An excerpt from the novel-in-progress Through Chagall’s Window
by Katherine Knapp
Alex walked through a hall of red walls and white statuary and climbed a marble staircase to the second floor. Her arms dangled by her hips. The muscles in her calves and thighs burned with each step. She was breathing shallowly by the time she reached the hall of traveling exhibitions—a white room with black floors and individual spotlights shining on a series of paintings. She did not know what it was; it was simply the first room she came to. Not until she stepped inside did she realize it was a Chagall exhibit. She stifled the urge to cry. She had always loved his work, always contrasted his topsy-turvy, dream-infatuated world to the evolving, dull, pedestrian nightmare of her own life. But now…she was in Moscow, the capitol of what was only months earlier still the Soviet Union, alone, at the Pushkin Museum, looking at original Chagalls.
She walked up to the first painting, a house, a bird-man, a fiddle floating against an indigo sky. Floating gently, peacefully. She stood motionless in a groggy daze, but the instruments and creatures would not stay still. They floated and dipped and bobbed in the indigo air. They began to fall, slowly at first, then tumbling, spiraling, down through an endless night. She tried to pin them back up against the sky, but they would not stick.
She walked to the next painting. A man and a woman. Him, on the ground. Her, floating, ethereal, buoyed by love, tethered by only the tiny tip of his finger. Only the tip of his finger tethering her, to the ground, anchoring her, to the ground. So she wasn’t so much floating. She was hanging. Hanging upside down, in limbo, not rising, not falling, not sure which way to go, not sure which way she went, not sure what she had chosen, or if she had chosen, almost all grown up, almost all the way to freedom, almost free to choose, almost choosing to be free, but choosing to be forever tethered by the tip of one little finger upside down and hanging.
The next canvas was a clown…a man…a groom, whimsical and animated, riding the shoulders of his happy bride. But, oh, Alex looked a little bit closer, a little bit longer…not so whimsical, not quite vapid, not just stupid, but darkly, darkly idiotic. The bride’s eyes are blank. She buckles under the weight, sways awkwardly to keep her balance under his gangly, useless body. Her eyes are dull and dying, resigned to her fate. No… Alex squinted, moved closer, backed away…they’re playing. They’re celebrating. Alex tried, but no, the woman’s lover-turned-husband was a weight on her shoulders that would in a moment surely break her neck.
The painting after that? Fantastic and frightening. Undiluted, grotesque, and magical in its celebration. Men half-turned to goats, turned to half-goats, playing fiddles on roofs. Cats wailing. A man with faces, too many faces, one on each opposite side of his head, mocking Alex, taunting Alex…you want to see life? I’ve grown a second face on the back of my head so I can look in every direction at once. I see everything. I hide from nothing. It’s frightening, you say? Too strange? Too unpredictable? Too grotesque, grotesque, grotesque? You’re upset, uncomfortable, sick to your stomach. Too bad. You are a weak and pointless little mouse, who has not made up her mind. Chaos? Blinding, strangling, dancing, acrobatic chaos? Or death. Uncontrollable fears, human fears, dark, greedy, and desperate fears, born of phantasmal imaginations, driving us, pounding, lurching towards life… or else running blind with cowardice in the other direction…?
The last painting was a woman with no expression at all sitting on the sill of an open window. Unusual for Chagall, the colors and the girl and the room were fairly literal, recognizable…not realism…but realistic. Outside the window, the world was too blurred, too indefinite to look at comfortably, but too still too almost defined to look away.
Alex imagined herself perched next to the girl without an expression, on the edge of the sill, on the edge of falling out, jumping out, running into this strange world. But what was behind them, she and this expressionless girl, this girl steadying herself on the ledge with one hand and making a fist with the other? In the room? In the house? Something they knew to turn their backs on, to run from, and to which they should never return. But in front of them? Running to what? Something else. Anything else. But what? The constant running, floating, unknowing, unbearability of being. Or will they remain, forever perched, with neither the strength to untether themselves from the past, nor the strength to pull the past with them into the future?
Katherine Knapp is a Pittsburgh born, Chicago based writer. Her BA is in Russian literature, her MA is in Russian Area Studies, and her MFA is in fiction. She’s taught university creative writing and literature classes, and has taught at novel writing workshops around the country. Just recently, she’s started patter-coaching for an up-and-coming cabaret singer. In the early to mid 1990’s she spent a total of two years in Moscow, Kiev, and Donetsk studying, writing, translating visual artists’ exhibition catalogues, and reorganizing collective farms into private businesses for the World Bank. In 1992 she published a financially short-lived, but extremely popular weekly community newspaper in Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Her work has appeared in Phoebe, and her story “The Sailboat” was a runner up in Glimmer Train’s New Writers’ contest. During her time in Eastern Europe, she absorbed the setting for her first book, Through Chagall’s Window, in which a beautiful, young scholar and poet attempts to leave her 1970s American upbringing behind and recreate herself in the emerging post-Soviet, Moscow art scene.