Let us begin this letter, this prelude to an encounter, formally, as a declaration, in the old-fashioned way: I love you. You do not know me (although you have seen me, smiled at me, placed coins in the palm of my hand). I know you (although not so well as I would like. I want to be there when your eyes flutter open in the morning, and you see me, and you smile. Surely this would be paradise enough?). So I do declare myself to you now, with pen set to paper. I declare it again: I love you.
I write this in English, your language, a language I also speak. My English is good. I was for many years ago in England and in Scotland. I spent a whole summer standing in Covent Garden, except for the month of Edinburgh Festival, when I am in Edinburgh. People who put money in my box in Edinburgh included Mr. Kevin Spacey the actor, and Mr. Jerry Springer the American television star who was in Edinburgh for an opera about his life.
I have put off writing this for so long, although I have wanted to, although I have composed it many times in my head. Shall I write about you? About me?
I love your hair, long and red. The first time I saw you I believed you to be a dancer, and I still believe that you have a dancer’s body. The legs, and the posture, head up and back. It was your smile that told me you were a foreigner, before ever I heard you speak. In my country we smile in bursts, like the sun coming out and illuminating the fields and then retreating again behind a cloud too soon. Smiles are valuable here. But you smiled all the time, as if everything you saw delighted you. You smiled the first time you saw me, even wider than before. You smiled and I was lost, like a small child in a great forest, never to find its way home again.
I learned when young that the eyes give too much away. Some in my profession adopt dark spectacles, or even (and these I scorn with bitter laughter as amateurs) masks that cover the whole face. What good is a mask? My solution is that of full-sclera theatrical contact lenses, purchased from an American website for a little under 500 Euros, which cover the whole eye. They are dark gray, or course, and look like stone. They have made me more than €500, paid for themselves over and over.
You may think, given my profession, that I must be poor, but you would be wrong. Indeed, I fancy that you will be surprised by how much I have collected. My needs have been small and my earnings always very good.
Except when it rains.
Sometimes even when it rains. The others as perhaps you have observed, my love, retreat when it rains, raise umbrellas, run away. I remain where I am. Always. I simply wait, unmoving. It all adds to the conviction of the performance.
And it is a performance, as much as when I was a theatrical actor, a magician’s assistant, even a dancer. (That is how I am so familiar with the bodies of dancers.) Always, I was aware of the audience as individuals. I have found this with all actors and all dancers, except the short-sighted ones for whom the audience is a blur. My eyesight is good, even through the contact lenses.
“Did you see the man with the moustache in the third row?” we would say. “He is staring at Minou with lustful glances.”
And Minou would reply, “Ah yes. But the woman on the aisle, who looks like the German Chancellor, she is now fighting to stay awake.” If one person falls asleep, you can lose the whole audience, so we play the rest of the evening to a middle-aged woman who wishes only to succumb to drowsiness.
The second time you stood near me you were so close I could smell your shampoo. It smelled like flowers and fruit. I imagine America as being a whole continent full of women who smell of flowers and fruit. You were talking to a young man from the university. You were complaining about the difficulties of our language for an American. “I understand what gives a man or a woman gender,” you were saying. “But what makes a chair masculine or a pigeon feminine? Why should a statue have a feminine ending?”
The young man laughed and pointed straight at me, then. But truly, if you are walking through the square, you can tell nothing about me. The robes look like old marble, water-stained and time-worn and lichened. The skin could be granite. Until I move I am stone and old bronze, and I do not move if I do not want to. I simply stand.
Some people wait in the square for much too long, even in the rain, to see what I will do. They are uncomfortable not knowing, only happy once they have assured themselves that I am natural, not artificial. It is the uncertainty that traps people, like a mouse in a glue-trap.
I am writing about myself too much. I know that this is a letter of introduction as much as it is a love letter. But I should write about you. Your smile. Your eyes so green. (You do not know the true colour of my eyes. I will tell you. They are brown.) You like classical music, but you have also Abba and Kid Loco on your iPod Nano. You wear no perfume. Your underwear is, for the most part, faded and comfortable, although you have a single set of red-lace bra and panties which you wear for special occasions.
People watch me in the square, but the eye is only attracted by motion. I have perfected the tiny movement, so tiny that the passer can scarcely tell if it is something he saw or not. Yes? Too often people will not see what does not move. The eyes see it but do not see it, they discount it. I am human-shaped, but I am not human. So in order to make them see me, to make them look at me, to stop their eyes from sliding off me and paying me no attention, I am forced to make the tiniest motions, to draw their eyes to me. Then, and only then, do they see me. But they do not always know what they have seen.
I see you as a code to be broken, or as a puzzle to be cracked. Or a jig-saw puzzle, to be put together. I walk through your life, and I stand motionless at the edge of of my own life. My own gestures, statuesque, precise, are too often misinterpreted. I love you. I do not doubt this.
You have a younger sister. She has a Myspace account, and a Facebook account. We talk sometimes. All too often people assume that a medieval statue exists only in the fifteenth century. This is not so true: I have a room, I have a laptop. My computer is passworded. I practice safe computing. Your password is your first name. That is not safe. Anyone could read your email, look at your photographs, reconstruct your interests from your web history. Someone who was interested and who cared could spend endless hours building up a complex schematic of your life, matching the people in the photographs to the names in the emails, for example. It would not be hard reconstructing a life from a computer, or from cellphone messages, like a crossword puzzle.
I remember when I actually admitted to myself that you had taken to watching me, and only me, on your way across the square. You paused. You admired me. You saw me move once, for a child, and you told a friend, loud enough to be heard, that I might be a real statue. I take it as the highest compliment. I have many different styles of movement, of course—I can move like clockwork, in a set of tiny jerks and stutters, I can move like a robot or an automaton. I can move like a statue coming to life after hundreds of years of being stone.
Within my hearing you have spoken of the beauty of this small city. How standing inside the stained-glass confection of the old church was like being imprisoned inside a kaleidoscope of jewels. It was like being in the heart of the sun. You are concerned about your mother’s illness.
When you were an undergraduate you worked as a cook, and your fingertips are covered with the scar-marks of a thousand tiny knife-cuts.
I love you, and it is my love for you that drives me to know all about you. The more I know the closer I am to you. You were to come to my country with a young man, but he broke your heart, and you came here to spite him, and still you smiled. I close my eyes and I can see you smiling. I close my eyes and I see you striding across the town square in a clatter of pigeons. The women of this country do not stride. They move diffidently, unless they are dancers. And when you sleep your eyelashes flutter. The way your cheek touches the pillow. The way you dream.
I dream of dragons. When I was a small child, at the home, they told me that there was a dragon beneath the old city. I pictured the dragon wreathing like black smoke beneath the buildings, inhabiting the cracks between the cellars, insubstantial and yet always present. That is how I think of the dragon, and how I think of the past, now. A black dragon made of smoke. When I perform I have been eaten by the dragon and have become part of the past. I am, truly, seven hundred years old. Kings may come and kings may go. Armies arrive and are absorbed or return home again, leaving only damage and bastard children behind them, but the statues remain, and the dragon of smoke, and the past.
I say this, although the statue that I emulate is not from this town at all. It stands in front of a church in southern Italy, where it is believed either to represent the sister of John the Baptist, or a local lord who endowed the church to celebrate not dying of the plague, or the angel of death.
I had imagined you perfectly chaste, my love, yet one time the red lace panties were pushed to the bottom of your laundry hamper, and upon close examination I was able to assure myself that you had, unquestionably, been unchaste the previous evening. Only you know who with, for you did not talk of the incident in your letters home, or allude to it in your online journal.
A small girl looked up at me once, and turned to her mother, and said “Why is she so unhappy?” (I translate into English for you, obviously. The girl was referring to me as a statue and thus she used the feminine ending.)
“Why do you believe her to be unhappy?”
“Why else would people make themselves into statues?”
Her mother smiled. “Perhaps she is unhappy in love,” she said.
I was not unhappy in love. I was prepared to wait until everything was ready, something very different.
There is time. There is always time. It is the gift I took from being a statue. One of the gifts, I should say.
You have walked past me and looked at me and smiled, and you have walked past me and barely noticed me as anything other than an object. Truly, it is remarkable how little regard you, or any human, gives to something that remains completely motionless. You have woken in the night, got up, walked to the little toilet, peed and walked back to bed. You would not notice something perfectly still, would you? Something in the shadows?
If I could I would have made the paper for this letter for you out of my body. I thought about mixing in with the ink my blood or spittle, but no. There is such a thing as overstatement. Yet great loves demand grand gestures, yes? I am unused to grand gestures. I am more practised in the tiny gestures. I made a small boy scream once, simply by smiling at him when he had convinced himself that I was made of marble. It is the smallest gestures that will never be forgotten.
I love you.
Soon, I hope, you will know this for yourself. And then we will never part. It will be time, in a moment, to turn around, put down the letter. I am with you, even now, in these old apartments with the Iranian carpets on the walls.
You have walked past me too many times.
I am here with you. I am here now.
When you put down this letter. When you turn and look across this old room, your eyes sweeping it with relief or with joy or even with terror . . .
Then I will move. Move, just a fraction. And, finally, you will see me.
© 2008 by Neil Gaiman.
Originally published in Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters,
edited by Joshua Knelman & Rosalind Porter.
Reprinted by permission of the author.