One Minute of Beauty

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The sounds of rioting outside the window were almost drowned by the clatter of machinery within. Monsieur Duval’s power-looms pumped and pounded, steam spurting from pressurised pipes as warp and weft were bound together, meshing into one exquisite whole, a tapestry of the immaterial. Where spools of cotton should have been stood the medium, Madam Jaurès, and young Christos the Greek, his face suffused with the energy of genius as he drew swift, exotic melodies from his violin.

‘They’ve set fire to the bank,’ Henri said, fingering his dog collar as he glanced nervously out the window.

‘Good for them,’ Edouard replied, sipping from a crystal-cut glass of absinthe. ‘The old structures must be smashed, the boundaries torn down, for truth and beauty to triumph. Let Paris burn, as long as Christos fiddles.’

‘Will it work if he cannot be heard?’ Duval asked. The industrialist stood apart from the young artists, as if fearful of being consumed by the charisma that had lured him into their plans.

‘Of course!’ Edouard exclaimed, waving his glass. ‘Why would we need to hear his music when we can see it?’

He pointed to the cage that surrounded the musician, a funnel of precisely focused wires. From its mouth, a near-invisible strand stretched out, vibrating, towards the loom, like a slither of hot air sliced from a summer’s day. Another thread, glowing moonlight white, joined it from the glass bottle that encased Madam Jaurès, becoming weft to the music’s warp. Where they met, in the rattling heart of the loom, a sheet was forming. It gleamed like quick-silver as it rode into the air, twisting and soaring on a wind no-one could feel.

A whiff of smoke drifted in through a loose window. Edouard breathed deeply, feeling freedom fill his lungs, the joy and determination of the unrestrained mob. He poured more absinthe, passed Duval a glass.

‘It is almost time,’ he said. ‘Let the borders fall. Let art and industry become one. Let our souls touch the beyond.’ Knocking back his drink, he cast the glass to the floor, watching it shatter into shards of light. Then he was running down rusted iron steps, across the factory floor, Henri in his wake. They grabbed the end of the shining cloth. It was almost impossible to hold, writhing in and through their hands. It felt like sunrise and birdsong on their fingertips, too pure and wonderful to contain. But they dragged it across the room, more cloth emerging behind them as Christos played and the medium twitched and frothed, channeling the will of the spirits.

They bound the corners to the brass pipe-organ that loomed against the east wall. At once, the pipes began to hum, a sweet harmony that rose to the rafters, scattering dust into the air.

‘Pray!’ Edouard exclaimed. ‘Pray like you mean it!’

Henri sank to his knees, rosary in one hand, a half-empty bottle clutched in the other for comfort, his lips twitching. His breath seemed to coallesce into tiny spots of light, settling like dew on the sheet. Edouard grabbed a brush and tray of paints, this miracle becoming his canvas as he sketched graceful curves of soothing colour across its surface, even as it began to fade.

Above their heads, a fog was forming, seeping from the apertures of the pipes.

Maxine, Duval’s assistant, burst into the room.

‘The King,’ she exclaimed, ‘The King has fled, and…’

Her words trailed off as she stared at the thing emerging from the fog, its wings fluttering and face radiant. It soared down onto the canvas, became at one with it as the machinery ceased clattering, all eyes turning to gaze in wonder.

Edouard felt as though his soul had been kissed.

‘Please,’ he whispered, ‘Just one minute of beauty. For everyone.’

The angel smiled and lifted into the air, rising through the roof. The noise outside the window stopped, and for sixty seconds no sound was heard in Paris but the ticking of pocket watches.

Then Edouard felt the moment of rapture fade. Outside, the shrieks and smashing began once more as cavalry charged the barricades.

He took a long pull on the bottle of absinthe and lit a cigarette.

‘I grant them the purest epiphany, and still they return to old habits. What must an artist do to shake men from their rut?’

He shook his head.

‘What now?’ Henri asked.

Edouard shrugged. ‘How can my art ever again match this moment? We have created serenity in the heart of the human storm, and seen that our public does not care. What point in continuing? I shall become a baker instead, or maybe a carpenter, work out my remaining decades in fruitful labour.’

He paused, staring at the burning tip of the cigarette, the smoke coiling from its fiery point.

‘Unless…’ he murmured, glancing down at his paint pots, empty of soft blues and greens. There was still plenty of red. A grin split his face. ‘Tell me, Henri, what do you know about demons?’


This story was previously published in Alienskin Magazine, August 2008