(A true story)
Since she was beautiful and foolish —and she became more foolish when she was beautiful and more beautiful when she was foolish — and since he loved her, and since he had nothing to give her but the position of commissar, he made her Commissar of the Circus.
And so the beautiful Nina began to chair regular and special meetings while holding her beautiful infant. When she had to give a small speech, she handed the baby to her neighbor on the right – the “he” of our prologue — or to her neighbor on the left (on the side of her heart) — a Hungarian horse rider who might have been half as powerful as the one on the right but was, it must be said in his favor, half his age. The baby preferred this one, since the rider didn’t have a beard. But the child also loved the all-powerful man, since a certain object glittered and danced between that one’s myopic, trusting eyes, the object called a “pince-nez” in my country. The infant pinched the nose of the Commissar and tugged at the pretty curl of the Hungarian. So the clever little baby had two favorite past-times with both nannies of the male gender.
But while this was going on, what was her husband doing? Yes, there is also a husband in our story. The husband was elsewhere, at the other end of the city on the lawn in front of the former mansion of the former Counts Sollogubov, now a “Palace of Arts,” where he was writing poetry, or to be more precise — ruminating on writing poetry — at some point, when he had time, inspiration and so on, in short: on one fine day when “all this comes to an end.” But there was no end to “all this,” and he did well to be elsewhere, at the other end of the city, since the baby, occupied with the pince-nez and the curl, didn’t have an extra hand for or interest in the red beard of Nina’s husband. He, Nina’s husband, had a red beard that was endless and pointless (as all beards are pointless), a beard that he let grow as God lets the grass grow, but which — the beard — grew faster and longer than grass. And so, redder against green, flame on emerald, beard on grass: Nina’s husband dreamed. He dreamed and drank straight from the bottle.
The Revolution had broken all the glasses and the Restoration, that great Atoner and Mender, had not arrived yet, so he really did drink “straight from,” just like a baby drinks milk and just as greedily — in fact, even more greedily. Certainly the beard made him thirsty. When he noticed the bottle becoming empty, Barbarossa 1, the true son of a Russian merchant, was troubled by the sight of its emptiness and felt remorse over the emptying he had done, and he began to whisper prayers. Which prayers? All of them. Even for the repose of the soul. If the sun was too hot, he’d go through a little door into the former family chapel of the former Counts Sollogubov, which had been turned into a Museum of Cults, whose director and sole visitor he was, and busied himself there for hours with icons and crosses of all sizes.
Toward evening Barbarossa exchanged the green carpet and baking sun for an ordinary chair and the only candle, and, sitting at the table in front of a bottle that would fill up as soon as it was empty and empty as soon as it was full, he would tell anyone who would listen to him the same story, the only story in his life: how he abducted the beautiful Nina.
“In Crimea, you know, my friend, how black the nights are. So not a drop could be seen (“glug-glug” and swallow). And the roads, you know, all lead down (the level of liquid in the bottle also went down)… of course, there are roads up, but then you find yourself on the top of the mountain, and there’s nothing there — nothing except a dreadful peak, absolutely bald, with an eagle that pecks your eyes out. So it looked like we had to choose the roads that led down, since we decided to go to… Well, now I don’t remember where. In any case, we decided to go to the place you could leave from, seeing as I abducted her. Aha! I figured that the ones that led down — see where I’m going with this? — led to the sea and the ones that went up — got it? —led into the mountains. And since we soon decided to take the ferry — you see? —we naturally needed water… but the driver was really drunk… really very drunk. The car tore off… with Nina inside… and Nina tore off since she’d abandoned her father and mother because of me (tender emotions; a long “glug-glug”). So the car sped off with Nina, who sped off inside… You wouldn’t believe how fast it went, that car! The night was black, the roads ran off in all directions, the wheels slipped, the driver was drunk, drunk as the black night!”
The faster the car sped along in the story, the slower the storyteller spoke; the faster the story went, the more the storyteller abbreviated it.
“You see, Nina inside… the driver – drunk. The night – black… Potholes. Gouged… the car sped… it sped…the car at top sp—(“—eed.” His mouth open on the last syllable, the storyteller fell asleep.)
Meanwhile, Nina, dressed in all her finery, like a jinn, put one hand, wide with rings, on the hands of the all-powerful one and used her other hand to throw a red flower across the red railing of her theater loge to the Hungarian rider, who once again basked in glory, flowers, smiles, and sweat.
The clever little baby lay deep inside the loge and slept.
* * *
Every morning we humble people, who had fetched up here in this former neighborhood of the nobility, watched raptly as Nina, like the rising sun, glided between two rows of ancient linden trees in a yellow cabriolet on two enormous wheels that turned like two suns, pulled by two horses that were also yellow.
A poet would say: Aurora in her chariot.
We all said, “Look the Commissar of the Circus.” Or “Look — the wife of Barbarossa.” Everyone, poet or not, expressed one profound thought: “Such good fortune! In these times, for one woman to have ten legs…”
We were not envious since we were Scythians — or Sarmatians — or Slavs (captives, Tatars, Barbarians) — in short, since we were Russians, we weren’t envious and were able to take pleasure from the beauty gliding past us.
(What would I, who called up this vision, do in my actual poet’s garret with two yellow horses, two wheels — also yellow — a husband with a red beard, a commissar in a pince-nez, a red-headed Hungarian rider, and who knows whose baby? No thanks. I’d change nothing. To each their own!)
And so, every morning Povarskaya Ulitsa turned into the pagan firmament and Nina became Aurora.
But also every morning, on the same street, in a lovely, large, round and very old white church dedicated to the brothers and martyr princes Boris and Gleb, an old and stubborn priest held Matins.
And also every morning the Red Army replied to the church service right there in front of the white church with a marching band.
It is a Sunday morning in sunny May. All hungry Moscow is out on the street to taste the scent of the lindens, drink in the blueness and especially – to imbibe the music, that regimental music that is always so soothing, exactly like the sight of a beautiful horse or two beautiful horses, especially yellow ones, especially driven if not by the masterful hand of the man who kept them, at least by the hand of his kept woman.
But what is happening with our two yellow horses today? Have they been lit on fire from the beard of Barbarossa? Or did the sprite of the linden trees addle their minds? Instead of stopping by the Palace of Arts next to the automobile that was already waiting for the all-powerful one to make his morning visit, they galloped to Kudrino Square, where, even more skittish, they ran around in circles, in circles around the square, not heeding Nina’s heart-rending shouts or obeying the reins in her hands, which were growing weak.
Spin ‘round, spin ‘round, wooden horses! But these horses are not made of wood, and they should run straight. But these… have they finally gone mad? They spin around like whirling dervishes, turning their necks, swinging their chestnut manes over the old cobblestones of the old square, with no mercy for the cabriolet or rider, who was standing on legs turning to wood with arms shaking spasmodically and a mane wilder than those of the horses.
This will not end well! Being the Commissar of the Circus, throwing flowers to the Hungarian rider, suckling a baby who also might be from the Hungarian — that does not make her Hungarian or a rider.
A poet from the Palace of Arts shouts: “It’s a race from hell!” An artist from the same palace pronounces: “Phaeton.” Everyone else, like people always do everywhere, watched and did nothing but comment: “It’s the end of Nina. The all-powerful one is witness to his own powerlessness… The Hungarian rider is witness to his absence…” Suddenly a shout goes up: “Barbarossa!”
Yes, Barbarossa, Red Beard, verily risen from his crypt of grass, Barbarossa in flesh and beard, running out and jumping like a kangaroo, holding an enormous silver cross. He holds it right in front of the horses’ noses, shaking it at them. They suddenly come to a halt, since they are horses and they can halt suddenly. But that is not all. They kneel down. Yes, both of them — and they do it gracefully, like people. And that is not all. They bow. They bow with dignity, like people, as the Commissar and Barbarossa take Aurora, weeping copious tears but already breaking into a smile, into their united, or rather, separate hands.
And from the people, from us — people who don’t know envy, people who don’t know irony — from the people come only exclamations: “It’s a miracle! How can you say that there is no God, if even horses believe in Him?”
Caught up in the heat of events, or rather, by the events of the heat, I forgot to say that the end of the horses’ race coincided with the end of the music — the ceremonial and daily march from former times in the recent past when they were still just simple circus horses who did not have to pull a cabriolet with a Commissar astride.
But if in past times their bows were intended for the public, couldn’t their current bows — considering the extraordinary circumstances — be intended for God?
And since the horses kept on bowing, we applauded.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.
Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.
“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…
This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.
Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.
Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.
It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.
Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?
The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.
He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?
The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.
Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij, the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.
Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”
“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”
“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”
“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”
“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”
“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”
Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”
He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”
Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.
At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.
Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”
The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:
Long life! for I died after you
Spurn me as long as you wish
What remained of love in my heart
Went out forever with you.”
He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.
“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”
That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”
His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.
On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.
What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context. Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal, Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.
The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.
“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”
“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”
The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…
Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.
“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”
While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”
His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.
The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.
Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”
Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?
Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.
“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”
Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”
The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.
Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”
Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:
— I want a big carrot
— I want a bunny to play with
— I want a bed to sleep in
— I love Samar a lot
Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …
Spring Will Come
I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”
He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.
Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”
He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.
Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”
 Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.
 Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.
 Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.
 Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.
Berne, Switzerland 1765
A season of ice descends upon the winter chalet, cracking mortar and spreading bright veins across the window glass. Water freezes in the kitchen’s basins. The cat is found stiff and white in the orchard. Herr Curtius, the physician, tries to keep his warmth. He employs Madame’s mother as housekeeper and fire stoker, and Madame herself, though nothing more than the servant’s daughter, is permitted to sit by the hearth. The doctor smokes a dark French tobacco in his silk chair and talks to her. Having no children of his own, he is surprised that such simple companionship can be a cure for the maladies of winter. He gives her a tour of his cold operating chamber, shows her his scientific wax models—polished heart, near-black liver, and a brain that can be separated into halves. She listens as he tells her of his practice, and when her interests seem to wane, he turns to stories that his own mother once told by firelight—stories of the saints. Madame asks to hear again about Bishop Fisher, a saint beheaded by mad King Henry of England for crimes against the crown. The bishop’s head was hung from a long spike on London Bridge, but rather than rot and fall away as flesh should do, the head remained intact, growing more beautiful by the day.
“As if made of your very own medical wax,” Madame interrupts, and Herr Curtius nods at her observation.
He has explained that wax, like the soul, does not perish.
On the spike, the bishop’s cheeks turn rosy, and his eyes dampen with a youthful dew. The citizens of London say he looks finer than he ever did in life, and the head becomes a spectacle that draws crowds who clog the narrow artery of London Bridge, bringing offerings of wheat and fresh butchered lamb, hoping to curry favor with God. The weight of the throngs threaten to send the whole bridge, precarious on the best of days, crashing into the icy river, and finally, authorities are forced to take matters in hand, pulling the head down and hurling it into the Thames where it is finally washed away.
“And what befell it then?” Madame asks.
Herr Curtius clears his throat, checking to ensure that her mother, the maid, is not listening. This could be considered a tale of horror, after all, if it were not about the life of a saint. “The head was most likely eaten by whatever fish dare swim in the filthy English river,” he tells her.
She pretends amusement, but later, in bed beside her mother, Madame dreams an altogether different fate. The head of the saint is carried along by the cold black current, water passing across the bishop’s open mouth, flowing fast enough to cause a rippling song. What song the head sings, she does not know. An old one, to be sure, the sort that only water and the dead can remember.
The singing head is carried out of London and deposited on the sandy banks of a small farm where it is found by a girl not unlike Madame herself—a child who loves beauty in all its forms. She takes the saint’s head home in her carrying basket and installs it behind a rough hewn drapery in her father’s hayloft. The drape can be raised and lowered depending on the quality of the guest. Not everyone knows how to appreciate a miracle, after all. Once again, the flesh of the bishop’s head does not decompose, and when news of this spectacle spreads to the nearby villages, the head begins to draw a wonderful crowd. The girl charges for her miracle, and she cannot collect money fast enough. A line forms at the door of the barn, and she thinks perhaps her mother can stop cleaning. Her father can put down his tools and be happy in life again.
Madame cannot help but compare her life to this girl’s. Her own poor father won’t be resurrected even by the glory of the saints. He died two months before she was born in a battle of the Seven Years War against English troops. At night instead of praying to God, Madame prays to her father, picturing his body fixed in the still ether of the Empyrean, starlight pouring through the holes in his chest. She has no likenesses of him and must rely on the mundane descriptions her mother has given. “He was tall, Marie. Taller than most. With a man’s strong jaw and a dark mole upon his cheek.” Madame would like to ask her mother to describe her father’s soul—was it hot or was it wet? Was there daylight in him or was he a man of the evening?
She asks Herr Curtius if he would consider making a medical model of her father out of wax. She and her mother could provide details and the doctor would do the sculpting. Herr Curtius, amused, tells her he will consider the idea, and though Madame’s father never materializes, it is in this way that the museum is born.
There is stillness on the Champs Élysées. A woman in an ostrich feather hat pauses mid-step, one black boot visible beneath her skirts. A man stoops to retrieve his handkerchief and his shadow becomes a placid pool that will go undisturbed for centuries. This is the first scene in the wax museum—a frozen tableau de Paris. Patrons linger at the velvet rope, trying to catch the scent of live flowers in the air. Herr Curtius no longer practices medicine, having instead taken Madame and her mother to France to open his wax museum on the fashionable Place de le Concorde. Parisians flock to see his figures frozen in moments of beauty and valor. Most beloved is the figure of the Comptesse du Barry—mistress of Louis XV. She is displayed among baskets of roses, a frozen voluptuary in bows and pale silk. The low neckline of her dress reveals the pinkness of her skin. “Impossible to believe that such supple-looking breasts are made of wax,” says a friend of Herr Curtius on a visit to the museum, nearly poking the figure’s chest with the tip of his cane.
“Oh, but it is wax,” the doctor assures him. “The secret to making fine figures is knowing that the wax must appear more beautiful than the flesh it imitates. There are no bodies such as this in life.”
Madame takes lessons from Herr Curtius and proves a quick study. She molds accurate components of unreal bodies: the slender arm of a sleeping princess, a Roman soldier’s foot, the emaciated torso of Christ. For her first full model, she will not attempt a lowly figure like the Comptesse du Barry, though she is humbled, of course, by Herr Curtius’s knack for verisimilitude. “A figure of wax should be worthy,” she tells the doctor. “Perhaps we are not making great art, but we must at least make great men.” She chooses Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher. Unlike the Comptesse, Rousseau is no longer living, and Madame finds pleasure in his resurrection. She attempts to put the Enlightenment in the shape of Rousseau’s face and paints his glass eyes a most delicate and knowing shade of gray. Herr Curtius proudly places Rousseau on a pedestal near the front of the museum, tucking a yellowed copy of Confessions in the model’s pocket to make sure there is no question of identity. It is, after all, Madame’s first attempt.
At Christmastime, the doctor presents her with a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, saying he’s noticed her squinting while sculpting her models. When she sets the frames on the bridge of her nose, it’s as if a painted scrim has unfurled from invisible rafters in the museum’s ceiling. Figures that she’s made with her own hands—Rabelais and Sir Philip the Good—are new to her, standing cleanly before the plum-colored drapes. Sunlight falls in sharp lines across the eyes of Denis Diderot as if he wears a bright mask. Gray moths flutter in the lace ruff around the neck of Anne of Cleves. When Madame turns to thank Herr Curtius for his marvelous gift, she finds that he is gone, and she hurries down the corridor where patrons queue during business hours to find the doctor smoking in the antechamber, oaken door opened onto the boulevard and a pile of snow forming on the carpet at his feet.
“I am embarrassed that I have nothing for you, doctor,” she says.
He does not respond, lost in some thought. Finally, when she touches his sleeve, he turns. “There is nothing that I need, Marie, other than your presence.”
She cannot meet his glance. Gently, he lays his hand against her cheek.
When nothing is left of the holiday season but gray ice and a few forgotten ornaments, Herr Curtius tells Madame over a supper of cold lamb that the cost of the museum’s operation has proved greater than his estimation. “We may need to move our establishment,” he says, “find an area of cheaper rent. I’m sure you’ve noticed the crowds here are dwindling.”
“Do you think it’s due to my poor modeling?” she asks. “My eyeglasses have improved the accuracy of my work greatly.”
He takes a careful bite of lamb. “It is possible that Paris has simply had enough of wax. I could always practice medicine again. You will live comfortably, Marie, I promise you.”
“I don’t want to live comfortably, Herr Curtius,” she replies. “I want to live as mistress of a wax museum with you as its master.”
Madame redoubles her efforts of creation, and during this trial, she nearly forgets her mother who, out of boredom, dusts the wax figures each evening, running delicate feathers over the wig of Benjamin Franklin, the boots of Voltaire, and the makeshift helmet of Don Quixote. When her mother, thick and eager, urges her once again to begin searching for a husband, Madame replies that she has Herr Curtius, who is neither father nor husband but something more, and on top of that, she has her wax. “Wax will not make you children, Marie,” her mother says, tears growing in her eyes. Madame points toward the gallery where the figures loom. Her fingers ache and there is wax beneath her nails as well as burn scars on her palms. “If not children, Mother,” she says sharply, “what are these?”
One evening, there is a desperate knocking at Madame’s bedroom door, and she opens it to find Herr Curtius in his nightdress, cheeks white, hair dense with sweat. He looks older than Madame ever imagined him to be, and he tells her of a terrible nightmare, all the more awful because it seemed real. He dreamed there was a secret door behind a curtain in the wax museum, a door made of rough cheap wood, like a poor man’s coffin, and it opened onto a cave filled with figures the likes of which no modern man has ever seen. He clutches her arm. “Marie,” he whispers, “I must be going mad to have dreamed such things—piercing instruments of medieval torture, a black pharaoh with a stone scarab on his tongue, Judas leering with his silver coins, and Brutus—hands gloved in Caesar’s blood—howling from his pedestal. Why would God send such a dream, Marie? You must tell me. I’ll trust your answer.”
She blushes at his confidence and considers the dream of the hidden chamber. Perhaps it is some allegory. Or a foretelling of the future by way of symbols from the past. But then she realizes it may be a simple directive. “A chamber like the one you describe would draw a fine crowd, I think,” she says.
Herr Curtius sits heavily on the edge of her bed, staring at his hands. “People will pay to see horrors from a dream?”
“That will be the art of it, Doctor Curtius,” Madame replies. “Our visitors will enter your dream—a dark sister to our beautiful museum—and when they leave that chamber, they will feel as though they are waking, and gladly so. You must write down all that you remember. We will begin work immediately.”
“You told me our figures must be noble,” he says.
She kisses him lightly on the cheek. “It was God who sent the dream, not me.”
Later she discovers a detail about the chamber that the doctor could not bring himself to tell. It is scribbled in the margins of his papers. At the back of the Chamber of Horrors, he found himself lying flat on a wooden board, the kind they used when beginning to carve a model. His skin glowed with a waxy sheen—like a dead man in funeral makeup. And it was not at all clear whether the body was made of wax or of flesh. This frightened him more than all of history’s horrors combined.
The Chamber of Horrors is not completed before Herr Curtius, beautiful and kind, succumbs to a disease of the liver. Madame is overwhelmed by the loss and spends much of her time with the vile bodies in the darkened room. She installs a magic lantern machine and using candlelight and a series of lenses, she is able to create the illusion of movement. Hell-flames spark and lick the boots of patrons. Shadows detach from figures and slip across the walls, shrinking and expanding like lungs. The ghost of Herr Curtius himself—a trick of filtered light—is seen passing through the chamber, surveying his attraction.
She is still in mourning when she marries the young engineer, François Tussaud. It is a marriage of necessity. The doctor left her his wax museum, and she needs a husband to help with the work. A woman cannot sculpt alone nor steer an enterprise so lucrative. There is also the revolution building among the urban poor—a slow-heating oven of resentment stoked by the ridiculous lawyer, Robespierre, with his misshapen head, whom Madame refuses to make in wax, though he has written her a personal note of request. She has heard rumors of his plans for uprising—a so-called Reign of Terror—and she needs protection. But she wishes that her wedding dress could have been painted black to wipe the satisfaction from her mother’s face.
Tussaud is, at first, the walled city she hoped him to be. The unbroken line of his mustache, his starched collars and pressed pants—he seems a strong breed of architecture. But not a year into their marriage, he reveals himself to be unscrupulous with money, spending so extravagantly that Madame worries he may cause finances for the museum to fail.
When she lies next to him at night, she stills her heart and stops her thoughts, attempting to exist as the simulacrum of Marie Tussaud, more eloquent and obedient a wife than the real woman could ever be. But even in this petrifaction, she is aware of the pendulum inside her, swinging first back to childhood where she sits at the feet of the doctor wondering what the future will bring, and then into the future where she stands in a beautiful room that is empty of her sculptures. The room itself—molding, sconces, marble floor—is a sculpture, all made of wax, and when she opens the door there is another city, greater than Paris, all of it glittering with the workmanship of her own hand. Beyond the city, there are waxen meadows and a painted sky. It appears as though she has made a country for herself, if not a universe. She is not meant for Tussaud. She will not let him ruin her.
She admits she is pleased when the new placard is raised, “Madame Tussaud’s House of Wax.” She stands in the crowd with François at her side. He leans close enough to touch her ear with the fringe of his mustache and whispers, “What part of the museum would the famous Madame Tussaud like to survey on her inaugural visit?”
“The Chamber of Horrors, I think,” she says softly.
“Really, my dear? All that grim fantasy and blood?”
“There is no fantasy about it, François. It is an embryo, a showing of what is to come.”
Madame is everywhere renowned. The king himself loves her figures of wax, and he brings her to Versailles where she is to make models of the royal court. He wants to display these figures in the grand ballroom so courtiers can dance among their replicas. “They can even ask themselves to dance if they so choose,” he says. Madame realizes the king has made a joke, but she cannot smile. The little man reminds her of Tussaud. He is foolish with money and finds himself all too important. He sees no real gravity in wax. When she molds his figure, she presses her thumb into his chest, making a hole above the place where his heart would be.
Madame meets Marie Antoinette in the garden’s palisades among the lime trees. The two have not yet been introduced and because the young queen is costumed in strange rural clothes with her fair hair curled naturally at the side of her neck, Madame does not recognize her. The queen, Madame expects, would be a bright wedding cake of a woman, complete with towering coiffure built of pads and powder. But on this particular day, Marie Antoinette has been at Petit Trianon, the mock farmhouse on the palace grounds where she goes with her friends to tend sheep, and in peasant’s garb, she is like any other girl of seventeen, beautiful in the sunlight. She asks if she might try on Madame’s wire-framed eyeglasses, and Madame hands them over, saying, “They were a gift from someone I loved.”
The girl places the eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose and stands staring up into the lime trees. Madame watches, thinking how she would never make such a creature in wax. There is nothing about the girl that would draw an audience, and yet it is pleasant to see her living and walking in the garden. Some people are simply not meant to be memorialized—such effigy would detract from their beauty and life.
“Do you see the fruit more clearly now, my dear?” Madame asks.
“Oh, no. These glasses make me blind,” says the girl. Then she turns her attention on Madame, eyes looming from behind the lenses. “Are you the wax woman from Paris?”
“I am Madame Tussaud. That is correct.”
The girl nods. “I should like to take a lesson or two. Do you give lessons?”
“Not as a rule,” Madame replies.
The girl seems saddened. “I would have liked to learn to make dolls for my children. They’re babies, you know, and all their dolls seem terribly formal.”
“Well, wax is not a toy either,” Madame replies.
The girl removes the eyeglasses, hands them delicately to Madame, and wanders off into the lime trees without another word. It is only later that Madame realizes her error, though Marie Antoinette pretends not to remember their conversation in the palisades, as if, for a few moments, she was in fact a peasant girl with no relationship to the crown.
François Tussaud is away when the Reign of Terror erupts, spreading fire and revolution through the city. Madame is dragged from her museum by a band of common men in shepherds’ pants and muddied blouses. The boulevard is filled with smoke, and a man screams for mercy in the distance. When Madame begs them to explain what crime she has committed, their leader says she is under suspicion for Royalist sympathies. “You have been to Versailles, done work for the king.” She thinks of the hole she put above King Louis’ heart, and she wants to explain, but how can a thing like that be put into words?
Madame is imprisoned. Her head is shaved, and they carry her hair away in a wicker basket. They take her eyeglasses despite her pleading, and she stifles tears the entire night, thinking of Herr Curtius, glad that he is not alive to suffer such cruelties. It is in prison that she meets Josephine de Beauharnais, who will one day become the wife of Emperor Napoleon. Madame’s hands ache when she sees Lady Josephine. She wishes to preserve her in wax—to make this idol permanent before she disappears. Finally, after weeks of waiting, Madame is set free under the condition that she will use her skills to make death masks of the royal family. She does not protest. She does as she is ordered. When she is taken to the room where Marie Antoinette’s head is waiting, she finds she cannot approach the table. Beneath a rough cloth there is a shape the size of a serving pitcher. A crescent of brown blood has seeped through the material. And when a jar of wax is placed in her hands—beeswax, her medium of choice— Madame can hear the sound of the bees that made it. The wax itself is frightened. It does not want to approach the head of the queen.
The guard—or the fool in rags who calls himself a guard—moves toward the table.
“Wait a moment,” Madame says, though she does not know what duration would be required to prepare herself for what she is about to see. She thinks there is a hint of smile on the guard’s face as he removes the cloth, and she is confronted with the object—which cannot rightly be called a head because it no longer sits upon shoulders of the queen. Marie Antoinette’s face is not well preserved. She was not a saint like Bishop Fisher on London Bridge. There is only fear and surprise in the girl’s clouded eyes. It appears as if something has eaten away a portion of her lower lip.
When Madame is allowed to return to her museum, which was only partially destroyed by fire, she will make a secret figure in wax that will never be displayed, a copy of herself as she looked in prison, head shaved and without eyeglasses. She deepens the eyeholes until they are caverns, elongates the jaw into a wolflike muzzle. And when she is finished with the monster—while the wax is still warm—she pounds her fist against the thing, weeping and wishing more than anything else that she had taught the queen to make the foolish dolls for her children.
When Madame Arrives in London, both she and her figures are broken. The models have not travelled well, despite the packing straw. Severed hands, pieces of leg and, unbearably, a head or two are lifted carefully from their crates by her new staff and placed in the laboratory for reattachment. But she does not know if she can put all of history back together again. The line of sense is broken.
“Tussauds House of Wax” will open in the Baker Street Bazaar between Punch’s Theater and the House of Mystery—as if Herr Curtius’s grand museum is some carnival joke. Madame has removed the apostrophe from her surname on the placard. She no longer wants to claim the wax museum, and she does not speak of her past nor of the husband and aged mother she left in France. She will never go back to that country again, never see Paris. Not after what they have done. The head of Marie Antoinette, of Louis XVI, and finally even of Robespierre himself haunts her hands. She cannot forget. Her husband will write letters, imploring her to return, but he will never come looking. Perhaps he is afraid he could no longer distinguish Madame Tussaud from her figures. He will be halfway home before he realizes he has pulled the wrong woman from the wax museum. What he took for his wife will be melting in the sun.
She does not often visit the garish museum. Instead, she takes walks in the city. Imagine a woman dressed in gathered French silk, standing on the planks of London Bridge. Her graying hair is pinned carefully beneath her fashionable hat; a new pair of eyeglasses rests upon her nose. She studies the tall wooden houses that recede in every direction beneath a pall of black soot in the sky. She has made few acquaintances in this city. Unlike Paris, London is a business arrangement. Looking down into the rushing current of the Thames, she rests one hand on the bridge railing while the other hangs limply at her side. Water, she thinks, is nothing like wax. It is impermanent. It does not glorify. She wishes she could have carved her famous figures out of water, so they immediately fell from their pedestals, splashing into puddles on the floor. Such a display might have provided a more accurate depiction. For if there are saints, Madame knows they are few, and none of them are remembered for long.
Old Nannie sat hunched upon herself expecting her own death momentarily. The Grandmother had said to her at parting, with the easy prophecy of the aged, that this might be their last farewell on earth; they embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks, and once more promised to meet each other in heaven. Nannie was prepared to start her journey at once. The children gathered around her: “Aunt Nannie, never you mind! We love you!” She paid no attention; she did not care whether they loved her or not. Years afterward, Maria, the elder girl, thought with a pang, they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie. They went on depending upon her as they always had, letting her assume more burdens and more, allowing her to work harder than she should have. The old woman grew silent, hunched over more deeply – she was thin and tall also, with a nobly modeled Negro face, worn to the bone and a thick fine sooty black, no mixed blood in Nannie-and her spine seemed suddenly to have given way. They could hear her groaning at night on her knees beside her bed, asking God to let her rest.
When a black family moved out of a little cabin across the narrow creek, the first cabin empty for years, Nannie went down to look at it. She came back and asked Mister Harry, “Whut you aim to do wid dat cabin?” Mister Harry said, “Nothing,” he supposed; and Nannie asked for it. She wanted a house of her own, she said; in her whole life she never had a place of her very own. Mister Harry said, of course she could have it. But the whole family was surprised, a little wounded. “Lemme go there and pass my last days in peace, chil’ren,” she said. They had the place scrubbed and whitewashed, shelves put in the chimney cleaned, they fixed Nannie up with a good bed and a fairly good carpet and allowed her to take all sort of odds and ends from the house. It was astonishing to discover that Nannie had always liked and hoped to own certain things, she had seemed so contented and wantless. She moved away, and as the children said afterwards to each other, it was almost funny and certainly very sweet to see how she tried not to be too happy the day she left, but they felt rather put upon, just the same.
Thereafter she sat in the serene idleness of making patch-work and braiding woolen rugs. Her grandchildren and her white family visited her, and all kinds of white persons who had never owned a soul related to Nannie, went to see her, to buy her rugs or leave little presents with her.
She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been fincking precise and neat in her ways, and she still was. But she was no more the faithful old servant Nannie, a freed slave: she was an aged Bantu woman of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing the free air. She began wearing a blue bandanna wrapped around her head, and at the age of eight-five she took to smoking a corncob pipe. The black iris of the deep, withdrawn old eyes turned a chocolate brown and seemed to spread over the whole surface of the eyeball. As her sight failed, the eyelids crinkled and drew in, so that her face was like an eyeless mask.
The children, brought up in an out-of-date sentimental way of thinking, had always complacently believed that Nannie was a real member of the family, perfectly happy with them, and this rebuke, so quietly and firmly administered, chastened them somewhat. The lesson sank in as the years went on and Nannie continued to sit on the doorstep of her cabin. They were growing up, times were changing, the old world was sliding from under their feet, they had not yet laid hold of the new one. They missed Nannie every day. As their fortunes went down, and they had very few servants, they needed her terribly. They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge. Work did not i accomplish itself as it once had. They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning. They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves. Now and then Nannie would come back up the hill for a visit. She worked then almost as she had before, with a kind of satisfaction in proving to them that she had been almost indispensable. They would miss her more than ever when she went away. To show their gratitude, anti their hope that she would come again, they would heap upon her baskets and bales of the precious rubbish she loved, and one of her great grandsons Skid or Hasty would push them j away beside her on a wheelbarrow. She would again for a moment be the amiable, dependent, like-one-of-the-family old servant: “I know my chil’ren won’t let me go away empty handed.”
Uncle Jimbilly still pottered around, mending harness, currying horses, patching fences, now and then setting out a few plants or loosening the earth around shrubs in the spring. He muttered perpetually to himself, his blue mouth always moving in an endless disjointed comment on things past and present, and even to come, no doubt, though there was nothing about him that suggested any connection with even the nearest future . . . Maria had not realized until after her grandmother’s death that Uncle Jimbilly and Aunt Nannie were husband and wife . . . That marriage of convenience, in which they had been mated with truly royal policy, with an eye to the blood and family stability, had dissolved of itself between them when the reasons for its being had likewise dissolved . . . They took no notice whatever of each other’s existence, they seemed to forget they had children together (each spoke of “my children”), they had stored up no common memories that either wished to keep. Aunt Nannie moved away into her own house without even a glance or thought for Uncle Jimbilly, and he did not seem to notice that she was gone . . . He slept in a little attic over the smoke-house, and ate in the kitchen at odd hours, and did as he pleased, lonely as a wandering spirit and almost as invisible . . . But one day he passed by the little house and saw Aunt Nannie sitting on her steps with her pipe. He sat down awhile, groaning a little as he bent himself into angels, and sunned himself like a weary old dog. He would have stayed on from that minute, but Nannie would not have him. “Whut you doin with all this big house to yoself?” he wanted to know. “’Tain’t no more than just enough fo’ me,” she told him pointedly; “I don’ aim to pass my las’ days waitin on no man,” she added, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my do, and dat’s all.” So Uncle Jimbilly crept back up the hill and into his smoke-house attic, and never went near her again . . .
On summer evenings she sat by herself long after dark, smoking to keep away the mosquitoes, until she was ready to sleep. She said she wasn’t afraid of anything: never had been, never expected to be. She had long ago got in the way of thinking that night was a blessing, it brought the time when she didn’t have to work any more until tomorrow. Even after she stopped working for good and all, she still looked forward with longing to the night, as if all the accumulated fatigues of her life, lying now embedded in her bones, still begged for easement. But when night came, she remembered that she didn’t have to get up in the morning until she was ready. So she would sit in the luxury of having at her disposal all of God’s good time there was in this world.
When Mister Harry, in the old days, had stood out against her word in some petty dispute, she could always get the better of him by slapping her slatty old chest with the flat of her long hand and crying out: “Why, Mister Harry, you, ain’t you shamed to talk lak dat to me? I nuhsed you at dis bosom!”
Harry knew this was not literally true. She had nursed three of his elder brothers; but he always said at once, “All right, Mammy, all right, for God’s sake!”—precisely as he said it to his own mother, exploding in his natural irascibility as if he hoped to clear the air somewhat of the smothering matriarchal tyranny to which he had been delivered by the death of his father. Still he submitted, being of that latest generation of sons who acknowledged, however reluctantly, however bitterly, their mystical never to be forgiven debt to the womb that bore them, and the breast that suckled them.
*Katherine Anne Porter, “The Last Leaf” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).
In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”
This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.
For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.
My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”
I said nothing. ٠
So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.
“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”
She was lying. Would she really let him go again?
I said nothing.
“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”
I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”
But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.
“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”
How could I swear any such thing?
But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”
My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.
After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.
“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.
He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.
“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”
At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.
I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”
“What are you saying, brother?”
“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”
The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.
What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.
An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.
My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.
The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…
The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.
A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”
The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”
Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…
I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”
Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “
You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.
Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.
“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “
The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.
Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.
I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”
I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.
So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.
So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:
“A hopeless case. “
It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.
The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”
Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.
Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.
“Chevalier,” says he to his valet, “let down those window-curtains, and shut the casement before you leave the room.”
Chevalier did as he was told, and then, taking up his candlestick, departed.
In a few minutes the Emperor felt his pillow becoming rather hard, and he got up to shake it. As he did so a slight rustling noise was heard near the bed-head. His Majesty listened, but all was silent as he lay down again.
Scarcely had he settled into a peaceful attitude of repose, when he was disturbed by a sensation of thirst. Lifting himself on his elbow, he took a glass of lemonade from the small stand which was placed beside him. He refreshed himself by a deep draught. As he returned the goblet to its station a deep groan burst from a kind of closet in one corner of the apartment.
“Who’s there?” cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. “Speak, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.
The Emperor started from his couch, and, hastily throwing on a robe-de-chambre which hung over the back of a chair, stepped courageously to the haunted closet. As he opened the door something rustled. He sprang forward sword in hand. No soul or even substance appeared, and the rustling, it was evident, proceeded from the falling of a cloak, which had been suspended by a peg from the door.
Half ashamed of himself he returned to bed.
Just as he was about once more to close his eyes, the light of the three wax tapers, which burned in a silver branch over the mantlepiece, was suddenly darkened. He looked up. A black, opaque shadow obscured it. Sweating with terror, the Emperor put out his hand to seize the bell- rope, but some invisible being snatched it rudely from his grasp, and at the same instant the ominous shade vanished.
“Pooh!” exclaimed Napoleon, “it was but an ocular delusion.”
“Was it?” whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear. “Was it a delusion, Emperor of France? No! all thou hast heard and seen is sad forewarning reality. Rise, lifter of the Eagle Standard! Awake, swayer of the Lily Sceptre! Follow me, Napoleon, and thou shalt see more.”
As the voice ceased, a form dawned on his astonished sight. It was that of a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace. It wore a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks placed behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed the Emperor, “what do I see? Spectre, whence cometh thou?”
The apparition spoke not, but gliding forward beckoned Napoleon with uplifted finger to follow.
Controlled by a mysterious influence, which deprived him of the capability of either thinking or acting for himself, he obeyed in silence.
The solid wall of the apartment fell open as they approached, and, when both had passed through, it closed behind them with a noise like thunder.
They would now have been in total darkness had it not been for a dim light which shone round the ghost and revealed the damp walls of a long, vaulted passage. Down this they proceeded with mute rapidity. Ere long a cool, refreshing breeze, which rushed wailing up the vault and caused the Emperor to wrap his loose nightdress closer round, announced their approach to the open air.
This they soon reached, and Nap found himself in one of the principal streets of Paris.
“Worthy Spirit,” said he, shivering in the chill night air, “permit me to return and put on some additional clothing. I will be with you again presently.”
“Forward,” replied his companion sternly.
He felt compelled, in spite of the rising indignation which almost choked him, to obey.
On they went through the deserted streets till they arrived at a lofty house built on the banks of the Seine. Here the Spectre stopped, the gates rolled back to receive them, and they entered a large marble hall which was partly concealed by a curtain drawn across, through the half transparent folds of which a bright light might be seen burning with dazzling lustre. A row of fine female figures, richly attired, stood before this screen. They wore on their heads garlands of the most beautiful flowers, but their faces were concealed by ghastly masks representing death’s-heads.
“What is all this mummery?” cried the Emperor, making an effort to shake off the mental shackles by which he was so unwillingly restrained, “Where am I, and why have I been brought here?”
“Silence,” said the guide, lolling out still further his black and bloody tongue. “Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death.”
The Emperor would have replied, his natural courage overcoming the temporary awe to which he had at first been subjected, but just then a strain of wild, supernatural music swelled behind the huge curtain, which waved to and fro, and bellied slowly out as if agitated by some internal commotion or battle of waving winds. At the same moment an overpowering mixture of the scents of mortal corruption, blent with the richest Eastern odours, stole through the haunted hall.
A murmur of many voices was now heard at a distance, and something grasped his arm eagerly from behind.
He turned hastily round. His eyes met the well-known countenance of Marie Louise.
“What! are you in this infernal place, too?” said he. “What has brought you here?”
“Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?” said the Empress, smiling.
He made no reply; astonishment prevented him.
No curtain now intervened between him and the light. It had been removed as if by magic, and a splendid chandelier appeared suspended over his head. Throngs of ladies, richly dressed, but without death’s-head masks, stood round, and a due proportion of gay cavaliers was mingled with them. Music was still sounding, but it was seen to proceed from a band of mortal musicians stationed in an orchestra near at hand. The air was yet redolent of incense, but it was incense unblended with stench.
“Mon dieu!” cried the Emperor, “how is all this come about? Where in the world is Piche?”
“Piche?” replied the Empress. “What does your Majesty mean? Had you not better leave the apartment and retire to rest?”
“Leave the apartment? Why, where am I?”
“In my private drawing-room, surrounded by a few particular persons of the Court whom I had invited this evening to a ball. You entered a few minutes since in your nightdress with your eyes fixed and wide open. I suppose from the astonishment you now testify that you were walking in your sleep.”
The Emperor immediately fell into a fit of catalepsy, in which he continued during the whole of that night and the greater part of the next day.
* Taken from the manuscript of the “Green Dwarf” dated July 10, 1833 – September 2, 1833, and republished in The Twelve Adventurers and other stories, London, 1925.
My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.
Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.
I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”
“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”
“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”
“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”
“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.
“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.
“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.
“A khazer,” my father muttered.
I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.
“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.
“What about being a conscientious objector?”
“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.
“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?
“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”
“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”
He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”
I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.
I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.
I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.
I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.
“Hey! You okay out there?”
My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.
“No,” I said.
“What’d you say?”
“HELP!” I shouted.
“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.
ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.
“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.
He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.
So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.
“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”
True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”
“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.
Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.
THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.
Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.
“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”
“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.
“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.
“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”
No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.
I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”
“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.
Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.
SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”
“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.
He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.
As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.
“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.
“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.
“I’d better get back to work,” I said.
“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.
“Wow,” said Nick.
“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”
Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”
“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.
BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.
Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.
“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.
“What was Hower saying?”
“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.
“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”
“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.
Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”
“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.
“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.
“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.
“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”
They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.
“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.
I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.
My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”
“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”
“You’re growing up, son.”
They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.
“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”
“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”
“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”
“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.
“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”
I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.
But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.
I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.
“Really, I can leave,” I offered.
“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.
“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”
“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.
After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”
“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”
Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”
Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”
“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”
“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”
“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”
I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?
“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”
“It does sound a little unsupervised.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”
“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”
“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”
I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.
She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”
“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”
“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.
IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.
My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”
“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.
“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”
“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”
“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”
“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”
Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”
“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”
“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”
“Julie’s very upset—”
“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”
“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”
He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”
By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”
“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”
Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.
JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.
“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”
“My parents aren’t here,” I said.
Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.
“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.
“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.
He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”
Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.
“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”
“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”
“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”
“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”
“Who told you that?”
“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”
“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”
“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.
“Just a few days ago.”
“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”
“I’m not lying—”
“You just did about your age.”
“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”
Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”
It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”
“You want to get your father involved in this?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”
“My father had nothing to do with this!”
“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.
Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”
Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”
THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.
Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.
Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.
“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.
“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”
“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.
I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.
Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”
“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.
I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.
Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”
“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.
I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.
That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.
*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
Well now, esteemed readers, I am now in Ōsaka and shall therefore relate a local story.
Long ago there was a man who came to the city to seek a position as a menial. Ranking as he did among the kitchen help, he is known only by the generic name of Gonsuke.
Gonsuke passed through the entrance curtain of a servants’ registry agency and spoke to the head clerk, sitting atop the reception dais with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth.
“Sir, I should very much like to become a wizard and so beseech you to place me with an employer suitable to that end.”
When the astonished clerk did not immediately reply, Gonsuke continued:
“Sir, have you not heard me? I wish to be sent out to become a wizard.”
“I am sorry to say, my good man,” replied the clerk at last, still puffing on his pipe, “that as we have no prior experience in mediating the apprenticeships of would-be wizards, I must humbly suggest that you look elsewhere.”
“Ah, but sir,” protested Gonsuke, looking most displeased, as he edged forward on the knees of his grey-blue trousers. “Is what you have said not contrary to what your esteemed establishment proclaims on its entrance curtain? ‘Introducing all manner of employment’…Is your claim valid? Or is it misleading and false?”
Gonsuke did indeed have reason to be angry.
“Oh no, what we say is quite true. If what you are seeking is a position whereby you may become wizard, I shall duly look into the matter this very day. Please return tomorrow to receive our reply.”
In this way the head clerk acceded to Gonsuke’s request, even as he sought to evade it. Yet how was he to know where he would send a man for such an apprenticeship or how anyone could be properly trained in such sorcery? Thus, as soon as Gonsuke was out of his sight, he set off to consult with a neighborhood physician.
“What then, Doctor?” he asked in a worried tone, having told him the story. “Where might we most easily send him for training as a wizard?”
The physician too must have been perplexed. For some time he sat with his arms crossed, merely staring at the pine tree in his garden. Listening in on it all was his cunning wife, whose nickname was appropriately the Old Vixen. And now she unhesitatingly intruded:
“Send him to us. Within two or three years in our care, he’ll surely be a wizard for all the world to see.”
“Ah, I am most happy to hear this and shall most gratefully entrust him to you. Intuition has somehow informed me of the karmic bond between physicians and aspiring wizards.
With ardent and repeated bows, the clerk in his ignorant bliss took his leave. The physician watched him go, then, still scowling, turned to his wife in exasperation:
“What utter nonsense! ” he chided her. “And what, pray tell, do you intend to do when in a few scant years this bumpkin complains that we have kept none of the promise you have now made to him?”
Far from accepting this rebuke, the woman scornfully replied:
“Hold your tongue! What chance would the likes of you, honest simpleton, have of keeping yourself fed in this merciless world of ours?”
And with that she silenced him.
The next day, as promised, the head clerk returned, this time with the rustic Gonsuke, who was now attired in a crested half-coat—well aware, it would seem, that he was making his debut, though, in fact, none would have mistaken him for anything but a peaant. He was a strange sight indeed: The physician stared at him quite as though the man were a musky beast from the Indies.
“So you wish to become a wizard,” said the physician with a skeptical air. “Whatever was it that induced this ambition of yours?”
“Well now, I am not sure that know myself. But as I beheld Ōsaka Castle, it occurred to me that even the Great Lord who first built and occupied it was doomed to die. And so I was reminded that the pomp and glory of all human striving must pass away.”
“So you will do anything in order to become a wizard?”
The doctor’s sly spouse had promptly intervened.
“Yes indeed, I am prepared to do whatever is required.”
“Then from this very moment and for the next twenty years you will serve us. And then we shall reveal to you the wizard’s art.”
“Ah, then I am most truly and humbly grateful.”
“And in that entire score of years you shall receive not a single farthing in recompense.”
“Yes, yes. You have my compliance.”
And so for the following twenty years, Gonsuke served in the physician’s house. He drew water; he chopped wood. He cooked and he cleaned. Moreover, when the doctor made his rounds, it was Gonsuke who bore the medicine chest. Not once did he ask for wages, not even a single coin, and thus made himself a laborer more precious than one could find in all of Japan.
And now the decades passed. Once again clad in a crested half-coat, Gonsuke presented himself to his master and mistress and courteously expressed his thanks.
“And now I would beseech you to fulfill your oft-repeated promise and reveal to me how I might learn the wizard’s art and thereby gain immortality.”
The physican listened to Gonsuke in glum silence. Having worked the man for so long without payment, he dared not confess that he was presently no more possesed of knowledge concerning wizardry than he had been all those years before.
His reply was brusque and dismissive: “It is my wife who can teach you.”
For her part, she now spoke to him with ruthless self-assurance:
“I shall teach you the art of wizardry, but in exchange you must do whatever I command, however difficult the task I shall give you may be. Otherwise, you will not only be denied what you seek. You will also be obliged to perform twenty more years of labor for no wages, with death as your punishment should you fail to comply.”
“Please put me to my duty, however daunting!” replied the overjoyed Gonsuke, as he awaited her orders.
“Then climb the pine tree in the garden!”
Having herself no knowledge of wizardry, the wife no doubt thought that in forcing Gonsuke to do the impossible she could extract another twenty years of service from him. And yet hearing of his assignment, he immediately went forth to carry it out.
“Go on!” she called out to him, looking up at the pine from where she stood at the edge of the veranda. “Higher, higher!” Gonsuke’s half-coat was now fluttering at the very top of the large garden’s towering tree.
“Now release your right hand!”
Gonsuke slowly and cautiously did as he was told, even as he kept his left hand tightly gripped to a thick bough.
“And now the other!”
But now the doctor had joined her on the veranda, exclaiming with a distraught look: “Stop, woman! If he releases both hands, the bumpkin will fall onto the rocks, and that will surely be the end of him.”
“This is not your turn on stage, my dear. Leave it to me…”
“Let your left hand go!”
Gonsuke did not wait for her to finish calling out to him. Resolutely, he pulled his hand away. From there amidst the the topmost boughs there was no reason for him not to plunge to the ground. Instantly, Gonsuke and his half-coat were separated from the tree.
And yet, wondrously enough, he did not fall but, like a marionette being held by invisible strings, remained suspended there in the bright air of day.
“Thank you! Thank you!” Gonsuke called out. “At last, and all because of you, I have now indeed become a wizard!”
Bowing ever so deferentially, he gently trod the azure sky and rose into the clouds above.
The subsequent fate of the physician and his wife is quite unknown, though the pine tree in the garden endured for years thereafter. It is said that though the trunk alone was four armspans in circumference, Yodoya Tatsugorō went to the trouble of having it moved to his own garden, so that in winter he might gaze upon its snow-covered branches.
At a late age, Thomas Francini, the engineer responsible for many of the grand fountains at Versailles and infamous for his will to control, married the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Compte de Frontenac, a pristine child whom he dressed in taffy-colored velvets and ribbons and paraded through the Villa di Pratolino near Florence. Francini bought his young wife what she pleased from torch-lit shops, and what she could not find, he invented for her, producing a variety of curious wind-ups. She possessed a clock in the shape of an oversized parakeet with pearl eyes and jade plumage, set to trill at the lunch and dinner hour. There was also a small silver man that cried like a newborn until held, at which point he would grow intensely warm to the touch. Finally, the pinnacle of her collection, a miniature Madonna that swung open to reveal a trinity—the fierce and stoic God and fiery dove of the Holy Ghost ready to be birthed alongside the infant Christ.
When asked about her husband, the child bride, called Florette, said it was as if the Lord had sent his kindest angel to care for her and keep her heart in a treasury box, safe from all those who would harm it. She could never be bruised or pierced with the great inventor at her side. But soon she learned that even Francini could not stop time and the persistence of disease. Plague blossoms spread on the skin of her throat, and he was reduced to sitting at her bedside, wiping sores with swabs until the organic machinery of Florette’s heart and lungs had stilled. He declared he would not marry again and wore a musical locket around his neck that held the child’s portrait and played strains of “Come, Heavy Sleep” at intervals timed to match those that sounded inside Florette’s own mechanical coffin. Soon after the girl’s funeral, Francini purchased a portion of land and announced he would construct his final great invention there, a monument to sorrow for everyone to see—the automatic garden at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
The writings of Clodio Sévat, Vicar Emeritus and servant to the Dauphin, give us a brief glimpse of Francini’s garden and echo the general anxiety of seventeenth century French and Italian aristocracy concerning that place: “Though it has been nearly a month since my pilgrimage to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, I still cannot wipe the yellow-stained eyes of Thomas Francini’s metal men and beasts from my memory, nor can I forget the sight of Francini himself stalking through his field of glass flowers like some devil, dragging what appeared to be a common garden hoe behind. Does Francini believe that God’s good works should be made again, and that he, however noble an engineer, can improve upon them? And what soul motivates these new creatures? He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.”
Gladly, not all travelers were as brief as the Vicar Emeritus, lest the automatic garden, which burned to the ground nearly a year after its opening, might have been lost entirely to time. “Maestro Francini’s water- and steam-powered automata,” wrote the Duchess of Langres in her private journal after a trip to the garden, “are of a new and unexpected breed. I was warned by my companion that these false creatures might disturb me with their preternatural resemblances to life, but I instead found myself intrigued. Their ability to exude what appeared as emotion was startling, yes, but not frightening. Never in my life did I think I would see a tiger ravaged by sadness crouching in the underbrush and looking at me with amber glass eyes, or Poseidon himself, crying tears into the very ocean that he rules—tears that were then swallowed by a thick and toothy monster who lives in the ocean’s depths. I was moved to call for an interview with Maestro Francini, wishing to enquire about the labyrinthine secrets of his inventions. And yet despite my status and the fact that I had attended the funeral of his bride, Florette, I was rebuked by what appeared to be a page in a red tunic who told me that the Master was frail and no longer tolerated audiences. It was only after the page’s retreat into a forest of metallic pines that my companion, characteristically droll, asked whether or not I’d caught the sun glinting oddly off the young man’s skin or whether I’d seen the glassiness in his eyes.
“I drew my wrap closer and begged my friend to assure me he was not implying that the page had been some advanced version of Francini’s moving statuary. He replied with a laugh, saying he’d only been trying to give me chills, but by the time I’d reached the garden’s third terrace, I did not need such humor to provide tremors. It was there that I saw what I can only describe as a ‘dragon’ rising from a stone basin, only to be slain by a lifelike knight in white armor who descended from the columned ceiling on a golden rope. The dragon’s blood was as red and real as my own, yet it spread across the flagstones in delicate calligraphy as if sketched by an artist’s hand. I was forced to ask my friend to find a bench on which I could gather my wits. ‘We shouldn’t have come here, Duchess,’ he said, but I replied that I was glad we’d come, despite the effect. Francini’s automatic garden showed me that a certain sickness—a questioning of one’s world—could serve as a kind of enlightenment.”
Like the automatic garden, the answer to whether the death of Francini’s wife, Florette, had truly given rise to his monument of sorrow is largely lost to history. Francini’s motivation for his final invention was a topic of debate in fashionable circles, and many argued that there was more to the inventor’s grief than the death of poor, simple Florette. Gossip about such details was often named as the cause of the inventor’s self-imposed exile to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye and his distancing himself from the aristocracy. It was not Florette who’d shamed him, after all, but the prior object of his passions who had made for a near public embarrassment and perhaps even venial sin.
Antonio Cornazzano had been a danseur and general actor of the Florentine stage who’d met the great engineer during the period when Francini was commissioned to build a revolving set for La Ballet de La Deliverance de Renaud. Francini, who could then still be called a young man, adored the danseur, and that affection was apparently reciprocated. The two were often seen huddled in dimly-lit taverns of Florence over a candle and a serving of black ale, discussing topics in such hushed voices that no one else could hear. Despite the apparent gravity of these discussions, Francini and Cornazzano sometimes burst into hearty laughter, and tavern patrons reported an unnatural magnetism between the two men. There were even rumors of sorcery, though André Félibien, court historian to Louis XIV, dismisses such conjecture as peasant talk. “Simply stated,” he writes, “Thomas Francini and Antonio Cornazzano behaved as artists will, and though such behavior seems, at times, against nature, we must learn to accept and make do if the theater is to persist.”
Francini’s revolving stage set for the ballet was said to be a marvel—a replica of the city of Florence itself. And the ninety-two dancers and singers employed to move through the mock streets, bedrooms and common houses did so in an exhaustive display of “city-life” which also encompassed a spiritual dimension, as the upper parts of the central stage contained sets for the unmovable Empyrean of the Heaven. Masked angels and demons pulled silken ropes connected to doorways that affected the lives of the human dancers. Cornazzano acted as choreographer for the production and worked closely with Francini to create what many called a “threatening sense of fantasy.”
The emotion between dark-featured Francini and agile Cornazzano developed a volatile irrepressibility. They could not contain themselves even when they worked with the dancers, and were often seen erupting into laughter and pulling each other out into the alley behind the theater to calm themselves with sobering talk. It was only when they lurched back to Francini’s rented villa one night after drinking and were set upon by a band of Florentine locals and dashed to the flagstones that the two men became more cautious.
When precisely they decided to begin living inside of Francini’s revolving set for the ballet, we do not know, but a number of sources document that Francini, who’d already made his fortune at Versailles, started stocking the taverns and shops of the set with actual goods and even hired out-of-work ballerinas to act as barmaids and shop keeps. He and Cornazzano lived privately on the stage, setting up house each night after the performance ended, enjoying that false city as they had previously enjoyed the actual streets of Florence. There were taverns in which the two could drink black ale by candlelight without the interruption of noisy patrons, and there was a library filled with fake books. Actual texts proved unnecessary because Francini could recite portions of Le Morte Darthur as well as Gargantua and Pantegruel by heart. At times, the two men climbed into the Heavenly domain, lit the wicks of the stars, and floated through the Empyrean on Francini’s cleverly concealed wooden pallets.
A ballerina managed to steal a letter that Francini had left for Cornazzano on a pillow in one of the small apartments. The letter ended with a line that became popular in Florence as fashionable blasphemy: “I do not love God, my darling, ’Tonio. For what is God when there is you?” Cornazzano’s response to those words remains in ellipsis. The content of the young man’s heart is largely unknown. It is only years later that we hear from him in his own words. By then, he had married and seen the birth of three children with his wife, Marie, and together they owned a small theater in Charleville. Cornazzano wrote his thoughts in a sturdy leather diary which he then concealed in one of the walls of his home. In recent times, the diary has surfaced, and while it provides an uncomfortable end to the story of the two men, it gives evocative details of the automatic garden itself, which Cornazzano was invited to visit by the great inventor a month before fire consumed it.
Cornazzano begins the journal with intimations of the falling out between Francini and him years before.
They’d apparently abandoned their home in the revolving set long before the Ballet de Renaud had closed. “It has been years,” he writes in his careful yet unschooled hand, “and I wonder if I am being overly cautious or cruel by suggesting that we meet at the garden itself rather than at Francini’s home. I do not want to recall our privacies or the invented world we shared. It wasn’t merely the stage—our fake city. We invented places in our minds, as well, that we could slip off to even in a crowd. I remember what Thomas said to me—that two men living together is in itself a kind of invention, a household of dream furniture and shadow servants. Is it wrong that I do not want to even come close to this dream again? How would I explain such a thing to my dear Marie or to my children, the eldest of whom is almost the age of Thomas’s own bizarre deceased bride. By coming to the automatic garden, I hope to appease him, so that his letters will stop. I admit I am nervous to see what he calls his ‘great defiance,’ his palace against the day.”
Cornazzano writes that he was greeted at the garden’s columned gate by a page draped in a cloak dyed the color of saffron and told that Master Francini was unwell and sent his apologies for not being able to join Cornazzano on the tour. This came as quite a surprise to Cornazzano who’d believed the entire reason for this trip was so that Francini could see him again and perhaps persuade him that this place was like the other fantasy in which they’d lived—a new set for a fresh and dangerous ballet.
He attempted to beg off, saying that he was a busy man with a theater to run and did not have time to walk the garden if Francini could not be bothered to escort him, but the page became insistent, grabbing Cornazzano’s arm and pulling him into the garden toward the forest of the gods. “Please, Monsieur. Master will be miserable if you don’t at least give me some word of praise for his inventions.” Finally Cornazzano conceded to take a short walk through the place, writing, “The page’s hand was cold—not like a dead man, but like one who has never lived. I feared disagreement, so I allowed myself to be led.” The walk turned into a game of mad circling through the garden’s multiple levels and in the dim light of a forest path, the page disappeared, and Cornazzano was left alone with Francini’s glowering mechanicals.
He became intrigued by a bed of glass chrysanthemums—a flower of the orient, rarely seen in France. The stem of the mechanical chrysanthemum was made of green copper with sharp-edged leaves protruding, and the petals of the flower itself were crafted from thin pieces of stained glass. Inside the stem was what appeared to be a small flame of the sort one finds in lanterns which was given oxygen at regular intervals, causing the chrysanthemum to pulse with a light that suggested the process of blooming. The brightening of the flower was subtle, nearly imperceptible, and Cornazzano writes that even after studying the chrysanthemum for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to say whether it was growing brighter or dimmer. The light seemed to exist somewhere inside of his own body, in fact, a warmth in his core. “The mechanical chrysanthemum causes a momentary dizziness with its warmth,” he adds, “a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant.”
So entranced, Cornazzano did not recognize the approach of the figure in black, and when he caught his first glimpse of it standing at the stony edge of the garden path, he did not fully comprehend what he saw. He attests instead to being startled as one can be startled by an unexpected mirror hanging at the end of a gallery. The figure that stood in the grass and watched him was not an obvious automaton. Unlike the moving statue of Poseidon who wept into his miniature ocean, or the huntress, Diana, who drew her bowstring in the dark forest, this figure, had a versatile range of movement. It was able to crouch, then stand, and then to caper there at the edge of the path, as if begging for Cornazzano’s approach.
Our chronicler likens the figure to one of the dancing fauns in the garden’s Doric gallery, but man-sized and wearing a garment that looked like a merchant’s robe with a wide lace ruff around its neck. The collar was crenulated and gave the appearance that the automaton’s head, bearing its pale and almost luminous face, was displayed on a black plate. Its mouth was open in what could not be called a smile, and so surprising was the creature that Cornazzano did not at first recognize it as a replica of himself. “Would any man know himself clothed in such odd garments,” he writes, “and set to caper and leer like a demon?”
The automaton turned from the path, and its fluidity of movement made Cornazzano momentarily believe the thing must be an actor in heavy makeup or mask, merely pretending to be a machine. But there were subtle inhumanities to its gestures that soon convinced him otherwise. Just as one could never mistake the mechanical chrysanthemum for a real flower, neither could one think this object was a man.
The creature fled across the garden, black boots flickering over the grass, and was it any wonder that Cornazzano left the safety of the path to chase his double, hungry for a better look? The automaton darted playfully beneath an evening sky as dark as iron. It ran through a swamp of reeds that hummed sad flute-song, and then across a plain of grass which rippled, though there was no breeze in the air.
Cornazzano watched as his replica slipped into one of the many grottoes that were too smooth for nature. No longer the agile danseur he’d once been, he found himself winded at the entrance to the cave and stopped, considering whether he should continue following the creature. His blond hair lay wet against his forehead. His gut heaved. He knew he should walk away—leave Francini to his madness. But still some part of him wanted to doubt what his eyes had recorded. It was not possible that Francini had built his own Cornazzano to live in his garden of gods.
Cornazzano writes, I crept into the cave and found the creature no longer dancing but crouched near one wall, huddled in its tunic as if for warmth. Seeing the details of my own face—or rather the details of how I had once been, a young and foolish boy—gave rise to an intense and surprising anger. I wondered if Francini was making a mockery of me, or worse, if perhaps he used this metal man for some type of pleasure. And I found myself gripping the thing’s pallid face, feeling the contours of its chin and cheeks. I pulled at its nose which was made of some soft metal, pushed at its eyes until the bulbs of glass cracked beneath my thumbs. The automaton did not struggle. It allowed its destruction. Perhaps that is even why it led me to the cave. And when I reached into the creature’s mouth, trying to find some tongue to pull out, I heard behind me the scuff of a leather boot on the sandy cave floor.
I turned to see Francini himself—hair shot with silver, eyes set deep in his skull, standing and watching in the fading light. This was not my laughing friend from Florence with bright eyes and wine-stained lips. This was a poor copy—an old man—ruined and sad.
“What have you done?” he asked in a soft voice.
By then I had managed to rip the automaton’s lower jaw from its head, and I tossed it at Francini’s feet. “That question,” I said, “would be better put to you, maestro.”
“I thought you would like him, ’Tonio,” Francini whispered. He bent to pick up the jaw from the cave floor, and as I formulated some rebuke, feeling the old dangers and passions rushing back into the causeways of my heart, I realized something was wrong. Francini’s fingers were around the jaw bone, but he did not grasp it, nor did he attempt to straighten himself. He had grown intensely still in his awkward, bent position, and it was only then that I realized—this was not Francini. It was not even alive.
Such horror I felt. I could not move my arms or legs, could not look at this false Francini with limp gray hair hanging against its brow. I wondered if my old friend even still existed. I wanted to cry out for him. I wanted Francini to reveal himself in flesh and blood, but I held my tongue. How I escaped the automatic garden, I do not know. It seems to me that the gods called to me as I ran—begged me not to leave at first and then mocked me for my foolishness. And even as I sit composing these lines at my own wooden table in my home where I can hear the sound of my good wife speaking to my children in the upper rooms, I wonder if am I still in that garden, lying on the cave floor, broken into my separate parts.
Adam McOmber, “The Automatic Garden” from This New & Poisonous Air. Copyright © 2011 by Adam McOmber. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.