Seraphim

Gaye Jee

he street lamps cast pools of light on the wet cobbles, illuminating the heads of the saints as they keep their stony vigils on the walls of Charles Bridge. Fog rising from the river curls its tentacles between the statues, wreathing a head for a few seconds or obscuring entire sections of the ancient walls. The Vltava flows oily and invisible thirty feet below. A bell somewhere in Hradcany strikes three.

     The sound of running footsteps batters the muffled air, and then a cry. Jakub, his bare feet filthy and bleeding, almost catches his wife's shoulder as she flees under the gothic archway of the Bridge Tower. But a chipped cobble tears the ball of his foot and he sprawls on the wet stones. By the time he heaves himself upright again, she is poised on the wall between the statues of St Joseph and St Francis Xavier. She briefly turns her face towards him, her features blurred by the fog into a pale moon partially eclipsed by black hair.

     "Witch!" he screams, "Whore! Come back here and ..."

     Just as he thinks she is about to step into the air, the drifting mist obscures her figure only to part again as he reaches the place where she stood. The wall is empty.

     Fifteen year old Katerina pulls her coat close round her thin body and slips back out of sight under the Bridge Tower. She runs home through the streets of Prague's Old Town and sits shivering in her bed.

     The next day, her grey-faced father says,

     "Your mother's gone. Gone like the cheating whore she is."

     He glances at Katerina's crushed expression and adds,

     "It's no use crying. She's gone for good this time. Off with one of her men."

     It's possible this is what's happened. He's heard nothing from his neighbours about a drowning and he could easily have imagined what he thinks he saw. Katerina says nothing. But then, she always says nothing. She hasn't spoken since she was two years old.

<  2  >

With Josefina gone, Jakub has another problem. Although her crystalline voice was untrained, his wife had earned much more than he by singing in the vestries of churches, at private parties or on the bridge, accompanied by her scratchy cassette recorder.

     When the weather is fine he earns a few crowns sketching tourists on the bridge, just as he has always done, but it is very little compared to what his wife, with her waist length black hair and wide red mouth, could make. Sometimes she would come back with more money than he could make in a week. Visiting Americans and Japanese were, she told him with her glittering smile, extremely generous.

     From her room in the attic, Katerina had often heard her mother's melodious, tinkling laugh when Jakub was away. Creeping down the creaking stairs, she had seen candlelight flickering on the windowsills in her parents' bedroom, the heavy crimson wrap sliding off her mother's shoulder, the entwined limbs. Later, finding her daughter on the bottom step, Josefina would sit next to her and pull the girl's head onto her shoulder. Katerina would watch as the man dropped bank notes on the bed side table and, his face averted, hurry down to the front door and out onto Kamzikova Street.

     "Men ... my darling, you must know how to use them, you know," her mother would say, stroking her daughter's hands and laughing gently. "What are you thinking little one, you who see so much and say nothing?"

     She would search her daughter's face with her eyes and then pull the girl to her once more.

     "You and I, darling, we have each other. That is what is important. I do what I must do to make money for us. Your father is an idiot, so I must protect you. You must remember that whatever happens, we will be always be together."

 

We will always be together.

 

<  3  >

Now Josefina is gone and her father is broken and wordless. She saw him chase her mother into the street that night. He had found her sprawled asleep across the bed, the crimson shoes with their dagger-like heels still on her feet, a lover's note and enough money for a month's rent lying on the floor among the dust. Katerina saw him strike her mother's face with the back of his hand, a scarlet crescent against the white skin.

 

Three weeks later Jakub is sitting at the wooden table in the hallway. He has enough money left to buy food for the evening meal, or to get drunk. He curses his wife and his silent daughter in her tiny room at the top of the house.

     Katerina is standing at the window which looks out over the roofs of the old town. If she leans out and looks to the left, she can see the top of the town hall tower from her window. As she waits, breath drawn in, she hears the astronomical clock striking the hour. She closes her eyes to sees the figure of Death pull the rope he holds in his right hand, while inverting the hourglass he holds in the other. Presently she feels warm dry lips against her cheek and turns to embrace her mother. Her room is empty but for her bed, a wooden chair and the closet in which she hangs her clothes. Josefina's voice curls into her mind like smoke; she is singing Gounod's Ave Maria, shivering the high notes like the topmost leaves of a silver birch.

     When all is silent in her head once more, Katerina puts her fingertips to her lips. They feel warm and slightly buzzy. When she opens her mouth, the music in her head begins again and she finds herself singing as effortlessly as sunlight pours through an open casement. Jakub raises his face from his hands and takes the steps two at a time, bursting into his daughter's room. He looks about wildly, expecting to see Josefina. But there is only Katerina standing by the window, her eyes startled, her fingertips once more trembling at her lips.

<  4  >

The next day Jakub and Katerina walk to Charles Bridge, his hand gripping her elbow. He finds a place between the stalls selling city scenes, trinket boxes and cheap silver jewellery and places the cassette player between them on the wall. The girl shivers in the sharp wind and watches the clouds scudding across the face of the pale lemon sun as it rises above the spires and bell towers of the Old Town. A few yards away, an old man in a long, shabby overcoat is setting up a glass harmonica. His face is so thin and white it seems pared to the bone, yet he grins and cracks jokes, calling out to passersby. He pours water into each wine glass, each a little more than the last until he achieves a full three octave instrument.

     "Thought by some to be the medium through which the angels can sing directly to us, and used by the great Mesmer himself to condition patients before hypnosis, I give you, ladies and gentlemen ..."

     A pause, as he drips more water from a plastic can, and runs his moistened finger round the rim of several adjoining glasses to test the pitch. Each gives up its luminous golden tone like the dying breath of a song thrush.

     "... the original of the instrument known as the seraphim, the eumelia, the claviclindre ..."

     Jakub presses the button on the cassette player. The opening bars of Dido's lament sough from the machine. He takes his daughter's arm and turns her away from the wall to face the passing tourists. For a few seconds she looks confused, clutching her coat round her thin body. Then she begins to sing, her voice trembling silver above the glass harmonica's spun gold. As her voice grows in power, the small crowd which has gathered round the harmonica, turn to find out where the new sound is coming from. The old man glares irritably at Jakub as his carefully prepared audience drift the twenty feet up the bridge to listen to the shivering girl.

<  5  >

     And as his daughter sings, Jakub sees again that night when Josefina broke away from him, the weal on her face flaming red.Whore.

     Deep down, he had always known how she got her money. But he became tired of her taunts, the way she mocked his inability to sell his real paintings for money. He'd taken his shoes off at the front door so as not to wake her - and found her lying across the bed saturated by the body of another man. He stood over her, fists clenched, his face rigid with fury and grief. As if she sensed him - or perhaps she thought her lover was still there - she opened her eyes and - she smiled. He dragged her off the bed and out into the hallway where Katerina stood unnoticed at the top of the stairs. Then she mocked him, fanning his anger until he could bear it no longer and slapped her hard across the face. Still she smiled, laughed, in his face. He twisted her arm up her back until she cried out in pain. He pressed his mouth to her ear.

     "I'm going to kill you, do you hear?"

     She stepped backwards, grinding her stiletto heel into the toes of his left foot. Gasping with pain and surprise, he released her and she fled down the stairs and through the front door of the apartment.

     He chased her through the old town and under the gateway to the bridge. She turned then and called to him,

     "I curse you, little man. I'm sick of living like an animal with you."

     He was almost close enough to grab her shoulder, but as he reached out his arm, the broken cobble pierced the flesh of his foot.

     And Josefina runs to the wall and looks down at the water. She is a strong swimmer. If she can make him believe she has drowned, she can disappear and find somewhere new for her and Katerina to live. One of her lovers will help. She must do this for Katerina. In a few days she will watch for her daughter coming out of the apartment and take her to a new home. Safe, away from the murderous Jakub. She climbs on the wall and glances towards her husband who is getting to his feet. She steps into the air and, her scarlet dress flying around her body like wings, waits for the shock of the icy water.

<  6  >

     Katerina is singing a Hungarian folk song, the penultimate song in her mother's repertoire. Jakub rattles the already heavy bag as one by one, the people, as though hypnotised by his daughter's voice, drop into it whatever notes and coins they find in their pockets. She is staring straight ahead, her eyes lifeless and unfocussed, her mouth the only animated part of her body.

     The glass harmonica player can bear it no longer. The subtle tones he can tease out of his instrument are completely overwhelmed by the silvery flood of notes issuing from Katerina's mouth. He marches along the bridge and shouts to the people,

     "Why are you listening to this silly child? Can't you hear she has the voice of a common music hall singer? My glass harmonica is far more rare. You'll not see another like it in the city!"

     A few of the crowd turn their heads, irritated at the interruption, and then turn back again, listening even more intently. The old man is furious at being ignored, his eyes blazing black and furious in his bone-white face. He pushes his way through the crowd, shouldering people aside until he reaches the front of the semicircle which has formed around the girl. She has just begun her final song. Ave, Maria, gratia plena ...

     Jakub, moving among the people at the back of the crowd, hears a disturbance, but cannot see what is happening. By the time he has worked his way to the front, the old harmonica player has gone right up to Katerina and is shouting in her face. She seems unaware of his presence. Taking this for insolence, the old man slaps her sharply on the cheek. The people in the crowd gasp, but do nothing, remaining motionless as though they have lost the ability to move. Katerina's eyes, still unfocussed, fill with tears. Her mouth stops forming the words and hangs open slackly, a thin ribbon of drool stumbling down her chin. But the singing continues. Dominus tecum; benedicta tu in mulieribus ... Enraged, the old man picks up the cassette player and throws it into the water.

<  7  >

     "See, it wasn't even her singing. It was a ..." The cassette player hits the water. And still the singing continues, rippling out of girl's gaping mouth. People begin to back away. Jakub goes over to his daughter and shakes her by the shoulders. She begins to vomit, but even her retching cannot drown out the singing which continues unabated from her lips. The harmonica player's eyes bulge almost out of his skull. He grabs Jakub by the sleeve.

     "She's a witch", he breathes. "A witch!"

     Abruptly the singing stops. Katerina turns and walks along the bridge, bumping into people and knocking over tourist stalls. Jakub follows, but is impeded by the street vendors who are trying to collect up their scattered wares. She climbs on the wall of the bridge between the statues of St Joseph and St Francis Xavier and steps out into air, the sunlight blazing a silvery corona round the black core of her descending body.

     When the river is dragged, they search for many hours before finding her among the foundations of an old building. She is entangled in the bones of a woman's decaying fish-nibbled corpse which floats upright, anchored by an ankle wedged in the masonry, scarlet dress flowing in tatters like weed in a mill race. The partially exposed bones of the mother's arms form a perfect, protective circle around her daughter's body.

 

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