Lady with an Ermine

Lady with an Ermine


by Nick Jackson

Darkness, suddenly a flash of light, revealing a chamber. The blood vessels spin round – again a flash of brilliant light. Is God there somewhere, or something worse, some dreadful shadow lurking in the depths of the unknown, beyond the reach of the light?

“Nothing obvious.” He snaps off the torch, I blink and the surgery returns: books, the leaves of a prayer plant, a photograph of two blond children in red pullovers.

“You’ve been working too hard, have you?” Dr Vincent balances the torch on his knee. “Zigzag patterns in the periphery of your vision, you say. These are all quite common phenomena.” He’s very courteous as he shows me to the door of the consulting room. “Do come back if there’s a recurrence. But try and rest; try to keep things in perspective.”

The bus drops me at the entrance to the complex of buildings. I squeeze past the lowered vehicle security barrier, amble along a muddy path to the rear of a portakabin and let myself in through a shabby door. A smell of faintly damp plaster-board and old shoes hangs in the air. There is the usual faint hum from the bank of computers along one wall. Fluorescent yellow hard hats hang in a row above a line of grubby boiler suits like a comic line-up of invisible workmen.

I open the fridge and take out a carton of milk, take a sniff and pour it down the sink with a sigh. I flick the switch of the kettle and listen to the hiss. All the mugs have a brown scum inside; I select the cleanest. People imagine our research takes place in a rarefied atmosphere of glass and steel: the soft trickle of a fountain in the background accompanied by the rustle of bank notes, freshly ironed by an army of android technicians. I clear a space among the cardboard boxes and old wiring circuits. The desk top is tea-stained and gritty with biscuit crumbs (Swiss creams?) that someone has been eating.

Arriving on the scene before anyone else gives me a sense of satisfaction. I do some of my best thinking at this time of day, before the others start to arrive, bringing their own trails of consequence, their own collisions. Arriving early gives me time to adjust my buffering zones, to establish my points of impact with the thousand tiny shocks I know the day will bring.

It is our job to check the raw data: to sift the results and decide if they will be of interest to future analysts; to look inwards at the precise nature of the matter.

Last night I dreamt of going back to the museum. The building itself was unchanged but I was aware that behind the building, the countryside had been swept away by a motorway. The woods and fields, where I’d walked as a boy, were gone in this dream and this knowledge oppressed me.

I could smell the honeysuckle perfume my mother used to wear; I catch it now, a faint scent, that lingers on the edge of my awareness. She turns to look at me over her shoulder. And suddenly I am back in the dream running to keep up. With my small sweating hand held tightly in my father’s, I stumble up the steps of the museum.

Is this a dream, or is it true and happening to me now? I find it more and more difficult to tell the difference. Dr Vincent tells me that this is not unusual – that many people find it hard to make the distinction.

The museum attendant was one of those shrivelled men, so tiny that the cashier’s stool had been specially designed to place him at the right height to receive money and dispense little violet-coloured tickets. I never once saw him off that stool. I doubted whether he ever left it, except for mealtimes and to go for a wash-and-brush-up, for he was always impeccably presented.

It was my father who first took me to the museum, after the death of my mother. I think the museum was my father’s attempt to help me begin to forget, or at least to lessen the pain of loss.

Thus, it was through a mist of tears that I beheld the shell of a stuffed leatherback turtle, sticky with varnish. 

“Once the seas were full of turtles,” said my father, poking at a leathery flipper with the tip of his cane.

“Please not to touch!” snapped the attendant in his high-pitched voice.

“…before the delicacy of their flesh made them a prized dish. Turtle soup was so delicious that Ibn Hussein ate nothing else.”

“Did you ever taste it?” I asked.

“No.”

We moved on to a mummified corpse from China: perfectly preserved teeth in a slack-lipped smile.

“In the Tang Dynasty it was an honour to be mummified, to be embalmed for posterity, so that we can look at him today, and contemplate our own mortality. The fact that we are here at this moment, with all our faculties and in a state of good health, is not something we should ever take for granted.”

The empty eye-sockets gazed at us. The head, tilted to one side, seemed to enquire of us what it was like outside the prison of this building.

Any other father would perhaps have thought twice before bringing his grieving son to such an exhibition of curiosities. My father had the insight to understand the rational basis of my grief – that my mother’s loss was simply a vacuum that had to be filled. And he was going to fill it: with knowledge, with facts, with the cold hard particles of matter. He knew that it was the best way to help me to understand the brevity of life, the unfathomable mysteries of the Universe and the constantly changing nature of the present.

We paused before a two-headed lizard. The heads were blunt, in seeming imitation of the tail which was equally blunt, or perhaps it was the tail that imitated the head. One of the heads peered at us, fixing us with the black bead of an eye, while the other head tore at the bloodied carcass of a chicken that had been thrown into its cage. It held it down with one claw and tore away strips of meat with its tiny, sharp teeth. The watching head was motionless, only occasionally betraying its living nature with a tiny mechanical shudder.

“The dinosaurs,” murmured my father, “gazed in just the same way at the volcanoes erupting on the still-warm crust of the earth.” He looked down at me but I could see it was not me he was seeing – he was looking beyond me at the spouting lava flow that had opened a great wound in the granite flanks of a mountain. “Who knows what it is that they see, these cold-blooded beasts. Perhaps they’re waiting for the ice-caps to melt and for their time to come, once more.”

***

I have always kept women at a distance. I watch them drift past, like spectres. Occasionally one approaches too closely but it takes only the slightest touch and they withdraw, hurrying away to warm their frosted fingers.

Only once, a young researcher – dark, Scottish with gold rimmed spectacles… We had begun to sit together at lunch. I think we appreciated each other’s long silences. I suppose I might have brushed against her in the corridor a few times. We went on a few excursions to an art cinema and I recall an episode of indistinct fumbling on a sofa bed.

We’d kissed a few times, dryly, in the darkness and perhaps, if she’d not at that moment switched on a small table lamp, things would have taken a different course. As it was, the light illuminated her broad cheeks and on her neck a large birth mark which I’d not noticed before. 

“Edgar,” she murmured and then she gave a tiny snort of amusement, “You have such small hands.”

I must have looked shocked, for she added hurriedly, “But very soft and gentle, like a woman’s. No, not like a woman’s exactly, just very sensitive.”

“Why are you trying to find fault with me when it is you possess such a disfigurement?”

She looked as though I’d slapped her and coloured a deeper pink than the cushions on her sofa bed.

The next time we met she could not meet my eye and I told myself that this was precisely what I might have expected. We never lunched together again.

***

The next exhibit was visible only through an eye-piece in a panel of black-painted board. At first there was only an amber coloured glow with something fine and whiskery that fussed at the edges of my vision. Then the long thin lariat of an antenna whipped into view and a burnished carapace, as wide as a car bonnet. The label declared it to be a giant Asian whistling cockroach and indeed, if you placed your ear to a tiny zinc grill, you could make out a faint musical hissing – something like a rendition of a baroque concerto played upon a miniature glass harmonica, but infinitesimally faint. 

Something made me recoil from the delicate music: a memory of an afternoon when I had been practising the piano – a little tune my mother had taught me. As he passed the piano, my father had accidentally knocked the lid of the instrument and it had fallen, trapping my fingers. 

The attendant became impatient with our slow progress and in his cross staccato he urged us to “move along and give others a chance to view the spectacle” even though there weren’t any other spectators beside ourselves.

My father strode away and I caught up with him in front of a copy of “Lady with an Ermine”, the original of which, he informed me, is to be found in the National Museum in Cracow. There is a sense of stillness in the model’s pose, without strain. Both she and the little white animal she is holding gaze in the same direction with an identical expression of placid intelligence, as though she were in possession of a profound, yet inexplicable truth. From the time of my first visit, I formed the idea that the woman in the painting was my mother. The impression was so strong that, even though my father had told me that the woman was, in fact, the mistress of the Duke of Milan, I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that they were my mother’s eyes in the painting, her lips, and her slender hand stroking the animal’s fur. I wanted to curl up, like the ermine, on that soft bosom.

I ran home, after that first visit and, on a scrap of paper torn from a volume of Buchner, I drew from memory what I remembered of that face. My clumsy sketch bore little resemblance, in reality, to the woman’s features but at least I had an image of my mother’s face which would soften the memory of the cold waxen mask I’d seen in the casket. He had removed all the photographs of her that were in the house. So that I should not miss her, he said, or form any false ideas about her. Being a pragmatist, he wanted to impress on me the importance of the scientific view. He told me that the artist, Leonardo Da Vinci was an expert in anatomy and that the hands were particularly well-painted. He went on to explain the structure of the human hand: the network of veins and capillaries and the complex nerves and muscles. If you were to strip the skin off the human hand, he explained, it would be just like the inner workings of an intricate machine, just like those in one of the factories he owned. 

When inspecting my desk drawers, as he sometimes did, he came across the sketch I’d made. He picked it up and turned it towards the light. 

“You have no talent for drawing,” he informed me, “Do not waste any more of your time doing it.”

He carefully folded the drawing and meticulously shredded it before letting the pieces fall into the waste-paper bin.

The last case in the museum, a tall deep case lined with black velvet and illuminated by seven small brass spotlights, contained nothing, nothing at all. There was a blank space where the information card should have been. My father always passed it without a second glance, but I often stood for a moment, wondering about the exhibit that had been removed.

We made many visits to the museum. During our visits he imparted to me his profound knowledge of natural history, geology, art and philosophy in whispered lectures under the constant stare of the attendant whose eyes seemed to follow our progress around the exhibition, no matter how crowded or empty the room was. 

It was shortly before I was due to leave for America that we came for a final visit. My father, by this stage of his life, was beginning to lean more heavily on his cane and his breathing had become a little laboured as we passed between the exhibits.

The attendant, more diminutive and shrunken than ever, nodded to us and slipped the coins below the desk into his cash tin. I had never ceased to feel the cold criticism of his stare and even as I stood, in a white linen suit specially tailored to my frame, I could feel his eyes following my steps.

The exhibits had changed very little over the years but on this visit we found an impressively large case occupied by a small rusty nail, though so encrusted with orange deposits it had the appearance of a twisted little grub.

“Nail from Noah’s Remarkable Ark” read the accompanying text.

My father gave it no more than a cursory glance.

“God is dead,” he muttered and shuffled on.

It came as a shock for me to discern the mocking bitterness of his tone. For a moment I began to doubt my father’s philosophy and to suspect the signs of a crumbling and distorted faith, like the cracking in the hull of a gigantic ship into which the waters had begun to pour from the gash made by a passing ice-berg.

We had completed the full round of the exhibits and were approaching the exit. The final case which had never, to my knowledge, contained a single thing, not even a nail, was still vacant. My father had already moved past it and stood by the exit waiting for me. I glanced into the velvet-lined interior. What I saw made me smile; I’d caught sight of my own ghostly reflection, dressed in the white suit. I seemed, momentarily, to have been suspended in the case. I adjusted the angle of my hat, pleased and amused by my appearance, then noticed, just behind my head, the pale face of the attendant who was positioned behind me. Our eyes met in the glass. 

On the occasion of that final visit, it seemed the time to say something to my father, to somehow acknowledge that we were approaching the end of an era. Soon, very soon I would be leaving home, perhaps forever, and it seemed fitting to say what I’d prepared. Except that when I opened my mouth I found that all the words had become wooden and meaningless.

“Father, I…”

He gave me one of his quick, sharp glances.

“Yes, what is it?” 

“You’ve been a good father. It must have been very difficult.”

“What?”

“To bring me up, after mother died.”

He didn’t speak, merely moved his head slightly.

“If she had lived, she’d have shown me all the things you’ve shown me.”

“She would never have brought you here.”

My father said no more; he merely looked back into the dark entrance to the exhibition hall. I half turned and, out of the corner of my eye I saw that the attendant, who I’d never before seen away from his desk, had followed us out and was standing, with one hand on the door frame.

When I turned back, my father was already striding away into the dusk.

“What are you looking at?” I rounded on the attendant.

“That’s a very fine suit,” he spoke in a light, soft voice, “The white looks well on you, young man.” It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me.

“Don’t call me that. My name is Amadeus, Mr Amadeus.” I began to feel hot and uncomfortable in my suit.

“I’m to go to America,” I told him. “I have a scholarship to study the physical sciences.”

“The earth goes around the sun,” he said and smiled, “I know that much. And people may travel great distances in their lives but they always come back to the same place.”

The attendant went back to his desk and I was left alone. It was then that I became aware of a muted hum. I assumed that it came from the lighting but it seemed to follow me. Sometimes it was no more than a faint murmur, sometimes it grew to a roar, at times it seemed to disappear, then returned almost imperceptibly.

I did not sleep that night, nor would I sleep for many nights. My mind was too full. I’d seen myself, for the second time that day, as I passed the mirror in our wood-panelled hallway. At first I only glimpsed the features I’d always seen. But the longer I stood there, staring at my face, the thinner and more angular it seemed to become and the more my neck shrank into my shoulders. The tailored linen suit was no disguise for the thin torso inside.

***

Here I sit, monitoring the invisible collisions which occur, remotely, at the bottom of a concrete shaft. Their traces, the only empirical data we have for the operation of invisible processes, are measured in a concentric layering of gas-filled chambers.

I mentioned the tinnitus to Dr Vincent; he prodded my ears with a polished metal implement and agreed that it could be. If it gets too bad, I am to go back and see him. But the more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is something external – an electrical hum, quite explicable, anyone would say, given my proximity to so much equipment. Dr Vincent maintains that the museum never existed. He says it is the manifestation of an early trauma. He says the lizard represents my sublimated sexuality. Utter nonsense, I told him, but he insisted on the significance of the two heads – the one head denying the erotic impulses of the other. I’m thinking of transferring to Dr Prakash. He may be bald but he only voices his opinions when asked.

I think of my father’s semen, the collisions in my mother’s womb and his proprietorial paw resting on her bosom. I am my father’s son. He has brought me up to analyse the data I see before me. I consider it, suck my pen top and scribble down a few lines of a programme to correct a small technical glitch. Distantly, but distinctly, I hear the strains of a glass harmonica. My mother is combing her hair after her bath, it falls down into her lap like a lithe animal and coils there.