Mother was beautiful. He had known this from the moment she had birthed him – or even before, her warm placenta cocooning him into chrysalis. A delicate bubble; his handcrafted cradle. Soft sounds he would later learn made up rhythm, the essence of a strange human invention called music. Beats softer still making up the first sound he would hear alive: Mother’s voice. Hush, baby, hush, she said, like a crashing wave. He had been so enchanted that when the time came he had gone unwillingly, mouth twisted and ready to defy the cold, alien world but instead was struck dumb by Mother’s face, a creature as terrifying and three-dimensional as everything in the incomprehensibly large space he had landed in but somehow even then he had known: Mother was beautiful.
Small children thought the world revolved around them. He knew better. The world served only Mother, with her large pale eyes, strong nose and full lips that spoke little but smiled a thousand kisses, worth a thousand suns. Her fingers were long and thoughtful with large, trusting palms that grasped him firmly to lower him into the lukewarm bathwater and wash him of his pains and sins, or to tuck him in safely against the terrors of the night. She taught him truth and justice, but this he understood only that she was the truth and she was his justice. Be good, she said, and he thought, I will be good to you. Be loving, she said. Always to you.
But Mother could also be cruel. She would forget him, fling him or some leeching ghost of the past away, away from the sun. Yet even in this she was justified, for in his precociousness he learnt her bitterness came from sadness and the melancholy gaze she sometimes flittered into a distance he could not reach. Then he grew angry: love only me, he said, I am and always will be your everything. He would forgive the scars she inflicted on him, for they were signs, too, of her passionate love. Don’t you love me? He would ask in a plaintive voice. Mother? And at that single word she would be transformed from the stillness of a picture he did not know how to understand into the three-dimensional woman who unquestioningly loved him without reason or purpose. The result was the same as a question as it was as an exclamation: Mother, he would say, and she became his again.
Look at you, she would say in her good moments, my little darling. He would stare back at the tousled black hair and solemn eyes of the mirror and smile, for a moment changed into Narcissus only because he saw in himself the reflection of Mother. Then she would hoist him into the air and throw two arms around him so tightly he could not breathe. Mother, you are killing me with your love, he would wheeze, and she would laugh and let him go.
She was so beautiful he was compelled to pay tribute to her loveliness, her divinity. The musical instruments, the piano he took up playing first to please her, and then to compose for her. Still later he became filled with the want to compose her, compose Mother into a melody and play her: legato, her scent; staccato, his heart. Soft beats of her delicate organ, strong but fragile chords that brought tears to the eyes.
When her heart stopped, so did the piano’s staccato.
They tried to save him, the fools, from the darkness that blinded him. How could they presume they understood? How could a sunflower live without the sun? How would he see, how would he feel, how would he play the notes of her melody? Impossible. His eyes were dry with dust like the piano. He would play only when he joined her. But – fools! Play, they said. Play your staccato beats, for we love you too, can’t you see? We love you better. Fools, all of them, but he indulged them with the sick carnivorous appetite of the desperate and the damned. He played not notes but the hearts of women.
Look at me, he told one. She had Mother’s eyes, the pale iris flecked with a timid green drowning submissively in the pale blue of a window’s reflection. But it was not enough; when she looked she saw through him.
Kiss me, he commanded another, but the kiss was never soft or full like he remembered. He traced her painted lips with piano fingers and regretted they were not beautiful enough.
Touch me, he whispered to a third. Mother’s fingers clutched at his neck and he enjoyed her fleeting neediness. Want me, love me. I will, I do, she said, but when they made love he was fucking thin air.
No matter who or how many he dressed up they could not fit Mother’s role, although willing actors lined by the dozens. Dolls: how could he make them come alive? In despair he retreated to the piano, which he played now in frenzy, furious marcato as if playing fast enough, passionate enough would bring him to a climax where he could find her. Feel, he could not feel enough. Could not be enough. Enough. Enough!
Mother where are you where please I can’t find you Mother it’s so dark and I am afraid. Mother? Mother!
Fantastical notes weaving a spell of enchantment, her voice, staccato beats; his fingers moved so fast they seemed in a violent state of destruction. Silvery chords, flash of silver in his notes, sharp notes that hurt, his heart a-quiver – Mother?
The result was the same as a question as it was an exclamation: Mother, he said, and she was his for eternity.
The steps leading up to the shoddy apartment complex were slanted and slightly crooked, giving the impression of a rather unpleasant Machiavelli sneer. Mark said it gave the place character, but she thought character was already adequately seen in the rusted, barred windows and pink-dyed laundry strewn carelessly along star-crossed strings above her head. It was already difficult enough to convince Beni to visit the neighbourhood (or even to reassure her that she was in an OK financial situation) without her living quarters ganging up on her too.
She stomped vindictively on the cement before pressing the code and elbowing her way past the groaning gate. Her hands were already rubbed raw and aching from the ruthless plastic of the grocery bags and it was not the first or even second time that she cursed the landlord for shooting down the idea of installing a lift. It was only ten floors, he said. In the next life she would be his landlord and he could see how easy it was to climb up eight floors with shopping bags. Bastard.
She breathed, out and in, legs beginning to sympathise with her arms as the steps blurred into a never-ending spiral whirling into eternity. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. It became a maxim, a war chant that threw her a lifeline and encouraged her to take one more step. And another. She imagined grasping a dance bar, a thick rope, riding comfortably up a ski slope on one of those electronic seats. Bastard. Bastard. The word became incomprehensible, a seesaw – in, out, breathe. She concentrated mental will into it, depended on it like a crutch as if that would lift the upward strain. It didn’t, and in a rush of adrenaline-pumped frustration she threw vicious emphasis on the word that began to feel as if it defined her: bastard. Bastard. Bastard.
Why was it that Mark would not help her with the shopping bags? That was what a boyfriend did, wasn’t it? It wasn’t like he was doing anything important – only concentrating pretentiously on his silly poetry upstairs as if it would be a masterpiece, as if it would mean anything. Bastard. He had barely looked up as she’d shouted a goodbye, murmuring something that could have been anything from ‘bye’ to ‘uhhh’, but most definitely was not long enough to have been the three words she wanted to hear the most. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. She climbed faster now, desperate and gaining momentum and she could not stop. Recklessly: two steps at a time. She thought of him and suddenly she was furious: did he think her a slave? Fucker.
Then the steps suddenly gave way, yielding to her fury without warning so that she stumbled, barely catching herself as she found herself staring at the bold ten carved in the wall. She blinked, mind numb and unable to comprehend how or why she had completely missed her own apartment and somehow ended up somewhere alien. A glance around. It seemed more spacious up here because the floor opened onto a balcony, a balustrade that framed the building, which was oddly white, checkered and minimalist. She had the surrealist feeling of someone who knew they were in a dream and had stepped into a bizarre situation: inside a television screen, maybe, or through a wardrobe.
The biting wind brought her back to a cynical reality. It was not quite yet autumn but up here nature seemed to have forgotten, or been forgotten. Her long hair whipped into her face and she felt another surge of irritation. Bastard, she thought, but already she was not sure who or what such a meaningless word meant to describe. She dropped the bags and walked – floated, it seemed, after the long battle against gravity – to the edge. She placed red hands on the cold metal of the railing and peered down.
The view was neither beautiful nor depressing, exuding more a pensive thoughtfulness that must have possessed the architects who had designed the city. Grey fog permeated the air but above was cold blue sky. Downward was civilisation: imposing skyscrapers juxtaposed against tiny cars, so ridiculous she could not help but smile. Humanity was so strange, so large and yet so small. Her apartment complex was only on the tenth floor in a shady neighbourhood but everything seemed an eternity away. Insignificant. She lifted her arms into freefall and let the wind kiss her sore hands and whisk the pain away. Her palm was larger than more than half of the scenic panorama; she could crush these fragile ideas and innovations in her bare hands. Power: it was so tempting. She breathed, closed her eyes. The air was clear and so was her heart.
She would cut her hair. She would bully her landlord. She would persuade Beni. She would break up with Mark.
The steps leading up to the shoddy apartment complex were slanted and slightly crooked, giving the impression of a rather unpleasant Machiavelli sneer – and it was beautiful.
The shutter speed was slow, the light dusty so she appeared to blur ever so slightly and soften into the windowpane, with the ISO high enough to make the picture faintly grainy. She became unreal, a mere imprint on the sandy beach, an endless amelioration of increasingly tangled limbs and dark hair that seemed to beckon to him irresistibly… It had started with her lips: such delicious lips, ripe to be kissed and stolen, stolen and kissed – his heart would flutter, pound furiously as he would clatter to the bedroom floor and feel a flush of heat rise up his neck, as if she had seen him, seen through him, known him. But she was only smiling wonderingly at the untouchable sky above. Fly. Fall. He wanted her so much.
And then it was her neck he would covet; the slender, vulnerable neck framed by prominent collarbones he craved to press lightly against, to breathe on. But he could not, and so he had resorted to a more permanent solution: the photograph, which served as a visual memory of his admiration. It was his career, he reasoned. It was a habit to take photos of beautiful things around him, and she had been no exception. He had only viewed her as a beautiful thing, a potential model of his artistic imagination. He had not meant to obsessively continue to take a shot every day at seven PM in dusk as she consistently appeared at her window, silent and contemplative, an enigma, a mesmerising puzzle he could not solve. He had not meant to fall in love.
In love with her firm lips that must surely speak of truthful words, in love with her freckles, so light and briefly scattered across her cheekbone like a cluster of stars in the dark sky, gone too soon. In love with her nose, cast with a slim bridge and strong highlights in the sunlit afternoon – a bold nose, a courageous nose. In love with her large palms and slender fingers with nails bitten to the quick, piano fingers that grasped the wooden window sill with surprising strength as she peered down into the narrow street with serious grey eyes, a still storm that sometimes burst into thunderous rain. He had witnessed this, a private scream of silence as she covered her eyes and opened her mouth and said absolutely nothing – and he, the equally inaudible bystander. He had a photo of this too, among the myriads stored in his 8MB memory card. Each day tucked away, lost from sight, because he was afraid that in developing the photos, he would cross a line that he had never known existed. He teetered in limbo between obsession and fanaticism, and it was terrifying. But he could not stop.
His only role in her life was to observe, and this he took on comfortably, easily, becoming a minor and yet somehow the most significant part of his daily routine. His hands delicately supporting the familiar weight of the camera, the tool that allowed him to capture her allure, the charm that somehow oozed from her unknowingly, even more beautiful because of her unknowingness. His sharp eyes intently focused on the small window into her world: he peered through the lens with a professional objectivity and yet his trembling fingers betrayed his longing. The act of craning his neck became an art; for her he turned into a bewitched crane expressing its dance of courtship through the elaborate framework of the camera. And then the smooth, simple click that followed after a long, hushed sigh of pregnant quiet. He only ever shot her once a day, and it was enough, for she was always perfect.
He would imagine, sometimes, after she had finished her moment of contemplation and retreated to her inner sanctuary, their meeting. At first he scarcely dared wonder of it, so strange and alien did she seem, as if from another city, country, planet. He, boy-man approaching his thirties, lifelong dreamer and no romantic wordsmith, did not have the right to speak with her, of her. But in her gaze he was transformed into a love struck fool, and as the spring melted into the summer and swept into the autumn, his mind could not help taking liberties with her. It started– he couldn’t remember when, exactly – in the deep of a night that trembled with longing, heat wave after heat wave as he lay on his narrow bed. He dreamed of perfectly formed breasts and pink nipples. He imagined the ridges of her ribcage that led down to the dip of her sweet navel, soft thighs, wet – And in the anonymity of night or early morning, he would feel the need to destroy her, lift her, recreate her, thrust her into three-dimensionality from the flat plane she had existed in snapshot – fuck yes, she was so fuckable. He was so in love, so in lust. She was so loveable, so lustable, so unbearably untouchable.
But that was only at night. Daytime reigned in both his fears and his desire, carefully transported into only the technological vessel that would allow him to consume her quietly, unknowingly. He was content simply to be her witness…
Until the day she vanished.
He waited, as always, patiently beside the window at precisely seven o’clock in the afternoon. It was again late summer, the solstice already passed and the sun lower in the sky, casting a cold yellow glow on the white bricks framing her window. They were both creatures of precise habit, and thus he had never considered or expected her to change. She was as constant as the northern star, he: her worshipper. But no matter how long he waited, patiently, faithfully – she did not appear.
He removed his being from the window but continued to pace his room, somehow inexplicably distraught, more anxious than he should be over the wellbeing of a stranger. A stranger he had, equally inexplicably, fallen in love with. He clasped his head with shuddering fingers and sat on the bed. Had she discovered him, somehow? He had been so careful not to be intrusive. He knew what he was doing was strange, taboo, not the social norm… but she was such an eldritch creature in her own right that he had felt his actions acceptable, or was it an excuse? No, surely not. Surely she would not disappear from him without warning, migrated south in search of a better eternity?
He was relieved from his agonies with the doorbell. He forced a nonchalant expression on his face and clomped downstairs – and opened the door to find the cops at his door. What do you want? He said. His heart leapt, he was so afraid. Was he to be named a criminal? His crime: an addiction. Sir, they said. Sir, we only wish to ask you a few questions about the girl who lived next door. The young woman, sir. Today she shot her father, stepmother and an unidentified male living a few streets down. Today she died. Do you know anything about her, sir?
No, he said. No, I do not know anything at all. I am sorry.
He watched them leave, and when they drove off he walked back upstairs slowly. For a long while, he lay on his bed and stared at the cracked ceiling, watched a fly, thought absolutely nothing. Then he got up and, for the first time, connected the camera to the computer. 521 photos, 521 days since he had first seen her. He flicked through them. She, leaning on the windowsill. She, staring at the sky. She, sitting on her bed. She, taking off her shoes. She, watering the plant. She, brushing her hair. She, who he had born witness to for 521 days and yet knew absolutely nothing about. He wondered if he had done this sooner, if he would have seen something, a sign. He wondered if he had had the courage to speak to her instead of just taking her photo, she would not be gone.
And then he paused, shifting back to image 343. He hadn’t noticed, but it seemed almost as if she was staring straight into the photo at him. What day had this been? Why hadn’t he noticed? Was it possible she had always known of him, as he had known of her? Heartstrings, regret. Anguish.
He stared at the photos and wondered for a long time, and when he was finished his finger hovered briefly above the keyboard and hit delete.
Once there was a murderer and her witness, and inexplicably they had been in love.