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Liebestod: Love/Death Final Aria With Imaginary Music :
Robert M. Dewey
Tom, the old man’s lover for forty years, had died. The old man having outlived the things of his life was now a stranger and alone. Humankind cannot bear too much reality. So he filled his house with memories.
There were baskets of stones Tom and he had collected - agate, quartz, obsidian, river rocks with mysterious patterns and shapes, even a bottle of gall stones from his doctor; baskets of sea shells found on beaches; vases of feathers gathered on long walks - swan, goose, sea gull, crow, and the down from some unknown thing small and soft; stoppered bottles of dried roses, lavender, mint, and some more exotic, as ma-huang, wolfsbane, and sleep-inducing valarian root, which the ancient Greeks called ‘Phu’ because it stinks. There were books everywhere. And everywhere else an astonishing incongruity of objects - bright colored Tibetan masks, bones, pottery, tiny carved ivory figures the Japanese call Netsuke, weavings they had made together, the sharp-beaked skull of a starling he had spaded up one fall, a gigantic tortoise shell turned to show its mottled bottom, puzzles, dried leaves, and gods, so many gods. There was a piano, a penny whistle, a crockery jug holding recorders - altos, sopranos, and a sopranino. Covering the walls pictures - a framed page of an illuminated manuscript, sketches, paintings, printing, prints.
High on the wall dominating his collections hung a huge painting in the manner of the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelites depicting an old man sitting in a boat with his fishing line in the placid waters of a lake. He was garbed and hooded in dark medieval robes, a crown sat on the seat next to him. His wounded left thigh bled. On a farther shore a mounted knight holding a golden cup waited for the old king. A brass plaque mounted on the frame read: “Sir Percival Bearing the Holy Grail to the Fisher King.”
Late night in the study, a recording of Clair de Lune played softly. Clair de Lune, the light of the moon rippling over the waters, softly. On a daybed, the old man lay with a black plastic bag enclosing his head and cinched at the neck. He hummed quietly to the music. His hand tapped the rhythm slowly on his chest. Finally, he began gasping for air. The tapping hand reached up, loosened the necktie holding the plastic bag and pulled it off. He blinked, sat up, and for a few minutes did nothing but try to catch his breath. Finally he slipped his feet into a pair of slippers and shuffled across the room. Sitting at his desk, he opened his journal. Under the last entry, Number 12, he wrote the time, Claire de Lune, and “gave up at 3 min. 24 sec., not engrossing enough.”
He scanned the cases of CDs and cassettes. Muttering. Muttering. Here in all this music there must be something so enchanting that I’ll stay under too long. Forget to save myself. La Mer, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, La Boheme (Cher and Nicholas Cage were fabulous in Moon Struck) . . . o god, o god, I’ve got it. Tristan and Isolde! . . . it goes on and on and on. Good old Wagner.
He punched the CD player to the last number on the disk, and Kirsten Flagstad’s smoky soprano voice began Isolde’s death aria at the end of the opera. Liebes. Tod. Love. Death. He sat at his desk humming along Duuum Deeee Daaaah Duuuh. Duuum Dee Daaaaah! Tristan dead, Isolde’s voice floats over the oceanic undulations of the orchestra. Endless flowing like the sea. Love. Death. Ocean. Eternity. . . . This is fabulous. Daaaaam Deeee Daaaah Duuuuuuuh. . . . . .
Out of a basket of sea shells on the desk he plucked up a piece of dog’s jawbone lying incongruously among cowries, scallops, clams. Tom had found that broken jawbone on the beach near Pescadero one summer . . . . Duuuumh Deeee Daaaah Duuuuuh. It seemed an eternity we sat on the beach in the shimmering air, drinking daiquiris from a canteen, watching the tide breaking hissing, breaking hissing, breaking hissing against the shore. Tom singing, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, singing Heigh Ho Kafuzalem, The Harlot of Jeruzalem, . . . .da da duh, duh dah da duh, and daughter of the Baaa Baaaaa! God, he could make me laugh. Out of the old man’s memory, out of the undertow of Isolde’s aria, a voice reciting something once known: O lost . . . ghost, come back again . . . How does that go? It’s got to be Thomas Wolfe. You Can’t Go Home Again? No, Look Homeward, Angel. Where’d I put that?
He switched off the CD and shuffled to a bookshelf in the next room. He smiled faintly as he read (Tom had put it there) the framed sign tacked to the bookshelf:
THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
Of great writers who are here in hosts;
We sell no fakes or trashes.
Lovers of books are welcome here,
No clerk will babble in your ear,
Please smoke but don’t drop ashes.
Good old Christopher Morley . . . The Haunted Bookshop. Tom used to love that book. Absolute drivel. He scanned the dog-eared paper backs lining the shelves and found Look Homeward, Angel. He opened to the epigraph.
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
O lost, and by the wind grieved . . . . He shuffled back to his desk and wrote it down in his journal . . . ghost, come back again.
The old man reached over and turned on Isolde’s death aria again. The endless waves of the ocean, endless and unceasing. Sea Sing. Sea Sing. Un Sea Sing. Love. Death. Eternity. Daaaam Deeeeee Daaaah Duuuuuh.
Tom had such beautiful shoulders. Leather and scented geraniums. Through the basket of shells the old man moved his finger sensuously as if through a pool of water, and the shells clinked and tinkled like bells. He listened to the shells clinking and tinkling. Like bells. Ding-dong. Ding-dong bell. Full fathom five thy father lies. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell. Ding-dong, Ding-dong, bell. Daaaam Deeee Daaaaah Duuuuuuuh. Daddy gave me this conch shell when he came back from Hawaii. And a bottle of white sand. So many things. I can remember where each shell in this basket came from. The cowry with the carvings on it, a gift from Hernan when he came back from Bogota. The clam shells from a bouillabaisse at the Gold Coast in San Francisco. The little shell with worm holes, Tom and I found years ago on the Mississippi River flats cruising.
The old man looked around the room. Things. Each one a memory. Ghosts. Ghosts. These things live only because I remember their lives. I live only because they keep whispering to me. Parasites clinging to each other for life. Drowning . . . .
The CD of Kirsten Flagstad singing Liebestod grew louder. DAAAH DEEE . . .God, why doesn’t she just kill herself and get it over with? One can hardly breathe in here. Told George to take the storm windows off two weeks ago. Only do gardens. Only do gardens. Damned hothouse. DAAAAAM DEEEEE DAAAAAAH . . . Why do prima donnas have to go on and on? Get on with it. The old man reached over his desk and snapped the music off.
Calm down . . . Breathe . . . Breathe deeply, quietly . . . . Breathe . . . Breathe . . . It’s near sunrise - I should walk down to the lake . . . The dawn comes. The dawn comes through the incense-burning mist . . . and o’er the lake hangs the moon, a white Eucharist . . . Breathe . . .
The old man leaned back in his chair and looked up at the painting of the king fishing in the lake, a stained cloth draped over his bloody thigh . . . bandage . . . old wounds never die, they just bleed away . . . Gone Fishin’ Gone Fishin’ . . . only place to ease the pain. Then one day Sir Percival bears to him the Holy Grail - Percival, Parzifal, MySweetPartyFool Tom (so it declines). One cup of wine, a kiss, and I am healed. . . holy holy wholly healed. The land blooms mixing memory and desire. And we lived happily ever after . . . that was my story . . . thought that would be my story . . . and then the son of a bitch died . . . and I drift waiting . . . waiting . . . for what? Another Prince? The understudy? Someday my Prince will come again, knock at the door again, put his boots under my bed again. I’ll be whole again, whole again, jiggidy jig. Breaking News - Prodigal Son Returns to Diddle Father, Son, and Holy Goat. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well when the king comes into his own. When Tommy comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah! When Tommy comes marching home! Dadat tadeedle da dut tadut! THEY’LL ALL COME MARCHING HOME!
When he heard that he was shouting, the old man stopped dead still. Breathe slowly . . . Breathe deeply . . . Just let things be . . . No more talk . . . Just breathe. Breathe. Breathe . . . .
The old man clicked on the CD player and heard the opening bars of Isolde’s aria yet again. Third time’s a charm. He shuffled over to the day bed. Took up the black plastic bag and the necktie (stupid salmon pink knitted necktie - ugly, ugly - but the knot didn’t slip) placed the necktie noose over his head, pulled it wide around his neck. Then, he raised the black plastic bag, pulled it down, tucked the ends under the noose, and cinched it up.
He had always loved taking naps on the daybed. Just a little nap. That’s all. If I can just hold out this time. Breathe. Breathe slowly. Daaam Deeeeee Daaaaah Duuuuh. Duuuum Deeeeee Daaaaaaah. Float on the waves . . . inexorable tide . . . washing over, pulling back. Love. Death. The undulating orchestra, the voice floating over the water, yearning, yearning, but never quite attaining, O lost , and by the wind grieved . . . Wagner. That sly old fox. The yearning is just a musical conjuring trick, sleight of sound. Makes his chords progress towards resolution, but never lets them reach it, instead they turn into another phrase - reaching, almost reaching - over and over always almost there, but never quite, not yet, not yet . . . Unbearable yearning. Love. Death. Pulls at the viscera . . . Breaking and hissing. . . .
When the ocean waves finally reached our feet, Tom put his arm across my chest and dared me to stay . . . I’ll stay as long as you do. And we lay holding each other’s hands as the waves rode up our legs higher and higher. When they finally reached my thighs, I jumped up to go, but he grabbed my foot and pulled me down and we rolled on the sand and tumbled in the waves and flailed like schoolboys until I no longer struggled. Then he straddled me and put my arms over my head and held them down and at each wave he kissed me and teased me until all I could want was more. And when the tumbling waves finally reached my waist, we held each other and kissed. And the great mothering ocean rolled over us pouring and hissing, trying to pull us into herself, pouring and hissing, pouring and hissing, and I whispered into his ear, o god, never let this end . . . .