Kiss Of the Sphinx by I. Fontana


Kiss Of the Sphinx by I. Fontana


They torment me.
     I made an innocent remark about a painting, The Landing of Cleopatra, by Claude Lorrain, and before I could finish my thought, over croissants and café au lait, N interrupted me and said that no, it was by Poussin.
      “It’s by Lorrain,” I said. “And, in fact... I don’t think the two artists are at all alike.”
      “Poussin,” N repeated, with a feline little smile, so that it was impossible not to see that she was being intentionally perverse, whereupon her brother, her nonidentical twin, S, said to me, “You’re wrong again. Next you’ll be saying The Death of Sardanapulus is by Henri Rousseau.
     And they laughed, and the cat, which had been on the chair next to me, watching my hand drift over to caress it, seized and bit me, as it often does, causing me to exclaim aloud. It ran off, stopping to wash itself, and the twins accused me of scaring it, and then asked to see my hand, wishing to view blood or whatever red marks might have been left behind.
     They are psychics. That is, they worked as professional psychics... until we came here. We met at a seance which was to be, although I did not really know this at the time, a decisive Before and After juncture in my life. Nothing truly has been the same ever since.
     I confess, I was a kept man, dissipated at twenty-three, in enough of a narcotized haze that I was no fit judge of phenomena, or of situations, and I would suspend my opinion or withhold it altogether, going along with whatever seemed the least trouble, yielding most often to the strong personality of L.
     The seance was meant to contact L’s dead mother, whom he professed to have adored. It’s more likely he adored the pose of worship, spending money (for he had money) on special masses, or ceremonies of his own devising, red roses and the like, a thousand flowers, a hundred candles, a mighty pipe organ playing a medieval dirge.
     He also staged these things to annoy his half-brother and half-sister. Raphael and Ilene. As the single heir to a large fortune, L had them at his mercy—as he continually dangled before them the notion that he might really share, setting them up with a trust or some such thing, instead of dispensing funds with random, unreliable generosity, in dribs and drabs, keeping them dependent and in perpetual suspense.
     This suspense had been aggravated recently, not long before the seance, by his decision to adopt me as his son. I was his catamite, and they despised me, and now I might end up inheriting it all. L was forty-six, exactly twice my age. We had met in Rome, or maybe Venice, and I had followed the path of least resistance, as suited my nature and the circumstance of the time.
     And now, I find myself rich and invalid, possibly being slowly poisoned by N and S, desiring this if this is to be my fate. It seems a fine enough end, for I love N, and if this kills me, or if I am dying from a disease of the past, dying from my past itself, the past as a disease, I accept it all.
     For the moment, anyway. Tranquil, I am in the garden, an unread book upon my lap. I sip some hot tea, poured from a full teapot N brought out for me a while ago.
     The wind starts up in the trees across the field. There is the garden, on a slope, then, downhill, a battered fence, the large overgrown field, and then, at some distance, tangled undergrowth and tall trees. The wind sounds like the not-so-distant sea, or something like that, a rushing... but so far away, only momentarily closer, touching me for an instant, a phantom hand, as the boughs begin to sway against the cloudy sky.
     In my relationship with L, you must understand, although I was aware of the money, the property, I was not really seeking it, I was far too erratic for that. I allowed L to take me with him on his travels, to Hong Kong and Malaysia, Ecuador and Peru, Prague and Berlin, but I was too lazy and genuinely indifferent to systematically ingratiate myself, I was constantly doing things that could easily have got me thrown out. I would go out and pick someone up, or let myself be picked up, maybe even have a woman, so that L would have to taste her later on. You see? I was not nice, I was vulgar, I was uncalculated, and L responded to this, or perhaps merely to some obsession he had with my particular, fairly anonymous pretty face.
     Anyway, it was absurd, even obscene, but he adopted me as his son, and changed his will, using me as a tool to spite Ilene and Raphael, whom he meant to torture the rest of their natural lives. He had not enjoyed their ascendancy, after his mother passed away and his father remarried—apparently his “second mother” treated him badly, but when all of the parents prematurely died he somehow inherited everything, as the eldest, and he could trust in his half-siblings’ cupidity and greed.
     It was their idea to hold the seance, which should have made L suspicious, but he was too sure of himself, sure that he had them under his thumb. He didn’t examine the matter any further than to see it as a craven attempt by them to please.
     Ilene and Raphael knew N and S, they had met them in Istanbul or something, I’ve never heard the details, and they made some elaborate bargain with the twins to murder L. At some dramatic point in the evening, when the lights were out, a dagger should be stuck into L’s back, with all of the evidence pointing to me. Thus, if all went well, they should be able to kill two birds with one stone.
     But for all their wiles, Ilene and Raphael underestimated, or misjudged, or in some infinitesimal but fatal way irritated or condescended to the twins. N and S approached me, and seduced me, one memorable afternoon in London.... There was something marvelously exotic about the bedroom, and their bodies, their smooth skin, and N had short hair and was slender in the wasting-away neo-gothic or post-Romantic manner that I liked.
     S was the clever one, the one who did most of the talking, and it was he who did the voices, who fell into a trance, performing as the medium, the channel, whilst N activated the floating trumpets, holograms, sound effects and other tricks of the trade. But something about S chilled me. From the beginning I have preferred N.
     They had researched me, they knew my tastes, and I was charmed by their thoughtfulness in providing real Laotian opium to be smoked from a clay pipe. I just liked kissing N, being kissed by her, and it was easy enough for S to convince me to go along with their plan.
     And so there was a seance, and the knife ended up in L’s back, practically transpiercing him, skillfully stabbing him through the heart. Raphael’s fingerprints were on the ornamented hilt. (Ilene went to prison as an accessory, eyes flashing in unending, impotent hate.) I’m not sure, since it was all in the dark, who actually stuck the blade in. I think it was N. When I asked her once, straight out, she said, “Well... maybe it was my evil twin.”
     She has the sort of face which seems most realized in private reverie. There is an ambiguous quality to her beauty. I dreamed of her kissing me softly, tenderly, her head on the body of a leopard, eyes closed, an erotic, fatal sphinx, as I lay there on the lawn. I brood on this image and try to remember more, what happened next, but if there is an answer it remains inaccessible, it slips away from my closed eyes.
     I wasted my youth. I was unconscious almost every minute of my life. I was ignorant, with no notion of how profound this ignorance was. I wasted my time.
     Can one get an education, or become sensitive, by reading art books and listening incessantly to old piano music and string quartets? They spoil me. We’ve played many games. One day N blindfolded me, and led me by the hand all around the grounds of the estate, and when I finally decided to see my surroundings I found that I was alone with S, holding his hand instead.
     Little by little, the twins are disposing of the antique pieces in the house. It is a big house, with many rooms, but we stay mainly in one wing—furniture disappears and I never see moving men or trucks. The grand piano is still here... but the rest of that room is now bare. The paintings are gone from the walls.
     If S wants me dead, N will go along with it. They share an unspeakable, impenetrable bond. Her hair is longer now, and I am more aware of her hips, whenever she walks she must move her hips.
     I can still remember the lights coming on, L slumped forward with the knife up to the hilt there in his back. There wasn’t much blood, and I was afraid he was not dead, that he might come back to life. But I know, very well, how to keep a straight face, and I kept one then and for a long time to come, all through the trial.
     Nearby me there are some little blue flowers, and a number of bright yellow ones. Marigolds, I believe. On my right are some taller green stalks, with purple blossoms. I don’t know what these are.
     Birds call, somewhat harshly or percussively, not melodically, not what one would ever call a pretty song. I can hear some up in the trees next to the house, and then, off to my left, I hear a crow. Again the wind rises, nearer, like the last puffs of a faraway storm, or the memory of a storm. It ruffles the field.
     The insides of my eyelids feel dry. It’s not really unpleasant. In the last several minutes my brain seems to have sunk a fraction, suspended there in fluid within my head.
     N comes out to see me, and I sense that she has been talking with S. She asks me how I am.
     “I’m a little weak,” I say.
     “No,” she says, “I didn’t mean in general, I meant right now, this very moment, today....”
     I smile, and she smiles too, and I think of when she and S brought that huge stuffed crocodile into my bed one night, they’d found it in the attic, they wanted to frighten me, they didn’t realize—although I acted scared, to please them—they didn’t realize that I’d once or twice woke up next to worse reptiles than that.
     “Do you want a pill?” asks N. “I’ll bring you anything you want.”
     “No, not yet,” I say. “Or: only if you take one too.”
     “They don’t do the same thing for me they do for you,” she answers. “S likes that sort of thing a bit more—you two could share a beatitude, listening to Debussy or something... while I wait on you both. I wouldn’t mind.”
     “Maybe later.”
     I stand up, a bit unsteadily, my balance not quite right, and wander over to the raspberries. N follows, and I pick one and place it on her tongue, which comes out betwixt red lips. I taste one too, and look at her. Each raspberry seems to taste a little different.... Sweet, sharp, bitter, sour, tart.
     N will still let me kiss her, from time to time, and now, as if sensing my intention, she hesitates, I don’t think she will do it, but then... she leans over, offering her cheek. I brush past this cool, smooth skin to the berry-moistened lips, and expire, hardly enfolded within her arms, nor falling to the ground, no crumpled shell to regret. My eyes are open. I see an excess of flowers, yellow flowers, marigolds, daisies, daffodils—flowers strewn all over a field of dead bodies, bodies fallen as if in some medieval war, red blood staining the yellow blossoms as they wilt.
     My ghost penetrates N on the wings of my last exhalation, I ride into her as a haunting of her cells... I learn her white nerves and lively fluids, all of this tremendous motion within the flesh. It is not dark. I walk into a brightly-lit room. I feel the music of her being, and I am subsumed: I stare out through her beautiful eyes.
     As the view... begins to melt.

I. Fontana has lived in Avignon, NYC, Guadalajara; now is in Portland OR. Other works have appeared in BOMB, Bikini Girl, Juked, Annalemma and PANK. A novel will be finished soon.