Anastasia had always struggled to remove the spirit of the Arctic fox from her womb. Once she had even starved herself for two whole weeks. Surely that would compel the vile creature to leave. No such luck. Even worse, her deteriorating condition only served to alarm her mother who promptly hired a team of nurses trained to force-feed excitable children.
The years rolled by, and then shortly after Anastasia’s nineteenth birthday, Mother breathed her last. For the very first time in her life, Anastasia found herself free to attempt the one last course of action that might result in her deliverance. She would leave England, sail to the wilderness of Sinai, and consult Lilith. Without question, the primordial witch would command the power to destroy the malevolent fox spirit. Afterward perhaps Anastasia could serve Lilith for a time in her ancient mirror works. What better recompense?
Following Mother’s funeral, Anastasia sailed for Rosetta. From there a guide took her south across the desert and then helped her traverse the towering sand dunes which concealed the quiet village and hemmed it in up against the Red-Sea shore.
3 September, 1917: Just after midnight, Anastasia checked into the hostelry.
In the morning, she departed the village and walked off down the long dusty road to Lilith’s garden. Twenty minutes later, as soon as Anastasia reached the garden gate, she paused to breathe in the strange fragrance of the wildflowers.
They emitted an odor as of spoiled rose-water lemonade.
Deep within her womb, the fox spirit kicked several times. (What an awful stench! Turn back, turn back, turn back!)
As if his protestations were not enough, by now her temples throbbed due to the fact that the harsh glare made her squint so much. She turned to look back toward the village, wondering why she had not purchased one of the paper parasols on sale in the marketplace.
Three more times, the fox spirit kicked. Then he twitched his downy tail so that the inside of her belly prickled.
Turning back to the garden, she rubbed her belly. (Stop!) When he finally did, she opened the gate. Then she continued forward as far as the shade of a fig tree where a woman lay asleep in a rocking chair.
What a beauty. She had swept her long silvery-black hair back from her brow, and her olive skin shone as sensually as that of an Oriental Jewess. Best of all, her Roman nose stood out a touch too boldly—as if the Creator just knew how much the peculiarity would become her.
Oh yes, what a beauty. Anastasia almost laughed. All the way here, she never once imagined how natural a woman of so many thousands of years might appear.
Lilith opened her green tapered eyes, and she pointed to the ceramic dish resting upon the finely-wrought Moroccan tea table standing to the side. “Are you hungry?” she asked, offering Anastasia a date.
A fig leaf drifted down into Anastasia’s fringe, but she barely even noticed. Sighing, she took the date into her hand and held it as if it must be something deadly.
Once or twice, Lilith rocked back and forth. “Taste it, why don’t you?”
As her temples continued to throb, Anastasia placed the offering upon her tongue. Biting into the fruit, she found that it tasted sour—as if streaked with something terribly unpleasant. Spoiled rose-water lemonade. Worst of all, when she spat everything out into the palm of her right hand, the date stone’s distinctive eggshell shape served to recall the big ovoid pills which all the physicians back in London once prescribed Mother. Rest her soul.
Lilith grabbed the partially-consumed fruit and dropped it in the weeds. “You’ve come to ask something of me, have you?”
“Yes, I’ve come to strike a bargain. I’ve got a wicked fox spirit inside me, and if you’d be good enough to remove it, I’m quite sure I could make it worth your while. Years ago, long before my mother’s illness forced us to leave Russia and all, she worked full-time for the House-of-Fabergé mirror works. And all throughout these last few trying years in England, before Mother finally succumbed, she taught me just about everything she knew. Honest.”
The sea breeze growing dry, Lilith stood up and guided Anastasia through the nearby thicket and into a glade. There Lilith pointed to a tin-bronze mirror trussed up against a solitary white heath tree. What a fine mirror too: It stood as tall as a doorway but had a shape just like an elongated teardrop.
Drawing closer, Anastasia ignored her faint reflection and breathed in that same odor from before—an odor as of spoiled rose-water lemonade. Had the awful stench issued from some other dimension only to travel through the mirror’s surface?
Lilith walked up behind her. “Touch the tin bronze.”
With her right hand, Anastasia reached up. Then she glided the tip of her right first finger along the gilded framework. Before long she placed the palm of her right hand flush against the uncanny cool of the tin bronze itself. At that point, as the sun climbed ever higher over the distant crimson-colored mountains, the reflection of the morning light shone into her eyes. She withdrew her hand and rubbed her right temple. “What do you do with your mirrors?”
Lilith did not answer.
The throbbing all throughout her temples growing harder and faster, Anastasia closed her eyes and thought back a few years to a chance encounter with a shrewd parson who lived not far from the London Huguenot Society down on Chapel Street.
“Lilith holds the power to pass through them fantastical mirrors she fashions,” the parson explained. “God strike me blind if I bear false witness! Aye, it’d be them occult mirrors of hers that give her quarry chalks on! Lilith slips through her fiendish devilish mirror only to emerge from out some other looking glass. Anywhere in the world! That’s how she tracks down a proper Christian girl. And then Lilith walks into her bedchamber, and murder’s afoot!”
At the time, Anastasia had chosen to disbelieve all. But now, the odor of spoiled rose-water lemonade nagging at her, suddenly she did not know quite what to think. Opening her eyes, she gazed into the darkness of the tin bronze. “You’ve the power to pass through this mirror?”
“No, not this one. The mirror standing before you here, it’s almost lifeless. Alas none of my mirrors last forever.”
“No?” Anastasia proceeded to finger the Huguenot cross dangling from the chain around her neck.
For her part, Lilith traced a fingertip down the length of Anastasia’s spine.
The morning light felt increasingly hot against Anastasia’s scalp meanwhile, and as the piercing quietude of the desert descended upon the garden, the ache all throughout her temples spread in all directions. “Just how many mirrors would you ask me to make in exchange for your banishing the fox spirit? Five? Ten? Fifteen?”
Lilith seemed to study her own reflection in the tin bronze, just there where her fine heart-shaped face appeared over the likeness of Anastasia’s left shoulder. “My price shall not be so exceedingly high. Only three. If you work hard, you shall be home by springtime.”
“Springtime,” Anastasia whispered. “Yes, I’ll do it.”
“Good. Meet me at my mirror works, just at dusk.”
“Anything you say, madam.” Without another word, Anastasia turned eastward only to be blinded by a merciless glare: the sun acting like a jealous god.
Later, as Anastasia made her way back toward the village, the fox spirit deep inside her womb kicked and howled. At last she stopped and pounded upon her belly. (Enough already!)
(No, no, no. We must leave this place! If you sell yourself to Lilith, someday soon you’ll be sorry! God Almighty should punish your wickedness! He’ll send down an angel of wrath!)
(Yes, it’s just like you to say such things. You just want to stay on inside me.) After pounding upon her belly a few more times, Anastasia continued on into the crowded marketplace where she paused to look up to the arched tin roof that sheltered the narrow lane. How good and cool the shade. Still, she felt someone’s eyes upon her. Breathless, she turned toward the telegraph office.
Standing beside the door, a young man gazed upon her as if mesmerized. Whoever he was, his pallid skin made it rather unlikely that he was a local. Moreover he wore a good linen shirt, strong woolen trousers, and a tweed-cloth deerstalker. Could he be English?
She marched past a few empty pushcarts and approached the young man, drawing close enough that they stood almost toe to toe. “Have you had your pennyworth? If so, how’s about a halfpenny change?” With that she stomped upon his left foot.
As the stranger raced off, the fox spirit reeled about within Anastasia’s womb and then kicked and howled anew. (You think you’ll have it that easy when the angel of wrath comes to punish all your wickedness? No, no, no.)
(Oh, hush.) Turning to the curiosity shop across the way, she fixed upon the paper parasols on display beside the door.
Three more times, the fox spirit kicked. (You think I dissemble, but no. It’s a sin to serve someone like Lilith! A sin, a sin, a sin!)
Anastasia should have ignored all and purchased a parasol. Instead she thought back on the damnable arrangement she had only just made with Lilith.
Have I done wrong?
Ten minutes later, back at the hostelry, Anastasia climbed the stairway to the rooftop so as to speak with Madam Philemon, the elderly tenant who had befriended her the night before.
Madam Philemon sat beneath a large patio umbrella, the old woman smoking an ornate huqqa pipe. “How everything go?” she asked in her thick Greek accent.
“Everything went well, I suppose. But that’s the trouble. Suddenly I’ve got the notion that someday soon the Lord ought to punish me for what I’m doing.”
Madam Philemon dropped the pipe hose. “Of course Good Lord make you to pay. You know what Lilith do with her mirrors? She strangle any girl who dream of helping Him bring Jubilee to earth. Kýrie eléison! You don’t know oracle? One day good Christian girl, she find all the treasures the Egyptians plunder from Temple of Solomon. Then she return everything to Jerusalem and she bring Jubilee to the whole world. Damnation of all dæmons! Lilith too!”
Anastasia felt up and down her forearms. Did the old woman speak the truth? If so, that would explain everything. Lilith slipped through her strange mirrors so as to prey upon any adventuress hoping to fulfill the oracle. Oh god, what have I gotten myself into?
The taste of spoiled rose-water lemonade awoke at the back of Anastasia’s mouth.
As the taste spread forward, she felt at her Huguenot cross. How to serve as an accomplice to murder? Her temples throbbing more and more, she looked out across the flat parapeted rooftops of the village. Should I leave this place? She could not do it. If she were to leave now, she would have squandered her one chance to break free from the fox spirit.
Deep within her womb, he kicked again.
How good it would feel to be free of him. Finally she could take her place in society. In time, she would read philosophy at the London School of Economics. Afterward she would complete her life’s work: an array of theories by which to transform England into an ideal society—a place of everlasting sensual delight, a place far more pleasing than any . . .
Madam Philemon removed a leather flagon from the basket at her side. “Maybe you drink something.”
The water should have tasted sweet, but when Anastasia downed a mouthful, she found that it tasted sickeningly tart.
The old woman puffed upon her huqqa pipe and then pointed the end of the hose toward the horizon. “We must leave village very soon. Maybe we sail for Naxos, and if we do, you no regret nothing. Mount Zeus make very good home for you. All the desert islands of Hellas make very good home. The Venetians, they come years ago, and they build the lovely villas and towers and piazzas.” The old woman puffed upon the pipe one last time and then cracked a grin. “No you worry! We go very soon!”
Deep inside Anastasia’s womb, the fox spirit twitched his tail. (Yes, yes, yes. Listen to the old woman! Go away! Tonight, tonight, tonight! When the moon’s shimmery bright.)
Anastasia placed her left hand upon her belly, and as the desert breeze whistled across the rooftop, she caressed the skin around her navel.
In time, the fox spirit grew quiet.
As he did, Madam Philemon dropped the flagon. “Maybe we go inside and pack bags.”
Letting go her belly, Anastasia turned from the old woman and knelt beside a marble krater stuffed with Egyptian willow.
Every bough emitted the same odor—an odor as of spoiled rose-water lemonade.
She winced. “I can’t go. If I were to leave, Lilith would only come for me. Why wouldn’t she do so? We’ve already—”
“Don’t honor the arrangement!”
“No, it’s much too late for a change of heart,” Anastasia whispered, the sun beating down upon her scalp.
Late afternoon, as soon as Anastasia departed the hostelry, the fox spirit twitched his tail and kicked a few times. (Go home! Yes, yes, yes. Like I told you before, if you choose to stay here, someday soon God Almighty should send a glorious angel of wrath to punish you!)
(Oh leave me be.) Walking onward through the marketplace, it was not long before Anastasia noticed that same pallid youth from before.
Once more the peculiar young man stood beside the telegraph-office door. As soon as their eyes met, he turned toward the curiosity shop across the street. For the longest time then, he acted as if he must be enthralled by the little Persian inkhorn standing in the heart of the display table.
She walked past a shop selling paper parasols and continued over to the moneychanger’s shop to rest her back against the white stucco wall. After a while, she lifted her left foot so that the sole of her button boot pressed up against the plasterwork.
The young man did not approach—as if the earlier encounter precluded all. When she turned to study him for a moment or two, he glanced at her and then turned back as if ashamed. At the same time, his bladder seemed to give way some. No sooner had the young man fouled himself than he darted off.
Deep inside her womb, the fox spirit twitched his tail. (As feckless as that English lad there, that’s how powerful the angel of wrath should be. And that’s why you must sail home!)
She dropped her foot and continued along through the marketplace only to step into a heap of camel droppings as malodorous as rain-drenched hemp. Splendid. Holding her nose, she walked the length of the marketplace until she emerged from out the shade of the tin roof and back into the sun’s blinding glare.
Down the road a ways, she stopped to wash the sole of her button boot within a grandiose marble fountain standing in the heart of the dusty roundabout. Then she looked to the sky, closed her eyes, and listened to the splash of the fountain’s jets.
By the time she opened her eyes, the soft silvery-orange light of dusk stretched out across the sky. She checked her timepiece, and then she turned to consider Lilith’s mirror works—its simple oblong shape and everyday clerestory roof. The masonry—could it be porphyry?—shone a dull shade of purple not unlike that of a damascene plum. Anastasia approached the unprepossessing structure to look inside, but the awning window revealed no more than a long wooden worktable and a sheet-metal shear.
She thought of Saint Petersburg, the House-of-Fabergé studio where Mother once fashioned such opulent mirrors. What am I doing here?
Lilith appeared along the dusty path winding its way up from her seaside garden. When she reached the mirror-works door, she raised her right arm and pointed toward a donkey-drawn tumbrel cart just then approaching from the north. “That’d be the tinsmith.”
When he reached the mirror works, he let go the reins and greeted Lilith. Then he leapt down from the tumbrel cart and handed her what looked to be the invoice. “Please to forgive very high price. Tin futures to blame.”
Lilith folded up the invoice very slowly, turned to Anastasia, and then pointed at the consignment of tin bronze. “Take care that you don’t make too many costly mistakes.”
Anastasia’s temples throbbed anew, and as the fox spirit deep within her womb twitched his tail, the muscles all throughout her belly churned.
Meanwhile the tinsmith walked to the back of the tumbrel cart where he severed the cord that bound all the metallic sheets together. Then he took hold of the first one—a length of tin bronze shaped like a door but standing a touch too high. What a stench too: The metallic sheet emitted that same odor, an odor as of spoiled rose-water lemonade.
Oh, but of course. Anastasia almost even laughed. Spoiled, sour—
The tinsmith set everything down, and the tin bronze hummed like a quartz bowl.
Then, as he hauled that first sheet into the mirror works, Anastasia followed Lilith inside and helped her to gather up some of the metallurgical books strewn about. Moments later, when the tinsmith returned outside for the second, Anastasia approached the first where he had trussed it up against the cracked blistering wall. And now she wondered how long it would take her to transform the grainy surface into a mirror through which Lilith might pass.
Deep inside Anastasia’s womb, the fox spirit twitched his tail. (Go home! To serve Lilith should be the greatest iniquity! A sin against God Almighty! If you don’t go home, He should surely exact the most unspeakable retribution! He’ll never forgive you. Never, never, never.)
Anastasia returned outside and turned to her right.
The pallid English youth passed by then, holding a crust of bread in one hand and a milk jug in the other. He crossed the roundabout, and then he climbed the gently-sloping hill to the Byzantine-revival opera house atop the summit. Once he had removed his deerstalker and had stepped inside, it was not so long before a faint light shone from one of the upstairs windows.
What’s he doing in there? She clenched her fists, certain that he meant to pass judgment upon her depravity—her willingness to serve someone as wicked as Lilith. When he peeked from out behind the window’s left side jamb, Anastasia grabbed a pecan-shaped stone lying nearby and then hurled it as hard as she could.
The stone dropped short, without a sound. Over to her right though, someone laughed and called out in a manly tone. The voice proved to be that of a tall English-Army captain strolling along in the direction of the marketplace.
Oh dear. Until that moment, Anastasia had no idea that the War Office had billeted any soldiers nearby. More than that, as he continued forward, she wondered if she had ever witnessed anyone so beautiful in all her life. Send me! Rolling the tip of her tongue over her gap tooth, she gazed into his dark deep-set eyes until her bosom heaved.
He stopped a few feet away. “Give the enemy the everlasting knock,” the soldier told her, gesturing toward the pebble at her feet. “Give it another go. Cast that stone there and—”
“So there’s a citadel down by the seaside? I should’ve thought you’d be down the coast a ways, defending Sharm al-Sheikh or—”
“Name, rank, and number. Captain Holywell, number 5373739. I shan’t tell you anything more.” And now he pointed at her pendant dove. “A Huguenot lass, are you?”
“That’s right.” From the way the officer grinned, she wondered if he considered himself better than her. Even if he did, what would it matter? She had fine golden hair, big blue eyes, and little freckles dotting the tip of her nose. Of course he found her desirable—just as much as the pallid youth in the deerstalker found her desirable. Looking down, she studied the contours of her long legs through her pleated skirt. How could anyone deny her beauty?
The tinsmith returned outside into the roundabout. Without a word, the old man grabbed the donkey’s leather noseband and guided both beast and tumbrel cart off in the direction of the caravansary.
Broomstick in hand, Lilith stepped outside then. “Come sweep the floor.”
Deep within Anastasia’s womb, the fox spirit kicked several times. (No, no, no. You must leave this place at once. Repent! Repent! Repent! If you don’t leave this instant, have you any idea what should happen to you? Someday soon, I swear, God Almighty should gouge out your eyeballs!)
As the fox spirit continued to kick, that same odor of spoiled rose-water lemonade came drifting through the roundabout. And now the awful stench seemed so much worse—warm and metallic, almost even medicinal.
Anastasia very nearly swooned. Then she turned back to Captain Holywell only to climax. Oh please. She never felt so confounded. Like a maiden preparing for her very first assignation, she could no longer distinguish between feelings of dread and the lustful inclinations of the flesh.
The English lad in the deerstalker went by the name Jack Wylye. And what had brought him to the wilderness of Sinai? As shameful as it might sound, his father had insisted that the young man sail to Egypt before the War Office had the opportunity to conscript him. If they had, Jack would have surely perished in the trenches because he was nothing like other boys of seventeen years. For one thing, he had an artistic temperament. Before the war, he would often laze about the house all day long. Most of the time, he would listen to his gramophone and lose himself in daydreams. As if all that were not enough, a deep melancholy had always afflicted him. How to make a proper soldier out of such a fragile wretch?
So Jack sojourned here in the village, and ever since the opera company had returned to Cairo, he slept in the opera house. Well to do as he was, he could have found better lodging. His father wired him money from Bloomsbury every other week. Still, Jack felt much too guilty to take a room down at the hostelry. Given the endless perils that other lads his age had to endure in the course of their wartime service, he refused any and all extravagances.
In truth the bleakness of his life in the darkened empty opera house had him longing for company, affection. As he walked about the marketplace, he pined for Anastasia. Still, as callow and as timid as he was, he could not muster the nerve to introduce himself. Increasingly desperate, he often visited the telegraph office where he would pray to an ornate papyrus print hanging on the otherwise barren wall. The print depicted the Eye of Horus: a falcon’s eye complete with a black teardrop-shaped marking that made it seem as if the deity must be weeping.
As lonely as Jack felt, sometimes he even heard a voice emanating from out the pupil.
7 October, as Jack made his way back from the marketplace, Lilith called him over to the fountain standing in the heart of the roundabout.
He stopped in his tracks. How to approach the witch? Other than a few obscure fairy tales, he did not know much about her. When she called out a second time, he removed his deerstalker only to drop it at his feet. The earflaps had suddenly felt scorching hot to the touch. When Lilith called out a third time, at last he advanced. Drawing near, he sniffed at his right armpit. Bloody hell, I pong like a dead fox. For a moment, Jack scratched at his oily scalp. Then, as he approached the fountain, he paused to smooth out his crumpled club-collar shirt and his woolen trousers.
When he finally reached the fountain, Lilith promptly walked off with a catlike stride.
Her pleasing gait resembled the sensual way his stepmother walked about the house back home, so he did his best to avert his gaze.
Lilith collected his fallen deerstalker, returned to the fountain, and handed him the hat.
A second time, he dropped it. By now the tweed cloth burnt like a ball of fire, and his fingertips smarted. What the hell? Again he scratched at his scalp.
Lilith introduced herself and then looked up the hill as if studying the opera house and the view his window commanded. Turning back then, her green tapered eyes flashed. “It puzzles Anastasia the way you gaze upon her but never say anything. Why don’t you speak up?”
“Because I can’t! Whenever she passes by, I get to feeling like I’m two of eels. And then I can’t think of anything to say.”
“That can’t be true. Go speak with Anastasia. Even now.” Lilith pointed toward the mirror works. “I’m sure she should fancy you. Why not? You’ve got such long lovely brown hair and such big blue eyes. You’re a beautiful boy.”
Laughing, he turned to a little thorn tree standing to the side of the oblong building. “Back home in Bloomsbury, I never walk up to some bird what don’t even know me.”
Lilith ran the tip of her right thumb across her right eyebrow. “You’ve no cause to fear a gracious young lady like Anastasia. In fact she ought to sympathize with a spiritual young man like you. That’s because she’s no ordinary girl. Did you know she’s haunted by a dream fox?”
“A dream fox?” Jack’s spine burnt, as if he had been sitting in a wooden chair all day with his back up against the sun-baked splat. “What do you mean by a dream fox?”
The warm desert wind gusted, and over alongside the mirror works, the thorn tree snapped in half and toppled over.
All the dust and sand made him sneeze, at which point he attempted to wipe his nose upon his right sleeve. Bugger all! Even his linen shirt felt impossibly hot to the touch, and now the tip of his nose burnt.
Once more the wind gusted, and as it did, Lilith placed her hands upon her hips. “Forget the dream fox. Go speak with Anastasia.”
“But I can’t, I tell you.” Trembling, he considered Lilith’s long powerful fingers. He would be no match for her if she chose to strangle him, but would she do something like that just because he had failed to obey her with regard to such a petty matter? Out of spite, she might. He wrapped his right hand around his throat, and his palm burnt. At once he dropped his hand and turned back to the ill-fated thorn tree.
From within the mirror works, a shrill noise commenced. Could it be Anastasia working the electric die grinder?
He turned back to the fountain and kicked at one of the faded wildflowers that had sprouted up alongside the basin. Through his right shoe, his toes burnt. Damn.
Lilith let out a motherly sigh. “I’m sorry that I make you so tense. Still I must insist that you call upon Anastasia some time very soon. It won’t do for you to simply gaze into her eyes. That kind of thing unnerves her.”
“Right, no worries.” Quickly he collected the deerstalker and tucked the hat up beneath his left arm. “I’ll come speak with Anastasia the first chance I get.” Holding his breath, he marched up the hill to the opera house where the lobby door’s burnished-bronze knob burnt in his right palm like a lump of hot bitumen.
Upstairs, in the cool of the dressing room, he paused before the cracked stage mirror to check himself. As the din of the electric die grinder continued, he walked over to the window and tucked an old shawl over the top rail. When the die grinder grew quiet, he turned back. How’s about a wee bit of music? He walked over to his gramophone and secured the horn to the elbow. Moments later, once he had worked the mainspring, he arranged the stylus upon the recording.
Following several pops and crackles, a duet from La traviata filled the room.
Cheers. He lay down upon the divan, closed his eyes, and imagined himself the bold tenor performing Alfredo’s part.
When the music concluded, Jack opened his eyes. Sitting up, he listened as the stylus skipped over the very last groove in the recording before bumping up against the label. At that point, he studied the dressing-room walls. They shone eggshell white, just like the walls of his stepmother’s shop back home. And now he recalled that autumn afternoon when a lovely Italian girl stopped by and asked him to attach a lace veil to her silk parasol. At first he could not speak. Over and above her beauty, the Italian girl had always mystified him. Time after time, he would notice her walking up and down Charlotte Street—the young lady forever mumbling in her Tuscan dialect and cursing some malevolent spirit which apparently possessed her.
Could it have been a dream fox?
Wheezing a little bit, Jack stood up from the divan and walked over to the gramophone to lift the stylus from off the recording. Then he knelt to polish a few scuffs upon his walking shoes until the rag itself had his right hand burning.
Midafternoon, he walked downstairs to the stage and stopped before the glass harp—a set of glass dishes fitted about a long narrow rod holding everything in place over a water trough. Only last week, after having discovered the contrivance up in the opera-house attic, he had resolved to teach himself how to play the instrument. For the first time, he stepped upon the treadle so as to make the dishes reel through the water until each one glistened. Soon he glided a few fingertips over the edge of now this dish and that, and he attempted to perform a simple étude.
The glass burnt, and only a few dreamlike notes resounded before he had to stop.
By now he felt certain that the burning sensation must follow from all his trepidation with regard to Lilith. If he were to vex her in some way, it would be no trouble for her to dispatch him. But even so, how to leave this place? Given his failure to enlist, he did not deserve to sit out the war in some safe placid fishing village. And how to leave Anastasia?
The desert breeze sailed through the tall majestic windows and played upon a few of the antique plum-crystal chandeliers dangling here and there amid the ceiling fans.
As the delicate peal died out, a section of the pleated brilliantine drape danced in the soft remnant of the current.
He turned to a window where a profusion of light poured into the orchestra stalls. The hazy white-smoke glow did not look anything at all like the light of a desert sun. The glow seemed too melancholy. If anything it suggested the soft hazy October light of home. He thought of his life there—his daydreaming, his vanity, his longing to be some celebrated composer.
From the direction of the mirror works, the din of the wheel rang out: Anastasia shearing another sheet of tin bronze.
If only he possessed some way to free her of the dream fox. From that moment on, she would be forever grateful. Jack looked to the vast looming balcony where a cloud of Egyptian white-lotus petals danced about in one last gust. If he could free Anastasia, perhaps she might even love him.
The din of the wheel died down.
For a moment, his whole body burnt.
Over in the stalls to his right, something shone like a knight errant’s breastplate.
Walking over, Jack determined the mysterious object to be nothing more than the tin of apple curd that his stepmother had forwarded him a while back. It stood as tall as an ice pail, but by now the mice had consumed the contents. He took the empty tin into his hand, and though the mouth felt hot to the touch, he studied his reflection in the thin shimmery metal. Would Anastasia approve of his distinctive Greek nose? Suddenly no question could be so paramount. Nevertheless he could not quite manage an answer. The tin burning increasingly more, he yelped like a dog and then drop-kicked everything toward the window.
As the clamor of the impact died down, the scent of Guinea pepper filled the air—almost as if the spice merchant’s buckboard must be rolling through the roundabout. Jack walked over to the window, but he espied no buckboard. Only Lilith.
Barefoot she walked past the marble fountain and stopped at the mirror-works door as if to say something to Anastasia. A moment later, Lilith walked off around the corner.
Once more, no matter the heat, he took the tin into his hands and studied his reflection.
I’m a dosser, I am.
A pink fly the size of a Jerusalem mealybug fluttered down into the metallic box and took to crawling all about as if the apple curd’s lingering aroma had deceived the creature into thinking that one or two grains of sustenance might still be there.
Why not show the poor bastard a measure of mercy? He coaxed the fly onto the tip of his right first finger and then placed the tin upside down upon the windowsill. With that he flicked the creature onto the floor. But what if the blighter comes buzzing about upstairs? In the end, he crushed the harmless insect beneath the sole of his right shoe.
At half past three o’clock, he peeked out the lobby door. Down in the roundabout, several balls of tumbleweed rolled along this way and that, and to the south, the desert breeze rattled one of the opera company’s old wooden cycloramas standing amid a thicket of date palms.