Read American Ghosts & Old World Wonders Online

Authors: Angela Carter

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Short Stories

American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (8 page)

           
The Count, leaning heavily on Johnny, greets the Indian with some courtly ceremony. But Johnny barks: "Got the gun?"

           
"I got it."

           
The gun changes hands. Johnny grabs it.

           
"How much?"

           
"On account," says the Indian and grins. "On account."

           
He tips his hat. His pony, in the graveyard, grazes on a grave. The two Europeans watch him walk towards his pony, mount, ride. In the immense stillness of the night, his hoofbeats diminish.

           
Johnny inspects the Winchester repeater in his hands; it looks perfectly normal. Not used to guns, he handles it clumsily. His disappointment is obvious.

           
"What's so special about it? Could have bought one in the store."

           
"It will fire seven bullets," says the Count, impassive as any Indian. "And the seventh bullet is the one that
he
put in it, it belongs to him."

           
"But --"

           
"The seventh bullet is the devil's own. He will fire the seventh shot for you, even though you pull the trigger. But the other six can't miss their targets. Though you've never used a gun before."

           
Incredulous, Johnny takes aim, fires at a movement in the darkness. He rushes towards the scream. His target, Teresa's kitten, dead.

           
"Five left now, for your own use," says the Count. "Use them sparingly. They come at a high price."

           
Teresa wants her kitten. "Kitty! Kitty!" But the kitten doesn't come. "The dogs have eaten it," says Teresa's mother. "And hold still, Teresa, you're wriggling like an eel; how can I fit your wedding-dress. . . ?"

           
It's a store-bought wedding-dress, come on the stagecoach from Mexico City. All white lace. And a veil! In front of the clouded mirror in Teresa's bedroom, Maria pops the veil on her daughter's head; what a picture. But Teresa sulks.

           
"I don't want to get married."

           
Too bad, Teresa! Tomorrow you must and will get married.

           
I won't. I won't!

           
You won't wheedle your father out of this one, not this time.

           
Teresa, in her wedding finery, picks out a few notes of the "Wedding March" on her piano; furious, she slams the lid shut.

           
Johnny, at the piano in the whorehouse, plays a few bars of the "Wedding March"; a wedding guest, drunk, flings his glass at the mirror behind the bar, smashing it. The whores superstitiously huddle and mutter. The place is packed out with wedding guests, all notable villains. But there is too much tension to be any joy. Roxana, unsmiling, rings up the price of a replacement mirror on her cash register. The Count, morose, stoops over his drink at the bar. The wedding guests treat him with genial contempt.

 

           
Teresa creeps out of her bedroom window, steals along the street, conceals herself hastily in the shadows when an Indian on a pony comes riding down the street.

           
Her lover waits for her by the scummy pond. Take me away. Save me! He strokes her hair with the first sign of tenderness. Perhaps he
will
take her away, if she can bear to look at him after the holocaust. Perhaps. . .

           
It's very late, now. Only the Count stays up. He's gazing at the recumbent form of a wedding guest passed out on the floor, snoring. The whores have stuck a feather hat on the visitor's head, taken off his trousers, daubed his face with rouge.

           
When Johnny comes in, the Count silently pours him a drink. He looks at the boy with, almost, love -- certainly with some emotion.

           
"I could almost ask you. . ."

           
Johnny smiles, shakes his head, whistles a few bars of Chopin's "Funeral March".

           
"But then. . . be good to the little Teresa. 'The prince of darkness is a gentleman. . .' "

           
Maybe. Maybe not. But, maybe. . .

 

           
How Teresa's hair tangles in the comb! A great bustle in the Mendoza encampment; they've got a carriage for her, decked it with exuberant paper flowers. But she herself is nervous, anxious; she chews at her underlip, she lets the women dress her as if she were a doll. Her mother, oddly respectable in black, weeps copiously. Teresa, in her wedding-dress and veil, suddenly turns to her mother and hugs her convulsively. The woman returns the embrace fiercely.

 

           
Johnny kisses the photographs of his father and mother. It's time. Unhandily carrying the rifle, in his music student's black velvet jacket, elegant, deadly, mad, he goes towards the church.

           
They've put back the rococo, suffering Christ; Johnny crouches beneath him, hiding under the skirts of the altar cloth. He tests the weight of the gun in his hand, peers through the sights.

           
The Count won't go to the wedding. No, he won't! He won't get out of bed. Please, Roxana, don't you go to the wedding, either! What? Not see my little niece Teresa get married? And you should come, too, you irreligious old man. Aren't you fond of Teresa?

           
But the Count is sick this morning. He can't crawl out of bed. He coughs, stares at the ominous bloodstains on his handkerchief.

           
"I'm dying, Roxana. Don't leave me."

           
Though the bridegroom has arrived already, a huge brute, the image of Teresa's father. He takes his place before the altar. The congregation rustles. The organ plays softly.

           
Roxana, late, troubled, untidily dressed, slips in at the back of the church.

           
Teresa steps out of the flower-decorated carriage in front of the church. She's really worried, now, looking desperately around for Johnny. Her mother kisses her, again; this time, the girl doesn't respond, she's got too much on her mind. Her mother and the Mendoza women folk enter the church. Her father, a little dressed up, boots polished, offers her his arm.

           
Traditional gasps as she walks down the aisle -- isn't she lovely! Even if her eyes search round and round the church for her rescuer. Where can he be? What will he do to save me?

           
The organ rings out.

           
Teresa arrives beside her bridegroom. From beneath her veil, she gives him a swift glance of furious dislike. The priest says the first words of the wedding service.

           
Johnny flings back the altar cloth, leaps on the altar, shoots point-blank the wide-eyed, open-mouthed Mendoza.

           
Mendoza tumbles backwards down the altar steps.

           
Silence. Then, shouting. Then, gunfire. Havoc!

           
But no bullet can touch Johnny; he shoots the bridegroom as the bridegroom leaps forward to attack him; shoots three -- four -- into the crowd of Mendoza desperadoes, two men fall.

           
Teresa, in her wedding finery, stands speechless, shocked.

           
Her mother, wailing, rushes from the crowd towards her dead husband.

           
Johnny aims, shoots Maria. She drops dead on to the body of her husband.

           
Teresa at last wakes up. She rushes through the havoc in the church; she is appalled, the world has come to an end.

           
Roxana fights free of the crowd and goes running after her. The church is a melee of shots, noise, gunsmoke.

           
Outside the church, the girl and woman meet. Teresa can't speak. Roxana hugs her, grabs her hand, pulls her down the path, towards the whorehouse.

           
Johnny erupts from the church door. Now he's like a mad dog. Blazing, furious, deadly -- carrying a gun.

           
By the scummy pool, Roxana hears Johnny coming after them. She drags Teresa faster, faster -- the girl stumbles over her white lace hem, now filthy with dust and blood. Faster, faster -- he's coming, the murderer's coming, the devil himself is coming!

           
The Count's mistress and the beloved little Teresa run towards the whorehouse, where the Count gazes out of the window; run towards him, with the madman hot on their heels.

           
The Count opens the whorehouse door.

           
He's carrying the rifle that hangs on the wall of the bar.

           
Slowly, shakily, he raises it.

           
He's aiming at Johnny.

           
Teresa sees him, breaks free of Roxana's hand, dashes back towards her lover -- to try to protect him? Some reason, sufficient to her hysteria.

           
Johnny, startled, halts; so the old man's turned against him, has he? The old man's turned his own magic rifle on the young one, the acolyte!

           
He takes aim at the Count, fires the seventh bullet.

           
He's forgotten it's the seventh bullet, forgotten everything except the sudden ease with which he can kill.

           
He fires the seventh bullet and Teresa drops dead by the side of the scummy pool. Her lace train slides down into the water.

           
The Count bursts into a great fit of tears. Roxana kneels by the dead girl, uselessly speaks to her, closes her eyes gently. Crosses herself. Gives the weeping Count, slumped on the whorehouse veranda, a long, dark look.

           
The crowd spills out of the church. Johnny drops his gun, turns, runs.

 

           
Coda

           
Almost the desert. White, fantastic rocks, sand, burning sun. Johnny stole one of the Mendozas' horses; now it founders beneath him. He shades his eyes; there's a village in the distance. . .

           
But this village seems deserted. A weird, shabby figure in his music-student's black jacket, he draws water from the well, drinks. At last, a thin, ragged, filthy child emerges from the derelict house.

           
"The smallpox came. All dead, all dead."

           
Flies buzz on an unburied corpse in a murky interior. Johnny retches. He's white-faced, fevered -- you would have said, a man with the devil pursuing him.

           
At the end of the village, gazing across the acres of desert before him, a figure is propped against the wall, a figure so still, so silent as at first to seem part of the landscape. He smiles to see Johnny stumbling towards him.

           
"I was waiting for you," says the Indian who sold Johnny the gun. "We have some business to conclude."

 

 

 

 

 

The Merchant of Shadows

 

           
I killed the car. And at once provoked such sudden, resonant quiet as if, when I switched off the ignition, I myself brought into being the shimmering late afternoon hush, the ripening sun, the very Pacific that, way below, at the foot of the cliff, shattered its foamy peripheries with the sound of a thousand distant cinema organs.

           
I'd never get used to California. After three years, still the enchanted visitor. However frequently I had been disappointed, I still couldn't help it, I still tingled with expectation, still always thought that something wonderful might happen.

           
Call me the Innocent Abroad.

           
All the same, you can take the boy out of London but you can't take London out of the boy. You will find my grasp of the local lingo enthusiastic but shaky. I call gas "petrol", and so on. I don't intend to go native, I'm not here for good, I'm here upon a pilgrimage. I have hied me, like a holy palmer, from the dishevelled capital of a foggy, three-cornered island on the other side of the world where the light is only good for water-colourists to this place where, to wax metaphysical about it, Light was made Flesh.

           
I am a student of Light and Illusion. That is, of cinema. When first I clapped my eyes on that HOLLYWOODLAND sign back in the city now five hours' hard drive distant, I thought I'd glimpsed the Holy Grail.

           
And now, as if it were the most everyday thing in the world, I was on my way to meet a legend. A living legend, who roosted on this lonely cliff-top like a forlorn seabird.

           
I was parked in a gravelled lot where the rough track I'd painfully negotiated since I left the minor road that brought me from the freeway terminated. I shared the parking lot with a small, red, crap-caked Toyota truck that, some time ago, had seen better days. There was straw in the back. Funny kind of transportation for a legend. But I knew she was in there, behind the gated wall in front of me, and I needed a little time along with the ocean before the tryst began. I climbed out of the car and crept close to the edge of the precipice.

           
The ocean shushed and tittered like an audience when the lights dim before the main feature.

           
The first time I saw the Pacific, I'd had a vision of sea gods, but not the ones
I
knew, oh, no. Not even Botticelli's prime 36B cup blonde ever came in on
this
surf. My entire European mythology capsized under the crash of waves Britannia never ruled and then I knew that the denizens of these deeps are
sui generis
and belong to no mythology but their weird own. They have the strangest eyes, lenses on stalks that go flicker, flicker, and give you the truth twenty-four times a second. Their torsos luminesce in every shade of technicolor but have no depth, no substance, no dimensionality. Beings from a wholy strange pantheon. Beautiful -- but alien.

           
Aliens were somewhat on my mind, however, perhaps because I was somewhat alienated myself in LA, but also due to the obsession of my room-mate. While I researched my thesis, I was rooming back there in the city in an apartment over a New Age bookshop-cum-healthfood restaurant with a science fiction freak I'd met at a much earlier stage of studenthood during the chance intimacy of the mutual runs in Barcelona. Now he and I subsisted on brown rice courtesy of the Japanese waitress from downstairs, with whom we were both on, ahem, intimate terms, and he was always talking about aliens. He thought most of the people you met on the streets were aliens cunningly simulating human beings. He thought the Venusians were behind it.

           
He said he had tested Hiroko's reality quotient sufficiently and
she
was clear, but I guessed from his look he wasn't too sure about me. That shared diarrhoea in the Plaza Real was providing a shaky bond. I stayed out of the place as much as possible. I kept my head down at school all day and tried to manifest humanity as well as I knew how whenever I came home for a snack, a shower and, if I got the chance, one of Hiroko's courteous if curiously impersonal embraces. Now my host showed signs of getting into leather. Would it soon be time to move?

           
It must be the light that sends them crazy, that white light now refracting from the sibilant Pacific, the precious light that, when it is distilled, becomes the movies.
Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae,
the Great Art of Light and Shade as Athanias Kircher put it, he who tinkered with magic lanterns four centuries ago in the Gothic north.

           
And from that Gothic north had come the object of the quest that brought me to this luminous hill-top -- a long-dead Teutonic illusionist who'd played with light and shade as well as any. You know him as Hank Mann, that "dark genius of the screen", the director with "the occult touch", that neglected giant etc. etc. etc.

           
But stay, you may ask, how can a dead man, no matter how occult his touch, be the object of a quest?

           
Aha! In that cliff-top house he'd left the woman, part of whose legend was she was his widow.

           
He had been her ultimate husband. First (silent movies) she'd hitched up with an acrobatic cowboy and, when a pinto threw him, she'd joined a
soi-disant
Viennese tenor for a season of kitschissimo musicals during early sound. Hank Mann turned her into an icon after he rescued her off a cardboard crag where he'd come upon her, yodelling. When Mann passed on, she shut up marital shop entirely, and her screen presence acquired the frozen majesty of one appreciating, if somewhat belatedly, the joys of abstinence. She never did another on-screen love scene, either.

           
If you are a true buff, you know that he was born Heinrich von Mannheim. One or two titles in two or three catalogues survive from his early days at UFA, plus a handful of scratched, faded stills.

           
My correspondence with his relict, conducted through somebody who pp'd for her in an illegible scrawl, finally produced this invitation. I'd been half-stunned with joy. I was, you understand, writing my thesis about Mannheim. He had become my pet, my hobby, my obsession.

           
But you must understand that I was prevaricating out of pure nerves. For she was far, far more than a Hollywood widow; she was the Star of Stars, no less, the greatest of them all. . . dubbed by
Time
magazine the "Spirit of the Cinema" when, on her eightieth birthday, she graced its cover for the seventh time, with a smile like open day in a porcelain factory and a white lace mantilla on the curls that time had bleached with its inexorable peroxide. And had she not invited me, me! to call for a chat, a drink, at this ambiguous hour, martini-time, the blue hour, when you fold up the day and put it away and shake out the exciting night?

           
Only surely she was well past the expectation of exciting times. She had become what Hiroko's people call a "living national treasure". Decade after ageless decade, movie after movie, "the greatest star in heaven". That was the promo. She'd no especial magic, either. She was no Gish, nor Brooks, nor Dietrich, nor Garbo, who all share the same gift, the ability to reveal otherness. She
did
have a certain touch-me-not thing, that made her a natural for
film noir
in the Forties. Otherwise, she possessed only the extraordinary durability of her presence, as if continually incarnated afresh with the passage of time due to some occult operation of the Great Art of Light and Shade.

           
One odd thing. As Svengali, Hank Mann had achieved a posthumous success. Although it was he who had brushed her with stardust (she'd been a mere "leading player" up till then), her career only acquired that touch of the fabulous after he adjourned to the great cutting room in the sky.

           
There was a scent of jasmine blowing over the wall from an invisible garden. I deeply ingested breath. I checked out my briefcase: notebook, recorder, tapes. I checked that the recorder contained tape. I was nervous as hell. And then there was nothing for it but, briefcase in hand, to summon the guts to stride up to her gate.

           
It was an iron gate with a sheet of zinc behind the wrought squiggles so you couldn't see through and, when I reached up to ring the bell, this gate creaked open of its own accord to let me in and then swung to behind me with a disconcerting, definitive clang. So there I was.

           
A plane broke the darkening dish of sky, that sealed up again behind it. Inside the garden, it was very quiet. Nobody came to meet me.

           
A flight of rough-cut stone steps led up to a pool surrounded by clumps of sweet-smelling weeds; I recognised lavender. A tree or two dropped late summer leaves on scummy water and, when I saw that pool, I couldn't help it, I started to shiver; I'll tell you why in a minute. That untended pool, in which a pair of dark glasses with one cracked lens rested on an emerald carpet of algae, along with an empty gin bottle.

           
On the terrace, a couple of rusty, white-enamelled chairs, a lop-sided table. Then, fringed by a clump of cryptomeria, the house von Mannheim caused to be erected for his bride.

           
That house made the Bauhaus look baroque. An austere cube of pure glass, it exhibited the geometry of transparency at its most severe. Yet, just at that moment, it took all the red light of the setting sun into itself and flashed like a ruby slipper. I knew the wall of the vast glittering lounge gaped open to admit me, and only me, but I thought, well, if nobody has an objections, I'll just stick around on the terrace for a while, keep well away from that glass box that looks like nothing so much as the coffin for a classical modernist Snow White; let the lady come out to me.

           
No sound but the deep, distant bass of the sea; a gull or two; pines, hushing one another.

           
So I waited. And waited. And I found myself wondering just what it was the scent of jasmine reminded me of, in order to take my mind off what I knew damn well the swimming pool reminded me of --
Sunset Boulevard,
of course. And I knew damn well, of course I knew, that this was indeed the very pool in which my man Hank Mann succumbed back in 1940, so very long ago, when not even I nor my blessed mother, yet, was around to so much as piss upon the floor.

           
I waited until I found myself growing impatient. How does one invoke the Spirit of Cinema? Burn a little offering of popcorn and old fan magazines? Offer a libation of Jeyes' Fluid mixed with Kia Ora orange?

           
I found myself vengefully asserting that I knew one or two things about her old man that perhaps she never knew herself. For example, his grandmother's maiden name (Ernst). I knew he entered UFA and swept the cutting-room floor. I talked to the son he left behind in Germany shortly after conceiving him. Nice old buffer, early sixties, retired bank clerk, prisoner of war in Norfolk, England, 1942-6, perfect English, never so much as met his father, no bitterness. Brought up exclusively by the first Frau Mannheim, actress. He showed me a still. Kohled eyes, expressionist cheek-bones, star of Mannheim's UFA one-reeler of
The Fall of the House of Usher,
now lost. Frau von Mannheim, victim of the Dresden fire raid. Hm. Her son expressed no bitterness at that, either, and I felt ashamed until he told me she'd ended up the official mistress of a fairly nasty Nazi. Then I felt better.

           
I'd actually got to meet the second Mrs Mann, now a retired office cleaner and full-time lush in downtown LA. Once a starlet; lack of exposure terminated her career. Once a call girl. Age terminated her career. The years had dealt hardly with her. Vaguely, she recalled him, a man she once married. She'd had a hangover, he moved into her apartment. She'd still had a hangover. Then he moved out.
God,
she'd had a hangover. They divorced and she married somebody else, whose name escaped her. She accepted ten bucks off me with the negligent grace of habitual custom. I couldn't think why he'd married her and she couldn't remember.

           
Anyway, after I'd donated ten bucks and packed up my tape recorder, she, as if now I'd paid she felt she owed, started to rummage around amongst the cardboard boxes -- shoe boxes, wine crates -- with which her one-room competency was mostly furnished. Things tipped and slithered everywhere, satin dancing slippers, old hats, artificial flowers; spilled face powder rose up in clouds and out of the clouds, she, wheezing with triumph, emerged with a photograph.

           
Nothing so quaint as out-of-date porn. It was an artfully posed spanking pic. I knew him at once, with his odd, soft, pale, malleable face, the blond, slicked-down hair, the moustache, in spite of the gym slip, suspenders and black silk stockings; he sprawled athwart the knee of the second Mrs Mann, who sported a long-line leather bra and splendid boots. Hand raised ready to smack his exposed botty, she turned upon the camera a toothy smile. She'd been quite pretty, in a spit-curled way. She said I could have the snap for a couple of hundred dollars but I was on a tight budget and thought it wouldn't add much to the history of film.

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