The Last Tango.

Last Tango

I stand waiting, gazing across a surreal world of silver and black, wondering as always if this night will bring solace to my torment.

The night goddess, Isis, a quarter of the way through her monthly cycle, is visible as a half disk floating in an ocean of twinkling stars. Her pale gown reflects a shimmering translucence on the rippled, mirror surface of the lake before which I stand. Finger-like, almost transparent fronds of mist roll across the water; they beckon to the spruce and pine trees standing like sentinels on the shoreline to join them in gavotte among the wavelets that kiss the shingled beach. Only the plaintive hoot of an owl, a single mournful cry, disturbs the placid serenity and intensifies the loneliness I feel in my sojourn of solitude.

I think back to an evening of long ago, a pavement café beside the bank of the River Seine where I first saw Catalina. In those days, there were not such large numbers of auto-mobiles in the streets of Paris. Most vehicles during the first decades of the twentieth century were horse drawn cabs.

My name? You will find it in the corner of several paintings hanging in the Louvre Museum, although I regret to admit, nothing in the main galleries and you may have to search with some diligence. But you may call me André if you wish.

I had set up my easel and paints to capture on canvas the carnelian and flame-orange Parisian sunset of early summer, when I saw her watching me. She was sat with a group of students from Madame Bouvier’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, the academy situated a short distance south of the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur. Of almost satanically dark Latin beauty, her obsidian black hair and tanned complexion rivalled the creamy hue of the sheer, chiffon dress she wore, holding my itinerant vision in entranced admiration. Her appearance and innocent demeanour was far removed from the fairer cast of her more lascivious companions who incited to distraction the café artists.

Many of the poorer tyros learning their craft in pigment and charcoal from the masters frequented the bars and bistros of Paris. They sought to sell their talent in exchange for a meal by offering to paint and sketch the portraits of the patrons. There were maybe six moving among the tables on that evening. The young, giggling women teased them by offering to pose in erotic postures of semi-nudity, each one suggesting a scene more lewd and provocative than the previous.

The mademoiselle who had caught my attention appeared to distance herself from her more bawdy associates, and I felt little surprise when she excused herself from their company and sauntered across the esplanade to view my work. The click of her heels on the paving stones drew my attention from the pallet on which I was mixing colours. In an instant my intended subject of cloud and skyline was forgotten. Seeing her silhouetted against the sunset, it was imperative I persuade her to allow me to capture that wondrous moment in oils for eternity. Pose, she did, and not just that one time either. In the following months I captured the essence of her innocent beauty against a variety of settings in and around the city.

Originally from Buenos Aires, she resided in Paris with parents, her father being a high ranking Argentinean diplomat to France. Perhaps it started from her infatuation of being seen with an artist, dare I say, a good artist-I had studied under the tutorship of Amedeo Modigliani, at Le Bateau-Lavoir in Montmarte shortly after his arrival from Venice. Catalina took it upon herself to promote my work among her friends at college, and guests at the soirees hosted by her mother, on every opportunity. Our relationship certainly flowered like a rose in the gardens of Versaille in the time I knew her.

That first autumn, a new dance craze swept like a fire-storm through the bars and cafés of Paris. Catalina was an immediate progenitor of the novelty, the dance having its origin in the country of her birth. During one of the sittings at my studio-I maintain studio although it would probably be considered no more than a two-roomed apartment-she proposed to teach me to dance the tango. She arrived in chauffeured embassy automobile the following afternoon, and instructed the fellow to set up a wind-up gramophone. Due to the limited availability of suitable recordings of music, we had only a copy of Carlos Gardel with a song called Milonga Sentimental to accompany her tuition.

Whether it was the excellence of my teacher, or my natural instinct to appreciate the rhythm I am unsure, but we were soon two of the most well known proponents of the steps in Parisian society. I am certainly of the opinion that her proficiency and erotic elegance fuelled the explosive popularity of the dance.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the amour between Catalina and me was not in accord with the wishes of her parents. More and more, our clandestine trysts were conducted in secret, often beside the lake behind the chateau where her family resided. There we would sit in romantic embrace among the shadows beneath the trees, whispering vows of servitude and forswearing our undying love whatever adversities our differences in upbringing should bestow on our happiness. One such night in late May as I savoured the seduction in her brown eyes, her papa discovered our romantic liaisons. He, being a military man, I doubt if I would have fared better in a fair fight, but the fact that he was accompanied by several minions from the embassy made the outcome even more one sided. He made his displeasure clear in words pertaining to an inevitable conclusion to my life if I approached again within five kilometres of either Catalina or the chateau. He dragged his weeping daughter back toward the house, while the henchmen stressed the point with several severe incursive blows to my face and head before pitching me onto the streets.

I heard nothing more from my beloved for six weeks, until a letter was delivered to my rooms by a household servant, in which she begged that I might find the courage to rendezvous with her on the night of three days hence. The date was her nineteenth birthday. A party was being thrown in celebration of the event during which a public announcement would be made of her engagement and intent of marriage to Signor Romano de Silva, the son of one of the wealthiest men in South America. The match was obviously made through her parents with no regard for the wishes of their daughter. I was devastated, but uncertain whether her intention was for a final farewell, or something more. I returned a letter in reply that a garrison of mounted cavalry would not prevent me from making the effort to see her, and arranged a time to meet at our regular haunt.

In the shadows cast by the trees encroaching to the water’s edge, I waited. Like tonight, a half moon gleamed as if some apparition floated beneath the black surface of the lake, where only faint ripples disturbed the crystalline smoothness. Sounds of laughter and music drifted from the veranda of the chateau like moths fluttering on the evening breeze, which left no doubt of the carefree party atmosphere inside.

Perhaps ten minutes passed before a sylph like form I recognised so well flitted from the shadowy recess at the back of the house. I watched her progress beneath the trees until she was within a few paces of my secluded location before I moved into the light. The silvery glow glittered in her dark eyes and her soft lips spread into a smile. We embraced, hugging without speaking, for words were unnecessary. The delicate allure of perfume on her neck teased and taunted my sense of taste and smell as we kissed. She wore her long hair pulled back in a tight coil and held in place with two tortoiseshell combs. Her dress was of similar cream silky texture to the one she wore that first time I saw her, except this one would probably be considered as a ball gown. The skirt fell almost to the ground but was split at the side from hem almost to hip, allowing me a tantalising glimpse of stocking clad thigh.

As we gazed into each other’s eyes, I was surprised to hear the orchestra break into a tune with a rhythm I new so well, the Milonga Sentimental. The soft murmur of her voice was almost inaudible as she spoke, “In two days I am forced to obey the wishes of my parents to board a ship bound for Buenos Aires. I asked that the band play this now that we may dance one last tango together.”

I felt icy fingers of anguish clutching at my throat. I tried to speak, but she pressed a finger tip to my lips. With a faint shake of her head, she said, "Please, say nothing to spoil this moment. I swear that one day, if you have not forgotten me, I will return to this place that we may spend eternity together."

She had no need to ask me twice. There seemed a futility, a hopelessness in my life as, almost in a daze, I led her into the first ‘el paseo’ or slow walk. In all the times we had danced together, I have never known her movements to appear so sexually explicit while we performed ‘el cruzado’ the scissors step, and then entwined our legs for the ‘la vigne’ the grape vine. The tempo of the dance increased as we whirled in the moonlight on that beach until the final steps when we dropped almost to our knees, with lips pressed together in the final kiss. I wish I could have held that kiss until the end of time, savouring the perfume of her skin, the warm sweet taste of her breath, but it was not to be.

A single slow hand clap brought the rush of reality back to my senses.

In horror I looked up to confront two male figures emerging from the shadows. The bearded face of the taller dressed in military uniform, I recognised at once as Catalina’s father. The other shorter but plumper figure of a younger man with sallow complexion was immaculately dressed in black tuxedo over a white dress shirt. His receding hair was greased back over his scalp with a few wayward strands falling to the side and over his ear. I assumed this was the one she would marry. It was his hands from where the applause originated, yet his face was twisted into a sneer.

"Bravo, for someone foreign to our national dance that was some performance." His voice, weak and whining as his complexion, slurred the words. He continued, "Such a shame there will never be a repeat performance."

He reached out, grabbing Catalina by the arm. She stumbled as he pulled her from me. It was only then I saw the glint of moonlight on something metallic held in the hand of her father.

Catalina must have seen it at the same time. She screamed words that sounded like, “Papa! No!”

I tried to stand, but the world seemed to turn in slow motion as a flash of fire and sound of an explosion tore through the stillness. Something struck me in the chest like the kick from a race horse. I felt ribs shatter and flesh burn in a brief moment of searing agony that seemed to continue for an eternity. My awareness felt as if it was curling up like a screaming foetus inside my body as breath was torn from my lungs.

Eventually the pain dissolved into nothing, blown away like dust in the moving stream of air from the lake. And then came a sudden realisation that I was sprawled on my back in the shallow water. I saw the expression of horror on the face of my beloved, as she tore free from the grip of her captor. Her mouth was moving as if in agonized scream, yet I heard only silence. I felt her in the water beside me, lifting my shoulders and pressing my cheek against her breast. Thick blood oozed from the hole in my chest staining the cream silk of her dress to burgundy before dripping in globules into the lake. The two men grabbed her, one on either arm, pulling her away. I stood up and watched as they dragged her back along the shore to the house.

It is difficult to imagine that almost sixty years have passed since that night. Whenever the half-moon rises in mid-summer, I am drawn to this spot knowing that one day she will be free to return as she promised; one day we will be together in accordance with the vows we made so long ago.

I wait, inhaling the silence of the night air. Never, in all the years I have been held to this place have I felt so close to my sweet Catalina, and then, a moment of surprise as I hear those strains of music from the crumbling dilapidated walls of the derelict chateau, the same orchestra playing our song, Milonga Sentimental. I hear a whispered voice in my ear, “I asked that the band play, so we may dance one last tango together.”

Turning, I gaze on her almost satanically dark Latin beauty. Even in the darkness, she shines with radiant light. She appears not one day older than the last moment I saw her. Her eyes glisten with a mischievous gleam that I have never seen before, and her perfect mouth curls into a smile of unadulterated happiness. We kiss, my cold lips pressed against hers so warm and so alive. It is as if she breathes life into me as we embrace. There is no necessity for her to ask me twice. Our bodies begin to sway, then our feet to move in response to the rhythm. In the moonlit shadows, two revenants now haunt the shore at the water’s edge of a lake on the outskirts of Paris as we begin our final, never ending last tango in the night.

© 2009 Robert A Read. aka Mysteral.

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