by robert katz
The first they saw of us was the sunny beetle.
Its heart stopped, the carapace burst open and my mother and I stepped out of the insect’s entrails, backs straight and heads high.
I shut the door and wrenched open the trunk, slipping out my charcoal suitcase and locking up the compartment once more.
Behind the beetle’s face, my father, his eyes sunken in bemused weariness, counted paper bills to hand to the man with one hand kneading the steering wheel. In a moment, he stood alongside us.
“Now, this feels great,” he breathed with relief.
I nodded and gulped down a scoop of chilled morning air. Fresher than anything I’d ever remembered.
“Aunt Maya should be just down the path. See the big one?”
I whisked around, hair fluttering in my face. If someone was filming, they’d have loved that. You can do a lot in the editing room, but it must be wonderful when the actors give you the effects.
Down a wide cobblestone path, behind proud foliage and greenery, towered the Cadenza — a cream construction, literally swollen with generations of history. The wind blew toward it.
“The one taller than anything else for the next mile? The big-ass mansion that we could fit fifty of our house in and still have enough space for a swimming pool?”
“Oh, you found it.”
My parents were just as confident as they were when we agreed to this excursion, and I saw nature’s beauty approve of their plan. Lemon sunlight ricocheted off Dad’s hazel eyes and and went to flooding Mom’s green irises.
“It’s gorgeous, I’ll tell you that,” my father observed.
He was too right. In summer’s glow, this town was an object of nature’s soft gaze. Grass bounded in every direction for as far as eyes could show, glistening emeralds beneath our feet. Lordly pines swayed dreamily, letting the sunlight cascade through networks of spindly fingers casting clumsy shadow puppets.
And there was so much space. No steel cages or concrete boxes littering the landscape, fighting to block each other’s presence out. No such grays and “meh’s,” yet no more garish hues and “yuck’s.” No stretches of rainbow insects, scuttling to and ‘fro in incalculable hurries and at dizzying speeds. The real bugs, with fragile shells and pumping blood, lazed on branches and hovered without destination. This was the world as it might actually have been.
Stepping down the path, our exploding clops against the stones sent waves of percussion through the chipper ambience of the natural world. With our being there, we lived out parts in the grand composition of reality. Free from the hectic intricacies of the “real” world, one realizes one’s significance in everything.
As we walked, it seemed to me as though the pines had started growing old, leaves fading in color faster and faster. With each trunk we passed, their wood grew paler and less vibrant, as though they drank milk, not water, through their roots.
The grass drifted into pastel, then water color, then it seemed, just the barest hue of emerald, like a stain. The bugs were nearly outlines, buzzing in a baby blue sky.
And if you looked up at Cadenza, you’d see exactly where the world’s palette had gone.
As though diluted with magical water, the rich reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigos and violets drained into the pure canvas-like walls of Cadenza, showing in faint, alternating shades of the rainbow. In one moment, the walls shone the gold leaves of October and in another, they were the calm sea under moonlight.
The closer we drew, I saw, the stronger these colors appeared and the fainter the real world became.
Boom! Swish! Whoosh!
In organic crescendos, the walls grew more and more vibrant, until every detail of the mansion bloomed into impeccable tact. The gaping chimney echoing each peep and audible moment into the atmosphere, forever, to be trapped by ozone in the back of the world’s mind, like a whisper one hears and becomes excited to know the meaning of, but nobody else seems to have heard. The shimmering, stained windows, their frames curved exquisitely, shone back light in full beams. The balcony on the third floor, with its ornate, golden railings that ran parallel in five bars, was a unifying bow, tying the whole dreamy rainbow orchestra into one cohesive sound.
The colors popped and banged and kerpowed into a force more intimidating than fireworks, a light show powered by special effects fiercer than those of any billion-dollar Hollywood extravaganza or sold-out concert playing to millions. It blew those out of the water, and it played to just three summer-dressed, unsuspecting souls from California.
At last, fuses in our heads crackling, we stood beyond the ivory gate, whittled finely into three clefs. My father tugged at the C-clef, an ideal handle, and the gate drifted open as we soared further toward the multicolored sun.
My mind fizzled and cracked, my brain sloshed about, coated in Pop Rocks. I bit down to hold together my skull, but I felt it chip apart no matter what I tried. How had the most perfect beauty in all the world deformed so radically, how did nature’s glossy green veneer decay so unpredictably, the paint eroding like the carbon of a once-prideful sabretooth cat? It turned against me, a storm caught in a beautiful plugged vase.
We had to walk faster. Pick up the pace!
We trudged through the tunnel of light along the cobblestone bridge up to a sturdy door, a slab of rich, dark chocolate, marked down the right side with a vertical white crease.
Close by the ripple, a wooden knob of the same materials as the rest of the door, and a closely-rounded, perfect lump of wood, a neat, white, little button embedded at the surface. Its simplicity, its sheer lack of audacious splendor and explosive flamboyance, drew me toward it as a moth to a lamp or an otaku to a pillowcase.
And as my pupils contracted into optimal breadth, the tunnel vision was all in my mind — a telescope into the next two years of my life.
And through the lens, I saw a finger reach to push a neat, white, little button.
“Yes?” Dad replied.
“Where’s that canvas shopping bag?” my mother queried.
“In my suitcase.”
“Did you two finish the snacks?”
“Yeah, emptied it out.”
And through the lens, I saw a finger reach to push a neat, white, little button.
“Wait, one minute, Reed!”
The lights had long ago stopped flashing. The strobe was dead. The rave was dispersed. We should have been done. I wanted to run home. All the way back to California.
“Yes,” my mother had to respond, to my irritation.
“What do you think this is?” Aubrey gestured across the door. “Chocolate? Like, a dark chocolate?”
Reed peered down the sights of her spectacles into the warm shades of the oak slab. The cut of the door was masterful, smooth to touch. Surely it was a portal to another, greater world. I longed to slip through the white cracks, out from which peered the future back into my eyes.
And then I saw my eyes.
My mother leaned over to press the doorbell and how was it that easy? Why couldn’t I have done it that quickly?
A screech bleared through the door, tearing through the fabric of sound and scraping across our auditory canals. Given the objective, undeniable unpleasantness of the tone, it was easily identifiable as that given off by an alto saxophone.
My ears rang and throbbed like tuning forks. Were my cochleas broken? Did I have a shattered stapes? How could anyone play so goddamn loudly?
The door swung open (how did it not smack me in the head?).
Standing in the doorway was a tall man, cured and leathered with age — possibly in his late sixties. He was decked in comfortable maroon slacks and a tan shirt, collar popped. The shirt was tucked, but his wardrobe seemed calm and unpretentious, not engineered to impress the big city family that would be taking lodging with him for the next month. He stood in brown leather shoes and simple black stockings. Bungeeing off a strap around his neck, quite naturally, was a gleaming white alto saxophone. That damn saxophone.
The aged man cried in tempered surprise. “If it isn’t the Kibitzer family!”
“If it isn’t the offender, Mister Morris Byrne,” my father mused, while my mother embraced the saxophonist.
“Morris, how are you?” my mother asked, evidently regressing to youthful, girlish elation. “You’ve never played better!”
“I’ve never played worse, too,” Mr. Byrne chuckled. He exchanged a confident handshake with my father. “Aubrey, great seeing you again.”
“Always the deepest pleasure,” Dad replied.
As my head fell back to Earth, I noticed a remarkable handsomeness in Mr. Byrne’s face. Wrinkles had naturally crept along, conquering and marking territory about his striking, brown eyes and his wide grin, but what lay underneath the age was clearly quite handsome, and lent him a bit of the regality supported by Cadenza and betrayed by his raiments. In tandem, those wrinkles further emphasized the impressiveness of the man’s visage, as one knew by them that it had not been achieved by man and scalpel, but by nature and flesh.
He looked to me.
“And the little one!” he cried facetiously. At the time I was sixteen and about five foot five, five foot six. I stood taller than Mom, but she held seniority over me, so “little one” I was.
I reached my hand out and he gripped it in his and we shook.
“I believe Maya is quite thrilled for this moment,” Morris chimed. “Please,” he beckoned, “nuestro casa es su casa.”
And we followed him right in and the door swung back.
Cadenza’s foyer could have contained an entire condominium and a pool table. Carved out of the 18th century, it carried generations of additions and modifications and had likely been hollowed out to accommodate an expensive future. One could only wonder how punitive the unfurnished room had made its visitors feel.
The walls were painted a suitable royal blue, quite luxurious and likely recent. Ornately carved figurines, actual-sized, of instruments lined the sides of the foyer, each one a unique representation. Violas, basses, cellos, mandolins, and other necked creations stood in increasing height parallel to the row of trombones, sousaphones, oboes, bassoons and so on. All were solid and unplayable, but they’re still the realest fakes I’ve ever seen.
The apex of craftsmanship tied together the room’s intimidating symmetry; adorning the wall across from the door, flanked by two great staircases, was an immense portrait. Within its silver frames, the great Atlantic winds shook an emerald martini under a blueberry sky. The winds seemed to dance about the real centerpiece of the room and perhaps the entire manor. It was a baton. Thin and likely fragile, the rod towering out of the maelstrom was a pure ivory white, striking to the eye. At the tip, outreached to parting clouds, the baton was encrusted with a scarlet stone the shape of a fat crescent moon sitting on its rounded side.
“Cadenza is one hundred percent hand-crafted,” Morris said. “Each square inch of wood was given as a gift by the trees, wrapped by man. We live in neat harmony with all of nature.” He stopped by the portrait.
“‘The Atlantic Tremolo,’ by Radcliffe Feist. An eternal reminder of our lovely town’s origins. Art sparked Orion and Radcliffe’s souls like kerosene. Perhaps your own heart is so flammable. Cantabile may just be your matchbook.”
We ascended the eastern staircase into the most imposing corridor I think I will have ever stood in. Lined with alternating candles and portraits, landscapes, abstracts, the pathway extended toward the edge of the stratosphere and threatened to scrape away the ozone layer. Horror pulled at the meetings of my lips and dragged them downward. I bit its fingers and it drew away.
“It takes a special kind of person to be able to look down the barrel of a gun and feel no anxiety,” Mr. Byrne mused. “It takes an even more special person to see everything but the barrel of the gun and not wish he or she only knew that barrel.
By each picture frame a door stood, each identical to the ones beside it. It should have been fair game for a typical hallway, but there was something terrible to this passage; it had the visual appearance of continuing on forever. Behind each door was a room, but was there enough room in physical space for these chambers to exist in? How could we let this mockery of physics continue to expand and exist before our eyes? Even now, I see the burrowing of invisible miners through the universe.
“Infinity is only theoretical, as our universe only masquerades as unending. A rubber glove, a balloon, a condom; they all are marketed as elastic, but have you ever seen a condom break? Everything has a breaking point, a maximum capacity.
“So, don’t be afraid of what’s not there. If you squint really well, you’ll see that there’s an exit down there. But we’re not going to it now and I suggest you take your time getting there. Just the first door on the right.”
We took the first door on the right.
We landed in a cozy living room with a hearth and a set of inviting settees and coffee table. A vibrant woman stood embraced by winding frames above the unlit fireplace, her posture rigid and upright as though a living lamppost. Draped in a jade mantua skirt, she was the crisp sea washing up the silvery foam of her white hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her skin, only visible above her collar, was island sand within a calm ocean of cloth and encompassed the two emerald puddles that were her eyes, seemingly from the same source as the seawater. Though the sand about her sparkling eyes and wry lips crinkled and the dunes of her cheeks were shallow, a shining humor shone through. I judged her the most intelligent woman I had ever seen.
The painted lady confidently wielded a paintbrush, its tip fringed with green and pointed at her own likeness in an act of self-awareness likely too radical to be dreamt of in her time. A china cup of tea on the coffee table behind her. The fireplace burned brightly in the foreground, scratching away at the shadows about it. Fire caught in the moment is inevitably brighter than it ought to be, yet it could not burn more intensely than this woman’s ocean flared.
“Radcliffe Feist,” Morris boomed, “otherwise known as your great-great-great-great-great” — he counted on his fingers — “grandmother! She is very old. Yet, age does not steal away her trophies.”
“I’ve heard of her,” I murmured, “but I’ve never seen her.”
“If she isn’t going into the textbooks any time soon, there is no reason to photocopy her. You’ll find, here in Cantabile, that people tend to hold what they value close to themselves. It’s a sheltered community, sure, but it’s always been one. Orion and Radcliffe sought refuge from their plagued world and dug a fantastic burrow.”
A door slipped open followed by a silver tray with six china cups, a cerulean ceramic pitcher and a full, miniature glass jar. The tray hovered in the slender hands of the awesomely graceful Maya Feist, my mother’s sister. Hers was an ostentatious wit, slathered in expense and relaxed refinement. Beauty pirouetted eternally within her and flowed like warm honey through her arteries. Wavy bubblegum hair stretched to her shoulders, at once startling and comforting, while steel eyes punctuated her suntanned face. She stood in a royal purple sundress, casually haughty, and adorned in necklaces, bracelets and rings that glistened as though struck by a invisible sunshine.
“Tea time!” she chimed. “Just in time.” She set the tray down on the coffee table by the unlit hearth and we hugged. I gave my hello.
“I’m giving her a mini-tour of Cadenza,” Morris said.
“I’m impressed,” I confided. “He’s so well-trained — and his clothes are so neat.”
“Well,” Maya grinned, “maybe one day you’ll learn my secret.”
Morris cracked a half-smile.
“Let me head back and brew a pot,” Maya said as she headed back behind the kitchen door.
“She’s a showy kind of gal,” Morris noted. “If a hissing kettle gives her a timely entrance, she’ll risk the impracticality of the return trips.” He swept his arm about the seat across from him as he reclined into the gold-threaded cushion. I reciprocated.
“Oh,” I realized dreamily, “where’s mom and dad?”
He looked expectantly at me.
Hesitation, then submission. “Uh, where are mom and dad?”
“Ah. Dropping off the bags in their room.”
“Er,” I hesitated again, straining for sensitivity, “aren’t you the house servant?”
“What, like a house elf? Like some kind of hobgoblin waddling through the manor, doing everyone’s dirty laundry and dishes and being paid crumpets for my backbreaking labor? Well, by bare definition, yes. But your lovely aunt and mother were taught at a young age to remain independent of their servants. Since the slavery days, the Feists haven’t hired more than a couple servants at a time and at this point, I’m the only one they need. Of course, it’s just Maya right now with all of Cadenza to herself, but I’m sure she wouldn’t need more than myself whenever she plans to raise the next generation. At the moment, we divide the work pretty evenly. We’re about the same as your average married couple with an age gap of about forty years.”
I liked that. It sounded dignified and I was never a fan of servitude.
Silence fell in between us and we picked up Maya’s lovely humming, a tune surely defined and grandiose in her head but amorphous and cute in the summer air. A light scribbling lay underneath the melody. What? A quill scratched against the timpanis of my skull.
I looked up. Morris caught my eyes in the ascent.
“Ah, yes,” he smiled, “that’s a friend of Maya’s. Soon to be a friend of yours, I’m sure. Bring him in here, tell him tea’s on.”
I pulled back my knees and slid my forearms from the cushioning. As I strode to the source of the geyser, goosebumps rose like burgeoning springs. My heart beat on its cage and started to sweat. I hadn’t expected this. Why was I intimidated? Maya would not intimidate me nor did the tall man with the screeching sax. I had not even laid eyes on this figure and it was already everything.
I stood in the doorway to a study. The scribbling stopped. The clapping of leather and cardboard heralded incoming footsteps. I meandered hesitantly past shelves of time-bound grimoires and tombs, taking in the musty spores of generations to spread hyphae through epithelium.
The muffled thumps of our feet flew against each other and kissed briefly. The beats were thicker, wider, heavier than mine.
Indexes along the shelves turned to rainbows, volume after volume of an encyclopedia written exclusively by a Roy Geronimo Biv.
The indexes, series by series, edition by edition, faded into plain worn gray. Between the petrified skins stood an amicable male figure clad in khaki trousers and mild pastel blue button-down, his thin-rimmed eyeglasses burrowed into kempt brown hair. Drifting eyes and a lazy smile beamed lackadaisically down at me, like a man convinced he’s in a waking dream.
“Hi,” I stammered. His head bounced on its neck.
“Maya didn’t tell me she was hiring child servants.”
“Like,” he amended with slight haste, “like you’re calling me in for tea.” His left eyebrow intentionally drooped.
“Oh, yeah,” I said with a look of shabby, amused disapproval. I mean, I hope it looked like that.
“But you’re the kid staying over for the summer?”
“Yeah, for the next month.”
“Chill,” the young man decided. He looked younger than 30. Was he still in college? “Hey,” he remembered, putting out a dry hand and further stretching the corners of his mouth, “I’m Callum.”
“Sweet,” I smiled back. “I’m Mabel.”