An Affair in Paris, as Told by the Ashtray and the Dead Whale
Improbable as it sounded even to himself, yes, it was true: Rick was an ashtray. He hadn't always been. Not in Paris. He had been a man then. He had been a man when they walked in the cold sunshine along Rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank and she touched his unshaven face. He had been a man when he brought her coffee and a baguette at the Hotel Dauphin -- because she'd been through so much in such a short time, she'd wept with gratitude just for bread and coffee, eyes glittering like diamonds. And he had been a man when she didn't show up at Gare Saint Lazare, when instead she had provided a note in that cursedly beautiful hand, and the locomotive had rolled on with bullets of cold rain piercing the clouds of steam along the tracks. The train had carried him alone into a future that was uncertain, yes, but more than uncertain, uninteresting. He didn't care anymore whether he was alive or dead, a man or an ashtray. So being an ashtray was not so much a shocking metamorphosis. In fact it seemed the next logical thing -- an ashen volcanic prism through which to view the apocalypse of history -- and not so different in most respects from being a man.
Even now that Ilsa was before him again -- could it really be true? of all the abyssal plains in all the seas in the all the world, someone flings an ashtray off a luxury liner and he sinks down to the exact spot that belongs to her? -- yes, even in so improbable a circumstance he had no interest. He had only one question, which through his lens of burnt glass seemed to him almost academic: why hadn't she shown up at Gare Saint Lazare? Curiosity, that was all he felt. Well, she'd tell him, but he'd never ask.
"You must be wondering why," she'd said when they finally got to talking.
"Why what?" he'd said.
"Why I never came to Gare Saint Lazare. Why I am a dead whale. Why everything." Her faint Swedish accent brought her face and all of their affair in Paris back to him at once. He could see those enormous round eyes, those jewels that glittered with gratitude in the morning at the Hotel Dauphin or in the cold on the Champs Elysees -- he could see her in his mind but not by sight. One could hardly see at all in the pitch darkness of the night of the undersea depths, or through the sand and rubble that were partly covering him. Plus, he was drunk.
"You've got me pegged for more curious than I am," he'd said. "You're a dead whale now, I'm an ashtray. What's it to me? What's it to anyone?"
"I loved you, Rick. You must understand that," she'd said. "I loved you then, and I love you still. There is an explanation -- "
"How many other men were there?" he said. "Or don't you remember?" He'd been so vicious in his utterance of the last syllables that several bubbles escaped from him and zigzagged off above the field of tube worms.
Then they had lain silent for several months.
His vision adjusted to the dark. In fact, no dust or sand hung up above him to obscure his view. Aside from a light rain of dead fish scale from miles above, the water was black and clear, like outer space. And by the blue starlight of bioluminescent squid and dragonfish and the occasional tides of red jellyfish, he could see what Ilsa had become: a dead whale with hagfish writhing over her gigantic white carcass on the cold and dark abyssal plain. There he and she lay beside one another a few yards apart and three miles below the surface.
Oh, she knew he was there too, though she lay there dead and being eaten by hagfish.
In fact, she made a point of speaking to a traveling salesman just to spite him. The anglerfish, glowing blue around the gills, tried to sell her a cheap lace tablecloth for 700 francs.
"You're being cheated," Rick said.
Ilsa wouldn't acknowledge him. "Thank you anyway," Ilsa said to the anglerfish. "But what would I do with a lace tablecloth?"
The anglerfish hovered in the water there for a moment, lower jaw protruding and eyes unblinking as though he'd been slapped. Then without another word, he swam off.
"I'm sorry I was in no condition to receive visitors when you called on me three months ago," Rick said.
"That's quite all right," Ilsa said.
"It was the bourbon talking."
"It's all right, Richard -- or Rick, since that's what you call yourself now," she said coldly. "Though I hardly called on you. It was you who came fluttering down to me."
"If you think I came chasing after you..." he trailed off. "Would you prefer I go back?" he said.
"No," she said.
"Well, you can tell me about the Gare Saint Lazare, now. I'm reasonably sober."
"I don't think I will, Rick," Ilsa said. "Rick the Ashtray."
The tone of her voice sounded so alien to her own nature, the attempt at cruelty so childish, such a failed experiment, that he felt a warmth of tears inside the glass of him, an inward blurring of the soot across his front. Look at her. Her great eaten ribs arched into the vacant black and cold, and the eel-like hagfish writhed and wriggled over her body, flapping like banners over the patches of white cold flesh and knotting their bodies over her head to anchor themselves as they hungrily ate what was left of her whale brain. That his Ilsa should have come to this! That such beauty could come to this! He sobbed.
"Oh, Richard," Ilsa said. "Look what I've done to you."
"With all the love in the world," Rick said, "I can't seem to make up three little yards between us. If I could just touch the corner of my glass to a rib. Oh, look what's become of you, dear, dear Ilsa."
"I couldn't come to the Gare Saint Lazare, Richard," she said. "I don't know why or how, but I could feel myself getting sick. Even in the last days we were together, I felt like a whale that swims through the ocean. I still had the joy of being with you, being alive, swimming, but all the while I knew what awaited me, the fate of falling three miles down. Only being alive, swimming, kept me in the world above. And awaiting me were death and the fall into night, Hades. Where we are now. I was sick with the knowledge of it even in our last days together -- "
"You got so quiet -- I thought it was fear of the Germans, the trip, that we might get caught," Rick said. "I was a fool. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I couldn't let you see me die," she said. "I wrote the note and I became a whale. And then I got sicker, and I died, and I fell like a sinking ship."
"No, Ilsa, no," Rick said.
"The same has happened to you. Did you die of sadness?"
"It doesn't matter anymore," Rick said, weeping for his poor, poor Ilsa.
- - -
For months they wept together, lying just a few yards apart on the dark abyssal plain. They were haunted by the lunar strangeness of the place, which they could not get used to. It was a place for the luminous jellyfish that rotated their colors like silent arcade pinball machines, for the black dragonfish roving with blue searchlights, for the hairy anglerfish selling their wares and the field of blue squid stars, for transparent shrimp and black bulbous-eyed creatures with foot-long icicles for teeth, for the boiling heat vents and the white crabs and the red tube worms and the thick black brine pool that apposed water with water, still as a glass coffin. "We want to go home!" they cried to each other. "We want to go back to the Hotel Dauphin in Paris! Take us back, take us back!"
And just when they thought they could no longer stand the agony of what they'd become and of the Hades into which they'd fallen, a twelve foot long sleeper shark lumbered up to Ilsa. They screamed, but because they were an ashtray and a dead whale three miles below the surface of the ocean, they could not make much noise. The shark seemed to sniff at Ilsa's head with half unseeing eyes, making slow turns with its long milky-tan body. As a live whale, Ilsa would have been five times the length of this lowly lethargic blind bottom-feeder, and ten times as fast and strong, would have swum in waters too fast and coursing with competitive life for a slow blind maggot such as this.
The shark sniffed at Ilsa's head again, and made as if to turn away, a sort of a feint, then violently seized an enormous mouthful of Ilsa's head in its jaws and wrested away a massive chunk of dead flesh with four thrashes of the head.
"No, Ilsa, no!" Rick screamed. "Leave her alone, you foul thing, you maggot, you beast!" The violent motions of the shark's head stirred up some sand and rubble, which drifted onto Rick's ashtray face and blinded him. "Ilsa! Are you still there?"
"I'm still here, Richard!" she called to him. "He's going to attack me again, Richard, but I'm still here! Ah. I will be brave! He's biting me now, Richard -- ah! He's torn away more of my flesh from my head."
There was never such panic screamed out upon the wastes of the abyssal plain, where white crabs listened heartlessly.
"Oh, Ilsa! I can't see you now! Are you okay?"
"Yes, Richard, he's attacking me again. Here it comes -- I will be brave -- here it is -- no!"
There was silence again over the abyssal plain. The sleeper shark, its belly now full of cold meat, slowly paddled off with several sweeps of its tail. As it passed, it fanned the sand and rubble off of Rick's face so that Rick could again see Ilsa. She looked the same as before, bare ribs, a mausoleum for herself.
"Ilsa? Are you all right?"
Rick called to her several more times before she answered. "Yes, Richard. I'm here. I'm all right."
- - -
Many years later, Ilsa left Rick again. Where there had been a dead whale, there was now only sand. The hagfish ate her all up. And smaller parasites slowly dismantled the beautiful skeleton that had once belonged to her. When that was finished, Ilsa was no longer able to talk to him. There were no more reminiscences, no more games to pass the black abyssal hours.
For some time, he had been working on an idea to tell to Ilsa, but he had not been able to finish it in time. As the hagfish and shrimp and bacteria dismantled Ilsa's body, he was building and building inside his head. By the time the idea had gestated quite enough to rise into consciousness as a fully formed thought, Ilsa was gone and Rick's ashtray body was buried under a foot of sand. At times he could convince himself he was buried on the surface, on a beach. But then the cold that never left him would remind him he was three miles and a foot below the surface of the ocean among zombie parasites in total darkness.
So there was no one else around to share in his idea when it finally came to parturition. He was thinking of dreams he used to have when he was a man living in Paris. He used to dream that he was drowning, plummeting down through the water into the depths. Sometimes he would wake. But sometimes, before waking, he would realize that he was breathing while underwater, and that this was not possible. This was not death, but a dream of death. This was life.
And then it occurred to him that in all important ways his undersea experience was the same as life. He remained in the mortal world. This was not Hades. He had yet to die. He wondered at the many versions of himself that were possible in a lifetime and he wondered what the version of himself in death could be. Saying goodbye to the old versions of himself -- that was a part of life repeated many times over, he reasoned, once he'd been lying under the sea floor for five hundred years. He was an ancient buried ashtray flung from a luxury liner long ago. He could say goodbye to his body, perhaps. But without Paris there was no version of himself and Ilsa that he wanted: they could say goodbye to their bodies, but they could never never say goodbye to the morning at the Hotel Dauphin in Paris, where he brought her bread and coffee and she wept grateful tears, her eyes like glittering diamonds.
About the author:
Austin Ratner's short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Arts and Letters, and elsewhere. He's been honored with the 2000 Missouri Review Editors' Prize in Fiction and other literary prizes. He received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins Medical School and is co-editor of "Concepts in Medical Physiology," a textbook forthcoming from Lippincott Wilkins and Williams publishers. He lives in New York City where he is at work on a historical novel.