was eight days before the allotted one and a half years, a mere eight days before Codwell Sr. was to take his final payment from Mr. Flaxit, with which he would proudly ride up to Dolly’s estate, straight after tendering his formal resignation from the leather business and returning to his first passion, botany, about which he had been having pungent, mossy dreams in the dead of night, sultry, plush dreams of intellectual satiety … Eight days preceding this scheduled event, emblazoned in vivid vermilion in his mind’s calendar, Dolly came prancing up to him in the street on his way to work. Her face aglow with joy. She cooed out his name and showed him her delicate hand, fluttered it right under his nose, and coiled around one of her fingers was a serpentine ring, the mark of some blackguard …
“When I mention that at the stroke of 6:27 that self-same evening, an hour at which most are reliving the tribulations of the bygone day with their rosy-cheeked families, sitting around the dining-room table as per age-old custom, perhaps the father indulging in a snifter of brandy, once in a while can’t hurt, when I say that at that very moment Mr. Flaxit was found run through by his own awl … I may tempt you to draw some unsavory conclusions, to fill in some intermediate events that are, strictly speaking, unhistorical. A certain model of pure historicism cautions us against a steady rearwards progress from an established event to hastily presupposed causes, however much they may satisfy our sense of narrative justice. To address the particular, we may speculate that, flung into a searing rage by Dolly’s ring, Cadwell Sr. takes momentary flight from his senses, bids a curt farewell to the faithless woman, walks the two-and-a-half miles to the leather shop on foot, in the garish melodrama of a downpour, no less, frightening children and the elderly en route by the murderousness of his mien, bellowing curses, kicking cars and street-lamps until, at the scene of his one-and-a-half year employment, rainwater trickling down his rage-distorted face and thunder cracking far aloft he throws open the tannery door with a dramatic sweep of the hand, bellowing “Flaxit!” in a voice that unambiguously proclaims his volatile mind … we could thereafter speculate that he ruthlessly approaches the aged Mr. Flaxit, gripping the awl with the initials R(udolph) F carved in the cherry-wood handle, his eyes a pair of red-hot coals … But all this would be going too far.
“We shall constrain ourselves to the historical particulars, namely, that Flaxit got his own awl in the back, the police hastened to arrest a shady gentleman who had been skulking in the immediate vicinity and who turned out to have a list of strangulations to his credit, and Flaxit’s Thursday afternoon funeral was attended by eleven bereavers, Cadwell Sr. inclusive, who thereafter took over the tannery and secured a marriage with a comely distributor that came bi-monthly for deliveries. All these facts Mr. Codwell told me, the junior Mr. Cadwell, his eyes moist with tears, on the one occasion I really had the chance to talk with him, whereupon he began telling me his father’s story, as though under the influence of a hypnotist, rapidly, breathlessly, unstoppably. When he had finished, his knees buckled slightly, and I had to give him my arm to prop himself up with while he busied himself daubing the sweat off his forehead with a silk handkerchief. It was then that he leant over, motioning my ear closer to his dry lips, and croaked that he had been spending nights with Nicole, my wife, whom you will recall I was uncommonly devoted to. Well, perhaps he did not come right out and say this in so many words, but his meaning, I contend, was transparent … or at the very least translucent … at any rate, a husband perceives these things intuitively … but again, I am skimping on details. I had come to Mr. Codwell’s office that day due to an improbable heap of details, strewn about my day with such contrived randomness that I cannot be sure that I haven’t merely dreamed it all. Or at least, I might not have been sure, had I not had the confirmation of that brazen confession in his office. Leaving for work this morning I kissed Nicole good-bye, as always, running my fingers down her cheek so as to memorize her softness throughout the day, and as I walked down the street I noted that therewas a bit of paper stuck to the sole of my shoe, which I had carried with me from inside of the house. Gingerly unpeeling it, I found it to be a vertically-torn business card, on which was printed
and on the back, in a gracefully sloping hand,
I trust you wi
“Well, there was probably nothing so terribly mysterious in that on its own, but perhaps the oddity of the surname … Mr. Cod, was it! … had me perplexed as to what had gotten it onto my shoe. I was meeting a janitor named Eugene MacDavis for breakfast, and thinking about thecard occupied me until I arrived at the restaurant.
“Eugene MacDavis was a round man with great, wide-open eyes, and, rightly or wrongly, I felt that I could trust him with the most discreet topics. I liked the way his big, slow head would nod up and down while I talked, a head ready to confirm any statement that my mouth might unpack, but with a touch of old-fashioned sincerity. Eugene MacDavis sat beside me then, sucking on a cigarette with a lazy smile and poking at his scrambled eggs with a fork. That sitting might have carried on indefinitely, punctuated by a coughing diner somewhere behind us and the sing-song click of the overhead fan, but like a fool I started talking.
“Say, Eugene…” I said out of the side of my mouth, warming up to it, ‘Do you know how sometimes you have no good cause to think of a thing, there seems no concrete source, but even considering that … Well, let’s say there are two associative parts of the mind … and one of those parts forms associations in a way that I recognize … while the other bases associations on more abstract principles, none too clearly defined … and when the second part gets, sort of, triggered .. .’ What on Earth was I babbling about? Eugene’s smile had something off-balance about it. ‘Look, Eugene, do you know anything about a Mr. Cod .. .’
“But at this juncture an abrupt spluttering sound made us both turn our heads to look. A man had sprayed soup all across his table, and was putting on his gray trench coat and leaving in a flustered hurry. A rattling of glass signified that he had slammed the door as he went.
”’Sure funny,’ drawled Eugene with a shake of the head, ‘I’ve never seen Mr. Codwell beetle off quite like that before.’ ‘Eureka,’ I said monotonously.
“I gathered from Eugene and from the phone book all the rest of the information I required, and then without knowing what I might say, I went to the Codwell leather building at three o’clock that afternoon. But only when Cadwell snivelingly divulged the information I have already mentioned, did I realize that I had in fact anticipated it, through that secondary associative function I had struggled to explain to Eugene.
“I am keeping a checklist in my head of things and events that need representation if the ending is to have any chance of making sense to anyone else … But put yourself in my place, gentlemen … If you were required to explain the building of a lamp to someone who had never seen a light bulb … that is … if you had to explain a structural critique to someone that had never read the book … Bah! Analogy only multiplies my difficulties. So far I have mentioned Dolly, both Codwells, introduced the St. Bartholomew’s Church, dabbled in historicism, presented MacDavis and my wife, indicated towards the treachery of the latter … I am making fine progress, all things considered, given that I have slept badly and briefly, that my ward-mate was shrieking pseudo-Biblical non sequiturs, in a guttural Scandinavian, no less, for the duration of last night, given that I only dimly recall what started me speaking in the first place. There are only a few more elements to introduce, and then we can return to the ellipses at the start of the narrative.
“Mrs. Alder, widow, had fine motives. Her husband, the deceased Mr. Albert Alder, had been a sound commercial failure. Strong of heart and moral standing, Albert had amounted to nothing in dollars and cents, an imbalance which caused the elderly Mrs. Alder to feel a terrible injustice, which was only one symptom of the lack of righteousness that was the calling card of her era. She chalked this up to Albert’s utter disregard for superfluities and extravagances, his overriding belief that people would pierce through the outer ostentations, as some birds do through mollusc shells, to the core, the essence. But people, alas, were not birds, and Albert perished in frustrated misery, nearly penniless, and of a poor man’s disease.
“On her deathbed, knowing that her own finale was imminent, wishing ·to impart something, to preserve some fleeting trace of whatever experience she had husbanded, Mrs. Alder leaned over to her son’s ear and croaked ‘Spend a little extra on the suit.’ Her son, Mortimer Alder, was so much in awe of the papery hand falling limp from his own big hands, her scowling lips and her overall strange ineffability … almost transparency … that he very nearly overlooked the fact that his mother was uttering her final worldly syllables. When he had taken notice, and when the last, faintly acrid-smelling breath had been expelled from his mother’s lungs, he could not help but marvel at the peculiarity of it all.
“Marvel he could, but question was another matter entirely. His eyes glazed with weariness and gloom, he went directly from the deathbed to the tailor’s and had himself fitted.
“Four years pass, maybe five. Mortimer secured himself a high-salary position in an office building so tall that the architect was said to have scoffed at the possibility of its execution. His sense of vanity was soothed with every approach to the structure, it was a landmark, he would say, drawing out the first syllable for emphasis, and he had installed himself at its very heart.
“His life had not involved any particular ardor. Buying a suit had given him Corporate confidence, which had allowed him to apply for a position and shake hands with a man whose ‘means’ were abundantly clear from a cursory glance at his office. Mortimer developed a taste for the benefits of me lifestyle, cigars, golf, leather, car interiors, and considered himself well removed from whatever vanities had undone his father.”
A spluttering caused Mr. Delfour to look up. It was the tall doctor, about to issue a statement of protest. Mr. Delfour raised a hand in acquiescence, as if to indicate “I am just now arriving at the point.” The tall doctor tried his best to look only temporarily mollified, recrossed his legs the other way, and waved the patient on with a begrudging snort.
“Mortimer began receiving things in the post. They were always in the same white envelopes marked with no return address, and handwriting so standardized that it might have come from a manual. There was always just Mortimer’s name and address and a number, presumably to help him keep track of how many he had received to date.
“Inside the envelopes it was always the same thing. Or nearly. Folded in four, so as to fit inside ‘the standard size envelopes, would be one faded picture, the scenes slowly, collectively, telling the story of the life of a saint. “A person less firmly rooted in pragmatics, that is, a person whose mind was liable to get caught by the gills in the net of such a riddle would doubtless have been set awhirl with such curiosities. A different temperament might have spun theories of the probability of x number of misaddressed letters, run through potential senders amongst acquaintances, and eventually, all other recourses bled dry, might have begun dreaming up ghosts, phantoms communicating through imagery in once-weekly correspondence, always Thursday, without fail, phantoms tricking or warning or merely haunting, jamming the gears with their renderings of a halo-capped infant, a wandering youth in torn clothing, a half-visible witness to Christ, perhaps a disciple. Mortimer considered none of these things. He tore open the envelopes with an automatic gesture, glanced at the new picture, and shifted his attention elsewhere. Perhaps he presumed them to be church advertisements.
“The final image was the one most familiar to church-goers: the fully-grown saint being flayed alive, having his skin torn from his body, the viscera laid bare for the viewer most conspicuously. Mortimer stalled on this image. He may have been arrested by its sheer untowardness … or perhaps he saw something in it that he recognized, perhaps his mind was deliberating whether or not to plunge into a category of thinking, the symbolic, which it was accustomed to dismissing outright, perhaps it sensed the presence of an intangible precipice which could be stumbled over with a careless footfall.
“In sum, however, there was no result. A thoughtful frown on his face, Mortimer slowly bunched up the saint’s image into a tight ball and flicked it out the window. “The ball of paper fell from the fourth-story apartment window, soared through the air, sailed a bit on an easterly breeze, and was piloted into the waiting concave dent at the summit of Mr. Billbent’s hat. “Mr. Billbent was stalking home from the opera in his finest suit (which wasn’t so remarkably fine, come to that), his emotions playing havoc inside his triangular skull. He loathed the opera, every sequin, gesture, and sentimental chord moved him to conclude that opera
was a vile and anti-intellectual spectacle for people who valued art as an excuse to wear expensive clothing and savor an intermission brandy. The counterfeit emotions stirred not the slightest sensation in his heart, and all the pomp and splendor reminded him of what sheer bombast human pretension could affect, once it had severed the yoke of dignified restraint. And the voices, the voices alternated between a strangled yelp and a canine growl, glissandoing mercilessly across all the intermediate notes. Yet now Billbent was in a bind. He had fallen in love with an opera singer.
“It was quite contrary to his intentions, of course (But what love is not?), yet his heart had convulsed at first sight. He saw her hurrying down a downtown avenue and automatically, absurdly, he swung his body around and followed her. He trailed her over a bridge, lost sight of her at a flower market, found her again dashing past a window filled with pirouetting mannequins, and finally saw her vanish in the back door of the opera house.
“His heart heavy, yet determined, Billbent bought a second-row ticket to the next opera, Luisa Miller by the virtueless Verdi. He got into his best suit the following evening, and took a roundabout route to the opera house, so that if any of his colleagues were to see him they would presume him to be bound elsewhere. In his pocket was a newly-acquired pair of opera glasses. “Billbent sat through the three-hour production with an expression of resolute conviction upon his face. The intermissions he bided in his seat, fending off social advances, smothered in gloomy silence. Then, at long last, his fortitude was rewarded. The woman he loved emerged in the bustle of a chorus scene, in peasant dress, holding a rustic basket of bread perched on her shapely cranium. He was bewitched by her effortless grace, by the gentle undulations of her throat as she sang with the rabble. When she ran off the stage, due to some danger-heralding thump-thumps of the timpani, Billbent collapsed into his seat, his clothing moist with perspiration, his nerves atingle, spent.
“Billbent was snared. From that day forward he was to attend every performance of Luisa Miller, three times a week. Sometimes he would fight to abstain, to keep himself about the house, opening up a bit of his favorite writer, David Hume, so as to distract his mind, but his strength of will would inevitably totter and crumble, and the last moment would see him charging off to the opera. His antipathy towards it had not softened one iota, mind … he still abhorred everything operatic, cringed at the opening fanfare of the trumpets and then through everything onwards … Yet this was but conclusive evidence of the divinity of this woman (whose name he had not learned, was never to learn), that even amidst such filth, in the deepest echelons of
the scum of culture, this unprecedented phoenix could
rocket forth …
“But Billbent came to loathe the torrid depravity of his three-times-weekly routine, and as a consequence, himself. He knew he would forever remain too cowardly to approach his angel after a concert. Self-disgust and shame rose like green bile at the back of his throat, even during the quietest moments. They built up in him like lava, until one night he resolved to endure the helplessness no longer. He left the opera with the intention of, upon returning home, fixing himself a cocktail two parts gin and five parts household bleach.
“On the way home, a crumpled ball of paper landed in his hat and nestled there.
“Mr. Billbent and I were the only two waiting for the 362 bus from the downtown core that evening. I had finally summoned up the strength to go home to my wife after Mr. Codwell’s brazen confession, Billbent was going home to drink. We waited some minutes in silence, only the rustle of automobiles slipping by, and then I noticed that the gentleman beside me had something on his hat. Excusing myself, I reached up for it and satisfied my curiosity.
“I have already described the singular picture drawn thereon, but. even more extraordinary was the inscription beneath: ‘Patron saint of Florentine salt and cheese merchants, and tanners and leather-workers.’ I blinked in astonishment, and informed Billbent: ‘I have on this very day had difficulty with a leather-worker.’ ‘Well, then,’ he concluded, ‘you had best go to St. Bartholomew’s Church.’ “And this I did without the slightest delay, by the route already marked out at the start of the narrative. When I arrived it was already late in the evening, but the door was still ajar. I seldom go to churches. Therefore, when I describe the interior of this one as desolate and comfortless, a tomb-like carriage from all that was natural and breathing … you must accept that I am unable to state if it was any more or less so than any other church. In I strode, my footsteps making hollow echoes as I went. Bulging, gluttonous cherubs plunged from the pillar-tops, their dusty gilded wings shining back the dim light of candles burning around them, their faces fixed in chimeric leers. Skulls and gravestones encrusted the walls, everywhere streaked with ponderous final salutations in Latin, that most mournful of all available languages. Half-decayed frescoes of martyrs in anguish dominated the walls and the ceiling. I had made it almost to the front altar, unsure of what I might do once I had reached it, when I swiveled, sensing some movement in the nave to my right. It was Codwell. Codwell was slowly moving towards me, a crackle of strange electricity in his eyes, and even before he drew out the antique awl from inside his jacket and raised it above his head like a thunderbolt, even before that I knew his maleficent intentions. ‘Codwell!’ I howled, and again, ‘Codwell!’ He peered over his shoulder anxiously, as though urging God to keep out of the forthcoming confrontation. Then he bore down on me. We grappled, I grabbed hold of his thin wrists, the awl sluiced through the air, sometimes stopping only inches from my face. Mad visions swept through my head, I thought he intended to have me skinned; he would jab me to near death and then peel me of my skin like a ripe banana. I thought that perhaps the story about Codwell, Sr. had been an infamous fairy tale, meant to foreshadow the taking of my life. As we wrestled past a statue of a bishop in supplication, I considered the grotesque possibility that everything … the bianca folia blossoms, Dolly, the torn-in-half business card, Albert Alder and Luisa Miller had been parts of a careful orchestration, the finale of which was now in frantic culmination. Suddenly, Codwell slipped from my hands. I stopped and looked down. We had struggled to the edge of a trapdoor to a crypt, a trapdoor which had been left open by a monk or a janitor or by God himself, and my adversary had tumbled into the inky depths.”
“And in this struggle,” ventured Higgins at last, snapping out of it a bit, his fourth notebook filled with rapidly-scribbled notes in a furious hand, his expression pleading, “in this struggle you sustained the injuries which we now see before us?”
“Ho, no, my good fellow, but from these circumstances we can see why I had a natural predisposition to turn away from the St. Bartholomew’s Church, a factor whose omission is unthinkable in light of subsequent …” The tall doctor furrowed his brow and considered leaving, but in fact did not move. The simple truth was that he was unable to move, stuck fast in the course of a narrative that was becoming indistinguishable from the cosmos itself. The four men were never to leave that constellation again, the two doctors patiently listening for the cause of injury, Delfour explaining, the voice behind the curtain, whose role in all this is uncertain, and must remain uncertain, groaning or laughing. The ward was cordoned off after a few consecutive weeks of the same, and, in time, the doctors ran out of paper, and thus concluded Mr. Delfour’s written file.
- As a reader, how did you respond to Mr. Delfour’s elaborate narrative?