VIII— Chasing Butterflies
— Berthe Morisot, 1874
scene of Gisčle Mourault’s funeral was a painting drained of color, but for
one bright umbrella among the black. No blue broke through the marbled sky, and
no light shone on the somber party in the cemetery on the hill. Even the vast
gray pearl of
Nicola would remember most the sound of it; alternately blaring and diffuse, as though the normal threshold had arced wildly out of control, up to a piercing crescendo and down to a tepid whisper. One moment she was deafened by the brush of great-aunt Eleanor’s black silk taffeta and the swish of men’s trousers, the next there was no more than a low frequency murmur all around her, the minister’s mouth moving up and down without making any intelligible sound. His words seemed to emanate from inside her head: From dust we are made, to dust we shall return. Words that were the stuff of cinema: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The wind blew round and round, and the raindrops stung her skin. Dimly, Nicola heard the minister ask if anyone had last words to offer. Her godfather, Robin, stepped forward: the one bright umbrella, his. He wore black because he typically wore black, but he didn’t feel death was to be mourned. Even the minister eyed him skeptically, Nicola thought.
Coat and scarf billowing with a flurry of autumn leaves, he began to recite:
"Death is nothing at all I have only slipped into the next room I am I and you are you Whatever we were to each other, we are still.
The raindrops stung.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow Laugh as we have always laughed At the little jokes that we enjoyed together Play, smile, think of me, pray for me Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. I am waiting for you, just around the corner. All is well."
It was as if he spoke to Nicola alone, his voice resonant and strong, the sharp dark eyes landing on hers, concerned. All is well? She wanted to scream, All is not well, allisnot...
In the hours after she’d found her mother, she found shock a strangely comforting state; a doctor gave her sedatives that made her feel flattened like a creature on the ocean bottom, weighted by miles of water above. Dreams under sedation are eerie, sluggish things: spurts of luminosity punctuated by deep black holes. But for a while she was buffered by her incomprehension.
She couldn’t help feeling that this was the nightmare. Soon she would wake up. Her mother would be there to comfort her. Her mother shouldn’t be here. None of them should be here.
She glanced around her. The small assembly on the hill represented the only family Nicola had ever known. These were the people who loved her mother most. And they all know it’s a lie. Her eyes landed on Robin’s son, Josh, who stood beside his father, his dark hair streaked with blond and pulled into a ponytail. She’d never seen him in a suit before, but today even his beauty failed to distract her. Slight, dark and elegant, Marc Kreicek was busy examining the cuff of his coat, expressionless and inscrutable as always. Henri stood just beyond, stolid and frowning at the coffin, and Maggie and Mrs. Pengilly were beside him in tears, holding handkerchiefs to their eyes. Rounding out the circle was great-aunt Eleanor, looking like something from an old movie, in a theatrical hat with black veil.
Nicola turned from them to look at her grandfather. Surely, he would do something. But he stood motionless beneath an oak tree, as far removed from the small party as he could be. The tree trunk was blackened with rain and he pressed a palm against it, as if for support. Seeing him there made her shudder, made her think of their own English oak in the garden and the night her mother died. It was just a fatherly kiss. She could not think of it. He’d tried to comfort her this morning: “We must choose our memories, Nicola. Yours can only be good to you. She loved you most of all.”
As she watched, the wind drove rain under his umbrella, into his eyes, like tears.
Her father stood beside her, and Nicola clutched his hand. She couldn’t remember when she’d last done that, but he was for her like Grand-pčre’s tree: if she let go, she would fall. And yet when she looked at him her mind was full of questions. Why had her parents argued, and why had her father gone out to the pool house that night? It must have been to see her mother, yet he hadn’t seemed to know she was out at the cabana. Her grandfather had known. But how? And why had her mother gone? She couldn’t stand the water. Everyone knew that. She had a phobia about it. That was worse than not knowing how to swim, she’d once told Nicola. It meant you could never learn.
Her father looked down at her with an anxious frown, and pulled her close. His vivid blue eyes shone with tears that did not fall. Nicola’s tears came from a well deep inside. There was no effort in them, just a ceaseless stream down her cheeks that left no sensation at all. The minister was speaking again. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. But did He? She clenched her eyes shut. It’s all my fault, God... It’s my fault she’s dead.
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our beloved sister, Marie Gisčle Mourault, here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life—
And then it was over. The pallbearers began to lower the coffin inch by inch, and all at once Nicola knew she couldn’t let them; she couldn’t leave her mother here. She didn’t belong here. Her father stepped forward, crying silently as he tossed handfuls of dirt into the grave. She tried to tell them, but the words got mangled in her throat, and she began to sob, knowing she couldn’t do anything to stop it. She couldn’t do anything at all. Her godfather, murmuring words she couldn’t hear, gently led her away. Turning, she saw her grandfather standing motionless beneath his oak.
days after his wife’s funeral, Luke Farrell walked
into the private investigator’s office. Disguised under the
demure description: Personal Inquiries, it was not the smoky digs of a Philip Marlowe
or the seedy back street Mike Hammer variety, but a dainty-curtained Victorian
that looked more like a tearoom. But then, of course, there were no
seedy back streets in
Luke nodded, and they shook hands. He couldn’t help wondering if
this unlikely man was the detective Gisčle had follow
“Please have a seat.”
“First, I... well, what guarantee do I have of your confidentiality?”
“My desire to continue my thriving practice here in
In the end, he had little choice in the matter. Luke sat. “Well, it’s a matter of paternity,” he said. “I’ve recently come to believe that my daughter is not mine.” Where he was raised, it was rude to come to the point so quickly, particularly this sort of point, but Luke couldn’t come up with a polite way to get to it. Preston Murphy only blinked, waiting patiently. “I know there are tests for this sort of thing. Blood tests, but that’s no good. She has my blood type, but so do a lot of people; I’m A-positive. My wife, she was A-negative. So’s my daughter. I hear there are DNA tests—”
“Yes, there are companies that will do the testing by mail. I can give you the names of several that will process a blood or saliva sample, even hair.”
“But from what I understand the hair has to be pulled out by the root, isn’t that right?” Luke paused, uncomfortably. “That’s possible for my daughter.” He’d tried to braid Nicola’s hair that morning. “And, of course, it’s possible for me. But there’s another party involved, and I don’t want him to know anything about this.”
“And your wife?”
As if he hadn’t read the papers. “My wife is dead.” Hurriedly, Luke opened the leather satchel he’d brought with him, and extracted several Zip-loc bags. “I’ve labeled these: this one here: ‘A’ is hair from my daughter, and ‘B:’ that’s me. For ‘C,’ I have three bags. I wasn’t sure… well, anyhow, I have two cigarette stubs, and this is his coffee cup. And here’s his wineglass from last night—” Luke broke abruptly off.
The detective’s mild eyes sparked. “He’s a member of your household?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Not to the DNA. It’s of personal interest only.”
“I thought your interest was professional.”
A tip of the head. “My profession is personal inquiry, Mr. Farrell. I always interest myself in the persons involved, and only take those cases that intrigue me. Naturally, my interest is mine alone. Any information I learn with regard to a client is the property of the client.” He gazed past Luke through the gauzy curtains.
“Well. ‘C’ is a member of the household, yes.” Luke cleared his throat and steeled his voice. Unemotionally, it came out. “‘C’ is my father-in-law.”
Amanda Miller was dreaming.
The streets were inky-edged and the scene covered over with a stained haze, as though someone had spilled coffee on the film. She felt rather than recognized the city of her childhood. Somewhere there was drunken laughter and through the fingers of fog, she could make out a warehouse of corrugated steel; a ghostly mint green, it was streaked with rust and faded stenciled lettering.
Inside, the air was heavy and smelled of loamy earth, of mildew and must. The only sound was a relentless grating, like rats gnawing through walls. Turning onto a long hall, she spotted a janitor working alone in the dark. Amanda called out a greeting, but it was as if he hadn’t heard her;
whistling cheerfully, he pushed a broad industrial broom, and as she moved closer she could see the object of his work: teeth and fingernails littered the hall. Tufts of dark hair were methodically pushed into a mound, and blood smeared the floor like streaks of oil.
Screaming, she vaulted past him to a door at the end of the hall, a dark rectangle outlined in light. She entered a white cinderblock room. Her sister sat perched on a stool in a gown stained with blood, her head pale and shaved. Her knees were pulled to her chest and she was rocking.
“Karen!” Amanda cried, and relief welled up in her so that she could hardly speak. “Thank God I’ve found you... it’s going to be all right, now.” But the face she met was not her sister’s. The azure eyes were hollow and void, the expression as blank as a figure in an Impressionist watercolor.
The creature tipped its head and spoke in a voice without inflection. “Poor Amanda, it’s too late. Can’t you see that I’m dead? They’re taking me apart now—”
Amanda gasped, choking. She
wrestled with the dark until she could hear her own moans and was shuttled
forward, funneled through time. Her eyes darted around the small, still
apartment, but Karen wasn’t there. Of
course, she isn’t here… she can’t be here. No
one was. It wasn’t
She rolled out of the damp twisted sheets and tripped to the window, feeling the chill night air on her skin and simply breathing, in: Don’t be such... And out: an idiot.
It didn’t take a shrink to explain why the nightmares had started
again. An innocuous envelope, a single sheet of stationery, and her fragile
peace had come to an abrupt end. The letter was without return address, posted
two weeks ago from
She’d contacted Lieutenant Mitchell in
sister’s case, and a sergeant when it went cold. Now that he’d made lieutenant, the same disclaimers were delivered without the halting hems and haws, and with a decided air of preoccupation. Yet he’d taken the time to phone her himself with the results of the preliminary forensics: no fingerprints, no DNA; the envelope had been sealed with plain H2O. He’d never considered the possibility that the letter might be authentic. “It’s unusual for anyone to follow such an old crime, Miss Miller, let alone follow you to a different city. We may be dealing with someone seriously unstable. Keep your eyes open, huh?”
Even in his chipper businesslike tone, it was a chilling disappointment. “Don’t get your hopes up and you won’t be disappointed,” her aunt would have said. One reason she hadn’t mentioned the letter to her aunt. But what had made her believe?
It’s me, Mandy. It’s Karen. That had been a nice touch; Karen had always called her “Mandy.” But then there weren’t a lot of alternatives for ‘Amanda,’ and it would have to be shortened: three syllables were far too formal for a letter from your dead sister.
My god, I am so very sorry for everything. Please believe me, I’ve thought of you each and every day I’ve been away. “Been away,” as if for a holiday. I’m not hurt. I’m not dead. How can I begin to explain fifteen years to you in a page? Amanda thought she could explain it in a sentence: Karen would never have gone fifteen years without writing her, if she’d been able to write. What a miracle it is to find you again. Now that was irony for you. When I think of all the time I’ve wasted… all the time I might have known you, I’m sick. After all these years, I know this must be overwhelming for you. The truth is I don’t know where to begin. I’ll try to fill in the pieces a bit at a time, and I hope one day very soon we can meet again. I want so badly to know you, Mandy— for you to know my daughter… Oh, right. She’d gotten married and had a baby and lived happily ever after. I wish you could write to me here, but that’s impossible for now. And that is what had gotten to her most: “Write to me here,” as if Karen were in a sort of prison. If she had survived, and been kept somewhere? Or had amnesia, like some old B-movie. Please don’t share this with anyone. There are no fingerprints, no identifying traces to find, no
point in trying to find me. Well, at least her pathological pen-pal had been honest about that much. Please let it be enough that I’ve found you. I never meant to hurt you, Mandy, and I’ve missed you more than you’ll ever know. It’s as if I were walking through a dream that was beautiful and terrible and absurd by turns, but now I’ve woken up. Things are finally coming clear to me, and I have to believe one day you’ll understand. I love you more than life.
Bravo. Well done. But in the end, “Karen” could be anyone. There were no inside jokes, no references only the two of them would know: no address, no phone number. And in the year after her sister’s murder, there had been many anonymous letters. One had contained nothing but a heart-shaped locket, identical to the one Karen had worn in the school photo that ran in the papers. It caused a flurry of excitement among the detectives who felt it might lead to her killer, and in Amanda, who stubbornly clung to the notion that her sister was alive. But Karen’s locket was discovered in a box of her things, tarnished and hanging from a hook in her jewelry box. There were people who did these things. And there were people, like Amanda, who believed every time.
Growing up, they’d been separated by six years, but little else. Amanda’s earliest memories were dominated by the big sister who told her stories and taught her to read them, how to tell time and how to multiply. When she started school, Karen defended her against the teasing of older boys and scornful glances of girlfriends who didn’t want the kid sister tagging along. She let her play handball with the big kids and pushed her on the swings, let her in on the joke with a wink and slight secretive smile that was theirs alone.
But after grammar school the smiles grew rare, so too the teasing boys and girlfriends. By the age of fourteen Karen stopped having friends over. After school, she was meant to be looking after Mandy, but was rarely there when she came home from ballet. For a year she lied for her. Payment was in ice cream and Tuesdays: the one afternoon a week when things were the way they used to be.
But then one day she hadn’t come home at all. Five o’clock came and six went. Seven. Her father got angry; her mother made frantic phone calls. And Amanda walked through the days that followed in a sort of heat haze, in which the air trembled and the world was drawn in sluggish, wavy lines. Through it, there were MISSING! bulletins and candlelight vigils, newspaper people and school psychologists and volunteers gathered around the dining room table; Dad blaming Mom and Mom blaming Dad, and Amanda blaming herself.
Detective Mitchell quizzed her about Karen’s friends, home life, habits. Amanda had remarkably little to tell, but she confided that a photograph was missing from Karen’s scrapbook. They’d done their scrapbooks together on a rainy Sunday, ransacking their mother’s box of family photos for their favorites. Karen’s was neat and chronologically ordered, compared to Amanda’s haphazard collages. Because of this, Amanda knew which photo was missing: the two of them on the lawn in front of their grandparents’ house in Geyserville. But why had she taken it?
It was a question the detectives answered for her. Hadn’t Karen told her she was running away? No, Amanda insisted over and over. No. Her mother had been with her and all the while she could feel the pull of her eyes, all her razor-tipped hope clawing at her and so great a temptation to say yes, simply say yes, and somehow save Karen.
The truth was she was beyond
saving. By the time the first alarm went off, it was too late. Karen’s backpack
was discovered three weeks later, gashed with a knife and soaked with her
blood. Dumped off the edge of the pier, it had snagged on a ladder descending
to the water below. Amanda still saw it in nightmares, though she’d never seen
it in life. The few details she’d gleaned were colored in garishly: blood
smeared her sister’s notebooks; soaked through Of Mice and Men, stained her gym clothes— police search units dragged the bay for
her body with great hooks. In nightmares they sometimes found her, dead and
staring from the water; in sweet dreams they found her on an island, a shiny
happy version of
Details of her death could only be sketched in broad strokes: the presence of the book bag implied a timeline, (Karen had most likely been killed the same day she skipped school), and had probably been the victim of a mugging— no money was found in her wallet— and mercifully, not rape. The extent of blood loss made it clear she’d been killed violently, using the bag to shield herself from her assailant, perhaps after refusing to hand it over. Smears of blood were found on the edge of the pier, indicating that Karen had been disposed of along with the bag, into the bay. The currents from that point would have led her out to sea. Though her body wasn’t discovered there was little doubt she was dead, they were told; it was important not to delude oneself in that respect.
And so there had been a funeral, but no resolution. The randomness of the crime made it difficult to investigate. Phone tips led nowhere and dozens of anonymous letters claimed either to have saved Karen or killed her, but Karen was never found and neither was her killer.
Tragedy, her aunt would say, comes in threes. After Karen’s funeral, her mother told her quietly that she was leaving her father. A few months later she’d heard her mother arguing with him on the phone in an urgent whisper. Amanda was whisked off to a friend’s house for the night, and awakened to a new nightmare. The accident was all over the news: a Chevy Vega had crossed two lanes and crashed into a truck carrying flammable gas. Though the car was charred, Amanda knew before the investigators that her parents were inside. They had died instantly. Newscasters were more concerned that the commute on southbound 101 would be backed up for hours.
And so at the age of ten, Amanda went to live with an aunt and uncle
she barely knew in
Funny how a few words had brought it all back. And yet for some reason Amanda couldn’t explain, she’d asked Detective Mitchell to return the letter. It was the symbolism of it, she supposed, the reason she’d avoided stepping on cracks as a child— not because she really believed she’d break
her mother’s back, but because she couldn’t let it seem as though she didn’t care. She’d avoided cracks for years after her mother died. And for a moment, in that letter, her sister had been alive. So had hope. She wasn’t ready to let it die.
For Luke, it had been a grueling few weeks. The good will, the well-intentioned phone calls; it was all beginning to wane, but not Gisčle. At one time he thought he’d grow to hate her, but the chance for that was gone. She was gone forever, and his punishment was to love her still.
He’d tried his best to exorcize her. Just a week after the
funeral, in his established motif of misguided moves, he’d paid a visit to
Amanda Miller in
As he always had, he found old surrogates for new emotions: he told her about his troubled relationship with his father, the death of his mother. Her sympathetic ear and soft touch had soothed his jangled nerves. She was something special, Mandy. Lovely and light— but with dimension. She’d absorbed all his darkness and it scarcely dimmed her. He had the sense that even the truth wouldn’t shock her. And it had been so tempting to confide in her, to confide in someone. She never talked about her own past. What was her story? He didn’t even know, and she didn’t know Luke’s real name, let alone his real life. There was safety in anonymity. With her, he was almost guiltless.
They’d spent two days together, all of it in bed.
He’d told her he loved her, and
he had; he’d lost himself in her— but in the end even the lovely Amanda was
tainted by Gisčle’s death. For Luke, there was to be
no balm in
her eyes, heard her echo in her voice, saw the specter of her profile as she turned. Gisčle was not going to be exorcized so easily.
And as Luke left
He’d never be able to tell Mandy the truth about his wife, his daughter, and “his” paintings. His truth was all a lie. And so Luke hadn’t even called her. After two weeks, she’d phoned him, and his fear made him cruel. In the end he’d said something about having changed his mind. She was better off, he knew, but he’d hated himself for it. Another dollop of guilt; it got lost in the sauce.
Since then, he’d been at loose ends. The exhibition was postponed for a decent interval of indefinite duration, and Preston Murphy had delivered a grim timeline for the DNA results: “eight weeks, best case.” In the end, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to know.
There was little peace to be found at Falconer’s Point. It would be a gross understatement to say his relationship with Tristan was strained. They lived in the same house and rarely ran into one another. When they did, by tacit agreement, they confined themselves to brief inane pleasantries. There were no open accusations; Luke couldn’t bring himself to say the word “incest.” Because, after all, they might pass in the hall.
The only overt tension had arisen this morning, when Luke had told Tristan he was enrolling Nicola in school: “Surely you can see she needs to get away from this house,” he said. “To make normal friends, and have a normal life—” In other words, a life that Tristan had little part in.
“Tu fais l’imbecile.” A thing Luke didn’t need French to comprehend. “What nonsense.”
“Then I’ll take Nicola and go.”
“Go where? You have no money and you’re unlikely to earn any.” Tristan scoffed. “Your only talent is that you’re the kind who can make others earn your living for you.”
“I have the paintings.”
Tristan scoffed. “You can’t possibly expect to continue with that.”
There it was at last. He’d as much as admitted the paintings were his: his denial abandoned along with the pretense of “mon fils.” “I’m enrolling Nicola in school, Tristan, whether you like it or not. Robin agrees she’s alone too damned much. It’s my decision to make. Public school’s free.”
He flinched at this, as if in physical pain. “You’re doing this without telling her?”
“I’ve told her.”
“And she agreed?” He was incredulous.
“Yes.” Unhappily. But that’s because Nicola was, of course, deeply unhappy; she was drowning in grief. She needed to be with kids her age, and laugh. “Yes, Tristan, she did.”
He frowned at this, and Luke could see the wheels turning; he saw doubt creep in. Self-doubt. He spoke in short assured sentences to hide it. “Well. Public school is unthinkable. She’s far too bright for that. There’s a private school; Prescott Primary. You must have driven past it. Fine grounds. Eh bien, she will go there.” Agitatedly, he began to pace. “She’ll be advanced far beyond her level.” A disdainful shrug. “But, if you insist. I will pay her tuition. Of course.”
Of course. It smarted. Luke only shrugged. “Fine.”
“It’s natural she should want to meet new people.” Tristan said, as if to himself.
He was hurt, Luke realized. But he didn’t voice his concern, which Luke shared, that Nicola hadn’t been quite satisfied with his explanation of what she’d seen in the garden. Luke didn’t voice it either. To do so, would be to acknowledge it had happened at all.
Tristan paid the tuition, (an ungodly sum), and there had been no other change in financial arrangements; Luke’s bank account had been replenished on the first of October, as it would be the first of November— as it had always been. The only difference was that now it felt uncomfortably like just what it was. Blackmail.
NICOLA turned and her mother was there. She could see her sometimes for whole seconds before she disappeared. Her hair was sometimes up and sometimes down. Her outfits changed. The word “Mom” still escaped her lips and her thoughts betrayed her: What would Mom do? What would she say? They offered false hope: Maybe Mom will come, will like, want… wear… wish… say… know. Wait’ll I tell Mom.
Everyone else was careful not to mention her. She hated it. She felt as if her mother was tapping her on the shoulder and she was the only one listening.
Today she was conducting an experiment. She walked across the lawn from the house just after nine-thirty. It had been closer to ten the morning she’d found her mother, but the days were shorter now. It was colder, too; the dew had turned to frost that crunched beneath her feet like fine eggshells. It was October fourteenth, a Friday, but there would be no piano lessons to avoid. There had been no lessons of any kind since her mother died. Monday she was to start “normal” school. Everyone kept telling her things would get back to normal, but Nicola wasn’t fooled.
She reached the pool house and depressed the handle of one of the French doors, swinging it gently inward. Taking a sharp deep breath, Nicola stepped inside. She’d always had fun here; the sounds of splashing water and laughter still echoed faintly off the flagstones, a hollow sound that seemed to come from another lifetime, one that belonged to someone else.
Pale sunlight penetrated the skylights above and shone wanly on the cerulean surface of the pool. It was too blue, really, Nicola thought, and smelled too strongly of chlorine. Sunlight painted the floor before her with long outlines of the doors and windows. The long wall across the pool was a mirror image of this one, architecturally, but it lay in darkness. Centered on the wall were tall French doors with divided lite windows on each side, and smaller windows above. Further down on each side wide picture windows gave onto the gardens. In spite of this, the immense room appeared dim at this hour, and the reflection of the skylights obscured the water, just as they had that terrible morning. This was why she hadn’t seen her mother at first, only the edge of her familiar scarlet robe.
Moving down the wall, Nicola flipped on the overhead lights and the reflection of the skylights practically disappeared as the room was flooded with light. Her mother would have needed light to view the paintings at night; she would have needed them to move around the pool house at all. The runner lights inside the pool wouldn’t have been enough to see by in the dark. No one seemed to have thought about it, but it bothered Nicola. The detectives said she’d died between three and five. It would have been dark. Why weren’t the lights on?
Everything the detectives had said had come to Nicola through other means. She’d been shielded from the investigation, entirely. She was told it was an accident before the investigation ever began, but she knew better.
“It’s all over town,” Mrs. Pengilly had said to Maggie in the kitchen. “Lord knows, none of us said a thing to anybody. I guess the truth has its own way of coming out. While I was finishing up in here, she came in looking for a bottle of sleeping pills and you could tell she’d been crying—”
“It was those filthy paintings.” Mrs. Pengilly’s hand trembled, clattering her cup against its saucer. “That’s when she started acting so strange. That husband of hers, exploiting her for profit.”
Maggie agreed with a disparaging wag of her head. “But we can’t be sure. I, for one, don’t believe she’d have killed herself and left little Nicola. Maybe it’s true what we said.”
Mrs Pengilly scoffed. “That she couldn’t sleep and went out to the pool house to ‘clear her head?’ Went to look at the paintings one last time and just happened to topple into the pool? If you ask me, it was a symbolic act to drown in the middle of all those paintings. And they understood it from the start: Mr. Mourault and Mr. Dresden. You can bet Mr. Farrell knows it, too.” She dropped her voice. “A person with vertigo doesn’t climb out on the roof to clear his head.”
And Nicola knew what Mrs. Pengilly meant, of course. Vertigo was a phobia, like her mother’s fear of the water. She wouldn’t have gone near enough to the pool to slip and fall in unless she wanted to. There would be no need. The easels were set up several feet from the edge.
Nicola gazed at the southern wall where a door led to the cabana; she’d often changed clothes there or showered after swimming, took a nap or read. She’d never known her mother to spend any time there at all— let alone the night. Her fingernails bit into her palms and tears blurred the room before her. If her mother had committed suicide, it was her fault. She’d locked her out, refused to answer when she knocked. She’d never have come out here, if not for her.
She crossed the room to the glass corridor that connected the pool to the house. What had her father been doing here that morning? And the terrifying thought nagged at her again; she couldn’t push it away. Part of her didn’t believe her mother could have drowned herself at all. Even if she’d wanted to. Could a person with vertigo go out on the roof, Nicola wondered, even to jump?
Amanda was early for her afternoon shift at the library. Traffic hadn’t
been bad, which in
And too, she had a bad habit of growing a little too close to her professors.
Last June, after a grueling research project, she’d requested on-leave status for the fall semester. Her advisor reassured her it was normal to suffer burnout from time to time, but was less agreeable when she requested a leave from their relationship, too. Jay Kelly was an esteemed professor and psychologist: marital infidelity and Amanda were his only bad habits. But the first outweighed the second and July saw him with an infatuated undergrad, while she’d met another emotionally inaccessible older man— an artist with just the hint of a southern drawl, named Luke Barrow. Unfortunately, the southern drawl had cleverly concealed a son of a bitch without a soul.
Don’t think about him. But it wasn’t proving an easy thing. There was the chance, just the slightest possibility of a chance, that she was pregnant with the southern drawl’s baby.
Added to the notion that she was being stalked by someone obsessed with her sister’s murder, the best Amanda could hope for was that there was a thesis in it somewhere. The automatic doors parted, and she entered, casting a paranoid glance around the library that happily failed to detect any psychotic sorts. She inhaled the familiar pungent blend of ink and musty pages, patchouli oil and potato chips. Since she was a child, Amanda had found comfort in books; the library had been her retreat from the ugliness of the world outside. It still was.
She had fifteen minutes to kill
and so roamed the main floor idly, taking in the usual academic clutter on the
tabletops: notebooks and book bags, geometric proofs, what appeared to be the
entire opus of Steinbeck tilting precariously, Jansen’s History of Art open to
Vermeer. Beyond this, a table had been deserted, leaving a lone magazine behind
and a school newspaper. The magazine was the September issue of a regional art
review called Reflex. Not really her thing. But then
her eyes caught on a caption in the corner: The
Latest Wizard from Oz:
Luke. She’d come to despise the name. But,
All at once the pleasant hum around her died; her skin began to tingle, her ears to ring. Images of a woman accompanied the words, and it was a woman she recognized.
She shared Amanda’s oval face and the shade of her hair, Amanda’s skin tone: fair; the cheekbones: high, but this woman’s eyes were wider, a clear aquamarine to Amanda’s brown. She wore a wistful, faraway expression, and her slender fingers reached out as if to touch her. Amanda’s fingertips hovered above the page in an unconscious mirroring of… Karen’s. She could not escape the thought.
You really have gone round the bend. This proved it. These were paintings, not photographs. Many women had hair that shade of brown, high cheekbones and wide eyes. Years ago she’d tortured herself with passers-by on the street. That’s all this was.
She began to read.
Make Me A Voyeur
What is the artistic relevance of the nude? Is it art for titillation’s sake, to feed the voyeuristic instinct, or mere primal lust?
The serious critic scoffs at all such philistine notions. In art school, one studies the human form for only one reason: nowhere is the topography more profoundly varied. The human body is composed of every possible geometric angle and shape and one is taught to study it abstractly, to segment it into triangles and circles, rectangles and squares. This is thought to subtract the sexual element.
And yet the female nude as artistic entity has long reigned supreme. In the past she was idealized, cloaked in mythical or religious symbolism. In the more cynical present, she has been mechanized, digitized, dismembered and rearranged, rendered all but unrecognizable. And all this because the artistic nude is not the nude of pornography, we’ve learned. The serious viewer is not voyeur and serious art not exhibitionism.
The obsessive focus of Luke Farrell’s work is his wife’s body. It is presented in ways that can only be described as unapologetic objectification. She is bare and covered, beautiful and flawed, by turns shamed and obscene, vital and free. The works are viscerally erotic. Not many, I venture to guess, would dare to know their wives so well.
Yet, in my preview sampling of six (there are rumored to be some forty more), I was struck by the level of engagement Farrell manages to achieve: not only between viewer and subject, but between the seen and unseen. A fetishist focus on parts rather than the whole, and a very deft use of positive and negative space create a running commentary on sexual dynamics in which each piece questions what it appears to know. By the end I felt almost redeemed, in guiltless dialogue again with the feminine form. The subject of these paintings, the beguiling “Gisčle,” knows she’s being looked at. She looks back. Together we shrugged off our mutual ignominy, easily embracing our roles of voyeur and exhibitionist. Even, in some strange way, exchanging them.
Make no mistake, these are challenging paintings. One camp will label them feminist, another will find them misogynistic; they are too erotic, too harsh… too real; their contradiction is their strength. Love them or hate them, buckle up or be unfastened: this is not the neutered, defamed nude we’ve grown accustomed to. Luke Farrell single-handedly delivers a shock of Eros to a vulgarized art world, and better yet, makes Eros a damned interesting raconteur. And nothing in recent years has struck this reviewer as quite so relevant.
The Artist and the Exhibition:
Luke Farrell hails from
Amanda let her eyes travel the page, wryly titling the works as she went: Before the
Three more pieces were pictured on the facing page. The model’s face appeared in none of these; she had been divided into disembodied parts. In the first, shapely calves were curved neatly beneath her thighs. Robbed of color, only shadow and light, the legs ceased to be legs and became more universal: a play on yin and yang in the calf and thigh, while her feet were arched and parted— curved pale shapes enveloping the phallic shadows. If one looked at the whole piece, the opposite occurred; her legs became phallic and the background, the encompassing shadow, was feminine. Amanda refocused her eyes and the effect receded; the legs were simply legs again.
The next image was no more than a midsection, the woman’s torso turning so that one could see the curve of hip and buttock, the twist of her waist and the curve of her breast. It was erotic, but almost painfully so. Her skin was faintly blue, as if under the harshest fluorescent light, and the depiction was equally severe: a road map of plotted moles and freckles. Down to the pore, it seemed.
The final painting was on a background of pure red. Gisčle’s skin was fragile porcelain, like a doll’s. Her head was turned to the left, but her body faced forward, so that one could see the bones of her clavicle, a yoke beneath the skin— and at the top, the line of her jaw. Around her neck she wore a black silk choker and a large pearl hung from it, like the teardrop of a mime.
Amanda’s fingers had traveled up to her own throat; she loosened her scarf.
The exhibition will be held through October at Dresden Galleries. Today was the twenty-fifth, but there was still time. It wasn’t a decision at all, simply the knowledge she would go, as if glimpsed from the future looking back. And the backward glance, somehow, was already bittersweet.
IX— The Ingénue
— Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1877
shall never forget the day we arrived
My influence over had grown with our distance from
And we lived very well, though difficulties arose from the schizophrenic nature of our public and private personae. In public, she had, for the most part to be my daughter; in private she was most certainly not. I understood the father-daughter connotations would be painful for her. They were also a strain on me; I did not enjoy having my perversions aligned with his. We agreed very early on that she would never call me ‘Dad’ or any reasonable facsimile therein; she called me, always, Tristan. But there were proprieties to be observed, a role to be played, and Gisčle particularly resented playing it at home around the servants.
I had no need of a cook as I rarely ate in, but there was a Puerto
Rican maid, Nora, who came and went each afternoon and spoke little English in
between. And the indispensable Henri: a transplant from
To explain Gisčle’s presence, I told him
a story of a tryst during my time at
absence. I told him I’d gone to
In the beginning, Gisčle was rarely out of my sight. As time went on, I would on occasion leave her with Henri, who became her tutor as he had been mine. Gisčle’s lessons took place from twelve to three, as Nora cleaned, and I was always near enough to overhear. I enjoyed this time, watching her playact for me; it was the continued expression of my power over her. Each day that she didn’t confess, didn’t race down quiet pristine East 75th screaming, “I’ve been kidnapped and kept by a madman!” was a psychological victory, and filled me with the buoyancy of a sculptor who has triumphed over a stubborn lump of clay.
To the neighbors, a simple: “Have you met my daughter, Gisčle?” sufficed. I was close to none of them, and even the obstinately sociable Mr. Mulligan from next door, who seemed perpetually to be walking his pugs (a thing that bore a queer sadistic edge, as the poor things were strangling on the leash all the while he made his pleasantries), asked no awkward questions.
That said, there were adjustments to be made. I had been a bachelor for years, and had little experience living with anyone. Sabina was a capricious creature, to be sure, but in our three and a half-year marriage we lived largely separate lives in separate regions of the house. I’m not at all certain of her more private idiosyncrasies; we shared the public ones when we met for dinner or the theatre or posed for parties, even at the end when we happened to pass on the stair.
And so it was with some wonder that I discovered Gisčle.
She quickly showed herself to be a person of singularly meticulous personal habits, given to lengthy showers and an elaborate toilette. I had corrupted her with the early gifts from the Lancôme counter. She soon found the point of all those creams and powders, toners and cleansers, moisturizers and brushes and
they ever afterward became an indispensable part of her ‘look.’ Though I was often kept waiting, I found it all very endearing, as I presumed it to be done for me.
Once a routine was established she held on to it like a talisman,
and gazing back now I see that she was suspended in a new world and rootless.
All she had were her routines. For the most part I accepted them as a
fascinating glimpse into her inner world, but it must be said that in many
respects my Gisčle possessed a somewhat dubious taste
in everything. Her eating habits appalled me: at breakfast, she spurned the omelettes or crepes I enjoyed for questionable items like
pop tarts. Indeed, the prepackaged food product was her companion of choice.
She didn’t eat lunch, but instead grazed through an exhaustive list of snack
food, which I tried in vain to infuse with cheeses, breads, and fruit. And in
her appearance and dress, she was in a state of constant metamorphosis. Most of
her incarnations pleased me. The daily shade of lipstick and
coiffure. She’d pull her hair back in a French braid, or up in a twist, and occasionally even work out the curls by some
feminine alchemy. I preferred it tousled and free, yet I found her attempts to
harness it quite a spectator sport. Before settling at last upon Yves St.
Ah, but I had a wonderful time dressing her. Such exquisite pleasure it was to see her turn for me, the flare of her skirt or the line of her pants, the faint line of panties beneath and an anxious expression upon her face; it was for me to decide yes or no, like the Roman emperor in the Coliseum. I gave her no money of her own apart from pocket change, but she had no need of it; I denied her very little.
Sightseeing easily filled our first weeks. Each afternoon after
her lessons, we roamed the city. We explored the parks and endless galleries,
block after block of shops. I saw everything again for the first time. Somehow
in the world pocketed
so neatly among the
Gisčle quickly took to the city: she loved the energy of it, the
immensity. It was as different from
Gisčle was so illuminated by the simplest of things that it was a joy to
spoil her, and I was utterly charmed by her naďveté. She puzzled over the
attendant one must tip in the ladies room: (“Why do people in
One lovely day, never to come again, we went to the Met in the
snow, the tires of the car fishtailing all the way. After taking in the
Impressionists, we watched through the windows as giant flakes blanketed
As time wore on, I grew
In the restaurant above, we met
rather unavoidably the Pools from
The next day we were on the viewing deck at the top of the
The door opened almost immediately after me, and there was Ed. I was thus rather forced to make use of the facilities. He took a urinal two down; naturally, neither of us looked at the other.
“Don’t mean to pry, but the wife and I couldn’t help noticin’—”
“She’s not really my daughter,” I said hastily.
“Like ‘em young, do you?”
“Sure she is.”
“She’s small; people think she’s younger.”
“Masqueradin’ as your daughter…”
“It’s a game she likes to play. She has a kink that way.”
“I’ll say. Mighty strange.”
“It’s not so uncommon.”
He cleared his throat and zipped his pants. “Well, my advice is play it in private; people don’t like seeing that sort of thing right under their noses. Got my wife all upset.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
He just grunted something vulgar about the French and left without washing his hands.
And so the cloak went on for good. This involved, for me, duplicity to old friends and associates as well as new acquaintances. Yet, the role made more poignant our hours offstage. I treasured our ‘secret life.’ There was the play, and there was the sweet refuge of the wings.
And yet our “private life” may also surprise you.
Gisčle was so naďve about sexuality, she believed I could resist an erection through sheer will. I let her believe this. For the first year, would you believe we did nothing but kiss? I explored; I touched her, of course. But though she could be a terrible flirt, she was just a kitten in bed. She touched me superficially, everywhere but. This was just as well. It allowed her to trust me in a way she’d trusted no one else.
At the heart of it lay a genuine terror of the male anatomy, and at last she confessed to me her father’s drunken forays into her bedroom. In the sordid spectrum of incest it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, but quite bad enough; a matter of clumsy fumbling about the breasts and buttocks, under bras and down panties, wet beery kisses, and “I love you, Angel. You know that, don’t you? You know I love you.”
She claimed her father stopped at masturbating in front of her, yet I privately suspected this was not the case. I am no psychologist, but she was quite resistant even to being pleasured, and I could only conclude that something unpleasurable had been attached to the idea. Once, when she’d had too much champagne,
and I was trying to talk her through her bed-spinning stage, she began to cry in pitiful sobs, murmuring something about being taken ‘out on the boat,’ but what boat and what her father did there, I don’t know. I could get nothing more intelligible out of her, and later she pretended not to remember. But it perhaps explained her morbid dread of the water, which was equal only to her morbid dread of the penis.
It made me very protective of her, and for a long time we merely slept together; side-by-side, surprised by the ease of our intimacy. But do not think me so chaste I didn’t wish for more. All it took was a glimpse of her, even the scent of her (I could write a volume upon this alone: the honey sweet scent of her hair, the salt of her skin, the sharp scent of the soap she used at night to wash her face, her light floral perfume, the tart newness of panties left on the bathroom floor.) Any part of the whole was enough for me to become so aroused that it seemed my entire body throbbed. And to touch her was a sort of converse thumbscrew; so acute was the torture of being on the outside. I vacillated between desperate love and bitter resentment; she was a Chinese box I could not open.
And of course she thought I could and would not, and that was a precious fine distinction. For here at last is the rub. A monster I may be, but a monster without claws. In our strange way we were quite perfect for each other, you see. The erection she found so abhorrent I could not maintain.
It was not always so. I began quite early, losing my virginity at the age of thirteen, and a happily promiscuous young man afterward— until the ripe old age of nineteen and a half: coitus interruptus, quite literally. No matter how strongly I began, I would never reach a satisfying end again. Alas, now you find sympathy for poor Sabina! She knew the grim realities, as it happens; we each got what we wanted: she, a legitimate last name for her child and me a (however, illegitimate) marriage entitling me to my inheritance. Her pregnancy allowed me the illusion of virility; I allowed her the illusion of respectability. It was a mutually beneficial partnership. We played a rousing game of gin rummy on our wedding night.
There is no medical reason for my impotence, and no known cure. (I’d prescribed Sabina, but to no avail.) I have tried all the herbal remedies, western medication, eastern meditation, acupressure and
acupuncture (not quite the painful image that rushes to mind; the needles are not placed there.) And still nothing. An after effect of dabbling in my father’s medications as a child, perhaps, or a recessive family gene. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t this that drove my father mad.
Ah, yes. And now you see how very apt the novel Gisčle was reading at the time of our first meeting: The Sun Also Rises, and the poetic choice of my early pseudonym. It was all very poignantly apt. And perhaps you suspected all along, for it explains my restraint. A pity it is not such a noble thing.
And yet our relationship was more than mere masochism, for I am better off than poor Jake. When I found Gisčle I felt a stirring I hadn’t felt in fifteen years. Not enough for penetration, intercourse, coitus: all the lovely mechanistic terms for the act of love, but enough for release. She released me. I was a half-hearted priest, my chastity forced on me, but at last I was to be delivered. She was fifteen, do you see? The symmetry of it was lovely. She had come to complete me.
And so at last, perhaps, you see.
Our first year together was a lovely, euphoric time for me, so that perhaps I underestimated the strain of it upon her. She fell occasionally into depressions: sullen, accusatory silences I liked to think had something to do with menstruation, with feminine vagaries I could hardly be expected to know how to ease. She would grow melancholy and cry over trifles. Once, on an evening in January, in the midst of “Three’s Company,” Gisčle rose and ran tearfully from the room. I found her lying on her stomach on the bed.
I sat beside her, stroking her hair, and after a moment she rolled on her side and fixed me with a glassy stare. “Today’s Mandy’s birthday, Tristan. My little sister is ten.”
So that was it. I murmured soothing words. “Come, ma petite, do not cry. Tell me about her.”
And so, curled up against me, she told me her little sister’s favorite ice cream (strawberry), favorite color (red), favorite television show: The Dukes of Hazzard, (I was dubious at this, but she assured me it was so.) Favorite author: Beverly Cleary. They had both had a crush on Shaun Cassidy, and Gisčle bought
Mandy her first 45: “Da Doo Run Run.” She’d eaten half Gisčle’s chocolate Santa the previous Christmas, and tried to cover it up by smoothing the foil wrapping over the empty part of his belly. But she wasn’t a tattle-tale or a cry-baby, and the day Amanda was born had been the best day of her life. Tears filled her eyes. “And I just left her there, Tristan.”
Well, what was one to do? I thought of buying a cake with Mandy’s name scrolled in frosting and ten candles placed on, so Gisčle might close her eyes and send her sister a birthday wish. Of course, this could snowball into a confectionary remembrance of all her relatives. We would be eating a lot of cake. As my mind was traveling down these frivolous avenues, I could see that her eyes had grown clear, and her gaze was one I didn’t recognize. Heartbreakingly adult.
She said, “You don’t understand, do you? I left her there. With my father.” And then she said, “You’re going to find out when the phone bill comes anyway, so I might as well tell you.” She hardly needed to say the rest; my heart had stopped. “While you were in the shower, I tried to call her.” Gisčle dropped her eyes to the bedspread. “Mandy likes to answer the phone and I just wanted to hear her voice. She has such a cheerful ‘hello.’ I wanted to make sure it hadn’t changed.”
“And had it?” I didn’t recognize my voice. It was without inflection.
“I didn’t get through. The number’s been the same forever.” A worried frown formed between her brows. “I tried dialing information for Patrick Miller, and nothing. We’ve never been unlisted; it costs an extra dollar a month.” Tears shone again in her eyes. “I don’t know what’s happened.”
But I did.
Though Gisčle didn’t know it, I read the San Francisco Chronicle as habitually as Le Monde. Earlier in the month, I’d scanned a report of a fatal car accident. Predictably, the driver was drunk and his driving was more than reckless, it was suicidal. And then I caught the driver’s name: Patrick Miller.
There had been an explosion; the car was charred, and in that first report, it was thought that his wife and daughter were also in the car. I could not have contrived a more fitting end for her father, but I
found myself haunted by Gisčle’s mother and the little ballerina. Later reports would clarify things: her mother was the only passenger; her sister had been located later and placed in the custody of an aunt. In the last three weeks I’d wrestled with the question of whether or not to tell Gisčle.
But now I saw a chance to snip the last tie to her past, and I took it.
At first, she would not believe me. At her urging, I sent for a copy of the paper, making certain it was the date of the initial false report. And she had no choice but to believe. Her response frightened me, for there was no response at all. For days she refused to speak of it. And then with a frightening abandon, in the middle of the night, her sobs cut my heart from my chest with razor blades. The next day, I banned Henri and Nora from the apartment. I bathed her, fed her, held her, and my conscience pricked me keenly all the while. But common sense prevailed. She could hardly fail to contact her little sister under such a circumstance. What other means did I have to bind her to me?
That night, red-eyed and hoarse from crying, she told me “the whole truth.” I listened, but could feel no anger. Shock has no feeling at all. I simply listened to her broken voice and understood why she had been worried about the phone bill. She’d spoken to her mother on the day of the accident.
A phone call seemed safe, she said. No postmark. She hadn’t told her mother about me or where she was, just that she was all right now and not to worry. She’d told her to worry about Mandy. “It all just came out, Tristan. What he did to me. And then I was so horrified I hung up. I never even told her I loved her...”
We never spoke of it again, yet she’d lost the last of her childish wonder. Even my most extravagant diversions were met with a delight that never quite reached her eyes. In her mind, Gisčle hadn’t merely abandoned her family, but destroyed it. In her attempt to save her sister, she’d killed her.
And I committed perhaps my gravest crime. I let her think it.
X— The Thinker
— Pierre-Auguste Renoir,1877
gazed from the tiny window of the puddle-jumper to
the chiseled white tips of the
The “upper” lake was one of a pair in the alpine resort area. They
were conjointly labeled,
Part of her knew it was all a wild goose chase, and an extravagant one at that; the odds of “Gisčle” having any connection to her sister were anorexically slim. The other part of her was glad of the distraction. It kept her mind off Luke Barrow, and her latest and greatest act of self-delusion.
He hadn’t even been her usual type. Ironically, it was this that
had attracted her. They’d met through a colleague of Jay’s, named Marc Kreicek, who’d approached the esteemed professor early that
summer about doing a book. Marc’s father had been a hypnotherapist
of some renown in
Marc made Amanda uncomfortable from the moment she met him. He’d crossed the room with a quick agile step, and she had the irrational feeling that he might spring. He was attractive in a slinky feline way: gaunt of frame, with a sly secretive expression, rumpled dark hair, olive skin, and a starved quality to his foam-green eyes. She could tell within a minute of meeting that he intended to know her in the biblical sense, and it had for lack of a more technical term, creeped her out. And so she’d treated him with kid gloves, and tried to avoid him altogether. She knew that he’d practiced psychology for a short time, though he now appeared to be without profession; he ‘painted,’ Jay said. Not houses. Jay was enamored with him, and with the project for which he anticipated accolades. One day in June, she and her esteemed professor found themselves muddling through an awkward lunch, pretending to be no more than friends and colleagues. Marc Kreicek arrived with his friend, Luke; he and Jay talked shop; Amanda talked gratefully to Luke.
He had dirty blond hair and a sheepish sort of charm; a naughty little-boy quality that she’d found irresistible, probably because it was entirely new. Though he was attending an art seminar at the college, he wasn’t an academic. He was honest and direct and refreshing. It had been a simple relationship, but beautiful in its simplicity: walks in the park and along the wharf, flowers, cards, dinners and movies. There had been a strange kind of innocence to it.
But in August his art seminar at the university ended, and so abruptly had the romance— until early this month when he’d returned en masse, showing up at her door with long-stem roses and heartfelt apologies and looking like death: a thing Amanda never seemed able to resist. She’d been safe till then. But he hadn’t shaved in days; he was hardly dressed for a date, and it seemed to startle him that he was even there. There was a look in his eyes: raw, but sweet and almost frightened underneath. As though he’d never been loved and never expected to be.
The innocence flew out the window. There was a reckless abandon to the sex, like two alcoholics on a bender. Afterward, he hadn’t even called. She should scarcely have been surprised, and yet she’d been stunned. It was a strange sensation, but one for which she had a particular faculty: to be utterly surprised by the expected.
Only then did it dawn on her that she’d missed her pill a couple of days in that month’s cycle. Though she’d doubled up afterward, the slight risk seemed to grow in the ensuing silence. After ten days she broke her cardinal rule and called him. She had only a cell phone number. Luke had been brusque to the point of rudeness, and she would never forget his last words: “Look, I’m sorry, Mandy, but obviously I changed my mind.” Obviously. He’d sounded so squirmy and scared: scared of being caught. And suddenly it was obvious to her that he was married. Of course he was. Horrified and embarrassed, she’d simply hung up.
The plane curved in a great
swoop over the shimmering water, and Amanda yawned to pop her ears. She
resolutely forced Luke and visions of fatherless infants from her mind. Wild
goose chase or not, as the plane touched down it had the air of an adventure.
She collected her suitcase, and trailed to the Avis counter to rent the requisite
SUV. Squinting down at her map in the slanted autumn sunshine, she navigated
past the airport and was soon on the road to
The drive was literally breathtaking: forty minutes of evergreens
and granite and a climbing road that inspired vertigo. A few feet to her right
an insubstantial guardrail was meant to prevent her from plunging down to the
Bastille, rushing indifferently below. At last the vista widened, and the
expansive rolling hills of a private golf club were the first signs of
civilization. Deer strolled across the green as if they were members in good
standing. She reached a gate shortly thereafter, and was charged six dollars
for the privilege of entering
The Cascades loomed dizzyingly overhead, and she crossed a scenic
bridge to pass beside the gauzy veil of
scalloped and turreted and infallibly charming. In the historic section, the streets were cobblestone, the streetlights gas lit. There were gourmet markets and bakeries, cheese shops and chocolatiers, a myriad of canopied boutiques and fine restaurants, spas and salons, and over fifty art galleries.
It all painted a colorful picture, but one that seemed less and less likely to include Karen. She had escaped death to run with the artistic elite? It was a stretch, even to one who wanted to believe.
Amanda found a parking spot and began to walk. Around her, an
upscale milieu of tourists ducked in and out of shops, and something divine
floated from a terraced restaurant above her, mingling with crisp air piquant
with pine, anise, and the smoky scent of dry leaves. She made her way to
The outpost of Dresden Galleries at number 1212 was a great thatch-roofed building with charming green shutters and a rustic Dutch door. Broad bay windows held the muted still lifes of a Russian artist and a trio of lush Mediterranean scenes by a French one, the paint applied so thickly with a palette knife that it looked more like bas-relief. But there was no sign of Gisčle.
The upper portion of the Dutch door was open, and Amanda peered inside. The gallery director was on the phone, but acknowledged her from his wide marble desk with an encouraging smile. Chiding herself for needing the encouragement, Amanda depressed the door handle firmly. She’d glean what facts she could about the artist and his model, and that would most likely be that.
The gallery was an architectural feat of soaring cove ceilings, glazed walls and distressed wood floors. She roamed down the gently sloping walkways. Angled walls created the illusion of separate rooms, and each held an exquisite array of art and sculpture. None of which interested Amanda in the least.
She returned to the front of the gallery. “Rolf van Duren,” the director’s nameplate read, like something out of The Sound of Music. And indeed he looked like Rolf all grown up, with his perfectly coifed blond hair, barely-there moustache and tailored silk suit. It all went into the price of the paintings, she imagined. He replaced the receiver, and gazed up with a practiced smile.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting. How may I help you?”
“I’m interested in an artist named Luke Farrell. I understood there was to be an exhibition--”
“Ah, yes.” A frown. “The Gisčle Paintings. It was canceled, I’m afraid, and has yet to be rescheduled. Under the circumstances I’m not entirely sure it will be.”
Amanda’s ears had begun to whir. “What circumstances?” But it was as if she already knew.
“I’m sorry to say Farrell’s wife and model, Gisčle, passed away a month ago.”
“My God. How...?”
“A fluke accident. She drowned in her own pool.”
Well that, at least, rules out Karen. Drowning entailed first getting into the water.
Chattily, Rolf continued, “Mr. Dresden is very close to the family, and it hit us all very hard. Such a lovely woman. She didn’t swim at all, poor dear. It seems she suffered from a phobia.” His next words were lost to her. A fear of water is common enough. Surely. “...but I’d be happy to contact you as soon as I learn the future of the exhibition.”
Amanda rattled off her name and address, but she hadn’t come all this way to get on a mailing list. “In lieu of the artist, might I arrange to speak with Mr. Dresden?” She swallowed; her mouth always went dry when she lied. “You see, I write for ‘Reflex.’ I’m doing a story on Gisčle.”
1) Why was Mom crying in the garden?
2) Was it really a fatherly kiss?
3) If so, why was Dad mad? What did they argue about?
4) Did he have an affair, or did she?
5) Why was the mirror closed in her room?
6) Who spilled the perfume? Was it during the argument?
7) Why did she go out to the pool house? To get away from Dad?
8) Did he follow her or just go out for his paintings? Why didn’t he tell me she was there?
9) Could she have been meeting someone else?
10) How did Grand-pere know she was there?
11) What about the lights??
She jumped; ink derailed the line. “Grand-pčre, you scared me.” He’d been sitting there all the time she wrote in her notebook, blending into the granite and the tree trunks and the shade, like the twig that had once curled round her finger. She’d never been able to look at twigs quite the same. She squinted at him. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
His voice was low, blending into the rush of the creek beside them. “I didn’t wish to disturb you, mon chaton. What is it you’re so immersed in writing?”
“Oh, this?” She closed the cover of her notebook a little too quickly, and tried to be casual as she slid her pen into the spiral. “Just, you know, homework.”
“So soon? You’ve only just started school.”
“It’s been over a week.”
Tristan frowned fleetingly. “And how do you find it?”
“It’s fine, I guess.” Nicola traced squiggles in the dirt with the toe of her sneaker. “I don’t really know anybody yet.” So far she’d written off both genders. Some of the boys had teased her about her height— it seemed to Nicola they were simply short— and the girls were worse. A popular one, named Kelly, started calling her “Ricola” after the Swiss girl in the cough drop commercials. She would have laughed it off a month ago, but now small talk eluded her; quick comebacks crawled into her consciousness too late. It was as if she’d forgotten how to be with people, and they sensed it.
“But you’ll make friends easily, chérie.” Tristan cleared his throat. “I know you will. It’s why your father felt it so important that you go. I am more selfish. I miss our days together.”
“So do I, Grand-pčre.” But Nicola focused her attention on the surface of the mossy rock, sweeping away a few fallen leaves and tracing a picture with her finger. She’d never had this trouble with her grandfather; they’d always been able to talk about anything. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, you can. Nicola.” But from his slight frown, she knew he’d guessed the subject.
“It’s just that when I found Mom, the lights in the pool house weren’t on. The only light was from the skylights. I remember the reflections on the water.”
Tristan tipped his head to catch her eyes. “Mais oui, that is true.”
“Everyone said she went out to look at the paintings, but how could she have seen them in the dark? And if she could see, how did she fall in? She never went near the edge—”
“You have given this a good deal of thought.” And then, as if to himself, “But of course you have. No one knows how it happened, mon enfant. She had a change of clothes in the cabana and her cosmetic case. It’s clear she’d gone there for the night. She’d changed into her dressing gown and taken her sleeping pills.” Tristan sighed and he looked very weary, suddenly. Nicola felt a pang of regret for making him talk about it. “And still she couldn’t sleep. She wouldn’t have needed to turn on the overhead lights in the pool house, you see. We had special lights set up for the party, don’t you remember? Uplights around the easels? Eh bien, it’s not the best light for paintings, too many shadows.” A frown. “But the lights were timed— to come on at midnight and shut off at three.”
Nicola bit her lip. “But then they might even have gone out while she was—” It was too awful to think about. Her mother, disoriented in the darkness, stumbling… falling. All alone.
Tristan rose and came to sit beside her; Nicola scooted over, onto her notebook, so that the wire spiral bit into her hip. He gazed down at her, and said gently, “You mustn’t think of it.”
“I can’t help it.” Nicola swallowed. “Why was she so afraid of the water?”
“The worst fears have no rational cause, Nicola. It was simply always with her. I did try to teach her to swim once.” His eyes were fixed on a point beyond her, seeing something that wasn’t there. He gave a short sad laugh. “She was like a cat in the bathwater. Within two minutes she was out again. Phobias are strange, crippling thing. Like obsessions, I suppose. And addictions. There are things that choose you; they are not chosen, and not so easily abandoned. I know this from experience.” Nicola waited, watching. Her grandfather had always been able to order everything, to explain it all. He swung his leg as he spoke, striking the heel of his shoe against the granite shelf on which they sat. His pale eyes were no more than blue dashes as he squinted into the stark sunlight. “I had a fear of heights as a child, a thing I’ve battled all my life. But over time elevators ceased to trouble me, and I was at ease upon balconies. I thought I had conquered it. And then, some years ago, I was walking with Robin along some old railroad tracks and we came to a trestle. Eh bien, it was sturdy enough; we were discussing some project or another, and I was halfway across when I gazed down through the slats. The canyon rushed up to meet me, mon chaton. I broke into a sweat in the cold. My ears began to ring. I was sick with fear. Paralyzed. The narrow gaps were too wide to cross. I was so certain I’d fall that there is little doubt I should have.”
Nicola barely breathed. “How did you make it?”
“Robin was able to talk me through it, though it was not a dignified crossing, I’m afraid. Fear, simple irrational fear, is the most terrifying enemy one can face.”
“Then you don’t think she could have done it on purpose?”
Tristan gazed at her blankly. “Done what on purpose?”
Nicola met his eyes. “Drown.”
“C’est de la merde!” he exclaimed, angrily. “Who is telling you these things?”
Nicola gazed away. She didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. “Just someone in town.”
“God save us from the scourge of a small town. It’s a malicious lie.” Tristan’s tone was withering, but his gaze softened as he reached out to smooth her hair. “No wonder you’ve been acting so strangely. To have kept these doubts to yourself. Why didn’t you come to me sooner?”
“I don’t know.” She did know, of course, and hadn’t mentioned her greatest doubt of all. She hadn’t mentioned what she’d seen in the garden. It grew more unreal with each passing moment. How could she have thought such awful things about him? About her mother?
“Listen to me, Nicola. The investigators declared your mother’s death an accident. That’s what it was. But death is always inexplicable: accidental death, natural deaths. One is never satisfied. But you must remember that we knew her, you and I. We are the reasons she wouldn’t have killed herself. She wouldn’t have left us.” Nicola nodded, blinking back tears. “But we still have each other, mon chaton, we mustn’t ever lose that.”
With a crunch of dead leaves Nicola turned to hug her grandfather. Her notebook slid down the rock, and though she jumped down to retrieve it, it didn’t seem so necessary anymore.
The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Nicola shivered. Tristan slipped his sweater over her shoulders as they walked home. “There’s an eclipse tonight, I understand,” he remarked. “Do we have a date at midnight on the roof top? I will bring the hot chocolate.”
She laughed, nodding, but then remembered she had school tomorrow. “I don’t really like the kids at my new school, Grand-pčre,” she confessed. “I don’t fit in at all.”
“Ah, but you needn’t fit in, ma chčre.” Tristan looked down at her, affectionately. “That is an American conspiracy. I’ve never fit in anywhere. Simply be yourself, and they will fit in with you.”
If only it were that easy... Nicola hugged her notebook to her chest, and looked at him wistfully. She was beginning to see things weren’t quite as simple as Grand-pčre made them seem.
Robin Dresden agreed to see Amanda “briefly,” if she could meet him in an hour at the college. She assured Rolf she could. The trouble was what to say once she got there.
If the students in question had indeed been brainwashed, Amanda thought, they couldn’t have asked for a nicer setting for it. Pale sandstone buildings were spread luxuriously over a thousand gorgeous acres. The campus was an arboretum and many of the trees were in the death throws of autumn; brilliant shades of orange and magenta carpeted the walkways and punctuated the endless expanse of green. Leaves blew on the breeze and crackled underfoot, scratching out a lonely melody beneath her feet. Reassuring strains of a Pearl Jam song emanated from a dorm window somewhere above. Two boys tossed a Frisbee on her right; to her left, a flock of girls lay on blankets in the grass: alternately giggling, studying the boys, and gazing up in boredom up at a sky that was impossibly blue, pale rays of sunlight lending a silver lining to the puffy cotton-ball clouds.
Still, Amanda shivered with apprehension as she reached the great ivy-covered tower at the center of campus. Impressively Gothic, it had once been part of a monastery, Rolf had told her, a relic around which the school was built. “One can’t miss it.” And one certainly couldn’t.
The ivy had lost most of its leaves and clung darkly to the stone exterior in a death grip. As she gazed up its length sunlight glared off the leaded glass, blinding her and leaving the landscape alive with its skeleton. The base of the tower was surrounded by gardens and a high wrought iron gate entwined with rose vines. Amanda was filled with a childish desire to trespass and explore.
For a moment it seemed it would have to be the former. She found the gate locked. She called through the bars, and then with a start noticed Robin leaning against the wall of the tower, completely in shadow and staring directly at her. He closed his eyes momentarily and reopened them, too long for a blink— more as if he were garnering patience, or resurfacing from a deep meditation— and either way, Amanda thought, rather rude. But with his renewed concentration, she forgave him.
“You really mustn’t yell,” he said, with a pained expression as he started towards her. “There’s a buzzer, as you’ll see, to your right.” His accent was a surprise: upper class British and tremendously resonant, like an actor. “It rings inside and generally someone civilized will emerge to let you in.” He pushed a lock of hair from his forehead and gave her a wry smile. “Like magic.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see.”
Robin opened the gate and peered down at her. It was hard not to stare at him, though his attraction wasn’t exactly the healthy kind: his dark clothes accentuated the nearly black hair and the dark smudges beneath his eyes, and the eyes themselves were such a strange color: a clear deep gray as dark as charcoal, with pale flecks in them like ice. Or ashes. Yes. Pale iridescent ashes, and black soot. And then there was his mouth. It turned down slightly at the corners, giving him a demanding, restless expression. But these quirks were his appeal, for otherwise he was a study in symmetry: dark hair, dark lashes, dark brows and sculpted cheekbones, and the kind of lips one imagined… they twitched now, amused, as if he’d read her thoughts.
Amanda glanced quickly away. “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Dr. Dresden.”
“Call me Robin, Amanda.” He scratched his head, impatiently. “Doctor brings to mind white coats and antiseptic. Rolf’s told me you’re doing some sort of story.” His gaze was
uncomfortably direct. “My feeling is that art should be experienced, not dissected. You’ll forgive my lack of enthusiasm.”
“But surely you have an opinion on Gisčle’s death, and the future of the exhibition?”
“I don’t see that either is a matter of opinion.”
She flushed, in spite of herself. No wonder he got such mixed press. “Nevertheless, er... Robin, I promise I’ll only take a moment of your time.”
He didn’t answer her, but in what she took to be an encouraging way, since he was ushering her in. She caught the glint of a ring on his finger. Inwardly, she groaned. No wonder she was so attracted to him. But when his hand dropped she could see it wasn’t a wedding ring, but a platinum signet that winked in the shadows, engraved deeply with some symbol she couldn’t quite make out.
“It’s a lion. Rampant, regardant. A dagger in his dexter paw and a trefoil vert in the sinister. That’s for luck. Springing from a ducal crown. That’s for show.”
Realizing he’d seen her glance at his ring finger; she flushed red. “Sorry?”
He tipped his head. “Heraldry-speak. It’s a sort of family crest.”
He only smiled.
“And do you seal your letters in wax?”
“That’s why the engraving’s done in reverse.” She couldn’t be sure whether he was kidding her or not. His lips twitched, but then he turned to lead the way down the garden path, leaving the heavy gate to swing shut with a clang. And like a lamb in the lair of the heraldic lion, she followed.
LUKE honked at a lunatic on a moped going the wrong way down a one-way
street. Damned tourists. There was no parking on
It was the first time Luke had been there since Gisčle’s death, and though she had never graced the walls he saw her everywhere. Spotlights trained on her face, on every inch of her body. It was ironic and a little sad; he’d never known anyone who liked being naked less than Gisčle. Now it was the only way he could ever seem to think of her.
Wiping the beads of sweat from his brow, he inhaled deeply. You can do this. Surely fate had willed it. He reached the office door at the rear of the gallery, and rapped with more assurance than he felt.
“Ah, Luke,” Rolf said behind him, as he floated across the room and extended his hand.
Luke could barely tolerate Rolf’s obsequious air, but he was a necessary evil. He had an unerring eye when it came to distinguishing buyers from browsers, and as Robin had once said, “He makes buying art feel like basic hygiene.”
“You’ve missed Robin, I’m afraid. He’s rarely here these days. How are you?” He spoke in soft empathetic tones. “You look so well.” (A lie, Luke knew.) “I do hope we’ll be able to organize something soon. You have no idea how many inquiries I’ve received about your paintings. In fact, you’ve just missed a reporter—”
“Christ.” Luke grimaced. “You didn’t give her my number, did you?”
“Naturally not, I took her contact information.” And before Luke could protest, he was being handed the same, written on a sheet of elegant office stationery. He stuffed it blindly into his pocket. “She writes for Reflex, yet she seemed quite startled by the news of Gisčle’s death. They’ve just printed a follow-up to last month’s review. I don’t know how she could have escaped it. In any case, Robin’s agreed to talk to her. He’ll know how best to handle it.”
How best to spin it. Luke cleared his throat. “Has he indicated any kind of timeline to you?”
Rolf frowned. “No. But Gisčle was so supportive of the exhibition; my personal feeling is that she would want it to go on. He may recommend that you do the interview, Luke. It’s an art magazine after all, not a rag. Perhaps it would be smart to cooperate.”
Luke nodded, though his personal feeling was that Rolf wanted his commission. Trouble was, that made two of them.
Robin Dresden led Amanda up a stairway unlike any she had ever seen; it spiraled dizzyingly and art lined the curving walls— a quick study of artistic periods from the Renaissance onward, (though this didn’t dawn on her until the modern era, and the Dali part of the Monet-Cezanne-Matisse-Picasso-Dali sequence). They were only reproductions, of course; this was clear even with Amanda’s limited knowledge of art— she was aware that the Mona Lisa was in the Louvre— but they were fine copies printed on canvas and framed, delicately lit by savage twisted iron sconces. By contrast, the stairs were formal and refined: highly polished dark cherry with a fine Persian runner. They went up three floors. At each landing, burnished wood doors led off to the right and left: “My students’ rooms,” Robin said.
She wondered what it was to be a student of his.
Another flight up. The room in which he led her was too luxuriously appointed to be called an office, though there was a kidney-shaped mahogany desk in such a state of elegant disarray that she glimpsed only a corner of the leather inlaid top. The room itself was a wide semi-circle and possessed none of the sterile asceticism of modern academic workspace. She felt rather like a novice stumbling upon the sacristy. Here the paintings were as thick as wallpaper and didn’t appear to be reproductions: a daunting collage of figurative and abstract, classical and modern. Books covered any remaining wall space, and stood in stacks upon the floor.
Robin swept the disorder on his desk into one neat pile and indicated the chairs before him. One was a leather club chair, the other an overstuffed wingback. She chose the former, as she didn’t like having her peripheral vision hindered, and she imagined Robin Dresden was over-accustomed to an audience perched at the edge of their seat. He’d gone to a bar in the corner of the room and was selecting from an array of crystal decanters and glasses on its surface. Beside her was an antique
table with inlaid wood in a geometric design; an old-fashioned kaleidoscope stood upright beside a leather bound tome of great size. It lay open, its language foreign. She caught the musty scent of yellowed pages, but doubted somehow that it was the Bible.
Another corner held a sculpture of a female nude. Along with a lush hanging plant, it lent a sensual quality to what otherwise had the air of an archaeologist’s study, filled as it was with all manner of curious objets d’art she lacked the expertise to catalog.
And then all at once she understood.
It was in the analytical way he was studying her, like a shrink. She recognized the room as a stage with props, designed to trigger a response from the humble trespasser. In Robin Dresden’s codex, each piece probably possessed revelatory power. Yes, now she saw the shapes: the masculine elements, the feminine, the empty spaces, the claustrophobic ones; metamorphosing images like a room of Rorschach inkblots. She had, she saw, chosen the masculine chair.
She met his eyes. “This room says a lot about you.”
“And you.” An ironic half-smile. “Would you care for a drink, Amanda?”
“Yes, thanks. Some water would be nice.”
He turned to the bar. “I prefer scotch in mine; are you similarly inclined?”
“Oh. Er, no. Just ice.” She heard the clink of ice against crystal, and then he handed her a tumbler and sat behind the desk with his scotch.
“Now. To your story, Amanda. I’d be very interested to hear it. You see, I know the editor at Reflex quite well and he has no writer called Amanda Miller on his staff.”
“Oh. Well, I…” Amanda hesitated. “That’s right, I’m not a staff writer. I’m only freelance. I should have said so at the gallery.” She gave him her most ingenuous smile, ignoring the fact that her mouth felt like cotton. “The truth is I’d hoped to make an impression with this story.”
Robin sipped his scotch. “I see.”