Here is the rest of Katy Derbyshire’s sample from Julya Rabinowich’s historical novel Toads & Tempest:
He sat up with a curse and shook his head so brutally that he heard the vertebrae cracking at the back of his neck, then kicked the doll out of the silken sheets onto the floor. The pillow slid after her. He got up and went to the window. Yanked it open. The lamp on the crossroads opposite bent its head, with an orange halo in the dullness. He drummed against the window frame and slammed the window shut again. Turned back to the bed, picked up the doll carefully, pressing her first to his chest like a sick child, then holding her like a bride and laying her cautiously back in the bed, encircling her head with his hands.
He hoped in vain for the fuzzy eyelids to close.
“You can’t do this to me, Almi…”
From different angles, the face looked by turns serious and mischievous, the dark lines framing the eyes, the exaggerated brows above them playing tricks on the beholder depending on the light, as did the thick hair. Even as a surrogate, as a soulless object, she presented riddles to him that he still could not solve.
He remembered once having called Alma a sphinx.
“Almi, one can’t be now foolish and now wise as one pleases. Otherwise one loses both possibilities for happiness. And you’ll become a sphinx who can neither live nor die, but who kills the man who loves her…” he had written to her on March 6, 1914, when everything tormenting him now was far off, his lung unharmed, his hearing as intact as his connection to Alma. And she had remained a sphinx to him, a private, mean, stupid sphinx.
He stroked her face again. The plush was not soothing; it was proof that nothing but a larva lay next to him, from which nothing could possibly emerge. A few moths at the most. There was no question about it – Hermine Moos, the Munich doll-maker, had done a wonderful job, but he had to admit she was only a doll-maker and not a force of nature. Of course, every attempt to reconstruct a goddess from ungodly material was doomed to fail. There was no question about that either.
She had been recommended to him and he had contacted her without delay. He had been invited to work in Dresden. Alma was married and had spurned him, so he took the first opportunity to leave Vienna. He was still the widely admired enfant terrible.
Agonizingly, he remembered how much he had looked forward to the doll’s delivery. It had not been easy. He had counted the days, eventually the hours, until Hermine Moos completed his order and finally sent it on its way to him. The doll-maker concealed her surprise, had she ever felt any. The order was lucrative and so unique as to present a challenge. Had his instructions been followed to the letter, he wanted to know. Did the workmanship meet his precise expectations?
The first thing to arrive had been a rather heavy parcel, two feet square, which he had grabbed out of the astounded postman’s hands and bundled off to his studio.
He had barely put it down before the packaging was destroyed; he wrestled, cursing, with the hard cardboard.
Once he got inside it, wood shavings fell to the floor out of the rips. He buried his
hands in them, felt something hard, gripped it and pulled it up. His hands trembled, almost dropping the object wrapped neatly in several layers of brown paper.
He unwrapped one after another. A dance of seven veils, once again, but this time she could no longer wilfully evade him. Dark eyebrows, slightly mocking eyes in a piercing colour staring into his own – he was holding Alma’s head in his hands. The hair had not yet been affixed, which lent the model something androgynous and fantastical but also made it hard to recognize her. He lifted the head, his fingers carefully supporting the bare skull like a baby’s, lifted it to his lips but did not touch hers.
Alma’s head had a slight scent of freshly washed fabric.
He put it down on the dining room table and drank a glass of water in her company. The shocked double-chinned face of the housekeeper who was later to take command over Reserl appeared behind the glass door – standing in the dark in a high-necked black dress, she too seemed to consist only of a head – and vanished instantly when their eyes met.
The next day he sent the test model back, with numerous requests for corrections.
He had made more sketches and once again fastidiously described the body’s dimples and protrusions, so that the body so tortuously familiar and yet so out of reach could be mapped as close to nature as possible, to meet his most burning needs. Just as he had captured Alma Mahler’s live, warm body by turn with his hands, with pencil and brush, now he had to reverse that creative process, reluctantly. It was not her modelling for him to spur him on to ever more depictions of her various egos; instead, his memory created her anew as a sketch, compiled her out of countless fragments of temperamental moments caught: the twisted mouth, the colour of her gaping labia by candlelight, the scarlet flesh, the plump knees, the curve of her belly fading into the shadow of her pudenda, the hair he had gazed at as it vanished beneath him between the cushions of his studio sofa, the shadow on the neck when she laid her arm childishly beneath her head in her sleep – all that had to be painstakingly and above all painfully unearthed from the depths of his memory and captured with scientific accuracy.
The doll-maker needed precise patterns, the doll-maker required instructions; she was not a woman like Alma who understood his half-voiced ideas and knew how to
encourage him when he could not see the way ahead himself. “I am eager to see the quality of your work,” he wrote to the doll-maker, “eager to see how suitable the texture of the material is and how well my sketches have been brought to life.”
She wrote him earnest letters with professional enquiries that testified to her skill. His initial agitation subsided.
The woman seemed to understand her craft.
All he needed was patience.
With every new question from her, though, he grew paradoxically more nervous instead of calmer. What if the end product did not match up to the original? If only he could see her one more time… A practiced eye could quickly get her measure. She wouldn’t even have to undress. Presumably. He would keep the reason to himself. She wouldn’t understand.
Alma had no more understanding for him, and what was worse: no more time. No more space. Days and nights had passed devoid of Alma, one week, two weeks, many. Time balled together into lightless eternity, a reverse big bang, everything withdrew into nothingness; he was a dog that had lost his master, for whom the unbearable waiting for his return drifts into timelessness.
To begin with that had stimulated his work. He dreamed of reunion, his warm flesh in unfamiliar, no, not unfamiliar, in best-known and most familiar flesh; he refused to believe what he was told.
She would turn around.
She had married nonetheless.
That miserable, colourless, obstinate German.
Not him. Not him.
The wait for the phantom pain to subside, the termination of their marriage that had never taken place – an undeserved punishment. She could have married him. She should have married him. Was the cause of this alienation the series of pictures in which he had portrayed her spinning with his guts? No, that couldn’t be it.
She, the huntress, ought to feel honoured by the paintings, he decided, full of resentment over her inexplicable behaviour. He himself was now hunting down more exact measurements, correcting hasty figures, racking his brain for further details, making diagrams, measuring his own works so as not to get it wrong again. Slightly
slackened skin that had been through several pregnancies. Each one had painted dark red weals along her sides that had only faded gradually. And when luck would have it that his seed took hold in her womb, when his life was just about to take a completely new, intoxicatingly wonderful turn, she had unceremoniously and unquestioningly had their child, the child that was to tie them to one another until death did them part, had it scraped out of her, scraped out of its scarlet cavern and out of the weightlessness of maturing sleep. He had wrested the blood-soaked cotton from her even in the hospital, plunging the precious remains of their symbiosis into the inside pocket of his suit as if he might continue the pregnancy inside himself, against her will; he had talked to the wad of cotton and rocked it to sleep at night. Even now the scrap of fabric was still in his possession, but he had rarely visited it for some time. The suit was now hanging in a different wardrobe; he had needed space in his own for the doll’s trousseau.
It was high time for Alma, staged in some pictures in the pose of Aphrodite, his goddess born of foam, to climb down to him from the canvas. What was the ratio of her hips to the protrusions on the lower half of her behind? The angle that the top of her breasts formed to her clavicle…?
He felt as if he were dissecting Alma so as to make an exhibit out of her, something that would finally have to bow to his will; the desire to fasten the butterfly with a pin to a white background was overwhelming, as was the knowledge that the insect – once robbed of the beauty of its motion – would hardly justify that desire.
The delivery was delayed. He was desperate. His production in the studio came to a standstill. He missed her attentive eye. The less Alma saw him, the less he painted – there was nothing to see. He lay sleepless night after night, his gaze boring into her two-dimensional eyes, fragmented into many pairs of eyes on his canvases, always the same look with half-lowered lids from different angles, the mouth bent to one side in a strangely masculine, brutal way. Sometimes he laid his hands on the rough fabric of the paintings and traced Alma’s contours with fingertips just as rough, in an attempt to awaken the memory of her body temperature stored within them.
Her gaze is animal-like, concentrated, equally prepared for flight and fight. The way those eyelids lowered when he penetrated her, the way they began to flutter when his
skin parted hers, when he fell into ever wider-lunging swings between her thighs, swinging between the two poles that were all there was, life and death. With no woman had he felt so deeply between life and death at the moment of union as with her. He swung like Foucault’s damned pendulum and the gaps between the pendulum swings lessened from moment to moment.
A swinging that he sometimes stopped, full of malevolent arousal, so as to divide not only her skin but she herself into a before and an after-Alma, a whimpering, feral creature wound around him, screaming and snapping.
But even in that putative control over her he was never certain of his presence in her, she evaded him even in the most distinct ecstasy, and often she leapt up abruptly and unexpectedly, swathed herself in her clothes without washing off his bodily fluids and left his studio, leaving him bewildered, his thighs trembling. Then he would paint with unachieved concentration and stamina, as though he wanted to perform the only half-finished act, not savoured up to the end, over and over on the canvas. A long series of portraits testified to that effect: a merciless queen, her rather heavy body bathed now in blue silk, now in flattering morning light.
It could not go on that way. Not like that, at any rate.
He went to Munich to urge on the doll-maker once again, made a terrible scene, shouted at her until she burst into tears. On his return to Dresden he feared all that night and the following day that she would not complete his order at all and he would be lost for all time. He wrote a letter dripping with venom to Alma, cursing her and spurning her womb, which he compared to a bustling crossroads, a public place to be accessed by any random imbecile, a miracle that there weren’t constant collisions! She had thoroughly misjudged her situation, he wrote, she did not now what was good for her, could not tell what fate held in store for the two of them. He threatened to stand guard outside her house that night again, like in all the previous years, to hide well like he had back then so that her domestic staff could not chase him away, and certainly not her weak and colourless imported husband, threatened to beat to death the next pathetic lecher who left her house. He suspected an astoundingly long list of men and wrote down every suspect’s full name, even their marital status in some cases. The list constituted half of the letter. Once he had calmed down, the space he had granted his rivals appeared ridiculously large and he crossed half of them out
again, despite being convinced the first version was correct.
He drank a great deal at night, at speed, and smashed the last bottle. He kicked at the shards. Reserl woke up, rushed to his side in a dramatically ruffled nightshirt and a delicately flowered dressing gown thrown hastily over her shoulders, and cleaned up. Turned her back and her small, firm behind on him and knelt on the floor provocatively, in the vain hope that he might focus his attention on her.
She was young, younger than Alma. She would be attractive on superficial inspection.
He preferred to wait for the doll and sleep with ghosts. She left the room as soundlessly as ever, with a hesitant glance back.
The subsequent sleep pressed on his temples and tired him. After Reserl had set out for the post box in the morning he ran after her and took the letter back. The doll arrived the following week.