The Lady of the Lambs

by Diana Pollin


...really absolutely nothing to worry about

Oh the blooming merriness of mornings! Breakfestivities abound. Spoons spooling amber honey. Lazy jams coaxed toastward. The sun of April, like the milk-post-dust man in and out. The untouched wallflower of the table, The Geneva Messenger at the base of the teapot, forsaken. Breakfast fancies no column more solemn than the born, wed and dead. Retreat into your fold, Messenger. Time enough for the real world to creep in. Let the April sunlight flit and frolic a moment or two. Can’t this moment last forever? You know the answer.

Ah! But the sunlight of his twentieth year. Flitted here and there... from teapot to tray to toast. Here a warm sun kiss — then ploof! a cloud and shadows on the window shades. Nothing serious. The morning star returned to dispel the darkness. And a stern old man, Father, but with a glint of gaiety in his eyes, (this time) forsaking the Messenger to call in his son. “I have decided to grant your request for a horse, my son.”

Stern Father, turning the Meissen china cup, plop’splashed another sugar cube. Tiny tea eddies. Oh yes, forget not the edifying Father sermon on responsibility. “Now that you have a horse, my son...” But the sermon lay like the Messenger at the base of the teapot. It dissolved like anger in a twinkling of an eye. Couldn’t this moment last forever? You knew the answer.

Oh la Vierge aux agneaux! When will he get news from Paris? Shade of Father! Intercede with the Almighty. With the tempter. With whomever-whatever you like. But make mine that tableau. It couldn’t be more difficult than a horse!

What are you saying, Emma? No more sugar, Emma dear, just pass the paper. Might as well have a... Damn that evil German clown. When will all his nonsense be finished and is more toast in the making? Is this all the mail?

Ring for Sonia. The toast, my dear, was perfect like that mulberry jam. Thank you, dear Sonia, a marvel, really. We’d be quite lost without you. And has the postman come? Ah! A letter from Kirsten. Our Kirsten in Berlin. Nothing really to worry about. Never mind the fly caught in the jam. And the Vierge in that miserable gallery in Paris. Not yet mine.

Fling aside the Messenger, the dogs that yelp, the sheep that bleat; the wolves at the... Quick! A letter that Our Daughter, the Berlin lady, took pains to pen. Share a shoulder, dear husband, She’s my daughter too. Our only child.

“Despite enormous difficulties, dearest Papa and Mama, Nathan is able to keep the bank afloat and our depositors happy. Please forgive the tedious intrusion of economic news, but these are distressing times and poverty is still all around us. Let us hope for a bit of political stability which will drown out the noises of the National Socialists.

Dearest parents, we are safe and will continue to be so in the land of Goethe and Bach. A wife — dearest Mama has always told me — must stand by her husband, and her first duty is the home; and now that you have a grandson, it is ever more so. Aside from that, the concert season has started in Berlin...”

“Emma, meine Liebe, have you ever suggested that Kirsten and Nathan move from Berlin to, let us say, Switzerland?”

“Leo, mon chéri, not seriously. I was merely lying to discover the truth. Our turtle doves still find Berlin quite bearable. As you can see. There is absolutely nothing to worry about. But what is that gilt-edged fine velum and gold-lettered visiting card?”

Monsieur Berman,

Please receive my sincerest respect and warmest greetings. I shall take the liberty of interrupting your late afternoon activities to present you with a delayed gift from your humble servant. Please remember me to Madame, to whom I am greatly obliged.

Gregorio Malocchio.

“Gregorio Malocchio? Ah! The friend of the cousin or the cousin of a friend. Or something like that. The tall, handsome black-eyed gentleman who was present at Her Wedding two years ago. Handsome in the absolute, but I found something repellent in his dark sultriness. Wondered if he might have been a suitor. Well, if he finally delivers a belated wedding gift for Kirsten, fine and good. But I hope it will go no further.”

A murderous slurp drains the dregs of Leo’s teacup. Damn Malocchio and his predictably cheesy cadeau! Damn the Parisians and their this-sing and that-ing over a few francs. And damn himself for being so mad over the Madonna. But who’s ringing at the door? Sonia dear, is it really a telegram?

Mr. Berman VAA purchased at price u asked delivery today at 10 am. (The Gallery).

Thank you... Oh munificent universe! Thank you peeping sunlight of my twentieth now my fiftieth year. Thank you stern Father of the horse! My request is granted. The prize is mine! Really absolutely nothing to worry about. If only this moment could last forever!

Lord of the Lady of the Lambs

A prayer for its saf’unbroken arrival. Delivery at the door, pen out, papers signed, Leo, Emma, Sonia the cook and Hans the caretaker around the tissue-swathed Lady laid out on the For Very Important Guests dining room table. Five thick layers flower-petalled away reveal The Madonna of the Lambs haloed against the dark wood.

Demure the Lady, and playful the elderly-faced Christ child pulling her hair. (Or so it seems.) The Moorish shepherds by their sheep are kneeling. Downcast eyes. Humbled faces. Who is being led to slaughter? No, no. We discussed it in Paris, Emma. It is a painting of Lov van Dope. Darkness like the shadow on the shades stays not in this house. It goes in its alcove above My Fireplace in My Study. As we have agreed.

Leo in his den spends the morning conversing with the shadows. Stern Father there, a smile on his face — ’twas not often — and the gaylitt’l glint still in his eyes but his whites are spotted flinty grey like the cinder speckled monster mouth of the fireplace. Banish those visions. The shadows on the shades vanish. They always did and do. The Madonna commands the alcove. Nothing really to... Damn, it’s past one and he’s not even dressed.

But the inebriety of possessing has possessed him. Nothing or no one the day throws his way means more than a pfennig. It matters little what he puts on his back. It matters little that Emma has called him to lunch. It matters even less that Emma has come chitchatting into His Study. In one ear and out the other, her banter a banal distraction he could do without although he loves her. But not today. His Lady is laid in a niche. His spirit, wholly and highly triumphant, sparrow hawks the Lady of the Lambs. His alone.

Giddiness has kicked the clock ahead and the day is darkening. Sonia announces Malocchio, who has come at an opportune moment. The day-long self-celebrations are wearing thin. The treasure in the alcove is becoming a sort of habituée. Laud her charm to the visitor before she becomes just decorative. But Malocchio cuts him short.

“I am indeed most most pleased to have you with us again. A friend of Nathan is always welcome.” The tail ends of the day’s dreaminess meander towards audacious mendacity. Even his handshake is a bit too emphatic. But, it goes over his visitor’s head. He has come to discuss, of all things, politics!

“I won’t beat about the bush, Herr Berman.” (He is Luciferically handsome. An undoubtedly redoubtable demon. The shade of stern Father recedes into the fireplace. This time, my boy, you will have to do it alone.)

“You may call me Signor.”

“Very well. Signor Berman. You know what is happening to your daughter’s...”

“Oh that, Signor Malocchio. That. Please. I shall allay your fears. She is quite well and most happy. Civilisation, my dear man, has a way of being civilised. You know she cannot leave her husband and son. The family goes back two hundred years. Solid as rock. Your fears are groundless. And no one can foretell the future, which apparently belongs to God. In whom I do not believe.”

But, the demon, fallen from the Social Graces, paid no heed. He spewed forth accounts of fire and bloodshed “unimaginable” to those “sitting prettily in Swiss salons.” (His provocative description.) Tales so horrifying that stern Father egressed from the recesses. The demon spoke, but could he get the message across?

“Forgive me for being tedious with the intrusion of politics in my otherwise social visit but you will see that it is tied up with the gift I beg you so humbly to accept.”

“My dear Malocchio, I might point out it is your wedding gift to Kirsten and Nathan. Not to me.”

“No, Signor Berman. It is very specifically a gift to you.”

Out of a black folder comes a portrait of his Daughter. A coarse, overdone, maudlin, vulgar, roguishly rouged, preposterously posed “unlikeness” of his child. Of course, seated on a horse. A red curtain as a backdrop. Leo’s jaw dropped. Was it a joke? What should he think? Only the Social Graces stifled his scream.

“My gift comes with a price tag, of sorts,” the demon added. “As you refused to take steps to bring your daughter from Germany, which was what I expected, please accept the portrait I painted of her, which will insure her safety but on the condition that I install it.”

“I cannot begrudge you that.” Install and get you gone. You’re overstaying your welcome. But, what was in stern Father’s eyes? A perplexing shadow? Listen to a mountebank with his magic portraits? Father dear, if you were not dead, I’d think you’d become senile!

But what are you doing, dark-gifting demon? Removing the Lady of the Lambs from her niche? How dare you! Your miserable scribbled-and-daubed-bauble in place of the 15th-century French Masterpiece! What pretension! Only my extreme impatience to see you out the door stops me from speaking.

And it is Malocchio who speaks. “I cannot understand the symbolism of lambs. Noisome, noisy and stupid animals. A beauty, now, in place of the bleaters.” Pleased with his jeu de mots, the scoundrel asks for his hat and leaves.

Poor Madonna sofa-lain. The Whore of Babylon in the alcove above the monster pit of a fireplace. But what is that hesitation in stern Père’s eyes? There is no question that AS SOON AS THE COAST IS CLEAR, down it will go, into the bowels of a drawer and up the Lady. And toss all bugaboos and superstitions to the winds.

How could we have realised?

The telegram sent poor Emma to bed probably for the rest of her life. Crumble crumble dear old world, one in which we wandered upstairs and downstairs and in my... Ah! Stern Father in the study. You who have accompanied me these five and a half years since that miserable devil... Not half so miserable as I. All I tried to be is rational in this world fraught with madness, and now I’m punished!

Where did they take them, my daughter, my grandson, the screaming crowds? Did they want a lecture on Bach and Kant when they threw them in the fire? Were they rational? How could we have realised, sitting here in calm Geneva, what THEY — whoever they are — were really up to? How could we have been so stupid as to think that... But it is not a matter of thinking. I did not even have the instinct of a mother cat saving her kittens from a fire. Oh no! I was up in the cool mountain air unable to feel the flames. ME!

Or, stern Father, was I dreaming when Malocchio gave me that hideousness which I hid in a drawer? The real hideousness is myself. Sitting here in calm Geneva while the rest of the world burns and singing little ditties to the Lady of the Lambs as if I did not know what was happening.

She was my pride and joy. Your eyes tell me that whatever I did would not have made a bit of difference, but at least to placate some frivolous human-eating god monster, I could have tossed the Lady of the Lambs into a fire and left the Whore of Babylon where it sat. It would have been an admission of... of... being able to contain my pride. At least that.

Night time now. The shadows on the shades remain. Just one small concession to cheap fate... The drawer where I shoved the Whore of Babylon also contains a loaded revolver. A last glance at the Lady of the Lambs. The moment will last forever.


Copyright © 2009 by Diana Pollin

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