Still from The Seventh Seal courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The film is available to stream, and as a disc set.
We’re in a room on the ground floor of a hotel, the bed facing a wall of curtained windows that in turn faces the street. It is nighttime. Rain is coming down, steadily, reflectively, a stream of passersby visible through the curtains, which are sheer. Everyone is moving in the same direction, bent slightly forward and holding an umbrella, from left to right, the good direction, from past to future, the opposite of where Death leads the knight and the squire and the monk and the smith and the mute in their final dance against the backdrop of time in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The umbrella is the canopy of the heavens; the rain is never going to let up. We can see the passersby but they can’t see us, though Eric has turned a light on above his side of the bed.
I was obsessed with The Seventh Seal my senior year in high school; I was obsessed with the vision it presented of a handsome knight playing a game of chess with Death. Death’s face was unexpectedly round and white, the blackness of his eyes and their sparkling avidity as terrifying as the sound of his name in Swedish. Döden. There could be no doubt of the fact that death at the end of it elevated life—an otherwise lackluster affair in which human beings were obliged to eat and mate and have jobs and engage in pointless conversation—into a realm worthy of passionate attachment. The knight was handsome, yes, and virtuous (though not a very good chess player, according to my best friend Peggy’s older brother Marto), but Death was overfull of something that seemed more like life than whatever it was that animated his opponent. When the knight said, “You drew black,” Death replied, “Appropriate, don’t you think?” Unlike everyone else in the movie, he had a sense of humor. I was in love with Death. If I couldn’t have him, I would settle for someone like Marto, a handsome, quick-witted ne’er-do-well.
In the dream, Eric is propped against the pillows, restless, paging through a newspaper, scattering and discarding pages across the bedspread, which is heavily quilted in hues of old gold and dusty rose. Normally I would have removed such a bedspread and jammed it into the closet. “I’ve had it,” Eric says. I remind him that first we have to meet family. We can fake it, he says. He’s been ready to leave for a long time. “I thought we were happy,” I say. “Weren’t you happy when we were watching that movie?” That was okay then, Eric explains, but this is now. “Now, it’s enough.” He begins to move, putting weight onto his right hand in a way that suggests he’s getting ready to swing his legs out from under the bedspread and onto the floor. Then, all at once, he disappears. It’s as if he evaporated.
For many years of our adult lives we sat in bed like this, side by side. The difference is, it would be early morning, not nighttime, the paper recently delivered, a piece of the world hurled onto our porch in Saint Louis or dropped at the edge of our front yard in Vermont, requiring me to make a trek in my pajamas to retrieve it. I can’t remember the last time Eric and I sat together that way, sharing the paper. When someone you have lived with for a very long time dies, memory stops working its regular way—it goes crazy. It is no longer like remembering; it is, more often, like astral projection. “Like darkness in the movies, it tests the outline of your astral footprint,” my subconscious mind informed me the other night, speaking from beyond the bedroom wall, whereas the great memoirist Chateaubriand, speaking from beyond the grave, observed sourly that memory is often a quality associated with stupidity.
I first saw the knight on a class trip to the Cloisters my senior year in high school. Springtime, the trees along the parkway leafing out—romance was in the air, along with hints of restlessness and dread. It’s amazing how you see the places you’re headed in life ahead of time and have no idea that’s what’s happening. Death awaits you, you’ve been told. This is the fundamental fact of being alive and yet you try to jump across it. Eric had been reading the paper, and whatever he’d been reading, he was getting impatient.
In the Cloisters people trod softly. They spoke in hushed voices but even so their words echoed everywhere; it was as if the past was speaking, as if it issued from the smell of the place, water dripping on stone. I could stand by myself—enamored of the thought of myself, alone, standing there, sufficient unto myself—staring down at the effigy of Jean D’Alluye, the French Crusader knight, more handsome by far than the boy in my class I’d thought I had such a crush on and yet, somehow, both of them similar by virtue of their inaccessibility. Boys, then, were wearing their hair longer but they also had bangs. The knight’s flowing locks left his forehead elegantly bare; he wore a chain mail shirt, and folded his hands piously above his breastbone in exact replication of the knight at the beginning of The Seventh Seal, moments before he meets up with Death. There was a lion resting at Jean D’Alluye’s feet that our teacher had told us signified courage. He also told us, erroneously, that crossed legs signified death in battle.
That teacher is dead now. He may not have known that the knight’s sword came from China, or that the effigy of the knight, face-down, had served for a period of time following the French Revolution as a bridge over a small stream outside of Tours, watching the little fish swim by below. Of course the knight himself was no longer there to watch anything; whatever was left of him had been summarily disposed of by the sansculottes. We read “The Knight’s Tale” in the original Middle English in that teacher’s class. “Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan / Than may be yeve to any erthely man; / And therefore positif lawe and swich decree / Is broken al day for love in ech degree.” The words barely hovered at the thin edge of familiarity, not unlike the overwhelming beauty of the knight’s face, thoughts forming behind it in a mind of stone.
Eventually we were on the bus going home. It was dark; I was sitting beside the crush who, amazingly, had decided to take the seat next to me. The darkness of the bus was nothing like the darkness of the Gothic Chapel where Jean D’Alluye lay on his back, his eyes wide open, staring up at the ribbed vault of the ceiling for all eternity. Some of my classmates had lit the little lights above their seats but the crush and I kept ours unlit, his intentions perhaps having been amorous, whereas mine were to sink deeper into the darkness, made darker still by the intermittent lights appearing out the window once we’d left the city behind. In those days it was a three-hour ride from New York City to Philadelphia. The boys sitting behind us had brought whiskey in a flask. I could smell it, the smell of cocktail hour on Woodale Road. I don’t live here, I thought. I am not here. In the Gothic Chapel the only light had come from outdoors through the stained glass double lancet windows. It was hard to see anything, really. When we first came into the room there had been a single large candle in a candle stand in the corner, but at some point the candle had gotten blown out.
Shaken, not stirred, the crush said, accepting the flask from the seat behind us. Bond, replied one of the two boys, James Bond. The candle had gone out and the wick was still glowing, emitting the trail of smoke our teacher told us signified the presence of the Holy Ghost, the most mysterious and hence most terrible (as in causing terror, awe, or dread) aspect of the Trinity. Outside the window the lights of apartment buildings loomed near the highway, the shapes of trees, the great heaving bodies of the willows.
The boys were talking about Dr. No’s metal hands. They were his Achilles’ heel, the crush said, solemnly, and I knew, just as well as I would ever know anything in the course of my long and fiercely cherished life, that nothing would ever be sufficient. “The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep,” my adored sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Fine, had read to us, and my adored sixth-grade crush, Eddie Williams, had rolled his eyes.
The point is, a crush goes nowhere. It’s called a crush because it’s like something landed on top of you, making movement impossible. It isn’t the same as a love affair that—whether star-crossed or blessed—confers motion, ferrying you through time. There you are, crushed, the sole stirring of life in you occasioned by the sight of the crushing object, no matter the grace of its limbs or the lightness of its spirit. And, truly, what is the point? In terms of the future of the planet, for example.
On the bus back from New York City I courted the terror, the whole span of what it is like to be born, to fall in love, to love someone and live a life with them and then at the very tail end of it encounter death. The dark room, the great dark vaulted ceiling. “Four suns hung in the afternoon sky,” sang the squire, following his knight across the plague-ridden landscape. “But if the sheep eats the flower,” Mr. Fine read, “for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out,” and Eddie Williams doubled over laughing. I wanted to be alone more than anything and I wanted to be in love. I wanted the entire history of it, not just a lifetime but something vaster, infinite even, except not really infinite since infinity was too frightening. “Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,” Peggy Lee sang, “that when that final moment comes…” And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
Kathryn Davis’s most recent novel is The Silk Road. She’s received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award and the Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim, and the Lannan Literary Award. She teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis and lives in Vermont.
This excerpt is adapted from Davis’s forthcoming memoir Aurelia, Aurélia, to be published by Graywolf Press on March 1, 2022.
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