Vera was my only cousin and was a distant one in more than the usual way; genetically, yes, but also geographically, emotionally, and, I now see, in the character of what one might call her spirit or soul. We had never shared any sort of kinship, or truly any acquaintanceship, to speak of. Best as my holey memory serves, Vera and I had met only a single time, at a stuffy family reunion that had taken place during my tenth Thanksgiving.
To suggest that any sort of foreshadowing had taken place during that soporific feast day would be prevarication of the highest order. I recall only that Vera had worn a plaid skirt and that her hair was very dark and very straight and rather short; not quite as short as I’d worn mine, but nearly. It is dubious that we exchanged any words beyond asking for a condiment to be slung down the chain of hands that lined the long banquet table.
Forearmed with this proem, I hope you might appreciate the dazed reaction I experienced when, on assignment, I came upon her name in conjunction with a tiny art gallery on the outskirts of the city. “Yes, they’re very interesting, aren’t they? Very interesting, indeed. They’re made by a local woman, each piece is done by hand and each is one-of-a-kind.” This was the voice of the older man who was perched behind the tiny counter. His was the physique of an overfed pigeon and his eyes were large and rheumy. The wooden stool that braced him groaned woefully each time he fidgeted, which was often. His teeth were the grey of cooked mushrooms and they shimmered with saliva when he smiled, which, thankfully, he did but once.
“Unique,” I said, hoping that the proprietor would repast with something like ‘Oh, yes, very unique’ or ‘truly unique’ so that I could then correct him by saying that the word ‘unique’ implicitly means something singular and without equal and thus requires no modifiers to enhance it. I enjoy giving these sorts of lessons to my public. Language is so very important, dying though it may be.
But the droopy man’s only response was a wet-sounding sneeze. I moved further down the gallery’s aisle, pausing to study an especially complex and delicate-looking piece that sat beneath the smudgy glass of a display case.
“That the carousel you’re looking at?” the proprietor asked, returning his hanky to the inside of his vest. “A keen eye you’ve got, sir. I’m fond of that one myself.”
I nodded. “Yes . . . yes, I suppose it is a carousel at that. Truth be told, I thought it was a scorpion at first.”
He chortled. “That’s the rub of it. That’s Ms. Elan’s gift, you see? Your eye’s sharper than most, I daresay. She calls this series Neithernor, because they are neither one thing nor the other. One sees two things at once, you might say. Take that one, for example . . . ”
He leaned forward on his stool and for a moment I feared he might try to rise, but he merely pointed to the case at the end of the show floor. I moved to it to save him further exertion. I studied the biggish piece featured there.
“For the longest time I thought that one represented a handheld mirror, then a young lady from one of the universities nearby told me that it was most definitely an Egyptian ankh. Now I don’t know which it is. I tell you, the funny thing is, when I leave here at night I will often think about Ms. Elan’s work, while I’m cooking my supper or lying in bed about to sleep. I think of it, but I can never remember exactly what these pieces look like. Isn’t that a puzzler? I sit here five days a week and I study them, trying to memorize every curl and bend, but once I leave this room, my memories change. The pieces become something different than what they were. Talented artist, she is. I’d like to show you my favourite of her creations, a sofa with teeth, but it sold in August.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell the man about my relation to the artist, but I didn’t.
“It’s clear she’s been successful, given that this gallery showing is all hers.”
The man’s head drooped as if ashamed. “We’re a consignment gallery, sir. We’d pay our artists if we could though. Surely we would.”
“She lives locally you said?” I returned, changing the subject.
“Well, her representatives do at the very least. They deliver me new pieces every few weeks or so.”
“So her works do sell then?”
“Occasionally. To tourists mostly. Slow time right now, being the off-season.”
“Could I trouble you for Ms. Elan’s contact information? I’m the arts and culture writer for the Mirror and I’m always looking to educate my readers on the more unique goings-on outside of the city.”
“A writer! Well, well, well. But you have me at a disadvantage, sir. Vera is a very private woman.”
I nodded. “That’s fine. Might I leave you my information so that Vera or her representatives can contact me if they wish?”
I produced my card then made my way to the door.
Prior to exiting, I posed one last question to the owner.
“Yes,” the man confirmed, “yes, every piece is, sir. Copper wire and human hair, that’s Ms. Elan’s medium. As I said, sir, you’ve a keen eye. Very keen.”
After I returned to the city and to the echo-heavy building that is the Mirror’s headquarters and to my tidy desk that is stationed within it I had every intention of drafting an official proposal concerning a local interest column on my cousin Vera, but two enmeshed events intervened and kept me from forwarding the idea to my editor. The foremost of these was an electrical fire in the annex beside mine, which resulted in irreparable smoke damage to a number of my belongings, including the entirety of my music collection and a suede armchair that was very nearly a favourite. The next was my becoming engaged to a woman named Cara.
I am to blame entirely for this romance. Cara was a clerk at the music shop that sat between the Mirror office and my smoke-damaged home. For a period of a month, perhaps longer, I incorporated a stop at the music store into my lunch hour routine. Cara was not the reason for my frequent visits (though she would likely say otherwise). I was simply trying to not merely replenish but actually improve my lamented record collection and the shop’s location was convenient. My guilt in this crime of the heart was ordering Tchaikovsky, which women almost always equate with sensitivity. He is my lone concession to the delicate, and it cost me. I have always theorized that women like men who like Tchaikovsky. I have become living proof of this theory.
What shall I say about our courtship? We talked and Cara made recommendations for records I did not buy. Somehow we ended up at a cafe and later in her bed and much later in a townhouse that we shared. As to who proposed whom, my recollection is foggy, but
Cara insists that I asked her in a manner that was “endearingly shy.” This is the version she tells her friends and her mother, at whose apartment we have lunch every Sunday. I suppose this version is accurate enough.
There were and are obvious advantages to my relationship with Cara. Companionship always puts one more at ease with one’s own eccentricities. Alone, one’s compulsions can become forces of anguish and alienation. Betrothed, they twist into endearing quirks in the eye of one’s lover. This of course is so much easier than the futile quest to entirely remake one’s self to fit an ideal.
Also, Cara received an employee discount for any records she purchased, so I was able to rebuild my collection much more quickly and inexpensively than I’d thought.
One Tuesday in November a most unexpected thing happened. Cara walked through the door shortly after six, smiled, and then handed me a parcel. Its shape and thinness were obvious enough to render the brown paper wrapping a bit superfluous. But then the real question was, exactly which record had she gotten me?
I set my magazine aside and said “Thank you, my dove” and pecked her cheek.
The peeled wrapping revealed a cream album jacket. A slate-grey circle with a straight line underneath, akin to an underline used for emphasis, was its only adornment.
“Dear?” I said.
“Scelsi,” Cara replied, turning from me to remove her coat. “Put it on.”
I broke the seal and heeded.
What came leaking through the speakers was a warbled and creeping harmonic of brass, of strings being tediously bowed. I stood holding the record sleeve. Something cold and shapeless raised the hair on the back of my neck.
“This music,” I began.
“Do you like it?”
“It sounds as though it’s . . . melting.”
“It’s called Anahit. Scelsi wrote it for Venus. That’s why I bought it for you.”
I must have been visibly nonplussed, for Cara explained that this music, which I found remote and as coldly firm as a headstone, seemed to her to illustrate a kinship between myself and the composer.
“In what way?” I asked, feeling the edge creeping into my voice.
“Just listen. Scelsi felt the same about women as you do.”
“Did he?” I asked. I was now spinning in one of Cara’s eddies of insinuation.
“Did he?” she repeated before regressing into the unlit kitchen.
A few moments later the scream of a kettle was added to the Italian’s razor-wire concerto.
Cara then told me something about Scelsi that I have never forgotten.
It was only natural that I felt impelled to reciprocate her gift, but after a few fruitless hours gazing through boutique windows and pacing the airless labyrinths of antique shop after antique shop I began to question exactly how well I knew my fiancée. Of all the curios I’d spotted, none seemed to represent her. But then, how well did the Scelsi recording represent me? Rather poorly in my candid opinion. I then began down a lane of thought that I admit I’m less than proud of taking: I started to suspect that Cara’s motive was less about gifting and more about challenging. The outré concerto was a gauntlet of sorts, a distorted mirror that was designed to confuse me about not only her but also myself.
As I said, I am not proud of the way I searched for Cara’s motives in dark corners.
I’m even less proud of the fact that I decided to best her at her own game. But it was as it was. Far be it from me to burnish reality. If the game was to be Presents Beyond the Pale, I knew just the bauble to use as my repast.
I sought the phone number of the little gallery in the little town where Cousin Vera’s little creations could be had. I found no listing. My editor had long ago eliminated my off-the-beaten-path travelogues, but the gallery keeper didn’t know that. On a Friday I left the office after only a half day and drove north, hoping all the while that the gallery would be open.
I found it closed, permanently. A cold spring rain began to fall as I stood on the sidewalk, peering into the showroom as though this would somehow alter its condition. Was I expecting the dim potted lamps to suddenly brighten, the showcases to fling back their dustcovers and once again be filled with Vera’s fetishes?
Like a petulant child I gripped the entrance handle and shook the door with violence enough to cause the little bell inside to rattle. Then I returned to my post on the sidewalk and tried to think of alternatives.
Had the day not been so gloomy I would likely never have noticed the light that went on in the second-storey window. But notice it I did, beaming like a small amber moon just above me. I took a few paces back and looked upward. The silhouette’s frame suggested that it was the gallery clerk. I waved and called hello and prattled something about being the newspaper writer.
The shape disappeared from the window. A few moments later it was standing in the little alley that divided the gallery from the organic bakery next door. My suspicion had been correct, it was the gallery owner. He was dressed in saggy pyjamas, a housecoat and tattered plaid slippers. The umbrella in his dirty fist was designed for a child.
“I wanted to ask you about my cousin Vera,” I told him after he showed no inclination toward speaking.
“The gallery is no more, I regret to say. I’ve nothing to sell you.”
I wiped the rain from my face and approached him. “Yes, I can see that. But I’m hoping you can call Vera’s representatives for me. It’s important.”
“No way to call them,” he said. He gave me a beckoning wave and started back down the alley from which he’d emerged. I followed him to a flimsy wooden door, which he pulled back. I squeezed into the tiny landing, holding my breath as the man latched the sad-looking door. “This way,” he said. I didn’t need to be told this, for the landing only had two exits: the alley door or the bowing stairs of wood so worn it was ice-slick. I climbed with care, for there was no handrail to aid me.
My host unlocked and pressed the black-stained door open at the head of the stairs. I followed him into an L-shaped apartment that smelled of old cooking and cat urine. The room had but two sources of illumination: a skylight of clouded plastic and, unnervingly, a nightlight in the shape of an antique streetlamp that glowed from a wall outlet.
“Sit, sit,” urged the man. I was reluctant. In way of furnishings there was a tan sofa and a wooden glider chair. The sofa’s upholstery was bearded in long cat hair, so I chose the wooden glider. I never did spy the cat. The man settled into the sofa and immediately lit a cigarette, producing an ashtray brimming with mangled butts. “What do you fancy?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m looking for a present for my fiancée. One of Vera’s sculptures . . . because they are so . . . highly unique.”
He nodded and nodded, reclining his head to spout smoke into the already cloying atmosphere. This caused his pyjama top to part at the seam. His breastbone was uncannily large and knotty. The sight of it distressed me.
“We was hoping for a newspaper story from you,” he returned, rather brashly. I noted that his accent, which had previously suggested the posh air of Knightsbridge, suddenly clanged with an antagonizing cockney lilt.
“Ah, yes. Well, I’m sure you can imagine how it is; editorial bureaucracy and the like. I pitched the idea, but my superiors turned me down.” I wondered why I felt the need to explain myself to him. “But I’d still like to purchase a piece, and to be put in touch with my cousin if that’s also possible.”
“The first bit is, aye. But as to Cousin Vera . . . ”
“Nothing’s happened to her I hope.”
“Why do you say that, eh?”
I couldn’t answer. “Um . . . would you happen to have any of Vera’s pieces left here?”
The man kept his eyes on me as he extinguished his cigarette.
“Cuppa first, yeah?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I’m afraid I must insist, ’tis nearly four after all.”
“Well, in that case.”
I scanned the room while my host put the kettle on. The sight of the myriad smudges and smears on the walls gave birth to imagined bugs that crawled coldly across my skin. As I scrambled for a way to politely refuse any food or drink from the whistling man in the kitchenette, my eyes happened upon a plaque that was affixed to the moulding above another door, one that led perhaps to the bedroom or lavatory. The plaque was carved from a wood that was cayenne-red and was so thickly varnished it appeared wet. The word Neithernor had been scorched into the wood by someone skilled in the art of pyrogravure. Each of the ten characters was modelled in Blackletter script. Given this, regardless of Neithernor’s meaning, I obviously couldn’t help but hearken back to Alighieri at the Gates.
“Milk and honey?”
I’d grown so lost in my contemplation that I first mistook my host’s query as an offering from Paradiso. Glancing sidelong, I discovered that the man was holding a tray upon which both these condiments were standing. I took my tea straight. It was bitter and the cup smelled as though it had been wiped with a dirty rag.
I held my breath while I drank. I might have spewed out some banal chatter, I cannot recall. My next memory was of asking to be directed to the lavatory. I was peculiarly hopeful that it existed behind the Neithernor door, but it was at the end of a stout hallway.
Closing the door behind me, I splashed some cold water on my face, and panicked over what my next move would be, for I now felt nothing at all like a visitor and more like a double agent on some life-or-death mission. Using the room for its true purpose, I finally stepped back into the living room in time to see a bird-like woman pressing the Neithernor door shut behind her.
“Vera?” I was surprised at how breathless my voice sounded. She turned to me.
How time had ransacked my cousin. She stood before me dressed in a soiled white smock, her hair concealed beneath a knitted cap like a patient in the thick of her battle with cancer. Her face had slid from delicate to skullish. Of her complexion and the state of her teeth I shall not speak.
“Come join us for tea, Vera dear,” called my host, rising to collect another stinking cup. Only then did it strike me that I did not know his name. The question leapt to the tip of my tongue but died there. The last thing our motley gathering needed was gaucherie.
We sat and sipped and inhaled second-hand tobacco smoke. Vera gave me a lone glance. Furtive and fearful at first, she rectified it, or rather attempted to, by hitching the corner of her chapped mouth into a kind of grin.
Distressed, I asked her bluntly if she was well.
“Oh, yes. Just tired, I suspect.”
The response came from the man, touching off my suspicions of a Svengali-like command over my cousin.
“Have you been working on new art, Vera?” I put a heavy emphasis on her name to indicate that I wanted her reply.
“Endlessly,” she said. Her voice sounded as I’d feared it might.
“Is that your studio beyond the door there?”
She looked at the man in the sleepwear.
“I should very much like to see it if I may,” I added, rising. I moved swiftly so as to carve the bearded man off before he could stop me. Vera did not even attempt to.
Neithernor was not a studio, nor even a room, but rather a closet.
Shallow, lightless, and fragrant with old wood, the recess contained a stout metal stool and, upon the dust-studded floorboards, a spool of gleaming copper wire. Shelves lined either side of the closet and each was stacked with pastry boxes of thin white cardstock, all lidded and bound like caskets awaiting inhumation. A hatch door was set into the centre of the back wall. It was secured with a latch and padlock, both of which had also been slathered in the same eggshell primer.
A hand reached in front of me and pressed the door shut.
“Neither a studio nor a closet,” I said with deliberate impertinence to the bearded man. He stood regarding me with a diamond-hard gaze. His face began to redden and twist. I’ve no shame in admitting my fear. You too would have been afraid.
“I would like to call on you again, Vera,” I called as I reached for my coat. “I am still interested in one of your pieces.”
She sat on the sofa like one adrift in dementia. Her mouth moved but I did not hear what she’d uttered.
“We’ll have something for you,” the man said. I closed the apartment door and took the stairs at a hare’s pace. Outside I clung to the street door with one hand while collecting the narrowest wooden slat I could find from amidst the alley’s debris. This I used to keep the door from clicking snug into its frame.
I wrestled with whether or not to remain in the little village. My concern for Vera ran deep, regardless of how estranged we were. Sometimes women just need rescuing.
Having nothing in way of a plan, I stopped into a tavern to phone Cara and say that I was chasing a story lead and would not be home until the following day. Her suspicion was palpable.
Night fell and I tried to sort my thoughts into some semblance of a plan. I couldn’t even begin to judge whether or not my intentions were pure. Cousin Vera had become swallowed up in a life that I can only describe as leprous. If I could not free her, I could at least confirm that she was not in imminent danger. I believe people have the right to diminish themselves if they so desire.
I buttoned my overcoat against the dropping temperature and once again crossed the little bridge. I stood across the street from Vera’s hovel and kept watch. Lamplight shone amber through the second-storey window, but not indefinitely. Shortly after eleven I watched as the bearded man’s ugly silhouette extinguished the light.
I stood shivering for nearly an hour, affording Vera’s keeper time enough (I hoped) to doze off.
Much to my relief, the wedge was still in the door. Scaling those ancient steps noiselessly was arduous and time-consuming, particularly because my most formidable obstacle stood at their summit.
Exactly how I was going to unlock the apartment door was a problem I resolved to simply deal with by whatever means. Ultimately this meant, after attempting to wriggle it loose and to pop the lock using my driver’s licence and my lapel pin, kicking the flimsy door open.
The bearded man had been snoring on the sofa where we’d had our dirty tea. The crash of the breached door woke him instantly, but he was too groggy and stunned to prevent me from tearing across the living room and flinging open the door to Neithernor.
As I’d dreaded, Vera was sealed up within the tiny closet. Her slight frame rested on the metal stool and for a beat I thought she was sleeping, until I noticed that her eyes were open… open yet rolled up in her skull like one in an epileptic throe. Her mouth gaped. In her hands she held the spool of copper wire. The glinting strand was taut before her, like a fishing line in the deep. It fed backward above her head and into the tiny hatch. This time the slight door in the wall was unlocked and ajar. A fat band of shadow concealed whatever was rusting inside that cubby. Whatever it was, it possessed strength enough to tear at Vera’s hair, which caused her somnambulistic body to heave up and then drop down again onto the stool. Her scalp was missing much more than the knitted cap.
The bearded man was growling as he grabbed me. Terror and adrenaline made breaking free easy.
Less easy to escape is the memory of those neatly stacked white boxes beginning to rattle and shake and leap from their perch.
Vera was careless or helpless to the whole nightmare. Not even my shrieking flight could lure her from her in-between.
I drove aimlessly for the remainder of the night and when I came home the following morning it was to an empty apartment.
Upon Cara’s dressing table, which was stripped clean of the little bottles and brushes and mirrors that littered it, a single leaf of notepaper had been taped:
I will write the things that neither of us has the courage to say aloud.
Where to begin? By suggesting that we have grown apart?
No. You cannot separate that which was never together to begin with.
Your phone call yesterday afternoon was the tipping point.
There was no story to chase; I called the paper and spoke to your editor. I hope this other woman, whoever she is, is able to give you whatever it is that I couldn’t, whatever it is you’re lacking. I doubt even you know what that is.
Locking up the townhouse last night I found a parcel on our doorstep. I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought you had left it to surprise me with. But as soon as I opened it and saw the trinket inside it became very clear to me that you’re walking down a road I would never even set foot upon. Just being in the same house with it last night gave me nightmare after nightmare, when I did manage to sleep that is.
I have nothing more to say. I’ve gone to stay at Mother’s and will arrange to have my things collected. I don’t expect this note to shock or pain you in any way, no matter how much I may wish otherwise.
p.s. — I left your little bauble for you. You’ll find it inside your closet.
I locked the townhouse door behind me and immediately relocated to the only hotel I could afford.
I did not return to the house until the movers I’d hired met me there and carried out the furniture I singled out as being mine. Cara’s belongings appeared to have already been collected.
The bedroom closet was never reopened, at least not by my hand. After settling into a small apartment on the far side of the city my first quest was to rebuild my wardrobe to replace the dress shirts, trousers and various other pieces I abandoned for fear of parting the gate to my own little Neithernor.
It seems my life waxes and then wanes. For a time my cup runneth over, then it is drained, after which I strive and scramble to replenish that which has been lost.
I had noted earlier that Cara had once told me something about Scelsi that I have never forgotten. It is this: the eccentric composer refused to allow his photograph to appear in conjunction with any of musical releases, for he maintained a conviction that his music was much more than a simple outgrowth of his personal imagination. The sounds were a transmission from the greater Soul that transcends all matter and masks. Scelsi was, in his own words, merely a conduit for the music that existed well beyond his own private abilities.
In place of his own visage, distinguished though I later discovered it to be, Scelsi used the symbol (a circle hovering over a straight line) that appeared on the jacket of the recording Cara had presented me with. I have studied that symbol often and with vigour. Cara had always said that for her the image was a cleanly abstract vision of a sinking sun, but to my eye it appears as something else entirely.
Originally published in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Stranzas.