Come You Masters

03-07-20
by Colm O'Shea

Que Valor! (What courage!), Plate 7 of Disasters of War, 1809 – 1814 (published 1863), Francisco de Goya.

There is a scream in all of this.

A wet Sunday morning, the library is just opening. I borrowed an umbrella; I only have a light jacket and was not expecting rain. The city is quiet. It is Sunday morning, everyone is still in bed. It is the last day of the exhibition; my only opportunity to see it. I have little else to be doing.

The security guard is just unlocking the door as I step inside, shaking the rain out of the umbrella. The woman at the counter looks up; she is not expecting anyone yet. It is the last day of the exhibition; there are no booklets or catalogues left. It is the last day.

Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War. Images are posted on the walls as I climb the stairs. I have nowhere to leave the umbrella so carry it with me. I know it is dripping on the floor. There is no one else here. Only half of the prints are on display. Somehow I expect a bigger room. Small, mounted on the walls. Of course they are small, I should not expect them to be larger, they are only prints. I have the exhibition to myself.

She is adamant. She does not want me there in the room when she returns, so I have to leave. She is polite, but adamant.

A creature, part monk, part bat, writes in a ledger. Behind him people wail. He raises a finger, a claw, begging silence, finishing his work before addressing those trying to interrupt. At first I think he is blind, looking closer I see him squinting at the page. The work is important; the people behind him are not.

She asks me to leave. She is going for a swim and when she returns she asks that I not be there in the room. Later she is going to meet a man; she will get ready after her swim and asks that I not be there.

An old woman, wrapped in a shawl, or a shroud, stands in front of bodies wrapped in shawls, or shrouds. Are they sleeping or are they dead? Is she dead? Flagstones to the bottom right, everything else in shade. Are they beside a road, or fallen from the path? Did someone think she was dead and pile her up with the other corpses? Maybe they were right, but she is leaving anyway.

Las camas de la muerte (the death beds), Plate 62 of Disasters of War, 1809 – 1814 (published 1863), Francisco de Goya.

She returns to the room. Roughly dried after her swim. She is wary at first, in case I might still be there. I am not there. She can relax.

‘With or without reason’, two men, armed with a single spear or short pike between them facing soldiers armed with rifles. There are bodies behind them, they will join them shortly. Reason or not, this is what is going to happen.

After she is gone I can return and have the room to myself, but for now she needs it to get ready. Her swim, and having the room to herself, allows her to prepare to meet the man properly, without any distractions, without me being there.

A woman in a long white dress, head and shoulders in shade, stands on the bodies of her fallen comrades to light the fuse of a cannon. Goya extols her bravery, yet doesn’t show us who she is. Does she represent all who will clamber over the bodies of their fallen comrades to pile up bodies elsewhere?

I see her showering after the pool. A bubble of soap slowly caressing her back before turning onto her hip. Washing away the pool water. Washing away everything so she can meet the man clean. Checking that the colour on the nails of her fingers and toes is still intact. Running her hands through her hair. Wrapping herself in a clean towel as she steps out. Wiping the condensation from the mirror to look at herself. Her skin feels like spring sunlight.

Two mounted soldiers discuss and disagree. The war is in front of them, infantry are already charging, already dying. They have not yet decided what they will do. Goya waits, or perhaps he has seen all he needs to see?

I see the anticipation. The swim and the shower. Her body is charged. Crackles of ozone in the air.

Goya says ‘one cannot look at this’, yet creates the print anyway. People about to die. People about to be shot down by rifles peering in at the right hand side of the frame. Rifles apologising for interrupting, but they must get on. Men pray. Men beg. Women scream, yet all are still about to die at the hands of the apologetic rifles.

I see everything is prepared. Her underwear laid on the bed, already out and waiting, her dress hanging on a hook. On the floor her shoes. On the table her jewellery, necklace and matching earrings. Everything decided upon. Everything where it should be and ready.

He tells us he saw it. He did not; he could not or would have been killed too. Even with his eye could he stand still long enough to remember the faces of the crowd fleeing from the enemy? Death approaches. What age was he by this point, was he deaf? Even if he was there could he have run, could he have escaped? Yet he saw it.

I see her taking her time getting dressed. Content with what she sees in the mirror. Clearing her head. Ready for later. She checks the time. She has time yet, she has plenty of time yet. She will ring for a taxi but not yet. There is plenty of time. The swim, the shower, the getting ready. Her own rituals. Her own rules of engagement. She will be ready to meet the man and she will be happy.

Another woman. Another woman in a long white dress. This time she holds an infant in one arm while driving a spear through a soldier with the other. Behind her more women attack the enemy. Yet they will still die. There is no triumph here, only more death. ‘And are like wild beasts’ he tells us, or so the translation of the inscription tells me, the only person in the room to witness it now.

Tristes presentimientos de lo que ha de acontecer (Sad presentiments of things to come), Plate 1 of Disasters of War, 1809 – 1814 (published 1863), Francisco de Goya.

I see her checking her phone for messages. Nothing from me. Nothing from him.

A man, stripped naked, hung upside down, being carved up by soldiers. He will be carved like a pig. Will he then be hung like a jamon? There is no reluctance in the soldiers. There is no humanity left. Why should there be, they are carving up cuts of meat, that is all.

I see her listening to music. She has time to relax. It is raining so she takes her coat out of the closet. This is a nice song, she sings along, humming the words she can’t remember. Checking her makeup in the mirror. Checking for stray hairs, checking in case she is not as she wants to appear. But she is always as she wants to appear.

A soldier falls. Military are defeated by peasantry. A man raises an axe to bring down on the head of an enemy. A soldier is about to be killed by a peasant with a knife, about to have his throat cut like a pig in an abattoir. Goya shows us the moment a man becomes meat. Meat wrapped in a uniform, but meat nonetheless.

I see her checking her bag. She has everything she needs. She will not return to the room tonight.

A saintly figure screaming in the wilderness. Does he see what is to come? Goya tells us this must come to pass, is there no way for this chalice to pass him by? Strange shapes in the darkness above the figure, is he seeing the war, the invasion, the death? In his cave is he seeing everything Goya will etch and print and more? Is he begging for it to pass but no one is listening?

It is time to go. She checks the room behind her. She switches off the light as she leaves. The room is in darkness, waiting for me to return.

A man tied to a post, blindfolded. His time is coming. Beside him a corpse, behind him the executioners are finishing their bloody business. To the right of the man rifle muzzles appear. His moment is about to come.

I leave the library as empty as when I arrive. I cannot look any longer. It is still raining, I open the borrowed umbrella. It isn’t time to return to the room yet. The city is starting to wake up on this dismal Sunday morning. I will find somewhere to sit and have a coffee and wait. I don’t like coffee but I have little choice. It isn’t time to return.

 

Colm O’Shea’s short fiction has appeared in gorse, 3AM Magazine, Hotel, The Stinging Fly, Fallow Media, The Bohemyth and Visual Verse. He was a winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair competition in 2012 and recently won The Aleph Writing Prize 2019. The winning story will be published as a pamphlet this year.