An Untrue Account of the Last Meeting of Percy Shelley and John Keats
What was it, beer or claret over some folded papers, paper adorned with a splash of red, oh a “particularly fine Montepulciano so-and-so” because you’d rather die than pretend that those papers are worth anything, even though deep down you know what they’re worth, they’re more than spilled flowers on paper or more than flowers pressed between pages, or butterfly wings, or those other dainty things that breathe God, more than the heavens which you believe manifest in the face of a woman, they’re something that can (I think, and take that for what you will or what its worth), I think they can stand up against time itself, charging as it is, relentless in its conquest of erasure, I think a few simple words can run it down like a herd of horses, and I think those pages that you’ve been careless with, may contain them. Forgive me if I’m fawning, forgive me, but we’re young and I know that you’re ill, with the shadows in your cheekbones and the little wheeze in your chest, a whisper of weakness, the sense of paper being folded, or crumpled, if I am to be dramatic about it, or, less dramatic, just dust in the lungs. When I look at you I feel like I am looking at the white of your bones. Aren’t bones a terrible thing to imagine, that under all the splendor of our flesh we are just a pile of…what, of what, there is nothing like bone. I’d rather think of your star-shaped flowers.
I can make you all the excuses I need about not going with you. I won’t say it out loud, not now, but I don’t think I will be able to watch you die. Out loud let me say that you will be fine, the doctor’s prescribed it, a season in Rome, how beautiful, how luxurious. I can hear your breath. I can’t watch someone like you fall so, I can’t see that death, I’d rather hear about it, already mythologized, you already canonized, so the little sleepy angels of poetry will hold you in their arms, will shut your eyes with their soft-tipped fingers. If confronted with that sight, the vision of your bodily death, anything that has a scent, any decay, I know I would fall to my knees and feel a phantom rope around my neck. I know that I would not be able to forget your face, your face and the word “anguish” pressed on the back of my eyelids, my heart empty, my throat empty, my eyes spent, yes, I would feel terribly old, I would look at the moon and think of my heart ripped out and Mary, and Mary.
The world doesn’t tell us what is bad for us, and what is bad for one person isn’t always bad for another. For you it was just genius, it was the light, the goddamn light, I mean that too, the light of the damned, death like a star over you, like an aureole, death crowned you it’s own, and gave you its power. I will memorialize you—I will, I will I am not now the same man who stood in the Chamonix Valley, not the man at the Villa Diodati, where all I remember of one night was Polidori dark as the night that surrounded him, and his teeth a flash of white before I lit the candle, I am not that man and one day I will no longer be the man who sat here with you.
Dear friend. Oh dear friend. It comes for us all in the end.
Interior. Spare, high contrast between the lacquered black desk and white wooden chair, a smudge of ink along the top rail. White walls against which the sun’s last rays wander, evocative of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s “Interior with Young Man Reading”. The curtains, however, are violet instead of yellow, but the effect is the same-bright to the point of hysteria, both cruel colours. The promise of betrayal on a late-summer evening.
You can walk over to the desk and look. The floors are well worn; they creak underfoot. All you know right now is this room, but you imagine a house old and dusty, and a lawn overgrown with silverweed. Stop wandering. There is nothing on the desk. There are no drawers. Run your thumb across the ink stain. It smudges. Still wet. You’re not actually here in this room. The room is empty. Is a room with nobody in it even a room?
Think of that young man reading, tall, straight, and sallow. He’s leaning against the wall, despite the chair and desk. Picture the colour of his skin the same as the walls themselves. Watch him drift into the walls. The room is empty once more.
An urge to follow him occurs, a restlessness starting around your kneecaps. The air is dry. Your mouth and eyes are dry. There’s a sort of dusty shimmer in the air. You’re not alone anymore. The story is gathering some sort of impetus, albeit a ghostly one. The dry air coils around you and the young man is back, except without his book. He’s right in front of you, he takes your arm and you are warm, moving flesh and blood. You are both in the room, and the desk is no longer empty but overflowing with typed scrolls, annotated in dark red ink. They spill onto the floor. Above the desk is a framed drawing, grey and white at first until colour begins to saturate it, spreading slowly like blood in sheets. On the paper, a young woman, dark haired, light eyed, parts her knees, and opens her legs like a book. The young man pulls you close. His collar has come undone and his hands are rough around you. The skin appears to shrink around his face (sure, an illusion, a trick of the light, we are beyond disbelief) until his eyes look huge, his skin white as bone.
You recoil. Of course you recoil, but he pulls you close and shows you his long white teeth. You can feel his breath just above your lips. He has no scent.
You don’t have to stay here. Nothing’s keeping you here. But no, now you’re forehead to forehead with him and he wants you to go with him. His skin is hot and dry, so hot you feel bound to him by flame.
Stop. Picture a Vuillard interior. The wallpaper doesn’t match the tablecloth. The trees outside scratch the window they are so close. You swallow your claustrophobia. He’s close behind you, his eyes glowing in the way you imagine the devil’s might. His breath hot in your ear: Fuck Vuillard.
Jessie Widner is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Smashed Cat, Lantern Magazine, and Shorthand. She is the Director and Fiction Editor of Klipspringer Magazine.