The Stalker, by Eugene Garber.
"The Stalker" is one of fifteen stories in a collection entitled Vienna ØØ. The stories are set in a partly real and partly imagined Vienna of 1900. The Angela of this story is a highly fictionalized version of the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler). Alfred is a very distant cousin of the real Alfred Roller, Gustav Mahler's set designer at the Vienna Opera for many years. In real life Roller was a student of architecture and had an interest in human anatomy, but the story is fanciful in ascribing to him biological expertise and an affair with Alma. Mahler himself appears only distantly at the very end of the story.
Who was the man who wrapped himself in mist even when the day was bright the blue curl of the Danau undimmed by slurry from the barges and even when the night was bright the full moon perched on the edge of a cloud like a mother bird with a morsel in her beak? And not only was the interloper secretively wrapped he was also a shape-shifter one time peach plump another time lean as a hound in snow just the kind of ambiguous figure thought Angela that Alfred might paint for one of Matthias's productions of Wagner a demon emerging from primordial vapor but never perfectly in focus just as Wagner's or Matthias's music was never quite within reach.
Do you see him? Angela said to Karen for the third or fourth time in as many days but always a carriage would pass between the figure and the two friends or a woman would fly by on a skirl of wind or a peddler push his cart in the way and the man would be gone if man he was.
Karen placed a hand on her friend's sleeve. Dear Angela you're suffering the imagination of desire but don't be ashamed because out of such mirages come love and art.
Oh Angela knew that in Karen's world all the big ideas the ones with huge heads and vast chests the ones that kept Vienna's dreams alive were crammed into propositions as though the world were not things and flesh but a chain of statements linked to each other with inexorable logic but spoken sweetly so that Karen's words reminded Angela of Alfred's stars daintily stepped in a sky the gods had carefully terraced for just such a tidy painting.
Thereafter Angela kept her misted figure to herself but although his appearances grew daily more insistent she didn't know what emotion to attach to him so for a while she tried an arch insouciance that permitted hardly a glance in his direction but that was unsatisfying because he was utterly unaffected by her disregard and slid into a corner of her eye like Punch on a window sill and paradoxically was then more coarsely intimate than in his lurking mode so she tried diminishing him through a series of comical imaginings. For instance he changed sex and became Erda rising from die Unterwelt onto the streets of Vienna but finding there no suitable site for grim prophecy kept going back under Angela meanwhile pointing him toward the Oper but these antics created one day an awkward scene in which an elderly gentleman peered solicitously into her face and asked if she were all right and so from disregard and comical make believe she went to fearful apprehension and that seemed right.
At Alfred's Studio
His eyes were bright and red from cocaine Angela guessed and his hands though they seemed to lie quietly in his lap leapt within themselves but Angela wondered how she perceived this. Maybe it had something to do with the blue pulse of the raised veins that branched like banyans into his fingers or maybe the telltale sign was the purple glow that radiated from the cuspid cuticles like a polar light. Anyway having seated her and himself he smiled broadly but his teeth were dry and his eyes unnaturally liquid. Actually Angela knew basically what was the matter. Alfred was a fine painter and an amateur scientist of true insights but he had experienced a night of untamed passion and it had frightened him.
What were you doing before I knocked?
I was looking through a glass into the world of bacteria.
What did you see?
A teeming I can't describe though maybe I can paint it but did you come to discuss microbes?
I have not come to renew.
Ah that's too bad because I always remember the cologne you wore that night essence of gardenia from a vial with a tiny pipette like an adder's tongue. You touched it to my coat remember? It still hangs in my closet perfuming the air but why have you come?
There's a man that follows me everywhere wrapped in fog like one of your figures for Matthias.
Ah a Doppelgänger. They're everywhere in Vienna now because the mind doctor of Bergasse releases them nightly from his studio like a plague of rats.
I'm serious Alfred. At first this man came only occasionally and was comically shy dodging behind carts and around corners but now even when I'm in my room he crawls up the walls of the house like a human fly and appears at my window.
And looks at you with a longing eye?
No he seems to want to be looked at himself to be acknowledged.
I'm sorry but I must ask does he expose himself?
I can't tell because he's wrapped in mist and changes shapes do you think he's this Eros that everybody's writing and talking about? Karen says I'm suffering the imagination of desire.
I think you will have to have an appointment with this figure.
An appointment? Angela shuddered. You mean you think I should let him into my room?
When you're prepared.
How will I prepare myself?
Well I would say from your description that at present he's in the ambiguous region between rarified phenomena and Geist where he can shift shapes therefore you must draw him into your world of the every day. Alfred spoke with great precision like an equilibrist who sees on either side of the slightest verbal miscue a fatal plunge.
How would I draw him in?
Alfred rose and went to his microscope. Come take a look.
Angela peered down at a greenish mass that began to differentiate itself into a complex set of rods that vibrated and slowly changed shape.
A reddish wash crept into the mass and made each rod more distinct.
Without lifting her eyes she said what did you do?
I put a drop of dye on the slide. Keep watching.
Now the mass began to spawn new rods and to spread until the old perimeters were breached and the whole field of the eyepiece was filled with vibrating green and red shafts. What did you do?
I put in a drop of nutrient. Keep looking.
For a moment nothing happened then the mass began to lose color and motion the rods began to dissolve one by one faster and faster until finally nothing remained but a pinkish swill Angela took her eye away. Horrible. She walked back to her chair. You poisoned them didn't you?
Is this a parable for me and my Doppelgänger?
Yes the first step is to highlight him and make him submit to identity then you can kill him.
You're shaking Alfred.
Yes bacteria affect me that way because in their world there's mainly teeming or death and little in between.
In Angela's Room
She sat by her window and he came quickly not really up the wall like a human fly that being only a way of conveying to Alfred the Doppelgänger's agility and persistence. In fact he simply appeared in the air outside the glass in his usual haze but it was thinner this time and pierced by the afternoon sun so that his nudity was quite obvious and for this visit he had chosen to be extremely bushy fiery red hair pouring out of his nostrils and ears like tendrils of flame and down his chest and around his sex like gashes of falling ember so Angela half expected him to make some kind of wild noise but as before there was no sound no movement which made Angela wonder if she had misled Alfred when she said that the Doppelgänger wanted to be seen and acknowledged so still was he now in his vestment of red hair.
While gazing at her visitant Angela reflected on Alfred's stratagem of defining and destroying but that was only the male drive to control whereas she preferred a wise passivity in which the Doppelgänger's sphere and her own touched gently but did not invade each other and thinking thus she was drawn to the piano and began to play an improvisation full of curious augmented sevenths and ninths and other chords she couldn't even name and no identifiable key from which to modulate and to which to return rather all a dreamy skein of indefinite harmonies and languid arpeggios her fingers floating back and forth over each other and often lapsing into a languorous chromaticism that cascaded down the keyboard in watery polyrhythms.
She took her hands away from the keyboard perplexed not only by the music itself but also by its unintended but obvious counterpoint to the visitant's guise of animal ruddiness and so she looked eagerly to the window to see how he had taken it but he was gone.
Out and About
An odd figure hovering in the distance unseen by any other than its cohabitant need not necessarily create a disturbance but if that figure moves closer and closer until in a sitting room it stands between the cohabitant and her conversationalist causing a discernible obliquity of gaze and an awkward trailing away of words then there begin to be whispers and soon a visitation by a friend.
Angela your secret companion is troubling your friends.
You told them about him Karen?
Of course not! What kind of friend do you think I am? The truth is they sense that something has gotten between you and them what they don't know but something disturbing so you must get rid of him Angela.
Alfred says I have to define him and then kill him.
Kill him! Alfred is infected by Matthias's overblown productions at the Oper. Don't think about killing this creature just get rid of him.
Alfred believes that all of us in Vienna have a Doppelgänger supplied by the mind doctor of Bergasse. Do you have one Karen?
Certainly not. I may occasionally say something to myself that shocks me a little so I suppose I have some sort of imp of unsuitable sentiments but a Doppelgänger no certainly not.
Well I have one and you can't get rid of it with just a wave of your hand. It's what they call a syndrome. I have a syndrome.
All right Angela to have a syndrome temporarily may be overlooked but to have an incurable syndrome will not be excused.
Once you told me I was suffering the imagination of desire.
Did I? Well I was probably right because you're a very fervent person at a very latent age but whatever the case you must get rid of this creature and if you can't do it on your own then get help.
In Angela's Room
She would not play the piano again because the languid music of a week ago still curled in her ear like the provocative tangle of Alfred's animulae or the twining of the Doppelgänger's luxuriant red hair so it came as a great shock when he appeared at her window as a flagrant dandy his aura a velveteen mauve his nakedness interrupted only by a monocle and by two showy golden studs at his wrist where the cuff of his shirt would have been and by a lapelless boutonnière floating over his heart in the form of a shyly folded rose. The red pelt had been replaced by an alabaster paleness the only hair now an unctuously combed swath of black on his head and a curly little bush that fondled his sex tenderly. Angela wanted to turn away but it seemed part of their unwritten contract that she look steadily at him whenever and however he appeared even as she realized with a start that the glass of the window was no more impermeable than her flesh had been to Alfred's touch.
In Alfred's Studio
I don't know how long I looked at him. It got darker and darker until the window silvered like a mirror but he was still there as though he'd come through the glass into the room. I was terrified.
What did he do?
He just whispered look look at me. Alfred can you understand what it's like to look at something without knowing what it means something that is absolutely self-contained and opaque?
And he's different every time you say?
Yes he's different but he's unchanging once he's in front of me. It's a riddle. What comes in different shapes and never changes? What's the answer Alfred?
I don't know the answer Angela but I know there's nothing unchanging in this world. Maybe in some other world there's a being without a shadow of turning but not here and there's nothing in this world absolutely self-contained so you have to believe that this thing of yours changes and that it stands for something else.
You say I have to believe it but I don't believe it. Oh I don't know what I believe. Listen Alfred I'm at the edge of my sanity but I'm not going to the mind doctor of Bergasse and be just another hysterical Viennese lady with tics and nosebleeds and naked intruders under her bed no! I've come to you because I trust you. You've got to help me.
Alfred rolled his hands one over the other with an audible ruction of flesh all the while looking at Angela out of baleful eyes encased in livid pockets of pain. All right come back here tonight and we'll face him together.
Night in Alfred's Studio
Angela tossed her loden jacket into Alfred's arms sat by the window and loosed her hair letting it fall to her shoulders in unruly tangles lifted her skirts and took off her boots unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse and breathed deeply. Now let him come.
Alfred sat beside her the pane before them black the studio silent.
After some minutes Angela whispered harshly he's come do you see him?
No what does he look like? Alfred's voice shaking.
Like a warlock with long stringy hair and warts and knobby hands and feet leaning on a stick and he stinks ouf! Can't you smell him?
No. Alfred rocked from side to side like a distraught child and when he spoke his voice was faint and papery. Is he nude?
Yes but he's so bent over that all I can see is black hair sprouting from his back and pouring down like wild vines.
What's he doing?
What he's always doing just standing there. Alfred?
Are you there?
Yes I'm here.
You sound far away.
Sometimes I think the three of us are not together in the same place or time.
What do you mean?
I mean we're trying to say something important to each other but we can't quite hear because everything's happening just before we get to each other. We reach out but we can't touch. Do you understand?
Alfred swallowed making a curious almost choking sound. Angela come away from the window now back into my place.
No I want to stay close to him. I have to identify him. You said so yourself.
I've changed my mind. He's too clever too dangerous. Let him go.
No Alfred it would be terrible to deny him. It would be fatal. Angela stood and opened her arms. I'm coming. She unbuttoned her blouse which slid with silken swiftness down her arms and dropped to the floor. Alfred stooped and picked the garment up with visible agitation and when she stepped out of her skirt and kicked it aside he scooped it up frenziedly and flung it against the window where after a rattle of buttons and stays it unfurled and slid slowly down the glass as though being released reluctantly by someone on the other side the reluctance explained when the someone turned out to be neither red beast nor dandy nor warlock.
At Home in the World
Angela sat at her piano slowly striking middle C over and over until she remembered the axiom of her old teacher Herr Theuer that an isolated tone was not a note but just a sound which only became a note when you created a different tone and thereby an interval why? because interval and difference were the soul of music. Angela got up from the piano and went to the empty window there to reflect on differences. Were musical differences like the disguises the Doppelgänger had used to conceal himself? Call them D and E and F# insubstantial but effective sonic skins that for weeks had fooled her even though she now knew the Doppelgänger had in his heart of hearts always hoped that she would not be fooled.
Why hadn't she seen sooner? Hadn't Karen come very close with her reference to desire? Yes but the Doppelgänger had disported his changeable nudity and she had failed maybe due to some prurient impulse to recognize the sad longing eyes until finally the naked truth smote her in the face. Yes it was always Alfred poor Alfred behind the tinted auras but had he come on his own or had she called him? That she would never know because complicity of that depth always conceals from the conspirators the portion of each in the deed.
Would she go now to Alfred? No the Doppelgänger would always stand between them also the memory of the night she'd let herself be taken into his arms oh more than let and then had withdrawn like a shy virgin saying that she wanted time to learn to govern her heart and her body before she was worthy to return to him which was a lie because what she really wanted was a greater passion.
The night after she'd lain with Alfred she'd gone to the Oper where Matthias with his potent wand had conjured Erda out of the earth to proclaim her dire prophecies and had made Wotan quake with fear and all the while the stony face of Alfred's Valhalla had loured over them with its uncanny fusion of fierce cragginess and flawed footings but even so apt a painting couldn't match the music which under Matthias's baton and despite the jerking leg and the unruly hair drew her and the entire audience completely out of themselves and into the realm where music had dominion over everything even the gods.
Angela turned from the empty window to her piano and there struck the opening chords of the funeral march from Götterdämmerung. Let Karen overwhelm her imps of impropriety with propositions let Alfred manipulate his populations of green animulae let the good citizenry of Vienna close their drapes against the desirous night. She would mass her will like a huge ten-fingered chord and banishing all memory of Alfred and his Doppelgänger dive into music down where the tic-ridden Jew held dominion with his magic wand where his black hair flailed the air into a grand chorale where there was no Doppelgänger but only the very man himself. Ecce homo! Her man.
Eugene Garber has published two collections of fiction: "Metaphysical Tales", winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1981, and "The Historian", winner of the William Goyen Award in 1992. His fiction has been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations. " His work has appeared twice in Offcourse: "Loki and Death" in the Spring 02 issue and "Venice" in the Summer 01 issue.
Comments? Tell us!
Back to Of(f)course home