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|by Dibyendu Ghosal|
…Staring at the vast sea before my eyes , I try to visualize Cleopatra rising from the waves and mingling into the air . She appears as an enigma – her sneers, a glint in her eyes and provocations . She makes me wayward, flickering and restless . Her body acts as pegs for my wine – her softness, smoothness, toughness and prickliness – add to my sense of the erotic.
I want to be her ‘partner in pleasure’ . I’m waiting to be pounced by her like a panther . The nature of her un-trammeled sexuality remains un-definable to me. I try to tell her : “I want a passionate engagement with you, for some moments. “
As my senses returned back to my being, I found myself sitting on the sandy and dusty beach. I have no idea what freak has caused me to recount. But sudden swirl round of wind and the blustering gale from the south-west took me to that
On the positive injunctions of my physician, I had to surrender myself to complete rest to avert an absolute breakdown of my health. I had to give myself a complete change of scene and air. Thus, in the early Spring of that particular year I found myself in a small cottage near the little-known Bay, at the further end of a continental peninsula.
It was a countryside of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead and curious earthworks. The glamour of the place appealed to my imagination and I used to spend much of my time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.
Some scattered towers marked the villages which dotted this part of the place. The nearest of these was a hamlet where the cottages of a couple of hundred inhabitants clustered round an ancient, moss-grown church. The vicar of the parish, Mr. Randall, was a good man, and as such I had made his acquaintance. He was a middle-aged man, portly and affable. At his invitation, I had reluctantly taken tea at the vicarage and had come to know that this man was strangely reticent, a sad-faced, introspective man. I had also purchased a dog there – a squat, lop-eared white-and-tan dog, something between a beagle and a fox-hound. It used to give me company in that new place.
It was queer to see Cleopatra for the first time, singing coon songs at the ‘Coons’ of the church. She had a straight chin that went in a perpendicular line from the lower lip to the turn. She reminded me of some sad Botticelli angel in her innermost soul. She seemed to be surely connected via re-incarnation with the famed Egyptian queen. I thought that true to her namesake, probably she might have combined beauty with brains.
Being a painter with a speciality in female figures, I instantly took out my brushes, canvas and palettes and started sketching her at that odd evening hour. By then, she had finished her song. And I introduced my humble self as she approached. She came to me and shaking my hands, appreciated my sketch. I started talking to her, in between my sketches, endlessly about my love of horizontals : : how they, the great levels of sky and land, mean to me the eternality of the will, just as the bowed Norman arches of the Church. Myself, I said, was Norman. Cleopatra was Gothic. She bowed in consent even to that.
Cleopatra was singing like a nun, singing to heaven, so spiritual. I myself was of completely opposite character. I had a curious, receptive mind and I loved ideas. What I liked most of all was an argument on religion or politics with some educated women. So, something like hot as steel, came up the pain in me.
Why was there my blood battling with that un-known lady? In her person she appeared rather small and delicate., with a large brow, and drooping bunches of brown with curls. Her blue eyes were very straight, honest, and searching. Although her dress was subdued as I noticed her – she was wearing dark blue silk, with a peculiar silver chain of silver scallops, she was still perfectly intact, appeared deeply religious and full of beautiful candor. I had melted away before her. She was really a thing of mystery and a fascination, a lady.
I finished my sketch and handed it over to her. As she was watching, I decided to give my right hand to her. I understood that it was not fair to hurt her as there seemed an “eternal maidenhood” about her. We fixed a ‘date‘ on the next evening – our first ‘date’.
I made myself callous towards all worldly affairs and matters. Laying back in the rocking-chair outside my studio that evening, I decided to start conversion with her, but could not come to the point. So, I said suddenly :
“I’m marriageable now, almost .”
She had been brooding. She looked up at me suddenly in surprise, probably by my choice of a topic on our very first ‘date’. She asked ,”Yes. What makes you say it ?”
She was silent .
“Why‘re you ashamed of it ,” I answered. “You wouldn’t be ashamed before your God, why‘re you ashamed before people?”
Thus our romance started budding. And she kept visiting me at my house regularly .
In the course of time, Cleopatra became aware of the other side of my life. Not only was my house and my art-studio invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and female characters, which she found un-desirable, but I showed an eccentricity and irregularity in my life which must have sorely tried her patience. My incredible un-tidiness, my addiction to music at strange hours, my weird and mal-odorous physical experiments on cocaine probably made me the very worst man she had ever come across.
Yet , Cleopatra stood in the deepest awe of me, however outrageous my proceedings might seem. She was fond of me, too. As to my relations with other women models, they were promiscuous but superficial. I had many acquaintances among them, but few friends, and no one whom I loved.
Despite knowing how genuine was her regard for me, I could not alter my habit of craving for the company of women and cocaine for the sake of my art. After all, old habits die hard . She probably felt she could bear anything for me; she would suffer for me. Another evening – she put her hand on my knee as I leaned forward in my chair. I took it and kissed it. Slowly, I drew her closer and kissed her. As she kissed me, she watched my eyes. I could feel her heart throbbing heavily in her breast .
I folded her more closer, and mouth was on her throat. But she probably could not bear it . She suddenly drew away to my shock and surprise. But shocked me more was her next question:
“Won’t you be late for your women ?” she asked gently.
At that very particular moment of our parting – I felt vacuum in my heart and around me. I stood alone. I understood that in that short span, she suffered too much.
“Cleopatra! “ I whispered – “Cleo!”
I wanted her to touch me.
Beyond the place the country, little smoldering spots for more …….the sea – the night – on and on ! And I had no place in it ! I stood alone. Little stars shone high up; spread far away , the flood of water created a firmament below . And my soul could not leave her . Now she was gone aboard into the night.
I used to find myself at the center of a sinister semi-circle with the water all around, with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which I seemed to meet my end. I wanted her to hold my hands and help me from getting drowned. With a northerly breeze, it became placid and sheltered and the water completely transparent. As I looked into the mirror of water below, the reflection that looked like a man with hollow cheeks, blood-shot eyes, resembled my conscience. It said, You‘re aware that from the time you were a teenager, you have lived a selfish, un-Christian life; and probably hardly had a Bible in your hands. Could it be hurtful to send for someone to explain it, and show you how far you have erred from its precepts, and how unfit you will be for its heaven, unless a change takes place before you die? “ That nightmare continued to haunt me.
During that lonesome journey, I had started distinguishing my own step, restlessly measuring the floor; and I frequently broke the silence by a deep inspiration, resembling a groan. Nobody had the courage to walk straight into my soul and divert me from my reverie.
And still holding Cleopatra’s Bible in my hand ………I decided to preserve her Bible and keep her memory intact in my heart, for my own sake. It occurred to me that we have parted long ago. And still in her absence, I could feel a strange approaching – I was in its shadow – she used to appear as a distinct – cause me pain, amounting to agony. Her virtual presence used to invoke maddening sensations . I began to feel connected fearfully with her.
We probably could not withstand the pressure of our love. I could no longer look down to my house floor, but her features were shaped on curtains! In every cloud, in every tree-filling the air at night, and caught by the glimpses in every object by day, I was used to be surrounded with her image! The entire world was a dreadful collection of memoranda that she exist, and I lost her. I might had a “monomania”, the subject of my idol – Cleopatra. I used to earnestly wish she was visible. Otherwise my conscience would turn my heart to earthly hell. I became fond of solitude and still more laconic in company.
But love’s labor is never lost when it is built on the foundations of the heart one knows. It was another evening coming to an end And there she was coming from the distance. The subtle, delicate charm and that exquisite woman ……Her pale , plump face was gentle and sensible. Her blue eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. She was in a green suit with a red rose on her lapel and she re-appeared in my life like ‘Springtime ‘ come alive. As I moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips. I was so overjoyed to see her again that I could not say anything at the first sight of her.
When she finally came closer, I moved one step closer to her and said to her, “I’m afraid at first it was lust, but then I got to know you and it was love .“
She replied, ”You came to me as if I expected the unexpected.“ She continued, ”It’d been four long years, you know ?”
With a pause, I uttered, “You were my obsession all these moments, during your absence, Cleo. With you around again, I hope to lead a risky life like the game of chess.” I continued , “You’re like waking up every morning and finding a new toy on my pillow .”
But her reply was more mature than me …and that was silence.
As I took her in my embrace, I understood that her sexuality, her love and her body had undergone a sea-change and must have been molded to attract men, who will fall and roll like water-drops on a lotus leaf. Her sexuality must have been transformed so that it can tear the sexual controls of men like the shark which prompted me to tell her, ”Your beauty seems to have surpassed the brightness of the sun and every man will live to die another day for you.“
The most trivial action of the fair sex may mean volumes, or their most extra-ordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tongs. I was not prepared for the un-expected that was about to befall on our lives in the next few months.
Cleopatra betrayed what amounted to a mystical vocation, for social position and romantic love. The fissures between us had already started and developed in the “Oedipal” pattern. Whereas Cleopatra took the normal ‘female’ role, I decided to take a normal masculine route to acquiring power in my own right. From the ‘twin-role’ of our earlier years of love, Cleopatra and I was forced into a kind of parody of normal gender-role polarization.
When I thought of getting her into trouble, I who would give my life just to bring one smile to her dear face, it’s that that turned my soul into water. And yet the fissures between us had started already and that developed in the “Oedipal” pattern –whereas girls reach what society defines as normal maturity by recognizing their own inferiority and powerlessness, and compensate for this by attaching themselves to a powerful man, boys transcend the powerlessness of their youth by identifying themselves with adult men and competing with them for the possession of women. Thus, when Cleopatra took the normal ‘female ‘ role, I decided to take a normal ‘masculine’ route to acquiring power in my own way and in my own right.
Gradually, Cleopatra became a prisoner of gentility, starving herself, and showing in an extreme form the symptoms of hysteria, a characteristically feminine disorder.
I, on the other hand, by combining my growing artistic power with physical violence and sadistic tortures, began to expose the twin poles of masculine power.
I had destroyed my art-studio, destroyed all my paintings and also destroyed all those important and valuable art-works of many famous painters that graced my studio wall. There was a scandal about my drenching my pet-dog ‘Pompei’ with petroleum and setting it on fire spread like forest fire. Then I threw a decanter at the vicar, Mr. Randall , and there was trouble at that.
But in my inner soul, she had always been and still the “onliest one” to me. Everyday of that voyage of romantic fissures, I did love her more and many a time since had I used to kneel down in the darkness, and kissed the floor of the Church because, I knew her dear feet had trod it. She had been born for that was dainty and beautiful I had never been a selfish hound that I would grieve over her refusal to throw herself on a penniless artist.
In spite of all these, our originally ‘androgynous’ mind was catastrophically split by socialization into sadistic male and masochistic female. We were on our missions to take revenge on ourselves – the pressure of which proved too much for her mortal life.
Whenever I have tried to make up my mind and visit her, I have thought to myself: “Did I come to Cleopatra, because she hated me? I tried to think for myself! And she was sick ; and I can’t leave her alone, up there in a strange house! I could pity my own sufferings, and she pitied them too, but I won’t pity hers! I used to shed tears and it was no pretension. It was complete affection, having reason to worship her, almost, store every tear I have for myself, and lie quite at ease . Ah! I cannot be such a heartless, selfish man !”
I still vividly remember that fateful night. A dense yellow fog had settled down. It was impossible from my windows to see the loom of the opposite houses. The whole day had been occupied upon the music of the Middle -Ages. But when, after suddenly pushing back my chair from the dinner I saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past me and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes, my impatient and active nature could endure that drab existence no longer. Figures were looming up, were dimly seen, and then blended against into the cloud-bank. I took out my hypodermic syringe full of cocaine again. The dead monopoly was ultimately broken at last when Mr. Randall came knocking on the door.
This vicar had always stood in the deepest awe of Cleopatra and knowing how genuine his anxiousness for her, I tried to earnestly listen to him when he told me of the sad condition my Cleopatra was reduced.
“She’s dying ,”said Mr. Randall . “ for the past six days she has been sinking, and I doubt if she will last the day. This morning when I saw her bones sticking out of her face and her eyes looking at me I could stand no more of it. I think you must not waste an hour in coming to her, you may not see her alive .“
I was horrified. I rushed for my coat and my hat. As we drove back I for the details. “There ‘s little I can tell you, Mister. She would not even let me get a doctor. She has never moved since she took to bed. For these six days neither food nor drink has passed her lips .”
She was indeed a deplorable spectacle. In the dim light of a foggy night the sick-room was a gloomy spot, but it was that gaunt, wasted face staring at me from the bed which sent a chill to my heart. There was a hectic flush upon either cheek, and dark crusts clung to her lips ; the thin hands upon the coverlet twitching incessantly.
I could not but abide by to be present by her side. I stood outside the chamber-door a quarter of an hour, and hardly ventured near the bed , then.
She lay listlessly as I entered the room .
All was composed, however; Cleopatra’s joy was silent as my despair. I fixed on her features my raised eyes, that seemed dilating with ecstasy. The sight of me brought a moment of recognition to her eyes. But her voice was croaking and spasmodic.
She murmured, “I’ll be waiting, up there in the Heavens and you, my darling, shall come to me ;” and never stirred or spoke again, but continued the rapt , radiant gaze, till her pulse imperceptibly stopped, and her soul departed.
Whether I had spent my tears, or whether the grief were too weighty to let them flow, I sat there dry-eyed till the sun rose – I sat till noon, and would still have remained, brooding over that death-bed, but the vicar insisted on me coming away, and taking some repose .
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