Where new writing finds its voice


Harry Greenberg


A Meditation On

Consider Bluebeard. All those wives he had stashed away in an upper room. Strung up, turning this way (on their ropes) and that, as the laws of physics decree.

Looks as if he suffered from a bad case of repetition compulsion. Couldn’t stop marrying, you see, always hoping for a relief from his phantasy: that he would never find a woman who would trust him sufficiently not to sneak a peep. Women are like that. Always opening doors and drawers, cupboards and reticules. Restive until all crannies have been excavated. (Probably comes from them having been born with a purse between their legs instead of a … he surmised.)

Funny he should have stored them upstairs. What was wrong with the cellar? Or the garden, for that matter. Still, he probably wanted a gallery. Some are content with a photo or two, a picture if she’s someone special. He wanted the real thing. Did he preserve them in some way? Like those in the catacombs in Palermo. Where you have them arranged in professions: Judges, Doctors, Engineers, Children. Wives? All dried out; exsiccated, brittle as preserved flowers, undusted, neglected wax simulacra in a deserted museum. 

The search for the ideal leads ineluctably to the ROOM of what has to be discarded on the way. In every head there is a ROOM filled with disappointments: failed lovers, abstractions fallen into disrepute, ideals that have turned their backs to us and affluated in our face. 

And what about the serial murder of the internalised highly active but repressed phantasy-imago mother: still desired but trailing fears of engulfment? Or to be attacked by the FATHER should he (still be around) be downwind of whatever it is.

But why does he keep them in that room? Well, why not? Where is it written you have to dispose of them in any other way? Private art gallery. Lesser men dismember the femme fatale in their dreams. But what then? Memory is deceptive. Whereas an art gallery up in a locked room … now there’s something. Steal away and spend a little time there any time you want. Nothing to do on a rainy day? No Neighbours; cook and parlour maid away for the weekend. Can’t settle in the library? Up you go.

Perhaps he wants to be caught? They say there’s always a sliver or two of guilt these guys can’t prise from the teeth of conscience. It worries them, infuriates them, all that tongue-work, sucking and fingernail prying. It won’t come out; it retreats further back. Decay sets in. Halitosis: both real and symbolic.

These guys long to be found out, long for punishment, as teenagers long for intercourse. And that’s saying something. But it’s as if someone else has to do it for them. They cannot, will not, assume responsibility, turn up at the nearest precinct, stretch their wrists across the counter and say: ‘Hey guys, snap the cuffs. I just finished off my seventh wife. She’s up in the ROOM with the six other missing persons. Here’s the address. And take my keys. No point in knocking the door down.’

But when did you hear of such a one; a volunteer? Someone who might take into account the expense of the investigation: all that sleuthing, looking at hair and blood cells through microscopes, comparing fingerprints, detectives’ wives tossing in their beds at 3:24 am, wondering where their husbands might be. Nothing of all this seems to perturb their serial insouciance.

It is as if they are programmed to be discovered, will engineer this, and be relieved when the wrists are cuffed and they are led away. But refuse to help the forces of law and order, will not lift a little finger, remain somnolent all day until evening when they are jerked from their torpor by some remote synaptical flurry and they’re off again.

While all the time, deep down, they long for discovery as Columbus’s not-so-merry men longed for a glimpse of dusky inner thigh. Or failing that, the outer would suffice.

And not only discovery, but reportage. Photographs. Identity-kit constructions. Interviews with those who knew him well, or not at all. Someone who might have become a wife but is alive to tell the tale:

When I think of what my fate might have been my blood freezes over. But meanwhile step this way and I’ll tell you a tale or two of how when he … and where he …  and what I can’t recall I’ll invent … 

And now paparazzi are pressing their lenses to the darkened windows of a car supposed to be conveying his crouching or defiantly poised body. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest wife disposer of them all? Any old tosser can cut a wife up and dispose of her parts in black plastic bags. Trip to the canal, bit of fishing. Toss the odd foot or femur in when the towpath’s clear. Those are pearls that were her toes. Heh, heh-heh.

But to keep them all together in a room and tell each new nuptial lady of its existence and you know she’ll be unable to resist, so curious they are, always peeping into draws, parting curtains, lifting veils. What is it with them, most of them anyway? Is it that they are nurtured by their own kind to be objects of desire and are so in pursuit of this ideal that they whittle themselves away, but remain in quest of a self they could have had; if only …

And now the quest becomes curiosity. Am I better than the one before? Will I be as good as the one to follow? What’s in this draw, behind that door, beneath this covering? No good telling them it’s a winding-sheet. They’ll only laugh. Best thing you can do is put them out of their misery and store them in a locked room where they can hang on ropes turning this way and that, eyes sticking out like they had a bad case of exothalmic goitre; tongues gathering dust.

A place not even the mice come to scurry in. Nor the shiny black beetle making his or her slow way across the bare coagulated floorboards.

But there it is. He has to keep on searching for the one who will no longer be a slave to curiosity, which is after all not all it’s supposed to be. The cat was not the only victim. Not what might be called a searching for truth, or the real (whatever that is).     

Some day my princess will come. I’ll marry her and leave the morning after the wedding night on urgent business, and come back unexpectedly and creep back into the house via the coal cellar, on up the servants’ stairs and passing the drawing room on my way up to the ROOM and there she is. Has she been to the ROOM? Was she thinking of going to the ROOM? Was she up there on the landing, peeping curiously through the keyhole, which affords an innocuous trompe l’oeil view of the Vistula at night? Did she pace backwards and forwards chewing the inside of her left cheek unable to decide whether or not to disobey me? 

And how would I ever know? Despite my attempts to guard against entry: the infrared magnetic resonance, laser beams, pressure pads. How would I know she has not circumvented all of these? One or two may have failed, making her task easier! And what if … there’s the rub, indeed … what if he who installed all these impediments to prurient curiosity has divulged them to a thief, or that a thief has stolen the plans supposing that where such elaborate precautions are taken it is to protect some fabulous wealth?

She looks up, only a little startled from her books, says: ‘You are back unexpectedly, and look at the state of you. Where have you been?’ Rises and comes towards me taking a handkerchief, adding saliva and applying it to my face and hands, scolding the while: ‘Just look at you; where have you been!’

Why do they always have to talk in italics? I excuse myself for a moment and rush up the stairs and along the corridor to the ROOM. I peer through the keyhole. The Vistula is still there. The sensors, lasers, magnetic resonance, pressure pads are all in working order. How do I know? Don’t ask.

I return, almost convinced that she and she alone is the one I have waited for. She and she alone will lift the curse of the repetition compulsion from me. Where did I read that the compulsion, a perverse repetition, is an attempt to understand in the only way some of us are able to understand? To keep nagging away at a problem until a solution is vouchsafed. Or is it the problem nagging away at us?

And so to bed, where I lie in her arms and then she in mine. And then I lie on her and later she on me in our beautiful bedroom. Which is directly below the ROOM itself, as I am often reminded as I lie on my back as she rides the horse of ecstasy upon me. 

It may well be she is the one; that I shall finally be able to clear the ROOM of the past; dismantle the sensor pads, the magnetic resonance equipment, the laser beams, the infrared, and tear the Vistula from its stand. I might even give my previous wives a decent burial. I would have to disguise the whole affair, of course. I might, for instance, announce that I was renewing my vows and invite all the families of my previous brides. In the great hall, where we could dance the day away, they would also innocently be paying homage to those I had been forced to despatch before their time.

Yes, I shall discuss the project with my new bride tomorrow. Meanwhile, I must believe she is the one. That finally I am to be released from my torment. The only other torment that remains to me is this: how can I or you be sure she is the one? And not an imposter? Perhaps an agent of some kind sent by the authorities to extract that final sliver of evidence that will be my downfall.

Only time will tell. I shall go ahead with the preparations and leave the dismantling of the ROOM until last. In this world you can never tell. Nor in the next one, if there is a next one, probably.