Five years later, Charles Varnas would recall the white linen against his shin, the shifting blade of his trousers, one knee folded across the other. How different was that sharp angle of flax in the Cairo breeze from the geometry of the shaving razor, dripping blood in his right hand? The razor was like an architect’s tool, something an astrologer might employ, an astronomer’s quadrant. All the clean angles of a murder—How agreeable it was to discover that as he reclined against the warm dune, he might align the cool material of his pant leg with the chrome yellow slant of the pyramids cutting the cloudless sky. He was, quite simply, a dark-haired man in a pale suit who had been on a long voyage. Across the mercury of that distance, he would remember this. They had struggled, he and the dead one beside him—the Adversary—cloven red as a sacrificial animal, its skin stiffening. The pulsing blood had suggested the bloom of amaranth. Charles Varnas reposed on that slope of sand, attentive to the heat of his breath, the approach of black, the welcome he gave his strange tears, and the infinite melancholy that would reach for him from the stars like a mob of brilliant spiders—
All of this returned to him again in the gasoline air of Lexington Avenue, at noon on the first Monday of September 1930, when a stray sheet of newsprint wrapped around his ankle. Like an awkward bird, Charles Varnas lifted his foot and plucked at the paper now fluttering against his shin, extending the tan briefcase that held his folding Smith Corona as a counterbalance at the edge of the sidewalk. He studied the page. It was from yesterday’s Times. That drab Sunday had been witness to the sallow scrawl of breadlines, rain falling on long coats and declining furs boned with hunger. As he examined the newspaper sheet, between a story on air racing in Chicago, and what could be made of the laconic minutes saved by riding the trolley through the new system of traffic signals, something grandiose in the stray columns of type appealed to him. It insinuated like a rumor, whispering through his flesh as he stared at the headline: HOPES OF IMMORTALITY. With his briefcase pressed between his elbow and ribs, Varnas folded the newspaper page into a rectangular wad, slipping it into the breast pocket of his herringbone sports coat behind his leather notebook and his pen. Later, he would cut out the columns of the report that attracted him. For now, Varnas had some intuition to protect this omen that had come to push him back into his past. Lexington Avenue dissolved—
He was there again, with the pyramids under the desert twilight, the dune darkening with gore. He felt the slick oily coating of anise and fennel in his mouth as he watched the Pernod bottle rolling soundlessly away across the sand. He sensed the promise of evening, of a rendezvous when it was over. And there was the terrible corpse, faceless, indistinct under the greasy muslin of forgetting, witnessed through the narrowing aperture of his sorrow, all the hieroglyphs of violence. It had been Charles Varnas’ twenty-fifth birthday, and his second visit to Egypt. Now, he was a murderer. Yet, he could not recall his victim in any detail, only the presence of a profound danger ebbing into the desert, to be borne away like someone drowning in the undulating sand. The true nature of the Adversary seemed to drift from his consciousness, and if he sought it with any aggressive attention, it merely evaded him more determinedly. It was as though some glamor of amnesia protected him, so that he could never give himself away. Who could confess what he did not recall? In a matter of hours, he would lose any sense of guilt at the act. It was necessary, after all, was it not? As he searched himself, it was, perhaps, the first moment of absolute confidence he had experienced. At last, he got to his feet. Unfamiliar constellations measured Varnas in their cool threads as he made his exit. The corpse would clot and sink, drawn under to vanish in those golden tenements of time.
Dipping his shaving razor into the silent surface of the desert, Varnas wiped the paste of blood and dust from the steel with his index finger and repeated this gesture until it was clean. In the future, he would be able to see his motions like a religious ritual, but now it felt like a childish preoccupation to make one thing perfect. He rubbed his finger and thumb together until the evidence vanished from the blade into his pores or was stripped and rolled into sticky pills against his skin. He had done the same with his seaweed colored mucous in childhood. Varnas’ childhood had been constellated with cruelty, with figures set to hurt him, a sense of loss, and of being turned against what he loved.
He took out his handkerchief. There was time to polish the razor once more before closing and pocketing it. In the rising wind, he discarded the cloth, and lit a cigarette behind his cupped hand. He recalled walking carelessly back toward the suburbs of the city, sensing his shallow wake of footfalls being erased, the dunes enwrapping the body far behind him, sifting the blood down, lowering the heavy flesh, the bright bones, and its mask of disbelief into the slow waves of the desert. Infinitely, it would turn and fall into its vanishing.
It had seemed to Varnas that he walked for hours, one long howling street through Giza where the late trams rattled, the billboards peeled, and bare lightbulbs whined. This was the street he had first seen as a boy in 1912, with his father and mother. He removed his jacket, holding it in the crook of his arm like a matador’s cape. The night air was cold against the Rorschach image at the division of his spine, his shirt becoming transparent, revealing something like a flesh-colored moth of sweat. Red embers and sweet cigarette smoke signaled the approach of scattered men, skimming him, quick as phantom children, their voices urgent and indecipherable. He was not afraid of them, as he might have been before, walking instead with a new killer’s insouciance. A Suez Company oil drum burned between a crowd of brittle men in a side street. Sparks coiled upward into the darkness, then fell back. Down the street, a soldier slept in a raffia chair. In the moonlight, two others leaned against a blanketed camel, whispering over their revolvers in the animal’s acrid shadow, nostalgic for the fighting of 1919. Varnas stepped between warm turrets of dung. He experienced a cool sense of being dispossessed. For now, those particular ghosts that harrowed him from abroad, from Oxford, Manchester, Niagara Falls, and the blear past of his Eastern European ancestors, they all declined from him, letting him almost alone. The ghosts were silent, confused by his determination, his dignity in victory.
Crossing the English Bridge and the Kobri El Gezira with its great bronze lions over the blackening Nile, he pulled his hip flask from his pocket and finished the gin he had saved for the return. Something was ascendent in him, vivid as a new star. Leaning on his elbows at the balustrade, he was midway across the bridge span. Varnas retrieved the razor from his other pocket, weighing it in his palm. The river was slow beneath him, assumed by the moon. It amused him that he could never look down from a vantage like this bridge or a tall building without imagining how it would be to jump. In the roadway at his back, a tubercular police motorcycle rasped, bearing its rider westward. He was alone. Without another thought, without opening it again, he let the razor fall into the Nile. Then, he slicked his black hair back from his eyes and walked on. It was late when he reached Ezbekiya where the white palm trunks stood like the pillars of a mausoleum. The killing was far behind him. It was all so distant that when he reached Khaled’s Place with its exhausted cabaret, bad drinks, and impenetrable coffee, he could not recall why he had gone out that day—
In Manhattan now, blond-haired Charles Varnas walked briskly toward the Chrysler Building and his luncheon appointment. He had become quite used to the peroxide. It concealed his true nature, he thought, whatever that was. He did not care if, at times, the stark roots showed at his scalp. That had become his way of expressing something about which he was otherwise inarticulate. The sun came clutching and clawing between the tall buildings, as though it might snatch the weakest flesh off the street. Walking pleased him. Passing beneath the awnings and flags of the new Bloomingdale’s, his slim form had flashed in the glass and the gloss of its facade. Those who might have encountered Varnas on that day at the beginning of September 1930 would have been struck by his flinty good looks, the blue eyes that squinted in his adopted American concentration always upon the future—eclipsing even his natural English disposition toward the past—the white crow’s feet revealed by the flickering sunlight, that slight but perpetual tension in the jaw, and the grit of his teeth that came from too many escaped ideas, always just out of reach. Perhaps it was the pressure of keeping the past at bay. For, that day, the past interrupted, manipulated, and haunted his image of himself. Putting a finger to the thin scar beside his right eye, he wished he could have a drink, and wondered if he regretted coming home. Alcohol was still difficult to find.
At least, he thought, the metallic ministry of the Chrysler was some consolation. The most beautiful building in the world, it had been—fleetingly—the tallest. He strode under the entrance, an open sarcophagus of jet and aluminum, into the tobacco vault of the lobby. To Varnas, it suggested eternity, as though the great skyscraper had fused the future to the past in dreaming angles of marble, and gnostic light in golden pillars. The effect presented a space so strange that alchemists and aviators might repair in its elevators, their tomb doors inlaid with fanning papyrus leaves. Varnas did not care for Chrysler’s automobiles, but the trappings of the man’s wealth in this tower were luminous and magnificent, like the mad amber crypt of some new Akhenaton. When Varnas was a child, he had put a coin in his mouth and tasted the bitter blood taste of money. Now, like the shadow of a bird, pleasure passed over his features as he anticipated his ascent to the 66th floor and the Cloud Club.
Inside the elevator, he set down his briefcase and removed the folded page of newspaper from his breast pocket. He registered the narrow bite of sorrow that came as his fingers traced the ink. It reminded him of holding nettles as a boy. It was strange how much of his childhood interrupted him, of late. As much as he tried to live in the present, and to fix his version of the future in his mind, unpleasant recollections pressed upon him. He had tried to address his obsessive thoughts. Yes, he would say to himself, you have had that thought before. There is nothing to be gained by repeating it.
The news column that now compelled him like a curse concerned a Harvard lecture by a man named Robert Falconer, President of the University of Toronto. This man Falconer had declaimed on “The Idea of Immortality and Western Civilization.” As the elevator rose, Varnas read how Falconer had spoken of the years before the War, and of the decline of the Christian spirit, such as it was, or whatever that was. Varnas was not a Christian. He was not certain what he was.
In the absence of any other image of Falconer, Varnas imagined him as a limpid, tortured Jesuit type. He superimposed a shovel-jawed photograph he had seen of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air—in all the places where Falconer’s name appeared. The poet Hopkins occupied one of the constellations of Varnas’ being: the leather-bound notebook that Varnas kept at his breast contained pencil and ink transcriptions of Hopkins’ poems. The handwriting was not Varnas’ own, but from someone he had known. Despite the barbed wire of the script and the bad memories, the poems transcended, somehow. He kept it deliberately close to his heart. There was space after the copies of Hopkins’ poems for including his own on several blank pages. Despite himself, Varnas had not written a poem in many years. Perhaps he was doing Falconer a disservice with his imaginary physical comparison to Hopkins. Nevertheless, he thought, didn’t all men cut the world to the limits of their own cloth? It did not hurt too much to admit that one’s imagination was limited.
Images of the desert pulled at him. Perhaps keeping the poems was a mistake. Did they conspire with this stray newsprint that caught him in the street? Varnas winced, stiffened his legs, and studied the article. The Times recorded something of Falconer’s lecture to his audience. Varnas read, “There were no clouds upon the hills, no mystery. In that atmosphere, men’s faces lost their softer tones and their eyes grew keen. Material success affected them almost to elation. It was but a step from this into the sheer paganism that was frankly permitted to reign in the great cities of Western civilization.”
Varnas wondered if this Falconer had lost money in the stock market. Hanging in the melancholy amber light of the elevator and ascending rapidly skyward as if in a dream of his own death, Varnas could only marvel at the smooth surfaces of this “sheer paganism,” the gentle fingerprint on the golden console that selected the floors, and the ghosts of nicotine and pomade. Briefly, he imagined the elevator falling in its shaft. It must have felt that way last year if one had money of one’s own. Varnas did not.
He was hungry, yet the hunger was pleasant evidence of being alive. It put him in touch with other people. Even the slight motion sickness he felt was reassuring. According to the newspaper article, Falconer had gone on to say that with all the sacrifices of the species to spirit and reason, it could only be reasonable that—even if the physical universe might not provide—some providential realm must surely exist for the more tender and faithful disciples of progress. He was talking about an everlasting afterlife, eternity in paradise. Would that logic—that life was simply so unbearable that there must be a Heaven—appeal to the breadlines? Had men considered this as gas drifted across the bloody trenches? It struck Varnas as naive. Immortality, he thought, was more arduous than that. Did immortality not contain its own hungers, its own agonies, sudden or eternal? Did not the hunger for being have its limits? Had not his own face come to appear lean and vicious, betraying the shortening rope of his existence and his desire for more? There were many reasons why a face might lose its softness, he thought, and not all of them material.
Varnas folded the paper and returned it to his breast pocket, fitting it carefully behind his notebook and pen. In time, he would write something new in the notebook. He might yet return to the talons and thorns of poetry—that which he had loved first and lost—and to the vision of himself like meat swung on a thread that he had hungered after. But, for the present, it contained only a pencil drawing he had made of something like an awkward heron at the place where the copies of Hopkins’ poems left off, its wings in gray lead spread on the creme paper, its beak too long. There was nothing after. He had drawn it weeks ago, and now it waited at his breast with a breathing inevitability. These things, he thought, collaborated. Time murmured obscenities.
James Reich is a novelist, essayist, and journalist from England, now a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to The Moth for the Star, his most recent novels are the science fiction The Song My Enemies Sing, the doppelganger noir Soft Invasions, and Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Hear of Darkness (Anti-Oedipus Press). James is a contributor to SPIN Magazine, and others. www.jamesreichbooks.com The Moth for The Star will be published by 7.13 Books in September 2023
Want to read more? A full excerpt of The Moth for The Star is published in EXCERPT Magazine - No 1