Petite Suite Onirique – By Robert Wexelblatt

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Pic by Andre William

Author’s Note: This story is a hybrid of musical and narrative form. I began experimenting some years back with the “petite suite” (short, tuneful, anti-Wagnerian pieces by French composers of a century ago): short narratives loosely connected by a theme. In this case, the theme is dreams.

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1. Sors de Mes Rêves, S’il Te Plait – Duo à sens unique en sol majeur pour violoncelle, lent avec un désespoir croissant.

“This is just what I mean,” he said. “Why are you here anyway? There’s no reason for it.”

Flat silence is different from not receiving a reply. The latter might mean somebody’s at a loss or thinking up a plausible lie. They could be dumbfounded, nonplused, hard of hearing, but there is a likelihood that something will eventually get said, that there is something to wait for. It was nothing like that with her. With her it was always silence, never even the far-off misty vista of a reply. And her face was always the same, too. She smiled faintly like the statue of a moderately well-disposed goddess, except that she was made of flesh, not marble, and wore not a himation but a black blazer over a white skirt.

“Do you have any idea how many times this has happened? It’s scores, a hundred. I’ll be, say, in a canoe with a friend—Ben Hirsch, say—paddling down a river on a bright October day. We’ll pass by some people picnicking on the bank and you’ll be among them. Or I’ll be in some interminable meeting, the kind where people are too bored to object to anything, when the droning vice president of this or that or other reads his own slides, bullet-points running down the screen as if put there with a Tommy gun, and I’ll catch sight of you sitting at the far end of the conference table, serene as always. Or I’ll be in the middle of the deciding set of a championship match on a stifling July afternoon and, when I change sides, I’ll spot you up among the spectators, cool even in that blazer. I’ve endured this for eleven years. You’re in the next room; you’re at the stove; you’re in a crowd on the subway. You never have anything to do with what’s going on but there you are, getting into a car across a street or walking down the pavement holding a cup of coffee. I admit it’s always a thrill to see you, but it’s stimulation without consolation and so no comfort at all. Worst still were the two sexual encounters. Remember them? For me, they were exciting and frustrating, like clutching at a cloud. What were they for you?”

The affair had lasted six years. She was married, not unhappily enough, and he had become divorced after the first year. She had two children; he had zero. As they were a secret from everyone else, they had no secrets from each other. Through all those years, the happiest of his life, he accepted his position at the bottom of her priority list and resigned himself to the trips they couldn’t take, the nights they couldn’t spend together. But then she began to make excuses for putting off their trysts. He pined and felt humiliated by the undeniable one-sidedness. He was unhappy and felt his dignity draining away. She wants to end it, he thought, but doesn’t know how or hasn’t the courage. And so when she phoned to put off one more of their afternoons without even bothering to give a reason, he erupted, not with anger but out of pain. He hadn’t planned it. In fact, he was stunned by what came out of his mouth. The tone was all wrong and what he said didn’t in the least reflect the emotions he felt. It came out like a cost-benefit analysis.

“Look, do you want to end things?” he concluded and knew at once that her answer might destroy him. She was silent. What had he done? He waited as long as he could but there was nothing. The silence provoked him and, without willing it, he filled the void the only way he could. “I can’t do this anymore,” he blurted. “It’s not because I don’t love you; it’s because I can’t stop. And I have to try.” She didn’t hang up. There was only more silence, a silence which never went away.

Now, all these years later, after all her wordless cameo appearances in his dreams, he confronted that silence. He was in a park on a cloudy, warm afternoon. It felt like a Sunday in late summer. People were walking dogs, wrangling toddlers, tossing balls, riding bikes, holding hands. He was on his way to a softball game. He was the second baseman. A bag with his spikes, glove, and a bottle of water hung from his hand. He was late and hurrying. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her seated alone on a bench. He had never done it before, never approached. He never felt that he had that much control. He thought it was against the rules. If he had ever tried before—at the tennis match, at the meeting—he couldn’t remember doing so. Maybe he had woken up the moment he took the first step toward her. But now, for some reason, it was possible. He sat himself down beside her and dropped the bag between his feet. Though he said little, it felt like he spoke for whole days and nights.

He took a deep breath. “There’s been no one else,” he said to her marmoreal profile. “Maybe if you took yourself out of my unconscious, stopped stealing around my prefrontal cortex, gave up playing the returning repressed, maybe then I could find somebody else. Perhaps it’s not too late. So, I’m begging you. Go away. Stay away.”

And she moved. Without altering her expression, that comforting and tormenting smile, she turned toward him, raised her hand, and lightly brushed his cheek with the back of her hand. It was like the gentlest of slaps. Her fingers were warm.

He woke in a derangement of feeling. She had touched him and he was happy to have been near her; but as the sweet, painful sensation faded from his unshaven cheek, he shuddered into consciousness, certain that he would have to go on being alone.

2. La Moulante – Concertino en do majeur pour flûte et cordes, élastique et vif à la fin

When Pierre Brunelle first set foot in the city on a stupefyingly tropical afternoon eight months earlier, there was still rubble to be seen, especially in Bellefleur, the district with which he had professionally to do. What the locals called the Great Trembling had struck four years earlier. The quake took a fearful toll in lives and a catastrophic one in property. Bellefleur was a poor neighborhood and so had the most irresponsible construction. The three-story tenements characteristic of the district had collapsed on their residents like the fist of a smiting Judge. In fact, according to his client, Monsieur Foisanant, that was exactly what more than one of the local clergy declared the quake to be.

“It is not an enlightened country,” he had said drily as if the citizens had indeed been punished but for the sin of ignorance—perhaps for believing in sin.

Pierre did not feel so scornful. He understood that the wish to moralize a disaster is as natural as the calamity itself, however mistaken.

The two men sat in Bruenelle’s small, modern office in the Onzième Arrondisement which did not shake at all.

“Haven’t you noticed that a bad turn of luck can feel like a chastisement?” said Pierre. He smiled to soften the disagreement. “People like to find a meaning in things, especially bad ones.”

Foisanant grunted. “The Bellefleur district was leveled,” he said brutally, “and that, for me, is its meaning. I picked up a huge chunk of it for a song. And that, assuming we can come to terms, is where you will build. I want luxury apartments—four floors of them—above one of commercial space and three for offices. The city got a lot of aid and it’s rebuilding. Plenty of new infrastructure. I’m betting the place has a future.”

“But Monsieur Foisonant, I’ve done some research. There are laws restricting the height of buildings to only three floors. You are asking for seven.”

Foisanant sat back in the soft leather chair; Pierre sat up straight on the hard one provided for clients. He tapped his fingers together with an air of satisfaction. “That’s been seen to,” he said.

Bribes, thought Pierre.

“Besides,” Foisanant continued, “my researches tell me another quake is improbable, that it’ll most likely be decades before the plates shift again. I have it from an expert, a professor.”

“Most likely?” said Pierre.

Foisanant shrugged. “All of life is a matter of probabilities. We take automobiles for granted, but how probable was a Renault Clio or a Volkswagen Golf calculated from the Big Bang?”

Pierre had no idea what to say to this.

“Now, to the point. I chose you to design the building for me because you’re young, unmarried and so easy to relocate, and you enjoy a good reputation, though hardly yet a great one. As construction costs will be low, especially wages, I’m giving you carte blanche to come up with something that will make your name, mine—and get into the tonier magazines. It goes without saying that I want you to make it as safe as you can, Brunelle. Within reason, naturally.”

“Within reason?”

“Not to worry. I’ll make sure that it’s well insured.”

Despite his misgivings, Pierre signed the contract. Foisanant’s insurance policy would cover the building, not the people inside of it. Now that he was on the spot, had seen the city and looked over the site, his compunction was hardly allayed—on the contrary.

He took an apartment near the city center. It was low-ceilinged but large and very cheap, big enough for an office that could accommodate his whole staff and with spacious living quarters for himself. The climate was oppressive. He arranged for two air-conditioners and a generator. Power cuts, like beggars, muggings, and heavily armed police were commonplace in the city.

Pierre’s design was informed by a thoroughgoing review of the work of those few architects he admired; that is, the most imaginative and forward-looking. Yet the plan he had devised was original. In contrast to the rundown, post-colonial look of the city, his building would be in a style he privately thought of as neo-neo-classical. And yet, after a week in the place, he reconsidered. His seven-floors, he realized, had been thought up in Paris, in the abstract, without context, as if he were going to erect them over thin air. He begged Foisanant to put off his deadline for a month and began making modifications. The building would still stand out, just less like a sore thumb.

Pierre preferred the open stalls to the well-stocked hygienic supermarket that served well-to-do and expatriates. He did his shopping early, before the heat of the day, and sometimes lingered to watch the country people unloading produce from pickup trucks, donkey carts, mopeds, even bicycles. Two outsized canvas awnings covered the stalls. He admired the simplicity and precise spacing of the wooden supports. The poles were set into round metal fittings hammered into the beaten earth. One morning, as he stood in their shade, the awnings began to flutter oddly, as if caught in contrary gusts. Then he felt the tremor beneath his feet. Everybody froze. The tremor was slight and lasted only seconds, yet Pierre wished Foisanant’s professor had been on hand to feel it.

“We’re going to change the plans again,” he announced to his team an hour later. Those who were French emitted Gallic groans; the locals looked pleased. For the former, this meant more time away from home; for the latter, the chance of more weeks of employment.

“What is it?” asked Alaire, his first assistant.

“You didn’t feel it?”

“What?”

“The earthquake, of course.”

“Earthquake? No.” Alaire looked at the others. They all shrugged except his secretary Lucille, a laconic local. “It was tiny,” she said in a voice to match. “Nothing. Ordinary.”

Pierre obsessed over the problem of how to make his building earthquake-proof—within reason. Firm up the foundation? Buttresses? He remembered the poles in the market. Could he sink girders into the bedrock of Bellefleur? He couldn’t see how any of these measures would succeed.

The problem was driving him crazy. He also had to consider Foisanant’s deadline. He’d already asked for a second delay and, to put it mildly, Foisanant didn’t agree with a good grace. Pierre found sleeping difficult, even with the air-conditioner. He did experience the pleasant exhaustion that comes after a day of achievement but the dispiriting sort one gets from accomplishing nothing. When his client phoned demanding a progress report, he tried to explain.

“I’m afraid there’s going to be another earthquake, maybe another big one. A building with seven floors will be a deathtrap.”

“Didn’t I tell you to do your best?”

“Yes, you did.”

“Well, have you?”

“Not yet.”

“No more delays, Brunelle. Get on with it.”

Toward morning, Pierre fell into a fitful sleep and had a dream, a happy one that took him back home and to his childhood. He was in the garden behind his grandparents’ country house in Senlis. There was to be a big family picnic. The high-summer afternoon was perfect, everything green and lush. The blue hydrangea blooms were the size of footballs. His aunt and uncle had come early with his favorite cousin, Henriette. They were of an age. He wanted to play croquet. Henriette agreed and he began setting up the wickets.

“Oh,” said his cousin. “Wait a minute. There’s something I want to show you.”

“What?”

“Just wait.”

Henriette ran to her parents’ car and returned holding a colorful little cube.

“What’s that?”

“My friend Cecile brought it back for me from America.”

Pierre felt impatient. He wanted to get to the croquet. “Well, let’s see it, then.”

“Come over to the steps.”

“Just show me now,” he demanded.

“Oh, very well.”

Henriette opened the box and took out a metal cylinder. She tossed it into the air. It uncoiled and fell straight back into her grasp.

“It can walk down steps!” she crowed.

Pierre awoke and dashed into the office, to his drawing board.

“Yes. Yes, it’s possible,” he muttered to himself. “If I isolate the base, it can be done.”

He sketched a rough design for four large springs and how they could be anchored to the foundation and reinforced with tensile steel. It was an entirely original idea, the kind that would save lives and make its inventor famous.

“Henriette’s toy!” Who’d have thought? he shouted then laughed out loud.

3. Rêves Prophétiques – Symphonie pour deux orchestres en modes Phrygien et Lydien, lascive et belliqueuse

At dawn, Bordeaux lay quiet below the castle of Roquetaillade. Guillaume stood on the battlements breathing in the still smoke-free air. He was no longer the frank and hopeful youth who had assumed the title of Duke of Aquitaine a decade before but a harder man of thirty-two, more inclined to suspicion than trust. A half-hour earlier, he had awakened from a terrible dream. Like his contemporaries, Guillaume believed in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, and the Nicene Creed. He also believed that dreams are true revelations, though of what isn’t always clear. He couldn’t be sure if his dream revealed what had happened, what would happen, or what might happen.

He had wakened in a fury. His first impulse was to march to his wife’s chamber, dismiss her ladies, shake her awake and demand to know if she’d been unfaithful. But he had learned caution. Brisca was from a powerful family that traced itself back to the time of Hugh Capet. Guillaume’s marriage, which until that morning he had thought a happy one, was also an indispensable alliance. His mother-in-law had never liked him; she considered him an upstart. Rage and prudence jousted in his brain.

Two months earlier, Guillaume had entertained his neighboring ruler, Odo, Duke of Gascony, a man eight years his junior but two years older than Brisca. Feeding and housing Odo and his entourage for three weeks had been costly, but the agreements they negotiated justified the expense. Now Guillaume reviewed the episodes of that state visit. How had Odo and Brisca behaved toward one another? Always properly, so far as he knew, with formal courtesy and nothing more. But three weeks was a long time, enough for the exchange of glances and messages, for trysts.

In one sense, the dream was not obscure. In it, he had been concealed behind an arras in Brisca’s chamber. On her high bed, Odo was gyrating atop of his wife whose moans of pleasure were of a sort he had never heard.

As the sun rose and the town began to stir, victory in the joust fell to anger, fortified by jealousy. Yet Guillaume was still chary of acting precipitously at least with respect to his wife. He decided against confronting her and instead started to plan an attack on Gascony aimed at hacking Odo to pieces. He could have it out with Brisca afterwards.

Summoned to Bordeaux by discreet couriers, the lords of Aquitaine gathered in what they were surprised to find was a council of war.

“But, My Lord, we understood your meeting with Duke Odo went smoothly,” said the Marquis of Torny, at fifty the most senior man there.

“Not as smoothly as all that,” Guillaume retorted. “How many men can you muster in a month, Torny?”

The same question was put to them all.

“No word of this meeting must get abroad. We’ll gather in secret.”

Once again the Marquis of Torny spoke up. “There’s to be no declaration?”

His implication was clear, that a surprise attack was dishonorable.

Guillaume frowned. “No,” he said firmly. “I’m informed that Odo is in the north, in Auch. This is convenient. We can take the town before he moves his court south to Torbes.” He looked hard at Torny, who said nothing more but gave a slight bow.

“There will be two columns. I’ll lead the larger and you, Marquis, will command the other.”

There was no need to point out that this meant a larger share of land and loot.

“As you wish, My Lord.”

Guillaume motioned for the Marquis to draw closer. “Good,” he whispered. “The others look to you. As to the reason for the war, I’ll explain that to you later, in private. You must promise to keep it to yourself.”

A month later, the two columns with their mounted knights, archers, and ranks of pikemen crossed the frontier. Guillaume’s was to march along the east bank of the Garonne, Torny’s on the west in order to cut off any possibility of Odo fleeing toward Torbes.

Where the Garonne joined the River Gers lay some high cliffs. On their way to Auch, Guillaume’s column had the Gers to their left and these cliffs to the right. A light rain was falling when they reached the spot late in the morning. As Guillaume’s column proceeded under the cliffs, huge boulders suddenly rolled down on them followed by a storm of arrows. This onslaught was followed by infantry streaming up from the south behind a vanguard of heavy cavalry. In the mêlée, a lucky bolt from a crossbow pierced the eyehole of Gullaume’s plumed and burnished helmet. Observing all this from the eastern bank, the Marquis of Torny at once ordered his column back to Aquitaine and the rout was on.

The Dukedom, reduced in extent by the victorious Odo, passed to the half-brother of Brisca, which greatly pleased her mother. Guillaume’s widow retained her title and willingly accepted her mother’s advice not to remarry.

Some years later, the Marquis of Torny, now a very old man and trusted advisor to the new duke, was invited to the wedding of Odo’s son to the daughter of the Count of Guînes. He attended with some misgivings but was received warmly and with dignity. After the wedding feast, Torny had a page take a message to Duke Odo asking for a brief audience. The page returned promptly.

“My Lord says it would be a pleasure to meet with you, Monsieur le Marquis. Please follow me.”

The conversation was brief.

“Guillaume was very careful,” said Torny. “How did you discover his plans? A spy, I presume?”

Odo smiled and took a sip of wine. “You know, I’ve never told anyone about that. It’s true, I knew he intended to attack me at Auch. I even knew about the two columns.”

“Did you know one of them was mine?”

Odo’s eyebrows went up. “No, I didn’t. The one that escaped, obviously.”

The Marquis inclined his head.

“Well,” said Odo, “it was through a dream. In this dream, I was standing on the heights above the Gers. I could see the two columns on either side of the river. I spotted Guillaume’s pennant and made my plans.”

On his return to Bordeaux, the Marquis went to see the widowed Duchess and told her the whole story.

“There’s something I would like to ask you, My Lady.”

“Yes?”

“By any chance, did you too have a dream?”

Brisca replied with a little laugh. “Oh, I never remember my dreams. They always fly away like smoke the moment I wake up. Does that happen to you, too, My Lord?”


About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.