The Christ of the Butterflies
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by Ardythe Ashley
Description: Romance naturally emanates from Venice, a city of passion and eroticism. This was the case for Mara, a Nebraskan writer who emigrated from the United States fourteen years ago. One of her newly published novels brings passion to her, when the son of an ex-lover comes looking for resolution. Having read the book, which Mara based on her and her lover's real-life interlude, James finds Mara and they are instantly enamored with each other. They will encounter sensuality, love, and danger.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1991
eBookwise Release Date: September 2001
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [311 KB]
Reading time: 207-289 min.
One The Arrival
Mara followed the sound of the doorbell up out of Gwendolyn's world, across her darkened living room and out into the foyer where she pushed open the heavy front door, expecting only a brief distraction. In the hot, white glare of the early morning sun, Aidan stood before her. Aidan had been dead for seven years.
"Aidan," she whispered. He looked so young, so strong, so sure. "Aidan."
"His son," said the apparition. "You wrote a novel about my father, and I've come to revenge him." Then he extended his hand.
Stunned, compulsively polite, Mara took the outstretched hand into her own, unprepared for the shock of the touch. Same skin. She pulled her hand away, feeling faint.
"May I come in?" he asked, stepping with authority into the darkened room. "Oh! You look quite pale. I've frightened you. I'm so sorry." She heard genuine apology in his voice. His familiar voice. "It was a terrible thing for me to say ... about the revenge, I mean ... I meant it as a joke to cover my nervousness. Stupid of me."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." She sat down abruptly on the small table next to the door. Sat, looking up at him as he swiftly took possession of the room with his eyes. He was tall, a little taller than his father. He stood with his feet slightly apart. Tense. Alert. The resemblance to Aidan was more striking in the dimness than in the light. He turned and looked at her.
She was suddenly self-conscious, aware of her near-nakedness. She was wearing a thick, white bathrobe and nothing else. Her hair was still damp from her morning shower. She had not put on any makeup. His eyes were approving. They made another circuit of the room, taking in the heavy, overly carved furniture, the tiled floor, the half-closed wooden shutters.
"The apartment is exactly as you described it."
He looked at her again, concern informing his expression. "Can I get you something? Water? Sit here." And he took her arm gently, bringing her into the room as if she were the guest. She sat again, where he indicated, sinking into the worn, velvet couch.
"I would like some coffee," she replied. "It's just made, on the stove."
He turned without hesitation in the direction of the kitchen. In a moment she heard him moving about ... a rattling of dishes. An old sound. Comforting. From childhood? No. She concentrated on her breathing. He returned with two cups of coffee, black and sweet and strong.
"I should have liked to bring cappuccino," he said, "but there was no milk."
He sat down on the tapestried footstool. Near her knee. Now it was he who looked up to her--and she could see the shyness in him.
"Why are you ... why were you nervous?" she asked.
"I was afraid you wouldn't see me."
"How did you know where to find me?"
"I tried all the usual routes: your publisher, your agent, phone books. Your pen name hid you well. There was no way I could trace you through a family name. Then, when every attempt had failed and I had given up, the idea, the answer, arrived, came to me, as in a dream, although I was wide awake at the time. I suddenly knew you could only be here."
"And how did you know where here was?"
"I followed your descriptions in the novel. The gargoyle on the corner house all but winked at me. The letter box--"
"So you are here."
"Why did you come?"
"To know you. And through you, to know him."
He put his cup down on the Turkish carpet. She put hers on the Chinese table with the carved sea monsters curling up the legs.
"What may I call you?" he asked.
"You may call me by my pen name, Bess, if it feels natural to you," she said. "Or you may call me by my given name, which is Marina. Or you may call me Mara." As your father did, she thought.
"So many names ... I will call you Mara. It's a beautiful name, and it's the most like Mira, your name in the novel."
"The novel is fiction. I am not in the novel."
"Aren't you? Then how did I find you?"
She chose not to reply. Instead she rose and went to the window. With a strong, practiced gesture she pushed open the shutters, enjoying the familiar shock of the sun as it bounced off the canal and shot across the room, bringing the movement of shimmering light into every corner.
She turned to face him where he sat, squinting in the sudden glare.
"What is your name?"
It was his turn to be shocked. Now we're even, she thought.
"You don't know it?"
"He never said it."
"I can't believe that."
"I have a name in the novel."
"You are not in the novel. The novel is a fabrication."
"But why did he never mention me? Was I so unimportant?"
"On the contrary. He would not speak your name to me. You were sacred." She was watching him closely as he absorbed the import of her words. "And I was profane."
He looked stricken. "What a terrible thing for him to think! How wrong of him to say it."
"Don't. You cannot speak for him."
"I didn't." What she didn't know was why they were sparring.
"But you used his real name. You called him Aidan."
"I liked his name. He was dead. What did it matter?"
"It mattered to me!"
There was a painful silence. Both were aware of the sudden, hot intimacy that had arisen between them in the few short minutes since their meeting. Both were bewildered.
He changed his tone. "Look ... Mira ... Mara ... someone sent your novel to me five years ago when I was still reeling with the loss of him. It made a tremendous impression on me, as I'm sure you can understand. I don't know who sent it. I always thought, given the content, that it must have been you. Maybe I was wrong."
She looked as if she might interrupt him, but he raised a gentle hand. He had come a long way to say this. "I have always believed that the story was real--thinly disguised, as they say, but true. After all, he did leave us--mother and me--and he did come here, and he did die here. According to the belated and woefully incomplete reports that we received from the Italian authorities, he died in the garden of this apartment." A solemn expression crossed his face like a shadow. "Anyhow, when I read your book I felt that I had been given a gift--shocking, perhaps, but a gift of a glimmer of a glimpse of his last months--however distorted."
"You are mistaken--"
"I felt as if I began to understand him a little ... why he left ... why he never came back ... the story must be real."
"It feels real..."
"It's good fiction."
"And you're here. In the very apartment."
"And he is not!"
As if slapped by her words, he bent his head and hunched his shoulders. He looked small and defeated, there on the footstool. Bruised.
From where she stood, Mara watched the reflected light as it played on the nape of his neck. She felt a horrible surge of pleasurable feeling deep inside herself. She looked away abruptly, out of the window, across the canal now brimming with the early tide. She needed to look anywhere but at the neat line of black, curly hair that cut across the dark, smooth skin of his curving neck. She wanted to kiss him exactly there. She knew how his skin would feel, warm against her lips, how he would taste of soap and salty sweat, how he would respond to her touch and, smiling, take her into his arms, there, on the velvet couch.
"Please," he implored her, "please, help me to know him. I loved him. He left so suddenly and so completely." And she felt the grief come straight up through her body like the winds of San Michele--fast and cold and full of force.
"No ... no, Aidan, no." And a black fissure of sorrow opened beneath her, where there had been floor a moment before.
"My name is James," he said, as his arms went around her, catching her as she began to fall, supporting her, lifting her, carrying her to the couch.
He held her closely while she cried, her body shaken by seven years of grief that had suddenly welled up within, surfacing in spasms of lung-deep sobs that threatened to tear apart her chest and throat. Time dissolved.
She didn't know how long she wept, how long they were locked together in sadness--his, as well as hers, she knew--for his face, too, was tearstained when at last he relaxed his protective embrace. They were quiet together for a while.
As he drew slightly away, a grimace of pain crossed his face, and she realized he had been kneeling next to the couch throughout the ordeal. Feeling embarrassed, and grateful, she reached over and touched his face. The face of James, not Aidan.
"Perhaps you were right to be nervous," she said.
A stripy-gray, one-eyed tomcat catapulted from a ceiling beam and thudded onto her chest.
"Wally!" exclaimed James. "Wally?"
"I thought he was a literary device."
"No. He's a cat." She smiled.
"His aim is excellent."
"Also, his appetite." Mara struggled to rise from the depths of the sofa, holding the cat close and warm against her breasts. "You should leave me now," she said to the boy who had held her like a man.
"Will you be all right?"
"I'll be fine. I need to rest and to write. That's all."
"Yes. The work." The cat began to squirm and purr in anticipation of its breakfast.
James stood shaking his head slowly from side to side. "It's hard to take it all in," he said, "meeting you and fighting with you ... why were we fighting? And then the sadness..."
"Will you be all right?"
"I'll be ... fine ... too." She could tell fine was a word he seldom used. "If you tell me that you will see me again?"
She heard the anxiety in his voice. She had not been important to anyone for a long time. It was disquieting.
"I will see you again. Tomorrow. At two? After I've written and had my lunch."
"Where, then? The Piazza San Marco? Florian's?"
It was a startling idea. She had not been to San Marco in months, to Florian's in years. But Florian's ...
"All right. It will be quiet at two. They all sleep."
"Will the waiters be awake?"
"Barely--and the sun will be full on us. You don't mind the sun?"
"I'm on my vacation. It will be wonderful to sit in the sun." She wondered if she should ask him about himself--what work he did, how long he planned to be in Venice--but she was too exhausted from the sudden excavation of her emotions to dig in unknown places. There would be time enough tomorrow to unearth what was worthwhile in this man.
She walked him to the door. He turned once more to look at her, then reached out tentatively to stroke the cat.
"It's all right. He's quite tame." James smiled a little as he gently made friends with the animal.
"Tomorrow." And he was gone. Back into the glare.
Mara stood staring at the closed front door as she often stared at the closed front cover of a book. What new world was there to be discovered?
She held the cat away from her body for a moment, at arm's length, and looked into his one, hungry eye. He made a slight twist of objection and she put him down.
"I can tell I'm in a very precarious state right now, Wally," she said, as he, unconcerned, jauntily led her off into the kitchen. "Everything has been shaken loose in the shock of ... him ... and in the earthquake of grief he let loose. Have you ever seen me cry, Wally? Maybe not. I don't think you would understand it anyway. Crying is a human experience. Not for tomcats. Not for me, either, for years. I think I was drying up inside. No wonder the work hasn't been good lately. Dry. Until this boy--this man, James ... his son--arrives ... James--a saint's name ... I got that right. He's about the age I had put him ... young ... twenty-five or -six..."
She put down the dish for the cat, and he immediately lost what little interest he had been taking in their conversation. She stood looking at him for a while, letting her emotions catch up with her. When they did, she went down: her knees on the cold tiles next to the cat. She was doubled up, as if in physical pain--but it was not physical. She felt a deep, sick revulsion that had not overtaken her in years, and she had almost forgotten its existence--but, of course, it was what lay behind her solitude: this horrible reaction to other people, to the communion of souls, hers and another's. What had she done? You let him touch you ... only to hold me ... you're disgusting ...
She let the wrenching self-loathing take her, run its course through her psyche, and, already on her knees, leave her body beaten, as if from the inside out. Then she very slowly stood up again, steadying herself on the kitchen table, breathing evenly as Aidan had taught her. Aidan had known about pain. There, she thought, it's passed. I will be all right now. I will be allowed to live in this world for yet a while.
She wrapped the robe more tightly around herself and stepped out into the small back garden to rest. It was still cool here, still fresh where the garden walls made morning shadows. She sat in the bright corner, legs apart, letting the sun warm the inside of her thighs.
"Aidan," she said. She waited a long time--until she felt the deepness of the shadows, the richness of the light. "Aidan, we have to talk." A slight breeze disturbed the flowers. "Aidan, I never thought I could feel ... well ... those feelings for any other man. I thought they belonged to you and to you alone. I've never even looked for anyone else. You know I've been lonely. Did you send him to me? Your son? With your look and your manner all about him? I don't know what you want me to do." But the breeze had died. There was no answer in the air.
What an unexpected woman, thought James, as the heavy front door swung shut behind him. He, too, felt stunned. He looked up and down the empty fondamenta, seeking direction. He found himself smoldering in the full sun of a mid-August morning with no idea where to go. He wandered back the way he had come, thinking he could get a map and some hotel information at the train station. He had, on arrival, come directly to her.
She was so different from what he had imagined. In the book she had made herself Botticelli beautiful, but she was not. There was no translucent skin or red-gold hair. She was tall and dark like himself. Her hair was cut just above her shoulders, feminine, but not flowing. He felt familiar with her body, having held it so close to himself while she cried. She was not thin. Not overweight, but full and soft. Titian. She had intelligent eyes, set into an even-featured face. Enigmatic. Self-possessed. He had the impression of an inner strength in spite of her faintness at the sight of him, and the bout of uncontrolled weeping. Allowance had to be made for the shock, of course. He had surprised himself when, after carefully trimming his newly grown beard, he had stepped back from the mirror to gather the effect. It was uncanny the way he had come to resemble his father. He had always copied his father's walk and stance, first as a small boy consciously imitating his dad, then, as he grew into his own ways, unconsciously, and then again consciously, after his last analysis had brought these habits to his attention. For this adventure he had chosen to dress as his father had--excellent fabrics wrought by Aidan's tailor. The effect was daunting. Had he accomplished this transformation because he wanted to shock her? Perhaps.
And she looked much younger than he had anticipated. In the novel she was thirty-two. If he were to add the seven intervening years--but even now she seemed no older than thirty, or at the most thirty-five. Was that possible? Was she so much younger than his mother? It was disquieting.
A small, yellowish flower on a rubbery stalk caught his attention where it pushed up between the paving stones of the fondamenta. He smiled in recognition and bent to pick it, then stopped, deciding to let it live ... the grandson of the grandson of the flower that grew here in his father's time. His father's time. His father's place. His father's woman.
Suddenly exhausted, he decided to hurry back to the station and collect his bags and find a place of his own. He had never been in Venice before. It was a place that had haunted his imagination since adolescence. To him it had been a magical place, a fictional place ... created by this woman ... Bess ... Mira ... Marina ... Mara ... her.
How had he known what to do? It seemed to James that when he had first stepped across her threshold, a foreign power had taken possession of him. Words had been given to him. He felt that he had uttered profound truths. He felt he had done great deeds. He had caught her up and held her in her sorrow with a maturity beyond his experience. He could still feel the wetness of her tears on his rumpled shirtfront. Or were they his own tears, or his own sweat? In reality it had all been mundane, he knew. In the unfamiliar kitchen he had simply poured the coffee and added the crumbly brown sugar. He had said what had to be said, done what had to be done--but it had felt heroic.
And he had felt, just for a moment, a flash of desire such as his father might have felt. Not when he held her, as might be expected--her body warm beneath the robe of soft, white toweling--but when she had opened the shutters and stood with the sun behind her. Then. He had wanted her then. In the darkness ... with the light ...
The world surrounding him now, though busy and bright in appearance, felt paltry ... unsubstantial. The beads worn by a passing woman were red, but not red enough. The sky was unclouded blue, but not blue enough. Richness seemed confined in the apartment with Mara. Would she bring it with her tomorrow to San Marco? Would she come at all? Or, perhaps, once she recovered from the confusion of his unexpected arrival, might she not change her mind? Retreat? Refuse to see him? Leave Venice? No. She would not leave Venice. He had hunted her down and trapped her, here, in her burrow. Did she know she had been captured? He would see her again. He must see her again.
He looked around now, actually seeing the city for the first time. The buildings were standing in the water. How absurd, he thought.
But the most absurd thing of all was that she was real.