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Giraffe on Fire
Any man can sight momentous points in their lives marked by a marriage or the birth of a child. Other moments warrant note as well. The beginning of a career or one’s completion of higher learning. Life’s magic weaves in these colors. It is the smaller ones that take one by surprise. These seemingly minuscule acts do not present themselves as much in the beginning. So easily they blend as another bit of fodder in one’s ordinary life. Time tells you later that they were meaningful after you have lost the moment forever, helpless to rediscover it again.
It was in 1937 that I had one such moment, one I wish I could go back to again and again. That was the day I received an unusual letter in the post. The envelope was the color of coral, and I remembered thinking how odd that was. When I opened the envelope, the paper was scented like a woman.
Dear Dr. Alfred Adler,
You do not know me, sir, but we have a mutual acquaintance. Marie-Laure de Noailles is a dear friend and patron of ours, and she sings your praises as both a competent practitioner of psychotherapy and a man of discretion. I am in need of both, I am afraid.
My husband is in desperate need. He is melancholy, and he frets about his studio in a fashion that is unlike him.
I request the honor of your visit to our home in Basel. Of course we will be happy to pay for your expenses as well as your wages for your work. Since my husband has a certain reputation, we do ask for the utmost discretion, as I am sure you understand.
Gala Eluard Dali
Intrigue ran its light fingers up and down my neck. I had in fact heard of Senor Salvado Dali, not only from our mutual friend, but from others. His reputation was that of a madman, an artist in the extreme who played about with other figures like Picasso and Miro. They created art movements that most people in polite society deemed too vulgar. I had heard Dali had once appeared at an opening in a brassiere incased in glass.
To visit such a man would have been an experience to say the least. I checked my schedule to find it lacking in any appointments that could not be rescheduled and wrote Gala Eluard Dali a letter saying I would be on the next train to Switzerland.
When I arrived at their home in Basel, it was surprisingly ordinary. The house was rather large with a lovely garden surrounding its walls. I looked about for something peculiar to signify this was the home of the eccentric surrealist. Alas, no wild animals came charging past me and no nude women spun down from the heavens on sparkled drapery.
It was Senora Dali who greeted me at the door. Her nose was a little prominent, and her dark hair was pushed up high on the top of her head. I would not have characterized her as an extremely pretty woman, yet the air about her demanded attention.
“Welcome doctor. Welcome. Please come in and let me take your things.”
“Thank you, but I can see to my bags, unless you have a servant here who can help?”
“No, just me.”
“Just you for this big house?” I asked astonished.
“We have a girl who comes to clean and sometimes she will cook for us,” she said tugging at a stray lock of hair. “You see, it is only the two of us here. There is not much work to be done.”
“Perhaps you should show me to my room and tell me of your husband.”
“Yes, of course.”
She led me through a spacious foyer and up a staircase. The second story was a maze of doors, all leading to various rooms. I was informed that it did not matter which bedroom I chose because Senor Dali never went up to the second floor. This was not explained, and I did not inquire. Senora Dali only wished to speak of her husband.
“He is not the same. My husband has always been full of life, but ever since the expulsion from the surrealists and the war in Spain, he has been so somber. I’m afraid he is having nightmares and rambles about politics and war. He was never a political man before. It is one of the reasons the surrealists made him leave. Now, it is too dangerous to go home, even if they would take us back. The war is destroying everything.”
“You had better take me to him,” I said after I deposited my luggage in a randomly selected bedroom.
Gala led me back down the staircase and deeper into the house. There, just beyond the enormous kitchen, stood a wooden door that seemed impossible in its enormity. The slight woman walked up to the behemoth and with much effort, she pulled the thing toward us. At this point, I expected a dungeon or a wine cellar to lie beyond its creaky frame. Perhaps this had once been such a room for it was vast and made of stone. The very air chilled my skin.
Ornate rugs and long bolts of canvas were strewn in no particular pattern about the floor. Some of the canvas was stretched on wooden frames and some hung loosely from poles. The air smelled oily and vaguely like earth. Some of the canvases had been started. I saw the beginning sketches of figures and landscapes. None seemed to be anywhere near finished, save one.
Laying on the floor was a paper that had been painted. It was a haunting image mostly in brown tones of a woman in an elegant dress peering up at a giraffe that was on fire. The trouble was she could not see the giraffe because her face was completely obscured by roses.
“My love, please wake up,” said Gala.
She spoke to what I had assumed to be a pile of pillows and quilts. However, her words caused the mound to twitch and a disheveled man appeared from beneath. I had heard of the man’s signature mustache, and this man surely wore it, but it was unkempt and unwaxed. His hair was a confusion of dark straw matted this way and that, and his eyes told the tale of a troubled soul. Senor Dali rose from his nest of quilts and regarded my presence with little emotion.
“Love, this is Doctor Alfred Adler from Vienna. He has come to help.”
“A pleasure to meet you Senor Dali,” I said as I approached the man with my hand out.
He neither took it nor said anything for a moment. He only stared at my smile until it faded.
“I am here because your wife said that you were in need of some psychoanalytical work.”
His eyes brightened suddenly. When he opened his mouth, his lips had to be pulled apart from how long they had been pressed together.
“Are you of the school of Sigmund Freud?” he asked.
“I am. Much of my practice is based on his teachings.”
Suddenly, Senor Dali rose and approached me. There was an earnest in his face where only despair had tread before. The man wore a white collared shirt unbuttoned to his chest and black trousers. All was dirtied with charcoal and paint. He shook my hand with both of his vigorously. The scent of Linseed wafted around us.
“I am an admirer of Freud. Dream, dreams are everything. They can tell us all. We are not just platonic beings as the Greeks would say because we can dream. It separates us from the beasts.”
He seemed nearly manic in his sudden enthusiasm, and I opted to use it to my advantage.
“Senora Dali, might we have some tea? I would like to discuss this painting with your husband.”
She left us briefly to fetch the tea and left us again without a whisper. I sat Dali down near the paper I had seen and gestured to it.
“Please sir, tell me about this painting. The imagery is brilliant and so interesting.”
“It haunts me,” he said as he put his hand over his eyes. He rubbed his eyelids hard.
“What is haunting you?”
Dali took a sip of his tea with quivering hands.
“The giraffe, she haunts me.”
“Why do you paint her on fire?”
“She is terror. She is pain. She is the beautiful, natural order of things set ablaze with the fire of violence.”
“You see her in your dreams?”
“Yes and when I’m awake.”
“And she is always ablaze?”
“Yes. She is always ablaze and running. The sound of her galloping is constant. In my dreams, she is coming for me, always running toward me. When I wake, I can still hear her galloping. The noise of her clomping on the streets, always for me.”
“And the woman? What about her?”
“She is everyone else. The beautiful people in their beautiful world. She is looking at the giraffe but sees nothing. The flowers are the façade that shield her from the true violence.”
A moment of silence passed between us as we both regarded the giraffe.
“What do you think, Dr. Adler?”
“I think the giraffe is war.”
Another moment passed while Dali let out a deep and grateful sigh.
“Yes. Yes, of course. She is war. It is a gift to me you can see it.”
“Perhaps she is the war in your homeland? You feel you escaped it, and now, your subconscious thinks she is coming for you. Perhaps you are afraid that you cannot hide from her anywhere.”
Senor Dali became wide-eyed and turned to me with an epiphany-struck expression.
“That is it, Doctor. You have managed to find the heart of the beast. I have heard the atrocities happening in my homeland. I am no political rebel like my friends, but how can one not react to violence such as this? It is tainting my subconscious.”
“It is completely natural to feel anxiety about escaping something so terrible.”
I placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, and he relaxed under the weight of it. An ease seemed to pass over him, and I noticed his breathing becoming slower and easier.
“What should I do now?”
“Well, I believe that just knowing why you are suffering at the hands of anxiety is half of the battle to dealing with it. Congratulations on your realization. You should begin to rest easier from now on.”
He nodded and sighed deeply, his shoulders slumping with the exhalation.
“And if she returns to me in my sleep?”
“Well, I can prescribe some drugs to help with that.”
He shook his head slowly.
“No drugs. I do not want your drugs. I am drugs.”
“Well, creative expression is always a wonderful outlet. If she returns, work her out of your subconscious by painting her. Pick her apart consciously until she is nothing but a giraffe carcass subconsciously. Then, she should decay and wither away. Paint her until she is bones.”
Dali turned and smiled. He embraced me. Being unaccustomed to a hug from another man, I tried to give my body a neutral position. I patted his back, and he seemed satisfied. Senor Dali insisted I be his guest for the next week and enjoy my visit to Basel. I humbly accepted the offer. It had been so long since I had been given time alone to travel.
The next few days flew by with ease. Never had I seen such a quick turnaround in a patient. The artist began to sleep and eat regularly again. His spirits brightened, and he began to go outside with me and his wife to take his meals. He reported a complete lack of flaming giraffes in his dreams, and we were all delighted. It seemed as though the crisis had been averted.
The morning I was to leave for Vienna, I awoke to find a coral envelope slid underneath my door. It was early enough, so the sender must have delivered it in the night. All of the good humor I had enjoyed in Basel faded in an instant.
Dear Dr. Adler,
Everything is wrong. Come Quickly.
I did not bother dressing further. This was an emergency. I raced down the stairs in nothing more than my undershirt and trousers. When I made it to the grand door, Gala was sitting in an armchair outside in nothing but a dressing robe. She read my face as I neared her and answered my unspoken words.
“It is not your fault. He said the giraffe had returned several days ago, but he was going to paint her away. I had to promise not to tell you. He’s been painting, but she is persistent. Matters have escalated.”
She opened the impossible door, and we walked into the sanctuary.
He had been painting. There were sketches and paintings in all manner of progressions all over the room, and all of them had her in them. Everywhere stood long, lovely giraffes with manes of terrible fire cascading down their backs. The whole room looked as though it might burst into flames at any moment. She truly was haunting him, and now, she was haunting this room.
We found Senor Dali hunched over on a stool near two finished paintings. On was on a wood panel and one on a canvas. The painting on the canvas was confusing. On the left were people admiring small things like a butterfly, and there was a strange bust of a woman with a horse’s head. Behind them was a cluster of writhing black and white figures in pain in black lake. Off to the right of them was a wasteland with the flaming giraffe.
The painting on the panel was bolder with two emaciated female figures with no face being held up by crutches. The one on the right held a strip of flesh while the one on the left looked as though the flesh had been stripped from her arms and face. Drawers like what one would find in a piece of furniture were pulled upon from her body. And just beyond her stood the flaming giraffe.
I knelt down by the artist and motioned Gala to leave us. Gently, I placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, much like I had earlier. This time, he tensed and looked up at me startled.
“Senor Dali, I see that you need my help.”
“She is back, sir. The trouble is that I know exactly what she is now, and no amount of painting makes her go away. I’m afraid we are doomed.”
“She is not war?”
“Oh, she is war. She is just more than Spain’s war. She is a war that has not yet come, but is coming. A new horror that is approaching. An apocalypse of humanity. It will envelope the world. There is no safe place.”
I looked to the paintings again and back at the man.
“Tell me about the drawers.”
“You should know them, sir. They are all the levels of the human subconscious. Each one you open to uncover something inside yourself you never knew. It is how I came to understand all of this. I kept opening my drawers until I saw it all, and then I just knew.”
“Why are the figures so mangled?”
“It is what will happen to so many. It is what will happen to the souls of us all after it is over. Even the survivors won’t recognize their reflections.”
“What about the people in the black water and the people at the table?”
“The beginning of it all is thus. Many will suffer while others ignore. Until the giraffe comes, then no one can ignore anything. I can see them all. I have seen such horrors.”
I nodded gently but knew I had lost him to madness. Perhaps medication could aid in his journey back to the sane. A pointless endeavor if he refused them again at any rate. The man began to weep in front of me, his face buried in his hands. How could I possibly explain to such a man that this was all an illusion? Could he comprehend he had fabricated these horrors? I felt such sorrow as I pulled a stool next to him and let him weep in peace for a while before speaking.
“Senor Dali, these dreams are mere manifestations of inner turmoil. There is no horror, no war coming. Mere images produced by your taxed subconscious. The good news is the relief that is available for you. Such visions can be controlled and contained so they may never harm you again. With some therapy and the correct drugs…”
“I told you, no drugs,” he said suddenly sober and looking into my eyes.
“I only meant that these sorts of hallucinations are common and can be controlled by a monitored dosage of…”
“Hallucinations? These are not hallucinations, sir. My mind is of a warped nature, but I could not conceive of the atrocities I see in my dreams. I know the difference between dream and prophecy. They are real to me because they are real. I see faces of people I’ve never met tortured at the hands of wicked men. I see fire and guns and weapons than can char you to a cinder. I see this all every time I shut my eyes!”
Dali had worked himself in an angry lather and was now pacing the floor in front of me. I was turning into an enemy in his mind, a nonbeliever.
“It is real, all of it. It is coming and there is no safe place,” he said while glaring at me. “I think we made a mistake trusting you. Who are you? What sort of name is Adler anyway? None I’ve heard of in respected circles.”
I did not know why I responded to him. Normally, I would not have given the true answer. The words escaped unbidden from me before I even thought to raise them from the deep.
“It is a Jewish name.”
Senor Dali ceased his pacing and gaped at me. All of the anger had seeped from his face and melted down like one of his droopy paintings. His eyes scanned me with a new intensity I did not understand.
“You are a Jew?”
He stared at me longer, almost unblinking. I searched his face, looking for the reason behind the shift. It wasn’t violence, no. Something like it though. A distant cousin perhaps to violence. Pity?
“You must go. Leave here, leave Vienna. You will suffer more than most.”
“What are you talking about?”
In a blink, Dali’s face was inches from mine. He gripped my shoulders desperately. His eyes were so intense I did not know how to react. I was trapped. A jolt of panic ran through my person.
“The giraffe, she is coming, and she will be hardest to your people. The people in the black water, the emaciated figure without flesh; that is you. Get out while you can. Get out before she finds you.”
The man was obviously deranged, and I knew then I had failed to reach him. All I could do was nod and thank him for the warning. He squeezed my shoulders and allowed me to leave his studio with his best blessings for my family. The last time I saw the mad artist, he was slumped over a new canvas sketching and mumbling.
“She will come for you, Dr. Adler. For you she comes.”
I met Gala at the door and broke the bad news to her. He was beyond my help. I tried to explain to her that her husband had in fact gone mad. I suggested he go to a facility in Stockholm. It was a top notch hospital and the director was a close friend and colleague of mine. Senor Dali would be well cared for there until his mind could return to him.
I handed her a square of paper with the information for the hospital written on it, but she declined to accept. When I told her he was hallucinating and needed drugs, she responded much the way he had.
“He does not need drugs. He is drugs.”
She paid my fee, and I traveled home the next day with a heavy heart.
It was not long after that my wife, Raissa, began to show paranoid tendencies. Insane rumors spread around our community about what was happening to our people in Germany. We knew that Hitler hated the Jews, but so many hated our kind that this seemed no different. The stories that traveled to our borders seemed so outlandish. Surely, they had been fabricated. Deranged people liked to scare others.
Still, my Raissa was afraid. I assured her we were safe in Vienna, but she kept insisting that we take our four children and go stay with her relatives in Scotland. They had more than enough room.
“You are overreacting,” I told her time and again. “This is nothing but gossip.”
She kept insisting. It seemed the ridiculous gibberish of Senor Dali echoed all around me, even from my wife. Her fear became so profound that she stopped sleeping altogether. The poor woman was terrified to shut her eyes. In the early days of January 1938, I finally relented to her persistence. I could not bear to see her deteriorate so.
I sent her and our children to Scotland to stay with her family for a while. She begged me to come with them, but I declined. It was fine for her to follow this paranoid delusion of hers, but I had a patients relying on me. I would join her eventually or wait for the whole nonsense to pass by us.
March 12, 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria. Soon after, they occupied Vienna. Those of us who tried to scramble to leave had no time to do so. The dark blanket of the Nazi regime had enveloped the city before anyone could go very far, and it suffocated all roads to the civilized world beyond. No one was going anywhere, especially the Jews. Still, I did not worry. The rumors that terrified my neighbors were an impossibility. Hyperbole at its finest.
The morning they came for me, I dreamed of a flaming giraffe. She was galloping along the streets of Vienna, my streets. The giraffe turned a corner in my neighborhood next to where we bought our morning bread and headed for my house. She knocked over a fruit cart to get to me. The sound of her running beat again my skull. Incessant galloping of exotic hooves again and again struck against the stone of the streets. She was coming soon, and she was coming for me.
I awoke to the beating sound, except it was the rapping at my door and not the running of a flaming animal. It could have been going on like that for hours. Hastily, I threw on a dressing robe and hurried down the stairs to the front door. When I opened it, I was greeted by the menacing faces of three German soldiers. The one in front held a list.
The man did not have the decency to address me as Doctor. All that time in school to win the honor, and it was so easily forgotten. He looked at my face as though I were less than a man. I was an object perhaps or a small rodent, certainly not a doctor.
“You will come with us.”
There was no asking whether I wanted to go. It was a demand that meant I had no choice in the matter. I pictured Senor Dali’s paintings; the suffering in them. The emaciated figures, the world aflame, and others blind to it. Dread weakened my knees at the realization of what was in store. Coward that I was, I collapsed to the ground. Those grim men had to drag me away as though I were a stubborn child.
The flaming giraffe was here, and it was as clear as the look in the soldier’s eyes, there was no escape. Not now. It was too late. She had found me.
I should have listened to the mad artist.