‘You won’t find my father, you know,’ she informed me.‘
Why not?’ I asked. My fingers were still in the snow trap of her clutch.
‘If he didn’t come back in time to prune the roses, he won’t come back at all,’ she said, and shook with such silent but vigorous laughter her tea slopped from her cup on to her dress, which was already stained with all manner of other spilled food and drink.
‘What do you think happened to him, Mary Anne?’ I asked gently for, though I knew from the records and my own intuition she was quite real, I had never before met a woman who looked so conversant with shadows as she.
‘He disintegrated of course,’ she said. ‘He resolved to his constituents – a test-tube of amino-acids, a tuft or two of hair.’
She gestured with her cup for more tea. She had not given me any answer I might have expected and, when I tried to question her further, she only giggled again and shook her head so that a twist of apple leaves fell to the floor and her hair flopped over her eyes. Then she put her cup down on the table with the excessive care of the born clumsy and ran up the dark corridor again. She must have left the door of the drawing room open, for her piano sounded louder this time, and she must have changed her music, for some irrational reason; now she played the lucid nonsense of Erik Satie. With a sigh, the housekeeper gathered up the cups.
‘A screw loose,’ she said. ‘A piece missing.’
Soon she took me to a bed with a patchwork quilt in a simple but pleasant room at the back of the house. It was a soft, warm night and the girl at her piano picked out an angular fretwork of audible lace on the surface of my first sleep. I think I woke because the music stopped. Perhaps her candles had burned out.
Now the moon had fully risen and shone straight into my room through the screen of ivy and roses so that dappled shadows fell with scrupulous distinction on the bed, the walls and the floor. Inside looked like the negative of a photograph of outside and the moon had already taken a black and white picture of the garden. I woke instantly and completely, with no residue of sleep in my mind, as though this was the proper time for me to wake although it could only have been a little past midnight. I was too wakeful to stay in my bed and got restlessly up to look out of the window. The grounds were far more extensive than I had at first thought and those behind the house were even further on the way to wilderness than those through which I had passed. The moon shone so brightly there was not a single dark corner and I could see the dried-up bed of a large pond or small lake which was now an oval of flat-petalled lilies while the roses had entirely engulfed in their embrace a marble Undine who reclined on her side in a touching attitude of provincial gracefulness. Delineated with the precision of a woodcut in the moonlight, a family of young foxes rolled and tumbled with one another on a clearing which had been a lawn. There was no wind. The night sighed beneath the languorous weight of its own romanticism.
I do not think she made a sound to startle me but all at once I grew conscious of a presence in the room and cold sweat pricked the back of my neck. Slowly I turned from the window. She lived on the crepuscular threshold of life and so I remember her as if standing, always, hesitantly in a doorway like an unbidden guest uncertain of her welcome. Her eyes were open but blind and she held a rose in her outstretched fingers. She had taken off her plain, black dress and wore a white calico nightgown such as convent schoolgirls wear. As I went towards her, so she came to me and I took the rose because she seemed to offer it to me. A thorn under the leaves pierced my thumb and I felt the red rose throb like a heart and saw it emit a single drop of blood as if like a sin-eater it had taken on the pain of the wound for me. She wound her insubstantial arms around me and put her mouth on mine. Her kiss was like a draught of cold water and yet immediately excited my desire for it was full of an anguished yearning.
I led her to the bed and, in the variegated shadows, penetrated her sighing flesh, which was as chill as that of a mermaid or of the marmoreal water-maiden in her own garden. I was aware of a curiously attenuated response, as if she were feeling my caresses through a veil, and you must realize that all this time I was perfectly well aware she was asleep, for, apart from the evidence of my senses, I remembered how the peep-show proprietor had talked of a beautiful somnambulist. Yet, if she was asleep, she was dreaming of passion and afterwards I slept without dreaming for I had experienced a dream in actuality. When I woke in the commonplace morning, nothing was left of her in the bed but some dead leaves and there was no sign she had been in the room except for a withered rose in the middle of the floor.
Mary Anne did not appear at breakfast though the housekeeper supplied me so amply with eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes, coffee and fruit that I guessed, for whatever reasons, she was well satisfied with her house guest. In the bright light of morning, the old woman’s plump, lugubrious face looked indefinably sinister, even malign. She pressed me to return to the Mayor’s house for supper and at last, to quiet her, I agreed to do so and gave seven o’clock as the probable hour of my return, although I did not know if I would still be in the town at that time. When I went to my room to collect my briefcase, I passed an open door and, glancing inside, saw my nocturnal visitant sitting in front of a dressing-table mirror in an untidy room full of scores. She was still in her austere night-shift as she gave her tangled hair its (probably) single combing of the day.
She smiled at me remotely in the mirror and I knew she was awake.
‘Good morning, Desiderio,’ she said. ‘I hope you had a good night’s sleep.’
I was bewildered.
‘Yes,’ I stammered. ‘Oh, yes.’
‘Though occasionally people are frightened by the nightingales, because they make such a noise, sometimes.’
‘Mary Anne, did you dream last night?’
Her comb caught in a knot and she tugged it impatiently.
‘I dreamed about a love suicide,’ she said. ‘But then, I always do. Don’t you think it would be very beautiful to die for love?’
It is always disquieting to talk with a person in a mirror. Besides, the mirror was contraband. Her voice was high and clear and, though she always talked softly, very sweetly piercing, like the sight of the moon in winter.
‘I’m not at all sure it would be beautiful to die for anything,’ I said.
‘One only resolves to one’s constituents,’ she said with a trace of precocious pedantry. I stepped into the room, leaving a crude trail of heavy footprints on her white carpet, and, lifting her hair, I bent to kiss the nape of her neck. As I did so, I saw my own reflection for the first time since the beginning of the war. I saw that I had aged a little and was now as cynical as a satyr in a Renaissance painting. My face, poor mother, had all the inscrutability of the Indian. I greeted myself like a friend. Mary Anne allowed me to kiss her but I do not think she noticed it.
‘What will you do today, Mary Anne?’
‘Today, I shall play the piano, of course. Unless I think of something better to do, that is.’
And I do not know if, for a moment, I saw another person glance briefly out of her eyes for I was not looking at her in the mirror, only myself.
Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, 1972.