Night Crawler

The Accouterments of Death

There may never be a proper occasion to find myself in the Redwood Room so I go anyway, one late afternoon in the summer of many years ago. It's cool and dark and spacious, and smells of delicate moneyed grace -- good leather, good tobacco, top-shelf liquor. The bartender regards me -- slightly indecorous, but early enough in the day -- and pours an exceptional Manhattan that avoids even the slightest candy glint of maraschino cherries. I settle into a broad, comfortable chair near the back wall, allowing the deep burgundy glow of bourbon and dark wood to camouflage my unfamiliarity.

"It is derived from a single tree," says a man seated two small tables away. His suit is soft and dark, and he blends with the walls of which he speaks. "A single tree: the bar, the walls, the ceiling, all of it." The man does not look at me; his profile is long, pale, and angular, somewhere between 50 and ageless; his voice possesses a quality T.S. Eliot might describe as "lucid stillness," quiet but surely discernible. "How long do you believe a tree must grow before panels as large as that can be harvested? A thousand years? Two thousand?" A large ring of silver and garnet clinks against his wineglass. "And now we sit comfortably surrounded by its silent skin, a witness to the rise and fall of empires, a testament to life, love, and loss irrigated by the fumes of gin."

He always talks this way. He says his name is Dorian, though I am never certain of the fact; he is a great fan of Oscar Wilde, and his mailbox neither confirms nor denies the appellation.

"Death is the only certainty, my dear," says Dorian, "but tea and conversation are fairly dependable comforts."

I arrive at his house the following week, at 2. It is a spacious Edwardian flat, of a type I had long thought extinct -- the dining room, study, and parlor all retaining their original aspects; the halls long, wooden, and waxed. We retire to the living room.

"The parlor is for viewing, my dear," says Dorian, motioning to me with long, lazy hands, "the living room is where things happen."

Dorian's living room is a densely furnished aerie of bare wood, Persian carpets, antique doilies, exotic tapestries, and embroidered couch slips. Even in high daylight, with the thick curtains drawn, lamps and antiquated gaseliers do little to mitigate the dimness of the room. It takes time for my eyes to adjust and when they do Dorian is already seated in a large chair in front of a window, which casts him in rust-hued silhouette. (This is, I come to find, his preference.)

"Sit, sit," says Dorian as his garnet ring twinkles against a glass of red wine.

A smart, trim woman in black enters the room, smiles, and says hello, placing a service tray in front of me on a low table inlaid with colored glass: an eggshell-blue tea- pot with service for one, two madeleine cookies, and a clean, white scallop shell. The woman smiles again and leaves the room. (Though I am to understand that this is Dorian's longtime companion, during nearly two months of teas this is the sole extent of our exchange.) Dorian sips his wine as I tentatively examine the scallop shell, unsure of which convention I am forfeiting.

"Both Aphrodite and the Hindu goddess Lakshmi arrived to the world in a scallop shell," says Dorian with a chuckle in his voice. "It is also the emblem of St. James, the patron saint of pilgrimages. It is a symbol of birth and resurrection and the human journey."

The tea is strong and dark. As it's impossible to look at Dorian, my eyes wander across the mantel, an ornate specimen carved with pine cones and palm fronds and littered with exotic-looking relics: Celtic crosses, scarabs, hooped snakes, crucifixes, rosaries, and ankhs. Above the fireplace hang three small paintings of three colored doors. In the corner, an impossibly assembled skeleton of an eagle swoops down from the ceiling -- wings wide, beak gaping, talons ready to snatch the head of the man sitting below. On the window ledge sit bats carved from obsidian, clay dog faces, and grape bunches made of purple quartz.

"'Life is a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay,'" says Dorian, quoting Ambrose Bierce. "'We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet, when lost it is not missed." Dorian's laugh is quick and full and oddly infectious for a man who spends most of his waking hours thinking of his inevitable demise.

"The accouterments of death are comforting to me," says Dorian. "They are so precise."

The first tour of his obsession takes me only through the living room, but it is enough: mourning dolls; jewelry made of "the deceased's" hair; silver cords representing the Vedic connection between consciousness and spirit; Tibetan knives used to cut bodies to pieces for mountainside exposure; conch shells symbolizing the Buddhist and Hindu victory over samsara, the bondage of life, death, and rebirth. In a number of cultures, Dorian's dog heads are mediators between the deceased and the living (though, among Jews and Muslims, they are seen as unclean) and bats carry messages from the underworld. Grapes are an Egyptian symbol of life; the ankh a symbol of life after death; the hooped snake a symbol of eternity. Eagles carry requests from man to the gods. Doors represent passage from one realm to another. Every piece of lace and every tapestry bears the symbol of some cultural death rite. Even the mantel, with its pine cones representing Assyrian immortality and its palm fronds representing the Middle Eastern tree of life, is embedded with meaning.

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