The following is from Amelia Gray’s novel, Isadora. Isadora is the story of an artist & woman pulled to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life. Amelia Gray is the author of five books. Her fiction & essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The NYT, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and VICE.
The ferryman used a javelin to shove off the stone, and the two of us held the rail until we got going. The Bosporus is so clogged with steamers, each making its own choppy waves, that the two of us have to constantly brace against the ragged wood paneling on the side of the boat to keep upright.
“Ayastefanos,” the ferryman says.
Penelope had been all set to forbid my travel, but in the morning she found herself hunched and glaring at the toilet bowl. When I was pregnant with Patrick, my gut would always soothe with a tablespoon of brown liquor, but when I offered the remedy, she waved me off. And so I finished my morning ritual: until a few days ago I had been sprinkling just a bit of ash from the wooden box over my breakfast. Once I ran out of lighter ash and the texture bore larger grit, I had to start taking the larger pieces and swallowing them like pills. As of this morning, about a quarter cup remains. Soon I will have consumed them both.
I thought we might head a little farther out to be free of the chop, but the man keeps the boat huddled close to the port wall, shoving off it at times with the javelin. He scratches a jagged scab on his forearm, bracing himself as my balance goes off, which sends my left foot across the right into a funny curtsy. He stabs the wall, bucking us in the other direction, and my right foot crosses the left, bending at the knee. The ferryman smiles broadly at the sun.
Penelope by now will have drawn the curtains and called for a seltzer. Perhaps she is afraid I will curse her, and her child will be born with raisin eye. I could lay a powerful curse indeed, but in many ways the work has been done for me.
The ferryman points his javelin at the house, set close to the water. The house looks as if it were transported on a barge from Alamo Square, flanked by palm and pine and creeping jasmine, a sweet lattice lifting its gables like a sugar shell. Shutters cover each window, and everything but the stone roof is painted a blinding shade of white, reflecting the sea painfully on itself. The strongest fortress is a mirror, no doubt, but this takes it to an extreme. Shielding my eyes, I cross the yard to explore it.
Ropes of jasmine hang from the front eaves, cooling the porch. Back on the water, the ferryman watches in bored amusement. He’ll obviously stay there until I come back to the boat. To avoid him, I’ll have to live here in Ayastefanos forever; after a few years I might recruit some local women and set up a musical series at the Russian monument. We could take donations. Of course the local women will have to do their part to establish an audience from their own social circles, begging friends and family to arrive and support them, an endless cycle of debts without a significant return to warrant the work. Not too many go in on artistic greatness when they realize the effort involved.
I’ll look into the various halls in Ayastefanos soon enough. For now, there’s a man who needs my help, a man prepared to perform violent acts upon his own body if I do not intervene. His mother knows it to be true, which means he’s passed the subtle stage and time is precious indeed. The front door pushes open when I knock. Hearing nothing and with no cause to delay, I enter the house.
I find myself standing in a great and airless hall. Someone has gone to pains to absolve each room of the sentiment that might attend color, and I find myself surrounded by stark white walls over floorboards painted black. After the slight latch of the door behind me, the sound of gulls vanishes and the house is silent. I feel a pulsing pressure circling my skull, as if my ears have been steadily boxed by invisible hands.
The silence drives me to speak.
“All men are my brothers and all women are my sisters.” My voice makes a pathetic small quiver at the end.
There is no response, save the floorboards squeaking with my foot–steps as I walk through the entry hall. This hall would make a fine small performance space, empty as it is. The local ladies and I could start our series here.
“All men are my brothers and all women are my sisters,” I say again, stronger a second time. The hall leads me into a kitchen, which seems to have never been used for cooking; the smell of fresh paint is the only sensory element of the whole place.
Through the kitchen is a dining room, empty save for a marble–topped table with a single white lily ludicrously displayed in a delicate crystal vase. The flower browns from its petal fringe, orange pollen drifting into an ordered pile.
“All men are my brothers–”
Through a wide marble archway on the other side of the dining room I find Raoul. He is laid out on a white chaise, dressed all in white, a white suit and shoes with a white pocket square camouflaged in his pocket, all clothes he must have purchased specifically for this inaugural and determinate use. His arms are crossed, and a revolver rests under his folded hands.
The room throbs around him, drawing me close. I find myself leaning over him. “The lily is a little precious,” I say.
He opens one eye. “A field of lilies fling open to the sun,” he says. “White flags aloft. Death is one act with no second.” His eyes flutter closed. There is no sound, save for the metallic sound his revolver makes as he gently rolls the cylinder between two fingers.
“That’s all very good, but since you obviously practiced, I wouldn’t mind giving you a few notes.”
“You should be nude, for one.”
He opens one eye, frowning, but doesn’t interrupt.
“If you are supposed to be exiled from a place, you can’t wear its uniform. The lily is supposed to represent you, isn’t it? You don’t have it dressed in a dinner jacket. And I have to say, the gun is a nice touch but could go somewhere a little less conspicuous.”
He sits up to remove his sack jacket. “On the mantel?”
“Christ’s sake, under the sofa, something your audience would find at eye level but wouldn’t be so present in the narrative. That’s the problem with the scene as it stands, everything is placed just so. It’s too much.” Once he removes his jacket, I smell the liquor on him. “Pardon me,” he yawns. “I must insist on my personal creative process.” But he lets me ease the gun from his hands.
It’s as heavy as I remember. Mother kept one at her bedside when we were young, and I well recall the feeling of it, like lifting the corner of a bookshelf. I crouch down and place the weapon under the sofa, pushing it just out of reach. He lies back again but makes room on the couch for me to sit beside him.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” I say, tapping his temple.
Like all boys careening about inside the bodies of men, he is soothed by a simple phrase. His thumb twitches, and I can tell he wants dearly to suck it.
“Your mother is worried. After what happened to your brothers. We should go to her.”
“She cannot know my pain,” he says, this and similar, on and on. He eventually works himself up to weeping, very dramatic. It reminds me of Deirdre at the grocer, reaching for an apple at the bottom of a barrel but not well grasping it and slipping to her knees to scream.
“Hush now, I can help you.” Like a country doctor who can name the beast by its bite, I have learned well enough the scope of grief to know its subtleties. There’s something here beyond even the pain of death.
“What is it truly?” I try, simple ideas often yielding the best results.
Suddenly despondent, he turns his head to the side, the look of a man forced to face two different kinds of suffering and remember that his is the lesser. I once saw the same sour look on the faces of a group of white women who had accidentally arranged their rally for the vote across the street from a freedman’s hospital.
“It’s all right,” I say. “You can tell me.” “Sylvio,” he whimpers.
Young love. “Did she leave you standing in the rain?”
“He is in Saranda with his mother.” He pouts, watching the wall.
“A gentleman,” I say, employing the wonder he wants to hear in my voice.
“That’s right. There now, you despise me.”
“My dear, Phaedrus is the most exquisite love song ever written. Come now, it’s not as bad as all that.”
“Not as bad? It’s impossible!”
“Anything’s as possible as you want it to be. Bring him to Paris and begin a new life.”
He laughs, a sharp laugh. “Yes, we’ll get a little house.”
“Maybe not in Ayastefanos. But in France, you’d be surprised.” I stroke his sweet thin hair. “You underestimate the pleasures of the progressive artistic class.”
“And you underestimate the pleasure of being executed in the street.” What a little saucepot! I like him more already, almost enough to forgive him for not allowing me to solve his problems.
“Diaghilev kept a lover, a lovely man. I can’t say much for his talent as a dancer, but people seemed to like him personally.”
“Yes, I know the story. Diaghilev was destroyed when Nijinsky took a wife, and if you can name only two moral perverts, you’re not working too hard to find them.”
“I’m naming the famous ones to hearten you. There are a great many–”
He leapt up. “Thank you, I’m very heartened. Perhaps this lifelong trouble of mine is all a misunderstanding. If only I had you to come and simplify it for me years ago, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“There’s Oscar Wilde also, if you don’t know.”
“Good!” he says, placing his palms over his eyes. “Good. Let’s dig him up.”
“Raoul, be reasonable. You only have to come back with me to the hotel, this will all be sorted out.”
“But why do we have to go, when you’ve come and sorted it all out already?” He takes my hands.
“If you could only change Sylvio’s mind things would really be sorted. He says I cannot possibly love him as much as he loves me, and so the whole thing is off.”
I make a play of considering this. “That presents a real challenge,” I say carefully. “Your lover may have found the truest form of love and heartbreak both, and meeting that call requires true bravery. But you two are very lucky. Let me ask you this: Can you even imagine how many millions of people are fated to find love in lesser measure and then marry young, live well, and die? Can you think of anything more earnest and ordinary?”
“I would have liked that,” he insists, but he already sounds unsure. The romantic poets nearby got the best of him, but I learned this trick years ago when a landlord who found me weeping on his stairs declared that my heartache was a rare gift, and that I had a duty to bear it to the whole of Eastern Europe. I did not die in his stairwell as I declared I would. His wise words inspired me through the rest of my tour, and I earnestly worked to lay my heart bare to the world. Much later I realized that old landlord only wanted me out of his stairwell, as my groaning was disturbing his other tenants.
Since then I have employed this tactic to great effect, first to a stagehand who couldn’t bear to lift the curtain and then to Teddy Craig, despondent over a snip he met staging Hamlet in Stockholm. Of course, then Teddy and I fell in love and the tactic was lost to me, until a police officer, finding me despondent over Teddy, used it to coax me off a railroad track. Raoul here clearly feels as if he is at the bottom of a terrible well of pain, that nobody has ever fallen this deep, despite all the handprints in the mud.
He dries his eyes with quiet dignity. “Will it ever release me?” he asks.
“In truth it may not.” Though of course it will–one day he will happen on a picture of a ram and think of how stupid Sylvio was for confusing rams and goats, despite growing up on a farm, and he will realize he has not thought of Sylvio in many months and will shortly forget him for years, saying farewell to the sole passenger on a ship with a route as wide as the world.
But of course it is important now for him to believe that this emotion has no end, that this brief and common madness bears some essential significance to his life.
“We should go have a drink,” I say, squeezing his arm.
“Your mother is sick over this.”
He allows me to help him up. “I should stay,” he says.
“Nonsense. Come now, fetch your things.”
It isn’t until after we’ve settled in at the bar that I remember the revolver under the sofa and wonder how long before the caretaker finds it. If Raoul has thought of this as well, he doesn’t mention it, but rather gazes at the dregs of his whiskey cocktail, his grand love melting away.
From Isadora. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Amelia Gray.