Mater Artium: A Time Lapse

Fiction for the 2001 film ‘Kate & Leopold.’
Necessity is the mother of invention.

Prologue: A Time Lapse

Kate relaxed into the leading rhythm of Leopold’s dance steps, her lips still damp from his unreserved kiss, and watched her new audience watching her. Handlebar moustaches and crisp collars brought friendlier faces than did flat curls and lace: the women were unhappy with her.

Whilst turning along with Leopold she spotted an expression of jealousy among the other dancers, then one of disappointment, then another of confusion, and yet all the while the palpable otherness separating her from her surroundings contained the girls’ distaste so that it couldn’t touch her. These weren’t merely the faces of strangers, they were entirely alien to her. They were sepia photographs, colorized.

All of these people are dead.

Seeking comfort in familiarity, Kate caught Leopold gazing down at her, his pupils wide and dark, his smile soft. Unafraid, he did not glance away. He was in love for the first time. He had no idea how much it could hurt, and he was beautiful.

Leopold is dead.

Whirling, she tripped. Leopold caught her in a swift improvisation so that it seemed she hadn’t faltered at all, and they shared a little laugh, but her existential vertigo caught up with her.

I’m dead.

Kate sought stability in the glowing globes of the electric chandeliers overhead but they drew uneasy trails across her vision, evoking motion sickness. A function in the back of her mind counted the decades ahead.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She tried to ground herself in the beauty of the big bouquets of lilies and roses bordering the ballroom, but the thought of their purfume nauseated her further.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She would be in her seventies during the first world war. She would probably miss the second altogether.

I’ve been dead for a very long time.

Kate felt tossed about in a wooden machine, as though Leopold was only a figure in a robotic puppet display that had whirred through these exact motions a gazillion times before, and she was the sole living occupant of the whole apparatus, hanging pliably from his automatic arms.

“Kate?”

She couldn’t find a single word for him. Her heart siphoned strength from her limbs to fuel its roaring pace. The dance escaped her grasp as the music succumbed to ringing. She felt her smile slip away.

“Kate, are you all right?”

The ballroom rose up to heaven.

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The Season of Denial: The Beast

Fiction for the 2004 film ‘Van Helsing.’
A haunted man is a hunted man.

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“There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible end as automatons move. Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm. For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Prologue [†] The Beast

Although Van Helsing had left Transylvania with Friar Carl bearing witness by his side, he could not escape the place. The entire voyage back to the Croatian ports, over piercing mountains and through sleeping valleys, while he soothed the horses and skinned small game, he lived in only one moment, a moment which refused to heed its own passing. The moment latched on to his back with a razor grip, tore at his shoulder blades like a rabid cat and whispered itself into his ear in an eternal mantra.

He had wanted to remain a werewolf.

His hands ached for claws, his mouth for fangs, his eyes and ears for the heightened senses of the beast. When he yeilded to his desire, while numb from riding or reclined beside a crackling campfire, he salivated; and when he steeled himself against it, his paltry muscles cramped and his skull throbbed. As days of travel passed the physical symptoms subsided, but the moment remained. Memory remained. Anna Valerious remained, gripping the threat of her syringe, throwing herself toward him at a desperate pace with the purest intent to rescue him from the very thing he had come to want more than anything else, more even than to protect her from harm.

It was not the wolf who had killed her. The wolf had only tracked down the part of his soul that longed to be monstrous and delivered it the means. He had known her intent, found her a nuisance and murdered her himself. Of course it was that way. Of course the beast had not overrun the will of the man. If it had, it would have been too late, and the antidote Anna thrust into his gut as he destroyed her would have had no effect upon him at all.

So, absent any other choice, Van Helsing lived in that secret moment. He looked into the wild eyes of snared rabbits, then broke their necks as he had broken hers. He skinned them having never undressed her, he gutted them having never entered her, and he cooked them over her pyre; and, because his journey found the weight and care of cutlery impractical, he consumed them without civility, tearing mouthfuls of meat from their carcasses with itching teeth. The first time he ate such a meal he vomited his full belly into a quiet creek, but after that he was all right. He would be all right.

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A Very Empty Place

Fiction for Game of Thrones S7E3, “The Queen’s Justice.”
Following his introduction to Daenerys, Jon catches up with Tyrion within the quiet expanse of Dragonstone Castle.
August 2017

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Jon didn’t like his new chambers at Dragonstone. A moment ago, in exasperated pursuit of a crunching noise that chased every one of his tosses and turns, he had stuffed his hand down into the corner where the bed met the wall and pulled out a flattened corn husk doll. Half its face was smeared black, and a folded bit of parchment had been sewn to one of its hands as a book. The Baratheon girl had made the sad little thing herself.

He got out of bed and set the toy gently upon the hearth’s vermillion embers, where an ugly white instant transformed it into nothing and weightless ash. It could be worse, he thought, as he shoved himself back under the covers. He could be stuck in Arya’s old bed instead, stuck with the pointy end of a dead girl’s hidden needle.

A soft knocking fell upon the lower part of one of the chamber’s double doors. “So you are awake,” it said.

“So I am.”

“I’ve come in the hope that I might catch you without your armor, not that I would fault a man in your position for wearing it to bed.”

Jon rolled over, slammed his eyes shut and pulled the furs up over his ear — but he didn’t really mean it.

“Yes, I thought you would be difficult to woo.” Tyrion must have been standing at the perfect height to speak directly through the keyhole. “I brought you a present. That is, I brought your belly a present. But it has to share.”

Jon put on his tunic and took up his pieced-pelt blanket for his shoulders. “How long have you been standing out there?”

“Oh…” Tyrion estimated, and then left it hanging instead of answering. “Did you know I quit drinking? I’m very experienced in the field of quitting drinking. I’ve quit drinking twenty times since I arrived on this rock. Tomorrow I’ll make that twenty-one. You see, just now I had a bad dream and woke up in an empty bed. It was a particularly bad dream, in a particularly empty bed.”

“And so now what?” Jon placed two old half-logs upon the embers. Their fraying bark started up without help, lighting the room well enough. “You want to climb into mine?”

“I’d vie for a cuddle with the mother of dragons but her children have grown quite large, not to mention a little unfriendly. Her bed must be the only place in this unthinkably cavernous stronghold with no extra room. For example, I am the sole inhabitant of the entire southeast wing. You may not have noticed, but it seems to me that on the whole this world is becoming a very empty place.”

Jon opened a door. “Why wouldn’t I have noticed?”

“I don’t know.” Tyrion rocked onto his tiptoes, looking up through a dark and beardy mop. “A turn of phrase.”

“A lot of nothing important.” Jon took the near-empty bottle from Tyrion’s raised hand and swigged. “And if that’s what you’re here to offer, not treatises or… deals, or diplomacy, I’ll take it.”

“I’m not sure that’s an expectation I can live up to. There isn’t much room left in me for unimportant things anymore. It’s no wonder I feel out of place in this keep. I have nothing in common with it.”

“Having something in common with it won’t help.” Jon turned to make way, emptied the bottle he had taken and set it down by the door. He felt he was being stared at but didn’t check over his shoulder.

“All keeps are haunted,” Tyrion said, as he tottered in and hopped up to sit at the table. “Just like everyone still living in them.”

Jon took the other chair. “You still talk like a poet.”

“A conjurer.” Two small horns and a fresh skein appeared in Tyrion’s hands. “Spells to ward off the ghosts. Eye of newt, grape of vine, figure of speech.” He poured a rich violet drink, likely more fortification than wine, into one of the cups. “The purplest of prose,” he finished, and slid it out toward Jon by its base before pouring his own.

Stars winked in through the latticework blocking the windows. Jon had a mind to bash those windows clear. The suffocating shutters and the bars on the double doors made this room far too like a prison. “Why did you put me in here, of all places?”

“I advised the Queen to lodge you in Shireen’s old quarters because Sir Davos will be inclined to avoid them.”

“Why?”

“To prevent you having him in your ear for too long whilst shut up in private,” Tyrion said.

“Why?”

“Because exercise, sunlight and fresh air clear the cobwebs from between men’s ears better than any maid.”

“You put me in a dead child’s bed for my own good?”

“No, the Queen did. For Seaworth’s good more than for yours.”

“By your recommendation.”

“Yes, by my recommendation. Trust me when I emphasize how well I understand the damage that can be done to a period of mourning by excessive solitude. I understand it intimately. If Seaworth wishes to avoid this room for ever, he may. If he wishes instead to confront it, he now has the perfect excuse. And your presence breathes new life into it: a persistent reminder that there is such a thing as the future. I may be a torturer, but I am a benevolent one.”

Jon smiled a little into his cup and covered it by drinking. “How did you find out what happened?”

“No man’s family is safe under a king who would burn his own heir alive. A few high ranking defectors have since pledged their swords to a new monarch, and in the process explained why.”

“I don’t understand it, what they did to her. I tried to relate.” The venom in Lady Catelyn’s unmotherly stares had been only one side of the blade that ran through Jon’s youth. The other side he remembered by sound: groans of stressed branchwood as her labor bore a prayer wheel at his bedside, while her mournful croaks and whispers warped the nursery songs he knew. When he roused from his fever he found the totem’s taut fibers stained by spots of dried blood. Even she couldn’t have done such a thing; not even to him. “I can’t.”

“Filicide,” Tyrion said. “The deliberate act of killing one’s own child. Filicidal inclinations are far more common than most people are willing to admit. We could blame it on a child’s failure to live up to a parent’s vicarious projections, or upon a child’s success in living up to a parent’s deepest insecurities, but I think that for Stannis it was relatively simple. He believed that to give his daughter’s life would be the ultimate sacrifice in service to his subjects. He did it for his people.”

“Duty is the death of love,” Jon realized.

“He who abandons either is lost,” murmured Tyrion. “He who abandons both is me.”

Jon broke the ensuing silence by approaching the nearest window, shoulders held wide as if he would brawl with it. He plucked the old candlestubs from the sill and dislodged the latticework shutter from its place. The air outside was cold but still, the sea and sky like two panes of black glass. “I heard about your father,” he said, and turned to look Tyrion in the eye. “Did you do it?”

Tyrion decidedly preoccupied himself with the task of gulping down the rest of his cup. He poured more, right up to the brim — meticulously so. “Everyone knows I killed my nephew and everyone knows I killed my father,” he said, openly slurring for the first time. “They are only wrong about the first one. It hardly bothers me anymore. I had Tywin Lannister in my sights when I took my fateful wrong turn once freed from the cells. But do you know who else I murdered that night?”

Solemnly, Jon waited.

“I murdered the whore who betrayed me. When I happened upon her in the Hand’s chambers she tried to stab me with a cheese knife, so I took her by her golden chains and strangled her to death with them. Golden chains! I had given them to her myself. She clearly hated them, took umbrage at their irony, and yet still she wore them — to impress my father, anyway. I felt like a child clinging to the reins of a rearing horse. At any moment she would work up a good swing and use the momentum to bash me into the bedpost. I was sure of it. Any moment. But then she just…” The imp then farted with his mouth, a longer fart than any sober man would make. “Died. I win!” He toasted toward the ceiling, sloshing a spatter of wine onto his brow, and as he wiped it off he spotted Jon, who had seated himself back at the table again. “Now that’s a sour look,” he said, playing at a wounding.

Jon made fists under his furs and mumbled, “But you loved her?”

“Yes, of course. Of course I did. Even if I hadn’t before, I have to now. If a woman dies in your arms you’re required to love her, even if you’re the one who killed her, even if she was trying to kill you.” Tyrion waved his winglike little hand along with his own words as though they were music — mournful, playful, hideous music. “Even if you had never seen her face before in your life, by having felt her spirit slip away you are beholden to love her until the end of your days. It’s the rules.”

Tyrion had just thrown a dead lover at Jon’s feet for a bit of entertainment, or self-indulgence, or friendmaking, or whatever this was supposed to be. Although he tried to speak in confidence, his response was thunderous: “If you loved her you should never tell anyone about what happened. Not any of it. I don’t deserve to know. Your best friend doesn’t deserve to know. The servants always lurking round the doorways don’t deserve to know.” A scuffling scurry of footsteps started up in the next room and faded down the hall, dragging most of Jon’s anger away with it as Tyrion pursed his lips to fight a laugh. “No one is good enough to know,” Jon reiterated. “Do her that honor, at the very least.”

“Such sobering authority, Snow. You speak as though you already know quite a lot about this sort of thing. Perhaps more than you deserve.”

Jon fell back in his chair and contemplated the fire, contemplated jumping in. “I do know something about it.”

The next pause was pregnant, for Tyrion was expecting: he stood up on his seat, leaned across the table by his elbows and stared, grinning in what was surely the way that had earned him most of his nicknames.

Jon’s eyes smiled back, leaving the rest of him behind. “I’d rather not.”

Tyrion thumbed at a scuffmark upon the table. “Maybe some day.”

“Probably not.”

“Oh, goody. I happen to be adept in matters of probability.” Tyrion topped up Jon’s cup quickly, as though afraid he might shield it if given the chance. “Let’s play a game.”

“Aren’t you a bit old for games?”

“Not for this game. Not for a lot of games, in fact. They say I never grew up. Here’s how this game works: I make a guess about your history. If I’m wrong, I drink. If I’m right, I drink. Wait, no, if I’m wrong, I — I mean if I’m right, you drink. And by the way, when one of us is wrong it’s the other’s turn to ask a question.”

That sounded like a lot to keep in fuzzy mind at once. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time for games these days.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Selfish of me. There’s so much to do. Great halls to rank by echo, great cliffs to mope across, your hair to slather with oil. And all of it before noon tomorrow. How’s this: I’ll save us some time by giving you a head start.” Tyrion finished his drink, poured another, finished that, and filled his horn again. “If you play competently I’ll be too handicapped to remember any of this. Now, go ahead. Tell me about my past.”

“You killed both your father and the whore who betrayed you in the same night.”

Tyrion clicked his tongue, scowling in condemnation. “That’s not fair. It has to be something I haven’t already told you.”

“You’ve narrowed my options down a lot. That’s not fair either.”

“Fine, I’ll grant you this one, but next time be creative.” He drank. “My turn, fuck the rules. You died and were brought back to life.”

Seven hells. “I thought you wanted to talk about a woman.”

“I do. The red woman is the one who did it.” The little man was extremely pleased with himself. “That’s two in a row for you.” Jon drank as he was bid, but it didn’t get the halfman off his back. Tyrion was transfixed by him, reading back and forth between his eyes as though he had a book for a face. “What was it like?” he finally demanded, almost gleefully.

“It hurt.”

“And then?”

It was hard to find the answer, hard to find a way to talk about the lack of a thing that was indefinable even when present. “There’s been an empty… blackness, but invisible, for a long time. I feel I’ve woken up in the middle of a long night. The long night, as though there’s truly only one, always waiting. Perhaps I brought it back with me.”

Tyrion’s gleefulness had gone away. “Is the dawn coming?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really touch the dark, the edges of it. Can’t pull it aside. I might be stuck here. But it is getting a bit less…” Jon took in a deep expansive breath as though it were a word, aware that he was making little sense.

“Oppressive?”

“Something like that,” said Jon, through a big sigh.

Tyrion sat back with his eyes closed, perhaps offering some privacy, perhaps passing out drunk. As his head lolled on the chairback, making the latter seem ever more likely, Jon felt ever more willing to put words into the air.

He directed them at the floor, and the fire: “After I got brought back, it was a week before I could think about anything but her, about how I hadn’t seen her when I was there. Hadn’t seen anything there, hadn’t really been anywhere at all. I thought I might go out past the wall again, pull her black bones from the pyre ashes, put them in that woman’s arms like a bundle of firewood. ‘Do your best, you have to do your best. You’ll be my prisoner until you’ve done your best, and I’ll know because I’ve seen what your best looks like.’ It was stupid. But even now it’s there, when I put my head down, when I wake up. A faggot of bones for the fire god. You’re lucky you can find an empty bed. I can’t. I wish I could.”

“Do you really wish you could?” Tyrion spoke without moving. He didn’t sound drunk anymore, only sleepy. “Truly?”

A white scar had crossed the first three knuckles of Ygritte’s right hand. The story that went with it began with one stolen rabbit, three boys and a promise to eat them in revenge. The best part was, they’d believed her. Two of them shit themselves. The third slashed her while she was laughing. That was the day she left the spear for the bow. When she pulled, the scar would pucker tight like it might split open again. “No.”

“When you want to let her go, you’ll let her go. Don’t waste your energy running in circles playing victim to yourself. Too many others seek to victimize you.”

“Do they?”

“Well — I don’t mean here. I mean general. You’re a king! That means everyone wants your throat.”

“But only in general. So, not here.”

“Exactly.”

“The Targaryen, she doesn’t want my throat. Or my head.”

“No.” Tyrion took up his drink again, slow this time, with the thoughtful grace of a performer. “What Queen Daenerys wants is your hand,” he said, and sipped.

“What could she possibly want with Seaworth when she’s got you?”

Tyrion put a fist over his mouth, his eyes watery and strained with humor. He looked like he had choked, or was about to.

Jon’s bellyful of wine expressed a desire to share. “…Oh.”

“I shouldn’t have said that, but you should be prepared to negotiate. Mind, it’s not expressly true, only my own conjecture. She came to Westeros willing to marry to forge an alliance, if necessary. My sister is essentially taken, by both my brother and by her own psychotic thirst for vengeance, poor Yara is in no way available and the other Ironborn fellow is irredeemable, so that leaves you.”

The Targaryen had looked like a child empress when Jon first found her in the throne room, drawn demurely in on herself, an unassuming little white and grey doll that would not burn; and then she had blown in toward him from her seat of stone, grew steadily from wisp to thunderhead, became fulmination and flame, gnashed her teeth, a righteous beast drunk on a far more disarming brew than Tyrion Lannister’s gut-melting blend of stiffly fortified wine.

“Well, don’t you look terrified. What in the world are you thinking right now?”

“I don’t want to remember any of this,” Jon said, and took the rest of the skein for himself.

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