Silver bells of loneliness

Franziska Kunze-Kowalski is a successful artist. She has shows in New York, Paris and Beijing. Her works are sold at the highest prices. She is still young, barely 30. She teaches at Berkeley and Berlin and can travel around the globe just on frequent flyer miles.

Franziska’s problem is that she’s about to die but she doesn’t know it yet. She won’t know until it’s too late – too late to change anything. Some people say that life is a sickness leading to death and that we start dying from the moment we are born. We should expect the end anytime anywhere but who is living like this? Most of us live as if we are immortal. But let’s start at the beginning of our story, when the event leading to Franziska’s subsequent demise takes place. It’s only one little thing, inconsequential and random, that cuts her thread of life short.

It is a glorious day. Spring is turning into summer but it is still fresh and light outside; none of the pressing heat that keeps you in the darkened room, hiding from the glaring blaze of the sun. Franziska stops the car – a new Saab convertible bought with the proceeds from the sale of a single painting – in front of the stable where she takes her horse riding lessons. She doesn’t get out immediately because she is still talking to her gallerist on the phone.

‘So, you still don’t know if the collectors are coming tonight?’ she says testily. ‘I have better things to do than go to a party where a bunch of conceited idiots talk about art as if they understand something about it. If that collector couple isn’t there, it doesn’t make sense for me to go. Besides there’s the opening at the new Art Centre by this new American curator who’s interested in my work. I’d rather go there if there’s nothing in it for me at this other place.’ That’s how it is today, no play, all work and even the parties are trade fairs.

Her gallerist, a 30-year-old dentists’ son and new hotshot of the art market, who sometimes diskjockeys his collection of rare 1970s funk records, tries to reassure her. ‘I’ll find out this afternoon and tell you immediately. And you shouldn’t be so dismissive – they do buy your stuff too. Just because it’s editions and not bigger works … go to your riding lesson, don’t torture the horse and I’ll call you back later.’

Franziska gets out of the car and stretches her arms over her head. She takes in the scenery before her: the electric green of the trees, rolling hills with the scattered farms buildings, the corn fields growing, the birds chirping their courtship calls: ‘Time is short, eggs are to be laid’. Swallows are flying high above the hills, diving down again to their nests where they twitter and twatter feeding the young. She remembers a half-forgotten song: Fly, Robin, fly! Fly, Robin, fly up, up to the sky! Her name is not Robin nor is she a bird, but today she feels as if she can fly too.

Franziska goes over to the stables where the riding instructor is currying a horse. Another horse stands next to it plucking lazily at some hay. Ramona is a small woman of indeterminate age who looks wrinkled like an old lemon with the straight posture of a flagpole. When she was young, she was an exotic dancer and had somewhat of a drug problem. Now she leads her live with the overzealous discipline of the recovered.

‘You’re late again,’ Ramona says. ‘I told you last time that the preparation is part of the lesson. You have to build a rapport with the horse.’

‘I was busy. I told you I don’t have time for this bonding nonsense,’ Franziska looks at the horses. It’s her fifth lesson and the first one outside.

Ramona sighs because Franziska pays enough money for these lessons that she can do whatever she wants. Still, she doesn’t stop trying. ‘Today you get Blacky. He’s a bit skittish but a really friendly one otherwise. He won’t give you trouble but you have to be friendly to him.’

Franziska goes over and pats Blacky’s neck, who isn’t black at all despite his name but a soft gold like caramel candy. ‘Good horse,’ she says awkwardly. She feels the warm air on her shoulder when it exhales. Nobody knows that she is afraid of horses. She comes here to conquer her fears. Besides she kind of likes the frisson of anguish that she has to suppress every time she is near the horses. She likes how the big animals succumb to her human superiority and she likes to feel her own fear yielding to her will.

The horse snorts softly and looks at her from the side. It can’t read her mind but it senses that this lady is a bit too highly strung, too tense. It starts to feel nervous too. The horse is still young for a hack and hasn’t yet developed the callous indifference necessary for its trade.

Soon they go on their way passing the parking lot and enter a narrow bridleway. They cross purling streams and ride through whispering groves. All in all a very enjoyable outing, but Franziska longs for some excitement. The horse is too docile, there’s no challenge involved. She wants something more adventurous – she didn’t sign up for old ladies’ entertainment. Five hours of practising in the indoor ring is enough. Now that she’s outside she wants it to be worth her while.

‘Let’s do a gallop or some jumps,’ she says to Ramona and pulls at the reins clucking. Ramona tries to keep her back but too late. Blacky has decided to follow this woman with the harsh voice and iron thighs (talk about horses being good judges of character). Off they go, galloping into the afternoon. They are in a copse now. The ground is softly padded by layers of rotting leaves. Ramona is too slow to catch up with them. Faster and faster they go, the green in streaks on both sides and Franziska cheers with joy. In front of her she sees a big branch lying on the way and, yes, yes, yes, she’s going to jump. Faster and faster – but Blacky stops. Stops so suddenly that Franziska’s bum is lifted up and up and up and leaves the warm familiarity of the saddle until she’s airborne and crashes down with a thump on the ground which is suddenly not soft anymore but hard and unyielding. Her head flips back and cracks against a tree by the side of the path.

She gets the air knocked out of her. For a moment she can’t breathe, forgets how to, forgets where she is, who she is. She sees the colour of the inside of her head. She hears Ramona scolding from far away, at the same time it’s too loud. And suddenly Ramona is next to her and helps her sit up.

‘Are you okay,’ Ramona says. ‘Can you walk?’ she asks.

Franziska gets up and tries her legs. They are shaky like those of a new foal. She takes a few steps and it seems that nothing is broken. All is fine but she’s going home. Thanks a lot but no, she’ll walk.

And that’s how it happened.

Franziska doesn’t remember how she got to her car and the drive home is only a hazy memory like the long forgotten feeling of childhood. At home she wants to lie down because she feels dizzy, but her phone rings.
‘Franziska’, her gallerist says. ‘They are coming and they are interested in buying a big one – either the Apotheosis of daytime TV or Horses couldn’t keep me away from my iPod. They plan to invest at least two million dollars. I know that the exchange rate isn’t that favourable but still …’

‘I fell from the horse just now,’ she says. ‘I have a headache. I’m going to lie down for a bit but I’ll be there, don’t worry.’

‘Off with the horse’s head,’ he says. ‘We’ll make salami from of it. Horse salami is tasty.’

She laughs weakly, hangs up and lies down on the sofa. She still feels a bit queasy and her head is starting to hurt in earnest. Just a bit of shut-eye, she thinks and closes her eyes.

Fly, Robin, fly, she hears, fly, Robin, fly, up up to the sky. Oh shit, she thinks, now I have this stupid song stuck into my head. The music gets louder and louder until it sounds as if it’s playing live just next to her. That’s weird, she thinks. And suddenly, it stops – as if it was never there. Startled, she opens her eyes. And closes them immediately only to crack them open just tiny bit. But it’s the same picture that greets her. In her tasteful, gleaming living room – cleaned twice weekly by an illegal immigrant from the Ukraine who is trained as a musicologist in her native Kiev – are standing three young women in seventies hairdos and clingy golden pantsuits. Their neckline nearly reaches their navels and they don’t seem to be wearing bras. They look at her expectantly.

‘Uhmm,’ she croaks. ‘Uh, who are you?’ She is confused because there’s something she doesn’t remember. The music starts again, this time softly in the background. Maybe there are some harps in there.

‘Get up, get up,’ says the first one, a redhead with an impossible Afro straight from perm hell. The hair colour clashes terribly with her hummingbird-blue eye shadow.

‘You don’t have time,’ says the second one, dark-haired and dark-skinned. She has little golden stars stuck on her lids and her eyelashes are impossibly long.

‘Who are you?’ Franziska repeats. ‘And what are you doing in my living room?’

‘We are … we had many names in different times,’ says the third one, another redhead. Her eye shadow is green which doesn’t make it better. ‘You may call us Moirae. I’m Atropos, this is Clotho,’ she points to the first one, ‘and that’s Lachesis.’

‘You kind of look familiar.’ She interrupts her. ‘I know you.’ A variation of the ‘Fly, Robin, fly’ melody wafts over from somewhere. ‘You’re this awful 70s disco girl group!’ She remembers now. Her brother liked them and had his whole room plastered with posters and photos. It should have been clear even then that he was not interested in girls in that way but rather wanted to be one. That, and his fascination for Amanda Lear. ‘Has somebody ever told you that you look like transvestites?’

They laugh like a thousand little bells.

‘It was mentioned once or twice,’ says Atropos.

‘What is happening? Why are you here?’

Suddenly Clotho has a spindle in her hand, Lachesis a measuring rod and Atropos golden scissors. She takes the thread that Lachesis measured into her hand and cuts it in half. She lets the thread end dangle in front of Franziska’s face who has to cross her eyes to see it.

‘You’re dead,’ Atropos says and laughs. It’s a friendly laugh but Franziska doesn’t think it’s funny.

‘You’re kidding,’ she says, ‘evidently I’m still alive, I talk, I have a pounding headache, which proves that my heart is still beating – I feel it – and you are delusional.’

The three of them laugh and it sounds like the wing beat of a thousand fairies.

‘I think some would say that you are delusional,’ says Atropos who seems to be somewhat of a spokeswoman. The other two just look and smile like overgrown Barbie dolls. ‘The thing is like this,’ she grows serious, ‘when you hit your head, a blood vessel popped in the interstice between the skull and your brain. The blood lump is pressing into your brain because it can go nowhere and soon it’ll be damaged and you’ll die.’

‘So hurry up, you’ll miss the party!’ Clotho and Lachesis become a flurry of activity. They take out all of Franziska’s dresses and shoes, scattering them in the whole room. They paint her face and do her nails and when she looks at herself in the mirror she has to admit she looks good.

At the party she stops at the door and looks over the crowd. It’s a spacious room with chandeliers, white curtains fluttering softly in the breeze coming from the terrace with a view over the city. She has three hours, the Moirae said. What can she do with these last three hours? Three hours are nothing. Here are her peers, her customers, her admirers but does she want to spend the last three hours of her life with them? Is somebody here her friend? At the other end of the room she sees Peter, her ex, next to the fireplace talking to this Patricia woman, a young upcoming artist from Madrid with almond eyes and creamy skin. Only she recognizes the steely glint of ambition in her eyes. Poor Peter, she thinks, and again he falls prey to a pretty face.

Should she go over and apologize that she treated him so badly? He was her mentor and she dumped him when he couldn’t help her anymore. He wanted to marry and have kids, ‘in the autumn of my life’ he said. For her it was a business transaction so when he lost his position at the art magazine she left him. Or she could go over to her gallerist who is talking with the collector couple? But another million on her bank account wouldn’t make a difference now – she would still be dead. Does she want to say goodbye to somebody? A strange indifference comes over her. She walks softly through the crowd greeting here and there but nobody stops her for more than a nod and a hello. She goes out on the terrace. Nobody’s there. She sees the thousand lights out there in the city twinkling. Suddenly they look like the candles in the paper ships flowing down the river she once saw in a documentary about Romanian funeral customs. Has she ever experienced something in reality? Or is all her life just a reflection of a reflection? Her headache returns with a vengeance.

[tbc]

Spirit of things

Although it has largely been forgotten since disposability became the order of the day, the Japanese once had a different attitude toward their household goods. They felt guilty about throwing things away, especially utensils made by human hands. The word used for these guilt feelings, ushirometasa, literally means feeling someone’s gaze behind one’s back. One has done something improper; anyone secretly watching would surely disapprove. The gaze implied by ushirometasa includes that of fellow humans, but traditionally it carried stronger connotations of the gaze of a divine spirit. When a utensil is discarded, the agent of the gaze is the spirit of the utensil itself.

Kazuhiko Komatsu: Supernatural Apparitions and Domestic Life in Japan, 1999