An interpretation of Sappho’s fragment 16 (f. 41)
Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet is the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
This is easily proved: did
not Helen—she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood—
choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
wrapped to his will, forgetting
love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you,
being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footsteps
and light glancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry
(Sappho, translation Mary Barnard, University of California Press, 2012, f. 41. Published with the kind permission of the University of California Press).
The entire city stretched away from the window of our office—an architect firm—with modern towers and old buildings. Sometimes the view seemed like a punishment, as if we were doomed to watch constantly the success of others. Multitude of forms and materials blended into such a spectacular mosaic that following one distinct form was almost exhausting. A glass tower faced an old stone building; diagonal windows reflecting curved bars on the other side of the street; a curtain wall opposite a small, round balcony—this myriad of colors and shapes would discourage even the most experienced architect. Everything had already been invented, every material used, all forms adjusted to each other. An unusual combination of elements, a unique outline—they were all here facing us, just outside the window that was impossible to avoid.
I didn’t mind looking out the window. A girl like me—an apprentice—wasn’t afraid of unreachable pinnacles. Sometimes I even found them comforting. Gabriel, the architect I worked for, whistled quietly as he reclined over his drafting table with his back toward the window. About fifty years old, his appearance exhibited his success. Thin and tall, his clothes were elegant but always showed a touch of mischief; an unusual belt, a very colorful tie, in the winter, even a strange hat. His tight shirt and trousers accentuated his good-looking body. His sneakers lent a light touch to his businesslike appearance. His face was bright and handsome, surrounded by a beard that was never too short or too long. His eyes, behind the expensive designer glasses, were inquisitive. His gray hair seemed disheveled but, in fact, it was meticulously cut. He drove a sports car, knew plenty of fine restaurants and could suggest a bar for every mood: sadness, lust, naïve gaiety and even an inclination to wax philosophical.
Though his endless efforts to keep an attractive appearance may have appeared as evidence of a superficial character, his love of architecture was deep and overpowering. “Nothing in the world is as beautiful as an impressive building,” he always said, and I always looked at him, speechless. Immersed in sketching, every line he drew was affectionate. At times, when he talked about his sketches, he sounded like a jealous husband. Comments about the angles or the proportions made his face twitch as if his lover had been offended. He would then explain in detail that there was no need to change anything, it was absolutely perfect. He talked loudly and assertively, but his voice revealed a hidden insult.
As the building he planned was ready and he attended the opening event, a childish joy spread across his face. He ignored wine spilling on his elegant shirt and his jackets getting wrinkled by his sharp movements. His eyes followed the building as if it were an attractive woman he loved, he the only one who can see her true beauty. He knew the special angles, the innovative material underneath the polished front. He giggled quietly, as the windows faced the view and were not planned according to the inner space.
Yesterday, as the new tower opened, he spoke in an emotional manner. He called it “the apple of my eye” and, in a moment of jovial carelessness, he said that “you can just tell it was planned with much love.”
I found his happiness annoying. The pleasure he drew from the tower was irritating and, again, I felt what was lacking in my life. I was immediately reminded of the gossip I had heard. Two years ago his wife had left him and his daughter and moved to another city with another man. “She was stunning,” the secretary whispered with a vicious wink, “with huge brown eyes and a shiny straight hair. Men would die for her.” Everyone thought he would break down, fall apart, maybe even retire, but he kept working as if nothing had happened. In fact, he even plunged deeper into planning inner and outer walls, division of space, natural and artificial lighting, elevators and stairs, as if he were trying to prove that architecture was his true love, not his wife who had left him. People watched him, bewildered, mumbling that he was pretending he was over it, but after months turned to years, they had to admit that perhaps he found his professional life more satisfying than they’d thought.
I found the secretary’s story surprising and searched the web for his wife’s picture. I clicked her name, and a variety of photos filled the screen. Her beautiful face spread before me; eyes almost too big under soft, thick eyebrows. She was elegantly dressed, entering a party or leaving it. I looked at the photos for a long time, stretching an imaginary line between her and Gabriel. Her well-made-up face, her smart and slightly vain expression, a smile that stretched the lips but never reached the eyes, clothes intended to appease an unknown spectator who was an expert on the latest fashion. I could imagine this was what Gabriel’s wife would look like.
I laid in bed watching my cat standing on the windowsill, turning its slanted eye toward elongated clouds that filled the sky, and in between them a meek moon emerged. Gabriel and his wife filled an inner space, and I couldn’t remove them—a handsome, cautious, moderate couple, so similar to each other that it seemed that if they took off their clothes two human bodies would appear, and it would be impossible to tell who was a man and who was a woman.
Suddenly I was absolutely sure why the beautiful woman went away. She left Gabriel reclining on the sketching table and chose a man entirely different from her. I closed my eyes and envisaged him very clearly: a stormy, moody man, in the morning he hums cheerfully and in the evening he is silent and gloomy. During the day, he runs a family business, a night he makes huge pictures of children in an exotic land, again and again the same images, he never manages to paint what he sees in his mind. Gabriel’s wife lies next to him and looks at his hairy body with a mixture of pleasure and disgust. For a moment, she thinks he could adopt a more refined appearance, but she changes her mind and thinks it’s better this way; a bright inner string stretches and tightens only when it is wrapped around a dark wick. The slightly burly masculine body, without even a touch of childishness, lights an inner mirror, and she sees her own beauty as she has never done before. She finds her smooth body next to him arousing, creating an overpowering and unpleasant passion, which makes her look feverish.
The thoughts about Gabriel’s wife grew thicker, spiraled and expended, and made me think of her.
Rain was falling, pelting the window. The cat arched its back, jumped to the floor and escaped in panic. Tears filled my eyes as Anna materialized in my mind; I looked at the other side of the bed and longed for my beloved. I recalled how I saw her for the first time, stepping lightly on campus, wearing a floral dress, her face shining and her short hair flying in the wind. Though she stood right next to me, her facial features seemed a bit blurred, and only as I returned home did I recall that her brown eyes were touched with spots of green.
Anna and I are doppelgangers. We reflect each other; a branch that split into two small branches, which may look different but are made of the same cast. When I look at her—she has a sort of childish head, short hair, high cheek bones and thin lips—for a split second I feel I am a child. She always says that when I cook she realizes she has a homely side not yet revealed. When we lie side by side in bed, the space between us becomes a third woman, which is the combination of both of us: two heads, two breasts, a curving that becomes a thin line, and then two light legs.
But her laughter is different from mine. When she is amused, the thin lips stretch into a reserved smile. But when she finds something funny she bursts out laughing. Her face blushes, the apples of her cheeks shine, her thin lips open and the small, pearl-like teeth are fully visible. Her eyes fill with tears and a clear roaring escapes her mouth, echoing and gradually fading away. Sometimes I think her laughter is a sort of self-exposure. The cover of a seed inside her is removed and left bare. For a couple of moments her memories, childhood agonies, passions and revulsions disappear, and all that is left is a pure spark of childish pleasure. When she is laughing, her curving mouth arouses deep passion. My hand touches her concave lower back and the curve below it, and she stops giggling and pulls me toward her. The cat, with fur made of black, orange and white spots, lies beside us, looking at us curiously and sometimes rubbing its head against a hand or a foot.
But Anna had left me.
A couple of weeks ago, I came home and found a letter on the table. Short lines in sloppy handwriting filled the page that ended with “and therefore, my love, I am leaving you.” I read the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and I couldn’t understand anything besides the conclusion. Though it was noon, darkness fell. I thought I felt a draft in the house. I sat motionless, looking around, staring at the cat, who looked at me with black glass eyes. But, after a couple of days, an unexpected tranquility took over me, a sort of mental laxity. The fickle finger of fate created acceptance, as a lack of hope is a mixture of desperation and calm.
But now, as I lie in bed in the dark room, on the other side of the room the cat’s shining eyes emerge, Gabriel’s words on love foam and lather, the whistle of acids gradually expanding; soon, a huge eruption would be heard. Only a couple of hours ago he was facing the audience, excited and removing invisible sweat from his forehead, loosening his tie to breathe more easily. Everyone watched him with admiration, a brilliant architect who created such an intriguing building, but his childish joy made him blind, unable to see the passionate crowd. His speech was childish and confused; he kept saying “I truly love architecture.”
I now repeat his speech silently, word by word, trying to imagine the beautiful tower, but it is eclipsed by the memory of Anna’s face. The brown eyes with dancing green spots, the thin mouth bitten by the tiny teeth—an agonizing longing overtakes me. My hair is messy, tears run down my cheeks. Anna, my love, my foreign twin, my unlike doppelganger, I stretch my arm to the empty side of the bed, but my hand touches the soft fur of the cat, who stretches out to the limit and emits a soft howl.
On the cover: Eugene Delacroix, Crouching Woman (1827). Courtesy of the Art Institute Chicago