Fugue for Water and Telephone


A fog has arisen in the streets. The old city has wrapped itself in this cold blanket to die; in its last delirium it imagines spires detached from churches and floating, tunnels of bare branches leading to the edge of the world, bare branches clasped over the road like the bones of dancers' hands. In the white distance the bones of a dance might spin, invisible. Cars slide by with hushed engines, conspiring to listen for some remaining life. It is difficult to imagine that anyone could be driving them. On the corner, Gabriel is yelling into a pay phone.

"Why do you refuse to understand?" he cries. His fingers are cramped with cold around the receiver. "I can't dream with my eyes open, I can't step out of the world the way you do!" He pauses with parted lips to listen, his breath curling through his teeth in white plumes. When he answers, his voice is harsh and cracked, dragged from him like stitches from a half-healed wound. "Because I'm afraid," he says, and drops the receiver. It swings, creaking, as he walks away: a gallows with a broken-necked love twisting on it.

Fog muffles his steps, and he thinks he must be the only one alive. Even his lover's voice is receding into memory. His eyes are burning, but there are no tears; what good would they do? He feels he has erred too deeply to deserve the release of weeping. The buckles of his boots jingle like a mockery of Christmas, distant and false; the tails of his coat make a sound like settling wings. Despair binds him: concrete in his lungs, slush in his veins, rust on his heart. The world blurs and slips sideways, unnoticed.

The shrouded streets he walks beside seem miles away. He imagines he could step off the sidewalk and travel for hours without reaching the other side. Or perhaps the asphalt isn't asphalt at all, but black water, shining and cold, deep enough to swallow the whole city, the whole world. There are no cars now. The silence is embraced by the parenthetical white noise of slow water. Gabriel comes to the end of the block and finds a boat tethered there.

He steps from the sidewalk into the boat, which rocks and makes ripples in the glassy blackness of the street. The rope snaps. The boat drifts.

Gabriel kneels in the bottom of the boat, lulled by its lazy movement. He spreads his hands on its silvery wood, its crust of ancient white paint. Splinters graze his palms, and he clenches his hands on the gunwale until it hurts, but the pain is no consolation. He is carried through silent streets, from white into white, beneath a black lace of winter trees that forms before him and dissolves behind. Tenements and churches ghost beside him, their brick the color of dried blood, frayed by mist: an accusing stain, faded by time.

He looks over the side to his reflection in the smooth water. The face of his reflection is both familiar and strange, like the time-darkened portrait of an ancestor. It wears his face as if unused to it. It wears his hair like a penitent's veil. From the mirror of his pale eyes it seems someone else looks back. He reaches to clasp hands with it and touches wet pavement.

There is no boat: Gabriel kneels in the street. Above him his lover's house stretches decayed towers into whiteness. His lover stands in the doorway, dressed in scarlet, beautiful and amused.

Gabriel rises from the running gutter and stretches out his cold hands. "I've dreamed," he offers desperately. "I followed you out of the world..."

"You've only set your foot on the threshold of my dream," says Gabriel's lover, and with a wild gesture draws the mist between them.

With a violent cry, Gabriel rushes forward, but there is no gate of twisted iron, there are no crumbling steps drifted with decaying leaves. Only the endless sidewalk. Tears freed at last, Gabriel slashes his hands through the thick air before him, frantic to touch anything, even a rough wall, even a drop of rain.

His hand brushes something cold and smooth. He lifts it: the receiver of the pay phone, creaking at the end of its tarnished cable. He puts it to his ear. In the dial tone, impossible voices sing.