Requiem for a Winter's Night by Alistair Rey
It had begun to snow again, Emile noticed at he stared out the window where a film was being projected onto the adjacent courtyard wall. Unlike many of the modish clubs and bars that had sprung up along the Oranienburger strip, High End managed to retain an overtly bohemian spirit. Occupying the third floor of an arts complex, the small bar felt more like an observatory flanked by three large panes of glass. On any given night, experimental film clips were projected from the roof onto the building opposite the courtyard. Anyone sitting by one of the frost-glazed windows could absently watch these spectral images flicker across the building’s side whenever conversation lulled. Now was just such a moment.
Colby was in the process of recounting one of the most recent Foreign Exchange Office jamborees as he rattled the ice in his tumbler. He had arrived just as the Stimmung was getting under way. The FEO provided an assortment of baked goods and unlimited coffee, all arranged on a banquet table that students hovered around like vultures.
Admittedly, a banquet with no alcoholic beverages and no prospect of decent conversation was not Colby’s idea of a good time. His vested interest in attending the event had been an American student named either Jill or Jen Hersching whom Colby had had his eye on for a while. A few minutes of bland chatter dispelled him of any such luck.
Just about the time Colby had given up hope of an extracurricular rendezvous with Jill or Jen Hersching, a new group of exchange students came barreling through the door and attacked the remains of the baked goods on the banquet table. The leader of the troop, a big and lumbering student named Foster Greeley, began stuffing his face with brownies and moving in on some of the girls drinking coffee by the table. He was visibly drunk and lurched about the room, asking girls at random if they wanted to dance. The third girl he asked pointed out that there was, in fact, no music playing.
“I thought this was a Stimmung!” he bellowed.
“Where’s the damn tunes!” another hollered through a mouth full of petit fours.
Colby watched the gang run from group to group trying to pick up any girl they could with amusement. As the crowd progressively thinned, he found himself entrenched in Greeley’s little entourage. Colby had to admit he preferred Greeley’s bawdy antics to anything he had witnessed thus far at the Stimmung, and so, with the event at an end, he followed the gang to a watering hole in Prenzlauerberg.
One of Greeley’s mates, a stocky and barrel-chested student named Martin Pykes, took to Colby instantly. Not only was he a fellow Brit, but it seemed that they both shared the ambition of shagging one Jill or Jen Hersching. Crooning over some pints, they made a small wager over which of them would be the first to seduce the object of their mutual desire. Meanwhile, one of Greeley’s boys had purchased an armload of condoms from a dispenser in the men’s room and was in the process of distributing them among the group. Unwrapping the prophylactics, Greeley and his mates began inflating the vermiform latex, making crude balloons which they tossed into the air. People pawed at the swollen condoms as they descended, keeping them aloft like beach balls at an open-air concert. It was around this point that Pykes, drunk on beer and gin tonics, scribbled down an address for Colby on a bar napkin.
“Not to pullback on our little wager, chum,” he said, sliding the napkin across the bar, “but if our kitten turns out to be inaccessible, you can find adequate compensation here.”
Colby stared at the writing on the napkin blankly.
“Viel Spaß, I assure you.”
Colby said nothing as he tucked the napkin into his pocket and looked down at the floor littered with deflated condoms and shiny foil wrappers.
Emile, half-attentive, turned his gaze out the window at the blanket of snow descending through the night. The low drone of ambient music filled the interior. The nightly partying at High End was beginning to crest as the rooms filled with bodies.
Not that he was prudish, but Emile found stories of aggressive preening and coed sexual adventurism tasteless. If his college experience had been routine by most standards, it had nonetheless been bereft of the typical courting, late-night hookups and emoji-laden text messaging that passed for romance on American campuses. Two years of undergrad and six months on a foreign exchange, and Emile still had yet to explore that complicated phenomenon that analysist never tired of branding “the college dating scene”.
“Sounds like I missed a party,” Emile said impassively.
Colby shrugged and rattled the remaining ice cubes in his tumbler. “Bit o’ fun’s all. Good blokes. The kind that’re a ball to get pissed with but would probably be insufferable when sober.” Then, following Emile’s gaze, “It’s really coming down out there.”
Emile nodded. “You know, back home in Louisiana I’d never seen snow before.”
“Yeah. I mean, I had seen it in movies and pictures, sure. But to actually see it in person is different. You know? It’s like seeing a drawing of a cheeseburger but now knowing what it smells or tastes like.”
“Maybe that’s a bad example, but do you get what I am trying to say? It’s like you know what to expect but then when you actually experience it, it’s not like how you thought.”
“I see what you’re getting at.”
“The day it stared snowing, I went outside and walked around for a while. I felt like I wanted to experience snow, not just see it. And you know, the first thing I thought was ‘it’s really cold,’ as if snow and cold had never actually been associated in my mind. Stupid, right?”
Colby raised one thin eyebrow in a speculative expression. “Any ponce could have told you snow is cold.” He was rattling the ice in his glass again. “Looks like I need a refill. I suggest that you follow my lead and get something a bit harder that’ll put some fire in your gut. It’ll keep you warm when we’re out there.”
“What’s out there?”
In the diffuse light of the bar, Colby’s grin looked more like an impish smirk.
Out in the snow, Colby’s tracks veered from one corner of the sidewalk to the other like the footprints of some ungainly bird, no doubt the effects of the four Black Labels he had gulped down at High End.
Emile hunched into his overcoat, his shoulders peppered with white. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Viel Spaß!” Colby warbled as they proceeded along the deserted street. He paused and threw his head back trying to catch the falling snowflakes in his open mouth. “Here’s how you experience snow. See?”
Emile was not amused.
“Jesus, lighten up, chum!” as Colby collided with a bicycle chained to a lamp post and almost careened face down onto the pavement.
In the distance, a light flickered in the wind.
“You hear that?” Colby asked, stopping and leaning up against the wall for support.
Emile cocked his ear, feeling the cold tickle of the snow. He thought he heard the faint sound of music.
“What? That music?”
Emile listened closer and heard the sound of voices mixing with the howl of the wind.
Up ahead, a fire was burning in the middle of the street. Plumes of smoke rose into the night air. For a second Emile thought it might be an automobile accident, but as they got closer he made out a cluster of bodies huddling around what looked to be a burning garbage receptacle.
“Listen,” Colby instructed, placing a finger to his lips.
There was the sound of voices murmuring.
“Are they singing?”
On the corner up ahead, four vagrants sat in a semi-circle, faces etched in pale firelight. They cupped their hands to the flame and exhaled breathes that materialized in the frigid air. A few sang, the plangent melody resonating in the night like an elegy. Emile listened and tried to make out the words, although the German was unintelligible to him.
Colby shuffled through the detritus of wrappers, crumpled newspapers and beer bottles littering the pavement. These articles had once been contained in the garbage can but were now being used by the vagrants as fuel. Emile watched as an old man slowly balled up some fast food packaging and fed in into the fire, the paper shriveling, blackening and disappearing into the flames.
“What a dump!” Colby wailed, kicking at the trash. He said it loud enough for the four men to hear.
“Amerikaner?” one asked as they passed.
“Wrong side of the pond, mate,” Colby leered, as though to confuse a Brit with an American was a cardinal sin.
“A euro?” the man asked, holding out his hand. The skin was chapped with deep ridges of dirt caked under each fingernail.
Colby looked down at the hand in disgust.
“Maybe if you sing a little more of that ditty I’d think it worth it,” he said, a mean grin spreading ear to ear. “This little barbershop quarter you got might be worth a euro!”
The man stared at Colby, expressionless.
Emile tugged at Colby’s arm. “C’mon. Let’s go. Leave ’em alone,” he whispered, aware that he sounded like a remonstrative parent.
Colby shrugged off his grip and fixed his eyes on the man. “Sing!” he commanded. “Make it worth my money.”
Emile stood aside, mortified, watching the two through the falling snow.
“A euro?” the man repeated with an imploring hand gesture.
At this, Colby laughed and began kicking tufts of snow at him. “Think he knows snow is cold,” he said, turning to Emile, smiling.
The man flinched and rejoined the group nestled around the fire without a word. What a dick, was all Emile could think as he watched Colby continue to taunt the man from a distance.
“What’d you do that for?” he asked once they had resumed cutting along the side streets. He was still bewildered by what had taken place. Something about Colby’s lack of compassion or even decency left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Trash,” Colby hissed. “Handouts for everyone.”
“You could have just ignored them.”
But Colby’s thoughts were already elsewhere.
Emile could still hear the singing a block away as their feet crunched in the snow and they entered a narrow alley. It almost sounded tribal, a chant calling forth something numinous and terrifying across the night as it mixed with the distant noises of stray cats and gurgling storm drains.
“Colby, you know where we’re going?”
“I know, I know,” he slurred, his steps uneven and faltering.
“This isn’t some shitty discotheque, is it?”
Emile paused and watched his breath evaporate into the night. Up ahead, Colby let out a belch that echoed through the passage.
“Hey, wait up!” he called, breaking into a light trot and keeping an eye on Colby’s meandering tracks.
He found him midway down the alley standing in front of a metal-plated door. Looking between the number on the door and the writing scrawled on the folded napkin, Colby shrugged and rang the bell.
“This is it,” he said.
Emile glanced down the alley. It was empty with little indication of foot traffic. The passageway extended into oblivion, a flat carpet of uninterrupted white enclosed by two brick walls. Hardly the setting for a night club or recherché discotheque, he mused. As they waited in the cold shifting their weight from foot to foot, Emile had to wonder whether this whole thing had been a ruse. He was about to suggest as much when he heard the sound of a heavy bolt being unlatched. The door inched open and a man’s face appeared, middle-aged with black shoulder length hair neatly combed back and falling just to the trim of the white collar around his neck. He looked like a storekeeper, Emile thought.
“We must have the wrong address,” Colby stammered once it was evident the man was waiting for them to speak.
“That depends where you were looking for,” the man replied in English, flashing them a grin.
“A friend gave me this address, but…”
“Then you are probably in the correct place,” he said, holding back the door and gesturing for them to enter.
They stepped into the foyer. Soft, multicolored light from a Moroccan lamp filled the room. The walls were patterned with looping floral designs, the kind of lining paper you’d expect to find at your grandmother’s house. Colby, eyes wandering around the room, tried not to gawk at the statues and ornamental kitsch placed throughout the room. They waddled in, soles dragging across the arabesque tile floor, appreciative of the warmth.
“This way, please,” the man instructed, heading down the hall.
Emile gazed at the pictures lining the wall: old frames; a mix of paintings and photographs running from antique to modern; all portraits vacantly gazing back at the spectator. The motif was odd, if not unsettling. Emile paused to scrutinize the deadpan face of a woman in a daguerreotype, noting the still expression and blank eyes created by the silvering effect.
“This way, please,” the man repeated, prompting Emile to continue down the hall.
The next room was better lit than the foyer, drifting more toward the red-orange range of the spectrum. A table and some chairs were arranged beside a standing lamp with a fringed shade. The man made a gesture and they took a seat. Neither said a word as they sunk into the soft velvet cushions. Colby pointed to the small Turkish teacups set before them.
“What is this place?” Emile whispered.
Colby shrugged and ran his fingers through the lampshade fringe, eliciting a rattle of glass beads.
The man returned with a tray bearing a teapot and sugar bowl. Placing it down in the center of the table, he took a seat between them and proceeded to pour two steaming cups.
“Sugar?” he asked Colby, gesturing toward the bowl.
Colby shook his head and accepted the cup.
They sat in silence with nobody making much of an attempt to generate conversation. Colby sipped his tea while Emile stole glances around the room, taking in the figurines, candelabras and baroque crown molding. Thick shadows welled in the corners where the red lighting refused to penetrate.
It was finally Colby that broke the silence.
“Nice statue,” he said casually, angling his head toward a half-sized marble sculpture of a Greek deity.
The man nodded. “A very exquisite piece of work,” he agreed. Then, with a half-smile, “What would you pay for that statue?”
“Oh, I wasn’t…” Colby replied, confused, fingers moving through his neatly cropped crewcut still wet with snow.
“Simply a question. Indulge me.”
“I couldn’t say. I wouldn’t even know what it’s worth.”
“So you didn’t come here to purchase something?” he asked.
“I don’t…” A shrewd look beginning to dawn on his face.
“An offer is innocent.”
He scanned the room as though appraising the items in it. The statues, the lamps, the rugs: everything looked expensive, looked authentic, Emile thought, following Colby’s sweeping gaze. For a moment, in the red glow emitted by the oriental lamps, he thought he saw Colby lock eyes with him before moving on to the other objects.
“Fifty euros,” he finally said, biting his lip.
The man laughed. “That statute is worth at least four times that amount.”
“That so?” as he withdrew his wallet from his coat pocket and began running his thumb through its contents.
The man reached out and placed a hand over his calculating fingers. Colby responded with a ridiculous grin, dropping all pretense of knowing how to play this game.
“You’re good for it,” the man said, rising from his chair.
“Yes, of course. Absolutely,” as he watched the man once again disappear into the back room.
Emile had observed all this in silence, and now he saw a worried expression creep across Colby’s face.
“Spot me fifty,” he whispered, eyes darting to the back door. “I’m solid for it.”
“C’mon. Don’t be naff. I mean, you weren’t…?”
A confounding silence. He was right of course. Just being in this place was making Emile edgy and evoking memories of those anxious nights at college parties when he would beat an early exit, dreading the moment when people would begin pairing off and disappearing into vacant bedrooms. He never wanted to be the single guy sitting around uncomfortably while the party transitioned into the inevitable make-out sessions and breathless encounters upstairs; never wanted to endure those awkward conversations filled with ambiguous body language and innuendos or face the humiliating question “that’s it?” to which there was no redeeming answer. There were names for people like that. Names that wove their way into the general campus chatter and haunted you for years. And yet, here he was. Following Colby, he had walked right into it.
The man emerged from the back room with two women in tow. They appeared to glide through the soft light, their long dresses trailing along the tile floor. When they approached the table, the first women extended a hand to Emile as though expecting him to kiss it. A quaint gesture, he thought, staring at the smooth skin, unsure whether or not to take the hand offered.
“Elena,” she said, smiling at him.
The man cleared his throat and nudged his head in Colby’s direction.
“Ah, yes,” Elena said, retracting the hand and extending it toward Colby. “You are the man who likes the statue.”
Colby, mouth agape, nodded. “Yes,” he managed, taking her hand and allowing himself to be drawn to his feet like a puppet on a string.
“And would you like to see the other statues we have in the house?” as she led Colby away from the table, her feet whispering across the tile.
Their voices and footsteps retreated into the thick stillness of the room. Elena’s hips had a rhythmic sway to them, Emile noticed, as Colby disappeared through the dark doorway, Elena’s arm linked in his. It was a practiced and deliberate movement, hinting more at technique than natural grace.
“I’m sure you can attend to our other guest, Eva,” the man said with a wink once they had left the room.
Emile turned his defenseless gaze toward the woman, feeling as though he had just been assigned a babysitter. Eva was slightly older than Elena. Her dress was not as elegant or as formfitting. She had a pretty face, although there was a plainness to it that maquillage and heavy eyeliner could not completely hide. The look of a provincial girl dolled up for a night on the town, Emile thought.
“I give them five minutes,” he said, trying to lighten the mood as Eva slid into the seat beside him.
“Don’t have a high estimation of your friend,” she replied, abiding.
He drummed his fingers on the table wondering what they were going to do in the meantime. Five minutes was wishful thinking, he realized. An awkward silence ensued in which Emile drained the last of the tea from his cup. Eva had a bored expression that suggested she didn’t much care what they did or talked about. Taking account of the weather and the fact that it was a Tuesday evening, Emile assumed this is what passed for a slow night.
“What do you do here?” he asked to break the uneasy silence.
Eva fixed him with a puzzled expression and then gave a mirthless laugh. “Adorable.”
“Well, shouldn’t we do something? Or do we just sit here?”
Leaning across the table, she placed a finger softly on his lips. “We can do whatever you want.”
Emile stared down at the single painted nail just under his nose, trying to decide if she was being playful or mean. When she saw the wince, she removed her finger, sat back in the chair and let out a frustrated sigh.
“Why don’t we go to the variety room,” she suggested, motioning for his hand. “It usually helps with first-timers.”
Emile offered no protest, his mind still on the way her fingertip felt against his mouth and the lingering salty taste it had left on his lips. His hand was warm and sticky. He tried to wipe it on his pant leg first before she took it in hers.
Leading him through a maze of halls covered in red vinyl wallpaper, Eva hummed a tune under her breath. Emile took note of the portraits on the wall again and tried to slow their pace. Walking along, he thought he recognized a few. A narrow-faced, elderly man resembling his current history professor; an athletic-looking youth that could pass for Foster Greeley; the faces glided by, one by one, each containing more than a hint of familiarity.
“Who are all these people?” he asked as she pulled him along.
“People who have been here, I imagine,” she said with a shrug. “Maybe your friend’s face will be up there soon. Maybe yours.”
The thought sent a shiver through his body, although he could not say why. Something about the blank, lifeless stares on all the faces; the way the facial muscles seemed carefully set as though by a mortician.
It took a moment for Emile’s eyes to adjust to the dark as they stepped into the variety room. Shapes and objects materialized slowly in the blackness. Emile saw that they were standing in a semi-circular room. A stage with a curtain lay at the far end, opposite which was a satin-upholstered divan. It had the look of a small theater. Frames covered the black walls, although in the dark Emile could not make out the faces enclosed within them.
He was about to ask Eva why she had brought him here when he heard the click of a switch. A faint light illuminated the stage in blues and reds followed by a mechanical grating noise. From each side of the stage entered an automaton, their bodies carried along a hidden tread in the stage floor as they met in the center. Their features were crude, and the clumsy, motorized movements gave the impression of life-sized puppets operated by invisible strings. However, it was clear from the papier-mâché faces and old-fashioned clothing that the automatons were gendered, one male the other female. In a sequence of contorting gestures and creaky motions, the automatons began to act out various compromising positions, imitating a penny arcade peepshow.
“Neat, huh?” Eva said as she took Emile by the hand and escorted him to the divan.
Emile watched, half-embarrassed and half-mesmerized, as the two armatures went through their repertoire, joints squeaking and motors whirring. The simplified human anatomy left some things to the imagination, Emile noted, as his eyes moved between Eva and the sexless torsos banging and knocking together. The thought that people might find this grotesque performance titillating disturbed him.
After about five minutes, the gears began to grind again and the automatons parted, vacating the stage. Emile jerked as Eva wrapped her finger around his clammy hand resting on the divan cushion and give a squeeze.
“I won’t bite,” she whispered.
On the stage, a second automaton came into view. Unlike the first, this one resembled an old man dressed in rags. A large floppy hat sat atop the head, partially concealing the wax-like face. Two shining eyes glared out at the couple, burning in the dark like cinders. A gangly arm extended outward, palm upward, the ill-fitting joints emitting a weak squeaking sound as the arm drifted from side to side.
Eva’s giggling transitioned into laugher and Emile felt her hand begin to caress his cheek and draw him closer. Her breath was warm on his face.
Trying to wriggle free of her busy hands, Emile fixed his gaze on the stage where the automaton stared at them in silence. Something about the gesture, the way the hand dangled in the air imploring recognition, filled him with dread. “A euro?” Emile imagined it saying, scrutinizing the features of the face and trying to recall. Through the half-light of memory, all he could muster was a silhouette stenciled against the falling snow, an outline devoid of content.
“That’s…” he heard himself muttering as Eva turned his face toward hers and their eyes met.
In the indigo radiance, her face looked different, older. Thin shadows accumulated in the creases by her eyes and the recesses around her lips, blotting out the former youth and attractiveness. A squeamish sensation coursed through him as their lips grazed and Eva twisted her body, leaning into his. She seemed to be directing him, guiding his hands to the correct places with short fits of discouraging laughter.
“Oh, this is… You’ve never…” he heard her murmur.
He fought back the urge to pull away as his hands fumbled along her back. The body beneath the dress felt spongy and formless. There was a distinct sensation of fingers sinking into doughy flesh, of submerging his face in wet clay. His mind fastened on the sound of rickety gears coming from the stage. Repositioning his head to see the next exhibit, Emile felt a tug and heard a sickening tearing noise like tape being peeled from a wall.
Standing on the stage was an upright human body, its limbs slack and lifeless. Every inch of skin had been removed to expose the creasing layers of sinuous muscle and ligaments. A smooth skull-like head lolled on the neck, eyes bulging and reflecting the stage light in their glassy surface. The muscle was shiny. The body had been freshly skinned.
On the verge of screaming, Emile touched his cheek and his hand came away coated in viscid gore. He squinted into the dark at Eva seated on the divan. The face that peered back was smeared and disfigured on one side, a mass of torn flesh and muscle running together. The arm that had moments ago been around his neck now lay on the divan cushion, severed at the shoulder, the fingers still squirming and groping. A choked sound came from her yawning mouth.
“That’s it,” Eva slurred through a mess of teeth and flesh.
As his shoes skidded on the tile, Emile realized it had not been a question. He back peddled and sprinted out of the room.
Stumbling through the halls, his thoughts turned to Colby and the countless photographs on every wall. He cut corner after corner, his eyes racing over the portraits in a feverish blur. Could he imagine wandering these halls forever, searching, like Theseus in the labyrinth? Passages led on to other passages until he had the impression of running in circles. When he eventually did spot a door at the end of a long corridor, Emile bounded toward the exit with a forceful charge. Arms reeling and feet lurching, his body hurtled forward through the air as he tumbled into the snow.
Face down on the pavement, he could still hear singing coming across the night, its resonant tone sounding more ominous and cautionary than earlier. He lay there, lulled by the music, feeling the cold paralyze his body. He wondered how long he could remain there. How long before the cold seeped in and turned his blood to ice? How long before the plangent music became a requiem and the accumulating snow claimed its dead? Rolling over onto his back and staring into the night sky, Emile found no answer.
Copyright Alistair Rey 2019
Alistair Rey began his career in Romania writing political propaganda for post-authoritarian governments. He has since advertised himself as an author of "fiction and parafiction," an archivist, a political satirist and a dealer in rare books and manuscripts. His work has appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Juked magazine and Weird Book, among other publications. A complete list of works and stories is available at the Parenthetical Review website (www.parentheticalreview.com).