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Obscurity, The Thirty-Sixth Chapter
In which things go awry at the philanthropist's wedding.
The wedding was stunning. The bride’s gown immaculate upon the alter, the bishop holding his hand over them in blessing, the open air hung with boughs of palm leaves and ferns, the stars petering in from on high. It was as a castle upon a cloud. A dream within a dream.
But if the wedding was a treat for the eyes, the feast that anteceded it was a triumph of execution. In a matter of moments pews were removed from the cathedral and tables filled it as though they had been waiting outside the cathedral for that cherished moment and then arrived at the party to provide the most elegant sustenance for it.
Each table was the perfect still life. A tableau of the most perfect oranges the eyes could behold—dewy as though picked that very morning, their leaves still attached and framing them in splendor. There were apricots from some far-off continent and plums burnt with brown sugar. Large vases were filled with confectionaries and dusted with slivered almonds.
Orange oyster shells filled with the shallow fruits of the Mississippi invited slurpers to become sea drunk on otherworldly urchins, searching among those treasures for a pearl or two to take home as a parting gift. A baked variety padded those creatures with butter and garnished them with parsley or tucked them into a bed of fromage bleu for richer dreams with far flung fantasies.
Meats were coddled with banana leaves and crab claws were heaped upon trays. Some tables held parchment braised by charcoal and flame, the contents of which enveloped its opener with a puff of warm steam to the skin and a crab-scented complexion. Stewed in shrimp and veloutéd with champagne, the contents spilled onto oily spoons, buttering unsuspecting lips with an enviable glow.
Bananas removed of their peels were doused in liquor and scorched with fire, burnt cinnamons and brown sugars and rums lending a taste to the air infusing it with a Caribbean contentedness, warmed as if by the sun and cooled with clotted creme.
Bottles of rum were infused with cacao, rosemary, and horchata, each bottle a portrait of an inward bouquet, as though an entire floral arrangement had somehow been captured inside the glass before that sugared spirit was distilled within it. The flavors were decadent and discombobulated, as though they were meant to meet on the tongue for a moment only to never meet again.
Colorful birds nestled in the tropical canopy, contented to preside over the festivities without speaking, their beaks sealed of some forsworn secret. They watched as imbibers became intoxicated with a plethora of sensory pleasures. Scent and scenery. Taste and touch. The present moment sweeter than it could ever be remembered.
Indeed, those patrons, as they danced and sang, the opulence of the wedding mingling with the tropicality of an open-air cathedral, would, the next morning, feel only a vague sense of enchantment. They would remember the palm trees that for one night had been moved indoors, and harbor lust for the coffee served with orange liqueur and scented with myrrh.
But most of all, as the evening drew to a close and their eyelids fell into the most sound slumber, their waking minds would come to remember the haunting melody that thrummed through their drifting bodies as they danced and the lingering feeling that they did not wish the magic to end.
When the rum had dwindled, the sweet sugar dripping from their lips as guests departed the dance and returned to their beds, there remained on the dance floor only the groom and his bride, swaying subtly in that empty apse.
The musicians had retired for the evening, their last song left unplayed, and a ruin of wildflowers lay strewn about the floor, remnants of a fairytale now undone—a night of decadence devolved to degeneracy, a reverie now a requiem. And beneath the last sliver of the disappearing moon the couple danced, their fingers idling against one another as they were held together by their most solemn vows.
The philanthropist clung to his bride; his breath warm with rum as he murmured intoxicated nothings into her neck. He held her by the waist, the tulle bunching beneath his sweaty fingers as though he had at last captured a cloud and held it within his hand. Her lips sang a soft song, hardly heard beneath the silence as they swayed under the last of the evening’s stars.
The groom’s fingers drifted delicately at her neckline, his hands caressing the jewels at her neck with an overdone delicacy. The silence was pierced only by the sound of her dress swishing slowly against the floor as they danced and the haunting melody that fell haltingly from her lips—the evening settling among them like a fog and the two of them completely alone.
The bride felt that at any moment, the evening might collapse upon itself, like a souffle pulled too quickly from the oven. She felt it in her hands as she wrapped her arms around his. The sweat that lingered at the nape of her neck. The nerves that shook her softly as her eyelashes tremored against his cheeks. Their dancing was slow and lingering, rife with anticipation and wanting.
And then, she drew her lips to his, kissing him slowly, so that her husband might taste the nectar of her lips.
Unwilling to prolong her games any further, the groom broke the necklace at her neck and the diamonds went crashing to the floor, scattering across the ballroom in a sparkling cascade of brilliance. The groom was not distracted from his greed, frenzied as he was to unwrap his bride from her gown. Lifting the chiffon skirts from her legs he loosened his belt and dropped his pants, throwing his wife onto the table as he prepared to take his pleasure at last.
At first, he did not notice the tang in the air, the coppery relish that hung from his lips and occasioned his mouth to salivate. but then, just as he was about to take possession of his wife, his eyes were opened to her treachery, and he fell to the floor.
His lips sputtered, his eyes boldened. His heart fluttered and his stomach turned. He beheld his bride with a shock that reverberated through his body. Was she his murderer, he wondered as his cognitive function faded, her lips drenched with the poison of the kings?
His eyes lost sight of the life he had built for himself, his mind recognizing that it would all be for nothing if he died. No title would come where he went. No riches would be shored up for him in his coffin. He feared with an ever-increasing anxiety that this moment was his last, that he would no longer be of any importance, that he was only seconds away from falling into obscurity. He mourned that he would not know what would become of his name. That he would be lost to life at last. A person no longer in existence, like everyone who had died before him. Lost to the decades that would come after them, with not even a memory to sustain their legacy.
His lips trembled. He wept that he would exist no more, that all his accomplishments would be for naught. That he would only ever be the boy in the puddle, the one whose life a priest once stole. Was there a paradise before him, he wondered? Was there some purgatory that would keep him? Would he descend to the bowels of hell forever? Or simply cease to be of existence?
He did not know which frightened him more, that an afterlife might await him, or that one would not. In his mind the only thing he could fixate on, the only thought that contained any importance, was the fearsome idea that there would, at least, be nothing left of him. Even the cathedral he had built to carry his memory would be left unfinished and would bear the name of the one who completed it.
He would rot away in his most grandiose tomb, the marble losing its luster when the rains came, and none would be left to polish it or speak highly of his aims. His aims! What use were his accomplishments in the face of death? What use were his titles, his riches, his sexual conquests when they could not enter that fateful grave?! When none would mourn that industrious soul, save the insects who suckled away at his fingers and toes when he at last rotted away into the earth!!
If, by some fate, he was remembered by this generation, he would be forgotten by the next, and that horrible insufferable fate that comes to all of us would at last befall him. He would be forgotten. He would be nothing. Nothing. Nothing. From nothing he had come and to nothing he would return. He may as well have died an urchin in the street, that faraway day in Spain, for there was no point of it all.
How he trembled then! How he despaired! Even those accomplishments that had once enticed him now haunted him. For even if he had achieved all the fame and the fortune and the glory that he intended to one day be his, his death would occasion the end of it all—the complete and utter loss of all he had worked for. Whatever small sliver of respect he had achieved during his lifetime would dissolve with time and his life would become irrelevant. A wealthy dead man, after all, is quite simply a dead man.
And who was to blame for this misfortune? This gross assault on the only thing that is ever really dear, life itself! That, for a brief and altogether fantastic moment it exists at all is a terrible phenomenon. What a spectacular occurrence! what a miraculous event! And then, just as fleetingly, it is gone. That flame extinguished. The light lost as though it was never really lit at all. The forlorn soul crossing that strange and mysterious veil through which every one of us passes and not a single one of us returns.
With one last look about him, at the dinner yet uneaten, the cathedral that remained unfinished, his wife unconsummated. Ah, his wife! That desperate whore who had poisoned him at last, who held him in her arms, her delicate hands draped with his jewels, her dress of clouds cradling his head. And then with one last flicker of existence, he thought he saw the angel of death. Alas, it was only the widow who appeared at his feet, his nemesis finally come to collect her victory. Alas!
We next read The Thirty-Seventh Chapter, in which the philanthropist is ruined.
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