Contest submissions

Sleep with Thee Tonight

November 16, 2016 • By and 15 1726

On his clammy bench, Cassius readjusted the damp cardboard under his buttocks. The hardened snow that stuck to the thick brown paper made the faint sound of a cloth being crumpled as Cassius shifted. The old man with the sparse gray beard pulled up his coat collars and lapels for a second time and wrapped them around his neck, which was reddened with the sharp frigidness of the December night. Lightly as a quarter rest on a music sheet, a frost-bleached leaf whirled before his eyes and landed quietly on his knee. As persistent as a metronome, waves crashed onto the sand, marking time in adagio.

A squirrel jumping from tree to tree or scratching in the snow, a bird singing or flying off, a distant unidentified rumbling, the breeze shaking branches, water dripping from a rock … The familiar rhythms of the evening spun before him but never came quite close enough to touch.

Cassius inhaled deeply, the bitter air giving him pause as he visualized the music again, forcing his mind to feel disoriented and intoxicated by it. To feel its magic, to absorb its spirit-power and let it overtake his soul.

Perhaps it was a good idea to find shelter tonight? Was the wind’s song whispering a warning that he should curl up under one of those pedestrian tunnels of the Park or hide in a corner down in the lower passage of Bethesda Terrace? Would he be safer there, hidden away from the natural world? Protected from the cold, at least. Perhaps. Maybe later, he decided, looking down at the book next to him that was lit by a streetlamp at his back.

The cover badly battered and its corners turned up, the little pocket book seemed as tired as its owner. Nonetheless, Cassius’s look softened at the sight. His fingers, numb with cold and swathed in mittens full of holes, seized it delicately. He looked at the cover, thoughtful, and gritted his teeth. Romeo and Juliet. He blew away the sparse snowflakes and was about to open it when an icy gust of wind wrested open the neck of his coat again. Momentarily blinded, Cassius had the unpleasant sensation of having gotten sand in his eyes. If only it were sand. Hot sand. At a beach scattered with palm trees. But no, they were snowflakes — maybe even ice — and the flurry gracefully danced before his wet eyes. He wiped them with the back of his hand and pulled his knitted hat down more firmly onto his head, covering his ears. He shivered violently, so thoroughly chilled was he, and wondered how he might warm himself. Maybe by skipping through the words in his book. Climbing the arpeggios of his mind.

A young couple passed hastily, tightly embracing one another. Their laughter a harmonious duet, they paid no attention to the man trembling on the bench. The woman’s head was obscured by a pashmina, and her tall, thin body was enveloped in a mustard trench and her lover’s arms. Cassius could barely see her eyes as she passed by, but even so he imagined that they were as a blue as a lagoon, despite the piercing darkness of the night. Her companion had an attitude of protectiveness. Athletic, he appeared as solid as a boat. The ocean. Cassius gently smiled at the sight of them, feeling no bitterness nor jealousy. He just liked to steal a little bit of the heat emanating from their undisputable happiness. His peaceful eyes followed the young lovebirds until they disappeared into the shadows of the Park.

Frozen to his extremities, Cassius grabbed the bottle of red wine that rested at his feet and took a few long sips. His lungs burned as if they were on fire. He coughed and squeezed the book against his heart.

Then he closed his eyes. The night was quiet except for the honking in the distance. He focused on the music created by the wind flirting through the stripped trees. As his ears accustomed to it, the rustling became a violoncello, a violin, and then he detected a viola. The urban din grew into basset horns, bassoons and trumpets, gradually changing in Cassius’s mind to a score as melodious as a Mass in D Minor. Lacrimosa, he whispered. He could hear the music as if he was playing again.

D/F, C#, D, F/A, A, B♭, E/G, D, C# …

Lacrimosa dies illa. (Mournful that day.) Qua resurget ex favilla. (When from the ashes shall rise.) Judicandus homo reus. (A guilty man to be judged.) Huic ergo parce, Deus. (Lord, have mercy on him.) Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem. (Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest.) Amen.

His fingers twitched nervously on his book as he recalled the theater of cruelty. His brow furrowed and his eyelids, firmly pressed closed, could not hold back the tears as they threatened to spill from the corners of his eyes. Although pain was etched on his face, apparent to anyone who might have deigned to notice, he still hummed the masterful tune, letting it vibrate through him. As an elusive force gathered within, carrying him away to an invisible world, he opened up to a flood gate of emotions which allowed him to escape his reality.

Cassius inhaled deeply through his nose and opened his eyes abruptly. While the classical piece continued to pulsate throughout his whole electrified body, he remembered her. His sweet Donna. Within a second, her face appeared in the midst of the night, as in bright daylight, as fresh and real as in his distant memories. Her scarlet and greedy lips. Her delectable flushed and silky-soft skin. It was enough to take Cassius’s breath away. The graceful twenty-year-old Donna stared at him a moment, then smiled tenderly. A warm glow came down from heaven, supernatural, and reflected fiery hues on her auburn hair. Lacrimosa dies illa. Donna playfully grabbed her long summer skirt with both hands and made it twirl by spinning around in a provocative dance, swaying skillfully, her bare feet happily splashing salted water onto the golden sand to the poignant rhythm of Mozart. She stopped all at once and held out a hand to Cassius.

Judicandus homo reus, shouted the chorus. Guilty! His breathing shallow and rapid, Cassius rose. Overcome with emotion, on trembling legs, he fell heavily to his knees onto the thin blanket of snow. Dona eis requiem, pleaded the choirs in canon. Dona eis requiem. Requiem!

In tears, Cassius extended a hand to the young Donna. Grant us eternal rest, he begged in return. The private concerto in the amphitheater of his soul reached its final measures in the guise of a deliverance, rocking and warming his body entirely. Staggering. His mind shattering into a thousand senses: the sublimating of the classical piece, the sharp cold of the night and the heat of Donna’s body against his. Strings and winds deployed all their energy in a last symphonic breath. The same breath that had failed Donna that day. Cassius watched himself forty years earlier, drunk with love, tasting her full lips with the tip of his own for the first and last time. Tasting the pleasures of the flesh in the hot humidity of the summer. An isolated place. Coming in unison with the woman he had no right to love. Then tightening his hands around her neck, his vision misted with tears.

Cassius felt his heartbeat racing into a crescendo. Even the conductor did not beat time so violently. Not on this piece. His hand clutched at the book even harder.

Donna had lain naked, lifeless, on the clear sandy sheet of that beach. He had just made love to her. Just taken her virginity. Just taken her life. Trembling with fear, he had stared in horror at the knife awaiting for him. But he could not. He could not have taken his own life.

Donna danced again, barefoot on the ice. Whenever she faced Cassius, she held out her hand to him. A piercing and sovereign pain ripped through Cassius’s chest: the blade was finally able to transpierce this coward’s heart. The throbbing pain came so suddenly that the book fell onto the ground as Cassius grabbed fistfuls of his coat above his aching chest.

Slowly, his bust toppled forward.

He took one last longing look at Donna who was still smiling down at him.

He hit the floor, hard.

His hand crawled to the book and covered it, as if to protect it for the night.

He closed his eyes, listening, bonding the last rich notes with his own pulse.

The singers performed the final apotheosis, pouring out his heart. Morendo.

Then the symphony went quiet.

Amen, Cassius murmured in a last breath. Amen.