Each night when the tropic sun abruptly ceased (to resume or not), we began to be afraid, because of the comet blooming in the sudden dark. “The velvet dark,” purred Quigley. Although a metaphysician and habitué of Miss Stein’s on the rue de Fleurus, his tropes were commonplace. Remarking on the comet and other portents, Freud had prophesied that ours would be an anxious century. And we were anxious each evening when the nightjars invaded the sky and the darkness (velvet or not!) scythed about us dangerously. We would hurry then to a place of refuge -- in my case the Mombassa Hotel Bar, or (unable to avail myself of the consolations of Mrs. Willoughby when Mr. Willoughby was at home after heroic feats in the hinterland) to the brothel.
“It is fin de siècle man’s dread of female sexuality and its homicidal power that makes us anxious,” said Sigmund, rummaging in the cocotte’s closet for her shoes. He was investigating fetishism at the time. I objected that the century had already turned, ten years earlier. “In fact but not in the mind,” he replied. “In the mind, these things linger on.” And aren’t women also anxious? I wanted to know. “Women,” he whispered so as not to be heard by one lying beside me, “are not like you and me.”
“Would you like a nightcap?” the madam asked.
“Yes,” I said gratefully, feeling the old thirst rise up in me once again.
I took my drink into the library where several gentlemen were examining leather-bound volumes of erotic illustration. I finished my drink and smoked a cigar, a Dannemann Pierrot. It was then I noticed Gregg, busily writing at the madam’s secretary desk.
I peered rudely over his shoulder.
“Turkish?” I asked.
“Pardon me?” he said, looking up from his notebook.
“Is that Turkish you’re writing, or perhaps Persian?”
I twisted his arm painfully. He was of slight build, and I had no doubt that I could subdue him.
“Why do you snicker?” I demanded.
“At your evident ignorance of orthographies.”
Having failed to daunt him, I let go his arm.
“Please accept my apologies,” I said obsequiously. I was curious to know the meaning of his strange marks.
He closed his book, eyeing me with disdain.
“Care for a drink?” I asked.
He didn’t drink.
Or smoke cigars.
Nor -- he assured me -- did he dally.
“Not with women of ill repute!”
“Then what are you doing in a house of ill repute?” I inquired.
He took me by the arm and led me onto the balcony.
“There is no better view of the night sky than this!” he nearly shouted in his excitement.
I looked nonplused.
“To see the comet!”
Henri Matisse barged in with canvas and easel.
“I was told there was an odalisque?” he said, looking around the library.
“There are no odalisques in Mombassa,” said Gregg with obvious relish.
Matisse bowed his head in disappointment.
“I was promised!” he pouted. “I’ve come all the way from the Cote d’ Azure to paint an odalisque!”
(Oh, he was annoyed!)
“There are cocottes,” observed one of the perusing gentlemen; “and courtesans and other women of the night.”
“The night!” Gregg sighed, for night interested him profoundly.
“Do they dress in culottes?” Matisse asked, hope kindling in his eyes.
“I’m afraid not.”
Hope extinguished in an instant, and with it the light.
“I know an odalisque in Morocco,” I said, wanting to help.
“Morocco is far,” Matisse said wearily; “and I have already come such a long way!”
He unstrapped his easel and set it down. I noted a freshly sized canvas waiting for its odalisque.
“There is, however, a comet ...” said Gregg, who was obsessed with (as I would later hear him call it) “the poetry of night.”
“Rooms are what interest me,” Matisse replied airily. “Rooms and women who lightly move in them.”
“But the comet appears only once in 76 years!” Gregg asserted.
“Perfect pleasure is rarer still,” said Matisse.
“The comet! The comet!” shouted Gregg from the brothel balcony.
I pulled the sheet over my head.
“Not now, John!” I moaned.
He climbed into bed with us -- with me and a comely young woman who may have lacked harem pants but was, in my opinion, every bit as nice as any odalisque.
“But it’s beautiful!” he cried. “Heavenly tracery ... vestige of the hand that sketched the universe ... the shining thought of the Creator ... the --” He expatiated on the comet.
(Is it the comet one sees or its imprint, its incandescent present or fiery past? Interesting questions; but the woman lying next to me in humid, unclothed expectancy was far more interesting.)
“We are afraid of the comet, John,” I explained patiently. “All Mombassa is afraid.”
“Even Sigmund is afraid of what it harbingers for the world.”
(The Age of Dread.)
“The comet is an expression of universal constancy,” Gregg declared. “A promise of eternal return.”
(Many would say catastrophe.)
“Make him go away!” the woman cried.
(The bed was meant for two!)
Matisse entered, redolent of oil paint.
“What is going on?” he asked, getting into bed with us -- with me, Gregg, and the woman who was now fit to be tied.
Sensing this, Matisse quickly tied her to the bedposts with sash cord.
“I wish to paint you by comet light,” he told her.
Gregg looked on approvingly.
The woman protested noisily; the madam entered, followed by a stranger with tripod and camera.
“What is going on?” she asked while the photographer set up his equipment.
“Art,” Matisse replied simply.
“Painting is finished,” the photographer sneered. “Photography is the only art suitable to the 20th century.”
Insulted, Matisse threw down his brush.
“Untie me!” the woman demanded.
“No!” shouted the painter.
“Yes!” shouted the photographer, whose specialty was motion.
Scissors appeared suddenly in the madam’s hands. I watched spellbound as comet light played along its blades.
Sigmund stepped out of the closet where he had been lucubrating.
“Castrator!” he screamed. “Vampire!”
The madam cut the cord.
“It is the fault of the comet,” she said indulgently. “The comet makes everyone nervous.”
“Muybridge is an enemy of art,” Matisse complained.
We were walking the streets of Mombassa in search of local color.
“His photographs are academic studies of motion without emotion. Their purpose is not pleasure, but efficiency.”
Having no opinion, I said nothing.
“Aren’t you at all concerned about the future of art?”
“No,” I answered truthfully.
We stopped at the entrance to an alley. Teddy Roosevelt leaned against a wall, embittered by exile. The sun flashed angrily on his wire-rims.
“I would not go in there,” he warned.
“Why T. R.?”
“One does not easily return,” he said.
(Was it the alley he meant, or history in whose maze he now thought himself hopelessly lost?)
I looked into the alley. There was nothing unusual: Beggars and old men. Women squatting in the shadows. Broken crockery. The pungent smells of cooking and unwashed bodies. The rattle of cans and that shrill music that seems a red string winding sinuously through the meager, dusty trees.
At one point I seemed to see Anna, who had left me in Kampala because of the lion.
“Anna!” I shouted.
The sun shattered in a pane of glass, and I saw her no more.
My mind went elsewhere.
To the dead sparrows at my feet.
To the cloud whose shape I very nearly recalled.
To the colorful geometry behind my closed eyes.
To the book I had picked up one afternoon in the Mombassa Hotel and read without comprehension as if entranced, my eyes catching on the barbs of its typography.
A boy appeared from out a doorway and said: “If you see Mr. Gregg, please tell him to come.”
He was a ragged, dirty boy with a color suggesting illness.
“Come -- come where?” I asked, my eyes stuck open in the way that sometimes happens in bright sunlight. “And for what reason?”
All sounds ceased.
The boy faded -- swallowed up in sunlight or simply vanished in Africa where things come and go with a suddenness to make the head spin.
In the intense silence I heard Halley’s Comet fizzing in the darkness at the other side of the world.
“The comet drew me to Mombassa,” said Gregg. “It seemed to say that here you’ll find a subject fit at last for your shorthand. Here you will record the poetry of night instead of the dictation of businessmen. Look --”
He opened his book and showed me pages dense with a mysterious calligraphy, the spiked and loopy writing of dreams.
“Each night I trace the comet’s path as it moves deeper and deeper into the mind.”
“The mind?” I asked anxiously, fearing that all would once again prove illusory.
“The comet colors our dreams,” he said. “Look --”
He pointed to the crest of a hill above the Indian Ocean where Marie Curie walked, her white nightdress glowing like a watch dial.
He pointed to Sousa marching over the waves, his sousaphone brimming with light.
He pointed to Einstein, whose eyes shone with luminous equations.
He pointed to Freud, cigar flaming in the darkness of Queen Victoria Street.
He pointed to the Wright brothers’ fragile cage of light.
He pointed to the ragged boy in the alley, shining in his illness.
“Who is that boy?” I asked Gregg fearfully.
“He believes I can cure him; or, more precisely, the comet can and that I am its prophet.” He smiled wryly. “It is what many in Mombassa believe.”
I asked him if I was asleep and, if so, what light the comet shed on my dreams.
The light of desire, he said. The light of murder.
While Matisse slept and dreamed of painted odalisques, Eadweard Muybridge studied photographic plates. He had caught the comet’s flight in a series of rapid exposures but was dissatisfied with the result.
“What happens here escapes me,” he said, pointing to the blank space outside each frame, the border where one image ends and the next begins; “and that is what is most significant. The secret of the subject lies in what we cannot see.”
“What happens beyond the margin is the poem,” said Gregg.
“Is the dream,” said Matisse from the depths of a voluptuous sleep.
I am asleep, or awake. Impossible to tell one from the other -- in Africa during the time of the comet. Asleep or not, I am making love to a woman the color of night. The drapes are open wide to receive the comet’s blessing, or curse. We move slowly among particles of light. A silver dust, they cling to our hair. Oblivious to us, Gregg sits by the window, taking the comet’s dictation. Matisse sleeps; Muybridge sleeps, dreaming of horses and pugilists. Teddy Roosevelt looks at the sky and weeps.
Moved, I leave the woman and go to stand with him on the balcony.
“What is wrong, Mr. President?”
“No more,” he says, “no more. It is Taft’s turn at the helm.”
“Your time will come again -- your ‘crowded hour.’”
“We are lost.”
“We are in Mombassa,” I say, taking his hand to comfort him.
“All of us will be lost in what comes.”
He looks around him as if for his Rough Riders. At the hill, hoping perhaps to see San Juan Hill here beside the Indian Ocean. Looks at the woman asleep under the mosquito net -- wanting Alice, his dead wife. Now he turns his eyes to the comet and shudders:
“I see in it the shape of death.”
“It is only rock,” I say. “Dust.”
He shakes his head. He sees what I do not. The century unraveling from this single knot of light. He shakes his head at what he sees: war, ruin, death -- all in this knot of light.
“The Age of Dread,” says Freud, who is plumbing the depths of his dreams, in his room on Queen Victoria Street.
“No!” shouts Matisse, who has wakened. “There is something more. I can show you something more than death though there will be much of it in the centuries to come. Death will be ample.”
“I suppose you mean art?” says Teddy cynically.
“I mean pleasure,” Matisse replies.
But Teddy will have none of pleasure. He walks away without a look at the sleeping girl, who is naked and deserves a glance at least.
“And what is your opinion?” Matisse asks me.
As usual, I have none.
“You should take an interest in life!” he scolds.
Yes, Henri, but life terrifies me.
“What is it you do here in Africa?” he wants to know.
I shrug. I came out to hunt, to go on safari. But now ...
“I drink gin and make love to women, when I may.”
He approves of women and also of love.
“I miss the Cote d’ Azure,” he says wistfully.
“Then you should go home,” I tell him. To your room overlooking the Mediterranean. To your paint. “At once, Henri!”
He picks up his easel, his night-blackened canvas, and steps into the darkness -- disappears through a hole in the dark, or a door though I do not hear it open or shut. Into a Fourth Dimensional Riviera, Quigley later claimed, where pleasure is heightened. (He had attended Povolowski’s lectures in Paris on the Fourth Dimension and spent his free hours searching for it in Africa.)
I go inside. Gregg is at the window, transfixed by night’s needle.
“How is it with you, John?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer; apparently the poetry of night is wordless. He traces a hieroglyph in the air, signifying comet.
I think that he is crazy. I think we are all crazy and beyond Sigmund’s curative powers. (I think Sigmund is crazy, too, but he amuses me.) I think that the comet is a flare sent up from a sinking world.
I lie down beside the woman. Asleep, she is floating under the mosquito net. I close my eyes and prepare for dreams of desire, or of murder. I pray the world will reassemble itself after the unconscious hours. I pray the century will not drown us.
©2001 Norman Lock
Norman Lock's fiction appears in respected journals throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, Australia, and Canada (as well as many stories in Southern cross review). The work here is from A History of the Imagination, published in Europe as an e-book. Two extended prose sequences -- Emigres and Joseph Cornell's Operas -- are available in one book from elimae. Lock's dramatic works have been seen on stages throughout America and Germany. The House of Correction, published in the U.S. by Broadway Play Publishing, was one of the 10 best plays of 1988 and (for its revival) 1994, according to the LA Times. It was also "best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Lock is also the author of a film produced by the American Film Institute and shown at international film festivals. He was awarded the Aga Kahn Prize in 1979, given by The Paris Review. Other online work of his may be found at linnean street,
Unlikely Stories, and Tatlin's Tower. He may be reached via e-mail at