Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 22

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                              Chapter 22

 

In a squalid suburb of Buenos Aires lived a man of unremarkable character.  Bernardo Funes was twenty-eight years old, a house painter.  After quietly passing through primary school, though none of his teachers were certain he learned his subjects because he failed to submit any work or take the exams placed in front of him, Funes, at 14, accepted his neighbor's offer to assist in his house painting business.  As Funes had neither ambition nor other prospects, he began to rise for work at six every morning and dress in silence so he would not awaken his landlady who slept in a room opposite his, across a small isthmus of kitchen they shared.  His own room contained a wooden table and chair, a dresser with three-drawers and a sagging bed, the same one he had slept in as long as he could remember.  The mattress still bore his childhood urine stains.  On warm nights ancient aromas would rise from its folds and engulf him, the perfume of dream maidens upon whom he had spent his small passions.  A window large enough for his head and shoulders to pass through was reflected in an oblong mirror hung on the wall.  When he stood close to the mirror and slightly to one side, all his worldly possessions were visible, though reversed, and in his eyes, inverted.  Upon the table was a pewter frame which held a photo of his dead father.  Before the light faded in the evenings he would sit in the stiff-backed chair before the photo and contemplate his father's image: a weathered man with a thick mustache who wore a poncho, long chiripa and kerchief around his neck.  He stood in front of a jungle, perhaps the same one which swallowed his bones.  His mother had told Bernardo once that Quecha Indians had killed him during a surveying expedition.  But on another occasion she said his father had been a sailor who perished at sea.  Funes could summon no emotion for the man in the photo and whatever curiosity he once had waned over the years.


His boss, a man his father's age if his father had been alive, was inhabited by a spirit of alcohol, so if he was drinking his dark mate' as they worked, he would be kind to Funes, jovial and tolerant of Funes' long silences, but if the jug had run dry or worse, his boss was on a binge of sobriety, he would cruelly berate his assistant for every annoyance, including the weather.  Funes could recognize if the spirit was present in the man's voice as they walked to that day's job, and if he were to glance sidelong into his boss' eyes, which were murky as swampwater, he would instantly know if the day would be filled with rue.

They carried buckets of pastel paints, of interior latex and exterior enamel, one and five gallon pails they would mix at the site in eucalyptus shade.  His boss always carried a folding ladder on his right shoulder and Funes the canvas bag with their brushes in his left hand to balance the paint in his other.  Sometimes the boss' brother would drive them to a distant job in an old truck which also hauled vegetables from the market to the trash dump.  Funes would squat between cases of bruised tomatoes and peppers which reminded him of shriveled male organs.  But they usually walked, often an hour or more in the early mornings.


They painted the homes of the modestly rich, not the walled haciendas out on the Calle Coronado or the villas which overlooked the bay in Avellaneda, but the homes of doctors and merchants, the novice rich.  Funes took no pride in his work, though he did find mild pleasure in seeing how others lived: couples who took tea in silk bathrobes or indolent women sunbathing beside tile-lined pools.  Mostly he stared at the expanse of wall before him which gradually became lemony or pale blue under his brush.  Over the years he had mastered the art of the drip. Having wrung any excess paint from his brush before he lifted it to the stucco or smooth wood, he would swirl the color on in graceful arcs to the right, then to the left and back over, erasing the  previous surface.  His boss was more adept at priming, masking, and trimming, but as he was older and bent at the shoulders, he could not paint as fast nor as high as Funes.  Thus, no directions were necessary between the two men who seemed to find an equilibrium in their division of labor, unless the alcohol spirit was in the mood to berate Funes.  At such times every stroke was sloppy and Funes a worse painter than a baboon and since he could do nothing to please his boss, he went deeper into silence and let the spirit's obscenities buzz at his ears like insects.

One morning as he stood shaving in the dim light from the bathroom's open window, half-listening to the world re-compose itself and half-lingering in the boudoir of a silky woman his desire had conjured, he noticed the smallest finger on his right hand had disappeared.  He held his hand to the light, turned it, startled to count only three fingers and the thumb which bore  paint flecks from the previous day's job.  He touched the spot where his little finger had been, but there was no sensation of pain nor any scar, nothing but an emptiness above the knuckle bone he flexed under his skin.  He stared at the unevenness of his hand, the three fingers now alien in the absence of the fourth, the thumb lopsided.  Wracking his memory to recall when he had gone to bed and what violence might have occurred, he flung back his damp sheets, but there was no blood, no severed finger on the floor, no evidence of a struggle, no logic which asserted itself in his afflicted thoughts.  The loss of his finger so disturbed Funes he could not drink the chicory coffee he prepared each morning.  Every few seconds he would glance at his right hand.  He would hold it aloft and turn it slowly in bewilderment.

An hour later as he walked next to his boss along a rain slickened street, he paused at one intersection, set the paint container down beside him and offered the hand for the boss to inspect.  Perhaps the finger was diseased and fell off, the boss said.  Leprosy.  Perhaps, Funes replied, but I should have noticed some discoloration.  I should have felt pain.


The brush was awkward when he began to paint.  He had to swab in horizontal strokes, and by late-morning his hand cramped because the other fingers were slow to adjust.  He ate lunch with his left hand, all the while his other he kept under surveillance until he noticed the boss silently watching him.  It is only one finger, the boss said.  And a small one at that.  But his remark was no consolation to Funes.

He slept fitfully that night and awoke before dawn, groping in the darkness to touch his right hand.  He felt for the spot, then sat up with a shriek.  Another finger was gone.  He leaped terrified from his bed and flipped on the light switch.  He searched under and behind the furniture as if he might find an intruder.  In his commotion he woke his landlady who years ago had been his mother before they arrived at their present arrangement.  She preferred to speak of her son in the third person, the boy Bernardo she remembered fondly to the adult lodger who had moved into his rooms.  Her knocking returned him to his senses.

I am sorry to disturb you, he said, hiding all but his face behind the door.  Please go back to bed, he said.  Her eyes, he thought, were moist and serpentine in the shadowy darkness and full of unevaporated sleep.  He closed the door and sank to his knees.

By mid-morning the paint brush was so unwieldy, his boss sent him to the free clinic on Calle Ocho so that a doctor might diagnose his malady, but the physician of the day, a young medical student with convex lenses in his tortoise-shell glass frames could only blink as Funes told him of the disappearing fingers.  We have no time here for jokes, the young man said with annoyance.  You obviously were born without two fingers.  See how your skin is taut.  See. Normal pigmentation.  Next, he snapped, speaking past Funes.


So Funes wandered the labyrinth of streets in a haze of befuddlement until the afternoon heat brought him to the shade of a well-tended park.  Two old men sat playing chess.  He came up behind them and watched their strikes and parries between the long silences when even time seemed suspended.  But he had never learned the game which yielded to him nothing but indifference, though he liked the design of the carved pieces, especially the knight on his rearing steed.  After a few minutes he went home where he sat nourished by a small flame of fear inside his chest, and watched the tops of heads two stories below move along the sidewalk.  At dinner he kept his right hand tucked under his left arm, tight to his body.  He was not adept at spooning the potato soup with his left hand and several times his spoon collided with his upper or lower lip.  His landlady sat across from him, slurping with ease and unaware of this irregularity.

When the time came for him to settle into bed, he sat up, his worn pillow cushioning his back against the wall.  He left the light on.  He watched the hand, suspicious of every noise beyond the door or outside his window.  On the table and within easy reach was a wood-handled butcher's knife, its tapered blade slightly fearful to him as he struggled to not succumb to the dark waves now rising about the room.  He was not a religious man, but a thought of supernatural evil occurred to him, the visage of a red-eyed beast appearing on the far wall, come to gnaw another finger when his eyes surrendered.  He shook his head to clear the notion.  A train wailed in the distance, the high, forlorn sound of someone in pain.  The wind wailed at his window, entered and prowled about the room like a soul of the unquiet dead.  His father, immutable in his photo, glared at him.  The room was eight feet wide and ten feet long, its walls beige, the color of sand, of an endless desert.  


Bernardo Funes was not a man of iron-willed fortitude, so he soon fell asleep.  When he  awoke hours later bereft of his entire right hand, lopped smoothly at the wrist, he collapsed heavily onto the floor, then pulled himself upright.  He staggered about the room, unbalanced and in such a mental frenzy  that imprecations issued from his mouth, fresh blasphemies he had never uttered himself but had only heard, the stub of his arm so hideous to him he could not contain his agony.  His landlady pounding at his door caused him to swallow down the froth. 

Her voice was angry and shrill.  Have you gone crazy?  What is the matter with you?  What are you doing in there?  Open this door immediately.

He hesitated, then fumbled the door open, his right arm -- what remained of it -- held behind his back.  She sputtered something at him, her hands striking the air for emphasis.  He stepped back, deaf to her, the sounds in his head like rushing water.  He was being devoured alive by some creature which came in the night, but which left his flesh unmarked.

What are you hiding behind your back? she demanded.

Her eyes held his with a magnetic force he could not escape.  He felt his will buckling, the inner gale subside, the words dying, stillborn.  She was shorter than he, squat, with Indian features.  Her hair was coiled upon her head.  She wore the same unbleached nightgown she had worn all his life.  It filled the dark air about her like a cloud of muslin.   Again she said, what are you hiding!

Slowly, as if unveiling a trophy, he brought his right arm from behind him and held it up between them.  She yelped in surprise then made the sign of the cross as if to ward off any evil which had brought him to such a state.

After he managed to explain in his feverish voice what was happening to him, the landlady pronounced his problem not physical but spiritual.  Because you have unconfessed, secret sins, she told him, you have allowed the devil to torment you.  Can't you see?  You must go see a priest before this home becomes a haven for demons.  When he told her he didn't know any priests, she gave him directions to San Cristobel on Laprida Avenue near the open-air market.  Ask for Father Faustino, she said.  He is a learned man without guile.


He was also a man with bulk, corpulent in body and puffy about the face with a grey beard and thick eyebrows which seemed to be crawling together like caterpillars about to mate.

He stood eating a cucumber in the doorway of the rectory which was behind the church as he studied Bernardo Funes.  Finally he admitted Funes in whose face the prelate recognized abject desperation.  From years of parish work and advanced studies in human nature, Father Leopold Faustino was a man of discernment.  Though his theological degrees were taken at Madrid, Tubingen (in hermeneutics) and the Curia College in Rome under his excellency, Cardinal Guiseppi de Floria, and though he was a scholar of ancient texts, versed in six languages, three of which were extant, a recognized mediator in archdiocesan matters of ontological dispute, he preferred the simple routine of daily mass, prayer, contemplation and the sumptuous meals of his cook, a peasant woman from Santiago del Estero who, if he were able, he would canonize for her veal dumplings which she wrapped in delicate cabbage leaves that reminded him of lace petticoats.

He led Funes into his book-lined office and pointed to a sofa across the desk from his own high-backed chair.  As Funes started to speak, the priest held up his hand and said, Please, let us pray for the Virgin's intercession and for wisdom, my son.  And as Father Faustino intoned a gentle litany of words, which Funes imagined as rising heavenward like incense, he was baffled why the priest had addressed him as my son, or why clergy, in general were fathers, but nuns were sisters.  No one had ever said my son to him before, not even his own biological father whom he had known only as a photograph in a pewter frame.


Once Funes cleared the hurdles of his mother's surname, she being the one who had sent him to seek spiritual aid and some vagueness about his baptism which he told the Father occurred when he was but an infant and thus his memory limited.  He was certain the event took place, however, even as he shrugged, ignorant, when the priest asked Funes to name his godparents.  The priest entwined his fingers, rested his hands upon the polished mahogany of the desk and frowned, the twin caterpillars become one giant strip of fur.  How long since your last confession? he asked Funes.

Funes felt immediately soaked in perspiration.  He had not expected to be interrogated.  With no warning, even to himself, his eyes began to spill tears onto his cheeks.  Father Faustino, watery and massive in a geometry of brown robes, scapular and crucifix leaned forward and said, the wages of sin are death, my son.  Do you not see your soul is under attack?

Unable to form the words which felt like melted rubber in his mouth, Funes began to remove the light jacket to show the priest where his hand vanished at the wrist, but to his dismay, his sleeve was empty to his elbow.  His whimpering caused Father Faustino to rise from his chair and circle around the desk for a closer inspection of the chunk of arm dangling from Funes' shoulder.  How did this happen? the priest asked, but Funes had begun to suck in gulps of air which rendered him unable to breathe and speak at the same time.  The priest tilted his head close to the loathsome appendage and said at Funes' ear, quos deus vult perdere prius dementat.


After several moments of embarrassed snorts and swipes with his left hand to clear his vision, Funes managed to narrate the past three days.  Father Faustino went over to a sagging bookshelf, removed a black tome and blew a funnel of dust into the solemn air.  He said, I seem to recall a similar case in the Codex of Valentinus which was recovered from a library at Chenoboskion, Egypt, The Gospel of Woes, discovered with the mummified remains of Pythius the Essene.  He skimmed the pages, coughing as the dust resettled.  No, no, he said, arriving at the passage he sought.  I'm thinking of Charles the Fat, king of Swabia and the Norici who assumed joint empire of the Franks and Romans in the year of the Incarnate Word 885, the third Indiction.  Let me locate it.  He scanned another shelf and at last removed a cumbersome volume.  After several minutes of searching he began to read aloud.

The demons dragged the knight after them through a dark wilderness toward the place where the sun rises in summer, and now he began to hear lamentations, as if from all the people in the world.  They came upon the broad Plain of Calamities, full of people of both sexes and of every age, naked and lying with their bellies on the ground, crying out, "Spare us, oh, have mercy in the name of the Most Holy One," but the vile and wretched demons with fiery blades did rend the limbs from the wailing souls."

Hhhmmmm, hhmmmm, the cleric said, some other reference seems stuck in my mind.  He then pulled down an armload of books which he deposited on his desk.  He spoke oratorically,  as if to an invisible congregation, Funes thought.  In the Qur'an, Surah 24, verse 1, the prophet wrote, the priest continued, "And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display ornaments, and let them wear coverings over their head, bosom and arms blah blah blah."  No, no, that's not it, he said.

Funes could see the spines of the books, one of which was of Latin inscription, NavagatioSancti Brendani Abbatis.  Another was entitled Purgatorial Visions of Ansellus Scholasticus.  The others were antiquarian, bound in calfskin and brown leather, embossed with ornate iconography.  Father Faustino had slumped back into his chair and had begun to read, ignoring Funes who became aware of  a malodorous scent which seemed to emanate from his body.  He covered his nose with his left hand.  He glanced at where his right arm should have been and saw the pale, flaccid skin becoming transparent.  Father, he said, shifting his body so the priest could witness what he was seeing, his flesh now as insubstantial as glass, a tracery of his upper arm, the muscle and bone and veins disappearing.


Father Faustino's eyes reflected the terror which suffused Funes''s face.  Funes started to twitch his entire right side as if it were being consumed by spectral flames.  The priest shoved back his chair and slumped to his knees, beseeching the saints and holy angels to assist the man, his voice like the bellow of a steer Funes had heard being slaughtered once in a rural suburb.

After several moments of silent prayer Father Faustino lifted his head and peered across the desk at Funes who was staring, insensate, at the emptiness under his shirt.  Ahem, the pastor said, hoisting his eminence back onto the chair as if to regather his analytic faculties.  Let us analyze this predicament of yours, he said.  In reason, Aquinas said, we will find truth.

Father Faustino closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose with his right hand, his breathing loud and ponderous as if his lungs labored to overcome the inertia he carried within his immense bulk while Funes sat watching him.  The dusty light of books and their stored words rising to the ceiling made Funes feel insignificant, a pauper of the intellect who could not read and write beyond his own name, who never once had read a book, even the simple primer words in his school books impenetrable, like hieroglyphics.  This awareness flashed momentarily in his mind but was extinguished when the priest cleared his throat.


The curse causeless does not come, Father Faustino said.  We must uncover the source of  this diabolism, this wicked sorcery.  In nomina Patri, et Filitu, et Spiritus Sancti, he said, blessing the air about them.  The Holy Writ is clear, my son.  He opened the impressive, gilt-edged Biblia Hebraica on his desk and began to read aloud: Deuteronomy 32 and verse 15.  They abandoned the God who made them.  They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.  They sacrificed to demons.  The Lord was angered by his sons and daughters.  I will send pestilence upon them, the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers, famine and fire.  I will erase them from the land.  He paused, a garnet of spittle escaping at the corner of his mouth.  He withdrew a white handkerchief, embroidered at the edges and dabbed his mouth, then his forehead and neck.  He said, this curse, which is causing you to be erased, we must expose to the flame of knowledge.

And so began an intensive probing of every dark crevice in Funes' life, his past exhumed and scrutinized by the priest's incisions, his psyche laid open like a fileted fish, his dreams interpreted, his hygiene and diet and daily habits dissected, his opinions, though they struck the interlocutor as shallow as rainwater in a puddle were briefly considered for any metaphysical symbolism they might reveal.  After two hours Father Faustino, who was studying the gold pocket watch in his hand snapped it closed and announced it was his dinner time and that Funes should return home, pray for the Lord's mercies and come back the next morning at nine, after the Father's breviary, at which time he would advise the disconsolate man what he should do.

Funes staggered home with what felt like a thin needle of hope piercing his chest.  That night his sleep was ragged.  He awoke hourly to inspect his body, finally falling exhausted into a muddy soup of hallucinatory dreams at three a.m.  When he regained himself at sunrise he was minus three fingers on his left hand.   He clicked his thumb and index finger together like a lobster claw, dressed, entered the morning city's oily air and walked the maze of streets which demarcated his neighborhood until he could wait no longer.  He arrived at the rectory door at 8:30.  A woman wearing a stained apron and a scowl flung open the door.

What do you want? she demanded of Funes.

I must see Father Faustino, he said, his voice weak and apologetic.

He is gone for several days, she said.

As she started to slam the door, Funes interposed his leg, and cried with panic, Gone?  Gone where?  I have a nine o'clock appointment with the Father.


He is gone to the hospital for an appendectomy, she said.

What?  Funes could not contain his desperation.  Appendectomy?  Which hospital?

But at his outburst the woman threw her weight against the door which resulted in Funes wrenching his leg back in self-preservation an instant before she crushed his foot.  Off-balance, he tumbled down the three concrete steps to the ground, unable to soften his impact with his ghost arm.  His face scraped the street's rough asphalt.  He lay prostrate, as one anesthetized by his own maleficence.

He awkwardly drew himself to his feet and set out for the worksite where he knew he would find his boss, the only person who treated him with a measure of kindness when he was drinking.  Along the way a young boy who seemed to be abusing a kitten paused at Funes' approach.  The boy, Funes realized, stared at him with apprehension, as if a misshapen half-man-half-monster with a bruised and bloody face were stumbling along the street.  The boy liberated the cat and ran off, glancing over his shoulder at the lurching phantasm.

My God, you look like you've been beaten by bandits, his boss said.  Funes, who by now was missing his entire left hand, spoke as though dazed, his tongue swollen and cut from his fall.  He related the visit to Father Faustino, his dashed hopes because of the priest's sudden operation, his present despair made evident by his voice, his visage, his evaporating body.   I know of an herbalist, his boss said, who may be able to help you.  She lives above the apothecary on Calle Valencia, across from the mosque.  For twenty centavos she deduced my ailment, prepared a tea I drank nightly for a week, and then I was cured. 


Thus Bernardo Funes went as a supplicant to Griselda Nunez, the herbalist, the shortest woman Funes had ever seen, no taller than a child of nine or ten, her black hair in ringlets encircling her head.  So thick was the rouge and eye makeup and powder upon the herbalist's face that her age was indeterminate, a face, Funes thought, which could have been atop the body of a little girl in a casket.  She offered her hand upon greeting Funes, but at once she realized her error and the man's plight.  You have offended a witch, she said, for surely this is bewitchment.

That is what Father Faustino said, Funes replied, though in a more elaborate manner. 

But the tea he carried home, though a slight intoxicant when he brewed and sipped it to her instructions, offered him no relief.  In fact, its purgative effects were so severe he spent most of the night sitting on the porcelain stool in the bathroom and watching the toes of his right foot dissipate, one by one, into nothingness.

His landlady entered his room during the middle of the night.  He felt her presence above him, heard her soft exhalations as he desperately rowed a small boat on the sea of oblivion with his tanned and muscular arms, though he could not see his body below his waist through the fog.  Nor could he open his eyes to see her eyes twitching in the darkness or what emotions harbored in her face, perhaps repulsion or pity with its poison stingers.  When the waters receded under him, the sun, like a lagoon of gold, covered his floor to ankle depth.   Funes' ankles, however, had been erased, as had both feet and his legs to his knees.  So, armless and now without mobility, he could only thump his torso across the floor to the bathroom, but could not manage a sip of water from the faucet.


He lay in the sun until it drained from his room an hour later, his thoughts resigned to the inevitable.  Vanishing was not painful, Funes thought, not like dying of cancer or typhoid.  He wondered about his major organs, how if when his stomach disappeared his hunger would leave, or once his lungs and heart faded, would his face turn purple then his head explode?  He tried to replay the film of his life, either in reverse until he was an infant or forward into his adult years, but nothing appeared on the ceiling, no occurrence of any consequence because, he thought, his life had been of singular inconsequence.  He tried to imagine paint in its variegated hues, the rich odors of linseed oil and turpentine and lacquer, the fragrances of work he carried on his body, walls with their infinite challenge of space and texture, alcoves and cornices, the daily joy of  traversing the city while passersby noticed the color flecks and spatters on he and his boss -- artisans, they would realize, artisans.

Sometime during the day his landlady admitted a tabloid reporter into his room who revolved above him, snapping several photos of Bernardo's misfortune, her beloved son, she said, transformed again into his mother.  God in his infinite mysteries, she told the reporter, was destroying this woeful creature inch by inch.  Will you pay me in cash or by check? she asked.

By mid-afternoon when the traffic sounds rose like the third movement of a sonata, Funes reasoned aloud:  Even though I am vanishing, perhaps I am reappearing in a parallel universe, a realm which intersects my life, like water conjoins with air or smoke emanates from fire or waking becomes dreaming, where God is a father, could be my father as I have had a mother in this dimension.  Perhaps I shall awaken into a room identical to this with my mother's photo in a pewter frame on the table.  Perhaps a city will exist beyond the window, a patch of sky, not blue, but green, the shade of the sea on overcast days.


He glanced downward in time to see what remained of his body fade away, transparent.  Only his head remained.  And then Bernardo Funes ascertained that if he willed his thoughts, he could make his head roll from side to side.  He closed his eyes to concentrate and after several minutes of effort managed to levitate his head, which felt weightless, which felt weightless and detached, as it were, from reality.  So, he thought, gazing at the balloon of himself in the mirror, existence can be compressed into thought, mind over matter, a concept of physics he had once heard his boss debate with the spirit of alcohol.  His consternation was now mingled with curiosity.

He willed his head to float toward the window.  He desired to breathe deeply of the smog and diesel fumes and stench of garbage which flowed with the updraft of noise,  this window which framed the sun and the moon and the rooftops in his eyes most often.  A crowd of people were gathered on the sidewalk below like a choir about to sing.  They stared upwards in unison, a voice exclaiming, there he is, and, Bernardo!  Look here! simultaneous to a bevy of camera flashes, all of them calling his name, excited -- he, Bernardo Funes, the amazing, the vanishing man.  Bernardo!  Bernardo!

And then he was outside the room, adrift, a warm gust swooping him down, just above  reach of the upraised hands and explosions of light, Bernardo now only two eyes, like baby birds testing the air, rising, caught up, the breeze lifting them out of sight, toward the vast and endless blue walls of the heavens.

 

The music began percussively, an assault which filled the air with jagged notes and irregular rhythms that snapped off, strokes and pulses, a thrombosis of sound, Ava thought, brass arpeggios, sibilants, trills and screeches, the musicians intent on the white sheets with their cryptic notations.  Udo was the center of their convergence, his arms selecting and cajoling and whirling as if to fend off a swarm of yellowjackets.  And then silence, the sudden absence of cacophony, the group frozen in motion like wax figures.  Udo's arms suspended midair, ten seconds, twenty, not a breath, the audience still and alert and waiting for the spell to break, like actors, she thought, in a storefront pretending to be mannequins.


And then Udo relaxed, his arms settling to his side as he nodded to the musicians who were at once re-animated.  The music began again, real music, she thought, still mystified by the clamorous episode, but she was not that familiar with music more contemporary than big bands of the forties or the doo-wop groups of the fifties she had grown up singing.

She identified the man of the story, Bernardo, in a leitmotif of sadness, evoked by  strings and flutes.  She closed her eyes to visualize city sounds, traffic with its tremolos and beeps and woofs, Bernardo and his boss painting, graceful swatches of melody, fluent and harmonious, then tension began to flow underneath like black oil leaking into clear water.

Julie sat next to her, legs crossed casually at the ankles, her long, tanned fingers laid out on her thighs.  On the other side Evita leaned forward, her eyes closed.  Carmela stood against the sun-faded stucco wall near the courtyard gate.

As Ava listened, she began to count people, arriving at 38, herself included in the audience, and 27 musicians, if she added Udo who, it occurred to her, was more than conducting the music.  He seemed to elicit the exact sound at the exact instant.  He was the architect from whose mind the invisible structure was rising, note by note in the air above them.

With the interjection of liturgical music, Ava thought of the priest, Father Faustino, the man of reason and esoteric texts, but the melody also suggested a comic figure, a view she shared with Udo.  She could picture the massive friar filling his doorway,  cucumber in hand.  She could hear the priest's declamations in French Horn and cello.  Udo's genius, for her, was his interplay of characters, each a distinctive melody, the priest, and the boss, portrayed in demented syncopation, and always the melancholy flute for Bernardo. 

She studied the audience as they watched Udo conduct.  They seemed to be affluent and well-educated, the women in scalloped lace and silk and Italian shoes, in heirloom jewelry, freshly coiffed and attractive, the men with clipped mustaches had seemed impeccably polite, all of them she had met gracious to her.


So her brother was not the recluse he portrayed himself, she thought.  They were a receptive group, attentive and reacting periodically with pleasure when some brief episode of his music drew their approval.. 

Various instruments began to drop out as Bernardo disappeared.  The music gradually diminished to a wistful flute which lapsed into intermittent silence.  Then it fluttered and fell silent again.  Then it seemed to soar upward, over a dissonant, staccato burst of horns as it rose to a piercingly high pitch, as high, Ava thought, as the flutist could play,  a sustained, solitary, wispy note which withered and at last vanished.



   

 

 
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