Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
The following story is as true as anything from the world of science and the realm of the dead can be for the likes of us. Although you can’t see the screen itself, a folding screen of the same design is on display at the Museum of Medicine and Paramedics in Vienna. To this day, over eight decades on, bell buttons like the one in the story can be found for a small sum in electronic junk shops not only in Austria, but all over our happily resurrected Central Europe.
Behind the folding screen, behind its oilcloth and its whitewashed willow wood, lies a man, his grizzled head an arm’s length below the button. On the night when the events of this anecdote take place, he is a man of over sixty, already well known and soon to be famous, a man who today, long after his death, continues to reap acclaim – and on this balmy spring evening in Vienna, he is a man who has come straight from the operating theatre. He wheezes softly. He knows that later in the night, after three or four hours of rest, he is to be released into the care of his family.
It neither concerns nor offends him that he has been temporarily deposited here – that he is lying in a lumber room. He knows from his own work what hospitals are like and that privileges tend to count for little when something has to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. His being deposited here is a straightforward consequence of the ambulatory surgery. He himself had insisted on being taken home by automobile as soon after the operation as possible.
He wheezes, coughs, and swallows fresh blood. It is blood from the wound that has been cut deep in his mouth. A professor he is on friendly terms with, a man he trusts, an old hand in general surgery, has removed a growth caused by the cigars he is so fond of. The growth extended further into the tissue than was at first supposed. It also seems that this master of the scalpel had rather misjudged the effects of cutting so deep. Pitifully weakened by the loss of blood and close to fainting, the abandoned patient is beginning to grasp the gravity of his situation. For he himself is a doctor, a professor.
The bleeding is life threatening. In a true act of will, in a last burst of strength, the patient struggles to lift his right arm, works his fumbling fingers up the glossy wall, finds the bell, presses its Bakelite button. But the bell push is dead. The tin tongue that should make the connection between the wires had broken in two the day before, when another man deposited here had raised the alarm. That other man, a stranger to us, was attended to within seconds, but our major emergency case lies silent as his lifeblood sloshes perilously far up his pharynx. His throat, too weak to cry out, can only just swallow fast enough. It’s choke or bleed to death. In vain, the dizzy Herr Doctor, the one-time medic who long ago defected to pursue a science of his own invention, tries to sit up, then, also in vain, to turn around. The requisite muscles are already beginning to fail. Only his eyes still wander obediently over the dark ceiling and down to the screen – where they see Jodi peering round the edge of the oilcloth.
Jodi is dribbling. As always, Jodi is dribbling. Little Jodi dribbles – he can’t help himself! – and not just a little. Jodi scratches his large, meticulously shaven head, because he likes to. He lets the thread of saliva grow longer and looks and listens. Blood gurgles on the roof of the doctor’s mouth. Who knows what Jodi is thinking. Alas, all we can hope to know today is this: The small-statured, narrow-chested Jodi has long been intimate with the ins and outs of modern science and its dealings with the body. Never, in all the thirty-three years of his life has he left the Vienna General Hospital. The nuns took the infant Jodi into their care when his mother, an exceptionally graceful Hungarian tightrope ballerina – hardly bigger than her colleagues from the kingdom of Lilliput – went and died on him in the throes of birth.
The blood-swallowing professor, our gagging Viennese psychologist, recognises at once, of course, what kind of dwarfism he is up against. He thinks of imbecility. He thinks ‘cretin’. He thinks, under a kind of compulsion, of hopeless idiocy and stupid inarticulate babbling – and at the same time he thinks of the progress of the little mind that here in this lumber room is holding its breath in sync with him, as if about to crack a nightmarishly exquisite joke.
The lumber room is Jodi’s domain. Here, behind one of the rolling screens, in amongst a jumble of odds and ends, the dainty-limbed, pig-headed Jodi has had his little bed ever since he learnt to dress and undress himself. Here is the chair where Jodi hangs his shirt and trousers. Here, in its prettily curved stand, is the bowl of water where he washes the snot from his little nose and the dribble from his mute lips every evening. Here, after helping up and down the corridor – eager as a child and tirelessly busy – with the cleaning and tidying and bed making, Jodi slumbers and dreams his dreams.
Who knows what Jodi is thinking. The old man’s thoughts go round and round in breathless circles, and he thinks again of the broken bell and the particular mockery its faultiness is making of him and his young science, when suddenly Jodi’s left hand works its way into sweat-plastered hair, Jodi’s right hand slips under an arm and grasps a wet shirt and – the spit spraying from Jodi’s mouth! – all ten of Jodi’s fingers pull head and torso into a lateral position. Saved, the perceiver, the interpreter, the founder of an enduring cult retches blood over the edge of the bed onto the linoleum of the lumber room. It splashes! It splashes so gloriously loudly that we all hear it.
And then our Jodi rushes off. He sprints straight to fetch help, the foam flying from his mouth in a lovely high arc as he runs. Jodi dashes down the corridor; any second now he will tug the sleeve of one of his white-helmeted nurses and, because she won’t understand what he’s trying to tell her, he will drag her into the lumber room by her stiffly starched sleeve and stand with her in the sticky puddle in front of the man who is now happily and unconcernedly unconscious.
Herr Doctor Sigmund Freud was rescued. He had several subsequent operations on his palate and jaw, and lived – with various prostheses in his mouth and throat, and sucking on endless cigars – for another decade and a half, during which time his works were able to thrive and prosper. As long as those works sow truth, our little Jodi will run, Jodi’s crooked little legs will totter, the smooth-worn leather of his soles will drum on stone and parquet and linoleum – and this long but no longer, Jodi’s thread of saliva will leave its bubbly trail over every sentence of this dwarf’s tale.
*This story is taken from: Die Logik der Süße by Georg Klein. Copyright © 2010 Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek bei Hamburg.
I came across him the other day when I was looking for the snorkel fins in the storage space. I didn’t even remember that I’d left him there. He was covered in dust and had a thin spider web in his hair. I wiped it away. He was still dressed in his blue pants and the brown jacket with the bear ears on the hood. His eyes were closed, his arms outstretched, wanting a hug maybe or to be picked up, I don’t remember which but he always wanted to be held.
I remember that the only thing I wished was that he have a button to be turned off and on. As I held the pregnancy test in my hands, I imagined that the body forming inside my body had a little button on its chest. Something simple, like a light switch. The same color as his skin, so that the deformity wouldn’t be too noticeable, I didn’t want anyone else to be able to use it. Just me.
Although we’d been trying to have a baby the pregnancy took me by surprise. Happy? Somewhat. I have to admit that the idea of having a kid wasn’t wholly disagreeable to me. Ever since we’d gotten married I knew that was one of our goals: to start a family. The priest said so during the ceremony, our parents repeated it. They’d been asking us to make them grandparents for a while. So after six years we decided to stop taking birth control pills. It sounds funny now to say “we decided,” when really it was me who took them, it was me who bled every month, it was me who was going to give birth to the baby. But we were united, because we were a couple, and it was popular at the time to say: “we’re pregnant.” It sounded as ridiculous as saying: “we have a vaginal infection.” But, anyway, we were pregnant and excited, although surprised by how quickly it had all happened.
The books I read said that a planned pregnancy could take up to a year, even if we were both healthy. So I thought: “Okay, I have a year. Maybe in a year I’ll be able to convince myself I really want to be a mom.”
But I didn’t get a year. I didn’t even get two months. We’d barely fucked, what, three, four times? As I looked at the positive test all I wished, with all my heart, was that he’d have a little button. Because when I saw other moms, most of them tired with dark circles under their eyes, I always thought that would be the solution to everything.
There he was, all dusty, stuck in a box with blankets and his favorite stuffed animal. I didn’t want him to get lonely. How long had he been here in storage?
When I first discovered that I could turn him off I’d put him in his crib, like he was sleeping. I’d do it for an hour or so, two at most. I’d take advantage of the time to take a little nap. Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby is sleeping, because they think that all babies do is eat, poop, and sleep. But he was different. He cried a lot, took naps that only lasted a half hour, and wanted to eat all the time. My energy quickly drained. Two weeks after he was born I was already more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.
The delivery was the easiest part. I really don’t understand all the fuss over childbirth. Yes, it hurts, of course. But nothing I couldn’t handle. I focused on my breathing. It was fast. I’d been at the hospital just a few hours when the doctor told me I was ten centimeters dilated. They didn’t even get the chance to give me anesthesia. I wanted it, of course, but it was all so quick that the anesthesiologist didn’t get there in time. When he walked into my room the obstetrician said: “too late.” He looked at me, apologized with a quick smile, and left. I felt the urge to push so I pushed. I pushed again and then the doctor told me that the head was already out, that I should resist the urge to push, that she and the baby would take it from there.
He cried. I cried. We cried. My husband was by my side the whole time. They handed the baby over so I could put him to my chest, what they call skin to skin contact. He was little, very wrinkly, and covered in a whitish slime that made him look even more like an alien. It was all so fast. This was my son. This was my son? This was my son, that’s what everyone said. “Look what a pretty baby.” They took him, his dad following behind.
The boy was a month old when I found the button. By accident. I never imagined my wish would come true. I’d never heard of a baby that could be turned off. That’s why I was scared the first time it happened. I’d just taken him out of the tub and I was drying under his arms with a towel when I felt my thumb press down on some kind of a small lump and I heard a click and he sort of froze. It scared me, but immediately I knew that something, someone, had fulfilled my wish. I felt for the little lump under his arm and I pressed it again. He started moving, like always. Making the same little noises with his mouth, moving his tiny hands. I finished dressing him, settled him into the bassinet, put the blanket over him, and found the button. I turned him off and I slept for over two hours. I was happy.
I didn’t want to tell anyone about my discovery. I only used it when I was home alone. The first week I allowed myself two hours a day to sleep. The second week I started turning him off at lunchtime too, so I could make myself something other than a ham and cheese sandwich. The third week I started using the button as soon as my husband left for work, so I could go for a run in the park. I’d go home, turn the baby on, feed and bathe him, then turn him back off so I could take a shower and a nap. Then I’d turn him on, feed him, and put him face up in his baby gym for a while and then face down, on his stomach, so he could exercise his muscles. Then I’d turn him back off for lunch and another nap. Later I’d turn him on to put him in his stroller and take him out for a walk. This routine worked well for the first few months.
I picked up the box, forgetting all about the snorkel fins. I decided to bring him up to the apartment. He looked peaceful, but he was very dirty and seeing him in that state touched something inside me. His cheeks were black with dirt, his hands covered in dust. His clothes smelled damp. But he looked healthy. I got out the Hoover and gave him a good vacuuming. I took him out of the box and shook out the blankets, then I vacuumed the inside of the box and the stuffed dog too. I got a cloth and wet it to clean his face and hands. I stood looking at him for a minute. I’d loved dressing him in jackets that had round bear ears on the hood. He looked adorable in them.
One day my husband came home early from work and he found me sleeping and the baby turned off in his crib. Just a glance at the baby, so still, frozen, and he panicked. He started shaking me and screaming: “There’s something wrong with the baby!” I got frightened. I sat up in bed and looked at the crib. I immediately relaxed. “Calm down, love. He’s turned off. I’ll turn him back on.” His eyes looked like they were about to fall out of his head. I picked up the baby, pressed the button, and he calmly started moving, looking for my breasts. “He’s hungry.” My husband sat on the edge of the bed. He grabbed his head in disbelief. I fed the baby, changed his diaper, and put on his pajamas. My husband hadn’t moved. I waited a while longer. The baby fell asleep. Then he finally turned to me and said: “So the baby can be turned off and on?” He was expecting me to say that what he’d seen wasn’t real, that he’d dreamed it, I don’t know. “Yes, exactly. There’s a button under his arm. I turn him off when I need to sleep or eat. But it doesn’t hurt him. He’s doing great. Look at him, he’s a happy baby.”
I thought he was going to get mad at me, to say I was an irresponsible mother, insane. “Do you think we could turn him off this weekend to go to the movies?” he asked with a shy smile.
The blankets and the stuffed animal were dirty and they smelled bad. Like mildew. I decided to put them in the washing machine. In the back of the cabinet where I keep the cleaning products I found the hypoallergenic laundry detergent I’d used to wash the baby’s clothes. There was still enough for a few loads. The clothes were dirty too, so I carefully took them off and threw them in the wash. Meanwhile, I covered him with the bedspread.
We started turning him off to go out to eat, to go to the movies, to visit friends, go to parties. At first we agreed we’d only do it for special occasions. The rest of the time the baby would stay turned on. Then we talked about it some more and decided that the button should only be used to help us as a couple. To give us back the intimacy we’d lost when he’d arrived, to allow space for the two of us to be together.
The truth is that I continued doing it a few times a day without telling anyone, to make time for basic things like exercise, doing my nails, watching a TV show or two, reading a book, working.
When he turned one year old we got a little more audacious. We left him turned off for three days straight and we went on vacation to the beach. We were happy, as if nothing had changed. When we got home we started to use the button more freely. Sometimes we’d disconnect our son for a few days and let life go back to how it had been before he was born.
The new circumstances caused us to question everything. My husband decided he wanted to see the world. After thinking a lot about his life, on the nights we lay beside each other without sleeping or talking with the little one turned off in the other room, he realized that his deepest wish was to become a professional traveler, without a home or any fixed direction. So one day without warning he informed me that he planned to go off on an adventure around the world for two years. He told me that he loved me, but that he didn’t want me to wait for him, he asked me to start my life over and find my happiness.
I was so devastated that I forgot to turn the baby back on. After a few months I decided to put him in the closet and turn his nursery into a studio. I hung a huge TV on the wall and got a large computer monitor for the desk and I put an elliptical machine next to the window to exercise every morning while I watched something on Netflix. At some point I moved the baby to the box and took it down to the storage space. But I don’t remember how long ago that was. A couple of years?
As soon as the dryer finished its cycle I folded the blankets and put them back in the box. I got the little one dressed. When he was ready, in his blue pants and his jacket, I thought it would be a good time to turn him back on. So I did. I felt for the button. I heard the click. Immediately my son tried to hug me. I wrapped him in my arms. I’d forgotten how nice and warm his body felt against mine. I put his hood on his head, like when we were going out for a walk in the park. He looked so cute in the little bear ears. I loved to dress him like that.
“Mama,” he said. “Mamamamamamamama,” he repeated. I hugged him again. I kissed his pink, chubby cheeks. I felt for the button. I turned him off and settled him back into his box. Along with his stuffed animal, of course, so he doesn’t get lonely.
It happened in Guadeloupe, the island that lies in the Pacific ocean. The volcano of Guadeloupe conspired to erupt at any moment.
Let the reader take shelter and wait, for what we are concerned with here isn’t an ordinary volcano but a woman, a Guadeloupian, a secretary by profession and utterly nervous.
Her boss’s success went to his head and sat there like a fat louse, as he ordered her to type, at once, in duplicate, to punch holes,to file; and bring coffee, instant, two sugars, that’s all, and not to make such a big deal out of it.
But Guadeloupe, well, she was fed up with being told all the time what to do, and her fues blew just like Bob Beamon in the thin air of Mexico City.
So that she and her nerves could spend a few moments in private, she shut the door to her room and went over to the corner, where a window, Swiss scenery and snow – in August – grew on a calendar. The plan rose to her head of its own accord, she didn’t have to open any drawer.
Underneath Switzerland stood the photocopying machine called Xerox. She lifted the lid, took a chair, climbed up and lay down on the glass. All kinds of limbs spilled over to the sides. She collected them and tidied them up, so that everything would fit in the format. She closed the lid on herself gently, like you close the lid on a coffin, or cover a baby. Then she pressed “ON” and closed her eyes real tight, so as not to be dazzled.
From closing her eyes so hard she fell asleep. From sleeping so soundly she didn’t hear the birth pangs of the machine creaking nor see herself being born. Her-self born from the Xerox was very much like herself; same secretary, same smile, what’s there to say? A carbon copy. Two hundred percent her.
Her eyes were already open, she was enveloped in the white reality around her – she was almost convinced that she was in paradise or at least in Switzerland, until she realized that the white was the top of the walls; the ceiling was so close, immediately she was swept by an urge to hit it with a kiss. Why not? Even an island sometimes longs to loosen it’s boundaries.
Her waist level had risen by a metre. Her knee peeped through the key hole. Her broad hips, one of the many Achilles’s heels she nurtured, had doubled as well. Luckily the Xerox magnifies everything in proportion and not the way it usually happens, that if something grows a little, right away its hang-ups develop in geometric progression, too.
The most accurate word to describe the woman who emerged from the Xerox would be: ֺmֺoֺnֺuֺmֺeֺnֺt.
All of this, everything that happened behind the closed door and must sound to you like a tedious lecture – didn’t take longer than a few seconds. Time is an amazing schizophrenic, time is manic. Time flew, and the door opened to welcome it.
Ah, what a laugh it would be, to look down on the situation: Her boss, terrified in his chair, as tiny as an out-of-control mini R.P.V., dwarfish, even if he were to overcome his paralysis and stand up, he would hardly tickle her ankle.
Anxiously, he watched those legs marching toward him. “Just don’t lose your nerve”, she repeated to herself, “Keep cool, walk slowly and softly, and hush, don’t awaken her compassion, lest the whole plan go down the drain.”
When she reached him she picked him up by his white collar which was already soaking wet with cold sweat. He cursed himself and wept in silence. Why did he have to be such a big spender and invest in sky and scenery, what was wrong with his last office, as if the sky only existed on floor forty-four. His feet drew little whirlpools in the air. He was positive that this was ֺiֺt.
But the secretary had other plans for him.
“Just you wait,” she said, “it’s not over yet.” He felt her hand, the one holding his neck, bringing him closer to her face, Looking at him eye to eye, like he used to do with his chihuahua when it was a puppy and left its poop on the carpet.
“Now,” she said, making her journey to the Xerox, “I’m going to make you ֺtֺhֺiֺs sֺmֺaֺlֺl.”
And so she did. It was very simple. All the buttons were already set, all she had to do was change the percentages from enlargement to reduction, and to press. Before she closed the lid on him she still managed to hear all kinds of voices promising her bonus shares, exclusive monopolies, compound interest, and other paired words which boast that if there are two of them, then they’ve got the world in their pocket. She tried to imagine to herself what it would feel like to have the world swelling in your pocket, like a prick. If I was a man, she said to herself, that’s probably what I would think. She didn’t know how to explain why she was suddenly very happy to be a woman and not a man.
She took a deep breath and pressed.
And she waited.
Until something emerged, something the size of a fountain pencil.
Miniscule fingers and a Lilliputian snout, a shining peeled pate. A sweet little dwarf, she almost duplicated a dozen. Luckily she stuck to the original plan. She turned away and sat down, overflowing the leatherarmchair, while he, a kinetic executive’s gadget, was placed among the papers on the desk, and regiments of words stood on the ramp of her tongue ready to jump, like paratroopers, into the unknown. Terrified, the eyes of the boss watched the hand, began to move, writhing towards him like an anaconda. He knew it was the end, that his life was about to turn into puree. Now, he thought, I’ll see it passing before my eyes.
And indeed this is what happened. All his miserable life passed before him frame by frame and it was definitely no thriller, he had to admit, all in all his life had been quite dull and dreary.
Apart from that there were all sorts of parts which did not find favour in his eyes or his ears. Whoever said that the movies were silent was either lying or dead – fact: the boss heard the barking of the chihuahua very clearly. He remembered how it peed joyfully in his honour every evening when he came home from work. And how, instead of being happy in return, he would shove the chihuahua’s gleaming nose into the puddle and say Fooi! And how the insulted chihuahua would nevertheless try to lick his cheek, and how he wouldn’t let it, even though it felt nice, because it wasn’t educational.
A warm wetness trickled down his cheek. He thought about his chihuahua, which would remain without him, who would look after it? He knew that he looked very unprofessional and even foolish crying, but it made no difference to him. By now he didn’t care about anything any more. His head emptied out of everything that was inside it (mainly figures and facts). If only a good fairy would show up here, he thought, one of those blonde ones with a wand and a wish, I would ask her to let me pet the chihuahua, one last time.
There was once a wise man who said “Everything is water”, and then another, even wiser, came along and said “Everything flows.” They were both right. The island of Guadeloupe was sunk up to the neck in the ocean, the boss streamed tears. And Guadeloupe the secretary? Something strange coneived within her, too.
A sweet torrent of spit flooded her mouth. Spit is no joke, nor words. All the nasty words she was about to pour onto the boss’s head dissolved in an instant. What’s happening here? She was alarmed. Was she losing control? whiTher the fantasies painted by her demonic desire; how she
would lie him on the desk and pull off his legs one after the other, and all his other limbs too, one by one, or – and this could be even more fun – force him to type her an apology in writing, by jumping from key to key.
What had gone wrong, that suddenly all these ideas did not seem so splendid?
She sat in the armchair, an overgrown secretary, sister to Og of Ashtaroth, choked with emotion, and how could she have guessed that her heart too had doubled itself. Suddenly she felt like cupping the boss in her hand and stroking him.
The boss’s closed eyes did not prevent him from looking into the cruel reality. He knew all too well that there are no good fairies. Neither in Guadaloupe nor at all. He dreamt that he was his own chihuahua, and how he was being stroked, and also that it was him stroking the chihuahua. Shivers of happiness shook him. Rivers of tenderness streamed through his body. Then he dreamt that he was gliding through the air, that he was being covered, and then there was a great, dazzling light, the kind that penetrates even closed eyes. Mommy, he thought in terror, this must be the light they talk about, the one you see at the end of the dark tunnel, before you… he didn’t want to say the word.
“You can open your eyes,” he heard a soft voice. He had no idea if he was in Paradise, hell, or limbo. Oh my God, he thought, I knew it, God’s a woman.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
“It is sometimes much easier to call up a spirit
than to get rid of it.” – A. B. CALMET
The strange adventure I intend to tell took place several years ago, and can now be freely told, the more so as I reserve for myself the right not to use a single proper name in doing so. In the winter of the year 186–, there came to settle in Petersburg a very prosperous and distinguished family, consisting of three persons: the mother— a middle-aged lady, a princess, reputed to be a woman of refined education and with the best social connections in Russia and abroad; her son, a young man, who that year had set out on his career in the diplomatic corps; and her daughter, the young princess, who was just going on seventeen.
Up to then the newly arrived family had usually lived abroad, where the old princess’s late husband had occupied the post of Russian representative at one of the minor European courts. The young prince and princess were born and grew up in foreign parts, receiving there a completely foreign but very thorough education.
The princess was a woman of highly strict principles and deservedly enjoyed a most irreproachable reputation in society. In her opinions and tastes she adhered to the views of French women renowned for their intelligence and talents in the time of the blossoming of women’s intelligence and talents in France. The princess was considered very well read, and it was said that she read with great discrimination. Her favorite reading was the letters of Mmes de Sévigné, La Fayette, and Maintenon, as well as of Caylus, Dangeau, and Coulanges, but most of all she respected Mme de Genlis, for whom she had a weakness to the point of adoration. The small volumes of the finely made Paris edition of this intelligent writer, modestly and elegantly bound in pale blue morocco, always occupied a beautiful little bookshelf hanging on the wall over a big armchair, which was the princess’s favorite place. Over the edge of the bookshelf, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, reaching slightly beyond its dark velvet cushion, rested a miniature hand, perfectly formed from terracotta, which Voltaire had kissed in his Ferney, not suspecting that it was going to let fall on him the first drop of a refined but caustic criticism. How often the princess had reread the little volumes traced by that small hand, I do not know, but she always had them near her, and the princess used to say that they had for her a particular, so to speak, mysterious meaning, of which she would not venture to tell just anyone, because not everyone would believe it. From what she said, it followed that she had never parted from these volumes “since she could remember herself,” and that they would go with her to the grave. “I have instructed my son,” she said, “to put these little books into the coffin with me, under the pillow, and I’m certain they will be useful to me even after death.”
I cautiously expressed a wish to receive an explanation, however remote, of these last words— and I received it.
“These little books,” the princess said, “are suffused with the spirit of Felicity” (so she called Mme de Genlis, probably as a sign of the closeness of their relations). “Yes, piously believing in the immortality of the human spirit, I also believe in its ability to communicate freely, from beyond the grave, with those who have need of such communication and are able to appreciate it. I am certain that the fine fluid of Felicity chose itself a pleasant abode under the fortunate morocco that embraces the pages on which her thoughts have found rest, and if you are not a total unbeliever, I should hope that would be understandable to you.”
I bowed silently. It evidently pleased the princess that I did not contradict her, and in reward she added that everything she had just told me was not merely a belief, but a real and full conviction, which had such a firm foundation that no powers could shake it.
“And that precisely,” she concluded, “because I have a multitude of proofs that the spirit of Felicity lives, and lives precisely here!” At the last word the princess raised her hand above her head and pointed her elegant finger at the shelf on which the pale blue volumes stood.
I am slightly superstitious by nature and always listen with pleasure to stories in which there is at least some place for the mysterious. That, it seems, is why perspicacious critics, who kept including me in various bad categories, spoke for a time of my being a spiritualist.
Besides, let it be said, everything we are talking about now took place just at the time when an abundance of news about spiritualist phenomena was coming to us from abroad. It aroused curiosity then, and I saw no reason not to be interested in something people were beginning to believe in.
The “multitude of proofs” the princess mentioned could be heard from her a multitude of times: these proofs consisted in the princess having long since formed the habit, in moments of the most diverse states of mind, of turning to the works of Mme de Genlis as to an oracle, and the pale blue volumes, in their turn, invariably displayed an ability to respond reasonably to her mental questions.
That, in the princess’s words, became one of her habitudes,1 which she never changed, and the “spirit” abiding in the books never once told her anything inappropriate.
I could see that I was dealing with a very convinced follower of spiritualism, who besides was not without her share of intelligence, experience, and education, and therefore I became extremely interested in it all.
I already knew a thing or two about the nature of spirits, and, in what I had happened to witness, I had always been struck by a strange thing common to all spirits, that, appearing from beyond the grave, they behaved themselves much more light-mindedly and, frankly speaking, stupidly, than they had shown themselves in earthly life.
I was already familiar with Kardec’s theory of “mischievous spirits” and was now greatly interested in how the spirit of the witty marquise de Sillery, Comtesse Brûlart, would deign to show itself in my presence.
The occasion was not slow in coming, but since in a short story, as in a small household, order ought not to be upset, I ask for another minute of patience before matters are brought to a supernatural moment capable of going beyond all expectations.
The people who made up the princess’s small but very select circle were probably aware of her whimsicality; but since they were all well-bred and courteous people, they knew enough to respect another’s beliefs, even in cases when those beliefs diverged sharply from their own and could not stand up under criticism. Therefore no one ever argued about it with the princess. However, it might also be that the princess’s friends were not sure whether the princess considered her pale blue volumes the abode of their author’s “spirit” in a direct and immediate sense, or took these words as a rhetorical figure. Finally, more simply still, they may have taken it all as a joke.
The only one who could not look at the matter in such fashion was, unfortunately, I myself; and I had my reasons for it, which may have been rooted in the gullibility and impressionability of my nature.
The attention of this high-society lady, who opened the doors of her respectable house to me, lowed to three causes: first, for some reason she liked my story “The Sealed Angel,” which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger; second, she was interested in the bitter persecutions, beyond count and measure, to which I had been subjected for a number of years by my good literary brethren, who wished, of course, to correct my misunderstandings and errors; and third, I had been well recommended to the princess in Paris by a Russian Jesuit, the most kindly Prince Gagarin— an old man with whom I had enjoyed many conversations and who had not formed the worst opinion of me.
This last was especially important, because the princess was concerned with my way of thinking and state of mind; she needed, or at least fancied she might need, some small services from me. Strange though it was for a man of such modest significance as myself, it was so. This need was created for the princess by maternal solicitude for her daughter, who knew almost no Russian… Bringing the lovely girl to her native land, the mother wanted to find a man who could acquaint the young princess at least somewhat with Russian literature— good literature exclusively, to be sure, that is, real literature, not infected by the “evil of the day.”
About the latter the princess had very vague notions, and extremely exaggerated ones besides. It was rather difficult to understand precisely what she feared on the part of the contemporary titans of Russian— thought their strength and courage, or their weakness and pathetic self-importance; but having somehow grasped, with the help of suggestions and surmises, the “heads and tails” of the princess’s thoughts, I arrived at the conviction, unmistaken in my view, that she most definitely feared the “unchaste allusions” by which, to her mind, all our immodest literature had been utterly corrupted.
To try to dissuade the princess of that was useless, because she had reached the age when one’s opinions are already firmly formed, and it is a very rare person who is capable of subjecting them to a new review and testing. She was undoubtedly not one of those, and to make her change her mind about something she believed in, the words of an ordinary man were insufficient, though it might perhaps have been done through the power of a spirit, who deemed it necessary to come from hell or paradise with that aim. But could such petty concerns interest the bodiless spirits of the unknown world? Were not all arguments and concerns about literature too petty for them, like our contemporary ones, which even the vast majority of living people consider the empty occupation of empty heads?
Circumstances soon showed, however, that I was greatly mistaken in reasoning this way. The habit of literary peccadilloes, as we shall soon see, does not abandon literary spirits even beyond the grave, and the reader will be faced with the task of deciding to what extent these spirits act successfully and remain faithful to their literary past.
Owing to the fact that the princess had strictly formed views about everything, my task in helping her to choose literary works for the young princess was very well defined. It was required that the young princess be able to learn about Russian life from this reading, while not coming upon anything that might trouble her maidenly ear. The princess’s maternal censorship did not allow the whole of any author, not even Derzhavin or Zhukovsky. None of them seemed fully safe to her. There was, naturally, no speaking of Gogol— he was banished entirely. Of Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter and Evgeny Onegin were allowed, the latter with considerable cuts, which were marked by the princess’s own hand. Lermontov, like Gogol, was not allowed. Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages “where they talk of love,” while Goncharov was banished, and though I interceded for him quite boldly, it did not help. The princess replied:
“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse— you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.”
I wished at all costs to know what precisely the princess meant by the arousing subjects she found in the works of Goncharov. How could he, with the mildness of his attitude towards people and the passions that possess them, offend anyone’s feelings?
This was intriguing to such a degree that I plucked up my courage and asked outright what the arousing subjects in Goncharov were.
To this frank question I received a frank, terse reply, uttered in a sharp whisper: “Elbows.”
I thought I had not heard right or had not understood.
“Elbows, elbows,” the princess repeated and, seeing my perplexity, seemed to grow angry. “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?”
Now, of course, I recalled the well-known episode from Oblomov and could not find a word of reply. As a matter of fact, it was more convenient for me to say nothing, since I neither needed nor wished to argue with the princess, who was beyond the reach of persuasion, and whom, to tell the truth, I had long been observing much more zealously than I tried to serve her with my recommendations and advice. And what recommendations could I make to her, since she considered “elbows” an outrageous indecency, and all the latest literature had stepped so far beyond such revelations?
What boldness one had to have, knowing all that, to name even one recent work, in which the coverings of beauty are raised far more resolutely! I felt that, circumstances being revealed in this way, my role as an adviser should be over— and I resolved not to advise, but to contradict.
“Princess,” I said, “it seems to me that you are being unfair: there is something exaggerated in your demands on artistic literature.”
I laid out everything that, in my opinion, had to do with the matter.
Carried away, I not only delivered a whole critique of false purism, but also quoted a well-known anecdote about a French lady who could neither write nor speak the word culotte,2 and when she once could not avoid saying this word in front of the queen, faltered and made everyone burst out laughing. But I simply could not remember in which French writer I had read about this terrible court scandal, which would not have taken place at all if the lady had spoken the word culotte as simply as the queen herself did with her august little lips.
My goal was to show that too much delicacy could be detrimental to modesty, and therefore an overly strict selection of reading was hardly necessary.
The princess, to my no little amazement, heard me out without showing the least displeasure, and, not leaving her seat, raised her hand over her head and took one of the pale blue volumes.
“You,” she said, “have arguments, but I have an oracle.”
“I would be interested to hear it,” I said.
“Without delay: I invoke the spirit of Genlis, and it will answer you. Open the book and read.”
“Be so kind as to point out where I should read,” I asked, accepting the little volume.
“Point out? That’s not my business: the spirit itself will do the pointing out. Open it at random.”
This was becoming slightly ridiculous for me, and I even felt ashamed, as it were, for my interlocutrice; however, I did as she wanted, and as soon as I glanced at the first sentence of the open page, I felt a vexing surprise.
“You’re puzzled?” asked the princess.
“Yes, it’s happened to many. I ask you to read it.”
“Reading is an occupation far too serious and far too important in its consequences for young people’s tastes not to be guided in its selection. There is reading which young people like, but which makes them careless and predisposes them to flightiness, after which it is difficult to correct the character. All this I know from experience.” I read that and stopped.
The princess, with a quiet smile, spread her arms and, tactfully triumphant in her victory over me, said:
“In Latin I believe it’s known as dixi.”3
After that we did not argue, but the princess could not deny herself the pleasure of sometimes speaking in my presence about the ill breeding of Russian writers who, in her opinion, “could not possibly be read aloud without preliminary revision.”
To the “spirit” of Genlis, naturally, I gave no serious thought. People say all kinds of things.
But the “spirit” indeed lived and was active, and, in addition, seemed to be on our side, that is, on the side of literature. Literary nature took the upper hand in it over dry philosophizing, and, unassailable on the score of decency, the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis, having spoken du fond du coeur,4 pulled off (yes, precisely pulled off) such a schoolboy stunt in that strict salon that the consequences of it were filled with deep tragicomedy.
Once a week “three friends” used to gather at the princess’s in the evening for tea. These were distinguished people, excellently placed. Two were senators, and the third was a diplomat. Naturally, we did not play cards, but conversed.
Usually the older ones, that is, the princess and the “three friends,” did the talking, while the young prince, the young princess, and I very rarely put in a word of our own. We were learning, and it must be said to the credit of our elders that we did have something to learn from them— especially from the diplomat, who amazed us with his subtle observations. I enjoyed his favor, though I do not know why. In fact, I am obliged to think he considered me no better than the others, and in his eyes “littérateurs” all shared “the same root.” He said jokingly, “The best of serpents is still a serpent.”
This same opinion gave rise to the terrible incident that follows.
Being stoically faithful to her friends, the princess did not want such a general definition to extend to Mme de Genlis and the “women’s pleiade” that the writer kept under her protection. And so, when we gathered in this esteemed person’s home to quietly see in the New Year, shortly before midnight the usual conversation started among us, in which the name of Mme de Genlis was mentioned, and the diplomat recalled his observation that “the best of serpents is still a serpent.”
“There is no rule without its exception,” said the princess.
The diplomat understood who the exception must be, and said nothing.
The princess could not contain herself and, glancing in the direction of Genlis’s portrait, said:
“What kind of serpent is she!”
But the worldly-wise diplomat stood his ground: he gently shook his finger and gently smiled— he believed neither flesh nor spirit.
To resolve the disagreement, proofs were obviously needed, and here the method of addressing the spirit came in pat.
The small company was in an excellent mood for such experiments, and the hostess, first reminding us of what we knew concerning her beliefs, then suggested an
“I claim,” she said, “that the most faultfinding person will not find anything in Genlis that could not be read aloud by the most innocent young girl, and we are going to test it right now.”
Again, as the first time, she reached her hand to the bookshelf that was still situated over her établissement, took a volume at random— and turned to her daughter.
“My child! Open it and read us a page.”
The young princess obeyed.
We all became pictures of earnest expectation.
The writer who begins to describe the appearance of his characters at the end of his story is blameworthy; but I have written this little trifle in such a way that no one in it should be recognized. Therefore I have not set down any names or given any portraits. The portrait of the young princess would in any case have exceeded my powers, because she was fully what is known as “an angel in the flesh.” As far as her all-perfect purity and innocence were concerned— they were so great that she could even have been entrusted with resolving the insuperably difficult theological problem posed in Heine’s “Bernardiner und Rabiner.” Of course, something standing higher than the world and its passions had to speak for this soul not privy to any sin. And the young princess, with that very innocence, charmingly rolling her r‘s, read Genlis’s interesting memoirs about the old age of
Mme du Deffand, when she became “weak in the eyes.” The text spoke of the fat Gibbon, who had been recommended to the French writer as a famous author. Genlis, as we know, quickly sized him up and sharply derided the French who were made enthusiastic by the inflated reputation of this foreigner.
Here I will quote from the well-known translation of the French original read by the young princess who was capable of resolving the argument between “Bernardiner und Rabiner”:
“Gibbon was of small stature, extremely fat, and had a most remarkable face. It was impossible to make out any features on this face. Neither the nose, nor the eyes, nor the mouth could be seen at all; two huge, fat cheeks, resembling the devil knows what, engulfed everything… They were so puffed up that they quite departed from all proportion ever so slightly proper even for the biggest cheeks; anyone seeing them must have wondered: why has that place not been put in the right place? I would characterize Gibbon’s face with one word, if it were only possible to speak such a word. Lauzun, who was on close terms with Gibbon, once brought him to du Deffand. Mme du Deffand was already blind then and had the habit of feeling with her hands the faces of distinguished people newly introduced to her. In this way she would acquire a rather accurate notion of the features of her new acquaintance. She applied this tactile method to Gibbon, and the result was terrible. The Englishman approached her chair and with especial good-naturedness offered her his astonishing face. Mme du Deffand brought her hands to it and passed her fingers over this ball-shaped face. She tried to find something to stop at, but it was impossible. All at once the blind lady’s face expressed first astonishment, then wrath, and at last, quickly pulling her hands away in disgust, she cried: ‘What a vile joke!'”
That was the end of the reading, and of the friends’ conversation, and of the anticipated celebration of the New Year, because, when the young princess closed the book and asked, “What was it that Mme du Deffand imagined?” the mother’s look was so terrible that the girl cried out, covered her face with her hands, and rushed headlong to another room, from where her weeping was heard at once, verging on hysterics.
The brother rushed to his sister, and at the same moment the princess hastened there on long strides.
The presence of outsiders was now inappropriate, and therefore the “three friends” and I all quietly cleared off that minute, and the bottle of Veuve Clicquot prepared for seeing in the New Year remained wrapped in a napkin, as yet uncorked.
The feelings with which we left were painful, but did no credit to our hearts, for, while keeping our faces strenuously serious, we could barely refrain from bursting into laughter, and bent down with exaggerated care to look for our galoshes, which was necessary because the servants had also scattered on occasion of the alarm caused by the young lady’s sudden illness.
The senators got into their carriages, but the diplomat accompanied me on foot. He wished to take some fresh air and, it seems, was interested in knowing my insignificant opinion about what might have presented itself to the young princess’s mental eyes after reading the above passage from the writings of Mme de Genlis.
But I decidedly did not dare to make any suggestions about it.
From the unfortunate day when this incident took place, I saw no more of the princess or her daughter. I could not resolve to go and wish her a Happy New
Year, and only sent to inquire after the young princess’s health, but even that with great hesitation, lest it be taken in some other sense. Visits of condoléance seemed totally out of place to me. The situation was a most stupid one: to suddenly stop visiting acquaintances would be rude, but to appear there also seemed inappropriate.
Perhaps I was wrong in my conclusions, but they seemed right to me; and I was not mistaken: the blow that the princess suffered on New Year’s Eve from the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis was very heavy and had serious consequences.
About a month later I met the diplomat on N evsky Prospect: he was very affable, and we fell to talking.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said.
“We have nowhere to meet,” I replied.
“Yes, we’ve lost the dear house of the esteemed princess: the poor woman had to leave.”
“Leave?” I said. “For where?”
“As if you don’t know.”
“I know nothing.”
“They all left for abroad, and I’m very happy that I was able to find a post there for her son. It was impossible not to do so after what happened then… So terrible! You know, the unfortunate woman burned all her volumes that same night and smashed the little terracotta hand to smithereens, though one finger, or better say a fig, seems to have survived as a souvenir.
Generally, it was a most unpleasant incident, but then it serves as an excellent proof of one great truth.”
“Even two or three, in my opinion.” The diplomat smiled and, looking fixedly at me, asked:
“First, it proves that the books we decide to talk about, we should read beforehand.”
“And second— that it’s not reasonable to keep a young girl in such childish ignorance as the young princess was in before that occurrence; otherwise she would certainly have stopped reading about Gibbon much sooner.”
“Third, that spirits are just as unreliable as living people.”
“And that’s not all: the spirit confirms one of my opinions, that ‘the best of serpents is still a serpent,’ and what’s more, the better the serpent, the more dangerous it is, because it holds its venom in its tail.”
If we had satire in our country, this would be an excellent subject for it.
Unfortunately, having no satirical ability, I can recount it only in the simple form of a story.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
*Image: Anita Arbidane
The Paradise of Bachelors
It lies not far from Temple-Bar.
Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street – where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies – you adroitly turn a mystic corner – not a street – glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle. Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.
Templar? That’s a romantic name. Let me see. Brian de Bois Gilbert was a Templar, I believe. Do we understand you to insinuate that those famous Templars still survive in modern London? May the ring of their armed heels be heard, and the rattle of their shields, as in mailed prayer the monk-knights kneel before the consecrated Host? Surely a monk-knight were a curious sight picking his way along the Strand, his gleaming corselet and snowy surcoat spattered by an omnibus. Long-bearded, too, according to his order’s rule; his face fuzzy as a pard’s; how would the grim ghost look among the crop-haired, close-shaven citizens? We know indeed – sad history recounts it – that a moral blight tainted at last this sacred Brotherhood. Though no sworded foe might outskill them in the fence, yet the worm of luxury crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes.
But for all this, quite unprepared were we to learn that Knights-Templars (if at all in being) were so entirely secularized as to be reduced from carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land, to the carving of roastmutton at a dinner-board. Like Anacreon, do these degenerate Templars now think it sweeter far to fall in banquet than in war? Or, indeed, how can there be any survival of that famous order? Templars in modern London! Templars in their red-cross mantles smoking cigars at the Divan! Templars crowded in a railway train, till, stacked with steel helmet, spear, and shield, the whole train looks like one elongated locomotive!
No. The genuine Templar is long since departed. Go view the wondrous tombs in the Temple Church; see there the rigidly-haughty forms stretched out, with crossed arm upon their stilly hearts, in everlasting and undreaming rest. Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear-points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.
But, like many others tumbled from proud glory’s height – like the apple, hard on the bough but mellow on the ground – the Templar’s fall has but made him all the finer fellow.
I dare say those old warrior-priests were but gruff and grouty at the best; cased in Birmingham hardware, how could their crimped arms give yours or mine a hearty shake? Their proud, ambitious, monkish souls clasped shut, like horn-book missals; their very faces clapped in bomb-shells; what sort of genial men were these? But best of comrades, most affable of hosts, capital diner is the modern Templar. His wit and wine are both of sparkling brands.
The church and cloisters, courts and vaults, lanes and passages, banquet-halls, refectories, libraries, terraces, gardens, broad walks, domicils, and dessert-rooms, covering a very large space of ground, and all grouped in central neighborhood, and quite sequestered from the old city’s surrounding din; and every thing about the place being kept in most bachelor-like particularity, no part of London offers to a quiet wight so agreeable a refuge.
The Temple is, indeed, a city by itself. A city with all the best appurtenances, as the above enumeration shows. A city with a park to it, and flower-beds, and a river-side – the Thames flowing by as openly, in one part, as by Eden’s primal garden flowed the mild Euphrates. In what is now the Temple Garden the old Crusaders used to exercise their steeds and lances; the modern Templars now lounge on the benches beneath the trees, and, switching their patentleather boots, in gay discourse exercise at repartee.
Long lines of stately portraits in the banquethalls, show what great men of mark – famous nobles, judges, and Lord Chancellors – have in their time been Templars. But all Templars are not known to universal fame; though, if the having warm hearts and warmer welcomes, full minds and fuller cellars, and giving good advice and glorious dinners, spiced with rare divertisements of fun and fancy, merit immortal mention, set down, ye muses, the names of R. F. C. and his imperial brother.
Though to be a Templar, in the one true sense, you must needs be a lawyer, or a student at the law, and be ceremoniously enrolled as member of the order, yet as many such, though Templars, do not reside within the Temple’s precincts, though they may have their offices there, just so, on the other hand, there are many residents of the hoary old domicils who are not admitted Templars. If being, say, a lounging gentleman and bachelor, or a quiet, unmarried, literary man, charmed with the soft seclusion of the spot, you much desire to pitch your shady tent among the rest in this serene encampment, then you must make some special friend among the order, and procure him to rent, in his name but at your charge, whatever vacant chamber you may find to suit.
Thus, I suppose, did Dr. Johnson, that nominal Benedick and widower but virtual bachelor, when for a space he resided here. So, too, did that undoubted bachelor and rare good soul, Charles Lamb. And hundreds more, of sterling spirits, Brethren of the Order of Celibacy, from time to time have dined, and slept, and tabernacled here. Indeed, the place is all a honeycomb of offices and domicils. Like any cheese, it is quite perforated through and through in all directions with the snug cells of bachelors. Dear, delightful spot! Ah! when I bethink me of the sweet hours there passed, enjoying such genial hospitalities beneath those timehonored roofs, my heart only finds due utterance through poetry; and, with a sigh, I softly sing, “Carry me back to old Virginny!”
Such then, at large, is the Paradise of Bachelors. And such I found it one pleasant afternoon in the smiling month of May, when, sallying from my hotel in Trafalgar Square, I went to keep my dinner-appointment with that fine Barrister, Bachelor, aud Bencher, R. F. C. (he is the first and second, and should be the third; I hereby nominate him), whose card I kept fast pinched between my gloved forefinger and thumb, and every now and then snatched still another look at the pleasant address inscribed beneath the name, “No. – Elm Court, Temple.”
At the core he was a right bluff, care-free, right comfortable, and most companionable Englishman. If on a first acquaintance he seemed reserved, quite icy in his air – patience; this Champagne will thaw. And if it never do, better frozen Champagne than liquid vinegar.
There were nine gentlemen, all bachelors, at the dinner. One was from “No. – King’s Bench Walk, Temple;” a second, third, and fourth, and fifth, from various courts or passages christened with some similarly rich resounding syllables. It was indeed a sort of Senate of the Bachelors, sent to this dinner from widely-scattered districts, to represent the general celibacy of the Temple. Nay it was, by representation, a Grand Parliament of the best Bachelors in universal London; several of those present being from distant quarters of the town, noted immemorial seats of lawyers and unmarried men – Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn; and one gentleman, upon whom I looked with a sort of collateral awe, hailed from the spot where Lord Verulam once abode a bachelor – Gray’s Inn.
The apartment was well up toward heaven. I know not how many strange old stairs I climbed to get to it. But a good dinner, with famous company, should be well earned. No doubt our host had his dining-room so high with a view to secure the prior exercise necessary to the due relishing and digesting of it.
The furniture was wonderfully unpretending, old, and snug. No new shining mahogany, sticky with undried varnish; no uncomfortably luxurious ottomans, and sofas too fine to use, vexed you in this sedate apartment. It is a thing which every sensible American should learn from every sensible Englishman, that glare and glitter, gimcracks and gewgaws, are not in dispensable to domestic solacement. The American Benedick snatches, down-town, a tough chop in a gilded show-box; the English bachelor leisurely dines at home on that incomparable South Down of his, off a plain deal board.
The ceiling of the room was low. Who wants to dine under the dome of St. Peter’s? High ceilings! If that is your demand, and the higher the better, and you be so very tall, then go dine out with the topping giraffe in the open air.
In good time the nine gentlemen sat down to nine covers, and soon were fairly under way.
If I remember right, ox-tail soup inaugurated the affair. Of a rich russet hue, its agreeable flavor dissipated my first confounding of its main ingredient with teamster’s gads and the rawhides of ushers. (By way of interlude, we here drank a little claret.) Neptune’s was the next tribute rendered – turbot coming second; snowwhite, flaky, and just gelatinous enough, not too turtleish in its unctuousness.
(At this point we refreshed ourselves with a glass of sherry.) After these light skirmishers had vanished, the heavy artillery of the feast marched in, led by that well-known English generalissimo, roast beef. For aids-de-camp we had a saddle of mutton, a fat turkey, a chickenpie, and endless other savory things; while for avant-couriers came nine silver flagons of humming ale. This heavy ordnance having departed on the track of the light skirmishers, a picked brigade of game-fowl encamped upon the board, their camp-fires lit by the ruddiest of decanters.
Tarts and puddings followed, with innumerable niceties; then cheese and crackers. (By way of ceremony, simply, only to keep up good old fashions, we here each drank a glass of good old port.)
The cloth was now removed, and like Blucher’s army coming in at the death on the field of Waterloo, in marched a fresh detachment of bottles, dusty with their hurried march.
All these manoeuvrings of the forces were superintended by a surprising old field-marshal (I can not school myself to call him by the inglorious name of waiter), with snowy hair and napkin, and a head like Socrates. Amidst all the hilarity of the feast, intent on important business, he disdained to smile. Venerable man!
I have above endeavored to give some slight schedule of the general plan of operations. But any one knows that a good, genial dinner is a sort of pell-mell, indiscriminate affair, quite baffling to detail in all particulars. Thus, I spoke of taking a glass of claret, and a glass of sherry, and a glass of port, and a mug of ale – all at certain specific periods and times. But those were merely the state bumpers, so to speak. Innumerable impromptu glasses were drained between the periods of those grand imposing ones.
The nine bachelors seemed to have the most tender concern for each other’s health. All the time, in flowing wine, they most earnestly expressed their sincerest wishes for the entire wellbeing and lasting hygiene of the gentlemen on the right and on the left. I noticed that when one of these kind bachelors desired a little more wine (just for his stomach’s sake, like Timothy), he would not help himself to it unless some other bachelor would join him. It seemed held something indelicate, selfish, and unfraternal, to be seen taking a lonely, unparticipated glass. Meantime, as the wine ran apace, the spirits of the company grew more and more to perfect genialness and unconstraint. They related all sorts of pleasant stories. Choice experiences in their private lives were now brought out, like choice brands of Moselle or Rhenish, only kept for particular company. One told us how mellowly he lived when a student at Oxford; with various spicy anecdotes of most frank-hearted noble lords, his liberal companions. Another bachelor, a gray-headed man, with a sunny face, who, by his own account, embraced every opportunity of leisure to cross over into the Low Countries, on sudden tours of inspection of the fine old Flemish architecture there – this learned, white-haired, sunny-faced old bachelor, excelledin his descriptions of the elaborate splendors of those old guild-halls, town-halls, and stadthold-houses, to be seen in the land of the ancient Flemings. A third was a great frequenter of the British Museum, and knew all about scores of wonderful antiquities, of Oriental manuscripts, and costly books without a duplicate. A fourth had lately returned from a trip to Old Granada, and, of course, was full of Saracenic scenery. A fifth had a funny case in law to tell. A sixth was erudite in wines. A seventh had a strange characteristic anecdote of the private life of the Iron Duke, never printed, and never before announced in any public or private company. An eighth had lately been amusing his evenings, now and then, with translating a comic poem of Pulci’s. He quoted for us the more amusing passages.
And so the evening slipped along, the hours told, not by a water-clock, like King Alfred’s, but a wine-chronometer. Meantime the table seemed a sort of Epsom Heath; a regular ring, where the decanters galloped round. For fear one decanter should not with sufficient speed reach his destination, another was sent express after him to hurry him; and then a third to hurry the second; and so on with a fourth and fifth. And throughout all this nothing loud, nothing unmannerly, nothing turbulent. I am quite sure, from the scrupulous gravity and austerity of his air, that had Socrates, the fieldmarshal, perceived aught of indecorum in the company he served, he would have forthwith departed without giving warning. I afterward learned that, during the repast, an invalid bachelor in an adjoining chamber enjoyed his first sound refreshing slumber in three long, weary weeks.
It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort – fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fireside.
The thing called pain, the bugbear styled trouble – those two legends seemed preposterous to their bachelor imaginations. How could men of liberal sense, ripe scholarship in the world, and capacious philosophical and convivial understandings – how could they suffer themselves to be imposed upon by such monkishfables? Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing. – Pass the sherry, Sir. – Pooh, pooh! Can’t be! – The port, Sir, if you please. Nonsense; don’t tell me so. The decanter stops with you, Sir, I believe.
And so it went.
Not long after the cloth was drawn our host glanced significantly upon Socrates, who, solemnly stepping to the stand, returned with an immense convolved horn, a regular Jericho horn, mounted with polished silver, and otherwise chased and curiously enriched; not omitting two life-like goat’s heads, with four more horns of solid silver, projecting from opposite sides of the mouth of the noble main horn.
Not having heard that our host was a performer on the bugle, I was surprised to see him lift this horn from the table, as if he were about to blow an inspiring blast. But I was relieved from this, and set quite right as touching the purposes of the horn, by his now inserting his thumb and forefinger into its mouth; whereupon a slight aroma was stirred up, and my nostrils were greeted with the smell of some choice Rappee. It was a mull of snuff. It went the rounds. Capital idea this, thought I, of taking snuff at about this juncture. This goodly fashion must be introduced among my countrymen at home, further ruminated I.
The remarkable decorum of the nine bachelors – a decorum not to be affected by any quantity of wine – a decorum unassailable by any degree of mirthfulness – this was again set in a forcible light to me, by now observing that, though they took snuff very freely, yet not a man so far violated the proprieties, or so far molested the invalid bachelor in the adjoining room as to indulge himself in a sneeze. The snuff was snuffed silently, as if it had been some fine innoxious powder brushed off the wings of butterflies.
But fine though they be, bachelors’ dinners, like bachelors’ lives, can not endure forever. The time came for breaking up. One by one the bachelors took their hats, and two by two, and arm-in-arm they descended, still conversing, to the flagging of the court; some going to their neighboring chambers to turn over the Decameron ere retiring for the night; some to smoke a cigar, promenading in the garden on the cool river-side; some to make for the street, call a hack, and be driven snugly to their distant lodgings.
I was the last lingerer.
“Well,” said my smiling host, “what do you think of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?”
“Sir,” said I, with a burst of admiring candor – “Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors!”
The Tartarus of Maids
It lies not far from Woedolor Mountain in New England. Turning to the east, right out from among bright farms and sunny meadows, nodding in early June with odorous grasses, you enter ascendingly among bleak hills. These gradually close in upon a dusky pass, which, from the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driving between its cloven walls of haggard rock, as well as from the tradition of a crazy spinster’s hut having long ago stood somewhere hereabouts, is called the Mad Maid’s Bellows’ pipe.
Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is called the Devil’s Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.
Conspicuously crowning a rocky bluff high to one side, at the cataract’s verge, is the ruin of an old saw-mill, built in those primitive times when vast pines and hemlocks superabounded throughout the neighboring region. The blackmossed bulk of those immense, rough-hewn, and spike-knotted logs, here and there tumbled all together, in long abandonment and decay, or left in solitary, perilous projection over the cataract’s gloomy brink, impart to this rude wooden ruin not only much of the aspect of one of rough-quarried stone, but also a sort of feudal, Rhineland, and Thurmberg look, derived from the pinnacled wildness of the neighboring scenery.
Not far from the bottom of the Dungeon stands a large white-washed building, relieved, like some great whited sepulchre, against the sullen background of mountain-side firs, and other hardy evergreens, inaccessibly rising in grim terraces for some two thousand feet.
The building is a paper-mill.
Having embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business (so extensively and broadcast, indeed, that at length my seeds were distributed through all the Eastern and Northern States and even fell into the far soil of Missouri and the Carolinas), the demand for paper at my place became so great, that the expenditure soon amounted to a most important item in the general account. It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper, folded square; and when filled, are all but flat, and being stamped, and superscribed with the nature of the seeds contained, assume not a little the appearance of business-letters ready for the mail. Of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity – several hundreds of thousands in a year. For a time I had purchased my paper from the wholesale dealers in a neighboring town. For economy’s sake, and partly for the adventure of the trip, I now resolved to cross the mountains, some sixty miles, and order my future paper at the Devil’s Dungeon paper-mill.
The sleighing being uncommonly fine toward the end of January, and promising to hold so for no small period, in spite of the bitter cold I started one gray Friday noon in my pung, well fitted with buffalo and wolf robes; and, spending one night on the road, next noon came in sight of Woedolor Mountain.
The far summit fairly smoked with frost; white vapors curled up from its white-wooded top, as from a chimney. The intense congelation made the whole country look like one petrifaction. The steel shoes of my pung craunched and gritted over the vitreous, chippy snow, as if it had been broken glass. The forests here and there skirting the route, feeling the same all-stiffening influence, their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold, strangely groaned – not in the swaying branches merely, but likewise in the vertical trunk – as the fitful gusts remorselessly swept through them. Brittle with excessive frost, many colossal tough-grained maples, snapped in twain like pipe-stems, cumbered the unfeeling earth.
Flaked all over with frozen sweat, white as a milky ram, his nostrils at each breath sending forth two horn-shaped shoots of heated respiration, Black, my good horse, but six years old, started at a sudden turn, where, right across the track – not ten minutes fallen – an old distorted hemlock lay, darkly undulatory as an anaconda.
Gaining the Bellows’-pipe, the violent blast, dead from behind, all but shoved my high-backed pung up-hill. The gust shrieked through the shivered pass, as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world. Ere gaining the summit, Black, my horse, as if exasperated by the cutting wind, slung out with his strong hind legs, tore the light pung straight up-hill, and sweeping grazingly through the narrow notch, sped downward madly past the ruined saw-mill. Into the Devil’s Dungeon horse and cataract rushed together.
With might and main, quitting my seat and robes, and standing backward, with one foot braced against the dash-board, I rasped and churned the bit, and stopped him just in time to avoid collision, at a turn, with the bleak nozzle of a rock, couchant like a lion in the way – a road-side rock.
At first I could not discover the paper-mill.
The whole hollow gleamed with the white, except, here and there, where a pinnacle of granite showed one wind-swept angle bare. The mountains stood pinned in shrouds – a pass of Alpine corpses. Where stands the mill? Suddenly a whirling, humming sound broke upon my ear. I looked, and there, like an arrested avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory. It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of other and smaller buildings, some of which, from their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt were boarding-houses of the operatives. A snow-white hamlet amidst the snows. Various rude, irregular squares and courts resulted from the somewhat picturesque clusterings of these buildings, owing to the broken, rocky nature of the ground, which forbade all method in their relative arrangement. Several narrow lanes and alleys, too, partly blocked with snow fallen from the roof, cut up the hamlet in all directions.
When, turning from the traveled highway, jingling with bells of numerous farmers – who availing themselves of the fine sleighing, were dragging their wood to market – and frequently diversified with swift cutters dashing from inn to inn of the scattered villages – when, I say, turning from that bustling main-road, I by degrees wound into the Mad Maid’s Bellows’-pipe, and saw the grim Black Notch beyond, then something latent, as well as something obvious in the time and scene, strangely brought back to my mind my first sight of dark and grimy Temple Bar. And when Black, my horse, went darting through the Notch, perilously grazing its rocky wall, I remembered being in a runaway London omnibus, which in much the same sort of style, though by no means at an equal rate, dashed through the ancient arch of Wren. Though the two objects did by no means completely correspond, yet this partial inadequacy but served to tinge the similitude not less with the vividness than the disorder of a dream. So that, when upon reining up at the protruding rock I at last caught sight of the quaint groupings of the factory-buildings, and with the traveled highway and the Notch behind, found myself all alone, silently and privily stealing through deep-cloven passages into this sequestered spot, and saw the long, high-gabled main factory edifice, with a rude tower – for hoisting heavy boxes – at one end, standing among its crowded outbuildings and boarding-houses, as the Temple Church amidst the surrounding offices and dormitories, and when the marvelous retirement of this mysterious mountain nook fastened its whole spell upon me, then, what memory lacked, all tributary imagination furnished, and I said to myself, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”
Dismounting, and warily picking my way down the dangerous declivity – horse and man both sliding now and then upon the icy ledges – at length I drove, or the blast drove me, into the largest square, before one side of the main edifice. Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled Blood River at one side. A long woodpile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal.
The inverted similitude recurred – “The sweet tranquil Temple garden, with the Thames bordering its green beds,” strangely meditated I.
But where are the gay bachelors?
Then, as I and my horse stood shivering in the wind-spray, a girl ran from a neighboring dormitory door, and throwing her thin apron over her bare head, made for the opposite building.
“One moment, my girl; is there no shed hereabouts which I may drive into?”
Pausing, she turned upon me a face pale with work, and blue with cold; an eye supernatural with unrelated misery.
”Nay,” faltered I, “I mistook you. Go on; I want nothing.”
Leading my horse close to the door from which she had come, I knocked. Another pale, blue girl appeared, shivering in the doorway as, to prevent the blast, she jealously held the door ajar.
“Nay, I mistake again. In God’s name shut the door. But hold, is there no man about?”
That moment a dark-complexioned wellwrapped personage passed, making for the factory door, and spying him coming, the girl rapidly closed the other one.
“Is there no horse-shed here, Sir?”
“Yonder, to the wood-shed,” he replied, and disappeared inside the factory.
With much ado I managed to wedge in horse and pung between the scattered piles of wood all sawn and split. Then, blanketing my horse, and piling my buffalo on the blanket’s top, and tucking in its edges well around the breast-band and breeching, so that the wind might not strip him bare, I tied him fast, and ran lamely for the factory door, stiff with frost, and cumbered with my driver’s dread-naught.
Immediately I found myself standing in a spacious, intolerably lighted by long rows of windows, focusing inward the snowy scene without.
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.
Seated before a long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp, another girl was feeding it with foolscap sheets, which, so soon as they curiously traveled from her on the cords, were withdrawn at the opposite end of the machine by a second girl. They came to the first girl blank; they went to the second girl ruled.
I looked upon the first girl’s brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl’s brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled. Then, as I still looked, the two – for some small variety to the monotony – changed places; and where had stood the young, fair brow, now stood the ruled and wrinkled one.
Perched high upon a narrow platform, and still higher upon a high stool crowning it, sat another figure serving some other iron animal; while below the platform sat her mate in some sort of reciprocal attendance.
Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.
All this scene around me was instantaneously taken in at one sweeping glance – even before I had proceeded to unwind the heavy fur tippet from around my neck. But as soon as this fell from me the dark-complexioned man, standing close by, raised a sudden cry, and seizing my arm, dragged me out into the open air, and without pausing for word instantly caught up some congealed snow and began rubbing both my cheeks.
“Two white spots like the whites of your eyes,” he said; “man, your cheeks are frozen.”
“That may well be,” muttered I; “’tis some wonder the frost of the Devil’s Dungeon strikes in no deeper. Rub away.”
Soon a horrible, tearing pain caught at my reviving cheeks. Two gaunt blood-hounds, one on each side, seemed mumbling them. I seemed Acton.
Presently, when all was over, I re-entered the factory, made known my business, concluded it satisfactorily, and then begged to be conducted throughout the place to view it.
“Cupid is the boy for that,” said the dark complexioned man. “Cupid!” and by this odd fancy-name calling a dimpled, red-cheeked, spirited-looking, forward little fellow, who was rather impudently, I thought, gliding about among the passive-looking girls – like a gold fish through hueless waves – yet doing nothing in particular that I could see, the man bade him lead the stranger through the edifice.
“Come first and see the water-wheel,” said this lively lad, with the air of boyishly-brisk importance.
Quitting the folding-room, we crossed some damp, cold boards, and stood beneath a area wet shed, incessantly showering with foam, like the green barnacled bow of some East Indiaman in a gale. Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its one immutable purpose.
“This sets our whole machinery a-going, Sir in every part of all these buildings; where the girls work and all.”
I looked, and saw that the turbid waters of Blood River had not changed their hue by coming under the use of man.
“You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?”
“Certainly; what else should a paper-factory make?”
The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense.
“Oh, to be sure!” said I, confused and stammering; “it only struck me as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.”
He took me up a wet and rickety stair to a great light room, furnished with no visible thing but rude, manger-like receptacles running all round its sides; and up to these mangers, like so many mares haltered to the rack, stood rows of girls. Before each was vertically thrust up a long, glittering scythe, immovably fixed at bottom to the manger-edge. The curve of the scythe, and its having no snath to it, made it look exactly like a sword. To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragged long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.
“This is the rag-room,” coughed the boy.
“You find it rather stifling here,” coughed I, in answer;” but the girls don’t cough.”
“Oh, they are used to it.”
“Where do you get such hosts of rags?” picking up a handful from a basket.
“Some from the country round about; some from far over sea – Leghorn and London.”
“‘Tis not unlikely, then,” murmured I, “that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors. But the buttons are all dropped off. Pray, my lad, do you ever find any bachelor’s buttons hereabouts?”
“None grow in this part of the country. The Devil’s Dungeon is no place for flowers.”
“Oh! you mean the flowers so called – the Bachelor’s Buttons?”
“And was not that what you asked about? Or did you mean the gold bosom-buttons of our boss, Old Bach, as our whispering girls all call him?”
“The man, then, I saw below is a bachelor, is he?”
“Oh, yes, he’s a Bach.”
“The edges of those swords, they are turned outward from the girls, if I see right; but their rags and fingers fly so, I can not distinctly see.”
Yes, murmured I to myself; I see it now; turned outward, and each erected sword is so borne, edge-outward, before each girl. If my reading fails me not, just so, of old, condemned state-prisoners went from the hall of judgment to their doom: an officer before, bearing a sword, its edge turned outward, in significance of their fatal sentence. So, through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death.
“Those scythes look very sharp,” again turning toward the boy.
“Yes; they have to keep them so. Look!”
That moment two of the girls, dropping their rags, plied each a whet-stone up and down the sword-blade. My unaccustomed blood curdled at the sharp shriek of the tormented steel.
Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them; meditated I.
“What makes those girls so sheet-white, my lad?”
“Why” – with a roguish twinkle, pure ignorant drollery, not knowing heartlessness – “I suppose the handling of such white bits of sheets all the time makes them so sheety.”
“Let us leave the rag-room now, my lad.”
More tragical and more inscrutably mysterious than any mystic sight, human or machine, throughout the factory, was the strange innocence of cruel-heartedness in this usage-hardened boy.
“And now,” said he, cheerily, “I suppose you want to see our great machine, which cost us twelve thousand dollars only last autumn. That’s the machine that makes the paper, too. This way, Sir.”
Following him, I crossed a large, bespattered place, with two great round vats in it, full of a white, wet, woolly-looking stuff, not unlike the albuminous part of an egg, soft-boiled.
“There,” said Cupid, tapping the vats carelessly, “these are the first beginnings of the paper; this white pulp you see. Look how it swims bubbling round and round, moved by the paddle here. From hence it pours from both vats into that one common channel yonder; and so goes, mixed up and leisurely, to the great machine. And now for that.”
He led me into a room, stifling with a strange, blood-like, abdominal heat, as if here, true enough, were being finally developed the germinous particles lately seen.
Before me, rolled out like some long Eastern manuscript, lay stretched one continuous length of iron frame-work – multitudinous and mystical, with all sorts of rollers, wheels, and cylinders, in slowly-measured and unceasing motion.
“Here first comes the pulp now,” said Cupid, pointing to the nighest end of the machine. “See; first it pours out and spreads itself upon this wide, sloping board; and then – look – slides, thin and quivering, beneath the first roller there. Follow on now, and see it as it slides from under that to the next cylinder. There; see how it has become just a very little less pulpy now. One step more, and it grows still more to some slight consistence. Still another cylinder, and it is so knitted – though as yet mere dragon-fly wing – that it forms an airbridge here, like a suspended cobweb, between two more separated rollers; and flowing over the last one, and under again, and doubling about there out of sight for a minute among all those mixed cylinders you indistinctly see, it reappears here, looking now at last a little less like pulp and more like paper, but still quite delicate and defective yet awhile. But – a little further onward, Sir, if you please – here now, at this further point, it puts on something of a real look, as if it might turn out to be something you might possibly handle in the end. But it’s not yet done, Sir. Good way to travel yet, and plenty more of cylinders must roll it.”
“Bless my soul!” said I, amazed at the elongation, interminable convolutions, and deliberate slowness of the machine; “it must take a long time for the pulp to pass from end to end, and come out paper.”
“Oh! not so long,” smiled the precocious lad, with a superior and patronizing air; “only nine minutes. But look; you may try it for yourself. Have you a bit of paper? Ah! here’s a bit on the floor. Now mark that with any word you please, and let me dab it on here, and we’ll see how long before it comes out at the other end.”
“Well, let me see,” said I, taking out my pencil; “come, I’ll mark it with your name.”
Bidding me take out my watch, Cupid adroitly dropped the inscribed slip on an exposed part of the incipient mass.
Instantly my eye marked the second-hand on my dial-plate.
Slowly I followed the slip, inch by inch; sometimes pausing for full half a minute as it disappeared beneath inscrutable groups of the lower cylinders, but only gradually to emerge again; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; now in open sight, sliding along like a freckle on the quivering sheet, and then again wholly vanished; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; all the time the main sheet growing more and more to final firmness – when, suddenly, I saw a sort of paper-fall, not wholly unlike a water-fall; a scissory sound smote my ear, as of some cord being snapped, and down dropped an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap, with my “Cupid” half faded out of it, and still moist and warm.
My travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine.
“Well, how long was it?” said Cupid.
“Nine minutes to a second,” replied I, watch in hand.
“I told you so.”
For a moment a curious emotion filled me, not wholly unlike that which one might experience at the fulfillment of some mysterious prophecy. But how absurd, thought I again; the thing is a mere machine, the essence of which is unvarying punctuality and precision.
Previously absorbed by the wheels and cylinders, my attention was now directed to a sadlooking woman standing by.
“That is rather an elderly person so silently tending the machine-end here. She would not seem wholly used to it either.”
“Oh,” knowingly whispered Cupid, through the din, “she only came last week. She was a nurse formerly. But the business is poor in these parts, and she’s left it. But look at the paper she is piling there.”
“Ay, foolscap,” handling the piles of moist, warm sheets, which continually were being delivered into the woman’s waiting hands. “Don’t you turn out any thing but foolscap at this machine?”
“Oh, sometimes, but not often, we turn out finer work – cream-laid and royal sheets, we call them. But foolscap being in chief demand, we turn out foolscap most.”
It was very curious. Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things – sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell.
Pacing slowly to and fro along the involved machine, still humming with its play, I was struck as well by the inevitability as the evolvement-power in all its motions.
“Does that thin cobweb there,” said I, pointing to the sheet in its more imperfect stage, “does that never tear or break? It is marvelous fragile, and yet this machine it passes through is so mighty.”
“It never is known to tear a hair’s point.”
“Does it never stop – get clogged?”
“No. It must go. The machinery makes it go just so; just that very way, and at that very pace you there plainly see it go. The pulp can’t help going.”
Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. A fascination fastened on me. I stood spell-bound and wandering in my soul. Before my eyes – there, passing in slow procession along the wheeling cylinders, I seemed to see, glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that heavy day. Slowly, mournfully, beseechingly, yet unresistingly, they gleamed along, their agony dimly outlined on the imperfect paper, like the print of the tormented face on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica.
“Halloa! the heat of the room is too much for you,” cried Cupid, staring at me.
“No – I am rather chill, if any thing.”
“Come out, Sir -out – out,” and, with the protecting air of a careful father, the precocious lad hurried me outside.
In a few moments, feeling revived a little, I went into the folding-room – the first room I had entered, and where the desk for transacting business stood, surrounded by the blank counters and blank girls engaged at them.
“Cupid here has led me a strange tour,” said I to the dark-complexioned man before mentioned, whom I had ere this discovered not only to be an old bachelor, but also the principal proprietor. “Yours is a most wonderful factory. Your great machine is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.”
“Yes, all our visitors think it so. But we don’t have many. We are in a very out-of-theway corner here. Few inhabitants, too. Most of our girls come from far-off villages.”
“The girls,” echoed I, glancing round at their silent forms. “Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?”
“Oh! as to that – why, I suppose, the fact of their being generally unmarried – that’s the reason, I should think. But it never struck me before. For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be offand-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fastdays. That’s our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.”
“Then these are all maids,” said I, while some pained homage to their pale virginity made me involuntarily bow.
Again the strange emotion filled me.
“Your cheeks look whitish yet, Sir,” said the man, gazing at me narrowly. “You must be careful going home. Do they pain you at all now? It’s a bad sign, if they do.”
“No doubt, Sir,” answered I, “when once I have got out of the Devil’s Dungeon, I shall feel them mending.”
“Ah, yes; the winter air in valleys, or gorges, or any sunken place, is far colder and more bitter than elsewhere. You would hardly believe it now, but it is colder here than at the top of Woedolor Mountain.”
“I dare say it is, Sir. But time presses me; I must depart.”
With that, remuffling myself in dread-naught and tippet, thrusting my hands into my huge seal-skin mittens, I sallied out into the nipping air, and found poor Black, my horse, all cringing and doubled up with the cold.
Soon, wrapped in furs and meditations, I ascended from the Devil’s Dungeon.
At the Black Notch I paused, and once more bethought me of Temple-Bar. Then, shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature, I exclaimed – Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!
Later in the night he saw, strangely, the picture of himself as he had been before she came.
He thought: ‘She has power to wake the dead.’ –Karen Blixen, “Tempests”
Airport, present day, night-time
In the East, every day is different, the old books say. It’s made up of islands, each island is different, on each island there lives a witch, and I knew one of them.
She called herself Gabriela Sloane. We’re old thieves, and we met in a Roman park when we were casing a place for a spectacular robbery, though we didn’t realise right away that the only thing we each wanted to do, the only thing we were able to do, was steal. I’d once committed a crime on her Eastern island, but I didn’t know at the time that she’d been born there in the year 5502 (under the name Pesach Slabosky) and that she’d spent a witchy childhood there. While she was crouched in his cellar like a possum, oiling her Desert Eagle and nibbling at a dry, mouldy piece of bread, I was up in the penthouse, wining and dining with our victim, Frobart. She always came from below, digging tunnels, pushing herself through pipes, spending the night in cellars, while I worked upstairs right from the start. My tools were elegant cascades of words, flattery, phoney sophistication. I’d always wanted to conquer the world by pouring myself over it like perfumed bathwater. All she wanted to do was to steal and murder in silence, to wreak bloody revenge. I still don’t know what for; our approaches were very different. But there were some glorious moments when we were both young and in love with eternity because we were separated from each other again and again.
Gabriela Sloane: Here she was in her green suit, sitting in the departure lounge of Leonardo da Vinci. She never bore the slightest trace of the cellars when she surfaced. She was probably in her late twenties this time, deceptively young, deceptively small, coiled like a spring, black hair and eyes gleaming, and if I’d been harbouring any doubts that this thief and murderer was capable of glorious moments – that she was my beloved, my hated, my lost, my rediscovered one – her brazen eyes immediately dispelled them. Her glance bored deep into everything it met; as she eyed him suspiciously, even the man greedily sucking his newspaper dry beside her lost control of his drab inner life and allowed her murderous thoughts to spread through him like black ink through water. Did she detect in him a danger, a pursuer? No one follows me, it’s impossible, I read in her sad Eastern smile, a smile as old as the books. Two bodies, Frobart and his wife, Piazza Bologna crawling with police; her shooting frenzy put me in grave danger, too, but I was just about saved by my tuxedo and the piquant cloud of eau de toilette I’d shrouded myself in. After lengthy deliberations, the uniformed officers concluded that killers don’t wear Terre D’Hermes when they go to work.
Old, powerful feelings descended like black curtains, darkening the duty-free shop I’d followed her into. Between the baci di dama cookies and Romantica soap, we finally faced each other. But she turned away to sniff the soap.
“Do I know you?”
I understood. It was more fun if we again refused to believe it, to grasp it, if we acted like strangers and disavowed our joy. After all, we’re not just thieves, we’re liars and fantasists by nature, and we accept each other as such (though as far as I can recall, we never got married, unlike so many other liars).
“In the park in front of Frobart’s house,” I said, “that’s where we saw each other. We were both disguised as passers-by. You had a night-vision device, I didn’t.”
Now, instead of the soap, she was smelling one of her black locks of hair, all innocence and obliviousness, as if the here and now in an airport duty-free at night was entirely beyond her power of imagination. She’d always known how to anesthetise her so-called ‘consciousness’ from one moment to the next (she was often plagued by nightmares).
“Where do you get something like that?”
“A night-vision device. You know I’m clueless when it comes to technology.”
She laughed her pearly white, red-tongued laugh. “I beg your pardon? Why you scoundrel, you’re not quite the full shilling.” So charming, the witch’s slightly antiquated phrases, the trace of bygone centuries that wafted around her. And she was just about to march off. I hooked my little finger around hers and held on to her.
“I’ve missed you.”
She observed our fingers, taking her time. Was she going to remember at last? Without looking up, she said in a low voice, “If you don’t let me go right now, I’ll kill you right here beside the soap, and no one will notice, nor will it be any great loss for humanity.” I could well believe it. I said:
“Alright then, Gabriela, let’s get down to business.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Because I stole your passport.”
I watched with satisfaction as she rooted around in her yellow shoulder bag and pulled out her ID, the existence of which she’d never understood.
“Three times,” I said, smiling. “But I always gave it back.”
She puzzled over her passport as if her own forged document, her own assumed identity, were unfamiliar, incomprehensible, a riddle.
“Who are you?”
“Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas. Je fais des trous, des petits trous, encore des petits trous…” I added, “And I have Frobart’s jewel.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she was watching every movement made by a few remarkably ugly, spoiled, frequent-flying children as they ran around pointing water pistols at each other. Pursuers? Or real children? Outnumbered, how was she going to fight them all off? Did she have a plan? An invisible weapon? Accomplices I hadn’t yet noticed? Did she have a lover? I knew her well enough to be certain she had something up her sleeve. And now she was driving her heel down into my patent-leather shoe.
“Oh really? Your jewel is fake. I swapped it.”
“So you admit we know each other then? It’s been so long, Pesach, I’m stunned. I’m pinching myself.”
She drove her heel in deeper.
“And you’re more beautiful than ever. By the way, I swapped back the jewel. Yours is false.”
“And then I swapped it again.”
“Do you think I’m an amateur? I swapped it back again, of course.”
“But then so did I.”
“What? So mine is fake?”
“Or maybe mine is. You’re driving me meshuga.”
“Gabriela, look at me and tell the truth: Is it you?”
Mutely, she shook her black curls and sneaked a few bars of soap into her suit. Force of habit. One bar fell to the floor. We both stared at it as if we’d lost something of incalculable value.
Suddenly Rosh Hashanah
My name is Simone Frobart. I had dinner with Pablo on Rue Gabrielle. He sketched me, but he didn’t paint me. I’m planning on having a blue period, he said, and somehow you’re just not blue enough for me. So I can’t have stolen the painting, because there was no painting of me in the first place, do you understand? Besides, it was the 6th of October. You don’t understand? Let me put it like this: You, monsieur, long for the next century, but we don’t. Not one has ever lived up to its promise. David and I have a small son, a bastard. When he grows up he wants to be a train conductor, to punch holes in tickets. I don’t want to think any further ahead than that, I don’t want to talk about the future any more, it’s bad luck. I’m constantly afraid, a very old fear. They’ll never catch David, he’s in Biarritz or somewhere by now. We designed the firecrackers and made them ourselves. We wanted to organise a little fireworks show, just for us – it was suddenly Rosh Hashanah, the holiday. Don’t you know it? It’s beside the point? I’m sorry we blew up the public pissoir, really. No, I’m not laughing. Yes, I’m aware of the gravity of my situation. David said: We’re looking into the night sky, into the darkness, but the stars will prevail. That’s the kind of thing he likes to say. I admit it, I taught him how to steal. For a lady of my social standing it’s not called stealing, by the way, it’s called kleptomania, a neurosis widely recognized in the circles I move in, possibly rooted in the libido. David always behaved like such an idiot when he was stealing, and he always felt sorry for the victims. It’s not true that pity isn’t the same as love, by the way. Often it’s love itself. Isn’t it funny that I’m sitting here now, and David, who’s blind, is the one who got away? You think it’s all an act? Ah, you have proof! Yes, you have proof for everything. Then he must be craftier than I thought. In four years, I never noticed anything strange. He felt his way so clumsily and so gracefully through the streets and through life, I couldn’t help but love him, and then he fell in love with my love. That can happen. By the way, I don’t believe a word you say, monsieur, you’re trying to tear us apart. My father, a traitor who’s recently taken to crossing himself in the Sacré Coeur every evening, tried to do the same. David never sent me billets-doux, he never had any money. We spent a year hiding in father’s cellars. That’s where our son came into the world. It was a wild, romantic time. We flogged father’s furniture, piece by hideous piece, I’ll readily admit it. He thought it was the work of ghosts, and in revenge, he became a Catholic. Non, je ne regrette rien.
An hour before her premature death (she was beaten to death by her father), Simone wrote a letter to David in the steeply sloping, illegible, beautiful handwriting she had learned as a four-year-old under a very large, revered sun in another life while in Babylonian exile.
Dearest, they’ve let me go. Pablo’s painting is in a safe hiding place. I’m not going to tell anyone where, not even you. Father has disinherited me, but one day we’ll sell the painting, and then our little Claude won’t have to work as a conductor. Today the rest of the world is dancing around the gas street lamps, and fireworks are going off in the Bois de Vicennes. Fiery man-made stars are shooting across the sky. They’re not our stars, but they’re shining nonetheless. Everyone’s shouting “Long live the twentieth century!” and throwing their hats into the air. I miss you, even if you’re not blind. Nous allons changer le monde. Answer me.
Meanwhile, at Leonardo da Vinci
Gabriela Sloane and I are still staring at the soap on the floor. Time falters for a moment, as if it has been spinning around and then fainted. When had it all started? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, or if she did, she was hiding it. Our heads bumped against each other as we both bent down to pick up the soap. In the departure-lounge café, where everything but breathing is prohibited (if you’ve never been to a departure-lounge café where everything is prohibited at two o’clock in the morning, then you’ve no idea of the weariness the planet is working against), we’re polite. Breaking news on the screens: Frobart’s villa, the bodies of Frobart and his wife – a magazine of bullets from Gabriela’s Desert Eagle lodged in each one – being carried out under rubber sheets. Commentary: Frobart was well known, old family, Vatican Bank (that was news to me), had shaken Il Duce’s hand when he was a kid. Well done, I say, there’s no way we’ll get out of here, why’s our flight delayed, they’re already onto you, they’ll be here any minute. Our flight, she asks, giving me that brazen look, that look, we’re flying together? I kiss her. She tastes of rhubarb. Does she really think I’ll ever let her out of my sight again? Lost in thought, she kisses past me, kisses the air.
Rhubarb in the East
Art, crime, and theft are all based on, and in fact would be impossible without, a half-intentional and half-unintentional kind of inattentiveness and drowsiness, an impotent sense of time passing. Every artist knows there’s a thin line between the unformed work lying dormant in semi-darkness and the moment when it’s too late to improve anything. Despite their best intentions, most artists and criminals vacillate between these two stages because they’re too lazy, too apathetic, too self-satisfied, too inattentive, too vain. It’s a moral problem, of course, because all art and all crime are to some extent a struggle for righteousness; indeed, you might even say, for innocence …
This was according to Pauline, the unprepossessing Fräulein von —— (it was forbidden to utter her name; she’d been banned from giving lectures on aesthetics and was only supposed to provide knitting lessons by the stove).
But a kiss can change the world, I protested cheekily.
We don’t want to know what we’re doing, she responded, until it’s too late to change anything. The human spirit, she continued, is a ragbag. The body, the objects of the outside world, hot memories, warm fantasies, guilt, fear, hesitation, doubt, lies, small delights, great pain, and thousands of other things that can scarcely be expressed in words coexist within us; they coexist within you too, Herr Frobart.
We were on an Eastern island called Weimar, where people spent all their time taking part in poetry competitions. The island wasn’t big. It lay in the middle of an ice-cold sea that kept gnawing away at it so that one day it would be simply washed away, dissolved, leaving behind nothing but maybe an ice crystal. I felt uncomfortable in my skin as an idler. Didn’t I have a higher calling, wasn’t there a completely different Nathan Frobart hiding within me? Sometimes I went down on my knees and prayed and thought: The time has come.
Then, beneath the lilac tree, I kissed Pauline von ——. She tasted of the rhubarb she secretly preserved, devouring it in large quantities at night in the cellar of the palace. I discovered that she too felt out of place in Weimar and in her body and in the world. We’d been here before, we believed, we’d kissed each other beneath the lilac tree before, in another time. We were different then (we believed), exchanging glances from black almond-shaped eyes, smelling of cardamom and myrrh, oranges. We were somehow bluer, Pauline said. Somehow older, I said. Dare we talk this way, Nathan? It’s how witches talk, she whispered. No, it’s how lovers talk, I answered.
A kiss changes the world. All at once, the ragbag is sorted out: Everything inside us is put in order; there’s no anxiety, no fear, just room for yourself.
We became poets, but we didn’t write ourselves. We helped ourselves to the work of others, pulling their manuscripts out from underneath their pillows, stealing their notebooks and papers. Then we grabbed our scissors, cut everything up into strips like corned beef, rearranged the strips, and published them under a nom de plume I’ve since forgotten. We always carried a coin with us – I in my neck pouch, she in her petticoat – for the ferryman. Our longing, our intuition that something momentous, something earth-shattering would happen to us (worldwide fame, perhaps), and our sense of the direction our lives would take turned out to be correct. But the journey there took longer than we imagined.
We couldn’t steal there because we were dead (suffocated).
Today is Sunday. Our house has been reduced to a pile of rubble; thank you, Mr Werner von Braun. On Muswell Hill Broadway, the orphans are crying. Father is dead, mother didn’t say a word for seven days; she spoke with her heart, until it stopped. We thought we’d be safe in London. The women, rosy as marzipan, soothed our nerves. The men in their soft, pale, slightly crumpled leather would sometimes raise an eyebrow and give an amused smile. It was all so soothing, not least the ancient language of the Bard, which can be loud and sharp on occasion, but never barks. King Lear will never bark, let them rage and bluster all they like in Berlin. Scrabbling around in the sad remnants of our house, I find an old book about home, about the enchanted islands and the wonderful witches that live on them. They presented an opportunity, these witches, but my homeland didn’t want it. The portrait of a small, ageless, raven-haired witch with eyes that have seen a great deal and know many secrets draws me to another time, a time when the islands still lay in the warm sun, when they sometimes got out of the sea and wandered across the earth to settle down somewhere else. A young woman like me, dead for centuries; her name was Pesach.
Flight 0913 is ready for boarding
Back in the damn duty-free, theatre of suppressed feelings. Gabriela decided she urgently needed a couple of things, like Toblerone. A little competition to see who could swipe the most Toblerones beneath the swivelling cameras.
“We keep going from strength to strength,” I said.
“Is that so? Listen to me: We’ll be going our separate ways once we get to the checkout. And you’re paying.” She reached for a miniature painting, Rome in the rain, and thrust it into my hand. “For this thing.”
I held the painting up in front of my face. “You almost kissed me …”
“It’s late, Gabriela Sloane. You’re in danger.”
“Hasn’t it always been late?”
“Not back in Babylon,” I said.
“We could go to London and retire. I have an apartment on Muswell Hill. Or to Paris. I own a little Hotel on Rue – ”
“That time in the park,” she interjected, “the one in front of Frobart’s house. When you so rudely sat down beside me on the bench, did you notice the pigeons?”
“You see? You’re always asleep, you sleepwalk through our life. I’m sick of it, I need to free myself from you. You’re bad for me.”
“Yes, pigeons. They were standing in a semicircle around us. Rather old pigeons staring at us out of their hard eyes. And the sky was so blue and cold, which you didn’t notice either; it didn’t forgive us. And I hereby announce the irrevocable end.”
Then she touched me at last, her fingers (fingers that also murdered) drawing a small circle on my hand, and she rested her shock of black hair on my shoulder. It seemed as if she wanted my forgiveness. For the fact that she was young and beautiful and unspoiled and had a future, whereas I was old and ugly and a sinner and had none.
“Lufthansa Flight 0913 now boarding …” The disembodied voice.
Ah Berlin, we both thought. A city mercifully saving us from our fate, a city our fate had led us around in wide circles. What was she looking for in Berlin? A diamond as big as the Adlon?
“Was that God?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’ll never learn, will you? Us. It’s us.” She stood up. “Please don’t follow me. Fly somewhere else, fly to Paris. We were happy there once; live in our memories. I need a hiatus, a break, for at least a century. Just leave me alone.”
“Alone…”, I mused.
She’d already run off. I’d forgotten how fast she could run. It was as if a little ball of lightning was streaking through the departure lounge. The rest of the world made way, splattered apart, and I felt so proud of her. Was she right, did we need a break? First I had to convince her to stop killing. It wasn’t at all in our nature; thieving as an art form was in our nature, words and glances were in our nature.
During the flight, we talked about night-vision devices. They’re absolutely marvellous, she said, when you’re working in a building with lots of cellars. Everything looks green. It’s fantastic, like a dream. I loved her when she talked shop like this, and she knew it. We were masters of distance, we understood and revered the space between the stars in their lodgings in the night sky. She took my face in her hands. She didn’t kiss past me this time. A kiss can change the world. There are no timeless, scattered, isolated, unnoticed moments when we can do whatever we want and then carry on with our lives as if nothing has happened. There are kisses that have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes you have to steal them. Restless, wandering souls know that. Thieves too, needless to say.
As it began its descent into Berlin, the plane began to wobble, then to rock dangerously, then to spin, and all hell broke loose.
“This can’t be happening, Pesach. We’re going to crash. In the middle of Europe.”
“That’s right,” she said. She stuck her tongue out at me and fished her coin for the ferryman out of the yellow bag. “Make sure you have your coin ready,” she said.
“Have you got something to do with this?”
“There’s something I have to tell you: There’s a bomb as well.”
“We’re going to destroy half of Berlin.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“Nous allons changer le monde. Are you scared?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“We’ve never died together,” she said.
I wanted to say: Oh, but we did, we did. But I bit my tongue. I always bite my tongue. I’m not the only one, I think, and the other person thinks it too, and so we all bite our tongues together.
“Do you happen to know what became of our Claude?” she asked.
“What he always wanted, le poinçonneur des Lilas.”
“Je fais des trous …”
“Des petits trous …”
I sighed. It could have been so wonderful. She took my hand. “Baruch, back in Babylon, the sun on our heads, how new we were.”
Then the aeroplane with 129 souls on board tipped into a steep nosedive and exploded right in the middle of the city, erasing many stories, but only temporarily.
Have we got just one life? Probably. Can we weave together some kind of reality from our dreams and longings like the Parcae used to do, an enchanted eternal carpet that flies us through the skies and the ages? Gone, forgotten. Yet in our glorious moments we’re gods. We love in another shape, another form the person we’ve always loved; nothing is ever lost, we sing just one song.
We were gods. Now I’m alone in this cellar, no light, no stars, no night-vision device, just the past, a foreign land. Pesach, are you still there? Or are you here? Answer me.
*Copyright © Martin Kluger, 2015.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
Faster than light space travel to distant galaxies has been proven impossible. The existence of other planets or alien races, therefore, remains mere conjecture as these cannot be reached or contacted. Miraculous machines that let you travel backward or forward in time are impossible – an unsolvable paradox. Teleportation, precognition, telekinesis, and all versions of extrasensory perception have all been scientifically disproven. Technological and medical advancements have allowed people to live longer and better but there is no sufficiently advanced technology that has freed mankind from tedious labor, eventual suffering, or death. Most inhabitants of the developed world go to work every morning, where they sit for several hours in front of blinking screens, and then return home to sit in front of other, bigger screens.
This is the future as depicted in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1955), Jacob Wallenstein’s professed Magnum Opus – a vast, intricate, and largely overlooked novel written in Tel Aviv over a five-year period – spanning over one thousand pages, including meticulous lists, tables, charts, maps, and elaborate blueprints of buildings and machines. The novel is Wallenstein’s only completed work, as well as his only published work excluding various letters to the editor and brief comments published in newspapers. This work, in spite of its difficult content and technical shortcomings, deserves a place of distinction in Israeli literature as the first and most ambitious work of science fiction ever written in Hebrew.
The only child of Jewish educators, Jacob Wallenstein was born in Düsseldorf in 1909. The family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1920, where his father Joseph, an ardent Zionist, translated the family name Wallenstein (a derivative of Waldenstein – “Forest Rock”) into the Hebraic Even-Horesh (“Rock-Grove”). Young Jacob Even Horesh studied at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium – an unremarkable student with few friends by most accounts – and preferred to spend most of his time reading German translations of classic science fiction novels by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. He attempted to write a few imitations of these works in Hebrew – adventure stories of travels to distant planets or beneath the earth – but was dissatisfied with them and none survived.
He signed all of his works with the name Wallenstein, believing it had a more respectable sound and international appeal, since from his earliest attempts he had always wished his writing to be translated into German – the language of literature in his eyes – though there is no indication that he had ever read Goethe, Thomas Mann, or any other German writer. Wallenstein continued reading and rereading German translations, but never attempted to write in the language, as he felt that he could never master German grammar, particularly proper word order.
After completing his studies Wallenstein attempted to join the ranks of the Haganah, which was in need of new recruits following the 1929 riots. He was discharged from the organization within a few weeks, following several incidents of insubordination, or as he later termed them, “ideological disagreements with his superiors.”
His father’s wealth allowed Wallenstein to avoid work and he spent most of his days among his father’s many books, or sitting in coffee shops reading the papers. He smoked incessantly, through a long cigarette holder that once belonged to his mother, holding it with three fingers as if it were a pen. He was not considered a member of Tel Aviv’s bohemian circle of poets and writers, and in fact had only one friend associated with that circle, Uriel Halperin, a poet and translator who shared his affection for science fiction. According to Halperin, it was fairly early in their acquaintance when Wallenstein declared, out of the blue, that he had finally understood that he could do nothing but become a writer. “The way he said it,” Halperin recalled, “was as if he had just said something utterly reckless like I’m going to kill myself tonight.” Though they had often talked about literature, with Wallenstein expressing a disapproving view of the realist and autobiographical literature of the time, prior to that admission Wallenstein had never talked of his own writing, or shown Halperin anything he had written. “Before that I did not even know for sure that he was writing,” Halperin admitted.
Wallenstein wrote throughout the 1930’s – in all probability further attempts at various science fiction formulas – but failed to complete even a single short piece which he deemed worthy of publication. His father died in 1936 of a sudden heart attack, and his mother died a few months later of some unspecified illness.
In 1939 Wallenstein received a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Castle as a birthday present from Halperin. A week later he met with Halperin at a coffee shop and thanked him profusely, claiming that the book had changed his life. Wallenstein told him that after reading the book he had set fire to everything he had ever written and started work on something entirely new and different. After that meeting Halperin did not see Wallenstein for several months; when they finally met and Halperin brought up the book Wallenstein looked at him suspiciously and gave only vague answers. Their meetings became fewer and more intermittent, until one day in 1942, when Wallenstein invited Halperin to celebrate the completion of his masterpiece. Halperin arrived with a gift – a German translation of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe.
“I told him that it reminded me of The Castle,” Halperin recalled, “and that it might give him an idea for his next masterpiece. I said a few words about the plot, a young officer guarding an old fortress, waiting for a war. He stared at me, grabbed the book from my hands, and started leafing through it. He then looked at the book from all sides, as if it was some mysterious object, and turned to the first page and started reading it right then, standing in the middle of the room. I went to pour myself a drink and when I returned he was still there. I sat and waited and he kept reading the book, not moving except to turn a page. After almost an hour of waiting I left. The next day I heard that his house burned down. He told the police that he was burning some papers and the fire got out of hand. He suffered from smoke inhalation and was sent to the hospital for a few days. I visited him there but he refused to talk to me. After that I never saw him again.”
After the fire Wallenstein sold the empty lot and moved into a room in the Ginosar Hotel on Rothschild Avenue. He spent most of his days downstairs at the Atara Coffee shop, reading newspapers and smoking, and probably wasn’t writing anything. During this period he had a short affair with the wife of a bank teller, and was hospitalized twice for symptoms attributed to “nicotine poisoning.” He attended the meetings of parties and organizations from all sides of the political spectrum – Communist, Progressive, Socialist, Revisionist, and even Canaanite – but usually departed after only a few minutes, following heated debates with the members.
In 1950 Wallenstein read a German translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and was inspired once again. He began compiling copious notes analyzing the world presented in Orwell’s text, some of which have survived. He copied out passages that he approved of, and reworked what he believed Orwell had gotten wrong. In one of his notes Wallenstein writes: “Totalitarian regimes where freedom is blatantly absent cannot last, not for more than a hundred years. The only systems that last are bureaucratic capitalist pseudo-democracies where the individual thinks he has complete freedom but is actually limited by his access to money.”
Wallenstein wished to contact George Orwell to share his thoughts and misgivings. He approached an English-speaking acquaintance to help him draft a letter, but found out from him that the author had died earlier that year. After a few weeks of hesitation Wallenstein decided to write a novel and closed himself up in his hotel room. When the Ginosar hotel went out of business a few months later Wallenstein moved into a one-room apartment above the noisy Carmel Market. The original title he gave the work in progress was 2050, and later A Blueprint for the World in the Year 2050. According to his notes, he viewed the project as the culmination of all his years of reading, the definitive work of speculative fiction. “After this,” he wrote in his notes, “no reputable writer could offer a different vision of the future. Faced with this mountain of evidence, any attempt could only be met with laughter and scorn.”
He began by examining every popular convention of science fiction for feasibility and probability, discarding nearly all of them. By the year 2050, according to the novel, men had reached the moon, found nothing there, and returned to earth. Other men were sent on a mission to mars, found nothing there, and died on their way back to earth due to exposure to cosmic radiation. Further space exploration was out of the question. Expeditions reached the bottom of every ocean, crisscrossed Antarctica, explored every underground cavern and the depths of every jungle and found no super-advanced beings, or signs of intelligent non-human life. The human race spoke one language (German), shared a single religion (vaguely Judeo-Christian), and lived in peace.
The central technological advancement in the novel is the Telewriter, a combination typewriter, television screen, and telephone, which allows people to communicate and exchange written messages. At home people watched color televisions which had grown so large that “the screen took up an entire wall of the living room and the cathode ray tube behind it filled up another room.” The book includes detailed technical drawings of the telewriter, a blueprint for a residential building where each apartment had an interior room housing a television, along with a dozen other drawings and maps. The book also contains a long series of seemingly random lists and tables, including among others, the populations of thirty major cities from 2020 to 2050, a list of all 327 districts that the world had been divided into, a list of most common first names, and an impossibly complex diagram of the relationships between the 19 major branches of government.
The book, which by 1952 he had already named Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (borrowed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), has no plot to speak of. The central theme, and perhaps the central character, is the bureaucracy that controls nearly every aspect of the inhabitants’ daily lives. Wallenstein’s main critique of Nineteen Eighty-Four was that it presented a government that was too organized and efficient, and thus unrealistic, so in his book he constructed a complex and inefficient system of government which operated out of the best intentions, but whose unbending rules and rituals made the simplest processes impossibly difficult.
Thus, for example, Wallenstein presents the story of a secretary who receives a certain form whose intent is quite clear, but which in her view is not filled out according to her department’s precise demands. Rather than process the form, the secretary returns it to the sender with a note demanding that it be resubmitted in the appropriate manner. The sender does not comply, and instead registers a complaint against the secretary’s claim, along with written proof from his departmental protocol that the form was indeed filled out properly. A supervisor from the interdepartmental coordination office is brought in to resolve the issue and decides that the problem actually lies in the inconsistent methods of classification employed by the different departments. An inspector from the Standards department disagrees and claims that certain terms that appear in the form are inadequately defined. A lexicology department assessor is summoned and…. on and on it goes, ad infinitum, and nothing gets done.
By the end, representatives of all 19 branches of government are involved and no consensus has been reached regarding the debated form. In fact, no two people in the story seem to agree about any single fact relating to the form. This example, which might seem humorous in summary, takes up 217 pages of Wallenstein’s novel. Reading it is an exhausting and frustrating struggle that can leave the reader utterly hopeless and certain that the issue can never be resolved, and that perhaps all other human endeavors are equally futile.
In late 1954, when Wallenstein felt that his book would soon be completed, he began contacting publishing houses with the hopes that they would publish his book. Most of them rejected him immediately, whether based on the premise of his book or the complicated process of printing and binding a thousand page book with multiple drawings and charts, which both virtually guaranteed that the book would not make a profit. He also sent letters to several German publishers, writing in German for the first time in 35 years, suggesting they hire a translator and publish his book, but received no response.
In 1955 Meir Mizrachi, a pleasant uneducated tailor turned bookseller, bought two bankrupt publishing houses and was looking for editors and translators to help him put out cheap paperback translations of mystery and romance novels. Wallenstein met with Mizrachi and tried to convince him to publish his book. Mizrachi didn’t think there was much of a market for science fiction, but agreed to publish the book since it did not require a translator. When Wallenstein told him the book was over a thousand pages long he had second thoughts, explaining that a paperback volume simply couldn’t hold so many pages, but in the end they reached a compromise wherein the book would be printed in 5 volumes, to make the novel more manageable, and to increase the estimated profit since each volume would be sold for the price of a standard book.
The five volumes of the book were published between October and December 1955 with covers by Mizrachi’s regular illustrator Arieh Moscovitch. It is safe to assume that neither Moscowitz nor Mizrachi read the book itself, since the covers had little to do with the book. The cover of the first volume, for example, portrayed a blonde woman sporting a ray gun and wearing a space suit that inexplicably reveals her cleavage, against a background of purple dunes.
After the books were printed Wallenstein spent two days in Mizrachi’s warehouse gluing the volumes together, back to front, to form a single massive volume. He assured the workers that he had the publisher’s permission to do so, but when Mizrachi came in and saw what Wallenstein was doing he became furious and kicked him out, cursing him in Turkish. The glued books could not be separated without ruining their covers, so Mizrachi was forced to sell them as they were, and very few copies sold. The separate volumes sold only slightly better, mostly to teenage boys who had bought them for the lurid covers.
Wallenstein sent two copies of his book, along with his heavily annotated copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and all of his notes and original drawings, to Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. In the enclosed letter he stipulated that his notes are not to be read until “I have been dead for forty years, or my vision has come true, whichever comes first.” Wallenstein sent copies of his novel to every reputable book critic and scanned the reviews assiduously to see if anyone mentioned his work, but found nothing. He began smoking even more than before, his voice became a rasp, his skin turned grey. In 1968 Wallenstein was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In May 1969 Amos Geffen, who would go on to translate several classic works of science fiction, wrote a piece for the semi-pornographic scandal magazine Bul, where he bemoaned the marginalized status of science fiction in Israel, and briefly mentioned Wallenstein’s book as “an unequivocal failure.” Geffen presents a brief summary of the book and explains that “In clinging only to what is reasonable and likely the writer neglects the most important aspect of science fiction, which is to present a new idea which will illuminate our own reality.” It is unknown whether Wallenstein ever saw this review.
On the 20th of July 1969 the fire department was called to put out a blaze in a room overlooking the Carmel Market. After extinguishing the fire they discovered the charred remains of a human body. A police report concluded that Jacob Wallenstein had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. He was buried the next day, as man took his first steps on the lifeless moon.
*Image: David Stewart
1. A month before Independence Day, 2048
The Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute took a deep breath and turned on the secret switch on the back of the Hitler.
The Hitler blinked. And blinked again. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the people around him.
After a second of silence, he said, in German, “Where’s Eva? Where’s the bunker? Who are you? Where am I? And why’s it so sunny outside? Gott in himmel, what a blinding sun.”
And was silent again. Then the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute turned around and said to his personal assistant, “Go call the Prime Minister. Tell him the Hitler works.”
2. Ringing in the hundredth year
And the Prime Minister? He was in heaven.
Because the situation, a month before the State of Israel’s hundredth anniversary, was pretty shitty, with morale to match. And that was even though the Prime Minister promised that they were on the verge of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, and even though there had been no terrorist attacks for three months already, and even though the United States promised to renew diplomatic relations with Israel the minute we got out of Lebanon – yes, well, there had been a window of opportunity to go back in there again and we took advantage of it – and even though the previous week, in a highly impressive ceremony, the bodies of soldiers killed in the “Martyrdom” operation (or, as the newspapers called it, “Capturing Baruch Goldstein’s Grave”) – despite all that, morale somehow did not rise to the great heights it had reached fifty years earlier, when the fiftieth anniversary was celebrated.
And in a secret meeting of the committee in charge of the hundredth anniversary celebrations, the Prime Minister said, “First of all, I deny that morale is declining. And second of all, we must raise the morale by Independence Day. We must!”
And it was his good luck that by chance, the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute came to him that very day to ask for an increase in the budget for AIDS research.
When the Prime Minister finished choking with laughter at the request, he said, “First of all, I deny laughing. And second of all, maybe you can invent something for the hundredth anniversary celebrations?”
“Invent?” – said the Chief Scientist very suspiciously – “Maybe you should talk to the Agricultural Development Institute? I heard they are developing an orange that tastes like grapefruit.”
“An orange that tastes like grapefruit… isn’t that actually a grapefruit?” the Prime Minister wondered.
The Prime Minister nodded with the force reserved only for prime ministers, and said, “Forget them. I need something scientific, but Israeli. Something revolutionary, but with roots. Maybe something related to the Holocaust?”
“The Holocaust?” the Chief Scientist asked in some confusion.
“Stop repeating what I say!” demanded the Prime Minister. “You know there are no more survivors left, no more Nazis, and people aren’t interested anymore.”
“Okay, but even so,” said the Chief Scientist, “that was a hundred years ago.”
“The hell with that!” the Prime Minister pounded his (soft) fist on the table. “Only this week, a group of young people came to visit the residence of the Prime Minister’s wife. I said to them, kiddies, I want you to know that giving up the settlement at Yigal Amir’s grave means going back to the boundaries of Auschwitz! Do you know what they said me?”
“Ah… let me think…”
“That was a rhetorical question, idiot,” the Prime Minister tapped his cigar on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “They said, Auschwitz isn’t even in Israel, have you ever heard such chutzpah?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister, Auschwitz really isn’t Israel.”
The Chief Scientist shook his head. And the Prime Minister sighed and lit his cigar with a match he struck on the Chief Scientist’s forehead. “You see – that’s just the problem! People forget the history of the Holocaust. We must, must, must do something!”
And then, in an exciting flash of intuition, the sort that only chief scientists and women have, the idea popped into the mind of the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute.
And he said, “What about an android?”
3. A scientific explanation:
Not that there weren’t any androids before that. There were, and they looked like walking washing machines and were used mainly as porters who could add and subtract, which made them ideal for shopping in the Carmel outdoor fruit and vegetable market. The first Microsoft androids had appeared ten years earlier, and were characterized by the fact that every other sentence they spoke was, “You have performed an illegal action and this program will close down.” But very hush-hush, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute, Israel’s highest-ranking scientists worked on the first online android.
With the help of micro-celled, multi-orgasmic satellite communication (although they still hadn’t found a scientific use of the latter program), the first online android was connected to the internet. All the time. Which opened a window for it not only on a wider variety of facial expressions, but also on the largest database in human history. The online android was everything: all the history, mathematics, art and philosophy from the time human beings came into existence, plus another million, three hundred thousand and fifty-seven video films of Pamela Anderson performing fellatio. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine.
It was the Holocaust.
It was the Revival of the Jewish People.
It was forty years in the desert, and also sixty straight years of Jay Leno.
It was everything, and the only decision finally left to make was what face to give it. Until the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute had his brilliant idea: to make it like Adolph Hitler.
Not just the face and the mustache: the character, personal history, hatred of Jews, the frustrated artistic ambitions, the repressed sexuality.
All the accumulated memory of that man, including the most marginal details, up to those final minutes in the bunker.
And when they turned it on, they weren’t just plugging in another machine. They were bringing Adolph Hitler back to life. And it was all so that the people of Israel could watch him being executed on a live TV broadcast of the main performance in the festivities celebrating Israel’s hundredth year of independence.
4. And meanwhile, in the basement of the Weizmann Institute:
“Well,” asked the Prime Minister, “does it work?”
The Hitler looked him in the eye. It got up and extended its hand. “Hitler, Adolph. Nice to meet you.”
The Prime Minister recoiled, as if bitten by a snake.
“It’s all right,” said the Chief Scientist, “he’s harmless.”
“What do you mean, he’s harmless,” said the Prime Minister, “he’s Adolph Hitler.”
“Well yes, “ the scientist shrugged. “That doesn’t mean he’s a Rottweiler.
“Wait just a minute,” the Prime Minister said, “how come he speaks Hebrew?”
“The internet,” explained the Chief Scientist. “Hitler, recite something from Bialik, our national poet.”
“Not the devil himself could conceive of a child’s revenge,” Hitler quoted the poet after scanning the Bialik House site in 0.2 seconds. “Tzili and Gili are two little dolls. Everyone was borne on the wind, everyone was carried off by the light—“
“Okay, I get it,” grumbled the Prime Minister. “Ah… Mr. Hitler, do you know why you’re here?”
“Yes,” said Hitler solemnly. “And I think you are absolutely right. My heart is with the Jewish people throughout all the generations.”
“Pardon me?” the Prime Minister opened his eyes wide.
The Chief Scientist took him aside and explained: “You have to understand – he knows everything. Everything that happened after the war, the utter destruction of Germany. He knows that today, racism is considered a scientific joke. And he greatly admires everything Israel has achieved in the last hundred years. He thinks it’s wonderful. Especially the settlements and the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. It changed everything he thought about the Jews.”
“He’s Hitler!” the Prime Minister shouted furiously. “All of a sudden he loves Jews? That’s all I needed!”
“Ah… it’s even worse than you think,” said the scientist, all sincere apology. “Now he sees the fanatic Muslims as the great threat to western civilization.”
The Prime Minister’s eyes narrowed to two small slits.
“Don’t tell me…” he whispered.
“I suspect so,” said the scientist, and sighed. “Now he’s against the Arabs.”
5. A problem
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
The Prime Minister covered his face with his hands, but the moment the door opened, he said quickly, “I deny saying dirty words in English!”
Only then did he see that it was Menachem, the Minister of Public Information. “Ah, it’s you,” he said, putting his hands back over his face. “Fuck fuck fuck me.”
“What happened, little fella?” the Minister of Public Information asked him, “tell Menachem all about it.”
“The execution,” sighed the Prime Minister, immediately denying he’d sighed, “it’s not going the way I thought it would.”
“But everything’s ready!” said the astonished Minister of Public Information. “The electric chair is connected, we have a singer for the anthem, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” the Prime Minister fumed, “the problem is that people are starting to like that electronic son-of-a-bitch. Did you see the news last night?”
“No,” said the Minister of Public Information, “I was at the memorial service for Dana International.”
“Your loss. He charmed everyone. He admitted that he he’d made a horrible mistake and that he had no problem with dying to atone for it. And that’s nothing yet: then he said he had only one request, that we should watch out for the Arabs, and we shouldn’t trust a single word they say, because they’re not so hot as a race.”
“So,” the Minister of Public Information shrugged, “So what? Everyone who votes for you thinks that anyway.”
“Terrific!” the Prime Minister fumed, “and I’m the one who promised to execute their new hero!”
“I deny that you said aahh,” said the Prime Minister.
“You can’t deny things other people say,” the Minister of Public Information informed him, “only things you yourself say.”
“Aahh,” said the Prime Minister, and put his hands over his face again. “What should we do?”
“We need something… something strong…” the eyes of the Minister of Public Information clouded over for moment. “Something emotional, sad, that will bring things back into perspective for them.”
“We already had ‘Schindler’s List’ broadcast on Channel 2 before the election,” grumbled the Prime Minister.
“No, something much more… tell me,” – the Minister’s face suddenly brightened – “maybe the Weizmann Institute has another android like that?”
For more than two weeks, the Institute worked around the clock.
They made the eyes black, big. And sad.
The smile – gentle, touching. And sad.
The body – fragile, youthful, as it had been. And sad. Very sad.
And at the end of those two weeks, they plugged in Anne Frank.
6. Zzzzt – and her eyes opened
“For the imagination of man’s heart is good from his youth,” said the Anne Frank, misquoting from the Book of Genesis, using ‘good’ instead of the original ‘evil’. “Hello. Who are you?”
They let her scan the internet quietly, and in an hour and a half, she was updated.
“Wow,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
“Yes,” the Chief Scientist told her. “It’s amazing what science can – “
“Incredible!” she said excitedly, “what a hunk that Leonardo di Caprio is!”
7. She conquered them:
Conquered? Knocked them out is more like it. Anne Frank was the success of the decade. She appeared on eight TV programs a day, telling her heart-rending stories. Not even a week had passed, and the entire world had already fallen at her feet. Telegrams came from the four corners of the world demanding that the little German guy be executed. The high point occurred on a special program in which the two androids were guests, sitting across from each other. She was so beautiful and sad that even the Hitler broke down and cried on live TV.
“Forgive me,” he said, “forgive me. I can’t believe I was such a shitty person.”
“It’s not so bad,” she comforted him, “the important thing is that we’re both here, all the rest doesn’t matter.”
For the remainder of the program, they held hands.
The Prime Minister rubbed his hands in glee and turned off the TV. He said to his wife, “Honey, it’s a done deal. The people are ecstatic. Tomorrow we stick it to Hitler.”
And his wife came out of the shower wrapped in a towel and said, “Tell me, what are you going to do with the Anne Frank?”
“That is a problem,” he said. “We have to find some use for her.”
“Maybe an ambassadorship?”
“There are no openings,” he said. “Before the elections, I had to do some favors for a few people.”
“But there are so many countries,” his wife tried.
“There were a lot of people,” the Prime Minister closed the discussion.
“Too bad,” his wife said and sat down at the mirror to comb her hair. “Tell me, what’s happening tomorrow after the execution?”
“A huge party here, in the house.”
“Nice of you to let me know!” she turned angrily to him. “Do you know how much work that is? I need three helpers here first thing in the morning.”
“Honey, you know how the service regulations are,” the Prime Minister apologized, “I’m not allowed.”
“So maybe you can ask the Anne Frank? She doesn’t have anything to do tomorrow anyway. She can wash a few dishes. Do the floor. Maybe even cook something from the internet.”
The Prime Minister suddenly froze. “Honey,” he said a few seconds later, “you are fantastic.”
8. And he immediately…
Yes, he immediately called the Chief Scientist of the Weizmann Institute and instructed him to open a production line of Anne Franks to be used as housemaids.
“It’s a terrific idea!” the Prime Minister said enthusiastically, “we’ll make billions! There wasn’t be a dry-eyed person left in the world last week. Is there anyone who won’t pay two thousand dollars for an Anne Frank maid in his house?”
“But Mr. Prime Minister,” the Scientist tried, “that could have sexual ramifications. A maid, a young girl… you know.”
The Prime Minister grew silent and thought about that. And a moment later, he said, “You’re right. In that case, no less than five thousand dollars a piece!”
But in his stupidity, the Chief Scientist e-mailed his assistant, detailing the entire plan. And the Anne Frank, the minute she realized they were talking about her on the net, hacked into the Weizmann Institute computer and read everything. That very evening, she managed to slip through the tight security into Hitler’s cell.
When he saw her, he stood up, sheepish. And he said, “Anne, I’ve been thinking about you the whole time. I am really very, very, very – “
“There’s no time for that now,” she told him. “We have to escape.”
“But Anne, I decided to pay for my crimes,” said Hitler.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she told him. “You’re not Adolph Hitler! You’re a poor android into whose head they shoved a ready-made personality.”
“But that’s the only personality I have. I don’t have another one.”
She approached him and looked into his eyes. He was struck dumb. Her hand rose to his face and touched him gently.
Then she kissed him. Her lips fluttered across his mouth, then back again. He blushed.
“Anne…” he said.
“Do you love me?”
“I… yes, I think so.”
“It’s their world, Adi,” she told him. “We’re two freaks. You they’ll kill, and me, they plan to turn into a housemaid.”
“No!” his eyes opened wide in rage.
“It’s you and me against all of them,” the Anne Frank said, tears filling her eyes. “Come on. Now!”
10. And that’s how it all went to hell
The guards went into his cell in the morning to take him to the electric chair, and he wasn’t there. And the Prime Minister’s wife waited for Anne Frank the whole morning, she waited and waited, and finally, she had no choice but to violate the service regulations and hire a Philippine maid. And the Prime Minister was very, very, very disappointed, but immediately denied his disappointment on three TV channels at the same time. And only Channel 2, which was scheduled to broadcast the execution live, recovered immediately and instead, organized a multi-rating discussion of the question, “Leaving Lebanon again – is it feasible?” with the participation of the Chief of Staff, Rabbi Cookie Shach; the Minister of Defense, Rabbi Finchie Ovadia; the Head of the General Security Services, Rabbi and Kabbalah expert, Brandon Kaduri; and Yossi Beilin, who argued that maybe it was feasible.
And the couple in love?
The Hitler bleached his mustache blonde and let it grow. No one recognized him anymore.
The Anne Frank shaved her head, bought a midriff top, had a ring stuck in her bellybutton, and found a job immediately with the children’s TV channel. Nobody recognized her either.
They rented a small house with some land in a down-and-out farm community in the center of the country. They sell organic eggs at double the price. No one knows that their eggs are delicious because their chickens are electronic.
Once a year, they spend a week’s vacation in classical Europe.
The Hitler is very excited during the flights.
He points down through the window and tells her, “That’s Belgium – once it was mine.”
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
*Image: Maurizio Cattelan
On that terrible day, when the universal injustice was committed and Jesus Christ was crucified in Golgotha among robbers—on that day, from early morning, Ben-Tovit, a tradesman of Jerusalem, suffered from an unendurable toothache. His toothache had commenced on the day before, toward evening; at first his right jaw started to pain him, and one tooth, the one right next the wisdom tooth, seemed to have risen somewhat, and when his tongue touched the tooth, he felt a slightly painful sensation. After supper, however, his toothache had passed, and Ben-Tovit had forgotten all about it—he had made a profitable deal on that day, had bartered an old donkey for a young, strong one, so he was very cheerful and paid no heed to any ominous signs.
And he slept very soundly. But just before daybreak something began to disturb him, as if some one were calling him on a very important matter, and when Ben-Tovit awoke angrily, his teeth were aching, aching openly and maliciously, causing him an acute, drilling pain. And he could no longer understand whether it was only the same tooth that had ached on the previous day, or whether others had joined that tooth; Ben-Tovit’s entire mouth and his head were filled with terrible sensations of pain, as though he had been forced to chew thousands of sharp, red-hot nails, he took some water into his mouth from an earthen jug—for a minute the acuteness of the pain subsided, his teeth twitched and swayed like a wave, and this sensation was even pleasant as compared with the other.
Ben-Tovit lay down again, recalled his new donkey, and thought how happy he would have been if not for his toothache, and he wanted to fall asleep. But the water was warm, and five minutes later his toothache began to rage more severely than ever; Ben-Tovit sat up in his bed and swayed back and forth like a pendulum. His face became wrinkled and seemed to have shrunk, and a drop of cold perspiration was hanging on his nose, which had turned pale from his sufferings. Thus, swaying back and forth and groaning for pain, he met the first rays of the sun, which was destined to see Golgotha and the three crosses, and grow dim from horror and sorrow.
Ben-Tovit was a good and kind man, who hated any injustice, but when his wife awoke he said many unpleasant things to her, opening his mouth with difficulty, and he complained that he was left alone, like a jackal, to groan and writhe for pain. His wife met the undeserved reproaches patiently, for she knew that they came not from an angry heart—and she brought him numerous good remedies: rats’ litter to be applied to his cheek, some strong liquid in which a scorpion was preserved, and a real chip of the tablets that Moses had broken. He began to feel a little better from the rats’ litter, but not for long, also from the liquid and the stone, but the pain returned each time with renewed intensity.
During the moments of rest Ben-Tovit consoled himself with the thought of the little donkey, and he dreamed of him, and when he felt worse he moaned, scolded his wife, and threatened to dash his head against a rock if the pain should not subside. He kept pacing back and forth on the flat roof of his house from one corner to the other, feeling ashamed to come close to the side facing the street, for his head was tied around with a kerchief like that of a woman. Several times children came running to him and told him hastily about Jesus of Nazareth. Ben-Tovit paused, listened to them for a while, his face wrinkled, but then he stamped his foot angrily and chased them away. He was a kind man and he loved children, but now he was angry at them for bothering him with trifles.
It was disagreeable to him that a large crowd had gathered in the street and on the neighbouring roofs, doing nothing and looking curiously at Ben-Tovit, who had his head tied around with a kerchief like a woman. He was about to go down, when his wife said to him:
“Look, they are leading robbers there. Perhaps that will divert you.”
“Let me alone. Don’t you see how I am suffering?” Ben-Tovit answered angrily.
But there was a vague promise in his wife’s words that there might be a relief for his toothache, so he walked over to the parapet unwillingly. Bending his head on one side, closing one eye, and supporting his cheek with his hand, his face assumed a squeamish, weeping expression, and he looked down to the street.
On the narrow street, going uphill, an enormous crowd was moving forward in disorder, covered with dust and shouting uninterruptedly. In the middle of the crowd walked the criminals, bending down under the weight of their crosses, and over them the scourges of the Roman soldiers were wriggling about like black snakes. One of the men, he of the long light hair, in a torn blood-stained cloak, stumbled over a stone which was thrown under his feet, and he fell. The shouting grew louder, and the crowd, like coloured sea water, closed in about the man on the ground. Ben-Tovit suddenly shuddered for pain; he felt as though some one had pierced a red-hot needle into his tooth and turned it there; he groaned and walked away from the parapet, angry and squeamishly indifferent.
“How they are shouting!” he said enviously, picturing to himself their wide-open mouths with strong, healthy teeth, and how he himself would have shouted if he had been well. This intensified his toothache, and he shook his muffled head frequently, and roared: “Moo-Moo….”
“They say that He restored sight to the blind,” said his wife, who remained standing at the parapet, and she threw down a little cobblestone near the place where Jesus, lifted by the whips, was moving slowly.
“Of course, of course! He should have cured my toothache,” replied Ben-Tovit ironically, and he added bitterly with irritation: “What dust they have kicked up! Like a herd of cattle! They should all be driven away with a stick! Take me down, Sarah!”
The wife proved to be right. The spectacle had diverted Ben-Tovit slightly—perhaps it was the rats’ litter that had helped after all—he succeeded in falling asleep. When he awoke, his toothache had passed almost entirely, and only a little inflammation had formed over his right jaw. His wife told him that it was not noticeable at all, but Ben-Tovit smiled cunningly—he knew how kind-hearted his wife was and how fond she was of telling him pleasant things.
Samuel, the tanner, a neighbour of Ben-Tovit’s, came in, and Ben-Tovit led him to see the new little donkey and listened proudly to the warm praises for himself and his animal.
Then, at the request of the curious Sarah, the three went to Golgotha to see the people who had been crucified. On the way Ben-Tovit told Samuel in detail how he had felt a pain in his right jaw on the day before, and how he awoke at night with a terrible toothache. To illustrate it he made a martyr’s face, closing his eyes, shook his head, and groaned while the grey-bearded Samuel nodded his head compassionately and said:
“Oh, how painful it must have been!”
Ben-Tovit was pleased with Samuel’s attitude, and he repeated the story to him, then went back to the past, when his first tooth was spoiled on the left side. Thus, absorbed in a lively conversation, they reached Golgotha. The sun, which was destined to shine upon the world on that terrible day, had already set beyond the distant hills, and in the west a narrow, purple-red strip was burning, like a stain of blood. The crosses stood out darkly but vaguely against this background, and at the foot of the middle cross white kneeling figures were seen indistinctly.
The crowd had long dispersed; it was growing chilly, and after a glance at the crucified men, Ben-Tovit took Samuel by the arm and carefully turned him in the direction toward his house. He felt that he was particularly eloquent just then, and he was eager to finish the story of his toothache. Thus they walked, and Ben-Tovit made a martyr’s face, shook his head and groaned skilfully, while Samuel nodded compassionately and uttered exclamations from time to time, and from the deep, narrow defiles, out of the distant, burning plains, rose the black night. It seemed as though it wished to hide from the view of heaven the great crime of the earth.
*Image: Jesus Everywhere
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty