Authors: Stuart Dybek
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary
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What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
—John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
On command the firing squad aims at the man backed against a full-length mirror. The mirror once hung in a bedroom, but now it’s cracked and propped against a dumpster in an alley. The condemned man has refused the customary last cigarette but accepted as a hood the black slip that was carelessly tossed over a corner of the mirror’s frame. The slip still smells faintly of a familiar fragrance.
Through his rifle sight, each sweating, squinting soldier in the squad can see his own cracked reflection aiming back at him.
Also in the line of fire is a phantasmal reflection of the surprised woman whose slip now serves as a hood (a hood that hides less from the eyes looking out than from those looking in). She’s been caught dressing, or undressing, and presses her hands to her breasts in an attempt to conceal her nakedness.
The moment between commands seems suspended to the soldiers and to the hooded man. The soldiers could be compared to sprinters poised straining in the blocks, listening for the starter’s gun, though, of course, when the shot is finally fired, it’s their fingers on the triggers. The hooded man also listens for the shot even though he knows he’ll be dead before he hears it. I’ve never been conscripted to serve in a firing squad or condemned to stand facing death—at least, not any more than we all are—but in high school I once qualified for the state finals in the high hurdles, and I know that between the “Aim” command and the shot there’s time for a story.
Were this a film, there’d be time for searching close-ups of each soldier’s face as he waits for the irreversible order, time for the close-ups to morph into a montage of images flashing back through the lives of the soldiers, scenes with comrades in bars, brothels, et cetera, until one of the squad—a scholarly looking myopic corporal—finds himself a boy again, humming beside a pond, holding, instead of a rifle, a dip net and a Mason jar.
There’s a common myth that a drowning man sees his life pass before his eyes. Each soldier taking aim imagines that beneath the hood the condemned man is flashing through his memory. It’s a way in which the senses flee the body, a flight into the only dimension where escape is still possible: time. Rather than a lush dissolve into a Proustian madeleine moment, escape is desperate—the plunge through duration in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or through a time warp as in “The Secret Miracle,” Borges’s
in which a playwright in Nazi-occupied Prague faces a firing squad.
In this fiction, set in an anonymous dead-end alley, the reflection of a woman, all the more beautiful for being ghostly, has surfaced from the depths of a bedroom mirror. The soldiers in the firing squad, who can see her, conclude that she is a projection of the hooded man’s memory, and that her flickering appearance is a measure of how intensely she is being recalled. Beneath the hood, the man must be recalling a room in summer where her bare body is reflected beside his, her blond-streaked hair cropped short, both of them tan, lean, still young. The mirror is unblemished as if it, too, is young.
“Look,” she whispers, “us.”
Was it then he told her that their reflection at that moment was what he’d choose to be his last glimpse of life?
Each soldier is asking himself: Given a choice, what would I ask for
last glimpse of life to be?
But actually, the hooded man never would have said something so mawkishly melodramatic. As for having the unspoken thought,
Well, so shoot me
, he thinks.
Back from netting tadpoles, the scholarly corporal, sweating behind his rifle again, imagines that rather than recalling random times in bars, brothels, et cetera, the hooded man is revisiting all the rooms in which he undressed the woman in the mirror.
One room faces the L tracks. The yellow windows of a night train stream across the bedroom mirror. After the train is gone, the empty station seems illuminated by the pink-shaded bed lamp left burning as he removes her clothes. Beneath the tracks there’s a dark street of jewelry shops, their display windows stripped and grated. Above each shop, behind carbonized panes, the torches of lapidaries working late ignite with the gemstone glows of hydrogen, butane, and acetylene. Her breasts lift as she unclasps a necklace, which spills from her cupped hand into an empty wineglass beside the bed. Pearls, pinkish in the light, brim over like froth. A train is coming from the other direction.
In the attic she calls his tree house, the bed faces the only window, a skylight. The mirror is less a reflection than a view out across whitewashed floorboards to a peeling white chair draped with her clothes and streaked by diffused green light shafting through the leafy canopy. The shade of light changes with the colors of thinning maples. At night, the stars through bare branches make it seem, she says, as if they lie beneath the lens of a great telescope. Naked under a feather tick, they close their eyes on a canopy of constellations light-years away, and open them on a film of first snow. Daylight glints through the tracks of starlings.
In a stone cottage near Lucca, rented from a beekeeper, they hear their first nightingale. They hear it only once, though perhaps it sings while they sleep. At twilight, the rhapsodic push-pull of an accordion floats from the surrounding lemon grove. To follow it seems intrusive, so they never see who’s playing, but on a morning hike, they come upon a peeling white chair weathered beneath a lemon tree. When he sits down, she raises her skirt and straddles him. The accordion recital always ends on the same elusive melody. They agree it’s from an opera, as they agreed the birdcall had to be a nightingale’s, but they can’t identify the opera. It’s Puccini
he says, which reminds her they have yet to visit Puccini’s house in Lucca. Tomorrow, he promises.
Recognize it—the aria playing even now, the clarinet, a nightingale amid twittering sparrows.
Sparrows twitter in the alley from power lines, rain gutters, and the tar-paper garage roofs onto which old ladies in black toss bread crusts, and this entire time the aria has been playing in the background. Not pumped from an accordion, probably it’s a classical radio station floating from an open window, or maybe some opera buff—every neighborhood no matter how shabby has one—is playing the same aria over, each time by a different tenor—Pavarotti, Domingo, Caruso—on his antiquated stereo.
The clarinet introduces the aria’s melody and the tenor echoes it as if in a duet with the woodwinds.
E lucevan le stelle
, he sings:
And the stars were shining
Ed olezzava la terra: And the scent of earth was fresh …
Stridea l’uscio dell’orto,
e un passo sfiorava la rena.
Entrava ella, fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia …
The garden gate creaked, and a step brushed the sand. She entered, fragrant, and fell into my arms …
Admittedly, “E lucevan le stelle” is a predictable choice for an execution—so predictable that one might imagine the aria itself is what drew this motley firing squad with their unnecessarily fixed bayonets and uniforms as dusty as the sparrows brawling over bread crusts.
Doesn’t the soldiers’ appearance, from their unpolished boots to the hair scruffing out from beneath their shakos, verge on the theatrical, as if a costume designer modeled them on Goya’s soldiers in
The Disasters of War
? A role in the firing squad doesn’t require acting; their costumes act for them. They are anonymous extras, grunts willing to do the dirty work if allowed to be part of the spectacle. Grunts don’t sing. In fact, the corporal will be disciplined for his ad-libbed humming by the pond. They march—
is more accurate—from opera to opera hoping to be rewarded with a chorus, a chance to emote, to leave onstage some lyrical record of their existence beyond the brutal percussion of a final volley. But their role has always been to stand complacently mute. This season alone they’ve made the rounds from
, and when the classics are exhausted then it’s on to something new.
There are always roles for them, and the promise of more to come. In Moscow, a young composer whose grandfather disappeared during Stalin’s purges labors over
—an opera he imagines Shostakovich might have written, which opens with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, five days past his twenty-eighth birthday, facing the firing squad of the Tsar. Four thousand three hundred miles away, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, an assistant professor a few years out of Oberlin who has been awarded his first commission, for an opera based on Norman Mailer’s
The Executioner’s Song
, has just sung “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” to his three-year-old daughter. She’s fallen asleep repeating,
Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the president
, and now the house is quiet, and he softly plinks on her toy piano the motif that will climax in Gary Gilmore’s final aria.
And here in the alley, the firing squad fresh from Granada in 1937, where they gunned down Federico García Lorca in Osvaldo Golijov’s opera
, has followed the nightingale call of “E lucevan le stelle” and stands taking aim at a man hooded in a slip.
If you’re not an opera buff, you need to know that “E lucevan le stelle” is from the third act of
Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and revolutionary, has been tortured by Baron Scarpia, the lecherous, tyrannical chief of Rome’s secret police, and waits to be shot at dawn. Cavaradossi’s final thoughts are of his beloved Tosca. He bribes the jailer to bring him pen and paper so that he can write her a farewell, and then, overcome by memories, stops writing and sings his beautiful aria, a showstopper that brings audiences to applause and shouts of
before the performance can continue. Besides the sheer beauty of its music, the aria is a quintessential operatic moment, a moment both natural and credible—no small feat for opera—in which a written message cannot adequately convey the emotion and the drama soars to its only possible expression: song.
She entered, fragrant, and fell into my arms, oh! sweet kisses, oh! lingering caresses. Trembling, I unveiled her beauty
, the hero sings—in Italian, of course. But in American opera houses subtitles have become accepted.
My dream of love has vanished forever, my time is running out, and even as I die hopelessly, I have never loved life more.
* * *
That final phrase about loving life,
Non ho amato mai tanto la vita
, always reminds me of Ren. He was the first of three friends of mine who have said, over the years, that he was living his life like an opera.
We were both nineteen when we met that day Ren stopped to listen to me playing for pocket change before the Wilson L station, and proposed a trade—his Kawasaki 250 with its rebuilt engine for my Leblanc clarinet. Usually I played at L stops with Archie, a blind accordion player, but it was thundering and Archie hadn’t showed. I thought Ren was putting me on. When I asked why he’d trade a motorcycle for a clarinet, he answered: Who loves life more, the guy on the Outer Drive riding without a helmet, squinting into the wind, doing seventy in and out of traffic, or the guy with his eyes closed playing “Moonglow”?
Depends how you measure loving life, I said.
Against oblivion, Ren said, then laughed as if amused by his own pretension, a reflex of his that would become familiar. A licorice stick travels light, he explained, and he was planning to leave for Italy, where, if Fellini films could be believed, they definitely loved life more. He’d had a flash of inspiration watching me, a vision of himself tooting “Three Coins in the Fountain” by the Trevi Fountain and hordes of tourists in coin-tossing mode filling his clarinet case with cash. He’d rebuilt the 250cc engine—he could fix anything, he bragged—and even offered a warranty: he’d keep the bike perfectly tuned if I gave him clarinet lessons.