More fable than short story, yet also something of a noir parable, a grim psychological mystery of compulsion and erotic self-abnegation, André Narbonne’s “The Doctrinal Murder of a Socratic Beggar in St. Suzette” tells the tale of a frustrated artist whose wife commits a murder to save her husband’s work from mockery. André Narbonne is an old acquaintance; I selected a wonderful story of his for the 2006 edition of Best Canadian Stories (in the time before time when I edited that estimable volume).
At first, Martin Verloc drew pleasure from the slowing of the crowd. They were construing him; he recognized the pace. He watched from above, peering through rust-pocked metal railings while rush-hour pedestrians beneath the bridge hesitated at the sight of his installation—a five-panel theatrical fixture, sculpted and embossed, entitled The Shield of Achilles. Occasionally, Martin observed an expression of admiration and he felt himself pleasant: disconnected and attached.
Securing funds for his creation, his Gesamtkunstwerk, had been a long and uncertain process, which had galled Martin considerably. When he left St. Suzette, Quebec, to apprentice in Paris, he never considered coming back, but here he was, middle-aged and grey, a celebrated son, his residency so significant it was mentioned in tourist brochures. The city should have been honoured by his proposal, but the public art committee balked at the idea of a Greek metaphor being the muse for a work commemorating the city’s tercentennial celebration. Their minds were filled with explorers and Jesuits and military men—all the dirt of history, the provincialism that ignored the beautiful intractability of myth. He had had to explain, even browbeat the committee so that when he set to work the stakes were enormously high. But it had all paid off, and in secret he had welded an inscription to the underside of a panel—Γεννημένος της ιδιωτικής λαμπρότητας και αυξημένος σε έναν δημόσιο χώρο (born of private brilliance and raised in a public space).
The Shield of Achilles was installed under a bridge where commuters walked in competing streams every morning and evening. They walked through and around the art, immersed in Homeric imagery: weddings, murders, farming, dancing—every human endeavour known to antiquity as catalogued in Book XVIII of The Iliad. Martin’s explication of a three thousand-year-old poetic passage was the sort of critical success that cannot be diminished by its popularity. And it didn’t scare him that he had no more ideas, that he walked to the bridge daily in a sort of emotional torpor so that his only inspiration came from without, from his appreciation of his audience. Like a doddering man with a young child, if he never created another work, he could take comfort in his final inspiration to last until the end of his days.
“Go on,” he whispered to passing strangers below. “Interpret me.”
Only one thing distressed him: a panhandler who one day perched on the edge of the middle panel, cap in hand. Once would have been alright—a found poem in human form, or a comic moment intruding on a stage dressed for tragedy. Unfortunately, having decided the crowd offered a rich enough vein for him to prospect, the beggar kept returning. The man was neither young nor old, neither ugly nor pitiable. If anything, he stood out for being nondescript. But the beggar was a distraction, and Martin found his continued presence disturbing.
Martin brought home his disgust at the beggar to his wife, Betty. As always, Betty listened to her husband’s litany of sarcasms without moving. It was a trick she had learned early in their marriage. Had a kettle been boiling, the steam whistling at a high pitch, she would have ignored it. Martin was the centre of her understanding of herself, never mind the affairs that had been more muse to him than Greek poetry. His flaws as a husband didn’t make her love him less. They made her fear him. And so she listened, as always, to Martin’s description of the crowds and of how the beggar still sat there, an idle nuisance disturbing the natural flow of things.
When he was finished, she replied, “Well that’s different.”
It was what she always said, and the expression was offensive to Martin, who prided himself on being different.
* * *
He was there again the next day when Martin watched the crowd. The cap he held out was dirty, the hand that held it, equally so. The effect didn’t create distaste but apathy. Well-dressed women and men who’d only a moment earlier been looking around, perhaps judging themselves in relation to their fellow pedestrians, stared at their feet. They passed the panels without considering them, the beggar having reduced them to a point of philosophical and aesthetic vacuity.
“It’s more than a man can take,” Martin opened as he approached the man. “Every day you are here. Have you nowhere else to go?”
The beggar looked up. Martin was a heavyset man. He wore an expensive greatcoat calculated to make him look like he belonged to an earlier century.
“Who are you?” asked the beggar. “You are not the police.”
“Of course not. I am an artist.”
“An artist? What’s that?”
“I built the art you sit on.”
The beggar looked around. “This is art?” he asked.
In the voice of a lecturer exhausted by a back-row student’s stupidity, Martin answered, “It is a representation of the shield the goddess Thetis brings to her son Achilles in The Illiad. The forms you sit on are a besieging army. There, behind you, is a sortie lead by Ares and Athene. Strife, Panic, and Death stand beside them. Above you, bolted into the underside of the bridge are the constellations. Over there…”
“Constellations? Then who is that man?”
“Orion the Hunter.”
“I see. A man as stars. It’s very good.”
“What do you mean by that? Are you mocking me?”
“Not at all. Look at me. Where can I sit? This is very good at shielding me from the rain. Soon it will snow and your art will protect me. The music—is it a lute that plays constantly?—will soothe me.”
“That is not its purpose!”
The beggar only shrugged.
“Will you not leave?”
“And why not?”
“Everywhere I go I am asked to leave. This time I have decided to stay. This is a very comfortable place. You have built something that is very useful to me.”
“It’s not meant to be useful.”
“Then why build it?”
“It is art. Art is meant to be appreciated.”
“I appreciate it.”
* * *
That night, Martin’s anger was a second man growing inside of him, mastering him. He raged until Betty feared he would go out like he did the nights when he’d been working on his designs and his muse left him. On those nights, his muse, when he found it, kept him late. Once he was gone for two days. Loving him, she had to acknowledge, was a tawdry business. She could not imagine any other life and she suspected that was why he kept her. She had no connection to his friends, who made no effort to conceal the fact that they tolerated her. She had no opinions on his art. He’d silenced them with his defenses, with his satire. She could offer nothing for his mind. True, she was one of those women who kept her beauty as she aged, but she assumed he was able to provide for his bodily desires elsewhere. And yet he always came back.
She wondered if there wasn’t some way she could keep him other than through her passivity.
“I feel imprisoned by idiots,” Martin spat. “First the grocer, now the beggar.”
Betty knew a cold shock of fear at the mention of the grocer.
The grocer had been kind to her. He always addressed her politely. And then, a mistake. In Martin’s hearing he had one day complimented her dress. A glass shattered in her mind. She grew dizzy and nearly fell. Martin, as she knew he would, offered to fight. He berated the grocer, who was married, in front of a full shop, accusing him of making advances on his wife. Even in this age, wasn’t marriage sacred? From that day on, Betty stayed clear, walking the three extra blocks to the next store for groceries. One day she met the grocer on the street and smiled politely, but he returned a resentful look. She wondered if he held her to blame, if he imagined that she had preyed on his good nature to arouse her husband’s passion.
What she didn’t know was that the grocer was insidious. He watched them. At times, after closing his shop, he stared into their windows, tried to catch a glimpse of treason through a gap in the curtains. He muttered under his breath and grew increasingly strange.
“I know what I’ll do,” said Martin. “I will give that beggar money to leave. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”
“Oh, not too much. A man like that is used to getting by on very little.”
She noticed how, having made up his mind on a course of action, Martin’s mood eased. Action could placate. Maybe it could placate a bad heart.
It was a family inheritance. There was no cure for the fearful shudder, the quick coldness that sometimes left her breathless, other times too weak to walk. The best she could do was to reduce stress, which she had for years attempted to do by standing statue-still when she felt most threatened.
* * *
“Ah, here you are, my friend. How did I know I would find you here?”
“It is you who are mocking me.” The beggar was eating a take-out salad from a plastic bowl. He spoke through a mouthful of spinach.
“Do you remember our conversation?”
“Who could forget meeting a genius?”
“Genius? I would never call myself a genius.”
“Perhaps. But you would imply.”
“You are a man who knows how to frustrate. I am here to offer you a trade. I will give you…assistance…if you agree to beg somewhere else.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because art does not exist without an audience. It doesn’t matter what I have made of this space. With you here, no one sees it.”
“I see it.”
“But you do not count.”
“I told you, you were mocking me. How can you expect me to agree that I do not count?”
“You know nothing of metaphor and can neither appreciate nor critique the strength of my sentiments. Have you read Homer?”
“I have no time.”
“No time? But all you do is sit.”
“Being poor is time-consuming. You have no idea.”
“Then I shall tell you what it is you are looking at, and you tell me whether that is what you see. When Achilles, the great Greek warrior, decides to return to battle against the Trojans his goddess mother asks Hephaestus, the god of the forge, to make him a suit of armour. The shield that Hephaestus creates is a work of art. In Homer’s poem, it shows moving scenes, marriages and wars, deceit and comfort. Everything is on the shield…”
“What is that twirling thing?”
“It stands for abundance. The purple on the one side is a vineyard on a king’s estate, on the other side, the gold is his corn.”
“Oh, abundance. Let me see then if I can recognize metaphor, now that you’ve taught me.”
“I am not done…”
“Shhh, don’t give me any hints. There? No. There? No. No, I don’t see it.”
“There is no poverty. The shield is rich, not poor.”
“And I am poor, not rich. All that I see is shelter.”
“Do you not see art?”
“Can art be shelter?”
“Then I do not see art.”
“That’s perfectly understandable. I understand that you are an idiot. Will you take my money?”
“What makes your money any different from the other money I am given?”
Martin pulled several bills from his pocket and showed them to the beggar.
“However many you want. All of them, if you think it a fair trade—just to leave and not come back.”
“You are asking me to lie.”
“You want me to make promises I will not keep. If you give me your money, I will spend it. Then I will still have to live, and I will come back. My promise to you will mean nothing to me. Listen. I am being honest. I am fighting against deceit, which is our common enemy. If you give me the money, I will return.”
“Even if you promise to stay away? It’s outrageous!”
“Is it? But why? I do not count. Why should you expect the things that do not count to have more integrity than the things that do count?”
“You are hopeless.”
* * *
The storm seemed to this time reduce Martin to the level of an infant. Like an infant, he was indiscriminately cruel. He ridiculed Betty’s choice of outfits for the party in Martin’s honour they were to attend that evening. He was in the habit of dressing her. Their tastes never matched and she always felt awkward in overly-loud arrangements. Tonight, she had tried to predict his tastes and had dressed in what she imagined an appropriately extroverted fashion. Martin had rained on her all the ridicule she would have felt herself for the clothing, only magnified to the point of indicating character flaws.
“Wear black,” he told her at last. “Just wear black.”
At the party her dress seemed dangerously provocative. She came across as a middle-aged vamp and the men who’d gathered to celebrate Martin’s public achievements but knew little about his private life stared openly. It was Martin’s habit to distance himself from Betty at public events. She walked the margins of the room, occasionally narrowing the distance between them enough to hear bits of conversation.
“He’s determined to make a spectacle of himself,” she heard Martin say to a man in a gabardine suit.
The man replied, “Then you think he’s targeted you?”
“He says so himself. He’s like the woman who sprayed paint at the Mona Lisa. His only purpose is to destroy art.”
“But surely that can’t be right. That woman’s purpose was political. She was protesting for the rights of the handicapped. Maybe this man is political, too.”
“What politics could a hobo have?”
“The politics of the dispossessed.”
“Bah. He is a nuisance. You should see him. His life is miserable and so he intends to make my life miserable. It is his way of playing God.”
She could only hear a little at a time. All the conversations seemed to go that way, and she felt her heart pounding painfully when she listened to them. Towards the end of the night, when Martin found the sympathy of a young woman in a white ermine jacket, Betty heard a rush in her head like a powerful wind blowing from side to side. She gripped a chair for support, the tension pushing her to the point of collapse.
“How terrible! So much beauty! So much creativity suppressed by an ignorant illiterate man,” she heard the woman say.
To her surprise, Martin answered, “I don’t know that he’s illiterate. He seems to have a fine grasp of argument.”
Martin’s eyes met Betty’s then. He had a talent for reading images. She wondered what he saw.
“Excuse me,” he said, and he rushed to his wife’s side. “My love, are you okay?” He looked frightened.
“Yes, I’m okay. I’m tired. I’ll sit down.”
“No, you will go home.”
“Oh please don’t make me…”
“I will come with you.”
He was all consideration and she knew the storm had blown over and she realized that despite the fact the marriage would probably prove fatal, she loved him powerfully.
* * *
The beggar wasn’t there when Martin arrived the next morning. There was no sign of him ever having been there. Even so, Martin had an eerie sensation of being followed. He looked about several times, but could find no reason for his suspicion.
For the first time in what seemed like a very long while, Martin was able to observe the reaction of the crowd that passed his artwork. To his surprise, they did not stop. Had they not noticed it before? Of course they had—when it was new. It was four-months-old now and was no longer capable of holding their interest. Martin had never before been aware of himself being ignored. He had been hated and revered. That he’d known. This was puzzling.
Was this why he imagined himself being followed? Was his mind compensating to protect him, inventing the interest of strangers?
He had always been good at protecting his sanity. He didn’t consider himself a bad man, although he had done bad things. All the bad things were in the service of preserving his mental health and so he forgave himself for them. In rough seas, they could be jettisoned like steerage from a lifeboat.
Martin tried to comfort himself with the thought that he wasn’t done producing art. There would be more works that would stop the crowds and return the sun to his atrophying patch of identity. But the thought brought no respite from depression. He hadn’t had any ideas for a year, and he had gone to antiquity for his last.
In Martin’s mind, the lines from Homer’s poem were an expression of futility. That’s what had secretly drawn him to his concept. Everything that can be done, has been done, the cuckold god of the forge seemed to be saying. Why not kill yourself, Achilles? All life is repetition of past lives.
Martin never told anyone that his plan was to produce a monument to redundancy. The art was vibrant, but it took a verb to express neutrality. Someone, he thought, might catch sight of his meaning. Somewhere in the crowd that passed daily en route to the stultifying business of middle-class sameness must be someone who would recognize the statement in the art. What that person would do with himself or herself next, he could not guess. What he himself had done with the absolute and classless knowledge of futility was to sink deeper inward.
He was looking to his audience for indications of a way out. And he no longer knew what his audience looked like.
He heard a noise, a different tread. The beggar at last. Martin understood a feeling of shame and dodged behind a concrete pillar, the better to observe without being seen. The beggar had a game leg that dragged in such a way as to cause his steps to be measured but to never add up. He moved with obvious pain. When he sat, it was with the slow deliberation of a king sitting on a concrete throne. He didn’t put out his hat at first, which surprised Martin. He’d assumed that the beggar was begging all the time. What other purpose could he have? Instead, he seemed to content himself with looking around. He fixated on the fourth panel, which portrayed a wedding and a murder. For a long while he did nothing. His reverie was disturbed at last by a man offering a coin. The beggar nodded, said, “God bless you,” mechanically and took off his cap. Then he went about his work.
In the time that passed while Martin watched the beggar consider his panel, his feelings underwent a sea change. He walked home feeling an unaccountable joy. As he walked beside the water, he observed fish in the canal, dark forms dodging into the depths, and decided that he liked them.
Late that night, he felt around in the darkness for a glass of water he knew he had placed somewhere near the bed. Betty, who anticipated his needs, held it out.
“Oh, thank you,” he said. “Are you still up?”
“I am the bearer of water.”
“The bearer of water,” he considered her joke. “You should be the one who sleeps and gets better. You are not well.”
“Not well? Do you worry about me?”
“I worry about you more than you can ever know. But that’s my fault. You will know how much I love you. I make this my promise. I have been very stupid. It has occurred to me now. Slowly, I’ll admit. But I think…I think I have seen something. You will think it impossible.”
“I will show you. Yes. We didn’t do all of this for nothing. We did all of this for us.”
She thought for a moment.
She said, “My love, I will show you, too.”
* * *
“Ah, back again,” said Martin a day later.
“As you see.”
“It got dark early tonight.”
The beggar followed his gaze up into the black. A loose string of grey-white, a V of birds, laboured to till it.
“It’s coming. Can you feel it?” asked Martin.
“I smell snow,” the beggar replied, agreeably.
“What does it smell like? Death?”
“Snow is not a metaphor. It is a thing. Snow smells like snow. You know it or you don’t. How would I know what death smells like? Death is not a thing.”
“You live so close to it.”
“We all live close to it, and to life. What does life smell like?”
“Wedding cake. Is that what it smells like to you?”
“You mock me. Go away. You are bad for business.”
“A very rational answer. You don’t sound crazy. I don’t understand. Aren’t all street people crazy? Are you bi-polar? Schizophrenic?”
The beggar looked at him crossly and sighed. “None of those things. Although I have heard that same charge made against artists.”
“If you are not mad, why do you choose to do this?”
“To live? I did not choose the way I live, I only choose to live.”
“Why not work?”
“Listen, it is possible to fall so far from the rest of the world that you cannot get back. I fell. When I did, I destroyed my leg. Yes, I was crazy then. There is no coming back now. This is where I live. In this body. In these clothes. I will tell you no more. Consider me an abstraction, a figment of your conscience, if you have one. I do not like being spied on.”
“I, spy on you?”
“I saw you. Behind that pillar. And I have heard you other times this week. I was grateful to see that it was you, so I did not say anything. Do not embarrass the man you thought was a demon, that’s my dictum.”
“Dictum? Such language… Anyway, you are paranoid. I was being polite.”
“Why be polite?”
“An artist must be polite to his audience.”
“I am not your audience.”
“On the contrary. You are my only audience. You are the only person who is aware of my work. Whatever you see in it must therefore be right. If my art is shelter, then it is shelter. Who am I to disagree? It meant other things for me when I designed it, but your assessment of its utility is as good a reading as mine and, indeed, confirms my ideas. There is nothing new. Everything is the same as it was before it was what it is.”
“You’re not going to offer me money?”
“You don’t want it.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t want to lie. It’s not the same thing.”
“My offer tonight is to leave you alone.”
“Because I believe I have been a very bad man, and I never meant to be. Well, no one does. It is always a surprise when a man finds out bad things about himself. And I have found things out. I have been ungenerous where I should have been most kind.
“Do you know, I left St. Suzette when I was nothing? I was not even a genius, as you call me. A genius doesn’t exist until someone else says he is one, and no one said that about me. I worked in Europe where, over time, I got wise. I married a very beautiful woman. We had a nice house. Not luxurious, but nice. I saw no purpose in returning here. It was my wife’s idea. She wanted to see what egg I had hatched from. We booked a holiday, spent two weeks here and at the end of two weeks decided that this is where we would be at our best.
“For my wife it was a matter of pleasing me. I used to know that. I used to know that she was a woman capable of great sacrifice. She sacrificed leaving her family and her friends because she thought this was where I’d be happiest. And I was happy here. That surprised me, too.
“One morning at the beginning of our visit, I went for a walk by the canal. There was a particular spot I had passed by maybe a thousand times as a child and a youth. This time something struck me, a vista I had not noticed before. I understood the form of the buildings and the water in a way I had not understood them when I was young. I was struck by the extreme beauty. It wasn’t just one thing or the other. It wasn’t just architecture or countryside, but the connection between them. So many dead hands had built something that was aesthetically perfect. I have been to Rome. I have seen great buildings. There was nothing great in what I looked at. It was no Arch of Trajan—I mean, of course, the one in Benevento, not Ancona—but all of it together composed the greenest of greens. It was like a field in which humanity and nature had bloomed as one body. And I could not see it before. I had to approach this age before I had lived long enough to come in contact with the serene honesty of this vision, this beauty. It was then that I knew I belonged here.”
“Because you saw beauty?”
“No, because I, alone, saw beauty. No one else stopped. I walked there every day for two weeks. I was the only one who noticed. And I knew that I had a responsibility.”
“Because you saw beauty?”
“Because I saw great beauty. And how does one view great beauty? From my own experience I can tell you that it is not with feelings of joy but with a deep sense of inadequacy.”
“Sense? You make no sense.”
“But I do. And I was the keeper of that knowledge of inadequacy. I was the one who knew we were insufficient. That’s why I had to be here—to watch and to know. And now I have been troubled by another understanding, this time a vision of ugliness in myself. I have been a bad man. I see that. My wife’s mother died of a bad heart. It took a year during which I witnessed her family’s grief. I know what it means, this hunger that consumes, this anguish. I know what it means to die for someone you might better have lived for.
“My wife and I were out and I saw her collapse. She wouldn’t believe it herself, but I know how ill she is and I know my place is to care for her. I renounce my genius. I will go back to being a husband. What I love is not art. It is my wife. As an artist I am merely a beggar like you, begging for pennies of approval.”
“You are crazy. Everything you say is crazy. It is you who are bi-polar.”
* * *
Maybe the beggar was right.
Certainly, there were times when Martin’s life seemed under the direction of an unseen needle in a magnetic storm. That those times coincided with his creative periods was suggestive. There were nights when he would walk the city alone and on no clear course and come home late to work demonically. During one of his expeditions, the needle began to spin. No amount of alcohol would settle it. It spun for two days. Sleeping under a picnic table in the park, he became aware on the second night of another man sleeping in the bushes, a shoeless doppelganger. When he returned home, Betty took his coat and poured a bath. She asked no questions. He was humbled by the way she simply understood. He felt a debt of appreciation for her silent knowledge.
And now, on his walk home, he was teased again by inspiration. Some quality in the night seemed to speak to Martin, a form buried in the darkness that was restless to emerge. He saw a thin man, the beggar. He plucked him out of an enormous sky. He registered how the beggar clenched his fists when he staggered. More shapes crowded the fertile dark of his imagination: more beggars. He saw that his beggar was the ur-beggar by which the others would be understood. He saw judgement and quality; he imagined form, but it wanted an action to complete the analogy.
It struck him: a beggar and a genie’s lamp. Better: a beggar as a genie’s lamp. Yes, that was it. The lamp was the hard flesh imprisoning the spirit within. The heart craved but the body confined. He would find out the beggar’s name and he would name the statue after him. He arrived home chuckling.
For the second night in a row, Betty was out. He told himself, “Don’t be angry.”
He went through the kitchen in search of something to eat and discovered that she had not been home since supper. The dishes were untouched, and no food had been prepared for his evening snack. He imagined her leaving shortly after him, but where could she have gone? The possibilities were an endless affront.
“This will be your first test,” he told himself. “When she returns you will be kind. That will show her.”
All the same, he turned the lights off and waited in the dark.
* * *
He must have fallen asleep. He didn’t hear her return, didn’t hear the key in the lock. He wasn’t aware of her presence until she threw on the light and he awoke with a start to see her standing in front of him. She was shaking, a motion that seemed to have no epicentre but that owned her body. A deep, dark smear of blood crossed her cheek.
“What is it?” he cried.
“Oh, I have done something terrible,” she replied.
“What have you done?”
She lifted her hand to show him a butcher’s knife. It was red with blood as was the hand that held it. He saw blood on her coat. It was splashed across her chest. It ran down her arms, down her legs. He saw now that the blood on her cheek went further. It touched her forehead and nose. There was blood on her ears.
“I do not understand,” he said, blind to the image before him, unable to put it into coherence.
“I have killed him.”
There was blood on her boots and her boots bled on the floor.
“The beggar? I don’t understand.”
“I thought I could hide the body. It was heavy and I had to be fast and he…he saw me. He will call the police. I am finished.”
“The grocer. He was there. I don’t know why he was there. He was laughing.”
For a moment, Martin imagined with horror the art of what he had created: the dead beggar’s corpse, Betty’s realizations as she stooped to roll him into the canal while looking at the cruel face of victory belonging to the grocer. All of it was frozen in his mind in a vision too large to contain. His mind had always protected him from itself, always repelled logic whenever necessary, and he viewed the scene he had authored from a safe perspective, as a metaphor, and when he did he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed for a very long time while, outside his house, cars pulled up to the curb.
André Narbonne sailed for ten years as a marine engineer on bulk carriers, fishery patrol and hydrographic vessels, and tankers before attending university and completing a PhD in English at the University of Western Ontario. His writing won the Atlantic Writing Contest, the David Adams Richards Prize, and the FreeFall Prose Contest and was anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He is the father of Ottawa writer Aeriana Narbonne. See a chapter of Narbonne’s novel Carte Blanche here.