The Why

Yesterday was the first time in two months that I had spoken with another person. Two months! What I said was a little surprising even to me.


“Yes. I will find out who murdered you.”


No, I had never seen this man before. He was a complete stranger to me and a person for whom, of course, nothing can be done. After all, he is already dead. Still, for reasons I hope to make clear, I did not hesitate. Without a thought I set aside five years of steady work. Though the solution was imminent. The patterns finally revealing themselves.


Moreover, I guessed immediately the identity of his murderer. I must confirm it, of course, but I do not expect to be surprised. There are few genuine mysteries in these affairs. Most acts of violence are perfectly banal.


The why, though. It is the why that intrigues me. I do not understand the why, and I feel that I must understand, not for his sake but for my own.


It has been a very long time since I felt this way. Decades ago, I was a doctoral student at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, living above a shop on Grodzka Street. I was working on a little problem in the Astronomica of Manilius. Dreadful poet, wretched poem. Still, the textual crux intrigued me. I was certain that Housman’s emendation was utterly wrong. Quite impossible. I had seen with my own eyes the manuscript in question, and it was clear to me that the word was a gloss, not an interpolation. Also, my reading was far too elegant to be wrong.


I was out of cigarettes, however. “A reprieve, Alfred Edward Housman, you cocky bastard. But when I return, time for the blindfold and the firing squad. Prepare yourself.”


The tobacconist, Lasko, sat behind his counter and scowled at me. He had a daughter, this tobacconist, quite pretty. Slim, dark, eyes like wet stones. The hair on the nape of her neck finer than spun silk. But I was already deep in my books then. I do sometimes dream about her. The veins on the backs of her hands when she pushed my change across the counter: a fretwork of midnight blue.


I left the shop. The street was empty except for an elderly couple, arm in arm, walking away from me on the opposite sidewalk. I was thinking about my professor. The communists had taken a special dislike to him. I worried. Kosinski was brilliant but naive. In the end, his extraordinary skill in Roman prosopography would not save him from the SB. I made a note to speak to him.


It was then that I felt a tingling on my scalp. I slowly raised my eyes to the top floor of the building opposite. She was perhaps 4 or 5 years old. Dressed in white blouse and tights, over them a jumper of a very improper, decidedly not drab, impolitic yellow and green. Her hair was in plaits of the traditional style.


She was dangling from a third-story window. Not screaming. Her feet in their little shoes were still. She was clutching a pair of hands not much larger than her own. Not being held, mind you, but herself holding. And while I watched she was lifted like the doll she resembled and pulled inside.


I never did get back to Housman and Manilius. The next six months I spent on what my friend Konrad always called, not without the trace of a sneer, The Case of the Damsel in the Dress.


When the dead man arrived at my door yesterday — I have a strong suspicion that it was Elisa who gave me away — I had again that tingling on my scalp. And when he said that he had been killed in Krakow, it was as though I had never discovered that cryptic number pattern woven throughout the Mantuan’s works. All I could think was why.


2014 Copyright Jim Abbot

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