Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Alhambra, 1886
(Oil on canvas, 55 × 35 cm)
BY Adolf Seel
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YORCK PROJECT:
10.000 MEISTERWERKE DER MALEREI

The first century of an enchantment is always the easiest. Say you’re a warrior spellbound in full armor under the mountain of the Alhambra, your brightly caparisoned charger lifting one immobile hoof, or say you’re an Arabian princess, bewitched in an invisible tower, looking into a mirror that reflects nothing. One midnight a year you’re released from the sorcery, and your stiff joints move again. Your horse shakes his braided mane, or your face appears in the glass, and you glide forward with thousands and thousands of other enchanted figures to the gates of an illusory city of palaces and courtyards, palm trees and fountains, hanging gardens and lemon groves. For a few hours you move silently among others of your kind. If you’re a woman, you feast your eyes on some handsome young man you might have married back in the ordinary days, if you hadn’t been so obsessed with another, or if you’re a man you fall in love with a lady more beautiful than the one who caused your downfall. For a few hours you are part of a splendid fantastic pageant, moving in ranks gracefully under the archways and up the wide marble staircase, dizzy from the cool night breeze carrying the scent of jasmine and roses. And when you return to your dark cave or gloomy tower, and resume the posture of a statue, and fall again into the poisoned sleep of the enchanted, your dreams are rich with hope, and the year of darkness and silence doesn’t seem too terrible. The longed for midnight will come again, releasing you with the others, and who knows, the one destined to break your enchantment forever may be getting closer, and when he or she touches you with the charm that will release your particular spell, your blood will flow, your pale cheeks will flush, and your breath will whistle up through your unused lungs.

For a few hours you are part of a splendid fantastic pageant, moving in ranks gracefully under the archways and up the wide marble staircase, dizzy from the cool night breeze carrying the scent of jasmine and roses.

The second century is harder. On those dreadful midnights when the enchantment allows you to ascend from the bowels of the earth or pass out of your richly fretted chamber in the tower, you can sometimes squint past the thin shapes of your wavering troop of fellow victims and see, just beyond the glowing smoke of the gardens, a ruined staircase, tangled weeds, cracked fountains and the rooftops of the bustling, unfamiliar city that has spread out on the plain below. By the third century you are unable to see the others who flock around you at midnight, though you can feel them brushing past, whispering, and sighing. In the fourth century you don’t even hear a summons to rendezvous on those bitter midnights, and the stony years pass in darkness.

Finally, in the fifth century, on the appointed date at the beginning of the third millennium, the spell comes to an end. But you have no flesh. Your body was never touched by the promised charm, so only your spirit creeps out of the enchanted cave, or wafts down from the magic tower, and before it blows away and scatters on the wind like pollen, you must gather yourself together and puff across the face of an approaching mammal.

So here I am, a cloud of particles holding myself together by will. Please not that scurrying rabbit. Please not that hunting cat. Thank heaven someone’s coming, a human on two legs. I whiff forward, and I’m drawn in with a deep breath. Ah, I’m alive again. But I’m no longer Princess Zora. I’m someone else.

I open my eyes in astonishment. I’m now an American tourist named Susan. She suspects nothing, of course. My past resides in her as her own imagination, her own daydreams, her scraps of remembered reading, and though for a few hours I still retain my separate consciousness, I will soon be subsumed inside her if I don’t do something. But what?

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