Mansion of the Aching Hearts
by James Greer
What was I born for? thought Thomas, sitting at his desk, copying the last few lines of his work. What was anybody born for?
The sun had long since floated past the lid of his window, over the gray slate roof, and begun to set. He could see its rubescent face reflected in the windows from the building across the street, where for all he knew there was an exact duplicate of himself, doing the same thing, but with perhaps a better understanding of the basic questions.
Thomas absent-mindedly scratched his cheek with the tip of his pen. When he realized what he was doing, he took the index finger of his right hand and rubbed the spot where he had scratched, hoping to erase the inky blotch he was sure must be there. He did not bother to check.
Put the pen down, shuffled the papers on the desk before him. More than twenty, covered with tiny, neat handwriting on both sides. Examined the last lines he had written:
That you cannot know the terror in a word. That it will not be the worst you fear. That you bring to the last the first sign. That you choose what to disappear.
“That you choose what to disappear.” The last four lines: these were the most important, the ones Caeli had insisted he take down word-for-word, with exactly that punctuation, exactly those rhythms. Apparently the words were a magic. It was not clear what sort of a magic, nor for what purpose, when everything had become so useless. But Caeli had insisted that he not leave Paris without finishing the manuscript, which he now stacked and straightened and slipped inside a clear plastic folder with an elastic fastener. He took the folder, stacked it with other folders, similarly transparent but tinted different colors—gold, green, blue—and slipped the stack in his briefcase.
Rising from the desk he walked over the Persian carpet towards the coat rack and removed his tan raincoat.
There was a knock at the door. Soft but insistent.
Thomas looked through the peep-hole. Furrowed his brow, unfastened the lock and opened the door.
“What are you doing here?” he asked the small, stout, balding, round-faced man who stood before him.
“Sorry to bother you,” said the man, in heavily-accented French. “But we can’t let you leave.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. ”
“I’m serious.” To demonstrate his intent, the man produced a snub-nosed revolver from under his coat.
“All right, all right. Put that thing away, Charles, you look ridiculous. Do you even know how to use it?”
Thomas stood aside and gestured Charles into the room.
The Ecuadorean poet Charles Panic walked in and sat down in the chair by the window where Caeli usually sat. He looked at the gun in his hand as if suddenly seeing it for the first time. Slipped it into the pocket of his raincoat.
“No. I don’t know how to use it. But they insisted.”
“I thought you weren’t with them anymore.”
“I’m not. I mean, I wasn’t. They knew that we’re friends, and they thought I could persuade you to stay. So they forced me, in the way that I’m supposed to force you now.”
Thomas slumped down in the chair at his writing table without taking off his overcoat.
“Charles, I have to go. Caeli’s waiting for me.”
“Pater noster, qui est in caelis…”
“Will you come with me?”
Thomas scoffed. “Obviously not.”
“You should know that it’s not just me. There are five more downstairs. All armed. All much bigger than me.”
“But can any of them write, Charles? Do any have talent?”
Charles was silent for a moment.
“No. The Collective no longer believes in talent as a mark of distinction. They prize strength over subtlety. They’ve become moralists, Thomas. It’s really quite sad.”
“I told you it would turn out that way.”
“You have to belong to something.”
“The idea of community is a dangerous fiction.”
Charles took out a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his jacket and mopped his brow.
“I’m sure that’s an impressively original thought, Thomas, but we don’t have time for this.”
“You’re right. We don’t. I have to be Auvers-sur-Oise in two hours, and you have to fuck off back to the catacombs to die.”
“I told you. It’s not just me.”
“And I heard you. Good-bye, Charles.”
Thomas went to the window, opened wide the white wood panes, and fluttered down the street below. I learned more than one thing from Caeli, he thought.
He looked back up at his open window, through which Charles Panic was staring, wide-eyed, down at the street. He knew that Charles could not see him, but he was unused to invisible mode, and instinctively ducked for shelter under the awning of the Halle des Chaussures. Across the street, at the entrance to his building, Thomas noticed four or five heavy-set men in long black overcoats.
He jammed his hands in his pockets and walked down the street towards his car, murmuring to himself, careful not to attract attention. “I am the boy. Who can enjoy. Invisibility.”
Charles turned away from the window.
“I wish things were different,” said Charles. He shrugged his shoulders, and his jowls quivered.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” said Thomas. He sighed and stood up. Smoothed the folds in his tan raincoat. “Anyway, let’s go.”