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Sacred and Profane by Melissa Goode


In “Sacred and Profane,” Melissa Goode writes an entire marriage in one flash. With a precise mosaic structure, Goode seamlessly interweaves themes of struggle, misunderstanding and understanding, love and commitment, against a backdrop of fine art and architecture, of travel and displacement. Each segment holds tension and offers a new layer of understanding. There is power both in the silence of the white space, and in the quiet of the story—we readers are given space here (see Goode’s author’s note for more on this). By choosing present tense and a first-person POV, Goode helps us approach art with no artifice, through the eyes of the wife, our narrator. There is a whole level of subtext to the dialogue and action here; what is unsaid carries as much weight as what is said.  —CRAFT


 

Our hotel in Rome is a former monastery, darkly shadowed, stone. There is no elevator.

He hauls both of our suitcases up three flights of stairs. I wait for him at the top. His muscles flex, his forehead creases.

“The monastic life makes sense,” he says, and plants the suitcases at my feet. “Poverty. No possessions.”

“Chastity and obedience?”

“Fuck no.”

Our room is large enough for a family, a double bed, a few twins. There is only the two of us and we share the double.


At the Church of San Francesco a Ripa, we see Bernini’s funerary monument, The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni, dated 1674. She lies on a bed, said to be caught in the moment of mystical communion with God. Her head is thrown back, her neck arched, a hand clutched to her breast and the other to her stomach. Her knee is pushed up. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open. She is supposed to be in the act of dying.

“I thought it was all going to be crucifixes,” he says. “I want to die like that.”

He says it softly and all I hear over and over is—I want to die.


Lunch is spaghetti alla puttanesca for primo, osso bucco for secondo, and vino with every course. The cannoli di ricotta melts on my tongue.

“This is heaven,” I say.

He takes a sip of my vin santo and says, “Yours is much better than mine.”

“Share mine.”

He shakes his head. “I want yours to be good.”


We visit the Pantheon, dated first century AD—a temple to all the gods. At the top of the domed roof, a circular opening—the oculus—provides the only light. Even in winter, the light falls on us, gold and sepia, ancient.

The walls are lined with the sarcophagi of Italian monarchs.

“Is there no getting away from the dead?” I say.

“I wanted to go to Hawaii,” he says.


He leaves for a walk and is gone for three hours. He returns, smelling of liquor, and flops fully clothed onto our bed.

“You don’t know everything about me,” he says.

“Then tell me.”

He closes his eyes.

“I am your wife,” I say. “I am not the enemy.”


In our bed, he pushes my hair behind my ear.

“We’ll be alright,” he says, and he splits the word in two—all right.

He traps my hand against his chest. His skin burns.

“You haven’t said sorry,” I say.

He drops his forehead to my shoulder. He moves my hand down his chest, his ribs. Okay, okay, I whisper and slide my hand down between us.


I want to say, we are married. I will not leave you, even if I want to.


The menswear store is piled high with starched linen. The radio plays The Cranberries, “No Need to Argue.” She sings about knowing she’d lose her love and I tell myself it is not a prophecy.

“Don’t say it,” he says.

“What?”

“Anything about Dolores O’Riordan dying.”

“Why can’t I?”

“Jesus,” he says. “Please.”

He chooses pajamas, striped business shirts and tries on a suit. I lean against a wall and wait. He sweeps open the fitting room curtain. He stretches his arms forward, checks the shoulders, the wrists. In a suit, he is the man from back home, working sixteen-hour days.

“Don’t buy it,” I say.


Salome, by Titian, dated 1516—Salome carries on a plate the head of John the Baptist. The card alongside the painting says the decapitated head may be a self-portrait.

“How could anyone paint themselves beheaded?” I say.

“Isn’t it a fantasy? To split the brain from the body?”

He slices the museum brochure across his neck, half closes his eyes and sets his mouth in a line.

“Stop,” I say.

“Why?”

I can’t say it—I don’t want to see you dead.

“You’re so serious these days,” he says.


On the fourth morning of our stay, he turns over in bed away from me.

“Go out for the day,” he says.

Downstairs, at a convenience store, I buy a take-out coffee, bottled water, a salad sandwich, M&M’s, an apple. I leave it all on the nightstand, together with his antidepressants.

He opens an eye. “You look after me.”

“Of course I do,” I say and stop myself—I-always-will-baby-don’t-send-me-away.

He swings an arm from the bed, captures my hand. “I need a rest.”

I kiss his cheek and his stubble scrapes, but beneath, his skin is soft soft soft.


I catch the Metro to Spagna station and walk up the hill to Villa Borghese. The pristine gardens are winter-bare. Below is Rome, our hotel, our bed, and he is so far away.

Inside the villa, I stop in front of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, dated 1514. Two women, physically alike, sit upon a sarcophagus. One is clothed elaborately, a bride, the other nude, except for a white cloth draped across her lap. They are said to symbolize marriage—carnal, human love and heavenly, divine love.

Beside me, an older woman leans on her walking stick, studies the painting. Her silvery eye-shadow and mascara leak into the crevices around her eyes. If she turns to me, if she speaks, I’ll blurt—I don’t want to become you, but I’m scared I will.

I rush outside into the weak, gray afternoon. The air is frozen and I gulp at it. I gasp. A man glances over at me and I raise a hand, meaning I am alright, meaning leave me alone.


Back at our hotel, he sleeps. His phone plays, Tom Waits sings about holding on. I undress and climb into bed behind him, my skin awash with goosebumps. I wrap myself around his back. He slides his hand over mine and weds our fingers together and we are cold and warm and female and male and me and him.

 


MELISSA GOODE’S work has appeared in The Penn Review, CutBank, Best Small Fictions 2018SmokeLong QuarterlySuperstition ReviewWigleaf, and Monkeybicycle, among others. Three of her stories were chosen by Dan Chaon for Best Microfictions 2019, including her story “I Wanna Be Adored” (CHEAP POP) which was also chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019. She lives in Australia. You can find her at melissagoode.com and on Twitter @melgoodewriter.

 

Author’s Note

This story “Sacred and Profane” contains three main features that I love writing about—place, art, and marriage. They are a mine for me. Fundamentally, because these subjects are beautiful and rich, evocative. I also think they are transformative. They change a person.

Every place I have visited has stayed with me. Every piece of art that speaks to me, makes me think about my life, about this world. My marriage was precious and pivotal to my life and now I remember it with such love, together with immeasurable sadness and longing. I am no longer the person I used to be.

I think the world is bearable because of the immense beauty inherent in its places and art, but most of all because of love. I want to only ever write about these most fundamental aspects of our lives.

Each of these three—place, art, and marriage—are full of implication, codes, and unspoken language. They speak all by themselves. By the writer incorporating these elements into the writing, the reader can interpret the story, read into the story, on the basis of their own lived experience.

I don’t read many books about the craft of writing, but one in particular that I come back to time and again is Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, Several Short Sentences About Writing (Vintage Books, 2012). He describes “one of a writer’s most important tools” to be “the ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow. The ability to speak to the reader in silence”.

I have found that my writing relies upon silences. By using small insignia of place, art, and marriage, a whole world emerges and so much of it is what the reader has found themselves in the writing.

In addition, the style of this story, mosaic, uses white space. It gives the reader space between each fragment and these spaces, or silences, give them a moment to find meaning, to perceive the arc of the story, as the fragments coalesce into a whole.

This mosaic style also reflects memory, the way we remember in pieces, rather than in a chronological narrative. Often when I write about place or marriage, I remember being in a place or being married and all that entails. A piece of art that speaks to me, evokes feeling and memories, whether seeing it for the first time or for the thousandth time. This world is given to us in pieces and moments and silences. I want this reflected in my writing.

For me, writing is bearing witness. Writing allows me to say—this is what I see. In the case of this story—this is what I see in Rome, this is what I see in Titian’s paintings, Salome and Sacred and Profane Love, this is what I see in Bernini’s funerary monument, this is what I see in a marriage. In the end, with everything I write, I say to the reader, this is what I see when I see love.

 


MELISSA GOODE’S work has appeared in The Penn Review, CutBank, Best Small Fictions 2018SmokeLong QuarterlySuperstition ReviewWigleaf, and Monkeybicycle, among others. Three of her stories were chosen by Dan Chaon for Best Microfictions 2019, including her story “I Wanna Be Adored” (CHEAP POP) which was also chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019. She lives in Australia. You can find her at melissagoode.com and on Twitter @melgoodewriter.