The quiet words nearly launched my heart through my chest, which was not my typical reaction when I heard Lani’s voice. But I’d been working on an article about the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, lost for hours in a landscape of stakes wrapped in dancing fire, throats raw with screaming, flesh charred and shriveling. I hadn’t heard her come in, and the unexpected words seemed as loud as a gunshot in the silent house.
“Almost finished,” I said over my shoulder.
I took one last glance at what I’d just typed. It read:
I do not in any way condone the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the rabid persecutions and mass murders that were spawned by religious paranoia and superstitious ignorance. But I will offer the following caution with utmost seriousness.
The wrap-up I had in mind would definitely ruffle some feathers.
I felt a nip on my ear that was a bit beyond playful.
“Almost finished, my ass,” she said. “I’m thinking about having a keyboard surgically installed so we can communicate occasionally.”
I swiveled my chair around toward her. With her long, thick honey blonde hair pulled back, golden brown skin, and a silky red dress with spaghetti straps that fell loosely down her tall, slender body to just above her knees, she would’ve had my medieval witch hunters trying to decide whether to burn her at the stake or thank God for allowing them to see a miraculous vision. “There are laws against that,” I said. “Something about destroying irreplaceable natural resources.” I reached for her, but she backed away.
“You’re just horny from sitting in your mausoleum all evening thinking about torturing women.” She started toward the door of the study. “Come see what I brought you.”
Maybe she had a point. Heavy wine red drapes covered the window while dark wood bookshelves occupied most of the wall space, and the air was thick with burnt incense, like a church. Where the walls were exposed, they displayed ritual masks, the odd Inquisitorial implement, medieval woodcuts of demons, and newspaper articles recounting hideous crimes. It was the mental world that spawned my work. Jack St. Michael, Ph.D., seeker of things that go bump in the night.
Lani was in the kitchen working the cork out of a bottle of champagne. Standing in the middle of a tiny wood paneled space that looked like an English pub, she looked like a model in a magazine ad for a men’s cologne. Wide cheekbones tapered down to a strong chin, large, dark eyes shone like black pearls, and her wide, full mouth looked like the picture in the dictionary under the word, “kiss.” She was five feet nine in her bare feet, and over six feet in heels, almost as tall as my six-feet-two. Even though she was slender, she had muscular arms and legs, and large, strong hands, like those of a figure by Rodin. I found just looking at her hands, imagining being touched by them, very sensual. Friends tended to say that the combination of her Brazilian bloodlines, with burnished gold hair and dusky skin, and my dark hair, blue eyes, and pale skin – “black Irish” a few generations back - created a “real GQ couple.”
I resented the comparison on a couple of counts. I didn’t like GQ. More than that, I tended to believe that an early forty-ish academic who’s had the extraordinary good fortune to have Lani enter his life should do everything possible to stay below the radar. The singular grace and beauty she carried with her could just as easily open the doors to the highest circles of power and wealth, and I didn’t want the gods to look around and realize what a colossal mistake they’d made.
She popped the champagne cork, saw it start to foam, and covered the mouth of the bottle with her own. After the fizz stopped, she turned toward me, her lips still on the bottle.
“I thought you weren’t coming by tonight,” I said.
She pulled the bottle out of her mouth with a succulent plop. “You have been working too hard.” She turned back to the counter and poured two glasses. “The opening was horrible,” she said. “I needed to air out a little.”
I moved up behind her and held her shoulders. She was a strong, self-reliant woman, and a statement like “the opening was horrible” was like a hysterical shriek from somebody else. I pecked her on the neck and picked up both glasses and the bottle.
“Come and sit.”
My sofa faced a sliding glass door and a narrow wood deck that looked directly onto the Pacific Ocean. The house was a small one-bedroom cottage on the beach at Malibu. A colleague in the History department had owned it until he’d retired to Aspen a few years back to ski and open a sporting goods store. He’d sold the house to me for $300,000, the price he’d paid in 1981. That was about a tenth of what it was worth.
As soon as we settled into the deep upholstery, she kicked off strappy high heels and draped her legs across my lap. “My feet are killing me,” she said.
I pressed her glass into her hand and began to massage one slender foot. “Tell me about it.”
“Robert De Christ.” She shivered and drank champagne. “He opened the gallery, and his work was the main event, along with two or three local artists who probably ought to be under police surveillance. He’s very hot back east...New York, the Boston area. Graphic arts, music videos, talk shows, the whole spread. Very talented, but he creates images of death. Sex and death. Really necrophilic stuff.”
“That sounds morbid, but not all that novel. Why so upset?”
She drained her glass and held it out for more. I poured.
“He’s obsessed with it,” she said. “It’s become a function of his being. He’s very charming, in a way. Magnetic. But when you look at him and talk to him, it’s as if he’s trying to envision you as a figure in one of his pieces.”
“There are accounts,” I said, “of people who’ve worked very hard to create that kind of personality. Mostly, they’re delusional and pretty harmless. But a few are the real thing, sexual predators, serial killers. There was the ‘Vampire of Hanover’ back in the 1920s, a case in the late 1970s in Sacramento, of all places, and a fairly recent case in Massachusetts where an accused serial killer had himself surgically altered to look like a vampire…tongue split, horns grafted to his forehead. Your instinct may be right.”
“There’s more,” she said. “Some idiot decided to get naked and do a war dance in the middle of the exhibit,” she said. “Screaming at the top of his lungs, crashing into people. He finally ran himself over a balcony railing and fell about twenty feet.”
“How bad was it?” I wrapped my fingers around her free hand.
“Don’t know. The paramedics immobilized just about every bone in his body before they moved him.” She sipped her champagne. “You should’ve seen the crowd around him. Like he was a piece in the exhibit.” She shuddered. “Ghoulish in the truest sense.”
She was quiet for awhile and seemed preoccupied. I finally decided that a little ocean therapy might help to settle things down. I’ve never been sure whether it’s the calm repetition of the waves, or the immensity of its scale, or maybe the primordial link to our origins, but for me, even a brief session of communing with the sea tends to sweep across a fractured mental landscape like surf smoothing the sand. I draped her coat over her shoulders and we walked down the steps to the beach. It was a soft summer night, and the breeze off the water carried the sea smell like a magic carpet to exotic lands. We laid our parallel sets of tracks down to the tide line, her bare feet next to my Birkenstocks, and we watched the waves exhaust themselves just short of our toes.
“Good choice,” Lani said. “The sound is so magical. It’s as if it gets inside your soul, cleans up all the parts where there are rough spots or pockets of shadow.”
I moved behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. We stood quietly while I let the whisper of the surf take the edge off my own thoughts.
“At least he’s doing art that matters to him,” she said.
“De Christ. His stuff may be appalling, but at least he puts his soul into it. So many of the things you see today are so utterly trivial.”
“It means we’re on the downhill side,” I said. “It’s been the life cycle of every major culture. The cultural vision fragments, loses direction. Creative energy gives way to mere activity. Art becomes sensationalism. Bread and circuses.”
Lani stared out over the water. “I wonder what comes after us.” She pulled her coat tightly around her. “It’s gotten cold. Let’s go in.”