“Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il rèsonne.” – De Béranger.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country—a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment—that of looking down within the tarn—had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy—a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.
Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellissed panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality—of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.
In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision—that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation—that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. “I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated—an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last and only relative on earth. “Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother—but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.
I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances. But the fervid facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses, which were entitled “The Haunted Palace,” ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunéd law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad, led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s which I mention not so much on account of its novelty, (for other men* have thought thus,) as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.
*Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.—See “Chemical Essays,” vol v.
Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and OEgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac, when, one evening, having informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and by no means an unnatural, precaution.
At the request of Usher, I personally aided him in the arrangements for the temporary entombment. The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead—for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness, for I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
It was, especially, upon retiring to bed late in the night of the seventh or eighth day after the placing of the lady Madeline within the donjon, that I experienced the full power of such feelings. Sleep came not near my couch—while the hours waned and waned away. I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room—of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, harkened—I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me—to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence. Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste (for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night), and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment.
I had taken but few turns in this manner, when a light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan—but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor. His air appalled me—but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief.
“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—“you have not then seen it?—but, stay! you shall.” Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.
The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet. It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.
“You must not—you shall not behold this!” said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement;—the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together.”
The antique volume which I had taken up was the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning; but I had called it a favorite of Usher’s more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand; and I indulged a vague hope that the excitement which now agitated the hypochondriac, might find relief (for the history of mental disorder is full of similar anomalies) even in the extremeness of the folly which I should read. Could I have judged, indeed, by the wild overstrained air of vivacity with which he harkened, or apparently harkened, to the words of the tale, I might well have congratulated myself upon the success of my design.
I had arrived at that well-known portion of the story where Ethelred, the hero of the Trist, having sought in vain for peaceable admission into the dwelling of the hermit, proceeds to make good an entrance by force. Here, it will be remembered, the words of the narrative run thus:
“And Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart, and who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn, but, feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising of the tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings of the door for his gauntleted hand; and now pulling therewith sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder, that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarummed and reverberated throughout the forest.”
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story:
“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten—
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;
And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.”
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of Sir Launcelot, which thus proceeded:
“And now, the champion, having escaped from the terrible fury of the dragon, bethinking himself of the brazen shield, and of the breaking up of the enchantment which was upon it, removed the carcass from out of the way before him, and approached valorously over the silver pavement of the castle to where the shield was upon the wall; which in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but feel down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound.”
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver—I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
She was the lady in your neighborhood. You saw her at the supermarket, you saw her in line at the post office. She was like Monday, the day she brought her kid to school, Tuesday, the day she swam laps, Wednesday when she picked the kid up, Thursday when she did the shopping, Friday when she came out of the bakery with pieces of cake wrapped in paper. Neighborhood ladies crossing paths with the ladies in their neighborhood, as if pulled on strings: it could have gone on like that forever. But then everything took a different turn when the painter Uta Päffgen said at the Cindy Sherman opening, “If you’re looking for ghosts, talk to Anne. That woman can conjure spirits, she has this amazing rapport with them.” So you arranged to meet with this unknown Anne, she opened the door and you were standing in front of none other than the neighborhood lady. The long auburn hair, the savagely bemused gaze, the big heart in a broad chest and the scent of afternoon coffee rising behind her. This story is a gift from Anne, the red wine witch, the Lady of Goseck Castle, the Magdeburger medium. Thank you.
A woman with a supernatural bent noticed her abilities early in life and played with them. One day things went far enough that she got a terrible scare and resolved never to mess with that stuff again. But she ended up summoning spirits again and again, she just couldn’t let go of it.
Anne was born in Magdeburg in 1966. When she was 22 and bored to death of everything, she decided to flee East Germany. Of course she didn’t know that the GDR’s days were numbered, since she’d asked the spirits next to nothing about her own future – that was too touchy a subject. Some of her friends had also considered fleeing. Others had already applied for exit visas and were waiting in fear of bad news. Plus, you always had to assume there were spies around. Imagine a spirit announcing to the whole crowd at a séance that Anne H. was going to successfully escape the GDR next week. You just couldn’t do a thing like that, so it didn’t work to hazard a glance into your own future. What the spirits did tell Anne and her friends were wondrous, sophisticated stories that captivated them. Once a spirit who had known Bertolt Brecht turned up, and another time there was a child who always sat on the right knee of the Good Lord. It was fun and entertaining, whereas the reality and near future of young East Germans were neither fun nor entertaining. This is how it came to pass that Anne didn’t ask the spirits about her own fate; had she done so, she would have spared herself the fleeing, the arrest, the stint in a GDR prison.
In those days in Magdeburg Anne didn’t have a job, but she did have friends. The friends had red wine and the red wine had a candle and the candle had a glass. They formed a circle, turned the glass upside down and set it on a table in the middle of the circle. Then they spread lots of slips of paper around the glass into a makeshift Ouija board: the words YES and NO and all the letters of the alphabet, and the numbers from one to a hundred, all arranged in intervals of ten. Each of them gingerly laid a finger on the glass and then they started. And how gloriously the glass tingled and jogged and jiggled as soon as Anne had summoned the spirits. It really danced.
One time they got someone right away. SOS, he said, SOS, SOS.
“Who’s sending an SOS?”
They got a number, then another one, over and over again the same two numbers. Someone fetched an atlas and checked the numbers against the axes of longitude and latitude. It was a point in the South Atlantic. Magdeburg’s red wine-swilling Ouija-boarders of the terminal phase of the GDR heard on the news the next day that a ship had sunk off the coast of the Falkland islands. Everyone aboard had drowned.
Once they summoned a spirit and nothing happened. Then came a knock at the door. One of them stood up and opened it; there was nobody to be seen, but someone stepped inside. They were all sitting cross-legged in a circle on crooked, wafer-thin old floorboards, and they felt how the boards rose and fell beneath the steps of the invisible but weighty guest, they heard the wood creaking. The guest circled the Magdeburgers a few times, scared the hell out of them, then he left. They all knew Anne was the one with the power to provoke such an audacious spirit. It never worked without Anne, and with her it was always wonderful and terrible. But after this experience Anne vowed to give it all up. Having spirits visit your own home was too much, she said, you never knew who’d turn up or what they’d be bringing with them. She said she’d finally understood that she could only attract them, not control them. So it was settled: no more spirit conjuring, never again.
But then came the story with the strange lady who sold clothes at the flea market like Anne did, the one who threw herself at Anne. The way the lady invited Anne and her friends over to her place was way too friendly, so fake, so hugely suspicious. Anne couldn’t say no: she was hell-bent on showing off, so she gathered up her friends and a bottle of wine and showed up unannounced at the strange lady’s place. The strange lady acted like it was such a pleasant surprise to see them. Then someone interrupted her chatter and said: clear off your table, we need it now. They turned a glass upside down in the middle, spread out the letters and the numbers – they’d brought everything along. Each of them gingerly put a finger on the glass. The strange lady didn’t want to join in, she was really creeped out, but they said come on, don’t be such a drag. Anne summoned the spirits, and right away they had one, a ghost in the glass. At first they went around the circle just making small talk with him.
“Great spirit, would you like to talk to us?”
“Are you a good spirit?”
“Is it nice in the place where you are?”
“What’s your name?”
“When did you die?”
“How old were you when you died?”
“What was your job when you were alive?”
As soon as the strange lady started giggling, Anne came straight to her real question.
“Does anyone in this room work for the Stasi?”
“Is this room bugged?”
“Can you show me where?”
“Say yes when I get to the place where the bug is.”
Anne stood up and walked around the room. When she got to the corner with the cabinet, the spirit piped up again: “Yes.”
There was a radio on top of the cabinet. Anne reached for the radio and shook it.
Anne sat back down at the table. The strange lady was as white as a sheet. “Get out!” she yelled. “Now!”
But they didn’t leave, they kept going.
“Do you know the phone number of the people who are listening to us right now?”
“Can you give it to me?”
The spirit gave them a five-digit number that started with a three. In Magdeburg the numbers starting with three were the Stasi numbers. This was such a triumph for Anne. She had abilities the GDR wasn’t prepared for! She was jubilant. And so she thought, although death was still on her mind, that she would succeed in escaping. Another life was waiting for her, a life without shackles. She just had to make her move.
Anne took two journeys before her attempt to flee. The first was to Prague to visit Franz Kafka’s grave; the second to Goseck Castle in Thuringia to get together with her friends one last time. They wanted to drink and laugh and go hiking. She’d been saying her goodbyes for years, in an excruciatingly slow, gloomy process, never able to tell anyone she was doing so. The farewell in Goseck was supposed to be something different, something fortifying. Today Goseck is a renovated castle. Visitor restrooms have been installed in a historically sensitive manner; there are tango workshops in spring, there are concerts and archaeological excavations. But back then, in the East German 1980s, it was half-rotted, abandoned to the ravages of time. Most of the castle was boarded up and coated in dust, lying there as if cursed to sleep a hundred years. There was a small youth hostel in one of the side wings, where Anne and her friends stayed. Anne said she remembers the bleak look of the place. Carpeting, cheap furniture, wipeable plastic surfaces, all of it utterly devoid of any feeling of being in a castle.
Once they snuck into the closed-off part of the castle and had a look around. Most of the rooms were locked, but they fiddled the doors open with a lock pick. Anne made a game out of it. Before she opened a door, she would stand in front of the locked door and rattle off a list: fireplace on the left, the fire poker is lying on the mantel and the knob is chipped, the window is green, there’s a column in the middle of the room. Or: A long, dark room with a tiny window on the right at the far end, in the middle a cast-iron candelabra hanging low over a big table. And each time Anne’s descriptions proved right. As if she knew them intimately, these dead rooms with their tattered curtains and dirty door fittings, with their putrid furniture and faded wallpaper. On one of these forays they found a bottle of red wine without a label amidst some debris. The bottle was covered in a thick layer of dust; the cork and the glass appeared to be forged of ancient materials. The bottle might have been sixty, maybe a hundred years old. Anne’s friends opened it, but none of them dared to take a swig. Finally Anne tried it. The wine tasted so good that she drank the whole bottle. Then she lay down in her bed in the youth hostel. That night she dreamed she was walking through Goseck Castle. She was supposed to go to the castle chapel, that was the order she’d been given. On the way there she was able to walk through walls. She could stick parts of her body through the thick walls – her head, an arm, a leg. It was fun. Then she couldn’t get any further. The dream ended. The next day Anne found out that during the night an old woman had died at Goseck Castle. The woman had held a right of lifelong abode there. The crotchety old lady had been a noblewoman, people said, a countess whose family had lived in the castle for a long time.
The end of this story didn’t come until six months later, in May 1989, when Anne was in Hohenschönhausen Prison, having failed in her attempt to flee. There in her prison cell, the dream suddenly picked up where it had left off. She was back in the spot in the castle en route to the chapel where she hadn’t been able to get any further. Now she could also see the landscape, and a St. Bernard, and herself in a white dress with a little boy of about five at her side. She knew immediately that this woman and child were killed by the woman’s husband. He’d been away for years at the crusades and she’d been unfaithful. The child was killed for the shame he brought and was buried in front of the altar; the woman was bricked into a wall alive. “But what does that have to do with the old countess?” she asked in the dream, and an answer came: “The old woman at Goseck Castle was the last of her family line and couldn’t die until you arrived.” That was me, Anne thought when she woke up in her cell in Hohenschönhausen – that was my past life. My life now has nothing to do with it anymore.
When she got out of jail and the GDR’s hermetic seal was broken, she drove to the Mediterranean and picked up a stone there. Then she took it to Franz Kafka’s grave, back to Prague. She laid the stone on the grave and apologized profusely to him for having stolen a small rock there the year before. The stone had been lying at the very top of the grave, she explained, and she’d wanted to take it as a good luck charm for her escape and for all the dangers she’d face. She said she’d wanted to possess a part of him, she revered him so much, but she hadn’t taken into consideration that the stone had been an offering to him from someone else. Since then she’d had nothing but bad luck, a whole year of punishment and misfortune. She would still be sitting tight behind bars if the GDR hadn’t collapsed. And so, she told him, she was bringing the stone back. It wasn’t exactly the same one – that one had gotten lost in the turmoil of the past year – but it was a pretty stone from the Mediterranean, and would he be so kind as to accept it with her apology and forgive her?
Anne moved to Berlin, studied art history, got a job sorting mail, and was for a while something along the lines of honorary chairwoman at the Kommandatur Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. She heard about Goseck Castle once more. In 1991, two years after her dream, she met a guy from Weißenfels, a town near Goseck. Anne’s friends told him about the eerie things that had happened at the castle, about Anne’s dream where the woman and the child appeared, and the night the old countess died. They told him how Anne had since sworn that a child was buried in front of the altar in the Goseck Castle chapel. The young man turned ghostly pale and said that a child’s skeleton had been found beneath a marble slab in the castle chapel.
“That was my child,” Anne said. “In the time of the crusades. I led him by the hand.”
In Berlin she mostly stopped using the Ouija board and encountering spirits, which is odd given that Berlin is full of ghosts, and that they have no reason to avoid Anne. Now and then a spirit would sidle up to her, but she didn’t even always notice. Once she mistook a ghost for a roommate dressed in dark clothes. He entered the room softly and looked over her shoulder, read along with interest as she wrote at her desk. She chatted with him – a one-sided conversation, as he never answered. When she turned around, nobody was there. As if the man had never even been there.
For a few years in the late 90s, Anne lived in a dilapidated building at Invalidenstraße 104, kitty-corner from the Natural History Museum. The building’s owner would later pay her a lot of money to move out so he could renovate the place and raise the rents. The building was part of a horseshoe-shaped housing complex right next to the Charité hospital and various military facilities, built during the Gründerzeit, the late-19th-century period of rapid industrial expansion in Germany. Theodor Fontane’s novella Stine is set at this time, around 1890, on exactly this stretch of the two-mile-long Invalidenstraße. It was no coincidence that Fontane chose this particular street for Stine. The panoply of buildings and institutions there showed the Gründerzeit at its most frenetic. Invalidenstraße was blood and sweat, dreck and speed: three major train stations, the Lehrter, Stettiner, and Hamburger Bahnhöfe; engineering works; parade grounds; barracks; the veterans home; and beyond it all a prison and the Charité hospital, and then the countless apartment buildings and graveyards. Fontane depicted the precarious social circumstances of Ernestine Rehbein and Pauline Pittelkow, two sisters who lived at Invalidenstraße 98e, torn between flirtations and marriage proposals, between hoping for love and striving for upward mobility. All their dreams are dashed against the rigidity of a narrow-minded society, and only death triumphs in the end.
Stine looked at her sister.
“Yes, you’re looking at me, child. You likely think, oh glory, it’s a reassurance when you say ‘It’s not a fling.’ Stine, darling, that doesn’t comfort me one bit; on the contrary. A fling, a fling. God, a fling isn’t the worst of it by a mile. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and he goes this way, she goes that way, and by the third day they’re both singing again. Off you go, I have my part. Oh Stine, a fling! Believe me, no one ever died of a fling, not even when it gets rough. No, Stine, no, a fling’s not much, it’s nothing at all really. But when it gets to you here (she pointed to her heart), then it’s really something, that’s when it turns ugly.”
When Anne was living at number 104 she started up again with the Ouija board. It was late at night, there were five of them there, and they’d planned it all ahead. One of her friends brought along a really big bottle of wine, the rarest and most subtle vintage Anne had ever sipped, she even wrote a short story about the wine later. The séance started the same way it always did: “Great spirit, we summon you.” A woman who’d died of tuberculosis when she was just 23 came into the glass. She answered their questions about where she was – “I’m in the yard” – and where she came from: “I’m buried in the yard behind the house.” Anne had heard talk among the neighbors about a pauper’s graveyard behind the horseshoe-shaped buildings, a place where the Charité used to bury dead patients without much ado, plague and Hepatitis C victims. The rumors and conversations mostly concerned the rats that came over from the old Charité campus to invade the building’s cellar and root through the garbage bins. After their pillaging, they would run back through their own tunnel to the hospital park. Was that where this spirit came from? The young woman’s ghost answered the question “What’s up with you?” with “hatred” and “rage”. She answered the next question with the word “oficier,” written just that way, one f and an i after the c. The story came together over the course of the séance: the spirit in the glass was the servant girl of an oficier who had once lived with his wife in Anne’s apartment. The girl slept in the tiny room at the back. The officer was also her lover, and she really fell for him. But when she fell ill with tuberculosis, the man couldn’t have cared less. She was buried in the pauper’s graveyard of the Charité, not far from their building. The man carried on with his life unperturbed; she alone had been robbed of all the nice things in life. Hence her rage. When Anne’s friends heard the story, they resolved to do something about it. Naturally they felt terribly sorry for the girl, one of the friends was so moved by the story she sobbed. But what Anne wanted most was to get the unbridled rage out of her apartment. She opened another bottle of the extraordinary red wine and gave the ghost a speech. She spoke of the brief life that was granted to the poor, the girl’s grave and unforgettable experience with the callous man. They held a moment of silence to commemorate her bitter end, and they wished her and her broken heart nothing less than eternal peace. Then the glass was still. This, too, is a woman’s stirring fate from Invalidenstraße. Not from Fontane, but nonetheless from the realm of spirits.
Your Ghost Reporter could not, of course, leave it at that, and had a look at old city maps from the turn of the century. The old Charité graveyard really did run right behind Invalidenstraße 104. It stretched along Hessische Straße to the hospital washhouse. Very little information about the cemetery survives – even Frau Beer, who leads historical tours of the Charité grounds and specializes in fielding such questions, knows nothing about it. “I’d have to dig way down,” she says. “I’d have to dig way down.” The cemetery existed from 1726 onward. The new glass-walled North Campus Cafeteria and the Center for Advanced Training in Rural Development have now been built over it. The weathered walls and wild ivy beds shooting up dark hundred-yard vines look like reliable signs of a graveyard. But nothing at the site wants to recall a burial ground for the poor and the invalid – we only have maps, servant girl apparitions, and rumors among the rat-plagued neighbors to do that. And as for the oficier – a member of the military did indeed live at number 104; this fact appears in Berlin address registers, specifically in the “Directory of All Domiciles in Berlin with Specification of Their Owners and Tenants”. From 1893 onward, a certain Müller lived there, who in the address directories is alternately listed as a sergeant and a lieutenant, and beginning in 1904 as “retd. Lieutenant”; then he stops turning up at all. “Sergeant lieutenants” were considered commissioned officers or subordinate officers in the Second Reich army, and were entitled to use the associated insignia and titles. Whether this Sergeant Müller was the aforementioned rake, and whether he was dashing, and whether the story of the consumptive servant girl is true at all – this the Berlin address directory cannot divulge. The episode shall remain uncanny.
Before we draw this to an end, permit me to add a general reflection on the gift that has followed Anne through her life: the spirits that revealed themselves to her were far more numerous during her youth in the GDR. She had energy to devote to them, she was interested in their stories. This interest waned as she got older. It’s the same way with red wine and your own vigor: there comes a time when you have to pace yourself. Especially when you have a kid to take care of, a husband to love, a job to do. The path of wisdom is too hard a route if it leads through wine. In Berlin Anne was no longer the medium she’d been in Magdeburg. Terrorizing the Stasi, conquering wiretaps across time and space: that wasn’t her anymore. What did happen in Berlin was that she noticed the ghosts and spirits had plenty of people to tend to them. Anne is constantly encountering people with ghost stories to tell. People like her neighbor, the painter. When she visited him she got the feeling that someone else was there with them in his apartment; maybe, she thought, it was just noises. She looked around.
“So you heard something too?” the painter said. “I have a sort of housemate, but then again, who knows, maybe it’s just a dream.”
“Come on, tell me,” Anne insisted.
The painter was skeptical. “It was probably just a dream.” Then he said, “I was lying on the sofa falling asleep. A woman appeared. She wore a dress with an apron and her hair was in long braids. We looked at each other in astonishment. I felt awkward, I didn’t know what to say to her. Then I suddenly thought: I’m just sleeping! I closed my eyes, and then I woke up.”
He showed Anne a picture he’d drawn right after he woke up. The woman was wearing high-heeled lace-up boots. She looked short and serious and overworked. Like a woman from a century ago. His housemate.
*This story is taken from: Die Gespenster von Berlin – Wahre Geschichten by Sarah Khanl. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013.
Franz Liszt died on the 31st of July in the year 1886; he could not recall the finer details. Now, however, he found himself, in full possession of his senses and mental faculties, walking purposefully along a street – his destination revealed by an invitation held in his pocket, an invitation with the succinct message: ‘Mrs Magda G. requests your attendance at the Reich Chancellery bunker, on 1 May 1945.’
In the Reich Chancellery – apparently these facilities were located beneath the ground – he found himself sitting on a chair, not knowing how he had got there so quickly and without further ado. He examined the room, which was shaken back and forth by detonations at irregular intervals. He saw a long oak table, around it chairs with high, padded backrests, then a bust of a male head that was the exact same shade as the plaster trickling out of the gaps in the walls. This head exerted an irresistible draw upon him. Then, though, he saw a pianoforte in a remote corner, diagonally opposite him, its black varnish densely strewn with dusty mortar and lumps of brickwork.
On a stool behind it, in an entirely fearful poise – collapsed into herself but her gaze still fixed upon the new arrival with questioning – almost imploring attention, sat a middle-aged woman. She had fixed her blonde hair in a bun at the back of her neck and held her chin slightly too raised, red blotches showing here and there on her face.
‘I’m glad you came, sir,’ she said, barely audibly. ‘Countess d’Agoult was the mother of your children, is that not correct?’
Liszt was confused, so unexpectedly and directly reminded of earlier circumstances by a woman he did not know, but whom he had to assume was suffering. Then, after moments of indecisiveness that formed a notable contrast to the dignity of his age, he stood and approached the pianoforte.
‘Why are you crying, Madame?’ he asked. ‘For heaven’s sake, why are you crying?’
And as he reached out his arms and was almost tempted to take her hands, since she was now sobbing, he interrupted his laboured but friendly gesture, for he noticed in the doorway, which had opened and closed again with an unpleasant metallic clang, a delicate-looking man who nodded at the two of them with a blithe smile.
‘Talk to him,’ the woman implored, gripping Liszt’s right hand. ‘He wants me to kill my children.’
At the same time, though, she was clearly ashamed of exposing her husband, who was standing in the doorway and making an effort to appear composed, and exposing him to a stranger, even if that stranger was Franz Liszt.
‘I’m not claiming,’ she added, and her face was wet with tears, ‘I’m not claiming that this were not my wish as well. But you must understand, this wish is something I cannot possibly carry out.’
‘There’s no time, the doctor’s waiting,’ said Josef G. and smiled again. ‘I’m certain the immortal Franz Liszt will give you the strength to do the unavoidable.’
At that, he walked towards his wife, gently grasped her by the elbow and led her, barely resisting, to the door, and Liszt noticed that a deformity, an overly short leg, impeded his walking.
‘You want to kill your children?’ he asked, and both husband and wife turned around and saw the shocked benevolence in the face of this honourable man, and that he was dressed as a priest.
There followed a detonation so powerful that there was reason to fear it would reverberate to the earth’s innermost core. The light extinguished, and when the bulb hung from the room’s ceiling lit up again, Liszt was alone. He did not know whether he ought to follow the couple, who had obviously disappeared behind the door, and he attempted to comprehend the circumstances in which he found himself.
‘But how can this be?’ he thought. ‘It is impossible that I have been asked to this house to be made a witness to a crime. I must have misheard!’
And the reserve he had cultivated throughout his lifetime, the lack of obligation in observing the world as it presented itself on concert tours, the impossibility of seeing through his hosts’ customs or even perceiving them, as a much sought-after virtuoso, all this hindered him from taking action this time as well.
He decided to wait and see how things developed. He sat down at the pianoforte, having cleared the keyboard and paying no heed to the mortar, and played the first bars of the Waldstein Sonata up to the trill that attempts to turn the dark, melancholy prelude towards jollity. He did so again and once more, as though hesitating to disclose the precious delight his hands had so often created. But he played on, and as soon as he began to forget himself, what finally prevailed was his magic, that complete lack of distinction between artist and instrument which only a virtuoso can create.
Once again the iron door opened, more gently than the first time, and Mrs G. returned to the room. Liszt thought he made out children’s voices beyond the corridor hidden by the door, laughing in play, but the sound was vague and indeterminate and so distant that he was unsure his senses had not deceived him.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir,’ said Mrs G, and took a seat at the oak table.
‘I thank you, Madame,’ the pianist replied, interrupting his playing to bow in her direction.
The ensuing silence lasted rather too long. Mrs G. looked at the ground and said quietly, as if to herself and to excuse the lack of communication:
‘Please don’t think badly of my husband. He loves the children just as much as I do. But he too would like to spare them this life.’
‘Madame, what are you talking about?’ said Liszt, looking at the woman, who seemed lonely to the point of exhaustion, a woman who could be called neither old nor young, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither attractive nor repellent, but touching in her ultimate sadness, and who now returned his gaze. Her head was held high, her hands pressed together to find purchase, but it was her eyes, those widened eyes apparently helpless in their extreme agitation, that betrayed her as someone making great efforts despite knowing they had long since left every cause to do so behind.
‘I’d like to ask you to take care of my children,’ she said. ‘I’m worried about what will become of them once they’ve died. They’re still so young. I know,’ she added, ‘how kind a man you are, and I very much hope you won’t leave my children uncared for.’
Liszt stared at her hair and noticed that a strand previously fastened with a clip had come loose and now fell over her temple, and that she let this negligence go unheeded. He could not refrain from admiring the grace that had come about for an instant despite all desperation.
‘But your children are alive,’ he said. ‘And they have a mother who cannot possibly wish that were not so.’
She gave no answer.
He was about to ask her for an explanation of her seemingly incomprehensible words, but now Josef G. appeared in the doorway, apparently intending not to let his wife out of his sight as he mistrusted her state of mind.
‘When a man can no longer save his house it becomes his funeral pyre. When a man sacrifices himself and his children, he ennobles their demise,’ he said. As he spoke he went to the oak table and sat down, edging so close to his wife that their shoulders touched.
How long they sat that way, Liszt could not say. His gaze remained fixed upon the strange couple as he listened to the detonations coming closer and closer, and he saw Josef G. – a man who was long accustomed to such circumstances and tended to react to all external threats with disdain – flinch in response, but it was a reflex to which he paid no regard.
Only once, after the door jerked open as though torn from its hinges although no one had as much as touched it, did he assure them that the artillery blasts could not possibly endanger these rooms, as they were several metres below ground, and that the German soldiery, though exhausted, though bleeding from countless wounds, was by all means still willing and able to hold off the enemy until the evening.
Orderlies came bringing news contradicting that confidence. Nobody, they stated, was in a position to defend these embattled streets, that narrow territory between Tiergarten and Vossstrasse that was all that remained to the powerful men of the Third Reich, not for longer than one or two hours.
‘So it shall be,’ said Josef G. ‘We shook the world because it was about to suffocate in its languor, shook it with iron fists, and we did not embark upon this battle in order to be victorious. For what is victory? It is a cheap win if one does not aim to challenge the entirety of fate, bring destiny to its knees.’
And once again Liszt had the sense that he heard children’s voices, more clearly than the first time, even thinking he could make out the difference in their ages. He rose to his feet.
‘These insane people,’ he thought. ‘They are waging a war, they wish for their own demise. But I must prevent them from making their children atone for their sins.’
He thanked his hosts for the invitation, regretted that he could do nothing at all about their desolate situation, but told them he was nonetheless willing to play the pianoforte, should they so wish, and that he would not mind if the children… Indeed, he would be delighted by their presence, for, he assured them several times with increasing urgency, he knew no greater pleasure than performing for children.
‘Yes, play, do play!’ Magda G. exclaimed.
But as soon as Josef G. had taken her hand, holding it in a gentle but unequivocally firm grip and smiling, it seemed to Liszt as though she too were triumphant for a moment, her eyes fixed upon the man as upon a magician, one capable of making their own and their children’s demise amidst a burning fortress appear a victory.
This troubled Liszt.
‘But,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you won’t be so impolite as to leave the room while I am playing the pianoforte. In my lifetime, I would never have experienced such a thing.’
To himself, he thought, ‘If this war is to end in a few hours’ time, the music must entrance them. Beethoven! Beethoven will save the children’s lives. He is more powerful than anything else. The person who can resist the Waldstein Sonata is yet to be born.’
He began to play. Before he did so, however, he scrutinized his listeners once more, as was his wont, his hands resting on the keyboard. It was a moment of extreme concentration. And as he hit the first chords, he saw Magda G. shift away from her husband, almost imperceptibly, by removing a handkerchief from the belt of her dress and raising it to her lips with the slightest possible motion, and Josef G. took no notice of her movement.
He, though, Franz Liszt, did indeed see it and took it as proof of how quickly the magic of his virtuosity began to take effect. It encouraged him.
‘Keep going, keep playing,’ he thought. ‘I can get through the sonata in twenty-three minutes if necessary, but they’ll be amazed when this brief eternity lasts until the evening.’
He repeated the opening, making the chords particularly gentle in an attempt to assuage the couple’s dark determination. Then he interrupted his playing before he began the variations, but did not look up so as not to encourage applause. Minutes later, he felt his plan was coming to fruition.
Josef G. sat there like someone for whom the state of the world, which was after all only his own state, had been miraculously repaired by the music. He looked only at Liszt, at his hands, not seeing how Magda G. was trying to master her emotions somewhat by constantly occupying herself with her handkerchief.
She was suffering at the thought that the children might approach the room, despite being prohibited from doing so, and – drawn by the music, oh, such wonderful music – seek their parents’ proximity, that proximity in which they could always feel safe and which they had never been denied. She could not bear the thought that, before the evening set in, she would have to abuse this closeness to deceive her children. Yet for her too, the interplay of chords, the back and forth of contradictory and then conciliatory tones that expanded the space around her beyond all limits, made that pain desirable, for her too the music so curiously made the certainty of death, which was to be brought about so hastily and without dignity, an object of longing.
Liszt could not lift their mood, yet his art solidified their desire for their unhappy state to remain unchanged, indeed, they veritably wished to remain in their desolation for all eternity, a desperation that now seemed just as indispensible to them as the pianoforte.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir!’ exclaimed Magda G.
‘I thank you,’ Liszt responded, not bowing to her but continuing his playing, now firmly convinced the children must be able to hear him, although they were kept so thoroughly hidden.
Once again the iron door opened, and a middle-aged man entered the room. He wore a black uniform, the sleeves of his jacket rolled up to his elbows, the collar gaping, his cropped hair unkempt, a small suitcase in his left hand. He appeared not to notice the piano playing, his attention still focused on the corridor from whence he had come, and responded to a voice as though he wanted to make sure of some matter. Then he glared at Josef G. with extreme impatience. It was the doctor. And Liszt felt that this was someone whom he had cause to fear.
‘The same head as I see on the bust over there,’ he thought. ‘He is as pale as marble, without kindness, utterly unreachable. He doesn’t hear the music.’
He saw that the uniform’s collar was decorated with a skull, and he could not refrain from admiring the lack of distinction between the face, the uniform, and the insignia of death. Having been fascinated for so many years by the beauty of benevolence, he now faced the beauty of evil and felt how his hands’ playing – previously a matter of no effort, almost automatic – faltered, how he resisted by pitting the bass notes and the extreme heights against one another, across the octaves, again and again.
The doctor remained unmoved, however, and Josef G. stood slowly and walked to the door, carefully placing his feet on the hard concrete, still looking back at Liszt and the pianoforte, and then, having reached the door, he raised his right arm as if in greeting, with an expression of regret.
‘I am still playing!’ the pianist exclaimed. ‘Good manners dictate that the artist must be the first to leave the room. Madame,’ he turned now to Magda G., ‘is there any reason to disrespect my playing in such a manner?’
But she was looking at the door too, watching Josef G. and the doctor withdraw, and as she attempted to stand likewise, she now dropped the handkerchief she had clung to for so long. She wanted to go after the two men but her knees could not bear the fast movement they were to perform, and so she fell back onto the chair mere moments after rising, hitting her elbow hard against the table.
‘Help me, sir. He’s going to the children. Quickly, give me your arm.’
‘No,’ answered Liszt and went on playing, playing on and on. ‘No,’ he answered and he tried to lend strictness to his voice, ‘as long as you’re listening to me, nothing can happen to the children.’
‘You’re wrong, sir. If I don’t take pity on them the doctor will kill them. We are guilty. We must not fall into our enemies’ hands,’ she said, immediately shocked at her admission and trying to take it back. ‘No,’ she added and rose from her seat. ‘No,’ she repeated almost imploringly as she approached Liszt, ‘we are not guilty.’
She came so close to him that he felt compelled to interrupt his playing, and when she asked him, this time most forcefully, whether he too believed they were not guilty, he said:
‘Madame, I do not know. But as you say it is so, I am inclined to believe you.’
‘I thank you,’ she answered and then fell silent.
Liszt felt the lamp above their heads, the furniture around them, indeed the entire room begin to vibrate, and he was surprised that it happened in absolute silence. And as Magda G. also remained silent, simply standing in remarkable indecisiveness, and he did not know how to interpret her behaviour or whether it would be appropriate to return to playing the pianoforte, he began to speak quietly and urgently:
‘Madame,’ he said, ‘you should not be unjust towards life, and above all: One must not always want something at any price. I had two children from my first marriage, Cosima and Blandine; that is, they were in fact born out of wedlock but I took care of them nonetheless. Blandine died very young, sadly, but Cosima, as you know, was the wife of von Bülow and then Richard Wagner and did not pass away until 1930. What a long and eventful life! Of course, I too had reasons for dissatisfaction, and I never approved of Cosima’s infidelity to von Bülow or her fondness for Wagner, yet nor can I claim that my worries over Cosima were considerable. You, Madame, are desperate, but no desperation, not even such that longs for death, must seduce us into seeing everything solely through our own eyes. Nothing exceeds one’s own misfortune, and yet: Madame, one must let the world, and that includes one’s own children, take its course.’
She listened to him, only now noticing how old the man was, indeed that he was on the brink of decrepitude, and his measured, almost leisurely way of speaking did her good, and now it made perfect sense to her that he was wearing a priest’s gown. Whether she agreed with his words, he could not say. She seemed to be far, far away in her thoughts, and even when a girl’s voice called tentatively for her mother, she seemed not to notice.
‘How many children do you have?’ Liszt asked.
She could not answer. She was ashamed. It appeared impossible for her to explain that she had seven children but only one of them was safe from her care. It seemed inconceivable to her too that one might kill six children of such different ages and in such a short time. The smallest ones, yes, what would be so appalling if one were to let them fall asleep close to her, as they were accustomed, this time forever? But the older ones who had some understanding of things, full of mistrust, who had only after ever renewed assurances that nothing could happen to them bravely held out in their nursery for days, how was one to visit such an extreme act upon them, after having promised to protect them?
She was surprised that these thoughts, which she found unbearable, did not almost crush her and force her to lie down, as so often, so as at least to settle her heart to some extent. Everything in her grew light, the ground beneath her feet moved like a shadow, and all at once she remembered earlier, much earlier circumstances in which she might have almost fainted with happiness and joy, and she had to swiftly grip the pianoforte, but without Liszt noticing, so as not to fall. And because she smiled as she did so, yet could not permit herself to and feared she was losing control of her senses, she said:
‘I thank you. I must go to my children. You can hear them yourself, they’re calling for me.’
Liszt wanted to help her. He had noticed full well that she was swaying and struggling to let go of the pianoforte, but as he took the two or three steps required to reach her, his shoes caught in the hem of his soutane and he was barely able to prevent himself from tripping, and when after this clumsiness he at last tried to offer his arm with a word of apology, she was gone. He stared at the corridor, the iron door wide open like a precipice at the end of the world, and now he realized he had neglected to play.
‘Wait,’ he wanted to call. ‘Please excuse my negligence! Leave the children in peace, I haven’t finished playing! We haven’t reached the end of the sonata!’
But he sensed how pointless it all was, merely murmured a few hasty words, and stood there like a man forced to watch as the very disaster he had meant to avoid unfolded because of him and, as he believed, because of his babbling. He felt his back grow cold and his hands, those precious hands schooled for extreme discipline, begin to tremble, and he was unable to obey the panicked desire to return to the pianoforte immediately, irrevocably, so as to rectify his failure. But then he did reach the keyboard, though with the impression that he had forced his arms and legs into the act, and began to play.
‘Thank heaven,’ he thought, ‘this instrument makes everything vibrate, if only one works magic upon it.’
And it really was so: the guilty conscience that drove him on, the desperate hope that he might drive everything underneath the earth closer to him again if only he were heard everywhere, but also the thought that if he did not play the children might scream with horror in their despair and he would be condemned to hear them, all this made him start the adagio with such agitation and surging energy that it seemed as though the all too cramped room, the iron door, and even the corridor were being blown apart through the force of a trombone. But he did not leave it at that.
‘Don’t you dare!’ he called out. ‘Don’t you dare harm those children! They are God’s creatures!’ And: ‘I don’t presume to judge the world, I am just as base as you are, but anyone who murders their children shall neither live nor die in all eternity, shall be called neither father nor mother!’
And the more he raised his voice, the less reserved his threats grew, the more urgently he wished to prevent the children’s misfortune at any price, the more clearly he felt that his strength was no longer sufficient for such great rage. For a while he seemed to hold out, until a cough he was unable to suppress robbed him of breath, and he had to turn away from the pianoforte, keeping the sonata going with this right hand as the left now lay motionless on the keyboard.
He wheezed and struggled for air, unable to rid himself of the weakness that had come over him. He hoped someone would appear, or, if that were too much to ask, at least a voice would ring out, not necessarily even addressing him. But all remained silent.
He folded the music stand back, closed the pianoforte.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘fine. Then I have done what I could, and now all heavens are closed.’
He sat there, collapsed, his head bowed, his hands resting on his knees, and as his breathing gradually slowed he was overcome by a feeling of indifference. He thought of the Countess d’Agoult and remembered he had not attended her burial.
That was what he thought of now. And also that he had asked too much of the Waldstein Sonata, asked the impossible.
Above the earth, seven or eight metres closer to heaven, the spring began. The horse chestnuts blossomed. They struggled to assert themselves over the scent hanging over the burning city.
*This story is taken from: Die Waldsteinsonate by Hartmut Lange, Copyright © 1984, 2017 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich, Switzerland, all rights reserved.
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
*Image: © Álvaro Domínguez
In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner’s, glowed like the butt of a cigar. One should rather say, perhaps, like the butt of a firework, for the light was of many colours and some complexity, broken up by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-coloured cakes and sweetmeats. Against this one fiery glass were glued the noses of many gutter-snipes, for the chocolates were all wrapped in those red and gold and green metallic colours which are almost better than chocolate itself; and the huge white wedding-cake in the window was somehow at once remote and satisfying, just as if the whole North Pole were good to eat. Such rainbow provocations could naturally collect the youth of the neighbourhood up to the ages of ten or twelve. But this corner was also attractive to youth at a later stage; and a young man, not less than twenty-four, was staring into the same shop window. To him, also, the shop was of fiery charm, but this attraction was not wholly to be explained by chocolates; which, however, he was far from despising.
He was a tall, burly, red-haired young man, with a resolute face but a listless manner. He carried under his arm a flat, grey portfolio of black-and-white sketches, which he had sold with more or less success to publishers ever since his uncle (who was an admiral) had disinherited him for Socialism, because of a lecture which he had delivered against that economic theory. His name was John Turnbull Angus.
Entering at last, he walked through the confectioner’s shop to the back room, which was a sort of pastry-cook restaurant, merely raising his hat to the young lady who was serving there. She was a dark, elegant, alert girl in black, with a high colour and very quick, dark eyes; and after the ordinary interval she followed him into the inner room to take his order.
His order was evidently a usual one. “I want, please,” he said with precision, “one halfpenny bun and a small cup of black coffee.” An instant before the girl could turn away he added, “Also, I want you to marry me.”
The young lady of the shop stiffened suddenly and said, “Those are jokes I don’t allow.”
The red-haired young man lifted grey eyes of an unexpected gravity.
“Really and truly,” he said, “it’s as serious—as serious as the halfpenny bun. It is expensive, like the bun; one pays for it. It is indigestible, like the bun. It hurts.”
The dark young lady had never taken her dark eyes off him, but seemed to be studying him with almost tragic exactitude. At the end of her scrutiny she had something like the shadow of a smile, and she sat down in a chair.
“Don’t you think,” observed Angus, absently, “that it’s rather cruel to eat these halfpenny buns? They might grow up into penny buns. I shall give up these brutal sports when we are married.”
The dark young lady rose from her chair and walked to the window, evidently in a state of strong but not unsympathetic cogitation. When at last she swung round again with an air of resolution she was bewildered to observe that the young man was carefully laying out on the table various objects from the shop-window. They included a pyramid of highly coloured sweets, several plates of sandwiches, and the two decanters containing that mysterious port and sherry which are peculiar to pastry-cooks. In the middle of this neat arrangement he had carefully let down the enormous load of white sugared cake which had been the huge ornament of the window.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked.
“Duty, my dear Laura,” he began.
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, stop a minute,” she cried, “and don’t talk to me in that way. I mean, what is all that?”
“A ceremonial meal, Miss Hope.”
“And what is that?” she asked impatiently, pointing to the mountain of sugar.
“The wedding-cake, Mrs. Angus,” he said.
The girl marched to that article, removed it with some clatter, and put it back in the shop window; she then returned, and, putting her elegant elbows on the table, regarded the young man not unfavourably but with considerable exasperation.
“You don’t give me any time to think,” she said.
“I’m not such a fool,” he answered; “that’s my Christian humility.”
She was still looking at him; but she had grown considerably graver behind the smile.
“Mr. Angus,” she said steadily, “before there is a minute more of this nonsense I must tell you something about myself as shortly as I can.’”
“Delighted,” replied Angus gravely. “You might tell me something about myself, too, while you are about it.”
“Oh, do hold your tongue and listen,” she said. “It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of, and it isn’t even anything that I’m specially sorry about. But what would you say if there were something that is no business of mine and yet is my nightmare?”
“In that case,” said the man seriously, “I should suggest that you bring back the cake.”
“Well, you must listen to the story first,” said Laura, persistently. “To begin with, I must tell you that my father owned the inn called the ‘Red Fish’ at Ludbury, and I used to serve people in the bar.”
“I have often wondered,” he said, “why there was a kind of a Christian air about this one confectioner’s shop.”
“Ludbury is a sleepy, grassy little hole in the Eastern Counties, and the only kind of people who ever came to the ‘Red Fish’ were occasional commercial travellers, and for the rest, the most awful people you can see, only you’ve never seen them. I mean little, loungy men, who had just enough to live on and had nothing to do but lean about in bar-rooms and bet on horses, in bad clothes that were just too good for them. Even these wretched young rotters were not very common at our house; but there were two of them that were a lot too common—common in every sort of way. They both lived on money of their own, and were wearisomely idle and over-dressed. But yet I was a bit sorry for them, because I half believe they slunk into our little empty bar because each of them had a slight deformity; the sort of thing that some yokels laugh at. It wasn’t exactly a deformity either; it was more an oddity. One of them was a surprisingly small man, something like a dwarf, or at least like a jockey. He was not at all jockeyish to look at, though; he had a round black head and a well-trimmed black beard, bright eyes like a bird’s; he jingled money in his pockets; he jangled a great gold watch chain; and he never turned up except dressed just too much like a gentleman to be one. He was no fool though, though a futile idler; he was curiously clever at all kinds of things that couldn’t be the slightest use; a sort of impromptu conjuring; making fifteen matches set fire to each other like a regular firework; or cutting a banana or some such thing into a dancing doll. His name was Isidore Smythe; and I can see him still, with his little dark face, just coming up to the counter, making a jumping kangaroo out of five cigars.
“The other fellow was more silent and more ordinary; but somehow he alarmed me much more than poor little Smythe. He was very tall and slight, and light-haired; his nose had a high bridge, and he might almost have been handsome in a spectral sort of way; but he had one of the most appalling squints I have ever seen or heard of. When he looked straight at you, you didn’t know where you were yourself, let alone what he was looking at. I fancy this sort of disfigurement embittered the poor chap a little; for while Smythe was ready to show off his monkey tricks anywhere, James Welkin (that was the squinting man’s name) never did anything except soak in our bar parlour, and go for great walks by himself in the flat, grey country all round. All the same, I think Smythe, too, was a little sensitive about being so small, though he carried it off more smartly. And so it was that I was really puzzled, as well as startled, and very sorry, when they both offered to marry me in the same week.
“Well, I did what I’ve since thought was perhaps a silly thing. But, after all, these freaks were my friends in a way; and I had a horror of their thinking I refused them for the real reason, which was that they were so impossibly ugly. So I made up some gas of another sort, about never meaning to marry anyone who hadn’t carved his way in the world. I said it was a point of principle with me not to live on money that was just inherited like theirs. Two days after I had talked in this well-meaning sort of way, the whole trouble began. The first thing I heard was that both of them had gone off to seek their fortunes, as if they were in some silly fairy tale.
“Well, I’ve never seen either of them from that day to this. But I’ve had two letters from the little man called Smythe, and really they were rather exciting.”
“Ever heard of the other man?” asked Angus.
“No, he never wrote,” said the girl, after an instant’s hesitation. “Smythe’s first letter was simply to say that he had started out walking with Welkin to London; but Welkin was such a good walker that the little man dropped out of it, and took a rest by the roadside. He happened to be picked up by some travelling show, and, partly because he was nearly a dwarf, and partly because he was really a clever little wretch, he got on quite well in the show business, and was soon sent up to the Aquarium, to do some tricks that I forget. That was his first letter. His second was much more of a startler, and I only got it last week.”
The man called Angus emptied his coffee-cup and regarded her with mild and patient eyes. Her own mouth took a slight twist of laughter as she resumed, “I suppose you’ve seen on the hoardings all about this ‘Smythe’s Silent Service’? Or you must be the only person that hasn’t. Oh, I don’t know much about it, it’s some clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery. You know the sort of thing: ‘Press a Button—A Butler who Never Drinks.’ ‘Turn a Handle—Ten Housemaids who Never Flirt.’ You must have seen the advertisements. Well, whatever these machines are, they are making pots of money; and they are making it all for that little imp whom I knew down in Ludbury. I can’t help feeling pleased the poor little chap has fallen on his feet; but the plain fact is, I’m in terror of his turning up any minute and telling me he’s carved his way in the world—as he certainly has.”
“And the other man?” repeated Angus with a sort of obstinate quietude.
Laura Hope got to her feet suddenly. “My friend,” she said, “I think you are a witch. Yes, you are quite right. I have not seen a line of the other man’s writing; and I have no more notion than the dead of what or where he is. But it is of him that I am frightened. It is he who is all about my path. It is he who has half driven me mad. Indeed, I think he has driven me mad; for I have felt him where he could not have been, and I have heard his voice when he could not have spoken.”
“Well, my dear,” said the young man, cheerfully, “if he were Satan himself, he is done for now you have told somebody. One goes mad all alone, old girl. But when was it you fancied you felt and heard our squinting friend?”
“I heard James Welkin laugh as plainly as I hear you speak,” said the girl, steadily. “There was nobody there, for I stood just outside the shop at the corner, and could see down both streets at once. I had forgotten how he laughed, though his laugh was as odd as his squint. I had not thought of him for nearly a year. But it’s a solemn truth that a few seconds later the first letter came from his rival.”
“Did you ever make the spectre speak or squeak, or anything?” asked Angus, with some interest.
Laura suddenly shuddered, and then said, with an unshaken voice, “Yes. Just when I had finished reading the second letter from Isidore Smythe announcing his success. Just then, I heard Welkin say, ‘He shan’t have you, though.’ It was quite plain, as if he were in the room. It is awful, I think I must be mad.”
“If you really were mad,” said the young man, “you would think you must be sane. But certainly there seems to me to be something a little rum about this unseen gentleman. Two heads are better than one—I spare you allusions to any other organs and really, if you would allow me, as a sturdy, practical man, to bring back the wedding-cake out of the window—”
Even as he spoke, there was a sort of steely shriek in the street outside, and a small motor, driven at devilish speed, shot up to the door of the shop and stuck there. In the same flash of time a small man in a shiny top hat stood stamping in the outer room.
Angus, who had hitherto maintained hilarious ease from motives of mental hygiene, revealed the strain of his soul by striding abruptly out of the inner room and confronting the new-comer. A glance at him was quite sufficient to confirm the savage guesswork of a man in love. This very dapper but dwarfish figure, with the spike of black beard carried insolently forward, the clever unrestful eyes, the neat but very nervous fingers, could be none other than the man just described to him: Isidore Smythe, who made dolls out of banana skins and match-boxes; Isidore Smythe, who made millions out of undrinking butlers and unflirting housemaids of metal. For a moment the two men, instinctively understanding each other’s air of possession, looked at each other with that curious cold generosity which is the soul of rivalry.
Mr. Smythe, however, made no allusion to the ultimate ground of their antagonism, but said simply and explosively, “Has Miss Hope seen that thing on the window?”
“On the window?” repeated the staring Angus.
“There’s no time to explain other things,” said the small millionaire shortly. “There’s some tomfoolery going on here that has to be investigated.”
He pointed his polished walking-stick at the window, recently depleted by the bridal preparations of Mr. Angus; and that gentleman was astonished to see along the front of the glass a long strip of paper pasted, which had certainly not been on the window when he looked through it some time before. Following the energetic Smythe outside into the street, he found that some yard and a half of stamp paper had been carefully gummed along the glass outside, and on this was written in straggly characters, “If you marry Smythe, he will die.”
“Laura,” said Angus, putting his big red head into the shop, “you’re not mad.”
“It’s the writing of that fellow Welkin,” said Smythe gruffly. “I haven’t seen him for years, but he’s always bothering me. Five times in the last fortnight he’s had threatening letters left at my flat, and I can’t even find out who leaves them, let alone if it is Welkin himself. The porter of the flats swears that no suspicious characters have been seen, and here he has pasted up a sort of dado on a public shop window, while the people in the shop—”
“Quite so,” said Angus modestly, “while the people in the shop were having tea. Well, sir, I can assure you I appreciate your common sense in dealing so directly with the matter. We can talk about other things afterwards. The fellow cannot be very far off yet, for I swear there was no paper there when I went last to the window, ten or fifteen minutes ago. On the other hand, he’s too far off to be chased, as we don’t even know the direction. If you’ll take my advice, Mr. Smythe, you’ll put this at once in the hands of some energetic inquiry man, private rather than public. I know an extremely clever fellow, who has set up in business five minutes from here in your car. His name’s Flambeau, and though his youth was a bit stormy, he’s a strictly honest man now, and his brains are worth money. He lives in Lucknow Mansions, Hampstead.”
“That is odd,” said the little man, arching his black eyebrows. “I live, myself, in Himylaya Mansions, round the corner. Perhaps you might care to come with me; I can go to my rooms and sort out these queer Welkin documents, while you run round and get your friend the detective.”
“You are very good,” said Angus politely. “Well, the sooner we act the better.”
Both men, with a queer kind of impromptu fairness, took the same sort of formal farewell of the lady, and both jumped into the brisk little car. As Smythe took the handles and they turned the great corner of the street, Angus was amused to see a gigantesque poster of “Smythe’s Silent Service,” with a picture of a huge headless iron doll, carrying a saucepan with the legend, “A Cook Who is Never Cross.”
“I use them in my own flat,” said the little black-bearded man, laughing, “partly for advertisements, and partly for real convenience. Honestly, and all above board, those big clockwork dolls of mine do bring your coals or claret or a timetable quicker than any live servants I’ve ever known, if you know which knob to press. But I’ll never deny, between ourselves, that such servants have their disadvantages, too.”
“Indeed?” said Angus; “is there something they can’t do?”
“Yes,” replied Smythe coolly; “they can’t tell me who left those threatening letters at my flat.”
The man’s motor was small and swift like himself; in fact, like his domestic service, it was of his own invention. If he was an advertising quack, he was one who believed in his own wares. The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate. Opposite to the mansions, on the other side of the gravel crescent, was a bushy enclosure more like a steep hedge or dyke than a garden, and some way below that ran a strip of artificial water, a sort of canal, like the moat of that embowered fortress. As the car swept round the crescent it passed, at one corner, the stray stall of a man selling chestnuts; and right away at the other end of the curve, Angus could see a dim blue policeman walking slowly. These were the only human shapes in that high suburban solitude; but he had an irrational sense that they expressed the speechless poetry of London. He felt as if they were figures in a story.
The little car shot up to the right house like a bullet, and shot out its owner like a bomb shell. He was immediately inquiring of a tall commissionaire in shining braid, and a short porter in shirt sleeves, whether anybody or anything had been seeking his apartments. He was assured that nobody and nothing had passed these officials since his last inquiries; whereupon he and the slightly bewildered Angus were shot up in the lift like a rocket, till they reached the top floor.
“Just come in for a minute,” said the breathless Smythe. “I want to show you those Welkin letters. Then you might run round the corner and fetch your friend.” He pressed a button concealed in the wall, and the door opened of itself.
It opened on a long, commodious ante-room, of which the only arresting features, ordinarily speaking, were the rows of tall half-human mechanical figures that stood up on both sides like tailors’ dummies. Like tailors’ dummies they were headless; and like tailors’ dummies they had a handsome unnecessary humpiness in the shoulders, and a pigeon-breasted protuberance of chest; but barring this, they were not much more like a human figure than any automatic machine at a station that is about the human height. They had two great hooks like arms, for carrying trays; and they were painted pea-green, or vermilion, or black for convenience of distinction; in every other way they were only automatic machines and nobody would have looked twice at them. On this occasion, at least, nobody did. For between the two rows of these domestic dummies lay something more interesting than most of the mechanics of the world. It was a white, tattered scrap of paper scrawled with red ink; and the agile inventor had snatched it up almost as soon as the door flew open. He handed it to Angus without a word. The red ink on it actually was not dry, and the message ran, “If you have been to see her today, I shall kill you.”
There was a short silence, and then Isidore Smythe said quietly, “Would you like a little whiskey? I rather feel as if I should.”
“Thank you; I should like a little Flambeau,” said Angus, gloomily. “This business seems to me to be getting rather grave. I’m going round at once to fetch him.”
“Right you are,” said the other, with admirable cheerfulness. “Bring him round here as quick as you can.”
But as Angus closed the front door behind him he saw Smythe push back a button, and one of the clockwork images glided from its place and slid along a groove in the floor carrying a tray with syphon and decanter. There did seem something a trifle weird about leaving the little man alone among those dead servants, who were coming to life as the door closed.
Six steps down from Smythe’s landing the man in shirt sleeves was doing something with a pail. Angus stopped to extract a promise, fortified with a prospective bribe, that he would remain in that place until the return with the detective, and would keep count of any kind of stranger coming up those stairs. Dashing down to the front hall he then laid similar charges of vigilance on the commissionaire at the front door, from whom he learned the simplifying circumstances that there was no back door. Not content with this, he captured the floating policeman and induced him to stand opposite the entrance and watch it; and finally paused an instant for a pennyworth of chestnuts, and an inquiry as to the probable length of the merchant’s stay in the neighbourhood.
The chestnut seller, turning up the collar of his coat, told him he should probably be moving shortly, as he thought it was going to snow. Indeed, the evening was growing grey and bitter, but Angus, with all his eloquence, proceeded to nail the chestnut man to his post.
“Keep yourself warm on your own chestnuts,” he said earnestly. “Eat up your whole stock; I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll give you a sovereign if you’ll wait here till I come back, and then tell me whether any man, woman, or child has gone into that house where the commissionaire is standing.”
He then walked away smartly, with a last look at the besieged tower.
“I’ve made a ring round that room, anyhow,” he said. “They can’t all four of them be Mr. Welkin’s accomplices.”
Lucknow Mansions were, so to speak, on a lower platform of that hill of houses, of which Himylaya Mansions might be called the peak. Mr. Flambeau’s semi-official flat was on the ground floor, and presented in every way a marked contrast to the American machinery and cold hotel-like luxury of the flat of the Silent Service. Flambeau, who was a friend of Angus, received him in a rococo artistic den behind his office, of which the ornaments were sabres, harquebuses, Eastern curiosities, flasks of Italian wine, savage cooking-pots, a plumy Persian cat, and a small dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest, who looked particularly out of place.
“This is my friend Father Brown,” said Flambeau. “I’ve often wanted you to meet him. Splendid weather, this; a little cold for Southerners like me.”
“Yes, I think it will keep clear,” said Angus, sitting down on a violet-striped Eastern ottoman.
“No,” said the priest quietly, “it has begun to snow.”
And, indeed, as he spoke, the first few flakes, foreseen by the man of chestnuts, began to drift across the darkening windowpane.
“Well,” said Angus heavily. “I’m afraid I’ve come on business, and rather jumpy business at that. The fact is, Flambeau, within a stone’s throw of your house is a fellow who badly wants your help; he’s perpetually being haunted and threatened by an invisible enemy—a scoundrel whom nobody has even seen.” As Angus proceeded to tell the whole tale of Smythe and Welkin, beginning with Laura’s story, and going on with his own, the supernatural laugh at the corner of two empty streets, the strange distinct words spoken in an empty room, Flambeau grew more and more vividly concerned, and the little priest seemed to be left out of it, like a piece of furniture. When it came to the scribbled stamp-paper pasted on the window, Flambeau rose, seeming to fill the room with his huge shoulders.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I think you had better tell me the rest on the nearest road to this man’s house. It strikes me, somehow, that there is no time to be lost.”
“Delighted,” said Angus, rising also, “though he’s safe enough for the present, for I’ve set four men to watch the only hole to his burrow.”
They turned out into the street, the small priest trundling after them with the docility of a small dog. He merely said, in a cheerful way, like one making conversation, “How quick the snow gets thick on the ground.”
As they threaded the steep side streets already powdered with silver, Angus finished his story; and by the time they reached the crescent with the towering flats, he had leisure to turn his attention to the four sentinels. The chestnut seller, both before and after receiving a sovereign, swore stubbornly that he had watched the door and seen no visitor enter. The policeman was even more emphatic. He said he had had experience of crooks of all kinds, in top hats and in rags; he wasn’t so green as to expect suspicious characters to look suspicious; he looked out for anybody, and, so help him, there had been nobody. And when all three men gathered round the gilded commissionaire, who still stood smiling astride of the porch, the verdict was more final still.
“I’ve got a right to ask any man, duke or dustman, what he wants in these flats,” said the genial and gold-laced giant, “and I’ll swear there’s been nobody to ask since this gentleman went away.”
The unimportant Father Brown, who stood back, looking modestly at the pavement, here ventured to say meekly, “Has nobody been up and down stairs, then, since the snow began to fall? It began while we were all round at Flambeau’s.”
“Nobody’s been in here, sir, you can take it from me,” said the official, with beaming authority.
“Then I wonder what that is?” said the priest, and stared at the ground blankly like a fish.
The others all looked down also; and Flambeau used a fierce exclamation and a French gesture. For it was unquestionably true that down the middle of the entrance guarded by the man in gold lace, actually between the arrogant, stretched legs of that colossus, ran a stringy pattern of grey footprints stamped upon the white snow.
“God!” cried Angus involuntarily, “the Invisible Man!”
Without another word he turned and dashed up the stairs, with Flambeau following; but Father Brown still stood looking about him in the snow-clad street as if he had lost interest in his query.
Flambeau was plainly in a mood to break down the door with his big shoulders; but the Scotchman, with more reason, if less intuition, fumbled about on the frame of the door till he found the invisible button; and the door swung slowly open.
It showed substantially the same serried interior; the hall had grown darker, though it was still struck here and there with the last crimson shafts of sunset, and one or two of the headless machines had been moved from their places for this or that purpose, and stood here and there about the twilit place. The green and red of their coats were all darkened in the dusk; and their likeness to human shapes slightly increased by their very shapelessness. But in the middle of them all, exactly where the paper with the red ink had lain, there lay something that looked like red ink spilt out of its bottle. But it was not red ink.
With a French combination of reason and violence Flambeau simply said “Murder!” and, plunging into the flat, had explored, every corner and cupboard of it in five minutes. But if he expected to find a corpse he found none. Isidore Smythe was not in the place, either dead or alive. After the most tearing search the two men met each other in the outer hall, with streaming faces and staring eyes. “My friend,” said Flambeau, talking French in his excitement, “not only is your murderer invisible, but he makes invisible also the murdered man.”
Angus looked round at the dim room full of dummies, and in some Celtic corner of his Scotch soul a shudder started. One of the life-size dolls stood immediately overshadowing the blood stain, summoned, perhaps, by the slain man an instant before he fell. One of the high-shouldered hooks that served the thing for arms, was a little lifted, and Angus had suddenly the horrid fancy that poor Smythe’s own iron child had struck him down. Matter had rebelled, and these machines had killed their master. But even so, what had they done with him?
“Eaten him?” said the nightmare at his ear; and he sickened for an instant at the idea of rent, human remains absorbed and crushed into all that acephalous clockwork.
He recovered his mental health by an emphatic effort, and said to Flambeau, “Well, there it is. The poor fellow has evaporated like a cloud and left a red streak on the floor. The tale does not belong to this world.”
“There is only one thing to be done,” said Flambeau, “whether it belongs to this world or the other. I must go down and talk to my friend.”
They descended, passing the man with the pail, who again asseverated that he had let no intruder pass, down to the commissionaire and the hovering chestnut man, who rigidly reasserted their own watchfulness. But when Angus looked round for his fourth confirmation he could not see it, and called out with some nervousness, “Where is the policeman?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Father Brown; “that is my fault. I just sent him down the road to investigate something—that I just thought worth investigating.”
“Well, we want him back pretty soon,” said Angus abruptly, “for the wretched man upstairs has not only been murdered, but wiped out.”
“How?” asked the priest.
“Father,” said Flambeau, after a pause, “upon my soul I believe it is more in your department than mine. No friend or foe has entered the house, but Smythe is gone, as if stolen by the fairies. If that is not supernatural, I—”
As he spoke they were all checked by an unusual sight; the big blue policeman came round the corner of the crescent, running. He came straight up to Brown.
“You’re right, sir,” he panted, “they’ve just found poor Mr. Smythe’s body in the canal down below.”
Angus put his hand wildly to his head. “Did he run down and drown himself?” he asked.
“He never came down, I’ll swear,” said the constable, “and he wasn’t drowned either, for he died of a great stab over the heart.”
“And yet you saw no one enter?” said Flambeau in a grave voice.
“Let us walk down the road a little,” said the priest.
As they reached the other end of the crescent he observed abruptly, “Stupid of me! I forgot to ask the policeman something. I wonder if they found a light brown sack.”
“Why a light brown sack?” asked Angus, astonished.
“Because if it was any other coloured sack, the case must begin over again,” said Father Brown; “but if it was a light brown sack, why, the case is finished.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” said Angus with hearty irony. “It hasn’t begun, so far as I am concerned.”
“You must tell us all about it,” said Flambeau with a strange heavy simplicity, like a child.
Unconsciously they were walking with quickening steps down the long sweep of road on the other side of the high crescent, Father Brown leading briskly, though in silence. At last he said with an almost touching vagueness, “Well, I’m afraid you’ll think it so prosy. We always begin at the abstract end of things, and you can’t begin this story anywhere else.
“Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly. When those four quite honest men said that no man had gone into the Mansions, they did not really mean that no man had gone into them. They meant no man whom they could suspect of being your man. A man did go into the house, and did come out of it, but they never noticed him.”
“An invisible man?” inquired Angus, raising his red eyebrows. “A mentally invisible man,” said Father Brown.
A minute or two after he resumed in the same unassuming voice, like a man thinking his way. “Of course you can’t think of such a man, until you do think of him. That’s where his cleverness comes in. But I came to think of him through two or three little things in the tale Mr. Angus told us. First, there was the fact that this Welkin went for long walks. And then there was the vast lot of stamp paper on the window. And then, most of all, there were the two things the young lady said—things that couldn’t be true. Don’t get annoyed,” he added hastily, noting a sudden movement of the Scotchman’s head; “she thought they were true. A person can’t be quite alone in a street a second before she receives a letter. She can’t be quite alone in a street when she starts reading a letter just received. There must be somebody pretty near her; he must be mentally invisible.”
“Why must there be somebody near her?” asked Angus.
“Because,” said Father Brown, “barring carrier-pigeons, somebody must have brought her the letter.”
“Do you really mean to say,” asked Flambeau, with energy, “that Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady?”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady. You see, he had to.”
“Oh, I can’t stand much more of this,” exploded Flambeau. “Who is this fellow? What does he look like? What is the usual get-up of a mentally invisible man?”
“He is dressed rather handsomely in red, blue and gold,” replied the priest promptly with precision, “and in this striking, and even showy, costume he entered Himylaya Mansions under eight human eyes; he killed Smythe in cold blood, and came down into the street again carrying the dead body in his arms—”
“Reverend sir,” cried Angus, standing still, “are you raving mad, or am I?”
“You are not mad,” said Brown, “only a little unobservant. You have not noticed such a man as this, for example.”
He took three quick strides forward, and put his hand on the shoulder of an ordinary passing postman who had bustled by them unnoticed under the shade of the trees.
“Nobody ever notices postmen somehow,” he said thoughtfully; “yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.”
The postman, instead of turning naturally, had ducked and tumbled against the garden fence. He was a lean fair-bearded man of very ordinary appearance, but as he turned an alarmed face over his shoulder, all three men were fixed with an almost fiendish squint.
Flambeau went back to his sabres, purple rugs and Persian cat, having many things to attend to. John Turnbull Angus went back to the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives to be extremely comfortable. But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.
Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice was how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
*Image: © Jon Foster.
Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died. When Mr. Weeks doesn’t call, I write everybody I know about my boy. Some of my letters always come back, and the folks who write back say nobody knows where he got off to. I can’t help but think he might come home at night when I am gone, so I let the kitchen light burn and go on out the door.
The cold air is the same, and the snow pellets my cap, sifts under my collar. I hear my hogs come grunting from their shed, thinking I have come to feed them. I ought to feed them better than that awful slop, but I can’t until I know my boy is safe. I told him not to go and look, that the hogs just squeal because I never kill them. They always squeal when they are happy, but he went and looked. Then he ran off someplace.
I brush the snow from my road plow’s windshield and climb in. The vinyl seats are cold, but I like them. They are smooth and easy cleaned. The lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat. I heft it, put it back, I start the salt spreader, lower my shear, and head out to clean the mountain road.
The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead. They never sit still and wait for the salt to work.
I think I am getting too old to do this anymore. I wish I could rest and watch my hogs get old and die. When the last one is close to dying, I will feed him his best meal and leave the gate open. But that will most likely not happen, because I know this stretch of Route 60 from Ansted to Gauley, and I do a good job. Mr. Weeks always brags on what a good job I do, and when I meet the other truck plowing the uphill side of this road, I will honk. That will be Mr. Weeks coming up from Gauley. I think how I never met Mr. Weeks in my life but in a snowplow. Sometimes I look out to Sewel Mountain and see snow coming, then I call Mr. Weeks. But we are not friends. We don’t come around each other at all. I don’t even know if he’s got family.
I pass the rest stop at Hawks Nest, and a new batch of fools line up behind me, but pretty soon I am alone again. As I plow down the grade toward Chimney Corners, my lights are the only ones on the road, and the snow takes up the yellow spinning of my dome light and the white curves of my headlights. I smile at the pretties they make, but I am tired and wish I was home. I worry about the hogs. I should have given them more slop, but when the first one dies, the others will eat him quick enough.
I make the big turn at Chimney Corners and see a hitchhiker standing there. His front is clean, and he looks half frozen, so I stop to let him in.
He says, “Hey, thank you, Mister.”
“How far you going?”
“You got family there?” I say.
“I only go to Gauley Bridge, then I tum around.”
“That’s fine,” he says. He is a polite boy.
The fools pack up behind me, and my low gears whine away from them. Let them fall off the mountain for all I care.
“This is not good weather to be on the road” I say.
“Sure ain’t, but a fellow’s got to get home.”
“Why didn’t you take a bus?”
“Aw, buses stink,” he says. My boy always talked like that.
“where you been?”
“Roanoke. Worked all year for a man. He give me Christmastime and a place of change.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“You bet. He’s got this farm outside of town — horses — you ain’t seen such horses. He’s gonna let me work the horses next year.”
“I have a farm, but I only have some hogs left.”
“Hogs is good business,” he says.
I look at him. “You ever see a hog die?” I look back at the road snow.
“Hogs die hard. I seen people die in the war easier than a hog at a butchering.”
“Never noticed. We shot and stuck them pretty quick. They do right smart jerking around, but they’re dead by then”
“What can you do with a hog if you don’t butcher him? Sell him?”
“My hogs are old hogs. Not good for anything. I just been letting then die. I make my money on this piece of road every winter. Don’t need much.”
He says, “Ain’t got any kids?”
“My boy run off when my wife died. But that was considerable time ago.”
He is quiet a long time. Where the road is patched, I work my shear up, and go slower to let more salt hit behind. In my mirror, I see the lights of cars sneaking up behind me.
Then of a sudden the hitchhiker says, “What’s your boy do now?”
“He was learning a mason’s trade when he run off.”
“Makes good money.”
“I don’t know. He was only a hod carrier then.”
He whistles. “I done that two weeks this summer. I never been so sore.”
“It’s hard work,” I say. I think, this boy has good muscles if he can carry hod.
I see the lights of Mr. Weeks’s snowplow coming toward us. I gear into first. I am not in a hurry. “Scrunch down,” I say. “I’d get in trouble for picking you up.”
The boy hunkers in the seat, and the lights from Mr. Weeks’s snowplow shine into my cab. I wave into the lights, not seeing Mr. Weeks, and we honk when we pass. Now I move closer to center. I want to do a good job and get all the snow, but when the line of cars behind Mr. Weeks comes toward me, I get fidgety. I don’t want to cause any accidents. The boy sits up and starts talking again, and it makes me jittery.
“I was kinda scared about coming through Fayette County,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” I say. I try not to brush any cars.
“Damn, but a lot of hitchhikers gets killed up here.”
A man lays on his horn as he goes past, but I have to get what Mr. Weeks left, and I am always too close to center.
The boy says, “That soldier’s bones — Jesus, but that was creepy.”
The last car edges by, but my back and shoulders are shaking and I sweat.
“That soldier,” he says. “You know about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“They found his duffel bag at the bottom of Lovers’ Leap. All his grip was in there, and his bones, too.”
“I remember. That was too bad.” The snow makes such nice pictures in my headlights, and it rests me to watch them.
“There was a big retard got killed up here, too. He was the only one they ever found with all his meat on. Rest of them, they just find their bones.”
“They haven’t found any in years,” I say. This snow makes me think of France. It was snowing like this when they dropped us over France. I yawn.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe the guy who done them all in is dead.”
“I figure so,” I say.
The hill bottoms out slowly, and we drive on to Gauley, clearing the stretch beside New River. The boy is smoking and taking in the snow.
“It snowed like this in France the winter of ‘forty-four,'” I say. “I was in the paratroops, and they dropped us where the Germans were thick. My platoon took a farmhouse without a shot.”
“Damn,” he says. “Did you knife them?”
“Snapped their necks,” I say, and I see my man tumble into the sty. People die so easy.
We come to Gauley, where the road has already been cleared by the other trucks. I pull off, and the line of cars catches up, sloshing by. I grip the wrench.
“Look under the seat for my flashlight, boy.”
He bends forward, grabbing under the seat, and his head is turned from me. But I am way too tired now, and I don’t want to clean the seat.
“She ain’t there, Mister.”
“Well,” I say. I look at the lights of the cars. They are fools.
“Thanks again,” he says. He hops to the ground, and I watch him walking backward, thumbing. I am almost too tired to drive home. I Sit and watch this boy walking backward until a car stops for him. I think, he is a polite boy, and lucky to get rides at night.
All the way up the mountain, I count the men in France, and I have to stop and count again. I never get any farther than that night it snowed, Mr. Weeks passes me and honks, but I don’t honk. Time and again, I try to count and can’t…
I pull up beside my house. My hogs run from their shelter in the backyard and grunt at me. I stand by my plow and look at the first rims of light around Sewel Mountain through the snowy limbs of the trees. Cars hiss by on the clean road. The kitchen light still burns, and I know the house is empty. My hogs stare at me, snort beside their trough. They are waiting for me to feed them, and I walk to their pen.
*This story is taken from: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983.
In February 2001 we found exactly what we were looking for: a wooden house in the suburbs of Miami with large windows overlooking a canal with green water that flowed into the Atlantic. We considered ourselves lucky. It was a house at a good price in a peaceful spot far from the city. We didn’t have neighbors, except for the cats. We didn’t have bugs either. We painted it yellow, just like the metal mailbox we placed beside the front walk, and we replaced the glass in all the windows: some were broken; others just scratched. The wiring and the pipes were in perfect condition as were the hardwood floors; actually the place needed very little work. I polished and varnished the secondhand furniture we’d bought, made the curtains and valances and embroidered the pillows. We lived there about seven months until Philip’s death.
My Philip, it all happened so fast. Still, when I think back on it, I can see the sharpness of the cuts, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh. It all comes back to me with startling vividness.
I wasn’t happy but my days back then were calm.
My husband left early in the mornings and I spent hours sitting on the porch watching the cats with a book open on my lap. They wandered around indifferently with their feet always muddy from the swampy terrain. Maybe it’s a silly way to describe it, but I thought of them as little men strolling in the sunshine. Their curiosity and laziness entertained me. There were about seven of them (sometimes fewer) and I always took care of them.
When we moved in, I planted flowers in the ground and tried to grow a small vegetable garden, but nothing would take root in that wet clay soil. Everything immediately turned to rot in our small plot on the Florida peninsula. Our garden was a muddy and infertile uterus with a yellow metal mailbox full of flyers and coupons. Skittles: taste the rainbow. Only $0.99 with this coupon. Valid until 04.01.2001.
“No wonder it was so affordable, Jaime,” I said lifting a bag of topsoil: I was determined to fill our garden with plants, even if I had to put them in pots. “I mean, if you compare it to other houses in the area, the price was really good.”
Jaime was the owner of the shop. He was Cuban, with golden skin and long hair, still attractive at almost sixty. He liked to introduce himself by saying he’d escaped the heart of the fucking devil to live in the ass of his succubus.
“Now I know why, Jaime; no one wanted to live in that spot, with that ground that’s pure clay.”
My words might’ve sounded like a complaint but they weren’t. I just talked out of desire to converse with someone.
“Listen, put up a hammock and a wrought iron patio set,” he suggested. “Then you’ll see how much better and more cheerful. The garden I mean.”
I smiled weakly.
“And get a few citronella torches for the evenings.”
“We don’t have mosquitoes.”
“Damn, we’ve got all the bugs here, the mosquitos and those kids.”
Jaime and I spoke in Spanish, except when he said something vulgar. He only said curse words or insults in English. It was his way of distancing himself from what he felt didn’t fit his character or social position. He considered himself a gentleman, even when he shouted and ranted about Fidel and my shameless compatriot, El Che.
“It’s just that when I get started about the Cuban Revolution… Excuse my temper but I’m from Cienfuegos, Miss.”
“I’m from Cienfuegos” was his excuse, monolithic, unwavering. I have to look up the history of Cienfuegos to understand what this man is talking about, I told myself.
Jaime, the cats, and a group of teenagers—a fixture in the store parking lot—were the only living beings in the landscape of my days. There were seven cats; nine or ten teenagers. I’d made out two females in the group of animals; in the group of teenagers there was only one. I named the cats: Nevermore, who was all black, and Gondoliere, who had striped fur. I also remember Phileas Fogg, a perfect English gentleman who always waited patiently for the bowl of milk, and Franky “Frankenstein,” the oldest of them all. He had a cleft lip and arthritis. And, of course, Philip. My Philip. I never learned the names of even one of the boys. I didn’t know the name of the girl either: a bleached blonde with big eyes that always stared at me. Her stare was almost a battle cry. I know it’s not easy to understand what I’m saying. But I can’t, I could never have explained the girl better. They, on the other hand, the boys, were—or at least I thought at the time—easier to read. They looked just like the troubled teens in the movies: dirty, ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, terrible smell; always chewing gum and drinking beer at all hours. They got around on motorcycles; the one I thought was the leader had an impeccable Harley Davidson that glittered under the midday sun. I had a red Focus with beige leather seats which I drove to Jaime’s shop. It was the first automatic car I’d ever had. I liked being able to drive to Jaime’s without thinking too much, listening to country music. I felt as American as anyone; even more so as I loaded the car with the brown paper sacks full of things I’d bought for us and the cats. The car had a white license plate, LUK 620, with “Florida, a sunny state” inscribed in green letters. This is only partially true because in the south of Florida it rains a lot. In fact, that Monday morning the National Weather Service had issued an emergency alert about an approaching tropical storm that had the potential to turn into a hurricane.
Out of fear of the hurricane I went to the store and bought a week’s worth of provisions. While Jaime scanned the bar codes of all the items, I estimated I’d need at least three trips to get it all to the trunk of my car. The Cuban man worked alone, he was in a terrible mood, and he wouldn’t have wanted to help me anyway. I handed him my credit card.
“I once offered to pay those fucking kids to help with my customers’ purchases,” Jaime pulled the bags out from under the cash register. “But do you think trash like that has any desire to work, Miss?”
I’d told him a dozen times that I was married and I’d reminded him of my name another twenty times. But Jaime continued stubbornly with his “Miss.”
“Assholes, that’s what they are; the girl is the worst one of all, Miss.”
I wouldn’t correct him again. Not that Monday morning or ever. I was also in a terrible mood. My husband was going to be out of town the whole week. A business convention in las Vegas for him and a hurricane in the south of the sunny Florida peninsula for me.
“Couldn’t they hold it in Tampa or Orlando?” I’d asked him that morning.
“Headquarters makes the decision.”
My husband gave me a kiss, loaded his suitcase into the trunk of his car and left. That was it. He’d go straight from the office to the airport. A week in Nevada and me in the yellow house with the cats, an unopened book on the porch and the stuff I’d have to get from Jaime’s shop. And hear all about Castro and, about my compatriot, El Che. Exile, the sad Cuban exiled in Miami, Miss. Every time, as if he were the only Latin American exile in all of the United States. Every single time I went to his store, whether it was for fertilizer or cat food, it was the same. I had the impression that Jaime talked—a lot and badly—about the Cuban Revolution and, of course, about the teenagers, in order to hide something. All this that Monday morning as he rang up my purchase.
They’re criminals in training. I must’ve been crazy the day I tried to hire one of them, because . . .” He bit his lip and looked out the window: one of the kids was walking toward the store. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, Miss.”
He then repeated not only the Miss but also the price, even though I’d already paid. I bagged my items without saying anything else. I could feel the boy’s stare on the back of my neck, Jaime’s suspicious silence. I took a couple of bags to my car.
“Hey, Miss; look what you forgot here.” I’d left a can of tuna and a can of hake for my little men next to the cash register. “You’re kind of distracted today. Be careful, because that’s not good.”
I went back home to feed my cats.
I’d done the shopping, I’d put everything away. I’d filled two bowls with milk and another two with cat food. Everything was done and it was only eleven o’clock on Monday morning.
I sat with the closed book on my lap. I didn’t have any plans, except to lie on the sofa and watch, after dinner, a documentary about hunting or fishing on the Wild Life Channel.
But the rain came ahead of schedule. The forecast had predicted the tropical storm would make landfall sometime after five in the evening; it started to rain around noon. All afternoon water crashed above, around, and up against our wooden house. There was something strange and intimate in the sound, almost a groan, as if the wood were remembering the forest from which it had come. The TV wasn’t working. It turned on but cable and cell phone service were out. Our yellow metal mailbox had also been knocked down by the wind sometime that afternoon, and dozens of flyers lay in the mud. Taste the rainbow and all that. What further destruction would the storm cause? Nothing worried me more than the cats—I don’t think I even thought of my husband’s flight to Las Vegas that was scheduled for around midnight. Where had my poor babies taken refuge? And my Philip? He was the fattest and smartest. His yellowish fur, his bluish eyes, and his theatrical personality had reminded me immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where were you that night, my Philip? Where did they find you? When we moved in, I wanted to bring him to live in the house with us. I bought a basket and embroidered a yellow pillow with his initials—PSH—but my husband said no, cats outside. Philip never lived with us. I thought about my Philip and about Nevermore and Gondoliere on that stormy night, and also about the two female cats that I’d never named, but mostly I thought about Philip.
The monotony of the rain made night come soon.
Gusts of wind blew invisibly through the darkness. For me it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. As if my head had been covered in a veil and through the tulle I could hear the raindrops and wind. So this was a tropical storm, I thought from my bed with a book—always the same one—unopened on my lap. The air around me whispered like a bunch of elderly ladies saying horrible things to each other. I thought all this without really understanding why. And outside, the wind, at eighty miles an hour, caused even the blood in my veins to accelerate.
Around ten at night it seemed like the storm was calming down. The wind blew weakly, a sound like playing cards being thrown in the air. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination somehow strangely linked to my husband, to his convention in Las Vegas—a whole week away from home talking sales strategies for fiberglass used to build slot machines and gaming tables. I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Outside everything was dark and darkness was everything until a bolt of lightning—like a long shiny fang gleaming in the mouth of the night—lit up the monotony of rain hitting mud. I opened the kitchen window a crack. The air carried the salty smell of the sea, of wet grass, hibiscus flowers. The air brought in life, stirred up and crushed into large refreshing gusts.
And then I saw them.
First just her. She’d picked up our yellow metal mailbox off the ground and she had it in her hand, like someone holding a scepter. She was walking toward the porch dressed in white. Her feet and the bottom of her dress were muddy. She looked like a priestess ready to carry out some ritual sacrifice. Also like a crazed queen. Then he appeared behind her. It was a new boy and he wore a huge backpack. I’d never seen him in Jaime’s parking lot. He was decidedly different from the others. Not only because he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of the same bad-boy movie, but because there was something in the way he walked, in the way he wore the backpack, that softened him. He, without a doubt, didn’t match the casting call for the crazy, dirty, bad guy. Finally, bringing up the ranks, were the rest—the grimy ones from the parking lot, with their baseball caps and their stench. They broke into two groups and posted themselves on either side of my house, in front of the kitchen windows. To look on dumbly in silence.
I quickly closed the window.
In an instant, I checked that all the windows and doors were locked. I turned off the lights. I ran to my room. My cell phone still didn’t have service. If I could’ve just made it to the car and fled. I was contemplating escaping out the back window when she said:
“We know you’re there, Miss.”
Fear pumped through my body like blood. I didn’t respond. I stayed still for a few seconds until she spoke again.
“The thing is, this house is ours. Isn’t it?”
The “isn’t it” wasn’t for me but for the boy with the backpack and the rest of the boys; at least, that’s what I think now. I went back to the kitchen and looked for the biggest knife we had. Then I remembered—they’d said it in a documentary about skinning prey on the Wild Life Channel—that a smaller and sharper knife can be more effective and is, without a doubt, easier to handle. I changed weapons.
Silence again. The only sound was my heavy breathing.
It wasn’t raining anymore, the dim starlight allowed me to make out the boys on both sides of the house in front of my windows: their white faces, their mouths hanging open, their noses pressed against the glass. Their breath fogging up the windows. Their wet puppy dog eyes. I wondered how much of the inside of the house they could see from that outside darkness. And then, the unexpected blow that made the glass of the kitchen window shatter.
The Crazed Queen, framed in my yellow wooden window. The water had made her mascara run and her eyes were even bigger and more deathlike. Her long hair was loose and her bangs were tucked behind her ears.
She gathered up her dress like a southern belle as she climbed through the window into my house, as if it had always been hers. Behind her came the new guy, her faithful choirboy with the mountain-climbing backpack.
I grabbed the big knife I’d previously discarded. Now I had two knives and I was barricaded behind a chair. It was obvious, although in the moment I refused to think about it, that if they all decided to come in and attack me there was no knife or barricade that would stop them. I wished more than ever, me who’d always been a gentle lamb, for a pistol.
Everything happened so fast.
But when I think about it now, I can still see the sharpness of the cut, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh, the entrails slipping from their membranes, the spindly bones. It all creeps back to my memory. Also the car lights, the screams. I always end up vomiting or with my stomach in knots at the memory of that night. My nerves are shot whenever I think about Miami, about those kids, about my husband, about everything that happened.
Now inside the house, the girl turned on the lights. She knew where the switches were; she could get around my house with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, the new boy opened his backpack. He took out: two large knives, a pair of disposable gloves, two trash bags, a hook like the ones butchers use to hang sides of beef in the freezer. And, inside a third bag, Philip. He set everything out neatly on the table. I thought that the cat was dead. I would’ve covered my mouth—I mean to say that’s the impulse I had—but I had my hands full with the knives. Anyway Philip wasn’t dead. He was drugged, I suppose, like the rest of those idiot kids. The half-open mouths of the cat and the kids with their noses pressed against my windows breathed almost in unison. Why didn’t they all come into the house together? Why did they stay outside? How many times had they repeated that identical ceremony? She, the Crazed Queen, inside with the initiate, and the rest, outside, watching the scene with their bovine eyes.
“Put the hook through his foot and hang him from that rail,” the girl ordered. From her accent, I could tell she was from the South.
I wanted to shout: “don’t do it,” but the words didn’t come to my mouth. I only took a few steps holding the knives out in front of me, like some armed sleepwalker. I didn’t dare do more than that, I wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. The Crazed Queen decided to preempt any possible surprises. She gave the sign to the boys outside and, a few seconds later, they were all inside the house.
“Put down the knives, Miss, and we’ll have a peaceful night.”
Two of the boys took me by the wrists and a third took the knives away.
“That’s better. Isn’t it, Miss?” the girl said (she called me “Miss” too, how ridiculous).
She petted met. Her hands were rough and cold; they smelled like rain, but her breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
I wanted to insult her or spit in her face. I couldn’t do that either.
“Now, let’s do our thing; get to work,” she ordered the new boy. “We don’t want to be here all night. Do we, boys?”
The new one’s hands trembled a little. Could I count on him? Would he repent at the last minute? Did my Philip have any chance of getting away? The new one’s hands shook even more now. They were normal hands. Not fat or skinny, not bald or hairy. But you could tell—it was obvious—that they were soft hands, like a student’s, unaccustomed to manual labor. How much did Philp weigh? Around seven or eight kilos, maybe ten—he’d gained weight recently. For the new kid he seemed to weigh more than a deer. He didn’t dare to pick him up. Wounding or killing—an animal or a man, it’s the same—with your own hands isn’t the same as doing it with a gunshot, like those somber hunters on the Wild Life Channel. Now I know: the flesh tries to resist, it fights you. Muscles are strong and flexible. He had to find a way to insert a hook in the live furry flesh of the cat. Avoiding the bone, find the muscle under the fur. The blond fur of my Philip.
It wasn’t such an easy job.
Philip fought upside down, as much as the effects of the drug would allow him to, as the new boy battled his fear and disgust. I must’ve struggled against the boys who held me, because later, when everything was over, I noticed that I had bruises on my wrists. The new one, after several tries, through suppressed gagging, and Philip’s whimpering, managed to puncture the cat’s flesh. His left thigh. Philip hung by a leg and a thread of blood slowly stained his fur. Like an inverted Spanish flag: yellow, red, yellow.
The worst part wasn’t the helplessness. The worst part wasn’t being in an isolated house with some deranged teens who, who knows why, were practicing some initiation right using my favorite cat. The worst part was the uncertainty, the fear of knowing I was at the mercy of the Crazed Queen and who knows what drugs and how much alcohol she had in her bloodstream. Why did they want me to witness it? Why, out of all the places in the world, did they have to choose my house? Is that what Jaime knew, that my house had been these kids’ permanent base of operations? So many questions came to me and none of them had answers.
The Crazed Queen ordered the new one to lick a little of the blood that dripped from the animal. She even put her finger in the cat’s wound and brought it to her mouth. She painted her lips with the blood. Then she twirled several times, rolled her eyes back in her head and all the foul-smelling boys cheered for her with a strange chant and applause.
I’ll never know what other trials the complete initiation ceremony entailed.
Deep down, I was certain that the new one wouldn’t pass them all. I sensed it because his eyes didn’t have that wet gleam I saw in the eyes of the rest of her minions, nor did they have the fury of the Crazed Queen. I wanted to believe that, despite his desperate need to belong, he still had a spark of good in his eyes. The new one was the only one of the group that was capable of hesitation—out of fear, disgust, or whatever reason—and hesitation is what helps us conserve a glimmer of humanity. No, the new one would not pass the trials. I confirmed my suspicions when I saw that he was the first to run away.
The headlights of a car shone into the kitchen.
It was my husband coming home. He’d left his ID. Leaving behind his ID was his unconscious way of leaving behind his identity. He hadn’t been who he said he was for a long time now. Obviously, he wasn’t going on a business trip; obviously, he wasn’t going alone. The only truth was that he was going to Las Vegas for a week and that without his ID he couldn’t start the trip. And he came back home with her—bleached blonde, with big eyes, almost an aged replica of the Crazed Queen—seated brazenly in the passenger’s seat of his car. I don’t know why life sometimes plays this game of funhouse mirrors. But none of that pertains to this story. Or almost. The only thing that matters here is that the headlights were enough to scare them away. They all fled quickly, they scattered like nighttime birds at the first light of day; and the new one was first to go. All that was left behind was Philip, half-dead in our kitchen, and the backpack.
I unhooked Philip’s leg and put him on our table. There was nothing left of his theatricality, of the vivacity in his bluish eyes. His entire body was bloody. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper, poor thing. My husband came into the house with murky eyes and his feet covered in mud. What could we say to each other that we didn’t both already know?
I picked up the knife, the small sharp one like they recommended in the hunting documentary. My husband didn’t get the chance to ask any questions. Not who the kids were that he’s surely seen running away, not what they were doing there, not what had happened to the cat. He couldn’t even ask about the damn backpack as he tripped over it. I took two steps forward and he took four steps back. Without uttering a single word and without taking my eyes off his and with a single swipe, I cut the cat’s stomach wide open. I did it with such force that I also scratched the wood of the table.
In addition to the guts and blood, three wet fetuses with squinted eyes fell out. Philip wasn’t who I thought he was either. No one is.
My husband held back a gag. Then he collapsed onto a chair. The woman who was waiting for him in the car honked the horn two times. Somehow, she’d stopped mattering. It was like the cat’s blood had hypnotized us: it continued dripping from the wound to the edge of the table and from there to the floor. How many minutes would it take for Philip to become a flattened hide? How long did it take for the cat and her fetuses to lose their lives? I looked at my bloody hands and at the knife—it wasn’t raining anymore, I don’t know what smells the wind was carrying, or how many trees or plants the storm had pulled up by the roots. The blonde kept honking the horn rhythmically and with increasing urgency. My marriage was the exact opposite of what I thought it was. And I thought to myself that the only thing fertile and alive in that house had been destroyed by my own hands.
Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a caulbearer in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “the Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a winter child of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who survived.
It was a typical quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining and sporadic bouts of schooling: quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. In the summer he ran with the flocks of children terrorizing the streets with their play.
He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when in the course of a single moon, he learned to lip out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had treaded into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob Burke turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke père on the docks.
On the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At age nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, one hundred and fifty pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and iron pokers, and from the melee exploded the QuaysideRiots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid) the newspaperman found the boy back at work, resigned, murmuring a sad, low lifter’s song as he threaded the pier.
On that day (gray, preternaturally August cold, seagulls hopping on the jetty-rail) Burke stood on the dock, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder. The newspaperman talked a streak. Jacob, not accustomed to long converses, didn’t set down the bag, said, Yes sir, like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight over his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? asked the man, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where over the following week Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shakebag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, no purse. If the Fancy went, it was only to scout. On the third night came a man, Cairn, who made an offer.
How Muscular became known.
There are five fights that first year. Five fights and Jacob Burke wins four. They are hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest, and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t get back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, but he changes the subject when Jacob asks. He has a crablike way of moving, of facing you, of rising to his tiptoes when he is about to speak, and Jacob thinks these are habits from the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, treat him like a son. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Take him to the pushing school, where they put up the socket fee and tell the girls he will be Champion of All England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the men’s attention, feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow him and the girl to watch. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses, and Jacob finds himself buying gifts for his mother and his brothers and his sisters. His winnings are small, five, ten pounds. He spends it all and borrows more.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like he’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin-defilers. But Jacob Burke doesn’t much care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the rag and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her lice comb. To prove the magnitude of his strength, he grabs two of his youngest brothers, one in each hand, and lifts them squealing high above his head.
He begins oiling his hair back in slick rows, which does little for his looks except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully, so he buys a scarf for an ascot. Purse rises, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first and wears it at a rake. Like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who in his day, he learns, was a bruiser too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes kicking and flapping at him like a bird out of a cage. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn gets a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen; the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
How it came about that Burke fought Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought the Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall lost to the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs beat Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tom Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Tate, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then they went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman, and Vainglorious said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy looking for a man, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious, but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. They found a miller in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to fight Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s mum’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then Burke had moved out of the quay, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
Who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish nationalists, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyes so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have his lids lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind, and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with McGraw in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
here in the shade lies simon beale
jaw of iron, fists of steel
won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
at twenty-five showed his achilles heel
took just two rounds for fate to seal
that no soul’s spared by fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who didn’t doubt Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and the Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-three-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, he told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, only problem with you, is that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, how a hitter could be a good man, wondering if he was good only because he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different and he had something going, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was beating a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), this meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training: docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol. He hears a hush follow him where he walks. In the streets he’s besieged by the shoe-shiners, who beg to see standing flips and then set on one another for the title of “Muscular.” The girls lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past.
One night, on the docks, an old lifter called Booth approaches Burke as he makes his way home. Stepping in front of the boy, he grabs his forearm in a steel grip, says, This is a fool thing, and Jacob Burke says, Yes sir.
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle-boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. He decides “then some” means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he will stop.
They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a Patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the purse is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy: curls, perfume, talking proud and fast and high. Wants to be called Cav, but Jacob calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before Burke’s eyes. Recites a fight poem that he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Cavendish tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. He laughs. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense when he hears him talk. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, swallow the toad, Cavendish is putting up the purse.
Soaked, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Jacob to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish, Burke? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, Look, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but he holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
They travel to the scene of the fight, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of St. Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In St. Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and the Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The Publican is an aficionado of the fistic, the walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter, and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest, once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his soutane. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Jacob. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if Burke knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs it off. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, says the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight—you can tell the rest—is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer, but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head up in chancery and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke’s tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry/while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks maybe he is scared.
They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the road, in a soft depression between a pair of hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds coming up the road, on horseback or foot. It is a cold morning, the light hesitant, the fields wet with dew. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic’s slow, thick with broughams and horses. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They park their carriage at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle him for no reason but to try to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Muscular wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He knows it’s supposed to comfort him, but there is no comfort there. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can hear a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowd overflows up the hills. He looks for his opponent, but Blindman is nowhere to be seen. He wants Blindman to be there, as if Blindman’s the only one who could know what he is feeling.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down, and keeps clenching his hands again and again. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can reach. There’s a pair of swells near him, ascots blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, and pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, says one and then laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue. He looks away.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the Blindman.
Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowds, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure to come through, surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if he is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for the goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging: it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like some giant sea animal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: McGraw is out of control, He’s an animal, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows his man did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip to his colors.
Jacob Burke has prepared himself for a giant, but he doesn’t think he has ever seen such a human as this. McGraw must be eighteen stone. Six foot six at least, but the illusion of height is increased by the size of his chest and belly, which set his head back like some faraway peak. Arms as thick as Muscular’s hams. Fists slung low. Skin pale blotched red. To call his ears “cauliflower” would be a compliment. Tuber is more like it, thinks Burke. Raw tuber that could break a knuckle. His nose is a gray-yellow color that makes it look like a dead man’s nose. There is so much of him that it is difficult for Burke to see where the man’s muscles begin: he looks like someone has taken a massive sculpture of a strong man and kept throwing clay on it in lumps, until the clay ran out. Burke doesn’t even know where he is going to land his fists. It seems like certain rules, like rules against grabbing the throat, don’t matter when it comes to Blindman, for Burke is uncertain where the neck ends and the head begins. He feels as if he were told to lift an awkward stone without a place to set his hands.
He knows now that he has been seduced by the promotion posters, which show the men facing off, as if they were two men fighting. This isn’t two men fighting. He thinks of the games of speculation he played as a child: If a lion fought a bear, if a turtle fought a buck, if a shark fought a giant fox. If an eagle fought a man of fire. Who would win? Who would kill whom?
If Muscular Burke fought the monster McGraw.
It is then that Jacob realizes he has been set up to lose, that Cairn and the Yankee could never have expected him to stand a chance against Blindman.
His pulse skitters, mad like a water bead in a hot pan.
He looks back out at the crowds. Now they stretch all the way to the crest of the hillside. The sound of their chanting is deafening. But he hears only Blindman, they are there to watch Blindman win or Blindman lose. Curse and praise but only Blindman’s name. The crowd doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Burke. Thinks Jacob: Who cheers the fox, when you’ve come to watch the hound?
The fight begins.
The Padders are at the ropes. There are six of them, a quintet of London coalmen and an ostler who is retired from the fistic. Their jackets are off, their cuffs rolled, fighting to keep the crowds back. Muscular realizes that while he has been lost in thought, his arms loose at his sides, his seconds have stripped him to his breeches.
He stands in a daze. He realizes he’s staring into the crowd, looking for someone he knows, another lifter from the docks or—thinking frantic now—a brother, or even his mother, when Cairn whispers something in his ear. He has almost forgotten his second, but now Cairn is behind him, his hands on Burke’s shoulders, massaging the massive deltoids of which he is so proud. Jacob shivers him off. Is he in on this? he wonders. How much is he being paid to have me get killed? He shakes his head as if there’s poison in his ear.
Behind him, he hears Cairn’s voice. Show ’em, Muscular. He coaxes Burke’s arms into the air, and Burke flexes. That’s right, Muscular, says Cairn. Show the old man.
What are the odds? whispers Jacob through his teeth. What am I at?
Cairn rubs his shoulders. Don’t worry, boy. You do the milling and I’ll do the betting and we’ll both go home rich men. He laughs, but Jacob doesn’t join him. No matter how hard he tries to throw his anger back toward the giant in the ring, he feels only betrayal, fury at his handlers for what is about to happen. The thought that Cairn and Yankee want him to lose vanishes, but what remains is somehow worse, that he is inconsequential. The idea that they could have cared for him any more than a trainer cares for a dancing bear seems now like an absurd fantasy. He was a fool to believe. He should sit, lay it down, get back to “the Rat,” to the quayside, to home.
They are called to the scratch. The judge joins the Padders in the outer ring. Burke sees Cavendish in the front row, toppered in a white stovepipe that is immaculately, impossibly clean. Beside him: the jostling bettors, the flit-fluttering fingers of a tic-tac man.
The two fighters shake. McGraw’s paws are like the rest of him, geologic, and while Jacob has a grip that can shatter a bottle, he cannot even get a purchase on the Scotsman’s hand.
Time is kept by a Lord from Essex. The judge launches his cant, promising strength and speed and stamina, a battle of brawn, a beautiful combat, a most severe contest for the benefit of Honorary Gentlemen. The crowd erupts.
May the best man win, says the judge.
Fists up and in the crouch, Burke can’t hear the bell for all the shouting. Before him, McGraw holds his pose, shoulders squared, his face a mask, waiting for the boy to come. Burke wants to strike, but he can’t move, can’t see a line through the giant’s arms. Blindman makes a kissing motion and the crowd roars. Muscle muscle, comes a taunt, and out of the corner of his eye, Burke sees the two swells laughing, and beside them Cavendish doing nothing to fight off a smile. Off the scratch, he strikes Blindman’s jaw. McGraw doesn’t budge. Again Burke strikes, and Blindman stops it with his left. His forearm barely gives. Blindman makes a face of mock surprise, brushes his arm as if brushing off a fly. Flourishes his fists. It’s a show for the crowd, and they reward it with laughter. Burke rushes again, left to Blindman’s jaw, feeling at the same time as if a brick has come down against his head.
Cairn takes him back in the corner, sits him, whispers, Tire him, Muscular, feet, Muscular, quick on the pins, dance like Mendoza, but Burke pushes him away, is back to the scratch before the Lord says thirty. Throws the instant Blindman gets up from his corner. Foul! he hears, but before they can pull him back, he’s down again, unaware of what happened. He tastes dirt this time, hears the judge call, First blood, and feels his cheek is wet. Hears numbers. Can’t distinguish the crowd’s shouting from the roaring in his ear.
Back to the scratch and Muscular down.
Back to the scratch. Blindman charges. Muscular turns, plants a fist in McGraw’s neck and the giant tumbles. The hillside roars like artillery fire. Then McGraw is up, his flesh shifting and shimmering, and Burke advances. He can’t think now; he can only move.
The fight continues.
The rounds seem to roll through him. Hook to Blindman’s ear. Burke to the mouth. One-two. One-two. Blood, tooth, and Muscular down. Jab to nose and Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Muscular pounds to the pudding bag, to the ear, to the ear, and the ear seems to crumple, break like a potato beneath a heel. Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Blindman rushes. Breadbasket, breadbasket, Muscular down. Topper in the ear and Muscular down. Pirouette, turn, and Blindman rushes. Muscular back, catches a heel and both men down. Back to the scratch. Fast in the eye, Muscular down. Again in the peeper, Muscular down. Blindman muzzled and Muscular down. Blindman coughs, spits out a grinder. Chop and chop and Muscular down. Back to the scratch and Muscular down. Blindman Blindman, Muscular down.
Eyelids swollen, tasting blood on his tongue, his knuckles wet with gore, Burke sits in the corner, letting Cairn’s hands caress his chest, Yankee sponge his face. He feels as if his men aren’t there. He’s being touched by bird’s wings. He wants at McGraw, needs to hit. It hurts to breathe, he doesn’t know how much lung he’s got in him, but something in him says that he’s taken the worst. That Blindman’s not going to hit any harder than he’s hit but that Burke’s still got it, still could heave a load. He murmurs a lifters’ song: Still lift the barrel still lift the barrel still lift the barrel, Hey!/Twelve kittens in the kitchen and another on the way. His lips, swollen, blubber. He rinses his mouth with Old Tom, rises before the thirty, and is at the scratch before Blindman stands.
By now the crowd is thundering, pressing up against the rope, throwing punches at the Padders, curses flying. Again Burke rushes. McGraw catches his wrist this time, turns with the force and throws him, coming down with his knee in Burke’s gut. Muscularmouth fills with bile, pants go wet. He hears hissing and a cry of foul, but McGraw, snorting through his broken nose, doesn’t care, he cradles Burke’s head, whispers something rasped into his ear, kicks Muscular in the flanks as he’s standing up. Again, Foul! but this is coming from the crowds, closer, and Burke sees a man breach the outer ring, hurling ugly curses at the Scot, followed by another and another, and Burke, up on his knees, thinks, Here we go, and he isn’t even standing when the punches start flying.
Pandemonium in the ring: the two fighters join forces to restore order.
A gasman hits a liveryman hits a brewer hits a baker. Two swells pound each other as if to send each to his maker. An ostler lands a muzzler while his best man lands a quaker.
The Padders overwhelmed, the ropes broken, the crowd implodes into the ring. They don’t seem to be after the pugilists but one another, though Muscular, spinning, can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s happening. There’s a mob come down cursing the Scot. There are canes swinging and stones thrown and someone heaving a rope, and the air’s filled with curses, all kinds of animal and things that are going to be done and a liberal use of the Monosyllable.
Then Muscular and Blindman have joined the Padders, pounding to clear the ring, because both are hungry for the fight. Blindman is red-faced and breathing heavy. Rested, Muscular feels the strength in him returning.
By the time the riot is cleared, a dozen men have been carried off. Then the ropes are restaked, the colors returned. A quiet settles, but the judge is still shouting, threatening to end the fight unless order is completely restored.
But what has become of Muscular’s eyes?
Time has played Blindman’s ally: by now, Muscular can barely see, both of his eyes are weeping, swollen shut, crusting over. With the stage reclaimed and the Padders back at the ropes, the boxers repair to their seconds. In the corner, Cairn runs his thumbs over Muscular’s lids. You’re out, he says. You’re out or I cut them, and Jacob just nods. Cairn pushes his head back, grabs the lancet, grabs his face, and the relief is immediate. His face streams with the claret, his cheeks feel as if he is crying.
Back to the scratch, and McGraw is fighting dirty, but the judge lets it fly. He’s angry, thinks Burke, he knows it shouldn’t have gone on this long. It was supposed to be easy, done. Face contorted, McGraw rushes, gets a hand on Muscular’s neck, drives him into the rope. Muscular down. Cairn calls Foul! but Burke’s back to the scratch.
Now it’s Burke who leads. Forward now, and Blindman back. Fists up and McGraw circles, spits, coughs, scratches the ground. Blindman back, Burke forward, watching, waiting, watching, and then he sees it, sees his channel in. Not now, but two moves from now, like a game of checkers. Feels the warmth in his arms, feels joys, thinks, This is glorious. Feints high and McGraw goes high and then Jacob Burke is inside. Left to the jaw, left, and Blindman ducks. Straight into Burke’s right and rising.
Jacob Burke knows then that the fight is over. Hears it, something slacken. Something soft, something broken in the jaw or in the face, something creaking in the temple. He’s worked shipbreaking at times, and there’s a feeling when a sledgehammer comes against a beam and nothing breaks, but you know the next time you swing it’s going to give. The fight’s over. Blindman is standing, but Burke has only to wait and Blindman will fall. An expression comes over Blindman’s face, a puzzled expression, like he’s hearing a song he’s never heard before.
At which point Burke has a very complicated thought.
Jacob Burke’s thought takes the form of a memory.
In his childhood on the docks, like all boys, Jacob and his friends spent days in games of earnest battle, clashing sticks and throwing stones long into the dark, chasing and fighting and raising hell. They played by the universal rules of cruelty and chivalry and thrill, thrill to strike and throw and be thrown at, and throwing and chasing one day Jacob and three friends had cornered an enemy knight and were taunting him before delivering the coup de grâce, which in such a situation, with such easy prey, typically consisted of touching him with the stone or tossing it lightly, as the boy was trapped against a wall and had no way to escape. But that afternoon the boy, who was a bit younger than the rest, went scared on them and started to cry, and, surrounding him, the others began to laugh and throw, and then the boy was crying louder, which only made the others laugh louder and throw harder, and then the boy was slobbering for his mother, and they all went grabbing more stones and throwing, and Burke reached down and felt his fist close around a stone he knew was too big for that game, but the crying had removed from him any restraint, and, laughing, he took hard aim at the head of the boy and he threw.
Watching from the crowds, amidst the cheers and curses, there’s not a soul that day at Dead Rabbit Heath that knows what Jacob Burke knows, that the fight is already over. For Blindman’s standing and Blindman’s fists are still up, and if he’s slack in the lip no one can see from what Muscular Jacob Burke has done to his face. They’ll know, in breaths they’ll know and for years they’ll talk about it, but in this half-second between Muscular’s knowing and the crowd’s knowing, it’s as if Muscular has been left alone with a knowledge and an omnipotence only God should have.
There is a moment when a lifter takes a load and heaves it onto his shoulder, when the massive weight, the sack or the crate or the barrel at the top of its heave, becomes briefly weightless, and the lifter, no matter how tired he may be, poised between his action and the consequences of his action, feels both an incredible lightness and the power of the weight at the same time. It is as if he is master of the weight, not struggling below it, and Jacob Burke has learned over the years to seek this joy, cling to this joy, knows secretly that in the misery of everything else, there is one moment when he is king.
Maybe he thinks this or maybe he feels it in the movement of his arms, for now there is no difference between thinking and feeling and hitting.
Blindman’s fists are down and Muscular comes in on his man. He is feeling for the break, the hole, the soft, searching again for that seam, hitting, hitting, that half-second gone, and now there’s no turning back, hitting, knowing that when he’d told himself he hit so he wouldn’t be hit he was lying, because beneath it, the reason he hit was that there was joy in hurting, real joy in the simplicity and the freedom and the astounding number of answers in a single movement of his arms. Later he’ll have pity, but not now, now there is no pity, not because he is cruel but because there is no more Ben McGraw. For Muscular is alone, mind clear of all but such joy and beauty as he moves in, striking his man, searching, knowing there is only one way that he wants this to end, only one ecstatic way for it to end, only one, and hitting he thinks, Blindman I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cairn I am hitting Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m killing Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cav, and then feeling the soft thinks, I’m in the break thinks in the crown thinks in the line thinks into McGraw thinks there is a line into McGraw into the soft into McGraw into the crown of Ben McGraw into the temple of McGraw the broken temple of McGraw
The broken temple of McGraw.
thinks there is no such thing as a fast man only a slow world
thinks break break
*This story is taken from: The Piano Tuner © by Daniel Philippe Mason, 2002.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
On the afternoon of June 25 while on my last outing to Rhyolite, I was driving down Cane Springs Road some ten miles outside Beatty and happened upon what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident. I got out of my truck and took a look around. The valley was bone dry. A hot west wind took the puffs of dust from where I stepped and curled them away like ashes. Near the wash I found broken glass, deep gouges in the dirt running off the side of the road, and an array of freshly bought groceries tumbled among the creosote. Coke cans (some full, some open and empty, some still sealed but dented and half full and leaking). Bud Light cans in the same shape as the Coke. Fritos. Meat. Et cetera. Of particular interest to me were the two almost-full prescriptions that had been filled at the pharmacy in Tonopah only three days before, and a sealed Ziploc bag full of letters signed M. I also took notice of a bundle of photos of an old car, part primer, part rust, that I presume was or is going to be restored. The car was a Chevy Chevelle, a ’66, I believe. I once knew a man who drove a Chevelle. Both medications had bright yellow stickers on their sides warning against drinking alcohol while taking them. Enter the Bud Light, and the gouges in the dirt, possibly. I copied your address off those prescription bottles. What happened out there? Where is your car? Why were the medications, food and other supplies left behind? Who are you, Duane Moser? What were you looking for out at Rhyolite?
I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well. Please write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS I left most of the debris in the desert, save for the medications, pictures and letters from M. I also took the plastic grocery bags, which I untangled from the bushes and recycled on my way through Reno. It didn’t feel right to just leave them out there.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
This morning, as I fed the horses, clouds were just beginning to slide down the slope of the Sierras, and I was reminded once again of Rhyolite. When I came inside I borrowed my father’s old copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference from his room. From that book I have gathered that before driving out to Rhyolite you may have been feeling out of control, alone, or hopeless. You were possibly in a state of extreme depression; perhaps you were even considering hurting yourself. Judging by the date the prescriptions were filled and the number of pills left in the bottles – which I have counted, sitting out in the fields atop a tractor which I let sputter and die, eating the sandwich which my wife fixed me for lunch – you had not been taking the medications long enough for them to counteract your possible feelings of despair. ‘Despair’, ‘depression’, ‘hopeless’, ‘alone’. These are the words of the PDR, 41st Edition, which I returned to my father promptly, as per his request. My father can be difficult. He spends his days shut up in his room, reading old crime novels populated by dames and Negroes, or watching the TV we bought him with the volume up too high. Some days he refuses to eat. Duane Moser, my father never thought he would live this long.
I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel. Please, write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I slept terribly last night, dreamed dreams not easily identified as such. Had I told my wife about them she might have given me a small quartz crystal or amethyst and insisted I carry it around in my pocket all day, to cleanse my mind and spirit. She comes from California. Here is a story she likes to tell. On one of our first dates we walked arm in arm around downtown Reno, where she was a clerk at a grocery store and I was a student of agriculture and business. There she tried to pull me down a little flight of steps to the red-lit underground residence of a palm reader and psychic. I declined. Damn near an hour she pulled on me, saying what was I afraid of, asking what was the big deal. I am not a religious man but, as I told her then, there are some things I’d rather not fuck with. Now she likes to say it’s a good thing I wouldn’t go in because if that psychic had told her that she’d be stuck with me for going on fourteen years now she would have turned and headed for the hills. Ha! And I say, Honey, not as fast as I would’ve, ha, ha! This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.
I imagine you a man alone, Duane Moser, with no one asking after your dreams in the morning, no one slipping healing rocks into your pockets. A bachelor. It was the Fritos, finally, which reminded me of the gas station in Beatty where I worked when I was in high school and where I knew a man who owned a Chevelle like yours, a ’66. But it occurs to me perhaps this assumption is foolish; surely there are wives out there who have not banned trans fats and processed sugars, as mine has. I haven’t had a Frito in eleven years. Regardless, I write to enquire about your family, should you reply.
Our children came to us later in life than most. My oldest, Danielle, has just started school. Her little sister, Layla, is having a hard time with it. She wants so badly to go to school with Danielle that she screams and cries as the school bus pulls away in the morning. Sometimes she throws herself down to the ground, embedding little pieces of rock in the flesh of her fists. Then she is sullen and forlorn for the rest of the day. My wife worries for her, but truth be told, I am encouraged. The sooner Layla understands that we are nothing but the sum of that which we endure, the better. But my father has taken to walking Layla to the end of our gravel road in the afternoon to wait for Danielle at the bus stop. Layla likes to go as early as she is allowed, as if her being there will bring the bus sooner. She would stand at the end of the road all day if we let her. She pesters my father so that he sometimes stands there in the heat with her for an hour or more, though his heart is in no condition to be doing so. In many ways he is better to my girls than I am. He is far better to them than he was to me. I am not a religious man but I do thank God for that.
I am beginning to think I dreamed you up. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I have read the letters from M, the ones you kept folded in the Ziploc bag. Forgive me, but for all I know you may be dead, and I could not resist. I read them in my shed, where the stink and thickness of the air were almost unbearable, and then again in my truck in the parking lot of the Verdi post office. I was struck, as I was when I first found them out near Rhyolite on Cane Springs Road, by how new the letters looked. Though most were written nearly twenty years ago the paper is clean, the creases sharp. Duane Moser, what I do not understand is this: why a Ziploc bag? Did you worry they might get wet on your journey through the desert in the middle of summer? Then again, I am reminded of the Coke and Bud Light. Or am I to take the Ziploc bag as an indication of your fierce, protective love for M.? Is it a sign, as M. suggests, that little by little you sealed your whole self off, until there was nothing left for her? Furthermore, I have to ask whether you committed this sealing purposefully. She says she thinks she was always asking too much of you. She is generous that way, isn’t she? She says you didn’t mean to become ‘so very alien’ to her. I am not so sure. I love my wife. But I’ve never told her how I once knew a man in Beatty with a ’66 Chevelle. I know what men like us are capable of.
Duane Moser, what I come back to is this: how could you have left M.’s letters by the side of Cane Springs Road near the ghost town Rhyolite where hardly anyone goes any more? (In fact, I have never seen another man out on Cane Springs Road. I drive out there to be alone. Maybe you do, too. Or you did, anyway.) Did you not realize that someone just like you might find them? How could you have left her again?
I have called the phone number listed on the prescription bottles, finally, though all I heard was the steady rising tones of the disconnected signal. Still, I found myself listening for you there. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS On second thoughts, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that’s no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
My wife found your pictures, the ones of the Chevelle. The one you maybe got from a junkyard or from a friend, or maybe it’s been in your family for years, rotting in a garage somewhere because after what happened nobody wanted to look at it. I kept the pictures tucked behind the visor in my truck, bound with a rubber band. I don’t know why I kept them. I don’t know why I’ve kept your letters from M., or your medications. I don’t know what I would do if I found what I am looking for.
When I was in high school I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station in Beatty. It’s still there, on the corner of I-95 and Highway 374, near the hot springs. Maybe you’ve been there. It’s a Shell station now, but back then it was called Hadley’s Fuel. I worked there forty, fifty hours a week. Bill Hadley was a friend of my father’s. He was a crazy sonofabitch, as my father would say, who kept a shotgun under the counter and always accused me of stealing from the till or sleeping on the job when I did neither. I liked the graveyard shift, liked being up at night, away from Pop, listening to the tremors of the big walk-in coolers, the hum of the fluorescent lights outside.
Late that spring a swarm of grasshoppers moved through Beatty on their way out to the alfalfa fields down south. They were thick and fierce, roaring like a thunderstorm in your head. The hoppers ate anything green. In two days they stripped the leaves from all the cottonwoods and willows in town, then they moved on to the juniper and pine, the cheat grass and bitter salt cedar. A swarm of them ate the wool right off of Abel Prince’s live sheep. Things got so bad that the trains out to the mines shut down for a week because the guts of the bugs made the rails too slippery.
The grasshoppers were drawn to the fluorescent lights at Hadley’s. For weeks the parking lot pulsed with them. I would have felt them crunch under my feet when I walked out to the pumps that night, dead and dying under my shoes, only I never made it out to the pumps. I was doing schoolwork at the counter, calculus, for God’s sake. I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.
I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?
There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.
I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.
Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile. The deputy sheriff, Dale Sullivan, who was also the assistant coach of the basketball team, came and sat beside me. I had my hands over my head to keep the grasshoppers away. Kid, it was bound to happen, Dale said. The boy was a troublemaker. A waste of skin.
He told me I could go on home. I didn’t ask what would happen to the car.
That night, I drove out on Cane Springs Road to Rhyolite. I drove around that old ghost town with the windows rolled down, listening to the gravel pop under my tyres. The sun was coming up. There, in the milky light of dawn, I hated Beatty more than I ever had. The Stagecoach, the hot springs, all the trees looking so naked against the sky. I’d never wanted to see any of it ever again.
I was already on my way to college and everyone knew it. I didn’t belong in Beatty. The boy’s family, his mother and sister and stepfather, moved away soon after it happened. I’d never see them around town, or at Hadley’s. For those last few weeks of school no one talked about it, at least not to me. Soon it was as though it had never happened. But – and I think I realized this then, up in Rhyolite, that dead town picked clean – Beatty would never be a place I could come home to.
When my wife asked about your pictures, she said she didn’t realize I knew so much about cars. I said, Yeah, sure. Well, some. See the vents there? On the hood? See the blackout grille? That’s how you know it’s a ’66. I told her I’d been thinking about buying an old car, fixing it up, maybe this one. Right then she just started laughing her head off. Sure, she managed through all her laughter, fix up a car. She kept on laughing. She tossed the bundle of photos on the seat of the truck and said, You’re shitting me, Tommy.
It’s not her fault. That man, the one who knows a ’66 when he sees one, that’s not the man she married. That’s how it has to be. You understand, don’t you?
I smiled at her. No, ma’am, I said. I wouldn’t shit you. You’re my favourite turd.
She laughed – she’s generous that way – and said, A car. That’s the last thing we need around here.
When I was a boy my father took me hunting. Quail mostly and, one time, elk. But I was no good at it and he gave up. I didn’t have it in me, my father said, sad and plain as if it were a birth defect, the way I was. Even now, deer come down from the mountains and root in our garden, stripping our tomatoes from the vine, eating the hearts of our baby cabbages. My father says, Kill one. String it up. They’ll learn. I tell him I can’t do that. I spend my Sundays patching the holes in the fence, or putting up a taller one. The Church of the Compassionate Heart, my wife calls it. It makes her happy, this life of ours, the man I am. Layla helps me mend the fence. She stands behind me and hands me my pliers or my wire cutters when I let her.
But here’s the truth, Duane Moser. Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandanna, see the grasshoppers leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Duane Moser
This will be the last I write to you. I went back to Rhyolite. I told my wife I was headed south to camp and hike for a few days. She said, Why don’t you take Layla with you? It would be good for her.
Layla slept nearly the whole drive. Six hours. When I slowed the car and pulled on to Cane Springs Road she sat up and said, Dad, where are we?
I said, We’re here.
I helped her with her coat and mittens and we took a walk through the ruins. I told her what they once were. Here, I said, was the schoolhouse. They finished it in 1909. By then there weren’t enough children in town to fill it. It burnt down the next year. She wanted to go closer.
I said, Stay where I can see you.
Why? she said.
I didn’t know how to say it. Crumbling buildings, rotted-out floors, sinkholes, open mine shafts. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions.
Because, I said. It’s not safe for little girls.
We went on. There behind the fence is the post office, completed in 1908. This slab, these beams, that wall of brick, that was the train station. It used to have marble floors, mahogany woodworking, one of the first telephones in the state. But those have been sold or stolen over the years.
Why? she said.
That’s what happens when a town dies.
Because, sweetheart. Because.
At dusk I tried to show Layla how to set a tent and build a fire but she wasn’t interested. Instead she concentrated on filling her pink vinyl backpack with stones and using them to build little pyramids along the path that led out to the town. She squatted over them, gingerly turning the stones to find a flat side, a stable base. What are those for? I asked.
For if we get lost, she said. Pop Pop showed me.
When it got dark we sat together listening to the hiss of the hot dogs at the ends of our sticks, the violent sizzle of sap escaping the firewood. Layla fell asleep in my lap. I carried her to the tent and zipped her inside a sleeping bag. I stayed and watched her there, her chest rising and falling, hers the small uncertain breath of a bird.
When I bent to step out through the opening of the tent something fell from the pocket of my overalls. I held it up in the fire light. It was a cloudy stump of amethyst, as big as a horse’s tooth.
I’ve tried, Duane Moser, but I can’t picture you at 1077 Pincay Drive. I can’t see you in Henderson period, out in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, in one of those prefab houses with the stucco and the garage gaping off the front like a mouth. I can’t see you standing like a bug under those street lights the colour of antibacterial soap. At home at night I sit on my porch and watch the lights of Reno over the hills, the city marching out at us like an army. It’s no accident that the first step in what they call developing a plot of land is to put a fence around it.
I can’t see you behind a fence. When I see you, I see you here, at Rhyolite, harvesting sticks of charcoal from the half-burnt schoolhouse and writing your name on the exposed concrete foundation. Closing one eye to look through the walls of Jim Kelly’s bottle house. No, that’s my daughter. That’s me as a boy getting charcoal stains on my blue jeans. That’s you in your Chevelle, the ’66, coming up Cane Springs Road, tearing past what was once the Porter Brothers’ Store. I see you with M., flinging Fritos and meat and half-full cans of Coke and Bud Light from the car like a goddamn celebration, a shedding of your old selves.
It’s almost Christmas. I’ve looked at the prescriptions, the letters, the photos. You’re not Frankie, I know this. It’s just a coincidence, a packet of pictures flung from a car out in the middle of nowhere. The car is just a car. The world is full of Chevelles, a whole year’s worth of the ’66. You know nothing of Hadley’s fuel in Beatty, of a boy who was killed there one night in late spring when the grasshoppers were so loud they sounded like a thunderstorm in your head. I don’t owe you anything.
When I woke this morning there was snow on the ground and Layla was gone. I pulled my boots on and walked around the camp. A layer of white covered the hills and the valley and the skeletons of the old buildings, lighting the valley fluorescent. It was blinding. I called my daughter’s name. I listened, pressing the sole of my shoe against the blackened rocks lining the fire pit. I watched the snow go watery within my boot print. There was no answer.
I checked the truck. It was empty. In the tent I found her coat and mittens. Her shoes had been taken. I scrambled up a small hill and looked for her from there. I scanned for the shape of her among the old buildings, on the hills, along Cane Springs Road. Fence posts, black with moisture, strung across the valley like tombstones. Sickness thickened in my gut and my throat. She was gone.
I called for her again and again. I heard nothing, though surely my own voice echoed back to me. Surely the snow creaked under my feet when I walked through our camp and out to the ruins. Surely the frozen tendrils of creosote whipped against my legs when I began to run through the ghost town, up and down the gravel path. But all sound had left me except for a low, steady roaring, the sound of my own blood in my ears, of a car rumbling up the old road.
Suddenly my chest was burning. I couldn’t breathe. Layla Layla. I crouched and pressed my bare palms against the frozen earth. The knees of my long johns soaked through, my fingers began to sting.
Then I saw a shape near the burnt remains of the schoolhouse. A panic as hot and fierce as anything – fiercer – rose in me. The slick pink vinyl of her backpack. I ran to it.
When I bent to pick it up I heard something on the wind. Something like the high, breathy language my daughters speak to each other when they play. I followed the sound around behind the schoolhouse and found Layla squatting there in her pyjamas, softly stacking one of her stone markers in the snow.
Hi, Dad, she said. The snow had reddened her hands and cheeks as though she’d been burnt. She handed me a stone. Here you go, she said.
I took my daughter by the shoulders and stood her up. I raised her sweet chin so her eyes met mine and then I slapped her across the face. She began to cry. I held her. The Chevelle drove up and down Cane Springs Road, the gravel under its tyres going pop pop pop. I said, Shh. That’s enough. A child means nothing out here.
*This story is taken from: Buttleborn © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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