The Last Tango.
I stand waiting, gazing across a surreal world of silver and black, wondering as always if this night will bring solace to my torment.
Isis, the night goddess, is visible as a half disk floating in an ocean of twinkling stars. Her pale gown reflects a shimmering translucence on the rippling surface of the lake before which I stand. Finger-like, almost transparent fronds of mist roll across the water; they beckon to the spruce and pine trees, standing like sentinels on the shoreline, to join them in gavotte among the wavelets that kiss the shingled beach. Only the plaintive hoot of an owl, a single mournful cry, disturbs the placid serenity and intensifies the solitude of my sojourn.
I think back to an evening long ago, a pavement café beside the bank of the Seine where I first saw Catalina. In those days, there were not so many auto-mobiles on the streets of Paris. Most vehicles during the first decades of the twentieth century were horse-drawn cabs.
I had set up my easel and paints to capture on canvas the carnelian and flame-orange Parisian sunset of early summer, when I saw her watching me. She was sitting with a group of students from Madame Bouvier’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. Of Satanically dark Latin beauty, her obsidian hair and tanned complexion rivalled the creamy hue of the dress she wore, holding my itinerant vision entranced. Her appearance and innocent demeanour were far removed from the fairer cast of her more lascivious companions, who incited the café artists to distraction.
She appeared to distance herself from her more bawdy associates, and I felt little surprise when she excused herself from their company and sauntered across the esplanade to view my work. Seeing her silhouetted against the sunset, it was imperative I persuade her to allow me to capture that wondrous moment in oils for eternity. Pose she did, and not just that one time. In the following months I captured the essence of her innocent beauty against numerous settings around the city.
From Buenos Aires, she resided in Paris with parents, her father being a high ranking Argentinian diplomat. Perhaps it started from her infatuation with being seen in the company of an artist, but Catalina took it upon herself to promote my work among her friends at college, and guests at the soirées hosted by her mother. In those months, our relationship flowered like a rose in the gardens of Versaille.
That autumn, a new dance craze swept like a fire-storm through the bars and cafés of Paris. Catalina was an immediate aficionado of the novelty, the dance having its origin in the country of her birth. During one of the sittings at my studio, she proposed to teach me to dance the tango. Whether it was the excellence of my teacher or my natural instinct for the rhythm I am unsure, but soon we were two of the best-known proponents of the steps in Parisian society. I am certain that her erotic elegance fuelled the explosive popularity of the dance.
It soon became clear that our amour was not in accord with the wishes of her parents. More and more, our clandestine trysts were conducted in secret, often beside the lake behind the château where her family resided. Sitting in romantic embrace among the shadows beneath the trees, we whispered vows of servitude, swearing our undying love, whatever adversities our differences in upbringing should inflict on our happiness.
One such night in late May, as I savoured the seduction in her brown eyes, her papa discovered our romantic liaison. He being a military man, I doubt if I would have fared better in a fair fight, but, accompanied by several minions from the embassy, the outcome was inevitable. He made his displeasure clear in words pertaining to the termination of my life if I approached again within five kilometres of either Catalina or the château. He dragged his weeping daughter back to the house, while the henchmen stressed the point with several vicious blows to my face and head before pitching me onto the street.
I heard nothing more from my beloved for six weeks. Then a letter was delivered to my room by a household servant, in which she begged that I might find the courage to rendezvous with her the next evening. The date was her nineteenth birthday. During the party in celebration of the event, a public announcement would be made of her engagement to Signor Romano de Silva, the son of one of the wealthiest men in South America. I surmised the match had been made through her parents with no regard for the wishes of their daughter. Devastated, but uncertain whether she intended a final farewell, or something more, I returned a letter stating that a garrison of mounted cavalry would not prevent me from making the effort to see her, and arranged a time to meet at our regular haunt.
In the shadows cast by the trees encroaching on the water’s edge, I waited. Like tonight, a half moon gleamed as if some apparition floated beneath the black surface of the lake. Sounds of laughter and music drifted from the veranda of the château like moths fluttering on the evening breeze, leaving no doubt about the carefree party atmosphere inside.
Ten minutes passed before a familiar sylph-like form flitted from the recess at the back of the house. I watched her silently slipping through the shadows until she reached my secluded location. We embraced without speaking, for words were unnecessary. The delicate allure of perfume on her neck teased my senses as we kissed. Her long hair was pulled back in a tight coil and secured with two tortoiseshell combs.
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, the orchestra broke into the tune I knew so well. Almost inaudibly, she murmured, “In two days I am forced to obey the wishes of my parents and board a ship for Buenos Aires. I asked that the band play this now so we may dance one last tango together.”
Icy fingers of anguish clutched my throat. I tried to speak, but she pressed a finger tip to my lips. With a faint shake of her head she said, “Please, say nothing to spoil this moment. I swear that one day, if you have not forgotten me, I will return to this place and we shall spend eternity together.”
There seemed a futility, a hopelessness in my life as I led her into the first ‘el paseo’, or slow walk. In all the times we had danced together, I had never known her movements so explicit as we performed ‘el cruzado’, the scissors step, and then entwined our legs for the ‘la vigne’, the grape vine. The tempo increased as we whirled in the moonlight until the final steps, when we dropped almost to our knees on the beach, lips pressed together in a final kiss. I wish I could have held that kiss until the end of time, savouring the perfume of her skin, the warm sweet taste of her breath.
But a single slow hand clap brought reality rushing back to my senses.
In horror I looked up to see two male figures emerge from the shadows. The taller, with bearded face and dressed in military uniform, I recognized as Catalina’s father. The other, a younger man with sallow complexion, immaculately dressed in black tuxedo over white dress-shirt, I assumed, was the one she would marry. It was from his hands that the applause originated, yet his face was twisted into a sneer.
“Bravo! For someone alien to our national dance, that was some performance.” With voice, whining and weak as his complexion, he continued, “Such a pity there will never be an encore.”
He reached out, grabbing Catalina by the arm. She stumbled as he pulled her from me. It was only then I saw the glint of moonlight on something metallic in the hand of her father.
Catalina must have seen it at the same time. She screamed words that sounded like, “Papa! No!”
I tried to stand as a flash of fire and the sound of an explosion tore through the stillness. Something struck me in the chest like the kick from a race horse. I felt ribs shatter and flesh burn in a brief moment of searing agony that seemed to continue for eternity.
Eventually the pain dissolved into nothing, blown away like dust in the moving stream of air from the lake. And then came the sudden realization that I was sprawled on my back in the shallow water. I saw horror on the face of my beloved as she tore free from the grip of her captor. Her mouth was moving as if in agonized scream, yet I heard only silence. She knelt in the water beside me, lifting my shoulders and pressing my cheek against her breast. Thick blood oozed from the hole in my chest, staining the cream silk of her dress to burgundy, dripping in globules into the lake. The two men grabbed her, one on each arm, pulling her away. I stood up and watched as they dragged her back along the shore to the house.
It is difficult to realize that almost sixty years have passed since that night. Whenever the half-moon rises in mid-summer I am drawn to this spot, knowing that one day she will be free to return as she promised; one day we will be together, in accordance with the vows we made so long ago.
I wait, inhaling the silence of the night. Never, in all the years that I have been held to this place, have I felt so close to my sweet Catalina. Then I hear those strains of music from the crumbling walls of the derelict château, the same orchestra playing our song. I hear a whispered voice in my ear, “I asked that the band play, so we may dance one last tango together.”
Turning, I gaze on her Satanically dark Latin beauty. Even in the darkness, she shines with radiant light, not one day older than the last moment I saw her. Her eyes have a mischievous gleam that I have never seen before, and her perfect mouth curls into a smile of unadulterated happiness. We kiss, my cold lips pressed against hers, so warm and so alive. It is as if she breathes life into me as we embrace. There is no need for her to ask me twice. Our bodies begin to sway, then our feet begin to move in response to the rhythm. In the moonlit shadows, two spectral figures now haunt the shore at the water’s edge of a lake on the outskirts of Paris as we dance our final, never-ending, last tango.
© 2010. Robert A. Read