The Sleep of Reason
Fingers filthy from working the fields reached up to part the woman´s eyelids, broken nails pinching the soft skin. A sliver of cloud passed across the face of the moon as the open razor was drawn across her eye, slicing easily through the cornea, spilling fluid viscous as an adolescent´s first nocturnal emission.
Such a pretty woman, with dark hair and pale complexion, and such a brute of a man, a peasant, shirt sleeves rolled high to bare his muscles.
Such a disturbing mutilation, for there seemed no malice in it.
No matter that it was the eye of a cow which was mutilated, not the woman´s. Clever editing had me convinced, the craft of the cinema, and I felt my stomach heave, the enthusiasm with which I had undertaken the trip sapped from me by the dry Spanish heat, the joy with which I had gorged on the country´s culture now such a surfeit of riches that I felt physically sick.
First Gaudi´s sugary confections had weighed heavy in my belly, a churning soup of ingredients which became too much to digest.
Now Dali´s fantasies were to feed my dreams, filling them with mutilations and great masturbations, with premonitions of civil war.
Next would come Goya´s dark caprices to disturb my nights.
The sleep of reason produces monsters.
The woman kept her name from me, the badge denoting title and status hidden for the moment within the folds of her uniform. It was the uniform of an attendant of the Museo del Prado and familiarity was not required of her, to introduce herself would serve no purpose. She was not there to befriend me, but to bewilder me.
Silently, then, on soft soles, she moved to my side, joined me in mute appreciation of the aquatints which were spaced evenly about the walls. Her perfume was all that was needed to announce her presence, an earthy fragrance subtle enough that she might become some obscure object of desire, and I turned to acknowledge her with a smile.
"So?" she asked. "What do you think of Goya´s caprichos?"
"They´re rather, er, increible? That is the word, yes? Incredible?"
"But you should not doubt their credibility," she told me, offering words I failed to grasp which she said would be truer interpretations, and as she tossed these words about I noticed that the hand with which she gestured was swarming with ants, her palm a pool of them, not the common or garden variety which might be seen spilling from a crack in the sidewalk but veritable piranhas of their kind, voracious creatures.
One fell to the floor and as I trod on it I thought I heard it squeal, before feeling it crunch underfoot.
"And the animations?" she prompted. "What do you think of those?"
Animations? There was a part of the exhibition I had missed? I drew my eyes from the disturbing sight of the ants feasting on her flesh, looked around, saw only the framed prints on each of the gallery´s four walls. I was about to return my attention to her seething palm, to comment on her calm acceptance of the creatures and the pain she must be feeling...
A figure on the print directly before me shifted, an elegant woman with the head of a bird, took a faltering step or two, strutting and pecking like a hen. Other figures became more animated, spilling from the prints to left and right, no longer contained by the polished wooden frames but moving freely from one to the other. Witches and drunken monks cavorted freely, ghouls and hobgoblins. Owls and bats climbed the walls, rose to the ceiling, soared from one print to swoop down onto the next.
Hosts of night creatures darkened the room, soiling the floor with their excretions.
"Fantasy deserted by reason produces impossible monsters," I heard, the voice a whisper in my ear, that earthy fragrance becoming more pronounced. "Fantasy is the mother of the arts and the source of all its marvels."
A witch led a cowering priest by the ear, as a mother would a disobedient child, while a goat-devil danced behind, twisted horns and glaring eyes. A young woman, once innocent but now corrupt, a rosary in her bloodless fist of a hand on which she counted her lovers, smiled with dreadful joy to witness the demise of some syphilitic senor.
I could almost smell his disease, felt unsteady on my feet, overcome by a wave of nausea.
"You must leave."
Yes, I checked my watch, the museum would be closing soon.
"No. You must leave."
The rain which had sent me scurrying for shelter had abated, as brief as it had been sudden, and as I stepped from the Prado the streets shimmered in the steaming sun. The people outside the cafes once again, in animated conversation, the traffic on the street speeding by, were like frame after frame of celluloid images baking beneath too bright a bulb. In the faces which turned to me, in the snarl of cars and the waspish buzz of motor-scooters there were echoes of Goya´s dissatisfaction with the Madrid of old. There was little beauty, everywhere was ugliness. Smiles painted garishly on botox lips were sneering, casual glances were mocking, as if to say that I had no place in their world.
Diners in a restaurant, spied through a window, seemed no more cultured than beggars gathered around a table, gorging on a last supper. They froze as I looked on, the central figure -the host?- matched his gaze to mine, his eyes filled with such a malevolent disdain that I reeled from the scene as I had from the caprichos, hurried on, lost myself in a Pan´s labyrinth of streets. In darker alleys, beyond the broad boulevard of Gran Via, I ran from the sleep of reason, from the corruption of culture and the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie
Panting, short of breath, now completely lost among streets more deserted than they should have been, I paused to get my bearings, looked around and made out the street sign above my head, recognised the street where Goya had lived, from where he had sold his caprichos to those few who had the courage to buy them.
Calle del Desengaño.
The Street of Disillusion
Chased by my dreams and Goya´s caprichos, intimidated by the city which had once seemed so cultured but now seemed so repugnant, wanting clearer air and an offshore breeze to make the heat less wearying, I moved to the coast, made my way leisurely south, working a week here handing out fliers for a bar, then a fortnight there washing dishes, filling my pocket with just enough cash to extend my stay. But there, too, I grew restless, sky and sea seemed to become one, flat blue expanses which mirrored each other, and the incessant glare of sun on sand made my head ache. Becoming fitful again, not knowing what I was searching for but knowing I hadn´t found it, I caught the first bus inland, then a second when the town it brought me to proved to be no more than a smaller version of the cities I had already visited. Finally a third bus took me deeper inland, a two hour journey culminating in the road sign I passed matching the destination on the front of the bus. This was as far as it would take me, but when I alighted it seemed such a nowhere place that I wondered why it should merit a bus service at all, let alone deserve to be a terminus for the route.
If the world had an end, then it seemed that this was the place.
A church at one end of the square was the most unremarkable I had seen during my months in Spain, the small hotel facing it seemed clean and welcoming but could have been anywhere. There was nothing at all distinguished about any of the buildings I saw and the town struck me as more a place to pass through rather than arrive at.
Arrive I had, though, for the moment I could go no further, so with my rucksack slung over my shoulder I strolled around the square, glanced in the windows of a shop or two, smoked a cigarette as I sat by the fountain in the center. There were quite a few people about, but not so many that they needed to compete for space, as they seemed to do in other places I had been, and none who were obviously tourists. Most seemed unhurried and contented, some smiled a silent greeting as they passed, and it occurred to me that the town´s charm might be in its very anonymity, that the most remarkable aspect of it was that it was so unremarkable.
On an impulse I picked up my rucksack and walked across the square to the hotel.
Yes, they had a room for me, the price was reasonable, within minutes I had deposited my things and changed into fresh clothes, was back out on the square again. There was a scattering of bars and cafes and I chose one at random, sat at a table outside.
The woman who came out to attend to me wore a long flowing skirt which was a little too old-fashioned for a person her age; it might have been more suited to her mother, if her mother had been a flamenco dancer. The blouse, too, was a little unflattering a few too many frills about it, as if the fashions of ten years ago had only just reached this backwater. The way she moved, though, made any complaints about her dress immaterial, for she walked as other women might dance, beside her ballerinas might have seemed like cripples, her hips swaying, a gentle fluid motion making her whole body seem to undulate as she moved towards me.
"Buenas tardes," she smiled.
"Buenas tardes," I replied. "Una cerveza por favor, y un... un bocadillo?"
She sensed my hesitancy as I searched for the right word, asked in an accented English which was better than my Spanish, "And what would you like on your sandwich?"
"Er... ham? And cheese?"
"Bueno. Jamon y queso."
The beer was cold, her smile was warm as she served it to me, she brought me a dish of olives while the sandwich was prepared. There must have been few people in the bar for she was attentive in her service, unhurried.
I had a second beer, a third, and each time she served me she lingered a little longer at my table.
"Me llamo Paul," I introduced myself, and she said her name was Tristana. I congratulated her on her English and she teasingly said that my Spanish was... understandable.
I laughed and invited her to sit a while, if she had the time. She narrowed her eyes to peer into the dark interior of the bar, decided that no one needed her so took the seat beside me. I told her of my travels, of the places I had visited and the sights I had seen -Gaudi´s Barcelona and Dali´s Figueras, Goya´s caprichos in the Prado- thinking to impress her with my sophistication, but though she listened with an interested smile there was no hint of envy in her soft brown eyes, no obvious yearning to visit these places for herself.
Finally she said, "Pah! these Madrilenos and the like, they are all very well with their fine clothes and their boutiques, with their galleries full of art and libraries filled with books, but still they are a little backward."
"Backward?" I laughed, first looking at the clothes she wore, then around me at her tiny village, seeing not an iota of sophistication anywhere. If there was any place that was backward in that country then I had surely stumbled upon it.
"You doubt me?" she demanded, getting quickly to her feet, fists on hips and glaring down at me.
"No, I´m sure your small town has much to recommend it, and its people-"
"Do not think to condescend!" she cut me off, backing from me with a twitch of the hips and a single step. She spat a curse at me. "Bruto campesino! Ignorant peasant!"
The fire in those eyes now, the lushness of the lips as she spat the curse! Her whole body trembled with anger, with passion, and before she could back further away from me I reached out to grab her wrist.
"I´m sorry, Tristana, truly sorry! I didn´t mean to offend you! It´s my English sense of humor, I suppose."
"It is unsophisticated?"
"It is unsophisticated," I agreed, smiling. "Tell me, what time do you finish work here?"
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I thought we might meet for a drink."
"I finish at eight, my house is at the back of the bar," she pointed, snatching her hand free, turning on her heels and flouncing off.
I returned at the prescribed hour and Tristana´s greeting was more amicable than our parting, a smile, a kiss to each cheek, the briefest of embraces.
She had changed from the skirt and blouse of earlier, wore a tight dress of black silk, its neckline low, its skirt short. Her hair had been drawn up, was held at the back with a large silver comb, her eyes had been darkened and her lips glossed a deep blood red.
She stepped aside to let me enter, closed the door after me and led me into the house, her arm linking through mine. The blinds were partly closed in the room I was taken to, keeping the air cool, the light soft. I cast my eyes around the room, making out objects in the muted light; the sofa and chairs, furniture of rich wood which might have been antique, the religious artifacts which were common to many a Spanish home, a stuffed owl high on one wall wings outstretched as if to swoop, a smaller fledgling below it cowering as if in fear.
I shuddered to recognise the owl from a number of Goya´s prints. In the caprichos, I knew, the owl represented folly.
Bats signified ignorance, cats witchcraft.
I saw no cat, but at a small table in the far corner of the room became aware of the dark shape of a woman, her attention fixed on the ancient television before her, its flickering black and white screen drawing her out of the shadows.
I looked inquiringly at Tristana, saying nothing but my puzzlement obvious.
"My aunt, Tia Maria," she grinned, and at the mention of her name the woman turned to face me.
"Hola," she said, regarding me sternly.
She was no more than ten, fifteen years older than her niece, somewhere in her late thirties perhaps, but dressed like a woman in mourning. The long black skirt came to her ankles, her blouse was buttoned to the neck, and hair as dark as Tristana´s was tied back from her face, though more severely than her niece´s.
"Er... hello," I said, for the moment forgetting the little Spanish I knew, thinking that in her monochromatic harmony the woman resembled a portrait by Whistler. The artist´s mother, maybe.
Later she might remind me of one of Goya´s portraits, those ink black pin-prick eyes hinting at just a touch of madness, but for the moment she was something from Whistler, as attentive as any older guardian but otherwise quite benign.
"Some wine?" Tristana invited me, crossing to an ancient cabinet.
"Just the one," her aunt cautioned.
"Great," I said, without enthusiasm, wondering if a Tio Pepe might be lurking somewhere in the background.
Tristana nodded to me to sit on the sofa, poured two glasses and joined me there while her aunt returned to the television, her back almost, but not quite, turned to us.
I took a stiff drink, then asked in a whisper, "What is your aunt doing here?"
Tristana smiled shyly over the rim of her glass. "She is here as my carabina... my...how would you say? My chaperon?"
"Remind your young man that carabina can also mean carbine, gun," her aunt said, without turning from the screen before her.
"Look, maybe I´d best leave" I said, uncomfortable with the older woman´s presence, setting my glass down, wondering how Tristana might now dare challenge the idea that this town of hers could be anything but backward.
A chaperon, for fuck´s sake! In that day and age!
"No, please don´t," she said, resting her hand on my knee to lean towards me, and in the instant before she kissed me I was offered an enticing view of her breasts, a sight which made me gasp, as if I was about to drown in them.
What she offered me this time was no simple kiss of greeting, no light peck to each cheek, but a kiss as passionate as the Spanish sun was hot. I had never know lips so soft, her tongue when it slipped between mine was caressing rather than abrasive, and it felt as if my whole body was melting, sinking into hers.
When she broke the kiss, our faces inches apart, I cast an anxious glance over her shoulder, in the direction of her aunt. The woman was still seated as before, though, her back mostly turned to us, her gaze fixed on the flickering television screen.
"Don´t go," Tristana said again, softly, her hand caressing my thigh.
"Stay," her aunt insisted "You are just in time."
"The movie," Tristana told me, snuggling closely. "Just in time, for Tia Maria will admit no one into the house once the film has begun."
I recognized the introduction immediately, the crackling orchestration coming from the ancient television, the frantic violins and the slashing of strings, craned my neck to see past Tristana´s aunt. "Psycho? Hitchcock´s Psycho?"
"I know full well who the film is by," said the aunt, with an impatient gesture that I be quiet, and Tristana whispered that I would be wise not to interrupt her enjoyment of the film.
"It is her second greatest pleasure. And the actor-"
"Ah," sighed her aunt. "He is such a lonely young man, Senor Perkins, and with such an earnest boyish quality. But what charm he projects, what magnetism. My niece, too, she is charming?"
"Very," I agreed.
"And did you know that Senor Perkins was actually in New York, rehearsing for a stage play, when the famous shower scene was filmed. He had no part in it. In fact, when he first saw it, it startled him as much as it did the cinema audience."
Tristana smiled. "My aunt is a knowledgeable person, is she not? And you have the temerity to say that we lack culture?"
She settled more comfortably into my arms, her warmth seeming to mold her body to mine, her fragrance -an earthy fragrance, I realised- like a blanket wrapping itself around us, a blanket beneath which our caresses might have gone unseen.
But then, as if to remind us of her presence, her aunt said, "The rain didn´t last long, did it?"
"Rain?" I whispered. From what I had seen of the village, and of the region on my journey there, the land so dry and dessicated, it might not have rained for months.
Tristana touched a finger to my lips. "Hush. She´s immersing herself in the film. She knows the script by heart."
And from time to time, as if it was the duty of the chaperon to make her presence known, her aunt´s words would echo the script or anticipate it: "They´re probably watching me... I´ll just sit here and be quiet... I wouldn´t even harm a fly."
And then: "What are you running from?"
I didn´t realize that she was addressing me, I was lost in Tristana´s embrace.
"Well, young man? I asked you a question."
Culture? Caprichos? The corruption of society?
But before I could formulate an answer she was back with the film, talking of traps. "We can never get out... we scratch and claw... but only at each other."
If there was again the temptation to leave, that cowardly impulse to run, Tristana seemed to anticipate it and it vanished with her continued caresses. A tingle that was electric coursed through my body and I leaned forward to kiss her again, my eyes still fixed on her aunt at first, but soon feeling the lids flutter shut as I surrendered himself to the power of the kiss.
"Tristana?" I sighed, softly but urgently, as her hands explored my body, slipping ever lower.
"Yes?" she asked, her face pulling back to give me the sweetest, the wickedest of smiles.
"This is too... too..."
"Too exciting? Too overwhelming? Too sophisticated for you?"
I bit my lip, closed my eyes, fought to keep my breathing even, and she grinned to see me grimace, studied my face to enjoy my reaction as her caresses became more urgent.
"No! No! No!" her aunt suddenly cried out, spinning in her seat, and my eyes flashed open to see her striding across the room towards us.
"Oh hell!" I groaned, trying to rise from the sofa, but Tristana kept firm hold of me, only releasing me when her aunt slapped her hand away.
"No! No! No! Not like that, niece! You grip his penis like a club when you should be holding it like a brush, like a pen, something to be creative with." And before I had a chance to cover myself she was kneeling before me, demonstrating. "Take it as a conductor might take up his baton, with the lightest of touches."
"Such an evocative image," smiled Tristana. "You see how cultured we are?"
I squirmed beneath their combined embrace.
"You see, Tristana how responsive a man can be with the right treatment? You see how he dances for us?"
I felt a debilitating weariness, an overwhelming torpor, sank deeper into the sofa, my head flung back, through half-closed eyes saw the owl on the wall above about to swoop, the flickering light from the television making its wings seem to beat the air. I heard the soundtrack, too, tossed my head from side to side to shake my mind clear of it.
"You see, Tristana? You orchestrate his responses. You can make him sing, you can make him dance, you can make him do anything you like."
"With passion? With pain? Out of anguish or delight?"
"Yes! All those!"
And as she took the silver comb from her hair, brandishing it like a weapon, the soundtrack mounted to a crescendo, the slashing of strings blurring into the flashing of steel, cold and piercing.
"It´s not that my niece is a maniac," Tia Maria whispered in my ear. "She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven´t you?"
Yes, I thought, though just one time can be enough.