The Art of Sleeping With

The ghosts of Moritz and Wendla trail behind him through the graveyard before floating back to their respective resting places. Resting places. Melchior scoffs. He knows now there's no rest in this world for the living or the dead. No rest, no hope, no place to belong.

He kicks a stone in the low wall surrounding the cemetery and it crumbles away from the mortar surrounding it, falling softly onto dead leaves left there all winter long. These are the leaves of autumn. The same leaves could have spun past Wendla and gotten caught in her hair. Melchior would like to forget everything that happened last autumn. He doesn't want to forget anything.

He turns to go. And there's Ilse.

"Melchior," she says. "I thought I would find you hear and tell you everything. But it seems you already know." She gestures past him toward the graves. Everywhere graves, the cemetery such a fitting monument for what Melchior's world has become.

"Yes," he says and can barely hear his own voice over the wind that rushes through his mind. "I already know."

Ilse comes closer, touches his arm above the elbow, and real wind rushes through the dead leaves, lifts Ilse's too-short skirts. "I'm sorry, Melchior," she says.

"There is nothing for you to be sorry about," he snaps, then feels contrite. "Forgive me," he says, sits heavily on the ground. Waits for it to swallow him too.

"You are forgiven," Ilse says, and he knows she means it for more than his sharp tone.

He looks up at her, watches her kneel beside him, put her hand on his arm once again. "Can I ever be forgiven for what I've done, Ilse?" he asks. "I thought that we could make this a better world, me and Wendla. And all I did was end hers."

At that, the soft look in Ilse's eyes seems to blow away with the wind, and she stands again, pulls him up with her and she's stronger than Melchior would have thought. She grips his arm hard, digs her fingers in, and stares into his face as though she sees the future reflected there.

"There is no better world," Ilse says, "There's only this one. But there can be good in it."

If there is, Melchior doesn't find it.

He wanders for years before he finally comes back, wanders far and away as if that will make him forget. It doesn't.

He visits the graveyard again on a Sunday. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not lie. But once death happens, what do the commandments matter? What does anything matter? The commandments confuse themselves in Melchior's mind until he does not know anymore or anything, if he ever did to begin with.

He falls to his knees there in front of Wendla's grave, no longer fresh as it was when he last saw it, and he must lie his cheek flat against the sprung grass and finally sleep. He waits for the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla to rise up behind him or before him, but they don't. Even the dead have abandoned him now.

"Melchior Gerbore?"

It's Ilse.

"Ilse," he says, turning and standing to face her. "I didn't expect to see you here."

She tells him, "I come every Sunday."

"And what do you do the rest of the days of the week?" Melchior spits, suddenly angry at Ilse for the way her cheeks are rosy in the brisk spring wind, the joyful shade of purple in the flowers she carries.

She doesn't answer him right away, turns her lips up in half a smile and goes to lay half the flowers on Moritz's grave, half on Wendla's. Then she turns to him, clasps her hands behind her back.

"I'm still living in Priapia," she says.

"I see." Melchior can feel his voice heating along with his chest. How dare she swing her hips as though life goes on, as though happiness is possible? "And whose whore are you now?"

"I was never anyone's whore," she says, her voice as blue as her cheeks are red. "And now I am no one's model-doll. I make my own art, and no one pulls a gun on me anymore unless they're the ones who want to die."

Her voice holds a threat and Melchior's heart leaps at it. No one's voice has held this much emotion when speaking to him in months, perhaps years.

"So your world is just beginning," he says. "When mine has been long over." His hands flutter uselessly out of his pockets to gesture at the earth all around them, nature springing forth to cover death but never enough, never quite enough.

At his words, Ilse takes three strides forward, her own hand rising as if she will slap him. Melchior almost wants her to.

"The world didn't end with Moritz and Wendla!" Ilse shouts at him. "The world is still here, Melchior!"

"Then why don't I feel anything?" he asks, broken, his hands falling to his sides.

"Don't you even remember how to feel?" Her voice goes soft. She touches his cheek. "What was it all worth, if it didn't even teach you how to feel, in the end?"

"That's the whole point. It wasn't worth anything."

Then Ilse is angry again, picking up a stick from the ground and shaking it at him, throwing it at his feet. "Don't say that," she says. "Don't take that away from them. Wendla loved you. Moritz loved you. And we loved both of them."

And Melchior knows that she is right. He feels his chest cracking and he cries into his hands and she cries with him, wraps her arms around his shoulders and it feels so familiar and so foreign. These are not Wendla's child-soft hands upon his back, but Ilse's, strong and deft.

She picks up the stick again, places it in his palm, wraps his fingers around it. "Feel, Melchior," she says, and he wonders how she knows.

This is wrong, it's obviously wrong. But Melchior thinks of what he told Moritz once, so long ago now, about morals being only a product of our education.

He tightens his fingers on the stick, closes his eyes, feels it swing through the air and connect with flesh, the firm flesh of Ilse's upper arm, uncovered.

When he opens his eyes, she's looking into them, her jaw tight. She nods once. He pulls back and hits her again, again and again until his blood and his bile are racing to the boil, and he's not sure whether he'll scream or break first.

Melchior's played this game before. The only difference is, Ilse hits back. With her own switch and then with her hands, connecting solidly with his hands, his face, his back, and with each slap, Melchior feels his insides compacting, flying back to themselves instead of flying apart. Ilse hits him and Melchior stands straighter.

She stops, and he feels his gut begin to knit.

The truth is, nothing makes sense. And maybe it shouldn't.

They're both breathing hard. Melchior drops the switch he hasn't swung in minutes. There are marks on his palm.

"How do you feel?" Ilse says.

"Awful," Melchior tells her.

She smiles. "But you feel."

Melchior feels it bubbling, whatever it is, yellow and green like sickness and life, flowing up from his newly stitched insides to flood his throat and eyes. "I feel."

"Good," says Ilse, her breath recovered. She cocks her head at him and holds out her hand. He puts his dented one in it.

"Come back to my house," she says. "We'll play pirates, like we all used to. We'll build a ship together. We'll find a space for them and us both."

"Yes," Melchior says. She goes, and Melchior follows.