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Tenacious Magic ~ Chapter 17 (Part 2)
Katherine and John say goodbye * Shakespeare before dinner * A performance * Curtains for Katherine
Today, I write Katherine’s passage into death—thank you for your support and patience. It was hard to get here.
I am struck by the fact that death seemed to come as a surprise to Katherine, even though she “knew” she was close (she had already written a will and a last letter to her husband) for a long, long time. She also suffered physically in the extreme—calling her body a prison, wanting to be free from it like a bird flying away. It stirs compassion to think she was only 34…maybe death is always a shock to the young. And from her journals, we know she hoped for a miracle until the end. That was why she went to the Prieuré after all—for a miracle.
She wrote of death in her journals and letters with great clarity. We know she was interested in the metaphysical and believed in reincarnation.
“I have to die to so much; I have to make such big changes. I feel the only thing to do is to get the dying over—to court it, almost (fearfully hard, that) and then all hands to the business of being reborn again.” (Letter to JMM, 1920)
Today, as I was seeking a quote to open this last chapter, I came across a poem in KM’s final journal. Presumably, she wrote it while at The Prieuré. I read the poem—about a wounded bird—and then shortly after, was startled by a bang on the window. I looked out to find a small, stunned female goldfinch. She had flown into the window, thinking it a continuation of the sky. I prayed, sent Reiki, and watched as she recovered herself; hoping she would fly away. When I finally turned to something else…she flew off, presumably ”not dreadfully hurt.” So, I start this week’s chapter of Tenacious Magic with an excerpt from Katherine’s poem…and thoughts of restoration, repair, and rebirth.
At night, in the wide bed With the leaves and flowers Gently weaving in the darkness She is like a wounded bird at rest on a pool. Timidly, timidly, she lifts her head from her wing. In the sky there are two stars Floating, shining - Oh, waters - do not cover me! I would look long & long at those beautiful stars! Oh, my wings - lift me - lift me I am not so dreadfully hurt… — Katherine Mansfield
Note: If you are new to my Substack, Tenacious Magic is an emergent, serial novel about the teacher/student relationship, the masculine and feminine, Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff, power, sexuality, and time. I publish a chapter every Friday. Here is an introduction to the project. Here is Chapter 1. The chapters are free up to Chapter 7, at which point I took it behind the paywall. If you enjoy it, please subscribe and join the discussion. I incorporate reader comments and invite opinions and insights from readers to influence and inform where the story goes. Here is the first part of this chapter, Chapter 17 Part 1.
Now, back to the story…
The Prieuré, Fontainebleu, January 9, 1923
“We haven’t been alone in months, Bogey. It really feels like we’re living separate lives now,” Katherine’s voice is weak, but clear. John nods.
They’re sitting in her loft in the cowshed with glasses of fresh keftir and tea sandwiches. The fire in the small stove cranks steady warmth into the space. Down below, the cows munch and rustle the hay. John looks around, charmed by his wife’s makeshift writing room.
They spent the first couple of hours touring the house and gardens with Mme. Ostrowska, Olgivanna, and a girl called Adele. The women doted on John as an expression of their love for Katherine. She felt grateful for this kindness and took it as a sign of their affection for her. When Katherine needed to rest, they sat with a group making decorations for the Russian New Year celebrations. John and Orage talked about literary London. Katherine was thrilled to hear the confidence in John’s voice. “He’s finally finding his way,” she thought with some relief. It was Olgivanna who suggested they take tea in Katherine’s loft and brought out the tray.
Throughout the day, Katherine is overwhelmed by her perception—she sees more than ever before. She realizes with some alarm that she’s not interacted with anyone outside the Institute since October. Aspects of John’s personality now seem obviously machine-like to her—the multiple “I”s are all clamoring for attention. The facade that frustrated her, the pretensions, now show themselves as the protections they really are. She is surprised to find she can have compassion for him from this place. She no longer resents him or feels her destiny is tied to his. From this distance, she rather likes him again.
Their dynamic is decidedly different. Much that would have felt important before, feels completely inconsequential. Old habits of disagreeing and pushing each other seem completely useless. She just wants to enjoy him. They sit awkwardly in the quiet loft like it’s their first date.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” He says suddenly, referring to the Institute, “Much scrappier than I expected, but also more organized…quite impressive actually how everyone chips in. You’re right…it’s special. I understand how you’ve been happy here. I couldn’t do it, but it does suit you somehow. You always did have a passion for Russians.”
It relieves her to hear him say it. She doesn’t need his approval—or anyone’s. But, it feels good. She laughs.
He looks at her closely, “My dear…you look radiant. Is there any way you might recover. Maybe you’ve turned a corner? There is something otherworldly to you…a glow. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a woman glow like you are glowing now…I dare not hope…but…how do you feel?”
“I feel…certain. Yes, that’s it. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. I’m right where I need to be…Here. There is nothing else for me. I know I wrote to you in December that I wanted to leave—and I did, then. But, I’ve found peace here and I don’t yet know what comes next. I haven’t quite got the vision, yet. When I do…” His heart sinks. She has never been able to give him the reassurance he seeks.
“Bogey…John…I hardly know what to call you now…”
“I’ll always be Bogey and you’ll always be Wig.”
She smiles and understands he’s trying. But, it’s not true. She’s not Wig. And he’s no longer Bogey.
She realizes this is funny, talking about names, “It’s like we’re meeting again for the first time. Do you remember our early days? You were so charming, but so afraid you’d bore me. I rather think you looked up to me? And I was afraid I’d scare you off. I was a wild one then. I can’t believe you were able to tame me…you did tame me a little.” She laughs and he smiles, “John, Jack, Bogey…I love you. I really do. And I’m sorry for what’s I’ve put you through. I have to say it because I’ve felt it so many times here…Oh, the regrets.”
“Regrets? For what?”
“So many things: taking you for granted; standing in the way of your greatness; hating you for things you had no control over; suspecting you; punishing you; regretting what I could never give you as your wife…the children we never had and the old age we’ll never see…” The words pour out of her. There is an urgency to the confession.
He leaps to help, “I have my regrets, too. I couldn’t manage it, Katherine. I hated seeing you sick all the time. I couldn’t bear it. I had to leave. I told myself I couldn’t stand your coughing, but I really couldn’t stand my own weakness; my powerlessness to help. I couldn’t help you and it ate at me. I had to leave because I felt so dreadfully inadequate.” He is resolute now, “I’m sorry for pretending. For not being there as I should have been. I let you down. You have nothing to apologize for…I married you knowing your condition. I married you knowing we’d never have children. I married you because I love you…I couldn’t help it. I love you still and I will love you…always.” He stops. The implication of what they are saying, of this moment, becomes clear to them both. This visit is a goodbye.
“When I left Paris to come here, I knew it might be the end of us. I knew I was risking us to come here. I had to do it. Was it a mistake, John? Please tell me it wasn’t a mistake.”
“No. You found something I could never have given you.”
“John, I have something I need to tell you. I don’t want us to part with any secrets. I want it to be clear between us. But, you must never share this with anyone else. It would ruin me and it would ruin him.”
She puts her drink down and then takes the small cup from his hands. She looks deep into the eyes of this man who has been her friend and partner for eight years. So trusting, so innocent…despite his transgressions…She is torn—what is the responsibility of the one who holds an uncomfortable truth? She searches for what to do. She cannot tell if it’s her old habit to hide things from him, or if it’s compassion. She thinks there is no way he can handle what it is she wants to tell him. He doesn’t have the capacity for it.
Yes, this is true. He doesn’t have the capacity for it.
He is waiting expectantly. She hesitates—Who is she protecting?
“George Bowden…I feel terrible. I used him. And he didn’t deserve it. I want you to make an apology to him for me. Please write and tell him that I take full responsibility for how my immature actions hurt him; how I held his heart hostage for years. It was abominable.” Some part of her is sincere, but another part knows she is once again using a man to cover for something she cannot bear to face.
Murry nods and agrees to her request. He doesn’t understand what she meant by ‘it would ruin him,’ but, he lets it go. She cannot tell him about the other George…George Gurdjieff.
Murry looks out the window, holding back tears. She puts her hand on his leg. He turns his head and their faces are close now, closer than they’ve been in years. She kisses him gently on the cheek. There is no spark, just reassurance. It’s enough for now.
He loses himself for a minute, “Please, what can I do? What can I do?”
She holds him. The tears fall down his cheeks and then quickly he regains his composure, “I’ll be alright, Wig. Please don’t worry about me.”
“I’m not worried. Your career seems to be on the upswing, my darling. And you’ve never had trouble with the ladies…” she winks at him, “In spite of it all, we’ve had a lot of fun, John. Good times. Adventures. It’s been…joyful….We’ve been good more than we’ve been bad, haven’t we?” He nods. “You have my will and the letter I left you?” He nods again, “I feel the only thing to do now is to get the actual dying over with. I knew that when I came here. When I think about it, I guess what I've been doing here is not so much trying to recover, but to lay a strong foundation for whatever comes next. I know you have an allergy to all things Eastern, Bogey, but you cannot deny that there must be more than this one life? I want to live again.”
He is looking into the face of Death now, shining brightly through his beloved. He cannot deny the Mystery…He shakes his head, “No, darling I do not deny it.”
They both smile, though their hearts are breaking, “Maybe this is it? Maybe this is as alive as we get; when we feel most human—holding everything all at once. No longer in denial…facing the facts.”
“Wig, to the very end you are still trying to understand what makes us tick…what makes us human.”
She laughs because he’s right, “It’s true. I wanted to understand everything! I wanted it all to make sense.”
“Does it?” they’re both a little delirious now.
“Not at all. It’s chaos. But, even chaos has a kind of order.” They sit in silence contemplating death, life, chaos…
“Ah, sunset,” he looks at his watch, “5:14pm. Right on time. Very orderly.” John takes her hand and kisses it.
“Will I finally meet your mysterious Gurdjieff tonight?” John asks with teasing anticipation.
She lifts her eyebrows, “I think you will.”
Before dinner, they stop in to see Mr. and Mrs. Salzmann. This has been a regular ritual for Katherine. She is thrilled to share it with John. She knew they’d love each other and they do…
“It’s from Henry IV, that phrase. Yes, part two…The line is ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…’ Such a piercing observation, so poetic. Shakespeare—Katherine tells me you love him, too. No one uses words to more effect. It’s a magnificent study of power that play…and the legitimacy of kingship. Power—a man spends his life seeking it, but when he finally gets it, he spends the rest of his life wrestling with it.”
“And is often destroyed by it. What if that is the ultimate expression of what power wants…not what man wants, but what power itself wants…to destroy?” John offers.
Salzmann is red-faced; dressed for dinner, as usual, in work clothes—even though it’s New Year’s dinner, even though he is a gentleman. His hands are big and rough on his lap. John is dapper in English tweed, his hair combed and oiled, his hands pale and graceful, as he smokes his cigarette. Katherine notices he is wearing his wedding ring. It’s been a while. Mrs. Salzmann looks at her husband of forty years like a schoolgirl with a crush.
Katherine feels a gnawing anticipation about dinner with G. She meant to tell John, she wanted to, but she just couldn’t hurt him…not anymore, not tonight. Her heart can barely take it. She feels something is off—a little tremor. She must be strong. This is all so much.
“What is that line you and I love, Wig?” John taps his temple, trying to remember, “Same play…said by Hotspur… ‘but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”’ Isn’t that it?” John is looking at her lovingly. She can see he is enjoying himself.
“Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly it. You have to risk something to find real safety. Risk! Risk everything!”
Salzmann laughs heartily, thinking about the line, “Yes…I dare say G would like that one, too. He’s told me that ‘too safe’ is the end of The Work. He likes to keep us on our toes here, John. There’s always something a little…sinister…in the atmosphere. Just to keep us awake. Right, Katherine?” Salzmann winks at her.
Her heart beats feverishly. Sinister.
They hear the dinner bell and all head down together. She takes John’s arm as they enter the dining room. The young woman is seated to Gurdjieff’s right.
Dinner is a feast. There are toasts and too much drinking. Katherine has a few glasses of wine and a shot of vodka. Gurdjieff looked at her once appraisingly, seemingly happy to see her with John. But, she cannot meet his gaze now. She knows where that look leads and it’s too painful. After her talk with Madame, she cannot even be angry with the young woman…she was in her shoes just days ago…hypnotized.
John has let go completely. He is quite drunk when it is announced that the dance performance is about to begin.
Umbrellas are collected for the walk to the Study House. Everyone is full of anticipation. This is the dress rehearsal for the long-awaited ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians, they will present in Paris in the coming months. Katherine knows it now by heart, but she is excited to experience it all anew through John.
As they walk through the wet grass, Murry squeezes her arm, “You’re nearly translucent; filled with light and more present than ever. You must have found what you came for. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
His words remind her that she did find what she’d come for, “It’s never what you expect when you’re searching for miracles, is it?”
The Study House is set up for a performance—beautifully lit with colored lights and candles, seats in even rows. Murry stops to take it all in. His eyes are wide and Katherine laughs, “I told you! We could be anywhere…Baghdad, Tiflis, Tunisia…”
She sits in the front in her usual seat. John sits beside her and takes her hand. After the crowd has settled, the dancers take their places on the stage, Hartmann is at the piano and Gurdjieff is sitting to his left with his staff poised between his legs. He is leaning forward expectantly—willing the show to be a success.
John whispers, “You’re right. He does look like a desert chieftain.”
The room falls silent. In the moment before they begin, her attention is drawn to the aphorisms painted on the wall…she reads the one he pointed out to her weeks ago. Before they…
#34: Conscious love evokes the same in response. Emotional love evokes the opposite. Physical love depends on type and polarity.
The words run through her mind while the movements on the stage unfold rhythmically; the dancers in trance; the audience enthralled. She tries to understand with her mental body. Then, with her emotional body. Then, with her moving body. Nothing clicks until she realizes…She has never known conscious love.
This realization preoccupies her through the entire program. It hits her like a lightning bolt. Conscious love…a yearning stirs deep within. Suddenly she feels a little drunk…Her chest feels tight. Is it her heart? Every now and then, she looks over to where G is sitting. When the stage is full of light he looks the embodiment of the White Magician. When the set changes and goes dark, he looks every bit the Black Magician.
Angel. Devil. Angel. Devil. Something a little sinister…
She looks at Gurdjieff and sees her father sitting there—imperious and overbearing. Then, she sees every man she’s ever loved. She can feel how much energy she has wasted looking for conscious love…and never finding it. Resenting every one of them in the process, without taking responsibility for making herself into a woman worthy of such a love, capable of giving it herself. Looking for others to make her a conscious being. She sees that she has been waiting for one of them to save her, all her life. This one—G—is just the last and most powerful. Not even he could do it.
The realization is so pure she doesn’t feel shame or regret…just relief. This is something she can write into The Gospel of I AM. This is something she has finally learned about herself. Something real.
As the performance comes to an end, she stays seated. Everyone is standing and clapping, but she cannot. She is too weak, too overcome. John is swept up. He is on his feet.
“I want to meet Gurdjieff and the composer. Will you be alright?” She nods and John bounds off to meet the men behind the spectacle. She watches G receive John. Their meeting seems to close a loop.
“My lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety…”
She laughs: What a fool I’ve been. I did it. I risked everything…did I find safety? There’s no such thing.
She closes her eyes to stop the room spinning. A firm hand grips her shoulder. She expects to see John when she opens her eyes, but it is G. The room disappears. She can hear only him now, as if they were on a private phone line. His voice is clear in her mind…she doesn’t know if he even speaks aloud.
“The body is failing, but the spirit is soaring. I see your soul, now. It is crystallized.”
Tears come to her eyes. She needed the confirmation…she sensed it, but he confirms it. “All hands to the business of being reborn…” he says.
She sighs and feels his presence for the last time in this form. He walks away as others demand his attention.
John returns. Katherine takes his hand and stands. It is unseasonably warm for January and when they step out into the night air it is raining lightly. She feels the drops on her cheeks like dew, maybe part snowflake now. “I love the feeling of the rain on my face,” she says to him. Nothing could be more simple.
They enter the quiet house. Still full of music and the movements, Katherine is humming one of the tunes lightly. Suddenly, she is overcome with a desire to dance, to move, to be in her body. She twirls in the foyer and then runs up the stairs. She feels free, like she’s flying.
At the last step before the landing, she feels a pop in her chest, which is suddenly cold and tight. She cannot breathe. Murry is taken by surprise and calls her name. She hears it like it’s coming from another time, another dimension, “Kathleen! Kathleen!” It could be her mother calling from the stoop in Wellington.
She turns and looks at Murry in shock as the metallic taste of blood fills her mouth. She brings her hand to her mouth—the red is garish, horrifying. Her eyes go wide and she begins to fall as Murry races to catch her. She falls into his arms; feeling his strong body, his steadiness even in this moment of panic. She is coughing, gasping for air. He has put his handkerchief to her mouth.
Commotion closes in around her. She realizes what is happening—she is powerless now to stop it. It is inevitable, what will inevitably happen. Voices, shouting. Darkness is coming at the corners of her vision as she registers the concern in the faces—all these loving faces, these loving people. She loves them and she sees, perhaps for the first time, how much they love her. Not because she is Katherine, but because she is Love itself and they know that in this moment. They are trying to save her precious life, but now it is too late.
She is in the bed now, the wide bed with the leaves and flowers. A doctor comes. There is nothing he can do.
Where is he? Where is he? Oh, one last look. One last connection.
She searches the faces for Gurdjieff. Where is he? She wants to see him one last time…to say “I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” But, she doesn’t see him. Where is he? She calls to him telepathically, “Where are you?” She can no longer see the world around her. She turns her attention inside and upwards where it is peaceful, calm.
Like going to the arms of a lover…She goes to Him in the center of her own heart and they embrace. As his mouth closes over hers, she feels the breath leave her body for the last time. It is a great exhale, a release, a surrender, and a passage. It is the last thing she feels as Katherine, before the light envelops her.