Here is a second excerpt from the 2017 or 2018 story I excerpted in my previous post. Here, a painter named Absalom sits in a hotel room. Because this passage was originally split between two different chapters, I’ve added an ellipsis where its original break occurred.
As Palomar opened the window in Prague, Absalom asked for coffee on the phone in London. He thought himself shambly and stupid on the phone – in general and in this instance. He moved a finger over the batter-colored cord, bending and relaxing the joint at the knuckle with movements like a bird. He listened and thanked the kitchen and put the phone down.
In his mind Absalom moved over a hill. He moved through water. Absalom used his limbs to paddle through water. Absalom tried to use his arm like the spear of a canoe’s paddle, pushing with the flat of his hand and cutting the lake with the frankly mystifying physics of rowing. The sky was wan but pretty. There were some thin clouds. Instead, the sky was a brilliant stone blue and the clouds were distinct and spread as above the desert. A bee came down astoundingly, to the center of this lake from the sky, and hung before Absalom as he paused, treading. It was like a yellow spider on a web. The light caught it. The bee moved off sharply, without angles, to the right.
Absalom sat in the red chair and looked at the flowers. He thought about the apology to Pilgrim’s Progress but discarded it after only a moment. In his mind his hand moved over his books. He thought of Thomas Merton. He thought of John of the Cross and took his hand back before he was sure whether he had been in pain at the touch.
Brilliant roses the color of girls’ toys. Gigantic white roses. Red roses, ubiquitous. Big dinnerlike camellias. No one will ever see Absalom sitting here. Absalom moves like an animal entirely underground. Absalom and the stuffing, the ancient stuffing in the red chair. Absalom is the stuffing in the red chair. Absalom looked at himself as he habitually did, considering, placing and admiring or disgusted by himself. He seemed now to be a black stone, a black beryl bead or a miniature silhouette or one of Palomar’s scarabs set in an oyster-mauve slick bed, surrounded by a frame of bodyoid ivory, enclosed with a gilt lid and clasped at a woman’s throat. A blue silk bow at the end of a locket. A blue silk bow like a cat’s necklace, but very small, small as a mint.
Hundreds of flowers surrounded Absalom. The high-ceilinged room smelled of greenery but more pungently of preserved greenery and the ball-shaped food for plants. The flowers were beautiful. Absalom liked to sit with them stood out around him like this. He used to look at spools of thread in his mother’s mending box. This was like that.
Absalom thought of the camellias in the garden in Rome. Remarkably they fell still full, and lay in perfect spectrum-red blossoms, round and clean as dishes. These camellias here were blue. A good candy blue to which his eye returned and was happily surprised each return to be allowed to look, to have the time to look. The camellias beneath the trees in Rome, a remarkable fruit, so whole, so red. The blossoms on the trees bent their whiplike branches in pretty curves and the blossoms faced down. Bells. Mouths. The flowers in Stanhope’s silly love-and-the-maiden. Mostly the bounty beneath the tree, its impossible appeal, nothing of rot about it if comparable to some degree to mashed strawberries. On the whole: healthy and promising, suggestive of eternal life and movement from one stage to another in the same shape and beauty.
Absalom was enraged and the coffee arrived.
Absalom thought of Appalachia, which he had only encountered romantically, grotesquely in fiction. He’d no doubt that the real Appalachia was as various and moral as any place, and the photographs and films he’d seen of that country inspired feelings of reverence and joy in him, not the infected horror which green things seemed to suggest for others. Now he took himself through the horrible Appalachia, which compelled him.
His assumption of its real beauty – reliable enough, formed as it was by his own childhood in the North Country – and the pornographic romances of the gothics and his distinction, clarification of the hills’ real horror alongside other rural horrors he had known, all of this together provided for him a terrible, gorgeous allegory, real and unreal. He thought of inbreeding. He thought of an inbred boy. He thought with some wonderment of the possibility of genetic error. It conflicted with Absalom’s concept of the world, in which the unconscious things and the nonhuman things and the accidents of time generally harmonized on behalf of the active human. Absalom knew this was not the way of the world: this knowledge against his natural feelings were what amounted to his piety.
He reminded himself of the truth, that human misbehavior, sexual misbehavior, could result in the innocent and injured, maybe way down the line. Absalom imagined the inbred boy and dressed the scene. The boy, thin and weird-boned, jaw like a partially-melted cube of ice, sitting still as though in a state of uncommon attentiveness but eyes placid and warm like a drunk’s, mouth sad as teddy bears’ mouths suggest sadness. The boy sits shirtless, small shoulders near one another, muscular upper arms meaty as corpses, in the barn’s shady insides, face pointed that way, where you can be sure there is nothing. Sits on a crate. Without, in the sun, a rotted iron plow. The barn, the machine left to become useless, the cool silver-black of the shade, this high-romantic wretch in his symbolic idiocy spoke to Absalom. They spoke of carelessness and a lineage of wrong, unattended cruelties which did not naturally crumble. Absalom was interested to think of this evil which remains despite the changing of the seasons and the earth’s turning. Absalom placed himself in Appalachia and walked through rooms, imagining his own part in the evil of such a place.
Then said Pliable, Ah Neighbor Christian, where are you now?
Truly, said Christian, I do not know.