A biographical note in Brion’s selected Contes fantastiques (1994) informs us that he ‘was born in Marseille in 1895 to a family that was half-Provençal and half-Irish (O’Brien).’ It adds that ‘this double heritage perhaps explains his simultaneous interest in Mediterranean civilization and in Celtic and Germanic culture.’ Such a balance between light and dark is evident in ‘Sibilla van Loon,’ taken from Brion’s first published collection, Le théatre des esprits.
Brion, who died in 1984, wrote prolifically on the arts and on culture generally and was a distinguished member of the Académie Française. Unlike many Academicians however he also had a lively interest in popular culture and, more to the point, he was a writer of fantastic tales and novels. Les escales de la haute nuit (Waystations of the Deep Night) was reprinted in a mass-market paperback edition and is probably his best known story collection, at least in France (as far as I’ve been able to determine none of his fiction has been translated into English). Edward Gauvin’s Weird Fiction Review blog comments:
‘these are extremely traditional stories. Their props, motifs, and iconography all draw from a classical repertory that, played straight, can seem a bit clichéd today: ghosts, decrepit manors and crumbling palaces, puppets and dolls, doppelgangers, forgotten streets, seamy Venezia, imps, carnivals, statues, baroque grotesquerie, a certain dated orientalia… Yet they are dignified, exalted, even made resplendent, by a magisterial prose style and a peerlessly sustained sense of mystery, often in the absence of traditional plot or character psychology… Brion’s stories often take the form of a voyage, ever pushing into the unknown. His narrators are frequently wanderers without plan or destination, reporting on strange scenes or otherworldly sights…’
However, having recently re-read Les escales de la haute nuit (1942) I would not agree that these stories are ‘traditional’; they bear witness to a distinctive and original imagination. It should noted that Brion’s later stories tend to be abstract exercises in metaphysical fabulation, their style suggesting that he’d been influenced by Robbe-Grillet . Brion’s first collection, Le théatre des esprits (Theatre of Ghosts, 1941) is different again, consisting for the most part of straightforwardly written narratives with a ghostly or supernatural dimension. In this company ‘Sibilla van Loon’ stands apart by virtue of its sheer strangeness. Telling the story of a passage into the world of a 17th century Dutch painting, Brion’s manner here is even more lyrical and poetic than usual, no doubt too much so for some tastes, but, as with De Quincey’s opium visions, the heightened style is integral to the story’s oneiric quality. The narrative consists of two contrasted movements. The first is an idyllic, quasi-mystical evocation of the dreamworld on the far side of the painting. The second is a nocturne; night has fallen, both literally and metaphorically, and we witness a weird, hallucinatory deathbed scene around which unfolds a murky drama of jealous love and murder. What connects the two movements is the enigmatic figure of Sibilla (the Sibyl) and her obscure relationship with the narrator. In an interview Brion professed a high regard for the Anglo-Saxon ‘maîtres de la ghost-story’ – he singled out Henry James and M. R. James, de la Mare and Le Fanu. This story, however, draws on a native symbolist and decadent heritage; if Baudelaire had ever written a full-length conte (as he sometimes dreamed of doing), then it might have resembled ‘Sibilla van Loon’.
Sibilla van Loon
“this dream beyond dream’
… seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man…
St Paul, Epistle to the Colossians
In memoriam H. von H.
I wouldn’t have dared enter that room if the little girl hadn’t stood in front of me and taken me by the hand. I feel that supple coolness between my fingers. I see her tender, startled eyes that are raised toward me, blond curls in ringlets under a bonnet of gold taffeta, the big, puffed-out, pleated dress that makes of her a droll little person dressed in the clothes of an old lady. In a high-pitched voice she says something to me that I don’t understand, and, imperiously, irritated by a resistance that surprises her, she leads me in triumph to the middle of the room.
Now I find myself alone, in an aqueous atmosphere where distant bells linger. The child has disappeared. She shouts in the adjacent courtyard, teasing a yapping dog. Little silver bells tinkle at her waistband. When she approached me earlier I noticed that odd rattle with precious bells attached to branches of coral and amethyst.
What has happened? How long has that little girl been there? Only a few seconds ago I was listening to my companion talking to me about the sense of space in Dutch painting of the 17th century. I listened closely to the clever things he was telling me, and if I was distracted for a moment it was on noticing my reflection in the glass that covers the picture. I detest pictures under glass; through mingling the unmoving reality of a portrait with the ghosts of visitors who wander through this museum gallery this produces bizarre, intrusive impressions. In the moment that I saw the reflection of my face, however, it seemed to me that the picture, into which I felt myself transported thanks to an optical illusion, wasn’t altogether unfamiliar to me. Yes, it was at that very moment that the little girl moved toward me and I felt her cool hand in mine. And my companion’s voice was muffled whereas usually he was in the bad habit of talking too loudly, something that gathers round us curious visitors who are happy to follow a guide free of charge.
He’s still speaking, and though I know how intelligent and original his remarks invariably are I’m no longer interested in listening to him. I no longer require his commentary, I know much more than he can tell me since we no longer stand in the same relation to the picture; I’ve suddenly come close to it while my companion seems miles away from it. Now I can’t even hear his voice that, a moment ago, came to me like a drone behind a pane of glass. Henceforth we inhabit two different worlds. I’m on the other side.
If the little girl had stayed near me she could have explained what I had to do. Why have I been taken into an unknown house? If someone were to enter this room while I’m looking around me in the bafflement of an uninvited visit I would look like an intruder or a fool. The little girl shouldn’t have left me so soon; she seemed very friendly toward me, she stood on tiptoes to tell me in confidence about things that must have been very fine and important, then, after having delivered her message, birdlike in manner and voice, she fled like a little fairy.
I hear her clear laughter and the barking of a dog. A greenish penumbra enters through thick windowpanes embossed with waves. It’s calm, silent, a little unsettling too, like the sea before an imminent storm. Nevertheless in finding myself alone in that room I feel a singular well-being. A faint aroma of cinnamon and cloves impregnates the walls. I’m sure that if I were to open that ebony-studded cupboard that floats toward me in the chiaroscuro like a vessel on the high seas, I would be overcome with amber or vetiver. For this room is at one and the same time solitary and densely inhabited, like a forest, no doubt on account of that thick tapestry, a mute jungle full of dangers and wonders, through which the late afternoon sun promenades its submarine reflections.
Peopled by unfinished journeys that track their itinerary from one angle to the other of that geographic map where, in the same greenish penumbra, seas and continents return to their original chaos. Peopled by unfinished music that lingers between the strings of an English virginal. I know that the hand that made William Byrd’s bells tinkle on this keyboard has for a long time ceased to lift its lid, decorated with painted flowers and birds. A voice was accustomed to singing the naïve and tender airs, “There is a Lady sweet and kind”, or “On a time the amorous Silvy”, that one evening a gentleman from Liverpool played by sight from the last album of madrigals. I suddenly remember that she still preferred the old melodies, the laments of melancholy Dowland who consoles youth so well for its uncertain happiness. How can I know this, since no-one has ever sung for me “Weep you no more, sad fountains…” and, yet, I rediscover in memory distant stanzas that keep time with their solemn and melancholy pageant: “I saw my Lady weep, and Sorrow proud to be advanced so in those fair eyes where all perfections keep.” An impossible memory tells me that Sibilla van Loon sang that, but how is this possible, since I’ve never known a woman called Sibilla van Loon?
Ah, the soft, grave voice of Sibilla van Loon, I still remember it today, though I doubt that I ever heard it. It possessed an ardent gravity of timbre that perhaps derived from a certain Spanish heritage, and when I looked at her pale complexion, her black hair swaying in heavy ringlets while she leaned her head on the keyboard of the virginal, I was astounded by her presence in this house and by the new spirit that she’d brought there.
I often came here to this house, but for me it was always mysterious. Even today, that nautical smell lingering in the hallway, the movement of reflected water on the walls, the unsteadiness that I surely detect in the tremors underfoot, all that surprises me as though I were discovering it for the first time. I know that the reflections of dancing waves come from a canal where a slow barge disturbs the peace, I know that busy traders are ceaselessly rolling barrels of spices in the basement rooms that serve as a depot, however I don’t want to destroy the exquisite and troubling impression that I have of sailing on the high seas, amidst cargoes of pepper and coriander.
The atmosphere of the house has captured me once again, so much so that I wouldn’t dream of going back. If I were to return, I would no doubt see the faces of ghosts behind a glass pane, and if I were to perceive my face among them, I wouldn’t recognize it, and if I were to hear, like a distant drone, a voice that talked about the sense of space in 17th century Dutch painting, I would no longer understand what it said. The house has breathed me in. It holds me, it keeps me, it envelops me in its vague odours, its inexplicable noises. The aquatic half-light is thick and creamy, with an odour of seaweed. I hear the ringing of the little silver bells at the waistband of the little girl and the soft padding of a big dog. I’d like to forget all the past and all the future in order to retain nothing else but the intense and insidious peace of this moment, bathed in the borderland of dream.
The sensation that I felt of a ship in movement, it didn’t only come from the smell of tar that hovered in the hallway, narrow as a between-deck, nor from rolling undercurrents, but rather from a certain need to choose between two indefinable options, and from the intolerable oscillation that carried me back and forth from one to the other. A memory still tied me to a certain part of my life where everything real presented itself to me from behind a glass, while scholarly voices discoursed on the notion of space and the notion of time. Without my having to make the slightest effort this memory vanished in time with moisture clouding up the pane of glass – perhaps I had come too close to notice a touch, a tracery of fine cracks – and the house was constructing itself around me, from the sonorous cellars to the sculpted gable of the roof, with its paths and garden, its mirrors and tapestries which gave the distant greens in reverse, its mysteries and its clarities, its dramatic impregnation and its original soul.
The impression was so violent that in order to free myself from it I wanted to immediately quit that place. I only had to take a step back in order to be promptly liberated. Nothing would be easier than to return to the ghosts who parade their weary gaze from glass to glass. But the thought of leaving that house was intolerable. The memory of Sibilla van Loon, of her sombre voice when she sang Dowland’s laments, and I don’t know what inexplicable tenderness for the kind of tragic serenity that hovered in the shadows like a destiny closed all the curtains behind my chances of flight. Thick curtains of Arras tapestries featuring hunts and martyrs. Persian fabrics, the colour of apricots and strawberries. Laces that grazed my skin with their hoar-frost and bound me in their net. And, more than anything else, perhaps, this smell of seaports and galleons, these flickerings of luminous silver on the geographic maps, like the route maps of seabeds, and this silence composed of far-off voices and nearby creaking noises, this thick, murmuring silence that ebbed and flowed round the virginal as though to evoke the crisp tinkling of its strings and the velvet voice of Sibilla van Loon.
A single step tears me away from any temptation that I might have had to turn back. A single step toward the threshold of the house and toward the great sun that gripped me by the shoulders the moment I opened the door. I no longer thought about the paths back, which must be utterly closed to me. The scent of lime trees floated above the jade-coloured canal. From quarter hour to quarter hour this summer afternoon was self-bewitched with the aerial music of bell-chimes. I listened to these clouds of sound scattered over the town, reiterating a canticle each hour, but on the half hour a drinking song.
Houses the colour of pistachio, of caramel, of cinnamon and milk declared their spotless consciences in the discretion of their windows and the ostentatious glitter of their copperware. Serious-looking men came or went, greeting me unsmilingly, and each time their appearance took me by surprise, as though I had lost my memory and returned unknowingly to the town of my birth. They thought about their collections of cameos and engravings, of fleets loaded with spices that opened their sails to the perfumed breezes of Sumatra; the sharp tap of their cane on the paving stones beat out a rhythm, fast or slow, in time with the adventurous passion of overseas trading or the calm delights of the lover of faience.
A smell of still water mingled with the perfume of jacinth and the aroma of cocoa. There wasn’t a single colour that wasn’t laden with odours, not even this creamy whitewash, tinged with vanilla, that painters were spreading on a newly built house. I stopped to observe them, following the agile gestures of a carver who was chiseling a date into the pediment, still gleaming with varnish, between the breathless dolphins and the scrolls of flowers: 1632.
The numerals are handsome, with something definitive and at the same time capricious about them. The owner of this new house is, one might guess, a wealthy merchant who owns hundreds of slaves in the Indies and who would readily add his coat of arms to the Netherland flag that flutters from poop-castles sumptuous as palaces. No doubt he delights in caressing Chinese porcelain, whose hairline cracks trace the subtle networks of a brilliant brain, a fantastic kingdom of birds and flowers immortalized under the transparent glaze. Perhaps he promenades there, escorted by a Malaysian page boy who respectfully holds the enamel snuff box and the cane with the amethyst knob.
The peal of bells scatters its gold and crystal money openhandedly over the town. I don’t know what it’s called, this town, where I recognize each street; what does a name matter? For me, the notion of presence itself has never been so fully and peacefully evident. It seems to me that, in this moment, I wouldn’t even exist without these canals around me, these houses coloured like sweets, this sky, this smell of lime. For the harmony of sky and water, of trees and bells, achieves completion in me, in my memory where the voice of Sibilla Van Loon and the tinkling of the virginal are inextricably interwoven, associated with a tall glass goblet that vibrates at the moment when each plucked chord releases a sharp sound, as though a Venetian nostalgia responded to the call of an English musician.
At last I experience the bliss of no longer questioning myself about anything. My presence in this place, at this moment, between the brilliant green of the trees and the matte jade of the water, seems to me as inevitable as if predetermined by astral conjunction. I don’t ask what I am, or what I’m doing in this unknown town, on this unknown day in the year 1632. A summer’s day, rich with soft heat and perfumes where the high sun contemplates the tranquillity of the afternoon. It might be about five o’ clock – or six: I no longer care about divisions of time. I’ve transcended time. Everything I touch is as much outside time as I am; this glove, this cane, this book, they are also perpetuated in a pure present.
The sky rests so softly on the meadow that not a blade of grass feels its weight, a perfect vault, clear of shadows and clouds containing exactly the volume of air needed for the earth to breathe. The sea is over there, like a ribbon that is more mobile and less green than the meadow, and the black sails that glide along at ground level look like ravens that, from time to time, perch oddly on the back of cows.
I hear the clear sound of buckets moving under spurting udders. The air is buoyant with an odour of grass and milk. A solitary, unhurried cloud crosses the sky, trying out transformations until it unravels in cottony tatters, disappointed at being unable to take on ingenious shapes. Everything here is, in the highest degree, right, even the black and white counterpoint of the cows between jade grass and a sky that turns grey out of sheer blueness. Everything bears witness to a perfect fidelity without seeking to become more or less than what it is. The atmosphere is dry enough for objects to retain their outline, humid enough for the interchange between nature and the individual to operate its perpetual and fertile osmosis. I’m not in any way dissolved into the landscape although I feel myself constantly traversed by the sky, by this grass, by this water, all of which pass through me and leave their freshness behind with me. I offer my hands to the slow, light breeze and from my fingertips, from the warm grotto of my palm, the breeze penetrates through to the hinterland of my breast. This perfect harmony, bestowed by the benevolence of the world, I suspend it from the ephemeral triumph of the clouds, from the peals of bells swarming like crystal bees. An angelic confession floats between earth and sky. It’s the hour when, in a rustling of white wings, celestial messages visit virgins and kneel down, draping their scintillating robes around their naked feet so that human eyes won’t be scorched by their terrible beauty. It’s the hour when hope perches itself like a flight of doves on a green shutter, a yellow wall, a blue roof, when the barges stop at the narrowest point of the canal so that the boatman can touch ground on both sides and the fishing boats, lowering gangways sticky with tar, wrench from the bottom of their hulls the torrent of living cascades imprisoned in their black nets.
Shaking their Greek cloaks, the gods come down to earth, the flute of the great god Pan harmonises with the hourly carillon, which is a puritan canticle, Aphrodite emerges from the waters, naked as the meadow, and Apollo, touching his sacred knees to the ground for the first time, replaces the cherub, clothed with wings and eyes, to murmur the angelic greeting into the ear of the Virgin Mary. Joy is resurrected at its roots by this moment when the concord between the gods and the earth leaves between them a due place for man. A solar countenance announces that peace is with us. He extends to us the benediction of the approaching night and the promises of the day to follow, to be there tomorrow morning at the moment when we will need him. And it’s as though for a space of hours we bid farewell to the being who is for us the one we need most in all the world, sure as we are of being able to re-immerse ourselves in his presence.
I understand then that holy Christian custom of summoning a host of Angels at sunset for a sublime transmission of powers from the Forces of the day to the Thrones of the night. Never has the empty sky seemed to me so animated. I don’t know the cause of the joy that wells up in me, and doubt that I will ever know it, nor what thought, prompting me to leave the town, has led me to exactly this point where the perfect balance of sky and earth determines both the necessity of mankind and its justification. To await, perhaps, the hour – I don’t know which – when the carillons of bells approach with their silvery steps. In order to bathe my face and hands with refulgent devotion in a shadowless universe. On the town hall clock wooden figures file out in a fateful dance, and on nights of the full moon I’ve often paused to catch the merry leap with which the skeleton of midnight leaps out from doors that are banged wide-open. His frisky femurs and his scythe devastate the nocturnal meadows, but if I have enough patience to wait another hour in front of that hungry clock, with all its avid and avaricious mechanism nibbling away, I’ll soon see the infant of dawn, waving a silver rattle, walking, as stupendous as Hercules, from the door of the void to the door of being, on the prolonged echo of a single note, as unique as hope.
The air smells of water, the meadow is yielding under my feet. Laughter from one blue woman to another blue woman crosses space, stops, arrives and departs again. The washerwomen spread sheets as though to mischievously invite the dairymaids to upturn their buckets in play, and the cattle, fooled by that illusion, reach out greedy tongues toward the pure pool of linen.
It’s the hour when all things approach their deepest essence, descending into their own hollows to reunite with their most sublime point. If I were to question myself at this moment, perhaps I would discover a meaning in my actions, from which would be expelled all anxieties. Finally I would know why the name of Sibilla van Loon resounds in my memory with the exact timbre of her voice. As though one day I had heard her saying, ‘I am Sibilla van Loon,’ while I marvelled that everything within her possesses the warmth and pliability of velvet. And if she now carries another name unknown to me, it’s on that fervent sequence of syllables, Sibilla van Loon, that I want to tune the song of my sadness and my hope.
At the moment that name returned to me, while I contemplated the sunset, the colours acquired a more vibrant lustre, as though participating in the full flowering of my delight. I guessed then why I had come to await the close of day in that open space between earth and sky. Close of day! These words no longer held any sadness for me, whereas, not long ago, their cadence evoked the image of whatever comes unfastened and undone. They now held the promise of a beginning. The proclamation of twilight had the sweetness of a dawn. I knew that once this night was passed a day would return that wouldn’t be like other days, but would be still finer and warmer in the glory of every achievement. This sunset, this waiting for the morrow – the name of Sibilla van Loon lent them a prophetic aspect, as though she alone, at that moment, granted the earth and sky their colours. On her alone depended the birth of the future day or else the interminable length of the night. Between her hands she held the rudder of the funeral ship that sails on the subterranean waters, and on her fell the responsibility of guiding it toward the light of dawn, of rekindling the sun at the end of its nocturnal passage, to ensure that day, once more, would come into being.
Birdcalls flew across space and struck me like arrows. This hour of joy, carried to that highest degree where suffering makes its mark, as though the absoluteness of a condition already carries the seed of its opposite, this hour of joy gained with the complicity of objects, with the assistance of the grass and the pity of the sun, contained between the exact limits of earth and sky, became a sacred resolution, face to face with destiny. It was inhabited by the gravity of things about to be born, and I felt that if I’d brought my hands, my breast closer to it, I’d have received, like an ineradicable brand, a solar stigmata in my palms and on my heart.
While I returned to the house, by way of the canals scented with dusky lime trees, the town unloosed its mysteries. Spread out in the streets, an other silence marked out the road of shadows. Night prepared to rise up from the stones and the water. Men shut themselves in their dwellings, giving free rein to phantoms and fairies, receiving from their passage, like the subtle osmosis of night through the walls, the rearguard of dreams that already encircled their reveries and their slumber.
The hallway had dropped anchor. Barrels no longer rolled in the echoing cellars, the floor no longer trembled, and, through the open door, the odour of spice was suppressed by the smell of the nocturnal canals. The Malaysian manservant awaited me at the foot of the stairs. His dull gold face shone like that of a very old statue. He signalled that I should go upstairs then held the candelabrum high to light the steps.
The Indiawood banister, was cool under my hand, with a perfume of fruit and flesh. The millennial rubbing of hands had given it a mild smoothness, like the sleekness of an arm. In spite of my eagerness to arrive upstairs I stopped to caress it, under the indifferent gaze of the Malay. The servant then said something in a bass voice whose resonance was muffled by secrecy, and the gravity of the message was underlined by a movement of his eyelids, which was the only smile from this statue. Nevertheless I hesitated, contemplating the black emptiness beyond the banister, much as one questions the invisible movement of the sea beyond the bulwark. The silence of the house filled up all its space. If I’d heard the little girl’s bells, or the pattering of the dog, my anxiety would have been quelled by that living presence. The gesture of that yellow man who held the torch above his head, murmuring unintelligible words, no longer left me with the option of a decision. There was nothing I could do other than accept the role determined by destiny and plunge into the impenetrable waters of the night opened up by the first steps on the black stairway.
I didn’t recognize those Cordovan leather hangings that covered the walls of the room, as tough and fiery as the rind of pomegranates, or perhaps I’d only ever seen them in daylight. The reflections of the candelabrum lent them a metallic severity that was unknown to me, as were those juices that, when the candle flames flickered, flowed from the red and brown pulp of their fruit. They prevented any attempt at escape. The gaze and the imagination that strays so readily along the shadowy paths of tapestries found no way out between the bronze and golden branches that closed their meshes on a depthless space. As unfriendly to the eye as they are to the hand, these panels, gleaming with all their arid inhumanity, underlined everything that I felt to be inhospitable in this room. The things themselves repelled me. The ebony furnishings, the mirrors that devoured a clear, narrow surface under a crushing mass of black frame, the mathematical instruments, all sharp with dangerous and unknowable points, the sextants, the compass and the astrolabes that seemed like an executioner’s implements, all proclaimed that I had no business here and moved weightily to expel me. In the half light of the torches an enormous bed advanced before me, sailing like a high-prowed ship carried on tides of shadow and under the wind of its curtains closed like funeral veils, so as to crush me with its stem against the inexorable forest of shining trees.
This bed, whose dusty canopy and worn curtains would perhaps have been revealed by daylight, wore a kind of tragic personality amidst the textures of the night. It wasn’t supernumary but rather the hero of a drama whose twists and turns I didn’t yet know. I felt however that its daytime inconspicuousness was merely the feint of a gigantic and wicked beast that retreats in order to leap yet further and crush its prey with a single blow. I’d never seen its like as a bed. I could imagine that the man who slept there wanted to rediscover dreams of the high seas. This bed would substitute for the tempests he had left behind. Container of all joys and at the same time all dangers, like a ship it brought with it distant and perilous adventures. And if this bed now seemed to me like some galleon about to be shipwrecked, the sails in rags, destined for the rocks toward which the broken rudder hurls it, it was because the man whose heavy and slow breathing I was hearing was making a last attempt at wrenching his prow from this fatal gulf toward which it descended, already decked out as a funeral ship.
The only sound to be heard in that room was this slack breathing that evoked the slopping of water in a hold leaking from a hundred cracks. A silent clock attached to the wall just in front of me grimaced with its angry copper face like a gagged man. In the adjoining room, a murmur of voices arose, quick, light and mysterious, like a sudden passage of wind through the treetops, a murmur full of reticences, confidences, suspicions, destined perhaps to filter through the walls, the bed-curtains, to carry to the ears of the sick man the remarks of several individuals who shifted their heads and feet in pushing their armchairs up against each other. Each time one of these almost unintelligible waves broke on the bed, the sick man moved under the weight of the blankets and groaned. Perhaps he would have liked to hear more clearly what the people in the neighbouring room were saying, or would he have preferred to hear nothing but his own tempest and the memories of squalls in the Indian Ocean? But the words seeped anyway through blood-tinged Cordovan hangings and renewed the mystery of the quick-moving mouths, heads nodding in close proximity.
I was immobilised by a stupor so complete that all attempts to understand what was being said left me no less at a loss than if I had been in the presence of a language not a word of which I could comprehend. The whispering of these judges might have determined whether I lived or died and I would have remained just as deaf to their threatening allusions.
Time overturned its hourglass on things and it was as though their forms were covered over by a layer of sand in collusion with the shadows. I can’t say for how many hours or seconds I was there in front of this bed shipwrecked against the reefs of death. The invalid groaned like a drowning man who one moment is brought within reach of a lifesaving hand by the waves and another moment is torn irrevocably from the earth in a terrible game that the storm is bound to win. Through the sombre bed-curtains I could imagine the hands clenched in search of a piece of flotsam, the swollen chest striving for communion with the air, the hair slick with sweat, the trembling mouth.
A strange pity lifted me and predisposed me to that man whose raucous gasps creaked in the silence. I would have liked to hold out my hand and help him to die peacefully. But there was nothing I could do to save him. And neither would I have wanted to do anything. For I knew that my happiness depended on his suffering and that he had to die so that I could live. In spite of that antagonism, I felt a compassion that troubled me so much it almost drew tears from my eyes. I was hearing him die in an unrelenting struggle where he would finally be defeated, all his efforts merely serving to tighten the grip of death, who already held him by the wrists and throat, and I imagined that soon the hourglass would be upturned over him and would cover him with sand, and that later my turn would come.
Suddenly there was a struggle behind the curtains, as though two people were grasping each other by the shoulders and each seeking to wrestle the other to the ground, and the wails took the form of a cry. It was as though a demonic bird had swooped on its struggling prey and bound it with bloody talons.
I then heard a rustling of silk from the other side of the bed. A woman emerged from the shadows that darkened that part of the room and entered the rosy circle of the torchlight. Her steps stirred up a crackling of crystal and ice. I saw how pale her flesh was in that silver robe, rustling with reflections. But the matte skin was as warm as a lamp and burned with the same fire as her eyes. All this time I had known she was there, a captive of the shadows, seated against the bedhead. Like me she was listening to the contest between the shipwrecked man and death. And she stayed silent because anything we might have said then already lay beyond what words could say.
Suddenly I understood what the people in the neighbouring room were whispering, as though for the first time I’d been able to make out the meaning of their words. They were saying to each other in an undertone, closing their chairs together in order to put mouth with foul breath and infectious speech right next to ear, they were saying to each other that Sibilla van Loon was poisoning her husband, slowly, carefully, so effectively that the doctors understood nothing of his illness and so the man was withering away like a condemned plant.
Sibilla van Loon drew back the curtain with a gesture that made her silver sleeve ride up to her shoulder, and from which her fearfully naked arm emerged like a rapier. I smelled the animal stink of death that arose from the shifted blankets and, in the shadowy gulf I saw the sick man vanquished by the enormous invisible beast that squatted on his chest. Sibilla van Loon’s hand descended, caressed the dying man’s forehead while he uttered a frightful sigh of voluptuous pleasure. His grey fingers clutched the naked arm, clasped it to his damp breast, and his face, on which the hand of death already lay, slid up the length of her arm to reach her armpit. With a groan his mouth buried itself in the sombre hollow and I heard the terrible sound of kisses.
Sibilla van Loon trembled under the embrace of this tree that clenched its living branches around her, but she didn’t withdraw her arm: I saw her lean toward the bed, bend down to the dying man, offer her beauty to the powers of darkness that held sway in the folds of the curtains.
I must have uttered a groan in gazing at this hideous spectacle, for she turned her head and her eyes met mine. Then she leaned once more over the sick man, and I trembled on seeing light flow down from the torch onto her long neck, between the thick twists of her black hair and the shadowy cleft that opened at the bosom of her bodice.
Gently, she pushes the head of the sick man away from that armpit from which his mouth is drinking a marvellous desire to survive, she pulls her sleeve down to the wrist, she lays the humid head down on the pillows. The man, exhausted by his effort, has closed his eyes. His breathing is calmer, for a moment his face becomes peaceful, as though for that moment, death had taken away its hand. But now the sick man looks at her again and becomes agitated. His fingers shape illusory forms. His lips search the outline of words. All his being inclines toward the pale flesh in the silver robe, placed there like a chance of salvation on the threshold of the kingdom of shadows.
No disgust shows on Sibilla van Loon’s face. Neither does pity. Without violence she repels the dead branches climbing from the dark soil that seek to claw at her soft skin. There’s no anger, no repugnance in her resistance. She remains calm, indifferent, like an executioner. And she doesn’t even use force to push away that mouth that searches for the naked skin at the border of the silk.
The man uttered a desperate groan when, at last, she turned away from the bed. But now here she is, back again, carrying a strange object that she holds out to him. The moment that his grey fingers reunite with her ardent hands around the rosy conch, I see a shell from the Indian Ocean, a marvellous, flesh-coloured helix. Sibilla van Loon now holds it by its enamel base and presents it to the sick man’s gaze. The torchlight passes through grottoes of nacreous mother of pearl, from whence emerge the sound of waves. A delicate network of blue veins lights up. Sibilla van Loon’s beautiful hands, similarly illuminated, provide a gleaming and transparent pedestal for the shell. The sea has suddenly entered the room. A surge lifts the bed and festoons it with green fringes. Behind the metallic forest of the Cordovan leather, I hear the ebb and flow of the ocean.
In the same moment as the sick man brought his ear close to the shell in order to capture the noise of all the waters I myself also listened to the roar coming from the rosy cavern. The final perceptions of his senses, already claimed by death, are concentrated on the shell. He caresses it with his hand, he places against his cheek the smooth coolness tasting of foam, he touches his mouth to these singular lips with their minute brown and rose teeth.
Time still scatters its thin layers of sand. The sick man whispers extravagant words into the mouth of the shell then seems to listen to their echo. This isn’t a child’s game or a madman’s whim, but rather a grotesque tenderness, a desperate delirium that thrusts into this rosy abyss his ultimate will to live. And I dream of Sibilla van Loon’s body, so pure and fresh in its silver robe, on her feet facing the shadowy bed, with that cascade of reflections that falls down along the length of silken pleats from the knot of pearls, marine treasure, woven in her black hair.
A door opens; a hanging slides back along its curtain-rod. An old woman comes in with rapid little steps. She carries with her the venomous atmosphere of the room where unseen people whisper that Sibilla van Loon is poisoning her husband. She’s a benevolent and assiduous Fate. She continues to regret that death takes only one victim at a time and would like to see the wife buried alive near the cadaver of her husband.
Her presence disturbs the solemn and tragic peace of the room. She comes from another world, busy, talkative, pointless. From time to time she sniffs fitfully, as though seeking out the traces of a perfume or of a poison. Her narrow head is hard and precise like that of a burrowing animal.
I look at her hands busying themselves around the pillows. She must be possessed of a dangerous and treacherous kindness. She says nothing, but her sighs tell a long, complicated, sorrowful story, one wherein certain facts shine out like carbuncles set in a shadowy tissue of doubts. Her starched cuffs crackle while she plumps up the pillows, her collar crackles too under the spade blows of her chin. Her eyes are full of a religious detachment, but sometimes I surprise a gaze that slips toward Sibilla van Loon and scratches at her.
She seems not to have seen me. I remain immobile, overwhelmed by an unutterable torpor that checks any inclination to move. Perhaps even at this moment I could make a decisive gesture, hasten or prevent what is bound to happen. The house’s silence envelops me like a swamp. I’m seated on the knees of night, and likewise in a powerfully maternal embrace. This silence is briefly disrupted by the intrusion of the old woman, the dry rustling of her skirt, the cracking of her fingers, but soon the funereal peace returns to cover over beings and things.
The meddling woman has taken more shells from a small table. She places them on the pillows, on the border of the bedcovers. It could be said that the sea has ebbed away from the bed leaving peculiar spoils behind it. Pointed shells formed for the sonorous lungs of tritons, now mute and empty. Grey-veined ears of mother of pearl, stained with brown. Red mouths open in a cry like the mouths of tragic masks. Singular white and red shapes on which the reflections of the torches flicker, unloosing black and blond tresses.
And from all that there emanates an odour of rocks and algae, a frothing of sea on sand. The sick man’s hands grope among these messages from the sea. He dreams of sirens singing in the antipodean night, sometimes caught by fishermen in their nets. He remembers having one day encountered a drifting ship that floated in a charnel reek. The sailors had killed each other, their bodies scattered from galley to tiller. The captain’s thick hands were still locked around the cabin boy’s neck. And there, in a corner of the bridge, sticky with blood and salt, on a heap of canvas, was a creature of emerald and hoar-frost, so remarkable, so beautiful, that one couldn’t tell what manner of fish could in decomposing give rise to such rare colours. From the body of the siren that was already rotting like a heap of dead jellyfish in orchid petals and soft egg-white there still radiated a formidable seductiveness, notwithstanding the vile phosphorescence glowing from the putrid carcass. At that troubling boundary where the sweet flesh of the woman mingled with the scales of the fish, the sick man once more saw that strange chasm, enlarged by the sailor’s knives, possessing the colours of submarine grottoes, powerful as a sea anemone, scalloped like a musical shell.
With his foot he had pushed that fluorescent carrion over the bulwark, braving the anger of his crew who grunted their animal appetite, and, leaning over the clear waters, he’d watched the body of the siren sink down amidst animate fans, stones that walked, sucker stems and the mortal cradles of the Sargasso. And from that day on he’d collected Indian seashells, sailing on the back of seahorses or carried between the arms of tritons carved by Augsburg goldsmiths.
The old woman’s bustling hands disordered the marine harvest, and the shells clashed together with the sound of waves. In the sombre cavern of the bed, on the opaque coverlet, the depths of the sea delegated its pearls and its mother of pearl. A coral branch that nature had modelled in the form of a woman shone with the lustre of rosy flesh. The sick man’s hands went from fresh shells tipped with the tender teat of a breast to conches as shadowy and odorous as armpits and no less troubling than if he’d caught all the sirens of the sea and all the women on earth in nets of sensual delight.
Sibilla van Loon contemplated this abominable pleasure. She took the shells scattered on the bed and gave them to him one after another. The movement of her hands, passing from shell to shell, was like a flight of seabirds. The old woman had returned to the room full of gossip where, since her arrival, the whispers flew faster. The hours climbed toward this summit where the night thickened and grew heavier. It seemed that day would never return, so much did it seem that the mass of shadows would remain forever impenetrable to new rays of light.
The play of seashells becomes slower and slower. His hands linger around the tender curves. The sick man inhales the joys of the sea, his crimson mouth fastened to a red one. He’s dazzled by the sheen of the sun on the mirroring waves, the rhythm of wind in sails cradles him. The last shell is cool against his cheek, soft as a pool of water that ripples under the secret arch of a rock. He’s going to fall asleep to the song of tritons, in moonless nights, when the sky extends its white stream across the fish-laden sea of stars.
The mouth of the seashells finally delivers the surge of dreams. Sibilla van Loon has closed the bed-curtains and now the sombre quilt sails once more on the dead seas of night. The compact silence tightens its hold. Events set out their ineluctable signs. A moment approaches that is the final image in the tapestry woven by the Fates. A moment around which eternity constitutes itself.
This moment had been determined for all time. It must have occurred an incalculable number of times. It will be repeated to infinity for as long as life turns in its circle. Human beings are thrown into the immense desert of the sky where they complete destiny’s carrousel. I no longer repress my desire to act against night’s woollen hands. A patient, heavy force presses down on my shoulders and fastens me to this chair, in the darkest corner of the room. The contact of my fingers maintains a communion with things, the knotted stitches of a green and blue tapestry, the glossy, slightly sticky smoothness of a jade cup, the shell of a grey piece of porcelain that when tapped sings with grave resonance. I attach myself to all these objects so that they may preserve me from the confusion of forms, and, plunging toward the outside world and returning from it with heavy cargos, unquiet insects, this slow ebbing and flowing movement of the senses renews the communication between individuals and things that is always on the point of collapse.
It’s then that Sibilla van Loon turns her back on the bed. She comes toward me, armed with that terrible grace that is the Medusa of sensuality awakened and ready for death. Everything with which I’ve surrounded her – a melancholy song, the notes picked out on a virginal, a perfume of white roses – detaches itself from her being to reveal to me a formidable beauty that I had forgotten. Stripped of everything that disguised her and displacing her masks, just as one pushes aside branches to beat a path through the forest. Her sweet youth has become tragic virtue. The drama constructs its architectures of traps around her hands and her mouth. Blood flows more heavily from the leather fruit because the candle flames are sent flickering by the passage of her rustling gown. The several steps that separate us hollow out an abyss. And suddenly Sibilla van Loon is in my arms and her mouth melts on my mouth.
She’s collapsed on my breast like a dead bird. In the odour of her flesh a desire for eternity merges with a craving for nothingness. Since the beginning of the world, the movement of the stars and the birth of created life have had no aim other than to ensure the being of this moment. We’ve come toward each other from the farthest frontiers of infinity. Given paths marked out among the stellar crossroads have led us to the hour when her lips, fatefully, must open on mine. And all the hourglasses of the universe can now be upended, the purple brilliance of this kiss will shine forever under the arid dunes of the Gobi.
I’d forgotten how supple and light she was, though saplings, when I caressed them in passing, had sometimes reminded me that Sibilla van Loon existed in a certain juncture of space and time. I happened to recognize her voice in the wind as it whistled through branches, though I was unable to distinguish words or song. Tragic when the abyss of several steps still separated us she is now as familiar, childlike as a sister, so that a breeze from gardens and afternoon games refreshes the dead air of this room. While she stays as mute as the shadows her Medusan eyes suddenly acquire all the tender light of adolescence, and her cheeks all of a sudden become innocent. She laughs softly, pressing the delicate flesh of the crook of her arm against the nape of my neck. Her mouth feels its way tentatively about my lips in order to savour the thrill of finding them and the anguish of losing them forever, and her body undoes itself though with a new grace to reformulate itself on the form of my body.
The warm, aromatic clusters of her hair tumble between her cheek and mine, sombre and intoxicating autumnal grapes, spring wisteria, as fragile as glass. The groans of the sick man lying in frustration among the seashells spread out on the icy beach of the blankets whirl around us without being able to separate either our lips or our arms. The world has ceased to breed those tiresome beings with which it usually populates the cities and the centuries. I’m alone and I hold Sibilla van Loon against my breast. I hear her heart beating, the heat of her breasts burns me in a night situated beyond the centuries, at the uncertain boundary between eternity and nothingness.
Sibilla van Loon! I see this name written with stars, a new constellation between the Lyre and the Dragon. All the sweet kindness of clear shadows rests in her name, in her eyes, in the arms that gently brush against my cheeks, in the palms that she slips toward my lips, where they leave a carnal aroma, fragrant with Asia. I’ve rejoined Sibilla van Loon at the extreme peak of space and time. I rediscover between my fingers the sublime burden of her hair. My hands have recognized the outline of her shoulders, and my whole body gauges the exact weight of her ardent body. The universe re-encloses its spiral around us, achieved destinies come into blossom beyond any malicious onslaught, in the hollow of a silence free now from the whispering of the those women decapitated by their hard collars, of those men extinguished beneath their black hats, who are speaking in the neighbouring room and who debate about which venom Sibilla van Loon has used to poison her husband.
Were they to solemnly enter this room, to arrange themselves in a circle around us, our lips would not part and the miraculous fusion of our intimate flesh would not shatter. Without our having uttered a single word – for the voice of Sibilla van Loon resounds in me like the echo of a vague and distant past – we’ve restored the total harmony of a single being at the heart of a discordant universe. For that to occur, we had to the cross the empty steppes of time, to reunite worlds that travel on opposing paths, finally to launch all desire into a flight that waits or that remembers.
Sibilla van Loon! I foresee the day when she will be standing once more before the keyboard of the virginal. The morning air enters through the open window. A blue cord knots her yellow sleeves around her wrists. She’s chilled and weary. The laughter of domestic servants busying themselves around copper bowls can be heard. The acidity of myrtles combines with the vinous sweetness of purple roses. The Eros painted on a background of Roman ruins has new arrows in his quiver; he occupies the place where recently a nautical chart dragged out interminable voyages across the emptiness of a grey wall. The rolled-up map has shipwrecked all its nostalgia in the darkness of a cupboard. Who, now, would be curious enough to move about the unhealthy seashells, darkened under the dust of an attic? That has never been which has finished with being. These are pearls, all still warm and frosted with sea salt that this jeweler brings to Sibilla van Loon and that she distractedly knots in her hair. Our smiles encounter each other in the sea-green distance of a mirror, following with our gaze the servant girl who brings in black robes, our fingers reunite on the keyboard of the virginal, and the instrument sighs then with such a tender and melancholy voice that’s like the echo of appeased nocturnal fervours.
Sibilla van Loon! Sibilla van Loon! The Cordovan leathers still bleed in a shadowed room, and that immense bed isn’t empty since the tears of a dying man pour down on the perverse seashells. The courage for happiness and the desire for joy must be pursued to their extreme limit. Sibilla van Loon, if you now took your lips away, perhaps pity would enter my heart, pity for the dying man; leave our mouths joined and there can never be room for hesitation or remorse between our two bodies which, trembling, are moulded to each other. Sibilla van Loon, the morning that we wish for can only dawn if we reach the furthest frontier of darkness, and if our twin desire isn’t disrupted for a single moment all the length of the path that we’re both following on roads of shadows.
She trembles. Her hands, like lost birds, pass haphazardly over my face, over my cheeks, over my breast. Our exhausted mouths seek each other, fearful of being separated for a minute, each perhaps worrying about never again being able to reach the other, for, as long as our kiss throws its bridge over the abyss, we will never again be distanced from each other.
The Javanese manservant is suddenly beside us, though we haven’t heard the banging of the door or his shuffling footsteps; an insipid odour of musk disclosed his presence before he turned his opaque eyes and monkey hands toward us. Here he is, offering us a colourless liquid in a crystal glass on the darkness of a lacquer tray. His eyelids close, his mouth humbles itself in a courteously indifferent smile; he knows that each human being becomes the instrument of destiny at a given moment and creates actions for the succession of eternal events. Each one of his gestures is so perfectly simple, so devoid of tragic emphasis that his presence leads us back from the heights and depths to level ground. For all time everything that is going to happen has been intended by destiny; we’re nothing but tools acting out its will, and our violent freedom is merely a flick of its fingertip.
The innocent glass of water gleams between Sibilla van Loon’s hands. The Malay lowers his head and lets the lacquer tray dangle toward the floor. Luminous sparks traverse the rim of the glass, multicoloured flecks light up their reflections in the transparent liquid. I dream of the primal sea where being is destroyed and recreated; I would have liked Sibilla van Loon to pour that water into one of the shells and that the sick man could thus drink his final draught of sensuality.
When Sibilla van Loon raised her arm to pull back the bed-curtains, I saw once more the silver sleeve slip along her pale flesh and spread out around her cool shoulder like the calyx of an arum lily. Thus she stayed for a moment, her hand leaning against the tapestry. Not in hesitation, but to give her act the weight of a grave decision, measuring her strength and audacity against the heavy resistance of the event.
Her hand didn’t tremble when she drew open green and blue material. The head of the shipwrecked man rested among the shells in the rank humidity of the pillows. His fingers were clenched around a rose-purple conch, as though he’d wanted to rise with it to the surface of the waters. He still held it close to his ear, that mysterious mouth from which he had so often heard tidings of sensuality and the roar of the sea; he’d extracted from that vacant presence all the values of the illusions it was able to supply, the songs of the Oceanides and the roaring of tritons. Perhaps he saw once more the sickly phosphorescence of decomposing flesh, of a disembowelled siren, soiled amidst silken algae and black filaments, under the becalmed sun of the South Seas.
Then for the first time I once more heard the velvet voice of Sibilla van Loon. The words she didn’t speak to me a short while ago when the lightning stroke of lust obliterated us, she spoke them now for this dying man, and I was jealous as he opened his eyes under their sweet warmth, and that he carried as an imperishable memory their sincere tenderness into the kingdom of shadows. For I felt that now Sibilla van Loon truly loved him. She offered him this love as a farewell, like the last alms that are put into the mouths of the dead, so that they carry into the afterlife neither the disillusionment nor the anguish that continue to darken the life of the immortals.
With the one and the same gesture she offered him the hand holding the glass and the other hand whose palm he devoured, while her pure smile mingled the two poisons, herself smooth and fresh as a shell, as gentle and murmurous as the sea.
The Malay had disappeared, and I myself felt the embarrassment of being an indiscreet witness to the farewells Sibilla van Loon was making to her husband. He gazed at the sparkling liquid the same way as he would have seen the sun rise over the waves, and I believe that at that moment he was in no doubt that the radiance of this crystal brought him death. He had, no doubt, known it for a long time, and the tenderness of Sibilla van Loon must have appeared to him all the more marvellous and terrible in that it too, this unique gift, participated in the cortège of death.
The empty glass has slipped from his fingers, rolling among the shells on the beach of the bed. Sibilla van Loon turns her gaze away from that exhausted head sunk back among the pillows; her eyes focus on a table where astrolabes and sextants are gleaming. Out of discretion, perhaps, and so that he doesn’t think she’s curious to see his death. But, so that he feels less lonely, she softly rests her hand on his warm breast, then removes it; what if he were to suppose that she was watching out for the moment when his heart stopped beating? Ah! How difficult it is to manage the sensibilities of those who are dying…
She dares not touch this body again, for fear that he suspects her of impatience, anxiety; however now she consents to hold him in her arms and to bear him thus to the threshold of darkness, in order to give him the strength to begin the long descent.
I retreat into the shadows. They’re alone together, and, for the first time, united. The visitors, the relations, have no doubt departed, for I can no longer hear whisperings in the adjoining room. Tomorrow the sun will shine again. But me, where will I be tomorrow?