A Wax Man Lit a Fire in My Heart


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Jan 27, 2024

A Wax Man Lit a Fire in My Heart

The narrator of Chloe Aridjis’ “Dialogue with a Somnambulist,” the title story from her 2023 collection, is a lonely young woman who works in a furniture store. In the opening passage, she sets out on

The narrator of Chloe Aridjis’ “Dialogue with a Somnambulist,” the title story from her 2023 collection, is a lonely young woman who works in a furniture store. In the opening passage, she sets out on an aimless “post-dinner walk.” It’s past eleven, the streets are nearly empty, and when a plastic bag blows past, she follows it. “The plastic bag, insubordinate, seemed intent on resisting the fate of other bags lining the street”—so this bag is a perfect emissary from Chloe Aridjis’ unique fictional world. The wind drops, but the bag floats on, “blown by a mysterious current,” leading the narrator down streets she’s never walked before, until she encounters a shadowy man who speaks to her in a “cobwebbed voice.”

Here, I stopped to muse on the cobwebbed voice—and even tried to speak in one, which somehow made me feel more transported into the story, an invisible observer. Aridjis’ prose, with its delicate precision and evocativeness, its deliberately antiquated expressions and atmosphere, possesses an extraordinary visceral persuasiveness. The man asks the narrator if she knows the way to a bar called Eschschloraque, one of those mysterious hidden Berlin bars. When its secret door cracks open, gypsy punk reverberates out. In this bar awaits The Somnambulist.

An erotic unease underlies the protagonist’s longing for romantic connection, and though the story is set in the Berlin of twenty or so years ago, Aridjis evokes earlier eras of German romanticism and expressionism. The young woman has two suitors, one a tall, icily beautiful wax mannequin who can perform chores like any good golem (or ideal husband), but he possesses and awakens more powerful needs. The story’s emotional cogs and gears move both inevitably and mysteriously, creating a sort of narrative wunderkammer you may find yourself staring into as if into a nightmarish mirror.

– Francisco GoldmanAuthor of Monkey Boy

Winter has the city in its grip and at three forty-five the streetlights crackle back on, throwing a tenuous light onto everything. Lean days, little hanging to them apart from long shadows and stubborn leaves, days that become hard to measure once November arrives. Yet this has always been my favorite time of year, when a certain solitude floats through the air and from one moment to the next everything falls silent, apart from the graffiti.

I’d been at my new job for just over five months. Most afternoons ticked by without much incident and I’d watch from a distance as the other shop girls draped themselves over the sofas, the showroom their living room, trading stories at low volume. Temporary versus full time: based on this distinction and a few others, they excluded me.

So I would spend my time watching the advancing clock and the immobile door or else flicking through pages of carpet samples. Our only regular client was an elderly rheumatic who would come in and try out the various armchairs and then say he’d return with his wife. No one seemed interested in what we had to offer: swivel chairs in eight colors, armchairs in three, and sofas with curves that would soothe the most troubled of souls. One night after yet another immobile day, I decided to go for a post-dinner walk.

Wrapped in my woolen blue coat I ventured out into the street, the cold, the wind. It was past eleven and few people were out, and those who were disappeared into their hats and scarves, less face than accessory. I turned left and then right, weighing up the benefits of either direction. To the left lay a busy street, to the right a quieter one. A plastic bag blew past. I decided to follow it. The wind whipped it up, then sucked it back down, then buffeted it one way and another. The bag led me into the quieter street, where the only other pedestrian was a figure in a torn raincoat, one of those dark city angels who appear like holograms only to disappear a second later.

The plastic bag, insubordinate, seemed intent on resisting the fate of the other bags lining the street. The wind had dropped and yet it was unwilling to settle, now blown by a mysterious current. On and on. I followed it from one street to the next, taking routes I’d never taken. After a few minutes I grew tired of following it and decided to turn around. As I went round the last corner I bumped into the figure in the torn raincoat. One of us, or perhaps both, had been walking in circles.

Got any change, he asked in a cobwebbed voice.

No, sorry.

Well then can you tell me how to find Eschschloraque?

Eschschloraque may seem like a nonsense name but to some of us it stood for the finest bar in the city, one of the last survivors of bygone days. I’d read about it, heard about it, even dreamt about it, but each time I tried to go I would somehow get lost; some said that only a select few were ever able to find it, and for the rest it would remain off the map.

No, but let’s look, I replied.

Before I knew it we were walking together, side by side like old friends. He seemed slightly out of breath. I slowed my steps.

After ten minutes of crossing streets and pausing on corners, we came to an alleyway. I was uncertain who had led whom: it was irrelevant. We entered the alleyway, then through one interior courtyard and another and another. Just as I was losing count, we came to a dark ramshackle building with phosphorous windows and an iron door.

This is it, said my companion, and I knew he was right.

We knocked on the door, lightly at first and then harder. Our knocks were lost in a flood of gypsy punk coming from inside. I then noticed a small buzzer to the left and pressed down. A girl with several gold teeth stuck out her head, inspected us for a few seconds, and opened the door just wide enough for us to pass. Once inside, the raincoat vanished, but I was too distracted by the décor to care where he had gone.

Everywhere I turned, I saw monsters. The smallest were crafted from papier-mâché and dangled from the ceiling like wounded birds. The medium-sized ones perched on the counters and windowsills like sullen poultry. Only the largest monsters, their crepuscular eyes fixed on the smoky darkness of the bar, were given their own showcases.

I knew these monsters had been made in the eighties by the Dead Chickens collective and were part of a larger monster cabinet, big mechanical grotesques with goggle eyes and amusement park tongues. I tried to imagine monster vocabulary. Big clunky words that don’t fit anywhere except in the mouths of these creatures? A twilight language, used to obscure rather than illuminate? Every word uttered by one of them would steer one further and further away from meaning.

The music now playing, Einstürzende Neubauten, fit them perfectly, music like beautiful clanking, tunes that seemed to emerge from cogs and levers, pulleys and wheels. I ordered a vodka and searched for a place to sit, straining my eyes to see clearly. It felt like night, a different kind of night, had taken up residence inside. Muscly shadows drank near slim ones, lunar faces by duskier, and every now and then a streetlamp of a person, somehow more luminous than the rest, lit up the area around them.

A girl was rising from a purple sofa. I hurried over to claim it. Between the sofa and the wall, I noticed, was another showcase, though this one had a human figure inside, nothing chimerical. The figure was a good seven or eight feet tall and very slender, with jet-black hair matted to his forehead. His eyes were firmly shut and thick strokes of charcoal lined the lids and brows. His nose was straight, the entire face reigned by a quiet dignity that the monsters lacked. On the bottom was a plaque: Somnambulist.

Two evenings later, I returned to the bar. As if on autopilot, I walked down the same streets, into the same alleyway, across the same courtyards, and banged on the iron door, for the bell was now missing. The same girl with gold teeth opened it. It was Wednesday eve, and the place was emptier, with only a few lone customers here and there. Drink, sofa, somnambulist.

Tall and regal and encased in darkness, his eyes and lips remained shut while the sharp diagonals of his cheekbones divided his face into planes. This time, I inspected him from top to bottom. Black turtleneck, black leggings, hips narrower than shoulders. With his large, square-toed shoes, he looked like a dormant mime. After two drinks by his side, I stood up and left, casting one final unreciprocated glance as I walked away.

It did not take long for Eschschloraque to become my second home. I would visit three times a week, sometimes four. Sometimes directly after work, often later. The clientele tended to vary, particularly in its male-to-female ratio, and I had yet to exchange a word with anyone. The girl with the gold teeth was always there, and though we’d never spoken she knew my drink and would reach for the Absolut as soon as I approached the counter.

Listless faces and still hands, minds that drifted far from the present. Empty glasses outnumbered filled ones, and few people ordered seconds. Everyone was in exile from something or someone, it seemed. As for the monsters dangling from the ceiling, perched on the counters or imprisoned in the showcases, after a while their novelty wore off and I hardly stopped to look.

Yet the somnambulist still held sway. The glass pane of his vitrine was getting clouded; I hoped someone would clean it soon.

One night as I sat staring into the showcase, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Friedrich, a former boyfriend. He fetched a drink and came to sit by my side. His face was round, had lost definition, and his eyes had grown pouchy, but I could see the old him peering out from beneath. He rolled a cigarette and told me about his latest exploits—new ways to stay afloat, schemes that required a burst of energy rather than sustained endeavor—and I told him about the furniture shop. We wondered together whether either of us would ever be able to take on something more permanent.

The bargirl put on Gogol Bordello and dragged the tables to the sides of the room, opening up a space at the center. The monsters in the showcases seemed to lollop to the music, and once I put down my glass Friedrich grabbed my hand and pulled me into the crowd to dance. I did my best to keep up, always with my back to the showcase, with the sense, for the first time, I was being watched.

The weeks passed. Sales: four armchairs, three tables, two carpets and a teak dresser that was returned a day later.

One Sunday afternoon Friedrich rang and insisted I go over. After putting on the kettle he said he had something to show me, but only once the tea was ready. The kettle took its time but finally whistled. Mugs in hand, I followed him from the kitchen to his bedroom. The space, lined by vinyl and paperbacks, brought back a rush of memories. He motioned to his wardrobe and told me to open it. I walked over and pulled on one of the knobs. The door stuck and I had to tug harder. The second time, it gave, and I nearly fell backwards when I saw what was inside.

There he stood, tall and erect, hair matted and face serene. I studied the mold of his closed lids, the way the bottom line of his eyes echoed the brows, the gentle mouth. He was without a doubt a work of art, and now that the glass was gone I could admire the wax skin, which glowed in the darkening room.

He was without a doubt a work of art, and now that the glass was gone I could admire the wax skin, which glowed in the darkening room.

Friedrich could tell I was in need of an explanation. So he explained. He said he’d got him for me, could tell I had a bit of a predilection. He got him for me, he repeated, for a small fee. And who ever heard of shutting up a somnambulist when movement was what defined them. So there it was. He only wanted three hundred.

I stared at the wax figure and placed my right hand on his chest. No heartbeat. I stood on tiptoe and touched his cheek, smooth and cool, then dropped my hand to feel the pulseless throat that rose like a tower from his turtleneck.

Friedrich watched me watch him. I asked whether this was stolen loot. No, he answered, he’d come to an agreement with the girl with the gold teeth; they’d agreed he’d be happier at my place.

I thought about it for two minutes, all sorts of thoughts rushing this way and that in my head, and said yes. We shook on it and then toasted with our mugs of tea.

That night we waited till Friedrich’s neighbors had all gone quiet and then wrapped the wax man in a dark sheet, king size because of his height. We tilted him sideways and carried him out of the flat, down the stairs and into the street. He weighed much less than I’d been expecting; I hadn’t realized the wax was hollow. Into Friedrich’s estate car and a ten-minute drive to my flat, where I frantically searched for keys while Friedrich complained about the awkward shape of our burden. He’d been carrying the feet, and the large square shoes refused to come off.

We decided on a corner of my bedroom that couldn’t be seen from the window. Impatient to inspect the features up close, I shone a halogen lamp onto his face and stepped back. Just as I was beginning to re-admire all the features, Friedrich came running up and redirected the lamp towards the ceiling. Never do that, he said.

My first night alone with the somnambulist. I sat up in bed, drew my covers around me and stared timidly across the room. It was easier when there was a pane of glass between us. The hours passed. Nothing. I began to wonder whether Friedrich was being fanciful when he said the wax figure would be happier with me.

In any event, if he was to live in my home he had to have a name. The next morning before going to work I skimmed the titles on my bookshelf. I didn’t want something too common but I didn’t want something too farfetched, so I looked towards the history books, past the poetry and prose. Cristobal or Maximilian—no. Tarquin, Merlin or Percival—definitely not. Finally my eyes settled on Italian Art through the Ages. I opened it to a random page about the mighty Vesuvius. From that moment onwards, he would be called Pompeii.

When Friedrich visited the furniture shop that afternoon my colleagues swiveled their heads in hunger and curiosity. What news, he asked, to which I replied, None. Just wait another day or two.

Two nights later I was reading in bed when a new sound entered the room. I laid down my book and listened. A light breathing. Was I imagining it? The eyes started to open. The lids trembled, the lids lifted halfway, and then, all of a sudden, they sprang open to reveal pitch-black pupils, and in one quick second I was taken in.

Up rose an arm, stiffly at first and then more assertively. And then the other. After this initial stretch, his arms dropped and the legs began, two long spindly legs that had forgotten how to walk. The somnambulist tested each one out several times before taking his first step forwards.

I followed him quietly as he left the room and went down the corridor. Twice he stopped as if to change direction but continued. Once in the living room, he headed for a pair of boots I’d left by the sofa. The boots were soiled, the residue of a rainy day, and patches of dirt rubbed off on his turtleneck as he carried them to my bedroom and dropped them with a thud in the closet.

Finished with the task, Pompeii turned back to me. His gaze was glassy and hard to read. Soon he was standing three centimeters away, then two and then one, all kinds of distances quickly bridged as he bent down to kiss my mouth. It was a dry kiss but one given with force, and his lips remained pressed against my own for several seconds. I was too astonished to kiss back but remembered to close my eyes. Kiss delivered, he returned to his corner and went still.

The following night I sat in bed and waited for him to move. At midnight the eyes opened and the lips began to part but the sound that came out seemed to emerge from a metal box with ancient hinges. After the same brief stretch he walked out of the bedroom and down the corridor, this time pacing the length of it rather than going on to the living room. Every now and then he’d pause outside a door as if to pursue a new thought, then resume his pacing till he returned to stillness.

The next day as I rested my head against his chest, I noticed a dank smell. It occurred to me he’d probably never been bathed. I couldn’t submerge him in water but there were other ways of improving his hygiene, so while he slept I combed his synthetic hair and ran a damp towel over the exposed parts of his body. After a few rubs the odor was replaced by the scent of honey.

The next time he started to move, Pompeii headed straight for a crumpled envelope on the windowsill and a pen stuck in the grooves of a radiator, as if having decided while still inactive what his focus would be. I had tidied up and felt there was nothing left to find but he quickly discovered the two items I’d overlooked. Once the pen and envelope had been deposited in a drawer, he refolded a shelf of sweaters in my room. The objects of his choice would vary, yet shoes were a big attraction, followed by books and records.

One night as I heated some soup in the kitchen, Pompeii walked in. He took one look at the flames licking the sides of the pan and went tense and treelike. By the time I lowered the heat he was gone. Out of respect I have quit smoking and the one box of matches I kept now lives in a drawer. Whether he feels any relation to candles is a mystery, but I’ve put them away too just in case.

Friedrich dropped by to check in. How’s our somnambulist, he asked, to which I replied, Come see for yourself. After inspecting him we went to the kitchen and he taught me a new card game. The hours went by. We ordered food, opened a bottle of wine, played another game, opened another bottle. As we were reshuffling the deck there was a noise at the door. There he stood, tall and regal, looking straight at us. I waved but he didn’t react. And when Friedrich started to greet him he turned around and headed back to my room, where he went still for the rest of the night.

The obsession with tidying has begun to lose its charm. Especially now that Pompeii has started hiding things rather than putting them away. I often have trouble finding my shoes and have been late to work more than once. Most nights Friedrich and I stay up playing cards, and whenever he is over Pompeii refuses to shift from his spot.

One Friday evening, seized by an impulse to change setting, we went for a walk through Kreuzberg and ended up at the Goldene Hahn, one of our old haunts. As we sat there over wine and a few small dishes, all I could think about was Pompeii. But the image of him awakened guilt rather than desire. Was he up, and if so, what would he be doing in the flat without me? The usual activities or something new? As we left the restaurant Friedrich slipped his arm around my waist. He gripped me tightly and soon we were in his flat, in his bed, and the sensation of soft, warm skin was like kerosene.

The next morning when I came home the smell of honey was overwhelming. I ran from room to room. Nothing in the kitchen, nothing in the living room. The corridor and bathroom, fine too. The smell was coming from elsewhere. I rushed to my bedroom. A light was seeping from under the door, though I hadn’t left any lights on the day before. Inside, I discovered the halogen lamp shining directly onto Pompeii. His features had started to blur, a small stream of wax dribbled from his chin, tracing a line down his body and hardening into a small pool on the floor. More wax from his fingertips. I ran over to turn off the lamp.

After a few hours, Pompeii’s body recovered its rigidity. The danger had passed. I stood back and studied the face, the hair, the once delicate chin and fingers that I’d had to remold. He was still handsome, but not quite as handsome as before.

That night, and the following and the following, Pompeii remained fixed to his spot, eyes closed and arms straight as lances. I kissed his mouth, kissed his neck and his hands, and for the first time ever I felt I was kissing a candle. Each night I’d sit and wait for movement, for the large eyes to spring open and the head to swivel in my direction. I left things out, but they were no longer picked up. My flat became messier by the day. Poking the hard stomach, Friedrich would comment on the chaos.

I kissed his mouth, kissed his neck and his hands, and for the first time ever I felt I was kissing a candle.

Following a lengthy discussion, we decided to donate Pompeii to the city’s wax museum. It was a large, lively place, apparently, visited by people of all ages. Once the decision had been made there seemed little sense in waiting, so the next morning we wrapped him up and drove over. As Friedrich negotiated the traffic, taking a longer route than necessary, I lifted the sheet and regarded, again with more guilt than desire, the mass of wax that had shared my home for four months.

The museum was housed in a mansion of red brick, its entrance guarded by a startlingly realistic Golem with a helmet of hair. The interior had dark wooden floors and thick red carpets, with a large iron staircase winding up to the second floor.

What splendid artistry, the manager exclaimed when we stripped off the sheet to reveal the figure beneath. What a beautifully painted face, what a graciously formed body.

A pang—were we giving away a great work of art?

She thanked us again for the donation and offered me a free pass to use as often as I liked.

Where would they put him, I asked.

Up on the second floor, with the other film stars.

Film stars?

Why yes, she said, wasn’t he the somnambulist from the Caligari film?

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about but noticed Friedrich nodding with a smile. We all shook hands. The deal was done. And yet it hadn’t quite been a deal, for I was leaving empty-handed, a feeling that only deepened once I got home. But I also felt unencumbered, I had to admit, and that was something to bear in mind.

After a week had elapsed l left work early one afternoon and went to visit Pompeii. When I presented my pass the receptionist mentioned I was only the third visitor that day. And yet it was nearly four thirty.

I remarked that I’d thought the museum was popular, especially with children.

No longer, she said. The city now has many more exciting attractions.

I proceeded directly to the second floor. The first room I entered was full of stiff dignitaries from around the world, religious and political figures from Russia, India, Germany and elsewhere. Along with the same somber stance, I noticed they all had glass eyes, an immediate giveaway: too much shine. That was one of the things, I realized, which distinguished Pompeii from the other wax folk.

Higher-voltage lighting announced the film star section. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and James Dean. The Peter Lorre figure was especially captivating, lurking a few steps away from Marlene Dietrich at her piano, a half-smoked cigarette balanced between two keys. And then, towards the back of the room, I spotted a tall figure in black. His eyes were closed, his chin still slightly uneven, yet he had the same elegance and dignity that’d struck me at the bar with the iron door. I rushed to his side and stroked his arm for forgiveness. But I was met with silence of all sorts. I’ll visit often, I promised, aware that it was little consolation.

Two months went by. Each week I’d visit the film star section and speak to him, relaying details of my life without ever mentioning Friedrich. Pompeii had yet to acknowledge my presence.

Summer sales arrived and everything at the shop bore a big red label, each piece of furniture just waiting to become part of a home and acquire some history. It’d been five weeks since I’d gone to see Pompeii. Friedrich and I were still spending nights together but nothing had been finalized.

On my next visit to the museum I forgot to bring my pass but the receptionist recognized me and let me through. Impatient to see my wax man again, I climbed the stairs two at a time. But when I arrived at the film stars, Pompeii was no longer there behind Peter Lorre and company. I rushed back down to the receptionist.

Is something the matter? she asked, seeing me breathless.

Where is the somnambulist?

He’s been moved downstairs, down to the basement with the other ghouls.

I nearly tripped down the stairs to the basement, dreading what I would find. As I descended, the light dimmed and a musty smell thickened the air. The first exhibit to greet me was the Bleeding Nun, a woman in a floor-length habit stained with blood. A rosary dangled from her waist and most of her face was covered by a veil, leaving only the outline of a wailing mouth. In one hand a lantern, in the other a dagger. A cackle away was Frankenstein’s monster, rising from the table where he was created. And then Doctor Frankenstein himself with a mad leer. Two schoolchildren, the only other humans around, were daring one another to touch the bolts on the monster’s neck.

The torture chamber was next, where an elfin creature chained to a post lifted its head every few seconds and clanked its chain. Nearby were two more homely individuals, one strapped to a wooden wheel and the other to a protean table. Every few seconds one of them would let out a ghastly bellow.

In the next room, lit by the glimmer of a plastic-flamed candelabrum, I found him. There was my somnambulist, now labelled a monster, flanked by Dracula and the Wolfman. A bluish tinge crept over his face, his eyes were tightly shut. As I stroked his arm, neck and lips I sensed his retreat was deeper than ever.

That night I told Friedrich I wanted to sleep alone. As I lay in bed staring at the corner where Pompeii used to be, I thought of him stuck in that dungeon of strangled howls. And I then thought of him in his first home, and how those monsters had at least left him in peace. I finally managed to close my eyes, but all I could see were nuns dancing on the lids.

Saturday afternoon I was in the midst of rearranging my record collection when the phone rang. It was the manager of the wax museum. There’d been a fire. The police had yet to discover the cause—short circuit or arson—but the fact was, the entire collection had been lost.

Friedrich met me there. The disaster site had already become a local spectacle, with legions of onlookers crowding round the building, pointing and shouting as they tried to size up the damage. The facade was deeply charred, the roof had caved in, and the windows were two hollowed eyes gaping back at us. A group of policemen stood near the entrance, by what remained of the Golem, a collapsed mass and a helmet of hair. We showed them our pass and went in.

Inside, every direction seemed to be cordoned off. The smell of burnt wax was overpowering.

In the main hall lay dozens of outfits and accessories trapped in the hardened wax of their former owners. Period shoes and historical costumes, a plumed headdress and a crumpled cape: the sad remains of the stately figures that had for decades held court in the museum. Faces melted into puddles, bodies into pools, different locks of hair all clumped together. Once a spectrum of distinct colors, the wax was now a confusion of black and green and red and purple.

From between a pair of lace boots a dissolved face peered up at me, its rouged cheeks and fake pearl necklace still intact.

On my way to the horror section a guard informed me that the lights had been turned off to prevent further short circuits. Friedrich lent me his lighter and I crossed the red tape and started down the spiral staircase, the burnt wax ever more potent. The first remains I came across were those of the Bleeding Nun, reduced to a singed habit and a creamy puddle, the beads from her rosary scattered across the floor. In the torture chamber, the victims had melted into or onto their instruments of torture, trapped between spokes or hardened onto tables.

In the next room I searched desperately for familiar features, the black eyes, the straight nose, the fine lips. After stepping around various zones of wax I came to an area of marbled grey, the product, I assumed, of charcoal and white. My fears were confirmed by the dark tufts of hair freed from the forehead they’d once framed. A few feet away, in a pile, were the black turtleneck, leggings and shoes. The museum guard shrugged when I said I wanted to collect what was left and didn’t think there’d be a problem. But we had to wait for confirmation from the manager, who was currently in a press conference.

Someone emerged from a room and tacked the press release to a bulletin board in the main entrance:

The fire at the wax museum started at approximately 2:37 this morning and lasted for over three hours. It is now thought to be the result of faulty wiring. The wooden floors and carpets contributed to the rapid spread of the flames, which consumed all 250 figures in the collection. The four truckfuls of firemen who arrived at the site at 3:15 were unable to extinguish the fire. The museum is the property of the von Pezold family, who visited the site this morning. Ludwig von Pezold, the owner’s son, lamented the loss of the wax figures, whose value is estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000 euros. Some of the figures will be impossible to replace, such as the figure of John Paul II, personally blessed by the pope himself during his visit to the city. The von Pezold family reckons it will take approximately two years to rebuild the collection.

A guard sent me to wait in a hall that until two days ago served as the Room of the Revolution, where figures towered in proud, upright poses over citizens who came to stare at their swords, rifles and camouflage, dreaming of lives they themselves would never have the courage to lead. To one side of what was once Che Guevara, a pool of wax beside a sparse mustache and beret, I found a bench and sat down to survey the destruction, trying to imagine the sorts of figures that had been. A rumpled green cloak, a camouflage shirt, a pair of combat boots. Yet what I’d failed to notice earlier were the dozens of large marbles and hundreds of small square white chips lying about, many of them embedded in the wax. I picked up a marble and turned it around: it was a medical glass eye, a perfect sphere with a delicately painted blue pupil with thin red veins radiating from its center.

The small square chips, I realized, were of smooth porcelain. These wax figures had porcelain teeth. And what about my Pompeii? I never saw the inside of his mouth.

Friedrich appeared. He’d spoken to the manager, who said it was fine for us to remove what was left of our friend.

It took four hours to scrape Pompeii off the museum floor with blunt knives lent to us by a guard. The wax was stubborn and we had to tackle it from different angles. Friedrich found a plastic bag into which we threw all the chunks. Everything smelled of honey. We decided to leave the clothes since they were burnt and bedraggled and adhered to the wax of others. I never found the large, dark eyes.

When we finished gathering the remains, Friedrich asked if he could keep the shoes. Yes, I said. He removed his boots and slipped them on. The fit was perfect, we had to agree, as he paraded around the room.

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From the collection DIALOGUE WITH A SOMNAMBULIST by Chloe Aridjis, published by Catapult. Copyright 2023 by Catalpult.

Chloe Aridjis is the author of three novels: Book of Clouds, which won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, Asunder, set in London's National Gallery, and Sea Monsters, awarded the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Chloe has written for various art journals and was guest curator of the Leonora Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and the Eccles Centre Hay Festival Writers Award in 2020. Chloe is a member of Writers Rebel, a group of writers who focus on addressing the climate emergency and biodiversity loss.

Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine from Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. Sign up for our Recommended Reading newsletter to get every issue straight to your inbox, or join our membership program for access to year-round submissions. EL’s literary magazines are supported in part by the Amazon Literary Partnership Literary Magazine Fund and the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

– Francisco Goldman