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A Snail, Orfiel

The garden was narrow, it hugged the back of the shop and, behind me, the wooden fence was so high I could only see white sky overhead. If, of course, there was anything at all overhead. I had a serious purpose here but those memories had degraded. Memories of any kind were hard to maintain here. Imagination filled the expanding holes and, as the holes multiplied, those memories became all imagination.

By the shop wall, so far, I’d discovered a papier-mâché clown mask, a plaster of Paris monkey and a porcelain figurine of a ruddy-cheeked squire. And behind a bicycle frame I spied a porcelain dog with a chipped off nose leaning on a green bottle.

I intuited enough to be sure I was seeking something and the cause was dire beyond dire. The garden was in disarray and everything I tried to touch passed through me like sound.

And it wasn’t that I feared death. I’d lived and experienced too much for that. Death itself I regarded the way an insomniac regards sleep. So fear can’t explain why I’d lingered behind.

Lingered behind. But I swear I didn’t recall this garden. I’d never seen this shop. The garden was fecund and choked with weeds and the shop was bearded in ivy.

To the left there were seven flowerpots, all plastic, brittle and broken. It was an antique shop. Don’t ask how I knew. From time to time, I’d desist from my searches and explore the four pockets of my coat. Then I’d extract a torn scrap of envelope with the inked-on words: ‘Be on the Third floor’. I would look up. A small, open window overlooked me from the third floor.

Perhaps I’d only been in the garden an hour. That was about as far back as I could recall anything.

But then my story made an impromptu swerve. This would not be a sad account of limbo after all. I reject limbo. Things can always change. Not for the better – let’s not kid – but things can always change. While running my fingers through one of the weed glutted flowerbeds my fingernail collided with my first solid thing. Next, it was borne up in my shuddery hand. So the body, this time, presented as a snail; garden variety with a striped shell.

With the finger and thumb of my right hand I squeezed the head between the stalk eyes and I pinched the tail with my left. I pulled and felt the muscles in my arms cleave apart as the poor creature tore in two. The clouds flickered from light to dark, light to dark, and I was stunned by a low bellowing cry I later realized had been my own.

How much time had crept away? I don’t know. But I’d successfully maneuvered through that small window and lay on my side on the dark, almost grey, wood of the third floor. Don’t ask me how I knew this was the third floor. I saw clearly with my eyes and heard clearly; footsteps speeding up and slowing in a lower adjacent room. My room had sloping white walls made grey by the natural light and the smallness of the windows. On the walls hung framed sketches of nude bodies. Before me was a wooden door and a chest topped with porcelain ornaments, shells, and the skeletons of small animals. I felt myself with bones again, with lips, with a spine, with fingers. Yet the new condition was not entirely fortunate. I tried to flex my toes. I tried to stretch my arms. There was a fundamental disconnect. So this one would also need to be destroyed. Something would have to destroy me or else I’d have to wait for the ravages of nature.

The footfalls sped, grew louder, and creaked up to my level, then the door was thrust open. A small person scuttled toward me donning a homemade-looking mask with a cloth surface. The mouth area sported a jagged set of real teeth extracted from various animals and the back bore what looked like real ram’s horns. Alas, I recalled, all horned beasts are herbivores.

A pair of small, soft hands lifted off the face covering and laid it, eyes to me, in the doorframe.

‘Inga Bunny! Inga Bunny!’ the boy called.

‘What is it, Tommy?’ a girl’s voice called from the end of a room at the bottom of the steps in an annoyed superior tone.

‘There’s someone up here!’

‘What?’ There were no subsequent footsteps.

‘I think it’s a woman and she’s not wearing anything.’

‘Tommy Boy? What on earth are you talking about?’ The footsteps quickened and a slightly older girl with a sunburned terracotta face rose up the staircase. She fluttered into the room in a feather tiara and a pale frilly dress.

The children stood shoulder to shoulder, gawping, then she whispered: ‘That’s not a woman. Women have breasts.’

‘She has long hair.’

‘Men can have long hair too!’

The girl came forward, crouched, and frowned at my face. ‘Hello? Hello-o?’ she sang.

‘Well, I know one way,’ she said to her brother.

She lifted my right leg and they both stared for a few seconds.

‘Is that a tattoo?’ he said with a new, high mildness.

‘No, I don’t think so. Can a boy’s thing look like that?’

‘No way,’ said Tommy. ‘It looks like a whirlpool.’

She cautiously lowered the leg back to its original position then, resuming her superior tone, said: ‘We must tell Grandfather Hinkel.’ And they both ran from the room, not closing the door, their clicking footsteps crossing the lower room, finding the next staircase, and trailing off as they descended.

The mask was still on the floor gazing at me. I willed myself to move. I endeavored to visualize my fingers flexing, my legs kicking, in the hope that, by vividly imagining these things, my physical body would be tricked into mimicking. Although my eyes didn’t move, my unbodied-ness meant I could jolt out of myself, mentally, and view the room in panorama, sometimes almost half-viewing my slumped physicality.

Presently I heard a deeper creak on the steps and a bespectacled old man in a tweed waistcoat appeared donning a bushy set of blonde-white whiskers. He stopped a meter from me, looked over his glasses, and shook his head: ‘Well, I never.’

‘She’s a woman, isn’t she?’ said Tommy.

The old man squinted a second then, in the same perplexity, said: ‘I don’t know about that, I don’t know.’

He crouched, raised my leg, raised his eyebrows, then relaxed them both.

‘No, I just don’t know.’

He stood and put his hand to his chin: ‘Well, this certainly is a problem, it certainly is. The shop opens at ten and I can hear them lining up outside. What on earth are they going to make of all this?’

He wandered off to a farther window, shaking his head. He tiptoed to glance at the street below, assessing the length and forbearance of the crowd, then turned back to the children.

‘I suppose there’s only one thing we can do,’ he said. ‘We’ll sit him or her on a chair and hope the customers assume he or she’s an antique. Tommy Boy, would you run down and fetch a chair?’

The boy ran down. Mr Hinkel stepped beside a life-sized ceramic model of a toddler, its hairless scalp bearing wide red antlers, and continued shaking his head.

When the boy returned the old man exclaimed: ‘No, no! Not a plastic chair! We can’t use a plastic chair, can we?! We need an antique chair! For an antique!’

The boy drooped his shoulders and plodded back down with the plastic chair on his head and the old man clucked and muttered amusedly to himself.

The boy struggled back, this time hauling a large, dark, wood piece, its seat and backrest padded in cracked maroon leather. ‘Ah! That’s much better. A wooden chair!’

The older man directed the chair to a suitable position at the back of the room, between a tall paper-headed lamp and a dresser topped with three stuffed hares around a human skull in a glass case.

‘Excellent! A wooden chair,’ he repeated. ‘Wood is immortal. Wood is such a gift to all the world!’

Then, at his direction, the siblings took my arms, he took my ankles, and I was lifted to the seat. The old man gently straightened my shoulders and the girl brushed back my hair, bringing forward one lock to flow over my left clavicle. My hands were arranged next. Mr Hinkel decided they should rest on my lap, obscuring my confounding loins. Besides, putting them on the armrests made me look pensive. Finally, my feet were arranged, one in front of the other and Mr Hinkel stood back, again bringing his hand to his chin.

‘Yes, that’s good! Very good!’

 He turned to the girl. ‘Why don’t you switch on that lamp? A bit of sidelight should really define the shape… Ah yes… yes! That’s marvelous!’

He looked at his wristwatch: ‘Goodness me, look at the time! We’d better get that shop front cleared up. And all your toys need to be packed in your chest or our customers may start pinching them!’

The children made a rapid clatter on the stairs while the older man followed in groaning, creaking thuds, leaving me to gaze at a loose Victorian sink basin crammed with broken historical gardening equipment.

When the clocks clanged ten around the various floors, the line of customers thundered in, impatient and harried.

From the start, I was an exquisite success, if that doesn’t sound immodest. The shoppers admired the maddening ambiguity of my bearing; they were aflutter at the silkiness of my hair and the uncanny naturalness of my skin. Some squinted around my ankles, presumably hoping to discover a price tag. Twice I witnessed men trailing behind Mr Hinkel to enquire about my history. His default reply was a loud and genial, ‘Oh ho ho, that’s an old family secret. I could not possibly divulge such a thing!’

When the clocks clanged twelve and the shop closed for lunch, the children brought food offerings: two lacquered trays with yogurt, chopped apple, bits of citrus, scraps of meat, porridge, and ice cream. I remained catatonic. Inga brought a chipped bedpan (probably antique) in case I had any wastes to eliminate. I did not respond to this either. Toward the end of lunch hour, she reappeared with a pink plastic mug and a pipette and squirted water in my mouth.

At night, the room was black and I could imagine leaving my seat and walking around, running my fingers over the numerous frangible objects. I tried directing my will to my fingers. My memories of the garden were receding, and this did not distress me as much as I’d anticipated, back when I was lucid. In one moment, I saw the pinpricks of stars all around which, in the next, expanded into small fires eating away the room and leaving behind a truer, profounder black. I inwardly smiled at this because I knew, just as in old age, memory can be eaten by imagination, so imagination can also devour living sight in the present.

Next morning, Tommy and Inga decided I’d be an even greater draw in standing position. My chair was returned and the three set me on my feet. I didn’t even wobble. Tommy moved my arms forward, reaching out as if to embrace someone but, thinking better of this, fashioned a pointing finger on my right hand and raised it left and roofward in the pose of Leonardo’s St John the Baptist. Then he pinched both my cheeks to make a subtle smile.

‘You know, I think it’s high time we gave this person a name,’ said the grandfather.

‘I never named anything before,’ said the boy, looking up with trepidation. The girl tightened her mouth unsurely.

‘Don’t worry! Choosing a name is the simplest thing in the world!’ said the old man. ‘Just think back to the last dream you remember, that’s all. The name will be right there. In the dream!’

‘I had a dream!’ volunteered Inga, wide-eyed, her finger raised.

‘Yes, yes!’ said the grandfather.

‘I was in a huge desert and there were fires everywhere… and the sky was black. And there were black bones coming out of the ash…’

‘Go on!’

‘And I looked up at the black clouds and there was a creature with a sword made of fire. It had four heads. A child’s head and a lion’s head and a cow’s head. And the last one was a bird…’

‘A cherub!’ clapped the Grandfather. ‘That’s it! A real cherub. Not one of those silly, fat, flying babies. Yes… I see it. Excellent brain-work, young lady! So we need a cherubim name… help me out…’

‘Gabriel?’ suggested the girl.

‘No, no. That’s a boy’s name now.’

‘Orfiel!’ said Tommy.

‘Yes!… Orfiel! Yes, I believe that’s a name for a boy or a girl… Stellar thinking, Tommy! Oh, where would I be without you two!’

I was even more of a success this day. A sensation. Several customers brought friends and kin in tow solely to admire me and a few older folk were helped up the steps to see me with carers supporting each big fragile elbow. At the end of lunch break, Inga turned off the lights and shuttered the windows so the dim glow of the lamp would define me even more ‘dramatically’, so she said, from the side. ‘Like something straight out of a Caravaggio, isn’t it?’ two customers independently exclaimed.

After closing time, the Hinkels decided I’d been such a phenomenon I might be relocated to the shop front under the hanging sign, MARTA’S ANTIQUES. Together they maneuvered me down the bone and antler lined staircases. However, things did not fall together so simply in the open air.  Once I was in place, to the right of the front entrance, Mr Hinkel, in his habitual gesture, put his hand to his chin and shook his head.

It was a problem. My nudity, which had been so unexceptional indoors, seemed garish outside, stylistically noisy, a provocation almost.

‘It won’t do,’ he said, resuming his head shaking. ‘It just won’t do.’

He stepped forward and back to assess the composition, shaking his head each time. Tommy and Inga repositioned my arms to gesture toward the door, over which a horse’s skull hung in place of a wreath, but Grandfather said this pose was cheap. My arms were put by my side and my back was straightened like an old Egyptian statue, but this also displeased him. Too military. He came forward, bent my knee a little, and turned my head slightly left. Then he let my arms fall, one bent, one straight, at my side. He explained this looked more relaxed and they nodded.

He stepped back, shook his head again, and sighed.

‘Well, I suppose there’s only one thing we can do.’ He turned eyes to the children: ‘Go to the spare room and fetch the sheet from off the mattress.’

‘From Mama’s bed?’ said Inga amid an accusing gasp.

Mr Hinkel’s voice tripped in his throat and he crouched to her: ‘Yes, it’s what we have to do… Come here.’ He pulled her to him and squeezed, his face briefly crumpled with emotion while Tommy wavered uncertainly.

He loosened his grip, removed his glasses, and ran the side of his palm across his eyes: ‘And while you’re in that room, sweetie, fetch a pair of pinking shears from the second drawer of the cabinet. We’ll fold it in half and cut a circle in the middle for the head to go through.’

The promise of crafting brightened Tommy and he ran inside. Then Inga, catching his mood, scuttled after him. The grandfather stayed behind, shaking his head and clucking.

The white sheet rippling over me resembled a long, ambiguous wedding dress. Flickering in the wind, it looked most picturesque. Thus I became something of a local landmark. Every hour, two to four people would approach and have their photo taken by my side.

After a couple of days, Inga ceased to bring me my bedpan. She knew from the first morning I passed neither solids nor liquids so it had always been a kind of play. Nor did she squeeze water into my mouth. However, she did still put a hand under my nose to check my breathing every morning and, when my breath was too shallow to feel, or when it was windy, she’d take my pulse, which was always perfectly regular. Every other evening, the family would take me inside where my sheet was washed, I was scrubbed, and my hair was shampooed. Only to remove dust and other debris. Neither my hair nor skin were ever oily.

After some days my sheet grew ragged and miscoloured at the edges till, one morning, the old man held up a damp, grime-darkened corner and winced. The children, gathering round, mimicked his solemnity. He drew a wallet from his back pocket and presented Inga with a roll of notes. She was to take the tram into town and purchase the most colorful, fanciest sheets she could find. She returned that evening with four: lavender with white embroidery, pink cherry ruffle edge, white with gold crowns, and a ‘Royal European’ design bordered in cyan blue.

These new colours draped over me and rippling against my shoulders and sides brought out fresh droves of reporters, sightseers, admirers, and photographers. A local tradition quickly manifested wherein groups of four or five would arrive at daybreak to report what sheet I’d be clad in that day.

Later that same week, my popularity showing no danger of abating, the Hinkels rolled a small oak beer keg from their front door and stood it on its end beside the entrance. Then they got up on plastic stools and hoisted me to this makeshift plinth, all of us flanked on one side by a platoon of photographers. I plumed with pride. I now owned six things in the world: five sheets and a keg. And in whimsical lapses I even dared dream of the return of my chair, the loss of which on the second day had been truly wrenching.

A few days later, after closing shop, I was brought inside to escape the rain. I was seated at the dinner table. After clearing the plates, Inga and Tommy returned to Grandfather Hinkel with a sheet of A3 paper. They placed it before him on the table and explained that, seeing as they had a cherub, the next step would be to have a seraph. The paper was a pencil rendering of the front of the shop. Inga explained they should remove the two hanging flowerpots from the third floor and have the seraph suspended from the two fixtures.

‘Oh my, it’ll be pricey,’ grimaced the grandfather. Then his eyes became distant. ‘But… yes, I think it would be wonderful, quite wonderful! You know, Edwin Johns, the English sculptor, has a new atelier near here. We could commission our seraph. Just the shape.’ His eyes were ablaze. ‘And I’ll let you two do the painting. And we’ll hire a crane…’  He abruptly stood up. ‘Oh, I’m excited. I could combust! My heels are afire, children! My toenails are smoldering!’

Two weeks later, a white fiberglass seraph arrived on the back of a smallish truck. Edwin Johns, in a surprise impulse of enthusiasm, had charged only half his usual fee. Three men hoisted it down and laid it before the shop across four canvas groundsheets taped to an uncobbled section of the plaza. Four wings made an X and the fifth and sixth were outspread on either side. The centre was hollow, which made sense: If I was all flesh, this entity was all spirit, as represented by its consisting entirely of wings, the small central ring holding them together being the closest it had to a body.

Mr Hinkel brought cans of house paint from his cellar and the children, before an admiring crowd, splashed and drizzled colour over the form till, finally, it resembled galactic supervolcanoes or fireworks or beds of flowers. When the colour dried they took paintbrushes and added the eyes, hundreds of eyes, over the wings. For an entire afternoon they didn’t look up from their creation and when their grandfather came out with hot dogs and drinks in flasks they scarcely acknowledged, not touching their supper till they were finished painting and the meat was cold through. Inga tended to paint doe eyes with long lashes and Tommy painted fiery, raving eyes.

Just after sunrise the next morning, a crane raised the sculpture to the third floor and a pair of delicate chains that protruded from the top wings were attached by discreet hooks to the two fixtures that had previously held up flowerpots. Then my beer keg was rolled inside and I was brought out and positioned under the seraph with one foot in front of the other like an Egyptian. My left arm gestured out at the townsfolk, like Donatello’s Aristotle, and my right pointed up at the higher angel, like Donatello’s Plato.

Photographers and journalists, more than I’d ever seen at one time, recorded the whole process and, finally, a fresh sheet of velvety white was wrapped around me to make a toga. I was the focal point of my town. I was emblematic.

And this was my apotheosis. At twilight, the sun came into line above us. I pointed up to the seraph which, in turn, seemed to gesture up into the pink and golden clouds. Groups and couples passing fell silent. Pedestrians glanced then froze mid-step across the plaza. Proud and angry faces became suddenly humble. I passed the night triumphant.

But a discomfort had awoken in me, too undirected to be more than a cloudy negative sense for the first day or so. But by the second twilight I could see with my ghost eyes that the chains, hooked to fixtures that had once held flowerpots, were straining to bear this awesome bulk. An impulse returned in me to move or, failing that, to create a noise. I chafed and stomped in the stall of my skull. I inwardly heckled the shifting by eyes and gestured at the gathering disaster. Yet the composition of my scene was such that it did not occur to anyone that any natural or social force would be permitted to disrupt it.

So I stood listening to the snore of those chains, the coy squeaks till, sometime during the quietest hour of night, the right hook broke loose and soared down to my cheekbone. My head turned and grunted. There’d been a brisk cracking noise and blood splashed my sheet and dripped to my toes as the hook settled on the cobbles. Now the burden of the angel was borne by one chain which buckled and whined as the construction swung side to side, scraping the wall, then plummeted, grazing my left shoulder as it crashed behind me.

I reached out with my right arm and crawled a few tiles from the rubble, my left shoulder numb, like thousands of wings were flapping inside. A broad mass rose from my stomach, pushed up through my throat, and blood sprayed across the pavement. I heaved again and solid crimson flowed from me, then thicker matter which caught in my neck and briefly strangled me. Finally paltry fluid superseded. My spirit moved farther and farther from me. My ghost eyes saw the runnel of dark green dripping from my buttocks and down the backs of my thighs. I saw the breath accelerating, the shoulders heaving, then the mouth screamed. All around, window lights had blinked on and people in pyjamas stood on the pavement or watched silhouetted in their yellow-lit rooms. The Hinkels stood paralysed behind me in their open doorway. Little stars appeared around my head, which grew into fires burning away all I saw, leaving behind black holes that expanded and expanded till everything had burned to black.

Then I was bodiless again, drifting through the town. A few of my memories returned. I knew I had a cause and it was a dire one. Everything else was oblique. Sometimes I meandered into the forest and stood among the wild deer. It was pleasant.

Now and then I checked in on the Hinkels. Sometimes I pretended to converse with them. Meagre play. Still, this account would be incomplete without the following scene.

It was dark beyond the windows. The Hinkels were downstairs at the dining table, sipping tea and helping themselves to slices of a gateau they’d baked that morning.

The doorbell chimed and Mr Hinkel looked up to the nearest clock. Nearly nine pm. He cautiously trotted into the front hall, pulled back the door and exclaimed: ‘Gracious me! Orfiel! Well I…’

The children leapt up and ran to the hall.

‘I know, right? Please call me by my new name, Elisa, Elisa Alabos Salvatore.’

Her eyes were dark, her lips were chapped, her skin was newly freckled, and her low-cut red top revealed the swell of the breasts she’d developed in the months of her absence.

‘Oh, that’s a lovely name… lovely. Do come in. Take a seat. Do you want to put your bag somewhere? Could I get you some tea. Or some cake – you caught us in the middle of a late supper.’

‘Please. Both.’

The children stared as their grandfather fetched a teacup from a mug tree made of bones and cut a generous slice of gateau.

She consumed both with ravenous abandon, not looking up at her hosts. Her hair had lost most of its lustre and fell thick on the left to conceal her cheek. Mr Hinkel ventured quietly: ‘So where have you been staying?’

‘At a shelter.’ She continued chewing.

‘I heard those places are very nice now.’

She stopped chewing and a shadow of disgust passed over her face, then she shovelled another forkful of cake in her mouth.

Swallowing, she said: ‘I want to apply for a job.’ She took out a torn magazine page from her pocket. ‘But I don’t have an address or next of kin.’

‘Well, if you want to use us, you’re more than welcome.  That’s what we’re here for!’

She smiled quickly – ‘Thank you!’ – then took a swig of tea.

Mr Hinkel bit his lip: ‘You don’t have… family?’

‘I did a test. They said I’m part Spanish, part Filipino.’

They waited for her to continue. Mr Hinkel overcame the silence: ‘A wonderful blend!’

Elisa gulped a throat-full of tea: ‘But, no. I don’t have any family. Not that anyone knows of.’

‘If you’re not happy at the shelter you could always move in with us.’

She shook her head: ‘I don’t want to be trouble.’

‘No, really. We have a spare room that used to belong to my dear daughter Marta. It hasn’t been used since… I’m sure it’s still very comfortable.’

‘I just need time.’ She looked at her empty plate: ‘God, I’m hungry.’

‘Could I tempt you with another slice of gateau?’

‘No. I should go before it’s too late,’ but faster than she could push back her chair, another slice was before her.

‘It’s home-made. Replenishment is howling through it!’

She fell to eating.

‘Maybe you’d like to stay for just one night and see how you like it.’

‘Yes,’ she raised her hand to cover her mouth. ‘Yes, that sounds good.’

‘Well then, I’ll let the children show you to your room later on.’

‘Thank you.’

She finished her second helping of cake and poured a second tea from the teapot.

‘So, no hard feelings?’ said Mr Hinkel quietly.

‘What?’ she blurted. ‘No, don’t worry about it. It’s all past.’

He exhaled and leaned back.

‘I mean, you could have thrown me away or done all sorts of terrible things. It could’ve been so much worse.’

He nodded, looking less relieved.

‘But it’s all past now,’ she repeated. ‘I’m actually very tired. I’ve had a very difficult week.’

Tommy donned his horned mask and led her to the stairs: ‘This is mama’s room. You can’t break anything.’

When they’d disappeared, Inga left the table and followed behind.

And me? I continue to drift; a floating eye and ear without nerves. My memories remain degraded yet my head is clear. Somewhere my body has been constructed but I have a whole planet to search for it. I heard once that when you’re lost in a forest you should stay put to increase your chance of being found. Maybe I should’ve stayed in the plaza and waited for my body to find me, over however many lifetimes. But I don’t have that kind of patience. I’m in Spain now, on my way to Cairo. Maybe I’ll come to some barrier, maybe I won’t. Then maybe I’ll double back, maybe I won’t. But I mustn’t present this as a hardship. I mustn’t grumble. I can say anything, go anywhere, scream as I please.

Richard Alured grew up in England and moved to Japan. His writing has sullied Underwood Press, The Bookends Review, and Isele.

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