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Totentanz

by Justin Lee

 

Is it not beautiful? I acquired this piece from the Museo del Prado, nearly a decade ago. I say “acquired” not simply for the word’s broad connotative relevance or for its gorgeous Latinate ancestry — birthed by quaerere, “to search for” (I having voided so many years on searching). Rather, the word has the quality of a dampener upon my conscience. Art, according to the great blind man, when it is good, belongs to no one — it attains the universal. Here, in this most tantalizing of Dance Macabre, the eo ipso universality has achieved something even higher in its public dissemination, an, as it were, triumph of The Triumph of Death. What then have I achieved? More than a simple theft, that is certain, for I am more than a simple thief. And might I add that my pilfering of Peasant Bruegel was not pilfering, per se. It was given to me quite willingly by the proprietor of the Prado; but, of course, most men are willing to do most anything when they’ve received small pieces of their daughters in the post.

Look closely, my fair Franciscan, at the symbols in this livid oil imbroglio. The starving dog sucking at the flesh of a child’s face. The pale horse, trampling the hapless herd as its rider harvests voided souls. Hoards of humanoids, their decayed skin stretched tight against elongated skeletons, standing defiant behind shields bearing the cross. And the cross itself, it is everywhere, is it not? Covering the walls of a human trap (which is perhaps a gate, a mouth, to hell?); the standard of those dead things in white togas (are they the intelligentsia?); erected alone, just left of center, isolated, impotent; and, most beautifully, descending in the form of a sword upon a man’s neck. You must have many questions. I apologize for removing your tongue, but certain circumstances require certain measures, and my resolve tends to flag at many questions and pleas. And tonight calls for resolve.

Ah, the thousand injuries of Fortunato! Yet the wine is behind us and you have never once insulted me. From the moment you crossed my threshold you have been all manners and unfeigned courtesy. For that I thank you. However, as all men are emissaries of universals, you possess a guilt so hot it bubbles beneath your skin. Or is that the queer ichor I forced down your throat serving its purpose? No matter. I ask you again to look closely at Pieter’s work. See that divine glow on the horizon? Those burning cities? It tells us that the foreground is but a microcosm of a greater catastrophe, death spread uniform upon the earth. Now — and listen well — tonight you are the foreground. You are the microcosm, the image-bearer of what I cannot kill. I say what rather than whom, because God is a thing, make no mistake. Oh to be Nietzsche and cry out in the wilderness that God is dead! God is dead! Oh to be Nietzsche and to have been right! Alas, he was not, and because I simply cannot abide my own end, I must stamp out his image wherever else I find it. You, my fair friar, are simply an image of what I hate, and the outplaying of that hate is the only thing I love. The dance, you see, I love the dance.

• • •

Many years ago I planted this garden. Strange, is it not? These shades of vermillion, the wavering, chaotic rows of heliotrope, now the color of dead flesh in this moonlight. The bloody hibiscus and geraniums, the amber of daffodils. This prismatic profusion of life, unordered save for this single aisle, a shattered rainbow in a world of broken images. Again, I apologize for these necessary bonds, and for the steel dolly. But how else could I remove you to my garden? What’s that? Forgive my laughter, but you must speak more clearly — I do not understand blood-salt gurgles. Mouth the words, please. I am quite adept at reading lips. Oh ho! What spunk, friar, what vitriol! It has always amused me that the easiest words to form are the vilest. Ah, and there it is, that vilest word of all: why? Well, friar, I can see your thoughts as if I were your own damned spirit. Why me? Why, of all the adepts, was I sent to this man to collect what should have been a generous donation? Why, why, why is there so much evil here?

That of course presupposes that evil is a thing whose existence is real — not merely the absence of the good, but a substantive, almost tangible, entity. Let me assure you that it is, and that it is delightful. Oh, do not be afraid, do not squirm. It is not yet time for all that. I have merely laid my hands on your shoulders as a gesture of camaraderie. What? You raise your eyebrows? You question, mon semblable, mon frére? How can you be brother to a monster, even a refined monster? Good friar, we are all monsters. Look in your heart. Look at the darkness. Every lust, every ill-intended glance, all those bitter words over the course of your twenty-two years? Each timid, homoerotic encounter in all those dark alcoves of your youth (and yes, do not blush, why else would you have rushed off to a monastery?)? All those acts are but isolated pullings from the great and aethereal malevolence that hangs like smoke through the universe. Now let me ask: if we are made in the image of God, and yet we are all monsters, what then is God? Ah, a fresh tear. The monster, the man of madness, has induced yet another tear.

We have arrived. Is it not beautiful? I planted it myself, maybe a year after my acquisition of the Triumph of Death. Just nine years old, yet it is one of the largest trees in this unreal city. I used no seed — I grew it from corpses and my discarded clozapine. Tangled within its roots you will find four bodies. The male infant I took from its crib in the eastern quarter. The old woman required only a bottle of bourbon to be lured from her street corner. The young politician, however, was a difficult acquisition, much more difficult than Pieter Bruegel’s masterwork. My favorite, of course, is my twelve-year-old ballet dancer, still moldering in her pink pointes. Ha, you squirm, friar. You’ve caught my meaning. And there they are! I can see the words you cannot speak:

“Stetson! My God, what have you done? What are you doing?”

All walks of life must be represented in a Danse Macabre allegory, my good friar, though I suppose mine is something more than an allegory. That is the why for this evening. For nine years my tree has been starved of the religiose. But no more.

What’s that? Your eyes are wide and searching. My brother, it is not the breeze which stirs those blue pedals blossoming in the boughs. There is no breeze at all. Yet the tree is quivering. Soon it will do much more than quiver.

• • •

“In solitude and in fatigue, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet.” Or so one wry Frenchman would have us believe. In these minutes I have allowed you, have you taken to prophecy? Have you envisioned the end that is coming? I would expect not; watching the roots of a tree writhe in their soil would be enough to blank the mind of any man. Ah, you start! It is only the gramophone, the very one whose gold stenciling you so praised just hours earlier, which conjured those darling reminiscences of your grandmother and her Victrola. I have brought it out as a stolid participant — without music there can be no dance. I’m sure you recognize the composition. Liszt’s dance is certainly the finest. Now, let me make you a promise: this will torment me for the rest of my life, just as the souls under my tree have tormented me these nine years. I am not devoid of conscience, even now it is screaming. How I love to hear it howl! Please, friend, do not struggle. Accept what is necessary. They are only clothes, after all. Let yourself be returned to that primal condition, that garden-innocence. See, you are not alone. I am removing mine as well.

Think of this as an honor. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad.” Ah ha! Totentanz! This is certainly on account of him. Perhaps even now you see your reward. Is it beautiful? Does it shine? Or has God proven himself a beast? You tremble. Is the honor too great? Are you afraid I am botching it?

Ah, there, one arm at a time. Do not worry; I am an old hand at crucifixion. You will remain conscious long enough to watch me dance naked in your blood.

 

 

Justin Lee is a counselor at a residential treatment facility for miscreant youth. When not wrestling with hooligans, he spends nearly all of his time writing fiction and studying philosophy. He lives in Waco, TX.


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ISSUE #20

October 2010

FICTION

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