The Dreams of the Rabbit – 16

“The story goes like this,” Marcus said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. “Once upon a time there was a king and a queen happily going about their royal businesses. Their son had been away for several years collecting adventurous moments, but they were not worried for him. They understood that their son had to follow his own path. Besides, they were busy enough dealing with whatever it is kings and queens need to deal with. Important stuff, I’m sure. Their relatively pleasant and peaceful existence, however, was interrupted by an evil army that fought its way kingdom after kingdom, extending like fire across a prairie in summer. This army was too strong to be opposed. Fighting back would lead to defeat and annihilation, at least with the typical and mundane forms of fighting the assailed kingdom had at its disposal. But, you see, the king had a special book. The king read from the book and the creatures in the book were embodied and they defeated the army, the enemy from abroad. At least for a while. But  that’s beyond the point. More interesting was the fact that the king, the queen and some of their close associates got trapped inside the book. Some of the ones left behind tried to read the book to release the king and the queen, but they were unable to do so. To them the words were smudges without any resemblance to their own language or any other languages they were aware of. Meanwhile, the foreign army regrouped and spread again like a revived fire across the kingdom. The enemy had, once again, the upper hand.”

I had grown impatient over what I thought to be a bunch of nonsense and I opened my mouth to assert my displeasure, but Marcus raised his voice and continued talking.

“On the stage of this ongoing war, linguists from different corners of the kingdom, and even from farther away, came to decipher the book, attracted by an eventual reward but mostly by the possibility of succeeding where so many others had failed. However, none of these linguists managed to read even a word, and they started to say that the book was not a book at all. Around this time, the son of the king and the queen decided to return to the devastated kingdom and he was told that his parents had been trapped inside the book and that there was not any way to get them out, as nobody could decode the writing on the pages. The son opened the book and studied the meaningless words until the hazy borders of the letters became sharper. Now there was a pattern, a path across the pages that he could follow. The book accepted him. He could now read the book, even if he did not understand what the words and sentences meant. As he uttered the absurd words out loud, his parents and their entourage got out from the book. Somehow they oozed through the pages. Somehow they materialized around the book. Also, in the process of learning to read the book the son also mastered how to control the creatures that lived in the book, and some of them incarnated as weapons that could not be defeated, and they marched against the enemy of the kingdom, and the war dissipated as if it had never been more than the fart of a dog.”

“The fart of a dog? That’s an interesting image,” I said.

“Thanks,” Marcus responded, throwing the end of his cigarette into the dead fountain.

During my childhood the base of the fountain had always been full, and trickles lapping down the central floral structure seemed to refresh the air around it. I used to dip the tips of my saturated paintbrushes into the water, just to see the abstract movements expanding, tendrils rotating, turning into themselves. The cigarette butt burned now on the dry concrete and the smoke twirled in a column that behaved like those paint creatures unfolding in the water.

Marcus glared at me without deference, like waiting for me to surrender and to hand over whatever precious object I were hiding.

“So this imaginary book you were talking about, is it somewhere in the library?” I asked.

“There is not such a book. It’s just a story. I simply told you a story.”

“A metaphor of some kind, then? I guess I’m the king’s son.”

“Everything is a metaphor or can be one if you try to cajole it hard enough. I just think that that story will make you think. I hope so.”

“Who are you, Marcus?”

Marcus smiled. It was definitely the first smile I had witnessed on him. I hoped it would be the last.

“You know what? That’s a good question, one that I should ask myself more frequently. Right now I am just a soldier enjoying not being shot at. And that keeps me quite busy.”

“What do you want me to do, exactly? Other than listening to your stories?” Once again, I felt very tired. Wasted. And it was still morning.

“Well, you know what? Maybe you can find that book after all.”

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 15

Instead of going to the dining room where I thought breakfast could have been served for me, I headed directly to the conservatory. I didn’t know what to expect. How many soldiers would be waiting for me in there? How likely were they to answer any of my questions? At this point, I was willing to accept whatever morsels of information the military were willing to throw at me. I was particularly hungrier for explanations about my parents and my obliged presence in the house. What did they want from me? I formulated a series of questions in my head in preparation, although they all boiled down to those two simple ones: What happened to my parents, and why had they brought me here? They obviously knew something, why not tell me? I was definitely going to ask them about my parents and I was not going to accept any more subterfuges or ‘I don’t knows’ dressed up in different fashions. For sure they had to know more than I did. If I could only have them telling me even a fraction of what they knew, I would surely be swimming in awareness and directionality.

I reached the ground floor without encountering anyone or hearing any activity at all. Other than my steps and my breathing, the house was silent. As if I were walking inside a dried-up corpse. A large decaying bird and I traversing its insides. How would I paint such a scene? Dark blues and greens, but would I be an illuminated centerpoint against them or an even darker blotch? Really, how to paint the silence?

I crossed the deserted lobby and entered into the corridor that I always associated with my father. Only three doorways, each one leading to a very different experience. On the right side of the corridor there was a door to the library. On the other side another door, a guardian protecting my father’s office. At the end of the corridor, two narrow French doors that led to the conservatory. The doors to the library and to my father’s office were closed. The ones to the conservatory were slightly ajar. Morning light escaped from the conservatory and into the corridor. The first meters of carpet closest to the conservatory had lost a long time ago their original deep red and veins of black.

The door to my father’s office was as dark and ominous as it had been any time I stood in front of it during my childhood, when in many occasions I would confront it. If I ever had to have a word with my father, this was the door separating me from his sullen bulk, the bully with a cubist nose and eyes exuding inexorable disappointment.

Not having seen anyone on the ground floor, it was easy to imagine the conservatory being empty. Especially since during my childhood I had learned to experience the conservatory as an space where I could be in solitude. I couldn’t recall ever seeing my father there. As for my mother, she loved plants and she likely spent some decent amount of time taking care of or directing others to care for her collection, but I almost never ran into her when I went there to read or to paint with the expectation of not being disturbed.

I opened the French doors and I was immediately engulfed by warmer and humid air, and assaulted with the sour stench of mildew and decaying plants. Not the dry and sweet smell that I associated with this corner of the house. Only seconds later the unpleasantness faded away and the conservatory was once again the welcoming scenario where the leisurely afternoons of my childhood had taken place.

Two paths to the right and to the left from the entrance followed the wall, whereas  a third and wider path went straight ahead towards the center of the conservatory, where a fountain was surrounded by a generous amount of open space. I liked to scatter lots of my paintings around the fountain and then rearrange them as a puzzle that would reveal an unbearably meaningful piece of art. Despite such an artistic resolution never taking place, most of what I knew about composition I learned through those experimentations with collage.

A table had been positioned by the fountain. Marcus and another soldier were sitting down around the table, looking at me.

“Please come and join us. Here, have some surprisingly decent coffee,” Marcus said, pouring some coffee from a jar and into a cup, both of which were plain and battered, a set that could have been in use by the service but that would have never been on our family’s table.

I sat down on the only other chair around the table. There was a roll left in a wicker basket. The plates from their finished breakfast only contained breadcrumbs, some smears of mustard and the skins of sausages.

“I haven’t eaten anything yet,” I said.

“There will be time for you to eat. For now have some coffee, and please help yourself to the bread roll.” I should have felt indignation for such deference towards me in my own house, but I didn’t care at all. I was beyond offense, beyond being one with and for the house.

I had a sip of coffee. It tasted foreign, a thicker and sandier brew, much better than I had expected. I brought the cup to my lips again and enjoyed each sip, while looking at the faces of the two soldiers, both portraying a mask that combined tiredness, expectation, and fear. They were in control of this situation, this gathering in a sheltered conservatory, but maybe they were as lost, confused and unsure as I was.

“I know that you want us to tell you exactly what happened to your parents, and why you’re here, and how both things might be connected,” Marcus said.

I nodded, putting my empty cup down on the table.

“Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that. Not directly. Instead I will tell you a story and I would like to know how you feel about it, about this story. Is that alright?”

I nodded again.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 14

As I opened the door I was assaulted by the aromas of fried sausages and over-boiled coffee. I immediately remembered this funny thing about the accumulation of odors in the most random spots around the house. It didn’t matter that the kitchen were tucked way on the ground floor. Some particular smells created in the kitchen wafted into the porous walls and found their ways to these and those corners of the house, where they stagnated for hours.

I only had to walk a few steps toward the stairs and I completely lost my connection with the odoriferous remnants from the kitchen. Gone were the sausages and coffee, once again I was left with the more ordinary mix of dust, mildew and decaying paper. A mix that if I had been asked to describe as a color would have forced me to choose a yellowish green. The color of early autumnal leaves, fallen, wet, oozing into the ground. The same color as the thick carpet which covered most of the corridors in the house, including the one that was supporting me now.

I walked down the corridor without any sense of urgency. At the end of the corridor there would be the stairs, and the stairs would take me to the dining room next to the kitchen where the breakfast should be waiting, but then there was nothing else on my agenda. No reason whatsoever for me to rush.

Along the walls of the corridor there were several paintings. In fact, most of the walls in the house were populated with hanging paintings, never two similar frames in sight, as if frame variety had been a more crucial factor on how to display the paintings than the contents within the frames. I recognized some of the paintings as I walked by them. Others I was sure I had never seen, like this expressionistic representation of two cats facing each other. These new pieces must have been acquired after I left the house, or reclaimed from some secret vault I didn’t know anything about. As for the paintings that I did recognize I remembered them collecting dust in different parts of the house. It was like someone’s job had entailed going around the house and swapping paintings, maybe in a perpetual search for the perfect arrangement. Frames being, one could assume, a main consideration in such an ever going rearranging scheme.

The corridor ended in a landing well illuminated by two windows. There was only one flight of stairs, going down.

I had not spent much time on this top floor as a child, but now I appreciated the sense of tranquility and safety offered by being relatively far away from the bulk of activity that took place on the ground floor. I reconsidered whether I wanted to go down to the ground floor or back to my room.

Pushed against the corner of the landing stood an stylized elephant. I had always thought that it was carved on wood and painted, but now I realized it was made out of ivory and coated with a layer of dirt. It didn’t matter one way or another, it was still the same ugly piece. But how many more times would this situation repeat itself, me recalling a feature from the past but only partly or incorrectly, having to accept that I had never really known an important aspect about that feature in question. And feeling this disconnect with the house. I would have thought that all my childhood years being imbued in this house would have granted me some right to feel bound to the place. For ever vaccinated against feeling like a stranger in this house that saw me growing. But the house, after all the interceding years in which I had been away, didn’t seem to want to accept me back. Was the house mad at me, at my infidelity, unwilling to forgive all those years in which I had not only been away, but even worst I hadn’t carried it in my thoughts?

Houses don’t have feelings, I know. Silly thoughts. But I would have understood anyway. After all, I had totally ignored the house during years. It hadn’t existed even in my dreams. I would have held a grudge if I were the house.

Before I started to descend the stairs I heard the wooden cracks made by someone coming up. I first thought that maybe the person in question wouldn’t go all the way to my floor. I remained still, waiting and hoping that the advancing noises would gradually dissipate on a lower floor, and then disappear. I didn’t feel like interacting with anyone yet.

I waited while the noises kept ascending and getting closer. They were very near now. I knew that soon I would face someone. There was nothing else to do but to look down at the landing at the end of my flight of stairs, where soon the incoming person  would step into the scene. I had time to count the number of stairs from that landing to the landing in which I was standing on. Fifteen. And then again, one to fifteen. I have always liked to transform numbers into images. A group of fourteen sheep contemplating the one sheep that had abandoned the flock and was running toward the mountains that made the background.

A maid appeared on the landing. She came up three steps before she noticed me and she immediately stopped. She rummaged in her apron pockets and didn’t seem to find what she was looking for; she then pulled out a piece of cloth that had been hanging from her belt and started to rub the wooden rail halfheartedly.

I didn’t recognize her. I could say that I had never seen her, but I couldn’t be sure. She was approximately my age.

“Good morning,” I said.

“My lord,” she greeted me. That took me by surprise. I didn’t recall anyone treating my father or myself like that during the whole time I had lived in the house.

“People say that you have come back just for the money,” she said before I had time to tell her that she didn’t need to call me ‘my lord’. “You know, there isn’t a recently dead cow that won’t attract the vultures, that type of thing. That’s what people are saying.”

“What people?”

“You know, people in town.”

“Well, I’m not here for the money.” What money, anyway? Was she talking about cash or property value? Come to think of it, the house and its contents alone should be worth a substantial amount. For the first time I became aware of the fact that if my parents were dead I would be the likely owner of the house, absurd extensions of land and more than half of the town itself. Until now I had seen myself outside from the scene, when in reality I was one of the main characters, if not the centerpiece of whatever drama was unfolding around me.

“That’s what I thought, personally,” she said.

“I’m glad to hear,” I said, stopping myself from asking her if she knew anything about this money that people seemed to think I was so interested in. What was she supposed to know? As if able to read my thoughts, she said “I’d be surprised if there’s any, really. Like real money, I mean.”

“What else are people saying?” I asked.

“People are saying that you will sell the house, all the land, and then go away.”

“I never thought about doing such a thing.”

“I didn’t think you would. It would be like you selling the town. How does that even work? What about the people living in the town?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“I don’t have any intention of selling the town, even if that were possible.”

“It makes me feel better that you say that. Because I wouldn’t know what to do if I was forced to leave. What could I do?”

“I don’t know,” I answered after seriously considering her question for a few seconds. “I don’t know.”

“Me neither, that’s the problem.”

She stopped pretending to clean the rail and hang her rag back on her belt.

“Do you like geese!” she asked.

“Geese? I cannot say I care much about geese,” I said. She seemed disappointed with my answer. “Why?”

“There are two soldiers waiting for you in the conservatory, my lord,” she said, and then she ran away down the stairs.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 13

I woke up several times during the night, although on each occasion I returned to a deep sleep almost immediately. No dreams I could later remember. No obsessive thoughts invading me. Only a sense of floating in the middle of the room and an undetermined uneasiness, all mixed with a pleasant smell of pine trees.

As my moments of awakening started to be illuminated by the morning light, it took me longer and longer to fall asleep again, and I had more time to gaze at the dead fireplace, the cherubs in the painting hanging over it, and the spots on the wall where the plaster had fallen to reveal an archipelago of elongated shapes.

At some point I gave up on sleeping. I put on the same clothes I had worn the day before and went to the window.

My mind was clearer than on the previous day, more aware about everything, it seemed. But it wasn’t my typical sense of self. How could it be, though? I was misplaced. I was in a place that I recognized and at the same time was alien to me. And what was my purpose here, my role? Such a pity to be in possession of a clear mind without a purpose.

The window was high enough that I was only able to see the tops of trees and the sky. A clean and intense blue accentuated by well defined, easy to paint clouds. And the very deep green of old pine trees. Also easy to paint.

In fact, come to think of it, everything is so easy to paint. Especially when the image is devoid of any interesting features. It’s like brushing a horse, it’s simply a question of time and perseverance. One move, then another, and so on. But it’s so pointless painting a scene devoid of any interest or purpose. Brushing a horse at least accomplishes something.

As in many other occasions I considered that maybe I should forget about the whole business of painting for a while. Give a rest to the musing of my artistic attempts and doubts. And maybe during two or three days I shouldn’t paint anything at all, not even a straight line. It wouldn’t only be a way of not getting frustrated, it might also be a cleansing experience that could take me to new grounds. As suffering a cold, I just had to be patient and wait for a few days. See who I was after those days and what I would be able to create. Maybe in a couple of days I’d approach a bare surface, I’d soak the brushes in what I’d consider the most appropriate substance, and I’d start to stain and to build up in a way that I’d consider to be the most meaningful while being drenched by conviction on myself. Maybe.

But nothing else about painting then. Finito, for now.

I moved away from the window and there wasn’t anything in the room inducing me to stay there, so I decided to go downstairs and find something to do somewhere else. Not a burial, it would seem. I really thought before leaving Barcelona that that would be the focal point of my visit here. Burial, blackness, rituals. That’s the only reason I brought the black jacket I never wear. But without bodies, without official deaths, you obviously cannot have a burial. Although who knew what’s what around here? Not me. Talking to some people here you got the impression that my parents weren’t dead at all, that at any point they could walk into the house, retire to the library and ring the bell, and my father would request a brandy and an early snack, and my mother a whisky and soda.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 12

The lobby remained the grand space that was engraved in my memory. It was mesmerizing how it was exactly as I remembered it, as if all those years that I had been away had been a mere stroll out and around the house and now I was back inside and I would run upstairs to my room to finish the puzzle before it was dinner time. The puzzle with the deer standing in the middle of a forest trail somewhere in winter.

Even the Chinese-like vase that I broke in hundreds of pieces, which my father ordered me to glue back together, a task I enjoyed more than he might have anticipated, was sitting on the same spot, between the same lamp and the same empty cupboard.

The first thing that attracted the attention of a newcomer was how the space seemed to extend upwards without end. The uninterrupted height of three floors created a sense of levitation, a desire to fly. At the back of the lobby a short flight of stairs ascended to a wide landing, continuing into two lateral and longer flights of stairs, both of which led to a balustraded balcony on the second floor. The balcony ran along the back and side walls of the lobby, and one could grip the railing and follow the progression of the people coming and going across the lobby or look up into the large space above. I many times thought of that balcony as a door of sorts. On the center of the right and left walls a long corridor started from the balcony and penetrated into the insides of the house.

Reymond kept clearing his throat, unable to find any right words to utter, it seemed. He opened his mouth to say something but closed it again.

“Sorry to keep you there waiting,” he said after a long silence that I hadn’t been in any hurry to break. “Should we go to the library? There’s a fire going on.” He walked towards the library and I followed him.

The collection of paintings in the lobby, hanging from the four walls at different heights, was as numerable as forgettable. Mostly portraits of serious people, bucolic landscapes, animal studies, and bouquets of flowers. Nothing to inspire a searching imagination. There was only one painting that had attracted my interest for years. It had always been next to the library door. It was still on the same location. Painted only with different tones of blue, there was a square and emanating lines coming out from it, and a floating face looking at an indeterminate four-legged creature. Studying it now for a few seconds I thought that it belonged to me and that I should take it with me when I returned to Barcelona.

In the library nothing struck me as out of place or different from how I remembered it. The same book collection seemed to fill the bookshelves. I recognized the familiar knick-knacks on the fireplace mantle shelf. The two armchairs facing the fireplace and the sofa by the window didn’t look like they had been upholstered since the last time I had been in this room.

Reymond stood by the armchair farthest from the door, still and expecting, the perfect depiction of a butler. I could have sat on one of the armchairs and ordered a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and I think he would have run to the kitchen without delay and with a smile on his face. He would have preferred that to what was happening now. Whatever it was that was happening now. I myself felt I was floating on water, unable to proceed as usual.

I stood by the other armchair. I didn’t have any desire to sit down, even though the fireplace was inviting. The fire burned vigorously, with recently placed logs that were heating up, producing crackles and whistles. Any other time I would have loved poking at the abundant cinders under the logs.

I smiled. Reymond didn’t, but that seemed like the right thing for him to do, and I felt appeased.

“How are you doing, Reymond?” I asked, surprising myself with the intonation of my voice. Without it being my intention my question had came out at a slow and condescending pace. Tiredness from my part, I thought, such a long day, so many scenes I had traversed and hues I had analyzed.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”

I looked down. Sitting on the armchair next to me there was a closed book. Red leather and golden lines along the borders. No title on the cover and the spine was away from me. The bookmark was inserted somewhere in the first third of the book. I picked this book up and read the title on the spine: “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Wonderland,” in golden and blocky letters. A stylized rabbit in profile sat at the bottom of the spine, golden and pressed against the leather.

“Are you reading it?” I asked, showing the book to Reymond.

“Yes.” When I was a kid Reymond told me once that I had to read as many books as I could because it would be good for my brain, but that he himself hated them and was happy never to open any other book again.

“I thought you didn’t like to read.”

“I don’t. But it was the book that your father was reading when he disappeared.”

“I see.” I flicked through the pages, looking for some obvious clue, some easy mystery unfolding right in front of me. “What have you discovered?”

“I have rediscovered that books are a waste of time. It’s just pages and pages about this person I don’t care about.”

“I see. Maybe it will get more interesting.”

“I doubt it. Maybe you can read it instead,” Reymond said.

I browsed through the pages again. There were illustrations every fifty pages or so. Etching, only black ink, not much detail, mostly strong lines for the outlines and much thinner and crossed lines for the shadowing. Only one character in each illustration, always the same, walking through a path, sitting by a window in a library, standing on a hill overlooking a valley.

I put the book down on the armchair, the rabbit looking towards the fire.

“I’m fine, thanks, not my type of thing either.” My father and I had always had very disagreeable opinions and tastes on art, literature; everything, really, down to gardening and food preferences. There was not a chance I would find that book, or almost any other book in his library, of my liking.

“I’ve prepared a room upstairs for you. It may be better if you try to get some sleep. You look tired, maybe it’s better to talk tomorrow.”

“My old room?” I couldn’t remember much about my old room, only the window with the deep sill where I used to sit and observe the garden, the trees and the distant hills.

“No, your old room was vacated soon after your departure,” Reymond said. “Your father had one wall knocked down to join that room with the guest room next to yours, to make that guest room larger, but he decided against that idea after knocking the wall down. Since then we have been using both rooms for storage of this and that. I have prepared the largest of the guest rooms on the top floor. I thought you would like to have the extra space.”

I thanked him for that and my gaze fall again upon the book on the armchair. I could see my father sitting on that armchair and reading that book, possibly without enjoying the whole process.

“You should finish the book, Reymond, and then you can tell me what’s all about for a change.” As a child I started this thing in which I would run around the house to find Reymond as soon as I had finished a book to tell him all the best pieces before I forgot them. Something my father didn’t appreciate. Reymond, however, always seemed to follow my jumbled narration with interest, even interrupting me from time to time to ask for clarifications, especially concerning the relationships between characters.

“That sounds good,” he said. The pile of logs in the fireplace collapsed and a fume of red sparkles attracted my attention for a while. I love to watch fire. Reymond knew that. It must have been the only reason for starting such a decent one in a room that nobody was going to use. Unless Reymond had taken reading more seriously than he had let on.

“What time do you want to be awaken tomorrow?” Reymond asked.

“I’ll leave that to you. People have taken so much control of my life today that I don’t feel I have it in me to make any such big decision.” Reymond didn’t smile. I guess it hadn’t come out sufficiently as a joke.

“Good night,” I added, making it back towards the lobby. At the threshold I turned around and saw the older version of a man I loved with a sincere half smile on his face.

“It’s nice to see you again, Reymond,” I said.

I headed towards my room, leaving Reymond in the library, wondering if he would retrieve the red book, sit down on an armchair, go back to reading the book without any enjoyment. Just like my father would have done. That was a peaceful thought, that a better version of my father would rule the house now. I wouldn’t have any trouble falling asleep with that thought in my head.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 11

The house felt so dead, so washed out by the persistent rain, that I knocked on the door without expecting any response. Who was going to hear my call anyway, being muffled by the noise of the storm around me? I considered my options for getting into the house. I could methodically check the windows from the ground level, hoping to find an unlocked one. I could also inspect the protruding conservatory on the other side of the building, where some small windows always seemed to be left open. I could even climb to the top of the conservatory and try some of the windows on the first floor, although with the rain there was the danger of slipping, falling on the glass ceiling and making a quite dramatic entrance into the house, the glass shards slashing my surface and the blood flowing along the canals between the pieces of the floral mosaics, the roses, the orchids, the irises and the tulips.

Before I decided to leave my cover and start running towards the conservatory, a rusty crack was followed by a scratching crescendo emanating from the hinges, and the door was halfway opened. Filling up most of the threshold an aging man stood with the body of a bear wrapped in a black suit, the bowtie oversized but well-balanced. The composure of a butler but with an overgrown and unkempt beard and an unruly bush of hair.

I didn’t recognize the man at first, but as soon as he talked I remembered his name, Reymond, and all the different facets that I used to like about him, main among them his rare but resonating laughter, his patience and his stubborn optimism. It was mostly the salt-and-pepper beard that had thrown me off. During all the years I spent in the house, from my first memories until I left, I could only remember him brandishing a freshly shaven face, almost like an accessory that complemented  the impeccable condition of his suit and shoes. Besides his beard and general scruffiness, his tired expression had also gotten in the way of my memory of him.

“Franz, is that you?” he said. A warm feeling irradiated from my core and I felt the urge to hug him. I could have put my arms around his broad shoulders and let myself cry, release all the tension on a friendly embrace. “Oh Franz, it’s so nice to see you again. We were told that you would come, but I wasn’t sure.” His deep voice was exactly as I remembered it, but he was talking very slowly now, without the convincing and articulated cadence that I used to imagine as a pack of horses galloping out from his mouth and into the air.

“Yes, Reymond, it’s me,” I said, “it’s also nice to see you. It has been a long time.” Now I realized that one of the main things I lost when I left the house was my daily interactions with Reymond. He was what I always thought my father should have been like.

Reymond placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed feebly, without conviction.

“I’m sorry you have to see the house like this,” he said gesturing with his free hand, like it was obvious what he was referring to. “I’m so sorry about everything.”

“What do you need to be sorry about?” I said. “Nothing, I’m sure.”

“I just hope that you were here in happier times. And that you could see your parents.”

My parents. I had totally forgotten about my parents. I couldn’t remember at which point they had slipped out from my mind.

“What happened to them?” I asked.

“Don’t know, Franz, I don’t really know.”

“But are they dead?”

“I personally don’t think so, although if they are alive, where are they?”

“So they’re not dead for sure?”

“Oh no. No,” Reymond said.

“So they simply disappeared? I had kind of been told that they were dead.”

“There’s people that think that they are dead, that seems to be the easiest thing to go with. I think they are still there somewhere, but I cannot imagine where. That said, there’s a war, and people die easily all over the place.”

I stopped myself from asking “what did exactly happen?” because I had the feeling I had already asked that question so many times. Before I could ask something more trivial, Reymond moved to a side and putting his arm around my shoulders dragged me away from the threshold and into the lobby.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 10

“You’ll also been staying in the house, I imagine,” I said.

“No, no, we won’t be in the house,” Marcus replied, clearly surprised by the idea. “We are staying in the outskirts of town. We will be back tomorrow and talk for a while. Let’s say 2pm. We’ll sit down somewhere in the garden, and it shouldn’t take long.”

“Until we hear otherwise, we will meet once per day,” said the soldier behind me. “Just a light conversation about the day.”

“We may have some prepared questions,” Marcus added, “but for the most part we’ll want to know what you have been doing, and what you have been thinking about.”

I wanted to ask them whether they were psychologists in disguise, but I felt it wouldn’t have been funny enough, so I let the rain tapping on the car be the only conversation for a while. I thought about asking them again about my parents, but I wasn’t that intrigued any longer. I also didn’t ask when I’d be able to return to Barcelona, because they wouldn’t tell me, as they were unlikely to have the answer.

“Where in the outskirts of the city are you staying?” I said instead. I couldn’t remember any hotel, or anything of that sort, beyond a couple of blocks from the town center.

“In a tent. Do you know the Haus beer hall?” Yes, I did. I clearly remembered the gothic letters written on the wall next to the archway leading to the beer garden. And below the name of the establishment, a wildboar painted in a reddish brown holding an oversized stein. In the beer garden, a layer of gravel and three lines of picnic tables, a door propped open and, inside the bar, more tables, and a wide fireplace at the back, where full animals were roasted. The smell of burned pinewood and succulent meat was welcoming, and one agreeably responded by ordering another beer with a smile. Outside always sparrows jumping under the tables.

“Obviously, if you want to talk to us at any point, you should be able to find us there.”

“By the fields?” On the other side of the archway the wall continued for quite some distance without any windows, at the end of it a dirt road edged with weeds, beyond the weeds fields of wheat extending toward woodlands in the horizon.

“No, within the beer garden. We were initially going to camp out of town, but the owner was kind enough to offer us a space in the beer garden. Maybe he thought that he would get more business with us in the premises.”

“Is he?” I couldn’t care less.

“Don’t know. But it works for us, the food is much better than what we have.”

“It’s just that I would have guessed that the army would establish its headquarters in a place like that,” I said, pointing to the looming mansion shrouded by the rain.

“The orders are very clear in that respect,” said the soldier on the backseat. “We can investigate the place, which is something that we have already done, but we are not supposed to interfere too much, especially if we don’t know what we are looking for. We could be contaminating the place in ways that we can’t even comprehend. The fear is that if we have too much of an effect, any trails that remain may completely disappear.”

I don’t think he had intended to astound me or confuse me, his slow and sweet voice was matter of fact, with a flat intonation, but he still left me speechless for a long time. The conversation was suddenly a slick wall, with no crevices where to get some hold and retake my ascension.

“My parents, then, what’s happened to them?” I asked, going back to familiar territory.

Marcus shrugged his shoulders. “I cannot tell you anything about that. Very clear orders in that regard. But I know much less than you may think.”

“You’re not being very helpful,” I said. It was fine, though. I was willing to give the whole subject a rest.

“Maybe you just need to get some sleep and see what tomorrow brings,” Marcus added.

“Do you know what I really need?” I asked, as much to Marcus as to the rain and the walls underneath it.

“No,” Marcus said.

“Yeah, me neither,” I said. “Hopefully whatever tomorrow brings won’t hit me on the face.”

Getting out of the car returned me to the fuzzy reality that I traversed earlier that day. At least, walking, running on the gravel felt natural. There was the passing remembrance of the warmth of the pebbles on my knees being a child, kneeling down and contemplating the building, as I now ran to the protection of the door, my body flushed against the familiar wood so that the rain would be falling away from me. Before I confronted the knockers and whatever waited inside the house, I studied the car turning around, the headlights showcasing the rain, and slowly leaving in the same direction we had arrived. They would go back to the main road, drive directly to the hall square, circle the fountain, and go down the avenue lined with poplars that ended up at Haus.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 9

The soldier drove very slowly, as if wanting to minimize the rattling of the wheels against the grabble. Not wanting to disturb the sleep of the people inside the house. Or as if all of a sudden he were enjoying the driving and wanted to postpone it for as long as possible. For me, that singing of the grabble was not only a familiar sound. It reverberated in my memory, raising the image of my father at the wheel. A man with a purpose, whatever that purpose was. His imposing shaven jaw, a fragrance that I only remember emanating from him, never anyone else. How any occasion seemed to be the right backdrop for one of his assertive sayings. He would stop for the longest time at an intersection to say ‘it is better to waste a second in life than to lose your life in a second’. My favorite of his sayings. I think it was his favorite too, as he resorted to it with a ridiculous ease.

“Here we are,” the soldier said, stopping the car and turning the engine off. The headlights, before dying, had photographed in my retina the midpoint of the house. The four curved steps, leading from the sea of gravel to the semicircular landing, with the two squared pots on both sides of the double door. The same door that I painted so many times over the years. Especially one summer, with that long-lasting obsession of a ten-year old, able to forget all other facets of life and focus all his attention on the subject at hand, that door. I painted it from different angles. With pencil, with charcoal, with watercolors. From afar, framed and diminished by the whole house. Or the door as the centerpiece, shrouded by two simple pilasters and an unassuming lintel adorned with a laurel wreath. Each leaf carved with little detail, as if the mason had intended for them to look weathered, although each leaf was still distinctive from the others. Sixteen leaves on the right side. Fifteen on the left side. I always loved that asymmetry that everyone else ignored so utterly. The cornice hugging all the attention, with a busy succession of leafy and fruity motives, the pediment restrained in comparison, a boring hat to put any imagination to sleep. Or I would get very close to the door, concentrate on one of the gothic hinges, with a light dusting of yellow lichen over the rusty iron; or a small section within one of the panels, detailing with an absurd amount of detail every scratch over the concentric flows of the wood.

“Here we are,” I repeated once I processed the soldier’s words.

Now that the roar of the engine had died I could hear the tapping of the rain on the car. A soothing murmur that calmed me down. Being in the car was all of a sudden a pleasant, comfortable experience. I didn’t desire to get out any longer. Inside the car I was in the present. Out there the past was waiting. I knew that when I would step out of the car, the ends of the east and west wings would be hidden in darkness, but I would sense them curving like arms wanting to hug me and squeeze me. And the three floors of the house, perfectly manageable by anyone else, would soar up into the sky and judge me.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” the soldier said. “My name is Marcus, by the way.” A sudden and honest voice now. A voice that sounded much different to the dry one that had snapped at me during our drive to this moment. More relaxed, human, and approachable.

“You don’t know? What’s the point of bringing me here, then?”

“The ultimate reason, I mean, is what I don’t know… Not sure if anyone knows, but that’s just a feeling I have.”

“You must have instructions, though. You must have been told to do something about me, right?”

“Yes, of course we have instructions. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We follow instructions.” There was a tired surrender in his voice.

“I guess so,” I said. “What would those instructions be, then?”

“You need to expend a few days in the house, and be interrogated by us every day. That’s basically it. Simple enough, especially for you.”

“I wouldn’t call it interrogation,” the soldier sitting behind me said. I had completely forgotten about his existence. He hadn’t said a word since we got into the car, back in Stuttgart. Until now. “Just a daily conversation. We’re not supposed to alter your state of mind,” he added.

I turned on my seat. It was too dark inside the car for me to see his face with any detail. However, I could tell that he wasn’t scared anymore.

“Isn’t a little too late for that?” I said. “And what do you mean my ‘state of mind’, exactly?”

“Maybe those are not the right words.” He smiled. “I just meant that we’ll try not to interfere with you. Only when we have our little daily conversation,” the soldier said. I could see his teeth and eyes catching some light and reflecting it, the rest of his face some broad smudges.

“You should even pretend that we aren’t in town, if you can,” Marcus said. “Do as you would do if you had come here out of your own volition.”

“I wouldn’t have come, though.”

“Well, you can see it as a forced vacation, if you prefer,” Marcus said. “Now you’re here and you need to spend a few days, so try to relax. Live in the house, walk around, investigate as you please. Maybe you will discover something unusual.”

“What do you expect me to discover?”

“That’s all up to you.”

“Nothing specific you want me to find?”

“Nothing I know of, no,” Marcus said.

“So you just release me and then observe me?”

“Basically, yes,” the soldier on the backseat said.

“I see. And not to be a bother, but where are my parents?”

“Ah, that,” Marcus said. “Well, I can tell you that they aren’t inside the house.”

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 8

Protected by the relief of knowing our destination, being in possession of that shred of certainty, finally some meaningful direction, I lounged on my seat, noticing for the first time the comfortable giving of the material, the seat embracing and accommodating my body. There was still apprehension within me, yes, after all I wasn’t in Barcelona without any worries, painting and next to you, but at least now, after several hours of being kicked around like a ball, I felt I could grab a flat paint brush the width of my hand and lay a thick and dark layer over that apprehension and just enjoy the ride.

‘So we are going to my parents house,’ I could have said out loud to get a confirmation from the driving soldier, or I could have insisted with the ‘where are we going?’ but instead I asked “So, how’s your war going?”

The soldier, both hands on the wheel, shrugged his shoulders but kept his attention on the road.

“You must be winning, of course,” I insisted. No reply. Nothing else to say.

We were following the river now. The succession of trees precisely aligned along the road dulled my mind. I was a monkey jumping from tree to tree at an exhilarating and constant pace. I was a giant with an imaginary sword slicing trees as they came. Then the trees transitioned into a hedge, then a few rural houses, then we passed across a town that I thought I recognized. The bell tower was standing at the end of the main square, but there were two blocks of buildings that had not been spared. Bombed out houses against a peaceful backdrop of overgrown shrubbery and a hill further away. It seemed unnatural to look at such blunt destruction here in the countryside. One could consider Stuttgart or any other large city to be an unsurprising receptor of the scars of war, whole blocks of apartments flattened into dunes of rubble, and the produced dust and sadness spreading over the surrounding roads, lapping adjacent buildings with questions and despair, but here in this tiny town such level of devastation felt unreal, malicious enough to leave one astonished. Something so shocking that I would have wanted to paint it, though. If I had been the one driving I would have stopped, gotten out of the car and drawn a sketch with soft pencil on any paper at hand while enjoying the clean, evening air.

As quickly as we entered the town we left it behind us, and soon the straight road run between undulating fields. Uniform bands of chlorophyll separated by blackish green grooves. Geometry is so boring and relaxing. I just had to close my eyes for a moment and I fell asleep.

When I woke up my mouth was dry. My tongue was still sleeping, senseless, like a foreign piece of rubber attached to the back of my mouth. I was seriously hungry now. It had gotten dark during my nap. The last remnants of light in the lower sky only illuminated the top of the trees and the hanging clouds. The car lights revealed the road immediately in front of us and the monotonous ditches and hedgerows. I couldn’t see anything inside the car, but it felt like I had a hole in my abdomen and I could insert my fist through it and make contact with the seat.

“I’m very hungry,” I said.

“We are arriving to our destination. You’ll be able to eat something when we get there,” the soldier replied. He sounded tired. Even concerned or unsure about something. It was too dark for me to discern his facial emotions, although I could notice that once again he didn’t turn his head to face me. He was resolute, following displeasing orders. This was the first time in which I appreciated that he wanted to be somewhere else as much as I did. Maybe dancing with a girlfriend in Berlin. Maybe reading a book in a dusty, safe attic. Maybe holding one of my brushes, caressing the canvas with greens and blues, you posing in front of the window.

We turned into our last road. At the intersection we passed the unassuming signpost announcing Ebene, a wooden post supporting a plank of wood with the inside carved out around the letters, the whole thing painted in black except for the raised letters, shouting with a crimson red. Once as a boy I was at that intersection, observing another boy from the town reapplying black to the signpost, long brushstrokes up and down the post. I remember thinking that I could have done that job, especially the letters, making sure to extend the black of the background to the sides of each one of them, then carefully painting the top of each letter so that the red stayed in its confines without running down the sides. Not my place to do such a job, or being out there for that matter, possibly already late for my piano lesson or some social event at the mansion on top of the hill and overlooking the town.

The road we were in would lead you directly to the center of town, and from there you could go up a wide street and reach the front of the mansion. The fastest way to reach the mansion, however, was to take a service road that diverted to the right before coming to the first buildings of the town. This service road had low walls on either side and ascended around the hill at an angle. At the end of it, and when you crossed one of the wrought iron gates with large E letters as the main feature, you exchanged the silent road for the vivacious rattle of the pebbled path that went around the left wing of the mansion and took you to the back of it, where you couldn’t see the town and the town couldn’t see you, where you had an extension of parterres, waterworks, sullen statues, and symmetrical avenues that you could stroll to enter into manicured woodlands.

The Dreams of the Rabbit – 7

Müller didn’t answer any of my questions. He gave me this assassin look with his eyes slowly raising from the notes in front of him until they met mine, and I decided that maybe it was safer to let him lead the conversation again, maybe I would be able to read something between the lines. But Müller, maintaining his eyes on mine, closed the folder he had last been perusing and told me to wait outside. A soldier opened the door behind me, and it felt natural to go towards the light in the next room, to walk away from the faces and the confusing nonsense of and from Müller. Once the door closed again and the connection between the two rooms broke, it was like I woke up, and there I was again, in that same waiting room, with the rotten fruit on the central table, the decorating chairs perfectly aligned, those darken portraits and frozen landscapes like skeletons hanging from the walls.

Before I had time to get apprehensive or bored, the main doors to the waiting room opened and two soldiers came in. One of them had been in the initial group that corralled me at the station. It was that one soldier who asked me to follow them.

“I’m waiting for General Müller in there,” I told them, pointing to the small door, and I added “we are talking about my parents,” not realizing that they most likely didn’t care at all about me or my parents.

The soldier insisted, branding his weapon in a way that I think was intended to be threatening. No point in arguing. So there I went again (quite annoying, really, this strand of events and decisions beyond my control; what was I? A sodden, unpainted, weathered pawn, already taken out of the game?), following these two soldiers up and down stairs, along corridors, passing by rooms that were functional and barren, like the rest of the place, certainly, as if every drop of life had been sucked out from the building and it was now a dry and disinfected husk inhabited by a colony of soldiers. If I had to assign it a color, it would have been a homogeneous, grayish brown.

We stepped out from the building and into the same courtyard, although through a different door this time. Soldiers kept going in all directions. The car in which I had been driven from the station  was still parked in the middle of the courtyard, a decent looking car that seemed to have been painted military green in a hurry. I guessed that it had originally been beige, with a narrow black lane along the side. We walked directly towards the car and when we got closer I noticed that the leather seats were the same beige I had imagined for the bodywork. Disappointing to accept that my imagination had again been trumped by my memory.

“Are we leaving, then?” I said.

“Please get into the car,” the leading soldier said.

“Where are we going?”

The soldier opened the door of the passenger side for me, and insisted, “get into the car.”

I almost asked him again that where were we going just to show my displeasure, but it seemed clear that he had received orders not to divulge any information. Or he was an ass. Either way I sighed and got into the passenger seat. The leading soldier walked around the front of the car, studying me as if I were the first tarantula he had ever encountered. He got into the driver’s seat, whereas the second soldier sat on the back seat right behind me. I couldn’t see him on the rear mirror. I tried to imagine he was not pointing his weapon at my head.

“Put your seatbelt on,” the soldier next to me said after starting the engine. Half order, half request. A voice annoying enough that I felt like punching him. My frustration was beyond the greens and into the murky blues. Where the fuck were we going now? What about my parents? And when was I supposed to eat anything?

We drove out of the building and toward the East of Stuttgart. Most of the fog had dissipated by now but the streets and buildings seemed to be covered with a persistent patina of diffuseness, a shocking lack of vibrant colors and life. Even the trees seemed gray and off.

There wasn’t much traffic in the roads, a military vehicle from time to time, a rickety car filled with what seemed a family and their belongings, a decent-looking car driven by a man who could have been a lawyer or an accountant. From time to time we went through areas I didn’t recognize, but then I would see a familiar street name or some standing buildings in the distance and I would get my bearings again, just to lose them once again after a turn or after being distracted by a bombarded church with its guts spilled out.

We kept going East. It hit me then. I knew exactly where we were heading to. After the industrial area we were traversing there would be a forested park that would transition into the outskirts of the city, and thirty kilometers continuing East were my parents’ town and house.