Daniel Pope

With their hands clasped and knuckles squeezed white, the newlyweds descended the church steps. Flashing cameras froze the tossed rice in midair. Later that day at the crime scene, when the detective was handed the photos he could hear the grains clatter to the pavement. He flipped to the next photo. The newlyweds were getting into the limousine, their knuckles still white. There the photos stopped but he could picture them in their seats, still holding hands but staring out their separate windows. The detective dropped the photos but could still see them as they entered the hotel lobby, then the elevator. In the reflection of the closing doors their bodies were pulled and stretched like saltwater taffy. The detective thought: Did they make eye contact through this derangement of light? In their heads did the words echo: And now, for the first time as husband and wife…? All of their lives’ meaning gathered to dance upon the head of this pin. How could this one moment hold all that weight? Or perhaps it was something else they felt as their two-headed shadow fell upon the door of the room they would die in. Perhaps it was joy that haunted them, thought the detective. Anonymous personnel choked the honeymoon suite. Black raincoats and dangling badges. Floating blue nitrile gloves. A flashing camera. But they knew not to bother the detective. When he moved toward the bed, one of them scampered out of his way. There the couple lay, reclined against pillows lacquered with their dark blood, still holding hands, forever meeting each other’s dead gaze. The bride’s diamond ring glittered brilliantly against the pistol grip. It was his gun but she had done the deed. They must have planned it all out. Why else would you bring a gun to your wedding? Above the mahogany headboard hung a painting of a dogwood. It teemed with papery white flowers that gently cupped a butter-yellow light. As the detective approached the painting, the glare from the ceiling fixture rolled slowly up the surface of the canvas. It obscured the colors of the painting but highlighted the trails and whorls left by the brush. It struck him as strange that this hotel had not a print but a real painting in it. A painting as blank and unassuming as a print. Or would have been without the blood on it. He stood there a while. He seemed to recognize the tree, standing alone at the top of a brown hill. It stirred in him a distant muffled emotion. The memory of a memory. Perhaps as a child he’d once lain beneath one like it, staring up at the rosy veins traced in the petals by a declining red sun. But it was just conjecture. His memory was a net of shadows. Sometimes he couldn’t tell the difference between memory and dream. Even now as he stared at the tree he wasn’t sure which was more real: the detective looking at a blood-spattered painting, or the child lying beneath the tree. And what was that in the background? He squinted his eyes. Smooth blue mountains? A distant figure bent under a great weight? A droplet of blood hovered above him like a halo. Was it Death? Something else caught his eye and he looked at the window next to the bed. A head floated in the dark glass, the portrait of a stranger. It took him a few moments to realize it was his. When he squinted he could see through himself to the swollen rainclouds that blacked out the sky. Then a chill pricked his neck and he wheeled around. The room was empty. Everyone had gone. How long had he been standing there? He took a step toward the door, but stopped. Turned back to the painting. He didn’t know what rooted him there. Perhaps the notion that the newlyweds had looked at the same painting. Before they did what they did. He looked at them again. Their faces were locked in an eternal stare, eyes mirrored into a telescoping eternity. Endless recursive empty portraits. Or no—they hadn’t seen the painting, the detective decided. Or they did and it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the event that it had recorded in blood on its canvas. The painting had nothing to do with it, the detective decided. Forget the fucking painting. Here is what happened. The newlyweds walked in and sat on the edge of the duvet. In awe of their terrible purpose, the detective thought, they hadn’t looked at each other since they left the church. The bride tore off her veil. The groom bent to kiss her on the wrist, her skin cool on his lips and smelling of honeysuckle. Grains of rice fell from the folds of their clothes onto the carpet. They were happy, the detective thought. Too happy to look at a painting. They’d saved their eyes for each other only. The detective wished he could have met the couple. He wished he could have seen come alive when they looked at each other. In each other’s eyes they would have seen not blank faces in windows but people witnessed and beloved. He wished he could have seen the shiver that went through their bodies. Their hearts like the ends of struck matchsticks. The hiss and the throb of flame. But the heart burns too quickly. The heart is not enough. You must find fuel. Or simply blow it out, thought the detective. Like the newlyweds did. Kill it before it has a chance to die. It was the only way to make sure they would never be alone. The detective blinked and looked back at the window and saw himself for what he was, a thin veneer of humanity stretched over a yawning dark void. A tide of grief knocked him against the wall. He slid to the ground, his eyes fixing upon the painting again. The roots of the tree wound up through his lungs. He seemed to be looking through a scrim of shadow. A canopy steeped in the crimson of sunset, branches crawling like capillaries over a round eye. He turned his head and saw the bent man with his bloody halo. He was not so distant now, making his way in switchbacks up the side of the brown hill. The detective blinked and tried to sit up but couldn’t move. He shut his eyes and was lost. For a long time he struggled to breathe. When he came back to himself a hissing sound had filled the room and the windows were darkly blurred with pounding rain. What time was it? He put his fists to his eyes as he caught his breath. He took them away and when the spots and phosphenes had cleared he saw the photos lying in a pile near his feet. With a shoe he slid them over and picked them up and shuffled through them again. But he had changed his mind. He was glad he hadn’t met them. When he threw the photos they burst into a winged flurry and settled at the foot of the bed. He crawled over the carpet to gather the photos back up. He had to bring them back to the precinct and write his report. But how could anyone make sense of this? When he stood, he looked at the painting again. It had recorded the newlyweds’ death, etched by their ghosts in a spatter of blood and light. It stood as proof that they had been here, haunted by a love too great to bear, a love that demanded nothing less than eternity. Or no. No. He didn’t know what it was proof of. And for the first time in his career, he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to know what they knew. But he did want the painting. He could take it and say it was evidence. Nobody would ask any questions.