The hidden work proved to be a line drawing of a blackbird's stiffly-plicated corpse. She frowned, twisting the snake around a finger while it occurred to her that the image, so clean of ghosting corrections, was a print; bending at the knee, she touched a finger to the paper, gathering a smear of graphite that sent her sharply backward, looking downward for the feathered body she half-expected at her feet. Such ex nihilo virtuosity cauterized her interest and drove her quickly from the studio.
The floorboards provided a record of the building’s fortunes, scarred with circles of raised grain where windows had admitted rain, holed through and crumbling along the skirting in episodes of rot. The half-moon was bright enough to stand in for the artificial lighting wholly absent from large sections of the upper story. On the wall before the stairs the goat head remained silkily hirsute and haughtily dissociative. The blond intruder’s attempt to access William’s suite gave Susan cause to question the dignity of the enterprise, armed even as she was with an invitation. It was more difficult than she imagined to try the handles; they proved unlocked, and sliding past, she stood a foot inside without progressing any further, whelmed by the shadow-stroked array before her.
The rooms were served by the second of the balconies to the rear of the house, and the moon gazed through its glassed doors onto a gigantic tester bed standing at the centre of the flamboyant chaos, its frame sending its spiraling elephantine pillars toward the ceiling. The undulant mattress wore hand-sewn ticking striped with bright mint green and leaked white feathers onto the floor. Two copper lanterns, their sturdy candles half-expended, stood on a coffer of crimson-stained timber at the end of the bed, its grain ticked as though with flecks of gold. Serpent-headed orobouros had been carved into the face of each compartment.
Along one side of the bed sat a battalion of smaller boxes and miniature chests of brass-bound fruitwood, mottled quill and mink-black lacquer with lids ajar, ravished by a careless inventory. Some held little bales of yellowed linen while their neighbours plainly displayed the fierce, primary gleam of artisan jewels, Turkoman carnelian, thick Swat and Berber silver and limpid Indian enamels. Other chests had been pushed back against the persimmon walls to leave a generous aisle on either side of the frame, though these ways were compromised by spidery crates of wine and a mound of clothing dumped on the ground beside the french doors. Her slippers were slowed by the delicious thickness of the lambswool tulu lying underfoot, their tousled motifs starkly blocked in walnut brown and scarlet. Two small anterooms lay to either side, one revealing a glimpse of a pedestal basin and aged white tiles, the other lying in darkness. The bizarre and diffuse luxury seemed to follow, in handmade abstracts, the principles of an organic wilderness, the bed posts forest stalwarts, the chests like outcrops between plains of shaggy carpet, their crazed geometry and drunken flowers wearing the kilterless flourishes of some vast nomadic domain. A narrow space at the head of the bed offered her a place to marshal her thoughts and Susan sank down, lifting a paper scroll she had briefly flattened with her leg.
It unraveled in her lap, exposing its contents to the light over her shoulder. A progression of Japanese images painted in masterful outline and delicate colour began with a courtesan greeting a prospect on a blossom-veiled bridge. It progressed swiftly into the unflinching depiction of her entire repertoire, as requested by the client who seemed as inexhaustible as his purse. The end of the scroll lapsed down her legs while she followed the heroine’s explicit adventures, through the bohemian sector of Edo, a forest infested with amorous trolls, a colony of long-deprived scholars and a rustic fishing port, before she was returned with perfect sang-froid to her quarters in the Floating World. Susan exclaimed softly to herself and lifted her gaze toward the door glass where a face reflected dimly behind her own sent the scroll coiling down her shins, William’s unnerving smile greeting her beneath the hood of his sweatshirt. He knelt on the far side of the bed and reached for something underneath it.
“Wow, I was looking for that shunga everywhere.” he grinned, crossing the mattress on all fours and sitting beside her to peruse the abandoned erotica. “I love the en levrette... his face is priceless. Utamaro knew posh girls like the back of his hairy hand but no one rocks a horny troll party like Hokusai. Have you seen a bag in here? Black record bag, sort of falling to pieces?”
As he pushed back his hood Susan vacated the bed and stumbled backward over a crate of wine.
“I er... I was just over this way, and I... didn’t think you were... um, home...”
He smiled again.
“It's not like I'm clutching any pearls, Christabel... it's my porn." he laughed. "Bede... you haven’t seen Bede here, have you? My height, looks like me, pony hair?” He patted his pockets in a cloud of distraction.
“Sorry, no. I’ll um, go...” she offered, hoping to duck past him.
“No no no... you need a drink after that lot.”
“I can’t. The agency has a fit if they find out you drink at work.”
“If Opal La Rue told me I couldn't drink, I'd chug a magnum in her lap and piss my damn pants. What does your agency say about rifling through porn or...” He leant forward with one brow raised, peering downward. “Pocket snakes?"
She scowled, holding to the sentiment, then laughing, tugging the packet of jellies from her cardigan and offering him one. He pulled it free and sucked its length into his mouth, chewing briefly before ejecting it into his hand.
"You didn't even know what that was, did you?" she chuckled, to which he shook his head, wide-eyed. "Did your mother never tell you about putting strange things in your mouth?"
"I know what you're saying. It might not be a lolly next time."
Susan looked back down at the scroll.
“I thought it was artistic.” she insisted, watching him drag an oak tray from under the bed and blow the dust from its row of crystal tumblers. Another manual foray produced a box of lizard-skinned fruit and a bottle half full of grass-green liquid that roiled with an active content barely contained by solution. Accepting a glass from him, she looked around for a place to sit, not daring to resume her seat on the bed and eventually composing herself upon a rug beside it; William followed her lead, setting the bottle in the midst of his folded legs. She watched him sip his drink and peel the skin from one of the nameless fruits, lapsing from discursive verve into that other of his native states, a perfected and halcyon placidity that settled like leaves and stilled his face and hands, the striping on his sweatshirt at once feline and felonious. “What is this?” she exclaimed, holding her glass to the candle light.
"Bollchu. Friends make it at home, and they’re usually pretty f..." He consulted her expression and she nodded earnest encouragement.
"Please say fuck... if I don't hear someone swear in the next twenty four hours I'll probably throw myself off the roof."
"Well, as I meant to say, they're usually pretty fucked up when they cook, so sometimes it’s baby water, sometimes it’s devil piss. Cul sec."
She demurred, still eyeing the liquor doubtfully.
"It's just that bollchu sounds like a sneeze, and it's... green."
"Everything good is bad, in some way." Whilst his smile did not convince her, she she took a mouthful and almost choked on it, the virulent potion scorching her throat and leaping into her sinuses like plumes of flame. Her watering eyes returned to the scroll once more.
"Can you read Japanese?"
He reached back for it and smoothed it out over his legs, contemplating the shunga's commentary and glancing at her expectant smile, though after some ponderous reckoning William suppressed one of his own.
"No." he confessed, gaze falling to the newsprint hanging from a crate of wine. "But ah, attends en peu...recherche de la météo d'une ville en France ou dans le monde... pluie, brouillard... frais..." As he read she drifted back against an uncertain assortment of cushions, watching the understated vowels fall from his lips as though they were shapes in a parade of purring and vaporous curlicues that encircled her slowly, given soft wings by his voice. Though she did not notice William reached out and pushed the cardboard box toward her without taking his eyes from the page or breaking his analgesic narrative. She sat in a diaphanous contentment that dropped to a slight frown at its conclusion, her blush returning.
"What was that?"
"Weather for the Paris metropolitan area, nineteen forty nine." He leant forward and picked her right hand from her knee, turning it over. “Hmmm... firstborn... alone... sweet tooth... something about twins.” he added, frowning at the lines crossing her palm.
“I’m a Gemini... how did you know that?”
“I read resumés.” He took more fruit from the box and set it in her hand. "Longan. They look like eyeballs but please don't let that stop you." Knocking back the liquid in her glass, Susan took a deep breath while it went down, attempting to peel the leathery drupe and grimacing at the sight of the gelatinous flesh beneath. "Better than rubber snakes." he promised. He was correct, the webbed grey pulp melting in a fragrant jellybean savour. She spat out the staring black seed and accepted another.
"I might have the wrong end of the stick, but... there was a blonde woman, with a lot of Dolce and Gabbana... I caught her trying to break into your room.”
"Kali ni'ah... the Rachel. What did she say?”
“I don’t remember much, but she wasn’t very happy.” Susan glanced at his reaction. While not obviously immodest or ill-fitting, there was something in the way he wore clothing that was persistently suggestive, his body so resistant to containment that it reminded her of colonial portraiture, of indigénes standing in the stiff, alien garments foisted on them by studio photographers. The curious quality was so pronounced that she was almost relieved when he dragged the pullover from his head and discarded it, though the aging T-shirt beneath, skewed sideways across his shoulders, revealed a white stripe of skin over the low waist of his jeans. Her gaze wandered toward to it as he spoke.
“No one believes this, but Rachel is really, really not my fault. My brother says I should hit it with the big gauge, but that’s his answer to everything... if a bus full of crippled kids was parked across the drive, he’d yoink the fucking handbrake so he wouldn’t lose his reservation." His phone began to flash again.
"Is she really that bad?"
"She's hell on donk rims."
"But you're still... together?"
He sagged visibly, pouring himself another deep shot of the green liquor.
"No... I've tried escaping, but I just... I fail. Behind all this er, masculinité formidable, I'm a big dumb chickenshit." William confessed. "It's just... I don't know... too easy to be cruel.” She watched him fumble with the telephone. “Now you’re wishing I only drank alone. Don’t worry, I’m totally notorious for my overfamiliarity, it’s not anything you’ve done in a previous life. Putain! I hate this fucking thing!”
Susan shrugged at his struggle with the appliance in question.
"Turn it off."
He looked to her again, uncertain.
"I don't know how. I just leave where I can't hear it."
"Yes, I know." Leaning over her lap, she took it from him and flicked through its menu until its lights died. "There you go. She did seem a bit mental... that Rachel." She frowned and plucked a piece of longan skin from her teeth. “When someone’s nutty, you're not helping them by letting them go on, though. All you can do is say no to them and mean it... if you're serious about wanting them to go away.” She looked back at him pointedly, and he rolled his eyes at his own acedia. “Nutters are like everyone else, really. They might be crazy, but they’re not stupid. If there’s nothing in it for them, then they’ll give up eventually.”
The warm smell of her skin was somewhat diluted by the liquor and incense that hung about the chamber, though it had begun to disturb his ease and made him want to stare at her in spite of her perspicacity. Her hair was contained in a small tail and she wore an rust-coloured dress beneath a emerald cardigan, the elemental hues intensifying one another, recalling to him the fluttering finery of Ayubid mujahidîn and the courtyard gardens of Bactrian merchants, their sunbaked walls pinning back the scouring wastes. Her gifts did not amount to the passive, expectant beauty that had so long defeated his esteem; the bright pneuma of something greater moved within her, humbling the liberties he was so accustomed to taking.
“I actually spoke to him the other day... your brother.” Susan confessed. William laughed as he rolled a longan between his teeth. “It’s not funny!" she scolded. "I didn't know if he was going to fire me or eat my liver.”
“Don't worry, it’s not you. He pink slips me every day of the year, in his mind... he’d fire the entire fucking population for breathing too loudly if he thought he was just head of human resources and not the fucking boss of everything.”
“He's not always like that, is he?”
He leant forward, urging her to do the same so that their heads almost met in an attitude of conspiracy.
"Yeah, pretty much. We just let him clank his chains and chase us off the lawn.” he whispered. “It’s not that he’s all bad... it’s just that people tend to er, qu'est-ce que c'est... die of exposure looking for the good bits. It's like the top of Chomolungma... you know it exists, you can even see it sometimes, but you prefer oxygen to glory.” Her eyes brightened at Edward’s memory, dread diffusing back into circulation. “It was worse, believe me. A lot worse. At least I’ve got him telling me to fuck off. That’s a step up from just the look.” William attempted the expression himself and was able to frame the livid shape of it, if not the caustic colour required by an entirely successful projection. "I'll only say this once... don't put your tongue on him... we're not insured for it."
"Now I'm going to think that every time I see him. Should I know why he's like that?"
"There are reasons." He struggled with the available terms. "Er... some parts are missing. Product may differ from photo after assembly..."
"It's private, in other words." she offered. He nodded, relieved. "Why live with him, then?"
"Let's just say he needs supervision and I'm independently broke."
"So that's not your BMW in the garage?"
He lay back against the frame, rolling his tongue behind his teeth.
"You've gone right off me now, haven't you?"
Susan chuckled and caught sight of her watch as she leant back with her glass.
“This’s late for me.” she told him, looking once more around the room. The skirt of her dress clung to her tights as she stood up, and she dipped quickly to smooth it down. “See you at work I suppose. Thanks for the pint.”
William stretched out slowly on the floor with the bottle, his arm cushioning his head and framing his wide smile.
“What are their names?” he called, watching her frown in the doorway.
Smiling down at her slippers, she shook her head and walked on into the hall.
“None of your business.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce